Monday, March 26, 2018

Vultures: Love 'em or Not!

We have two vultures in eastern US: black and turkey. The Turkey vulture is Catharsis aura. Which in the Greek and Latin means something along the lines of changing of things and breeze or air. The Black vulture is Coragyps atratus which is roughly a “raven-black”-bird dressed for mourning which seems an awful lot of words that describe the same thing. Both feed off carrion where ever carrion is conveniently found. During this time of year they like to cruise along the shores of the lakes and streams. We have seen them form into mixed groups but also at strange time nearly all of one or the other.

When vultures form up in the sky in those big groups, it is a kettle. They’re searching for odor of carrion and you see they move on, too, rather than just circle in one spot forever. Like everything other living thing in the world they need to eat and you’d think in this day and age of all these metropolitan areas food would be scarce but apparently not. On a good day of spying vultures you don’t count them in the tens. You start with twenties or more. And then we’ve been out on counts and seen none! Do not dismiss a kettle. At the very top of the kettle might easily be a hawk. By taking a moment to look over several individuals is the best way to begin to easily identify each species.

What is more amazing is to watch them feed. They are not too polite but not too pushy. They seem to realize everyone has to eat but of course each individual must first take care of its own survival. There is a restriction on table manners. The mad frenzy means one gets a good bite and is then forced out of the mash pit but then that one will push its way back in. The result is not birds sitting on the wire but this constant movement inward to grab a bit and then step back. Nobody is shy (otherwise you won’t get fed) but they do move each aside and get moved aside. I haven’t noticed vultures biting each other to warn them off like I image cats and hyenas might do.

Think of them like sharks, drawn towards the meal of least resistance where dead is about as least resistant as you can get. Which should remind us that vultures do not circle live food as if waiting for death as they seem to do in all the old westerns.

In the picture this turkey vulture is coming into feed on the carcass on its left. What you don’t see are two other TVs on the other side of the carcass. Notice the red head and the lightness of the flight feathers. These are two basic easily identifiable traits. The black vulture is very black without the lightness in the feathers and a grey head. They do have enough sense to get out of the way of cars but I would never dare to try and interrupt a feeding frenzy with my body. Another differentiation is the turkey vulture has a slight V-shaped wing spread and the black has a flat wing span.

Notice this individual is looking at the carcass. I imagine in nature you don’t let food out of your sight but at the same time all species have to be aware of surroundings and predators. There aren’t a lot of other predators on the hunt for vultures but it only takes maybe a moment of carelessness.

Both vultures are not really good fliers. Despite all that soaring, they spend a lot of energy maintaining altitude on the look out for that next meal. They are also slow to take off which means many has met their end on the interstates meeting the front end of a tractor-trailer rig. I had one almost climb in through the windshield. I swear I could sense his talons scrapping over the roof the car. It was that close.
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Saturday, March 17, 2018

Eagles

I don’t remember when the eagles were hacked on South Holston Lake. It had to have been 20-25 years ago at least. But, they’re back! In good quantities.

We have them now regularly on the scheduled five-county counts and when birding in Sullivan County, Tennessee, we expect to see them. Still, it’s quite a sight.

We are lucky to have a nesting pair across Boone Lake from Winged Deer Park, in Johnson City, off 11E where it crosses the lake. This has become something of a local phenomenon since the nest is also linked to a webcam on our college homepage “www.etsu.edu” and viewed, I’m told, by millions. If you are fortunate enough to be at Winged Deer Park keep your eyes peeled. They have become celebrities in the paper and the TV news. At the senior center the “eagle cam” is on most of the time. We are becoming eagle experts.

But, one of these days the parents will not return and the nest will fall to the elements. Or, the host tree will collapse. It’s the way it all works.

If the weather is nice I prefer to take my chances and spy a head rather than be satisfied with the camera shot. Most folks probably have not seen our pair live but if you get lucky……

The Genus species is Haliaeetus leucocephalus. Hals and aetus combind for sea-eagles in the Greek. Most of us might be more acquainted with Aquila which is the Latin for eagle and is also the name of the constellation. Leuko is from the Greek for white and cephala is from the Latin for head. Alba is also used many times for white but also for first. Blanca is white but more like “pale” as in European skin tones in the Latinate languages.

We’ve watched young grow up and we’ve watched the nest get visited and damaged and rebuilt. The young take five years to mature. I keep wondering how long the pine the nest is in will last under the load of the nest.

In an earlier post I mentioned one time while at South Holston dam we saw seven mature and immature eagles cavorting out over the lake, diving and wrestling. I don’t recall if any of us had ever seen such a sight but it was spectacular. If you get out an watch enough the rewards are more than just tick marks on a list.
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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

scaup (greater or lesser?)




We get both scaup here in the winter times. We had the usual few scaup at the Christmas Bird Count in early December 2017.

I was out on Christmas Eve driving around Piney Flats, Tenn., and then towards Pickens Bridge, near Boone’s Creek. In this typically yucky farm pond were three scaup. I was excited! Scaup would be listed something on the order of “seasonal, uncommon” so to find any was fun and to find them where I least expected to find anything was even better!

I’ve heard of this dilemma of which is “greater” or “lesser.” I would be the first to admit I cannot tell the difference. So, the label is “scaup, species” and just be glad to get a scaup. I think this is only the second one for me for the calendar year.


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Golden Jubilee Carter County Bird Count


The 75th Annual Carter County Christmas Bird Count is in the record books.That’s a pretty good string of successful counts. We had 6 parties, 26 observers, and a new all-time high species count of 85. The 30-year running average is 72. While a bit chilly to start with by noon we had an uncommonly nice winter’s day for north east Tennessee. There was some snow still on the ground higher up but in town folks were out in t-shirts and flip-flops. This old guy was not one of them. The group I most often bird with will tell you I am quick to chill.

The count area is a 15-mile diameter centered on Wilbur Dam so that takes in almost all of Elizabethton, a long ways up Stoney Creek towards Shady Valley, and most of Watauga Lake to the east.

As it always is, some species just don’t want to show up. For example, for a 150-square mile area we had a total of 14 vultures. But we also hit every woodpecker and quite a few of the ducks. This is about the right time in the season for more ducks and we have been seeing more arrive either additional species or additional individuals. We had almost 300 bufflehead which would be a fraction of them for the larger five-county area.

The count produced many singles: white-fronted goose, Eur-Asian collared dove, barred owl, blue-headed vireo, red-breasted nuthatch (a real surprise), red-winged blackbird, catbird, brown thrasher, Eastern meadowlark (although upwards of 30 were spotted a week before outside the area). Bird watching is like that. From time to time in a given area it hit and miss and other times in the same area over a season all kinds of varieties come through.

Of course, in this small area were only thirteen-hundred starling.

I’ve noted here some of the more interesting finds (or misses) as noted by Rick Knight who is the compiler of record for the Herndon Chapter: Red-winged blackbird found 9 of last 25 years; Eastern meadowlark becoming very hard to find on this CBC; Brown-headed cowbird found 3 of last 25 years; Red-shouldered Hawk found 6 of last 25 years, uncommon in northeast Tennessee. Perhaps the most notable miss was American coot.

Our group (Bryan Stevens, Chris Soto, and Brenda Richards) collected 75 pipits in a corn field. Pipits have been on the count only three times in the last 25 years. That was my second pipit sighting of the calendar year. I’ve gone full years without seeing them. We stumbled upon a collard dove not half-a-mile as the crow flies from where they’d been seen several times in the summer. This count, they had none and we had one. The collared dove (pictured) lacks the pattern of a mourning dove and of course has the distinctive black collar around the back of the neck. We were excited, to say the least.

You can also expect some birds to be around that are relatively new to the area. Perhaps most notably is Bald eagle. Rick’s note is that we’ve seen Bald eagle in 20 of the last 25 years but only once before that. About 25 years ago was when the hacking program began on South Holston Lake and has paid off nicely. If you need further convincing of that, check out www.etsu.edu for the eagle cameras.

Also, Herndon hosts a website at https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/HerndonBirdClub/info where more details are listed.
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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Winter Ducks December 2017

With each slightly colder day up north we anticipate getting a newer winter ducks. So far, however, the ducks seem to like their northern temperatures. I guess until a few days ago, we did, too. Winter has arrived, it seems. As I write this I keep looking out the window at all that snow on the ground that blew in last night. The roads are still warm but with a heavily overcast day today the roads will worsen over night.

As of early December we’ve had: bufflehead, blue-wing teal, green-wing teal, widgeon, gadwall, black duck, hooded merganser, and common loon and a few others. 

We’re not usually cursed with iced over ponds although you’ll find a farm pond sometimes with a skim of ice. The bigger lakes and private lakes are usually ice free. More than likely a problem for bird watching is the ice and snow on the back roads. The ducks don’t care.

For December we are more likely to get rain than a snow that sticks. January and February are kind of tough if you are a fair weather birder like me. At Musick’s Campground it has become normal to don wind pants and gloves because the wind always picks up brutally and it’s cold, usually, to begin with!

The detail in this photo isn’t really important: a bunch of mallard and a couple of black ducks in the rain on the Rooty Branch road near South Holston Dam. Even though we pulled up stakes early that day (club meeting that night) it was raining a bit more by then and the day’s work had been fairly productive.

I have condensed Roy Knispel’s compilation of 48 species below: Gadwall, Am. Wigeon, Am. Black Duck, N. Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, Ring-necked Duck, Hooded Merganser, Pied-billed Grebe, Common Loon, Great Blue Heron, Bald Eagle, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Am. Kestrel, Ring-billed Gull, Red-headed Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Brown Creeper, Towhee, White-crowned Sparrow, E. Meadowlark.

We have a routine of places which work mostly for the winter months: Paddle Creek Pond, Osceola Island/South Holston Dam overlook, Rooty Branch/ Pemberton Road, Musick’s Campground, Middlebrook Lake. During the summer most of these spots become very unproductive. It takes a year to work through all the spots in the five upper east Tennessee counties and even then sometimes two or three or a dozen tries to fill out the list for the year.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Eagles on South Holston Lake, October 24.

There are times when we are out birding that we get to see some activity of nature that probably most of the rest of the world will only see on television or YouTube. We’ve been lucky enough to see prey birds attack, fishing birds dive, huge flocks on migrants, the occasional very rare loners. For example, there are lingering reports of a Brown pelican still at Fort Patrick Henry Lake, in Kingsport.

We were up in the watery part of Sullivan County, Tenn., up against the Virginia state line and Holston Lake, searching for early-arriving winter ducks. They had been sighted (bufflehead, widgeon come to mind) but our usual luck held and we missed them. We covered from the TVA swimming area on Mingus Road to Davis Dock and the Weir Dam and Musick’s Campground with limited success. (I’ve appended Roy Knispel’s report of the day below.)

What we saw, though, not in numbers but in activity and rarity, were eight Bald eagles at play, diving, swooping, carousing, out over South Holston Lake. None of us had seen such a thing around here. Eight eagles in one sighting is probably more eagle than I see in a year. Sadly, they dispersed but regrouped in smaller groups way too far out to catch with a camera. I think we were too stunned to remember to take a picture.

On top of that, it helped that the weather was clear and calm, slightly on the warm side. That meant we could stay and watch a second time. We have been blown off the overlook at Holston Dam and at Musick’s Campground before. This display was a “Nature” or “Wild Kingdom” moment. I suppose a person could return to the dam once a week for the rest of their lives and not be so lucky again.


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(Gil Derouen, Jim Anderson, Debi Campbell, Charles Moore, and I birded some water areas in Sullivan Cty yesterday (10-24). We observed a great display by 8 Bald Eagles (2 adults and 6 younger birds) flying around and interacting where we viewed them from near the crane at the S. Holston Lake Dam overlook.  We also saw one Bald Eagle at the Hwy 421 bridge boat launch and one Bald Eagle coming down the river at the Weir Dam.

Additional sightings for the day include:
Wild Turkeys---8 on Sugar Hollow Rd. and 4 in the Davis Dock area
also at Davis Dock
D. C. Cormorant                  9
Osprey                                1
Coot                                   1
Boone Lake Overlook:
Pied-billed Grebe                1
Musick's Campground                 
Common Loon                    1
Rooty Branch beaver pond
Wood Duck                         10
Weir Dam:
Am. Wigeon                       10
Blue-winged Teal                 8
Paddle Creek:
Am Kestrel                         1
Coot                                   1
Middlebrook Lake:
Wood Duck                         3
Coot                                   2
We also had Red-tailed Hawks at Musick's, Big Springs Rd., and Paddle Creek and 14 Great Blue Herons--at least one at almost every place we checked.)

Friday, June 30, 2017

Birding on Roan Mountain, Carter County, Tennessee

Tennessee is lucky in geography for birding. Being 400 miles from one end to the other we form a long fence for bird life to fly over whether migrating north or south or just deciding to stay for the winter or summer.

At the west end, at the lowest elevation is Memphis and the birding areas along the river from below Memphis, in the back water of the Mississippi, to Reelfoot Lake in the northwest corner. At our end is the Roan Mountain massif. It is a fair day’s drive from here to Memphis. At the Rhododendron Gardens you have vista to the east that is as good as any.

In between is “middle” Tennessee with plateau, mountains, rivers, small farms, rolling hills, and lovely scenery. Tennessee is noted for it’s river systems that feed the French Broad, the Tennessee, and eventually the Ohio. The Cumberland Plateau is halfway between Knoxville and Nashville extends from the Kentucky to Georgia.

We usually bird from Carver’s Gap, where you can park and access the Appalachian Trail. Southbound on the AT takes you to Roan High Knob through fir and balsam forests that are aromatic, dark, and lovely. Northbound takes you out onto the balds, the clearings that afford a view to either side and up and down the trail. It is nothing short of magnificent. As someone said the other day, “This is the most beautiful place to bird.” Amen.

In this picture, we’re northbound on the trail from Carver’s Gap, looking northerly for Vesper sparrow. It rained that day just as we got back to the car. Still, be sure to take your sunscreen.

You might note that we are standing on the trail. The deck is large gravel through this part, easy walking, a day hiker’s delight.

Take a lunch. Walk out to the overlook. All that forest land is pretty much out of production so that which we enjoy needs our protection. The view is not free. Enjoy the gardens but be sure to pay your fee.

Individual birders in Carter County annually report over 200 species. There are 70 years of consistent sightings. The most recent count (Twenty-fourth Annual Carter County Count) caught 123 species. Not just on the Roan, of course, but Holston Mountain, the Blue Hole, Stoney Creek, TVA Watauga Lake, Wilbur Lake, the Doe River Gorge, Twin Spring, Hampton Creek Cove, and Sycamore Shoals State Park. From 6,200 feet to 1,400 feet. That’s as good as the Smokies and that has some of the best birding in the world.
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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Accipiter cooperii at the Mall

I got lucky the other day. In the morning about ten o’clock or so I was headed someplace apparently that took me by the Johnson City Mall, on North Roan Street. Where ever I was going required that I turn down Mountcastle, past Bojangles, past Bowman’s Jewelry new outlet. There on the right, where Bowman’s iron fence separates their property was a Cooper’s hawk enjoying the sunshine.

To get the picture, I had to keep an eye on him, turn right into the mall, go twenty yards to turn right again to get to the entrance into the parking lot in front of Dick’s Sporting Goods, and then another into the parking lot itself and then aimed towards where the Cooper’s was sitting on the fence, all the while, not causing an accident and keeping my eye on the hawk.

I had to get out of the car and open the trunk and fumble to get camera bag out and the camera out out of the camera bag (danged zippers!) and turned on and zoomed and aimed and all that while he sat tapping his talon in exasperation that I couldn’t get my act together. He was patient.

This shot is from under the trees of a parking island and about as lucky as I’ll ever get. We have regular sightings of Cooper’s and Sharp-shin accipiters as well as many of the other hawks. At Winged Deer Park is a Bald eagle’s nest which is also viewable via the webcam sponsored by ETSU.

This one was just not expected.