Avocets, warblers bring migration excitement

11:11 am | September 9, 2013

I’ve got good friends among my birding connections. When they see or learn about a good bird, they are quick to let me know. That was the case Saturday, Aug. 31, when John Adams found three American Avocets at the Great Lakes Pond on Stoney Creek at the Northeast State Community College campus. Messages were left on my work phone and my home phone. Unfortunately, I wasn’t at work or at home when the messages were left. I was staying at my brother’s apartment to look after his dog.

My birding friends tried to reach me on my cell phone, but a certain dog — let’s call her Rue — had decided to eat my phone. I discovered her misbehavior when I heard someone dialing my phone from beneath the bed. By the time I recovered the phone and reproved her for her behavior, the damage had been done.

So, I’m beginning this column with what I am calling “The Avocets’ Lament.” I am trying to laugh about it now, but it would have been really great to have seen these unusual shorebirds in my home county. I cannot blame Rue for everything. John Adams actually sent me emails, complete with attached photos of the avocets, but I didn’t check my email until far too late in the evening to reach the pond with any daylight remaining.

I apparently missed quite a party. John’s discovery of these visiting shorebirds — a rarity in the region — brought several area birders to the parking lot at Northeast State. At a meeting of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society a few days later, someone joked that if people had brought food they could have thrown an impromptu tailgate party.

The American Avocet is a large shorebird in a family that includes other avocets, as well as stilts. This avocet has long, thin, gray legs, giving it the nickname of “blue shanks.” The plumage is black and white on the back with white on the underbelly. The neck and head are cinnamon colored during the summer and gray in the winter. The long, thin bill is upturned at the end. In any season, this is such a unique shorebird that it would not easily be confused with any other bird.

Photo by John AdamsAmerican Avocets in flight at the Great Lakes Pond.

Photo by John Adams
American Avocets in flight at the Great Lakes Pond.

I saw my first American Avocets about 14 years ago during a visit to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. I have also seen this shorebird in Utah, South Carolina and at home in Tennessee.

••••••

My mom and I enjoyed a birding trip on the first day of September with a visit to Rasar’s Farm and the Great Lakes Pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton. Of course, I was hoping against hope that the trio of American Avocets might have lingered through the night. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

We did find a Pectoral Sandpiper and a Spotted Sandpiper along the Watauga River at Rasar’s Farm. Some unexpected gunfire from goose hunters — this was also the first day of Canada Goose season — sent the Pectoral Sandpiper springing into flight and quickly disappearing. Oddly, the Spotted didn’t seem at all fazed. I think there were more hunters in the cornfield across the river than there were geese in the flock that flew over.

Later, in Lynn Valley, we added Great Blue Heron, four Doublecrested Cormorants and a few Wood Ducks to our list.

None of the birds we found in Elizabethton, however, added any numbers to my year list. I succeeded in adding a new bird to the list during a visit to the Erwin greenbelt near McDonald’s. My mother and I walked the trails that follow the network of ponds.

We found two Spotted Sandpipers but not much else until we came to an overgrown stream that runs into one of the ponds. I flushed a small, brown bird from the ground, and the bird began to make a loud, repetitive chip note that I recognized. With some searching, I managed to focus my binoculars — and later my camera — on a Northern Waterthrush, which became Bird No. 176 on my year list.

I was a little surprised to find this migrating warbler so early in the season. I’m accustomed to seeing Northern Waterthrushes in late September and early October. So, this “early bird” arrival was welcome but a bit unexpected.

Photo by Bryan StevensA Northern Waterthrush on the walking trail in Erwin.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Northern Waterthrush on the walking trail in Erwin.

The Northern Waterthrush prefers wet habitats, and the thick vegetation growing at the margins of the walking trail provided some cover when this rather shy bird feels the need to retreat.

While shy, they are also curious, a fact certainly true of the waterthrush we found in Erwin. Any disturbance in the vicinity of one of these birds is almost bound to produce a loud call note that is often described as a hard “chink” sound. While trying to stay under cover, the bird will also move closer to attempt to determine the source of the intrusion.

This particular bird bobbed and weaved on limbs of small shrubs, and it also did a good job of trying to remain concealed behind leaves and branches as it tried to get a better look at me as I observed it through binoculars.

If you’re lucky enough to come into contact with this rather large warbler, try not to make any sudden movements. If you remain fairly still, this bird can be lured quite close, driven on by its sense of curiosity. An observer will also note that this warbler walks, not hops, over the ground and along branches. As a waterthrush moves, it also seems to teeter because of its habit of bobbing its tail as it walks.

Northern Waterthrushes spend the nesting season in cool, dark, forested wetlands, frequently along the edges of ponds or lakes. This bird almost always builds its nest close to standing water. During migration, the Northern Waterthrush will visit back yards and city parks, often away from water, but they are most likely to be found in thick cover along streams, ponds or even large puddles.

I usually see Northern Waterthrushes during fall migration, but I’ve also observed a couple of migrating thrushes during the spring season. In their winter range, which extends from Florida to Central America and the West Indies, as well as Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, Northern Waterthrushes often reside in mangrove swamps.

The Northern Waterthrush is only a migrant in Northeast Tennessee, but its relative, the Louisiana Waterthrush, nests along mountain streams and creeks in the region. Its preference is for rushing water while its relative liked slow-moving or still water.

The Louisiana Waterthrush arrives as early as March and usually departs in late summer, well before most warblers have even started to think about fall migration.

They are not colorful like many of the members of the warbler family, but they have a subtle beauty that can be appreciated with a careful study of their brown and beige plumages.

At a glimpse, waterthrushes are similar but considerably smaller than true thrushes, such as Wood Thrush and Swainson’s Thrush. Among warblers, they resemble Swainson’s Warbler, Ovenbird and Worm-eating Warbler at a glance. Behavior, habitat and a careful study of their plumage is usually enough to identify them.

••••••

I really wanted to find a new bird for my year list on Labor Day. So, I woke early and, accompanied by my mother, headed to South Holston Lake to look for terns and shorebirds. My optimism was boosted by an online post from Tom McNeil about his sighting of two Caspian Terns at the Highway 421 boat launch on South Holston Lake near Laurel Marina.

We also visited Musick’s Campground, Paddle Creek Pond, Middlebrook Lake and the top of Holston Dam — to no avail. We didn’t locate a single tern or shorebird.

We did enjoy some observations of other birds, including Green Herons, Wild Turkeys and three Red-tailed Hawks at various locations.

I did finally add a new bird to my list, but the sighting took place in the evening on Labor Day in my own yard. While watching such birds as Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Red-eyed Vireos, I detected a flash of yellow in an American Holly. I scanned the tree and found a Magnolia Warbler, which became Bird No. 177 on my year list.

In the fall, there’s quite a range in appearance among adult male, females and young birds. They all share the characteristic of a tail with a white underside and a black tip, which creates an effect I like to describe as a “tail dipped in ink.” Adults and young have varying amounts of black and yellow in their feathers. Males often show black streaking on the breast that is more pronounced during the nesting season.

The brightly colored Magnolia Warbler migrates to the warmer south in the winter, wintering in southeastern Mexico, Panama and parts of the Caribbean.

••••••

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.

Elizabethton Star back open navigation

Switch to our desktop site