Don’t forget to listen when seeking birds

1:02 pm | June 7, 2013

Birdwatching, surprisingly, is not exclusively a visual activity. Birders spend a lot of time listening, as well as looking, for birds.

Some of my most recent additions to my year list for the five-county area of Northeast Tennessee have happened because I listened.

The latest addition to my year list should have come much earlier in the season, but sometimes you just have to wait for the right moment.

An Acadian Flycatcher calling near Limestone Cove Recreation Area in Unicoi County became Bird No. 157 for 2013.

The Acadian Flycatcher prefers damp woodlands, often residing along streams. They have an explosive call that is usually translated as “peet-sah.” I give this translation another spin, referring to this small, greenish flycatcher as the “pizza” bird because of the way its call sounds to my ears.
The Acadian Flycatcher is one of 15 species of Empidonax flycatchers that inhabits North America. At one time, however, all 15 species of this lookalike group of birds were lumped together as one species — the Acadian Flycatcher.

The bird got its name because it was originally discovered in Nova Scotia, which was once known as Acadia.

Experts gradually began to detect subtle differences in range, voice and habit among the Empid flycatchers. These discoveries led to the Acadian Flycatcher being separated into the 15 species we know today.

One species kept the name Acadian Flycatcher, but it doesn’t range into the borders of Acadia. In fact, it is the member of the family with the most southern range in comparison with its relatives.
The Acadian has some other distinctions. It’s the largest, by just a fraction, of the Empids. It’s also the greenest of these birds. Other species are largely grayish or brownish birds.

Although 15 Empids range across North America during the spring and summer nesting season, we only have to be concerned with a handful of these birds in Northeast Tennessee.

In addition to the Acadian, the region is a summer home for Least Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher and Alder Flycatcher. The Yellow-bellied Flycatcher is a rare migrant through the region but doesn’t nest here.

I stumbled across the Acadian Flycatcher while trying to find a Swainson’s Warbler at a location where I have previously found this species.

I didn’t find a Swainson’s Warbler, but I did find an assortment of other birds, including American Goldfinch, American Robin, Hooded Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler and Black-and-white Warbler.
A good place to look, and listen, for Acadians in Carter County is near the Blue Hole on Holston Mountain. I also know a few locations along Simerly Creek Road in Hampton where the bird can be reliably heard during late spring and summer.

Later that day, while walking along the linear trail in the industrial park in Erwin, I found at least two Yellow Warblers. The behavior of the warblers convinced me they are nesting.

I saw a few other birds, as well, including Great Blue Heron and Northern Rough-winged Swallow.
A surprise observation was the Snapping Turtle I spied in a pond near the boardwalk. The turtle looked as wide as a spare tire. It was the biggest Snapping Turtle I’ve ever seen outside of an aquarium.

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Some birds are so well known for their songs that they have acquired common names that reflect that song.

Several birds have names that are examples of onomatopoeia, which describes any word that phonetically imitates or suggests the source of the sound that it describes.

Some examples include the Eastern Bobwhite, as well as some nocturnal vocalists, such as the Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will’s-widow.

After the monthly meeting of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, also known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, several members visited the parking lot at Green Pine Church near Milligan College to listen for Chuck-will’s-Widows.

We didn’t have to wait long before we heard one of the birds start calling shortly before dusk.
I was pleased to add Chuck-will’s-Widow to my year list as Bird No. 158.

The Chuck-will’s-widow is the largest member of the nightjar family in North America. Other nightjars found in the region include the Common Nighthawk and the Whip-poor-will.

Chuck-will’s-widows, or Chucks, have a dappled brown plumage that provides perfect camouflage as they roost on the ground or a horizontal branch in dry woodlands.

Chucks, like other nightjars, have flattened heads and huge mouths. They can open their mouths wide to scoop flying insects out of the air.

The nightjar family feeds almost exclusively on insects, which tend to be flying ones that are active after dark, such as moths and some beetles.

I’ve made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to listen for Whip-poor-wills near Oak Hill Freewill Baptist Church in the Oak Hill community of Hampton.

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I am adding another bird to my list this week after consultation with other members of the chapter. I heard Yellow-throated Warblers back in May during visits to Winged Deer Park in Johnson City, but I didn’t add this species at the time because I never managed to see the birds. I spoke with Milligan College biology professor Gary Wallace and Fred Alsop, a retired biology professor from East Tennessee State University, about differences between the songs of Red-eyed Vireos and Yellow-throated Vireos, and I also listened to online recordings of the song of the latter.

Wallace and Alsop both confirmed that the Yellow-throated Vireo has a slurred song. Based on their translations of the song, I joked that the Yellow-throated Vireo could also be known as the “drunken” vireo.

I am now convinced I did hear Yellow-throated Vireo back in May on different visits to Winged Deer Park, so I have added this species to my year list as Bird No. 159 for 2013.

The vireos are, for the most part, rather drab birds. Many species are greenish or gray. The Yellow-throated Vireo is the exception. The plumage of this vireo is dominated by the yellow throat. The belly is white and the bird’s dark eyes are bordered with yellow “spectacles.” They are similar to some of the warblers, but the Yellow-throated Vireo has a larger, heavier bill than any of the warblers.

This vireo feeds mostly on insects but will also eat some fruit and seeds.

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As of June 5, two members of the Elizabethton Bird Club are already approaching 200 species.
Tom McNeil is just one species away from reaching 200 for 2013. Brookie Potter, with 198 species so far, is close behind Tom.

It’s always an achievement to find 200 species in a calendar year in the five-county area. To reach the threshold of 200 species before July is remarkable evidence of some extreme dedication to the quest.

I still need 41 more species to reach my goal of 200 in 2013, and for the next couple of months, additions to my list are going to be a little harder to obtain. I can still find some birds that I missed during the flurry of spring migration, so June and July will be a time for targeting some specific birds and visiting locations that offer the likelihood of seeing, or hearing, them.

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A pair of Chuck-will's-Widows painted by John James Audubon.

A pair of Chuck-will’s-Widows painted by John James Audubon.

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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