Author Archives: Bryan Stevens

About Bryan Stevens

Bryan Stevens lives in Northeast Tennessee. He is an editor, writer and columnist. He has written food columns for the Johnson City Press, Elizabethton Star and Carter County Compass since 2003.

Orioles are among the region’s most colorful birds

Photo by Michael McGough from Pixabay • The Baltimore oriole is a bird with a taste for sweets. Citrus fruits, grape jelly and even specialty feeders for dispensing sugar water are ways to draw these birds closer. Otherwise, they can be difficult to observe as they prefer to spend their time in the tops of tall trees.

The Baltimore oriole would stand out among North American birds even without its colorful plumage and its long association with the city of Baltimore and its affiliated major league baseball team.

For instance, few other birds can match the Baltimore oriole for the sheer elaborate nature of the woven nest these birds construct for the purpose of sheltering eggs and young. The nests resemble hanging baskets that the female oriole weaves from a variety of collected strips of grass. The lining inside is even more elaborate and features soft materials such as plant down, feathers or even wool that can insulate and cushion the eggs. The nest itself is anchored securely in the fork of a tree branch. 

A family of tropical birds known as oropendolas are native to Central America, with some ranging as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. Some of their fantastic hanging nests put those constructed by Baltimore orioles to shame. Not surprisingly, orioles and oropendolas are closely related and claim kinship among the extensive family of New World blackbirds. Many species of oropendolas also nest in colonies, which makes their intricate nests even more prominent.

Orioles also have a tendency to indulge a sweet tooth or, I suppose, a sweet beak in their case. Slices of citrus fruits, as well as specially designed feeders to suit their size and shape can offer these birds sugar water that they will sip as eagerly as any hummingbird. Dispensers of grape jelly can also be set out to lure these birds.

Photo Courtesy of Helen Whited • A Baltimore Oriole visits a feeder “baited” with an orange slice.

Baltimore orioles have been changing their usual habits almost from the time the first Europeans arrived in North America. Instead of migrating south each fall, more of these birds are staying behind at some northern locations, especially along the Atlantic Coast, and successfully overwintering, often at backyard feeders.

For many year s, I have helped unwittingly perpetuate the myth that the oriole derived its common name from an association with history’s first Lord Baltimore, also known as George Calvert, Baron Baltimore. 

As it turns out, the bird and the English nobleman may not be as closely affiliated with each other as popular lore would have us believe. According to an article published by Hervey Brackbill in 1949 in the Wilson Bulletin, the origins of the Baltimore oriole’s vernacular, or common, name is not authentically tied to Lord Baltimore.

George Calvert by the artist Daniël Mijtens. In this portrait, the family colors of black and orange are clearly visible.

On a side note, there should be a bird named “Brackbill,” just because that seems a ready-made term for describing some sort of odd bird. Alas, I can’t find any evidence that Mr. Brackbill ever had a bird named after him. 

In summarizing the myth of the man and the bird, the article states that Calvert visited Chesapeake Bay in 1628. He saw the oriole and, impressed with the bird’s orange and black plumage, adopted those colors as his own, incorporating them into his family’s coat of arms. 

The historic record turns up several inaccuracies with this charming but perhaps misleading tale. First and foremost, the Calvert family coat of arms of gold (orange) and black had already been established before the first Lord Baltimore ever visited the New World. A statement regarding the coat of arms was published in England in 1622, six years prior to Calvert’s visit to the Chesapeake Bay.

Calvert did eventually (in 1629) visit the Chesapeake Bay, but there’s no actual account of his ever observing the bird that we know as a Baltimore oriole. Calvert’s son, the second Lord Baltimore, never ventured to the New World.

The famous Carl Linnaeus is often given credit for bestowing the common name on the oriole, but he was apparently a bit late to the game. The Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist and physician famous for his binomial nomenclature, which is the basis for the modern system of naming organisms, first gave the bird the scientific name of Coracias Galbula in  1758. In 1766, with the publication of an updated version of his Systema Naturae, Linnaeus got around to giving the oriole the scientific name Oriolus Baltimore, or more simply “the oriole of Baltimore.”

Unfortunately, credit does not really belong to Linnaeus. A century before Linnaeus got around to giving the oriole its enduring name, colonists in America were calling the bird in question “the Baltimore bird.”

The famous naturalist, writer and artist Mark Catesby referred to the bird as “the Baltimore bird.” Catesby, who lived from 1683 to 1749, was famous for his studies of the flora and fauna of the New World. Catesby also was the first to refer to the bird as an oriole because he was reminded of the unrelated orioles of the Old World. He gave the bird its “icterus” designation that today is used to describe an array of New World blackbirds, orioles, and other related birds. By the time people began to suspect the New World orioles were not at all like their Old World counterparts, Catesby’s classification stuck.

So, ordinary colonists, not noblemen, naturalists or ornithologists, actually provided the name “Baltimore bird,” but due to a mistake on the part of the experts who should have known better, the erroneous “oriole” was also attached to the bird’s name.

All in all, I like the name oriole. Baltimore blackbird, while it does have some alliteration and is more scientifically accurate, just doesn’t have the same ring to it. 

The region is home during the summer to another oriole, the smaller orchard oriole. Other New World orioles include Audubon’s oriole, orange oriole, Altamira oriole, Bullock’s oriole, hooded oriole and white-edged oriole. 

Bullock’s oriole is the western counterpart to the Baltimore oriole.  The two birds were once considered the same species and lumped together under the unimaginative name of Northern oriole. I got the pleasure of observing many Bullock’s orioles during a May visit to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2008.

Some of the Old World orioles, the birds with the rightful claim to be “orioles,” include the brown oriole, green oriole, white-lored oriole, Eurasian golden oriole, green-headed oriole,  black oriole, maroon oriole and silver oriole. The Old World orioles are also closely related to the figbirds of Indonesia and Australia and the pitohuis of New Guinea. 

Incidentally, I have tried the trick of offering orange slices, as well as grape jelly, to attract Baltimore orioles to my yard. Unfortunately, this oriole remains definitely “hit or miss” at my home on Simerly Creek Road. I’ve only ever observed them at my home during spring and fall migration. Thanks to gray catbirds, the orange slices didn’t go to waste, and the ants loved the grape jelly. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Baltimore oriole in tall trees at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City, Tennessee.

To find orioles, keep your gaze directed upward. Larry McDaniel with Tri-Cities Young Naturalists was recently asked on Facebook whether there are orioles in the area. He gave a good answer, so I’ve borrowed it. He explained that while orioles do nest in the region, they are surprisingly hard to spot high up in the thick foliage of tall trees.

Some good locations to look for Baltimore orioles are the waterfront along Winged Deer Park in Johnson City and in tall trees around the lake at Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport.

Blue of indigo bunting’s plumage is a trick of the light

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting is a resplendent bird.

The indigo bunting is one of the reasons I love to pay attention to the clientele visiting my feeders. This small songbird likes to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer.

One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings — still return each year to my yard and gardens.

Indigo buntings usually arrive in the region in late April, and I’ve seen them linger until late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September.

Upon arrival, male indigo buntings become tenacious singers, repeating their jumbled notes even during the hottest hours of summer afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees, where they are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

Photon by Bryan Stevens • Indigo Buntings will perch on wires and sing for hours even during hot summer days.

The male indigo bunting is the only solid blue bird in the eastern United States, but it’s all an illusion — literally a trick of the light. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue; the male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of diffraction of light around the structure of the bird’s feathers. This process scatters all but the blue light, and the resulting color shifts from black to blue to turquoise as the angle of reflected light changes. In bright light, it can even look unnaturally vivid blue. In poor light, however, an indigo bunting male can appear black. Fortunately, indigo buntings have both a characteristic body shape and song, so even if the birds are not seen at their best, they can still be recognized.

Soon after returning to the eastern United States each spring, female buntings begin to gather materials to construct a well-crafted, cup-shaped nest. The male usually stays close to her, but he offers no assistance with nest building. She usually lays a clutch of three to four eggs, but she may nest another two times in a single season. She will incubate the eggs for almost two weeks, but the young remain in the nest another two weeks after being hatched as featherless, blind and helpless young completely dependent on the care of attentive parents. The task of raising so many broods in the space of only a few months requires the participation of both the female and her mate, who must work hard to bring enough insects to the nest to keep the young fed.

Like many species of songbirds, the male is by far the most colorful. In this instance, the male is also responsible for the species’ name. Indigo is a blue dye that was once an important crop in the South. The drab female may boast some blue highlights in her plumage. Juvenile birds just out of the nest also resemble the female. Pay close attention to any indigo buntings you observe as summer progresses. Juvenile birds will look mostly brown with just a hint of blue in the wings and the tail. These will be the young buntings that were hatched in spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders.

Photo by Dan Sudia/USFWS • Female and young indigo bunting do not show the intense blue of adult males.

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. Indigo bunting juveniles, like the young of many other birds, beg for tidbits from parents by “bowing,” spreading their wings and shivering. These actions usually prompt a parent to pop some morsel into an impatient youngster’s open bill. Indigo buntings are relatively easy to view. They frequent weedy fields and roadside brush. During the breeding season, males can also be seen singing from prominent perches. The song, a distinctive jumble of notes, can help observers find these dedicated singers.

The indigo bunting belongs to a genus of birds known as Passerina, which is included the family Cardinalidae, which includes birds like Northern cardinal and rose-breasted grosbeak. They are often lumped into a group known as North American buntings, although they are not closely related to such birds as snow bunting and lark bunting. The latter is even recognized as the official state bird for Colorado, a unique honor for this group of birds. The other members of the Passerina genus include lazuli bunting, varied bunting, painted bunting, rose-bellied bunting, orange-breasted bunting and blue grosbeak.

Worldwide, other birds known as buntings include such descriptively named species as slaty bunting, corn bunting, white-capped bunting, gray-necked bunting, cinereous bunting, lark-like bunting, cinnamon-breasted bunting, chestnut-eared bunting, little bunting, yellow-throated bunting, golden-breasted bunting, black-headed bunting, red-headed bunting and yellow bunting.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although bright blue, a male indigo bunting will often blend with its surroundings.

The male indigo bunting is one of the most colorful birds to visit feeders in the region. This species is also extremely fond of millet seed. I like to have some feeders stocked with millet when the buntings begin to return each spring. They will also feed on thistle and sunflower seeds. Away from our feeders, they also devour plenty of seeds from various noxious weeds. Because of the indigo bunting’s appetite for the seeds of destructive weeds, it is considered a beneficial bird.

Barred owls at home in southern swamps and Appalachian mountains

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A barred owl rests on a perch during an educational raptor program offered at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga.

Tom McNeil, a fellow birder who lives just over the ridge from me in the community of Piney Grove off Simerly Creek Road in Hampton, sent me a Facebook message on May 12.

“Barred owl about 200 yards down the creek from your place,” he wrote. He also posted the time (7:50 a.m.) and made note that he found the owl on the same side of the road as my house.

Unfortunately, I received the message after I’d already left for work in Erwin.

The owl is one I would have liked to have seen. Great horned owls and Eastern screech-owls have long been resident in the woods around my home, but I’ve never seen or heard a barred owl on Simerly Creek Road.

I wrote Tom a message telling him as much and got as a reply, “We have seen one a couple of times at the Fairview turn,” he wrote. “On the wires.”

I’ve always known that the wires over a small field next to the exit to the Fairview community is a great place for broad-winged hawks, but I’d never spotted a barred owl. I’ll have to keep my eyes open.

Although barred owl is missing from my yard list, I have seen plenty of these owls over the years. I saw my first barred owl during a 1997 trip to Black Bayou Refuge, which is a 1,350 acre management area adjacent to Reelfoot Lake in Lake County, Tennessee.

My father and I were driving one of the access road in the management area around 7 a.m. when we came across a barred owl perched on a fencepost that provided the bird an excellent vantage of a canal below. We rolled down the windows and enjoyed a leisurely observation of the owl, which never acknowledged our presence. The vehicle acted as a “blind” that camouflaged us quite effectively. Even when we drove off, the owl continued to scan the canal.

At the time, I thought it strange to find an owl during daylight hours. I eventually learned that the barred owl is not strictly nocturnal. That same trip also yielded observations of yellow-crowned night-herons, which also added to my confusion by being active during the day despite the “night-heron” part of their name. Combined with a visit to Memphis, the visit to Reelfoot Lake produced some fantastic sightings, including dickcissels and my first-ever sighting of a prothonotary warbler.

I would soon learn more about barred owls due to frequent visits to the Low Country of South Carolina. During a visit to Hilton Head, South Carolina, I encountered barred owls in late afternoon producing resonant “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? calls. These owls resided in a protected area within the remnants of an old rice plantation. I got several good looks at these vocal owls and began to learn that the barred owl is not a “phantom of the night” like many other owls.

Southern forests, particularly wooded swamps, have long been a stronghold for this owl. Closer to home, however, the barred owl is not an uncommon bird among the ridges and hollows of the Southern Appalachians. The mountains of Holston, Roan and Unaka are good places to look for these owls. They are more apt to remain active during the daylight on overcast, cloudy days.

On a trip to Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain years ago to see a smaller relative of the barred owl known as the Northern saw-whet owl, some friends and I stopped at Twin Springs Recreation Area. The incorrigible Howard Langridge suggested we play a barred owl recording to see if we could add another owl to our tally.

At first, we thought we had failed. No sooner had we ended the recording and stepped back into the car than an irate barred owl whooshed through the darkness and began calling loudly from a hidden perch directly overhead. Howard, who had had extensive experience with these owls, said we were lucky to be back inside the vehicle. We had apparently triggered a territorial response. He said he had experienced some barred owls doing more than whooshing overhead. These owls possess impressive talons that a smart person would rather avoid.

The barred owl was first described by Philadelphia naturalist Benjamin Smith Barton in 1799. That seems a little late considering that Europeans first arrived in the New World in 1492. Of course, for the first couple of centuries, early settlers probably had matters on their minds other than the cataloging of fauna and flora.

Photo by blue gate/Pixabay • A barred owl peers at its surroundings.

The Chattahoochee Nature Center in Roswell, Georgia, list some interested barred owl facts on its website. For instance:

• The barred owl lives an average of eight years in the wild.

• The barred owl has had many different common names including Northern barred owl, swamp owl, striped owl, hoot owl, eight hooter, round-headed owl and Le Chat-huant du Nord (French for “the hooting cat of the north”) and rain owl.

• Barred Owls get their name from the vertical bars on their abdomen and horizontal bars on their chest.

• Barred owls are not finicky eaters. They prey mostly on small mammals, but they are also fond of fish, snakes, frogs and crawfish.

Perhaps it’s their diet that usually means these owls like to make their home near a source of water, whether it’s a creek, swamp, pond, river or lake.

I’ll keep alert for any future visits from a barred owl. In the meantime, my cattail marsh and fish pond continue to attract visitors of the feathered variety. I’ve observed wood ducks on the pond several times in recent weeks. A green heron has also lurked around the edges of the pond. Raptors – red-shouldered hawk and broad-winged hawk – like to perch near the pond, most likely to keep an eye out for frogs, snakes and other potential prey.

 

78th annual Spring Bird Count for NE Tennessee finds 153 species

Photo by Ray Miller/Pixabay • One of my more exciting finds during the recent Spring Bird Count was a male red-breasted merganser from the TVA Overlook at Watauga Lake. Other count participants managed to locate another four red-breasted mergansers in the count area.

The 78th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Bird Count was held Saturday, May 1, covering Carter County plus parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.

With 40 observers in 13 parties, plus four feeder watchers, coverage of the count areas was extensive. Participants enjoyed a beautiful sunny day, although most areas had temperatures that had dipped into the upper 30s at sunrise. The day gradually warmed and got into the 70s.

Participants tallied 153 species, which is slightly above the recent 30 year average of 150 species. The all-time high on this count was 166 species and was set in 2016.

Some exceptional finds in Unicoi County included a red-headed woodpecker along the section of the linear trail near the McDonald’s. Each of the five counties in the region produced some good birds for this long-running survey.

Count participants included Fred Alsop, Rob Armistead, Betty Bailey, Gary Bailey, Jerry Bevins, Rob Biller, Ron Carrico, Catherine Cummins, Todd Eastin, Glen Eller, Harry Lee Farthing, Bambi Fincher, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Jean Henson, Neal Henson, Jacki Hinshaw, Lance Jessee, Jennifer Kennedy, David Kirschke, Rick Knight, Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Dianna Lynne, Vern Maddux, Frank McCollum, Larry McDaniel, Joe McGuiness, Cathy McNeil, Tom McNeil, Harry Norman, Susan Peters, Brookie Potter, Jean Potter, Sherrie Quillen, Pete Range, Judi Sawyer, Chris Soto, Michele Sparks, Bryan Stevens, Peggy Stevens, Kim Stroud, Charles Warden and Rex Whitfield.

Rick Knight, the long-time compiler for the count, made note of some of the misses, which included pied-billed grebe, common nighthawk, Acadian flycatcher (just the seventh miss in last 50 years), loggerhead shrike, horned lark, summer tanager and bobolink.

He also made some observations about other count finds.

• One species – brown-headed nuthatch – made its official count debut. Another – evening grosbeak – returned to the count after being absent since the spring of 2000.

• The American robin edged out the European starling for most common bird. Counters tallied 801 robins compared to 618 starlings.

• For only the sixth time in the last 18 years, Northern bobwhite made it onto the count. A single ruddy duck became only the second record for this waterfowl on the spring count. Also making only its second appearance on the spring count was willet, a species of shorebird that only migrates through the region.

• Some species appear to have moved into the region for good. Fish crows have been found the last five of the past six years, and Eurasian collared-doves have been found every year for the past 15 years.

• An amazing 29 species of New World warblers were found this year, including prothonotary warbler for only the third time in the last 15 years.

The total follows:

Canada goose, 412; wood duck, 31; mallard, 89; blue-winged teal, 13; bufflehead, 6; hooded merganser, 1; red-breasted merganser, 5; and ruddy duck; 1.

Ruffed grouse, 4; wild turkey, 28; common loon, 2; double-crested cormorant, 48; great blue heron, 69; green heron, 17; black-crowned night-heron, 2; and yellow-crowned night-heron, 5.

Black vulture, 60; turkey vulture, 128; osprey, 10; sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 6; bald eagle, 11; broad-winged hawk, 11; and red-tailed hawk, 21.

Virginia rail, 2; sora, 2; killdeer, 32; spotted sandpiper, 32; solitary sandpiper, 31; greater yellowlegs, 3; willet, 10; lesser yellowlegs, 2; and Wilson’s snipe, 1.

Bonaparte’s gull, 9; ring-billed gull, 6; rock pigeon, 106; Eurasian collared-dove, 6; mourning dove, 284; and yellow-billed cuckoo, 4.

Eastern screech owl, 13; great horned owl, 1; barred owl, 2; Whip-poor-will, 27; and chuck-will’s-widow, 16.

Chimney swift, 92; ruby-throated hummingbird, 34; belted kingfisher, 14; red-headed woodpecker, 4; red-bellied woodpecker, 125; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 7; downy woodpecker, 44; hairy woodpecker, 9; Northern flicker,41; and pileated woodpecker, 55.

American kestrel, 9; Eastern wood-pewee, 6; least flycatcher, 5; Eastern phoebe 119; great crested flycatcher, 12; and Eastern kingbird, 59.

White-eyed vireo, 15; yellow-throated vireo, 15; blue-headed vireo, 76; warbling vireo, 1; red-eyed vireo, 228; blue jay, 329; American crow, 358; fish crow, 1; and common raven, 20.

Northern rough-winged swallow, 95; purple martin, 71; tree swallow, 235; barn swallow, 218; and cliff swallow, 473.

Carolina chickadee, 139; tufted titmouse, 199; red-breasted nuthatch, 10; white-breasted nuthatch, 43; brown-headed nuthatch, 2; and brown creeper, 5.

House wren, 60; winter wren, 5; marsh wren, 1; Carolina wren, 202; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 75; golden-crowned kinglet, 6; and ruby-crowned kinglet, 4.

Eastern bluebird, 157; veery, 17; hermit thrush, 3; wood thrush, 80; American robin, 801; gray catbird, 80; brown thrasher, 66; Northern mockingbird, 121; European starling, 618; and cedar waxwing, 15.

Photo by Jean Potter • A male hooded warbler flits through the foliage of a rhododendron thicket.

Ovenbird, 157; worm-eating warbler, 35; Louisiana waterthrush, 29; Northern waterthrush, 5; golden-winged warbler, 2; black-and-white warbler, 79; prothonotary warbler, 1; Swainson’s warbler, 7; Nashville warbler, 1; Kentucky Warbler, 2;  common yellowthroat, 20; hooded warbler, 163; American redstart, 11; Cape May warbler, 6; Northern parula, 53; magnolia warbler, 4; bay-breasted warbler, 1; Blackburnian Warbler, 13; yellow warbler, 16;  chestnut-sided warbler, 17; black-throated blue warbler, 77; palm warbler,  5; pine warbler, 15; yellow-rumped warbler, 16; yellow-throated warbler, 25; prairie warbler, 4; black-throated green warbler, 95; Canada warbler, 18; and yellow-breasted chat, 9.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting is a resplendent bird.

 

Eastern towhee, 213; chipping sparrow, 117; field sparrow, 79; Savannah sparrow, 4; grasshopper sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 299; swamp sparrow, 9; white-throated sparrow, 27; white-crowned sparrow, 8; dark-eyed junco, 68; scarlet tanager, 96; Northern cardinal, 359; rose-breasted grosbeak, 36; blue grosbeak, 2; and indigo bunting, 62.

Red-winged blackbird, 550; Eastern meadowlark, 82; common grackle, 324; brown-headed cowbird, 99; orchard oriole, 29; and Baltimore oriole, 18.

House finch, 84; pine siskin, 31; American goldfinch, 283; evening grosbeak, 48; and house sparrow, 70.

Original group of Tuesday birders now down to one

Photo by Mark Edwards/Pixabay • Birds, such as this great horned owl, can stir powerful emotions.

It’s never a good feeling to realize one is the last man standing.

Larry McDaniel made a Facebook post on Saturday, April 10, to share with friends the news of his father-in-law’s death.

“Janet’s dad, Gil, passed away late this afternoon. He had been very ill, and we knew it was coming but it’s still hard,” Larry wrote in his post.

“I had to go home to put up the chickens this evening,” Larry added. “When I got there, there was a beautiful rainbow followed by a beautiful sunset. Then I saw a great horned owl perched in the top of a nearby tree. It dropped and flew right over my truck and toward the barn.

“I thought, ‘see you Gil,’” he wrote at the post’s conclusion.

I know many of Gil’s other birding friends were really touched by Larry’s sweet post.

I got acquainted with Gil Derouen, Larry’s father-in-law, back in the late 1990s. I realize now, trying to think back, that I cannot even remember the origins of a weekly birding group that went out almost every Tuesday afternoon to look for birds.

I do know that the group’s founders consisted of myself, Gil and two other good friends: Howard P. Langridge and Reece Jamerson.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • From left, Gil Derouen, Howard Langridge, David Thometz and Reece Jamerson are pictured while birding Holston Mountain in 2004.

Birders often prefer to get started with field trips in the mornings. The afternoon timing of the weekly excursion was a kind concession to my work schedule that made Tuesday afternoons my one opportunity to bird with Gil and our fellow birders, Howard and Reece.

We visited various hotspots around the area looking for birds every Tuesday. We would visit Rock Creek Park in Erwin; Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, Holston Mountain and Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton; Winged Deer Park, as well as the fields and shoreline at Austin Springs, in Johnson City near Boone Lake; Musick’s Campground and Osceola Island Recreation Area in Bristol near South Holston Lake; and Shady Valley’s Orchard and Quarry Bogs in Johnson County.

These were only a few favorite places. We saw some fantastic birds over the years. We were like the four musketeers of our birding group.

Howard passed away on Nov. 14, 2004, at age 81, during an already difficult time in my life. The unexpected loss of this great birder with tons of birding tales who also loved to play tennis and crack jokes really affected me deeply.

I remember a birding trip I made with Howard a couple of months before his death to Holston Lake. We timed the trip to coincide with the passage of Hurricane Frances. Sometimes such ventures are rewarded, and this was one of those times. I added a life bird and Howard increased his list of birds seen in Tennessee when the storm blew in a sooty tern, a bird more often found in the Caribbean.

Then as we prepared to depart for home, we discovered Howard’s car had gotten stuck in the mud. With me pushing, we got the car out of the mud. I ruined a pair of jeans in the process. Northeast Tennessee clay does not come out of denim.

Weekly birding trips continued after Howard’s passing, but my work schedule became less flexible as the years progressed and I eventually had to drop out. I did make some sporadic attempts to join some of the weekly rambles, which almost always drew the participation of Gil and Reece.

Reece died at age 83 on Aug. 1, 2017. Again, I had some memories of some wonderful years to reflect on.

One bird-related memory of Reece involved us standing on the bridge that spans Wilbur Lake when an unexpected gust of air blew his fisherman’s hat off his head. I made an unsuccessful grab for the hat, which fluttered down onto the water’s surface and was swiftly carried off by a current that I didn’t even realize existed in what looks deceptively like a placid little mountain lake.

The next week Reece had a new hat and was ready for another birding adventure.

Gilbert Derouen was 90 years old when he passed away last month. I didn’t realize he’d reached that milestone. I do know that he lived a good life and had a great family. He and his wife, Marinel, moved to Northeast Tennessee from Louisiana. Gil often entertained us while we were driving between birding spots with tales of his life in Louisiana.

He surprised me once when during a rambling discussion of television shows he informed us he was a fan of “The Big Bang Theory.” The long-running CBS comedy about a group of highly-educated nerds was one of my favorites. Even with a generation’s difference in our ages, we had that much in common. Gil even laughed while admitting that he, too, liked to follow the antics of Sheldon Cooper and his friends.

Gil and his wife also hosted the annual Christmas party for the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. They had a wonderful home with a cozy basement perfect for hosting small parties. They were impeccable hosts, and I’ll always cherish the memories of those parties. We always compiled the results of the chapter’s two Christmas Bird Counts after everyone finished snacking and socializing.

At some point, the baton got passed. There’s still a weekly birding excursion every Tuesday afternoon. Another great birder, Roy Knispel, is the organizing force behind this weekly excursion. I’ve joined them on a few occasions, but as I’ve mentioned, my work schedule hasn’t allowed me to do that too often.

I saw Gil last at a meeting of the Herndon Chapter on the campus of East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. I think it was in the fall of 2019. Again, my memory’s a bit hazy.

Now, thanks to Larry’s post, which is such a fantastic tribute to his father-in-law, I’ll think of Gil every time I hear a great horned owl breaking the stillness of a dark night with its loud hoots.

I have great horned owls as well as Eastern screech-owls living in the woodlands around my home. My yard and the surrounding woods are my favorite birding locations, but I still enjoy getting “out in the field” when an opportunity arises. It’s been more than a year since I’ve really traveled anywhere to bird. I hope that changes sooner rather than later.

I’ve become more solitary in my birding, but that’s all right, too. I enjoyed the time I got to spend with Howard, Reece and Gil every Tuesday afternoon while it lasted.

Nothing lasts forever. On the other hand, nothing can take away fun memories.

I’ll focus more on the birds next week.

 

Ruby-throated hummingbirds return to region

The ruby-throated hummingbirds are back, and I hope everyone joins me in the utmost appreciation of these tiny birds.

Every hummingbird that visits your feeders or sips from flowers in your garden has endured an arduous migratory journey from its tropical wintering grounds to return to spend the summer months, whether in the mountains near Flag Pond or down in the valleys of Unicoi and Erwin.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches attentively. These tiny birds began returning to the region in early April.

According to the website for Perkypet.com, a retailer  of bird feeders, ruby-throated hummingbirds spend the winter months in Central America and southern Mexico. When the weather begins to turn warm, they will start to make their northern trip up to the United States. As the website points out, this can be a grueling journey for such a tiny creature, as many of them choose to fly over the Gulf of Mexico. This flight alone, the website points out, can take 18 to 22 hours of non-stop flight before reaching land on the other side of the gulf.

Simply crossing the Gulf of Mexico is only the first stage. Most of the hummingbirds must still travel hundreds of miles to reach locations where they will spend the summer. Males, after some time courting females, will not do much more than sip nectar and duel with other male hummers during the summer.

It’s the female hummingbirds that will work diligently all summer long as she constructs a nest, incubates eggs and feeds hungry young, all without any assistance from her erstwhile mate.

Knowing a little more about this tiny treasure of a bird, I hope you’ll look on them with increased admiration.

Below are the readers who shared with me the dates of their first spring hummingbird sightings for 2021:

Susie Parks in North Cove in McDowell County, North Carolina, had the earliest date of any of the sightings reported to me this year.

“We saw our first hummingbird of the season at 9:30 this morning, April 1,” Susie wrote in an email to me. “I assure you this is not an April Fool’s joke. We are indeed thrilled to have seen this amazing little creature on such a chilly morning.”

Patricia Faye Wagers, Kingsport, posted on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 6. Her one word comment about how she felt welcoming back hummingbirds: “Happy!”

Amanda Austwick shared on Facebook that she saw her first spring hummingbird at her Flag Pond home on April 6.

Wanda Scalf Daniels reported her first spring hummingbird at her home in Bob White, West Virginia, on April 7. She informed me of her observation via Facebook.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches at a feeder for a sip of sugar water.

Janee Townsend of Dysartsville, North Carolina, notified me by email that she enjoys my column in the McDowell News in Marion, North Carolina. “I saw my first hummingbird on Tuesday, April 8, at noon,” she wrote. “I had put a new feeder out on Monday.  I was glad it was there.”

Pat Stakely Cook wrote in a post to my Facebook page that she saw her first spring hummingbird – a male – on April 9 at her home in Marion, North Carolina. The next day she made an additional post to report that a female arrived. “She fed at our feeder for a long time about 6 p.m.

April Kerns Fain saw her first spring hummingbird at 1 p.m. on  April 11. “We saw our first hummingbird today in Unicoi,” she wrote in a Facebook post on my page. “It was a male.”

Donna Barnes Kilday shared on my Facebook page that she saw her first spring hummer in Erwin on the morning of April 9.

Paula Elam Booher, Bristol, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of the season at 5:15 p.m. on April 10. Two days later, she saw her second hummingbird of spring at 11:45 a.m.

Larry McDaniel, Jonesborough, saw his first spring hummingbird on Saturday, April 10. “It visited the feeder briefly before dark,” he wrote. He didn’t see it the following day, but he noted he wasn’t home much that day.

Don Holt and Dianne Draper, Jonesborough, posted on Facebook about seeing their first spring ruby-throated Hummingbird at their feeder on April 10.

Darlene Kerns also shared her first spring sighting on my Facebook page. “Just saw our first hummingbird of the season here in Unicoi,” she wrote. The bird arrived at 8:30 on Sunday, April 11. Darlene said that the first hummingbird also arrived on April 11 in 2020.

Dot and Wayne Ballard, Marion, North Carolina, saw their first spring hummingbirds (yes, they saw two at the same time) on Sunday, April 11, at 2 p.m. The little birds lingered and were also seen feeding early on the morning of Monday, April 12. The Ballards sent me an email about their sighting.

Philip Laws of Limestone Cove used Facebook Messenger to report his first spring sighting took place April 11 about 12:15 p.m. The next day more hummingbird arrived. “Two disputed ownership of a tube feeder,” Philip noted in his message.

Charles and Karen O’Cain emailed me to report their first sighting. “We saw our first humming bird of 2021 on Monday, April 12, at 10 a.m. at our home on top of Coal Pit Mountain in the southern tip of McDowell County,” they wrote. “We have seen a hummingbird every day since.”

Nellene Woodby called to report that she saw her first hummingbird of spring in Limestone Cove on April 12.

Brookie and Jean Potter, who reside at Wilbur Lake near Elizabethton, reported in a phone call that they saw their first hummingbird of the season on April 12.

Karen and Bobby Andis in Kingsport contacted me in Facebook Messenger to report they saw their first ruby-throated hummingbird at 5:56 p.m. on April 13.

Glen Eller emailed me to report that he and his daughter, Lia, had their first ruby-throated hummingbird show up at their home in Fall Branch on April 14. In  followup email, Glen reported another impressive observation. “We had two adult bald eagles show up the next afternoon,” he wrote. “Life is good.”

Anne Rolfe sent me an email to report that thanks to husband Peter’s watchful eyes, she saw the first visit of “our” male ruby-throated hummingbird, Jimmy, on April 14 at about 11 am.  “We are hoping he brings lots of friends,” she added. The Rolfes lives at Lake James in Nebo, North Carolina.

Felicia Mitchell notified me through my Facebook page that the first hummingbird arrived at the feeder at her home in Washington County, Virginia, at 12:24 p.m. on April 14.

Gina Kinney and her mom, Ginger Brackins, both Erwin residents, saw their first hummingbird of spring at 11:25 a.m. on April 14.

Helen Whited posted on my Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird of 2021 at 1 p.m. on April 15 at her home in Richlands, Virginia.

Judi Sawyer in Roan Mountain also took to Facebook to report that she saw her first hummingbird of spring at about 8 p.m. on April 15.

Carolyn Grubb, Bristol, Virginia, reported on Facebook about the arrival of her first spring hummingbird on April 15.

Pattie Rowland, Erwin, also posted on Facebook about seeing her first hummingbird of 2021 on April 15.

Leslie and Kathie Storie notified me on Facebook that they saw their first hummingbird of 2021 at their home on Heaton Creek in Roan Mountain on April 25.

Peggy Stevens on Simerly Creek in Hampton saw her first spring hummingbird at 9:34 a.m. on April 16.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

Barbara Jean Boyd, Bristol, Tennessee, saw her first spring hummingbird on April 16. She reported the sighting on Facebook.

Amy Wallin Tipton, Erwin, made a Facebook post about her first spring sighting. “We saw our first hummingbird today (April 16) around 6 p.m.,” she wrote in the post.

Fredna Ollis, Erwin, had a single hummingbird show up Saturday, April 17, around lunch time. “I got pictures when I saw it again around 6,” Fredna shared in an email. “It was back on Sunday afternoon.”

Donna Rea, who is an Erwin resident and a retired Erwin Record employee, reported on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird on April 17. The following day she got photos of the visiting hummingbird.

John Whinery, Fall Branch, gave notice in an email of the arrival of the first spring ruby-throated hummingbird at his feeder at 7 p.m. on April 17.

Gayle Riddervold and Becky Kinder of Hampton saw their first hummingbird of spring on April 18. Gayle reported the sighting through Facebook Messenger.

Phyllis Moore notified me on my Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird at her home in Bristol, Virginia, at 10:53 a.m. on April 18.

Karen Lioce, who lives in Harrogate, Tennessee, sent me an email about tree swallows, but also reported a hummer sighting. “You mentioned that you wanted to know when we sight a hummingbird,” she wrote. “I saw my first one today (April 18).”

Julie Lee emailed me to inform me her first spring hummingbird showed up on a very windy day on April 21 at her home at Lake James in North Carolina.

•••••

In case you’re wondering, I saw my first ruby-throated hummingbird of spring 2021 at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 22. A somewhat hesitant little male hummingbird flitted to each of my feeders before finally taking a long sip of sugar water. As I watched him on a rather brisk evening, it felt good to welcome him back.

To share sightings, make a comment or ask questions, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or call 423-743-4112.

Photo by TheSOARnet / Pixabay.com • Male ruby-throated hummingbirds usually migrate ahead of females. These tiny birds must cross the Gulf of Mexico, without stopping, to reach their nesting grounds in the eastern United States. The journey across the Gulf can take them 18 to 22 hours, dependent on weather conditions.

Ovenbird part of the returning warbler lineup

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Ovenbirds are content to spend most of their time near the forest floor.

It’s been a week of arrivals at my home. Several species of warblers made their spring debuts, including a handful of male ovenbirds.

These warblers arrived on April 14 and immediately began singing their loud and ringing “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” song from concealment within the woodlands surrounding my home.

The ovenbird is not one of the brightly colored warblers, such as black-throated blue warbler or yellow warbler. The ovenbird is a small brown bird with a white breast with dark streaking — an appearance that bears a superficial resemblance to the larger thrushes that share the same woodland habitat. The only hint of color is an orange crown bordered by dark stripes atop the bird’s head. Even this orange crown patch is not easily seen. When agitated, an ovenbird may raise its head feathers, which makes this orange mark easier to detect. The ovenbird also shows a distinct white ring around each eye, as well as pink legs and a pinkish bill.

The resemblance to North America’s brown thrushes didn’t go unnoticed by some early American naturalists. Painter and famous naturalist John James Audubon painted a pair of ovenbirds, which he knew as “golden-crowned thrushes.” When comparing the two names, one can’t help but wish that the inaccurate but more romantically descriptive golden-crowned thrush had stuck.

While not likely to take an observer’s breath away with an unexpected explosion of vibrant plumage, the ovenbird’s not a drab bird. These warblers possess a subtle beauty all their own that is worth taking the time to behold.

Photo by Peggy Dyar from Pixabay • Despite the oliver-brown plumage, a closer look shows that the overbird is a bird with a subtle beauty, including an inconspicuous orange crown.

Unfortunately, ovenbirds are stubborn about letting themselves be seen. They’re easily heard. The males begin singing a loud, rollicking “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher” song almost as soon as they arrive on potential nesting grounds.

The ovenbird, unlike many warblers, is not named for its appearance. Instead, the bird’s name derives from the shape of the nest it builds. The nest is a domed structure placed on the ground, woven from vegetation and containing a side entrance. Early European settlers in North America thought the nest looked like a Dutch oven, hence the name “ovenbird” for the small warbler with the intricate nest.

Rather than hopping along the length of a branch or limb, an ovenbird walks in a deliberate fashion. This bird feeds on insects, spiders and other small prey items foraged from the woodland floor. On rare occasions, a lingering ovenbird shows up at feeders during the winter months.

Again, the most persistent characteristic of this warbler is the fact that it’s shy. It’s not as notoriously shy as warblers like mourning warbler of Connecticut warbler, but the ovenbird spends much of the time near the woodland floor and out of sight. The best time to catch a look at this warbler is once they begin nesting. Parents are extremely protective and defensive of their nest and young. Intruding too close is sure to bring some sharp alarm notes. The parents will often confront an intruder, flitting from branch to branch in nearby trees, utterly neglecting their usual preference for remaining unseen if not unheard.

Photo by Jean Potter • An ovenbird sings from a perch in the leaf canopy.

Ovenbirds spend the summer nesting season in mature deciduous and mixed forests across Canada and the eastern United States. They do not make as lengthy a migration as that undertaken by some of their relatives. Ovenbirds migrate each fall to the southeastern United States, the West Indies and also spreads out from Mexico to northern South America for the winter season.

It’s one of several warblers that nest in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Others include Louisiana waterthrush, Kentucky warbler, common yellowthroat, Swainson’s warbler, black-throated blue warbler and American redstart, among others.

•••••

My mom saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 16 at 9:34 a.m. Of course, the bird waited until I’d left for work to make an appearance.

My solace has been an influx of other migrants in the past week. A blue-gray gnatcatcher’s fussy buzz alerted me to its return on April 10. I eventually got binoculars focused on the fidgety bird as it flitted in the upper branches of a cherry tree.

I heard the familiar chittering cries overhead while walking in downtown Erwin on April 14. Looking skyward, I watched a flock of chimney swifts flying gracefully over the rooftops of downtown buildings.

New warblers at home this week, other than the ovenbird, have included hooded warbler and black-throated green warbler, both of which put in their first spring appearance on April 15.

•••••

As noted, hummingbirds are returning. I’ve had reports from Western North Carolina and all across Northeast Tennessee. I will compile a listing of those who have shared their first sightings with me for next week’s column.
Keep sharing your hummingbird observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

New arrivals include spring’s first warblers

Photo by Kaylynn Wilster • Pine warblers, like this individual, have become more adaptable, learning to accept food at feeders and helping them remain in the United States during the winter season.

Mystery bird
Kaylynn Wilster, who lives in Piney Flats, Tennessee, emailed me recently for help with an identification on a bird visiting her feeders. When she described the bird and mentioned its fondness for suet at her feeders, I immediately suspected the identity of her visitor. A photo she provided gave instant verification that her visiting bird is, as she suspected, a warbler. To be exact, she is hosting a pine warbler.

The pine warbler is an attractive member of its clan with a plumage consisting mostly of various hues of yellow, olive and gray. Some males will show extremely bright yellow feathers, but females and young birds may show only a bare minimum of yellow coloration.
Unlike warblers such as the magnolia warbler and the palm warbler, the pine warbler truly does have an affinity for the tree for which it’s named. Magnolia warblers, on the other hand, are really more at home gleaning the branches of spruce trees while a weedy field is often the preferred habitat of a palm warbler.

Photo by Kaylynn Wilster • A pine warbler feeds on suet at a hanging feeder.

Look in the pines
The pine warbler is rarely found away from pine trees, but the bird is not too particular about the type of pine, being known to frequent about a dozen different varieties of pine trees. According to the website All About Birds, some of the favored pines include jack, pitch, red, white, Virginia, loblolly, shortleaf, slash, sand and pond pines.

The pine warbler is slightly less of an insect-eater than other warblers. This warbler will also feed on fruits, berries and some seeds. All About Birds states that some favored fruit includes bayberry, flowering dogwood, grape, sumac, persimmon and Virginia creeper.

When a pine warbler visits feeders, however, it’s often looking for supplemental protein. This fact explains why suet cakes, as well as homemade or commercial mixtures of suet and peanut butter, are one of the best ways to lure these warblers to feeding stations.

The population of this warbler has actually been on the increase since 1966, according to various surveys conducted on pine warbler numbers. Almost the entire population spreads out across the eastern United States, with much lesser numbers of pine warbler making their home in Canada.

Warbler migration
Kaylynn’s pine warbler is likely an early spring migrant or a pine warbler that elected to spend the winter months in the region. While warblers are scarce between October and March, their numbers are about to take off in a big way.

In April and continuing into May, a couple of dozen warbler species will pass through Tennessee. Some of these warblers find area woodlands and other habitats to their liking. They will pause, explore and perhaps decide to spend their summer nesting season in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina rather than continue migrating farther north.

Many of the warblers that pass through each spring, however, are destined to travel a much longer distance before settling down in their favored habitats for the summer nesting season. These warblers include the Tennessee warbler, Nashville warbler, Cape May warbler, blackpoll warbler and Blackburnian warbler. Most of these species nest as far north as New England and Canada.

Others find the Southern Appalachians to their liking. Some of the first warblers to return each year include the Louisiana waterthrush, which favors rushing mountain streams, as well as species such as black-throated green warbler, hooded warbler, ovenbird, worm-eating warbler and common yellowthroat.

Photo by Jean Potter • A male hooded warbler flits through the foliage of a rhododendron thicket.

Kaylynn mentioned that her pine warbler has graced her with frequent bursts of song. This fact indicates that her bird is a male. Pine warblers are persistent singers, but they often sing their songs from the upper branches of tall pines, effectively camouflaging themselves from view. Pine warblers have become more frequent feeders visitors in recent decades, which brings them into closer proximity to humans than would otherwise be the case.

New Arrivals
A pair of wood ducks brought company when they returned to the fish pond on April 2. They were accompanied by a pair of mallards. Although our most common duck, mallards haven’t visited my pond for several years. It felt good to have them back. I’m hoping both the wood ducks and mallards might decide to use the pond as a home base throughout the spring and summer.

On April 7, I heard the first chipping sparrow of spring. This small, dapper sparrow has an easily recognizable song. All About Birds describes the song as “a long, dry trill of evenly spaced, almost mechanical-sounding chips,” to which I concur.

A pair of tree swallows arrived at my home on April 8. I wrote in last week’s column about these swallows and their anticipated return.

The first warbler of spring – a male Northern parula – arrived April 9. I heard his trademark buzzy song as I left for work.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Northern parula hides in the canopy while singing its buzzy song.

I still haven’t seen the first spring ruby-throated hummingbird, but I have received a report from North Carolina.

Susie Parks, who lives in North Cove in McDowell County, North Carolina, emailed me to report that she saw her first hummingbird of the season at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 1.

She even elaborated on the “funny” timing.

“I assure you this is not an April Fool’s joke,” Susie wrote. “We are, indeed, thrilled to have seen this amazing little creature on such a chilly morning.”

I wrote back congratulating her on her sighting, which only makes me more impatient to have these delightful little birds back in my own yard.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

Journey North, a website that tracks hummingbird migration, as well as the migratory journeys of other wild creatures, reports that hummingbirds have reached Tennessee. A posting for a woman in Clinton, Tennessee, reported a ruby-throated hummingbird on Monday, April 5.

Hummingbird Anticipation

The arrival of ruby-throated hummingbirds is one of the most anticipated returns each spring. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

 

 

 

Tree swallows are the latest spring arrivals

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tree swallow checks out a nesting box soon after returning in the spring.

Waiting for spring? Join the club. Between alternating bouts of unseasonably warm temperatures and frigid blasts, the weather cannot seem to decide if winter’s hanging in there a little longer or if it’s time to proceed with spring’s arrival.

I’m hopeful it’s the latter. I enjoyed a stroll in the spring sunshine on March 30 along the section of the trail near the industrial park. From the boardwalk over the water I saw my first spring swallows (a purple martin and a couple of Northern rough-winged swallows) as well as a belted kingfisher and several American robins. I also saw my first dragonflies and butterflies of spring, as well as one muskrat enjoying a leisurely swim.

Early Birds

One might think that the wild swings in weather would translate into a messy arrival timetable for some of our returning birds, but so far my own personal observations indicate a different story. At home, the usual spring “early birds,” including wood duck, red-winged blackbird, blue-headed vireo, ruby-crowned kinglet and brown thrasher, have been their usual punctual selves.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

The swallows I saw during my Erwin stroll, however, reminded me that one bird hasn’t returned at my home. The early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon knew this particular bird as “white-bellied swallow,” which is a descriptive name, but today the species is known simply as tree swallow.

Tree swallows have been back in the region for weeks, but they sometimes take their time finding their way to the waiting birdhouses at my fish pond. Their return dates in years past have ranged from early March to the middle of April.

Insect-heavy Diet

Swallows are insectivores, so those that return early in the spring must deal with temperature fluctuations. In prolonged cold spells, these insect-eating birds can be hard pressed to locate their usual prey. At such times, they are often forced to retreat to the area’s lakes and larger rivers, where they can swoop over the water and have an easier time plucking cold-numbed flying insects out of the air.

Once milder spring temperatures prevail, the flocks of swallows forced into these necessary habitats will disperse as pairs begin seeking nesting sites. Tree swallows are cavity-nesting birds, which often puts them into competition with Eastern bluebirds. The two species usually manage to work out a truce and settle down to nest in close proximity to each other.

The iridescent blue-green male tree swallow, complete with white underparts and a forked tail, is a handsome bird and a welcome addition to the bird population in any yard or garden. Tree swallows enjoy water, so a nearby pond or creek is a boon for attracting these birds.

Tree swallows haven’t always nested in Northeast Tennessee. Only in the last 40 years have these birds become regular nesting birds in the region. The first nesting record took place in the early 1980s at Austin Springs on Boone Lake in Washington County, Tennessee, according to The Birds of Northeast Tennessee by Rick Knight. Tree swallows soon became regular nesting birds every summer in all five counties that comprise Northeast Tennessee.

Other Swallows

It’s usually not too difficult to find five of the six species of swallows that are known to make Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina their home from spring to fall. In addition to tree swallow, the region’s other swallow species include: barn swallow, purple martin, cliff swallow and northern rough-winged swallow. These are all fairly common summer birds in the region. The sixth species, the bank swallow, is a bit of a specialist when it comes to nesting and occurs only sporadically in the region.

While only a handful of swallows range into the United States and Canada, a total of 83 species of swallows can be found worldwide. Some of the common names for these different swallows (also called martins in other parts of the world) are quite descriptive. A sampling includes white-eyed river martin, grey-rumped swallow, white-backed swallow, banded martin, blue swallow, violet-green swallow, golden swallow, brown-throated martin, brown-bellied swallow, pale-footed swallow, white-bibbed swallow, pearl-breasted swallow, red-breasted swallow, mosque swallow, fairy martin, pale martin, tawny-headed swallow and streak-throated swallow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Northern rough-winged swallows perches on a metal pipe.

While many swallows and martins have proven highly adaptive when faced with human disturbances to their habitat, a few species have experienced declines. One species — the white-eyed river martin — was last seen in Thailand in the 1980s and very well may be extinct. Closer to home, the golden swallow is now found only on the island of Hispaniola after disappearing from Jamaica in the 1980s. The Bahama swallow, which nests on only four islands in the Bahamas, is also vulnerable. Incidentally, both these swallows are closely related to the tree swallow, with all of them belonging to the genus Tachycineta. Translated from Greek, the genus name means “fast mover,” a quite accurate description of these graceful and agile flyers.

Good 

Neighbors

With their enthusiastic twittering to each other, tree swallows make for friendly neighbors. The local bluebirds may disagree, at first, but they’ll get their feathers unruffled eventually. It’s also a pleasant diversion to watch them swoop over fields and ponds as they help control the insect population.

To increase your chances of hosting your own tree swallows, offer a bird box placed in an open area. Right now is the time to attract their attention with some prime real estate. Plans are available online to help construct your own or pick up one at a gardening center, hardware store or farm supply outlet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern Bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.

Many would-be hosts for Eastern bluebirds express disappointment when a pair of tree swallows become tenants instead. The remedy to the disappointment is simple: provide an additional nesting box.  Although there will be some initial squabbles, tree swallows and Eastern bluebirds will co-exist if they don’t have to compete for the same nesting box.

There’s one last selling point I want to mention on behalf of tree swallows. While not exactly songsters, they do produce an energetic, chirpy trill that they vocalize persistently when in the company of their fellow tree swallows. It’s hard not to be cheerful when hearing such a jubilant noise issuing from one of our feathered friends.

Hummingbird Observations

While tree swallows and their kin are great to have back, one of the most anticipated returns each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post on my Facebook to share your first sightings. You can also leave a comment here on the blog.

Some ‘egg-ceptional’ trivia about birds and their eggs

The egg has long been a symbol of rebirth and renewal, which goes a long way toward explaining the connection between eggs and the holiday of Easter. In honor of the upcoming Easter holiday, I thought I’d devote this week’s column to some “egg-citing” egg trivia. I’ll try to avoid any additional “egg-sasperating” puns.

Of course, the familiar Easter egg has traditionally been provided by chickens, although the eggs of other birds, such as ducks, geese and turkeys, are occasionally incorporated into such festivities as egg fights and egg hunts.

Producing eggs encased in a thin calcium shell is one of the ways that the birds are different from other lifeforms. For example, mammals carry their eggs inside the body with the exception of the oddball echidnas and the platypus. Amphibians lay eggs, but their eggs are soft and must usually be deposited in the water to ensure they do not dry out. Insects also lay eggs. It’s only the birds, however, and a few reptiles that have evolved the hard-shelled egg as a more durable means of reproduction.

The shape and size of those eggs varied greatly. Among the world’s 10,000 species of birds, the ostrich lays the largest eggs of any bird. Closer to home, the California condor almost certainly lays the largest eggs of any U.S. bird species. According to the website, All About Birds, eggs of the California Condor eggs are about 4.5 inches long and almost 3 inches wide. These whopper eggs weigh about 11 ounces. By contrast, a large chicken eggs weighs only two ounces.

The eggs produced for one nesting attempt are referred to as a clutch. The number of eggs per clutch varies among different species. Among songbirds, some rather small birds lay large clutches of eggs. For instance, the kinglets, which are tiny birds barely bigger than hummingbirds, are champion egg layers. The ruby-crowned kinglet can lay as many as a dozen eggs in a clutch, while the golden-crowned kinglet may lay as many as 11 eggs per clutch. The house wren, which is also a rather diminutive bird, can lay as many as 10 eggs. Several North American wrens produce large clutches of eggs. The marsh wren and sedge wren are known to lay as many as 10 eggs per clutch. The winter wren is almost their equal with clutch sizes that can include nine eggs. Of course, these same birds may lay more average clutches of between three and six eggs.

The sora, a small, secretive species of rail, lays 10 to 12 eggs in a nest well-concealed in marsh vegetation. The sora has been known to produce exceptional clutches with as many as 18 eggs.

Waterfowl are known to be good egg layers. The mallard hen may lay a clutch of eight to 13 eggs. The redhead hen typically lays only seven to eight eggs, but has parasitic tendencies that include depositing some eggs in the nests of other redheads. On occasion, multiple redhead hens get a little compulsive about slipping their eggs into a communal “dump” nest. These type of nests have been found containing as many as 80 or more eggs, but such clutches are impossible for a single hen to incubate and the eggs are usually lost. The wood duck, which will nest in specially designed bird houses placed near a source of water, can lay as many as 14 eggs in a single clutch.

Other birds concentrate their efforts on laying only a single egg or perhaps a pair of eggs. Many species of albatross lay only a single egg. The parents will dedicate a long period incubating the egg and then tend to the needs of the solitary offspring once the egg hatches.

Hummingbirds typically lay a pair of eggs. The poor female is soon abandoned by her mate and must build a nest, incubate her two eggs, and care and feed her young without any paternal assistance whatsoever. Hummingbirds, having high metabolisms, would find it impossible to feed themselves and any more than two young in a nest.

Penguins lay only a few eggs. Many species lay a pair of eggs, but the king penguin and emperor penguin are single-egg producers. In their harsh environment, these penguins would find meeting the needs of more than one offspring at a time quite impossible.

Let’s talk color. Eggs come in a variety of colors. Some eggshells also feature intricate patterns and splotches.

The killdeer, which usually lays four eggs, produces buff-colored eggs with dark mottling on the shell. These eggs blend remarkably with gravel and other rocks, which helps the ground-nesting killdeer hide their nests from would-be predators.

The American robin is famous for producing a clutch of beautiful blue eggs. The coloration of the eggs have even given rise to the descriptive phrase “robin’s egg blue.” This particular shade of blue is described as a variable one that leans to greenish-blue that is paler than turquoise and more blue than aqua.

The American robin’s blue eggs are not unusual among the thrushes, the group of birds of which the robin can claim kinship. For instance, the Eastern bluebird’s eggs are pale blue or sometimes white. The wood thrush produces eggs that are more to the turquoise shade of blue while the veery’s eggs can vary between green and pale blue.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com
A pair of eggs in the traditional cup-shaped nest built by many songbirds.

The blue tint to the eggs of robins and other thrushes is caused by a pigment that gets applied to the shell as the female lays the eggs. It’s like the female robin has an internal egg-dyeing mechanism. In an article published in May of 2012, Science Daily reported that a study conducted by Queen’s University also found that the brighter blue the egg, the more the male robin will apply himself to caring for his offspring.

Among the birds that use my birdhouses for nesting, I’ve always thought the eggs of Carolina chickadees are exquisite. The eggs are pale white with a hint of pinkish coloration. A fine mottling of brown spots dot the shell. The amount of mottling can vary from egg to egg in the same clutch. These tiny eggs produced by a tiny bird are kept safe and sound in a nest of moss and other plant materials with a soft lining of animal hairs. Chickadees lay between three and 10 eggs, but between five and eight eggs per clutch seems more usual.

As mentioned, the ostrich lays the largest egg. Ostrich clutches are also impressive. The wild African ostrich, the largest bird in the world, lays 12 to 18 eggs. The ostrich has been domesticated, however, and hens have been conditioned to produce more eggs than would ever be expected in the wild.

The ostrich belongs to the ratite family, which includes other large birds such as the emu, rhea and cassowary, as well as five species of kiwi, which are considerably smaller than other ratites. The kiwi does have one interesting claim to fame when it comes to eggs. Kiwi are notable for laying eggs that are extremely large in relation to their body size. A kiwi egg may equal 15 to 20 percent of the body mass of a female kiwi. Perhaps not surprisingly, most kiwis lay only a single egg per clutch. The brown kiwi, however, normally lays two eggs per clutch.

Aepyornis, which was a giant, flightless ratite native to Madagascar and now extinct, produced the largest egg of any bird. Also known as the elephant bird, Aepyornis produced an egg with a volume equal to slightly more than 150 chicken eggs. These giant eggs boasted a circumference of 3 feet, 3 inches and reached about 13 inches in length. Research indicates that humans drove these enormous birds into extinction. One theory is that humans feasted so heavily on the giant eggs produced by Aepyornis that the birds were unable to sustain their species.

Humans have long turned to eggs as a source of nourishment, but we do not feed exclusively on eggs. Animals that feed primarily on eggs are classified by experts as ovivores. Some ovivores include fish, snakes, insects and, yes, birds. Some birds have become quite adept at preying on the eggs of other birds. Blue jays and American crows are known for robbing nests for both eggs and nestlings of other birds.

The bird egg has become firmly interwoven into human culture and traditions. According to the website Aghires.com, estimates indicate that about 180 million eggs are purchased each year in the United States specifically for the Easter holiday. Chicken hens must feel really overworked at this time of the year.

Of course, there are also the Easter traditions of chocolate and peanut butter eggs. I suppose that eases the pressure slightly on the overworked hens.

Hummingbird Tracking

I’m reminding readers that I want to hear from them when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

Observations will be accepted through Sunday, April 18. Winners will be announced in this column on April 28.