Friday, May 20, 2016

Wood Thrush -- Singing Behavior

I am blessed with thrushes in my woodland yard.  Eastern Bluebirds have just fledged their first brood from one of my nest boxes.  Migrating Swainson's Thrushes were singing a week ago while I planted my hummingbird garden and I spotted one this morning, resting on a limb before dropping to the ground to forage.  Wood Thrushes are singing all around the yard daily, establishing breeding territories.
The habitat here is perfect for nesting Wood Thrushes--shade, shrubby understory, moist soil and leaf litter--all contributing to an attractive habitat for nesting and raising young.
The thick foliage often makes it very hard to find a Wood Thrush even when it is singing right in front of you. (It also offers poor light for early morning photography.) Luckily they often fly from perch to perch while singing and that's when you can sometimes locate them for a good look.
Yesterday morning, it was movement of a different kind that caught my eye and allowed me to locate my singing thrush.  He was flapping his wings vigorously, then stretched his neck, producing his beautiful flutey song.  This was followed by another series of wing-flapping while dropping down onto the limb on his stomach, straddling his legs on either side of the limb, remaining there for a few seconds, then bouncing back up again to sing another refrain of his song.  
He repeated this sequence numberous times--a phrase of his song, followed by wing-flapping, down to his stomach, up again and another phrase of his song,  This observation helped to explain the seemingly long pause between phrases.
I have checked Birds of North America for this behavior and could find nothing that resembled it. I eliminated "brood patch" related behavior because the female is believed to incubate alone.  My thoughts were these possibilties:  scratching his belly, mating display, pre-coital practice (if there is such a thing), energy discharge.

I am interested in what others may know or speculate about this behavior or if you know of this behavior occurring in other species.  
There is always something new to discover while watching bird behavior.  May is an exciting month for bird activity.  Keep your eyes open and ears tuned in!

More about thrushes on this blog:

Wood Thrush
Eastern Bluebirds
Hermit Thrush

Friday, April 1, 2016

Bird Banding Surprises at Seven Islands State Birding Park

Bird banding at Seven Islands State Birding Park sometimes brings surprises.  Our banding session on March 27th, brought a special one.  An American Woodcock was the first bird captured in our nets.  
Above, Master Bander, Mark Armstrong holds the woodcock so the rest of the banding team can see him/her before release.
Mark described the woodcock's beak as "soft as a noodle" while he was removing him/her from the net, but as soon as he was free, the beak hardened again.  The woodcock's beak is specially adapted for finding and digging earthworms in the forest floor.
This quote from Birds of North America describes some of the woodcocks unique qualities:  "Several features help to distinguish this forest-dwelling shorebird from its more aquatic relatives (Scolopacidae): a long bill specialized for feeding on earthworms, a stout head with large eyes set far back for rearview binocular vision, a polygynous mating system, sexes monomorphic in color with females substantially larger than males, and plumage with mottled, leaf-brown patterns that blend superbly with the forest floor. Indeed, the body and behavior of this woodcock have given it many colorful vernacular names such as timberdoodle, Labrador twister, night partridge, and bog sucker."
The Woodcock is a game bird so we did not band or record this capture, we just admired it and released.  No one expects to see a woodcock at such close range and this was quite a treat for all of us!



In addition to the their "penting" call during courtship, the male woodcock makes a rushing sound with its outer flight feathers.

Most of the rest of our banded birds were goldfinches, sparrows, cardinals and chickadees, but we did have one special catch at our last net run--a beautiful male Tree Swallow!
Tree Swallows have just returned to east Tennessee from their wintering grounds and they were flying in groups, all around the area, checking out the nest boxes.
It was delightful to listen to their calls and hear their chattering as they landed on the nest boxes and considered their options.  Seven Islands has a nest box trail of about 50 boxes that provide homes for chickadees, wrens, swallows and bluebirds.

To see more posts on Seven Islands bird banding, click the link.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Eastern Bluebirds and Real Estate Decisions

I have seen Eastern Bluebirds visiting the nest boxes in my yard throughout the month of March, but until a day ago, investigation behavior was all I had observed.
I noticed a female bluebird visiting the nest box but she wasn't entering the box. She repeatedly fluttered around the entrance and landed on top peering down toward the entrance.  Her mate was on a limb above, singing.
When she did finally enter, I could hear screeching and the male bluebird flew down from his perch wing-waving,  He was clearly prepared to come to her aid, but out flew a Carolina Chickadee followed by the female bluebird who landed on the top of the nest box.
I thought the matter was settled at that point, but apparently both the male and female chickadees were in the box when the female bluebird arrived.  The female bluebird continued to flutter around the box entrance and sat on the top of the box for a long while watching and listening, with intermittent peering inside.

When she peered into the entrance, calls could be heard from inside.  The female chickadee was standing her ground, refusing to leave the nest box.  
In past years, I have had a bluebird build her nest on top of a nearly completed chickadee nest. Though, very brave-hearted, I don't think a tiny chickadee stands a chance when a bluebird decides she wants the nest box.

Ten minutes or so of the bluebird's repeated peering into the entrance and call exchanges and the female chickadee finally departed.  I later checked the box and found that she had the floor of the box nearly covered in moss, a first soft layer for her nest in progress.
Once the chickadee left the box, the male and female bluebirds, in turn, went inside to investigate. The female of the pair will select the nest box, though the male is very active in finding boxes and escorting her to them to take a look.
Now it remains to be seen whether this pair of bluebirds will actually nest in the box. Since they've driven the chickadees away, I'm hoping that means they're staying.

More seasons with Eastern Bluebirds on this blog:  Eastern Bluebird Family
Videos of an Eastern Bluebird family
Carolina Chickadee posts on this blog.
Eastern Bluebird art

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Pileated Woodpeckers in My Yard!

Pileated Woodpeckers are more easily located when they're calling, but it was this male's leaf flipping that caught my attention and my excitement.  He was in my yard!
Though I had heard Pileated Woodpecker calls several times since moving to my new home, this was the first time I had seen one!
I've moved to a habitat very similar to the one I had been living in previously--a suburban area with wooded edges and mature diciduous and evergreen trees. Among the birds I had hoped to find here were Pileated Woodpeckers.  
This male is excavating a dead limb and likely finding beetle or ant larvae.
Pileated Woodpeckers frequently pause and look skyward while foraging on the ground.  They are large birds, about the size of crows, and lift off slowly so this alertness is essential protection from predators.  In this case, I think he is also watching and listening for his mate.  She was close by and had landed on a trunk near him.
Pileated Woodpeckers stay on their home territory all winter and remain with their mates.  In fact, the winter months are the best and sometimes the only time you can have this kind of intimate observation.  When the leaves pop in the spring, trunks and limbs are harder to see.  Even when you hear their calls or know where they land, woodpeckers disappear behind foliage.
Eventually, the male flew closer to where the female was foraging.  The pair rapidly moved from tree to tree and deeper into the woods and were lost from view.
This sighting affirms that my yard is part of this pair's territory and opens the possibility that I'll have other opportunities to observe this family.   Pileated Woodpeckers are very loyal to their territories.
Above, you can imagine how thick the foliage will be in the spring!

Visit my other Pileated Woodpecker posts on this blog.

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Pretty Rufous Hummingbird in Solway Tennessee

In the midst of this balmy December weather we've been having (in the 70's F) east Tennesseans have identified another Rufous Hummingbird, this one in Solway, Tennessee.   
Mark Armstrong of East Tennessee Avian Research, Inc. and Master Bander of hummingbirds and songbirds, was contacted by the home owners to identify and band the hummingbird.  On December 12th, Mark set up a trap and was able to capture the hummer minutes later.  Above, Mark reaches through the trap door to capture the hummer.
Above, the hosts of this hummingbird watch with interest as Mark removes the hummer from the net bag prior to examination.  The bag helps keep the hummer calm after capture.
Above, Mark takes wing measurements to help determine whether this Rufous is a male or female. Females have a longer wing measurement.  This bird was a mature female.
Using a blunt darning needle, Mark counts the number of gorget feathers visible on the female's throat.  Unlike female Ruby-throated hummers which have white throats, the females of the Rufous species often have a cluster of gorget feathers on their throat.
Photo credit:  Mark Armstrong

Mark shows hosts and friends some of the characteristics that help to identify this bird as a Rufous female.  
The female rests quietly for a moment before buzzing off to continue her foraging.
Photo credit:  Mark Armstrong

Even though Rufous hummingbirds have been found in the eastern United States for many years, biologists still know very little about why they migrate to the east.  It is also a mystery just what geographic characteristics determine their migration routes and choice of wintering grounds.  What we do know, is they have good memories and often return to the same yard the next winter.

Keep at least one feeder out this winter and you may be lucky enough to spot a wintering hummingbird!  In east Tennessee, report winter hummingbird sightings to Mark Armstrong at Woodthrush@bellsouth.net or 865-748-2224. 

Thank you to Billie Cantwell for sharing her great images in this blog post!  All of the images in this post that are not otherwise credited were taken by Billie.

Western Hummingbirds Wintering in Tennessee
Rufous Hummer in Knoxville 
Other blog posts on Wintering hummingbirds in Tennessee
In recent years, fourteen species of hummingbirds have been documented in the east during fall and winter months.
Hummingbird banding
Hummingbirds in watercolor
Hummingbird art on Vickie's Sketchbook blog
Cornell's All About Birds:  Rufous Hummingbirds

Monday, December 7, 2015

Another Western Hummer in East Tennessee

...a mature female Rufous at Musick's Campground in upper East Tennessee.
In the above image, the captured hummingbird is photographed to capture the details of her feather color patterns.  When turned to the side, this female's orange-red cluster of gorget feathers appears charcoal or black.  Photo credit:  Mark Armstrong.
When facing the light in a different direction, the feathers shine a brilliant orange red.  Photo credit Mark Armstrong

This change occurs because the color is not due to feather pigment but is created by the reflection of light on feather structures.  A more detailed description can be found at Sibley's Guides.
Mark Armstrong, Master Bander of hummingbirds and songbirds, commented about this hummingbird's condition:  " Something striking to me but difficult to explain is that she was just a really pretty bird.  I’ve banded some young birds as well as adults that were in molt but this bird finished [her molt] and was in really perfect plumage and just looked good.  The only thing left for her to finish was her primary molt.  The last two primaries at the end of the wing were old everything else was fresh.  She had a good fat load also.  She weighed 4.3 grams and most of the female rufous that I band are in the 3.5 gram range.  I’m hoping that the bird will stay a while but they don’t carry a fat load for fun and this usually means they are preparing for a move."
Above Mark Armstrong examines the hummer.  Photo credit:  Wallace Coffey

Wallace Coffey, of the Bristol Bird Club, was on hand to witness the hummingbird capture and examination in Sullivan County and posted the following on the Bristol Bird Club listserve:

Expert Confirms Musick’s Campground Hummer a “Rufous !” 

If you needed to know the positive ID for the hummingbird visiting Musick’s Campground since the middle of November, then tic that one down for your life list or annual list as a Rufous Hummingbird. They occasionally frequent a lingering feeder, in appropriate habitat, during late fall or winter in our area.

Mark Armstrong, and his wife Jane, of the East Tennessee Avian Research,Inc. group out of Seymour, TN, headed up before daylight to capture and band the tiny creature which is en route from its breeding area along the Pacific coast in the northwest of the US and Canada, migrating to the gulf states for the winter and some to South America.  Mark caught it in less than 10 minutes, just before 9 a.m.  A careful study of the feathers, measurements and weight determine it was an adult
female.  He is an authority because Mark and Jane have caught and banded more than 100 Rufous hummers and more than 3,000 Ruby-throateds.  Mark is [the retired] curator of birds at the Knoxville Zoo.

This winter has been slim pickings so far.  He has encountered only about three birds, mainly in the Knoxville area.  That is very low for him.  He does not always scrape the bottom of the barrel.  In June of this year,  he trapped a Ruby-throated in his backyard at Seymour which had been banded in September 2014 at Lake Jackson, Texas.  Well, for that matter, he caught a Rufous at the feeders on Mae Musick’s porch at South Holston Lake in eastern Sullivan Co., 1 Dec 2009, which had been banded 10 Jan 2009 in Pass Christian, Mississippi, a bit west of Biloxi and Gulfport.

To capture the hummer, he took the South Holston bird’s feeders down and away from the heat lamps which prevent freezing.  Then he hung a cage not too different than a typical bird cage but much larger. One of the feeders was placed in the cage and the door held open with a release “string.” The hummer soon came to the cage and went right into the feeder.  Mark closed the door and safely placed a tiny band on its leg.  
In the photo above,  Nancy McPeak of the Bristol Bird Club, is holding the hummer in her hand where it left quickly at its own determination and effort.  Photo credit: Wallace Coffey
 Photo credit:  Wallace Coffey

Mark and Jane are shown here as they prepared to leave the hummer/banding site. They carry lots of equipment to get their job done accurately.  Jane is carrying the cage trap. They also documented the ID and details with many close-up photos of the bird. For the most part, only the capture and study of details,including specific feather study, is reliable for species determination.  Most of us can fairly well judge some birds but only handheld counts. 

Present for this morning’s capture and study were Mae Musick, Carol Musick, Nancy McPeak, Mark and Jane along with Wallace Coffey, Bristol, TN.
Photo credit:  Katherine Noblet

Keep at least one winter feeder out and you may find yourself hosting one of these rare winter visitors!

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For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham