Ornithology Report

December 2011

Christmas Bird Count

By Bill Pulliam

Every year during a three-week period centered on Christmas Day, more than 50,000 birders head out into the forests, fields, marshes and tundra from Tierra del Fuego to the shores of the Arctic Ocean to count birds.  We are participating in the largest mass birdwatching event in the world:  The annual Christmas Bird Count, an undertaking of the National Audubon Society that is about to mark its 112th year.

Two turns-of-the-century ago, in 1900, the established Christmas day tradition was to compete to see how many birds could be shot in a single day, regardless of whether they were game birds or if you had any other use for them.  The newly formed National Audubon Society proposed that rather than shooting birds, people should count the birds and leave them alive.  A new tradition was begun and has continued ever since.

Tennessee’s first Christmas Count was conducted in 1903 in Knoxville by a single observer; last year several hundred Tennessee birders carried out 30 counts across the state, tallying a total of 151 different species.  Across the Americas last year, there were 2,215 Christmas Counts in 17 countries finding nearly 62 million birds of 2,250 species.  Each count takes place on a single day within a defined 15-mile diameter “count circle.”  The locations of count circles are up to the local birders to decide; generally the same circle will be counted each year for many years (Nashville’s count circle dates back to 1919).

You might wonder how can one actually “count” birds in the wild.  Well, of course, it is impossible to really inventory all the birds within the 177 square miles of a Christmas Count circle!  What we do is simply go into the field in small groups (parties), dividing up the count circle into discrete territories, and each party counts all the birds they see or hear in their territory during the day.  It is usually a long day, typically running from before dawn to after dark; in the evening there is often a “countdown” where everyone gathers to pool together their totals and show off their rare finds.  Each party tracks their “effort” – the total hours they spent afield and the total miles they drove, walked, bicycled, kayaked, etc.  By comparing the counts of birds to the total effort, researchers are able to make estimates of changes in bird populations between different years and across different areas.

For most birders, though, the real motivation of the Christmas Count is not so much the scientific value as it is the fun and challenge of finding as many birds of as many species within a carefully defined territory only a few miles across in a single (often very chilly!) winter day.  For many of us, it is the culmination of the bird year.  There are always memories to be had and stories to be told after a long and full day of exploring the woods, fields, ponds, back roads and neighborhoods of the countryside.  The party leaders tend to work the same areas each year, and we come to know our territories quite well.  They become filled with special places that we may only see once a year – where the Blue-headed Vireo was, where the Vesper Sparrows might lurk, where the Sandhill Cranes flew over at sunset.  I have participated in dozens of Christmas Counts spanning 37 years in 12 different count circles and four States, and I can vividly remember every single one of them!

There is not yet a Lewis County Christmas Bird Count, mostly because of a shortage of person-power.  It really takes at least four party leaders and a total of about 10 participants to make a fair effort at covering a count circle.  There are several Christmas Counts quite nearby, however.  The Columbia count circle extends westward to reach downtown Hampshire, and the Buffalo River count spans from the Natchez Trace (where it just brushes Lewis County) eastwards towards Lawrenceburg.  A bit farther afield, the Savannah Count includes Shiloh National Park and Pickwick Landing, and consistently tallies the second highest species total in Tennessee (beaten only by Reelfoot Lake in most years).  I have my regular territories on each one, in which I will be spending some (cold, mild, rainy, sunny, who knows?) days between mid-December and early January.  All of the Christmas Counts in this region have room for more participants at all levels of expertise; the only requirements are interest, enthusiasm and a bit of endurance for a long, busy day outdoors in winter.  If you are interested in finding out more, you can contact Shane or Becky Jane and they can pass you along to me.

November 2011

Little Brown Birds

When the cooler weather arrives, along with it comes the annual influx of little brown birds.  You will see them in your yard, on the roadsides, in town and in the countryside, hopping about on the ground, flitting in the bushes and having a meal at your bird feeder.  Clothed in natural camo, they are not designed to stand out.  But if you look closely, you will find they can be subtly but surprisingly beautiful.  They are the sparrows.

Not all the little brown birds are actually sparrows.  There are wrens, thrushes, warblers, and other birds that are also clothed in earth tones and lurk about in the wintertime bushes.  But the sparrows are the archetype of the group.  To tell if a little brown bird is really a sparrow, you should start by looking at its bill.  Sparrows specialize in eating seeds, and they have short, stout, conical bills for crushing and husking their food.  So if your little brown bird also has a bill like this, it’s a sparrow (or one of their close relatives).

So why would you want to pay attention to a bunch of drab little birds?  Well, often in the natural world, when you take a closer look at something that at first glance seemed unremarkable, you will find more than what initially met your eye.  I have always had a fondness for sparrows, and all their intricate but subtle variation.  But they can be a bit bewildering.  If you flip through the sparrows in your bird book, it can seem like page after page of identical brown things.  In Lewis County alone, I have found 13 different species.  Your bird book probably shows all these plus a couple of dozen more.  How do you even begin to sort them out?

To begin, look at two things first:  Are its breast and belly streaky, and what is the pattern of markings on its head?  Every sparrow has a distinctive head pattern; when you look closely you discover they are not as drab as you thought.  Flip through your bird book again and examine the sparrows’ detailed head patterns and streaky (or not) underparts; they are not all so identical after all!  They are not just plain brown, but are intricately patterned in white, black, ochre, buff, yellow, rust, chocolate and many other shades.  You have opened the door to converting all those drab little brown birds into a bunch of welcome and fascinating seasonal visitors.

If you live in town and keep a bird feeder, most of your “sparrows” will actually be two birds that were not originally native to this land.  The really drab ones with no streaks on their underparts and a rather plain head are the female and young House Sparrows, also known as the “English Sparrows.”  The other birds, of similar size, that are covered all over with spotty streaks are the female and young House Finches.  The House Sparrows came from Europe, the House Finches from the western United States, but both are now thoroughly at home all across North America, and as their names imply, are particularly fond of houses and yards.  The males of these two species are more distinctive, the House Sparrow with a bold black bib and the House Finch with red on its head and breast.  But if you learn the females, you will have gone a long way towards sorting out your little brown feeder birds.

The native sparrows in this area are too numerous to cover in a simple paragraph, but I will mention some of the most common ones (refer to your bird book).   Once you learn some, the others will start to fall into place more easily.  The most common streaky-breasted sparrow in this area is the Song Sparrow, which is also relatively bold and easily seen.  The two unstreaky-breasted sparrows you are most likely to see are the White-throated and Field Sparrows.  The White-throated is big (as sparrows go), and also brave, with a bold head pattern of black-and-white stripes and a white throat framed by thin black lines.  The Field Sparrow, conversely, is small and dainty, with a warm buffy color, a reddish pink cap and a facial expression that I think of as “friendly.”  It also sports a bright pinkish bill.

Think of these three as your “sparrow starter kit.”  If you get more practiced at looking at the little brown birds, you will be able to pick out many other species:  the giant Fox Sparrow boldly patterned in rusty red, the dusky Swamp Sparrows lurking in the weeds and the Chipping Sparrows with their crisp red caps outlined in black and white.  In the open country you might come across White-crowned Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows.

Winter is often a season of quiet and understated beauty.  An appreciation for the little brown birds helps bring this to light.

Bill Pulliam got started in birdwatching by his junior high science teacher in 1974, and has been an avid birder ever since in 48 U.S. states and 7 foreign countries.  He is currently the Tennessee editor for eBird, an online project that compiles millions of observations from tens of thousands of birders around the world.


October 2011

By Bill Pulliam

Some evening, while walking in downtown Hohenwald, you might notice an odd creature flying overhead in a peculiar floppy way rather like an enormous moth. Or, you might see it over some open area out in the countryside. With long, narrow, pointed wings, it has a distinctive flight style, with quick sharp downbeats in an irregular pattern –-  flap….flap… flap… flapflap…flap…flapflapflap… and so on, all the while zigzagging back-and forth as if it were dizzy.  You might think that it is “crazy as a bullbat.”  And you would be right!

It’s not a bat, of course, but a bird — the Common Nighthawk.  But its habit of fluttering around the evening sky reminds many people of aNighthawk large bat, hence the nickname “bullbat.”  It is not a hawk either, being more closely allied to the owls and Whip-poor-wills.  Nighthawks are a familiar summertime bird across much of North America, from the Gulf of Mexico north into central Canada.   During our winter they travel to South America, trading the farmlands of Tennessee for the Pampas of Argentina.  Nighthawks are medium-sized birds, about the size of a robin in length, but with distinctively long wings.  As their name suggests, they are a night bird, not often seen in mid-day.  But they are not strictly nocturnal.  Nighthawks are frequently out and active in late afternoon, particularly on cloudy days.  The evening twilight when there is still plenty of light by which to see them is an especially favored time.

In addition to their unusual way of flying, the Common Nighthawk has two other prominent traits by which it can be recognized.  The first of these is a bold white bar that runs crosswise across the outer part of each wing.  As their plumage is overall dark and mottled, this bright white bar stands out even in dim light and at quite a distance.  Second, they usually announce their presence with a loud, distinctive call.  This is a hoarse, buzzy, nasal sound often written as “peent,” though to my ears it comes across as more of a “pzhyernt.”  As you can guess from that spelling, it is not an especially musical note, but it is quite distinctive.  It is sharp, loud, and with a falling pitch. Often it is repeated several times a minute as the bird meanders across the evening sky.

Nighthawks usually arrive in Lewis County each year in April, with the last birds heading south in October.  While they are here they have two especially favored habitats: downtown Hohenwald, and recently logged forestlands in the countryside.  They are birds of open country and open sky.  They build no nest, laying their eggs directly on the bare ground and relying on camouflage to protect them.  In earlier times they often nested on gravel bars of larger rivers, but the changes brought to the rivers by dams and dredging have largely eliminated this habitat.

The adaptable Nighthawk discovered a new habitat, though.  They now commonly nest on the flat roofs of commercial buildings, which is why downtown Hohenwald is one of the better places around here to look for them.  We should all count the Nighthawks among our best bird friends, for like many birds of the open sky they feed almost exclusively on flying insects.  Some have been found to have over 500 recently-caught mosquitoes in their stomachs at one time.

Along with their ordinary “crazy as a bullbat” flight style, Nighthawks are known for two dramatic aerial shows.  Their spectacular courtship flights, where the males make death-defying dives with echoing booms as they pull out at the bottom, are a springtime display and are finished for the 2011 season.  The fall show, however, is underway.

As the Nighthawks begin their long journey to their Southern Hemisphere wintering grounds, they begin to mass in large flocks.  By September these flocks can number in the dozens to several hundred birds, and can be quite a sight as they fill the sky with their zigging and zagging at dusk, calling back and forth to each other.  After dark, the migrating flocks are sometimes drawn to well-lit areas where large numbers of moths and other insects have gathered.  When this happens at a stadium during a ball game it can be impressive and distracting.  Many people have been reminded of Alfred Hitchcock films by this; but of course Nighthawks are entirely harmless and can be very entertaining when they make a dash for a fly ball during a night baseball game, hoping that it might prove to be a giant white bug!  They always seem to realize their mistake before actually attempting to make the catch, fortunately.  Downtown Nashville is an especially good place to spot these large flocks, particularly along the river and near the football stadium.  Closer to home, they might show up in any patch of sky over Lewis County at this season.  I have seen flocks of dozens of them over my farm in the western part of the county in the evening while locking up the chickens for the night.

We all tend to keep our eyes and our minds on what is happening in front of us and beneath our feet most of the time.  We often don’t pay much attention to what is going on over our heads. It is worth remembering to look up from time to time.  A “crazy” bird with a strange, buzzy voice staggering across the sky is just one of many wonderful things you might discover up there.

Bill Pulliam got started in birdwatching by his junior high science teacher in 1974, and has been an avid birder ever since in 48 U.S. states and 7 foreign countries.  He is currently the Tennessee editor for eBird, an online project that compiles millions of observations from tens of thousands of birders around the world.



Ornithology Report — 1 Comment

  1. Hello!
    I was hoping to get Mr. Pulliam’s help identifying a few birds I’ve seen on my property near Hohenwald. I have photos that I can send along with details of the sightings. Please let me know if this is possible.

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