Monthly Archives: October 2021

Annual fall bird count tallies 129 species for Northeast Tennessee

Photo from Pixabay • A red-headed woodpecker clings to the trunk of a tree. During the recent Fall Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee, all the region’s seven woodpecker species were tallied. The medium-sized red-headed woodpecker is found only in isolated locations in the region. They prefer more open country than most of their kin. Habitat containing dead or dying trees is vital if these woodpeckers are to thrive.

I wrote last week about my participation in the recent 52nd annual Fall Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club.

This week I want to dive into the results of what turned out to be a great count. The five-county tally of the birds in Northeast Tennessee was held on Saturday, Sept. 25, with 34 observers in 14 parties, plus two feeder watchers. Participants covered Carter County, as well as parts of adjacent Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties.

This year’s count tallied 129 species, which is slightly above the recent 30 year average of 125 species. The all-time high was reached in 1993 when 137 species were tallied.

Participants for this year’s count included Fred Alsop, Jerry Bevins, Rob Biller, Debi Campbell, J.G. Campbell, Ron Carrico, Catherine Cummins, Dianne Draper, Cindy Ehrhardt, Harry Lee Farthing, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Don Holt, Connie Irick, David Irick, David Kirschke, Rick Knight, Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Dianne Lynne, Vern Maddux, Joe McGuiness, Tom McNeil, Eric Middlemas, Susan Peters, Brookie Potter, Jean Potter, Pete Range, Judith Reid, Judi Sawyer, Chris Soto, Bryan Stevens, Peggy Stevens, Kim Stroud, Charles Warden and Rex Whitfield.

The four most commonly observed species, in descending order, included European starling, 838; Canada goose, 744; American crow, 502; and blue jay, 437. No surprises there.

Somewhat surprising was the total of 222 brown-headed cowbirds. Other abundant birds that numbered more than 200 individuals included mourning dove (316), rock pigeon (285), chimney swift (227), Eastern bluebird (208), American robin (222), cedar waxwing (230) and American goldfinch (216).

A total of 24 species of warblers was found, including 172 individual Tennessee warblers. These greenish-yellow warblers can be quite abundant as they pass through the region each autumn.

Some families of birds, such as falcons and woodpeckers, were well represented on this count with all the expected species being found by count participants.

Five Empidonax species, often referred to as “empids” by birders were found during the count but do not contribute to the total. These small flycatchers are nearly identical in appearance and silent during the fall. Faced with an inability to positive identify them, birders simply noted that they were seen.

The list follows:

Canada goose, 744; wood duck, 42; mallard, 182; blue-winged teal, 4; Northern shoveler, 2; and common merganser, 4.

Wild turkey, 18; pied-billed grebe, 3; double-crested cormorant, 43; great blue heron, 39; great egret, 4; green heron, 1; black vulture, 61; and turkey vulture, 183.

Osprey, 7; bald eagle, 9; sharp-shinned hawk, 3; Cooper’s hawk, 8; red-shouldered hawk, 6; broad-winged hawk, 11; and red-tailed hawk, 25.

American coot, 1; killdeer, 45; spotted sandpiper, 2; rock pigeon, 285; Eurasian collared-dove, 22; mourning dove,  316; and yellow-billed cuckoo, 2.

Eastern screech-owl, 11; great horned owl  7; barred owl, 3; American kestrel, 28; merlin, 8; and peregrine falcon, 3.

Common nighthawk, 3; chimney swift, 227; ruby-throated hummingbird, 23; and belted kingfisher, 32.

Red-headed woodpecker, 2; red-bellied woodpecker, 83; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 1; downy woodpecker, 51; hairy woodpecker, 11; Northern flicker, 54; and pileated woodpecker, 39.

Eastern wood-pewee, 31; Acadian flycatcher, 1; Eastern phoebe, 92; Eastern kingbird, 1; and loggerhead shrike, 1.

White-eyed vireo, 7; yellow-throated vireo, 5; blue-headed vireo, 21; Philadelphia vireo, 1; and red-eyed vireo, 6.

Blue jay, 437; American crow, 502; fish crow, 3; common raven, 13; tree swallow, 160; barn swallow, 29; and cliff swallow, 1.

Carolina chickadee, 145; tufted titmouse, 109; red-breasted nuthatch, 9; white-breasted nuthatch, 52; brown-headed nuthatch, 3; and brown creeper, 1.

House wren, 8; winter wren, 4; Carolina wren, 179; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 6; golden-crowned kinglet, 5; ruby-crowned kinglet, 9.

Eastern bluebird, 208; veery, 2; gray-cheeked thrush, 2; Swainson’s thrush, 46; wood thrush, 19; American robin, 222; gray catbird, 34; brown thrasher, 14; Northern mockingbird, 80; European starling, 838; and cedar waxwing, 230.

Ovenbird, 2; worm-eating warbler, 4; Northern waterthrush, 1; black-and-white warbler, 3; prothonotary warbler, 1; Tennessee warbler, 172; Nashville warbler, 3; common yellowthroat, 19; hooded warbler, 4; American redstart,  29; Cape May warbler,  40; Northern parula, 5; magnolia warbler, 24; bay-breasted warbler, 76; Blackburnian warbler, 9; chestnut-sided warbler,  9; black-throated blue warbler,  10; palm warbler,  171; pine warbler, 30; yellow-rumped warbler, 2; yellow-throated warbler, 5; prairie warbler  1; black-throated green warbler, 11; and Wilson’s warbler,  1.

Eastern towhee, 71; chipping sparrow, 76; field sparrow, 14; Savannah sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 131; and dark-eyed junco, 45.

Summer tanager, 1; scarlet tanager, 36; Northern cardinal, 160; rose-breasted grosbeak, 89; Blue Grosbeak,  2; and indigo bunting, 13.

Red-winged blackbird  61; Eastern meadowlark, 6; common grackle,  66; and brown-headed cowbird, 222.

House finch, 100; red crossbill, 2; American goldfinch, 216; and house sparrow, 114.

Many of the species observed on this county will be taking a temporary leave of Northeast Tennessee until next spring. Tanagers, warblers, vireos and other birds will seek out locations farther south to spend the winter months.

They’ll be back, though, and just in time for the 2022 Spring Bird Count. To make a comment, ask a question or share an observation, send an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Speedy merlin a member of world’s family of falcons 

Photo by Gary Chambers/Pixabay • The merlin is a small but compact falcon, built for speed and equipped with a personality characterized by aggressive traits all out of proportion to its size.

I took part in the annual five-county Fall Bird Count conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club on Saturday, Sept. 25.

In the morning hours, I birded with Chris Soto around Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and the linear trail that winds along the Watuaga River in Elizabethton. Our efforts were rewarded with looks at plenty of good birds, including a couple of great egrets, several palm warblers, white-eyed vireos, ospreys and common yellowthroats.

Toward noon, we made our way to join other members of our count party —Brookie and Jean Potter — who had covered other areas of Elizabethton with the help of Dave and Connie Irick.

Our break for lunch has been held for many years at the Watauga Lake Overlook. The location gives a convenient place to have an outdoor lunch, weather permitting, while scanning the nearby lake for bird activity.  We did add more birds, including great blue heron and double-crested cormorant, while seated at a picnic table with a good view of the lake.

The true star of the lunchtime show, however, turned out to be a pint-sized falcon known as a merlin. Merlins are built for speed with an overall aerodynamic design enhanced by tapered wings that permit sudden changes of direction and impressive bursts of speed. That inclination for speed was on full display Saturday afternoon during our bird count lunch break. The little merlin would suddenly bank and disappear out of sight only to zip past heading in a new direction moments later. The bird put on a show for the entirety of our lunch break.

In the afternoon, joined by Chris’s husband, Rex, I traveled with Brookie Potter to Holston Mountain. We added some other birds to our list, including dark-eyed junco, red-breasted nuthatch and blue-headed vireo. I’ll compile the results of the fall count in a future column.

Photo by Lapping/Pixabay • The merlin in flight is graceful and swift.

Merlins have a reputation for being pint-sized punks among raptors. The merlin is a member of the falcon family, which also includes birds like the American kestrel and peregrine falcon. I once saw a merlin harassing a turkey vulture, diving on the much larger but less agile bird until the vulture finally veered in another direction. This observation reinforces the merlin’s reputation for aggressively meeting incursions into its territory by other raptors. Reference guides and websites with passages about merlins often accompany the description with such words as “tenacious” and “fierce,” and for good reason.

The merlin has long been associated with the forests of North America and Eurasia, but in recent decades it has proven capable of adapting to life in urban landscapes. In that respect, it’s merely following the example of its cousin, the peregrine falcon. Formerly making its nest on cliffs, peregrine falcons now substitute skyscrapers as nesting sites. A book for children titled “Falcons Nest on Skyscrapers” tells the story of a peregrine falcons successfully nesting on a skyscraper in Baltimore, Maryland.

The keeping of falcons for hunting, originally reserved for kings, queens and other nobility, evolved centuries ago and is known as falconry. The website All About Birds tells how falconers, or people employed to care for the raptors nobles kept in captivity, called the merlin a “lady hawk” because of the tendency of queens and other noblewomen to use these smaller hawks when hunting for birds such as skylarks. The website also identifies Catherine the Great of Russia and Mary, Queen of Scots, as two powerful women who were fond of hunting with merlins.

Although often associated with the nobility of Europe, falconry can be traced back to such ancient civilization as Egypt and Mesopotamia. In both Egyptian hieroglyphics and art, the god Horus is often depicted as a being with the body of a man with the head of a falcon. Existing ancient artifacts in museums around the globe have made this depiction of Horus, also known as Ra, almost instantly recognizable.

In body length, there’s not a lot of difference between a merlin and a kestrel. The merlin, however, boasts a heavier, more compact build than a kestrel. It’s this physical strength that probably lets them get away with being so outgoing with their pugnacious and aggressive lifestyle.

Incidentally, the kestrel is nicknamed “Sparrow Hawk,” while the merlin’s moniker is “Pigeon Hawk.” Their larger relative, the peregrine falcon, used to be widely known as the “Duck Hawk.”

Of course, they are all falcons, a family of raptors that is set apart from such birds as hawks, eagles and harriers.  Other falcons in the United States include the prairie falcon, a bird of the hills, plains and deserts of the American west, and the Aplomado falcon with a range extending from the southwestern United States to as far south as Argentina in South America.  The largest falcon, the gyrfalcon, is a bird of the far in the far north in remote Alaska and Canada, as well as parts of Europe and Asia. In the sport of falconry during the Middle Ages, no person other than a crowned king was permitted to hunt with a gyrfalcon, which thus became known as the “king of birds.”

Merlins remain uncommon in the Eastern United States, which makes any sightings a big occasion for birders. I’ve only enjoyed a handful of sightings over the years, including observations in Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee. One of my more memorable sightings took place on a sandy point on Fripp Island, South Carolina, as I watched a young merlin, perhaps still learning the finer points of hunting, attempting to go after some boat-tailed grackles. A powerful breeze blowing from the ocean probably hampered the bird and offered some protection to the grackles. If any of the grackles had been foolish enough to take flight, I think the merlin would have easily captured its intended prey. On this occasion, the grackles hugged the ground and the merlin eventually had to look elsewhere.

Worldwide, there are 40 species of falcons that have been given such descriptive names as red-necked falcon, red-footed falcon, sooty falcon, orange-brested falcon, brown falcon, black falcon, grey falcon, bat falcon and Eleonora’s falcon, which is named for Queen Eleanor of Arborea, who offered in the 1300s the first documented legal protection for hawks and falcons to protect them from illegal hunting.

Queen Eleanor started a fine tradition. Birds like peregrine falcons and merlins, as well as bald eagles, whooping cranes and California condors remain free and flying in our skies today because of the willingness of government to enact laws that protect both birds and their vital habitat. We can’t lose sight of that, not if we hope to continue seeing a feisty merlin zipping through the skies over Watauga Lake on a gorgeous late September afternoon.

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

Ospreys found around area waterways during migration

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An osprey perches in a tree along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

The day after the yearly Autumnal Equinox, I felt change in the air. The birds felt likewise, I think, based on a wonderful stroll along the linear trail behind the McDonald’s in Erwin.

Normally, I’d be at my desk, but thanks to a power outage, I had some empty time on my schedule and decided to do some research for the bird column by checking out the status of local birds. The occasion also marked my first walk on these wonderful trails since we officially shifted into the fall season.

In the span of about 20 minutes, I observed a pair of ruddy ducks, an osprey, great blue heron, belted kingfisher, red-bellied woodpeckers, Eastern kingbird, Eastern wood-pewee, gray catbird, Tennessee warblers and a Cape May warbler that got so close I had to be content to watch the bird without use of binoculars.

I felt special to get to share the bird’s personal space. It was in some shrub with berries (privet?) but I wasn’t able to tell if it was eating berries or plucking bugs off the berries. I am sure I missed many warblers due to overcast viewing conditions, but the Cape May made up for those missing.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this work of art featuring an osprey with a fish held in its talons.

I also think I had a couple of wild Mallards. The pair was so wary they didn’t strike me at all like typical mallards.

I was alerted to the presence of the osprey, which had apparently snagged a fish dinner from the ponds along the trail, when I heard the bird’s piercing whistles. Ospreys make this call when challenged by other ospreys or bald eagles, or when disturbed by human activity. My interest, which involved training my binoculars on the bird, sent the bird flying to a more distant perch. The osprey carried its fish meal with it. I had a chuckle thinking that perhaps the bird was ashamed of its small catch.

According to the website All About Birds, ospreys don’t dine exclusively on fish. These large raptors have also been documented feeding on other birds, snakes, voles, squirrels, muskrats and salamanders. Perhaps this angler’s also an opportunist.

Ospreys, also known by the common name of “fish hawk,” occur worldwide. Ospreys migrate through the region in spring and fall, making sightings more likely along some lakes and larger rivers. They are becoming more abundant and have also been reported nesting at some lakes and reservoirs in the region in recent summers.

I see ospreys even more often when I travel to South Carolina, where these medium-sized raptors are common along the coast and in wetlands.

Probably because of their shared preference for piscine prey and wetland habitats, ospreys often encounter bald eagles. Ospreys are considerably smaller than eagles, although they are slightly larger than a red-tailed hawk.

The osprey is a truly cosmopolitan bird, occurring on every continent except Antarctica.

The osprey is not technically an official state bird anywhere in the United States, but some unusual political drama occurred in Oregon in 2017 when a state senator attempted to replace Oregon’s official bird (Western meadowlark) with the osprey.

As reported on the website, oregonlive.com, both birds managed to attract ardent supporters. Eventually, a compromise was reached. The meadowlark remained Oregon’s state bird with a modified designation as “official state songbird.” In turn, the osprey received recognition as Oregon’s “official state raptor.”

Farther afield, the osprey has been designated the official bird of Södermanland, a province in Sweden.

In the 1960s and 1970s, ospreys suffered reproductive problems, as did bald eagles and peregrine falcon, as a result of toxic insecticides such as DDT. With the banning of DDT in many nations, the populations of all these birds has improved in recent decades.

The bird Americans know as osprey is technically the Western osprey. The genus Pandion includes only two osprey species — the Western osprey and the Eastern osprey, a bird that ranges across Australia and the island of Tasmania. The Eastern osprey can also be found in the Philippines, Indonesia and New Guinea.

The Elizabethton Bird Club will be offering bird walks every Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. Walks begin at 8 a.m. from the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Scheduled dates for these free bird walks are Oct. 2, Oct. 9, Oct. 16, Oct. 23 and Oct. 30. Many of the park’s trails meander along the Watauga River, which will provide excellent opportunities for observing migrating ospreys. In previous years, ospreys have been fairly common birds on these walks.

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

Photo by Tom Koerner/ USFWS • An osprey makes a successful catch and feeds well as a result.