Tag Archives: Rare birds

Brief stay of Virginia’s warbler along Kingsport’s Holston River leaves birders amazed

At times, there’s nothing left to do but scratch your head and wonder. It’s a gesture many birders have been making around the Holston River in Kingsport as walks in the area along Netherland Inn Drive on the greenbelt have produced numerous warbler sightings in recent weeks.


Photo by Sherrie Quillen • The Virginia’s warbler found in January in Kingsport represented the first Tennessee record for the species and one of only a few records east of the Mississippi River.

The list includes expected winter warblers such as orange-crowned, pine, and yellow-rumped, as well as such off-season puzzlers as American redstart, common yellowthroat, Northern parula, Cape May warbler and Nashville warbler; these warblers really should be wintering far to the south in locations around the Caribbean and in Central America. So far this winter, sharp-eyed birders have seen at least 12 different warbler species on the Riverfront Greenbelt. None of them have generated the level of excitement that has been produced by a small plain gray and yellow bird that is doggedly devoted to its daily routine. Birders have rushed from all parts of Tennessee, as well as from as far afield as Virginia and New Jersey, for a chance to see a visiting Virginia’s warbler, a bird that has only been observed on a handful of occasions east of the Mississippi River.

This warbler is not named for the state of Virginia. Spencer F. Baird, who first described the Virginia’s Warbler in 1860, named the species after Virginia Anderson, the wife of Dr. W. W. Anderson, who collected the first specimen in 1858 in New Mexico. Virginia’s warbler is not all that exceptional in appearance. While gray overall the bird shows a white eyering and some yellow highlights to feathers on the chest and under the tail. The bird also wags its tail, a behavior that can be helpful in identifying it.


Northeast Tennessee is outside of the expected range in the American southwest of Virginia’s warbler.

The Virginia’s warbler is a species known for showing up in some rather odd locations. Back in 2012, one of these warblers generated birding excitement around New York City when one was found in Alley Pond Park in the New York City borough of Queens. In their usual range, however, Virginia’s warblers nest in arid terrain, including open pinyon-juniper and oak woodlands in the southwestern Rocky Mountain states, which is a far cry from the banks of the Holston River in Kingsport or Queens in New York.

The Kingsport specimen pulled a vanishing act when the weather turned milder in early February. Well-known birder Rick Knight, who lives in Johnson City, Tennessee, addressed the status of the bird in a post he made to the list-serve, “TN-Bird”:

“The Virginia’s Warbler and the other unusual warblers present at Riverfront Park in Kingsport seem to wander some on warm days and then return to the water’s edge on cold days to take advantage of the milder microclimate there.” Knight went on to speculate that the bird may still be in the vicinity and will return to its usual haunts when cold temperatures return. So far, despite a mix of warm days with colder ones, the Virginia’s warbler hasn’t been seen since Feb. 2.


Photo by Sherrie Quillen • The influx of birders to view the Virginia’s warbler led to other unexpected finds along the Kingsport greenbelt, including such out-of-season birds as blue-gray gnatcatchers, Nashville warbler and Northern parula. More than a few birders referred to the famous Patagonian Picnic Table Effect to describe the sightings.

Several birders who found the bird and added it to their life lists commented on the fact that so many other unexpected species were found at the same time in the same location. It wasn’t long before people began evoking the famous birding phenomenon known as the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, which is a birding phenomenon named for a famous hotspot in southeast Arizona. The lure of a bird called the rose-throated becard at the location attracted a rush of birders to the area. More eyes resulted in more discoveries of other rare birds. In turn, the additional finds continued attracting even more birders and resulted in the discovery of even more rare bird species.

So, who first noticed the presence of the out-of-place warbler? The credit for the discovery goes to two Kingsport residents. On a post to Facebook, the two women who discovered the bird shared details of their exciting find. Bambi “Birdfinder” Fincher posted the notice of the bird’s discovery.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A couple of blue-gray gnatcatchers, such as this invidiual, represented an unusual find in winter in the region. The gnatcatchers were spotted by sharp-eyed birders in their quest to observe the Virginia’s warbler in Kingsport.

“Yesterday (Saturday, Jan. 19) in the pouring rain, Sherrie Quillen and I found a Virginia’s warbler on Kingsport Birding Trail-Riverfront Greenbelt,” she wrote in a post to the Birding Kingsport Facebook page. “This is the first record of this bird in the state of Tennessee.”

Bambi explained her birding success simply. “I’m always looking! Keeps me birding!”

She also invited other birders to join her some time. “It can be pretty amazing,” she wrote. “No promises of a state record or life bird, but I can promise you that you will learn something about your surroundings and yourself.”

She earned her nickname “birdfinder” about 10 years ago when she first started birding. “I was out birding with Bill Moyle or Bill Grigsby — one of the Bill’s, anyway — and I was really ‘finding’ birds but didn’t know what they were.”

The Bills didn’t let her get discouraged. “They said, ‘That’s OK, you will learn the birds, but you are a birdfinder.’ It stuck.”

I met both Bambi and Sherrie for the first time on the day I traveled to Kingsport to try my luck at observing this warbler. Bambi quickly proved her “birdfinder” talents. Although I had to wait for about an hour for the bird to make an appearance, when it did arrive, it flew right to the spot by the river that Bambi had recommended I keep under observation. The specific spot consisted of a thin stand of privet rooted in the riverbank only a few yards from a bench located near the paved walking path. When the bird arrived, making telltale chip notes, I got my binoculars on it and enjoyed a satisfying but brief look at the bird. Birds are rarely as cooperative as this particular Virginia’s warbler turned out to be. Several other birders waiting with me also got to see the warbler at the same time. As warblers are my favorite family of birds, getting to observe this unexpected visitor has been the highlight of my birding year thus far.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The author of the blog hasn’t yet seen a handful of species among the Eastern warblers, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, pictured here. The remaining elusive eastern warblers include Connecticut, Kirtland’s and cerulean.

In the Eastern United States, there are only a handful of warblers I haven’t yet observed. I need to see a cerulean warbler and Connecticut warbler, as well as a Kirtland’s warbler and golden-cheeked warbler. The latter two species are considered endangered and highly localized warblers occurring mostly in Michigan and Texas, respectively — two states I’ve not yet visited.

I’ll always remember my first look at a Virginia’s warbler just before noon on Jan. 28, 2019. The bird had already been present for ten days by the time I made the drive to Kingsport to try my luck. In addition, I saw many other interesting birds while waiting for my target bird to arrive. Some of the other observed birds included palm warbler, blue-gray gnatcatcher, ruby-crowned kinglets and golden-crowned kinglets.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A palm warbler forages along a chain-link fence. This warbler is often a wintering bird in the region and a few were seen by observers who trekked to the Kingsport greenbelt to view the visiting Virginia’s warbler.

What’s in a name? Long-tailed Ducks stage late winter invasion of Northeast Tennessee

Experts in ornithology are always changing the common and scientific names of many of our favorite birds. That’s why since I began birding I have had to adjust myself to accept the Eastern Towhee for the bird I first learned as a Rufous-sided Towhee – still a much more accurate and interesting name – and Blue-headed Vireo in place of Solitary Vireo. Blue-headed is more descriptive of the appearance of this bird, but as someone who can be a bit of a loner, I also appreciated the “solitary” moniker.

Name changes, however, rarely inspire the controversy that one did more than a decade ago when a duck formerly known as “Oldsquaw” had its name changed to “Long-tailed Duck.” In 2000, the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature was petitioned to make the name change. Biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska requested that the English name, or common name, of Clangula hyemalis be changed from Oldsquaw to Long-tailed Duck, the name that had long been used for the species outside of North America. The biologists noted that the species was declining in numbers in Alaska and that their conservation management plans required the help and cooperation of Native Americans.  The biologists expressed concerns that the name Oldsquaw would offend the Native Americans they were trying to recruit to assist them with efforts to protect this particular duck.

Photo by Bryan Stevens Six Long-tailed Ducks photographed last month on Holston Lake.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Six Long-tailed Ducks photographed last month on Holston Lake.

It wasn’t the first request to change the name, but it was the one that convinced the members of the committee to approve the petition. The members did state a reluctance to consider political correctness alone as a reason for changing long-standing English names of birds. In essence, the committee was willing in this particular instance to adopt an alternative name already in use in much of the world.

How did this duck ever get saddled with the name “oldsquaw” in the first place? The name was apparently inspired by the rolling three-noted call made by (here’s irony for you) the male ducks. In flocks, drake Long-tailed Ducks are very sociable and excitable. They like to “talk” with each other. Somewhere, back in the early days of ornithology in North America, someone apparently felt these vocal ducks reminded them of “old squaws” engaged in gossip. When I think about it, I can see why the name did have some heavy baggage regarding racism and sexism.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service  The Long-tailed Duck, pictured here, was once known as the "Oldsquaw."

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Long-tailed Duck, pictured here, was once known as the “Oldsquaw.”

Long-tailed Ducks range the far northern regions of North America, Europe and Asia. In North America, these ducks breed in the high Arctic regions of Alaska and Canada. They winter in the Great Lakes and along both coasts as far south as northern California and the Carolinas. It was the fact that the severe cold this winter has frozen solid the Great Lakes that pushed Long-tailed Ducks south in almost unprecedented numbers. I am thankful for this unanticipated consequence of the severe cold snaps in January and February. After all, it allowed me to finally get an excellent look at Long-tailed Ducks 14 years after I first added this species to my life list.

I have a few birds checked on my life list that I have technically observed in the field without enjoying particularly satisfying observations of the birds. Often, such unsatisfactory observations stem from either a fleeting glimpse of a bird or a look at one from a great distance. For instance, I observed Buff-breasted Sandpipers only one time several years ago during a visit to Rankin Bottoms at Douglas Lake. My look at the distant sandpipers through a spotting scope gave me only a blurry image of the birds on mud flats shimmering with waves of August heat. That observation didn’t exactly burn itself with great clarity into my memories. That happens, although thankfully not too often. I usually just patiently await a second sighting of these listed birds and hope that the next encounter will offer a more memorable experience.

That’s what happened a couple of weeks ago when I took my mother, Peggy, to Holston Lake. We visited a boat launch on Highway 421 to scan for some visiting Long-tailed Ducks. My first sighting of Long-tailed Ducks dates back to 2000, when I compiled an admirable list of 220 species of birds in a single year in Northeast Tennessee. I saw several Long-tailed Ducks from the overlook at Boone Dam while birding with the late Howard Langridge. Even peering at the birds through Howard’s powerful Questar spotting scope, it was difficult for me to detect anything significant about the birds. They were little white and black dots bobbing up and down on the choppy waters of the lake. A cold, howling wind and snow flurries also made conditions less than perfect for observing anything at a distance. If my memory can be trusted, those Long-tailed Ducks were one of the last birds we found in 2000. I think we saw them in late November of that year.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service A female Long-tailed Duck is shown on her nest on the Alaskan tundra.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
A female Long-tailed Duck is shown on her nest on the Alaskan tundra.

Since that time, I have followed up on the occasional report of a Long-tailed Duck. These rare visitors pop up at some dependable locations, such as Middlebrook Lake in Bristol and Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake. By the time I have received posts about such sightings, the duck has inevitably flown the coop by the time of my arrival.

The six Long-tailed Ducks at Holston Lake, however, didn’t conform to the usual pattern of a quick visit by a single duck. In fact, they lingered for several days before I even motivated myself to make the long drive from Hampton to Holston Lake to look for them. When my mom and I arrived at the boat launch, we were astounded by the sheer number of Ring-billed Gulls present. There were hundreds of these medium-sized gulls flying over the lake and floating on the water. In addition, we also quickly detected several dozen Buffleheads as we scanned for Long-tailed Ducks. After about 20 minutes of finding only gulls and Buffleheads, I began to feel my luck hadn’t changed at all when it came to Long-tailed Ducks. I began taking photos of some of the cooperative Ring-billed Gulls. Once I had some snapshots of the rollicking gulls, I scanned the lake one more time with my binoculars. While looking in an area I had already scanned, I spotted six ducks that didn’t look at all like Buffleheads. When I got a good look, I realized I had found my target birds. I rushed back to my car and removed my spotting scope from the trunk. It took a few minutes to get the tripod steady. As soon as I focused the scope, I found myself enjoying a fantastic look at two adult male Long-tailed Ducks and four females or perhaps immature specimens.

These six Long-tailed Ducks were part of a massive and unusual movement of this species into Tennessee lakes and reservoirs this winter. Throughout February, it seemed that these ducks were popping up everywhere throughout the Volunteer State. Count yourself fortunate any time you spot a Long-tailed Duck. Of all the diving ducks in North America, it spends more of its time diving beneath the surface of the water than any of its relatives. Experts have determined that this duck spends at least two-thirds of its time diving for food. So, perhaps all those fruitless searches can be explained quite simply. I arrived when the ducks were hungry and not present above the surface!

Early North American naturalist John James Audubon painted the Long-tailed Duck in various life stages, including ducklings.

Early North American naturalist John James Audubon painted the Long-tailed Duck in various life stages, including ducklings.

I read one account about this duck that suggests the term “Long-tailed Duck” is sexist on the account that only the males possess the namesake long tail feathers that provide the inspiration for the common name. I don’t completely buy that argument. Many birds with descriptive names only describe the male bird. Think of the Black-throated Blue Warbler or the Scarlet Tanager, to name a couple. Anyone seeing female Black-throated Blue Warblers or Scarlet Tanagers would have a difficult time trying to match the bird’s name with what they are seeing. A drab brownish warbler and a greenish tanager don’t look at all like their male counterparts.


I spoke by phone this past week with Linda Powell, who lives on nearby Tiger Creek Road between Hampton and Roan Mountain. Linda called me to inform me that her neighbor found an unusual bird after it flew into a fence and was killed. She believed the bird might have been a duck, but she had never seen anything like it. As she described the bird to me, including its black coloration and large, green feet, I began to suspect that the unfortunate bird was probably an American Coot. She also noted that the bird’s bill was light in coloration, which was another indication of a coot. The habitat also seemed favorable for a migrating coot. Although there isn’t a pond in the pasture where the bird was found, there is a wet, marshy area that would probably have been sufficient to attract this bird. The coot was killed after it ran into a section of barbed wire fence. Unfortunately, it probably didn’t see the barbed wire until it was too late.


I made some first spring sightings of a couple of birds this past week. Three European Starlings made an appearance with a flock of American Robins on March 4. A few starlings are usually present from spring to early fall. At least they are never common and don’t extend their visit into the winter season. On March 3, when a light snow covered the ground at my home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton, a female Red-winged Blackbird fed on the ground under my feeders. She was the first of her species to make an appearance this spring and is right on schedule.


Elizabethton resident Rita F. Schuettler‎ also spotted her first Red-winged Blackbird of spring coming to the feeders at 3:50 p.m. on Saturday, March 8. “I heard one last Saturday while working outside,” she added in her Facebook post announcing the sighting. “I heard this one also as I was reloading the feeders. After I was back in the house, he came in! Good to see him!”


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