Grosbeaks, bluebirds focus of questions from readers arising from spring sightings

I’m hearing from readers on a range of subjects relating to birds. Although I am still hearing from readers about their hummingbirds returning after a lengthy absence, other readers have contacted me about other birds, ranging from rose-breasted grosbeaks to “blue” birds of differing varieties.


Photo by Rebecca Boyd • A male rose-breasted grosbeak shells sunflower seeds with his large, heavy beak. Rose-breasted grosbeaks, especially the more colorful males, never fail to impress observers.

These shared observations reinforce my theory on birds. They have wings, and they know how to use them. There’s nothing to stop an unexpected bird from making a migration layover in your yard. Keep your eyes open, especially during the remaining weeks of May. A surprise could be winging its way toward you!
Constance Tate, who lives in Bristol, Tennessee, sent me a Facebook message on April 24. “I just saw a rose-breasted grosbeak at my feeder,” she wrote. “I had to look it up as this is the first one I have ever seen. Are they uncommon in our area?”
Rebecca Boyd of Knoxville, Tennessee, emailed me, also on the subject of rose-breasted grosbeaks.
Rebecca said at least two pairs made frequent visits to her feeder last month, but the visits stopped abruptly on Sunday, April 30.
“Should I assume they have moved on already to cooler areas north of here?” Rebecca asked.
In my response, I congratulated Constance and Rebecca on seeing this stunning bird. The rose-breasted grosbeak is one of our many neotropical migrants, which are birds that winter in the American tropics but migrate to North America for the summer nesting season.
These grosbeaks are not exactly uncommon. However, they usually just migrate through the area for a few weeks in spring and fall, limiting the window of opportunity for seeing them. It’s possible to find rose-breasted grosbeaks nesting on some of our higher mountains during the summer season.
Rebecca took photos of her visiting grosbeaks. In addition, she shared with me that the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency’s Watchable Wildlife web page is featuring some of her bird photos this month.
View the gallery by visiting Among the photos by Rebecca on the page are some beautiful photos of American goldfinches.
Anne and Ben Cowan contacted me to share an observation of a close relative of the rose-breasted grosbeak.
“My husband and I live about three-fourths of a mile from Tennessee High School in Bristol,” Anne wrote. “On April 30 we had the most amazing bird sighting.”
Anne described herself and her husband as avid birdwatchers and bicyclists.
They had been hoping to see a hummer at their feeder (none had shown up as of the date she wrote to me) when they saw a “blue” bird fly into an oak tree near their driveway.


Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this family of blue grosbeaks.

“It seemed too large to be an indigo bunting and clearly wasn’t a bluebird, so out came the binoculars and there it was, a blue grosbeak,” she wrote. “What a gorgeous bird!”
They looked it up in their trusty bird book, where they found images of the blue grosbeak in all his splendor. The bird also had all the necessary field marks, including the large grosbeak beak, rusty coloration in the wing bars, and a patch of black feathers between the eye and beak.
“It was a definite,” she said of their identification. “His range is not far off here, but it was definitely a rare one for us. We have never seen one.”
The Cowans also informed me they finally saw their first spring hummingbird on a cold, rainy Saturday, May 5.
I wrote the Cowans back, congratulating them on their sightings.  In all the years I have been watching birds, only a single blue grosbeak has visited my feeders, so I know what an unexpected treat a visit from one of these birds can be.
Blue grosbeaks are somewhat uncommon, so it’s definitely a sighting the Cowans can cherish.
This grosbeak is a bird of fields featuring lots of shrubs and small trees. Although fairly widespread, this bird isn’t considered abundant anywhere in its range. The bird is another neotropical migrant and will stop at feeders or birth baths to refuel or rehydrate during their seasonal migration journeys.
Rhonda Eller of Chilhowie, Virginia, contacted me on Facebook with a question about bluebirds.
“Have you ever heard of changing a bluebird’s nest after the eggs hatch?” Rhonda asked. “We have five baby bluebirds and someone told us maggots get in the nest after the eggs hatch and will eat the babies if you don’t alter the nest.”
In my response, I told Rhonda that I have always made a habit of cleaning out nest boxes after bluebirds are finished nesting. Their nests are so smashed down and dirty after a nesting, it just makes sense to clean out the old nest.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • As a rule of thumb, clean out a nest box after bluebirds or other cavity-nesting birds have fledged their young.

I heard back from Rhonda, who had good news. The first nesting attempt by her bluebirds proved a success and five young bluebirds left the nest box in early May.
“We will be cleaning out that nest and hoping for another brood,” she added.
A few more readers have also shared their first-of-season hummingbird sightings.
Susan Gossett sent me details about her parents and their hummingbird sighting in a Facebook message. “My parents, Harold and Elizabeth Willis, just read your article today in The McDowell News and they saw their first hummingbird April 12 around 5 p.m. They live at 80 Willis Drive in Marion, N.C.”
Guy Davies shared information about his father’s first spring hummingbird sighting. “My father Is Richard “Bud” Davies, Retired 1st Sgt., U.S. Army,” Guy wrote in his message. “He saw his first hummingbird April 14 at 7:10 p.m. at his home in Bluff City, Tennessee. They’re back!”
David and Judy Brown live in Damascus, Virginia. They saw their first spring hummingbird back on April 18 at 11 a.m. at their home they informed me in a Facebook message.
Dee Sims also contacted me by Facebook. “I saw my first hummingbird April 20,” she wrote. “live in Belfast, Virginia, which is between Lebanon and Richlands.”
Jane Arnold sent me an email to let me know her mom, Betty Poole, saw her first spring hummer at 1 p.m. on Sunday, April 23. Betty lives on Lincoln Road in Bristol, Virginia.
As for Jane, who lives on Hearst Road in Bristol, Virginia, she’s still waiting for the hummers to arrive, although she has had a feeder waiting for them since April 1.
Wilma Sexton messaged me on Facebook in regards to my article in the McDowell newspaper about sightings on hummingbirds. “I had just finished your article and I had already put out a fresh hummingbird feeder the weekend before,” she said. “My husband and I really enjoy watching and waiting for them to return. We saw our first one April 26.”
Wilma and her husband live in Union Mills, N.C.
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.


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