Transition in the seasons brings new birds

10:32 am | April 3, 2013

The seasons are changing. As evidence, I offer the onslaught of new birds species I have observed this past week.
During a visit Saturday, March 9, to Kingsport, I observed two Black-crowned Night-herons flying across the Holston River near the Riverfront Seafood Company. As a result, Black-crowned Night-heron became Bird No. 78 on my 2013 list.

Black-crowned Night-herons spend the winter season along this stretch of the Holston River, so I wasn’t terribly surprised to find them.

I had returned to this location to give my parents the opportunity to see the Harlequin Duck — only the second ever observed in Northeast Tennessee — that has spend the past three months at this spot near the popular restaurant.

I’m pleased to note that the trip was a success. We quickly found the Harlequin Duck, which was swimming near a pair of Canada Geese. My parents, as well as my friend, David Thometz, got good looks of a bird that is a rarity for Northeast Tennessee. To celebrate, we enjoyed a late afternoon meal at the Riverfront Seafood Company.
Later that same day, I added another bird to my year list for the five-county area. I observed several Common Grackles while taking a stroll through downtown Elizabethton.

I added Tree Swallow the next day during a visit to Johnson City. The three swallows I observed swooping over fields near The Haven at Knob Creek Apartments represented Bird No. 80 on my year list.

Another member of the blackbird family — Brown-headed Cowbird —  became Bird No. 81 for 2013. I found Brown-headed Cowbirds mingling with a large flock of European Starlings and Red-winged Blackbirds in a pasture at Rasar’s Farm in Elizabethton.|

The best day for new sightings was Tuesday, March 12. During an evening trip with Brookie Potter to Austin Springs at Boone Lake in Washington County, I added four new species to the list I am compiling for the year.
The first addition was Wilson’s Snipe, which became Bird No. 82. The wet pastures at Austin Springs concealed many of these unusual shorebirds. At times, we had snipe taking flight right at our feet, making their characteristic raspy alarm call as they did so. When flushed from cover, the Wilson’s Snipe produces a sound that is usually described as sounding like a harsh “scaipe.” We heard that sound many times as we walked through the pasture.

We also found other shorebirds, including Killdeers and Pectoral Sandpipers. The Pectoral Sandpiper became Bird No. 83. We saw only four Pectoral Sandpipers, but about 16 Killdeers were present. We failed to re-locate a Greater Yellowlegs that fellow birder Rick Knight reported at this location earlier that same day.

Brookie and I also watched Tree Swallows flying over the mud flats at Austin Springs. Every once in a while, we saw some dusky-colored swallows among the blue and white Tree Swallows. These birds — Northern Rough-winged Swallows — received a spot on my list as Bird No. 84 for the year.

I saw my final new bird during our visit to Austin Springs mingled with a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds and European Starlings. Rusty Blackbird became Bird No. 85 for my list.

As migration’s pace quickens, I expect my list to grow quickly this spring.

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The new birds I saw this past week ranged from swallows and shorebirds to herons and blackbirds.

I don’t see Black-crowned Night-herons very often, so it’s always exciting to observe these birds. While not particularly common in the region, this heron is widespread around the globe. In fact, the Black-crowned Night-heron breeds on every continent except Australia and Antarctica.

Like other herons, the Black-crowned Night-heron eats a lot of fish, but these heron will also feed on a variety of other foods, including the eggs and young of other birds, as well as amphibians, rodents, crabs, mollusks, and other invertebrates.

The term “night heron” refers to their nocturnal foraging preference. They seek their food primarily at night or in the early morning by standing or wading slowly in shallow water. They often roost communally during the daylight hours.

Numbers of Tree Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows will only increase in the coming weeks. Both these swallows nest in the region.

The Northern Rough-winged Swallow has a very long common name, but one of the bird’s least evident features inspired the name. The “Rough-winged” part of the name refers to small serrations on the bird’s outermost wing feathers of this swallow. These serrations are visible only when the bird is in the hand.

Adults are plain brown above with a white belly and buffy throat and upper breast. If I had given this swallow a common name, I might have chosen something like Dusky Swallow. It’s much more descriptive of the bird’s actual appearance.

Tree Swallows are much more colorful. These swallows are metallic blue above and clean white underneath. Tree Swallows will also accept nest boxes offered by human hosts. In fact, they often surprise people who put out boxes for Eastern Bluebirds by taking up residence in them.

I solved the problem of competition last spring by placing two boxes in close proximity at the fish pond. A pair of bluebirds chose one box while the Tree Swallows selected the other box. The two pairs maintained a truce once they began work on building their nests, but they did get into some confrontations early in the nesting process.
The shorebirds that made my list — Wilson’s Snipe and Pectoral Sandpiper — pass through the region early in the spring season. In fact, Wilson’s Snipe can usually be found throughout the year. Finding them in spring is easier than at any other time of the year. Any wet pasture or field can conceal dozens of these odd shorebirds until they choose to flush from hiding and fly away in a zigzag pattern.

Pectoral Sandpipers are long-distance migrants. Some of the population breeds in the tundra of northeast Asia, while the rest nest in a range extending from Alaska to central Canada. The American and most of the Asian birds winter in South America, but some Asian breeders winter in southern Australia and New Zealand.
Rusty Blackbirds are becoming more scarce, so seeing this member of the blackbird family is a bit of an accomplishment. Some figures indicate that the population of this bird has dropped by as much as 98 percent in the past 40 years. The reasons for this shocking decline are not clear, but habitat loss seems to be a major factor.
More active monitoring of the species has been ongoing since 2005.

Rusty Blackbirds migrating through the region in spring are glossy black with yellow eyes. In the fall, these blackbirds acquire a rusty brown plumage for which they derive their common name.

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Last week, I wrote about unusual numbers of Redheads in Carter County. The numbers of this duck remain high, and some of them have dispersed from lakes and rivers to take up residence on farm ponds.
John W. Adams of Elizabethton reported an interesting observation this past week. He called me to let me know about 70 Redheads on a farm pond off Hart Road in Elizabethton. In addition to the Redheads, a few Lesser Scaup were also present. John’s observation is another indication of abundant numbers of Redheads on local lakes, rivers and ponds in Carter County this winter.

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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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