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Tree swallows are the latest spring arrivals

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tree swallow checks out a nesting box soon after returning in the spring.

Waiting for spring? Join the club. Between alternating bouts of unseasonably warm temperatures and frigid blasts, the weather cannot seem to decide if winter’s hanging in there a little longer or if it’s time to proceed with spring’s arrival.

I’m hopeful it’s the latter. I enjoyed a stroll in the spring sunshine on March 30 along the section of the trail near the industrial park. From the boardwalk over the water I saw my first spring swallows (a purple martin and a couple of Northern rough-winged swallows) as well as a belted kingfisher and several American robins. I also saw my first dragonflies and butterflies of spring, as well as one muskrat enjoying a leisurely swim.

Early Birds

One might think that the wild swings in weather would translate into a messy arrival timetable for some of our returning birds, but so far my own personal observations indicate a different story. At home, the usual spring “early birds,” including wood duck, red-winged blackbird, blue-headed vireo, ruby-crowned kinglet and brown thrasher, have been their usual punctual selves.

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

The swallows I saw during my Erwin stroll, however, reminded me that one bird hasn’t returned at my home. The early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon knew this particular bird as “white-bellied swallow,” which is a descriptive name, but today the species is known simply as tree swallow.

Tree swallows have been back in the region for weeks, but they sometimes take their time finding their way to the waiting birdhouses at my fish pond. Their return dates in years past have ranged from early March to the middle of April.

Insect-heavy Diet

Swallows are insectivores, so those that return early in the spring must deal with temperature fluctuations. In prolonged cold spells, these insect-eating birds can be hard pressed to locate their usual prey. At such times, they are often forced to retreat to the area’s lakes and larger rivers, where they can swoop over the water and have an easier time plucking cold-numbed flying insects out of the air.

Once milder spring temperatures prevail, the flocks of swallows forced into these necessary habitats will disperse as pairs begin seeking nesting sites. Tree swallows are cavity-nesting birds, which often puts them into competition with Eastern bluebirds. The two species usually manage to work out a truce and settle down to nest in close proximity to each other.

The iridescent blue-green male tree swallow, complete with white underparts and a forked tail, is a handsome bird and a welcome addition to the bird population in any yard or garden. Tree swallows enjoy water, so a nearby pond or creek is a boon for attracting these birds.

Tree swallows haven’t always nested in Northeast Tennessee. Only in the last 40 years have these birds become regular nesting birds in the region. The first nesting record took place in the early 1980s at Austin Springs on Boone Lake in Washington County, Tennessee, according to The Birds of Northeast Tennessee by Rick Knight. Tree swallows soon became regular nesting birds every summer in all five counties that comprise Northeast Tennessee.

Other Swallows

It’s usually not too difficult to find five of the six species of swallows that are known to make Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina their home from spring to fall. In addition to tree swallow, the region’s other swallow species include: barn swallow, purple martin, cliff swallow and northern rough-winged swallow. These are all fairly common summer birds in the region. The sixth species, the bank swallow, is a bit of a specialist when it comes to nesting and occurs only sporadically in the region.

While only a handful of swallows range into the United States and Canada, a total of 83 species of swallows can be found worldwide. Some of the common names for these different swallows (also called martins in other parts of the world) are quite descriptive. A sampling includes white-eyed river martin, grey-rumped swallow, white-backed swallow, banded martin, blue swallow, violet-green swallow, golden swallow, brown-throated martin, brown-bellied swallow, pale-footed swallow, white-bibbed swallow, pearl-breasted swallow, red-breasted swallow, mosque swallow, fairy martin, pale martin, tawny-headed swallow and streak-throated swallow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Northern rough-winged swallows perches on a metal pipe.

While many swallows and martins have proven highly adaptive when faced with human disturbances to their habitat, a few species have experienced declines. One species — the white-eyed river martin — was last seen in Thailand in the 1980s and very well may be extinct. Closer to home, the golden swallow is now found only on the island of Hispaniola after disappearing from Jamaica in the 1980s. The Bahama swallow, which nests on only four islands in the Bahamas, is also vulnerable. Incidentally, both these swallows are closely related to the tree swallow, with all of them belonging to the genus Tachycineta. Translated from Greek, the genus name means “fast mover,” a quite accurate description of these graceful and agile flyers.

Good 

Neighbors

With their enthusiastic twittering to each other, tree swallows make for friendly neighbors. The local bluebirds may disagree, at first, but they’ll get their feathers unruffled eventually. It’s also a pleasant diversion to watch them swoop over fields and ponds as they help control the insect population.

To increase your chances of hosting your own tree swallows, offer a bird box placed in an open area. Right now is the time to attract their attention with some prime real estate. Plans are available online to help construct your own or pick up one at a gardening center, hardware store or farm supply outlet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern Bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.

Many would-be hosts for Eastern bluebirds express disappointment when a pair of tree swallows become tenants instead. The remedy to the disappointment is simple: provide an additional nesting box.  Although there will be some initial squabbles, tree swallows and Eastern bluebirds will co-exist if they don’t have to compete for the same nesting box.

There’s one last selling point I want to mention on behalf of tree swallows. While not exactly songsters, they do produce an energetic, chirpy trill that they vocalize persistently when in the company of their fellow tree swallows. It’s hard not to be cheerful when hearing such a jubilant noise issuing from one of our feathered friends.

Hummingbird Observations

While tree swallows and their kin are great to have back, one of the most anticipated returns each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post on my Facebook to share your first sightings. You can also leave a comment here on the blog.

Nature Challenge event easy with a phone, keen eye for details

Photo Illustration by nayansolanki/Pixabay • A phone will be helpful during the upcoming iNaturalist City Nature Challenge.

Many new arrivals are making spring an exciting time for birders. At my home, Eastern phoebes have been back for several weeks. They make quite the racket every morning with their incessant “fee-bee” calls that commence just after sunrise. A pair of wood ducks made a stopover at the fish pond on March 16. By the end of the month, swallows, warblers, vireos and perhaps even hummingbirds should start showing up.

If you like to record and document these yearly returns, there is also a way that your record-keeping can benefit science and its knowledge of the world around us. Anyone with a phone or a computer with internet access can take part in an upcoming survey of flora and fauna in Northeast Tennessee.

Organizers for the upcoming iNaturalist City Nature Challenge point out that a cellphone can be a great citizen science tool.

The extent of the Challenge goes far beyond East Tennessee. The iNaturalist City Nature Challenges pits cities around the world against each other in a rivalry to see who can report the most observations of wild flora and fauna during a four-day period.

One of the world’s most popular nature apps, iNaturalist helps users identify the plants and animals they encounter on a daily basis. Get connected with a community of over a million scientists and naturalists who can help everyone learn more about nature. What’s more, by recording and sharing observations, users of the app help create research quality data for scientists working to better understand and protect nature. iNaturalist is a joint initiative by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.

Before the end of April, interested naturalists are urged to download and learn to use the iNaturalist app to contribute to scientific knowledge of Northeast Tennessee trees, plants and animals.

Melanie Kelley, a volunteer with Johnson City Parks and Recreation, has helped organize this year’s City Nature Challenge.

“JCPR is the main City Nature Challenge organizer for our ten county area,” Kelley said.

Parks in other locations are also participating. For instance, Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport is participating, according to Marty Silver, a ranger with WPSP.

According to Kelley, other parks and groups are co-organizers for the event.
Kelley said that taking part in the challenge is simple.

A smartphone or computer is needed to input the data.

“Using either a phone with the iNaturalist app or uploading photos to the http://www.inaturalist.org website, everyone is invited to go out and record wild species,” Kelley said. “From birds to grasses, trees to snakes.

“Wild is the key,” she added. “Any place it can be found! Backyards, schools, parks and gardens.”
Kelley said the City Nature Challenge is a global effort to get a worldwide snapshot of all life on earth during a four-day period.

“It is the world’s largest multi-species BioBlitz,” Kelley said.

Identifications are also crucial, according to Kelley. “This part of the challenge encourages folks to log into the website and review and confirm identifications of what others have uploaded,” she said.

Kelley noted that iNaturalist requires users to be 13 or older but that there is a parental consent method for younger users for both the app and the website.

“Each participating park/group will likely have their own age rules,” she noted.

“Last year was the first year JCPR participated in the CNC,” Kelley said. “If COVID-19 was not an issue, the CNC would be back to its roots as a direct city to city or area to area challenge.”

The rivalries can get intense.

“Last year, our good friends at Zoo Knoxville directly challenged us, so it was Knox vs Washington Counties,” Kelley said. “It was also the first year Knox participated. “

Kelley said that JCPR and Zoo Knoxville knew they would expand their areas after their first successful year taking part in the challenge.

“This allows us to better compete with Nashville’s seven-county project and Chattanooga’s 16 counties over two states,” Kelley explained.

She hopes the COVID-19 shadow over the event is felt less this year.

“Last year, we had daily group events scheduled and all those, of course, had to be cancelled,’ Kelley said.

“This year, the main CNC is again, less of a competition and more of a collaboration worldwide,“ she said. “However, this year, under a hybrid model, those that wish to have head to head challenges can do so. Oh, and yes, we do so want to take on Knox, which includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We can do this!”

Kelley said that expanding the project area to the upper ten Northeast Tennessee counties means partnering with local state and city parks.

Some of the other parks on board include Bristol’s Steele Creek Park, Kingsport’s Warrior’s Path, Elizabethton’s Sycamore Shoals and Roan Mountain’s Roan Mountain State Park.

Kelley noted that Johnson City Parks are all planning on some type of group-led events to help folks who are new to iNaturalist get their feet wet with the program.

“Each park will have its own guidelines as to how they need to handle such events,” she added.

The upcoming event is both valuable to science and an entertaining way to enjoy nature.
“Overall, as a regular iNaturalist user, it is fun,” Kelley said. “More importantly to me, it is such a great way to introduce folks to the native world.

“People walk by and see a flower or a tree or anything and they probably don’t know what it is other than a bird/flower/tree,” she continued. “The app has a really good identification tool where you learn right there what that species is.”

Once identification is made easy, Kelley said that the next big challenge is getting them to the next step of understanding that species role in the larger ecology.

“This is where these group-led observation hikes play a critical role,” she said.

Kelley said that plenty of reports that show up from iNaturalist users are from Unicoi County.
She noted that there are some 4,552 individual observations recorded from Unicoi County.

“These observations represent 1,339 unique species have been recorded by 404 individual iNaturalist users,” Kelley said.

The possibilities of what can be observed and reported are seemingly endless. Everything from birds and insects to salamanders and ferns is fair game as observers scramble to make reports. Grab a phone and start taking snapshots of snakes, squirrels, sassafras trees or anything else that crosses your path. Organizers hope to get plenty of public participation for this year’s City Nature Challenge.

Kelley also quoted Doug Tallamy, a professor in the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, where he has authored eighty research articles and has taught numerous classes, including behavioral ecology and humans and nature, for more than 30 years.

Kelley said that Tallamy has been quoted saying, “Knowledge generates interest, and interest generates compassion.”

She added that iNaturalist is a great way to generate knowledge.

“Birders can upload a spreadsheet from their eBird reports for the event days and those will count in our totals,” Kelley said. “These are the only observations made during the CNC that do not require photos to count.”

Observations for the challenge must be submitted between April 30 and May 3. All observations are required to be found within the upper 10 northeast Tennessee counties of Washington, Sullivan, Unicoi, Carter, Greene, Johnson, Hancock, Cocke, Hawkins and Hamblen.

To learn more about the event, Unicoi County residents or people living in or near Northeast Tennessee can visit https://bit.ly/CityNatureChallengeNETN.

Below are events corresponding with the challenge:

• Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport will offer City Nature Challenge 2021, a friendly competition open to nature lovers. The main event at the park will be held Saturday, April 10, from 10 a.m. to noon. The park’s event is sort of an informative preview of the actual Challenge. Observations for the challenge itself must be submitted between April 30 and May 3. Ranger Brian Glover will teach participants how to use the iNaturalist app to photograph, identify, and share their nature observations with a worldwide community of scientists and nature enthusiasts. He’ll also show those taking part how to join the region’s 2021 City Nature Challenge. Be sure to download the iNaturalist app from your app store, and create an iNaturalist account before arriving at the event. Come dressed for the weather and wear good walking footwear. This is not a hike, but attendees will be wandering over some rocky and uneven ground.

• Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton will offer an educational hike about better ways to enjoy interacting with nature through handy apps and tools on the average smart phone. “Tech in Nature” will be taught by Park Ranger Cory Franklin from 2 to 3 p.m. on Friday, March 26. Most people are inseparable from their smart phones and mobile devices. Franklin wants participants to embrace this cultural change and will show how to better use technology on a day to day basis in nature. Using tools such as GPS locating, plant identification and other easily accessible resources and apps, he will show ways to enhance the experience rather than take away from it. Join him for a walk around the park to better understand the tools everyone carries with them daily. The program will meet and begin at the picnic area beside the visitor center. Cost is $5, but those six and under can participate for free. For more information, call 543-5808.

Note: Although this event has already happened, perhaps Sycamore Shoals will offer this walk again in the future.

•••••

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches for a leisurely drink of sugar water.

As mentioned at the start of the column, spring is bringing back many of our favorite wildflowers, insects and, of course, birds. One of the most anticipated returns each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

This year, there’s more incentive to share your sighting. The Erwin Record and Jonesborough Herald & Tribune will be giving away a hummingbird-related prize from a drawing of all the individuals who report hummingbirds. If you don’t happen to be one of the lucky people to see one of the first hummingbirds of 2021, don’t worry. To be eligible for the contest, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post on my Facebook page a sentence or two explaining why you love hummingbirds.

Observations will be accepted through April 18. Winners will be announced in this column on April 28.

Hermit thrushes brave East Tennessee winters

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perched on a fence rail shows the reddish tail, a reliable field mark to separate this species from close relatives. The tail contrasts from the rest of the bird’s plumage.

Karen Miller sent me an email about a winter visitor in her yard at her home in Parrottsville, Tennessee. “I have seen a hermit thrush eating holly berries for 10 days,” Karen wrote. “Is he migrating or is he perhaps a winter visitor here in Parrottsville?”

To answer her question, I replied and informed her that the thrush is a winter visitor. The hermit thrush takes up residence after its kin have already departed the region in the fall, making it one of the few thrushes to remain in Northeast Tennessee during the winter months. I’ve always thought a good nickname for this bird would be the “winter thrush” because of its presence during the colder months of the year. Of course, for those who know where to look, a few hermit thrushes spend the summer nesting season at high elevation peaks such as Roan Mountain on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

The hermit thrush is one of the larger brown thrushes, which also includes such related birds as Swainson’s thrush, veery, gray-cheeked thrush and wood thrush. Other less closely related members of the thrush family include the American robin, Eastern bluebird and Townsend’s solitaire.

USFWS • Hermit thrushes like to keep to the shadows.

The poet Walt Whitman employed a hermit thrush as a symbol in his poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a moving pastoral elegy in honor of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Whitman evidently knew his birds, and it’s not difficult for naturalists and bird enthusiasts to identify that he referred to the hermit thrush when he wove this songbird as a symbol into his stanzas honoring Lincoln. “Sing on there in the swamp,” Whitman wrote in his poem. “O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call. I hear, I come presently, I understand you…”

Whitman evidently knew of this bird’s bashful, retiring habits, and he had obviously enjoyed the flute-like notes of the hermit thrush’s call. Whitman and many other Americans have been made fans of this gifted songbird. In fact, the citizens of Vermont even proclaimed the hermit thrush as their official state bird. The hermit thrush is well known for its song — a series of clear, musical notes, each on a different pitch, consisting of a piping introductory note and a reedy tremolo. The song had often been described as melancholy by various bird experts. The birds don’t usually sing in winter, but they do produce a call note when disturbed or alarmed that is described as a low “chuck.”

The visiting hermit thrush at her home has allowed Karen Miller to get to know this somewhat reclusive bird better. “He sits on the ground, cocks his head, spies a berry and then jumps up and gets it,” she wrote. She noted that her visitor has a good appetite. “He eats four or five at a time,” she said. “I’m so glad to see him.”

Photo by USFWS • Like many thrushes, the hermit thrush is fond of fruit and berries, especially during the winter.

According to the Smoky Mountains Visitors Guide website, the hermit thrush forages for most of its food from the ground. This bird’s diet includes insects, spiders, snails, and earthworms, plus considerable amounts of wild fruits during the fall and winter. Hermit thrushes may join up with mixed flocks of birds during the winter, often associating with such songbirds as kinglets, brown creepers, chickadees and titmice. For those not fortunate enough to host a wintering hermit thrush, this bird can be found during the summer months atop some high-elevation peaks. Close to home, look for this thrush in the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Gardens. The hermit thrush is also found at some locations in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Female hermit thrushes collect nesting materials and construct the nest, within which she will lay three to six eggs. These thrushes nest once or twice a season. According to the website All About Birds, nesting habits differ between hermit thrushes in the western North America and their counterparts in the eastern half of the continent. Eastern thrushes tend to nest on the ground, but those in the west often place their nests in shrubs or tree branches.

At home on Simerly Creek Road, my first hermit thrush of the winter arrived in early November of last year. During a woodland stroll with neighbor Beth McPherson, the resident thrush put on an impressive show, hopping and scraping on the woodland floor beneath a rhododendron thicket bordering a mountain spring. In such surroundings, it’s not difficult to fathom why this bird has developed such a subtle plumage of muted browns and grays. Even when foraging actively, the bird blended remarkably with the background of fallen leaves and other woodland debris.

The hermit thrush is known by the scientific name, Catharus guttatus. The term guttatus is Latin for “spotted,” which seems appropriate. Surprisingly, the hermit thrush is not closely related to the other North American migrant species of Catharus thrushes. Instead, the hermit thrush is more closely related to the russet nightingale-thrush, a Mexican songbird. The hermit thrush could accurately be called the “red-tailed thrush” for the fact that this species has a rusty-red tail that stands apart from the warm brown-gray tones of the rest of its plumage. A white eye ring, pink legs and a heavily spotted breast complete the rest of this bird’s understated appearance.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perches on a branch in a winter woodland.

The wintering hermit thrushes in the region will likely stay put for the next couple of months, but they will mostly depart the area in April or early May. If you want to look for them, now’s the time.

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

 

Baffling visitors turn out to be Northern flickers

Photo by NatureLady/Pixabay.com • A Northern flicker grasps a board with its talons. These medium-sized woodpeckers spend much more time on the ground than the other woodpeckers in the region.

Irene and Peter Cannatelli emailed me recently to ask for some help identifying birds in their yard at their home in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

“We have a pair of birds we’ve never seen,” Irene wrote in the email.

They were unable to get a photo of the birds, but Irene provided a detailed description. “They have a red crown, black under neck, like a collar, a long thin beak, and brown speckled bodies,” she wrote. In addition, she noted that the birds showed white down the middle of their backs when flying off.

“They are ground feeders,” she added.

Once I studied her description of the birds in question, I felt confident that the visitors were Northern flickers, a member of the woodpeckers family, albeit a less than typical member of the extensive clan. Most of the region’s woodpeckers are black and white birds. The Northern flicker, on the other hand, shows considerable color— for a woodpecker. Irene’s description left me in no doubt of my identification.

After I responded to the email, Irene googled Northern flicker and confirmed my identification. “That is what they looked like,” she agreed.

She also shared more about her enthusiasm for local birds. “We have five bird feeders in our little bird garden,” Irene wrote.

“We made suet for the first time this past week using Crisco, oatmeal, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, cornmeal and raisins,” Irene added. “We made four blocks. When we put the first one out it was gone in one day.”

Many birds appreciate both homemade and store-bought suet cakes, which provide a needed protein boost in the winter season when insects are scarce.

Irene noted that some of the clientele at her feeders include cardinals, finches, lots of doves and blue jays. Now the couple can add flickers to that growing list.

While flickers can be found during all seasons in the region, this woodpecker is one of the migratory ones. I see the most Northern flickers during fall migration. This woodpecker is one of the few of its kind that usually migrates to warmer climates during the colder months, although the species is not completely absent from the region in the winter season.

As mentioned earlier, this is a woodpecker with many other common names, including yellow-hammer — a popular name in the Deep South — and harry-wicket, heigh-ho and gawker bird. The Northern flicker is also the only woodpecker to serve a state — Alabama — as an official bird. The flicker earned this distinction back in 1927. Soldiers from Alabama who fought for the Confederacy were nicknamed “yellowhammers” because of their grey-and-yellow uniforms, which matched the colors of the bird. Incidentally, Alabama was one of the first states to ever name an official state bird.

Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • A Northern flicker peers from a tree cavity.

There are two races of Northern flicker — yellow-shafted and red-shafted — found in the United States. Eastern flickers show yellow feather shafts beneath the wings while western counterparts show red beneath the wings. A trip to Utah several years ago gave me a chance to also see the red-shafted race of this bird.

The Northern flicker is also not the only flicker in the United States. The gilded flicker inhabits many of the deserts — Sonoran, Yuma and Colorado — in the United States. Of course, trees are scarce in deserts, but that hasn’t proven an obstacle for this woodpecker. The bird is closely associated with saguaro cactus. Other desert dwellers depend on this woodpecker. Once the flickers are no longer making use of their nest and roost holes in the multi-armed cacti, other wildlife moved into the chambers.

The Northern flicker is an enthusiastic drummer, pounding loudly on the sides of trees with its stout bill. The purpose of the drumming is to communicate with mates and signal potential rivals that they’re intruding. Toward that objective, flickers sometimes substitute metal utility poles or the sides of buildings for the trunks of trees. In addition to drumming, the flicker also employs a variety of loud vocalizations that are fairly distinctive. A loud, repeated vocalization, often translated as “wicka-wicka-wicka,” is similar to the cluck-like call of the larger pileated woodpecker. The flicker is also known for emitting a sharp, loud “kleeer” call that can be heard from a considerable distance. Flickers are probably most vocal during the spring months.

When searching for flickers, however, don’t concentrate on scanning tree trunks. Flickers spend a lot of time in fields or on lawns in search of insect prey, which mostly consists of ants and beetles. This non-typical behavior by this particular bird is what threw off the Cannatellis’ attempt to identify their visitors. Flickers also eat seeds and fruit, and these woodpeckers will also visit feeders for peanuts, sunflower seed and suet.

The adult flicker is a brown bird with black bars on the back and wings. A distinctive black patch occupies the upper breast, while the lower breast and belly are beige with black spots. Males can be identified by a black or red mustache stripe at the base of the beak. They also have a red stripe on the back of their gray heads. The flicker’s dark tail is set apart by a white rump patch that is conspicuous when the bird takes flight.

Photo by USFWS • A researcher extends a flicker’s wing to show the yellow feather shafts.

The Northern flicker, as either the red- or yellow-shafted reach, ranges across the United States and Canada. The flicker also ranges to Central America, Cuba and the Cayman Islands. Known scientifically as Colaptes auratus, which can be roughly translated as the “golden woodpecker,” there are about a dozen species of flickers in North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

Look for Northern flickers in fields, orchards, city parks and well-planted suburban yards. These woodpeckers are usually not too shy around human observers and will sometimes allow for extended observation. If you’re even more fortunate, you could find one visiting your yard or garden. Just remember to scan the ground. This is one woodpecker that’s not a consistent tree-hugger like many of its kin.

 

Tennessee and neighboring states hosting exceptional rare birds this winter

Photo by LoneWombatMedia from Pixabay • Among the unusual avian visitors to the Volunteer State this winter has been a snowy owl that has delighted observers in Chattanooga. Snowy owls, such as the individual pictured, are more commonly found on the tundra regions of the Arctic.

Birds have wings. Birds can fly. Birds confound our expectations.

Perhaps the mobility of birds is part of the human fascination with them. An unexpected bird can pop up at any time at almost any place. In fact, with 2021 less than a month old, the Volunteer State has already hosted some absolutely incredible birds.

For example, birder Evan Kidd found a Pacific Slope Flycatcher in Maryville on Jan. 7. 

A couple of weeks later, a snowy owl, which is a bird most people have only become acquainted with in the pages of J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter novels, made an appearance on Zephyr Lane near Lake Chickamauga in Chattanooga. 

Chattanoogas been a real hot spot so far this year. In addition to the snowy owl, Chattanoogas hosted such unlikely visitors as white-throated swift and Bullocks oriole. 

All of these birds quickly achieved celebrity status and attracted birders from near and far hoping for a glimpse of these rarities to Tennessee. 

Birder Michael Todd posted on Facebook on Jan. 13 about his own observation of the white-throated swift. This particular sighting came with a bit of an unnerving twist for all the people who had flocked to see the swift.

Luckily, the swift narrowly avoided being a snack for a marauding merlin that tried its best to have some swift for lunch today, Todd revealed in his Facebook post. 

Closer to home, a long-tailed duck has been hanging out with buffleheads and other ducks at the weir dam at Osceola Recreation Area in Bristol. 

Ray Miller from Pixabay • Long-tailed ducks, such as this individual, favor colder waters, but they occasionally venture into Tennessee.

The winter invasion of evening grosbeaks, a finch that usually inhabits the forests of Canada and the northern United States, continued into 2021 as well.

What brings birds to locations far beyond their typical range? Obviously, their wings and the associated power of flight makes it possible for birds to travel surprising distances.

But on a more down-to-earth level, some of these birds such as the snowy owl and evening grosbeaks have ventured far south of their normal ranges because their usual food sources are scarce. Climate change may be exacerbating those scarcities. On occasion, a major weather phenomenon like hurricanes or other strong storms will force birds into unfamiliar territory. And whos to say that an occasional bird doesnt succumb to the temptation of wanderlust and decide to explore greener pastures? Or maybe some of these birds are simply stubborn, lost, and reluctant to ask for directions.

The reasons an unexpected bird might grace any given location are myriad. Whats easily explained is the excitement that they can generate. Back in the winter of 2009 I traveled with some friends to Spring Hill, Tennessee, in the hope of getting a look at a snowy owl. After several hours staking out some large fields with dozens of other birders on property owned by General Motors at the time, we got our owl. Incidentally, that particular owl got the nickname Chevy due to its association with the GM production facilities in Spring Hill. The moment that owl unfurled its wing and made a short but majestic flight over the field remains a birding thrill of a lifetime. 

Making the moment even more memorable was the fact that I got to see my first (and so far only) snowy owl in my home state of Tennessee instead of traveling to the edge of the Arctic tundra during the summer to look for this awesome owl on its native turf. Its not that I would say no to a tundra tour, but it hasnt been in the cards yet.

I have a short list of some other exceptional birds that have made their way to Tennessee rather than forcing me to venture across the country and around the globe to see. I observed monk parakeets and a green-breasted mango hummingbird in North Carolina, as well as a harlequin duck and Virginias warbler along Netherland Inn Drive in Kingsport from the greenbelt that meanders along the Holston River. Earlier this year while birding alone, I felt a moment of thats different when a raptor took flight over the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton and materialized as a Mississippi kite once I got my binoculars on it. 

I think its part of the reason some birders are addicted to the chase. Theres nothing wrong with the cardinals and sparrows in the backyard, but a rare bird can truly generate a powerful jolt of excitement. 

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. Although not a rare bird, these common resident make winter days more lively for observers.

Technology, including social media and GPS, has helped pinpoint these rarities when they stray into unfamiliar terrain. For instance, the snowy owl near Chattanooga is hardly the only one of its kind straying south of the Arctic this winter. These owls have made a major push south with individuals spotted in Lee, Illinois; Cumberland, Pennsylvania; Wood, Ohio; and Clinton, Iowa. A snowy owl has even been spending the winter on Ocracoke Island along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Theres even dramatic photographs online of the owl against the backdrop of the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. 

Whats the best way to spot a rare bird? Keep your eyes open and learn to recognize the birds that arent part of the familiar local flocks. One word of warning: Looking for those rarities can become addictive.

Watch for wintering kestrels in open habitats

 

Photo by reitz27/Pixabay.com • While one of the smaller falcons, the American kestrel is also one of the this family of raptors more colorful members.

I enjoyed a drive through Limestone Cove in Unicoi, Tennessee, on the afternoon of the next-to-the-last day of 2020. In addition to finding a total of 13 Eastern bluebirds, I saw an American kestrel perched on utility lines near Bell Cemetery. The sighting was the first I’ve had of a kestrel so far during the 2020-21 winter season. Over the years, the cemetery and adjacent fields have been a reliable location for finding this small falcon during the winter.

The American kestrel, although present throughout the year in the region, is somewhat more prominent during the winter months when kestrels from farther north migrate into the region. However, this falcon also nests in the region and can be found at any time of the year in suitable habitat, which is usually open countryside.

The American kestrel is a small member of the falcon family, which includes such relatives as merlin, peregrine falcon and gyrfalcon. All falcons, regardless of size, share a similar aerodynamic design that includes sleek, streamlined bodies and long, slim wings which taper to pointed tips. They fly with rapid wingbeats and are capable of swift flight.

Photo by PBarlowArt/Pixabay.com • An American kestrel uses a rock outcrop as a convenient perch.

The male American kestrel is a colorful bird. He shows a rusty back with some black barring, a rusty tail and steel blue-gray wings. The female kestrel is brownish with black barring on her back and tail. She also shows a buff-colored wash streaked with brown on her under- parts. Both sexes show a strong facial pattern marked by two black “sideburns” on the side of the face.

The American kestrel has long been one of my favorite raptors. They’re seldom as skittish as many other raptors and will permit close observation. Formerly known by the name “Sparrow Hawk,” the American kestrel does not feed entirely on other birds. In fact, a large part of this small falcon’s diet includes rodents and insects.

In its nesting preference, the American kestrel is unusual among other native falcons and hawks. Kestrels nest in cavities, including abandoned woodpecker holes and nest boxes provided by humans.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American Kestrel uses a fence post for a perch.

Like many raptors, the American kestrel likes to hunt from a perch, swooping down on unsuspecting prey. The kestrel, however, is also capable of hovering, a type of flight that only a relatively few birds, including the belted kingfisher and the ruby-throated hummingbird, are capable of performing.

The falcons comprise a family of birds with a long history with humans. The sport of falconry, although not as widely practiced today, long ago became associated with royalty and nobility. In fact, falconry has been called “the sport of kings.” The sport basically involved hunting prey, usually other birds, with birds of prey such as falcons. As a pastime, falconry never became as popular in the United States as in other parts of the world.

There are more than 60 species of falcons found worldwide. While the peregrine falcon’s endangered status became well-known in the United States, other falcons have been threatened with extinction. The Mauritius Kestrel once dwindled to a population of only six individuals. Today, the population, due to intensive human effort, has greatly recovered.

Other members of the falcon family can be found in the region, including the peregrine falcon and the merlin. Other falcons in North America include the prairie falcon and the Aplomado falcon. Worldwide, some of the more descriptively named falcons include spotted kestrel, rock kestrel, greater kestrel, lesser kestrel, red-footed falcon, red-necked falcon, sooty falcon and brown falcon.

To share observations, ask questions, or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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

Evening grosbeaks staging comeback after 20-year absence

I’ve a feeling that when we look back on the year 2020, we’re not going to have an abundance of happy memories. Fortunately, I have birds and birding to keep me sane during a year of often dismal news. If nothing else, I will always remember 2020 as the year the evening grosbeaks returned to the region after a 20-year absence.

Evening grosbeaks are large, gregarious, noisy, showy members of the finch family, which includes several more commonplace feeder visitors as house finches, American goldfinches, pine siskins, and purple finches. During the 1980s and 1990s, flocks of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of these birds descended on feeders in the region. I knew a man in the Piney Grove community of Hampton, Tennessee, who converted the metal lids of trash cans into makeshift feeders arranged around his deck to accommodate a flock of more than 100 evening grosbeaks. 

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

Then, like a switch being flipped, the great flocks of grosbeaks ceased winter visits to the region after 2000. Birders needed a few years to realize that this bird was no longer to be expected as a fixture of the season. Different theories, none ever confirmed, were put forward to explain the sudden absence.

As years went on, I always held out hope at the start of the winter season that this could be the year they returned, only to be perennially disappointed. Then, in 2020, a year when I could hardly be blamed for anticipating a positive happening, I began to hear reports.

Flocks of evening grosbeaks were spotted in Virginia, North Carolina, and even farther afield in different parts of the Volunteer State. I dared to hope they would make it back to Northeast Tennessee. I even dreamed this might be the year I’d get them back at my feeders. 

On Saturday, Nov. 14, Judi Sawyer in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, posted on her Facebook page that a single evening grosbeak had visited her feeders. “Unfortunately, it flew away when I reached for my camera,” Judi said.

Photo Courtesy of Barbara Lake • Two male evening grosbeaks claim a feeder as a female Northern cardinal waits patiently in the background.

On Friday, Nov. 27, I received an email from Barbara Lake in Hampton, Tennessee. “I’m pretty sure we have a flock of evening grosbeaks visiting us,” Barbara wrote in her email.  “They are definitely in the cardinal/grosbeak family.” 

Barbara added that she and her husband, Jerry, had never before seen evening grosbeaks at their home.  “The colors remind me of the American goldfinch, but they’re bigger with a cardinal-type beak.”

She gave such an apt description that I really didn’t need to confirm her observation, but she helpfully provided a photograph of a couple of the grosbeaks at her feeder. “Are they just passing through, like the rose-breasted grosbeaks do?” Barbara asked.

In answer to Barbara’s question, the intent of this influx of evening grosbeaks is still to be determined. The Lakes live atop a high hill that provides a great lookout over the surrounding terrain. “Your home on the hill is probably a beacon for migrating birds,” I informed Barbara in a reply to her email.

Photo by Jean Potter • A male evening grosbeak enjoys black oil sunflower seed from a hanging feeder.

Friends Brookie and Jean Potter announced the arrival of grosbeaks at their home near Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton, Tennessee, on Jean’s Facebook page on Dec. 3.  “Five Evening Grosbeaks paid us a surprise visit this morning,” Jean wrote on her post.  “We’re ecstatic! This is life bird No. 461 for us and we were able to host it in our backyard.”

Jean also noted that the winter of 2020-21 is turning out to be an irruption year for some species of birds more often associated with Canada and the northern parts of the United States. These irruptive migrations, she noted, are motivated by a scarce food supply for some northern birds, resulting in them coming south. 

The small flock visited for only the afternoon, but the next day  a single grosbeak returned and fed briefly at the feeders at the Potter home.

I’ve only been feeding birds since the winter of 1993, so I started in time to enjoy the evening grosbeak boom of the 1990s. Over the years, an incredible diversity of species have visited my feeders. This winter season has already seen a drive south by several so-called winter finches, including pine siskin, common redpoll, red crossbills, and purple finches. Although not a finch, red-breasted nuthatches have been prevalent at feeders throughout the region for the past couple of months.  Back in October, pine siskins and purple finches began to visit my feeders. Their visits have since diminished considerably. I had hoped the recent snowfall might motivate them to return, but it didn’t happen.

I’ve never seen 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 near Carver’s Gap in Roan Mountain and the Unaka Mountain in Unicoi County.

Photo by Alain Audet/Pixabay.com • A male evening grosbeak grips a perch on a cold day.

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.

Photo by George Gentry/U.S. F&WS • Male evening grosbeaks brings some vibrant color to any place they choose to visit.

I am still waiting for an evening grosbeak to return to my home. I am happy reminiscing about the flocks of dozens of individuals that gathered at my feeders in the ’90s.

The evening grosbeak belongs to the genus Coccothraustes in the finch family. There are only two other species in the genus: the hawfinch of Europe and temperate Asia and the hooded grosbeak of Central America.

One word of advice in case evening grosbeaks show up at your own feeders: These are some of the most fun visitors you will ever host, but they have huge appetites. Be prepared to earmark more of your budget for purchasing sunflower seed, which is a favorite food of these always-hungry birds.

With apologies to Arthur Carlson, wild turkeys can fly

Photo by Pixabay.com
A couple of wild turkeys stroll through an autumn woodland. Although quite capable of flight, turkeys prefer to walk or run over the ground.

NOTE: I wrote this column back in November of 2015. With some revisions, here’s a timely column on one of the nation’s premier fowls.

As Americans, we all have our holiday traditions. Although this year’s pandemic may interfere with the annual lavish meals shared with family and friends, there is one tradition I will not forego. I will carve 30 minutes from my schedule to watch one of my favorite holiday sitcom episodes.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flock of Wild Turkeys make their way across a snowy field.

Not surprisingly, there’s an element linked to birds in the episode, which is often cited as one of the most ingenious sitcom episodes in the history of television. The episode is “Turkeys Away” from the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati, a sitcom that aired from 1978 to 1982 and revolved around the antics of the staff of a down-and-out radio station. The “Turkeys Away” episode originally aired Oct. 30, 1978, early in the first season of the series. I especially like that every member of the ensemble cast was woven into the storyline for this classic Thanksgiving episode.

In the event that there are readers who haven’t seen the episode, I’ll try to avoid any blatant spoilers. The action involves a radio promotion that, in hindsight, was destined for disaster. The episode unfolds at the perfect pace, finally culminating in a hilarious series of scenes as the promotion backfires in spectacular fashion. I’ve memorized most of the lines of dialogue, but I still enjoy hearing them delivered by the talented actors Richard Sanders, Loni Anderson, Howard Hesseman and the late Gordon Jump. It’s Jump who gets the pivotal line with his perfectly delivered, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”

The actors on WKRP in Cincinnati truly came together as an ensemble cast for the famous Thanksgiving episode.

It’s that classic line that provides my segue into the subject of this week’s column, which is America’s wild turkey. I sometimes wonder if my favorite episode of WKRP, which aired more than 40 years ago, has had some influence in persuading many people that turkeys cannot fly. It’s a widely held misconception that the wild turkey cannot fly. The turkey is perfectly capable of flying at speeds up to 55 miles per hour, but they often prefer to walk and run over the ground. They’re good sprinters, in fact, and can reach a running speed of 25 miles per hour. Turkeys can even swim!

 

On the other hand, the domesticated barnyard turkey is a fowl of a completely different kind than its wild cousin. Although the wild turkey — the largest of North America’s game birds — can weigh as much as 37 pounds, it’s the domestic turkey that holds the record as a heavyweight. The largest domestic turkey on record tipped the scales at 86 pounds. That bird certainly could have provided an ample banquet for your Thanksgiving meal. Domestic turkeys are bred to be big, which means they are incapable of flight and are also poor runners. Of course, these domestic kin of wild turkeys don’t face a gauntlet of predators.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male gobbler seeks the attention of hens, but they seem more intent on foraging for food.

The wild turkey is a paradoxical fowl, fully capable of shifting from bravado to timidity to meet the situation. Strutting toms have no hesitancy about making themselves the center of attention when the reward is making a favorable impression on a bevy of hens. At other times, these same turkeys, both the performers and their audiences, adopt a more stealthy mode of life. Wild turkeys know that the world’s a dangerous place.

Wild turkeys face various perils at all points in their life cycles, from eggs to newly-hatched young to adult birds. Turkey eggs are a favorite food of such wild animals as raccoons, skunks, opossums and some snakes. Young turkeys, known as poults, are often the prey of domestic dogs and cats, a range of raptors, and other birds such as crows and ravens. Larger predators — bobcats, cougars, coyotes, foxes and eagles — prey on adult turkeys.

I remember the first time that I observed wild turkeys in flight. I was driving near Persimmon Ridge Park in Jonesborough, Tennessee, when about a dozen large, dark birds flew across the road just above the roof of my vehicle. I was definitely perplexed as my mind worked to figure out the identity of these birds. I had almost settled on vultures — although the flight pattern had been all wrong — when I saw that some of these flyers had landed in a field adjacent to the road. On the ground, they were easily recognized as wild turkeys.

The wild turkey’s scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. The wild bird is exclusively resident in North America, but domesticated turkeys are now raised around the globe. The wild turkey has only one close relative, the ocellated turkey, or Meleagris ocellata, which ranges throughout the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico as well as the northern parts of Belize and Guatemala. The extent of this fowl’s range is only about 50,000 square miles, while the wild turkey ranges throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.

 

It’s simply too bad that Jump’s WKRP character, bumbling but amiable station manager Arthur Carlson, lacked some crucial knowledge about the differences between wild turkeys and their domestic relatives. If he had gathered a flock of wild turkeys instead of directing his sales manager to acquire domestic fowl, his radio promotion might not have been such a stupendous flop. Of course, we would then have never had this classic episode of comedic television and I wouldn’t have my familiar Thanksgiving ritual to enjoy annually.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A decorative turkey pays homage to the real bird.

Common grackles part of November’s changing bird lineup

 

Photo by Bernell MacDonald/Pixabay.com • Common grackles are quite accomplished at foraging for food in a variety of habitats.

November is a month of transition. The birds of summer have all “flown the coop,” returning to warmer climes to the south in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Of course, even as hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers, vireos, and others have fled North America in advance of winter’s imminent arrival, other birds are arriving to take their place.

Many of the newcomers don’t offer the vibrant plumage of a scarlet tanager or a rose-breasted grosbeak, but they make up for the lack of striking feathers by remaining quite faithful to our feeders during the bleak, short days of winter. A hermit thrush and a dark-eyed junco represented some first-of-autumn arrivals when they showed up Nov. 6, followed the next day by a swamp sparrow. In addition to the sparrow, three ravenous common grackles descended on my suet feeders that same day.

For many bird enthusiasts, the “common” in this particular bird’s name is particularly apt. Tending to form large, noisy flocks, common grackles can easily wear out even the most generous welcome. Perhaps because I live at a mid-elevation area, common grackles are extremely infrequent visitors to my yard. I can be a little more welcoming to a bird that I know is not likely to linger.

Photo by diapicard/Pixabay.com • A common grackle perches on a shepherd’s hook in a garden. These large birds, which are part of the blackbird family, form flocks and bring big appetites to feeders during migratory stops.

Nevertheless, that same evening these three grackles must have spread the word because a flock of about 30 of these birds arrived. If I needed a reminder, the flock provided a quick one. A handful of grackles isn’t too disruptive, but a large flock can quickly overwhelm and intimidate smaller feeder birds.

Even so, I remain inclusive in my embrace of all feathered friends. A much maligned bird if ever there was one, the common grackle is worth a second look. For those who are able to overlook the occasional bad habits of birds such as Northern mockingbirds, mourning doves, or even cantankerous ruby-throated hummingbirds, there may be hope for this large member of the diverse family of blackbirds, known by scientific types as a member of the family Icteridae. This grouping of New World species, also known as New World blackbirds, includes such members as orioles, meadowlarks, cowbirds, bobolinks, marshbirds, orependolas, caciques and, of course, blackbirds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A boat-tailed grackle sings, if the bird’s harsh, grating notes can be considered a song, from a perch in a wetland in South Carolina.

The common grackle is known by the scientific name Quiscalus quiscula. In the southeast, in particular along the coast and in wetland areas, a common and related species is the boat-tailed grackle. Other species of grackles found in the New World include the great-tailed grackle, Nicaraguan grackle, Great Antillean grackle and the Carib grackle. A little more distantly related are the South American species golden-tufted mountain grackle and the Colombian mountain grackle.

One species — the slender-billed grackle of Mexico — suffered extinction at the dawn of the 20th century. Reasons for this bird’s disappearance are not clearly understood, but habitat destruction of Mexican wetlands and hunting pressures have been theorized as causes. Like others of its kind, the slender-billed grackle may also have been persecuted as an agricultural pest.

Like many other birds dependent on wetlands, common grackles have experienced population declines in recent decades. Although it seems odd to refer to a bird with a population estimated at around 73 million individuals in North America as on the decline, common grackles have suffered an estimated population loss of about 60 percent from historic highs.

Male grackles stand out from other blackbirds due to their sheer size. Males can reach a length of 13 inches, although much of that can be measured in an exceptionally long tail. A grackle’s plumage has a black sheen that can shine with brilliant iridescence that tends to appear purple, green or blue when the sun shines just right on the feathers. Females tend to be smaller than males and are a muted black and brown. Both sexes have long, sturdy bills and yellow eyes.

Most rural residents don’t have to worry about common grackles overwhelming their feeders, but some people living in urban and suburban settings have found grackles to be difficult guests. The birds have bottomless appetites and are aggressive toward more desirable feeder birds. Fortunately, migrating flocks in the fall tend not to linger. After a brief visit, which can still deplete supplies of seed and suet cakes, the grackles continue migrating.

Grackles are usually one of the earliest birds to return each spring. In fact, it’s not at all unusual for these large birds to make their way back to the region as early as late February. I am usually glad to welcome them back since I know that their return is a strong indication that some more favored species are certain to follow in their wake and that winter’s grip is waning.

Are you seeing new arrivals in your yard or at your feeders? Let me know by emailing ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Boat-tailed grackles perch on viewing equipment at an observation platform at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Legends of fearsome birds grounded in distant reality

Illustration by Auntspray/Adobe Stock A lone gastornis walks by the edge of a river in this artist’s illustration of a member of an extinct avian family known as “Terror Birds.” These large flightless birds arose as apex predators in much of their domain.

Giant eagles, terror birds, and rocs! Oh my! While begging the pardon of the clever writers of 1939’s film “The Wizard of Oz,” I thought I’d focus on some of the more terrifying birds to ever roam the planet as we move closer to Halloween later this month.

Photo by Couleur/Pixabay.com • A white-tailed eagle is one of the world’s larger eagles, but even this large raptor would have been dwarfed by the now-extinct Haast’s eagle that once hunted giant moas in New Zealand.

Giant Eagles

In the not-so-distant past, an eagle in New Zealand achieved status as an apex feathered predator that specialized in preying on some of the largest birds to ever live.

Known as Haast’s eagle, this now-extinct raptor had a body size about 40 percent larger than even the largest of today’s eagles. Females probably reached a weight of 22 to 33 pounds. Males, as is the case with most living eagles today, were smaller than females but still probably weighed between 20 to 26 pounds. This gigantic eagle, however, possessed a relatively short wingspan of roughly 8 to 10 feet wide, which compares to that recorded for large specimens of golden eagle and Steller’s sea eagle.

This huge raptor was a major predator on the population of New Zealand moas, a large flightless and wingless bird somewhat reminiscent of modern ostriches. In direct comparison with the moas, these New Zealand eagles were almost puny. Some moas reached a height of 12 feet tall and a weight of more than 500 pounds. Despite their superior size and weight, however, moas simply lacked any defense against the huge razor-like talons and sharp beak of the Haast’s Eagle. An attack by such a well-equipped bird of prey must have been devastating to their prey. If Haast’s eagle was anything like many modern predators, it probably chose to hunt young, infirm or elderly moas rather than an adult moa in prime health.

Back in 2009, Associated Press writer Michael Casey speculated in an article on Haast’s eagle that this bird of prey might have included humans on the menu. Casey wrote that in recent years the scientific opinion on Haast’s eagle has evolved. Once thought to be a mere scavenger like vultures, most experts now think Haast’s eagle was a capable and efficient predator.

There is no direct evidence that the eagle, which went extinct about 500 years ago, ever dined on humans. Casey does mention the legend of the pouakai, which was a giant bird with a reputation for launching sudden attacks on people and fully capable of killing a small child.

If the Haast’s eagle did snatch a few unfortunate children, the Maori who colonized New Zealand about 750 years soon returned the favor. Both the moa and Haast’s eagle disappeared from New Zealand soon after humans arrived on the remote island.

Artist Charles Knight, famous for now outdated depictions of dinosaurs, illustrated his version of a “terror bird” back in 1901.

Terror Birds

Terror birds were prehistoric forebears to Haast’s eagle. More accurately known as Phorusrhacids, the “terror birds” were an extinct clade of large carnivorous flightless birds that were the largest species of apex predators in South America during the period of prehistory known as “The Age of Mammals.”

Unlike Haast’s eagle, which was fully capable of flight, the terror birds were flightless like the extinct moas and our modern ostriches, emus and cassowaries. The tallest of the terror birds stood 10 feet tall, but some members of the family were considerably smaller, reaching a height between two and three feet.

The larger species included birds such as Titanis walleri, Phorusrhacos ameghino and Kelenken guillermoi. With a skull more than 28 inches long, Kelenken possessed the largest head of any known bird. Some members of the diverse terror bird family even ranged into what is now the southern United States. Fossils of some of these ancient birds have been found in Florida and Texas. As the saying goes, everything’s bigger in Texas.

Mammals of various sizes provided a smorgasbord for the terror birds, which were more than capable of running down prey and dispatching it with a heavy, hooked beak. While it would be fascinating to still have terror birds roaming the globe, I have to admit that I prefer that the birds content themselves with sunflower seeds and suet cakes rather than considering whether I might make a nice addition to the menu.

This color illustration by Charles Maurice Detmold depicts the legendary roc and its elephant prey.

Legend of the Roc

While descriptions of the mythical roc make this bird sound like a truly horrifying feathered terror, the actual creature behind the origins of this incredible beast was actually a placid herbivore.

The roc arose in the fabulous fables of the Middle East. The famous compilation of stories known as One Thousand and One Nights features accounts of the monstrous roc, a bird deemed capable of seizing and carrying off prey as large as a fully grown elephant.

In reality, discoveries of the eggs of a bird now known to science as the extinct Vorombe titan likely inspired the myth of the roc. Vorombe titan stood almost 10 feet tall and weighed 1,600 pounds. The largest living bird today is the common ostrich. Males ostriches can reach a height of 9 feet and weigh 250 pounds, which means Vorombe titan would have dwarfed modern ostriches.

Native to the island of Madagascar, Vorombe titan and its relatives went extinct about a thousand years ago. Explorers from Middle Eastern countries returned from the island of Madagascar with egg shells that provided strong evidence of a giant bird and led to the legend of the roc, or elephant bird. The eggs of this bird were indeed impressive. The eggs were 13 inches long and 3 feet, 3 inches in circumference. About 160 chicken eggs could have fit inside a Vorombe titan’s egg.

The family of birds known as kiwis are considered the closest living relatives of the giant moas.

Once thought to be related to ratites, which includes modern ostriches, emus and cassowaries, Vorombe titan’s closest living relatives are probably the kiwis, a family of flightless birds that still exists in New Zealand. Like the kiwi, Vorombe titan, or the legendary roc, was a gentle, near-sighted herbivore.

While the imaginative mind can spin interesting scenarios with these gone-but-not-forgotten monsters, I think I’ll confine my birding to warblers, hummingbirds and other backyard birds.