Monthly Archives: February 2020

Several different species of hawks make their home in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

In recent weeks, I’ve enjoyed some observations of the region’s larger raptors, including red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks.

Anyone who travels along the region’s Interstate Highway System has probably noticed hawks perched in trees or on utility lines adjacent to the roadway. The section of Interstate 26 that runs between Unicoi and Johnson City is often a productive area for keeping alert for raptors. The raptor I have most often observed along this stretch of road is the Red-tailed Hawk, although I have also observed Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and American Kestrel. In the time of spring and fall migration, it’s also possible to observe Broad-winged Hawks.

The Red-tailed Hawk is named for its prominent red tail. However, only adults show the characteristic red tail. The affinity for Red-tailed Hawks for roadsides is a double-edged sword. Viewing a large hawk from your car is an easy way to watch birds. For inexperienced or careless raptors, however, roadside living is often rife with the chance for a collision with a car or truck. The Red-tailed Hawk, which prefers open countryside, is attracted to the margins of roads and highways because these locations also attract their favorite prey, which includes rodents like rats, squirrels and mice and other small mammals such as rabbits.

Human behavior contributes to some of the problems that hawks encounter in the zone that brings them too close for comfort to motorized vehicles. When people toss trash from a car, the scent of the litter will lure curious and hungry rodents. In turn, hunting hawks are brought to the edges of roads in search of their preferred prey, increasing the likelihood of colliding with automobiles.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A calling red-shouldered hawk perched in a dead tree on Pawleys Island in South Carolina.

In recent days, I have also noticed a Red-shouldered Hawk lurking among the branches of the large weeping willow next to the fish pond. The Red-shoulder Hawk typically prefers wetland habitats and is less likely to haunt roadsides. According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

The Red-shouldered Hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a Killdeer. The visiting Red-shouldered Hawk has been silent so far, perhaps not wishing to draw attention. The few times the local crows have noticed the presence of any sort of raptor, they’ve flocked together to mob the unfortunate hawk. It’s also not the right time of year; during courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal, but at other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible to mistakenly think you have heard one of these large hawks. Blue Jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related Red-tailed Hawk, the Red-shouldered Hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive. The Red-shouldered Hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the Red-tailed Hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often the dominant avian predators in their respective habitats.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of red-shouldered hawk.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos Hawk and the Hawaiian Hawk. Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the White-throated Hawk, Gray-lined Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk and Short-tailed Hawk. Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as “buzzards.” When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both types of native vultures as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

All too often, our large hawks don’t receive the love they deserve from the public. They may even run afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem, with each species filling a certain niche.

American Kestrel shows why falcons are such efficient aerial predators

Photo by Robert H. Burton/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • An American Kestrel perches on a fence post. The male American Kestrel is an aerodynamic bird that never fails to look graceful and elegant in flight.

I know a few locations in Limestone Cove to find American Kestrels. This small falcon, although present throughout the year in the region, is somewhat more prominent during the winter months when kestrels from farther north migrate into the region. However, this falcon also nests in the region and can be found at any time of the year in suitable habitat, which is usually open countryside. Most of this winter I’ve been seeing a single American kestrel near the historic Bell Cemetery in Limestone Cove. More often than not, I see a kestrel perched on utility lines driving past the cemetery to and from work each day.

The American Kestrel is a small member of the falcon family, which includes such larger relatives as Merlin, Peregrine Falcon and Gyrfalcon. In fact, the American Kestrel is the smallest falcon in North America, as well as one of the most common.

All falcons share a similar aerodynamic design that includes sleek, streamlined bodies and long, slim wings which taper to pointed tips. They fly with rapid wingbeats and are capable of swift flight. The American Kestrel has long been one of my favorite raptors. They’re seldom as skittish as many other raptors and will permit close observation.

Photo by Naser Mojtahed/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The male American Kestrel is a colorful bird. He shows a rusty back with some black barring, a rusty tail and steel blue-gray wings. The female American Kestrel is brownish with black barring on her back and tail. She also shows a buff-colored wash streaked with brown on her underparts. Both sexes show a strong facial pattern marked by two black “sideburns” on the side of the face.

The American Kestrel, formerly known by the name “Sparrow Hawk,” does not feed entirely on other birds. In fact, a large part of this small falcon’s diet includes rodents and insects.

In its nesting preference, the American Kestrel is unusual among other native falcons and hawks. Kestrels nest in cavities, including abandoned woodpecker holes and nest boxes provided by humans.

Like many raptors, the American Kestrel likes to hunt from a perch, swooping down on unsuspecting prey. The Kestrel, however, is also capable of hovering, a type of flight that only a relatively few birds, including the Belted Kingfisher and the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, are capable of performing.

The American Kestrel is colorful, especially for a raptor. Males have a slaty blue-gray head and wings that contrast nicely with their rusty-red back and tail. Female kestrels show basically the same warm reddish coloration on her wings, back and tail. Both sexes show a strong facial pattern marked by two black “sideburns” on the side of the face.

Other members of the falcon family can be found in the region, including the Peregrine Falcon and the Merlin. Other falcons in North America include the Prairie Falcon and the Aplomado Falcon. There are more than 60 species of falcons found worldwide. While the Peregrine Falcon’s endangered status became well-known in the United States, other falcons have been threatened with extinction. The Mauritius Kestrel once dwindled to a population of only four individuals. Today, the population, due to intensive human effort, has greatly recovered to 400 birds in 2019. Other kestrels from around the world have been given interesting common names, including Fox Kestrel, Grey Kestrel, Spotted Kestrel, Greater Kestrel and Lesser Kestrel.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American Kestrel uses a fence post for a perch.

Yearly survey encourages participation of citizen-scientists

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Eastern Bluebird is one of the most beloved American songbirds.

Birds can bring so much excitement and entertainment into our lives, whether they are flocking to our feeders or we are seeking them out at favorite birding spots. Next month, we can do something to repay birds for all the joy their simple existence provides many of us. All that’s required is looking out your window to peek at a feeder or perhaps driving to a local park to look for birds.

Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. Bird watchers of all ages count birds to create a real-time snapshot of where birds are during the worldwide effort of the GBBC scheduled this year from Friday-Sunday, Feb. 14-17.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a truly global undertaking.

As it has nearly every year, the 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count broke more records and attracted more participants than ever before. The GBBC is global in its scale, which provides a greater reach for dedicated citizen-scientists hoping to contribute to the well-being of the planet’s birds.

Last year’s GBBC tallied 6,699 species of birds on 204,921 checklists submitted by an estimated 224,781 participants.

U.S. participants led the way with an estimated 136,903 checklists submitted by birders in the United States. The nation of India took second place with a total of 21,524 checklists, followed by Canada (16,611), Australia (2,811) and Spain (2,391).

A total of 669 bird species were found in the United States, but that was only an eighth place finish. The country boasting the most birds was Colombia with 1,095 species. Other countries with a diversity of bird species reported included Ecuador (948), Brazil (844), India (843) and Mexico (755).

In the United States, Californians led the way in submitting checklists with a total of 10,059 surveys reported, followed by Texas (9,121), New York (8,453), Florida (7,696) and Pennsylvania (7,640). Virginia, with 6,332 checklists, just barely got edged out of the Top 5.

In my own past efforts on behalf of the GBBC, I’ve enjoyed observation of such rare East Tennessee visitors as Ross’s Goose and Canvasbacks, as well as expected birds such as Carolina Chickadees, Red-tailed Hawks and Buffleheads.

If you look no farther than your own yard and garden, please consider taking part in the 2020 GBBC. It’s free, it’s simple to do, and the results can be valuable for scientific knowledge about our fine feathered friends. To learn more about the GBBC, visit gbbc.birdcount.org.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Song Sparrow perches on a weed. The annual GBBC helps gather important data for even common birds like Song Sparrows.

 

Region’s biggest woodpecker is surprisingly shy

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker pays a visit to a walnut tree.

I heard the raucous antics of the large woodpecker before I saw it. A large Pileated Woodpecker had landed in the upper branches of a wild cherry tree near the creek that runs past my home. From spring to summer, the leaves of the tree provide green shelter for a variety of songbirds. During the winter, the tree is a stark outline against the winter sky and offers no concealment — not that a bird as large as a Pileated Woodpecker — it’s the size of a crow — would find it easy to hide itself.

One thing’s certain. A sighting of a Pileated Woodpecker never fails to impress. This bird has a loud, raucous cackling call, which is often heard before the bird is observed. This woodpecker spends a good amount of its time low to the ground, so when one takes flight unexpectedly, often calling loudly as its powerful wing beats carry it away from an observer, the moment can be somewhat startling. These experiences of sudden and unexpected sightings of one of these woodpeckers is often accompanied by exclamations of surprise. Hence common names such as “wood-hen” and “Lord God Bird” have been adopted for these woodpeckers. Other names for the pileated have included carpenter bird, cock-of-the-woods and wood-hen.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker pokes its head into a cavity excavated into a dying tree.

At one point, the Pileated Woodpecker was relegated to second place when it came to the size of native woodpeckers. The often inaccessible swampy woodlands and river bottoms of the American south were home to the former title holder, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. With the unsettled status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker — is it extinct or is it still lingering in an Arkansas swamp? — the Pileated Woodpecker is considered the largest woodpecker in the United States. If incontrovertible evidence of the existence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers should emerge in the future, the Pileated Woodpecker would once again find itself overshadowed by this dramatically larger relative.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Pileated Woodpecker climbs the trunk of a walnut tree.

Although the Pileated Woodpecker can reach a length of 19 inches, the bird weighs only about 11 ounces. Male and female look similar with a black and white body and a bright red crest on the head. In fact, the term “pileated” in the species’ name comes from from the Latin “pileatus,” meaning “capped.” Males show a red stripe — or mustache — on the cheek that is not present in females.

As mentioned earlier, the Pileated Woodpecker often can be found low to the ground, foraging on tree stumps and fallen logs, as well as in taller, living trees. The reason for this behavior rests with one of its favorite foods — the humble carpenter ant. The pileated is not the only woodpecker that supplements its diet with ants. For instance, the Northern Flicker is also fond of dining on these insects. Studies conducted on the dietary preferences of Pileated Woodpeckers have revealed that as much as 40 percent of the diet is made up of ants. Some pileated woodpeckers appear to have developed quite an addiction for ants with some individuals dining almost exclusively on ants. These woodpeckers also eat wild fruits and nuts, as well as other insects and their larvae. The Pileated Woodpecker will occasionally visit a feeder for suet or seeds, but I’ve not had much luck overcoming their instinctive wariness.

Pileated Woodpeckers — usually a mated pair — have been among my wild neighbors for years, but they are shy, retiring birds. Despite their bold appearance and capacity for making quite a racket, the Pileated Woodpecker usually otherwise goes out of its way not to attract attention to itself. Because of this, close-up observations of the largest of our woodpeckers are experiences to savor.

The bird’s enthusiastic ability to excavate cavities in rotten trees is a boon to other species of birds. Certain species of ducks as well as owls, bats, squirrels and other species of wildlife will often make use of cavities created by Pileated Woodpeckers for roosting locations or to raise their own young.

Worldwide, there are about 180 different woodpeckers, but the family is conspicuous in its absence from Australia, Madagascar and New Zealand. The Pileated Woodpecker ranges across the North American continent, with birds present in the forests across Canada and the eastern United States as well as certain areas along the Pacific coast.

Many of the world’s other woodpeckers have quite interesting common names, including Melancholy Woodpecker, Powerful Woodpecker, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, White-naped Woodpecker, Crimson-backed Flameback and Pale-headed Woodpecker.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker hitches its way along the trunk of a Live Oak laden with Spanish moss.