Category Archives: Virginia

Birds serve as muses to inspire poets to greater heights

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Photo by makamuki0/Pixabay.com • The turtledove has featured prominently in poems and other literature, including the holiday song “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

With May’s arrival, other migrating birds have made stops in my yard, providing some excitement to the daily routine. It’s easy to wax poetic about the birds around us. Indeed, poets have been incorporating birds into some of their best-known work for centuries.

The Bard himself penned a poem titled “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” While the phoenix is a mythical bird and not one actually found in nature, the “turtle” in the poem’s title refers to the well-known European turtledove. Even before Shakespeare glorified the turtledove in his poetry, this small dove had already been entangled with myth and legend stretching back to Ancient Greece and Rome. For instance, the turtledove was considered by the Greeks as sacred to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Romans adopted the turtledove as an emblem of their goddess Fides, who reigned over the attributes of trust and faith. Perhaps, even more famously, the turtledove is still known today in the lyrics of the enduring Christmas carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” as the gift given on the second day of Christmas.

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Photo by skylarvision/Pixabay.com • The phoenix was a legendary bird that, if destroyed, arose from its own ashes to live again.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave us his gloomy “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1798. The longest of his poems, it tells of a sailor who brings ill fortune upon himself by shooting an albatross, which is a family of sea-going birds consisting of about two dozen species. The poem also inspired the phrase “having an albatross around one’s neck” as a metaphor for bad luck.

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The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized the phrase “albatross around one’s neck” to suggest a period of ill fortune in his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Albatrosses are large birds with wingspans larger than most other birds, making them capable of spending almost their entire lives at sea except for the times they come ashore for the purpose of nesting. The entire family has been besieged by a variety of problems, many of which are caused by humans. Three albatross species are critically endangered, five species are endangered, seven species are near threatened and seven species are considered vulnerable.

One of America’s most famous poets often looked to the natural world, especially its feathered inhabitants, for inspiration for some of her most famous poetry. “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson is arguably one of the finest metaphors in American poetry, with the abstract concept of hope being equated with a bird Dickinson likely observed in her gardens in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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The poet Emily Dickinson’s perceptive observations of the natural world show in her poetry.

I’ve always enjoyed Dickinson’s “A Bird Came Down the Walk,” which transforms an ordinary encounter between a bird and a woman tossing it a crumb into an inspiring message of perseverance. One cannot help but feel that Dickinson, a famously reclusive woman, also envied the bird its power of flight and the freedom its wings gave it.

A near contemporary of Dickinson, and one famous for his moody, rhythmical works, Edgar Allan Poe published his masterpiece “The Raven” in 1845. While the poem won him many fans, he received a paltry $9 from the magazine “The American Review” for the work. Perhaps because of the insulting matter of compensation, Poe first allowed the work to be published under a pseudonym. “The New York Evening Mirror” became the first outlet to publish the poem with Poe’s name attached to it.

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Edgar Allan Poe

The young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a classic poem titled “To a Skylark” in 1820. Shelley, one of the English Romantic poets, has been overshadowed in some ways by his wife, the novelist Mary Shelley, who provided the world with the enduring novel Frankenstein. Shelley apparently wrote his poem after he and his wife encountered one of these birds during a stroll in the countryside during a trip to Italy.

As is the case with good literature, Shelley’s poem inspired other authors. Reportedly, the English playwright Noël Coward and the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald received inspiration from lines in the poem to create titles for their respective works, “Blithe Spirit” and “Tender is the Night.” American playwright Tennessee Williams titled his first play “Not About Nightingales,” apparently as a reaction to Shelley’s ode.

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Although his wife arguably achieved more fame with her novel, Frankenstein, Percy Bysshe Shelley won immortality with his memorable poems in the spirit of English Romanticism.

The Eurasian skylark is a widespread species found across Europe and Asia. This bird has also been introduced in various locations around the world. In North America, introduced populations of skylarks are found on southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia and San Juan Island in the state of Washington.

The only native lark in North America is the horned lark, also known by its scientific name of Alauda alpestris, which translated means “lark of the mountains.” The horned lark is a common, widespread bird of open country, such as prairies, deserts, and agricultural lands. Although horned larks also sing in flight like their relative, only the Eurasian skylark seems to be famous enough for its song to inspire poets to write tributes. The Eastern meadowlark, a fairly common bird in the region, is not an actual lark but a member of the blackbird family.

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Photo by Kathy2408/Pixabay.com • A Eurasian skylark perches on a wire. This bird once inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write his famous poem “To a Skylark.”

 

Based on the opening lines to Shelley’s poem, it can be safely argued that Shelley was particularly impressed by the skylark’s song.

“Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”

Birds are continually inspiring us, much like a singing skylark once served as an avian muse for one of Shelley’s most famous poems. Whether it is their song, their beauty, or their free spirits, birds are certainly worthy of a poem or two.

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all – And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm – I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.                                   — by Emily Dickinson

 

 

Now that hummingbirds are back, take some simple steps to keep them healthy

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Welcoming back hummingbirds also involves making sure that they remain healthy and safe while spending the next six months in our yards and gardens.

Bristol residents Don and Donna Morrell saw their first hummingbird of spring at 10:19 a.m. on Monday, April 15. “My wife put the feeder up last week,” wrote Don in an email to me. “We live behind South Houston Dam.”

Gordon Aiton, who lives on Elm Street in Erwin, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird of spring at 7:04 p.m. on Friday, April 19.

Phyllis Moore saw her first hummingbird — a male — at 7:50 p.m. on Friday, April 19, at her home in Bristol, Virginia.

Lynda Carter emailed me to report her first spring sighting of a male ruby-throated hummingbird at her feeder after lunch on Monday, April 15, and a second male appeared on Friday, April 19, a little after 1 p.m. Lynda said she lives at the end of Embreeville mountain in the Lamar community near Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Susan Okrasinski, a resident of Kingsport, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of spring on Easter Sunday, April 21.

“On my way into the kitchen I just saw (be still my heart) the first hummer of the season — whoo hoo!” Susan wrote in a post on her Facebook page. “It was a female, which is unusual as the males come up first and the females follow.  What a nice Easter surprise!”

Joanne Campbell, who lives at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page about her first spring hummer. “Had our first hummingbird sweep into our courtyard on Tuesday, April 23,” she wrote in her post.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A ruby-throated hummingbird seeks nectar from small blooms on a flower.

Every hummingbird’s arrival at our homes after an absence of nearly six months is nothing short of an epic achievement on the part of this tiny bird. According to the website, hummingbird.net, most ruby-throated hummingbirds make a daring journey across the Gulf of Mexico to return to their summer homes in the United States and Canada. They typically depart at dusk for their nonstop Gulf flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours, depending on the weather.

Now that we’ve welcomed them back into our yards and gardens after such a harrowing journey, it’s important as good hosts to make sure these tiny wonders are kept safe.

Some ways of ensuring that our hummingbird guests are kept healthy and secure are simply common sense. For instance, don’t use pesticides, herbicides or any other sort of toxin anywhere close to the vicinity of a sugar water feeder or a flower garden. Hummingbirds are such tiny creatures with such intense metabolisms that it only takes a minute amount of any harmful substance to sicken or kill one of these little flying gems.

Feeding hummingbirds is easy, but many people try to complicate the process. Only common, pure cane sugar, mixed to a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, is a safe choice for these birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hummingbirds have even inspired ornaments and keepsakes in their image, a testament to their popularity and beloved status as yard and garden visitors.

For emphasis, I’ll repeat again that only common, pure cane sugar is safe for hummingbirds. There are no safe substitutes. Do not use organic, raw or brown sugar. Confectioner’s sugar, which contains an anti-caking substance (often corn starch, silicates or stearate salts), is also hazardous to hummingbirds.

There’s also a type of sugar known as turbinado sugar, which is named for the process of spinning the sugar in turbines to crystallize it. The crystals are rich in vitamins and mineral valuable for human health, but they are lethal for hummingbirds. Iron is one of the minerals contained in turbinado sugar. Hummingbird metabolism has a low tolerance for iron, which is present in the molasses added to brown sugar and in agave nectar. These are natural substances, but that doesn’t make them safe for hummingbirds.

The ratio of four parts water to one part sugar utilizing pure cane sugar most closely duplicates the nectar that hummingbirds obtain from some of their favorite flowers. Why try to mess with nature’s perfection?

I cannot imagine why anyone would supplement sugar water for hummingbirds with such human beverages as a sports drink or Kool-aid, but there have been reports of people doing so. Be aware that such additives will only risk the health of these tiny birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female ruby-throated hummingbirds must face many demands if they are to be successful at nesting and raising young, both tasks being done without assistance from male hummingbirds.

Honey is another substance, although perfectly natural in its origins, that should be avoided. Honey encourages the growth of fungus, which can quickly incapacitate or kill a hummingbird. A packet of artificial sweetener might taste great in your iced tea, but do not add such substances to the solution in your hummingbird feeder. These artificial sugar substitutes offer nothing of nutritional value for a bird with an extreme metabolism with excessive energy demands. In theory, a hummingbird mistakenly feeding on nothing but an artificial sweetener would soon starve to death.

It’s also important to change out your feeders and clean them as often as every one to three days. In extremely hot weather reaching more than 90 degrees, the sugar solution may need to be changed and the feeder cleaned on a daily basis. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. I prepare sugar water and store it in plastic juice containers. Refrigerated, the solution will last longer and can be doled out on a daily basis until a new supply is needed.

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Photo by sapphir1/Pixabay.com • Although a natural substance, honey should not be fed to hummingbirds as it can promote a fungus harmful to hummingbirds.

Don’t use any type of soap or detergent to clean the feeders. The best advice I’ve read is to stick to hot water and vinegar, which will not leave behind a residue that could potentially harm the hummingbirds.

Do not put any sort of red dye or coloring into the sugar water, and do not purchase commercial solutions that incorporate red dyes. Some scientific studies suggest that red dye is a recipe for disaster with hummingbird. Such dyes are thought to lead to kidney failure and certain death for the hummingbird. There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that banning red dye is an exaggeration of the peril. Taking that into consideration, I still err on the side of caution. Perhaps the red dye will eventually be proven harmless. Until that time, I prefer not to risk the health of my resident hummingbirds.

I’m often asked if the sugar water feeder itself should be red. There is ample evidence that hummingbirds are attracted to red. According to information from the National Audubon Society website, current thinking is that the red dye, as just mentioned, may not be good for them, nor is it necessary to attract hummingbirds. The color on a feeder is enough to attract them. Most feeders incorporate some red parts into their construction. People can mix their own nectar using 1/4 cup sugar to every 1 cup of water.

It’s a lot of work to attract hummingbirds and keep them safe and healthy. I’d like to think the rewards we get from these small birds make the effort worthwhile.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female ruby-throated hummingbird, lacking the bright throat patch of a male, surveys her surroundings from a low perch.

 

April brings flurry of spring migrants to region

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Photo by Adobe Stock • Subtle plumage differences, as well as habitat, behavior and seasonal presence, are factors in distinguishing the Louisiana waterthrush, pictured, from the closely related Northern waterthrush. The Louisiana waterthrush nests along fast-moving streams in the area while the Northern waterthrush does not breed in the region.

I’m always happy for the arrival of April because I know the month hails the arrival of some of my favorite birds. The roughly 50 species of New World warblers that occur in the Eastern United States have captivated me from the time I first picked up a pair of binoculars. The warblers offer color, energy, complex songs and much more for the bird enthusiast to enjoy.

The month started out with my first sighting of a purple finch for the year. The finch must have been a harbinger of birds to come because in quick succession I observed many early migrants, including brown thrasher, blue-headed vireo, blue-gray gnatcatcher and chipping sparrow, as well as several warblers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A study of the facial pattern of a female purple finch helps contrast her from similar female house finches. Again, the notched tail is also a good indication of the bird’s identity.

The first warbler to arrive in the woods around my home this year was a singing male black-throated green warbler. Three others — black-and-white warbler, yellow-throated warbler and Louisiana waterthrush — followed quickly after my sighting of the black-throated green warbler.

The Louisiana waterthrush stood out among these early observations. This warbler is a specialist of creeks and streams, and my sighting took place near a roaring creek swollen by a rainy spring. This water-loving warbler also has a loud, ringing song that can still be hard to hear because of the fact the bird is usually near the background noise of rushing water.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-and-white warbler creeps over the bark of a pine in search of insect prey.

 

While many warblers have shown signs of decline in recent years, the Louisiana waterthrush appears to have bucked that trend. According to the website, “All About Birds,” Louisiana waterthrush populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, based on statistics from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight, a network of organizations engaged in all aspects of avian conservation, estimates a global breeding population of 360,000, with almost all of those individuals spending at least part of the year in the United States. About a quarter of the population retreats into Mexico during the winter season. The rest winter in Florida and some of the Gulf Coast states, as well as the islands of the Caribbean.

While most songbirds are fortunate to survive two or three years in the wild, at least one Louisiana waterthrush lived to the age of at least 11 years and 11 months. The bird, a male, was seen in New Jersey in the wild and identified by a band on one of his legs. He had been banded in the same state, according to the website, “All About Birds.”

The waterthrushes are the only two species in the genus Parkesia, so named to honor American ornithologist Kenneth C. Parkes, who was for many years curator of birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The common name of the Louisiana waterthrush is not a very apt one, as this bird does not have any special affinity for the state of Louisiana. Someone collected some of the early specimens of the Louisiana waterthrush in its namesake location, and the name has stuck through the years.

The only other warbler in the genus Parkesia is the Northern waterthrush which, unlike its relative, likes to live near quiet, sedate pools, ponds and bogs, not rushing streams.

Hummingbirds getting closer to region

Tommy and Virginia Curtis of Smithville, Tennessee, reported their first ruby-throated hummingbirds of the spring on the email group, “TN-Birds.” The hummingbird arrived on April 7.

“We had two male ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive late Sunday afternoon,” they wrote in their email. “That is a little later than the April 1 arrival times in the past.”

The two visitors had apparently agreed to co-exist.

“So far they are eating peacefully, and neither is attacking or dominating the one feeder,” the couple reported. “We keep wondering when the white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos plan to leave, as we have had many of them all winter.”

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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.”

The couple also shared that they have been hosting a small flock of purple finches. “They normally don’t show up at our feeders unless there is snow on the ground, but we have enjoyed seeing them daily,” they wrote in their email.

Of course, the Curtises live in DeKalb County in Middle Tennessee. As of press time, I still haven’t received any reports of hummingbirds arriving in East Tennessee or Southwest Virginia. I’m confident these tiny winged gems will arrive soon. I hope to update on hummingbird arrivals in next week’s column.

Remember to share your hummingbird sighting by emailing me the date and time of the sighting to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook should anyone want to contact me through that social media platform.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches near a feeder that he is ready to defend from all comers.

 

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

Mergansers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dark-eyed junco heralds winter’s approach and marks milestone in weekly bird musings

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A dark-eyed junco, usually a harbinger of wintry weather and snowy days, shells sunflower seeds beneath a feeder.

I wrote my first column about our “feathered friends” on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this column will soon celebrate its 23rd anniversary.

This column has appeared on a weekly basis for the last 23 years in a total of five different newspapers, and in recent years it has been syndicated to several more. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested birds and birding. I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well. Since February 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.

I saw my first swamp sparrow of the fall on Oct. 23. Autumn’s a time when many of those so-called “little brown birds,” also known as the sparrows, return to live in the fields, gardens, yards and woodlands around our home. Two of the other anticipated arrivals are white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Sparrows, like this swamp sparrow, often spend the winter months in fields, woods, and wetlands, sometimes visiting feeders in our homes and gardens.

In fact, that first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents— the dark-eyed junco. Experts place juncos among the varied sparrow family. All juncos are resident of the New World, ranging throughout North and Central America. Scientists are continually debating precisely how many species of junco exist, with estimates ranging from a mere three species to about a dozen species.

Some of the other juncos include the volcano junco, yellow-eyed junco, Chiapas junco, Guadalupe junco, pink-sided junco, Oregon junco and Baird’s junco, which is named in honor Spencer Fullerton Baird, a 19th century American naturalist and a former Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

With that introduction and with some revisions I have made through the years, here is that very first column that I ever wrote about birds.

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Photo by Skeeze-Pixabay • A dark-eyed junco clings to a snowy perch.

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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.

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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.

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.

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Photo by Ken Thomas • A dark-eyed junco perches on some bare branches on a winter’s day.

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.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Dark-eyed junco nests on high mountain slopes during the summer month. This dark-eyed junco was photographed at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain during the summer nesting season.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin 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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Back when I wrote that original column, juncos often returned each fall in the final days of October or first days of November. In the last few years, however, their arrival times have grown consistently later in November. At times, it takes a serious snowfall to drive these hardy birds to seek out easy fare at my feeders. I’m hoping they’ll return soon. In the meantime, if you want to share your first dark-eyed junco sighting of the fall, I’d love to hear from you. If you want to share a sighting, have a question or wish to make a comment, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female dark-eyed junco scrambles for sunflowers seeds in the snow.

Indigo bunting one of summer’s common songbirds

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting is a resplendent bird.

Two recent summer bird counts emphasized some of the more commonplace birds in the region. While American robins and European starlings were extremely abundant, these two birds are permanent residents and are present year-round. A few other summer songbirds also helped swell the ranks of some of the seasonally common birds. For instance, the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count found a total of 141 indigo buntings while the Elizabethton Summer Bird Count tallied 82 of these little blue beauties. Both of these Northeast Tennessee surveys are conducted by members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society.

The indigo bunting likes to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer. One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings — return year after year to my yard and gardens.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increase the variety of bright and colorful birds in eastern North America from spring until fall each year.

These birds usually arrive in the region in late April and I’ve seen them in late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September.

Male indigo buntings are persistent singers, and in the past couple of weeks one very enthusiastic male has been singing even during the hottest hours of recent July afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees. They are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

The indigo bunting is the only solid blue bird in the eastern United States. It’s all an illusion, of course. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue. The male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of refraction. This process absorbs all but blue light, which explains why the indigo bunting appears blue. In bright light, it can even look unnaturally vivid blue. In poor light, however, an indigo bunting male can appear black. Fortunately, indigo buntings have both a characteristic body shape and song, so even if the birds are not seen at their best, they can still be recognized.

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Photon by Bryan Stevens • Indigo Buntings will perch on wires and sing for hours even during hot summer days.

Like many species of songbirds, the male is by far the most colorful. In this instance, the male is also responsible for the species’ name. Indigo is a blue dye that was once an important crop in the South. The drab female may boast some blue highlights in her plumage. Juvenile birds just out of the nest also resemble the female. Pay close attention to any indigo buntings you observe as summer progresses. Juvenile birds will look mostly brown with just a hint of blue in the wings and the tail. These will be the young buntings that were hatched this spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders.

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. Although some books indicate that males are not very active in rearing young, I have on numerous occasions witnessed male buntings feeding fledglings at feeders. Indigo bunting juveniles, like the young of many other birds, beg for tidbits from parents by “bowing,” spreading their wings and shivering. These actions usually prompt a parent to pop some morsel into an impatient youngster’s open bill. Indigo buntings are relatively easy to view. They frequent weedy fields and roadside brush. During the breeding season, males can also be seen singing from prominent perches. The song, a distinctive jumble of notes, can help observers find these dedicated singers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although bright blue, a male indigo bunting will often blend with its surroundings.

The male indigo bunting is one of the most colorful birds to visit feeders in the region. This species is also extremely fond of millet seed. I like to have some feeders stocked with millet when the buntings begin to return each spring. They will also feed on thistle and sunflower seeds. Away from our feeders, they also devour plenty of seeds from various noxious weeds. Because of the indigo bunting’s appetite for the seeds of destructive weeds, it is considered a very beneficial bird.

One of the most attractive summer scenes is to observe American goldfinches and indigo buntings feeding together on the nodding heads of summer sunflowers. The goldfinch males, resplendent in their bright yellow and black plumage, compete with the blue indigo bunting males for the fresh sunflower seeds. When bright red male Northern cardinals join in, observers have a complete artists’s palette for summer viewing.

The indigo bunting will usually respond to human squeaks that imitate a bird’s call. When a flock or family group of buntings are disturbed by a human observer, they usually begin a chorus of alarmed “chipping.”indigo-bunting-john-james-audubon

As I indicated earlier, indigo buntings remain in the region until late September. Although this bird typically winters in Mexico, Panama and the Caribbean, in recent decades some indigo buntings have only gone as far south as Florida to spend the winter. There in the Sunshine State, the indigo buntings may mingle with a close relative, the splendidly multi-colored painted bunting. I usually see these vibrant songbirds whenever I visit coastal South Carolina in spring or summer. Male painted buntings are probably one of the most colorful birds in the United States with hues of red, green, purple and blue in their feathers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male painted bunting is one of North America’s most colorful birds.

Other North American buntings include the snow bunting, the lazuli bunting and the lark bunting, which is also the official state bird for Colorado. Some of the common but descriptive names for some of the world’s other buntings include striolated bunting, cinnamon-breasted bunting, cinereous bunting, white-capped bunting, lark-like bunting, ochre-rumped bunting, golden-breasted bunting, chestnut-bunting, red-headed bunting, yellow bunting, little bunting, brown-rumped bunting, meadow bunting, corn bunting and crested bunting.

Keep your feeders stocked with millet and sunflower seeds if you want to increase your chances of seeing indigo buntings. They will need some dependable places to re-fuel and rest during their upcoming fall migration.