Feathered Friends – Readers shares story about pine siskin rescue

By Bryan Stevens

A recent email reminded me that some of the birds that visit us during the winter range far beyond our yards and gardens here in Northeast Tennessee.

Pine siskins have a sharp, pointed bill rather than the blunter bills of some of their finch relatives. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

I received an email from Fred Bergold, a reader who resides in Utah.

“This little warbler flew into our window,” Fred explained in his email, which arrived with photos attached. “My wife picked it off the deck and held it for about half an hour.”

The kind treatment worked. “When it got its bearings back, it flew to the top of our Colorado green spruce,” Fred wrote.

“We feed the local wintering birds black oil sunflower seeds, which many species seem to like,’ Fred continued. “We live in Fruit Heights, Utah, just north of Salt Lake City.”

When I looked at the photos Fred provided, I realized that the bird in question wasn’t one of the warblers but a species of small finch known as a pine siskin. I replied to Fred’s email and offered a quick lesson in distinguishing pine siskins from warblers and other small songbirds.

I informed Fred that siskins usually travel in flocks and that they love feeders with sunflower seeds.

I also shared with him that I’ve gotten to travel to his home state of Utah twice since 2003. Getting to see some western species — American dipper, lazuli bunting, western tanager, violet-winged swallow — while visiting the state produced some memorable birding moments.

Winters, no matter where one lives, can decrease the variety of bird species one sees on a daily basis. I often find myself hoping for the excitement produced when flocks of “irruptive” finches not often seen in the area expand their range into the region. In addition to pine siskins, birds such as evening grosbeaks, purple finches, common redpolls and red crossbills represent a few of these northern finch species that occasionally stage massive migratory movements, or irruptions, into areas far outside their typical ranges.

These finches are not the only birds to stage these periodic irruptions. The website birdsource.org identifies several non-finch species — red-breasted nuthatch, Clark’s nutcracker, bohemian waxwing, black-capped chickadee and varied thrush — that undertake periodic winter irruptions. Two of these northern finches — the pine siskin and the red crossbill — are sporadic summer residents on some of the higher mountains in our region.

These irruptions are not usually motivated by cold or severe weather. The absence of a favored food source on a bird’s normal winter range is usually a trigger for an irruption. Birds, such as pine siskins, will fly farther than normal in a quest for reliable food sources. Not surprisingly, well-stocked feeders often attract their attention.

The pine siskin belongs to a genus of birds known as Spinus, which includes three species of goldfinches and more than a dozen species of siskins, many of them native to Central and South America. Only one species — the Eurasian siskin — is found outside of the New World. Other siskins include the black-capped siskin, hooded siskin, red siskin, black siskin, Antillean siskin and Andean siskin.

Siskins often associate with American goldfinches. In shape and size, the two birds are extremely similar. Unlike goldfinches, however, siskins display extensive streaking on their back and breast. The bill of a siskin is sharp and pointed. Overall a drab brown in coloration, siskins also show some surprisingly bright yellow coloration in their wings and tails. Although sociable, individuals can display some irritable tantrums when competing for prime space at feeders.

Some people quickly discover that a large flock of pine siskins is quite a drain on the daily allotment of feed provided for backyard birds. For such small birds, they have large appetites. Siskins are also extremely tame and can often be approached quite closely. A few years ago during a particularly frigid cold snap, I succeeded in luring a pine siskin to land on my gloved hand, which held some sunflower seeds. Needless to say, it was a very memorable, intimate moment.

In addition to this unusual tameness, siskins are extremely vocal birds. These birds have a shrill trill that sounds almost mechanical to my ears. Large flocks also produce a constant twittering noise as they perch in trees or on feeders.

Next month will offer an opportunity to participate in the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, which is a free, fun, and easy event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of bird populations. Recording visiting birds such as pine siskins is an important component of the GBBC. Participants are asked to count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one or more days of the four-day event and report their sightings online at birdcount.org. Anyone can take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from beginning bird watchers to experts, and you can participate from your backyard, or anywhere in the world. The 21st annual GBBC will be held Friday, Feb. 16, through Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. Please visit the official website at birdcount.org for more information. I’ll also focus on the GBBC more in upcoming columns.

Library Happenings – With February comes special events

By Angie Georgeff

As we prepare to bid farewell to January, I suspect few hearts are breaking. We who work at the library and lock the doors at 6 p.m. were overjoyed on the first day when it wasn’t quite dark when we left. Hearts seem to lighten as the days lengthen, and now February stands on our doorstep with hearts, flowers, chocolate and cherry pie. The month is chock full of observances and I’m ready to let it in.

The month starts with Change Your Password Day on Friday. I know that changing your passwords can be a hassle, but with data breaches becoming common occurrences, I believe it pays to be proactive. After the Collection 1 Breach was revealed earlier this month, I groaned, but took the precaution of changing several passwords. I made them strong by using more than 12 characters, including capital letters, lower-case letters, numerals and special symbols. I also made sure that they were easy for me to remember, but something that not even my own family would guess. I then wrote down the passwords I won’t use often and locked them away in a secure place.

An even more important day – to my way of thinking – is Take Your Child to the Library Day, which will be observed this year on Saturday, Feb. 2. For 2019 it happens to coincide with Groundhog Day, but regardless of whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not, we will be celebrating from 1-2 p.m. with a story walk and craft. While you are here, let your child choose a book about groundhogs or any other subject that may interest her and check it out. I do have a word of caution for fans of the Groundhog Day movie: Unlike the film, we will only do this program once, so don’t be late! You – and we – will have only one chance to get it right.

Teen Party

Of course, events to celebrate Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day are currently being planned.  The teen Valentine’s Day party is the first on deck. Young people between the ages of 12 and 18 are invited to celebrate all things February with a party to be held on Friday, Feb. 1, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Please call the library at 743-6533 for information or to register or check out our Unicoi County Public Library Kids and Teens Facebook page for more details.

President’s’ Day

To apostrophe or not to apostrophe, that is the question. Should the upcoming holiday be written as plural (Presidents Day), possessive (President’s Day) or plural possessive (Presidents’ Day)?  We see all three, but according to the State of Tennessee, Feb. 18 will be Presidents Day, while the federal government refers to the holiday as Washington’s Birthday. Sorry, Abe!

Feathered Friends – Birds made headlines around world

At 67, Wisdom, a female Laysan albatross and the world’s oldest known breeding bird in the wild, is a mother once more! On Feb. 6, 2018, approximately two months after Wisdom began incubating her egg, Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, welcomed their newest chick to Midway Atoll. In this photo, Wisdom is pictured with her most her recent chick. (Photo by Bob Peyton/USFWS)

By Bryan Stevens

We are still in the first weeks of 2019, so I thought it might be a good time to look back at some of the top bird-related stories of 2018. Here are my Top Five picks:

Mother of Mothers

Wisdom the albatross nested again at age 67. Wisdom, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service website, is the oldest known banded bird in the wild. She is a female Laysan albatross that nests within the world’s largest albatross colony on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. She is at least 67 years old and a world-renowned symbol of hope for all species that depend upon the health of the ocean to survive.

Famed ornithology expert Chandler Robbins banded Wisdom on Dec. 10, 1956. Forty-six years later, he banded her again.

Albatrosses and other seabirds return to the same nesting site each year. Wisdom has been using the same nesting site on Midway Atoll since she was first banded. Albatrosses lay a single egg and incubate it for a little over two months. After a chick hatches, it will still be another five months before it will leave the nest. In that time, Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, like all albatross parents, take turns incubating the egg or caring for the chick while the other forages for food at sea.

“Midway Atoll’s habitat doesn’t just contain millions of birds, it contains countless generations and families of albatrosses,” said Kelly Goodale, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Refuge Biologist, in a press release. “If you can imagine when Wisdom returns home, she is likely surrounded by what were once her chicks and potentially their chicks. What a family reunion!”

Wisdom’s also a real survivor. For instance, she survived, along with her chick, the earthquake and tsunami that killed many Laysan and black-footed albatrosses on Midway Atoll in 2011.

New Discoveries

New birds continue to be discovered around the world. For example, a research team has described an unusual new songbird species. The bird was named the Rote leaf-warbler (Phylloscopus rotiensis) after the island where it is found.

This new species of leaf-warbler, which has an unusually long bill, was first discovered on Rote Island, Indonesia.

Each year, about five to 10 new bird species are described worldwide. The fact that this bird is the second novel species described from Rota last year is also noteworthy. The other species — the Rote myzomela (Myzomela irianawidodoae) is a species of Indonesian honeyeater endemic to the island of Rote. Although first noticed years ago, scientists only confirmed this past year the the bird is actually a distinct species.

On this one small island in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana islands live two other birds found nowhere else in the world: the Mariana crow and the Rota white-eye. These birds are testimony to both the resilience and fragility of the world’s birds.

Mixed Heritage

In an example of the fluidity of some species of birds, experts have confirmed a rare three-species hybrid with DNA from three different New World warbler species. As the warblers are my favorite family of birds, I found this a fascinating story.

The bird found in Pennsylvania was the offspring of a hybrid warbler mother and a warbler father from an entirely different genus. This is a combination never recorded before now, which resulted in a three-species hybrid bird. The bird is the offspring of a female hybrid between a blue-winged warbler and a golden-winged warbler. Its father was a chestnut-sided warbler, which is not considered a close relative of the other two warblers.

Condors Soar Again

California condors continue to climb back from the brink of extinction. For the first time in more than three decades, an endangered California condor chick successfully fledged from a cliff-side nest in Santa Barbara County in California in November of 2018.  Condor number 933 took its first short flight after being raised by its parents for six months in the northern Santa Barbara backcountry of Los Padres National Forest. This chick represents another milestone in the condor recovery program: the first second-generation wild fledgling in Southern California. Its father fledged from the Santa Barbara backcountry in 1980.

The chick known as Condor 933 hatched in late April and was raised by six-year-old female condor 654 and 38-year-old male condor 20, more popularly known as AC-4.

Official USFWS statistics from December 2016 recorded an overall population of 446 condors, of which 276 are wild and 170 are captive. A key milestone was reached in 2015, when more condors were born in the wild than died.

The goal of the California Condor Recovery Plan is to establish two geographically distinct self-sustaining populations, each with 150 birds in the wild and at least 15 breeding pairs, with a third population of condors retained in captivity. As the Recovery Program works toward this goal, the number of release sites has grown. There are three active release sites in California, one in Arizona and one in Baja, Mexico.

Slipping Away

Despite the success stories, birds are getting hit hard in the age of extinction sweeping our planet. Some of this year’s extinction casualties included a diminutive Hawaiian species known as the po’ouli, as well as the Brazilian birds known as the cryptic treehunter and the Alagoas foliage-gleaner. Spix’s macaw — a parrot species made famous by Disney’s animated feature film Rio — is now extinct in the wild, although about 50 individuals survive in captivity. The announcement about the macaw was a formality. Scientists have suspected the species is extinct in the wild since 2011 when the last known female Spix’s macaw perished. The announcement in September of 2018 served as a mere formality. Unfortunately, things will probably only get worse for many bird species in the short-term future. We must never begrudge the resources needed to keep them all flying free.

Library Happenings – New books for children, teens arrive

By Angie Georgeff

Our very large order of books for children and teens has arrived! When they were first delivered, one of the big tables in our lobby was filled to capacity with boxes in an array of sizes.

Their less-than-first-class travels from Middle Tennessee and Indiana had left them cold in spite of their dust jackets, but they soon warmed up and now are eager to entertain your children. We are cataloging and processing them as quickly was possible.

Spotlight Book

Alphabet books are a wonderful resource for teaching young children their letters. Most begin with something like “A is for apple; B is for ball and C is for Cat.” They are colorful and practical, but just not that interesting if one is not a toddler. One of our most recent acquisitions, however, is an alphabet book with a twist.

Raj Haldar and Chris Carpenter’s “P Is for Pterodactyl” is subtitled the WORST alphabet book ever. In this book, “A is for Aisle,” “B is for Bdellium” and “C is for Czar.”

Unlike most alphabet books, this one is recommended for children ages four and up, who are familiar with the sounds letters represent most often, but not with the silent letters and other alphabetical oddities that trip up spellers.

I had never expected to encounter the word bdellium in any book other than the Bible, but it’s perfect for this book. If you are wondering, bdellium is an aromatic resin similar to myrrh. It is found throughout the Middle East and is used for incense. Bdellium may also refer to a pearl or precious stone, but don’t worry about unfamiliar words.

At the end of “P Is for Pterodactyl” readers find “The Worst Glossary Ever.” This provides correct pronunciations and humorous definitions for any words with which the kids—or parents—are not yet acquainted. The charming illustrations by Maria Tina Beddia also help to give the words meaning. Now ABCs are fun for kids and grownups!

Thank you, Blue Devils!

Blue Devil baseball coach Chad Gillis wants to involve the team in the community, so he has brought the boys to the library for the past two weeks.

Along with the library’s own Teen Activity Group, they have read with young children in the library’s Reading Buddies program. The kids enjoy the help and attention as they read aloud to their buddy. This helps them to become more confident in their abilities and build reading proficiency.

We want to thank the Blue Devils and all of the volunteers who help out with this program. If you have a child who might benefit from this program, please call the library at 743-6533 for information.

Feathered Friends – Common loon saved after making crash landing

The common loon is a masterful diver and swimmer, but these birds are awkward and nearly helpless on land. (Photo by dkbach/Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

An early December snowstorm had deposited a blanket of snow over the landscape, but milder temperatures quickly melted the snow on roadways when a weary — or perhaps disoriented — traveler made a crash landing.

Complete disaster was avoided thanks to the efforts of Joe McGuiness, a resident of Erwin, as well as an employee of the U.S. Forest Service. Joe shared the story at a recent meeting of the Elizabethton Bird Club.

Joe discovered the stranded traveler just after he finished having lunch on Dec. 6. He looked out his window and saw a “dark blob” in the driveway.

Joe recognized that the blob was actually an immature common loon. As he went to investigate, the bird tried to slide downhill on some of the recent snow.

Waterfowl like loons and grebes occasionally make landings on wet roadways. These birds mistake the dark, damp asphalt for water and don’t realize their error until it is too late.

“It probably landed on a neighborhood road by mistake,” explained Joe, who resides in the Rolling Hills residential community in Erwin. Over the years, Joe has been a magnet for some unusual birds. Several years ago, an American woodcock became a daily visitor for a spell in the community where Joe lives. Several birders got an opportunity to see that particular bird, which is usually extremely elusive and difficult to observe at close range.

Once he identified the loon, Joe still faced the challenge of rescuing it. Without human intervention, the bird would have been doomed. Loons, while so graceful and powerful in their element, are clumsy and almost helpless on land. According to loons.org, the official website for The Loon Preservation Committee, the placement of a loon’s legs at the far back of the body ensures that loons are excellent divers and swimmers. It also means that loons cannot easily walk on land. This difficulty is one reason why loons nest right next to the water. At night, loons sleep over deep water, away from land, for protection from predators.

Once a loon lands on any body of water, it requires a considerably long “runway” to take off again. They sort of run along the surface of the water to gain the momentum to become airborne again. Obviously, that’s not going to happen for one of these birds if they’ve made the mistake of putting down on dry land. Fortunately, Joe realized he would need to help the loon reach water.

By tossing a coat over the loon, Joe managed to subdue the bird and transport it to a local pond for release. As he placed the bird at the edge of the pond, the loon surprised him and didn’t budge. Joe gave the bird a helpful nudge. In response, the bird turned and whacked him in the face with its beak. I suppose no good deed goes unpunished.

Eventually, the frightened loon moved into the water. The loon has remained on the pond recuperating for several weeks, which has allowed people to see the rescued creature.

In the northern United States and Canada, the common loon is often put forward as a symbol of the wilderness areas where it likes to reside on ponds and lakes for the summer nesting season. In Europe and Asia, the common loon is known by the more descriptive name “great northern diver.”

A common loon can reach a length of 3 feet. This bird’s wingspan can stretch out to almost 5 feet. They can attain a weight between 9 and 12 pounds, which is quite heavy for most birds.

All five living species of loons are members of the genus Gavia, which in addition to the common loon also includes red-throated loon, Arctic loon, Pacific loon and yellow-billed loon. All loons feed chiefly on fish.

It’s usually human behavior that puts loons at risk. For example, ingested lead fishing tackle is a leading cause of mortality for loons in New Hampshire. Joe’s encounter with a loon, and its happy ending, spotlights how people can sometimes help these beautiful birds instead of harming them.

Feathered Friends – Christmas Bird Count makes for fun outing

Carolina wrens are small, inquisitive and hardy songbirds. The recent Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count found a record number of this wren during its annual survey of bird populations. (Photo by RetyiRetyi/Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

I participated in the 76th consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count, which was held Saturday, Dec. 15. This annual count is one of the oldest Christmas Bird Counts in the region, as well as in Tennessee.

I was one of 28 observers in six parties. Together, we tallied 77 species, which is above the recent 30-year average of 72 species. The all-time high was set last year when 85 species were counted on this annual survey.

Two species —  osprey and orange-crowned warbler — were found on this CBC for the first time. Longtime count compiler Rick Knight observed that one noticeable difference between last year’s count and the 2018 Elizabethton CBC was the number of ducks.  Last year’s CBC yielded 13 species, but only six species of ducks were found this year.

Knight also noted that a record number — 139 — of Carolina wrens was spotted by CBC participants.

A single bald eagle was found, but it was enough to continue a recent trend. This eagle has appeared for 19 of the last 20 on the Elizabethton CBC. Counts more than 20 years ago rarely produced any bald eagles.

A single red-shouldered hawk represented a good find since this hawk has only been found on six of the previous 25 years. A single merlin represented an even more exceptional find for this CBC. Merlin has been represented only two times in the last 25 years for this particular count.

Knight noted that two shorebirds — killdeer and Wilson’s snipe — have experienced a steady decline in making this annual count. This year’s count produced only a single killdeer and snipe.

Knight speculated that low numbers of cedar waxwings and American robins on this year’s CBC probably indicates a poor wild fruit crop. These two species depend heavily on fruit to supplement their diet during the winter months.

Chipping sparrow has now been found for 15 straight years, but had only previously been reported six times in the first 50 years of the history of the Elizabethton CBC.

Without fail, some species manage to evade counters. According to Knight, some of the conspicuous misses this year included ruffed grouse, common loon and barred owl.

The Elizabethton Bird Club has been holding its annual Christmas count in Elizabethton, Tennessee, since 1942. The tradition of the Christmas Bird Count dates back much farther and originates from a less than bird-friendly custom. According to the National Audubon Society’s website, so-called sportsmen in the late 19th century would conduct a “Side Hunt,” a rather blood-thirsty Christmas custom that saw hunters competing to see who could score the largest amount of feathered and furred corpses.

The annual holiday bird survey may even have arisen from an earlier custom with roots in Europe that came to the United States of America with early colonists. The “Side Hunt” has some similarity to a peculiar celebration in Ireland and other European countries known as “Wren Day” or “Hunt the Wren Day.” The event was conducted the day after Christmas, the date of Dec. 26 being consigned as Saint Stephen’s Day. By the 20th century, the hunt consisted of tracking down a fake wren carried atop a decorated pole. Crowds would parade through towns in masks and colorful attire. These groups were referred to as “wren boys.”

Whether or not the “Side Hunt and “Wren Hunt” shared any connections, it was a huge step forward for conservation when preeminent ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new holiday tradition. His radical idea was to count birds during the Christmas season rather than hunting and killing them.

The Christmas Bird Count is now conducted each year on dates between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The first CBC took place in December of 1900 with 27 observers participating at 25 locations in the United States and Canada. Fifteen of the counts were conducted in the northeastern United States from Massachusetts to Philadelphia. Results from that first count in 1900 didn’t truly reflect the diversity of North America’s birds, but they were nonetheless interesting. The Greater Boston CBC boasted only one participant and only found 17 species. However, some of those species included such good birds as American tree sparrow, brown creeper, Northern shrike and Northern bobwhite.

For me, the Christmas Bird Count is a fun holiday outing with friends. There’s also satisfaction in knowing the results gathered from these nationwide counts will also contribute to the body of citizen science that helps experts determine the status of our feathered friends.

Here’s the complete tally of this year’s Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count:

Canada goose, 459; wood duck, 1; American wigeon, 1; American black duck, 1; mallard, 150; bufflehead, 182; and hooded merganser, 11.

Wild turkey, 57; pied-billed grebe, 16; horned grebe, 11; double-crested cormorant, 1; and great blue heron, 29.

Black vulture, 5; turkey vulture, 19; osprey, 1; sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 4; bald eagle, 1; red-shouldered hawk, 1; and red-tailed hawk, 17.

American coot, 1; killdeer, 1; Wilson’s snipe, 1; and ring-billed gull, 14.

Rock pigeon, 296; Eurasian collared-dove, 4; mourning dove, 126; Eastern screech-owl, 4; and great horned owl, 2.

Belted kingfisher, 21; red-bellied woodpecker, 26; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 11; downy woodpecker, 30; hairy woodpecker, 4; Northern flicker, 25; and pileated woodpecker, 20.

American kestrel, 16; merlin, 1; Eastern phoebe, 11; blue jay, 128; American crow, 291; and common raven, 10.

Carolina chickadee, 80; tufted titmouse, 72; red-breasted nuthatch, 1; white-breasted nuthatch, 29; and brown creeper, 10.

Winter wren, 4; Carolina wren, 139; golden-crowned kinglet, 38; and ruby-crowned kinglet, 15.

Eastern bluebird, 122; hermit thrush, 7; American robin, 17; brown thrasher, 1; and Northern mockingbird, 50.

European starling, 592; cedar waxwing, 30; orange-crowned warbler, 1; palm warbler, 1; and yellow-rumped warbler, 32.

Eastern towhee, 22; chipping sparrow, 29; field sparrow, 34; Savannah sparrow, 4; fox sparrow, 3; song sparrow, 129; swamp sparrow, 8; white-throated sparrow, 70; white-crowned sparrow, 20; and dark-eyed junco, 66.

Northern cardinal, 159; red-winged blackbird, 25; Eastern meadowlark, 4; house finch, 34; American goldfinch, 46; and house sparrow, 8.

Senior Center News – Tai Chi, Book Club, Yarn Bombing upcoming events

By Kerry Taylor

I hope everyone has enjoyed Christmas and I wish everyone a Happy New Year! We have a couple of January birthdays at our house, so we get to celebrate just a little longer after the holidays. 

Winter has arrived in our mountains and the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center was closed for a day until the parking lot was safer. Be sure to call the Center on winter days for information on hours of operation. We will have a message letting you know if we are closed on bad weather days.

We have new classes and activities for the month of January – see below for more details.  Also, be sure to register for lunch with your friends and spend the day at your Senior Center for a break from the cold rainy days we’ve been experiencing!

Tai Chi

Fridays at 11 a.m.

If you are wondering “Can I do Tai Chi?” The answer is yes! Tai Chi is low impact and puts minimal stress on muscles and joints, making it generally safe for all ages and fitness levels.

In fact, because Tai Chi is a low impact exercise, it may be especially suitable if you’re an older adult who otherwise may not exercise.

Are you looking for a way to reduce stress? Then Tai Chi is for you! Originally developed for self-defense, Tai Chi has evolved into a graceful form of exercise that’s now used for stress reduction and a variety of other health conditions.

Tai Chi is often described as meditation in motion. Tai Chi promotes serenity through gentle, flowing movements. Our Tai Chi instructor is Bob Hechemovich and the cost is $5 per class.

Answers about Body Donation

Monday, Jan. 14, at 9 a.m.

Do you have questions about body donation? As an alternative to organ and tissue donation for transplant, body donation is a perfect alternative.

AJ with Restore Life USA will be here to provide information and answer questions about this important topic.

Cutting Your Winter Power Bill & Other Tips

Tuesday, Jan. 15, at 9:30 a.m.

Lynnsey and Joseph from Erwin Utilities will be here to give information on cutting your power bill, tips for winter emergencies and answer questions. You will not want to miss this very informative and fun class!

Book Club

Wednesday, Jan. 16,

at 2 p.m.

If you like reading a variety of books and meeting new people, come join us! We will discuss the book, “The Light Between Oceans” by M.L. Stedman. The next book selection will be “The Blessings of the Animals” by Katrina Kittle. Come join us! 

Yarn Bombing

Thursdays in January at 9:30 a.m.

The Yarn Bomb project is being organized by Erwin RISE. Bring your yarn and needles to this weekly workshop at the Senior Center in January. Help beat the winter blues by knitting or crocheting a piece of art to be installed on trees, poles or anything that stands still in Erwin! 

For more information about any of these events, please contact the Clinchfield Senior Adult Center at 743-5111.

Library Happenings – Maybe you can judge a book by its cover

By Angie Georgeff

If any of you night owls have watched Late Night with Seth Meyers, you may have chanced to see a bit where Seth’s fellow Saturday Night Live alum Fred Armisen judges a book by its cover.  For the most part, Armisen’s predictions prove the old adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover.”

One exception to the rule may have been “A Gentleman in Moscow,” whose author Amor Towles proclaimed on social media that Fred had gotten “close enough” when he described the novel as a “heartwarming mystery…with beautiful language…” 

Although I categorized “Gentleman” as historical fiction when I cataloged it, I concur with “heartwarming” and “beautiful language.”

Spotlight Book

Gazing at the cover of Stuart Woods’s latest novel “A Delicate Touch,” I am tempted to exercise my less-than-Sherlockian powers of observation and deduction.

In the muted light of a single lamp, we see a desk and tufted leather chair. Behind them stand shelves filled with rows and rows of books and a large black safe that commands our attention. The word “excelsior” is emblazoned on the safe’s door in capital letters as large as the book’s title. It must be important.

Looking closer, I notice that the ranks of leather-bound books are covered by a grid and that the grid is padlocked.

It appears to be the private library of a person of great wealth, many secrets and little trust.  Since “Excelsior,” translated “ever upward,” is the state motto of New York (and nothing about the décor suggests wood shavings, another meaning of the word), I’m guessing that this Stone Barrington novel will be set in New York. There may not be any first-class flights to Paris this time. Now about that title: Could the “delicate touch” refer to safe-cracking or simply Stone Barrington’s legendary finesse? It could be either or both, but since I—unlike Mr. Armisen—make no claim to discerning a novel’s plot from its cover, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Board Meeting

The Board of Trustees of the Unicoi County Public Library will meet in the library lobby at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 17. The public is welcome to attend. If you require special accommodations in order to attend the meeting, please call the library at 743-6533 for assistance.

Annual Meeting

The annual meeting of the Unicoi County Public Library Foundation will be held at the library at 2 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 17. Foundation members are encouraged to attend and the public is also welcome.

For further information or any assistance that may be needed, please contact the library at the phone number listed above.

Feathered Friends – Yellow-rumped warblers wild about poison ivy berries

The yellow-rumped warbler is one of the few warblers that attempts to reside in the region during the winter months. Switching from a diet of insects to one of fruit and seeds helps the birds manage to find enough to eat during the lean months. This species is particularly fond of poison ivy berries. (Photo by Edbo23/Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

November and December are bleak months for birders as we experience a bit of a letdown after the joys of fall migration. Many of the favorite birds that spend the summer months with us have departed and will not return until spring. Hummingbirds, tanagers, vireos and most warblers, despite a few lingering individuals, have left the scene.

I really feel the pinch since warblers are one of my favorite families of birds. In northeast Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, there are only three warblers that bird enthusiasts are likely to see in the winter. The yellow-rumped warbler is by far the most common winter warbler, but palm warblers and pine warblers are also occasional winter residents. A few other warblers are occasional stragglers, attempting to eke out a living during the cold months. For instance, I’ve seen a few common yellowthroats during the winter over the years.

With the exception of the yellow-rumped warbler, however, the chances of enjoying warblers during the winter are rather slim. At least the yellow-rumped warbler is common and I encounter flocks of these birds on most occasions when I walk woodland trails in the region any time from November to April.

Until 1973, the yellow-rumped warbler was divided by scientists into two distinct species: the myrtle warbler in the eastern United States and Audubon’s warbler in the western United States. During a visit to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2003, I saw my first and only “Audubon’s” warbler. This western counterpart is more colorful than the version birders know so well in the eastern half of the country. In addition to yellow plumage on the rear and flanks, the Audubon’s warbler also boasts a yellow crown and a yellow throat patch. Otherwise, the two birds are remarkably similar in appearance.

Of course, it’s the creamy yellow rump patch — looking like a small pat of butter — that gives this species its common name. Birders have adopted another nickname for the species, often referring to them simply as “butter-butts.”

There is now some discussion in scientific circles of dividing the species into not two distinct species, but four. The other two species would be the black-fronted warbler of mountains in Northern Mexico and Goldman’s warbler, which resides in Guatemala. I wouldn’t mind seeing Audubon’s warbler resurrected as a full species, since it would place an additional species on my life list of birds seen. In addition, it seems fitting that we have at least one bird that honors the name of the famed naturalist and painter John James Audubon.

The scientific name for the yellow-rumped warbler is Setophaga coronata, which are terms derived from ancient Greek that when roughly translated mean “crowned moth-eater.” Like most warblers, the yellow-rumped warbler is fond of insects, but there’s another food source these birds turn to during times of scarcity.

So, how does a warbler make it through the winter season in the region? After all, most warblers exist on a diet heavy on insects and other small invertebrates. The yellow-rumped warbler, however, supplements its diet with different seasonal berries, including juniper berries, Virginia creeper berries and dogwood berries. They also feed on berries from one unlikely source. These birds love to gorge themselves on poison ivy berries that, fortunately, produce no ill effects. I’ve long noticed that many of the trails I enjoy walking during the winter season wind through woodlands overrun by poison ivy. Of course, by eating the berries, the warbler also help spread the noxious vines.

The yellow-rumped warbler is not the only bird known to feed on poison ivy berries. Other birds seen eating these berries include Northern flickers, bobwhites, Eastern phoebes, Cedar waxwings, tufted titmice and American robins. White-tailed deer show a preference for dining on poison ivy leaves over other types of vegetation. The berries are high in fat and calories, which makes them an ideal food source for creatures with high metabolisms like songbirds. The berries also ripen in fall and early winter when many other types of berries are scarce. While it is best for humans to avoid contact with this plant, it is a valuable fall and winter food source for wildlife.

While the yellow-rumped warbler is quite capable of dealing with some frost and snow, more than half of the world’s warblers live in more tropical climates outside the borders of the United States and Canada. Not all yellow-rumped warbler attempt to tough out winter conditions in the United States. Some do migrate to the tropics, where they utilize a variety of habitats, including mangroves, thorn scrub, pine-oak-fir forests and shade coffee plantations.

All warblers are exclusively New World bird species. The family numbers about 120 species. Some of the descriptively named species of warblers not seen within the United States or its northern neighbor include citrine warbler, white-striped warbler, black-crested warbler, pale-legged warbler, buff-rumped warbler, golden-bellied warbler and black-eared warbler.

During your next woodland stroll, keep your eyes peeled for small brown birds in the branches of nearby trees. If the last thing you see before they dive for cover is a bright yellow rump patch, you’ll know you’ve observed a yellow-rumped warbler.

Library Happenings – Recent snow storm brings back memories

By Angie Georgeff

Welcome, January and 2019! The joy of the Christmas season and a New Year gives way to the simpler pleasures of winter, like fuzzy sweaters and falling snow. Snow, you either love it or hate it. For me it depends on whether I can stay home and enjoy its pristine beauty in cozy comfort or whether I have to slog through it to get to work or some other appointment.

During the big snowstorm back on Dec. 9, Sunday was a treat, but Monday was not. I actually got stuck in the deep snow at the entrance to the library parking lot. Needless to say, we didn’t open that day. For us in Tennessee, that was some snowfall! For people living in Germany or Ohio, though, it really wouldn’t have seemed all that bad. It all hinges on your expectations.

Twice during my life, I have lived in colder and snowier climes than this, and twice in places where snow was a rare occurrence. Surprisingly though, when I think back about being miserably cold, the place that springs to mind is Honolulu. That’s where my son was born.  Being a malihini (newcomer), rather than a kama’aina (local), I overdressed him by insisting that he wear a shirt and socks around the house. Except when they were dressed up, most infants and toddlers wore only a diaper and some didn’t even wear that. Life in the tropics may guarantee you will be hot, but it doesn’t ensure you’ll never be cold.

The last February I lived there was unusually cold and the house where we lived had no source of heat, because, well, it was Hawaii and it should have been warm even in February! February 9, 1981 still boasts the February record for Honolulu at a frigid 49 degrees Fahrenheit. Don’t laugh!

When you don’t have any heat or any winter clothes, 49 is not funny. Think of it as a measly 17 degrees above freezing. There being little demand for such items in paradise, warm clothing and space heaters were not in stock. Thank goodness we had an electric blanket to keep us from hypothermia during that long, bitter cold snap!

Our climate is ideal for people who truly enjoy the change of seasons, and now is the perfect time to curl up in a warm room with a hot beverage and a good book or movie. (Story, our library cat, just reminded me to add a purring kitty to that list of cozy comforts.)

Several of the authors whose novels I most enjoy did not publish one last year, so I am hoping for a bumper crop of literary fiction this year. In the meantime, I’m making some progress in reducing the size of my “to-be-read” stack and looking forward to new January releases. And remember that we have new audiobooks and DVDs starting to hit the shelves from our recent orders. Happy New Year, indeed!

Feathered Friends – Cardinal seems tailor-made for Christmas season

A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage. (Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

The shopping days before Christmas are getting fewer, so I hope everyone has had time to find gifts for everyone on their lists. My wish to readers is that everyone gets to enjoy a great holiday that just might also include watching some birds.

Although I hate to see the colorful birds of spring and summer — scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks — depart every fall, the winter season offers some compensation.

Often, when we think of the birds of the winter season, our thoughts focus on some of the less-than-colorful feeder visitors — the brown sparrows and wrens, the black and white chickadees and the drab American goldfinches, so unlike their summer appearance.

There’s one bird, however, that makes an impression in any season. The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray.

The Northern cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America. The two relatives are the pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, a bird of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion Cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela.

Two other South American birds — red-crested cardinal and yellow-billed cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern cardinal. Both the Northern cardinal and red-crested cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

Over the years, the Northern cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a bright red cardinal.

Cardinals, also known by such common names as redbird and Virginia nightingale, are easily recognized backyard birds. I never tire of observing these colorful birds. Cardinals are easily lured to any backyard with plentiful cover to provide a sense of security and a generous buffet of sunflower seed.

Cardinals accept a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. The cardinal is also one of only a few birds that I have noticed will consistently feed on safflower seed.

While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. When away from our feeders, cardinals feed on insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

There’s no difficulty in identifying a cardinal. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings. Immature cardinals resemble females except young cardinals have dark bills.

Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

The familiar Northern Cardinal is not the only bird to bear the name cardinal. Others include the yellow cardinal of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, the vermilion cardinal of Colombia and Venezuela, and the red-crested cardinal, a songbird native of South America that has also been introduced to Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

At feeders, cardinals mingle with a variety of other birds. Cardinals are common visitors to backyard feeders. For such a bright bird, the male cardinal can be surprisingly difficult to detect as he hides in the thick brush that conceals his presence. Cardinals are nervous birds, however, and usually betray their presence with easily recognized chip notes. Their preference for dense, tangled habitat is one they share with such birds as brown thrashers, Eastern towhees, Carolina wrens and song sparrows. In general, however, cardinals directly associate only with their own kind. Cardinals will form loose flocks during the winter, but these flocks are never as cohesive as those of such flocking birds as American goldfinches. Cardinals are more often observed in pairs.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

There’s additional evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day. Simply add some black oil sunflower seeds to your feeders to welcome this beautiful bird to your yard.

Feathered Friends – Hawk spoils start of winter bird feeding season

A sharp-shinned hawk visits a birdbath during the Christmas season. These small hawks, designed to prey on songbirds, sometimes learn to stalk feeders, which creates distress for the human landlords. (Photo by Dbadry/Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

According to a recent Census Report, Americans are feeding birds in epic numbers — 63 million people in this country make life less of a struggle for birds by filling bird feeders with sunflower seeds, peanuts and other goodies. In fact, watching and feeding birds ranks second only to gardening as one of America’s popular pastimes.

Unfortunately, bringing wild birds into our lives means we are occasional witnesses to the darker side of nature that dictates there’s a survival of the fittest competition taking place in our own backyards and gardens.

Welcoming birds into our yards and lives means inviting all birds, include predatory raptors such as sharp-shinned hawk, merlin, Cooper’s hawk and American kestrel. It’s a problem Elizabeth Laing has had to cope with in recent weeks. We’ve commiserated over Facebook about her conflicted feelings about the predatory nature of the hawk that’s been stalking birds at her feeders.

Elizabeth sent me a message via Facebook on Nov. 21 about a situation unfolding at her home in Abingdon, Virginia.

“Please help me to know what to do,” she wrote as the start of her message. “Right now I an absolutely devastated and in tears. I have about eight feeders up year round. I feed a lot of small birds in my backyard and even crows in my front yard. I have at least 15 American goldfinches right now at several sunflower chip feeders.”

Elizabeth noted that for the past few days she had seen a small hawk in her backyard for the first time ever.

“I was worried and tried to scare it off,” she wrote. “I realize they have to eat, too, and are beautiful birds, but I don’t want them killing birds on my feeders.”

Unfortunately, that’s what happened right as she watched through a window as a goldfinch feeding at her feeder.

“The hawk swooped in and grabbed him off the feeder,” she reported.In the wake of the hawk’s action, Elizabeth took some sensible steps, including immediately taking down her feeders.

Some of her birds, such as the tufted titmice, came back quickly and perched on the empty feeder poles. “I felt so bad,” she said. “I want to feed them, but I can’t stand the thought of them being snatched off my feeders.”

She concluded her message by asking my advice. I responded and told her that when hawks do make a habit of raiding feeders, it can be necessary to curtail feeding for a couple of weeks or longer. Most authorities on birding insist that the hawks will lose interest and move to more productive feeding grounds. Unfortunately, the raptor visiting Elizabeth’s yard proved persistent.

“I wanted to update you on my hawk problem,” Elizabeth wrote back in another message on Nov. 26. “I took all my feeders down, but not long enough. After five days, I put them back.

She had also invested in brand new, expensive caged feeders. She purchased the caged feeders thinking the goldfinches would be safe inside.

For flocking birds, like American goldfinches, the caged feeders offered security only to birds inside the caging. Those birds waiting outside of the caging for their own turns at the feeder remained vulnerable.

“I found feathers on the side of one cage this morning,” she wrote. “Then, as I was watching a bunch eat, that hawk swooped in and took another one off the side.”

The entire situation has made her discouraged and sad. “I hope this doesn’t mean I will have to stop feeding birds entirely. I actually have bags of seeds and peanuts (for the titmice) coming in the mail later this week,” she wrote.

In the wake of the latest attacks, she has taken down the feeders again. “I will leave them down for two weeks this time,” she wrote. “I know the hawk has to eat, too, and it’s a beautiful bird, but I can’t do this to my little goldfinches.”

I agreed that it would be senseless, as well as rather cruel, to provide food for songbirds while knowing a hawk is lurking in the vicinity.

Elizabeth also asked if I have had birds killed at my feeders. Although it has been a thankfully rare occurrence, hawks have snatched birds visiting my feeders. I’ve not often witnessed the actual predation, often finding only a pile of feathers on the ground as evidence of the hawk’s success.

A few years ago, however, I witnessed a rather dramatic attack on New Year’s Day. As I watched a female Northern cardinal feeding on sunflower seeds spilled onto the ground by the birds visiting a hanging feeder, a sharp-shinned hawk suddenly slammed into the cardinal. In an instant, I saw my first and second bird species of the New Year. The cardinal, however, didn’t get to live and enjoy the unfolding year.

The website allaboutbirds.org described the sharp-shinned hawk as “a tiny hawk that appears in a blur of motion — and often disappears in a flurry of feathers.” It’s an apt description of this pint-sized predatory bird.

The website also notes that studies indicate that feeders don’t make it more likely that our favorite songbirds will be preyed upon by a sharp-shinned hawk or other raptor. Although feeders might temporarily attract a raptor, these birds will catch the majority of their prey elsewhere.

The sharp-shinned hawk belongs to a genus of raptors known as accipiters, which are slender raptors with rounded wings and long tails. They are highly maneuverable in flight. A characteristic of accipiters is long legs and sharp talons. In fact, the genus is named from the Latin word for hawk, “accipere,” which can be translated as, “to grasp.”

Other members of the accipiters in North America include the Cooper’s hawk and Northern goshawk. Other accipiters around the world include such raptors as chestnut goshawk, red-chested goshawk, crested goshawk, little sparrowhawk, spot-tailed sparrowhawk, black sparrowhawk and red-thighed sparrowhawk.

Elizabeth sent me one other message, informing me that she had also advised her neighbor to take down his feeder, which he did. Shortly after he did so, Elizabeth saw the hawk attack a squirrel, which, thanks to Elizabeth rapping on a windowpane, apparently survived the attack.

In addition, if the hawk in her yard is attacking squirrels, her visitor is probably a Cooper’s hawk, a bird almost identical to a sharp-shinned hawk except for its larger size. I’m hopeful that an extended hiatus will convince the hawk to leave Elizabeth and her goldfinches in peace.

It’s still good to remember that hawks view smaller birds flocking to a feeder in the same way those small songbirds view the abundance of seeds. For both hawks and songbirds, our offerings represent easy meals. It’s not easy, but the best choice is to co-exist — if not at peace, then at terms with nature’s reality.

Bird Club

Selling Calendars

The Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society is selling its 2019 calendar for $15 each.

All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes in Northeast Tennessee. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites and some not-so-common visitors.

The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email or send a message via Facebook at www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Calendars can be mailed to any destination in the United States for an additional charge of $2 for shipping and postage.

Library Happenings – There’s still time to share your wish lists

By Angie Georgeff

Merry Christmas! We have been busy little elves here at your library. DVDs and audiobooks have already been ordered and large print books are next on Santa’s list. If you have a Christmas wish, please let us know. The clock is ticking and the 2018 model of old Father Time is growing grayer by the minute!

Spotlight Book

This week we highlight the second book of Nora Roberts’s “Chronicles of The One,” “Of Blood and Bone.” In last year’s bestselling “Year One,” the Doom virus killed billions of people worldwide. Technology failed, government collapsed and cities became untenable. Those who appeared to be immune to the plague became known as the Uncanny. Even they, however, were not left unchanged by that apocalypse, developing magical powers which some use for good and some for evil.

Now 13 years later, “Of Blood and Bone” finds Fallon Swift on the cusp of her 13th birthday. A sorcerer named Mallick has informed Fallon’s mother that the girl’s destiny is to save humankind. Fallon is The One, the only person who can rally the forces of good to defeat the powers of evil. She must, however, leave her family and prepare for her ultimate role by training with Mallick for two years beginning on her 13th birthday. This series is projected to be a trilogy, so fans can expect the struggle to culminate next December.

Since “blood” and “bone” are currently popular words in fantasy book titles, be careful not to confuse this book with Tomi Adeyemi’s popular young adult fantasy “Children of Blood and Bone,” or for that matter George R. R. Martin’s new bestseller “Fire and Blood.” We have all three novels, so readers of fantasy fiction have several opportunities to celebrate the holidays in the company of a good book.

Holiday Closures

As usual, we will be closed on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, and Christmas Day, Dec. 25. Since these holidays fall on Monday and Tuesday this year, we will be closed from 3 p.m. on Saturday, December 22 to 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 26. Be sure to stock up on books and DVDs before we close Saturday afternoon! And don’t forget an audiobook to while away the hours and miles between your home and Grandmother’s house.

No items will be due on the two full days when we are closed, but if you want to drop off your books, you may return them to either of our two drop boxes. They are located at the library in Erwin and at Town Hall in Unicoi. We wish you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Feathered Friends – Winter wren one of season’s low-profile visitors

A photo of a rose-breasted grosbeak graces the cover of the 2019 calendar produced by the Elizabethton Bird Club. (Contributed photo by Connie and David Irick)

By Bryan Stevens

Although some people like to get an early start on holiday shopping, I’m certain some, like myself, are still in the process of checking those lists. If you’re looking for some ideas for bird and nature enthusiasts on your list, I’ll make a few modest suggestions that could result in making the season merry and bright.

Field Guides

If you’ve enjoyed watching the birds that congregate at your feeders or noticing the visitors to your yard and gardens, but you’ve also become curious about the identities of all your feathered visitors, it might be time for a helpful and informative field guide. I prefer field guides illustrated with paintings rather than photographs, but I have a varied collection of guides. I started a long time ago with the Golden Guide to Birds. It’s a classic and still a great guide to help interest children in the birds around them.

Some of the guides I recommend and use myself these days are National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, and Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Any of these field guides should be easily found online or in stores at a cost of under $20.

If you have already acquired a good basic field guide, perhaps you’re ready for more specialized field guides that focus on particular families of birds or on the behavior of backyard birds.

For the warblers, there are several field guides available, including the Stokes Field Guide to Warblers, A Field Guide to Warblers of North America (Peterson Field Guides), and the Warbler Guide.

For a handy guide to identify some of the birds seen on beach and coastal vacations, consider such titles as Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Shorebirds and Shorebirds: An Identification Guide to the Waders of the World, and National Audubon Society Pocket Guide to Familiar Birds of Sea and Shore.

For fans of hawks and allied raptors, several guides exist including A Field Guide to Hawks of North America (Peterson Field Guides), Birds of Prey: Hawks, Eagles, Falcons, and Vultures of North America, and Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors In Flight.

In short, there’s a field guide for every family and grouping of birds. With expertly rendered illustrations or photographs, brief and concise text, and helpful range maps, nothing beats a good field guide forYea, improving one’s ability to identify birds. I recommend thumbing through the pages of a good guide over trying to randomly use Google to search online for a bird glimpsed for a brief time.

Feeders

Bird feeders come in an astounding variety of shapes and sizes. Nothing will do more to bring birds into our daily lives than maintaining a well-stocked feeder. Be certain to include a bag of sunflower seeds so that your gift will allow the recipient to immediately begin to enjoy the parade of birds sure to flock to the feeder.

Houses

It’s never too early to start thinking about spring and the return of many of our favorite birds. To bring more birds into our lives, it doesn’t hurt to encourage them by providing man-made nesting and roosting boxes. Many of our favorite birds — Eastern bluebird, tree swallow, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch — are cavity-nesting species but will just as readily raise their young in nesting boxes as in a hole in a tree. With boxes customized to their own particular needs, other birds such as Eastern screech-owl, wood duck and great crested flycatcher will also make use of bird boxes. Many gardening centers, produce stands, feed stores and other shopping outlets sell bird boxes of various designs, shapes and sizes. If you’re shopping for a bluebird box, be certain that the recipient’s yard is a spacious one. Bluebirds feel more comfortable in open surroundings. If the yard is more overgrown and woodsy, consider a box tailored more for a woodland bird like a chickadee or a nuthatch.

Binoculars

Unless requested, don’t buy binoculars for an adult. Most birders would prefer to pick out their own pair to use to make up-close and personal bird observations. An inexpensive pair, however, could be perfect for fostering in a child an interest in birds and nature. If you have grandchildren, children, or even nephews and nieces, a beginner’s pair of binoculars could make a life-altering gift that lets the recipient view the world in a whole new light.

Calendars

Birds have always been a popular photography subject for calendars. There’s an almost endless variety of bird calendars, but I’m partial to one produced by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, of which I am a member. This annual fundraising endeavor features some exceptional bird photography from club members. This year’s calendar features full-color photographs of some of the region’s most colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. For an additional $2 shipping fee, calendars can be sent to any address in the United States. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes.

The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays as well as important bird-related dates. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites and some not-so-common visitors. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a male rose-breasted grosbeak. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or look up Elizabethton Bird Club on Facebook.

Ornaments

The branches of my Christmas tree are always weighted heavily with a variety of bird-related Christmas ornaments. Holiday tinsel and baubles make the season look a lot like Christmas if they feature some of our favorite birds such as cardinals, chickadees, hummingbirds, penguins, doves, geese, eagles or any of the other popular species of birds. Choose a fun and unique bird ornament for the enthusiast on your Christmas list.

Feathered Friends – Fall Bird Count finds 125 species

White-breasted nuthatches, such as this bird, set a new record for the Fall Bird Count. A total of 71 of these nuthatches were tallied by count participants. (Photo by Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

The 49th consecutive Elizabethton Fall Count was held Saturday, Sept. 29, with 50 observers in 13 parties covering parts of five adjacent counties.

According to count compiler Rick Knight, a total of 127 species were tallied (plus Empidonax species), slightly higher than the average of the last 30 years, which was 125. The all-time high was 137 species in 1993.

Two very rare species were found: Purple Gallinule at Meadowview Golf Course in Kingsport and Black-legged Kittiwake on South Holston Lake. The kittiwake had been found Sept. 27 and lingered until count day.

Shorebird habitat was scarce due to high water levels at most sites, thus only one species was found (other than Killdeer).Broad-winged Hawks were numerous, part of a notable late flight likely due to unfavorable weather conditions preceeding the count.

Warblers were generally in low numbers, although 23 species were seen. No migrant sparrows had arrived yet. Blackbirds, too, were scarce. Some regular species were tallied in record high numbers, likely due to the above average number of field parties.

The list of species follows:

Canada Goose, 781; Wood Duck, 79; Mallard, 345; Blue-winged Teal, 110;  Com. Merganser, 2;  Ruffed Grouse, 2; and Wild Turkey, 56.

Pied-billed Grebe 32; Double-crested Cormorant, 78; Great Blue Heron, 49; Great Egret, 2; Green Heron, 2; and Black-crowned Night-Heron, 5.

Black Vulture 71; Turkey Vulture 203; and Osprey, 27. This represented a new record for the number of Osprey found on this count.

Bald Eagle 8; Northern Harrier, 1; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 3; Cooper’s Hawk, 9; Red-shouldered Hawk, 6; Broad-winged Hawk, 321; (most ever on this count) and Red-tailed Hawk, 19.

Virginia Rail 1; Purple Gallinule, 1; Killdeer, 43; Spotted Sandpiper, 1; Black-legged Kittiwake, 1; Caspian Tern, 1; and Common Tern, 2.

Rock Pigeon, 597; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 2; Mourning Dove, 330; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 4; E. Screech-Owl, 24; Great Horned Owl, 10; Barred Owl, 5; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1; and Common Nighthawk, 1.

Chimney Swift, 481; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 31; Belted Kingfisher, 32; Red-headed Woodpecker, 5; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 92; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 5; Downy Woodpecker, 59; Hairy Woodpecker, 12; Northern Flicker, 67; Pileated Woodpecker, 54; American Kestrel, 13; and Merlin, 2. The figures for Red-bellied and Pileated Woodpeckers mark new high counts for these two species.

Eastern Wood-Pewee 15; Empidonax species, 2; Eastern Phoebe, 79; Eastern Kingbird, 9; White-eyed Vireo, 1; Yellow-throated Vireo, 2; Blue-headed Vireo, 21; Philadelphia Vireo, 3; Red-eyed Vireo, 4; Blue Jay, 646; American Crow, 364; and Common Raven, 1.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 3; Tree Swallow, 465; Barn Swallow, 1; and Cliff Swallow, 3.

Carolina Chickadee, 177; Tufted Titmouse, 133; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 4; White-breasted Nuthatch, 71; Brown Creeper, 1; House Wren, 4; Winter Wren, 1; and Carolina Wren, 218. Both Tufted Titmouse and White-breasted Nuthatch were found in record numbers, as was the Carolina Wren, too

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 8, Eastern Bluebird, 187;  Gray-cheeked, Thrush 12; Swainson’s Thrush, 46;  Wood Thrush, 9; American Robin, 591; Gray Catbird, 64; Brown Thrasher, 23; and Northern Mockingbird, 111; European Starling 1,226;  and Cedar Waxwing, 294. The number of Gray Catbirds set a new record for the species.

Worm-eating Warbler 1; Northern Waterthrush, 1; Black-and-white Warbler, 7; Prothonotary Warbler, 1; Tennessee Warbler, 42; Orange-crowned Warbler, 2; Kentucky Warbler, 2; Common Yellowthroat, 9; Hooded Warbler, 7; American Redstart, 16; Cape May Warbler, 6; Northern Parula, 8; Magnolia Warbler, 18; Bay-breasted Warbler, 15; Blackburnian Warbler, 8; Yellow Warbler, 1; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 4; Palm Warbler, 63; Pine Warbler, 11; Yellow-throated Warbler, 1; Prairie Warbler, 1; and Black-throated Green Warbler, 7.

Eastern Towhee, 66; Chipping Sparrow, 94; Field Sparrow, 16; Song Sparrow, 97; and Dark-eyed Junco, 42.

Summer Tanager 2; Scarlet Tanager, 11;  N. Cardinal, 149; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 125; and Indigo Bunting, 14.

Bobolink, 2; Red-winged Blackbird, 132; Eastern Meadowlark, 7; Common Grackle, 8; Brown-headed Cowbird, 5; House Finch, 41; Pine Siskin, 11; American Goldfinch, 220; and House Sparrow, 69.

2019 Bird Calendar Available for Purchase

The Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society produces an annual calendar featuring some exceptional bird photography from its members. This 2019 calendar will feature full-color photographs of some of the region’s most colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes here in Northeast Tennessee. For instance, the club pays for birdseed to stock the feeders at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The club also regularly supports causes that benefit birds.

The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays, as well as important bird-related dates. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites and some not-so-common visitors.

The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email or send a message via Facebook at www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Calendars can be mailed to any destination in the United States for an additional charge of $2 for shipping and postage.

Library Happenings – Library preparing order for new materials

By Angie Georgeff

It is less than four weeks until Christmas, so pickings are likely to be pretty slim for the next month – at least insofar as new releases are concerned. December is usually a slow month for publishers, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have anything for you to read. In fact, it is one of the months when I am busiest.

Federal funds for certain library materials will soon be released, so we will order DVDs, audiobooks, large print and books for children and teens.

As always, please let us know what you want to see, hear and read. It’s easy: Tell our circulation staff when you check out or give us a call at 743-6533.

Spotlight Books

This week our spotlight shines on two books: Danielle Steel’s “Beauchamp Hall” and James Patterson’s “Target: Alex Cross.” As my husband was courteously informed by a London cabbie while we were on our honeymoon, Beauchamp is pronounced “Beecham.” Beauchamp Place, the fashionable shopping street in Knightsbridge which was then our destination within the metropolis, is miles away from Beauchamp Hall, a binge-watchers dream of a period drama that has Winona Farmington in thrall.

The wildly popular upstairs/downstairs British series is set on a baronial estate in Norfolk during the 1920s. Sound familiar?

Buffeted by the vicissitudes of life and her own tendency to compromise, Winnie’s years have yielded a series of disappointments. When she is passed over for a promotion and betrayed by her boyfriend on the same day, however, she refuses to settle for lemons yet again. She packs her bags, flies to England and visits the town where Beauchamp Hall is filmed. Will taking this impetuous leap lead to disaster or a fairytale ending?

It is no secret that James Patterson shares authorship of most of his novels with a coterie of busy co-writers. His Alex Cross novels, however, are pure Patterson.

During the years I have worked at the library, I have come to expect only one of these per year and to catalog it around Thanksgiving. This year has brought us “Target: Alex Cross.”

Those of us who are old enough to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy will never forget where we were when we heard the shocking news.

When another president dies in office of natural causes, the nation mourns. Then a prominent senator is assassinated. 

Both Alex Cross, currently on retainer with the FBI, and his wife Bree Stone, recently promoted to chief of detectives in Washington, DC, are assigned to investigate the crime. When further attacks on the presidential line of succession follow, Alex realizes that a decapitation strike is unfolding.

Feathered Friends – Wild turkey’s American status beyond dispute

A male wild turkey, often referred to as a “tom” or a “gobbler,” fans his tail in a display meant to impress hens and intimidate other males. (Photo by Avia5/Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

Few birds have featured so prominently in the history of the United States as the wild turkey. Thanks to the federal government eventually moving to protect the wild turkey population, this bird today is quite common across the nation. Fields bordering woodlands are a great place to observe wild turkeys strutting their stuff, especially during the autumn and winter seasons when turkeys form large flocks, which are also known as “rafters.” Watching a male turkey, or tom, fan his impressive tail feathers to get the attention of hens or intimidate other male rivals offers a peek into the thinking some of the nation’s founders held regarding the wild turkey.

In fact, if some of the nation’s founders had their way, the turkey might have been honored as the official bird of the United States. The other contender for the honor — the bald eagle, which became the nation’s actual official bird — had its fair share of famous detractors among some of the nation’s founding fathers.

Benjamin Franklin, who proposed the turkey as the official United States bird, praised the bird’s courage and expressed displeasure when the bald eagle was chosen over the turkey. Franklin wrote to his daughter, referring to the eagle’s “bad moral character,” saying, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our country! The turkey is a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America.”

No less than George Washington, the nation’s first president, also shared Franklin’s opinion and pointed out the bald eagle’s lifestyle as a carrion eater. Even if not as our national symbol, the wild turkey is still deserving of respect. This bird, found only in North America, is a survivor of first-rate caliber. Shockingly, the wild turkey, which was so abundant during the Pilgrim era in Massachusetts, almost didn’t survive until the 19th century. It’s almost miraculous that the wild turkey didn’t join the unfortunate ranks of such extinct birds as the ivory-billed woodpecker and Labrador duck. In fact, only an estimated 30,000 Wild Turkeys were alive about 1930. The same forces that wiped out the immense flocks of passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets almost drove the wild turkey to extinction. Habitat destruction and a merciless commercial slaughter almost claimed another uniquely American bird.

The turkey’s association with America dates back to when the Pilgrims sat down to the first Thanksgiving feast in the New World. Perhaps surprisingly, many of the trappings we associate with the November holiday were missing from the menu. Instead, the Pilgrims enjoyed a repast of bounty that was seasonally available when they held that first celebration back in 1621. The Pilgrim leader William Bradford wrote of that first observance in his work titled “Of Plymouth Plantation.” Some of the details are surprising.

The items available for that first feast included a variety of fish, such as good New England cod, as well as bass and other fish. The Pilgrims took “good store” of fish and “every family had their portion.” Bradford also wrote that as winter approached, Massachusetts Bay suddenly experienced an abundance of waterfowl, but that their numbers eventually decreased. Birders will recognize what was happening with this sudden influx of ducks and other waterfowl. They were migrating. The waterfowl were temporarily abundant, but then as the ducks and other birds continued to make their way south, they became scarce again. The Pilgrims may have lacked cranberries and mashed potatoes, but they most definitely feasted on turkey. “And besides waterfowl,” Bradford wrote, “there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many, besides venison.”

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten in the U.S. at Thanksgiving. American per capita consumption of turkeys has soared from 8.3 pounds in 1975 to 18.5 pounds in 1997 and has remained stable at about 16 pounds since 2011. Americans love their turkeys — especially at the dinner table. Perhaps it’s for the best the turkey lost out to the eagle for title of official American bird. Consider how awkward it would be every Thanksgiving to sit down to a meal of roast turkey with all the trimmings while knowing this wild fowl has been recognized as America’s official bird.

Library Happenings – Always grateful for new learning opportunities

By Angie Georgeff

This time of year, we are inclined to think about the many things for which we are thankful, both the large and the small. I was reminded of one of those smaller things when I started to read “Doctor Zhivago” last week. I bought the book for myself when the new translation was published in 2010. Knowing what a commitment of time and attention most Russian novels require, I had not taken the plunge until then. Since I had finished reading one recent release and have more than a month to spare before the next one I want to read comes out, the time was ripe.

I briefly weighed the book in my hand, dusted it off, opened it up and started to read. There was, of course, the plethora of Russian names and patronymics I had expected, and an assortment of Russian words that required some explanation, but I had hardly begun when I came across a sentence containing two English words with which I was unacquainted. And in this instance, context was no help.

I used my tablet to look them up and discovered that a nenuphar is a water lily and an ephebe is an adolescent male. And now you know why the context was no help. These two things don’t have much in common, but that was what the author was trying to express. The translators could simply have said water lily and youth, but that might not have conveyed the tone of the original words, which were used in a conversation between intellectuals.

It may be a bit of a bother to look up definitions while you are reading, but I am always grateful to have the opportunity to learn a new word. At the very least, if someone ever calls one of my grandsons an ephebe, I won’t take offense. I may, however, wonder whether he or she has read “Doctor Zhivago.”

Spotlight Book

In “Long Road to Mercy” David Baldacci introduces readers to Atlee Pine, an FBI agent with special skills and a very personal interest in fighting crime.  When she was six years old, a kidnapper chose between her and her twin sister Mercy by playing eeny, meeny, miny, moe.  Mercy was taken and Atlee was left behind.  Thirty years later, Mercy’s fate is still unknown and Atlee is haunted by the children’s rhyme.

Now Atlee is the sole agent in charge of the Grand Canyon. When a mule is found stabbed to death at the bottom of the canyon and its rider cannot be located, Atlee investigates. Each clue she unearths seems to point to a conspiracy, but she is called off the case by her superiors before the evidence aligns. Is continuing the investigation worth the risk to her career?

Feathered Friends – Overwintering birds make return to familiar haunts

Hooded merganser males, or drakes, have a prominent white crest surrounded by black. The top of the head, neck and back are all black, and the chest, breast and belly are white. Wavy black lines can be seen on the tawny sides and flanks. The black bill is long, narrow and serrated, perfect for seizing slippery fish or other aquatic prey. (Photo by Tim McCabe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

By Bryan Stevens

Now that the warblers, hummingbirds and other birds of summer have, for the most part, departed, new arrivals have filtered into the region to take their place and prevent the winter months from seeming too bleak.

At my own home, these new arrivals have included a field sparrow — the first I’ve seen at home in several years — and a swamp sparrow. I’ve not caught sight of white-throated sparrows or dark-eyed juncos so far, but these hardy sparrows often don’t arrive until the first incidents of truly snowy weather. However, Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, emailed me to let me know that she saw her first dark-eyed junco of the season on Monday, Nov. 5.

Different species of waterfowl have also returned to some familiar haunts, and I’m grateful to readers who have kept me informed about some of these arrivals. Joanne Campbell of Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page that hooded mergansers have returned to Middlebrook Lake near her home on Saturday, Nov. 3. The hooded merganser, Joanne noted, is one of her favorite birds. Brookie and Jean Potter of Elizabethton, Tennessee, reported that four male buffleheads returned to Wilbur Lake near their home on Oct. 27.

Middlebrook Lake has served as a winter home for hooded mergansers since 1987, while buffleheads have congregated on Wilbur Lake for decades. Another good location to look for buffleheads during the winter months is in the weir below South Holston Dam around the Osceola Island Recreation Area. Several hundred of these ducks have been reported in past winters at these various locations.

Although classified as sea ducks, the mergansers are more at home in river habitats. There are six closely related species in three genera: Mergus, Mergellus and Lophodytes. The latter two genera have only a single species each: the hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) and the smew (Mergellus albellus).

The typical mergansers are fish-eating waterfowl in the genus known as Mergus. The hooded merganser’s genus name of Lophodytes is derived from Greek and, roughly translated, means “crested diver.” Both male and female hooded mergansers have crests capable of being raised or lowered. Females are mostly brown, but males have a striking plumage in a pattern of brown, white and black.

Everyone has probably heard the phrase “as scarce as hen’s teeth.” It means almost exactly what you think. Birds don’t have teeth, so it’s a way to describe something exceptionally rare. It’s a characteristic that sets birds apart from other creatures, such as mammals.

There are some birds, however, that come closer to having teeth than their other beaked counterparts. Mergansers would definitely fall into that category. The mergansers are a type of duck known collectively as “sawbills,” a reference to their long, thin bills with serrated edges that help them grip prey. The “sawbills” come closer than any of our other birds in having teeth, although not in the same sense as mammals have teeth.

The other mergansers in the Mergus genus consist of four species: common merganser, Brazilian merganser, red-breasted Merganser and scaly-sided Merganser. The last of these is an endangered species with only about 5,000 birds in the worldwide population. These remaining scaly-sided mergansers are found in the border regions of China, North Korea and Russia.

While today’s birds, even mergansers, all lack teeth, that hasn’t always been the case. About 80 million years ago, a bird known as Hesperornis (“western bird”) swam the inland seas that stretched over areas from Kansas to Canada. They swam through those ancient seas because they could not fly.

The body plan of Hesperornis was similar to modern loons and mergansers. Instead of a serrated bill, however, this ancient bird had actual teeth in its long beak. Just like today’s loons and mergansers, it probably fished for its food. At almost six feet in length, however, it dwarfed our modern mergansers and loons and probably fed on larger piscine prey.

Hooded mergansers are content to seek smaller fish. According to the website for the Ducks Unlimited organization, the hooded merganser is the smallest of the three North American mergansers. In addition to fish, hooded mergansers feed on crayfish and other crustaceans, as well as aquatic insects.

The hooded merganser prefers forested wetlands. As a cavity-nesting bird, it seeks out natural cavities in trees for nesting, although it will also accept nest boxes provided by human landlords. This duck breeds from as far north as Alaska and Canada and as far south as Louisiana and Georgia.

Late fall and winter are good times to see ducks in the region. Some will spend a good portion of the winter season on area lakes, rivers and ponds, while others will make only brief stops during their migration to their preferred wintering grounds. Some of the other ducks that are usually somewhat common in the region in winter include ring-necked duck and American wigeon. If you live or work near a body of water, stay alert for the comings and goings of waterfowl as winter approaches. You may be afforded an opportunity to see a hooded merganser or bufflehead for yourself.

Feathered Friends – Dark-eyed junco heralds winter’s approach

A dark-eyed junco clasps a snowy perch with its feet. This songbird is often an abundant visitor to feeders in the region during the colder months of winter. (Photo by Skeeze-Pixabay)

By Bryan Stevens

I wrote my first column about our “feathered friends” on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this column is celebrating its 23rd anniversary.

This column has appeared on a weekly basis for the last 23 years in a total of five different newspapers, and in recent years it has been syndicated to several more. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested birds and birding. I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well. Since February 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.

I saw my first swamp sparrow of the fall on Oct. 23. Autumn’s a time when many of those so-called “little brown birds,” also known as the sparrows, return to live in the fields, gardens, yards and woodlands around our home. Two of the other anticipated arrivals are white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.

In fact, that first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents— the dark-eyed junco. Experts place juncos among the varied sparrow family. All juncos are resident of the New World, ranging throughout North and Central America. Scientists are continually debating precisely how many species of junco exist, with estimates ranging from a mere three species to about a dozen species.

Some of the other juncos include the volcano junco, yellow-eyed junco, Chiapas junco, Guadalupe junco, pink-sided junco, Oregon junco and Baird’s junco, which is named in honor  of Spencer Fullerton Baird, a 19th century American naturalist and a former Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

With that introduction and with some revisions I have made through the years, here is that very first column that I ever wrote about birds.

• • •

Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south.

Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders, they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America.  The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

• • •

Back when I wrote that original column, juncos often returned each fall in the final days of October or first days of November. In the last few years, however, their arrival times have grown consistently later in November. At times, it takes a serious snowfall to drive these hardy birds to seek out easy fare at my feeders. I’m hoping they’ll return soon.

In the meantime, if you want to share your first dark-eyed junco sighting of the fall, I’d love to hear from you. If you want to share a sighting, have a question or wish to make a comment, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.