Monthly Archives: April 2015

More than halfway to my goal of 100 yard birds in 2015


I would love to add Yellow-crowned Night-Heron to my yard list. Great Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Green Herons and Great Egrets have visited the creek and fish pond at my home, but I’ve never had a visit from a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. I photographed this pair on a nest along the Watauga River on Blevins Road.

On April 19, a singing male Black-throated Green Warbler became the 50th bird species to make an appearance in my yard this year.

Back at the start of this year, I considered trying for another “big year” in the five-county area of Northeast Tennessee that consists of the counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.

However, such an undertaking requires a lot of travel and expense, as well as an immense dedication of time. After a 2014 marked by many personal upsets, I didn’t feel capable of making an attempt. Considering I last undertook a “big year” effort back in 2013, I felt it was too soon for me to try this again.


The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, an early bird among spring migrants, arrived on Easter Sunday, April 5, this year. It was Bird No. 42 on my yard list for 2015.

Instead, I’ve focused my attention on the birds that come calling to my yard, fish pond, the creek and the surrounding woodlands. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed some amazing visitors from a variety of feathered friends.

It was an amazing winter, with large flocks of Purple Finches and Pine Siskins at my feeders. In fact, these two species remain present even as the calendar moves closer to May. In fact, I saw a Pine Siskin at the feeders on Saturday, April 25.


My favorite warbler, the Hooded Warbler, returned this spring on April 13. The males are currently singing daily from rhododendron thickets in the woodlands around my home.

As is usually the case here at my Simerly Creek home in Hampton, spring migration is proceeding at a slow pace. For some reason, the fall migration is a more “birdy” time. So, any bird I miss seeing this spring, I will hope to pick up while I continue looking for yard birds this autumn.


A pair of Wood Ducks visited the pond on a recent rainy morning. Until a decade ago, Wood Ducks were regular spring visitors. For some reason, they have become much more sporadic in their visits over the past 10 years.

Of course, there have been a few spring surprises, including a pair of Wood Ducks that showed up at the fish pond on a rainy morning on Sunday, April 19. Several of the resident warblers have also arrived, including Hooded Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, Black-throated Green Warbler and Ovenbird.

As of the time of my sitting down to post this blog entry, I’ve found 52 species in my yard so far this year.

The most recent sightings have been a Wood Thrush (No. 52) and a Northern Parula (No. 53) on my list. These two species showed up on April 20 and April 21, respectively.


I have been birding for more than 20 years, but in that time I have only had one Eastern Kingbird visit my yard. Will the second kingbird pay a visit at some point in 2015?

So, wish me luck as I continue this more modest undertaking. Let’s call it a “Big Yard Year.” I am hopeful that I can find 100 species in my yard before Dec. 31. I’ll continue you update occasionally here on my weekly blog.





Annual rally returning to Roan Mountain for last weekend in April


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                         Wildflowers, like this Trout Lily, are always a major draw for the Spring Naturalists Rally.

The 57th annual Roan Mountain Spring Naturalists Rally will continue the tradition of offering nature enthusiasts the opportunity to enjoy field trips and engaging programs that cover many aspects of the natural history of Roan Mountain and the surrounding area. The three-day event is scheduled from Friday-Sunday, April 24-April 26.

Serving as co-directors for the spring event will be Jennifer Bauer and James Neves.

Neves noted that this year’s rally promises many exciting activities.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                              Red Crossbills are among the many species of birds that call Roan home.

“Friday night we’ll be honoring the memory and many contributions that Ed Schell made to the Naturalists Rallies and Friends of Roan Mountain, as well as many other organizations that fostered the love the environment such as the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and Tennessee Native Plant Society,” Neves said. “On Sunday, Gabrielle Zeiger and Mick Whitelaw will lead a memorial hike into the Doe River Gorge, a field trip Ed added to the naturalist rally field trip list.”

For the second consecutive year, the rally is being held on the third weekend of April. “We made the switch because the peak bloom of the early spring wildflowers has been trending to earlier dates,” Neves noted.

The Roan Mountain State Park’s Conference Center will host programs, meals, information booths and registration, while field trips will leave from the field on the left before entrance to the cabins in the park. Registration will also be available at the field prior to the field trip departures.

“A special note should be made that the hike that Marty Silver will lead to Yellow Mountain Gap is about eight miles, longer than the five miles listed in the program mailer,” Neves said. “Participants should bring a lunch and their sense of humor. Marty is not only a great Tennessee Park Ranger and naturalist, he’s also a knowledge bank of jokes and anecdotes.”

Neves said Dan Dourson will return to lead his field trip covering land snails and invertebrates on Saturday afternoon.

“Even the most curious among naturalists might raise an eyebrow wondering how exciting looking at snails can be, but Dan converted us all last year after his wonderful program and entertaining field trip,” Neves said. “We’re very happy he is returning this year.”


Photo by Bryan Stevens                     A millipede crawls over wet leaves.

Because of the continued support of the Friends of Roan Mountain, the Naturalists Rallies have the resources they need to prosper and grow. The Friends of Roan Mountain also provides support for research and restoration projects on the Roan.

Consider joining the Friends of Roan Mountain, if you are not a member. Members receive free admission to all Naturalists Rally events and our newsletter, “Friends of Roan Mountain.”

“We also thank the staff at Roan Mountain State Park for their time and help in making the rally possible,” Neves said.

“The Spring Naturalists Rally is fun for the whole family,” Neves said. “Our friendly group of hike leaders and volunteers look forward to seeing you.”


Randy Hedgepath

The Friday evening program will be presented by Randy Hedgepath, who will place the spotlight on the Tennessee River. Hedgepath, State Naturalist for Tennessee State Parks, will present a photographic and narrative program on the watershed of Tennessee’s namesake river. Flowing down from the highest mountains in the eastern United States, our streams make a long journey to the largest river in the country. Along the way are outstanding natural landmarks and a cross section of our history and culture. Travel with the water of the Doe and Watauga in this entertaining program.

Hedgepath is a native of West Tennessee where the family farm was just 15 miles from the Tennessee River. After graduating from UT-Martin and working seasonally for several years for the National Park Service, he has spent the last 31 years with state parks. He worked as a ranger/naturalist at South Cumberland State Park on the Cumberland Plateau and at Radnor Lake Natural Area in Nashville until 2007 when he was given the opportunity to be the statewide naturalist for the state park system.

Saturday’s evening program will be presented by Tavia Cathcart Brown, who will educate on the topic of “How Flowers Flirt and Flourish: The Tricks and Trials of Floral Reproduction.”


Tavia Cathcart Brown

Her presentation will describe how flowers use color, scent, shape, and tricks to attract pollinators. Brown is Executive Director of Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve in Goshen, Ky., where she has established a two-acre Woodland Garden that highlights native wildflowers and ferns. The Nature Preserve hosted a record number of 38,000 visitors in 2014. Brown is highly regarded as a lecturer, educator, writer, and photographer. She routinely offers lectures on wildflowers, flora-lore, creating woodland gardens, and gardening with native plants to regional and national groups that include gardeners, college students, and academic audiences. She is co-author and the lead photographer of Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, winner of a 2011 Gold Nautilus Book Award, and co-author of the 16-state field guide Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley, and Southern Appalachians, which covers 16 states, 1,250 wildflowers, and presents 800 photographs.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                Song Sparrow gets ready to sign from an open perch.

She currently is writing and taking photographs for her third book, titled How Flowers Flirt and Flourish – The Tricks and Trials of Floral Reproduction. She was selected as “Today’s Woman” in the September 2011 issue of Today’s Woman magazine, is serving her third term on the executive board of the Louisville Audubon Society, and is on the board of the Prospect Area Chamber of Commerce. She considers herself a very lucky woman to be married to Matthew H. Brown. They garden and live on a family farm in Louisville.

The rally will kick off with registration at 5:30 p.m., Friday, April 24, at the Roan Mountain State Park Conference Center. Dinner, which will be catered by City Market of Elizabethton, will be served at 6:30 p.m. Hedgepeth’s program on the Tennessee River will commence at 7:30 p.m.

Following the evening program, Larry McDaniel and Merrill Lynch will conduct a “Moth Party” to inform participants about these and other nocturnal insects.

On Saturday, April 25, a variety of morning and afternoon hikes, programs and activities will be held, focusing on a diverse selection of topics, including birds, snails, wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies, aquatic insects, geology and much more.

On Saturday evening, dinner will once again be held at 6:30 p.m. Brown’s program on wildflower reproduction will commence at 7:30 p.m.

Following the evening program, ETSU professor Gary Henson will conduct a “Viewing of the Summer Skies” from the Dave Miller Homestead. In addition, McDaniel and Lynch will conduct another “Moth Party” at the Conference Center.


Photo by Bryan Stevens Dutchman’s Breeches are among the many wildflowers that are usually in bloom on the Roan during the annual rally.

On Sunday, April 26, field trips will depart/carpool from the field on the left of the cabin area entrance. Morning field trips will start at 8:30 and include Birds of Hampton Creek Cove by James Neves and the Ed Schell Memorial Doe River Gorge Wildflowers & Geology Hike with Gabrielle Zeiger and Mick Whitelaw. Afternoon field trips starting at 2 p.m. will include Salamanders with Dale Ledford and Butterflies and Dragonflies with Don Holt.

Pre-paid dinner reservations are necessary and must be received by Tuesday, April 21. Cost for each meal is $9 for adults and $5 for children six and under. The Friday menu consists of Grilled or Breaded Chicken, vegetable selection, salad, bread, dessert and drink. The Saturday menu consists of roast pork or veggie lasagna, vegetable selection, salad, bread, dessert and drink. Sandwich bag lunches for Saturday are available for $6.

For a downloadable reservation form, visit and mail completed reservation form to Friends of Roan Mountain, Nancy Barrigar, Treasurer, 703 Allen Avenue, Elizabethton, TN 37643.

Friends of Roan Mountain members and children can attend all other Rally events at no charge. There is a $5 charge for non-members. For a full schedule of events, visit or call 772-0190.

This year’s upcoming Fall Naturalists Rally will celebrate the event’s golden anniversary. The 50th annual Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally will be held Sept. 4-6, 2015. Next year, the 58th Annual Roan Mountain Spring Naturalists Rally will be held April 22-24, 2016.

Looking forward to upcoming Birding Festival at Hungry Mother State Park


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  This fledgling American Robin was photographed last spring during a visit to Hungry Mother State Park.

If you’re as eager as I am to see some new arrivals among our “Feathered Friends” this spring, join me Friday-Sunday, May 1-3, at one of Southwest Virginia’s most popular parks for a full weekend of bird and nature-related events.

Hungry Mother State Park in Marion, Virginia, plans to spotlight many of those opportunities in a brand-new nature festival that organizers have dubbed the Hungry Mother State Park Birding Festival. I will also be taking part in the festival by giving a program on the region’s birds during the festival’s evening program on Friday, May 1, from 6 to 7:30 p.m.


Photo by Bryan Stevens Canoes await visitors to Hungry Mother State Park, which will hold its first-ever Birding Festival from May 1 to May 3.

The timing for the festival couldn’t be better. Many of our favorite birds have been returning to the region after spending the winter months in warmer climes as far afield as the Caribbean and Central and South America. If you’ve always wanted to learn more about such birds as warblers and tanagers or hummingbirds and vireos, plan to come out to this wonderful new event at one of the region’s most popular parks.

I discussed the upcoming festival with Tanya Hall, who works as the Chief Ranger of Visitor Experience, at HMSP. She informed me that the seed for the festival was planted when Hall and other park personnel heard about the possibility of obtaining grant funding to support the festival.

“Once we heard about the grant being offered, we approached the Friends of Hungry Mother State Park to see if they would want to apply for it, and of course they did,” Hall said.

She praised the work of the Friends group in supporting HMSP.

“We have a wonderfully supportive Friends group here,” she said. “They assist us in many activities with hands on projects throughout the park and they sponsor various events throughout the year.”


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                              Woodpeckers, such as this Red-bellied Woodpecker, will be among the birds participants will likely see during the three-day Birding Festival at Hungry Mother State Park.

She gave much of the credit for launching this year’s festival to Glenn Moorer, a Friend of HMSP, as well as a park retiree, who headed up the committee on writing the grant.

“He has a love for birds,” Hall explained.

A festival focused on birds seemed a natural fit. Hall, as well as Education Support Specialist Rachel Toward and dedicated HMSP volunteer Randy Smith all share a passion for birds.

“So, with all of us here with our affinity towards birds, birding was a shoe-in for one of the programs sponsored by this Public Lands Every Day Grant and Toyota,” Hall said. “We want to share our passion so others in the community have an opportunity to see just how special birds are.”

The planning for the festival has occupied several months.

“We have a weekend full of fun-filled bird activities,” Hall said. “We will be starting Friday with school field trips to the park.”


Photo Courtesy of Hungry Mother State Park Beautiful scenery will also be in the spotlight during the Birding Festival at Hungry Mother State Park.

Some of Friday’s school-related events will feature Dr. Steven Hopp with Emory and Henry College, who will be discussing and demonstrating the banding of birds. In addition, the Blue Ridge Discovery Center will be providing two field trips on Avian Adventures.

“On Saturday we will have hikes geared toward more experienced birders and also beginners,” Hall said. “We have kayaking bird tours and a Saltville Marsh Hike planned also.”

Throughout Saturday, various booths will be set up to distribute information on birds, as well as other activities and agencies, in the area. There will also be a children’s activity tent.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                            Lingering Purple Finches could still be present by the time of Hungry Mother State Park’s Birding Festival.

Another event that Hall is certain many individuals will enjoy will be the live bird presentation, “Wings to Soar,” on Sunday afternoon.

“We have activities throughout the weekend geared to advanced birders and beginners,” Hall said. “By incorporating all ages and degrees of experience, we hope to instill a love of birds in beginners and offer a chance to advanced birders to share their skills with the rest of us and hopefully have the chance to network and meet new people in a hobby they love.”
The festival meshes nicely with other recreational opportunities offered at HMSP.

“Hungry Mother is one of the more popular parks in Virginia,” Hall said. “We have 18 miles of trails that you can either hike or bike and we have a 108-acre lake that has various species of fish available to catch. The lake is also a favorite destination for swimmers, canoeists, kayakers and paddleboarders.”

Hall said the park is also fortunate to have an “awesome interpretation department” that hosts numerous programs each day that are offered not only to camping and cabin guests, but also to the public.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                      A male Mallard enjoys a spring swim.

“You don’t have to be staying at Hungry Mother State Park to enjoy the activities we offer,” Hall noted. “We probably have the most unique name of all Virginia State parks, and we have a unique legend behind the name which is tied to Molly’s Knob, the highest point in the park.”

Several months ago, Hall also invited me to take part in the debut of the festival. I plan to present a PowerPoint presentation on birds, and perhaps a few other examples of nature’s diverse life, in a program that will spotlight birds throughout all four of the seasons.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                When dealing with birds, surprises, such as a visit from a migrating Great Egret, are never off the table.

“Many of us know you through the articles you write for the Bristol Herald Courier,” she said. “We look forward to your articles each week, and we are looking forward to hearing your presentation and to seeing some of nature’s finest animals.”

I’m looking forward to sharing my program with attendees at the first-ever Hungry Mother State Park Birding Festival. It gives me a unique opportunity to meet some of the readers of my weekly column. If you attend, be sure to introduce yourself at some point.

The festival will also feature Richard Moncrief, who is the Birding and Nature Observation Market Manager for Carl Zeiss Sports Optics.

“He will be presenting two programs on Birding Basics and on Binocular Know How,” Hall said. “I know I am always wondering what the differences are between binoculars and which would be the best to buy for what I use them for.”

Some local Master Naturalists, including Melanie Smith and Randy Smith, will be giving programs on Birding by Ear and Backyard Birding.

“All in all, I believe there will be a little something for everyone to enjoy,” Hall said. “We are all so excited about this weekend and hope that everyone will come out and enjoy at least one program, because once you come, you’ll want to stay for another!”

Although she has been employed only a couple of years at HMSP, Hall loves her job and her new home.

“I started in this position as Chief Ranger of Visitor Experience this past November,” she said. “I was hired as the Education Support Specialist or the Interpreter in July of 2013. As an interpreter, we hope to forge a bond with the visitors and our natural resources we have here at Hungry Mother State Park.”

This is accomplished, Hall explained, by “interpreting” the natural, historical and cultural world for park visitors.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      A Song Sparrow poses for a quick photograph at the water’s edge.

“I have worked in various other jobs; preschool teacher, recreation supervisor for the Blue Ridge Job Corps, and federal Park Ranger for the U.S Army Corps of Engineers,” she said. “I love working here at Hungry Mother with our Friends group, with all the guests that visit our park, and with a staff that truly cares about you and making your stay at a Virginia State Park the very best. I truly enjoy my job.”

All the festival’s programming is free and open to the public. The only fees associated with the festival will be the parking fee at the gate, which will be $3 on Friday and $4 on Saturday and Sunday.

A full schedule of activities can be found on under the Events tab for Hungry Mother State Park. For more information, call (276) 781-7400.

Towhees greet spring’s arrival with enthusiasm


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                         A male Eastern Towhee sings from an elevated perch.

The fact that April is already so far advanced has caught me somewhat by surprise, which is surprising since there are plenty of signs letting me know spring’€™s approaching. For instance, each morning when I leave for work I usually hear a cacophony of singing birds, including Eastern Bluebirds, Song Sparrows, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees.

The birds are stirring, and that always means the seasons are shifting. On bird that has been quite prominent in the yard for the past few weeks has been the Eastern Towhees. We had several individuals, both males and females, spend the winter near the feeders.

I saw and identified my first Eastern Towhee in early spring in 1993. At that time, I was struggling to identify some of the common visitors at my feeders. I was acquainted with White-breasted Nuthatches, Blue Jays, Downy Woodpeckers, Carolina Wrens, Dark-eyed Juncos and a handful of other birds. When I looked out a window and saw this bird feeding on the ground, the morning sun illuminating his dramatic plumage of black, white and rufous red, I was immediately aware this visitor represented something new and unexpected.


This pocket-sized reference guide helped many beginning birders learn to identify common backyard birds.

Consulting a field guide —€” I was using the Golden Nature Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds — I soon found a painted illustration of a Rufous-sided Towhee that matched in every detail the bird I had just observed on the ground beneath a Blue Spruce in my yard.

Many of the older field guides still list the Eastern Towhee as “€œRufous-sided Towhee,”€ which is actually more descriptive of the bird’s appearance than the word “€œeastern.”

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service A male Spotted Towhee shows extensive spotting on its back.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
A male Spotted Towhee shows extensive spotting on its back.

In 1995, ornithologists renamed the Rufous-sided Towhee to Eastern Towhee and also separated the Eastern Towhee from its western counterpart, the Spotted Towhee. Until that point, these two towhees had been considered different races of the same species.

In 2003, I saw a Spotted Towhee during a visit to Salt Lake City, Utah. The bird looks almost identical to an Eastern Towhee except for considerable white spotting —€” hence its common name — on the bird’€™s back.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service           The female Eastern Towhee’s plumage is a rich, chocolate brown where the male’s feathers are black.

Eastern Towhees do spend a considerable amount of time on the ground and hidden in thickets and hedges. Other common names for this bird includes “Ground Robin” and “Swamp Robin.”€ They are one of the larger members of the sparrow family, however, and not related to the thrush family, which includes such birds as American Robin, Eastern Bluebird and Wood Thrush.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                            Towhees spend much of their time on the ground when searching for food.

Unlike the “€œbrown”€ members of the sparrow family, the Eastern Towhee is a brightly colored bird. Males have a black hood. The black coloration extends into the back and tail. The belly is white and the sides are flanked with a rusty-red color. In flight, their black tails are bordered with white feathers, which produces a dramatic flash of contrasting colors. The female Eastern Towhee is an attractive bird in her own right. She shares the rufous sides and white coloration that are present in the male’s plumage. However, the male’€™s black feathers are replaced by a warm, chocolate brown plumage in the female.

The Eastern Towhee is one of my favorite yard birds, but not just because of its dramatic appearance. These birds also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males will seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite accurately, as “Drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “€œChew-ink”€ and “€œToe-Hee,” which is the basis for this bird’s common name.


Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service    Although the smallest member of the towhee family, the Green-tailed Towhee is still a larger bird than most members of the sparrow clan.

They are often found in the same sort of tangled habitat favored by Northern Cardinals and Brown Thrashers. To attract these birds, don’€™t manicure every inch of your yard. Leave some wild corners that will provide shelter for birds that thrive under cover. In the southern United States, these birds thrive in scrub palmetto habitats.

Other North American towhees include Green-tailed Towhee, Abert’s Towhee, California Towhee and Canyon Towhee.


I want to close this week’s column by asking for help from readers. I love to document the yearly arrival of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. I’d appreciate hearing from any readers who would like to share the information about their first hummingbird sighting of the season. Simply send me your name and location, as well as the date and time when your first hummingbird arrived. The best way to contact me is by my email at Messages are also welcome through my Facebook account at


Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                                                                                                                The male Eastern Towhee sings persistently during the spring season.