Monthly Archives: April 2016

Migrating warblers offer surprises for alert birders



Photo by Steve Maslowski/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Black-throated green warblers are nesting birds in the region. Other warblers wing their way much farther north to habitats where they prefer to nest and raise young.

April kicked off with some excitement when I heard my first warbler of the spring season singing on the first day of the month from the woodlands near my home. Although I never managed to catch sight of the singer, I identified the bird as a black-throated green warbler by the whistled syllables of its song.

The black-throated green warbler is a common nesting bird in the region’s mountains. Warblers are exclusively birds of the New World. The majority of the world’s 118 species of warblers live in Central and South America, as well as in the Caribbean, but about 50 species spend the nesting season in the United States and Canada before retreating to southern strongholds for the winter months.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                           A male Hooded Warbler lurks in a thicket of rhododendron.

The warblers have long been one of my favorite bird families, partly because of their ephemeral natures when it comes to visits in the region. Several of these small songbirds only pass through the region for a few weeks each spring and autumn as they migrate from their wintering grounds to breeding habitats spread across North America. The warblers are, for the most part, birds of the fast-moving, insect-eating persuasion.

Many of these energetic birds will bypass the region except for occasional migratory stops as they wing their way quickly to bug-ridden bogs or coniferous forests farther north. Species with names like mourning warbler, bay-breasted warbler and Wilson’s warbler shoot past northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia in their haste to reach suitable habitat for raising young in the provinces of Canada or the New England states.


The last verified sightings of Bachman’s Warbler took place in the 1970s and the species is probably extinct.

A couple of endangered warblers — Kirtland’s warbler of Michigan and the golden-cheeked warbler of Texas — require extensive management by the federal government to protect their nesting habitat and ensure successful nesting. These two warblers, along with a handful of others, are the only members of the warblers nesting in eastern North America that I haven’t added to my birding life list.

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The Rev. John Bachman

Only one of the warblers known to nest in the United States has ever gone extinct. Bachman’s warbler hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s, although there have been sporadic and unconfirmed sightings since the 1980s. The bird was named in honor of the Rev. John Bachman, an early naturalist and friend of John James Audubon. The species was first collected by Bachman in his native South Carolina in the early 1830s. Historically, Bachman’s warbler bred as far north as Virginia, but the bird’s stronghold was in the states along the Atlantic southern coastal plain. Almost the entire population spends the winter months in Cuba. The disappearance of this small, yellowish bird has never been fully explained and will likely linger as a biological mystery. From its discovery to the plunge toward extinction, Bachman’s warbler was known for only slightly more than a century.


Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                              A female Black-and-White Warbler gathers nesting materials.


Most warblers have managed to adapt to changing landscapes brought out by human activity. Some, like the yellow warbler and the yellow-rumped warbler, are quite widespread. The yellow warbler nests across most the continental United States and also reaches Alaska. Closer to home, a few of these warblers nest in the woodlands around my house. The expected species each summer include hooded warbler, black-and-white warbler, ovenbird and Northern parula.

I usually have better luck observing migrating warblers in the fall. I think part of the reason rests with the fact that warblers migrating in the spring are in a hurry to reach their destinations. In contrast, the fall migration is a more leisurely activity that affords these tiny birds the luxury of spending a few days in different locations. If one of those locations happens to be my backyard, I take great pleasure in getting my binoculars on species ranging from Kentucky warbler to blue-winged warbler.


Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                              A Pine Warbler visits a suet feeder. Most warblers ignore feeders, but these energetic songbirds will visit fountains and water features.

Most warblers will ignore offerings at our feeders, although the occasional pine warbler learns the advantages of visiting suet feeders during the cold months. The most reliable means to attract these tiny, energetic birds is with a water feature, such as a bird bath, ornamental pool or even a bubbling fountain or artificial waterfall. On my property, I have a cattail marsh, a fish pond and a modest creek. As a result, I don’t spend much time working on providing supplemental water sources. For those not blessed with such resources, I highly recommend some sort of water source to increase your chances of visits from warblers.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                            A Black-throated Blue Warbler is captured in preparation for banding.

These tiny birds are not the easiest ones to learn to identify. However, only about four dozen species migrate through the region or stop to spend the summer months. With a good field guide and some practice, it’s not that difficult to learn the different species. The reward is that undeniable spark of magic imparted by an observation of a bird as glorious as a fiery-throated Blackburnian warbler or a handsome black-throated blue warbler.

Returning birds add their songs to the spring’s chorus


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                Eastern Towhee sings from a limb on a sapling.

As we welcome April, I’ve noticed the additions to the early morning chorus produced by the birds in residence around my home. From American robins and Eastern towhees to song sparrows and Carolina chickadees, all our feathered friends produce their own unique serenades to greet each new day.

Songbirds sing to attract mates, discourage rivals, establish territories and for a variety of other reasons.

Of course, the songs of birds play important roles in their daily lives. Half of the world’s bird species are known as passerines, or songbirds; in itself a good indication of the importance of song in the day-to-day routines of birds.

The scientific definition of a songbird is that it is a species with a specialized voice box known as a syrinx. This amazing organ allows for the production of some of the melodic and complex songs characteristic of birds such as wood thrush, Northern cardinal and Carolina wrens. Many of the warblers — a family of birds that should be beginning to returning to the region — produce a diverse range of songs.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A Boat-tailed Grackle sings from a South Carolina wetland.

Among other purposes, attracting mates, intimidating rivals and signaling territorial borders are some of the reasons birds sing. For human listeners, it’s easy to think that birds also sing for the sheer joy of producing these amazing choruses. That belief, however, is probably based more on the ear of the beholder.

We would probably be unaware of the presence of many birds if it wasn’t for their vocalizations. This fact is particularly true of nocturnal birds or denizens of inaccessible habitats such as swamps and marshes.

I was reminded of this fact when Facebook friend Kenneth Oakes sent me a message on March 23 about the arrival of the first whip-poor-will of the spring.


A painting of a Whip-poor-will by the artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

“A whip-poor-will has just arrived,” he wrote in his message. “It is about 12 days early.” Kenneth noted that usually the arrival date for whip-poor-wills, as well as for hummingbirds, is about April 5.

“This is the earliest I’ve ever seen them arrive in this area,” Kenneth wrote. For the past two years, he noted that whip-poor-wills have been a week to 12 days late in arriving in the spring.

Kenneth is not the only person who has reported “early bird” whip-poor-wills. Brookie Potter, who lives with his wife, Jean, near Wilbur Lake in Carter County, Tennessee, heard two calling whip-poor-wills near his home on Easter Sunday, March 27. He reported his observation on bristol-birds, an online list-serve forum for sharing area bird sightings.

Ironically, the whip-poor-will is not one of the world’s many passerine, or songbird, species. Nevertheless, this bird’s nocturnal serenades are one of my fondest childhood memories. I remember sitting on my grandparents’ front porch to listen for hours to the whip-poor-wills as they sang the syllables of their own names from the nearby edges of the woodlands.

Kenneth also reported that he thinks the juncos have departed. “Winter is not over until they leave,” he wrote. “Let’s hope for an early spring.”

All indications, such as the early arrivals of birds such as whip-poor-wills, are that an early spring could be in the works. This is also the time of year when I keep my eyes open for the arrival of the first ruby-throated hummingbirds of spring. In fact, I put out my sugar water feeders the last week of March.

According to websites that track the annual northward migration of these tiny birds, the first hummingbirds should start arriving in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina any day now. As always, I invite readers to share with me the date and time of these first sightings.

Email me at or send me a message on Facebook to notify me when you observe your first hummingbird of spring 2016.



Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A pair of Wood Ducks visited the fish pond several times in March and April.

While I haven’t yet seen hummingbirds, plenty of other birds have been making appearances. My fish pond has been visited twice by pairs of wood ducks. My other recent sightings have included tree swallows, brown thrashers and chipping sparrows. I love spring for the simple fact you never know when a new bird will surprise you with an unanticipated arrival.


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

Annual Spring Naturalists Rally returns to Roan Mountain April 22-24


Photo by Bryan Stevens  Spring blooms, like this Bloodroot, are still a major focus, but a variety of other topics of natural history have expanded the offerings at this annual event.

Organizers of the 58th annual Roan Mountain Spring Naturalists Rally are pleased to announce this yearly event 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 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.

Because of the continued support of the Friends of Roan Mountain, the seasonal 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.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                            Everything from salamanders and dragonflies to edible plants and geology provides a diversity of subjects for the many hikes and programs of the annual rally.


Consider joining the Friends of Roan Mountain, if you are not a member. There are plenty of perks for members, who receive free admission to all Naturalists Rally events and regular editions of the organization’s newsletter, “Friends of Roan Mountain.”

This year’s Spring Naturalists Rally will be held Friday-Sunday, April 22-24. Featured evening speakers for this year’s event are Liz Domingue and Mick Whitelaw. Their programs will feature the topics of butterflies and moths, as well as Roan Mountain’s historic association with the Tweetsie railroad.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                           Butterflies, such as this Carolina Satyr, and moths will provide the focus for Liz Domingue’s evening program at this year’s rally.

Domingue is a naturalist, educator, photographer, writer and guide. Her interest in and study of natural history has been her lifelong pursuit and passion. Through photography, observation, and research, she has studied wildlife, plants, and the natural world in the United States and abroad. She is a co-author of the field guide, Butterflies & Familiar Moths of the Smokies (soon to be in press) and a contributing writer for Smokies Life. In addition, she has served as a contributing writer, photographer and consultant for McGraw-Hill Science Textbooks. Her photos have been published in a variety of books and magazines. Domingue leads guided interpretive hikes and Naturalist Adventure Tours, and conducts environmental education programs for youth, adults, and fellow educators through her own business, “Just Get Outdoors.”

The history of Roan Mountain goes back almost two billion years and includes major mountain building events that created the biggest iron ore deposit known in the eastern United States. Much, much later, high grade magnetite ore was discovered on Roan Mountain after the War of 1812 and was later smelted by the Confederates in a local bloomery. In 1881 a train line designed to bring the ore from Roan Mountain to Johnson City for smelting was begun. The train served the iron mine until 1929 and local communities until 1950 and became known as the “Tweetsie”. This talk
will review the history of the Roan Mountain iron mines and the little train with a heart.


Mick Whitelaw

Dr. Mick Whitelaw received his bachelor’s of science degree in geology at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia in 1983 and a doctorate from the University of Florida in 1990. He held instructor positions at the University of Texas, El Paso and the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, before taking his current position in the Department of Geosciences at East Tennessee State University in 2003. He specializes in stratigraphy and the geology of the East Tennessee region and serves as site geologist for the Gray Fossil Site.
For more information or a brochure of the specific events, including a reservation form for all activities, including the Friday and Saturday evening meals, visit

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Red-winged blackbirds making their presence felt in region


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      A male red-winged blackbird sings from an elevated perch in a wetland habitat.

I recently received an email from Tom and Helen Stetler in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The couple reported seeing several “early birds” in their yard recently, including American robins and a total of six red-winged blackbirds. “One even went up on the bird feeder,” they wrote.

The couple noted that red-winged blackbirds are usually harbingers of spring, but these birds arrived with some of the last of the wintry weather in February.

“Oh well, better days are coming, Lord willing,” the Stetlers wrote. They also added they have seen Song Sparrows and an Eastern Towhee at their feeder in recent days.


Photo Courtesy of Tom and Helen Stetler            A male red-winged visits a feeder at the Stetler home in Elizabethton.

I’ve long come to associate red-winged blackbirds with early spring. I also had a single red-winged blackbird make a one-day visit in February during a snowstorm. Those February visitors are the vanguard of large numbers of red-winged blackbirds that return in impressive numbers every March. The blackbirds arriving now behave much differently than the quiet, furtive ones that often make brief visits to feeders during late winter snowstorms.

The showy and loud red-winged blackbirds that have returned to my fish pond and adjacent stands of cattails immediately made themselves at home.

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

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

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


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    Male red-winged blackbirds sing to proclaim territories and attract mates.

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

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

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

Some other signs of spring I’ve detected at home have included a bonanza of spring blooms, choruses of spring peeper frogs and even the fluttery flights of a few early butterflies.

Of course, even as I write this week’s column, an unwelcome cold front has plunged temperatures below freezing. It’s only a temporary setback, so I know that spring will continue to advance. My evidence? A range of other birds are poised to return in the coming weeks. Once again, birds like red-winged blackbirds and American robins are just part of the vanguard of returning spring migrants. Spring migration begins as a trickle in March only to explode into a torrent in April and early May.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                      Red-winged blackbirds generally return to Northeast Tennessee as the weather turns milder in the spring.

If you would like to share your own spring sightings, send me an email at

I am especially interested in hearing about the first arrival dates of ruby-throated hummingbirds. If you’ve seen your first ruby-throated hummingbird of the spring, contact me with the date and time you saw your first hummer of the season.


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.