April brings new birds

April 24, 2008

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher I spied on April 5 in the willows at the creek provided a new yard bird for my 2008 list.

I anticipate the arrival of this tiny, active bird in the last days of March and first days of April.

For instance, in 2006 I saw my first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of spring on March 31. My first sighting in 2007 took place on April 1.

Going back 10 years, I checked my records and discovered that I saw my first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of spring on March 30 in 1998.

Based on most of these records, the arrival date of April 5 is a few days late for this little bird. It’s possible that rain and other distractions kept me from noticing the bird immediately upon its arrival.

But, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, despite its small size, has a way of making its presence known. They are extremely vocal, producing an insistent, steady buzzy call as they forage among buds and newly-emerged leaves for tiny insect prey. In fact, I heard this year’s first arrival a few seconds before I noticed the bird in the willow branches.

A few hours before observing this Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton, I helped lead a morning bird walk at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site in Johnson City. During that well-attended stroll on the grounds of the historic farmstead, we saw a variety of birds, including my first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher of the year. Other good birds included Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Great Blue Herons. This is the second year in a row Great Blue Herons have flown over Tipton-Haynes during the course of these annual bird walks. The walks are held as part of the festivities around the historic location’s annual observance of Andre Michaux Day.

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher I observed at home became my 39th yard bird of the year.

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I spent some time birding at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton recently with Gil Derouen, Reece Jamerson and Roy Knispel. We enjoyed listening and watching singing Eastern Meadowlarks in the 18 acres of land recently donated to the park. In addition, we watched a pair of American Kestrels on some utility wires in this vicinity. For many years, this expanse of land located near some of the dilapidated factories in Elizabethton has been a good place to look for various sparrows, Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks and, during very wet periods, even shorebirds at some of the temporary puddles.

At Wilbur Lake and on the Watauga River, we saw Buffleheads, Wood Ducks, Mallards, Lesser Scaups, Great Blue Herons and an Osprey. We also heard a singing Pine Warbler.

In addition, a brief visit to Rasar Farm on the Watauga River yielded a very impressive look at a “Yellow” Palm Warbler. This eastern race of the Palm Warbler is not a common migrant in the region. It gets the descriptive “Yellow” tag because, unlike the Western race, a breeding male is awash in yellow over most of his body and still sports the handsome maroon cap.

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Is everyone watching for the return of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds? I am always eager to hear from readers about their first sighting of these tiny birds each spring. To report your first sighting of the season, give me a call at 297-9077. You can also e-mail me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Purple Finch added to bird list

April 24, 2008

I added a new bird to my yard list last week with the arrival of a single female Purple Finch at my feeders.

This bird gets its common name for the wine red coloration of a male. The female, as is often the case, is much more plain in appearance. I have always thought of female Purple Finches as resembling smaller female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, which helps me distinguish them from female House Finches.

The Purple Finch is the official state bird for New Hampshire. They breed in Canada and the northeastern United States, but they migrate south during winter months. At times, they can become quite numerous at feeders, but I have not enjoyed large numbers of these birds at my feeders in several years. In fact, this is one of the birds I failed to see at all in 2007.

The related House Finch, accidentally introduced in the eastern United States in the 1940s, has expanded rapidly. Some experts explain the decline in Purple Finch numbers in recent decades as a consequence of direct competition between the Purple Finch and the House Finch, which was originally a species confined to the western United States.

The Purple Finch becomes the 38th bird on my yard list for 2008.

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I spent some time in Atlanta last weekend, which gave me an opportunity to observe some backyard birds I don’t normally see at home in East Tennessee. A Brown-headed Nuthatch fed at the feeders in the company of its larger relative, the White-breasted Nuthatch. I also observed a Pine Warbler foraging on the ground in fallen leaves and pine needles. In addition to these birds, other backyard birds in this wooded suburban neighborhood included Northern Cardinal, Eastern Towhee, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Blue Jay, Carolina Wren, American Robin, American Goldfinch and a very animated pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. The sapsuckers played a game of tag in the yard, veering wildly from tree trunk to tree trunk in what I interpreted as some sort of mating ritual. Sapsuckers do not nest in Atlanta, however, so if this pair has joined for the nesting season, they will need to migrate to more suitable habitat in the Southern Appalachians.

While researching more information about Brown-headed Nuthatches, I learned that this bird, which resides exclusively in southeastern pine woodlands, competes quite vigorously with Pine Warblers. Although both the nuthatch and warbler will join mixed flocks of other birds, such as Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Chickadee, they do not like to surrender any ground to each other.

The Brown-headed Nuthatch, except for an endangered population in the Bahamas, is a bird exclusive to the borders of the United States. This bird is also rare in being a tool-user, using a splinter of wood or bark to pry for insects and other prey.

I have seen the Brown-headed Nuthatch in Chattanooga as well as on visits to Fripp Island and Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. Except at feeders, however, these nuthatches often remain in the higher limbs of pines, which can make observation — the bird is less than four inches long — rather difficult.

In Northeast Tennessee, the two nuthatches encountered at feeders are the White-breasted Nuthatch and Red-breasted Nuthatch. Both these relatives are very different in appearance from Brown-headed Nuthatches. The Pygmy Nuthatch of the western United States and Mexico, however, resembles the Brown-headed Nuthatch but is more drab in appearance.

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I received a wonderful e-mail last week from Toni Hall. She and her husband, Alan, will retire and move to Unicoi within the next couple of years. They both enjoy watching birds and other wildlife. They currently reside in central Georgia, where they have a home with a large pond and a huge population of Purple Martins in some nesting gourds they have provided. She noted that they read “Feathered Friends” each week in The Erwin Record.

On their trips to Northeast Tennessee, however, Toni said they have not seen very many gourds or houses for Purple Martins. She wondered if the temperature is too cold for Purple Martins.

Actually, Purple Martins are quite at home in East Tennessee, but it is true that they are not quite as readily observed as such relatives as Tree Swallows and Barn Swallows. Part of the reason is that Purple Martins, which nest in colonies, are very dependent on humans to provide gourds (natural or artificial) or suitable “Martin condos,” which are multi-chamber apartment-style dwellings that several pairs of Purple Martins can occupy during the nesting season.

I know of some colonies of Purple Martins in Elizabethton, Unicoi and a few places in Washington County. Maintaining a Purple Martin colony is somewhat labor-intensive for human landlords. In addition, people wanting to attract these beautiful birds must sometimes be patient. Attracting a new colony to a breeding site may require more than a couple of years before Purple Martin scouts looking to expand into another colony make the discovery.

In the birding world, few species generate more excitement than does the Purple Martin, a swallow that is arriving now in Tennessee, with reports of scouts logged almost daily online.

Purple Martins, the largest of the swallows in North America, are totally dependent on man-made housing and faithfully return to the same locations each year, so its understandable that human landlords anxiously await the return of “their” birds from wintering grounds in South America.

Tennesseans have a long tradition of hosting Purple Martins. The state boasts what may be the largest colony in North America with more than 700 pairs near Finger in McNairy County. The site is the location of a national Martin Fest on Friday and Saturday prior to Father’s Day each June.

Because Martins are totally dependent on humans for housing, landlords anxiously await their return each year and post reports of dates/locations of scouts on an online data base (purplemartin.org) maintained by the Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA), a nonprofit conservation.

The earliest arriving Purple Martin this year was reported from Germantown near Memphis on Feb. 4, a very early bird. Subsequent reports from West Tennessee: Feb. 12 Milledgeville and Feb. 17 Adamsville; and East Tennessee on Feb. 14 in Copperhill.

The first wave consists of so-called adult Martins — those two or more years old — with adult males sporting full dark-purple color. Females are a bit drab, with a gray breast.

One-year-old Martins, called sub adults, arrive 10 to 12 weeks later than the older birds in April and May. These younger birds are more easily attracted to new housing locations.

The term scout actually is a misnomer. These are simply older experienced birds eager to reclaim their housing. Some arrive dangerously early and may perish when cold temperatures clear the air of flying insects. Fortunately for Purple Martins, many landlords today offer supplemental feeding of thawed crickets, live mealworms or even small bits of scrambled eggs flung into the air from a plastic spoon. After Martins learn the drill, they will accept the food from elevated platforms or from food placed in compartments.

Purple Martins prefer to nest in colonies in gourds hung from large racks and in multi-compartment birdhouses in open yards. As a species, Purple Martins are relatively common throughout Tennessee, with the greatest numbers found in the western part of the state, according to the North American Breeding Bird survey.

The PMCA recently analyzed long-term data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and found that thanks to devoted men and women who erect and maintain housing, Purple Martin populations overall are holding steady in North America with exceptions in some states — and appear to be increasingly steadily in Tennessee.

However, despite relative abundance in the state, many people try for years to attract these birds without success, or their colonies disappear. Hobbyists may be unaware that problems such as competition from invasive non-native birds — European starlings and House Sparrows — or predation from raccoons or rat snakes caused abandonment.

While generations of Americans have hosted Purple Martins, the custom was adopted from Native Americans who hung out nesting gourds.

Specific techniques to help a colony thrive have emerged in the past decade, based on research conducted by the PMCA and landlords in the field.

Among innovations are deeper compartments to protect nestlings from rain and aerial predators such as owls, specially-shaped entrance holes designed to admit Martins while excluding starlings and unique pole guards to thwart rat snakes and raccoons which are common in Tennessee.

Because Purple Martins are birds of the open sky — catching insects on the fly — the PMCA’s number one tip: place housing in the most open space available, but where the colony can be enjoyed and monitored.

More information about Purple Martins can be obtained from the Purple Martin Conservation Association which is focused on aiding martins and landlords — including a products catalog and information booklet, with advice on attracting and managing a colony, and data sheets to participate in Project MartinWatch, a national effort in which participants monitor nests and mail information to the PMCA at season’s end.

To obtain the booklet, call the PMCA at (814) 833-7656 or visit online at www.purplemartin.org.

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Is everyone watching for the return of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds? I am always eager to hear from readers about their first sighting of these tiny birds each spring. To report your first sighting of the season, give me a call at 297-9077. You can also e-mail me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Northern Raven added to list

February 5, 2008

I added one new bird to my 2008 yard list. I heard the rough croaking calls of a Northern Raven as I was leaving for work on Wednesday morning. Ravens are uncommon visitors to the wooded ridges around my home in the winter months, although I have seen them at various times of the year.

Great Backyard Bird Count

February 5, 2008

Millions of novice and accomplished bird watchers can make their fascination with nature add up for science and for the future during the 11th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, led by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. During “Presidents’ Day” weekend, Feb. 15–18, 2008, anyone can count birds from wherever they are and enter their tallies online at http://www.birdcount.org. These reports create an exciting real-time picture of where the birds are across the continent and contribute valuable information for science and conservation.

“These volunteers are counting not only for fun but for the future,” said Tom Bancroft, Chief Science Officer for Audubon. “It’s fun to see how many different kinds of birds can be seen and counted right in your backyard or neighborhood park. Each tally helps us learn more about how our North American birds are doing, and what that says about the health and the future of our environment.”

Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said, “The GBBC is a great way to engage friends, family, and children in observing nature in their own backyard, where they will discover that the outdoors is full of color, behavior, flight, sounds, and mystery.”

People of all ages and experience levels are invited to take part wherever they are — at home, in schoolyards, at local parks or wildlife refuges, even counting birds on a balcony. Observers count the highest number of each species they see during at least 15 minutes on one or more of the count days. Then they enter their tallies on the Great Backyard Bird Count Web site http://www.birdcount.org.

The Web site provides helpful hints for identifying birds. Participants can compare results from their town or region with others, as checklists pour in from throughout the U.S. and Canada. They can also view bird photos taken by participants during the count and send in their own digital images for the online photo gallery and contest.

In 2007, Great Backyard Bird Count participants made history, breaking records for the number of birds reported, and the number of checklists. Participants sent in 81,203 checklists tallying 11,082,387 birds of 613 species.

A total of 129 species of birds were found in Tennessee by state participants in 2007.

“Literally, there has never been a more detailed snapshot of a continental bird-distribution profile in history,” said John Fitzpatrick, Director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Imagine scientists 250 years from now being able to compare these data with their own!”

Already, the count results show how the numbers of some bird species have changed in recent years, such as a decline in Northern Pintails and an increase in Hooded Mergansers, consistent with trends from the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey.

“People who take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count see the results of their efforts in the news and in bird conservation work taking place across the country,” said Audubon Education Vice President Judy Braus. “Whether the counts occur at home, at schools or nature centers, they’re more than engaging and educational science activities for young people and adults, they’re a way to contribute to the conservation of birds and habitat nationwide.”

Lt. Daniel Britt, who served in Iraq 16 months, is glad to be back home in Zimmerman, Minn., where he and his sons plan to join the GBBC. “We get a bunch of birds in our backyard,” Britt said, “but my oldest son, Daniel, and I may cross country ski into the Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge to count birds there.”

For more information on how to participate, including identification tips, photos, bird sounds, maps and information on over 500 bird species, visit http://www.birdcount.org.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is sponsored in part by Wild Birds Unlimited.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a nonprofit membership institution interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education and citizen science focused on birds. For more information, visit http://www.birds.cornell.edu.

Audubon is dedicated to protecting birds and other wildlife and the habitat that supports them. Our national network of community-based nature centers and chapters, scientific and educational programs, and advocacy on behalf of areas sustaining important bird populations engage millions of people of all ages and backgrounds in conservation. To learn more, visit http://www.audubon.org.