Monthly Archives: September 2022

Prairie warbler bears a name unrelated to bird’s habits and habitat

Photo by Noppadol Paothong/Missouri Department of Conservation • A prairie warbler forages in a cedar.

I took part in the annual Fall Bird Count conducted Saturday, Sept. 24, by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Some highlights of the count were migrating warblers that made for some exciting observations.

The 50 or so species of warblers that make their home in the eastern parts of the United States and Canada during the spring and summer months are now winging their way south.
The blackpoll warbler, which holds the distinction for the longest migration of any species of New World warbler, will journey from the forests of Canada to spend the colder months in northern South America. Because of a peculiarity of this bird’s fall migratory habits, birders in Northeast Tennessee are far more likely to see this late-arriving warbler in May than in the autumn.

A few warblers — pine warbler, magnolia warbler and palm warbler —are named for trees for the simple reason that their European discoverers happened to first observe them in the branches of their namesake trees.

For most of these warblers named to honor various trees, their common names are, at best, a misnomer. Throughout most of its life, the palm warbler doesn’t even encounter palm trees. Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist who lived from 1748 to 1804, saddled the palm warbler with its inappropriate name. Gmelin based his naming of the bird on the fact that a specimen had been collected on Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean with an abundance of palm trees. Gmelin published several textbooks in the fields of chemistry, pharmaceutical science, mineralogy and botany. He also had a hand in publishing a catalog of scientific names for various species, including some birds that had until that point never been given a species classification. Thanks to his efforts, the palm warbler has forever been linked with a type of tree that is, at best, entirely incidental to the bird’s life cycle.

The same is true for the magnolia warbler, which would have been more suitably named the spruce or fir Warbler, as the species is highly dependent on northern coniferous forests as nesting habitat. The pine warbler, at least, restores credibility to some of the early experts who have these tiny birds their common names. The pine warbler does indeed prefer stands of pine trees, showing particular favor for pitch pines.

While counting birds with Rob Armistead at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, as well as the linear walking trail along the linear trail in Elizabethton, we spotted and watched a striking and cooperative male prairie warbler. The prairie warbler is another warbler with a common name that doesn’t truly reflect any accuracy about the bird.

For instance, the prairie warbler is not affiliated with the vast plains and grasslands of the United States and Canada. According to the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website, Alexander Wilson named the prairie warbler in 1810 from specimens collected in Kentucky in a habitat that was then called a prairie. The habitat is now referred to as a “barrens,” which are a mixture of scrubby vegetation and trees. Prairies, fin the generally accepted sense, are grassland habitats.

According to the website All About Birds, some prairie warblers in Florida have become non-migratory and differ in some subtle ways from other prairie warblers, including being slightly larger.

Photo by U.S. F&WS • A prairie warbler perches on a branch amid thick cover.

Red-eyed vireo take part in migratory parade


Photo by Hans Toom/Pixabay • Red eyes, readily apparent with a good look through binoculars, have provided the inspiration for the common name of the red-eyed vireo, a summer resident in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

The signs of migration are everywhere. Warblers and company have been active the past couple of days. On Labor Day, Sept. 5, I was treated to a visit by three young common yellowthroats (two females and a male) in jewelweed and shrubs just by the front porch. One little female was extremely curious, coming as close to me and the porch as she dared. 

A male common yellowthroat sang almost daily from late May to late August, leading me to speculate these three young birds were some of his offspring. In quick order, I also observed a black-and-white warbler, a couple of young chestnut-sided warblers, a couple of gray catbirds and an Empidomax flycatcher that, if pressed, I’d guess was an Acadian. 

The next morning, despite a steady rain, warblers started the show again, including more chestnut-sided warblers, a Northern parula and a Tennessee warbler. I also watched a red-eyed vireo dueling with an Eastern wood-pewee until they both earned the ire of a ruby-throated hummingbird that chased after both of them with determined zeal.

A session of lawn chair birding in the back yard found me grateful for quality if not quantity on Thursday, Sept. 8. A delightful highlight was a beautiful male black-throated blue warbler that provided great looks in my binoculars. I also saw a Tennessee warbler, Carolina chickadees, gray catbird, ruby-throated hummingbird and downy woodpecker.

On Sept. 9, a morning walk before walk on the linear trail in Erwin yielded observations of a black-throated green warbler, gray catbird, downy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker and belted kingfisher. 

Providing background noise on most of my recent birding forays have been red-eyed vireos with their strident, scolding calls punctuating the background of chip notes, songs and calls from many other birds.

Photo by Jean Potter • The Blue-headed Vireo prefers wooded habitats at higher elevations.

At a glance, vireos would appear related to the wood warblers. Research into DNA, however, has led many experts to contend that vireos are more closely related to crows and shrikes. Like the flycatcher and hummingbird families, the vireo family is exclusive to the New World. With a mere 50 species, vireos and their kin are vastly outnumbered by flycatchers and hummingbirds. The majority of vireos resides in the tropics, but about a dozen species nest in the United States.

In East Tennessee Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina, vireos resident during the summer months include red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow-throated vireo and warbling vireo. Most people are likely unaware of vireos. Although not uncommon, these birds are more frequently heard than seen. They spend much of their time in the forest canopy or in dense brush. When singing, they can remain at a perch, unmoving, for long periods of time.

The loud scolding calls of red-eyed vireos often heard this time of year are given apparently when the vireo is alarmed or irritated, such as when a vireo is chased or challenged by an uppity hummingbird. This scolding vocalization is quite unlike the usual ones produced by this bird. First and foremost, the call is louder than one would think could be produced by a bird that is only about six inches long. During the summer season, the red-eyed vireo is also one of the most persistent of singing songbirds. Another common name for the red-eyed vireo is “preacher bird,” so called because of its tendency to unceasingly deliver its song.

The red-eyed vireo is still considered one of eastern North America’s most common summer breeding birds. At one time, the red-eyed vireo was probably the most common breeding bird in eastern woodlands. That, sadly, is no longer the case. Red-eyed vireos are olive-green above and clean white below. These birds show a distinctive head pattern consisting of a gray crown and white eyebrow stripe bordered above and below by black lines. Adults also have the red eyes that give this particular vireo its common name. The term “vireo,” originating in Latin, can be translated into English as “green bird.” It’s an apt description, as many of these small birds are primarily dull green in coloration. Consider the vireos the “Plain Janes” of songbirds.

Other vireos that can be found in the United States, for at least part of the year, include Philadelphia vireo, plumbeous vireo and Cassin’s vireo. A specialty of Florida is the black-whiskered vireo, while the black-capped vireo is an endangered species found in Texas. Two others, Bell’s vireo and gray vireo, are identified as species of concern on the Audubon Watchlist.

Many species of vireo are also found in the islands of the Caribbean, including Jamaican vireo, Cuban vireo and Puerto Rican Vireo. The thick-billed vireo, which is very similar to the white-eyed vireo, is a native of the Bahamas. 

Some of the more colorful common names for vireos include the dwarf vireo, golden vireo and yellow-winged vireo.  In Central and South America, the vireo family expands to include many birds with common names such as shrike-vireo, greenlet and peppershrike. Some of the varied species include lemon-chested greenlet, green shrike-vireo and the black-bellied peppershrike.


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Birding the Big Apple

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Ring-billed Gull in flight. Several of these gulls were seen during my 2002 trip to New York City.

We’re observing 9-11 today, so I thought I’d pull out a post on my birding experiences during my one and only trip to New York City back in July of 2002. I visited not quite a year after the 9-11 attacks. I did visit Ground Zero. The shells of neighboring buildings adjacent to the fallen Towers remained standing and the construction of the memorial at the site was still far in the future.

I wrote this column about my birding experiences in the “Big Apple” for the Herald & Tribune of Jonesborough in July of 2002. It won me a second-place Tennessee Press Association award for “Best Personal Column” the following year.


During a recent trip to New York City, mainly for the purpose of visiting friends and seeing the sights, I also availed myself of the opportunity of trying to see a few birds in the Big Apple.

At first glance, New York City doesn’t seem a haven for birds or any other sort of wildlife. Without any serious effort on my part, however, I managed to see 15 different species of birds. My tour guide and friend, David, remained courteous enough to indulge my occasional lapses into birding. David, perhaps like many New Yorkers, is familiar on a daily basis with the Big Apple’s three most prominent members of the bird family — the House Sparrow, the European Starling and the Rock Dove, or pigeon.

Photo by U.S. FWS • New York’s pigeons no longer find the city a safe haven with the arrival of more peregrine falcon’s as the raptor’s numbers continue to rebound.

Everyone who has visited a city park, whether in Jonesborough or New York City, is probably familiar with the Rock Dove. Commonly called pigeon, the Rock Dove is not a native American bird. But their introduction to this continent paralleled the arrival of European colonists. Pigeons came to this country along with other farmyard animals, such as cattle and sheep. But, once here, the Rock Dove, which is a wild bird in Africa and in the Mediterranean, also managed to establish itself outside the farmyard. Nevertheless, more than most other birds, the Rock Dove still only thrives in the company of humans. In New York City, pigeons are a part of the landscape. They are everywhere! As a result, these birds can cause some problems. Their droppings can damage buildings and statues. They can also spread various diseases to humans. Efforts have been made to curb their numbers, but the pigeon looks to be a permanent part of the New York City landscape.

It’s no longer a paradise for pigeons in the Big Apple, however. The Peregrine Falcon, once endangered, has rebounded with protection from the government. The skyscrapers of New York City have replaced cliff faces as nesting sites for these sleek, aerodynamic predators. While I wasn’t fortunate enough to see a Peregrine Falcon while in New York City, they are there. Their presence has put some balance back into the food chain. The pigeons now have a natural predator.

Earlier this summer, David called me looking for advice about a problem with birds. Seems that a pair of House Sparrows had built a nest beneath his air conditioning unit at his apartment. The problem involved timing. David recently moved to a new apartment and he needed to take the air conditioner with him. In the end, David’s need for the air conditioner outpaced the nesting progress of the sparrows. Now, he’s convinced that the sparrows, like the gulls, are out to get him. More about the gulls later.

The House Sparrow is an non-native species introduced to the United States. The House Sparrow was released intentionally in the United States in the 1850s at different points between New York and New England. Other introductions of this species occurred at other points in the United States. The introductions were huge mistakes. By 1910, the House Sparrow had invaded the entire continent. The House Sparrow is also an aggressive bird. Soon, the House Sparrow came into conflict with a beloved American favorite, the Eastern Bluebird. The major competition between Eastern Bluebirds and House Sparrows is for nesting cavities. House Sparrows have the tenacity to evict even the larger Easter Bluebirds from occupied nests. Occasionally, the sparrows even kill nestling or adult bluebirds. I found the House Sparrow almost as numerous as Rock Doves in most areas of New York City.

But, there was still a third common bird — the European Starling. I encountered the first starlings of my trip in New York City’s famous Central Park. Ironically, Central Park is where the European Starling, now considered the most numerous bird in North America, got its start. The Rock Dove and House Sparrow got here first, but the European Starling didn’t waste any time once the first starlings were released in 1890. The first European Starlings were released at that time in Central Park because some fans of William Shakespeare wanted to release all the birds mentioned in The Bard’s plays. Apparently, only the release of the European Starling had any lasting consequence. Even today, starlings and Shakespeare are very much associated with Central Park. During the summer there is a popular Shakespeare festival held in Central Park. And, on any summer day, there will always be plenty of starlings in the park.

Those were three of the 15 birds I managed to observe on my trip. The remaining 12 species comprised a diverse and at times surprising list. I found American Robins, American Crow, Blue Jay, Chimney Swift, Carolina Wren and Downy Woodpecker within Central Park. In addition, at a large pond within the park I also observed a Green Heron and Mallards. The Robins, in particular, appeared as they would in any park setting. They hopped about on grassy lawns while foraging for food. David told me he recently saw a Roadrunner in the park. I told him that would be an extraordinary discovery since that bird is native to the western United States.

There’s a lot of water in and around New York City. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise to discover birds such as Double-crested Cormorants swimming in the East River. I also saw plenty of gulls. In fact, I saw three different species of gulls — Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls and Laughing Gulls.

Surprisingly, gulls haven’t always been common in the vicinity of New York City. According to the book Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New York City by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdon, gulls did not frequent New York City 100 years ago. Now, there are as many as one million gulls in New York City. The book also mentions one of the attractions: Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill, the largest garbage dump in the world.

The cover of the book Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New York City by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdon

My friend David considers gulls evil omens. I tried to do some research into the role of gulls in folklore. I turned to the book by Laura C. Martin titled The Folklore of Birds. Her entry on gulls proved sketchy. Here’s some of what I learned. The word “gull” comes from a Welsh word, “gwylan,” which can be translated as “wailing.” The term “gull” apparently derived from the bird’s wailing or plaintive call. The Latin genus name, Larus, for gull is translated as “ravenous seabird.” So, that leaves us with a ravenous, wailing seabird. Apt descriptions, but not exactly a rich folklore. Birds such as crows and the various species of owls have much more ominous superstitions surrounding them.


New York City has a “New York Rare Bird Alert.” If you would like to know what rare birds are being seen in New York City, dial (212) 979-3070. I dialed the number during my visit and received information about excitement regarding large flocks of migrating shorebirds, a Common Raven and nesting Blue Grosbeaks.

(NOTE: The number is still in use. So, if you’re planning any New York visits and would like to bird, the phone number is still valid.)


My friend David now lives in Baltimore. I haven’t visited him there, but he has visited me in the mountains near Asheville, N.C. I’d like to thank him again for my taste of the Big Apple.


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High-rise doves: Pair nests twice on apartment balcony

Photo Courtesy of Rob Hicks • One of the parent doves checks on the two young in the nest.

In late July, I wrote about a couple of mourning doves nesting on a front porch column at the home of Star and Tim Barto in Telford, Tennessee.

Star sent another email recently to notify me that the doves are back, undertaking a fourth nesting for the year.

“Just had to share the amazing news — the doves are back on the porch column for the fourth time this year,” she wrote. “So exciting!  After three events this year, I was sure it would be next spring before their return. So glad to be wrong about that.”

Not only did I hear from Star about their nesting doves in Telford, I heard from a reader a little farther afield about a pair of mourning doves that have taken things to a higher level, literally.

Rob Hicks, a resident of Burlington in Ontario, Canada, informed me of an interesting nesting of mourning doves that have taken a liking to his apartment balcony.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Hicks • A view from the balcony where the mourning doves nested.

“I first noticed one (and then both) doves on my balcony railing up on the eighth floor when I was looking at the planters I have out there,” Rob explained in a Facebook message.

He said that the doves would hop around in each potted plant, look around and  then move to the next.  

“I assumed they were looking to set up a nest, but I knew that the balcony repairmen were going to be arriving in a few week,” Rob said.

In case the nesting conflicted with the mandatory maintenance, Rob tried to discourage the birds from setting up their nest.   

“I went out and got some decorative plastic picks and stuck them in the planters, hoping the birds would avoid them, but the following day I noticed the start of a nest in one planter,” he said.

Not only that, but the birds had pulled out the plastic picks. So much for his effort to deter the nesting birds.

The following day he noticed that the nest contained two eggs.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Hicks • The two parent doves stand guard over a nestling.

Presented with a fait accompli, Rob decided to enjoy the rare opportunity of watching the high-rise nesting birds.

“The parents took turns with the eggs for the next two weeks until they hatched,” he wrote. “I noticed the chicks were growing very quickly, and a few times each day I’d notice one of the parents coming back to the nest to feed them.”

After the squabs (the name for young doves) had grown, the parents stopped sitting with them and would only come back a few times a day to feed them.

“The chicks would be flexing their wings and flapping them, so I assumed they’d be flying out soon,” he added. 

He noticed that one of the young doves made its first flight from the planter to an adjacent planter on the railing.  

“The bird then managed to fly down off the balcony towards a clump of nearby trees, where I had seen the parents flying in and out of recently,” Rob wrote.

The other young dove was a little less confident in its abilities and waited two additional days before it finally left the nest.

“Over the next couple of days I saw them (at least one adult and one of the chicks each time) perched on the roof of the building,” he wrote.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Hicks • One of the doves returns for a visit.

He also watched them fly back to the same stand of trees, so he said he assumed the adults were still helping them learn to fly better or perhaps teaching them how to find food. 

Right on schedule, the maintenance workers arrived and he had to clear the plants off his balcony.   

“I moved them to a neighbor’s balcony,” he wrote.

About 10 days later, after his balcony had been repaired, he went to collect his plants from his neighbor’s balcony.

Readers will probably guess what happened next.

“I found the doves had not only found the same plants again on the neighbor’s balcony, but they had already put a nest in the planter and laid  eggs again,” Rob wrote.

Rob reported that four weeks and one day after they laid the second batch of eggs, the last chick in that brood also successfully flew out of the nest.

“Since they raised two broods successfully in those plants this year — so far —  I’m more than happy to welcome them back again if they want to try another nest in them,” he wrote.

Back in 2014, Rob also wrote to tell me about a brown creeper that crashed into his balcony. That story, too, had a happy ending. Although the bird was definitely stunned, it recovered and flew to nearby trees after a short rest.

So, we’re ready to turn the calendar to September and I’m still writing columns about nesting birds. I love it!

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