Monthly Archives: January 2023

One warbler is commonplace bird in region during winter

Photos by Edbo/Pixabay • The yellow-rumped warbler is abundant across North America. The species has evolved two distinct sub-species known as the “myrtle warbler” of the Eastern United States and the Audubon’s warbler of the Western United States.

Walk any woodland trails in the region and encounters with yellow-rumped warblers are likely. The linear walking trails in Erwin, walking trails at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton and the winding paths at Osceola Island Recreation Area in Bristol are almost certain to yield sightings of this wintering warbler.

A good nickname for this warbler might be “winter warbler” since most other members of the warbler family elect to spend the colder months as far south as Central and South America. From October to early May, the yellow-rumped warbler is a common bird in the region. This species also likes to form large flocks that often flit through the upper branches of trees. They are often joined by other birds, including chickadees, titmice and kinglets in mixed flocks that forage together.

Once the warmer days of summer arrive, yellow-jumped warblers have almost entirely disappeared from the region. Some of the region’s higher peaks attract this warbler during the summer, but this warbler’s population nests farther north than Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

The yellow-rumped warbler’s appearances changes dramatically from winter to summer. By the time yellow-rumped warblers arrive each autumn, these birds are in drab brown and gray plumage, but they still display the “butter pat” yellow patch on their rump that has prompted birders to saddle this warbler with the nickname “butter butt.”

The lingering yellow-rumped warbler in late April and early May is an entirely different bird. Males have streaked backs of black on slate blue, white wing patches, a streaked breast and conspicuous yellow patches on the crown, flank and rump. Females are similar, but duller overall.

The yellow-rumped warbler ranges across North America from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast, but from the Rocky Mountains westward, the appearance of this warbler changes. Experts have gone back and forth on whether these two sub-species of yellow-rumped warbler should actually be classified as different and distinct species.

The familiar eastern bird is known as the “myrtle warbler,” but the western sub-species is named “Audubon’s warbler” in honor of the artist and early American naturalist John James Audubon. The biggest difference in the two variations is that the Aubuon’s warbler shows a yellow-throat patch compared to the white throat of the myrtle warbler. I’ve seen both. I saw the western Audubon’s warbler during a trip to Utah and Idaho in 2003.

Complicating matters is the fact that the yellow-rumped warbler also ranges into Mexico and Central America, where the appearance of the species changes yet again. Two other forms — Mexico’s black-fronted warbler and Guatemala’s Goldman’s warbler — must be added to the list.

The scientific name of the yellow-rumped warbler is Setophaga coronata. The genus setophaga is taken from ancient Greek and means “eater of moths.” As moths are incredibly abundant, yellow-rumped warblers no doubt consume some of these insects, but their diet is hardly limited to adult moths. They do eat many varieties of caterpillars, as well as beetles, weevils, ants, grasshoppers, gnats and spiders. They will also eat berries, especially during the winter months. It’s their fondness for the berries of wax-myrtle that has given this bird the name “myrtle warbler” to represent the Eastern form of the species. This bird also eats the berries of dogwood, poison ivy, Virginia creeper and dogwood.

The yellow-rumped warbler has also learned to visit feeders. Preferred foods at feeders include sunflower seeds, raisins, peanut butter and suet.

During the long months when most of the colorful, energetic warblers are absent from the region, the yellow-rumped warbler offers some solace, as well as a reminder. In a few months, area woodlands will once again explode with the songs of returning warbler. The chorus will be so vigorous that we’ll hardly notice that the yellow-rumped warbler is no longer part of the choir.

According to the website “All About Birds,” the yellow-rumped warbler is abundant. The website notes that populations of this warbler have held steady from 1966 to 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 170 million individual birds.

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

Watch for American kestrels in open areas, on roadsides

Naser Mojtahed/USFWS • An American kestrel perches on a pole. These small falcons are present throughout the year in the region, but their numbers typically increase during the winter months when individuals from farther north migrate into the area.

The year’s still young, but I am amassing some interesting bird sightings. My very first birds of 2023 were a common raven (heard) and a red-shouldered hawk (seen) at my home on the morning of Jan. 1.

I heard the raven croaking raucously on the ridge behind my home. When I stepped onto my front porch, I startled the red-shouldered hawk from a perch at a willow growing near my fish pond. Since those sightings, I’ve added additional birds, including American kestrel, to my year list.

I’ve observed kestrels at a couple of locations, including one that favors the utility lines along Highway 107 near Bell Cemetery in Limestone Cove and another one that I’ve seen perching on power lines near Rolling Hills between Unicoi and Erwin.
The American kestrel is a small member of the falcon family, which includes such relatives as merlin, peregrine falcon and gyrfalcon. All falcons, regardless of size, share a similar aerodynamic design that includes sleek, streamlined bodies and long, slim wings which taper to pointed tips. They fly with rapid wingbeats and are capable of swift flight.

The American kestrel, although present throughout the year in the region, is somewhat more prominent during the winter months when kestrels from farther north migrate into the region. However, this falcon also nests in the region and can be found at any time of the year in suitable habitat, which is usually open countryside.

The male American kestrel is a colorful bird. He shows a rusty back with some black barring, a rusty tail and steel blue-gray wings. The female kestrel is brownish with black barring on her back and tail. She also shows a buff-colored wash streaked with brown on her under- parts. Both sexes show a strong facial pattern marked by two black “sideburns” on the side of the face.

The American kestrel has long been one of my favorite raptors. They’re seldom as skittish as many other raptors and will permit close observation. Formerly known by the name “Sparrow Hawk,” the American kestrel does not feed entirely on other birds. In fact, a large part of this small falcon’s diet includes rodents and insects.
The kestrel is one of the birds I remember from my childhood “Golden Guide to Birds” book. Raptors are not normally regarded as colorful birds, but the paintings in these little books perfect for child-sized hands showed a beautiful bird with different hues visible in its plumage.

Like many raptors, the American kestrel likes to hunt from a perch, swooping down on unsuspecting prey. The kestrel, however, is also capable of hovering, a type of flight that only a relatively few birds, including the belted kingfisher and the ruby-throated hummingbird, are capable of performing.

In its nesting preference, the American kestrel is unusual among other native falcons and hawks. Kestrels nest in cavities, including abandoned woodpecker holes and nest boxes provided by humans.

The falcons comprise a family of birds with a long history with humans. The sport of falconry, although not as widely practiced today, long ago became associated with royalty and nobility. In fact, falconry has been called “the sport of kings.” The sport basically involved hunting prey, usually other birds, with birds of prey such as falcons. As a pastime, falconry never became as popular in the United States as in other parts of the world.

There are more than 60 species of falcons found worldwide. While the peregrine falcon’s endangered status became well-known in the United States, other falcons have been threatened with extinction. The Mauritius Kestrel once dwindled to a population of only six individuals. Today, the population, due to intensive human effort, has greatly recovered.

Other members of the falcon family can be found in the region, including the peregrine falcon and the merlin. Other falcons in North America include the prairie falcon and the Aplomado falcon. Worldwide, some of the more descriptively named falcons include spotted kestrel, rock kestrel, slaty-backed forest falcon, grey falcon, greater kestrel, lesser kestrel, red-footed falcon, red-necked falcon, sooty falcon and brown falcon.

To share observations, ask questions, or make a comment, email me at

Photo by USFWS/Robert Burton • An American kestrel in flight shows the aerodynamic design that earned this small falcon the common name of sparrow hawk.

Albatross known as Wisdom returns again to Midway Atoll 

Readers with good memory will recall that I’ve written numerous times over the years about a special bird by the name of Wisdom.

She’s making headlines again!

Wisdom, the world’s oldest known wild bird, recently returned to Midway Atoll. She was first spotted back in this familiar territory on Nov. 24, 2022, in fact.

Wisdom is considered world’s oldest wild bird

The beloved Laysan albatross is at least 71 years old now. Biologists first identified and banded Wisdom in 1956 after she laid an egg, and these large seabirds aren’t known to breed before age five.

Photo by Bob Peyton/USFWS • Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorialwithin Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is a special place for over three million seabirds – they return to Midway Atoll each year to rest, mate, lay eggs and raise their chicks.

Researchers have estimated that Wisdom has produced 50 to 60 eggs and as many as 30 chicks that fledged, according to Jonathan Plissner, supervisory wildlife biologist at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

The ageless Wisdom, with her well-known band number of Z333, was first spotted this nesting season on Thanksgiving Day. Her long-time mate, Akeakamai, has yet to be seen and was absent last nesting season, too. Male albatrosses typically return to the breeding site before their mates, wrote Plissner in an email.

For decades, Wisdom and Akeakamai, like most pairs of these albatrosses, returned every year to the same nest site to lay one egg.  

They are among the millions of albatross that return to Midway Atoll on the far northern end of the Hawaiian archipelago to nest and raise their young. 

For some unknown reason, Wisdom only made a brief appearance late last year. In a release dated Dec. 9, 2022, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service noted that Wisdom had not been seen in the past week and most mōlī have already laid their egg for the season, but biologists will continue to monitor the area in case the world’s oldest known bird returns.

Among albatross, the Laysan albatross is a small species. This bird has a body length of 23 inches and a wingspan of about 80 inches, or six-and-a-half feet. The larger species of albatross have wingspans of 12 feet. 

Worldwide, there are about 20 or so species of albatross. Most albatrosses range in the Southern Hemisphere from Antarctica to Australia, South Africa, and South America.

In literature, the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge uses an albatross to explore the concepts of innocence and creation.

French poet Charles Baudelaire also featured this bird in his poem titled “L’Albatros.” 

Albatrosses haven’t coexisted easily with humans. Fifteen of the world’s albatross species face possible extinction. Two species, Tristan albatross and waved albatross are considered critically endangered. 

Albatrosses are long-lived birds, with some gaining a ripe old age of 50 years or more. Only parrots rival them for longevity, with some parrots and macaws documents as living more than a century. 

Wisdom hatched her most recent chick in February 2021, making her at least 70 years old at the time. She is the oldest confirmed wild bird and the oldest banded bird in the world.

I hope that Wisdom’s simply off gliding over the world’s vast oceans and will make more future appearances. Since learning of her story, I’ve been continually amazed by her indomitable spirit. Long may she fly.

Speaking of long lives among out feathered friends, there are some impressive age milestones that have been reached by other birds. 

Longevity Records

According to the American Bird Conservancy website, here are some of the world’s longest-lived wild birds:

• common raven — 69 years

• American flamingo — 49 years

• bald eagle — 38 years

• sandhill crane — 37 years

• Canada goose — 33 years

• Atlantic puffin — 33 years

• red-tailed hawk — 30 years

• mourning dove — 30

• great horned owl — 28 years

• mallard — 27 years

• blue jay — 26 years

• great blue heron — 24 years

• laughing gull — 22 years

• piping plover — 17 years

While it’s usually the larger birds that live longer, some songbirds, just like people, can live astonishingly long lives. The hummingbirds, which are truly tiny, can produce individuals that reach a relatively old age. For instance, a broad-billed hummingbird has been documented reaching the age of 14 years.


Email me at to share sightings or ask questions. 

Annual Christmas Bird Count nets lower total than usual

Photo by Michael of Pixabay • A yellow-bellied sapsucker clings to the trunk of a tree. A total of 11 sapsuckers was found during the recent Elizabethton Bird Count.

The 80th consecutive Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count was held Saturday, Dec. 17. A total of 24 observers, myself included, in eight parties assisted by two feeder watchers participated.

The weather was less than ideal, with strong winds in parts of the coverage area. Participants tallied 61 species, which longtime count compiler Rick Knight noted was well below the recent 30 year average of 73 species. In fact, this was the lowest species total since 1970 when a mere 58 species were found.

Missed birds included ring-necked duck, horned grebe, ruffed grouse, Eurasian collared-dove, double-crested cormorant, barred owl, great horned owl, white-crowned sparrow; fox Sparrow and Eastern meadowlark.

Knight noted that reasons for the low number are complicated. The wind was a factor in some areas. Also, duck numbers have been generally low so far this winter. Blackbirds have been scarce in this area for most recent winters. Some half-hardy lingerers weren’t found, including house wren, brown thrasher and palm warbler. Some others are low-density wintering birds and were just missed.

So, what did the participants see?
Here’s the list:
Canada goose, 447; mallard, 210, bufflehead, 226; and hooded merganser, 5.
Wild turkey, 5; pied-billed grebe, 4; rock pigeon,148; mourning dove, 86; killdeer, 9; and Wilson’s snipe, 5.

Ring-billed gull 9; common loon, 2; great blue heron, 14; black vulture, 17; turkey vulture, 12; and American kestrel, 12.

Sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 6; Bald eagle, 5; red-tailed hawk, 22; and Eastern screech-owl, 7.

Belted kingfisher, 15; Red-bellied woodpecker, 26; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 11; downy woodpecker, 17; hairy woodpecker, 4; Northern flicker, 17; and pileated woodpecker, 11.

Eastern phoebe, 17; blue jay, 71; American crow, 733; and common raven, 14.
Carolina chickadee, 108; tufted titmouse, 91; red-breasted nuthatch, 4; white-breasted nuthatch, 45; brown creeper, 1; winter wren, 7; Carolina wren, 86; golden-crowned kinglet, 9; and ruby-crowned kinglet, 15.

Eastern bluebird, 149; hermit Thrush, 9; American robin, 122; Northern mockingbird, 41; Eurasian starling, 714; and cedar waxwing, 281.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Northern cardinal visits a feeder on a snowy afternoon. Counters found 132 cardinals on the Elizabethton CBC.

House sparrow, 70; house finch 89; purple finch, 3; American goldfinch, 73; chipping Sparrow, 29; field Sparrow, 36; dark-eyed junco, 74; white-throated sparrow, 73; song sparrow, 97; swamp sparrow, 2; and Eastern towhee, 7.

Pine warbler, 2; yellow-rumped warbler, 75; and Northern cardinal, 132.

Observers included Bryan Stevens, Chris Soto, Brookie and Jean Potter, Don Holt, Dianne Draper, Eric Draper, Fred Alsop, Kevin Brooks, Judi Sawyer, Charlie Warden, Deb Mignogno, Rick Knight, Kim Stroud, Dave Gardner, Joe McGuiness, Vern Maddux, Roy Knispel, Pete Range, Harry Lee Farthing, Richard Lewis, Tammy Bright, Scott Turner, Larry McDaniel and David and Connie Irick.


Share sightings, ask questions or make comments by emailing me at


Vultures adept at living in close contact to people

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter • A pair of black vultures bask in the winter sunshine in an old barn located in the Gap Creek community near Elizabethton, Tennessee.

I took part in the recent Elizabethton Christmas Bird Count conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. I enjoyed a cold but sunny Saturday morning looking for birds with Chris Soto and Brookie and Jean Potter.

The first Christmas Bird Counts were conducted on Christmas Day (Dec. 25) in 1900. The annual census arose from a proposal made by famed ornithologist Frank M. Chapman. According to, these yearly counts, conducted throughout the country, have provided a wealth of data over the past century.

Observations made due to CBCs have helped Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, the data provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, otherwise known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, has a long history of participation in the annual Christmas Bird Count. In fact, the club has conducted two different counts — one for Elizabethton and another for Roan Mountain — for decades. The 2022 CBC marked 80 unbroken years in conducting a CBC for Elizabethton. Not even the ongoing pandemic deterred members for carrying out Christmas Bird Counts in 2020 and 2021.The club has also conducted 69 Roan Mountain CBCs, but inclement weather on the unpredictable Roan has forced cancellation of this annual count on a few occasions.

Christmas Bird Counts are challenging. Birds are more scarce. Weather conditions can sometimes present a challenge. On this year’s count, my group struggled to come up with common species such as killdeer and Eastern phoebe, although we did eventually manage to find these target birds.

It was far from certain whether we would find the region’s two native vultures: turkey vulture and black vulture. We added turkey vultures to the list when we encountered some soaring individuals. We later found our black vultures in a delightfully random fashion. While driving through the Gap Creek community we passed an old barn and spied two black vultures roosting in the barn loft. Surprised, we circled back, documented the vultures in photographs and remarked on finding the birds just inside a building.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Like many other species of birds, vultures have learned to co-exist near humans much in the same fashion as Canada geese, Eastern bluebirds, American robins and mallards. Like these birds, vultures are highly adaptive creatures. Unlike some types of wildlife that shy away from human contact, vultures and some other birds have adapted to the human environment – perhaps a bit too well. Vulture behavior can be destructive. In recent years, some of these destructive tendencies have become quite infamous among birders. This new behavior apparently first surfaced among vultures wintering in south Florida.
They have been known to tear window and roof caulking, vent seals, shingles, rubber seals on car windshields, windshield wipers and other soft, rubbery materials. In addition, their excrement is acidic and may damage painted surfaces and landscaping. The birds also regurgitate a smelly, acidic vomit. Unfortunately, vultures apparently pass on these bad habits to others of their kind and such aberrant behavior is now being seen outside of the Sunshine State.

Some communities in the region have also had to deal with large roosting flocks of vultures. A few years back as many as 100 vultures had been documented in Abingdon, Virginia. This number may rise and fall, depending on conditions.
On some of my recent walks around downtown Erwin, I have frequently observed black vultures and turkey vulture soaring lazily overhead on both sunny and overcast days.

Vultures are part of the web of life, which connects them and their fellow creatures to our own lives. Turkey vultures are larger than black vultures, weighing about four to five pounds, with a wingspan of six feet. The turkey vulture’s most distinctive feature is its bright red, featherless head. In flight, a turkey vulture often appears to “wobble” and, from underneath, all of the flight feathers are light colored.
On the other hand, black vultures are smaller, weighing less than four pounds, with a wingspan of five feet or less. The black vulture’s head is grey and featherless, but larger in proportion than the turkey vultures. Viewed in flight, only the outer flight feathers of the black vulture are white.

Although smaller in size, black vultures are feisty and aggressive birds. They often outcompete turkey vultures at carcasses. They will also only reluctantly abandon a feeding site at a carcass. My family almost learned this the hard way many years ago during a trip to South Carolina when my father almost ran his car into a flock of black vultures feeding on a road-killed deer. I warned him that the vultures might not get out of the way, and he slowed the car’s speed. The vultures moved back from the edge of the road as our car traveled past them. Looking back, I noticed they immediately hopped back onto the carcass after we had passed. If we had sped past at full speed, one of the bird’s could easily have panicked and flown into our path. A four-pound bird can do a lot of damage if it hits the windshield of a car traveling at 40 to 50 miles per hour. Trust me! You don’t want to put this to the test.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black vulture, left, shares a perch with two turkey vultures.

Perhaps that’s the moral of the story. Give vultures a wide berth and, in theory, they will do the same for you. Let’s face it. Vultures aren’t going to be cute and cuddly faces for ecological awareness. A polar bear or penguin, vultures simply are not. They still have a role to play, and we should be grateful they were created for just that purpose.