Monthly Archives: May 2014

‘Wind birds’ make their way through region during annual migrations

Since the Volunteer State has no access to the sea, it is sometimes amazing how many birds affiliated with coastal areas can be found if you know when and where to look.

A recent seven-day visit to coastal South Carolina reinforced the romance of a group of related birds known collectively as shorebirds or, in a somewhat more adventuresome context, “wind birds.” This diverse family of birds range in size from sparrow-sized sandpipers to larger species such as American Avocet, Long-billed Curlew and Marbled Godwit.

During daily visits to Huntington Beach State Park, located within five minutes of my brother’s new home on Pawleys Island, S.C., I observed plenty of these “wind birds.” I saw a range of species, including Wilson’s Plover, Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitcher, Greater Yellowlegs, Sanderling, Least Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Spotted Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Plover, Dunlin and even the gangly Black-necked Stilt.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A pair of Sanderlings at surf's edge at Huntington Beach State Park.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A pair of Sanderlings at surf’s edge at Huntington Beach State Park.

Known as “wind birds” for the propensity of many members of this extended family to stage long-distance migrations, some species fly through Northeast Tennessee each spring and fall as they migrate to and from distant nesting grounds.

I have seen several species — Wilson’s Snipe, Greater Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, Least Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper — in the region this spring. Their stays are usually of brief duration as they are eager to push farther north. Many of them will not stop until they reach the edge of the Arctic tundra.

While I was enjoying seeing a wide range of shorebirds in South Carolina, two Stilt Sandpipers put in a rare appearance in Northeast Tennessee. I hated to miss them. I’ve only seen one other Stilt Sandpiper in the region, and that observation took place back in 2000 at Austin Springs on Boone Lake.

The Stilt Sandpipers were found by Brookie and Jean Potter on the Watauga River at Rasar’s Farm in Elizabethton. The couple reported that it was their first spring sighting of Stilt Sandpipers, as well as their first Carter County sighting of this species. The photo at the start of the column, provided by Jean Potter, shows the two Stilt Sandpipers bordered by a pair of Greater Yellowlegs.

Stilt Sandpipers making migration stops in Tennessee still have a long way to travel. These shorebirds nest on the Arctic tundra beyond the tree line. Wet sedge-meadows with raised ridges and hummocks provide nesting habitat. After the nesting season they fly south as far as northern South America and can be found at fresh water ponds, marshes, lagoons and flooded fields.

This medium-sized sandpiper stands out from most of the sandpipers in its size range. It has long, greenish legs, as well as a long neck and bill, which is drooped at the tip. In breeding plumage, this shorebird has a distinctive chestnut cheek patch.


During my South Carolina stay, I didn’t encounter any Stilt Sandpipers. I did, however, find three Black-necked Stilts.

The only time I have seen this unusual shorebird in Tennessee took place on Oct. 13, 2004, at Austin Springs on Boone Lake in Washington County. The bird, first found by Rick Knight, drew many excited birders to the location for looks at this shorebird before it departed to continue its migration flight south.

Photo by Bryan Stevens Two Black-necked Stilts forage along the causeway wetland at Huntington Beach State Park.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Two Black-necked Stilts forage along the causeway wetland at Huntington Beach State Park.

I have also seen Black-necked Stilt on Fripp Island, S.C, as well as in Utah.

The world of shorebirds has produced many look-alike species, including many of the small sandpipers often collectively labeled as “peeps” by birders. The Black-necked Stilt, however, is not at all likely to be confused with any other shorebird. It is a slender bird atop a pair of extremely long pink legs. It has a two-tone appearance with black upper parts and white underparts. The black and white dichotomy continues along the bird’s long neck and head. This bird also has a thin, needle-shaped bill that it uses to delicately pluck aquatic insects and other prey from water or mud.

I first spied the Black-necked Stilts at Huntington Beach State Park while walking on a marsh boardwalk near the park’s Nature Center. They flew toward the causeway, so I got into my car and drove there to try to re-locate them. I did find two of the stilts feeding along the causeway, but I never managed to find the third bird.

I watched the two Black-necked Stilts foraging for food in shallow water shared by egrets and alligators. The two birds, despite a somewhat gangly appearance, moved with elegantly efficient strides on their long pink legs. This bird feeds on an assortment of aquatic creatures, including small fish, insects and tadpoles. The seeds of aquatic plants also provides some of the food in its diet.

I also saw several plovers, another group of shorebirds, while in South Carolina. Wilson’s Plover was one that stood out during my visits to Huntington Beach State Park. Wilson’s Plover is a coastal shorebird that breeds on both coasts of the Americas from the equator northwards. Its range extends north to include much of the U.S. eastern seaboard as well as the Pacific coast of Mexico.

A Wilson's Plover in the dunes at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

A Wilson’s Plover in the dunes at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

I’ve observed Wilson’s Plovers on Fripp Island, S.C., in the past, but those sightings have been rather sporadic. I have also observed this bird at one other location — at Douglas Lake in Cocke County back in the late 1990s.

The Wilson’s Plovers at Huntington Beach State Park were nesting in the dunes, which also gave me an opportunity to see some young plovers. A young Wilson’s Plover looks like a ball of downy feathers standing on toothpicks. This plover nests on a bare scrape on sandy beaches or sandbars. To protect the plovers, as well as other nesting species, this section of dunes on Huntington Beach State Park bars the entry of dogs. It is also roped off to prevent accidental intrusion by people.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A pair of Wilson's Plover chicks at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A pair of Wilson’s Plover chicks at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Most of the Wilson’s Plovers that spend the summer in the United States retreat each fall, although a few migrate only as far as Florida. The rest spend the winter as far south as Brazil.

For a small shorebird, the Wilson’s Plover sports a thick, blunt and relatively large bill. In fact, this bill — that looks too big for its body — is a good way to identify this shorebird at a glance. The Wilson’s Plover forages for food on beaches. It has a fondness for crabs, which may explain the size and shape of its bill, but this bird will also eat insects, marine worms and other small organisms.

The Wilson’s Plover is larger than the related Semipalmated Plover and Piping Plover but considerably smaller than such relatives as Killdeer and Black-bellied Plover. This shorebird weighs only a couple of ounces, with a length of about eight inches and a wingspan of 19 inches. The Wilson’s Plover has a dark neck ring, grayish-brown upper parts, a white underside and pinkish legs.

This bird was named after the Scottish-American ornithologist Alexander Wilson. Wilson collected the type specimen during a trip in May of 1813 to Cape May, N.J. Other birds named for this pioneering bird expert include Wilson’s Warbler, Wilson’s Phalarope, Wilson’s Snipe and Wilson’s Storm Petrel.


With a few exceptions, most of the shorebirds that I have found along the Atlantic Coast I have also observed here in land-locked Tennessee during spring and fall migration. It’s one of those little known facts I enjoy sharing with people, who are often surprised that these “beach birds” also make visits to our state.


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A mixed flock of Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers and a Ruddy Turnstone at Huntington Beach State Park.

A mixed flock of Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers and a Ruddy Turnstone at Huntington Beach State Park.


Taste of tropics arrives with Scarlet Tanagers

In late April and early May, once the oaks, the maples, the poplars begin spreading out new green leaves to create a concealing woodland canopy, a familiar song can be heard from the treetops. Upon first hearing it, listeners might mistake the hidden singer for an American Robin. Listen a little closer, however, and the song sounds as if it is being delivered by a hoarse robin with a sore throat.

The producer of the hoarse but melodic song is a Scarlet Tanager, one of the most showy birds of Eastern woodlands from April to early October. Like the warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other songbirds, the Scarlet Tanager is migratory. They spend the winter months in the tropical forests of Central and South America. The Scarlet Tanager is better attired than most birds to provide us a glimpse of what life must be like in the tropical rain forests, which are a riot of color and sound.

A print of Scarlet Tanagers by early North American naturalist and painter John James Audubon.

A print of Scarlet Tanagers by early North American naturalist and painter John James Audubon.

It takes only one sighting to sear the vision of these vibrant birds into our retinas, as well as into our memories. The Scarlet Tanager boasts a brilliant plumage of crimson red paired with black wings and tail. Of course, this is the male. The female Scarlet Tanager makes no real claim to the common name with her comparatively drab greenish plumage. However, the scientific name, Piranga olivacea, gives a nod to the olive-green plumage of females, young males and even adult males when molting their feathers.

Although once nominated as a candidate for state bird by the school children of Minnesota, the Scarlet Tanager ultimately failed to gain the designation. Instead, as perhaps is fitting for the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” the Common Loon represents Minnesota as official state bird.

The related Summer Tanager is less widespread in Northeast Tennessee, but males of this species are no less dramatic in appearance than the Scarlet Tanager. Male Summer Tanagers are a rosy-red over all their body. Females, with a dull greenish plumage, are relegated to the background. She can be distinguished from her counterpart, the Scarlet Tanager, because of their darker wings and larger bills.

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter The Summer Tanager is the only all-red bird in North America. It is less common in Northeast Tennessee than the related Scarlet Tanager.

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter
The Summer Tanager is the only all-red bird in North America. It is less common in Northeast Tennessee than the related Scarlet Tanager.

The Summer Tanager holds the distinction of being the only all-red bird in North America. Birds like Northern Cardinals and Scarlet Tanagers also have some black in their plumage.

I’ve seen Summer Tanagers at Steele Creek Park in Bristol and Willow Springs Park in Johnson City. Sadly, over the years my sightings of this attractive songbird have been few and far between. My best sighting of a male Summer Tanager took place during a spring visit to Fripp Island, S.C., many years ago. Most of the Summer Tanagers I have observed in Northeast Tennessee have been females.

On the other hand, I usually have a few Scarlet Tanagers in residence around my home during the summer months. If the woodlands at my home fail to attract this bird, I can usually make a visit to higher elevations on Roan Mountain and Holston Mountain to gain an exciting glimpse of this beautiful bird.

Worldwide, there have traditionally been about 240 species of tanagers. Experts have changed some of the ways they classify tanagers, so that figure is no longer set in stone. Tanagers are a New World family of birds, concentrated mainly in the tropics.

In the western United States, the Scarlet and Summer Tanagers are replaced by Western Tanagers and Hepatic Tanagers. During a visit to Salt Lake City in Utah in 2006 I saw several Western Tanagers.

Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including Flame-colored Tanager, Green-headed Tanager, Golden-chevroned Tanager, Azure-shouldered Tanager, Fawn-breasted Tanager, Saffron-crowned Tanager, Metallic-green Tanager, Turquoise Tanager, Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager and Diademed Tanager.

Scientists, who have to occupy themselves, have recently given fresh consideration to the relationship of many tanagers to the other birds of the world. As a result, many of the North American tanagers are now closely allied with such birds as Northern Cardinals and more remote from tropical tanagers.

The Scarlet Tanager is not typically a feeder visitor, but you can lure these birds with orange slices placed in special feeders or simply spiked onto the branches of backyard trees. As an added bonus, orange slices can also attract birds such as Baltimore Orioles and Gray Catbirds.

Fond of fruit, the Scarlet Tanager incorporates various berries into its diet. Landscape around your home with fruit-bearing trees such as mulberry, serviceberry and wild cherry to make your yard more inviting to these elusive bird.

Yes, the Scarlet Tanager is more often heard than seen, but it is a bird worth seeking out. A sighting of one will amaze you.


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Northeast Tennessee Spring Bird Count finds 157 species

Members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society held the annual Spring Bird Count on Saturday, May 3. The count has now been held for several decades and is conducted in the five-county area of Northeast Tennessee that includes the counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.


Photo by Bryan Stevens The American Robin ranked as the most abundant bird on this year’s Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee.

A total of 40 individuals in nine parties looked for birds on a beautiful May day, which in itself was a slight change from the way the count has been conducted in the past. The count has traditionally been conducted the last weekend in April but was moved back this year so as not to compete with the Roan Mountain Spring Naturalists Rally, which was held a week earlier than its usual date.

Those taking part in the count were Fred and JoAnn Alsop, Jim Anderson, Paul and Emily Bayes, Jerry Bevins, Rob Biller, Kevin and Dallas Brooks, Ron Carrico, Harry Lee Farthing, Paul Haynes, Don Holt, Heather Jones, Caitlyn King, David Kirschke, Rick Knight (compiler), Roy Knispel, Tom Laughlin, Richard Lewis, Vern Maddux, Larry McDaniel, Joe McGuiness, Tom McNeil, Charles Moore, Cathy Myers, Kathy Noblet, Brookie and Jean Potter, Amy and Scott Reys, Chris Soto, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud, Byron Tucker, Gary and Brenda Wallace, Mary Anna Wheat, John Whinery and Rex Whitfield.

I know I am always enthusiastic on the day of a spring count, and I suspect the same holds true for other participants. You never know what unexpected bird might make an appearance for this annual survey. Some of my own good finds this year included Yellow-crowned Night-heron, Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Orchard Oriole.

A total of 157 species found fell somewhat short of the all-time record of 161 species, which was established back in 2005. The average number of species for this count is 147.

My friend, Byron Tucker, who was visiting from Atlanta, Ga., got to take part and also make his first visit to Holston Mountain in Carter County. He said he enjoyed the outing. We counted with Elizabethton residents Gary and Brenda Wallace.

My favorite warbler – Hooded Warbler – tied with Ovenbird as the most abundant warbler tallied for this year’s spring count with 173 individuals counted for both these species. A total of 27 warbler species made the count, as well as one Brewster’s Warbler, which is a hybrid between a Blue-winged Warbler and Golden-winged Warbler.

I’m thrilled to report that the most abundant bird on the count wasn’t the European Starling. That honor went to the American Robin with 960 individuals reported by counters. The European Starling came in second with 865 individuals.

Other common species included Cliff Swallow (806), Canada Goose (580), Red-winged Blackbird (469), Common Grackle (401) and American Crow (341).

A Canvasback found on a pond in Washington County established a new late date for this duck in Northeast Tennessee. Other species of interest making the count included Western Sandpiper, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler and Sora.

The total number of species follows:

Canada Goose, 580; Wood Duck, 53; Mallard, 183; Blue-winged Teal, 11; Canvasback, 1; Lesser Scaup, 1; Hooded Merganser, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 4; Wild Turkey, 40; Common Loon, 11; Horned Grebe, 1; and Double-crested Cormorant, 53.

Great Blue Heron, 79; Green Heron, 11; Black-crowned Night-heron, 1; Yellow-crowned Night-heron, 1; Black Vulture, 62; and Turkey Vulture, 214.

Osprey, 11; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 3; Cooper’s Hawk, 10; Bald Eagle, 11; Red-shouldered Hawk, 3; Broad-winged Hawk, 10; Red-tailed Hawk, 41; American Kestrel, 11; and Merlin, 2.

Virginia Rail, 1; Sora, 1; American Coot, 1; Killdeer, 32; Spotted Sandpiper, 68; Solitary Sandpiper, 43; Greater Yellowlegs, 1; Lesser Yellowlegs, 2; Western Sandpiper, 1; Least Sandpiper, 21; White-rumped Sandpiper, 4; and Wilson’s Snipe, 4.

Bonaparte’s Gull, 3; Ring-billed Gull, 54; Rock Pigeon, 182; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 1; Mourning Dove, 204; and Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 2.

Eastern Screech-Owl, 8; Great Horned Owl, 6; Barred Owl, 10; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 2; Common Nighthawk, 4; Chuck-Will’s-Widow, 8; and Whip-Poor-Will, 31.

Chimney Swift, 238; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 28; Belted Kingfisher, 19; Red-headed Woodpecker, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 82; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 5; Downy Woodpecker, 20; Hairy Woodpecker, 10; Northern Flicker, 41; and Pileated Woodpecker, 42.

Eastern Wood-Pewee, 11; Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, 1; Acadian Flycatcher, 27; Willow Flycatcher, 3; Least Flycatcher, 7; Eastern Phoebe, 54; Great Crested Flycatcher, 11; and Eastern Kingbird, 82.

White-eyed Vireo, 17; Yellow-throated Vireo, 10; Blue-headed Vireo, 63; Warbling Vireo, 6; Red-eyed Vireo, 151; Blue Jay, 225; American Crow, 341; and Common Raven, 16.

Horned Lark, 2; Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 223; Purple Martin, 61; Tree Swallow, 271; Barn Swallow, 284; and Cliff Swallow, 806.


Photo by Bryan Stevens
The Northern Rough-winged Swallow was represented on the spring count by 223 individuals.

Carolina Chickadee, 147; Tufted Titmouse, 165; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 7; White-breasted Nuthatch, 25; and Brown Creeper, 7.
House Wren, 45; Winter Wren, 5; Carolina Wren, 134; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 84; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 2; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 8.

Eastern Bluebird, 151; Veery, 12; Gray-cheeked Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 67; American Robin, 960; Gray Catbird, 37; Northern Mockingbird, 128; Brown Thrasher, 43; European Starling, 865; and Cedar Waxwing, 59.

Ovenbird, 173; Worm-eating Warbler, 25; Louisiana Waterthrush, 19; Northern Waterthrush, 2; Golden-winged Warbler, 1; Black-and-white Warbler, 53; Swainson’s Warbler, 6; Kentucky Warbler, 4; Common Yellowthroat, 22; Hooded Warbler, 173; American Redstart, 10; Cape May Warbler, 2; Northern Parula, 28; Magnolia Warbler, 2; Blackburnian Warbler, 12; Yellow Warbler, 10; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 25; Blackpoll Warbler, 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 61; Palm Warbler, 3; Pine Warbler, 9; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 42; Yellow-throated Warbler, 34; Prairie Warbler, 3; Black-throated Green Warbler, 97; Canada Warbler, 30; Yellow-breasted Chat, 19; and Brewster’s Warbler, a hybrid of Blue-winged and Golden-winged Warblers, 1.

Eastern Towhee, 179; Chipping Sparrow, 166; Field Sparrow, 55; Savannah Sparrow, 3; Song Sparrow, 259; Swamp Sparrow, 2; White-throated Sparrow, 11; White-crowned Sparrow, 24; and Dark-eyed Junco, 56.

Summer Tanager, 4; Scarlet Tanager, 78; Northern Cardinal, 212; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 40; and Indigo Bunting, 69.

Bobolink, 1; Red-winged Blackbird, 469; Eastern Meadowlakrk, 100; Common Grackle, 401; Brown-headed Cowbird, 88; Orchard Oriole, 27; and Baltimore Oriole, 27.

House Finch, 38; Pine Siskin, 1; American Goldfinch, 301; and House Sparrow, 93.


Rose-breasted Grosbeaks provide splash of springtime excitement


Other than Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the one bird whose return in the spring is guaranteed to generate excitement is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Every spring, I get phone calls and emails from people wanting to share the thrill of seeing these vibrant birds in their back yards.

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

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

The spring arrival of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks is a temporary visit. Finding the arrangements, which can consist of well-stocked feeders and perhaps a convenient water source, the migrating birds may linger for several days. These birds nest at higher elevations, however, and are usually impatient to continue the journey to where they will spend the summer months tending to their young.

This year, my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak arrived at my home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton around 3:30 p.m. on Friday, April 25. I saw a glimpse of black and white with a hint of red that lifted my spirits instantly. I had been hoping for about a week that migrating grosbeaks would visit as they often do in the spring. The lone male settled onto a small hanging feeder and began enjoying an offering of black-oil sunflower seeds. He made repeated trips throughout the afternoon and evening, allowing me to take several photos through a window.

Some of my posted photos drew enthusiastic comments from my Facebook friends. Dani Sue Thompson shared that the beautiful Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one of her favorite birds. Her mother, the late Donna Adams, was a huge fan of the related Blue Grosbeak, which is a less common visitor to Northeast Tennessee than the related Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Donna and I share many a grosbeak story over the years.

Byron Tucker, a friend from Atlanta, notified me on Facebook the day before the Rose-breasted Grosbeak arrived at my home that he was hosting them in Georgia. From a single bird to a flock of three males and three females, these visitors were a first for Byron. He was excited to host these colorful birds for several days at his feeders.

Photo Courtesy of Byron Tucker A Rose-breasted Grosbeak joins a Red-bellied Woodpecker at a feeder in Atlanta.

Photo Courtesy of Byron Tucker
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak joins a Red-bellied Woodpecker at a feeder in Atlanta.

Single birds are occasionally the first to arrive, but Rose-breasted Grosbeaks do form flocks when migrating. Even if a scout shows up alone at your feeders, he will often soon be joined by other grosbeaks. My recent visit by a single male led to two and then three males visiting the feeders. Eventually a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak also made an appearance.

Plenty of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks pass through Northeast Tennessee, and a few even decide to make mountains like Unaka, Holston and Roan their home for the summer. 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 quite 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.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A young male Rose-breasted Grosbeak visits a feeder in September of 2013. Young males resemble females but show a splash of orange on the breast that will be replaced the following spring by the familiar rosy-red patch.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A young male Rose-breasted Grosbeak visits a feeder in September of 2013. Young males resemble females but show a splash of orange on the breast that will be replaced the following spring by the familiar rosy-red patch.

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 have a wicked bite and are capable of delivering quite a 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 of Northeast Tennessee. I’m hoping many readers are also enjoying their own opportunities for hosting this delightful songbird.


The bird walk at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site on Saturday, April 26, yielded a good range of birds, including American Robin, House Wren, Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Carolina Chickadee, American Goldfinch, Tufted Titmouse, Crow, Canada Goose, Chimney Swift, Brown Thrasher, Barn Swallow, Eastern Towhee, European Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Mallard, Red-winged Blackbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Northern Flicker, Grackle, Gray Catbird, Blue Jay, Mourning Dove and Eastern Bluebird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A pair of Brown Thrashers provided quite a show for attendees at a recent bird walk at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A pair of Brown Thrashers provided quite a show for attendees at a recent bird walk at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site.

Attending the walk were Heather Jones, Charles Moore, David Thometz and myself. We enjoyed perfect spring weather and also admired the many wildflowers in the gardens and woodlands at the Johnson City historic site.

Members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society will also hold a bird walk at 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 10, at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. This walk is held in honor of International Migratory Bird Day and should provide participants with an excellent opportunity for seeing some fine birds.


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Photo by Bryan Stevens The Rose-breasted Grosbeak never fails to impress.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak never fails to impress.