Tag Archives: birds

Daily twittering of chimney swifts part of summer’s background noise

Photo by Vinoverde/Adobe Stock • Chimney swift foraging on the wing for insects. Swifts are designed for life in flight. These birds do not perch but have special claws that help them cling to the sides of vertical surfaces such as cliffs or chimneys.

As spring turns into summer, afternoons and evenings at my home have presented daily shows from a small flock of resident chimney swifts. These graceful and aerodynamic birds are designed for a life lived almost exclusively on the wing. In fact, chimney swifts are incapable of perching in the manner of most birds. They can only cling to vertical surfaces, such as rocky cliff faces or the interiors of chimneys.

As they fly overhead, these swifts produce a high-pitched twittering. It’s not as musical as the songs of some birds, but neither is the sound unpleasant. In fact, the twittering of chimney swifts is a sound that I’ve grown to associate with pleasant summer evenings. Listening to these birds as they swoop in the sky overhead is a great way to relax.

Chimney swifts are often most prevalent over the rooftops of cities, but swifts also spend the summer months in more rural areas. Flocks returning to summer roosting sites at dusk are an impressive sight. Hundreds of these birds can swoop in ever tightening circles around a large chimney, disappearing inside the chimney like feathered smoke.

Former names for the chimney swift have included chimney sweep, American swift and chimney bat. These birds, however, do nothing to clean the inside of chimneys, and bats are, of course, mammals. Swifts are not difficult to recognize, and their overall shape has often been described as “cigars with wings.” They are designed for flight and feed almost exclusively on winged insects. They even bathe on the wing, flying low over rivers and other bodies of water and skimming the surface in order to dampen their breast feathers.

In the United States, the chimney swift is the only member of its family found in the eastern half of the country. On the other side of the continent, the white-throated swift, Vaux’s swift and black swift replace the chimney swift in the western United States and southern British Columbia in Canada.

Worldwide, there are about 75 swift species. The family also consists of birds known as swiftlets, needletails and spinetails, but they’re all just variations on the the basic swift model. Some of the world’s other species include band-rumped swift, pale-rumped swift, white-throated swift, white-tipped swift, mottled swift, plume-toed swiftlet, drab swiftlet, silver-rumped spinetail and brown-backed needletail.

The largest member of the swift family is the purple needletail, a species native to Asia. This bird is almost ten inches long and can weigh nearly seven and a half grams. Another species, the cliff swift, makes a nest that is prized in Asian cuisine as an ingredient for “Bird’s Nest Soup.” The governments of various Asian nations regulate the harvesting of nests quite strictly to ensure that the human demand for the soup doesn’t deplete the overall swift population. It’s a lucrative enterprise, however, and some experts worry that poaching and unethical harvesting methods, such as taking the nests before young birds are capable of flight and survival, could endanger the swifts.

Fortunately, nests of chimney swifts in the New World have never become coveted for culinary purposes. According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website, chimney swifts once nested and roosted in hollow trees in old-growth forests. When European settlers arrived, they greatly increased the number of potential nesting sites for swifts by putting chimneys on their buildings. The responsive swifts quickly took advantage of these new nesting and roosting sites. They build their nests, whether in chimneys or hollow trees, of twigs cemented together with their own saliva.

While chimney swifts are spread across much of the eastern United States during the nesting season, their winter home remained unknown for many years. In 1943, Peruvian natives recovered bands that had been attached to the legs of 13 swifts, helping to finally solve the mystery of where the birds spent the winter months. According to an article on the TWRA website, eight of the 13 bands came from birds that had been banded in the Volunteer State.

Of course, swifts are not the only birds in the summer skies. Taking a moment to gaze upward can reward you with views of soaring raptors, swooping swallows and foraging common nighthawks.

Photo by The Other Kev/Pixabay.com • This flying European swift is one of 100 species of swifts found around the world. Only one species, the chimney swift, is found in eastern North America.

 

On the menu: everything from ‘murder hornets’ to snails among some of the things birds eat

Photo by Noutch/Pixabay.com • Although its name might suggest otherwise, the honey buzzard isn’t looking to dip its beak in something sweet. These unusual raptors raid the hives of bees and wasps to feed on the larval form of these stinging insects.

It’s not all bird seed and suet cakes for many of our feathered friends. Some of the world’s nearly 10,000 species of birds show some unusual tastes when it comes to their food. Facebook friend Philip Laws, who resides in Limestone Cove in Unicoi, shared a photo recently of a European honey buzzard, a type of raptor that’s developed a knack for raiding the hives of bees and wasps. A comment on the post suggested that the buzzard had developed a taste for sweets.

Actually, the truth’s a bit stranger. While many of the hives attacked by the buzzard are loaded with sweet honey, this aberrant raptor’s more interested in the larval bees and wasps housed in the hive’s honeycomb nursery chambers. The honey buzzard, also known as a pern or common pern, is related to such carnivorous raptors as sharp-shinned hawks and rough-legged hawks. 

If you’re worried about the so-called “murder hornets” in recent news articles, just know that the honey buzzard is the only predator known to feed on these insects. In fact, the honey buzzard takes great relish in dining on the larval forms of these wasps, which are more accurately known as Asian giant hornets. The honey buzzard’s head feathers are like scales, helping protect this vulnerable area from stings. In addition, some experts believe the buzzard’s feathers contain a chemical insect deterrent. This raptor also has long toes and claws it can use to dig into a hive.

Photo hbieser/Pixabay.com • The hoatzin, a bird native to South America, feeds almost exclusively on foliage, making it one of the few “grazers” among the world’s birds.

While many birds are seed-eaters, few of them have evolved as grazers and vegetarians. In South America, however, there’s a most unusual bird known as the hoatzin. Also known by such names as “reptile bird,” “stink bird,” “skunk bird” and “Canje pheasant,” the hoatzin lives in swamps and mangrove forests in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America. 

One of the hoatzin’s claim to fame is that it’s a folivore, which simply means it eats foliage, or leaves, as well as fruit and flowers. The bird has even developed a special stomach called a “rumen,” that permits bacterial fermentation of the leaves it devours. Some studies indicate that as much as 80 percent of a hoatzin’s diet consists of leaves. 

The great blue turaco is an African bird that, like most other members of the turaco family, eats mostly fruit, but this bird will eat leaves and even algae when fruit is scarce. Closer to home, the cedar waxwing’s a well-known fruit lover. Birds that eat mostly fruit are known as “frugivores.” A large flock of waxwings can make short work of the fruit of holly or mulberry trees. The berries they eat can even affect their appearance. Some waxwings show an orange, not yellow, tail tip. The orange coloration is the result of the birds eating honeysuckle berries with a red pigment.

Photo by Arkin54/Pixabay.com • Turacos, such as this Guinea turaco, are mostly eater of fruits.

Fans of French cuisine have probably sampled “escargot,” which is basically culinary snails. Of course, humans have a wide range of unusual tastes. There is a species of bird that specializes on feeding on snails, albeit without the garlic and butter of the traditional French dish. The snail kite is found in southern Florida, especially in the Everglades. This raptor feeds almost exclusively on apple snails and has even evolved a specialized hooked beak to help rip the snail from its protective shell. 

Around the globe, various birds have evolved as “sanitation crews” for the ecosystems that they inhabit. Vultures in both the Old World and New World feed on carrion, although a few species will tackle living animals. On the African plains, different vultures have evolved to clean up the carcasses of large herbivores. Different ones have become quite familiar to fans of nature documentaries. These are the large vultures that quickly claim a carcass once lions and other predators have eaten their fill.

Photo by Pixabay.com • The lappet-faced vulture is a scavenging bird, feeding mostly from animal carcasses found in dry savannah habitats.

Some of the species include Egyptian vulture, Indian vulture, lappet-faced vulture and griffon vulture. Many of the Old World vultures are declining at alarming rates largely due to poisoning by insecticides and other chemicals. Their populations are crashing in a similar way to that of bald eagles, which were brought to the brink of extinction because of the use of the pesticide DDT in the 1950s an 1960s. 

While I wouldn’t suggest we offer snails, salads or carrion at our feeders, the dietary habits of some of our birds just go to show what fascinating creatures birds truly are.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Turkey vultures scavenge a road-killed animal.

Ongoing pandemic doesn’t stop club’s annual Spring Bird Count

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Several species of herons were located on the Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee,, including Black-crowned Night Heron.

Not even a pandemic could prevent the Elizabethton Bird Club from conducting the 77th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Bird Count. The annual survey was held Saturday, May 2. The area covered included Carter County and parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington. Fifty-one observers participated in 22 parties using the suggested social distancing protocols.

Although I counted alone due to social distancing, I had a wonderful day. I even added a new life bird to my list when I saw a Mississippi Kite at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. My fellow participants also found some good birds.

Photo by Richard/Adobe Stock • A solitary Mississippi kite sits perched in a lakeside tree.

A total of 159 species were tallied. The recent 30-year average is 149 species. However, broken down by decades, this particular count has seen a steady increase during that period, as follows: 1990s had an average of 145 species, the 2000s saw that increase to 150 species, and the 2010s saw another rise to 153 species. The all-time high on this count was 166 species back in 2016.

The count found 27 species of warblers, including such notable finds as Blackpoll Warbler and Nashville Warbler. The most abundant warblers were Hooded Warbler — which is my personal favorite — and Ovenbird. Each of these had 171 individuals counted.

The most abundant bird was Cliff Swallow with a total of 782 individuals counted. These swallows form nesting colonies under bridges and other structures. They have greatly increased in numbers over the past couple of decades. The other common birds, in descending order, were American Robin, 780; European Starling, 740; Canada Goose, 440; and Cedar Waxwing, 381.

Some of the notable misses on this spring’s count included Northern Bobwhite, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Common Nighthawk, Horned Lark, and Cape May Warbler.

Below is the total for the count:

Canada Goose, 440; Wood Duck, 55; Mallard, 115; Blue-winged Teal, 20; Bufflehead, 9; Common Goldeneye, 1; and Red-breasted Merganser, 3.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wood ducks were among the few waterfowl reported on the recent summer count.

Ruffed Grouse, 1; Wild Turkey, 26; Common Loon, 10; Pied-billed Grebe, 1; Double-crested Cormorant, 95; Great Blue Heron, 74; Green Heron,16; Black-crowned Night-Heron, 5; and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 5.

Black Vulture, 105; Turkey Vulture, 140; Osprey, 11; Mississippi Kite, 1; Northern Harrier, 1; Bald Eagle, 8; Cooper’s Hawk, 4; Broad-winged Hawk, 14; and Red-tailed Hawk, 30.

Sora, 3; Killdeer, 58; Spotted Sandpiper, 17; Solitary Sandpiper, 57; Lesser Yellowlegs, 25; Least Sandpiper, 3; Pectoral Sandpiper, 1; and Wilson’s Snipe, 2.

Bonaparte’s Gull, 2; Ring-billed Gull, 2; Forster’s Tern, 1; Rock Pigeon, 141; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 4; Mourning Dove, 253; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 3; and Black-billed Cuckoo, 2.

Eastern Screech-Owl, 8; Great Horned Owl, 4; Barred Owl, 1; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 13; and Eastern Whip-poor-will, 24.

Chimney Swift, 129; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 32; Belted Kingfisher, 11; Red-headed Woodpecker, 9; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 117; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 9; Downy Woodpecker, 69; Hairy Woodpecker, 11; Northern Flicker, 47; and Pileated Woodpecker, 57.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern Kingbirds are easily identified thanks to the band of white at the end of the bird’s black tail feathers.

American Kestrel, 4; Peregrine Falcon, 1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 11; Acadian Flycatcher, 10; Least Flycatcher, 10; Eastern Phoebe, 166; Great Crested Flycatcher, 21; Eastern Kingbird, 60; Loggerhead Shrike, 1.

White-eyed Vireo, 9; Yellow-throated Vireo, 9; Blue-headed Vireo, 107; Warbling Vireo, 12; Red-eyed Vireo, 248; Blue Jay, 273; American Crow, 349; Fish Crow, 2; Common Raven, 12.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 121; Purple Martin, 61; Tree Swallow, 315; Barn Swallow, 170; Cliff Swallow, 782.

Carolina Chickadee, 236; Tufted Titmouse, 226; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 8; White-breasted Nuthatch, 44; Brown Creeper, 3; House Wren, 82; Winter Wren, 8; Marsh Wren, 1; Carolina Wren, 245; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 102; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 5; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 5.

Eastern Bluebird, 238; Veery, 14; Swainson’s Thrush, 6; Hermit Thrush, 3; Wood Thrush, 112; American Robin, 778; Gray Catbird, 91; Brown Thrasher, 89; Northern Mockingbird, 149; European Starling, 740; and Cedar Waxwing, 381.

Ovenbird, 171; Worm-eating Warbler, 29; Louisiana Waterthrush, 44; Northern Waterthrush, 4; Golden-winged Warbler, 5; Black-and-white Warbler, 113; Swainson’s Warbler, 9; Nashville Warbler, 1; Kentucky Warbler, 3; Common Yellowthroat, 25; Hooded Warbler, 171; American Redstart, 25; Northern Parula, 68; Magnolia Warbler, 4; Blackburnian Warbler, 12; Yellow Warbler, 8; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 36; Blackpoll Warbler, 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 103; Palm Warbler, 4; Pine Warbler, 13; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 57; Yellow-throated Warbler, 32; Prairie Warbler, 3; Black-throated Green Warbler, 144; Canada Warbler, 37; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 9.

Eastern Towhee, 266; Chipping Sparrow, 125; Field Sparrow, 81; Savannah Sparrow, 6; Grasshopper Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 333; Swamp Sparrow, 3; White-throated Sparrow, 20; White-crowned Sparrow, 1; and Dark-eyed Junco, 91.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Song Sparrow brings a beakful of caterpillars back to the nest to feed young.

Summer Tanager, 1; Scarlet Tanager, 94; Northern Cardinal, 364; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 49; Blue Grosbeak, 5; and Indigo Bunting, 97.

Bobolink, 1; Red-winged Blackbird, 346; Eastern Meadowlark, 103; Rusty Blackbird, 2; Common Grackle, 304; Brown-headed Cowbird, 122; Orchard Oriole, 35; and Baltimore Oriole, 26.

House Finch, 111; Red Crossbill, 5; Pine Siskin, 28; American Goldfinch, 353; and House Sparrow, 59.

The birds found in Northeast Tennessee in the spring are much the same as those found in Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina. The key is to keep your eyes open and get into the field whenever possible. As always, I enjoy hearing from readers when they have an interesting observation to share. I hope everyone’s seeing wonderful birds this spring.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

Wandering flocks of cedar waxwings surprise with their visits

Photo by DivaDan/Pixabay.com • A cedar waxwing plucks a single berry from the laden branches of a fruit-bearing tree.

Early last month I received an email from Ernie Marburg about some visitors at his home in Abingdon, Virginia. “Just wanted to let you know that the Cedar Waxwings are in the neighborhood,” he wrote. “The flocks are looking for berries in the holly trees.” 

Waxwings have a brown and gray silky plumage, a black mask and a perky crest. Some of the wing feathers show red tips. The similarity of these wing tips to melted drops of wax gives these birds the common name of waxwing.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The waxy tips to the wing feathers are evident in this photograph of a cedar waxwing.

The cedar waxwing has few relatives. Worldwide, there are only two other species: the Bohemian waxwing, of the northern forests of Eurasia and North America; and the Japanese waxwing, found in such northeast Asian countries as Japan, Korea and China.

Although it’s classified as a songbird, the cedar waxwing does’t truly produce a vocalization that anyone would contend qualifies as a song. They are, however, very vocal birds, producing shrill, high-pitched notes as they pass through the upper branches of tall trees.

As much as the waxwing has a fondness for fruit, it’s also a bird that would have made an excellent flycatcher. Flocks of these birds will often congregate in trees near the edge of a pond, garden or yard — anywhere winged insects might be found in good numbers — in order to hawk insects on the wing. A waxwing will sally forth from a branch, snatch its prey in mid-air, and return to its perch for a quick snack.

Photo by dmgreen44/Pixabay.com • A flock of cedar waxwings strip berries from the branches of a cedar tree.

Waxwings are rather nomadic, coming and going with a maddening unpredictability. Other birds are more dependable, arriving and departing at roughly the same time year after year. One such bird should soon make its triumphant and welcome return to yards and gardens throughout the region. According to the website Hummingbird Guide, ruby-throated hummingbirds usually return to Tennessee and Virginia the first week of April. These tiny flying jewels arrive earlier in North and South Carolina, typically arriving the third week of March in those states.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of cedar waxwings.

The popularity of hummingbirds in general, and the ruby-throated hummingbird specifically, is simple to understand.

These tiny birds are perfectly willing to insert themselves into our lives, offering hours of fascinating entertainment as they visit our gardens, duel at our sugar water feeders and occasionally even nest in trees and shrubs in our yards.

I’m hoping to hear from readers about their first spring hummingbird observations. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Be sure to include the time and date of your sighting, as well as your locations. You can also find me through Facebook.

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

Sounds of spring grow more varied as season advances

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Former common name rufous-sided towhee became Eastern towhee, which is far less descriptive of the bird’s appearance. In spring, male towhees become persistent singers. Listen for their “drink-your-tea” song as the males perch on elevated branches and twigs.

The sounds of spring surround us from sunrise to sunset with much of this seasonal chorus being provided by our feathered friends, the birds. In these weird weeks in need of something distracting, I’ve been letting nature’s sounds, as well as sights, provide some measure of relief from stressful headlines and anxious thoughts.

The mornings around my home often begin with a loud, insistent “Peter! Peter! Peter!” uttered from the woods or even just outside my bedroom window. Male tufted titmice, little gray relatives of chickadees with a distinctive crest and large, dark eyes, sing their urgent “Peter! Peter! Peter!” as a constant refrain in their efforts to attract mates now that they feel spring in their blood.

A series of rat-a-tat-tats echoes from deeper in the woods as woodpeckers tap their sturdy bills against the trunks of trees. The three most common woodpeckers at my home are red-bellied, downy, and pileated, and they all have their own unique vocalizations, as well.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Woodpeckers not only vocalize, they also add to the spring cacophony by drumming against the trunks of trees.

The pileated woodpecker produces clear, far-carrying resonant piping sounds that can last for a few seconds each blast. The much smaller downy woodpecker produces a whinny of high-pitched notes that descend in pitch toward their conclusion. The red-bellied call is probably the one that stands out the most. The call’s a harsh, rolling “Churr, churr, churr” given almost like an expression of exasperation as they circle tree trunks and explore branches.

Since their return earlier this month, the resident red-winged blackbirds are often some of the earliest singers these days. According to the website All About Birds, the male red-winged blackbird’s “conk-la-ree!” is a classic sound of wetlands across the continent of North America. According to the website, the one-second song starts with an abrupt note that transforms quickly into a musical trill.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

Some birds helpfully introduce themselves with a song that repeats their name. One such common bird is the Eastern phoebe. In recent weeks, a pair has been checking out the rafters of my garage for potential nest sites. The male spends much of the day producing his strident “fee-bee” call, which is a perfect phonetic rendition of the bird’s common name.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Eastern Phoebe’s song is a repetitive rendition of its own name — “fee-bee” — given over and over.

Then there’s one of my favorite songs of spring, which is produced by the Eastern towhee, which is also known by such common names as “ground robin” and “swamp robin.” These birds, which are actually a species of sparrow, also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite accurately, as “drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “€œChew-ink”€ and “€œToe-Hee,” of which the latter provides the basis for this bird’s common name.

Of course, other wildlife joins the chorus. I have so many spring peepers at the fish pond and in the wet fields around my house that the noise from these tiny amphibians can reach deafening levels. The chorus is bound to grow more diverse and louder as spring advances. Take some time to enjoy the sounds of nature at your own home.

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To share your own sighting, make a comment or ask a question, send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An alert Eastern towhee female forages on a lawn.

 

Buffleheads among delightful winter surprises in region

Marion Howe sent me a stunning photograph of an impressive visitor at her feeders. Shortly after I wrote about Pileated Woodpeckers a few weeks ago, Marion sent me a photo of a Pileated Woodpecker at her suet feeder.

Photo by Marion Howe • This Pileated Woodpecker visited the home of Marion Howe in Kingsport, Tennessee..

“Although I now live in Bristol, I previously lived in Kingsport where I had the pleasure to watch a multitude of birds in my yard, including this one,” Marion wrote. “What a treat when she decided to stop by for a bite to eat!”

Away from our backyard feeders, what sort of birds can one expect to find during the late winter and early spring in northeast Tennessee?

If you’re ready to look a little farther afield, the region offers some great locations for searching for wintering and migrating waterfowl. A variety of ducks and geese pass through the region in late fall and winter. A few species stop to spend the season on area lakes and rivers.

Wilbur Lake in Carter County offers one of the largest wintering populations of Bufflehead in the entire region, if not the state.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Lingering waterfowl, such as these buffleheads, are found in the region in winter and spring.

The Bufflehead belongs to the genus Bucephala, which also includes Common Goldeneye and Barrow’s Goldeneye. These three ducks are all small tree-hole nesting sea ducks found exclusively in the Northern Hemisphere.

The “sea duck” family consists of several other types of ducks, including scoters, mergansers and eiders. All but two of the 20 species in this grouping occur only in the Northern Hemisphere. Most of the sea ducks, not surprisingly, are adapted to life in salt-water environments.

The Bufflehead stands out from its fellow sea ducks for many reasons. The breeding habitat of this little duck consists of wooded lakes and ponds in Alaska and Canada, almost entirely within the boreal forest, or taiga, habitat. In the winter months, Buffleheads migrate to quiet bays or open inland lakes on both the eastern and western coasts of North America, as well as the southern United States as far as southern Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo by bryanhanson1956/Pixabay.com • A pair of Buffleheads enjoy a swim together.

Wilbur Lake has hosted a winter population of Buffleheads for decades. This small duck usually arrives in the final days of October and a few will remain until late April or early May. The flock at Wilbur ranges from about 100 to 200 individuals.

There’s another flock of Buffleheads that spends the winter at Osceola Island Recreation Area in the tailwaters below South Holston Dam in Sullivan County. A one-mile recreational trail at this location offers views of the waterways and any waterfowl congregated on them. The Buffleheads usually remain close to the weir dams at this location. Other wintering ducks at this area include American Wigeon, Mallard and Ring-necked Duck.

Carter County’s high-elevation Ripshin Lake often hosts wintering Buffleheads, but usually only a few individuals are present for as long as this small lake remains unfrozen.

The Bufflehead’s name is derived from “Buffalo Head,” which refers to this small duck’s oversized head. Male Buffleheads have a large, white patch across the back of the head that extends from cheek to cheek, forming a bushy crest that gives the head its large appearance. From a distance, the remainder of the head looks blackish, but when viewed from close range in good light the black plumage in the head shows an iridescent green and purple sheen. The back and rump are black, but the rest of the body is glossy white. The black-and-white pattern is quite unique, making a male Bufflehead impossible to mistake for any other bird. The male’s bill is blue-gray and his legs and feet are pink.

Female Buffleheads are brownish-gray, except for an oval white patch that extends from below the eye back towards the nape of the neck. The belly is whitish, and the female’s bill is dark gray and her legs and feet are grayish.

The Bufflehead is the smallest of North America’s diving ducks. One of the dabbling ducks, the Green-winged Teal, rivals the Bufflehead for the distinction as the continent’s smallest duck. The Bufflehead ranges between 12 and 16 inches long and can weigh 13 ounces. Males are larger than females. By comparison, the Green-winged Teal is usually 14 to 15 inches long and weighs 11 to 12 ounces.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A raft of buffleheads swim on the Watauga River.

Buffleheads spend a lot of time diving for food beneath the water’s surface. Their varied diet consists of insects, crustaceans, some aquatic plants and fish eggs.

The Bufflehead depends on one of our native woodpeckers to provide nesting habitat. The Bufflehead is just the right size to fit into abandoned nesting cavities previously occupied by Northern Flickers.

I’m not sure why the Wilbur Buffleheads choose not to spend the winter months on a salt-water bay farther south, but I am very happy that some of these small, entertaining ducks are so close at hand. I suspect the woodlands around Wilbur Lake may, in fact, resemble some of the wooded lakes on this duck’s summer nesting range.

The Bufflehead is a fairly common duck and appears to be thriving. In 1992, the continent-wide breeding population was estimated at 1,390,000 birds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A raft of Buffleheads brave some rough waters on the Watauga River.

Flocks of red-winged blackbirds, other sightings, could signal winter’s end

Photo by JudaM/Pixabay.com • Feeders are a good way to tempt red-winged blackbirds closer for great views. Males are exceptional in their glossy black plumage with red wing patches accented by a hint of yellow. Females are brown and striped, giving them a similar appearance to large sparrows.

 

H. Lea Jones, Jr. of Bristol, Virginia, wrote to me after seeing my post about pileated woodpeckers a few weeks ago.

“I read with interested your story about this woodpecker,” Lea wrote in an email. “I have been keeping up feeding the birds, which both of my now deceased parents loved to watch, outside the large kitchen windows of their home which I inherited. One day, a couple of years back, while manning the chair and watching the birds, I was startled to see two of these woodpeckers hanging from my extra large suet cage. There was one on each side. Maybe a male and a female?”

Photo by Mike Dobe/Pixabay.com • A pileated woodpecker visits a suet feeder.

Lea noted that the two woodpeckers stayed at the suet for maybe 30 seconds. “I was shocked to see these huge birds and only could assume, at the time, they were woodpeckers. Just very beautiful birds!”

After a little research, Lea discovered the identity of the visitors. “And now I know the ‘sound’ in the wooded area behind the house,” Lea wrote. I had also described the sound in my post.

“Nothing like it I’d ever heard before,” Lea wrote. “Since reading your article, I now realize what a rare sight I have been blessed with. It was truly an amazing sight indeed.”

Dr. John Brenner sent me an email recently about an unexpected sighting at his home in Abingdon, Virginia, on Thursday, Feb. 13, around 5 p.m.

“I saw a Baltimore oriole in my back yard,” he reported. “It was sitting on a fence then flew over to my feeders where it walked around under them.”

He explained that he lives in the heart of Abingdon and has been living at his current address for about three and a half years. “This is the first time I have seen this bird,” he said. “I thought it was unusual.”

Photo by USFWS • Baltimore orioles, like this male, are members of the blackbird family, making them relatives of species such as Eastern meadowlarks, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds.

Winter sightings of orioles are rather unusual, but they are not unheard of. The North Carolina Birds website details the emerging phenomenon of wintering orioles.

“Until the 1960s, it (Baltimore oriole) essentially did not winter in the United States, but with milder winters and people putting out oranges and peanut butter on their feeders, and not just various seeds and suet, a number of orioles started wintering from North Carolina to Florida,” according to a profile of the species. Straying into Virginia would certainly not be out of the question, although Baltimore orioles are usually expected in southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee from April to October.

In the last couple of weeks, large flocks of red-winged blackbirds have been making stops at my home. The largest flock numbered about 50 individual birds. Red-winged blackbirds are often considered harbingers of spring, but these birds arrived with some of the recent wintry weather that arrived in February.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

I’ve long associated red-winged blackbirds with early spring. I also had a single red-winged blackbird make a one-day visit earlier in February during a snowstorm. Those February visitors are the vanguard of large numbers of red-winged blackbirds that return in impressive numbers every March. The blackbirds arriving now behave much differently than the quiet, shy ones that often make brief visits to feeders during late winter snowstorms.

The showy and loud red-winged blackbirds made themselves at home at my fish pond and adjacent stands of cattails, producing quite a commotion. “The kon-ke-ree song of the male red-winged blackbird is a sure indication that spring is on the way,” according to a profile of the species located at the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website. At this time of year, the male red-winged blackbirds seek elevated perches to display and vocalize.

The male red-winged blackbirds is a very aptly named bird. Glossy black males sport red wing patches that are often trimmed with a narrow band of yellow feathers. By contrast, female red-winged blackbirds are mostly brown birds that could easily be mistaken for large sparrows. Both sexes have sharply pointed bills.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Red-winged blackbirds arrive as a noisy flock on a wintry February evening.

After I posted on Facebook about the sightings of the red-winged blackbird flocks, Rita Schuettler, a fan of these birds and a resident of Elizabethton, Tennessee, asked whether these flocks were unseasonably early.

Photo by Lintow/Pixabay.com • Female red-winged blackbirds could easily be mistaken for a large sparrow.

I told Rita in a subsequent post that a friend in Atlanta has informed me that he began seeing the blackbird flocks in his neighborhood a couple of weeks ago. So they are right on time for make their appearance in Northeast Tennessee. Laura Evans Barden also posted on my Facebook page that she has been seeing red-winged blackbirds in recent weeks, as well as more common grackles and European starlings.

Red-winged blackbirds are fond of wetlands. Any marsh, damp field or flooded pasture is likely to attract a few resident red-winged blackbirds. Females choose nesting locations in cattails or other marsh vegetation. She usually lays three or four eggs. Although she does receive some help from the male, most of the responsibility for raising the young is left to her.

There is a reason that male red-winged blackbirds are not always quite as engaged in feeding and tending their young. Male red-winged blackbirds are often polygynous, which means that males will often court multiple mates. His time is often occupied defending females and their respective nests from the advances of other male red-winged blackbirds.

Other relatives of the red-winged blackbird in the United States include the tricolored blackbird found along the Pacific Coast and the yellow-headed blackbird resident in wetlands west of the Great Lakes. Rusty blackbird, common grackle and brown-headed cowbird are other species of blackbirds found in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

Photo by Bryan Stevens  • This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed at Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006.

Several different species of hawks make their home in region

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.

In recent weeks, I’ve enjoyed some observations of the region’s larger raptors, including red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks.

Anyone who travels along the region’s Interstate Highway System has probably noticed hawks perched in trees or on utility lines adjacent to the roadway. The section of Interstate 26 that runs between Unicoi and Johnson City is often a productive area for keeping alert for raptors. The raptor I have most often observed along this stretch of road is the Red-tailed Hawk, although I have also observed Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and American Kestrel. In the time of spring and fall migration, it’s also possible to observe Broad-winged Hawks.

The Red-tailed Hawk is named for its prominent red tail. However, only adults show the characteristic red tail. The affinity for Red-tailed Hawks for roadsides is a double-edged sword. Viewing a large hawk from your car is an easy way to watch birds. For inexperienced or careless raptors, however, roadside living is often rife with the chance for a collision with a car or truck. The Red-tailed Hawk, which prefers open countryside, is attracted to the margins of roads and highways because these locations also attract their favorite prey, which includes rodents like rats, squirrels and mice and other small mammals such as rabbits.

Human behavior contributes to some of the problems that hawks encounter in the zone that brings them too close for comfort to motorized vehicles. When people toss trash from a car, the scent of the litter will lure curious and hungry rodents. In turn, hunting hawks are brought to the edges of roads in search of their preferred prey, increasing the likelihood of colliding with automobiles.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A calling red-shouldered hawk perched in a dead tree on Pawleys Island in South Carolina.

In recent days, I have also noticed a Red-shouldered Hawk lurking among the branches of the large weeping willow next to the fish pond. The Red-shoulder Hawk typically prefers wetland habitats and is less likely to haunt roadsides. According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

The Red-shouldered Hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a Killdeer. The visiting Red-shouldered Hawk has been silent so far, perhaps not wishing to draw attention. The few times the local crows have noticed the presence of any sort of raptor, they’ve flocked together to mob the unfortunate hawk. It’s also not the right time of year; during courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal, but at other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible to mistakenly think you have heard one of these large hawks. Blue Jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related Red-tailed Hawk, the Red-shouldered Hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive. The Red-shouldered Hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the Red-tailed Hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often the dominant avian predators in their respective habitats.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of red-shouldered hawk.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos Hawk and the Hawaiian Hawk. Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the White-throated Hawk, Gray-lined Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk and Short-tailed Hawk. Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as “buzzards.” When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both types of native vultures as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

All too often, our large hawks don’t receive the love they deserve from the public. They may even run afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem, with each species filling a certain niche.

Yearly survey encourages participation of citizen-scientists

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Eastern Bluebird is one of the most beloved American songbirds.

Birds can bring so much excitement and entertainment into our lives, whether they are flocking to our feeders or we are seeking them out at favorite birding spots. Next month, we can do something to repay birds for all the joy their simple existence provides many of us. All that’s required is looking out your window to peek at a feeder or perhaps driving to a local park to look for birds.

Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. Bird watchers of all ages count birds to create a real-time snapshot of where birds are during the worldwide effort of the GBBC scheduled this year from Friday-Sunday, Feb. 14-17.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a truly global undertaking.

As it has nearly every year, the 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count broke more records and attracted more participants than ever before. The GBBC is global in its scale, which provides a greater reach for dedicated citizen-scientists hoping to contribute to the well-being of the planet’s birds.

Last year’s GBBC tallied 6,699 species of birds on 204,921 checklists submitted by an estimated 224,781 participants.

U.S. participants led the way with an estimated 136,903 checklists submitted by birders in the United States. The nation of India took second place with a total of 21,524 checklists, followed by Canada (16,611), Australia (2,811) and Spain (2,391).

A total of 669 bird species were found in the United States, but that was only an eighth place finish. The country boasting the most birds was Colombia with 1,095 species. Other countries with a diversity of bird species reported included Ecuador (948), Brazil (844), India (843) and Mexico (755).

In the United States, Californians led the way in submitting checklists with a total of 10,059 surveys reported, followed by Texas (9,121), New York (8,453), Florida (7,696) and Pennsylvania (7,640). Virginia, with 6,332 checklists, just barely got edged out of the Top 5.

In my own past efforts on behalf of the GBBC, I’ve enjoyed observation of such rare East Tennessee visitors as Ross’s Goose and Canvasbacks, as well as expected birds such as Carolina Chickadees, Red-tailed Hawks and Buffleheads.

If you look no farther than your own yard and garden, please consider taking part in the 2020 GBBC. It’s free, it’s simple to do, and the results can be valuable for scientific knowledge about our fine feathered friends. To learn more about the GBBC, visit gbbc.birdcount.org.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Song Sparrow perches on a weed. The annual GBBC helps gather important data for even common birds like Song Sparrows.

 

Region’s biggest woodpecker is surprisingly shy

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker pays a visit to a walnut tree.

I heard the raucous antics of the large woodpecker before I saw it. A large Pileated Woodpecker had landed in the upper branches of a wild cherry tree near the creek that runs past my home. From spring to summer, the leaves of the tree provide green shelter for a variety of songbirds. During the winter, the tree is a stark outline against the winter sky and offers no concealment — not that a bird as large as a Pileated Woodpecker — it’s the size of a crow — would find it easy to hide itself.

One thing’s certain. A sighting of a Pileated Woodpecker never fails to impress. This bird has a loud, raucous cackling call, which is often heard before the bird is observed. This woodpecker spends a good amount of its time low to the ground, so when one takes flight unexpectedly, often calling loudly as its powerful wing beats carry it away from an observer, the moment can be somewhat startling. These experiences of sudden and unexpected sightings of one of these woodpeckers is often accompanied by exclamations of surprise. Hence common names such as “wood-hen” and “Lord God Bird” have been adopted for these woodpeckers. Other names for the pileated have included carpenter bird, cock-of-the-woods and wood-hen.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker pokes its head into a cavity excavated into a dying tree.

At one point, the Pileated Woodpecker was relegated to second place when it came to the size of native woodpeckers. The often inaccessible swampy woodlands and river bottoms of the American south were home to the former title holder, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. With the unsettled status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker — is it extinct or is it still lingering in an Arkansas swamp? — the Pileated Woodpecker is considered the largest woodpecker in the United States. If incontrovertible evidence of the existence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers should emerge in the future, the Pileated Woodpecker would once again find itself overshadowed by this dramatically larger relative.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Pileated Woodpecker climbs the trunk of a walnut tree.

Although the Pileated Woodpecker can reach a length of 19 inches, the bird weighs only about 11 ounces. Male and female look similar with a black and white body and a bright red crest on the head. In fact, the term “pileated” in the species’ name comes from from the Latin “pileatus,” meaning “capped.” Males show a red stripe — or mustache — on the cheek that is not present in females.

As mentioned earlier, the Pileated Woodpecker often can be found low to the ground, foraging on tree stumps and fallen logs, as well as in taller, living trees. The reason for this behavior rests with one of its favorite foods — the humble carpenter ant. The pileated is not the only woodpecker that supplements its diet with ants. For instance, the Northern Flicker is also fond of dining on these insects. Studies conducted on the dietary preferences of Pileated Woodpeckers have revealed that as much as 40 percent of the diet is made up of ants. Some pileated woodpeckers appear to have developed quite an addiction for ants with some individuals dining almost exclusively on ants. These woodpeckers also eat wild fruits and nuts, as well as other insects and their larvae. The Pileated Woodpecker will occasionally visit a feeder for suet or seeds, but I’ve not had much luck overcoming their instinctive wariness.

Pileated Woodpeckers — usually a mated pair — have been among my wild neighbors for years, but they are shy, retiring birds. Despite their bold appearance and capacity for making quite a racket, the Pileated Woodpecker usually otherwise goes out of its way not to attract attention to itself. Because of this, close-up observations of the largest of our woodpeckers are experiences to savor.

The bird’s enthusiastic ability to excavate cavities in rotten trees is a boon to other species of birds. Certain species of ducks as well as owls, bats, squirrels and other species of wildlife will often make use of cavities created by Pileated Woodpeckers for roosting locations or to raise their own young.

Worldwide, there are about 180 different woodpeckers, but the family is conspicuous in its absence from Australia, Madagascar and New Zealand. The Pileated Woodpecker ranges across the North American continent, with birds present in the forests across Canada and the eastern United States as well as certain areas along the Pacific coast.

Many of the world’s other woodpeckers have quite interesting common names, including Melancholy Woodpecker, Powerful Woodpecker, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, White-naped Woodpecker, Crimson-backed Flameback and Pale-headed Woodpecker.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker hitches its way along the trunk of a Live Oak laden with Spanish moss.