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.

Sandpiper a surprise addition for summer bird count

Photo by USFWS • A baby least sandpiper shelters beneath its dutiful mother. The aptly named least sandpiper is the smallest species of shorebird.

It’s not too often I get a chance to make a historic bird sighting, but that’s what happened on a recent Saturday while seated on a bench with Rob Armistead having a breakfast break while taking part in a seasonal bird survey in Elizabethton along the Watauga River.

I chose the location for the break because I knew that it has traditionally been a good spot to observe some unexpected species. Past good birds that I’ve observed along this section of the Watauga River have included orange-crowned warbler, yellow-throated vireo, sora, Baltimore oriole and red-headed woodpecker.

On this occasion, a tiny shorebird made an appearance, settling on some exposed rock formations. In April and May, these same rocks are great locations to find migrating spotted sandpipers and solitary sandpipers. 

The bird was smaller than these sandpipers and immediately stood out as a “peep,” a nickname that birders give to a group of small sandpipers that are all similar in appearance.

The one physical trait that help distinguish a least sandpiper from other “peeps” is leg coloration. Least sandpipers have greenish or yellowish legs in contrast to the black legs of other similar “peeps.”

In good light and at close range, Rob and I confirmed that the bird had greenish legs and were thrilled to add a least sandpiper to our own tally of observed birds.

The least sandpiper, as suggested by its name, is the smallest member of the sandpiper family. In fact, this sandpiper, which is not much bigger than a sparrow, is the world’s smallest shorebird. The least sandpiper weighs only a single ounce and is only five to six inches long. 

According to the website All About Birds, the least sandpiper migrates thousands of miles between its Arctic breeding grounds and wintering grounds as far south as Chile and Brazil.

In releasing the count compilation, official compiler Rick Knight made note of the fact that the least sandpiper represents a late migrant and the first-ever June record for the species in the five-county area. 

During the course of the day, Rob and I joined Brookie and Jean Potter for a trip to Holston Mountain, where we added some mid- to high-elevation species such as scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak, veery, Eastern wood-pewee, dark-eyed junco, ruffed course and chestnut-sided warbler. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male rose-breasted grosbeak perched on a branch on Roan Mountain, Tennessee.

This years survey was the 29th annual Carter County Summer Bird Count and was conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. I’ve been participating on this yearly survey of local birds since the late 1990s.

This year’s count was held Saturday, June 11. A total of 22 observers took part in this year’s count. 

A total of 116 species was tallied, which is right on average for the last decade and slightly above the average of 114 over the previous 28 years, according to Knight.

He noted that the all-time high for this count was 123 species in 2017.

Here’s the total:

 Canada goose, 131; wood duck, 9; mallard, 53; ruffed grouse, 3; and wild turkey, 20.

Rock pigeon, 49; Eurasian collared-dove, 1; mourning dove, 155; yellow-billed cuckoo, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 4; Eastern whip-poor-will, 9; chimney swift, 116; and ruby-throated hummingbird, 22.

Killdeer, 18; least sandpiper, 1; double-crested cormorant, 13; great Blue heron, 22; and green heron, 2.

Black vulture, 5; turkey vulture, 65; Cooper’s hawk, 4; bald eagle, 1; red-shouldered hawk, 2; broad-winged hawk, 5; red-tailed hawk, 5; Eastern screech-owl, 6; and barred owl, 3.

Belted kingfisher, 5; red-bellied woodpecker, 32; downy Woodpecker, 23; hairy woodpecker, 4; Northern flicker, 27; and pileated woodpecker, 16.

American kestrel, 1; great crested flycatcher, 2; Eastern kingbird, 27; Eastern wood-pewee, 31; Acadian flycatcher, 20; alder flycatcher, 2; least flycatcher, 12; and Eastern phoebe, 73.

White-eyed vireo, 5; yellow-throated vireo, 1; blue-headed vireo, 54; warbling vireo, 1; and red-eyed vireo, 165.

Blue jay, 110; American crow, 259; fish crow, 2; and common raven, 10.

Tree swallow, 118; Northern rough-winged swallow, 45; purple martin, 22; barn swallow, 173; and cliff swallow, 265.

Carolina chickadee, 73; tufted titmouse, 93; red-breasted nuthatch, 14; white-breasted nuthatch, 23; house wren, 57; winter wren,  4; and Carolina wren,  116.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher,  23; golden-crowned kinglet, 7; Eastern bluebird, 152; veery,  29; hermit thrush, 1; wood thrush, 66; American robin,  581; gray catbird, 60; brown thrasher,  22; and Northern mockingbird, 70

European starling, 411; cedar waxwing, 61; house sparrow, 98; house finch, 51; pine siskin, 10; and American goldfinch, 170.

Grasshopper sparrow, 1; chipping sparrow,  80; field sparrow, 43, dark-eyed junco, 70; song sparrow, 348; Eastern towhee, 150; yellow-breasted chat, 7.

Eastern meadowlark, 13; orchard oriole, 2; Baltimore oriole , 1; red-winged blackbird, 73; brown-headed cowbird, 49; and common grackle,143.

Ovenbird, 77; worm-eating warbler  3; Louisiana waterthrush, 12; golden-winged warbler,  2; black-&-white warbler, 31; Swainson’s warbler, 6; common yellowthroat, 31; hooded warbler,  110; American redstart , 6; Northern parula, 47; magnolia warbler, 1; Blackburnian warbler,  5; yellow warbler, 3; chestnut-sided warbler, 31; black-throated blue warbler, 49; pine warbler,  3; yellow-rumped warbler, 1; yellow-throated warbler, 16; black-throated green warbler, 19; and Canada warbler,  10.

Scarlet tanager, 42; Northern cardinal, 173; rose-breasted grosbeak, 7; blue grosbeak, 4; and indigo bunting, 161.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young grouse follows its mother into concealment by the edge of a road on Holston Mountain, Tennessee.

My other personal highlight on this count was seeing three young Ruffed Grouse darting  across the road, one at a time, while riding on Panhandle Road to the top of Holston Mountain. Those three young grouse turned out to be the only grouse counted by any participants on the count.

The Unicoi County Summer Bird Count was conducted Saturday, June 18. I’ll provide the results of that count in an upcoming column. 

Tanagers are among world’s most colorful birds

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.

The daily chorus of songbirds greeting the dawn is usually welcome unless I’m feeling particularly sleepy. Carolina wrens are one of the first birds in residence to sing each day. This time of year they get plenty of accompanists, including American robins, Eastern phoebes, Carolina chickadees, Northern cardinals, Eastern towhees, red-eyed vireos, indigo buntings, hooded warblers, ovenbirds and others.

As June arrived, however, I began to take notice of the absent voice of scarlet tanagers. It wasn’t until June 9 that I heard the first male scarlet tanager of the season singing from the wooded ridge behind my home.

In late April and throughout May, once the oaks, the maples, the poplars and other trees begin spreading out new green leaves to create a concealing woodland canopy, a familiar song can be heard 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 robin stricken a bit hoarse 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. 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.

It takes only one sighting to sear the vision of these vibrant birds into our retinas, as well as into our memories. The scarlet tanager boasts a brilliant plumage of crimson red paired with black wings and tail. Of course, this is the male. The female scarlet 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.

The related summer tanager is less widespread in Northeast Tennessee, but males of this species are no less dramatic in appearance than the Scarlet Tanager. Male summer tanagers are a rosy-red over all their body. Females, with a dull greenish plumage, are relegated to the background. She can be distinguished from her counterpart, the scarlet tanager, because of their darker wings and larger bills.

The summer tanager holds the distinction of being the only all-red bird in North America. Birds like Northern cardinals and scarlet tanagers also have some black in their plumage.

I’ve seen summer tanagers at Steele Creek Park in Bristol and Willow Springs Park in Johnson City. Sadly, over the years my sightings of this attractive songbird have been few and far between. My most memorable observation of a male summer tanager took place many years ago during a spring visit to Fripp Island, South Carolina. Most of the summer tanagers I have observed in Northeast Tennessee have been females.

On the other hand, I usually have a few scarlet tanagers in residence around my home during the summer months. If the woodlands at my home fail to attract this bird, I can usually make a visit to higher elevations on Roan Mountain, Unaka Mountain or Holston Mountain to gain an exciting glimpse of this beautiful bird.

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.

In the western United States, the scarlet and summer tanagers are replaced by Western tanagers and hepatic tanagers. 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.

A print of Scarlet Tanagers by early North American naturalist and painter John James Audubon.

Scientists 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 cardinal and have been pushed into a tenuous relationship with tropical tanagers.

The scarlet tanager is not typically a feeder visitor, but you can lure these birds 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 is guaranteed to impress. Seeing a scarlet tanager will almost make observers feel like they’ve been dropped into a tropical jungle instead of standing beneath a woodland canopy in the Southern Appalachians.

I’ll be participating in some summer bird counts over the next few weeks, so I am hopeful that my 2022 drought of scarlet tanager sightings will soon be at an end.

Culprit emerges in ‘murder mystery’

Photo by Tom Ferguson/Pixabay • A sharp-shinned hawk perches at the edge of a bird bath. The raptor’s talons, which are on full display, help explain this bird’s efficiency as a predator. 

Darlene Bloomfield emailed me from her home in Parry Sound, Ontario, in Canada. She wanted my help in solving an avian “whodunnit” type of mystery. 

“We had both a robin and a brown thrasher nesting in our cedar hedge,” Darlene wrote in her email.

“Both seemed to have babies,” she added. “The other morning we found a mound of robin feathers on the ground in front of the hedge along with many tiny feathers.”

She also noted that the robins are no longer around.

“Would a thrasher kill a robin?” Darlene asked. “We have seen them chasing each other.”

She also noted that they didn’t find the bodies of the dead robins.

So, in a case perhaps best filed under NCIS Ontario, I looked at the clues and responded.

Robins and thrashers are about the same size and will skirmish if they have to defend their territory, but sadly the evidence points to another culprit.

The little mound of feathers sounds like what a hawk (likely a sharp-shinned hawk or Cooper’s hawk) would leave behind after grabbing a meal in a yard or garden.

The absence of the bodies is also explained. The predatory hawk likely dined on robin and left only the plucked feathers as evidence. 

I expressed sympathy that the incident happened. I’ve been somewhat light-hearted in my relation of the mystery in this column, but it’s important to note that hawks and other predatory creature are not evil. They are not villains. They are doing what they were designed to do. 

The sharp-shinned hawk and its larger relative, the Cooper’s hawk, are classified as accipiter hawks. The sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper’s hawk are the two raptors most often encountered by people who feed birds. Part of the family of Accipiter hawks, these two species are widespread in woodlands.

The Cooper’s hawk is larger, often described as similar in size to an American crow. The Sharp-shinned, on the other hand, is usually described as the size of a dove. There’s some overlap in size, so it is not the only reliable means of identifying these hawks. For example, female Sharp-shinned hawks are roughly equivalent in size to a male Cooper’s hawk. As with many raptors, the female is larger than the male in both these species.

There are some other things to look for in telling these species apart. For instance, adult Sharp-shinned hawks often look like they have a dark cap or hood. The eyes on a sharp-shinned hawk also look like they are halfway between the front and back of the head. In addition, the head itself looks small in comparison to the overall size of this hawk’s body.

These two species feed heavily on songbirds, which causes some bird-lovers distress. I like to view predation incidents as good examples of how the the natural world is good at keeping things balanced. 

The sharp-shinned is really beautiful, especially for a hawk. Preying on songbirds doesn’t make them “bad” birds. They’re extremely efficient predators, and if you’ve ever witnessed one of these raptors in action, you can’t help but be impressed by both the power and precision deployed by these raptors in capturing prey.

The Accipiter genus of hawks includes about 50 species. In Northeast Tennessee, as well as across much of North America, the two common species are sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper’s hawk. A third species, the Northern goshawk, is a rare visitor to the region.

 

The Northern goshawk is a large, powerful hawk, and it is also fiercely defensive of its nest. This hawk is known to attack other raptors, mammals and even humans that stray too close to its nesting site.

Goshawk is a term derived from “goose hawk,” referring to the ability of this bird when utilized in falconry to take down such large prey as geese.

Other Accipiter hawks around the world include spot-tailed sparrowhawk, rufous-chested sparrowhawk, grey-headed goshawk, chestnut-flanked sparrowhawk, semi-collared hawk, red-thighed sparrowhawk and tiny hawk, which is one of the world’s smallest raptors. This diminutive hawk is about the size of a European starling and lives in Central and South America.

The sharp-shinned hawk will feed on a variety of birds, ranging in size from sparrows, warblers and thrushes to birds as large as ruffed grouse and mourning dove. This hawk also feeds on small mammals, reptiles and insects.

•••

To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, please email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Region’s ‘blue’ birds stand out from feathered kin

Photo by Doug Alspaugh/Pixabay • A male blue grosbeak can be distinguished from the similar but smaller male indigo bunting thanks to a large, heavy beak and chestnut striping on the wings.

A male indigo bunting, after a late spring arrival, has taken to signing most persistently from the tops of some of the tallest trees in my yard and at the edges of some of the surrounding fields.

When I refer to the indigo bunting singing, I am being generous. The bird’s song is a jumble of one-syllable chip notes delivered in machine-gun fashion, over and over, usually from elevated perches. It’s not musical, but it is certainly recognizable and admirable in the sheer persistence of the male’s delivery. 

One of my earliest memories of a songbird involves sightings of these electric blue birds on hot summer afternoons in my childhood. I didn’t know the identity of the bird at that time, but the image of that feathered beauty has stuck with me. 

The indigo bunting belongs to a genus of birds known as Passerina that is wedged into 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.

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

It’s the blue grosbeak that has always interested me, although I see them infrequently. I’ve had blue grosbeaks only visit my home feeders on a couple of occasions in the 30 years I’ve been watching birds and keeping records of my sightings.

Birds sporting entirely blue plumages are decidedly rare. In fact, the indigo bunting and blue grosbeak are the only contenders in the region. I don’t count blue jay, Eastern bluebirds or belted kingfishers because all of these species have white or other colors featured prominently among their blue feathers.

A couple of warblers — cerulean warbler and black-throated blue warblers — feature significant amounts of blue feathers, but it’s not a uniform blue.

A glimpse of a blue blur as an indigo bunting or blue grosbeaks flies across a field, pasture or meadow will reward the onlooker with a look at one of these pretty birds. 

The website All About Birds reports that blue grosbeaks have been expanding their range northward for the past century. The website also describes this bird as widespread but uncommon, which in my experience also applies to the status of the blue grosbeak in northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina and southwest Virginia. 

The blue grosbeak is picky about choosing a habitat. These birds prefer old fields choked with vine tangles and some shrubs, but they can also get comfortable in such habitats as mesquite savannas, salt cedar forests, and southern pine forests. Most evidence, according to All About Birds, points to a slight increase in the overall numbers of this bird in the past few decades.

Both indigo buntings and blue grosbeaks will visit feeders, which is probably the most reliable way to attract these birds. Black oil sunflower or other small seeds, such as millet or thistle, are suitable for both species.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A male Eastern bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City. Male and female Eastern bluebirds are not uniformly blue. Their plumage also includes white and rusty-red feathers.

•••

Beth Payne sent me an email about hummingbirds, or the lack thereof, at her home in central Alabama. 

Beth noted that she used to see many hummingbirds but now sees only one at her feeders. As an avid hummingbird fan, this decline has dismayed her.

She also shared that she knew the late Bob Sargent. With his wife, Martha, With his wife, Martha, Sargent was the co-founder of the The Hummer/Bird Study Group. This non-profit organization founded by the Sargents was based in their hometown of Clay, Alabama. They dedicated the group to the study and preservation of hummingbirds and other neotropical migrants.

When I responded, I told Beth how happy I was that she had known Bob Sargent. I was also pleased to meet another hummingbird fan.

Although I can’t speak specifically to Alabama, I have noticed that I’m not hosting many hummingbirds this spring at my now home. That being said, I am not sure there’s any rhyme or reason to explain the numbers of hummingbirds that will decide to call a certain yard or garden their summer home.

I did offer some suggestions. Hummingbirds, even those that come to feeders, appreciate a nice perch for resting. I asked Beth if she has any shrubs or trees near her feeders. 

If  feasible, I advised she plant some flowers that would be attractive to hummingbirds. I recommended that she check with a nursery or garden center for ideas on blooming plants that grow best in her area.

Many of the birds that people would see early in Alabama are going to be pushing to get farther north to Tennessee and even far beyond to New England and even Canada. 

One thing that almost invariably happens is that by June and early July, hummingbird numbers usually pick back up. Of course, that will to a degree depend on how many hummingbirds stay in the surrounding area for the nesting season.

To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Bird count finds 147 species in region

Photo Hans Tooms/ Pixabay • A male black-and-white warbler sings his buzzy song from a woodland perch. A total of 37 individual black-and-white warblers were found during the recent Spring Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club in Northeast Tennessee.

 

The 79th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Count was held Saturday, May 7, with 28 observers in about a dozen parties, plus two feeder watchers. The area covered included Carter County and parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Washington and Unicoi.

The weather was less than ideal, with cool temperatures ranging from 45 to 60 and mist or light rain for part or most of the day. The mountainous areas had the most rain.

Long-time compiler Rick Knight noted that participants tallied 147 species, which is slightly below the recent 30 year average of 150 species.

In addition, most species were in reduced numbers, likely due to the difficulties presented by the weather (less singing, fewer soaring birds) during the count. On the other hand, the weather may have grounded some of the shorebirds. Large numbers of swallows and swifts were foraging low over the water in different locations due to the cool temperatures.

Also significant were some of the species missed by participants, including ruffed grouse, sora, American woodcock, both night-herons, sharp-shinned hawk, red-shouldered hawk, brown creeper, ruby-crowned kinglet and hermit thrush.

Some of the more abundant birds included American robin (924), European starling (730), Canada goose (482) and red-winged blackbird (302).

The list follows:

Canada goose, 482; wood duck,  58, blue-winged teal,  4; mallard, 113; bufflehead, 1; hooded merganser,  3; and common merganser,  1.

Wild turkey, 41; rock pigeon, 124; Eurasian collared-dove, 4; mourning dove, 259; yellow-billed cuckoo, 2; common nighthawk, 1; chuck-will’s-widow, 6; Eastern whip-poor-will, 12; chimney swift, 401; and ruby-throated hummingbird, 19.

Killdeer, 32; least sandpiper, 16; pectoral sandpiper, 2; semipalmated sandpiper, 1; spotted sandpiper, 34; solitary sandpiper, 13; lesser yellowlegs, 5;  greater yellowlegs, 1; and ring-billed gull,  3.

Common loon, 3; double-crested cormorant, 75; great blue heron, 51; great egret, 3; and green heron, 10.

Black vulture,  40; turkey vulture, 56; osprey, 4; cooper’s hawk, 3; bald eagle, 5; broad-winged hawk, 2; red-tailed hawk, 8; Eastern screech-owl, 3; great horned owl, 2;  and barred owl,  1.

Belted kingfisher, 11; red-headed woodpecker,  2; red-bellied woodpecker, 46; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 3; downy woodpecker,  20; hairy woodpecker,  7; Northern flicker,  36; and pileated woodpecker,  29.

American Kestrel,  8; great crested flycatcher, 14; Eastern kingbird, 30; Eastern wood-pewee, 11; Acadian flycatcher,  15; least flycatcher, 2; and Eastern phoebe,  61.

White-eyed vireo, 7; Yellow-throated vireo, 4; Blue-headed vireo,  25; warbling vireo,  8; red-eyed vireo,  149; blue jay,  192; American crow,  280; fish crow,  4  (present third year in a row) and common raven,  8.

Bank swallow, 6; tree swallow, 399; northern rough-winged swallow,  168; purple martin,  94; barn swallow,  405; and cliff swallow,  499.

Carolina chickadee, 123; tufted titmouse,  140; red-breasted nuthatch, 1; white-breasted nuthatch,  11; house wren,  53; winter wren,  1; Carolina wren, 161; and blue-gray gnatcatcher, 51.

Golden-crowned kinglet,  2; Eastern bluebird, 141; veery, 19; gray-cheeked thrush, 1; Swainson’s thrush, 3; wood thrush,  51; American robin,  924; gray catbird, 75; brown thrasher,  64; Northern mockingbird,  93; European starling, 730; and cedar waxwing,  75.

House sparrow, 50; house finch, 62; pine siskin, 3; and American goldfinch,  224.

Grasshopper Sparrow, 1; chipping sparrow, 95; field sparrow,  29; dark-eyed junco, 19; white-crowned sparrow, 1; white-throated sparrow, 1; savannah sparrow,  1; song sparrow, 290; Lincoln’s sparrow, 1; and Eastern towhee,  151.

Yellow-breasted chat, 11; Eastern meadowlark,  91; orchard oriole,  20; Baltimore oriole, 11; red-winged blackbird,  302; brown-headed cowbird, 101; and common grackle,  281.

Ovenbird,  88; worm-eating warbler, 13; Louisiana waterthrush, 25; Northern waterthrush, 1; golden-winged warbler, 1; black-and-white warbler, 37; Swainson’s warbler, 6; Tennessee warbler, 1; Kentucky warbler, 5; common yellowthroat, 17; hooded warbler,  85; American redstart,  14; Cape May warbler, 1; Northern parula, 46; magnolia warbler,  2; bay-breasted warbler, 2; Blackburnian warbler,  3; yellow warbler, 9; chestnut-sided warbler, 15; blackpoll warbler,  2; black-throated blue warbler,  33; palm warbler, 1; pine warbler,  9; yellow-rumped warbler,  9; yellow-throated warbler,  44; prairie warbler,  1; black-throated green warbler, 33; and Canada warbler, 10.

Summer tanager, 1; scarlet tanager,  60; Northern cardinal,  270;  rose-breasted grosbeak,  11; blue grosbeak,  8; indigo bunting , 104; and dickcissel,  2.

•••

Based on the count results, it’s not difficult to see that many birds are moving through the region as part of the yearly phenomenon of spring migration. Share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment by emailing ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Red-headed woodpeckers more uncommon than some of their kin

 

Photo by Pixabay • The red-headed woodpecker is accurately named for its entirely red head. Male and female red-headed woodpeckers are identical in appearance, but young birds lack the red head.

Some readers asked for help in determining the identity of some birds that they have encountered. I tried to offer some insight into each query.

First, Lynda Carter in the Lamar community of Washington County emailed me recently with a question about a possible sighting of a red-headed woodpecker.

“I know they are uncommon and I did not get my binoculars on the bird,” Lynda wrote. “I saw the bird land in a large open-crowned oak after hearing a call very like (a) red-bellied (woodpecker) but different somehow.”

Lynda noted that she could see a lot of red on head and when the bird flew across her pasture to a pine tree, she could see big blocks of black and white in the plumage.

“I shared my sighting with my sister who lives up the mountain from me and she thought she spotted the same bird on a telephone pole in her yard a few days later,” Lynda said.

Lynda added that she and her sister live on the end of Embreeville Mountain. “We are interested in your thoughts concerning our mystery bird,” she wrote.

I responded to Lynda with my absolute confidence that she and her sister did see a red-headed woodpecker. Here are a few reasons for my belief in the identification she came up with.

The large patches of black and white are trademark characteristics of a red-headed woodpecker. The black is actually almost a glossy blue-black.

Of course, the entirely red head also separates the aptly-named red-headed woodpecker from all other members of the family in the region.

She and her sister also live in a section of Washington County near some known locations for finding red-headed woodpeckers.

Photo by USFWS • The red-headed woodpecker is an easily identified bird for anyone getting a good look.

It’s also spring. Red-headed woodpeckers are partly migratory, so her sighting could have involved a migrating bird. I’ve seen several red-headed woodpeckers in the spring in some surprising locations over the years.

We corresponded a bit more and Lynda shared more about the birds around her home.

“I do live in a great spot for birding,” she wrote.  “We have open pasture, wooded gullies and the mountain behind us. Cherokee National Forest is my neighbor to the south and the Nolichucky River is just down the road.”

Lynda hosts nesting wood thrushes that return to the same open wooded patch behind her house. “I just love hearing their song in early morning hours and again in the evening,” she wrote.

She also wrote that she has seen more scarlet tanagers, which is always a thrill, in the last year or two.

“I have had male and female rose-breasted grosbeak at my bin feeder,” she added.

She has recently heard Eastern meadowlarks, red-eyed vireo and ovenbird. She also provides several nest boxes currently occupied by Eastern bluebirds and tree swallows.

The red-headed woodpecker and its relative, the red-bellied woodpecker, belong to a genus of tree-clinging birds known as Melanerpes. The term, translated from Latin, means “black creeper.” Indeed, many of the two dozen members of the Melanerpes genus have an extensive amount of black feathers in their plumage. Other members of the genus include woodpeckers from the Caribbean, as well as from Central and South American. Some of them have quite colorful names, such as yellow-tufted woodpecker, golden-cheeked woodpecker and the accurately named beautiful woodpecker, a native of Colombia.

The red-bellied is a common bird in the region, but some effort or simple good luck is needed to find red-headed woodpeckers. These woodpeckers, which often form family flocks, have localized populations that shift from year to year.

One reason the red-headed woodpecker may be less common than its cousin relates to its fondness for hawking for flying insects along roadsides. The woodpeckers are frequently struck by cars when swooping after their winged prey. Historically, the American chestnut and beech trees also provided much of the mast crops consumed by these birds. With the extermination of the chestnut and the scarcity of beech in some locations, the red-headed woodpecker now depends on oaks and acorns. In fact, this woodpecker is rarely encountered outside of woodlands offering an abundance of oak trees.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Is6MB_8-7ro

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Ed Wells, who lives in Nebo, North Carolina, near Lake James, emailed me recently and presented me with another identification challenge.

“I enjoy reading your feature each week,” Wells wrote.  “You always inform and teach me.”

He  also attached some photographs of a bird that flew into the side of his house in 2021.

“I have not been able to make a positive ID,” he said.  “It appeared to be a small shorebird with a straight bill of medium length. Wing span was probably 10 inches or less and perhaps about the same from bill to tail.”

“I moved the stunned bird out of the cold wind and placed it on some mulch,” Ed wrote. “It eventually recovered and flew away.”

Ed also shared that while boating on the lake recently, he saw a bird that he believes might be the same species as his mystery bird. The shorebird was perched on rocks near the waterline.

“My boat startled it and it flew rapidly away,” he added.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gD6nQm1CFKI

Based on his photos, the best I could do was determine the bird was some sort of “peep,” which is a birding nickname for a group of small- to medium-sized sandpipers.

I speculated that the bird might have been a stilt sandpiper, but I also consulted Rick Knight, a veteran birder with much more experience with shorebirds.

“The bill looks too short for stilt sandpiper,” Rick concluded. He said that he would lean toward the bird being a least sandpiper or pectoral sandpiper.

Many shorebirds have been migrating through the region in recent weeks. During the recent five-county Spring Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club, counters found several shorebird species, including least sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper, semipalmated sandpiper, spotted sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, lesser yellowlegs greater yellowlegs and killdeer.

•••

Have questions about birds? Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Feel free to make comments and share observations, too.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks make spring appearances in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

There are so many birds arriving in the past week that one almost needs to take a breath from all the excitement and simply enjoy the beauty, both showy and subtle, that many of our returning feathered friends can provide.

The rose-breasted grosbeak is definitely one of the birds in the showy category. I haven’t seen one yet, but many readers have contacted me to let me know of their sightings.
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April Kerns Fain in Unicoi shared a photo and post on April 19 on my Facebook page about the arrival of her first rose-breasted grosbeak.
“Our grosbeak is back,” she wrote. Her photo showed the beautiful bird perched on a feeder stocked with plenty of sunflower seeds and suet.
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“We had two pairs show up a couple of days ago,” Karen Fouts, a resident of Marion, Virginia, commented on my Facebook page. “Aren’t they lovely?”
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Nancy Barrigar of Elizabethton posted that she and her husband, Gary, saw them on Roan Mountain the weekend of April 29-30. “Still waiting to see them at our feeders,” she added.
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Barbara Lake of Hampton also shared her rose-breasted grosbeak sighting. “We had them on the weekend,” she said. “Seem to be down to just two now.”
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Carolyn Dover Norman in Glen Rose, Texas, shared her story of a brief sighting.
“I had one passing through here in Texas last week — just for a day,” she wrote on my Facebook page.
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Gloria Walton Blevins in Damascus, Virginia, happily shared that she “saw one yesterday” on my Facebook page on April 29.
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Carolyn Baker Martin in Carter County reported that her grosbeak sighting involved a female rather than the more eyecatching male. “Had a female at our feeders two mornings,” she wrote.
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Felicia Mitchell in Washington County, Virginia, has enjoyed grosbeak sightings this spring.
“Female grosbeak showed up just this minute at front platform feeder,” Felicia wrote on April 29. “Likely a pair soon. And maybe a family one day.”
She later updated her comment to announce that a male grosbeak had arrived, along with the female.
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Philip Laws notified me that he saw a male and some female rose-breasted grosbeaks May 4 at his home in Limestone Cove.
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A few readers, like myself, are still awaiting that first spring rose-breasted grosbeak.
“I’m still looking for my first one,” wrote James Noel Smith in Unicoi.
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Priscilla Gutierrez in Roan Mountain noted that she’s still waiting for the grosbeaks to show up. “So beautiful,” she added.
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Kaylynn Sanford Wilster, who resides in Piney Flats near Boone Lake, posted a comment.
“A dear friend told me about the Merlin app and it says it heard a rose-breasted grosbeak the other day,” Kaylynn wrote. “I haven’t seen one yet though. I dearly love these birds.”
•••
“We haven’t seen our little visitor this spring,” wrote Laura Evans Barden. “Usually, he has made his appearance in our backyard by now. I love the rose-breasted grosbeaks.
She has the grosbeak’s favorite treat waiting when he does arrive.
“He loves the blue jays’ peanuts,” Laura noted.
Watch this video:
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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.
For the most part, however, the rose-breasted grosbeak is replaced in the western United States by the closely related black-headed grosbeak.
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.
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. In Northeast Tennessee, bird banders frequently encounter rose-breasted grosbeaks in their mist nets — and bear the scars to prove it.
With some birds, males play only a minor role in the nesting process. That’s not the case with the rose-breasted grosbeak male. The males help with nest-building chores and share responsibility with the female for incubating the eggs.
The female lays three to five eggs in a cup-shaped nest. It’s not easy to locate the nests since the birds usually place them in trees at least 20 feet above the ground. Within two weeks, the eggs have hatched and the parents are kept extremely busy finding enough food to satisfy the voracious nestlings. Well fed by both parents, the young grow quickly and usually are ready to leave the nest within 12 days. Often, when a first brood of young departs the nest, the male will care for the rowdy group of fledglings as the female starts a second nest to capitalize on the long days of summer.
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 fails to disappoint by bringing a hint of the tropics to the mountains.
Watch this video:

Common yellowthoat, other birds help make migration exciting time

Photo by Pixabay • With a black mask, the male common yellowthroat resembles a tiny feathered bandit as he goes about his daily routine interrupted by bouts of singing his “witchety! witchety! witchety!” song.

Photo by Pixabay
With a black mask, the male common yellowthroat resembles a tiny feathered bandit as he goes about his daily routine interrupted by bouts of singing his “witchety! witchety! witchety!” song.

A hummingbird flew in to one of my porch feeders at 6:28 p.m. on April 23. The arrival made this bird the first hummingbird I have seen this spring. Although quite a bit later than expected, I decided that it’s better late than never. The bird, a male with a dazzling red throat, flew right to the feeder hanging on the porch. I had switched out the water in all three of my feeders only a few minutes prior to the bird’s initial appearance. The bird knew exactly where the feeder was hanging, so I am confident he had already been around for a few days.

There have been other new arrivals, too. A hooded warbler announced its return in song, singing from the shaded woodlands the same day the first hummingbird arrived. On April 28, a common yellowthroat made sure to get noticed by singing from some willows near the creek before popping into view as I watched through binoculars.

In the past week, flocks of chimney swifts have also begun twittering and swooping over the streets of Erwin.

A few more people have shared their stories of first spring sightings of hummingbirds.

Ann Windsor in Selmer, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page on April 23 that her hummingbirds had returned a few days earlier. “He has set up his sole ownership of our feeder,” she noted.
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“I just now saw my first hummingbird of the season here in Abingdon,” Mary Ragland commented on my Facebook page on April 23.
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Betty Lacy in Elizabethton has also welcomes back hummingbirds.
“My hummingbirds are here daily,” she wrote. “I love to watch them.”
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Dawn Peters in Jonesborough saw her first hummingbird on April 23.
“I saw my first one about 5 p.m. today,” she wrote on my Facebook page.
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Linda Cauley noted that she is hosting two of the tiny birds.
“Two showed up in Unicoi at my feeders,” she wrote on my Facebook page.
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The hummingbirds at Kaylynn Wilster’s home at Boone Lake played a bit coy.
“I didn’t see mine at first but the level in the feeders was dropping so I knew they were here,” she wrote on my Facebook page on April 23. “Saw my first one about four days ago — a beautiful male.”
She also saw one at a greenhouse that she visited recently. “The greenhouses go to great effort to get them out,” she added in her comment.
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Donna Barnes Kilday in Erwin saw her first on April 14.
“Now I have at least two that want control of both feeders,” she wrote on my Facebook page. “So much fun to watch!”

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Philip Laws in Limestone Cove wrote a comment on my Facebook page on April 27 about his hummingbirds.
“We have had them for several days,” Philip wrote.
“My favorite story was when I returned to a former house that we had been out of a couple of years,” he wrote. “A male came up and flew to and circled the spot where a feeder had hung two years before. Needless to say, I quickly returned with a feeder and kept it going for the rest of that summer.”
•••
Mack Hayes, who resides in the Bowmantown community in Washington County, saw his first male ruby-throated hummingbird on April 22. In another comment on my Facebook page, he added a few days later, a female hummingbird has also arrived.
“Glad to see they made it back,” Mack wrote.
•••
As I mentioned at the start of the column, warblers have been putting in sporadic appearances this spring.

I thought I’d spotlight the common yellowthroat this week. The male common yellowthroat looks like a dapper feathered bandit with his black mask with a silvery-gray eye stripe, brown upper parts and a bright yellow throat. Females have the yellow throat but lack the black mask.
The website All About Birds notes in a profile on the species that male common yellowthroats arrive first on breeding grounds in the spring and begin defending territories.

According to the profile, fighting among males grows more intense once the female birds arrive. Researchers have also found that the black mask of male yellowthroats acts as a trigger for some of this fighting. Some enterprising researchers added a black paper mask to a stuffed female yellowthroat. When placed within view of male yellowthroats, the stuffed bird weathered attacks from territorial males.

Photo by USFWS • The male common yellowthroat wears a mask like a feathered bandit.

The common yellowthroat at my home was probably one of these eager males ready to get a head start on the summer’s nesting season. Common yellowthroats are one of the many warblers that nest in the Northeast Tennessee during the summer months. They can be found from lower elevation to higher ones, but they will usually not be found outside of a habitat that offers dense vegetation to their particular liking. A weedy slope in a backyard, a marshy stand of cattails, or overgrown fields are some places suitable for this noisy if “under the radar” bird.
The common yellowthroat is one of the birds that benefits from a lawn and garden that are not kept trimmed and manicured. They will only thrive in habitats that offer dense thickets and other tangles of vegetation. To attract birds like the common yellowthroat, keep some corners of your property in a more “natural” state. The neighbors may look askance, but the birds will thank you.

It’s the female yellowthroat that will build the nest. She lays one to six eggs. She will often locate the nest close to the ground, but it’s always well hidden.

The common yellowthroat belongs to a genus of warblers known as Geothlypsis. Three other members – MacGillivray’s warbler, mourning warbler and Kentucky warbler – in the genus are resident in the United States and Canada for part of the year.

It’s easy to detect the presence of this warbler in the springtime. The male invariably gives himself away by singing his ringing syllables of “Witchety! Witchety! Witchety!” In fact, my recent visitor alerted me to his presence by doing just that. As with many warblers, the male’s song helps attract mates and also establishes the boundaries of his territory.

Although this warbler would prefer to skulk under a weedy canopy, it has one weakness. Common yellowthroats are incredibly curious birds. They will respond to squeaking or mechanical bird calls. Unlike some birds that pop into view for a brief look before diving back into cover, common yellowthroats can often be called into view several times during an observation.

There will no doubt be plenty of migrant sightings as we continue into May. Look for such vibrant visitors as orioles, tanagers, indigo buntings and rose-breasted grosbeaks in the coming days.  To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Eastern kingbird, hummingbirds part of spring migration bonanza

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern kingbird perches atop a metal fence post.

Migration continues and offers up a few surprises. Such was the case of the morning of April 20 when I spotted an Eastern kingbird near the fish pond.

This is a rare bird at my home, but one that is easily found in other locations in the area. My recollection is this is only the second time an Eastern Kingbird has visited my home.

I didn’t have time to observe the bird for long and I didn’t find the bird when I returned home later that evening, but it was a timely reminder that spring migration can bring plenty of unexpected birdwatching delights.

Many readers continue to be delighted by the return of ruby-throated hummingbirds. Based on the sightings shared with me this past week, I think the pace of migration has definitely spiked for this tiny bird.

•••

Gwen Straub, who lives in Nebo, North Carolina, near Lake James, sent me an email to share that she had a “double” arrival with a male and female hummingbird showing up at her feeder at 10 am on April 12.

“The male has been back every day since then,” she wrote.  “Today he drank for five full minutes with his beak in the hole many times for seven to eight seconds.”

•••

April Kerns Fain posted a Facebook comment on my page to notify me that she saw her first hummingbird on April 12. A few days later, she also shared a photo of a beautiful male rose-breasted grosbeak that arrived at her feeders on April 19. Her sightings are a good reminder that it’s not just hummingbirds on the move. Many colorful birds are returning this month.

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Tammy Jones Adcock, Erwin, shared via a Facebook comment that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 13.

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Jeanne Siler Lilly shared on Facebook that she saw her first spring hummingbird on April 15.

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Daniel Washinski from Houston, Delaware, also had a Good Friday sighting. “First hummingbird this morning (April 15) in Delaware!” Daniel shared on my Facebook page.

I found it interesting that some hummingbirds have already reached Delaware before I’ve seen one at my home. Just goes to show that these tiny guys are in a hurry to get to their final destinations for the summer season.

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Lois Bridges of Unicoi shared via a Facebook comment that she saw her first spring hummingbird on April 16.

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Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, shared her first spring hummingbird sighting in an email.

“Just had our first hummingbird!” Helen wrote. The bird arrived at 10:58 a.m. on April 16.

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Priscilla Gutierrez shared with a Facebook comment that she saw her first hummingbird on April 16 on Carver Road in Roan Mountain.

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Angie Fletcher, a high school friend of mine, shared on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird on April 16.

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Cheri Miller shared on the Tri-Cities Young Naturalists Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird of the season on April 17 at her home in Hampton.

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Starr Yeager, a resident of Tiger Creek in Hampton, saw five hummingbirds at her feeders on April 18. Starr’s another friend of mine from high school who notified me of the sighting on Facebook.

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Lowell Christian, Jonesborough, shared on Facebook that he officially saw his first spring hummingbird at 8:25 a.m. on April 20. “I am quite sure I have missed it being here before,” he noted.

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Russ MacIntyre, a resident of the Embreeville section of Jonesborough, sent me an email to let me know he saw his first spring hummingbird at 5:35 p.m. on April 20.

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Frances Lamberts in Jonesborough got her first sightings on April 24 between about 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. while sitting on the patio eating supper.

In her email, Frances said the hummingbird visited three times.

“During one of the  visits, I counted its sips on the feeder — 42.”

Frances noted that she has a few flowers — columbine, bleeding heart and larkspur — in bloom in her garden.

Frances is dedicated to the cause of preserving pollinators, including hummingbirds as well as butterflies and other insects.

She also writes a column titled “Conservation in Mind” twice a month for The Erwin Record.

•••

Keeping these tiny guests happy isn’t difficult. It’s easy to make your own sugar water mix, which can be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic juice jug. Boil some water and then add one cup of sugar for every four cups of water in your pot. Stir thoroughly. Bottle the mixture until it cools. Fill your feeders and store any remaining sugar water in the fridge in the aforementioned jug. Refrigerated, the mix should stay good to use for at least a week.

Kingbird tyranny

Here’s some more information on the Eastern kingbird that I observed. Kingbirds are a part of an extensive family of birds known as flycatchers that are exclusively found in the New World. Other flycatchers that are relatively common in the region include Eastern phoebe and Eastern wood-pewee.

The Eastern kingbird  is easy to recognize and identify. The bird’s plumage is a study in contrast, being black above and white below. In addition, there’s a noticeable white edge to the tip of the bird’s otherwise all-black tail.

There is a red patch of feathers on top of the bird’s head, which gives this pint-sized tyrant a “crown,” but most birders would tell you that this colorful patch is rarely seen and is instead kept concealed at most times.

The scientific name of the Eastern kingbird is Tyrannus tyrannus, a good clue to the bird’s militant nature.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern kingbird perches on a fence.

These birds, which are about the size of an American robin, are famous for displaying aggressive behavior against much larger birds such as crows and hawks.

While some birds are all bluff, the Eastern kingbird often follows through with its attacks. According to the website All About Birds, kingbirds have been known to known blue jays right out of a tree.

I’ve observed kingbirds tormenting such large birds as red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures. I once watched a kingbird get so close to a red-tailed hawk that it almost looked like the smaller bird was hitching a ride on the hawk’s back. I suspect the hawk even lost a feather or two in the encounter.

Other North American kingbirds include Western kingbird, tropical kingbird, Couch’s kingbird, Cassin’s kingbird and the thick-billed kingbird. On a trip to Salt Lake City in Utah many years back I got the chance to see the Western kingbird, the counterpart to the Eastern kingbird in that part of the country.

Look for the Eastern kingbird in open terrain that offers plenty of perches. These birds spend most of their time chasing and catching flying insects, which provide the bulk of the bird’s food during the summer months.

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Have a sighting to share, a comment to make or a question to ask? Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Pixabay
The Eastern kingbird is a pugnacious member of the widespread family of New World birds known as the flycatchers. Other members of the family in the region include the Eastern phoebe and the Eastern wood-pewee.

Northern parula ushers in rush of spring’s colorful tropical migrants

Photo by  Hans Toom/Pixabay • A male Northern parula looks splendid in spring plumage. These warblers attract attention with their buzzy songs, which is useful for spotting them since these birds spend much of the time in the treetops.

NOTE: As I am posting this week’s bird feature, I am hearing the dueling songs of two male Northern parulas in the woods outside the office window. 

Last year, the first warbler to return in the spring was a male Northern parula that arrived on April 9. This year’s return was a few days later than that, but it was once again a Northern parula at the vanguard of the spring migration.

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 Connecticut 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.

The Northern parula didn’t used to be one of the first returning warblers at my home. That honor used to go to hooded warbler or black-throated green warbler.

Spring has been returning in fits and starts, which could have some sort of overall effect on bird migration. 

I’ve still not seen a ruby-throated hummingbird, although some readers are still sharing stories of their first spring hummingbird sightings. 

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Lynne Reinhard of Abingdon, Virginia, reported her first hummingbird of spring on the morning of April 7. She shared the sighting in a Facebook comment to my page.

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Pat Stakely Cook in Marion, North Carolina, posted on Facebook at 5:33 p.m. on April 11 about seeing her first spring hummingbird. 

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Beth Barron Wolfe shared her first sighting with a comment on a post of mine on April 7. 

“I saw one last week, but it hasn’t returned,” Beth wrote.

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Karen Fouts of Marion, Virginia, also shared her first sighting via Facebook Messenger.

“We have our first hummingbird of the year this morning (April 13) in Marion,” she wrote. “Perhaps it was the angle of my view, but it looked like a female, which is unusual.”

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Nancy Vernon in Bristol, Virginia, posted about her first sighting. “Saw one yesterday (April 13) at my feeder in Bristol right after I put it up,” she wrote.

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Tammy Jones Adcock in Erwin shared her first sighting via Facebook comment. She reported that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 13 at her Erwin home.

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Karen and Bobby Andis in Kingsport sent me a Facebook message about their first hummer of spring. 

“Our first hummingbird was seen at 12:37 p.m. on April 14,” they wrote in the message. “Got our feeder hung awaiting the others.”

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Donna Barnes Kilday reported with a Facebook comment that she saw her first spring hummingbird at her home in Erwin on April 14. “First hummingbird of the year!” Donna reported in her comment. 

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Nan Hidalgo in Jonesborough posted her sighting as a comment on my Facebook page. 

“First hummingbird just now in Jonesborough,” she wrote around 1 p.m. on April 14.

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Phyllis Moore in Bristol, Virginia, also reported a hummingbird arrival. “Just saw our first hummingbird in Bristol,” she wrote just after noon on April 14.

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Rhonda and Randall Eller in Chilhowie, Virginia, posted a comment on April 14.

“Just had that first hummingbird,” they wrote. “He was early this year! Last year he didn’t come until April 24.”

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Paula Elam Booher in Bristol, Virginia, reported on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 14.

•••

Steph Anie shared via a Facebook comment that she has been seeing hummingbirds since late March at her home northeast of Atlanta. 

“We have had them for two weeks now,” she wrote on April 7. Again, people residing farther south usually get to welcome back hummingbirds before those of us in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

•••

So, my Northern parula is my consolation for not yet seeing a ruby-throated hummingbird. This warbler has an abundance of identifying characteristics. Adult males are bluish gray overall with a yellow-green patch on the back and two white wingbars. A chestnut band separates the male’s bright yellow throat and chest. Adult females are often a bit paler and typically lack the male’s breast band. Both males and females have distinctive white eye crescents.

Like most warblers, they lead frenetic lives. They often sing high in the tops of trees, but they do occasionally venture closer to the ground, particularly when foraging for prey, which consists of a variety of insects and small spiders. 

The more reliable means of locating a Northern parula is to listen for the male’s  buzzy, ascending song. He is a persistent singer from the time of his arrival until mid-summer. 

A quirk involving nesting material is somewhat unique to this warbler.

In much of the southern United States, the Northern parula conceals its nest inside strands of Spanish moss draped from the limbs of live oaks and other trees.

In the Southern Appalachians and other locations farther to the north, the absence of Spanish moss means that the birds rely on various Usnea lichens, which are sometimes referred to as “Old Man’s Beard.” 

Overall, the population of this warbler is in good shape. According to Partners in Flight, numbers of this warbler have increased by 62% since 1970. Unfortunately, some populations in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Missouri have been affected by logging and the drainage of bogs. 

Once paired up, Northern parulas may attempt to raise two broods in a nesting season. The female lays two to seven eggs and does most of the nest construction. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Northern parula perched next to a cluster of Spanish moss.