Tag Archives: Autumn

‘Science’ article warns that people need to focus on the needs of disappearing birds

Photo by Pixabay.com • Birds are disappearing. Some populations have seen a dangerous decline. Loggerhead shrikes are declining across the continent, and the reasons are complicated but can ultimately be traced to human activity.

Imagine the sky growing dark and, looking up, you notice that the cause is not approaching storm clouds but a passage of birds — millions of individual birds, their wings darkening the skies as they pass overhead.

The early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon once described the passage of enormous flocks of passenger pigeons that blotted out the light “as by an eclipse” and described the noise of the multitude of wings “like thunder.” His observation of these flocks took place in 1813. A century later, the world’s last passenger pigeon, a species that had ranked as one of the continent’s most numerous birds, died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Legislation like the Endangered Species Act can and does save birds like the Bald Eagle from possible extinction.

The passenger pigeon was the avian equivalent of the American bison, albeit with a more tragic outcome. Bison, also commonly called buffalo, still survive. As with the bison, we’ve had avian rescue success stories — whooping cranes, Kirtland’s warblers, bald eagles — with efforts to bring some birds back from the brink of extinction. At the same time, we’ve lost others, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, the eskimo curlew and Bachman’s warbler. Now a new study indicates that our birds may be under assault as never before.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Northern cardinal visits a feeder.

The journal Science dropped a bombshell article recently about declining bird numbers in North America. The article’s claim that nearly 3 billion — that’s billion with a “b” — fewer wild birds exist on the continent than in 1970 is a shocking figure, but the sad fact is that the article probably doesn’t come as a complete surprise to birders or even backyard bird enthusiasts. The evidence of our own eyes and ears confirms the details of the comprehensive study reported in the pages of Science. There are fewer birds, which has been becoming painfully clear over the past few decades.

I first got into birding in 1993. Now, 26 years later, I have noticed some of the declines in just the past quarter of a century. Every autumn, the variety and numbers of migrating warblers that visit my yard has gone down.

The new study in Science focuses on the drop in sheer numbers of birds. According to most experts, the bird population in the United States and Canada was probably around 10.1 billion individual birds nearly half a century ago. That number has fallen 29 percent to about 7.2 billion birds, an alarming loss of nearly 3 billion birds just in North America.

I have personally noticed signs of this dramatic loss. Let me share some personal anecdotes. These stories don’t serve as definitive proof, but they add to my unease about the state of our feathered friends.

For one thing, I no longer host large flocks of birds at my feeders during the winter. One would expect birds to mass in sizable flocks in the vicinity of feeders during a season when resources can be scarce. In the 1990s, I hosted flocks of pine siskins and evening grosbeaks that numbered in the hundreds and dozens, respectively. At times, large flocks of American goldfinches, purple finches and house finches flocked to my feeders, too. I haven’t seen an evening grosbeak since 2001. Pine siskins still visit, but I consider myself fortunate to host a flock that numbers a dozen or more.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pine siskin in a spruce at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain.

The sights and sounds of summer have changed, too. Two of the most dependable summer songsters used to be Northern bobwhite by day and Eastern whip-poor-will after dark. I haven’t heard a whip-poor-will at home in more than 20 years. The last time I heard a Northern bobwhite was about a decade ago. I live in a rural area that used to be fairly agricultural. The disappearances of bobwhite quail and whip-poor-wills is reported throughout the ranges of these two species.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Some birds have grown even more common in recent decades. Regionally, look at birds like great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, and cliff swallows, which have also shown an increased presence.

What killed the passenger pigeon? People did. What’s caused the precipitous drop in bird numbers since the 1970s in North America? Once again, people must shoulder most of the blame. We have destroyed or altered habitats essential for birds to thrive. We’ve paid little attention to the signals from some of these kin of the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” that something’s wrong in nature.

Yet “hope is the thing with feathers,” as the poet Emily Dickinson phrased it, and the losses are a signal to pay attention, not to panic. Birds are amazingly resilient. Birds need only the same things as humans — food, shelter, water. Well, perhaps they need one more thing. Birds require a safe and welcoming space in which to unfurl their wings and fly.

The great flocks of passenger pigeons may be no more, but there’s no reason to think our remaining birds can’t continue to soar, so long as we provide them with their essential needs and offer them a degree of protection and compassion.

An artist sketched this scene of hunters firing on one of the last great flocks of passenger pigeons.

Birds are not the only fall migrants sharing the skies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Bryan Stevens • While the Cape May warbler doesn’t breed locally, these warblers are fairly common spring and fall migrants in the region.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

April sees the annual return of hummingbirds to the region as readers share their first spring sightings of tiny gems

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male ruby-throated hummingbirds show the namesake red throat. The feathers on a male’s throat are iridescent, which means they can change when seen from different angles. In poor light, the ruby-red throat can look almost black.

Bob Cheers, a resident of Plantation Road in Bristol, Virginia, sent an email to announce the arrival of his first hummingbird of spring at 6:20 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10.

“I put the feeder out April 2, which is earlier than previous years, after reading your March 31 article in the Bristol Herald Courier,” Bob wrote. “It brought to mind the one year that I failed to get the feeder out early and spotted a hummingbird hovering outside of my family room window, in the exact location my feeder has hung for the last 30 plus years. That little guy had to have been a repeat customer.”

Bob wrote that he’s intrigued by the fact that this year’s arrival date falls within the spread that ranges from April 9 to April 14 that he has established since he started recording the returns in 2009. “What triggers their departure from Central America and their guidance system, considering the variable winds encountered, that sends them back to my feeder within a five-day period each year?” Bob asked in his email.

I had to do some digging to find an answer to Bob’s question. According to the website, Hummingbird.net, the phenomenon of migration among hummingbirds is not well understood.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird sips from a sugar water feeder.

“Most ruby-throated hummingbirds winter between southern Mexico and northern Panama,” the website reveals. “Since hummingbirds lead solitary lives and neither live nor migrate in flocks, an individual bird may spend the winter anywhere in this range where the habitat is favorable, but probably returns to the same location each winter.”

The time they spend on this wintering range is remarkably brief. “Ruby-throats begin moving north as early as January, and by the end of February, they are at the northern coast of Yucatan, gorging on insects and spiders to add a thick layer of fat in preparation for flying to the United States,” the website notes.

According to the website, some hummingbirds skirt the Gulf of Mexico and follow the Texas coast north, while most apparently cross the Gulf, typically leaving at dusk for a nonstop flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours depending on the weather.

The force that compels hundreds of thousands of individual hummingbirds to all migrate at the same time remains mysterious. The reason these birds migrate is simpler. In the eastern half of the United States and Canada, ruby-throated hummingbirds face no competition from their own kind. If they remained in Central America, they would have to compete with dozens of species of hummingbirds during the nesting season. From the standpoint of the ruby-throated hummingbird, why not take a trip and claim a monopoly over some resource-rich terrain? It’s worked for these tiny flying jewels so far.

So, Bob became the first person to report a hummingbird arrival to me this year, but plenty of other people lined up to share their sightings, too.

Amy Wallin Tipton in Erwin, Tennessee, sent a message via Facebook to report her first hummingbird arrival for the spring. “Just saw my first hummer,” she wrote. Amy reported that the hummer, a male, arrived at 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10. “I’m so glad they are back,” she shared.

Ginger Brackins also reported that she saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird of spring on Wednesday, April 10, at her home in Erwin, Tennessee. She noted that it was a week earlier than last year. Ginger notes the arrival dates each year on her calendar. Ginger’s message about her sighting arrived thanks to her daughter, Gina McKinney, who emailed me on her mother’s behalf

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated hummingbirds returned to the region in early April.

Joneen Sargent reported that her first hummingbird put in an appearance at 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 11, at her home in Bristol, Tennessee. In her email, she also asked if I had heard of downy woodpeckers drinking from sugar water feeders.

I answered her question by informing her that I’ve noticed downy woodpeckers, as well as Carolina chickadees, taking sips from my feeders. The chickadees can get quite acrobatic in their efforts to indulge their taste for sweets.

“We had our first male hummer at the feeder on Thursday, April 11, here in Bristol, Tennessee,” reported Tom and Sue Faucette in an email. “He came back on April 12-13.”

Lynne Reinhard reported that she saw her first hummingbirds of spring on Friday, April 12. “They are back!” Lynne proclaimed in a Facebook message. She wrote that the first hummingbird of the season arrived at 3 p.m. at her home on the upper end of South Holston Lake.

Snad Garrett saw her first hummingbird of spring on Stoney Creek in Elizabethton, Tennessee, on the evening of Friday, April 12.

Merry Jennings in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird on Friday, April  12, around 6 p.m., but hasn’t seen it since. “I put out the feeder on Thursday, April 11,” she noted in the email she sent me.

Lisa Brewer, who lives near Boone Lake in Piney Flats, Tennessee, reported that her first hummer arrived around 3 p.m. on Friday, April 12.

“I put my hummingbird feeders out last Sunday and had been watching every day for the first hummer to arrive,” she wrote in her email. “I was really excited to see a male ruby-throated hummingbird, and I saw what appeared to be the same one on Saturday and Sunday.”

Lisa added that this is the first year she has been able to get her feeders out in time for the first hummingbirds arriving in this area. “So I wanted to be sure to let you know when I saw my first one,” Lisa wrote.

Hummer-CloserUp

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Keep hummingbirds happy with a sugar water solution of four parts water to one part sugar.

Glen Eller saw his first hummingbird for the spring season on Friday, April 12, at 5:55 p.m. at his home in Fall Branch, Tennessee. “it was a male,” Glen reported in an email.

Karen Fouts posted on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird of 2019 on Friday, April 12, at her home in Marion, Virginia. She also reported rose-breasted grosbeaks at her feeders.

Lois Cox and Wilma Boy reported their first male ruby-throat hummingbird on Saturday, April 13, at 2:30 p.m. at home in Bluff City, Tennessee. In her email, Lois noted that they needed to get out their feeders for the visiting bird. “It was a male,” Lois wrote in the email. “Hope it comes back.”

Deb Clark sent me an email on behalf of her mother and her sighting of a spring hummingbird. “My mother, Louise Tilson, has asked that I send you a message sharing her good news that she’s having hummingbirds at her backdoor feeder,” Deb wrote in the email.

Deb added that her mom lives in the Riverside community near Chilhowie, Virginia, on the banks of the South Fork of the Holston River. “She put out her feeder about a week ago,” Deb wrote. “The first little fellow showed up Friday, April 12, at about three-thirty in the afternoon.”

Deb relayed that her mother said the hummer came and perched on the feeder, drinking like he was starving.

Louise reported multiple visits by solitary male hummingbirds several times through Friday afternoon, but she wasn’t sure whether it was one bird making several trips or different birds.

Lane and Phyllis Duncan, who reside in the Rich Valley community in Smyth, Virginia, sent me an email to report their first hummer of spring on Friday, April 12, at 3:30 p.m.

Karen Shaffer sent me an email to announce the arrival of a hummingbird at her home. “I’m so excited to report we saw our first hummer on Saturday, April 13, at 11 a.m. at our home on Rich Valley Road, Bristol, near the Benhams and Nordyke communities.”

Karen said she heard the bird before she saw it. “It was visiting our blooming yellow holly bush,” she wrote. “Such a tiny thing — but vivid in color at the throat, so a male, I guess. Yay!”

Gloria Walter Blevins reported in a Facebook message that she saw her first hummingbird this spring on Friday, April 12, at her home in Damascus Virginia. The hummingbird — or another one — returned the following morning. Gloria also noted that she has bluebirds building a nest at her home.

Priscilla Gutierrez, Limestone Cove community in Unicoi County, Tennessee, reported on my Facebook page that she saw the first spring hummingbird Friday, April 12, at 6:45 p.m. “They have been coming ever since,” she noted.

April Kerns Fain in Erwin, Tennessee, posted about her hummingbird sightings on Saturday, April 13, on Facebook. “The hummingbirds are back,” she wrote. “I’ve seen a male at my feeders several times today.”

Rubythroat-TheSoarNet

Photo by TheSOARnet / Pixabay.com • Male ruby-throated hummingbirds usually migrate ahead of females. These tiny birds must cross the Gulf of Mexico, without stopping, to reach their nesting grounds in the eastern United States. The journey across the Gulf can take them 18 to 22 hours, dependent on weather conditions.

Jane P. Arnold sent me an email to notify me of her mother’s hummingbird sighting. Her mother, Betty Poole, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird — a male — on Saturday, April 13. The following day, a female ruby-throated hummingbird also showed up at the feeder.

Jane added that she’s still waiting to see her own first hummingbird for the spring.

Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, reported her first spring hummingbird arrived on Saturday, April 13. “I just saw my first hummingbird of the season,” she wrote in her email. “Just one male so far. I have had my feeders out and waiting for a couple days. I thought this warm spring weather might bring in a few. So exciting!”

Sharee Bowman wrote a post on her Facebook page to announce her first spring hummer sighting on Saturday, April 13. “Hummingbird came yesterday to my feeder and, yes, it is the first one I have seen this year,” she wrote.

Felicia Mitchell saw her first spring hummingbird on Saturday, April 13. “He is happy to be home,” she reported in a comment on my Facebook page.

Brenda Hickman Dishner posted on my Facebook page about hummingbird arrivals. “They arrived at our house in Bristol, Tennessee, near Holston Dam on Highway 421, on Saturday, April 13, about 10:30 a.m.,” she wrote in her posting.

Vivian C. Tester sent me a Facebook message to report that she saw her first spring hummer at her home in Bristol, Tennessee, on Sunday, April 14.

Linda Kessinger Rhodes saw her first spring hummingbird visiting her feeders at her home in Tennessee Hills by the Walmart on the Parkway in Bristol, Tennessee, on Sunday, April 14. She posted her sighting on my Facebook page.

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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.

Rhonda Eller saw her first hummingbird on Sunday, April 14, at 1:20 p.m. In her post on my Facebook page, she noted that she hung the feeder out last Wednesday before heading to Louisville to visit family. “I am always pleasantly surprised for the first spotting of one here on Horseshoe Bend in Chilhowie, Virginia,” she added. “Oh, the bluebirds are here, too, and have a nest with three eggs.”

Cheri Miller posted on my Facebook page about her sighting. “I saw one Sunday, April 14, in the Brown’s Branch community in Hampton, Tennessee, eyeing an orchid blooming in the window,” she wrote in her post.

Ron Bartlett reported by email that a single male showed up at his feeder on Sunday, April 14. “I live in McDowell County, North Carolina,” Ron shared. “This is about a week later than normal. Perhaps he was held up trying to cross the border.”

Donna Barnes Kilday of Erwin, Tennessee, posted to my Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on the morning of Monday, April 15.

Janie Compton, a resident of Chesterfield, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird on Monday, April 15. Her friend, Phyllis Moore, posted news of Janie’s sighting on my Facebook page.

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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.

Emily Rogers, from Jonesborough, Tennessee, reported on my Facebook page that she had her first hummingbird of spring in Tennessee’s oldest town on Monday, April 15.

Linda K. Sproles of Bristol, Tennessee, got her first visit from a female hummingbird on Monday, April 15, in the late afternoon. Last year, she said her first sighting took place on Apr.14 while in 2017 she first saw a returning hummingbird on April 16.

Philip Laws, a resident of Limestone Cove in Unicoi County, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird on Tuesday, April 16, at 4:20 p.m.

Tom and Cathy McNeil, who reside in the Piney Grove community of Hampton, Tennessee, reported their first spring hummingbird on Facebook on Tuesday, April 16.

I saw my first hummingbird this spring when a male visited several of my feeders around 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16. I enjoyed welcoming him home.

Readers are welcome to continue sharing their hummingbird sightings. Plenty of other colorful birds are also making spring migration stops, and I love to hear what everyone is seeing in their own yards. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com with questions, comments or observations.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female ruby-throated hummingbird settles onto the perch of a sugar water feeder.

Christmas Bird Count makes for fun outing during the holiday season

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Photo by RetyiRetyi/Pixabay.com • Carolina wrens are small, inquisitive and hardy songbirds. The recent Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count found a record number of this wren during its annual survey of bird populations.

I participated in the 76th consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count, which was held Saturday, Dec. 15. This annual count is one of the oldest Christmas Bird Counts in the region, as well as in Tennessee.

I was one of twenty-eight observers in six parties. Together, we tallied 77 species, which is above the recent 30-year average of 72 species. The all-time high was set last year when 85 species were counted on this annual survey.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • An osprey perches in a tree along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee. These fish-eating raptors are rare in winter in Northeast Tennessee.

Two species — osprey and orange-crowned warbler — were found on this CBC for the first time. Longtime count compiler Rick Knight observed that one noticeable difference between last year’s count and the 2018 Elizabethton CBC was the number of ducks. Last year’s CBC yielded 13 species, but only six species of ducks were found this year.

Knight also noted that a record number — 139 — of Carolina wrens was spotted by CBC participants.

A single bald eagle was found, but it was enough to continue a recent trend. This eagle has appeared for 19 of the last 20 on the Elizabethton CBC. Counts more than 20 years ago rarely produced any bald eagles.

A single red-shouldered hawk represented a good find since this hawk has only been found on six of the previous 25 years. A single merlin represented an even more exceptional find for this CBC. Merlin has been represented only two times in the last 25 years for this particular count.

Red-shoulderHawk

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

Knight noted that two shorebirds — killdeer and Wilson’s snipe — have experienced a steady decline in making this annual count. This year’s count produced only a single killdeer and snipe.

Knight speculated that low numbers of cedar waxwings and American robins on this year’s CBC probably indicates a poor wild fruit crop. These two species depend heavily on fruit to supplement their diet during the winter months.

Chipping sparrow has now been found for 15 straight years, but had only previously been reported six times in the first 50 years of the history of the Elizabethton CBC.

Without fail, some species manage to evade counters. According to Knight, some of the conspicuous misses this year included ruffed grouse, common loon and barred owl.

Mom-Grouse

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although found during counts held in other seasons, no ruffed grouse was found on the 2018 Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count.

The Elizabethton Bird Club has been holding its annual Christmas count in Elizabethton, Tennessee, since 1942. The tradition of the Christmas Bird Count dates back much farther and originates from a less than bird-friendly custom. According to the National Audubon Society’s website, so-called sportsmen in the late 19th century would conduct a “Side Hunt,” a rather blood-thirsty Christmas custom that saw hunters competing to see who could score the largest amount of feathered and furred corpses.

The annual holiday bird survey may even have arisen from an earlier custom with roots in Europe that came to the United States of America with early colonists. The “Side Hunt” has some similarity to a peculiar celebration in Ireland and other European countries known as “Wren Day” or “Hunt the Wren Day.” The event was conducted the day after Christmas, the date of Dec. 26 being consigned as Saint Stephen’s Day. By the 20th century, the hunt consisted of tracking down a fake wren carried atop a decorated pole. Crowds would parade through towns in masks and colorful attire. These groups were referred to as “wren boys.”

Whether or not the “Side Hunt and “Wren Hunt” shared any connections, it was a huge step forward for conservation when preeminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition. His radical idea was to count birds during the Christmas season rather than hunting and killing them

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Frank M. Chapman

The Christmas Bird Count is now conducted each year on dates between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The first CBC took place in December of 1900 with 27 observers participating at 25 locations in the United States and Canada. Fifteen of the counts were conducted in the northeastern United States from Massachusetts to Philadelphia. Results from that first count in 1900 didn’t truly reflect the diversity of North America’s birds, but they were nonetheless interesting. The Greater Boston CBC boasted only one participant and only found 17 species. However, some of those species included such good birds as American tree sparrow, brown creeper, Northern shrike and Northern bobwhite.

For me, the Christmas Bird Count is a fun holiday outing with friends. There’s also satisfaction in knowing the results gathered from these nationwide counts will also contribute to the body of citizen science that helps experts determine the status of our feathered friends.

For a complete tally of this year’s Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count, please see the online sidebar to this week’s column at HeraldCourier.com.

Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count

Canada goose, 459; wood duck, 1; American wigeon, 1; American black duck, 1; mallard, 150; bufflehead, 182; and hooded merganser, 11.

Wild turkey, 57; pied-billed grebe, 16; horned grebe, 11; double-crested cormorant, 1; and great blue heron, 29.

Black vulture, 5; turkey vulture, 19; osprey, 1; sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 4; bald eagle, 1; red-shouldered hawk, 1; and red-tailed hawk, 17.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wilson’s snipe are not often found in the winter in Northeast Tennessee.

American coot, 1; killdeer, 1; Wilson’s snipe, 1; and ring-billed gull, 14.

Rock pigeon, 296; Eurasian collared-dove, 4; mourning dove, 126; Eastern screech-owl, 4; and great horned owl, 2.

Belted kingfisher, 21; red-bellied woodpecker, 26; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 11; downy woodpecker, 30; hairy woodpecker, 4; Northern flicker, 25; and pileated woodpecker, 20.

American kestrel, 16; merlin, 1; Eastern phoebe, 11; blue jay, 128; American crow, 291; and common raven, 10.

Carolina chickadee, 80; tufted titmouse, 72; red-breasted nuthatch, 1; white-breasted nuthatch, 29; and brown creeper, 10.

Winter wren, 4; Carolina wren, 139; golden-crowned kinglet, 38; and ruby-crowned kinglet, 15.

Eastern bluebird, 122; hermit thrush, 7; American robin, 17; brown thrasher, 1; and Northern mockingbird, 50.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern Mockingbird has been the official state bird for Tennessee since 1933.

European starling, 592; cedar waxwing, 30; orange-crowned warbler, 1; palm warbler, 1; and yellow-rumped warbler, 32.

Eastern towhee, 22; chipping sparrow, 29; field sparrow, 34; Savannah sparrow, 4; fox sparrow, 3; song sparrow, 129; swamp sparrow, 8; white-throated sparrow, 70; white-crowned sparrow, 20; and dark-eyed junco, 66.

Northern cardinal, 159; red-winged blackbird, 25; Eastern meadowlark, 4; house finch, 34; American goldfinch, 46; and house sparrow, 8.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A total of 159 Northern cardinals made this species a common bird on the recent Elizabethton CBC.

Yellow-rumped warblers are wild about poison ivy berries

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Photo by Edbo23/Pixabay.com • The yellow-rumped warbler is one of the few warblers that attempts to reside in the region during the winter months. Switching from a diet of insects to one of fruit and seeds helps the birds manage to find enough to eat during the lean months. This species is particularly fond of poison ivy berries.

 

November and December are bleak months for birders as we experience a bit of a letdown after the joys of fall migration. Many of the favorite birds that spend the summer months with us have departed and will not return until spring. Hummingbirds, tanagers, vireos and most warblers, despite a few lingering individuals, have left the scene.

I really feel the pinch since warblers are one of my favorite families of birds. In northeast Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, there are only three warblers that bird enthusiasts are likely to see in the winter. The yellow-rumped warbler is by far the most common winter warbler, but palm warblers and pine warblers are also occasional winter residents. A few other warblers are occasional stragglers, attempting to eke out a living during the cold months. For instance, I’ve seen a few common yellowthroats during the winter over the years

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Photo by Edbo23/Pixabay.com • During the winter months, a yellow-rumped warbler is a dull bird in mostly brown and gray plumage except for the rump patch of bright yellow feathers that provides the bird its common name.

With the exception of the yellow-rumped warbler, however, the chances of enjoying warblers during the winter are rather slim. At least the yellow-rumped warbler is common and I encounter flocks of these birds on most occasions when I walk woodland trails in the region any time from November to April.

Until 1973, the yellow-rumped warbler was divided by scientists into two distinct species: the myrtle warbler in the eastern United States and Audubon’s warbler in the western United States. During a visit to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2003, I saw my first and only “Audubon’s” warbler. This western counterpart is more colorful than the version birders know so well in the eastern half of the country. In addition to yellow plumage on the rear and flanks, the Audubon’s warbler also boasts a yellow crown and a yellow throat patch. Otherwise, the two birds are remarkably similar in appearance.

Of course, it’s the creamy yellow rump patch — looking like a small pat of butter — that gives this species its common name. Birders have adopted another nickname for the species, often referring to them simply as “butter-butts.”

There is now some discussion in scientific circles of dividing the species into not two distinct species, but four. The other two species would be the black-fronted warbler of mountains in Northern Mexico and Goldman’s warbler, which resides in Guatemala. I wouldn’t mind seeing Audubon’s warbler resurrected as a full species, since it would place an additional species on my life list of birds seen. In addition, it seems fitting that we have at least one bird that honors the name of the famed naturalist and painter John James Audubon.

The scientific name for the yellow-rumped warbler is Setophaga coronata, which are terms derived from ancient Greek that when roughly translated mean “crowned moth-eater.” Like most warblers, the yellow-rumped warbler is fond of insects, but there’s another food source these birds turn to during times of scarcity.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wintering yellow-rumped warbler clings to palm fronds in coastal South Carolina.

So, how does a warbler make it through the winter season in the region? After all, most warblers exist on a diet heavy on insects and other small invertebrates. The yellow-rumped warbler, however, supplements its diet with different seasonal berries, including juniper berries, Virginia creeper berries and dogwood berries. They also feed on berries from one unlikely source. These birds love to gorge themselves on poison ivy berries that, fortunately, produce no ill effects. I’ve long noticed that many of the trails I enjoy walking during the winter season wind through woodlands overrun by poison ivy. Of course, by eating the berries, the warbler also help spread the noxious vines.

The yellow-rumped warbler is not the only bird known to feed on poison ivy berries. Other birds seen eating these berries include Northern flickers, bobwhites, Eastern phoebes, Cedar waxwings, tufted titmice and American robins. White-tailed deer show a preference for dining on poison ivy leaves over other types of vegetation. The berries are high in fat and calories, which makes them an ideal food source for creatures with high metabolisms like songbirds. The berries also ripen in fall and early winter when many other types of berries are scarce. While it is best for humans to avoid contact with this plant, it is a valuable fall and winter food source for wildlife.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male yellow-rumped in spring plumage looks quite different than his subdued winter appearance.

While the yellow-rumped warbler is quite capable of dealing with some frost and snow, more than half of the world’s warblers live in more tropical climates outside the borders of the United States and Canada. Not all yellow-rumped warbler attempt to tough out winter conditions in the United States. Some do migrate to the tropics, where they utilize a variety of habitats, including mangroves, thorn scrub, pine-oak-fir forests and shade coffee plantations.

All warblers are exclusively New World bird species. The family numbers about 120 species. Some of the descriptively named species of warblers not seen within the United States or its northern neighbor include citrine warbler, white-striped warbler, black-crested warbler, pale-legged warbler, buff-rumped warbler, golden-bellied warbler and black-eared warbler.

During your next woodland stroll, keep your eyes peeled for small brown birds in the branches of nearby trees. If the last thing you see before they dive for cover is a bright yellow rump patch, you’ll know you’ve observed a yellow-rumped warbler.

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these yellow-rumped warblers.

 

Cardinals seem tailor-made for Christmas season

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The Northern cardinal, a familiar backyard bird in many sections of the United States, is a perfect symbol of the Christmas season.

The shopping days before Christmas are getting fewer, so I hope everyone has had time to find gifts for everyone on their lists. My wish to readers is that everyone gets to enjoy a great holiday that just might also include watching some birds.

Although I hate to see the colorful birds of spring and summer — scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks — depart every fall, the winter season offers some compensation.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees and the drab American goldfinches, so unlike their summer appearance.

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Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage.

There’s one bird, however, that makes an impression in any season. The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray. On a recent snowy afternoon, I spent some time watching a pair of Northern cardinals from my window. Cardinals are wary birds. They make cautious approaches to feeders, never rushing to the seed in the manner of a Carolina chickadee or tufted titmouse.

The Northern cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America. The two relatives are the pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, a bird of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion Cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Pyrrhuloxia, or desert cardinal, is a counterpart to the Northern cardinal in the American southwest.

Two other South American birds — red-crested cardinal and yellow-billed cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern cardinal. Both the Northern cardinal and red-crested cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

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Photo by Pixabay.com • A red-crested cardinal forages on a sandy beach. This bird has been introduced to such exotic locations as Hawaii.

Over the years, the Northern cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a bright red cardinal.

Cardinals, also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale, are easily recognized backyard birds. I never tire of observing these colorful birds. Cardinals are easily lured to any backyard with plentiful cover to provide a sense of security and a generous buffet of sunflower seed.

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Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A female Northern cardinal lands on a deck railing. Female cardinals are not as brightly colorful as males, but they do have their own subtle beauty.

Cardinals accept a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. The cardinal is also one of only a few birds that I have noticed will consistently feed on safflower seed.

While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. When away from our feeders, cardinals feed on insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.


There’s no difficulty in identifying a cardinal. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals have dark bills.

Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

The familiar Northern Cardinal is not the only bird to bear the name cardinal. Others include the yellow cardinal of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, the vermilion cardinal of Colombia and Venezuela, and the red-crested cardinal, a songbird native of South America that has also been introduced to Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinals will visit feeders stocked with sunflower seeds at any season.

At feeders, cardinals mingle with a variety of other birds. Cardinals are common visitors to backyard feeders. For such a bright bird, the male cardinal can be surprisingly difficult to detect as he hides in the thick brush that conceals his presence. Cardinals are nervous birds, however, and usually betray their presence with easily recognized chip notes. Their preference for dense, tangled habitat is one they share with such birds as brown thrashers, Eastern towhees, Carolina wrens and song sparrows. In general, however, cardinals directly associate only with their own kind. Cardinals will form loose flocks during the winter, but these flocks are never as cohesive as those of such flocking birds as American goldfinches. Cardinals are more often observed in pairs.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinals are a favorite for makers of Christmas ornaments.

There’s additional evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day. Simply add some black oil sunflower seeds to your feeders to welcome this beautiful bird to your yard.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Northern cardinal visits a feeder on a snowy afternoon.

Overwintering birds make their return to some familiar area haunts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••••

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