Bristol park’s Wildlife Weekend returns Oct. 7-8 to celebrate 25th anniversary

Contributed Photo by Michele Sparks • A Northern waterthrush is secured in a bander’s hand at a bird banding station operated at a previous Wildlife Weekend. Bird banders Richard Lewis and Rack Cross will also conduct a bird banding operation at this year’s Wildlife Weekend at Steele Creek Park in Brisol on Saturday, Oct. 8.

Members of the Friends of Steele Creek Nature Center and Park in Bristol are getting ready to observe a milestone in their yearly staging of Wildlife Weekend on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7-8.

This year’s event, which will feature the theme “Plants and Pollinators,” will mark the 25th anniversary of the yearly celebration of wildlife in it many forms.

Birds will certainly be part of the mix, as will reptiles and honeybees, not to mention insects, spiders and more. Bird-specific activities scheduled for Oct. 8 include an Early Bird Walk, which will be conducted at 9 a.m. by Bristol Bird Club member Larry McDaniel, as well as a bird banding station located at the thicket near the Civitan Pavilion. Banding will get underway at 9:30 a.m. with longtime bird banders Richard Lewis and Rack Cross on site to introduce bird banding and its value to science to those attending this event.

If you’ve never observed bird banding, I would encourage you to attend this event. Banders receive training and are licensed by the federal government. These sessions also provide an opportunity to observe birds in a way that differs greatly from peering at them through binoculars. Of course, it’s rather hit or miss on what birds might show up in the nets used to capture the birds. Some of the expected birds that may be caught and banded include warblers, sparrows, thrushes, grosbeaks and other songbirds.

Other Saturday activities will include a walk at 10 a.m. to look for spiders and insects with naturalist Cade Campbell, and the two-hour Commander’s Morning Hike. The latter is a guided hike to the highest point in Steele Creek Park.

On Saturday afternoon, another Commander’s Hike will be offered with a different focus: this three-hour hike, which starts at 1 p.m., will give participants a chance to visit the oldest tree within the park.

Other afternoon walks, focused on honeybees, reptiles and mushrooms, will be led by Jeremy Stout, Lance Jessee and Mike Martin respectively. The mushroom walk commences at 1 p.m. The honeybee walk begins at 2 p.m., and the reptile walk will start at 3 p.m.

The popular Wildlife Weekend Passport is back. This scavenger hunt can be played via a downloadable Goosechase app or with a traditional printed hole punch version. Completed passports must be returned to the registration table by 4 p.m. to be eligible for prizes.

Saturday will also offer a variety of interactive exhibits and information tables, both at The Lodge and Nature Center’s lakeside porch from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Themes for some of the kiosks will include fossil casting, rocks and minerals, and skins and skulls. 

Wes Walker, who has helped organize the events for Wildlife Weekend, noted that Saturday’s events will also be documented by a local photography group.

“We should be having the Eastman Camera Club on-site that day, “Walker said. “This club, comprised of both amateur and professional photographers, captures various events across the Tri-Cites area.”

Walker touted Wildlife Weekend as a chance to learn more about Steele Creek Park, which is a gem featuring more than 2,000 acres in the middle of Bristol. 

“Most folks are aware of the ‘park’ area, but that only encompasses a fraction of the entire park,” Walker said. “Wildlife Weekend is an opportunity for individuals and families to explore this local treasure, and learn about the natural wonders from local experts.” 

The numerous interactive activities range from crafts, to several-mile hikes. Wildlife Weekend also serves as an excellent way to introduce children to the wonders of nature, as well as a knowledge supplementation for more experienced nature enthusiasts. 

The Bristol Bird Club will operate a kiosk offering information on the region’s varied birds. In addition, members of the Washington County Master Gardeners program will host a kiosk adjacent to their pollinator garden next to the Nature Center’s lakeside porch. The Campbells (Tracy, Cade and Chloe) will offer a family crafts kiosk featuring crafts for making “Critter Keepers” and “Mosaic Magnets.” Megan and David Christian will operate an owl pellet kiosk. By dissecting the pellets, participants can get a hint at the varied diets of owls residing in the park. 

The 25th Wildlife Weekend kicks off on Friday, Oct. 6, with an opening reception at 6 p.m. in the Steele Creek park Nature Center. After a brief overview of the history of Wildlife Weekend, keynote speaker Gerardo Arceo-Gomez will present a program titled “Pollination in Action: Fantastic Bees and Where to Find Them.” Friday’s activities will conclude with an awards ceremony for the 2022 Wildlife Weekend Amateur Photography Contest. 

For more information on the 25th annual Wildlife Weekend, visit 


Prairie warbler bears a name unrelated to bird’s habits and habitat

Photo by Noppadol Paothong/Missouri Department of Conservation • A prairie warbler forages in a cedar.

I took part in the annual Fall Bird Count conducted Saturday, Sept. 24, by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Some highlights of the count were migrating warblers that made for some exciting observations.

The 50 or so species of warblers that make their home in the eastern parts of the United States and Canada during the spring and summer months are now winging their way south.
The blackpoll warbler, which holds the distinction for the longest migration of any species of New World warbler, will journey from the forests of Canada to spend the colder months in northern South America. Because of a peculiarity of this bird’s fall migratory habits, birders in Northeast Tennessee are far more likely to see this late-arriving warbler in May than in the autumn.

A few warblers — pine warbler, magnolia warbler and palm warbler —are named for trees for the simple reason that their European discoverers happened to first observe them in the branches of their namesake trees.

For most of these warblers named to honor various trees, their common names are, at best, a misnomer. Throughout most of its life, the palm warbler doesn’t even encounter palm trees. Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist who lived from 1748 to 1804, saddled the palm warbler with its inappropriate name. Gmelin based his naming of the bird on the fact that a specimen had been collected on Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean with an abundance of palm trees. Gmelin published several textbooks in the fields of chemistry, pharmaceutical science, mineralogy and botany. He also had a hand in publishing a catalog of scientific names for various species, including some birds that had until that point never been given a species classification. Thanks to his efforts, the palm warbler has forever been linked with a type of tree that is, at best, entirely incidental to the bird’s life cycle.

The same is true for the magnolia warbler, which would have been more suitably named the spruce or fir Warbler, as the species is highly dependent on northern coniferous forests as nesting habitat. The pine warbler, at least, restores credibility to some of the early experts who have these tiny birds their common names. The pine warbler does indeed prefer stands of pine trees, showing particular favor for pitch pines.

While counting birds with Rob Armistead at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, as well as the linear walking trail along the linear trail in Elizabethton, we spotted and watched a striking and cooperative male prairie warbler. The prairie warbler is another warbler with a common name that doesn’t truly reflect any accuracy about the bird.

For instance, the prairie warbler is not affiliated with the vast plains and grasslands of the United States and Canada. According to the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website, Alexander Wilson named the prairie warbler in 1810 from specimens collected in Kentucky in a habitat that was then called a prairie. The habitat is now referred to as a “barrens,” which are a mixture of scrubby vegetation and trees. Prairies, fin the generally accepted sense, are grassland habitats.

According to the website All About Birds, some prairie warblers in Florida have become non-migratory and differ in some subtle ways from other prairie warblers, including being slightly larger.

Photo by U.S. F&WS • A prairie warbler perches on a branch amid thick cover.

Red-eyed vireo take part in migratory parade


Photo by Hans Toom/Pixabay • Red eyes, readily apparent with a good look through binoculars, have provided the inspiration for the common name of the red-eyed vireo, a summer resident in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

The signs of migration are everywhere. Warblers and company have been active the past couple of days. On Labor Day, Sept. 5, I was treated to a visit by three young common yellowthroats (two females and a male) in jewelweed and shrubs just by the front porch. One little female was extremely curious, coming as close to me and the porch as she dared. 

A male common yellowthroat sang almost daily from late May to late August, leading me to speculate these three young birds were some of his offspring. In quick order, I also observed a black-and-white warbler, a couple of young chestnut-sided warblers, a couple of gray catbirds and an Empidomax flycatcher that, if pressed, I’d guess was an Acadian. 

The next morning, despite a steady rain, warblers started the show again, including more chestnut-sided warblers, a Northern parula and a Tennessee warbler. I also watched a red-eyed vireo dueling with an Eastern wood-pewee until they both earned the ire of a ruby-throated hummingbird that chased after both of them with determined zeal.

A session of lawn chair birding in the back yard found me grateful for quality if not quantity on Thursday, Sept. 8. A delightful highlight was a beautiful male black-throated blue warbler that provided great looks in my binoculars. I also saw a Tennessee warbler, Carolina chickadees, gray catbird, ruby-throated hummingbird and downy woodpecker.

On Sept. 9, a morning walk before walk on the linear trail in Erwin yielded observations of a black-throated green warbler, gray catbird, downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker and belted kingfisher. 

Providing background noise on most of my recent birding forays have been red-eyed vireos with their strident, scolding calls punctuating the background of chip notes, songs and calls from many other birds.

Photo by Jean Potter • The Blue-headed Vireo prefers wooded habitats at higher elevations.

At a glance, vireos would appear related to the wood warblers. Research into DNA, however, has led many experts to contend that vireos are more closely related to crows and shrikes. Like the flycatcher and hummingbird families, the vireo family is exclusive to the New World. With a mere 50 species, vireos and their kin are vastly outnumbered by flycatchers and hummingbirds. The majority of vireos resides in the tropics, but about a dozen species nest in the United States.

In East Tennessee Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina, vireos resident during the summer months include red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow-throated vireo and warbling vireo. Most people are likely unaware of vireos. Although not uncommon, these birds are more frequently heard than seen. They spend much of their time in the forest canopy or in dense brush. When singing, they can remain at a perch, unmoving, for long periods of time.

The loud scolding calls of red-eyed vireos often heard this time of year are given apparently when the vireo is alarmed or irritated, such as when a vireo is chased or challenged by an uppity hummingbird. This scolding vocalization is quite unlike the usual ones produced by this bird. First and foremost, the call is louder than one would think could be produced by a bird that is only about six inches long. During the summer season, the red-eyed vireo is also one of the most persistent of singing songbirds. Another common name for the red-eyed vireo is “preacher bird,” so called because of its tendency to unceasingly deliver its song.

The red-eyed vireo is still considered one of eastern North America’s most common summer breeding birds. At one time, the red-eyed vireo was probably the most common breeding bird in eastern woodlands. That, sadly, is no longer the case. Red-eyed vireos are olive-green above and clean white below. These birds show a distinctive head pattern consisting of a gray crown and white eyebrow stripe bordered above and below by black lines. Adults also have the red eyes that give this particular vireo its common name. The term “vireo,” originating in Latin, can be translated into English as “green bird.” It’s an apt description, as many of these small birds are primarily dull green in coloration. Consider the vireos the “Plain Janes” of songbirds.

Other vireos that can be found in the United States, for at least part of the year, include Philadelphia vireo, plumbeous vireo and Cassin’s vireo. A specialty of Florida is the black-whiskered vireo, while the black-capped vireo is an endangered species found in Texas. Two others, Bell’s vireo and gray vireo, are identified as species of concern on the Audubon Watchlist.

Many species of vireo are also found in the islands of the Caribbean, including Jamaican vireo, Cuban vireo and Puerto Rican Vireo. The thick-billed vireo, which is very similar to the white-eyed vireo, is a native of the Bahamas. 

Some of the more colorful common names for vireos include the dwarf vireo, golden vireo and yellow-winged vireo.  In Central and South America, the vireo family expands to include many birds with common names such as shrike-vireo, greenlet and peppershrike. Some of the varied species include lemon-chested greenlet, green shrike-vireo and the black-bellied peppershrike.


To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email 

Birding the Big Apple

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Ring-billed Gull in flight. Several of these gulls were seen during my 2002 trip to New York City.

We’re observing 9-11 today, so I thought I’d pull out a post on my birding experiences during my one and only trip to New York City back in July of 2002. I visited not quite a year after the 9-11 attacks. I did visit Ground Zero. The shells of neighboring buildings adjacent to the fallen Towers remained standing and the construction of the memorial at the site was still far in the future.

I wrote this column about my birding experiences in the “Big Apple” for the Herald & Tribune of Jonesborough in July of 2002. It won me a second-place Tennessee Press Association award for “Best Personal Column” the following year.


During a recent trip to New York City, mainly for the purpose of visiting friends and seeing the sights, I also availed myself of the opportunity of trying to see a few birds in the Big Apple.

At first glance, New York City doesn’t seem a haven for birds or any other sort of wildlife. Without any serious effort on my part, however, I managed to see 15 different species of birds. My tour guide and friend, David, remained courteous enough to indulge my occasional lapses into birding. David, perhaps like many New Yorkers, is familiar on a daily basis with the Big Apple’s three most prominent members of the bird family — the House Sparrow, the European Starling and the Rock Dove, or pigeon.

Photo by U.S. FWS • New York’s pigeons no longer find the city a safe haven with the arrival of more peregrine falcon’s as the raptor’s numbers continue to rebound.

Everyone who has visited a city park, whether in Jonesborough or New York City, is probably familiar with the Rock Dove. Commonly called pigeon, the Rock Dove is not a native American bird. But their introduction to this continent paralleled the arrival of European colonists. Pigeons came to this country along with other farmyard animals, such as cattle and sheep. But, once here, the Rock Dove, which is a wild bird in Africa and in the Mediterranean, also managed to establish itself outside the farmyard. Nevertheless, more than most other birds, the Rock Dove still only thrives in the company of humans. In New York City, pigeons are a part of the landscape. They are everywhere! As a result, these birds can cause some problems. Their droppings can damage buildings and statues. They can also spread various diseases to humans. Efforts have been made to curb their numbers, but the pigeon looks to be a permanent part of the New York City landscape.

It’s no longer a paradise for pigeons in the Big Apple, however. The Peregrine Falcon, once endangered, has rebounded with protection from the government. The skyscrapers of New York City have replaced cliff faces as nesting sites for these sleek, aerodynamic predators. While I wasn’t fortunate enough to see a Peregrine Falcon while in New York City, they are there. Their presence has put some balance back into the food chain. The pigeons now have a natural predator.

Earlier this summer, David called me looking for advice about a problem with birds. Seems that a pair of House Sparrows had built a nest beneath his air conditioning unit at his apartment. The problem involved timing. David recently moved to a new apartment and he needed to take the air conditioner with him. In the end, David’s need for the air conditioner outpaced the nesting progress of the sparrows. Now, he’s convinced that the sparrows, like the gulls, are out to get him. More about the gulls later.

The House Sparrow is an non-native species introduced to the United States. The House Sparrow was released intentionally in the United States in the 1850s at different points between New York and New England. Other introductions of this species occurred at other points in the United States. The introductions were huge mistakes. By 1910, the House Sparrow had invaded the entire continent. The House Sparrow is also an aggressive bird. Soon, the House Sparrow came into conflict with a beloved American favorite, the Eastern Bluebird. The major competition between Eastern Bluebirds and House Sparrows is for nesting cavities. House Sparrows have the tenacity to evict even the larger Easter Bluebirds from occupied nests. Occasionally, the sparrows even kill nestling or adult bluebirds. I found the House Sparrow almost as numerous as Rock Doves in most areas of New York City.

But, there was still a third common bird — the European Starling. I encountered the first starlings of my trip in New York City’s famous Central Park. Ironically, Central Park is where the European Starling, now considered the most numerous bird in North America, got its start. The Rock Dove and House Sparrow got here first, but the European Starling didn’t waste any time once the first starlings were released in 1890. The first European Starlings were released at that time in Central Park because some fans of William Shakespeare wanted to release all the birds mentioned in The Bard’s plays. Apparently, only the release of the European Starling had any lasting consequence. Even today, starlings and Shakespeare are very much associated with Central Park. During the summer there is a popular Shakespeare festival held in Central Park. And, on any summer day, there will always be plenty of starlings in the park.

Those were three of the 15 birds I managed to observe on my trip. The remaining 12 species comprised a diverse and at times surprising list. I found American Robins, American Crow, Blue Jay, Chimney Swift, Carolina Wren and Downy Woodpecker within Central Park. In addition, at a large pond within the park I also observed a Green Heron and Mallards. The Robins, in particular, appeared as they would in any park setting. They hopped about on grassy lawns while foraging for food. David told me he recently saw a Roadrunner in the park. I told him that would be an extraordinary discovery since that bird is native to the western United States.

There’s a lot of water in and around New York City. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise to discover birds such as Double-crested Cormorants swimming in the East River. I also saw plenty of gulls. In fact, I saw three different species of gulls — Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls and Laughing Gulls.

Surprisingly, gulls haven’t always been common in the vicinity of New York City. According to the book Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New York City by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdon, gulls did not frequent New York City 100 years ago. Now, there are as many as one million gulls in New York City. The book also mentions one of the attractions: Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill, the largest garbage dump in the world.

The cover of the book Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New York City by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdon

My friend David considers gulls evil omens. I tried to do some research into the role of gulls in folklore. I turned to the book by Laura C. Martin titled The Folklore of Birds. Her entry on gulls proved sketchy. Here’s some of what I learned. The word “gull” comes from a Welsh word, “gwylan,” which can be translated as “wailing.” The term “gull” apparently derived from the bird’s wailing or plaintive call. The Latin genus name, Larus, for gull is translated as “ravenous seabird.” So, that leaves us with a ravenous, wailing seabird. Apt descriptions, but not exactly a rich folklore. Birds such as crows and the various species of owls have much more ominous superstitions surrounding them.


New York City has a “New York Rare Bird Alert.” If you would like to know what rare birds are being seen in New York City, dial (212) 979-3070. I dialed the number during my visit and received information about excitement regarding large flocks of migrating shorebirds, a Common Raven and nesting Blue Grosbeaks.

(NOTE: The number is still in use. So, if you’re planning any New York visits and would like to bird, the phone number is still valid.)


My friend David now lives in Baltimore. I haven’t visited him there, but he has visited me in the mountains near Asheville, N.C. I’d like to thank him again for my taste of the Big Apple.


I’d still love to hear from readers. Just post your thoughts here or email me at Keep up with me on Facebook, too.

High-rise doves: Pair nests twice on apartment balcony

Photo Courtesy of Rob Hicks • One of the parent doves checks on the two young in the nest.

In late July, I wrote about a couple of mourning doves nesting on a front porch column at the home of Star and Tim Barto in Telford, Tennessee.

Star sent another email recently to notify me that the doves are back, undertaking a fourth nesting for the year.

“Just had to share the amazing news — the doves are back on the porch column for the fourth time this year,” she wrote. “So exciting!  After three events this year, I was sure it would be next spring before their return. So glad to be wrong about that.”

Not only did I hear from Star about their nesting doves in Telford, I heard from a reader a little farther afield about a pair of mourning doves that have taken things to a higher level, literally.

Rob Hicks, a resident of Burlington in Ontario, Canada, informed me of an interesting nesting of mourning doves that have taken a liking to his apartment balcony.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Hicks • A view from the balcony where the mourning doves nested.

“I first noticed one (and then both) doves on my balcony railing up on the eighth floor when I was looking at the planters I have out there,” Rob explained in a Facebook message.

He said that the doves would hop around in each potted plant, look around and  then move to the next.  

“I assumed they were looking to set up a nest, but I knew that the balcony repairmen were going to be arriving in a few week,” Rob said.

In case the nesting conflicted with the mandatory maintenance, Rob tried to discourage the birds from setting up their nest.   

“I went out and got some decorative plastic picks and stuck them in the planters, hoping the birds would avoid them, but the following day I noticed the start of a nest in one planter,” he said.

Not only that, but the birds had pulled out the plastic picks. So much for his effort to deter the nesting birds.

The following day he noticed that the nest contained two eggs.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Hicks • The two parent doves stand guard over a nestling.

Presented with a fait accompli, Rob decided to enjoy the rare opportunity of watching the high-rise nesting birds.

“The parents took turns with the eggs for the next two weeks until they hatched,” he wrote. “I noticed the chicks were growing very quickly, and a few times each day I’d notice one of the parents coming back to the nest to feed them.”

After the squabs (the name for young doves) had grown, the parents stopped sitting with them and would only come back a few times a day to feed them.

“The chicks would be flexing their wings and flapping them, so I assumed they’d be flying out soon,” he added. 

He noticed that one of the young doves made its first flight from the planter to an adjacent planter on the railing.  

“The bird then managed to fly down off the balcony towards a clump of nearby trees, where I had seen the parents flying in and out of recently,” Rob wrote.

The other young dove was a little less confident in its abilities and waited two additional days before it finally left the nest.

“Over the next couple of days I saw them (at least one adult and one of the chicks each time) perched on the roof of the building,” he wrote.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Hicks • One of the doves returns for a visit.

He also watched them fly back to the same stand of trees, so he said he assumed the adults were still helping them learn to fly better or perhaps teaching them how to find food. 

Right on schedule, the maintenance workers arrived and he had to clear the plants off his balcony.   

“I moved them to a neighbor’s balcony,” he wrote.

About 10 days later, after his balcony had been repaired, he went to collect his plants from his neighbor’s balcony.

Readers will probably guess what happened next.

“I found the doves had not only found the same plants again on the neighbor’s balcony, but they had already put a nest in the planter and laid  eggs again,” Rob wrote.

Rob reported that four weeks and one day after they laid the second batch of eggs, the last chick in that brood also successfully flew out of the nest.

“Since they raised two broods successfully in those plants this year — so far —  I’m more than happy to welcome them back again if they want to try another nest in them,” he wrote.

Back in 2014, Rob also wrote to tell me about a brown creeper that crashed into his balcony. That story, too, had a happy ending. Although the bird was definitely stunned, it recovered and flew to nearby trees after a short rest.

So, we’re ready to turn the calendar to September and I’m still writing columns about nesting birds. I love it!

To share a bird-related story, make a comment or ask a question, email me at 


Wrench of warblers signals start of autumn migration

Photo by Hans Toom/Pixabay • An ovenbird, a member of the warbler family, perches on a branch. The bird gets its name from the shape of its nest, which resembles an old-fashioned Dutch oven. When male ovenbirds arrive on a potential nesting territory in the spring, they begin singing their loud, ringing “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” call almost tirelessly.

Autumn arrived Sunday, Aug. 14, heralded by a barely audible chip note that shattered the almost eerie silence that had accompanied my late morning woodland stroll up to that point. That timid chip note opened the floodgates, and I soon had a mixed flock of songbirds shadowing me, the scolding chorus increasing in volume as they demanded an explanation for my intrusion.

Of course, it’s not yet fall according to the calendar. The season won’t officially arrive until Thursday, Sept. 22. But there’s a day that comes every year that provides a tiny spark that kicks off my annual pastime of looking for migrating birds during my favorite season of the year.

The bird that unleashed the torrent of angry birds turned out to be an ovenbird, a species of warbler that nests in local woodlands every summer. In rapid succession, I also glimpsed a female black-throated blue warbler and a female hooded warbler. I also found it interesting that these warblers, particularly the hooded warbler, were also bus maneuvering to get a better look at me. I suppose it pays to be aware of one’s surroundings.

The in-your-face members of the mixed flock I encountered included a strident group of tufted titmice and some equally cantankerous Carolina chickadees. A couple of red-eyed vireos also took part in the songbird cacophony as these various birds joined forces to demand to know what I was doing in “their” woods.

Each warbler produces its own variation of the chip note, which is a vocalization that these nervous and energetic birds make as they flit from branch to branch through the woods. Learning to listen for the “chip” notes of the warblers that often join these mixed flocks is a great way to increase your warbler-watching opportunities. By “weeding” out the chickadees and titmice, it became easier to pinpoint the location of birds like the vireos and warblers.

Chip notes function for different purposes, but are usually produced when an individual warbler is alarmed by something, such as a human walking past their location. In some species, chip notes also provide a “contact call” to keep birds in touch with each other and aware of teach other’s location.

Many warbler species chip frequently while migrating, but there are also a few species such as Northern parula and black-and-white warbler that don’t usually produce these helpful chip notes. Unlike songs, which are almost exclusively produced by male warblers, both sexes produce chip notes.

I didn’t have binoculars with me when I encountered the flock, but I managed to put together enough behaviorisms and visual cues to identify the three species of warblers. 

Ovenbirds differ from other songbirds in that they do not hop along a branch or over the woodland floor. Ovenbirds walk. They take slow, deliberate steps, which is exactly how the bird I saw moved, sidling along a branch gently sloping toward the ground.

Female black-throated blue warblers are drab, especially in comparison to the breathtaking males of the species. They do have a little white square on each wing that is a good way to quickly identify them. At close range, I easily detected the square even without benefit of binoculars. I’m getting older, and my vision’s declined somewhat, but I’m pleased to still manage even tricky warbler identifications.

The female hooded warbler was easy. As she flew from branch to branch, she constantly fanned her tail, flashing the white outer tail feathers in a trademark manner for the species. Female hooded warblers don’t shine with the same radiance as the males, and they also lack the namesake black hood. A good look, however, is usually sufficient for identifying them. 

Most people have probably heard of a “murder” of crows as a way to describe a flock of these particular birds. Warblers also have their collective names. According to the Birdorable Blog, a flock of warblers is often referred to as a bouquet, a confusion, a fall, a cord or a wrench of warblers. 


This fact was new to me. I personally like “wrench of warblers.” It has alliteration and it describes how these amazing little songbirds can definitely “wrench” one’s attention from other matters.

I’ll be getting distracted a lot this fall as I seek not only warblers, but other migrants such as nighthawks and flycatchers, thrushes and tanagers, grosbeaks and sparrows, as well as raptors and shorebirds. August, September and October are busy months for some of our feathered friends. Keep alert and see if you can encounter your own “wrenches” of warblers this autumn.

If you’d like to share observations, make a comment or ask a question, email me at


Join a bird club to gain birding experience

Photo Courtesy of Michele Sparks • Joining a bird club is a great way of gaining expertise in birding by meeting like-minded people of various experience levels.

Where does a beginning birder look for help getting started in the engaging pastime of birding?

In my own case, I turned to local birding organizations in Elizabethton and Bristol in Northeast Tennessee. 

Today, those two organizations that helped nurture my interest in birding are known as the Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, also known as Elizabethton Bird Club, and the J. Wallace Coffey Chapter of TOS, also known as the Bristol Bird Club.

I didn’t know the namesakes for the Elizabethton club, but I knew J. Wallace Coffey from the late 1990s until his death in 2016. Coffey and many other individuals helped guide and polish my birding skills with helpful advice, suggestions and, above all else, friendship. Any novice birder needs to extend some feelers to local birding groups. No online resources, smart phone apps or printed field guides can match the reservoir of experience that veteran birders have to offer.

Today the Bristol Bird Club is headed by President Larry McDaniel. 

He echoed my advice to new birders.

Photo Courtesy of Michele Sparks • George Larkins, Larry McDaniel and Teresa Hutson watch for hawks from atop Mendota Mountain in Southwest Virginia.

“Becoming a part of a local bird club such as the Bristol Bird Club is a great way for new and beginning birders to be around experienced birders who love to help you learn about birding,” McDaniel said. 

“You can quickly learn where to find birds in the area, how to know the birds you see in your own yard and many ways of learning how to identify different species,” he added. 

McDaniel noted that joining a birding group is also a great way to meet new friends who share a common interest. 

“We offer many outings where you will get to be in the field with other birders,” he said. “All of our outings are suitable for all levels including kids.”

McDaniel noted that many of those outing will focus on some of the region’s birding hot spots.

“Some of our favorite places to bird include South Holston Lake, Osceola Island (Recreation Area) below South Holston Dam, Paddle Creek Pond, Steele Creek Park, Holston Mountain, Shady Valley, Jacob’s Nature Park in Johnson City, Roan Mountain, Whitetop Mountain and Burke’s Garden,” he said. “There are many other spots that we like to frequent.”

Later this fall, a seasonally popular spot will come into play.

“Another favorite destination is the Mendota Hawk Watch where Ron Harrington and others have been conducting hawk counts in September for many years,” McDaniel said. “There are days when we can observe thousands of broad-winged hawks fly over as they make their way south.”

In addition, the Mendota Hawk Watch is a great way to look for other migrating raptors, including ospreys, bald eagles and occasionally golden eagles. 

“The club has a master bird bander,” McDaniel added. “Richard Lewis bands birds at his property and does an annual public demonstration during Wildlife Weekend at Steele Creek Park.”

Photo Courtesy of Michele Sparks • Birding clubs organize bird walks to various locations known for producing good birding opportunities.

McDaniel also shared some of the club’s rich history.

“The Bristol Bird Club has a long history,” he noted. “The club has been active since 1950. We are the J. Wallace Coffey chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society and an affiliate club of the Virginia Society of Ornithology. 

“Wallace was a major force in leading the club for over 50 years,” McDaniel added. “When he passed away a few years ago, members decided to rename the club in his honor.”

McDaniel said that the club has also worked with local landowners over the years to establish some of the most important birding hotspots in the area. 

“We also sponsor several Christmas Bird Counts,” he said.

McDaniel said that the club meets at 7 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month in the Expedition Room of The Summit Building located at 1227 Volunteer Parkway in Bristol, Tennessee. 

“The meetings can also be joined on Zoom,” McDaniel said. “Zoom meeting invitations are sent to the BBC email group and posted on our Facebook group. To join the email group, send a request to You can also find us and join our Facebook group to get more information and current news about the club. We also sponsor an email list serve called Bristol-Birds that you may join to receive information on recent sightings.”

He pointed out that the club does not have regular meetings during the months when the group hosts a club picnic and yearly banquet. 

“These dates are announced well ahead of time,” he said. 

“There is no regular meeting in December, but we do usually have a BBC Christmas party some time in December.”

The club will also participate in the 25th anniversary of the annual Wildlife Weekend at Steele Creek Park on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7-8.  

McDaniel will lead a walk starting at 9 a.m. on Oct. 8 to the bird banding station operated by banders Richard Lewis and Rack Cross. “Plants and Pollinators” will provide the theme for this year’s Wildlife Weekend. Guest speaker for the Oct. 7 evening program will be Gerardo Arceo-Gomez, an associate professor in the biology department at East Tennessee State University.

Members of the Bristol Bird Club are also automatically members of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. 

“Membership with the Virginia Society of Ornithology requires individuals to join VOS on their own,” he noted.

Current BBC membership rates, including TOS membership, are family, $32; individual, $28; and student (K-12), $15. 

To make a comment, share a sighting or ask a question, email me at


Bryan Stevens has been writing weekly about birds since November of 1995.

Photo Courtesy of Michele Sparks • Getting to know other birds can be a rewarding experience on many levels.

Broad-winged hawks staging for migration

The broad-winged hawk needs a better publicist.

Photo by USFWS • Broad-winged hawks nest in the region during the summer, but these raptors stage massive migration flights every fall to return to their winter range in Central and South America. These hawks are smaller relatives of such raptors as red-tailed hawk and red-shouldered hawk.

Monarch butterflies with their impressive migration flights to reach mountains in Mexico where they will spend the winter and ruby-throated hummingbirds with their twice-a-year non-stop crossings of the Gulf of Mexico have consumed much of the press coverage for long-distance migrants. Even the Arctic tern, a bird most people will never see, has monopolized the phenomenon of migration due to its astounding migratory journeys from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle. That feat, incidentally, equals a 18,641-mile round trip. 

The broad-winged hawk, known scientifically as Buteo platypterus, thrills onlookers every September by staging phenomenal migratory flights that can include hundreds or thousands of individual birds. Outside of birding circles, however, the broad-winged hawk is not nearly as widely known as the monarch butterfly or Eastern North America’s ruby-throated hummingbird.

The genus Buteo includes the broad-winged hawk’s larger kin, including red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, red-shouldered hawk and ferruginous hawk. Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as “buzzards.” When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both types of native vultures as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe such as the common buzzard.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos hawk and the Hawaiian hawk. There’s an endangered sub-species of broad-winged hawk known as the Puerto Rican broad-winged hawk that resides in forests on the island of Puerto Rico. 

Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the white-throated hawk, gray-lined hawk, zone-tailed hawk and short-tailed hawk, as well as long-legged buzzard, jackal buzzard and red-necked buzzard.

The broad-winged hawk is a relatively small hawk, ranging in body length from 13 to 17 inches. As is the case with most raptors, females are larger than males. The broad-winged hawk is a predator, but they prey on relatively small prey, including  insects, amphibians, snakes, crustaceans, rodents and the occasional songbird.

These hawks are extremely vocal during their summer stay in wooded areas across the Eastern United States. It’s their piercing two-part whistled call that often draws the attention of onlookers to the bird’s presence. 

These hawks are already growing restless. In the first days of August, I saw three broad-winged hawks in different locations in the span of a couple of days. Young hawks have left the nest and are gaining a degree of independence. They will soon join their parents for the yearly migration to southern wintering grounds as far south as southern Brazil. 

Some famous places to witness the annual broad-winged hawk migration include Hawk Ridge, Minnesota, and Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. 

Closer to home, birders have gathered every September since 1958 for the Mendota Fire Tower Hawkwatch. The site is located atop Clinch Mountain at an old fire tower near Mendota, Virginia. The site straddles the county line between the Virginia counties of Russell and Washington and reaches an elevation of 3,000 feet.

Even without traveling to a hawkwatch site, it’s not too difficult to see one of these raptors in September. I’ve seen large flocks, or kettles, of broad-winged hawks while birding on Holston mountain near Elizabethton.

All too often, hawks and other raptors don’t receive the love they deserve from the public. They may even run afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem, with each species filling a certain niche.


Stevens has been writing weekly about birds since 1995. To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email 

Black-throated green warbler a success story for New World warbler family

Photo by Howard Walsh/Pixabay • The black-throated green warbler nests in local mountains in coniferous and mixed woodlands during the summer months. Once the nesting season concludes, these warblers wing their way back to wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America, as well as the West Indies and southern Florida.

How can it be August already?

Yes, the pace of summer seems to have quickened. Tomatoes are ripening in the gardens, late summer flowers are blooming, and the birds have pushed their young out of the nest and are teaching them to fend for themselves.

I heard a chip note sound from a mimosa tree in my front yard on the evening of July 26. I scanned the foliage and saw the darting movements of a warbler. Without binoculars, I couldn’t determine the bird’s identity. Fortunately, my binoculars were in my parked car, so retrieving them was easy enough. With binoculars trained on the mimosa tree, I relocated the bird and identified a young black-throated green warbler. The faint black coloration on the bird’s throat pointed to the bird’s young age.

I’m hopeful that the successful nesting represented by the bird’s presence is extended farther into the future. I hope the bird makes its first fall migration without incident, spends the winter in a warmer climate and then returns to Simerly Creek Road in Northeast Tennessee next spring.

I watched as the bird successfully snapped up some caterpillars hidden in the green foliage of the mimosa tree. This young bird had the look of a survivor in my eyes.

Male black-throated green warblers are persistent singers. The website “All About Birds” describes the song, which is a series of buzzy notes, as “trees, trees, I love trees!” For a bird so associated with the treetops, I feel that’s an apt description.

Perhaps a couple of months earlier, the mother of this young black-throated green warbler constructed a nest of twigs, bark and spider silk. She would have carefully lined the nest with hair and moss before laying three to five eggs. She would then have incubated her eggs for 12 days. 

Once the eggs hatched, she and her mate would spend the next 10 to 11 days feeding hungry chicks until the chicks mature enough to leave the nest. Even after departing the nest, the young would remain with the parents for help in gleaning their food of insects and their larvae. 

The black-throated green warbler is a fortunate member of the family of New World warblers. Between 1970 and 2014, according to Partners in Flight, the population of black-throated green warblers actually increased. The group estimates a global population of 8.7 million individuals for the species.

Many of their warbler kin face declining numbers, and even black-throated green warblers face the consequences of habitat destruction on their wintering grounds and in their nesting range throughout the eastern United States. 

A lot of work goes into completing a bird’s journey from egg to young adult. Seeing any bird is a treat. Seeing a young bird through a pair of binoculars brings all that potential up close.

The black-throated green warbler’s closest kin consist of the hermit warbler and Townsend’s warbler of the western United States and the endangered golden-cheeked warbler of Texas. The warblers consist of more 120 different species. 

These small birds lead active, fast-paced lives. They typically don’t enjoy a lengthy life span. The oldest documented black-throated green warbler was a male that reached the age of at least four years and 11 months. He was banded and found in Nova Scotia, according to All About Birds.

We’re about a month out from the flurry of fall migration. I’ll be keeping my binoculars at the ready the closer we get to September.

To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, email me at


Couple shares story about nesting mourning doves

Contributed Photo by Tim Barto • One of the mourning doves nesting atop a porch column at the home of Star and Tim Barton in Telford arrives with a sprig of nesting material held in its beak. Tim’s photo of the dove even impressed the editors at “Smoky Mountain Living.” The magazine published the photo earlier this year.

Star Barto, a resident of Telford in Washington County, contacted me after reading my column on the Eastern phoebes nesting on my  front porch. Incidentally, the phoebes have now successfully fledged their young.

Star began her email by sharing that she and her husband, Tim, have been blessed with mourning doves building their nests on the top of one of their porch columns.  

“This is our fifth year with a ring side seat,” Star wrote. “They usually have two nestings per season that produce two babies each time.”

This year, the birds changed things up and the Bartos are celebrating  a third nest — atop the same porch column.  

“We call it our special version of an Airbnb,” she noted.

At first, the doves would fly each time Star or Tim opened the front door, but the birds gradually grew accustomed to their human landlords.  

Star wrote that their nest is in such a ideal location — safe, dry, under cover, high up — that the doves return year after year and do not doubt the safety of their habitat.  

“We turn off the porch light, of course, and work hard at minimizing disruption,” she wrote.  

“And they thrive,” Star added. “It is beyond thrilling to be able to see so up close and personal the magic of Mother Nature.”

The mourning dove is a common backyard bird across the country. It’s also considered a game bird.

According to the website, All About Birds, the mourning dove is the most widespread and abundant game bird in North America. According to the website, hunters harvest more than 20 million of these birds every year, but the mourning dove remains one of the most abundant birds with a U.S. population estimated at 350 million. The mourning dove also ranges into Canada and Mexico. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A mourning dove stretches a wing while perched on a feeder.

The mourning dove gets its name from its mournful cooing, which has been likened to a lament. Birds are more vocal during the nesting season. 

Former common names for this dove include Carolina pigeon, rain dove and turtle dove. The mourning dove is a member of the dove family, Columbidae, which includes 344 different species worldwide.

From the standpoint of a scientist, there’s no real difference between doves and pigeons. In general, smaller members of the family are known as doves and the larger ones are classified as pigeons, but that’s not a firm rule.

Some of the more descriptively named doves and pigeons include blue-eyed ground dove, purplish-backed quail dove, ochre-bellied dove, red-billed pigeon, emerald-spotted wood dove, pink-necked green pigeon, sombre pigeon, topknot pigeon, white-bellied imperial pigeon, cinnamon ground dove, pheasant pigeon, crested cuckoo-dove and crowned pigeon.

An early illustration of the dodo.

Arguably the most famous dove is the extinct dodo, a bird renowned as being  almost too stupid to live. The dodo almost certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as a “bird brain.” The reason for the bird’s swift extinction after encountering humans can be explained by the fact that this large, flightless dove evolved on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Largely defenseless, the dodo’s fate was sealed from the moment this bird was confronted with new arrivals — humans and affiliated animals such as rats, pigs and cats — at its home.  The results of these first encounters were catastrophic for the species.

The first mention of the three-foot-tall dodo in the historic record occurred in 1598 when Dutch sailors reached Mauritius. By 1662, the bird vanishes from the historic record. The bird disappeared so swiftly that for some time after it was often considered a mythical creature.

Other native doves in the United States include common ground-dove, Inca dove, white-winged dove and Key West quail-dove. The Eurasian collared-dove is an introduced species that has spread rapidly across the country and occurs in Northeast Tennessee. 

Doves are unusual among birds in feeding young a type of milk. Known as “crop milk,” both parents feed young in the nest with this substance produced in the crop, which is simply an enlargement of the bird’s esophagus. The crop is usually used for storage of surplus food, which is usually seeds. 

Young doves are known as squabs, and the crop milk they are fed early in life is rich in antioxidants, fats and proteins, allowing them to thrive and grow quickly. 

To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, please email me at