Category Archives: Christmas Bird Count

Christmas Bird Count makes for fun outing during the holiday season

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Photo by RetyiRetyi/Pixabay.com • Carolina wrens are small, inquisitive and hardy songbirds. The recent Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count found a record number of this wren during its annual survey of bird populations.

I participated in the 76th consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count, which was held Saturday, Dec. 15. This annual count is one of the oldest Christmas Bird Counts in the region, as well as in Tennessee.

I was one of twenty-eight observers in six parties. Together, we tallied 77 species, which is above the recent 30-year average of 72 species. The all-time high was set last year when 85 species were counted on this annual survey.

Osprey-LYNNValley

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An osprey perches in a tree along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee. These fish-eating raptors are rare in winter in Northeast Tennessee.

Two species — osprey and orange-crowned warbler — were found on this CBC for the first time. Longtime count compiler Rick Knight observed that one noticeable difference between last year’s count and the 2018 Elizabethton CBC was the number of ducks. Last year’s CBC yielded 13 species, but only six species of ducks were found this year.

Knight also noted that a record number — 139 — of Carolina wrens was spotted by CBC participants.

A single bald eagle was found, but it was enough to continue a recent trend. This eagle has appeared for 19 of the last 20 on the Elizabethton CBC. Counts more than 20 years ago rarely produced any bald eagles.

A single red-shouldered hawk represented a good find since this hawk has only been found on six of the previous 25 years. A single merlin represented an even more exceptional find for this CBC. Merlin has been represented only two times in the last 25 years for this particular count.

Red-shoulderHawk

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.

Knight noted that two shorebirds — killdeer and Wilson’s snipe — have experienced a steady decline in making this annual count. This year’s count produced only a single killdeer and snipe.

Knight speculated that low numbers of cedar waxwings and American robins on this year’s CBC probably indicates a poor wild fruit crop. These two species depend heavily on fruit to supplement their diet during the winter months.

Chipping sparrow has now been found for 15 straight years, but had only previously been reported six times in the first 50 years of the history of the Elizabethton CBC.

Without fail, some species manage to evade counters. According to Knight, some of the conspicuous misses this year included ruffed grouse, common loon and barred owl.

Mom-Grouse

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although found during counts held in other seasons, no ruffed grouse was found on the 2018 Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count.

The Elizabethton Bird Club has been holding its annual Christmas count in Elizabethton, Tennessee, since 1942. The tradition of the Christmas Bird Count dates back much farther and originates from a less than bird-friendly custom. According to the National Audubon Society’s website, so-called sportsmen in the late 19th century would conduct a “Side Hunt,” a rather blood-thirsty Christmas custom that saw hunters competing to see who could score the largest amount of feathered and furred corpses.

The annual holiday bird survey may even have arisen from an earlier custom with roots in Europe that came to the United States of America with early colonists. The “Side Hunt” has some similarity to a peculiar celebration in Ireland and other European countries known as “Wren Day” or “Hunt the Wren Day.” The event was conducted the day after Christmas, the date of Dec. 26 being consigned as Saint Stephen’s Day. By the 20th century, the hunt consisted of tracking down a fake wren carried atop a decorated pole. Crowds would parade through towns in masks and colorful attire. These groups were referred to as “wren boys.”

Whether or not the “Side Hunt and “Wren Hunt” shared any connections, it was a huge step forward for conservation when preeminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition. His radical idea was to count birds during the Christmas season rather than hunting and killing them

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Frank M. Chapman

The Christmas Bird Count is now conducted each year on dates between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The first CBC took place in December of 1900 with 27 observers participating at 25 locations in the United States and Canada. Fifteen of the counts were conducted in the northeastern United States from Massachusetts to Philadelphia. Results from that first count in 1900 didn’t truly reflect the diversity of North America’s birds, but they were nonetheless interesting. The Greater Boston CBC boasted only one participant and only found 17 species. However, some of those species included such good birds as American tree sparrow, brown creeper, Northern shrike and Northern bobwhite.

For me, the Christmas Bird Count is a fun holiday outing with friends. There’s also satisfaction in knowing the results gathered from these nationwide counts will also contribute to the body of citizen science that helps experts determine the status of our feathered friends.

For a complete tally of this year’s Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count, please see the online sidebar to this week’s column at HeraldCourier.com.

Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count

Canada goose, 459; wood duck, 1; American wigeon, 1; American black duck, 1; mallard, 150; bufflehead, 182; and hooded merganser, 11.

Wild turkey, 57; pied-billed grebe, 16; horned grebe, 11; double-crested cormorant, 1; and great blue heron, 29.

Black vulture, 5; turkey vulture, 19; osprey, 1; sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 4; bald eagle, 1; red-shouldered hawk, 1; and red-tailed hawk, 17.

Snipe-One

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wilson’s snipe are not often found in the winter in Northeast Tennessee.

American coot, 1; killdeer, 1; Wilson’s snipe, 1; and ring-billed gull, 14.

Rock pigeon, 296; Eurasian collared-dove, 4; mourning dove, 126; Eastern screech-owl, 4; and great horned owl, 2.

Belted kingfisher, 21; red-bellied woodpecker, 26; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 11; downy woodpecker, 30; hairy woodpecker, 4; Northern flicker, 25; and pileated woodpecker, 20.

American kestrel, 16; merlin, 1; Eastern phoebe, 11; blue jay, 128; American crow, 291; and common raven, 10.

Carolina chickadee, 80; tufted titmouse, 72; red-breasted nuthatch, 1; white-breasted nuthatch, 29; and brown creeper, 10.

Winter wren, 4; Carolina wren, 139; golden-crowned kinglet, 38; and ruby-crowned kinglet, 15.

Eastern bluebird, 122; hermit thrush, 7; American robin, 17; brown thrasher, 1; and Northern mockingbird, 50.

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

European starling, 592; cedar waxwing, 30; orange-crowned warbler, 1; palm warbler, 1; and yellow-rumped warbler, 32.

Eastern towhee, 22; chipping sparrow, 29; field sparrow, 34; Savannah sparrow, 4; fox sparrow, 3; song sparrow, 129; swamp sparrow, 8; white-throated sparrow, 70; white-crowned sparrow, 20; and dark-eyed junco, 66.

Northern cardinal, 159; red-winged blackbird, 25; Eastern meadowlark, 4; house finch, 34; American goldfinch, 46; and house sparrow, 8.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A total of 159 Northern cardinals made this species a common bird on the recent Elizabethton CBC.

Cardinals seem tailor-made for Christmas season

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The Northern cardinal, a familiar backyard bird in many sections of the United States, is a perfect symbol of the Christmas season.

The shopping days before Christmas are getting fewer, so I hope everyone has had time to find gifts for everyone on their lists. My wish to readers is that everyone gets to enjoy a great holiday that just might also include watching some birds.

Although I hate to see the colorful birds of spring and summer — scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks — depart every fall, the winter season offers some compensation.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees and the drab American goldfinches, so unlike their summer appearance.

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Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage.

There’s one bird, however, that makes an impression in any season. The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray. On a recent snowy afternoon, I spent some time watching a pair of Northern cardinals from my window. Cardinals are wary birds. They make cautious approaches to feeders, never rushing to the seed in the manner of a Carolina chickadee or tufted titmouse.

The Northern cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America. The two relatives are the pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, a bird of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion Cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Pyrrhuloxia, or desert cardinal, is a counterpart to the Northern cardinal in the American southwest.

Two other South American birds — red-crested cardinal and yellow-billed cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern cardinal. Both the Northern cardinal and red-crested cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

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Photo by Pixabay.com • A red-crested cardinal forages on a sandy beach. This bird has been introduced to such exotic locations as Hawaii.

Over the years, the Northern cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a bright red cardinal.

Cardinals, also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale, are easily recognized backyard birds. I never tire of observing these colorful birds. Cardinals are easily lured to any backyard with plentiful cover to provide a sense of security and a generous buffet of sunflower seed.

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Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A female Northern cardinal lands on a deck railing. Female cardinals are not as brightly colorful as males, but they do have their own subtle beauty.

Cardinals accept a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. The cardinal is also one of only a few birds that I have noticed will consistently feed on safflower seed.

While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. When away from our feeders, cardinals feed on insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.


There’s no difficulty in identifying a cardinal. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals have dark bills.

Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

The familiar Northern Cardinal is not the only bird to bear the name cardinal. Others include the yellow cardinal of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, the vermilion cardinal of Colombia and Venezuela, and the red-crested cardinal, a songbird native of South America that has also been introduced to Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

DaddyCardinal

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinals will visit feeders stocked with sunflower seeds at any season.

At feeders, cardinals mingle with a variety of other birds. Cardinals are common visitors to backyard feeders. For such a bright bird, the male cardinal can be surprisingly difficult to detect as he hides in the thick brush that conceals his presence. Cardinals are nervous birds, however, and usually betray their presence with easily recognized chip notes. Their preference for dense, tangled habitat is one they share with such birds as brown thrashers, Eastern towhees, Carolina wrens and song sparrows. In general, however, cardinals directly associate only with their own kind. Cardinals will form loose flocks during the winter, but these flocks are never as cohesive as those of such flocking birds as American goldfinches. Cardinals are more often observed in pairs.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

Cardinal-Ornament

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinals are a favorite for makers of Christmas ornaments.

There’s additional evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day. Simply add some black oil sunflower seeds to your feeders to welcome this beautiful bird to your yard.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Northern cardinal visits a feeder on a snowy afternoon.

75 years strong, annual Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count breaks old records

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The 75th consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count held last month shattered records for this long-running survey. This year’s CBC was held on Saturday, Dec. 16, with 25 observers in six parties participating. The 85 species tallied established a new high for this count, shattering the old mark of 80 species set in 2012 and again in 2016. The average total over the last 30 years of the Elizabethton CBC is 72 species.

Participants included Fred Alsop, Jim Anderson, Jerry Bevins, Rob Biller, Rick Blanton, Kevin Brooks, Gil Derouen, Harry Lee Farthing, Dave Gardner, Carl Hacker, Jacki Hinshaw, David Irick, Rick Knight (compiler), Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Joe McGuiness, Charles Moore, Brookie and Jean Potter, Brenda Richards, Chris Soto, Amber Stanley, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud, and Scott Turner.

I took part in this CBC, as I have for many years, with fellow members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Participation in this annual survey has been a part of my holiday traditions for the past 20 years. The tradition of the CBC, however, goes much farther back.

According to the National Audubon Society’s website, the tradition of the Christmas Bird Count arose from a less than bird-friendly custom. By the turn of the 20th century, so-called sportsmen would conduct a “Side Hunt,” a rather bloodthirsty Christmas custom that saw hunters competing to see who could score the largest amount of feathered and furred corpses. It was a huge step forward for conservation when preeminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition. His radical idea was to count birds during the Christmas season rather than hunting and killing them.

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Ornithologist Frank Chapman organized the very first Christmas Bird Count back   in December of 1900.

The Christmas Bird Count is now conducted each year on dates between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The first CBC took place in December of 1900 with 27 observers participating at 25 locations in the United States and Canada. Fifteen of the counts were conducted in the northeastern United States in an area ranging from Massachusetts to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Results from that first count in 1900 didn’t truly reflect the diversity of North America’s birds, but they were nonetheless interesting. The Greater Boston CBC consisted of only one participant and found only 17 species. However, some of those species included such good birds as American tree sparrow, brown creeper, Northern shrike and Northern bobwhite.

The Elizabethton Bird Club traditionally compiles the results from its two annual CBCs (Roan Mountain as well as Elizabethton) at its yearly Christmas party. This year when the tallies were added up, count participants were delighted to learn the count had set a new record with an amazing total of 85 species tallied, which is hard to come by in mid-December in Northeast Tennessee. An abundance of waterfowl helped push up the number of species found.

A few species are becoming more expected on this annual December count. For instance, greater white-fronted goose was found for the third time in the last five years. Before that, this goose had never been found on this count.

The bufflehead, the smallest of the diving ducks, set a new record with 293 individuals found. Four Northern Shovelers represented only the eight time this duck has appeared on the count. Greater Scaup were found for only the seventh time in the last 25 years. Ruddy Duck has now been found three times in the last 25 years, which matches the three occasions it was found prior to that time.

Bald eagles, thanks to locations like Watauga Lake and Wilbur Lake, are also becoming more common. Eagles have been found 20 of the last 25 years, but only once prior. Red-shouldered Hawk, which is uncommon in the region, was found for the sixth time in the last quarter-century.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Lee Karney • A Red-shouldered Hawk perches in branches.

Eurasian Collared-Dove appears established in Elizabethton. This dove has been found six of the last nine years since it first made an appearance on the count.

All seven of the region’s woodpecker were found on this year’s CBC. The Red-headed Woodpecker has shown up on four counts in the last 25 years. This woodpecker was only found seven times in the years prior to 1992.

A Blue-headed Vireo spotted on this year’s count represented only the third time this species has been found. A flock of 75 American Pipits marked only the third time this species has been seen since 1992 on a CBC. Prior to that date, the species appeared only twice on an Elizabethton CBC.

Gray Catbird has been found five of the last 25 years, including this year, but only once prior to 1992. Palm Warbler, found only once prior to 1992, has now been found eight of the last 25 years. The single Pine Warbler seen means that this species has now been found four of the last 25 years, but only four times prior to 1992.

The European Starling with 1,335 individuals found on count day was easily the most common species on this year’s CBC. The 16 Dark-eyed Juncos, usually a relatively common species on the Elizabethton CBC, represented the fewest juncos ever found on this long-running survey.

Below is the complete species list:

Greater White-fronted Goose, 1; Canada Goose, 532; Wood Duck,1; Gadwall, 5; American Wigeon, 1; American Black Duck, 2; Mallard, 366; Northern Shoveler, 4; Green-winged Teal, 2; Ring-necked Duck, 14; Greater Scaup, 2; Lesser Scaup, 3; Bufflehead, 293; Hooded Merganser, 4; and Ruddy Duck, 1.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Ruddy Duck.

Wild Turkey, 33; Common Loon, 2; Pied-billed Grebe, 14; Horned Grebe, 27; Great Blue Heron, 18; Black Vulture, 3; Turkey Vulture, 12; Bald Eagle, 3; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Cooper’s Hawk, 2; Red-shouldered Hawk, 2; and Red-tailed Hawk, 25.

Killdeer,17; Ring-billed Gull, 27; Rock Pigeon, 305; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 1; Mourning Dove, 157; Eastern Screech-Owl, 12; Great Horned Owl, 2; Barred Owl, 1; and Belted Kingfisher, 10.

Red-headed Woodpecker, 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 33; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 8; Downy Woodpecker, 27; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Northern Flicker, 26; and Pileated Woodpecker, 21.

American Kestrel, 16; Eastern Phoebe, 12; Blue-headed Vireo,1; Blue Jay, 162; American Crow, 223; and Common Raven, 4.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Red-breasted Nuthatch at a feeder.

Carolina Chickadee, 117; Tufted Titmouse, 84; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 25; Brown Creeper, 4; House Wren, 1; Winter Wren, 6; and Carolina Wren, 75.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 41; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 8; Eastern Bluebird, 111; Hermit Thrush, 11; Amercian Robin, 277; Gray Catbird, 1; Brown Thrasher, 1; and N. Mockingbird, 49.

Eurasian Starling, 1,335; American Pipit, 75; Cedar Waxwing, 154; Palm Warbler, 2; Pine Warbler, 1; and Yellow-rumped Warbler, 154.

Eastern Towhee, 22; Chipping Sparrow, 4; Field Sparrow, 8; Song Sparrow, 142; Swamp Sparrow, 5; White-throated Sparrow,102; Dark-eyed Junco, 16; and Northern Cardinal, 111.

Red-winged Blackbird, 1; Eastern Meadowlark, 1; Brown-headed Cowbird, 2; House Finch, 100; American Goldfinch, 90; and House Sparrow, 41.

The Audubon-sponsored CBC allows counts to also list birds not found on the count day that are seen during count week. This year participants found Redhead ducks, which were not present on count day. Notable misses this year include Ruffed Grouse, American Coot, Wilson’s Snipe, and White-crowned Sparrow.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern Towhee waits out a snowstorm.

Long-running bird counts find some surprises

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Abundant waterfowl, such as this Wood Duck, helped push the 2016 Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count to tie a previous record.

The annual Christmas Bird Counts conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society found some good birds.

The 74th consecutive Elizabethton CBC was held on Saturday, Dec. 17. Twenty-four observers in six parties, plus one feeder-watcher, participated. Conditions were generally favorable and featured mild temperatures (35-66 degrees) on a mostly cloudy day with windy conditions, especially in the higher elevations.

I spent the morning and early afternoon counting birds with Chris Soto and Charles Moore along the Watauga River in Elizabethton. We also received some assistance from Michelle Sparks.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • This female Eastern Towhee was one of several towhees found on the 2016 Elizabethton CBC.

A total of 80 species were tallied, tying the all-time high for this count set in 2012.  By comparison, the average over the last 30 years has been 72 species, according to the count’s long-time compiler, Rick Knight.

Knight said that highlights from the count included:

• 12 species of ducks (plus four more in count week) were counted on this year’s CBC. In particular, wigeon, shoveler, green-winged teal, both scaup and red-breasted merganser are scarce on this count, but all were found this year.

• Double-crested Cormorant was found for just the seventh time on this CBC, with six of those times since 2004.

• This CBC marked just the third time in the last 24 years and 10th ever on this CBC that Red-headed Woodpecker has made the count.

• The seven Red-breasted Nuthatches reported represented an above average number for this species.

• This was only the third time for Pine Warbler on this CBC in the last 50 years and the three Pine Warblers found this year represent a high count for this CBC.

• A single Savannah Sparrow was the first on this CBC in 16 years. There’s not much accessible habitat for this sparrow within the count area.

• Nine Purple Finches on this CBC marked the most found since 1987.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The 26 Great Blue Herons found during the Elizabethton CBC almost tied the old record.

• Red Crossbills on this year’s CBC marked only the fourth occurrence on this CBC in the last 30 years.

Nevertheless, the Elizabethton CBC had some notable misses, including Brown Creeper, White-crowned Sparrow and Pine Siskin.

Some species are showing rather obvious trends on this CBC, according to Knight.

• The 114 Wild Turkeys found are the second most found in the  last 24 years. Prior to that date, no turkeys had been found on this CBC.

• Great Blue Herons continue to increase. The 26 individuals found represent the second most ever reported on this CBC.

• The four Bald Eagles found meant that this large raptor has been found for 17 of last 18 years, but only three times before that.

• Only three Killdeers were found, which reflects a continuing decline on this CBC likely due to habitat loss and degradation.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The 47 Red-bellied Woodpeckers on the 2016 Elizabethton CBC set an all-time high for this species.

• The eleven Eurasian Collared-Doves found means that this dove has been found five of the last eight years.

• The 21 Belted Kingfishers found tied for second highest total ever for this species.

• The 47 Red-bellied Woodpeckers found set a new high count for this species, which has shown a steady increase in the foothills and lower mountains. CBCs conducted in the 1970s in Elizabethton had only single-digit counts for this woodpecker.

• Common Raven, with 13 found on this year’s CBC, has been found yearly since 1974, but none had appeared on this count prior to that date.

• Eastern Bluebird numbers continued to rise yearly. The 177 bluebirds this year represent the third-highest count for this species.

• Numbers for Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow showed the fewest of these three species since 1996, 1974 and 1969, respectively. These low sparrow numbers may be due to drought this year, which meant fewer seeds to feed these sparrows.

The total for the Elizabethton CBC follows:

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Feeder visitors, like this White-breasted Nuthatch, were abundant birds on both Christmas Bird Counts.

Canada Goose, 426; Wood Duck, 1; Gadwall, 10; American Wigeon, 2; American Black Duck, 1; Mallard, 205; Northern Shoveler, 2; Green-winged Teal, 3; Ring-necked Duck, 1; Greater Scaup, 2; Lesser Scaup, 1; Bufflehead, 256; and Red-breasted Merganser, 4.

Ruffed Grouse, 1; Wild Turkey, 114; Common Loon, 3; Pied-billed Grebe, 10; Horned Grebe, 21; Double-crested Cormorant, 4; and Great Blue Heron, 26.

Black Vulture, 10; Turkey Vulture, 2; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 4; Cooper’s Hawk, 8; Bald Eagle, 4; and Red-tailed Hawk, 13.

American Coot, 33; Killdeer, 3; Wilson’s Snipe, 4; Ring-billed Gull, 3; Rock Pigeon, 487; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 11; and Mourning Dove, 246.

Eastern Screech-owl, 2; Great Horned Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 2; Belted Kingfisher, 21; Red-headed Woodpecker, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 45; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 7; Downy Woodpecker, 23; Hairy Woodpecker, 7; Northern Flicker, 15; and Pileated Woodpecker, 24.

American Kestrel, 13; Eastern Phoebe, 10; Blue Jay, 209; American Crow, 541; and Common Raven, 13.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • American Crows are abundant birds on these two CBCs.

Carolina Chickadee, 114; Tufted Titmouse, 102; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 7; White-breasted Nuthatch, 41; Winter Wren, 8; Carolina Wren, 85.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 19; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 3; Eastern Bluebird, 175; Hermit Thrush, 4; American Robin, 105; and Northern Mockingbird, 40.

European Starling, 809; Cedar Waxwing, 272; Pine Warbler, 3; and Yellow-rumped Warbler, 58.

Eastern Towhee, 25; Chipping Sparrow, 29; Field Sparrow, 7; Savannah Sparrow, 1; Fox Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 70; Swamp Sparrow, 2; White-throated Sparrow, 57; and Dark-eyed Junco, 135.

Northern Cardinal, 92; House Finch, 74; Purple Finch, 5; Red Crossbill, 7; American Goldfinch, 101; and House Sparrow, 17.

••••••

The 64th Roan Mountain CBC was held on Wednesday, Dec. 21, with six participants in two parties. Conditions were generally favorable: mild temperatures (21-53 degrees) were coupled with clear skies and no significant winds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • These American Black Ducks were found at Ripshin Lake during the Roan Mountain CBC.

A total of 42 species were tallied, slightly below the recent 30-year average of 46. The all-time high was 55 species back in 1987. Despite the decent weather, birds were hard to find. I counted with Brooke and Jean Potter in the town of Roan Mountain and on Ripshin Mountain.

Highlights included 12 American Black Ducks, a single Red-breasted Nuthatch, a solitary Ruby-crowned Kinglet and two Purple Finches. Notable misses for this count included Ruffed Grouse, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Brown Creeper, American Robin, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Towhee and Pine Siskin.

The total for the Roan Mountain CBC follows:

Canada Goose, 5; American Black Duck, 12;  Bufflehead, 6; Wild Turkey, 8; Pied-billed Grebe, 1; and Great Blue Heron, 1.

Turkey Vulture, 1; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Red-tailed Hawk, 6; Rock Pigeon, 25; Mourning Dove, 66; Barred Owl, 2; and Belted Kingfisher, 1.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Red-tailed Hawks are a fairly common winter raptor in the region.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, 6; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 7; and Pileated Woodpecker, 2.

Eastern Phoebe, 1; Blue Jay, 22; American Crow, 170; and Common Raven, 9.

Carolina Chickadee, 24; Tufted Titmouse, 17; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 6; Winter Wren, 2; and Carolina Wren, 18.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 7; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 1; Eastern Bluebird, 6; Northern Mockingbird, 3; and European Starling, 78.

Field Sparrow, 10; Fox Sparrow, 2; Song Sparrow, 55; White-throated Sparrow, 8; Dark-eyed Junco, 68; and Northern Cardinal, 12.

House Finch, 6; Purple Finch, 2; American Goldfinch, 17; and House Sparrow, 24.

 

Annual Christmas Bird Count a more peaceable custom than its predecessors

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • This adult Cooper’s Hawk was found on the 2016 Elizabethton CBC.

I participated in the annual Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count and Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Count conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society on Saturday, Dec. 17, and Wednesday, Dec. 21.

During the Elizabethton Count with my fellow counters — Charles Moore, Chris Soto and Michelle Sparks — we found some good winter birds, including gadwalls and buffleheads on the Watauga River, white-throated sparrows and yellow-bellied sapsuckers at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and a Cooper’s hawk near the American Legion headquarters near downtown Elizabethton. I helped Brookie and Jean Potter with the Roan Mountain CBC. Some of our good birds included Ruby-crowned Kinglet, American Black Duck and Purple Finch. I will provide the results of both these CBCs in upcoming blog posts.

Despite a sore toe that hampered my walking this year, I was determined to take part. I’ve participated in Christmas Bird Counts, often shortened by birders to CBCs, since the late 1990s. Other long-running CBCs in the region include the Bristol CBC, the Shady Valley CBC and the Roan Mountain CBC. I have always tried to take part in this annual tradition which has become part of my own holiday celebration.

WinterWren

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Winter Wren is a small but noisy bird.

According to the National Audubon Society’s website, the tradition of the Christmas Bird Count arose from a less than bird-friendly custom. By the turn of the 20th century, so-called sportsmen would conduct a “Side Hunt,” a rather blood-thirsty Christmas custom that saw hunters competing to see who could score the largest amount of feathered and furred corpses.

The annual holiday bird survey may even have arisen from an earlier custom with roots in Europe that came to the United States of America with early colonists. The “Side Hunt” has some similarity to a peculiar celebration in Ireland and other European countries known as “Wren Day” or “Hunt the Wren Day.” The event was conducted the day after Christmas, the date of Dec. 26 being consigned as Saint Stephen’s Day. By the 20th century, the hunt consisted of tracking down a fake wren carried atop a decorated pole. Crowds would parade through towns in masks and colorful attire. These groups were referred to as “wren boys.”

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Frank Chapman

Whether or not the “Side Hunt and “Wren Hunt” shared any connections, it was a huge step forward for conservation when preeminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition. His radical idea was to count birds during the Christmas season rather than hunting and killing them.

The Christmas Bird Count is now conducted each year on dates between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The first CBC took place in December of 1900 with 27 observers participating at 25 locations in the United States and Canada. Fifteen of the counts were conducted in the northeastern United States from Massachusetts to Philadelphia. Results from that first count in 1900 didn’t truly reflect the diversity of North America’s birds, but there were nonetheless interesting. The Greater Boston CBC boasted only one participant and only found 17 species. However, some of those species included such good birds as American tree sparrow, brown creeper, Northern shrike and Northern bobwhite.

Northern shrike perched on bare branch

Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Northern shrike, pictured, was one of the birds represented on one of the very first Christmas Bird Counts conducted in the United States.

 

These days the Christmas Bird Count is also conducted in almost 20 other nations around the world, although participants still largely hail from the United States and Canada. CBCs are still conducted under the auspices of the National Audubon Society. The CBC is one of the earliest examples of citizen science in action. People of different levels of experience can easily participate in a CBC and in so doing contribute to the scientific data available about bird populations in winter in the United States. Trends can be deduced from some of the fluctuations in populations of various bird species in different regions of the nation.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Other wildlife, such as white-tailed deer, is often spotted while counting birds for the CBC.

We’ve come a long way since the days when birders used a gun to bring a bird up close and personal for inspection. There’s still competition, but these days birders are trying to see which count party can observe and identity the most species of birds. The only evidence we bring back from the field is an occasional photograph.

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I had a mistake in a recent post on the history of feeding birds. Americans spend about $3 billion a year on bird feed. In my recent post, I erred in stating that the figure spent on bird seed was $3 million. When you think about it, Americans really do love their birds. The evidence is right there in how much money we spend to feed them. I hope readers of my weekly blog posts enjoyed a wonderful Christmas. My wish for 2017 is that everyone gets to see plenty of fun birds.

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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. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.

Other regional Christmas Bird Counts post some good finds, including Say’s phoebe

Says_Phoebe

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                                         A Say’s phoebe, such as the individual pictured, was a remarkable find for the Blackford CBC in Virginia.

The Blackford Christmas Bird Count took place Jan. 2, 2016, with 65 species found. The highlight of the count was a Say’s Phoebe found by Laverne Hunter, Peggy Herbert, and Jane and Jerry Thornhill.

The Say’s phoebe, a member of the tyrant flycatcher family, is related to the Eastern phoebe. A common bird in the western United States, the Say’s phoebe typically resides in dry, desolate areas. This bird was named for early American naturalist Thomas Say. Several crustaceans and mollusks are also named in Say’s honor. Say was a descendant of other early American naturalists William Bartram and John Bartram.

One other phoebe — the black phoebe — nests in the United States, primarily in California and Oregon. The black phoebe also ranges throughout Central and South America.

Say’s phoebe is an exceptional find in the eastern United States and is definitely a stand-out bird for a Christmas Bird Count conducted in Virginia.

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The Bristol Christmas Bird Count held Dec. 27, 2015, set a new record, but it wasn’t for the number of birds found.
A high temperature of 76 degrees represented the highest temperature ever recorded for a CBC. In fact, the count yielded fewer species than degrees on the thermometer. The 74 species found represented the lowest species total since 1991, according to count compiler Richard Lewis of Bristol, Tennessee. Lewis speculated that the high temperature is likely linked to the low number of species found on the recent CBC.

Marsh_hawk

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service    Nine individual Northern harriers, such as the one pictured here, were good finds for the Bristol CBC.

The Bristol CBC has been conducted continuously since 1956. Lewis noted that the count was also conducted one other year, back in 1931. This year’s CBC marked his 35th year as the compiler.

Members and friends of the Bristol Bird Club conduct the annual Bristol CBC, which is the only seasonal bird population survey conducted by the club. Several other locations in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee also conduct their own CBCs.

According to Lewis, notable finds for the 2015 Bristol CBC included a common gallinule, Northern saw-whet owl, nine Northern harriers, and seven bald eagles. Other good species included gray catbird, red-headed woodpecker, eared grebe and pine warbler.

Canada_Geese

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service            Canada Geese were a common bird for the Bristol CBC.

 

The most numerous bird on the count was the European starling with 8,982 individuals counted. Other common birds included American crow (857), Canada goose (612) and American robin (520). A total of 14,642 individual birds were counted.

The very first Christmas Bird Count, organized by ornithologist Frank Chapman, was held in December of 1900. For that first count, 27 observers looked for birds in 25 locations across the United States.

This annual survey of bird populations has evolved into a global undertaking. During the 113th count conducted in December-January of 2012–2013, 71,531 people participated in 2,369 locations in the United States, Canada and several other countries. This annual census provides valuable insights into trends in bird populations.

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As counters participating in the recent Bristol CBC discovered, it hasn’t been a particularly exciting winter season for bird enthusiasts. Based on some communication with readers, I’m not alone in finding activity is down at my feeders.

FrogPhoto

Photo Courtesy of Sarah Smith                          The unseasonable mild December weather in the region produced unusual photo opportunities, such as this photo of a frog at an ornamental home at the Smith home in Abingdon, Virginia.

I received a recent email from Randy Smith of Abingdon, Virginia. I met Smith at last year’s birding festival at Hungry Mother State Park.

He sent me the email to share a couple of things, including photos of a real frog sitting on top of a ceramic frog at his goldfish fountain. What makes the photos remarkable is that they were taken the day after Christmas, which is usually a time of year when frogs have been absent already for a couple of months.

“Who would have imagined this much warm weather in December?” Smith wrote in his email. “I thought it was funny he was sitting on the artificial frog … perhaps seeking solace?”

Smith also had a bird-related question, which was basically an inquiry into whether I have noticed a downturn in birds at my feeders this fall/winter

He noted that he has been filling his thistle/nyger feeder only once a week or so, when in past winters he has usually re-filled it at least three to four times per week.

Even keeping the feeder stocked has produced almost no American goldfinches, one of the finch species attracted by nyger thistle seeds.

“The usual visitors are there — chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, woodpeckers,blue jays, cardinals — and a resident group of white-crowned sparrows that are fun to observe,” he wrote. “But overall, numbers and variety are way down. Any thoughts? Is it just the weather?”

I agreed completely with his assessment of bird activity.

This past December was an unusually warm winter month. I was still seeing dragonflies at my fish pond as late as the day after Christmas, which was coincidentally the same day Smith photographed the frog at his home.

I blame the warm weather on this decrease in bird-feeder activity. With such mild weather, birds don’t need to rely on our feeders to supplement their diet. The birds will probably return if and when the region ever experiences any sustained cold weather. So far, January has been slightly more typical in regard to temperatures, so perhaps some fun birds might start showing up at feeders soon.

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At the time I was writing this week’s blog post, Winter Storm Jonas was making itself felt in the region. I will write about the spike in bird feeding as a result of the snowstorm in next week’s post.

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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. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Chapter’s Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Count finds 52 species

Siskin-PairAtFeeders

An abundance of Pine Siskins on the slopes of Roan Mountain made this small finch the most numerous bird on the recent Roan Mountain CBC.

The 62nd Roan Mountain Christmas Bird Count was held Sunday, Dec 20, with nine observers in two parties. The yearly count is conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, otherwise known as the Elizabethton Bird Club.

 

A total of 52 species was tallied, which is is above the recent 30-year average of 45.4 species. The all-time high was 55 species in 1987.
Highlights included: Ruffed Grouse, 1; Peregrine Falcon, 1; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 24; Gray Catbird, 1; Chipping Sparrow, 4; Purple Finch, 2; and Pine Siskin, 282.
The most numerous bird on the count was Pine Siskin, with a total of 282 individuals found, followed by Dark-eyed Junco, 172; American Crow, 93; and European Starling, 57.

 

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Usually a summer bird in the region, a single Gray Catbird was found during the recent Roan Mountain CBC.

Compared to the mild weather for most of December, cold temperatures moved in ahead of the counts for Elizabethton and Roan Mountain were held. As a result, near normal temperatures reigned on the days the counts were conducted. There was even about an inch of snow on top of Roan Mountain.

Female-Redbellied

More common at low elevations, only a single Red-bellied Woodpecker was counted during the Roan Mountain CBC.

Species found on the Roan Mountain CBC follow:
Bufflehead, 11; Ruffed Grouse, 1, Wild Turkey, 1; Great Blue Heron, 1; Turkey Vulture, 1; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Red-shouldered Hawk, 2; Red-tailed Hawk, 7; American Kestrel, 1; and Peregrine Falcon, 1.
Rock Pigeon, 23; Mourning Dove, 13; Eastern Screech-Owl, 1; and Barred Owl, 1.
Belted Kingfisher, 3; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 1; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 7; Hairy Woodpecker, 2; and Pileated Woodpecker, 4.
Blue Jay 13; American Crow, 93; Common Raven, 15; Carolina Chickadee, 20, Tufted Titmouse, 13; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 24; White-breasted Nuthatch, 11; and Brown Creeper, 2.
Winter Wren, 6; Carolina Wren, 8; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 16; Eastern Bluebird, 5; American Robin, 19; Gray Catbird, 1; and Northern Mockingbird, 2.
European Starling, 57; Cedar Waxwing, 22; Eastern Towhee, 2; Chipping Sparrow, 4; Field Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 43; Swamp Sparrow, 1; White-throated Sparrow, 6; and Dark-eyed Junco, 172.
Northern Cardinal, 15; House Finch, 2; Purple Finch, 2; Pine Siskin, 282; American Goldfinch, 14; and House Sparrow, 55.
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HermitThrush-April

A Hermit Thrush along Simerly Creek was the last bird found on my personal quest for 100 birds in my yard in 2015. This individual was photographed this past March in South Carolina.

My own personal Big Yard Year ended on Dec. 31, 2015. I found my last bird species of the year — Hermit Thrush — lurking in a tangle of rhododendrons on a slope overlooking Simerly Creek. The thrush was the 90th bird I found in my yard in 2015, which brought my quest to an end still shy 10 species of reaching my goal of 100 species in a calendar year.
The Hermit Thrush is the only brown thrush likely to remain in Northeast Tennessee during the winter months. Others, like the Wood Thrush and Veery, winter in the American tropics and return to the United States and Canada each spring for the summer nesting season.
The Hermit Thrush is well known for its song, which consists of a series of clear, musical notes, each on a different pitch, consisting of a piping introductory note and a reedy tremolo. The birds don’t usually sing in winter, but they do produce a call note when disturbed or alarmed that is described as a low “chuck.”
In the summer, the Hermit Thrush feeds on a variety of insects and spiders, but this bird switches to a diet of fruit and berries during the winter months.
The well-known American poet Walt Whitman used a Hermit Thrush as a powerful symbol in his famous poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Whitman introduces the bird in his poem with the lines, “In the swamp in secluded recesses/A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song/Solitary the thrush/The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements/ Sings by himself a song.”

 

Winterchickadee

Many birds, such as Carolina Chickadees, are almost daily visitors to my yard.

Overall, I am quite pleased with finding the 90 species in my yard. After all, it broke my old record. I can’t help but think on those species that I missed. Winter species like Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Brown Creeper, which have been relatively rare in my yard, simply didn’t make an appearance in 2015. House Wren was one bird that I had really expected to find. For some reason, however, no House Wrens took up residence at my home in 2015. Other birds that occasionally make migration stops but didn’t visit last year included Vesper Sparrow, Blue-winged Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, and Canada Goose.
I saw most of my birds in January, ending the first month of the year with 26 species. I also saw 14 species in both April and September, which testified to the strength of my yard to attract migrant birds.

 

Peregrine_Falcon (1)

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service This Peregrine Falcon is a captive bird, unlike the one found during the Roan Mountain CBC.

I haven’t decided if I am setting any birding goals for 2016. I may simply enjoy birds without any specific aims. However, the year is still young. If I decide otherwise, I will announce it on my weekly blog.