Did You Say Bittern?

So there I was, minding my own business, when my cell phone rang. It was Judson, alerting me to an American Bittern that had been hanging around all day in a very small patch of grassy marsh near County Road 608 in Athens. As he was talking to me, he was actually looking at it at the same time. A Bittern? A year bird and a Life Bird, only 20 minutes away? Immediately after hanging up, I grabbed the necessary gear (scope, camera, binoculars, anticipation), and sped away as fast as my wheels would carry me. Well, as fast as I could and not end up having a conversation with a policeman at least. I would have been over sooner, but the non-birder who first spotted it (then told Judson) thought it might be a juvenile Great Blue Heron. Sounds strange, but when I stopped and thought about it, I can see how someone not familiar with bitterns could think that. It’s always good to hear someone elses’ completely different perspective to keep your own mind on its toes.

After going to a different house to double-check were I should go, I pulled into the correct driveway, and was met by Judson, who assured me that the Bittern was still present and accounted for. While scanning the grass to re-find the cryptic marsh denizen, I saw a Brown-headed Nuthatch scaling down a tree with a bluebird house, and who fled with a” squeak” at the brief harassment of a bluebird. A Red-shouldered Hawk flew unseen nearby, noticed only by its “begging” cries. I had a harder than usual time of finding the bittern, even after Judson and Joshua did, but once I finally did, and got the scope on him(?), there was no doubt as to his identity. Slowly, he stepped about, picking at a small creature or bit of plant every now and then. If I lost him in the scope, or even with my unaided eye, I had an unusual amount of difficulty finding him again. I’ve never had such an easy time of losing a near stationary bird, or such a hard time re-finding one so many times.

Seeing if there were any better views to be had, we went inside the house and looked out the windows. While this didn’t help with the Bittern much, there were some things to be seen on the feeders, which were so close to the window that they almost touched the glass. Partially yellow Goldfinches owned the tube feeder, and Chickadees, and White-breasted and Brown-headed Nuthatches enjoyed the open feeder. Briefly, a big male Brown-headed Cowbird landed next to the open feeder, but soon left, allowing the smaller birds to resume their eating. Hmm, two “Brown-headed” bird species within five minutes. I think that’s a first for me. And both of them year birds to boot.

The Bittern still outside, we headed back out to get a few more good looks. With nothing more to do once the scoping, photographing, and binocularing (is that a word?) was done, we decided to slowly and indirectly approach him to see how close he would let us get. This being our first bittern, we also wanted to know first-hand what they looked like in flight, should the bird fly. We got as close as we easily could, to the edge of the marshy area, about 25 feet away from him. He half-heartedly started to get into the classic “sky-gazing” posture, with the bill pointed skyward, but still felt safe enough to peck at a leaf. After being watched for a few minutes this way, he decided that he had had enough of us, and, with a few beats of his broad wings, relocated a few dozen feet away into a fairly deep creekbed.

Thus, the day’s excitement came to an end. Not bad for one phone call in my opinion. 88 species for the year, and 199 for the ol’ Life List. This leaves me curious. Which species will be the one to turn that number over into the long awaited 200 territory?

But, regardless of the numbers, how can it not be a good birding day when a Bittern is involved?

  • American Bittern
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Killdeer
  • Mourning Dove
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Brown-headed Nuthatch
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • American Robin
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • American Goldfinch

Mark & Lucille's House (cropped)

Skulking American Bittern

Mark & Lucille's House (2)

Bittern in partial defensive posture

Mark & Lucille's House (3)

Brown-headed Nuthatches

Mark & Lucille's House (4)

American Goldfinches coming into breeding plumage

Mark & Lucille's House (1)

And, of course, a Carolina Chickadee

Ducks, the Road, and a Little Violence

It’s been a little slow lately, but I still didn’t want this month to go by without something being posted. So, here’s an account of some afternoon happenings along our road and adjacent side road.

The early spring weather made for a very nice walk to shake off the laziness of winter. My sister Sam and I left our house and headed down the road, taking note of the many small flowers popping up along the way. Flying over the general vicinity of a roadside pond was my first Barn Swallow of the year. He/she was mostly backlit, so it took me a few looks to be sure, but it’s hard to argue with that obvious forked tail. At the end of our road we stopped at a smaller pond to look at a male Wood Duck and two pairs of Blue-winged Teals, all dressed in breeding plumage. The Wood Ducks (lately there have been one or two females with the male) have been here for several days, but the Teals have only been here since today or yesterday. At first I thought I had already seen the Teals this year, but they turned out to be new as well, making two new year birds today, and bringing me up to 85 species.

Leaving our road and side-stepping onto another, we were now on a single lane road marked with moss rather than paint. While mostly bordered by trees, in the grassy field to our right was a small flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, along with a couple of Starlings. Just before they all started to gradually take flight, a male Red-winged, provokingly displaying bright red wing feathers, flew up to a guide wire, watched us approach, and gave sharp calls both before and as he flew. Further on, squirrels jumped about, a Titmouse attempted to handle a hickory nut almost as big as his head (he ended up dropping it), and more blooms welcomed the warm weather. At one point, hearing rustling leaves, I thought another squirrel was running away, but it turned out to be two Carolina Wrens locked in combat. So interlocked that they were hardly flapping, and one with its beak in the other’s, they didn’t notice us only a couple feet away, where we almost stepped on them. After a few seconds, once they realized they were being watched by two vastly larger creatures, they paused, stared back, and hastily separated and flew to some low nearby branches.

As we came back and the light was just starting to grow dim, Field Sparrows gave their rapid, bouncing notes unseen from the fields. In the backyard, Sam showed me a Mourning Dove nest she had recently found. Sitting atop the bunch of sticks about nine feet off the ground, seemingly unconcerned, was one of the parents, probably bedded down for the night.

  • Wood Duck
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Killdeer
  • Mourning Dove
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Blue Jay
  • Barn Swallow
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • American Robin
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • European Starling
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Field Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Common Grackle

2 Blue-winged Teal pairs, Niota

Two Blue-winged Teal pairs

GBBC with a Grebe Rematch

I’ll start with something that didn’t even happen today, but on 2-11-2013. I put it here now because I failed to post it when it happened, but it’s still really cool and I want to put it on here, so it’s a bit of a catch-up.

A few weeks ago I got an e-mail via Tn-bird (I love Tn-bird) about a Great Horned Owl nest near my house. I’ve already seen one of these large owls (see my “Camping + Church” post), but the most I could get at the time was a solid black silhouette. And besides, there’s a good chance that this will be the only Great Horned I get this year.

Following precise directions given to me by Rick Houlk that led to the exact nest tree, I quickly found the nest in the top of a dead pine, exactly where it was said to be. Barely visible above the rim of the nest was a brown head with tell-tale ear tufts and big yellow eyes. Through the scope she(?) looked amazing. Definitely worth the trip. Much nicer than a featureless silhouette.

Afterwards, since it was very nearby, we went to Gee Creek in the Cherokee National Forest. Except for a calling Eastern Towhee, it was seemingly devoid of bird life, but the waterfalls and rock bluffs amidst the steep, almost trail-less slopes were very cool. Driving back, near the main road, were a male and female Wood Duck, another year bird, on a flooded part of someone’s yard.

There, all caught up. Now back to present day. Today was a rematch of Booker T. Washington State Park and Webb Road (see my “Missing a Loon and A Grebe, Yet Seeing Both” post), again with loons and grebes in my sights. Incidentally, today was also the first day of the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), which has gone global and integrated with eBird just this year, so I was able to count for this event to boot.

We got there a bit before lunch, with the usual Pied-billed Grebes (Grebe #1), American Coots, Common Loons, and fishermen present and accounted for at Booker T. Washington SP proper. As a rule, when I see a birder(s) scoping around, the first thing I look at is their scope. Depending on the dollar signs that seem to hover around it, you can often tell their seriousness level, and often their skill level, because a beginning birder will hardly ever have the latest Swarovski or Kowa. With this in mind, upon seeing two birders scanning the water with a scope that probably cost more than some people’s car, I figured they had a bit of experience under their belt. I scoped next to them for a little over half an hour, and it turned out (surprise!) that my scope/person assessment was correct, judging from what they said. Just before I left, they got on a loon that they thought was the Red-throated Loon, but they didn’t sound 100% sure. On their offer, I looked through their scope, and saw a bird that hardly at all looked different from the Commons it was swimming with. Personally, for me to put a bird down on my Life List, I have to identify it at least a little myself, and the bird I was looking at didn’t make me think Red-throated. It could have very well been what they said, especially since I’ve never seen a Red-throated Loon, but I let that one go.  As we were leaving, I got a better look at the male Common Goldeneye that I saw last time, along with a pair of Carolina Wrens apparently looking for an abode to call their own in a tree cavity.

On to Webb Road, about three minutes from the above location in the state park. I was dropped off while everybody else went to get lunch, but I wasn’t alone. Bill Holt was already there, trying to see what he could out on the choppy water. Horned Grebes (Grebe #2), and mostly the same birds seen from the spot I had just came from were there, not very surprisingly since Webb Road overlooks a section of river directly touching the state park. This and that and that and this swam around, all nice to look at but not new, until Chad Smith joined us and shook things up, in a good way mind you. He had been making some long hauls around east Tennessee today, picking up a couple of new birds for his state list, and now he was here for the Red-necked Grebe, a bird I had heard of being here but didn’t have high hopes of finding. So now, all three of us are straining to pick out something new out on the water. Before long, Chad spotted the Red-Necked Grebe (Grebe #3, and Life Bird), then the Red-throated Loon (Life Bird) at practically the same time because it swam next to the Grebe, providing a nice size comparison. This one seemed a little more Red-throat-ish than the one pointed out to me earlier, so I marked this one down. Amongst the Horned Grebes, he picked out an Eared Grebe (Grebe #4, and Life Bird) (“A dirtier face and neck than the Horneds” he described), which I did see, but got poor looks at. Needless to say, I’ll be looking forward to my first good look at this bird. Finally, Chad or Bill (I can’t remember who) found the Western Grebe (Grebe #5, and Life Bird) mixed in with the Horned Grebes and Eared Grebe near the shore, the best bird of the day for me. Maybe because I knew it would be distinctive, I missed it last time, it’s a western species, and it’s just plain cool, I was most hoping to see the Western today. Everything was a ways out on the water, and the Western and Eared were hanging out behind some trees, so not a very good situation for photographing. But still, five grebe species in one day in Tennessee is great, especially all in the same spot! Thanks Chad and Bill, for making this trip of mine way batter than it would have been with just my set of eyes alone.

At the end of the day, I tallied my most interesting GBBC list ever, got all of my target species and then some, and put a couple of faces to a couple of familiar names. My Not-So-Big Year list has hit 81, a number I was hoping I would hit this month, and my Life List stands on the verge of 200 at 198. Yipee-ki-yay!

  • Common Loon
  • Red-throated Loon (Life Bird)
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Horned Grebe
  • Red-necked Grebe (Life Bird)
  • Eared Grebe (Life Bird)
  • Western Grebe (Life Bird)
  • Common Goldeneye
  • Mallard
  • American Coot
  • Canada Goose
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Great Horned Owl (2-11-2013)
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Black Vulture
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Mourning Dove
  • American Crow
  • Carolina Wren
  • American Robin

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Great Horned Owl on nest (2-11-2013)

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Gee Creek waterfall (2-11-2013)

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American Coots

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Pied-billed Grebe

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Common Goldeneye

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Carolina Wren at possible nest site

Missing a Loon and A Grebe, Yet Seeing Both

Spurred on once again by a Tn Bird e-mail I got last night, my mom and I traveled the hour or so trip to Booker T. Washington State Park, near Chattanooga, to find the Western Grebe and Red-throated Loon that had just been seen there.

Once at the state park after a stop at the bank (my mom’s reason for coming, though she too wanted to see a loon), we parked near the boat launch jutting out into the fog covered river, and immediately saw a Pied-billed Grebe in the water next to the parking lot, the first of many to be seen. In fact, I’ve never seen so many grebes in one place before. Further out on the water were roughly 40 Horned Grebes, a Life Bird, all in non-breeding plumage. These birds were by far the most common today, and I wasn’t even planning on seeing them here, making for a welcome surprise. Near the grebes were also more loons than I’ve ever seen in one place, about 4, all of them Common. Compared to the grebes the loons looked huge, but none of them turned out to be the slightly smaller Red-throated. American Coots and a couple Song Sparrows graced the water’s edge.

Also at the water’s edge, looking out into the mist, was another birder, binoculars in hand. As we were walking in his direction (though I never talked to him), a van slowly pulled up alongside us, and the driver asked if we had seen any good birds. I guess I was a prime suspect to question on that matter, considering the conspicuous scope and tripod tucked under my arm fairly yelled my reason for being here.  She was there looking for the grebe as well. We talked and searched for a bit, when she mentioned Webb Road, a spot just a couple minutes up the road where there’s a different observation point of the same general section of river that we were looking at now. I’m not familiar with the area, so when we left after not finding anything extraordinary, we followed her in our van up to Webb Road. Pulling off just before entering a gated community (do you think the residents would have minded people with binoculars searching along their prime riverfront property?), we looked amongst the Horned Grebes, hoping to find one bigger and more western than the rest. No Western Grebe today, but even more Common Loons, Pied-billed Grebe, and even a male Common Goldeneye (Life Bird) in breeding plumage, along with two females. I would have hung around longer, but this was sort of a get-in see-the-bird-get-out operation, because we had to get home in a timely manner, thus I also don’t have many pictures since I had to spend more time looking than photographing. Time constraints can be so, well, constraining.

In the end, no Red-throated Loon or Western Grebe, but I still got a new loon for the year, a new grebe for the Life List, mom got her look at a loon, and even a new duck for the Life List thrown in there for good measure, bringing the year to a count of 70. Ordinarily this would have also brought my Life List up to 197, but this week I went through it and subtracted the sub-species I was counting as full species, Red-shafted Flicker, Audubon’s Warbler, and Gray-headed Junco namely, thus subtracting three from the total. With this subtraction and today’s additions, I now stand at 194. So, my List got a bit smaller, but now my counting conscience is clear, since only full species can be counted.

  • Common Loon
  • Canada Goose
  • Mallard
  • Pied-billed Grebe
  • Horned Grebe (Life Bird)
  • Great Blue Heron
  • American Coot
  • Common Goldeneye (Life Bird)
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Song Sparrow
  • American Goldfinch

IMG_5385

Horned Grebes with a Pied-billed Grebe in the foreground

IMG_5388

Pied-billed Grebe

To the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival

After coming home last night, I was off once again early this morning on my way to the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival in Hiwassee, Tennessee. It’s a two day event (today and yesterday, though I couldn’t come yesterday since I was obviously busy elsewhere) where most everything has to do with the very large numbers of Sandhill Cranes, and a few Whooping Cranes, that use this refuge as a primary stopover point on their way south, and some of them even spend the winter here. Several talks about cranes and wildlife are held as well, mostly at Birchwood Elementary School near the refuge, and vendors set up shop here too, such as photography for sale, and information tables by the Tennessee Ornithological Society (TOS) and International Crane Foundation. Brian “Fox” Ellis, a professional storyteller, was there with some excellently told crane stories, mostly from Asia.

From the school are bus shuttles to the refuge, a few minutes away. Initially I tried to simply follow the bus over to the refuge in my own car, but a couple of guys stopped me at the refuge entrance and said that only buses were allowed, a fact that I knew nothing about and didn’t see anywhere on the website, so I had to go back to the school and wait a few minutes for the next shuttle over to the refuge.

And so now, I’m finally there. Upon stepping off of the bus I immediately saw the line of about 20 spotting scopes that were brought and set up by volunteers and pointed at the water, with somewhere around 50 or so people using them and otherwise milling about. I walked a few feet down to the edge of the viewing area to set up my scope, when, to my surprise, Mark (from yesterday’s Cades Cove trip) turned around and greeted me. I said that it seems we may never see each other unless we both have our scopes (as we did now and yesterday), and we agreed that that’s not a bad thing at all. I’m glad he was there too, because otherwise I may not have identified the Bonaparte’s Gulls (Life Bird) amongst the Ring-billed Gulls, or the Ring-necked Ducks that flew in just before I left, as they were all very distant. So, thanks Mark. Several dozen gulls were flying over the water, in part because of the Double-crested Cormorants catching fish below, and then the gulls would try to steal the fish before the cormorants had swallowed it, though I didn’t witness any success on the gulls’ part. Only about 50 Sandhill Cranes were present, which was very low for this time of year, but this was likely due to higher water levels. About five total adult and youngster Bald Eagles showed up here and there, giving nice views, but still distant, like most birds here. A small flock of ducks flew in which I thought were Canvasbacks, judging from the whitish backs, but Mark and everyone else said Redheads. I tried to picture Redheads as I looked at them, but they were too far out for me personally to tell one way or the other, so I opted to just leave them off, since I want to be able to identify the birds on my list at least a little bit, if you know what I mean.  If you come to Hiwassee Refuge, BRING A SCOPE. You won’t get too far without one. Something I wasn’t planning on was when someone called out a Great Egret sitting in a far out pine tree. With the naked eye it was just a white dot, but through the scope the dot did indeed resolve itself to be an adult Great Egret, a welcome treat. A not quite so welcome treat, but very comical in its own way, was when I was scanning the water, and I felt/heard a solid splat on my left shoulder. I slowly looked over at the fresh whitish/orangeish circular smatter on me, then slowly looked up in the tree above me at the Eastern Bluebird who was looking as innocent as, well, a dove. Oh yeah, I’m a birder.

I spent from about 12:00noon to 4pm here, then headed out on the last bus. We went first to the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park (right next to the refuge) to drop a few people off because their cars were parked there, and then went back to the school, where I jumped into my car and went straight back to the Memorial Park, since we didn’t have time to stay just a few minutes before, and I was planning on stopping there anyway to check things out. Well, I sort of went straight there. After a few turns I found myself going in the wrong direction. After about 15-20 minutes of driving where I didn’t need to be, I finally got straightened out and made it there just as the sun was setting. Hardly anybody was there at the observation platform, birds and humans alike, but as it got later, several hundred Sandhills started flying in in groups to roost for the night on Hiwassee Island, located in the river. About four birders from the refuge came in, including Melinda Welton, who gave a crane talk earlier. I came over to their group since I wasn’t seeing a whole lot anyway, and two scopes are better than one. As we watched the cranes soar in, somebody (I think Melinda) calmly called out two Whooping Cranes flying over the distant tree line. I had been hoping to see these all day, and now they were so far out that I couldn’t even see them with the naked eye, but through the scope their overall whiteness and black wingtips could be seen well, so I could ID them myself easily. Life Bird #2 for the day, and an extremely rare one at that! And for that, I thank you, Melinda.

Earlier via Tn Bird I had heard of some American White Pelicans over on Gunstocker Creek, but I wasn’t sure how to get to the exact location. On the way in I had seen a road named “Gunstocker Road”, so on my way out I thought, “Why not, I’ll drive down there and see what there is, even though I don’t think they were seen on this road.” It was a total shot in the dark (literally, the sun had set), but I went a little ways down there anyway, and, not surprisingly, didn’t find anything. Oh well, at least I didn’t go home without trying some avenue for finding them pelicans.

With this weekend accomplished, I know have 195 on my Life List, and 66 on my year list.

Booyah!

  • Canada Goose
  • Mallard
  • Ring-necked Duck
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Black Vulture
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Bald Eagle
  • Northern Harrier
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Sandhill Crane
  • Whooping Crane (Life Bird)
  • Killdeer
  • Bonaparte’s Gull (Life Bird)
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Mourning Dove
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • American Robin
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler
  • Song Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Purple Finch

Hiwassee Crane Festival panoramic

Hiwassee Refuge panorama

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Sandhill Cranes

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Adult Bald Eagle (click to zoom in)

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Ring-billed and Bonaparte’s Gulls, and Double-crested Cormorants

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Watchful birders

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List of species seen, though not quite complete (I added the Carolina Chickadee :))

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Mad Turkey, as things were being packed away

 

By Bus and By Foot

“Have any of you heard of those crow deaths along the roads in Ontario?” Fred asked the binocular toting passengers on the bus. We all sort of shook our heads.

“Recently,” he continued, “people have been finding a lot of dead crows along the roads, and they didn’t know what was causing it. They tested the dead crows for West Nile virus, but it wasn’t being caused by any illness. Eventually it was found that 98% of them were being hit by trucks. Now, in flocks of crows there’s a lookout that watches for danger while the others feed. It turns out, when the crows were hanging around the road, the lookout would see a vehicle coming down the road, and yell “Caw caw!”, and so save everyone from cars, but not trucks.”

Up until the “Caw! (Car!)” part, we were all intently listening, expecting some profound revelation, so when the punch line came, there was laughter from all and, doubtlessly, thoughts of “Oops, I completely fell for that one.”

This transpired during a bus trip led by Dr. Fred Alsop up to Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains, as part of Wilderness Wildlife Week in Pigeon Forge Tennessee, a week of hikes, talks, vendors, and the like (and it’s all free!). I had been going for several days before this, but just for talks ranging from photography to Africa to a local sheriff, so not much to blog about.

I had to be at the convention center at 8:00am, but I fortunately didn’t have to get up early since my great-grandma’s place (where I was staying; it’s better than a hotel) is only about ten minutes away. Once I got there and signed in along with everyone else, it was found that two people weren’t able to get on the bus, since they registered after it was full. However, Fred, in a not too inconspicuous manner, said that “if they wanted to go birding, and happen to follow the bus, and happen to stop and bird at the same places that we do, so be it.” So they (John and Mark) tagged along in their respective cars behind the bus the whole trip.

Once outside, I gave Beaufort the bus driver my yellow ticket that I was given just minutes before, got on the bus, and off we went. This is my third time on this trip, so a few faces were familiar, but not many names were except Fred’s. The way it’s set up is to make several birding stops along the way to the Cove, bird at the Cove, then drive back down with no stops. Before our first stop, we were all given a small green Tennessee birds checklist to keep track of the day’s findings.

The first stop is an open gravel section of Foothills Parkway with some woods, next to Wears Valley Road. Usually, by the time I get back in the bus at this location, my hands are aching from the 20 weather, but this time it was actually quite pleasant, even though there was still frost and snow on the ground from the snowstorm the previous day. The rising sun coming down on the frost lit up the trees and grass so that it glowed. I tried to get pictures, but a few days before this I had been experimenting with my camera, and forgot that I had set the ISO to max (yes, I felt like an idiot once I realized what was wrong), so most of them were way over exposed. Anyway, this is always a very good stop, with Swamp Sparrows in the beaver pond, and usually some good woodland species across the road. The best find was a small flock of about ten Red Crossbills, though the looks at them were less than spectacular. I had seen them flying towards us for a few seconds already, but I didn’t think a whole lot of it because I had no idea that they were crossbills. Before I called them out, Fred saw them and said “Red Crossbills!”, then they disappeared behind the trees. They seemed to be heading towards a break in the trees where we could get a second look (or first, for those who missed them the first time), but, sadly, they never did. Even so, this was a Life Bird for me, though I will be looking forward to a better look at them in the future.

A short ways down the road we pulled off again to look at what may or may not be in a field across the road. A few more buildings had sprung up since last visit, but some Mourning Doves, a Kestrel, and a Felis catus were seen.

Moving on, we stopped at a BP station for lunch, and birded the tree line that is generally productive at the edge of the pavement. A father and son walking out of the BP looked with apparent confusion at the flock of about 20 people pointing binoculars into the bushes. It’s easier to feel weird and out of place when you’re standing on a busy roadside with binoculars while trying to get a look at a bird at a water treatment plant, than when you’re in a group. There’s safety in numbers.

After one more stop to check out things along the river, we made it to Cades Cove. The first order of business was to meet up with Warren, a park ranger Fred knew that had been birding the area earlier that day, and who was now going to join us. We walked into the loop exit and up to the water treatment ponds, where roughly ten Buffleheads of both genders were swimming and diving. Buffleheads are one of my favorite ducks; they’re kind of hard not to like. An added bonus was a Wilson’s snipe flushed from the water’s edge. He flew for a bit, and then came to rest at the lower pond. I had never gotten a good look at one, so I was really hoping we would see one stationary. Looking at the lower pond’s edges, we not only saw him/her stationary, but got the scopes on him/her as well (I had my scope, and Mark had a nice Swarovski HD). Several good birds were seen as we bused around the loop and stopped here and there. At Hyatt Lane were some Northern Harriers putting on a show, along with two Red-shouldered Hawks, and a buck with a nice sized rack that came running out of the trees into a field, and then stood there stock still for a while. I actually never saw him move after that. John (who at this point reminded me vaguely of Hugh Laurie) commented on the stream of traffic marching along by saying, “They look like a herd of undulates.”, which was very true, like a herd of buffalo migrating across the plains. On the way back to the bus, another profound thing was said, this time by Fred, who studied under James Tanner, who said “Don’t study books, study nature.” Again, this is very true, and something that biologists especially should never forget.

The following is what I personally saw, but the group as a whole got about four more than what’s shown.

  • Canada Goose
  • Bufflehead
  • Wild Turkey
  • Northern Harrier
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • American Kestrel
  • Wilson’s Snipe
  • Mourning Dove
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Pileated Woodpecker
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Brown Creeper
  • Carolina Wren
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • American Robin
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Brown Thrasher
  • European Starling
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Field Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Red Crossbill (Life Bird)
  • American Goldfinch

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Frosty sunrise

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Beaver pond

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Bus full o’ birders

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Cades Cove

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Pileated Woodpecker (two of them gave us very good views as they worked away at a log near the road)

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Group shot

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Frozen buck

Knoxville Christmas Bird Count

Ah, Knoxville. My favorite city. Out of all of the CBCs this year, this is one of the ones that I anticipated the most. Through e-mail, I was given the bottom half of Area #6 to cover, which is located smack in the middle of the count circle as a whole. My sister Samantha came with me this time, so she handled the directions and checklist while I drove and birded, which worked out pretty well considering that a good few of the directions had to deal with short roads and frequent turns.

After the hour drive just to get to Knoxville, we started at 8:15am, beginning with the Fox Marina area, in the southwest corner of my area. I should mention now that the places that we went today were suggested to me by Dean Edwards, the count compiler; it’s a good thing that he suggested them too, because I’m not very familiar with this area’s birding hotspots. Anyway, just before getting to the Marina itself, I spied some ducks on a pond behind a small house. Turning around and parking in front of the house (I don’t think anyone was home anyway), the ducks turned out to be 15 Mallards and, surprisingly, a female (or juvenile male, I’m not quite sure) Hooded Merganser, a Life Bird for me. Not a half bad way to start a count in my opinion. At the Marina itself were some gulls that I strongly assume were Ring-billeds, two American Coots, and a few other landlubber species. I may have gotten one or two more, but at this point it was still only 25°, so it was hard to not get out, get the visible species, and get back into the warm van as soon as possible.

The rest of the day is in no particular order, since we hopped around several places and did some backtracking. We checked out a couple of different ponds that were on the list and picked up a few species there, including a male White-necked Mallard. Okay, maybe not a species, but he did have some assorted genes that gave him a new look. At one pond (actually more of a creek) were dozens and dozens of joggers. I’ve honestly never seen so many joggers in one place before. It’s no exaggeration to say that if you stood in one spot, someone would jog past at least every 10 seconds; we finally turned around once we had gotten several birds, and a flock of joggers seven strong came barreling down the whole width of the walkway. Bunches of Starlings throughout the day, of course. Once I drove passed a few poking around in the grass on the roadside, and from my brief glance I thought that they were blackbirds, so I turned around in the road with some difficulty, only to determine upon my second look that they were indeed those invasive pests of the skies.

Another place of note is the Walker Springs Park and Greenway. By now it was a balmy 40° or so, making it easier to stay out longer. Unable to find designated parking, I finally had to park at a self-service carwash just to be able to start onto the greenway. We spent the most time walking here, through habitats including woods, residential, and some small fields. I was told that a Barred Owl and Red-shouldered Hawk might be able to be picked up here. No Owl, but there was indeed a Red-shouldered Hawk, perched near the top of a bare tree, with feathers fluffed against the chill. As an added treat, spiraling up trees while searching for tidbits tucked in the tree bark cracks was a Brown Creeper, the first of two that would be seen today. Then there was a Blue Jay that was giving a repeated, one-note call of something he had heard before and was now mimicking, almost sounding like some kind of monkey. Just before leaving the park area to head back to the van via the greenway, several species of woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches put on a show, all seemingly converging on one spot in an open area next to a bend in the trail. All of them climbing in the trees, a few calling, and even a few Carolina Wrens pitching in, apparently sending us off as we left.

Once things started to slow down in our area, we had lunch, and I called Billie Cantwell about the male Rufous Hummingbird that’s been in their yard at least since early December. Good ol’ eBird and Tn Bird notified me of this hummer a little while ago, but I hadn’t been in the area to come see him until now. Colin picked up the phone and said that their count was winding down too (they were also doing the Knoxville CBC), and that they’d be at their house soon so I could see the Rufous. Since we were already done, we got to their house before they did, but they came in a few minutes behind us. I probably would have come sooner so that I could have put this species down on my count, but this spot was literally about 1,000 feet outside of my area (darn the luck), but at least it was inside of their area, so they were able to mark it down. There were two feeders that he was likely to visit, so Samantha took the front yard while I took the back. While waiting, I was quite happy to see two Pine Siskins come to one of their many seed feeders, these also being Life Birds for me. After a bit, Samantha and I traded posts, so that I had the front yard. Very soon after switching, I had started talking to Colin when she quickly said, “There he is!” and pointed to the top of a tall bush right above my head. There, on a small branch, was a small, dark hummingbird shape that quickly flew to a tree further away. I had just enough time to get my binoculars on him, long enough to see the rich rufous coloring and a few red, reflective throat feathers, and then he flew to the backyard. Walking up there and looking around the corner of the house, he perched at the feeder long enough to get a sip, likely saw us, then zoomed away. All well worth the half hour wait for him to show up. Thanks again Billie and Colin for letting me stand around outside of your house, and of course for reporting the Rufous in the first place. As a matter of fact, just up the road from this Rufous, another one was banded shortly after I saw this one.

Once all of this was over, the day was pretty much done. On the way home, just before driving out of our area, a Red-tailed Hawk circled overhead, bringing the south side of Area #6’s total to 34 species. Including the Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Dark-eyed Junco, Black Vultures, and Turkey Vultures that I saw at different times this week, this brings my year list up to 44. Now if only I could keep up this pace. At this rate, I would have over 2,000 species by the end of the year…

  • Mallard
  • Hooded Merganser (Life Bird)
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • American Coot
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Rock Pigeon
  • Mourning Dove
  • Rufous Hummingbird (Life Bird, outside of my count area)
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Tufted Titmouse
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Brown Creeper
  • Carolina Wren
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Hermit Thrush
  • American Robin
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Brown Thrasher
  • European Starling
  • Yellow-rumped (Myrtle) Warbler
  • Eastern Towhee
  • Song Sparrow
  • White-throated Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • House Finch
  • Pine Siskin (Life Bird, outside of my count area)
  • American Goldfinch

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Hooded Merganser (in the middle)

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Male and female White-necked Mallards

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Pine Siskins

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Backyard feeder (no hummingbird present, he didn’t stick around long enough for me to get a picture)

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Rufous Hummingbird (Billie or Colin took this picture, not me, though it is the same Rufous)