Tag Archives: Woodpeckers

Buffleheads among delightful winter surprises in region

Marion Howe sent me a stunning photograph of an impressive visitor at her feeders. Shortly after I wrote about Pileated Woodpeckers a few weeks ago, Marion sent me a photo of a Pileated Woodpecker at her suet feeder.

Photo by Marion Howe • This Pileated Woodpecker visited the home of Marion Howe in Kingsport, Tennessee..

“Although I now live in Bristol, I previously lived in Kingsport where I had the pleasure to watch a multitude of birds in my yard, including this one,” Marion wrote. “What a treat when she decided to stop by for a bite to eat!”

Away from our backyard feeders, what sort of birds can one expect to find during the late winter and early spring in northeast Tennessee?

If you’re ready to look a little farther afield, the region offers some great locations for searching for wintering and migrating waterfowl. A variety of ducks and geese pass through the region in late fall and winter. A few species stop to spend the season on area lakes and rivers.

Wilbur Lake in Carter County offers one of the largest wintering populations of Bufflehead in the entire region, if not the state.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Lingering waterfowl, such as these buffleheads, are found in the region in winter and spring.

The Bufflehead belongs to the genus Bucephala, which also includes Common Goldeneye and Barrow’s Goldeneye. These three ducks are all small tree-hole nesting sea ducks found exclusively in the Northern Hemisphere.

The “sea duck” family consists of several other types of ducks, including scoters, mergansers and eiders. All but two of the 20 species in this grouping occur only in the Northern Hemisphere. Most of the sea ducks, not surprisingly, are adapted to life in salt-water environments.

The Bufflehead stands out from its fellow sea ducks for many reasons. The breeding habitat of this little duck consists of wooded lakes and ponds in Alaska and Canada, almost entirely within the boreal forest, or taiga, habitat. In the winter months, Buffleheads migrate to quiet bays or open inland lakes on both the eastern and western coasts of North America, as well as the southern United States as far as southern Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo by bryanhanson1956/Pixabay.com • A pair of Buffleheads enjoy a swim together.

Wilbur Lake has hosted a winter population of Buffleheads for decades. This small duck usually arrives in the final days of October and a few will remain until late April or early May. The flock at Wilbur ranges from about 100 to 200 individuals.

There’s another flock of Buffleheads that spends the winter at Osceola Island Recreation Area in the tailwaters below South Holston Dam in Sullivan County. A one-mile recreational trail at this location offers views of the waterways and any waterfowl congregated on them. The Buffleheads usually remain close to the weir dams at this location. Other wintering ducks at this area include American Wigeon, Mallard and Ring-necked Duck.

Carter County’s high-elevation Ripshin Lake often hosts wintering Buffleheads, but usually only a few individuals are present for as long as this small lake remains unfrozen.

The Bufflehead’s name is derived from “Buffalo Head,” which refers to this small duck’s oversized head. Male Buffleheads have a large, white patch across the back of the head that extends from cheek to cheek, forming a bushy crest that gives the head its large appearance. From a distance, the remainder of the head looks blackish, but when viewed from close range in good light the black plumage in the head shows an iridescent green and purple sheen. The back and rump are black, but the rest of the body is glossy white. The black-and-white pattern is quite unique, making a male Bufflehead impossible to mistake for any other bird. The male’s bill is blue-gray and his legs and feet are pink.

Female Buffleheads are brownish-gray, except for an oval white patch that extends from below the eye back towards the nape of the neck. The belly is whitish, and the female’s bill is dark gray and her legs and feet are grayish.

The Bufflehead is the smallest of North America’s diving ducks. One of the dabbling ducks, the Green-winged Teal, rivals the Bufflehead for the distinction as the continent’s smallest duck. The Bufflehead ranges between 12 and 16 inches long and can weigh 13 ounces. Males are larger than females. By comparison, the Green-winged Teal is usually 14 to 15 inches long and weighs 11 to 12 ounces.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A raft of buffleheads swim on the Watauga River.

Buffleheads spend a lot of time diving for food beneath the water’s surface. Their varied diet consists of insects, crustaceans, some aquatic plants and fish eggs.

The Bufflehead depends on one of our native woodpeckers to provide nesting habitat. The Bufflehead is just the right size to fit into abandoned nesting cavities previously occupied by Northern Flickers.

I’m not sure why the Wilbur Buffleheads choose not to spend the winter months on a salt-water bay farther south, but I am very happy that some of these small, entertaining ducks are so close at hand. I suspect the woodlands around Wilbur Lake may, in fact, resemble some of the wooded lakes on this duck’s summer nesting range.

The Bufflehead is a fairly common duck and appears to be thriving. In 1992, the continent-wide breeding population was estimated at 1,390,000 birds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A raft of Buffleheads brave some rough waters on the Watauga River.

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.

Region’s biggest woodpecker is surprisingly shy

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker pays a visit to a walnut tree.

I heard the raucous antics of the large woodpecker before I saw it. A large Pileated Woodpecker had landed in the upper branches of a wild cherry tree near the creek that runs past my home. From spring to summer, the leaves of the tree provide green shelter for a variety of songbirds. During the winter, the tree is a stark outline against the winter sky and offers no concealment — not that a bird as large as a Pileated Woodpecker — it’s the size of a crow — would find it easy to hide itself.

One thing’s certain. A sighting of a Pileated Woodpecker never fails to impress. This bird has a loud, raucous cackling call, which is often heard before the bird is observed. This woodpecker spends a good amount of its time low to the ground, so when one takes flight unexpectedly, often calling loudly as its powerful wing beats carry it away from an observer, the moment can be somewhat startling. These experiences of sudden and unexpected sightings of one of these woodpeckers is often accompanied by exclamations of surprise. Hence common names such as “wood-hen” and “Lord God Bird” have been adopted for these woodpeckers. Other names for the pileated have included carpenter bird, cock-of-the-woods and wood-hen.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker pokes its head into a cavity excavated into a dying tree.

At one point, the Pileated Woodpecker was relegated to second place when it came to the size of native woodpeckers. The often inaccessible swampy woodlands and river bottoms of the American south were home to the former title holder, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. With the unsettled status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker — is it extinct or is it still lingering in an Arkansas swamp? — the Pileated Woodpecker is considered the largest woodpecker in the United States. If incontrovertible evidence of the existence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers should emerge in the future, the Pileated Woodpecker would once again find itself overshadowed by this dramatically larger relative.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Pileated Woodpecker climbs the trunk of a walnut tree.

Although the Pileated Woodpecker can reach a length of 19 inches, the bird weighs only about 11 ounces. Male and female look similar with a black and white body and a bright red crest on the head. In fact, the term “pileated” in the species’ name comes from from the Latin “pileatus,” meaning “capped.” Males show a red stripe — or mustache — on the cheek that is not present in females.

As mentioned earlier, the Pileated Woodpecker often can be found low to the ground, foraging on tree stumps and fallen logs, as well as in taller, living trees. The reason for this behavior rests with one of its favorite foods — the humble carpenter ant. The pileated is not the only woodpecker that supplements its diet with ants. For instance, the Northern Flicker is also fond of dining on these insects. Studies conducted on the dietary preferences of Pileated Woodpeckers have revealed that as much as 40 percent of the diet is made up of ants. Some pileated woodpeckers appear to have developed quite an addiction for ants with some individuals dining almost exclusively on ants. These woodpeckers also eat wild fruits and nuts, as well as other insects and their larvae. The Pileated Woodpecker will occasionally visit a feeder for suet or seeds, but I’ve not had much luck overcoming their instinctive wariness.

Pileated Woodpeckers — usually a mated pair — have been among my wild neighbors for years, but they are shy, retiring birds. Despite their bold appearance and capacity for making quite a racket, the Pileated Woodpecker usually otherwise goes out of its way not to attract attention to itself. Because of this, close-up observations of the largest of our woodpeckers are experiences to savor.

The bird’s enthusiastic ability to excavate cavities in rotten trees is a boon to other species of birds. Certain species of ducks as well as owls, bats, squirrels and other species of wildlife will often make use of cavities created by Pileated Woodpeckers for roosting locations or to raise their own young.

Worldwide, there are about 180 different woodpeckers, but the family is conspicuous in its absence from Australia, Madagascar and New Zealand. The Pileated Woodpecker ranges across the North American continent, with birds present in the forests across Canada and the eastern United States as well as certain areas along the Pacific coast.

Many of the world’s other woodpeckers have quite interesting common names, including Melancholy Woodpecker, Powerful Woodpecker, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, White-naped Woodpecker, Crimson-backed Flameback and Pale-headed Woodpecker.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker hitches its way along the trunk of a Live Oak laden with Spanish moss.

Woodpecker still bears name of historic expedition’s charismatic leader

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The Lewis’s woodpecker’s common and scientific names pay tribute to the famed explorer Meriwether Lewis, who with his partner, William Clark, explored the American West.

The 215th anniversary of the launch of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition will be observed May 14. Also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, the enterprise became the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States and explore the recently acquired lands known collectively as the Louisiana Purchase. The Lewis and Clark expedition officially extended from May 14, 1804, to Sept. 23, 1806. As they drove deep into the American West, the members of the expedition saw wonders, including the feathered variety, never before beheld by people outside of various Native American tribes.

In authorizing the expedition, President Thomas Jefferson wanted to establish a reliable route for travel through the western half of the nation and to fend off any attempts by European nations to gain a foothold beyond the nation’s frontier. Jefferson also hoped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would make some important discoveries about the nation’s native fauna and flora. Jefferson gave instructions for Lewis and Clark to collect bones they found during their journeys. He also asked them to keep alert for large animals that would be new to science. In particular, Jefferson hoped that the men he chose to head the expedition would help prove that the American mastodon still roamed the American West.

Mastodon bones had been found in the eastern half of the United States early in the nation’s history. Jefferson, accepting the widely held view of his time that God would not let animals go extinct, entertained the optimistic belief that large herbivores such as the bison of the American West roamed portions of the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase along with American mastodons. The expedition failed to find great herds of American mastodons trumpeting their way across the vast prairies and grasslands of the Western United States. As any student of history knows, however, the expedition made many important biological discoveries ranging from unique animals as the pronghorn antelope and grizzly bear to various fish, reptiles and plants.

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Meriwether Lewis gave his name to the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. as well as to the woodpecker named Lewis’s woodpecker.

The expedition also described nearly half a dozen species of birds that, at the time, had never been discovered and detailed by European Americans. These birds included the common poorwill and the greater sage-grouse. One of the birds — Lewis’s woodpecker — even memorializes the name of Meriwether Lewis and his important contributions to the success of the venture.

Lewis described the woodpecker that now bears his name as a bird “new to science” in one of his journal entries dated May 27, 1806. He made his observations of the bird while the expedition camped on the Clearwater River in what is now known as Kamiah, Idaho. He had mentioned the “black woodpecker” in earlier accounts in his journal, but during his time in the Idaho camp, he managed to shoot and preserve several of the birds. In his account, he described the bird’s behavior as similar to the red-headed woodpecker of the Atlantic states back in the eastern United States.

As it turns out, both Lewis’s woodpecker and the red-headed woodpecker belong to the Melanerpes genus of woodpeckers, which also includes about two dozen species ranging North and South America, as well as the islands of the Caribbean. The other members of the genus found in the United States include acorn woodpecker, gila woodpecker and red-bellied woodpecker. The term Melanerpes comes from ancient Greek words for black (melas) and creeper (herpes), which roughly translates as “black creeper.” Lewis’s woodpecker, one of the largest of its kind found in the United States, can reach a length of 10 to 11 inches. In 1811, the famous naturalist Alexander Wilson composed the first description of the bird for science and named it Melanerpes lewis after Meriwether Lewis. In addition, the bird’s common name has always identified it as Lewis’s woodpecker.

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Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • Lewis’s woodpecker is found primarily in the west. It eats insects, mostly caught in the air, as well as fruits and nuts. The woodpecker also shells and stores acorns in the bark of trees.

These woodpeckers nest in open ponderosa pine forests and burned forests with a high density of standing dead trees. They also breed in woodlands near streams, oak woodlands, orchards, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. In appearance, Lewis’s woodpecker stands out from other American woodpeckers. Its unique appearance includes a pink belly, gray collar and dark green back, quite unlike any other member of its family. In behavior, it also differs from other woodpeckers. This woodpecker is fond of flycatching, perching on bare branches or poles and then making flight sallies to capture winged insect prey. It has also been described as flying more like a crow than a woodpecker.

We haven’t been good stewards of the woodpecker that the famous Expedition brought to our notice. According to the organization Partners in Flight, Lewis’s Woodpeckers are uncommon and declining. Their populations declined by 72 percent between 1970 and 2014. Lewis’s Woodpeckers are threatened by changing forest conditions as a result of fire suppression, grazing and logging. These factors often leave pines of a uniform age in the woodpecker’s favored habitat and fewer of the dead and decaying pines crucial for the bird’s nesting success. Humans could help Lewis’s woodpecker thrive by not removing dead or dying trees from western forests.

After the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to the eastern United States and reported back to Jefferson, he was awarded with 1,600 acres of land. He meant to work on publishing the journals he kept during the Expedition, but kept finding himself distracted. In 1807, Jefferson appointed Lewis governor over the Louisiana Territory that Lewis and Clark had so famously explored. He governed the territory from the Missouri city of St. Louis, which became known as the “Gateway to the West” as more Americans expanded into the territory they had learned about thanks to the famous Expedition.

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Meriwether Lewis in a pose painted with him wearing garb he chose for the expedition.

Lewis spent two troubled years trying to administrate the new territory, but he became entangled in political squabbles and financial difficulties. Things got so difficult for him that Lewis decided he needed to travel to the nation’s capital in person to clear up the mess. On his way to Washington, D.C., he stopped at an inn along the Natchez Trace about seventy miles southwest of Nashville. He died of gunshot wounds on Oct. 11, 1809, and historians have debated ever since whether his death resulted from suicide or murder. Regardless of the nature of his demise, he earned a place in the history books. He’s also remembered every time a birder lays eyes on the woodpecker that bears his name. When the bird is researched in a field guide or on a web page, the more curious individuals are sure to dig a little deeper to learn who provided the Lewis in the woodpecker’s name. His name will continue to be recalled as long as this unusual western woodpecker continues to fly in its beloved pine forests.

I’ve never seen a Lewis’s woodpecker, although I have visited Utah twice to make the attempt. Lewis’s woodpecker is listed as an uncommon permanent resident on the state checklist, so perhaps I will need to be more diligent the next time I visit its home range. I see the red-bellied woodpecker, a smaller relative of Lewis’s woodpecker, on a regular basis. This common bird more closely resembles what most people expect a woodpecker to look like, and it will visit feeders for such fare as sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The red-bellied woodpecker is a close relative to Lewis’s woodpecker.

In next week’s column, I’ll continue my anniversary tribute to the Lewis and Clark Expedition with a discussion of the bird that honors William Clark, the other partner in the famous westward expedition of discovery.

Readers continue to share hummingbird tales
Garry Cole sent me an email recently to share a hummingbird story.

“I have been following the progress of hummingbird sightings as the birds moved closer to East Tennessee,” Garry wrote. “I read with envy how neighbors all around me had seen these jewels, but none had visited my home here in Hickory Tree near Bluff City.”

Then, on April 23, as Garry sat in the yard, a male ruby- throated hummingbird stopped and hovered less than a foot in front of his face.

“He looked me squarely in the eye as if to say, ‘Well, I’m here. When are you going to feed me?’”

Garry noted that the bird arrived at about 8:15 p.m. “I immediately went inside and prepared my feeder,” he said. “Now, I have at least four that visit my feeder every day. There may be more, but I have only seen four at one time.”

His hummingbirds drink about eight ounces of sugar mix every two or three days and seem to feed more frequently between 5 and 7 p.m.

Tom Brake shared via Facebook that hummingbirds have also returned to his home on Peaceful Valley Road in Abingdon, Virginia. In his posting to my Facebook page, he informed me that he had his first hummingbird sighting of spring on April 28.

Myra Harris message me on Facebook to let me know her mom, Mae Bell Byrd, who lives in Flag Pond in Unicoi County, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird on April 12.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Welcoming back hummingbirds also involves making sure that they remain healthy and safe while spending the next six months in our yards and gardens.

Flicker, towhee among recent winter bird arrivals

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern towhee feeds on the ground beneath a feeder.

I’d almost given up on any new birds arriving to break the daily monotony of birds in my yard when two birds put in their first appearances of the year. An Eastern towhee and a Northern flicker both showed up simultaneously for the first time in 2017 on Jan. 13.

The towhee, a male, was feeding in the usual manner of its kind, scratching vigorously on the ground beneath my feeders. Towhees are quite ingenious at uncovering any seeds dropped by other birds.

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Photo by Jean Potter • A Northern flicker perches on a staghorn sumac.

The flicker was calling from the upper branches of a very tall tree at the edge of a wood lot near my home. The ringing calls of the flicker carried quite clearly even from a distance. Most woodpeckers, including the Northern flicker, are enthusiastic performers. We often think of woodpeckers in association with loud, repetitive drumming with their beaks against the trunk of a tree. Flickers are also known for using other surfaces for drumming. I’ve observed flickers drumming agains metal utility poles and metal siding on homes. That’s really not so strange when you consider that the purpose of the drumming is to communicate with mates or to signal potential rivals that they’re getting a little too close.

Woodpeckers are also known for a variety of vocalizations, and the Northern flicker is no exception. In addition to drumming, the flicker also employs a variety of loud vocalizations that are fairly distinctive. A loud, repeated flicker, often translated as “wicka-wicka-wicka,” is similar to the cluck-like call of the larger pileated woodpecker. The flicker is also known for emitting a sharp, loud “kleeer” call can be heard from a considerable distance. It was this “kleer” call that first drew my attention to the presence of the flicker at my home on Jan. 13.

Flickers are probably most vocal during the spring months. They go quiet for a period during the summer nesting season but start to make themselves heard again during the fall months. A warm, sunny day during the winter is often motivational enough to convince flickers to vocalize.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A Northern flicker peers from a nesting cavity.

A lot of wildlife is probably getting mixed signals thanks to the extremely mild January temperatures. For instance, I’ve already had a few crocuses blooming in my gardens. Bees and other pollinators have also awoken from winter slumber to take advantage of the unseasonal blooms. If frigid weather does eventually arrive, I hope that these “early birds” suffer no ill effects.

The Northern flicker is the second-largest woodpecker in the region. The only bigger member of the family is the large and unmistakable pileated woodpecker. The flicker ranges across the United States and Canada. The flicker is also present in Central America, Cuba and the Cayman Islands. Known scientifically as Colaptes auratus, which can be roughly translated as the “golden woodpecker,” there are about a dozen species of flickers in North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

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The Nothern flicker is the official state bird of Alabama, where the bird is known as “Yellowhammer.”

In the United States and Canada, flickers in the eastern half of the continent are known as “yellow-shafted” flickers. The phrase “yellow-shafted” describes the Eastern race of this woodpecker, which is replaced in the western United States by the “red-shafted” flicker. In reality, both the yellow and red-shafted birds are considered by experts to be the same species. The yellow feathers in Eastern birds are found under the wings and on the tail. The yellow, or red, sections of the wings are most visible when the bird is in flight. I’ve seen both forms of this woodpecker, observing the red-shafted form during trips to Utah in 2003 and 2006.

Although most people think of woodpeckers as spending most of their time clinging to the trunks of trees, the flicker actually has something in common with the Eastern towhee. Like the towhee, the flicker spends a lot of time on the ground hunting for its favorite food — ants. The flicker even has a special adaptation — a barbed tongue — that it uses to capture ants.

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Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A Northern flicker, captured for a banding operation, has its wing extended to show the yellow feathers indicative of the eastern race of this species.

Flickers will come to feeders, but I’ve never had much luck attracting them. Perhaps I’ve not offered the right fare. The late John V. Dennis recommends “meat scraps, cracked walnuts and pecans, halved oranges and apples, and white bread” in his book, “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding.” Even Dennis acknowledged that flickers are, at best, wary visitors to feeders. Not much has changed since Dennis wrote his book back in 1977. If any readers have had success luring flickers to their feeders, I’d love to hear their advice for attracting them.

The flicker has even been recognized as an official state bird by Alabama. Of course, Alabama officially bestowed the recognition on the “yellowhammer,” a nod to a nickname for both the flicker as well as Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Even today, Alabama is still known as the Yellowhammer State. Somewhat surprisingly, the flicker is the only woodpecker that has received designation as a state bird.

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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.

Annual Fall Bird Count finds 125 species

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                  Red-tailed Hawks were found in good numbers on the recent fall count, but the species was outnumbered by migrating Broad-winged Hawks.

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society held its annual Fall Bird Count back in September. The chapter’s five-county Fall Bird Count, the 47th consecutive survey conducted by the chapter, was held Sept. 24. A total of 39 observers (and two yard watchers) found a total of 125 species. Oppressive heat on the day of the count probably negatively affected bird numbers.
The Fall Bird Count, as well as the chapter’s annual Spring Bird Count, surveys bird populations in the upper Northeast Tennessee counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.
The annual count is compiled by long-time chapter statistician Rick Knight.
The recent count was most notable for low numbers of many species. “A curious statistic: we had more Cedar Waxwings than European Starlings,” Knight remarked.
The all-time high on for a Fall Bird Count was 137 species in 1993.
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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                     Blue-winged Teal were among the migratory waterfowl found during the recent Fall Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club.

The total for this year’s Fall Bird Count follows:
Canada Goose, 1,118; Wood Duck, 40; Mallard, 224; Blue-winged Teal, 4; Green-winged Teal, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 2; Wild Turkey, 23; Pied-billed Grebe, 3; Double-crested Cormorant, 16; Great Blue Heron, 30; Great Egret, 10; Green Heron, 2; Black-crowned Night-Heron, 2; and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 1.
Black Vulture, 159; Turkey Vulture, 222; Osprey, 7; Bald Eagle, 4; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 10; Red-shouldered Hawk, 5; Broad-winged Hawk, 25; and Red-tailed Hawk, 22.
Killdeer, 66; Spotted Sandpiper, 3; Least Sandpiper, 4; Pectoral Sandpiper, 6; American Woodcock, 4.
Rock Pigeon, 365; Eurasian Collared Dove, 2; Mourning Dove, 174; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 1; Eastern Screech-Owl, 14; Great Horned Owl, 8; Barred Owl, 8, and Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1.

 

Downy-Male-Feb23

Photo by Bryan Stevens Downy Woodpecker was the most numerous woodpecker tallied on the fall count.

Common Nighthawk, 3; Chimney Swift, 379; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 30; Belted Kingfisher, 33; Red-headed Woodpecker, 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 61; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 5; Downy Woodpecker, 42; Hairy Woodpecker, 10; Northern Flicker, 28; and Pileated Woodpecker, 32.
American Kestrel, 14; Peregrine Falcon, 2; Eastern Wood-pewee, 12; Acadian Flycatcher, 1; Empid species, 3; Eastern Phoebe, 68; and Eastern Kingbird, 1.
White-eyed Vireo, 2; Yellow-throated Vireo, 2; Blue-headed Vireo, 20; Red-eyed Vireo, 15; Blue Jay; 329; American Crow, 376; and Common Raven; 26.
Purple Martin, 1; Tree Swallow, 163; Barn Swallow, 1; Carolina Chickadee, 152; Tufted Titmouse, 124; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 12; and White-breasted Nuthatch, 36.

mockingbird-nov11

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                 A total of 54 Northern Mockingbirds, Tennessee’s official state bird, was found on the count.

Brown Creeper, 5; House Wren, 3; Carolina Wren, 139; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 2; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 23; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 5.
Eastern Bluebird, 91; Veery, 4; Gray-cheeked Thrush, 6; Swainson’s Thrush, 89; Hermit Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 16; American Robin, 343, Gray Catbird, 48; Brown Thrasher, 14; and Northern Mockingbird, 54.

crossbills

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    Red Crossbills were among the finches tallied on this year’s Fall Bird Count.

European Starling, 426; Cedar Waxwing, 506; Ovenbird, 4; Worm-eating Warbler, 1; Northern Waterthrush, 1; Black-and-white Warbler, 4; Tennessee Warbler, 12; Orange-crowned Warbler, 1; Common Yellowthroat, 10; Hooded Warbler, 4; American Redstart, 13; Cape May Warbler, 7; Northern Parula, 3; Magnolia Warbler, 11; Bay-breasted Warbler, 6; Blackburnian Warbler, 3; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 2; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 3; Palm Warbler, 16; Pine Warbler, 11; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 2; Yellow-throated Warbler, 2; Prairie Warbler, 1; and Black-throated Green Warbler, 8.
Eastern Towhee, 65; Chipping Sparrow, 24; Field Sparrow, 11; Song Sparrow, 83; Dark-eyed Junco, 95; Summer Tanager, 2; Scarlet Tanager, 15; Northern Cardinal, 138, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 43; and Indigo Bunting, 13.
Red-winged Blackbird, 61; Eastern Meadowlark, 10; Common Grackle, 156; House Finch, 51; Red Crossbill, 2; Pine Siskin, 10; American Goldfinch, 231; and House Sparrow, 38.

••••••
The season’s first White-throated Sparrow showed up at my home on Oct. 30. I’m hopeful that the sparrow is but the first of many new arrivals ahead of the winter season. To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, send an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Winter birds bring their own winning ways to region as weather turns colder

Erwin resident Don Dutton called me recently to ask about hummingbirds. He hasn’t seen many this past summer season, but as I told him, their numbers fluctuate from year to year. Most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds have now departed the region. I did encourage him to keep his sugar water feeders hanging as fall gets closer to the colder weather of winter. You never know when a rufous hummingbird or other western species might stray into Northeast Tennessee.

rufous-oct13

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                           A young male Rufous Hummingbird at my feeder in Hampton, Tennessee, on Oct. 13.

In fact, I’ve been visited twice since the first of October by a young male rufous hummingbird. It’s easy to tell the rufous from the ruby-throated hummingbird. The rufous shows a great deal of brown/rufous coloration in its plumage. The bird at my feeders visited on Oct. 7 and again on Oct. 13. I’m very hopeful the bird will linger for a spell. I am asking anyone who sees a hummingbird in the coming weeks to let me know by sending an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

••••••

evening_grossbeak_on_feeder

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/George Gentry An evening grosbeak, the largest of the winter finches that stage occasional irruptions southward in search of food, visits a feeder. Could this be the year these colorful birds return to the Southern Appalachians?

With October already halfway completed, it’s time to stop lamenting the end of summer and brace for another winter. The cold season brings an entirely new range of birds to the region for our viewing enjoyment. If nothing else, winter birds provide a tremendous morale boost to help us overcome the occasional gloom of the winter season. There’s nothing quite as entertaining as watching a large, boisterous flock of birds like evening grosbeaks or pine siskins at your feeders.

So, some of our favorite summer birds have flown south. We’ll miss them, but we will see them again next spring. In the meantime, winter offers its own bird diversity.

Here are some of the types of birds to enjoy as the weather outdoors becomes colder.
Ducks and other waterfowl. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts yearly surveys of the breeding success of native ducks. In cooperation with the Canadian Wildlife Service, this year’s survey has some mixed news for those birders eager to observe ducks later this fall and in the winter at area lakes, rivers and ponds. Im love to check the pond at Erwin Fishery Park and the ponds along the linear trail for visiting waterfowl once the weather turns colder. The figures from the report came from surveys conducted in May and early June.
Overall duck numbers in the survey area are statistically similar to last year and remain steady. Total populations were estimated at 48.4 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, which is 38 percent above the 1955-2015 long-term average.

canvasback-trio

Photo by Bryan Stevens A trio of Canvasbacks on the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

Last year’s estimate was 49.5 million birds. The projected mallard fall flight index is 13.5 million birds, similar to the 2015 estimate of 13.8 million.
American wigeon, green-winged teal and redhead are two ducks that are expected to show an increase in numbers.
Unfortunately, some other species showed declines, including Northern shoveler and canvasback.

Siskin-Yellow

Photo by Bryan Stevens                             Northern finches, such as this Pine Siskin, may come south in large numbers.

Other waterfowl that could join the annual migration of ducks include everything from loons and grebes to geese and cormorants.
Northern finches. Reports from the Northeastern United States indicate that the cone crop — a vital food source for a variety of songbirds —has been extremely poor. Reports from Canada indicate more of the same, which could result in a variety of the so-called Northern finches — pine siskin, common redpoll, purple finch, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill and evening grosbeak — heading south in massive numbers as they seek out alternative food sources.
I’d be thrilled to see flocks of common redpolls or evening grosbeaks at my feeders, although the more likely visitors are probably pine siskins and purple finches. I haven’t hosted evening grosbeaks at my feeders since the late 1990s. In fact, I haven’t seen an evening grosbeak since 2000. Perhaps this will be the year these large, colorful and energetic finches overwhelm our feeders once again.
The coming winter could be a very interesting one for birders. Keep your eyes open and your binoculars handy.
Sparrows. Although we have a few sparrows in our yards and gardens during the spring and summer, this group of birds often referred to as LBBs, or Little Brown Birds, really comes into its own during the winter season.
Some of the sparrows that may come to feeders during the colder months of the year include white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, swamp sparrow, field sparrow, and fox sparrow. Technically, even the Eastern towhee and dark-eyed junco are members of the sparrow family, although they lack names containing the word “sparrow.”
Many of the sparrows prefer yards offering dense cover, such as hedges, brush piles or evergreen trees.

Red-breastedNuthatch

Photo by Bryan Stevens         Red-breasted Nuthatches are already showing up at feeders throughout the Southern Appalachians.

If you enjoy a challenge, set yourself the task of learning the subtle differences between some of our native sparrows.
Nuthatches and woodpeckers. Although the woodpeckers are present throughout the year, it’s often easier to observe these “tree-huggers” once the leaves are off the trees.
A couple of species, including the red-breasted nuthatch, red-headed woodpecker and yellow-bellied sapsucker, are migratory birds with numbers that fluctuate from year to year.
I’m learning about reports that elevated numbers of red-breasted nuthatches are already winging their way south. These tiny birds with their “yank, yank” calls are immensely entertaining at feeders. They love sunflower seeds and peanuts, so make sure you have plenty of their favorites ready and waiting for them.