Category Archives: Birds

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.

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

Brown thrashers return to rude, cold awakening

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Brown Thrasher perched in a Mimosa Tree.

Just when it appears safe to welcome spring, nature throws a curveball in the form of a snowstorm and a frigid but brief cold snap.

At least the snowstorm had a silver lining at my home when a pair of brown thrashers chose to make their spring arrival at the same time.

Many of the resident birds looked a bit peeved to find snow and ice after a bout of mild spring weather, but the two thrashers outside my window on March 12 looked absolutely stunned.

I’ve always thought that brown thrashers are expressive birds, but the expressions of these birds looked like a mix of bewilderment and consternation to find that their return coincided with a short-lived dip into temperatures in the single digits.

Karen Fouts, who resides in Marion, Virginia, commiserated with the thrashers, agreeing with my post that the poor birds appeared stunned by the change in the weather.

“I’ve been waiting for ours but hope they wait a week or so,” Karen wrote in a comment to my post.

Although a few brown thrashers linger in Northeast Tennessee through the winter season, the majority of these birds fly a little farther south for the cold months. Invariably, brown thrashers make their return in March and can be considered another of our feathered friends whose arrival represents more evidence that spring is returning.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A pair of Brown Thrashers forage for food on the ground below a feeder.

A few years ago, quite by accident, I came across a brown thrasher nest. I hadn’t gone looking for it. The nest, expertly woven into a thicket of honeysuckle vines, was tucked beneath a sheltering eave of an outdoor storage building. I don’t think anything but a fortunate accident could have ever revealed the nest. I still remember peeking into that tangle of vines and seeing a golden eye staring back. The bird didn’t look in the least pleased that I had accidentally stumbled across her nest.

The otherwise extroverted brown thrasher, which prefers to nest in difficult-to-access, tangled messes, found the cluster of vines a perfect location.

For those not familiar with brown thrashers — relatives of the Northern mockingbird — they are known for their feisty and fearless protection of their nest and young. I’m probably fortunate the thrasher on her nest decided to choose stealth instead of attack. Sometimes, discretion is truly the better part of valor and the bird probably decided that, if she remained motionless, she would blend in well with her surroundings.

The brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belongs to the family of “mimic thrushes,” which provides a label for a group of songbirds capable of imitating the songs of other birds. Mimidae, the Latin root for “mimic,” provides the scientific name for the family, which includes mockingbirds and the New World catbirds, as well as thrashers. The Northern mockingbird is best known for the ability to mimic, but relatives like the gray catbird and brown thrasher are also talented mimics.

The thrasher is a fairly large songbird about 11.5 inches long with a wingspan of 13 inches. Much of the body length comes from the bird’s long tail feathers. A thrasher weighs, however, only about 2.5 ounces.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted a dramatic scene of Brown Thrashers defending their nest from an attacking snake.

The brown thrasher is not a picky eater. It’s known to eat everything from berries and nuts to insects and small lizards. It’s also aggressive in defending its nest and young. John James Audubon, a French-American ornithologist, naturalist and painter, painted quite a dramatic scene of a group of brown thrashers valiantly defending a nest from an attacking snake. The painting is so detailed that one must imagine Audubon based his work on a real-life experience. His work, originally painted in the early decades of the 1800s, still holds up today.

Incidentally, Audubon knew the brown thrasher as the “ferruginous thrush.” Another former common name for this species was “brown thrush.”

They are familiar birds in southern gardens. In fact, the brown thrasher is the official state bird of Georgia and also provided the name for Atlanta’s National Hockey League team, the Atlanta Thrashers. The thrasher became Georgia’s state bird due to passage of a Joint Resolution of the Georgia General Assembly in 1970.

Returning to the expressive nature of brown thrashers, I think it’s the bird’s golden eyes that make them seem so alert and attentive. Once they feel secure in a lawn or garden, they become less shy. As one might expect from a large songbird, thrashers have voracious appetites. Among the feeder fare I offer, thrashers seem to prefer suet cakes. They’re not woodpeckers, however, so the awkward attempts of these long-tailed birds to access the suet offer some comic antics for observers.

More birds are due to make their spring returns soon. The return of ruby-throated hummingbirds is a highly anticipated arrival for many people. These birds usually get back in the first weeks of April. As always, I hope to track the return of these tiny flying gems.

To share your first spring hummingbird sighting, send me an email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or contact me on Facebook. Please provide the date, time and location for your sightings.

Turkeys strutting their stuff as spring begins to take hold

Photo by Robert Pos/USFWS • A tom turkey displays to a hen in a ritual meant to attract the female turkey as a potential mate. Winter’s flocks will break up as the nesting season progresses. Raising young is a solitary affair for a hen turkey.

In my experience, rainy days always seem to bring out wild turkeys. 

I saw five of these large wild fowl in the fields adjacent to Bell Cemetery in Limestone Cove on my drive to work on the morning of March 16. I posted my sighting on Facebook and got some responses from friends who have had their own recent encounters with turkeys.

Erwin resident Michael Briggs posted that on another recent rainy day he counted 17 turkeys in his yard. 

Kaylynn Sanford Wilster, a resident of Piney Flats, posted photos of a large flock of wild turkeys roaming her yard. 

Few birds have featured so prominently in the history of the United States as the wild turkey. Thanks to the federal government eventually moving to protect the wild turkey population, this bird today is quite common across the nation. Fields bordering woodlands are a great place to observe wild turkeys strutting their stuff, especially during the autumn and winter seasons when turkeys form large flocks, which are also known as “rafters.” Watching a male turkey, or tom, fan his impressive tail feathers to get the attention of hens or intimidate other male rivals offers a peek into the thinking some of the nation’s founders held regarding the wild turkey.

While turkeys are often associated with early winter and the Thanksgiving holiday, they are actually rather active in the springtime. The large flocks are still holding together, albeit loosely, as male turkeys, known as toms, strut and fan their impressive tail feathers in an attempt to make an impression on as many hens as possible. 

Once this business of attraction is settled with successful matings, the tom turkey will go his own way and leave the hard work of incubating eggs and caring for young entirely to the hen. 

The Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website puts it like this: “The male wild turkey provides no parental care. The female alone incubates the eggs. The young follow her immediately after hatching and quickly learn to catch food for themselves. Several females and their broods may form flocks of 30 or more birds.”

The website also points out that the wild turkey is the largest nesting bird found within the Volunteer State. Males can tip the scales at a little over 16 pounds while the average female weighs slightly more than nine pounds. 

According to Watchable Wildlife, males begin competing to attracts females in late winter and early spring. The tom’s efforts feature both an audio and visual component. The male turkey produces his trademark “gobble” to attract any listening hens. When the female appears, he puffs up his body feathers and struts around her with his tail spread and wingtips dragging on the ground.

Tom turkey also compete with each other. The dominant males will mate with several females in one season, but the hen alone is left to usher a new generation of turkeys into the world.

The Watchable Wildlife site reveals that a turkey’s nest is a simple affair, usually fashioned inside a slight depression in the ground that is lined with dead leaves or grass, usually placed at the base of a tree or bush and concealed in thick vegetation.

The hen will lay from seven to 14 eggs, which she will then spend about 28 days incubating. 

According to Tennessee Watchable Wildlife, the young depart the nest shortly after hatching and follow the female. She will take them to favorable spots to forage for food. Young turkeys, known as poults, begin to fly at six to 10 days old. Male young remain with the female until the fall; female young remain with the female until the spring.

It’s always fun to follow the progress of a hen and her brood throughout the spring and summer. Fortunately, wild turkeys are fairly common these days, but that hasn’t always been the case. 

Although an important food source for early settlers and Native Americans, the wild turkey was subjected to extensive over-hunting. The population crashed, and by the beginning of the 1900s was on the verge of extermination in many areas of the country.

Reintroduction efforts by various government game agencies helped the wild turkey recover. Today, the wild turkey is found in every county in the state of Tennessee. The wild turkey population has also recovered nationwide. 

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

Common raven is no bird brain

Photo by Alexas-Fotos/Pixabay • Common ravens, although native to the region, were not so common only a few decades ago. This much larger relative of the American crow is slowly becoming more commonplace in the area once again.

Since back in November, a common raven has been lurking in the woodlands around my home. I even hear the raven’s loud croaking when I’m inside the house. The local American crows have not rolled out a warm welcome for the interloping raven, but there seems to be an uneasy truce between the crows and the much larger raven.

Ravens are vocal birds. I got reminded of the many unusual vocalizations a raven’s capable of when the resident bird flew over, croaking loudly, on a recent brisk and sunny late afternoon. Between the croaks, the raven produced an uncanny imitation of a tinkling bell. The bird produced this bell sound several times before flying out of sight.

I’m not pulling any legs. Among their vocal repertoire, ravens can produce, usually in flight, a “bell” call. I’m not sure if this is a common vocalization. I only remember ever hearing a raven’s “bell” on only one other occasion. I was with a group of more established birders at Roan Mountain State Park when a raven flew overhead. Someone called out, “Listen to that.” I listened and heard my first raven “bell” call.

The strange thing is that I can find little about this strange vocalization when I researched the subject. According to the website “All About Birds,” common ravens calls vary from a low, gurgling croak to harsh grating sounds and shrill alarm calls. Scientists have placed their vocalizations into as many as 33 different categories based on sound and context. The most commonly heard is the classic gurgling croak, rising in pitch and seeming to come from the back of the throat.

The croak is their standby vocalization, which they produce often. The raven’s croak can be heard from a mile away. And, in defense of the poet Edgar Allan Poe and his “ominous bird of yore,” ravens are accomplished mimics. According to “All About Birds,” ravens can imitate other birds. Raven raised in captivity can even learn words. “Nevermore?”

From the opening refrain of “once upon a midnight dreary” in his poem, “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe established a somber mood and also helped cement the dark reputation of one of North America’s most misunderstood birds. Poe describes the bird that provides the title of his famous poem with adjectives such as “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous.” His raven also speaks, although it has the limited vocabulary of a single word, “Nevermore.”

How else does the real common raven resemble the “bird of yore” in Poe’s classic poem? For starters, the raven is an intelligent bird. Authors of a scientific study conducted about 15 years ago posited the claim that ravens and crows are just as intelligent as some of the great apes. Although parrots are more famous for the ability to mimic human speech, captive ravens have proven capable of learning more words than even the most impressive vocabulary-endowed parrots. So, Poe was not wide of the mark when he gave the gift of gab to the raven in his poem.

In the United States, the raven is quite common in Alaska. In the lower 48 states, raven populations are somewhat more sporadic. These large birds have established strongholds along the Appalachian Mountains and in the American Southwest. The raven is a cosmopolitan bird known to range from North America and Greenland to Europe and Asia, as well as North Africa and the Canary Islands.

The common raven is mainly a scavenger, but this bird is also an opportunistic predator and will prey on a wide variety of animals, including arthropods, amphibians, small mammals, birds, reptiles, and carrion. Ravens are attracted to carrion and are not finicky eaters. They adapt quickly and are known to even consume garbage.

Its black plumage has undoubtedly contributed to the raven’s sinister reputation and its affiliation with many dark superstitions. According to Laura C. Martin’s book, “The Folklore of Birds,” notes that the raven is “loathed throughout Europe as a symbol of impending death and war.” She explains that the raven probably acquired these connotations because these birds fed on battlefield corpses. As indicated earlier, the raven is not a picky eater. Martin also points out that legend maintains that England will remain a powerful nation as long as ravens live in the infamous Tower of London.

Establishing the raven’s closest relatives is helpful in fully becoming acquainted with this species. The raven is a member of the corvid family, which includes birds such as crows, magpies, nutcrackers and jackdaws. The common raven is the largest bird among the corvids. This bird can achieve a wingspan of almost four feet. The average raven weighs about two-and-a-half pounds. Large individuals have been recorded with a weight of slightly more than four pounds, making the raven a contender for the title of world’s largest songbird.

Poe’s poem offers a dramatic introduction to a bird that has once again become rather common in the region, particularly at higher elevations. This bird is well-known for nesting on inaccessible cliffs. However, ravens are proving adaptable. In recent years, a pair of ravens has repeatedly nested beneath the grandstands at Bristol Motor Speedway. Ravens have nested annually at this location at least since the spring of 2013.

Poe’s well-known poem, first published in 1845, is often cited as evidence for Poe’s genius for rhyme and his ability to create a believable supernatural universe populated by dark forces and one particularly persistent raven. It’s more than a little sad and ironic that the magazine that chose to publish Poe’s poem paid him a mere pittance of $9 for his brilliant contribution to literature.

The Bible also offers some interesting tales involving ravens. The prophet Elijah, after falling afoul of a wicked king, went into hiding and was provided food by cooperative ravens. In the story of the Biblical flood, Noah first released a raven to determine if the waters had receded. When the raven didn’t return to the ark, Noah next released a dove. This bird later returned to the ark clutching an olive leaf, which proved that the flood waters had subsided.

Many cultures also consider the raven as a “bringer of magic,” and the bird is associated with many creation stories in Native American cultures. Unlike the European custom of designating black as an “evil” color, Native Americans teach that black can hold various meanings, including resting, healing and prophetic dreaming, but evil is not one of them.

Ravens and crows are similar, but ravens are much larger birds. In addition, ravens have wedge-shaped tails and crows have fan-shaped tails. The common raven also has a well-developed ruff of feathers on the throat, commonly called its “hackles.”

A “murder of crows” is a fairly well known collective noun for a flock of these birds. On the other hand, a group of ravens has many collective nouns, including a “bazaar,” “constable” and “rant” of ravens. For its alliteration, I’m fond of “a rant of ravens” and think it’s a shame that Poe’s raven was apparently a solitary bird.

Other species of ravens found around the world include dwarf raven, thick-billed raven, fan-tailed raven, brown-necked raven, little raven and forest raven.

I like ravens. I find them fascinating, but there’s still something that causes some shivers when one hears the guttural, loud croak of a raven. It remains difficult to completely dismiss the raven’s long history of association with the darker niches of the world.

On that note, here’s one final tidbit regarding the raven taken from Martin’s book. Cherokee tribes believed that ravens would visit villages where ill or dying people were present. In the absence of a village shaman to drive away the bird, the raven would invariably snatch the life of the ailing individual.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Bryan Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Tiny kinglets brighten  the bleakest of seasons

Photo from Pixabay.com • Only the male ruby-crowned kinglet shows the red crown patch. In almost every other way, females are identical in appearance.

On one of our recent frosty mornings, the chickadees, the wrens, the titmice and other small birds were chattering and chirping in tree branches around my feeders. As I paused a moment to watch their antics, I noticed a tiny grayish bird that flashed a patch of ruby red feathers as it flitted among the branches.

The visitor turned out to be a ruby-crowned kinglet, one of North America’s smallest bird. This tiny bird is typically about four inches long and doesn’t even weigh half an ounce. How is it that one of the smallest North American birds chooses to spend the harsh cold months of winter in our yards and gardens?

Chickadees, titmice and other familiar winter birds eke out an existence by supplementing some their diet with fare from bird feeders. Although kinglets often associate with roaming mixed species flocks, they’re rarely interested in the offerings at our feeders. The kinglets are dedicated to gleaning tiny insects and spiders, as well as insects eggs and larvae, from branches and plantings in our yards. They’re so successful at it that they don’t need to turn to even a well-stocked feeder. A kinglet will on occasion sample an offering of suet or peanut butter, but this bird doesn’t make a habit of visiting feeders.

Since mid-October, I’ve been seeing a few golden-crowned kinglets, as well as the closely related ruby-crowned kinglet, at my home. Both the golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets are members of a family of diminutive birds known collectively as kinglets and firecrests. They’re such tiny, energetic bundles of feathers that they absolutely excel with the “cuteness” factor.

All kinglets are very small birds, as well as extremely active ones. The ruby-crowned and golden-crowned are also the only members of this family of birds found in North America. Four other species, however, are native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. The remaining species include goldcrest, common firecrest, Madeira firecrest and flamecrest, which is also known as the Taiwan firecrest.

Photo Courtesy of Beth McPherson • A golden-crowned kinglet survived an impact with a window pane.

Kinglets, as their name suggests, are such tiny birds that about the only North American birds smaller than kinglets are some of the hummingbirds. The kinglets belong to the family, Regulidae, and the genus, Regulus. The family and genus names are derived from a Latin word, regulus, which means “rex,”or “king” The name was apparently inspired by the colorful crown patches, often red, orange or gold, that resemble the royal “crowns” of kings.

Although similar in size and overall coloration, the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets are easily distinguished from each other. Side by side, the two species of North American kinglets are easy to identify. The golden-crowned kinglet has a striped facial pattern formed by bold black and white stripes. The ruby-crowned kinglet, on the other hand, has a bold white eye ring but no striping. The golden-crowned kinglet has an orange crown patch, while the ruby-crowned kinglet has a red crown patch that is, more often than not, kept concealed. Both sexes of the golden-crowned kinglet possess a yellow crown patch, but only the male ruby-crowned kinglet boasts a scarlet patch of feather atop the head.

Kinglets are active birds, foraging vigorously for small insects, and spiders. When foraging, both kinglet species have a habit of flicking their wings over the backs. Even if you can’t get a good look at the birds, this behavior helps contrast them from other small birds, including some warblers, wrens and the blue-gray gnatcatcher. They’re often curious birds and can be coaxed into a closer approach if a human observer make squeaking noises to attract their attention.

Golden-crowned kinglets are widespread in the region during the winter. During the summer months, head to the slopes of some of the region’s higher mountains to look for these tiny birds that nest at the higher elevations of the Southern Appalachians. Ruby-crowned kinglets can also be found in the region during the winter, but extreme cold weather will often force this less cold-hardy species to eke out the winter months farther south.

On a January visit to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, about 20 years ago, I chanced into what must have been a winter invasion of the Low Country by ruby-crowned kinglets. These tiny birds were extremely abundant at every location I visited.

In summer, ruby-crowned kinglets are absent from the region due to their preference for nesting much farther north in spruce-fir forests in the northwestern United States and across Canada.

Kinglets are surprisingly tame at times and often exhibit as much curiosity about us as we display toward them. They’re very active birds, however, constantly moving from perch to perch. These bursts of hyperactivity can make them difficult to observe since they so rarely remain still. Although small in size, these birds more than compensate for it with a feisty spirit that does them well through the harsher weather of the winter months.

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Looking for a beautiful Christmas gift for the bird enthusiast on your shopping list? Members of the Elizabethton Bird Club are selling a professionally-produced calendar that features dozens of full-color photographs and an informative and educational grid. These calendars sell for $15 plus $2 for shipping. All sales help the club fund birding programs, public park feeders, conservation efforts and other activities in upper Northeast Tennessee.

For more information on how to obtain a calendar, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Sales of local calendar fund bird-worthy aims

 

The front cover of the 2022 bird calendar produced by the Elizabethton Bird Club features a photo of a chestnut-sided warbler taken by club member Charles Warden. The calendar is available for purchase for $15, plus $2 for shipping and handling. They make great Christmas gifts for nature and bird enthusiasts. For more information, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

If you didn’t find all you needed on Black Friday for those on your shopping list, here’s a suggestion. The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, also known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, has produced its annual calendar featuring bird photographs by its members and friends of the organization.

These calendars make wonderful Christmas gifts and stocking stuffers. This year’s front cover features a gorgeous photo of a chestnut-sided warbler taken by club member Charles Warden. This is Warden’s first year contributing photographs to the club’s yearly calendar project. More of his photos are on display through the calendar. He is a resident of Johnson City.

“I took the photo on the Spring Bird Count with Fred Alsop and Judi Sawyer on May 1 of this year at Hampton Creek Cove,” Warden said.

He said that the bird was among the blooms of what he thinks was an apple tree.

“We heard the warbler and chased it down,” he said. “It came out in the open and posed nicely for pictures.”

He has been interested in photography since he took a beginning photography class at East Tennessee State University on a lark in 1977.

“I am lucky enough to be making a living as a photographer for ETSU marketing.”

Bird photography is certainly a challenge, he said, and requires much patience, decent equipment and a lot of luck.

“It’s been a learning curve for sure, and it’s still a tough call when to take the binoculars down and put the camera up as it’s so mesmerizing to watch the birds,” Warden said.

The chestnut-sided warbler is a summer resident in the region and can be found at middle and higher elevations on many of the area’s mountains, including Unaka and Roan. Unlike many warblers, both males and females are brightly colored, with the female being slightly less so. Males during the summer nesting season show a yellow crown, black mask, white cheeks, throat and breast and the namesake chestnut flanking on his sides.

He’s also a cheery and persistent singer when he arrives on his nesting territory. His song is usually transcribed as “Pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha!” For birders, it’s like a welcoming reintroduction each spring when this particular song is heard from the branches of trees in local woodlands.

For the singing male, there’s a more personal reason for singing his song. The “pleased, pleased, pleased to meetcha” refrain is a way of attracting the attention of potential mates. Males sing an entirely different song once settled into nesting activities with a mate. The song used to attract mates is more heavily accented, according to the website, All About Birds. Some males sing only unaccented songs and thus have a lower success rate at attracting mates.

Chestnut-sided warblers are classified by scientists as birds that favor successional habitats for nesting purposes. These sorts of habitats are usually disturbed by human activities such as logging. However, disturbed habitats can be created by natural occurrences, including fires, flooding and storm damage. During the winter months, this warbler withdraws into Central America with many individuals finding suitable habitat on shade-coffee plantations.

Female chestnut-sided warblers will weave a nest of bark, grass and other components all bound together with gathered spider silk. She will lay three to five eggs. These warblers make the most of the summer season, often nesting a second time after raising their first brood.

Chestnut-sided warblers feed largely on insects, but the birds also incorporate seeds and fruits into their diet. Young are fed by both parents on a diet of small insects, spiders and caterpillars. The chestnut-sided warbler’s scientific name, Setophaga pensylvanica, roughly translates as “eater of moths from Pennsylvania,” which is a nod to the bird’s insect-rich diet.

Other warblers that can be found in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee — and in the pages of the calendar — include black-throated blue warbler, golden-winged warbler, worm-eating warbler, hooded warbler, prairie warbler and common yellowthroat.

Like most small songbirds, the New World warblers, to which the chestnut-sided warbler belongs, don’t have long lifespans. A few individuals, however, defy the odds. According to the website, All About Birds, the longest-lived chestnut-sided warbler documented by scientists was a nearly seven-year-old bird banded in Rhode Island in 1980. The bird had been banded in the same state six years and 11 months earlier in 1973.

Of course, with the exception of the yellow-rumped warbler, most of the warblers don’t spend the winter months in the region. With one of these calendars, however, you can enjoy beautiful photos of some of our most lovely warblers while awaiting their return this spring in mid-April and early May.

The inside pages of the professionally-produced calendar feature dozens more full-color photographs and an informative and educational grid. These calendars sell for $15 plus $2 for shipping. All sales help the club fund birding programs, public park feeders, conservation efforts and other activities in upper Northeast Tennessee.

For more information on how to obtain a calendar, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Bird of mystery, black rail famed for eluding birders

Photo by AGAMA/Adobe Stock • Adult male black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) standing in a swamp during the night in Brazoria County, Texas. The black rail is a  secretive, rarely seen bird of wetlands and marshes. Much smaller than other members of the rail family, the bird doesn’t offer even determined birders any easy observations.

On Wednesday morning, Oct. 13, I fetched my mom’s newspaper before heading to work. Scanning the front page headlines while walking back from the mailbox, I missed a tiny bird.

The bird flushed into a panicked flight at the last possible second from right under my feet. At a glance, I knew at once that I’d seen something incredibly different. I can only describe the bird as a black, somewhat pear-shaped bird, perhaps a little larger than a typical sparrow, with a less than elegant flight that took it a couple of feet into a stand of cattails and other wet-loving vegetation.

Then, just like that, the bird was gone. After that brief encounter, which may have lasted at best a second or two, the bird vanished. With sparrows or warblers, an observer can squeak some notes to persuade a curious bird to come back into sight. I tried and got no response.

Of course, I didn’t think I’d seen a warbler or a sparrow. In an instant, perhaps one of the most significant bird sightings I’ve ever had at my home was concluded but hardly resolved.

I remained standing, staring, trying to determine what I’d just seen. I had an idea, but it was almost too unexpected and too unsupported to entertain. I won’t be adding it to my life list of birds seen, but I am fairly confident that I saw a black rail, one of the tiniest representatives in a family of birds that also include sora rail, Virginia rail, clapper rail and king rail.

When I describe the bird as tiny, it’s not an exaggeration. Adults are bigger than most sparrows but smaller than an American robin. They are gray-black birds speckled with white on the back. They have a black crown and chestnut patch evident on the back of the neck. The bill is black.The legs range from pink to wine-colored. The most striking feature of this bird, if observed under favorable conditions, is its bright red eyes.

Many birders have probably enjoyed a flight of fancy while imagining a beady pair of red eyes staring back at them from dense marsh vegetation. The black rail is so difficult to observe that it has become a sort of feathered “holy grail” for birders. I was certainly not expecting the possibility of my path crossing with this tiny wanderer.

The black rail has not been extensively studied by scientists, which means much about this elusive bird of marshes and wetland is poorly understood. There are different reasons behind the mysteries surrounding the bird.

For instance, although it does vocalize, black rails call mostly after dark. Not many people go wandering through marshes at night, so black rails largely go unheard.

In addition, when these small birds perceive a threat, they prefer running through dense vegetation instead of taking flight. Some black rails in northern areas are migratory, so these birds are capable of sustained flight. They simply don’t like to fly unless circumstances dictate flight upon them. They’d prefer to scurry through wetland, much like a small rodent. They are even known to take advantage of trails blazoned through marshes by mice and other small rodents.

A few aspects of my observation work in favor of the bird being a black rail. I’ve seen other rails — sora, Virginia rail and clapper rail — on multiple occasions. Virginia rail and clapper rail can be ruled out. They’re too large and too different in appearance to be mistaken for a black rail. The sora bears a certain similarity to a black rail, but it is mostly brown and gray with a yellow bill. It’s also larger than a black rail.

Once the black rail’s close kin are eliminated, there aren’t any other likely suspects that might be confused with it. It’s frustrating. I will likely always refer to this sighing as “the bird that looked a lot like a black rail.” My hesitation stems partly from the simple fact that so many birders are unable to ever get a look at this bird. Why should I have had better luck, even if only for a split second?

Incidentally, two of my best rail sighings have taken place in Erwin.

Back in 2000, I observed a Virginia rail stepping delicately and deliberately though some cattails and other vegetation on the fringes of the wetland area adjacent to the large pond at Erwin Fishery Park. I watched the bird move carefully and deliberately through the vegetation. It was only for a moment or two, but it was of longer duration than my recent “blink-and-you-missed-it” observation of the black rail in my driveway.

My best observation of a sora took place in the spring a few years ago during a visit to the boardwalk over the wetlands near the industrial park in Erwin. The boardwalk is part of the extended linear trail in town. I was birding that day with Margaret Roy, the former manager of Mountain Inn & Suites of Erwin.

Margaret wanted to learn more about birds, and we really got lucky when we found such an uncommon bird only minutes after we stepped onto the boardwalk. It was as simple as looking down on the mudflats and noticing an odd, plump bird walking without concern beneath us. From our elevated viewing platform, we got excellent looks through binoculars and I took some photos.

Early naturalists, even without benefit of binoculars, were aware of the black rail. John James Audubon, the famous painter and naturalist, painted a black rail and its chick. Audubon referred to the elusive denizen of wetlands depicted in his painting as the “least water-rail.” Others have called the bird by such names as “least water-hen,” “little black rail” and “black crake.” In some parts of the world, rails are referred to as crakes, but they are basically all the same type of bird.

According to the website, All About Birds, black rails have been eliminated from many saltwater tidal habitats. The website even encourages people to listen for black rails in spring in freshwater wetlands. Although they favor tidal habitats on the coast, black rails will nest in a variety of wet meadows, marshy edges, and even along creeks and rivers. Some event attempt to nest around farm ponds or fields of hay with standing water.

Black rails are scarce, but they do range throughout the United States and Canada. The two states with the most black rails are Florida and California. Unfortunately, those two states feature habitats under siege from human encroachment.

Because of their small size, black rails are limited water that is more shallow than used by most rails. They feed on seeds, insects, crustaceans and mollusks. In 2015, the black rail was confirmed as a nesting species in South Carolina after long being classified as a non-breeding migrant to the state.

High tides that force these birds from their dense cover make them vulnerable to predators ranging from herons and hawks to foxes and cats.

Rails belong to the family of birds known as Rallidae, which includes not only crakes and rails, but coots and gallinules, too. The entire family consists of about 150 species, including bird with such descriptive names as grey-throated rail, ash-throated crake, snoring rail, invisible rail, chestnut rail and striped crake. Many species of rails, particularly those that evolved on isolated islands, have become flightless.

There’s a saying that lightning never strikes twice. I’m hoping the saying is wrong. I’ve learned a lot about this fascinating bird while researching the topic of black rails after my all-too-brief sighting. I’d very much like to get a more satisfying look at a black rail some day.

Fingers crossed.

 

It all began with a dark-eyed junco

Photo by Jack Bumer from Pixabay • For many people, the dark-eyed junco is a winter bird, not arriving until the first frost or snowfall of the season. These songbirds typically remain until late spring when they disperse to their nesting grounds.

I wrote my first bird column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this weekly column is marking its 26th anniversary this week.

This column has appeared over the last three decades in a total of six different newspapers, which I regard as a personal achievement, as well as an accomplishment for our feathered friends. It’s on their behalf that I pen these weekly efforts to promote conservation and good will toward all birds. I have also posted the column as a weekly blog posting since February  2014 at www.ourfinefeatheredfriends.com.

I’ve played detective, helping people identify everything from “rain crows,” or cuckoos, to Muscovy ducks, chukars and double-crested cormorants. I’ve observed unusual birds, including white pelicans, brants and roseate spoonbills, in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina and spotlighted them in these columns. I still take delight in the kaleidoscopic parade of colorful warblers that pass through the region each spring and fall as well as the fast-paced duel of ruby-throated hummingbirds and the occasional rufous hummingbirds straying through the region.

At my home, I also provide sunflower seed and other supplemental food for the resident birds like Carolina chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows and downy woodpeckers.

Even as I tweak my anniversary column for “Feathered Friends,” parts of the region just experienced the first heavy frost. This prognostication of approaching winter weather is a perfect time to dust off this week’s column, which is a revision of the first bird column I ever wrote. This column focused on a common visitor to yards and feeders during the winter months. In fact, dark-eyed juncos should bereturning to the region any day. Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column.

•••

Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

During the summer months, a visit to higher elevations mountaintops is almost guaranteed to produce sightings of dark-eyed juncos. Juncos may nest as many as three times in a season. A female junco usually lays three to six eggs for each nest, which she constructs without any assistance from her mate.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

The juncos are a small branch of the sparrow clan. Some of the other juncos include the endangered Guadalupe junco, yellow-eyed junco, Baird’s junco and volcano junco. The last one on the list is endemic to the Talamancan montane forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. Baird’s junco is named for Spencer Fullerton Baird, an American ornithologist and naturalist.

Baird served as secretary  for the Smithsonian Institution from 1878 until  his death in 1887. He greatly expanded the natural history collections of the Smithsonian from 6,000 specimens in 1850 to over two million by the time of his death.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to juncos. There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

•••

Orders are being accepted for the 2022 bird calendar produced by Elizabethton Bird Club members. Calendars feature bird photographs taken by club members. The calendars sell for $15, plus $2 for postage and handling for those needing a calendar mailed to them. This year’s cover features a beautiful photograph of a chestnut-sided warbler among spring blossoms taken by Charles Warden. Anyone interested in the purchase of a calendar can email Bryan Stevens at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com for more information.

•••

If you’d like to share your first sighting this season of dark-eyed juncos as the temperatures get colder, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. As always, the column is also a line of communication with fellow bird enthusiasts. I’ve enjoyed sharing stories about birds with countless readers over the past 26 years. I can also be reached on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

 

 

 

American crow’s dark reputation more from plumage than behavior

There’s something rather autumnal about watching a flock of American crows glean the last scattered kernels of corn from a harvested field as one of the flock stands sentry and ready to utter the alarm with some guttural “caws” should anything potentially threatening appear on the scene. Crows are such a part of the landscape that they would almost escape our notice if they didn’t come with centuries of accumulated baggage that makes us distrust them and suspect their every action.

While seeking birds far afield, I have occasionally spotted some innovative scarecrows standing guard in gardens and agricultural fields. I’m not sure if anyone still erects these human effigies for their original purpose of warding off crows and other feathered agricultural pests. These days, scarecrows likely serve an ornamental purpose and are often part of a yard’s whimsical Halloween or autumn decorations.

The crow, largely thanks to its glossy black feathers, but perhaps also with a nod to its avian intelligence, has long been associated with Halloween. Greeting cards and decorations for the holiday often feature depictions of bats, owls and black cats, as well as the inevitable crow and the accompanying scarecrow. With a brain about as big as a man’s thumb, the crow is renowned among ornithologists and other scientists for its keen intelligence. Crows are not fooled for a second by the charade of a straw-stuffed, brainless friend of Dorothy propped in a field.

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay • An American crow perches on a log. Due to its dark coloration, crows have often been associated with evil and other dark forces. In actuality, crows are admirable, highly intelligent birds.

The intelligence of this bird has long been known. Early American naturalist William Bartram wrote about a crow named Tom in a highly entertaining essay titled “Anecdotes of an American Crow.” Bartram, who lived from 1739 to 1823, brought humorous observations and keen insight to his subject as he wrote about the joys — as well as tribulations — of living with Tom, a crow that enjoyed tormenting Bartram’s dog and purloining the writer’s spectacles and trying to hide them.

The essay demonstrates that almost as soon as Europeans arrived in North America, some of those with a bent toward the natural world recognized the intelligence and amazing adaptability of the American crow. As well as writing about the natural world, Bartram earned widespread acclaim for his drawings of botanical and ornithological subjects. Tom, the featured crow in Bartram’s brief essay, certainly exhibited intelligence of an impressive degree. Not only did the crow steal his owner’s eyeglasses, he foiled Bartram’s first attempt to reclaim them. The story makes very humorous reading. To read Bartram’s account, visit http://www.geocities.ws/jswortham/crow.

What else have crows done down through the ages to gain such a dark and much undeserved reputation? It probably doesn’t help matters that a flock of crows is known as a “murder.” Ancient Greeks considered crows as omens, which often foretold death and other disasters. The warrior goddess known as the Morrighan from Celtic mythology often appears in the form of a crow or raven. She is also often portrayed as being accompanied by a group of these black-plumaged birds. Many Native American tribes revere crows as communicators between worlds. Crows have been documented using tools and solving problems, which shows an uncanny ability to analyze and strategize. The early Celtic people also noted and admired these traits in crows.

I think the Celts and Native tribes had the right idea. Crows are admirable birds for many reasons. For instance, they are very social birds, often forming family flocks. They may also form much larger flocks for the purpose of roosting. When nesting, this social behavior comes in useful for a mated pair. Offspring from previous successful nesting efforts often serve as helpers. In addition to gaining their own life experience on successful nesting and caring for chicks, these older siblings may protect the nest site from predators or even deliver food to fill hungry beaks and bellies.

While famous for their associations to humans and our agriculture, crows forage far beyond the cornfield for their food. Many crows scavenge road-killed wildlife, such as squirrels, opossums and rabbits. While they certainly don’t turn up their beaks at the notion of eating carrion, crows do so less often than birds such as turkey vultures, black vultures and the crow’s fellow corvid, the common raven.

The kinship to the raven is evident, but even moderately experienced birders rarely confuse these similar species. The raven is a large bird with a heavy beak, a distinctive profile and a wedge-shaped tail. In a direct comparison with a raven, a crow looks downright puny. Both are members of the corvid family, which consists of 120 species including jays, rooks, magpies and jackdaws. Some of the world’s other crows include the descriptively named little crow, hooded crow, carrion crow, collared crow, long-billed crow and violet crow. While most of the world’s crows are thriving, the Hawaiian crow has been extinct in the wild since 2002, although the species still exists in captive-breeding programs in various zoos.

Thanks to its resourcefulness and intelligence, the crow is deserving of more respect and even admiration. The American crow is a uniquely American success story. Think more of Bartram’s story about Tom the crow and not the dark, misguided myths and legends about crows this Halloween. Long may the crows fly.