Category Archives: Carter County Compass

Great horned owl reigns as ‘feathered tiger of the night’ among birds

 

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Photo by Alexas-Fotos/Pixabay • A great horned owl is capable of almost silent flight, which helps the predatory bird take prey by surprise. Many myths and superstitions surround the world’s owls, but the truth about owls is often more fascinating.

I’ve been so focused on migrating warblers and other songbirds of late that I felt some surprise when outside near dark on Oct. 10 when I heard the low hoots of a feathered phantom from the woodlands on the ridge behind my home.

The hooting of a great horned owl is an instantly recognizable sound and always sends shivers traveling along the spine. The after-dark calls of this large predatory bird also got me to thinking about previous encounters with this owl, such as watching one glide silently over wetlands in Shady Valley, Tennessee, many years ago. I had traveled to the bogs in Shady Valley maintained by The Nature Conservancy in the hope of witnessing the mating displays of the American woodcock. Before those avian rituals began, a great horned owl kicked off the evening in style. I still remember the large owl passing like a dark shadow only a couple of feet over my head. The wings did not even appear to flap as the owl’s silent flight propelled the bird out of sight within seconds.

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Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

I also remembered another occasion while driving on a wet and stormy night, rounding a curve, and finding an owl, upright in the road, standing over fresh roadkill. The owl’s eyes reflected the beams of my headlights before it seized its meal in powerful talons and flew off into the darkness. I’ve always wondered if the owl had killed something in the road or came along at just the right moment to scavenge a meal after some creature had been killed by a passing car.

Owls have been around for a long time, according to “Owls: The Silent Hunters,” an episode of National Geographic’s series, “Wildlife Wonders.” The narrator for the episode reveals that the first recognizable owls first showed up in the fossil record about 40 million years ago. Since that time, owls have evolved into a fantastic, widespread and diverse group of about 135 different species. North America is home to several species, including the far-ranging great horned owl, which ranks as one of continent’s largest owls. It’s not the largest owl in North America, but it is the most widespread of the continent’s large owls. The snowy owl — popularized in J.K. Rowling’s fiction as Harry Potter’s loyal companion owl, Hedwig — is one of the largest owls in the Northern Hemisphere, bigger than such large owls as great horned owl and barred owl. The aptly named great gray owl is larger in body size than the great horned owl, but the snowy owl is heavier and more massive than either of these two contenders.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A captive snowy owl educates the public about owls and some of the perils they face in an environment shared by humans.

Nevertheless, the great horned owl is large enough, ferocious enough, and lethal enough to have been described by many ornithologists as a “feathered tiger of the night.” The great horned owl lives and hunts in the woodlands of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. They thrive in rural areas, but these adaptable owls have also learned to make their way in the suburbs and even city parks. Not by any stretch of the imagination, however, is this owl confined to the southern Appalachians. These owls also make their home in the wetlands along the southern Atlantic coast, as well as arid deserts of the American southwest.

During a September vacation many years ago to Fripp Island, South Carolina, a solitary great horned owl provided several days of entertainment for my parents and me. We took a golf cart at dusk each evening to park at a spot that offered a good view of the marshes and tidal creeks in the interior of the island. For several consecutive days, the owl flew to a perch on a piece of driftwood as the sun sank below the horizon. We would wait patiently for only a brief interval before the owl entertained us with its low hoots that resonated across the marsh.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The great horned owl is capable of taking a wide variety of prey, including many rodents ranging in size from mice and voles to rabbits and squirrels. Although various mammals form the most part of its diet, the great horned owl will kill adult birds as large as a Canada goose, wild turkey and great blue heron. This owl also preys on fish, reptiles, amphibians and even insects. The great horned owl is one of the few predators that preys regularly on skunks. Lacking a well-defined sense of smell, owls aren’t bothered in the least by the skunk’s powerful arsenal of stink. That ability to fly and glide using almost completely silent wings has given this nocturnal predator an enormous advantage over many of its prey species.

A wild great horned owl’s longevity peaks at around 13 years of age. Captive owls, however, have been reported reaching ages of more than 30 years old.

Various Native American tribes have held owls in high respect. Dwight G. Smith, author of “Great Horned Owl,” a book in the “Wild Bird Guides” series, noted that members of the Zuni tribe of the southwestern United States often hold owl feathers in their mouths to impart the owl’s ability to hunt silently onto their own hunting abilities.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The main fascination humans hold for owls rests in their mystery. Owls, being mainly nocturnal creatures, rarely cross paths with humans. These predatory birds have many adaptations that help them stake out their claim on the night hours. Owls possess large eyes with binocular vision and extremely accurate depth perception — which also make them seem more expressive to human observers and perhaps helped establish the reputation of the “wise” owl.

Owls cannot completely rotate their heads, but they come close. Owls are flexible enough, however, to be able to turn their heads in a 270-degree arc, or three-quarters of the way around. Owls have keen hearing to go with their excellent eyesight. In fact, owls don’t even need to see their prey to capture it. Tests with barn owls in total darkness have shown that they are capable of catching mice by hearing alone. An owl’s prominent facial disk directs sounds toward their ears. The “ear tufts” on the great horned owl and some other relatives are ornamental feathers, and not actual ears.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A great horned owl perches on a post during its part in a wild bird show at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia.

Around the world, the world’s owls have earned some rather descriptive common names. Examples include pharoah eagle-owl, vermiculated fishing owl, fearful owl, pearl-spotted owlet, chestnut-backed owlet, spectacled owl, black-and-white owl, crested owl, cinereous owl, tawny owl, whiskered screech owl, greater sooty owl and desert owl.

Americans will observe Halloween on Wednesday, Oct. 31, which brings me to one other piece of owl trivia. There’s an ancient Chinese belief that owls snatch the souls of incautious people — just something I thought you might want to know if you find yourself out and about after dark on Halloween night and hear the hoots of a nearby owl.

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Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A great horned owl is shown on the nest with one of her chicks.

Tennessee warbler visits Volunteer State only a few weeks each year

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A Tennessee warbler as painted by early naturalist and painted John James Audubon. Because the first of these warblers was found in Tennessee, the bird was given a rather inappropriate name. At most, they spend a few weeks each year in the Volunteer State during migration.

This fall has been a good time to see warblers. Some of the more common ones I have noticed in the yard so far have included American redstart, chestnut-sided warbler and black-throated green warbler. Of course, these two species nest in the region during the summer.

One of fall’s first true migrants showed up on Sept. 17 when a rambunctious Tennessee warbler made its debut by chasing a male Northern cardinal from the blue spruce near the creek.

The pioneering American ornithologist Alexander Wilson gave the Tennessee warbler its name, which, unfortunately, is not an accurate moniker.

Here’s some trivia for you should you ever find yourself competing on the game show “Jeopardy” and the category is “Warblers.” Four of our warblers — Kentucky Warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, Connecticut warbler and Tennessee warbler — bear common names that honor states. The Kentucky warbler and Tennessee warbler are named for the states where they were first found and described by Wilson in 1811. Neither the Tennessee warbler or Kentucky warbler are particularly affiliated with the states for which they were named. In fact, the Tennessee warbler passes through the Volunteer State only for a few weeks each year during spring and fall migration. Its closest breeding range is in the boreal forests of Michigan, and these warblers spend the winter in Mexico or farther south. Wilson got lucky and found his Tennessee warbler along the Cumberland River during migration.

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Tennessee 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.

 

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.

In almost 25 years of birding, I’ve never seen a Tennessee warbler during spring migration. I see many of these birds every autumn as they stage their fall migration through the Volunteer State to reach destinations farther south. 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. 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.

Some experts have floated the opinion that the Tennessee warbler should be named named “coffee warbler,” since wintering individuals are attracted to coffee plantations in Central America. According to the website, “Birds of North America,” recent studies demonstrate the importance of shade coffee plantations for Tennessee warblers during their time spent outside North America every winter. Other warblers, such as the black-throated blue warbler, are also closely associated with coffee plantations during the wintering season.

Some years find Tennessee warblers in great abundance, probably thanks to a feast of caterpillars infesting the spruce trees in the boreal forests where these warblers nest during the summer months. In years of famine when the caterpillars are less rampant in the forests the Tennessee warbler calls home, the birds raise fewer young, and the population grows less dramatically.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Tennessee warblers are nectar thieves, punching holes in the sides of flowers to get nectar without contributing to the pollination process.

The Tennessee warbler is not strictly an eater of caterpillars and insects. This warbler has a bit of a sweet tooth — or should that be sweet beak? They visit flowers to partake of nectar; however, the Tennessee warbler is not a good example of an avian pollinator. Tennessee warblers cheat by poking holes in the flower with their bills to steal the nectar without having to let the flower’s pollen accumulate on their bills and heads. The Tennessee warbler will also come to sugar water feeders put out on their wintering grounds to attract hummingbirds. The Tennessee warbler also supplements its diet with fruit and berries.

Here’s something that might also come in handy in a test of your knowledge of trivia some day: Not only is the Tennessee warbler named for the state, but the capital city of Nashville also has its name linked another member — the Nashville warbler — of the warbler clan. Once again, Wilson provided a rather inaccurate name, as the bird in question is only a visitor to Nashville during a limited window of time each year.

While the briefly visiting Tennessee Warbler already pays tribute to our state with its common name, the Northern mockingbird was selected in 1933 as the official bird for Tennessee. This relative of the brown thrasher and gray catbird also serves as the state bird for Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Texas. At my home, Northern mockingbirds are usually evident only during the winter months. I haven’t seen one at home so far this year. Gray catbirds were scarce this summer, but a pair of brown thrashers provided much entertainment as they raised young in my yard and gardens.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern Mockingbird has been the official state bird for Tennessee since 1933.

For now, I think Tennesseans will probably stick with the mockingbird, rather than the Tennessee warbler, when it comes to offering one of our feathered friends the accolade of official state bird. That’s not to say we can’t enjoy observations of this warbler during its brief forays through the state. Don’t wait too long, though. The window of opportunity usually closes by mid-October.

Common nighthawk flocks form part of fall migration spectacle

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

With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the skies. For the most part, I focus on the upper branches of trees and feeders during the migration season, but I don’t forget the need to look skyward from time to time.

The reason? Well, that’s the best way to detect soaring raptors or flocks of migrating common nighthawks. The autumn sky is also a popular flyway for other birds, including chimney swifts and swallows.

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.

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.

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Early American naturalist and artist painted this dynamic scene of common nighthawks.

The whip-poor-will, after the common nighthawk, is the second most widespread member of its family to spend its breeding season in North America. The whip-poor-will ranges from southern Canada to the Gulf states. This bird also occurs in Arizona, New Mexico and southwestern Texas. The whip-poor-will favors habitat consisting of deciduous woodlands and the edges of forests.

All members of the nightjar family feed exclusively on insects that are caught on the wing. In this respect, the nightjars can be considered the nocturnal counterparts of the swallows. The nightjars have comparatively large, gaping mouths they use to scoop up flying insects. They also have large eyes, an adaptation to their nocturnal lifestyle.

Whip-poor-will numbers have been declining in the past few decades. These nocturnal birds frequent woodland edges, but they seem to be rather particular about such habitats. A forest that is too mature seems to hold little interest for them. Disturbed habitats, such as those created by logging, are acceptable to the birds once secondary growth begins. As this new growth matures, however, the whip-poor-will apparently abandons such territory. Because of these requirements, whip-poor-wills can be somewhat localized in their distribution and sometimes difficult to locate.

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Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A common nighthawk finds a perch for a brief rest.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite summer activities was sitting on the front porch of my grandparents’ home and listening to the whip-poor-wills call after dark. I remember how the plaintive call would be repeated for long intervals before a passing automobile’s headlights might frighten the bird into silence. Then, after a brief pause, the “whip-poor-will” calls would, tentatively at first, begin again and continue throughout the night.

Today, I’m living in my grandparents’ old home, and the whip-poor-wills no longer call. I heard a single individual that called for a single evening back in May of 1997, but that was apparently a migrating bird that did not remain in the surrounding woodlands. The only member of the nightjar family that I dependably encounter at home these days is the common nighthawk, and then only during that narrow window of late summer and early autumn.

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.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. The common nighthawk, whip-poor-will and the chuck-will’s widow are neotropical migrants. While they breed in a wide range of territory in North America, they spend their winters in Central and South America. Like all nightjars, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, which they catch on the wing.

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 throughout September although they begin to appear as early as late August. They 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. The two flocks I’ve observed so far this migration season numbered about thirty and fifty birds, respectively.

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

 

 

Majesty of bald eagle suitable for America’s official bird

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Photo by David Dibert on Pexels.com A bald eagle comes in for a landing.

Here’s an early “Happy Fourth of July” to all my American readers. I thought this week’s post should focus some attention on our national bird, the American bald eagle, which officially became the national emblem in 1782 when the great seal of the United States was adopted.

Despite elevating this native bird to such lofty status, we have not always been kind to the bald eagle. We allowed habitat destruction and toxic pesticides to bring this eagle to the brink of extinction. With some protection, however, the bald eagle rebounded. In fact, the Department of Interior took the eagle off the endangered species list on June 28, 2007.

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Photo by Wayne Christensen on Pexels.com A bald eagle scoops a fish from the water with its talons.

The bald eagle has been more frequently observed by birders in Northeast Tennessee in recent years. Some of the area lakes in the region are good places to look for Bald Eagles, particularly in the fall and winter. A few lakes even host nesting bald eagles. For instance, this eagle has been documented nesting at Holston Lake in recent years.

I’ve observed bald eagles in Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia. My most unusual observation of a wild bald eagle took place on Labor Day many years ago when an adult eagle flew over my grandparents’ home in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County. North America’s other eagle, the golden eagle, is a very rare visitor to northeast Tennessee. The golden eagle is primarily a bird of the western United States while the bald eagle ranges widely across the United States as well as into Canada and Mexico.
The eagles are incredibly majestic birds and important symbols of the value of natural places and creatures.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com The bald eagle had rebounded in population.

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a member of a genus known as Haliaeetus, or sea eagles. There are seven other living species in the genus: the white-bellied sea eagle, Sanford’s sea eagle, African fish eagle, Madagascar fish eagle, Pallas’s fish eagle, white-tailed eagle and Steller’s sea eagle.

The bald eagle, however, is not considered closely related to eagles in the genus Aquila, or “true eagles,” in which the golden eagle is included.

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Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com The bald eagle’s place as the nation’s symbol seems very well secured.

Both male and female adult bald eagles have a blackish-brown back and breast; a white head, neck and tail; and yellow feet and bill. Juvenile bald eagles are a mixture of brown and white and reach full maturity in four to five years.

The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches in length, slightly larger than the male, with a wingspan that ranges from 72 to 90 inches. Bald eagles weigh from 10 to 14 pounds.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com Bald eagles are often associated with wetland habitats.

 

Despite these impressive characteristics, the bald eagle is dwarfed in comparison to one of its now-extinct relatives. The largest eagle ever to evolve was Haast’s eagle, which once thrived in New Zealand. This eagle was named for the German geologist Julius von Haast, who founded Canterbury Museum at Christchurch in New Zealand. Haast, who died in 1887, was one of the first scientists to study large flightless birds such as the moa family that once roamed New Zealand.

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Julius von Haast

In fact, Haast’s eagle was considered a major predator on the population of New Zealand moas, some of which reached a height of 12 feet tall and a weight of more than 500 pounds. By contrast, female Haast eagles probably reached a weight of 22 to 33 pounds. Males, as is the case with most living eagles, are smaller than females and probably weighed between 20 to 26 pounds. This mega-sized eagle possessed a relatively short wingspan of roughly 8 to 10 feet wide. This wingspan compares to that recorded for large specimens of golden eagle and Steller’s sea eagle. Even the largest of today’s eagles, however, are about 40 percent smaller in body size than the size of Haast’s eagles. Despite their superior size, moas simply lacked any defense against the huge razor-like talons and sharp bill of the Haast’s Eagle.

Here are a few other eagle facts:

— Eagle bones are light because they are hollow. The beak, talons and feathers are made of keratin.
— The Madagascar fish eagle is the most rare eagle on earth, and one of the most rare birds. The current population is estimated at less than 400 individual birds, with perhaps around 120 breeding pairs.
— Bald eagles have 7,000 feathers.
— Wild bald eagles are long-lived birds and may live as long as 30 years. In captivity, however, the oldest documented Bald Eagle lived to be 47 years old.
— Bald eagles can lift as much as four pounds. They feed mainly on fish, but they will take advantage of carrion and scavenge for their meals. They will occasionally also take waterfowl as prey.
— The hunting area of bald eagles varies from 1,700 to 10,000 acres. Home ranges are smaller where food is present in great quantity.
— Bald eagles can fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet. During level flight, they can achieve speeds of about 30 to 35 miles per hour.
— All eagles are renowned for their excellent eyesight.
— Once paired, bald eagles remain together until one dies. Bald eagles lay from one to three eggs. The 35 days of incubation duties are shared by both male and female.
— Today, there are about 10,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles.

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I look forward to hearing from readers. Those who wish to ask a question, share an observation or make a comment may reach me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

bald eagle in macro photography

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com Happy Fourth of July!

What’s in a name? Vernacular designations for some birds lack imagination

I took part in a Christmas Bird Count last month. These annual mid-December surveys of bird populations are not quite as exciting as counts held during the spring or fall migration periods each year, but they can produce some interesting results. One exciting post-count activity after taking part in a CBC is getting together to compile the results tallied by the various participating groups and individuals. The results are usually compiled on field checklists for birds of Tennessee. These checklists, which are produced by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Ornithological Society, feature a listing of the common name of every bird species likely to be encountered in the state.

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Photo by USFWS/Robert Burton • An American kestrel in flight shows the aerodynamic design that earned this small falcon the common name of sparrow hawk.

The compiler generally reads out the various names on the checklist, which lists all the local birds, beginning with black-bellied whistling duck and ending with house sparrow, and the spokespersons for the various parties respond as each bird’s name is called with the number of birds seen for each species. Over the years, some of the common names of birds featured on the list have changed, as has the position on the list for some of the species. For instance, the American kestrel and other falcons are no longer listed on the card in a grouping with the other raptors found in the state. This doesn’t make much sense to me. But, as I understand it, the falcons have been re-classified for scientific reasons, changing their relationship with the other birds listed on the checklists.

The falcons are not the only birds demoted from the grouping of raptors. The two native vultures — turkey vulture and black vulture — are now listed with herons and ibises instead of raptors. The falcons are now listed between the groupings of woodpeckers and flycatchers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Former common name rufous-sided towhee became Eastern towhee, which is far less descriptive of the bird’s appearance.

At least no expert has suggested a name change for any of the falcons. I dislike name changes, especially when we lose a descriptive name for a mundane one. That’s how we got relatively bland names like Eastern towhee instead of rufous-sided towhee and Northern flicker in place of yellow-shafted flicker. In fact, the American kestrel was once known as the sparrow hawk. The merlin and peregrine falcon, larger relatives of the kestrel, were once known as the pigeon hawk and duck hawk, respectively.

Common names are also known as “vernacular” names. Vernacular can be defined as the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people, which contrasts with the scientific names for species of birds that are usually only recognized by ornithologists or other experts. However, just like dialects, there can be a great deal of variety among common names for the same birds. Many of the common names for some of our favorite birds lack any vivid descriptiveness.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and cardinal grosbeak.

For instance, let’s take a look at the Northern cardinal, which has been known by such common names as cardinal bird, cardinal grosbeak, crested redbird, Kentucky cardinal, redbird, Virginia redbird and Virginia nightingale. The first thing that irritates me about the common name of this bird is that there is no Southern cardinal. So, why is this bird the “Northern” cardinal? The only other birds in the Cardinalis genus are the desert cardinal, also known as the pyrrhuloxia, and the vermilion cardinal. Both these relatives have arguably more interesting and descriptive names than their relative, which is a favorite of many birders and arguably better known to many people.

I can understand why Kentucky cardinal and Virginia redbird are not inclusive names since the Northern cardinal ranges far beyond the borders of these two states. On the other hand, cardinal grosbeak with its reference to the cardinal’s large beak, as well as crested redbird, are both more descriptive and creative than the rather nondescript Northern cardinal.

Of course, a literary great summed up the confusing attitude toward common names. “What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare had Juliet ponder. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”800px-Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

I think The Bard was on to something. Whether we call a cardinal a redbird or a Virginia nightingale, it’s song will sound as sweet to our ears. The appearance of one of these birds on a gloomy day will elevate our mood whether we know the bird as cardinal grosbeak, Kentucky cardinal or, in scientific terminology, Cardinalis cardinalis.

 

BRISTOL HUMMERS DEPART

As promised, here’s an update on the hummingbirds that proved dutiful daily visitors to a sugar water feeder at the Bristol home of Ralph Beamer through Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Early in the new year, Ralph notified me that the hummingbirds departed ahead of 2018’s arrival.

“We had a surprise on New Year’s Day,” Ralph wrote in an email. “The hummingbirds were gone. I am glad they left ahead of the extreme cold we have had the last few days.”

Ralph noted that he had a wonderful time watching them for the past three months. He is hopeful they will come back in the future, but figured that is probably wishful thinking.

Actually, some of these winter hummingbirds, which often turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, have proven quite faithful to favorite locations. Bird banders have recaptured some individual hummingbirds year after year in the same yards. During the stay of his visitors, Ralph shared photographs and videos with me of their visits to his feeders. I enjoyed receiving his periodic updates about them.

I emailed Ralph back and told him that these hummingbirds seem to also have a knack for knowing when to leave and suggested he keep an eye out for them again next fall.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Reader reports visit from rufous hummingbird

An email from Bristol resident Ralph Beamer offered a timely reminder about the need to keep a watchful eye on our sugar water feeders even as most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds depart the region.

“For the past week, I have had a red humming bird coming to the feeder,” Ralph explained in his email. He added that he had never seen a hummingbird like this recent visitor.

“Have you had any reports of a similar sighting?” Ralph asked.

Ralph is the first person to make such a report this fall, but sightings of a species of hummingbird other than the expected ruby-throated hummingbird are becoming more commonplace each year. Once the numbers of ruby-throated hummingbirds are reduced as these tiny birds migrate from the region, noticing an unusual hummingbird at a feeder becomes even easier.

In a reply to Ralph’s email, I sought more information on the hummingbird’s coloration. He confirmed that the bird’s feathers looked more reddish brown than bright red, which supports my belief that he has received a visit from a rufous hummingbird.Ruf-Drawing

I speak from personal experience. My yard has attracted rufous hummingbirds on a couple of occasions. In October of 2016 I received my most recent visit from a rufous hummingbird, which lingered into November and was banded by Mark Armstrong. A former curator of birds for the Knoxville Zoo, Armstrong has devoted several years to studying the phenomenon of rufous hummingbirds that appear to migrate on a regular basis through the eastern United States every fall and early winter. Mark’s efforts have largely focused on Tennessee reports of rufous hummingbirds, but other banders operating from the Gulf Coast to New England have confirmed rufous hummingbirds in their respective regions.

The possibility of attracting a rufous hummingbird is the reason I encourage others to keep a sugar water feeder available into October and November. Experts who have studied the matter note that the presence of a feeder will not encourage ruby-throated hummingbirds to linger. These tiny birds know instinctively when it’s time to depart. Without the attraction of a feeder, however, a visiting rufous hummingbird might reject any extended stay in your yard.

Selasphorus rufus, or the rufous hummingbird, is about the same size as the ruby-throated hummingbird. Both species reach a body length of a little more than three inches and weigh only a few grams. In fact, one of these small hummingbirds might weigh the equivalent of a dime. Female rufous hummingbirds are slightly bigger than males, so a well-fed female rufous hummingbird might weigh as much as a nickel. So, to get an accurate impression of this sort of size, simply think of these tiny birds as weighing less than some of the spare change in your pocket.

Although hummingbirds are not known for their longevity, the website for Tennessee Watchable Wildlife notes that the oldest rufous hummingbird on record reached an age of eight years and 11 months. For the most part, hummingbirds blaze like tiny comets and enjoy typically brief but fast-paced lives. Despite a prevalent impression, hummingbirds are not delicate creatures. For instance, the rufous hummingbird’s tolerance for cold allows it to survive temperatures that dip briefly below zero. This adaptation has allowed the rufous hummingbird to breed as far north as Alaska.

The Selasphorus genus of hummingbirds consists of the rufous and six other species. Of those species, the Allen’s hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird and calliope hummingbird are known to also migrate through the eastern United States although with less frequency than the rufous. The remaining Selaphorus hummers — scintillant hummingbird, glow-throated hummingbird and volcano hummingbird — range in the tropical regions of Costa Rica and Panama. Those rufous hummingbirds that don’t spend the fall and early winter in the southeastern United States choose to overwinter in the region of Mexico around the city of Acapulco. This majority of the rufous hummingbird population migrates north again in the spring to claim nesting territory that can range from the Rocky Mountains of the western United States, as well as the Pacific Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington, all the way north to southern Alaska, as well as British Columbia in Canada.

Those rufous hummingbirds that continue to migrate through the southeastern United States each autumn constitute more evidence that we still have a lot to learn about birds. Even an abundant species like the rufous hummingbird offers mysteries that curious humans can attempt to understand.

While I can’t guarantee hummingbirds, I want to remind readers of the bird walks at 8 a.m. each Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Remaining walks, which are free and open to the public, are scheduled for Oct. 21 and Oct. 28. Meet at the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing pleasure.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Plovers among migration champions of vast and varied shorebird clan

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Photo by Janice Humble • A killdeer wanders in a grassy area near the Wal-Mart on Volunteer Parkway in Bristol. The killdeer, a species of plover, is one of the more common shorebirds found in the region.

I’m always glad to lend a hand at identifying birds. If you’re uncertain of a bird’s identification and have a photo of the bird in question, assistance is an email away. Janice Humble emailed me seeking some help with identifying the bird in a photograph attached with her message. She noted that the bird was accompanied by a companion in the grassy area near the Wal-Mart on Volunteer Parkway in Bristol. She also noted that the two birds uttered loud “peeps” during her observation.

The bird turned out to be a killdeer, a species of plover native to North America. Plovers belong to the family of shorebirds that include various sandpipers, curlews, dowitchers, stilts, avocets and other species. The killdeer is a rather common shorebird that finds itself at home far from the seashore, often present in habitats such as pastures and golf courses, as well as the grassy areas near the concrete and asphalt jungles that surround Wal-Marts and other such shopping complexes.

The killdeer’s famous for its faking of an injured wing. When its nest or young is threatened, a killdeer will go into an elaborate display, fluttering the “injured” wing and uttering shrill peeps to distract the potential predator. If successful, the bird will lure the predator away from the nest or vulnerable young. Once at a safe distance, the killdeer undergoes a miraculous recovery and takes wing, leaving behind a bewildered and perhaps chagrined predator.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Killdeer explores near a stream bank.

Other North American plovers related to the killdeer include American golden-plover, black-bellied plover, Pacific golden plover, Wilson’s plover, piping plover, snowy plover, mountain plover and semipalmated plover. About 70 different species of plovers exist around the world, including such descriptively named birds as little ringed plover, red-capped plover, three-banded plover and white-fronted plover.

Musick’s Campground on Holston Lake has been one of the best area locations for seeking shorebirds during their migrations. The shore near the campground has been a magnet for persuading unusual shorebirds to pause their journey to rest, refresh and refuel. The location’s privately owned, but individual wishing to bird the shoreline can enter by signing the guest book located a small but well-marked kiosk. Some of the most memorable shorebirds I’ve seen at Musick’s Campground over the years include whimbrel, dunlin, sanderling, greater yellowlegs, short-billed dowitcher, American avocet, black-bellied plover and semipalmated plover. In recent weeks, the location has hosted such unexpected shorebirds as red knot and red-necked phalarope.

While the neighboring states of Virginia and North Carolina offer coastal birding opportunities, my native Tennessee remains quite landlocked. This fact poses a challenge for birders looking to capitalize on the seasonal migrations of shorebirds. Fortunately ponds, mudflats on the shorelines of lakes, riverbanks and even flooded fields offer adequate substitute habitat for many shorebirds. While the Mountain Empire region may lack a seashore, migrating shorebirds have learned to make do.

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Photo by Jean Potter • The American golden-plover, like this individual, is a long-distance migrant among the varied family of shorebirds.

This varied and far-flung family is also known as “wind birds,” a term which is an allusion to the capacity of many species of shorebirds to undertake nothing less than epic migrations. Many of the shorebirds that pass through in the spring are in haste to reach their nesting grounds as far north as the edge of the Arctic tundra. In fall, many of the same birds are eager to return to destinations in Central and South America ahead of cold weather and times of scarcity.

The plovers — the sedentary killdeer excepted — are among the champions of long-distance migration. According to the Audubon website, the black-bellied plover spends the brief summer season nesting in the world’s high Arctic zones but disperses to spend the winter months on the coasts of six of the globe’s seven continents.

The Pacific golden-plover’s twice yearly migrations represent an even more impressive feat. This shorebird often nests in Alaska and winter in Hawaii. The website Phys.org notes that research on this plover has revealed that the bird is capable of flying almost 3,000 miles in a mere four days. The website also reveals that those plovers wintering in Hawaii cannot lay claim to longest migrations. Some Pacific golden-plovers nest even farther south in the Pacific, reaching the Marshall Islands.

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Photo by Jean Potter • A black-bellied plover stands out from most relatives when it wears its nesting season breeding plumage.

Shorebirds represent only a single family of birds migrating through the region in the fall. Songbirds from warblers and thrushes to vireos and flycatchers, as well as raptors and waterfowl, wing their way through the region every fall. Get outdoors with a pair of binoculars and have a look. It’s almost impossible not to see something, which may turn out to be a delightful and unanticipated surprise.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.