Monthly Archives: August 2015

Annual rally will feature programs by educators from Cornell, ETSU



A Common Wood-Nymph photographed in late August in Roan Mountain State Park.

For many naturalists in Northeast Tennessee, heading to Roan Mountain has become an annual trek every September.

Gary Barrigar, long-time director of the Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally, knows that after more than half a century the annual event has become a tradition for many people. For 53 years the Fall Naturalists’ Rally has drawn nature enthusiasts from far and wide to Roan Mountain on the weekend after Labor Day.Top naturalists volunteer their time and energy to make the event both enjoyable and educational for people of all ages.


Charles Smith

Barrigar said this year’s fall rally will continue to celebrate the natural world by providing two top speakers, retired Cornell naturalist and educator Charles R. Smith and T.J. Jones, an ETSU Behavioral Ecology, Neuroethology and Science educator.


Because of the continued support of the Friends of Roan Mountain, all the Naturalists’ Rallies have the resources they need to prosper and grow and the FORM provides support for research and restoration projects on the Roan. Consider joining the Friends of Roan Mountain, if you are not a member. Members get free admission to all Naturalists’ Rally events and our newsletter, “Friends of Roan Mountain.”


An Eastern Comma suns near a picnic shelter in Roan Mountain State Park.

Barrigar added that many thanks are due to Roan Mountain State Park for its long standing support of the Naturalists’ Rallies, as well as the speakers and the trip leaders who donate their time and expertise.

Evening and lunch programs will take place in Roan Mountain State Park’s Conference Center and field trips will leave from the field on the left before the cabins in the park.

Charles R. Smith will present “This View of Life,” the program for Friday evening. Charles R. “Charlie” Smith was born and raised in Carter County, near Milligan College. He is a naturalist, educator, and conservationist who lives with his wife, Claudia Melin, and their Border Terrier, Brodie, near Ithaca, N.Y. His serious study of natural history did not begin until he was 15 years old, when he joined the Tennessee Ornithological Society, after studying birds on his own for several years.



Fall rallies offer hikes on a variety of topics from salamanders and mushrooms to butterflies and birds.

About that time, he decided he wanted to attend Cornell University. He earned his undergraduate degree at East Tennessee State University, with a double major in botany and zoology and minor studies in geology, meteorology, physical geography, and photography. Graduate studies at Cornell University concluded with his Ph.D. in wildlife ecology. He retired in 2012 from Cornell University, where he served in various administrative, research, and teaching capacities, including Executive Director of the Laboratory of Ornithology, for nearly 40 years. As an advisor and collaborator on science-based conservation, Smith has worked with a number of state and federal agencies. Though an ornithologist for most of his career, his current interests as a naturalist include studying dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, and vascular plants; and nature photography. Some of his photographs of butterflies were published in Smokies Life magazine in 2012. Currently he is working with a former student on a field guide to the butterflies of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the southern Appalachians.

Smith offered his own description for the yearly brochure put out by organizers of the rally to promote his Friday evening program. “A naturalist can be described as a person whose curiosity about nature is boundless,” he said. “This presentation will examine the history, philosophy, and practice of natural history studies from a number of perspectives.”

Now is a great time to be a naturalist, according to Smith.

“Today, we have more good field guides to help us identify plants and animals than ever before,” he added. “With time, persistence, and self-discipline, detailed knowledge of a group of plants or animals is possible for most of us.”

In addition to the personal satisfaction they provide, Smith noted that natural history studies can guide conservation.


Cape May atop a spruce tree in Hampton, Tennessee, during fall migration.

“Unless we know what a plant or animal is, where it is found, and how much of it we have, preserving and protecting it can be difficult, if not impossible,” he explained. “We can go beyond just knowing what it is, however, to understanding how plants and animals live, what are their needs, and how we might contribute to their long-term conservation for future generations to enjoy and appreciate.”

He is disappointed by one recent trend in the field of science.

“Ironically, at a time when knowledge and understanding of the needs of plants and animals is more important than ever, it is disappointing that colleges and universities are abandoning the teaching of natural history in the field, and few real field biologists are being schooled,” he said.

Smith said his talk will offer suggestions to help attendees become better naturalists or even be inspired to become a new naturalist. Some of Smith’s photographs will be used to illustrate the talk, and the origin of the title, “This View of Life,” will be revealed at the end of the presentation.



Thomas “T.J.” Jones

Thomas “T.J.” Jones will present “Elegance and Efficiency: Spiders of Southern Appalachia” as the Saturday evening program. Jones also elaborated on his program for the annual brochure on the rally.

“When I was very young I remember my mother carefully catching a spider that had gotten into the house and tossing it onto the back patio, only to have a bird immediately fly down and carry it off.”

The incident was traumatic for a young boy. “My mother comforted me by explaining that the bird was probably going to use it to feed its babies,” he remembered. “Perhaps that was foreshadowing of my future career studying how spiders negotiate the challenges of world in which they are both predators and prey. I have always been fascinated by animal behavior, and through high school and college worked at zoos, aquariums, and even Sea World.”

Jones has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Cleveland State University, where he did research on the morphology of ciliated protists and physiological ecology of garter snakes.

“From there I went on to get a PhD from Ohio State University studying the evolution of social behavior in spiders. I continued that work as a post-doc at The University of Tennessee which is where I fell in love with the southern Appalachians, and I am now on the faculty at East Tennessee State University.”

Jones said his research group takes an integrated approach to studying aggression-related behaviors in spiders.
“We are studying how brain chemistry and circulating hormones regulate behaviors, and how these behaviors affect the spider’s success in nature,” he explained. “We currently have projects exploring social behavior, circadian rhythm, and the effect of environmental contaminates on behavior.


Spiders will provide the focus for the Saturday evening program by T.J. Jones.

He offered a brief description of his program, which is admittedly about a creature that gives some people the shivers.
“Some say they are beautiful, some say they are terrifying, but most would agree that spiders are fascinating,” Jones said. “Spiders are among the oldest and most diverse group of predators; this is because they are extremely good at what they do.”

His evening program will provide general information on the biology and ecology of spiders including how they use their key adaptations of silk and venom. He will discuss species commonly found in southern Appalachia, including some interesting species which are only found here. Along with photos, there will be live specimens on hand and a guided night hike to follow.

“My hope is that the program will foster appreciation, and perhaps love, for this amazing group of animals,” Jones said.


An American Redstart photographed in Hampton, Tennessee, during fall migration.

Buffet meals will be served on Friday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m., followed by the evening programs. Reservations are necessary for the meals, which cost $9.50 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under. Deadline for reservations is Tuesday, Sept. 8. For more information, call Barrigar at 423-543-7576 or email him at

Mail prepaid meal reservations to: Nancy Barrigar, Treasurer, 708 Allen Avenue, Elizabethton, TN 37643.

For a detailed schedule of hikes, programs and other rally activities, visit

Vireo sighting helps kick off fall migration

If pressed to give a date to the start of this year’s fall migration, I would choose Aug. 20. It’s the day I finally added a new bird to my 2015 yard list after being stuck at No. 59 since June 2 when I heard a Yellow-billed Cuckoo calling from the woods behind my house. Needless to say, the months of June and July had not been very productive for adding new species to my list.

Yard Bird No. 60 turned out to be a White-eyed Vireo, which is not a summer nesting bird in my yard. Migrating White-eyed Vireos have often made visits in the past, so I was glad to welcome this species and add it to my list. 


Photo Courtesy of Roy Knispel                                   The White-eyed Vireo gets its name from the white iris of its eye.

On the same evening I observed the vireo, I also watched Ruby-throated Hummingbirds chase Blue-gray Gnatcatchers through the thin branches of a dead spruce tree. I also took delight in observing a family of Northern Cardinals — father, mother and two young birds — visit the feeders. 
Known by the scientific name, Vireo griseus, the White-eyed Vireo is a member of a family of songbirds with several species that make their home in the region. This vireo gets its common name from the fact that it does indeed have white eyes.
Unlike some of its treetop-dwelling relatives, the White-eyed Vireo prefers to stay close to the ground in thickets and dense shrubbery. I often find these birds in the same habitats favored by such birds as Yellow-breasted Chat and Brown Thrasher. Like these larger birds, the White-eyed Vireo is a very vocal bird. The security of thick, inaccessible brushy habitats must give these birds, which are only a little more than five inches long, the confidence to go about their lives in a brash, noisy manner. 
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. The White-eyed Vireo adds some dull yellow, gray and white feathers to the mix in a distinctive pattern that should easily separate this bird from other vireos. 
White-eyed Vireos spend the summer nesting season in the eastern United States south of a line extending from eastern Nebraska across Indiana and New York. Each fall, they retreat to spend the winter in locales ranging from the extreme southeastern United States through Central America. Some of these vireos also winter on Caribbean islands such as Cuba.

There is an endangered vireo, the black-capped vireo, a bird with a limited breeding range in Texas. Black-capped vireos numbers have dwindled to perilous levels due to the loss of low growing woody cover these birds need for breeding purposes. The cause of the loss of habitat varies, but includes the clearance of land for livestock as well as overgrazing by livestock and deer. In the past, fires regularly opened up such habitats. Due to modern fire control practices, such fires are no longer a natural occurrence. Since this species is already endangered, brown-headed cowbirds have also contributed to the problem since the cowbirds slip their own eggs into the nests of black-capped vireos.

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When early naturalist John James Audubon painted the White-eyed Vireo, he knew it by the name “White-eyed Flycatcher.”

Two others, Bell’s vireo and gray vireo, are identified as species of concern on the Audubon Watchlist. This listing spotlights species that may bear intense scrutiny to make certain they don’t become endangered.
Other vireos that can be found in the United States, for at least part of the year, include Philadelphia vireo, plumbeous vireo and Cassin’s vireo. A specialty of Florida is the black-whiskered vireo. 
Many species of vireo are also found in the islands of the Caribbean, including Jamaican vireo, Cuban vireo and Puerto Rican vireo. Some of the more colorful common names for vireos include the yellow-green 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 the lemon-chested greenlet, green shrike-vireo and the black-bellied peppershrike.

Many vireos construct deep cup- or basket-shaped nests, often in the higher branches of tall trees. Male and female share incubation duties and work together to feed their young. 


Photo by Bryan Stevens                              Blue-gray Gnatcatcher have been abundant again, another sign of the approaching fall migration.

Most vireos feed on in­sects during their summer stay north of the border. However, during migration they often feed on berries and continue to do so on their wintering grounds. Experts have noted that the White-throated Vireo is particularly fond of gumbo-limbo seeds. This tropical tree can be found from southern Florida and Mexico, as well as throughout the Caribbean and in South America in Brazil and Venezuela.
To learn more about birds, birding and other topics from the natural world, be sure to friend Bryan Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email him at

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                              A dragonfly sighting that turned out to be a Ruby Meadowhawk is another sign that the fall migration season is at hand.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                       A Common Buckeye seeks nutrients in damp mud on a recent August afternoon.

Waterfowl also known as ‘summer duck’ in much of the South


Photos by Bryan Stevens                                                       A Wood Duck perches on a log in a pond in Erwin, Tennessee.

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


The wood duck is also known as the “summer duck” across much of the southeast, where it is the only wild nesting duck.

The small wood duck is a species of waterfowl that can be found, in suitable habitat, during the nesting season. Unlike Canada geese and mallards, which historically never nested in the region until recent decades, the wood duck is 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.


A male Wood Duck is accompanied by two Mallards. The Wood Duck is considered one of North America’s most colorful ducks.

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.


The male Wood Duck, such as this one on a pond in Hampton, Tennessee, is much more colorful than the female of the species.

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.


John James Audubon painted Wood Ducks to emphasize their comfort in perching in trees.

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.


A young Wood Duck perches by a pond’s edge in a small-town park.

The majority of a wood duck’s diet consists of vegetable matter. In autumn, I’ve observed these ducks foraging with enthusiasm for acorns. The wood duck, and ducklings in particular, also feed on some insects and other small invertebrates.

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.


A napping Wood Duck perches on one leg upon a submerged log.

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. 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.


A Wood Duck takes a late summer swim.


Wood Ducks often have a favorite log where they rest and relax when not foraging for food.


A trio of Wood Ducks in their summer plumage.

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A male and female Wood Duck makes a stop at a pond in Hampton, Tennessee, during spring migration.


The Wood Duck, a favorite species of waterfowl for many people, is also known as the “Summer Duck” throughout much of its range.


Wood Ducks molt their feathers during the summer months, giving them a less gaudy appearance for a brief time.


Young Wood Ducks will slowly acquire their adult plumage as summer advances to fall and winter.


Rescued insect turns out to be one of region’s largest moths



Photos by Bryan Stevens                                                                The Polyphemus Moth rode to safety in the inside of an automobile after being rescued from a busy parking lot.

My mom and I were heading toward the drive-thru at McDonald’s in Erwin when I saw something fluttering across the asphalt of the parking lot. The creature was brown and as big as a small bird — it even had wings! But, it wasn’t a bird. I realized that I was watching one of the largest of our native moths.

It was a little surprising to find the moth in the middle of a parking lot in the afternoon on a hot summer day. I pulled my vehicle into a parking space and captured the moth without too much difficulty. If left in the parking lot, the moth would likely have been run over. Although my mom agreed with the rescue — in theory — she wasn’t certain about sharing the car with a large, winged insect. After some persuasion, she accepted that the moth was absolutely harmless.

Specifically, the large insect was a Polyphemus Moth, which is one of the biggest moths in the United States. These large moths often attain a wingspan of five and a half inches.


The rescued Polyphemus Moth clings to the side of a McDonald’s paper bag.

Our rescued moth clung to the side of a McDonald’s paper bag that held one of the sandwiches in our order for the entire trip home. Once we arrived, I released the moth on a small oak-leaf hydrangea, took a few more photos and was pleased to see the large insect fly to freedom. I lost track of the moth once it landed in the thick branches of a yew tree. I was happy to secure the impressive moth a little more time to fly and perhaps even attract a mate.

The brownish-yellow wings of the Polyphemus Moth show wavy, black and white lines. Each forewing is also decorated with a small, mostly yellow eyespot, as well as larger blue, black, and yellow eyespots on the hindwings. The underside of the moth’s wings look like dead leaves, which provides excellent protective camouflage.

The eyespots are important in warding off potential predators. When a Polyphemus Moth spreads its wings, the eyespots resemble the large eyes of owls and other predatory birds. This display may be more than enough to discourage many predators, which can include mice, squirrels and small birds.


The rescued Polyphemus Moth rests on the leaves of an oak-leaf hydrangea. This large moth is a member of the family of “giant silkworm moths.”

Like most moths, they are usually nocturnal, which makes me wonder what happened to the moth I rescued to have it fluttering around on a sunny afternoon. After dark, bats are major predators on these large moths. Polyphemus Moths are usually found in forests, but they are also present in such habitats as marshes and parks.

Like all moths and butterflies, the Polyphemus Moth starts life as a caterpillar. Host plants fed upon by the caterpillars of this species include many trees and shrubs, including oaks, maples, pines, birches, American hornbeam, hawthorns, American beech, ash, witch hazel, black walnut, yellow poplar, black cherry, quaking aspen, elderberry, alders, sassafras, blueberries, grapes, willows, hickories, elms, chestnuts and American sycamore.


The rescued Polyphemus Moth got a ride to safety.

Polyphemus caterpillars grow rapidly as they feed on the leaves of any of these host plants. As they grow, they will molt their skin four times. After the final molt, the caterpillar will fold a leaf around itself to enclose and protect its silken cocoon.

Caterpillars that enter a cocoon early in the season will emerge during the summer months as moths. However, caterpillars that proceed to the cocoon stage of their life cycle in late summer or early fall will spend the winter months inside this silken enclosure. In such cases, adult moths will not emerge until the following spring, usually in May.

Adult Polyphemus Moths do not feed. Their only focus during the entirety of their short lives as moths are to find mates and reproduce. Female moths attract mates with pheromones, which are chemicals emitted by a creature that triggers a social response in members of the same species. Male moths even have specialized feathery antennae to help them detect the pheromones released by females.cyclop10c 2

The moth is named for Polyphemus, one of the prominent giant Cyclopes in Greek mythology. Captured by the enormous Cyclops, Greek hero Odysseus and his men blinded the giant’s one eye before escaping his cave.

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The Pandora sphinx moth, also called the Pandorus Sphinx Moth, is a North American moth in the Sphingidae family. It is a large, greenish gray moth, but it isn’t closely related to the “giant silkworm moths.”

The Polyphemus moth is a member of the family Saturniidae, also known as “the giant silk moths.” Other well known moths in this family include the Luna Moth, Imperial Moth, Promethea Moth, and Regal Moth.


In order to learn more about birds, birding and various other topics related to the natural world, friend Bryan Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email him at

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This Polyphemus Moth was photographed at Walt Disney World Resorts in Florida in 2007.

Bird nesting habits are incredibly varied


Photo by USF&WS                                                A hatchling bird in the safety of its nest.

For most of our birds, the nesting season is winding down. A few species, like Cedar Waxwing and American Goldfinch, are just now starting to think about nesting, but most birds have already finished with the work of ensuring a new generation of their species.

The majority of our common backyard birds build the traditional “cup-shaped” nest that is tucked away in a shrub or the fork of a tree. Birds that build nests in such a fashion include everything from Blue-grey Gnatcatchers and Scarlet Tanagers to Indigo Buntings and American Goldfinches.



Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A Red-bellied Woodpecker peeks from its nesting cavity.

Other birds, such as Eastern Bluebirds and Tree Swallows, accept human-provided nesting boxes. In the past, however, these birds relied on natural cavities, such as a rotten knothole in a tree’s trunk or a weathered fence post that had gone hollow.


The list of these cavity-nesting birds expands to also include Eastern Screech-owl and Great Crested Flycatcher as well as Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse.


Most of the birds I have mentioned so far cannot excavate their own nesting cavities. Some birds, however, are better equipped than others at excavating nesting chambers in everything from tree trunks to river banks. Pileated Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Belted Kingfishers and Northern Flickers create their own nesting cavities.


Around the world, birds engage in a variety of nest-building strategies.


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Male Great Hornbills seal their mates into a nesting chamber until their eggs hatch.

Cavity-nesting offers an added degree of protection compered to an exposed and vulnerable cup nest tucked in a hedge or dense shrub. Some birds have taken cavity-nesting practices to the extreme. For instance, the female Great Hornbill builds her nest in the hollow centers of large tree trunks, and the opening is sealed with a plaster made up mainly of mud, droppings and fruit pulp. She remains imprisoned in her nest until the chicks are semideveloped, relying on the male to bring her food. During this period the female undergoes a complete molt. The young squabs are devoid of feathers and appear very plump. She is fed by her mate through a slit in the seal. The clutch consists of one or two eggs she incubates for 38-40 days. Once the female emerges out of the nest, it is sealed again by the chicks. In some hornbill species, the young depart with their mother, and are tended outside of the former nesting cavity by both parents. The Great Hornbill resides in the forests of India, the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, Indonesia. There are about 55 species in the hornbill family, which ranges through Africa, Asia and some of the islands of Melanesia.

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Megapodes lay eggs in large mounds, trusting environmental temperatures to incubate them.

Megapodes — also known as “incubator birds” or “moundbuilders” — do not incubate their eggs with their body heat as other birds do, but bury them. Their eggs are unique in having a large yolk, making up 50-70 percent of the weight of the egg. They are best known for building massive nest-mounds of decaying vegetation, which the male attends, adding or removing litter to regulate the internal heat while the eggs hatch. This method of incubation is something practiced by some reptiles, including crocodiles and alligators, but it is definitely unusual among birds. Once hatched, young birds are fully feathered and active, already able to fly and live without any care or assistance from their parents. Two of the better-known species, both from Australia, are the Malleefowl and the Australian Brush-turkey. There are about 20 species of birds classified as Megapodes, and they are concentrated in the Australasian region, including islands in the western Pacific, Australia, New Guinea and the islands of Indonesia. They also occur on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal.


Photo by USF&WS                                                              White Terns build no nest, merely laying their egg on a branch or, in this case, on a railing.

The White Tern is a small seabird found across the tropical oceans of the world. Although other terns build nests, the White Tern no longer bothers to construct even a rudimentary nest. Instead, the female lays a single egg on bare branches or in a small fork in a tree. Nothing else is added to the location where the egg is deposited. The behavior is not typical of other terns, which generally nest on the ground and construct the nest of such materials as shells and other seashore debris. Of course, both the eggs and chicks of White Terns are vulnerable to becoming dislodged by heavy winds. Newly-hatched chicks have well developed feet to hang on to their precarious nesting site with.


Photo by USF&WS              Albatrosses, such as these Laysan Albatrosses, nest in communal colonies. Other birds, such as the Sociable Weaver, also nest in communal conditions.

The sparrow-sized Sociable Weaver (Philetairus socius) of Africa enjoys company, which explains how such a small bird constructs a huge nest. Actually, many of these birds working together construct a huge structure — sometimes described as similar to a bale of hay — that hangs from sturdy trees and other tall structures. Such a “compound nest” is rather rare among birds. The communal nests built by Sociable Weavers can house 100 pairs of birds and are quite spectacular. They are also considered the largest bird-built structures in the world. Other birds also benefit from these huge structures, which are built mostly of grass and sticks. Other small birds may also nest or roost in the structure, and large birds, such as vultures, have been known to build their own nests on top of these compound nests. Other species of weavers also build communal nests, but their efforts are not quite as impressive as those constructed by the Sociable Weaver.


Photo by USF&WS A colony of nesting albatrosses consists of individuals able to tolerate very defined senses of personal space.

The most unusual nest I’ve observed personally was that of a Killdeer built in the parking lot of a local mobile home dealership. The Killdeer is a type of plover, a family of birds belonging to the group known as shorebirds. The female Killdeer will locate a shallow depression on the ground that can be lined with grass, weeds, bark, shells or rocks to form a crude nest. The Killdeer will apparently make use of any material readily available to line their nests. The particular Killdeer nesting in the gravel parking lot of the mobile home dealership had collected discarded cigarette butts to line her nest, which contained the usual four eggs. Her efforts are a testament to the ingenuity of some of our feathered friends. As far as I know, her nest succeeded, and she and her mate reared four young Killdeer. I always joke when telling this story that the young birds may have been born with a nicotine addiction.