Tag Archives: Winter birds

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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

Yellow-rumped warblers are wild about poison ivy berries

WARBLER

Photo by Edbo23/Pixabay.com • The yellow-rumped warbler is one of the few warblers that attempts to reside in the region during the winter months. Switching from a diet of insects to one of fruit and seeds helps the birds manage to find enough to eat during the lean months. This species is particularly fond of poison ivy berries.

 

November and December are bleak months for birders as we experience a bit of a letdown after the joys of fall migration. Many of the favorite birds that spend the summer months with us have departed and will not return until spring. Hummingbirds, tanagers, vireos and most warblers, despite a few lingering individuals, have left the scene.

I really feel the pinch since warblers are one of my favorite families of birds. In northeast Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, there are only three warblers that bird enthusiasts are likely to see in the winter. The yellow-rumped warbler is by far the most common winter warbler, but palm warblers and pine warblers are also occasional winter residents. A few other warblers are occasional stragglers, attempting to eke out a living during the cold months. For instance, I’ve seen a few common yellowthroats during the winter over the years

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Photo by Edbo23/Pixabay.com • During the winter months, a yellow-rumped warbler is a dull bird in mostly brown and gray plumage except for the rump patch of bright yellow feathers that provides the bird its common name.

With the exception of the yellow-rumped warbler, however, the chances of enjoying warblers during the winter are rather slim. At least the yellow-rumped warbler is common and I encounter flocks of these birds on most occasions when I walk woodland trails in the region any time from November to April.

Until 1973, the yellow-rumped warbler was divided by scientists into two distinct species: the myrtle warbler in the eastern United States and Audubon’s warbler in the western United States. During a visit to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2003, I saw my first and only “Audubon’s” warbler. This western counterpart is more colorful than the version birders know so well in the eastern half of the country. In addition to yellow plumage on the rear and flanks, the Audubon’s warbler also boasts a yellow crown and a yellow throat patch. Otherwise, the two birds are remarkably similar in appearance.

Of course, it’s the creamy yellow rump patch — looking like a small pat of butter — that gives this species its common name. Birders have adopted another nickname for the species, often referring to them simply as “butter-butts.”

There is now some discussion in scientific circles of dividing the species into not two distinct species, but four. The other two species would be the black-fronted warbler of mountains in Northern Mexico and Goldman’s warbler, which resides in Guatemala. I wouldn’t mind seeing Audubon’s warbler resurrected as a full species, since it would place an additional species on my life list of birds seen. In addition, it seems fitting that we have at least one bird that honors the name of the famed naturalist and painter John James Audubon.

The scientific name for the yellow-rumped warbler is Setophaga coronata, which are terms derived from ancient Greek that when roughly translated mean “crowned moth-eater.” Like most warblers, the yellow-rumped warbler is fond of insects, but there’s another food source these birds turn to during times of scarcity.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wintering yellow-rumped warbler clings to palm fronds in coastal South Carolina.

So, how does a warbler make it through the winter season in the region? After all, most warblers exist on a diet heavy on insects and other small invertebrates. The yellow-rumped warbler, however, supplements its diet with different seasonal berries, including juniper berries, Virginia creeper berries and dogwood berries. They also feed on berries from one unlikely source. These birds love to gorge themselves on poison ivy berries that, fortunately, produce no ill effects. I’ve long noticed that many of the trails I enjoy walking during the winter season wind through woodlands overrun by poison ivy. Of course, by eating the berries, the warbler also help spread the noxious vines.

The yellow-rumped warbler is not the only bird known to feed on poison ivy berries. Other birds seen eating these berries include Northern flickers, bobwhites, Eastern phoebes, Cedar waxwings, tufted titmice and American robins. White-tailed deer show a preference for dining on poison ivy leaves over other types of vegetation. The berries are high in fat and calories, which makes them an ideal food source for creatures with high metabolisms like songbirds. The berries also ripen in fall and early winter when many other types of berries are scarce. While it is best for humans to avoid contact with this plant, it is a valuable fall and winter food source for wildlife.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male yellow-rumped in spring plumage looks quite different than his subdued winter appearance.

While the yellow-rumped warbler is quite capable of dealing with some frost and snow, more than half of the world’s warblers live in more tropical climates outside the borders of the United States and Canada. Not all yellow-rumped warbler attempt to tough out winter conditions in the United States. Some do migrate to the tropics, where they utilize a variety of habitats, including mangroves, thorn scrub, pine-oak-fir forests and shade coffee plantations.

All warblers are exclusively New World bird species. The family numbers about 120 species. Some of the descriptively named species of warblers not seen within the United States or its northern neighbor include citrine warbler, white-striped warbler, black-crested warbler, pale-legged warbler, buff-rumped warbler, golden-bellied warbler and black-eared warbler.

During your next woodland stroll, keep your eyes peeled for small brown birds in the branches of nearby trees. If the last thing you see before they dive for cover is a bright yellow rump patch, you’ll know you’ve observed a yellow-rumped warbler.

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these yellow-rumped warblers.

 

Gift suggestions for the bird-lovers on your Christmas shopping list

Although some people like to get an early start on holiday shopping, I’m certain some, like myself, are still in the process of checking those lists. If you’re looking for some ideas for bird and nature enthusiasts on your list, I’ll make a few modest suggestions that could result in making the season merry and bright.

Photo-FieldGuides

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Field guides are an essential tool for bird identification.

Field guides
If you’ve enjoyed watching the birds that congregate at your feeders or noticing the visitors to your yard and gardens, but you’ve also become curious about the identities of all your feathered visitors, it might be time for a helpful and informative field guide. I prefer field guides illustrated with paintings rather than photographs, but I have a varied collection of guides. I started a long time ago with the Golden Guide to Birds. It’s a classic and still a great guide to help interest children in the birds around them.
Some of the guides I recommend and use myself these days are National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, and Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Any of these field guides should be easily found online or in stores at a cost of under $20.
If you have already acquired a good basic field guide, perhaps you’re ready for more specialized field guides that focus on particular families of birds or on the behavior of backyard birds.
For the warblers, there are several field guides available, including the Stokes Field Guide to Warblers, A Field Guide to Warblers of North America (Peterson Field Guides), and the Warbler Guide.
For a handy guide to identify some of the birds seen on beach and coastal vacations, consider such titles as Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Shorebirds and Shorebirds: An Identification Guide to the Waders of the World, and National Audubon Society Pocket Guide to Familiar Birds of Sea and Shore.
For fans of hawks and allied raptors, several guides exist including A Field Guide to Hawks of North America (Peterson Field Guides), Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America, and Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors In Flight.
In short, there’s a field guide for every family and grouping of birds. With expertly rendered illustrations or photographs, brief and concise text, and helpful range maps, nothing beats a good field guide forYea, improving one’s ability to identify birds. I recommend thumbing through the pages of a good guide over trying to randomly use Google to search online for a bird glimpsed for a brief time.

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Photo by Pixabay.com • A well-stocked feeder is a first step toward attracting more birds to your yard.

Feeders
Bird feeders come in an astounding variety of shapes and sizes. Nothing will do more to bring birds into our daily lives than maintaining a well-stocked feeder. Be certain to include a bag of sunflower seeds so that your gift will allow the recipient to immediately begin to enjoy the parade of birds sure to flock to the feeder.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Birds, like this Eastern bluebird, appreciate nest boxes.

Houses
It’s never too early to start thinking about spring and the return of many of our favorite birds. To bring more birds into our lives, it doesn’t hurt to encourage them by providing man-made nesting and roosting boxes. Many of our favorite birds — Eastern bluebird, tree swallow, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch — are cavity-nesting species but will just as readily raise their young in nesting boxes as in a hole in a tree. With boxes customized to their own particular needs, other birds such as Eastern screech-owl, wood duck and great crested flycatcher will also make use of bird boxes. Many gardening centers, produce stands, feed stores and other shopping outlets sell bird boxes of various designs, shapes and sizes. If you’re shopping for a bluebird box, be certain that the recipient’s yard is a spacious one. Bluebirds feel more comfortable in open surroundings. If the yard is more overgrown and woodsy, consider a box tailored more for a woodland bird like a chickadee or a nuthatch.

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Photo by Pixabay.com • A good pair of binoculars will bring birds much closer.

Binoculars
Unless requested, don’t buy binoculars for an adult. Most birders would prefer to pick out their own pair to use to make up-close and personal bird observations. An inexpensive pair, however, could be perfect for fostering in a child an interest in birds and nature. If you have grandchildren, children, or even nephews and nieces, a beginner’s pair of binoculars could make a life-altering gift that lets the recipient view the world in a whole new light.

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Calendars
Birds have always been a popular photography subject for calendars. There’s an almost endless variety of bird calendars, but I’m partial to one produced by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, of which I am a member. This annual fundraising endeavor features some exceptional bird photography from club members. This year’s calendar features full-color photographs of some of the region’s most colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. For an additional $2 shipping fee, calendars can be sent to any address in the United States. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes.
The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays as well as important bird-related dates. 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 male rose-breasted grosbeak. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or look up Elizabethton Bird Club on Facebook.

 

Hummingbird-Ornament

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A bird-related Christmas ornament makes a nice gift.

Ornaments

The branches of my Christmas tree are always weighted heavily with a variety of bird-related Christmas ornaments. Holiday tinsel and baubles make the season look a lot like Christmas if they feature some of our favorite birds such as cardinals, chickadees, hummingbirds, penguins, doves, geese, eagles or any of the other popular species of birds. Choose a fun and unique bird ornament for the enthusiast on your Christmas list.

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Photo by Kevin Blanzy on Pexels.com

Dark-eyed junco heralds winter’s approach and marks milestone in weekly bird musings

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A dark-eyed junco, usually a harbinger of wintry weather and snowy days, shells sunflower seeds beneath a feeder.

I wrote my first column about our “feathered friends” on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this column will soon celebrate its 23rd anniversary.

This column has appeared on a weekly basis for the last 23 years in a total of five different newspapers, and in recent years it has been syndicated to several more. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested birds and birding. I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well. Since February 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.

I saw my first swamp sparrow of the fall on Oct. 23. Autumn’s a time when many of those so-called “little brown birds,” also known as the sparrows, return to live in the fields, gardens, yards and woodlands around our home. Two of the other anticipated arrivals are white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Sparrows, like this swamp sparrow, often spend the winter months in fields, woods, and wetlands, sometimes visiting feeders in our homes and gardens.

In fact, that first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents— the dark-eyed junco. Experts place juncos among the varied sparrow family. All juncos are resident of the New World, ranging throughout North and Central America. Scientists are continually debating precisely how many species of junco exist, with estimates ranging from a mere three species to about a dozen species.

Some of the other juncos include the volcano junco, yellow-eyed junco, Chiapas junco, Guadalupe junco, pink-sided junco, Oregon junco and Baird’s junco, which is named in honor Spencer Fullerton Baird, a 19th century American naturalist and a former Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

With that introduction and with some revisions I have made through the years, here is that very first column that I ever wrote about birds.

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Photo by Skeeze-Pixabay • A dark-eyed junco clings to a snowy perch.

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Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

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Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Junco

Photo by Ken Thomas • A dark-eyed junco perches on some bare branches on a winter’s day.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders, they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Junco-Carver

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Dark-eyed junco nests on high mountain slopes during the summer month. This dark-eyed junco was photographed at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain during the summer nesting season.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

•••••

Back when I wrote that original column, juncos often returned each fall in the final days of October or first days of November. In the last few years, however, their arrival times have grown consistently later in November. At times, it takes a serious snowfall to drive these hardy birds to seek out easy fare at my feeders. I’m hoping they’ll return soon. In the meantime, if you want to share your first dark-eyed junco sighting of the fall, I’d love to hear from you. If you want to share a sighting, have a question or wish to make a comment, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female dark-eyed junco scrambles for sunflowers seeds in the snow.

Purple finches always welcome winter visitors when snow and cold drives them to feeders

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Purple finches are mainly winter visitors in the region, although they may make appearances during their fall and spring migrations. Although similar to house finches, purple finches have their own unique appearance once observers become familiar with them. The notched tail, evident in this bird, is a good way to distinguish purple finches from very similar house finches.

The region experienced its first brush with wintry weather with the snowstorm that arrived Dec. 8. With a few inches of snow on the ground, some birds that had been ignoring my feeders decided to give them a second look. American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos and a red-bellied woodpecker made frequent visits to the feeders over the weekend as more snow and cold temperatures put a temporary stop to the mild start of the 2017-2018 winter season.

So far, the feathered clientele at my feeders are the expected visitors, including Carolina chickadees, downy woodpeckers, song sparrows and white-breasted nuthatches. Some birds, such as pine siskin and purple finch, which can make feeder watching an exciting winter pastime, have not yet made an appearance. Both these species belong to a group of birds known in birding circles as “Northern finches” that also includes species like red crossbill, evening grosbeak and common redpoll.

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Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male evening grosbeak perches on the side of a sunflower-stocked feeder.

The purple finch, which is a winter visitor to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina is apparently not as common as in past years. Some 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. Today, the house finch is quite widespread, found 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. The house finch had also been introduced into Hawaii about 1870, and is still present today, along with many other species of birds not native to the island.

HousieFinch

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.

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. Personally, 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. Unfortunately, the description does nothing to distinguish females of the two species.

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.

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this depiction of purple finches.

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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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A study of the facial pattern of a female purple finch helps contrast her from similar female house finches. Again, the notched tail is also a good indication of the bird’s identity.

In the United States, another close relative of the house finch and purple finch is the Cassin’s finch of the western United States. Together, the three species make up a classification known as the American rosefinches. Formerly placed in the genus Carpodacus, these three birds are now in the genus known as Haemorhous. The new classification separates them from the Eurasian rosefinches, which includes more than two dozen species including scarlet finch, great rosefinch and crimson-browed finch.

Purple finches occupy a variety of winter habitats, including fields and woodland edges, as well as yards and gardens. All it takes to lure these finches to your feeder 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.

Merry Christmas to all my fellow bird enthusiasts! 

Dark-eyed junco faithful visitor to feeders during wintry weather

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Photo by Kenneth Thomas / Dark-eyed juncos, often referred to as “snow birds,” flock to feeders in winter during periods of inclement weather.

I recently took part in the 48th annual Elizabethton Fall Count. Although part of the count’s focus is on Carter County, significant attention is paid to the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington in Northeast Tennessee. This year’s count, which was held Saturday, Sept. 30, with 54 observers in 12 parties, tallied 122 species, which is slightly below the recent 30-year average of 126 species. The all-time high for this count was 137 species, which was reached in 1993.

Together with Brenda Richards, I travelled the Forest Service road on Holston Mountain to seek out some species that prefer higher elevation habitats, including dark-eyed juncos. The junco is also a winter visitor to yards and gardens throughout the region and should be returning any day now for a seasonal stay during the colder months of the year. During our progress up the mountain, we glimpsed several dark-eyed juncos as well as other birds such as blue-headed vireo and black-and-white warbler.

I have always had a fondness for juncos. In fact, I wrote my first birding column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means that I recently celebrated the 22nd anniversary of my weekly accounts of birds and birding. The column has appeared weekly without interruption in various newspapers in the last 22 years. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested in our “feathered friends.” I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years. Since February of 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.

Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column that has now involved into a look that is all “For the Birds.”
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Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the Dark-eyed Junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.dennisjl 2

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The Dark-eyed Junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

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Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of Dark-eyed Juncos.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders, they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens / A Dark-eyed Junco perches on the side of a hanging feeder offering sunflower seeds.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

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If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Count sets new records while gathering data on world’s birds

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The downy woodpecker ranked among the 10 most frequently reported birds on the 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count. A record number of 173,826 people took part in this year’s GBBC, which was held Feb. 17-20.

In announcing the results of this year’s Great Backyard Bird Count, organizers of the annual global bird survey shared an anecdote about a second-grade student in Memphis, Tennessee. The girl, who obviously enjoyed making a contribution as a citizen scientist for the GBBC, made a real connection with the birds she was being asked to count.

Calling her participation the “best day of her life,” the girl went on to share her excitement about seeing a downy woodpecker. She was hardly alone in seeing this small woodpecker. A total of 38,760 checklists across the country included downy woodpecker with their totals.

The girl’s joy at discovering a downy woodpecker — a bird that was completely new to her — all but guarantees that she will look forward to taking part in the 2018 GBBC. If her interest in birds continues to develop, she just may catch the birding bug herself.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Counting crows and other birds at Shook Branch at Watauga Lake during the recent GBBC.

The 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count is now part of the history books, and thanks to participants from around the world, this year’s GBBC ranked as the biggest count in its 20-year history. Participants set a new high bar for number of checklists submitted and total number of species reported.

An estimated 214,018 participants took part this year, compared to the 2016 final total estimate of 163,763 individuals. An incredible total of 5,940 different species was tallied by GBBC participants, which is a dramatic spike from last year’s total of 5,689 species. That record number of participants also turned in a record number of completed checklists — 173,826, compared to the final total of 162,052 in 2016.

The three states with birders submitting the most checklists were, in descending order, New York, Pennsylvania and California. Incidentally, Virginia came in sixth, with 5,190 checklists submitted during the 2017 GBBC. North Carolina came in ninth with 4,220 checklists submitted by 2017 GBBC participants. Birders in Tennessee will need to step up for future counts. The Volunteer State ranked 20th on the list with 2,215 checklists submitted.

The states seeing the most species of birds reported were, in descending order, California (370 species), Texas (360 species) and Florida (309 species). North Carolina checklists indicated a total of 213 species to land the Tar Heel State at No. 8 on the list of states with most species reported. Virginia, in 12th place, tallied a total of 196 species. Tennessee came in 32nd place with 136 species, which isn’t too bad for a landlocked state.

In North America, the most numerous birds reported on the count included several species of geese, as well as blackbirds, starlings and crows. A total of 4,793,261 snow geese made this bird the most numerous North American species reported on the GBBC. Other common birds, in descending order, included red-winged blackbird with 2,464,572 individual birds tallied, as well as Canada goose, 1,895,077; European starling, 919,038; mallard, 715,594; ring-billed gull, 647,950; American coot, 500,261; greater white-fronted goose, 426,040; common grackle, 416,720; and American crow, 378,483. During my participation this year, I saw several of these species, including red-winged blackbird, Canada goose, European starling, mallard, ring-billed gull and American crow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Killdeer in Limestone Cove during the Great Backyard Bird Count held last month.

The ten most frequently reported species, in descending order, were Northern cardinal, American crow, mourning dove, dark-eyed junco, downy woodpecker, blue jay, black-capped chickadee, house finch, house sparrow and white-breasted nuthatch. While taking part in the GBBC last month, I saw all these species with the exception of the black-capped chickadee. Instead, my submitted checklists featured Carolina chickadees.

The birds on the most frequently reported list are almost without exception birds of yards and gardens, making them more likely to be counted by more individual participants. On the other hand, the most numerous, or abundant, birds are those that join together to form large flocks. They’re widespread, but less likely to be encountered in yards and gardens.

I counted at home and at several favorite birding locations. During a visit to Watauga Lake in Carter County, Tennessee, my mother and I observed an immature bald eagle and a yellow-bellied sapsucker, which turned out to be among my personal GBBC highlights this year. I always enjoy looking for birds during the four-day count period. I also like to feel that I am contributing to a shared knowledge about birds and their populations.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Buffleheads on the Watauga River during the recent GBBC.

If you would like to view photos of birds from around the world that were taken during this year’s GBBC, visit gbbc.birdcount.org/photo-subs-2017/.

If you didn’t get to take part this year, be sure to plan ahead for next year when the GBBC will be held Feb. 16-19, 2018. Help make next year’s count another one for the record books.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens 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.