Monthly Archives: March 2014

Small goose’s March visit stirs birding excitement


If you’re wondering where March went, you’re not alone. As it turned out, weather-wise, this March has veered from one extreme to another. I have enjoyed the days of sunshine and short sleeves more than the days with snow or rain. Of course, even the rain has been welcome since it helped many of our early spring flowers unfurl their petals once the sun returned.

Birding has been productive this past month, and I have been pleased to see some of our usual summer birds returning for the year. My most exciting observation this past month, however, would have to be the Ross’s Goose found at the Great Lakes pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

Photo by Bryan Stevens  A Ross's Goose, foreground, is shown with two Canada Geese. The photo makes plain the small size of the Ross's Goose.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Ross’s Goose, foreground, is shown with two Canada Geese. The photo makes plain the small size of the Ross’s Goose.

I saw the goose at the pond on March 11, but some fellow birders alerted me to the bird’s presence. The goose also lingered at the pond and around the nearby Watauga River for several days after I saw it.

The common name of this goose honors Bernard R. Ross, who was associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Here’s a quick history lesson. Hudson’s Bay Company is the oldest commercial corporation in North America. The company has been in continuous operation for more than 340 years, which ranks it as one of the oldest in the world. The company began as a fur-trading enterprise thanks to an English royal charter in back in 1670 during the reign of King Charles II. These days, Hudson’s Bay Company owns and operates retail stores throughout Canada and the United States.

In addition to his trade in furs, Ross collected specimens for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Ross is responsible for giving the goose that now bears his name one of its early common names – the Horned Wavy Goose of Hearne. I wonder why that never caught on?

He repeatedly insisted that this small goose was a species distinct from the related and larger Lesser Snow Goose and Greater Snow Goose. His vouching for this small white goose eventually convinced other experts that this bird was indeed its own species.

Ross was born in Ireland in 1827. He died in Toronto, Ontario, in 1874. He was described by other prominent early naturalists as “enthusiastic” and “a careful observer” in the employ of Hudson’s Bay Company. When John Cassin gave the Ross’s Goose its first scientific name of Anser rossii in 1861, he paid tribute to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Ross.

Ornithologist John Cassin named the Ross's Goose in 1861 in honor of Bernard Ross, who helped convince scientists that this small goose of the Arctic tundra was a true species.

Ornithologist John Cassin named the Ross’s Goose in 1861 in honor of Bernard Ross, who helped convince scientists that this small goose of the Arctic tundra was a true species.

Cassin was a famous American ornithologist and curator at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. I suppose the fact he died of poisoning due to his handling of bird skins preserved with arsenic must be considered rather gruesomely ironic. Despite a death that resulted indirectly from his enthusiasm for birds, Cassin has also been immortalized by having several species named in his honor. Cassin’s Finch, Cassin’s Kingbird, Cassin’s Auklet, Cassin’s Vireo and Cassin’s Sparrow all bear his name.

The Ross’s Goose has a “cuteness” factor working in its favor. For a goose, it is rather small. It could best be described as a Snow Goose in miniature. In fact, it isn’t much larger than such ducks as Mallards and is considered the smallest of North America’s geese.

The Ross’s Goose has also acquired some other common names, including “Galoot” and “Scabby-nosed Wavey.” This latter name was inspired by the bird’s bill, which is covered with rough bumps around the base. I have to admit that “Scabby-nosed Wavey” is a name likely to stick in the memory. Today, the Ross’s Goose’s scientific name is Chen rossii.

This bird’s other claim to fame is that it’s nesting territory wasn’t discovered by scientists until 1938, more than 70 years after this goose was first described by men such as Ross and Cassin. It turns out that the Ross’s Goose nests in the Arctic on tundra, marshes and ponds. Today, this breeding range is protected as  the Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary and is the summer home to most of the world population of this small goose. During the winter months, these geese favor shallow lakes, fresh-water marshes, flooded fields and other agricultural lands.

According to the Ducks Unlimited website, the California Central Valley is currently the main wintering area for the Ross’s Goose. Increasing numbers of these geese, however, now winter in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas and the north-central highlands of Mexico.

Photo by Bryan Stevens The visiting Ross's Goose takes a swim on the large pond at Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The visiting Ross’s Goose takes a swim on the large pond at Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

Winter and migratory visits by these geese to Northeast Tennessee are still rather rare. According to the book “Birds of Northeast Tennessee” by Rick Knight, the Ross’s Goose made its first recorded appearance in the region in 1998. Over the next decade, only 11 observations were documented for this goose. Since 2008, a few more sightings have been added to this records, including the recent one at the Great Lakes pond. This body of water has become a magnet for other unusual waterfowl, including Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Red-necked Grebe and Canvasback.


I finally saw some Purple Finches at my feeders at home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton on March 29.


Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Thomas G. Barnes A male Purple Finch, if observed carefully, can be reliably distinguished from the familiar House Finch.

Steve Ward from Atlanta, Ga., posted a question to my Facebook page after I posted some photographs of male Purple Finches. Steve wanted to know how to best distinguish Purple Finches from House Finches.

The Birds Unlimited Blog has a great entry, complete with illustrations, dealing with the confusion that can arise when trying to distinguish House Finch, Purple Finch and their western relative, Cassin’s Finch. Learn more by visiting 

I did offer Steve a few tips in a reply I posted on Facebook. I’ve never really had trouble identifying Purple Finches from House Finches. This is one of those easily confused bird combinations that I don’t get confused about.

There are some clues to look for if you get a visit by either of these species at your feeders. Purple Finches, in my opinion, have more distinctive facial patterns. The males also seem more infused with the wine-red or raspberry-purple coloration that give the species its common name. I think the Purple Finch also has a slightly heavier bill. It’s probably easier to tell them apart if you happen to have them visiting your feeders at the same time.

I think female Purple Finches are even easier to contrast from female House Finches. Most female Houses are extremely drab and lack the distinct facial pattern that is so evident in a female Purple.


By the way, I love that writing this blog allows me to interact with people here in Northeast Tennessee, as well as in such locations as in Georgia, South Carolina and even in other countries. I love hearing from readers. Just post comments on my blog at You can also reach me on Facebook or send email to Please share the link to my blog with others who might be interested in the topic of birds, birding or nature in Northeast Tennessee.


Birds provide visible evidence of transition of seasons

We are midway through March, and the birds are on the move. We’ve been fortunate to enjoy some beautiful spring weather and all the accompanying flowers in the last couple of weeks. The next month or so will feature a lot of transition as our winter resident birds prepare to depart and some of our beloved summer residents return to spend the next few months with us.

For instance, the Buffleheads that congregate on Wilbur Lake in Carter County are already dispersing to local rivers and ponds. After spending some time on these other waterways, they will be flying farther north. Buffleheads are cavity-nesting birds, so they will look for wooded lakes and seek out a tree with a large cavity or cranny. There, the female will lay her eggs and renew the cycle of life before the adults and a new generation return to winter in the region in several months.

These little two-toned ducks with a dark and light plumage pattern have long been a favorite of mine. Patsy Schang sent me a photo of a pair of Buffleheads that visited a pond at her neighbor’s Roan Mountain home. As you can see from the accompanying photograph, the two Buffleheads look quite at home.

“I was so excited to see these ducks on our neighbor’s pond,” Patsy wrote in her email. “I think they are Buffleheads – my first!”


Photo courtesy of Patsy Schang
These Buffleheads visited a Roan Mountain pond earlier this month.

Patsy had no trouble identifying the ducks, and I congratulated her on her first sighting of Buffleheads, It’s always fun to see a new bird, especially so close to home.

According to the Ducks Unlimited website, Buffleheads breed from southern Alaska through the forested areas of western Canada, central Ontario and eastern Quebec.

The website notes that 90 percent of the population is believed to breed from Manitoba westward. So, these little ducks travel a long way to spend the winter on Wilbur Lake, Ripshin Lake and other locations in Northeast Tennessee.


Karla Smith sent me an email about a nesting colony of Great Blue Herons in Elizabethton.


Photo by Bryan Stevens
This colony of nesting Great Blue Herons is located behind the Elizabethton Municipal Airport.

“I didn’t know if you had heard about the herons that are nesting in the tops of two trees behind the airport in Elizabethton,” Karla wrote in her email. “I believe they are herons. I am not an avid bird watcher, but do enjoy them and sighted these a few weeks ago. There are six nests total in the two trees and it is quite a sight to see.”

I went the next day and found the nests and several herons exactly where Karla informed me they would be. This is only the second time I have observed nesting Great Blue Herons in Carter County.

I counted six nests and seven herons during my brief visit to the location. The two trees are on a steep hillside at the back of a field behind the Elizabethton Municipal Airport. From this location, the adult herons can spread out along the nearby Watauga River to find plenty of food once the young are born.

In addition to the herons near the airport, there are at least two active Great Blue Heron nests along Blevins Road on the other side of Elizabethton. This location also served as a nesting place last year for Yellow-crowned Night-Herons.

I posted about the heron nesting colony at the airport on my Facebook page and several friends shared interesting stories.


Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Great Blue Heron stands in a nest built in a tree over the Watauga River along Blevins Road in Elizabethton.

Sandra “Snad” Garrett said she plans to check out the colony, which is not far from the Stoney Creek home she shares with her husband.

“We used to enjoy watching a huge rookery on the Mississippi River in North Minneapolis when we lived there,” she wrote. “I had no idea there was a rookery so close to us here.”

Seeing the post reminded Elizabethton resident Rita F. Schuettler of a previous close encounter with a Great Blue Heron.

“I was fishing on the Watauga River when I saw my first Great Blue Heron,” she said. “It was close by and staring at me. Scared me to death, but I was thrilled to see it.”

In a follow-up moment, I congratulated Rita, telling her that it’s difficult to sneak up on a Great Blue Heron and that it sounded like they both got surprised.

“I was sitting there motionless fishing and he was standing there motionless fishing,” Rita wrote in another post. “I don’t know who was there first. It might have scared him also, because he flew away!”


I saw my first Barn Swallow of the spring on March 19 at Anderson Marsh on the old Johnson City Highway near the Okolona exit. There was also a Great Blue Heron in the creek at the same location.

The previous day, it was all about the raptors, as I found a Sharp-shinned Hawk on Simerly Creek Road, an American Kestrel in Unicoi and a Red-tailed Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk both soaring in the same vicinity in Johnson City. Once I tossed in both Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures, it capped off what amounted to a pretty good raptor day.

On March 17, the only wild waterfowl lingering at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park turned out to be a pair of American Wigeon. On land, I also enjoyed watching a large mixed flock that consisted of Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds and European Starlings. They were feeding on shelled corn that some good-hearted person had probably left for the domestic ducks and geese that make their home at the pond.

All this activity is proof that the seasons are changing, and with them the makeup of the birds that share our yards and gardens.



Photo by Bryan Stevens
A male Eastern Towhee feeds on the ground beneath a feeder hanging in a tree.

Elizabethton resident Dee Obrien contacted me on Facebook with a question about a bird she saw recently at her home.

“I have an unusual bird in the yard,” she wrote in her message. “He’s about the size of a robin or mockingbird. Is black on top with white bars on his wings. Rust color on outer sides of his belly, but is off white in the middle of his belly. He is a ground feeder.”

I was glad Dee included the information on the bird’s behavior. Details like that are just as important as size and coloration. From her detailed description, including the information about its ground-feeding habits, I was able to figure out that she had seen an Eastern Towhee. Later, she notified me that she had consulted a field guide and agreed with my identification.


It’s great to hear from so many fellow bird enthusiasts. That’s been one of my goals with this blog. I hope to continue to receive communications from readers. Otherwise, it’s just me writing about the birds I have seen. I’d much rather have this blog become more engaging and interactive where people can share their enthusiasm for our fine feathered friends.

It’s easy to post comments on my new blog at You can also reach me on Facebook or send email to Please share the link to the blog with others who might be interested in the topic of birds and birding in Northeast Tennessee.


There’s a new poll this week. Here’s the answer to last week’s poll. Which of the red-necked birds in the list specified in the poll isn’t a real bird? Well, the answer is Red-necked Goose. I hope everyone got the correct answer.

Tennessee sees late-winter ‘red-neck’ invasion

If I wanted to perpetuate a stereotype, I could start off this week’s column with some attempt at humor by noting that Northeast Tennessee has seen more than its share of “rednecks” in recent weeks. No, I’m not talking about the NASCAR fans gathered this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway!

Of course, in this context I’m referring to a species of grebe that recently staged a remarkable late winter invasion of area lakes and ponds in record numbers.

Photo by Donna Dewhurst/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service A Red-necked Grebe with young is shown on an Alaskan wetland.

Photo by Donna Dewhurst/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
A Red-necked Grebe with young is shown on an Alaskan wetland.

Last year, I saw a total of one Red-necked Grebe. Only three months into 2014, I have already seen more than a dozen of these grebes. Although usually rare visitors to Northeast Tennessee, the unusual weather conditions that have already brought such uncommon birds as Long-tailed Ducks, Canvasbacks and Common Mergansers to the region seems to have also resulted in unusually high numbers of Red-necked Grebes in early March throughout the Volunteer State.

The most common grebes for Northeast Tennessee are the Pied-billed Grebe and Horned Grebe. Another species, the Eared Grebe, is an annual but uncommon visitor to South Holston Lake.

The Red-necked Grebe has been reported slightly more often than the Western Grebe, which is known from only a handful of records. In 2012, I added Western Grebe to my state list when I observed this bird at Musick’s Campground at South Holston Lake in late November.

The recent influx of Red-necked Grebes in the Volunteer State record numbers of these birds on various lakes and ponds. The grebes began arriving on March 4.

Rick Knight found 25 Red-necked Grebes found near the dam on Boone Lake. The total of 25 Red-necked Grebes is a Tennessee state record high for that species.

The record didn’t remain in place long. Two days later, Wallace Coffey and Jim Ratchford found 101 Red-necked Grebes on Boone Lake and nine more of these grebes at Fort Patrick Henry Dam.

Sightings have continued from throughout the state, as postings on the Tennessee Birds and Bristol Birds email groups documented the fallout of Red-necked Grebes.

Bryan Musick observed and photographed a Red-necked Grebe on March 5 on Oxbow Lake in Castlewood, Va., in Russell County.

Ron Hoff and Dollyann Myers of Clinton, Tenn., reported a Red-necked Grebe on March 13 at Lenoir City Park, in Loudon County.

Susan Hubley of Rogersville reported a single Red-necked Grebe on John Sevier Lake in Hawkins County on March 15.

Red-necked Grebe reports also came from Chickamauga Lake, Douglas Lake, Melton Hill Dam and Trout Lake along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

I visited Shook Branch Recreation Area on Watauga Lake with my mother on March 5. We found at least a dozen Red-necked Grebes on the lake, as well as a couple of Pied-billed Grebes. All the grebes were too distant for photographs. The next day, however, Tom McNeil reported a Red-necked Grebe on the large pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Red-necked Grebe mixes with Mallards at a pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Red-necked Grebe mixes with Mallards at a pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

My mom and I visited the pond and enjoyed seeing one of these grebes at much closer range. For much of the time, the out-of-place grebe mingled with the Mallards in residence at the pond.


The Red-necked Grebes that have been visiting Tennessee are likely migrants on their way to summer nesting areas on large freshwater lakes, marshes and other inland bodies of water. This grebe spends the winter on the open ocean or on large lakes.

These aquatic birds feed on a varied died of fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects, as well as some mollusks and amphibians.

The Red-necked Grebe is a rather plain-looked grey bird during the winter season. This bird acquires the distinctive red neck during the breeding season. Males and females look alike. They also sport a black cap and a pale grey face when in their breeding plumage.

Like many grebes, the Red-necked Grebe stages an elaborate courtship display and a wide range of loud mating calls.

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter This Red-necked Grebe was one of many observed by birders throughout the region when an unprecedented fallout of this species took place in the first week of March.

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter
This Red-necked Grebe was one of many observed by birders throughout the region when an unprecedented fallout of this species took place in the first week of March.

Although the bird variety is rare in Northeast Tennessee, “red-neck” birds abound around the world. Some other species would include Red-necked Stint, Red-necked Spurfowl, Red-necked Nightjar, Red-necked Amazon, Red-necked Avocet and Red-necked Phalarope. Actually, the last bird on the list is also an occasional visitor to Tennessee. The others are spread out around the globe.


Worldwide, there are 22 species of grebes. This family also includes three extinct species — Alaotra Grebe, Atitlán Grebe and Colombian Grebe.

These birds range in size from the Least Grebe, which weighs only about six ounces, to the Great Grebe, which can tip the scales at four pounds.

Other North American grebes include Red-necked Grebe, Eared Grebe, Clark’s Grebe and Western Grebe.

During visits to Utah in 2003 and 2006, I observed the sleek, long-necked Clark’s Grebe and Western Grebe. On my 2006 trip to Utah, I visited Antelope Island State Park and observed tens of thousands of Eared Grebes gathered on the Great Salt Lake for the nesting season.

The grebes most often found in Northeast Tennessee are Pied-billed Grebe and Horned Grebe. In addition, a small number of Eared Grebes have wintered on South Holston Lake in Sullivan County for many years.

Despite the unusually high numbers so far this year, the Red-necked Grebe is only an uncommon winter visitor to the region. I’ve previously observed this grebe on Boone Lake, South Holston Lake and Watauga Lake.


A week after a female Red-winged Blackbird visited my feeders on March 8, a male Red-winged Blackbird arrived at the fish pond. He immediately claimed a perch in a tall tree and began singing loudly to announce his arrival.



I would love to hear from readers. Just post comments on my new blog at You can also reach me on Facebook or send email to Please share the link to the blog with others who might be interested in the topic of birds and birding in Northeast Tennessee.

What’s in a name? Long-tailed Ducks stage late winter invasion of Northeast Tennessee

Experts in ornithology are always changing the common and scientific names of many of our favorite birds. That’s why since I began birding I have had to adjust myself to accept the Eastern Towhee for the bird I first learned as a Rufous-sided Towhee – still a much more accurate and interesting name – and Blue-headed Vireo in place of Solitary Vireo. Blue-headed is more descriptive of the appearance of this bird, but as someone who can be a bit of a loner, I also appreciated the “solitary” moniker.

Name changes, however, rarely inspire the controversy that one did more than a decade ago when a duck formerly known as “Oldsquaw” had its name changed to “Long-tailed Duck.” In 2000, the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature was petitioned to make the name change. Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska requested that the English name, or common name, of Clangula hyemalis be changed from Oldsquaw to Long-tailed Duck, the name that had long been used for the species outside of North America. The biologists noted that the species was declining in numbers in Alaska and that their conservation management plans required the help and cooperation of Native Americans.  The biologists expressed concerns that the name Oldsquaw would offend the Native Americans they were trying to recruit to assist them with efforts to protect this particular duck.

Photo by Bryan Stevens Six Long-tailed Ducks photographed last month on Holston Lake.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Six Long-tailed Ducks photographed last month on Holston Lake.

It wasn’t the first request to change the name, but it was the one that convinced the members of the committee to approve the petition. The members did state a reluctance to consider political correctness alone as a reason for changing long-standing English names of birds. In essence, the committee was willing in this particular instance to adopt an alternative name already in use in much of the world.

How did this duck ever get saddled with the name “oldsquaw” in the first place? The name was apparently inspired by the rolling three-noted call made by (here’s irony for you) the male ducks. In flocks, drake Long-tailed Ducks are very sociable and excitable. They like to “talk” with each other. Somewhere, back in the early days of ornithology in North America, someone apparently felt these vocal ducks reminded them of “old squaws” engaged in gossip. When I think about it, I can see why the name did have some heavy baggage regarding racism and sexism.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service  The Long-tailed Duck, pictured here, was once known as the "Oldsquaw."

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Long-tailed Duck, pictured here, was once known as the “Oldsquaw.”

Long-tailed Ducks range the far northern regions of North America, Europe and Asia. In North America, these ducks breed in the high Arctic regions of Alaska and Canada. They winter in the Great Lakes and along both coasts as far south as northern California and the Carolinas. It was the fact that the severe cold this winter has frozen solid the Great Lakes that pushed Long-tailed Ducks south in almost unprecedented numbers. I am thankful for this unanticipated consequence of the severe cold snaps in January and February. After all, it allowed me to finally get an excellent look at Long-tailed Ducks 14 years after I first added this species to my life list.

I have a few birds checked on my life list that I have technically observed in the field without enjoying particularly satisfying observations of the birds. Often, such unsatisfactory observations stem from either a fleeting glimpse of a bird or a look at one from a great distance. For instance, I observed Buff-breasted Sandpipers only one time several years ago during a visit to Rankin Bottoms at Douglas Lake. My look at the distant sandpipers through a spotting scope gave me only a blurry image of the birds on mud flats shimmering with waves of August heat. That observation didn’t exactly burn itself with great clarity into my memories. That happens, although thankfully not too often. I usually just patiently await a second sighting of these listed birds and hope that the next encounter will offer a more memorable experience.

That’s what happened a couple of weeks ago when I took my mother, Peggy, to Holston Lake. We visited a boat launch on Highway 421 to scan for some visiting Long-tailed Ducks. My first sighting of Long-tailed Ducks dates back to 2000, when I compiled an admirable list of 220 species of birds in a single year in Northeast Tennessee. I saw several Long-tailed Ducks from the overlook at Boone Dam while birding with the late Howard Langridge. Even peering at the birds through Howard’s powerful Questar spotting scope, it was difficult for me to detect anything significant about the birds. They were little white and black dots bobbing up and down on the choppy waters of the lake. A cold, howling wind and snow flurries also made conditions less than perfect for observing anything at a distance. If my memory can be trusted, those Long-tailed Ducks were one of the last birds we found in 2000. I think we saw them in late November of that year.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service A female Long-tailed Duck is shown on her nest on the Alaskan tundra.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
A female Long-tailed Duck is shown on her nest on the Alaskan tundra.

Since that time, I have followed up on the occasional report of a Long-tailed Duck. These rare visitors pop up at some dependable locations, such as Middlebrook Lake in Bristol and Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake. By the time I have received posts about such sightings, the duck has inevitably flown the coop by the time of my arrival.

The six Long-tailed Ducks at Holston Lake, however, didn’t conform to the usual pattern of a quick visit by a single duck. In fact, they lingered for several days before I even motivated myself to make the long drive from Hampton to Holston Lake to look for them. When my mom and I arrived at the boat launch, we were astounded by the sheer number of Ring-billed Gulls present. There were hundreds of these medium-sized gulls flying over the lake and floating on the water. In addition, we also quickly detected several dozen Buffleheads as we scanned for Long-tailed Ducks. After about 20 minutes of finding only gulls and Buffleheads, I began to feel my luck hadn’t changed at all when it came to Long-tailed Ducks. I began taking photos of some of the cooperative Ring-billed Gulls. Once I had some snapshots of the rollicking gulls, I scanned the lake one more time with my binoculars. While looking in an area I had already scanned, I spotted six ducks that didn’t look at all like Buffleheads. When I got a good look, I realized I had found my target birds. I rushed back to my car and removed my spotting scope from the trunk. It took a few minutes to get the tripod steady. As soon as I focused the scope, I found myself enjoying a fantastic look at two adult male Long-tailed Ducks and four females or perhaps immature specimens.

These six Long-tailed Ducks were part of a massive and unusual movement of this species into Tennessee lakes and reservoirs this winter. Throughout February, it seemed that these ducks were popping up everywhere throughout the Volunteer State. Count yourself fortunate any time you spot a Long-tailed Duck. Of all the diving ducks in North America, it spends more of its time diving beneath the surface of the water than any of its relatives. Experts have determined that this duck spends at least two-thirds of its time diving for food. So, perhaps all those fruitless searches can be explained quite simply. I arrived when the ducks were hungry and not present above the surface!

Early North American naturalist John James Audubon painted the Long-tailed Duck in various life stages, including ducklings.

Early North American naturalist John James Audubon painted the Long-tailed Duck in various life stages, including ducklings.

I read one account about this duck that suggests the term “Long-tailed Duck” is sexist on the account that only the males possess the namesake long tail feathers that provide the inspiration for the common name. I don’t completely buy that argument. Many birds with descriptive names only describe the male bird. Think of the Black-throated Blue Warbler or the Scarlet Tanager, to name a couple. Anyone seeing female Black-throated Blue Warblers or Scarlet Tanagers would have a difficult time trying to match the bird’s name with what they are seeing. A drab brownish warbler and a greenish tanager don’t look at all like their male counterparts.


I spoke by phone this past week with Linda Powell, who lives on nearby Tiger Creek Road between Hampton and Roan Mountain. Linda called me to inform me that her neighbor found an unusual bird after it flew into a fence and was killed. She believed the bird might have been a duck, but she had never seen anything like it. As she described the bird to me, including its black coloration and large, green feet, I began to suspect that the unfortunate bird was probably an American Coot. She also noted that the bird’s bill was light in coloration, which was another indication of a coot. The habitat also seemed favorable for a migrating coot. Although there isn’t a pond in the pasture where the bird was found, there is a wet, marshy area that would probably have been sufficient to attract this bird. The coot was killed after it ran into a section of barbed wire fence. Unfortunately, it probably didn’t see the barbed wire until it was too late.


I made some first spring sightings of a couple of birds this past week. Three European Starlings made an appearance with a flock of American Robins on March 4. A few starlings are usually present from spring to early fall. At least they are never common and don’t extend their visit into the winter season. On March 3, when a light snow covered the ground at my home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton, a female Red-winged Blackbird fed on the ground under my feeders. She was the first of her species to make an appearance this spring and is right on schedule.


Elizabethton resident Rita F. Schuettler‎ also spotted her first Red-winged Blackbird of spring coming to the feeders at 3:50 p.m. on Saturday, March 8. “I heard one last Saturday while working outside,” she added in her Facebook post announcing the sighting. “I heard this one also as I was reloading the feeders. After I was back in the house, he came in! Good to see him!”


I would love to hear from readers. Just post comments on my new blog at You can also reach me on Facebook or send email to Please share the link to the blog with others who might be interested in the topic of birds and birding in Northeast Tennessee.

Increased global effort makes 2014 Great Backyard Bird Count a huge success


Photo by Bryan Stevens
A pair of White-winged Scoters, back, swim on the Watauga River in Elizabethton with three Greater Scaups.

Last month’s Great Backyard Bird Count certainly merited description as a global affair. Checklists came in from more than 103 countries, including Australia, China, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Iceland, India, Kenya, as well as Canada, the United States and Mexico. Birders fanned out at hot spots around the world to count birds from Friday, Feb. 14 to Monday, Feb. 17.

Participants in the 2013 GBBC tallied more than 40 percent of the world’s bird species, with organizers setting a goal to take that figure to 50 percent this year.

A total of 644 species were found within the United States during the 2014 GBBC. California, Texas and Florida led the count with 364, 349 and 305 species found within those states, respectively.

In Tennessee, a total of 139 species were found during the GBBC. That’s a far cry from the 201 species located by sharp-eyed birders in Georgia, 200 species found in North Carolina, 184 species identified in both Alabama and Mississippi, as well as the 180 species counted in Virginia.

Arkansas eked past Tennessee with 141 species found, but Tennesseans did better than Missouri, where GBBC participants tallied 133 species, and Kentucky, where counters found 128 species.

A total of 2,357 checklists were completed by Tennessee GBBC participants, which provided some extensive coverage across the Volunteer State.

With 100 species, Hamilton County proved the most productive Tennessee county, followed closely by Shelby and Knox, with 98 and 97 species, respectively.

Closer to home, results were less dramatic but still important.

In Unicoi County, nine participants, including myself, found 39 species of birds during the four-day count period. In Carter County, 49 species of birds were found by 14 participants, including myself.

I mostly counted at home during this year’s GBBC, but I did make trips to the pond at Erwin Fishery Park and Roan Mountain State Park to expand my birding territory.


As checklists poured in from GBBC participants, a few trends became clear from the early stages of this year’s count. For instance, this year lacked any evidence of a “superflight” of irruptive finches.  Last year the GBBC documented such a phenomenon, which was driven by food shortages in Canada. Ten species of irruptive birds (mostly finches) staged a record invasion in areas where they don’t usually show up.

This year lacked huge numbers of White-winged Crossbills, Red Crossbills, Common and Hoary Redpolls, Pine and Evening grosbeaks, Pine Siskin, Purple Finch, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Bohemian Waxwing, birds that were more numerous farther south last year as well.

On the other hand, the 2014 GBBC has confirmed that this has been a great year for spotting Snowy Owls across the United States.

A massive irruption of Snowy Owls into the northeastern, mid-Atlantic and Great Lakes states had already been producing headlines for the past several months.

Halfway through the GBBC, with 327 checklists reporting a total of 476 Snowy Owls in 20 states and provinces of the United States and Canada, it was clear that many of the Snowy Owls had found their winter homes to their liking. Last year, 392 owls from eight provinces and 14 states were all that were counted during all four days of the 2013 GBBC.

As an illustration of how the owls have moved, in 2013 Canada had 46 percent of the Snowy Owl reports, but this year that number has dropped to 32 percent. Despite this year’s impressive numbers, these large, white owls can still be hard to find. Many GBBC participants succeeded by checking seashores and lakeshores, farm fields and even cities, where the owls often choose a prominent perch with a good view, such as a utility pole or even the roof of a city building.

In much of North America, people (and birds) have been shivering through bone-chilling blasts of arctic air also called the “polar vortex” phenomenon. The impact of this extended cold on birds has beens most apparent in areas such as the Great Lakes, which are almost completely frozen. Only Lake Ontario has any significant open water now and that has resulted in major movements of waterfowl such as ducks, geese and grebes. The GBBC is capturing these patterns well.

For example, the White-winged Scoter is not usually found inland in February, but has been widely reported from interior locations over the past few days as has the Long-tailed Duck. Both these species showed up in unusual numbers in Northeast Tennessee during late January and throughout February.


Photo by Bryan Stevens
These two White-winged Scoters spent several days in late January and early February on the Watauga River near Meredith Cabins in Elizabethton.

A pair of White-winged Scoters spent several days on the Watauga River near Meredith Cabins in late January and early February. My mom and I managed to get good looks at the two ducks on Feb. 1. By climbing down a tangled bank, I also managed to get some decent photographs of them.

White-winged Scoters are large, solidly built ducks. Males can weigh three-and-a-half pounds while females can reach a weight of two-and-a-half pounds. Both sexes have the vivid white wing patch that gives the duck its common name.

This duck nests on freshwater lakes and wetlands in the northwestern interior of the United States and Canada.

Other scoters include Surf Scoter, Velvet Scoter, Black Scoter and Common Scoter. Surf and Black Scoters are also occasional visitors to Northeast Tennessee.

A total of 62 White-winged Scoters were found in Tennessee during this year’s GBBC. Three Surf Scoters were also found.


The scoters are classified with the diving ducks. To learn more about scoters and other diving ducks, here’s a helpful link to a PDF with detailed information about various species, including White-winged Scoter.


According to an update regarding the GBBC posted at, one of the more exciting rare birds reported in this year’s GBBC was spotted across the pond. A Yellow-rumped Warbler has been visiting a feeder in, of all places, central England! This is the first New World warbler ever recorded for the GBBC from the Eastern Hemisphere.


Photo by Bryan Stevens
This Yellow-rumped Warbler was photographed on Fripp Island, S.C., several years ago.

In northeast Tennessee, the Yellow-rumped Warbler, many years ago known as Myrtle’s Warbler, is a common winter bird. Indeed, it is the only warbler that typically attempts to spend the winter months in the eastern United States.


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