Category Archives: Birding

Ovenbird part of the returning warbler lineup

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Ovenbirds are content to spend most of their time near the forest floor.

It’s been a week of arrivals at my home. Several species of warblers made their spring debuts, including a handful of male ovenbirds.

These warblers arrived on April 14 and immediately began singing their loud and ringing “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” song from concealment within the woodlands surrounding my home.

The ovenbird is not one of the brightly colored warblers, such as black-throated blue warbler or yellow warbler. The ovenbird is a small brown bird with a white breast with dark streaking — an appearance that bears a superficial resemblance to the larger thrushes that share the same woodland habitat. The only hint of color is an orange crown bordered by dark stripes atop the bird’s head. Even this orange crown patch is not easily seen. When agitated, an ovenbird may raise its head feathers, which makes this orange mark easier to detect. The ovenbird also shows a distinct white ring around each eye, as well as pink legs and a pinkish bill.

The resemblance to North America’s brown thrushes didn’t go unnoticed by some early American naturalists. Painter and famous naturalist John James Audubon painted a pair of ovenbirds, which he knew as “golden-crowned thrushes.” When comparing the two names, one can’t help but wish that the inaccurate but more romantically descriptive golden-crowned thrush had stuck.

While not likely to take an observer’s breath away with an unexpected explosion of vibrant plumage, the ovenbird’s not a drab bird. These warblers possess a subtle beauty all their own that is worth taking the time to behold.

Photo by Peggy Dyar from Pixabay • Despite the oliver-brown plumage, a closer look shows that the overbird is a bird with a subtle beauty, including an inconspicuous orange crown.

Unfortunately, ovenbirds are stubborn about letting themselves be seen. They’re easily heard. The males begin singing a loud, rollicking “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher” song almost as soon as they arrive on potential nesting grounds.

The ovenbird, unlike many warblers, is not named for its appearance. Instead, the bird’s name derives from the shape of the nest it builds. The nest is a domed structure placed on the ground, woven from vegetation and containing a side entrance. Early European settlers in North America thought the nest looked like a Dutch oven, hence the name “ovenbird” for the small warbler with the intricate nest.

Rather than hopping along the length of a branch or limb, an ovenbird walks in a deliberate fashion. This bird feeds on insects, spiders and other small prey items foraged from the woodland floor. On rare occasions, a lingering ovenbird shows up at feeders during the winter months.

Again, the most persistent characteristic of this warbler is the fact that it’s shy. It’s not as notoriously shy as warblers like mourning warbler of Connecticut warbler, but the ovenbird spends much of the time near the woodland floor and out of sight. The best time to catch a look at this warbler is once they begin nesting. Parents are extremely protective and defensive of their nest and young. Intruding too close is sure to bring some sharp alarm notes. The parents will often confront an intruder, flitting from branch to branch in nearby trees, utterly neglecting their usual preference for remaining unseen if not unheard.

Photo by Jean Potter • An ovenbird sings from a perch in the leaf canopy.

Ovenbirds spend the summer nesting season in mature deciduous and mixed forests across Canada and the eastern United States. They do not make as lengthy a migration as that undertaken by some of their relatives. Ovenbirds migrate each fall to the southeastern United States, the West Indies and also spreads out from Mexico to northern South America for the winter season.

It’s one of several warblers that nest in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Others include Louisiana waterthrush, Kentucky warbler, common yellowthroat, Swainson’s warbler, black-throated blue warbler and American redstart, among others.

•••••

My mom saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 16 at 9:34 a.m. Of course, the bird waited until I’d left for work to make an appearance.

My solace has been an influx of other migrants in the past week. A blue-gray gnatcatcher’s fussy buzz alerted me to its return on April 10. I eventually got binoculars focused on the fidgety bird as it flitted in the upper branches of a cherry tree.

I heard the familiar chittering cries overhead while walking in downtown Erwin on April 14. Looking skyward, I watched a flock of chimney swifts flying gracefully over the rooftops of downtown buildings.

New warblers at home this week, other than the ovenbird, have included hooded warbler and black-throated green warbler, both of which put in their first spring appearance on April 15.

•••••

As noted, hummingbirds are returning. I’ve had reports from Western North Carolina and all across Northeast Tennessee. I will compile a listing of those who have shared their first sightings with me for next week’s column.
Keep sharing your hummingbird observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

New arrivals include spring’s first warblers

Photo by Kaylynn Wilster • Pine warblers, like this individual, have become more adaptable, learning to accept food at feeders and helping them remain in the United States during the winter season.

Mystery bird
Kaylynn Wilster, who lives in Piney Flats, Tennessee, emailed me recently for help with an identification on a bird visiting her feeders. When she described the bird and mentioned its fondness for suet at her feeders, I immediately suspected the identity of her visitor. A photo she provided gave instant verification that her visiting bird is, as she suspected, a warbler. To be exact, she is hosting a pine warbler.

The pine warbler is an attractive member of its clan with a plumage consisting mostly of various hues of yellow, olive and gray. Some males will show extremely bright yellow feathers, but females and young birds may show only a bare minimum of yellow coloration.
Unlike warblers such as the magnolia warbler and the palm warbler, the pine warbler truly does have an affinity for the tree for which it’s named. Magnolia warblers, on the other hand, are really more at home gleaning the branches of spruce trees while a weedy field is often the preferred habitat of a palm warbler.

Photo by Kaylynn Wilster • A pine warbler feeds on suet at a hanging feeder.

Look in the pines
The pine warbler is rarely found away from pine trees, but the bird is not too particular about the type of pine, being known to frequent about a dozen different varieties of pine trees. According to the website All About Birds, some of the favored pines include jack, pitch, red, white, Virginia, loblolly, shortleaf, slash, sand and pond pines.

The pine warbler is slightly less of an insect-eater than other warblers. This warbler will also feed on fruits, berries and some seeds. All About Birds states that some favored fruit includes bayberry, flowering dogwood, grape, sumac, persimmon and Virginia creeper.

When a pine warbler visits feeders, however, it’s often looking for supplemental protein. This fact explains why suet cakes, as well as homemade or commercial mixtures of suet and peanut butter, are one of the best ways to lure these warblers to feeding stations.

The population of this warbler has actually been on the increase since 1966, according to various surveys conducted on pine warbler numbers. Almost the entire population spreads out across the eastern United States, with much lesser numbers of pine warbler making their home in Canada.

Warbler migration
Kaylynn’s pine warbler is likely an early spring migrant or a pine warbler that elected to spend the winter months in the region. While warblers are scarce between October and March, their numbers are about to take off in a big way.

In April and continuing into May, a couple of dozen warbler species will pass through Tennessee. Some of these warblers find area woodlands and other habitats to their liking. They will pause, explore and perhaps decide to spend their summer nesting season in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina rather than continue migrating farther north.

Many of the warblers that pass through each spring, however, are destined to travel a much longer distance before settling down in their favored habitats for the summer nesting season. These warblers include the Tennessee warbler, Nashville warbler, Cape May warbler, blackpoll warbler and Blackburnian warbler. Most of these species nest as far north as New England and Canada.

Others find the Southern Appalachians to their liking. Some of the first warblers to return each year include the Louisiana waterthrush, which favors rushing mountain streams, as well as species such as black-throated green warbler, hooded warbler, ovenbird, worm-eating warbler and common yellowthroat.

Photo by Jean Potter • A male hooded warbler flits through the foliage of a rhododendron thicket.

Kaylynn mentioned that her pine warbler has graced her with frequent bursts of song. This fact indicates that her bird is a male. Pine warblers are persistent singers, but they often sing their songs from the upper branches of tall pines, effectively camouflaging themselves from view. Pine warblers have become more frequent feeders visitors in recent decades, which brings them into closer proximity to humans than would otherwise be the case.

New Arrivals
A pair of wood ducks brought company when they returned to the fish pond on April 2. They were accompanied by a pair of mallards. Although our most common duck, mallards haven’t visited my pond for several years. It felt good to have them back. I’m hoping both the wood ducks and mallards might decide to use the pond as a home base throughout the spring and summer.

On April 7, I heard the first chipping sparrow of spring. This small, dapper sparrow has an easily recognizable song. All About Birds describes the song as “a long, dry trill of evenly spaced, almost mechanical-sounding chips,” to which I concur.

A pair of tree swallows arrived at my home on April 8. I wrote in last week’s column about these swallows and their anticipated return.

The first warbler of spring – a male Northern parula – arrived April 9. I heard his trademark buzzy song as I left for work.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Northern parula hides in the canopy while singing its buzzy song.

I still haven’t seen the first spring ruby-throated hummingbird, but I have received a report from North Carolina.

Susie Parks, who lives in North Cove in McDowell County, North Carolina, emailed me to report that she saw her first hummingbird of the season at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 1.

She even elaborated on the “funny” timing.

“I assure you this is not an April Fool’s joke,” Susie wrote. “We are, indeed, thrilled to have seen this amazing little creature on such a chilly morning.”

I wrote back congratulating her on her sighting, which only makes me more impatient to have these delightful little birds back in my own yard.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

Journey North, a website that tracks hummingbird migration, as well as the migratory journeys of other wild creatures, reports that hummingbirds have reached Tennessee. A posting for a woman in Clinton, Tennessee, reported a ruby-throated hummingbird on Monday, April 5.

Hummingbird Anticipation

The arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds is one of the most anticipated returns each spring. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

 

 

 

Tree swallows are the latest spring arrivals

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tree swallow checks out a nesting box soon after returning in the spring.

Waiting for spring? Join the club. Between alternating bouts of unseasonably warm temperatures and frigid blasts, the weather cannot seem to decide if winter’s hanging in there a little longer or if it’s time to proceed with spring’s arrival.

I’m hopeful it’s the latter. I enjoyed a stroll in the spring sunshine on March 30 along the section of the trail near the industrial park. From the boardwalk over the water I saw my first spring swallows (a purple martin and a couple of Northern rough-winged swallows) as well as a belted kingfisher and several American robins. I also saw my first dragonflies and butterflies of spring, as well as one muskrat enjoying a leisurely swim.

Early Birds

One might think that the wild swings in weather would translate into a messy arrival timetable for some of our returning birds, but so far my own personal observations indicate a different story. At home, the usual spring “early birds,” including wood duck, red-winged blackbird, blue-headed vireo, ruby-crowned kinglet and brown thrasher, have been their usual punctual selves.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

The swallows I saw during my Erwin stroll, however, reminded me that one bird hasn’t returned at my home. The early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon knew this particular bird as “white-bellied swallow,” which is a descriptive name, but today the species is known simply as tree swallow.

Tree swallows have been back in the region for weeks, but they sometimes take their time finding their way to the waiting birdhouses at my fish pond. Their return dates in years past have ranged from early March to the middle of April.

Insect-heavy Diet

Swallows are insectivores, so those that return early in the spring must deal with temperature fluctuations. In prolonged cold spells, these insect-eating birds can be hard pressed to locate their usual prey. At such times, they are often forced to retreat to the area’s lakes and larger rivers, where they can swoop over the water and have an easier time plucking cold-numbed flying insects out of the air.

Once milder spring temperatures prevail, the flocks of swallows forced into these necessary habitats will disperse as pairs begin seeking nesting sites. Tree swallows are cavity-nesting birds, which often puts them into competition with Eastern bluebirds. The two species usually manage to work out a truce and settle down to nest in close proximity to each other.

The iridescent blue-green male tree swallow, complete with white underparts and a forked tail, is a handsome bird and a welcome addition to the bird population in any yard or garden. Tree swallows enjoy water, so a nearby pond or creek is a boon for attracting these birds.

Tree swallows haven’t always nested in Northeast Tennessee. Only in the last 40 years have these birds become regular nesting birds in the region. The first nesting record took place in the early 1980s at Austin Springs on Boone Lake in Washington County, Tennessee, according to The Birds of Northeast Tennessee by Rick Knight. Tree swallows soon became regular nesting birds every summer in all five counties that comprise Northeast Tennessee.

Other Swallows

It’s usually not too difficult to find five of the six species of swallows that are known to make Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina their home from spring to fall. In addition to tree swallow, the region’s other swallow species include: barn swallow, purple martin, cliff swallow and northern rough-winged swallow. These are all fairly common summer birds in the region. The sixth species, the bank swallow, is a bit of a specialist when it comes to nesting and occurs only sporadically in the region.

While only a handful of swallows range into the United States and Canada, a total of 83 species of swallows can be found worldwide. Some of the common names for these different swallows (also called martins in other parts of the world) are quite descriptive. A sampling includes white-eyed river martin, grey-rumped swallow, white-backed swallow, banded martin, blue swallow, violet-green swallow, golden swallow, brown-throated martin, brown-bellied swallow, pale-footed swallow, white-bibbed swallow, pearl-breasted swallow, red-breasted swallow, mosque swallow, fairy martin, pale martin, tawny-headed swallow and streak-throated swallow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Northern rough-winged swallows perches on a metal pipe.

While many swallows and martins have proven highly adaptive when faced with human disturbances to their habitat, a few species have experienced declines. One species — the white-eyed river martin — was last seen in Thailand in the 1980s and very well may be extinct. Closer to home, the golden swallow is now found only on the island of Hispaniola after disappearing from Jamaica in the 1980s. The Bahama swallow, which nests on only four islands in the Bahamas, is also vulnerable. Incidentally, both these swallows are closely related to the tree swallow, with all of them belonging to the genus Tachycineta. Translated from Greek, the genus name means “fast mover,” a quite accurate description of these graceful and agile flyers.

Good 

Neighbors

With their enthusiastic twittering to each other, tree swallows make for friendly neighbors. The local bluebirds may disagree, at first, but they’ll get their feathers unruffled eventually. It’s also a pleasant diversion to watch them swoop over fields and ponds as they help control the insect population.

To increase your chances of hosting your own tree swallows, offer a bird box placed in an open area. Right now is the time to attract their attention with some prime real estate. Plans are available online to help construct your own or pick up one at a gardening center, hardware store or farm supply outlet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern Bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.

Many would-be hosts for Eastern bluebirds express disappointment when a pair of tree swallows become tenants instead. The remedy to the disappointment is simple: provide an additional nesting box.  Although there will be some initial squabbles, tree swallows and Eastern bluebirds will co-exist if they don’t have to compete for the same nesting box.

There’s one last selling point I want to mention on behalf of tree swallows. While not exactly songsters, they do produce an energetic, chirpy trill that they vocalize persistently when in the company of their fellow tree swallows. It’s hard not to be cheerful when hearing such a jubilant noise issuing from one of our feathered friends.

Hummingbird Observations

While tree swallows and their kin are great to have back, one of the most anticipated returns each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post on my Facebook to share your first sightings. You can also leave a comment here on the blog.

Nature Challenge event easy with a phone, keen eye for details

Photo Illustration by nayansolanki/Pixabay • A phone will be helpful during the upcoming iNaturalist City Nature Challenge.

Many new arrivals are making spring an exciting time for birders. At my home, Eastern phoebes have been back for several weeks. They make quite the racket every morning with their incessant “fee-bee” calls that commence just after sunrise. A pair of wood ducks made a stopover at the fish pond on March 16. By the end of the month, swallows, warblers, vireos and perhaps even hummingbirds should start showing up.

If you like to record and document these yearly returns, there is also a way that your record-keeping can benefit science and its knowledge of the world around us. Anyone with a phone or a computer with internet access can take part in an upcoming survey of flora and fauna in Northeast Tennessee.

Organizers for the upcoming iNaturalist City Nature Challenge point out that a cellphone can be a great citizen science tool.

The extent of the Challenge goes far beyond East Tennessee. The iNaturalist City Nature Challenges pits cities around the world against each other in a rivalry to see who can report the most observations of wild flora and fauna during a four-day period.

One of the world’s most popular nature apps, iNaturalist helps users identify the plants and animals they encounter on a daily basis. Get connected with a community of over a million scientists and naturalists who can help everyone learn more about nature. What’s more, by recording and sharing observations, users of the app help create research quality data for scientists working to better understand and protect nature. iNaturalist is a joint initiative by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.

Before the end of April, interested naturalists are urged to download and learn to use the iNaturalist app to contribute to scientific knowledge of Northeast Tennessee trees, plants and animals.

Melanie Kelley, a volunteer with Johnson City Parks and Recreation, has helped organize this year’s City Nature Challenge.

“JCPR is the main City Nature Challenge organizer for our ten county area,” Kelley said.

Parks in other locations are also participating. For instance, Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport is participating, according to Marty Silver, a ranger with WPSP.

According to Kelley, other parks and groups are co-organizers for the event.
Kelley said that taking part in the challenge is simple.

A smartphone or computer is needed to input the data.

“Using either a phone with the iNaturalist app or uploading photos to the http://www.inaturalist.org website, everyone is invited to go out and record wild species,” Kelley said. “From birds to grasses, trees to snakes.

“Wild is the key,” she added. “Any place it can be found! Backyards, schools, parks and gardens.”
Kelley said the City Nature Challenge is a global effort to get a worldwide snapshot of all life on earth during a four-day period.

“It is the world’s largest multi-species BioBlitz,” Kelley said.

Identifications are also crucial, according to Kelley. “This part of the challenge encourages folks to log into the website and review and confirm identifications of what others have uploaded,” she said.

Kelley noted that iNaturalist requires users to be 13 or older but that there is a parental consent method for younger users for both the app and the website.

“Each participating park/group will likely have their own age rules,” she noted.

“Last year was the first year JCPR participated in the CNC,” Kelley said. “If COVID-19 was not an issue, the CNC would be back to its roots as a direct city to city or area to area challenge.”

The rivalries can get intense.

“Last year, our good friends at Zoo Knoxville directly challenged us, so it was Knox vs Washington Counties,” Kelley said. “It was also the first year Knox participated. “

Kelley said that JCPR and Zoo Knoxville knew they would expand their areas after their first successful year taking part in the challenge.

“This allows us to better compete with Nashville’s seven-county project and Chattanooga’s 16 counties over two states,” Kelley explained.

She hopes the COVID-19 shadow over the event is felt less this year.

“Last year, we had daily group events scheduled and all those, of course, had to be cancelled,’ Kelley said.

“This year, the main CNC is again, less of a competition and more of a collaboration worldwide,“ she said. “However, this year, under a hybrid model, those that wish to have head to head challenges can do so. Oh, and yes, we do so want to take on Knox, which includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We can do this!”

Kelley said that expanding the project area to the upper ten Northeast Tennessee counties means partnering with local state and city parks.

Some of the other parks on board include Bristol’s Steele Creek Park, Kingsport’s Warrior’s Path, Elizabethton’s Sycamore Shoals and Roan Mountain’s Roan Mountain State Park.

Kelley noted that Johnson City Parks are all planning on some type of group-led events to help folks who are new to iNaturalist get their feet wet with the program.

“Each park will have its own guidelines as to how they need to handle such events,” she added.

The upcoming event is both valuable to science and an entertaining way to enjoy nature.
“Overall, as a regular iNaturalist user, it is fun,” Kelley said. “More importantly to me, it is such a great way to introduce folks to the native world.

“People walk by and see a flower or a tree or anything and they probably don’t know what it is other than a bird/flower/tree,” she continued. “The app has a really good identification tool where you learn right there what that species is.”

Once identification is made easy, Kelley said that the next big challenge is getting them to the next step of understanding that species role in the larger ecology.

“This is where these group-led observation hikes play a critical role,” she said.

Kelley said that plenty of reports that show up from iNaturalist users are from Unicoi County.
She noted that there are some 4,552 individual observations recorded from Unicoi County.

“These observations represent 1,339 unique species have been recorded by 404 individual iNaturalist users,” Kelley said.

The possibilities of what can be observed and reported are seemingly endless. Everything from birds and insects to salamanders and ferns is fair game as observers scramble to make reports. Grab a phone and start taking snapshots of snakes, squirrels, sassafras trees or anything else that crosses your path. Organizers hope to get plenty of public participation for this year’s City Nature Challenge.

Kelley also quoted Doug Tallamy, a professor in the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, where he has authored eighty research articles and has taught numerous classes, including behavioral ecology and humans and nature, for more than 30 years.

Kelley said that Tallamy has been quoted saying, “Knowledge generates interest, and interest generates compassion.”

She added that iNaturalist is a great way to generate knowledge.

“Birders can upload a spreadsheet from their eBird reports for the event days and those will count in our totals,” Kelley said. “These are the only observations made during the CNC that do not require photos to count.”

Observations for the challenge must be submitted between April 30 and May 3. All observations are required to be found within the upper 10 northeast Tennessee counties of Washington, Sullivan, Unicoi, Carter, Greene, Johnson, Hancock, Cocke, Hawkins and Hamblen.

To learn more about the event, Unicoi County residents or people living in or near Northeast Tennessee can visit https://bit.ly/CityNatureChallengeNETN.

Below are events corresponding with the challenge:

• Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport will offer City Nature Challenge 2021, a friendly competition open to nature lovers. The main event at the park will be held Saturday, April 10, from 10 a.m. to noon. The park’s event is sort of an informative preview of the actual Challenge. Observations for the challenge itself must be submitted between April 30 and May 3. Ranger Brian Glover will teach participants how to use the iNaturalist app to photograph, identify, and share their nature observations with a worldwide community of scientists and nature enthusiasts. He’ll also show those taking part how to join the region’s 2021 City Nature Challenge. Be sure to download the iNaturalist app from your app store, and create an iNaturalist account before arriving at the event. Come dressed for the weather and wear good walking footwear. This is not a hike, but attendees will be wandering over some rocky and uneven ground.

• Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton will offer an educational hike about better ways to enjoy interacting with nature through handy apps and tools on the average smart phone. “Tech in Nature” will be taught by Park Ranger Cory Franklin from 2 to 3 p.m. on Friday, March 26. Most people are inseparable from their smart phones and mobile devices. Franklin wants participants to embrace this cultural change and will show how to better use technology on a day to day basis in nature. Using tools such as GPS locating, plant identification and other easily accessible resources and apps, he will show ways to enhance the experience rather than take away from it. Join him for a walk around the park to better understand the tools everyone carries with them daily. The program will meet and begin at the picnic area beside the visitor center. Cost is $5, but those six and under can participate for free. For more information, call 543-5808.

Note: Although this event has already happened, perhaps Sycamore Shoals will offer this walk again in the future.

•••••

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches for a leisurely drink of sugar water.

As mentioned at the start of the column, spring is bringing back many of our favorite wildflowers, insects and, of course, birds. One of the most anticipated returns each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

This year, there’s more incentive to share your sighting. The Erwin Record and Jonesborough Herald & Tribune will be giving away a hummingbird-related prize from a drawing of all the individuals who report hummingbirds. If you don’t happen to be one of the lucky people to see one of the first hummingbirds of 2021, don’t worry. To be eligible for the contest, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post on my Facebook page a sentence or two explaining why you love hummingbirds.

Observations will be accepted through April 18. Winners will be announced in this column on April 28.

Green-winged teal, other waterfowl spend winter months in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ring-necked ducks on a pond.

Some interesting waterfowl have spent at least part of the winter at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. A male redhead, a female Northern shoveler and a female ring-necked entertained area birders, as did other waterfowl such as hooded merganser and Ross’s goose. A solitary female green-winged teal has lingered for several weeks, showing considerable expertise at not drawing attention to herself.

Green-winged teal belong to the group of ducks known as dabblers, which includes the familiar mallard as well as species like American wigeon, Northern pintail, gadwall and mallard. The dabbling ducks generally feed in shallow water.

In North America, there are two other close relatives of the green-winged teal: blue-winged teal and cinnamon teal. I’ve seen the green-winged and blue-winged at many locations in the region. I saw my only cinnamon teal during a trip to Utah and Idaho in 2003.

 

Blue-winged teal often migrate through the region in small flocks in early spring and again in late summer and early fall. The cinnamon teal is not as abundant in North America as other dabbling ducks. Many of these teal nest around the Great Salt Lake in Utah, although I saw the cinnamon teal that counted as my “life list” bird at the Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Idaho in October of 2003.

The male cinnamon teal is a striking duck with bright reddish plumage. The female’s plumage is a much duller brown. In size, it’s the largest of the North American teal species and can weigh 14 ounces. In contrast, blue-winged teal weigh 13 ounces while the green-winged teal only tips the scales at 11 to 12 ounces. However, some individual green-winged teal may only weigh five or six ounces. It’s helpful to observe teal in the company of geese or other ducks. In direct comparison, it’s easy to observe how incredibly tiny these birds are compared to their relatives.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A pair of green-winged teal swims together.

In fact, according to the Ducks Unlimited website, the green-winged teal is the smallest of the North American dabbling ducks. The website describes the male green-winged teal as having a chestnut head with an iridescent green to purple patch extending from the eyes to the nape of the neck. The chest is pinkish-brown with black speckles, and the back, sides and flanks are vermiculated gray, separated from the chest by a white bar. The wing coverts are brownish-gray with a green speculum.

As is the case with many ducks, females, or hens, are much duller in plumage than the males, or drakes. Green-winged teal hens are brown with a yellowish streak along the tail. Like the male, she shows green wing patches in the secondary wing feather. These patches are known as speculums, but these may be not be readily visible unless the bird’s in flight.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A green-winged teal drake is a small but colorful waterfowl.

The green-winged teal’s global population stood at only 772,000 birds in 1962, but this teal’s population has grown steadily in the subsequent decades. The green-winged teal can be found during the summer nesting season from Alaska, across Canada, into the Maritime Provinces of Canada, south into central California, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Green-winged teal hens are good mothers. They lay a clutch of six to nine eggs, which they incubate for about 22 days. She likes to conceal her nest, often choosing a location that offers dense cover that may form a sheltering canopy over the nest site.

During winter, many green-winged teal migrate to coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana, but some will keep going as far south as Central America, the Caribbean, and even into northern South America. A few individuals may, as did the small hen at Erwin Fishery Park, stop and linger at ponds, rivers or other wetlands through the southeastern United States.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male cinnamon teal forages in a wetland. These striking ducks are a species of waterfowl that is usually only found in the western half of the United States.

Like other dabbling ducks, green-winged teals search for aquatic vegetation, which comprises the majority of their diet. These ducks also feed on some insects, crustaceans and other invertebrates. Pollution of wetlands and ingestion of discarded lead pose serious perils, but as a species this smallest of the dabblers is not considered particularly vulnerable. The green-winged teal is hunted as a game bird through most of its range.

Photo by U.S Fish & Wildlife Service • In this photo of a hen and drake green-winged teal, it’s easy to see the green patch, or speculum, in the female’s wing. It’s the only spot of color in her brown-gray plumage.

Look for green-winged teal and other ducks on farm ponds or similar bodies of waters in city parks. If conditions are to their liking, these ducks will often winter at such locations in the region. The ponds along the walking trails in Erwin, Tennessee, have been a good place for many years to look for green-winged teal during the winter season. They are more shy than other ducks. If pressed too closely, this small duck is likely to take flight. Enjoy through binoculars from a comfortable distance.

So far, the green-winged teal at the Fishery Park pond has led a solitary existence. The male redhead, however, has been seen recently cavorting with a newly-arrived redhead hen. This pair of ducks has engaged in typical mating displays appropriate to their species and are usually inseparable.

Once time arrives for them to depart for their summer nesting grounds, they will likely make the migratory flight together.

Godspeed to them.

 

Restless robin flocks signal spring’s approach

When I posted Jan. 29 on Facebook about seeing my first flock of American robins in 2021, I didn’t anticipate the avalanche from other observant bird enthusiasts.

Priscilla Gutierrez commented on seeing about 30 robins in a field along Limestone Cove Road in Unicoi.

“They don’t come to the feeders,” Priscilla noted. “It was wonderful to see them.”

Alice Torbett in Knoxville shared that she saw her first flock of robins about two weeks ago when they swooped in to harvest berries from the holly tees at her Knoxville home. “They were very considerate to wait until after Christmas,” Alice wrote.

Erwin resident Brenda Marie Crowder commented that “tons of Robins are eating my holly berries right now. With snow dropping and all.”

Jonesborough resident Nan Hidalgo reported that she had five robins in her yard on a recent Friday afternoon.

Christine M. Schwarz in Alexandria, Virginia, shared her own sightings.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American robin grasps a perch and keeps an eye on its surroundings.

“Three weeks ago there was a large flock at Mount Vernon,” Christine wrote in a comment to my post. “I have seen a smaller group over here by Fort Belvoir, too. I can’t believe they’re migrating now — more like wintering over.”

Byron Tucker, who lives in Atlanta, commented, “The other day, I saw a flock of robins and blackbirds mixed together.”

Dee Obrien, formerly of Elizabethton, Tennessee, but now living in Florida, lamented the timing of the robins. “They always seem to come back to soon, poor little things,” she wrote. “It is too cold.”

Becky Boyd shared her own experience with robins. “I’ve had dozens here in Knoxville,” she said. “They all recently left, except one loner who is terrorizing the bluebirds and attacks them at the feeders.”

Erwin resident Donna Rea, and a former co-worker at The Erwin Record, posted a question to my Facebook robin discussion.

“What do robins eat this time of year?” Donna asked. “Will they eat out of our feeders if the ground is frozen and they can’t find a hibernating worm?”

Photo by Jack Bulmner/Pixabaycom • An American robin plucks a berry from a branch.

I suggested in my reply that robins might eat suet at feeders, as well as fruit. More likely, the restless robins in the region are probably scouring the countryside for holly trees with berries. Of course, robins are omnivorous in their appetite and would gladly take an earthworm if they could coax one out of the chilly ground.

South Carolina resident Catherine Romaine Henderson simply posted an optimistic comment on my robin post. “Please tell me spring is coming!”

The American robin is indeed widely held to be a harbinger of spring. Furthermore, the robin is a popular American bird. In fact, this bird has been designated the official state bird by Wisconsin and Michigan.

In truth, many robins forego migration to endure a few months of cold weather. Their ability to shift their diet from earthworms and insects to fruit and feeder fare helps robins eke out a living. Robins remain an abundant bird but their fondness for co-existing with humans can leave them vulnerable to pesticides applied to lawns and gardens.

According to the website, “All About Birds,” the American robin nests three times a year. On average, however, only 40 percent of robin nests succeed at fledging young. Even once out of the nest, young robins are vulnerable. The website estimates that only 25 percent of each year’s fledged robins will reach November. So, the young robins that join some of the large flocks people are seeing in the region are birds that have beaten the odds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Returning American robins, prominent in lawns and gardens during their annual spring migration, will soon turn their attention to nesting duties.

Even the robins that do depart the region each fall don’t migrate far. Many robins that spend the summer in Canada or the United States only migrate as far as the Gulf States, southern Florida, southern California, Baja California and Mexico.

The American robin is a large bird in the thrush family, which in North America also includes such birds as Eastern bluebird, wood thrush, and Townsend’s solitaire.

In the British Isles, the European robin is simply known as “robin” or “robin redbreast.” When the first English colonists arrived in New England and other parts of colonial-era North America, they took pleasure in finding that some of the birdlife in the New World resembled familiar birds from their homeland. The red-breasted American robin looked like the bird they knew in the Old World as “robin,” which motivated them to name the New World bird “robin,” as well.

Other than the red breast, however, the two robins are not all that similar. The American robin is the larger of the two birds. Further separating these two birds is the fact that the European robin is not a thrush but rather a member of the family of Old World flycatchers.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • While American robins like fruit when its available, they also spend a lot of time feeding on earthworms and insects.

In some ways, the two robins are similar. Both are fond of earthworms, spending a great deal of their time on the ground foraging for worms. They will also follow human gardeners at their work, waiting patiently for the followed person to disturb the soil with a spade or hoe and expose earthworms for the waiting bird. They are also rather tolerant of humans and have learned to make their own homes close to human dwellings.

Some of the British transplants to North America must have felt homesick for familiar things because several unsuccessful attempts were made to introduce the European robin to the United States and Canada. European robins introduced in New York and Oregon failed to gain a foothold, unlike the introduction of such alien birds as the house sparrow and European starling.

On a few occasions, our American robins have overflown their destinations and ended up in the United Kingdom. For instance, an American robin became a first for London birdwatchers when one was found in that nation’s capital city in March of 2006. Whether of the European or American persuasion, robins have long been a favorite of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.

They have even adapted to take food at feeders. If you’d like to try your luck at attracting robins to feeders, know that they like their sunflower seeds hulled. They will also eat mealworms, fruit, peanut hearts and suet. Robins prefer to feed on the ground or on an open platform feeder.

Robins are such friendly and engaging birds. If we can have them near us for 12 months of the year, who’s going to complain?

 

Hermit thrushes brave East Tennessee winters

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perched on a fence rail shows the reddish tail, a reliable field mark to separate this species from close relatives. The tail contrasts from the rest of the bird’s plumage.

Karen Miller sent me an email about a winter visitor in her yard at her home in Parrottsville, Tennessee. “I have seen a hermit thrush eating holly berries for 10 days,” Karen wrote. “Is he migrating or is he perhaps a winter visitor here in Parrottsville?”

To answer her question, I replied and informed her that the thrush is a winter visitor. The hermit thrush takes up residence after its kin have already departed the region in the fall, making it one of the few thrushes to remain in Northeast Tennessee during the winter months. I’ve always thought a good nickname for this bird would be the “winter thrush” because of its presence during the colder months of the year. Of course, for those who know where to look, a few hermit thrushes spend the summer nesting season at high elevation peaks such as Roan Mountain on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

The hermit thrush is one of the larger brown thrushes, which also includes such related birds as Swainson’s thrush, veery, gray-cheeked thrush and wood thrush. Other less closely related members of the thrush family include the American robin, Eastern bluebird and Townsend’s solitaire.

USFWS • Hermit thrushes like to keep to the shadows.

The poet Walt Whitman employed a hermit thrush as a symbol in his poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a moving pastoral elegy in honor of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Whitman evidently knew his birds, and it’s not difficult for naturalists and bird enthusiasts to identify that he referred to the hermit thrush when he wove this songbird as a symbol into his stanzas honoring Lincoln. “Sing on there in the swamp,” Whitman wrote in his poem. “O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call. I hear, I come presently, I understand you…”

Whitman evidently knew of this bird’s bashful, retiring habits, and he had obviously enjoyed the flute-like notes of the hermit thrush’s call. Whitman and many other Americans have been made fans of this gifted songbird. In fact, the citizens of Vermont even proclaimed the hermit thrush as their official state bird. The hermit thrush is well known for its song — a series of clear, musical notes, each on a different pitch, consisting of a piping introductory note and a reedy tremolo. The song had often been described as melancholy by various bird experts. The birds don’t usually sing in winter, but they do produce a call note when disturbed or alarmed that is described as a low “chuck.”

The visiting hermit thrush at her home has allowed Karen Miller to get to know this somewhat reclusive bird better. “He sits on the ground, cocks his head, spies a berry and then jumps up and gets it,” she wrote. She noted that her visitor has a good appetite. “He eats four or five at a time,” she said. “I’m so glad to see him.”

Photo by USFWS • Like many thrushes, the hermit thrush is fond of fruit and berries, especially during the winter.

According to the Smoky Mountains Visitors Guide website, the hermit thrush forages for most of its food from the ground. This bird’s diet includes insects, spiders, snails, and earthworms, plus considerable amounts of wild fruits during the fall and winter. Hermit thrushes may join up with mixed flocks of birds during the winter, often associating with such songbirds as kinglets, brown creepers, chickadees and titmice. For those not fortunate enough to host a wintering hermit thrush, this bird can be found during the summer months atop some high-elevation peaks. Close to home, look for this thrush in the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Gardens. The hermit thrush is also found at some locations in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Female hermit thrushes collect nesting materials and construct the nest, within which she will lay three to six eggs. These thrushes nest once or twice a season. According to the website All About Birds, nesting habits differ between hermit thrushes in the western North America and their counterparts in the eastern half of the continent. Eastern thrushes tend to nest on the ground, but those in the west often place their nests in shrubs or tree branches.

At home on Simerly Creek Road, my first hermit thrush of the winter arrived in early November of last year. During a woodland stroll with neighbor Beth McPherson, the resident thrush put on an impressive show, hopping and scraping on the woodland floor beneath a rhododendron thicket bordering a mountain spring. In such surroundings, it’s not difficult to fathom why this bird has developed such a subtle plumage of muted browns and grays. Even when foraging actively, the bird blended remarkably with the background of fallen leaves and other woodland debris.

The hermit thrush is known by the scientific name, Catharus guttatus. The term guttatus is Latin for “spotted,” which seems appropriate. Surprisingly, the hermit thrush is not closely related to the other North American migrant species of Catharus thrushes. Instead, the hermit thrush is more closely related to the russet nightingale-thrush, a Mexican songbird. The hermit thrush could accurately be called the “red-tailed thrush” for the fact that this species has a rusty-red tail that stands apart from the warm brown-gray tones of the rest of its plumage. A white eye ring, pink legs and a heavily spotted breast complete the rest of this bird’s understated appearance.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perches on a branch in a winter woodland.

The wintering hermit thrushes in the region will likely stay put for the next couple of months, but they will mostly depart the area in April or early May. If you want to look for them, now’s the time.

••••• Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. 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 ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Baffling visitors turn out to be Northern flickers

Photo by NatureLady/Pixabay.com • A Northern flicker grasps a board with its talons. These medium-sized woodpeckers spend much more time on the ground than the other woodpeckers in the region.

Irene and Peter Cannatelli emailed me recently to ask for some help identifying birds in their yard at their home in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

“We have a pair of birds we’ve never seen,” Irene wrote in the email.

They were unable to get a photo of the birds, but Irene provided a detailed description. “They have a red crown, black under neck, like a collar, a long thin beak, and brown speckled bodies,” she wrote. In addition, she noted that the birds showed white down the middle of their backs when flying off.

“They are ground feeders,” she added.

Once I studied her description of the birds in question, I felt confident that the visitors were Northern flickers, a member of the woodpeckers family, albeit a less than typical member of the extensive clan. Most of the region’s woodpeckers are black and white birds. The Northern flicker, on the other hand, shows considerable color— for a woodpecker. Irene’s description left me in no doubt of my identification.

After I responded to the email, Irene googled Northern flicker and confirmed my identification. “That is what they looked like,” she agreed.

She also shared more about her enthusiasm for local birds. “We have five bird feeders in our little bird garden,” Irene wrote.

“We made suet for the first time this past week using Crisco, oatmeal, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, cornmeal and raisins,” Irene added. “We made four blocks. When we put the first one out it was gone in one day.”

Many birds appreciate both homemade and store-bought suet cakes, which provide a needed protein boost in the winter season when insects are scarce.

Irene noted that some of the clientele at her feeders include cardinals, finches, lots of doves and blue jays. Now the couple can add flickers to that growing list.

While flickers can be found during all seasons in the region, this woodpecker is one of the migratory ones. I see the most Northern flickers during fall migration. This woodpecker is one of the few of its kind that usually migrates to warmer climates during the colder months, although the species is not completely absent from the region in the winter season.

As mentioned earlier, this is a woodpecker with many other common names, including yellow-hammer — a popular name in the Deep South — and harry-wicket, heigh-ho and gawker bird. The Northern flicker is also the only woodpecker to serve a state — Alabama — as an official bird. The flicker earned this distinction back in 1927. Soldiers from Alabama who fought for the Confederacy were nicknamed “yellowhammers” because of their grey-and-yellow uniforms, which matched the colors of the bird. Incidentally, Alabama was one of the first states to ever name an official state bird.

Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • A Northern flicker peers from a tree cavity.

There are two races of Northern flicker — yellow-shafted and red-shafted — found in the United States. Eastern flickers show yellow feather shafts beneath the wings while western counterparts show red beneath the wings. A trip to Utah several years ago gave me a chance to also see the red-shafted race of this bird.

The Northern flicker is also not the only flicker in the United States. The gilded flicker inhabits many of the deserts — Sonoran, Yuma and Colorado — in the United States. Of course, trees are scarce in deserts, but that hasn’t proven an obstacle for this woodpecker. The bird is closely associated with saguaro cactus. Other desert dwellers depend on this woodpecker. Once the flickers are no longer making use of their nest and roost holes in the multi-armed cacti, other wildlife moved into the chambers.

The Northern flicker is an enthusiastic drummer, pounding loudly on the sides of trees with its stout bill. The purpose of the drumming is to communicate with mates and signal potential rivals that they’re intruding. Toward that objective, flickers sometimes substitute metal utility poles or the sides of buildings for the trunks of trees. In addition to drumming, the flicker also employs a variety of loud vocalizations that are fairly distinctive. A loud, repeated vocalization, often translated as “wicka-wicka-wicka,” is similar to the cluck-like call of the larger pileated woodpecker. The flicker is also known for emitting a sharp, loud “kleeer” call that can be heard from a considerable distance. Flickers are probably most vocal during the spring months.

When searching for flickers, however, don’t concentrate on scanning tree trunks. Flickers spend a lot of time in fields or on lawns in search of insect prey, which mostly consists of ants and beetles. This non-typical behavior by this particular bird is what threw off the Cannatellis’ attempt to identify their visitors. Flickers also eat seeds and fruit, and these woodpeckers will also visit feeders for peanuts, sunflower seed and suet.

The adult flicker is a brown bird with black bars on the back and wings. A distinctive black patch occupies the upper breast, while the lower breast and belly are beige with black spots. Males can be identified by a black or red mustache stripe at the base of the beak. They also have a red stripe on the back of their gray heads. The flicker’s dark tail is set apart by a white rump patch that is conspicuous when the bird takes flight.

Photo by USFWS • A researcher extends a flicker’s wing to show the yellow feather shafts.

The Northern flicker, as either the red- or yellow-shafted reach, ranges across the United States and Canada. The flicker also ranges to Central America, Cuba and the Cayman Islands. Known scientifically as Colaptes auratus, which can be roughly translated as the “golden woodpecker,” there are about a dozen species of flickers in North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

Look for Northern flickers in fields, orchards, city parks and well-planted suburban yards. These woodpeckers are usually not too shy around human observers and will sometimes allow for extended observation. If you’re even more fortunate, you could find one visiting your yard or garden. Just remember to scan the ground. This is one woodpecker that’s not a consistent tree-hugger like many of its kin.

 

Tennessee and neighboring states hosting exceptional rare birds this winter

Photo by LoneWombatMedia from Pixabay • Among the unusual avian visitors to the Volunteer State this winter has been a snowy owl that has delighted observers in Chattanooga. Snowy owls, such as the individual pictured, are more commonly found on the tundra regions of the Arctic.

Birds have wings. Birds can fly. Birds confound our expectations.

Perhaps the mobility of birds is part of the human fascination with them. An unexpected bird can pop up at any time at almost any place. In fact, with 2021 less than a month old, the Volunteer State has already hosted some absolutely incredible birds.

For example, birder Evan Kidd found a Pacific Slope Flycatcher in Maryville on Jan. 7. 

A couple of weeks later, a snowy owl, which is a bird most people have only become acquainted with in the pages of J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter novels, made an appearance on Zephyr Lane near Lake Chickamauga in Chattanooga. 

Chattanoogas been a real hot spot so far this year. In addition to the snowy owl, Chattanoogas hosted such unlikely visitors as white-throated swift and Bullocks oriole. 

All of these birds quickly achieved celebrity status and attracted birders from near and far hoping for a glimpse of these rarities to Tennessee. 

Birder Michael Todd posted on Facebook on Jan. 13 about his own observation of the white-throated swift. This particular sighting came with a bit of an unnerving twist for all the people who had flocked to see the swift.

Luckily, the swift narrowly avoided being a snack for a marauding merlin that tried its best to have some swift for lunch today, Todd revealed in his Facebook post. 

Closer to home, a long-tailed duck has been hanging out with buffleheads and other ducks at the weir dam at Osceola Recreation Area in Bristol. 

Ray Miller from Pixabay • Long-tailed ducks, such as this individual, favor colder waters, but they occasionally venture into Tennessee.

The winter invasion of evening grosbeaks, a finch that usually inhabits the forests of Canada and the northern United States, continued into 2021 as well.

What brings birds to locations far beyond their typical range? Obviously, their wings and the associated power of flight makes it possible for birds to travel surprising distances.

But on a more down-to-earth level, some of these birds such as the snowy owl and evening grosbeaks have ventured far south of their normal ranges because their usual food sources are scarce. Climate change may be exacerbating those scarcities. On occasion, a major weather phenomenon like hurricanes or other strong storms will force birds into unfamiliar territory. And whos to say that an occasional bird doesnt succumb to the temptation of wanderlust and decide to explore greener pastures? Or maybe some of these birds are simply stubborn, lost, and reluctant to ask for directions.

The reasons an unexpected bird might grace any given location are myriad. Whats easily explained is the excitement that they can generate. Back in the winter of 2009 I traveled with some friends to Spring Hill, Tennessee, in the hope of getting a look at a snowy owl. After several hours staking out some large fields with dozens of other birders on property owned by General Motors at the time, we got our owl. Incidentally, that particular owl got the nickname Chevy due to its association with the GM production facilities in Spring Hill. The moment that owl unfurled its wing and made a short but majestic flight over the field remains a birding thrill of a lifetime. 

Making the moment even more memorable was the fact that I got to see my first (and so far only) snowy owl in my home state of Tennessee instead of traveling to the edge of the Arctic tundra during the summer to look for this awesome owl on its native turf. Its not that I would say no to a tundra tour, but it hasnt been in the cards yet.

I have a short list of some other exceptional birds that have made their way to Tennessee rather than forcing me to venture across the country and around the globe to see. I observed monk parakeets and a green-breasted mango hummingbird in North Carolina, as well as a harlequin duck and Virginias warbler along Netherland Inn Drive in Kingsport from the greenbelt that meanders along the Holston River. Earlier this year while birding alone, I felt a moment of thats different when a raptor took flight over the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton and materialized as a Mississippi kite once I got my binoculars on it. 

I think its part of the reason some birders are addicted to the chase. Theres nothing wrong with the cardinals and sparrows in the backyard, but a rare bird can truly generate a powerful jolt of excitement. 

Photo by Edbo23/Pixabay.com • During the winter months, a yellow-rumped warbler is a dull bird in mostly brown and gray plumage except for the rump patch of bright yellow feathers that provides the bird its common name. Although not a rare bird, these common resident make winter days more lively for observers.

Technology, including social media and GPS, has helped pinpoint these rarities when they stray into unfamiliar terrain. For instance, the snowy owl near Chattanooga is hardly the only one of its kind straying south of the Arctic this winter. These owls have made a major push south with individuals spotted in Lee, Illinois; Cumberland, Pennsylvania; Wood, Ohio; and Clinton, Iowa. A snowy owl has even been spending the winter on Ocracoke Island along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Theres even dramatic photographs online of the owl against the backdrop of the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. 

Whats the best way to spot a rare bird? Keep your eyes open and learn to recognize the birds that arent part of the familiar local flocks. One word of warning: Looking for those rarities can become addictive.

Sapsucker an odd bird out among woodpeckers

Photo by Jean Potter • A yellow-bellied sapsucker visits a suet feeder.

I heard the whiny “mews” coming from a nearby tree and scanned with binoculars until I located a calling yellow-bellied sapsucker. I always think sapsuckers sound whiny, but I still celebrated seeing one from my front porch on the afternoon of Jan. 11. The new year is still young, which makes me eager to see what other birding surprises may arrive.

I’ve kept track of the birds in my yard since the winter of 1992-1993, and my recent observation is only the second sapsucker I have seen at home. I’ve found the evidence of their presence in sapsucker rings drilled in bands of holes around tree trunks and branches, but the actual flesh and feather sapsuckers have been extremely evasive.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A yellow-bellied sapsucker hitches its way up a tree trunk.

The aforementioned rings or bands are the visible evidence of a sapsucker’s penchant for drilling evenly spaced holes, or wells, into the trunk of a sap-bearing tree. These holes even form patterns completely encircling a tree’s trunk. The sticky wells trap insects. When sapsuckers return to the scene of the crime, they enjoy a sweet treat of oozing sap and a protein snack from the mired bugs.

I don’t think my lack of success with sapsuckers at home is for lack of effort. I heard the sapsucker the moment I stepped outside to fill up the feeders. The sapsucker blended almost perfectly into its surroundings, becoming almost invisible against the bark until making little hitching movements up the trunk. I wish I could report that I see yellow-bellied sapsuckers on a regular basis. I think they would be fascinating to observe in the same way I watch downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers.

 

Worldwide, there are almost 10,000 species of birds. After awhile, one may begin to wonder if thinking of unique names for each of these species began to deplete creative reserves.

Then again, some of the names given to birds suggest someone really wanted just to have fun at the expense of birders and nature enthusiasts. After all, you have to be careful about shouting out bird names like blue-footed booby, great bustard and hoary redpoll in mixed company.

There are also bird names that just don’t make a lot of sense — dickcissel and phainopepla, for example — even to birders. Then there are names that are oxymoronic, including greater pewee and giant hummingbird.

There are some bird names that sound like fighting words that bring into question concepts like courage and honor. Indeed, I sometimes think people are waiting for a punchline when I inform them there truly is a species of bird known as the yellow-bellied sapsucker. This bird’s humorous name is only one of the ways the yellow-bellied sapsucker stands out as an oddball among the region’s clan of woodpeckers.

In profile clinging to the trunk of a tree, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is a rather pudgy, especially for a woodpecker. The sapsucker has black and white plumage enhanced by red foreheads in both sexes. Male sapsuckers also have a bright red throat patch. Both sexes also show a large white stripe on their black wings. And yes, there is enough of a pale yellow wash on the stomach of this odd woodpecker to justify the descriptive “yellow-bellied” as part of its common name.

As mentioned, sapsuckers harvest sap by using their bills to drill various sorts of holes into the bark of a tree. Some of the more shallow holes, which are usually made in a rectangular fashion, must be maintained on a frequent basis for the bird to continue to derive sap from the tree. These sap wells not only provide nourishment to the sapsucker but to other birds, including hummingbirds, that appreciate a quick sugar fix.

In the early 1800s, early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted the yellow-bellied sapsucker, known during his time as the yellow-bellied woodpecker. Although they tend to prefer trees like maple and birch, sapsuckers are known to feed on more than 250 different varieties of trees. Indeed, they actually do feed on the trees. Not only do these birds subsist largely on sap, they also feed on the cambium layer in the bark of a tree. The sapsucker also supplements its diet with insects, fruits and seeds. Unlike other members of the woodpecker clan, sapsuckers do not visit feeders all that frequently. When a sapsucker does visit a feeder, it is often lured there by the promise of suet.

 

While most woodpeckers attempt to tough out the winter season in the same region where they spent the summer, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is migratory. Ahead of the coldest months of the year, sapsuckers migrate to the southeastern United States, as well as the West Indies and Central America. During the summer months, most sapsuckers nest in forests across Canada, Alaska and the northeastern U.S. states. There is also a small population of breeding sapsuckers in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker has a call that sounds amazingly like the meow of a cat. I know about this call from personal experience. While birding in South Carolina a few years ago, I searched diligently for the source of such a call. It sounded somewhat like a gray catbird — another mimic of the common household feline — but not quite. Now I know that when I hear this unusual call I can train my binoculars on the branches and trunks of nearby trees to scan for a sapsucker.

There are actually another three sapsucker species — Williamson’s, red-breasted and red-naped — in North America, but they are all birds of the western half of the continent.

It is true of many species of birds that males and females look different. In the case of the Williamson’s sapsucker, males and females look so different that early naturalists mistakenly believed the male and female were entirely different species! Only two decades after the initial discovery of this bird did scientists finally realize that both male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers were the same species. This particular sapsucker was named in honor of Lt. Robert Stockton Williamson, who led a surveying expedition that collected the first male. The intent of the expedition wasn’t focused on collecting birds. Williamson and his men had actually been assigned the job of identifying the best route west for a railway to the Pacific Ocean.

Although I haven’t been too lucky with this bird at my home, it isn’t too difficult to find this bird during fall migration and in the winter months at city and state parks in the region. If you observe a yellow-bellied sapsucker in your own yard, consider yourself lucky to get a glimpse of this oddball woodpecker.