New arrivals include spring’s first warblers

Photo by Kaylynn Wilster • Pine warblers, like this individual, have become more adaptable, learning to accept food at feeders and helping them remain in the United States during the winter season.

Mystery bird
Kaylynn Wilster, who lives in Piney Flats, Tennessee, emailed me recently for help with an identification on a bird visiting her feeders. When she described the bird and mentioned its fondness for suet at her feeders, I immediately suspected the identity of her visitor. A photo she provided gave instant verification that her visiting bird is, as she suspected, a warbler. To be exact, she is hosting a pine warbler.

The pine warbler is an attractive member of its clan with a plumage consisting mostly of various hues of yellow, olive and gray. Some males will show extremely bright yellow feathers, but females and young birds may show only a bare minimum of yellow coloration.
Unlike warblers such as the magnolia warbler and the palm warbler, the pine warbler truly does have an affinity for the tree for which it’s named. Magnolia warblers, on the other hand, are really more at home gleaning the branches of spruce trees while a weedy field is often the preferred habitat of a palm warbler.

Photo by Kaylynn Wilster • A pine warbler feeds on suet at a hanging feeder.

Look in the pines
The pine warbler is rarely found away from pine trees, but the bird is not too particular about the type of pine, being known to frequent about a dozen different varieties of pine trees. According to the website All About Birds, some of the favored pines include jack, pitch, red, white, Virginia, loblolly, shortleaf, slash, sand and pond pines.

The pine warbler is slightly less of an insect-eater than other warblers. This warbler will also feed on fruits, berries and some seeds. All About Birds states that some favored fruit includes bayberry, flowering dogwood, grape, sumac, persimmon and Virginia creeper.

When a pine warbler visits feeders, however, it’s often looking for supplemental protein. This fact explains why suet cakes, as well as homemade or commercial mixtures of suet and peanut butter, are one of the best ways to lure these warblers to feeding stations.

The population of this warbler has actually been on the increase since 1966, according to various surveys conducted on pine warbler numbers. Almost the entire population spreads out across the eastern United States, with much lesser numbers of pine warbler making their home in Canada.

Warbler migration
Kaylynn’s pine warbler is likely an early spring migrant or a pine warbler that elected to spend the winter months in the region. While warblers are scarce between October and March, their numbers are about to take off in a big way.

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 Blackburnian 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.

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

Kaylynn mentioned that her pine warbler has graced her with frequent bursts of song. This fact indicates that her bird is a male. Pine warblers are persistent singers, but they often sing their songs from the upper branches of tall pines, effectively camouflaging themselves from view. Pine warblers have become more frequent feeders visitors in recent decades, which brings them into closer proximity to humans than would otherwise be the case.

New Arrivals
A pair of wood ducks brought company when they returned to the fish pond on April 2. They were accompanied by a pair of mallards. Although our most common duck, mallards haven’t visited my pond for several years. It felt good to have them back. I’m hoping both the wood ducks and mallards might decide to use the pond as a home base throughout the spring and summer.

On April 7, I heard the first chipping sparrow of spring. This small, dapper sparrow has an easily recognizable song. All About Birds describes the song as “a long, dry trill of evenly spaced, almost mechanical-sounding chips,” to which I concur.

A pair of tree swallows arrived at my home on April 8. I wrote in last week’s column about these swallows and their anticipated return.

The first warbler of spring – a male Northern parula – arrived April 9. I heard his trademark buzzy song as I left for work.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Northern parula hides in the canopy while singing its buzzy song.

I still haven’t seen the first spring ruby-throated hummingbird, but I have received a report from North Carolina.

Susie Parks, who lives in North Cove in McDowell County, North Carolina, emailed me to report that she saw her first hummingbird of the season at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 1.

She even elaborated on the “funny” timing.

“I assure you this is not an April Fool’s joke,” Susie wrote. “We are, indeed, thrilled to have seen this amazing little creature on such a chilly morning.”

I wrote back congratulating her on her sighting, which only makes me more impatient to have these delightful little birds back in my own yard.

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

Journey North, a website that tracks hummingbird migration, as well as the migratory journeys of other wild creatures, reports that hummingbirds have reached Tennessee. A posting for a woman in Clinton, Tennessee, reported a ruby-throated hummingbird on Monday, April 5.

Hummingbird Anticipation

The arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds is one of the most anticipated returns each spring. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

 

 

 

Tree swallows are the latest spring arrivals

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tree swallow checks out a nesting box soon after returning in the spring.

Waiting for spring? Join the club. Between alternating bouts of unseasonably warm temperatures and frigid blasts, the weather cannot seem to decide if winter’s hanging in there a little longer or if it’s time to proceed with spring’s arrival.

I’m hopeful it’s the latter. I enjoyed a stroll in the spring sunshine on March 30 along the section of the trail near the industrial park. From the boardwalk over the water I saw my first spring swallows (a purple martin and a couple of Northern rough-winged swallows) as well as a belted kingfisher and several American robins. I also saw my first dragonflies and butterflies of spring, as well as one muskrat enjoying a leisurely swim.

Early Birds

One might think that the wild swings in weather would translate into a messy arrival timetable for some of our returning birds, but so far my own personal observations indicate a different story. At home, the usual spring “early birds,” including wood duck, red-winged blackbird, blue-headed vireo, ruby-crowned kinglet and brown thrasher, have been their usual punctual selves.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

The swallows I saw during my Erwin stroll, however, reminded me that one bird hasn’t returned at my home. The early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon knew this particular bird as “white-bellied swallow,” which is a descriptive name, but today the species is known simply as tree swallow.

Tree swallows have been back in the region for weeks, but they sometimes take their time finding their way to the waiting birdhouses at my fish pond. Their return dates in years past have ranged from early March to the middle of April.

Insect-heavy Diet

Swallows are insectivores, so those that return early in the spring must deal with temperature fluctuations. In prolonged cold spells, these insect-eating birds can be hard pressed to locate their usual prey. At such times, they are often forced to retreat to the area’s lakes and larger rivers, where they can swoop over the water and have an easier time plucking cold-numbed flying insects out of the air.

Once milder spring temperatures prevail, the flocks of swallows forced into these necessary habitats will disperse as pairs begin seeking nesting sites. Tree swallows are cavity-nesting birds, which often puts them into competition with Eastern bluebirds. The two species usually manage to work out a truce and settle down to nest in close proximity to each other.

The iridescent blue-green male tree swallow, complete with white underparts and a forked tail, is a handsome bird and a welcome addition to the bird population in any yard or garden. Tree swallows enjoy water, so a nearby pond or creek is a boon for attracting these birds.

Tree swallows haven’t always nested in Northeast Tennessee. Only in the last 40 years have these birds become regular nesting birds in the region. The first nesting record took place in the early 1980s at Austin Springs on Boone Lake in Washington County, Tennessee, according to The Birds of Northeast Tennessee by Rick Knight. Tree swallows soon became regular nesting birds every summer in all five counties that comprise Northeast Tennessee.

Other Swallows

It’s usually not too difficult to find five of the six species of swallows that are known to make Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina their home from spring to fall. In addition to tree swallow, the region’s other swallow species include: barn swallow, purple martin, cliff swallow and northern rough-winged swallow. These are all fairly common summer birds in the region. The sixth species, the bank swallow, is a bit of a specialist when it comes to nesting and occurs only sporadically in the region.

While only a handful of swallows range into the United States and Canada, a total of 83 species of swallows can be found worldwide. Some of the common names for these different swallows (also called martins in other parts of the world) are quite descriptive. A sampling includes white-eyed river martin, grey-rumped swallow, white-backed swallow, banded martin, blue swallow, violet-green swallow, golden swallow, brown-throated martin, brown-bellied swallow, pale-footed swallow, white-bibbed swallow, pearl-breasted swallow, red-breasted swallow, mosque swallow, fairy martin, pale martin, tawny-headed swallow and streak-throated swallow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Northern rough-winged swallows perches on a metal pipe.

While many swallows and martins have proven highly adaptive when faced with human disturbances to their habitat, a few species have experienced declines. One species — the white-eyed river martin — was last seen in Thailand in the 1980s and very well may be extinct. Closer to home, the golden swallow is now found only on the island of Hispaniola after disappearing from Jamaica in the 1980s. The Bahama swallow, which nests on only four islands in the Bahamas, is also vulnerable. Incidentally, both these swallows are closely related to the tree swallow, with all of them belonging to the genus Tachycineta. Translated from Greek, the genus name means “fast mover,” a quite accurate description of these graceful and agile flyers.

Good 

Neighbors

With their enthusiastic twittering to each other, tree swallows make for friendly neighbors. The local bluebirds may disagree, at first, but they’ll get their feathers unruffled eventually. It’s also a pleasant diversion to watch them swoop over fields and ponds as they help control the insect population.

To increase your chances of hosting your own tree swallows, offer a bird box placed in an open area. Right now is the time to attract their attention with some prime real estate. Plans are available online to help construct your own or pick up one at a gardening center, hardware store or farm supply outlet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern Bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.

Many would-be hosts for Eastern bluebirds express disappointment when a pair of tree swallows become tenants instead. The remedy to the disappointment is simple: provide an additional nesting box.  Although there will be some initial squabbles, tree swallows and Eastern bluebirds will co-exist if they don’t have to compete for the same nesting box.

There’s one last selling point I want to mention on behalf of tree swallows. While not exactly songsters, they do produce an energetic, chirpy trill that they vocalize persistently when in the company of their fellow tree swallows. It’s hard not to be cheerful when hearing such a jubilant noise issuing from one of our feathered friends.

Hummingbird Observations

While tree swallows and their kin are great to have back, one of the most anticipated returns each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post on my Facebook to share your first sightings. You can also leave a comment here on the blog.

Some ‘egg-ceptional’ trivia about birds and their eggs

The egg has long been a symbol of rebirth and renewal, which goes a long way toward explaining the connection between eggs and the holiday of Easter. In honor of the upcoming Easter holiday, I thought I’d devote this week’s column to some “egg-citing” egg trivia. I’ll try to avoid any additional “egg-sasperating” puns.

Of course, the familiar Easter egg has traditionally been provided by chickens, although the eggs of other birds, such as ducks, geese and turkeys, are occasionally incorporated into such festivities as egg fights and egg hunts.

Producing eggs encased in a thin calcium shell is one of the ways that the birds are different from other lifeforms. For example, mammals carry their eggs inside the body with the exception of the oddball echidnas and the platypus. Amphibians lay eggs, but their eggs are soft and must usually be deposited in the water to ensure they do not dry out. Insects also lay eggs. It’s only the birds, however, and a few reptiles that have evolved the hard-shelled egg as a more durable means of reproduction.

The shape and size of those eggs varied greatly. Among the world’s 10,000 species of birds, the ostrich lays the largest eggs of any bird. Closer to home, the California condor almost certainly lays the largest eggs of any U.S. bird species. According to the website, All About Birds, eggs of the California Condor eggs are about 4.5 inches long and almost 3 inches wide. These whopper eggs weigh about 11 ounces. By contrast, a large chicken eggs weighs only two ounces.

The eggs produced for one nesting attempt are referred to as a clutch. The number of eggs per clutch varies among different species. Among songbirds, some rather small birds lay large clutches of eggs. For instance, the kinglets, which are tiny birds barely bigger than hummingbirds, are champion egg layers. The ruby-crowned kinglet can lay as many as a dozen eggs in a clutch, while the golden-crowned kinglet may lay as many as 11 eggs per clutch. The house wren, which is also a rather diminutive bird, can lay as many as 10 eggs. Several North American wrens produce large clutches of eggs. The marsh wren and sedge wren are known to lay as many as 10 eggs per clutch. The winter wren is almost their equal with clutch sizes that can include nine eggs. Of course, these same birds may lay more average clutches of between three and six eggs.

The sora, a small, secretive species of rail, lays 10 to 12 eggs in a nest well-concealed in marsh vegetation. The sora has been known to produce exceptional clutches with as many as 18 eggs.

Waterfowl are known to be good egg layers. The mallard hen may lay a clutch of eight to 13 eggs. The redhead hen typically lays only seven to eight eggs, but has parasitic tendencies that include depositing some eggs in the nests of other redheads. On occasion, multiple redhead hens get a little compulsive about slipping their eggs into a communal “dump” nest. These type of nests have been found containing as many as 80 or more eggs, but such clutches are impossible for a single hen to incubate and the eggs are usually lost. The wood duck, which will nest in specially designed bird houses placed near a source of water, can lay as many as 14 eggs in a single clutch.

Other birds concentrate their efforts on laying only a single egg or perhaps a pair of eggs. Many species of albatross lay only a single egg. The parents will dedicate a long period incubating the egg and then tend to the needs of the solitary offspring once the egg hatches.

Hummingbirds typically lay a pair of eggs. The poor female is soon abandoned by her mate and must build a nest, incubate her two eggs, and care and feed her young without any paternal assistance whatsoever. Hummingbirds, having high metabolisms, would find it impossible to feed themselves and any more than two young in a nest.

Penguins lay only a few eggs. Many species lay a pair of eggs, but the king penguin and emperor penguin are single-egg producers. In their harsh environment, these penguins would find meeting the needs of more than one offspring at a time quite impossible.

Let’s talk color. Eggs come in a variety of colors. Some eggshells also feature intricate patterns and splotches.

The killdeer, which usually lays four eggs, produces buff-colored eggs with dark mottling on the shell. These eggs blend remarkably with gravel and other rocks, which helps the ground-nesting killdeer hide their nests from would-be predators.

The American robin is famous for producing a clutch of beautiful blue eggs. The coloration of the eggs have even given rise to the descriptive phrase “robin’s egg blue.” This particular shade of blue is described as a variable one that leans to greenish-blue that is paler than turquoise and more blue than aqua.

The American robin’s blue eggs are not unusual among the thrushes, the group of birds of which the robin can claim kinship. For instance, the Eastern bluebird’s eggs are pale blue or sometimes white. The wood thrush produces eggs that are more to the turquoise shade of blue while the veery’s eggs can vary between green and pale blue.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
A pair of eggs in the traditional cup-shaped nest built by many songbirds.

The blue tint to the eggs of robins and other thrushes is caused by a pigment that gets applied to the shell as the female lays the eggs. It’s like the female robin has an internal egg-dyeing mechanism. In an article published in May of 2012, Science Daily reported that a study conducted by Queen’s University also found that the brighter blue the egg, the more the male robin will apply himself to caring for his offspring.

Among the birds that use my birdhouses for nesting, I’ve always thought the eggs of Carolina chickadees are exquisite. The eggs are pale white with a hint of pinkish coloration. A fine mottling of brown spots dot the shell. The amount of mottling can vary from egg to egg in the same clutch. These tiny eggs produced by a tiny bird are kept safe and sound in a nest of moss and other plant materials with a soft lining of animal hairs. Chickadees lay between three and 10 eggs, but between five and eight eggs per clutch seems more usual.

As mentioned, the ostrich lays the largest egg. Ostrich clutches are also impressive. The wild African ostrich, the largest bird in the world, lays 12 to 18 eggs. The ostrich has been domesticated, however, and hens have been conditioned to produce more eggs than would ever be expected in the wild.

The ostrich belongs to the ratite family, which includes other large birds such as the emu, rhea and cassowary, as well as five species of kiwi, which are considerably smaller than other ratites. The kiwi does have one interesting claim to fame when it comes to eggs. Kiwi are notable for laying eggs that are extremely large in relation to their body size. A kiwi egg may equal 15 to 20 percent of the body mass of a female kiwi. Perhaps not surprisingly, most kiwis lay only a single egg per clutch. The brown kiwi, however, normally lays two eggs per clutch.

Aepyornis, which was a giant, flightless ratite native to Madagascar and now extinct, produced the largest egg of any bird. Also known as the elephant bird, Aepyornis produced an egg with a volume equal to slightly more than 150 chicken eggs. These giant eggs boasted a circumference of 3 feet, 3 inches and reached about 13 inches in length. Research indicates that humans drove these enormous birds into extinction. One theory is that humans feasted so heavily on the giant eggs produced by Aepyornis that the birds were unable to sustain their species.

Humans have long turned to eggs as a source of nourishment, but we do not feed exclusively on eggs. Animals that feed primarily on eggs are classified by experts as ovivores. Some ovivores include fish, snakes, insects and, yes, birds. Some birds have become quite adept at preying on the eggs of other birds. Blue jays and American crows are known for robbing nests for both eggs and nestlings of other birds.

The bird egg has become firmly interwoven into human culture and traditions. According to the website Aghires.com, estimates indicate that about 180 million eggs are purchased each year in the United States specifically for the Easter holiday. Chicken hens must feel really overworked at this time of the year.

Of course, there are also the Easter traditions of chocolate and peanut butter eggs. I suppose that eases the pressure slightly on the overworked hens.

Hummingbird Tracking

I’m reminding readers that I want to hear from them when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

Observations will be accepted through Sunday, April 18. Winners will be announced in this column on April 28.

Nature Challenge event easy with a phone, keen eye for details

Photo Illustration by nayansolanki/Pixabay • A phone will be helpful during the upcoming iNaturalist City Nature Challenge.

Many new arrivals are making spring an exciting time for birders. At my home, Eastern phoebes have been back for several weeks. They make quite the racket every morning with their incessant “fee-bee” calls that commence just after sunrise. A pair of wood ducks made a stopover at the fish pond on March 16. By the end of the month, swallows, warblers, vireos and perhaps even hummingbirds should start showing up.

If you like to record and document these yearly returns, there is also a way that your record-keeping can benefit science and its knowledge of the world around us. Anyone with a phone or a computer with internet access can take part in an upcoming survey of flora and fauna in Northeast Tennessee.

Organizers for the upcoming iNaturalist City Nature Challenge point out that a cellphone can be a great citizen science tool.

The extent of the Challenge goes far beyond East Tennessee. The iNaturalist City Nature Challenges pits cities around the world against each other in a rivalry to see who can report the most observations of wild flora and fauna during a four-day period.

One of the world’s most popular nature apps, iNaturalist helps users identify the plants and animals they encounter on a daily basis. Get connected with a community of over a million scientists and naturalists who can help everyone learn more about nature. What’s more, by recording and sharing observations, users of the app help create research quality data for scientists working to better understand and protect nature. iNaturalist is a joint initiative by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.

Before the end of April, interested naturalists are urged to download and learn to use the iNaturalist app to contribute to scientific knowledge of Northeast Tennessee trees, plants and animals.

Melanie Kelley, a volunteer with Johnson City Parks and Recreation, has helped organize this year’s City Nature Challenge.

“JCPR is the main City Nature Challenge organizer for our ten county area,” Kelley said.

Parks in other locations are also participating. For instance, Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport is participating, according to Marty Silver, a ranger with WPSP.

According to Kelley, other parks and groups are co-organizers for the event.
Kelley said that taking part in the challenge is simple.

A smartphone or computer is needed to input the data.

“Using either a phone with the iNaturalist app or uploading photos to the http://www.inaturalist.org website, everyone is invited to go out and record wild species,” Kelley said. “From birds to grasses, trees to snakes.

“Wild is the key,” she added. “Any place it can be found! Backyards, schools, parks and gardens.”
Kelley said the City Nature Challenge is a global effort to get a worldwide snapshot of all life on earth during a four-day period.

“It is the world’s largest multi-species BioBlitz,” Kelley said.

Identifications are also crucial, according to Kelley. “This part of the challenge encourages folks to log into the website and review and confirm identifications of what others have uploaded,” she said.

Kelley noted that iNaturalist requires users to be 13 or older but that there is a parental consent method for younger users for both the app and the website.

“Each participating park/group will likely have their own age rules,” she noted.

“Last year was the first year JCPR participated in the CNC,” Kelley said. “If COVID-19 was not an issue, the CNC would be back to its roots as a direct city to city or area to area challenge.”

The rivalries can get intense.

“Last year, our good friends at Zoo Knoxville directly challenged us, so it was Knox vs Washington Counties,” Kelley said. “It was also the first year Knox participated. “

Kelley said that JCPR and Zoo Knoxville knew they would expand their areas after their first successful year taking part in the challenge.

“This allows us to better compete with Nashville’s seven-county project and Chattanooga’s 16 counties over two states,” Kelley explained.

She hopes the COVID-19 shadow over the event is felt less this year.

“Last year, we had daily group events scheduled and all those, of course, had to be cancelled,’ Kelley said.

“This year, the main CNC is again, less of a competition and more of a collaboration worldwide,“ she said. “However, this year, under a hybrid model, those that wish to have head to head challenges can do so. Oh, and yes, we do so want to take on Knox, which includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We can do this!”

Kelley said that expanding the project area to the upper ten Northeast Tennessee counties means partnering with local state and city parks.

Some of the other parks on board include Bristol’s Steele Creek Park, Kingsport’s Warrior’s Path, Elizabethton’s Sycamore Shoals and Roan Mountain’s Roan Mountain State Park.

Kelley noted that Johnson City Parks are all planning on some type of group-led events to help folks who are new to iNaturalist get their feet wet with the program.

“Each park will have its own guidelines as to how they need to handle such events,” she added.

The upcoming event is both valuable to science and an entertaining way to enjoy nature.
“Overall, as a regular iNaturalist user, it is fun,” Kelley said. “More importantly to me, it is such a great way to introduce folks to the native world.

“People walk by and see a flower or a tree or anything and they probably don’t know what it is other than a bird/flower/tree,” she continued. “The app has a really good identification tool where you learn right there what that species is.”

Once identification is made easy, Kelley said that the next big challenge is getting them to the next step of understanding that species role in the larger ecology.

“This is where these group-led observation hikes play a critical role,” she said.

Kelley said that plenty of reports that show up from iNaturalist users are from Unicoi County.
She noted that there are some 4,552 individual observations recorded from Unicoi County.

“These observations represent 1,339 unique species have been recorded by 404 individual iNaturalist users,” Kelley said.

The possibilities of what can be observed and reported are seemingly endless. Everything from birds and insects to salamanders and ferns is fair game as observers scramble to make reports. Grab a phone and start taking snapshots of snakes, squirrels, sassafras trees or anything else that crosses your path. Organizers hope to get plenty of public participation for this year’s City Nature Challenge.

Kelley also quoted Doug Tallamy, a professor in the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, where he has authored eighty research articles and has taught numerous classes, including behavioral ecology and humans and nature, for more than 30 years.

Kelley said that Tallamy has been quoted saying, “Knowledge generates interest, and interest generates compassion.”

She added that iNaturalist is a great way to generate knowledge.

“Birders can upload a spreadsheet from their eBird reports for the event days and those will count in our totals,” Kelley said. “These are the only observations made during the CNC that do not require photos to count.”

Observations for the challenge must be submitted between April 30 and May 3. All observations are required to be found within the upper 10 northeast Tennessee counties of Washington, Sullivan, Unicoi, Carter, Greene, Johnson, Hancock, Cocke, Hawkins and Hamblen.

To learn more about the event, Unicoi County residents or people living in or near Northeast Tennessee can visit https://bit.ly/CityNatureChallengeNETN.

Below are events corresponding with the challenge:

• Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport will offer City Nature Challenge 2021, a friendly competition open to nature lovers. The main event at the park will be held Saturday, April 10, from 10 a.m. to noon. The park’s event is sort of an informative preview of the actual Challenge. Observations for the challenge itself must be submitted between April 30 and May 3. Ranger Brian Glover will teach participants how to use the iNaturalist app to photograph, identify, and share their nature observations with a worldwide community of scientists and nature enthusiasts. He’ll also show those taking part how to join the region’s 2021 City Nature Challenge. Be sure to download the iNaturalist app from your app store, and create an iNaturalist account before arriving at the event. Come dressed for the weather and wear good walking footwear. This is not a hike, but attendees will be wandering over some rocky and uneven ground.

• Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton will offer an educational hike about better ways to enjoy interacting with nature through handy apps and tools on the average smart phone. “Tech in Nature” will be taught by Park Ranger Cory Franklin from 2 to 3 p.m. on Friday, March 26. Most people are inseparable from their smart phones and mobile devices. Franklin wants participants to embrace this cultural change and will show how to better use technology on a day to day basis in nature. Using tools such as GPS locating, plant identification and other easily accessible resources and apps, he will show ways to enhance the experience rather than take away from it. Join him for a walk around the park to better understand the tools everyone carries with them daily. The program will meet and begin at the picnic area beside the visitor center. Cost is $5, but those six and under can participate for free. For more information, call 543-5808.

Note: Although this event has already happened, perhaps Sycamore Shoals will offer this walk again in the future.

•••••

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches for a leisurely drink of sugar water.

As mentioned at the start of the column, spring is bringing back many of our favorite wildflowers, insects and, of course, birds. One of the most anticipated returns each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

This year, there’s more incentive to share your sighting. The Erwin Record and Jonesborough Herald & Tribune will be giving away a hummingbird-related prize from a drawing of all the individuals who report hummingbirds. If you don’t happen to be one of the lucky people to see one of the first hummingbirds of 2021, don’t worry. To be eligible for the contest, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post on my Facebook page a sentence or two explaining why you love hummingbirds.

Observations will be accepted through April 18. Winners will be announced in this column on April 28.

Getting ready for the spring migration of birds

It’s already the middle of March. While birds don’t follow calendars, they are punctual, and thanks to their boundless energies, the grand spectacle of spring migration is already upon us. The pace will quicken in April and early May as many of our favorite summer birds, including species ranging from hummingbirds and warblers to swifts and swallows, wing their way back to the region.

A few will stay, pair with a mate and begin the nesting season in earnest while others will continue toward destinations farther north. For fellow bird enthusiasts, now is the time to conduct some spring tasks to make our feathered friends feel more welcome when they do return.

Place birdhouses
Many birds are cavity-nesting species, which means they utilize natural nooks and crannies as locations for nests. Nesting in a natural tree cavity or in a human-provided birdhouse offers an extra degree of security not available to birds that build traditional cup-shape nests, not to mention all the birds that simply lay their eggs right on the ground without going to much effort to construct an actual nest.
Some of the cavity-nesting species in the region that will readily accept quarters in a bird house include Carolina chickadee, Eastern bluebird, white-breasted nuthatch, tree swallow, tufted titmouse, great crested flycatcher, prothonotary warbler and house wren.
Cavity-nesting isn’t restricted to songbirds. Wood ducks, Eastern screech-owls and American kestrels will make use of birdhouses built to their unique specifications.
Plans for constructing your own bird houses tailored to individual species can be found at various online sites. For those not as good with do-it-yourself projects, department stores, gardening centers and other other shops sell a variety of pre-made houses.

Put hummingbird
feeders out early
Journey North, a website that tracks the annual migration of hummingbirds as well as other wild creatures reports a slow start to the ruby-throated hummingbird spring migration. “Journey North citizen scientists in Texas and along the Gulf are noting arrivals, but reports are still few and far between,” notes an article on the website.
Reports had been received of a ruby-throated hummingbird in Fairhope, Alabama, on March 2, and another in Port O’Connor, Texas, on March 6.
However, Journey North reported February’s cold spell across much of the southern U.S. could have caused a delay in migration. To report first observations of migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds, visit journeynorth.org.
Whether they’re early, late or right on time, the hummingbirds are only weeks away. There will always be “early birds” even among hummingbirds. Increase the likelihood of seeing one of these tiny gems by putting out a sugar water feeder soon.
Remember to fill your feeder with a mixture of one part sugar to four parts water. Don’t add red coloring. Experts suspect that some dyes could be detrimental to hummingbird health. Why take the risk?

Clean feeders
This past winter saw large flocks of pine siskin, purple finch and evening grosbeak in some locations across the region. In some states, these large flocks also suffered from outbreaks of diseases, including salmonella.
As returning birds mingle with lingering winter visitors at our feeders this spring, the chance of spreading disease will increase.
Now is definitely the time to be proactive, cleaning feeders and bird baths regularly and keeping alert to any sign that ill birds might be among the visiting flocks.
Cleaning need not be laborious. Fill a spray bottle with a dilute solution of bleach water. A good ratio is no more than 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Remove feeders, give them a quick rinse, and then spritz them with the bleach solution. Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry before refilling with seed for the birds.
Keep feeding the birds, but play the diligent host. Put out only the amount of seed that visiting birds can eat in a single day. Monitor the flocks for any sign of illness and respond quickly if such signs are detected.

Refurbish brush piles
This past winter with its heavy snow and ice, as well as fierce winds, no doubt brought down many branches. When cleaning your yard of branches, consider adding them to an existing brush pile. I’ve long been a fan of keeping a brush pile in order to provide the resident songbirds with shelter and security from the elements, as well as from predators.
If you don’t have a brush pile, spring’s the perfect time to create one. If an unkempt pile of sticks offends your aesthetic sensibilities, tuck the brush pile into an obscure corner or locate it at the margins of the lawn or garden.
Personally, I like to locate brush piles near my busier feeders. A brush pile gives visiting birds a quick retreat if a predatory hawk arrives unexpectedly. For some birds, the need for dense cover is paramount.
Offering brush piles, as well as hedges and dense shrubbery, will help welcome visitors such as gray catbirds, Eastern towhees, brown thrashers and some sparrows. Wide, open spaces make many songbirds nervous.

Install
water features
With a large fish pond, a flowing creek and a couple of mountain seeps on my property, I’ve never needed to introduce an additional water source. For those with properties that don’t offer ready access to water, adding an ornamental pool or fountain, or even a bird bath or artificial waterfall, will act as a magnet for many birds. American robins and cedar waxwings love a place to splish and splash, as well as take a refreshing sip. Migrating warblers, which for the most part ignore feeders, are almost magically drawn to water features.
There is also something relaxing for the human psyche when it comes to water features. Treat yourself as well as the visiting birds by adding one to your lawn or garden.

Make beneficial
landscape additions
Spring’s a great time to plan ahead. While a handout of sunflower seed is appreciated by many birds, there’s nothing that beats organic sources of food.
Add plants and trees to the landscape of your yard and garden with the express purpose of providing birds with seeds, fruits and berries. Most experts urge native plant varieties that meet the nutritional needs of many bird species.
Flowers can be chosen that provide that desired burst of color for an interval but then go on to produce fruit or seeds craved by many birds. Native flowers can also be planted that offer a natural source of nectar for ruby-throated hummingbirds. Do some homework. Some nurseries specialize in native plants.

Give yourself a treat
Now is also the perfect time to indulge in a purchase that will enhance your enjoyment of the returning birds. If you have been wanting a new pair of binoculars, a new software app to help identify birds or a camera to let you document bird sightings with photographs, there’s no time like the present.
Welcome spring and the returning birds at the same time while ensuring maximum enjoyment of both.

Photo by Pixabay.com • A good pair of binoculars will bring birds much closer.

Love is in the air for visiting red-shouldered hawks

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Lee Karney • A Red-shouldered hawk perches in branches.

As spring creeps closer, lovebirds spring up among a variety of birds, ranging from Eastern bluebirds to Northern cardinals. Of course, this inclination for birds to establish bonded pairs isn’t limited to songbirds.

As has occurred for the past couple of years, a red-shouldered hawk arrived at my home in early February ahead of Valentine’s Day, which proved appropriate considering what transpired after the handsome raptor’s arrival.

The raptor’s usual habit is to choose a perch in the branches of a large willow tree at the fish pond to secure a prominent spot for surveying its surroundings. If it’s the same red-shouldered hawk that has visited in past years, it has overcome its past shyness and does not fly instantly when I step outdoors. In fact, the hawk has remained perched even while I have been engaged in activities around my parked car, the garage and my mailbox.

As I discovered on Feb. 21, this hawk’s not a loner this year. There’s a pair of these striking hawks in residence! There’s ample evidence that they’ve established a pair bond, too. In fact, the two raptors have shown no shyness at all, going about their enthusiastic mating in full view of any and all passersby.

I’m pleased, even if I feel a bit voyeuristic, at this evidence that there’s a mated pair of these hawks that have adopted my home as their own. I’d love for them to decide to nest and raise some young in the nearby woodlands. A neighbor who previously lived close to me had shared on her Facebook page observations and photographs of red-shouldered hawks spending the summer months on her property, so I’m hopeful that my visitors might do the same. My neighbor, now deceased, was extremely detailed in her day-to-day observations of the natural world that took place in the fields and woods around her home.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

Red-shouldered hawks are definitely a raptor worthy getting to know better. According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

Different raptors utilize different strategies for subduing prey. The red-shouldered hawk is an ambush predator. This raptor usually selects a favorable perch and remains motionless and patient while scanning for possible prey. The hawk will drop rapidly onto any prey that wanders carelessly within range. In the summer, prey items largely consist of reptiles and amphibians, including snakes and frogs, as well as some insects and crayfish. Most of these creatures are scarce during the colder months of the year, which prompts these hawks to adopt a diet that focuses on rodents and the occasional songbird. Other than the altercations with the resident crows, I haven’t observed any encounters between the hawk at my home and any other birds — with one exception.

Photo by Peter Benoit from Pixabay • A red-shouldered hawk perches on a suburban fence.

On a morning a couple of years ago, a red-shouldered hawk was on its usual perch when seven Canada geese, another rare visitor to my home, suffered some sort of fright and took flight. The noisy geese flew directly over the willow, which spooked the raptor into taking flight in the opposite direction of the departing geese. I still fondly recall that amusing but accidental clash between these two species of birds.

The frogs at my fish pond interrupted their hibernation on Feb. 12 to begin their own amphibious serendades daily. I’ve even speculated that the red-shouldered hawks may have timed their return to coincide with the emergence of this potential food source. Considering how many frogs of several different species make the pond their home, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think they are one of the major attractions bringing the hawks back year after year.

The red-shouldered hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a killdeer. The two hawks that are visiting this year have been more vocal than usual. In the past I took their atypical silence as an effort to avoid the local crows. So far, the crows have left them alone this year, but in years past the local crows would flock together to mob the unfortunate hawks if they happened to take notice of their presence.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A red-shouldered hawk levels a penetrating stare.

During courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal. At other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible for a person to mistakenly think they have heard one of these large hawks. Blue jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related red-tailed hawk, the red-shouldered hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive.

The red-shouldered hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the red-tailed hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often dominant avian predators in their respective habitats. The red-shouldered hawk is known by the scientific name Buteo lineatus.

The red-shouldered hawk is less common in the region than some of the other raptors. This hawk’s stronghold is in Florida and other southern states like South Carolina and Georgia. I’ve seen many of these hawks on visits to both the Sunshine State and Palmetto State.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos hawk and the Hawaiian hawk. Outside the United States, buteo raptors are often known as buzzards. When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both native vultures, as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s hawk and broad-winged hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

Around the world, there are some 30 species of Buteo hawks. In the Old World, these raptors are known as buzzards instead of hawks. In the New World, particularly in the United States, the term buzzard more often refers to vultures than hawks.

Some of the more descriptively named Buteo hawks include the gray-lined hawk of South America, the forest buzzard of South Africa and the Eastern buzzard, which is native to Mongolia, China, Japan and some offshore islands.

Several Buteo species have been given common names to honor people. Some of these include Ridgway’s Hawk, named for ornithologist Robert Ridgway; Archer’s buzzard, named in honor of the British explorer and colonial official Sir Geoffrey Francis Archer; and Swainson’s hawk, which is named for British naturalist William Swainson.

It’s been nice hosting these beautiful raptors, although the crows and jays likely disagree with me.

Green-winged teal, other waterfowl spend winter months in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ring-necked ducks on a pond.

Some interesting waterfowl have spent at least part of the winter at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. A male redhead, a female Northern shoveler and a female ring-necked entertained area birders, as did other waterfowl such as hooded merganser and Ross’s goose. A solitary female green-winged teal has lingered for several weeks, showing considerable expertise at not drawing attention to herself.

Green-winged teal belong to the group of ducks known as dabblers, which includes the familiar mallard as well as species like American wigeon, Northern pintail, gadwall and mallard. The dabbling ducks generally feed in shallow water.

In North America, there are two other close relatives of the green-winged teal: blue-winged teal and cinnamon teal. I’ve seen the green-winged and blue-winged at many locations in the region. I saw my only cinnamon teal during a trip to Utah and Idaho in 2003.

 

Blue-winged teal often migrate through the region in small flocks in early spring and again in late summer and early fall. The cinnamon teal is not as abundant in North America as other dabbling ducks. Many of these teal nest around the Great Salt Lake in Utah, although I saw the cinnamon teal that counted as my “life list” bird at the Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Idaho in October of 2003.

The male cinnamon teal is a striking duck with bright reddish plumage. The female’s plumage is a much duller brown. In size, it’s the largest of the North American teal species and can weigh 14 ounces. In contrast, blue-winged teal weigh 13 ounces while the green-winged teal only tips the scales at 11 to 12 ounces. However, some individual green-winged teal may only weigh five or six ounces. It’s helpful to observe teal in the company of geese or other ducks. In direct comparison, it’s easy to observe how incredibly tiny these birds are compared to their relatives.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A pair of green-winged teal swims together.

In fact, according to the Ducks Unlimited website, the green-winged teal is the smallest of the North American dabbling ducks. The website describes the male green-winged teal as having a chestnut head with an iridescent green to purple patch extending from the eyes to the nape of the neck. The chest is pinkish-brown with black speckles, and the back, sides and flanks are vermiculated gray, separated from the chest by a white bar. The wing coverts are brownish-gray with a green speculum.

As is the case with many ducks, females, or hens, are much duller in plumage than the males, or drakes. Green-winged teal hens are brown with a yellowish streak along the tail. Like the male, she shows green wing patches in the secondary wing feather. These patches are known as speculums, but these may be not be readily visible unless the bird’s in flight.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A green-winged teal drake is a small but colorful waterfowl.

The green-winged teal’s global population stood at only 772,000 birds in 1962, but this teal’s population has grown steadily in the subsequent decades. The green-winged teal can be found during the summer nesting season from Alaska, across Canada, into the Maritime Provinces of Canada, south into central California, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Green-winged teal hens are good mothers. They lay a clutch of six to nine eggs, which they incubate for about 22 days. She likes to conceal her nest, often choosing a location that offers dense cover that may form a sheltering canopy over the nest site.

During winter, many green-winged teal migrate to coastal areas of Texas and Louisiana, but some will keep going as far south as Central America, the Caribbean, and even into northern South America. A few individuals may, as did the small hen at Erwin Fishery Park, stop and linger at ponds, rivers or other wetlands through the southeastern United States.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male cinnamon teal forages in a wetland. These striking ducks are a species of waterfowl that is usually only found in the western half of the United States.

Like other dabbling ducks, green-winged teals search for aquatic vegetation, which comprises the majority of their diet. These ducks also feed on some insects, crustaceans and other invertebrates. Pollution of wetlands and ingestion of discarded lead pose serious perils, but as a species this smallest of the dabblers is not considered particularly vulnerable. The green-winged teal is hunted as a game bird through most of its range.

Photo by U.S Fish & Wildlife Service • In this photo of a hen and drake green-winged teal, it’s easy to see the green patch, or speculum, in the female’s wing. It’s the only spot of color in her brown-gray plumage.

Look for green-winged teal and other ducks on farm ponds or similar bodies of waters in city parks. If conditions are to their liking, these ducks will often winter at such locations in the region. The ponds along the walking trails in Erwin, Tennessee, have been a good place for many years to look for green-winged teal during the winter season. They are more shy than other ducks. If pressed too closely, this small duck is likely to take flight. Enjoy through binoculars from a comfortable distance.

So far, the green-winged teal at the Fishery Park pond has led a solitary existence. The male redhead, however, has been seen recently cavorting with a newly-arrived redhead hen. This pair of ducks has engaged in typical mating displays appropriate to their species and are usually inseparable.

Once time arrives for them to depart for their summer nesting grounds, they will likely make the migratory flight together.

Godspeed to them.

 

Bird and humans can suffer impact from epidemic disease

Photo by Wileydoc/Pixabay • Pine siskins congregate at a feeder.

I wrote several columns about an abundance of finches earlier this winter and late last fall. Some of these flocks, consisting of such species as purple finches, pine siskins and evening grosbeaks, have persisted. Unfortunately, there is sometimes too much of a good thing as a Facebook post from Carolyn Dover Norman reminded me.

Carolyn posted on my Facebook page to share some concerns about an ongoing epidemic affecting some of our favorite feeder visitors.

“I read your article on the internet about the pine siskins and enjoyed it very much,” she wrote. “I live in Texas and have thousands ( it seems) of siskins in our trees this winter. Yes, they are a friendly bird and two allowed me to pick them up off the ground, but now I learn that they are sick with salmonella.” Carolyn said the infected birds don’t appear to be well and are extra tame. She wondered if I had ever heard of this species being more susceptible to this disease.

“I am having to remove and bleach all my feeders and take precautions,” she added.

Regrettably, I informed her that I have heard of outbreaks of various diseases that can affect different birds. Carolyn is to be commended for taking immediate action. She removed her feeders and disinfected them. By taking those steps, she could cautiously resume feeding the birds, although some careful monitoring of the flocks would seem to be in order.

Back in the 1990s, house finches were decimated by mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. Humans can get infected with conjunctivitis, which is commonly called “pink eye.” According to the Project FeederWatch website, infected finches have red, swollen, runny or crusty eyes. In extreme cases the eyes become swollen shut and the bird becomes blind. Observers might find an infected bird sitting quietly while clumsily scratching an eye against its foot or a perch. While some infected birds recover, many die from starvation, exposure or predation. Since the early outbreaks, the disease has affected several other wild bird species, including American goldfinch, evening grosbeak and purple finch.

I recall seeing both house finches and pine siskins suffering from this disease. I haven’t seen it as often in recent years, which is a relief.

Salmonella is another disease that can affect birds. As most people know, salmonella can also have serious consequences for human health. Finches, especially in the West Coast states of Oregon and California, have been hard hit by salmonella in recent months.

“Salmonellosis occurs periodically in pine siskins in some winters throughout their range. When large numbers of pine siskins congregate, the disease can spread rapidly causing high mortality. Most birds die within 24 hours of infection,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Senior Environmental Scientist Krysta Rogers, an avian disease specialist.

Birds become infected with salmonella when they ingest food, water or come into contact with objects, such as bird feeders, perches or soil, contaminated with feces from an infected bird. Sick birds often appear weak, have labored breathing, and may sit for prolonged periods with fluffed or ruffled feathers. Salmonellosis is almost exclusively reported from locations with bird feeders where birds congregate. Rogers advised that residents can help reduce disease transmission by removing bird feeders and bird baths. Allowing birds to feed on natural seeds rather than at bird feeders reduces contact between birds and helps slow spread of the disease. Some of the flocks of finches have been exceptionally large this winter, which is why it’s a good idea to closely monitor the birds at your feeders. At the first sign of illness, take steps to disinfect feeders. It’s a good idea to clean feeders on a regular basis. A spray with a weak bleach water solution followed by a few swipes with a clean towel can help. Once an outbreak is evident, however, the best course would be to stop feeding birds for a short period.

Photo by Veronika Andrews from Pixabay • A flock of snow geese takes flight.

Songbirds aren’t the only birds affected by disease outbreaks. Waterfowl are often vulnerable. Like finches, many species of ducks and geese also form large flocks. Some of the diseases that can run rampant in waterfowl populations include avian influenza, avian cholera and avian botulism. According to the Ducks Unlimited website, major avian botulism outbreaks have been reported throughout North America for more than a century. In 1910, avian botulism resulted in the deaths of millions of waterfowl in California and Utah, and another incident in 1952 killed an estimate 4 million to 5 million waterfowl across the western United States.

In 1999, the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne disease, arrived in the United States. This disease is typically a mild nuisance for most infected people, but in some circumstances the virus can be lethal. The virus, which first appeared in the United States in 1999 after being discovered in 1937 in the African nation of Uguanda, also didn’t confine itself to the human population. Soon after its arrival in the United States, the virus began decimating American crows. Two decades later, experts have been able to study the consequences of West Nile virus on both humans and wild birds.

Photo by Jasmin Sessler from Pixabay • American crows suffered greatly from the spread of the West Nile virus.

According to an article by Hugh Powell published Oct. 15, 2010, on the All About Birds website, the disease afflicted crows more than any other bird species. “West Nile virus hit American crows particularly hard,” Powell wrote. “When the disease first appeared in New York City, in summer 1999, nearly 5,500 crows died in four months. Tests suggested the disease was 100-percent fatal to crows.” Many other species, from jays and magpies to gulls and chickadees, also proved susceptible, according to the All About Birds article.

Millions of birds died as West Nile swept across the continent in just five years. An interesting thing happened as the virus spread across the country. As viral diseases often tend to do, West Nile apparently became less virulent. The American crow population did hit frightening lows, but the species appears to have managed to rebound.

Where’s the silver lining in regard to all these stories? Here is a sliver of light through the dark clouds. Birds are resilient, just like humans. They can usually overcome anything nature might throw at them.

Keep feeding the birds, but play the diligent host. Put out only the amount of seed that visiting birds can eat in a single day. Monitor the flocks for any sign of illness and respond quickly if such signs are detected. Keep feeding the birds, but be safe and attentive while doing so.

Restless robin flocks signal spring’s approach

When I posted Jan. 29 on Facebook about seeing my first flock of American robins in 2021, I didn’t anticipate the avalanche from other observant bird enthusiasts.

Priscilla Gutierrez commented on seeing about 30 robins in a field along Limestone Cove Road in Unicoi.

“They don’t come to the feeders,” Priscilla noted. “It was wonderful to see them.”

Alice Torbett in Knoxville shared that she saw her first flock of robins about two weeks ago when they swooped in to harvest berries from the holly tees at her Knoxville home. “They were very considerate to wait until after Christmas,” Alice wrote.

Erwin resident Brenda Marie Crowder commented that “tons of Robins are eating my holly berries right now. With snow dropping and all.”

Jonesborough resident Nan Hidalgo reported that she had five robins in her yard on a recent Friday afternoon.

Christine M. Schwarz in Alexandria, Virginia, shared her own sightings.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American robin grasps a perch and keeps an eye on its surroundings.

“Three weeks ago there was a large flock at Mount Vernon,” Christine wrote in a comment to my post. “I have seen a smaller group over here by Fort Belvoir, too. I can’t believe they’re migrating now — more like wintering over.”

Byron Tucker, who lives in Atlanta, commented, “The other day, I saw a flock of robins and blackbirds mixed together.”

Dee Obrien, formerly of Elizabethton, Tennessee, but now living in Florida, lamented the timing of the robins. “They always seem to come back to soon, poor little things,” she wrote. “It is too cold.”

Becky Boyd shared her own experience with robins. “I’ve had dozens here in Knoxville,” she said. “They all recently left, except one loner who is terrorizing the bluebirds and attacks them at the feeders.”

Erwin resident Donna Rea, and a former co-worker at The Erwin Record, posted a question to my Facebook robin discussion.

“What do robins eat this time of year?” Donna asked. “Will they eat out of our feeders if the ground is frozen and they can’t find a hibernating worm?”

Photo by Jack Bulmner/Pixabaycom • An American robin plucks a berry from a branch.

I suggested in my reply that robins might eat suet at feeders, as well as fruit. More likely, the restless robins in the region are probably scouring the countryside for holly trees with berries. Of course, robins are omnivorous in their appetite and would gladly take an earthworm if they could coax one out of the chilly ground.

South Carolina resident Catherine Romaine Henderson simply posted an optimistic comment on my robin post. “Please tell me spring is coming!”

The American robin is indeed widely held to be a harbinger of spring. Furthermore, the robin is a popular American bird. In fact, this bird has been designated the official state bird by Wisconsin and Michigan.

In truth, many robins forego migration to endure a few months of cold weather. Their ability to shift their diet from earthworms and insects to fruit and feeder fare helps robins eke out a living. Robins remain an abundant bird but their fondness for co-existing with humans can leave them vulnerable to pesticides applied to lawns and gardens.

According to the website, “All About Birds,” the American robin nests three times a year. On average, however, only 40 percent of robin nests succeed at fledging young. Even once out of the nest, young robins are vulnerable. The website estimates that only 25 percent of each year’s fledged robins will reach November. So, the young robins that join some of the large flocks people are seeing in the region are birds that have beaten the odds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Returning American robins, prominent in lawns and gardens during their annual spring migration, will soon turn their attention to nesting duties.

Even the robins that do depart the region each fall don’t migrate far. Many robins that spend the summer in Canada or the United States only migrate as far as the Gulf States, southern Florida, southern California, Baja California and Mexico.

The American robin is a large bird in the thrush family, which in North America also includes such birds as Eastern bluebird, wood thrush, and Townsend’s solitaire.

In the British Isles, the European robin is simply known as “robin” or “robin redbreast.” When the first English colonists arrived in New England and other parts of colonial-era North America, they took pleasure in finding that some of the birdlife in the New World resembled familiar birds from their homeland. The red-breasted American robin looked like the bird they knew in the Old World as “robin,” which motivated them to name the New World bird “robin,” as well.

Other than the red breast, however, the two robins are not all that similar. The American robin is the larger of the two birds. Further separating these two birds is the fact that the European robin is not a thrush but rather a member of the family of Old World flycatchers.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • While American robins like fruit when its available, they also spend a lot of time feeding on earthworms and insects.

In some ways, the two robins are similar. Both are fond of earthworms, spending a great deal of their time on the ground foraging for worms. They will also follow human gardeners at their work, waiting patiently for the followed person to disturb the soil with a spade or hoe and expose earthworms for the waiting bird. They are also rather tolerant of humans and have learned to make their own homes close to human dwellings.

Some of the British transplants to North America must have felt homesick for familiar things because several unsuccessful attempts were made to introduce the European robin to the United States and Canada. European robins introduced in New York and Oregon failed to gain a foothold, unlike the introduction of such alien birds as the house sparrow and European starling.

On a few occasions, our American robins have overflown their destinations and ended up in the United Kingdom. For instance, an American robin became a first for London birdwatchers when one was found in that nation’s capital city in March of 2006. Whether of the European or American persuasion, robins have long been a favorite of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.

They have even adapted to take food at feeders. If you’d like to try your luck at attracting robins to feeders, know that they like their sunflower seeds hulled. They will also eat mealworms, fruit, peanut hearts and suet. Robins prefer to feed on the ground or on an open platform feeder.

Robins are such friendly and engaging birds. If we can have them near us for 12 months of the year, who’s going to complain?

 

Hermit thrushes brave East Tennessee winters

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perched on a fence rail shows the reddish tail, a reliable field mark to separate this species from close relatives. The tail contrasts from the rest of the bird’s plumage.

Karen Miller sent me an email about a winter visitor in her yard at her home in Parrottsville, Tennessee. “I have seen a hermit thrush eating holly berries for 10 days,” Karen wrote. “Is he migrating or is he perhaps a winter visitor here in Parrottsville?”

To answer her question, I replied and informed her that the thrush is a winter visitor. The hermit thrush takes up residence after its kin have already departed the region in the fall, making it one of the few thrushes to remain in Northeast Tennessee during the winter months. I’ve always thought a good nickname for this bird would be the “winter thrush” because of its presence during the colder months of the year. Of course, for those who know where to look, a few hermit thrushes spend the summer nesting season at high elevation peaks such as Roan Mountain on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

The hermit thrush is one of the larger brown thrushes, which also includes such related birds as Swainson’s thrush, veery, gray-cheeked thrush and wood thrush. Other less closely related members of the thrush family include the American robin, Eastern bluebird and Townsend’s solitaire.

USFWS • Hermit thrushes like to keep to the shadows.

The poet Walt Whitman employed a hermit thrush as a symbol in his poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a moving pastoral elegy in honor of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Whitman evidently knew his birds, and it’s not difficult for naturalists and bird enthusiasts to identify that he referred to the hermit thrush when he wove this songbird as a symbol into his stanzas honoring Lincoln. “Sing on there in the swamp,” Whitman wrote in his poem. “O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call. I hear, I come presently, I understand you…”

Whitman evidently knew of this bird’s bashful, retiring habits, and he had obviously enjoyed the flute-like notes of the hermit thrush’s call. Whitman and many other Americans have been made fans of this gifted songbird. In fact, the citizens of Vermont even proclaimed the hermit thrush as their official state bird. The hermit thrush is well known for its song — a series of clear, musical notes, each on a different pitch, consisting of a piping introductory note and a reedy tremolo. The song had often been described as melancholy by various bird experts. The birds don’t usually sing in winter, but they do produce a call note when disturbed or alarmed that is described as a low “chuck.”

The visiting hermit thrush at her home has allowed Karen Miller to get to know this somewhat reclusive bird better. “He sits on the ground, cocks his head, spies a berry and then jumps up and gets it,” she wrote. She noted that her visitor has a good appetite. “He eats four or five at a time,” she said. “I’m so glad to see him.”

Photo by USFWS • Like many thrushes, the hermit thrush is fond of fruit and berries, especially during the winter.

According to the Smoky Mountains Visitors Guide website, the hermit thrush forages for most of its food from the ground. This bird’s diet includes insects, spiders, snails, and earthworms, plus considerable amounts of wild fruits during the fall and winter. Hermit thrushes may join up with mixed flocks of birds during the winter, often associating with such songbirds as kinglets, brown creepers, chickadees and titmice. For those not fortunate enough to host a wintering hermit thrush, this bird can be found during the summer months atop some high-elevation peaks. Close to home, look for this thrush in the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Gardens. The hermit thrush is also found at some locations in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Female hermit thrushes collect nesting materials and construct the nest, within which she will lay three to six eggs. These thrushes nest once or twice a season. According to the website All About Birds, nesting habits differ between hermit thrushes in the western North America and their counterparts in the eastern half of the continent. Eastern thrushes tend to nest on the ground, but those in the west often place their nests in shrubs or tree branches.

At home on Simerly Creek Road, my first hermit thrush of the winter arrived in early November of last year. During a woodland stroll with neighbor Beth McPherson, the resident thrush put on an impressive show, hopping and scraping on the woodland floor beneath a rhododendron thicket bordering a mountain spring. In such surroundings, it’s not difficult to fathom why this bird has developed such a subtle plumage of muted browns and grays. Even when foraging actively, the bird blended remarkably with the background of fallen leaves and other woodland debris.

The hermit thrush is known by the scientific name, Catharus guttatus. The term guttatus is Latin for “spotted,” which seems appropriate. Surprisingly, the hermit thrush is not closely related to the other North American migrant species of Catharus thrushes. Instead, the hermit thrush is more closely related to the russet nightingale-thrush, a Mexican songbird. The hermit thrush could accurately be called the “red-tailed thrush” for the fact that this species has a rusty-red tail that stands apart from the warm brown-gray tones of the rest of its plumage. A white eye ring, pink legs and a heavily spotted breast complete the rest of this bird’s understated appearance.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perches on a branch in a winter woodland.

The wintering hermit thrushes in the region will likely stay put for the next couple of months, but they will mostly depart the area in April or early May. If you want to look for them, now’s the time.

••••• Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.