Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Woods Reservoir "Goodies"

   Woods Reservoir, Franklin County, TN
3/23/14, 4:00 P.M.

   Chasing another lifer...it seems like that's all I've done this year. Nashville birder Jan Shaw reported a Red-throated Loon at Woods Reservoir in Franklin County. She also mentioned that she was 99% sure she a heard a Fish Crow, a very unusual bird for middle Tennessee. Both species would be nice additions to our lists; Red-throated Loon would be a lifer, and Fish Crow a state bird. 
   We arrived at about 4:00 P.M., hoping there wouldn't be too many fisherman in speedboats on the lake. Coming to a gravel pull-off, we stopped to scan part of the lake and almost immediately found a handsome male Red-breasted Merganser and a couple of stunning Common Loons in full breeding plumage. Uh - WOW!!! As I strained to study distant Double-crested Cormorants (hoping for an Anhinga), I heard a strange noise behind me that sounded something like a weak, nasal yelp. Fish Crow! I started flapping my arms as I usually do when I'm excited and can't find words to express it, probably looking like an over-sized Green-winged Teal in flight with its rapid whir of wing beats. I grabbed my camera and ran to where it was perched high in a sycamore tree. I pressed the video button and began recording the calling bird, just for documentation. I stopped recording early, and just seconds later, a second Fish Crow joined the first, bringing a different variety of "caws" that certainly entertained us viewers.
   The daylight hours were coming to an end, so we moved on, now focusing on our lifer Red-throated Loon. We stopped at the Gossick Leadership Center where Jan had originally seen the bird. I took the scope out of the back of our car and scanned every visible area of the lake. Swallows and martins by the hundreds zipped about. The swallows were nearly grazing the water's surface while their cousin Purple Martins preferred the higher altitudes. Coots bobbed like corks near the bank, their red eyes inspecting us curiously and nervously.
   Far out on the lake, I came across a small, pale loon, undoubtedly the Red-throated Loon we had been searching for. It looked so small and ghost-white beside the large, glorious Common Loons. Unlike the Common Loons, the Red-throated Loon preferred to just float and loaf. "No diving for me - no, no thank you, " I'm sure he (or she) was saying. As my brother and I took turns looking at our most recent lifer, none other than a breeding plumaged Red-necked Grebe swam right by the Red-throated Loon. They turned and looked at each other, exchanged a brief "Can't wait to get out of here," I'm fairly certain, then continued their ways.
   Moving on, we approached another viewing area. From this one you could observe a small island by the name of "Little Elder Island" where herons, egrets, and cormorants gather to breed. I stepped outside, took only a very quick scan, then hopped back into the car. The wind was bitterly cold from that side of the lake.
   Finally, we came to our last stop which was just another view of Woods Reservoir, but from a different angle. Many gulls plucked fish and other creatures from the water. They were all Bonaparte's Gulls, and though I could say I was surprised that they weren't Ring-bills, I wasn't, for they were feeding in the "Bonaparte fashion." But it wasn't just the Bonies enjoying this side of the lake. Dozens more swallows and martins dashed in the air. Barn Swallows were the dominate species with Tree Swallows being a close second. One Northern Rough-winged Swallow was among the Purple Martins, these enjoying the snacks close to the water rather than above.
   By then the sun had nearly set, and the frigid wind was really getting to me. A wonderful way to add lifer #294 to my list.

Click here to view my complete eBird checklist.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Tale of My "Bedroom Species List"

   "Is that," I mutter to myself, "a Bald Eagle?!?!" In the distance, a majestic raptor soars in tight circles with its wings held perfectly flat. As it turns, a bright white head and tail gleam in the sunlight, and a strong, hooked, yellow beak is revealed. I jump up and dash for the door, calling as quietly as I possibly could in my excitement: "Bald Eagle! An adult! From my bedroom!"
   My sister, Miriam, runs to my window and peaks her head out. "Where is it?" she asks.
   "Ok, look at the big tree in the O'Briens' backyard. Look behind it and there is- wait. Is that another Bald Eagle? No just a Black Vulture. Ok, do you see where I'm talking about?"  By that time the eagle was soaring away, riding the air currents due North.

   I got the idea to keep a "Bedroom Species List" after observing a group of Ring-billed Gulls through my window. I thought that, if I could see Ring-billed Gulls flying from my bedroom (of all places!), there's no telling what other bizarre birds I could see! I've been keeping my "Room Species List" (for short) about four months now, and it's been the most rewarding experience!
   So what are my "rules" for keeping this list? No, the bird does not have to walk around on the floor or perch on the fan, although that would be awesome! I count all birds only I, not even if it was my brother or sister, see or hear from my room, including fly-bys. I do not count any species I think I could possibly hear or see from my room. In short, I myself have to witness it in my bedroom.  
   As I write, I've seen and/or heard forty-seven different species from my room, which is not bad for four bitterly cold winter months, and I add to it nearly every day! There is a variety of species on the list - from Great Blue Herons to Purple Martins. My favorite "room species" was a random, probably lost, Ross's Goose that was following a different flock of Ring-billed Gulls than mentioned above. He was alone, except for the gulls, journeying North. The goose blended in perfectly with the Ring-bills; for they were nearly the exact same size, though the goose was much chubbier and had a long neck.  
   I've always wondered why I see all these birds from my room and not from any other room in our house. I guess I do spend the most time in my bedroom, but it could also be because there is water and a more open area in the direction my room faces. Who knows?
   I recommend everyone keep a "Bedroom Species List," or it doesn't necessarily have to be a "Bedroom Species List." You could keep a "Kitchen Species List or a "Garage Species List." (Hmmm. A "Garage Species List"....) If you would like to view my "Bedroom Species List", click here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Two Impromptu Outings

3-9-14, 10:00 A.M. & 5:30 P.M.
Percy Priest Lake area and Bells Bend, both in Nashville, TN

   I wasn't fully expecting to go birding today, but I had hope that I might be able. Several Pacific Loons had been reported over the past few days at Percy Priest lake, viewed from Cook Rec. area and Seven Points Rec. area.  So our whole family drove to see if we could re-find them. The species wouldn't be a lifebird for us, but an awesome year bird. We pulled up to Cook and one of the very first species we saw was a Tree Swallow - a first of the year for us. It was nice to see the familiar acrobatic diving and to hear the chimed song. We scanned the lake through the scope, looking for the Pacific Loon and also for other unusual waterfowl. Every loon turned out to be a Common Loon, every grebe was either a Horned Grebe or a Pied-billed Grebe, and every duck was a Common Goldeneye or a Bufflehead.
   With the sun's rays shining directly on the lake, you could hardly see any plumage detail on any of the waterfowl; but I used the hardships in identifying each bird for my good. How? I got wonderful practice at identifying each bird by shape and structure! You can tell Horned Grebes apart from Pied-billed Grebes by looking at their necks. The neck of a Horned Grebe is much slimmer than the neck of a Pied-billed Grebe and a Horned Grebe's bill is smaller than a Pied-bill's. The Common Loon holds its flat head with its large bill close to its body. Distant American Coots are easy to ID because of their head-bobbing while they swim. But anyway...back to the trip.
   We decided to drive to Seven Points to see if we could find the Pacific Loon there. It seemed like only seconds before we found him, his head held to its apogee. His bill was thin and head round just like any photo or drawing you find in a field guide. He dove often, well, at least more often than the somewhat lazy Common Loons around him. The Common Loons provided a nice size comparison, for you could see he was clearly smaller than the others.
   But the Pacific and Common Loons weren't the only species on that side of the lake. Skinny-legged Great Blue Herons, a few immature Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Pied-billed Grebes, Horned Grebes, American Coots, Common Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, two Ring-necked Ducks, one Ruddy Duck, and some very distant dabbling ducks that I listed as "I don't knows." We left Seven Points quite satisfied.

~   ~   ~

   Hours later, my mom, baby brother, and I took a brief stroll at one of Nashville's best birding locations by the name of Bells Bend. My other brother, Nolan, who is more of a lister than a birder, had a bowling party not too far away, so why not go birding while he's gone? Bells Bend is a haven for sparrows, and trust me, we did not have any problems finding the common species. We saw and heard plenty of Savannah, Song, and White-throated Sparrows. Surprisingly, I only heard one Swamp Sparrow! Around a dry pond, White-crowned Sparrows sang and flashed their snowy-colored crowns from dense thickets. We came to the campground area which has a small plot of trees. I played an Eastern Schreech-owl on tape and attracted White-breasted Nuthatches, fussy Carolina Wrens, a Hermit Thrush, Carolina Chickadees, American Robins, Eastern Towhees, Northern Cardinals, a Downy Woodpecker, and the one sparrow we were missing...Fox Sparrow. By then, it was time to pick up my brother. We had a nice "end at the Bend."

See my complete eBird checklists here, here, and here.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Roads-Less-Birded

3-8-14, 7:00 A.M.
Bark Camp Barrens WMA, Coffee County, TN
Woods Reservoir (and surrounding area), Franklin County, TN

   Whoever invented the alarm clock was probably a misanthropist who wanted to make those who use the alarm clock annoyed and angry. That annoyed and angry person was me this morning after the alarm clock "beeped" me awake. But, hey! I was going birding...doing what I love.
   We started the morning at Bark Camp Barrens WMA. The gravel entrance was lined by a pine stand and a mixed deciduous woods. We stopped before the pines listening to our FOY (first of year) Pine Warbler trilling its ditty. I began playing an Eastern Screech-Owl on tape that attracted some mischevious Tufted Titmice, a Carolina Chickadee, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Bluebird, and eventually two Pine Warblers. The two Pine Warblers were males, each of which was interested in guarding his territory from the other. We continued on.
   We came upon the main attraction at this location, a vast field of tangly grass, weeds, and thorn bushes. I, being the only one with water-proof wading boots, was able to walk the somewhat wet field to look for interesting birds. Besides cawing crows, the WMA was relatively quiet. Only a few sparrows were seen, and those were Field Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, and Swamp Sparrows. Occasionally blackbirds flew over, some of which were Rusties. A little pond that looked more like a flooded ditch held a lone, and probably lost, American Coot. It was funny to watch the bird bob its tiny head as it swam around.
   Leaving the WMA, we then birded the nearby sod fields. Killdeers ran as our car lurked foward. Happy Eastern Meadowlarks sang from the ground and electrical wires.  To the right, there was a small pond, and surprisingly it was filled with ducks! Even though I didn't really need to, I chose to use my scope to ID the group. We expected them to be dabbling ducks, but instead, they were divers. Redheads! Ring-necked Ducks! Lesser Scaups! It was a great, close-range view of three stunning species. To make things even more exciting, the male Redheads were calling and performing courtship displays! Cool! While at the pond, we heard Horned Larks and a couple of Lapland Longspurs calling and saw a Northern Harrier gliding swiftly over the fields.
   We began driving to the second destination, Woods Reservoir. On the drive, we ran into some more Redheads in a pond located within a cow pasture and three North-bound Sandhill Cranes. After reaching Woods Reservoir, we started at the waterfowl refuge, which contained only a few Common Loons in nearly complete breeding plumage and a few non-breeding Pied-billed Grebes.

The waterfowl refuge at Woods Reservoir

    We left the refuge and drove to a different part of Woods Reservoir. From our new vantage point you could see "Little Elder Island", a small heronry that is overflowing with herons, egrets, and cormorants in the summer. "Little Elder Island" was vacant except for several Great Blue Herons that were perched on their nests in the trees. On the lake were more Common Loons and Pied-billed Grebes, American Coots, Double-crested Cormorants, Buffleheads, and Horned Grebes. Far out on the lake was a fairly large raft of diving ducks, consisting of  mostly Greater Scaups and a few Ruddy Ducks. Suddenly, three handsome Red-breasted Mergansers - two males with one female - arrived. Their funky crests flew behind them as they swam in the wavy lake. We drove a little farther down the bank to get another view. One Herring Gull was drifting in the water with Ring-billed Gulls, Common Loons, and Pied-billed Grebes.
   Next, we drove to two locations near Woods Reservoir owned by the Arnold Engineering Developement Center (AEDC) by the names of "Goose Pond" and "Sinking Pond." Despite their names, neither place has a pond, only a flooded grassy area, similar to a marsh. At "Goose Pond" I played a Virginia Rail on tape but received no reply. At "Sinking Pond," well, it took a while before we found the wet spot, but upon aproaching it, you could hear some very loquacious frogs! I began wading in the water, seeing if I could flush rails, sparrows, wrens, and such, and managed to find two Swamp Sparrows and one Rusty Blackbird but nothing more.

"Sinking Pond"

   We made one final stop at the water front at the Univeristy of Tennessee Space Institute (UTSI). We found more coots and one female Bufflehead. By that time, we were worn out! Thus concluded our birding trip to the roads-less-birded.   
See my complete eBird checklists here and here. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Tree Sparrow Search at Poole Knobs

   3-4-14, 4:00 P.M.
Poole Knobs WMA, Rutherford County, TN

   A nice jerk from the un-level road alerted us to the entrance of Poole Knobs Wildlife Management Area, a part of Percy Priest Lake. Northern Cardinals scattered left and right as we crept along the gravel road. To the right, a burned area was filled with Rusty Blackbirds, American Robins, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and American Pipits. The pipits didn't mind our presence, and yet they walked with a bashful grace and wagging tails, gently plucking their meals from the black dirt. We stopped before some open woods that had been previously burned, leaving only a very small amount of trees standing. Savannah Sparrows, frightened at our approach, fled to the bare trees. Scanning from one bird to the next we managed to find one plump Vesper Sparrow among them. His pale bill fit right in with the rest of his drab plumage and his large size looked massive compared to the Savannah Sparrows. But our main search wasn't for Rusty Blackbirds, American Pipits, or Vesper Sparrows; it was for American Tree Sparrows.

   A tree sparrow irruption was currently occurring in our state of Tennessee. The hyperborean blasts of wind from the North resulted in food shortages for these sweet sparrows that now sought refuge here. From here and there, near and far, came reports of American Tree Sparrows in numbers of not just one or two but up to eleven in one location! This was a perfect time to hunt for my lifer tree sparrow, and it would be horrible luck if we missed it.
   As we continued, more sparrows were flushed from the grass to the trees and shrubs. Finally, my binoculars alighted on one decent-sized sparrow. There was no mistaking that small black dot on the breast. "There it is!" I exclaimed, hopping out of the car with my birder brother, Nolan, close behind. The bird flew into some bushes across the road as we hustled toward it, so I grabbed my iPod and began playing the cheery, melodious song of the American Tree Sparrow. It took a few seconds but I finally got a reply from a different tree sparrow in a different area, but in the form of a call, not a song. It was impossible to view the bird in great detail with us looking right into the direction of the setting sun. He flew to the opposite side of the road, but only to land high in a more distant tree.
   We had optimism that we would, indeed, get a good look of a tree sparrow later, so we walked on, mom and the (non-birder) kids trailing in the car behind. More and more sparrows, more and more blackbirds, more and more robins, more and more pipits were seen. Suddenly, an immense flock of birds giving light calls filled the air and landed. More pipits! Way out in a field on the left was a small pond, vacant expect for a few hunters practicing with their dogs. A couple hundred yards to the right of the pond stood a large group of geese. Among them stood a lone white goose, a Ross's Goose - undoubtedly the same bird reported earlier today. Not a lifer, but a cool bird nonetheless. We began walking toward the geese but then turned around since the habitat in that direction certainly wasn't right for American Tree Sparrows. Instead, we chose to walk in the small patch of woods lined with patches of weeds across the road.
   I took a few steps when I nearly stepped on an American Woodcock sitting in the path! It flew up and into the woods in a rush. We followed where it landed with our eyes, and I sent my brother for my camera. (I didn't trust him with staying put without scaring the bird.) If I only had a lens with a farther zoom I would have been able to capture a photo of this incredible bird. Unfortunately, I didn't and was forced to watch the bird fly away, no photo taken.
   Mom alerted us that it was time to go, but she did let us pause if there was a bird we wanted to observe more closely. When we came to the burned area with the small stand of trees where we sited the Vesper Sparrow, we stopped. Once again, bunches of Savannah Sparrows scattered to the trees, but with them was one American Tree Sparrow! We were positioned perfectly with the sun to our backs, and all of us were able to see each of the key field marks on the bird - bright rufous cap; black upper mandible and yellow lower mandible; gray below with the small, black dot on the breast. This look definitely proved satisfying. Lifer #291 in the bag!

See my complete eBird checklist here.