Monthly Archives: September 2015

September brings more lawn chair birding opportunities


Photos by Bryan Stevens                                                                        A Northern Waterthrush perches in a tree growing along Simerly Creek.

The following post represents my second compilation of Facebook posts about my annual lawn chair birding experiences. My mom and I have made lawn chair birding an annual tradition every fall. It’s a great way to enjoy the warblers and other migrants that stream through the yard in September and October. For the most part, you can even avoid the neck sprain that comes with long period of scanning the treetops for glimpses of energetic and evasive warblers.


A young American Goldfinch perches on a twig.

Sept. 9
Some clouds and drizzle made for a very productive evening of lawn chair birding, bring a bonanza of warblers and other migrants. I added four new birds, all warblers, to my 2015 yard list. Bird No. 73 for the year was a Golden-winged Warbler. This makes two consecutive falls I have seen this warbler at home. Bird No. 74 turned out to be a dazzling male Prairie Warbler, as opposed to the more drab female Black-throated Blue Warbler that became Bird No. 75 for the year.

A Pine Warbler also made the list as Bird No. 76. Other warblers included Tennessee, Magnolia, Chestnut-sided, Cape May, Hooded, Black-and-white and Black-throated Green. The rest of the migrant parade consisted of Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Wood-pewee, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Eastern Towhee, as well as the usual residents such as House Finch, American Goldfinch, White-breasted Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadee, Northern Cardinal and lots of Tufted Titmice. Most of the warblers refused to stay in place long enough for photos, but at one point the Pine Warbler actually landed on the roof of the house and allowed a few photos which provided nice documentation for a fun evening that ended when the rain began to come down harder.


A Pine Warbler takes a break on the roof of the house.

Sept. 10
No new birds this evening during lawn chair birding with mom. That doesn’t mean we didn’t have some fun observations, including a baby Song Sparrow screaming his head off for a morsel from mom or dad. We also saw Indigo Buntings, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Towhee, Scarlet Tanager, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, as well as several warblers,including male Hooded, female American Redstart, young Chestnut-sided and a female Magnolia.


Cedar Waxwing at Erwin Fishery Park.

Sept. 11
Saw this Cedar Waxwing, part of a large flock, at Erwin Fishery Park on Friday afternoon.

Sept. 13
Warblers on Saturday evening included Black-throated Green, Tennessee and Magnolia, as well as an American Redstart. We also had a Broad-winged Hawk hanging around the fish pond. We startled him several times on Saturday. My mom and I extended birding to a visit to Limestone Cove and the Bell Cemetery, where we spotted a Red-tailed Hawk being mobbed by around 50 American Crows. No new yard birds, though.

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A noisy Carolina Wren scolds from a Blue Spruce.

Sept. 16
Had a good day of migrants in the yard, including a lot of male warblers — Black-throated Green, Hooded, American Redstart — and some other migrants. Some young or female warblers included Cape May, Chestnut-sided, Tennessee and Magnolia. There was also a family of noisy young American Goldfinches hanging around. No new species this evening, but I managed this photo of a Carolina Wren to stay in practice.


A Yellow-throated Vireo makes a migration stop along Simerly Creek.

Sept. 18
“Yellow throats” was the evening’s theme for lawn chair birding. I added two new species to the yard list for the year. First came the Yellow-throated Vireo as Bird No. 77. Next came the young Common Yellowthroat for Bird No. 78. The day has also included observations of Scarlet Tanager, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Towhee, Magnolia Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, Eastern Phoebe, Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbird, Ruby-throated Hummingbird and noisy young American Goldfinches.


Ruby-throated Hummingbirds continue to compete for their claims to the sugar water feeders.

Sept. 20
No new birds in the yard this evening, but lawn chair birding produced lots of good looks at warbler like Magnolia, Northern Parula, Tennessee, Black-throated Green Warbler, Hooded, Chestnut-sided and a adult male Cape May in very vibrant plumage. Other observations included Wood Thrush, Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbird, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Ruby-throated Hummingbird and lots of the usual feeder birds. I managed a photo of the Eastern Wood-Pewee.


A Northern Waterthrush in the branches of a hawthorn tree along Simerly Creek.

Sept. 21
An overcast day brought plenty of migrants for the show during multiple sessions of lawn chair birding with my mom. The new species for the yard in 2015 included a Northern Waterthrush, pictured, and Bay-breasted Warblers. The waterthrush becomes Bird No. 79 and the Bay-breasted Warblers represent Bird No. 80, helping me move into another stretch in my Big Yard Year. We also saw Brown Thrasher, Gray Catbirds, Magnolia Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Cape May Warbler, Tennessee Warbler, American Redstart and Pine Warbler, as well as Yellow-throated Vireo and Red-eyed Vireo. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are also active at the feeders. The usual birds are visiting the feeders for sunflower seeds.

Sept. 22
Before leaving for work this morning, I heard a duet by Great Horned Owls from the surrounding woodlands. It was an extremely foggy morning, which might have made a difference since the owls were calling about an hour after sunrise.


A Scarlet Tanager without the red feathers that provide the birds its common name.


An Eastern Phoebe perches on top of a weed stalk.


A katydid perched atop a zinnia bloom.

Getting to know the ‘little brown warblers’


Photo by Dan Sudia/USFWS                                                          The Worm-eating Warbler’s subtle plumage sets it apart from more colorful members of the warbler family.

When I am asked why the warblers are one of my favorite families of birds, I often tell the questioner I enjoy warblers for the splash of bright colors many of them bring to our local woodlands. Strictly speaking, however, that’s not true for every warbler. In fact, some of them are little brown birds lacking any brights colors such as orange, red, yellow or green.

One of my favorite brown warblers is the Worm-eating Warbler. I suppose I have a sentimental attachment because it is one of the first warblers I ever saw. Sadly, Worm-eating Warblers have disappeared or declined in some areas due to habitat loss. They are also vulnerable to nest parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirda. A few of these warblers routinely made their home each summer in the woodlands around my home for many years. Unfortunately, they do not seem as common as they were a decade ago. I’m not sure if the habitat has changed or if this subtly understated warbler has simply become less common. The Worm-eating Warbler favors steep slopes with dense understory.

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Photo by Jean Potter                                                                              The Worm-eating Warbler nests during the summer months throughout the eastern United States.

The Worm-eating Warbler’s breeding range stretches from southeastern Iowa, Ohio, New York and southern New England south to northeastern Texas, central Gulf Coast states and eastern North Carolina. This warbler, like most of its kin, winters in the tropics, migrating each autumn as far as southern Mexico and Central America.

This warbler’s appearance is not at all flashy, especially compared to warblers with much brighter plumage such as the American Redstart, Blackburnian Warbler and Chestnut-sided Warbler. The Worm-eating Warbler’s head and underparts are buffy, and the bird has a unique head pattern consisting of black crown stripes and a dark stripe through the eye. The Swainson’s Warbler is similar, but larger and warm brown rather than buffy in coloration.

At a glance, the Worm-eating Warbler might also be mistaken for a wren or small sparrow. Known by the scientific name of Helmitheros vermivora, the Worm-eating Warbler is the sole member of the genus Helmitheros.

At first, this bird would be seem to be one of the misnamed warblers. On closer examination, however, its name is quite appropriate. While it does not feed on earthworms, this warbler is quite fond of caterpillars, which are often referred to — mistakenly — as worms. They also feed on insects and spiders.

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This painting of Worm-eating Warblers by John James Audubon shows the birds probing in dry leaves for small caterpillars.

The Worm-eating Warbler does have a distinctive feeding behavior that I have observed on numerous occasions. These birds like to hang upside-down beneath a cluster of dry or dead leaves. They use a relatively long bill to probe for insects or caterpillars concealed within the mass of leaves. More often than not, their search is rewarded with some sort of prey item.

The male and female Worm-eating Warbler are identical. The female builds a nest on the ground, which she attempts to hide among dead leaves. She lays four or five eggs, which she incubates herself. Once the young hatch, her mate does help feed them. The parents also guard the nest and are known to try to distract potential predators by feigning injury.

In the spring, when the males are singing persistently, these birds can easily be located by their song. The male sings a short, high-pitched trill that is similar to the song of the Chipping Sparrow.


Photo by Jean Potter                                                                                The Ovenbird is another of the brown warblers that nest in North America.

Other brown warblers include Ovenbird, Swainson’s Warbler, Northern Waterthrush and Louisiana Waterthrush. Like these four species, the Worm-eating Warbler is a summer nesting bird in Northeast Tennessee.

This fall has been a good time to see warblers. Some of the more common ones I have noticed in the yard so far have included Tennessee Warbler and Black-throated Green Warbler.

Here’s some trivia for you should you ever find yourself competing on the game show “Jeopardy” and the category is “Warblers.” Four of our warblers — Kentucky Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Connecticut Warbler and Tennessee Warbler — bear common names that honor states. The Kentucky Warbler and Tennessee Warbler are named for the states where they were first found and described by ornithologist Alexander Wilson in 1811. Neither the Tennessee Warbler or Kentucky Warbler are particularly affiliated with the states for which they were named. In fact, the Tennessee Warbler passes through the Volunteer State only for a few weeks each year during spring and fall migration. Its closest breeding range is in Michigan and these warblers spend the winter in Mexico or farther south.

Here’s something that might also come in handy in a test of your knowledge of trivia some day. Not only is the Tennessee Warbler named for the state, but the capital city of Nashville also has its name linked another member of the warbler clan, the Nashville Warbler.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                            The Northern Mockingbird has served as the state bird of Tennessee since 1933.

Should we ever decide to drop the Northern Mockingbird as state bird, the Tennessee Warbler would already pay tribute to our state with its common name. Of course, there is that inconvenient truth that the warbler is only a brief visitor to the state each year. I don’t foresee any plan to remove the mockingbird from its official designation. The Northern Mockingbird was selected in 1933 as the official bird for the Tennessee. This relative of the Brown Thrasher and Gray Catbird also serves as the state bird for Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Texas. At my home, Northern Mockingbirds are usually evident only during the winter months. I haven’t seen one at home so far this year.


Bald cardinals a temporary late summer phenomenon


Photo by Bryan Stevens                               A female Northern Cardinal brings a young bird to a feeder.

I received an email recently from Dick Abrams, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee.

“We love our birds and other local critters,”

Dick wrote. “I have a question for you. Why are so many cardinals this year bald headed?”

Dick noted that some of these beloved backyard birds “are bald as buzzards!”


Many people compare cardinals afflicted with the loss of their head feathers with the look of vultures, such as this painting by John James Audubon of a California Condor.

He concluded his email by asking if anyone else had mentioned the strange phenomenon of bald cardinals.


In addition, Gail Adler of Johnson City, Tennessee, sent me a message on Facebook on the same subject of “bald cardinals.”

“I love gardening and birdwatching,” Gail wrote in her message. “I have noticed this summer that many of my cardinals have lost the feathers on their head. Some of my other ones look a little rough, as well. I tried to look up causes but was unable to find a definite reason. Have you experienced this? Any thoughts?”


First, I let Dick and Gail know that I’ve heard of these strange instances for many years. Bald-headed cardinals seem to be a summer occurrence. I usually get some emails or calls this time of year about people surprised by visits from “weird bald-headed” cardinals. I first began to get calls and email from readers in the late 1990s about this unusual phenomenon, although I have also seen blue jays suffering from this same ailment.

Bald Cardinal

A “bald cardinal” featured on the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website.

I have studied the opinions of various bird experts. Some speculate that the condition is caused by an infestation of mites, which are small relatives of spiders and other arachnids. Others believe that the loss of feathers around the head is a part of a normal molting process. This theory is supported by the fact this is the time of year when cardinals are molting.

The process of molting removes old feathers, which simply drop from the body as new feathers emerge to take their place. For some reason, some cardinals and jays lose all their head feathers at one time before new feathers are ready to take their place. That’s why the condition is typically observed in the summer months. Both male and female cardinals can be afflicted with “bald” heads. It’s strange that the condition primarily affects these two birds, cardinals and jays, both with feather crests, while cedar waxwings are also crested birds, but I have never observed or received a report on a “bald-headed” cedar waxwing.

Whatever the cause, a “bald-headed” cardinal is an ugly bird. Without feathers, a cardinal is transformed from a popular favorite among bird enthusiasts to a rather grotesque oddity. Dick got his description right when he described the bird as resembling a buzzard. Buzzards, better known as vultures, have heads bare of feathers for a very important reason. As scavengers, a feathered head would become quickly fouled as the bird reaches into the carcasses of dead animals to feed.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                    A male Northern Cardinal escorts a young bird to the area around a feeder to teach it to fend for itself.

Those cardinals I have seen with “bald” heads have been visiting feeders stocked with sunflower seeds or perhaps a holder offering a suet cake. So, the absence of feathers is not a hygienic adaptation on the part of cardinals and jays similar to the hygienic necessity of bald heads among vultures. The good news is that the condition lasts only a couple of weeks. The feathers on the head do emerge eventually, which is probably very fortunate for the afflicted birds. Feathers serve as insulation during cold weather. A “bald-headed” cardinal would probably not survive winter cold spells.


We’re all accustomed to seeing cardinals at our feeders. You may be surprised by how much food they obtain away from our well-stocked feeders. During the summer months, cardinals eat a variety of wild seeds, fruit and insects. Some of the fruit consumed by cardinals include elderberry, dogwood, blackberry and wild grapes. Young cardinals still in the nest (and fledglings for some time after leaving the nest) are fed mostly insects, including crickets, spiders, moths and flies.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                A female Northern Cardinal perches on a log with one of young, which recently left the nest.

To make cardinals comfortable in spring, summer and fall, as well as winter, offer plenty of thick vegetation, such as a hedge or row of shrubs, and consider planting some of the fruit trees and shrubs that will help these beautiful birds supplement their diet.


Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at 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

Lawn chair birding entries


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                        A young Chestnut-sided Warbler conceals itself in a holly tree.

The following are all Facebook posts about my annual lawn chair birding experiences. My mom and I have made lawn chair birding an annual tradition every fall. It’s a great way to enjoy the warblers and other migrants that stream through the yard in late August, September and October. For the most part, you can even avoid the neck sprain that comes with long period of scanning the treetops for glimpses of energetic and evasive warblers.


Aug. 20


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                  A young American Redstart selects a perch.

It’s been almost three months since I added a new species to my 2015 yard list. I had last added Chimney Swift back on May 29 and Yellow-billed Cuckoo on June 2. This evening I added White-eyed Vireo as Bird No. 60 for the year. I also saw a pair of Indigo Buntings, two Black-throated Green Warblers, three Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. I think fall migration must be underway.

Aug. 26


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                       A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a feeder.

Two new birds for the yard list made appearances today. I have heard a Common Raven calling several times today. Around 7 p.m. my mom called and alerted me to a flock of Wild Turkeys (two adults and eight young birds) in the field. The raven and turkeys are No. 62 and No. 63, respectively, on the list for Yard Birds in 2015.

Aug. 28

The first fall warbler — a young American redstart — showed up this evening, and it’s also a new bird for my 2015 Yard List. The redstart is No. 64 for the year. I also saw Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Chimney Swifts and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

Aug. 29


Photo by Jean Potter                                                                A Tennessee Warbler makes a fall migration stop.

Just got in from lawn chair birding with my mom. We enjoyed several warbler sightings, including some new yard birds for 2015. A gorgeous male Canada Warbler treated us to some great views and became Bird No. 65 in the yard this year. Three young Chestnut-sided Warblers will represent Bird No. 66. Finally, a Cape May Warbler is Bird No. 67 for the yard this year. We also saw Black-throated Green Warblers, American Redstarts, Red-eyed Vireos, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and an Eastern Phoebe. I managed photos of the Cape May and the American Redstart.

Aug. 30


Photo by Bryan Stevens                Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are common during fall migration.

I’m closing in on 70 yard birds for the year. This evening, while lawn chair birding with my mom, I added two more new ones. The Magnolia Warbler was Bird No. 68, while the Eastern Wood-Pewee was Bird No. 69 for 2015. I didn’t get photos of the new birds, but I did photograph a young Chestnut-sided Warbler, a young Ruby-throated Hummingbird and a Chipping Sparrow.

Sept. 2


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      A Cape May Warbler perches in a spruce tree.

No new yard birds this evening, but lawn chair birding with mom wasn’t entirely uneventful. We got a look at a Scarlet Tanager, saw several hummingbirds, including an adult male, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Earlier today, mom said she spotted a yellowish warbler but the bird didn’t make a second appearance.

Sept. 5

Lawn chair birding today has produced three new birds for the 2015 yard list. They’re all warblers! Bird No. 70 for the year is a Blackburnian Warbler. Bird No. 71 was a Tennessee Warbler, while Bird No. 72 was an impressive Yellow-throated Warbler. Evening’s still young, so may be some others show up. I also saw a Scarlet Tanager, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and a Red-eyed Vireo.


Photo by Jean Potter                                                                                                                              A Yellow-throated Warbler sits on a twig perch.