Category Archives: Bird

Overwintering birds make their return to some familiar area haunts

Mergansers

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female hooded merganser flaps her wings as another preens her feathers behind her.

Now that the warblers, hummingbirds and other birds of summer have, for the most part, departed, new arrivals have filtered into the region to take their place and prevent the winter months from seeming too bleak.

At my own home, these new arrivals have included a field sparrow — the first I’ve seen at home in several years — and a swamp sparrow. I’ve not caught sight of white-throated sparrows or dark-eyed juncos so far, but these hardy sparrows often don’t arrive until the first incidents of truly snowy weather. However, Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, emailed me to let me know that she saw her first dark-eyed junco of the season on Monday, Nov. 5.

Different species of waterfowl have also returned to some familiar haunts, and I’m grateful to readers who have kept me informed about some of these arrivals. Joanne Campbell of Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page that hooded mergansers have returned to Middlebrook Lake near her home on Saturday, Nov. 3. The hooded merganser, Joanne noted, is one of her favorite birds. Brookie and Jean Potter of Elizabethton, Tennessee, reported that four male buffleheads returned to Wilbur Lake near their home on Oct. 27.

Middlebrook Lake has served as a winter home for hooded mergansers since 1987, while buffleheads have congregated on Wilbur Lake for decades. Another good location to look for buffleheads during the winter months is in the weir below South Holston Dam around the Osceola Island Recreation Area. Several hundred of these ducks have been reported in past winters at these various locations.

Although classified as sea ducks, the mergansers are more at home in river habitats. There are six closely related species in three genera: Mergus, Mergellus and Lophodytes. The latter two genera have only a single species each: the hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) and the smew (Mergellus albellus).

The typical mergansers are fish-eating waterfowl in the genus known as Mergus. The hooded merganser’s genus name of Lophodytes is derived from Greek and, roughly translated, means “crested diver.” Both male and female hooded mergansers have crests capable of being raised or lowered. Females are mostly brown, but males have a striking plumage in a pattern of brown, white and black.

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Photo by Photo by Tim McCabe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The male hooded merganser stands out among ducks with his black, white, and brown plumage.

Everyone has probably heard the phrase “as scarce as hen’s teeth.” It means almost exactly what you think. Birds don’t have teeth, so it’s a way to describe something exceptionally rare. It’s a characteristic that sets birds apart from other creatures, such as mammals.

There are some birds, however, that come closer to having teeth than their other beaked counterparts. Mergansers would definitely fall into that category. The mergansers are a type of duck known collectively as “sawbills,” a reference to their long, thin bills with serrated edges that help them grip prey. The “sawbills” come closer than any of our other birds in having teeth, although not in the same sense as mammals have teeth.

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Photo by Alexas-fotos/Pixabay.com • This closeup of a female common merganser shows in detail the serrated bill, which assists this duck in seizing and grasping the fish that makes up a good portion of the bird’s diet.

The other mergansers in the Mergus genus consist of four species: common merganser, Brazilian merganser, red-breasted Merganser and scaly-sided Merganser. The last of these is an endangered species with only about 5,000 birds in the worldwide population. These remaining scaly-sided mergansers are found in the border regions of China, North Korea and Russia.

While today’s birds, even mergansers, all lack teeth, that hasn’t always been the case. About 80 million years ago, a bird known as Hesperornis (“western bird”) swam the inland seas that stretched over areas from Kansas to Canada. They swam through those ancient seas because they could not fly.

The body plan of Hesperornis was similar to modern loons and mergansers. Instead of a serrated bill, however, this ancient bird had actual teeth in its long beak. Just like today’s loons and mergansers, it probably fished for its food. At almost six feet in length, however, it dwarfed our modern mergansers and loons and probably fed on larger piscine prey.

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This early 20th century illustration of Hesperornis is no longer considered scientifically accurate by scientists, but it does demonstrate one striking feature – the toothed jaws of this ancient bird.

Hooded mergansers are content to seek smaller fish. According to the website for the Ducks Unlimited organization, the hooded merganser is the smallest of the three North American mergansers. In addition to fish, hooded mergansers feed on crayfish and other crustaceans, as well as aquatic insects.

The hooded merganser prefers forested wetlands. As a cavity-nesting bird, it seeks out natural cavities in trees for nesting, although it will also accept nest boxes provided by human landlords. This duck breeds from as far north as Alaska and Canada and as far south as Louisiana and Georgia.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hooded merganser females, or hens, have a gray-brown head and neck with a reddish-brown crest, which marks quite a contrast from the male’s appearance.

Late fall and winter are good times to see ducks in the region. Some will spend a good portion of the winter season on area lakes, rivers and ponds, while others will make only brief stops during their migration to their preferred wintering grounds. Some of the other ducks that are usually somewhat common in the region in winter include ring-necked duck and American wigeon. If you live or work near a body of water, stay alert for the comings and goings of waterfowl as winter approaches. You may be afforded an opportunity to see a hooded merganser or bufflehead for yourself.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female hooded merganser enjoys a swim.

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The Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society produces an annual calendar featuring some exceptional bird photography from its members. This 2019 calendar will feature full-color photographs of some of the region’s most colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes here in Northeast Tennessee. For instance, the club pays for bird seed to stock the feeders at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The club also regularly supports causes that benefit birds.HerndonCalendar2019(Cover) (1)
The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays, as well as important bird-related dates. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites and some not-so-common visitors. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email or send a message via Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Calendars can be mailed to any destination in the United States for an additional charge of $2 for shipping and postage.

 

Mother Nature’s whims can produce major impacts on birds

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Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Duncan Wright The sooty tern, pictured, nests mainly in Hawaii, but some also nest on the islands of the Dry Tortugas, west of the Florida Keys. In 2004, Hurricane Frances blew one of these tropical birds to Holston Lake in Bristol. Severe storms also present devastating obstacles for other birds.

With Hurricane Florence dominating the headlines in recent weeks, it’s only natural to speculate on whether such storms can impact birds in a negative way.

According to a 2011 blog post made on the National Wildlife Federation website, hurricanes can be bad news for some birds. Naturally enough, sea birds and waterfowl are most exposed to the forces of a hurricane. Some birds will move inland to avoid the incoming storm. The birds that inhabit our yards and gardens will ride out the storm using special adaptations. Songbirds will automatically tighten their toes around their perches, riding out the winds of a hurricane by holding onto a branch with a death grip. It’s the same adaptation that lets them sleep on a branch without letting go and falling off during the night.

The blog points out that the news often covers the appearance of rare species after a major storm. Some of these birds transported to unusual locations are probably younger or weaker birds. Once transported far from their usual range by a hurricane, it can take weeks to return home — if they can find the right foods on their way back.

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Early naturalist and accomplished artist John James Audubon painted Bachman’s warbler without ever seeing a living one. A friend sent him some skins of the warbler collected near Charleston, South Carolina. A hurricane may have contributed to the extinction of Bachman’s warbler.

In a worst case scenario, hurricanes may have dealt fatal blows to some bird species. For instance, a hurricane may have delivered the knock-out blow to a species of warbler that went extinct last century, according to the website, Field Guide to Extinct Birds. A hurricane that slammed into Cuba in the 1930s when most of the Bachman’s warbler population was wintering on the island might have wiped out enough of the population to make the survivors too rare and far-flung to find each other to breed. The warbler, sensitive to habitat destruction from logging and already in a steep decline, never seemed to recover. It was the ultimate example of keeping all of one’s eggs — or birds — in one unlucky basket.

Discovered in 1832 near Charleston, South Carolina, by the Reverend John Bachman, this warbler attracted little attention for the first half century after its discovery. Bachman sent some skins of the bird to his friend, the artist and early naturalist John James Audubon. Subsequently, Audubon painted this warbler by using those skins and Bachman’s description of the bird’s habits for inspiration. Ironically, considering he described the species for science, Audubon never actually laid eyes on an actual living Bachman’s warbler.

The last specimens of Bachman’s warbler were collected in Mississippi in the early 1940s. The last strongholds for breeding Bachman’s warblers in the United States were Fairfax County, Virginia, in the 1950s and South Carolina’s I’on Swamp in the early 1960s. The last photograph documenting a Bachman’s warbler was taken in 1954. in Charleston, South Carolina, bringing the story of this warbler full circle from its discovery in the same vicinity back in 1832. No Bachman’s warbler sightings have been confirmed since 1961, despite reports in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as reports made in the spring of 2000 and 2001 in the Congaree Swamp National Monument in Richland County, South Carolina. None of those sightings could be confirmed.

Like the ivory-billed woodpecker and Eskimo curlew, Bachman’s warbler is another bird likely to be labeled for the near future with the tag “likely extinct” associated with its name. Like the large woodpecker and the shorebird with a penchant for long-distance migration, the Bachman’s warbler went out with a whimper, not a bang, with most of its viable population snuffed out by an October hurricane just as the species returned to Cuba for the winter season.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds make a non-stop crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. A hurricane in the Gulf during migration could have serious consequences for this small bird.

More recently, experts worried Hurricane Irma might have delivered a knockout blow to the population of another tiny species of warbler. The Barbuda warblers on the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda were feared exterminated in the wake of Irma. When the storm hit the island in September of 2017, its path affected more than 90 percent of the island and nearly wiped out the available habitat for the warbler, which already had a Near Threatened status. After the passage of the storm, participants in searches for the warbler turned up sightings of the bird. Nevertheless, the population status and ability to fully recover remains uncertain.

Science keeps adding to its knowledge of how birds are affected by hurricanes and other storms. A 2017 study showed possible consequences for a seabird known as the sooty tern in relation to hurricanes.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed open-access journal PeerJ, is the first to map the birds’ annual migratory path and demonstrate how its timing and trajectory place them in the direct path of hurricanes moving into the Caribbean after forming over the Atlantic.

Climate change threatens to bring about more frequent and powerful hurricanes, which could be bad news for the terns. Migration is a stressful undertaking for birds. If they encounter a strong storm in a weakened state, the results could be catastrophic. The study revealed a strong relationship between the numbers and locations of bird deaths and the numbers and locations of hurricanes. The study also showed that it isn’t just monster storms with the potential to cause devastation. Tropical Storm Delia, a small storm in the Gulf of Mexico in 1973, killed a lot of sooty terns. Essentially, the terns were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A mixed flock of Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers and a Ruddy Turnstone at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. Hurricanes can interrupt the migrations of even these long-distance migrants.

Of course, the sooty tern is not a rare bird. About 80,000 or more of these terns are estimated to breed in the Dry Tortugas each year. That’s the entire point, however; Bachman’s warbler was also once considered a common bird.

All of these examples point to the resilience of birds, but there’s also a lesson to learn. We should never take any of our feathered friends for granted. While the winds and rains from a hurricane can decimate human lives, wildlife is not immune. Sadly, birds can weather many a storm, but sometimes they get swamped.

 

Common nighthawk flocks form part of fall migration spectacle

Nighthawk

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.

 

 

Chipping sparrow a common summer nesting bird

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Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • A black line running through the eye bordered by a white stripe, as well as a rusty-red cap, helps distinguish the chipping sparrow from other “little brown birds” that belong in the sparrow family.

I needed to do some homework before I could answer a question posed to me by Frances Rosenbalm of Bristol, Tennessee. As she communicated to me in an email, she had discovered a bird’s nest in her garden and wanted help identifying the species that built the nest.

“I have a bird that made a nest in the top of my tomato vines,” Frances explained in her email. “It had four turquoise speckled eggs in it.”

Frances described the nest as being made with large twigs and moss. “What kind of bird do you think it may be?” she wrote. She also noted that her garden is located near a farm field.

“I was so surprised to find this nest,” she wrote. “In all of all the years I have put a garden out, this has never happened,” Frances concluded.

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After doing some research, which included poring over the pages of a great book by Hal H. Harrison titled, “A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests: United States East of the Mississippi River,” a work in the Peterson Field Guides series, I was able to write back to Frances with the news that I might have solved the mystery of the nest in the tomato vines.

The Harrison field guide is an exceptional book and one that’s perfect for someone who wants to know a little more about the birds other than their names. Entries for each bird include photographs depicting both the nest and the eggs as well as informative text with supplemental information about nesting birds in the Eastern United States.

Based on the description of the nest and its eggs, as well as its location near a farm field, I identified the nest described by Frances as belonging to chipping sparrows. I found some photographs online of chipping sparrow eggs in a nest and sent that in an email for her to consider.

Frances responded in another email. “I do believe you are right,” she wrote. “The eggs look a lot like the photo, and I have seen some birds that look like (chipping sparrows) flying around.”

For a species often lumped under the grouping of “Little Brown Birds,” the chipping sparrow is quite distinctive. In spring and summer, chipping sparrows sport a crisp, neat plumage with frosty gray underparts, a gray and white face and a striking black line through the eye. An easily recognizable field mark is the bright rusty crown atop the bird’s head.

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Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • Chipping sparrows will form flocks for the winter season.

When horses were more common in daily American life, the chipping sparrow took advantage of this resource to almost invariably line their nests with horsehair. Now that not all nesting chipping sparrows have access to horses, these birds use fine plant fibers or hair gathered from other sources, including people, to line their nests.

Once a nest is constructed, a female chipping sparrow lays and incubates three to four eggs, which take about 14 days to hatch. Chipping sparrows often attempt to raise two broods in a single nesting season. Although dense evergreen trees are a preferred nesting location, these birds will also nest in vines.

During the warm months of the summer nesting season, chipping sparrows feed almost exclusively on insects. When winter makes insects scarce, these small birds switch their diet to one of seeds. Chipping sparrows will also feed on small fruits and berries.

Chipping sparrows will sometimes nest as many as three times in a single season. Although territorial during the nesting season, these birds form sizable flocks for migration and during the winter season. In making reference to these flocks, observers can use other descriptive terms. Flocks of sparrows have also been called a crew, a flutter, a host, a tournament and a quarrel. I am partial to a flutter of sparrows, but anyone who has watched the pecking order at the feeders will also understand the origins of a quarrel of sparrows.

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John James Audubon painted this chipping sparrow.

There are a couple of well-known Biblical passages using sparrows for powerful pieces of symbolism. One alludes to the fact that if God provides for small songbirds like sparrows, he will certainly provide for human beings. In addition, there is a passage that maintains that not a single sparrow falls without God being aware of the loss. A famous hymn, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” is based on such biblical verses.

The world’s sparrows are divided into two large groupings — the Old World, or true sparrows, and the American sparrows of the New World.

Although largely considered rather dull, plain birds in appearance, some of them have earned descriptive names such as great sparrow, Arabian golden sparrow, green-backed sparrow, five-striped sparrow, yellow-browed sparrow and golden-crowned sparrow.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A field sparrow perches on a branch. These sparrows are closely related to chipping sparrows and relatively common in Northeast Tennessee.

Welcome chipping sparrows and their kin with a well-stocked feeder and perhaps some thick tomato vines for concealing a nest. Unfairly dismissed by some as plain, dull songbirds, the sparrows reward a closer look with some subtle behaviors and plumages as worthy of additional attention as much as some of their more colorful relatives.

Rally to offer sneak peek at bird migration, other nature activities

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • While the Cape May warbler doesn’t breed locally, these warblers are fairly common spring and fall migrants in the region.

The 56th Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally will draw nature enthusiasts from far and wide to this jewel of the Southern Appalachians on the first weekend after Labor Day with programs, nature walks, catered meals, and much more.

The annual Fall Naturalists Rally is always a great opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and, for birders, get a sneak peek at fall migration with any of the walks and programs focusing on our fine feathered friends. The best naturalists in the region volunteer their time and energy to make this a landmark event for people of all ages.

This year’s rally, which is scheduled for Friday-Sunday, Sept. 7-9, will feature guest speakers, Gabrielle Zeiger and Dr. Joey Shaw, for the main programs on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Zeiger’s Friday program, “Zen and the Art of Mushroom Hunting,” will get underway at 7:30 p.m. following a catered dinner at 6:30. Zeiger has been studying mushrooms in the region for 23 years. She considers herself more of a mushroom enthusiast than an expert. She is a member of the North American Mycological Association, and attends their national forays. She is involved in the association’s annual Wildacres foray in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Mount Mitchell in North Carolina.

 

Photos by Bryan Stevens • Mushrooms will feature in one of this year’s evening programs at the Fall Naturalists Rally.

 

Her program will focus on the two basic approaches — looking for good edibles and scientific study — to mushroom hunting. Her talk will touch on both approaches and include basic information on common mushrooms found in the area, species diversity and poisonous versus edible mushrooms. The program will include various types of fungi from gilled mushrooms, boletes, corals, stinkhorns and polypores, as well as the roles that they play in the environment such as decomposition and forest ecology. She will also talk about what mycologists do at forays. Findings will be included regarding 20 years of record keeping at Roan Mountain and scientific information on studies at Mount Mitchell regarding amount of rainfall and diversity of fruiting.

Photos Contributed • From left: Gabrielle Zeiger and Joey Shaw are this year’s featured speakers.

 

Saturday’s program on “Digitizing Tennessee’s One Million Herbarium Specimens,” will also start at 7:30 p.m. followed by a catered meal at 6:30. Dr. Joey Shaw received a bachelor’s of science in biology from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1998, and that same year began his graduate education in the Department of Botany at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2001, he received his master’s in botany for a floristic investigation of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee and Kentucky. In 2005 he received his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for his work on the phylogeny and phylogeography of the North American plums and molecular evolution of different genetic regions of the chloroplast genome.

Shaw is currently serving the Association of Southeastern Biologists as Past President and will rotate off this Executive Committee in April 2019, after having served for over ten years and in all ranks of that committee. He is also serving as Chair of the Wildflower Pilgrimage Organizing Committee, and in this capacity he organizes this annual event that brings together more than 120 professional biologists with 850 members of the public to participate in more than 150 different events over four days every spring in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue-headed vireos, such as this bird, are high-elevation summer residents in the region. In the fall, they are also common migrants.

Evening and lunch programs will take place in Roan Mountain State Park’s Conference Center and unless other noted, field trips will leave from the field on the left before the cabins in the park.

In addition to the programs, morning and afternoon walks will be held Saturday and Sunday on a vast array of subjects, including birds, salamanders, butterflies, spiders, snakes, geology, mosses and liverworts. A “moth party” will be held after the Friday and Saturday programs. Larry McDaniel will host this party taking a look at these winged nocturnal insects outside the Conference Center.

Consider joining the Friends of Roan Mountain, if you are not a member. Members get free admission to all Naturalists Rally events and the newsletter, “Friends of Roan Mountain.”

The rally offers catered evening meals by City Market of Elizabethton, as well as brown bag lunches on Saturday. All meals must be pre-paid in advance.

Registration and payment for meals and other activities can be made at the website for Friends of Roan Mountain at friendsofroanmtn.org. The website can also provide a brochure for download that offers a complete schedule and details all the available activities at this year’s rally. Whatever your interest, the Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally is sure to have an activity available. For local birders, it’s often the kick-off to the fall migration season as warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, birds of prey and many other species pass through the region on their way to their wintering grounds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female scarlet tanager is a study in contrast from her mate with her dull greenish-yellow plumage being much less vibrant than the male’s bright red and black feathers.

Meadowlarks fond of grassland habitats

Jean-MeadowlarkPhoto by Jean Potter • A rocky outcrop provides a perch for this singing male Eastern meadowlark.

 

It’s always fun to add another notch to one’s list of birds. Whether you’re a casual lister or a devoted birder, a new species always offers a burst of excitement in the wake of a first-time observation.

Sharon Foster sent me an email recently to share her excitement about a sighting.

“I’m excited to say my daughter and I spotted a meadowlark up on Cross Mountain last week,” Sharon wrote in her email.

Sharon said she hadn’t been able to do a lot of bird watching other than in her yard and nearby places.

“I never thought I was going to see a meadowlark,” she noted. They are fantastic. We were thrilled. He was just sitting on the fence.’

She added that she didn’t have her good zoom camera with her, or else she could have taken a picture. She will still have her memory of her first sighting, and that’s what is important.

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Photo by USFWS • Baltimore orioles, like this male, are members of the blackbird family, making them relatives of species such as Eastern meadowlarks, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds.

She also told me about a Baltimore oriole feeder she bought last fall late in the season.

“I read they usually come around early in spring,” Sharon wrote. She added that she spotted one in her yard by South Holston Lake several years ago.

Of course, when spring rolled around she nearly forgot about the feeder. “It was around mid-April when I thought about it and thought it was too late,” she wrote. “But I put it up anyway and lo and behold the next day there was an oriole in our pine tree.”

It was another memorable birding moment. “Talk about being excited,” Sharon wrote. “Wow! Birds can do that to you!”

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Both the Baltimore oriole and the Eastern meadowlark belong to the family of birds known as icterids, or blackbirds, which also includes species like bobolink, brown-headed cowbird, common grackle and red-winged blackbird.

The Eastern meadowlark is a distinctive bird. It has brown plumage accented by black, with bright-yellow underparts and a bold black V across the chest. Though most of the tail is brown with blackish barring, the outer feathers are white and are a conspicuous trait to look for when the bird is in flight.

The Eastern meadowlark is considered a grassland bird and remains common in habitats such as prairies and other native grasslands. The meadowlark has proven adaptable as long as it can occupy unbroken grassland of about six acres or more. Pastures, fields and even airports have proven suitable habitats for meadowlarks. As suburban areas and subdivisions expand into rural areas, meadowlarks can hang on unless the grassland habitat becomes too segmented and broken into sections too small to be of value.

Meadowlark-USFWS

Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS • Eastern meadowlarks spend a lot of time on the ground while searching for insects.

Meadowlarks eat mostly insects, especially in summer. For the winter months, these birds will adapt their diet to include seeds, spilled corn and fruit. Meadowlarks, unlike other relatives among the Icterids, or blackbirds, do not typically visit feeders.

These birds construct nests close to the ground. Meadowlarks nesting in fields mown for hay face disaster if the grass is cut before their young have left the nest. The female meadowlark constructs the nest and lays two to seven eggs, which will require an incubation period of about two weeks. Even after hatching, the young are not capable of leaving the nest for another 10 to 12 days. Consequently, young meadowlarks are vulnerable for a month, not only to predators but to a farmer deciding to mow a hayfield.

While the Eastern meadowlark remains common, its numbers have suffered severe declines. such that they are considered to be a declining species. Populations fell more than 3 percent a year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 89 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. According to the website All About Birds, early mowing, overgrazing by livestock and pesticide use are all detrimental to meadowlark survival.

The highest population densities for the Eastern meadowlark are found in the Central Mixed Grass Prairie and the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie regions of the central United States. As the name suggests, the Eastern meadowlark has a counterpart in the western half of the United States. This is reflected in the fact that five central and western states — Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming — have made the Western meadowlark their official state bird. Ironically, the Eastern meadowlark has not been honored with that designation by any of the states it inhabits.

The difference in the two species rests not so much in their appearance as in their songs. The western meadowlark has distinctive vocalizations described as rather flute-like, which distinguish it from the closely related eastern meadowlark. Male Eastern meadowlarks seek out elevated perches to produce a musical, flute-like song in the spring. Utility wires, treetops and fence posts provide some of their favorite perches. Their singing is mostly used to define the borders of their grassland territory.

Finally getting your binoculars on a bird you’ve never seen is always an exciting moment. As we draw closer to the fall season, many different birds will migrate through the region. Fall migration is a great time to spend some time outdoors and try to see some birds that are new. Do some advance homework with a good field guide and study the birds that migrate through the region. Then, simply monitor your yard or a favorite park and wait to see some new species as they make migratory stops in the region.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painting this scene depicting nesting meadowlarks.

No cowbird ever knows its biological parents

While many birds are excellent parents, others lack any maternal or paternal instincts altogether. The common cuckoo, a nesting bird in Europe and Asia, is a well-known brood parasite that would rather slip its eggs into the nest of other bird than raise its own young. In scientific terms, “brood parasite” refers to creatures that rely on others to raise their young. In addition to some birds, this tactic is also employed by some species of insects and fish.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female brown-headed cowbirds stay alert to observe bird leaving or coming to a nest. Once they have located a nest, these birds slip their own eggs into the nests of other birds.

The strategy is effective, if, in the human way of thinking, rather heartless. In biological terms, however, this “foster parenting” allows brood parasites to ensure a new generation without expending much energy on the part of the actual parents. Some recent contacts with readers have reminded me that not all of our feathered friends would qualify for “parent of the year.”

Mike Dickenson of Bristol, Tennessee, contacted me on Facebook about a discovery he made in a nest built under the steps of his house.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female brown-headed cowbird visits a feeder.

“I noticed two blue eggs,” he said. “I checked a few days later and noticed two gray eggs also. Did another bird sneak her eggs into the nest?” Mike also informed me that some of the eggs hatched shortly after he discovered them.

James Rowland of Erwin, Tennessee, sent me a message on Facebook asking me to identify a bird in a photograph he had taken. “What is this bird?” James asked. “It’s larger than a sparrow.”

He added that he observed and photographed the bird near the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, Tennessee. A study of the bird in the photo revealed a very nondescript bird in largely gray plumage. Few of our birds are this plain and gray with almost no standout characteristics.

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Photo by James Rowland • A brown-headed cowbird, probably a young bird or a female, near the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

In both cases, one of North America’s most successful brood parasites was involved. I responded to Mike and told him that is was entirely possible that a female brown-headed cowbird slipped some eggs into the nest beneath his steps. I likewise informed James that the bird in his photo looked like a brown-headed cowbird. I added that the bird was either a female or a young bird, since a male would have the brown head that gives the species its common name.

In North America, one of the best-known feathered brood parasites is the brown-headed cowbird. While many brood parasites are specialists, with females slipping their eggs into the nest of a specific species of host bird, the brown-headed cowbird approaches brood parasitism in a less discriminating manner. Female cowbirds have been known to lay their eggs in the nests of at least 221 different species of birds. No baby brown-headed cowbird ever knows its biological parents.

How did the brown-headed cowbird turn to a life of foisting eggs onto unsuspecting foster parents? The answer is connected with the American bison, also known as buffalo. When the bison roamed the Great Plains of the United States by the millions, flocks of brown-headed cowbirds followed the great herds, feeding on the insects flushed by the hooves of millions of bison. As the herds stayed on the move constantly, the cowbirds also developed a nomadic lifestyle. After the bison herd diminished, the cowbirds survived a potential crisis by simply transferring their bovine affinity from bison to domesticated cattle.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male brown-headed cowbird displays the brown head that gives this bird its common name.

At times, this random and undiscriminating approach to reproduction fails. Some finches feed their young a diet that consists of a great deal of vegetable matter. Young cowbirds fed this protein deficient diet fail to thrive and ultimately perish.

Other birds blissfully bring a rich assortment of protein snacks — insects, spiders and other small invertebrates — that permits the young foster bird to thrive, at times at the expense of the host bird’s own young. About 20 years ago I observed a willow flycatcher bringing food to a young brown-headed cowbird at least twice the size of the “parent” trying to feed it. I’ve also seen song sparrows, dwarfed by a cowbird changeling, trying to keep their enormous baby bird well fed.

Cowbirds are members of the blackbird family, which includes such relations as orioles, meadowlarks and grackles. All cowbirds are confined to the New World and include species such as the screaming cowbird of Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil, as well as the bronzed cowbird of Central America and the southern United States, especially the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. Other cowbird family members include giant cowbird and the shiny cowbird.

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted this pair of brown-headed cowbirds.