Category Archives: Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park

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.

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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!

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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.

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.

Some birds stand out from the flock with their amazing migratory feats

Photo by jasonjdking/Pixabay.com • The bobolink is also known as the “rice bird” for its tendency to feed on cultivate grains such as rice. Even the bird’s scientific name, oryzivorus, means “rice eating” and refers to this bird’s appetite for many of the same grains consumed by humans. This small songbird also undertakes yearly migration flights equalling more than 12,400 miles.

The peak of fall migration is approaching. Birds of all species are winging their way southward ahead of the months of cold and scarcity. September and October are months of flux and transition. Like a bear fattening for hibernation, I gorge on sightings of warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers and other favorites, knowing that I won’t be seeing many of these birds again until next spring. Their memories will sustain me, as will my feeders, which will still bring plenty of colorful and entertaining birds into my yard even in times of snow and ice.
Bird migration at any season is a spectacle. Many of the birds that nested in mountain hollows or vegetation-choked wetlands will winter in Central and South America, the Caribbean or other distant but warmer destinations. The following snapshots of fall’s bird migration capture the phenomenon’s drama.

Bobolink
The bobolink is a small bird in the family of blackbirds, which includes grackles, orioles and cowbirds. Nesting across North America during the summer, bobolinks retreat to South America for the winter. These small birds undertake amazing migrations, making a round-trip of about 12,400 miles to regions south of the equator in Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina each fall. Come spring, they make the trip again, but in a northerly direction.
According to the website All About Birds, migrating bobolinks orient themselves with the earth’s magnetic field. These small birds are able to accomplish this feat due to iron oxide in bristles of its nasal cavity and in tissues around the olfactory bulb and nerve. Bobolinks also use the stars scattered across the night sky to guide their migratory flights. Capable of living as long as nine years, a long-lived bobolink will rack up some serious miles simply migrating to its nesting grounds and back to its wintering habitat each year.

Bar-tailed godwit
Shorebirds, which in North America can consist of birds ranging from turnstones and sandpipers to willets and avocets, are champion migrants. For instance, the bar-tailed godwit makes an impressive non-stop migratory flight. This shorebird nests in the United States only in parts of remote Alaska, but this godwit also ranges into Scandinavia and northern Asia. Some of these godwits make a nine-day, non-stop migratory flight that takes them from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea of China and beyond, a distance of almost 6,000 miles each way.
Needless to say, since the godwits make no stops along the way, they must also go without food for the duration of their journey. The female godwit is larger than the male, but she still weighs only 12 ounces. The long-billed, long-legged bird is about 17 inches in length from the tip of the bill to its tail. That a creature so small can make such a distant, arduous trip and be the none the worse for wear is truly inspiring.

Broad-winged hawk
Many North American raptors migrate, but the broad-winged hawk dislikes the lonely aspects of solitary travel. Instead, these hawks form large flocks during migration, and in autumn the majority of these raptors travel past human-staffed hawk migration observation points, which are dubbed “hawk watches,” during a brief and concentrated period of only a few weeks. Observing the phenomenon locally is possible at the Mendota Fire Tower Hawk Watch site atop Clinch Mountain at an abandoned fire tower near Mendota, Virginia.
Broad-winged hawks are part of the family Accipitridae, which includes 224 species of hawks, eagles, vultures and other birds of prey. Broad-winged hawks are truly long-distance migrants. Many hawks passing over Mendota may end their migration as far south as Brazil. These hawks travel in flocks that can consist of hundreds or thousands of individuals. The birds conserve energy by soaring on thermals and mountain updrafts.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Warblers, such as this American redstart, stage impressive migratory flights. The blackpoll warbler makes an incredibly arduous journey for a bird that is less than five inches long.

Blackpoll warbler
Most of the warblers that nest in North America retreat to Central and South America during the winter months. Few warblers, however, make as great a journey as the blackpoll warbler. Instead of migrating over land, this five-inch-long warbler undertakes a two-stage migration. The first half of the migration is a non-stop flight of about 1,500 miles. Every fall, these tiny birds fly over the ocean during this part of their migration, departing from Canada or the northern United States and not stopping until they reach various locations in the Caribbean. There they will spend some time recovering from the exhausting first half of their journey before they continue their way to such South American countries as Colombia and Venezuela. Once again, during the time they spend flying over open ocean, these tiny warblers do not feed.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A migrating Great Egret makes a stop at a golf course pond.

Wading birds topic for program
I’ll be presenting a program on herons, egrets and other wading birds at the September meeting of the Elizabethton Bird Club. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, at the Elizabethton campus of Northeast State Community College, 386 Highway 91. The meeting will be held on the second floor in Room 208. The free program is open to the public and will follow a brief business meeting.

Readers with questions are welcome to email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or send a friend request on Facebook at facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. I also love to receive comments and hear about bird observations.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A spotted sandpiper and a solitary sandpiper rest at the edge of a pond during a migration rest stop.

Good intentions can have ill effects for ducks, geese, other waterfowl


Pattie Rowland contacted me on Facebook recently with a valid concern, especially now that the temperatures are turning a little cooler. People with good intentions often visit parks to feed the ducks and geese that reside at ponds and creeks.

 

“I see people with bags of bread thinking they are helping the ducks and geese,” she explained.

Despite the good intentions, Pattie, a resident of Erwin, Tennessee, has some concerns about the practice and requested that I help raise awareness about the possible unintended consequences.

While I’m not an expert, I applaud her attempt to raise the issue about what foods are nutritional and which are not when it comes to feeding wild or domesticated waterfowl. So, I did some research into the topic.

Dave McRuer, the director of Wildlife Medicine at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, wrote about the risks associated with feeding waterfowl in a 2015 article on the center’s website.

McRuer noted that wild ducks and geese feed on a variety of natural foods, such as wild grains and grasses, aquatic plants, and invertebrates. This varied diet provides the essentials waterfowl need to thrive.

Mallard-Drakes

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Mallard drakes share a log during a period of relaxation. Mallards, Canada Geese, and some other waterfowl have voluntarily semi-domesticated themselves in exchange for an easy, but not always healthy, life based on human handouts.

On the other hand, McRuer warned about some of the foods commonly fed to waterfowl in public parks, such as bread, popcorn and corn, are typically low in protein and essential nutrients and minerals. Waterfowl feeding heavily on such fare are at risk for developing nutritional disorders.

 

His ultimate conclusion was that any benefits are far outweighed by risks when it comes to the feeding of waterfowl at public parks. His recommendation was to stop all forms of supplemental feeding.

 

He based his recommendation on more than nutritional concerns. Supplemental feeding can also lead to overcrowding, disease concerns, habitat degradation, and an unhealthy habituation to humans or animals associated with humans.

 

There are some alternatives to the quitting “cold turkey” option when it comes to feeding ducks and geese. Melissa Mayntz, a birder with more than 30 years of experience, penned an article for the website, The Spruce, recommending some foods that will not expose waterfowl to potential harm.

 

In an article titled “What to Feed Ducks,” Mayntz wrote that it is important to realize that waterfowl are capable of fending for themselves and do not require human handouts to survive, no matter what the season nor how much they seem to beg for treats. She did offer some tips on choosing nutritious treats to supplement the wild diet of park waterfowl.

 

Various grains, such as cracked corn, wheat, barley, oats, and rice can safely be offered as an occasional treat. In addition, she recommended grapes (sliced in half), chopped lettuce or other greens and vegetable trimmings or peels chopped into small, easily eaten pieces.

Mallard-March28

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Mallard drake still shows some caution toward humans, arguing that this individual has not become dependent on human handouts.

Mayntz’s article basically echoes many of the warnings from the one by McRuer. Some of the foods commonly offered, such as bread, crackers, cereal and popcorn, offer very little nutritional value. In addition, bread and other similar foods are dangerous if they are moldy. Increasing the disk is the fact that any excess bread that isn’t eaten can quickly mold. Molded food can kill waterfowl, which is the last thing people would want to happen to these birds.

 

I agree with Mayntz in her conclusion, which admits that feeding waterfowl at local ponds and parks can be a fun experience in wildlife viewing for people of all ages. By avoiding potentially dangerous foods and restricting treats to items that actually provide nutritional value, birders can continue to enjoy this pastime without risking the lives of the birds they love so much.

 

As a general rule, I don’t feed the waterfowl at local parks. Many years ago I fed a flock of semi-domesticated mallards that took up residence at my fish pond. From a half dozen birds, the flock eventually grew to about two dozen ducks. The only food I fed them was cracked corn during the winter season. They foraged quite successfully for the rest of their food from the pond, the nearby creek and the fields. I’m convinced they helped control the numbers of pest insects during their stay. To this day, an occasional pair of mallards will visit on cold winter days. At times, they look at me like they’re expecting a handout and I wonder if they could be descendants of some of those mallards from the original flock.

Canada_Geese

Photo by Bryan Stevens • In some areas, Canada Geese have become so prevalent that they are considered pests. Human handouts to waterfowl are not always compatible with good health for the birds that receive them.

 

So, don’t let good intentions cause problems for any of our feathered friends. If you want to feed ducks at the local park, consider the healthy alternatives instead of providing bread. After all, people cannot live on bread alone, and neither can ducks.

 

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Calendars make fun Christmas presents

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society produces an annual calendar featuring some exceptional bird photography from its members. This year’s calendar features full-color photographs of some colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes. 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.HerndonCalendar2018(Cover)

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, as well as a few more exotic birds. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a red-headed woodpecker. The photo was taken by Debi Campbell, a resident of Bluff City, Tennessee, and current president of the Herndon chapter. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Bristol Herald Courier located at 320 Bob Morrison Blvd. in Bristol, Virginia.

If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Bristol Herald Courier located at 320 Bob Morrison Blvd. in Bristol, Virginia.

 

October walks at state park will offer migrant-viewing opportunities

The autumn season is a great time to practice birdwatching skills. The temperatures are milder, some of the concealing leaves have dropped from the trees and many migrating birds are moving through the region. With those factors in mind, the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, also known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, will conduct morning bird walks every Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

 

The walks will begin at 8 a.m. and participants are asked to meet in the parking lot in front of the park’s visitors center. The dates for this year’s walks are Oct. 7, Oct. 14, Oct. 21 and Oct. 28.

Participants are advised to bring binoculars to increase viewing enjoyment. Persons of any skill level are invited to take part in these walks along the park’s walking trails, which offer river, field and woodland habitats. Members of the Elizabethton Bird Club will happily answer questions and help new birders with identification of any birds encountered. Targeted species will include migrants such as warblers, tanagers, thrushes and flycatchers, as well as resident songbirds ranging from Northern cardinals and blue jays to Carolina chickadees and red-bellied woodpeckers.

 

I enjoy fall birding probably more than any other season. It’s always nice to welcome some of our favorites when they return in the spring, but autumn’s the most productive season (at least in my own experience) when it comes to seeing the greatest diversity of birds in a relatively brief period of time.
Birding in my yard during September produced sightings of several species of warblers, a family of birds that is always one of the anticipated highlights of the migration season. Migrants spotted in my yard this fall have included American redstart, Blackburnian warbler, Cape May warbler, Tennessee warbler, Northern parula, magnolia warbler, hooded warbler, black-and-white warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, black-throated blue warbler, black-throated green warbler and Northern waterthrush.

Bay-BreastedWarbler

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Warblers, like this bay-breasted warbler, are experts at remaining hidden in the leaves of trees. Their energetic movements make warblers difficult to follow through binoculars. In addition, bay-breasted warblers are among those species described as “confusing fall warblers,” because their autumn appearance is a dramatic departure from the look they had in the spring.

 

The warblers are the warmth-chasing retirees of the bird world. Like their human counterparts with summer homes in the mountains to escape the worst of summer’s scorching temperatures, warblers retreat southward every fall, spreading into the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Central and South America for the winter months.

 

Of course, warblers are not the only neotropical birds to employ this technique of nesting and raising young in the northern latitudes during the summer only to return south for the winter. Tanagers, vireos, flycatchers and some other families do the same, but not with the same niche-exploiting diversity of the warblers. As a family, the warblers boast 114 species. Not quite half of the species make some part of North America their summer home, which leaves the rest of the more sedentary family members living year-round in the American tropics.

Pewee-Sept19

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern Wood-Pewee perches during a migration stop in the yard.

 

Warblers pose a worthy challenge for birders. It takes practice to chase their movements in binoculars as they flit among the upper branches of tall trees. They are, for the most part, a family of almost frantically active birds that rarely pause for long while foraging for food, which mostly consists of various insects or insect larvae. Warblers migrating through the region during the autumn season bring another challenge to the table. Many warblers wear completely different plumages in spring and fall, which requires some mental adjustments when trying to match a binoculars view of a warbler to its illustration in a field guide. Known as the “confusing fall warblers,” these tricky cases prompt some novice birders to throw up their arms in defeat. I know because I once felt like that myself. As with all worthwhile pursuits, practice makes perfect.

 

Come out and join me and other bird club members at one of the Saturday strolls at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, which is located at 1651 W. Elk Ave., Elizabethton, Tennessee. We’ll chase some warblers through the treetops. We may not identify every single one, but we’ll have a fun time in the attempt.

 

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.