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Dreaming of winter finches flocking south

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Red crossbills use unique beaks to pry seeds from a conifer cone. These birds are among the so-called “northern finches” that occasionally stage massive winter migrations fueled by food shortages in their usual range. They are also nomadic residents throughout the year in northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.

I recently got a shoutout on Facebook from Tom McNeil, a longtime birding friend and a neighbor here in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee. Tom asked if I’d been seeing any red crossbills on my side “of the ridge” and informed me he had been seeing these odd-beaked birds for the past couple of weeks.

I hadn’t noticed any crossbills and told him so, but I am definitely keeping alert for them after Tom’s notification. Every winter I hope my feeders will be visited by representatives of a group of birds known collectively as “northern finches.” This loose grouping consists of a half dozen species — purple finch, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, pine grosbeak, white-winged crossbill, red crossbill and common redpoll — that periodically stage irruptions from their traditional northern ranges to push south in large numbers during the colder months.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A red crossbill uses its unique beak to pry seeds from a conifer cone. These birds are among the so-called “northern finches” that occasionally stage massive winter migrations fueled by food shortages in their usual range.

I’ve been feeding birds since the winter of 1993, and over the years, the first three species I listed have graced my feeders. Although I haven’t seen any this winter, pine siskins and purple finches have continued to be occasional winter visitors. Sadly, however, I haven’t been visited by showy evening grosbeaks since the late 1990s. The last time I saw an evening grosbeak in the region was back in 2000.

I’ve never laid eyes on a common redpoll, although I spent several hours 20 years ago staking out a yard in Shady Valley, Tennessee, in an unsuccessful bid to observe a redpoll that had been a reliable visitor at a feeder in that small community.

I have seen red crossbills, but my observations of these birds have always taken place during the summer months. Pine grosbeaks and white crossbills are almost unheard of in the region, and I haven’t had opportunity to visit the nesting summer ranges of these birds.

So, as the weather turns cold each year, hope springs eternal that perhaps this will be the winter that will bring some of these northern finches to my feeders, or at least to a feeder in the general area.

The factor that drives these irruptive northern finches to come south is food — or the lack thereof — in their usual ranges. When seed crops are poor in the north, these seed-eating birds may wander as far south as the Gulf States in search of supplemental food sources such as feeders stocked with sunflower seed.

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • Crossbills and other finches often migrate in source of food.

The red crossbill is a specialist when it comes to foraging for its food. The bird uses its unique bill to open the cones of various conifers. The upper and lower mandibles of the bill are twisted in a way to make them cross when the beak is closed, hence the name “crossbill.”

Worldwide, there are only five species of crossbills — the red crossbill of North America, Asia and Europe; the parrot crossbill of northwest Europe and western Russia; the Scottish crossbill of Scotland; and the white-winged crossbill of Canada, the northern United States, including Alaska, as well as Asia and northeastern Europe. There’s also the endangered Hispaniolan crossbill of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean.

Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male evening grosbeak perches on the side of a sunflower-stocked feeder.

W. Herbert Wilson Jr. wrote an article about the northern finches for the Oct-Dec. 1999 edition of “North American Bird Bander.” Wilson noted that supplemental food, such as feeder fare, can influence the migratory habits of many birds, including these finches. He cited the example of black-capped chickadees, which have been shown to demonstrate an increased chance of survival during lean winter times when they have access to feeders. He also noted that the provision of food at feeders has helped birds like the tufted titmouse, house finch and Northern cardinal extend their range northward. In part, Wilson theorized that more people are feeding birds closer to the northern climes where these birds live. As a result, the long-distance irruptions are no longer necessary to find supplemental food.

Other theories have also been advanced by other experts, including changing migratory routes, diminishing overall finch numbers and climate change. Theories aside, I will continue to hope some of these birds wing their way toward my feeders this winter. If I’m lucky, this could even be the year the evening grosbeaks return! If anyone is seeing any of these “northern finches,” I’d

love to hear about it. Contact me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American goldfinch visits a feeder for sunflower seeds

Birds made news headlines in 2019

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • California condors have gradually returned to parts of their range beyond California. A family of condors now resides in Zion National Park, marking a return of these birds to Utah.

 

Birds made headlines in 2019. Some species, having been presumed extinct, were rediscovered — some in the mostly unlikely of places. One of the major bird-related stories of the year involved a stark warning about a sharp decline in overall bird numbers. Below, in no particular order, are some of last year’s top stories about our fine feathered friends.

69 years old and a mother again

The Laysan albatross known as Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, became parents again in 2010. Wisdom is at least 69 years old and ranks as the world’s oldest known banded wild bird. Her mate’s name, by the way, translates as “lover of wisdom.” The chick hatched in February at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial. Wisdom has raised more than 30 chicks in her lifetime. While Laysan albatrosses are not considered endangered, some of their kin are threatened with extinction.

Photo by J. Klavitter/USFWS • Wisdom, one of Midway Atoll’s oldest residents, became a mother again in 2019. The female Laysan albatross is approaching her 70th birthday.

While walking to church

The year started with some good birding news when a bird thought extinct was rediscovered in a suburb of Medellín, Colombia, on Jan. 7, 2019. Rodolfo Correa Peña was headed to a church service when he spotted an odd bird in a garden. The bird turned out to be an Antioquia brushfinch, a bird known previously only from museum specimens. Peña, an engineering student with an interest in birding, knew the local brushfinches and recognized that the bird was different. He secured photos of the bird and stunned the scientific community with the rediscovery of a bird presumed extinct.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Endangered California condors receives some good news in 2019..

Condors soaring high

California condors continue to delight with their success stories, even extending their range beyond California. Estimates indicate that 300 condors exist in the wild with about 200 more birds in captivity for use with breeding programs. Evidence that the work to preserve the species is working was provided this year in Utah’s Zion National Park, which became home to a condor named “1K” because it is the 1,000th chick hatched as part of an extensive condor restoration program. The chick hatched in May and took a rather clumsy first flight in September. The chick represents the first condor born within Zion National Park in more than a century. In 1987, when the condor population totaled only 27 known condors, wildlife officials captured the surviving wild birds and made them part of an existing captive breeding program. In 1992, the condor recovery program started to release the birds back into the wild. There are now more condors flying free in the wild than are maintained in captivity.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A large flock of Great Egrets flies over the Watauga River in Elizabethton. There is mounting evidence that many bird populations are on the decline.

Fewer birds?

Bird enthusiasts were shaken by the publication in September of an article warning that the number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970. The analysis, published in the journal “Science,” is an extensive attempt to determine what is happening to avian populations. The results shocked — there are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago.

A painting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist.

Hope

Yet, in words penned by poet Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Birds are among the most resilient lifeforms on the planet. If humans can get out of the way and quit making life more difficult for the feathered inhabitants of the planet, birds are more than capable of rebounding. The federal government needs to maintain safeguards and regulations that are in place to protect birds while ordinary people must alter their ways by shunning pesticides, preserving a variety of habitats and simply giving more regard to the fellow creatures they share the Earth with. If we can do these things, the birds will be fine. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the examples of Wisdom the Laysan albatross and a California condor known as “1K.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Canada geese forage in a field in Unicoi County, Tennessee.

Pigeons belong to a remarkable and diverse family of birds

 

Photo by Karen McSharry • This rock pigeon made a recent visit to a home in Bristol, Virginia. Not native to North America, the pigeon has been here almost since the first Europeans arrived on the continent.

Karen McSharry, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, emailed me recently with some photos asking for help in determining an identification of the bird depicted in her photos.

“This fellow made a sharp descent and landed on my deck with a thud,” Karen wrote. “He just stood there, seemed stunned and didn’t move or make a sound.”

After an hour or so, her husband picked the bird up and set him in the wooded area behind their house.

“He doesn’t seem to be there now, over a week later,” she added.

Karen said that at first glance pigeon came to mind as she tried to identify her visiting feathered friend. “But his head is bigger and black,” she wrote. “There didn’t seem to be any iridescence.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • The Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica) is a striking wild pigeon in appearance that is found on small islands and in coastal regions from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India, east through the Malay Archipelago, to the Solomons and Palau.

I wrote back and told Karen to trust her instincts. The bird she photographed was indeed a pigeon, known more formally as rock pigeon.

Once also known as rock doves, this pigeon is not native to North America, but the species has been here almost from the time the first Europeans began to sail to the shores of what eventually became the United States and Canada. The rock pigeon is native to Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, but the species has long been domesticated. Pigeons display a lot of variety in their appearance. Through artificial selection, the rock pigeon has been bred into all sorts of other patterns and colors beyond the wild bird’s standard appearance.

I don’t usually get pigeons at my home, although I did once have a domesticated bird visit my feeders for a few days. This particular bird had a band on one leg. I found out later it was a “homing” pigeon, which are pigeons trained to carry messages. After they deliver their message, they return “home,” hence the term “homing pigeon.” But they are still basically just a domesticated variety of rock pigeon.

Gordon Randall Smith, a resident of Saltville, Virginia, might be one of the region’s foremost authorities on pigeons. Eighty-one years old, he has bred pigeons for the past 76 years. He’s also raised game chickens and described his place as once being “like a zoo.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • The Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria) is a large, bluish-grey pigeon with elegant blue lace-like crests, maroon breast, and red irises. A wild bird, this pigeon shows that nature is just as inventive as humans at giving some birds unusual and outlandish appearances.

Gordon has understandable difficulty naming a favorite domestic pigeon strain. “With hundreds of breeds available, choice becomes overwhelming,” Gordon wrote. “Throughout years of close relationships and interested involvement, preferences creep in.”

After consideration, he identified the Bohemian fairy swallow as his favorite variety of pigeon, followed by Chinese owls, crested helmets and Budapest muffed stork tumblers, as well as Lahore and Indian ribbon tailed fantails.

An uncle, Landon Smith, introduced him to the love for the propagation of a variety of domestic pigeons. “I’ve been a fancier, breeder and vivid admirer of birds throughout my amazing and very fruitful life on this planet earth,” Gordon wrote in a letter.

“I was introduced to a covey of ringneck mourning doves and pigeons at uncle Landon Smith’s passing,” Gordon noted. He described his uncle as a very dedicated person who kept various birds, animals and even exotic creatures of nature.

I looked up some of these whimsical names online. Although the basic pigeon stock is apparent in their makeup, these fanciful breeds truly show how enthusiastically the rock pigeon has embraced domestication.

In the wild, rock pigeons display an affinity for nesting and roosting on cliffs and rock ledges, hence the bird’s common name. Feral pigeons in large cities like New York have merely substituted high rises and skysrcapers for craggy cliffs.

Pigeons and doves constitute the avian family Columbidae and the order Columbiformes, which includes about 42 genera and 310 species. North America is home to several native doves, including the mourning dove, Inca dove, common ground dove, ruddy ground dove and white-winged dove. The latter was made famous in a refrain in the song “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks.

Other doves and pigeons found around the globe include such fancifully named birds as pink-necked green pigeon, lemon dove, silvery pigeon, black cuckoo-dove, pheasant pigeon, purple-tailed imperial pigeon, topknot pigeon, common emerald dove, blue-headed wood dove, ruddy quail-dove, red-billed pigeon and Victoria crown pigeon. The diversity of form and function among wild doves and pigeons rivals anything that has been produced in their domesticated kin.

The now-extinct dodo was arguably the most famous member of the diverse family that includes pigeons and doves.

Sighting points out the weakness in relying on field guide range maps


Photo by Rodney Krey/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The double-crested cormorant is a water bird designed for preying on fish. The population of this cormorant has increased in recent years.

 

For those interested in learning to identify the birds they see during trips or that show up in their gardens or yards, a good field guide is an indispensable tool. But for whatever the reason, I’ve got to add a slight caveat to my recommendation to obtain a field guide for bird identification help: The range maps in many of our field guides are in need of a good update.

As a case in point, I recent received an email from reader Beth Webb, who had a question about an observation she made recently.

“While at South Holston Lake this weekend, I saw about 12 or 18 birds in a tree,” Beth wrote. “I could not identify them.”

She noted that her binoculars were not the best and the boat was rocking. Nevertheless, she had an idea on the identity of the perched birds.

“They had the silhouette of a cormorant,” Beth wrote. “My field guide is older and it does not place cormorants in this area, but I am wondering if they have been sighted here.”

Beth added that several years ago she saw a cormorant at South Holston Lake and was able to watch it dive in one spot and come up several seconds later in another.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Loving • This photo taken on June 14, 2019, probably shows some of the same cormorants that Beth Webb saw on South Holston Lake.

I emailed Beth back an answer to her query, telling her that double-crested cormorants have not always been a common bird in our region. For the past couple of decades, their numbers have been increasing nationwide, not just in our region.

The fact that she saw so many of them in a single tree makes me think she probably came close to a nesting rookery. Cormorants often nest near wading birds like great blue herons, which are also known to nest at South Holston Lake.

So, even with a rocking boat, Beth did a great job identifying the cormorants. Beth’s observation points out a weakness in some field guides. Birds are not static creatures. They have the power of flight and are constantly using that ability to expand into new places, Publishers of bird identification field guides are often challenged to keep pace.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A double-crested cormorant dries its wings after a swim.

For instance, the region’s birders birding in the 1970s would have considered the now ubiquitous Canada goose a rare bird. Before the 1980s, the tree swallow hardly ever nested in the region. Another swallow – the cliff swallow – has abandoned the faces of cliffs to nest beneath concrete bridges and has gone from being a rare swallow in the region to one of the most common summer nesting birds in the entire region in just the last couple of decades. Species ranging from cattle egret to Eurasian collared dove may not appear on the range maps in your guide books, but they can be found in the region.

Most bird identification guides follow a simple format: illustrations (photographs or paintings) that are accompanied by brief, precise text and maps showing a particular bird’s expected range, sometimes delineated by season. Many birds may be absent in summer but present in winter, for instance, so a color-coded range map designating year-round, summer and winter residency is highly desirable.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Field guides are an essential tool for bird identification, but features such as range maps can quickly go out of date.

A good field guide should also be small enough to be easily carried and consulted in the field. One that slides into a pocket is ideal. Many tech-savvy people are relying on their smart phones as an alternative to a field guide, but the printed page is hard to beat in remote areas where a phone experiences difficulty finding enough signal bars.

Hopefully future field guides will include updates to the range maps that show cormorants do indeed reach Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Two of the field guides that I recommend for beginning birders are the Golden Guide to Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins and the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson.

The cormorants are certainly a bird worth knowing. The double-crested cormorant belongs to a family of 40 birds consisting of species referred to as both cormorants and shags. Some of the world’s other cormorants include the flightless cormorant, black-faced cormorant, white-breasted cormorant, crowned cormorant, little cormorant, pygmy cormorant and the imperial shag, which is also known as the blue-eyed shag.

Besides the double-crested cormorant, North America is home to five other species. The great cormorant lives along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean from Canada down to southern Florida. The pelagic cormorant and the Brandt’s cormorant can be seen along North America’s Pacific coastline. The red-faced cormorant lives in the southern regions of Alaska out into the Aleutian Islands. The most southern of these North American cormorants is the Neotropic cormorant, which is found along the southeast areas of Texas down into Mexico.

All cormorants primarily fish for their meals. They have strong legs to propel them though the water when they dive for fish. They also have a serrated bill with a hooked tip that is excellent for grasping slippery fish.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A double-crested cormorant rests on a fallen log after a swim in a lake near Atlanta, Georgia.

On the recent Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, a total of 82 double-crested cormorants were found on area waterways. Those birds provide a good indication that cormorants are now an established species in the region.