Rose-breasted grosbeaks make spring appearances in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

There are so many birds arriving in the past week that one almost needs to take a breath from all the excitement and simply enjoy the beauty, both showy and subtle, that many of our returning feathered friends can provide.

The rose-breasted grosbeak is definitely one of the birds in the showy category. I haven’t seen one yet, but many readers have contacted me to let me know of their sightings.
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April Kerns Fain in Unicoi shared a photo and post on April 19 on my Facebook page about the arrival of her first rose-breasted grosbeak.
“Our grosbeak is back,” she wrote. Her photo showed the beautiful bird perched on a feeder stocked with plenty of sunflower seeds and suet.
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“We had two pairs show up a couple of days ago,” Karen Fouts, a resident of Marion, Virginia, commented on my Facebook page. “Aren’t they lovely?”
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Nancy Barrigar of Elizabethton posted that she and her husband, Gary, saw them on Roan Mountain the weekend of April 29-30. “Still waiting to see them at our feeders,” she added.
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Barbara Lake of Hampton also shared her rose-breasted grosbeak sighting. “We had them on the weekend,” she said. “Seem to be down to just two now.”
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Carolyn Dover Norman in Glen Rose, Texas, shared her story of a brief sighting.
“I had one passing through here in Texas last week — just for a day,” she wrote on my Facebook page.
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Gloria Walton Blevins in Damascus, Virginia, happily shared that she “saw one yesterday” on my Facebook page on April 29.
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Carolyn Baker Martin in Carter County reported that her grosbeak sighting involved a female rather than the more eyecatching male. “Had a female at our feeders two mornings,” she wrote.
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Felicia Mitchell in Washington County, Virginia, has enjoyed grosbeak sightings this spring.
“Female grosbeak showed up just this minute at front platform feeder,” Felicia wrote on April 29. “Likely a pair soon. And maybe a family one day.”
She later updated her comment to announce that a male grosbeak had arrived, along with the female.
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Philip Laws notified me that he saw a male and some female rose-breasted grosbeaks May 4 at his home in Limestone Cove.
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A few readers, like myself, are still awaiting that first spring rose-breasted grosbeak.
“I’m still looking for my first one,” wrote James Noel Smith in Unicoi.
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Priscilla Gutierrez in Roan Mountain noted that she’s still waiting for the grosbeaks to show up. “So beautiful,” she added.
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Kaylynn Sanford Wilster, who resides in Piney Flats near Boone Lake, posted a comment.
“A dear friend told me about the Merlin app and it says it heard a rose-breasted grosbeak the other day,” Kaylynn wrote. “I haven’t seen one yet though. I dearly love these birds.”
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“We haven’t seen our little visitor this spring,” wrote Laura Evans Barden. “Usually, he has made his appearance in our backyard by now. I love the rose-breasted grosbeaks.
She has the grosbeak’s favorite treat waiting when he does arrive.
“He loves the blue jays’ peanuts,” Laura noted.
Watch this video:
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Plenty of rose-breasted grosbeaks pass through northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina and a few even decide to make their summer home on local mountains. However, these birds spread out widely across the eastern half of the North American continent, ranging from northeastern British Columbia to Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada. They also range south from New Jersey to Georgia. The rose-breasted grosbeak also reaches Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.
For the most part, however, the rose-breasted grosbeak is replaced in the western United States by the closely related black-headed grosbeak.
As fall approaches, the rose-breasted grosbeak migrates south to a winter range that spans central Mexico, Central America and northern South America. As they depart, many of these migrating birds will make autumn visits to again partake of offerings of sunflower seeds at backyard feeders. So, if you don’t get to see these showy birds in the spring, you get another chance in September and October.
The male rose-breasted grosbeak gives this species it name. Males are the epitome of the birds that make their home for part of the year in the American tropics. The contrasting black and white plumage is emphasized by a triangular slash of rosy-red color on the breast. Put all those elements together and the male rose-breasted grosbeak is not a bird that would be mistaken for any other.
The female grosbeak, however, doesn’t stand out in the same way. She is much less colorful than the male. With her brown and white plumage, she is often mistaken for a large sparrow or finch.
Both sexes have a massive bill, which they use to hull sunflower seeds at feeders or glean insects from leaves and branches. It’s the heavy, blunt bill for which the term “grosbeak” is derived. “Gros” is a German term for large or big, so grosbeak simply means a large-beaked bird. People who band birds to further the study of them will tell you that rose-breasted grosbeaks can inflict a wicked nip. In Northeast Tennessee, bird banders frequently encounter rose-breasted grosbeaks in their mist nets — and bear the scars to prove it.
With some birds, males play only a minor role in the nesting process. That’s not the case with the rose-breasted grosbeak male. The males help with nest-building chores and share responsibility with the female for incubating the eggs.
The female lays three to five eggs in a cup-shaped nest. It’s not easy to locate the nests since the birds usually place them in trees at least 20 feet above the ground. Within two weeks, the eggs have hatched and the parents are kept extremely busy finding enough food to satisfy the voracious nestlings. Well fed by both parents, the young grow quickly and usually are ready to leave the nest within 12 days. Often, when a first brood of young departs the nest, the male will care for the rowdy group of fledglings as the female starts a second nest to capitalize on the long days of summer.
Away from our feeders, rose-breasted grosbeaks feed on insects, seeds, fruit and even some leaf buds and flowers. I’ve seen these birds satisfying a sweet tooth — or should that be sweet beak? — by feeding on jewelweed flowers and apple blossoms. If sugar’s good for hummingbirds, I am sure it is a valuable energy source for rose-breasted grosbeaks, too.
The rose-breasted grosbeak is a cherished spring visitor that never fails to disappoint by bringing a hint of the tropics to the mountains.
Watch this video:

Common yellowthoat, other birds help make migration exciting time

Photo by Pixabay • With a black mask, the male common yellowthroat resembles a tiny feathered bandit as he goes about his daily routine interrupted by bouts of singing his “witchety! witchety! witchety!” song.

Photo by Pixabay
With a black mask, the male common yellowthroat resembles a tiny feathered bandit as he goes about his daily routine interrupted by bouts of singing his “witchety! witchety! witchety!” song.

A hummingbird flew in to one of my porch feeders at 6:28 p.m. on April 23. The arrival made this bird the first hummingbird I have seen this spring. Although quite a bit later than expected, I decided that it’s better late than never. The bird, a male with a dazzling red throat, flew right to the feeder hanging on the porch. I had switched out the water in all three of my feeders only a few minutes prior to the bird’s initial appearance. The bird knew exactly where the feeder was hanging, so I am confident he had already been around for a few days.

There have been other new arrivals, too. A hooded warbler announced its return in song, singing from the shaded woodlands the same day the first hummingbird arrived. On April 28, a common yellowthroat made sure to get noticed by singing from some willows near the creek before popping into view as I watched through binoculars.

In the past week, flocks of chimney swifts have also begun twittering and swooping over the streets of Erwin.

A few more people have shared their stories of first spring sightings of hummingbirds.

Ann Windsor in Selmer, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page on April 23 that her hummingbirds had returned a few days earlier. “He has set up his sole ownership of our feeder,” she noted.
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“I just now saw my first hummingbird of the season here in Abingdon,” Mary Ragland commented on my Facebook page on April 23.
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Betty Lacy in Elizabethton has also welcomes back hummingbirds.
“My hummingbirds are here daily,” she wrote. “I love to watch them.”
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Dawn Peters in Jonesborough saw her first hummingbird on April 23.
“I saw my first one about 5 p.m. today,” she wrote on my Facebook page.
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Linda Cauley noted that she is hosting two of the tiny birds.
“Two showed up in Unicoi at my feeders,” she wrote on my Facebook page.
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The hummingbirds at Kaylynn Wilster’s home at Boone Lake played a bit coy.
“I didn’t see mine at first but the level in the feeders was dropping so I knew they were here,” she wrote on my Facebook page on April 23. “Saw my first one about four days ago — a beautiful male.”
She also saw one at a greenhouse that she visited recently. “The greenhouses go to great effort to get them out,” she added in her comment.
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Donna Barnes Kilday in Erwin saw her first on April 14.
“Now I have at least two that want control of both feeders,” she wrote on my Facebook page. “So much fun to watch!”

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Philip Laws in Limestone Cove wrote a comment on my Facebook page on April 27 about his hummingbirds.
“We have had them for several days,” Philip wrote.
“My favorite story was when I returned to a former house that we had been out of a couple of years,” he wrote. “A male came up and flew to and circled the spot where a feeder had hung two years before. Needless to say, I quickly returned with a feeder and kept it going for the rest of that summer.”
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Mack Hayes, who resides in the Bowmantown community in Washington County, saw his first male ruby-throated hummingbird on April 22. In another comment on my Facebook page, he added a few days later, a female hummingbird has also arrived.
“Glad to see they made it back,” Mack wrote.
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As I mentioned at the start of the column, warblers have been putting in sporadic appearances this spring.

I thought I’d spotlight the common yellowthroat this week. The male common yellowthroat looks like a dapper feathered bandit with his black mask with a silvery-gray eye stripe, brown upper parts and a bright yellow throat. Females have the yellow throat but lack the black mask.
The website All About Birds notes in a profile on the species that male common yellowthroats arrive first on breeding grounds in the spring and begin defending territories.

According to the profile, fighting among males grows more intense once the female birds arrive. Researchers have also found that the black mask of male yellowthroats acts as a trigger for some of this fighting. Some enterprising researchers added a black paper mask to a stuffed female yellowthroat. When placed within view of male yellowthroats, the stuffed bird weathered attacks from territorial males.

Photo by USFWS • The male common yellowthroat wears a mask like a feathered bandit.

The common yellowthroat at my home was probably one of these eager males ready to get a head start on the summer’s nesting season. Common yellowthroats are one of the many warblers that nest in the Northeast Tennessee during the summer months. They can be found from lower elevation to higher ones, but they will usually not be found outside of a habitat that offers dense vegetation to their particular liking. A weedy slope in a backyard, a marshy stand of cattails, or overgrown fields are some places suitable for this noisy if “under the radar” bird.
The common yellowthroat is one of the birds that benefits from a lawn and garden that are not kept trimmed and manicured. They will only thrive in habitats that offer dense thickets and other tangles of vegetation. To attract birds like the common yellowthroat, keep some corners of your property in a more “natural” state. The neighbors may look askance, but the birds will thank you.

It’s the female yellowthroat that will build the nest. She lays one to six eggs. She will often locate the nest close to the ground, but it’s always well hidden.

The common yellowthroat belongs to a genus of warblers known as Geothlypsis. Three other members – MacGillivray’s warbler, mourning warbler and Kentucky warbler – in the genus are resident in the United States and Canada for part of the year.

It’s easy to detect the presence of this warbler in the springtime. The male invariably gives himself away by singing his ringing syllables of “Witchety! Witchety! Witchety!” In fact, my recent visitor alerted me to his presence by doing just that. As with many warblers, the male’s song helps attract mates and also establishes the boundaries of his territory.

Although this warbler would prefer to skulk under a weedy canopy, it has one weakness. Common yellowthroats are incredibly curious birds. They will respond to squeaking or mechanical bird calls. Unlike some birds that pop into view for a brief look before diving back into cover, common yellowthroats can often be called into view several times during an observation.

There will no doubt be plenty of migrant sightings as we continue into May. Look for such vibrant visitors as orioles, tanagers, indigo buntings and rose-breasted grosbeaks in the coming days.  To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Eastern kingbird, hummingbirds part of spring migration bonanza

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern kingbird perches atop a metal fence post.

Migration continues and offers up a few surprises. Such was the case of the morning of April 20 when I spotted an Eastern kingbird near the fish pond.

This is a rare bird at my home, but one that is easily found in other locations in the area. My recollection is this is only the second time an Eastern Kingbird has visited my home.

I didn’t have time to observe the bird for long and I didn’t find the bird when I returned home later that evening, but it was a timely reminder that spring migration can bring plenty of unexpected birdwatching delights.

Many readers continue to be delighted by the return of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Based on the sightings shared with me this past week, I think the pace of migration has definitely spiked for this tiny bird.

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Gwen Straub, who lives in Nebo, North Carolina, near Lake James, sent me an email to share that she had a “double” arrival with a male and female hummingbird showing up at her feeder at 10 am on April 12.

“The male has been back every day since then,” she wrote.  “Today he drank for five full minutes with his beak in the hole many times for seven to eight seconds.”

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April Kerns Fain posted a Facebook comment on my page to notify me that she saw her first hummingbird on April 12. A few days later, she also shared a photo of a beautiful male rose-breasted grosbeak that arrived at her feeders on April 19. Her sightings are a good reminder that it’s not just hummingbirds on the move. Many colorful birds are returning this month.

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Tammy Jones Adcock, Erwin, shared via a Facebook comment that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 13.

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Jeanne Siler Lilly shared on Facebook that she saw her first spring hummingbird on April 15.

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Daniel Washinski from Houston, Delaware, also had a Good Friday sighting. “First hummingbird this morning (April 15) in Delaware!” Daniel shared on my Facebook page.

I found it interesting that some hummingbirds have already reached Delaware before I’ve seen one at my home. Just goes to show that these tiny guys are in a hurry to get to their final destinations for the summer season.

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Lois Bridges of Unicoi shared via a Facebook comment that she saw her first spring hummingbird on April 16.

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Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, shared her first spring hummingbird sighting in an email.

“Just had our first hummingbird!” Helen wrote. The bird arrived at 10:58 a.m. on April 16.

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Priscilla Gutierrez shared with a Facebook comment that she saw her first hummingbird on April 16 on Carver Road in Roan Mountain.

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Angie Fletcher, a high school friend of mine, shared on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird on April 16.

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Cheri Miller shared on the Tri-Cities Young Naturalists Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird of the season on April 17 at her home in Hampton.

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Starr Yeager, a resident of Tiger Creek in Hampton, saw five hummingbirds at her feeders on April 18. Starr’s another friend of mine from high school who notified me of the sighting on Facebook.

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Lowell Christian, Jonesborough, shared on Facebook that he officially saw his first spring hummingbird at 8:25 a.m. on April 20. “I am quite sure I have missed it being here before,” he noted.

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Russ MacIntyre, a resident of the Embreeville section of Jonesborough, sent me an email to let me know he saw his first spring hummingbird at 5:35 p.m. on April 20.

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Frances Lamberts in Jonesborough got her first sightings on April 24 between about 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. while sitting on the patio eating supper.

In her email, Frances said the hummingbird visited three times.

“During one of the  visits, I counted its sips on the feeder — 42.”

Frances noted that she has a few flowers — columbine, bleeding heart and larkspur — in bloom in her garden.

Frances is dedicated to the cause of preserving pollinators, including hummingbirds as well as butterflies and other insects.

She also writes a column titled “Conservation in Mind” twice a month for The Erwin Record.

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Keeping these tiny guests happy isn’t difficult. It’s easy to make your own sugar water mix, which can be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic juice jug. Boil some water and then add one cup of sugar for every four cups of water in your pot. Stir thoroughly. Bottle the mixture until it cools. Fill your feeders and store any remaining sugar water in the fridge in the aforementioned jug. Refrigerated, the mix should stay good to use for at least a week.

Kingbird tyranny

Here’s some more information on the Eastern kingbird that I observed. Kingbirds are a part of an extensive family of birds known as flycatchers that are exclusively found in the New World. Other flycatchers that are relatively common in the region include Eastern phoebe and Eastern wood-pewee.

The Eastern kingbird  is easy to recognize and identify. The bird’s plumage is a study in contrast, being black above and white below. In addition, there’s a noticeable white edge to the tip of the bird’s otherwise all-black tail.

There is a red patch of feathers on top of the bird’s head, which gives this pint-sized tyrant a “crown,” but most birders would tell you that this colorful patch is rarely seen and is instead kept concealed at most times.

The scientific name of the Eastern kingbird is Tyrannus tyrannus, a good clue to the bird’s militant nature.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern kingbird perches on a fence.

These birds, which are about the size of an American robin, are famous for displaying aggressive behavior against much larger birds such as crows and hawks.

While some birds are all bluff, the Eastern kingbird often follows through with its attacks. According to the website All About Birds, kingbirds have been known to known blue jays right out of a tree.

I’ve observed kingbirds tormenting such large birds as red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures. I once watched a kingbird get so close to a red-tailed hawk that it almost looked like the smaller bird was hitching a ride on the hawk’s back. I suspect the hawk even lost a feather or two in the encounter.

Other North American kingbirds include Western kingbird, tropical kingbird, Couch’s kingbird, Cassin’s kingbird and the thick-billed kingbird. On a trip to Salt Lake City in Utah many years back I got the chance to see the Western kingbird, the counterpart to the Eastern kingbird in that part of the country.

Look for the Eastern kingbird in open terrain that offers plenty of perches. These birds spend most of their time chasing and catching flying insects, which provide the bulk of the bird’s food during the summer months.

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Have a sighting to share, a comment to make or a question to ask? Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Pixabay
The Eastern kingbird is a pugnacious member of the widespread family of New World birds known as the flycatchers. Other members of the family in the region include the Eastern phoebe and the Eastern wood-pewee.

Northern parula ushers in rush of spring’s colorful tropical migrants

Photo by  Hans Toom/Pixabay • A male Northern parula looks splendid in spring plumage. These warblers attract attention with their buzzy songs, which is useful for spotting them since these birds spend much of the time in the treetops.

NOTE: As I am posting this week’s bird feature, I am hearing the dueling songs of two male Northern parulas in the woods outside the office window. 

Last year, the first warbler to return in the spring was a male Northern parula that arrived on April 9. This year’s return was a few days later than that, but it was once again a Northern parula at the vanguard of the spring migration.

In April and continuing into May, a couple of dozen warbler species will pass through Tennessee. Some of these warblers find area woodlands and other habitats to their liking. They will pause, explore and perhaps decide to spend their summer nesting season in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina rather than continue migrating farther north.

Many of the warblers that pass through each spring, however, are destined to travel a much longer distance before settling down in their favored habitats for the summer nesting season. These warblers include the Tennessee warbler, Nashville warbler, Cape May warbler, blackpoll warbler and Connecticut warbler. Most of these species nest as far north as New England and Canada.

Others find the Southern Appalachians to their liking. Some of the first warblers to return each year include the Louisiana waterthrush, which favors rushing mountain streams, as well as species such as black-throated green warbler, hooded warbler, ovenbird, worm-eating warbler and common yellowthroat.

The Northern parula didn’t used to be one of the first returning warblers at my home. That honor used to go to hooded warbler or black-throated green warbler.

Spring has been returning in fits and starts, which could have some sort of overall effect on bird migration. 

I’ve still not seen a ruby-throated hummingbird, although some readers are still sharing stories of their first spring hummingbird sightings. 

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Lynne Reinhard of Abingdon, Virginia, reported her first hummingbird of spring on the morning of April 7. She shared the sighting in a Facebook comment to my page.

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Pat Stakely Cook in Marion, North Carolina, posted on Facebook at 5:33 p.m. on April 11 about seeing her first spring hummingbird. 

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Beth Barron Wolfe shared her first sighting with a comment on a post of mine on April 7. 

“I saw one last week, but it hasn’t returned,” Beth wrote.

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Karen Fouts of Marion, Virginia, also shared her first sighting via Facebook Messenger.

“We have our first hummingbird of the year this morning (April 13) in Marion,” she wrote. “Perhaps it was the angle of my view, but it looked like a female, which is unusual.”

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Nancy Vernon in Bristol, Virginia, posted about her first sighting. “Saw one yesterday (April 13) at my feeder in Bristol right after I put it up,” she wrote.

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Tammy Jones Adcock in Erwin shared her first sighting via Facebook comment. She reported that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 13 at her Erwin home.

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Karen and Bobby Andis in Kingsport sent me a Facebook message about their first hummer of spring. 

“Our first hummingbird was seen at 12:37 p.m. on April 14,” they wrote in the message. “Got our feeder hung awaiting the others.”

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Donna Barnes Kilday reported with a Facebook comment that she saw her first spring hummingbird at her home in Erwin on April 14. “First hummingbird of the year!” Donna reported in her comment. 

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Nan Hidalgo in Jonesborough posted her sighting as a comment on my Facebook page. 

“First hummingbird just now in Jonesborough,” she wrote around 1 p.m. on April 14.

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Phyllis Moore in Bristol, Virginia, also reported a hummingbird arrival. “Just saw our first hummingbird in Bristol,” she wrote just after noon on April 14.

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Rhonda and Randall Eller in Chilhowie, Virginia, posted a comment on April 14.

“Just had that first hummingbird,” they wrote. “He was early this year! Last year he didn’t come until April 24.”

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Paula Elam Booher in Bristol, Virginia, reported on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 14.

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Steph Anie shared via a Facebook comment that she has been seeing hummingbirds since late March at her home northeast of Atlanta. 

“We have had them for two weeks now,” she wrote on April 7. Again, people residing farther south usually get to welcome back hummingbirds before those of us in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

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So, my Northern parula is my consolation for not yet seeing a ruby-throated hummingbird. This warbler has an abundance of identifying characteristics. Adult males are bluish gray overall with a yellow-green patch on the back and two white wingbars. A chestnut band separates the male’s bright yellow throat and chest. Adult females are often a bit paler and typically lack the male’s breast band. Both males and females have distinctive white eye crescents.

Like most warblers, they lead frenetic lives. They often sing high in the tops of trees, but they do occasionally venture closer to the ground, particularly when foraging for prey, which consists of a variety of insects and small spiders. 

The more reliable means of locating a Northern parula is to listen for the male’s  buzzy, ascending song. He is a persistent singer from the time of his arrival until mid-summer. 

A quirk involving nesting material is somewhat unique to this warbler.

In much of the southern United States, the Northern parula conceals its nest inside strands of Spanish moss draped from the limbs of live oaks and other trees.

In the Southern Appalachians and other locations farther to the north, the absence of Spanish moss means that the birds rely on various Usnea lichens, which are sometimes referred to as “Old Man’s Beard.” 

Overall, the population of this warbler is in good shape. According to Partners in Flight, numbers of this warbler have increased by 62% since 1970. Unfortunately, some populations in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri have been affected by logging and the drainage of bogs. 

Once paired up, Northern parulas may attempt to raise two broods in a nesting season. The female lays two to seven eggs and does most of the nest construction. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Northern parula perched next to a cluster of Spanish moss.

Erwin woman reports early date  for spring return of hummingbird

Photo by  Amy Tipton • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches in a quince bush at the home of Amy Tipton in Erwin. The hummingbird, which arrived April 1, represents the earliest date so far this season for returning hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds returned to the region the first week of April. If you’ve not yet seen one, and I am still waiting for my own first sighting of one this spring, take heart. Many people are already reporting the return of these tiny flying gems.

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The date might have been Friday, April 1, but Amy Tipton’s first hummingbird of the year was no April Fool’s prank.

“Just saw my first hummingbird of the season!” Amy messaged me on Facebook to share her sighting, which took place on the first day of April at 7:15 p.m.

“It was a male feeding in the quince bush in our backyard,” she added. “I’m sure he’s just passing through, but I was so happy to see one.”

The Erwin resident reported the following day that the hummingbird had lingered overnight, which allowed her to get some photographs.

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Ray Gorecki, a resident of the Dysartsville area in McDowell County, North Carolina, emailed me about his first hummingbird sighting this spring.

“I am happy to say that we had our first ruby- throated male arrive this past Monday (April 4),” Ray wrote. “We set the feeders out on Sunday. We have had a male at the feeders each day this week.”

Ray added that being from western New York and being new to the area, he was thrilled to see hummingbirds so early in the spring. “Looking forward to seeing many more,” he added.

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Chris Amsbary in Marion, North Carolina, said he saw his first hummer of spring on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 5, at his home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains east of Asheville.

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Rebecca Morgan emailed me to report that she spotted her first ruby-throated hummingbird on Randolph Drive in Marion, North Carolina, on Wednesday, April 6, at 6:30 p.m.

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Reflect for a moment on the epic journey each ruby-throated hummingbird must make in order to return to northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina or southwest Virginia each spring.

According to the website for Perkypet.com, a retailer  of bird feeders, ruby-throated hummingbirds spend the winter months in Central America and southern Mexico. When the weather begins to turn warm, they will start to make their northern trip up to the United States. As the website points out, this can be a grueling journey for such a tiny creature, as many of them choose to fly over the Gulf of Mexico. This flight alone, the website points out, can take 18 to 22 hours of non-stop flight before reaching land on the other side of the gulf.

Simply crossing the Gulf of Mexico is only the first stage. Most of the hummingbirds must still travel hundreds of miles to reach locations where they will spend the summer. Males, after some time courting females, will not do much more than sip nectar and duel with other male hummers during the summer.

It’s the female hummingbirds that will work diligently all summer long as she constructs a nest, incubates eggs and feeds hungry young, all without any assistance from her erstwhile mate.

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.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male ruby-throated hummingbird show the namesake red throat. The feathers on a male’s throat are iridescent, which means they can change when seen from different angles. In poor light, the ruby-red throat can look almost black.

With so many hummingbird species, people have been hard pressed to give descriptive names to all these tiny gems. The term “ruby-throated” pales in comparison to some of the richly descriptive names that have been given to some of the world’s hummingbirds.

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.

Knowing a little more about these tiny birds known as hummingbirds, I hope you’ll look upon them with increased admiration.

(I am still getting arrival reports and will continue to mention those in upcoming columns/posts.)

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

 

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are returning. Are you ready?

Photo by Katy Jefferson • A male ruby-throated hummingbird visits a sugar water feeder for a quick refuel.

The website Journey North noted on March 15 that ruby-throated hummingbird migration was off to a slow start for spring 2022.  According to the website, Journey North volunteers along the Gulf Coast and in the Southeast are noting new arrivals, but the total number of reports is lower than at this same time last year.

On a posting made on March 22, Journey North indicated that the pace had quickened. After a slow start, according to the website, ruby-throated hummingbird migration is picking up in the Southeastern United States.

According to the website, most first spring observations of hummingbirds are males, although a few females are being spotted. Male hummingbirds, the posting noted, arrive first so they can find and defend a territory.

The first migration reports of ruby-throated hummingbirds began as a trickle in early March from along the Gulf Coast. Observers in states such as Texas and Louisiana reported ruby-throated hummingbirds as early as March 1.

The website made note that spring migration is a challenging time for hummingbirds. Temperature, wind patterns and storms can influence the pace of migration.

Even once these tiny birds make their epic spring crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, they will need time to rest and refuel before moving northward. By mid-March, the advance of ruby-throated hummingbirds had reached states such as Georgia and South Carolina. By the end of March, the first reports began to arrive at Journey North from Tennessee and North Carolina. (There’s already been a local sighting, but that will come with next week’s column.)

Now that the ruby-throated hummingbirds have officially returned to the Volunteer State and its neighbors, it’s time to put out those sugar water feeders. Consider planting some colorful native flowers to provide nectar sources for hummingbirds.

Northeast Tennessee usually gets its first spring hummingbirds the first week of April. If you’re seeing hummingbirds, I’d love to know. I have tracked arrivals for several years now. To share your first spring sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or contact me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Please include the date and time of your sighting.

In the meantime, take steps now to welcome hummingbirds back and keep them safe during their stay.

Some ways of ensuring that our hummingbird guests are kept healthy and secure are simply common sense. For instance, don’t use pesticides, herbicides or any other sort of toxin anywhere close to the vicinity of a sugar water feeder or a flower garden. Hummingbirds are such tiny creatures with such intense metabolisms that it only takes a small amount of any harmful substance to sicken or kill one of these little flying gems.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but they usually begin returning each spring in early April in Northeast Tennessee and the surrounding region.

Feeding hummingbirds is easy, but many people try to complicate the process. Only common, pure cane sugar, mixed to a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, is a safe choice for these birds.

For emphasis, I’ll repeat again that only common, pure cane sugar is safe for hummingbirds. There are no safe substitutes. Do not use organic, raw or brown sugar. Confectioner’s sugar, which contains an anti-caking substance (often corn starch, silicates or stearate salts), is also hazardous to hummingbirds.

There’s also a type of sugar known as turbinado sugar, which is named for the process of spinning the sugar in turbines to crystallize it. The crystals are rich in vitamins and minerals valuable for human health, but they are lethal for hummingbirds. Iron is one of the minerals contained in turbinado sugar. Hummingbird metabolism has a low tolerance for iron, which is present in the molasses added to brown sugar and in agave nectar. These are natural substances, but that doesn’t make them safe for hummingbirds.

The ratio of four parts water to one part sugar utilizing pure cane sugar most closely duplicates the nectar that hummingbirds obtain from some of their favorite flowers. Why try to mess with nature’s perfection?

I cannot imagine why anyone would supplement sugar water for hummingbirds with such human beverages as a sports drink or Kool-aid, but there have been reports of people doing so. Be aware that such additives will only risk the health of these tiny birds.

Most experts also suggest avoiding red dyes, which are often found in commercially marketed hummingbird sugar water. Don’t risk the health of hummingbirds for a little convenience.

It’s easy to make your own sugar water mix, which can be stored in the refrigerator in an empty plastic juice jug. Boil some water and then add one cup of sugar for every four cups of water in your pot. Stir thoroughly. Bottle the mixture until it cools. Fill your feeders and store any remaining sugar water in the fridge in the aforementioned jug. Refrigerated, the mix should stay good to use for at least a week.

In our milder spring weather, changing the sugar water in feeders can probably be done on a weekly basis. When hotter summer temperatures prevail, it’s usually necessary to change the sugar water every two or three days.

Brown thrashers return to rude, cold awakening

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Brown Thrasher perched in a Mimosa Tree.

Just when it appears safe to welcome spring, nature throws a curveball in the form of a snowstorm and a frigid but brief cold snap.

At least the snowstorm had a silver lining at my home when a pair of brown thrashers chose to make their spring arrival at the same time.

Many of the resident birds looked a bit peeved to find snow and ice after a bout of mild spring weather, but the two thrashers outside my window on March 12 looked absolutely stunned.

I’ve always thought that brown thrashers are expressive birds, but the expressions of these birds looked like a mix of bewilderment and consternation to find that their return coincided with a short-lived dip into temperatures in the single digits.

Karen Fouts, who resides in Marion, Virginia, commiserated with the thrashers, agreeing with my post that the poor birds appeared stunned by the change in the weather.

“I’ve been waiting for ours but hope they wait a week or so,” Karen wrote in a comment to my post.

Although a few brown thrashers linger in Northeast Tennessee through the winter season, the majority of these birds fly a little farther south for the cold months. Invariably, brown thrashers make their return in March and can be considered another of our feathered friends whose arrival represents more evidence that spring is returning.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A pair of Brown Thrashers forage for food on the ground below a feeder.

A few years ago, quite by accident, I came across a brown thrasher nest. I hadn’t gone looking for it. The nest, expertly woven into a thicket of honeysuckle vines, was tucked beneath a sheltering eave of an outdoor storage building. I don’t think anything but a fortunate accident could have ever revealed the nest. I still remember peeking into that tangle of vines and seeing a golden eye staring back. The bird didn’t look in the least pleased that I had accidentally stumbled across her nest.

The otherwise extroverted brown thrasher, which prefers to nest in difficult-to-access, tangled messes, found the cluster of vines a perfect location.

For those not familiar with brown thrashers — relatives of the Northern mockingbird — they are known for their feisty and fearless protection of their nest and young. I’m probably fortunate the thrasher on her nest decided to choose stealth instead of attack. Sometimes, discretion is truly the better part of valor and the bird probably decided that, if she remained motionless, she would blend in well with her surroundings.

The brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belongs to the family of “mimic thrushes,” which provides a label for a group of songbirds capable of imitating the songs of other birds. Mimidae, the Latin root for “mimic,” provides the scientific name for the family, which includes mockingbirds and the New World catbirds, as well as thrashers. The Northern mockingbird is best known for the ability to mimic, but relatives like the gray catbird and brown thrasher are also talented mimics.

The thrasher is a fairly large songbird about 11.5 inches long with a wingspan of 13 inches. Much of the body length comes from the bird’s long tail feathers. A thrasher weighs, however, only about 2.5 ounces.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted a dramatic scene of Brown Thrashers defending their nest from an attacking snake.

The brown thrasher is not a picky eater. It’s known to eat everything from berries and nuts to insects and small lizards. It’s also aggressive in defending its nest and young. John James Audubon, a French-American ornithologist, naturalist and painter, painted quite a dramatic scene of a group of brown thrashers valiantly defending a nest from an attacking snake. The painting is so detailed that one must imagine Audubon based his work on a real-life experience. His work, originally painted in the early decades of the 1800s, still holds up today.

Incidentally, Audubon knew the brown thrasher as the “ferruginous thrush.” Another former common name for this species was “brown thrush.”

They are familiar birds in southern gardens. In fact, the brown thrasher is the official state bird of Georgia and also provided the name for Atlanta’s National Hockey League team, the Atlanta Thrashers. The thrasher became Georgia’s state bird due to passage of a Joint Resolution of the Georgia General Assembly in 1970.

Returning to the expressive nature of brown thrashers, I think it’s the bird’s golden eyes that make them seem so alert and attentive. Once they feel secure in a lawn or garden, they become less shy. As one might expect from a large songbird, thrashers have voracious appetites. Among the feeder fare I offer, thrashers seem to prefer suet cakes. They’re not woodpeckers, however, so the awkward attempts of these long-tailed birds to access the suet offer some comic antics for observers.

More birds are due to make their spring returns soon. The return of ruby-throated hummingbirds is a highly anticipated arrival for many people. These birds usually get back in the first weeks of April. As always, I hope to track the return of these tiny flying gems.

To share your first spring hummingbird sighting, send me an email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or contact me on Facebook. Please provide the date, time and location for your sightings.

Turkeys strutting their stuff as spring begins to take hold

Photo by Robert Pos/USFWS • A tom turkey displays to a hen in a ritual meant to attract the female turkey as a potential mate. Winter’s flocks will break up as the nesting season progresses. Raising young is a solitary affair for a hen turkey.

In my experience, rainy days always seem to bring out wild turkeys. 

I saw five of these large wild fowl in the fields adjacent to Bell Cemetery in Limestone Cove on my drive to work on the morning of March 16. I posted my sighting on Facebook and got some responses from friends who have had their own recent encounters with turkeys.

Erwin resident Michael Briggs posted that on another recent rainy day he counted 17 turkeys in his yard. 

Kaylynn Sanford Wilster, a resident of Piney Flats, posted photos of a large flock of wild turkeys roaming her yard. 

Few birds have featured so prominently in the history of the United States as the wild turkey. Thanks to the federal government eventually moving to protect the wild turkey population, this bird today is quite common across the nation. Fields bordering woodlands are a great place to observe wild turkeys strutting their stuff, especially during the autumn and winter seasons when turkeys form large flocks, which are also known as “rafters.” Watching a male turkey, or tom, fan his impressive tail feathers to get the attention of hens or intimidate other male rivals offers a peek into the thinking some of the nation’s founders held regarding the wild turkey.

While turkeys are often associated with early winter and the Thanksgiving holiday, they are actually rather active in the springtime. The large flocks are still holding together, albeit loosely, as male turkeys, known as toms, strut and fan their impressive tail feathers in an attempt to make an impression on as many hens as possible. 

Once this business of attraction is settled with successful matings, the tom turkey will go his own way and leave the hard work of incubating eggs and caring for young entirely to the hen. 

The Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website puts it like this: “The male wild turkey provides no parental care. The female alone incubates the eggs. The young follow her immediately after hatching and quickly learn to catch food for themselves. Several females and their broods may form flocks of 30 or more birds.”

The website also points out that the wild turkey is the largest nesting bird found within the Volunteer State. Males can tip the scales at a little over 16 pounds while the average female weighs slightly more than nine pounds. 

According to Watchable Wildlife, males begin competing to attracts females in late winter and early spring. The tom’s efforts feature both an audio and visual component. The male turkey produces his trademark “gobble” to attract any listening hens. When the female appears, he puffs up his body feathers and struts around her with his tail spread and wingtips dragging on the ground.

Tom turkey also compete with each other. The dominant males will mate with several females in one season, but the hen alone is left to usher a new generation of turkeys into the world.

The Watchable Wildlife site reveals that a turkey’s nest is a simple affair, usually fashioned inside a slight depression in the ground that is lined with dead leaves or grass, usually placed at the base of a tree or bush and concealed in thick vegetation.

The hen will lay from seven to 14 eggs, which she will then spend about 28 days incubating. 

According to Tennessee Watchable Wildlife, the young depart the nest shortly after hatching and follow the female. She will take them to favorable spots to forage for food. Young turkeys, known as poults, begin to fly at six to 10 days old. Male young remain with the female until the fall; female young remain with the female until the spring.

It’s always fun to follow the progress of a hen and her brood throughout the spring and summer. Fortunately, wild turkeys are fairly common these days, but that hasn’t always been the case. 

Although an important food source for early settlers and Native Americans, the wild turkey was subjected to extensive over-hunting. The population crashed, and by the beginning of the 1900s was on the verge of extermination in many areas of the country.

Reintroduction efforts by various government game agencies helped the wild turkey recover. Today, the wild turkey is found in every county in the state of Tennessee. The wild turkey population has also recovered nationwide. 

To share your own sighting, make a comment or ask a question, please email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

Members of blackbird clan known for early spring arrivals

Photo by Shauna Fletcher/Pixabay • A male red-winged blackbird produces his “kon-ke-ree”song and flashes his red wing patches to claim territory and attract mates.

I’ve long come to associate red-winged blackbirds with early spring. Most years, I get a friendly reminder in February that spring’s on its way when a vanguard of of red-winged blackbirds return in impressive numbers every March.

This year, my first returning male red-winged blackbird arrived on the evening of March 3. The early spring arrival perched atop one of the tall cypresses by the fish pond and sang is heart out. He’s been singing every day since his arrival, but I’ve not yet noticed any female red-winged blackbirds. It’s been my experience that the females lag a week or so behind the males in returning to their familiar territory.

The blackbirds arriving in spring behave much differently than the quiet, furtive ones that often make brief visits to feeders during late winter snowstorms.

The showy and loud red-winged blackbird male that’s once again taken up residence at my fish pond and adjacent stands of cattails has made himself right at home

“The kon-ke-ree song of the male red-winged blackbird is a sure indication that spring is on the way,” according to a profile located at the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website.

At this time of year, the male red-winged blackbirds seek elevated perches to display and vocalize. Their loud antics are not designed solely to attract mates. Male red-winged blackbirds also sing to warn rival males from intruding into their territories.

The male red-winged blackbirds is a very aptly named bird. Glossy black males sport red wing patches that are often trimmed with a narrow band of yellow feathers. By contrast, female red-winged blackbirds are mostly brown birds that could easily be mistaken for large sparrows. Both sexes have sharply pointed bills.

Red-winged blackbirds are fond of wetlands. Any marsh or even a damp field or flooded pasture is likely to attract a few resident red-winged blackbirds. Females choose nesting locations in cattails or other marsh vegetation. She usually lays three or four eggs. Although she does receive some help from the male, most of the responsibility for raising the young is left to her.

There is a reason that male red-winged blackbirds are not always quite as engaged in feeding and tending their young. Male red-winged blackbirds are often polygynous, which means that males will often court multiple mates. His time is often occupied defending females and their respective nests from the advances of other male red-winged blackbirds.

Other relatives of the red-winged blackbird in the United States include the tricolored blackbird found along the Pacific Coast and the yellow-headed blackbird resident in wetlands west of the Great Lakes. Rusty blackbird, common grackle and brown-headed cowbird are other species of blackbirds found in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

Photo by Pixabay • A common grackle perches on a shepherd’s hook while approaching a feeder.

The common grackles have also returned. I’ve been noticing grackles on lawns through downtown Erwin on some of my recent walks. Like American robins, grackles form loose flocks that spread out and forage on lawns and in gardens.

The grackle, as well as the red-winged blackbird, belong to the family known as Icteridae, also known as New World blackbirds. This rather large family of birds consists of such groups as blackbirds, New World orioles, bobolink, meadowlarks, grackles, cowbirds, oropendolas and caciques.

Old World blackbirds are actually thrushes while Old World orioles are not closely related to the orioles of the New World.

The human clearance of land for farming and residences has helped the common grackle spread far and wide. Grackles can become threats to crops and large flocks of these birds can certainly overwhelm the average backyard feeder. The grackle is an opportunistic bird and can learn to adjust its behavior to take advantage of a source of easy food. For example, grackles have learned to frequent outdoor areas where humans dine and inevitably drop food. Grackles will also eat almost anything they can swallow, including insects, small fish, amphibians, small rodents and the eggs of other birds, as well as berries, seeds and grains.

Grackles only make brief visits to my home during migration, but the red-winged blackbirds that arrive in early spring will stick around to nest, usually not departing until late summer. To reduce competition with other songbirds, consider scattering seed on the ground for grackles, which actually prefer foraging at ground level. Providing for them in this way may spare the users of platform and hanging feeders, which can include such smaller birds as chickadees, wrens and sparrows.

The larger the songbird, the longer lifespan they usually enjoy. Still, the longevity record for a wild grackle strikes me as quite exceptional. According to the website All About Birds, the oldest recorded common grackle was a male that lived to be at least 23 years old. He might have lived longer, but he was killed by a raptor in Minnesota.

Other birds will be returning this month, so keep an eye out for them. Some of the species I expect in March include brown thrasher and blue-gray gnatcatcher.

To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Eager American robins arrive each spring ready for nesting

Photo by Peter Pearsall/ USFWS • An American robin at Cape Mears NWR perches on a sign. Robins have long been a beloved sign of spring’s return in North America.

I don’t think I’m alone in doing what I can to speed along the process of spring’s arrival. The arrival of flocks of American robins has long been a dependable signal coinciding with the shifting of the winter season into spring. This year, the robins appeared almost overnight. One day, I didn’t notice any robins; on the next, they were everywhere I looked.

The American robin is known by the scientific name Turdus migratorius, which can be translated as “migratory thrush.” Indeed, this well-known American bird is related to other thrushes, including the Eastern bluebird, wood thrush and veery. The relationship to other thrushes is quite visible in young birds, which display a spotted breast until they mature and acquire the familiar red breast associated with robins.

One of the first things robins do after returning each spring is switch their diet. Instead of focusing heavily on fruit, robins will hunt for invertebrate prey items, including insects and earthworms once warming temperatures make these creatures widely available for the hungry birds. Forming large flocks as they migrate, dozens of these restless birds can descend on a lawn. Hopping through the short grass, these sharp-eyed birds can spy the slightest movement from an insect, grub or worm concealed in the grass. They forage efficiently and diligently.

The website, Journey North, focuses on tracking the migration of various species of wildlife, relying on the contributions of “citizen scientists” to help with its mission of conservation and protections of migratory species.

The website also offers some interesting facts about American robins. According to Journey North, robins are bursting to sing once they return each spring.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • American robin sitting on its nest in the shelter of a side of a bridge spanning the Doe River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

“Robins sing when they arrive on their breeding territories. Sometimes robins even sing in winter flocks, due to surging hormones as the breeding season approaches,” the website states. “However, in the majority of cases, robins really do wait to sing until they have reached their territory.”

Once robins start singing each spring, it’s also the time when the large flocks break up. When male robins sing, it is to proclaim and protect territories, so the attractiveness of a flock is different for a robin depending on whether the season is winter or spring.

The poet Emily Dickinson made note of this penchant for song that robins express with such enthusiasm upon their return each spring in her poem “The Robin,” writing these lines:

“The robin is the one

That interrupts the morn

With hurried, few, express reports

When March is scarcely on.”

Even in Dickinson’s time, the month of March was associated with the return of the American robins to towns, yards and gardens across New England and the rest of the United States.

There are 82 other species in the genus, which ranges not only in the Americas, but Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, as well. Some of the American robin’s fellow genus members include the olive thrush, the bare-eyed thrush, pale thrush, great thrush, black-billed thrush and cocoa thrush.

When the first European settlers arrived in North America, the robin was still a bird living in the forests. Robins proved incredibly capable of adapting to the presence of humans. Soon enough, these once shy forest birds began to frequent lawns and city parks. The robin soon became one of America’s most popular songbirds. Three states — Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin — have conferred official state bird status on the American robin.

Robins begin nesting almost as soon as they return each spring. Nesting success in a previous season instills fidelity to the location where the birds nested, resulting in many robins returning to the same nesting area year after year.

According to the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website, American robins usually raise two broods of young during their nesting season in the Volunteer State. Many start nesting in late winter, but peak egg laying is in mid-April. The spring months are also when robin pairs will be kept busy finding enough earthworms and insects to feed a nest filled with three to five hungry young.

Although some robins invariably spent the entire winter season in the region, it is still a welcome sight to see migrating flocks of these birds return every February and early March. The sudden resurgence of the American robin each spring is a reminder that another winter will soon be history. I know I’m always pleased to welcome them back.