Tag Archives: Carter County Compass

Welcoming Eastern towhees into yards, gardens easy to accomplish

Photo by Ken Thomas • A male Eastern towhee forages for food in the grass beneath a feeder.

It’s the time of year when young birds start making their first forays to feeders, usually accompanied by their parents and siblings. In recent weeks, I’ve seen everything from young brown thrashers and tufted titmice to ruby-throated hummingbirds and Eastern bluebirds.

Ann Windsor posted an interesting photo on my Facebook page last month that illustrates this emergence of a new generation of feathered friends. Her photo showed a male Eastern towhee escorting one of his offspring to a feeder on the deck of Ann’s home in Selmer, Tennessee.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted these Eastern towhees.

Her post followed up a video she had posted of a pair of towhees visiting her feeder.

“I wanted to share with you about our towhee bird,” Ann noted in her post. “We call him ‘pretty boy,’ and he has been coming to our feeder now for two years or more.”

Back in early June, the male towhee showed up with a female for the first time. “She was more comfortable around us and got in the feeder with him,” Ann wrote. “We have so enjoyed him.”

Ann has made some interesting observations about the male towhee. “When he is in the little feeder dish, he’s the boss,” she wrote. “Any other birds come along, even the blue jays, and he runs them off.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • Female Eastern towhees are retain the male’s white and rusty-orange plumage, but they are brown instead of black like their male counterparts.

Ann’s day-to-day encounters with the towhees has turned into a “fun relationship” as the birds have learned to trust her enough that they don’t fly away when she’s in the yard.

I mentioned in a response to her first posting that the towhees would likely bring their young to her feeders once they left the nest. Indeed, about a month later, Ann posted another photo. In this particular picture, the male towhee arrives at the feeder with one of his recently fledged young.

“We have seen three so far,” Ann noted. She added that the young towhee in the photo loves to get up in one of the flower pots and dig around.

“I was wondering, as the young ones grow up, do they stay in the area, or do they go off to find their own territory?” Ann asked at the end of her post.

In my response, I told Ann that many birds have fidelity to the place where they were born, but things could get crowded if the adult birds also stay put. The parent towhees will probably “encourage” the young birds to strike out on their own and establish their own territories as adults. They might, however, become “neighbors” and choose a location not too far from her home.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern towhee scratches for seeds on the ground beneath a feeder.

Eastern towhees spend a considerable amount of time on the ground and hidden in thickets and hedges. Other common names for this bird includes “ground robin” and “swamp robin.”€ They are one of the larger members of the sparrow family, however, and not related to the thrush family, which includes such birds as American robin, Eastern bluebird and wood thrush.

Unlike the many “€œbrown”€ members of the sparrow family, the Eastern Towhee is a brightly colored bird. Males have a black hood. The black coloration extends into the back and tail. The belly is white, and the sides are flanked with a rusty-red orange. In flight, their black tails are bordered with white feathers, which produces a dramatic flash of contrasting colors. The female Eastern Towhee is an attractive bird in her own right. She shares the rufous sides and white coloration that are present in the male’s plumage. However, the male’€™s black feathers are replaced by a warm, chocolate brown plumage in the female.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Eastern Towhee visits a feeder in July. The chance to see young birds is a great reason to offer food during the summer, but some precautions should be taken to minimize uninvited guests.

The Eastern towhee is one of my favorite yard birds, but not just because of its dramatic appearance. These birds also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males will seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite aptly, as “Drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “€œChew-ink”€ and “€œToe-Hee,” which is the basis for this bird’s common name.

The sparrows known as towhees are spread across two different genuses and consist of Abert’s towhee, California towhee and canyon towhee in the Melozone genus and the Eastern towhee, spotted towhee, green-tailed towhee, and collared towhee in the genus Pipilo. The genus name Pipilo is derived from Latin and roughly translates as “the chirping bunting.”

Keep watching your feeders. At this time of year, they provide one of the best venues for observing quality family time among our feathered friends.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern towhee peeks from the grass as she forages on the ground.

Cardinals don’t always look their best during late summer

Photo Courtesy of Gina Fannin • This female Northern cardinal, with a head devoid of feathers, appeared at a home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although these strange looking cardinals often surprise people, they are not all that uncommon in late summer.

Gina Fannin wrote about an unusual observation of a follicly challenged Northern cardinal at her home in Cincinnati, Ohio. The bird in question, a female cardinal, had lost most of the feathers on her head. Gina took a photo of the bird, which she sent with her email, in which she asked if I have ever encountered a cardinal with such a problem.

Gina said that she has seen male cardinals suffering from baldness, but never a female. “I’ve lived here 24 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen a bald female,” she wrote in her email.

I replied to Gina by informing her that I’ve heard of these strange instances for many years. Bald-headed cardinals seem to be a summer occurrence. I usually get some emails or calls this time of year about people surprised by visits from “weird bald-headed” cardinals. I first began to get calls and email from readers in the late 1990s about this unusual phenomenon that seems to usually afflict cardinals, although I have also seen blue jays suffering from this same ailment.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This female Northern cardinal, shown with one of her offspring at a feeder in late summer, is exhibiting some problems with her feather molt.

I have studied the opinions of various bird experts, but there doesn’t seem to be consensus about the cause. Some believe the “baldness” is caused by an infestation of mites, which are small relatives of spiders and other arachnids. Others believe that the loss of feathers around the head is a part of a normal molting process. This theory is supported by the fact that cardinals do undergo molting in late summer, usually after the conclusion of the nesting season.

The process of molting removes old feathers, which simply drop from the body as new feathers emerge to take their place. For some reason, some cardinals and jays lose all their head feathers at one time before new feathers are ready to take their place. That’s why the condition is typically observed in the summer months. Both male and female cardinals can be afflicted with “bald” heads. It’s strange that the condition primarily affects these two birds, cardinals and jays, both of which have feather crests. On the other hand, cedar waxwings are also crested birds, but I have never observed or received a report on a “bald-headed” cedar waxwing.

Whatever the cause, a “bald-headed” cardinal is an ugly bird. Without feathers, a cardinal is transformed from a showy favorite among bird enthusiasts to a rather grotesque oddity that could aptly be described as resembling a scavenging vulture. Birds like vultures, however, have heads devoid of feathers for a very important reason: As scavengers, a feathered head would become quickly fouled as the bird reaches into the carcasses of dead animals to feed.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This young Northern cardinal visits a feeder in the Atlanta suburbs.

The cardinals I have seen with “bald” heads have been visiting feeders stocked with sunflower seeds or perhaps a holder offering a suet cake. So, the absence of feathers is not a hygienic adaptation on the part of cardinals and jays similar to the hygienic necessity of bald heads among vultures. The good news is that the condition is temporary. The normal molt for a Northern cardinal takes two or three months. The feathers on the head do emerge eventually, which is probably very fortunate for the afflicted birds. Feathers serve as insulation during cold weather. A “bald-headed” cardinal would probably have difficulty surviving winter cold spells.

We’re all accustomed to seeing cardinals at our feeders, but people who feed birds would probably be surprised by how much food cardinals and other feeder visitors obtain away from our well-stocked offerings. During the summer months, cardinals eat a variety of wild seeds, fruit and insects. Some of the fruit consumed by cardinals include elderberry, dogwood, blackberry and wild grapes. Young cardinals still in the nest (and fledglings for some time after leaving the nest) are fed mostly insects, including crickets, spiders, moths and flies.

To make cardinals comfortable in every season, offer plenty of thick vegetation, such as a hedge or row of shrubs, and consider planting some of the fruit trees and shrubs that will help these beautiful birds supplement their diet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Northern cardinal with most of her head featherless.

Eastern phoebe belongs to extensive flycatcher family

Photo by leoleobobeo/Pixabay.com • An Eastern phoebe perches on a garden shepherd’s hook. Phoebes, a member of the extensive New World flycatcher family, are adept at capturing flying insect prey by utilizing elevated perches.

Jill Henderson, who resides in Saltville, Virginia, emailed me recently with a question about a bird nesting atop a column on her back porch.

Jill provided me with four photographs attached to her email that greatly assisted in identifying the nesting birds on her back porch. 

“It seems to enjoy the water in my pool,” she added. Indeed, a couple of the photos showed the bird perched poolside on one of her lawn chairs. 

The nesting birds turned out to be Eastern phoebes, which are a member of the extensive family of birds known as “tyrant flycatchers.” The information about the pool assisted with the identification. Phoebes show an affinity for water, whether the source is a creek, pond or even a residential swimming pool.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe scans from a perch for flying insect prey.

Considering the bright finery worn by some of the more colorful spring arrivals, it’s understandable if the return of Eastern phoebes escape immediate notice each year. In comparison with vibrant birds like rose-breasted grosbeak, ruby-throated hummingbird, scarlet tanager and yellow warbler, the Eastern phoebe is downright drab with its gray-black and dingy white plumage. Nevertheless, this member of the flycatcher clan has earned itself a favorite spot in the hearts of many a birdwatcher. It’s one of those birds that even beginning birders find surprisingly easy to recognize and identify after a bit of study. While it may not have a dramatic plumage pattern to hint at its identity, the Eastern phoebe is quite at home around human dwellings and comes into close contact with people going about their daily routines. Rather tame — or at least not too bothered by close proximity with humans — the Eastern phoebe has one behavior that sets it apart from all the other similar flycatchers. When this bird lands on a perch, it cannot resist a vigorous bobbing of its tail. Every time a phoebe lands on a perch, it will produce this easily recognized tail dip and rise. It’s a behavior that makes this bird almost instantly recognizable among birders with a knowledge of the trait.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe fledgling only recently out of the nest.

Photo by Sarangib/Pixabay.com • A black phoebe perches on a post near a palm tree.

The Eastern phoebe is also an enthusiastic springtime singer, and the song it chooses to sing is an oft-repeated two-syllable call “FEE-bee” that provides the inspiration for this bird’s common name. The Eastern phoebe, known by the scientific name of Sayornis phoebe, has two relatives in the genus Sayornis. The genus is named after Thomas Say, an American naturalist. The Eastern phoebe’s close relatives include the black phoebe and Say’s phoebe. The black phoebe ranges throughout Oregon, Washington and California and as far south as Central and South America. As its name suggests, this bird has mostly black feathers instead of the gray plumage of its relatives. The Say’s phoebe, also named for the man who gave the genus its name, is the western counterpart to the Eastern phoebe.

The phoebes belong to the the world’s largest family of birds, which is known collectively as the “tyrant flycatchers.” With more than 400 species, this family of birds consists of species known as tyrannulets, elaenias, pygmy tyrants, tody-flycatchers, spadebills, flatbills, attilas, kingbirds and kiskadees. 

Since they belong to the vast family of New World flycatchers, it’s probably no surprise that these phoebes feed largely on insects. The birds will often perch patiently until an insect’s flight brings it within easy range. A quick flight from its perch usually allows the skillful bird to return with a morsel snatched on the wing. In the winter months, the Eastern phoebe also eats berries and other small fruit. Phoebes can even feed on poison ivy berries without risk of ill effects.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern Phoebe perches on barbed wire.

Phoebes are fond of nesting on human structures, including culverts, bridges and houses. With the latter, they were once known for their habit of placing their nests under sheltering eaves. At my home, a pair of Eastern phoebes often chooses to nest on the wooden rafters in my family’s garage.  Although the species is migratory, a few hardy individuals will usually try to tough out winters in the region. The others that depart in the autumn will migrate to the southern United States and as far south as Central America. On some rare occasions, Eastern phoebes have flown far off their usual course and ended up in western Europe. I can usually count on Eastern phoebes returning to my home in early March, making them one of the first migrants to return each year. Their arrival rarely goes unnoticed since the males tend to start singing persistently as soon as they arrive.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern phoebe nestlings stay in their nest atop a blade on an outdoor ceiling fan.

 

John James Audubon, an early naturalist and famed painter of North America’s birds, conducted an experiment with some young phoebes that represents the first-ever bird banding in the United States of America. His novel experiment, which he carried out in 1803, involved tying some silver thread to the legs of the phoebes he captured near his home in Pennsylvania. He wanted to answer a question he had about whether birds are faithful to home locations from year to year. The following year, Audubon again captured two phoebes and found the silver thread had remained attached to their legs. Today, ornithologists still conduct bird banding to gather information on birds and the mystery of their migrations. So, that pair of phoebes that returned to your backyard this spring — they just might be the same ones that have spent past summer seasons providing you with an enlightening glimpse into their lives.

Jill reminded me that she had written to me a few years back and had mentioned difficulty with hummingbird feeders and bears. “I am happy to report that so far this summer, there have been no incidents,” she wrote.

Her email also reminded me of a recent surprise. I awoke recently to the sound of a disturbance outside my bedroom window. I figured rambunctious squirrels were raiding my feeders. I raised the blind and surprised myself and a young black bear. Standing on his hind legs, the bear had managed to hook its paws on one of my feeders that hangs about four feet off the ground. The bear, probably a yearling based on its size, fled the scene, which probably spared my feeder. 

If you have a question, wish to comment on a column or share an observation, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. If you want help with identification, photographs definitely help.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe utilizes a hiking trail sign as an elevated perch.

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.

Indigo buntings common and colorful summer bird in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting’s one of the region’s more vibrantly colored birds of summer.

The recent five-county Spring Bird Count, conducted Saturday, May 4, by the Elizabethton Bird Club, found 145 species in the five Northeast Tennessee counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington. The count included such cities as Bristol, Johnson City, Jonesborough, Kingsport, Erwin, and Mountain City. A total of 57 participants in 11 parties counted during the annual survey of avian populations in the region. The long-running count is the only spring census of birds conducted in the area.

Not surprisingly, some of the most abundant birds included Canada goose, European starling, American crow, red-winged blackbird and common grackle. Some of the more common songbirds included red-eyed vireo, Northern cardinal, American robin, hooded warbler, American goldfinch and Indigo bunting.

The indigo bunting is one of the reasons spring is such a wonderful time of the year to watch the visitors to feeders. This small songbird likes to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer. One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings — still return each year to my yard and gardens.

Photon by Bryan Stevens • Indigo Buntings will perch on wires and sing for hours even during hot summer days.

These birds usually arrive in the region in late April, and I’ve seen them linger until late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September. Upon arrival, male indigo buntings become tenacious singers, repeating their jumbled notes even during the hottest hours of summer afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees, where they are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

The indigo bunting is the only solid blue bird in the eastern United States, but it’s all an illusion — literally a trick of the light. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue; the male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of diffraction of light around the structure of the bird’s feathers. This process scatters all but the blue light, and the resulting color shifts from black to blue to turquoise as the angle of reflected light changes. In bright light, it can even look unnaturally vivid blue. In poor light, however, an indigo bunting male can appear black. Fortunately, indigo buntings have both a characteristic body shape and song, so even if the birds are not seen at their best, they can still be recognized.

Early American naturalist and artist captured the differences in male, female and immature indigo buntings in this painting of the species.

Soon after returning to the eastern United States each spring, female buntings begin to gather materials to construct a well-crafted, cup-shaped nest. The male usually stays close to her, but he offers no assistance with nest building. She usually lays a clutch of three to four eggs, but she may nest another two times in a single season.

She will incubate the eggs for almost two weeks, but the young remain in the nest another two weeks after being hatched as featherless, blind and helpless young completely dependent on the care of attentive parents. The task of raising so many broods in the space of only a few months requires the participation of both the female and her mate, who must work hard to bring enough insects to the nest to keep the young fed.

Like many species of songbirds, the male is by far the most colorful. In this instance, the male is also responsible for the species’ name. Indigo is a blue dye that was once an important crop in the South. The drab female may boast some blue highlights in her plumage. Juvenile birds just out of the nest also resemble the female. Pay close attention to any indigo buntings you observe as summer progresses. Juvenile birds will look mostly brown with just a hint of blue in the wings and the tail. These will be the young buntings that were hatched this spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders.

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. Although some books indicate that males are not very active in rearing young, I have on numerous occasions witnessed male buntings feeding fledglings at feeders. Indigo bunting juveniles, like the young of many other birds, beg for tidbits from parents by “bowing,” spreading their wings and shivering. These actions usually prompt a parent to pop some morsel into an impatient youngster’s open bill. Indigo buntings are relatively easy to view. They frequent weedy fields and roadside brush. During the breeding season, males can also be seen singing from prominent perches. The song, a distinctive jumble of notes, can help observers find these dedicated singers.

The male indigo bunting is one of the most colorful birds to visit feeders in the region. This species is also extremely fond of millet seed. I like to have some feeders stocked with millet when the buntings begin to return each spring. They will also feed on thistle and sunflower seeds. Away from our feeders, they also devour plenty of seeds from various noxious weeds. Because of the indigo bunting’s appetite for the seeds of destructive weeds, it is considered a beneficial bird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Newly-returned neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increased the total number of species for the annual spring count.

One of the most attractive summer scenes is to observe American goldfinches and indigo buntings feeding together on the nodding heads of summer sunflowers. The goldfinch males, resplendent in their bright yellow and black plumage, compete with the blue indigo bunting males for the fresh sunflower seeds. When bright red male Northern cardinals join in, observers have a complete artists’s palette for summer viewing.

The indigo bunting will usually respond to human squeaks that imitate a bird’s call. When a flock or family group of buntings are disturbed by a human observer, they usually begin a chorus of alarmed “chipping.”

As I indicated earlier, indigo buntings remain in the region until late September. Although this bird typically winters in Mexico, Panama and the Caribbean, in recent decades some indigo buntings have only gone as far south as Florida to spend the winter. There in the Sunshine State, the indigo buntings may mingle with a close relative, the splendidly multi-colored painted bunting. I usually see these vibrant songbirds whenever I visit coastal South Carolina in spring or summer. Male painted buntings are probably one of the most colorful birds in the United States with hues of red, green, purple and blue in their feathers.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male painted bunting enjoys a bath in a fountain at Hunting Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Other North American buntings include the snow bunting, the lazuli bunting and the lark bunting, which is also the official state bird for Colorado. Some of the common but descriptive names for some of the world’s other buntings include rose-bellied bunting, orange-breasted bunting, cinereous bunting, white-capped bunting, lark-like bunting, ochre-rumped bunting, golden-breasted bunting, chestnut-bunting, red-headed bunting, yellow bunting, blue bunting, little bunting, brown-rumped bunting, meadow bunting, corn bunting and crested bunting.

Keep your feeders stocked with millet and sunflower seeds if you want to increase your chances of seeing indigo buntings, as well as other handsome summer songbirds such as American goldfinch, chipping sparrow and Eastern towhee.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although bright blue, a male indigo bunting will often blend with its surroundings.

Although graceful in the water, life gets awkward for grebes on land

As the calendar moves into the months of October and November, migrating waterfowl will replace the exodus of songbirds that evacuate the North American continent every fall in preparation for their winter season in the tropics. The umbrella term of waterfowl can include such birds as ducks, geese, loons and grebes.

Pond-Edge-Grebe

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This pied-billed grebe stranded itself on a wet lawn during fall migration. A grebe’s legs are positioned so far back on their bodies that grebes have difficult walking on land. Once released in a pond, the grebe was able to take flight and continue its migration.

That last family keeps one of the lowest profiles among the grouping of birds lumped together as waterfowl. Worldwide, there are 22 species of grebes. This family also includes three extinct species — Alaotra grebe, Atitlán grebe and Colombian grebe.

Many people are unaware of the grebes. After all, they are oddball birds with not a lot in common with other waterfowl such as loons and ducks. In eastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, the pied-billed grebe is the most likely member of the grebe family to come into contact with humans. The pied-billed grebe’s scientific name, Podilymbus podiceps, can be roughly translated as “rear-footed diver.” The reference is to the fact that this grebe, as well as others of its kind, have their feet positioned so far back on their bodies that movement on land is difficult and awkward.

The pied-billed grebe has inspired a variety of other common names, including American dabchick, dabchick, Carolina grebe, devil-diver, dive-dapper, hell-diver, pied-billed dabchick, pied-bill, thick-billed grebe and water witch, all of which reflect this grebe’s almost exclusively aquatic lifestyle.

The pied-billed grebe is a world-class survivor. Already a member of an ancient family of birds, this species has outlasted the others in its genus. The Atitlán grebe, which was also known as the giant grebe, went extinct around 1989 after a series of catastrophic setbacks, including a devastating earthquake and the introduction of smallmouth and largemouth bass to Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. The bass consumed the prey this grebe needed for its survival, and large bass occasionally ate young grebes.

Smallmouth bass.png

Bass introduced into Lake Atitlán consumed the small fish that the Atitlán Grebe              required as a food source. Large bass also ate young grebes.

 

 

These birds range in size from the least grebe, which weighs only about six ounces, to the great grebe, which can tip the scales at four pounds. North American grebes include red-necked grebe, horned grebe, eared grebe, Clark’s grebe and Western grebe. In extreme southern Texas, birders can find least grebes in suitable wetland habitats.

With the exception of the least grebe, I’ve seen all of North America’s grebes. During visits to Utah in 2003 and 2006, I observed the sleek, long-necked Clark’s grebe and Western grebe. On a 2006 trip to Utah, I visited Antelope Island State Park and observed tens of thousands of Eared Grebes gathered on the Great Salt Lake for the nesting season. In Tennessee, one of the most reliable locations to find eared grebes is from viewing areas at Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake, where a small number of these grebes have wintered for many years.

An unusual February fallout back in 2014 resulted in equally unusual numbers of red-necked grebes on area lakes, rivers, and ponds. I’d previously observed this grebe on Boone Lake, South Holston Lake and Watauga Lake in northeast Tennessee.

Grebe-Mallards

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Red-necked Grebe mixes with Mallards at a pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

Grebes are prone to landing on glistening surfaces — lawns, asphalt parking lots and even paved roads — during migration flights, especially at night during heavy rain. A serious problem arises when the grebe, with those rear-positioned feet, finds itself stranded, unable to take flight again without a paddling run across the surface of a body of water.

One of these strandings was recounted in Rick Knight’s book, The Birds of Northeast Tennessee. On Feb. 13, 1994, a red-necked grebe grounded itself with one of these crash landings onto a parking lot in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The fortunate grebe received a human-assisted rescue, being transported to a small lake near the town for release.

In November of 2011, a neighbor delivered a bird that had landed in his yard and could not take flight. The bird, put into a cardboard box for its own safety, didn’t appear to have any injuries. Once I saw the bird, I realized it was a pied-billed grebe. We released the bird on my fish pond, where the grebe dived and swam extensively before resting for a long period on a muddy edge of the pond. Overnight, the grebe disappeared. I believe the grebe took flight during the night and continued with its fall migration. The incident remains one of my closest encounters with a grebe.

Rescue-GREBE

Photo by Bryan Stevens The pied-billed grebe paddles through the water after it was rescued after a stranding on a lawn.

 

In the coming weeks and all throughout the winter months, look for pied-bill grebes, as well well as more uncommon grebes like horned grebe and red-necked grebe, on lakes and rivers throughout the region.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Woodcocks, snipe among the more oddball members of a diverse shorebird clan

Photo by Leah Hawthorn/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • An American woodcock probes for food among fallen leaves on the woodland floor.

March is traditionally a month of erratic weather, characterized by blustery winds and occasional drenching rainstorms. While the month is also a signal to get ready for the return of migrant songbirds, they are hardly the only birds on the wing each spring. Birds from waterfowl to raptors migrate through the region in March, April and May, but the real migratory champs are the shorebirds.

Known for migrating incredible distances, the shorebirds are often referred to as “wind birds,” a romantic allusion to their habit of taking wing for the epic journeys that astound scientists and birders alike. Among the far-flung family are birds known as sandpipers and plovers, as well as whimbrels, willets, tattlers and turnstones.
Still, among the general public, as well as some birders, the shorebirds are a much misunderstood group of birds. For example, most people could hardly be blamed for believing that shorebirds are inhabitants of only the beach and shore. In fact, some species are at home in an array of habitats, ranging from woodlands and prairies to the Arctic tundra and mudflats. Some are notoriously elusive, their camouflage and low-key behavior allowing them to escape casual notice at most times.
In late winter and early spring, a true oddball among the shorebirds begins courting. The American woodcock, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” is a shorebird that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. Beginning as early as February, American woodcocks in the region conduct nightly courtship displays, starting at dusk, that combines aerial acrobatics with an assortment of unusual acoustical flourishes. Any wet field adjacent to a wooded area could offer a stage for these evening displays, but unless you know where to look and make an effort to do so, the American woodcock might as well remain a phantom of the night.
John-James-Audubon-American-Woodcock.-1.-Male.-2.-Female.3.-Young-in-Autumn

John James Audubon, an early American naturalist and artist, painted this scene of American woodcocks feeding in damp earth.

These mating rituals provide almost the only time that this bird makes itself visible to us. It’s only during this brief window that opens into their lives that we can be assured a glimpse. Even then, our peek at woodcocks often consists of a fuzzy twilight escapade as the bird flings itself heavenward only to make a spiraling descent a few seconds later. The displays begin with a distinct vocalization, a type of “pent,” that also has the quality of sounding like some sort of mechanical buzzer.
Once the displays conclude for the season, the birds assume nesting duties, usually unobserved by humans. The rest of the year, almost nothing but blind, sheer luck would allow a birder to stumble across an American woodcock. It’s almost as if they disappear after these spring flights of fancy.

For the most part, the “wind birds” leave lives in habitats that keep them separate from humans. On occasion, however, one of these shorebirds pays an unexpected visit to members of the public. Tom and Helen Stetler, residents of Elizabethton, Tennessee, shared an account of one such visit in a recent email.

Snipe-Stetler

Photo by Tom Stetler • A Wilson’s snipe visits the yard at the home of Tom and Helen Stetler in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

“We had a visit from a very unusual bird today,” Tom wrote in the email. “It was a woodcock. It stayed quite a while this morning.”
He estimated that the bird stayed in their yard for about 15 to 20 minutes.  “I kept trying to get a good picture of its long bill and finally did,” he said, enclosing a photo of the visiting bird with his email.
He credited his wife, Helen, with having spotted the bird. After seeing the bird, Helen called to her husband to come have a look “at this bird with a very long beak!”
After I examined the photo, I noticed that the unusual visitor was actually not a woodcock but a closely related bird known as a Wilson’s snipe. The confusion of the two birds is quite understandable. The snipe and the woodcock bear a superficial resemblance to each other.

The American woodcock belongs to the genus of Scolopax, a Latin term for this group of eight oddball shorebirds. Other members of the genus include the Eurasian woodcock, the New Guinea woodcock and the Sulawesi woodcock.

Snipe-One

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Wilson’s snipe is remarkably capable of blending with its surroundings.

Wilson’s snipe, which is closely related to the woodcock, inspired the term “snipe hunt.” Regarded as lessons in futility, these hunts are not seeking some mythical quarry, although some people mistakenly believe there’s no such bird as a snipe. In fact, there are several species of snipes, although only one — Wilson’s snipe — can be found in much of the United States. Some of the world’s other 25 species of snipe include Jack snipe, wood snipe, pintail snipe, noble snipe and imperial snipe.
Any wet field or pasture may conceal hidden snipes during the spring. A few sometimes spend the winter in the region. Flushing a snipe from a tangle of grass right at your feet as you walk through a wet field always works to get the heart pumping faster. Snipe also stage spring mating displays that are not quite as elaborate as those of the woodcock. I suspect that recent heavy rains made the yard at the Stetler home similar enough to a flooded field to attract the visiting snipe.

While both the Wilson’s snipe and American woodcock are elusive birds able to easily conceal themselves from view, other shorebirds definitely stand out in a crowd. For example, the gangly black-necked stilt and the spindly American avocet are surely two of the most striking, almost comical shorebirds in North America.

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The American woodcock is also known by such whimsical common names as bogsucker and timberdoodle.

In addition, members of the shorebird family vary greatly in size. North America’s smallest shorebird, appropriately enough, is the least sandpiper, a tiny shorebird less than six inches in length and weighing barely an ounce. The least sandpiper breeds widely across northern Canada and Alaska and winters across the southern United States and Mexico.
The largest shorebird — depending on how “largest” is defined — is either the Far Eastern curlew or the beach thick-knee. The Far Eastern Curlew is a large shorebird most similar in appearance to North America’s long-billed curlew, but slightly larger. This bird definitely has the longest bill of any shorebird and ranks as the world’s largest member of the sandpiper clan. The Far Eastern curlew is 25 inches in body length, although the Eurasian curlew is almost the same size. If it comes down to weight, the heaviest shorebird is the beach thick-knee, a bird native to Australia and the islands of Southeast Asia and India. This unusual shorebird can weigh as much as 2.2 pounds, but is only 22 inches long. The Far Eastern curlew, in comparison, weighs a mere 27 ounces.
In the coming weeks, check the edges of ponds, the banks of rivers and shorelines of lakes for migrating shorebirds. Don’t forget to keep an eye on your yard, too. Spring migration is always full of surprises.
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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, share an observation or make a comment, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.