Monthly Archives: June 2020

Daily twittering of chimney swifts part of summer’s background noise

Photo by Vinoverde/Adobe Stock • Chimney swift foraging on the wing for insects. Swifts are designed for life in flight. These birds do not perch but have special claws that help them cling to the sides of vertical surfaces such as cliffs or chimneys.

As spring turns into summer, afternoons and evenings at my home have presented daily shows from a small flock of resident chimney swifts. These graceful and aerodynamic birds are designed for a life lived almost exclusively on the wing. In fact, chimney swifts are incapable of perching in the manner of most birds. They can only cling to vertical surfaces, such as rocky cliff faces or the interiors of chimneys.

As they fly overhead, these swifts produce a high-pitched twittering. It’s not as musical as the songs of some birds, but neither is the sound unpleasant. In fact, the twittering of chimney swifts is a sound that I’ve grown to associate with pleasant summer evenings. Listening to these birds as they swoop in the sky overhead is a great way to relax.

Chimney swifts are often most prevalent over the rooftops of cities, but swifts also spend the summer months in more rural areas. Flocks returning to summer roosting sites at dusk are an impressive sight. Hundreds of these birds can swoop in ever tightening circles around a large chimney, disappearing inside the chimney like feathered smoke.

Former names for the chimney swift have included chimney sweep, American swift and chimney bat. These birds, however, do nothing to clean the inside of chimneys, and bats are, of course, mammals. Swifts are not difficult to recognize, and their overall shape has often been described as “cigars with wings.” They are designed for flight and feed almost exclusively on winged insects. They even bathe on the wing, flying low over rivers and other bodies of water and skimming the surface in order to dampen their breast feathers.

In the United States, the chimney swift is the only member of its family found in the eastern half of the country. On the other side of the continent, the white-throated swift, Vaux’s swift and black swift replace the chimney swift in the western United States and southern British Columbia in Canada.

Worldwide, there are about 75 swift species. The family also consists of birds known as swiftlets, needletails and spinetails, but they’re all just variations on the the basic swift model. Some of the world’s other species include band-rumped swift, pale-rumped swift, white-throated swift, white-tipped swift, mottled swift, plume-toed swiftlet, drab swiftlet, silver-rumped spinetail and brown-backed needletail.

The largest member of the swift family is the purple needletail, a species native to Asia. This bird is almost ten inches long and can weigh nearly seven and a half grams. Another species, the cliff swift, makes a nest that is prized in Asian cuisine as an ingredient for “Bird’s Nest Soup.” The governments of various Asian nations regulate the harvesting of nests quite strictly to ensure that the human demand for the soup doesn’t deplete the overall swift population. It’s a lucrative enterprise, however, and some experts worry that poaching and unethical harvesting methods, such as taking the nests before young birds are capable of flight and survival, could endanger the swifts.

Fortunately, nests of chimney swifts in the New World have never become coveted for culinary purposes. According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website, chimney swifts once nested and roosted in hollow trees in old-growth forests. When European settlers arrived, they greatly increased the number of potential nesting sites for swifts by putting chimneys on their buildings. The responsive swifts quickly took advantage of these new nesting and roosting sites. They build their nests, whether in chimneys or hollow trees, of twigs cemented together with their own saliva.

While chimney swifts are spread across much of the eastern United States during the nesting season, their winter home remained unknown for many years. In 1943, Peruvian natives recovered bands that had been attached to the legs of 13 swifts, helping to finally solve the mystery of where the birds spent the winter months. According to an article on the TWRA website, eight of the 13 bands came from birds that had been banded in the Volunteer State.

Of course, swifts are not the only birds in the summer skies. Taking a moment to gaze upward can reward you with views of soaring raptors, swooping swallows and foraging common nighthawks.

Photo by The Other Kev/Pixabay.com • This flying European swift is one of 100 species of swifts found around the world. Only one species, the chimney swift, is found in eastern North America.

 

On the menu: everything from ‘murder hornets’ to snails among some of the things birds eat

Photo by Noutch/Pixabay.com • Although its name might suggest otherwise, the honey buzzard isn’t looking to dip its beak in something sweet. These unusual raptors raid the hives of bees and wasps to feed on the larval form of these stinging insects.

It’s not all bird seed and suet cakes for many of our feathered friends. Some of the world’s nearly 10,000 species of birds show some unusual tastes when it comes to their food. Facebook friend Philip Laws, who resides in Limestone Cove in Unicoi, shared a photo recently of a European honey buzzard, a type of raptor that’s developed a knack for raiding the hives of bees and wasps. A comment on the post suggested that the buzzard had developed a taste for sweets.

Actually, the truth’s a bit stranger. While many of the hives attacked by the buzzard are loaded with sweet honey, this aberrant raptor’s more interested in the larval bees and wasps housed in the hive’s honeycomb nursery chambers. The honey buzzard, also known as a pern or common pern, is related to such carnivorous raptors as sharp-shinned hawks and rough-legged hawks. 

If you’re worried about the so-called “murder hornets” in recent news articles, just know that the honey buzzard is the only predator known to feed on these insects. In fact, the honey buzzard takes great relish in dining on the larval forms of these wasps, which are more accurately known as Asian giant hornets. The honey buzzard’s head feathers are like scales, helping protect this vulnerable area from stings. In addition, some experts believe the buzzard’s feathers contain a chemical insect deterrent. This raptor also has long toes and claws it can use to dig into a hive.

Photo hbieser/Pixabay.com • The hoatzin, a bird native to South America, feeds almost exclusively on foliage, making it one of the few “grazers” among the world’s birds.

While many birds are seed-eaters, few of them have evolved as grazers and vegetarians. In South America, however, there’s a most unusual bird known as the hoatzin. Also known by such names as “reptile bird,” “stink bird,” “skunk bird” and “Canje pheasant,” the hoatzin lives in swamps and mangrove forests in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America. 

One of the hoatzin’s claim to fame is that it’s a folivore, which simply means it eats foliage, or leaves, as well as fruit and flowers. The bird has even developed a special stomach called a “rumen,” that permits bacterial fermentation of the leaves it devours. Some studies indicate that as much as 80 percent of a hoatzin’s diet consists of leaves. 

The great blue turaco is an African bird that, like most other members of the turaco family, eats mostly fruit, but this bird will eat leaves and even algae when fruit is scarce. Closer to home, the cedar waxwing’s a well-known fruit lover. Birds that eat mostly fruit are known as “frugivores.” A large flock of waxwings can make short work of the fruit of holly or mulberry trees. The berries they eat can even affect their appearance. Some waxwings show an orange, not yellow, tail tip. The orange coloration is the result of the birds eating honeysuckle berries with a red pigment.

Photo by Arkin54/Pixabay.com • Turacos, such as this Guinea turaco, are mostly eater of fruits.

Fans of French cuisine have probably sampled “escargot,” which is basically culinary snails. Of course, humans have a wide range of unusual tastes. There is a species of bird that specializes on feeding on snails, albeit without the garlic and butter of the traditional French dish. The snail kite is found in southern Florida, especially in the Everglades. This raptor feeds almost exclusively on apple snails and has even evolved a specialized hooked beak to help rip the snail from its protective shell. 

Around the globe, various birds have evolved as “sanitation crews” for the ecosystems that they inhabit. Vultures in both the Old World and New World feed on carrion, although a few species will tackle living animals. On the African plains, different vultures have evolved to clean up the carcasses of large herbivores. Different ones have become quite familiar to fans of nature documentaries. These are the large vultures that quickly claim a carcass once lions and other predators have eaten their fill.

Photo by Pixabay.com • The lappet-faced vulture is a scavenging bird, feeding mostly from animal carcasses found in dry savannah habitats.

Some of the species include Egyptian vulture, Indian vulture, lappet-faced vulture and griffon vulture. Many of the Old World vultures are declining at alarming rates largely due to poisoning by insecticides and other chemicals. Their populations are crashing in a similar way to that of bald eagles, which were brought to the brink of extinction because of the use of the pesticide DDT in the 1950s an 1960s. 

While I wouldn’t suggest we offer snails, salads or carrion at our feeders, the dietary habits of some of our birds just go to show what fascinating creatures birds truly are.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Turkey vultures scavenge a road-killed animal.

Ongoing pandemic doesn’t stop club’s annual Spring Bird Count

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Several species of herons were located on the Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee,, including Black-crowned Night Heron.

Not even a pandemic could prevent the Elizabethton Bird Club from conducting the 77th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Bird Count. The annual survey was held Saturday, May 2. The area covered included Carter County and parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington. Fifty-one observers participated in 22 parties using the suggested social distancing protocols.

Although I counted alone due to social distancing, I had a wonderful day. I even added a new life bird to my list when I saw a Mississippi Kite at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. My fellow participants also found some good birds.

Photo by Richard/Adobe Stock • A solitary Mississippi kite sits perched in a lakeside tree.

A total of 159 species were tallied. The recent 30-year average is 149 species. However, broken down by decades, this particular count has seen a steady increase during that period, as follows: 1990s had an average of 145 species, the 2000s saw that increase to 150 species, and the 2010s saw another rise to 153 species. The all-time high on this count was 166 species back in 2016.

The count found 27 species of warblers, including such notable finds as Blackpoll Warbler and Nashville Warbler. The most abundant warblers were Hooded Warbler — which is my personal favorite — and Ovenbird. Each of these had 171 individuals counted.

The most abundant bird was Cliff Swallow with a total of 782 individuals counted. These swallows form nesting colonies under bridges and other structures. They have greatly increased in numbers over the past couple of decades. The other common birds, in descending order, were American Robin, 780; European Starling, 740; Canada Goose, 440; and Cedar Waxwing, 381.

Some of the notable misses on this spring’s count included Northern Bobwhite, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Common Nighthawk, Horned Lark, and Cape May Warbler.

Below is the total for the count:

Canada Goose, 440; Wood Duck, 55; Mallard, 115; Blue-winged Teal, 20; Bufflehead, 9; Common Goldeneye, 1; and Red-breasted Merganser, 3.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wood ducks were among the few waterfowl reported on the recent summer count.

Ruffed Grouse, 1; Wild Turkey, 26; Common Loon, 10; Pied-billed Grebe, 1; Double-crested Cormorant, 95; Great Blue Heron, 74; Green Heron,16; Black-crowned Night-Heron, 5; and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 5.

Black Vulture, 105; Turkey Vulture, 140; Osprey, 11; Mississippi Kite, 1; Northern Harrier, 1; Bald Eagle, 8; Cooper’s Hawk, 4; Broad-winged Hawk, 14; and Red-tailed Hawk, 30.

Sora, 3; Killdeer, 58; Spotted Sandpiper, 17; Solitary Sandpiper, 57; Lesser Yellowlegs, 25; Least Sandpiper, 3; Pectoral Sandpiper, 1; and Wilson’s Snipe, 2.

Bonaparte’s Gull, 2; Ring-billed Gull, 2; Forster’s Tern, 1; Rock Pigeon, 141; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 4; Mourning Dove, 253; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 3; and Black-billed Cuckoo, 2.

Eastern Screech-Owl, 8; Great Horned Owl, 4; Barred Owl, 1; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 13; and Eastern Whip-poor-will, 24.

Chimney Swift, 129; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 32; Belted Kingfisher, 11; Red-headed Woodpecker, 9; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 117; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 9; Downy Woodpecker, 69; Hairy Woodpecker, 11; Northern Flicker, 47; and Pileated Woodpecker, 57.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern Kingbirds are easily identified thanks to the band of white at the end of the bird’s black tail feathers.

American Kestrel, 4; Peregrine Falcon, 1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 11; Acadian Flycatcher, 10; Least Flycatcher, 10; Eastern Phoebe, 166; Great Crested Flycatcher, 21; Eastern Kingbird, 60; Loggerhead Shrike, 1.

White-eyed Vireo, 9; Yellow-throated Vireo, 9; Blue-headed Vireo, 107; Warbling Vireo, 12; Red-eyed Vireo, 248; Blue Jay, 273; American Crow, 349; Fish Crow, 2; Common Raven, 12.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 121; Purple Martin, 61; Tree Swallow, 315; Barn Swallow, 170; Cliff Swallow, 782.

Carolina Chickadee, 236; Tufted Titmouse, 226; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 8; White-breasted Nuthatch, 44; Brown Creeper, 3; House Wren, 82; Winter Wren, 8; Marsh Wren, 1; Carolina Wren, 245; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 102; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 5; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 5.

Eastern Bluebird, 238; Veery, 14; Swainson’s Thrush, 6; Hermit Thrush, 3; Wood Thrush, 112; American Robin, 778; Gray Catbird, 91; Brown Thrasher, 89; Northern Mockingbird, 149; European Starling, 740; and Cedar Waxwing, 381.

Ovenbird, 171; Worm-eating Warbler, 29; Louisiana Waterthrush, 44; Northern Waterthrush, 4; Golden-winged Warbler, 5; Black-and-white Warbler, 113; Swainson’s Warbler, 9; Nashville Warbler, 1; Kentucky Warbler, 3; Common Yellowthroat, 25; Hooded Warbler, 171; American Redstart, 25; Northern Parula, 68; Magnolia Warbler, 4; Blackburnian Warbler, 12; Yellow Warbler, 8; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 36; Blackpoll Warbler, 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 103; Palm Warbler, 4; Pine Warbler, 13; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 57; Yellow-throated Warbler, 32; Prairie Warbler, 3; Black-throated Green Warbler, 144; Canada Warbler, 37; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 9.

Eastern Towhee, 266; Chipping Sparrow, 125; Field Sparrow, 81; Savannah Sparrow, 6; Grasshopper Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 333; Swamp Sparrow, 3; White-throated Sparrow, 20; White-crowned Sparrow, 1; and Dark-eyed Junco, 91.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Song Sparrow brings a beakful of caterpillars back to the nest to feed young.

Summer Tanager, 1; Scarlet Tanager, 94; Northern Cardinal, 364; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 49; Blue Grosbeak, 5; and Indigo Bunting, 97.

Bobolink, 1; Red-winged Blackbird, 346; Eastern Meadowlark, 103; Rusty Blackbird, 2; Common Grackle, 304; Brown-headed Cowbird, 122; Orchard Oriole, 35; and Baltimore Oriole, 26.

House Finch, 111; Red Crossbill, 5; Pine Siskin, 28; American Goldfinch, 353; and House Sparrow, 59.

The birds found in Northeast Tennessee in the spring are much the same as those found in Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina. The key is to keep your eyes open and get into the field whenever possible. As always, I enjoy hearing from readers when they have an interesting observation to share. I hope everyone’s seeing wonderful birds this spring.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

Mississippi kite glimpsed on spring count becomes latest listed ‘life bird’

Photo by Richard/Adobe Stock • A solitary Mississippi Kite sits perched in a lakeside tree. These graceful raptors take their prey mostly while on the wing.

If you know many birders, you have likely heard them talk about “life birds.” These are any species that a birder has seen and identified in the wild for the very first time. It can be any bird species at all that the birder observes for the first time, whether it is a commonplace bird like a song sparrow or something slightly more exotic.

While taking part in the 77th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Count on Saturday, May 2, I saw something that, for our region, could be considered a little more exotic. The sighting certainly ranked as unexpected.

Unless one travels extensively, life birds can be hard to get once people have added to their lists most of the common birds around their homes. Finding a life bird during the ongoing pandemic brings its own challenges. I haven’t added a new life bird to my own list since a visit to South Carolina in June 0f 2016. During that visit to Huntington Beach State Park, I added a least bittern to my list of “life birds.”

My most recent “life bird” appeared closer to home and might qualify as my most unexpected life bird ever. The bird flew into view and onto my life list during the annual Spring Bird Count, which was conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Due to social distancing, many participants counted solo this year, myself included, although a few married couples birded together. I’ll always remember my pandemic spring count, especially for the 46th bird on my tally list for the day.

I found myself in the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton around 11 in the morning. I wanted to scan the evergreens in that vicinity for Cape May warblers, a migrant that finds the tall conifers to its liking. I didn’t find any warblers, but I did surprise a perched raptor into making a short flight.

The instant I saw the bird launch itself into flight, I knew I was watching something out of the ordinary. The bird flew with a combination of grace and power that reminded me of a falcon, but I also glimpsed a barred tail that reminded me of one of the accipiter hawks. Then it landed on a dead branch in a tall sycamore that must have permitted the raptor an unobstructed view of the entire park. Although I’d never until that moment seen a Mississippi kite, I have studied illustrations and photographs. I felt fairly certain of the bird’s identity even before I used my phone to call up some birding sites to confirm my identification.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This Mississippi Kite became the first of its kind ever observed on one of the Elizabethton Bird Club’s Spring Bird Counts for Northeast Tennessee.

That’s when the fact I was birding solo hit home. I wanted some additional witnesses to this very unexpected find. In lieu of other observers, I turned to my camera. The bird had turned its back to me, but I snapped some photos and then made my way to a position that I hoped would allow for better photographs.

Alas, the resident American crows at the park had different ideas. Detecting a raptor in their midst, about a half dozen crows gathered to harass the perched kite. Before I could snap a new round of photos, the kite took flight and flew into a stand of tall trees located between the park and Sycamore Shoals Hospital.

Only a few years ago, a Mississippi kite in Northeast Tennessee would have been unheard of. The hills and mountains of the region are simply not the expected habitat for these graceful raptors. Faith Reeves, a resident of Elizabethton, Tennessee, a Facebook friend and fellow birder, saw the first two Mississippi Kites ever found in Northeast Tennessee. She saw and photographed the birds in her own yard on May 20, 2014, and May 13, 2016.

In addition, Don Holt observed a Mississippi kite in Washington County, Tennessee, on April 16, 2017.

Rick Knight and several other birders also saw several Mississippi Kites for about a week in late August of 2016. Observers estimated that these sightings involved from two to five different kites.

“The August observations are our only fall records,” said Rick Knight, a long-time compiler of birds sightings in the region. He added that fall is the season when kites are likely to linger.

“All spring records are overshooting migrants and are one-day-wonders,” Knight explained.

Hearing his explanation, I felt even more privileged to have witnessed this “one-day wonder” in my home county.

Photo by Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay.com • The red kite is an abundant member of the kite family in Europe and northwest Africa.

The Mississippi kite is a beautiful raptor. Adults are grayish-white with the head often appearing pale gray or almost white. Although the Mississippi kite can attain a wingspan of three feet, these birds weigh only seven to thirteen ounces. They feed almost exclusively on insects, which they capture in flight. Some of the insects, such as cicadas and grasshoppers, are ones that damage crops, making the Mississippi kite a friend to farmers.

These kites breed and nest in the central and southern United States, but they have expanded their range north in recent years. They leave the United States in fall to spend the winter in southern South America.

Several years ago I got the thrill of adding a swallow-tailed kite to my life list in some agricultural fields in southwestern Washington County. I’ve also seen swallow-tailed kites in Florida. There is one other member of the kite family that I’d like to add to my list. The snail kite is a dark bird with a hooked beak designed for feeding on snails found in wetlands. This specialist resides in Florida, as well as the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Other kites found around the world include the double-toothed kite, plumbeous kite, whistling kite, square-tailed kite, red kite and black kite.

It’s been a spring filled with many amazing bird observations. I can’t speak for others, but thanks to that remarkable kite sighting and glimpses of some other fascinating birds, not even having to bird solo in a pandemic can bring me down. I’ll provide more details on this year’s Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee in next week’s column.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Mississippi Kite perched in a tree prior to being dispersed by some defensive American crows.