Arctic tern migratory champion among world’s birds

September’s arrival puts fall migration into overdrive. The birds that returned this past spring — the warblers, vireos, tanagers, grosbeaks, flycatchers and hummingbirds — have begun or are beginning to make their way back to the locations where they will spend the winter months far from the cold, bleak conditions over most of North America.

Photo by Jonathan Cannon/Pixabay.com • The Arctic tern outdoes all other birds when it comes to migration. These seabirds journey from their Arctic nesting grounds to spend the winter around the Antarctic, a journey of some 50,000 miles a year.

Some of these birds migrate out of the tropics to avoid competition. Others find North America a land of abundant, albeit temporary, resources. This land of plenty offers a wealth of insects, seeds, fruit and other nourishing, nutritious food to help parent birds keep their strength while they work to ensure their young thrive. Of course, once the bountiful period concludes, they return to the tropics of Central and South America to winter. Those that do so successfully will make the journey back to the United States and Canada in the spring.

The phenomenon of migration isn’t exclusive to the neotropical migrants of the New World. Birds in other parts of the world migrate, too. Waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors are among some of the families of birds that stage impressive migrations.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female scarlet tanager is a study in contrast from her mate with her dull greenish-yellow plumage being much less vibrant than the male’s bright red and black feathers.

The Arctic tern, for example, truly takes migration to extremes. This small seabird travels each year from its Arctic nesting grounds to the Antarctic region, where it spends the winter months. Put into terms of mileage, the Arctic tern can travel about 50,000 miles in a single year. For a bird with a body length of about 15 inches and a wingspan of about 28 inches, this incredible migration is an astonishing feat. These statistics permit the Arctic tern to easily lay claim to the title of champion migrant among our feathered friends.

According to the website for National Geographic, Arctic terns face a serious threat from climate change. In a profile on the tern at its website, National Geographic warns that Arctic terns are projected to lose 20 to 50 percent of their habitat due to the temperature changes linked to climate change. They also face loss of habitat due to encroachment by human activities such as oil drilling.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, a favorite of many bird enthusiasts living in the eastern United States, makes an impressive migration each year. Just to reach the United States, these tiny birds undertake a strenuous journey. They leave their wintering grounds in Central America to return to the United States and Canada for the nesting season. Most of these tiny birds, which are barely four inches long, make a non-stop flight of more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. The journey can take almost an entire day. With the end of summer, the entire population of ruby-throated hummingbirds, increased by a new generation of young birds, makes the Gulf crossing for a second time in a year to return to the American tropics for the winter months.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird visits a feeder for a sip of sugar water.

Among North America’s buteo hawks, which includes raptors such as red-shouldered hawk and red-tailed hawk, the broad-winged hawk stands out as a dedicated migrant. These hawks form flocks that at times number in the hundreds or thousands as they sail and glide on thermals rising over various mountain ranges. These hawks and other raptors are well-known in the region for migrating past the Mendota Fire Tower in Southwest Virginia every September and early October.

The broad-winged hawk’s counterpart in the western United States is Swainson’s hawk, which shares the broad-winged hawk’s inclination for migrating in large flocks. Swainson’s hawk is named for William John Swainson, the famous 19th century English naturalist for which Swainson’s thrush is also named.

The hooded warbler, my favorite member of the migratory New World warblers, migrates back to Mexico and Central America for the winter months after nesting during the spring and summer in a range concentrated in the southeastern United States. The males, after going quiet in late summer, have started singing on occasion from the shaded woods around my house. I think this has more to do with restlessness as they prepare for to depart on a migration flight that will take them to the balmy Caribbean, Mexico and Central America while we shiver through the months between October and April. It’s not a migration of an incredible distance, but it’s still quite an accomplishment for a bird only five inches long and weighing less than half an ounce.

Photo by Jean Potter • A male hooded warbler flits through the foliage of a rhododendron thicket.

Fall’s a great time to witness the variety of avian life. Look for some of these migrants passing through your yards, gardens or favorite birding spots.

 

 

 

Green herons, one of the smaller wading birds, often overlooked as they lurk near water’s edge

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron elevates a shaggy crest of feathers, a behavior often initiated when the bird feels alarmed.

Byron Tucker and Ricky Dunklin, friends from Atlanta, contacted me on Facebook to ask if I could help identify a bird they had photographed during a trip to Sunset Beach in North Carolina in early August. When I saw the photographs I recognized that the visitor to a small dock at their vacation spot was a green heron.

Photo Contributed by Byron Tucker/Ricky Dunklin • A Green Heron visits a dock at Sunset Beach in North Carolina.

Green herons are not restricted to coastal areas, but it was still somewhat unexpected when I stepped onto my front porch on Aug. 19 and saw a green heron flying at treetop level. I suspect the bird had been perched in one of the tall trees on the ridge behind my house. The slamming of my front door probably spooked the bird into flight.

Green herons and other wading birds are usually quite abundant in wetlands across the country in late summer. The scientific name — Butorides virescens – of this bird comes from a mix of Middle English and Ancient Greek and roughly translates as “greenish bittern.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron grasps a perch overlooking a small creek in Erwin, Tennessee.

There are only two other species in the genus Butorides — the lava heron, which occurs on some of the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, and the striated heron, which is found in wetlands throughout the Old World tropics from West Africa to Japan and Australia. This heron, which is also known as the mangrove heron, also occurs in South America.

The green in the bird’s plumage appears as a dark green cap, as well as a greenish back and wings. Adult birds also have chestnut-colored neck feathers and a line of white feathers along the throat and belly. These herons often assume a hunched position, which can make them look smaller than they actually are.

It’s been a good summer for wading birds. In addition to the green heron, a great blue heron has been lurking in the creek in front of my home and at my fish pond. Much larger than the green heron, the great blue heron has not escaped the notice of a local flock of American crows. The crows harass the heron whenever the larger bird takes flight.

On the first day of August, I stopped with my mom at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. We were treated with an observation of a great egret fishing along the edges of the pond. Egrets and herons are known for wandering outside their normal range in late summer after the nesting season has concluded.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Green Heron rests at the edge of a pond.

Keep alert when walking along the trails in Erwin, Tennessee, and you may catch sight of one of these interesting herons or egrets, too. The edges of the fish pond at Erwin Fishery Park is also a reliable haunt for green herons. Farm ponds in the countryside around Jonesborough, Tennessee, as well as wetland habitat around the town’s Persimmon Ridge Park, are also good places to look for this small heron. The wetlands at Sugar Hollow Park in Bristol, Virginia, is another dependable location for seeing this small heron. Most green herons will depart in late September and early October. This small heron retreats from the United States during the winter season but will return next spring in April and May.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Green herons are short, stocky herons that can assume some comical poses.

The green heron’s range during the nesting season includes Canada and much of the United States. Green herons will sometimes form loose nesting colonies, but at other times a pair will choose a secluded location as a nest site. The female will usually lay from three to five eggs. Snakes, raccoons and other birds such as crows and grackles are potential threats to eggs.

For the most part, the population migrates to Central and South America for the winter months. A few herons — great blue heron and black-crowned night heron — remain in the region throughout the year, even enduring the cold winter months in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

These herons are probably more common than we realize. They are skilled at blending with their surroundings, but sharp eyes can find these herons around almost any body of water, whether it is pond, marsh, river, creek or lake.

They usually depart the region in October, so the remaining days of August and September provide opportunities to observe both resident green herons and their migrating kin.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron finesses a captured tadpole in its bill.

Kingbird sightings signal start of fall migration

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern kingbird perches on a branch overlooking a pond.

From almost daily thunderstorms to earthquakes, August of 2020 is shaping up as a memorable month. In addition, there’s more evidence each day that the birds are restless and ready to begin the annual fall migration. For the first time in nearly 20 years, some Eastern kingbirds made a visit to my yard on Aug. 5. The Eastern kingbird’s not a rare bird, but except for one previous occasion, this flycatcher has studiously avoided my yard since a long-ago sighting.

Four days after I spotted the kingbirds at my home, I counted six Eastern kingbirds while visiting the historic Bell Cemetery in the Limestone Cove community of Unicoi County. The birds included both adults and young individuals, which suggests this loose group of kingbirds was traveling as a social family flock.

We’re fortunate to have many brightly colored birds make their home in the region, offering us, for a few months, a glimpse of what life might look like in the tropical rain forests of Central and South America. Some of the more colorful birds that spend time in local forests and visit our gardens and yards include scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and indigo buntings.

Photon by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern kingbird uses a fence rail as a perch on the campus of East Tennessee State University.

Not every tropical migrant spending the summer, however, sports feathers of such bright hues as red, orange and blue. In fact, one large family of birds includes some downright “Plain Jane” species. The most widespread family of neotropical migrants is known as the “tyrant flycatchers,” which comprises a grouping of more than 400 species that is considered the world’s largest family of birds in the world. The Eastern kingbird is one of several members of this extensive family grouped with a cluster of birds known as “kingbirds.” Other kingbirds include the snowy-throated kingbird of Colombia, Peru and Ecuador, as well as the tropical kingbird, which is found in Central and South America but wanders on occasion into southern Arizona and the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. In the United States, the Eastern kingbird has a counterpart in the western half of the nation. That bird, not surprisingly, is known as the western kingbird. Other kingbirds include white-throated kingbird, Couch’s kingbird, Cassin’s kingbird and thick-billed kingbird.

What’s a king without a crown? The Eastern kingbird does possess a crown patch of red feathers, but this colorful spot on an otherwise black and white bird is rarely in a position to be easily observed. I’ve only observed the crown on a handful of occasions while birding in the field. The kingbird uses the red patch of feathers, though, as a visible expression of aggression when dealing with other birds.

The tyrant flycatchers have earned this descriptive moniker because of the behavior of some species that instills a fearlessness in them all out of proportion to their size. The Eastern kingbird is famous for attacking much larger birds, such as American crows, common ravens and even red-tailed hawks that venture too close to their nests. I’ve observed many an Eastern kingbird appear to actually land on the back of a hawk, probably to pluck at the larger bird’s feathers as it “persuades” its larger opponent to move outside of its claimed territory.

Our region is home to one flycatcher species — the Eastern phoebe — that is a year-round resident. All the other flycatchers known in the region, including the kingbird, are temporary residents, migrating to the region each spring and departing again in the fall for a winter stay in the American tropics. Other migratory flycatchers include Eastern wood-pewee, Acadian flycatcher, alder flycatcher, willow flycatcher and least flycatcher. Most of these birds have plumages in very basic patterns and hues of black, white and brown.

By and large, the flycatchers are not going to gain attention thanks to colorful feathers or beautiful songs. Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule. The vermilion flycatcher, at least the male, is a bright red bird with contrasting brown feathers in its plumage. It is named for vermilion, a bright, scarlet-red pigment. Its range in the southwestern United States, unfortunately, does not bring it close to East Tennessee, western North Carolina, or southwestern Virginia.

Kingbirds prefer open habitats, such as fields and pastures. While raising their young during the hot summer months, Eastern kingbirds feed mostly on insects. On its wintering territory in the tropics, however, kingbirds feed mostly on fruit.

The Eastern kingbird doesn’t have a melodic song, but it does have a call that sound like an electric zap. So, like the Eastern phoebe’s strident “fee-bee” notes and the great crested flycatcher’s loud “weep” calls, the kingbird is not among the more melodic songbirds. Regardless, we owe all flycatchers a debt. Because of their fondness for insects, they do us a great service helping to keeping down the numbers of some of the more pesky bugs.

Hummingbirds complete another nesting season before starting south on annual fall migration

Photo by Katy Jefferson/Pixabay.com • A ruby-throated hummingbird sips sugar water at a feeder. During migration, blooming flowers and sugar water feeders are valuable sources of quick energy for these tiny flying gems.

Mildred Wright of Fall Branch, Tennessee, recently shared a story through Facebook about a nesting hummingbird in her yard.

In this photo provided by Mildred Wright, the young hummingbirds can be glimpsed in their nest.

“I discovered this hummingbird nest in a tree in my front yard,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “I have watched mom take excellent care of her babies through some really rough weather.”

She explained that she found the nest on June 8 and has observed as the female hummingbird incubated her eggs and then raised her two hatchlings.

Interestingly, there are a few simple reasons it’s always two eggs for hummingbirds. First, the nest is so small — about the size of a walnut half-shell — that there is barely room for two eggs, let alone more. Second, once the young hatch, the nest has just enough room to accommodate them as they grow, fed well by their mother. Third, feeding two hungry young hummingbirds is a demanding task. A female hummingbird has to find enough food to fuel her own body and help her young in the nest grow and thrive. It’s a full-time job during the daylight hours. She’s pressed hard to succeed at raising two young. Attempting to care for more would most likely prove impossible.

In this photo provided by Mildred Wright, two eggs are shown snug inside the female ruby-throated hummingbird’s nest.

Now that many female hummingbirds are finishing up the task of bringing forth a new generation of hummingbirds, the leisurely fall migration can begin. Hummingbirds are not as frantic about moving south in the fall as they are single-minded about heading north every spring. Numbers of these birds always reach a peak in late summer and early fall at my home, and this year’s shaping up to be a repeat of past ones.

Hummingbird species number around 340, making the family second in species only to the tyrant flycatchers in sheer size. Both of these families consist of birds exclusive to the New World.

With so many hummingbird species, people have been hard pressed to give descriptive names to all these tiny gems. Some of the dazzling array of names include little hermit, hook-billed hermit, fiery topaz, sooty barbthroat, white-throated daggerbill, hyacinth visorbearer, sparkling violetear, horned sungem, black-eared fairy, white-tailed goldenthroat, green mango, green-throated carib, amethyst-throated sunangel, green-backed firecrown, wire-crested thorntail, festive coquette, bronze-tailed comet, black-breasted hillstar, black-tailed trainbearer, blue-mantled thornbill, bearded mountaineer, colorful puffleg, marvelous spatuletail, bronzy inca, rainbow starfrontlet, velvet-purple coronet, pink-throated brilliant, coppery emerald, snowcap, golden-tailed sapphire and violet-bellied hummingbird.

Photo by Peggy_Marco/Pixabay.com • The “Doctor Bird,” which is also known as the swallow-tailed hummingbird, resides only on Jamaica.

Our own hummingbird, which we can claim from April through October every year, is the ruby-throated hummingbird. Ruby-throats are remarkable birds that nest throughout the eastern United States as well as southern Canada. In winter, most ruby-throats withdraw to Central America and Mexico, although a few winter in Florida. They are famous for the amazing feat of crossing the Gulf of Mexico twice each year as they travel to their nesting grounds and then back to their overwintering homes.

Photo by BarbeeAnne/Pixabay.com • The bee hummingbird of Cuba is the smallest bird in the world.

The next generation of hummingbirds always helps swell the number of these tiny birds in our yards in late summer and early fall. It’s our duty as host to keep them safe as they stop in our yards and gardens during their fall migration. Many of the hummingbirds in the fall will be making their first migration, so they will need all the help we can provide to make a successful journey.

Perhaps consider enhancing your plantings of summer flowers while also continuing to offer multiple sugar water feeders. Keep the sugar water mix at a four parts water to one part sugar ratio. Don’t offer honey in your feeders. When mixed with water, it can spoil and spread fungal diseases. Remember that hummingbirds don’t subsist on sugar water alone. They also eat numerous tiny insects and spiders to obtain the protein they need for their dietary needs, so don’t use insecticides near feeders or flowers that hummers are likely to visit.

So, until October frosts eventually drive them out of the region, enjoy the ruby-throated hummingbirds while you can.

Photo by Geschenkpanda/Pixabay.com • The buff-bellied coronet is a hummingbird native to Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Belted kingfisher and its kin successful at fishing, much more

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • A female belted kingfisher returns to a perch after a successful catch.

A belted kingfisher has visited the fish pond quite frequently throughout this summer. The bird’s arrival is usually heralded by its hoarse, rattling call. The bird is rather shy, so any observation usually has to be done with some degree of stealth.

Belted kingfisher

I know fishing is a favorite pastime for many people. In these times of social distancing, there’s probably nothing better for some people to do than to spend a lazy summer afternoon baiting a hook and trying their luck at their favorite fishing spot. While doing so, they have probably encountered the angling counterpart among our feathered friends. The belted kingfisher’s nature as an angler rules out this bird visiting feeders in the backyard, but that doesn’t mean one is unlikely to see this bird. With a little strategic effort, a glimpse of a belted kingfisher is fairly easy to obtain, especially during the summer months. Any stream, pond, river or other body of water increases the chances of observing this fascinating bird.

The belted kingfisher prefers to perch on an exposed branch or a wire that overlooks a body of water that offers ample fishing opportunities. The belted kingfisher, however, is capable of hovering in place in order to spot and then capture its prey in an impressive plunge and lunge into the water.

Most of my observations of hunting kingfishers have involved the birds in their ambush approach to fishing — perching and diving on the unsuspecting fish. I have on a few occasions also observed kingfishers as they hover over the water in a quest for a meal.

The belted kingfisher, like most of its kin, looks to have a head and bill that are slightly too large for the rest of the body. It’s the long, heavy bill that the belted kingfisher uses to snatch fish from their watery homes.

The term “belted” refers to bands of feathers across the bird’s belly. Female belted kingfishers sport bands of rusty-red and blue feathers, while males are limited to a blue belt across the upper breast. Female belted kingfishers are an exception to the rule that most male birds are more vividly colored than their female companions.

A walnut tree with some dead branches overlooking my family’s fish pond is a favorite perching site for visiting belted kingfishers. A few become become regular visitors almost every spring and summer. In past years, I’ve been delighted by pairs of kingfishers that have brought as many as six of their offspring to hunt around the edges of the pond and creek near my home.

When a belted kingfisher does manage to capture a fish — not always a certainty, despite their great skill — the bird will usually fly to a perch where they will beat the fish unconscious before swallowing it. I remember one particular kingfisher that liked to catch fish in the creek and then fly to the corner of the metal garage roof where the bird proceeded to beat senseless the unlucky fish.

Photo by Pixabay.com • The pied kingfisher is a common member of the kingfisher family that ranges throughout Europe.

While the belted kingfisher is the only one of its kind in the eastern United States, the kingfishers are a large family of birds found around the globe. Worldwide, there are about 90 species of kingfishers that range in size from the 16-inch-long laughing kookaburra of Australia to the tiny African dwarf kingfisher, which at four inches in length is smaller than most sparrows. This family of birds is divided into three groupings: the river kingfishers, the tree kingfishers and the water kingfishers.

Despite the name “kingfisher,” not all kingfishers exist on a diet of fish. Some members of the kingfisher family instead prey on other quarry, such as snakes, lizards and insects.

Some of the varied names for members of this far-flung family of birds include moustached kingfisher, malachite kingfisher, shining-blue kingfisher, azure kingfisher, hook-billed kingfisher, little kingfisher, banded kingfisher, red-breasted paradise kingfisher, lilac kingfisher, glittering kingfisher, great-billed kingfisher, chocolate-backed kingfisher, ultramarine kingfisher, chattering kingfisher and yellow-billed kingfisher.

Photo by WelshPixie/Pixabay.com • The malachite kingfisher is a river kingfisher widely distributed in Africa south of the Sahara.

The family also consists of a group of related birds from Australia and New Guinea known as kookaburras, which includes blue-winged kookaburra, spangled kookaburra, rufous-bellied kookaburra, and the well-known laughing kookaburra. Hollywood often dubs the raucous calls of kookaburras into the background soundscapes of movies and shows with tropical themes.

Photo by Magee/Pixabay.com • The raucous calls of the kookaburra, an Australian kingfisher, are often incorporated into the background of jungle scenes in Hollywood movies.

There’s nothing quite so disappointing as coming home empty-handed after a day of fishing. Belted kingfishers rarely suffer that disappointment. Although not successful in every attempt, the belted kingfisher is certainly exceptional in its pursuit of fish. According to John Eastman in his book, “Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh,” the belted kingfisher typically captures about 10 fish per day. That’s a feat that many human anglers might envy.

 

Many pint-sized birds pack plenty of pugnacious attitude

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male red-winged blackbird perches in an alert stance, ready to curb intrusions by other birds into his territory.

A trio of American crows (I’m not sure if a mere three individuals represent a murder of crows) flew past my porch on a recent morning. They were immediately bombarded by the resident male red-winged blackbird. The blackbird dove onto the back of the first crow, then doubled back and attacked the second crow. The third crow, perhaps seeing what happened to the others, perched and cawed for a couple of moments. Mistakenly thinking the coast now clear, the third crow set out to join its companions. The blackbird immediately attacked again, just as ferociously as in the previous two incidents.

Since arriving in April, the red-winged blackbirds have ruled the roost around the cattail-bordered fish pond. At the start of the nesting season, they even swooped at me when I got too close before we eventually settled into an uneasy truce. At home and at other locations, I have watched these blackbird attack everything from turkey vultures and great blue herons to white-tailed deer and cats.

Simply put, red-winged blackbird brook no interlopers. The observations of the blackbird with the crows got me to thinking of other birds known for their pugnacious natures. In no particular order, here are some bantam weight candidates for the title of “Most Pugnacious Bird.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The scientific name of the Eastern kingbird is Tyranus tyranus, a good indicator of this bird’s haughty attitude toward other birds.

Eastern kingbird

The Eastern kingbird, a member of a large family of birds known as “tyrant flycatchers,” is famous for displaying an outsized attitude toward larger birds. The scientific name for this bird is Tyrannus tyrannus, which succinctly summarizes the kingbird’s belligerent attitude toward other birds. Mated pairs of kingbirds work together to drive intruders out of their territory. Kingbirds will launch themselves into battle against much larger foes, including red-tailed hawks, American crows and blue jays. Crows and jays are well-known for robbing the nests of other birds, so the aggression of kingbirds for these corvids is quite justified.

Photo by AdrianKirby/Pixabay.com • The merlin is a pint-sized falcon with plenty of feisty spirit. These raptors do not hesitate to duel with birds many times their size.

Merlin

Merlins have a reputation for being pint-sized punks among raptors. The merlin is a member of the falcon family, which also includes birds like the American kestrel and peregrine falcon. I once saw a merlin harassing a turkey vulture, diving on the much larger but less agile bird until the vulture finally veered in another direction. This observation reinforces the merlin’s reputation for aggressively meeting incursions into its territory by other raptors. The merlin has long been associated with the forests of North America and Eurasia, but in recent decades it has proven capable of adapting to life in urban landscapes.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue-gray gnatcatchers are noisy and, quite often, quarrelsome birds that don’t let their small size get in the way of attempting to intimidate other birds.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are noisy, scolding songbirds at the best of times. They are also determined to protect their nesting territories at all costs and will attack much larger birds. They don’t hesitate to call for reinforcements when warranted. They will drum up a brigade of feisty, feathered fighters to repel intrusions by potential predators too large for a gnatcatcher and its mate to handle on their own. In North America, the gnatcatcher ranks in size with birds like kinglets and hummingbirds. Despite its diminutive status, the gnatcatcher acknowledges no superiors.

Photo by BlenderTimer/Pixabay.com • In a family of rather insufferable bullies, the rufous hummingbird stands out as particularly pugnacious.

Rufous hummingbird

In a family known for cantankerous behavior, one hummingbird stands out. In North America, the rufous hummingbird has a reputation for having a bad temper. These tiny birds with huge metabolisms must compete fiercely for resources, but they often appear go out of their way to attack other hummingbirds. The rufous hummingbird ranges along North America’s Pacific Coast and the Rockies as far north as Alaska and western Canada. A migration quirk occasionally brings these hummingbirds to Northeast Tennessee during fall and early winter.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern mockingbird is zealous in defending its territory from other mockingbirds or any other intruders, including humans, cats, dogs, snakes and almost any other real or imagined threat.

Northern mockingbird

I’m not sure every person who has had a Northern mockingbird nest in their yard or garden would describe the experience as a pleasant one. It’s not without cause that the mockingbird is often described as ruthless, aggressive and pugnacious in defense of its nest and young. These birds don’t hesitate to attack humans or their pets, such as cats and dogs, if any wander too far into their territory. In fact, mockingbirds appear to take positive glee in forcing intruders to flee. Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon captured a dramatic moment when he painted a pair of mockingbirds defending its nest from a rattlesnake. The painting is also an early example of the ties between humans and mockingbirds. The nest is located in a hanging basket of yellow flowers. Even during Audubon’s time, mockingbirds had quietly adjusted to human activity and had deigned to allow us into their daily lives. It’s just best not to step out of line. Mockingbirds have ways of dealing with pushy people.

 

Gray catbird noisy visitor, but not one of region’s more showy birds

Gray

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay.com • A gray catbird visits a backyard bird bath for a drink.

Thomas A. Kidd contacted me in late June with a comment about one of my favorite summer birds. “I have lived in the City of Columbia, Tennessee, for 37 years and until this spring and early summer I had never seen the Gray Catbird,” he wrote. “They are very pretty birds that I enjoy watching from my kitchen window at the bird bath.”

Catbirds are experts at concealing themselves from prying eyes. The gray plumage blends into the shadowy sections of the tangles and thickets where the bird likes to hide itself. However, even when gray catbirds are reluctant to be seen, they’re almost eager to be heard. The catbird is extremely vocal with several calls and songs in its repertoire, including the rather faithful rendering of a fussy cat’s meow that provides this bird its common name.

They’re part of a family related to thrushes that are known as “mimic thrushes.” Besides its surprisingly accurate rendition of a feline, the catbird has several other common vocalizations. Despite their shy nature, they’re extremely curious. Imitating their calls or simply producing a squeaky sound will usually persuade the bird to move out of cover and search for the source of the noise.

Catbirds are part of the parade of returning birds each spring that includes species like rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, but because they lack the brilliant plumages of these other birds their arrival would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact they are extremely noisy for the first few weeks they are back. Then they go silent again and remain quieter as they take up the serious business of raising young.

Catbirds are experts at concealing themselves from prying eyes. The gray plumage blends into the shadowy sections of the tangles and thickets where the bird likes to hide itself. However, even when gray catbirds are reluctant to be seen, they’re almost eager to be heard. The catbird is extremely vocal, with several calls and songs in its repertoire, including the rather faithful rendering of a fussy cat’s meow that provides this bird its common name.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A curious Gray Catbird peeks from dense cover. Attendees at the fall rally can look for catbirds and other species at any of the offered bird hikes.

They’re part of a family related to thrushes that are known as “mimic thrushes.” Besides its surprisingly accurate rendition of a feline, the catbird has several other common vocalizations. Despite their shy nature, they’re extremely curious. Imitating their calls or simply producing a squeaky sound will usually persuade the bird to move out of cover and search for the source of the noise.

Catbirds are part of the parade of returning birds each spring that includes species like rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, but because they lack the brilliant plumages of these other birds their arrival would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact they are extremely noisy for the first few weeks they are back. Then they go silent again and remain quieter as they take up the serious business of raising young.

They are related to thrashers and mockingbirds, but scientists find them just different enough to warrant placing the gray catbird in its own genus. A relative known as the black catbird, which ranges throughout the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico as well as northern Guatemala and northern Belize, also belongs to a genus of its own. Both catbirds are classified as “mimic thrushes,” or Mimidae, of which there are about 30 species in the New World. There is a totally unrelated family of catbirds that ranges through Australia, Asia and parts of Africa. Some of these birds include the ochre-breasted catbird, tooth-billed catbird and spotted catbird.

The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. Nevertheless, experts have documented that the gray catbird can produce more than 100 different sounds. Males have motivation to constantly expand their repertoire, however, as doing so increases the likelihood of attracting a mate. They imitate other birds, but some have been recorded imitating frogs and other non-avian singers.

While not generally considered a bird to visit feeders, people have succeeded in attracting catbirds to feeders designed to offer grape jelly or orange slices. Planting fruit-bearing shrubs and trees is the best means of attracting these fascinating birds to your yard and garden. It’s also best not to clear away brush and tangles from your yard if you wish to attract catbirds. These are shy birds and will avoid areas that are too open and spacious. 

 

Unicoi County’s Summer Bird Count finds 110 species

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A trio of Northern Rough-winged Swallows perch on a branch. A total of 39 of these swallows were found on the seventh annual Unicoi County Summer Bird Count.

For the past seven summers, the members of the Elizabethton Bird Club have conducted a Summer Bird Count for Unicoi County.

The seventh annual survey of Unicoi County’s bird life was made more memorable due to the fact it was conducted during a global pandemic with counters practicing social distancing protocols. The Unicoi County Summer Count was held on Saturday, June 6, with 26 observers in 10 parties. The weather was favorable with a temperature range between 62 and 82, mostly to partly cloudy skies, and little wind.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Song Sparrow brings a beakful of caterpillars back to the nest to feed young.

 Counters tallied 110 species, which is near the six-year average of 109. Total species for this count has ranged from 104 to 112 species. Participants included Joe McGuiness, Vern Maddux, Kim Stroud, Dave Gardner, Don Holt, Dianne Draper, Debi and J.G. Campbell, Bryan Stevens, Brookie and Jean Potter, Eric Middlemas, Ken Rea, Roy Knispel, Jerry Bevins, Michele Sparks, Tammy Griffey, Jim Anderson, Pete Range, Harry Lee Farthing, Tom McNeil, Cathy McNeil, Fred Alsop, Catherine Cummins, Larry McDaniel and long-time count compiler Rick Knight. 

The bird found in most abundance was the European Starling with 536 individuals counted. Other common birds included Red-eyed Vireo (226) and Song Sparrow (245). A few birds went undetected, including Great Horned Owl.

This annual count covers territory such as Unaka Mountain, the Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park, Limestone Cove, the Erwin Linear Trail, and much more. Unicoi County offers many natural treasures, not the least of which being the varied and interesting birds that reside within its borders.

 The List:

 Canada Goose, 54; Wood Duck, 23; Mallard, 42; Ruffed Grouse, 3; Wild Turkey, 5; Great Blue Heron, 5; and Green Heron, 4.

Black Vulture, 6; Turkey Vulture, 45; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Broad-winged Hawk, 6; and Red-tailed Hawk, 9.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • The Cooper’s hawk, like this individual, is a larger relative of the sharp-shinned hawk. It’s larger size allows this raptor to prey on larger birds, such as mourning doves.

Killdeer, 14; Rock Pigeon, 111; Mourning Dove, 152; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 6; Eastern Screech-Owl, 3; Barred Owl, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 5; and Eastern Whip-poor-will, 9.

Chimney Swift, 45; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 8; Belted Kingfisher, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 33; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 14; Hairy Woodpecker, 2; Northern Flicker, 13; and Pileated Woodpecker, 26.

American Kestrel,1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 13; Acadian Flycatcher, 56; Least Flycatcher, 6; Eastern Phoebe, 81; Great Crested Flycatcher, 2; and Eastern Kingbird, 11.

White-eyed Vireo, 2; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 35; Warbling Vireo, 3; Red-eyed Vireo, 226; Blue Jay, 108; American Crow, 122; and Common Raven, 8.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 39; Purple Martin, 30; Tree Swallow, 65; Barn Swallow, 79; and Cliff Swallow, 106.

Carolina Chickadee, 102; Tufted Titmouse; 100; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 17; Brown Creeper, 4; House Wren, 54; Winter Wren, 1; Carolina Wren, 146; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 15; and Golden-crowned Kinglet, 12.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The male Eastern Bluebird is beloved by many bird enthusiasts.

Eastern Bluebird, 94; Veery, 15; Hermit Thrush, 3; Wood Thrush, 57; American Robin, 397; Gray Catbird, 27; Brown Thrasher, 24; Northern Mockingbird, 48; European Starling, 536; and Cedar Waxwing, 48.

Ovenbird, 63; Worm-eating Warbler, 40; Louisiana Waterthrush, 14; Black-and-white Warbler, 34; Swainson’s Warbler, 3; Common Yellowthroat, 3; Hooded Warbler, 64; American Redstart, 8; Northern Parula, 39; Magnolia Warbler, 1; Blackburnian Warbler, 3; Yellow Warbler, 9; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 32; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 29; Pine Warbler, 5; Yellow-throated Warbler, 30; Prairie Warbler, 4; Black-throated Green Warbler, 52; Canada Warbler, 6; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 2.

Eastern Towhee, 80; Chipping Sparrow, 68; Field Sparrow,  21; Song Sparrow, 245; Dark-eyed Junco,  33; Scarlet Tanager, 33; Northern Cardinal, 163; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 6; Blue Grosbeak, 4; and Indigo Bunting, 131.

Red-winged Blackbird, 71; Eastern Meadowlark, 15; Common Grackle, 156; Brown-headed Cowbird, 23; Orchard Oriole, 6; Baltimore Oriole, 2; House Finch, 70; Red Crossbill, 1; American Goldfinch, 110; and House Sparrow,  33.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American goldfinch visits a feeder for a meal of thistle seeds.

Indigo buntings among summer’s most welcome birds

Photo by HeronWorks/Pixabay.com • An indigo bunting feeds on millet seeds at a backyard feeder. These dazzling blue birds are a common summer visitors in Northeast Tennessee.

It’s been a wet summer so far, and a verdant hue has been the rule as trees and other plants seem to be thriving. The green canopy of trees around my home offers concealment for hidden singers, including red-eyed vireos, wood thrushes, and indigo buntings. Those last ones have been a source of some frustration. I have heard a male indigo bunting singing persistently on a daily basis all last month, but glimpsing him in the green foliage has been a challenge.

Two recent summer bird counts have also emphasized some of the more commonplace birds in the region. While American robins and European starlings were extremely abundant, these two birds are permanent residents and are present year-round. A few other summer songbirds also helped swell the ranks of some of the seasonally common birds. For instance, the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count found a total of 131 indigo buntings, while the Carter County Summer Bird Count tallied 105 of these little blue beauties. Both of these Northeast Tennessee surveys are conducted by members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Neotropical migrants, such as this indigo bunting, provide some vibrant color during the hot summer months.

Buntings like to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer. One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird and a stunning yellow and black bird sharing perches atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings and American goldfinches — return year after year to my yard and gardens.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This male’s indigo bunting’s plumage is beginning to look somewhat worn in late summer.

These birds usually arrive in the region in late April and I’ve seen them in late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September. Male indigo buntings are persistent singers, and in the past couple of weeks one very enthusiastic male has been singing even during the hottest hours of recent July afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees. They are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

The indigo bunting is the only solid blue bird in the eastern United States. It’s all an illusion, however. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue; the male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of refraction. This process absorbs all but blue light, which explains why the indigo bunting appears blue. In bright light, it can even look unnaturally vivid blue. In poor light, however, an indigo bunting male can appear black. Fortunately, indigo buntings have both a characteristic body shape and song, so even if the birds are not seen at their best, they can still be recognized.

Like many species of songbirds, the male is by far the most colorful. In this instance, the male is also responsible for the species’ name. Indigo is a blue dye that was once an important crop in the South. The drab female may boast some blue highlights in her plumage. Juvenile birds just out of the nest also resemble the female. Pay close attention to any indigo buntings you observe as summer progresses. Juvenile birds will look mostly brown with just a hint of blue in the wings and the tail. These will be the young buntings that were hatched this spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders, where they are extremely fond of millet seed. I like to have some feeders stocked with millet when the buntings begin to return each spring. They will also feed on thistle and sunflower seeds. Away from our feeders, they also devour plenty of seeds from various noxious weeds. Because of the indigo bunting’s appetite for the seeds of destructive weeds, it is considered a very beneficial bird. Tangible value and exceptional beauty — that’s not a bad combination for such a tiny bird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although bright blue, a male indigo bunting will often blend with its surroundings.

Woman documents special relationship with pine warblers in photographs

Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Pine warblers Petey and Petunia take mealworms from a waiting hand. These two warblers have learned to trust Rebecca “Becky” Boyd in order to get a quick meal.

For Becky Boyd, the ongoing pandemic has provided an unexpected opportunity to get to know some of her resident birds on a more personal basis. She has even won the trust of some of her backyard birds, succeeding at persuading them to take food right from her hands. She has posted photographs of some of these up close and personal engagements with birds to her Facebook page, where I first began to look with awe at her success.

Boyd, who resides in Knoxville, Tennessee, discussed some of her incredible stories involving some of her own feathered friends. “First, I feel like I should explain my bird-feeding station,” she said. “My bedroom window is on the second story, adjacent to a deck.”

She noted that there is a flower box under the window that she placed a board across so that she could set food containers right outside the window. “I also have a mealworm feeder hanging from a swing arm near this window,” Becky said.

She removed the screen covering the window so that she could pull the window open to take pictures up close. “This window is next to my home office work desk, where I sit every day during the COVID pandemic while working from home,” Becky continued. “The birds have become accustomed to seeing me at the window, and the first bird that I was able to feed by hand was a ruby-throated hummingbird.”

The process didn’t take all that much effort. “I got one of those little ‘button’ feeders’ that I held out the window next to the regular feeder,” she explained. “After a half dozen attempts, it worked!”

She added that she was even able to take a video of the experience.

Boyd also spoke about her relationship with the Eastern bluebirds living in her yard. “I have a bonded pair of bluebirds that live in my yard year round, and produce three broods of babies every year,” she said. “During time periods when natural food is scarce and when they are raising offspring, I provide live mealworms in addition to dried mealworms.”

She also has a section of a tree limb with recessed holes in which she spreads Wild Birds Unlimited’s Bark Butter (a specially formulated suet) onto. The limb hangs from a hook outside the same window.

Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Petey the pine warbler grabs a mealworm from a waiting hand. Petey’s trust eventually helped introduce his mate, Petunia, to the concept of a “free lunch” at the Knoxville home of Rebecca Boyd.

Most birding enthusiasts know that bluebirds and hummingbirds are among the most trusting of birds in regard to people, but Becky has enjoyed success with some species that are usually more aloof. For instance, the limb with the “bark butter” attracted the notice of a male pine warbler earlier this year.

“Sometimes when I would spread new butter on the stick, he would flutter around close by, being impatient to get something to eat,” she explained. “A few times he landed on my hand or arm during the process.”

Then the warbler discovered the little white dish that Becky keeps filled with live mealworms intended for the bluebirds. “At first, I would reach out to take the bowl away,” she said. “Live worms are sort of expensive.”

But the persistent warbler, who she named Petey, started landing on the lip of the bowl while she held it in her hand to protect the mealworms for the bluebirds.

“Once he associated that white bowl with yummy live worms, he started watching from a nearby tree for me to open the window to put out worms,” Becky said. “He would fly over immediately to grab some.”

His forward nature inspired her to conduct an experiment.

“Often, he would helicopter over the bowl in my hand with impatience, so I tried keeping the bowl in my hand instead of setting it on the ledge,” Becky continued. “He adapted right away, and before long his mate, Petunia, started copying his behavior.”

Becky expanded the experiment. “Within a week or so, I decided to try just putting the worms in the palm of my hand instead of in the bowl,” she said. “Petey adapted right away, but Petunia was a bit more reluctant.”

Becky noted with pride that Petey will perch on her hand for quite a while to gobble up some worms for himself. He will then grab a few in his beak to take back to the nest for their offspring.

“Petunia is more tentative and strategic, and will typically land just long enough to grab a few worms,” Becky said. “I’ve noticed that oftentimes they will take their worms and squish them into the bark butter or dunk them in the birdbath before taking them back to the nest. I wonder if that makes the worms stop wiggling to make it easier for the babies to eat them.”

Becky assumed that the warblers would only eat from her hand stuck out through the window opening, but one day she was sitting in a lawn chair in her back yard.

Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Pine warbler Petey ducks his beak into a bowl of mealworms for a quick snack.

“Petey found me and started fluttering around looking for food,” she recalled. “He followed me back to the house and waited on the deck ledge for me to fetch him some worms.”

He has become quite insistent. “When I would sit on the deck to read or watch the birds, he would land on the table and trill at me with a loud, shrill song until I met his requirements,” Becky said.

Now, when she is sitting at her desk working, Petey often gets her attention by pecking on the window to let her know he’s there and waiting for worms.

“So, I keep a cup with some worms next to the window so I can quickly slide the window open and shake a few into my hand to offer him,” Becky said. “Once the first brood of fledglings started coming to the window, they chose to only eat the bark butter instead of gravitating to the mealworm feeder.”

Becky added that the fledglings have moved on now, and Petey and Petunia are working on their second brood.

Becky has some aspirations about other resident birds. “I would love to be able to hand-feed the bluebirds,” she shared. “They will come very close to me — sometimes almost nose to beak through the closed window — but they are not willing to get close enough to hand-feed.”

She has had some success getting a few of her resident tufted titmice to accept food from her hands. Petey and Petunia deserve some of the credit.

“The titmice watched how the pine warblers ate from my hand and picked up the routine very quickly,” Becky said. “One of them is so bold, I sometimes have to try to shake him off my hand like he’s a housefly, but he comes right back to latch onto my fingers!”

She often names some of the regular cast of characters among her feathered friends.

Pine warbler pair Petey and Petunia have raised two fledglings, which Becky dubbed Posey and Pansy.

She has given her Eastern bluebird pair the names of Bogie and Bacall.

“They lost all but one fledgling from their first brood this year, so I named her Solo,” Becky added. “This pair has nested in my yard for four years in a row.

Her two reliable ruby-throated hummingbirds have been given the names LeRoy and Loretta.

Photo by Jean Potter • A pine warbler visits a seed feeder at the home of Brookie and Jean Potter near Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

I asked if she has ever been described as a “bird whisperer” by her friends. “All the time!” Becky responded. “Many of my friends and Facebook Birding Group members are as amazed as I am about this experience.

Becky noted that her backyard attracts a wide variety, as well as volume, of birds. “I try to make it attractive to the birds versus pretty for the people,” she said. “I always keep two clean birdbaths available to them, and consistently keep feeders full of different types of seeds.”

In addition, she said that she plants bird-loving trees and shrubs and even left a couple of dead trees standing in the yard for the woodpeckers to enjoy. “I also try to make myself visible to the birds on a regular basis so that they understand that I’m not a threat,” Becky said. “I’m not sure if I have an actual gift, or if this is all just a wonderful result of spending so much time at home in their environment.”

Her special encounters with backyard birds provides a “rewarding feeling of awe and intrigue,” she said. “Having such a personal relationship with wild birds deepens my awareness of nature and makes me even more determined to help our songbird populations survive and thrive. That being said, I do recognize that wild birds should not be tamed such that they lose their fear of humans. Understanding this risk, I feel a mixture of joy and a little guilt. I don’t plan to encourage this behavior with any new birds, but I sure am enjoying my bond with this pine warbler pair.

Friends don’t always fully understand her enthusiasm for birds.

“Some don’t understand my passion for this or recognize how rare it is to have a personal relationship with wild birds, but most of my friends are also nature lovers who are in awe of this and wish they could do it, too,” Becky said.

“I joke that I should build a solid fence around my property and charge admission to my bird park,” Becky said. “My friends have encouraged me to start my own website to display and sell my bird photos, and I am in the process now of building my website, which will be named RidgeRockArts.com.”

In the meantime, Petey is on the verge of achieving a taste of international fame.

“An accomplished artist in Amsterdam recently saw one of my photos of Petey perched on my hand and asked to paint him to add to her portfolio,” Becky said.

Petey even crowded into the interview’s conclusion. “Here he is right now pecking on the window during this interview,” Becky said. “I must stop what I’m doing and get him a handful of worms right this instant. I think he is the one that trained me versus me training him.”