Monthly Archives: May 2022

Rose-breasted grosbeaks make spring appearances in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

There are so many birds arriving in the past week that one almost needs to take a breath from all the excitement and simply enjoy the beauty, both showy and subtle, that many of our returning feathered friends can provide.

The rose-breasted grosbeak is definitely one of the birds in the showy category. I haven’t seen one yet, but many readers have contacted me to let me know of their sightings.
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April Kerns Fain in Unicoi shared a photo and post on April 19 on my Facebook page about the arrival of her first rose-breasted grosbeak.
“Our grosbeak is back,” she wrote. Her photo showed the beautiful bird perched on a feeder stocked with plenty of sunflower seeds and suet.
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“We had two pairs show up a couple of days ago,” Karen Fouts, a resident of Marion, Virginia, commented on my Facebook page. “Aren’t they lovely?”
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Nancy Barrigar of Elizabethton posted that she and her husband, Gary, saw them on Roan Mountain the weekend of April 29-30. “Still waiting to see them at our feeders,” she added.
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Barbara Lake of Hampton also shared her rose-breasted grosbeak sighting. “We had them on the weekend,” she said. “Seem to be down to just two now.”
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Carolyn Dover Norman in Glen Rose, Texas, shared her story of a brief sighting.
“I had one passing through here in Texas last week — just for a day,” she wrote on my Facebook page.
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Gloria Walton Blevins in Damascus, Virginia, happily shared that she “saw one yesterday” on my Facebook page on April 29.
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Carolyn Baker Martin in Carter County reported that her grosbeak sighting involved a female rather than the more eyecatching male. “Had a female at our feeders two mornings,” she wrote.
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Felicia Mitchell in Washington County, Virginia, has enjoyed grosbeak sightings this spring.
“Female grosbeak showed up just this minute at front platform feeder,” Felicia wrote on April 29. “Likely a pair soon. And maybe a family one day.”
She later updated her comment to announce that a male grosbeak had arrived, along with the female.
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Philip Laws notified me that he saw a male and some female rose-breasted grosbeaks May 4 at his home in Limestone Cove.
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A few readers, like myself, are still awaiting that first spring rose-breasted grosbeak.
“I’m still looking for my first one,” wrote James Noel Smith in Unicoi.
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Priscilla Gutierrez in Roan Mountain noted that she’s still waiting for the grosbeaks to show up. “So beautiful,” she added.
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Kaylynn Sanford Wilster, who resides in Piney Flats near Boone Lake, posted a comment.
“A dear friend told me about the Merlin app and it says it heard a rose-breasted grosbeak the other day,” Kaylynn wrote. “I haven’t seen one yet though. I dearly love these birds.”
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“We haven’t seen our little visitor this spring,” wrote Laura Evans Barden. “Usually, he has made his appearance in our backyard by now. I love the rose-breasted grosbeaks.
She has the grosbeak’s favorite treat waiting when he does arrive.
“He loves the blue jays’ peanuts,” Laura noted.
Watch this video:
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Plenty of rose-breasted grosbeaks pass through northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina and a few even decide to make their summer home on local mountains. However, these birds spread out widely across the eastern half of the North American continent, ranging from northeastern British Columbia to Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada. They also range south from New Jersey to Georgia. The rose-breasted grosbeak also reaches Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.
For the most part, however, the rose-breasted grosbeak is replaced in the western United States by the closely related black-headed grosbeak.
As fall approaches, the rose-breasted grosbeak migrates south to a winter range that spans central Mexico, Central America and northern South America. As they depart, many of these migrating birds will make autumn visits to again partake of offerings of sunflower seeds at backyard feeders. So, if you don’t get to see these showy birds in the spring, you get another chance in September and October.
The male rose-breasted grosbeak gives this species it name. Males are the epitome of the birds that make their home for part of the year in the American tropics. The contrasting black and white plumage is emphasized by a triangular slash of rosy-red color on the breast. Put all those elements together and the male rose-breasted grosbeak is not a bird that would be mistaken for any other.
The female grosbeak, however, doesn’t stand out in the same way. She is much less colorful than the male. With her brown and white plumage, she is often mistaken for a large sparrow or finch.
Both sexes have a massive bill, which they use to hull sunflower seeds at feeders or glean insects from leaves and branches. It’s the heavy, blunt bill for which the term “grosbeak” is derived. “Gros” is a German term for large or big, so grosbeak simply means a large-beaked bird. People who band birds to further the study of them will tell you that rose-breasted grosbeaks can inflict a wicked nip. In Northeast Tennessee, bird banders frequently encounter rose-breasted grosbeaks in their mist nets — and bear the scars to prove it.
With some birds, males play only a minor role in the nesting process. That’s not the case with the rose-breasted grosbeak male. The males help with nest-building chores and share responsibility with the female for incubating the eggs.
The female lays three to five eggs in a cup-shaped nest. It’s not easy to locate the nests since the birds usually place them in trees at least 20 feet above the ground. Within two weeks, the eggs have hatched and the parents are kept extremely busy finding enough food to satisfy the voracious nestlings. Well fed by both parents, the young grow quickly and usually are ready to leave the nest within 12 days. Often, when a first brood of young departs the nest, the male will care for the rowdy group of fledglings as the female starts a second nest to capitalize on the long days of summer.
Away from our feeders, rose-breasted grosbeaks feed on insects, seeds, fruit and even some leaf buds and flowers. I’ve seen these birds satisfying a sweet tooth — or should that be sweet beak? — by feeding on jewelweed flowers and apple blossoms. If sugar’s good for hummingbirds, I am sure it is a valuable energy source for rose-breasted grosbeaks, too.
The rose-breasted grosbeak is a cherished spring visitor that never fails to disappoint by bringing a hint of the tropics to the mountains.
Watch this video:

Common yellowthoat, other birds help make migration exciting time

Photo by Pixabay • With a black mask, the male common yellowthroat resembles a tiny feathered bandit as he goes about his daily routine interrupted by bouts of singing his “witchety! witchety! witchety!” song.

Photo by Pixabay
With a black mask, the male common yellowthroat resembles a tiny feathered bandit as he goes about his daily routine interrupted by bouts of singing his “witchety! witchety! witchety!” song.

A hummingbird flew in to one of my porch feeders at 6:28 p.m. on April 23. The arrival made this bird the first hummingbird I have seen this spring. Although quite a bit later than expected, I decided that it’s better late than never. The bird, a male with a dazzling red throat, flew right to the feeder hanging on the porch. I had switched out the water in all three of my feeders only a few minutes prior to the bird’s initial appearance. The bird knew exactly where the feeder was hanging, so I am confident he had already been around for a few days.

There have been other new arrivals, too. A hooded warbler announced its return in song, singing from the shaded woodlands the same day the first hummingbird arrived. On April 28, a common yellowthroat made sure to get noticed by singing from some willows near the creek before popping into view as I watched through binoculars.

In the past week, flocks of chimney swifts have also begun twittering and swooping over the streets of Erwin.

A few more people have shared their stories of first spring sightings of hummingbirds.

Ann Windsor in Selmer, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page on April 23 that her hummingbirds had returned a few days earlier. “He has set up his sole ownership of our feeder,” she noted.
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“I just now saw my first hummingbird of the season here in Abingdon,” Mary Ragland commented on my Facebook page on April 23.
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Betty Lacy in Elizabethton has also welcomes back hummingbirds.
“My hummingbirds are here daily,” she wrote. “I love to watch them.”
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Dawn Peters in Jonesborough saw her first hummingbird on April 23.
“I saw my first one about 5 p.m. today,” she wrote on my Facebook page.
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Linda Cauley noted that she is hosting two of the tiny birds.
“Two showed up in Unicoi at my feeders,” she wrote on my Facebook page.
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The hummingbirds at Kaylynn Wilster’s home at Boone Lake played a bit coy.
“I didn’t see mine at first but the level in the feeders was dropping so I knew they were here,” she wrote on my Facebook page on April 23. “Saw my first one about four days ago — a beautiful male.”
She also saw one at a greenhouse that she visited recently. “The greenhouses go to great effort to get them out,” she added in her comment.
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Donna Barnes Kilday in Erwin saw her first on April 14.
“Now I have at least two that want control of both feeders,” she wrote on my Facebook page. “So much fun to watch!”

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Philip Laws in Limestone Cove wrote a comment on my Facebook page on April 27 about his hummingbirds.
“We have had them for several days,” Philip wrote.
“My favorite story was when I returned to a former house that we had been out of a couple of years,” he wrote. “A male came up and flew to and circled the spot where a feeder had hung two years before. Needless to say, I quickly returned with a feeder and kept it going for the rest of that summer.”
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Mack Hayes, who resides in the Bowmantown community in Washington County, saw his first male ruby-throated hummingbird on April 22. In another comment on my Facebook page, he added a few days later, a female hummingbird has also arrived.
“Glad to see they made it back,” Mack wrote.
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As I mentioned at the start of the column, warblers have been putting in sporadic appearances this spring.

I thought I’d spotlight the common yellowthroat this week. The male common yellowthroat looks like a dapper feathered bandit with his black mask with a silvery-gray eye stripe, brown upper parts and a bright yellow throat. Females have the yellow throat but lack the black mask.
The website All About Birds notes in a profile on the species that male common yellowthroats arrive first on breeding grounds in the spring and begin defending territories.

According to the profile, fighting among males grows more intense once the female birds arrive. Researchers have also found that the black mask of male yellowthroats acts as a trigger for some of this fighting. Some enterprising researchers added a black paper mask to a stuffed female yellowthroat. When placed within view of male yellowthroats, the stuffed bird weathered attacks from territorial males.

Photo by USFWS • The male common yellowthroat wears a mask like a feathered bandit.

The common yellowthroat at my home was probably one of these eager males ready to get a head start on the summer’s nesting season. Common yellowthroats are one of the many warblers that nest in the Northeast Tennessee during the summer months. They can be found from lower elevation to higher ones, but they will usually not be found outside of a habitat that offers dense vegetation to their particular liking. A weedy slope in a backyard, a marshy stand of cattails, or overgrown fields are some places suitable for this noisy if “under the radar” bird.
The common yellowthroat is one of the birds that benefits from a lawn and garden that are not kept trimmed and manicured. They will only thrive in habitats that offer dense thickets and other tangles of vegetation. To attract birds like the common yellowthroat, keep some corners of your property in a more “natural” state. The neighbors may look askance, but the birds will thank you.

It’s the female yellowthroat that will build the nest. She lays one to six eggs. She will often locate the nest close to the ground, but it’s always well hidden.

The common yellowthroat belongs to a genus of warblers known as Geothlypsis. Three other members – MacGillivray’s warbler, mourning warbler and Kentucky warbler – in the genus are resident in the United States and Canada for part of the year.

It’s easy to detect the presence of this warbler in the springtime. The male invariably gives himself away by singing his ringing syllables of “Witchety! Witchety! Witchety!” In fact, my recent visitor alerted me to his presence by doing just that. As with many warblers, the male’s song helps attract mates and also establishes the boundaries of his territory.

Although this warbler would prefer to skulk under a weedy canopy, it has one weakness. Common yellowthroats are incredibly curious birds. They will respond to squeaking or mechanical bird calls. Unlike some birds that pop into view for a brief look before diving back into cover, common yellowthroats can often be called into view several times during an observation.

There will no doubt be plenty of migrant sightings as we continue into May. Look for such vibrant visitors as orioles, tanagers, indigo buntings and rose-breasted grosbeaks in the coming days.  To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Eastern kingbird, hummingbirds part of spring migration bonanza

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern kingbird perches atop a metal fence post.

Migration continues and offers up a few surprises. Such was the case of the morning of April 20 when I spotted an Eastern kingbird near the fish pond.

This is a rare bird at my home, but one that is easily found in other locations in the area. My recollection is this is only the second time an Eastern Kingbird has visited my home.

I didn’t have time to observe the bird for long and I didn’t find the bird when I returned home later that evening, but it was a timely reminder that spring migration can bring plenty of unexpected birdwatching delights.

Many readers continue to be delighted by the return of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Based on the sightings shared with me this past week, I think the pace of migration has definitely spiked for this tiny bird.

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Gwen Straub, who lives in Nebo, North Carolina, near Lake James, sent me an email to share that she had a “double” arrival with a male and female hummingbird showing up at her feeder at 10 am on April 12.

“The male has been back every day since then,” she wrote.  “Today he drank for five full minutes with his beak in the hole many times for seven to eight seconds.”

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April Kerns Fain posted a Facebook comment on my page to notify me that she saw her first hummingbird on April 12. A few days later, she also shared a photo of a beautiful male rose-breasted grosbeak that arrived at her feeders on April 19. Her sightings are a good reminder that it’s not just hummingbirds on the move. Many colorful birds are returning this month.

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Tammy Jones Adcock, Erwin, shared via a Facebook comment that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 13.

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Jeanne Siler Lilly shared on Facebook that she saw her first spring hummingbird on April 15.

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Daniel Washinski from Houston, Delaware, also had a Good Friday sighting. “First hummingbird this morning (April 15) in Delaware!” Daniel shared on my Facebook page.

I found it interesting that some hummingbirds have already reached Delaware before I’ve seen one at my home. Just goes to show that these tiny guys are in a hurry to get to their final destinations for the summer season.

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Lois Bridges of Unicoi shared via a Facebook comment that she saw her first spring hummingbird on April 16.

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Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, shared her first spring hummingbird sighting in an email.

“Just had our first hummingbird!” Helen wrote. The bird arrived at 10:58 a.m. on April 16.

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Priscilla Gutierrez shared with a Facebook comment that she saw her first hummingbird on April 16 on Carver Road in Roan Mountain.

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Angie Fletcher, a high school friend of mine, shared on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird on April 16.

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Cheri Miller shared on the Tri-Cities Young Naturalists Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird of the season on April 17 at her home in Hampton.

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Starr Yeager, a resident of Tiger Creek in Hampton, saw five hummingbirds at her feeders on April 18. Starr’s another friend of mine from high school who notified me of the sighting on Facebook.

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Lowell Christian, Jonesborough, shared on Facebook that he officially saw his first spring hummingbird at 8:25 a.m. on April 20. “I am quite sure I have missed it being here before,” he noted.

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Russ MacIntyre, a resident of the Embreeville section of Jonesborough, sent me an email to let me know he saw his first spring hummingbird at 5:35 p.m. on April 20.

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Frances Lamberts in Jonesborough got her first sightings on April 24 between about 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. while sitting on the patio eating supper.

In her email, Frances said the hummingbird visited three times.

“During one of the  visits, I counted its sips on the feeder — 42.”

Frances noted that she has a few flowers — columbine, bleeding heart and larkspur — in bloom in her garden.

Frances is dedicated to the cause of preserving pollinators, including hummingbirds as well as butterflies and other insects.

She also writes a column titled “Conservation in Mind” twice a month for The Erwin Record.

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Keeping these tiny guests happy isn’t difficult. It’s easy to make your own sugar water mix, which can be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic juice jug. Boil some water and then add one cup of sugar for every four cups of water in your pot. Stir thoroughly. Bottle the mixture until it cools. Fill your feeders and store any remaining sugar water in the fridge in the aforementioned jug. Refrigerated, the mix should stay good to use for at least a week.

Kingbird tyranny

Here’s some more information on the Eastern kingbird that I observed. Kingbirds are a part of an extensive family of birds known as flycatchers that are exclusively found in the New World. Other flycatchers that are relatively common in the region include Eastern phoebe and Eastern wood-pewee.

The Eastern kingbird  is easy to recognize and identify. The bird’s plumage is a study in contrast, being black above and white below. In addition, there’s a noticeable white edge to the tip of the bird’s otherwise all-black tail.

There is a red patch of feathers on top of the bird’s head, which gives this pint-sized tyrant a “crown,” but most birders would tell you that this colorful patch is rarely seen and is instead kept concealed at most times.

The scientific name of the Eastern kingbird is Tyrannus tyrannus, a good clue to the bird’s militant nature.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern kingbird perches on a fence.

These birds, which are about the size of an American robin, are famous for displaying aggressive behavior against much larger birds such as crows and hawks.

While some birds are all bluff, the Eastern kingbird often follows through with its attacks. According to the website All About Birds, kingbirds have been known to known blue jays right out of a tree.

I’ve observed kingbirds tormenting such large birds as red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures. I once watched a kingbird get so close to a red-tailed hawk that it almost looked like the smaller bird was hitching a ride on the hawk’s back. I suspect the hawk even lost a feather or two in the encounter.

Other North American kingbirds include Western kingbird, tropical kingbird, Couch’s kingbird, Cassin’s kingbird and the thick-billed kingbird. On a trip to Salt Lake City in Utah many years back I got the chance to see the Western kingbird, the counterpart to the Eastern kingbird in that part of the country.

Look for the Eastern kingbird in open terrain that offers plenty of perches. These birds spend most of their time chasing and catching flying insects, which provide the bulk of the bird’s food during the summer months.

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Have a sighting to share, a comment to make or a question to ask? Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Pixabay
The Eastern kingbird is a pugnacious member of the widespread family of New World birds known as the flycatchers. Other members of the family in the region include the Eastern phoebe and the Eastern wood-pewee.