Monthly Archives: August 2016

Moths, songbirds share top billing for programs at this year’s Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                       The Baltimore Snout Moth, or Baltimore Hypena, is a moth found in the Eastern part of the United States, west and south to Wisconsin, Missouri and Florida and Texas. The larvae feed on maple leaves, mainly red and silver maple.

For 54 years the annual Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally has brought nature enthusiasts from near and far to the slopes of Roan on the weekend after Labor Day. The tradition continues this year Friday-Sunday, Sept. 9-11, with two area naturalists presenting evening program on moths and songbird behavior.


For this year’s rally, the program spotlight will shine on local moths and songbirds. As always, a variety  of walks, hikes, strolls and workshops will also be offered on Saturday and Sunday. Top naturalists volunteer their time and energy to make the event both enjoyable and educational for people of all ages.


Larry McDaniel and some goats in residence at the farm he owns with his wife, Janet Brown.

This fall rally continues to celebrate the natural world by providing two top speakers for this year’s event. Larry McDaniel, a naturalist at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee and a long-time member of the Friends of Roan Mountain, will deliver the program on “Moths of Roan Mountain and Northeast Tennessee.” Dr. Steven Hopp, naturalist and teacher at Emory and Henry College in Virginia, will present a program titled “Beyond Birding: A Look at the Life History of Local Songbirds.”



Steven Hopp teaches at Emory and Henry College in Virginia.

Because of the continued support of the Friends of Roan Mountain, the seasonal rallies have the resources they need to prosper and grow and the FORM provides support for research and restoration projects on the Roan, as well as support for Roan Mountain State Park. Consider joining the Friends of Roan Mountain, if you are not a member. Members get free admission to all Naturalists Rally events and the organization’s newsletter, “Friends of Roan Mountain.” Gary Barrigar, director for the fall rally, said many thanks are due to Roan Mountain State Park’s staff for long-time support of the rallies, as well as the speakers and the trip leaders who donate their time and expertise.



Clymene Moth

Evening and lunch programs will take place in Roan Mountain State Park’s Conference Center and field trips will leave from the field located on the left before the cabins in the park. A variety of morning and afternoon field trips are planned on topics ranging from butterflies and salamanders to birds and wildflowers.

McDaniel, the Friday evening speaker, grew up in College Park, Maryland, where he spent a great deal of time exploring in the woods. It was there that he developed a lifelong love for nature. He started birding while in high school and has been going at it ever since. He spent 15 years living and birding in Florida. It was during those years that he started traveling all over North America to see birds. He moved to Bristol, Tennessee, in 1993 and started attending the Roan Mountain Naturalists Rallies within weeks of having moved to the area. Legendary Bristol birder Wallace Coffey introduced him to the area and the birding community where he has met and spent time in the field with many outstanding birders and naturalists. While working as a letter carrier in Bristol he began volunteering to lead bird walks in the area.


Large Maple Spanworm Moth

Large Maple Spanworm Moth

He eventually became involved with the Bristol and Elizabethton bird clubs and served several years as the president of the Bristol club. Like many birders, during the 1990s he branched out and began studying butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, reptiles and amphibians, wildflowers and a little of just about everything. Soon he began leading bird hikes for the Roan rallies and before long became a board member of the Friends of Roan Mountain. In 2006, having retired from the Postal Service, he started working as a naturalist at Steele Creek Park, where he has been for ten years. He increased his interest of insects during this time and in 2008 he started studying and photographing moths. Local naturalist Don Holt helped to get him started in that endeavor.



Hummingbird Moth

McDaniel, lives with his wife, Janet Brown, on a hobby farm near Johnson City, where they tend a menagerie of mini-farm animals. Larry and Janet met at a Roan Rally and in 2003 got married in Roan Mountain State Park.

His presentation will discuss many aspects of the natural history of moths and the growing trend of studying them. It will include many of his photographs of moths from Roan Mountain State Park and the Tri-Cities area. He has photographed about a thousand species of moths, but he promises he won’t include them all in the presentation.

Dr. Steven Hopp will be the feature Saturday evening speaker. Hopp is broadly trained in the life sciences, and received his Ph.D. in Animal Behavior from Indiana University. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1984 to teach at Emory and Henry College, and has been tied to this region ever since. He taught ornithology courses at the University of Arizona from 1994 to 2004, at which time he moved back to Virginia full time. He teaches courses in wildlife management and sustainable agriculture in the Environmental Studies program at Emory and Henry.



Blue-headed Vireo

Dr. Hopp has studied different species of vireos for over 25 years. His main interest is in their vocal behavior, but he has broadly studied their natural history including life history strategies, breeding ecology and behavior on their wintering grounds. More recently, he has become interested in Sustainable Agriculture, and is co-author of the national best-selling book, Animal Vegetable Miracle, with his wife, Barbara Kingsolver. The book is about local food systems and sustainable agriculture. He is founder and director of The Meadowview Farmers’ Guild, a community development project devoted to promoting local products, with an emphasis on agriculture. He serves on the board of Appalachian Sustainable Development. Hopp and his wife live in Meadowview, Virginia, on a mostly wooded farm with Icelandic Sheep and Dexter Cattle.

The evening programs are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Prior to the programs, evening meals catered by City Market of Elizabethton, Tennessee, will also be served on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 9-10. Cost is $9.50 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under. A bag lunch is also available on Saturday for field trip participants for $6. Advance reservations are required for the meals and bag lunch.


Eight-spotted Forester Moth

For a brochure with information on making reservations, write to: Treasurer Nancy Barrigar, 708 Allen Ave., Elizabethton, TN 37643, or visit the organization’s website at for a downloadable PDF of the brochure. For more information about the fall rally, call Gary Barrigar at 543-7576 or email him at


White-spotted Sable Moth


Tremulous call of Eastern screech-owl baffles couple

Photo by Bryan Stevens An Eastern Screech-Owl at rest in a roosting hole in a large sycamore tree.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
An Eastern Screech-Owl at rest in a roosting hole in a large sycamore tree.

I received a recent email from Lewis Chapman seeking help in solving the identity of a nocturnal caller. Chapman and his wife moved to Laurel Bloomery in Johnson County, Tennessee, in late June.

“Shortly after we arrived we started hearing a strange night bird call that could best be described as an eerie winnowing,” he wrote in his email. After the couple conducted some Internet research into the mysterious after-hours vocalist, his wife suggested the caller might be a snipe.

As mentioned in previous columns, the snipe is a real bird despite its reputation as a mythical creature thanks to the rural tradition of the “snipe hunt.” While the calling bird at their home did remind them of a Wilson’s snipe, they were not convinced.

“Is this the right time of year to be hearing one in our area?” Lewis asked in his email. “Is there another bird that makes this kind of winnowing?” Both of his astute questions helped me narrow the possibilities.

In my reply, I did inform Lewis that the Wilson’s snipe, as well as the closely related American woodcock, make their home in the region. The summer season, however, isn’t the best time of year to hear either of these relatively elusive shorebirds. These birds are most vocal at the peak of their breeding season, which usually occurs much earlier in the year.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                     Lucy, an Eastern screech-owl, is part of an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina that teaches audiences some fascinating information about native wildlife. For instance, despite her small size, Lucy is an adult owl, not a baby.


It was his second question, especially the description of the “winnowing” sound, that got me thinking in an entirely different direction. It also helped that I’ve heard some of these small, nocturnal vocalists at my own home in recent weeks. I suggested that the Chapmans get online and look up the song and other vocalizations of the Eastern Screech-owl.

An adult Eastern screech-owl is usually only between six and nine inches in length. Many people upon first seeing a screech-owl assume it’s a baby owl. On a recent South Carolina trip I made several visits to Brookgreen Gardens near Pawleys Island. On several of these visits I attended the daily educational programs conducted by the zoo staff at the gardens that are designed to introduce visitors to various examples of native wildlife. The presenter usually introduced a couple of animals to the audience. On several occasions, the show featured birds of prey, including hawks and owls.

Two of the shows featured Lucy, an Eastern screech-owl, and people in the audience invariably asked if she was a baby owl. To their astonishment, they learned that Lucy was an adult screech-owl and unlikely to grow any bigger. There are larger owls in our region, including the great horned owl and barred owl. Lucy and her kin must avoid these much larger owls, which would have no hesitation at trying to make a meal of the much smaller owl.

Because of their small size, screech-owls prey on some comparatively small creatures, including insects, small rodents, amphibians and reptiles. The Eastern screech-owl is also a cavity-nesting bird and will accept bird boxes provided by humans so long as the box’s entrance hole is customized to their size.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      An Eastern Screech-owl perches among some hemlock branches.

The screech-owl is probably the owl most likely to encounter human beings. It’s an adaptable little feathered predator, fully as at home in the backyard and garden as it is in parks and woodlands. In addition to nesting in cavities, this owl roosts in them during the daytime hours. Look for roosting screech-owls in knotholes of trees or in unoccupied wood duck boxes. Although they come in two color phases — red and gray — both variations are quite capable of camouflage. When perched or roosting, these small owls blend remarkably with their surroundings.

The Eastern screech owl also produces a variety of odd wails and other vocalizations including a distinctive, trembling “whinny” call that is often made when the owl feels curious or alarmed. It’s a wavering, haunting call that is made after dark, most often at the hours closer to dawn and dusk. Imitating the call of a screech-owl or playing a recording is also a trick for getting some shy songbirds to show themselves. Screech-owls are unwelcome neighbors among songbirds, which will flock to this owl’s call and band together to “mob” the predator and try to convince it to depart the immediate area.

In addition to the Eastern screech-owl, the United States is also home to several other small owls, including Western screech-owl, Northern pygmy-owl, Northern saw-whet owl, flammulated owl and elf owl.

After I pointed to the screech-owl as the identity of the unseen caller at the Chapman home, I did receive another email from Lewis. My suggestion of the screech-owl proved correct. “It’s fun having the Eastern screech-owl in our woods,” he wrote back. “It has a beautiful call and most nights it does it for quite awhile.”


Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted a family of Eastern Screech-owls.

Screech-owls do make good neighbors. Their prey preferences remove many nuisance insects and rodents from the habitat they share with humans as well as other wildlife. If you’re hearing an odd, winnowing call from the edge of the woods at your own home, there’s a good chance that you have one of these small owls as a neighbor.

Since moving to Laurel Bloomery, the Chapmans have already seen many great backyard birds, including indigo bunting, great crested flycatcher, ruby-throated hummingbird, house wren, black-and-white warbler, pileated woodpecker and chipping sparrow. Now they can also add Eastern screech-owl to the list. Who knows? They may some day also add a Wilson’s snipe to their yard list of birds.


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

Birds engage in vigorous bathing to keep feathers in good shape



Great Blue Heron sets aside plenty of time to preen its feathers

Birds are natural scene stealers, which is probably why we enjoy watching them and glimpsing their various behaviors. A couple of months ago during a vacation to South Carolina, I got to see many interesting birds, including one new addition to my life list. I also got a glimpse into a variety of interesting bird behaviors. For instance, I observed the different fishing techniques of various herons and egrets.

During a visit to the Native Wildlife Zoo at Brookgreen Gardens, I observed many captive birds. One interesting aspect of the zoo, however, is the fact that wild and captive animals often interact. I was watching some gray and red foxes in their habitat when I noticed something in a corner of the enclosure. As I focused my binoculars on the corner, a whirling dervish of brown and tan feathers was splashing vigorously in the loose sand. The bird — a Carolina wren — had worked itself into a frenzy, tossing dirt and sand all over its small body.


A range of bird baths can provide water for bathing and drinking, which will make yards and gardens more attractive to birds.

Many readers probably know of the appeal to birds of a well-situated and maintained bird bath filled with clean, fresh water. Birds will flock to such attractions to bathe. While a bath in water is one way to maintain a bird’s plumage, it’s not the only method available to help keep feathers in top-notch shape. It might even surprise some readers to learn that access to water is not always essential for proper feather care. Some birds choose to take a “dust bath” in dry earth or sand. The dust or sand serves as an accessible way to scrub parasites out of a bird’s feathers.

While birds taking a bath look like they’re having a lot of fun — and perhaps they are — frequent bathing serves a vital purpose. Feathers are one of the things all birds have in common, but it’s extremely important that birds keep their feathers clean and healthy. Not only are feathers necessary to make flight possible for birds that take to the air, they’re also valuable as insulation to keep birds dry and warm.


A female Northern Pintail splashes vigorously to clean her feathers.

Some birds also put other creatures to work in the constant chore of keeping their feathers in good condition. Many birds utilize ants into their feather-care routine. The behavior is so widespread — more than 200 species use ants to help them take care of their feathers — that the behavior has been given a name, which is “anting.”

The birds are interested in chemicals produced by the ants. Anting is an offshoot of dust bathing and can be achieved in two ways. Birds may passively position themselves near an ant hill, thus ensuring that many ants will swarm though the bird’s feathers. Others more directly pick up ants in their bills and rub the ants on their feathers. Although ants are usually the insect of choice in these feather-care regimens, some birds have used millipedes instead of ants. Although it hasn’t been conclusively proven, many experts think that birds use the ants because of chemicals produced by the insects that repel feather parasites such as mites or to curb potential bacterial or fungal problems.


After a bath, birds like this Northern Pintail devote time to preening their feathers.

Just like some birds make bathing in water a chance to reinforce their social bonds, many species also engage in dust bathing as a communal activity. Some species of quail are known for dust bathing as a group. Northern bobwhites will visit dust bathing sites on a regular basis. In a dust bath, birds will usually toss dust and dirt onto their bodies, working the dust into their feathers. They will also work their bodies, including their heads, into the dust. Since birds cannot exactly use their bills to clean feathers on their heads, this action makes perfect sense.


A Chestnut-sided Warbler bathes in a woodland puddle.

After a bird has concluded a vigorous bath, whether in water or sand, it will usually seek out a perch for a long bout of preening its feathers. While watching the antics of a bathing bird is fun for observers — and often looks fun for the bird, too — it’s a serious business. A bird that neglects these daily chores will soon suffer from dirty, damaged feathers. It’s not just cosmetics for the bird. It’s a matter of life and death. Perhaps that explains the intensity with which birds throw themselves into the activity of bathing.

Offer a shallow, clean pool of water in a bird bath and you won’t wait long for birds to make an appearance. If you have a sandy corner in your yard or garden, you could also leave that spot untouched to see if any birds show up for a quick dirt bath. These are just a few easy touches you can add to your landscape to increase your chances of interacting in the daily lives of some of your favorite birds.


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

Family of brown thrushes excels at birdsong


Photo by Jean Potter                                                        A wood thrush perches in the upper branches of a tree. This thrush’s flute-like notes produce a haunting song from shaded woodlands.

Kathy Shearer, who resides in Emory, Virginia, sent me a recent email asking for help with bird identification.
“My husband and I hear this lovely bird song in the evenings and early morning close to our house, which is in the woods at Emory,” she explained in her email. She also attached an audio recording of the mystery singer and asked me to listen to the file.


I did so, and from the very first of the flute-like notes, I recognized the singing bird as a wood thrush, one of the most talented avian songsters in North America.I’ve been hearing singing wood thrushes in the woods near my home during the evenings, often in the wake of some energetic but short-lived July thunderstorms.



Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                  The wood thrush is a shy, retiring bird that prefers to sing its melodic song from dense cover.

The wood thrush has a well-developed organ called a syrinx, which is the human equivalent of a larynx or voice box. For many songbirds, such as the thrushes, this specialized organ is more like a double voice box that permits the birds to produce two notes simultaneously while singing its song.

The wood thrush is one of the larger brown thrushes, which also includes such related birds as Swainson’s thrush, veery, gray-cheeked thrush and hermit thrush. Other less closely related members of the thrush family include the American robin, Eastern bluebird and Townsend’s solitaire.

The wood thrush is a fairly common bird in the region from April to October. Wood thrushes migrate south in the fall, dispersing to Mexico and Central America for the winter months.

The shy wood thrush does not usually venture too far from its preferred woodland habitat, but freshly disturbed soil in a garden will attract these birds as they seek out earthworms and insect larvae. Wood thrushes also feed on various fruits and berries, which means they can be attracted by plantings of suitable trees and shrubs.



The poet Walt Whitman incorporated the hermit thrush and its melancholic song in his elegy to the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

The wood thrush, like many of its relatives, sings mainly in the early morning and again in the evening hours. Listening to the song of this bird from a comfortable seat on a deck or porch is a great way to conclude the day.

Naturalists often point to one of the wood thrush’s close kin — the hermit thrush — as the most gifted singer in this clan of gifted songsters. For discerning listeners, the hermit thrush’s flute-like notes are somewhat more melancholy, haunting and ethereal than even the enchanting notes of the wood thrush’s song.

The poet Walt Whitman employed a thrush as a symbol in his poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a moving pastoral elegy in honor of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

Whitman evidently knew his birds, and it’s not difficult to identify that he referred to the hermit thrush when he wove this songbird as a symbol into his stanzas honoring Lincoln.

“Sing on there in the swamp,” Whitman wrote in his poem. “O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call. I hear, I come presently, I understand you…”


Photo by Bryan Stevens The hermit thrush, pictured, and wood thrush are rivals for title of best singer among North America’s songbirds.

Whitman and many other Americans have been made fans of this gifted songbird. In fact, the citizens of Vermont even proclaimed the hermit thrush as their official state bird.
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