Monthly Archives: February 2022

Kettle of red-shouldered hawks drums up birding excitement

Photo by Judith Hayes/Pixabay • Red-shouldered hawk are raptors known for noisy antics and a fondness for woodland habitats bordering sources of wate

I was proven correct on Feb. 15. I’d returned home from work in time to enjoy the last of a sunny day. I’d no sooner stepped from my car when I heard the screams of a red-shouldered hawk from a nearby ridge.

The red-shouldered hawks are, to make a point on the punctuality of birds, right on time. They usually return in late January or early February to the woodlands around my home.

My recent sighting, however, involved more than a single hawk. I detected at least two hawks, seemingly screaming at each other. Curious, I searched for them and found them soaring overhead as the sunny day had generated warm, rising thermals of air.

To my surprise, I soon had a small kettle of red-shouldered hawks calling, soaring and swooping at each other. Two hawks rose to three, then five and finally six! I’d never observed so many red-shouldered hawks in one spot.

I shared the remarkable observation on Facebook and pondered if fellow birder Tom McNeil had seen or heard any of these noisy hawks on his side of the ridge.

After all, the hawks were soaring rather high by the time they flew out of sight and could easily have been seen in Piney Grove as they rose above the ridge separating the community from Simerly Creek Road.

Tom later responded with some interesting information. “Last year a pair nested in the pines across the road,” he wrote. “They were insanely noisy through the early spring.”

He noted, however, that his high count has been four individuals, not six.

Another Facebook friend, Kris Hawkins Rosalina, also shared sightings of this hawk.

“I saw two on Sunday morning, and we’re probably a mile from you as the crow flies on Brown Branch Road,” Kris wrote.

Michael Briggs, who resides in Erwin, also shared about his own pair of hawks. “I’ve had one, maybe two, living near my house for some time now,” he said.

Michael also noted that he had heard one the same day I made my post about the six hawks at my home.

Although at least two of the hawks I observed seemed engaged in an aerial duel, constantly folding their wings, diving and swooping at each other, I think it was mostly bluster and bluff on their part.

Red-shouldered hawks appear animated by a feisty spirit and, as Tom pointed out in his Facebook remarks, are on occasion “insanely noisy” raptors.

The red-shouldered hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a killdeer. Blue jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

The red-shouldered hawk typically prefers wetland habitats and is less likely to haunt roadsides. According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

The red-shouldered hawk belongs to a genus of raptors known as Buteo hawks.The red-tailed hawk is the largest and most common buteo hawk found in the region. The genus includes about two dozen large raptors that are often the dominant avian predators in their respective habitats.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos hawk and the Hawaiian hawk. Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the white-throated hawk, gray-lined hawk, zone-tailed hawk and short-tailed hawk.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as “buzzards.” When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both types of native vultures as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s hawk and broad-winged hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

All too often, our large hawks don’t receive the love they deserve from the public. They may even run afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem, with each species filling a certain niche.

The red-shoulder hawk preys on many of the small mammals, such as chipmunks or voles, as well as reptiles, amphibians and crustaceans. This hawk will also occasionally prey on smaller birds, such as doves, starlings or sparrows.

The overall population trend for this hawk species appear to be on the increase throughout the United States. I see them more frequently these days compared to when I first began birding in the early 1990s.



Man’s enthusiasm for bald eagles expanding the knowledge of region’s nesting birds

Photo Courtesy of Ryan Rice • Nesting bald eagles becoming a regular occurrence is a dream come true for local resident and photographer Ryan Rice. He has been an enthusiastic fan of bald eagles since childhood.

Ryan Rice loves bald eagles. He’s loved the nation’s official bird since he was a child.

As an adult, he’s channeled that enthusiasm into helping collect valuable data on nesting eagles in the region. Along the way, he’s also managed to capture some impressive photos of bald eagles. Ryan and his photos have even recently been featured in Blue Ridge Country Magazine for his work on bald eagles.

The fact that eagles are nesting again in Northeast Tennessee and the surrounding areas is a dream come true for Rice.

All told, he has located about 10 nests in the Tennessee counties of Carter, Washington, Sullivan, Johnson and Hawkins. He has also found nests in Scott County, Virginia, and in Watauga County, North Carolina.

He has also learned of a nest along the Nolichucky River in Erwin.

“The adult eagles have been seen around the area of the nest pretty regularly,” he said. “I have not personally seen that pair — just the nest.”

From drawing eagles when he was a kid to picking up a camera and getting actual photos of his dream bird, Rice said he has always been interested in bald eagles.

“They were talked about a lot in the ’80s,” Rice said. “About how they were endangered and almost extinct in the lower 48 states. I used to dream of seeing them here in Northeast Tennessee but didn’t think it would ever actually happen.”

He explained that by the early 1960s, the bald eagle was nearly extinct in the continental U.S. The bald eagle had also been almost wiped out in Northeast Tennessee. Rice noted that prior to the 1980s bald eagles had not been seen in the region for decades. Now he is happy to report that the area’s eagle population is flourishing and sightings are becoming commonplace. In Northeast Tennessee, Rice noted, reports of bald eagle sightings on date back to 2005. By 2010, the bald eagle population truly rebounded in the region.

Rice said he has conducted a lot of research in an attempt to locate nesting eagles.
“I talked to a lot of people to learn more about their nesting habits,” he said. “I research a lot of eagle sightings people post to ebirds. I use that info to search for nests.
Rice said that getting good photos of eagles isn’t easy. Patience and hard work are key. Even tracking down a nesting site is not a guarantee. He has often gone to a lot of effort to get close enough to photograph the birds only for the eagles to decide to stay away from the nest during his visit.

However, eagles are creatures of habit, according to Rice.

One simple trick he has learned is to always locate their favorite trees for perching. Armed with that knowledge, his photography ventures have become much more successful.

Rice admitted that some nests are simply difficult to reach. Some are accessible only by water, so he said he gets out his kayak and loads up his camera equipment. Other nests are located in trees on steep terrain. On occasion, he must seek permission from landowners in order to observe and photograph a nest on private property.

To get his photos of eagles, he use a Canon 90d camera. “That is a cropped frame DSLR,” he said. He noted that he uses a telephoto lens (Sigma 150-600 mm lens) to get his shots. “On my cropped frame camera that is the equivalent of 960mm on a full frame camera,” Rice said.

Rice and a friend have also formed Above Ground Media, which uses drones for photography for real estate, advertising and special events. He does not use the drones to photograph eagles or their nests. For more information, Rice invites the public to visit

His photography remains a hobby for the moment, but he likes to devote all the time he possibly can to it.

“I have gotten into watching and searching out other birds, too,” Rice said. “At the start of COVID I started working from home and I put up bird feeders and started photographing all the different birds that would come to my feeders,” he said. “Then I started going out to bird hot spots to get photos.”

An Eastern screech-owl perches in the entrance to a house Ryan Rice fashioned out of a fallen log.

He also recently built an owl house out of a section of a fallen hollow tree.

“I hung it in a tree in my yard,” he said. “I live in a neighborhood so wasn’t real optimistic I would get any owls. About a month after hanging it, an Eastern screech-owl has appeared to move in.”
Rice said most people built owl houses out of plywood.

“I choose to use an actual section of a tree so that I could get more natural looking photos,” he explained. “The owl has been around for four or five days now. It often spends six to eight hours sitting in the opening of the house.”

He posted some of the photos of the owl house and the screech-owl on social media. “They have gotten a huge response on Facebook,” Rice said.

He recently did a presentation on local bald eagles for the Bristol Bird Club.

“I got a lot of great information from that group on bald eagle nests in the area that I didn’t know about,” Rice said. “That is where I got the information for the Erwin nest. The members of that group have been a huge help. They really appreciated what I was doing in trying to document as many of the local bald eagles as I could.”

Rice said his work is important to help eagles continue to thrive.

As an example, he pointed to a nest he located in the Hunter community of Carter County along the Watauga River.

“The land owners didn’t even know the nest was there,” he explained. “The day I found the nest I found out the land owners were planning to log the area the nest was in.”

Rice reached out to local wildlife officials so that a happy accommodation could be reached with the landowners to protect the eagles and their nest.

He noted that logging is not an option at a site of an active nest because of federally protections.

After all, it seems only fitting that the federal government take steps to protect the nation’s official bird and ensure that bald eagles continue to soar for many years to come.\

Sparrows keep things hopping at feeders during snowstorms

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The white-crowned sparrow is a very aptly named bird.

I recently received an email from a reader in New York.

“I just read your article about juncos and saw it is from November 2021,” wrote Alice H. Poundstone. “I just wanted to drop you a note.”
Alice wrote that the juncos were late arriving at her home.

“They did not arrive until about a month ago,” she said. “Normally we get them closer to early November. I live in Congers, New York, in the Hudson Valley.”
Alice’s email got me to thinking about the winter sparrows at my feeders. Along with juncos, I’ve been hosting song sparrows and white-throated sparrows, especially during the recent snowstorms. They are sometimes timid visitors. In addition, there can be squabbles among these flocking birds. It keeps feeder watching entertaining on snowy days.

On a trip to Roan Mountain, I also saw the first white-crowned sparrow that I’ve observed in many years. The white-crowned sparrow and the white-throated sparrow are both members of the genus known as  Zonotrichia, which refers to two ancient Greek words for zone and hair, which refers to the pattern of streaks on the backs of these five sparrow species. The Zonotrichia sparrows belong to a large group of birds known as Passerellidae, or American sparrows, which also includes birds such as juncos, towhees and brush finches. Some of the more descriptive names for American sparrows include orange-billed sparrow, white-eared ground sparrow, green-backed sparrow, olive sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, five-striped sparrow and golden-winged sparrow.

Many sparrows, including the white-throated sparrow, prefer to forage for food on the ground. It’s often helpful to purchase a supply of millet seed. When filling feeders with sunflower seeds, scatter a couple of handfuls of millet seed on the ground beneath the feeders or at the edge of a brushy area. Sparrows like to have quick access to dense cover, so they will feed more securely if the scattered seeds are within quick reach of shelter.
Although they are fairly common winter visitors in the region, the white-throated sparrow makes its presence known most strongly each spring when the birds begin to sing a familiar refrain that has been transcribed in a couple of different ways. Many Americans render the song of the white-throated sparrow as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” For those living north of the border, the white-throated sparrow sings “O’Canada, O’Canada, O’Canada.” No matter how you translate this sparrow’s song, it’s a sweet and welcome addition to the spring aural landscape.

Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • The aptly-named white-crowned sparrow is not easy confused with the more drab “little brown birds” that comprise a family of birds known as American sparrows.

Most white-throated sparrows depart the region by late April to reach their summer nesting grounds throughout the forests across Canada, the northeastern U.S. and the northern Midwest. In the influx of more showy birds each spring, their absence sometimes goes unnoticed. Nevertheless, it always feels good to welcome them when they return in late October and early November as winter begins extending its grip for the season.
White-crowned sparrows are a little more erratic with their presence in the region. I’ve found them in Roan Mountain on previous visits. I’ve also observed these sparrows in rural western Washington County and at Musick’s Campground at Holston Lake in Sullivan County.

White-crowned sparrows are medium-sized sparrows with considerable gray on breast and back of the neck. Adults of both sexes are adorned with bold black and white head stripes, which gives this bird its common name. Thanks to this distinctive feature, this sparrow truly stands out among a family of birds often labeled as “little brown birds” by birders.
The white-crowned sparrow is known by the scientific name Zonotrichia leucophrys, which translates into English from Ancient Greek as “white eyebrow.”

During the winter season, white-crowned sparrows are known for forming large flocks. They prefer to feed on the ground beneath feeders but will visit platform feeders if they don’t face too much crowding from other birds. In winter, they feed mostly on seeds. In warmer weather, these sparrows will forage for flying insects.

Although this sparrow usually ranges across the United States and Canada, it has been documented as an unusual vagrant to Western Europe. Sightings have taken place in England, Scotland, Ireland and even Norway.

White-crowned sparrows have shown up at my home on a handful of occasions. Their visits have usually been brief affairs during spring and fall migration.
White-crowned sparrows do not nest in the region. They nest far to the north in brushy areas of the taiga and tundra in Alaska and Northern Canada.
It’s not difficult to attract sparrows. White-crowned sparrows can best be encouraged to visit a yard or garden if there is plenty of dense brush and other cover. In this regard, they are similar to Eastern towhees, fox sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.

Readers in Georgia, Tennessee, Rhode Island are hosting winter hummingbirds

Photo Courtesy of Eli Mulligan • A rufous hummingbird, named Little Green by her human landlord, poses for a snapshot. Rufous hummingbirds routinely migrate through the eastern United States during fall and early winter. Some may spend the entire winter season. 

I recently heard from readers from as far afield as Atlanta, Georgia, and Greene, Rhode Island. They were writing to share stories about over-wintering hummingbirds at their respective homes. But the first report I received this year came from a much closer source.

Darlene Kerns, a Unicoi resident, contacted me on Facebook two days before Christmas.

“We live in Unicoi and I just had to share with you,” Darlene wrote. “We had a hummingbird feeding this morning. It’s 22 degrees!”

She went on to tell me that there have actually been two winter hummingbirds at her feeders.

“We usually bring the feeders in by mid-October but kept one out with fresh food because of continually seeing hummingbirds feeding,” she said.

That’s often how it starts. It’s easy to miss these different hummingbird species when they mingle with the abundant fall ruby-throated hummingbirds, but they tend to stand out once the last of the ruby-throated hummingbirds depart.

“I’m just amazed that these sweet little birds are still around in this cold weather,” Darlene wrote in her message.

Almost every year since beginning to write this column, I have been contacted by others who, much like Darlene, are stunned to glimpse a hummingbird at their home in the winter months. I’ve penned several articles about the phenomenon of wintering hummingbirds. As we are now mid-way through the 2021-2022 winter season, I wasn’t too surprised to receive more confirmation that these tiny birds continue to surprise us.

I replied to Darlene’s Facebook message by asking her if the hummingbird at her home had an abundance of brown feathers in its plumage. I also suggested she use Google to research “rufous hummingbird.”

She did as I suggested and discovered the identity of her visitors.

“Yes! It is the rufous hummingbird,” Darlene confirmed after looking at photos online.

Through the years, I have seen several of these seemingly out-of-place hummingbirds. I’ve received reports from such far-flung locales as Ohio and New York. Some of them remain at their host’s feeders for a brief stay of a few days or a couple of weeks, but some of these hummingbirds have extended their stay for several months, lingering throughout the winter months before eventually departing in February or March. I’ve even hosted rufous hummingbirds twice at my own home.

The big question concerns whether these hummingbirds are truly lost and out of place. The answer, based on everything I have managed to learn, is that these hummingbirds are precisely where they want to be. For still unknown reasons, some of these western hummingbirds make a migration swing through the eastern United States. The vast majority turn out to be a species known as the rufous hummingbird.

I’ll now turn the spotlight onto the individual stories of Eli Mulligan and Pam Price.

Eli Mulligan emailed me about a rufous hummingbird that recently departed from his home in New England.

“I am not sure if you are still following the wintering rufous hummingbirds,” Eli wrote in his email. “If so, I have an interesting story for you.”

He went on to mention that he is a resident of Greene, Rhode Island.

“This year, we had a confirmed rufous hummingbird show up in mid-September, mingling with the remaining rubies (ruby-throated hummingbirds),” he wrote.  “Well, this little rufous decided to stay for some time.  She literally just left us a day ago on the morning of Jan. 18, 2022.  During her stay, she had endured heavy rains, high winds, snow and even routine blustery cold nights with temperatures falling as low as 1 degree and wind chills of minus 15 degrees.”

Eli described his visitor’s routine.

“While she was here, I would get up before the sun, every morning and put out fresh nectar for her,” he wrote. “When we hit the colder days, I invested in a plug-in heated feeder and a mushroom-shaped heat lamp that I would hang the feeders underneath.This definitely helped her on many December and January mornings as she camped right underneath to warm herself.”

Eli said he caught numerous glimpses of her feed from nearby suet cakes most likely to supplement her protein needs during the colder days,” he wrote.

“What an incredibly resilient bird,” Eli wrote. “We ended up naming her ‘Little Greene.’”

Eli said that his recently departed rufous hummingbird was absolutely one of the most remarkable birds that he has ever seen or known.

“She will definitely be missed,” he concluded.

Eli created postings throughout Little Greene’s visit on eBird regarding his observations and general information about her while she remained at his home.”

Readers can look up the name Eli Mulligan on eBird and views postings and photos of Little Greene.

“This is truly an amazing creature and I just wanted to share that with those who would have an appreciation for her,” Eli wrote.

Photo Courtesy of Pam Price • This rufous hummingbird has been spending time at a home near Atlanta, Georgia.

Pam Price in Atlanta, Georgia, found out how to contact me when a column I’d previously written on rufous hummingbirds popped into her news feed.

She wrote in her email that she has had a little rufous hummingbird visiting her feeder since Dec. 14.

As of the Jan. 23, the hummingbird was still present.

“I worry about it constantly as I wonder where it is getting any bugs,” she said.  “Temperatures have been in the 20s.”

She even took steps to ensure the bird’s safety when she went on vacation.

“I took a feeder to my neighbor next door and made her promise to keep up the feeder and bring in at night so it does not freeze,” Pam wrote.

Her recent visitor is not Pam’s first experience with rufous hummingbirds.

She noted that she had two rufous hummingbirds banded in her backyard when she lived in the Tallahassee, Florida, area.

“So I am familiar with that process,” she wrote. “I did post on Ebird alerts with pictures but have not tried to find someone to band her as she does not visit as frequently as other hummers.”

For those who do worry about rufous hummigbirds braving cold winter temperatures, keep in mind that the species spends the nesting season from Baja California to chilly Alaska in its native range. Hummingbirds can also enter torpor, an adaptation that lets them slow down their metabolism when conditions are too exacting.

I enjoyed hearing from Eli, Pam and Darlene.  Winter hummingbirds, while always a delightful surprise for their hosts, no longer shock long-time birders. We’ve grown to expect them. If anything, I’d be surprised more by the absence of reports of these tiny wonders during the bleak winter season. If any readers are still hosting lingering hummingbirds at their feeders, I’d love to hear their stories. Email me at