Annual fall bird count tallies 129 species for Northeast Tennessee

Photo from Pixabay • A red-headed woodpecker clings to the trunk of a tree. During the recent Fall Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee, all the region’s seven woodpecker species were tallied. The medium-sized red-headed woodpecker is found only in isolated locations in the region. They prefer more open country than most of their kin. Habitat containing dead or dying trees is vital if these woodpeckers are to thrive.

I wrote last week about my participation in the recent 52nd annual Fall Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club.

This week I want to dive into the results of what turned out to be a great count. The five-county tally of the birds in Northeast Tennessee was held on Saturday, Sept. 25, with 34 observers in 14 parties, plus two feeder watchers. Participants covered Carter County, as well as parts of adjacent Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties.

This year’s count tallied 129 species, which is slightly above the recent 30 year average of 125 species. The all-time high was reached in 1993 when 137 species were tallied.

Participants for this year’s count included Fred Alsop, Jerry Bevins, Rob Biller, Debi Campbell, J.G. Campbell, Ron Carrico, Catherine Cummins, Dianne Draper, Cindy Ehrhardt, Harry Lee Farthing, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Don Holt, Connie Irick, David Irick, David Kirschke, Rick Knight, Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Dianne Lynne, Vern Maddux, Joe McGuiness, Tom McNeil, Eric Middlemas, Susan Peters, Brookie Potter, Jean Potter, Pete Range, Judith Reid, Judi Sawyer, Chris Soto, Bryan Stevens, Peggy Stevens, Kim Stroud, Charles Warden and Rex Whitfield.

The four most commonly observed species, in descending order, included European starling, 838; Canada goose, 744; American crow, 502; and blue jay, 437. No surprises there.

Somewhat surprising was the total of 222 brown-headed cowbirds. Other abundant birds that numbered more than 200 individuals included mourning dove (316), rock pigeon (285), chimney swift (227), Eastern bluebird (208), American robin (222), cedar waxwing (230) and American goldfinch (216).

A total of 24 species of warblers was found, including 172 individual Tennessee warblers. These greenish-yellow warblers can be quite abundant as they pass through the region each autumn.

Some families of birds, such as falcons and woodpeckers, were well represented on this count with all the expected species being found by count participants.

Five Empidonax species, often referred to as “empids” by birders were found during the count but do not contribute to the total. These small flycatchers are nearly identical in appearance and silent during the fall. Faced with an inability to positive identify them, birders simply noted that they were seen.

The list follows:

Canada goose, 744; wood duck, 42; mallard, 182; blue-winged teal, 4; Northern shoveler, 2; and common merganser, 4.

Wild turkey, 18; pied-billed grebe, 3; double-crested cormorant, 43; great blue heron, 39; great egret, 4; green heron, 1; black vulture, 61; and turkey vulture, 183.

Osprey, 7; bald eagle, 9; sharp-shinned hawk, 3; Cooper’s hawk, 8; red-shouldered hawk, 6; broad-winged hawk, 11; and red-tailed hawk, 25.

American coot, 1; killdeer, 45; spotted sandpiper, 2; rock pigeon, 285; Eurasian collared-dove, 22; mourning dove,  316; and yellow-billed cuckoo, 2.

Eastern screech-owl, 11; great horned owl  7; barred owl, 3; American kestrel, 28; merlin, 8; and peregrine falcon, 3.

Common nighthawk, 3; chimney swift, 227; ruby-throated hummingbird, 23; and belted kingfisher, 32.

Red-headed woodpecker, 2; red-bellied woodpecker, 83; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 1; downy woodpecker, 51; hairy woodpecker, 11; Northern flicker, 54; and pileated woodpecker, 39.

Eastern wood-pewee, 31; Acadian flycatcher, 1; Eastern phoebe, 92; Eastern kingbird, 1; and loggerhead shrike, 1.

White-eyed vireo, 7; yellow-throated vireo, 5; blue-headed vireo, 21; Philadelphia vireo, 1; and red-eyed vireo, 6.

Blue jay, 437; American crow, 502; fish crow, 3; common raven, 13; tree swallow, 160; barn swallow, 29; and cliff swallow, 1.

Carolina chickadee, 145; tufted titmouse, 109; red-breasted nuthatch, 9; white-breasted nuthatch, 52; brown-headed nuthatch, 3; and brown creeper, 1.

House wren, 8; winter wren, 4; Carolina wren, 179; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 6; golden-crowned kinglet, 5; ruby-crowned kinglet, 9.

Eastern bluebird, 208; veery, 2; gray-cheeked thrush, 2; Swainson’s thrush, 46; wood thrush, 19; American robin, 222; gray catbird, 34; brown thrasher, 14; Northern mockingbird, 80; European starling, 838; and cedar waxwing, 230.

Ovenbird, 2; worm-eating warbler, 4; Northern waterthrush, 1; black-and-white warbler, 3; prothonotary warbler, 1; Tennessee warbler, 172; Nashville warbler, 3; common yellowthroat, 19; hooded warbler, 4; American redstart,  29; Cape May warbler,  40; Northern parula, 5; magnolia warbler, 24; bay-breasted warbler, 76; Blackburnian warbler, 9; chestnut-sided warbler,  9; black-throated blue warbler,  10; palm warbler,  171; pine warbler, 30; yellow-rumped warbler, 2; yellow-throated warbler, 5; prairie warbler  1; black-throated green warbler, 11; and Wilson’s warbler,  1.

Eastern towhee, 71; chipping sparrow, 76; field sparrow, 14; Savannah sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 131; and dark-eyed junco, 45.

Summer tanager, 1; scarlet tanager, 36; Northern cardinal, 160; rose-breasted grosbeak, 89; Blue Grosbeak,  2; and indigo bunting, 13.

Red-winged blackbird  61; Eastern meadowlark, 6; common grackle,  66; and brown-headed cowbird, 222.

House finch, 100; red crossbill, 2; American goldfinch, 216; and house sparrow, 114.

Many of the species observed on this county will be taking a temporary leave of Northeast Tennessee until next spring. Tanagers, warblers, vireos and other birds will seek out locations farther south to spend the winter months.

They’ll be back, though, and just in time for the 2022 Spring Bird Count. To make a comment, ask a question or share an observation, send an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Speedy merlin a member of world’s family of falcons 

Photo by Gary Chambers/Pixabay • The merlin is a small but compact falcon, built for speed and equipped with a personality characterized by aggressive traits all out of proportion to its size.

I took part in the annual five-county Fall Bird Count conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club on Saturday, Sept. 25.

In the morning hours, I birded with Chris Soto around Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and the linear trail that winds along the Watuaga River in Elizabethton. Our efforts were rewarded with looks at plenty of good birds, including a couple of great egrets, several palm warblers, white-eyed vireos, ospreys and common yellowthroats.

Toward noon, we made our way to join other members of our count party —Brookie and Jean Potter — who had covered other areas of Elizabethton with the help of Dave and Connie Irick.

Our break for lunch has been held for many years at the Watauga Lake Overlook. The location gives a convenient place to have an outdoor lunch, weather permitting, while scanning the nearby lake for bird activity.  We did add more birds, including great blue heron and double-crested cormorant, while seated at a picnic table with a good view of the lake.

The true star of the lunchtime show, however, turned out to be a pint-sized falcon known as a merlin. Merlins are built for speed with an overall aerodynamic design enhanced by tapered wings that permit sudden changes of direction and impressive bursts of speed. That inclination for speed was on full display Saturday afternoon during our bird count lunch break. The little merlin would suddenly bank and disappear out of sight only to zip past heading in a new direction moments later. The bird put on a show for the entirety of our lunch break.

In the afternoon, joined by Chris’s husband, Rex, I traveled with Brookie Potter to Holston Mountain. We added some other birds to our list, including dark-eyed junco, red-breasted nuthatch and blue-headed vireo. I’ll compile the results of the fall count in a future column.

Photo by Lapping/Pixabay • The merlin in flight is graceful and swift.

Merlins have a reputation for being pint-sized punks among raptors. The merlin is a member of the falcon family, which also includes birds like the American kestrel and peregrine falcon. I once saw a merlin harassing a turkey vulture, diving on the much larger but less agile bird until the vulture finally veered in another direction. This observation reinforces the merlin’s reputation for aggressively meeting incursions into its territory by other raptors. Reference guides and websites with passages about merlins often accompany the description with such words as “tenacious” and “fierce,” and for good reason.

The merlin has long been associated with the forests of North America and Eurasia, but in recent decades it has proven capable of adapting to life in urban landscapes. In that respect, it’s merely following the example of its cousin, the peregrine falcon. Formerly making its nest on cliffs, peregrine falcons now substitute skyscrapers as nesting sites. A book for children titled “Falcons Nest on Skyscrapers” tells the story of a peregrine falcons successfully nesting on a skyscraper in Baltimore, Maryland.

The keeping of falcons for hunting, originally reserved for kings, queens and other nobility, evolved centuries ago and is known as falconry. The website All About Birds tells how falconers, or people employed to care for the raptors nobles kept in captivity, called the merlin a “lady hawk” because of the tendency of queens and other noblewomen to use these smaller hawks when hunting for birds such as skylarks. The website also identifies Catherine the Great of Russia and Mary, Queen of Scots, as two powerful women who were fond of hunting with merlins.

Although often associated with the nobility of Europe, falconry can be traced back to such ancient civilization as Egypt and Mesopotamia. In both Egyptian hieroglyphics and art, the god Horus is often depicted as a being with the body of a man with the head of a falcon. Existing ancient artifacts in museums around the globe have made this depiction of Horus, also known as Ra, almost instantly recognizable.

In body length, there’s not a lot of difference between a merlin and a kestrel. The merlin, however, boasts a heavier, more compact build than a kestrel. It’s this physical strength that probably lets them get away with being so outgoing with their pugnacious and aggressive lifestyle.

Incidentally, the kestrel is nicknamed “Sparrow Hawk,” while the merlin’s moniker is “Pigeon Hawk.” Their larger relative, the peregrine falcon, used to be widely known as the “Duck Hawk.”

Of course, they are all falcons, a family of raptors that is set apart from such birds as hawks, eagles and harriers.  Other falcons in the United States include the prairie falcon, a bird of the hills, plains and deserts of the American west, and the Aplomado falcon with a range extending from the southwestern United States to as far south as Argentina in South America.  The largest falcon, the gyrfalcon, is a bird of the far in the far north in remote Alaska and Canada, as well as parts of Europe and Asia. In the sport of falconry during the Middle Ages, no person other than a crowned king was permitted to hunt with a gyrfalcon, which thus became known as the “king of birds.”

Merlins remain uncommon in the Eastern United States, which makes any sightings a big occasion for birders. I’ve only enjoyed a handful of sightings over the years, including observations in Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee. One of my more memorable sightings took place on a sandy point on Fripp Island, South Carolina, as I watched a young merlin, perhaps still learning the finer points of hunting, attempting to go after some boat-tailed grackles. A powerful breeze blowing from the ocean probably hampered the bird and offered some protection to the grackles. If any of the grackles had been foolish enough to take flight, I think the merlin would have easily captured its intended prey. On this occasion, the grackles hugged the ground and the merlin eventually had to look elsewhere.

Worldwide, there are 40 species of falcons that have been given such descriptive names as red-necked falcon, red-footed falcon, sooty falcon, orange-brested falcon, brown falcon, black falcon, grey falcon, bat falcon and Eleonora’s falcon, which is named for Queen Eleanor of Arborea, who offered in the 1300s the first documented legal protection for hawks and falcons to protect them from illegal hunting.

Queen Eleanor started a fine tradition. Birds like peregrine falcons and merlins, as well as bald eagles, whooping cranes and California condors remain free and flying in our skies today because of the willingness of government to enact laws that protect both birds and their vital habitat. We can’t lose sight of that, not if we hope to continue seeing a feisty merlin zipping through the skies over Watauga Lake on a gorgeous late September afternoon.

To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, send me an email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Ospreys found around area waterways during migration

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An osprey perches in a tree along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

The day after the yearly Autumnal Equinox, I felt change in the air. The birds felt likewise, I think, based on a wonderful stroll along the linear trail behind the McDonald’s in Erwin.

Normally, I’d be at my desk, but thanks to a power outage, I had some empty time on my schedule and decided to do some research for the bird column by checking out the status of local birds. The occasion also marked my first walk on these wonderful trails since we officially shifted into the fall season.

In the span of about 20 minutes, I observed a pair of ruddy ducks, an osprey, great blue heron, belted kingfisher, red-bellied woodpeckers, Eastern kingbird, Eastern wood-pewee, gray catbird, Tennessee warblers and a Cape May warbler that got so close I had to be content to watch the bird without use of binoculars.

I felt special to get to share the bird’s personal space. It was in some shrub with berries (privet?) but I wasn’t able to tell if it was eating berries or plucking bugs off the berries. I am sure I missed many warblers due to overcast viewing conditions, but the Cape May made up for those missing.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this work of art featuring an osprey with a fish held in its talons.

I also think I had a couple of wild Mallards. The pair was so wary they didn’t strike me at all like typical mallards.

I was alerted to the presence of the osprey, which had apparently snagged a fish dinner from the ponds along the trail, when I heard the bird’s piercing whistles. Ospreys make this call when challenged by other ospreys or bald eagles, or when disturbed by human activity. My interest, which involved training my binoculars on the bird, sent the bird flying to a more distant perch. The osprey carried its fish meal with it. I had a chuckle thinking that perhaps the bird was ashamed of its small catch.

According to the website All About Birds, ospreys don’t dine exclusively on fish. These large raptors have also been documented feeding on other birds, snakes, voles, squirrels, muskrats and salamanders. Perhaps this angler’s also an opportunist.

Ospreys, also known by the common name of “fish hawk,” occur worldwide. Ospreys migrate through the region in spring and fall, making sightings more likely along some lakes and larger rivers. They are becoming more abundant and have also been reported nesting at some lakes and reservoirs in the region in recent summers.

I see ospreys even more often when I travel to South Carolina, where these medium-sized raptors are common along the coast and in wetlands.

Probably because of their shared preference for piscine prey and wetland habitats, ospreys often encounter bald eagles. Ospreys are considerably smaller than eagles, although they are slightly larger than a red-tailed hawk.

The osprey is a truly cosmopolitan bird, occurring on every continent except Antarctica.

The osprey is not technically an official state bird anywhere in the United States, but some unusual political drama occurred in Oregon in 2017 when a state senator attempted to replace Oregon’s official bird (Western meadowlark) with the osprey.

As reported on the website, oregonlive.com, both birds managed to attract ardent supporters. Eventually, a compromise was reached. The meadowlark remained Oregon’s state bird with a modified designation as “official state songbird.” In turn, the osprey received recognition as Oregon’s “official state raptor.”

Farther afield, the osprey has been designated the official bird of Södermanland, a province in Sweden.

In the 1960s and 1970s, ospreys suffered reproductive problems, as did bald eagles and peregrine falcon, as a result of toxic insecticides such as DDT. With the banning of DDT in many nations, the populations of all these birds has improved in recent decades.

The bird Americans know as osprey is technically the Western osprey. The genus Pandion includes only two osprey species — the Western osprey and the Eastern osprey, a bird that ranges across Australia and the island of Tasmania. The Eastern osprey can also be found in the Philippines, Indonesia and New Guinea.

The Elizabethton Bird Club will be offering bird walks every Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. Walks begin at 8 a.m. from the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Scheduled dates for these free bird walks are Oct. 2, Oct. 9, Oct. 16, Oct. 23 and Oct. 30. Many of the park’s trails meander along the Watauga River, which will provide excellent opportunities for observing migrating ospreys. In previous years, ospreys have been fairly common birds on these walks.

To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, send me an email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Tom Koerner/ USFWS • An osprey makes a successful catch and feeds well as a result.

Observe caution if sick birds visit feeders

Photo by Brent Connelly from Pixabay • Blue jays appear susceptible to the ailment that afflicted birds for the past months.

I received an email from Unicoi residents Judy and Bill Beckman about a distressing situation at their feeders.

“We sadly took down our feeders early this week,” the email read. “We began seeing house finches with swollen, crusty eyes and ruffled and missing feathers. 

The email also indicated that some of the Northern cardinals also had a lot of missing feathers and a ruffled look. The Beckmans noted that they are aware that cardinals molt, but added that it seemed like they were seeing more than usual. 

They’ve also seen some blue jays and a flock of robins with motley appearances and missing feathers.   

They had received an alert earlier this year from the Elizabethton Bird Club about a mysterious  disease that is causing bird die-offs. The alert described the victims having swollen eyes and ruffled feathers. 

“Any confirmation of that happening here now?  Any updates would be appreciated.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male house finch perched on a cable. These finches are native to the western United States but became established in the eastern states thanks to the illicit pet trade.

I answered the email, starting with the more immediate problem of the house finches. Back in the 1990s, house finches were decimated by mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. Humans can get infected with conjunctivitis, which is commonly called “pink eye.” 

According to the Project FeederWatch website, infected finches have red, swollen, runny or crusty eyes. In extreme cases the eyes become swollen shut and the bird becomes blind. Observers might find an infected bird sitting quietly while clumsily scratching an eye against its foot or a perch. While some infected birds recover, many die from starvation, exposure or predation. Since the early outbreaks, the disease has affected several other wild bird species, including American goldfinch, evening grosbeak and purple finch.

I recall seeing both house finches and pine siskins suffering from this disease. I haven’t seen it as often in recent years, which has been a relief.

Salmonella is another disease that can affect birds. As most people know, salmonella can also have serious consequences for human health. Finches, especially in the West Coast states of Oregon and California, have been hard hit by salmonella in recent months.

“Salmonellosis occurs periodically in pine siskins in some winters throughout their range. When large numbers of pine siskins congregate, the disease can spread rapidly causing high mortality. Most birds die within 24 hours of infection,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Krysta Rogers, an avian disease specialist.

Birds become infected with salmonella when they ingest food, water or come into contact with objects, such as bird feeders, perches or soil, contaminated with feces from an infected bird. Sick birds often appear weak, have labored breathing, and may sit for prolonged periods with fluffed or ruffled feathers. Salmonellosis is almost exclusively reported from locations with bird feeders where birds congregate. Rogers advised that residents can help reduce disease transmission by removing bird feeders and bird baths. Allowing birds to feed on natural seeds rather than at bird feeders reduces contact between birds and helps slow spread of the disease. Some of the flocks of finches have been exceptionally large this winter, which is why it’s a good idea to closely monitor the birds at your feeders. At the first sign of illness, take steps to disinfect feeders. It’s a good idea to clean feeders on a regular basis. A spray with a weak bleach water solution followed by a few swipes with a clean towel can help. Once an outbreak is evident, however, the best course would be to stop feeding birds for a short period.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flock of pine siskins carpets the ground beneath some feeders as they forage for food.

Songbirds aren’t the only birds affected by disease outbreaks. Waterfowl are often vulnerable. Like finches, many species of ducks and geese also form large flocks. Some of the diseases that can run rampant in waterfowl populations include avian influenza, avian cholera and avian botulism. According to the Ducks Unlimited website, major avian botulism outbreaks have been reported throughout North America for more than a century. In 1910, avian botulism resulted in the deaths of millions of waterfowl in California and Utah, and another incident in 1952 killed an estimated 4 million to 5 million waterfowl across the western United States.

In 1999, the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne disease, arrived in the United States. This disease is typically a mild nuisance for most infected people, but in some circumstances the virus can be lethal. The virus, which first appeared in the United States in 1999 after being discovered in 1937 in the African nation of Uguanda, also didn’t confine itself to the human population. Soon after its arrival in the United States, the virus began decimating American crows. Two decades later, experts have been able to study the consequences of West Nile virus on both humans and wild birds.

According to an article by Hugh Powell published Oct. 15, 2010, on the All About Birds website, the disease afflicted crows more than any other bird species. “West Nile virus hit American crows particularly hard,” Powell wrote. “When the disease first appeared in New York City, in summer 1999, nearly 5,500 crows died in four months. Tests suggested the disease was 100-percent fatal to crows.” Many other species, from jays and magpies to gulls and chickadees, also proved susceptible, according to the All About Birds article.

Millions of birds died as West Nile swept across the continent in just five years. An interesting thing happened as the virus spread across the country. As viral diseases often tend to do, West Nile apparently became less virulent. The American crow population did hit frightening lows, but the species appears to have managed to rebound.

Where’s the silver lining in regard to all these stories? Here is a sliver of light through the dark clouds. Birds are resilient, just like humans. They can usually overcome anything nature might throw at them.

I suspect there could be several different diseases at work that are causing multiple but unrelated die-offs among certain birds. The house finch bacterial disease is a recurring problem for this species.

I do think that the cardinals, blue jays and perhaps the robins are simply having difficult molts. Molting, or the process of shedding and replacing feathers, doesn’t always go smoothly for crested birds like jays and cardinals. The bald-headed cardinal is a late-summer fixture.

Here’s a significant announcement made on Sept. 13. In a joint statement issued by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“All states affected by the mysterious bird illness of summer 2021 have lifted their do-not-feed recommendations. No cause has yet been determined, but cases are no longer being reported.”

I think the Beckmans made the right decision to remove their feeders. In a couple of  weeks, I think they can put the feeders back out, monitor carefully, and see if any signs of disease return. 

Contagious diseases, particularly among flocking birds, are a fact of life, just like the cold and flu season for humans. We can, however, take steps to mitigate outbreaks.

Keep feeding the birds, but play the diligent host. Put out only the amount of seed that visiting birds can eat in a single day. Monitor the flocks for any sign of illness and respond quickly if such signs are detected. Yes, do keep feeding the birds, but be safe and attentive while doing so.

Photo by dbadry/Pixabay.com • Blue Jays often create food caches for acorns and other items. This jay is leaving a feeder with several peanuts thanks to an expandable esophagus.

Two warblers have names connected with the Volunteer State

Photo by GeorgeB2/Pixabay.com • The Nashville warbler is an attractive bird with more color than the Tennessee warbler.

Tennessee once represented the western frontier for many people in the United States, so the state acted as a beacon for naturalists wanting to make new discoveries. Some of those early naturalists, men such as Alexander Wilson, spent a lot of time in the Volunteer State.

Two of Wilson’s ornithological “discoveries” in Tennessee involved two species of warblers that were  given names to honor the state and its capital after the birds were first observed in Tennessee and near Nashville.

Those birds were both members of one of my absolute favorite bird families — the warblers. It’s necessary to differentiate the New World wood-warblers from a grouping of birds in Europe, Asia and Australia that are also called warblers.

What is a warbler? The Wikipedia entry for these birds describes the New World warblers or wood-warblers as a group of small, often colorful, passerine birds that make up the family Parulidae and are restricted to the New World. They are not closely related to Old World warblers or Australian warblers.

That’s an adequate description, from a scientific standpoint. But warblers are magic. To do them justice, I’m compelled to wax a little more eloquent. They are a combination of color, movement and energy wrapped in a tiny bundle of feathers. Warblers are constantly on the go, hardly ever staying still for long.

The frenetic lifestyle of warblers challenges new birders. These birds don’t often stop and pose long enough for someone to get binoculars focused on them. One doesn’t exactly watch warblers. Following a warbler through tangled vines or the leafy tree canopy isn’t watching so much as anticipating. One gets a “feel” for where the warbler will appear next while tracking them through binoculars. By getting familiar with the way these avian sprites behave is the best way to learn how to observe these birds.

It’s not for nothing that some birders suffer from a malady, particular during the migration seasons, called “warbler neck.” The direct cause is the strain on the neck and back from always looking upward toward the treetops where many warblers like to stay.

Some, but not all, warblers are suffused with bright colors: yellows, oranges, blacks, blues and whites. A few — ovenbird, worm-eating warbler, Northern waterthrush — are various shades of brown. Some of my favorite warblers are the hooded warbler, Blackburnian warbler and black-throated blue warbler.

Then we have the warblers I mentioned earlier, which were discovered in the Volunteer State and to this day bear names honoring the state and its capital city. These two birds are the Tennessee warbler and the Nashville warbler.

Photo by Paul Spark/Adobe Stock • The Tennessee warbler, while named for the Volunteer State, spends very little time within Tennessee. These warblers migrate through the region each spring and fall but nest much farther north in the boreal forests.

The appearance of the Tennessee warbler varies greatly depending on the season. In autumn, most Tennessee warblers are greenish-yellow birds with whitish-gray underparts. Sometimes that green color ranges into vivid chartreuse territory.

In the spring, the basic green and white pattern remains evident, but both males and females sport a gray head and a black line that runs through the eye and along the side of the bird’s face. The plumage — at least in illustrations and photographs — is shown as more crisp and distinct with spring birds.

The pioneering American ornithologist Alexander Wilson gave the Tennessee warbler its name, which, unfortunately, is not an accurate moniker. Don’t blame Wilson too harshly for the mistake. Even after he “discovered” the first Tennessee warblers back in 1811, it would be almost another century before scientists finally located the bird’s nesting grounds in Canada in 1901. The remote and inaccessible nature of the the region helped prolong this mystery about the Tennessee warbler’s life cycle.

Wilson was an interesting figure in the natural history of the United States. Born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1766. As a young man, he learned the trade of weaving. At the same time, he became interested in poetry and claimed inspiration in particular from the Scottish poet Robert Burns.

In 1794, after not succeeding at poetry or weaving, he departed Scotland for a new life in the United States of America. He settled with a nephew in Pennsylvania, but he found opportunities limited for poet-weavers.

To make a living, he took up teaching. He met the famous naturalist William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson’s interest in ornithology and painting. These two passions took off for Wilson.

He made his life’s work the undertaking of publishing the nine-volume “American Ornithology” that featured his own illustrations of American birds. The work featured 268 species with 26 of them having never previously been described for science.

His fame as an ornithologist grew, and several species of birds were named in his honor, including the Wilson’s storm-petrel, Wilson’s plover, Wilson’s phalarope, Wilson’s snipe and Wilson’s warbler. Wilson’s work probably inspired John James Audubon’s own more extensive and famous collection depicting the birds of North America.

Every autumn I see some of the birds Wilson documented and painted as they stage their fall migration through the Volunteer State to reach destinations farther south.

Our capital city of Nashville also provides a common name to one of the warbler clan. The Nashville warbler is a small bird with a rounded head and short tail. The plumage of this warbler consists of yellow below and olive above. The birds have a white eye-ring that stands out against a gray head. The Nashville warbler also has a thin chestnut-brown crown patch, but a really exceptional look is required to see this feature. Most guides don’t mention that the Nashville warbler has a white patch of feathers surrounding the area where its legs join the body. This section of white is completely surrounded by yellow feathers. This is a helpful feature to know when trying to distinguish this warbler from some similar species.

Once again, Wilson bestowed a rather inaccurate name on this species, as the bird in question is only a visitor to Nashville and the surrounding territories during a limited window of time each year. The same is true of the Tennessee warbler. At best, these birds can only be found in the Volunteer State in April and May and again in September and October. Otherwise, Tennesseans would have to travel a good distance to see these birds at other times of the year.

Fortunately, these birds come to us. I’ve already seen the first Tennessee warblers for fall migration, but I’ve not been lucky enough this fall to get binoculars on a Nashville warbler — yet! There’s still time. Migration continues, so get outdoors and see what you can find.

••••

To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Common nighthawks share autumn skies with many other migrants

Autumn’s a chance for me to indulge my passion for warblers, with a few dozen species of these songbirds passing through the region in the span of a few weeks. I always try to keep in mind, however, that the warblers are not the only migrating birds winging through the region.

The Elizabethton Bird Club had planned a “nighthawks and hot dogs” party at the home of Larry McDaniel near Jonesborough, but that event had to be cancelled because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the region.

My silver lining was that I saw a large flock of common nighthawks at my home on Aug. 29. It was an evening of birding dominated by insect-eaters and fruit-eaters.

Cedar waxwings and one American robin perched in the wild cherry trees and plucked ripening fruit from the branches.

Swooping overhead a handful of Chimney Swifts and about 30 Common Nighthawks (the first I have seen this fall) collected insects just over the treetops. Flycatching from a dead blue spruce was an Eastern Wood-Pewee, another fall first.

Other birds included a pair of Northern cardinals feeding three young, an Eastern towhee and one hooded warbler. At one point an irritable ruby-throated hummingbird chased the pewee round and round the trunk of the dead spruce. They almost looked like they were characters in a zany cartoon.

Photo by Jean Potter • A common nighthawk rests on a metal railing.

Like such birds as warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, flycatchers and hummingbirds, the common nighthawk is a neotropical migrant. In addition, this nighthawk has one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. Twice a year, these birds migrate for distances ranging from 1,600 to 4,200 miles. Nighthawks that spend the spring and summer in Canada travel to southern South America for the winter months.

With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the treetops for passing warblers, vireos and tanagers, but I also remember to direct my gaze to the skies. Forgetting to look skyward could result in missing the passage of such varied migrants as chimney swifts, broad-winged hawks and common nighthawks.

So, what is a common nighthawk? First, this bird, despite what is implied by its name, is not a hawk. It’s also not strictly nocturnal. Particularly in the fall, nighthawks are active during daylight hours when engaged in catching winged insects. Outside of fall migration, these birds can often be observed over large parking lots or well-lit streets, snatching up insects swarming around the light poles.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A common nighthawk adopts an elongated pose atop a fencepost.

The common nighthawk is one of three members of the nightjar family found in the region during the summer months. The other two nightjars are the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow, birds that produce their namesake vocalizations in the nocturnal hours. Both of these species migrate, but they don’t take the dramatic approach employed by nighthawks. Each fall, common nighthawks form large flocks, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of individuals, as they migrate south for the winter.

Unlike whips and chucks, the common nighthawk isn’t active only after dark, which makes it much easier to observe these birds. They look somewhat like swifts and swallows but are much larger. They are brownish-gray birds with pointed wings and forked tails. They are easily identified by distinctive white patches on the underside of their wings.

A perplexing nickname for the common nighthawk is “bull-bat.” This merger of the words “bull” and “bat” makes sense when you explore a little deeper. The common nighthawk earned the nickname “bull-bat” because of its perceived “bat-like” flight and a “bull-like” boom produced by its wings as it pulls out of a dive.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” Apparently, in trying to explain the nocturnal tendencies of these birds, the Greeks came up with the imaginative but erroneous idea that birds like nighthawks liked to sneak into barns and have a meal of fresh goat’s milk. In reality, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, including ants, wasps, beetles, caddisflies, moths, mayflies, flies, crickets, grasshoppers, and other insects. They capture much of their insect prey on the wing.

There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.

So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move in August and throughout September.

I will keep watching the skies. Nighthawks can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air. First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds.

To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rising clouds provide a backdrop for a flock of migrating nighthawks.

Wood duck one of few ducks that’s an area resident in summer months

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wood duck, also known as the summer duck or Carolina duck in some locations, perches on a submerged log.

I’ve enjoyed sporadic observations of a family of wood ducks living at the fish pond this summer. A wood duck hen chose to raise four ducklings at my pond, which is cloaked in abundant cattails and waterlilies. I think the dense vegetation offers concealment that makes the little family feel at ease.

Nevertheless, the ducks have remained elusive. I get glimpses of them, but the moment they become aware of me the ducklings form a single line and file one by one into the stands of cattails. The hen is always the last to seek the shelter of the cattails, no doubt ensuring the safety of her young before she thinks of herself.

Waterfowl are usually scarce in the region in summer aside from the ubiquitous Canada geese and mallards found at ponds, local park, golf courses and many other locations. Waterfowl aren’t entirely absent, however, especially when you add the variety of domesticated waterfowl that are often found with the aforementioned geese and ducks.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male wood ducks are one of the most stunning of North America’s waterfowl.

The small wood duck is an exception. This duck is a species of waterfowl that can be found, in suitable habitat, during the summer nesting season throughout the southeastern United States. Unlike Canada geese and mallards, which historically never nested in the region until recent decades, the wood duck is actually supposed to be present during the warmer months of the year. In many parts of their range, wood ducks are known as the “summer duck” since they are the only wild native nesting duck present during the season.

Another common name for this species is the Carolina duck, which refers to the southern stronghold of this species of waterfowl. Wood ducks are year-round residents across much of the southeastern United States, especially in suitable habitat such as small lakes, flooded woodlands, swamps and marshes.

Like a handful of other North American waterfowl, the wood duck is a cavity-nesting bird. These ducks often occupy former nesting cavities created by woodpeckers, but they will also readily accept nesting boxes of suitable dimensions provided by human landlords. Because of their devotion to nesting in cavities, wood ducks have at least something in common with songbirds like Eastern bluebirds, tree swallows and house wrens, as well as larger birds such as American kestrels and Eastern screech-owls. Wood ducks aren’t the only waterfowl that nest in cavities. Buffleheads, hooded mergansers and common goldeneyes are also cavity-nesting ducks. None of those ducks, however, nest in the southeastern United States.

Some wood duck nests can be located far above the ground, which poses a challenge for flightless young. Like most species of waterfowl, young wood ducks are born capable of immediately leaving the nest and being led by their mother to foraging areas. First, however, there’s that giant leap of faith that each of the ducklings must make. Nests are often built over water, so that first jump often ends in a splash-down. Some nests are built over land, but that doesn’t seem an obstacle. The ducklings make that leap without any difficulty. Just like the Abominable Snowmen in the old holiday favorite “Rudolph, The Red-nosed Reindeer,” wood duck babies bounce! Once the ducklings have departed their cozy nesting cavity, their mother will guard them from predators and lead them to prime foraging areas for a period of about two months.

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay • A wood duck hen keeps watch as one of her ducklings forages in the thick duckweed covering a pond’s surface.

The wood duck belongs to the genus Aix. The only other species in the genus — the Mandarin duck — is native to East Asia. The two are classified as “perching ducks” by biologists. The males of both these species are among the most ornate ducks in the world. The male wood duck has red eyes and a dark-tipped red bill. The colors in a male’s plumage includes glossy, iridescent greens, purples and browns in dramatic patterns. The male also has a distinctive head crest. Female wood ducks also have crests, but their plumage is overall gray and brown with a teardrop-shaped white patch around the eyes, as well as a white chin and throat.

The majority of a wood duck’s diet consists of vegetable matter. In autumn, I’ve observed these ducks foraging with enthusiasm for acorns. Summer, however, is a time for gorging on insects. The wood duck hen, and her ducklings in particular, have been happy to forage for insects and other small invertebrates among the floating lily pads.

In his book, “Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh,” author John Eastman noted that the wood duck was the most abundant of North American ducks during the 19th century. In the late 19th century, pressures from hunting and habitat destruction combined to dramatically lower the numbers of this exclusively North American duck. Eastman noted that the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is largely credited with saving the wood duck from possible extinction.

From 1918 to 1941, it was illegal to hunt wood ducks. Thanks to this temporary hunting ban and other conservation measures, the wood duck population recovered in dramatic fashion. Recent surveys all point to a species on the rebound with numbers of wood ducks rising for the past several decades.

The creek and the fish pond at my home have proven dependable magnets over the years for attracting visiting wood ducks. I also have good luck finding wood ducks at the large pond at Erwin Fishery Park. Most wood ducks in the southeastern United States do not migrate. Those that live farther north during the summer will migrate to areas as far south as Mexico in the fall. We’re fortunate to reside in a region where wood ducks are year-round resident waterfowl.

I feel even more fortunate that a stealthy visit to the fish pond at my home has given me numerous opportunities over the past few months to glimpse the lives of these fascinating ducks of summer.

••••

To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wood duck family shares a fallen log.

Sightings signal that migration has started

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds make a non-stop crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. A hurricane in the Gulf during migration could have serious consequences for this small bird.

Mack Hayes, a resident of Telford, posted on my Facebook page recently about hummingbird experiences. 

“I have two hummingbird feeders out, and boy are they really working them,” Mack wrote. “I see several of them, and of course they fight each other. Males and females both. Guess they are getting ready for their long flight  ahead of them.”

Mack’s post reminded me that many of our favored summer visitors will soon make their return migrations to regions more hospitable for the duration of the winter season.

I replied to his post with my own comment.

“I am sure they are getting ready, but I still hope they don’t get in too great a hurry. I would like to keep them with us as long as possible.”

At home, I have enjoyed some fun bird observations. It was a veritable feeding frenzy in a corner of my yard for about an hour on Tuesday, Aug. 10. Everything kicked off with a Red-eyed Vireo enjoying some elderberries. I was reminded that, with a really good look, the Red-eyed Vireo should never be mistaken for a warbler. That bill is so much bigger than a warbler bill! I was watching the vireo in binoculars when he coughed and popped up an elderberry. He immediately swallowed it again! Waste not, want not, I suppose. 

I am counting this burst of bird activity as the official kickoff for my fall migration watching.

I watched the vireo a long time before I realized there was a Gray Catbird perched lower in the shrub and also enjoying the elderberries. Then, in rapid succession, three warblers: Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Parula and Worm-eating Warbler. On the fringes of all this activity I noticed a Brown Thrasher, Downy Woodpecker, a couple of Mourning Doves, and the resident Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens. 

I also saw some parents hard-pressed to satisfy their young, including a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher being followed and pestered by a couple of young gnatcatchers, and a male Eastern Towhee leading a youngster around on the ground as they foraged beneath the forsythia tangle. 

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter
A red-eyed vireo sits on its basket-shaped nest.

At the feeders I saw American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, and several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, which don’t know the meaning of the word “share” as they dived and attacked any of their fellow hummers that came too close to “their” feeder. All in all, a fun Tuesday evening.

The start of migration appears to be more of a crawl than a sprint this fall, but I have picked up a few additional signs. For instance, I’ve been hearing the scolding sounds of red-eyed vireos from woodland edges for the past few weeks even before I observed the vireo feeding on the elderberries. A dedicated singer at most times, this vireo seems more likely to produce a harsh, scolding cry at this time of the year. Other hints of the steady advance of fall migration include flocks of chimney swifts congregating in the skies over my home and the unmistakable croaking of common ravens from nearby ridges.

So far, I’ve seen only a few warblers. At a glance, vireos would appear related to the wood warblers. Research into DNA, however, has led many experts to contend that vireos are more closely related to crows and shrikes. Like the flycatcher and hummingbird families, the vireo family is exclusive to the New World. With a mere 50 species, vireos and their kin are vastly outnumbered by flycatchers and hummingbirds. The majority of vireos resides in the tropics, but about a dozen species nest in the United States.

In East Tennessee Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina, vireos resident during the summer months include red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow-throated vireo and warbling vireo. Most people are likely unaware of vireos. Although not uncommon, these birds are more frequently heard than seen. They spend much of their time in the forest canopy or in dense brush. When singing, they can remain at a perch, unmoving, for long periods of time.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue-headed vireos, such as this bird, are high-elevation summer residents in the region. In the fall, they are also common migrants.

The loud scolding calls of red-eyed vireos often heard this time of year are given apparently when the vireo is alarmed or irritated. This scolding vocalization is quite unlike the usual ones produced by this bird. First and foremost, the call is louder than one would think could be produced by a bird that is only about six inches long. During the summer season, the red-eyed vireo is also one of the most persistent of singing songbirds. Another common name for the red-eyed vireo is “preacher bird,” so called because of its tendency to unceasingly deliver its song.

The red-eyed vireo is still considered one of eastern North America’s most common summer breeding birds. At one time, the red-eyed vireo was probably the most common breeding bird in eastern woodlands. That, sadly, is no longer the case. Red-eyed vireos are olive-green above and clean white below. These birds show a distinctive head pattern consisting of a gray crown and white eyebrow stripe bordered above and below by black lines. Adults also have the red eyes that give this particular vireo its common name. The term “vireo,” originating in Latin, can be translated into English as “green bird.” It’s an apt description, as many of these small birds are primarily dull green in coloration. Consider the vireos the “Plain Janes” of songbirds.

Some of the more colorful common names for vireos include the dwarf vireo, golden vireo and yellow-winged vireo.  In Central and South America, the vireo family expands to include many birds with common names such as shrike-vireo, greenlet and peppershrike. Some of the varied species include lemon-chested greenlet, green shrike-vireo and the black-bellied peppershrike.

I still focus most of my birding efforts on warblers in the autumn, but vireos are always a pleasant diversion when the colorful warblers make themselves scarce.

Keep your eyes open for new visitors. Those hummingbirds that scorned you this spring may give your home a second glance as they pass through this fall. In addition, the skies are filled with migrating raptors, flycatchers, thrushes, nighthawks and many other birds. 

Share sightings, ask questions or make comments by emailing me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

Many of the world’s birds wear masks as part of their plumage

Photo by Pexels from Pixabay • Many human masks feature feathers, but many of our feathered friends sport masks.

Who was that masked bird? 

While asking pardon from “The Lone Ranger,” which originated the memorable “Who was that masked man?” question, I thought I’d take a look this week at some of our feather friends known for going about their lives fully masked. After all, masks are all the rage, apparently.

When we look back, perhaps not fondly but inevitably, on the years 2020 and 2021, I’m confident that the one icon of this blip in the arc of history will be the mask. Living in the time of COVID-19 has been a cross to bear for current generations, but remember that our great-grandparents withstood the Spanish flu and our more distant ancestors weathered the plague known as “the black death.” 

Many of them did so by using masks, some more effectively than others, to shield themselves from infection. Even back in the 1300s as the black death, i.e. the bubonic plague, rampaged through Europe, masks were recognized as a means of dealing with a contagion. 

Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay • In their dark costumes with bird-beaked masks, these “doctors” must have presented a nightmarish appearance to their patients.

To complete the circle connecting masks and birds, I’ll remind readers that a strange costume arose in the 1300s among “doctors” attempting to combat the pandemic of their time. Plague doctors traveled across Europe, seeking public employment from desperate towns and cities, in an easily recognizable costume that consisted of dark robes and a weird mask with a prominent bird-like beak. The result was a look straight from some fevered nightmare. 

Looking at illustrations of these strange beaked masks and reading about some of the absurdly horrendous “cures” offered by these charlatans, I’m surprised that an anti-bird sentiment didn’t rise up and turn people against some of our fine feathered friends.  Ironically, the masks offered little or no protection from disease. Let’s just say that these were not the quality of some of the better surgical masks available today.

It may surprise people to learn that many birds are “masked.”  For mask-wearing birds, however, it’s not a choice but simply a quirk of their plumage that has given so many of our feather friends a distinctive mask, or in some cases even a complete hood, to complete their appearance. Birds ranging from popular backyard visitors like the cedar waxwing to more unusual avians such as the masked flowerpiercer and the masked fin foot wear masks.

The masked tityra is a medium-sized songbird. It has traditionally been placed in the cotinga or the tyrant flycatcher family, but many experts believe it is better placed in Tityridae. The masked  tityra has been spotted once north of the border, being found in the Bentsen/Rio Grande Valley State Park in February of 1990.

Photo by Pixabay • The loggerhead shrike sports a classic black mask. With this shrike, both males and females are identical in appearance.

Shrikes are a family with many mask-wearing members. The loggerhead shrike, in addition to wearing a bandit’s mask, even has the unsavory nickname of “butcher bird” due to its gruesome habit of impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire fences. The loggerhead shrike is native to the United States and is the only member of the family found in Northeast Tennessee. The Northern shrike, which is the only other shrike in North America, is also masked.

Some warblers sport masks, including the common yellowthroat and hooded warbler. Well, the latter wears an encompassing black hood, but you get the idea. The Kentucky warbler sports a partial black mask around the eyes. There’s also the masked yellowthroat — the name seems a bit too on point — that maintains separate resident breeding populations in Central and South America. Based on photos, the masked yellowthroat’s mask is even more pronounced than the mask of the common yellowthroat. 

There’s also the masked booby, which is a large seabird in the booby/gannet family, Sulidae. This bird spends most of its time at sea, coming to land to breed and nest. The name “booby” is actually derived from the Spanish word “bobo,” which can be translated to mean “fool” or “clown.” These seabirds are not truly stupid, but the Spanish, seeing them on land and out of their element, only noticed how awkward and clumsy the birds are on land. Some relatives of the masked booby include blue-footed booby, brown booby, red-footed booby, Nazca booby and Abbott’s booby of Christmas Island in the eastern Indian Ocean. 

Photo by Nadine Doerlé from Pixabay • The shorebird known as the masked lapwing is an Australian species.

The masked lapwing is a large, common and conspicuous shorebird native to Australia, particularly the northern and eastern parts of the continent, as well as New Zealand and New Guinea. In the family Charadriidae, which consists of plovers, lapwings and dotterels, the masked lapwing is the biggest of the bunch. The masked lapwing reaches a length of 14 inches and can weigh 368 grams. 

The cedar waxwing sports a jaunty crest. Unlike many birds with only males wearing the mask, both sexes wear sleek black masks. The world’s two other waxwings — bohemian waxwing and Japanese waxwing – are also masked. I’ve seen large flocks of cedar waxwings in recent weeks. Late summer is usually a good time to find these jaunty birds in the region.

Photo by David Mark from Pixabay • The Bohemian waxwing is a larger relative of the Cedar Waxwing. Both species sport a prominent black facial mask.

There’s no masked crow, but there is a hooded crow. Ranging across Europe and Asia, this crow has different common names in various countries.  In Ireland, it is called caróg liath or grey crow, while in Germany its often called the “mist crow.” It’s also called the Scotch crow and the Danish crow. The hooded crow is associated with fairies in the Scottish highlands and Ireland. There’s an 18th century tradition in Scotland in which shepherds would make offerings to them to keep fairies from attacking sheep. 

There’s a masked duck native to the American tropics. From time to time, these small ducks even stage invasions into southern states like Florida and Texas. A male masked duck in breeding plumage has a black face mask, bright blue bill and dark rusty-red body.

The masked trogon is another bird of the American tropics, ranging mostly in the Andes of South America. Males are variously glossy green, reddish-bronze or golden-green on their head, chest and back, with a red belly and a distinct red eye-ring. There’s usually a white band of feathers that separates the red belly from the greenish plumage of this bird. The trogons are closely related to the family of brilliant birds known as quetzals. 

The masked flowerpiercer is related to tanagers and can be found in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Flowerpiercers are so named because of a sharp hook on the tip of their upper mandible which they use to slice open the base of flowers to get at the nectar. It’s a simple but effective hack for a bird unable to hover like a hummingbird. 

Found in Vietnam and China, the masked laughing thrush is a sociable, noisy thrush reflected by its common Chinese name, which means “seven sisters.” These birds often produce their harsh chattering when deep under cover of tangled vegetation. 

The masked finch is a small songbird found in dry savannah across northern Australia. Like the aforementioned masked laughingthrush, this finch is a noisy bird. Hundreds or even thousands of individuals may gather at popular watering holes to drink, bathe and preen, all while chattering constantly. 

The masked fin foot is found in the brackish waters of the eastern Indian subcontinent, which includes Indochina, Malaysia and Indonesia. This odd bird has been described as a combination of a cormorant and hornbill. This unique bird is endangered. Although a 2009 survey indicated that 600 to 1,700 masked finfoots existed, a worrisome 2020 survey found only 100 to 300 individuals. Most of the surviving individuals are found in Bangladesh and Cambodia. 

Lesser masked weaver, an African species, is a colony-nesting bird. Only the males show a distinctive mask of black feathers over the face. The rest of the male’s plumage is a bright yellow-green.

The golden masked owl is a barn owl endemic to the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. This owl’s facial disc, which is white in most barn owls, is tinged with russet-gold that does indeed form the shape of a partial mask like those used for masquerades.

There are other “masked” birds, but I think this sampling provides ample evidence that the mask appears frequently in the various plumage patterns worn by the world’s almost 10,000 species of birds.

Take care and stay well. For questions about birds, or to make a comment or share an observation, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

Goldfinches provide cheerful summer observations

 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Enjoy the appearance of the vibrant male American goldfinches now. They will soon adopt their drab winter plumage for the next few months.

Summer is a season of plenty for American goldfinches. Even roadside ditches are choked with chicory, evening primrose and other seed-producing plants often dismissed as “weeds.” Simply driving local roads has produced several sightings of flocks of American goldfinches in recent weeks.

These small, colorful finches are also regular visitors to my feeders, although they don’t really need my offering of black oil sunflower seeds to supplement the natural smorgasbord available to them.

The American goldfinch is also one of the last songbirds to nest each season. Some goldfinches don’t even start to think about nesting until late July and early August. Their nesting season is timed deliberately to coincide with this season of natural abundance. Goldfinches feed their young mostly on seeds, as opposed to most songbirds that work so hard to gather insects to feed their young a protein-rich diet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Special mesh feeders can distribute thistle seeds, a favorite treat of the American goldfinch.

It’s a satisfying irony that, although brown-headed cowbird females sometimes slip their eggs into a goldfinch nest, any young hatched in those nests rarely survive. While goldfinch hatchlings are adapted to thrive on a diet of seeds, the fostered young cowbirds fail to thrive on a diet so lacking in the protein derived from insects.

The male American goldfinch during the breeding season is unmistakable in his bright yellow and black plumage. Female goldfinches are more subdued in coloration. Males also sing a bubbly, cheerful song when seeking to win the attention of a potential mate. Outside of the nesting season, goldfinches are quite sociable and form large flocks. Dozens of these small songbirds can descend on feeders at almost any time of the year, but they are primarily attracted to our feeders during the lean times of the winter months.

For these and other reasons, goldfinches are favorites of many bird lovers. There are actually three species of goldfinches in North America. The two related species are Lawrence’s goldfinch of California and the lesser goldfinch, which ranges through the southwestern United States as well as Central and South America.

Lawrence’s goldfinch was named by John Cassin in 1850 for his colleague George Lawrence, a New York businessman and amateur ornithologist. His enthusiasm for birds must have impressed his colleagues. One bird genus and 20 species were named in his honor. Lawrence’s goldfinch, known by the scientific name Spinus lawrencei, honors him doubly with both the scientific and common names for the bird.

The American goldfinch is also known by other common names, including wild canary, yellowbird and willow goldfinch. I’ve also heard the goldfinch referred to as “lettuce bird.” This nickname, which was one my maternal grandmother applied to the bird, relates to the bird’s fondness for seeds. Apparently the goldfinches would flock to lettuce plants in the garden once they had gone to seed.

Come winter, this vibrant American goldfinch undergoes a transformation into a dull, drab bird with grayish feather. In fact, this annual molt usually begins in September. During the fall and winter, the American goldfinch looks almost like an entirely different bird.

It’s understandable why people love to entertain flocks of these finches in their yards and gardens. Three states — Washington, Iowa and New Jersey — have made the American goldfinch their official state bird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male American goldfinch perches on a dead branch.

The best strategy for attracting goldfinches is to provide some of their favorite foods. Black oil sunflower seed and the seeds of nyjer thistle are highly favored. The tiny thistle seeds require special feeders. Mesh “socks” can also be used to dispense the thistle seed.

An alternative is to plant a garden that offers an abundance of fresh seeds. A stand of sunflowers will attract goldfinches, as well as other birds such as indigo bunting and house finch. Liatris, also known as gay feather, produces flower spikes that are sought out by goldfinches for their seeds. Other favorites include asters and coneflowers. The bonus is that even after the beautiful blooms are past, the birds can still benefit from the seeds left behind after flowering.

To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.