Monthly Archives: May 2023

Long-running count finds total of 153 bird species

Photo by Hans Toom from Pixabay • A male black-and-white warbler sings from an elevated perch.

The 80th Elizabethton Spring Bird Count was held Saturday, May 6, covering Carter County and parts of adjacent Johnson, Sullivan, Washington and Unicoi counties, with 35 observers in 16 parties and two feeder watchers.
The annual count was conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club.

I counted with fellow Elizabethton Bird Club members Chris Soto and Rob Armistead in Elizabethton along the Watauga River and on Holston Mountain. Some highlights from the day included a male scarlet tanager that put on an unbelievable show, as well as a pair of female common mergansers on the Watauga River at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.

Participants tallied 153 species, which is exactly the average of the last 20 years. The all-time high was 166 species in 2016.

Longtime count compiler Rick Knight noted that participants tallied 27 species of warblers. In addition, he noted that six different parties found fish crows, a species that would once have been considered a rarity in the region.

The list:

Canada goose, 534; wood duck, 24; blue-winged teal, 13; American wigeon, 1; mallard, 126; hooded merganser, 1; and common merganser, 2.
Ruffed grouse, 1; wild turkey, 33; rock pigeon, 102; Eurasian collared-dove, 1; mourning dove, 194; and yellow-billed cuckoo, 1.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This female Common Merganser was photographed a previous Spring Bird Count.

Common nighthawk, 1; chuck-will’s-widow, 12; Eastern whip-poor-will, 17; chimney swift, 97; and ruby-throated hummingbird, 25.

Sora, 1; killdeer, 32; least sandpiper, 27; pectoral sandpiper, 3; semipalmated sandpiper, 2; Wilson’s snipe, 1; spotted sandpiper, 60; solitary sandpiper, 32; lesser yellowlegs, 7; and greater yellowlegs, 3.

Common loon, 8; double-crested cormorant, 186; great blue heron, 78; great egret, 1; green heron, 6; black-crowned night-heron, 1; and yellow-crowned night-heron, 3.
Black vulture, 91; turkey vulture, 94; osprey, 10; Cooper’s hawk, 9; bald eagle, 6; red-shouldered hawk, 6; broad-winged hawk, 8; and red-tailed hawk, 25.

Eastern screech-owl, 7; great horned owl, 1; barred owl, 4; and Northern saw-whet owl, 1.

Photo by Pixabay • A single great horned owl was found on this year’s count.

Belted kingfisher, 15; Red-headed woodpecker, 4; red-bellied woodpecker, 83; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 6; downy woodpecker, 33; hairy woodpecker, 8; Northern flicker, 33; and pileated woodpecker, 31.

American kestrel, 4; great crested flycatcher, 25; Eastern kingbird, 70; Eastern wood-pewee, 13; Acadian flycatcher, 7; least flycatcher, 14; and Eastern phoebe, 86.

White-eyed vireo, 17; yellow-throated vireo, 7; blue-headed vireo, 54; warbling vireo, 18; and red-eyed vireo, 221.

Blue jay, 197; American crow, 294; fish crow, 11; and common raven, 16.
Tree swallow, 193; Northern rough-winged swallow, 75; purple martin, 63; barn swallow, 146; and cliff swallow, 530.

Carolina chickadee, 121; tufted titmouse, 148; red-breasted nuthatch, 12; white-breasted nuthatch, 23; and brown-headed nuthatch, 1.

House wren, 63; winter wren, 7; Carolina wren, 179; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 69; golden-crowned kinglet, 3; and ruby-crowned kinglet 2.

Eastern bluebird, 159; veery, 17; Swainson’s thrush, 1; hermit thrush, 2; wood thrush, 74; American robin, 661; gray catbird, 45; brown thrasher, 69; and Northern mockingbird, 126.

European starling, 540; cedar waxwing, 44; house sparrow, 55; house finch, 61; purple finch, 1; red crossbill, 3; pine siskin, 19; and American goldfinch, 249.

Chipping sparrow, 86; field sparrow, 34; dark-eyed junco, 44; white-crowned sparrow, 1; white-throated sparrow, 9; Savannah sparrow, 2; song sparrow, 252; swamp sparrow, 1; and Eastern towhee, 147.

Yellow-breasted chat, 5; Eastern meadowlark, 62; orchard oriole, 32; Baltimore oriole, 32; red-winged blackbird, 320; brown-headed cowbird, 58; and common grackle, 322.

Ovenbird, 136; worm-eating warbler, 25; Louisiana waterthrush, 26; golden-winged warbler, 4; Black-and-white warbler, 75; Swainson’s warbler,11; Tennessee warbler,1; Kentucky warbler, 3; common yellowthroat, 28; hooded warbler, 152; American redstart, 11; Cape May warbler, 4; Northern parula, 47; magnolia warbler, 6; bay-breasted warbler, 1; Blackburnian warbler, 6; yellow warbler, 7; chestnut-sided warbler, 15; blackpoll warbler, 2; black-throated blue warbler, 79; palm warbler,1; pine warbler, 10; yellow-rumped warbler, 21; yellow-throated warbler, 41; prairie warbler, 1; black-throated green warbler, 61; and Canada warbler, 35.

Scarlet tanager, 55; Northern cardinal, 260; rose-breasted grosbeak, 18; blue grosbeak, 3; indigo bunting, 88; and dickcissel, 2.

Looking over this list perhaps gives a clue to why birders are so excited during spring migration, which stretches out from March to June with the peak in April and May. The region is home to an amazing diversity of birds. Get out and look for some or make your home landscape more inviting for them.

To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email me at I’m also on Facebook.

Hint of tropics arrives in region’s mountains with scarlet tanagers

Photo by Vincent Simard from Pixabay • Considering the spectacular plumage of a male scarlet tanager, it’s a pity that this bird is more often heard than seen due to its fondness for living in the woodland canopy.

In late April and early May, once the oaks, the maples, the poplars and other tall deciduous trees begin spreading out new green leaves to create a concealing woodland canopy, a familiar song can be heard coming from the treetops.
Upon first hearing it, listeners might mistake the hidden singer for an American robin. Listen a little closer, however, and the song sounds as if it is being delivered by a hoarse robin with a sore throat.

The producer of the hoarse but melodic song is a scarlet tanager, one of the most showy birds of Eastern woodlands from April to early October.
The scarlet tanager also has an easily recognized call note, best described as a distinctive “chip-burr” or “chip-churr.”

It was the distinctive “chip burr” that first alerted me to the presence of a scarlet tanager during a recent trip to Holston Mountain in Carter County, Tennessee. I was taking part with Chris Soto and Rob Armisted in the recent Spring Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club.

The scarlet tanager was a target bird, which we managed to find, along with other targeted birds such as ruffed grouse, dark-eyed junco and chestnut-sided warbler.
Like the warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other songbirds, the scarlet tanager is migratory. They spend the winter months in the tropical forests of Central and South America. The scarlet tanager is better attired than most birds to provide us a glimpse of what life must be like in the tropical rain forests, which are a riot of color and sound.

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter
A male scarlet tanager brightens shadowy woodlands with a flash of tropical colors yet remains mostly inconspicuous in the forest canopy.

Observing this dazzling bird, which put on a prolonged show for us, reminded me how it takes only one sighting to sear the vision of this vibrant bird onto our retinas, as well as into our memories.

The scarlet ranager boasts a brilliant plumage of crimson red paired with black wings and tail. Of course, this is the male. The female tanager makes no real claim to the common name with her comparatively drab greenish plumage. However, the scientific name, Piranga olivacea, gives a nod to the olive-green plumage of females, young males and even adult males when molting their feathers.
Although once nominated as a candidate for state bird by the school children of Minnesota, the scarlet tanager ultimately failed to gain the designation. Instead, as perhaps is fitting for the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” the common loon represents Minnesota as official state bird.

I usually have a few scarlet tanagers in residence around my home during the summer months.

Worldwide, there have traditionally been about 240 species of tanagers. Experts have changed some of the ways they classify tanagers, so that figure is no longer set in stone. Tanagers are a New World family of birds, concentrated mainly in the tropics.
The scarlet tanager and an all-red relative, the summer tanager, are native of the eastern half of the continent, replaced by Western tanagers and hepatic tanagers in the western states. During a visit to Salt Lake City in Utah in 2006 I saw several Western tanagers.

Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including flame-colored tanager, green-headed tanager, golden-chevroned tanager, azure-shouldered tanager, fawn-breasted tanager, saffron-crowned Tanager, Metallic-green Tanager, turquoise tanager, scarlet-bellied mountain tanager and diademed tanager.

Scientists, who have to occupy themselves, have recently given fresh consideration to the relationship of many tanagers to the other birds of the world. As a result, many of the North American tanagers are now closely allied with such birds as Northern cardinals and more remote from tropical tanagers.,vid:vRN5BREsi-4

The scarlet tanager is not typically a feeder visitor, but these birds can be lured closer with orange slices placed in special feeders or simply spiked onto the branches of backyard trees. As an added bonus, orange slices can also attract birds such as Baltimore orioles and gray catbirds.

Fond of fruit, the scarlet tanager incorporates various berries into its diet. Landscape around your home with fruit-bearing trees such as mulberry, serviceberry and wild cherry to make your yard more inviting to these elusive bird.

Yes, the scarlet tanager is more often heard than seen, but it is a bird worth seeking out. A sighting of one will amaze you.


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Rose-breasted grosbeaks stage their spring return in region

Photo by Susan Killian from Pixabay • Male rose-breasted grosbeaks are stunning birds that bring some tropical color to the Southern Appalachians every spring.


Birds keep returning. At times, it’s like a new bird is putting in an appearance every day. Some of the returning species are showy, others are more subtle in their beauty.
The rose-breasted grosbeak is definitely one of the birds in the showy category. In fact, I’d suggest that a male rose-breasted grosbeak is a showstopper for most people, especially people who have never seen one of these glorious birds.
I haven’t yet seen one this spring, but I am planning to take part in the annual five-county Spring Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club, and I am hopeful I will be fortunate enough to find one of these beauties.
As is usually the case, the grosbeaks tend to arrive in the wake of the first hummingbirds, and this year has been no exception.

Erwin resident Ron Elliott posted on The Erwin Record’s Facebook page about his first spring sighting.”
“Our first sighting of a Rose-breasted Grossbeak today (April 30) at 9:15 a.m.,” Ron wrote.
“The sighting always comes about the first week of May,” he added.
Ron also shared that the secret to observing rose-breasted grosbeak is a well-stocked feeder.
“No seeds, no birds,” he noted.
Ann Windsor in southwest Tennessee shared on Facebook that she had a rose-breasted grosbeak feeding on her deck feeder on May 3 and a few others the previous week. She noted that her daughter, who lives about eight miles away, had had some grosbeaks at her feeder.
Felicia Mitchell in Washington County, Virginia, has hosted two male grosbeaks but, to date, no females.
Karen Fouts on Marion, Virginia, wrote on Facebook about a small flock of visiting grosbeaks.
“I have four or five regulars, all male. I know the females must be here somewhere, but I haven’t seen one yet,” she shared.
Nancy Vernon reported on Facebook seeing grosbeaks in Bristol, Tennessee, on May 3.
Sue Schreiner reported via Facebook on May 3 about seeing a grosbeak fly past at South Holston Lake.
Sharee Bowman mentioned via Facebook about seeing female grosbeaks kast week and males this week in Cedar Bliuff, Virginia.
John Whinery of Fall Branch, Tennessee, said he received his first-ever visit from a rose-breasted grosbeak on his farm on Sunday, April 30.
Brookie and Jean Potter reported that they have hosted two male grosbeaks since May 1 at their home near Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton, Tennessee.
Carolyn Grubb of Bristol, Virginia, also shared that she has hosted a male grosbeak.
Ed Schneider in Nashville, Tennessee, reported lots of grosbeaks passing through during migration earlier in the season.
“Mostly gone through now,” he wrote on Facebook. “Only a single female today (May 4).”
Gary and Nancy Barrigar shared on Facebook that they have hosted male and female grosbeaks since April 28 at ther home in Elizabethton, Tennessee.
Mary Ragland in Abingdon, Virginia, reported that her grosbeaks arrived May 1.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A young male Rose-breasted Grosbeak visits a feeder in September of 2013. Young males resemble females but show a splash of orange on the breast that will be replaced the following spring by the familiar rosy-red patch.

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.
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.

Photo courtesy of Byron Tucker * A rose-breasted grosbeak and a red-bellied woodpecher square off at a feeder.

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. Regional bird banders frequently encounter rose-breasted grosbeaks in their mist nets — and bear the scars to prove it.

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 disappoints when bringing a hint of the tropics to the mountains.

Follow Bryan Stevens on Facebook. To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email him at

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A male Rose-breasted Grosbeak settles onto a feeder for a meal of sunflower seeds.


Small house wrens live life large, at times to detriment of neighbors

Photo by ronin2435/Pixabay House wrens are small birds, weighing no more than two nickels, but they live life large and in charge.

Some new spring arrivals have kept things interesting at home. New warblers — common yellowthroat and black-and-white warbler — have brought my warbler yard total to six species for the season. I’m also enjoying visits from ruby-throated hummingbirds and ruby-crowned kinglets. The most recent bird to return has made my bedside alarm clock redundant.

For several recent consecutive mornings, a male house wren has erupted with its bubbly, incessant song outside my bedroom window. House wrens are small birds, reaching a length of about five inches and weighing about 10 grams. To put that in perspective, two nickels in your pocket would weigh the same as a house wren.
For such a small creature, the house wren has a powerful voice that they use with unbridled enthusiasm. The bird’s song penetrates walls and glass windowpanes with ease. The bird’s song has even inspired  a pop song by the group Owl City:

Nevertheless, I’m not begrudging the return of these little birds. There’s a definite joy to their song. If only their other habits matched.

Nature’s not always neat and tidy. In fact, nature operates with rough-and-tumble mechanisms that, all too often, put some of our favorite birds at odds with each other. Like any other living creature, birds compete for resources — food, water, prime nesting real estate and even mates. Some of those pretty and entertaining birds at your feeder or bird baths have a dark side that isn’t often glimpsed.
When some insight is gained into these behaviors, it’s only human to feel discouraged, disenchanted or dismayed by some of our more aggressive species. Although they have their fans, blue jays, various hawks and even the Tennessee state bird, the Northern mockingbird, have attracted plenty of detractors due to their aggressive natures.

Like all of the aforementioned, the house wren is a native bird. I also happen to like house wrens. They have such perky, happy songs, and they’re good parents. They can raise as many as 10 young in one nest box.

Unfortunately, wrens engage in some ruthless behavior when it comes to nesting. House wrens will evict other cavity-nesting birds from next boxes. They will even destroy eggs and young. Our other native birds are not defenseless. For instance, Eastern bluebirds can and do fight back, but despite their small size, house wrens are feisty and they can be quite stubborn.

House wrens like brushy habitat that offers a lot of cover. For anyone who prefers hosting bluebirds, open space is crucial. Of course, chickadees and nuthatches also like brushy habitat and woodland edges, just like the house wrens.
It’s complicated, but I come down on the side of our native birds. House wrens have their place. Non-native birds like the introduced European starling and the house sparrow cannot legitimately claim a place in North America. These species should never have been brought to this country in the first place.

To discourage competition, it’s probably best to not crowd a number of boxes in a small location such as the backyard. If possible, don’t place any other boxes close (at least not within easy view) of each other. Wrens are territorial and their concept of their domain basically extends to whatever they can see.

House wrens have a few other relatives in the region, including Carolina wren, marsh wren, sedge wren and winter wren. The common Carolina wren is a slightly larger relative of the house wren and is probably the most visible of the area’s wrens.
A bird memory from childhood involves a pair of Carolina wrens that built a nest in an old apron my grandmother used as a bag for her clothespins. My grandmother gave up the bag to the birds for the duration of their nesting. At the time the identity of the nesting birds was a mystery, but all these years later I realize these birds were in all likelihood Carolina wrens, which are known for their love of nesting in unusual nooks and crannies.

In more recent years, I’ve hosted Carolina wrens that have nested in plastic shopping bag hanging from a nail in my garage. Another pair once tried to nest in the exhaust vent for my clothes dryer. I’ve also found nests in porch lamps and a flower planter on the porch of the Unicoi County Heritage Museum.

Worldwide, there are about 80 species of wrens. All but one of the world’s wrens are confined to the New World. A variety of common names describe the various species with some creativity, including such monikers as rufous-browed wren, tooth-billed wren, flutist wren, white-headed wren, sepia-brown wren, fawn-breasted wren, ochraceous wren and moustached wren.