Doe Mountain Hawk Watch

Doe Mountain Recreation Area in Mountain City, TN is starting their first official hawk watch this month. They are looking for volunteers to help count migratory raptors from Sept 9th – Sept 30th. The count site is at Kettlefoot fire tower, which has incredible views of Doe Valley, Iron Mountain, and Stone Mountains. While on the mountain, you have a good chance of seeing other great birds like Ruffed Grouse, owls, and fall warblers. See the attached flyer for more info and how to get involved!

December Species Spotlight: Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill. Photo by Adrianna Nelson.

Perhaps the most unique finch found in our region of Southern Appalachia is the Red Crossbill. It is easy to imagine this species’ appearance given such a descriptive name. This hefty finch does, indeed, have a crossed bill. The tips of their mandibles are long. When the mandibles are closed, the tips extend past each other. This incredible adaptation has developed to help the crossbill consume conifer cones on which it solely relies for food. The crossbill will open its beak slightly, insert it between the scales of a cone, then close down, effectively prying the scales apart to expose the seed inside. The scientific name, Loxia curvirostra, is derived from words meaning “crosswise” and “curved bill.” Interestingly, the bills of some individuals cross to the left while others cross to the right. The number of right versus left crossing bills is approximately equal. In similar species, such as the White-winged Crossbill, an individual’s bill is 3 times more likely to cross to the right than to the left.

And, yes, they are also red – at least sometimes. Males are red all over while females are a duller mustard-yellow, and both have grayish-brown wings. Juveniles are even more drab and are covered with heavy streaking. In general, the Red Crossbill is found year-round in most of southern Canada, western United States, parts of Mexico, and pockets in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Their primary wintering range covers much of the northern states while they are scarcely found even farther south. Their range map might look simple, but there are more intricacies than meets the eye. The crossbill is subdivided into groups called “call types.” As you may have guessed, this refers to the slight, yet consistent, variations in vocalizations that differentiate populations across geographic regions.

Each of these types, in addition to unique call variations, also specialize in consuming the seeds of certain species of trees because each type has slightly different sized bills. Altogether, there are 11 types. Here in Southern Appalachia, the “Type 1” or “Appalachian” crossbill is most common. The call is usually described as a series of jip-jip-jip sounds. It is suited for eating seeds from trees such as White Pine, Red Spruce, Frasier Fir, Virginia Pine, Pitch Pine, and others. They are most frequently found at higher elevations that offer vast swathes of these conifers, such as Roan, Whitetop, and Grandfather Mountains. The next most common type in Southern Appalachia is “Type 2” or “Ponderosa Pine” crossbill. Our region falls under the secondary zone of occurrence for this type, so they are not as frequently found here. They feed on many of the same species as type 1: Red, Jack, Pitch, and Virginia Pines. The type 2 crossbill also forages on Table Mountain Pines, which type 1 crossbills usually avoid. The Table Mountain Pine has large, heavy, thick, and spiny cones. The larger bills of the type 2 are better suited for handling these tougher cones.

These call types have posed interesting questions for biologists all over the country. It is clear that there are relatively constant distinctions among the populations, but these birds challenge typical definitions of how subspecies should act. Many believe that these call types should be considered their own subspecies, or even be split altogether to create entirely separate species. This happened very recently; in 2017 the Cassia Crossbill (Loxia sinesciuris), once considered a Red Crossbill subspecies, was determined to be unique at the species level. To make the matter more confusing, Red Crossbills rarely remain in one place for very long. During years of low cone crops, crossbills will disperse over great distances to find sufficient food, called “irruptions.” These movements mean that crossbills of various populations can end up in unlikely locations and interact with one another. Such mixing complicates traditional ideas of what constitutes a species or subspecies. Distinguishing the ecology, behavior, and genetics of such a fluid and dynamic bird makes determining their taxonomic status tricky. Even so, irruption years can be quite exciting for birdwatchers. In 2020, many finches (including crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, Pine Siskins) and Red-breasted Nuthatches appeared in our region. Outbreaks of boreal birds sometimes provide birdwatchers a chance to witness these species when they diffuse outside of their normal range.

In general, crossbills tend to be nomadic, even on normal, non-irruption years. This constant movement helps them to find the food required to sustain themselves and breed. In fact, they are capable of breeding at any time during the year as long as they can locate enough conifer seeds to feed their young. Although, nesting is most common in late summer when the cone crops have begun to mature. Breeding pairs tend to be monogamous and share the load of incubating eggs and feeding young.

One of my favorite memories of crossbills happened on a cool summer day on top of Roan Mountain. Out of the blue, a huge group of crossbills flew overhead and landed in the nearby Red Spruces. They made quick work of the cones, methodically removing and eating the seeds. A few birds dropped to the ground just yards away from me. This family group – a male, female, and juvenile – were bold enough to let me watch closely as they gathered grit from the gravel parking lot. In an instant, they all took flight and disappeared into the green ocean of trees, leaving behind only the whispers of quickly fading jip-jip-jips. The Red Crossbill strikes up curiosity and wanderlust, sparking wonder in the eyes of anybody who gets the chance to witness one of Southern Appalachia’s most amazing birds.

Sources:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red_Crossbill/overview
https://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/condor/v090n04/p0745-p0760.pdf

Bird Club Dues

Got a notice from Elizabethton so it is a good time to mention all bird clubs & TOS yearly membership is coming due for 2022. Please support our local clubs!

It’s that time again. Please submit your Dues for 2022. Family $40. Single $30. Associate and Lifetime $12. Student $10. You may mail them to:
Elizabethton Bird Club
P.O. Box 183
Elizabethton, TN 37644

November Species Spotlight: Gadwall

Gadwall photo by Adrianna Nelson

One of my favorite times of year is fall, but not because of the promise of holiday foods, cooler weather, or beautiful foliage. I love it because late fall marks the arrival of wintering ducks in our region. The avid birder may already know that ducks spend the cooler months here, but others may be surprised to learn that many species speckle the waterways of Southern Appalachia from late fall to early spring. Truly, ducks are a fascinating and diverse group. I recall an instance in which I found nearly a dozen species on a small farm pond in East Tennessee. A single Common Goldeneye was surrounded by Greater Scaups, Lesser Scaups, and Redheads, all disappearing and resurfacing in the dark water as they dove for food. Towards the banks of the pond, a large group of miniscule Green-winged Teals were busy munching on vegetation. Nearby, a lonely Northern Shoveler kept watch, holding up its awkwardly large bill. Moving about the pond was another species – the Gadwall (Mareca strepera).

The Gadwall, sometimes simply called “gray duck,” is aptly named. From a distance, adult males appear to be mostly gray – a somber getup. Upon closer inspection, however, striking details become evident. Incredibly fine scaling and barring cover the male’s breast and flanks. Creamy brown feathers drape the back, which contrasts with a black rump patch. Given the right angle, a warm chestnut patch on the wings may be seen when the duck is at rest or in flight. Females are similarly sober in color, yet intricate in pattern. They are completely covered in brown mottling. The orange bill and bright white speculum (wing patch) are readily visible. Though not the flashiest of species upon first glance, the Gadwall has a rather subtle charisma.

Though the origin of the name “Gadwall” is not perfectly clear, its scientific name “strepera” means “noisy” in Latin. This bird is well-named – the Gadwall can be quite boisterous. Males in particular make lots of noises, especially when displaying for females. They emit high-pitched, raspy whistles and make a strange quacking sound that is often called a “burp.” The females also make a quack that sounds very similar to Mallard ducks. A large group of Gadwalls can cause quite the cacophony! Where there is a flock, there will surely be territorial or courtship behaviors. Ducks often make interesting movements such as head bobbing, bill opening, and water tossing during courtship displays and aggressive interactions. They have even been known to steal food from other species. These behaviors are fascinating to observe, and can be seen while the Gadwall overwinters in our region.

Gadwalls breed in the Prairie Pothole region of the United States and a few other scattered locations in the tundra and Northeastern US/Southeastern Canada. It is important that they have both wetlands for foraging and vegetated upland habitat for nesting. A female will often make a depression in dense grasses or other vegetation, then line it with her feathers before laying a whopping 7-12 white eggs.

This species overwinters throughout Mexico and most of the Southern US. Here in Southern Appalachia, the Gadwall can be found around the edges of small ponds, lakes, and streams from late October through early April. This duck can be seen with its head completely submerged in the water with its tail held up in the air. This behavior, called “dabbling,” is shared among many other duck species. The Gadwall does this to reach vegetation (ex: grasses, sedges, algae) and invertebrates (ex: beetles, snails) in the shallow portions of water bodies. Other ducks are built for diving underwater to catch their prey, leading to a broad division of ducks known as “dabblers” and “divers.”

Gadwalls and other ducks face many predators. Foxes, coyotes, mustelids, birds of prey, and snakes feast on adults, juveniles, and eggs. Peregrine Falcons will sometimes take Gadwalls even though they are nearly the same size! Humans are also efficient Gadwall predators. After Mallards and Green-winged Teals, Gadwalls are the most hunted species of duck in the US. Luckily, hunting does not seem to be having a negative impact on their populations. Groups and protection plans like the Conservation Reserve Program, Ducks Unlimited, and North American Waterfowl Management Plan work to regulate hunting and ensure that gamefowl have adequate habitat for nesting and migration.

For those who are not familiar with the ducks that winter in the Southern Appalachians, I recommend spending some time around our lakes, ponds, and streams this season. Keep an eye (and ear) out for the wonderfully surprising behaviors of our winter ducks.

Sources:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Gadwall/overview

Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. pp. 46, 367. ISBN978-1-4081-2501-4.

Adjustments to our website

It has come to our attention that the Homepage was returning either a ‘Page not found’ or an insecure site warning and block access for users. All the internal pages opened and worked fine, with the exception of the individual Google eBird maps which will be addressed in the near future. The site is now functioning and a member of the Bristol Bird Club, BirdingKingsport and the Elizabethton Bird Club will be editing their club page(s).

The theme will be adjusted and made more appealing in the future, but getting it functional again was the initial goal.

Sorry for the website problems.

October Species Spotlight: Lincoln’s Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow. Photo by Adrianna Nelson.

This time of year brings about lots of change. Chilly breezes signal the arrival of cooler weather. Leaves begin to senesce, draping the mountainsides with blankets of flaming red and vibrant amber. The days become shorter and shorter, tired from long hours of lighting up the summer sky. These seasonal changes also bring new visitors to the region. With the fresh autumn breeze comes a wave of sparrows that migrate through and overwinter in Southern Appalachia.

These “LBJs” or “Little Brown Jobs,” as they are called in the birding community, bring about identification nightmares for the novice birder. Upon first glance, many of North America’s sparrows look dreadfully similar – small, brown, streaky. Teasing apart the unique details of each species can be an arduous exercise of any birder’s ID skills. However, finding and identifying sparrows can actually become quite enjoyable. One such instance is finding a Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) in Southern Appalachian during fall migration.

Lincoln’s Sparrows are incredibly charismatic birds for those who spend some extra time enjoying their intricacies. Starting at the head, Lincoln’s sport a finely steaky, brown crown. Their dark eyes are outlined with a thin, pale eye ring. Gray supercilium and auriculars are an obvious trademark for this sparrow. Farther down, the malar stripes mark the transition into a light, buffy brown coloration. This beautiful buffy color extends down the bird’s breast, stopping abruptly about half way down the belly. On the chest and sides, the buffy background is punctuated by fine brown streaking. Below, the belly remains stark white and unmarked. It’s back, like many other sparrows, is uniformly brown with irregular streaking (great for camouflage). To top it off, the Lincoln’s often raises the feathers on its crown, giving it’s head a peaked appearance.

Lincoln’s are easily confused with the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). Both use similar habitats in the fall and they share many patterns and colors. The Song Sparrow replaces the Lincoln’s fine streaks with much bolder, heavier lines across the breast. Overall, the Song Sparrow generally lacks the same buffy color as the Lincoln’s. Though both can have a grey supercilium, Songs often display white or brown “eyebrows” instead. Song Sparrows usually do not have a peaked crown either, which can often be very noticeable on the Lincoln’s Sparrow.

During the spring and summer months, Lincoln’s Sparrows claim the wet meadows and riparian zones of Canada, the Rocky Mountains, and parts of the Pacific Northwest as their breeding grounds. During migration, this sparrow heads south for Mexico and parts of the southern US. The Lincoln’s Sparrow is one of my personal favorites because it only spends a brief time in the region. With some searching and a little good luck, one may find a Lincoln’s as they pass through on their travels to their wintering grounds. They turn up in a variety of habitats, especially thickets and areas of slow-moving or standing water. Thickets are the one-stop-shop for protection and a delicious insect meal!

These sparrows are often difficult to find. This is by design – these birds are secretive by nature. They love to spend time in dense cover, rarely straying into the open. Even if one exposes itself, it usually doesn’t linger for long before diving back into the vegetation. Nesting females are particularly sneaky. If they feel threatened on the nest, they will actually run through the grass for several feet, somewhat resembling a small rodent scurrying across the ground, before flying away. Despite their reserved nature, these birds boast one of the most musical songs of all North American sparrows. The males sing a quick burst of beautiful song consisting of warbled, trilling, and buzzing notes that quickly rise and fall. Sadly, this sparrow retires its singing voice by the time migration rolls around, so birders in the region might only hear their chip calls.

Sparrows appear time and time again throughout human history. Biblical tales, folk lore, and music of all ages feature sparrows in some way or another. After finding a Lincoln’s, it is not hard to imagine why sparrows are a universal symbol in human culture. Their secretive personalities combined with muted tones of brown and sharply contrasting streaks give them a subtly beautiful demeanor. October is the prime time to find migrating Lincoln’s Sparrows in Southern Appalachia. Grab some binoculars and give it a go!