Monthly Archives: April 2021

New arrivals include spring’s first warblers

Photo by Kaylynn Wilster • Pine warblers, like this individual, have become more adaptable, learning to accept food at feeders and helping them remain in the United States during the winter season.

Mystery bird
Kaylynn Wilster, who lives in Piney Flats, Tennessee, emailed me recently for help with an identification on a bird visiting her feeders. When she described the bird and mentioned its fondness for suet at her feeders, I immediately suspected the identity of her visitor. A photo she provided gave instant verification that her visiting bird is, as she suspected, a warbler. To be exact, she is hosting a pine warbler.

The pine warbler is an attractive member of its clan with a plumage consisting mostly of various hues of yellow, olive and gray. Some males will show extremely bright yellow feathers, but females and young birds may show only a bare minimum of yellow coloration.
Unlike warblers such as the magnolia warbler and the palm warbler, the pine warbler truly does have an affinity for the tree for which it’s named. Magnolia warblers, on the other hand, are really more at home gleaning the branches of spruce trees while a weedy field is often the preferred habitat of a palm warbler.

Photo by Kaylynn Wilster • A pine warbler feeds on suet at a hanging feeder.

Look in the pines
The pine warbler is rarely found away from pine trees, but the bird is not too particular about the type of pine, being known to frequent about a dozen different varieties of pine trees. According to the website All About Birds, some of the favored pines include jack, pitch, red, white, Virginia, loblolly, shortleaf, slash, sand and pond pines.

The pine warbler is slightly less of an insect-eater than other warblers. This warbler will also feed on fruits, berries and some seeds. All About Birds states that some favored fruit includes bayberry, flowering dogwood, grape, sumac, persimmon and Virginia creeper.

When a pine warbler visits feeders, however, it’s often looking for supplemental protein. This fact explains why suet cakes, as well as homemade or commercial mixtures of suet and peanut butter, are one of the best ways to lure these warblers to feeding stations.

The population of this warbler has actually been on the increase since 1966, according to various surveys conducted on pine warbler numbers. Almost the entire population spreads out across the eastern United States, with much lesser numbers of pine warbler making their home in Canada.

Warbler migration
Kaylynn’s pine warbler is likely an early spring migrant or a pine warbler that elected to spend the winter months in the region. While warblers are scarce between October and March, their numbers are about to take off in a big way.

In April and continuing into May, a couple of dozen warbler species will pass through Tennessee. Some of these warblers find area woodlands and other habitats to their liking. They will pause, explore and perhaps decide to spend their summer nesting season in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina rather than continue migrating farther north.

Many of the warblers that pass through each spring, however, are destined to travel a much longer distance before settling down in their favored habitats for the summer nesting season. These warblers include the Tennessee warbler, Nashville warbler, Cape May warbler, blackpoll warbler and Blackburnian warbler. Most of these species nest as far north as New England and Canada.

Others find the Southern Appalachians to their liking. Some of the first warblers to return each year include the Louisiana waterthrush, which favors rushing mountain streams, as well as species such as black-throated green warbler, hooded warbler, ovenbird, worm-eating warbler and common yellowthroat.

Photo by Jean Potter • A male hooded warbler flits through the foliage of a rhododendron thicket.

Kaylynn mentioned that her pine warbler has graced her with frequent bursts of song. This fact indicates that her bird is a male. Pine warblers are persistent singers, but they often sing their songs from the upper branches of tall pines, effectively camouflaging themselves from view. Pine warblers have become more frequent feeders visitors in recent decades, which brings them into closer proximity to humans than would otherwise be the case.

New Arrivals
A pair of wood ducks brought company when they returned to the fish pond on April 2. They were accompanied by a pair of mallards. Although our most common duck, mallards haven’t visited my pond for several years. It felt good to have them back. I’m hoping both the wood ducks and mallards might decide to use the pond as a home base throughout the spring and summer.

On April 7, I heard the first chipping sparrow of spring. This small, dapper sparrow has an easily recognizable song. All About Birds describes the song as “a long, dry trill of evenly spaced, almost mechanical-sounding chips,” to which I concur.

A pair of tree swallows arrived at my home on April 8. I wrote in last week’s column about these swallows and their anticipated return.

The first warbler of spring – a male Northern parula – arrived April 9. I heard his trademark buzzy song as I left for work.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Northern parula hides in the canopy while singing its buzzy song.

I still haven’t seen the first spring ruby-throated hummingbird, but I have received a report from North Carolina.

Susie Parks, who lives in North Cove in McDowell County, North Carolina, emailed me to report that she saw her first hummingbird of the season at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 1.

She even elaborated on the “funny” timing.

“I assure you this is not an April Fool’s joke,” Susie wrote. “We are, indeed, thrilled to have seen this amazing little creature on such a chilly morning.”

I wrote back congratulating her on her sighting, which only makes me more impatient to have these delightful little birds back in my own yard.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

Journey North, a website that tracks hummingbird migration, as well as the migratory journeys of other wild creatures, reports that hummingbirds have reached Tennessee. A posting for a woman in Clinton, Tennessee, reported a ruby-throated hummingbird on Monday, April 5.

Hummingbird Anticipation

The arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds is one of the most anticipated returns each spring. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

 

 

 

Tree swallows are the latest spring arrivals

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tree swallow checks out a nesting box soon after returning in the spring.

Waiting for spring? Join the club. Between alternating bouts of unseasonably warm temperatures and frigid blasts, the weather cannot seem to decide if winter’s hanging in there a little longer or if it’s time to proceed with spring’s arrival.

I’m hopeful it’s the latter. I enjoyed a stroll in the spring sunshine on March 30 along the section of the trail near the industrial park. From the boardwalk over the water I saw my first spring swallows (a purple martin and a couple of Northern rough-winged swallows) as well as a belted kingfisher and several American robins. I also saw my first dragonflies and butterflies of spring, as well as one muskrat enjoying a leisurely swim.

Early Birds

One might think that the wild swings in weather would translate into a messy arrival timetable for some of our returning birds, but so far my own personal observations indicate a different story. At home, the usual spring “early birds,” including wood duck, red-winged blackbird, blue-headed vireo, ruby-crowned kinglet and brown thrasher, have been their usual punctual selves.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

The swallows I saw during my Erwin stroll, however, reminded me that one bird hasn’t returned at my home. The early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon knew this particular bird as “white-bellied swallow,” which is a descriptive name, but today the species is known simply as tree swallow.

Tree swallows have been back in the region for weeks, but they sometimes take their time finding their way to the waiting birdhouses at my fish pond. Their return dates in years past have ranged from early March to the middle of April.

Insect-heavy Diet

Swallows are insectivores, so those that return early in the spring must deal with temperature fluctuations. In prolonged cold spells, these insect-eating birds can be hard pressed to locate their usual prey. At such times, they are often forced to retreat to the area’s lakes and larger rivers, where they can swoop over the water and have an easier time plucking cold-numbed flying insects out of the air.

Once milder spring temperatures prevail, the flocks of swallows forced into these necessary habitats will disperse as pairs begin seeking nesting sites. Tree swallows are cavity-nesting birds, which often puts them into competition with Eastern bluebirds. The two species usually manage to work out a truce and settle down to nest in close proximity to each other.

The iridescent blue-green male tree swallow, complete with white underparts and a forked tail, is a handsome bird and a welcome addition to the bird population in any yard or garden. Tree swallows enjoy water, so a nearby pond or creek is a boon for attracting these birds.

Tree swallows haven’t always nested in Northeast Tennessee. Only in the last 40 years have these birds become regular nesting birds in the region. The first nesting record took place in the early 1980s at Austin Springs on Boone Lake in Washington County, Tennessee, according to The Birds of Northeast Tennessee by Rick Knight. Tree swallows soon became regular nesting birds every summer in all five counties that comprise Northeast Tennessee.

Other Swallows

It’s usually not too difficult to find five of the six species of swallows that are known to make Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina their home from spring to fall. In addition to tree swallow, the region’s other swallow species include: barn swallow, purple martin, cliff swallow and northern rough-winged swallow. These are all fairly common summer birds in the region. The sixth species, the bank swallow, is a bit of a specialist when it comes to nesting and occurs only sporadically in the region.

While only a handful of swallows range into the United States and Canada, a total of 83 species of swallows can be found worldwide. Some of the common names for these different swallows (also called martins in other parts of the world) are quite descriptive. A sampling includes white-eyed river martin, grey-rumped swallow, white-backed swallow, banded martin, blue swallow, violet-green swallow, golden swallow, brown-throated martin, brown-bellied swallow, pale-footed swallow, white-bibbed swallow, pearl-breasted swallow, red-breasted swallow, mosque swallow, fairy martin, pale martin, tawny-headed swallow and streak-throated swallow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Northern rough-winged swallows perches on a metal pipe.

While many swallows and martins have proven highly adaptive when faced with human disturbances to their habitat, a few species have experienced declines. One species — the white-eyed river martin — was last seen in Thailand in the 1980s and very well may be extinct. Closer to home, the golden swallow is now found only on the island of Hispaniola after disappearing from Jamaica in the 1980s. The Bahama swallow, which nests on only four islands in the Bahamas, is also vulnerable. Incidentally, both these swallows are closely related to the tree swallow, with all of them belonging to the genus Tachycineta. Translated from Greek, the genus name means “fast mover,” a quite accurate description of these graceful and agile flyers.

Good 

Neighbors

With their enthusiastic twittering to each other, tree swallows make for friendly neighbors. The local bluebirds may disagree, at first, but they’ll get their feathers unruffled eventually. It’s also a pleasant diversion to watch them swoop over fields and ponds as they help control the insect population.

To increase your chances of hosting your own tree swallows, offer a bird box placed in an open area. Right now is the time to attract their attention with some prime real estate. Plans are available online to help construct your own or pick up one at a gardening center, hardware store or farm supply outlet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern Bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.

Many would-be hosts for Eastern bluebirds express disappointment when a pair of tree swallows become tenants instead. The remedy to the disappointment is simple: provide an additional nesting box.  Although there will be some initial squabbles, tree swallows and Eastern bluebirds will co-exist if they don’t have to compete for the same nesting box.

There’s one last selling point I want to mention on behalf of tree swallows. While not exactly songsters, they do produce an energetic, chirpy trill that they vocalize persistently when in the company of their fellow tree swallows. It’s hard not to be cheerful when hearing such a jubilant noise issuing from one of our feathered friends.

Hummingbird Observations

While tree swallows and their kin are great to have back, one of the most anticipated returns each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post on my Facebook to share your first sightings. You can also leave a comment here on the blog.

Some ‘egg-ceptional’ trivia about birds and their eggs

The egg has long been a symbol of rebirth and renewal, which goes a long way toward explaining the connection between eggs and the holiday of Easter. In honor of the upcoming Easter holiday, I thought I’d devote this week’s column to some “egg-citing” egg trivia. I’ll try to avoid any additional “egg-sasperating” puns.

Of course, the familiar Easter egg has traditionally been provided by chickens, although the eggs of other birds, such as ducks, geese and turkeys, are occasionally incorporated into such festivities as egg fights and egg hunts.

Producing eggs encased in a thin calcium shell is one of the ways that the birds are different from other lifeforms. For example, mammals carry their eggs inside the body with the exception of the oddball echidnas and the platypus. Amphibians lay eggs, but their eggs are soft and must usually be deposited in the water to ensure they do not dry out. Insects also lay eggs. It’s only the birds, however, and a few reptiles that have evolved the hard-shelled egg as a more durable means of reproduction.

The shape and size of those eggs varied greatly. Among the world’s 10,000 species of birds, the ostrich lays the largest eggs of any bird. Closer to home, the California condor almost certainly lays the largest eggs of any U.S. bird species. According to the website, All About Birds, eggs of the California Condor eggs are about 4.5 inches long and almost 3 inches wide. These whopper eggs weigh about 11 ounces. By contrast, a large chicken eggs weighs only two ounces.

The eggs produced for one nesting attempt are referred to as a clutch. The number of eggs per clutch varies among different species. Among songbirds, some rather small birds lay large clutches of eggs. For instance, the kinglets, which are tiny birds barely bigger than hummingbirds, are champion egg layers. The ruby-crowned kinglet can lay as many as a dozen eggs in a clutch, while the golden-crowned kinglet may lay as many as 11 eggs per clutch. The house wren, which is also a rather diminutive bird, can lay as many as 10 eggs. Several North American wrens produce large clutches of eggs. The marsh wren and sedge wren are known to lay as many as 10 eggs per clutch. The winter wren is almost their equal with clutch sizes that can include nine eggs. Of course, these same birds may lay more average clutches of between three and six eggs.

The sora, a small, secretive species of rail, lays 10 to 12 eggs in a nest well-concealed in marsh vegetation. The sora has been known to produce exceptional clutches with as many as 18 eggs.

Waterfowl are known to be good egg layers. The mallard hen may lay a clutch of eight to 13 eggs. The redhead hen typically lays only seven to eight eggs, but has parasitic tendencies that include depositing some eggs in the nests of other redheads. On occasion, multiple redhead hens get a little compulsive about slipping their eggs into a communal “dump” nest. These type of nests have been found containing as many as 80 or more eggs, but such clutches are impossible for a single hen to incubate and the eggs are usually lost. The wood duck, which will nest in specially designed bird houses placed near a source of water, can lay as many as 14 eggs in a single clutch.

Other birds concentrate their efforts on laying only a single egg or perhaps a pair of eggs. Many species of albatross lay only a single egg. The parents will dedicate a long period incubating the egg and then tend to the needs of the solitary offspring once the egg hatches.

Hummingbirds typically lay a pair of eggs. The poor female is soon abandoned by her mate and must build a nest, incubate her two eggs, and care and feed her young without any paternal assistance whatsoever. Hummingbirds, having high metabolisms, would find it impossible to feed themselves and any more than two young in a nest.

Penguins lay only a few eggs. Many species lay a pair of eggs, but the king penguin and emperor penguin are single-egg producers. In their harsh environment, these penguins would find meeting the needs of more than one offspring at a time quite impossible.

Let’s talk color. Eggs come in a variety of colors. Some eggshells also feature intricate patterns and splotches.

The killdeer, which usually lays four eggs, produces buff-colored eggs with dark mottling on the shell. These eggs blend remarkably with gravel and other rocks, which helps the ground-nesting killdeer hide their nests from would-be predators.

The American robin is famous for producing a clutch of beautiful blue eggs. The coloration of the eggs have even given rise to the descriptive phrase “robin’s egg blue.” This particular shade of blue is described as a variable one that leans to greenish-blue that is paler than turquoise and more blue than aqua.

The American robin’s blue eggs are not unusual among the thrushes, the group of birds of which the robin can claim kinship. For instance, the Eastern bluebird’s eggs are pale blue or sometimes white. The wood thrush produces eggs that are more to the turquoise shade of blue while the veery’s eggs can vary between green and pale blue.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
A pair of eggs in the traditional cup-shaped nest built by many songbirds.

The blue tint to the eggs of robins and other thrushes is caused by a pigment that gets applied to the shell as the female lays the eggs. It’s like the female robin has an internal egg-dyeing mechanism. In an article published in May of 2012, Science Daily reported that a study conducted by Queen’s University also found that the brighter blue the egg, the more the male robin will apply himself to caring for his offspring.

Among the birds that use my birdhouses for nesting, I’ve always thought the eggs of Carolina chickadees are exquisite. The eggs are pale white with a hint of pinkish coloration. A fine mottling of brown spots dot the shell. The amount of mottling can vary from egg to egg in the same clutch. These tiny eggs produced by a tiny bird are kept safe and sound in a nest of moss and other plant materials with a soft lining of animal hairs. Chickadees lay between three and 10 eggs, but between five and eight eggs per clutch seems more usual.

As mentioned, the ostrich lays the largest egg. Ostrich clutches are also impressive. The wild African ostrich, the largest bird in the world, lays 12 to 18 eggs. The ostrich has been domesticated, however, and hens have been conditioned to produce more eggs than would ever be expected in the wild.

The ostrich belongs to the ratite family, which includes other large birds such as the emu, rhea and cassowary, as well as five species of kiwi, which are considerably smaller than other ratites. The kiwi does have one interesting claim to fame when it comes to eggs. Kiwi are notable for laying eggs that are extremely large in relation to their body size. A kiwi egg may equal 15 to 20 percent of the body mass of a female kiwi. Perhaps not surprisingly, most kiwis lay only a single egg per clutch. The brown kiwi, however, normally lays two eggs per clutch.

Aepyornis, which was a giant, flightless ratite native to Madagascar and now extinct, produced the largest egg of any bird. Also known as the elephant bird, Aepyornis produced an egg with a volume equal to slightly more than 150 chicken eggs. These giant eggs boasted a circumference of 3 feet, 3 inches and reached about 13 inches in length. Research indicates that humans drove these enormous birds into extinction. One theory is that humans feasted so heavily on the giant eggs produced by Aepyornis that the birds were unable to sustain their species.

Humans have long turned to eggs as a source of nourishment, but we do not feed exclusively on eggs. Animals that feed primarily on eggs are classified by experts as ovivores. Some ovivores include fish, snakes, insects and, yes, birds. Some birds have become quite adept at preying on the eggs of other birds. Blue jays and American crows are known for robbing nests for both eggs and nestlings of other birds.

The bird egg has become firmly interwoven into human culture and traditions. According to the website Aghires.com, estimates indicate that about 180 million eggs are purchased each year in the United States specifically for the Easter holiday. Chicken hens must feel really overworked at this time of the year.

Of course, there are also the Easter traditions of chocolate and peanut butter eggs. I suppose that eases the pressure slightly on the overworked hens.

Hummingbird Tracking

I’m reminding readers that I want to hear from them when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

Observations will be accepted through Sunday, April 18. Winners will be announced in this column on April 28.