Category Archives: Winter hummingbirds

Virginia woman hosting wintering ruby-throated hummingbird

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Photo by Mariedy/Pixabay.com • The ruby-throated hummingbird is the expected hummingbird in the eastern United States spring through fall. These birds are rare winter visitors, however, which makes the one living in a yard in Fall Church, Virginia.

I have been corresponding by email with Ellen Haberlein since around Thanksgiving of last year about a hummingbird that is wintering at her home in Fall Church, Virginia, which is located only a few miles from Washington, D.C.

The hummingbird’s presence has brightened the winter season for the Haberlein family since it showed up in late October of 2018.

Through the years, I have seen several of these seemingly out-of-place hummingbirds. Some of them remain at their host’s feeders for a brief stay of a few days or a couple of weeks, but some of these hummingbirds have extended their stay for several months, lingering throughout the winter months before eventually departing in February or March.

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Photo by Larry Golfer • This male ruby-throated hummingbird has resided at the home of Ellen Haberlein since around Thanksgiving of last year. Haberlein lives in Fall Church, Virginia, which is located only a few miles from Washington, D.C.

The big question is: are these hummingbirds truly lost and out of place? The answer, based on everything I have managed to learn, is that these hummingbirds are precisely where they want to be. For still unknown reasons, some of these western hummingbirds make a migration swing through the eastern United States.

Many of the visiting winter hummingbirds turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, which is a species native to the western United States. The bird visiting Ellen’s feeder, however, is a ruby-throated hummingbird. In the summer months, the ruby-throated is the expected species of hummingbird in the eastern United States. In the winter months — not so much. However, in some regions in Virginia, as well as along the Gulf Coast, a few ruby-throated hummingbirds are attempting to overwinter.

The rufous hummingbird has basically become an expected winter visitor with a few reports being received each winter. I have observed Rufous Hummingbirds in many different locations, including Bristol, Blountville, Flag Pond, Elizabethton and Hampton. I have also observed Allen’s hummingbirds in Mountain City and Johnson City. I know of records of these small birds from Erwin, Roan Mountain, Johnson City and many other locations throughout the region. Winter hummingbirds are a delightful surprise for their hosts, but their presence no longer shock long-time birders.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rufous hummingbirds have been extensively documented as wintering throughout the southeastern United States. This male rufous hummingbird was documented in Hampton, Tennessee, a couple of years ago.

“Hosting a hummingbird in winter is a first for us, so we enjoy having him here,” Ellen wrote. “I feel that I am responsible to keep the little guy alive through the cold months.”

Doing so has meant staying atop some challenges.

“I monitor the feeder to make sure it doesn’t freeze,” Ellen wrote. “I have read the nectar doesn’t need to be replaced as often in winter, but I still change it every 2-3 days.”

She’s taking no chance with the health of her tiny visitor. “I think he needs to have fresh to stay in good health,” Ellen wrote. “I have two feeders, so when I remove one, I immediately replace it with another. That way his food source is not disrupted.”

Ellen noted that the hummingbird seems to be able to stand the cold nights. “I take in the feeder at night, and he looks for it just at dawn in the morning,” she wrote.

She contacted Bruce Peterjohn at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. Her visiting ruby-throated hummingbird is the first he has heard of in Virginia for the winter season this year, although Peterjohn informed Ellen that some ruby-throated hummingbirds usually overwinter close to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.

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Bruce Peterjohn

Peterjohn, the chief of the US Bird Banding Laboratory for USGS, is the person responsible for administering the national bird banding program and the data management system for bird banding and band encounter datasets. His personal banding activities are focused on banding hummingbirds in the mid-Atlantic region, especially hummingbirds that appear during late autumn and winter.

With the dawning of the new year, Ellen’s visiting hummingbird remained present. “I am happy to help this little bird get through the winter,” Ellen said.

I checked back with Ellen on Jan. 29 to see if the hummingbird remains in residence.

“He made it through the last storm with wind chills at zero or below,” she replied to my email. “Now we have more cold coming and I am hoping for the best.”

I imagine Ellen is a good host for many birds, not just the unseasonable hummingbird, that visit her yard and gardens.

In our correspondence, she shared some sightings of warblers, which is my favorite family of birds.

“By the way, I have not seen a hooded warbler,” Ellen wrote. “I see warblers pass through during spring, like Tennessee warblers and black-and-white warblers.”

I’m hopeful that she will spy a migrating hooded warbler, perhaps this spring. In the meantime, she’s hosting a wintering hummingbird. “I am happy to help this little bird get through the winter,” Ellen wrote.

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

HMSP plans Great Backyard Bird Count events

Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, Virginia, plans some bird walks on Saturday, Feb. 16, to coincide with the Great Backyard Bird Count.

The GBBC is a free, fun and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, or anywhere in the world.

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Photo by Ted Schroeder/Great Backyard Bird Count • Evening grosbeaks may be more common on this year’s GBBC, according to early reports on the movements of these large, colorful finches.

Each checklist submitted during the GBBC helps researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society learn more about how birds are doing, and how to protect them and the environment we share. Last year, more than 160,000 participants submitted their bird observations online, creating the largest instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations ever recorded.

To help participants become better citizen scientists, some field guides and binoculars will be provided during the activities at Hungry Mother State Park. Supplies of these items, however, are limited.

The walk will commence at 8 a.m. Either Master Naturalist Randy Smith or Hungry Mother volunteer Mike Evans will conduct the walk. Participants are also welcome to bird solo or with a few friends to cover more territory.

At 9 a.m., participants will return to parking lot five for “Breakfast in a Bag” with the Holston Rivers Master Naturalists. While enjoying breakfast, attendees will be invited to wander over to the park’s restaurant to check out various hands-on birding activities.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hungry Mother State Park near Marion, Virginia, has long offered a variety of birding and nature activities and programs, such as the ones planned around the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count scheduled for Feb. 15-18.

The special event will wrap up when Smith teaches participants a little more about backyard birding with an informative session at 10:30 a.m. at the restaurant.

All ages and skill levels are welcome. Attendees are encouraged to dress warmly as the event will be held rain or shine.

For more information, call HMSP at (276) 781-7400. The park is located at 2854 Park Blvd., Marion, Virginia. Details are also available by calling 1-800-933-7275 or visit http://www.virginiastateparks.gov.

The 21st annual GBBC will be held Friday, Feb.15, through Monday, Feb. 18. Please visit the official website at birdcount.org for more information.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count and help document populations of birds, including great blue herons.

The world can be a big, bad place for tiny hummingbirds

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Large mantises have been known to prey on ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Many years ago I read an account of a scarlet tanager making a snack of a ruby-throated hummingbird. Memory being what it is, I am no longer sure if that account was corroborated or one of those urban legends of birding.

A few pertinent facts should be considered. Male scarlet tanagers look striking in their red and black plumage. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are attracted to the color red. In the details I recall of the story about the predatory tanager, the hummingbird kept flying close to the tanager as if attracted to the red plumage. If so, it was a case of curiosity kills the cat or, in this case, the hummingbird. The tanager seized the hummingbird in its bill and, for good measure and to “tenderize” its prey, beat the hummingbird against the side of a branch. All of this took place before a crowd of birders who observed the incident through their binoculars. I don’t recall anyone taking a photo of the hummingbird’s tragic demise.

An email from Gene Counts reminded me of the tale of the tanager and the hummingbird. Gene, who lives in Haysi, Virginia, sent me a photograph and a short note about a praying mantis that stalks hummingbirds as they visit his feeders for a sip of sugar water.

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Photo by Gene Counts • This photo was shared by Gene Counts, who described how the mantis stalked hummingbirds that came to his feeder.

Gene told me of his excitement upon capturing the large insect’s behavior in a photograph.

“I just had to share this picture with you,” Gene wrote. “After all, my wife, Judy, was more excited today than the day we married in Chicago 54 years ago.”

He certainly hooked my attention with that introduction.

“A praying mantis is using our feeder as his own private hunting preserve,” Gene continued in his email. “The mantis follows and stalks the hummingbirds all the way around 360 degrees.”

So far, the stalking has only resulted in “several near misses,” but Gene declared that he is ready to pounce in case the mantis gets lucky.

“It has been four hours and he has lowered his goal,” Gene wrote of the patient mantis. “He is now clinging to the bottom (of the feeder) waiting for an insect. Now I can expel my breath as he no longer an avian threat.”

While Gene’s mantis may not be an immediate threat to hummingbirds visiting his yard in Haysi, does that mean we can be complacent when these large insects share our yards and gardens with hummingbirds?

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but people should usually see a spike in their numbers as the hummingbirds end summer nesting and start migrating south again.

 

Documented evidence exists to identify large praying mantises as predators on ruby-throated hummingbirds. A brief foray online found numerous instances of hummers falling victims to these large carnivorous insects.

There are two species of mantises in the region — the European, or praying mantis, and the Chinese mantis — capable of capturing hummingbirds. Both species were introduced in the 1800s to act as a predator of insect pests detrimental to crops and gardens. The Chinese mantis can reach a length of 4.3 inches, while the European mantis achieves a length of about 3.5 inches. A third species — Carolina mantis — reaches only a length of 2.5 inches and should not pose a threat to ruby-throated hummingbirds, which are about 3.5 inches long.

Although introduced from Europe, the European mantis (Mantis religiosa) has earned recognition as the official state insect of Connecticut. The native Carolina mantis is the official state insect for South Carolina.

In Central and South America, where the world’s more than 300 species of hummingbirds reach their greatest diversity, there are also more species of predatory mantises. Some of these tropical insects prey on the tropical counterparts to the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Consider the way the mantis makes a perfect predator. It’s spiky forelimbs are spiky and serrated, making them perfect for seizing and grasping. This insect’s triangular head can turn their heads 180 degrees to scan its surroundings with two large compound eyes. A mantis also has three other simple eyes to increase its keen vision. Brutal mouthparts can easily tear apart and devour any prey the mantis manages to catch with its ambush hunting style.

Hummingbirds, regardless of species, are in a tough spot in the food chain. A bird not much bigger than many large insects is going to be a target for opportunistic predators like a mantis that will attempt to kill and consume anything small enough for them to make the effort.

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Maria Sibylla Merian, a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator, was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly. She painted this horrific work featuring a large spider preying on a hummingbird that had been dutifully incubating her eggs. When she died in 1717, she was recognized as one of the world’s foremost entomologists.

To make matters worse for ruby-throated hummingbirds, some large spiders and the bigger dragonflies have also been documented as hummingbird predators. When ruby-throated hummingbirds retreat to Central America for the winter months, they also face threats from lizards and snakes.

The list of predators that have been known to eat ruby-throated hummingbirds extends to bullfrogs, as well as many raptors, including kestrels, merlins and sharp-shinned hawks. Blue jays and other birds will raid hummingbird nests for eggs or young. Squirrels and chipmunks are also nest predators.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com. Large frogs have also been known to prey on hummingbirds.

Despite all these perils, some ruby-throated hummingbirds have achieved a “long” life. The oldest on record was a ruby-throated hummingbird banded at the age of nine years and one month. Most elder hummingbirds are females. Few male hummingbirds, perhaps because of the energy they expend dueling with each other, reach their fifth birthday.

It’s definitely not easy being as tiny as a hummingbird in a world of fearsome giants, but birders who have seen a hummingbird hover boldly in front of their faces know how these tiny birds take life in stride. They may have a disadvantage in size, but that doesn’t keep them from living life as if they were as big as an eagle.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

What’s in a name? Vernacular designations for some birds lack imagination

I took part in a Christmas Bird Count last month. These annual mid-December surveys of bird populations are not quite as exciting as counts held during the spring or fall migration periods each year, but they can produce some interesting results. One exciting post-count activity after taking part in a CBC is getting together to compile the results tallied by the various participating groups and individuals. The results are usually compiled on field checklists for birds of Tennessee. These checklists, which are produced by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Tennessee Ornithological Society, feature a listing of the common name of every bird species likely to be encountered in the state.

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Photo by USFWS/Robert Burton • An American kestrel in flight shows the aerodynamic design that earned this small falcon the common name of sparrow hawk.

The compiler generally reads out the various names on the checklist, which lists all the local birds, beginning with black-bellied whistling duck and ending with house sparrow, and the spokespersons for the various parties respond as each bird’s name is called with the number of birds seen for each species. Over the years, some of the common names of birds featured on the list have changed, as has the position on the list for some of the species. For instance, the American kestrel and other falcons are no longer listed on the card in a grouping with the other raptors found in the state. This doesn’t make much sense to me. But, as I understand it, the falcons have been re-classified for scientific reasons, changing their relationship with the other birds listed on the checklists.

The falcons are not the only birds demoted from the grouping of raptors. The two native vultures — turkey vulture and black vulture — are now listed with herons and ibises instead of raptors. The falcons are now listed between the groupings of woodpeckers and flycatchers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Former common name rufous-sided towhee became Eastern towhee, which is far less descriptive of the bird’s appearance.

At least no expert has suggested a name change for any of the falcons. I dislike name changes, especially when we lose a descriptive name for a mundane one. That’s how we got relatively bland names like Eastern towhee instead of rufous-sided towhee and Northern flicker in place of yellow-shafted flicker. In fact, the American kestrel was once known as the sparrow hawk. The merlin and peregrine falcon, larger relatives of the kestrel, were once known as the pigeon hawk and duck hawk, respectively.

Common names are also known as “vernacular” names. Vernacular can be defined as the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people, which contrasts with the scientific names for species of birds that are usually only recognized by ornithologists or other experts. However, just like dialects, there can be a great deal of variety among common names for the same birds. Many of the common names for some of our favorite birds lack any vivid descriptiveness.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and cardinal grosbeak.

For instance, let’s take a look at the Northern cardinal, which has been known by such common names as cardinal bird, cardinal grosbeak, crested redbird, Kentucky cardinal, redbird, Virginia redbird and Virginia nightingale. The first thing that irritates me about the common name of this bird is that there is no Southern cardinal. So, why is this bird the “Northern” cardinal? The only other birds in the Cardinalis genus are the desert cardinal, also known as the pyrrhuloxia, and the vermilion cardinal. Both these relatives have arguably more interesting and descriptive names than their relative, which is a favorite of many birders and arguably better known to many people.

I can understand why Kentucky cardinal and Virginia redbird are not inclusive names since the Northern cardinal ranges far beyond the borders of these two states. On the other hand, cardinal grosbeak with its reference to the cardinal’s large beak, as well as crested redbird, are both more descriptive and creative than the rather nondescript Northern cardinal.

Of course, a literary great summed up the confusing attitude toward common names. “What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare had Juliet ponder. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”800px-Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623

I think The Bard was on to something. Whether we call a cardinal a redbird or a Virginia nightingale, it’s song will sound as sweet to our ears. The appearance of one of these birds on a gloomy day will elevate our mood whether we know the bird as cardinal grosbeak, Kentucky cardinal or, in scientific terminology, Cardinalis cardinalis.

 

BRISTOL HUMMERS DEPART

As promised, here’s an update on the hummingbirds that proved dutiful daily visitors to a sugar water feeder at the Bristol home of Ralph Beamer through Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Early in the new year, Ralph notified me that the hummingbirds departed ahead of 2018’s arrival.

“We had a surprise on New Year’s Day,” Ralph wrote in an email. “The hummingbirds were gone. I am glad they left ahead of the extreme cold we have had the last few days.”

Ralph noted that he had a wonderful time watching them for the past three months. He is hopeful they will come back in the future, but figured that is probably wishful thinking.

Actually, some of these winter hummingbirds, which often turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, have proven quite faithful to favorite locations. Bird banders have recaptured some individual hummingbirds year after year in the same yards. During the stay of his visitors, Ralph shared photographs and videos with me of their visits to his feeders. I enjoyed receiving his periodic updates about them.

I emailed Ralph back and told him that these hummingbirds seem to also have a knack for knowing when to leave and suggested he keep an eye out for them again next fall.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Looking back on the birding highlights of 2016

 

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All photography by Bryan Stevens • An American goldfinch feeds during the snowfall from Winter Storm Helena.

Although its been many years since grade school, I still enjoy a good snow day. Much of the snow from Winter Storm Helena fell overnight, so I awoke on a Saturday morning to see a tranquil blanket of ice crystals that would have made a perfect white Christmas had the storm arrived only a few weeks earlier.

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Winter Storm Helena has produced the only significant snowfall so far this winter in Northeast Tennessee.

Of the many things I pondered on my lazy Saturday morning was the fact that we didn’t used to name our snowstorms. After a quick consultation with Google on my computer, I learned that The Weather Channel kicked off this trend of bestowing names on winter storms back in the fall of 2012. I guess the rest of the media quickly followed suit. I do have Winter Storm Helena to thank for a definite uptick in the number of birds seeking out my feeders for an easy meal of sunflower seeds or suet. I gazed out a window for most of the morning, keeping watch on the mixed flock of birds that made a steady pilgrimage to the feeders.

A feisty flock of dark-eyed juncos, its members racing across the snow-covered ground beneath the feeders in search of seeds dropped by other birds, could easily claim the distinction of being among the most faithful visitors. The “snow birds” kept their position near the feeders for most of the day.

Other common visitors included the frantic tufted titmice and Carolina chickadees. These tiny bundles of feathers are always engaged in a perpetual race to grab a seed, fly to a perch, eat the seed, then repeat the process.

An occasional solitary downy woodpecker or no-nonsense white-throated sparrow broke the sameness in the ranks of the flocks. A flash of red signaled the arrival of a male Northern cardinal. Noisy screeches signaled the arrival of blue jays. The jays ate quickly and soon departed.

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A least bittern climbs through wetland vegetation at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

It wasn’t too long before I found myself hoping for the unexpected: a lone common redpoll among the dull goldfinches or a querulous flock of evening grosbeaks. Yes, those are long shots, but that’s what makes watching birds so exciting. I enjoyed several memorable birding moments last year, and I’m starting to look forward to what surprises watching birds might bring in 2017. Rather than predict what some of those unanticipated moments might be, I thought I’d look back at my top birding moments from 2016. Here’s my list:

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A rufous hummingbirds rests in a gloved hand after being banded.

• During a June trip to South Carolina, I saw a life bird. It’s not often that I get to add a new species to my list, so I was quite pleased. The bird — a least bittern — also represented the final species of heron that I needed to complete my observation of all North America’s herons. I saw the least bittern — very briefly — on the first day of my visit to Huntington Beach State Park. Not trusting my eyes, I declined to acknowledge I’d seen this diminutive heron. A few days later, on a tip from another birder, I got my “official” look at this bird, as well as some photos.

• A male rufous hummingbird visited feeders maintained by my mother and me from Oct. 7 to Nov. 5, 2016. I can be confident in the identification of the bird because noted bird bander Mark Armstrong traveled to my home to capture, document and band the bird. Now, with a tiny band around its leg, if the hummer returns next year we might be able to confirm it’s the same bird. This is the third sighting of a rufous hummingbird I have made at my home over the past several years.

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Three young Eastern phoebes share a crowded nest.

• Eastern phoebes build a nest on my porch fan. When I returned home after my summer vacation, I was delighted to find a pair of Eastern phoebes had built a nest on the blades of the ceiling fan on my front porch. Needless to say, the fan was taken out of commission during their nesting activity. The phoebes raised three fledglings, giving me a daily glimpse into their progress. During the recent snowstorm, I had a single phoebe foraging in the willows at the creek. I speculated that the bird could be one of the now mature nestlings from this summer’s porch nest.

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The mother hummingbird Bliss tends her two offspring.

• Last year was a stellar year for hummingbirds, which have always been one of my favorite birds. I’ve always been curious about hummingbird nests, but I’ve never succeeded in finding one. I still haven’t found one, but I was invited by Bluff City resident Donna Ottinger to visit and see a ruby-throated hummingbird nest in a maple tree in her yard. It was an incredible experience to see my first ruby-throated hummingbird nest, still occupied at the time by two tiny hatchlings being dutifully tended by their mother, a hummingbird Donna named Bliss.

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Rufus, a ruffed grouse, resides in Flag Pond in Unicoi County.

• I met a most unusual ruffed grouse this past year in the mountains near Flag Pond in Unicoi County, Tennessee. The grouse, by the name of Rufus, has been a fascinating and funny neighbor to Leon and Janice Rhodes for the past couple of years. I met Rufus on Saturday, June 25, at the Rhodes family farm. Brayden Paulk, a grandson of the couple, had invited me. The unique wild grouse acted like one of the family. The memorable meeting ranks as one of my most fascinating bird observations.
If anyone had asked me at the start of 2016 what I expected from the year, I would never have predicted adding a least bittern to my life list or making the acquaintance of a grouse named Rufus. I can look forward with confidence to another round of delightful birding surprises in 2017.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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