Monthly Archives: June 2015

Slowing your pace may bring birding benefits


Photos by Bryan Stevens                                                                    A Great Blue Heron wades in a pond along a woodland park trail.

I enjoyed a recent trip to Pawleys Island, South Carolina, which gave me an opportunity to see some birds rarely encountered here at home. By the end of my seven-day stay, I’d compiled a list of 93 species, most of them seen at Huntington Beach State Park and Brookgreen Gardens. If you ever get an opportunity to visit either of these attractions, I’d encourage you to take it. Even if you’re not a birding enthusiast, the park and gardens are fascinating destinations with a range of activities available to visitors.

For me, it was a week of snapping lots of digital photographs and trying to cover as much ground as possible. Under such circumstances, it’s easy to forget to take time to find a moment to stop and simply enjoy.

I had such a moment present itself while exploring a nature trail within the grounds of Brookgreen Gardens. After taking a couple of photos of a flower blooming in a wetland created from what was once a rice plantation, I filled up my camera’s memory card. I didn’t have a spare card with me. Of course, I was irritated with myself for forgetting to bring a back-up card.

I found a seat on a bench shaded by overhanging trees draped with the ever-present Spanish moss. The bench was positioned to look toward a quiet cove near a deck built over a creek for the purposes of nature observation. I had only been seated for about a moment when a great blue heron landed only a few yards away from me.


A Great Blue Heron is a study in patience as the bird waits for a fish to get within striking distance.

The heron almost immediately noticed my presence. I hardly dared to breathe, let alone move, because I wanted to prolong this close proximity with the large wading bird. Keeping a watch on me, the heron shuffled along the water’s edge. Obviously, the hungry bird was reluctant to cede this prime fishing hole to me— or any other competing angler. As we both relaxed, I found myself fascinated with watching the bird’s careful, almost dainty, steps through the vegetation choking the edge of the deep creek. A few insects buzzed around my head, but I resisted the urge to slap at them.

I also tried to send positive thoughts to the bird. I formed messages in my head that could have come from a sci-fi movie of first contact, such as “I mean you no harm.” I also “informed” the bird I wanted nothing more than to observe, which was technically true since I no longer had the capacity to store any photos I might have taken.

Still wary, the bird began to divide its attention between me and any potential aquatic prey to be found in the water. That’s when I also began to communicate wishes for successful fishing.

I’m not particularly given to these sorts of whimsy, but I felt rewarded that the heron had been willing to trust me so far. I didn’t really need a camera to record for memory the large bird’s actions. On a couple of occasions, the heron stabbed its bill into the water lilies and other aquatic vegetation along the creek’s edge. It even caught a small fish that quickly disappeared down the bird’s long neck and into the waiting stomach.

Even in the shade, it was still rather warm. Welcome breezes would often blow, cooling me and ruffling a few of the heron’s feathers as it continued to explore.

If I had attempted to photograph the scene, the bird would have been frightened and departed. I might have gotten one photo, but the intimate observation would have ended prematurely. This almost happened despite my efforts to remain unobtrusive when I heard voices and realized a couple was walking the same trail.

It was, after all, a public trail open to all visitors at Brookgreen Gardens. I expected that their arrival would spook the bird. I was delighted to be wrong. The bird again shuffled to the far end of the small cove. The couple didn’t even notice the heron until they had almost drawn even with the bird’s position. They remarked on the bird, then continued their walk. I smiled at them as they passed and eventually moved out of sight.

The heron returned. I watched the bird for a few more minutes. Then, rising slowly, I turned and walked off in the same direction as the couple. By now, the heron had moved farther out to the mouth of the cove. In an experiment, I walked to the location where the bird had first landed. I counted out each step in my head. It took 20 steps to move from the bench to the place where the heron had landed on its initial arrival.


A Great Blue Heron perches along the causeway at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

I had been within 20 steps of the graceful, beautiful bird. I’d gotten to share its personal space for a short interval. Of course, the bird has probably grown accustomed to people since Brookgreen Gardens is a well-visited attraction. But even the most “tame” wild birds maintain an inviolable sense of personal space, so I still felt I’d accomplished something with the short interval I enjoyed in the company of the heron.

Keep in mind that everyone enjoys birds for different reasons. Just be sure to take the time every so often to actually get to know the birds that you’re using as a photography subject, adding to a checklist or offering tidbits at a feeder.

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email

Birding group conducts two summer bird counts in Northeast Tennessee


Photos by Bryan Stevens                                      The American Robin, such as the individual pictured here, is a common breeding bird in the Northeast Tennessee counties of Carter and Unicoi.

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, also known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, recently held two summer bird counts.

Long-time compiler Rick Knight said that while additional counts in spring, fall and at Christmas provide data on seasonal bird populations, summer is the most important season for the majority of species.

“It’s breeding season,” he said. “It’s the only time their numbers can increase (not just shift locations).”

Knight noted that although Great Horned Owls have long since fledged and American Goldfinches likely have not begun nesting, most species are actively engaged in reproduction.

Thus, chapter members conduct a summer count to supplement other monitoring activities.  The Breeding Bird Atlas in Tennessee was run 1986-1991 and apparently won’t be repeated anytime soon. The Breeding Bird Survey is a localized survey that is very useful, but with biases (limited to roadsides, often misses some habitats).

“Not knocking either, just supplementing them,” Knight said of the motivation for the club’s conducting of two summer bird counts.

The  22nd annual Carter County summer count was held Saturday, June 13, with 16 observers in five parties. Participants found 116 species. This is slightly above the average of 113 species over the previous 21 years. Count totals during this span have ranged from 105 to 121 species.

Highlights included a female Common Merganser, which has been lingering since spring. It’s also the first June record for this duck in Northeast Tennessee.


Yellow-crowned Night-Herons nest in small numbers along the Watauga River in Carter County.

Other highlights include a non-breeding Common Loon and four Double-crested Cormorants near a new nesting site at Watauga Lake, as well as three Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, two Eurasian Collared-Doves and a single Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Other outstanding finds included three Alder Flycatchers, two Least Flycatchers, a Warbling Vireo and 15 Common Ravens.

Cliff Swallow, with 317 individuals found, was the most numerous swallow and is rapidly increasing its summer nesting population.

Other noteworthy finds, according to Knight, include 10 Red-breasted Nuthatches, three Brown Creepers, nine Winter Wrens, seven Golden-crowned Kinglets, four Hermit Thrushes and 21 species of warbler, as well as two Vesper Sparrows.

The total for the Carter County Summer Bird Count follows:

Canada Goose, 268; Wood Duck, 5; Mallard, 101; Common Merganser, 1; Wild Turkey, 9; Common Loon, 1; Double-crested Cormorant, 4; Great Blue Heron, 28; Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 3; and Green Heron, 6.

Black Vulture, 2; Turkey Vulture, 31; Cooper’s Hawk, 2; Broad-winged Hawk, 6; Red-tailed Hawk, 6; American Kestrel, 1; Killdeer, 9; Rock Pigeon, 53; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 2; and Mourning Dove, 98.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 1; Eastern Screech-Owl, 1; Great Horned Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 3; Common Nighthawk, 3; Chuck-will’s-widow, 1; Whip-poor-will, 14.


An Eastern Kingbird perches on a fence post.

Chimney Swift, 85; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 27; Belted Kingfisher, 10; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 18; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 9; Hairy Woodpecker, 4; Northern Flicker, 8; and Pileated Woodpecker, 14.

Eastern Wood-pewee, 12; Acadian Flycatcher, 26; Alder Flycatcher, 3; Least Flycatcher, 2; Eastern Phoebe, 26; Great Crested Flycatcher, 1; and Eastern Kingbird, 15.

White-eyed Vireo, 3; Yellow-throated Vireo, 2; Blue-headed Vireo, 36; Warbling Vireo, 1; and Red-eyed Vireo, 137.

Blue Jay, 56; American Crow, 153; Common Raven, 15; Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 29; Purple Martin, 20; Tree Swallow, 58; Barn Swallow, 46; and Cliff Swallow, 317.


Eastern Bluebird peeks into the interior of a bird box.

Carolina Chickadee, 49; Tufted Titmouse, 52; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 10; White-breasted Nuthatch, 16; Brown Creeper, 3; House Wren, 36; Winter Wren, 9; and Carolina Wren, 66.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 34; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 7; Eastern Bluebird, 24; Veery, 33; Hermit Thrush, 4; Wood Thrush, 40; American Robin, 350; Gray Catbird, 34; Northern Mockingbird, 30; Brown Thrasher, 13; European Starling, 180; and Cedar Waxwing, 57.

Ovenbird, 49; Worm-eating Warbler, 6; Louisiana Waterthrush, 10; Golden-winged Warbler, 4; Black-and-white Warbler, 23; Swainson’s Warbler, 3; Kentucky Warbler, 1; Common Yellowthroat, 27; Hooded Warbler, 84; American Redstart, 9; Northern Parula, 14; Magnolia Warbler, 2; Blackburnian Warbler, 1; Yellow Warbler, 7; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 29; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 43; Pine Warbler, 5; Yellow-throated Warbler, 8; Black-throated Green Warbler, 31; Canada Warbler, 27; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 5.


Indigo Buntings were common birds on both of the summer counts.

Eastern Towhee, 99; Chipping Sparrow, 53; Field Sparrow, 38; Vesper Sparrow, 2; Song Sparrow, 159; Dark-eyed Junco, 47; Scarlet Tanager, 26; Northern Cardinal, 89; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 11; and Indigo Bunting, 183.

Red-winged Blackbird, 59; Eastern Meadowlark, 18; Common Grackle, 149; Brown-headed Cowbird, 76; Orchard Oriole, 3; and Baltimore Oriole, 1.

House Finch, 24; American Goldfinch, 72; and House Sparrow, 49.


Last year the chapter began a new summer count to gather data on an under-birded area. The second annual Unicoi County summer count was held Saturday, June 6, with 15 observers in five parties. Participants found 110 species, down one from last year’s total of 111.


Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits a feeder.

Highlights included a lingering Ring-necked Duck, two Ruffed Ruffed Grouse, a Bald Eagle, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and 10 Least Flycatchers. Other noteworthy birds included two Warbling Vireos, three Common Ravens, six Red-breasted Nuthatches, three Winter Wrens, five Golden-crowned Kinglets, and two Hermit Thrushes.

In additional, a total of 21 species of warblers were found, including two Golden-winged Warblers, three Swainson’s Warbler and eight Magnolia Warblers. Other highlights included 15 Red Crossbills and a single Pine Siskin.

The total for the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count follows:

Canada Goose, 66; Wood Duck, 37; Mallard, 48; Ring-necked Duck, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 2; Wild Turkey, 33; Great Blue Heron, 4; and Green Heron, 3.

Black Vulture, 4; Turkey Vulture, 24; Bald Eagle, 1; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Broad-winged Hawk, 7; Red-tailed Hawk, 7; and American Kestrel, 2.


A Gray Catbird retreats into a tangle of vegetation.

Killdeer, 11; Rock Pigeon, 78; Mourning Dove, 105; Eastern Screech Owl, 5; Great Horned Owl, 1; and Barred Owl, 3.

Chuck-will’s-widow, 4; Whip-poor-will, 5; Chimney Swift, 46; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 11; Belted Kingfisher, 3; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 11; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 20; Hairy Woodpecker, 5; Northern Flicker, 7; and Pileated Woodpecker, 16.

Eastern Wood-pewee, 16; Acadian Flycatcher, 38, Least Flycatcher, 10; Eastern Phoebe, 40; Great Crested Flycatcher, 1; and Eastern Kingbird, 15.


Red-winged Blackbirds mob an American Crow during the Unicoi Summer Bird Count.

Yellow-throated Vireo, 3; Blue-headed Vireo, 19; Warbling Vireo, 2; and Red-eyed Vireo, 153.

Blue Jay, 55; American Crow, 141; Common Raven, 3; Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 27; Purple Martin, 15; Tree Swallow, 71; Barn Swallow, 77; and Cliff Swallow, 32.

Carolina Chickadee, 55; Tufted Titmouse, 68, Red-breasted Nuthatch, 6; White-breasted Nuthatch, 12; Carolina Wren, 43; House Wren, 29; and Winter Wren, 3.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 28; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 5; Eastern Bluebird, 57; Veery, 26; Hermit Thrush, 2; Wood Thrush, 37; American Robin, 296;  Gray Catbird, 27; Northern Mockingbird, 16; Brown Thrasher, 13; European Starling, 371; and Cedar Waxwing, 66.

Ovenbird, 67; Worm-eating Warbler, 9; Louisiana Waterthrush, 7; Golden-winged Warbler, 2; Black-and-white Warbler, 19; Swainson’s Warbler, 3; Kentucky Warbler, 2; Common Yellowthroat, 3; Hooded Warbler, 74; American Redstart, 10; Northern Parula, 15; Magnolia Warbler, 8; Blackburnian Warbler, 3; Yellow Warbler, 3; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 19; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 21; Yellow-throated Warbler, 8; Prairie Warbler, 5; Black-throated Green Warbler, 37; Canada Warbler, 17; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 6.


Northern Cardinal visits a feeder for sunflower seeds.

Eastern Towhee, 85; Chipping Sparrow, 39; Field Sparrow, 7; Song Sparrow, 152; Dark-eyed Junco, 39; Scarlet Tanager, 31; Northern Cardinal, 78; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 5; and Indigo Bunting, 152.

Red-winged Blackbird, 47; Eastern Meadowlark, 9; Common Grackle, 92; Brown-headed Cowbird, 20; Orchard Oriole, 4; and Baltimore Oriole, 1.

House Finch, 17; Red Crossbill, 15; Pine Siskin, 1; American Goldfinch, 96; and House Sparrow, 27.


Participants (on one or both counts) included Jim Anderson, Rob Armistead, Rob Biller, Monica Black, Rick Blanton, Jay and Deb Campbell, Ron Carrico, Glen Eller, Harry Lee Farthing, Jacki Hinshaw, Rick Knight, Richard Lewis, Joe McGuiness, Tom and Cathy McNeil, Charles Moore, Brookie and Jean Potter, Peter Range, Bryan Stevens, Peggy Stevens, Kim Stroud and Mary Anna Wheat.  In addition, an incidental observation was received from Adam Campbell.


An American Goldfinch perched near a feeder.

Amazing dragonflies share skies with birds, other winged things

I am on vacation in Atlanta, Georgia, this weekend, so here are some recent photos of dragonflies that I have taken so far this spring.


Slaty Skimmer selects a delicate perch at the water’s edge.


This Painted Skimmer was a new visitor to the fish pond.


Lily pads are popular resting spots and excellent for basking in the sun.


Eastern Pond Hawk chooses a perch just above the water’s surface.


Widow Skimmers are one of the more vibrant dragonflies at the pond. They will often perch a good distance away from the water.


Mating Eastern Pondhawks at the fish pond.


Spangled Skimmer is an attractive dragonfly.


The aptly named 12-Spotted Skimmer is an unmistakable dragonfly.


Some dragonflies prefer a more vertical perch.


Female Common Whitetail Skimmer warms herself on the gravels heated by the sunshine.



Blue Dasher photographed during a recent trip to South Carolina.

Blue Dasher photographed during a recent trip to South Carolina.


The Fragile Forktail is a common damselfly at the fish pond.


Common Whitetail Skimmer perched on a branch at the fish pond.


Probably a Needham’s Skimmer photographed during a recent visit to Pawleys Island, South Carolina.


Yellow-breasted chat stands apart from other warblers

I’ve always been a warbler fan, celebrating every opportunity that comes my way for seeing these colorful, energetic feathered sprites. In early May I got to introduce some other bird enthusiasts to some of our warblers during a bird walk at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Yellow-breasted chat, one of the warblers observed during the morning stroll, always stands out from the rest of the flock.


Photo by Roy Knispel                                            Regarded as the world’s largest warbler, the yellow-breasted chat is a noisy oddball among this family of New World birds.

The Yellow-breasted Chat has long held a unique distinction among the New World wood-warblers as the largest member of this diverse family of neotropical birds. Some experts, however, have always questioned whether the Yellow-breasted Chat is truly a warbler. The jury, based on my research, is apparently still out. Personally, I hope the chat continues as a member of the warbler clan because what family doesn’t need its big, goofy oddball? If nothing else, the yellow-breasted chat is truly an the odd bird out among the little birds known as warblers that spend most of their time constantly on the move, flitting from branch to branch in hyperactive bursts of activity.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      A Yellow-breasted Chat perched atop a tree to survey its surroundings.

Yellow-breasted chats aren’t more sedate than other warblers, but they don’t dart about in the treetops in the same way as might a Northern parula or blackpoll warbler. During the spring ritual of attracting a mate, the males are obsessed with constant singing and performing. The performance portion of the program consists of awkward, drooping flights into the open before plunging back into thick cover. Males will also select an elevated perch in the open to proclaim their availability through song for any listening females.

There are many other ways they stand out on the warbler family tree. For instance, yellow-breasted chats are significantly bigger than all other warblers, reaching a length of 7.5 inches with a wingspan of almost 10 inches. The two sexes look alike, which is something else that separates them from many, but not all, warblers, which are generally known for the differences in appearance between males and females. The yellow-breasted chat has olive-green upperparts with white bellies and bright yellow throats and breasts. These chats also have long tails and heavy bills. A prominent characteristic is a spectacle-shaped white eye-ring.

Plate-137-Yellow-breasted-Chat-final 2

Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted this family group of Yellow-breasted Chats.

I have observed yellow-breasted chats in many locations in the region, but during my early years birding this was a very elusive bird for me. It took me a couple of years to get my first satisfactory look at this interesting bird. Chats prefer habitats such as dense thickets and other underbrush, which offers remarkable concealment from prying eyes.

Chats are loud birds at most times, producing a variety of odd vocalizations, which means they are often heard before they are seen. The online Audubon Guide to North American Birds describes these sounds as “a bizarre series of hoots, whistles, and clucks, coming from the briar tangles” and labels them a reliable means for determining the presence of a yellow-breasted chat. By learning these vocalizations, you’ll increase the chances of finding one of these birds during time spent outdoors.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                              Along with such birds as Brown Thrashers, pictured, Yellow-breasted Chats prefer thickets and other brushy, dense habitats.

The chat’s habitat preferences and its repertoire of vocalizations makes it easy to associate these birds with others that share the same dense, brushy habitats and a penchant for making unusual vocalizations. Birds often found in proximity to chats include brown thrashers, gray catbirds, white-eyed vireos and Eastern towhees.

Habitat loss has resulted in a steady decline of yellow-breasted chats in some parts of their range. It is a widely distributed bird, spending the nesting season from southern Canada to Mexico. Most chats retreat to Mexico and Central America for the winter months. This chat mostly feeds on insects, supplementing its diet with berries that ripen during the summer months.


The Yellow-breasted Chat is considered the world’s largest warbler.

Female chats usually lay three to four eggs, but both parents care for the young. Young chats are usually ready to leave the nest only eight days after hatching, but they will remain dependent on their parents for food for a couple of weeks. Chats usually nest twice each during the nesting season.

I’ve only observed a yellow-breasted chat on one occasion at my home. That individual, a fall migrant, was a delightful surprise. The yellow-breasted chat is usually a bird that I have to make an attempt to find. It’s worth the effort to gain a good look at this big, brash member of the warbler clan.

Three other chats, all birds of tropical regions, were moved out of the warbler clan in 2009 by the American Ornithologists’ Union. Experts now believe that the rose-breasted chat of South America, the gray-throated chat of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize and the red-breasted chat of the Pacific slope of Mexico are more closely related to cardinals and tanagers than warblers. The AOU, should it one day make that decision for the yellow-breasted chat, is likely to classify this oddball bird as a member of the Cardinalidae family of birds.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                            Usually retiring and reclusive, the nesting season makes male Yellow-breasted Chats seek elevated perches for producing an array of unusual vocalizations.