Category Archives: Rare birds

Brief stay of Virginia’s warbler along Kingsport’s Holston River leaves birders amazed

At times, there’s nothing left to do but scratch your head and wonder. It’s a gesture many birders have been making around the Holston River in Kingsport as walks in the area along Netherland Inn Drive on the greenbelt have produced numerous warbler sightings in recent weeks.

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Photo by Sherrie Quillen • The Virginia’s warbler found in January in Kingsport represented the first Tennessee record for the species and one of only a few records east of the Mississippi River.

The list includes expected winter warblers such as orange-crowned, pine, and yellow-rumped, as well as such off-season puzzlers as American redstart, common yellowthroat, Northern parula, Cape May warbler and Nashville warbler; these warblers really should be wintering far to the south in locations around the Caribbean and in Central America. So far this winter, sharp-eyed birders have seen at least 12 different warbler species on the Riverfront Greenbelt. None of them have generated the level of excitement that has been produced by a small plain gray and yellow bird that is doggedly devoted to its daily routine. Birders have rushed from all parts of Tennessee, as well as from as far afield as Virginia and New Jersey, for a chance to see a visiting Virginia’s warbler, a bird that has only been observed on a handful of occasions east of the Mississippi River.

This warbler is not named for the state of Virginia. Spencer F. Baird, who first described the Virginia’s Warbler in 1860, named the species after Virginia Anderson, the wife of Dr. W. W. Anderson, who collected the first specimen in 1858 in New Mexico. Virginia’s warbler is not all that exceptional in appearance. While gray overall the bird shows a white eyering and some yellow highlights to feathers on the chest and under the tail. The bird also wags its tail, a behavior that can be helpful in identifying it.

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Northeast Tennessee is outside of the expected range in the American southwest of Virginia’s warbler.

The Virginia’s warbler is a species known for showing up in some rather odd locations. Back in 2012, one of these warblers generated birding excitement around New York City when one was found in Alley Pond Park in the New York City borough of Queens. In their usual range, however, Virginia’s warblers nest in arid terrain, including open pinyon-juniper and oak woodlands in the southwestern Rocky Mountain states, which is a far cry from the banks of the Holston River in Kingsport or Queens in New York.

The Kingsport specimen pulled a vanishing act when the weather turned milder in early February. Well-known birder Rick Knight, who lives in Johnson City, Tennessee, addressed the status of the bird in a post he made to the list-serve, “TN-Bird”:

“The Virginia’s Warbler and the other unusual warblers present at Riverfront Park in Kingsport seem to wander some on warm days and then return to the water’s edge on cold days to take advantage of the milder microclimate there.” Knight went on to speculate that the bird may still be in the vicinity and will return to its usual haunts when cold temperatures return. So far, despite a mix of warm days with colder ones, the Virginia’s warbler hasn’t been seen since Feb. 2.

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Photo by Sherrie Quillen • The influx of birders to view the Virginia’s warbler led to other unexpected finds along the Kingsport greenbelt, including such out-of-season birds as blue-gray gnatcatchers, Nashville warbler and Northern parula. More than a few birders referred to the famous Patagonian Picnic Table Effect to describe the sightings.

Several birders who found the bird and added it to their life lists commented on the fact that so many other unexpected species were found at the same time in the same location. It wasn’t long before people began evoking the famous birding phenomenon known as the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, which is a birding phenomenon named for a famous hotspot in southeast Arizona. The lure of a bird called the rose-throated becard at the location attracted a rush of birders to the area. More eyes resulted in more discoveries of other rare birds. In turn, the additional finds continued attracting even more birders and resulted in the discovery of even more rare bird species.

So, who first noticed the presence of the out-of-place warbler? The credit for the discovery goes to two Kingsport residents. On a post to Facebook, the two women who discovered the bird shared details of their exciting find. Bambi “Birdfinder” Fincher posted the notice of the bird’s discovery.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A couple of blue-gray gnatcatchers, such as this invidiual, represented an unusual find in winter in the region. The gnatcatchers were spotted by sharp-eyed birders in their quest to observe the Virginia’s warbler in Kingsport.

“Yesterday (Saturday, Jan. 19) in the pouring rain, Sherrie Quillen and I found a Virginia’s warbler on Kingsport Birding Trail-Riverfront Greenbelt,” she wrote in a post to the Birding Kingsport Facebook page. “This is the first record of this bird in the state of Tennessee.”

Bambi explained her birding success simply. “I’m always looking! Keeps me birding!”

She also invited other birders to join her some time. “It can be pretty amazing,” she wrote. “No promises of a state record or life bird, but I can promise you that you will learn something about your surroundings and yourself.”

She earned her nickname “birdfinder” about 10 years ago when she first started birding. “I was out birding with Bill Moyle or Bill Grigsby — one of the Bill’s, anyway — and I was really ‘finding’ birds but didn’t know what they were.”

The Bills didn’t let her get discouraged. “They said, ‘That’s OK, you will learn the birds, but you are a birdfinder.’ It stuck.”

I met both Bambi and Sherrie for the first time on the day I traveled to Kingsport to try my luck at observing this warbler. Bambi quickly proved her “birdfinder” talents. Although I had to wait for about an hour for the bird to make an appearance, when it did arrive, it flew right to the spot by the river that Bambi had recommended I keep under observation. The specific spot consisted of a thin stand of privet rooted in the riverbank only a few yards from a bench located near the paved walking path. When the bird arrived, making telltale chip notes, I got my binoculars on it and enjoyed a satisfying but brief look at the bird. Birds are rarely as cooperative as this particular Virginia’s warbler turned out to be. Several other birders waiting with me also got to see the warbler at the same time. As warblers are my favorite family of birds, getting to observe this unexpected visitor has been the highlight of my birding year thus far.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The author of the blog hasn’t yet seen a handful of species among the Eastern warblers, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, pictured here. The remaining elusive eastern warblers include Connecticut, Kirtland’s and cerulean.

In the Eastern United States, there are only a handful of warblers I haven’t yet observed. I need to see a cerulean warbler and Connecticut warbler, as well as a Kirtland’s warbler and golden-cheeked warbler. The latter two species are considered endangered and highly localized warblers occurring mostly in Michigan and Texas, respectively — two states I’ve not yet visited.

I’ll always remember my first look at a Virginia’s warbler just before noon on Jan. 28, 2019. The bird had already been present for ten days by the time I made the drive to Kingsport to try my luck. In addition, I saw many other interesting birds while waiting for my target bird to arrive. Some of the other observed birds included palm warbler, blue-gray gnatcatcher, ruby-crowned kinglets and golden-crowned kinglets.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A palm warbler forages along a chain-link fence. This warbler is often a wintering bird in the region and a few were seen by observers who trekked to the Kingsport greenbelt to view the visiting Virginia’s warbler.

Great white heron pays unexpected area visit to Steele Creek Park

I wrote a few weeks ago about the tendency of long-legged wading birds to wander far afield from their usual coastal haunts in late summer. In the ensuing weeks, numerous sightings of some unexpected waders have been reported throughout the region and beyond. 
Jeremy Stout, the manager of the Nature Center at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, reported that a great white heron generated some birding excitement among park visitors. Stout noted that the heron was first reported by Sherry Willinger on Monday and Tuesday, Aug. 7-8, and then found again by Ruth and Mary Clark on Friday, Aug. 11. Stout also managed to get a photograph of the heron, which has been seen just outside the park grounds between Ralph Harr Bridge and Highway 126. Steele Creek Park Naturalist Don Holt saw the heron again on Aug. 15. He invited others who see the heron to share their sightings by calling the park’s Nature Center at (423) 989-5616. Reports will help the park staff document the duration of the rare visitor’s stay and keep interested birders informed of its presence. 
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Photo by Jeremy Stout
This great white heron was photographed near Steele Creek Park in Bristol. Currently considered the same species as the great blue heron, there is debate among experts about granting the great white heron status as a species in its own right. 

In early August, Cheryl Livingston reported a great white heron and a great egret at Watauga Lake in Hampton. While only a handful of records exist for the great white heron in this region, these observations will not help boost the lists of any area birders. The great white heron and the great blue heron, scientifically speaking, are the same species — at least for the moment.
According to the website for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this large wading bird, originally thought to be just a white color morph of the great blue heron, might actually deserve consideration as its own species. The website’s profile of the great white heron notes that recent research about the great white suggests that it is at least a subspecies of the great blue heron. Some preliminary unpublished data suggests that the bird may even be a completely separate species. That would be exciting news for many birders, who would be able to quickly add an unexpected bird to their life lists. 
The majestic great white heron usually ranges throughout south Florida and the Florida Keys, but individuals wander far from those parts of the Sunshine State after the nesting season. 
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Painting by John James Audubon of the iconic Great White Heron of Florida.

The great white heron — as its name suggests — differs dramatically in appearance from a great blue heron, mostly in having all-white plumage. In addition, the great white heron has a yellow bill, which is heavier and more solid than the slender bill of the smaller great egret, for which it could be confused at a casual glance. The great blue heron, known by the scientific named of Ardea herodias, can stand 54 inches tall and weigh close to eight pounds. 
Waders other than great white herons have been wandering this summer. Farther afield, Michael Sledjeski has been reporting little blue herons and great egrets at Rankin Bottoms, which is a birding hot spot at Douglas Lake in East Tennessee. The location is well known among birders as a magnet for shorebirds and wading birds. Sightings of wood storks have been somewhat widespread in Tennessee and Virginia this summer. 
In addition, other waders are showing up far from their usual ranges. For instance, a roseate spoonbill — a large, pink wading bird — has shown up as far north as Pennsylvania, marking the first time the species has been sighted in the Keystone State since 1968.  
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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Identifying white herons and egrets can be a tricky business. This immature Little Blue Heron is just starting to get the          blue feathers of adulthood. 

I’ve not seen anything as exciting as a wood stork or roseate spoonbill at home, but on several occasions in the past couple of weeks my fish pond has been visited by great blue herons. A couple of these visitors were young birds, which are probably wandering widely during their first summer out of the nest. I’ve also seen green herons at the pond and in the creeks along the linear trail in Erwin. 
If the great white heron eventually gains recognition as a separate species, I will already have the bird on my Tennessee bird list thanks to a sighting of one several years ago at Musick’s Campground on Holston Lake in Bristol. Ironically, I’ll not have this bird on my Florida list, as I’ve not seen it in its southern stronghold. 
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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.  If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

County’s Summer Bird Count finds 104 species

Members and friends of the Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society enjoyed a busy June, conducting its two annual summer bird counts last month. To the satisfaction of everyone involved, these counts encountered normal temperature after a spring count this past May that actually saw some snowfall when it was held on May 6.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Nesting Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers can be found at higher elevations in Unicoi County. This woodpecker is usually considered a winter bird in the region, but a few nest in the mountains.

According to long-time compiler Rick Knight, the chapter holds these summer counts in the counties of Carter and Unicoi to provide a set of baseline data on the diversity and numbers of breeding birds in these two local counties. This supplements other summertime data collection projects, such as the long-running Breeding Bird Survey (one route in Carter County) and the Nightjar Survey (three local routes).

The Carter County Summer Bird Count was initiated shortly after the conclusion of the Tennessee Breeding Bird Atlas project. The Unicoi County Summer Bird Count’s origins are more recent, with this survey making its debut in June of 2014. The fourth consecutive Unicoi County Summer Count was held June 17 with 21 observers in five parties looking for birds on Unaka Mountain, as well as such locations as Erwin, Limestone Cove and Flag Pond. Morning weather was favorable, but scattered rain in the afternoon hindered some efforts. A total of 104 species were tallied, down slightly from the three-year average of 111 species. Highlights included a Bald Eagle, Merlin and six Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, including a nest with young. A total of 20 species of warblers were tallied, including Swainson’s Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler and Prairie Warbler. Other notable birds include Hermit Thrush and Blue Grosbeak.

I took part on the count, looking for birds in the Limestone Cove area of the county with Brookie and Jean Potter, Charles Moore, and David and Connie Irick. Beyond bird, we saw other wildlife, including skunks, white-tailed deer, rabbits, groundhogs and various butterflies.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Red-winged Blackbird begs food from its attentive mother.

A highlight of our count took place near the Appalachian Trail along Highway 107 at Iron Mountain Gap where we found a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers delivering food to young inside a nesting cavity in a tree easily viewed from the roadside. In addition, a singing Chestnut-sided Warbler put on quite a show for a group of admiring birders enchanted with this bird’s dazzling plumage and energetic antics.

The total for the count follows:

Canada Goose, 73; Wood Duck, 22; Mallard; Wild Turkey, 19; Great Blue Heron, 13; and Green Heron, 3.
Black Vulture, 300; Turkey Vulture, 28; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Bald Eagle, 1; Broad-winged Hawk, 7; Red-tailed Hawk, 4; American Kestrel, 2; and Merlin, 1.
Rock Pigeon, 67; Mourning Dove, 87; Great Horned Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 2; Chuck-will’s-Widow, 4; Whip-poor-will, 9; and Chimney Swift, 61.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 15; Belted Kingfisher, 4; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 13; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 6; Downy Woodpecker, 10; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Northern Flicker, 7; and Pileated Woodpecker, 8.
Eastern Wood-Pewee, 7; Acadian Flycatcher, 24; Eastern Phoebe, 30; Great Crested Flycatcher, 3; and Eastern Kingbird, 14.
White-eyed Vireo, 4; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 26; Red-eyed Vireo, 95; Blue Jay, 53; American Crow, 88; Fish Crow, 7; and Common Raven, 7.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 36; Purple Martin, 14; Tree Swallow, 70; Barn Swallow, 77; and Cliff Swallow, 149.
Carolina Chickadee, 51; Tufted Titmouse, 43; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 18; Brown Creeper, 3; House Wren, 14; Carolina Wren, 42.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Most swallows, like this Barn Swallow, have fledged and will join their parents in migrating south in the coming weeks of late summer.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 5; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 7; Eastern Bluebird, 33; Veery, 25; Hermit Thrush, 4; Wood Thrush, 37; American Robin, 281; Gray Catbird, 31; Brown Thrasher, 12; Northern Mockingbird, 24; European Starling, 534; and Cedar Waxwing, 49.
Ovenbird, 29; Worm-eating Warbler, 2; Louisiana Waterthrush, 4; Black-and-white Warbler, 12; Swainson’s Warbler, 6; Common Yellowthroat, 2; Hooded Warbler, 37; American Redstart, 4; Northern Parula, 19; Magnolia Warbler, 3; Blackburnian Warbler, 2; Yellow Warbler, 1; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 15; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 29; Pine Warbler, 1; Yellow-throated Warbler, 3; Prairie Warbler, 3; Black-throated Green Warbler, 16; Canada Warbler, 9; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 2.
Eastern Towhee, 55; Chipping Sparrow, 49; Field Sparrow, 8; Song Sparrow, 120; Dark-eyed Junco, 37; Scarlet Tanager, 27; Northern Cardinal, 83; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 4; Blue Grosbeak, 2; and Indigo Bunting, 82.
Red-winged Blackbird, 84; Common Grackle, 58; Eastern Meadowlark, 9; Brown-headed Cowbird, 29; and Orchard Oriole, 1.
House Finch, 33; American Goldfinch, 96; and House Sparrow, 17.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Young birds, like this Northern Cardinal, point to a successful nesting season for most of the region’s birds.

Next week, I’ll post results from the Elizabethton Summer Bird Count.

 

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To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or friend Stevens on Facebook.

The thrill of the chase keeps some fervent birders seeking out ‘rare’ birds

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Photo by Jean Potter • This Northern wheatear caused great excitement in the Tennessee birding community with an extended stay at a farm in the Volunteer State in November.

A little bird caused a huge stir among birders in the Volunteer State back in November.

A Northern wheatear — a six-inch-long bird that breeds in open, stony terrain across the Northern hemisphere from Asia and Europe as well as northwestern and northeastern Canada, Alaska and Greenland — made a most unlikely migratory stop at a farm in Loudon County, Tennessee, supposedly en route to its wintering grounds in Africa. The visiting songbird turned out to be the first of its kind ever documented in Tennessee.
Credit for the discovery of the bird goes to Tony King, a birder who hails from Lenoir City, Tennessee. He found the bird at Windy Hill Farm, a privately owned agricultural enterprise in Loudon County. After seeking confirmation from other experienced birders, King put out the word about his rare bird.
Almost immediately, birders flocked to the Loudon County farm — with the gracious permission from the farm’s owners — for a chance to see a bird not often glimpsed in the Lower 48 states.
Birders who saw the wheatear observed the bird actively feeding on the ground and perching on fence posts. Several members from the Elizabethton and Bristol bird clubs made the journey to Loudon County to add the wheatear to their state list for Tennessee and, for many individuals, on life lists of birds seen nationwide.

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Photo by Jean Potter • The Northern wheatear at the Loudon County farm spent much time perched on fence posts.

The wheatear is a truly long-distance migrant, but it’s difficult to speculate why this individual bird’s journey took it far enough off course to land in Tennessee. My schedule didn’t permit me to immediately try to add this bird to my own life list. I made plans to make the trip on Nov. 23 as part of my Thanksgiving break. Unfortunately, the bird departed on Nov. 20, hopefully to continue its long journey to Africa for the winter months.
The wheatear got me to thinking about the way determined birders “chase” rare birds to add to their life lists. Some people are quite dedicated — or fanatical — to pursuing reports of rare birds to the point they will drop everything to chase down coveted birds.
Adding to the thrill of the chase for birders in Tennessee was the fact that a couple of days after the wheatear departed, a Bohemian waxwing became another “first” for its kind in the state. Unfortunately, that bird apparently didn’t stick around. It’s fun to speculate their reasons, but finding the motivation among our feathered friends can be an exercise in futility. I have my own motto about these rare visitors. Birds have wings, and they know how to use them. It’s that ability to pick up and fly to distant places that is part of their appeal.
I understand the appeal of chasing after a rare or hard-to-get bird. I’ve chased my share of birds. I achieved a long-held desire to see a snowy owl when I made the trip to Spring Hill, Tennessee, back in February of 2009. That’s probably the farthest I’ve traveled to observe a specific bird.
In November of 2003 I made a shorter but ultimately unsuccessful trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, for an attempt at getting binoculars on a sage thrasher that had been reported. Although I spent several hours with dozens of other birders looking for the bird, it never put in an appearance.

 

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The rufous hummingbird is one of several hummingbirds native to the western United States that has ventured into Tennessee on occasion.

My most memorable “rare bird” — and one that I chased across state lines — was a green-breasted mango, a tropical species of hummingbird. I saw that bird while it was visiting a feeder at a home in Concord, North Carolina, in November of 2000. The species is known to stray into southern Texas, but appearances outside of the Lone Star State have been rare. This hummingbird is normally found in Mexico and Central America, but in addition to the Concord bird the species was documented in Beloit, Wisconsin, back in September of 2007. The Wisconsin bird was captured and taken to a zoo because of fears it would not survive the onslaught of the frigid Wisconsin winter season.
Another personal miss — and I should kick myself for not making an attempt at seeing this bird — was a hooded crane that visited Hiwassee Refuge in December of 2011 and January of 2012. The hooded crane, a rare species from Asia, was associating with the thousands of sandhill cranes that regularly gather at the wildlife refuge near Brentwood, Tennessee.
I’m quite proud of the four hummingbird species on my Tennessee list. I traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, in December of 1997 to see a calliope hummingbird. Closer to home I’ve seen Allen’s hummingbirds and rufous hummingbirds, and, of course, ruby-throated hummingbirds.
One pertinent bit of information about the Northern wheatear is in order. The wheatear is not a rare bird. In fact, the bird is quite common with an estimated population of almost three million birds. The same is true of many of the “rare bird” sightings that excite birders. Some of these exceptional visitors are often not considered rare. The rarity comes from the bird showing up in a totally unexpected location, such as a Northern wheatear spending a week at a Tennessee farm.
That’s why an American white pelican at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, a harlequin duck on the Holston River in Kingsport, Tennessee, and a Northern redpoll in Shady Valley, Tennessee, can quickly generate excitement in the birding community.

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Photo by Jean Potter • This harlequin duck was a remarkable find a few years ago on the Holston River in Kingsport, Tennessee.

Most experienced birders offer one bit of advice — don’t delay. They’re words to take to heart for those seeking to chase after rare birds. In other words, if you snooze, you lose. My friend, the late Howard Langridge, was of that persuasion. In January of 2000, Howard tried to persuade me to ride with him from Elizabethton to Shady Valley in the midst of a raging snowstorm for the opportunity to see a long-eared owl. I declined. Howard made the trip, regardless of the snow and ice. As a reward, he saw the owl at the home of John and Lorrie Shumate.
After the storm passed, Howard accompanied me and Allan Trently to Shady Valley on a night when the mercury in the thermometer hovered at around zero. Almost needless to say, we didn’t even glimpse a feather of the long-eared owl. The owl’s stay at the Shumate home proved quite brief.
Of course, that’s all part of the thrill of the chase. You see some, but some you don’t see. It makes the birds that you do see even more memorable.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Kayla Carter with the Elizabethton Chamber of Commerce displays one of the calendars being sold by members of the Elizabethton Bird Club.

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The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, based in Elizabethton, is once again offering for sale its annual calendar.

All proceeds from sales of the 2017 calendar benefit the chapter’s work to promote birds and birding. This year’s calendar features nearly 100 full-color photographs. Calendars are $15. They are currently available at the Elizabethton Chamber of Commerce. In addition, for another $2 for shipping and handling, a calendar can be mailed.  To reserve a copy, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or message me on Facebook.