Rare birds help increase total on year list

3:57 pm | November 11, 2013

As I mentioned at the end of last week’s column, I recently added three additional species of birds to my year list in Northeast Tennessee for 2013.

Photo by U.S. F&WSA male Black Scoter.

Photo by U.S. F&WS
A male Black Scoter.

I had planned a trip to Shady Valley on Oct. 28 with Brookie and Jean Potter, but a “rare bird” alert sent diverted us instead to Austin Springs and then Holston Dam.

As a result, I got Bird No. 196 (and a new life bird) when we found a female Black Scoter at Austin Springs. We also saw an Osprey, 11 Northern Shovelers, a Wood Duck, Double-crested Cormorants and three Great Blue Herons.

I have now seen all three species of Scoters, which includes Surf and White-winged.

I got my life Surf Scoter many years ago when Rob Biller and I visited Saltville, Va., to see one of these diving ducks at a pond there. That trip was also a bit of a detour. We had meant to spend the day looking for migrating spring warblers, but a call from Wallace Coffey about this rare duck sent us instead to Virginia. That particular Surf Scoter was also my introduction to this small family of ducks, all of which are somewhat rare visitors to inland Northeast Tennessee.

At least we didn’t have to travel that far to find the Black Scoter. This particular scoter is a large sea duck. Its diet depends on whether the bird finds itself on salt or fresh water. This duck forages by diving for crustaceans and mollusks while migrating or spending the winter in coastal area. However, on freshwater lakes or rivers, it feeds on insects and their larvae, fish eggs and some aquatic vegetation such as eelgrass, muskgrass and wigeon grass.

Telling this scoter apart from the other two species is not too difficult. It can safely be distinguished from other North American scoters by the lack of white plumage in the drake’s feathers, hence the common name of Black Scoter.

In Europe, the counterpart of the Black Scoter is known as the Common Scoter. The White-winged Scoter also has a European counterpart, the Velvet Scoter, but the Surf Scoter is an exclusively North American bird.

Black Scoters migrate considerable distances, nesting in western and southern Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and scattered areas in central and eastern Canada. This duck winters along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, as well as on the Great Lakes.

Science actually knows very about the Black Scoter as this duck hasn’t been closely studied.


After we finished at Austin Springs, we headed to South Holston Dam to chase after another rarity, a Black-legged Kittiwake reported by Darrel Wilder.


Unfortunately, on our first attempt, we didn’t find it. We did see lots of Common Loons, Pied-billed Grebes, Northern Pintails and a single Bonaparte’s Gull.
When we didn’t find the kittiwake at Holston Dam, we decided to visit nearby Musick’s Campground, speculating that this birding magnet location might have attracted the bird. We didn’t have any better luck at Musick’s Campground, but we did see some other birds, including 21 Common Loons, a Herring Gull, 5 Bonaparte’s Gull, a Great Blue Heron, a Double-crested Cormorant, two Horned Grebes and several Pied-billed Grebes.

The following day, I received a phone call from Brookie Potter with the unexpected news that the kittiwake was still present at Holston Dam. Another 45-minute drive later, I arrived to try again to spot this bird. I found Knoxville residents Steve and Gail Clendenen already scanning the lake with a spotting scope. Word of a bird as rare as the kittiwake spreads fast.

As it turned out, the Clendenens had already seen a Black-legged Kittiwake in Georgia but wanted to add the species to their Tennessee list. We scanned the lake together and finally found a likely suspect. For the most part, this small gull kept company with rafts of American Coots present on the lake. Other birders had reported that the gull seemed to have an affinity for the Common Loons on the lake.

It took awhile, but we kept watch on the distant bird until we felt we had seen enough to confirm its identification.

The Black-legged Kittiwake is a very rare visitor to Northeast Tennessee, but there are a handful of previous records. The Black-legged Kittiwake is a small species of gull that bears a resemblance to a Bonaparte’s Gull, a species more likely to be found in the region. This kittiwake spends the nesting season in both the North Pacific and North Atlantic oceans and in both North America and Europe. It breeds in large colonies on cliffs; in fact, the Black-legged and Red-legged Kittiwakes are the only gulls that nest on cliffs. Once they hatch, kittiwake chicks instinctively do not move about the nest because of the very real possibility of falling out and dropping to their deaths.

The kittiwake gets its unusual name from its three-syllable call, which has been described as “Kitti Wake.” Some other names for this bird is “frost gull” and “winter gull” because it usually appears in waters off the coast of New England at the start of winter.

North America’s other kittiwake — the Red-legged Kittiwake — has a more limited range. This species breeds in the Pribilof, Bogoslof and Buldir islands in the United States and the Commander Islands in Russia.

By the time I was on my way back from Holston Lake, the sun was sinking fast and I decided to take a detour to Wilbur Lake before heading home. I had in mind the target of adding one more new bird to my year list, and I didn’t have to wait long once I arrived. Almost as soon as I rolled down the car windows, I heard the first hoot as a Great Horned Owl called from the wooded ridgeline around the small lake. Then, as I continued to listen, a second owl began responding to its unseen partner. I listened to this duet for a few moments before heading home, immensely satisfied by having added Great Horned Owl as Bird No. 198 for the year.

I’m a little embarrassed to get so far into the year and not already have a Great Horned Owl on my list. There have been some years when I have heard my first Great Horned Owl in the first days of January. For whatever reason, I kept missing this owl on earlier attempts.
The Great Horned Owl is found in a greater variety of habitats than any other owl. It ranges from just south of the Arctic tundra in Canada to the pampas of South America. These owls will also hunt in wetlands, deserts and even urban areas.


Birding has been a little slow at home in late October and early November.
The first of the season’s Dark-eyed Juncos arrived on Saturday, Nov. 2. The White-throated Sparrows arrived a few days ahead of the juncos.  On Sunday, Nov. 3, I found two Swamp Sparrows in the cattail marsh located near the fish pond.
These are all expected fall arrivals, but it was still good to see them once again.
Not to keep readers in suspense, I will say that I have added some more birds to my 2013 list but plan to discuss them in next week’s column. Have I reached my goal of 200 species in 2013? You’ll just have to read next week to find out.
Make a comment, ask a question or share an observation by calling me at 297-9077 or by sending an email to bstevens@starhq.com or ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I am also on Facebook.

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