Monthly Archives: January 2021

Annual Christmas Bird Counts produce notable results

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The thaw after a snow makes it easier for wild turkeys to forage for food.

Long-running bird count finds 77 species

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society completed two Christmas Bird Counts last month for Northeast Tennessee. The long-running counts for Elizabethton and Roan Mountain were conducted with social distancing protocols due to the ongoing pandemic. The 78th consecutive Elizabethton CBC was held Saturday, Dec 19, with 26 observers in 10 parties. Although the day started cold at 19 degrees, temperatures warmed by mid-day. Participants tallied 77 species (plus one additional species in count week), which is above the recent 30-year average of 73 species. The all-time high on this count was 85 species found in 2017.

Below is the list for the Elizabethton CBC: 

Canada Goose, 645; Mallard,193; Ring-necked Duck, 1; Bufflehead, 105; and Hooded Merganser, 6.

Ruffed Grouse, 1 (Count Week); Wild Turkey, 26; Common Loon, 3; Pied-billed Grebe, 5; Horned Grebe, 8; and Double-crested Cormorant, 1.

Great Blue Heron, 21; Black Vulture, 14; Turkey Vulture, 14; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Cooper’s Hawk, 4; Bald Eagle, 3; and Red-tailed Hawk, 30.

Killdeer, 8; Ring-billed Gull, 5; Rock Pigeon, 313; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 6; and Mourning Dove, 108.

Eastern Screech-Owl, 4; Great Horned Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 2; Belted Kingfisher, 16; Red-headed Woodpecker, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 49; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 14; Downy Woodpecker, 29; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Northern Flicker, 17; and Pileated Woodpecker, 27.

American Kestrel, 19; Eastern Phoebe, 14; Blue Jay, 199; American Crow, 395; Common Raven, 9; Carolina Chickadee, 159; Tufted Titmouse,110; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 28; and Brown Creeper, 2

Winter Wren, 9; Carolina Wren, 136; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 26; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 9; Eastern Bluebird, 134; Hermit Thrush, 13; American Robin, 40; Gray Catbird, 1; and Northern Mockingbird, 69.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern Mockingbird has been the official state bird for Tennessee since 1933.

European Starling,1081; American Pipit, 51; Cedar Waxwing, 16; Orange-crowned Warbler, 1; Palm Warbler, 1; and Yellow-rumped Warbler,  71.

Eastern Towhee, 20; Chipping Sparrow, 15; Field Sparrow, 10; Fox Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 179; Swamp Sparrow, 6; White-throated Sparrow, 62; White-crowned Sparrow, 13; Dark-eyed Junco, 65; and Northern Cardinal, 199.

Red-winged Blackbird, 3; Eastern Meadowlark, 1; Common Grackle, 2; Brown-headed Cowbird, 1; Evening Grosbeak, 1; House Finch, 27; Red Crossbill, 9; American Goldfinch, 136; and House Sparrow, 49

Participants included Joe McGuiness, Kim Stroud, Dave Gardner, Vern Maddux, Rob Armistead, Chris Soto, Roy Knispel, Jerry Bevins, Pete Range, Harry Lee Farthing, Tammy Griffey, Tom McNeil, Debi and J.G. Campbell, Bryan Stevens, Ben and Anne Cowan, Brookie and Jean Potter, Fred Alsop, Catherine Cummins, Judi Sawyer, Charlie Warden, Michele Sparks, Jacki Hinshaw, and long-time compiler Rick Knight.

The 68th Roan Mountain CBC was held Sunday, Dec. 20, with seven observers in three parties. There was one to two inches of snow above 4,000 feet elevation. Participants tallied

49 species (plus 1 in count week), which also is slightly above the recent 30-year average of 46 species. The all-time high on this count was 55 species in 1987.

This count circle is entirely above 2,800 feet elevation with less water areas and open country resulting in lower over-all bird diversity and density.

Below is the list for Roan Mountain:

Canada Goose, 27; American Black Duck, 10; Bufflehead, 12; and Hooded Merganser, 8.

Ruffed Grouse,  1 (Count Week); Wild Turkey, 18; Pied-billed Grebe, 3; and Great Blue Heron, 4.

Turkey Vulture, 6; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Red-shouldered Hawk, 2; Red-tailed Hawk, 4; and American Kestrel, 1.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Raptors, like this Red-tailed Hawk, showed up on both the Roan Mountain and Elizabethton Christmas Bird Counts.

Rock Pigeon, 16; Mourning Dove, 27;  Belted Kingfisher, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 6; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 2; Downy Woodpecker, 13; Hairy Woodpecker, 6; Northern Flicker, 2; and Pileated Woodpecker, 5.

Eastern Phoebe, 5; Blue Jay, 37; American Crow,176; Common Raven, 31; Carolina Chickadee, 68; Tufted Titmouse, 32; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 14; and Brown Creeper, 1.

Winter Wren, 4; Carolina Wren, 39; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 8; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 1; Eastern Bluebird, 30; Hermit Thrush, 1; American Robin, 43; Northern Mockingbird, 10; and European Starling, 132.

Photo by Nickfish03/Pixabay.com Winter Wrens, such as this individual, reside only at higher elevation during the spring and summer. During the winter months, they take up residence at lower elevations. A total of nine of these tiny wrens were found during the recent Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count. Four more were tallied by the Roan Mountain CBC.

Eastern Towhee, 5; Field Sparrow, 2; Song Sparrow, 89; Swamp Sparrow, 5; White-throated Sparrow, 4; Dark-eyed Junco, 30; and Northern Cardinal, 68.

House Finch, 4; American Goldfinch, 11; and House Sparrow, 20.

Participants included  Fred Alsop, Catherine Cummins, Judi Sawyer, Charlie Warden, Tom McNeil, Roy Knispel, and compiler Rick Knight, who thanked all participants for another successful pair of CBCs.

Results from the two local CBCs will be forwarded to the National Audubon Society. According to the National Audubon Society’s website, the tradition of the Christmas Bird Count arose from a less than bird-friendly custom. By the turn of the 20th century, so-called sportsmen would conduct a “Side Hunt,” a rather blood-thirsty Christmas custom that saw hunters competing to see who could score the largest amount of feathered and furred corpses.

The annual holiday bird survey may even have arisen from an earlier custom with roots in Europe that came to the United States of America with early colonists. The “Side Hunt” has some similarity to a peculiar celebration in Ireland and other European countries known as “Wren Day” or “Hunt the Wren Day.” The event was conducted the day after Christmas, the date of Dec. 26 being consigned as Saint Stephen’s Day. By the 20th century, the hunt consisted of tracking down a fake wren carried atop a decorated pole. Crowds would parade through towns in masks and colorful attire. These groups were referred to as “wren boys.”

Whether or not the “Side Hunt and “Wren Hunt” shared any connections, it was a huge step forward for conservation when preeminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition. His radical idea was to count birds during the Christmas season rather than hunting and killing them. The first CBC took place in December of 1900 with 27 observers participating at 25 locations in the United States and Canada.

We’ve come a long way since the days when birders used a gun to bring a bird up close and personal for inspection. There’s still competition, but these days birders are trying to see which count party can observe and identity the most species of birds. The only evidence brought back from the field is an occasional photograph.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A dark-eyed junco, usually a harbinger of wintry weather and snowy days, shells sunflower seeds beneath a feeder.

Watch for wintering kestrels in open habitats

 

Photo by reitz27/Pixabay.com • While one of the smaller falcons, the American kestrel is also one of the this family of raptors more colorful members.

I enjoyed a drive through Limestone Cove in Unicoi, Tennessee, on the afternoon of the next-to-the-last day of 2020. In addition to finding a total of 13 Eastern bluebirds, I saw an American kestrel perched on utility lines near Bell Cemetery. The sighting was the first I’ve had of a kestrel so far during the 2020-21 winter season. Over the years, the cemetery and adjacent fields have been a reliable location for finding this small falcon during the winter.

The American kestrel, 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.

The American kestrel is a small member of the falcon family, which includes such relatives as merlin, peregrine falcon and gyrfalcon. All falcons, regardless of size, 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.

Photo by PBarlowArt/Pixabay.com • An American kestrel uses a rock outcrop as a convenient perch.

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 kestrel is brownish with black barring on her back and tail. She also shows a buff-colored wash streaked with brown on her under- parts. Both sexes show a strong facial pattern marked by two black “sideburns” on the side of the face.

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. Formerly known by the name “Sparrow Hawk,” the American kestrel 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.

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

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 falcons comprise a family of birds with a long history with humans. The sport of falconry, although not as widely practiced today, long ago became associated with royalty and nobility. In fact, falconry has been called “the sport of kings.” The sport basically involved hunting prey, usually other birds, with birds of prey such as falcons. As a pastime, falconry never became as popular in the United States as in other parts of the world.

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 six individuals. Today, the population, due to intensive human effort, has greatly recovered.

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. Worldwide, some of the more descriptively named falcons include spotted kestrel, rock kestrel, greater kestrel, lesser kestrel, red-footed falcon, red-necked falcon, sooty falcon and brown falcon.

To share observations, ask questions, or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by USFWS/Robert Burton • An American kestrel in flight shows the aerodynamic design that earned this small falcon the common name of sparrow hawk.

Birds make headlines in 2020

Photo by Irene K-s/Pixabay.com  • The ongoing pandemic with its social distancing protocols has motivated many people to connect with nature, especially through activities like bird feeding and birdwatching. Even common birds, like these chipping sparrows and an American goldfinch, help people cope with the stresses of the global pandemic.

To state that it has been a strange year is an exercise in understatement. Nevertheless, the few 2020 bright spots have focused on our fine feathered friends, whether it was the long-awaited return of birds like evening grosbeaks or a welcome spike in interest in all things related to birds. While we wait for 2021 and hope for better days to come, I decided to take a glimpse at some of the bird-related news headlines for this past year.

New birds found

Scientists discovered five new species of birds in 2020. Some of the most recent additions to the world’s avifauna include songbirds from various remote islands, including the Peleng fantail, Peleng leaf warbler, the Taliabu grasshopper warbler, the Taliabu myzoemla and the Taliabu leaf warbler. These newly-discovered species will help swell the ranks of the world’s estimated 9,000 to 10,000 bird species. Since many headlines have concerned warnings about disappearing birds, it’s nice to know that scientists are still finding new birds in some unexpected locations. 

Photo by thịnh nguyễn xuân/Pixabay.com • This red and green macaw in captivity shows the bright plumage of its wild kin, which are again flying free in Argentina.

Don’t cry for the macaws, Argentina

Red and green macaws, which have been exterminated from other parts of Argentina, are thriving in Iberá National Park after the country reintroduced these large, colorful birds in 2015. This year, a pair of the 15 macaws living in the park produced three chicks. It’s a start and marks the first red and green macaws hatched in Argentina in more than 150 years.

Birds provide cure for COVID blues

In a year that saw the human species suffer from an ongoing pandemic, many people turned to nature, particularly birds, as a means to cope with the stresses of life during the time of COVID-19. The Audubon Society’s website spotlighted the way birds have brightened the lives of humans during the imposition of social distancing to help prevent the spread of the virus. Sales of bird seed and birdhouses have increased since the early months of the pandemic. It’s not difficult to understand the reason. People have been doing more to invite birds into their lives, whether it’s bribing them with a well-stocked feeder or providing shelter for such necessary activities as nesting and roosting. For more articles on the magic of birds during a global pandemic, visit the Audubon website at Audubon.org. 

Wisdom’s maternal instincts unabated

Wisdom has returned to Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument on the island of Midway. Wisdom, a Laysan albatross that is at least 69 years old, is set to become a mother again after laying an egg in early December as she has been done more than 30 times since 1956. At an age when human mothers might be looking to a chance to enjoy becoming grandmothers or even great-grandmothers, Wisdom wants another crack at motherhood. She has been immensely successful as a breeding albatross, surviving with her offspring the great tsunami that swept over the island in March of 2011. Much studied by scientists, Wisdom has successfully hatched a chick every year since 2006 and looks to replicate this feat again in 2021. 

Evening grosbeaks return to region

After being absent for 20 years, evening grosbeaks have made sporadic appearances at feeders throughout the region with sightings reported from Elizabethton, Roan Mountain, Hampton and Townsend, as well as other locations across the Volunteer State. Part of an irruption of other Northern finches, the grosbeaks have been joined by such species as purple finches, pine siskins and common redpolls. Dianna Lynne, who lives on Stoney Creek in Elizabethton, Tennessee, reported a small flock of both male and female evening grosbeaks at her feeders on Dec. 9. She joins a list of some other people lucky enough to host these entertaining birds this winter.

Brookie and Jean Potter, as well as their neighbors, Jim and Diane Bishop, continued to host a flock of grosbeaks at their homes near Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton, Tennessee. They first saw their grosbeaks in early December, but the flock, which has grown to as many as 17 individuals, now visits daily and has extended its stay into 2021.

Without a doubt, the approaching year 2021 will offer its own surprises. People and birds will make more headlines. Remember to keep space in your life and schedule for birds and nature. These will help anyone weather any storm. To share observations, ask questions, or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

Photo by Jean Potter • A male evening grosbeak perches for a view of a nearby feeder.