Monthly Archives: November 2016

Brown creeper a classic loner among winter season’s feeder-visiting birds

On a frigid Saturday morning on Nov. 5, I was watching some birds around the feeders when I noticed a dull flash of brownish feathers on the trunk of a cherry tree. I could have dismissed the glimpse as a wren or sparrow, but intuition convinced me to raise my binoculars.


Photo by Rob Hicks                                                                                        Stunned after striking a window, a recovered brown creeper prepares to  fly away from an apartment complex in Ontario, Canada.

Once I focused my binoculars on the bird in question, I was delighted to welcome a long-absent bird back to my yard. The last time I’d observed a brown creeper in my yard had been in October of 2013. Over the years, brown creepers have been scarce birds at my home. In fact, I’ve seen very few brown creepers, either at home or while birding in other locations.

Brown creepers are woodland birds and not usually found far from trees. This bird isn’t a particularly rare species, but its lifestyle and appearance go a long way toward explaining why this small, nondescript songbird is so good at flying under the radar even of practiced birders.

A couple of years ago, Rob Hicks, a friend from Ontario, Canada, presented me with some photos of a bird he needed help identifying. The bird in the photos had collided with a pane of glass, possibly the door onto Rob’s balcony. Fortunately, the impact didn’t prove fatal and the bird, perhaps a little wiser, was able to fly away from the incident.

The brown creeper is a widespread bird across the United States and Canada. Its nesting range extends from Alaska, Ontario and Newfoundland southward throughout western mountains, as well as the Great Lakes region, Southern Appalachians and New England.

In Northeast Tennessee, this bird is considered uncommon. According to the book, “The Birds of Northeast Tennessee” by Rick Knight, the brown creeper is a winter resident at lower elevations in the region. It nests at higher elevations, such as Roan Mountain on the Tennessee/North Carolina border, during the summer months.


The Brown Creeper’s lifestyles rarely finds the bird away from the trunks of trees.

The late John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” noted in his highly educational work that “these odd little birds rarely appear to take notice of our feeding station supplies.”

If this bird could be persuaded to visit feeders, like birds such as the nuthatches and chickadees, I am sure it would be a welcome guest. For the most part, creepers belong to the fringes of mixed flocks of birds, preferring to forage in a solitary manner.

Dennis reported in his book that brown creepers are excellent at gleaning food overlooked by other birds. Suet is the one feeder offering with a good chance of attracting this bird. The brown creeper’s shy ways, however, extends to interactions with other birds. Dennis described the creeper as “timid” and “anxious” in the presence of other birds at feeders, which tend to be a boisterous lot.

Dennis suggested finely chopped nutmeats and peanut hearts to tempt brown creepers. He also reported an adventurous brown creeper once sampling small pieces of boiled potato.

Brown creepers locate their nests behind a peeling piece of bark on a tree trunk. In behavior, this bird acts in a similar fashion to the nuthatches. However, instead of inching its way headfirst down a tree trunk, the brown creeper typically hitches its way up a tree before flying to the base of a nearby tree trunk and repeating the process.

Against the bark of a tree, the Brown Creeper is extremely well camouflaged. These small birds are often first detected by sharp-eared individuals capable of discerning its soft, lisping call notes. During the breeding season, this bird also produces a thin, musical warble that serves as its song.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Donna Dewhurst          A hand-held brown creeper is photographed after being banded for a scientific study in Anchorage, Alaska.

The brown creeper has long, stiff tail feathers to help support itself against the vertical surface of a tree trunk. This is an adaptation that’s also seen in woodpeckers. The creeper also has a curved bill that is an excellent tool for probing for hidden insects, which provide the bulk of its food.

It’s scientific name is Certhia americana, which is appropriate since it is the only North American representative of the creeper family. Beyond the New World, eight other creepers reside on the continents of Europe and Asia. The other members of the family include the Eurasian or common treecreeper, as well as short-toed treecreeper, Hodgson’s treecreeper, bar-tailed treecreeper, Sichuan treecreeper, rusty-flanked Treecreeper, Sikkim or brown-throated treecreeper and Hume’s treecreeper.


A painting of Brown Creepers by John James Audubon.

Although the brown creeper’s range extends the continent of North America from Alaska to Canada’s Atlantic Coast, most people will only notice this bird during the winter months when it ranges as far south as Florida and Texas.

The brown creeper will probably never become as neighborly as many of the birds that visit our feeders during the winter months. For its unique status among native birds, however, it’s definitely one worth seeking out. Remember that the next time you think of dismissing that little brown bird you glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. A closer look may bring an unexpected and delightful surprise.

Wild turkey’s connection with holiday of Thanksgiving dates back to Pilgrim era


Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted this depiction of a wild turkey hen and poults.

When the Pilgrims sat down to the first Thanksgiving feast in the New World, many of the trappings we associate with the November holiday were missing from the menu. Instead the Pilgrims enjoyed a repast of bounty that was seasonally available when they held that first celebration back in 1621. The Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote of that first observance in his work titled “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Some of the details may surprise you.


Wild turkey painted by John James Audubon.

When Americans sit down in a few days to celebrate Thanksgiving, plenty of us will enjoy a meal of turkey with all the traditional trimmings. Among the items available for that first feast were a variety of fish, including good New England cod, as well as bass and other fish. The Pilgrims took “good store” of fish and “every family had their portion.” Bradford also wrote that as winter approached, Massachusetts Bay suddenly experienced an abundance of waterfowl, but that their numbers eventually decreased. Birders will recognize what was happening with this sudden influx of ducks and other waterfowl. They were migrating. The waterfowl were temporarily abundant, but then as the ducks and other birds continued to make their way south, they became scarce again.


The early settlers in Massachusetts took advantage of abundant resources, including fish such as cod (pictured) and bass. Wild turkeys were also abundant.

The Pilgrims also enjoyed Indian corn, as well as the wild fowl that is still very popular at traditional Thanksgiving meals today. They may have lacked cranberries and potatoes, but they most definitely feasted on turkey. “And besides waterfowl,” Bradford wrote, “there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison.”

So, cod and venison shared top billing with turkey at that early Thanksgiving. Of course, Bradford was writing about North America’s wild turkey, which is a far cry from the domesticated fowl that typically ends up on serving platters on Thanksgiving Day in our age


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      A wild turkey forages for food.

Surprisingly, the wild turkey, which was so abundant during the Pilgrim era in Massachusetts, almost didn’t survive until the 19th century. It’s almost miraculous that the wild turkey didn’t join the unfortunate ranks of such extinct birds as the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. In fact, only an estimated 30,000 Wild Turkeys were alive about 1930. The same forces that wiped out the immense flocks of passenger pigeons and migrating Eskimo curlews almost drove the wild turkey to extinction. Habitat destruction and a merciless commercial slaughter almost claimed another uniquely American bird.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                    A flock of wild turkeys makes its way along a grassy slope in Northeast Tennessee.

Ironically, the wild turkey’s valued status as a gamebird (the largest in North America) helped persuade many Americans to fight for its conservation. It’s an effort that succeeded admirably. Today, there are almost seven million wild turkeys roaming North America. The wild turkey is now abundant enough to be legally hunted in most states, including Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The turkey is once again common across the continent, including in Massachusetts.
The wild turkey is a large bird of mostly a terrestrial lifestyle. Males, or tom turkeys, can reach a length of 46 inches, weigh between 11 and 24 pounds and boast a wingspan of 60 inches. Females, or hens, are typically much smaller and weigh between 5 to 12 pounds. The wild turkey is perfectly capable of flying at speeds up to 55 miles per hour, but they often prefer to walk and run over the ground. They’re good sprinters, in fact, and can reach a running speed of 25 miles per hour.

The female turkey, or hen, nests, incubates eggs and rears young without any help from her mate. The hen may lay as many as a dozen eggs. The clutch usually hatches within a month. Newly-hatched turkeys are known as poults. The poults are capable of finding their own food after leaving the nest, which they do within 12 hours of hatching. They are supervised, however, by the hen. Wild turkeys require a mixture of woodlands with clearings and fields to thrive. They roost in trees at night, but feed in more open habitats.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A pair of wild turkeys remains alert while searching for food.

The wild turkey’s scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. This bird is exclusively resident in North America, but domesticated turkeys are now raised around the globe. The wild turkey has only one close relative, the ocellated turkey, or Meleagris ocellata. The ocellated turkey ranges throughout the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico as well as the northern parts of Belize and Guatemala.

Few birds have featured so prominently in the history of the United States as the wild turkey. In fact, the turkey came close to being named the official bird of the United States. Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States bird, was dismayed when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle’s “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.” George Washington, the nation’s first president, also shared Franklin’s opinion, and pointed out the Bald Eagle’s lifestyle as a carrion eater.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                               Wild turkeys forage for food when snow melts off the ground.

While their objections are duly noted, perhaps it’s just as well that Americans don’t have an official national bird that’s also served up at holiday meals in households throughout the nation. If not as our national symbol, the wild turkey is still deserving of respect. This bird, found only in North America, is a true American success story.

Annual Fall Bird Count finds 125 species


Photo by Bryan Stevens                  Red-tailed Hawks were found in good numbers on the recent fall count, but the species was outnumbered by migrating Broad-winged Hawks.

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society held its annual Fall Bird Count back in September. The chapter’s five-county Fall Bird Count, the 47th consecutive survey conducted by the chapter, was held Sept. 24. A total of 39 observers (and two yard watchers) found a total of 125 species. Oppressive heat on the day of the count probably negatively affected bird numbers.
The Fall Bird Count, as well as the chapter’s annual Spring Bird Count, surveys bird populations in the upper Northeast Tennessee counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.
The annual count is compiled by long-time chapter statistician Rick Knight.
The recent count was most notable for low numbers of many species. “A curious statistic: we had more Cedar Waxwings than European Starlings,” Knight remarked.
The all-time high on for a Fall Bird Count was 137 species in 1993.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                     Blue-winged Teal were among the migratory waterfowl found during the recent Fall Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club.

The total for this year’s Fall Bird Count follows:
Canada Goose, 1,118; Wood Duck, 40; Mallard, 224; Blue-winged Teal, 4; Green-winged Teal, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 2; Wild Turkey, 23; Pied-billed Grebe, 3; Double-crested Cormorant, 16; Great Blue Heron, 30; Great Egret, 10; Green Heron, 2; Black-crowned Night-Heron, 2; and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 1.
Black Vulture, 159; Turkey Vulture, 222; Osprey, 7; Bald Eagle, 4; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 10; Red-shouldered Hawk, 5; Broad-winged Hawk, 25; and Red-tailed Hawk, 22.
Killdeer, 66; Spotted Sandpiper, 3; Least Sandpiper, 4; Pectoral Sandpiper, 6; American Woodcock, 4.
Rock Pigeon, 365; Eurasian Collared Dove, 2; Mourning Dove, 174; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 1; Eastern Screech-Owl, 14; Great Horned Owl, 8; Barred Owl, 8, and Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1.



Photo by Bryan Stevens Downy Woodpecker was the most numerous woodpecker tallied on the fall count.

Common Nighthawk, 3; Chimney Swift, 379; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 30; Belted Kingfisher, 33; Red-headed Woodpecker, 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 61; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 5; Downy Woodpecker, 42; Hairy Woodpecker, 10; Northern Flicker, 28; and Pileated Woodpecker, 32.
American Kestrel, 14; Peregrine Falcon, 2; Eastern Wood-pewee, 12; Acadian Flycatcher, 1; Empid species, 3; Eastern Phoebe, 68; and Eastern Kingbird, 1.
White-eyed Vireo, 2; Yellow-throated Vireo, 2; Blue-headed Vireo, 20; Red-eyed Vireo, 15; Blue Jay; 329; American Crow, 376; and Common Raven; 26.
Purple Martin, 1; Tree Swallow, 163; Barn Swallow, 1; Carolina Chickadee, 152; Tufted Titmouse, 124; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 12; and White-breasted Nuthatch, 36.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                 A total of 54 Northern Mockingbirds, Tennessee’s official state bird, was found on the count.

Brown Creeper, 5; House Wren, 3; Carolina Wren, 139; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 2; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 23; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 5.
Eastern Bluebird, 91; Veery, 4; Gray-cheeked Thrush, 6; Swainson’s Thrush, 89; Hermit Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 16; American Robin, 343, Gray Catbird, 48; Brown Thrasher, 14; and Northern Mockingbird, 54.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    Red Crossbills were among the finches tallied on this year’s Fall Bird Count.

European Starling, 426; Cedar Waxwing, 506; Ovenbird, 4; Worm-eating Warbler, 1; Northern Waterthrush, 1; Black-and-white Warbler, 4; Tennessee Warbler, 12; Orange-crowned Warbler, 1; Common Yellowthroat, 10; Hooded Warbler, 4; American Redstart, 13; Cape May Warbler, 7; Northern Parula, 3; Magnolia Warbler, 11; Bay-breasted Warbler, 6; Blackburnian Warbler, 3; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 2; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 3; Palm Warbler, 16; Pine Warbler, 11; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 2; Yellow-throated Warbler, 2; Prairie Warbler, 1; and Black-throated Green Warbler, 8.
Eastern Towhee, 65; Chipping Sparrow, 24; Field Sparrow, 11; Song Sparrow, 83; Dark-eyed Junco, 95; Summer Tanager, 2; Scarlet Tanager, 15; Northern Cardinal, 138, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 43; and Indigo Bunting, 13.
Red-winged Blackbird, 61; Eastern Meadowlark, 10; Common Grackle, 156; House Finch, 51; Red Crossbill, 2; Pine Siskin, 10; American Goldfinch, 231; and House Sparrow, 38.

The season’s first White-throated Sparrow showed up at my home on Oct. 30. I’m hopeful that the sparrow is but the first of many new arrivals ahead of the winter season. To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, send an email to

Weekly column marks 21st anniversary


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  Dark-eyed Junco visits a feeder during a snowstorm.

I wrote my first “Feathered Friends” column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this column recently celebrated its 21st anniversary. This weekly column has appeared in the last 21 years in a total of five different newspapers. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested in our “feathered friends.” I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well.

Since February of 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.
That first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents— the Dark-eyed Junco. Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column.



Photo by Bryan Stevens                                 Although they often feed on the ground, Dark-eyed Juncos will occasionally visit a hanging feeder.

Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the Dark-eyed Junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.
John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The Dark-eyed Junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                              A Dark-eyed Junco feeds on sunflower seeds scattered on the snow by other birds visiting hanging feeders.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”
Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                    Dark-eyed Juncos nest at higher elevation in the Southern Appalachian. This bird was photographed at Carver’s Gap atop Roan Mountain in Tennessee.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.
Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.
Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.
Dark-eyed Juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.


Early naturalist John James Audubon painted this picture of a pair of Dark-eyed Juncos.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.
Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!


The Dark-eyed Juncos haven’t put in their appearance for the 2016-17 winter season at my home yet, but the weather’s turning colder. I don’t expect to have to wait much longer for their return.


Photo by Ken Thomas                            A Dark-eyed Junco perches on a branch.

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