© Stephen J. Stedman 2012−2014
Many elements of this almanac were first composed as part of Birdfolk messages posted to this website from 2001 to 2005.
5 January (2002), 1725−1755 EST at the Waitsboro Recreation Area, Lake Cumberland, Somerset, Pulaski Co., Kentucky.
Early evening is falling on a day that has seen me afield since well before dawn to take part in the Somerset Christmas Bird Count. I'm standing next to Lake Cumberland looking for one last species of the day to alight on the lake as night falls. Overhead a "river" of blackbirds pours south at a rate of at least 100 birds per second for the entire time that I make this last effort to record new species for the count. The blackbirds were already flying south when I arrived at this site, for how long I do not know, but I do know that I see at least 200,000 before the river trickles to an end. At first the blackbird river is far to the west, nearly a mile away. Slowly its serpentine, undulating bulk moves eastward until it passes directly overhead, the rush of wind through black feathers powerful in the ears. Besides the rush of air, the birds produce another sign of their progress―fecal rain―that makes any effort to look up at their onrushing mass somewhat hazardous, but they are overhead only a minute and then the river moves farther east. It is almost a mile eastward―and I am straining to see its sinuous undulations through my bins―when the bird-stream ends and the last stragglers disappear into the darkened sky.
13 January (2002), c. 1030 CST at Sawyer's Landing, Barren River Lake, Barren Co., Kentucky.
I am scoping the immature Red-necked Grebe that has been frequenting this spot for almost a week. It is so close that the image of it in my scope takes up almost a third of the field of view that the scope provides. I can see the hint of yellow on its bill that is one way of separating this grebe from either of the smaller grebes―Horned and Eared―with which it might be confused. The bird is preening itself and probably also oiling its feathers by applying small amounts of oil, taken from an oil gland located near the top of its (almost absent) tail, to its plumage. Suddenly I see a small feather appear in the grebe's bill; then the grebe dips its bill into the water, wetting the feather; it dips the feather yet again, making what appears to be a swallowing movement, and the feather is gone. I think I have just witnessed a behavior that is habitually practiced by grebes, but by few other bird species: ingestion of feathers that form a plug in the pyloric lobe of the stomach. The purpose of this plug has not yet been fully established, but it may function to filter the prey items that grebes eat and thereby to keep parasites out of the intestines. As a "grebe person," I am delighted to have seen what is probably my first instance of feather ingestion. Now if I can just see a Horned Grebe―the finest of all grebes to my admittedly biased way of thinking―do the same, my need to view instances of feather ingestion will be satisfied. I wonder how many others out there would consider such an insignificant action to be so compelling.
18 January (2004), c. 0900 CST along the south shore of Cane Creek Park lake, Putnam County, Tennessee.
I am walking the lake loop with Winston Walden, and we are making a count of all birds we see and hear (big surprise!). While looking through the trees just west of the fishing pier, Winston spots a Northern Flicker on a black walnut and draws my attention to it since it is a species we have not yet recorded. As we watch the flicker, it dips its head into what must be a small cavity in the trunk of the tree; its head emerges and the bird moves its head and neck in a way that indicates it is swallowing. It dips its head into the cavity, presumably formed at the site where a limb has dropped off in years past, and withdraws it once again, making more swallowing movements. It then flies away, and we almost move on, but a sapsucker flies in to the same site and also drinks from this small cavity; while the sapsucker is drinking, a bluebird sits about a foot away as if queuing up for its turn to drink. Sure enough, when the sapsucker has slaked its thirst, it leaves, and the bluebird immediately flies to the cavity site and dips its head (and much of the upper half of its body) into the cavity and comes back up to swallow; it repeats this process several times. Then another bluebird takes a turn at the drinking site, which by now we think must offer some pretty potent brew to be so favored by so many birds. There is a whole 56-acre lake to drink from lying quite close by, and yet all these birds preferred to drink the rainwater that has been sitting in this small natural water tank for who knows how long, taking on the flavor of the walnut tree in the process and the flavor of who knows what other natural items blown in by the wind or perhaps left by other visitors to the site. Perhaps this cavity is the local equivalent of Perrier (or grog?). Whatever has caused its popularity among woodpeckers and thrushes, it certainly has a loyal following. We'll be sure to watch this tree as we make future walks around the lake, and those walks will be the richer for the knowledge we have gained about the local drinkers and drinking establishments.
27 January (2002), c. 1245 CST on the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Putnam Co., Tennessee.
I am standing near a small, shallow pond in the middle of deep woods, feeling elated that a minor biological quest has finally come to an end. The pond is about 50 feet long and 50 feet wide, totaling around 2500 square feet. Spread out fairly densely over the surface of the pond are at least 200 wood frogs (Rana sylvatica), many vocalizing loudly and sounding exactly like the "squabbling ducks" that they are often likened to in descriptions of their calls. I had hoped to see just one wood frog on this trip, so getting close looks at 200 of these retiring woodland amphibians as they court and chorus goes way beyond my wildest dreams. The pond was constructed by its owner―Richard Simmers―for the express purpose of providing breeding habitat to woodland frogs, toads, and salamanders; it is obviously working to near perfection. I've sought wood frogs in a number of places during the past four years, always without success; it feels good to see and to hear them finally, but the experience is made more satisfying when I realize that many future generations of wood frogs are assured of a place to breed at this site because of the foresight of one person. If we each made just one such gesture in a lifetime, it would make a considerable difference to the life forms inhabiting the planet with us.
2 February (2003), c. 1300 EST on Clear Fork (one of the two major tributaries that merge to form the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River) a couple miles below the Hwy. 52 bridge, along the Fentress/Morgan Co. line, Tennessee.
I am drifting in an open canoe, enjoying the gorgeous day in the daytime gorge of the Clear Fork. Although I am paddling with three nonbirders, I am silently counting birds (ah, there's the fifth Golden-crowned Kinglet, and there's the second kingfisher), something I cannot seem to suppress whenever I am outside. I scan the sky for flying birds and am rewarded by a two-minute view of a Sharp-shinned Hawk that enters the bottom of a thermal at tree-top level right overhead and ascends until almost out of sight; three turkeys cross the creek with much more ponderous wing-beats, offering a nice contrast to the aerial buoyancy of the accipiter. All the while I am expecting to see vultures along the magnificent cliff-lines of the river canyon; they are a fixture for those canoeing this river, but so far today not a one is to be seen. As I scan for vultures, my eyes fall upon a shaded cliff with massive amounts of icicles still hanging, and I think that it must have been really, REALLY cold in this canyon during the spell in January when temperatures dipped to minus six degrees at Crossville, and then it hits me. The absence of vultures along Clear Fork, in conjunction with the abandonment of the vulture roost in Cookeville, is an indication of a likely vulture exodus from Tennessee in late January as these birds sought more balmy climes to spend winter days. This hypothesis is theoretically falsifiable (if we put transmitters on vultures prior to such a weather event and tracked their movements, we could see if, in fact, they exit the state), and it seems to me to better explain the case of the disappearing vultures than predation by owls, so for now that is where I am at with regard to the vulture problem (ah, there's the third Pileated).
22 February (2004), c. 1750 CST, Roaring River Recreation Area, Jackson Co., Tennessee.
I am standing in a medium-sized field that has some brushy borders, hoping to get my first-ever look at a displaying woodcock (can you believe it? after 45 years of birding, I still have not seen this event; talk about your birding jinxes). Suddenly, the familiar twittering of a courting woodcock can be heard overhead, and I scan the sky for any sign of pudgy birdlife. And then I see an ungainly shorebird, wings beating furiously, as it strains for altitude in the darkening skies overhead. It reaches the zenith of its flight and begins to make a series of crazy, downward maneuvers, weaving in tighter and tighter circles, and then pitching straight down toward the earth at seemingly suicidal speed, braking just in time to land, hidden, in the short grass at the edge of the field. Then its characteristic peenting commences and continues for a minute or two. The woodcock then repeats the entire performance again, and again, the better to impress his lady woodcock. I head for the car, much satisfied with my view, and wondering if I will have to wait 45 more years for the next one.
1 March (2002), c. 1910 EST at the big field on Duncan Hollow Rd., about 3 miles north of the Bandy Creek Visitor Center, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Scott Co., Tennessee.
I am driving slowly down a dirt road just after dark when I note a football-shaped object in the middle of one of the road's shallow ruts. As I close to within 20 feet of this pigskin imitator, it suddenly begins to coalesce into an identifiable shape, giving every indication that it is an American Woodcock that I have caught in the act, so to speak, that is, the act of courtship. Like many another male woodcock on this warmish Friday night, it is engaged in an eons-old ritual designed to entice a female woodcock to come forward and do her part to perpetuate the woodcock species. Aldo Leopold offers a wonderful description of the woodcock's courtship in an essay entitled "Sky-Dance," part of one of the chapters of A Sand County Almanac, long considered a classic of American nature writing. The fellow I have captured in the beams of my headlights allows me to enjoy his amorous rotundity for about a minute before taking flight. I step quickly from my car and see the woodcock circle overhead, realizing suddenly that I have not even slightly disturbed its quest for female companionship. It continues to spiral upward and out of sight. I know that if I wait a few minutes, it will probably land right in front of the car again, but I decide to forego this second opportunity to regale myself with woodcockness and drive on, offering this determined bird a bit of privacy and hoping his quest is a successful one.
13 March (2004), c. 1130 CST, near Haysville in north-central Macon Co., Tennessee, with Winston Walden.
We are searching for raptors in an area of wide-open fields. We sight three Red-tailed Hawks soaring off to the west and focus in on them. Suddenly the bird that is highest among the three dives down steeply towards one of the two other Red-tails; the two hawks lock talons and tumble in wild gyrating circles for several revolutions before disconnecting from one another. This is part of the courtship behavior of Red-tails, but what makes this sighting a bit unusual is that the bird that initiated the ritual has a white tail and a white crown, though the remainder of its plumage seems normal. These features mark it as a juvenile of the Krider's form of the Eastern subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk. Krider's normally breeds on the northern Great Plains, far from Tennessee, so it is a little curious why a juvenile of this form would be courting in Tennessee, yet we have just witnessed exactly that event, and we see the Krider's climb high and perform another dive, talon lock, and aerial tumble while we continue to observe this interesting behavior, made all the more interesting as a result of our knowledge of the probable origin of at least one of the birds involved. The study of subspecies, at least the more well-marked ones, can lead to some fascinating puzzles. One solution to the present puzzle is that Red-tails might begin pairing and courtship far from the site where they intend to nest.
20 March (2013), c. 1030 CDT, Lilly Bluff, Obed Wild and Scenic River, Morgan Co., Tennessee.
I am sauntering from the trailhead parking lot toward Lilly Bluff Overlook listening for birdsong and watching for bird movement in the dense mixed forest on either side of this short trail. I have traveled this trail many times in the past, almost always with my birding companion of 35 years by my side, as we enjoyed the birdsong and bird calls in the surrounding woods, as well as the anticipation of the magnificent view of Clear Creek Gorge provided by the overlook. About halfway to the overlook I hear the song of a Blue-headed Vireo off to my left and then the calls of a small flock of permanent resident or wintering species―a titmouse, a Golden-crowned Kinglet, a nuthatch, and a few others. In a few minutes I am regaled by the panoramic view at the overlook; a Turkey Vulture is also taking in the view but with a different state of mind than I have, being meal-oriented rather than reminiscing about things past. The gorge runs almost due east from the overlook, and three Class III−IV rapids―Jack's Rock, Camel Rock, and Wooten's Folly―are in successively view downstream. I've canoed through those rapids many times, always with my companion of 35 years alongside in another canoe. Now I wonder if I will ever run them again, listening, when the rapids allow it, for birdsong and enjoying the scenery of the gorge. Because my companion's final ashes were scattered into the river here, it is a special place to me and always will be.
22 March (2003), c. 0720 CST, Cane Creek Park, Putnam Co., Tennessee.
I am standing on the shore of the park lake near the boat ramp, scanning for the odd duck or other waterbird when suddenly my ears detect the song of their first Blue-headed Vireo of the year. The bird is singing from the woods near the boat ramp; it is a classic song, with the phrases more separated temporally from one another than the phrases in the song of Red-eyed Vireo, but not as hoarse as the phrases of Yellow-throated Vireo, the main sound-alike species with which the Blue-head might be confused. As I regale myself with this auditory feast, not heard since last October or early November, I detect another song in the background, and I strain to put a label on it. A second, seemingly louder, rendition clarifies the issue―the ethereal notes of a Hermit Thrush quaver in the air, and then even more distantly but distinctively, another song echoes the first one, as two Hermits vie with one another for song-mastery by the lakeside. They continue their competing duet for several more songs each and then all is quiet, and even the Blue-head can no longer be heard in the late winter woods.
24 March (2002), c. 0845 EST near Station Camp on the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, Scott Co., Tennessee.
I am drifting in a open canoe on the river, enjoying the free ride produced by 2400 cubic feet of water per second flowing paradoxically north toward the Gulf of Mexico. The sun is out, bringing respite from 30-degree weather, and the wind is still. Ahead of me about 30 meters a ripple "arrow" appears on the water as something moves my way on the surface, causing minute waves to flow away on both sides of it. I am alert for anything alive, and this sign of life promises me a living creature to watch. Sure enough, the object gliding toward me resolves itself into an otter whose flat head and round tail-tip are all that I can see. Suddenly, when it is only 15 meters away the otter sees me (how could it miss my 12-foot canoe?) and raises its head for a better look, bringing at least 15 centimeters of its head and neck out of the water like an animate periscope. Just two seconds of scrutiny are all the otter needs to determine that it should be elsewhere, and it submerges, not to be seen again. However, the day is made richer by the otter, and I am glad that otters haunt the waters of the Big South Fork, where, alas, a hunting season allows otters to be trapped in order to warm the cockles of folk who have probably never floated a river in bright sunlight as an otter swam nearby.
1 April (2013), c. 1730 CDT near the pro shop parking lot for the golf course at Barren River Lake State Resort Park, Barren Co., Kentucky, with David L. Roemer and David R. H. Brown.
I am peering out the backseat driver-side window of Dave's venerable birding sedan as we leave the park's pro shop parking lot where we have just observed at fairly close range two Pine Warblers, only the second and third individuals of that species we have encountered since 0815 CDT when we started this day afield in the Upper Cumberland's most bird-productive county. Dave Roemer and I have been conducting intermittent bird surveys in Barren County for many years (and Dave has been extremely active in the county over a couple decades on hundreds of other days when I have not been present); David Brown joined Dave and me about a year ago, and together we have enjoyed a number of magical birding trips together, today's outing being no exception to the rule of unalloyed birding enjoyment that we have experienced. As we pass along the fairway that borders the eastern side of the road to the golf course, I look through Dave's bird-dropping bespattered backseat window and then through the trunks of some loblolly pines to behold three large blackish birds perched on the ground with a gray squirrel, and I am amazed to discover that the large blackish birds are not crows but Pileated Woodpeckers every one. Exactly what sort of Dryocopian/Sciurian shindig is going among these three large peckerwoods and the squirrel is hard to imagine, Dave and David being just as flummoxed by this odd avian-rodent grouping on the edge of a golf course fairway as I am. We slow down slightly―being somewhat intent on visiting other birdy areas in Barren County and/or on Barren River Reservoir to swell our daily species total from its current position in the mid-80s to something around 90, a task that we accomplish around an hour later at the famous "gull roost" between Bailey's Point and Mason's Island by adding a fourteenth duck species, a fourth gull species, and our first kingfisher species to the daily total―and verify that we have apparently not entered an alternate universe where woodpeckers and squirrels have co-evolved to become earth-diggers but are really seeing what we are seeing in the here and now―three big woodpeckers and one squirrel rummaging about beneath some pine trees for some unknown but seemingly desirable object. We drive on, still mystified by the vision of this odd bi-species get-together, speculating that a food source of some sort (but what? pine cones? lost golf balls?) might account for what we have just witnessed. We fear that others will think our tale is an April Fool's prank, and we wonder if it is prudent even to discuss it, other than among ourselves, for fear of being disbelieved. Being stout of heart, however, we decide that we must broadcast this odd association to all and sundry in birdland, so here it is; take it for whatever it is worth.
10 April (2002), c. 1145 CDT near the trailhead for the Brady Mountain Section of the Grassy Cove Segment of Cumberland Trail State Park, Cumberland Co., Tennessee.
From the trailhead for the Brady Mountain Section of the Cumberland Trail, I am hastily walking toward the trailhead for the Black Mountain Section. At this point an extremely busy highway, Rt. 68, links the Brady Mountain (7.8 miles) and Black Mountain (4.4 miles) sections of the Grassy Cove Segment of Cumberland Trail. The road is crowded with folk who are driving home to lunch from Crossville or driving to Crossville to have lunch, among the myriad reasons why vehicle-addicted Homo sapiens might be in their cars today. Noise from all these cars is bothersome, drowning out much birdsong and generally detracting from the experience I expected when I decided to hike this mostly scenic trail.
As I move hastily down the road, I notice a crow-sized bird fly into a deciduous tree only 10 meters off the highway. The tree is without leaves, so I am able to get a good look at the bird, which turns out to be a fine adult Broad-winged Hawk, the first I have seen this year. I have been standing still since I first sighted this bird, and it apparently does not see me. After a few more seconds it flies another 10 meters farther from the road and lands right on a nest, located about 12 meters high in a tulip poplar. For a few minutes the hawk inspects its domicile. I try to ease slowly closer for a photograph of this scene, but the hawk notices my movement and immediately flies away, offering a nice view of its broad white tail bands as it does so. I am left without a photograph, but I do have a nice memory of this usually retiring raptor. It and its mate are apparently going to nest right next to a very busy highway but also right next to the Cumberland Trail, which recently became the first linear park in Tennessee. The hawk's nest seems to be in the wrong place if I view it in the context of the highway, but if I view it in the context of the trail, it is right where it should be. These two contradictory contexts jar with one another for a few minutes in my mind, but gradually they become one as I continue my hike.
10 April (2005), c. 0600 CDT near the boat-launch in Lake Cumberland State Resort Park, Russell Co., Kentucky.
I am driving slowly up the road from the boat launch when I discern a medium-sized, brown quadruped form in the road ahead of me; it is still a while till good light, so the form is somewhat indistinct. As I get closer, the form crosses the road ahead of me and climbs partway up a rock wall on the left side of the road. The steepness of the wall prevents the form from moving very far to the left, so it moves behind a small tree growing out of the rock wall and stops just as I come to a halt, five meters away and nearly on the same eye level as this form, which resolves itself into an extremely cooperative, indeed placid, bobcat. Its yellowish eyes peer at me from a distance of just 5 meters. The cat is no doubt bemused by the fact that my mouth is wide open from the shock of viewing one of nature's seldom seen creatures at an extremely unlikely distance. The bobcat then slowly steps along the ledge, a silent, unperturbed felid form, probably seeking a rock shelter to sleep away the day. As I watch it move off, my mouth now closed and my breathing restrained lest any movement scare the cat, it never increases its pace, but walks calmly, and definitely quietly, until I can no longer follow it in the predawn gloom. When I am sure I no longer have a chance to catch another glimpse of this uncommon creature of the forest nights, I find I need to take a deep breath in order to make up for the time I have been holding my breath so as not to make even the slightest movement while in sight of this wild cat. Never before have I found myself so close to so accommodating a bobcat, making this moment one worth holding my breath to enjoy.
26 April (2014), c. 0515 CDT in the northern Sequatchie Valley along Old Rt. 28, Cumberland Co., Tennessee.
I am standing in the road listening for night birds near the end of my first hour of my field work during the spring bird count being conducted in Cumberland County on this day. Two Chuck-will's-widows are calling in the distance, one back up the west side of the valley and the other off to the east in the central part of the valley. Their pulsating counter-songs punctuate the quiet night air, the only signs of life yet detectible this morning. As I strain to hear yet other nocturnal species, I notice for the first time that the crescent moon is visible over the eastern horizon of the valley; then I see that the part of the moon that is not lighted by direct rays from the sun to form its crescent is also weakly visible, lighted by the sun's rays reflected from the earth to the moon. To the moon's lower right, a very bright star is evidence that a planet, probably Venus, is also in view along with a myriad of stars, billions of which form the Milky Way that arcs across the entire sky from south to north. The staggering immensity of the galaxy shines over me as the two nightjars' songs hauntingly reverberate in the pre-dawn gloaming.
2 May (2005), c. 0830 CDT on the Tennessee Tech campus at the Old Maintenance Bldg. near Brown Hall, Cookeville, Putnam Co., Tennessee.
I am walking to Prescott Hall in order to deliver some paperwork when I happen to notice a flock of 50 or more Chimney Swifts in a small swirling mass right above the chimney to the Old Maintenance Bldg. The swifts continue to fly in spirals above the chimney as I get closer to the building. At first I suspect that they have just emerged from the chimney to begin foraging, but this thought is quickly given quietus when I see over half the flock suddenly break out of the vortex of birds, fly directly down to the chimney top, and then disappear into its depths. The morning is a chilly one with temperature in the low 40s, besides which the day is quite foggy, so I deduce that these birds have emerged from the chimney to see what the day is like (sort of like humans who now watch the weather channel before heading off to work--or, if they do not have a TV, who actually stick their heads out windows to see what the weather is really like, rather in the manner of the swifts). Having encountered conditions that do not promise that many flying insects will be about, the swifts decide that a comfy chimney is a lot better place to be than exposing the old axillars (the "armpits" of birds) to inclement weather, so they just go back to "bed" for an extra forty winks. So like humans in that regard. If it is true that we are brothers to the dragonfly, it is all the more true that we share with birds most of our need for the so-called creature comforts.
3 May (2004), c. 1100−1120 CDT, Cane Creek Park, Cookeville, Putnam Co., Tennessee.
I am standing on the causeway that separates the lake at Cane Creek Park into two unequal sections. As I look eastward over the small end of the lake, I notice a white-rumped swallow flying amidst a group of a dozen or so swallows. Suddenly my adrenaline level―and probably my blood pressure, too, sad to say―increases dramatically, as I begin assessing the chances that I may have a Violet-Green Swallow on my hands. The bird in question is the size of a Tree Swallow, but it has this dramatic white rump that just begs for close inspection, if I may use that phrase in this case. I watch the bird as it flies low over the water; it mainly stays 30 meters or more away from me, so I have little chance to view its eyes or to get a good view of the color of its dorsal (upper) surface. Finally, it flies right at me and then slowly flaps past at 7 meters, giving impeccable looks at the side of its face and its back. The face lacks the characteristic white mark above the eye that all Violet-Green Swallows possess, and the back is blue-green, just like the typical Tree Swallow's back, so I am forced to conclude that my white-rumped swallow is just a Tree Swallow with a color aberration. Too bad, but much more likely than Violet-Green, for which there is only one state record. I leave the site wondering if a white-rumped Tree Swallow is as rare as a Violet-Green in Tennessee and pondering the role of anomaly in birding. Usually, but not always, as in the present case, it is the slight difference in field mark that will call attention to a rare species; we get so used to this kind of reaction, that we begin to connect aberration with rarity, but that is clearly not always the case.
5 May (2013), c. 0800−1100 CDT, Berry Pond and other sites in Barren Co., Kentucky, with David R. H. Brown and David L. Roemer.
On this date in 1971 I began my odyssey as a birdperson in Tucson, Arizona; I was looking up into the foliage of a paloverde when a male Western Tanager flew in and landed in the branches about 3 meters from my head; awe-struck, I decided then and there that my somewhat intermittent interest in birds--initiated on my tenth birthday when I received a pair of 7X50 binoculars and a Peterson field guide from my father, and a small toy owl from my mother, the latter still in my possession after 54 years--needed to be revved into high gear; the rest, as they say, is history. So the fifth of May has always been a special day in my life (two of the speeding tickets that I have received were presented to me on that date when I was rushing somewhere to see a bird, but no tickets since 1985, I am happy to report). Today I am with the two people whom I enjoy birding with the most among all my birding acquaintances. I have joined Dave (Roemer) and David (Brown) about a dozen times over the past few years, driving the 96 miles to our meeting point within view of Barren River Dam, spending the day wandering the birdways of Barren County and Barren River Reservoir/Lake--the most bird productive lake in the UCR--and then driving back those 96 miles while basking in the delight of another great birding day. Before David joined us, Dave and I had birded around Barren since the turn of the century; we have turned gray- (now near-white-) haired and retired during those years, but the birding and the company have not changed, and the days afield in Barren are bright ones in my memory. Today David remains with us through the morning, and we find 80 species in the three hours we spend together; later in the day, Dave and I had 25 more species. To commemorate this special day, Dave takes a group photo while we are scoping some nice shorebirds at Berry Pond.
11 May (2002), c. 1900 CDT on Baxter Rd. between Rt. 141 and Buffalo Valley, Putnam Co., Tennessee.
I am cruising east at 15 mph on this little-used secondary road, counting birds during the Spring Bird Count in Putnam County and trying to stay awake after nearly 16 hours afield. I stop near a weedy patch with a power line in back and hear my 82nd and last Common Yellowthroat of the day singing "witchity-witchity" from the weeds. Eight-two yellowthroats: that sounds like a lot, but I know that number is far lower than the number I recorded in 2001 and in some earlier years (indeed, a later check indicates that I counted 197 yellowthroats in 2001).
So what, I ask myself, is going on here? Why are yellowthroat numbers so depressed this year? I pull away, still pondering this ornithological mystery, which like so many others for those who deal with birds seems unlikely to be resolved. However, I keep the memory of that last yellowthroat singing from the weedy field near the power line in the forefront of my mind, just in case. Later that night, after the rush of the bird compilation has dissipated, I bring that scene back to mind, and something clicks: I think I know what has caused the yellowthroat drought, and it has to do with power lines. All day I drove by power lines, and each time I passed one I failed to register that it had been sprayed with herbicide sometime recently and was almost entirely devoid of vegetation. In most previous years the lines are full of weeds and early successional shrubs, providing ideal habitat for yellowthroats, but this year that habitat is not available to the bandit-birds, and so their numbers are down. This is not a cause for worry, if I have correctly analyzed the situation, because next year the effects of the herbicide will have worn off, and the power line rights-of-way will once again be full of weeds and available as safe havens for yellowthroats.
21 May (2002), c. 0900 CDT on a trail paralleling Bee Creek, a tributary of the Caney Fork River in the Bridgestone/ Firestone Centennial Wilderness, White Co., Tennessee.
I am standing beneath a large American Beech, searching for a Blue-headed Vireo that I heard sing from this area while I was walking down the trail a minute ago. Knowing that Blue-heads are fairly susceptible to spishing, I make a few fussing noises in the hopes of getting a look at one of these handsome shrike- and flycatcher-cousins. Suddenly, I am overwhelmed by a burst of wing-beats that seem to be right next to my left ear, as a winged monster of some sort furiously flails the air nearby. I duck instinctively, thinking I have loosed a harpy from ornithological hell and hoping that no important body parts are detached while I am in this vulnerable position. Just as suddenly all quiets down, my breathing slows, and I find that I am unharmed (and, thank goodness, my shorts unsoiled) after all. I look about for the cause of all this ruckus but find nothing nearby that could account for what I think I have experienced. Then I notice a demure little Blue-headed Vireo peering down at me from the beech branches only three meters away. Surely not, I think; no way could that little ounce or two of feathers produce the noise and commotion that I just witnessed. To be sure, however, I (somewhat hesitatingly, be it admitted) offer up another bout of (somewhat suppressed) spishes―and watch amazed as the Blue-head transforms itself into a feathered bombshell, launching itself right at me and reproducing in all its intensity the same furious commotion that I had fallen victim to just a minute earlier. By flying straight at me and putting on the airbrakes just inches from my ear―the right one this time―the Blue-head became a whole lot more bird than I had any idea it could be. I decide that another bout of spishing is not prudent (after all, there is the mate of this Blue-head out there, too, and who knows how much damage a double dose of vireo flagellation might cause?) and proceed on down the trail, housing a new respect for Blue-heads and feeling glad my own head isn't black and blue.
2 June (2004), c. 0900 CDT, at Cane Creek Park, Cookeville, Putnam Co., Tennessee.
I am standing at the boat ramp scanning the lake for waterbirds, as is my custom on most visits I make to this park. I notice a large, dark, somewhat ungainly feathered creature perched on a log out in the middle of the lake partway through the scan and immediately focus attention on this bird, which turns out to be an immature Double-crested Cormorant, the latest I have ever recorded during "spring" in Putnam County. I am not overly surprised by this find because of several factors. First, cormorants have become more and more regularly encountered on the Spring Bird Count in Putnam County over the past decade; in fact, this year, three field parties recorded a total of seven cormorants. Second, summering cormorants, especially immature birds, have become more and more regular elements of the Regional avifauna. And, finally, nesting of cormorants both east and west of the Region (on Watts Bar and Old Hickory lakes, respectively) has been detected in recent years.
So the presence of this immature bird tells me that, in all likelihood, there are nesting colonies of cormorants somewhere within the Region this year―or will be in some not-too-distant future year. Whether the breeding of cormorants is to be considered a good event depends on your point of view, of course, but there seems little doubt that they are here as breeders―somewhere―or will be soon.
4 June (2002), c. 1930−2000 EDT on Wolf Knob Rd., McCreary (and Whitley) Counties, Kentucky.
I am scouting out the route for the Wolf Knob Breeding Bird Survey that I will run in the morning. It is hot and dusty with few birds singing or otherwise in evidence. Scouting is one of the more boring and mundane activities associated with conducting Breeding Bird Surveys; I wish there were a way to avoid scouting, but so far no recourse has made itself available, so here I am.
I notice a plume of dust rising behind me as I begin driving up this steep, narrow, winding 8.5-mile-long gravel road and absently wish that some rain would come, both to keep down the dust and to increase the likelihood of birdsong in the morning. After four miles, a few raindrops spatter the windshield, giving some hope that my earlier wish will be fulfilled. At the five-mile mark, a light, steady rain is falling and the dust behind me is much reduced. At mile six a hard, steady rain is falling, reducing visibility to 100 feet, and I slow down from 20 to 10 miles per hour; after all, the drop-off on one side of this narrow road is several hundred nearly vertical feet, so it wouldn't do to make a steering error. At mile 7 the rain has become torrential, totally eliminating the possibility of raising dust or of seeing more than ten feet ahead. I slow down to 3-4 miles per hour and turn on the headlights. At mile 7.1 the rain is still torrential, but now it is coming down almost sideways instead of vertically because the wind has picked up a tad, to, say, 50 miles per hour; large trees are swaying through 30-degree arcs, and I eye them cautiously―during the brief intervals when I can see them―as I drive slowly by. At mile 7.2 visibility is down to 5 feet, mainly because pea-sized hail is now mixed in with the still very heavy rain; it tears thousands of leaves loose from their attachments. The mixture of rain, hail, and leaves is incredibly thick and hard to see through, so I slow down to less than one mile per hour―but I keep on driving. At mile 7.3 thunder begins to intrude on my consciousness; it may have been there for a while, but the combination of hard rain and hail on the roof, along with the need to focus sort of carefully on the narrow road ahead, has caused me to miss it if it was there, but now it's hard to ignore, probably because now it is much closer and the peels of thunder are nearly continuous. Lightning, too, begins to brighten patches of the dark sky overhead―but I keep on driving. At mile 7.4 the period of time between lightning strikes and the sound of thunder is way less than a second, but I decide not to take time to calculate the exact interval. The sky is lit up with lightning strikes nearly 90% of the time; some of the strikes are so close that they whiten my whole field of view for more than a second and give the appearance of being gigantic flares although the punch they pack is slightly more than your garden variety flare is capable of delivering. I lose count of the close lightning strikes at fifty, coming in less than three minutes, mainly because one bolt strikes some unlucky object directly ahead of me with an enormous fireworks display at a distance of about 60−70 meters. Anyway, I decide that I cannot keep count lightning strikes and maintain the necessary degree of attention on the road ahead, so I stop counting―what a time for a senior moment!―but I keep on driving. At mile 7.5 I encounter a largish treetop blocking the road, perhaps the victim of one of those 50+ lightning strikes. I see that if I break off a few branches on the right side I can get around, but, since the rain is still heavy, I take the downed tree as a sign that I should turn around and take my chances with that last mile of unscouted road in the morning. When I return to the bottom of the road, it is bone dry, and once again the car kicks up a plume of dust that begins to settle on its leaf-strewn surface.
BBS scouting is hot, dusty, boring work, but somebody has to do it.
8 June (2004), 1001−1024 CDT, Ensor Sink Natural Area, Cookeville, Putnam Co., Tennessee.
I am walking the short loop trail around the natural area when I hear a flock of jays making raucous jay noises in an agitated manner, suggesting they are harassing a raptor or predator of some kind. Sure enough, as I approach the area where they are calling, a medium-sized raptor flies off in a manner that suggests it is an accipitrine hawk of some kind, probably Cooper's, but my look is too brief to call the bird more than just a medium-sized raptor, so that is what I write down on the ever-present field card. I continue along the trail past the stream crossing and up a short incline to an area where I have heard Broad-winged Hawk calls during the past month, but no such calls do I hear this morning. I reach the open part of the trail and pass the circle of benches when I notice a large raptor circling overhead. Thinking I may have my Broad-wing, I rapidly swing the bins into action, but my view reveals an adult Red-tail, a raptor I have not seen around the park in over a month. Suddenly, the first Red-tail is joined by a second adult, and the two lazily circle overhead, providing exemplary looks at all field marks. As I watch the Red-tail duo, they begin to call and beat their wings rapidly to gain altitude. As they call and climb, I watch and then realize that I am also hearing a Broad-winged Hawk. I scan the skies back in the direction from which I have come, and there it is, a nice adult Broad-wing, circling and calling as if to say that the Red-tails had better not be getting any closer. Thinking I have had about as fine a collection of raptors as I am likely to see in any one morning in this urban park, I turn to continue the loop trail, giving the open sky one last glance. My eye catches a single speck in the distance, and the bins reveal, of all things, a falcon circling off to the north, about 1000 meters away. The shape of the bird is quite clearly that of a falcon—long pointed wings with a long narrow tail—but what in the world is a falcon doing in this area in early June? As I watch, the bird banks and gives an even better view of its profile, but the distance is just too much to make an i.d. possible; surely it must have been a kestrel, but a little part of me wonders, as the bird disappears from view, if it might have been a Peregrine―but who would believe me if I told them?
15 June (2003), 1215 EDT on Rt. 297 near Bandy Creek, Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Scott Co., Tennessee.
I am kneeling in the middle of the road, keeping most of my attention on a butterfly that has finally decided to make an appearance in my life but reserving some attention for the task of listening for any passing vehicles that might pose a threat to life or limb. I focus my camera on an Appalachian Brown, an uncommon butterfly that I have long sought in the hills and valleys of the Upper Cumberland. Although I am excited by this wonderful creature, I do not think that it has caused my heart rate to increase too much, yet I seem to heard a pounding in my ears as if I had just run a long race. Suddenly I am aware that the pounding in my ears is not coming from me but from the woods around me, where a male Ruffed Grouse is drumming and causing the woods to vibrate with a muffled, low frequency sound that I have been hoping to hear for over a month. Now I am torn between keeping my attention on the butterfly in order to obtain some clear images of it and refocusing my internal radar on that grouse. I decide to continue snapping shots of the butterfly until I know I have a few good ones. Thankfully, the grouse has plenty of testosterone and is still drumming when I finish with the 'fly. I had begun to think I would go the entire breeding season without a grouse, so, despite its inopportune timing, I am mighty pleased with this particular fellow and decide not to intrude on him as he tries to lure a female closer or warn a neighboring male not to get any closer.
Before lucking onto the brown and the grouse, I had spent the morning running a BBS and then monitoring a nest. I had no inkling that later I would simultaneously achieve two minor natural history goals without making any effort to achieve them. Perhaps these are the most satisfying achievements, those that just fall into one's lap without any effort being made.
15 June (2005) at 0822 CDT in the Casey Cove Campground (closed), Holmes Creek Recreation Area, Center Hill Lake, DeKalb Co., Tennessee, with Carol D. Williams and Nancy S. Layzer.
I am walking through the campground counting birds with Carol and Nancy as part of Project ParkWatch. We've had some nice birds this morning in the camp- ground, which harbors a fairly nice assortment of breeding species, including many Neotropical migrants. Then, just off to my right I notice a Red-eyed Vireo that is singing in the typically endless manner of its kind, but this vireo seems to have something wrong with its bill, so I take a look with the bins, something that I infrequently do during the breeding season, and discern that the distortion in the appearance of this Red-eye's bill is caused by the fact that it is grasping a small, green caterpillar. I immediately realize that this Red- eye must be close to a nest and begin to watch it quite carefully, noting that it can sing a normal song while gripping the caterpillar in its bill. The bird is only 12−15 feet above ground and perhaps 20−25 feet away at this point. It seems to realize that it is under scrutiny because it continues to sing and to hop lazily from one twig to another in the tangly area where I first spotted it. After a couple of nearly breathless minutes, the bird is still dithering around, singing, gripping the caterpillar, and seemingly in no hurry to deposit this item in the beak of its young. I turn away briefly out of frustration—since I have never before found or even seen a nest of Red-eyed Vireo in the wild, shameful to admit since it is the most common bird of the Eastern deciduous forest—when the bird suddenly stops singing. I turn back and cannot see the vireo anywhere, causing my frustration level to shoot all the way through the roof, well, through the tree canopy. The bird has indeed disappeared, but I decide that a little side trip is called for and step into the brushy woods under the place where I last saw the Red-eye. I work my way slowly through the tangle of small trees, peering carefully into the foliage above. Just as I am about to conclude that I have to continue to wait for my first Red-eyed Vireo nest, I notice a small cup-like structure hanging from a horizontal fork in a branch only 7−8 feet away and only 8−10 feet above ground. A Red-eyed Vireo is peering intently at me from the nest, holding its beak at a high angle, not quite straight up, but about 75−80 degrees above the horizontal.
I have finally found a Red-eyed Vireo nest, and to confirm that fact Carol takes a number of photos of the bird on the nest. This Red-eye sits tightly while we move carefully around, trying to focus a scope on the nest and then trying to take photographs using the scope as a telephoto lens. It never leaves, and I come to understand that it was probably being fed by its mate, which was not carrying food for young earlier but food for mate; how solicitous; there is apparently no dearth—yes, I can spell it correctly, now and then—of concern for the welfare of incubating mates among Red-eyed Vireos, a nice message to learn in the process of finding my first REVI nest.
17 June (2004), c. 0600 EDT, along the road to Station Camp in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Scott Co., Tennessee.
I am walking from my car to a point 50 meters into the woods in order to conduct a point count for birds. As I walk through the dawn-dark woods, I make quite a bit of noise, crunching leaves and the occasional dead twig as I hasten to my appointed place. For a brief instant I think I see something move off to my right out of the corner of my eyes but ignore it as probably just some leaves moving in the light dawn breeze. Then I see something peripherally again and this time look to the right to get a clearer view, and there I behold a large canine form paralleling me as I walk to my point, but I can hear absolutely no noise from it although the canid is only 10−15 meters away. I stop, and so does this large form; I continue my short walk to the plot center and the form moves in synchrony with me, a dark shadowy, dog-like presence, eerily making not one sound I can detect. I arrive at my counting place and stop; so does my canine companion, which turns out to be a coyote, staring at me quite intently. I raise my binoculars to my eyes to get a better look, and the coyote immediately turns and disappears over a slight rise in the forest, again with eerily silent steps.
I spend the next ten minutes counting birds—and wondering about this encounter with the coyote. It is unlike any other encounter with this canid I have ever had. Usually coyotes either run like hell if they are out in the open when they see me or they duck under cover and out of sight as soon as possible if there is some cover nearby. Never have I had one attempt to stay close to me while I was walking in the back-country. Was this coyote shadowing me because I was near its den?
I consider this explanation for its behavior as quite possible, but another, less optimistic possibility is in my mind, too. This particular coyote may have been sizing me up as a possible meal and decided that I was outside its preferred size range for prey items, but the very fact that it did not immediately run off means that it was not certain about the inadvisability of making an attack for a few moments at least, and this uncertainty on coyote's part, if that is what it was, makes me uneasy.
I have always considered the most fearsome beastie of the Big South Fork to be the lowly tick, which can deliver a variety of nasty viruses, and ticks are what I prepare myself most for when I make my trips there. I have begun to worry a little about black bears, as these are not inconsequential predators if one happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and exhibits the wrong behavior. I have just a tiny smidgeon of worry about poisonous snakes, but hardly any at all really because I have seen just 4 such snakes in 11 years of field work in the Big South Fork, and one of those was a road-kill. I've never before even considered coyotes a threat, but now I have to wonder. Any thoughts about this encounter out there?
18 June (2004), 0908 EDT along Divide Rd., Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, Scott Co., Tennessee.
I am standing by the side of this gravel road, just finishing up the last of 36 point counts I have conducted during the past week as part of a bird inventory of the park. It is getting late enough in the morning that there is now a noticeable quieting of song from many bird species. In past years, however, I have almost always been able to hear at least one Red-eyed Vireo somewhere in the woods wherever I happen to be, and whenever I happen to be there, during a summer's day in this woodland-dominated park. Today, however, strain my ears as I might, no monotonous cadence of two- and three-note sing-songing impinges on the eardrum. The silence of the Red-eyes is worrisome to me because I suspect it betokens a general reduction in the numbers of this most common of woodland songbirds, a reduction that has probably been taking place slowly, almost imperceptibly, over the past 4−6 years. BBS data from the Big South Fork indicate the reduction in Red-eye numbers might be around 20 percent since 2000. BBS data from the entire Upper Cumberland Region are not robust but still suggest a smaller reduction in Red-eye numbers during the same period. Except for changes wrought in the park's forests by the southern pine beetles, there is little to account for the reduction in Red-eye numbers within the park itself, so whatever factors are causing the possible decline in Red-eyes probably lie outside the park and the Region, leaving those who would like to do something to arrest the decline without much they can do. To be powerless in the face of a perceived but vague threat to one's focus of interest is not a good feeling, but that is the feeling I have as I get back into my car and make ready to return to the civilized world.
23 June (2002), c. 0245−0315 CDT, in my backyard on City Lake, Putnam Co., Tennessee.
A victim of insomnia, I am nonetheless enjoying the midsummer firefly fireworks―and revealing my origins in the Northeast, where fireflies, not lightning bugs, erratically illuminate the evenings and nights. Everywhere in my backyard, brief pulses of light are flickering from lawn level up ten to twenty meters into the canopy. So many are the fireflies within sight on this calm, clear night that at least twenty are "lighting up" every second somewhere within my view during the entire thirty minutes that I witness their spectacular bioluminescence, which to my mind greatly exceeds in beauty the coming Fourth of July lightshows that will brighten evening skies across the country in celebration of the Declaration of Independence 226 years ago. The fireflies not only offer greater optical pleasure than human-created fireworks, but they, too, could be said to offer their lightshow in celebration, in their case of a natural event—the summer solstice—rather than a political one. For many millions of years fireflies have lighted the night skies most intensely near the time of the solstice, and with any luck they will continue their work for many millions of additional years, marking the abrupt transition from a period of 182.62 "days" with increasing daylight each day and decreasing darkness each night to a period of 182.62 "days" with decreasing daylight each day and increasing darkness each night. At one time in our past humans were more acutely aware of this great transitional moment than we are now, but the fireflies are there to remind us of its presence deep within the fabric of existence, deeper than anything human has ever been or ever may be.
19 July (2002), 0930 CDT in my yard on City Lake, Putnam Co., Tennessee, with Barbara H. Stedman.
I am standing next to a flowerbed that also hosts some miniature cherries. My wife, Barbara, is directing me in the right way to do some weeding in this bed so that the cherries are able to thrive. I am willing to help because the cherries seem to need some assistance as they seldom produce cherries.
I've weeded this flowerbed in the past and have noticed that it always seems to produce a bumper crop of one particular weed that I have taken a dislike to because it is so vigorous in asserting its right to existence in a place where cherries are supposed to be lords and masters. I've yanked up this weed by the fistful on many occasions, but it never seems to get any less obnoxious. As we work, Barb casually notes that this weed is one of the milkweeds, a comment that leaves me staggered, transfixed, and utterly unable to move for several seconds, because the milkweeds are the favored food plants of the monarch butterfly. I suddenly undergo a radical rearrangement of my entire attitude toward this longtime weed enemy.
Now I tell her that we need to leave as many of these weeds as possible, causing no small wonderment in her mind, no doubt, as she has witnessed my decade-long effort to eradicate these plants from the cherry bed, but she acquiesces without any fuss or bother. So now we are milkweed advocates, so much so that I begin to wonder if we shouldn't pull out some of the cherries to make room for the monarch's obligate caterpillar plant.
29 July (2004), c. 0730 CDT on the south shore of the lake at Cane Creek Park, Cookeville, Putnam Co., Tennessee, with Ginger K. Ensor and friend Audrey.
We are standing near the lake-shore watching a female American Goldfinch that has just landed right at the water's edge. We observe the goldfinch stab daintily at the water, pick up a strand of grass (or some plant material) in the water, and seemingly "work" its mandibles on the piece of grass, which appears to disappear down the goldfinch's throat in about 8−10 seconds. We are not entirely sure that what we think we have witnessed is, in fact, what was going on, so we continue to scrutinize this particular female goldfinch. Again she picks up a strand of plant material and "works" at it with her bill. The strand appears to become shorter and shorter until the last of it seems to disappear into the goldfinch's bill. Still not quite convinced we are seeing a goldfinch practice herbivory, we focus our bins even more carefully on this goldfinch, which obligingly picks up yet another strand of plant material and swallows it in the same manner as the other two. By now we are pretty sure of what we are seeing, but, to remove all doubt, this goldfinch continues to "graze" contentedly away, ending up by downing at least eleven strands of grass, which must pretty well fill the crop and upper intestinal tract of so small a bird.
Immediately after stowing away grass strand number eleven, the goldfinch takes off and flies north over the lake and out of sight. Its flight appears normal as it flies and disappears. We are left wondering why it swallowed so much grass and speculate that perhaps this was a convenient way for a goldfinch to stow large amounts of nesting material. Since goldfinches are typically late nesting birds and could well be nest-building in late July, this speculation makes a certain amount of sense, but there is no way we can verify this speculation. Anyone have any ideas out there?
15 August (2002), c. 0930 CDT at my home on City Lake, Putnam Co., Tennessee.
I am counting birds and butterflies at home this morning but not finding many migrant birds around. I look up and see some of the local vultures spiraling overhead as they depart their nearby roost for another day of scavenging the countryside. Suddenly among the vultures a smaller soaring raptor appears. I am pleased to see that it is a Broad-winged Hawk but am unsure if it is a local bird or a migrant from the north. It is almost too early to expect migrant broad-wings around yet, but as if in answer to my puzzlement another broad-wing joins the first in a column of warm air overhead; then another joins, and another, and still more until seven of these small, graceful Buteos are circling slowly overhead.
Surely, so many indicate a migratory movement of some sort, albeit not of the magnitude that will occur across Kentucky and Tennessee in a month's time when the peak of the broad-wing migration occurs. I watch as these one-pound birds of prey spiral slowly up until they are almost out of sight; then they head southwest, the classic direction of migrating Broad-wings in fall, on a long glide, no doubt aimed at the base of another thermal somewhere in the southwestern distance. For me the autumn migration has officially begun.
1 September (2012), 0715−0745 CDT at my home on City Lake, Putnam Co., Tennessee.
I am making a careful count of the birds in my 2.5-acre yard with the results to be submitted to eBird for archival, and perhaps other, purposes. I started making these counts during November 2011 and have submitted two counts―each representing the results of a 30-minute walk―during each month since then, so this is the 21st such count in this series. I began at 0715 CDT by walking from the garage―where I tallied a number of permanent residents (towhee, cardinal, goldfinch, titmouse, nuthatch, thrasher, robin, jay, and crow) and a couple summer residents (Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Gray Catbird)―up the drive to the highest point on the property at the road (Lakeland Dr.) on which I live, where I heard a White-eyed Vireo singing across the road, two Carolina Wrens counter-singing (one well to the northeast and one well to the south), and a Pileated Woodpecker calling a half kilometer to the west (I count these bird and all others I see or hear regardless of whether they are or are not in or over my yard; that's the eBird protocol). I then walked back down the drive a short distance and proceeded southwest across the lawn to the western edge of the yard (along the old roadbed leading to a still older ford, long since in disuse because the Falling Water River was impounded, creating City Lake and covering the ford, over a half century ago). After checking the feeders near the house, seeing a chickadee and hearing both Red-bellied and Downy woodpeckers, as well as a Common Grackle, in the canopy overhead, I then proceeded south, stopping for several minutes at a small, makeshift dock built of cinder blocks at the edge of the lake from which I viewed some Mallards, a Great Blue Heron, and both Black and Turkey vultures; I also heard a kingfisher up the lake a ways. Now turning east, I follow a path through the lowest part of the yard, which here borders the lake and is shaded by numerous trees, including a couple of dozen bald cypresses, now 21 years old. Through the cypress trunks, I see a small flock of neck-collared geese out in the lake. Then I hear a partial song that sounds exactly like the somewhat muffled and truncated song of a Veery, a considerable rarity in the yard. Thinking I might have misheard the brief cascade of descending flute-like notes that signify Veery, I stop, note the time (0731), and listen intently, but no additional acoustical evidence is forthcoming during several ensuing minutes. About to pass on, sadly without checking off Veery on the check-list which I carry, I note a bird fly in and land on a bare branch about 20 meters to the east. I slowly raise my bins, somewhat less slowly get the bird in the field of view, and then quickly focus. I see a thrush with a starkly dark eye set in a light rufous face staring my way; I note light spotting on the upper breast but little or no spotting on the lower breast; the dorsal surface of the bird is a uniform light rufous. After viewing the bird for 15 seconds or so, I see it fly northward into the woods in my eastern neighbor's yard. Satisfied that I actually did hear and then see a Veery, I check off that species on the field card, noting that this individual appeared to have produced a partial song and thinking that perhaps it is a first-year male trying out its song during one of its stopovers on the way to the Amazon. I proceed north along the eastern boundary of the yard, passing west of a cane patch and walking along the west side of a small stream until I reach a point about 10 meters from the road near a compost pit; then I turn west and walk to the driveway; then down the driveway to the garage; it is 0743. I hear and then see 3 House Finches in the large tulip poplar standing near the southeast corner of the house and then walk along the eastern side of the house to the steps leading up to the deck; I mount these and stand at the northern end of the deck, looking down at an assortment of rocks that have been arranged to form the letters BHS; under the crossbar in the H, I know are buried a few ounces of ashes. The time is 0745, a time that I carefully note, just as I have carefully selected and noted the date of this yard survey. Happy birthday Barb, wherever you are.
7 September (2002), c. 1130 EDT near Creelsboro, Russell Co., Kentucky, with members of the Somerset Bird Club.
I am walking down a rough path toward the Cumberland River, sort of half aware that a geologic feature known as the Creelsboro Arch is somewhere up ahead. The people I am with say that we pass through the arch on the way to the river. They have not spoken much about the arch, perhaps because we are on a birding trip, so I am more than a little amazed by its size as we approach it. I had expected a smallish passageway through the rock, but this arch is huge, larger than any I can recall seeing in eastern North America. Spanning about 70 meters and rising 25 meters overhead, it dwarfs the nine of us passing underneath. And it is wider than most arches of my acquaintance, at least 50 meters from one end to the other, almost wide enough to provide a change in air temperature near its center.
I had been enjoying the morning's birds, thinking that I have to get back to Russell Co., Kentucky, more often, and the arch confirms my intentions because it is well worth a return trip all by itself. As if to offer encouragement to those doubting the wisdom of a return trip, an Osprey and a cormorant fly by us as we emerge from the archway and arrive at the riverbank.
Further encouragement comes from a Giant Swallowtail and a Clouded Skipper, each flying near the river (and neither listed for Russell County in Covell's Lepidoptera of Kentucky). And then there is the oddly colored lobelia, sporting white blossoms, each with a crimson splash at the base of the petal. All in all, quite a constellation of natural phenomena appear to be conspiring to encourage us all to come back. No doubt every Upper Cumberland county has natural features like the Creelsboro Arch that offer a bit of extra pizzazz to those who are out and about looking for birds, other creatures, and the occasional natural moment.
8 September (2004), c. 1500−1545 CDT at Boiling Pond, southern White Co., Tennessee.
I am standing at the top of the 20-acre depression that holds the pond, currently reduced to two disconnected sections of about one acre or so each. Drizzle and low clouds brought north by Hurricane Frances obscure my view of the pond's shoreline, so I walk a bit closer, down the gentle slope leading to the pond, and stop perhaps 70 meters from the water's edge. My bins reveal many shorebirds around the perimeter of the pond, and at first I take them to be the Killdeer flock that is usually present, but longer scrutiny transforms most of them into shorebird shapes that are not those of plovers. Suddenly, I realize that I am looking at roughly 100 non-Killdeer shorebirds, a circumstance that I have seldom, perhaps never, previously encountered during 17 years of birding the Upper Cumberland's wetlands and byways.
I take a breath before beginning the pleasant task of sorting out the species and counting the individuals of each as accurately as I can. I have almost lost this skill, so few are the opportunities for shorebird identification around the Region. I know that the next 30−45 minutes will be among the more enjoyable periods of the current month, perhaps even the current year, given the paucity of shorebirds that generally prevails in my life. I mentally offer thanks to the weather gods for bringing Frances north and to the bird gods for bringing shorebirds south, right to the point where I happen to be standing, armed with the proper equipment and some of the skills needed to work out most of the necessary identifications.
I walk to the right to examine the section of the pond that is edged by buttonbushes; I know it will offer fewer birds than the more open section, but I want to prolong the anticipation of getting to count a fairly large number of species and individuals of shorebirds, so I work the less productive part of the pond first. All at once I hear a bedlam of shorebird calls and look back left to see dozens of birds in the air, something apparently having disturbed them, but they settle back down to the shoreline of the pond rather quickly, calming my fears that they might all fly off before I can count them.
The buttonbush-edged section of the pond yields several Killdeer, 13 Solitary Sandpipers―distributed about every 15−20 meters around the edge of this section of the pond―five Least Sandpipers, 3 Semipalmated Sandpipers, and a Spottie. Working back to the section of pond without a fringe of vegetation, I first identify 2 Greater Yellowlegs, then some Lesser Yellowlegs, then more, and still more, until I reach 60, clearly making that species the dominant one in this medley of windbirds. A Semipalmated Plover presents itself, a small, single-breast-band version of the Killdeer. Then I notice a Pectoral Sandpiper among the Lesser Yellowlegs. Finally, I search back through the entire group for species I might have overlooked and find a Short-billed Dowitcher wading up to its legtops and probing deeply into the mud beneath the surface where it wades. One last careful scan turns up another oddity among the Lessers―a Stilt Sandpiper, subtly different in size, silhouette, and behavior from the yellowlegs. I spend more time combing through the birds but discover no new species, so I exit Boiling Pond, content with the 11 species I have managed to identify at the site.
20 September (2012), 0330−0630 CDT, Lakeland Dr., Cookeville, Tennessee.
I am sitting in an easy chair during the pre-dawn hours searching for birds in an "orchard," and the leaves of the orchard trees are thick with birds. As I search through them, I maintain a check-list to keep track of what I am finding. I have searched this same orchard several times before, but only during the most recent search did it dawn on me how many birds were to be found within it, so now I am going back and more carefully making a survey of the birds of this orchard. Some unidentified geese and ducks make an appearance, and I mark them down on the checklist, thinking how odd that an orchard would harbor such birds, but perhaps that is why they remain unidentified. Then turkeys emerge from among the leaves of this orchard, and two grouse are to be found in its far recesses. Quite amazingly, a bittern of indeterminate species appears and then a bird that is probably a Great Blue Heron shows up. Turkey Vultures are present here and there among the orchard trees, and the high thin whistle of a hawk, probably a Broad-wing, emanates from their midst. Kestrels appear twice and, very oddly, flocks of rails are to be noted. Pigeons and doves, the latter flying off through the trees with whistling wings, populate the leaves of this orchard, as do owls of two species. A flock of nighthawks and a whip-poor-will are witnessed here, as is a kingfisher and a flicker, while the peaceful iteration of a Pileated may be heard in the deep seclusion of the orchard's leaves. Jays, and crows of two (!) species, are here; and here a Wood Thrush utters its watery song. Mockingbirds cavort among the leaves of this orchard, and a cardinal like an arrowy drop of blood can be found among them. The last birds among these leaves are great, noisy flocks of grackles. My checklist is now complete except for some chickens and peacocks that have also found a place within this orchard.
I shall not be entering this checklist into eBird, but gathering these species from among the leaves of this orchard during the pre-dawn hours and then placing them on a checklist has enriched my day, and I am grateful to the orchard-maker, Cormac McCarthy, for having supplied so much that denotes interest in, and love of, the birdlife of his "orchard."
29 September (2006), c. 1400 CDT at the beginning of the boardwalk out to Lilly Bluff Overlook, Morgan Co., Tennessee.
I am about to walk roughly twenty steps down the boardwalk, turn around, and focus my camera on a branch of a small tree at eye level on the left side of the boardwalk. I take these actions because this morning I realized that I needed a photograph of a bird for a report providing results of an inventory of birds in the Obed Wild and Scenic River for the National Park Service, a project that my wife, Barbara, and I have been working on for the past couple of years. I had an odd feeling that if I drove to Lily Bluff Overlook, parked in the parking area (with its handy port-o-potty), walked the trail to the boardwalk leading to the overlook, took about twenty steps, turned around, and focused my camera on a small tree at eye level on the left side of the beginning of the boardwalk, and spished, that an Ovenbird would fly to the branch and give me a good photo op. So, the moment of consequence has now arrived. I spish and immediately an Ovenbird flies toward me from the woods in back of the small tree on which my camera is focused. It lands on the branch where my camera is focused, and I begin to snap photos as the bird perkily perches on the branch. In a few seconds it flies back into the woods, but I have my photo for the report, unbelievably obtained in exactly the manner that I had imagined. You may view this photo at the species account for Ovenbird and at the page dealing with results of the breeding bird foray in Morgan County.
5 October (2005), c. 0748 CDT on the south side of Cane Creek Park lake, Cookeville, Putnam Co., Tennessee, with Ginger K. Ensor and Nancy S. Layzer.
I am standing on the asphalt walking/riding trail that circles the lake, and I am near the point where the trail enters the mature woods along the southwest corner of the lake a few hundred meters from the dam. Ginger and Nancy both notice a number of songbirds flitting about in some thick leaves in the top of one of the trailside trees, and they draw my attention to these birds, which are foraging on berries that are thickly distributed among the leaves. One of these birds is a Red-eyed Vireo, its gray crown, dark eyeline, and light supercilium, as well as its olive-drab back and off-white underparts, making its identification fairly straightforward. Suddenly, alongside the Red-eye another vireo appears, a smaller version of the Red-eye with a slightly different set of field marks. These include a bill too thick to be a warbler's bill and a light yellow wash suffused throughout the underparts that immediately suggest I am looking at a Philadelphia Vireo. A quick scan of the bird's head reveals an indistinct eyeline and an even more indistinct set of "spectacles," leading me to confirm this i.d., one that I make all too infrequently each autumn during my efforts to gain acquaintance with as many Regional migratory species as possible as they make their way south toward their wintering grounds. All told, this is my fourth Philadelphia of the fall, but it is the one that offers the closest, longest, and most satisfying look. Both Ginger and Nancy are able to see most or all of subtle features that characterize this somewhat nondescript songbird. We all enjoy its cooperative behavior, but we realize that, when the bird disappears into the forest, we might not see another of its kind until next May when waves of vireos, a few Philadelphias among them, will once again push northward and once again make themselves visible for a few seconds or even a minute, enriching that minute beyond most of the minutes that we experience.
10 October (2004), c. 1000 EDT, a field within the area known as the Ano strip mines, Pulaski Co., Kentucky, in the company of Roseanna M. Denton, Connie S. Neeley, and Arlene M. Morton.
I am walking a field of broom sedge where we had hoped to flush an interesting sparrow or two, but for the past 30 minutes we have had little luck. However, just ahead a short-tailed sparrow flies weakly a short distance and alights in a the lower branches of a small tree, providing an excellent look at its dorsal features, which include a beigy stripe down the crown, a fairly distinct ear patch, a fairly distinct malar, an olive nape and upper back, rufousy wings, as well as a largish beak and an overall flat-headed appearance. I suddenly realize I have a Henslow's Sparrow in my bins, one that is only 10 meters away and seemingly unperturbed at having been forced to take flight by a quartet of brush-beating bipeds. After everyone has had a chance to note all the salient physical features of this most cooperative sparrow, we all slowly move forward a couple paces and look again, savoring our luck at having found this placid sparrow. After another long look, we move up another couple of paces to within 6−7 meters of the bird, which remains calmly perched in plain view, casting occasional glances our way but not unduly flustered by our presence. At this range, the view of the bird become as an almost feather by feather tour of its plumage. I especially relish the olive nape, which all the field guides tout as a key field identification mark of Henslow's but which few Henslow's Sparrows seem willing to reveal to the most persistent of birders. Finally, our sparrow grows bold enough to fly down to the base of the tree where we have treed it and out of sight, but not out of mind, where its image remains intact, ready to be retrieved and replayed many a time in the future.
28 October (2001), c. 0900 CDT at Shipley Farm, Putnam Co., Tennessee, with Winston Walden.
We are walking the grassy field under the big power line at Shipley Farm when we scare up four deer that bound out of sight. A moment later we also see a medium-sized dog loping away from us. A closer look with bins reveals it to be a coyote that quickly disappears into a hedgerow about a hundred meters away. We turn our attention to some sparrows in the field and forget about our brief view of this seldom seen but ubiquitous canid.
As we spish for sparrows, we became conscious that we are being watched from the hedgerow, and in the midst of the hedgerow vegetation we see the "face" of a curious coyote peering out at us, no doubt wondering why these two two-legged critters are suddenly emitting sounds that no other two-legged critters of its former experience have ever emitted before. We watch the coyote watching us for a few moments; it appears unconcerned as we view it with and without binoculars. However, when I lift my long-lensed camera to try to capture the coyote's image, it suddenly "alerts," backs up out of sight, and trots off, to be seen no more.
We were able to view this coyote because we were doing something that few humans do―spishing for birds―but when my actions metamorphosed into one that was similar to a human behavior it had possibly seen before―lifting up a rifle to get off a shot―the coyote decided we weren't safe to watch anymore. So . . . if you want to attract and to keep the attention of any coyotes you may encounter in the future, you need to engage in some sort of unconventional behavior, but for sure don't do anything that even remotely looks like you have murder on your mind.
28 October (2001), c. 1045−100 CDT at the Floating Mill Recreation Area, Center Hill Lake, DeKalb Co., Tennessee.
I've been counting waterbirds for 5 minutes when I notice a large dark raptor hovering out over the lake about a kilometer from where I stand. Ten-power bins reveal a subadult Bald Eagle circling repeatedly over the same small patch of lake. It hovers for a few moments about 5 meters above the surface of the lake, then drops down swiftly to the surface with talons extended, apparently attempting to seize something on the surface, but without success. After each failure, the eagle flies downwind a bit, then circles and beats hard upwind, gaining a bit of altitude so that it can again hover over the lake.
Although I do not immediately see what the eagle pursues, after its third failure to make a capture, I know it is not a floating fish that causes it to repeat the same aerial dance. A look through my forty-power 'scope reveals the eagle's hidden objective to be just what I had next surmised, an American Coot that submerges with a vigorous kick and splash each time the eagle drops down to snatch at it.
I continue to watch as the eagle presses its coot pursuit, admiring the aerodynamic mastery displayed by the eagle above the lake waters and imagining the equally expert hydrodynamic gyrations of the coot under the lake waters, as it tries to surface at a point the eagle can not get to before it has time to inhale and crash-dive yet again . . .and again.
After ten minutes I think I know how this ballet between predator and prey is going to end, but rather than witness the coot's demise I decide to depart, leaving the memory I have of this natural moment one of unresolved conflict forever in the process of happening. Perhaps this coot will outlast the eagle's determined efforts; perhaps the eagle will chance to drop on the right spot on the lake surface when the coot breaches. But neither of these outcomes is as satisfying to me as the eternal image of the eagle's aerial thrust being countered by the coot's aquatic parry. On a larger scale the moment I witness―and preserve unresolved―represents all eagles and all coots that have played a part in the predator-prey drama that has been reenacted countless times each day for countless millennia on our small planet.
29 October (2005), c. 1810 CDT, at my home on City Lake, Putnam Co., Tennessee.
I have just driven into my garage after returning toward darkness from a trip out of town. As I step out of the car, I hear the distinctive, ringing call notes given by White-throated Sparrows preparing for roost. I walk to the garage entrance to obtain a better position from which to listen to these calls, letting them sink deeply into the cerebral cortex, where, if neurologists are correct, I already have several tens of thousands of these calls in storage. But never tiring of this evening "serenade," I stand quietly and listen as the White-throats go through their nightly roosting and vocalizing ritual. Why they need to to call in such a vibrant manner in the minutes before dark I have never fully understood; such calling would seem to give any nearby predators a chance to localize their position―and the local screech-owl roosts not more than 20 meters from the cane patch that is so attractive to the White-throats wintering in the yard. However much―or little―danger that repetitive calling at dusk may bring to the White-throats, they seldom, perhaps never, desist from this nightly ritual during the six months they spend here from mid-autumn through winter into spring. It is one of the great certainties of winter life where White-throats are present, a constant, reassuring reminder that some things are as close to eternal as the vicissitudes of life allow.
9 November (2001) c. 1530−1715 CST at Mud Creek Swamp, Warren Co., Tennessee, with Doug and Crystal Malone.
With Doug and Crystal leading the way, I am about to spend two wonderful hours at Mud Creek Swamp, mainly to see "the show," but also to see and to hear any other natural phenomena that might present themselves. We hear and see a couple of Red-headed Woodpeckers while working the edges of the swamp during the first hour of our visit. A Fox Sparrow and an immature White-crowned Sparrow also put in appearances. About 1645 one Great Horned Owl begins calling―within a few minutes of when Doug said they would begin; a bit later a second owl joins the first; their calls are on different pitches, indicating two sexes, the female calling half an octave higher than the male. Flocks of blackbirds fly into the edges of the swamp to drink and to bath before heading for roost sites; I keep trying to make Rusty Blackbirds out of some of them, but one never comes close enough to make identification certain, a frustrating miss.
All the while we poke around the edges of Mud Creek Swamp, we hear the distinctively separable calls of male and female Wood Ducks, which fly into the swamp to roost in an aerial/auditory extravaganza that local birders simply call "the show." We see small groups of woodies constantly during the first hour. There is no pattern to their flights during this time; some fly out of the swamp, some into it, and others seem to mill around over the swamp as if unable to make up their minds what they are doing. But about 1645 this seemingly chaotic milling about stops, and every duck we see is making a beeline (duckline?) for the far side of the swamp from us. We know many are approaching us because we hear the rush of wind created as they knife through the air overhead on trajectories calculated to put them over their landing sites without too many unnecessary wing-beats. This sound is an auditory feast that I never tire of consuming. It resembles the ripping of thin, gossamer-like cloth, rapidly building to a muffled crescendo as the birds arrive overhead and then subsiding in decrescendo as they speed out of hearing.
All told, we count 400 Wood Ducks making airy tracks for Mud Creek Swamp in the crisp, clear twilight minutes. This is a personal high count for me, but Doug and Crystal have counted more than twice as many on some winter evenings when they have stopped off to see and to hear "the show."
13 November (2005), c. 1000 CST at the Floating Mill Recreation Area, Center Hill Lake, DeKalb Co., Tennessee.
I am standing at the spot where I 'scope for Horned Grebes and other waterbirds as often as I can find time for each fall, winter, and spring, mainly to keep track of grebe numbers there, but also to study their winter behavior and to see what other species share this site with them each winter. As I scan the mile-wide embayment adjacent to the recreation area for grebes, counting 62 of them, I also notice a large pod of American Coots near the far shore; it is densely packed and probably contains 200+ coots; about 200 meters away from this large coot assemblage, a smaller pod of about a dozen coots is visible. Suddenly an adult Bald Eagle appears in my field of view as it swoops down on the smaller coot pod. The coots crash-dive just as the eagle nears them, causing it to miss all dozen coots in this mini-pod. The coots surface as the eagle regains 30−40 feet of altitude and then makes another dive at the mini-pod, all members of which crash-dive again just as the eagle reaches the surface of the lake near them. The eagle continues to make passes at the coots for the next 3−4 minutes. It is intent on forcing one of the coots into isolation from the other members of its pod, but the coots avoid losing contact with one another despite the hectic series of crash-dives that they are forced to make by this aerial predator. After 4 minutes, the eagle gives up, flying off to the north and out of sight. The coots quickly shake their wings and paddle off, apparently no worse the wear for their encounter with such a harrowing predator.
When I return home later I read through the Bald Eagle account in Birds of North America to see what it has to say about this manner of eagle predation, but the account is silent about it, merely citing other sources that offer more specifics about eagle prey and eagle predation techniques. If I perused them, I'm sure I would find statistics about eagle success rates when preying on coots; there might even be some discussion about the number of coots in pods attacked by eagles with a graphic perhaps showing that eagle success rate goes up as the number of coots in the pod goes down. I'm guessing that a dozen coots is a number that lies above the threshold leading to a successful capture most of the time.
I recall a natural moment that took place at this same site several years ago; in it I described an eagle-coot interaction like this one, but I had to leave that encounter before it was over; because it had lasted at least 10 minutes when I left, I suspected that the eagle got its meal then, but I could not be certain, so it had to go down as a tie. I recall seeing an eagle capture a coot at the Waitsboro Recreation Area in Pulaski Co., KY, a few autumns ago while birding with Roseanna Denton. Until today, then, my coot-eagle predator vs. prey score stood at eagle 1, coot 0, tie 1; now the score is eagle 1, coot 1, tie 1. This is sort of like a World Series but with no limit to the number of games that will be played and no limit to the length of time that it will continue. If only I could buy tickets to the games I would, but, alas, the games are not scheduled, or tickets made available, any place I know about.
18 November (2001), 0345−0445 CST near City Lake, Putnam Co., Tennessee.
Nearly two and a half hours before dawn, I get myself outside and seated in a folding lounge chair, barely awake and feeling the chill predawn air more acutely than I would wish, all so I can witness one of the annual events available free of charge to those who like to watch the our planet's skies.
Sure enough, I have no sooner lifted tired eyes to the stars than a streak of light arcs across my field of view, running from the still-dark east through the Big Dipper northwestward and burning a temporary streak of white into the overarching darkness: the Leonid meteor shower has begun. For the next hour I watch the skies keenly, counting (for me it is always about counting, in case you haven't noticed) these geometrically perfect but oh so evanescent linear will-o'-the-wisps of light. They add short-lived needles of brightness to the eternally star-pointed sky. When I reach 100, I also reach the limits of my cold tolerance and stumble gratefully back to bed, but my whole day is made richer by the memory of that predawn hour when grains of space dust vaporized in pyrotechnic splendor to remind me that other celestial bodies, in this case a comet with an earth-crossing orbit, share the solar system with our planet.
18 November (2002), c. 0850 CST at the Floating Mill Recreation Area, Center Hill Lake, DeKalb Co., Tennessee.
I am headed back to my car after counting Horned Grebes and other waterbirds on the lake when I notice a lone Horned Grebe close to shore; it has assumed a very upright, alert posture similar to a behavior known as the Advertising Display used by breeding birds when seeking a mate. As I watch with 40X scope (at 40−50 meters), the bird twice opens its bill slightly, and I simultaneously hear two mournful calls of the sort known as the advertising call of Horned Grebe. I have heard them before in late fall and early winter at Floating Mill, but I have never before actually seen a Horned Grebe utter the call to know with certainty that what I heard was the advertising call, so this is a rare moment for me. One reason that I have not been sure about the advertising call is that none of the standard bird tapes includes an example of the Horned Grebe advertising call; further, when I checked several sound archives to obtain a tape of this call while I was preparing the Horned Grebe account for the Birds of North America series, I discovered that none of the archives had a tape of this call. I did correspond with some grebe folks who had tapes of the call, but none could be prevailed upon to exhume a call and send me a copy (well, actually, several of them promised to send a tape but never did; you know how that goes). Anyhow, now I have the so-called ocular proof about the call, since I have seen the bird actually make it. And I have heard the call and seen the Advertising Display in late fall, indicating that pair formation in Horned Grebes may take place as early as late fall, long before the mated pairs head north to breed the next spring. Center Hill Lake at Floating Mill Recreation Area is sort of like a human singles bar where unmated Horned Grebes assemble to advertise their availability and, if lucky, find an unmated grebe of the opposite sex who might make a good mate. The advertising call resembles the come-on lines that folks in singles bars try out on various prospective mates in the hope that one of these prospects will find the line appealing. Late in winter, you can see the grebes engaged in courtship dances on the lake; this is very like human dancing, the main physical activity that occurs in most singles bars (besides drinking). Grebes and humans are very much alike, which perhaps says a lot more about the grebes than about us.
19 November (2004), c. 0845 CST near the campground in the Floating Mill Recreation Area, Center Hill Lake, DeKalb Co., Tennessee.
I am scoping the lake for anything feathered that I happen to see, but mostly I am counting the Horned Grebes that winter at this favored site. I see few grebes, perhaps 10, during my first "sweep" of the huge embayment adjacent to the campground, but at the end of this sweep I notice a single grebe swimming fairly close to the shoreline a few hundred meters down the beach. Then I remember that grebes present at this site during November and December like to forage close to the campground's shoreline; later in the winter they almost never swim close to the campground, preferring the waters on the far side of the embayment for some reason at those times. I have always thought that this manner of partitioning the embayment by season must have something to do with the presence/absence of prey fish, which in turn probably has something to do with water temperature and depth, but I have not yet figured out how to confirm this hypothesis short of becoming a scuba driver.
I walk along the campground roadways to a point nearer the site where I saw the lone grebe close to shore, and sure enough a flock of about 40 Horned Grebes appears, plunge-diving near shore in the company of 2 Common Loons. I watch the grebes for a time, trying to get an accurate count, made difficult by their habit of diving in a staggered manner, so that the entire flock is seldom all above water at the same time. Eventually, I obtain enough counts to confirm that almost exactly 40 are in this particular group.
As I scrutinize the grebe-loon gaggle, I occasionally hear the low, almost suppressed call of foraging loons―"zook"―a short, soft, clipped utterance that is unlike the call of any other bird with which I have familiarity. Suddenly, the quiet and occasional "zooks" are overpowered by a vocalization that can hardly be described as low or suppressed and certainly not clipped. A loud, drawn-out, and somewhat hauntingly sad "Aaaarrrnnn" pierces the lakeside quiet, followed in a second by another "Aaaarrrrrnnn," and then another. Knowing this repeated wail to be the advertising call of an unmated Horned Grebe, I search the water surface for a lone grebe displaying an "erect" posture, and sure enough all by its lonesome I see a grebe in the erect posture swimming slowly some distance from the flock of foragers. Again the mournful, thrice-repeated ululation echoes over the water, testifying to the fact that at least one grebe out there is without partner. I am sad that this grebe has yet to find Mr. or Ms. Right and am struck by the quality of mournfulness present in a call whose purpose is to advertise the lonely availability of its utterer, surely an example of anthropomorphism, unless, of course, we wish to think that a lone grebe is indeed lonely in its search for a partner.
24 November (2002), c. 1500 CST at the Lilydale Campground, Dale Hollow Lake, Clay Co., Tennessee.
I am scoping the lake lying west of the campground for grebes and loons, and I see perhaps 20 loons gathered on the water about a kilometer away. Suddenly the lake surface erupts near them as something large lands on the water nearby and skids to a foamy stop; it is another loon, dropping in to join its loony brethren on the lake. I begin scanning the sky above the pod of loons and discern seven more loon forms angling down toward the lake from high above. I follow their trajectory waterward. At first it is almost straight down; then they begin to decrease the steepness of their dives by circling more and more widely; finally. they, too, brake to a halt on the calm waters of the lake. I again scan high above and find sixteen more loons in a group, all steering nearly vertical downward courses that will bring them rapidly to water level where they can take a break from the long migration flight they undergo each autumn. I have seldom been lucky enough to see loons making the swift descent from cruising altitude, probably 300−600 meters or more above sea level, to lake level in one long, sheer plunge. To witness the sky "raining loons" adds a bit of extra delight to an already memorable day.
26 November (2014), c. 1600 CST, yard at 2675 Lakeland Dr., Putnam Co., Tennessee.
I am walking the path around the perimeter of the yard in the day's gloaming when a crow-sized raptor glides silently in to a tree 10 meters away and lands on a low branch with its back to me. After slowly raising my bins, I see that it is an immature Cooper's Hawk with standard features: yellow eyes, streaked breast (as much as I can tell from a rear view), brownish back, and longish, almost rounded tail with a widish white terminal band. It peers around vigilantly and then flies to the right, landing just above some 1-meter tall, quite dense brush along the shore of City Lake. The Coop then makes short flights of 1 to 3 meters along the shore, staying low. I note that small songbirds are quickly flying through the brush to the right about 5 to 10 meters ahead of this young accipiter, which lands again quite near me, perhaps 5 meters away, and begins to look alertly into the brush below it. Suddenly I realize that this bird is softly vocalizing while it is hunting (not quite whistling while it works but in that vein). It makes a peep-like sound that to my not-so-chicken-familiar ears still sounds much like the peep of a young chicken. The hawk continues to peer into the brush below, peeping every few seconds. I puzzle over these soft peeping utterances that I have never heard before (or have never known the source of if I have heard them before). Were they heard in centuries past by folks who called this bird a chicken hawk? Are they meant to have some effect on the songbirds the hawk is hunting? If so, the songbirds appear to heed the peeps not at all, for they remain huddled in their temporary sanctuary deep within the brush. The Coop then flies to the densest part of the brush and pushes its way through the entangling branches and vines, causing half a dozen songbirds to burst out of their sheltering place and speed off, some coming directly toward me with the hawk following close behind. Its avenue of pursuit suddenly alters when it sees my form directly ahead; it veers off to my left and lands again on an eye-level branch about 10 meters away, having made a full hunting circle as it were. After adjusting its plumage, somewhat rumpled by its foray into the brush, it glides quietly off and out of sight. This experience was like other Cooper's Hawk hunts that I have witnessed over several decades of watching the avifauna, and yet it yielded a new and wonderful nuance, a vocalization I have never previously heard, and can now hunt for the purpose of, as I make my own circles on the perimeter path in the years ahead.
30 November (2001), c. 1410−1425 EST, on the fire tower atop Frozen Head State Natural Area, Morgan Co., Tennessee.
A 90-minute walk has brought me from the trailhead parking lot to the top of the fire tower at Frozen Head. The view is fine―lots of white cumulus against blue sky; lots of bare deciduous trees on steeps slopes receding almost endlessly into the distance in every direction. It seems easy to grasp the basics of life with this view before me.
Perhaps if the Tennessee governor would spend fifteen minutes on this tower, he, too, would see clearly enough to know that closing state parks to make up budgetary shortfalls is not a demonstration of wisdom; perhaps if Tennessee legislators would take a quarter hour for reflection atop the Frozen Head tower, they, too, would see clearly enough to balance the budget without legerdemain. I wonder how many of them have been to this publicly owned gem of the state park system. Then I spend an hour walking back down to the parking lot on this last day when Frozen Head will be legally open to citizens of the Volunteer State, wondering when I will be able to return without having to violate the closed signs already in place along the road in to the park. The farther downslope I proceed, the less clearly I see an answer to that question.
2 December (2004), c. 1800 CST, during dinner in my kitchen of my home on Lakeland Dr., Putnam Co., Tennessee.
What, you are asking, in the name of all that is natural are you doing by situating a "natural moment" at the dinner table? Surely you are even more desperate for material than is typical if you are stooping to seek such moments in the detritus of an evening meal!
Well, yes and no; just wait a minute before you get too worked up about this natural moment, which really is taking place as I am consuming some of Barb's fine lentil soup (and dribbling a little of it onto my shirt-front, I see). In order to enhance the digestive process at dinner, Barb has some bird tapes ready for all occasions. Today it seems she has found a recording of a call I had described to her more than eleven months ago―what a memory!―and she suggests I play the tape and listen to it between spoonfuls of soup.
Almost as soon as the tape begins, I am transported to a natural moment that took place, but went unreported in these messages, 27 December 2003, c. 0500 CST, along a quiet back road in Warren Co., Tennessee; then I was playing a recording of the tremolo of the Eastern Screech-Owl and heard a short, mellow, medium-pitched "whoo" suddenly being hooted back at me from the surrounding darkness. I was unable at that time to pin down the identity of the "whoo"-er, a frustrating circumstance, as any of you who know my interest in bird vocalizations may imagine.
So, you may also imagine my delight, so intense that I drop a spoonful of lentil soup headed mouthward, when I rehear this same mellow "whoo" coming from the bird tape during dinner. I blurt out a sentence something like "that's the owl I heard on the Warren County CBC last winter!" in an extremely excited fashion―those of you who have been with me on bird trips will recall the excitement I sometimes exhibit when I find a nice bird, but this is even more intense, because I have had to live with the frustration of not knowing the identity of this owl for almost a year.
Barb smiles and says "it's a Long-eared Owl call; remember when we heard it in North Dakota back in 1983?"―what a memory!―and I am drawn back to another natural moment (if you think I can recall the date, time, and place of this one, you think too highly of me) when I heard my first Long-ear, oh so many years ago, on a quiet summer evening in North Dakota. Then the quiet "whoo" apparently did not etch itself very impressively on the part of my cerebral cortex that processes ornithological acoustics, but it is somewhere in the gray matter because I now rehear that call in my head, link it to the call I heard last December in Warren County, and confirm it with the tape now being played in my kitchen.
See, this really is a natural moment; in fact, it is two, so now I don't have to look so hard for the subject of the next one. Who knows where that one will be situated!
3 December (2003), 1620−1640 CST, Hackworth Farm on Rt. 62 about 7 miles east of Monterey, Putnam Co., Tennessee.
I am scanning the large, short-grass fields of the farm, searching for a Short-eared Owl, but with no luck. Suddenly, a raptor appears in the field of view of my bins, low over the ground, rocking back and forth as it quarters the field. Sad to say, it is not a Short-ear, but it does prove to be a brown Northern Harrier. In a few minutes two more harriers, both adult males, converge on the same spot where the first bird is flying. All three begin to engage in a spectacular aerial game of "tag," wheeling in tight circles above the darkening landscape, still showing the white patch which distinguishes harriers from most other raptors, including Short-eared Owls. I watch as they perform a series of winged arabesques in the gathering dusk, and they are still wheeling in wild aerial circles when it becomes too dark to discern their diagnostic features and finally when it is just too dark to see them at all. I imagine at some point they must settle down onto the grass to wait out the winter night, probably roosting near one another in the communal manner than harriers habitually choose during the winter months. The acrobatic "ballet" I witnessed may be a prelude to such roosts. Whatever its purpose, it was well worth watching and ample recompense for the missing owl.
21 December (2017), 0650−17300 CST, Barren Lake near Bailey's Point , Barren/Allen Co., Kentucky.
On this warmish morning of the winter solstice, I am searching the surface of the lake for waterbirds with Dave Roemer as we take part in the inaugural Christmas Bird Count for this area. Dave has been seeing two Red-throated Loons at this site for about a week and has already spotted them far out on the lake for the count today. We continue to search the lake for additional species, but Dave keeps an eye on these two loons from time to time. He notes at one point that he is seeing only one of these rarish loons; then he sees it open its bill and a couple of seconds later he hears a mournful, drawn-out, two-note call uttered by the single loon he is watching and draws my attention to this bird. I view it through his scope and see the bill open and then hear a couple of seconds later the call that Dave has just described. The bird repeats this performance several times. Then I relinquish scope to Dave's keener eyes, and he continues to watch this calling loon, the first that I have ever heard in life. Then the second loon reappears, flying back to the one that has been calling on the water; the second loon lands, seemingly called back to its companion by the repeated wail. When we leave to search for other birds in other parts of the count circle, the two Red-throated Loons remain on the lake, inseperable.
27 December (2004), c. 1130 CST at the intersection of Rt. 92 and Twyford's Ford Rd., northwest of Monticello, Wayne Co., Kentucky, during the Wayne County CBC.
I am sitting in my car watching a large open area that slopes down to the east, revealing an expanse of several square miles; the fields near me are filled with foraging birds, mostly starlings but with other species mixed in. Suddenly I am alerted to the presence of a predator because every bird in the field takes wing. I look through the wildly flying small birds for a raptor shape, but all I see is one Turkey Vulture flying by low and slow. This situation does not make sense to me. With as much commotion as I am seeing among the hundreds of starlings and other birds, I should be able to locate the cause of it all. So I look again, this time being sure to give that vulture another look, and sure enough the "vulture" turns almost miraculously into an eagle. My past experience tells me that an immature Bald Eagle would not really be expected in an open agricultural area like the one I am in, so my thoughts gravitate toward a less likely eagle candidate for the one that is now beginning to make lazy circles in the sky almost directly over my head at only 50 meters of altitude. A big white patch at the base of the undertail, as well as some less obvious white patches at the bases of the primaries, indicates I do, indeed, have an immature Golden Eagle in my bins. As it tilts to one side, the bird also reveals a tinge of gold on its nape and upper back, further confirming its i.d., as does the lack of white mottling on the breast, belly, and underwing coverts.
It's been over a year since I have seen a Golden Eagle, that one being noted in very late November 2003 in Scott Co., TN, so I enjoy this one fully, and it cooperates just as fully by thermalling overhead for nearly two minutes before lazily drifting off to the northeast.
This sighting offers a few salutary lessons about birding that we all need to keep uppermost in our minds. First, the evidence of our eyes is often misinterpreted by our minds. It's just too easy to make a mistake about what we see to allow ourselves to believe the bunk about the validity of eye-witness accounts (at crime scenes and elsewhere). Anyone who gets riled because someone else doesn't believe a bird record, for instance, is just showing how little he or she understands about the fallibility of human optical and mental equipment.
Second, always take a second look when your "gut" feeling tells you that things are not the way that they should be. When a situation doesn't feel right, be concerned that you may have misinterpreted what you think you saw and be ready to re-evaluate the circumstances.
Third, in dealing with our very error-prone eyes, it is better to err conservatively than to err liberally (if that is the right word here). That is, be concerned about your birding habits if you are always trying to make common birds into uncommon ones, but be less concerned if you err the other way although don't be completely unconcerned about erring conservatively because you will obviously miss some good birds if you are.