October 22nd , 2013 8:57 am Leave a comment

As seasons begin to shift, birding surprises abound


If anything, this past week of birding has brought the first undeniable signals that the seasons are subtly shifting.

Photo by Ken ThomasA Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Photo by Ken Thomas
A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

It’s not just the birds that provide the tell-tale clue that autumn’s advance is quickening. The leaves are beginning to acquire those delightful fall hues of red, yellow, orange and brown.

Wednesday, Oct. 9, was the first day without Ruby-throated Hummingbirds since these little birds returned in April. Although it’s always sad to know the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have departed, I avoided getting too depressed about their absence by observing a few warblers visiting the yard, including a young Cape May Warbler, a Black-throated Green Warbler, a female American Redstart and a Nashville Warbler. I also observed three Downy Woodpeckers, a Northern Flicker, a female Eastern Towhee, American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and White-breasted Nuthatches.

The following day I observed a bird in my yard that, while not rare, has been an infrequent visitor to my yard over the years. I was thrilled to add a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker as Bird No. 191 for my year list on Thursday, Oct. 10. It’s a common bird, but it’s one that, for whatever reason, doesn’t visit my yard very often. Or perhaps they do visit, but I fail to detect them. Over the years, I have found evidence of their presence in the rows of holes drilled into the trunks of some of the trees around the fish pond. No other woodpecker drills these perfect rows of holes in tree trunks.

I found this particular sapsucker hoisting itself up the trunk of a wild cherry tree. A Downy Woodpecker was also present in the tree. I also heard a calling Pileated Woodpecker, so it was a good evening for woodpeckers.

However, no warblers or hummingbirds appeared that evening. I did see a Ruby-crowned Kinglet flitting about in the herky-jerky manner of these tiny birds.

On Friday, Oct. 11, I pulled into the driveway at home where my mother greeted me with the exciting news that she had spotted a hummingbird at the feeders. She also added that it was a brown hummingbird, not a green one.

The coloration provided a strong clue that one of the Selasphorus hummingbirds native to the western United States had chosen to pay a visit to the yard.
This visiting hummingbird became Bird No. 192 for the year.

I’m leaning toward identifying the bird as a Rufous Hummingbird. The other possibilities would include an Allen’s Hummingbird or a Broad-tailed Hummingbird.

The hummingbird was quite brown, but had considerable green plumage showing on its back.

My mother noticed the bird about 10 minutes before I got home from work around 6:10 p.m. We both remained outdoors to watch it visit the feeder four times afterwards. We last saw it that day about 7:10 p.m.

Back in August of 2012, an adult male Rufous Hummingbird visited our feeders for a single afternoon. I hoped that this bird would decide to stay longer.
I awoke early on Saturday, Oct. 12. I was due at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton to conduct the Saturday bird walk being held by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society. I saw the hummingbird as soon as I got into view of the two sugar water feeders hanging near a large blue spruce beside the creek.

Later that morning, Brookie and Jean Potter visited and were able to add the hummingbird to their year lists. They agreed that the bird looked most like an immature female Rufous Hummingbird.

The following day, the hummingbird was still present during the morning hours. However, after a visit at about 9:45 a.m., we never saw the bird again.

I was pleased to host the Rufous Hummingbird for its three-day stay. For still unknown reasons, some western hummingbirds — primarily the Rufous — make migration swings through the eastern United States. The Rufous Hummingbird has basically become an expected winter visitor with a few reports being received each winter. I have observed Rufous Hummingbirds in Bristol, Blountville, Flag Pond, Elizabethton and Hampton. I have also observed Allen’s Hummingbirds in Mountain City and Johnson City. I know of records of these small birds from Erwin, Roan Mountain, Johnson City and many other locations throughout the region.

The Calliope Hummingbird, which is the smallest bird in North America, was recently reclassified as a member of the Selasphorus genus of hummingbirds. I made a trip to Nashville many years ago to see one of these hummingbirds coming to a feeder at a suburban home.

I also was pleased that a few warblers are still making their way south. An Orange-crowned Warbler in a forsythia became Bird No. 193 for the year.

In addition, a very unexpected yard bird put in an appearance. I got good looks at a Brown Creeper methodically creeping along the deep crevices in the trunk of a large locust tree. This is only the second time I have seen one of these birds in my yard. The Brown Creeper was not new for the year list, however, since I heard one of these birds in early summer on Roan Mountain. The other birds present on Oct. 13 included Gray Catbird, Magnolia Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Blue-headed Vireo.

The Orange-crowned Warbler, much like the Rufous Hummingbird, is much more prevalent in the western United States. It’s a small bird and one of the more drab warblers. The Orange-crowned Warbler is fond of shrubs and low, weedy vegetation. The bird’s “orange” crown is not usually visible and is not a dependable field mark. They’re only a migrant in Northeast Tennessee, and late fall seems a better time to see them than spring. Over the years, I have found most of my Orange-crowned Warblers along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, but I have also observed this warbler in South Carolina.

I advanced my year list by a single bird Monday, Oct. 14, adding Laughing Gull as Bird No. 194 for the year. I had a shot at a new life bird (Lesser Black-backed Gull) and a new state bird (Franklin’s Gull) but didn’t reach Musick’s Campground until after those birds had already departed.

I arrived to find Brookie and Jean Potter, who had called me about the gulls, monitoring the lake with Rick Knight and Darrell Wilder. They had to break the news that the large flock of gulls had, for the most part, already flown away.

I did get to see six Common Terns, many Ring-billed Gulls, 14 Northern Shovelers, 5 Blue-winged Teal, 2 American Coots, 2 Common Loons, a Pied-billed Grebe and some Great Blue Herons.

At times, I begin to feel guilty for being so greedy when it comes to bird sightings. It would have been great to have added those other gulls to my year list, but I got great looks at the immature Laughing Gull. All things considered, it was worth the long drive to Holston Lake to add that bird to my list.

The Potters and Knight were also present for another record-setting observation. The five species of gulls — Franklin’s, Herring, Laughing, Lesser Black-backed and Ring-billed — represented the most species of gulls ever seen at one location at the same time in Northeast Tennessee.

This wasn’t the only new record.

The Franklin’s Gull was the first record for this species in the upper five-county area of Northeast Tennessee, while the Lesser Black-backed Gull was only the second record of this species in the area.

A flock of American Wigeons, which had also flown before I arrived, represented the first fall observation of these ducks for the area this year.

I’ve seen Laughing Gulls at Musick’s Campground on one previous occasion. However, during visits to coastal South Carolina, this species is often one of the most common gulls.


As you can see, I enjoyed an active week of birding, and I hope to see even more species this October. I am beginning to feel that I am definitely within striking distance of seeing my goal of 200 species in Northeast Tennessee in 2013.
One good opportunity for seeing migrating birds and winter residents will take place later this month. One Saturday bird walk remains on the schedule for this October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. The public is welcome to attend the walk set for Saturday, Oct. 26. Meet at the park’s visitors center parking lot at 8 a.m. Bring binoculars to increase viewing enjoyment. Members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of TOS, also known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, will conduct the walk.

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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