Monthly Archives: June 2021

Among feathered friends, catbirds are individuals

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although often considered shy, skulking birds, some catbirds show a great deal of curiosity about and trust in humans.

I received an email on June 15 from Linda Durette, who lives in Townsend, Massachusetts, which is on the New Hampshire border.

“I live in a country environment with thickets and fields,” she noted.

Linda informed me that she had run across an article I wrote in 2019 about gray catbirds.
“I have always been mildly intrigued by the catbird,” she wrote. ‘Working around the yard and having a cat myself, I always got a kick out of their vocal annoyance with my cat.”

She said the catbirds begin squawking at her cat the minute he steps out the door.

Photo by by Jennifer Beebe from Pixabay • Gray catbirds have a reputation for being either shy skulkers or bold scolders. In fact, these birds are known for being individuals with unique and distinctive personalities. Like mockingbirds and thrashers, the gray catbird is considered a mimic thrush and can imitate snippets of the songs of other birds.

“I always kept him away from any nesting area, although he isn’t a particularly adventurous cat, anyway,” she noted.

“This year was the same,” she said. “My cat seemed to almost ignore the bird. He just sat there and allowed the bird to squawk loudly. I think the bird was miffed.”

She said she finally put her cat back in the house.

“But I have been noticing that the bird comes very close to me,” she wrote.

She wrote that the catbird appears to watch what she does when she is outdoors.

“I have been talking with him, chattering while I garden,” she wrote. “It’s a riot. He lands on the wheelbarrow handle after I walk away or allows me to walk pretty close to him as he watches.”
Linda concluded that this individual catbird, at least, seems to have quite the personality.
I’d mentioned in my previous column on catbirds about the fondness of these birds for fruit and how I occasionally offered berries to them.

“I will attempt some fruit, too,” she said. “It is so interesting. We’ll see what happens.”
Perhaps readers will recall the folksy expression “sitting in the catbird’s seat” that denotes self-satisfaction and perhaps a degree of smugness. As expressions go, it’s not a bad fit for this charming, somewhat eccentric bird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A curious Gray Catbird peeks from dense cover. Attendees at the fall rally can look for catbirds and other species at any of the offered bird hikes.

The gray catbird is a baffling bird with a personality that runs the gamut from introverted to extroverted, sometimes depending on the season and at other times seemingly just on a whim. With some gentle persuasion, however, people can gain a catbird’s trust – as Linda has done with the bird in her Massachusetts garden – and develop a fun friendship with these clever songbirds.

One summer, all I needed to do to win over the catbirds was to offer some less-than-perfect strawberries and blueberries. A few blemishes on the fruit didn’t bother the resident catbirds at all, and they soon became accustomed to receiving such treats.

A person’s first introduction to the catbird is likely going to occur when one hears what sounds like an irritable feline hiding in a hedge, thicket or dense shrub. Upon closer examination, observers may get a glimpse of a charcoal gray bird roughly the shape of a Northern mockingbird but smaller. A black cap and a patch of rusty-red feathers under the tail are the only exceptions to this bird’s overall gray plumage.

The catbird is related to thrashers and mockingbirds, but scientists find the gray catbird just different enough to warrant placing it in its own genus. The genus name Dumetella means “small thicket.” It’s an apt name for this secretive skulker. Catbirds only feel secure in dense cover such as hedges, brush piles and dense thickets.

A relative known as the black catbird, which ranges throughout the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, as well as northern Guatemala and northern Belize, also belongs to a genus of its own. The genus name Melanoptila for this close relative is a compound word created from two Greek words: melas, meaning “black” and ptilon, meaning “plumage.” Both of these catbirds are classified as “mimic thrushes,” or Mimidae, of which there are about 30 species in the New World. There is a totally unrelated family of catbirds that ranges through Australia, Asia and parts of Africa.

The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. Males have motivation to constantly expand their repertoire, however, as doing so increases the likelihood of attracting a mate. They imitate other birds, but some have been recorded imitating frogs and other non-avian singers.

The website All About Birds also offers some helpful advice for attracting gray catbirds. To entice these birds, plant native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs such as dogwood, winterberry and serviceberry.

While the closely related brown thrasher and Northern mockingbird have both been honored with recognition as official state birds, this designation has never been bestowed on the gray catbird.

The female catbird constructs the nest, but her mate may helpfully provide some of the nesting materials. She may spend as long as a week building a rather bulky nest. She usually lays one to six eggs, which require an incubation period of about two weeks. Once the young hatch, both parents are kept busy bringing food to the young. Hatchlings will remain in the nest for about 10 days, but parents continue to care for and feed young even after they have fledged and departed the nest. Catbirds nest two or three time in a season.

According to the website All About Birds, the oldest known gray catbird was at least 17 years and 11 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in New Jersey in 2001. That individual had been banded in Maryland in 1984. So, if you do manage to strike up your own friendship with a catbird, there’s a good possibility that it could become a long-term relationship, especially since many birds like to return to a home territory year after year.

To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, please send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I enjoy hearing from readers about shared interests in birds.

Hummingbird numbers normally fluctuate from year to year

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird perches at a feeder for a sip of sugar water.

Russ MacIntyre, Jonesborough, Tennessee, emailed me recently with a question about hummingbirds.

“Are there fewer around this year?” Russ wrote in his email. “My neighbor hasn’t seen any for a month and neither have we. Both of us have feeders and usually have hummingbirds all summer.”

I responded to Russ’s question by sharing with him that I have not seen as many hummingbirds as usual myself.

It’s important to note, however, that hummingbird numbers always fluctuate from year to year. While Russ and I may not be seeing as many hummingbirds, someone else in Jonesborough, Erwin or other small towns might be overwhelmed with these tiny gems. For instance, numbers might appear down in Northeast Tennessee but could be booming across the border in Western North Carolina.

I get these questions every year. Last year was a great year for hummingbirds based on my personal experience. I was also staying at home a lot more last year due to COVID-19, so I might simply have had more leisure time to observe the hummingbirds in my yard and garden.

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

I usually tell people a decline in numbers one year doesn’t mean hummingbird numbers might not boom next year. Quite simply, all the hummingbirds could be a few miles down the road having a great time in someone else’s yard and garden. One thing that all hummingbird enthusiasts should do is plant more nectar-providing flowers, in addition to providing sugar water feeders. Flowers can help persuade hummers to stay put.

To recognize the importance of native, nectar-bearing flowers, simply consider a few facts about hummingbirds from an article by Lisa M. Genier for the Adirondack Council.

“Hummingbirds have a very high metabolism and must eat all day long just to survive,” wrote Genier, a program analyst for the Adirondack Council. “They consume about half their body weight in bugs and nectar, feeding every 10 to 15 minutes and visiting 1,000 to 2,000 flowers throughout the day.”

It’s not just the sugary treat that waits in each bloom that draws in hummingbirds.

“In addition to nectar from flowers and feeders, these birds eat small insects, beetles, ants, aphids, gnats, mosquitoes and wasps,” Genier wrote in her article, which was published on July 3, 2018, on the website for the Adirondack Council. The organization was founded in 1975 with a mission to ensure the ecological integrity and wild character of the Adirondack Park near Lake Placid in New York.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated hummingbirds such as this male make themselves at home in yards and gardens throughout the eastern United States from spring to fall each year. .

If you’re disappointed with seemingly low numbers of hummingbirds this spring, my best advice is to wait until late July and early August when young birds are out of the nest and parents and young start the slow-paced migration back south. Invariably, I see more hummingbirds in late summer and early fall than in the spring.

Hummingbirds are a lovely diversion for nature enthusiasts, but they also play a crucial role in the ecosystems where they make their homes. Hummingbirds are pollinators. Every time they visit a flower, they will carry away some pollen on their bills or foreheads. If they carry the pollen to the correct plant, they fulfill their role as one of nature’s many pollinators.

There’s even an entire week dedicated to pollinators and their importance in nature. Pollinator Week was initiated in 2007 when the United States Senate unanimously approved a week in June to be designated as “National Pollinator Week”. This decision was a critical step to address the decline in pollinators across the globe.

Now an international celebration, Pollinator Week raises awareness on the plight of pollinators and celebrates all of the benefits provided by the thousands of insect, bird, and small mammal pollinator species. As people learn more about pollinators, they become advocates – indeed voices – for the pollinators they come to love and understand. We can all play our part to secure a healthier, more sustainable future for pollinators. Pollinator week was started and is managed by the Pollinator Partnership. For more information explore the Pollinator Partnership website.

According to the website, Pollinator Week was initiated and is managed by Pollinator Partnership, and fourteen years ago the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval and designation of a week in June as “National Pollinator Week” marked a necessary step toward addressing the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Pollinator Week has now grown into an international celebration, promoting the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles.

While this year might not be a typical Pollinator Week due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the planet have pledged to continue promoting pollinator health and well-being through socially distant and responsible events. Through the numerous virtual gatherings, webinars, responsible planting sessions, socially distant garden and farm walks and monument lightings, Pollinator Week 2021 is geared to be the busiest and best one yet.

This year, Pollinator Week is being observed Monday-Sunday, June 21–27. For more information, email info@pollinator.org.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Monarch sips nectar from blooming Ironweed. Butterflies are important pollinators for many plants.

Tri-Cities Young Naturalists looks to help kids of all ages engage with nature

Photo by Larry McDaniel • This pine warbler was photographed during a field trip conducted by the Tri-Cities Young Naturalists to Rocky Mount State Historic Site in Piney Flats.

I’m glad that my parents introduced me to nature. I also had grandparents who also loved to get outdoors.

My paternal grandfather knew the name of every tree in the woods. I always got his help when time came for those perennial “leaf collection” assignments in elementary classes.

My maternal grandparents loved to fish, so I learned about bluegills, walleyes and other local fishes from them. My grandmother was also quite knowledgeable about natural edibles, including wild-growing branch lettuce and morel mushrooms.

So, I’m all for efforts to introduce young people to nature. I met a boy named Gunnar at a bird walk that I led at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park last month. This young attendee wanted to see a killdeer, which unfortunately were absent from the park that day. I did help him see such birds as a yellow warbler and a nesting American robin, so I hope the day wasn’t a total bust for him.

I learned with great interest last year that there was a new group being formed to introduce younger people to nature. Unfortunately, the group had just gotten off the ground in July of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spike.

A year later, Larry McDaniel, the organizer of Tri-Cities Young Naturalists and the administrator of the group’s Facebook page, is trying again to attract more members to the group and hold in-person field trips.

McDaniel retired five years ago from a position at Steele Creek Park in Bristol. That job, he noted, let him interact with young visitors to the park curious to learn more about different aspects of nature.

“I was taking a walk and it popped into my head that I could still do that,” he said. “I could form something to let kids learn about and enjoy nature.”

McDaniel, a resident of Jonesborough, started the Tri-Cities Young Naturalists as a project with iNaturalist, but it didn’t gain momentum.

He changed course and created a Facebook group a couple of months later, which has produced better results.

“Facebook has been a lot of fun,” he said. “We’ve got people on the Facebook group who like to share photos and stories about nature.”

He has been assisted by Cade Campbell, who serves as a moderator for TCYN and helped get the Facebook group up and running.

“As a naturalist, my passion is largely founded in the Southern Appalachians,” Campbell shared. “Growing up here, in one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots, it’s hard for me to focus on just one group of species.

“As a result, I try to learn about as many different kinds of animals, plants and fungi as I can at intervals, learning how they all work together to build verdant, natural habitats,” he continued.

Campbell said he personally became involved in TCYN because he wanted to give young nature enthusiasts an opportunity to learn how amazing the natural world can be.

“As a young naturalist myself, I understand how exciting it can be to have a community of other young people to share exciting finds and learn new ways to find wildlife with,” he said. “It’s awesome to find a toad in the backyard every time one makes an appearance.

“However, visiting a ‘secret’ bend of the river full of lime-green map turtles, egrets perched on driftwood, and limestone bluffs full of colorful clumps of rare wildflowers and neon-green tiger beetles, with friends who can experience this same excitement and knowledgeable naturalists who can share detailed accounts about what you’re seeing, is an unforgettable experience,” he continued.

“I see TCYN as a way this frontier of discovery can be strengthened in our Appalachian Highlands region to really give local children an opportunity to form a strong connection with nature; something desperately needed in today’s time where nature deficit disorder is rampant,” Campbell added.

Campbell, who currently lives in Bristol, once lived in Indian Springs just outside of Kingsport.

“I spent a great deal of time learning about nature at Warriors Path State Park from Marty Silver, and many other mentors while I was still in elementary school,” he said. “That’s actually how I met Larry McDaniel, and he’s taught me how to better explore, appreciate and know the region’s wildlife ever since.”

Campbell said that his best advice for young naturalists is to simply appreciate nature.

“Appreciate the beauty of nature, learn thoroughly and intentionally, and be sure to have great adventures in the process,” he said. “You will never run out of things to learn about wildlife, and remember, that’s what makes this pursuit so exciting and rewarding.”

He also noted that things learned about nature can stick with people for a lifetime.

He noted that TCYN is designed to offer an opportunity to make the most out of this connection with nature, and share that experience with others.

Now that summer’s kicked off for 2021, McDaniel has made a renewed effort to offer more field trips. Helping in that effort is the fact that the pandemic seems to be lessening in intensity, perhaps thanks for an increase in vaccinations.

“We were going to have field trips last year, but then the pandemic worsened,” he said.

This summer, the outlook seems brighter. The Tri-Cities Young Naturalists held their first field trip at Rocky Mount State Historic Site in Piney Flats. Several events were held last fall at this location.

McDaniel said that Melanie Kelley has been working hard to promote more nature events at Rocky Mount.

A more recent gathering was held at Twin Springs Picnic Area on Roan Mountain on April 29.

“It was a great time at Twin Springs Picnic Area on Roan Mountain yesterday,” McDaniel posted on the group’s Facebook page. “We held an event for the Northeast Tennessee City Nature Challenge. I was especially pleased to see three young naturalists participating and representing Tri-Cities Young Naturalists.”

The group has held other field trips, including a bird walk at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton on June 7. McDaniel noted that Jennifer Bauer, the park manager for Sycamore Shoals, has helped immensely in recruiting memberships for the Tri-Cities Young Naturalists.

Upcoming events include a snake talk/walk at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City at 9 a.m. on July 5 that will be led by Connie Deegan, who was recently honored as top Conservation Educator by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation.

McDaniel said that the Tri-Cities Young Naturalists boasts 175 memberships on Facebook, but noted that some of those memberships include multi-member families.

McDaniel said that Tri-Cities Young Naturalists started primarily as an “environmentally conscious” effort to introduce young people to various aspects of the natural world.

“It’s good for kids to get outdoors and away from gadgets,” McDaniel said, explaining his primary motivation for starting Tri-Cities Young Naturalists.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue Dasher photographed during a trip to South Carolina.

He also wants to instill a love of nature in the younger generation. “We need the upcoming generation to make changes, or else things for the planet will continue to go downhill.”

To join the group, search Tri-Cities Young Naturalists on Facebook. The group is set to private but is visible for searches. Requests to join can be sent to McDaniel for approval.

Whether your interest rests with birds, frogs, lizards, dragonflies, wild orchids or bees, Tri-Cities Young Naturalists will help you learn more about these topics and many others related to the natural world.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Large Maple Spanworm Moth on a wall.

Orioles are among the region’s most colorful birds

Photo by Michael McGough from Pixabay • The Baltimore oriole is a bird with a taste for sweets. Citrus fruits, grape jelly and even specialty feeders for dispensing sugar water are ways to draw these birds closer. Otherwise, they can be difficult to observe as they prefer to spend their time in the tops of tall trees.

The Baltimore oriole would stand out among North American birds even without its colorful plumage and its long association with the city of Baltimore and its affiliated major league baseball team.

For instance, few other birds can match the Baltimore oriole for the sheer elaborate nature of the woven nest these birds construct for the purpose of sheltering eggs and young. The nests resemble hanging baskets that the female oriole weaves from a variety of collected strips of grass. The lining inside is even more elaborate and features soft materials such as plant down, feathers or even wool that can insulate and cushion the eggs. The nest itself is anchored securely in the fork of a tree branch. 

A family of tropical birds known as oropendolas are native to Central America, with some ranging as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. Some of their fantastic hanging nests put those constructed by Baltimore orioles to shame. Not surprisingly, orioles and oropendolas are closely related and claim kinship among the extensive family of New World blackbirds. Many species of oropendolas also nest in colonies, which makes their intricate nests even more prominent.

Orioles also have a tendency to indulge a sweet tooth or, I suppose, a sweet beak in their case. Slices of citrus fruits, as well as specially designed feeders to suit their size and shape can offer these birds sugar water that they will sip as eagerly as any hummingbird. Dispensers of grape jelly can also be set out to lure these birds.

Photo Courtesy of Helen Whited • A Baltimore Oriole visits a feeder “baited” with an orange slice.

Baltimore orioles have been changing their usual habits almost from the time the first Europeans arrived in North America. Instead of migrating south each fall, more of these birds are staying behind at some northern locations, especially along the Atlantic Coast, and successfully overwintering, often at backyard feeders.

For many year s, I have helped unwittingly perpetuate the myth that the oriole derived its common name from an association with history’s first Lord Baltimore, also known as George Calvert, Baron Baltimore. 

As it turns out, the bird and the English nobleman may not be as closely affiliated with each other as popular lore would have us believe. According to an article published by Hervey Brackbill in 1949 in the Wilson Bulletin, the origins of the Baltimore oriole’s vernacular, or common, name is not authentically tied to Lord Baltimore.

George Calvert by the artist Daniël Mijtens. In this portrait, the family colors of black and orange are clearly visible.

On a side note, there should be a bird named “Brackbill,” just because that seems a ready-made term for describing some sort of odd bird. Alas, I can’t find any evidence that Mr. Brackbill ever had a bird named after him. 

In summarizing the myth of the man and the bird, the article states that Calvert visited Chesapeake Bay in 1628. He saw the oriole and, impressed with the bird’s orange and black plumage, adopted those colors as his own, incorporating them into his family’s coat of arms. 

The historic record turns up several inaccuracies with this charming but perhaps misleading tale. First and foremost, the Calvert family coat of arms of gold (orange) and black had already been established before the first Lord Baltimore ever visited the New World. A statement regarding the coat of arms was published in England in 1622, six years prior to Calvert’s visit to the Chesapeake Bay.

Calvert did eventually (in 1629) visit the Chesapeake Bay, but there’s no actual account of his ever observing the bird that we know as a Baltimore oriole. Calvert’s son, the second Lord Baltimore, never ventured to the New World.

The famous Carl Linnaeus is often given credit for bestowing the common name on the oriole, but he was apparently a bit late to the game. The Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist and physician famous for his binomial nomenclature, which is the basis for the modern system of naming organisms, first gave the bird the scientific name of Coracias Galbula in  1758. In 1766, with the publication of an updated version of his Systema Naturae, Linnaeus got around to giving the oriole the scientific name Oriolus Baltimore, or more simply “the oriole of Baltimore.”

Unfortunately, credit does not really belong to Linnaeus. A century before Linnaeus got around to giving the oriole its enduring name, colonists in America were calling the bird in question “the Baltimore bird.”

The famous naturalist, writer and artist Mark Catesby referred to the bird as “the Baltimore bird.” Catesby, who lived from 1683 to 1749, was famous for his studies of the flora and fauna of the New World. Catesby also was the first to refer to the bird as an oriole because he was reminded of the unrelated orioles of the Old World. He gave the bird its “icterus” designation that today is used to describe an array of New World blackbirds, orioles, and other related birds. By the time people began to suspect the New World orioles were not at all like their Old World counterparts, Catesby’s classification stuck.

So, ordinary colonists, not noblemen, naturalists or ornithologists, actually provided the name “Baltimore bird,” but due to a mistake on the part of the experts who should have known better, the erroneous “oriole” was also attached to the bird’s name.

All in all, I like the name oriole. Baltimore blackbird, while it does have some alliteration and is more scientifically accurate, just doesn’t have the same ring to it. 

The region is home during the summer to another oriole, the smaller orchard oriole. Other New World orioles include Audubon’s oriole, orange oriole, Altamira oriole, Bullock’s oriole, hooded oriole and white-edged oriole. 

Bullock’s oriole is the western counterpart to the Baltimore oriole.  The two birds were once considered the same species and lumped together under the unimaginative name of Northern oriole. I got the pleasure of observing many Bullock’s orioles during a May visit to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2008.

Some of the Old World orioles, the birds with the rightful claim to be “orioles,” include the brown oriole, green oriole, white-lored oriole, Eurasian golden oriole, green-headed oriole,  black oriole, maroon oriole and silver oriole. The Old World orioles are also closely related to the figbirds of Indonesia and Australia and the pitohuis of New Guinea. 

Incidentally, I have tried the trick of offering orange slices, as well as grape jelly, to attract Baltimore orioles to my yard. Unfortunately, this oriole remains definitely “hit or miss” at my home on Simerly Creek Road. I’ve only ever observed them at my home during spring and fall migration. Thanks to gray catbirds, the orange slices didn’t go to waste, and the ants loved the grape jelly. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Baltimore oriole in tall trees at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City, Tennessee.

To find orioles, keep your gaze directed upward. Larry McDaniel with Tri-Cities Young Naturalists was recently asked on Facebook whether there are orioles in the area. He gave a good answer, so I’ve borrowed it. He explained that while orioles do nest in the region, they are surprisingly hard to spot high up in the thick foliage of tall trees.

Some good locations to look for Baltimore orioles are the waterfront along Winged Deer Park in Johnson City and in tall trees around the lake at Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport.