Tag Archives: Winter weather

Watch for wintering kestrels in open habitats

 

Photo by reitz27/Pixabay.com • While one of the smaller falcons, the American kestrel is also one of the this family of raptors more colorful members.

I enjoyed a drive through Limestone Cove in Unicoi, Tennessee, on the afternoon of the next-to-the-last day of 2020. In addition to finding a total of 13 Eastern bluebirds, I saw an American kestrel perched on utility lines near Bell Cemetery. The sighting was the first I’ve had of a kestrel so far during the 2020-21 winter season. Over the years, the cemetery and adjacent fields have been a reliable location for finding this small falcon during the winter.

The American kestrel, although present throughout the year in the region, is somewhat more prominent during the winter months when kestrels from farther north migrate into the region. However, this falcon also nests in the region and can be found at any time of the year in suitable habitat, which is usually open countryside.

The American kestrel is a small member of the falcon family, which includes such relatives as merlin, peregrine falcon and gyrfalcon. All falcons, regardless of size, share a similar aerodynamic design that includes sleek, streamlined bodies and long, slim wings which taper to pointed tips. They fly with rapid wingbeats and are capable of swift flight.

Photo by PBarlowArt/Pixabay.com • An American kestrel uses a rock outcrop as a convenient perch.

The male American kestrel is a colorful bird. He shows a rusty back with some black barring, a rusty tail and steel blue-gray wings. The female kestrel is brownish with black barring on her back and tail. She also shows a buff-colored wash streaked with brown on her under- parts. Both sexes show a strong facial pattern marked by two black “sideburns” on the side of the face.

The American kestrel has long been one of my favorite raptors. They’re seldom as skittish as many other raptors and will permit close observation. Formerly known by the name “Sparrow Hawk,” the American kestrel does not feed entirely on other birds. In fact, a large part of this small falcon’s diet includes rodents and insects.

In its nesting preference, the American kestrel is unusual among other native falcons and hawks. Kestrels nest in cavities, including abandoned woodpecker holes and nest boxes provided by humans.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American Kestrel uses a fence post for a perch.

Like many raptors, the American kestrel likes to hunt from a perch, swooping down on unsuspecting prey. The kestrel, however, is also capable of hovering, a type of flight that only a relatively few birds, including the belted kingfisher and the ruby-throated hummingbird, are capable of performing.

The falcons comprise a family of birds with a long history with humans. The sport of falconry, although not as widely practiced today, long ago became associated with royalty and nobility. In fact, falconry has been called “the sport of kings.” The sport basically involved hunting prey, usually other birds, with birds of prey such as falcons. As a pastime, falconry never became as popular in the United States as in other parts of the world.

There are more than 60 species of falcons found worldwide. While the peregrine falcon’s endangered status became well-known in the United States, other falcons have been threatened with extinction. The Mauritius Kestrel once dwindled to a population of only six individuals. Today, the population, due to intensive human effort, has greatly recovered.

Other members of the falcon family can be found in the region, including the peregrine falcon and the merlin. Other falcons in North America include the prairie falcon and the Aplomado falcon. Worldwide, some of the more descriptively named falcons include spotted kestrel, rock kestrel, greater kestrel, lesser kestrel, red-footed falcon, red-necked falcon, sooty falcon and brown falcon.

To share observations, ask questions, or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by USFWS/Robert Burton • An American kestrel in flight shows the aerodynamic design that earned this small falcon the common name of sparrow hawk.

Winter season wouldn’t be complete without the splendor of cardinals

Photo by Jill Wellington/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal grasps a branch of winter greenery.

I have enjoyed an opportunity to observe the many Northern cardinals visiting my feeders in recent weeks. The beauty of both male and female cardinals is undeniable, but it’s their behavior that’s worth a second look. Nervous, twitchy birds, they are always anxiously surveying their surroundings even as they linger on a feeder long enough to hull a sunflower kernel from its shell. It’s almost as if they know their bright plumage stands out in a drab winter landscape dominated by shades of gray.

The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray. Over the years, the cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a Northern cardinal.

There’s some more evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern Cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

The Northern cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America.

The two relatives are the pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela. Two other South American birds — red-crested cardinal and yellow-billed cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern cardinal. Both the Northern cardinal and red-crested cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay.com • A male cardinal grips a branch to make a quick survey of its surroundings.

The Northern cardinal is a native and abundant bird. Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

The cardinal accepts a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample safflower seed, cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. Cardinals away from our feeders eat insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

The cardinal uses its large beak to efficiently hull sunflower seeds or deal with other foods foraged in field and forest away from our feeders. The large, heavy beak hints at the cardinal’s kinship with birds such as tanagers and grosbeaks. In fact, some of America’s early naturalists referred to the bird as “cardinal grosbeak.” Other common names include the apt “redbird” moniker and “Virginia nightingale.”

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day. People can also choose to further the cause of science by taking part in studies such as Project FeederWatch, a nationwide survey of bird populations focused on birds coming to feeders maintained by project participants.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Northern cardinal pays a visit to a feeder.

In the 2015-16 winter season, 1,373 individuals participated in Project FeederWatch in the southeastern United States. The most common birds reported by observers were Northern cardinal, Carolina chickadee, mourning dove, American goldfinch and tufted titmouse. Finishing out the Top 10 feeder birds in this section of the nation were Carolina wren, house finch, blue jay, red-bellied woodpecker and downy woodpecker. Almost 98 percent of participants reported Northern cardinals at their feeders, which means the cardinal has become an almost universal feeder visitor in the southeast.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and Kentucky redbird.

Here’s some additional cardinal trivia to increase your knowledge of this fascinating bird:

• Cardinals differ in appearance based on gender. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings.

• The cardinal’s preference for dense cover makes them likely neighbors for such birds as Carolina wrens, Eastern towhees and brown thrashers.

• The oldest recorded Northern Cardinal was a female, and she was 15 years, nine months old when she was found in Pennsylvania, according to the website, All About Birds.

• An uncommon genetic variation sometimes produces a cardinal with yellow or orange feathers instead of the typical red. The scientific name for the condition that produces yellow cardinals is known as xanthochroism. This condition also often occurs in house finches.

• Nests are built by the female cardinal, but her mate delivers food as she incubates her clutch of eggs, which usually numbers three or four.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Northern Cardinal feeds during a snowstorm at a hanging tray filled with sunflower seeds.

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.

 

Flocks of red-winged blackbirds, other sightings, could signal winter’s end

Photo by JudaM/Pixabay.com • Feeders are a good way to tempt red-winged blackbirds closer for great views. Males are exceptional in their glossy black plumage with red wing patches accented by a hint of yellow. Females are brown and striped, giving them a similar appearance to large sparrows.

 

H. Lea Jones, Jr. of Bristol, Virginia, wrote to me after seeing my post about pileated woodpeckers a few weeks ago.

“I read with interested your story about this woodpecker,” Lea wrote in an email. “I have been keeping up feeding the birds, which both of my now deceased parents loved to watch, outside the large kitchen windows of their home which I inherited. One day, a couple of years back, while manning the chair and watching the birds, I was startled to see two of these woodpeckers hanging from my extra large suet cage. There was one on each side. Maybe a male and a female?”

Photo by Mike Dobe/Pixabay.com • A pileated woodpecker visits a suet feeder.

Lea noted that the two woodpeckers stayed at the suet for maybe 30 seconds. “I was shocked to see these huge birds and only could assume, at the time, they were woodpeckers. Just very beautiful birds!”

After a little research, Lea discovered the identity of the visitors. “And now I know the ‘sound’ in the wooded area behind the house,” Lea wrote. I had also described the sound in my post.

“Nothing like it I’d ever heard before,” Lea wrote. “Since reading your article, I now realize what a rare sight I have been blessed with. It was truly an amazing sight indeed.”

Dr. John Brenner sent me an email recently about an unexpected sighting at his home in Abingdon, Virginia, on Thursday, Feb. 13, around 5 p.m.

“I saw a Baltimore oriole in my back yard,” he reported. “It was sitting on a fence then flew over to my feeders where it walked around under them.”

He explained that he lives in the heart of Abingdon and has been living at his current address for about three and a half years. “This is the first time I have seen this bird,” he said. “I thought it was unusual.”

Photo by USFWS • Baltimore orioles, like this male, are members of the blackbird family, making them relatives of species such as Eastern meadowlarks, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds.

Winter sightings of orioles are rather unusual, but they are not unheard of. The North Carolina Birds website details the emerging phenomenon of wintering orioles.

“Until the 1960s, it (Baltimore oriole) essentially did not winter in the United States, but with milder winters and people putting out oranges and peanut butter on their feeders, and not just various seeds and suet, a number of orioles started wintering from North Carolina to Florida,” according to a profile of the species. Straying into Virginia would certainly not be out of the question, although Baltimore orioles are usually expected in southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee from April to October.

In the last couple of weeks, large flocks of red-winged blackbirds have been making stops at my home. The largest flock numbered about 50 individual birds. Red-winged blackbirds are often considered harbingers of spring, but these birds arrived with some of the recent wintry weather that arrived in February.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

I’ve long associated red-winged blackbirds with early spring. I also had a single red-winged blackbird make a one-day visit earlier in February during a snowstorm. Those February visitors are the vanguard of large numbers of red-winged blackbirds that return in impressive numbers every March. The blackbirds arriving now behave much differently than the quiet, shy ones that often make brief visits to feeders during late winter snowstorms.

The showy and loud red-winged blackbirds made themselves at home at my fish pond and adjacent stands of cattails, producing quite a commotion. “The kon-ke-ree song of the male red-winged blackbird is a sure indication that spring is on the way,” according to a profile of the species located at the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website. At this time of year, the male red-winged blackbirds seek elevated perches to display and vocalize.

The male red-winged blackbirds is a very aptly named bird. Glossy black males sport red wing patches that are often trimmed with a narrow band of yellow feathers. By contrast, female red-winged blackbirds are mostly brown birds that could easily be mistaken for large sparrows. Both sexes have sharply pointed bills.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Red-winged blackbirds arrive as a noisy flock on a wintry February evening.

After I posted on Facebook about the sightings of the red-winged blackbird flocks, Rita Schuettler, a fan of these birds and a resident of Elizabethton, Tennessee, asked whether these flocks were unseasonably early.

Photo by Lintow/Pixabay.com • Female red-winged blackbirds could easily be mistaken for a large sparrow.

I told Rita in a subsequent post that a friend in Atlanta has informed me that he began seeing the blackbird flocks in his neighborhood a couple of weeks ago. So they are right on time for make their appearance in Northeast Tennessee. Laura Evans Barden also posted on my Facebook page that she has been seeing red-winged blackbirds in recent weeks, as well as more common grackles and European starlings.

Red-winged blackbirds are fond of wetlands. Any marsh, damp field or flooded pasture is likely to attract a few resident red-winged blackbirds. Females choose nesting locations in cattails or other marsh vegetation. She usually lays three or four eggs. Although she does receive some help from the male, most of the responsibility for raising the young is left to her.

There is a reason that male red-winged blackbirds are not always quite as engaged in feeding and tending their young. Male red-winged blackbirds are often polygynous, which means that males will often court multiple mates. His time is often occupied defending females and their respective nests from the advances of other male red-winged blackbirds.

Other relatives of the red-winged blackbird in the United States include the tricolored blackbird found along the Pacific Coast and the yellow-headed blackbird resident in wetlands west of the Great Lakes. Rusty blackbird, common grackle and brown-headed cowbird are other species of blackbirds found in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

Photo by Bryan Stevens  • This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed at Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006.

Yearly survey encourages participation of citizen-scientists

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Eastern Bluebird is one of the most beloved American songbirds.

Birds can bring so much excitement and entertainment into our lives, whether they are flocking to our feeders or we are seeking them out at favorite birding spots. Next month, we can do something to repay birds for all the joy their simple existence provides many of us. All that’s required is looking out your window to peek at a feeder or perhaps driving to a local park to look for birds.

Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. Bird watchers of all ages count birds to create a real-time snapshot of where birds are during the worldwide effort of the GBBC scheduled this year from Friday-Sunday, Feb. 14-17.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a truly global undertaking.

As it has nearly every year, the 2019 Great Backyard Bird Count broke more records and attracted more participants than ever before. The GBBC is global in its scale, which provides a greater reach for dedicated citizen-scientists hoping to contribute to the well-being of the planet’s birds.

Last year’s GBBC tallied 6,699 species of birds on 204,921 checklists submitted by an estimated 224,781 participants.

U.S. participants led the way with an estimated 136,903 checklists submitted by birders in the United States. The nation of India took second place with a total of 21,524 checklists, followed by Canada (16,611), Australia (2,811) and Spain (2,391).

A total of 669 bird species were found in the United States, but that was only an eighth place finish. The country boasting the most birds was Colombia with 1,095 species. Other countries with a diversity of bird species reported included Ecuador (948), Brazil (844), India (843) and Mexico (755).

In the United States, Californians led the way in submitting checklists with a total of 10,059 surveys reported, followed by Texas (9,121), New York (8,453), Florida (7,696) and Pennsylvania (7,640). Virginia, with 6,332 checklists, just barely got edged out of the Top 5.

In my own past efforts on behalf of the GBBC, I’ve enjoyed observation of such rare East Tennessee visitors as Ross’s Goose and Canvasbacks, as well as expected birds such as Carolina Chickadees, Red-tailed Hawks and Buffleheads.

If you look no farther than your own yard and garden, please consider taking part in the 2020 GBBC. It’s free, it’s simple to do, and the results can be valuable for scientific knowledge about our fine feathered friends. To learn more about the GBBC, visit gbbc.birdcount.org.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Song Sparrow perches on a weed. The annual GBBC helps gather important data for even common birds like Song Sparrows.

 

Cardinals do their part to make the winter season brighter

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage.

The shopping days before Christmas are getting fewer, so I hope everyone has had time to find gifts for everyone on their lists. My own sincere wish to readers is that everyone gets to enjoy a great holiday that just might also include watching some birds.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees, the drab American goldfinches that look so unlike their summer appearance.

There’s one bird, however, that makes an impression in any season. The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and Kentucky redbird.

Over the years, the Northern cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a bright red cardinal.

Cardinals, also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale, are easily recognized backyard birds. I never tire of observing these colorful birds. Cardinals are easily lured to any backyard with plentiful cover to provide a sense of security and a generous buffet of sunflower seed.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Even the female Northern cardinal offers a subtle beauty not quite as showy as the male.

Cardinals accept a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. The cardinal is also one of only a few birds that I have noticed will consistently feed on safflower seed.

While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. When away from our feeders, cardinals feed on insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

There’s no difficulty in identifying a cardinal. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals have dark bills.

Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada. These birds have even been introduced to Hawaii.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A male cardinal looks splendid against a snowy background.

At feeders, cardinals mingle with a variety of other birds. Their preference for dense, tangled habitat is one they share with such birds as brown thrashers, Eastern towhees, Carolina wrens and song sparrows. In general, however, cardinals directly associate only with their own kind. Cardinals will form loose flocks during the winter, but these flocks are never as cohesive as those of such flocking birds as American goldfinches. Cardinals are more often observed in pairs. For such a bright bird, the male cardinal can be surprisingly difficult to detect as he hides in thick brush that conceals his presence. Cardinals are nervous birds, however, and usually betray their presence with easily recognized chip notes.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinals are a favorite for makers of Christmas ornaments.

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

There’s additional evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day.

American wigeon also known by name ‘baldpate’

Wigeon-TimMcCabe

Photo by Tim McCabe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • This male American wigeon shows the white head patch that gives this duck its other common name of “baldpate.” In this photograph, a female wigeon rests near her mate while a male redhead, a species of diving duck, swims in the background. This duck nests in season wetlands in the American midwest.

Erwin, Tennessee, resident Pattie Rowland recently asked my help identifying some ducks she had photographed at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. She already suspected the ducks in her photo were American wigeons, but she wanted confirmation.

The ducks were indeed wigeons, which are classified with the “dabblers” instead of the “divers,” which are two broad categories for describing the wild ducks likely to occur throughout North America. Dabblers feed mostly near the surface of the water, foraging on everything for aquatic insects to roots and tubers. The “divers,” not surprisingly, dive into the depth to pursue fish, mollusks and other aquatic prey.

“This was my first time to see them,” Pattie noted in a Facebook message. I congratulated her because I know how exciting a new observation of a bird can be.

Wigeon-RoyLowe

Photo by Roy Lowe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male American wigeon looks quite at home swimming on a small pond. Wigeons belong to ducks that are classified as “dabblers” and “puddle ducks.”

It’s not been an exciting winter for ducks in the region. Other than some redheads and buffleheads back in November and early December at the start of the winter, the wigeons are the only wild ducks of interest that I’ve observed at the pond.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its report this past summer on 2018 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations, based on surveys conducted in May and early June of 2018 by FWS and Canadian Wildlife Service.

Overall duck numbers in the survey area remained high, according to the report. Total populations were estimated at 41.2 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, 13 percent lower than last year’s estimate of 47.3 million but 17 percent above the long-term average. The projected mallard fall flight index was estimated at 11.4 million birds, down from the 2017 estimate of 12.9 million.
“The dip in the population for prairie-breeding puddle ducks is not unexpected and by no means unprecedented given that conditions on the prairies this spring were drier than last year,” said DU Chief Scientist Tom Moorman. “As a result, 2018 populations dropped accordingly. However, populations of all key species except northern pintails and scaup remain above long-term averages. This year’s breeding population decline is a reminder of the need to sustain the capacity of breeding habitats, particularly in the prairies as we go through natural variation in wetland conditions. Waterfowl populations are adapted well to short-term swings in habitat conditions, but we must continue to guard against the long-term loss of prairie breeding habitat.”

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of American wigeon, a duck for which the male has earned the name “baldpate” for a distinctive white crown patch.

American wigeons, however, bucked the trend of some of the other prairie-breeding puddle ducks and showed a slight rise in overall numbers. The wigeon breeding population was estimated at 2.8 individual ducks, according to the survey. Wigeons beat their long-term average, which rests at 2.6 million.

The American wigeon can be found all over North America. Their breeding grounds stretch from Alaska across the tundras of Canada all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. American Wigeons can be found in their wintering habitats from the American Northwest to central Mexico, from the southern prairie pothole region through the Gulf Coast and from New York to the Bahamas close to the Atlantic shoreline. American wigeons are also common winter visitors to Central America, the Caribbean, northern Colombia, Trinidad and occasionally Venezuela

Wigeons are aquatic grazers and forage on grasses and sedges in wet meadows and pastures. The American wigeon’s diet has a higher proportion of plant matter than the diet of any other dabbling duck.

It’s also called the “baldpate” for the same reason our national bird is known as the “bald” eagle. A white patch on the forehead reminded early naturalists of a bald man’s head in much the same way that our national bird earned the term “bald” eagle because of its own white head. Further, the word “bald” is thought to derive from an archaic word in Middle English meaning “white patch,” from which the archaic definition “marked or steaked with white” is drawn.

The origins of the term “wigeon” are a bit murkier. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the first known use of “wigeon” dates back to 1508, and other sources suggest that the term perhaps was derived from a French/Balearic term meaning “a kind of small crane.”

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Photo by Coffee/Pixabay.com • Gadwalls are close relatives of American wigeon.

There are two other species of wigeons — the Eurasian wigeon of Asia and Europe and the Chiloé wigeon of South America. Wigeons belong to the Mareca genus of dabbling ducks, which also includes gadwall and falcated teal.

While female American wigeons produce a rather raspy quacking sound, wigeons more typically produce a vocalization when excited that sounds like “whew, whew, whew.”

Some ducks have become associated with certain bodies of water in the region, and the American wigeon is no exception. In addition to the pond at Erwin Fishery Park, there have been reports of American wigeons this winter from a large pond adjacent to the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton, Tennessee, as well as on the weir dam at Osceola Island Recreation Site in Bristol. Hooded mergansers have wintered in large numbers at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol. Hundreds of buffleheads have wintered at Wilbur Lake near Elizabethton, Tennessee, for decades. March and April, being periods of transition as winter changes into spring, could bring migrating ducks to the region’s ponds, lakes and rivers. Keep your eyes open and you could be surprised by what you find.

 

 

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

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

Virginia'sWarbler-TWO

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

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

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

Virginia's-Warbler_map

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

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

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

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

Virginia'sWarbler-ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PalmWarblerrr

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

Reader from Utah shares story about pine siskin rescue

PineSiskin-Utah

Photo Courtesy of Fred Bergold • This pine siskin recovered after crashing into a window at the Utah home of Fred Bergold.

A recent email reminded me that some of the birds that visit us during the winter range far beyond our yards and gardens here in Northeast Tennessee.

I received an email from Fred Bergold, a reader who resides in Utah.

“This little warbler flew into our window,” Fred explained in his email, which arrived with photos attached. “My wife picked it off the deck and held it for about half an hour.”

The kind treatment worked. “When it got its bearings back, it flew to the top of our Colorado green spruce,” Fred wrote.

Siskin-PairAtFeeders

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Pine siskins feast on thistle seeds at a feeder.

“We feed the local wintering birds black oil sunflower seeds, which many species seem to like,’ Fred continued. “We live in Fruit Heights, Utah, just north of Salt Lake City.”

When I looked at the photos Fred provided, I realized that the bird in question wasn’t one of the warblers but a species of small finch known as a pine siskin. I replied to Fred’s email and offered a quick lesson in distinguishing pine siskins from warblers and other small songbirds.

I informed Fred that siskins usually travel in flocks and that they love feeders with sunflower seeds.

I also shared with him that I’ve gotten to travel to his home state of Utah twice since 2003. Getting to see some western species — American dipper, lazuli bunting, western tanager, violet-winged swallow — while visiting the state produced some memorable birding moments.

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

Winters, no matter where one lives, can decrease the variety of bird species one sees on a daily basis. I often find myself hoping for the excitement produced when flocks of “irruptive” finches not often seen in the area expand their range into the region. In addition to pine siskins, birds such as evening grosbeaks, purple finches, common redpolls and red crossbills represent a few of these northern finch species that occasionally stage massive migratory movements, or irruptions, into areas far outside their typical ranges.

These finches are not the only birds to stage these periodic irruptions. The website birdsource.org identifies several non-finch species — red-breasted nuthatch, Clark’s nutcracker, bohemian waxwing, black-capped chickadee and varied thrush — that undertake periodic winter irruptions. Two of these northern finches — the pine siskin and the red crossbill — are sporadic summer residents on some of the higher mountains in our region.

Siskins-OnGround

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flock of pine siskins carpet the ground beneath some feeders as they forage for food.

These irruptions are not usually motivated by cold or severe weather. The absence of a favored food source on a bird’s normal winter range is usually a trigger for an irruption. Birds, such as pine siskins, will fly farther than normal in a quest for reliable food sources. Not surprisingly, well-stocked feeders often attract their attention.

The pine siskin belongs to a genus of birds known as Spinus, which includes three species of goldfinches and more than a dozen species of siskins, many of them native to Central and South America. Only one species — the Eurasian siskin — is found outside of the New World. Other siskins include the black-capped siskin, hooded siskin, red siskin, black siskin, Antillean siskin and Andean siskin.

GoldfinchBABE

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The American goldfinch is a relative of the pine siskin, and the two species often associate with each other at feeding stations.

Siskins often associate with American goldfinches. In shape and size, the two birds are extremely similar. Unlike goldfinches, however, siskins display extensive streaking on their back and breast. The bill of a siskin is sharp and pointed. Overall a drab brown in coloration, siskins also show some surprisingly bright yellow coloration in their wings and tails. Although sociable, individuals can display some irritable tantrums when competing for prime space at feeders.

Some people quickly discover that a large flock of pine siskins is quite a drain on the daily allotment of feed provided for backyard birds. For such small birds, they have large appetites. Siskins are also extremely tame and can often be approached quite closely. A few years ago during a particularly frigid cold snap, I succeeded in luring a pine siskin to land on my gloved hand, which held some sunflower seeds. Needless to say, it was a very memorable, intimate moment.

In addition to this unusual tameness, siskins are extremely vocal birds. These birds have a shrill trill that sounds almost mechanical to my ears. Large flocks also produce a constant twittering noise as they perch in trees or on feeders.

Next month will offer an opportunity to participate in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, which is a free, fun, and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Recording visiting birds such as pine siskins is an important component of the GBBC. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, or anywhere in the world. The 21st annual GBBC will be held Friday, Feb. 16, through Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Please visit the official website at birdcount.org for more information. I’ll also focus on the GBBC more in upcoming columns, including information about activities planned at a local park.

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Photo by Ted Schroeder/Great Backyard Bird Count • Evening grosbeaks may be more common on this year’s GBBC, according to early reports on the movements of these large, colorful finches.

Man saves common loon after bird makes crash landing

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Photo by dkbach/Pixabay.com • The common loon is a masterful diver and swimmer, but these birds are awkward and nearly helpless on land.

An early December snowstorm had deposited a blanket of snow over the landscape, but milder temperatures quickly melted the snow on roadways when a weary — or perhaps disoriented — traveler made a crash landing.

Complete disaster was avoided thanks to the efforts of Joe McGuiness, a resident of Erwin, Tennessee, as well as an employee of the U.S. Forest Service. Joe shared the story at a recent meeting of the Elizabethton Bird Club.

Joe discovered the stranded traveler just after he finished having lunch on Dec. 6. He looked out his window and saw a “dark blob” in the driveway.loon-30901_1280

Joe recognized that the blob was actually an immature common loon. As he went to investigate, the bird tried to slide downhill on some of the recent snow.

Waterfowl like loons and grebes occasionally make landings on wet roadways. These birds mistake the dark, damp asphalt for water and don’t realize their error until it is too late.

“It probably landed on a neighborhood road by mistake,” explained Joe, who resides in the Rolling Hills residential community in Erwin. Over the years, Joe has been a magnet for some unusual birds. Several years ago, an American woodcock became a daily visitor for a spell in the community where Joe lives. Several birders got an opportunity to see that particular bird, which is usually extremely elusive and difficult to observe at close range.

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Photo courtesy of Joe McGuiness • When this common loon stranded itself, Erwin resident Joe McGuiness went into action, collecting the bird for transport to a nearby pond. Because of the position of their feet on their bodies, loons are almost incapable of walking on land.

Once he identified the loon, Joe still faced the challenge of rescuing it. Without human intervention, the bird would have been doomed. Loons, while so graceful and powerful in their element, are clumsy and almost helpless on land. According to loons.org, the official website for The Loon Preservation Committee, the placement of a loon’s legs at the far back of the body ensures that loons are excellent divers and swimmers. It also means that loons can not easily walk on land. This difficulty is one reason why loons nest right next to the water. At night, loons sleep over deep water, away from land, for protection from predators.

Once a loon lands on any body of water, it requires a considerably long “runway” to take off again. They sort of run along the surface of the water to gain the momentum to become airborne again. Obviously, that’s not going to happen for one of these birds if they’ve made the mistake of putting down on dry land. Fortunately, Joe realized he would need to help the loon reach water.

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Photo by Krista-269/Pixabay.com • Common loons in summer breeding plumage are strikingly handsome birds that show much grace and agility in the water.

By tossing a coat over the loon, Joe managed to subdue the bird and transport it to a local pond for release. As he placed the bird at the edge of the pond, the loon surprised him and didn’t budge. Joe gave the bird a helpful nudge. In response, the bird turned and whacked him in the face with its beak. I suppose no good deed goes unpunished.

Eventually, the frightened loon moved into the water. The loon has remained on the pond recuperating for several weeks, which has allowed people to see the rescued creature.

In the northern United States and Canada, the common loon is often put forward as a symbol of the wilderness areas where it likes to reside on ponds and lakes for the summer nesting season. In Europe and Asia, the common loon is known by the more descriptive name “great northern diver.”

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Common loons are quite at home in the air and on the water, but these birds are awkward if weather forces them to set down on land.

A common loon can reach a length of 3 feet. This bird’s wingspan can stretch out to almost 5 feet. They can attain a weight between 9 and 12 pounds, which is quite heavy for most birds.

All five living species of loons are members of the genus Gavia, which in addition to the common loon also includes red-throated loon, Arctic loon, Pacific loon and yellow-billed loon. All loons feed chiefly on fish.

It’s usually human behavior that puts loons at risk. For example, ingested lead fishing tackle is a leading cause of mortality for loons in New Hampshire. Joe’s encounter with a loon, and its happy ending, spotlights how people can sometimes help these beautiful birds instead of harming them.

Pacific_loon

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A Pacific loon if breeding plumage.