I convinced my mom to take a much-needed break for a couple of hours of birding in western Washington County on Christmas morning. Although it was cold, the sun was shining. Good fortune also smiled and allowed us to find some good birds, including seven American Kestrels and five Red-tailed Hawks as we journeyed along some back roads from Erwin in Unicoi County to Lamar and Limestone in Washington County.
The Red-tailed Hawks were, in two instances, paired up and sharing personal space. We only found one “solo” Red-tailed Hawk. Some other good birds during our Christmas Day trip included Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated Woodpecker, Great Blue Heron, Killdeer and Common Raven. I even got a new bird for the year when I found a flock of Horned Larks on Keebler Road. So, Horned Lark became Bird No. 205 for the year. I suspected at the time that it was probably going to be the last bird for my list this year.
The Horned Lark is a small bird, not much bigger than most sparrows. Other than the striking black patches on the face and chest and a yellow throat, the Horned Lark is a drab, brown bird. It gets its name from the feather tufts, or “horns,” on top of its head, which gives the bird a physical trait that immediately sets it apart from sparrows, as well as other open-country birds such as American Pipit and Lapland Longspur.
The open, plowed fields along Keebler Road in Washington County are a magnet for birds such as Horned Lark, as well as Northern Harrier, Eastern Meadowlark and American Kestrel. I tried to scan the flocks of Horned Larks for signs of Lapland Longspurs but didn’t detect any. This longspur, which is related to Smith’s Longspur and Chestnut-collared Longspur, is an annual visitor to these fields in western Washington County. Nevertheless, I have never managed to find one of these elusive songbirds.
Horned Larks nest across much of North America as far north as the high Arctic and south to Mexico. This lark also breeds across much of northern Europe, the mountains of southeast Europe, as well as sections of Asia. An isolated population in South America is restricted to a high-elevation Colombian plateau.
In Europe, the Horned Lark is known as the Shore Lark because of its fondness for coastal mudflats. The Horned Lark is the only lark native to North America, but the Eurasian Skylark has been introduced to Hawaii, as well as some locations in western North America. The Eurasian Skylark has also been introduced to Australia and New Zealand.
Worldwide, there are about 90 species of larks, including birds with such common names as Foxy Lark, Pink-breasted Lark, Spike-heeled Lark, Ashy-crowned Sparrow-Lark, Dune Lark, Desert Lark, Sun Lark, White-winged Lark and Cape Long-billed Lark.
As I start off a new year, I wanted to look back at 2013. As it turned out, it was a good birding year. Here are my Top 15 birding moments for last year:
15. A Northern Waterthrush found Sept. 1 along the linear trail in Erwin became Bird No. 176 on my year list. This sighting was more special because my mom got to see the bird with me. We have a long history of finding this bird together that dates back to September vacations on Fripp Island, S.C. We would actually hope for overnight rain showers because we always found these migrating warblers around puddles the next morning. This year’s sighting was also made more fun when I managed to get some good photos of the curious warbler.
14. An encounter with Red Crossbills at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain helped re-energize my effort as I entered the final stretch of finding 200 species of birds in 2013 in Northeast Tennessee. My mom and I found the Red Crossbills on Saturday, Aug. 3. We got great looks (and some photos) as the birds fed on fresh cones on some of the fir and spruce trees located at this section of Roan Mountain. The Red Crossbill became No. 170 for the year, and ushered in a dash toward the finish line.
13. On April 14, I enjoyed finding an Orchard Oriole in a flowering quince at the fish pond at my home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton. This bird was the first Orchard Oriole to visit the yard since the late 1990s and became Bird No. 114 on my year list.
12. I reserved this spot for a sentimental tie between Forster’s Tern and Black Tern, two birds that were unexpectedly elusive in 2013. I found a Forster’s Tern — Bird No. 171 — at Austin Springs on Aug. 11. I began focusing on terns and shorebirds when August arrived on the calendar. The Black Tern required a little more effort and several trips to area lakes. I finally added this species as Bird No. 185 on my year list when I found a pair of Black Terns from the bridge on Austin Springs Road at Boone Lake on Saturday, Sept. 21. The sighting took place around 5 p.m. on a rainy, overcast day.
11. A Black Scoter became a new life bird for me and Bird No. 196 for the year on Oct. 28 when I observed this species at Austin Springs with Brookie and Jean Potter. The Black Scoter also became the last of the scoters added to my life list. I found the world’s other two scoters — Surf and White-winged — several years ago. For whatever reason, the Black Scoter has always been an elusive bird for me, until this year.
10. Only 12 days into 2013, I added my first life bird of the year when I observed a Brant at Clear Creek Lake at Clear Creek Golf Course in Bristol, Va. I didn’t find the bird. It had been discovered back on Nov. 13, 2012, and was still hanging out with a mixed flock of Canada Geese and domestic geese at the golf course. It was extremely easy to find the Brant, which is a small goose not much bigger than a Mallard duck. Ironically, the Brant didn’t help me with my year list, which was confined to birds found in the Northeast Tennessee counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.
9. I added a female Common Goldeneye — after several unsuccessful attempts — on the Watauga River in the Blue Springs community on Feb. 4, which made this duck No. 65 on my year list. It turned out to be the only Common Goldeneye I saw in 2013.
8. I observed a flock of 147 Redheads on Wilbur Lake on the first day of March that had already been found by other birders. This is the largest flock of these handsome ducks I have ever encountered. The record number for Redhead in the region, however, was set in March of 1960 when the late Lee Herndon, an Elizabethton birder, counted 900 Redheads on Boone Lake.
7. On April 13, I found Bird No. 100 for my year list when I saw a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher while walking the linear trail adjacent to the industrial park in Erwin. I have usually found this bird in the last days of March or first few days of April, so the sighting this past spring was a bit delayed. It felt good to reach the halfway mark on my goal of finding at least 200 species of birds in 2013.
6. I finally added American Avocet to my year list as Bird No. 190 when I observed a flock of six of these birds on Sept. 30 at Steele Creek Park in Bristol. Finding these unusual shorebirds was also a measure of redemption after a chain of bad luck — including a cell phone eaten by a dog — prevented me from seeing a flock that had been found by Elizabethton resident John Adams on Sept. 1 at the large pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.
5. On Saturday, May 25, I saw my first-ever Brewster’s Warbler, a hybrid produced from a mating of a Golden-winged Warbler and Blue-winged Warbler, at Hampton Creek Cove in Roan Mountain. Because the Brewster’s Warbler is not a true species, I could not add it to my year list. It was still a memorable sighting.
4. Red-necked Phalarope became a new life bird for me on May 6 when I got good looks at one at Austin Springs on Boone Lake. According to Rick Knight’s book, The Bird of Northeast Tennessee, the previous sighting of a Red-necked Phalarope in Northeast Tennessee took place May 21-22 in 1992. That gap of more than 20 years gives you some idea how rare this bird is in the region. This phalarope is considered a rare transient during spring and fall migration. The Red-necked Phalarope also became Bird No. 132 on my year list.
3. On Monday, June 10, I joined up with Brookie and Jean again for a trip to South Holston Lake in Sullivan County and Shady Valley in Johnson County. I had three target birds — Prothonotary Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler and Willow Flycatcher — and I found all three species. We found the Prothonotary Warbler at Jacob’s Creek Recreation Area at South Holston Lake in Bristol. We heard the bird singing loudly before we even got out of the car. The fantastic looks we got of the Prothonotary Warbler remains one of my most memorable birding memories from last year. This successful outing in early summer also helped keep me dedicated to reaching my goal of 200 species for the year.
2. A Clay-colored Sparrow found during a bird walk May 13 at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton became a new life bird for me. The sparrow, spotted by a sharp-eyed Tom McNeil, was also an unexpected addition to my year list. The only other Clay-colored Sparrow found in Northeast Tennessee was observed back in the spring of 1933. With an 80-year gap between observations, it’s not difficult to understand the excitement this sighting generated among area birders.
1. I could not have asked for a more elegant bird than a Northern Harrier to help me successfully meet my goal of seeing 200 birds in 2013. I found Bird No. 200 while visiting Orchard Bog in Shady Valley with Brookie and Jean Potter on Nov. 1, which left me two full months on the calendar to find some additional birds.
It was a fun year, and it was a long year. A few times I got discouraged when I missed birds or didn’t feel like looking for new birds. Still, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Looking back at all the highlights reminded me of why I tried for my “big year” in the first place. I spent a lot of time with some good friends and family members, but I also enjoyed some solo moments during my pursuit of 200 species in 2013. I missed some birds — American Woodcock, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Bobolink — that I should have gotten, but I also got several new life birds in 2013. Everything balances out in the end.
Best wishes for 2014 to all my readers.
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