Monthly Archives: January 2020

Dreaming of winter finches flocking south

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Red crossbills use unique beaks to pry seeds from a conifer cone. These birds are among the so-called “northern finches” that occasionally stage massive winter migrations fueled by food shortages in their usual range. They are also nomadic residents throughout the year in northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.

I recently got a shoutout on Facebook from Tom McNeil, a longtime birding friend and a neighbor here in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee. Tom asked if I’d been seeing any red crossbills on my side “of the ridge” and informed me he had been seeing these odd-beaked birds for the past couple of weeks.

I hadn’t noticed any crossbills and told him so, but I am definitely keeping alert for them after Tom’s notification. Every winter I hope my feeders will be visited by representatives of a group of birds known collectively as “northern finches.” This loose grouping consists of a half dozen species — purple finch, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, pine grosbeak, white-winged crossbill, red crossbill and common redpoll — that periodically stage irruptions from their traditional northern ranges to push south in large numbers during the colder months.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A red crossbill uses its unique beak to pry seeds from a conifer cone. These birds are among the so-called “northern finches” that occasionally stage massive winter migrations fueled by food shortages in their usual range.

I’ve been feeding birds since the winter of 1993, and over the years, the first three species I listed have graced my feeders. Although I haven’t seen any this winter, pine siskins and purple finches have continued to be occasional winter visitors. Sadly, however, I haven’t been visited by showy evening grosbeaks since the late 1990s. The last time I saw an evening grosbeak in the region was back in 2000.

I’ve never laid eyes on a common redpoll, although I spent several hours 20 years ago staking out a yard in Shady Valley, Tennessee, in an unsuccessful bid to observe a redpoll that had been a reliable visitor at a feeder in that small community.

I have seen red crossbills, but my observations of these birds have always taken place during the summer months. Pine grosbeaks and white crossbills are almost unheard of in the region, and I haven’t had opportunity to visit the nesting summer ranges of these birds.

So, as the weather turns cold each year, hope springs eternal that perhaps this will be the winter that will bring some of these northern finches to my feeders, or at least to a feeder in the general area.

The factor that drives these irruptive northern finches to come south is food — or the lack thereof — in their usual ranges. When seed crops are poor in the north, these seed-eating birds may wander as far south as the Gulf States in search of supplemental food sources such as feeders stocked with sunflower seed.

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • Crossbills and other finches often migrate in source of food.

The red crossbill is a specialist when it comes to foraging for its food. The bird uses its unique bill to open the cones of various conifers. The upper and lower mandibles of the bill are twisted in a way to make them cross when the beak is closed, hence the name “crossbill.”

Worldwide, there are only five species of crossbills — the red crossbill of North America, Asia and Europe; the parrot crossbill of northwest Europe and western Russia; the Scottish crossbill of Scotland; and the white-winged crossbill of Canada, the northern United States, including Alaska, as well as Asia and northeastern Europe. There’s also the endangered Hispaniolan crossbill of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean.

Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male evening grosbeak perches on the side of a sunflower-stocked feeder.

W. Herbert Wilson Jr. wrote an article about the northern finches for the Oct-Dec. 1999 edition of “North American Bird Bander.” Wilson noted that supplemental food, such as feeder fare, can influence the migratory habits of many birds, including these finches. He cited the example of black-capped chickadees, which have been shown to demonstrate an increased chance of survival during lean winter times when they have access to feeders. He also noted that the provision of food at feeders has helped birds like the tufted titmouse, house finch and Northern cardinal extend their range northward. In part, Wilson theorized that more people are feeding birds closer to the northern climes where these birds live. As a result, the long-distance irruptions are no longer necessary to find supplemental food.

Other theories have also been advanced by other experts, including changing migratory routes, diminishing overall finch numbers and climate change. Theories aside, I will continue to hope some of these birds wing their way toward my feeders this winter. If I’m lucky, this could even be the year the evening grosbeaks return! If anyone is seeing any of these “northern finches,” I’d

love to hear about it. Contact me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American goldfinch visits a feeder for sunflower seeds

Birds made news headlines in 2019

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • California condors have gradually returned to parts of their range beyond California. A family of condors now resides in Zion National Park, marking a return of these birds to Utah.

 

Birds made headlines in 2019. Some species, having been presumed extinct, were rediscovered — some in the mostly unlikely of places. One of the major bird-related stories of the year involved a stark warning about a sharp decline in overall bird numbers. Below, in no particular order, are some of last year’s top stories about our fine feathered friends.

69 years old and a mother again

The Laysan albatross known as Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, became parents again in 2010. Wisdom is at least 69 years old and ranks as the world’s oldest known banded wild bird. Her mate’s name, by the way, translates as “lover of wisdom.” The chick hatched in February at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial. Wisdom has raised more than 30 chicks in her lifetime. While Laysan albatrosses are not considered endangered, some of their kin are threatened with extinction.

Photo by J. Klavitter/USFWS • Wisdom, one of Midway Atoll’s oldest residents, became a mother again in 2019. The female Laysan albatross is approaching her 70th birthday.

While walking to church

The year started with some good birding news when a bird thought extinct was rediscovered in a suburb of Medellín, Colombia, on Jan. 7, 2019. Rodolfo Correa Peña was headed to a church service when he spotted an odd bird in a garden. The bird turned out to be an Antioquia brushfinch, a bird known previously only from museum specimens. Peña, an engineering student with an interest in birding, knew the local brushfinches and recognized that the bird was different. He secured photos of the bird and stunned the scientific community with the rediscovery of a bird presumed extinct.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Endangered California condors receives some good news in 2019..

Condors soaring high

California condors continue to delight with their success stories, even extending their range beyond California. Estimates indicate that 300 condors exist in the wild with about 200 more birds in captivity for use with breeding programs. Evidence that the work to preserve the species is working was provided this year in Utah’s Zion National Park, which became home to a condor named “1K” because it is the 1,000th chick hatched as part of an extensive condor restoration program. The chick hatched in May and took a rather clumsy first flight in September. The chick represents the first condor born within Zion National Park in more than a century. In 1987, when the condor population totaled only 27 known condors, wildlife officials captured the surviving wild birds and made them part of an existing captive breeding program. In 1992, the condor recovery program started to release the birds back into the wild. There are now more condors flying free in the wild than are maintained in captivity.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A large flock of Great Egrets flies over the Watauga River in Elizabethton. There is mounting evidence that many bird populations are on the decline.

Fewer birds?

Bird enthusiasts were shaken by the publication in September of an article warning that the number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970. The analysis, published in the journal “Science,” is an extensive attempt to determine what is happening to avian populations. The results shocked — there are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago.

A painting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist.

Hope

Yet, in words penned by poet Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Birds are among the most resilient lifeforms on the planet. If humans can get out of the way and quit making life more difficult for the feathered inhabitants of the planet, birds are more than capable of rebounding. The federal government needs to maintain safeguards and regulations that are in place to protect birds while ordinary people must alter their ways by shunning pesticides, preserving a variety of habitats and simply giving more regard to the fellow creatures they share the Earth with. If we can do these things, the birds will be fine. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the examples of Wisdom the Laysan albatross and a California condor known as “1K.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Canada geese forage in a field in Unicoi County, Tennessee.

Egrets, snow geese sightings enliven winter birding

Photo by Dewey Fuller • A great egret stands amid a flock of Canada geese at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee.

It’s 2020, but I feel like I am still playing catchup with the birds found in the last few weeks of 2019. We might not have had much snow so far this winter, but birds with white plumage have stirred up some excitement in recent weeks. The birds are finally showing some winter movement as they turn up in some unlikely places and at unseasonable times. While I have felt that the winter’s off to a slow start in regards to birds, some other unusual visitors have popped up in various locations in the region.

Dewey Fuller, who resides near Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, emailed me recently to report an unexpected bird and share photos of the feathered visitor.

He correctly identified the bird as a great egret based on its white plumage and dark legs. “Another unusual visitor to Middlebrook,” Dewey wrote in his email.

The waders — herons, egrets, storks — usually reside in wetlands and coastal areas, but they are prone to wander after the nesting season. Their wandering usually takes place in late summer and early fall, so the Middlebrook visitor was a tad out of season.

While it is unusual for a great egret to visit the region in December, I know from personal experience that a twelfth month visit from this graceful wading bird is not unheard of. The first great egret to ever visit my home arrived on a snowy evening in December many years ago. This past summer heralded a more seasonal visit from only the second great egret to visit my home.

Joe McGuiness, an employee with the U.S. Forest Service who resides in Erwin, recently observed a great egret at a pond along the linear walking trail in Erwin, Tennessee. I’m not sure why these stately white birds have been present in December, but they certainly attracted attention with their unexpected presences.

Photo by StockSnap/Pixabay.com • A snow goose comes in for a landing, showing off its black flight feathers that contrast with its otherwise all-white plumage.

The egret was only one recent mostly all-white bird to put in an appearance. I found a single snow goose in a cornfield along Old Johnson City Highway about a half mile from the Lynch Farmhouse/Gallery in Unicoi, Tennessee shortly before Thanksgiving.

Snow geese are extremely abundant, but their migratory flyways usually keep these geese far from the mountains and valleys of Northeast Tennessee.

The snow goose has a second color phase known as a “blue goose” that has plumage that replaces the white feathers of the snow goose except in the head, neck and tip of the tail. The white phase of the species boasts all-white plumage except for black flight feathers. Adults have pinkish-red legs and bills. Serrations along the bill create the diagnostic “grin patch” that helps people distinguish the goose from the smaller related Ross’s goose. Male snow geese are typically somewhat larger than females.

Snow geese breed well north of the timberline in Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Siberia. In winter, they head south to spend the colder months across much of the United States and even Mexico.

Snow geese numbers have exploded in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In fact, some experts worry that the sheer abundance of this goose is doing damage to the fragile tundra habitat these geese use for breeding. According to the website “All About Birds,” hunting for snow geese in the eastern United States was stopped in 1916 because of low population levels. Hunting was allowed again in 1975 after populations had recovered.

Although they remain a hunted game bird, an occasional snow goose achieves significant longevity in the wild. The oldest snow goose was an individual documented as being 27 years and six months old that was shot in Texas in 1999.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A snow goose swims amid Canada geese at the pond at Fishery Park in Erwin, Tennessee, in February of 2018. .