Tag Archives: Tennessee

Common grackles part of November’s changing bird lineup

 

Photo by Bernell MacDonald/Pixabay.com • Common grackles are quite accomplished at foraging for food in a variety of habitats.

November is a month of transition. The birds of summer have all “flown the coop,” returning to warmer climes to the south in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Of course, even as hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers, vireos, and others have fled North America in advance of winter’s imminent arrival, other birds are arriving to take their place.

Many of the newcomers don’t offer the vibrant plumage of a scarlet tanager or a rose-breasted grosbeak, but they make up for the lack of striking feathers by remaining quite faithful to our feeders during the bleak, short days of winter. A hermit thrush and a dark-eyed junco represented some first-of-autumn arrivals when they showed up Nov. 6, followed the next day by a swamp sparrow. In addition to the sparrow, three ravenous common grackles descended on my suet feeders that same day.

For many bird enthusiasts, the “common” in this particular bird’s name is particularly apt. Tending to form large, noisy flocks, common grackles can easily wear out even the most generous welcome. Perhaps because I live at a mid-elevation area, common grackles are extremely infrequent visitors to my yard. I can be a little more welcoming to a bird that I know is not likely to linger.

Photo by diapicard/Pixabay.com • A common grackle perches on a shepherd’s hook in a garden. These large birds, which are part of the blackbird family, form flocks and bring big appetites to feeders during migratory stops.

Nevertheless, that same evening these three grackles must have spread the word because a flock of about 30 of these birds arrived. If I needed a reminder, the flock provided a quick one. A handful of grackles isn’t too disruptive, but a large flock can quickly overwhelm and intimidate smaller feeder birds.

Even so, I remain inclusive in my embrace of all feathered friends. A much maligned bird if ever there was one, the common grackle is worth a second look. For those who are able to overlook the occasional bad habits of birds such as Northern mockingbirds, mourning doves, or even cantankerous ruby-throated hummingbirds, there may be hope for this large member of the diverse family of blackbirds, known by scientific types as a member of the family Icteridae. This grouping of New World species, also known as New World blackbirds, includes such members as orioles, meadowlarks, cowbirds, bobolinks, marshbirds, orependolas, caciques and, of course, blackbirds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A boat-tailed grackle sings, if the bird’s harsh, grating notes can be considered a song, from a perch in a wetland in South Carolina.

The common grackle is known by the scientific name Quiscalus quiscula. In the southeast, in particular along the coast and in wetland areas, a common and related species is the boat-tailed grackle. Other species of grackles found in the New World include the great-tailed grackle, Nicaraguan grackle, Great Antillean grackle and the Carib grackle. A little more distantly related are the South American species golden-tufted mountain grackle and the Colombian mountain grackle.

One species — the slender-billed grackle of Mexico — suffered extinction at the dawn of the 20th century. Reasons for this bird’s disappearance are not clearly understood, but habitat destruction of Mexican wetlands and hunting pressures have been theorized as causes. Like others of its kind, the slender-billed grackle may also have been persecuted as an agricultural pest.

Like many other birds dependent on wetlands, common grackles have experienced population declines in recent decades. Although it seems odd to refer to a bird with a population estimated at around 73 million individuals in North America as on the decline, common grackles have suffered an estimated population loss of about 60 percent from historic highs.

Male grackles stand out from other blackbirds due to their sheer size. Males can reach a length of 13 inches, although much of that can be measured in an exceptionally long tail. A grackle’s plumage has a black sheen that can shine with brilliant iridescence that tends to appear purple, green or blue when the sun shines just right on the feathers. Females tend to be smaller than males and are a muted black and brown. Both sexes have long, sturdy bills and yellow eyes.

Most rural residents don’t have to worry about common grackles overwhelming their feeders, but some people living in urban and suburban settings have found grackles to be difficult guests. The birds have bottomless appetites and are aggressive toward more desirable feeder birds. Fortunately, migrating flocks in the fall tend not to linger. After a brief visit, which can still deplete supplies of seed and suet cakes, the grackles continue migrating.

Grackles are usually one of the earliest birds to return each spring. In fact, it’s not at all unusual for these large birds to make their way back to the region as early as late February. I am usually glad to welcome them back since I know that their return is a strong indication that some more favored species are certain to follow in their wake and that winter’s grip is waning.

Are you seeing new arrivals in your yard or at your feeders? Let me know by emailing ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Boat-tailed grackles perch on viewing equipment at an observation platform at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Finches arrive ahead of winter in impressive numbers

I’d watched with some degree of envy after friends posted on social media about the arrival of purple finches and pine siskins earlier this fall. What was wrong with my yard?

Fortunately, I only needed to remain patient. People began reporting the arrival of these two species of winter finches at their feeders weeks ago all across Tennessee. The purple finches and pine siskins showed up, finally, at my home on Oct. 23.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male and female purple finches share space at a feeder.

The pine siskin nests during the summer on the higher elevations of Roan Mountain. These small finches, which are related to the American goldfinch, are common winter feeder visitors some years and completely absent other years. This looks to be a year for siskin abundance. Andrew Del-Colle, Site Director and Editor for Audubon Magazine, posted a recent article about this autumn’s dramatic irruption of pine siskins.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pine siskin in a spruce at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain.

Project FeederWatch, which has monitored North American bird population trends for decades, defines the term irruption as a sudden change in the population density of an organism. In the case of birds, irruptions refer to the movement of northern-wintering species to the south in years of low food availability. Other species that often stage winter irruptions include evening grosbeaks, red-breasted nuthatches and common redpolls. There’s also some indication that some of these other birds may make their way south this winter.

“If you’ve never seen a pine siskin, this is your year,” Del-Colle wrote. “In the past month, the birds have invaded the United States in search of food, inundating backyard feeders across the country. Without question, it’s one of the biggest irruption years in recorded history for the finches.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Purple finches jostle for space in a feeder stocked with sunflower seeds.

The pine siskins at my home spend much of their time in weedy fields adjacent to my home and visit my feeders on a semi-regular basis. I suspect their feeder visitation will increase once some truly wintry weather arrives.

The purple finches that arrived on the same day do not rival the siskins in sheer numbers. Nevertheless, the purple finches have lingered, as well. The purple finch, which is a winter visitor to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina, is apparently not as common as in the past. Experts have speculated that the decline in the numbers of purple finches each winter can be attributed, at least in part, to the closely related house finch. The house finch may simply be out-competing the purple finch for scarce natural resources.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male house finch perched on a cable. These finches are native to the western United States but became established in the eastern states thanks to the illicit pet trade.

The house finch is quite widespread across the United States. Originally, however, the house finch was a bird of the western part of the country, living in Mexico and the southwestern United States. About 1940, the house finch became established in the eastern United States. In violation of federal law, these small finches were being sold in New York City as pet birds described as “Hollywood Finches.” To avoid trouble with authorities, vendors and even some owners released their “Hollywood Finches” into the wild. Finding the area around New York City to their liking, house finches spread. Within a few decades, they were common birds throughout the eastern United States, including Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

As the house finch claimed a new range, they inevitably encountered the related purple finch. During the winter, both finches are often present at feeders in the region. When both are available for observation, bird enthusiasts should take advantage of the opportunity to compare and contrast these birds. I have never had any difficulty distinguishing a purple finch from a house finch. The two species, at least in my eyes, are easily recognized. I can understand why some people might have trouble separating the two birds. The late Roger Tory Peterson once described the purple finch as a bird “dipped in raspberry juice.” Think about that imagery for a moment and you’ve got a good start to distinguishing a male purple finch from a male house finch. With some practice, observers will come to notice the subtle differences between a purple finch and a house finch.

These two finches belong to the genus Haemorhous, which can be roughly translated as “the color of blood.” The two species are also simply classified as American rosefinches. This grouping also includes a third species, Cassin’s finch, which occurs in the western United States. I have seen all three species, adding Cassin’s finch during a visit to Utah in 2006.

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Differentiating purple finches

from house finches can be a challenge

Let’s deal first with the males. Male purple finches are delicate pink-red (that raspberry coloration) on the head and breast, mixing with brown on the back and cloudy white on the belly. The red of a male purple finch is definitely a color I have not observed with many other birds. Even “red” birds such as male Northern cardinals and male scarlet tanagers do not show the same red color. Once you learn the way the red appears in the plumage of a male purple finch, you are on your way to telling this bird apart from its relative.

The red in the plumage of male house finches is surprisingly variable. In most cases, the heads, necks and shoulders of male birds are reddish and the red at times extends to the stomach and between the wings on the bird’s back. The intensity of the red changes with the seasons and is also derived from the berries and fruits in the bird’s diet. Pale yellow and bright orange are alternatives to the typical red plumage.

Look closely at the photograph of the purple finches accompanying this column. There’s a distinctive facial pattern evident on the birds. The strong facial markings include a whitish eye stripe and a dark line down the side of the throat. This pattern simply doesn’t exist with the male house finch. When I make a snap identification of these two birds, I always look for the facial pattern even before I study any other aspects of the appearance of the bird. In addition, purple finches have powerful, conical beaks and a tail that appears short and is clearly notched at the tip. Rounding out the description of a male house finch is the fact that they have a long, square-tipped brown tail and are brown or dull-brown across the back with some shading into gray on the wing feathers. The breast and stomach feathers may be streaked.

Females of both house finches and purple finches are dull brown birds that could easily be mistaken for sparrows. Again, the facial pattern is much more apparent on a female purple finch than on the related female house finch. In addition, I have always noticed that female purple finches are usually a darker shade of brown than the dull brown female house finches. Both male and female house finches are more slender than their more chunky-bodied counterparts.

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Although not closely related to our American birds, there is also a group known as rosefinches common to Europe and Asia. Some of these distant relatives include such descriptively named birds as scarlet finch, streaked rosefinch, red-mantled rosefinch, pink-browed rosefinch, long-tailed rosefinch, three-banded rosefinch and Himalayan beautiful rosefinch.

Purple finches occupy a variety of winter habitats, including fields, woodland edges, lawns and gardens. All it takes to lure these finches to feeders is a plentiful offering of sunflower seeds. If you are lucky enough to have both of these finches visiting your feeders, take time to study the differences. It takes some practice, but they can be distinguished quite confidently.

 

Nighthawks share the skies with many other migrants

Photo by Dr. Thomas G. Barnes/ USFWS • A common nighthawk perches on a low clump of vegetation during a rest period. Nighthawks are known for migrating in large flocks.

Autumn’s a chance for me to indulge my passion for warblers, with a few dozen species of these songbirds passing through the region in the span of a few weeks. They’re not the only migrating birds worth watching, however, as a recent Facebook post reminded me.

John Whinery, a fellow birder who resides in Fall Branch, Tennessee, reported some interesting observations Sept. 6 on Facebook.

“Been watching several hundred common nighthawks the last few nights fly down the valley next to the farm,” John wrote in his post. He also reported that he saw a female Northern harrier fly by at eye level about 20 feet from him as he watched the migrating nighthawks. The Northern harrier, once known as the “marsh hawk,” is one of many raptors known to migrate. 

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

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

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

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.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A common nighthawk chooses a perch atop a fence post for a survey of its surroundings.

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

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

So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move throughout September.  I’ve managed only three sightings of solitary nighthawks so far this migration season, which falls far short of the number John Whinery reported at his farm. 

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

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

Warbler parade imminent as September advances

Photo by Mickey Estes/Pixabay.com • A pine warbler takes a brief rest on a perch during a break from foraging for insects.

I detected some signs of migration during a backyard lawn chair birding session on Thursday, Sept. 3. A croaking great blue heron circling the property, the shrill cries of cedar waxwings, scolding vireos, and the intermittent buzz of hummingbird wings all contributed to the background noise. 

The first warbler of the season, a quick blur of yellow and white, disappeared into the green and thus escaped identification. That’s the way of it: Sometimes, you identify the bird, but at other times it slips past without lingering enough for that moment of confidence. You have to love September, even if the birds are entirely ignorant of pages on a calendar. As summer wanes, the pace of migration has spiked. If that first warbler got away, I know others will follow behind it.

Some of them will have fanciful names like blue-winged warbler, black-throated blue warbler, Blackburnian warbler and American redstart. Each of the warblers exists as a sort of magnet to induce me to keep binoculars always close at hand.

 

The 50 or so species of warblers that make their home in the eastern parts of the United States and Canada during the spring and summer months are now winging their way south.  The blackpoll warbler, which holds the distinction for the longest migration of any species of New World warbler, will journey from the forests of Canada to spend the colder months in northern South America. Because of a peculiarity of this bird’s fall migratory habits, birders in Northeast Tennessee are far more likely to see this late-arriving warbler in May than in the autumn.

A few warblers — pine warbler, magnolia warbler and palm warbler — are named for trees for the simple reason that their European discoverers happened to first observe them in the branches of their namesake trees.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Palm Warbler forages along a chain-link fence.

For most of these warblers named to honor various trees,  their common names are, at best, a misnomer. Throughout most of its life, the palm warbler doesn’t even encounter palm trees. Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist who lived from 1748 to 1804, saddled the palm warbler with its inappropriate name. Gmelin based his naming of the bird on the fact that a specimen had been collected on Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean with an abundance of palm trees. Gmelin published several textbooks in the fields of chemistry, pharmaceutical science, mineralogy, and botany. He also had a hand in publishing a catalog of scientific names for various species, including some birds that had until that point never been given a species classification. Thanks to his efforts, the palm warbler has forever been linked with a type of tree that is, at best, entirely incidental to the bird’s life cycle.

The same is true for the Magnolia Warbler, which would have been more suitably named the spruce or fir Warbler, as the species is highly dependent on northern coniferous forests as nesting habitat. The pine warbler, at least, restores credibility to some of the early experts who have these tiny birds their common names. The pine warbler does indeed prefer stands of pine trees, showing particular favor for pitch pines.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Yellow-throated Warbler makes a migratory stop in my yard on the first day of September.

These three “tree warblers” are all fairly common fall migrants, making stops in gardens, backyards and woodland edges throughout Northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina. They and their relatives will make the remaining weeks of September and early October an exciting time for warbler enthusiasts. 

 

Green herons, one of the smaller wading birds, often overlooked as they lurk near water’s edge

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron elevates a shaggy crest of feathers, a behavior often initiated when the bird feels alarmed.

Byron Tucker and Ricky Dunklin, friends from Atlanta, contacted me on Facebook to ask if I could help identify a bird they had photographed during a trip to Sunset Beach in North Carolina in early August. When I saw the photographs I recognized that the visitor to a small dock at their vacation spot was a green heron.

Photo Contributed by Byron Tucker/Ricky Dunklin • A Green Heron visits a dock at Sunset Beach in North Carolina.

Green herons are not restricted to coastal areas, but it was still somewhat unexpected when I stepped onto my front porch on Aug. 19 and saw a green heron flying at treetop level. I suspect the bird had been perched in one of the tall trees on the ridge behind my house. The slamming of my front door probably spooked the bird into flight.

Green herons and other wading birds are usually quite abundant in wetlands across the country in late summer. The scientific name — Butorides virescens – of this bird comes from a mix of Middle English and Ancient Greek and roughly translates as “greenish bittern.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron grasps a perch overlooking a small creek in Erwin, Tennessee.

There are only two other species in the genus Butorides — the lava heron, which occurs on some of the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, and the striated heron, which is found in wetlands throughout the Old World tropics from West Africa to Japan and Australia. This heron, which is also known as the mangrove heron, also occurs in South America.

The green in the bird’s plumage appears as a dark green cap, as well as a greenish back and wings. Adult birds also have chestnut-colored neck feathers and a line of white feathers along the throat and belly. These herons often assume a hunched position, which can make them look smaller than they actually are.

It’s been a good summer for wading birds. In addition to the green heron, a great blue heron has been lurking in the creek in front of my home and at my fish pond. Much larger than the green heron, the great blue heron has not escaped the notice of a local flock of American crows. The crows harass the heron whenever the larger bird takes flight.

On the first day of August, I stopped with my mom at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. We were treated with an observation of a great egret fishing along the edges of the pond. Egrets and herons are known for wandering outside their normal range in late summer after the nesting season has concluded.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Green Heron rests at the edge of a pond.

Keep alert when walking along the trails in Erwin, Tennessee, and you may catch sight of one of these interesting herons or egrets, too. The edges of the fish pond at Erwin Fishery Park is also a reliable haunt for green herons. Farm ponds in the countryside around Jonesborough, Tennessee, as well as wetland habitat around the town’s Persimmon Ridge Park, are also good places to look for this small heron. The wetlands at Sugar Hollow Park in Bristol, Virginia, is another dependable location for seeing this small heron. Most green herons will depart in late September and early October. This small heron retreats from the United States during the winter season but will return next spring in April and May.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Green herons are short, stocky herons that can assume some comical poses.

The green heron’s range during the nesting season includes Canada and much of the United States. Green herons will sometimes form loose nesting colonies, but at other times a pair will choose a secluded location as a nest site. The female will usually lay from three to five eggs. Snakes, raccoons and other birds such as crows and grackles are potential threats to eggs.

For the most part, the population migrates to Central and South America for the winter months. A few herons — great blue heron and black-crowned night heron — remain in the region throughout the year, even enduring the cold winter months in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

These herons are probably more common than we realize. They are skilled at blending with their surroundings, but sharp eyes can find these herons around almost any body of water, whether it is pond, marsh, river, creek or lake.

They usually depart the region in October, so the remaining days of August and September provide opportunities to observe both resident green herons and their migrating kin.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron finesses a captured tadpole in its bill.

Belted kingfisher and its kin successful at fishing, much more

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • A female belted kingfisher returns to a perch after a successful catch.

A belted kingfisher has visited the fish pond quite frequently throughout this summer. The bird’s arrival is usually heralded by its hoarse, rattling call. The bird is rather shy, so any observation usually has to be done with some degree of stealth.

Belted kingfisher

I know fishing is a favorite pastime for many people. In these times of social distancing, there’s probably nothing better for some people to do than to spend a lazy summer afternoon baiting a hook and trying their luck at their favorite fishing spot. While doing so, they have probably encountered the angling counterpart among our feathered friends. The belted kingfisher’s nature as an angler rules out this bird visiting feeders in the backyard, but that doesn’t mean one is unlikely to see this bird. With a little strategic effort, a glimpse of a belted kingfisher is fairly easy to obtain, especially during the summer months. Any stream, pond, river or other body of water increases the chances of observing this fascinating bird.

The belted kingfisher prefers to perch on an exposed branch or a wire that overlooks a body of water that offers ample fishing opportunities. The belted kingfisher, however, is capable of hovering in place in order to spot and then capture its prey in an impressive plunge and lunge into the water.

Most of my observations of hunting kingfishers have involved the birds in their ambush approach to fishing — perching and diving on the unsuspecting fish. I have on a few occasions also observed kingfishers as they hover over the water in a quest for a meal.

The belted kingfisher, like most of its kin, looks to have a head and bill that are slightly too large for the rest of the body. It’s the long, heavy bill that the belted kingfisher uses to snatch fish from their watery homes.

The term “belted” refers to bands of feathers across the bird’s belly. Female belted kingfishers sport bands of rusty-red and blue feathers, while males are limited to a blue belt across the upper breast. Female belted kingfishers are an exception to the rule that most male birds are more vividly colored than their female companions.

A walnut tree with some dead branches overlooking my family’s fish pond is a favorite perching site for visiting belted kingfishers. A few become become regular visitors almost every spring and summer. In past years, I’ve been delighted by pairs of kingfishers that have brought as many as six of their offspring to hunt around the edges of the pond and creek near my home.

When a belted kingfisher does manage to capture a fish — not always a certainty, despite their great skill — the bird will usually fly to a perch where they will beat the fish unconscious before swallowing it. I remember one particular kingfisher that liked to catch fish in the creek and then fly to the corner of the metal garage roof where the bird proceeded to beat senseless the unlucky fish.

Photo by Pixabay.com • The pied kingfisher is a common member of the kingfisher family that ranges throughout Europe.

While the belted kingfisher is the only one of its kind in the eastern United States, the kingfishers are a large family of birds found around the globe. Worldwide, there are about 90 species of kingfishers that range in size from the 16-inch-long laughing kookaburra of Australia to the tiny African dwarf kingfisher, which at four inches in length is smaller than most sparrows. This family of birds is divided into three groupings: the river kingfishers, the tree kingfishers and the water kingfishers.

Despite the name “kingfisher,” not all kingfishers exist on a diet of fish. Some members of the kingfisher family instead prey on other quarry, such as snakes, lizards and insects.

Some of the varied names for members of this far-flung family of birds include moustached kingfisher, malachite kingfisher, shining-blue kingfisher, azure kingfisher, hook-billed kingfisher, little kingfisher, banded kingfisher, red-breasted paradise kingfisher, lilac kingfisher, glittering kingfisher, great-billed kingfisher, chocolate-backed kingfisher, ultramarine kingfisher, chattering kingfisher and yellow-billed kingfisher.

Photo by WelshPixie/Pixabay.com • The malachite kingfisher is a river kingfisher widely distributed in Africa south of the Sahara.

The family also consists of a group of related birds from Australia and New Guinea known as kookaburras, which includes blue-winged kookaburra, spangled kookaburra, rufous-bellied kookaburra, and the well-known laughing kookaburra. Hollywood often dubs the raucous calls of kookaburras into the background soundscapes of movies and shows with tropical themes.

Photo by Magee/Pixabay.com • The raucous calls of the kookaburra, an Australian kingfisher, are often incorporated into the background of jungle scenes in Hollywood movies.

There’s nothing quite so disappointing as coming home empty-handed after a day of fishing. Belted kingfishers rarely suffer that disappointment. Although not successful in every attempt, the belted kingfisher is certainly exceptional in its pursuit of fish. According to John Eastman in his book, “Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh,” the belted kingfisher typically captures about 10 fish per day. That’s a feat that many human anglers might envy.

 

Many pint-sized birds pack plenty of pugnacious attitude

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male red-winged blackbird perches in an alert stance, ready to curb intrusions by other birds into his territory.

A trio of American crows (I’m not sure if a mere three individuals represent a murder of crows) flew past my porch on a recent morning. They were immediately bombarded by the resident male red-winged blackbird. The blackbird dove onto the back of the first crow, then doubled back and attacked the second crow. The third crow, perhaps seeing what happened to the others, perched and cawed for a couple of moments. Mistakenly thinking the coast now clear, the third crow set out to join its companions. The blackbird immediately attacked again, just as ferociously as in the previous two incidents.

Since arriving in April, the red-winged blackbirds have ruled the roost around the cattail-bordered fish pond. At the start of the nesting season, they even swooped at me when I got too close before we eventually settled into an uneasy truce. At home and at other locations, I have watched these blackbird attack everything from turkey vultures and great blue herons to white-tailed deer and cats.

Simply put, red-winged blackbird brook no interlopers. The observations of the blackbird with the crows got me to thinking of other birds known for their pugnacious natures. In no particular order, here are some bantam weight candidates for the title of “Most Pugnacious Bird.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The scientific name of the Eastern kingbird is Tyranus tyranus, a good indicator of this bird’s haughty attitude toward other birds.

Eastern kingbird

The Eastern kingbird, a member of a large family of birds known as “tyrant flycatchers,” is famous for displaying an outsized attitude toward larger birds. The scientific name for this bird is Tyrannus tyrannus, which succinctly summarizes the kingbird’s belligerent attitude toward other birds. Mated pairs of kingbirds work together to drive intruders out of their territory. Kingbirds will launch themselves into battle against much larger foes, including red-tailed hawks, American crows and blue jays. Crows and jays are well-known for robbing the nests of other birds, so the aggression of kingbirds for these corvids is quite justified.

Photo by AdrianKirby/Pixabay.com • The merlin is a pint-sized falcon with plenty of feisty spirit. These raptors do not hesitate to duel with birds many times their size.

Merlin

Merlins have a reputation for being pint-sized punks among raptors. The merlin is a member of the falcon family, which also includes birds like the American kestrel and peregrine falcon. I once saw a merlin harassing a turkey vulture, diving on the much larger but less agile bird until the vulture finally veered in another direction. This observation reinforces the merlin’s reputation for aggressively meeting incursions into its territory by other raptors. The merlin has long been associated with the forests of North America and Eurasia, but in recent decades it has proven capable of adapting to life in urban landscapes.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue-gray gnatcatchers are noisy and, quite often, quarrelsome birds that don’t let their small size get in the way of attempting to intimidate other birds.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are noisy, scolding songbirds at the best of times. They are also determined to protect their nesting territories at all costs and will attack much larger birds. They don’t hesitate to call for reinforcements when warranted. They will drum up a brigade of feisty, feathered fighters to repel intrusions by potential predators too large for a gnatcatcher and its mate to handle on their own. In North America, the gnatcatcher ranks in size with birds like kinglets and hummingbirds. Despite its diminutive status, the gnatcatcher acknowledges no superiors.

Photo by BlenderTimer/Pixabay.com • In a family of rather insufferable bullies, the rufous hummingbird stands out as particularly pugnacious.

Rufous hummingbird

In a family known for cantankerous behavior, one hummingbird stands out. In North America, the rufous hummingbird has a reputation for having a bad temper. These tiny birds with huge metabolisms must compete fiercely for resources, but they often appear go out of their way to attack other hummingbirds. The rufous hummingbird ranges along North America’s Pacific Coast and the Rockies as far north as Alaska and western Canada. A migration quirk occasionally brings these hummingbirds to Northeast Tennessee during fall and early winter.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern mockingbird is zealous in defending its territory from other mockingbirds or any other intruders, including humans, cats, dogs, snakes and almost any other real or imagined threat.

Northern mockingbird

I’m not sure every person who has had a Northern mockingbird nest in their yard or garden would describe the experience as a pleasant one. It’s not without cause that the mockingbird is often described as ruthless, aggressive and pugnacious in defense of its nest and young. These birds don’t hesitate to attack humans or their pets, such as cats and dogs, if any wander too far into their territory. In fact, mockingbirds appear to take positive glee in forcing intruders to flee. Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon captured a dramatic moment when he painted a pair of mockingbirds defending its nest from a rattlesnake. The painting is also an early example of the ties between humans and mockingbirds. The nest is located in a hanging basket of yellow flowers. Even during Audubon’s time, mockingbirds had quietly adjusted to human activity and had deigned to allow us into their daily lives. It’s just best not to step out of line. Mockingbirds have ways of dealing with pushy people.

 

Unicoi County’s Summer Bird Count finds 110 species

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A trio of Northern Rough-winged Swallows perch on a branch. A total of 39 of these swallows were found on the seventh annual Unicoi County Summer Bird Count.

For the past seven summers, the members of the Elizabethton Bird Club have conducted a Summer Bird Count for Unicoi County.

The seventh annual survey of Unicoi County’s bird life was made more memorable due to the fact it was conducted during a global pandemic with counters practicing social distancing protocols. The Unicoi County Summer Count was held on Saturday, June 6, with 26 observers in 10 parties. The weather was favorable with a temperature range between 62 and 82, mostly to partly cloudy skies, and little wind.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Song Sparrow brings a beakful of caterpillars back to the nest to feed young.

 Counters tallied 110 species, which is near the six-year average of 109. Total species for this count has ranged from 104 to 112 species. Participants included Joe McGuiness, Vern Maddux, Kim Stroud, Dave Gardner, Don Holt, Dianne Draper, Debi and J.G. Campbell, Bryan Stevens, Brookie and Jean Potter, Eric Middlemas, Ken Rea, Roy Knispel, Jerry Bevins, Michele Sparks, Tammy Griffey, Jim Anderson, Pete Range, Harry Lee Farthing, Tom McNeil, Cathy McNeil, Fred Alsop, Catherine Cummins, Larry McDaniel and long-time count compiler Rick Knight. 

The bird found in most abundance was the European Starling with 536 individuals counted. Other common birds included Red-eyed Vireo (226) and Song Sparrow (245). A few birds went undetected, including Great Horned Owl.

This annual count covers territory such as Unaka Mountain, the Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park, Limestone Cove, the Erwin Linear Trail, and much more. Unicoi County offers many natural treasures, not the least of which being the varied and interesting birds that reside within its borders.

 The List:

 Canada Goose, 54; Wood Duck, 23; Mallard, 42; Ruffed Grouse, 3; Wild Turkey, 5; Great Blue Heron, 5; and Green Heron, 4.

Black Vulture, 6; Turkey Vulture, 45; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Broad-winged Hawk, 6; and Red-tailed Hawk, 9.

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.

Killdeer, 14; Rock Pigeon, 111; Mourning Dove, 152; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 6; Eastern Screech-Owl, 3; Barred Owl, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 5; and Eastern Whip-poor-will, 9.

Chimney Swift, 45; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 8; Belted Kingfisher, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 33; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 14; Hairy Woodpecker, 2; Northern Flicker, 13; and Pileated Woodpecker, 26.

American Kestrel,1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 13; Acadian Flycatcher, 56; Least Flycatcher, 6; Eastern Phoebe, 81; Great Crested Flycatcher, 2; and Eastern Kingbird, 11.

White-eyed Vireo, 2; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 35; Warbling Vireo, 3; Red-eyed Vireo, 226; Blue Jay, 108; American Crow, 122; and Common Raven, 8.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 39; Purple Martin, 30; Tree Swallow, 65; Barn Swallow, 79; and Cliff Swallow, 106.

Carolina Chickadee, 102; Tufted Titmouse; 100; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 17; Brown Creeper, 4; House Wren, 54; Winter Wren, 1; Carolina Wren, 146; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 15; and Golden-crowned Kinglet, 12.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The male Eastern Bluebird is beloved by many bird enthusiasts.

Eastern Bluebird, 94; Veery, 15; Hermit Thrush, 3; Wood Thrush, 57; American Robin, 397; Gray Catbird, 27; Brown Thrasher, 24; Northern Mockingbird, 48; European Starling, 536; and Cedar Waxwing, 48.

Ovenbird, 63; Worm-eating Warbler, 40; Louisiana Waterthrush, 14; Black-and-white Warbler, 34; Swainson’s Warbler, 3; Common Yellowthroat, 3; Hooded Warbler, 64; American Redstart, 8; Northern Parula, 39; Magnolia Warbler, 1; Blackburnian Warbler, 3; Yellow Warbler, 9; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 32; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 29; Pine Warbler, 5; Yellow-throated Warbler, 30; Prairie Warbler, 4; Black-throated Green Warbler, 52; Canada Warbler, 6; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 2.

Eastern Towhee, 80; Chipping Sparrow, 68; Field Sparrow,  21; Song Sparrow, 245; Dark-eyed Junco,  33; Scarlet Tanager, 33; Northern Cardinal, 163; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 6; Blue Grosbeak, 4; and Indigo Bunting, 131.

Red-winged Blackbird, 71; Eastern Meadowlark, 15; Common Grackle, 156; Brown-headed Cowbird, 23; Orchard Oriole, 6; Baltimore Oriole, 2; House Finch, 70; Red Crossbill, 1; American Goldfinch, 110; and House Sparrow,  33.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American goldfinch visits a feeder for a meal of thistle seeds.

Indigo buntings among summer’s most welcome birds

Photo by HeronWorks/Pixabay.com • An indigo bunting feeds on millet seeds at a backyard feeder. These dazzling blue birds are a common summer visitors in Northeast Tennessee.

It’s been a wet summer so far, and a verdant hue has been the rule as trees and other plants seem to be thriving. The green canopy of trees around my home offers concealment for hidden singers, including red-eyed vireos, wood thrushes, and indigo buntings. Those last ones have been a source of some frustration. I have heard a male indigo bunting singing persistently on a daily basis all last month, but glimpsing him in the green foliage has been a challenge.

Two recent summer bird counts have also emphasized some of the more commonplace birds in the region. While American robins and European starlings were extremely abundant, these two birds are permanent residents and are present year-round. A few other summer songbirds also helped swell the ranks of some of the seasonally common birds. For instance, the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count found a total of 131 indigo buntings, while the Carter County Summer Bird Count tallied 105 of these little blue beauties. Both of these Northeast Tennessee surveys are conducted by members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Neotropical migrants, such as this indigo bunting, provide some vibrant color during the hot summer months.

Buntings like to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer. One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird and a stunning yellow and black bird sharing perches atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings and American goldfinches — return year after year to my yard and gardens.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This male’s indigo bunting’s plumage is beginning to look somewhat worn in late summer.

These birds usually arrive in the region in late April and I’ve seen them in late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September. Male indigo buntings are persistent singers, and in the past couple of weeks one very enthusiastic male has been singing even during the hottest hours of recent July afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees. They are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

The indigo bunting is the only solid blue bird in the eastern United States. It’s all an illusion, however. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue; the male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of refraction. This process absorbs all but blue light, which explains why the indigo bunting appears blue. In bright light, it can even look unnaturally vivid blue. In poor light, however, an indigo bunting male can appear black. Fortunately, indigo buntings have both a characteristic body shape and song, so even if the birds are not seen at their best, they can still be recognized.

Like many species of songbirds, the male is by far the most colorful. In this instance, the male is also responsible for the species’ name. Indigo is a blue dye that was once an important crop in the South. The drab female may boast some blue highlights in her plumage. Juvenile birds just out of the nest also resemble the female. Pay close attention to any indigo buntings you observe as summer progresses. Juvenile birds will look mostly brown with just a hint of blue in the wings and the tail. These will be the young buntings that were hatched this spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders, where they are extremely fond of millet seed. I like to have some feeders stocked with millet when the buntings begin to return each spring. They will also feed on thistle and sunflower seeds. Away from our feeders, they also devour plenty of seeds from various noxious weeds. Because of the indigo bunting’s appetite for the seeds of destructive weeds, it is considered a very beneficial bird. Tangible value and exceptional beauty — that’s not a bad combination for such a tiny bird.

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

Bald eagles still soaring as inspirational success symbol

Photo by Pixabay.com • The bald eagle became the official bird of the United States in 1782.

In addition to an abundance of red, white and blue decorations, the recent celebration of the Fourth of July likely featured various images and depictions of the bald eagle, which has served as the official bird of the United States of America since the latter decades of the 18th century.

I thought that readers would be better prepared to celebrate Independence Day with some interesting information on our national bird, the American bald eagle, which officially became the national emblem in 1782 when the great seal of the United States was adopted. Although Benjamin Franklin famously expressed reservations about making the bald eagle our national bird, in hindsight it’s clear that Americans made the right choice.

Despite elevating this native bird to such lofty status, we have not always been kind to the bald eagle. We allowed habitat destruction and toxic pesticides to bring this eagle to the brink of extinction. With well-deserved protection, however, the bald eagle rebounded, and the Department of Interior finally took the eagle off the threatened species list on June 28, 2007.

The bald eagle has been more frequently observed by birders in Northeast Tennessee in recent years. Some of the region’s rivers and lakes are good places to look for bald eagles, particularly in the fall and winter. A few lakes even regularly host nesting bald eagles. I’ve observed bald eagles in Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia. There are even eagle cams on nesting sites at Boone Lake and South Holston Lake. I monitored the local eagle cams this spring. There was some drama and heartbreak, but the new eaglets look like they’ve made it. They are a testament to the fact that the resurgence of the once-endangered bald eagle in the lower 48 states has been a laudable accomplishment that all Americans should view with pride.

Photo by Moonzigg/Pizabay.com • The bald eagle is a fitting symbol for the United States of America despite the bad treatment the eagle sometimes receives from Americans.

The bald eagle and golden eagle are the only eagles found in the lower 48 states. Go north to Alaska, however, and you can encounter Steller’s sea eagle, which is named for the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. To this day, Steller is renowned for his work as a pioneer in the natural history of Alaska. The 49th state to join the union is also the stronghold for the bald eagle. On occasion, Steller’s sea eagle has strayed into U.S. territory at Alaskan locations including the Pribilof Islands and Kodiak Island. Steller’s sea eagle is bigger than the bald eagle. In fact, it is the largest member of the Haliaeetus genus of eagles, making this bird one of the largest raptors in the entire world.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted an accurate depiction of a bald eagle scavenging a catfish.

The naturalist for which the bird is named has also been honored by the naming of other creatures, including Steller’s sea lion and the now-extinct Steller’s sea cow, as well as several birds, including Steller’s jay and Steller’s eider. He was the first naturalist to describe several creatures native to Alaska, although two of these, the sea cow (a relative of the manatees) and the spectacled cormorant, are now extinct. The latter, which was the largest cormorant to ever live, is a particularly sad story. These cormorants were basically eaten into extinction, exploited as a food source by sailors and fur traders. The last spectacled cormorants perished around 1850 on a Russian island off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Fortunately, we have proven a little more far-sighted in our treatment of the bald eagle, which was removed from the U.S. government’s list of endangered species on July 12, 1995, and transferred to the list of threatened species. In 2007, bald eagle numbers had rebounded enough in the Lower 48 states to also allow for the bald eagle to be removed from the list of threatened species.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • The fact that bald eagles still soar is a triumph for conservation efforts that succeeded at saving America’s official bird.

The bald eagle, however, is not considered closely related to eagles in the genus Aquila, or “true eagles,” in which the golden eagle is included. North America’s other eagle is a very rare visitor to the region. The golden eagle is primarily a bird of the western United States while the bald eagle ranges widely across the United States as well as into Canada and Mexico. Other true eagles include the Spanish imperial eagle, tawny eagle and wedge-tailed eagle.

Both male and female adult bald eagles have a blackish-brown back and breast; a white head, neck and tail; and yellow feet and bill. Juvenile bald eagles are a mixture of brown and white and reach full maturity in four to five years. The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches in length, slightly larger than the male, with a wingspan that ranges from 72 to 90 inches. Bald eagles weigh from 10 to 14 pounds. The bald eagle’s diet consists mostly of fish, some of which are scavenged, but these large raptors are also capable of preying on everything from muskrats and ducks to rabbits and snakes. The bald eagle will also feed on carrion.

Two-hundred and thirty-eight years after it was declared an official emblem of the United States, the bald eagle has become an instantly recognizable American symbol. Long may the eagles fly.

•••••

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A bald eagle suns itself on a cold winter day along a river in northeast Tennessee.