We’re a little more than halfway through the first month of the year, and I’ve already enjoyed some awesome bird observations, including some interesting waterfowl.
My bird list, so far in 2013, includes Canada Goose, Gadwall, American Wigeon, American Black Duck, Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Redhead, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Common Loon, Pied-billed Grebe, Horned Grebe, Great Blue Heron, Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, American Coot, Killdeer, Ring-billed Gull, Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Eastern Screech-Owl, Belted Kingfisher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, American Crow, Common Raven, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Eastern Towhee, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, Eastern Meadowlark, Purple Finch, House Finch, Pine Siskin and American Goldfinch.
That’s a total of 54 species. New additions since last week include Northern Shoveler, Blue-winged Teal and American Coot.
My best bird last week, however, was not eligible for inclusion on my year’s list. To include a bird on my list for 2013, I must find it in the counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi or Washington.
I was able to add another bird to my overall life list, however, thanks to a wintering Brant at Clear Creek Golf Course in Bristol.
Readers may recall that I added another life bird — a Western Grebe — in November of last year. Before that grebe showed up at Musick’s Campground at South Holston Lake, the last bird I added to my life list was a Snowy Owl back in February of 2009. It was very satisfying to be only 12 days into the new year and able to place another bird on my life list.
A Brant is a small species of goose related to other geese in the genus Branta, which roughly means “Black Geese.” Close relatives of the Brant include Canada Goose, Cackling Goose, Barnacle Goose, Red-breasted Goose and the Nene, or Hawaiian Goose.
At one time, finding a Brant as far inland as northeast Tennessee or southwestern Virginia would have been extremely unlikely. It’s still not an expected bird for the region, but a change in diet could help explain this Brant’s presence.
The Brant was at one time a strictly coastal goose during the winter months and rarely left the tidal habitats where it could feed on its favorite foods, eel-grass and sea lettuce. Needless to say, a small golf course in Bristol is not likely to offer these two forms of vegetation.
In the past few decades, however, experts have noticed a change in the diet of wintering Brant geese. Perhaps following the example of other geese, such as the Canada Goose and Snow Goose, Brant geese now forage on agricultural land, feeding on grass and winter-sown grains. Some experts theorize this adaptation to their behavior may have been learned by associating with other species of geese.
Although extremely uncommon in the region, the world’s population of Brant geese has risen dramatically. As a result, this species may be straining the capacity of its traditional tidal habitats. Rather than starve, some of these birds have turned to other sources of food. This search for food could be what brings them to unexpected areas.
Ironically, this particular Brant that I observed on Saturday, Jan. 12, has been wintering at the small lake located on the grounds of the golf course since November of last year.
When I first heard of the bird’s presence last year, I was far too busy to make the trip to see it. Then, when I heard that the goose was still present, I resolved to make an effort to see it.
It wasn’t difficult at all, as it turned out. Accompanied by my parents, Peggy and Amos Stevens, and a friend, David Thometz, I arrived at the Clear Creek Golf Course. We found a flock of Canada Geese near the small lake on the course’s grounds. After scanning for only a couple of minutes, I located the Brant.
I was surprised by just how small this goose looked. The bird was about the size of a Mallard. The Brant’s dark black neck and the small white patch of feathers on both sides of the neck made identification simple. The Brant spent most of its time grazing on grass near the shore of the small lake.
Considering its much smaller size, the Brant behaved rather pugnaciously toward the larger Canada Geese in the flock. On several occasions, we watched it charge Canada Geese that violated its well-defined sense of personal space.
Brant geese winter along the Pacific coast of North America as well as the Aleutian islands. Their main habitat during winter is estuaries and large bays. Salt bays, oceans, mudflats and tundra are favored habitats during the summer months, when they form loose nesting colonies.
The new birds I found for my year list last week were all waterfowl. I found two Blue-winged Teals and four American Coots at the Great Lakes pond on the Elizabethton campus of Northeast State Community College.
I found the Northern Shoveler at Erwin Fishery Park in Unicoi County. The Northern Shoveler has long been one of my favorite species of ducks.
Although both males and females have the unusual, spoon-shaped bill, the male’s appearance is more dramatic than the drab hen’s. A drake Northern Shoveler has distinctive yellow eyes set in a dark, glossy-green head, a black back, white breast and chestnut-brown plumage on the belly and flanks.
Of course, it’s the distinctive bill that draws the most comments from observers. In addition to its odd shape, the bill is lined with comblike projections along its edges that help filter food from the water.
The Northern Shoveler is related to other “dabbling ducks,” so named because of their habit of dabbling — which involves tipping the head beneath the water with the rear of the body above the surface — in shallow water as they forage for food. Related dabbling ducks include the Mallard, Northern Pintail, Green-winged teal and American Wigeon.
Worldwide, other species of ducks have also developed the shoveler bill, earning them the common name of shovelers. These ducks include the Red Shoveler of South America, the Cape Shoveler of South Africa and the Australasian Shoveler of Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand.
The heavy snowfall Thursday, Jan. 17, brought some good visitors to my feeders at home on Simerly Creek Road, including six Purple Finches and a male Eastern Towhee.