Monthly Archives: June 2022

Sandpiper a surprise addition for summer bird count

Photo by USFWS • A baby least sandpiper shelters beneath its dutiful mother. The aptly named least sandpiper is the smallest species of shorebird.

It’s not too often I get a chance to make a historic bird sighting, but that’s what happened on a recent Saturday while seated on a bench with Rob Armistead having a breakfast break while taking part in a seasonal bird survey in Elizabethton along the Watauga River.

I chose the location for the break because I knew that it has traditionally been a good spot to observe some unexpected species. Past good birds that I’ve observed along this section of the Watauga River have included orange-crowned warbler, yellow-throated vireo, sora, Baltimore oriole and red-headed woodpecker.

On this occasion, a tiny shorebird made an appearance, settling on some exposed rock formations. In April and May, these same rocks are great locations to find migrating spotted sandpipers and solitary sandpipers. 

The bird was smaller than these sandpipers and immediately stood out as a “peep,” a nickname that birders give to a group of small sandpipers that are all similar in appearance.

The one physical trait that help distinguish a least sandpiper from other “peeps” is leg coloration. Least sandpipers have greenish or yellowish legs in contrast to the black legs of other similar “peeps.”

In good light and at close range, Rob and I confirmed that the bird had greenish legs and were thrilled to add a least sandpiper to our own tally of observed birds.

The least sandpiper, as suggested by its name, is the smallest member of the sandpiper family. In fact, this sandpiper, which is not much bigger than a sparrow, is the world’s smallest shorebird. The least sandpiper weighs only a single ounce and is only five to six inches long. 

According to the website All About Birds, the least sandpiper migrates thousands of miles between its Arctic breeding grounds and wintering grounds as far south as Chile and Brazil.

In releasing the count compilation, official compiler Rick Knight made note of the fact that the least sandpiper represents a late migrant and the first-ever June record for the species in the five-county area. 

During the course of the day, Rob and I joined Brookie and Jean Potter for a trip to Holston Mountain, where we added some mid- to high-elevation species such as scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, veery, Eastern wood-pewee, dark-eyed junco, ruffed course and chestnut-sided warbler. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male rose-breasted grosbeak perched on a branch on Roan Mountain, Tennessee.

This years survey was the 29th annual Carter County Summer Bird Count and was conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. I’ve been participating on this yearly survey of local birds since the late 1990s.

This year’s count was held Saturday, June 11. A total of 22 observers took part in this year’s count. 

A total of 116 species was tallied, which is right on average for the last decade and slightly above the average of 114 over the previous 28 years, according to Knight.

He noted that the all-time high for this count was 123 species in 2017.

Here’s the total:

 Canada goose, 131; wood duck, 9; mallard, 53; ruffed grouse, 3; and wild turkey, 20.

Rock pigeon, 49; Eurasian collared-dove, 1; mourning dove, 155; yellow-billed cuckoo, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 4; Eastern whip-poor-will, 9; chimney swift, 116; and ruby-throated hummingbird, 22.

Killdeer, 18; least sandpiper, 1; double-crested cormorant, 13; great Blue heron, 22; and green heron, 2.

Black vulture, 5; turkey vulture, 65; Cooper’s hawk, 4; bald eagle, 1; red-shouldered hawk, 2; broad-winged hawk, 5; red-tailed hawk, 5; Eastern screech-owl, 6; and barred owl, 3.

Belted kingfisher, 5; red-bellied woodpecker, 32; downy Woodpecker, 23; hairy woodpecker, 4; Northern flicker, 27; and pileated woodpecker, 16.

American kestrel, 1; great crested flycatcher, 2; Eastern kingbird, 27; Eastern wood-pewee, 31; Acadian flycatcher, 20; alder flycatcher, 2; least flycatcher, 12; and Eastern phoebe, 73.

White-eyed vireo, 5; yellow-throated vireo, 1; blue-headed vireo, 54; warbling vireo, 1; and red-eyed vireo, 165.

Blue jay, 110; American crow, 259; fish crow, 2; and common raven, 10.

Tree swallow, 118; Northern rough-winged swallow, 45; purple martin, 22; barn swallow, 173; and cliff swallow, 265.

Carolina chickadee, 73; tufted titmouse, 93; red-breasted nuthatch, 14; white-breasted nuthatch, 23; house wren, 57; winter wren,  4; and Carolina wren,  116.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher,  23; golden-crowned kinglet, 7; Eastern bluebird, 152; veery,  29; hermit thrush, 1; wood thrush, 66; American robin,  581; gray catbird, 60; brown thrasher,  22; and Northern mockingbird, 70

European starling, 411; cedar waxwing, 61; house sparrow, 98; house finch, 51; pine siskin, 10; and American goldfinch, 170.

Grasshopper sparrow, 1; chipping sparrow,  80; field sparrow, 43, dark-eyed junco, 70; song sparrow, 348; Eastern towhee, 150; yellow-breasted chat, 7.

Eastern meadowlark, 13; orchard oriole, 2; Baltimore oriole , 1; red-winged blackbird, 73; brown-headed cowbird, 49; and common grackle,143.

Ovenbird, 77; worm-eating warbler  3; Louisiana waterthrush, 12; golden-winged warbler,  2; black-&-white warbler, 31; Swainson’s warbler, 6; common yellowthroat, 31; hooded warbler,  110; American redstart , 6; Northern parula, 47; magnolia warbler, 1; Blackburnian warbler,  5; yellow warbler, 3; chestnut-sided warbler, 31; black-throated blue warbler, 49; pine warbler,  3; yellow-rumped warbler, 1; yellow-throated warbler, 16; black-throated green warbler, 19; and Canada warbler,  10.

Scarlet tanager, 42; Northern cardinal, 173; rose-breasted grosbeak, 7; blue grosbeak, 4; and indigo bunting, 161.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young grouse follows its mother into concealment by the edge of a road on Holston Mountain, Tennessee.

My other personal highlight on this count was seeing three young Ruffed Grouse darting  across the road, one at a time, while riding on Panhandle Road to the top of Holston Mountain. Those three young grouse turned out to be the only grouse counted by any participants on the count.

The Unicoi County Summer Bird Count was conducted Saturday, June 18. I’ll provide the results of that count in an upcoming column. 

Tanagers are among world’s most colorful birds

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter
A male scarlet tanager brightens shadowy woodlands with a flash of tropical colors yet remains mostly inconspicuous in the forest canopy.

The daily chorus of songbirds greeting the dawn is usually welcome unless I’m feeling particularly sleepy. Carolina wrens are one of the first birds in residence to sing each day. This time of year they get plenty of accompanists, including American robins, Eastern phoebes, Carolina chickadees, Northern cardinals, Eastern towhees, red-eyed vireos, indigo buntings, hooded warblers, ovenbirds and others.

As June arrived, however, I began to take notice of the absent voice of scarlet tanagers. It wasn’t until June 9 that I heard the first male scarlet tanager of the season singing from the wooded ridge behind my home.

In late April and throughout May, once the oaks, the maples, the poplars and other trees begin spreading out new green leaves to create a concealing woodland canopy, a familiar song can be heard from the treetops. 

Upon first hearing it, listeners might mistake the hidden singer for an American robin. Listen a little closer, however, and the song sounds as if it is being delivered by a robin stricken a bit hoarse with a sore throat.

The producer of the hoarse but melodic song is a scarlet tanager, one of the most showy birds of Eastern woodlands from April to early October. Like the warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other songbirds, the scarlet tanager is migratory. They spend the winter months in the tropical forests of Central and South America. The scarlet tanager is better attired than most birds to provide us a glimpse of what life must be like in the tropical rain forests, which are a riot of color and sound.

It takes only one sighting to sear the vision of these vibrant birds into our retinas, as well as into our memories. The scarlet tanager boasts a brilliant plumage of crimson red paired with black wings and tail. Of course, this is the male. The female scarlet tanager makes no real claim to the common name with her comparatively drab greenish plumage. However, the scientific name, Piranga olivacea, gives a nod to the olive-green plumage of females, young males and even adult males when molting their feathers.

Although once nominated as a candidate for state bird by the school children of Minnesota, the scarlet tanager ultimately failed to gain the designation. Instead, as perhaps is fitting for the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” the common loon represents Minnesota as official state bird.

The related summer tanager is less widespread in Northeast Tennessee, but males of this species are no less dramatic in appearance than the Scarlet Tanager. Male summer tanagers are a rosy-red over all their body. Females, with a dull greenish plumage, are relegated to the background. She can be distinguished from her counterpart, the scarlet tanager, because of their darker wings and larger bills.

The summer tanager holds the distinction of being the only all-red bird in North America. Birds like Northern cardinals and scarlet tanagers also have some black in their plumage.

I’ve seen summer tanagers at Steele Creek Park in Bristol and Willow Springs Park in Johnson City. Sadly, over the years my sightings of this attractive songbird have been few and far between. My most memorable observation of a male summer tanager took place many years ago during a spring visit to Fripp Island, South Carolina. Most of the summer tanagers I have observed in Northeast Tennessee have been females.

On the other hand, I usually have a few scarlet tanagers in residence around my home during the summer months. If the woodlands at my home fail to attract this bird, I can usually make a visit to higher elevations on Roan Mountain, Unaka Mountain or Holston Mountain to gain an exciting glimpse of this beautiful bird.

Worldwide, there have traditionally been about 240 species of tanagers. Experts have changed some of the ways they classify tanagers, so that figure is no longer set in stone. Tanagers are a New World family of birds, concentrated mainly in the tropics.

In the western United States, the scarlet and summer tanagers are replaced by Western tanagers and hepatic tanagers. During a visit to Salt Lake City in Utah in 2006 I saw several Western tanagers.

Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including flame-colored tanager, green-headed tanager, golden-chevroned tanager, azure-shouldered tanager, fawn-breasted tanager, saffron-crowned tanager, metallic-green tanager, turquoise tanager, scarlet-bellied mountain tanager and diademed tanager.

A print of Scarlet Tanagers by early North American naturalist and painter John James Audubon.

Scientists have recently given fresh consideration to the relationship of many tanagers to the other birds of the world. As a result, many of the North American tanagers are now closely allied with such birds as Northern cardinal and have been pushed into a tenuous relationship with tropical tanagers.

The scarlet tanager is not typically a feeder visitor, but you can lure these birds with orange slices placed in special feeders or simply spiked onto the branches of backyard trees. As an added bonus, orange slices can also attract birds such as baltimore orioles and gray catbirds.

Fond of fruit, the scarlet tanager incorporates various berries into its diet. Landscape around your home with fruit-bearing trees such as mulberry, serviceberry and wild cherry to make your yard more inviting to these elusive bird.

Yes, the scarlet tanager is more often heard than seen, but it is a bird worth seeking out. A sighting is guaranteed to impress. Seeing a scarlet tanager will almost make observers feel like they’ve been dropped into a tropical jungle instead of standing beneath a woodland canopy in the Southern Appalachians.

I’ll be participating in some summer bird counts over the next few weeks, so I am hopeful that my 2022 drought of scarlet tanager sightings will soon be at an end.

Culprit emerges in ‘murder mystery’

Photo by Tom Ferguson/Pixabay • A sharp-shinned hawk perches at the edge of a bird bath. The raptor’s talons, which are on full display, help explain this bird’s efficiency as a predator. 

Darlene Bloomfield emailed me from her home in Parry Sound, Ontario, in Canada. She wanted my help in solving an avian “whodunnit” type of mystery. 

“We had both a robin and a brown thrasher nesting in our cedar hedge,” Darlene wrote in her email.

“Both seemed to have babies,” she added. “The other morning we found a mound of robin feathers on the ground in front of the hedge along with many tiny feathers.”

She also noted that the robins are no longer around.

“Would a thrasher kill a robin?” Darlene asked. “We have seen them chasing each other.”

She also noted that they didn’t find the bodies of the dead robins.

So, in a case perhaps best filed under NCIS Ontario, I looked at the clues and responded.

Robins and thrashers are about the same size and will skirmish if they have to defend their territory, but sadly the evidence points to another culprit.

The little mound of feathers sounds like what a hawk (likely a sharp-shinned hawk or Cooper’s hawk) would leave behind after grabbing a meal in a yard or garden.

The absence of the bodies is also explained. The predatory hawk likely dined on robin and left only the plucked feathers as evidence. 

I expressed sympathy that the incident happened. I’ve been somewhat light-hearted in my relation of the mystery in this column, but it’s important to note that hawks and other predatory creature are not evil. They are not villains. They are doing what they were designed to do. 

The sharp-shinned hawk and its larger relative, the Cooper’s hawk, are classified as accipiter hawks. The sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper’s hawk are the two raptors most often encountered by people who feed birds. Part of the family of Accipiter hawks, these two species are widespread in woodlands.

The Cooper’s hawk is larger, often described as similar in size to an American crow. The Sharp-shinned, on the other hand, is usually described as the size of a dove. There’s some overlap in size, so it is not the only reliable means of identifying these hawks. For example, female Sharp-shinned hawks are roughly equivalent in size to a male Cooper’s hawk. As with many raptors, the female is larger than the male in both these species.

There are some other things to look for in telling these species apart. For instance, adult Sharp-shinned hawks often look like they have a dark cap or hood. The eyes on a sharp-shinned hawk also look like they are halfway between the front and back of the head. In addition, the head itself looks small in comparison to the overall size of this hawk’s body.

These two species feed heavily on songbirds, which causes some bird-lovers distress. I like to view predation incidents as good examples of how the the natural world is good at keeping things balanced. 

The sharp-shinned is really beautiful, especially for a hawk. Preying on songbirds doesn’t make them “bad” birds. They’re extremely efficient predators, and if you’ve ever witnessed one of these raptors in action, you can’t help but be impressed by both the power and precision deployed by these raptors in capturing prey.

The Accipiter genus of hawks includes about 50 species. In Northeast Tennessee, as well as across much of North America, the two common species are sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper’s hawk. A third species, the Northern goshawk, is a rare visitor to the region.

 

The Northern goshawk is a large, powerful hawk, and it is also fiercely defensive of its nest. This hawk is known to attack other raptors, mammals and even humans that stray too close to its nesting site.

Goshawk is a term derived from “goose hawk,” referring to the ability of this bird when utilized in falconry to take down such large prey as geese.

Other Accipiter hawks around the world include spot-tailed sparrowhawk, rufous-chested sparrowhawk, grey-headed goshawk, chestnut-flanked sparrowhawk, semi-collared hawk, red-thighed sparrowhawk and tiny hawk, which is one of the world’s smallest raptors. This diminutive hawk is about the size of a European starling and lives in Central and South America.

The sharp-shinned hawk will feed on a variety of birds, ranging in size from sparrows, warblers and thrushes to birds as large as ruffed grouse and mourning dove. This hawk also feeds on small mammals, reptiles and insects.

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

Region’s ‘blue’ birds stand out from feathered kin

Photo by Doug Alspaugh/Pixabay • A male blue grosbeak can be distinguished from the similar but smaller male indigo bunting thanks to a large, heavy beak and chestnut striping on the wings.

A male indigo bunting, after a late spring arrival, has taken to signing most persistently from the tops of some of the tallest trees in my yard and at the edges of some of the surrounding fields.

When I refer to the indigo bunting singing, I am being generous. The bird’s song is a jumble of one-syllable chip notes delivered in machine-gun fashion, over and over, usually from elevated perches. It’s not musical, but it is certainly recognizable and admirable in the sheer persistence of the male’s delivery. 

One of my earliest memories of a songbird involves sightings of these electric blue birds on hot summer afternoons in my childhood. I didn’t know the identity of the bird at that time, but the image of that feathered beauty has stuck with me. 

The indigo bunting belongs to a genus of birds known as Passerina that is wedged into the family Cardinalidae, which includes birds like Northern cardinal and rose-breasted grosbeak. They are often lumped into a group known as North American buntings, although they are not closely related to such birds as snow bunting and lark bunting. The latter is even recognized as the official state bird for Colorado, a unique honor for this group of birds. 

The other members of the Passerina genus include lazuli bunting, varied bunting, painted bunting, rose-bellied bunting, orange-breasted bunting and blue grosbeak.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting is a resplendent bird.

It’s the blue grosbeak that has always interested me, although I see them infrequently. I’ve had blue grosbeaks only visit my home feeders on a couple of occasions in the 30 years I’ve been watching birds and keeping records of my sightings.

Birds sporting entirely blue plumages are decidedly rare. In fact, the indigo bunting and blue grosbeak are the only contenders in the region. I don’t count blue jay, Eastern bluebirds or belted kingfishers because all of these species have white or other colors featured prominently among their blue feathers.

A couple of warblers — cerulean warbler and black-throated blue warblers — feature significant amounts of blue feathers, but it’s not a uniform blue.

A glimpse of a blue blur as an indigo bunting or blue grosbeaks flies across a field, pasture or meadow will reward the onlooker with a look at one of these pretty birds. 

The website All About Birds reports that blue grosbeaks have been expanding their range northward for the past century. The website also describes this bird as widespread but uncommon, which in my experience also applies to the status of the blue grosbeak in northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina and southwest Virginia. 

The blue grosbeak is picky about choosing a habitat. These birds prefer old fields choked with vine tangles and some shrubs, but they can also get comfortable in such habitats as mesquite savannas, salt cedar forests, and southern pine forests. Most evidence, according to All About Birds, points to a slight increase in the overall numbers of this bird in the past few decades.

Both indigo buntings and blue grosbeaks will visit feeders, which is probably the most reliable way to attract these birds. Black oil sunflower or other small seeds, such as millet or thistle, are suitable for both species.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A male Eastern bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City. Male and female Eastern bluebirds are not uniformly blue. Their plumage also includes white and rusty-red feathers.

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Beth Payne sent me an email about hummingbirds, or the lack thereof, at her home in central Alabama. 

Beth noted that she used to see many hummingbirds but now sees only one at her feeders. As an avid hummingbird fan, this decline has dismayed her.

She also shared that she knew the late Bob Sargent. With his wife, Martha, With his wife, Martha, Sargent was the co-founder of the The Hummer/Bird Study Group. This non-profit organization founded by the Sargents was based in their hometown of Clay, Alabama. They dedicated the group to the study and preservation of hummingbirds and other neotropical migrants.

When I responded, I told Beth how happy I was that she had known Bob Sargent. I was also pleased to meet another hummingbird fan.

Although I can’t speak specifically to Alabama, I have noticed that I’m not hosting many hummingbirds this spring at my now home. That being said, I am not sure there’s any rhyme or reason to explain the numbers of hummingbirds that will decide to call a certain yard or garden their summer home.

I did offer some suggestions. Hummingbirds, even those that come to feeders, appreciate a nice perch for resting. I asked Beth if she has any shrubs or trees near her feeders. 

If  feasible, I advised she plant some flowers that would be attractive to hummingbirds. I recommended that she check with a nursery or garden center for ideas on blooming plants that grow best in her area.

Many of the birds that people would see early in Alabama are going to be pushing to get farther north to Tennessee and even far beyond to New England and even Canada. 

One thing that almost invariably happens is that by June and early July, hummingbird numbers usually pick back up. Of course, that will to a degree depend on how many hummingbirds stay in the surrounding area for the nesting season.

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