It’s not too often I get a chance to make a historic bird sighting, but that’s what happened on a recent Saturday while seated on a bench with Rob Armistead having a breakfast break while taking part in a seasonal bird survey in Elizabethton along the Watauga River.
I chose the location for the break because I knew that it has traditionally been a good spot to observe some unexpected species. Past good birds that I’ve observed along this section of the Watauga River have included orange-crowned warbler, yellow-throated vireo, sora, Baltimore oriole and red-headed woodpecker.
On this occasion, a tiny shorebird made an appearance, settling on some exposed rock formations. In April and May, these same rocks are great locations to find migrating spotted sandpipers and solitary sandpipers.
The bird was smaller than these sandpipers and immediately stood out as a “peep,” a nickname that birders give to a group of small sandpipers that are all similar in appearance.
The one physical trait that help distinguish a least sandpiper from other “peeps” is leg coloration. Least sandpipers have greenish or yellowish legs in contrast to the black legs of other similar “peeps.”
In good light and at close range, Rob and I confirmed that the bird had greenish legs and were thrilled to add a least sandpiper to our own tally of observed birds.
The least sandpiper, as suggested by its name, is the smallest member of the sandpiper family. In fact, this sandpiper, which is not much bigger than a sparrow, is the world’s smallest shorebird. The least sandpiper weighs only a single ounce and is only five to six inches long.
According to the website All About Birds, the least sandpiper migrates thousands of miles between its Arctic breeding grounds and wintering grounds as far south as Chile and Brazil.
In releasing the count compilation, official compiler Rick Knight made note of the fact that the least sandpiper represents a late migrant and the first-ever June record for the species in the five-county area.
During the course of the day, Rob and I joined Brookie and Jean Potter for a trip to Holston Mountain, where we added some mid- to high-elevation species such as scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, veery, Eastern wood-pewee, dark-eyed junco, ruffed course and chestnut-sided warbler.
This year’s survey was the 29th annual Carter County Summer Bird Count and was conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. I’ve been participating on this yearly survey of local birds since the late 1990s.
This year’s count was held Saturday, June 11. A total of 22 observers took part in this year’s count.
A total of 116 species was tallied, which is right on average for the last decade and slightly above the average of 114 over the previous 28 years, according to Knight.
He noted that the all-time high for this count was 123 species in 2017.
Here’s the total:
Canada goose, 131; wood duck, 9; mallard, 53; ruffed grouse, 3; and wild turkey, 20.
Rock pigeon, 49; Eurasian collared-dove, 1; mourning dove, 155; yellow-billed cuckoo, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 4; Eastern whip-poor-will, 9; chimney swift, 116; and ruby-throated hummingbird, 22.
Killdeer, 18; least sandpiper, 1; double-crested cormorant, 13; great Blue heron, 22; and green heron, 2.
Black vulture, 5; turkey vulture, 65; Cooper’s hawk, 4; bald eagle, 1; red-shouldered hawk, 2; broad-winged hawk, 5; red-tailed hawk, 5; Eastern screech-owl, 6; and barred owl, 3.
Belted kingfisher, 5; red-bellied woodpecker, 32; downy Woodpecker, 23; hairy woodpecker, 4; Northern flicker, 27; and pileated woodpecker, 16.
American kestrel, 1; great crested flycatcher, 2; Eastern kingbird, 27; Eastern wood-pewee, 31; Acadian flycatcher, 20; alder flycatcher, 2; least flycatcher, 12; and Eastern phoebe, 73.
White-eyed vireo, 5; yellow-throated vireo, 1; blue-headed vireo, 54; warbling vireo, 1; and red-eyed vireo, 165.
Blue jay, 110; American crow, 259; fish crow, 2; and common raven, 10.
Tree swallow, 118; Northern rough-winged swallow, 45; purple martin, 22; barn swallow, 173; and cliff swallow, 265.
Carolina chickadee, 73; tufted titmouse, 93; red-breasted nuthatch, 14; white-breasted nuthatch, 23; house wren, 57; winter wren, 4; and Carolina wren, 116.
Blue-gray gnatcatcher, 23; golden-crowned kinglet, 7; Eastern bluebird, 152; veery, 29; hermit thrush, 1; wood thrush, 66; American robin, 581; gray catbird, 60; brown thrasher, 22; and Northern mockingbird, 70
European starling, 411; cedar waxwing, 61; house sparrow, 98; house finch, 51; pine siskin, 10; and American goldfinch, 170.
Grasshopper sparrow, 1; chipping sparrow, 80; field sparrow, 43, dark-eyed junco, 70; song sparrow, 348; Eastern towhee, 150; yellow-breasted chat, 7.
Eastern meadowlark, 13; orchard oriole, 2; Baltimore oriole , 1; red-winged blackbird, 73; brown-headed cowbird, 49; and common grackle,143.
Ovenbird, 77; worm-eating warbler 3; Louisiana waterthrush, 12; golden-winged warbler, 2; black-&-white warbler, 31; Swainson’s warbler, 6; common yellowthroat, 31; hooded warbler, 110; American redstart , 6; Northern parula, 47; magnolia warbler, 1; Blackburnian warbler, 5; yellow warbler, 3; chestnut-sided warbler, 31; black-throated blue warbler, 49; pine warbler, 3; yellow-rumped warbler, 1; yellow-throated warbler, 16; black-throated green warbler, 19; and Canada warbler, 10.
Scarlet tanager, 42; Northern cardinal, 173; rose-breasted grosbeak, 7; blue grosbeak, 4; and indigo bunting, 161.
My other personal highlight on this count was seeing three young Ruffed Grouse darting across the road, one at a time, while riding on Panhandle Road to the top of Holston Mountain. Those three young grouse turned out to be the only grouse counted by any participants on the count.
The Unicoi County Summer Bird Count was conducted Saturday, June 18. I’ll provide the results of that count in an upcoming column.