Monthly Archives: September 2021

Two warblers have names connected with the Volunteer State

Photo by GeorgeB2/Pixabay.com • The Nashville warbler is an attractive bird with more color than the Tennessee warbler.

Tennessee once represented the western frontier for many people in the United States, so the state acted as a beacon for naturalists wanting to make new discoveries. Some of those early naturalists, men such as Alexander Wilson, spent a lot of time in the Volunteer State.

Two of Wilson’s ornithological “discoveries” in Tennessee involved two species of warblers that were  given names to honor the state and its capital after the birds were first observed in Tennessee and near Nashville.

Those birds were both members of one of my absolute favorite bird families — the warblers. It’s necessary to differentiate the New World wood-warblers from a grouping of birds in Europe, Asia and Australia that are also called warblers.

What is a warbler? The Wikipedia entry for these birds describes the New World warblers or wood-warblers as a group of small, often colorful, passerine birds that make up the family Parulidae and are restricted to the New World. They are not closely related to Old World warblers or Australian warblers.

That’s an adequate description, from a scientific standpoint. But warblers are magic. To do them justice, I’m compelled to wax a little more eloquent. They are a combination of color, movement and energy wrapped in a tiny bundle of feathers. Warblers are constantly on the go, hardly ever staying still for long.

The frenetic lifestyle of warblers challenges new birders. These birds don’t often stop and pose long enough for someone to get binoculars focused on them. One doesn’t exactly watch warblers. Following a warbler through tangled vines or the leafy tree canopy isn’t watching so much as anticipating. One gets a “feel” for where the warbler will appear next while tracking them through binoculars. By getting familiar with the way these avian sprites behave is the best way to learn how to observe these birds.

It’s not for nothing that some birders suffer from a malady, particular during the migration seasons, called “warbler neck.” The direct cause is the strain on the neck and back from always looking upward toward the treetops where many warblers like to stay.

Some, but not all, warblers are suffused with bright colors: yellows, oranges, blacks, blues and whites. A few — ovenbird, worm-eating warbler, Northern waterthrush — are various shades of brown. Some of my favorite warblers are the hooded warbler, Blackburnian warbler and black-throated blue warbler.

Then we have the warblers I mentioned earlier, which were discovered in the Volunteer State and to this day bear names honoring the state and its capital city. These two birds are the Tennessee warbler and the Nashville warbler.

Photo by Paul Spark/Adobe Stock • The Tennessee warbler, while named for the Volunteer State, spends very little time within Tennessee. These warblers migrate through the region each spring and fall but nest much farther north in the boreal forests.

The appearance of the Tennessee warbler varies greatly depending on the season. In autumn, most Tennessee warblers are greenish-yellow birds with whitish-gray underparts. Sometimes that green color ranges into vivid chartreuse territory.

In the spring, the basic green and white pattern remains evident, but both males and females sport a gray head and a black line that runs through the eye and along the side of the bird’s face. The plumage — at least in illustrations and photographs — is shown as more crisp and distinct with spring birds.

The pioneering American ornithologist Alexander Wilson gave the Tennessee warbler its name, which, unfortunately, is not an accurate moniker. Don’t blame Wilson too harshly for the mistake. Even after he “discovered” the first Tennessee warblers back in 1811, it would be almost another century before scientists finally located the bird’s nesting grounds in Canada in 1901. The remote and inaccessible nature of the the region helped prolong this mystery about the Tennessee warbler’s life cycle.

Wilson was an interesting figure in the natural history of the United States. Born in Paisley, Scotland, in 1766. As a young man, he learned the trade of weaving. At the same time, he became interested in poetry and claimed inspiration in particular from the Scottish poet Robert Burns.

In 1794, after not succeeding at poetry or weaving, he departed Scotland for a new life in the United States of America. He settled with a nephew in Pennsylvania, but he found opportunities limited for poet-weavers.

To make a living, he took up teaching. He met the famous naturalist William Bartram, who encouraged Wilson’s interest in ornithology and painting. These two passions took off for Wilson.

He made his life’s work the undertaking of publishing the nine-volume “American Ornithology” that featured his own illustrations of American birds. The work featured 268 species with 26 of them having never previously been described for science.

His fame as an ornithologist grew, and several species of birds were named in his honor, including the Wilson’s storm-petrel, Wilson’s plover, Wilson’s phalarope, Wilson’s snipe and Wilson’s warbler. Wilson’s work probably inspired John James Audubon’s own more extensive and famous collection depicting the birds of North America.

Every autumn I see some of the birds Wilson documented and painted as they stage their fall migration through the Volunteer State to reach destinations farther south.

Our capital city of Nashville also provides a common name to one of the warbler clan. The Nashville warbler is a small bird with a rounded head and short tail. The plumage of this warbler consists of yellow below and olive above. The birds have a white eye-ring that stands out against a gray head. The Nashville warbler also has a thin chestnut-brown crown patch, but a really exceptional look is required to see this feature. Most guides don’t mention that the Nashville warbler has a white patch of feathers surrounding the area where its legs join the body. This section of white is completely surrounded by yellow feathers. This is a helpful feature to know when trying to distinguish this warbler from some similar species.

Once again, Wilson bestowed a rather inaccurate name on this species, as the bird in question is only a visitor to Nashville and the surrounding territories during a limited window of time each year. The same is true of the Tennessee warbler. At best, these birds can only be found in the Volunteer State in April and May and again in September and October. Otherwise, Tennesseans would have to travel a good distance to see these birds at other times of the year.

Fortunately, these birds come to us. I’ve already seen the first Tennessee warblers for fall migration, but I’ve not been lucky enough this fall to get binoculars on a Nashville warbler — yet! There’s still time. Migration continues, so get outdoors and see what you can find.

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To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Common nighthawks share autumn skies with many other migrants

Autumn’s a chance for me to indulge my passion for warblers, with a few dozen species of these songbirds passing through the region in the span of a few weeks. I always try to keep in mind, however, that the warblers are not the only migrating birds winging through the region.

The Elizabethton Bird Club had planned a “nighthawks and hot dogs” party at the home of Larry McDaniel near Jonesborough, but that event had to be cancelled because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the region.

My silver lining was that I saw a large flock of common nighthawks at my home on Aug. 29. It was an evening of birding dominated by insect-eaters and fruit-eaters.

Cedar waxwings and one American robin perched in the wild cherry trees and plucked ripening fruit from the branches.

Swooping overhead a handful of Chimney Swifts and about 30 Common Nighthawks (the first I have seen this fall) collected insects just over the treetops. Flycatching from a dead blue spruce was an Eastern Wood-Pewee, another fall first.

Other birds included a pair of Northern cardinals feeding three young, an Eastern towhee and one hooded warbler. At one point an irritable ruby-throated hummingbird chased the pewee round and round the trunk of the dead spruce. They almost looked like they were characters in a zany cartoon.

Photo by Jean Potter • A common nighthawk rests on a metal railing.

Like such birds as warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, flycatchers and hummingbirds, the common nighthawk is a neotropical migrant. In addition, this nighthawk has one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. Twice a year, these birds migrate for distances ranging from 1,600 to 4,200 miles. Nighthawks that spend the spring and summer in Canada travel to southern South America for the winter months.

With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the treetops for passing warblers, vireos and tanagers, but I also remember to direct my gaze to the skies. Forgetting to look skyward could result in missing the passage of such varied migrants as chimney swifts, broad-winged hawks and common nighthawks.

So, what is a common nighthawk? First, this bird, despite what is implied by its name, is not a hawk. It’s also not strictly nocturnal. Particularly in the fall, nighthawks are active during daylight hours when engaged in catching winged insects. Outside of fall migration, these birds can often be observed over large parking lots or well-lit streets, snatching up insects swarming around the light poles.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A common nighthawk adopts an elongated pose atop a fencepost.

The common nighthawk is one of three members of the nightjar family found in the region during the summer months. The other two nightjars are the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow, birds that produce their namesake vocalizations in the nocturnal hours. Both of these species migrate, but they don’t take the dramatic approach employed by nighthawks. Each fall, common nighthawks form large flocks, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of individuals, as they migrate south for the winter.

Unlike whips and chucks, the common nighthawk isn’t active only after dark, which makes it much easier to observe these birds. They look somewhat like swifts and swallows but are much larger. They are brownish-gray birds with pointed wings and forked tails. They are easily identified by distinctive white patches on the underside of their wings.

A perplexing nickname for the common nighthawk is “bull-bat.” This merger of the words “bull” and “bat” makes sense when you explore a little deeper. The common nighthawk earned the nickname “bull-bat” because of its perceived “bat-like” flight and a “bull-like” boom produced by its wings as it pulls out of a dive.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” Apparently, in trying to explain the nocturnal tendencies of these birds, the Greeks came up with the imaginative but erroneous idea that birds like nighthawks liked to sneak into barns and have a meal of fresh goat’s milk. In reality, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, including ants, wasps, beetles, caddisflies, moths, mayflies, flies, crickets, grasshoppers, and other insects. They capture much of their insect prey on the wing.

There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.

So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move in August and throughout September.

I will keep watching the skies. Nighthawks can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air. First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds.

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

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rising clouds provide a backdrop for a flock of migrating nighthawks.

Wood duck one of few ducks that’s an area resident in summer months

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wood duck, also known as the summer duck or Carolina duck in some locations, perches on a submerged log.

I’ve enjoyed sporadic observations of a family of wood ducks living at the fish pond this summer. A wood duck hen chose to raise four ducklings at my pond, which is cloaked in abundant cattails and waterlilies. I think the dense vegetation offers concealment that makes the little family feel at ease.

Nevertheless, the ducks have remained elusive. I get glimpses of them, but the moment they become aware of me the ducklings form a single line and file one by one into the stands of cattails. The hen is always the last to seek the shelter of the cattails, no doubt ensuring the safety of her young before she thinks of herself.

Waterfowl are usually scarce in the region in summer aside from the ubiquitous Canada geese and mallards found at ponds, local park, golf courses and many other locations. Waterfowl aren’t entirely absent, however, especially when you add the variety of domesticated waterfowl that are often found with the aforementioned geese and ducks.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male wood ducks are one of the most stunning of North America’s waterfowl.

The small wood duck is an exception. This duck is a species of waterfowl that can be found, in suitable habitat, during the summer nesting season throughout the southeastern United States. Unlike Canada geese and mallards, which historically never nested in the region until recent decades, the wood duck is actually supposed to be present during the warmer months of the year. In many parts of their range, wood ducks are known as the “summer duck” since they are the only wild native nesting duck present during the season.

Another common name for this species is the Carolina duck, which refers to the southern stronghold of this species of waterfowl. Wood ducks are year-round residents across much of the southeastern United States, especially in suitable habitat such as small lakes, flooded woodlands, swamps and marshes.

Like a handful of other North American waterfowl, the wood duck is a cavity-nesting bird. These ducks often occupy former nesting cavities created by woodpeckers, but they will also readily accept nesting boxes of suitable dimensions provided by human landlords. Because of their devotion to nesting in cavities, wood ducks have at least something in common with songbirds like Eastern bluebirds, tree swallows and house wrens, as well as larger birds such as American kestrels and Eastern screech-owls. Wood ducks aren’t the only waterfowl that nest in cavities. Buffleheads, hooded mergansers and common goldeneyes are also cavity-nesting ducks. None of those ducks, however, nest in the southeastern United States.

Some wood duck nests can be located far above the ground, which poses a challenge for flightless young. Like most species of waterfowl, young wood ducks are born capable of immediately leaving the nest and being led by their mother to foraging areas. First, however, there’s that giant leap of faith that each of the ducklings must make. Nests are often built over water, so that first jump often ends in a splash-down. Some nests are built over land, but that doesn’t seem an obstacle. The ducklings make that leap without any difficulty. Just like the Abominable Snowmen in the old holiday favorite “Rudolph, The Red-nosed Reindeer,” wood duck babies bounce! Once the ducklings have departed their cozy nesting cavity, their mother will guard them from predators and lead them to prime foraging areas for a period of about two months.

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay • A wood duck hen keeps watch as one of her ducklings forages in the thick duckweed covering a pond’s surface.

The wood duck belongs to the genus Aix. The only other species in the genus — the Mandarin duck — is native to East Asia. The two are classified as “perching ducks” by biologists. The males of both these species are among the most ornate ducks in the world. The male wood duck has red eyes and a dark-tipped red bill. The colors in a male’s plumage includes glossy, iridescent greens, purples and browns in dramatic patterns. The male also has a distinctive head crest. Female wood ducks also have crests, but their plumage is overall gray and brown with a teardrop-shaped white patch around the eyes, as well as a white chin and throat.

The majority of a wood duck’s diet consists of vegetable matter. In autumn, I’ve observed these ducks foraging with enthusiasm for acorns. Summer, however, is a time for gorging on insects. The wood duck hen, and her ducklings in particular, have been happy to forage for insects and other small invertebrates among the floating lily pads.

In his book, “Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh,” author John Eastman noted that the wood duck was the most abundant of North American ducks during the 19th century. In the late 19th century, pressures from hunting and habitat destruction combined to dramatically lower the numbers of this exclusively North American duck. Eastman noted that the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is largely credited with saving the wood duck from possible extinction.

From 1918 to 1941, it was illegal to hunt wood ducks. Thanks to this temporary hunting ban and other conservation measures, the wood duck population recovered in dramatic fashion. Recent surveys all point to a species on the rebound with numbers of wood ducks rising for the past several decades.

The creek and the fish pond at my home have proven dependable magnets over the years for attracting visiting wood ducks. I also have good luck finding wood ducks at the large pond at Erwin Fishery Park. Most wood ducks in the southeastern United States do not migrate. Those that live farther north during the summer will migrate to areas as far south as Mexico in the fall. We’re fortunate to reside in a region where wood ducks are year-round resident waterfowl.

I feel even more fortunate that a stealthy visit to the fish pond at my home has given me numerous opportunities over the past few months to glimpse the lives of these fascinating ducks of summer.

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To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wood duck family shares a fallen log.