Category Archives: Bristol

Common grackles part of November’s changing bird lineup

 

Photo by Bernell MacDonald/Pixabay.com • Common grackles are quite accomplished at foraging for food in a variety of habitats.

November is a month of transition. The birds of summer have all “flown the coop,” returning to warmer climes to the south in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Of course, even as hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers, vireos, and others have fled North America in advance of winter’s imminent arrival, other birds are arriving to take their place.

Many of the newcomers don’t offer the vibrant plumage of a scarlet tanager or a rose-breasted grosbeak, but they make up for the lack of striking feathers by remaining quite faithful to our feeders during the bleak, short days of winter. A hermit thrush and a dark-eyed junco represented some first-of-autumn arrivals when they showed up Nov. 6, followed the next day by a swamp sparrow. In addition to the sparrow, three ravenous common grackles descended on my suet feeders that same day.

For many bird enthusiasts, the “common” in this particular bird’s name is particularly apt. Tending to form large, noisy flocks, common grackles can easily wear out even the most generous welcome. Perhaps because I live at a mid-elevation area, common grackles are extremely infrequent visitors to my yard. I can be a little more welcoming to a bird that I know is not likely to linger.

Photo by diapicard/Pixabay.com • A common grackle perches on a shepherd’s hook in a garden. These large birds, which are part of the blackbird family, form flocks and bring big appetites to feeders during migratory stops.

Nevertheless, that same evening these three grackles must have spread the word because a flock of about 30 of these birds arrived. If I needed a reminder, the flock provided a quick one. A handful of grackles isn’t too disruptive, but a large flock can quickly overwhelm and intimidate smaller feeder birds.

Even so, I remain inclusive in my embrace of all feathered friends. A much maligned bird if ever there was one, the common grackle is worth a second look. For those who are able to overlook the occasional bad habits of birds such as Northern mockingbirds, mourning doves, or even cantankerous ruby-throated hummingbirds, there may be hope for this large member of the diverse family of blackbirds, known by scientific types as a member of the family Icteridae. This grouping of New World species, also known as New World blackbirds, includes such members as orioles, meadowlarks, cowbirds, bobolinks, marshbirds, orependolas, caciques and, of course, blackbirds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A boat-tailed grackle sings, if the bird’s harsh, grating notes can be considered a song, from a perch in a wetland in South Carolina.

The common grackle is known by the scientific name Quiscalus quiscula. In the southeast, in particular along the coast and in wetland areas, a common and related species is the boat-tailed grackle. Other species of grackles found in the New World include the great-tailed grackle, Nicaraguan grackle, Great Antillean grackle and the Carib grackle. A little more distantly related are the South American species golden-tufted mountain grackle and the Colombian mountain grackle.

One species — the slender-billed grackle of Mexico — suffered extinction at the dawn of the 20th century. Reasons for this bird’s disappearance are not clearly understood, but habitat destruction of Mexican wetlands and hunting pressures have been theorized as causes. Like others of its kind, the slender-billed grackle may also have been persecuted as an agricultural pest.

Like many other birds dependent on wetlands, common grackles have experienced population declines in recent decades. Although it seems odd to refer to a bird with a population estimated at around 73 million individuals in North America as on the decline, common grackles have suffered an estimated population loss of about 60 percent from historic highs.

Male grackles stand out from other blackbirds due to their sheer size. Males can reach a length of 13 inches, although much of that can be measured in an exceptionally long tail. A grackle’s plumage has a black sheen that can shine with brilliant iridescence that tends to appear purple, green or blue when the sun shines just right on the feathers. Females tend to be smaller than males and are a muted black and brown. Both sexes have long, sturdy bills and yellow eyes.

Most rural residents don’t have to worry about common grackles overwhelming their feeders, but some people living in urban and suburban settings have found grackles to be difficult guests. The birds have bottomless appetites and are aggressive toward more desirable feeder birds. Fortunately, migrating flocks in the fall tend not to linger. After a brief visit, which can still deplete supplies of seed and suet cakes, the grackles continue migrating.

Grackles are usually one of the earliest birds to return each spring. In fact, it’s not at all unusual for these large birds to make their way back to the region as early as late February. I am usually glad to welcome them back since I know that their return is a strong indication that some more favored species are certain to follow in their wake and that winter’s grip is waning.

Are you seeing new arrivals in your yard or at your feeders? Let me know by emailing ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Boat-tailed grackles perch on viewing equipment at an observation platform at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Woman documents special relationship with pine warblers in photographs

Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Pine warblers Petey and Petunia take mealworms from a waiting hand. These two warblers have learned to trust Rebecca “Becky” Boyd in order to get a quick meal.

For Becky Boyd, the ongoing pandemic has provided an unexpected opportunity to get to know some of her resident birds on a more personal basis. She has even won the trust of some of her backyard birds, succeeding at persuading them to take food right from her hands. She has posted photographs of some of these up close and personal engagements with birds to her Facebook page, where I first began to look with awe at her success.

Boyd, who resides in Knoxville, Tennessee, discussed some of her incredible stories involving some of her own feathered friends. “First, I feel like I should explain my bird-feeding station,” she said. “My bedroom window is on the second story, adjacent to a deck.”

She noted that there is a flower box under the window that she placed a board across so that she could set food containers right outside the window. “I also have a mealworm feeder hanging from a swing arm near this window,” Becky said.

She removed the screen covering the window so that she could pull the window open to take pictures up close. “This window is next to my home office work desk, where I sit every day during the COVID pandemic while working from home,” Becky continued. “The birds have become accustomed to seeing me at the window, and the first bird that I was able to feed by hand was a ruby-throated hummingbird.”

The process didn’t take all that much effort. “I got one of those little ‘button’ feeders’ that I held out the window next to the regular feeder,” she explained. “After a half dozen attempts, it worked!”

She added that she was even able to take a video of the experience.

Boyd also spoke about her relationship with the Eastern bluebirds living in her yard. “I have a bonded pair of bluebirds that live in my yard year round, and produce three broods of babies every year,” she said. “During time periods when natural food is scarce and when they are raising offspring, I provide live mealworms in addition to dried mealworms.”

She also has a section of a tree limb with recessed holes in which she spreads Wild Birds Unlimited’s Bark Butter (a specially formulated suet) onto. The limb hangs from a hook outside the same window.

Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Petey the pine warbler grabs a mealworm from a waiting hand. Petey’s trust eventually helped introduce his mate, Petunia, to the concept of a “free lunch” at the Knoxville home of Rebecca Boyd.

Most birding enthusiasts know that bluebirds and hummingbirds are among the most trusting of birds in regard to people, but Becky has enjoyed success with some species that are usually more aloof. For instance, the limb with the “bark butter” attracted the notice of a male pine warbler earlier this year.

“Sometimes when I would spread new butter on the stick, he would flutter around close by, being impatient to get something to eat,” she explained. “A few times he landed on my hand or arm during the process.”

Then the warbler discovered the little white dish that Becky keeps filled with live mealworms intended for the bluebirds. “At first, I would reach out to take the bowl away,” she said. “Live worms are sort of expensive.”

But the persistent warbler, who she named Petey, started landing on the lip of the bowl while she held it in her hand to protect the mealworms for the bluebirds.

“Once he associated that white bowl with yummy live worms, he started watching from a nearby tree for me to open the window to put out worms,” Becky said. “He would fly over immediately to grab some.”

His forward nature inspired her to conduct an experiment.

“Often, he would helicopter over the bowl in my hand with impatience, so I tried keeping the bowl in my hand instead of setting it on the ledge,” Becky continued. “He adapted right away, and before long his mate, Petunia, started copying his behavior.”

Becky expanded the experiment. “Within a week or so, I decided to try just putting the worms in the palm of my hand instead of in the bowl,” she said. “Petey adapted right away, but Petunia was a bit more reluctant.”

Becky noted with pride that Petey will perch on her hand for quite a while to gobble up some worms for himself. He will then grab a few in his beak to take back to the nest for their offspring.

“Petunia is more tentative and strategic, and will typically land just long enough to grab a few worms,” Becky said. “I’ve noticed that oftentimes they will take their worms and squish them into the bark butter or dunk them in the birdbath before taking them back to the nest. I wonder if that makes the worms stop wiggling to make it easier for the babies to eat them.”

Becky assumed that the warblers would only eat from her hand stuck out through the window opening, but one day she was sitting in a lawn chair in her back yard.

Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Pine warbler Petey ducks his beak into a bowl of mealworms for a quick snack.

“Petey found me and started fluttering around looking for food,” she recalled. “He followed me back to the house and waited on the deck ledge for me to fetch him some worms.”

He has become quite insistent. “When I would sit on the deck to read or watch the birds, he would land on the table and trill at me with a loud, shrill song until I met his requirements,” Becky said.

Now, when she is sitting at her desk working, Petey often gets her attention by pecking on the window to let her know he’s there and waiting for worms.

“So, I keep a cup with some worms next to the window so I can quickly slide the window open and shake a few into my hand to offer him,” Becky said. “Once the first brood of fledglings started coming to the window, they chose to only eat the bark butter instead of gravitating to the mealworm feeder.”

Becky added that the fledglings have moved on now, and Petey and Petunia are working on their second brood.

Becky has some aspirations about other resident birds. “I would love to be able to hand-feed the bluebirds,” she shared. “They will come very close to me — sometimes almost nose to beak through the closed window — but they are not willing to get close enough to hand-feed.”

She has had some success getting a few of her resident tufted titmice to accept food from her hands. Petey and Petunia deserve some of the credit.

“The titmice watched how the pine warblers ate from my hand and picked up the routine very quickly,” Becky said. “One of them is so bold, I sometimes have to try to shake him off my hand like he’s a housefly, but he comes right back to latch onto my fingers!”

She often names some of the regular cast of characters among her feathered friends.

Pine warbler pair Petey and Petunia have raised two fledglings, which Becky dubbed Posey and Pansy.

She has given her Eastern bluebird pair the names of Bogie and Bacall.

“They lost all but one fledgling from their first brood this year, so I named her Solo,” Becky added. “This pair has nested in my yard for four years in a row.

Her two reliable ruby-throated hummingbirds have been given the names LeRoy and Loretta.

Photo by Jean Potter • A pine warbler visits a seed feeder at the home of Brookie and Jean Potter near Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

I asked if she has ever been described as a “bird whisperer” by her friends. “All the time!” Becky responded. “Many of my friends and Facebook Birding Group members are as amazed as I am about this experience.

Becky noted that her backyard attracts a wide variety, as well as volume, of birds. “I try to make it attractive to the birds versus pretty for the people,” she said. “I always keep two clean birdbaths available to them, and consistently keep feeders full of different types of seeds.”

In addition, she said that she plants bird-loving trees and shrubs and even left a couple of dead trees standing in the yard for the woodpeckers to enjoy. “I also try to make myself visible to the birds on a regular basis so that they understand that I’m not a threat,” Becky said. “I’m not sure if I have an actual gift, or if this is all just a wonderful result of spending so much time at home in their environment.”

Her special encounters with backyard birds provides a “rewarding feeling of awe and intrigue,” she said. “Having such a personal relationship with wild birds deepens my awareness of nature and makes me even more determined to help our songbird populations survive and thrive. That being said, I do recognize that wild birds should not be tamed such that they lose their fear of humans. Understanding this risk, I feel a mixture of joy and a little guilt. I don’t plan to encourage this behavior with any new birds, but I sure am enjoying my bond with this pine warbler pair.

Friends don’t always fully understand her enthusiasm for birds.

“Some don’t understand my passion for this or recognize how rare it is to have a personal relationship with wild birds, but most of my friends are also nature lovers who are in awe of this and wish they could do it, too,” Becky said.

“I joke that I should build a solid fence around my property and charge admission to my bird park,” Becky said. “My friends have encouraged me to start my own website to display and sell my bird photos, and I am in the process now of building my website, which will be named RidgeRockArts.com.”

In the meantime, Petey is on the verge of achieving a taste of international fame.

“An accomplished artist in Amsterdam recently saw one of my photos of Petey perched on my hand and asked to paint him to add to her portfolio,” Becky said.

Petey even crowded into the interview’s conclusion. “Here he is right now pecking on the window during this interview,” Becky said. “I must stop what I’m doing and get him a handful of worms right this instant. I think he is the one that trained me versus me training him.”

 

Returning ruby-throats, like the rest of world’s hummingbirds, never fail to dazzle

Photo by Anne and Saturnino Miranda/Pixabay.com • The Cuban emerald is a species of hummingbird found in a wide range of semi-open habitats in Cuba, as well as the Isle of Pines and the western Bahamas. Numbering 330 species, the world’s hummingbirds dazzle humans with their incredibly diverse plumages.

Experts estimate that there are 330 species of hummingbirds, all of which are found in the New World. Consider that these dazzling little birds have been given vividly descriptive names, such as cinnamon-throated hermit, red-tailed comet, blue-chinned sapphire, lazuline sabrewing, sparkling violetear, fiery topaz, green-tailed goldenthroat, bronze-tailed plumeleteer,  amethyst-throated mountain-gem, peacock coquette, red-billed emerald, empress brilliant, purple-backed sunbeam, green-backed hillstar, orange-throated sunangel, black metaltail, marvelous spatuletail and blue-tufted starthroat.

The only reliable species to inhabit the eastern United States from spring to fall each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird, which is currently arriving at various points from Florida to Maine and westward to states like Illinois, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but people should see a spike in their numbers when the hummingbirds end summer nesting and start migrating south again this autumn.

One of my most memorable hummingbird sightings took place in January of 1999 during a cruise in the Bahamas. A stopover in Nassau and a visit to the Paradise Island Resort permitted me a fleeting glimpse of a Bahama woodstar, a small hummingbird with a superficial resemblance to the ruby-throated hummingbird. The real beauty from my visit to the Bahamas, however, took place on a private cay maintained by the Disney Cruise line. While many passengers enjoyed the sun and sand of the beach, I walked nature trails to find birds. 

Photo by Daniel Roberts/Pixabay.com • The calliope hummingbird is the smallest of its kind known to reside in North America.

I found Western spindalis, then known as stripe-headed tanager, as well as black-faced grassquits and bananaquits, and I got several close looks at male and female Cuban emeralds, a hummingbird found in a wide range of semi-open habitats in Cuba, the Isle of Pines and the western Bahamas. The male is almost entirely metallic or iridescent green and measures almost four inches long. The ones I encountered were also curious and quite tame, often flying within inches of my face. 

Other than the two hummingbirds I saw during that trip, my remaining hummingbird observations have been confined to the United States. That hasn’t prevented me from seeing such unexpected hummingbirds as green-breasted mango, calliope hummingbird, black-chinned hummingbird, rufous hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, and broad-tailed hummingbird. 

Photo by Anne and Saturnino Miranda/Pixabay.com • It’s not difficult at all to see how the male Cuban emerald in such vibrant green plumage acquired its common name.

If I ever win the lottery, I plan to see as many hummingbirds as I can. For now, I am happy to report that ruby-throated hummingbirds are returning to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina.

I received an email from Susie Parks, who lives in the North Cove section of McDowell County in North Carolina. “My daughter, Luanne Graham, and I sighted our first hummer on March 28,” Priscilla noted. 

“I read your column in the McDowell News,” she added. “I am 84 years old and have been a birder most of my life.” 

Susie added that she and her daughter are both retired teachers who live next to each other. “We put our feeders out earlier than usual because she had heard that the hummers might be arriving earlier this year,” Susie wrote.

Susie noted that the first hummingbird sighted at her own feeder arrived on the first day of April, a few days after the hummingbird that visited her daughter’s feeder. “I keep a journal and I always note the first sighting,” she added, “and this is the earliest hummer I have ever recorded.”

This sightings by Susie and Luanne are the earliest I’ve had reported to me this year. 

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Facebook friend Jimmie Daniels in Newland, North Carolina, reported on her Facebook page that the first hummingbird of spring arrived at 6:24 p.m. on Wednesday, April 8.  “We just saw our first hummingbird and that always makes me happy,” she wrote. “If you have not put out feeders yet, it is a good time to do that.”

•••••

Bob Cheers of Bristol, Virginia, reported a ruby-throated female arrived at his home at 7:55 a.m. on Friday, April 10. He speculated that the hummingbird was possibly “the same gal that arrived last year on the same day but 10 hours later.” Bob added that hummingbirds are amazing and that it was almost inconceivable to him that it could be the same bird. Bob, who had read in previous columns that downy woodpeckers and Carolina chickadees occasionally take a sip of sugar water from hummingbird feeders, also asked if I had ever heard of a red-bellied woodpecker feeding regularly at a hummingbird feeder. I’ve not personally witnessed this, but perhaps some readers have seen red-bellied woodpeckers at sugar water feeders. Let me know!

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

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Brenda Hickman Dishner posted on my Facebook page that she spotted her first hummer of spring on Friday, April 10. “We live near Highway 421 and Houston Dam in Bristol, Tennessee,” she added.

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Philip Laws, who lives in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County, reported to me on Facebook that he saw his first hummingbirds on April 10. “Hummers returned to Limestone Cove on Good Friday,” Philip noted.

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Jeanne Siler Lilly reported her first spring hummingbird with a comment on my Facebook page. “I saw one at my feeder on April 10,” she wrote, adding that the bird visited a couple of times.

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Mary Jones in Johnson City said her first hummingbird this year arrived on April 11. “I had one show up the Saturday before Easter and every day since,” she wrote in a Facebook comment. 

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Dianna Lynne in Elizabethton saw her first hummingbird this spring on April 11. “They stopped in on Easter morning at the porch feeder here in Stoney Creek,” Dianne said in a comment on Facebook.

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Erwin resident Amy Wallin Tipton saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird on Easter Sunday.  “I just wanted to let you know I just saw my first male ruby-throat of the season,” Amy wrote in a Facebook message. “It was at 11:55 a.m.”

•••••

Lia Pritchard saw her first hummer of the season on Easter Sunday at her home in Fall Branch, Tennessee. Her father, Glen Eller, shared the report of Lia’s sighting.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Keep hummingbirds happy with a sugar water solution of four parts water to one part sugar.

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Lynda Carter, who lives in Jonesborough, saw her first hummingbird at 8:45 a.m. on Monday, April 13, after a stormy night. “The bird may have blown in sideways from Arkansas last night,” Lynda joked in an email.

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Richard Lewis in Bristol sent me a message on Facebook to announce the arrival of his first spring hummingbird. “I had my first ruby-throated hummingbird Monday, April 13, at 6 p.m. at my home in Bristol, Tennessee,” he wrote.

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Joneen Sargent, who lives in Sullivan County west of Holston Lake off Highway 421, emailed me at 8:06 p.m. on Monday, April 13, to report her first spring hummingbird. “Just saw my first hummingbird of the season,” Joneen wrote. “Gives me hope.”

•••••

Jane Arnold emailed me to notify me of her mother’s hummingbird sighting. Her mother, Betty Poole, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird — a female — on Wednesday, April 15. Jane’s still awaiting her first spring hummer. 

•••••

Priscilla Gutierrez saw the first hummingbirds of spring the morning of Wednesday, April 15. “I put out a feeder and by 6 p.m. they were coming to [the] feeder,” Priscilla added in a comment on my Facebook page. 

•••••

Erwin resident April Kerns Fain posted on her Facebook page at 5:32 p.m. on Thursday, April 16, that she saw her first hummingbird. 

Erwin resident Pattie Rowland posted on my Facebook page that she saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird on Friday, April 17. “Just saw a hummer in Erwin,” Pattie wrote. 

•••••

Sharee Bowman reported her first hummingbird of spring in a Facebook message. “I saw my first hummingbird in Cedar Bluff, Virginia, on Friday, April 17,” she wrote. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird lifts its wings to shake water droplets off its back.

Several different species of hawks make their home in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

In recent weeks, I’ve enjoyed some observations of the region’s larger raptors, including red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks.

Anyone who travels along the region’s Interstate Highway System has probably noticed hawks perched in trees or on utility lines adjacent to the roadway. The section of Interstate 26 that runs between Unicoi and Johnson City is often a productive area for keeping alert for raptors. The raptor I have most often observed along this stretch of road is the Red-tailed Hawk, although I have also observed Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and American Kestrel. In the time of spring and fall migration, it’s also possible to observe Broad-winged Hawks.

The Red-tailed Hawk is named for its prominent red tail. However, only adults show the characteristic red tail. The affinity for Red-tailed Hawks for roadsides is a double-edged sword. Viewing a large hawk from your car is an easy way to watch birds. For inexperienced or careless raptors, however, roadside living is often rife with the chance for a collision with a car or truck. The Red-tailed Hawk, which prefers open countryside, is attracted to the margins of roads and highways because these locations also attract their favorite prey, which includes rodents like rats, squirrels and mice and other small mammals such as rabbits.

Human behavior contributes to some of the problems that hawks encounter in the zone that brings them too close for comfort to motorized vehicles. When people toss trash from a car, the scent of the litter will lure curious and hungry rodents. In turn, hunting hawks are brought to the edges of roads in search of their preferred prey, increasing the likelihood of colliding with automobiles.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A calling red-shouldered hawk perched in a dead tree on Pawleys Island in South Carolina.

In recent days, I have also noticed a Red-shouldered Hawk lurking among the branches of the large weeping willow next to the fish pond. The Red-shoulder Hawk typically prefers wetland habitats and is less likely to haunt roadsides. According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

The Red-shouldered Hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a Killdeer. The visiting Red-shouldered Hawk has been silent so far, perhaps not wishing to draw attention. The few times the local crows have noticed the presence of any sort of raptor, they’ve flocked together to mob the unfortunate hawk. It’s also not the right time of year; during courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal, but at other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible to mistakenly think you have heard one of these large hawks. Blue Jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related Red-tailed Hawk, the Red-shouldered Hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive. The Red-shouldered Hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the Red-tailed Hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often the dominant avian predators in their respective habitats.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of red-shouldered hawk.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos Hawk and the Hawaiian Hawk. Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the White-throated Hawk, Gray-lined Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk and Short-tailed Hawk. Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as “buzzards.” When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both types of native vultures as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

All too often, our large hawks don’t receive the love they deserve from the public. They may even run afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem, with each species filling a certain niche.

Yearly survey encourages participation of citizen-scientists

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Eastern Bluebird is one of the most beloved American songbirds.

Birds can bring so much excitement and entertainment into our lives, whether they are flocking to our feeders or we are seeking them out at favorite birding spots. Next month, we can do something to repay birds for all the joy their simple existence provides many of us. All that’s required is looking out your window to peek at a feeder or perhaps driving to a local park to look for birds.

Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. Bird watchers of all ages count birds to create a real-time snapshot of where birds are during the worldwide effort of the GBBC scheduled this year from Friday-Sunday, Feb. 14-17.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a truly global undertaking.

As it has nearly every year, the 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count broke more records and attracted more participants than ever before. The GBBC is global in its scale, which provides a greater reach for dedicated citizen-scientists hoping to contribute to the well-being of the planet’s birds.

Last year’s GBBC tallied 6,699 species of birds on 204,921 checklists submitted by an estimated 224,781 participants.

U.S. participants led the way with an estimated 136,903 checklists submitted by birders in the United States. The nation of India took second place with a total of 21,524 checklists, followed by Canada (16,611), Australia (2,811) and Spain (2,391).

A total of 669 bird species were found in the United States, but that was only an eighth place finish. The country boasting the most birds was Colombia with 1,095 species. Other countries with a diversity of bird species reported included Ecuador (948), Brazil (844), India (843) and Mexico (755).

In the United States, Californians led the way in submitting checklists with a total of 10,059 surveys reported, followed by Texas (9,121), New York (8,453), Florida (7,696) and Pennsylvania (7,640). Virginia, with 6,332 checklists, just barely got edged out of the Top 5.

In my own past efforts on behalf of the GBBC, I’ve enjoyed observation of such rare East Tennessee visitors as Ross’s Goose and Canvasbacks, as well as expected birds such as Carolina Chickadees, Red-tailed Hawks and Buffleheads.

If you look no farther than your own yard and garden, please consider taking part in the 2020 GBBC. It’s free, it’s simple to do, and the results can be valuable for scientific knowledge about our fine feathered friends. To learn more about the GBBC, visit gbbc.birdcount.org.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Song Sparrow perches on a weed. The annual GBBC helps gather important data for even common birds like Song Sparrows.

 

Region’s biggest woodpecker is surprisingly shy

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker pays a visit to a walnut tree.

I heard the raucous antics of the large woodpecker before I saw it. A large Pileated Woodpecker had landed in the upper branches of a wild cherry tree near the creek that runs past my home. From spring to summer, the leaves of the tree provide green shelter for a variety of songbirds. During the winter, the tree is a stark outline against the winter sky and offers no concealment — not that a bird as large as a Pileated Woodpecker — it’s the size of a crow — would find it easy to hide itself.

One thing’s certain. A sighting of a Pileated Woodpecker never fails to impress. This bird has a loud, raucous cackling call, which is often heard before the bird is observed. This woodpecker spends a good amount of its time low to the ground, so when one takes flight unexpectedly, often calling loudly as its powerful wing beats carry it away from an observer, the moment can be somewhat startling. These experiences of sudden and unexpected sightings of one of these woodpeckers is often accompanied by exclamations of surprise. Hence common names such as “wood-hen” and “Lord God Bird” have been adopted for these woodpeckers. Other names for the pileated have included carpenter bird, cock-of-the-woods and wood-hen.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker pokes its head into a cavity excavated into a dying tree.

At one point, the Pileated Woodpecker was relegated to second place when it came to the size of native woodpeckers. The often inaccessible swampy woodlands and river bottoms of the American south were home to the former title holder, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. With the unsettled status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker — is it extinct or is it still lingering in an Arkansas swamp? — the Pileated Woodpecker is considered the largest woodpecker in the United States. If incontrovertible evidence of the existence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers should emerge in the future, the Pileated Woodpecker would once again find itself overshadowed by this dramatically larger relative.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Pileated Woodpecker climbs the trunk of a walnut tree.

Although the Pileated Woodpecker can reach a length of 19 inches, the bird weighs only about 11 ounces. Male and female look similar with a black and white body and a bright red crest on the head. In fact, the term “pileated” in the species’ name comes from from the Latin “pileatus,” meaning “capped.” Males show a red stripe — or mustache — on the cheek that is not present in females.

As mentioned earlier, the Pileated Woodpecker often can be found low to the ground, foraging on tree stumps and fallen logs, as well as in taller, living trees. The reason for this behavior rests with one of its favorite foods — the humble carpenter ant. The pileated is not the only woodpecker that supplements its diet with ants. For instance, the Northern Flicker is also fond of dining on these insects. Studies conducted on the dietary preferences of Pileated Woodpeckers have revealed that as much as 40 percent of the diet is made up of ants. Some pileated woodpeckers appear to have developed quite an addiction for ants with some individuals dining almost exclusively on ants. These woodpeckers also eat wild fruits and nuts, as well as other insects and their larvae. The Pileated Woodpecker will occasionally visit a feeder for suet or seeds, but I’ve not had much luck overcoming their instinctive wariness.

Pileated Woodpeckers — usually a mated pair — have been among my wild neighbors for years, but they are shy, retiring birds. Despite their bold appearance and capacity for making quite a racket, the Pileated Woodpecker usually otherwise goes out of its way not to attract attention to itself. Because of this, close-up observations of the largest of our woodpeckers are experiences to savor.

The bird’s enthusiastic ability to excavate cavities in rotten trees is a boon to other species of birds. Certain species of ducks as well as owls, bats, squirrels and other species of wildlife will often make use of cavities created by Pileated Woodpeckers for roosting locations or to raise their own young.

Worldwide, there are about 180 different woodpeckers, but the family is conspicuous in its absence from Australia, Madagascar and New Zealand. The Pileated Woodpecker ranges across the North American continent, with birds present in the forests across Canada and the eastern United States as well as certain areas along the Pacific coast.

Many of the world’s other woodpeckers have quite interesting common names, including Melancholy Woodpecker, Powerful Woodpecker, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, White-naped Woodpecker, Crimson-backed Flameback and Pale-headed Woodpecker.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker hitches its way along the trunk of a Live Oak laden with Spanish moss.

People report American robins lingering this winter

Photo by fotocitizen/Pixabay.com • An American robin fluffs its feathers to stay warm on a cold, wintry day. While the robin is a migratory bird, it’s not unusual for many individuals to forego migration in order to stay on their nesting range the whole year.

A stroll on some walking trails through the woods on Jan. 11 near my home resulted in my first 2020 observation of American robins. The presence of robins during the winter can be a hit-or-miss affair. After I posted my sighting on Facebook, I received plenty of anecdotal evidence to support my belief that many robins decided to skip migration this past fall and spend the winter in the region.

Jennifer Bauer, park superintendent for Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee, posted that she saw a flock of about 25 robins at the park on Jan. 10.

Anne Powell Cowan, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, commented that she has seen robins in Bristol all winter. “They never left,” Anne wrote in her comment. “We also have a red-headed woodpecker at our farm in Sullivan County.”

Betty Lacy in Elizabethton, Tennessee, posted that she is hosting a “swarm” of robins. “They love my tall hemlock hedges,” Betty wrote. “I know there was well over 100 of them. They have made little openings all over the hedge where they go in and out!”

Photo by Bryan Stevens •  American robins, prominent in lawns and gardens during their annual spring migration, will turn their attention to nesting duties as soon as spring arrives. For now, some are content to spend the cold winter season a little farther north than some of their kin.

Vivian Hicks has noticed plenty of robins, too. “Robins have been hopping around and feeding in my yard in Southwest Virginia,” Vivian posted.

Mimi Hale has noticed the same in Elizabethton, Tennessee. “Robins have been all over my yard for the last several weeks,” she commented on my post.

Dawn Peters, who resides in Jonesborough, Tennessee, posted that robins have been present at her home since before Christmas.

Gloria Walton Blevins in Damascus, Virginia, also indicated the robins haven’t flown south. “They have been in Damascus all winter,” Gloria commented.

Teresa Treadway in Elizabethton, Tennessee, offered a humorous take on the abundance of robins. “Mine were so confused, they never left,” Teresa posted.

It was left to Catherine Romaine Henderson of Greer, South Carolina, to leave a question on my post. “Does that mean an early spring?” Catherine wondered in reaction to this winter’s abundance of robins.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American robin perches on a branch. The robin is one of the best-known song birds in the United States.

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 • Even once out of the nest, young robins, such as the one pictured here, are vulnerable. Experts estimate that only 25 percent of each year’s fledged robins will reach November.

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.

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? 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.

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

Birds made news headlines in 2019

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • California condors have gradually returned to parts of their range beyond California. A family of condors now resides in Zion National Park, marking a return of these birds to Utah.

 

Birds made headlines in 2019. Some species, having been presumed extinct, were rediscovered — some in the mostly unlikely of places. One of the major bird-related stories of the year involved a stark warning about a sharp decline in overall bird numbers. Below, in no particular order, are some of last year’s top stories about our fine feathered friends.

69 years old and a mother again

The Laysan albatross known as Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, became parents again in 2010. Wisdom is at least 69 years old and ranks as the world’s oldest known banded wild bird. Her mate’s name, by the way, translates as “lover of wisdom.” The chick hatched in February at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial. Wisdom has raised more than 30 chicks in her lifetime. While Laysan albatrosses are not considered endangered, some of their kin are threatened with extinction.

Photo by J. Klavitter/USFWS • Wisdom, one of Midway Atoll’s oldest residents, became a mother again in 2019. The female Laysan albatross is approaching her 70th birthday.

While walking to church

The year started with some good birding news when a bird thought extinct was rediscovered in a suburb of Medellín, Colombia, on Jan. 7, 2019. Rodolfo Correa Peña was headed to a church service when he spotted an odd bird in a garden. The bird turned out to be an Antioquia brushfinch, a bird known previously only from museum specimens. Peña, an engineering student with an interest in birding, knew the local brushfinches and recognized that the bird was different. He secured photos of the bird and stunned the scientific community with the rediscovery of a bird presumed extinct.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Endangered California condors receives some good news in 2019..

Condors soaring high

California condors continue to delight with their success stories, even extending their range beyond California. Estimates indicate that 300 condors exist in the wild with about 200 more birds in captivity for use with breeding programs. Evidence that the work to preserve the species is working was provided this year in Utah’s Zion National Park, which became home to a condor named “1K” because it is the 1,000th chick hatched as part of an extensive condor restoration program. The chick hatched in May and took a rather clumsy first flight in September. The chick represents the first condor born within Zion National Park in more than a century. In 1987, when the condor population totaled only 27 known condors, wildlife officials captured the surviving wild birds and made them part of an existing captive breeding program. In 1992, the condor recovery program started to release the birds back into the wild. There are now more condors flying free in the wild than are maintained in captivity.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A large flock of Great Egrets flies over the Watauga River in Elizabethton. There is mounting evidence that many bird populations are on the decline.

Fewer birds?

Bird enthusiasts were shaken by the publication in September of an article warning that the number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970. The analysis, published in the journal “Science,” is an extensive attempt to determine what is happening to avian populations. The results shocked — there are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago.

A painting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist.

Hope

Yet, in words penned by poet Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Birds are among the most resilient lifeforms on the planet. If humans can get out of the way and quit making life more difficult for the feathered inhabitants of the planet, birds are more than capable of rebounding. The federal government needs to maintain safeguards and regulations that are in place to protect birds while ordinary people must alter their ways by shunning pesticides, preserving a variety of habitats and simply giving more regard to the fellow creatures they share the Earth with. If we can do these things, the birds will be fine. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the examples of Wisdom the Laysan albatross and a California condor known as “1K.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Canada geese forage in a field in Unicoi County, Tennessee.

American robin named for European counterpart

 

 

 

Photo by Andrew Poynton/Pixabay.com • The European robin is a common garden bird in Great Britain and other countries in Europe. The American robin was given its common name when early English colonists were reminded of their own robin back in the Old World. 

I received emails recently from Terry Fletcher, who lives on Vance Drive in Bristol, and Ernie Marburg from Abingdon, Virginia. Both emails involved flocks of birds, including American robins and cedar waxwings.

The past two days the robins have been going crazy in my small yard,” Terry wrote. “I live in a woodland area off Vance Drive.”

Terry described a flock of at least 40 robins passing through the relatively small yard. “They were also darting back and forth among the trees,” Terry wrote. “Any thoughts about this flurry of activity?

Ernie Marburg also sent me an email with a query about robins and waxwings.

“I haven’t had much to report recently, but yesterday and today I had large flocks of migrating birds,” Ernie noted. “Yesterday’s flock of cedar waxwings was extremely large.”

Ernie estimated the flock consisted of 400 to 500 individuals. He added that the flock rested for a time in his neighbor’s large oak trees and then went on its way.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A cedar waxwing perches on a branch.

“The flock today was less exciting for me, but somewhat even larger than the waxwings,” Ernie noted. The second flock consisted mostly of European starlings with a few American robins in the mix.

Ernie observed the starlings in some neighboring dogwoods as they consumed red berries. His question involved the migration habits of the starlings, waxwings and robins.

The fact is that, although we don’t think of robins very much in winter, they are still very much present in the region. The same is true of waxwings and is particularly true about starlings.

Terry’s wooded area sounds perfect for robins in winter. In the colder months of the year, robins form large, loosely organized flocks, often taking up residence in wooded lots. Ernie’s neighborhood also sounds like a perfect haven for these flocking birds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American robin scans for prey in the grass and clover of a lawn.

The activity observed by Terry is just the way robins behave at time. The activity could have been an example of the birds sensing the approach of a weather front. The robins, reacting to changing conditions, were simply attempting to feed as much as they could before a change in the weather. arrived.

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. Farther 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 PublicDomainPhotos/Pixabay.com • A European robin sings from a perch.

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.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American robin perches on a tree branch and surveys its surroundings.

Success of wild turkey’s resurgence leads to foul fowls in New England

Photo by Avia5/Pixabay.com • A male wild turkey, often referred to as a “tom” or a “gobbler,” fans his tail in a display meant to impress hens and intimidate other males.

Celebrated in William Bradford’s written account of the First Thanksgiving in 1621, the wild turkey had all but vanished from Massachusetts and the rest of New England a mere two centuries later. By the time of Henry David Thoreau, who is arguably America’s first environmentalist, the noted author lamented in 1856 that the turkey and other wildlife were difficult to find in his native Massachusetts.

In a journal entry from the spring of 1856, Thoreau decried the part the descendants of those Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving more than 200 years earlier had played in the decimation.

“When I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here — the cougar, the panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, dear, the beaver, the turkey and so forth and so forth, I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country,” Thoreau wrote in his journal. “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature I am conversing with?”

Henry David Thoreau

Perhaps, but Thoreau would probably be encouraged that many of the animals he mentioned in his journal have now recovered and once again roam throughout New England. The wild turkey has been in the vanguard of that resurgence. In fact, the revival of the wild turkey’s fortunes in New England has had unintended consequences. In short, this venerable fowl has run amok in some parts of its former stronghold.

An article by Brianna Abbott for the Audubon Society’s website estimates that before Europeans first colonized New England in the 1600s, as many as 10 million wild turkeys roamed from Maine to Florida to the Rocky Mountains of the American West.

Today, wild turkeys are back with a vengeance. Turkeys may have grievances, it turns out, for the persecution they suffered at the hands of Americans for the past few centuries. Touted as a major restoration success story, the wild turkey began to be reintroduced to New England about half a century ago.

Now that they’re back, turkeys are part of a dramatically changed landscape. Suburbs now stretch in wide swaths of terrain that once supported forests and associated wildlife. Luckily — for the turkey, anyway — it is a very adaptable bird. Turkeys have taken to life in the suburbs with such enthusiasm that they are now a wildlife management issue for the human residents who must share living space with them. Emboldened problem turkeys chase and intimidate women and small children, as well as pets. Whole flocks have gone rogue.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wild turkeys forage on a hillside.

Gone are the turkey’s natural predators — lynxes, cougars and wolves — that had kept America’s premier game bird’s population in balance. As Thoreau pointed out, nature is no longer perfect. More than 170,000 wild turkeys now live in New England and they’re not always at peace with their human neighbors.

Thoreau didn’t have the benefit of environmental science to back him up, but he would probably not be surprised that a “maimed” nature is causing some unexpected problems even as some of the animals he so sorely missed are returning to their former haunts.

The Tennessee Watchable Wildlife Website notes that the wild turkey was once nearly eliminated from the Volunteer State. By the early 1900s, over-hunting eliminated this species from most of its range, including much of Tennessee. Modern wildlife management has reestablished this bird throughout its historic range and into 49 of the 50 United States.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wild turkeys have re-established themselves in many areas across the United States, including New England.

According to the website, the natural habitat for the wild turkey consists of mature woodlands with scattered openings or fields. In such areas, turkeys can forage for food such as acorns and other wild nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, buds, fern fronds and even the occasional salamander.

Wild turkeys roam the woods around my home, and I know of other areas that are dependable locations for observing these birds. While their numbers are increasing, the wild turkey has not yet turned the tables. For the foreseeable future, I suspect Americans will continue to dine on turkey every Thanksgiving, and not the other way around.

Who could blame them, however, if turkeys were to feel perfectly justified in biting back at the American public? We’ve not always been the best stewards for our native wildlife. Call me an optimist. I believe turkeys and people can co-exist. As residents in New England have learned, we just have to be prepared for some give and take.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male gobbler seeks the attention of hens, as all these Wild Turkeys add to the number of this species found during the count.