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Common nighthawks share autumn skies with many other migrants

Autumn’s a chance for me to indulge my passion for warblers, with a few dozen species of these songbirds passing through the region in the span of a few weeks. I always try to keep in mind, however, that the warblers are not the only migrating birds winging through the region.

The Elizabethton Bird Club had planned a “nighthawks and hot dogs” party at the home of Larry McDaniel near Jonesborough, but that event had to be cancelled because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the region.

My silver lining was that I saw a large flock of common nighthawks at my home on Aug. 29. It was an evening of birding dominated by insect-eaters and fruit-eaters.

Cedar waxwings and one American robin perched in the wild cherry trees and plucked ripening fruit from the branches.

Swooping overhead a handful of Chimney Swifts and about 30 Common Nighthawks (the first I have seen this fall) collected insects just over the treetops. Flycatching from a dead blue spruce was an Eastern Wood-Pewee, another fall first.

Other birds included a pair of Northern cardinals feeding three young, an Eastern towhee and one hooded warbler. At one point an irritable ruby-throated hummingbird chased the pewee round and round the trunk of the dead spruce. They almost looked like they were characters in a zany cartoon.

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

Like such birds as warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, flycatchers and hummingbirds, the common nighthawk is a neotropical migrant. In addition, this nighthawk has one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. Twice a year, these birds migrate for distances ranging from 1,600 to 4,200 miles. Nighthawks that spend the spring and summer in Canada travel to southern South America for the winter months.

With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the treetops for passing warblers, vireos and tanagers, but I also remember to direct my gaze to the skies. Forgetting to look skyward could result in missing the passage of such varied migrants as chimney swifts, broad-winged hawks and common nighthawks.

So, what is a common nighthawk? First, this bird, despite what is implied by its name, is not a hawk. It’s also not strictly nocturnal. Particularly in the fall, nighthawks are active during daylight hours when engaged in catching winged insects. Outside of fall migration, these birds can often be observed over large parking lots or well-lit streets, snatching up insects swarming around the light poles.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A common nighthawk adopts an elongated pose atop a fencepost.

The common nighthawk is one of three members of the nightjar family found in the region during the summer months. The other two nightjars are the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow, birds that produce their namesake vocalizations in the nocturnal hours. Both of these species migrate, but they don’t take the dramatic approach employed by nighthawks. Each fall, common nighthawks form large flocks, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of individuals, as they migrate south for the winter.

Unlike whips and chucks, the common nighthawk isn’t active only after dark, which makes it much easier to observe these birds. They look somewhat like swifts and swallows but are much larger. They are brownish-gray birds with pointed wings and forked tails. They are easily identified by distinctive white patches on the underside of their wings.

A perplexing nickname for the common nighthawk is “bull-bat.” This merger of the words “bull” and “bat” makes sense when you explore a little deeper. The common nighthawk earned the nickname “bull-bat” because of its perceived “bat-like” flight and a “bull-like” boom produced by its wings as it pulls out of a dive.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” Apparently, in trying to explain the nocturnal tendencies of these birds, the Greeks came up with the imaginative but erroneous idea that birds like nighthawks liked to sneak into barns and have a meal of fresh goat’s milk. In reality, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, including ants, wasps, beetles, caddisflies, moths, mayflies, flies, crickets, grasshoppers, and other insects. They capture much of their insect prey on the wing.

There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.

So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move in August and throughout September.

I will keep watching the skies. Nighthawks can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air. First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds.

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

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rising clouds provide a backdrop for a flock of migrating nighthawks.

Wood duck one of few ducks that’s an area resident in summer months

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wood duck, also known as the summer duck or Carolina duck in some locations, perches on a submerged log.

I’ve enjoyed sporadic observations of a family of wood ducks living at the fish pond this summer. A wood duck hen chose to raise four ducklings at my pond, which is cloaked in abundant cattails and waterlilies. I think the dense vegetation offers concealment that makes the little family feel at ease.

Nevertheless, the ducks have remained elusive. I get glimpses of them, but the moment they become aware of me the ducklings form a single line and file one by one into the stands of cattails. The hen is always the last to seek the shelter of the cattails, no doubt ensuring the safety of her young before she thinks of herself.

Waterfowl are usually scarce in the region in summer aside from the ubiquitous Canada geese and mallards found at ponds, local park, golf courses and many other locations. Waterfowl aren’t entirely absent, however, especially when you add the variety of domesticated waterfowl that are often found with the aforementioned geese and ducks.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male wood ducks are one of the most stunning of North America’s waterfowl.

The small wood duck is an exception. This duck is a species of waterfowl that can be found, in suitable habitat, during the summer nesting season throughout the southeastern United States. Unlike Canada geese and mallards, which historically never nested in the region until recent decades, the wood duck is actually supposed to be present during the warmer months of the year. In many parts of their range, wood ducks are known as the “summer duck” since they are the only wild native nesting duck present during the season.

Another common name for this species is the Carolina duck, which refers to the southern stronghold of this species of waterfowl. Wood ducks are year-round residents across much of the southeastern United States, especially in suitable habitat such as small lakes, flooded woodlands, swamps and marshes.

Like a handful of other North American waterfowl, the wood duck is a cavity-nesting bird. These ducks often occupy former nesting cavities created by woodpeckers, but they will also readily accept nesting boxes of suitable dimensions provided by human landlords. Because of their devotion to nesting in cavities, wood ducks have at least something in common with songbirds like Eastern bluebirds, tree swallows and house wrens, as well as larger birds such as American kestrels and Eastern screech-owls. Wood ducks aren’t the only waterfowl that nest in cavities. Buffleheads, hooded mergansers and common goldeneyes are also cavity-nesting ducks. None of those ducks, however, nest in the southeastern United States.

Some wood duck nests can be located far above the ground, which poses a challenge for flightless young. Like most species of waterfowl, young wood ducks are born capable of immediately leaving the nest and being led by their mother to foraging areas. First, however, there’s that giant leap of faith that each of the ducklings must make. Nests are often built over water, so that first jump often ends in a splash-down. Some nests are built over land, but that doesn’t seem an obstacle. The ducklings make that leap without any difficulty. Just like the Abominable Snowmen in the old holiday favorite “Rudolph, The Red-nosed Reindeer,” wood duck babies bounce! Once the ducklings have departed their cozy nesting cavity, their mother will guard them from predators and lead them to prime foraging areas for a period of about two months.

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay • A wood duck hen keeps watch as one of her ducklings forages in the thick duckweed covering a pond’s surface.

The wood duck belongs to the genus Aix. The only other species in the genus — the Mandarin duck — is native to East Asia. The two are classified as “perching ducks” by biologists. The males of both these species are among the most ornate ducks in the world. The male wood duck has red eyes and a dark-tipped red bill. The colors in a male’s plumage includes glossy, iridescent greens, purples and browns in dramatic patterns. The male also has a distinctive head crest. Female wood ducks also have crests, but their plumage is overall gray and brown with a teardrop-shaped white patch around the eyes, as well as a white chin and throat.

The majority of a wood duck’s diet consists of vegetable matter. In autumn, I’ve observed these ducks foraging with enthusiasm for acorns. Summer, however, is a time for gorging on insects. The wood duck hen, and her ducklings in particular, have been happy to forage for insects and other small invertebrates among the floating lily pads.

In his book, “Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh,” author John Eastman noted that the wood duck was the most abundant of North American ducks during the 19th century. In the late 19th century, pressures from hunting and habitat destruction combined to dramatically lower the numbers of this exclusively North American duck. Eastman noted that the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 is largely credited with saving the wood duck from possible extinction.

From 1918 to 1941, it was illegal to hunt wood ducks. Thanks to this temporary hunting ban and other conservation measures, the wood duck population recovered in dramatic fashion. Recent surveys all point to a species on the rebound with numbers of wood ducks rising for the past several decades.

The creek and the fish pond at my home have proven dependable magnets over the years for attracting visiting wood ducks. I also have good luck finding wood ducks at the large pond at Erwin Fishery Park. Most wood ducks in the southeastern United States do not migrate. Those that live farther north during the summer will migrate to areas as far south as Mexico in the fall. We’re fortunate to reside in a region where wood ducks are year-round resident waterfowl.

I feel even more fortunate that a stealthy visit to the fish pond at my home has given me numerous opportunities over the past few months to glimpse the lives of these fascinating ducks of summer.

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To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wood duck family shares a fallen log.

Wandering birds provide some surprising moments for birders

Photo by Roger Mullins • A little blue heron, right, shares a perch with a white ibis at the Buffalo Valley Golf Course in Unicoi. These wading birds are usually found near the coast, but individuals tend to disperse and wander widely after the summer nesting season comes to an end.

Late summer has a sort of lazy feel. Most birds are finishing up their nesting season. Hungry fledglings appear at feeders in the company of adults. In recent weeks, I’m starting to notice a slight uptick in the number of hummingbirds visiting my feeders and garden flowers. It helps that I’ve got dense stands of naturalized bee balm at the edge of my woods. The cedar waxwings have finished off the mulberries, but I suspect they will stick around for the wild cherries. I’ve also noticed the vanguard of migrant birds that are starting to make appearances as fall migration approaches. It’s not just songbirds, however, that are on the move. Some large and rather conspicuous birds have been attracting attention in recent weeks, including a variety of wading birds.

Sightings this summer of long-legged wading birds in Northeast Tennessee that are outside of their usual range have included little blue herons, white ibis and great egrets. The little blue heron and ibis have been recent visitors to Unicoi County. To toss another species into the mix, Tom and Cathy McNeil recently found an American anhinga near Austin Springs at Boone Lake in Washington County. Their anhinga sighting followed their discovery of seven or eight little blue herons and 14 great egrets at this well-known birding hot spot.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Adult little blue herons, like this adult preening at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, have a mix of blue and purple feathers.

Roger Mullins discovered both an immature little blue heron and an immature white ibis during one of his regular visits to scan the ponds along the former Buffalo Valley Golf Course in Unicoi.

“I first spotted the little blue on July 5, and then on July 10 I saw the white ibis standing just a few feet away on the same limb.

“Within minutes they were standing next to each other,” he continued. “They were even following each other from place to place, almost like they were siblings.”

Roger noted that the little blue heron gradually learned to trust him, but he could only get so close without making the bird feel uncomfortable.

“Being extremely patient, taking it slow and easy, is pretty much how I approach all wildlife, and it usually pays off well,” Roger shared.

“I first started visiting the golf course ponds back in the winter when someone told me about seeing a male hooded merganser there,” he noted. “There is not always an abundance of wildlife present, but I always check it out just in case. The best thing about these ponds is the consistent peace and tranquility, since people don’t usually go there for family recreation or to walk their dogs.”

Roger added that he doubted that the little blue heron would have lingered at a public park with more activity.

Most of my own observations of little blue herons have taken place in SouthCarolina, Georgia and Florida, although I have seen this species a couple of times in Tennessee. I have also found little blue herons more skittish than some herons and egrets.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This photo of a little blue heron at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, shows the intermediate phase of plumage that makes identification even more of a challenge.

While diverting storms can’t be ruled out for causing some unexpected birds to detour into the region, it’s also normal behavior for young wading birds to disperse far and wide after leaving the nest. North American waders, or wading birds, include such long-legged species as herons, egrets, bitterns, ibises, storks and spoonbills. Most species are associated with wetlands or coastal areas.

Late summer birding is usually a period of doldrums as heat and humidity can discourage birders as well as diminish bird activity. However, it’s also the time of year when birders can make some unexpected surprises as wandering waders explore uncharted territory.

The great egret – a larger relative of the little blue heron – became a motivational symbol for conservation with the foundation of the National Audubon Society in 1905. Today, the organization has nearly 500 local chapters, each of which is an independent non-profit organization voluntarily affiliated with the National Audubon Society. These chapters often organize birdwatching field trips and conservation-related activities. The National Audubon Society spearheaded efforts to end the mass slaughter of various bird species. Some birds were killed for food, but millions were also killed for their showy feathers that were destined to decorate stylish attire worn as a symbol of high fashion. As early as 1910, some states began passing legislation to abolish trade in bird plumes. The federal government also came to the assistance of birds with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was a law first enacted in 1916 to implement measures to protect and conserve migratory birds.

Photo by Tom McNeil • An American anhinga at Boone Lake found by Tom and Cathy McNeil represents an unusual find for the region. Even more unusual, Tom McNeil found another anhinga in Johnson County, Tennessee, a few days later.

Scientifically speaking, the little blue heron would be more accurately described as an egret. With the scientific name of Egretta caerulea, the little blue heron’s closest relatives are other members of the genus Egretta, which includes such other North American wading birds as snowy egret, reddish egret and tricolored heron. Other members of the genus found in other global localities include little egret, slaty egret and Chinese egret. I’m not sure why the tricolored heron and little blue heron were not named tricolored egret and little blue egret, but there are some Egretta species that also bear the name heron, including black heron, white-faced heron, Pacific reef heron and Western reef heron. It’s probably important to note that there are no real physical differences between herons and egrets. They are all classified together in the family Ardeidae.

I’m fairly confident that Roger’s sighting of a little blue heron is the first documented occurrence of the species in Unicoi County. His white ibis is unexpected but not unprecedented. An immature white ibis spent several days in July of 2011 at the ponds and fields at the home and farm of former Unicoi mayor Johnny Lynch.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American Anhinga dries off feathers after a swim at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

As for the anhinga spotted by the McNeils, this rare visitor was found the following day by several area birders, including Michelle Sparks who relocated the anhinga from her kayak. The anhinga is a large waterbird with a slender neck and a dagger-shaped bill reminiscent of a heron’s bill. These birds spend much of their time swimming beneath the water, often with only their neck and bill above the surface. Apparently the term “anhinga” comes from a native tribe in Brazil. Anhingas prefer fresh water, but they are often found in coastal areas. Most reports from Tennessee come from near Reelfoot Lake in the western portion of the state. Other common names for the anhinga include “water turkey,” “snake bird,” “American darter” and “devil bird.” Worldwide, there are only four species of anhingas, or darters as they are called in other parts of the world. The other three are the Indian darter, the African darter and the Australian darter.

Tom shared an amusing anecdote on Facebook about their sighting of the anhinga.

“Cathy and I found this bird (the anhinga) yesterday evening out of absolute luck,” he wrote. “We had already birded the area and had some great fun observing the little blue herons and great egrets.  We stopped at the Austin Springs bridge for a few moments and saw four river otters playing under the bridge and then just decided to drive back the way we came.”

On their way back, Cathy had Tom stop so she could look at the “white birds” in the top of the trees across the water.

“We both pulled up our binoculars to look at them, but it was the bird perched below them that was the star of the show,” he reported. “We shouted ‘anhinga’  at the exact same time!”

That’s the beauty of birding – those “anhinga” moments. I’m hoping readers are enjoying some fun birds this summer. Share sightings, ask questions or make comments by emailing me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

 

 

Long-running count tallies summer’s nesting bird species

Photo by Jean Potter • Counters found 116 species on the recent Carter County Summer Bird Count, including this female wood duck and ducklings photographed on the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee. A total of 13 wood ducks were found on the day of the count.

The 28th Carter County Summer Bird Count was held Saturday, June 12, with 28 observers taking part.

The weather, which was less than optimal, challenged observers. Rain held steady for much of the day. The rain, along with dense fog on Roan Mountain and other high elevations, resulted in reduced birdsong in many areas. Thus, numbers of individuals were low for many species, especially songbirds.

Despite these hurdles, the count tallied 116 species, which is just one species shy of the recent 10-year average and actually two above the average of the previous 27 years, so, it was not bad considering the weather.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Nesting neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increased the total number of species for the annual summer count.

Participants included Fred Alsop, Rob Biller, Catherine Cummins, Dianne Draper, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Don Holt, David Kirschke, Rick Knight (compiler), Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Dianna Lynn, Vern Maddux, Larry McDaniel, Joe McGuiness, Tom and Cathy McNeil, Brookie and Jean Potter, Judith Reid, Brenda Richards, Judi Sawyer, Michele Sparks, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud, Scott Turner, Charles Warden and John Whinery.

Some species were missed, including yellow-crowned night-heron, great horned owl, chuck-will’s-widow, willow flycatcher, brown creeper, hermit thrush, Kentucky warbler and magnolia warbler. These species are often, but not always, found on this count, according to long-time count compiler Rick Knight.

See if one of your favorite birds was hit or miss, common or uncommon, by scanning over the listing of the total.

The tally follows:
Canada goose, 218; wood duck, 13; mallard, 92; ruffed grouse, 1; wild turkey, 40; double-crested cormorant, 16; great blue heron, 23; and green heron, 2.
Black vulture, 7; turkey vulture, 25; osprey, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 3; bald eagle, 2; red-shouldered hawk, 4; broad-winged hawk, 7; and red-tailed hawk, 10.
Killdeer, 8; American woodcock, 1; rock pigeon, 101; Eurasian collared-dove, 2; mourning dove, 177; yellow-billed cuckoo, 5; Eastern screech-owl, 5; barred owl, 2; common nighthawk, 2; and Eastern whip-poor-will, 7.
Chimney swift, 99; ruby-throated hummingbird, 28; belted kingfisher, 11; red-bellied woodpecker, 24; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 2; downy woodpecker, 19; hairy woodpecker, 3; Northern flicker, 36; pileated woodpecker, 15; and American kestrel, 1.
Eastern wood-pewee, 24; Acadian flycatcher, 9; alder flycatcher, 2; least flycatcher, 13; Eastern phoebe, 48; great crested flycatcher, 7; and Eastern kingbird, 21.
White-eyed vireo, 5; yellow-throated vireo, 2; blue-headed vireo, 38; warbling vireo, 1; red-eyed vireo, 117; blue jay, 77; American crow, 185; fish crow, 4; and common raven, 5.
Purple martin, 38; Northern rough-winged swallow, 34; tree swallow, 109; barn swallow, 154; and cliff swallow, 137.
Carolina chickadee, 32; tufted titmouse, 65; red-breasted nuthatch, 3; white-breasted nuthatch, 10; house wren, 60; winter wren, 3; Carolina wren, 84; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 8; and golden-crowned kinglet, 2.
Eastern bluebird, 113; veery, 23; wood thrush, 35; American robin, 510; gray catbird, 42; brown thrasher, 38; Northern mockingbird, 62; European starling, 1,203; and cedar waxwing, 45.
Ovenbird, 50; worm-eating warbler, 4; Louisiana waterthrush, 10; golden-winged warbler 1; black-and-white warbler 27; Swainson’s warbler, 2; common yellowthroat, 12; hooded warbler, 67; American redstart, 8; Northern parula, 30; Blackburnian warbler, 4; yellow warbler, 1; chestnut-sided warbler, 12; black-throated blue warbler, 20; pine warbler, 2; yellow-throated warbler, 9; prairie warbler, 3; black-throated green warbler, 14; Canada warbler; 5; and yellow-breasted chat, 9.
Eastern towhee; 112; chipping sparrow, 61; field sparrow, 58; savannah sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 253; dark-eyed junco, 46; scarlet tanager, 25; Northern cardinal, 157; rose-breasted grosbeak, 5; blue grosbeak, 5; and indigo bunting, 102.
Red-winged blackbird, 109; Eastern meadowlark, 15; common grackle, 67; brown-headed cowbird, 43; orchard oriole, 4; and Baltimore oriole, 2.
House finch, 132; pine siskin, 1; American goldfinch, 97; and house sparrow, 44.

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I received a phone call from Marian Swanson of Aldie, Virginia, this past week. Marian was looking for advice on feeders for attracting indigo buntings, which she had observed near her home. She was specifically seeking a feeder that would prevent the seed from getting wet during rainstorms.

At her request, I provided Marian with some links to websites offering a variety of feeders for sale.

It’s always great to hear from readers. If you have a bird-related question, email me at bstevens@erwinrecord.net or ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I also enjoy hearing about bird observations or general comments from readers.

Couple glimpses odd bird at Unaka Mountain’s Beauty Spo

 

This American woodcock was photographed by Erwin resident Amy Tipton during a stop that she and her husband made recently at the Unaka Mountain Beauty Spot.

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 known as the shorebirds are species known as sandpipers and plovers, as well as whimbrels, willets, tattlers, godwits, turnstones and an array of others.

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 a variety 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 combine 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.

These mating rituals provide almost the only time of the year during which this bird makes itself available for observation. It’s only during this brief window that opens into their lives that we can be assured a glimpse. Even then, our peeks at woodcocks often consist 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.

Of course, they don’t actually disappear. They are still out there, going about their daily lives. On occasion, someone can stumble across one without even trying.

Amy Tipton can claim to be so fortunate after she and her husband, Paul, recently encountered an “unusual bird” on Unaka Mountain near the well-known Beauty Spot.

“We had gone to the Beauty Spot to watch the sunset on Sunday, June 27,” Amy wrote in a Facebook message to me. “It was the 20th anniversary of our first date.”

On the way back to the Jeep, Paul noticed a very unusual bird. He pointed out the bird and asked Amy if she knew what it was.

“It was just sitting at the edge of the parking area where the gravel/dirt road meets the tall grass,” Amy wrote. “It was not dark enough to keep us from seeing it, but plenty dark enough to keep me from getting a good photo.”

Amy said that she knew she only had one chance to get a photo.

“I set the flash and hoped for the best,” she wrote. “It’s blurry, but I’m thankful I was able to get anything. As soon as the flash fired, it made a funny noise and flew into the trees.”

Amy added, “It looked more like a sea bird to me, and we thought it might have flown off course. We had no idea such a strange bird lived on Unaka Mountain. We’ll always remember the first time we saw a timberdoodle.”

An American woodcock patrols a patch of bare ground in a photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife.

One look at Amy’s photo confirmed that she and her husband had encountered a woodcock. With its big head and large eyes, the American woodcock is rather gnome-like in its appearance. There’s something downright odd about this shorebird that has chosen to exile itself so far from seashores.

Its chosen lifestyle, however, has proven advantageous for the species. The woodcock is an efficient forager, feeding on earthworms, as well as insects, millipedes and spiders. Scientists theorize that the woodcocks can actually hear and feel the earthworms as they move underground.

About 20 years ago, Joe McGuiness, an Erwin resident and a fellow member of the Elizabethton Bird Club, found an American woodcock one summer making itself at home in his neighborhood of Rolling Hills. I got to see that bird, which to date is my only upclose and personal observation of an American woodcock.

I have traveled to locations such as Shady Valley in Johnson County and Persimmon Ridge Park in Jonesborough to witness the courting flights of these unusual birds. Of course, since these flights do not commence until dusk, the experience is more auditory than visual.

The woodcock is closely related to the snipes. The only snipe species usually found in the United States is Wilson’s snipe, formerly known as the common snipe.

There is also a Eurasian woodcock and several species endemic to islands. These include the Amami woodcock of Japan, the Bukidnon woodcock of the Philippines, the Javan woodcock, New Guinea woodcock, the Moluccan woodcock of the Malaku Islands in Indonesia and the Sulawesi woodcock, also of Indonesia.

Worldwide, there are about 20 snipe species, including species with such descriptive name as giant snipe, noble snipe, pin-tailed snipe and imperial snipe.

So, if the legend of the snipe hunt ever made you doubt the actual existence of snipe, rest assured that both snipes and their odd cousins, the woodcocks, do exist.

Among feathered friends, catbirds are individuals

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although often considered shy, skulking birds, some catbirds show a great deal of curiosity about and trust in humans.

I received an email on June 15 from Linda Durette, who lives in Townsend, Massachusetts, which is on the New Hampshire border.

“I live in a country environment with thickets and fields,” she noted.

Linda informed me that she had run across an article I wrote in 2019 about gray catbirds.
“I have always been mildly intrigued by the catbird,” she wrote. ‘Working around the yard and having a cat myself, I always got a kick out of their vocal annoyance with my cat.”

She said the catbirds begin squawking at her cat the minute he steps out the door.

Photo by by Jennifer Beebe from Pixabay • Gray catbirds have a reputation for being either shy skulkers or bold scolders. In fact, these birds are known for being individuals with unique and distinctive personalities. Like mockingbirds and thrashers, the gray catbird is considered a mimic thrush and can imitate snippets of the songs of other birds.

“I always kept him away from any nesting area, although he isn’t a particularly adventurous cat, anyway,” she noted.

“This year was the same,” she said. “My cat seemed to almost ignore the bird. He just sat there and allowed the bird to squawk loudly. I think the bird was miffed.”

She said she finally put her cat back in the house.

“But I have been noticing that the bird comes very close to me,” she wrote.

She wrote that the catbird appears to watch what she does when she is outdoors.

“I have been talking with him, chattering while I garden,” she wrote. “It’s a riot. He lands on the wheelbarrow handle after I walk away or allows me to walk pretty close to him as he watches.”
Linda concluded that this individual catbird, at least, seems to have quite the personality.
I’d mentioned in my previous column on catbirds about the fondness of these birds for fruit and how I occasionally offered berries to them.

“I will attempt some fruit, too,” she said. “It is so interesting. We’ll see what happens.”
Perhaps readers will recall the folksy expression “sitting in the catbird’s seat” that denotes self-satisfaction and perhaps a degree of smugness. As expressions go, it’s not a bad fit for this charming, somewhat eccentric bird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A curious Gray Catbird peeks from dense cover. Attendees at the fall rally can look for catbirds and other species at any of the offered bird hikes.

The gray catbird is a baffling bird with a personality that runs the gamut from introverted to extroverted, sometimes depending on the season and at other times seemingly just on a whim. With some gentle persuasion, however, people can gain a catbird’s trust – as Linda has done with the bird in her Massachusetts garden – and develop a fun friendship with these clever songbirds.

One summer, all I needed to do to win over the catbirds was to offer some less-than-perfect strawberries and blueberries. A few blemishes on the fruit didn’t bother the resident catbirds at all, and they soon became accustomed to receiving such treats.

A person’s first introduction to the catbird is likely going to occur when one hears what sounds like an irritable feline hiding in a hedge, thicket or dense shrub. Upon closer examination, observers may get a glimpse of a charcoal gray bird roughly the shape of a Northern mockingbird but smaller. A black cap and a patch of rusty-red feathers under the tail are the only exceptions to this bird’s overall gray plumage.

The catbird is related to thrashers and mockingbirds, but scientists find the gray catbird just different enough to warrant placing it in its own genus. The genus name Dumetella means “small thicket.” It’s an apt name for this secretive skulker. Catbirds only feel secure in dense cover such as hedges, brush piles and dense thickets.

A relative known as the black catbird, which ranges throughout the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, as well as northern Guatemala and northern Belize, also belongs to a genus of its own. The genus name Melanoptila for this close relative is a compound word created from two Greek words: melas, meaning “black” and ptilon, meaning “plumage.” Both of these catbirds are classified as “mimic thrushes,” or Mimidae, of which there are about 30 species in the New World. There is a totally unrelated family of catbirds that ranges through Australia, Asia and parts of Africa.

The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. Males have motivation to constantly expand their repertoire, however, as doing so increases the likelihood of attracting a mate. They imitate other birds, but some have been recorded imitating frogs and other non-avian singers.

The website All About Birds also offers some helpful advice for attracting gray catbirds. To entice these birds, plant native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs such as dogwood, winterberry and serviceberry.

While the closely related brown thrasher and Northern mockingbird have both been honored with recognition as official state birds, this designation has never been bestowed on the gray catbird.

The female catbird constructs the nest, but her mate may helpfully provide some of the nesting materials. She may spend as long as a week building a rather bulky nest. She usually lays one to six eggs, which require an incubation period of about two weeks. Once the young hatch, both parents are kept busy bringing food to the young. Hatchlings will remain in the nest for about 10 days, but parents continue to care for and feed young even after they have fledged and departed the nest. Catbirds nest two or three time in a season.

According to the website All About Birds, the oldest known gray catbird was at least 17 years and 11 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in New Jersey in 2001. That individual had been banded in Maryland in 1984. So, if you do manage to strike up your own friendship with a catbird, there’s a good possibility that it could become a long-term relationship, especially since many birds like to return to a home territory year after year.

To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, please send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I enjoy hearing from readers about shared interests in birds.

Blue of indigo bunting’s plumage is a trick of the light

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting is a resplendent bird.

The indigo bunting is one of the reasons I love to pay attention to the clientele visiting my 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.

Indigo buntings 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.

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

The male 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.

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 in spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders.

Photo by Dan Sudia/USFWS • Female and young indigo bunting do not show the intense blue of adult males.

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. 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 indigo bunting belongs to a genus of birds known as Passerina, which is included the family Cardinalidae, which includes birds like Northern cardinal and rose-breasted grosbeak. They are often lumped into a group known as North American buntings, although they are not closely related to such birds as snow bunting and lark bunting. The latter is even recognized as the official state bird for Colorado, a unique honor for this group of birds. The other members of the Passerina genus include lazuli bunting, varied bunting, painted bunting, rose-bellied bunting, orange-breasted bunting and blue grosbeak.

Worldwide, other birds known as buntings include such descriptively named species as slaty bunting, corn bunting, white-capped bunting, gray-necked bunting, cinereous bunting, lark-like bunting, cinnamon-breasted bunting, chestnut-eared bunting, little bunting, yellow-throated bunting, golden-breasted bunting, black-headed bunting, red-headed bunting and yellow bunting.

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

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.

Ovenbird part of the returning warbler lineup

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Ovenbirds are content to spend most of their time near the forest floor.

It’s been a week of arrivals at my home. Several species of warblers made their spring debuts, including a handful of male ovenbirds.

These warblers arrived on April 14 and immediately began singing their loud and ringing “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” song from concealment within the woodlands surrounding my home.

The ovenbird is not one of the brightly colored warblers, such as black-throated blue warbler or yellow warbler. The ovenbird is a small brown bird with a white breast with dark streaking — an appearance that bears a superficial resemblance to the larger thrushes that share the same woodland habitat. The only hint of color is an orange crown bordered by dark stripes atop the bird’s head. Even this orange crown patch is not easily seen. When agitated, an ovenbird may raise its head feathers, which makes this orange mark easier to detect. The ovenbird also shows a distinct white ring around each eye, as well as pink legs and a pinkish bill.

The resemblance to North America’s brown thrushes didn’t go unnoticed by some early American naturalists. Painter and famous naturalist John James Audubon painted a pair of ovenbirds, which he knew as “golden-crowned thrushes.” When comparing the two names, one can’t help but wish that the inaccurate but more romantically descriptive golden-crowned thrush had stuck.

While not likely to take an observer’s breath away with an unexpected explosion of vibrant plumage, the ovenbird’s not a drab bird. These warblers possess a subtle beauty all their own that is worth taking the time to behold.

Photo by Peggy Dyar from Pixabay • Despite the oliver-brown plumage, a closer look shows that the overbird is a bird with a subtle beauty, including an inconspicuous orange crown.

Unfortunately, ovenbirds are stubborn about letting themselves be seen. They’re easily heard. The males begin singing a loud, rollicking “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher” song almost as soon as they arrive on potential nesting grounds.

The ovenbird, unlike many warblers, is not named for its appearance. Instead, the bird’s name derives from the shape of the nest it builds. The nest is a domed structure placed on the ground, woven from vegetation and containing a side entrance. Early European settlers in North America thought the nest looked like a Dutch oven, hence the name “ovenbird” for the small warbler with the intricate nest.

Rather than hopping along the length of a branch or limb, an ovenbird walks in a deliberate fashion. This bird feeds on insects, spiders and other small prey items foraged from the woodland floor. On rare occasions, a lingering ovenbird shows up at feeders during the winter months.

Again, the most persistent characteristic of this warbler is the fact that it’s shy. It’s not as notoriously shy as warblers like mourning warbler of Connecticut warbler, but the ovenbird spends much of the time near the woodland floor and out of sight. The best time to catch a look at this warbler is once they begin nesting. Parents are extremely protective and defensive of their nest and young. Intruding too close is sure to bring some sharp alarm notes. The parents will often confront an intruder, flitting from branch to branch in nearby trees, utterly neglecting their usual preference for remaining unseen if not unheard.

Photo by Jean Potter • An ovenbird sings from a perch in the leaf canopy.

Ovenbirds spend the summer nesting season in mature deciduous and mixed forests across Canada and the eastern United States. They do not make as lengthy a migration as that undertaken by some of their relatives. Ovenbirds migrate each fall to the southeastern United States, the West Indies and also spreads out from Mexico to northern South America for the winter season.

It’s one of several warblers that nest in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Others include Louisiana waterthrush, Kentucky warbler, common yellowthroat, Swainson’s warbler, black-throated blue warbler and American redstart, among others.

•••••

My mom saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 16 at 9:34 a.m. Of course, the bird waited until I’d left for work to make an appearance.

My solace has been an influx of other migrants in the past week. A blue-gray gnatcatcher’s fussy buzz alerted me to its return on April 10. I eventually got binoculars focused on the fidgety bird as it flitted in the upper branches of a cherry tree.

I heard the familiar chittering cries overhead while walking in downtown Erwin on April 14. Looking skyward, I watched a flock of chimney swifts flying gracefully over the rooftops of downtown buildings.

New warblers at home this week, other than the ovenbird, have included hooded warbler and black-throated green warbler, both of which put in their first spring appearance on April 15.

•••••

As noted, hummingbirds are returning. I’ve had reports from Western North Carolina and all across Northeast Tennessee. I will compile a listing of those who have shared their first sightings with me for next week’s column.
Keep sharing your hummingbird observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

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.

 

Sapsucker an odd bird out among woodpeckers

Photo by Jean Potter • A yellow-bellied sapsucker visits a suet feeder.

I heard the whiny “mews” coming from a nearby tree and scanned with binoculars until I located a calling yellow-bellied sapsucker. I always think sapsuckers sound whiny, but I still celebrated seeing one from my front porch on the afternoon of Jan. 11. The new year is still young, which makes me eager to see what other birding surprises may arrive.

I’ve kept track of the birds in my yard since the winter of 1992-1993, and my recent observation is only the second sapsucker I have seen at home. I’ve found the evidence of their presence in sapsucker rings drilled in bands of holes around tree trunks and branches, but the actual flesh and feather sapsuckers have been extremely evasive.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A yellow-bellied sapsucker hitches its way up a tree trunk.

The aforementioned rings or bands are the visible evidence of a sapsucker’s penchant for drilling evenly spaced holes, or wells, into the trunk of a sap-bearing tree. These holes even form patterns completely encircling a tree’s trunk. The sticky wells trap insects. When sapsuckers return to the scene of the crime, they enjoy a sweet treat of oozing sap and a protein snack from the mired bugs.

I don’t think my lack of success with sapsuckers at home is for lack of effort. I heard the sapsucker the moment I stepped outside to fill up the feeders. The sapsucker blended almost perfectly into its surroundings, becoming almost invisible against the bark until making little hitching movements up the trunk. I wish I could report that I see yellow-bellied sapsuckers on a regular basis. I think they would be fascinating to observe in the same way I watch downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers.

 

Worldwide, there are almost 10,000 species of birds. After awhile, one may begin to wonder if thinking of unique names for each of these species began to deplete creative reserves.

Then again, some of the names given to birds suggest someone really wanted just to have fun at the expense of birders and nature enthusiasts. After all, you have to be careful about shouting out bird names like blue-footed booby, great bustard and hoary redpoll in mixed company.

There are also bird names that just don’t make a lot of sense — dickcissel and phainopepla, for example — even to birders. Then there are names that are oxymoronic, including greater pewee and giant hummingbird.

There are some bird names that sound like fighting words that bring into question concepts like courage and honor. Indeed, I sometimes think people are waiting for a punchline when I inform them there truly is a species of bird known as the yellow-bellied sapsucker. This bird’s humorous name is only one of the ways the yellow-bellied sapsucker stands out as an oddball among the region’s clan of woodpeckers.

In profile clinging to the trunk of a tree, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is a rather pudgy, especially for a woodpecker. The sapsucker has black and white plumage enhanced by red foreheads in both sexes. Male sapsuckers also have a bright red throat patch. Both sexes also show a large white stripe on their black wings. And yes, there is enough of a pale yellow wash on the stomach of this odd woodpecker to justify the descriptive “yellow-bellied” as part of its common name.

As mentioned, sapsuckers harvest sap by using their bills to drill various sorts of holes into the bark of a tree. Some of the more shallow holes, which are usually made in a rectangular fashion, must be maintained on a frequent basis for the bird to continue to derive sap from the tree. These sap wells not only provide nourishment to the sapsucker but to other birds, including hummingbirds, that appreciate a quick sugar fix.

In the early 1800s, early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted the yellow-bellied sapsucker, known during his time as the yellow-bellied woodpecker. Although they tend to prefer trees like maple and birch, sapsuckers are known to feed on more than 250 different varieties of trees. Indeed, they actually do feed on the trees. Not only do these birds subsist largely on sap, they also feed on the cambium layer in the bark of a tree. The sapsucker also supplements its diet with insects, fruits and seeds. Unlike other members of the woodpecker clan, sapsuckers do not visit feeders all that frequently. When a sapsucker does visit a feeder, it is often lured there by the promise of suet.

 

While most woodpeckers attempt to tough out the winter season in the same region where they spent the summer, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is migratory. Ahead of the coldest months of the year, sapsuckers migrate to the southeastern United States, as well as the West Indies and Central America. During the summer months, most sapsuckers nest in forests across Canada, Alaska and the northeastern U.S. states. There is also a small population of breeding sapsuckers in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker has a call that sounds amazingly like the meow of a cat. I know about this call from personal experience. While birding in South Carolina a few years ago, I searched diligently for the source of such a call. It sounded somewhat like a gray catbird — another mimic of the common household feline — but not quite. Now I know that when I hear this unusual call I can train my binoculars on the branches and trunks of nearby trees to scan for a sapsucker.

There are actually another three sapsucker species — Williamson’s, red-breasted and red-naped — in North America, but they are all birds of the western half of the continent.

It is true of many species of birds that males and females look different. In the case of the Williamson’s sapsucker, males and females look so different that early naturalists mistakenly believed the male and female were entirely different species! Only two decades after the initial discovery of this bird did scientists finally realize that both male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers were the same species. This particular sapsucker was named in honor of Lt. Robert Stockton Williamson, who led a surveying expedition that collected the first male. The intent of the expedition wasn’t focused on collecting birds. Williamson and his men had actually been assigned the job of identifying the best route west for a railway to the Pacific Ocean.

Although I haven’t been too lucky with this bird at my home, it isn’t too difficult to find this bird during fall migration and in the winter months at city and state parks in the region. If you observe a yellow-bellied sapsucker in your own yard, consider yourself lucky to get a glimpse of this oddball woodpecker.