My list of species of birds I have seen in the five-county area of Northeast Tennessee has been slowly increasing in August. I managed to add another two species this past week to my list of birds found this year.
I found Bird No. 173 on Saturday, Aug. 17, after a dash to Paddle Creek Road in Bristol after work. I knew from other area birders about the Barn Owl making a regular appearance in the silos near the Paddle Creek Pond.
This was the first Barn Owl I have seen since a trip to Antelope Island State Park in Utah back in May of 2006. It’s been even longer since I have seen one here in Northeast Tennessee.
The Barn Owl — the most widely distributed species of owl and one of the most widespread of all birds — is not all that common in Northeast Tennessee. In fact, it’s a very difficult bird to find.
When I first tried to find 200 birds in the region back in 2000, I made many trips to the campus of the Veterans Administration at Mountain Home before I finally succeeded in finding a Barn Owl peering down from the eaves of the old theatre building where the owls were known to nest. Later changes to the exterior of the building, however, removed the nesting habitat and the population of these owls on the VA campus has disappeared. Finding these owls in the region has become increasingly difficult.
The Barn Owl, as its name suggests, roosts and nests in manmade structures such as barns, towers and silos. I’ve heard of reports over the years of Barn Owls in farm silos in western Washington County and in Shady Valley in Johnson County.
Barn Owls are pale, but not totally white. Their feathers show a mix of buff and gray on the head, back and upperwings. They are white only on the face, body and underwings. When observed at night, however, these medium-sized pale owls may appear all white. These owls have a rounded head without the ear tufts prominent on such owls as Great Horned Owl, Long-eared Owl and Eastern Screech-Owl.
Speaking of nocturnal birds, I received an email from Kate Morgan on Thursday, Aug. 15, to let me know she heard a Whip-poor-will calling. It’s getting late in the season for Whip-poor-wills, so she may have heard a migrating bird.
“Just wanted to let you know that we heard a Whip-poor-will calling this morning around 6:15,” Kate wrote in her email. “It was up along our ridge in the woods. This is the first time we’ve heard one since we moved here about six years ago. It has either just arrived or we just never heard it even though it was calling.”
Kate wrote that she wanted to report it since populations of the Whip-poor-will are declining. Kate and her husband, James, live on Coffee Ridge, Unicoi County.
I’ve continued to visit Austin Springs at Boone Lake as often as I can, but I haven’t found any additional terns. When I stopped at Austin Springs on Saturday, Aug. 17, I observed lots of Cliff Swallows and two Great Blue Herons.
I also visited some farm ponds in western Washington County. I hoped to find some shorebirds, and I did spot a couple of Killdeer and a Spotted Sandpiper. I also saw numerous Eastern Kingbirds and Barn Swallows.
I did finally add a new shorebird to my list thanks to a call from Brookie and Jean Potter. They found a Semipalmated Sandpiper on the Watauga River at Rasar Farm in Elizabethton. After their call, I quickly drove to the location and joined them in viewing the Semipalmated Sandpiper, which became Bird No. 174 for the year.
Two Least Sandpipers, five Spotted Sandpipers and a Solitary Sandpiper were also present, as were Wood Ducks and Mallards.
Many people are familiar with a variety of “peeps” often seen along the shoreline in coastal areas and are surprised that these birds can also be found in Northeast Tennessee — depending on the time of year. A pond’s edge in spring or the mudflats along a lake in early fall are perfectly adequate for the needs of these winged wanderers.
In the United States, the Semipalmated Sandpiper and several of its closest relatives are known as “peeps.” Abroad, however, these small shorebirds are known as “stints.”
Other “peeps” that migrate through Northeast Tennessee include Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper, White-rumped Sandpiper and Baird’s Sandpiper. I’ve found all these species in the region, but the Semipalmated Sandpiper and Least Sandpiper are definitely the most frequently encountered “peeps” in the region.
The Semipalmated Sandpiper is a long-distance migrant. These small birds travel to the southern tundra in Canada and Alaska for the summer nesting season. In winter, some Semipalmated Sandpipers travel as far as coastal South America, but some migrate only as far as the southern United States. During winter visits to Fripp Island, S.C., I have found large flocks of these sandpipers between the surf and dunes.
I saw my first migrating Common Nighthawks on Tuesday, Aug. 20. They were swooping overhead just prior to sunset, obviously looking for flying insects.
Prior to seeing the nighthawks, I also found a perched Broad-winged Hawk along Charlie Harrell Road in Hampton. Like warblers, shorebirds and other birds, these hawks migrate long distances each fall to their wintering grounds in South America. Their flocks have been known to contain thousands of individual hawks. Several mountain peaks are famous as locations for “hawk watches” each fall because these migrating raptors must pass over certain ridges on their way south.
I’m enjoying other migrants as they visit my yard. This past week I have observed two more warblers — Northern Parula and Black-and-white Warbler — foraging in trees in the yard.
I also observed a female Scarlet Tanager in the willow tree at the pond before leaving for work on the morning of Aug. 20.
I’m also seeing plenty of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Cedar Waxwings, Gray Catbirds and a family of Brown Thrashers.
On Aug. 21, I enjoyed another evening of lawn-chair birding in the yard with my mother. It actually felt more like September than mid-August. The parade started with three Red-eyed Vireos, two immature Rose-breasted Grosbeaks eating the fruit of a hawthorn tree, Cedar Waxwings feeding on wild cherries, Brown Thrashers, Gray Catbirds, dueling Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and, at the feeders, Tufted Titmice, American Goldfinches, Song Sparrows, Carolina Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, White-breasted Nuthatches and Downy Woodpecker. I also added two species of warblers — female American Redstart and immature Chestnut-sided Warbler — bringing the fall migration total for warblers to seven species so far. We also saw American Crows, House Finches, Carolina Wrens, Eastern Phoebe and a calling Pileated Woodpecker.
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