Category Archives: Tennessee Rare Birds

Mississippi kite glimpsed on spring count becomes latest listed ‘life bird’

Photo by Richard/Adobe Stock • A solitary Mississippi Kite sits perched in a lakeside tree. These graceful raptors take their prey mostly while on the wing.

If you know many birders, you have likely heard them talk about “life birds.” These are any species that a birder has seen and identified in the wild for the very first time. It can be any bird species at all that the birder observes for the first time, whether it is a commonplace bird like a song sparrow or something slightly more exotic.

While taking part in the 77th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Count on Saturday, May 2, I saw something that, for our region, could be considered a little more exotic. The sighting certainly ranked as unexpected.

Unless one travels extensively, life birds can be hard to get once people have added to their lists most of the common birds around their homes. Finding a life bird during the ongoing pandemic brings its own challenges. I haven’t added a new life bird to my own list since a visit to South Carolina in June 0f 2016. During that visit to Huntington Beach State Park, I added a least bittern to my list of “life birds.”

My most recent “life bird” appeared closer to home and might qualify as my most unexpected life bird ever. The bird flew into view and onto my life list during the annual Spring Bird Count, which was conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Due to social distancing, many participants counted solo this year, myself included, although a few married couples birded together. I’ll always remember my pandemic spring count, especially for the 46th bird on my tally list for the day.

I found myself in the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton around 11 in the morning. I wanted to scan the evergreens in that vicinity for Cape May warblers, a migrant that finds the tall conifers to its liking. I didn’t find any warblers, but I did surprise a perched raptor into making a short flight.

The instant I saw the bird launch itself into flight, I knew I was watching something out of the ordinary. The bird flew with a combination of grace and power that reminded me of a falcon, but I also glimpsed a barred tail that reminded me of one of the accipiter hawks. Then it landed on a dead branch in a tall sycamore that must have permitted the raptor an unobstructed view of the entire park. Although I’d never until that moment seen a Mississippi kite, I have studied illustrations and photographs. I felt fairly certain of the bird’s identity even before I used my phone to call up some birding sites to confirm my identification.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This Mississippi Kite became the first of its kind ever observed on one of the Elizabethton Bird Club’s Spring Bird Counts for Northeast Tennessee.

That’s when the fact I was birding solo hit home. I wanted some additional witnesses to this very unexpected find. In lieu of other observers, I turned to my camera. The bird had turned its back to me, but I snapped some photos and then made my way to a position that I hoped would allow for better photographs.

Alas, the resident American crows at the park had different ideas. Detecting a raptor in their midst, about a half dozen crows gathered to harass the perched kite. Before I could snap a new round of photos, the kite took flight and flew into a stand of tall trees located between the park and Sycamore Shoals Hospital.

Only a few years ago, a Mississippi kite in Northeast Tennessee would have been unheard of. The hills and mountains of the region are simply not the expected habitat for these graceful raptors. Faith Reeves, a resident of Elizabethton, Tennessee, a Facebook friend and fellow birder, saw the first two Mississippi Kites ever found in Northeast Tennessee. She saw and photographed the birds in her own yard on May 20, 2014, and May 13, 2016.

In addition, Don Holt observed a Mississippi kite in Washington County, Tennessee, on April 16, 2017.

Rick Knight and several other birders also saw several Mississippi Kites for about a week in late August of 2016. Observers estimated that these sightings involved from two to five different kites.

“The August observations are our only fall records,” said Rick Knight, a long-time compiler of birds sightings in the region. He added that fall is the season when kites are likely to linger.

“All spring records are overshooting migrants and are one-day-wonders,” Knight explained.

Hearing his explanation, I felt even more privileged to have witnessed this “one-day wonder” in my home county.

Photo by Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay.com • The red kite is an abundant member of the kite family in Europe and northwest Africa.

The Mississippi kite is a beautiful raptor. Adults are grayish-white with the head often appearing pale gray or almost white. Although the Mississippi kite can attain a wingspan of three feet, these birds weigh only seven to thirteen ounces. They feed almost exclusively on insects, which they capture in flight. Some of the insects, such as cicadas and grasshoppers, are ones that damage crops, making the Mississippi kite a friend to farmers.

These kites breed and nest in the central and southern United States, but they have expanded their range north in recent years. They leave the United States in fall to spend the winter in southern South America.

Several years ago I got the thrill of adding a swallow-tailed kite to my life list in some agricultural fields in southwestern Washington County. I’ve also seen swallow-tailed kites in Florida. There is one other member of the kite family that I’d like to add to my list. The snail kite is a dark bird with a hooked beak designed for feeding on snails found in wetlands. This specialist resides in Florida, as well as the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Other kites found around the world include the double-toothed kite, plumbeous kite, whistling kite, square-tailed kite, red kite and black kite.

It’s been a spring filled with many amazing bird observations. I can’t speak for others, but thanks to that remarkable kite sighting and glimpses of some other fascinating birds, not even having to bird solo in a pandemic can bring me down. I’ll provide more details on this year’s Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee in next week’s column.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Mississippi Kite perched in a tree prior to being dispersed by some defensive American crows.

Don’t overlook subtle beauty of winter’s little brown birds

Photo by Kaz/Pixabay.com • The yellow lores on the white-throated sparrow makes this species easy to pick out from a flock of related “little brown birds.”

Amy McGill, a reader from Ohio, sent me an email following last week’s column about dark-eyed juncos. Amy, as it turns out, is a fellow junco lover.

At the time of her email, she was still waiting to see my favorite of all birds make their appearance at her home. She noted that juncos usually return to her home about a week before the end of October, so they are slightly late this year. Consequently, Amy’s “little timely visitors” are making her wonder what has delayed them.

At my own home in northeast Tennessee, the dark-eyed juncos appear to vie with white-throated sparrows for abundance each year. Last winter, the sparrows were far less conspicuous than the juncos. Although we’re only a week into November, both the dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows have absented themselves from my feeders.

With temperatures dipping lower after a particularly hot, dry autumn, some cold-season arrivals have made themselves at home. On Saturday, Nov. 3, a common raven flew over my house. Perhaps to make certain I didn’t neglect to take note, the raven produced its trademark croaking call the entire time the large, dark bird soared overhead.

Photo by Ken Thomas • A Northern Mockingbird patrols a thicket.

A Northern mockingbird visited the feeders on Saturday, Oct. 27, to see what was the commotion from the other birds. After one quick peek, the mocker paid no attention to the available offering of sunflower seeds. At my home, mockingbirds are strictly fall/winter birds and are fairly uncommon.

Ravens and mockingbirds are easier to recognize and identify than sparrows, which are also referred to by birders with some frustration as “little brown birds.” Lumping the sparrows together as a family of similar-looking species does a disservice to them, however.

While most are definitely “little brown birds,” the sparrows offer quite a range of subtle differences in plumage as well as song, making it possible — if at times challenging — to identify them. Some of the winter sparrows in the region include fox sparrow, swamp sparrow, song sparrow, chipping sparrow, white-crowned sparrow and the aforementioned white-throated sparrow.

In similarly distinctive fashion, the white-throated sparrow — especially as spring gets nearer — also acquires a plumage that makes it stand out from the flock. These sparrows have a plumper shape than some of their kin. They have a black-and-white pattern to their head, and a neat “bib” of white feathers covers the throat. The standout feature to this bird’s appearance is the bright yellow spot located between each eye and the bird’s bill. In winter, some white-throated sparrows may lack this spot of yellow or show a less dramatic version, but the approach of spring usually puts puts these birds back into fine form.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A white-throated sparrow perches on a branch to sing its easily recognizable song. Many Americans translate the sparrow’s song as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

Many sparrows, including the white-throated sparrow, prefer to forage for food on the ground. It’s often helpful to purchase a supply of millet seed. When filling your feeders with sunflower seeds, scatter a couple of handfuls of millet seed on the ground beneath the feeders or at the edge of a brushy area. Sparrows like to have quick access to dense cover, so they will feed more securely if the scattered seeds are within quick reach of shelter.

If your yard is devoid of brushy retreats, you can make your own brush pile, perhaps with trimmings from routine autumn landscape maintenance. A brush pile makes a popular gathering place for not only sparrows but also wrens, kinglets and other small songbirds. In addition to security, the brush pile lessens the impact of cold winter winds.

Sparrows don’t always co-exist peaceably. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, many of the larger sparrow species are quite aggressive with their kin. This aggression usually demonstrates itself in a tendency to chase other birds. Apparently, white-crowned sparrows will share their territories with fox sparrows — which are larger birds — but they will give chase to chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos in an attempt to drive them from the territory.

Most songbirds live a precarious life that can be measured in only a few years. However, an occasional individual defies the odds. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, the oldest recorded white-throated sparrow was at least 14 years, 11 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Alberta, Canada.

So, while it’s easy to overlook the sparrows, I’d recommend giving them a second glance. Here are a few relatives of the white-throated sparrow with common names that suggest the identifying feature that helps them stand out from the flock: golden-crowned sparrow, rufous-collared sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, black-chinned sparrow and black-throated sparrow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Vesper sparrows are uncommon birds in spring and fall in the region, although they do nest on the grassy balds of Roan Mountain.

Winter’s dark-eyed junco provided inspiration for first column

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • The dark-eyed junco is a fairly common winter resident in the region. Rather widespread, different races of the dark-eyed junco are found throughout the North American continent.

I wrote my first bird column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this weekly column will mark its 24th anniversary this week. This column has appeared over the last 20 years in a total of six different newspapers, which I regard as a personal achievement as well as an accomplishment for our feathered friends. It’s on their behalf that I pen these weekly efforts to promote conservation and good will toward all birds. “For the Birds” has appeared in the Bristol Herald Courier since June of 2014.

Photo by Bryan Stevens •  Dark-eyed Juncos often delay their winter arrivals to the first snows of the season.

I’ve played detective, helping people identify everything from “rain crows,” or cuckoos, to Muscovy ducks and double-crested cormorants. I’ve observed unusual birds, including white pelican, brant and roseate spoonbill, in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia and spotlighted them in these columns. I still take delight in the kaleidoscopic parade of colorful warblers that pass through the region each spring and fall as well as the fast-paced duel of ruby-throated hummingbirds. I also offers to sunflower seed and other supplemental food for the resident birds like Carolina chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Known as “snowbirds,” Dark-eyed Juncos are hardy birds even in the winter season.

My first column focused on a common visitor to yards and feeders during the winter months. In fact, dark-eyed juncos should be returning to the region any day. Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column.

•••••

Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

During the summer months, a visit to higher elevations in southwest Virginia such as Whitetop Mountain or Mount Rogers is almost sure to produce sightings of dark-eyed juncos. Juncos may nest as many three times in a season. A female junco usually lays three to six eggs for each nest, which she constructs without any assistance from her mate.

Photo by Ken Thomas •  Dark-eyed Juncos are also known as “snow birds” because of their tendency to flock to feeders ahead of a bout of snowy weather.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

•••••

If you’d like to share your first sighting of dark-eyed juncos as the temperatures get colder, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although more comfortable on the ground, juncos will come to hanging feeders for sunflower seed.

Birds are not the only fall migrants sharing the skies

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Experts have documented long-distance migration flights by the Wandering Glider, a species of dragonfly.

Rhonda Eller of Chilhowie, Virginia, posted a question on my Facebook page about some dragonflies that appeared in her yard on Sept. 10.

“We have had a sudden breakout of dragonflies in our yard,” Rhonda explained. “We seldom see more than one or two at a time.”

Rhonda wondered if the dragonflies might have been drawn to her yard in pursuit of some sort of favorite insect prey. She also speculated that the recent dry conditions might have attracted the dragonflies.

I responded to her query by explaining that birds are not the only migrant in the skies at this time of year. Some dragonflies, just like birds, migrate. A species known as green darner is one that migrates. These darners are rather large, for a dragonfly, and travel in swarms. A couple of years ago I observed thousands of these dragonflies swarming over a municipal swimming pool and a nearby fish pond at a park in Erwin, Tennessee.

The WSLS Channel 10 television station out of Roanoke, Virginia, reported on swarms of dragonflies so large that they got picked up by local radar. Rhonda shared a link to the station’s story on my Facebook page.

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

Of course, swarms of migrating insects are bound to get the attention of predatory birds. The same day that Rhonda experienced the influx of migrating dragonflies, I witnessed dozens of common nighthawks and chimney swifts swooping through the skies over my home. With a little more attention to detail, I also noticed the dragonflies sharing the skies with these birds.

I suspect that the nighthawks were feeding on the large darners while the swifts, which are much smaller birds, focused their foraging efforts on smaller winged insects. Tom McNeil, a neighbor and fellow member of the Elizabethton Bird Club, reported seeing nighthawks and swifts, too. Tom lives on the other side of a mountain ridge that separates our homes.

Tim Morris, a Facebook friend from Australia, noted in a comment on my post about the nighthawks that his country is home a bird known as the tawny frogmouth, a relative of the common nighthawk. Tim noted that frogmouths are big birds with camouflage markings that allow them to pretend to be dead tree boughs by day. “They feed not only on insects but mice and lizards, too,” he added.

Evidence of fall migration continued the next day when I detected a small wave of warblers foraging in trees at the edge of my yard. I saw five different species — American redstart, worm-eating warbler, Cape May warbler, Blackburnian warbler and Tennessee warbler — in the space of half an hour. Of the warblers in the flock, the Blackburnian and Cape May are some of the more vibrant ones.

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 Blackburnian warbler’s common name commemorates Anna Blackburne, an English naturalist who lived from 1726 to 1793. Her brother, Ashton, had immigrated to the United States, which made it possible for him to send his sister many specimens, especially birds. Their father, a salt merchant by trade, was also a well-respected amateur naturalist. In addition to the warbler that bears her name, Anna Blackburne also had a species of beetle named in her honor.

Both the Cape May and Tennessee warblers are named for the locations from which they were first collected. Neither of these small songbirds are closely affiliated with Cape May, New Jersey, or the Volunteer State. The Cape May warbler is also known as the “tiger warbler” for the dramatic black striping across its bright yellow breast. A green back and chestnut cheek patch make the Cape May warbler quite unlike any of its close kin. Even its scientific name — Setophaga tigrina — pays homage to the striped big cat. The term “setophaga” translates to “moth eater” and is a reference to this warbler’s intense fondness for the caterpillars known as spruce budworms that occasionally produce outbreaks in the northern spruce forests that serve as the nesting range for the Cape May warbler.

 

Photo by insitedesigns/Pixabay • A Cape May warbler peers from its perch on a tree branch.

According to the website, “All About Birds,” Cape May warblers have unusually shaped tongues that allow them to sip nectar from tropical flowers during the winter months spent in Central America and the Caribbean. Their unique tongues also make it possible for them to enjoy sips of sugar water from hummingbird feeders.

Whether its dragonflies, nighthawks, warblers or hummingbirds, plenty of birds and other flying creatures will be moving through the region for the next few weeks. Now’s the time to get outdoors and look for some of these migrants.

Photo by insitedesigns/Pixabay.com • The Cape May warbler migrates out of North America every fall to spend the winter in Central America and the Caribbean.

Hooded warbler and its kin bring tropical splash to area woodlands

Photo by Jean Potter • A male hooded warbler flits through the foliage of a rhododendron thicket.

I came away from a recent program on bird migration given by Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman learning a few new nuggets of information about warblers, which are one of my favorite bird families. The Kaufmans, well-known birders and activists on the behalf of birds, spoke Saturday, Aug. 31, on the topic of bird migration during the evening program at the Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally. They confirmed some things I have always suspected to be true about fall migration in the region. For instance, warbler migration in the Southern Appalachians is indeed often more productive in the fall than in the spring. The Kaufmans also noted that fall migration takes place at a more leisurely pace for most of the migrating warblers. They even pointed out that some of the warblers, such as magnolia warbler and Tennessee warbler, which are uncommon fall migrants at their home in Ohio, are actually quite common in East Tennessee.

Hooded warblers nest in the woodlands around my home. So, from the time my favorite warbler returns in April until the last individual departs in October, I enjoy regular glimpses of this colorful and interesting bird. Like all warblers, the hooded warbler is quite energetic, dashing after tiny insects in the branches of shrubs and trees. Hooded warblers often forage close to the ground, which makes observing them easier.

Every time I behold a hooded warbler, I marvel at the bird’s exquisite appearance. The gold and green feathers seem to glow brightly in the dim light of the shadowy thickets of rhododendron they prefer to inhabit. The black hood and bib surrounding the male’s yellow face stands out by virtue of its stark contrast from the brighter feathers. Large coal-black eyes complete the effect. The appearance of the male bird provides this species with its common name. The female has an identical yellow-green coloration as the male, although she is slightly more drab. She lacks the black hood and bib, although older females may acquire some dark plumage on the head and around the face. Both sexes also show white tail feathers that they constantly fan and flick as they move about in thick vegetation and shrubbery.

Photo by Bryan Stevens  • Only males show the well-formed black hood and bib that gives the hooded warbler its common name.

I know that every migrant passing through my yard at this time of year is making its way southward, and it will likely be another five to six months before I again see any of my favorite songbirds. The hooded warbler will make itself at home in the forests of Mexico, as well as in Belize, Costa Rica and other Central American nations, throughout the winter season. Most hooded warblers begin returning to their winter haunts as early as mid-September, but lingering individuals continue to entertain birders in the United States throughout October.

Like many of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that make their home in the United States for the summer, the hooded warbler’s fall migration takes it across the vast open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, crossing to the Yucatan and then dispersing from there to various points in Central America. That birds as small as hummingbirds and warblers make this incredible migration twice yearly is one of nature’s most phenomenal feats of endurance. In their presentation, the Kaufmans explained that these tiny birds put on incredible fat reserves to help fuel their efforts.

The warblers, also known as wood-warblers, are an exclusively New World family of birds, numbering approximately 116 species. About 50 of these species of warblers make their home in the eastern United States and Canada for the spring and summer, departing in the fall and returning to tropical wintering grounds. Some of them are extremely bright and colorful birds. The hooded warbler would have to be included among the more brightly colored warblers.

Other colorful warblers that share similar tastes in range and habitat with the hooded warbler include the American redstart, black-throated blue warbler and black-throated green warbler.

While some of the neotropical migrants that venture into North America boast even brighter kin in the tropics, we need not feel cheated with the warblers that make their home in the United States for half of the year. Some of their relatives are beautiful birds, including the white-faced whitestart, golden-bellied warbler, three-striped warbler and rose-breasted chat, but few can really hold a candle to their relatives that venture north and brighten our lives.

The warblers are, in short, an incredible family of birds. I’ve seen all but a handful of the species that reside for part of the year in the eastern United States. I still want to see a Connecticut warbler and cerulean warbler, as well as the endangered Kirtland’s warbler of Michigan and the golden-cheeked warbler of Texas. I’ll miss the warblers once fall migration has run its course. For those months they are here, the warblers belong to us. They seem like “our” birds. They’re only on loan, though. Our winter birds will offer some compensation in their absence, but I’ll be impatiently awaiting that flash of gold from the recesses of a rhododendron thicket next April.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A female hooded warbler sits tightly on her eggs in the cup-shaped nest she has build within the concealing branches of a shrub.

Welcoming Eastern towhees into yards, gardens easy to accomplish

Photo by Ken Thomas • A male Eastern towhee forages for food in the grass beneath a feeder.

It’s the time of year when young birds start making their first forays to feeders, usually accompanied by their parents and siblings. In recent weeks, I’ve seen everything from young brown thrashers and tufted titmice to ruby-throated hummingbirds and Eastern bluebirds.

Ann Windsor posted an interesting photo on my Facebook page last month that illustrates this emergence of a new generation of feathered friends. Her photo showed a male Eastern towhee escorting one of his offspring to a feeder on the deck of Ann’s home in Selmer, Tennessee.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted these Eastern towhees.

Her post followed up a video she had posted of a pair of towhees visiting her feeder.

“I wanted to share with you about our towhee bird,” Ann noted in her post. “We call him ‘pretty boy,’ and he has been coming to our feeder now for two years or more.”

Back in early June, the male towhee showed up with a female for the first time. “She was more comfortable around us and got in the feeder with him,” Ann wrote. “We have so enjoyed him.”

Ann has made some interesting observations about the male towhee. “When he is in the little feeder dish, he’s the boss,” she wrote. “Any other birds come along, even the blue jays, and he runs them off.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • Female Eastern towhees are retain the male’s white and rusty-orange plumage, but they are brown instead of black like their male counterparts.

Ann’s day-to-day encounters with the towhees has turned into a “fun relationship” as the birds have learned to trust her enough that they don’t fly away when she’s in the yard.

I mentioned in a response to her first posting that the towhees would likely bring their young to her feeders once they left the nest. Indeed, about a month later, Ann posted another photo. In this particular picture, the male towhee arrives at the feeder with one of his recently fledged young.

“We have seen three so far,” Ann noted. She added that the young towhee in the photo loves to get up in one of the flower pots and dig around.

“I was wondering, as the young ones grow up, do they stay in the area, or do they go off to find their own territory?” Ann asked at the end of her post.

In my response, I told Ann that many birds have fidelity to the place where they were born, but things could get crowded if the adult birds also stay put. The parent towhees will probably “encourage” the young birds to strike out on their own and establish their own territories as adults. They might, however, become “neighbors” and choose a location not too far from her home.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern towhee scratches for seeds on the ground beneath a feeder.

Eastern towhees spend a considerable amount of time on the ground and hidden in thickets and hedges. Other common names for this bird includes “ground robin” and “swamp robin.”€ They are one of the larger members of the sparrow family, however, and not related to the thrush family, which includes such birds as American robin, Eastern bluebird and wood thrush.

Unlike the many “€œbrown”€ members of the sparrow family, the Eastern Towhee is a brightly colored bird. Males have a black hood. The black coloration extends into the back and tail. The belly is white, and the sides are flanked with a rusty-red orange. In flight, their black tails are bordered with white feathers, which produces a dramatic flash of contrasting colors. The female Eastern Towhee is an attractive bird in her own right. She shares the rufous sides and white coloration that are present in the male’s plumage. However, the male’€™s black feathers are replaced by a warm, chocolate brown plumage in the female.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Eastern Towhee visits a feeder in July. The chance to see young birds is a great reason to offer food during the summer, but some precautions should be taken to minimize uninvited guests.

The Eastern towhee is one of my favorite yard birds, but not just because of its dramatic appearance. These birds also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males will seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite aptly, as “Drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “€œChew-ink”€ and “€œToe-Hee,” which is the basis for this bird’s common name.

The sparrows known as towhees are spread across two different genuses and consist of Abert’s towhee, California towhee and canyon towhee in the Melozone genus and the Eastern towhee, spotted towhee, green-tailed towhee, and collared towhee in the genus Pipilo. The genus name Pipilo is derived from Latin and roughly translates as “the chirping bunting.”

Keep watching your feeders. At this time of year, they provide one of the best venues for observing quality family time among our feathered friends.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern towhee peeks from the grass as she forages on the ground.

Cardinals don’t always look their best during late summer

Photo Courtesy of Gina Fannin • This female Northern cardinal, with a head devoid of feathers, appeared at a home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although these strange looking cardinals often surprise people, they are not all that uncommon in late summer.

Gina Fannin wrote about an unusual observation of a follicly challenged Northern cardinal at her home in Cincinnati, Ohio. The bird in question, a female cardinal, had lost most of the feathers on her head. Gina took a photo of the bird, which she sent with her email, in which she asked if I have ever encountered a cardinal with such a problem.

Gina said that she has seen male cardinals suffering from baldness, but never a female. “I’ve lived here 24 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen a bald female,” she wrote in her email.

I replied to Gina by informing her that I’ve heard of these strange instances for many years. Bald-headed cardinals seem to be a summer occurrence. I usually get some emails or calls this time of year about people surprised by visits from “weird bald-headed” cardinals. I first began to get calls and email from readers in the late 1990s about this unusual phenomenon that seems to usually afflict cardinals, although I have also seen blue jays suffering from this same ailment.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This female Northern cardinal, shown with one of her offspring at a feeder in late summer, is exhibiting some problems with her feather molt.

I have studied the opinions of various bird experts, but there doesn’t seem to be consensus about the cause. Some believe the “baldness” is caused by an infestation of mites, which are small relatives of spiders and other arachnids. Others believe that the loss of feathers around the head is a part of a normal molting process. This theory is supported by the fact that cardinals do undergo molting in late summer, usually after the conclusion of the nesting season.

The process of molting removes old feathers, which simply drop from the body as new feathers emerge to take their place. For some reason, some cardinals and jays lose all their head feathers at one time before new feathers are ready to take their place. That’s why the condition is typically observed in the summer months. Both male and female cardinals can be afflicted with “bald” heads. It’s strange that the condition primarily affects these two birds, cardinals and jays, both of which have feather crests. On the other hand, cedar waxwings are also crested birds, but I have never observed or received a report on a “bald-headed” cedar waxwing.

Whatever the cause, a “bald-headed” cardinal is an ugly bird. Without feathers, a cardinal is transformed from a showy favorite among bird enthusiasts to a rather grotesque oddity that could aptly be described as resembling a scavenging vulture. Birds like vultures, however, have heads devoid of feathers for a very important reason: As scavengers, a feathered head would become quickly fouled as the bird reaches into the carcasses of dead animals to feed.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This young Northern cardinal visits a feeder in the Atlanta suburbs.

The cardinals I have seen with “bald” heads have been visiting feeders stocked with sunflower seeds or perhaps a holder offering a suet cake. So, the absence of feathers is not a hygienic adaptation on the part of cardinals and jays similar to the hygienic necessity of bald heads among vultures. The good news is that the condition is temporary. The normal molt for a Northern cardinal takes two or three months. The feathers on the head do emerge eventually, which is probably very fortunate for the afflicted birds. Feathers serve as insulation during cold weather. A “bald-headed” cardinal would probably have difficulty surviving winter cold spells.

We’re all accustomed to seeing cardinals at our feeders, but people who feed birds would probably be surprised by how much food cardinals and other feeder visitors obtain away from our well-stocked offerings. During the summer months, cardinals eat a variety of wild seeds, fruit and insects. Some of the fruit consumed by cardinals include elderberry, dogwood, blackberry and wild grapes. Young cardinals still in the nest (and fledglings for some time after leaving the nest) are fed mostly insects, including crickets, spiders, moths and flies.

To make cardinals comfortable in every season, offer plenty of thick vegetation, such as a hedge or row of shrubs, and consider planting some of the fruit trees and shrubs that will help these beautiful birds supplement their diet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Northern cardinal with most of her head featherless.

Unusual ducks pick Bristol’s Middlebrook Lake for brief visit

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-bellied whistling duck rests inside an aviary located at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. In the wild, this species of duck has been expanding its range in the southern United States.

 

Joanne Campbell notified me via Facebook of a visit of an unusual waterfowl on Saturday, May 18, at her home near Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee.

I needed a moment to look past the obvious Canada goose in the photograph before my eyes registered the four small ducks on the grassy bank. I recognized them instantly as black-bellied whistling ducks.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are members of a group of ducks known as “tree ducks” and “whistling ducks.” There is some debate about whether they are more closely related to ducks or geese.

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Photo courtesy of Joanne Campbell • The four visiting black-bellied whistling ducks line up along the edge of Middlebrook Lake as a Canada goose swims past.

Joanne’s recent sighting near her home culminates a series of sightings throughout the region over the past month or so. For whatever reason, these ducks have popped up in various locations throughout the region in recent weeks.

Birder and photographer Adam Campbell found 11 black-bellied whistling ducks at a new retention pond off Exit 14 along Interstate 81 in Abington, Virginia, on Sunday, May 12.

A month earlier, birder Graham Gerdeman, a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, found a black-bellied whistling duck at the Harpeth/Morton Mills Greenway in Nashville on Friday, April 12.

On Friday, April 19, another lone black-bellied whistling duck was spotted in a grocery store parking lot in Fairview near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, by birder Kathy Malone.

Birders Ronald Hoff and Dollyann Myers observed a black-bellied whistling duck on Friday, May 17, on a small lake on Highway 411 south of Maryville, Tennessee, on the line between Blount and Loudon counties.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although widely kept in aviaries, black-bellied whistling ducks are becoming increasingly frequent wild visitors in the Volunteer State. East Tennessee saw a spike of sightings this spring of this duck.

In West Tennessee, closer to the Mississippi River waterfowl migration flyway, the black-bellied whistling duck is a more common bird. The ducks, which are typically found in Central and South America, range into the United States typically only in southern Texas and Arizona, as well as occasionally in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Florida. Some field guides indicate that these ducks are not long-distance migrants, but birders in western Tennessee would disagree with that assessment.

In appearance, males and females are similar with long necks, red bills and long, pinkish-red legs. The plumage is mostly chestnut with a black belly and a readily visible white wing patch.

These ducks are often described as being somewhat similar to geese and are not considered true ducks. They are classified by biologists in the genus Dendrocygna. Species in the genus include the West Indian whistling duck, wandering whistling duck, fulvous whistling duck, plumed whistling duck, spotted whistling duck, lesser whistling duck and white-faced whistling duck. Only the fulvous whistling duck joins the black-bellied whistling duck in ranging into the United States in such locations as Florida, Louisiana, Texas and California.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-bellied whistling duck (foreground) and a fulvous whistling duck (background) share space within an aviary at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

Black-bellied whistling ducks will nest both in natural cavities or on the ground in areas with thick vegetation. If nesting boxes are available, these ducks will gladly nest in them. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, black-bellied whistling-ducks have been expanding their range in the southern United States. These ducks have experienced strong population growth, estimated at more than 6 percent per year from 1966 to 2014. The world population is estimated at 1,100,000 to 2,000,000 birds and increasing, which could explain why appearances are becoming somewhat more commonplace in states like Tennessee, as well as Virginia and the Carolinas.

Formerly called the black-bellied tree duck, this waterfowl has also been given common names such as “whistling duck” and “Mexican squealer.” As indicated by these different names, these are highly vocal birds with a clear, piercing whistled call.

The black-bellied whistling ducks at Middlebrook Lake lingered for several hours, which allowed many birders in the region to make the drive to the lake to observe such an interesting visitor to the region.

Joanne later posted on Facebook about the excitement generated by the ducks. “I couldn’t get any work done for watching them,” she wrote in her post.

The ducks are not the first rare bird that Joanne has alerted me to at Middlebrook. Back in November of 2015, she notified me of an American white pelican that spent a couple of days on the lake. I’m grateful to her for notifying me about both the black-bellied whistling ducks and the pelican.

I always enjoy hearing from readers with observations to share. To make a comment, ask a question, or share a sighting, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-bellied whistling duck enjoys a vigorous bath within its enclosure in an aviary at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. This duck is often kept in captivity. The wild population has expanded its range in recent years from Central America into the southern United States.

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.

Overwintering birds make their return to some familiar area haunts

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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.

•••••

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.