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.

Library Happenings – Grisham’s new novel set in Clanton, Mississippi

By Angie Georgeff

What’s in a name? I have read that Unicoi County got its name from unega or unaka, the Cherokee word for white. With the seasons changing at last, we have enjoyed some beautifully white vistas recently, with fog shrouding the ridges, coves and hollows.

State Representative Alf Taylor insisted on the name when he introduced the bill that authorized the creation of the county in 1875. It is obvious that he knew and loved these mountains and valleys.

Because of the spelling, some people who call the library from out-of-state try a French pronunciation, but many just hesitate and wait for me to take the lead. “No, actually it’s Cherokee, not French,” I say and then I explain the meaning. It conjures up a pretty picture for them.

When I first told my son I was moving here, Andrew thought I said Unicorn County and a few other callers and correspondents have made that same mistake. He thinks the high school mascot should be the unicorn.

After reading about the Erwin High School Yellow Jackets in the 1931 Nolichucky high school annual, I know a change of mascot would not be unprecedented.  Andrew has to admit, however, that Blue Devils seem much more intimidating than Unicorns. I believe our opponents this season would rather have met a blessing of unicorns than our Blue Devils. Congratulations, team!

Spotlight Book

What’s in a picture? The dust jacket of John Grisham’s latest novel “The Reckoning” shows a kindling sunrise igniting dark blue clouds with swathes of gold and coral. In the rapidly waxing light, cotton fields are punctuated with bare trees and a rustic barn. If you take a closer look you notice another building behind the old barn, which appears to be surmounted by a cross. Is it a church, or could it be a telephone pole rising beyond another old outbuilding? There is not yet enough light to tell.

It is October in Clanton, Mississippi; the year is 1946. Early one cold morning, Pete Banning, who is a decorated war veteran and the patriarch of a prominent local family, gets up, confers with his foreman, eats breakfast with his sister, drives into town and shoots and kills his friend and pastor, the Reverend Dexter Bell. No one else is harmed in the incident.

All Banning will say about the shocking murder is, “I have nothing to say.” How can his attorney represent a man who won’t say a word in his own defense, even when he knows the consequences if he remains silent?

With a broad appeal that crosses genre boundaries, Grisham’s novels are hands down the books that generate the greatest demand here at the library. Call us at 743-6533 if you would like to reserve your place in line for “The Reckoning.”

Feathered Friends – Some birds expert at conjuring thrills, chills

The southern cassowary reaches a height of more than five feet and weighs 120 pounds. The bird has a fearsome but perhaps undeserved reputation for attacks on humans. (Photo by lailajuliana / Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

My ruby-throated hummingbirds set a new record this year, lingering until Oct. 17. Although present on the morning of that date, I didn’t see any that evening. The next morning, their absence — quite notable and somewhat saddening — continued. In all likelihood, I won’t see any more ruby-throated hummingbirds until next April. I hope they arrive early.

Carolyn Baker Martin commented on the post I made on Facebook about the departure of the hummers. Carolyn noted that 2018 has been an interesting year for birds and flowers. Carolyn, who lives in Elizabethton, Tennessee, also shared a recent observation she made of a hummingbird behavior that I’ve never personally witnessed.

“I had a hummer recently in torpor,” Carolyn wrote in her post. “It sat on the feeder a long time without moving or feeding. Finally, a tail feather began to move. It fed constantly for one more day and was gone.”

Despite their small size, most hummingbirds, including the ruby-throated hummingbirds, are less frail than they appear. Torpor is a biological adaptation possessed by hummingbirds and some other creatures that lets them survive a serious cold spell. It’s not quite the same thing, but think of these tiny birds as voluntarily going into a coma when they enter torpor. Comatose or catatonic creatures are a staple of some horror and suspense films, so perhaps a look at how some birds can induce shivers along the spine is in order in view of the celebration of Halloween this week.

The ultimate coma victim is the fabled zombie, but that’s not likely to afflict any of our feathered friends, right? Well, consider the great tits of Hungary, which are relatives of our tufted titmouse and Carolina chickadee. These birds — at least the Hungarian ones — have apparently acquired a taste for brains.

Not human brains, thankfully. The victims of these brain-hungry great tits are a species of bat — a flying creature often associated with the modern celebration of Halloween, as well as legends about vampires — that shared the habitat of these birds in the Bükk Mountains of Hungary. As it turns out, the tits only hunted bats, in this case a tiny species known as common pippistrelle, out of dire necessity.

Bat ecologists Péter Estók and Björn M. Siemers, after observing the odd behavior of the great tits during some winter seasons, conducted a study to see if great tits are consistent devourers of bats’ brains. They discovered that the birds did hunt the bats and had even learned to detect a special call the bats make as they emerge from hibernation. The ecologists conducted their study over two years and learned that the great tits teach others of their kind the special art of hunting bats. They also learned that the birds made efficient killers, dragging the bats from their roosts and cracking their skulls to get at their brains.

However, when provided with plenty of alternative food, including such favorite items as bacon and sunflower seeds, the great tits chose to eat these items rather than actively hunt bats. The researchers concluded that great tits only resort to harvesting the brains of small bats during times of scarcity during harsh winters. The bizarre story is even featured in the title of a fascinating book by Becky Crew titled “Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals.”

So, if humans have nothing to fear from brain-hungry birds, are there any birds that we should fear? Some experts suggest that precautions might be in order if one expects to come into close proximity with a southern cassowary, which is the third-tallest and second-heaviest living bird, smaller only than the ostrich and emu.

The cassowary, a native of New Guinea and northeastern Australia, has developed a reputation as a fearsome bird capable of injuring or killing humans. According to ornithologist Ernest Thomas Gilliard, cassowaries deserve their reputation. In his 1958 book, “Living Birds of the World,” he explained that the second of the three toes of a cassowary is fitted with a long, straight, dagger-like claw which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease. According to Gilliard, there have been many records of natives being killed by this bird.

A thorough study, however, has partly exonerated the cassowary from these misdeeds. In a total of 150 documented attacks against humans, cassowaries often acted in self-defense or in defense of a nest or chicks. The only documented death of a human took place in 1926 when two teenaged brothers attacked a cassowary with clubs. The 13-year-old brother received a serious kick from the bird, but he survived. His 16-year old brother tripped and fell during the attack, which allowed the cassowary to kick him in the neck and sever the boy’s jugular vein.

So we can rest easier knowing that murderous birds that reach a height of almost six feet tall are unlikely to terrorize us should we travel to the lands down under. A more ancient relative of the cassowary, however, might have been a different story had humans lived during the same time period. Phorusrhacids, also known as “terror birds,” were a group of large carnivorous flightless birds that once had some members reign as an apex predator in South America before they went extinct around two million years ago. The tallest of the terror birds reached a height of almost 10 feet. Titanis walleri, one of the larger species, even ranged into what is now the United States in Texas and Florida.

Terror birds were equipped with large, sharp beaks, powerful necks and sharp talons. Their beaks, which would have been used to kill prey, were attached to exceptionally large skulls. Despite their fearsome appearance, these birds probably fed on prey about the size of rabbits. Perhaps not knowing this, Hollywood has cast these birds as monsters in such films as 2016’s “Terror Birds” and 2008’s “10,000 BC.”

Besides, casting birds as the villains had already been done back in 1963 when Alfred Hitchcock released his film, “The Birds,” based loosely on a short story by Daphne du Maurier. The film, which starred some big Hollywood names such as Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright, cast a whole new light on a “murder” of crows. Today, the film has achieved the status of a Hollywood classic. I guess it just goes to show that werewolves, zombies, and other Halloween monsters have nothing on our fine feathered friends.

UCHS marching band named grand champions

Members of the Unicoi County High School marching band perform during the Hilltopper Invitational on Oct. 20. The band won several awards at the annual event. (Contributed photo by Chris Prillhart)

From Staff Reports

On Saturday, Oct. 20, the Science Hill High School Topper Band hosted the 6th Annual Hilltopper Invitational marching band competition at Kermit Tipton Stadium in Johnson City. This year’s event welcomed 14 high school bands from across East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Each band performed a unique show which was scored by a panel of six judges in the areas of Music, Visual Effect, Percussion and Color Guard. Competitors in this year’s Invitational included: Pigeon Forge High School, West Greene High School, Chuckey-Doak High School, Twin Springs High School, Sequoyah High School, Cocke County High School, Unicoi County High School, David Crockett High School, South-Doyle High School, Volunteer High School, Carter High School, Greeneville High School, Cherokee High School and Maryville High School.

The Unicoi County High School Marching Blue Devils took home first in Class AA. The band also took first place in both Music and Visual Performance for the small class division. The UCHS percussion also won first in the AA division.

The awards ceremony concluded with the announcement of the Hilltopper Invitational’s 2018 Grand Champions. This award is given to the top scoring bands in each of the small band (Classes A and AA combined) and the large band (Class AAA) divisions. The UCHS Blue Devil Band claimed the title of Grand Champion of the small band division.

The Maryville High School Red Rebel Band made the trip home as the Grand Champion for the large band division. Winners of this regional competition include the following for First in class: Class A, West Greene and Class AAA, Maryville. Maryville was the first place winner in Music for the large class division, while Volunteer won for Visual.

In Percussion, Class winners were West Greene (A) and Volunteer (AAA). In Guard, first place went to Chuckey-Doak (A), Cocke County (AA) and Volunteer (AAA).

The competition was funded, in part, by Arts Build Communities, a program funded through the State of Tennessee Specialty License Sales, and administered in cooperation with the Tennessee Arts Commission and First Tennessee Development District.

Feathered Friends – Great horned owl reigns as ‘tiger of the night’

A great horned owl is capable of almost silent flight, which helps the predatory bird take prey by surprise. Many myths and superstitions surround the world’s owls, but the truth about owls is often more fascinating. (Photo by Alexas-Fotos/Pixabay)

By Bryan Stevens

I’ve been so focused on migrating warblers and other songbirds of late that I felt some surprise when outside near dark on Oct. 10 I heard the low hoots of a feathered phantom from the woodlands on the ridge behind my home.

The hooting of a great horned owl is an instantly recognizable sound and always sends shivers traveling along the spine. The after-dark calls of this large predatory bird also got me to thinking about previous encounters with this owl, such as watching one glide silently over wetlands in Shady Valley, Tennessee, many years ago. I had traveled to the bogs in Shady Valley maintained by The Nature Conservancy in the hope of witnessing the mating displays of the American woodcock. Before those avian rituals began, a great horned owl kicked off the evening in style. I still remember the large owl passing like a dark shadow only a couple of feet over my head. The wings did not even appear to flap as the owl’s silent flight propelled the bird out of sight within seconds.

I also remembered another occasion while driving on a wet and stormy night, rounding a curve, and finding an owl, upright in the road, standing over fresh roadkill. The owl’s eyes reflected the beams of my headlights before it seized its meal in powerful talons and flew off into the darkness. I’ve always wondered if the owl had killed something in the road or came along at just the right moment to scavenge a meal after some creature had been killed by a passing car.

Owls have been around for a long time, according to “Owls: The Silent Hunters,” an episode of National Geographic’s series, “Wildlife Wonders.” The narrator for the episode reveals that the first recognizable owls first showed up in the fossil record about 40 million years ago. Since that time, owls have evolved into a fantastic, widespread and diverse group of about 135 different species. North America is home to several species, including the far-ranging great horned owl, which ranks as one of the continent’s largest owls. It’s not the largest owl in North America, but it is the most widespread of the continent’s large owls. The snowy owl — popularized in J.K. Rowling’s fiction as Harry Potter’s loyal companion owl, Hedwig — is one of the largest owls in the Northern Hemisphere, bigger than such large owls as the great horned owl and barred owl. The aptly named great gray owl is larger in body size than the great horned owl, but the snowy owl is heavier and more massive than either of these two contenders.

Nevertheless, the great horned owl is large enough, ferocious enough, and lethal enough to have been described by many ornithologists as a “feathered tiger of the night.” The great horned owl lives and hunts in the woodlands of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. They thrive in rural areas, but these adaptable owls have also learned to make their way in the suburbs and even city parks. Not by any stretch of the imagination, however, is this owl confined to the southern Appalachians. These owls also make their home in the wetlands along the southern Atlantic coast, as well as arid deserts of the American southwest.

During a September vacation many years ago to Fripp Island, South Carolina, a solitary great horned owl provided several days of entertainment for my parents and me. We took a golf cart at dusk each evening to park at a spot that offered a good view of the marshes and tidal creeks in the interior of the island. For several consecutive days, the owl flew to a perch on a piece of driftwood as the sun sank below the horizon. We would wait patiently for only a brief interval before the owl entertained us with its low hoots that resonated across the marsh.

The great horned owl is capable of taking a wide variety of prey, including many rodents ranging in size from mice and voles to rabbits and squirrels. Although various mammals form the most part of its diet, the great horned owl will kill adult birds as large as a Canada goose, wild turkey and great blue heron. This owl also preys on fish, reptiles, amphibians and even insects. The great horned owl is one of the few predators that preys regularly on skunks. Lacking a well-defined sense of smell, owls aren’t bothered in the least by the skunk’s powerful arsenal of stink. That ability to fly and glide using almost completely silent wings has given this nocturnal predator an enormous advantage over many of its prey species.

A wild great horned owl’s longevity peaks at around 13 years of age. Captive owls, however, have been reported reaching ages of more than 30 years old.

Various Native American tribes have held owls in high respect. Dwight G. Smith, author of “Great Horned Owl,” a book in the “Wild Bird Guides” series, noted that members of the Zuni tribe of the southwestern United States often hold owl feathers in their mouths to impart the owl’s ability to hunt silently onto their own hunting abilities.

The main fascination humans hold for owls rests in their mystery. Owls, being mainly nocturnal creatures, rarely cross paths with humans. These predatory birds have many adaptations that help them stake out their claim on the night hours. Owls possess large eyes with binocular vision and extremely accurate depth perception — which also make them seem more expressive to human observers and perhaps helped establish the reputation of the “wise” owl.

Owls cannot completely rotate their heads, but they come close. Owls are flexible enough, however, to be able to turn their heads in a 270-degree arc, or three-quarters of the way around. Owls have keen hearing to go with their excellent eyesight. In fact, owls don’t even need to see their prey to capture it. Tests with barn owls in total darkness have shown that they are capable of catching mice by hearing alone. An owl’s prominent facial disk directs sounds toward their ears. The “ear tufts” on the great horned owl and some other relatives are ornamental feathers, and not actual ears.

Around the world, the world’s owls have earned some rather descriptive common names. Examples include pharoah eagle-owl, vermiculated fishing owl, fearful owl, pearl-spotted owlet, chestnut-backed owlet, spectacled owl, black-and-white owl, crested owl, cinereous owl, tawny owl, whiskered screech owl, greater sooty owl and desert owl.

Americans will observe Halloween on Wednesday, Oct. 31, which brings me to one other piece of owl trivia. There’s an ancient Chinese belief that owls snatch the souls of incautious people — just something I thought you might want to know if you find yourself out and about after dark on Halloween night and hear the hoots of a nearby owl.

Library Happenings – Halloween Bake Sale to benefit library programs

By Angie Georgeff

Today’s highlight is our all-day Halloween Bake Sale to benefit the library’s programs for children and teens. Come on down for a yummy treat to prime your sweet tooth for Halloween. 

Tomorrow night the curtain will rise on the final act of our annual Halloween Film Festival. This film classic spawned two sequels.

Join us at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25, for popcorn, candy and a movie. Please feel free to bring your favorite soft drink in a spill proof plastic container to complete the theater experience.

You may call the library at 743-6533 if you have questions.

Halloween Party

Young ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night are invited to stop by the library for an hour of spooky fun on Halloween night. The party will start at 6 p.m. and end at 7 p.m.

Make plans now to don your most creative costume and join us for kid-friendly ghost stories around the “campfire”, games, activities and refreshments.

Please note that we will not be having our normal Wednesday Little Tykes Story Time or Reading Buddies that day so we can devote all of our attention to the Halloween party.

Spotlight Book

What happens when people do all the things society expects of them but they still steadily lose ground? Barbara Kingsolver’s eighth novel “Unsheltered” explores that question and introduces us to the historical figure Mary Treat, one of the women scientists who were never mentioned when I was going to school.

Magazine editor Willa Knox and her college professor husband Iano have always worked hard.  When her magazine folds and his college closes, they are left with no income and three dependents: Iano’s disabled father, their adult daughter and their son’s newborn infant.

Their only asset is a house in Vineland, New Jersey that Willa has inherited. That seeming stroke of luck proves to be a disappointment. The historic house is rapidly disintegrating. Seeking a coal among the ashes, Willa visits the Vineland Historical Society. She hopes the house has enough historical significance to qualify for a grant that would pay to shore up the sagging structure.

Vineland, the home of Welch’s grape juice, was founded in 1861 as a teetotal agrarian utopia.  After the Civil War, science teacher Thatcher Greenwood moves there with his pretty young wife and her mother and sister. He is shocked to find that his house has been so poorly constructed that it stands in danger of collapse.

There he meets Mary Treat, whose opinion about Darwin’s theory of natural selection mirrors his own. This conviction is likely to prove problematic, since his employer is staunchly opposed to Darwin’s views.

Feathered Friends – Migrating raptors abound on recent count

A migrating osprey posed for observers taking part in a bird walk recently at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Ospreys and broad-winged hawks have been common among migrating birds this fall. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

I took part in the annual Fall Bird Count organized each year by the Elizabethton Bird Club. This year’s Fall Bird Count — the 49th consecutive count conducted by the EBC — was held Saturday, Sept. 29, with 50 observers in 13 parties covering parts of five adjacent counties in Northeast Tennessee. The count is the only fall survey of birds conducted in the entire region.

The total of 127 species tallied (plus Empidonax species) represented a slightly higher total than the average of the last 30 years, which stands at 125. The all-time high of 137 species was established in 1993. Compiler Rick Knight noted that two very rare species were found this year: a purple gallinule at Meadowview Golf Course in Kingsport, Tennessee, and a black-legged kittiwake on South Holston Lake in Bristol. The kittiwake was first found on Sept. 27 and lingered long enough to be observed during the count.

Shorebird habitat was scarce due to high water levels at most sites, thus only one species was found other than killdeer. Warblers were generally found 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. Broad-winged hawks were numerous, part of a notable late flight likely due to unfavorable weather conditions preceding count day.

My party included retired Milligan College biology professor Gary Wallace as well as Brookie and Jean Potter. We counted birds in the Elizabethton area around Wilbur Lake, along the Watauga River and on Holston Mountain. We observed two large kettles of migrating raptors during our time on Holston Mountain. The term “kettle” is a collective one for a group of migrating raptors. In more general terms, a kettle can refer to any flock of birds of prey. The term is used only in describing raptors that are soaring or flying. Although a few black vultures and turkey vultures drifted on the warm thermals rising off the slopes of Holston, the majority of the raptors in the two kettles we observed were broad-winged hawks. We ended the day with a total of 41 broad-winged hawks on our list. Later we learned that count participants found an amazing total of 321 individual broad-winged hawks, which represents a new high count for the Fall Bird Count for this species.

Southwest Virginia is home to the Mendota Fire Tower Hawk Watch, which has been ongoing for decades on Clinch Mountain. The annual autumn survey is currently supervised by Ron Harrington, a long-time member of the Bristol Bird Club. This has been an exceptional year for this particular hawk’s migration. In a post to the list-serve Bristol-Birds, Mike Sanders of Bristol, Virginia, reported that while talking with Harrington on Sept. 29 at Sugar Hollow Park, they happened to glance skyward and noticed a large flock of hawks passing overhead. One kettle contained an estimated 75 broad-winged hawks. “Just goes to show they can be anywhere migrating, not just up on a mountain top,” Sanders wrote in his email.

The broad-winged hawk is known by the scientific name Buteo platypterus. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often dominant avian predators in their respective habitats. The species is known for migrating in large flocks every autumn to return to wintering grounds far to the south as far as Mexico and Brazil.

The broad-winged hawk’s counterpart in the western United States is Swainson’s hawk, which shares the broad-winged hawk’s inclination for migrating in large flocks. Swainson’s hawk is named for William John Swainson, the famous 19th century English naturalist I mentioned in last week’s column in connection with Swainson’s thrush. “Each autumn, nearly the entire breeding population of the Swainson’s Hawk migrates from the temperate zone of North America to wintering areas in South America,” according to a profile posted at the website Birds of North America. The website notes that those Swainson hawks that migrate out of the prairie region of Canada must undertake a flight of more than 6,200 miles to reach their wintering habitat. They will repeat this long-distance feat again in the spring. This distance places Swainson’s hawk second among raptors only to that of the Arctic Peregrine Falcon.

Other raptors in the region include Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, red-tailed hawk and red-shouldered hawk. These raptors feed on everything from rodents and reptiles to various insects, amphibians and songbirds. There’s one hawk, however, that turns to another source of prey.

Ospreys, which are also known as fish hawks, have also been prevalent this autumn. I enjoyed watching an osprey perched in a tree along the Watauga River while leading the first of the Saturday October bird walks at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The osprey put on a great show, stretching its wings and posing for photographs taken by several walk participants.

Ospreys migrate through the region in spring and fall, making sightings more likely along lakes and larger rivers. I see them even more often when I travel to South Carolina, where these medium-sized raptors are common along the coast and in wetlands.

Actually, any body of water, from river or lake to pond or marsh, can provide adequate habitat for an osprey’s needs. The osprey is the only raptor in North America that feeds almost exclusively on fish. These hawks only rarely turn to other prey, such as rodents, reptiles and amphibians. Ospreys are a conservation success story. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, osprey populations grew by 2.5 percent per year from 1966 to 2015. As a result, this large brown and white hawk is common from coast to coast and all points in between. The 27 ospreys detected on the recent Fall Bird Count also set a new record for this species on this particular survey.

There are still plenty of ospreys and other birds to see before this fall migration season ends. The remaining Saturday walks at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park are scheduled for Oct. 20 and Oct. 27. Participants should meet at 8 a.m. in the parking lot in front of the park’s Visitors Center. There is no charge, and the public is welcome. Bring binoculars to increase viewing enjoyment.

Library Happenings – Halloween parties for children, teens planned

By Angie Georgeff

With fright night only two weeks away, we want to let you know that our teen Halloween party will be held Friday, Oct. 19, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. and our children’s Halloween party will take place on Wednesday, Oct. 31, from 6-7 p.m.

Check our Unicoi County Public Library Kids and Teens Facebook page for further details. If you would like to donate a bag of individually wrapped candies for the children’s party Halloween night, we will be happy to accept. We look forward to seeing everybody’s creative costumes.

In case you think we adults are being left out, remember that we’ll show the second movie in our Halloween Film Festival on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 6 p.m.

These movies were chosen with adults in mind and would not be recommended for young children. That said, these films are part of my personal collection and consequently are not ones I consider likely to give me nightmares.

Spotlight Book

Okay, I admit it: I am a sucker for a well-designed dust jacket. I may not end up buying the book, but I will pick it up and give it my attention for at least a minute to find out whether the plot is as promising as the artwork. Of all the volumes in our last order, the hands-down winner in the book-by-its-cover department was Rena Rossner’s “The Sisters of the Winter Wood.” The art reminds me of a gilded Black Forest woodcarving set off to perfection by a background of dark chocolate. The composition is grounded by a swan and a bear and surmounted by a rustic crown, so readers of fantasies are already alert to the possibilities.

In the vast reaches of the Russian empire, sisters Liba and Laya have been reared in a secluded village surrounded by forests. It is the kind of place where mothers urge their daughters to be wary of strangers, but there may be more to Mami’s warning than just ordinary caution. After all, the cover promises “Every family has a secret…” and the girls do not yet know theirs.

Sisters in fairy tales are often quite different, like Snow-White and Rose-Red. Liba and Laya are no exception. The differences between the sisters are underscored by the alternating chapters of the book. Liba’s are written in prose and Laya’s in blank verse. Although the girls are devoted to one another and their parents, their heritage may prove to be their greatest challenge.

If you like fairy tales or have enjoyed Katherine Arden’s “Winternight Trilogy,” this book is likely to appeal to you. And in case you’re wondering, “The Winter of the Witch,” the third book in Arden’s series, is due to be released on Jan. 8. How timely!

Feathered Friends – Thrushes epitomize spirit of fall migration

A gray-cheeked thrush sits tightly on its nest on Kodiak Island in Alaska. More than other members of the thrush family, the gray-cheeked thrush nests in remote regions and only passes through Tennessee and Virginia during a limited period every spring and fall. (Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

By Bryan Stevens

While many migrant birds take wing in the autumn, a recent event reminded me that, in many respects, fall is the season of the thrush.

Taking part in the recent Fall Bird Count conducted by members of the Elizabethton Bird Club afforded me the opportunity to see some amazing birds, including large flocks of migrating broad-winged hawks, playful pileated woodpeckers and some often hard-to-see thrushes.

I usually feel lucky to be able to find one thrush in a single day of birding. On Saturday, Sept. 29, migration must have brought these birds out in full force, because I saw three different species — wood, gray-cheeked and Swainson’s — in the span of a few hours.

I found the Swainson’s thrush during the morning while walking the trails at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee. I flushed the bird from cover and got a good look at the bird. The Swainson’s thrush is a model of subtle beauty with a plumage that consists of warm olives and browns and a beige wash across the upper half of an otherwise white breast dotted with faint brown spots. The beige wash extends into a prominent eye-ring.

I usually see more Swainson’s thrushes in autumn than spring. Named for William John Swainson, the thrush doesn’t spend the summer months in the region, but is a fairly common spring and fall migrant. The thrushes that do nest during the summer in the region include wood thrush and veery, as well as the hermit thrush, which is also a winter resident.

The namesake of the Swainson’s thrush was a famous English naturalist living in the 19th century. Swainson, who grew up in London but spent much of his adult life in New Zealand, excelled as an English ornithologist, malacologist, conchologist, entomologist and artist. Besides the thrush, eight other species of birds are named in his honor.

Two of the other birds — Swainson’s warbler and Swainson’s hawk — are resident in the United States for at least the spring and summer months.

The other six species include Swainson’s francolin, Swainson’s sparrow, Swainson’s antcatcher, Swainson’s fire-eye, Swainson’s flycatcher and Swainson’s toucan.

Swainson never visited the United States of America, but in 1806 he accompanied the English explorer Henry Koster to Brazil in South America. Swainson and his family emigrated to New Zealand in 1841. Swainson settled near the New Zealand city of Wellington only to have earthquakes in 1848 and 1855 devastate the shoreline near his estate, which he called Hawkshead. He found the pioneer life in New Zealand difficult, especially when a native Maori chief pushed his own claims to Swainson’s estate. Swainson died of bronchitis on Dec. 6, 1855, at the age of 66.

The recent Fall Bird Count also offered me an opportunity to see a gray-cheeked thrush for the first time in almost 18 years. The species is aptly named. The gray-cheeked thrush lacks an eye ring, and its most prominent feature is the grayish plumage around the bird’s face. No evidence of brown or buff coloration intrude into the face region.

Gray-cheeked thrushes nest far from Tennessee and Virginia. In fact, they nest almost to the very edge of the tundra region in the far north. Because of this tendency to nest in remote regions, experts have had difficulty determining population trends for this species.

I know that I hadn’t seen one of these thrushes since back in 2000. I didn’t get a very good look during my recent encounter. I saw a bird fly from a tree branch into thicker cover. I relied on other members of the count party who got a better look to make the identification. The gray-cheeked thrush is not a common migrant in the region, but they do make some sporadic appearances. It’s possible they are also overlooked. Their migration actually takes place at night. The daytime observations of this bird involve individuals that have stopped for a brief respite to refuel and rest.

A shy personality contributes to the ease with which the bird can be missed even by a sharp-eyed observer. Like some of its relatives, but perhaps even more so, the gray-cheeked thrush would rather slip into concealing cover than reveal itself on an exposed perch to human observers. Both the gray-cheeked thrush and Swainson’s thrush belong to the genus Catharus, a term derived from Ancient Greek that can be described as “pure” or “clean” in reference to the plumage of some of the members of the genus.

The other two Catharus thrushes in North America include the veery, Bicknell’s thrush and hermit thrush. Some members of this genus are colorful birds with descriptive names, including the orange-billed nightingale-thrush, black-headed nightingale-thrush and slaty-backed nightingale-thrush. The incorporation of the name “nightingale” is no accident. Like the famous nightingale of folklore and fairytales, many members of the genus are remarkable singers capable of producing ethereal and flute-like songs.

In the final days of September and early days of October, wood thrushes returned to prominence in the woodlands around my home. I have wood thrushes nesting in the woods around my home every spring, but it is still always a treat to see the largest of the brown thrushes that call North America home during at least half of the year.

The wood thrush is not a member of the Catharus genus of thrushes, but instead is the sole representative of the genus Hylocichla. While not exactly an official state bird, the District of Columbia has made the wood thrush its official bird. The popularity of the wood thrush is probably helped by its own beautiful song, which has often been described as one of the most beautiful of all North America’s birds. Widespread in the United States and Canada during the summer nesting season, wood thrushes withdraw in winter to spend the cold season in southern Mexico through to Panama in Central America.

Right now, migration of thrushes is proceeding at a somewhat leisurely pace. Soon, though, most of this family of talented singers will depart the borders of the United States until next spring. When they get ready to leave, most thrushes will make a remarkable non-stop journey that will take them to the region where they will wait out the cold winter months. Enjoy them before they depart.

Library Happenings – Annual Halloween Film Festival begins Oct. 11

By Angie Georgeff

The start of the fall season has been unseasonably warm this year. It was good news for the Apple Festival, but now I’m more than ready for crisp mornings, autumn color and falling leaves.  Our annual Halloween Film Festival should help me get in the mood for the coming chill.

If you like movies about monsters without all of that excessive blood and gore, join us at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 11, for a classic movie suitable to the season. The festival will continue at the same time on Thursday, Oct. 18, and Thursday, Oct. 25.

The site license that permits us to show movies within the library prohibits us from advertising them by title or studio outside our facility. This is the eighth year of our Halloween Film Festival.  As usual, we chose movies that we haven’t shown before. A listing of the movies is posted inside the library, or you can enjoy the surprise. We will be serving Halloween candy and popcorn. Just bring your own soft drink or water in a spill-proof plastic container.

What I can say about our first movie is that it is listed by the National Film Registry as a film worthy of preservation. It also is one of the most highly rated films of the horror genre on IMDb, the Internet Movie Database. Unlike the classic Frankenstein, Wolf Man and Dracula movies, it’s one that most people haven’t seen. When I was young, my mother, younger brothers and I used to watch the “Friday Night Fright” flicks every weekend while my father slept. Even though I watched a lot of horror classics back then, I never saw this one until 13 years ago. If you are curious, join us tomorrow night and see for yourself. I would be interested to hear your opinion of it.

Spotlight Book

Kiersten White’s “The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein” retells Mary Shelley’s classic from the point of view of Dr. Frankenstein’s wife Elizabeth. An orphan who was abused by her caregiver, Elizabeth Lavenza is taken into the Frankenstein home as a companion to Victor, a brilliant but volatile child. 

Victor soon becomes attached to her and she learns to manage his violent outbursts. As she makes herself indispensable to the family’s comfort, she is given the best of everything.

After Victor leaves to study at the university in Ingolstadt, he stops writing home. Knowing that her position in the family depends on her usefulness to them, Elizabeth and a friend seek him out and discover what he has been doing with his talents.

The publication of this book has been timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s original gothic masterpiece.

Feathered Friends – Tennessee warbler visits Volunteer State only few weeks each year

The Tennessee warbler, while named for the Volunteer State, spends very little time within Tennessee. These warblers migrate through the region each spring and fall but nest much farther north in the boreal forests. (Photo by Paul Spark/Adobe Stock)

By Bryan Stevens

This fall has been a good time to see warblers. Some of the more common ones I have noticed in the yard so far have included American redstart, chestnut-sided warbler and black-throated green warbler. Of course, these two species nest in the region during the summer.

One of fall’s first true migrants showed up on Sept. 17 when a rambunctious Tennessee warbler made its debut by chasing a male Northern cardinal from the blue spruce near the creek.

The pioneering American ornithologist Alexander Wilson gave the Tennessee warbler its name, which, unfortunately, is not an accurate moniker.

Here’s some trivia for you should you ever find yourself competing on the game show “Jeopardy” and the category is “Warblers.” Four of our warblers — Kentucky Warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, Connecticut warbler and Tennessee warbler — bear common names that honor states. The Kentucky warbler and Tennessee warbler are named for the states where they were first found and described by Wilson in 1811. Neither the Tennessee warbler or Kentucky warbler are particularly affiliated with the states for which they were named. In fact, the Tennessee warbler passes through the Volunteer State only for a few weeks each year during spring and fall migration. Its closest breeding range is in the boreal forests of Michigan, and these warblers spend the winter in Mexico or farther south. Wilson got lucky and found his Tennessee warbler along the Cumberland River during migration.

Don’t blame Wilson too harshly for the mistake. Even after he “discovered” the first Tennessee warblers back in 1811, it would be almost another century before scientists finally located the bird’s nesting grounds in Canada in 1901. The remote and inaccessible nature of the region helped prolong this mystery about the Tennessee warbler’s life cycle.

In almost 25 years of birding, I’ve never seen a Tennessee warbler during spring migration. I see many of these birds every autumn as they stage their fall migration through the Volunteer State to reach destinations farther south. The appearance of the Tennessee warbler varies greatly depending on the season. In autumn, most Tennessee warblers are greenish-yellow birds with whitish-gray underparts. In the spring, the basic green and white pattern remains evident, but both males and females sport a gray head and a black line that runs through the eye and along the side of the bird’s face. The plumage — at least in illustrations and photographs — is shown as more crisp and distinct with spring birds.

Some experts have floated the opinion that the Tennessee warbler should be named “coffee warbler,” since wintering individuals are attracted to coffee plantations in Central America. According to the website, “Birds of North America,” recent studies demonstrate the importance of shade coffee plantations for Tennessee warblers during their time spent outside North America every winter. Other warblers, such as the black-throated blue warbler, are also closely associated with coffee plantations during the wintering season.

Some years find Tennessee warblers in great abundance, probably thanks to a feast of caterpillars infesting the spruce trees in the boreal forests where these warblers nest during the summer months. In years of famine when the caterpillars are less rampant in the forests the Tennessee warbler calls home, the birds raise fewer young, and the population grows less dramatically.

The Tennessee warbler is not strictly an eater of caterpillars and insects. This warbler has a bit of a sweet tooth — or should that be sweet beak? They visit flowers to partake of nectar; however, the Tennessee warbler is not a good example of an avian pollinator.

Tennessee warblers cheat by poking holes in the flower with their bills to steal the nectar without having to let the flower’s pollen accumulate on their bills and heads. The Tennessee warbler will also come to sugar water feeders put out on their wintering grounds to attract hummingbirds. The Tennessee warbler also supplements its diet with fruit and berries.

Here’s something that might also come in handy in a test of your knowledge of trivia some day: Not only is the Tennessee warbler named for the state, but the capital city of Nashville also has its name linked another member — the Nashville warbler — of the warbler clan. Once again, Wilson provided a rather inaccurate name, as the bird in question is only a visitor to Nashville during a limited window of time each year.

While the briefly visiting Tennessee Warbler already pays tribute to our state with its common name, the Northern mockingbird was selected in 1933 as the official bird for Tennessee. This relative of the brown thrasher and gray catbird also serves as the state bird for Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Texas.

At my home, Northern mockingbirds are usually evident only during the winter months. I haven’t seen one at home so far this year. Gray catbirds were scarce this summer, but a pair of brown thrashers provided much entertainment as they raised young in my yard and gardens.

For now, I think Tennesseans will probably stick with the mockingbird, rather than the Tennessee warbler, when it comes to offering one of our feathered friends the accolade of official state bird. That’s not to say we can’t enjoy observations of this warbler during its brief forays through the state. Don’t wait too long, though. The window of opportunity usually closes by mid-October.


I will be conducting morning bird walks at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton every Saturday in October. Walks begin at 8 a.m. from the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. The walks are free and open to the public.

Bring a pair of binoculars to increase viewing enjoyment as participants scan for warblers and other migrants visiting the park. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com for more information.

Library Happenings – Library will be open during Apple Festival

By Angie Georgeff

I have been a good girl for the past year, considering each calorie and counting every carb, but I am ready for an Apple Festival splurge. Bring on the fried apple pies! Don’t forget the apple butter, and if there’s an apple cake baking somewhere out there, put my name on it. The Unicoi County Apple Festival means a little extra work for residents, but a lot of extra fun.

As we usually are, the library will be open on both days of the Apple Festival. Although several of the everyday access streets will be blocked by vendors, your library will still be available.  Just take Elm Avenue south past Love Street and Erwin Utilities to Iona Street. Turn right at Iona and cross over Main Avenue to Nolichucky Avenue. Turn right at Nolichucky. The Unicoi County Public Library will be on your left in our beautiful and historic old depot building.

Park and Shop at the Library!

The parking spaces in front of our main door will be reserved for those patrons who are using the library. There is no charge for parking while you are using our facility or shopping at our book sale. For those who want to attend the festival, convenient parking will be available in the library parking lot on Friday or Saturday for a donation of $5. All funds raised will help support library programs. Festival parking will begin at 8 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Business hours will be the same as usual. The library will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. Our basement book sale will be open during our regular business hours on Friday and Saturday. We have thousands of used books for you to browse, so most book lovers are bound to come across one or two diamonds in the rough. Or ten, if you are anything like me!

Columbus Day

The library will be closed on Monday, Oct. 8, in observance of the Columbus Day holiday. No items will be due on that date. Books may be deposited in our book drops whenever we are closed.  They are located at the library in Erwin and at Town Hall in Unicoi.

Film Festival

Our annual Halloween Film Festival will begin Thursday, Oct. 11, with a classic movie chosen to send a shiver up your spine. Just bring a bottle of your favorite soft drink and join us at 6 p.m. for popcorn, candy and a movie. Please call the library at 743-6533 if you would like more information about any of our programs.

Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission: Beware flood-related vehicle scams

From Staff Reports

In the wake of flooding from Hurricane Florence, consumers shopping for a vehicle should be aware that flood-damaged cars and trucks from the Carolinas will eventually surface in Tennessee. To raise awareness, the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission, which is part of the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance’s (TDCI) Regulatory Boards division, is warning consumers to be on alert for scammers who might disguise severely water-damaged vehicles as being perfectly good.

“Operating a flooded vehicle that received non-repairable damage in a storm is dangerous for both the driver and other commuters,” said TDCI Commissioner Julie Mix McPeak. “We want Tennesseans to be aware of unscrupulous car dealers who aim to make money by selling you a defective vehicle.”

The Motor Vehicle Anti-Theft Act of 1996 makes a clear distinction between a “freshwater flood” vehicle (which can be rebuilt) and a “saltwater damaged” vehicle (which cannot be rebuilt). Tennessee titling laws, administered by the Tennessee Department of Revenue, distinguish between “non-repairable” and “salvage” vehicles by the type and extent of the damage. The determination about the type and extent of damage is made by the insurance company.

Many of the vehicles damaged by Hurricane Florence’s torrential flooding will be categorized as saltwater damage due to the presence of “brackish water,” a mixture of salt and fresh water that is generally the result of the backwash of saltwater into bayou areas. Saltwater damage continues to corrode and eat away at a vehicle’s body and operating components, even after it is cleaned up and repaired. With the computer system of today’s motor vehicles commonly located in the lower quadrant of the car, even low water levels of water damage can cause damage to a vehicle’s electrical system.

A vehicle that has been declared a total loss due to saltwater damage is deemed “nonrepairable” and may never be titled again in the state of Tennessee. Saltwater damaged vehicles can only be dismantled and used for parts.

Scammers will take advantage of the fact that no national standard or law pertaining to various title brands exists. They will move water-damaged vehicles to a state with different laws or standards, giving them a “clean title.” Typically, there is an influx of water or saltwater damaged vehicles seen at parking lots and on social media sites following an occurrence such as a hurricane or flood.

Scammers typically attempt to sell flooded vehicles quickly after a disaster, hoping to stay ahead of computer system updates so that title check systems don’t have time to detect the car’s history. By the time a consumer discovers the vehicle’s history, the seller will be long gone.

To help consumers avoid these flood-related car scams, the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission provides the following guidelines:

  • Prior to the sale of the vehicle, any person selling a flood vehicle is required by law to disclose such history to the purchaser. Further, once titling that vehicle, the purchaser will receive a branded vehicle title indicating the vehicle’s salvage history. Having such a title will substantially impact the value of that vehicle for further resale.
  • Anyone attempting to purchase a vehicle in the near future should be on the lookout for indicators of a flood vehicle, such as a musty smell, damp carpets, or mud/silt under the seats, and should attempt to find the vehicle history prior to purchasing.
  • Use a reputable title check service, such as the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, to check the vehicle history. If you find that it was last titled in a flood-damaged area, you should ask a lot of questions before making a decision. Keep in mind that title check companies are only as good as the information that they collect from other sources. Some of the sources that they collect data from may be delayed in pushing their data to the system.
  • Remember that a vehicle’s flood history may take up to 30 days or longer to post on traditional consumer reporting sites. As such, the Commission recommends that individuals purchase motor vehicles from a licensed motor vehicle dealer, which they can verify at http://verify.tn.gov/.
  • Because the vehicle could appear to be in very good shape, even if it has significant electrical and corrosion issues, it’s important to always have a trusted mechanic inspect a vehicle before purchasing it.
  • Be aware that there will be many recreational and powersport-type vehicles that have been damaged as a result of the recent storms as well. Look for the signs of flooding and saltwater damage before purchasing these units, too.
  • Keep in mind that there are lawful ways of reselling previously damaged vehicles. “Salvaged vehicles” can be repaired and sold as “Rebuilt vehicles” so long as they comply with the applicable laws. The Motor Vehicle Commission requires that licensed dealers provide a disclosure of the vehicle’s history as previously been a “Salvaged vehicle” on a Commission approved form.
  • “Saltwater damaged” vehicles are non-repairable but can be dismantled and the parts can be sold lawfully through a licensed dismantler/recycler.
  • If you suspect a licensed dealer* has sold you a vehicle with a salvage history and failed to disclose it, you may file a complaint here.
  • The Commission is not responsible for collecting or enforcing any refunds from unscrupulous sales but may take disciplinary action resulting in potential civil penalties or suspension or revocation of a dealer’s license.

Visit the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission online or by calling 615-741-2711.

*Please note that the Commission does not have authority over vehicle sales transactions between individuals. In those matters, consumers will need to contact their personal attorney for possible remedies.

About the Tennessee Department of Commerce & Insurance: TDCI is charged with protecting the interests of consumers while providing fair, efficient oversight and a level field of competition for a broad array of industries and professionals doing business in Tennessee. Our divisions include the Athletic Commission, Consumer Affairs, Tennessee Corrections Institute, Emergency Communications Board, Fire Prevention, Insurance, Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy, Peace Officers Standards and Training, Regulatory Boards, Securities, and TennCare Oversight.

To check a license of a professional regulated by the Department, go to http://verify.tn.gov/.

Sheriff issues phone scam warning

From Staff Reports

On Friday, Sept. 28, the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department issued a scam warning to citizens.

According to the press release, a group of individuals is calling Unicoi County citizens in an attempt to scam money from them. Recently this group was able to acquire $8,000 from a senior citizen living in the county.

Sheriff Mike Hensley reports that this group will call on the phone and say that someone known by you is in jail or in trouble out of town. They will represent themselves to be law enforcement or a lawyer. This group will give instructions on how to send money to get this loved one out of jail. This could include various gift cards, credit cards or cash advance checks or Western Union transactions.

“The bottom line is: Do not send money to anyone,” Hensley said. “Law enforcement will not contact you soliciting money, period.”

If someone calls on the phone requesting that money be sent, you should automatically assume it is a scam.

“More and more increasingly we are getting reports of different scams taking place,” Hensley said. “Once this money is sent out of the country, it cannot be recaptured.”

The sheriff also advised that anyone who receives one of these calls and feels compelled to send money should contact his office first.

“We will assist anyone to verify if a loved one or acquaintance is incarcerated anywhere in the country,” Hensley said.

Feathered Friends – Nighthawks part of migration spectacle

By Bryan Stevens

With Sept

A common nighthawk perches on a metal railing. These birds, which often roost in the daytime and get active after dark, form flocks for impressive migration flights every autumn. (Photo by Jean Potter)

ember advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the skies. For the most part, I focus on the upper branches of trees and feeders during the migration season, but I don’t forget the need to look skyward from time to time.

The reason? Well, that’s the best way to detect soaring raptors or flocks of migrating common nighthawks. The autumn sky is also a popular flyway for other birds, including chimney swifts and swallows.

So, what is a common nighthawk? First, this bird, despite what is implied by its name, is not a hawk. It’s also not strictly nocturnal. Particularly in the fall, nighthawks are active during daylight hours when engaged in catching winged insects. Outside of fall migration, these birds can often be observed over large parking lots or well-lit streets, snatching up insects swarming around the light poles.

The common nighthawk is one of three members of the nightjar family found in the region during the summer months. The other two nightjars are the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow, birds that produce their namesake vocalizations in the nocturnal hours. Both of these species migrate, but they don’t take the dramatic approach employed by nighthawks. Each fall, common nighthawks form large flocks, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of individuals, as they migrate south for the winter.

The whip-poor-will, after the common nighthawk, is the second most widespread member of its family to spend its breeding season in North America. The whip-poor-will ranges from southern Canada to the Gulf states. This bird also occurs in Arizona, New Mexico and southwestern Texas. The whip-poor-will favors habitat consisting of deciduous woodlands and the edges of forests.

All members of the nightjar family feed exclusively on insects that are caught on the wing. In this respect, the nightjars can be considered the nocturnal counterparts of the swallows. The nightjars have comparatively large, gaping mouths they use to scoop up flying insects. They also have large eyes, an adaptation to their nocturnal lifestyle.

Whip-poor-will numbers have been declining in the past few decades. These nocturnal birds frequent woodland edges, but they seem to be rather particular about such habitats. A forest that is too mature seems to hold little interest for them. Disturbed habitats, such as those created by logging, are acceptable to the birds once secondary growth begins. As this new growth matures, however, the whip-poor-will apparently abandons such territory. Because of these requirements, whip-poor-wills can be somewhat localized in their distribution and sometimes difficult to locate.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite summer activities was sitting on the front porch of my grandparents’ home and listening to the whip-poor-wills call after dark. I remember how the plaintive call would be repeated for long intervals before a passing automobile’s headlights might frighten the bird into silence. Then, after a brief pause, the “whip-poor-will” calls would, tentatively at first, begin again and continue throughout the night.

Today, I’m living in my grandparents’ old home, and the whip-poor-wills no longer call. I heard a single individual that called for a single evening back in May of 1997, but that was apparently a migrating bird that did not remain in the surrounding woodlands. The only member of the nightjar family that I dependably encounter at home these days is the common nighthawk, and then only during that narrow window of late summer and early autumn.

Unlike whips and chucks, the common nighthawk isn’t active only after dark, which makes it much easier to observe these birds. They look somewhat like swifts and swallows but are much larger. They are brownish-gray birds with pointed wings and forked tails. They are easily identified by distinctive white patches on the underside of their wings.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. The common nighthawk, whip-poor-will and the chuck-will’s widow are neotropical migrants. While they breed in a wide range of territory in North America, they spend their winters in Central and South America. Like all nightjars, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, which they catch on the wing.

Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.

So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move throughout September although they begin to appear as early as late August. They can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air.

First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds. The two flocks I’ve observed so far this migration season numbered about 30 and 50 birds, respectively.