Monthly Archives: March 2016

At age 65, Wisdom is a mother yet again

For about a decade, I have been following the story of one of nature’s oldest mother birds. I’ll share it with you for my Easter 2016 post.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                      Wisdom is shown with a chick born in 2011. Mother and chick survived a powerful tsunami that claimed the lives of other albatrosses, both adults and chicks.

The oldest known breeding bird in the wild, a Laysan albatross named Wisdom – she’s at least 65 years old – became a mother again last month. Wisdom lives with her mate, Akeakamai, at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, part of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

The chick was observed still coming out of its shell on February 1, 2016, and days later was named Kukini, which is a Hawaiian word for messenger. Wisdom’s mate had been on the nest since Jan. 20 when he took over incubation duties while Wisdom headed out to sea. Wisdom returned just as the Super Bowl ended with her belly full. Shortly after Wisdom’s return, Wisdom’s mate was on the march towards the shoreline and immediately took flight in search of food.

“Wisdom is an iconic symbol of inspiration and hope,” noted Refuge Manager Robert Peyton in a press release on the subject of the hatching of Wisdom’s latest chick.

Peyton explained that from a scientific perspective, albatrosses are a critical indicator species for the world’s oceans that sustain millions of human beings as well. In the case of Wisdom, she is breaking longevity records of previously banded birds by at least a decade.

Laysan_albatross_nesting_on_Eastern_Island (1)

Photo by David Patte/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service       Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is home to the largest colony of albatrosses in the world.

“With over a million albatrosses on Midway Atoll alone, this shows just how much is left to learn about the natural world around us,” Peyton said.

The story of this amazing bird is even more astonishing given her maternal success. Wisdom has raised at least eight chicks since 2006, and as many as 40 in her lifetime. Just as astounding, she has likely flown over three million miles since she was first tagged on Midway Atoll in 1956.

To put things in perspective, consider this statement by Bruce Peterjohn, Chief of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center’s National Bird Banding Laboratory.

“That is up to six trips from the Earth to the Moon and back again,” he noted “What is also miraculous is that biologist Chandler Robbins, who banded her as a breeding adult in 1956 on Midway Atoll, sighted her 46 years later near the same nesting location.” Today, at the age of 97, Robbins still comes to work on occasion doing what he loves to do.

Wisdom’s chick is not the only bird in town. Albatrosses arrive on Midway Atoll in late November by the hundreds of thousands. In December U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers counted 470,000 active nests across the entire atoll – since each nest represents two adults, the total breeding population at Midway is 940,000. A low estimate of Midway’s overall population, this number doesn’t account for the non-breeders present in the colony, resting, searching for a mate, and practicing their mating dance skills.

Wisdom has nested since the late 1950s on Midway’s Eastern Island behind Bravo Barracks. She was banded as a nesting adult in the same location by Robbins in December 1956. Robbins estimated that she was a minimum of five years old at the time. Another albatross — a Northern Royal Albatross that lived on the South Island of New Zealand and was named “Grandma” — reached a banded age of 51.5 years and probable actual age of 61 years or more. Wisdom and her mate have successfully fledged a chick annually in recent years. She is the world’s oldest Laysan albatross. If human, she would be approaching senior citizen status today.


Photo by Pete Leary/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                         Both adults and chicks got stuck in debris and had to be rescued in the wake of the huge tsunami that washed over the island back in 2011.

Wisdom, as well as her chick, survived the same tsunami that laid waste to much of Japan on March 10, 2011. FWS released an official announcement five days after the natural catastrophe stating that surveys of the three islands revealed that more than 110,000 albatross chicks – about 22 percent of that year’s albatross production – were lost as a result of the tsunami and two severe winter storms that hit in January and February. At least 2,000 adults also died.

Even through such setbacks, Wisdom has thrived. She is one very special creature. FWS personnel who have worked on these islands to monitor albatross and other bird populations cherish her, and not only because she has provided valuable information about the longevity of these majestic birds. Wisdom weighs only eight pounds, but she has been producing chicks to increase the population of her kind for half a century.



Photo by Pete Leary/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service  This fortunate Laysan albatross chick survived the tsunami that surged over the island back in 2011.

The Laysan Albatross, Phoebastria immutabilis, is a large seabird that ranges across the North Pacific. Compared to other relatives in the albatross family, the Laysan Albatross is a small bird. It is the second most common seabird in the Hawaiian Islands, with an estimated population of 2.5 million birds. Although numbers are thought to be increasing, the Laysan Albatross has not recovered from extensive hunting that drastically reduced the population in the early 1900s.


If you would like to see a video of a Laysan albatross feeding a chick, visit


New bird arrivals signal spring’s imminent approach


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A Ring-necked Duck visits a pond at Erwin Fishery Park.

The recent extremely warm weather — well, warm for the month of March — may have finally broken the back of winter. Signs of spring are becoming easier to detect, especially among our feathered friends. The pond at Erwin Fishery Park had been a great location to view migrating waterfowl for the past few weeks, but most of the visiting ducks — redheads, ring-necked ducks and American wigeon — appear to have concluded their late-winter visit.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A raft of Redheads floats on the surface of the pond at Erwin Fishery Park in Unicoi County, Tennessee.

Signs of spring are becoming easier to detect, especially among our feathered friends. I’ve heard from numerous readers about flocks of American robins making welcome visits. While not the only harbinger of spring among our birds, robins are probably foremost among the birds we like to associate with the arrival of spring weather. The numerous large flocks of robins I observed during the last couple of weeks of February and early March, however, consisted mostly of birds coping with heavy snowfalls.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                American robins are a familiar sight on lawns in spring. While the robin is widely believed to be a harbinger of spring, many other birds can also lay claim to this distinction.

The month of March is usually a time of transition, with many winter birds making ready to depart as some of our summer favorites return from their more southern wintering grounds. At home, I have noted the spring arrivals of Eastern phoebes and belted kingfishers. On March 6, a wary pair of wood ducks made a brief visit to the fish pond on my property. A couple of other bird species will probably make their appearance at some point in March. At my home, brown thrashers, tree swallows and red-winged blackbirds have returned and are already making themselves comfortable. These species and a handful of others are usually in the vanguard of spring arrivals. Let me know what you’re seeing as spring advances. I always enjoy hearing from readers.

Among the readers who have written to me recently was Shelly Jones, a resident of north Abingdon, Virginia.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    Song Sparrows are already making efforts to attract mates for the first spring nesting attempts.

“I have many bird feeders, with all kinds of seeds and suet cakes to attract as many different bird species that I can,” Shelly wrote in an email. “Like you, I have had all the common woodpeckers come to my feeders.”

Shelly commiserated with my never having been fortunate enough to get a visit from a red-headed woodpeckers at my home. She added that not only has she never been visited by a red-headed woodpecker at home, she has never seen one of these woodpeckers at all.

“I have seen the great pileated woodpecker flying through the tree tops,” she noted.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                   Tree Swallows perch on a wire over a pond in Hampton, Tennessee.

Her luck changed shortly after I ran the last installment on a series focused on the members of the woodpecker family.

“Today, when looking out at my feeders, there it was!” Shelly reported. It turned out to be a red-headed woodpecker. “My husband saw it, too,” she wrote. “I tried to get a photo, but it flew away before I could capture it. I’ll keep trying.”

Shelly and her husband live on five acres, mostly pasture for their two horses, but they are surrounded by woods on three sides, with many oak trees thriving in the woods. The habitat she described sounded imminently suitable for attracting red-headed woodpeckers.

I wrote an email back to Shelly congratulating her on the home visit from this woodpecker and joked that I was a little envious of her good fortune.




Photo Courtesy of Gayle Riddervold      This photo of an adult Bald Eagle was taken this past winter along Simerly Creek Road.

Gayle Riddervold and Rebecca Kinder recently shared a photo of an adult Bald Eagle that they had taken along Simerly Creek Road in Hampton. They had been leaving for a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, when they saw the eagle and stopped to get a photo.  Bald Eagles are often seen along lakes and rivers in Carter County during the winter, but finding an eagle at higher elevations is somewhat unusual.


Other readers have been sharing bird sightings that, if we’re fortunate, offer a signal of the changing seasons as winter wanes and spring nears.

Adelaide Moss in Abingdon, Virginia, wrote with a question about vultures. Vultures, by the way, are considered a harbinger of spring in some sections of the country. The two species — turkey vulture and black vulture — are year-round residents in our region.

“I am very curious about the vultures that hang out in trees in winter,” Adelaide wrote. “What on earth do they all eat? There are so many of them I can’t imagine there is enough roadkill to feed them all.

She added that she never sees vultures eating except occasionally on roads where they are eating roadkill.

“I would love to know more about them,” she wrote.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                    Turkey Vultures, unlike most birds, have a well-developed sense of smell.

I’ll focus on the turkey vulture, which benefits from a sense of smell that is absent in most other birds, the related black vulture included. With its finely-tuned olfactory senses, the turkey vulture can detect roadkill and other carrion from a distance of a mile.

These birds can also use their large wings to soar for hours. Soaring is much more energy-efficient than the flapping of wings. Experts who have studied turkey vultures estimate the birds may travel 200 miles or more in a single day in foraging for a meal such as a deer’s carcass or even an opossum squashed on the side of the road. Like many a scavenger, the turkey vulture’s not finicky and will eat almost anything. Pairing excellent eyesight with a good sense of smell means very little edible roadkill goes unnoticed by these birds.


I recently received an email from Tom and Helen Stetler in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

They reported seeing several “early birds” in their yard recently, including a total of six Red-winged Blackbirds. “One even went up on the bird feeder,” they wrote.


Photo courtesy of Tom and Helen Stetler     Red-winged Blackbirds, such as this bird, began returning to the region in February.

The couple noted that Red-winged Blackbirds are usually harbingers of spring, but they arrived with some of the last of the winter weather in February.

“Oh well, better days are coming, Lord willing,” the Stetlers wrote. They also added they have seen Song Sparrows and an Eastern Towhee at their feeder in recent days.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend 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

Monk Parakeets tend to choose unexpected locations to call home



A painting of the now-extinct Carolina Parakeet by early naturalist Alexander Wilson.

What do birders miss when they look back on some of the avian potential lost before Americans became more protective of their wildlife? Obviously, we lament the loss of birds like the ivory-billed woodpecker or the great auk. Losses of bird life in the Hawaiian islands have been staggering. We also lost tiny birds — dusky seaside sparrow and Bachman’s warbler — that would have gone unnoticed by most people.

I’m confident we mourn the loss of some of the most abundant birds to ever roam the continent. One such bird was the now-extinct Carolina parakeet. Many people don’t realize that North America was once home to its own species of parakeet. A few individuals — all that remained of once massive flocks of colorful, noisy native parakeets — made it into the 20th century. The last specimen died in the Cincinnati Zoo on Feb. 21, 1918. Although not declared officially extinct until 1939, the population of the Carolina parakeets crashed suddenly and for reasons still not fully understood.

Carolina parakeet, eastern subspecies, Audubon

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this flock of Carolina Parakeets.

For instance, large flocks of these birds still flew free until the final years of the 1800s, but in the first decade of the 1900s, these flocks disappeared. The survivor at the zoo was named Incas, and this male Carolina parakeet died a year after his mate, who had been named Lady Jane by the zoo’s staff.

The only other native parrot — the thick-billed parrot of the American southwest — no longer flies north of the Mexican border. An attempt to re-introduce this parrot to Arizona in the 1980s ended in disappointing failure.

To look for parrots in the United States, one usually needs to travel to Florida. The Sunshine State has become a place to find exotic wildlife, from pythons to caymans, as well as a multitude of unusual birds that have escaped from captivity and now find the warm climate of Florida suitable for a feral existence.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      This pair of Monk Parakeets has been making a home at an electrical substation in Newland, N.C.

When it comes to parrots, however, there is one species, perhaps tougher than its kin, that has expanded its range across the country. Called the monk parakeet (or quaker parakeet in the pet trade) this bird is not a native species, but it has proved tenacious in making itself at home in such far-flung locations as Delaware and Michigan, as well as Connecticut and Rhode Island. These green beauties have even made themselves at home in New York City. The monk parakeet has also established colonies in Canada’s British Columbia.

Closer to home, these parakeets have also established colonies in Virginia and North Carolina, although I cannot confirm any such attempts in Tennessee. I recently got to see my first monk parakeets in the wild after learning on the Facebook page Carolina Birders that a pair of these parakeets has been found in Newland, North Carolina. Being only about a 20-minute drive from Roan Mountain, Tennessee, it was not difficult for me to make two trips to Newland to look for these two birds, which are residing at an electrical sub-station. I failed to find them on my first trip on a rainy, windy day. When the weather improved, I tried again on Feb. 19 and was successful. I saw the parakeets seated on their nest, perched on wires and visiting a feeder at a home near the sub-station.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        This pair of monk parakeets have built a nest in an electrical substation in Newland, North Carolina. The feral population of these parakeets in North America stems from wild birds brought from Argentina for sale as pet birds in the 1960s.


The origin of feral monk parakeets in the United States dates back to the 1960s when birds brought from their native Argentina for sale in the pet trade escaped and subsequently thrived in various locations in the country. In researching this bird, I discovered that in North Carolina there are known colonies in Wilmington and Charlotte. Perhaps the pair in Newland are individuals expanding from those colonies. Monk parakeets are most abundant in Florida, but these birds have been found in numerous states, from Texas and Ohio to New Jersey and Delaware. These parakeets have also established feral populations in Europe in Belgium, Spain and Great Britain.

The origin of “monk” for this bird’s name is believed to stem from the gray-colored swath of feathers found on the bird’s breast, throat and forehead. The rest of the bird’s plumage is a bright green in color. The monk parakeet also has an orange bill. The birds are comparable in size to a mourning dove.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        These two Monk Parakeets now call Newland, N.C., home.

Monk parakeets differ from most other parrots, which are almost exclusively cavity-nesting birds. Monk parakeets form nesting colonies and use twigs and branches to build large, bulky nests. Even a single pair of monk parakeets can build a substantial nest. A colony of these nesting birds usually builds a nest featuring several compartments. The pair of parakeets in Newland have already build a large nest among the transformers of an electrical sub-station. The industrious birds create some large stick structures, and nests weighing 90 pounds have been found.

In the wild, these sociable birds form large flocks. In captivity, the monk parakeet can be taught an extensive vocabulary of words. The monk parakeet can live 20 to 30 years, with captive birds usually living longer than wild ones.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        The pair of Monk Parakeets have built a bulky nest of twigs and sticks at the Newland electrical substation,

I was thrilled to see this pair of monk parakeets, but it also made me somewhat wistful for what might have been. It would be wonderful to have native parrots still flying free. The extinct Carolina parakeet ranged throughout the eastern United States, including the states of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina. If only the dawning of a more environmentally aware age had arrived slightly sooner, the Carolina parakeet might have been saved along with species like the California condor and whooping crane. This native parakeet, if it had endured, might today be considered an ordinary backyard bird.



John and Karen Hollingsworth                                  USFWS personnel inspect a Quaker, or Monk, Parakeet shipment from Uruguay. Monk parakeets have habit of showing up in unexpected places

To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend 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

Woodpecker’s ‘red belly’ often obscured from view, but ‘redhead’ name often goes to wrong bird


In recent posts I have discussed the smallest and largest of the woodpeckers in the region, as well as focused a spotlight on the oddball yellow-bellied sapsucker and the medium-sized Northern flicker. This week’s post will focus on one of the most common, although ridiculously misnamed, woodpeckers, as well as one of its rather uncommon relatives.


Photo by Ken Thomas                                            Just as acrobatic as its relatives, the red-bellied woodpecker ranks as a popular visitor to feeders. This photograph shows off the splash of red on the belly that gives this particular woodpecker its name.

Among the woodpecker family, the red-bellied and red-headed woodpeckers are close cousins, belonging to a genus of those tree-clinging birds known as Melanerpes. The term, translated from Latin, means “black creeper.” Indeed, many of the two dozen members of the Melanerpes genus have an extensive amount of black feathers in their plumage. Other members of the genus include woodpeckers from the Caribbean, as well as from Central and South American. Some of them have quite colorful names, such as yellow-tufted woodpecker, golden-cheeked woodpecker and the accurately named beautiful woodpecker, a native of Colombia.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  When climbing the trunks of trees, red-bellied woodpeckers don’t often reveal the faint reddish wash on the feathers covering their stomachs. This photo, however, is an exception and shows the trait that gives this medium-sized woodpecker its common name.

The red-bellied woodpecker is one of the most widespread members of this genus with a range that extends from southern Canada to northeastern Mexico, as well as the eastern United States as far south as Florida and as far west as Texas. A century ago the red-bellied woodpecker was almost exclusively a southeastern bird, but it has expanded its range northward and westward considerably in the last 100 years. Its southern origins are hinted at in its scientific name of Melanerpes carolinus, which can be roughly translated as “black creeper of the Carolinas.”

It’s also named for a characteristic of its appearance that is not particularly prominent and not easy to observe. The faint tint of red that tinges the white belly feathers is extremely difficult to observe when this woodpecker is hitching up the trunk of a large tree. Because males, and females to a certain extent, have a red cap, the species has been erroneously referred to as a “red-headed woodpecker” by many casual observers. The true red-headed woodpecker, however, has an entirely red head and a plumage pattern that, considering its color trio of red, white and blue-black, is downright patriotic. The red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) is about the same size as the red-bellied woodpecker.


Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service                  The uncommon red-headed woodpecker deserves its common name because it, and not the related red-bellied woodpecker, has an entirely red head.

All woodpeckers are noisy when the mood strikes them, but the red-headed and red-bellied have always struck me as rather more clamorous than some of their relatives. The most common call of the red-bellied woodpecker is a sort of rolling “churr” repeated frequently while the bird is on the move from tree to tree.

To enjoy close views of the red-bellied woodpecker, provide plenty of peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet cakes. If there are any of them in the woods nearby, they will find these food offerings in short order. All my research indicates the same is true of red-headed woodpeckers, but I’ve never observed this woodpecker at my home. I’ve seen red-headed woodpeckers in Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina, but their populations are somewhat localized. Woodlands dominated by oak trees are often inhabited by both these woodpeckers, which are fond of the acorns produced by these trees.


Photo by Bryan Stevens           A female red-bellied woodpecker peers around a tree trunk.

One reason the red-headed woodpecker may be less common than its cousin relates to its fondness for hawking for flying insects along roadsides. The woodpeckers are frequently struck by cars when swooping after their winged prey. Historically, the American chestnut and beech trees also provided much of the mast crops consumed by these birds. With the extermination of the chestnut and the scarcity of beech in some locations, the red-headed woodpecker now depends on oaks and acorns. In fact, this woodpecker is rarely encountered outside of woodlands with an abundance of oak trees.

At feeders, red-bellied woodpeckers are prickly customers that often refuse to play nice with other birds. I’ve seen them stare down other large feeder birds, including blue jays, mourning doves and evening grosbeaks. With its large bill, the red-bellied woodpecker commands some respect.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                Although once considered a bird of the southeastern United States, the red-bellied woodpecker has expanded its range north and west during the past century.

Anyone who has hosted these birds knows they are a welcome visitor to any yard. Who knows? Some day I may even get a visit from the elusive red-headed woodpecker, which is the only woodpecker resident in the region to thus far avoid my yard.



Photo by Mark Stevens     A promotional sign for Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina bears the image of a red-bellied woodpecker.

To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend 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