October 8th , 2013 16:53 pm Leave a comment

Second chance with rare bird advances year list


Conventional wisdom is that there are no second chances once you have missed a rare bird. Rarely does lightning strike twice. Except, on occasion, it does.

Photo by Bryan StevensA pair of American Avocets at Steele Creek Park in Bristol.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A pair of American Avocets at Steele Creek Park in Bristol.

A few weeks ago, I missed an opportunity to see a trio of American Avocets found by Elizabethton resident John Adams at the Great Lakes pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Stoney Creek. I placed the blame on my brother’s dog, Rue, who had chosen to snack on my cell phone and made me miss some important phone calls.

Since then, I have gotten a new phone.

I also got an unexpected second chance to add American Avocet to my year list thanks to phone calls from Brookie Potter and Don Holt. So, on the last day of September, American Avocet became Bird No. 190 for the year. Ten more to go!
In fact, a total of six American Avocets decided to pay a visit to Steele Creek Park in Bristol. The birds were first detected around 11 a.m. on Sept. 30. I arrived about 1:30 p.m. and found them still present on the beach at the lake in the park.

While at the park, I ran into Reece Jamerson and Gilbert Derouen, both of Johnson City, and Janice Frasier Martin, Bristol. These three birders quickly converged on Steele Creek Park to observe these six rarities. A few other area birders showed up, too, including Dennis and Carol Whittington from Johnson City.

With an elegant profile and bold plumage, the American Avocet is unique among shorebirds. The scientific name of the genus is Recurvirostra, which refers to this long-legged shorebird’s long, thin upcurved bill. This unusual bill is the bird’s most striking feature. Its black and white plumage, which is also accompanied by a cinnamon neck and head during the breeding season, and long, blue legs makes this bird unmistakable. The legs have inspired the common name, Blue Shanks, which is sometimes used to refer to this bird.

Other avocets include the Pied Avocet of Europe and western and central Asia, the Red-necked Avocet of Australia and the Andean Avocet, which resides in the Andes mountain range in northwestern Argentina, western Bolivia, northern Chile and southern Peru.

The avocets are closely related to stilts, which include such species as the Black-necked Stilt and Banded Stilt.


Before I saw the American Avocets, however, I added two other birds to my year list during my participation in the annual Fall Bird Count conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society on Saturday, Sept. 28.

I spent the day counting birds with Gary Wallace and Brookie and Jean Potter. We found a Lincoln’s Sparrow on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton. The shy sparrow was keeping concealed in a stand of willow trees near the pond. The Lincoln’s Sparrow became Bird No. 188 on my year list.

The Lincoln’s Sparrow is not named for President Abraham Lincoln, although that might have been a good guess. Pioneer naturalist and artist John James Audubon named this sparrow in honor of his friend, Thomas Lincoln, a resident of Dennysville, Maine.

Lincoln shot the bird on a trip with Audubon to Nova Scotia in 1834. When naming the bird, Audubon didn’t bestow the name “sparrow” in designating the bird name to honor his friend. The name Audubon gave to this elusive sparrow was Lincoln’s Pinewood-finch.

However, the bird is actually a sparrow and closely related to Swamp Sparrow and Song Sparrow. It is generally only a migrant in the Volunteer State. This was my first observation of a Lincoln’s Sparrow in more than a decade. Their favored habitat consists of hedgerows and wooded edges, as well as brushy and weedy fields. The Lincoln’s Sparrow occasionally takes up winter residence in Tennessee.

Later in the day, we heard a calling Barred Owl midway up Holston Mountain. The Barred Owl appeared to be responding to our playing a recording of an Eastern Screech-owl. The Barred Owl called several times before falling silent. The familiar “Who Cooks for You” refrain helped me add this owl to my list as Bird. No. 189.

The Barred Owl is more active during the day than other Tennessee owls and will even call occasionally in the daytime, as did the one we heard on Holston Mountain.

This owl is widespread in the eastern half of the United States and also ranged across central Canada to northern California. Both the Great Horned Owl and Barred Owl are known as “hoot owls.”

The Barred Owl was not the only noisy bird on Holston Mountain that was counted but went unseen. We also detected a drumming Ruffed Grouse. In fact, it would have been almost impossible to overlook the grouse’s presence. I was scanning some trees for any signs of warblers or other birds when I wondered why my heart had suddenly begun booming in my chest.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a heart attack. A Ruffed Grouse had produced a concussive force of sound with its loud drumming. This surprisingly strong sound is produced by the grouse’s wings. Males beat, or drum, with their wings to produce a series of deep thumping sounds that increase in tempo during the brief drumming. He usually chooses a log or other elevated perch in deep brush to serve as a stage for his drumming. Male Ruffed Grouses drum throughout the year, but are usually most persistent in the spring.

I will explore the results of the Fall Bird Count in next week’s column.


Prior to the Fall Bird Count and before I got my second opportunity with the American Avocets, I added a Swainson’s Thrush to my list on Wednesday, Sept. 25. I saw the bird briefly in a sumac tree. This thrush became Bird No. 187 for the year.

The Swainson’s Thrush can be contrasted from other thrushes by its prominent eyering and the buffy was on its face and upper breast.

The Swainson’s Thrush primarily breeds in coniferous woods across northern North America, although there are small, isolated breeding populations of this thrush in West Virginia and on Mount Rogers in Virginia. The Swainson’s spends the winter months mainly in Mexico and northern South America. It is typically found in Tennessee only during spring and fall migration.

This thrush is named for William Swainson, an English biologist who explored such far-flung locations as Brazil and New Zealand. Several other New World birds are named for him, including Swainson’s Warbler, Swainson’s Hawk and Swainson’s Toucan. Swainson died in New Zealand on Dec. 6, 1855, at age 66.

My mom and I also enjoyed watching a few other birds after spotting the Swainson’s Thrush. We watched Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at two of our feeders that same evening. We counted at least 10 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and also watched a family of Northern Cardinals (an adult male and three of his offspring) feud with the grosbeaks for the best perches on the feeders.

We also saw an American Redstart, two Tennessee Warblers, American Goldfinches, Carolina Wrens and the usual feeder visitors.

If you didn’t get to attend the first of the October Saturday bird walks at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, three more of these walks are scheduled this month. The remaining walks, which are free and open to the public, are slated for Oct. 12, Oct. 19 and Oct. 26. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing enjoyment. I help conduct these walks with other members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of TOS, also known as the Elizabethton Bird Club.
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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