Category Archives: Jonesborough Herald & Tribune

Bird of mystery, black rail famed for eluding birders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fingers crossed.

 

Annual fall bird count tallies 129 species for Northeast Tennessee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The list follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Observe caution if sick birds visit feeders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two warblers have names connected with the Volunteer State

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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