Sometimes, I wonder where the time has gone as I reflect on the fact that I have now observed the 18th anniversary of my writing this weekly column.
I wrote my first “Feathered Friends” column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, for the Elizabethton Star. Since then, the column has appeared in three different newspapers. I even have a Facebook page available for fans of the column to follow my birding activities.
This past year has been quite an adventure as I have been striving to see at least 200 species of birds in Northeast Tennessee in 2013. It’s been a lot of hard work, and I’ve enjoyed more than my share of good luck in adding some of the unexpected species to my list.
I also feel really fortunate to have plenty of interested readers following the column each week. Almost every week, someone will call or e-mail me with an interesting observation or a question that helps get the ball rolling for another column.
Several readers have also followed my 2013 quest on my Facebook page, where I also post other nature-related sightings and photographs ranging from butterflies and dragonflies to wildflowers and nature scenery.
Writing “Feathered Friends” and updating my Facebook page on a fairly regular basis has also been a great means of getting to know other people interested in birds and nature. I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years.
That first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents — the Dark-eyed Junco. I will let readers know when I see my first Dark-eyed Juncos this fall. They usually don’t make an appearance until the weather turns foul.
Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that very first “Feathered Friends” column.
Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the Dark-eyed Junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.
John V. Dennis, author of A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding, captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The Dark-eyed Junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.
Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying, “dark skies above, snow below.”
Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.
Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.
Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.
Since juncos are primarily ground feeders, they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture. Still, most Dark-eyed Juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground.
Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.
There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow. Of course, the real entertainment from juncos comes from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!
I added three new species to my 2013 list this past week, and I am now creeping closer to my goal of finding 200 species this year. Two of the three birds added to my list last week were also eligible for inclusion on my list of “life birds,” which includes all the species I have seen over the years.
One of these birds was an “out-of-the-blue” surprise, while the other was a type of duck I have been trying to find for many years without any success.
For me, these were some exciting observations, so I’ll devote more time to them in next week’s column.
Make a comment, ask a question or share an observation by calling me at 297-9077 or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. I am also on Facebook.