Monthly Archives: January 2022

Great Backyard Bird Count returns in February for 25th year of counting birds

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay • Red-breasted nuthatches have not been prevalent this winter in Northeast Tennessee. Many people with bird feeders are more likely hosting the related white-breasted nuthatch. Next month, the Great Backyard Bird Count returns for a 25th year. Birders and nature enthusiasts will be invited to count common and not so common birds in their own yards, gardens or other favorite birding spots in order to contribute to scientific knowledge of bird population trends.

I look forward every year to the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a survey established as a citizen science project back in 1998. This year’s GBBC will celebrate its silver anniversary as the yearly survey observes 25 years of monitoring bird populations.

Since 2013, the GBBC has been a global effort, allowing birders around the world to take part. Participants in 2015 observed almost half of the world’s known bird species, and that effort was surpassed the next year. Momentum has built ever since. Last year, GBBC participants identified 6,436 species of birds. When you consider that scientists estimate between 9,000 to 10,000 different species of birds throughout the world, that’s a lot of coverage that the GBBC provides each year.

The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada. With its global perspective, a great many exotic bird species are now tallied on the annual GBBC, but the survey remains firmly established as a grassroots effort to compile data crucial for the conservation of the world’s beloved birds. The information gathered by tens of thousands of volunteers helps track the health of bird populations at a scale that would not otherwise be possible.

It’s incredibly easy to take part in the GBBC. Anyone anywhere in the world can count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the four-day count period and enter their sightings at There’s no charge or fee for taking part in the GBBC, which is a fun way to observe a variety of birds. Thanks to the flexible count criteria, it is also an easy way to make a contribution to science. The data delivered by the thousands of participants is now collected and compiled by the website

In 2021, the GBBC broke records once again. Here are some interesting tidbits from last year’s survey:

• 6,436 species of birds identified

• 190 participating countries

• 379,726 eBird checklists

• 479,842 Merlin Bird IDs

• 151,393 photos added to Macaulay Library

• More than 300,000 estimated global participants

The United States had the highest number of checklists with more than 250,000 checklists submitted from all 50 U.S. states, five territories and the District of Columbia. California led all states with 20,715 checklists submitted. New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida rounded out the Top Five. Tennessee didn’t fare too poorly. The Volunteer State ranked 19th with 5,360 checklists submitted. Internationally, people living in the nations of Canada and India submitted a lot of checklists.

Over my years taking part in the GBBC, I have counted many interesting and unexpected birds, including green-winged teal, Ross’s goose, snow goose, red-shouldered hawk and Cooper’s hawk.

This year’s GBBC will be held over a four-day period, starting on Friday, Feb. 18, and continuing through Monday, Feb. 21. Participants are invited to count birds at their own homes in their yards and gardens.

Counters can also travel farther into the field, birding in their favorite parks, wildlife refuges or other birding hot spots. Participants can count alone or join with groups of fellow birders. Those taking part in the GBBC are invited to count in as many locations as they like. The reported results will help create a real-time snapshot of where birds are distributed during the winter months. Visit for more details on how to take part in the 2022 GBBC.

Common raven is no bird brain

Photo by Alexas-Fotos/Pixabay • Common ravens, although native to the region, were not so common only a few decades ago. This much larger relative of the American crow is slowly becoming more commonplace in the area once again.

Since back in November, a common raven has been lurking in the woodlands around my home. I even hear the raven’s loud croaking when I’m inside the house. The local American crows have not rolled out a warm welcome for the interloping raven, but there seems to be an uneasy truce between the crows and the much larger raven.

Ravens are vocal birds. I got reminded of the many unusual vocalizations a raven’s capable of when the resident bird flew over, croaking loudly, on a recent brisk and sunny late afternoon. Between the croaks, the raven produced an uncanny imitation of a tinkling bell. The bird produced this bell sound several times before flying out of sight.

I’m not pulling any legs. Among their vocal repertoire, ravens can produce, usually in flight, a “bell” call. I’m not sure if this is a common vocalization. I only remember ever hearing a raven’s “bell” on only one other occasion. I was with a group of more established birders at Roan Mountain State Park when a raven flew overhead. Someone called out, “Listen to that.” I listened and heard my first raven “bell” call.

The strange thing is that I can find little about this strange vocalization when I researched the subject. According to the website “All About Birds,” common ravens calls vary from a low, gurgling croak to harsh grating sounds and shrill alarm calls. Scientists have placed their vocalizations into as many as 33 different categories based on sound and context. The most commonly heard is the classic gurgling croak, rising in pitch and seeming to come from the back of the throat.

The croak is their standby vocalization, which they produce often. The raven’s croak can be heard from a mile away. And, in defense of the poet Edgar Allan Poe and his “ominous bird of yore,” ravens are accomplished mimics. According to “All About Birds,” ravens can imitate other birds. Raven raised in captivity can even learn words. “Nevermore?”

From the opening refrain of “once upon a midnight dreary” in his poem, “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe established a somber mood and also helped cement the dark reputation of one of North America’s most misunderstood birds. Poe describes the bird that provides the title of his famous poem with adjectives such as “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous.” His raven also speaks, although it has the limited vocabulary of a single word, “Nevermore.”

How else does the real common raven resemble the “bird of yore” in Poe’s classic poem? For starters, the raven is an intelligent bird. Authors of a scientific study conducted about 15 years ago posited the claim that ravens and crows are just as intelligent as some of the great apes. Although parrots are more famous for the ability to mimic human speech, captive ravens have proven capable of learning more words than even the most impressive vocabulary-endowed parrots. So, Poe was not wide of the mark when he gave the gift of gab to the raven in his poem.

In the United States, the raven is quite common in Alaska. In the lower 48 states, raven populations are somewhat more sporadic. These large birds have established strongholds along the Appalachian Mountains and in the American Southwest. The raven is a cosmopolitan bird known to range from North America and Greenland to Europe and Asia, as well as North Africa and the Canary Islands.

The common raven is mainly a scavenger, but this bird is also an opportunistic predator and will prey on a wide variety of animals, including arthropods, amphibians, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and carrion. Ravens are attracted to carrion and are not finicky eaters. They adapt quickly and are known to even consume garbage.

Its black plumage has undoubtedly contributed to the raven’s sinister reputation and its affiliation with many dark superstitions. According to Laura C. Martin’s book, “The Folklore of Birds,” notes that the raven is “loathed throughout Europe as a symbol of impending death and war.” She explains that the raven probably acquired these connotations because these birds fed on battlefield corpses. As indicated earlier, the raven is not a picky eater. Martin also points out that legend maintains that England will remain a powerful nation as long as ravens live in the infamous Tower of London.

Establishing the raven’s closest relatives is helpful in fully becoming acquainted with this species. The raven is a member of the corvid family, which includes birds such as crows, magpies, nutcrackers and jackdaws. The common raven is the largest bird among the corvids. This bird can achieve a wingspan of almost four feet. The average raven weighs about two-and-a-half pounds. Large individuals have been recorded with a weight of slightly more than four pounds, making the raven a contender for the title of world’s largest songbird.

Poe’s poem offers a dramatic introduction to a bird that has once again become rather common in the region, particularly at higher elevations. This bird is well-known for nesting on inaccessible cliffs. However, ravens are proving adaptable. In recent years, a pair of ravens has repeatedly nested beneath the grandstands at Bristol Motor Speedway. Ravens have nested annually at this location at least since the spring of 2013.

Poe’s well-known poem, first published in 1845, is often cited as evidence for Poe’s genius for rhyme and his ability to create a believable supernatural universe populated by dark forces and one particularly persistent raven. It’s more than a little sad and ironic that the magazine that chose to publish Poe’s poem paid him a mere pittance of $9 for his brilliant contribution to literature.

The Bible also offers some interesting tales involving ravens. The prophet Elijah, after falling afoul of a wicked king, went into hiding and was provided food by cooperative ravens. In the story of the Biblical flood, Noah first released a raven to determine if the waters had receded. When the raven didn’t return to the ark, Noah next released a dove. This bird later returned to the ark clutching an olive leaf, which proved that the flood waters had subsided.

Many cultures also consider the raven as a “bringer of magic,” and the bird is associated with many creation stories in Native American cultures. Unlike the European custom of designating black as an “evil” color, Native Americans teach that black can hold various meanings, including resting, healing and prophetic dreaming, but evil is not one of them.

Ravens and crows are similar, but ravens are much larger birds. In addition, ravens have wedge-shaped tails and crows have fan-shaped tails. The common raven also has a well-developed ruff of feathers on the throat, commonly called its “hackles.”

A “murder of crows” is a fairly well known collective noun for a flock of these birds. On the other hand, a group of ravens has many collective nouns, including a “bazaar,” “constable” and “rant” of ravens. For its alliteration, I’m fond of “a rant of ravens” and think it’s a shame that Poe’s raven was apparently a solitary bird.

Other species of ravens found around the world include dwarf raven, thick-billed raven, fan-tailed raven, brown-necked raven, little raven and forest raven.

I like ravens. I find them fascinating, but there’s still something that causes some shivers when one hears the guttural, loud croak of a raven. It remains difficult to completely dismiss the raven’s long history of association with the darker niches of the world.

On that note, here’s one final tidbit regarding the raven taken from Martin’s book. Cherokee tribes believed that ravens would visit villages where ill or dying people were present. In the absence of a village shaman to drive away the bird, the raven would invariably snatch the life of the ailing individual.


To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Bryan Stevens on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email

Christmas Bird Counts long tradition for local club

The first Christmas Bird Counts were conducted on Christmas Day (Dec. 25) 1900. The annual census arose from a proposal made by famed ornithologist Frank M. Chapman. According to, these yearly counts, conducted throughout the country, have provided a wealth of data over the past century.

Observations made due to CBCs have helped Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, the data provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, otherwise known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, has a long history of participation in the annual Christmas Bird Count. In fact, the club has conducted two different counts — one for Elizabethton and another for Roan Mountain — for decades. The 2021 CBC marked 79 unbroken years in conducting a CBC for Elizabethton. The club has also conducted 69 Roan Mountain CBCs, but inclement weather on the unpredictable Roan has forced cancellation of this annual count on a few occasions.
Many of the birds found on these two winter surveys can also be found throughout other counties in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee.


The 79th consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count was held Saturday, Dec. 18, with 27 observers in seven parties. Counters tallied 69 species of birds, which is below the recent 30-year average of 73 species. The all-time high was 85 species counted in 2017.
The weather on count day, light rain for much of the day, contributed heavily to the lower total. Few ducks due to a mild season also was a factor.

Notably absent were species such as double-crested cormorant, turkey vulture, palm warbler, white-crowned sparrow, Eastern meadowlark, common grackle and brown-headed cowbird. Several species were found in low numbers, also largely due to the rain.

The list for the Elizabethton CBC follows:
Canada goose,  562; Mallard, 162; redhead, 11; ring-necked duck, 1; bufflehead, 179.
Wild turkey, 31; common loon, 2; pied-billed grebe, 7; horned grebe, 20; and great blue heron, 19.
Black vulture, 1; sharp-shinned hawk, 2; Cooper’s hawk, 10; bald eagle, 3; red-shouldered hawk, 1; red-tailed hawk, 4; and American kestrel, 12.
Killdeer, 3; Wilson’s snipe, 1; ring-billed gull, 1; rock pigeon, 329; Eurasian collared-dove, 1; and mourning Dove, 205.
Eastern screech-owl, 4; great horned owl, 1; barred owl, 1; and belted kingfisher, 14.
Red-bellied woodpecker, 36; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 12; downy woodpecker, 25; hairy woodpecker, 6; Northern flicker, 23; and pileated woodpecker, 16;
Eastern phoebe, 16; blue jay, 182; American crow,  373; and common raven,  6.
Carolina chickadee,  145; tufted titmouse,  99; white-breasted nuthatch, 13; red-breasted nuthatch, 1; and brown creeper, 4.
Winter wren,  6; Carolina wren,  110; golden-crowned kinglet, 29; ruby-crowned kinglet, 20; Eastern bluebird, 128; hermit thrush, 4; and American robin,  443.
Gray catbird, 1; brown thrasher, 3; Northern mockingbird, 69; Eurasian starling, 1,110; cedar waxwing, 120; orange-crowned warbler, 1; and yellow-rumped warbler, 176.
Eastern towhee, 13; chipping sparrow,  3; field sparrow, 19; fox sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 193; swamp sparrow,  3; white-throated sparrow, 62; dark-eyed junco,  48; and Northern cardinal,  176.
Red-winged blackbird, 5; house finch, 57; American goldfinch, 83; and house sparrow, 16.
Observers for this count were  Fred Alsop, Rob Armistead, Judith Baird, Jerry Bevins, Tammy Bright, Kevin Brooks, Cade Campbell, Debi and J. G. Campbell, Catherine Cummins, Harry Lee Farthing, Dave Gardner, David and Connie Irick, Rick and Jacki Knight, Roy Knispel, Vern Maddux, Tom McNeil, Brookie and Jean Potter, Pete Range, Judi Sawyer, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud, Scott Turner and Charlie Warden.

The 69th Roan Mountain Christmas Bird  Count was held Sunday, Dec. 19, with seven observers in three count parties participating in the event.
The participants tallied 53 species, well above the recent 30-year average of 46 species. The all-time high on this count was 55 species found in 1987.
The weather was slightly better than the day before on the Elizabethton CBC, but conditions remained overcast with occasional periods of mist, with colder and breezy periods.
Observers for the Roan Mountain CBC were Fred Alsop, Kevin Brooks, Cade Campbell, Rick Knight, Roy Knispel, Tom McNeil and Judi Sawyer.
The list for the Roan Mountain CBC follows:
Canada goose, 77; American black duck,  9; mallard, 1; bufflehead, 23; hooded merganser, 3; and pied-billed grebe, 2.
Great blue heron, 2; black vulture, 9; turkey vulture, 50; red-tailed hawk, 2; and American  kestrel, 1.
Rock pigeon, 33; mourning dove, 42; barred Owl, 2; and belted kingfisher, 5.
Red-bellied woodpecker, 7; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 7; downy woodpecker, 6; Northern flicker, 5; and pileated woodpecker, 6.
Eastern phoebe, 11; blue jay, 41; American  crow, 256; and common raven, 20.
Carolina chickadee, 61; tufted titmouse, 25; red-breasted nuthatch, 20; white-breasted nuthatch, 18; and brown creeper, 3.
Winter wren, 1; Carolina wren, 31; golden-crowned kinglet, 15; ruby-crowned kinglet, 1; Eastern bluebird, 21; hermit thrush, 3; American  robin, 332; Northern mockingbird, 5; European starling, 121; cedar waxwing, 13; and yellow-rumped warbler,  1.
Eastern towhee, 3; field sparrow, 40; fox sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 116; swamp sparrow, 3; White-throated Sparrow, 5; dark-eyed junco, 150; and Northern cardinal, 48.
House finch, 34; red crossbill, 5; pine siskin, 2; American  goldfinch, 31; and house sparrow, 4.

A total of 332 American robins were found on the Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Count and another 443 robins were tallied during the Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count. 

Although birds made headlines in ’21, stories for some species come to an end

Photo by Bob Peyton/USFWS • At 70, Wisdom, a female Laysan albatross and the world’s oldest known breeding bird in the wild, became a mother once again in 2021. In this photo from a previous nesting in 2018, when she was then 67 years old, Wisdom cares for a chick in her nest on Midway Atoll.

Our feathered friends made the headlines in 2021. For a few, the final curtain dropped. For others, their stories offer a ray of hope in some occasionally bleak times.

Feathered time capsule

Testing conducted by scientists identified the bird as a female horned lark, a species that can be found in a few locations in Northeast Tennessee, mostly during winter and early spring. I find it amazing that this bird lived during the same era as now extinct Ice Age beasts, including mastodons, mammoths and woolly rhinos. The horned lark is a small songbird. Males have black masks and a yellowish wash on the head and throat. Males also have the namesake “horns” that are actually dark feather tufts atop the sides of the head giving them the look of a small feathered comical devil. The bird is known as “horned lark” in North America and “shore lark” in Europe.

A mother again

Motherhood suits a Laysan albatross known as Wisdom. She hatched her most recent chick in February of 2021. Why is that worthy of a headline? Well, Wisdom is at least 70 years old, making her the world’s oldest known bird. She was first documented when she was banded in 1956 on Midway Atoll in the Pacific. Since that time, she has weathered storms, earthquakes and tsunamis. In her lifetime to date, Wisdom has flown millions of miles in search of food at sea. She still returns faithfully to Midway Atoll, which is home to the world’s largest colony of albatrosses, when it’s time to nest. Biologists estimate that Wisdom has hatched at least 30 to 36 chicks in her lifetime, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bell tolls for the ‘Lord God Bird’

The ivory-billed woodpecker was officially declared extinct in 2021. More accurately, the species was proposed for removal from the Endangered Species Act. This decision came 17 years after the largest of North America’s woodpeckers was “rediscovered” in 2004 in the Big Woods region of Arkansas. Despite a resurgence of interest in a bird also known dramatically as the “Lord God Bird,” the scientific community, no further evidence surfaced to support the belief in some quarters that ivory-billed woodpeckers still exist. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service made the extinction declaration in a press release issued on Sept. 29, 2021. The release also identified other birds as candidates for a declaration of extinction, including Bachman’s warbler. Like the woodpecker, the warbler’s last stronghold was in Southern swamps. Several species of native Hawaiian birds have also likely passed into oblivion. Other candidates for de-listing from the Endangered Species Act included several species of fish and mussels. The press release acknowledges that while protections were provided too late for the 23 species mentioned within its pages, the ESA has been successful at preventing the extinction of more than 99% of species listed. In total, 54 species have been delisted from the ESA due to recovery, and another 56 species have been downlisted from endangered to threatened. The Service’s current work plan includes planned actions that encompass 60 species for potential downlisting or delisting due to successful recovery efforts. It’s still cold comfort to fans of North America’s largest woodpecker and the mysterious Bachman’s warbler.

Silver Linings

If you’re looking for evidence that the COVID-19 lockdowns came with a silver lining, turn your gaze to our fine feathered friends. There’s growing evidence that some birds thrived during strict lockdown periods because they experienced less pressure to cope with human disturbances. Scientists also agree, however, that these benefits will likely prove fleeting for birds as the pace of human activity returns to normal levels.

The babbler babbles again

A living black-browed babbler was captured in 2020 by a pair of researchers. They found the bird on the island of Borneo. Before releasing the bird, they documented their find with photographs. In February of 2021, they published their findings in the journal, BirdingASIA. The rediscovery of the black-browed babbler is significant because the only other time the bird had ever been documented was between 1843 and 1848 when the naturalist Carl Schwaner captured one on the island of Java. After that one “blip” on the radar screens of naturalists and ornithologists, Schwaner’s specimen was put into storage and not much attention paid to the species in the intervening 170 years.

Photographic evidence

A tiny songbird known as the Urich’s tyrannulet has been documented with photos and audio recordings by a research team during an expedition to Venezuela. According to a press release from American Bird Conservancy, the tyrannulet (a species of flycatcher) was first described by science in 1899. Second and third sightings of the bird occurred in the 1940s and in 2005, respectively.

Mystery outbreak fades away

An outbreak of disease among birds across the United States surged in spring and summer of 2021 before gradually fading away by fall. A joint statement of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine on Sept. 17, 2021, all states affected by the mysterious bird illness earlier in the year had lifted their do-not-feed recommendation. No cause has yet been determined, but cases are no longer being reported. Symptoms of the illness included crusty eyes, tremors and paralysis among songbirds. The species most frequently affected were fledgling (juvenile) blue jays, common grackles, European starlings and American robins, along with a few other species. While the cause of the outbreak is still unidentified, several possibilities — West Nile, salmonella, avian influenza, house finch eye disease and trichomonas parasites — have been ruled out as possible causes.