Tag Archives: Fall migrants

Some birds stand out from the flock with their amazing migratory feats

Photo by jasonjdking/Pixabay.com • The bobolink is also known as the “rice bird” for its tendency to feed on cultivate grains such as rice. Even the bird’s scientific name, oryzivorus, means “rice eating” and refers to this bird’s appetite for many of the same grains consumed by humans. This small songbird also undertakes yearly migration flights equalling more than 12,400 miles.

The peak of fall migration is approaching. Birds of all species are winging their way southward ahead of the months of cold and scarcity. September and October are months of flux and transition. Like a bear fattening for hibernation, I gorge on sightings of warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers and other favorites, knowing that I won’t be seeing many of these birds again until next spring. Their memories will sustain me, as will my feeders, which will still bring plenty of colorful and entertaining birds into my yard even in times of snow and ice.
Bird migration at any season is a spectacle. Many of the birds that nested in mountain hollows or vegetation-choked wetlands will winter in Central and South America, the Caribbean or other distant but warmer destinations. The following snapshots of fall’s bird migration capture the phenomenon’s drama.

Bobolink
The bobolink is a small bird in the family of blackbirds, which includes grackles, orioles and cowbirds. Nesting across North America during the summer, bobolinks retreat to South America for the winter. These small birds undertake amazing migrations, making a round-trip of about 12,400 miles to regions south of the equator in Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina each fall. Come spring, they make the trip again, but in a northerly direction.
According to the website All About Birds, migrating bobolinks orient themselves with the earth’s magnetic field. These small birds are able to accomplish this feat due to iron oxide in bristles of its nasal cavity and in tissues around the olfactory bulb and nerve. Bobolinks also use the stars scattered across the night sky to guide their migratory flights. Capable of living as long as nine years, a long-lived bobolink will rack up some serious miles simply migrating to its nesting grounds and back to its wintering habitat each year.

Bar-tailed godwit
Shorebirds, which in North America can consist of birds ranging from turnstones and sandpipers to willets and avocets, are champion migrants. For instance, the bar-tailed godwit makes an impressive non-stop migratory flight. This shorebird nests in the United States only in parts of remote Alaska, but this godwit also ranges into Scandinavia and northern Asia. Some of these godwits make a nine-day, non-stop migratory flight that takes them from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea of China and beyond, a distance of almost 6,000 miles each way.
Needless to say, since the godwits make no stops along the way, they must also go without food for the duration of their journey. The female godwit is larger than the male, but she still weighs only 12 ounces. The long-billed, long-legged bird is about 17 inches in length from the tip of the bill to its tail. That a creature so small can make such a distant, arduous trip and be the none the worse for wear is truly inspiring.

Broad-winged hawk
Many North American raptors migrate, but the broad-winged hawk dislikes the lonely aspects of solitary travel. Instead, these hawks form large flocks during migration, and in autumn the majority of these raptors travel past human-staffed hawk migration observation points, which are dubbed “hawk watches,” during a brief and concentrated period of only a few weeks. Observing the phenomenon locally is possible at the Mendota Fire Tower Hawk Watch site atop Clinch Mountain at an abandoned fire tower near Mendota, Virginia.
Broad-winged hawks are part of the family Accipitridae, which includes 224 species of hawks, eagles, vultures and other birds of prey. Broad-winged hawks are truly long-distance migrants. Many hawks passing over Mendota may end their migration as far south as Brazil. These hawks travel in flocks that can consist of hundreds or thousands of individuals. The birds conserve energy by soaring on thermals and mountain updrafts.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Warblers, such as this American redstart, stage impressive migratory flights. The blackpoll warbler makes an incredibly arduous journey for a bird that is less than five inches long.

Blackpoll warbler
Most of the warblers that nest in North America retreat to Central and South America during the winter months. Few warblers, however, make as great a journey as the blackpoll warbler. Instead of migrating over land, this five-inch-long warbler undertakes a two-stage migration. The first half of the migration is a non-stop flight of about 1,500 miles. Every fall, these tiny birds fly over the ocean during this part of their migration, departing from Canada or the northern United States and not stopping until they reach various locations in the Caribbean. There they will spend some time recovering from the exhausting first half of their journey before they continue their way to such South American countries as Colombia and Venezuela. Once again, during the time they spend flying over open ocean, these tiny warblers do not feed.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A migrating Great Egret makes a stop at a golf course pond.

Wading birds topic for program
I’ll be presenting a program on herons, egrets and other wading birds at the September meeting of the Elizabethton Bird Club. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, at the Elizabethton campus of Northeast State Community College, 386 Highway 91. The meeting will be held on the second floor in Room 208. The free program is open to the public and will follow a brief business meeting.

Readers with questions are welcome to email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or send a friend request on Facebook at facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. I also love to receive comments and hear about bird observations.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A spotted sandpiper and a solitary sandpiper rest at the edge of a pond during a migration rest stop.

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.

Fall Bird Count finds 127 species

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Raptors, like this Red-tailed Hawk, proved plentiful on count day. Broad-winged Hawk, a relative of the Red-tailed Hawk, even set a new record for most individuals found.

The 49th consecutive Elizabethton Fall Count was held Saturday, Sept. 29, with 50 observers in 13 parties covering parts of five adjacent counties.

According to count compiler Rick Knight, a total of 127 species were tallied (plus Empidonax species), slightly higher than the average of the last 30 years, which was 125. The all-time high was 137 species in 1993.

Two very rare species were found: Purple Gallinule at Meadowview Golf Course in Kingsport and Black-legged Kittiwake on South Holston Lake. The kittiwake had been found Sept. 27 and lingered until count day.

Shorebird habitat was scarce due to high water levels at most sites, thus only one species was found (other than Killdeer).Broad-winged Hawks were numerous, part of a notable late flight likely due to unfavorable weather conditions preceeding the count.
Warblers were generally in low numbers, although 23 species were seen. No migrant sparrows had arrived yet. Blackbirds, too, were scarce. Some regular species were tallied in record high numbers, likely due to the above average number of field parties.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wild Turkeys and Ruffed Grouse were found on this year’s count, but participants failed to locate any Northern Bobwhites.

The list of species follows:

Canada Goose, 781; Wood Duck, 79; Mallard, 345; Blue-winged Teal, 110;  Com. Merganser, 2;  Ruffed Grouse, 2; and Wild Turkey, 56.

Pied-billed Grebe 32; Double-crested Cormorant, 78; Great Blue Heron, 49; Great Egret, 2; Green Heron, 2; and Black-crowned Night-Heron, 5.

Wild-NightHeron-Adult

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Several species of herons and egrets were located, including Black-crowned Night Heron.

Black Vulture 71; Turkey Vulture 203; and Osprey, 27. This represented a new record for the number of Osprey found on this count.

 
Bald Eagle 8; Northern Harrier, 1; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 3; Cooper’s Hawk, 9; Red-shouldered Hawk, 6; Broad-winged Hawk, 321; (most ever on this count) and Red-tailed Hawk, 19.

 
Virginia Rail 1; Purple Gallinule, 1; Killdeer, 43; Spotted Sandpiper, 1; Black-legged Kittiwake, 1; Caspian Tern, 1; and Common Tern, 2.

 

Rock Pigeon, 597; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 2; Mourning Dove, 330; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 4; E. Screech-Owl, 24; Great Horned Owl, 10; Barred Owl, 5; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1; and Common Nighthawk, 1.

 
Chimney Swift, 481; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 31; Belted Kingfisher, 32; Red-headed Woodpecker, 5; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 92; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 5; Downy Woodpecker, 59; Hairy Woodpecker, 12; Northern Flicker, 67; Pileated Woodpecker, 54; American Kestrel, 13; and Merlin, 2. The figures for Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers mark new high counts for these two species.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A record number of Red-bellied Woodpeckers were found on this year’s Fall Bird Count.

Eastern Wood-Pewee 15; Empidonax species, 2; Eastern Phoebe, 79; Eastern Kingbird, 9; White-eyed Vireo, 1; Yellow-throated Vireo, 2; Blue-headed Vireo, 21; Philadelphia Vireo, 3; Red-eyed Vireo, 4; Blue Jay, 646; American Crow, 364; and Common Raven, 1.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 3; Tree Swallow, 465; Barn Swallow, 1; and Cliff Swallow, 3.

Carolina Chickadee, 177; Tufted Titmouse, 133; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 4; White-breasted Nuthatch, 71; Brown Creeper, 1; House Wren, 4; Winter Wren, 1; and Carolina Wren, 218. Both Tufted Titmouse and White-breasted Nuthatch were found in record numbers, as was the Carolina Wren, too

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 8, Eastern Bluebird, 187;  Gray-cheeked, Thrush 12; Swainson’s Thrush, 46;  Wood Thrush, 9; American Robin, 591; Gray Catbird, 64; Brown Thrasher, 23; and Northern Mockingbird, 111; European Starling 1,226;  and Cedar Waxwing, 294. The number of Gray Catbirds set a new record for the species.

Worm-eating Warbler 1; Northern Waterthrush, 1; Black-and-white Warbler, 7; Prothonotary Warbler, 1; Tennessee Warbler, 42; Orange-crowned Warbler, 2; Kentucky Warbler, 2; Common Yellowthroat, 9; Hooded Warbler, 7; American Redstart, 16; Cape May Warbler, 6; Northern Parula, 8; Magnolia Warbler, 18; Bay-breasted Warbler, 15; Blackburnian Warbler, 8; Yellow Warbler, 1; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 4; Palm Warbler, 63; Pine Warbler, 11; Yellow-throated Warbler, 1; Prairie Warbler, 1; and Black-throated Green Warbler, 7.

Fall-AmRedstart

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Participants found a total of 23 different species of warblers, including American Redstarts.

Eastern Towhee, 66; Chipping Sparrow, 94; Field Sparrow, 16; Song Sparrow, 97; and Dark-eyed Junco, 42.

Summer Tanager 2; Scarlet Tanager, 11;  N. Cardinal, 149; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 125; and Indigo Bunting, 14.

Bobolink, 2; Red-winged Blackbird, 132; Eastern Meadowlark, 7; Common Grackle, 8; Brown-headed Cowbird, 5; House Finch, 41; Pine Siskin, 11; American Goldfinch, 220; and House Sparrow, 69.

Goldfinch 5

Photo by Bryan Stevens • American Goldfinches were among the smaller songbirds found during the annual Fall Bird Count.

Mother Nature’s whims can produce major impacts on birds

Sooty_tern_flying

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Duncan Wright The sooty tern, pictured, nests mainly in Hawaii, but some also nest on the islands of the Dry Tortugas, west of the Florida Keys. In 2004, Hurricane Frances blew one of these tropical birds to Holston Lake in Bristol. Severe storms also present devastating obstacles for other birds.

With Hurricane Florence dominating the headlines in recent weeks, it’s only natural to speculate on whether such storms can impact birds in a negative way.

According to a 2011 blog post made on the National Wildlife Federation website, hurricanes can be bad news for some birds. Naturally enough, sea birds and waterfowl are most exposed to the forces of a hurricane. Some birds will move inland to avoid the incoming storm. The birds that inhabit our yards and gardens will ride out the storm using special adaptations. Songbirds will automatically tighten their toes around their perches, riding out the winds of a hurricane by holding onto a branch with a death grip. It’s the same adaptation that lets them sleep on a branch without letting go and falling off during the night.

The blog points out that the news often covers the appearance of rare species after a major storm. Some of these birds transported to unusual locations are probably younger or weaker birds. Once transported far from their usual range by a hurricane, it can take weeks to return home — if they can find the right foods on their way back.

John-James-Audubon-Bachman_s-Swamp-Warbler.-1.-Male.-2.-Female.-Gordonia-pubescens.- (1)

Early naturalist and accomplished artist John James Audubon painted Bachman’s warbler without ever seeing a living one. A friend sent him some skins of the warbler collected near Charleston, South Carolina. A hurricane may have contributed to the extinction of Bachman’s warbler.

In a worst case scenario, hurricanes may have dealt fatal blows to some bird species. For instance, a hurricane may have delivered the knock-out blow to a species of warbler that went extinct last century, according to the website, Field Guide to Extinct Birds. A hurricane that slammed into Cuba in the 1930s when most of the Bachman’s warbler population was wintering on the island might have wiped out enough of the population to make the survivors too rare and far-flung to find each other to breed. The warbler, sensitive to habitat destruction from logging and already in a steep decline, never seemed to recover. It was the ultimate example of keeping all of one’s eggs — or birds — in one unlucky basket.

Discovered in 1832 near Charleston, South Carolina, by the Reverend John Bachman, this warbler attracted little attention for the first half century after its discovery. Bachman sent some skins of the bird to his friend, the artist and early naturalist John James Audubon. Subsequently, Audubon painted this warbler by using those skins and Bachman’s description of the bird’s habits for inspiration. Ironically, considering he described the species for science, Audubon never actually laid eyes on an actual living Bachman’s warbler.

The last specimens of Bachman’s warbler were collected in Mississippi in the early 1940s. The last strongholds for breeding Bachman’s warblers in the United States were Fairfax County, Virginia, in the 1950s and South Carolina’s I’on Swamp in the early 1960s. The last photograph documenting a Bachman’s warbler was taken in 1954. in Charleston, South Carolina, bringing the story of this warbler full circle from its discovery in the same vicinity back in 1832. No Bachman’s warbler sightings have been confirmed since 1961, despite reports in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as reports made in the spring of 2000 and 2001 in the Congaree Swamp National Monument in Richland County, South Carolina. None of those sightings could be confirmed.

Like the ivory-billed woodpecker and Eskimo curlew, Bachman’s warbler is another bird likely to be labeled for the near future with the tag “likely extinct” associated with its name. Like the large woodpecker and the shorebird with a penchant for long-distance migration, the Bachman’s warbler went out with a whimper, not a bang, with most of its viable population snuffed out by an October hurricane just as the species returned to Cuba for the winter season.

Ruby-throat

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds make a non-stop crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. A hurricane in the Gulf during migration could have serious consequences for this small bird.

More recently, experts worried Hurricane Irma might have delivered a knockout blow to the population of another tiny species of warbler. The Barbuda warblers on the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda were feared exterminated in the wake of Irma. When the storm hit the island in September of 2017, its path affected more than 90 percent of the island and nearly wiped out the available habitat for the warbler, which already had a Near Threatened status. After the passage of the storm, participants in searches for the warbler turned up sightings of the bird. Nevertheless, the population status and ability to fully recover remains uncertain.

Science keeps adding to its knowledge of how birds are affected by hurricanes and other storms. A 2017 study showed possible consequences for a seabird known as the sooty tern in relation to hurricanes.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed open-access journal PeerJ, is the first to map the birds’ annual migratory path and demonstrate how its timing and trajectory place them in the direct path of hurricanes moving into the Caribbean after forming over the Atlantic.

Climate change threatens to bring about more frequent and powerful hurricanes, which could be bad news for the terns. Migration is a stressful undertaking for birds. If they encounter a strong storm in a weakened state, the results could be catastrophic. The study revealed a strong relationship between the numbers and locations of bird deaths and the numbers and locations of hurricanes. The study also showed that it isn’t just monster storms with the potential to cause devastation. Tropical Storm Delia, a small storm in the Gulf of Mexico in 1973, killed a lot of sooty terns. Essentially, the terns were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Shorebirds

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A mixed flock of Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers and a Ruddy Turnstone at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. Hurricanes can interrupt the migrations of even these long-distance migrants.

Of course, the sooty tern is not a rare bird. About 80,000 or more of these terns are estimated to breed in the Dry Tortugas each year. That’s the entire point, however; Bachman’s warbler was also once considered a common bird.

All of these examples point to the resilience of birds, but there’s also a lesson to learn. We should never take any of our feathered friends for granted. While the winds and rains from a hurricane can decimate human lives, wildlife is not immune. Sadly, birds can weather many a storm, but sometimes they get swamped.

 

Common nighthawk flocks form part of fall migration spectacle

Nighthawk

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

With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the skies. For the most part, I focus on the upper branches of trees and feeders during the migration season, but I don’t forget the need to look skyward from time to time.

The reason? Well, that’s the best way to detect soaring raptors or flocks of migrating common nighthawks. The autumn sky is also a popular flyway for other birds, including chimney swifts and swallows.

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.

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.

john_james_audubon_common_nighthawk_bird_print

Early American naturalist and artist painted this dynamic scene of common nighthawks.

The whip-poor-will, after the common nighthawk, is the second most widespread member of its family to spend its breeding season in North America. The whip-poor-will ranges from southern Canada to the Gulf states. This bird also occurs in Arizona, New Mexico and southwestern Texas. The whip-poor-will favors habitat consisting of deciduous woodlands and the edges of forests.

All members of the nightjar family feed exclusively on insects that are caught on the wing. In this respect, the nightjars can be considered the nocturnal counterparts of the swallows. The nightjars have comparatively large, gaping mouths they use to scoop up flying insects. They also have large eyes, an adaptation to their nocturnal lifestyle.

Whip-poor-will numbers have been declining in the past few decades. These nocturnal birds frequent woodland edges, but they seem to be rather particular about such habitats. A forest that is too mature seems to hold little interest for them. Disturbed habitats, such as those created by logging, are acceptable to the birds once secondary growth begins. As this new growth matures, however, the whip-poor-will apparently abandons such territory. Because of these requirements, whip-poor-wills can be somewhat localized in their distribution and sometimes difficult to locate.

Nighthawk-PHOTO

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A common nighthawk finds a perch for a brief rest.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite summer activities was sitting on the front porch of my grandparents’ home and listening to the whip-poor-wills call after dark. I remember how the plaintive call would be repeated for long intervals before a passing automobile’s headlights might frighten the bird into silence. Then, after a brief pause, the “whip-poor-will” calls would, tentatively at first, begin again and continue throughout the night.

Today, I’m living in my grandparents’ old home, and the whip-poor-wills no longer call. I heard a single individual that called for a single evening back in May of 1997, but that was apparently a migrating bird that did not remain in the surrounding woodlands. The only member of the nightjar family that I dependably encounter at home these days is the common nighthawk, and then only during that narrow window of late summer and early autumn.

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.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. The common nighthawk, whip-poor-will and the chuck-will’s widow are neotropical migrants. While they breed in a wide range of territory in North America, they spend their winters in Central and South America. Like all nightjars, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, which they catch on the wing.

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 throughout September although they begin to appear as early as late August. They 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. The two flocks I’ve observed so far this migration season numbered about thirty and fifty birds, respectively.

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

 

 

The world can be a big, bad place for tiny hummingbirds

Mantis-Four

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Large mantises have been known to prey on ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Many years ago I read an account of a scarlet tanager making a snack of a ruby-throated hummingbird. Memory being what it is, I am no longer sure if that account was corroborated or one of those urban legends of birding.

A few pertinent facts should be considered. Male scarlet tanagers look striking in their red and black plumage. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are attracted to the color red. In the details I recall of the story about the predatory tanager, the hummingbird kept flying close to the tanager as if attracted to the red plumage. If so, it was a case of curiosity kills the cat or, in this case, the hummingbird. The tanager seized the hummingbird in its bill and, for good measure and to “tenderize” its prey, beat the hummingbird against the side of a branch. All of this took place before a crowd of birders who observed the incident through their binoculars. I don’t recall anyone taking a photo of the hummingbird’s tragic demise.

An email from Gene Counts reminded me of the tale of the tanager and the hummingbird. Gene, who lives in Haysi, Virginia, sent me a photograph and a short note about a praying mantis that stalks hummingbirds as they visit his feeders for a sip of sugar water.

MantisVsHummer

Photo by Gene Counts • This photo was shared by Gene Counts, who described how the mantis stalked hummingbirds that came to his feeder.

Gene told me of his excitement upon capturing the large insect’s behavior in a photograph.

“I just had to share this picture with you,” Gene wrote. “After all, my wife, Judy, was more excited today than the day we married in Chicago 54 years ago.”

He certainly hooked my attention with that introduction.

“A praying mantis is using our feeder as his own private hunting preserve,” Gene continued in his email. “The mantis follows and stalks the hummingbirds all the way around 360 degrees.”

So far, the stalking has only resulted in “several near misses,” but Gene declared that he is ready to pounce in case the mantis gets lucky.

“It has been four hours and he has lowered his goal,” Gene wrote of the patient mantis. “He is now clinging to the bottom (of the feeder) waiting for an insect. Now I can expel my breath as he no longer an avian threat.”

While Gene’s mantis may not be an immediate threat to hummingbirds visiting his yard in Haysi, does that mean we can be complacent when these large insects share our yards and gardens with hummingbirds?

Ruby-throated-WILLOWS

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but people should usually see a spike in their numbers as the hummingbirds end summer nesting and start migrating south again.

 

Documented evidence exists to identify large praying mantises as predators on ruby-throated hummingbirds. A brief foray online found numerous instances of hummers falling victims to these large carnivorous insects.

There are two species of mantises in the region — the European, or praying mantis, and the Chinese mantis — capable of capturing hummingbirds. Both species were introduced in the 1800s to act as a predator of insect pests detrimental to crops and gardens. The Chinese mantis can reach a length of 4.3 inches, while the European mantis achieves a length of about 3.5 inches. A third species — Carolina mantis — reaches only a length of 2.5 inches and should not pose a threat to ruby-throated hummingbirds, which are about 3.5 inches long.

Although introduced from Europe, the European mantis (Mantis religiosa) has earned recognition as the official state insect of Connecticut. The native Carolina mantis is the official state insect for South Carolina.

In Central and South America, where the world’s more than 300 species of hummingbirds reach their greatest diversity, there are also more species of predatory mantises. Some of these tropical insects prey on the tropical counterparts to the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Consider the way the mantis makes a perfect predator. It’s spiky forelimbs are spiky and serrated, making them perfect for seizing and grasping. This insect’s triangular head can turn their heads 180 degrees to scan its surroundings with two large compound eyes. A mantis also has three other simple eyes to increase its keen vision. Brutal mouthparts can easily tear apart and devour any prey the mantis manages to catch with its ambush hunting style.

Hummingbirds, regardless of species, are in a tough spot in the food chain. A bird not much bigger than many large insects is going to be a target for opportunistic predators like a mantis that will attempt to kill and consume anything small enough for them to make the effort.

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Maria Sibylla Merian, a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator, was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly. She painted this horrific work featuring a large spider preying on a hummingbird that had been dutifully incubating her eggs. When she died in 1717, she was recognized as one of the world’s foremost entomologists.

To make matters worse for ruby-throated hummingbirds, some large spiders and the bigger dragonflies have also been documented as hummingbird predators. When ruby-throated hummingbirds retreat to Central America for the winter months, they also face threats from lizards and snakes.

The list of predators that have been known to eat ruby-throated hummingbirds extends to bullfrogs, as well as many raptors, including kestrels, merlins and sharp-shinned hawks. Blue jays and other birds will raid hummingbird nests for eggs or young. Squirrels and chipmunks are also nest predators.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com. Large frogs have also been known to prey on hummingbirds.

Despite all these perils, some ruby-throated hummingbirds have achieved a “long” life. The oldest on record was a ruby-throated hummingbird banded at the age of nine years and one month. Most elder hummingbirds are females. Few male hummingbirds, perhaps because of the energy they expend dueling with each other, reach their fifth birthday.

It’s definitely not easy being as tiny as a hummingbird in a world of fearsome giants, but birders who have seen a hummingbird hover boldly in front of their faces know how these tiny birds take life in stride. They may have a disadvantage in size, but that doesn’t keep them from living life as if they were as big as an eagle.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

Chipping sparrow a common summer nesting bird

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Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • A black line running through the eye bordered by a white stripe, as well as a rusty-red cap, helps distinguish the chipping sparrow from other “little brown birds” that belong in the sparrow family.

I needed to do some homework before I could answer a question posed to me by Frances Rosenbalm of Bristol, Tennessee. As she communicated to me in an email, she had discovered a bird’s nest in her garden and wanted help identifying the species that built the nest.

“I have a bird that made a nest in the top of my tomato vines,” Frances explained in her email. “It had four turquoise speckled eggs in it.”

Frances described the nest as being made with large twigs and moss. “What kind of bird do you think it may be?” she wrote. She also noted that her garden is located near a farm field.

“I was so surprised to find this nest,” she wrote. “In all of all the years I have put a garden out, this has never happened,” Frances concluded.

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After doing some research, which included poring over the pages of a great book by Hal H. Harrison titled, “A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests: United States East of the Mississippi River,” a work in the Peterson Field Guides series, I was able to write back to Frances with the news that I might have solved the mystery of the nest in the tomato vines.

The Harrison field guide is an exceptional book and one that’s perfect for someone who wants to know a little more about the birds other than their names. Entries for each bird include photographs depicting both the nest and the eggs as well as informative text with supplemental information about nesting birds in the Eastern United States.

Based on the description of the nest and its eggs, as well as its location near a farm field, I identified the nest described by Frances as belonging to chipping sparrows. I found some photographs online of chipping sparrow eggs in a nest and sent that in an email for her to consider.

Frances responded in another email. “I do believe you are right,” she wrote. “The eggs look a lot like the photo, and I have seen some birds that look like (chipping sparrows) flying around.”

For a species often lumped under the grouping of “Little Brown Birds,” the chipping sparrow is quite distinctive. In spring and summer, chipping sparrows sport a crisp, neat plumage with frosty gray underparts, a gray and white face and a striking black line through the eye. An easily recognizable field mark is the bright rusty crown atop the bird’s head.

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Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • Chipping sparrows will form flocks for the winter season.

When horses were more common in daily American life, the chipping sparrow took advantage of this resource to almost invariably line their nests with horsehair. Now that not all nesting chipping sparrows have access to horses, these birds use fine plant fibers or hair gathered from other sources, including people, to line their nests.

Once a nest is constructed, a female chipping sparrow lays and incubates three to four eggs, which take about 14 days to hatch. Chipping sparrows often attempt to raise two broods in a single nesting season. Although dense evergreen trees are a preferred nesting location, these birds will also nest in vines.

During the warm months of the summer nesting season, chipping sparrows feed almost exclusively on insects. When winter makes insects scarce, these small birds switch their diet to one of seeds. Chipping sparrows will also feed on small fruits and berries.

Chipping sparrows will sometimes nest as many as three times in a single season. Although territorial during the nesting season, these birds form sizable flocks for migration and during the winter season. In making reference to these flocks, observers can use other descriptive terms. Flocks of sparrows have also been called a crew, a flutter, a host, a tournament and a quarrel. I am partial to a flutter of sparrows, but anyone who has watched the pecking order at the feeders will also understand the origins of a quarrel of sparrows.

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John James Audubon painted this chipping sparrow.

There are a couple of well-known Biblical passages using sparrows for powerful pieces of symbolism. One alludes to the fact that if God provides for small songbirds like sparrows, he will certainly provide for human beings. In addition, there is a passage that maintains that not a single sparrow falls without God being aware of the loss. A famous hymn, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” is based on such biblical verses.

The world’s sparrows are divided into two large groupings — the Old World, or true sparrows, and the American sparrows of the New World.

Although largely considered rather dull, plain birds in appearance, some of them have earned descriptive names such as great sparrow, Arabian golden sparrow, green-backed sparrow, five-striped sparrow, yellow-browed sparrow and golden-crowned sparrow.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A field sparrow perches on a branch. These sparrows are closely related to chipping sparrows and relatively common in Northeast Tennessee.

Welcome chipping sparrows and their kin with a well-stocked feeder and perhaps some thick tomato vines for concealing a nest. Unfairly dismissed by some as plain, dull songbirds, the sparrows reward a closer look with some subtle behaviors and plumages as worthy of additional attention as much as some of their more colorful relatives.