Category Archives: Bristol Herald Courier

Bird of mystery, black rail famed for eluding birders

Photo by AGAMA/Adobe Stock • Adult male black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) standing in a swamp during the night in Brazoria County, Texas. The black rail is a  secretive, rarely seen bird of wetlands and marshes. Much smaller than other members of the rail family, the bird doesn’t offer even determined birders any easy observations.

On Wednesday morning, Oct. 13, I fetched my mom’s newspaper before heading to work. Scanning the front page headlines while walking back from the mailbox, I missed a tiny bird.

The bird flushed into a panicked flight at the last possible second from right under my feet. At a glance, I knew at once that I’d seen something incredibly different. I can only describe the bird as a black, somewhat pear-shaped bird, perhaps a little larger than a typical sparrow, with a less than elegant flight that took it a couple of feet into a stand of cattails and other wet-loving vegetation.

Then, just like that, the bird was gone. After that brief encounter, which may have lasted at best a second or two, the bird vanished. With sparrows or warblers, an observer can squeak some notes to persuade a curious bird to come back into sight. I tried and got no response.

Of course, I didn’t think I’d seen a warbler or a sparrow. In an instant, perhaps one of the most significant bird sightings I’ve ever had at my home was concluded but hardly resolved.

I remained standing, staring, trying to determine what I’d just seen. I had an idea, but it was almost too unexpected and too unsupported to entertain. I won’t be adding it to my life list of birds seen, but I am fairly confident that I saw a black rail, one of the tiniest representatives in a family of birds that also include sora rail, Virginia rail, clapper rail and king rail.

When I describe the bird as tiny, it’s not an exaggeration. Adults are bigger than most sparrows but smaller than an American robin. They are gray-black birds speckled with white on the back. They have a black crown and chestnut patch evident on the back of the neck. The bill is black.The legs range from pink to wine-colored. The most striking feature of this bird, if observed under favorable conditions, is its bright red eyes.

Many birders have probably enjoyed a flight of fancy while imagining a beady pair of red eyes staring back at them from dense marsh vegetation. The black rail is so difficult to observe that it has become a sort of feathered “holy grail” for birders. I was certainly not expecting the possibility of my path crossing with this tiny wanderer.

The black rail has not been extensively studied by scientists, which means much about this elusive bird of marshes and wetland is poorly understood. There are different reasons behind the mysteries surrounding the bird.

For instance, although it does vocalize, black rails call mostly after dark. Not many people go wandering through marshes at night, so black rails largely go unheard.

In addition, when these small birds perceive a threat, they prefer running through dense vegetation instead of taking flight. Some black rails in northern areas are migratory, so these birds are capable of sustained flight. They simply don’t like to fly unless circumstances dictate flight upon them. They’d prefer to scurry through wetland, much like a small rodent. They are even known to take advantage of trails blazoned through marshes by mice and other small rodents.

A few aspects of my observation work in favor of the bird being a black rail. I’ve seen other rails — sora, Virginia rail and clapper rail — on multiple occasions. Virginia rail and clapper rail can be ruled out. They’re too large and too different in appearance to be mistaken for a black rail. The sora bears a certain similarity to a black rail, but it is mostly brown and gray with a yellow bill. It’s also larger than a black rail.

Once the black rail’s close kin are eliminated, there aren’t any other likely suspects that might be confused with it. It’s frustrating. I will likely always refer to this sighing as “the bird that looked a lot like a black rail.” My hesitation stems partly from the simple fact that so many birders are unable to ever get a look at this bird. Why should I have had better luck, even if only for a split second?

Incidentally, two of my best rail sighings have taken place in Erwin.

Back in 2000, I observed a Virginia rail stepping delicately and deliberately though some cattails and other vegetation on the fringes of the wetland area adjacent to the large pond at Erwin Fishery Park. I watched the bird move carefully and deliberately through the vegetation. It was only for a moment or two, but it was of longer duration than my recent “blink-and-you-missed-it” observation of the black rail in my driveway.

My best observation of a sora took place in the spring a few years ago during a visit to the boardwalk over the wetlands near the industrial park in Erwin. The boardwalk is part of the extended linear trail in town. I was birding that day with Margaret Roy, the former manager of Mountain Inn & Suites of Erwin.

Margaret wanted to learn more about birds, and we really got lucky when we found such an uncommon bird only minutes after we stepped onto the boardwalk. It was as simple as looking down on the mudflats and noticing an odd, plump bird walking without concern beneath us. From our elevated viewing platform, we got excellent looks through binoculars and I took some photos.

Early naturalists, even without benefit of binoculars, were aware of the black rail. John James Audubon, the famous painter and naturalist, painted a black rail and its chick. Audubon referred to the elusive denizen of wetlands depicted in his painting as the “least water-rail.” Others have called the bird by such names as “least water-hen,” “little black rail” and “black crake.” In some parts of the world, rails are referred to as crakes, but they are basically all the same type of bird.

According to the website, All About Birds, black rails have been eliminated from many saltwater tidal habitats. The website even encourages people to listen for black rails in spring in freshwater wetlands. Although they favor tidal habitats on the coast, black rails will nest in a variety of wet meadows, marshy edges, and even along creeks and rivers. Some event attempt to nest around farm ponds or fields of hay with standing water.

Black rails are scarce, but they do range throughout the United States and Canada. The two states with the most black rails are Florida and California. Unfortunately, those two states feature habitats under siege from human encroachment.

Because of their small size, black rails are limited water that is more shallow than used by most rails. They feed on seeds, insects, crustaceans and mollusks. In 2015, the black rail was confirmed as a nesting species in South Carolina after long being classified as a non-breeding migrant to the state.

High tides that force these birds from their dense cover make them vulnerable to predators ranging from herons and hawks to foxes and cats.

Rails belong to the family of birds known as Rallidae, which includes not only crakes and rails, but coots and gallinules, too. The entire family consists of about 150 species, including bird with such descriptive names as grey-throated rail, ash-throated crake, snoring rail, invisible rail, chestnut rail and striped crake. Many species of rails, particularly those that evolved on isolated islands, have become flightless.

There’s a saying that lightning never strikes twice. I’m hoping the saying is wrong. I’ve learned a lot about this fascinating bird while researching the topic of black rails after my all-too-brief sighting. I’d very much like to get a more satisfying look at a black rail some day.

Fingers crossed.

 

It all began with a dark-eyed junco

Photo by Jack Bumer from Pixabay • For many people, the dark-eyed junco is a winter bird, not arriving until the first frost or snowfall of the season. These songbirds typically remain until late spring when they disperse to their nesting grounds.

I wrote my first bird column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this weekly column is marking its 26th anniversary this week.

This column has appeared over the last three decades in a total of six different newspapers, which I regard as a personal achievement, as well as an accomplishment for our feathered friends. It’s on their behalf that I pen these weekly efforts to promote conservation and good will toward all birds. I have also posted the column as a weekly blog posting since February  2014 at www.ourfinefeatheredfriends.com.

I’ve played detective, helping people identify everything from “rain crows,” or cuckoos, to Muscovy ducks, chukars and double-crested cormorants. I’ve observed unusual birds, including white pelicans, brants and roseate spoonbills, in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina and spotlighted them in these columns. I still take delight in the kaleidoscopic parade of colorful warblers that pass through the region each spring and fall as well as the fast-paced duel of ruby-throated hummingbirds and the occasional rufous hummingbirds straying through the region.

At my home, I also provide sunflower seed and other supplemental food for the resident birds like Carolina chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows and downy woodpeckers.

Even as I tweak my anniversary column for “Feathered Friends,” parts of the region just experienced the first heavy frost. This prognostication of approaching winter weather is a perfect time to dust off this week’s column, which is a revision of the first bird column I ever wrote. This column focused on a common visitor to yards and feeders during the winter months. In fact, dark-eyed juncos should bereturning to the region any day. Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column.

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Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

During the summer months, a visit to higher elevations mountaintops is almost guaranteed to produce sightings of dark-eyed juncos. Juncos may nest as many as three times in a season. A female junco usually lays three to six eggs for each nest, which she constructs without any assistance from her mate.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

The juncos are a small branch of the sparrow clan. Some of the other juncos include the endangered Guadalupe junco, yellow-eyed junco, Baird’s junco and volcano junco. The last one on the list is endemic to the Talamancan montane forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. Baird’s junco is named for Spencer Fullerton Baird, an American ornithologist and naturalist.

Baird served as secretary  for the Smithsonian Institution from 1878 until  his death in 1887. He greatly expanded the natural history collections of the Smithsonian from 6,000 specimens in 1850 to over two million by the time of his death.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to juncos. There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

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Orders are being accepted for the 2022 bird calendar produced by Elizabethton Bird Club members. Calendars feature bird photographs taken by club members. The calendars sell for $15, plus $2 for postage and handling for those needing a calendar mailed to them. This year’s cover features a beautiful photograph of a chestnut-sided warbler among spring blossoms taken by Charles Warden. Anyone interested in the purchase of a calendar can email Bryan Stevens at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com for more information.

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If you’d like to share your first sighting this season of dark-eyed juncos as the temperatures get colder, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. As always, the column is also a line of communication with fellow bird enthusiasts. I’ve enjoyed sharing stories about birds with countless readers over the past 26 years. I can also be reached on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

 

 

 

American crow’s dark reputation more from plumage than behavior

There’s something rather autumnal about watching a flock of American crows glean the last scattered kernels of corn from a harvested field as one of the flock stands sentry and ready to utter the alarm with some guttural “caws” should anything potentially threatening appear on the scene. Crows are such a part of the landscape that they would almost escape our notice if they didn’t come with centuries of accumulated baggage that makes us distrust them and suspect their every action.

While seeking birds far afield, I have occasionally spotted some innovative scarecrows standing guard in gardens and agricultural fields. I’m not sure if anyone still erects these human effigies for their original purpose of warding off crows and other feathered agricultural pests. These days, scarecrows likely serve an ornamental purpose and are often part of a yard’s whimsical Halloween or autumn decorations.

The crow, largely thanks to its glossy black feathers, but perhaps also with a nod to its avian intelligence, has long been associated with Halloween. Greeting cards and decorations for the holiday often feature depictions of bats, owls and black cats, as well as the inevitable crow and the accompanying scarecrow. With a brain about as big as a man’s thumb, the crow is renowned among ornithologists and other scientists for its keen intelligence. Crows are not fooled for a second by the charade of a straw-stuffed, brainless friend of Dorothy propped in a field.

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay • An American crow perches on a log. Due to its dark coloration, crows have often been associated with evil and other dark forces. In actuality, crows are admirable, highly intelligent birds.

The intelligence of this bird has long been known. Early American naturalist William Bartram wrote about a crow named Tom in a highly entertaining essay titled “Anecdotes of an American Crow.” Bartram, who lived from 1739 to 1823, brought humorous observations and keen insight to his subject as he wrote about the joys — as well as tribulations — of living with Tom, a crow that enjoyed tormenting Bartram’s dog and purloining the writer’s spectacles and trying to hide them.

The essay demonstrates that almost as soon as Europeans arrived in North America, some of those with a bent toward the natural world recognized the intelligence and amazing adaptability of the American crow. As well as writing about the natural world, Bartram earned widespread acclaim for his drawings of botanical and ornithological subjects. Tom, the featured crow in Bartram’s brief essay, certainly exhibited intelligence of an impressive degree. Not only did the crow steal his owner’s eyeglasses, he foiled Bartram’s first attempt to reclaim them. The story makes very humorous reading. To read Bartram’s account, visit http://www.geocities.ws/jswortham/crow.

What else have crows done down through the ages to gain such a dark and much undeserved reputation? It probably doesn’t help matters that a flock of crows is known as a “murder.” Ancient Greeks considered crows as omens, which often foretold death and other disasters. The warrior goddess known as the Morrighan from Celtic mythology often appears in the form of a crow or raven. She is also often portrayed as being accompanied by a group of these black-plumaged birds. Many Native American tribes revere crows as communicators between worlds. Crows have been documented using tools and solving problems, which shows an uncanny ability to analyze and strategize. The early Celtic people also noted and admired these traits in crows.

I think the Celts and Native tribes had the right idea. Crows are admirable birds for many reasons. For instance, they are very social birds, often forming family flocks. They may also form much larger flocks for the purpose of roosting. When nesting, this social behavior comes in useful for a mated pair. Offspring from previous successful nesting efforts often serve as helpers. In addition to gaining their own life experience on successful nesting and caring for chicks, these older siblings may protect the nest site from predators or even deliver food to fill hungry beaks and bellies.

While famous for their associations to humans and our agriculture, crows forage far beyond the cornfield for their food. Many crows scavenge road-killed wildlife, such as squirrels, opossums and rabbits. While they certainly don’t turn up their beaks at the notion of eating carrion, crows do so less often than birds such as turkey vultures, black vultures and the crow’s fellow corvid, the common raven.

The kinship to the raven is evident, but even moderately experienced birders rarely confuse these similar species. The raven is a large bird with a heavy beak, a distinctive profile and a wedge-shaped tail. In a direct comparison with a raven, a crow looks downright puny. Both are members of the corvid family, which consists of 120 species including jays, rooks, magpies and jackdaws. Some of the world’s other crows include the descriptively named little crow, hooded crow, carrion crow, collared crow, long-billed crow and violet crow. While most of the world’s crows are thriving, the Hawaiian crow has been extinct in the wild since 2002, although the species still exists in captive-breeding programs in various zoos.

Thanks to its resourcefulness and intelligence, the crow is deserving of more respect and even admiration. The American crow is a uniquely American success story. Think more of Bartram’s story about Tom the crow and not the dark, misguided myths and legends about crows this Halloween. Long may the crows fly.

Barn owl helps kin earn ghostly reputation

Photo by Kevinsphotos by Pixabay • A barn owl flies through the darkness without any difficulty whatsoever. Special adaptations make barn owls a silent, highly efficient predator on rodents, some songbirds, and some reptiles and amphibians.

Halloween is drawing closer, and it’s definitely the one night of the year that we become acutely aware of things that go bump in the night.

While goblins and ghouls can be dismissed as mere apparitions of the imagination, some real-life feathered phantoms do roam the darkness, perhaps even in your own backyard. If so, you are more likely to have heard them than to have seen them.

If you do hear anything unusual Halloween night, chances are the sounds may have been produced by an owl.

Several species of owl reside in Northeast Tennessee, including the Eastern screech-owl, the barred owl, the great horned owl and the barn owl. A fifth owl, the tiny Northern saw-whet owl, can be found at some high-elevation locations, including Unaka Mountain in Unicoi County. A few other owls have made sporadic appearances in the region, including long-eared owl, short-eared owl and even snowy owl.

The barn owl is an owl that has adapted its ways to co-exist with humans. Even its common name refers to the fact that these owls will roost and nest in barns and other structures. They are also known to select natural tree cavities, caves and other human structures, including recesses build into sports stadiums and arenas. My most recent sightings of barn owls took place at a grain silo in Sullivan County a few years ago, a large barn located on Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006 and under the eaves of the old theatre on the campus of the Mountain Home Veterans Administration near East Tennessee State University back in 2000. These sporadic sightings are testimony to the overall elusive nature of this owl.

I was surprised to learn during my background research that the barn owl is the most widely distributed species of owl as well as one of the most widespread birds on the planet. This owl is also referred to as common barn owl, to distinguish it from other species in the barn-owl family Tytonidae. Owls in this family comprise one of two main lineages of living owls, the other being the typical owls in the Strigidae family. The barn owl, known by the scientific name, Tyto alba, is found almost worldwide except in polar and desert regions, Asia north of the Alpide belt, most of Indonesia, and the Pacific islands.

The genus name for this owl is Tyto, a variation of the ancient Greek word, “tutō,” which meant “owl.” The barn owl family, Tytonidae, consists of true barn owls, as well as grass owls and masked owls.

All owls are carnivores, but the barn owl specializes on rodents more than many of its kin. However, this owl will also eat other birds and insects.

Because of their pale plumage and nocturnal habits, barn owls have been saddled with such common names as demon owl, death owl, night owl and ghost owl.

Other common names include rat owl, inspired by one of its major prey items, and barnyard owl and church owl, which are two haunts where these owls often roost or perch. I also liked the name scritch owl and hissing owl, which were acquired because of vocalizations from this bird.

Barn owls have several adaptations that allow them to hunt in complete darkness. These owls have excellent hearing, allowing them to pinpoint prey even when the absence of light renders vision useless. The characteristic facial disc of the barn owl helps channel sounds toward the bird’s ears.

Even the feathers of owls have adapted to the need to stalk wary prey without revealing their presence. Specialized feathers permit owls to fly almost silently. Their feathers absorb flight noises and even alter air turbulence to keep the flight smooth and quiet. Most prey never suspect the owl’s approach until it’s far too late.

For the average person the term “owl” is representative of what is actually an extremely diverse family of birds. Worldwide, there are about 220 species of owls varying in size and habits.

Humans have come up with some descriptive names for various owls around the world. A sampling of these names includes fearful owl, pharaoh eagle-owl, collared owlet, pearl-spotted owlet, least pygmy-owl, red-chested owlet, buff-fronted owl, Stygian owl, vermiculated fishing-owl, black-and-white owl, bare-legged owl, maned owl, bearded screech-owl, spectacled owl and golden-masked owl.

Owls, according to Linda Spencer, author of “Knock on Wood: A Serendipitous Selection of Superstitions,” have inspired a mixed bag of superstitions ever since humans stood up. Owls have long been associated with the forces of both good and evil. The “hoot” or call of an owl is believed by people of many cultures to foretell death. There are some interesting ways to counter the ominous hoot of an owl, according to Spencer. Means of warding off the evil owl power include putting irons back in the fire, throwing salt, pepper and vinegar on the fire, tying a knot or taking one’s clothes off, turning them inside out and putting them back on.

According to Laura Martin, author of “The Folklore of Birds,” one of the earliest human drawings depicting owls dates back to the early Paleolithic period. The scene is of a family of snowy owls painted on a cave wall in France.

Owls have also entered the culture as symbols of wisdom and goodness. The wise old owl, Martin writes, dates back to the time of King Arthur. The sorcerer Merlin was always shown with an owl on his shoulder. During the Middle Ages owls became symbols of learning and intelligence. The Greeks didn’t fear owls as did the Romans. In fact, the owl was the sacred mascot of the Greek goddess Athena.

There’s one more owl-related myth I forgot to mention. There is a Chinese belief that owls snatch the souls of unwary people — just something you should know if you are out and about after dark on Halloween night.

Photo by skitter photos/Pixabay • Look for owls on Halloween and every other dark night.

 

Annual fall bird count tallies 129 species for Northeast Tennessee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The list follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ospreys found around area waterways during migration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observe caution if sick birds visit feeders

Photo by Brent Connelly from Pixabay • Blue jays appear susceptible to the ailment that afflicted birds for the past months.

I received an email from Unicoi residents Judy and Bill Beckman about a distressing situation at their feeders.

“We sadly took down our feeders early this week,” the email read. “We began seeing house finches with swollen, crusty eyes and ruffled and missing feathers. 

The email also indicated that some of the Northern cardinals also had a lot of missing feathers and a ruffled look. The Beckmans noted that they are aware that cardinals molt, but added that it seemed like they were seeing more than usual. 

They’ve also seen some blue jays and a flock of robins with motley appearances and missing feathers.   

They had received an alert earlier this year from the Elizabethton Bird Club about a mysterious  disease that is causing bird die-offs. The alert described the victims having swollen eyes and ruffled feathers. 

“Any confirmation of that happening here now?  Any updates would be appreciated.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male house finch perched on a cable. These finches are native to the western United States but became established in the eastern states thanks to the illicit pet trade.

I answered the email, starting with the more immediate problem of the house finches. Back in the 1990s, house finches were decimated by mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. Humans can get infected with conjunctivitis, which is commonly called “pink eye.” 

According to the Project FeederWatch website, infected finches have red, swollen, runny or crusty eyes. In extreme cases the eyes become swollen shut and the bird becomes blind. Observers might find an infected bird sitting quietly while clumsily scratching an eye against its foot or a perch. While some infected birds recover, many die from starvation, exposure or predation. Since the early outbreaks, the disease has affected several other wild bird species, including American goldfinch, evening grosbeak and purple finch.

I recall seeing both house finches and pine siskins suffering from this disease. I haven’t seen it as often in recent years, which has been a relief.

Salmonella is another disease that can affect birds. As most people know, salmonella can also have serious consequences for human health. Finches, especially in the West Coast states of Oregon and California, have been hard hit by salmonella in recent months.

“Salmonellosis occurs periodically in pine siskins in some winters throughout their range. When large numbers of pine siskins congregate, the disease can spread rapidly causing high mortality. Most birds die within 24 hours of infection,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Krysta Rogers, an avian disease specialist.

Birds become infected with salmonella when they ingest food, water or come into contact with objects, such as bird feeders, perches or soil, contaminated with feces from an infected bird. Sick birds often appear weak, have labored breathing, and may sit for prolonged periods with fluffed or ruffled feathers. Salmonellosis is almost exclusively reported from locations with bird feeders where birds congregate. Rogers advised that residents can help reduce disease transmission by removing bird feeders and bird baths. Allowing birds to feed on natural seeds rather than at bird feeders reduces contact between birds and helps slow spread of the disease. Some of the flocks of finches have been exceptionally large this winter, which is why it’s a good idea to closely monitor the birds at your feeders. At the first sign of illness, take steps to disinfect feeders. It’s a good idea to clean feeders on a regular basis. A spray with a weak bleach water solution followed by a few swipes with a clean towel can help. Once an outbreak is evident, however, the best course would be to stop feeding birds for a short period.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flock of pine siskins carpets the ground beneath some feeders as they forage for food.

Songbirds aren’t the only birds affected by disease outbreaks. Waterfowl are often vulnerable. Like finches, many species of ducks and geese also form large flocks. Some of the diseases that can run rampant in waterfowl populations include avian influenza, avian cholera and avian botulism. According to the Ducks Unlimited website, major avian botulism outbreaks have been reported throughout North America for more than a century. In 1910, avian botulism resulted in the deaths of millions of waterfowl in California and Utah, and another incident in 1952 killed an estimated 4 million to 5 million waterfowl across the western United States.

In 1999, the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne disease, arrived in the United States. This disease is typically a mild nuisance for most infected people, but in some circumstances the virus can be lethal. The virus, which first appeared in the United States in 1999 after being discovered in 1937 in the African nation of Uguanda, also didn’t confine itself to the human population. Soon after its arrival in the United States, the virus began decimating American crows. Two decades later, experts have been able to study the consequences of West Nile virus on both humans and wild birds.

According to an article by Hugh Powell published Oct. 15, 2010, on the All About Birds website, the disease afflicted crows more than any other bird species. “West Nile virus hit American crows particularly hard,” Powell wrote. “When the disease first appeared in New York City, in summer 1999, nearly 5,500 crows died in four months. Tests suggested the disease was 100-percent fatal to crows.” Many other species, from jays and magpies to gulls and chickadees, also proved susceptible, according to the All About Birds article.

Millions of birds died as West Nile swept across the continent in just five years. An interesting thing happened as the virus spread across the country. As viral diseases often tend to do, West Nile apparently became less virulent. The American crow population did hit frightening lows, but the species appears to have managed to rebound.

Where’s the silver lining in regard to all these stories? Here is a sliver of light through the dark clouds. Birds are resilient, just like humans. They can usually overcome anything nature might throw at them.

I suspect there could be several different diseases at work that are causing multiple but unrelated die-offs among certain birds. The house finch bacterial disease is a recurring problem for this species.

I do think that the cardinals, blue jays and perhaps the robins are simply having difficult molts. Molting, or the process of shedding and replacing feathers, doesn’t always go smoothly for crested birds like jays and cardinals. The bald-headed cardinal is a late-summer fixture.

Here’s a significant announcement made on Sept. 13. In a joint statement issued by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“All states affected by the mysterious bird illness of summer 2021 have lifted their do-not-feed recommendations. No cause has yet been determined, but cases are no longer being reported.”

I think the Beckmans made the right decision to remove their feeders. In a couple of  weeks, I think they can put the feeders back out, monitor carefully, and see if any signs of disease return. 

Contagious diseases, particularly among flocking birds, are a fact of life, just like the cold and flu season for humans. We can, however, take steps to mitigate outbreaks.

Keep feeding the birds, but play the diligent host. Put out only the amount of seed that visiting birds can eat in a single day. Monitor the flocks for any sign of illness and respond quickly if such signs are detected. Yes, do keep feeding the birds, but be safe and attentive while doing so.

Photo by dbadry/Pixabay.com • Blue Jays often create food caches for acorns and other items. This jay is leaving a feeder with several peanuts thanks to an expandable esophagus.

Two warblers have names connected with the Volunteer State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common nighthawks share autumn skies with many other migrants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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