Monthly Archives: February 2023

Readers ask questions regarding area thrushes

Photo by Hans Toom/Pixabay • Hermit thrushes, such as this individual, are winter visitors to the region. The hermit thrush is related to other members of the thrush family, including Eastern bluebird, American robin and wood thrush.


Carol Garland of Unicoi contacted me via Facebook Messenger about my recent column in the Johnson City Press about bluebirds.

“I have several bluebirds in my yard this year,” Carol wrote in her message.  “I have had a couple maybe every year, but this fall I saw eight on a bush in my yard.”

She described the bush as having purplish berries.

“Bless them, they cleaned it, and I was so glad to have something they could eat,” she continued.  “I don’t know what kind it is but wondered if you would have any idea.”

I suggested that the bush might likely be either a privet, if the berries are very dark purple to almost black, or a beautyberry if the berries are a brighter, almost orchid-like purple.

Most privet plants produce masses of purple-black berries which are fairly popular with birds that spread the seeds widely. Similarly, American beautyberry, also known as French mulberry, produces large clusters of bright purple berries, which birds and deer eat, thus distributing the seeds.

Carol also asked if I knew where she could buy live meal worms for her bluebirds.

“I am going to see if I can get a couple of houses for them, but they must have some places around because they have been here most of the winter,” she added.

For mealworms, I suggested that Carol contact the Wild Birds Unlimited store on W. Market Street in Johnson City. Gardening centers might also be a likely source for either live or freeze-dried mealworms. Searching online would likely provide plenty of possibilities for acquiring this favorite protein source for bluebirds.

Eastern bluebirds are a member of the thrush family of birds, which consists of several species fond of both insects and fruit.

I also heard from Susan Peters of Elizabethton on the subject of bluebirds and other thrushes.

“I really enjoyed your bluebird column, as I am sure so many others did,” Susan wrote in an email to me. “It prompted me to check that my bluebird houses were clean and free of other occupancies.”

She added that she has seen bluebirds in her birdbath with a bit of snow on the edges of the bath. She added that she has a heater in the bath to keep the water thawed during cold spells.

“They are a wonderful winter sight,” she wrote.

“I was wondering if you thought it was possible for a hermit thrush to be in my yard under the feeders,” she also queried. “My identification skills are purely amateur, but in checking my Peterson books, I think I saw one for several days.”

She described the bird as a bit smaller than a wood thrush with a bit more olive color, a white eyering and showing spots/stripes on its breast.

“I really thought the thrushes were migratory,” she wrote.

In a reply I explained that most thrushes are migratory. In a sense, even the hermit thrush, a winter resident in the region, is migratory. It simply migrates to the area from the more northern locations that provide breeding habitat for the species.

According to Tennessee Watchable Wildlife on the website of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the hermit thrush is primarily a winter visitor to Tennessee arriving in early October and departing by late April. The same holds true for western North Carolina and southwest Virginia.


The entry at Tennessee Watchable Wildlife describes this thrush as a quiet, unobtrusive bird spending most of its time foraging in the leaf litter or in berry-filled tangles at the forest edge.

Susan described seeing the thrush as a real treat.

“The hermit thrush was my mother’s favorite bird,” she wrote.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perches on a fence in March in South Carolina. These thrushes are winter residents in much of the eastern United States.

Susan wrote that her mother always called the hermit and wood thrushes “deedle-deedle” birds because of their calls.

“My hermit thrush visits under the feeders almost every morning,” she wrote in a followup email. “What a treat. Thanks again for the confirmation.”

To share sightings, ask questions or make comments, email me at

Still time to count: Annual GBBC runs Feb. 17-20

Photo by Bryan Stevens • People are invited to count birds during a four-day period as part of the 2023 Great Backyard Bird Count taking place from Friday, Feb. 17 through Monday, Feb. 20. Participants will have an opportunity to look for birds, such as this pileated woodpecker, and report their findings.


The 2023 Great Backyard Bird Count will be held Friday, Feb. 17, through Monday, Feb. 20. This year’s GBBC will mark the 26th anniversary of this annual survey that utilizes citizen science to obtain valuable information about the world’s bird populations.

It’s easy to take part. Simply watch the feeders in your own yard or visit a favored birding spot. For instance, participants could choose to count in Persimmon Ridge Park in Jonesborough, Osceola Island Recreation Area in Bristol, Fishery Park in Erwin, Winged Deer Park in Johnson City, Orchard Bog in Shady Valley, Lake Lure in McDowell County, North Carolina or any other personal favorite birding location.
For details on how to report results of your co

unt, please visit and click the “Participate” menu button.
It really is as simple as counting all the birds you see and submitting your personal checklist.

Since 2013, the GBBC has been a global effort, allowing birders around the world to take part. Participants in 2015 observed almost half of the world’s known bird species, and that effort was surpassed the next year. Momentum has built ever since.

Last year, GBBC participants identified 7,099 species of birds. When you consider that scientists estimate between 9,000 to 10,000 different species of birds throughout the world, that’s a lot of coverage that the GBBC provides each year.
The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada. With its global perspective, a great many exotic bird species are now tallied on the annual GBBC, but the survey remains firmly established as a grassroots effort to compile data crucial for the conservation of the world’s beloved birds. The information gathered by tens of thousands of volunteers helps track the health of bird populations at a scale that would not otherwise be possible.

It’s incredibly easy to take part in the GBBC. Anyone anywhere in the world can count birds for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the four-day count period and enter their sightings at There’s no charge or fee for taking part in the GBBC, which is a fun way to observe a variety of birds. Thanks to the flexible count criteria, it is also an easy way to make a contribution to science. The data delivered by the thousands of participants is now collected and compiled by the website

In 2022, the GBBC continued this impressive effort. Here are some interesting tidbits from last year’s survey:
• 7,099 species of birds identified.
• 192 participating countries.
• 359,479 eBird checklists.
• 298,208 Merlin Bird IDs.
• 141,990 photos added to Macaulay Library.
• 384,641 estimated global participants.
The United States had the highest number of checklists with more than 234,000 checklists submitted from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. California led all states with 20,191 checklists submitted. New York, Texas and Florida rounded out the top tier.

North Carolina birders helped their state rank 6th with 9,926 checklists submitted. Virginia birders can be proud that their commonwealth ranked 7th with 9,469 checklists submitted. Tennessee didn’t fare too poorly. The Volunteer State ranked 23rd with 4,074 checklists submitted.
Internationally, people living in the nations of India and Canada submitted a lot of checklists.

Over my years taking part in the GBBC, I have counted many interesting and unexpected birds, including green-winged teal, Ross’s goose, snow goose, red-shouldered hawk and Cooper’s hawk.

This year’s GBBC will be held over a four-day period, starting on Friday, Feb. 17, and continuing through Monday, Feb. 20.

Participants can count alone or join with groups of fellow birders. Those taking part in the GBBC are invited to count in as many locations as they like. The reported results will help create a real-time snapshot of where birds are distributed during the winter months. Visit for more details on how to take part in the 2023 GBBC.

Circle these dates on your calendar and get ready to go count birds.


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

Man hits a bonanza with recent sighting of eagles

Photo Courtesy of Jim Kroll • These four bald eagles were observed along Mendota Road near Abingdon, Virginia.

Jim Kroll sent me a recent email about a Jan. 30 sighting he made on Mendota Road in Abingdon, Virginia.

“I saw three hawks and an eagle close together in the same tree,” he wrote in his email. “The eagle and one hawk appear to be almost side-by-side on the same limb.”

He added that he had never observed such a combination in the same tree.

“I did not know they got along that well with each other,” Jim wrote.

He noted that he regularly sees hawks near his home in Abingdon and occasionally sees eagles on Mendota Road.

“There was a second eagle,” he added. “The two eagles would fly off together to the river, swooping around each other along the way.”

He said that he watched the hawks and eagles for probably 30 to 45 minutes as they would fly away from the tree multiple times and then return.

He also reported that the hawks were larger than the eagles. This bit of information got me to thinking about his sighting due to the fact that there are no hawks bigger than a bald eagle.

Once I looked at the photo that Jim shared with his email, I realized that his sighting was more remarkable than he realized.

“All four of the birds are eagles,” I wrote to him after viewing the photo. “The dark ones are immature eagles.”

“All four of the birds are eagles,” I wrote to him after viewing the photo. “The dark ones are immature eagles.”

According to information from the East Tennessee State University Eagle Cam project, it typically requires four to five years before young eagles develop the characteristic yellow bill with white head and tail of an adult bird.

Remember that Jim saw a second adult eagle that does not appear in the photograph he shared.

I’m not sure what was taking place with this appearance by multiple eagles. I’m favoring the possibility that the young dark eagles might have been the young of the adult pair of birds. Female eagles are larger than male eagles, so it is also likely the adult bird in the photo is a male and the other eagles in your photo are all females.
The fact that Jim saw five eagles at a single location at the same time is worth commending.

I informed him that I feel lucky when I see one eagle or a pair. I told Jim that to see five eagles at one spot is exceptional and congratulated him.
After I shared my opinion that all the birds in his photo were eagles, he emailed me again.

“We were probably a football field length away from the tree the eagles were in and just jumped to the conclusion that the darker birds were hawks,” he wrote to me.
He had considered how large the birds looked in flight, and he noted that their size and wingspan had not seem right for hawks, but he said he never thought about the other three birds also being eagles. He also shared another photo of the adult eagles flying toward the river.

“Their wingspan was impressive,” he wrote. “It was cool watching them swoop around each other near the river.”

He also shared that he saw another eagle recently near the Nordyke Bridge, five to six miles from where he saw the group of eagles.

Jim added that he has seen eagles at the top of South Holston Dam and along the Virginia Creeper Trail near Alvarado.

The ETSU Eagle Cam project operates eagle cams in Johnson City near Winged Deer Park and in Bluff City.

Here’s some more information about bald eagles from the ETSU Eagle Cam website.
Haliaeetus leucocephalus, better known as the bald eagle, is the United States’ national bird and is an easily recognizable species even to the casual observer. No other bird has a bright white head and tail with a massive yellow bill.
Bald Eagles belong to the family Accipitridae, which also includes hawks, kites, harriers and Old World vultures.

The scientific name roughly translates to “white-headed sea eagle,” which is appropriate because these birds are almost always found nesting near water.


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

Photo by Pixabay on Bald eagles are often associated with wetland habitats.

Give bluebirds a hand as they scout for nesting locations

Photo by Matthew Saulsbury/Pixabay • Bluebirds are likely already scouting for nesting cavities and nest boxes in the region.

It’s time to turn the calendar page to February and, depending on the prognostication of the groundhog, winter may or may not be on the wane. Regardless, some of our feather friends are already acting like spring has sprung.
Perhaps it’s simply confusion when days can veer from sunny, short-sleeve conditions to frigid snowstorms, but I tend to trust the instincts of our fine feathered friends.

An email from Unicoi County resident Amanda Austwick proved timely.
“I saw a post on Facebook from a woman in Ontario, Canada, and she had a photo of a bluebird in a tree surrounded by red berries, with a touch of snow on them,” Amanda wrote. “I thought bluebirds migrated south in winter.”

I responded to Amanda’s email and will share some information in this week’s column. For the most part, local bluebirds do not migrate out of the region in winter. Bluebirds living farther north do often, but not always, migrate farther south.
As I mentioned to Amanda, I notice bluebirds almost daily on my drive from home to work. On sunny mornings, male Eastern bluebirds are producing their enthusiastic, warbling song even if there’s been a touch of frost overnight.

The Eastern bluebird is one of North America’s best-known cavity-nesting birds. About 85 species of North American birds use cavities in trees for nesting purposes. Cavity-nesting birds include ducks, such as buffleheads and wood ducks, as well as birds of prey such as Eastern screech-owls and American kestrels. Woodpeckers and nuthatches can excavate their own cavity in a dead or decaying tree.

Others, such as the bluebirds, must find a cavity already in existence. Such cavities are scarce real estate and can be subject to some intense competition.
The Eastern bluebird is at a disadvantage when forced to compete with non-native introduced birds such as aggressive European starlings and house sparrows. Even native competitors such as house wrens and tree swallows are serious rivals when it comes down to staking a claim to prime nesting sites.

Over the years, I have found bluebirds nesting in cavities inside wooden fence posts, but there are fewer wooden fence posts every year. This reinforces the idea of how changing landscapes have affected these birds. Instead of wooden fence posts, many farmers now use metal ones, and dead or dying trees — a much sought-after resource for cavity-nesting birds — are often removed from woodlands. Winter storms this season, along with accompanying high winds, have brought down numerous trees in the woodlands around my home, no doubt removing some current or future nesting possibilities.

When it comes to choosing a nesting cavity, male bluebirds take the lead, investigating and exploring potential sites before introducing females to the chosen real estate. If she accepts his choice, she will build the nest.

Cavities can also find use by bluebirds for secure locations for roosting overnight. According to the website Tennessee Watchable Wildlife, observers have documented bluebirds using nest boxes to stay warm during cold winter nights, packing eight to 12 individuals into one box. With the generated body heat from all those birds, I imagine that was one cozy box!

The website also noted that the oldest known Eastern bluebird in the wild reached an age of 10 years and six months. Given that most songbird live fairly short lives, that was quite an achievement.

For those interested in becoming bluebird landlords, check out nest box designs at the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website. Several different nest box designs are available at the profile for the Eastern bluebird at
If you’re not a do-it-yourself individuals, most lawn and garden centers, farm supply stores and speciality bird shops carry readymade bluebird boxes for purchase.
In addition to housing, food and water can be used to lure Eastern bluebirds closer. This bird doesn’t eat seeds, but it can be attracted with an offering of mealworms — live or freeze-dried – or commercially prepared peanut butter nuggets. A water feature in a yard is also a magnet for bluebirds and a host of other bird species.

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