Monthly Archives: July 2022

Couple shares story about nesting mourning doves

Contributed Photo by Tim Barto • One of the mourning doves nesting atop a porch column at the home of Star and Tim Barton in Telford arrives with a sprig of nesting material held in its beak. Tim’s photo of the dove even impressed the editors at “Smoky Mountain Living.” The magazine published the photo earlier this year.

Star Barto, a resident of Telford in Washington County, contacted me after reading my column on the Eastern phoebes nesting on my  front porch. Incidentally, the phoebes have now successfully fledged their young.

Star began her email by sharing that she and her husband, Tim, have been blessed with mourning doves building their nests on the top of one of their porch columns.  

“This is our fifth year with a ring side seat,” Star wrote. “They usually have two nestings per season that produce two babies each time.”

This year, the birds changed things up and the Bartos are celebrating  a third nest — atop the same porch column.  

“We call it our special version of an Airbnb,” she noted.

At first, the doves would fly each time Star or Tim opened the front door, but the birds gradually grew accustomed to their human landlords.  

Star wrote that their nest is in such a ideal location — safe, dry, under cover, high up — that the doves return year after year and do not doubt the safety of their habitat.  

“We turn off the porch light, of course, and work hard at minimizing disruption,” she wrote.  

“And they thrive,” Star added. “It is beyond thrilling to be able to see so up close and personal the magic of Mother Nature.”

The mourning dove is a common backyard bird across the country. It’s also considered a game bird.

According to the website, All About Birds, the mourning dove is the most widespread and abundant game bird in North America. According to the website, hunters harvest more than 20 million of these birds every year, but the mourning dove remains one of the most abundant birds with a U.S. population estimated at 350 million. The mourning dove also ranges into Canada and Mexico. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A mourning dove stretches a wing while perched on a feeder.

The mourning dove gets its name from its mournful cooing, which has been likened to a lament. Birds are more vocal during the nesting season. 

Former common names for this dove include Carolina pigeon, rain dove and turtle dove. The mourning dove is a member of the dove family, Columbidae, which includes 344 different species worldwide.

From the standpoint of a scientist, there’s no real difference between doves and pigeons. In general, smaller members of the family are known as doves and the larger ones are classified as pigeons, but that’s not a firm rule.

Some of the more descriptively named doves and pigeons include blue-eyed ground dove, purplish-backed quail dove, ochre-bellied dove, red-billed pigeon, emerald-spotted wood dove, pink-necked green pigeon, sombre pigeon, topknot pigeon, white-bellied imperial pigeon, cinnamon ground dove, pheasant pigeon, crested cuckoo-dove and crowned pigeon.

An early illustration of the dodo.

Arguably the most famous dove is the extinct dodo, a bird renowned as being  almost too stupid to live. The dodo almost certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as a “bird brain.” The reason for the bird’s swift extinction after encountering humans can be explained by the fact that this large, flightless dove evolved on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Largely defenseless, the dodo’s fate was sealed from the moment this bird was confronted with new arrivals — humans and affiliated animals such as rats, pigs and cats — at its home.  The results of these first encounters were catastrophic for the species.

The first mention of the three-foot-tall dodo in the historic record occurred in 1598 when Dutch sailors reached Mauritius. By 1662, the bird vanishes from the historic record. The bird disappeared so swiftly that for some time after it was often considered a mythical creature.

Other native doves in the United States include common ground-dove, Inca dove, white-winged dove and Key West quail-dove. The Eurasian collared-dove is an introduced species that has spread rapidly across the country and occurs in Northeast Tennessee. 

Doves are unusual among birds in feeding young a type of milk. Known as “crop milk,” both parents feed young in the nest with this substance produced in the crop, which is simply an enlargement of the bird’s esophagus. The crop is usually used for storage of surplus food, which is usually seeds. 

Young doves are known as squabs, and the crop milk they are fed early in life is rich in antioxidants, fats and proteins, allowing them to thrive and grow quickly. 

To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, please email me at 

Belted kingfisher is a member of an interesting family of birds

Photo by Pexels/Pixabay A common kingfisher, also known as river kingfisher, perches near a water source. The common kingfisher ranges widely across Europe, Asia and North Africa.

Fishing is a favorite pastime for many people, who like nothing better than to spend a lazy summer afternoon trying their luck at their favorite fishing spot. Some of our feathered friends are skilled anglers.

The belted kingfisher’s nature as an angler rules out this bird ever visiting feeders in the backyard, but that doesn’t mean you’re unlikely to see this bird. For most of June and now July a belted kingfisher has been lurking around the creek and pond at my home.  With a little strategic effort, an observation of a belted kingfisher is fairly easy to obtain, especially during the summer months. If you live near a stream, pond, river or other body of water, you have probably been fortunate enough to observe a belted kingfisher as it goes about its daily routine.

If you are a fishing enthusiast yourself, you’ve likely shared some favorite fishing holes with this bird. The belted kingfisher is patient in its pursuit of fish. The birds prefer to perch on an exposed branch or a wire that overlooks a body of water that offers ample fishing opportunities. The belted kingfisher, however, is capable of hovering in place in order to spot and then capture its prey in an impressive plunge and lunge into the water.

Most of my observations of hunting kingfishers have involved the birds in their ambush approach to fishing — perching and diving on the unsuspecting fish. I have on a few occasions, however, also observed kingfishers as they hover over the water in a quest for a meal.

The belted kingfisher, like most of its kin, looks to have a head and bill that are slightly too large for the rest of the body. It’s the long, heavy bill that the kingfishers uses to snatch fish from their watery homes.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A belted kingfisher perches on a branch along the Erwin Linear Trail.

Speaking of kin, the belted kingfisher is only one of 114 species found worldwide. Worldwide, these amazing birds range in size from the 16-inch-long laughing kookaburra of Australia to the tiny African dwarf kingfisher, which at four inches in length is smaller than most sparrows. This family of birds is divided into three groupings, the river kingfishers, the tree kingfishers and the water kingfishers. Kingfishers are a cosmopolitan family of birds with species present on every continent except Antarctica.

Despite the name “kingfisher,” not all kingfishers exist on a diet of fish. Some members of the kingfisher family instead prey on other quarry, such as snakes, lizards and insects.

Some interesting common names have been used to identify the world’s kingfishers, including half-collared kingfisher, shining blue kingfisher, blue-eared kingfisher, azure kingfisher, indigo-banded kingfisher, silvery kingfisher, malachite kingfisher, white-bellied kingfisher, cerulean kingfisher, rufous-backed kingfisher, spangled kookaburra, rufous-bellied kookaburra, shovel-billed kookaburra, lilac kingfisher, brown-winged kingfisher, stork-billed kingfisher, great-billed kingfisher, striped kingfisher, lazuli kingfisher, ultramarine kingfisher, cinnamon-banded kingfisher, sacred kingfisher, mewing kingfisher, chattering kingfisher, glittering kingfisher, red-breasted paradise kingfisher, pied kingfisher and green-and-rufous kingfisher.

The three North American kingfishers, however, are exclusively fish-eaters. The belted kingfisher, with a range that spans most of the United States, is the only kingfisher encountered by most Americans. Two others, the ringed kingfisher and the green kingfisher, are found in Texas and occasionally in other locations near the Mexican border.

In her book “The Folklore of Birds,” Laura C. Martin writes that in some accounts the kingfisher, not the dove, was the second bird Noah released from the ark after the Biblical flood. Instead of looking for land, the kingfisher flew too high and the sun scorched the bird’s feathers. After his setback with the raven and now the kingfisher, Noah made the kingfisher remain on the ark’s deck to catch its food from the water.

Halcyon days, a term meaning a period of peaceful quiet, is derived from Greek legend. According to the legend, the god Zeus restrained the storms during the period when the kingfishers nest. The scientific name for the belted kingfisher is Megaceryle alcyon, a variation on the term “halcyon.”

Again in Martin’s book, there is an account of a Cherokee legend about how the kingfisher acquired its angling lifestyle. The poor bird wanted to be a waterbird, but lacked the equipment to make a living at fishing. The other animals convened a council and, in pity for the kingfisher’s plight, endowed the bird with its spear-like bill. Since that time, the bird has been known as “king of the fishers.”

The “king of the fishers” is indeed to be envied by human anglers. Although not successful in every attempt, the belted kingfisher is certainly exceptional in its pursuit of fish. According to John Eastman in his book, “Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh,” the belted kingfisher typically captures about 10 fish per day. Some human anglers would envy a success rate like that.

To observe this bird for yourself, stake out a pond or section of river -— the linear trail in Erwin and the pond at Fishery Park are good locations. In my experience, however, the belted kingfisher is somewhat wary of humans, so observe from a respectful distance or you’re likely to scare off the bird, which will depart giving its rattling call that sounds so much like a sound of pure annoyance.

Eastern phoebe pair returns to familiar nest location

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Eastern phoebe not long out of the nest.

A pair of Eastern phoebes is nesting on one of the blades of my front porch ceiling fan. It’s the second time phoebes have selected the fan blades for a nesting site. Nothing was left of the previous nest, which was constructed several years ago. Suddenly, almost overnight, a new nest appeared.

The female phoebe sat diligently on the nest at night, and for the past couple of weeks I’ve avoided turning on the porch light at night so as not to disturb her.

Considering the bright finery worn by some of the more colorful summer birds, the Eastern phoebe can easily escape notice. In comparison with vibrant birds like rose-breasted grosbeak, ruby-throated hummingbird, scarlet tanager and yellow warbler, the Eastern phoebe is downright drab.

Nevertheless, this member of the flycatcher clan has earned itself a favorite spot in the hearts of many a birdwatcher. It’s one of those birds that even beginning birders find surprisingly easy to recognize and identify. While it may not have a dramatic plumage pattern to hint at its identity, the Eastern phoebe is quite at home around human dwellings and comes into close contact with people going about their daily routines. Rather tame — or at least not too bothered by close proximity with humans — the Eastern phoebe has one behaviorism that sets it apart from all the other similar flycatchers. When this bird lands on a perch, it cannot resist a vigorous bobbing of its tail. Every time that a phoebe lands on a perch, it will produce this easily recognized tail wag. It’s a behavior that makes this bird almost instantly recognizable among birders with the knowledge of this behavioral trait.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Young phoebes occupy a nest previously build on a blade of a porch ceiling fan.

The Eastern phoebe is also an enthusiastic springtime singer, and the song it chooses to sing is an oft-repeated two-syllable call “FEE-bee” that provides the inspiration for this bird’s common name.

The Eastern phoebe, known by the scientific name of Sayornis phoebe, has two relatives in the genus Sayornis. The genus is named after Thomas Say, an American naturalist. The Eastern phoebe’s close relatives include the black phoebe and Say’s phoebe. The black phoebe ranges throughout Oregon, Washington and California and as far south as Central and South America. As its name suggests, this bird has mostly black feathers instead of the gray plumage of its relatives. The Say’s phoebe, also named for the man who gave the genus its name, is the western counterpart to the Eastern phoebe.

Since they belong to the vast family of New World flycatchers, it’s probably no surprise that these phoebes feed largely on insects. The birds will often perch patiently until an insect’s flight brings it within easy range. A quick flight from its perch usually allows the skillful bird to return with a morsel snatched on the wing. In the winter months, the Eastern phoebe also eats berries and other small fruit.

Phoebes are fond of nesting on human structures, including culverts, bridges and houses. With the latter, they were once known for their habit of placing their nests under sheltering eaves. At my home, a pair of Eastern phoebes often chooses to nest on the wooden rafters in my family’s garage.  In fact, a pair nested in the garage earlier this year. Phoebes also like to reside near a water source, such as a creek, stream or pond.

I suspect this nesting is a second attempt since it began in mid June. I got my first glimpse of the babies in the best when two fuzzy heads and beaks appeared over the rim of the nest on Thursday, July 7. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe perches on a sign by a trail in Roan Mountain, Tennessee.

Plants are great lures to increase bird diversity

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Bee Balm is a great attractor for butterflies and hummingbirds.

A mulberry tree overhanging the creek at my home produced a bonanza of fruit in mid-June. Some birds that hadn’t put in recent appearances suddenly became daily visitors. Cedar waxwings, gray catbirds, American robins, Northern cardinals and even a scarlet tanager feasted while the mulberries lasted.

Cedar waxwings win fans almost anywhere they go. Chances of luring these birds to your home and property can increase by offering some essential requirements. Tall trees, especially those that bear fruit, are attractive to these sociable birds. It’s more often water, not food, however, that will bring a flock of these birds close. They love a good splash in a bath, whether the source is a shallow stream or an ornamental pool set into the landscape.

Waxwings tend to travel in sizable flocks, usually in search of new food sources. The many members comprising a flock can deplete resources in a remarkably short time. Once the mulberry harvest is finished, they will seek out other fruit, including wild cherries and elderberries.


In a garden plot dozens of common milkweed blooms began attracting butterflies, bees and other pollinators a few week ago. More recently, naturalized scarlet bee balm, which has spread vociferously through the woodland edge, has persuaded the finicky ruby-throated hummingbirds to return. Rhododendron maximus, often called “laurel,” is also in bloom, attracting its fair share of pollinators.

It’s important to note, however, that hummingbird numbers always fluctuate from year to year. Someone in Roan Mountain or Flag Pond might be overwhelmed with these tiny gems while people living in Erwin or Johnson City are still hoping to attract visits from these little birds. For instance, numbers might appear down in Northeast Tennessee but could be booming across the border in Western North Carolina.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Feeders with sugar water are great, but some nectar-bearing plants will increase the appeal from the point of view of the hummingbirds visiting.

The bee balm bloom is just the start. Those flowers will be replaced at my home by crocosmia’s red blooms and the orange blossoms of native jewelweed, also known as touch-me-not for its exploding seed pods. Hummingbirds are wild about these plants, as well as other summer garden favorites like canna, pineapple sage and 

If, like myself, you’ve been 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.


Plots of wildflowers, sunflowers and day lilies are in bloom again at the Erwin National Fish Hatchery. While stopped there to take some photos with my phone, I heard American goldfinches twittering in the trees, probably attracted to the prospect of a bountiful spread of fresh seeds. The wildflowers include coneflowers, coreopsis and gaillardia, all different wildflowers that produced seeds sought by seed-eating birds like finches and sparrows.

To attract a diversity of feathered friends, its productive to move beyond simply offering a bird bath and well-stocked feeder. Landscaping lawns and gardens to offer plants that can provide a source of seeds, nectar or berries is also a great way to attract birds.

Summer is a season of plenty for American goldfinches. Even roadside ditches are choked with chicory, evening primrose and other seed-producing plants often dismissed as “weeds.” Simply driving local roads has produced several sightings of flocks of American goldfinches in recent weeks.

These small, vibrant finches are also regular visitors to my feeders, although they don’t really need my offering of black oil sunflower seeds to supplement the natural smorgasbord available to them.

The American goldfinch is also one of the last songbirds to nest each season. Some goldfinches don’t even start to think about nesting until late July and early August. Learn more about how the plants you select for inclusion in your landscape can benefit our feathered friends. The Audubon Society’s website had a helpful article online at 

To ask a question, share a sighting or make a comment, email me at 

Unicoi County Summer Bird Count finds 109 species

The ninth annual Unicoi County Summer Count was held Saturday, June 18, with 15 observers in five parties. Participants tallied 102 species, which is below the average of 109 species for this count.

My party of counters included Brookie and Jean Potter, Rob Armistead and myself. We counted in the Limestone Cove community, which meant I had the convenience of counting practically in my own back yard.

Some good birds were found by the count parties, including yellow-billed cuckoo, yellow-bellied sapsucker, warbling vireo and fish crow, which was found for a second consecutive year. Fish crows have been expanding their presence in counties throughout Northeast Tennessee.

My group was pleased to get good looks at birds like rose-breasted grosbeak and yellow-bellied sapsucker.

European starling came out on top as most abundant bird with 339 individuals counted. The American robin came in a distant second with 269 individual robins found.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The European Starling ranked as the most common species on the count.

The list:

Canada goose, 54; wood duck, 6; mallard, 47; wild turkey, 1; rock pigeon, 86; mourning dove, 100; and yellow-billed cuckoo, 1.

Chuck-will’s-widow, 2; Eastern whip-poor-will, 12; chimney swift, 19; ruby-throated hummingbird, 7; and killdeer, 13.

Great blue heron, 3; green heron, 1; black vulture, 10; turkey vulture, 48; Cooper’s hawk, 1; red-shouldered hawk, 1; broad-winged hawk, 6, and red-tailed hawk, 3.

Eastern Screech-Owl, 2; barred owl, 1; belted kingfisher, 3; red-bellied woodpecker, 13; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 4; downy woodpecker, 10; Northern flicker, 5, and pileated woodpecker, 9.

Great crested flycatcher, 1; Eastern kingbird, 13; Eastern wood-pewee, 6; Acadian flycatcher, 23; least flycatcher, 2; and Eastern phoebe, 65.

White-eyed vireo, 4; blue-headed vireo, 36; warbling vireo, 2; red-eyed vireo, 108; blue jay, 56; American crow, 173; fish crow, 2; and common raven, 4.

Tree swallow, 78; Northern rough-winged swallow, 25; purple martin, 40; barn swallow,  50; cliff Swallow  100; Carolina chickadee, 50; tufted titmouse, 37; red-breasted nuthatch, 1; white-breasted nuthatch, 2; and brown creeper, 3.

House wren, 26; Carolina wren, 92; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 12; golden-crowned kinglet, 4; Eastern bluebird, 82; veery, 10; hermit thrush, 1; wood thrush, 36; American robin, 269; gray catbird, 20; brown thrasher, 14; and Northern mockingbird, 25.

European starling, 339; cedar waxwing, 35; house sparrow, 16; house finch, 32; and American goldfinch, 80.

Chipping sparrow, 67; field sparrow, 13; dark-eyed junco, 10; song sparrow, 166; Eastern towhee, 32.

Yellow-breasted chat, 1; Eastern meadowlark, 6; orchard oriole, 2; red-winged blackbird, 67; Brown-headed cowbird, 21; and common grackle, 54.

Ovenbird  37; worm-eating Warbler, 13; Louisiana waterthrush, 6; black-and-white warbler, 10; Swainson’s warbler, 5; Kentucky warbler, 1; common yellowthroat, 3; hooded warbler, 45; American redstart, 1; Magnolia warbler, 1; Northern parula, 20; Blackburnian warbler; 2; yellow warbler; 1; chestnut-sided warbler, 6; black-throated blue warbler, 26; yellow-throated warbler, 7; black-throated green warbler, 27; and Canada warbler, 1.

Scarlet tanager, 17; Northern cardinal, 98; rose-breasted grosbeak, 3; and indigo bunting, 108.