Monthly Archives: June 2016

South Carolina trip provides excellent viewing opportunities to observe one of nation’s most colorful birds

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Photos by Bryan Stevens                                                          A male Painted Bunting feeds on millet seed at a feeder at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

I enjoyed a recent excursion to coastal South Carolina, which provided me a change to look for birds at such locations as Huntington Beach State Park and Brookgreen Gardens. These two attractions are two of my favorite places to bird when I get an opportunity to a stay at Pawleys Island in South Carolina.


The male Painted Bunting is one of the most colorful birds in North America.

Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina share some colorful species of birds, including rose-breasted grosbeak, Baltimore oriole, scarlet tanager and indigo bunting. The vibrant blue plumage of a male indigo bunting makes it one of the most coveted birds at feeders. One of my earliest bird memories is one that recalls summer sightings of “blue birds,” or indigo buntings, perched in the same blue spruce tree with “yellow birds,” or American goldfinches. It’s very likely that such memorable childhood sightings set me on the path to becoming a birding and nature enthusiast.

It’s fun to speculate that I might have traveled that path even sooner if I’d observed in that blue spruce one of the relatives of the indigo bunting. The painted bunting, which I saw frequently during my South Carolina vacation, is often described as one of the most colorful birds in the United States. A male painted bunting’s plumage is an almost shocking blend of blue, green, yellow and red feathers, which make males appear almost too tropical for a bird that makes its home for part of the year in the United States. The color pattern for the male painted bunting consists of a blue head, a red eye-ring, red underparts and a green backs. Females and immature birds are a uniform, bright lemon-green overall, with a pale eye-ring. Two years are required for a male painted bunting to acquire the vibrant plumage that has given the bird its common name.


It’s easy to see how the male painted bunting acquired its reputation as one of North America’s most colorful birds.

The painted bunting is a specialty bird of the southern United States, as well as some locations in the southwestern United States, including southern Arizona and New Mexico. A thriving population exists along the Atlantic Coast in South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. These colorful birds also occur in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Some other common names for this bird include painted finch and rainbow bunting. Early French colonists to the New World named this songbird “Nonpareil,” which means “without equal.” That neatly sums up the amazing appearance of this bird.

Bird feeders help this bird overcome its shyness in the presence of humans. Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina maintains several feeders filled with millet, which is a small seed favored by buntings, as well as some sparrows and finches. The feeders located at the park’s Nature Center are a popular destination for people hoping to get a good look at a painted bunting. Of course, the buntings share the feeders with other birds, including chickadees, cardinals, house finches, brown-headed cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds.


Female and immature painted buntings are greenish-yellow birds that are eclipsed by the more vibrant adult males.

Away from feeders, however, it can be difficult to find painted buntings. Males sing from elevated perches in spring and early summer, which can simplify the effort of locating them. The greenish females blend well with their surroundings and can be a much bigger challenge to observe. Once I learned to recognize the male’s song, finding painted buntings away from feeders became easier.

Before federal protections were put into place, painted buntings were often captured and caged as exotic pets. Although such practices are now illegal in the United States, these birds are still captured in some Central American locations for sale as a pet caged bird. I’ve always believed that it’s much more enjoyable to observe any bird free to fly, sing and live out its life in the wild.


A female Painted Bunting decides to visit a hummingbird feeder.

The population of painted buntings has declined, particularly on barrier islands off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. Destruction of habitat has been a major factor, but these birds are also victimized by brown-headed cowbirds. The female cowbirds slip their own eggs into the nests of unsuspecting birds, which often raise the young cowbirds even at the expense of their own young.

Painted buntings do show up in some unexpected places, but there are only a few records for the region. In November of 2015, a male painted bunting showed up at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York, of all places. That particular bird lingered until Jan. 3, 2016, before it was last seen prior to a cold front moving into New York. The surest way to see a painted bunting is to visit some of its strongholds along the southern Atlantic Coast or the other regions in the United States where this technicolor dream of a bird ranges.


Indigo Buntings are fairly common songbirds in much of the eastern United States.

Until then, enjoy the painted bunting’s much more common, at least in this region, relative. The indigo bunting usually returns to the region in April and lingers into early October. Indigo buntings are also fond of visiting feeders for offerings of millet or sunflower seed.

Besides indigo buntings, other related birds include the lazuli bunting, varied bunting and blue bunting. Other birds named bunting, but not as closely related, include the snow bunting and the lark bunting. The term “bunting” when used with a bird basically refers to various seed-eating birds with stubby, cone-shaped bills.


The Lazuli Bunting takes the place of Indigo Buntings in the western half of the United States. This male was photographed in Utah.

Perhaps some day in the future I’ll glimpse a migrant painted bunting that has strayed off course and has ended up in southwest Virginia or northeast Tennessee. Until that hypothetical day, I’ll continue to look for this dazzling bird any time I am in the Low Country of South Carolina. In addition, I’ll simply enjoy the electric blue plumage of the adult male indigo buntings that visit my feeders almost daily during the summer months.


Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.


This male Painted Bunting visits feeders at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Field guides crucial components to improving your bird knowledge

Earlier this spring, I received an email from Jill Henderson, who resides in Saltville, Virginia, asking for some advice on obtaining a good field guide to help enhance her knowledge of the region’s birds.

“I appreciate your expertise and thank you for helping me learn about the many different types of birds that we have here in southwest Virginia,” Jill wrote in her email. “Can you recommend a good field guide/reference book for a novice bird watcher?”


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                  A variety of birding field guides are available to help beginners hone their identification skills. Peruse and choose the guide that works best for you.

I provided Jill with some information about field guides especially valuable for beginning birdwatchers.

In my own experience, I look for three things in a field guide: detailed illustrations, convenient size and complete listings of birds likely to be encountered. I prefer field guides with paintings/illustrations of birds rather than book featuring photographs. It’s a personal preference, of course, but I believe a good painting beats a photograph for capturing and conveying the important details to look for when trying to identify a bird.

With those criteria in mind, some of my favorite guides are David Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America; The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer; and A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America by the late Roger Tory Peterson. The latter is a classic among bird texts and helped kick off birdwatching for the average individual. The Sibley and National Geographic field guides are more modern takes on a field reference guide to assist in bird identification.9780307370020-us 2

All these books have counterparts featuring Western species of birds. Sibley also has a large guide (too large to easily take into the field) that has both Eastern and Western species in it.

I also suggested to Jill that before she makes a purchase, she should thumb through the pages of some of the guides available at a local book store or, even better, borrow a copy from a library. It’s always good to get some hands-on time with these books in order to decide which guide fits your own personal preferences. For instance, some people may prefer a guide with photographs. I’ve always liked painted illustrations better than photos. However, I own some field guides that rely on photos. I often use these guides as secondary references to consult for confirmation of a particularly puzzling identification. Among the best photo field guides available are the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman and the Stokes Field Guide to Birds Eastern Region by Donald and Lillian Stokes.517doMN-H7L._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_

Overall, field guides are a valuable investment and crucial for individuals looking to expand their knowledge of birds. Best of all, most field guides are not expensive. Most guides cost around $20. It’s sometimes possible to pick up a good guide at a store specializing in used books for an even more modest price.

One thing to keep in mind is that we’re living in a technology-driven age. Some tech-savvy birders have begun to rely on electronic guides on mobile devices for use in the field while birding. I’m a little more old-fashioned and still prefer a portable book while looking for birds.1071890

Not all guides are dedicated to using visual cues to identify birds. Once beginners have mastered some of the visual means of identifying birds, they will perhaps want to advance to some of the excellent “birding by ear” guides to help develop the ability to match bird songs with the birds that produce these audio clues to their identities. There are literally dozens of marvelous field guides.

Although birding helped kick off the demand for nature field guides, the industry has branched out in the past couple of decades. It’s easy to obtain extensive and informative field guides on a variety of subjects, ranging from butterflies and moths to dragonflies, wildflowers, trees, reptiles, fish, mammals and much more.81a1885b-80a6-4e50-a941-f0079f122a97_1000

Jill sent me her email with the query about field guides about the time the first ruby-throated hummingbirds were returning to the region, and she shared a story about her efforts to attract hummingbirds that was sidetracked by an unwelcome visitor.

“Also, as an avid hummingbird watcher, I was so excited to prepare and hang two feeders,” she wrote. “However, the only thing attracted to them at this point has been a local bear who proceeded one night to tear down and destroy both feeders!”

Jill said that the offending bear left paw prints on her porch and sticky, red remnants of hummingbird food on the side of her house underneath the garage sconce light (also destroyed by the bruin), which he mistook for a third feeder.

“Oh well, I will try again with the feeders here soon,” she added. The incident did prompt her to change her strategy. This time, she wrote, she planned to locate the feeders a little farther from her house.

I sympathized with her about the bear’s attack on her feeders, and shared an account of an incident that befell one of my feeders. A bear mangled one of my peanut feeders this past winter, bending the mesh tube into a pretzel shape.

I added a postscript to my email reply to Jill, prompted by learning where she lives.

“I love the wetlands in Saltville,” I wrote to her. “Great habitats for birds!”

Through the years, I have observed some interesting birds in the Saltville wetlands, including surf scoter, Caspian tern, great egret and spotted sandpiper. During those visits, I always had a trusted field guide with me for consultation.e34fe1ca-5b5d-4c45-956c-41ff096610d0_1.58baeab0e8cc1f26ab894e3cbcf9f22d


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

Newest attraction at the Native Wildlife Zoo at Brookgreen Gardens introduces public to migratory waterfowl


All Photos by Bryan Stevens                                                    The entrance to the new waterfowl habitat at Brookgreen Gardens.

During my recent vacation to Pawleys Island in South Carolina, I’ve been able to visit Brookgreen Gardens, which is one of my favorite attractions in the area.

I was particularly eager to visit “Flights of Passage: Migratory Waterfowl of the Lowcountry,” which is the latest habitat to be added to the Native Wildlife Zoo and Domestic Animal Exhibit at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

“Flights of Passage” joins the popular Cypress Aviary, an enclosed habitat housing several species of wading birds, such as Black-crowned Night-heron, Great Blue Heron, Snowy Egret, White Ibis and Cattle Egret.


Fulvous Whistling Ducks take a nap in the afternoon.

Among the waterfowl on display in the “Flights of Passage” habitat are Wood Duck, Redhead, Blue-winged Teal, Ruddy Duck, Hooded Merganser, Northern Pintail, Black-bellied Whistling Duck and Fulvous Whistling Duck.

The Fulvous Whistling Duck, also known as Fulvous Tree Duck, breeds across the world’s tropical regions in Mexico and South America. It is a widespread duck, ranging across four of the world’s continents. This duck has also expanded its range into the West Indies and into the southern United States.


Black-bellied Whistling Duck stands at attention to greet visitors.

The Black-bellied Whistling Duck, formerly also called Black-bellied Tree Duck, is a whistling duck that breeds from the southernmost United States and tropical Central to south-central South America. In the United States, it can be found year-round in parts of southeast Texas, and seasonally in southeast Arizona and Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. It is a rare breeder in Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina. In the wild, this duck usually forages for food at night.

The Ruddy Ducks, especially the male with his bright blue bill, wins many fans among visitors to “Flights of Passage.” The Ruddy Duck is a native of North America, but can also be found in South America along the Andes Mountains. This duck belongs to a family known as the “stiff-tailed ducks.” These ducks migrate to avoid the colder winter conditions, usually spending the winter months on coastal bays or unfrozen lakes and ponds.


The male Wood Duck is one of North America’s most colorful ducks.

The Wood Duck, also known as the Summer Duck and the Carolina Duck, is one of the few ducks that breeds in the southeastern United States. It is a cavity-nesting bird and will accept nesting boxes provided by humans. Males, or drakes, are considered among the most colorful of North American waterfowl. The Wood Duck is one of two ducks in the genus Aix. Its only close relative is the Mandarin Duck of East Asia and Japan.

The Redhead is a species of diving duck that nests on prairie wetlands across the United States and Canada. It belong to a family of ducks known as “pochards,” which are adapted to foraging underwater. While the Redhead can be legally hunted, the federal government has in place restrictions on the number that can be taken during a hunting season.


A pair of Northern Pintails enjoys a swim in their pool.

The Northern Pintail is a duck with a wide geographic distribution. Pintails breed in the northern areas of Europe, Asia and North America, but this waterfowl is migratory and winters south of its breeding range to the equator.


This Lego sculpture of a peacock is located in the waterfowl habitat as part of the “Nature Connects” exhibition.

The Hooded Merganser, according to the website All About Birds, are excellent divers and can catch numerous aquatic insects, crayfish, and small fish. Males court females by expanding their white, sail-like crests and making very low, gravelly, groaning calls. Hooded Mergansers fly distinctively, with shallow, very rapid wingbeats. Like the Wood Duck, the Hooded Merganser is also a cavity-nesting bird.
Since March 5, visitors to the zoo have also been able to see 12 larger-than-life LEGO® brick sculpture installations in the Native Wildlife Zoo. Created by Sean Kenney, renowned artist and children’s author, “Nature Connects” is an award-winning exhibit currently touring the country. The exhibit is open daily and is included in garden admission through Sept. 5.

Made from almost a half million LEGO® bricks, the sculptures bring nature to life with a six-foot tall hummingbird hovering over a trumpet flower, a deer family made from 48,000 bricks, a giant tortoise, a seven-foot-long giant dragonfly, a bird bath attracting cardinals, bees and a squirrel and much more.

The exhibit features interpretive panels with an educational message for each sculpture to connect children with the natural world and promote conservation.In addition, there are educational activities such as a LEGO® sculpture building contest, scavenger hunts, and 30,000 LEGO® bricks available for guests to play with when you are here.


Ruddy Duck keeps one eye open to monitor visitors to the enclosed waterfowl aviary.

Other animals displayed throughout the Native Wildlife Zoo are Great Horned Owl, Turkey Vulture, Bald Eagle, Red-tailed Hawk, Barred Owl, River Otter, American Alligator, Grey Fox, Red Fox and White-tailed Deer.

The grounds and walking trails of Brookgreen Gardens also offer birding opportunities. In the early summer months, visitors can observe Prothonotary Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Great Crested Flycatcher, Brown Thrasher, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Red-headed Woodpecker and many other wild birds.


The male Redhead shows the namesake coloration on the drake’s head.

Brookgreen Gardens is a National Historic Landmark and non-profit organization located on U.S. 17 between Murrells Inlet and Pawleys Island. For more information, visit the website at or call (843) 235-6000.

According to the attraction’s website, the Native Wildlife Zoo has been an important element of the mission for Brookgreen Gardens since its inception. It is the only zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums on the coast of North and South Carolina. The AZA is America’s most respected organization for zoos and aquariums. All of the native animals in the Native Wildlife Zoo were either bred and raised in captivity or have sustained a major disability due to injury. In either case, these animals could not survive in the wild.


Female Wood Duck perched on a tree branch.


Black-bellied Whistling Duck, foreground, with a Fulvous Whistling Duck.


Male Ruddy Duck sporting his blue bill.


Hooded Merganser flaps her wings.


Wood Duck, background, and a Fulvous Whistling Duck.


Blue-winged Teal splashes in the pool.


A female Redhead rests by the side of the pool.


Male Redhead takes a swim in the pool.


Northern Pintail


Hooded Merganser stands next to the pool.


Wood Duck rests at side of the pool.


Ruddy Duck dives beneath the surface of the pool.


Female Northern Pintail.


Male Northern Pintail.


A female Ruddy Duck takes a refreshing dip in the pool.

Seeing their reflections triggers aggressive behavior in robins, other birds


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                An American robin forages for food to take back to hungry young.

I’ve gotten a couple of questions recently on a puzzling problem regarding American robins and windows. To be more specific, the robins are throwing themselves against windowpanes in the mistaken assumption they are safeguarding territory from intruders.

Sheila Myers, a resident of Seven Mile Ford, Virginia, wrote to me a few weeks ago about her problem with a robin. “The bird started bumping my window April 14,” Sheila explained in an email. “I covered the window with plastic bags and newspaper strips, but the bird would still fly around the obstacles.” When she removed the obstacles, the bird came back again.  

Sheila also shared an interesting encounter with one of our larger birds.

“As I was driving home some time ago, I was coming up a hill and  almost collided with an eagle,” she wrote. “The eagle had a possum in its talons.”

As much as it was a surprise for Sheila, the encounter was also a shock for the eagle.  “The eagle dropped its prey and was able to soar just above my van,” Sheila wrote. “It was quite a beautiful experience.”

In addition to Sheila’s email seeking a solution to her robin problem, I also received a message from Phil Rust, who is also having a similar problem with a male robin. “Hopefully you can help us with a major problem at our home,” Phil wrote. “Since early spring robins have been attacking several of our windows about 8 to 9 a.m. daily.”

Phil explained that the robins fly into the glass from top to bottom leaving a mess all over.  “The sills are covered with droppings and they peck the glass violently,” he added. “Removing all their mess has not deterred them.  Rubber snakes in the sills hasn’t phased them either. Any suggestions please?”

The problem is rooted in bird biology and isn’t readily solved by anything people can do to deter the robins. The offenders are probably male robins with surging spring hormones. The robins are seeing their reflections and think it is another male robin. Birds under the influence of their hormones get very single-minded. Given some time, he will probably lose interest in your windows.


Photo by Bryan  Stevens                                 Northern Cardinals can also be tricked into attacking their reflections in a window pane during the nesting season when elevated hormones affect the bird’s behavior.

This problem isn’t confined to American robins. I’ve experienced a similar situation myself with a female Northern cardinal. In her case, her nest was near a window at the back of the house. When she would catch sight of her reflection, she assumed another female had encroached into her nesting territory.

I’ve also seen Eastern bluebirds and dark-eyed juncos attack the exterior mirrors on parked vehicles. The junco was attacking the mirrors of several cars parked in a lot at Roan Mountain State Park in Tennessee. No sooner would the bird tire of attacking one mirror than it would catch sight of its reflection in another mirror. The small bird seemed quite tireless in its determination to rid the vicinity of all rival juncos. 

The case with the bluebird involved cars in a workplace parking lot. The mirrors were getting quite messy, but the cause remained a mystery until a co-worker caught a male bluebird in the act of vandalizing the mirrors on one of the parked cars. The male bluebird and his mate were actually raising young in a nearby nest box.  

In these cases, the birds are responding exactly as their brains are wired to respond. They don’t have the means to differentiate their own reflections from actual rival birds. So, their behavior is likely to continue until their hormones begin to wane near the conclusion of the nesting season.

Most of the robins that returned earlier this spring have already had time to complete one nesting. I’ve even seen some hard-working parent birds delivering food to baby robins waiting impatiently on a perch for these frequent deliveries. Robins will often nest a second and even a third time in a season.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        Once the nesting season concludes, most reflection-attacking birds will return to their senses.

Despite occasional lapses into attacking windows and vehicle mirrors, robins are beloved by most people. We’ve even made the American robin the official state bird in Wisconsin, Michigan and Connecticut. 


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


Rose-breasted grosbeaks always wow observers

Connie Jackson sent me a note on my blog, “Our Fine Feathered Friends,” about the excitement caused by her first-ever sighting this spring of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

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.

“Thank you. Thank you. I’m an amateur bird watcher for the first time this year,” Connie wrote. “My feeders are drawing many birds to my delight. Today, for the first time, I saw both a male and female grosbeak. It took me two hours on-line to come across your article and picture to find out what they were. They are beautiful. I have taken many pictures.”

Danny Baker, who lives in northwest Tennessee in Clarksville, also wrote to me about visiting Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

“I have had several grosbeaks at my feeders for three weeks now,” Danny wrote. “I was just wondering why the change from normal? They are very pretty and have a wonderful song, and everyday I return from work hoping they will still be here.”

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 suitable 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.

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.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/ David Brezinski Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will likely be among the colorful birds present for this year's rally.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/ David Brezinski
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will likely be among the colorful birds present for this year’s rally.

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.

It’s the adult male with his vibrant black and white feathers and the large rosy-red splash of color across the breast that gives this bird its common name. Females are brown, streaked birds that are larger than but easily confused with some of our sparrows.