Tag Archives: Rails

Christmas Bird Count makes for fun outing during the holiday season

carolinawren-snow

Photo by RetyiRetyi/Pixabay.com • Carolina wrens are small, inquisitive and hardy songbirds. The recent Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count found a record number of this wren during its annual survey of bird populations.

I participated in the 76th consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count, which was held Saturday, Dec. 15. This annual count is one of the oldest Christmas Bird Counts in the region, as well as in Tennessee.

I was one of twenty-eight observers in six parties. Together, we tallied 77 species, which is above the recent 30-year average of 72 species. The all-time high was set last year when 85 species were counted on this annual survey.

Osprey-LYNNValley

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An osprey perches in a tree along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee. These fish-eating raptors are rare in winter in Northeast Tennessee.

Two species — osprey and orange-crowned warbler — were found on this CBC for the first time. Longtime count compiler Rick Knight observed that one noticeable difference between last year’s count and the 2018 Elizabethton CBC was the number of ducks. Last year’s CBC yielded 13 species, but only six species of ducks were found this year.

Knight also noted that a record number — 139 — of Carolina wrens was spotted by CBC participants.

A single bald eagle was found, but it was enough to continue a recent trend. This eagle has appeared for 19 of the last 20 on the Elizabethton CBC. Counts more than 20 years ago rarely produced any bald eagles.

A single red-shouldered hawk represented a good find since this hawk has only been found on six of the previous 25 years. A single merlin represented an even more exceptional find for this CBC. Merlin has been represented only two times in the last 25 years for this particular count.

Red-shoulderHawk

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

Knight noted that two shorebirds — killdeer and Wilson’s snipe — have experienced a steady decline in making this annual count. This year’s count produced only a single killdeer and snipe.

Knight speculated that low numbers of cedar waxwings and American robins on this year’s CBC probably indicates a poor wild fruit crop. These two species depend heavily on fruit to supplement their diet during the winter months.

Chipping sparrow has now been found for 15 straight years, but had only previously been reported six times in the first 50 years of the history of the Elizabethton CBC.

Without fail, some species manage to evade counters. According to Knight, some of the conspicuous misses this year included ruffed grouse, common loon and barred owl.

Mom-Grouse

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although found during counts held in other seasons, no ruffed grouse was found on the 2018 Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count.

The Elizabethton Bird Club has been holding its annual Christmas count in Elizabethton, Tennessee, since 1942. The tradition of the Christmas Bird Count dates back much farther and originates from a less than bird-friendly custom. According to the National Audubon Society’s website, so-called sportsmen in the late 19th century would conduct a “Side Hunt,” a rather blood-thirsty Christmas custom that saw hunters competing to see who could score the largest amount of feathered and furred corpses.

The annual holiday bird survey may even have arisen from an earlier custom with roots in Europe that came to the United States of America with early colonists. The “Side Hunt” has some similarity to a peculiar celebration in Ireland and other European countries known as “Wren Day” or “Hunt the Wren Day.” The event was conducted the day after Christmas, the date of Dec. 26 being consigned as Saint Stephen’s Day. By the 20th century, the hunt consisted of tracking down a fake wren carried atop a decorated pole. Crowds would parade through towns in masks and colorful attire. These groups were referred to as “wren boys.”

Whether or not the “Side Hunt and “Wren Hunt” shared any connections, it was a huge step forward for conservation when preeminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition. His radical idea was to count birds during the Christmas season rather than hunting and killing them

chapman

Frank M. Chapman

The Christmas Bird Count is now conducted each year on dates between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The first CBC took place in December of 1900 with 27 observers participating at 25 locations in the United States and Canada. Fifteen of the counts were conducted in the northeastern United States from Massachusetts to Philadelphia. Results from that first count in 1900 didn’t truly reflect the diversity of North America’s birds, but they were nonetheless interesting. The Greater Boston CBC boasted only one participant and only found 17 species. However, some of those species included such good birds as American tree sparrow, brown creeper, Northern shrike and Northern bobwhite.

For me, the Christmas Bird Count is a fun holiday outing with friends. There’s also satisfaction in knowing the results gathered from these nationwide counts will also contribute to the body of citizen science that helps experts determine the status of our feathered friends.

For a complete tally of this year’s Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count, please see the online sidebar to this week’s column at HeraldCourier.com.

Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count

Canada goose, 459; wood duck, 1; American wigeon, 1; American black duck, 1; mallard, 150; bufflehead, 182; and hooded merganser, 11.

Wild turkey, 57; pied-billed grebe, 16; horned grebe, 11; double-crested cormorant, 1; and great blue heron, 29.

Black vulture, 5; turkey vulture, 19; osprey, 1; sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 4; bald eagle, 1; red-shouldered hawk, 1; and red-tailed hawk, 17.

Snipe-One

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wilson’s snipe are not often found in the winter in Northeast Tennessee.

American coot, 1; killdeer, 1; Wilson’s snipe, 1; and ring-billed gull, 14.

Rock pigeon, 296; Eurasian collared-dove, 4; mourning dove, 126; Eastern screech-owl, 4; and great horned owl, 2.

Belted kingfisher, 21; red-bellied woodpecker, 26; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 11; downy woodpecker, 30; hairy woodpecker, 4; Northern flicker, 25; and pileated woodpecker, 20.

American kestrel, 16; merlin, 1; Eastern phoebe, 11; blue jay, 128; American crow, 291; and common raven, 10.

Carolina chickadee, 80; tufted titmouse, 72; red-breasted nuthatch, 1; white-breasted nuthatch, 29; and brown creeper, 10.

Winter wren, 4; Carolina wren, 139; golden-crowned kinglet, 38; and ruby-crowned kinglet, 15.

Eastern bluebird, 122; hermit thrush, 7; American robin, 17; brown thrasher, 1; and Northern mockingbird, 50.

mockingbird-nov11

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern Mockingbird has been the official state bird for Tennessee since 1933.

European starling, 592; cedar waxwing, 30; orange-crowned warbler, 1; palm warbler, 1; and yellow-rumped warbler, 32.

Eastern towhee, 22; chipping sparrow, 29; field sparrow, 34; Savannah sparrow, 4; fox sparrow, 3; song sparrow, 129; swamp sparrow, 8; white-throated sparrow, 70; white-crowned sparrow, 20; and dark-eyed junco, 66.

Northern cardinal, 159; red-winged blackbird, 25; Eastern meadowlark, 4; house finch, 34; American goldfinch, 46; and house sparrow, 8.

Cardinal-Enclosed

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A total of 159 Northern cardinals made this species a common bird on the recent Elizabethton CBC.

Hawk spoils start of winter bird feeding season

According to a recent Census Report, Americans are feeding birds in epic numbers — 63 million people in this country make life less of a struggle for birds by filling bird feeders with sunflower seeds, peanuts and other goodies. In fact, watching and feeding birds ranks second only to gardening as one of America’s popular pastimes.

Unfortunately, bringing wild birds into our lives means we are occasional witnesses to the darker side of nature that dictates there’s a survival of the fittest competition taking place in our own backyards and gardens.

sharp-shinned-hawk-dbadry

Photo by Dbadry/Pixabay.com • A sharp-shinned hawk visits a bird bath during the Christmas season. These small hawks, designed to prey on songbirds, sometimes learn to stalk feeders, which creates distress for the human landlords.

Welcoming birds into our yards and lives means inviting all birds, include predatory raptors such as sharp-shinned hawk, merlin, Cooper’s hawk and American kestrel. It’s a problem Elizabeth Laing has had to cope with in recent weeks. We’ve commiserated over Facebook about her conflicted feelings about the predatory nature of the hawk that’s been stalking birds at her feeders.

Elizabeth sent me a message via Facebook on Nov. 21 about a situation unfolding at her home in Abingdon, Virginia.

“Please help me to know what to do,” she wrote as the start of her message. “Right now I an absolutely devastated and in tears. I have about eight feeders up year round. I feed a lot of small birds in my backyard and even crows in my front yard. I have at least 15 American goldfinches right now at several sunflower chip feeders.”

Elizabeth noted that for the past few days she had seen a small hawk in her backyard for the first time ever.

“I was worried and tried to scare it off,” she wrote. “I realize they have to eat, too, and are beautiful birds, but I don’t want them killing birds on my feeders.”

1-sharp-shinned-hawk-john-james-audubon

John James Audubon painted this pair of sharp-shinned hawk and shows the size difference between males and females. Many people are surprised to learn that female hawks are typically much larger than males, which is also true of the Cooper’s hawk.

Unfortunately, that’s what happened right as she watched through a window as a goldfinch feeding at her feeder.

“The hawk swooped in and grabbed him off the feeder,” she reported.In the wake of the hawk’s action, Elizabeth took some sensible steps, including immediately taking down her feeders.

Some of her birds, such as the tufted titmice, came back quickly and perched on the empty feeder poles. “I felt so bad,” she said. “I want to feed them, but I can’t stand the thought of them being snatched off my feeders.”

She concluded her message by asking my advice. I responded and told her that when hawks do make a habit of raiding feeders, it can be necessary to curtail feeding for a couple of weeks or longer. Most authorities on birding insist that the hawks will lose interest and move to more productive feeding grounds. Unfortunately, the raptor visiting Elizabeth’s yard proved persistent.

bird-2154147_1920

Photo by NatureLady/Pixabay.com Immature sharp-shinned hawk look different than adults, but once they learn to hunt, they are very efficient predators.

 

“I wanted to update you on my hawk problem,” Elizabeth wrote back in another message on Nov. 26. “I took all my feeders down, but not long enough. After five days, I put them back.

She had also invested in brand new, expensive caged feeders. She purchased the caged feeders thinking the goldfinches would be safe inside.

For flocking birds, like American goldfinches, the caged feeders offered security only to birds inside the caging. Those birds waiting outside of the caging for their own turns at the feeder remained vulnerable.

“I found feathers on the side of one cage this morning,” she wrote. “Then, as I was watching a bunch eat, that hawk swooped in and took another one off the side.”

The entire situation has made her discouraged and sad. “I hope this doesn’t mean I will have to stop feeding birds entirely. I actually have bags of seeds and peanuts (for the titmice) coming in the mail later this week,” she wrote.

In the wake of the latest attacks, she has taken down the feeders again. “I will leave them down for two weeks this time,” she wrote. “I know the hawk has to eat, too, and it’s a beautiful bird, but I can’t do this to my little goldfinches.”

I agreed that it would be senseless, as well as rather cruel, to provide food for songbirds while knowing a hawk is lurking in the vicinity.

FirstHawk

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A sharp-shinned hawk photographed after capturing and killing a Northern cardinal feeding on the ground beneath a feeder.

 

Elizabeth also asked if I have had birds killed at my feeders. Although it has been a thankfully rare occurrence, hawks have snatched birds visiting my feeders. I’ve not often witnessed the actual predation, often finding only a pile of feathers on the ground as evidence of the hawk’s success.

A few years ago, however, I witnessed a rather dramatic attack on New Year’s Day. As I watched a female Northern cardinal feeding on sunflower seeds spilled onto the ground by the birds visiting a hanging feeder, a sharp-shinned hawk suddenly slammed into the cardinal. In an instant, I saw my first and second bird species of the New Year. The cardinal, however, didn’t get to live and enjoy the unfolding year.

The website allaboutbirds.org described the sharp-shinned hawk as “a tiny hawk that appears in a blur of motion — and often disappears in a flurry of feathers.” It’s an apt description of this pint-sized predatory bird.

The website also notes that studies indicate that feeders don’t make it more likely that our favorite songbirds will be preyed upon by a sharp-shinned hawk or other raptor. Although feeders might temporarily attract a raptor, these birds will catch the majority of their prey elsewhere.

The sharp-shinned hawk belongs to a genus of raptors known as accipiters, which are slender raptors with rounded wings and long tails. They are highly maneuverable in flight. A characteristic of accipiters is long legs and sharp talons. In fact, the genus is named from the Latin word for hawk, “accipere,” which can be translated as, “to grasp.”

shikra-336751_1920

Photo by Sarangib/Pixabay.com • A shikra (Accipiter badius) is a small bird of prey in the family Accipitridae found widely distributed in Asia and Africa where it is also called the little banded goshawk.

Other members of the accipiters in North America include the Cooper’s hawk and Northern goshawk. Other accipiters around the world include such raptors as chestnut goshawk, red-chested goshawk, crested goshawk, little sparrowhawk, spot-tailed sparrowhawk, black sparrowhawk and red-thighed sparrowhawk.

Elizabeth sent me one other message, informing me that she had also advised her neighbor to take down his feeder, which he did. Shortly after he did so, Elizabeth saw the hawk attack a squirrel, which, thanks to Elizabeth rapping on a windowpane, apparently survived the attack.

coopers-hawk-570341_1920

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com The Cooper’s hawk, like this individual, is a larger relative of the sharp-shinned hawk. It’s larger size allows this raptor to prey on larger birds, such as mourning doves.

In addition, if the hawk in her yard is attacking squirrels, her visitor is probably a Cooper’s hawk, a bird almost identical to a sharp-shinned hawk except for its larger size. I’m hopeful that an extended hiatus will convince the hawk to leave Elizabeth and her goldfinches in peace.

It’s still good to remember that hawks view smaller birds flocking to a feeder in the same way those small songbirds view the abundance of seeds. For both hawks and songbirds, our offerings represent easy meals. It’s not easy, but the best choice is to co-exist — if not at peace, then at terms with nature’s reality.

CalendarCover

Bird club selling calendars

The Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society is selling its 2019 calendar for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes in Northeast Tennessee. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites and some not-so-common visitors. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email or send a message via Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Calendars can be mailed to any destination in the United States for an additional charge of $2 for shipping and postage.

Family of pigeons, doves features one famous member

Vivian Tester of Bristol, Tennessee, sent me an email seeking help with a pigeon problem.

“I need your advice on trying to keep the pigeons off my bird feeders,” Vivian wrote. “They are chasing off the birds I want to feed and devouring all the seed. My neighbor says they are doves but whatever they are, they are annoying. I don’t know if the squirrel-proof feeder would work or not. I would appreciate any help.”

animal animal photography avian beak

Photo of a rock pigeon by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I recommended that Vivian offer only black oil sunflower seeds to see if that might can discourage the unwanted guests. While pigeons will eat sunflower seeds, they much prefer smaller seeds like milo and millet often found in mixed seed packages. If their preferred food source dries up, they may be convinced to move elsewhere.

Stopping feeding for a trial period is another possibility. Remove food for a week and then slowly start offering seeds again. If the pigeons have moved to other feeding grounds, perhaps they will be slow to return.

It’s a tough problem to solve. Although some feeders can be designed to prevent a large bird like a pigeon or dove from perching, the birds are going to still make the attempt. In doing so, they knock seed to the ground below and will happily feed on the spillage. The best option for avoiding pigeons would be to use tube feeders designed for minimal spillage if jostled. Doves and pigeons prefer to feed on the ground, so scattering seeds there, intentionally or inadvertently, is an invitation for flocks to gather.

PIGEON-PIC

Photo by Jean Potter • The widespread rock pigeon is one of the most successful members of the bird family Columbidae, which is comprised of some 310 species of doves and pigeons. One of the most famous representatives of the family is the dodo, an extinct relative of such common birds as the mourning dove and rock pigeon.

Nature, too, offers a solution. Several species of raptors prey readily on doves and pigeons. Peregrine falcons and Cooper’s hawks are two effective controls on such birds, but it is not easy to issue an invitation for one of these birds to take up residence in your yard.

The two mostly likely offenders in the region are the mourning dove and the rock pigeon. Mourning doves are an abundant native species at home in both rural areas and suburbs. The rock pigeon is not a native species but has thrived in the United States since it first arrived with early colonists from Europe. Rock pigeons are mostly a problem for people attempting to feed birds in urban and suburban areas.

Pigeons and doves constitute the animal family Columbidae, which is comprised of some 310 species. One of the most famous members of this family is the extinct bird known as the dodo. The well-known story of the dodo doesn’t often make reference to the relations this bird had to living doves and pigeons.

Roelant_Savery_-_Landscape_with_Birds_-_WGA20885 2

In the lower right corner of this illustration, a dodo is visible along with such birds                        as macaws, cranes, and even a wild turkey. Titled “Landscape with Birds,” this painting            was done by artist Roelant Savery in 1628.

Early scientists did not know what to make of the dodo and theorized that the unusual flightless bird was everything from a small ostrich to flightless versions of an albatross or a vulture. Johannes Theodor Reinhardt, a zoologist from Denmark, hinted at the dodo’s relationship to the world’s pigeons and doves as early as 1842. At first his theory was ridiculed, but other biologists and zoologists eventually came to accept the fact that the dodo was indeed a large, flightless pigeon.

The dodo stood a few inches over three feet tall and could weigh close to 40 pounds. Most of what is known about the dodo comes from paintings and drawings of the bird made by early explorers in the 17th century. Some of the humans who observed the bird also left behind valuable written accounts. First discovered by Dutch sailors who visited the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1598, the dodo became extinct only 64 years later. So about the same time the rock pigeon was establishing itself as an introduced species of bird in North America, around the world one of its cousins slid quietly into extinction.800px-Van_den_Venne_dodo 2

The dodo has acquired a reputation in popular culture as slow-witted, lethargic, fat, clumsy and stupid, dooming the bird as a creature too ill-suited to exist. Today, most scientists believe that the dodo was adapted perfectly to its island habitat. Having evolved as a flightless bird, the arrival of humans in its paradise meant its doom. The reputation for stupidity is unfair. Having never encountered humans, dodos did not have an instinctive fear of them. This lack of fear made it easy for the early explorers of their island home to quickly render them extinct.

Modern science has even pinpointed the dodo’s closest living relative. Thanks to DNA analysis, the Nicobar pigeon of southeast Asia has been identified as the closest relation of the dodo. The Nicobar pigeon is much smaller (only 16 inches long) and, unlike its famous relative, is capable of flight. This pigeon feeds mostly on fruit and seed. When grain of any kind is available, it will also make use of such a food source.

Most contemporary sources reveal that the dodo enjoyed a diet rich in fruit, but modern biologists speculate the dodo probably also foraged for nuts, seeds and tubers. It’s ironic that the dodos were slaughtered to extinction to provide food for early explorers of their island. An English explorer by the name of Sir Thomas Herbert recognized the dodo’s exploitation as a food source, but disparaged the bird’s taste. “To the delicate they are offensive and of no nourishment,” Herbert wrote in his published work, “A Relation of Some Years Travel into Africa and the Greater Asia.”

Lophopsittacus.mauritianus

This sketch, completed in 1634 by Sir Thomas Herbert, shows a broad-billed parrot, a red rail and possibly one of the last dodos to exist on the planet. Herbert described the dodo as a rather poor food source for early explorers to its island home. 

Like the pigeons that have become a scourge on Vivian’s feeders, it’s very likely that, had they survived, dodos might visit feeders today on the island of Mauritius. For the most part, the world’s doves and pigeons are considered successful birds.

In the United States, some other native doves include the widespread mourning dove, as well as white-winged dove, common ground dove and Inca dove. The Eurasian collared-dove, introduced into the Bahamas and Florida, has now spread extensively into the United States and is known to have established populations through northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

Dove-Wing

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A mourning dove stretches a wing while perched on a feeder.

Some descriptive names for some of the world’s doves include purple-winged ground dove, lemon dove, zebra dove, ochre-bellied dove, tambourine dove, white-faced cuckoo-dove, ring-necked dove, little cuckoo-dove and sapphire quail-dove. Pigeons have also been bestowed with such colorful names as snow pigeon, speckled pigeon, yellow-eyed pigeon, pale-capped pigeon, metallic pigeon, crested pigeon, pink pigeon and squatter pigeon.

We all like to attract as many birds as possible to our yards and gardens. A variety of food will help achieve that objective. Be aware, though, that such free buffets will also encourage messy birds like pigeons that make feathered pigs of themselves and almost always overstay their welcome. There’s also the option to admire pigeons and doves as survivors with a lineage worthy of some admiration. Hang some tube feeders accessible to smaller songbirds but toss some seeds into a corner of the yard for the ground-feeding pigeons and doves. They’re birds, too, after all.

Dodo_head

English naturalists dissected a dodo skull, shown in this sketch, in 1848 to help prove the relationship of the dodo to pigeons.

Roelandt_Savery_-_'Dodo_Birds',_Chalk,_black_and_amber_on_cream_paper

 

Sora observation spring surprise as pace of migration increases

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Sora forages for food in an Erwin wetland along the linear walking trail.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Sora forages for food in an Erwin wetland along the linear walking trail.

The hummingbirds, as I reported last week, are back. I’m hearing from readers across the region about the arrival of these tiny flying gems.

• Nata Jackson, who lives in Greene County, sent me an email to let me know that she saw her first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of spring on April 14. She had put up her feeders at about 2 p.m. Five hours later, she walked by the window and saw a male hummingbird at one of the feeders.

• April Kerns Fain of Erwin reported on Facebook that her hummingbirds returned on April 16, which was a very chilly day. “My hummingbirds are back and I had to thaw their sugar water for them,” she wrote. “Yuk!”

• Patricia Faye Wagers, who lives in Kingsport, saw her first hummingbird — a male — of spring on April 16, as well.

However, after I saw my first hummingbird of spring on Friday, April 11, I haven’t seen one since. Maybe the cold snap persuaded them to keep journeying north, or maybe they turned back south for a few days. I’m hopeful a few hummingbirds, as they usually do, will take up residence in the yard for the rest of the summer.

•••••

I spent the morning of Friday, April 11, birding with Margaret Roy along the linear walking trail in Erwin. She wanted to get an introduction to a guided birding experience in advance of a planned fall birding tour that we plan to offer through Mountain Inn & Suites of Erwin, where Margaret is the general manager.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Solitary Sandpiper seeks food at the water's edge in a wetland at Erwin Fishery Park.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Solitary Sandpiper seeks food at the water’s edge in a wetland at Erwin Fishery Park.

We had a fantastic morning, highlighted by a lengthy observation of a Sora from the wetland boardwalk near the industrial park. The Sora is a member of the rail family, which includes such species as Clapper Rail, Virginia Rail, King Rail, Yellow Rail and Black Rail.

We also saw a Greater Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Yellow Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Coots, Pied-billed Grebes, Brown Thrasher, Song Sparrows, Mallards, Canada Geese, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, American Robins, Downy Woodpeckers and a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers excavating a nesting cavity in a sycamore tree.

Several of the birds – Greater Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper and Yellow Warbler represented my first spring sightings.

Our observation of the Sora, however, provided the most excitement of the morning. This is a bird that is only infrequently encountered, especially in this region. Rails, the Sora included, are shy, elusive and designed with the primary purpose of avoiding notice.

Worldwide, there are more than 130 species of rails. Many members of the family are called rails or crakes, but the family Rallidae also includes coots, moorhens, swamp-hens and gallinules.

Many species of rails have evolved into flightless species of birds. All the species encountered in North America, however, are capable of flight and long-distance migrations. Many of the world’s flightless rails have gone extinct in the past few centuries. Many are considered endangered, including Lord Howe Woodhen, the Takahē and the Guam Rail.

The Sora is a small bird that’s not much bigger than an American Robin. While many rails are plain-looking birds, the Sora is fairly distinctive in its appearance with a slaty gray body, a short, yellow bill, long legs and a short tail, often held upright showing white underneath. Soras also have a black face and throat.

As we watched the Sora foraging among cattails and other vegetation beneath the boardwalk spanning the wetland along the linear trail, the bird moved deliberately and alertly. As we watched, the Sora flipped over leaves and other debris with its bill, often snatching small prey organisms. This bird enjoys a varied diet that can include seeds, insects, crustaceans and snails.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Sora finds a meal in a wetland spanned by a boardwalk along the Erwin linear walking trail.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Sora finds a meal in a wetland spanned by a boardwalk along the Erwin linear walking trail.

At the end of our observation, the Sora turned and simply walked into the cattails, fading from view almost instantly. The sudden disappearance of a bird so capable of navigating effortlessly between reeds and cattails reminded me of the phrase, “as thin as a rail,” which seems particularly apt for the Sora.

This normally secretive bird makes its home in freshwater marshes throughout Canada and the central United States. The Sora is the most common and widely distributed rail in North America. The Sora also ranges into Central and South America. Like many rails, it is quite vocal with a distinctive descending whinny call can be easily heard from marsh vegetation, but actually seeing a Sora is often a fluke of being in the right place at the right time.

The sighting recently in Erwin is the best I’ve ever had of a Sora in Northeast Tennessee. Another memorable observation of a Sora took place years ago on Fripp Island, S.C., when my mother and I watched a bird wading at the edge of a waterway on one of the island’s many golf courses.

In addition, during a field trip many years ago with members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, I saw a Sora wading in a flooded ditch in a pasture at Austin Springs on Boone Lake.

Many of my encounters with this species have been represented only by hearing them call from wetlands in Bowmantown and Shady Valley.

The book, “The Birds of Northeast Tennessee” by Rick Knight, classifies the Sora as a transient bird in the region that is occasional to uncommon in spring and fall.

Photo by Bryan Stevens The Sora is an elusive member of the rail family that is more often heard than seen.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The Sora is an elusive member of the rail family that is more often heard than seen.

•••••

Two days after Margaret and I saw the Sora in Erwin, Elizabethton residents Cathy Myers and Tom McNeil found a Sora and a Common Yellowthroat at Henderson Marsh, which is located in on Crestview Road in Bowmantown in Washington County.

Of course, Soras are only one of many species migrating through the region. Vireos, warblers, shorebirds and flycatchers are among those arriving with every passing day.

••••••

Many birds are already nesting. A female Northern Cardinal is sitting on a nest in a yew tree at my home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton.

I also visited the Great Blue Heron nesting colony along Blevins Road on the Watauga River in Elizabethton. I found several more nests have been added since my last visit a couple of weeks ago.

•••••

I would love to hear from readers. You can also reach me on Facebook or send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Please share a link to the column with others who might be interested in the topic of birds and birding in Northeast Tennessee.