Photo by Bryan Stevens * A male mallard lounges by the edge of a fish pond in a previous spring season.
Signs of spring are, as the old saying goes, popping up all over. Daffodils and crocuses unfurling their blooms, a pair of mallards paying a visit to my fish pond and the blue skies overhead on sunny days have signaled the transition toward spring as surely as the turning of the calendar page to March.
Some of these familiar sights have been hazy for me during this season of transition. In early February I lost vision in my right eye. After visits to various medical experts, an MRI, blood tests and other procedures, I got a diagnosis of optic papillitis, a form of optic neuritis. In simpler terms, I suffered a stroke of the eye that aggravated and inflamed the optic nerve.
The good news, as I see it, tests have not found any evidence of underlying conditions like cancer or a brain tumor. The bad news, also as I see it, is that recovery is not guaranteed and can take time. The process is usually measured in weeks and months, not days.
It’s been unsettling, to describe it mildly. Reading requires the assistance of a magnifying glass. Too much time focused on a bright screen brings discomfort.
I’m carrying on with birding as best I can. Binoculars, as birders know, are made for use by two eyes. I have feeders to lure the birds in close, but my favorite cardinals, chickadees and wrens are a bit blurry.
I’ve always tried to stay optimistic. I’m hopeful that by the time the ruby-throated hummingbirds return for a sip of sugar water at my feeders in April, my sight will be good enough to enjoy the beauty of their green and white plumage and the brilliant red throat if the visiting hummer is a male.
Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male ruby-throated hummingbird show the namesake red throat. The feathers on a male’s throat are iridescent, which means they can change when seen from different angles. In poor light, the ruby-red throat can look almost black.
If spring’s too soon, I’ll push the goal farther along in the 2023 calendar and hope to be ready to identify the annual fall parade of warblers.
As I wait, nothing’s stopping me from enjoying the sounds of spring. On rainy days, the chorus of spring peepers produce their amphibious cacophany at dusk and throughout the night. Many of the birds are also singing their hearts out. Eastern phoebes, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and Northern cardinals all make their presence with their loud, persistent songs.
On Monday, Feb. 20, I watched as the fuzzy shapes of two dozen red-winged blackbirds dropped down into the cattails in the marshy area near the fish pond. It’s not February for me until I’ve seen a migrating flock of blackbirds benefitting from an overnight stay in the cattails.
Photo by Bryan Stevens * A mallard drake looks vibrant with his green, glossy head.
On Sunday, Feb. 26, a mallard pair visited the fish pond. They were the first mallards that I’ve observed at my fish pond for many years. In full disclosure, my mom spotted them and informed me of their arrival. Mallards are big enough that I saw the male of the pair easily enough. His green head and chestnut breast stood out from the brown cattails and other vegetation bordering the pond. The female mallard blended nicely with the background and evaded my gaze. Regardless, I was thrilled to welcome mallards back to the pond. They only lingered for a single day, but they have me hoping that other ducks, such as blue-winged teal or wood ducks, will make similar visits as the season progresses.
On March 1, I saw my first spring butterfly. The seasonal first was a spring azure, a tiny, delicate butterfly. The sighting reminded me that nature will provide plenty of incentive to work on regaining my full vision. I still have more butterflies, as well as dragonflies, damselflies, moths and June bugs to look forward to seeing as we progress through spring and summer.
I’ve always believed that nature is a restorative force. Now I am going to test that theory in my goal to have my vision back at or near normal capacity by the time I hear the buzzy whir of hummingbird wings in April.
In the meantime, there will still be plenty of time to focus on our myriad feathered friends. I have someone who has been great at taking down my dictated words for my weekly column.
As always, make a comment, share an observation or ask a question by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contributed Photo by Tim Barto • One of the mourning doves nesting atop a porch column at the home of Star and Tim Barton in Telford arrives with a sprig of nesting material held in its beak. Tim’s photo of the dove even impressed the editors at “Smoky Mountain Living.” The magazine published the photo earlier this year.
Star Barto, a resident of Telford in Washington County, contacted me after reading my column on the Eastern phoebes nesting on myfront porch. Incidentally, the phoebes have now successfully fledged their young.
Star began her email by sharing that she and her husband, Tim, have been blessed with mourning doves building their nests on the top of one of their porch columns.
“This is our fifth year with a ring side seat,” Star wrote. “They usually have two nestings per season that produce two babies each time.”
This year, the birds changed things up and the Bartos are celebrating a third nest — atop the same porch column.
“We call it our special version of an Airbnb,” she noted.
At first, the doves would fly each time Star or Tim opened the front door, but the birds gradually grew accustomed to their human landlords.
Star wrote that their nest is in such a ideal location — safe, dry, under cover, high up — that the doves return year after year and do not doubt the safety of their habitat.
“We turn off the porch light, of course, and work hard at minimizing disruption,” she wrote.
“And they thrive,” Star added. “It is beyond thrilling to be able to see so up close and personal the magic of Mother Nature.”
The mourning dove is a common backyard bird across the country. It’s also considered a game bird.
According to the website, All About Birds, the mourning dove is the most widespread and abundant game bird in North America. According to the website, hunters harvest more than 20 million of these birds every year, but the mourning dove remains one of the most abundant birds with a U.S. population estimated at 350 million. The mourning dove also ranges into Canada and Mexico.
Photo by Bryan Stevens • A mourning dove stretches a wing while perched on a feeder.
The mourning dove gets its name from its mournful cooing, which has been likened to a lament. Birds are more vocal during the nesting season.
Former common names for this dove include Carolina pigeon, rain dove and turtle dove. The mourning dove is a member of the dove family, Columbidae, which includes 344 different species worldwide.
From the standpoint of a scientist, there’s no real difference between doves and pigeons. In general, smaller members of the family are known as doves and the larger ones are classified as pigeons, but that’s not a firm rule.
Some of the more descriptively named doves and pigeons include blue-eyed ground dove, purplish-backed quail dove, ochre-bellied dove, red-billed pigeon, emerald-spotted wood dove, pink-necked green pigeon, sombre pigeon, topknot pigeon, white-bellied imperial pigeon, cinnamon ground dove, pheasant pigeon, crested cuckoo-dove and crowned pigeon.
An early illustration of the dodo.
Arguably the most famous dove is the extinct dodo, a bird renowned as beingalmost too stupid to live. The dodo almost certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as a “bird brain.” The reason for the bird’s swift extinction after encountering humans can be explained by the fact that this large, flightless dove evolved on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Largely defenseless, the dodo’s fate was sealed from the moment this bird was confronted with new arrivals — humans and affiliated animals such as rats, pigs and cats — at its home.The results of these first encounters were catastrophic for the species.
The first mention of the three-foot-tall dodo in the historic record occurred in 1598 when Dutch sailors reached Mauritius. By 1662, the bird vanishes from the historic record. The bird disappeared so swiftly that for some time after it was often considered a mythical creature.
Other native doves in the United States include common ground-dove, Inca dove, white-winged dove and Key West quail-dove. The Eurasian collared-dove is an introduced species that has spread rapidly across the country and occurs in Northeast Tennessee.
Doves are unusual among birds in feeding young a type of milk. Known as “crop milk,” both parents feed young in the nest with this substance produced in the crop, which is simply an enlargement of the bird’s esophagus. The crop is usually used for storage of surplus food, which is usually seeds.
Young doves are known as squabs, and the crop milk they are fed early in life is rich in antioxidants, fats and proteins, allowing them to thrive and grow quickly.
To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, please email me at email@example.com.
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.
Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perched on a fence rail shows the reddish tail, a reliable field mark to separate this species from close relatives. The tail contrasts from the rest of the bird’s plumage.
Karen Miller sent me an email about a winter visitor in her yard at her home in Parrottsville, Tennessee. “I have seen a hermit thrush eating holly berries for 10 days,” Karen wrote. “Is he migrating or is he perhaps a winter visitor here in Parrottsville?”
To answer her question, I replied and informed her that the thrush is a winter visitor. The hermit thrush takes up residence after its kin have already departed the region in the fall, making it one of the few thrushes to remain in Northeast Tennessee during the winter months. I’ve always thought a good nickname for this bird would be the “winter thrush” because of its presence during the colder months of the year. Of course, for those who know where to look, a few hermit thrushes spend the summer nesting season at high elevation peaks such as Roan Mountain on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.
The hermit thrush is one of the larger brown thrushes, which also includes such related birds as Swainson’s thrush, veery, gray-cheeked thrush and wood thrush. Other less closely related members of the thrush family include the American robin, Eastern bluebird and Townsend’s solitaire.
USFWS • Hermit thrushes like to keep to the shadows.
The poet Walt Whitman employed a hermit thrush as a symbol in his poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a moving pastoral elegy in honor of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Whitman evidently knew his birds, and it’s not difficult for naturalists and bird enthusiasts to identify that he referred to the hermit thrush when he wove this songbird as a symbol into his stanzas honoring Lincoln. “Sing on there in the swamp,” Whitman wrote in his poem. “O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call. I hear, I come presently, I understand you…”
Whitman evidently knew of this bird’s bashful, retiring habits, and he had obviously enjoyed the flute-like notes of the hermit thrush’s call. Whitman and many other Americans have been made fans of this gifted songbird. In fact, the citizens of Vermont even proclaimed the hermit thrush as their official state bird. The hermit thrush is well known for its song — a series of clear, musical notes, each on a different pitch, consisting of a piping introductory note and a reedy tremolo. The song had often been described as melancholy by various bird experts. The birds don’t usually sing in winter, but they do produce a call note when disturbed or alarmed that is described as a low “chuck.”
The visiting hermit thrush at her home has allowed Karen Miller to get to know this somewhat reclusive bird better. “He sits on the ground, cocks his head, spies a berry and then jumps up and gets it,” she wrote. She noted that her visitor has a good appetite. “He eats four or five at a time,” she said. “I’m so glad to see him.”
Photo by USFWS • Like many thrushes, the hermit thrush is fond of fruit and berries, especially during the winter.
According to the Smoky Mountains Visitors Guide website, the hermit thrush forages for most of its food from the ground. This bird’s diet includes insects, spiders, snails, and earthworms, plus considerable amounts of wild fruits during the fall and winter. Hermit thrushes may join up with mixed flocks of birds during the winter, often associating with such songbirds as kinglets, brown creepers, chickadees and titmice. For those not fortunate enough to host a wintering hermit thrush, this bird can be found during the summer months atop some high-elevation peaks. Close to home, look for this thrush in the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Gardens. The hermit thrush is also found at some locations in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
Female hermit thrushes collect nesting materials and construct the nest, within which she will lay three to six eggs. These thrushes nest once or twice a season. According to the website All About Birds, nesting habits differ between hermit thrushes in the western North America and their counterparts in the eastern half of the continent. Eastern thrushes tend to nest on the ground, but those in the west often place their nests in shrubs or tree branches.
At home on Simerly Creek Road, my first hermit thrush of the winter arrived in early November of last year. During a woodland stroll with neighbor Beth McPherson, the resident thrush put on an impressive show, hopping and scraping on the woodland floor beneath a rhododendron thicket bordering a mountain spring. In such surroundings, it’s not difficult to fathom why this bird has developed such a subtle plumage of muted browns and grays. Even when foraging actively, the bird blended remarkably with the background of fallen leaves and other woodland debris.
The hermit thrush is known by the scientific name, Catharus guttatus. The term guttatus is Latin for “spotted,” which seems appropriate. Surprisingly, the hermit thrush is not closely related to the other North American migrant species of Catharus thrushes. Instead, the hermit thrush is more closely related to the russet nightingale-thrush, a Mexican songbird. The hermit thrush could accurately be called the “red-tailed thrush” for the fact that this species has a rusty-red tail that stands apart from the warm brown-gray tones of the rest of its plumage. A white eye ring, pink legs and a heavily spotted breast complete the rest of this bird’s understated appearance.
Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perches on a branch in a winter woodland.
The wintering hermit thrushes in the region will likely stay put for the next couple of months, but they will mostly depart the area in April or early May. If you want to look for them, now’s the time.
••••• Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young rufous hummingbird approaches a feeder for a sip of sugar water. These hummingbirds, which are native to the western United States and Canada, have become regular visitors throughout the eastern United States in late fall and early winter.
Almost every year since beginning to write this column, I have penned articles about the phenomenon of wintering hummingbirds. With the official 2020-21 winter season approaching, I have already gotten word of hummingbirds making themselves at a couple of homes in the region, as well as from such far-flung locales as Ohio and New York.
Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Dave Menke • The rufous hummingbird is increasingly becoming a migrant/winter resident in the eastern United States.
Katherine Noblet, a former resident of Johnson City, Tennessee, is hosting a rufous hummingbird at her home in Mount Vernon, Ohio. The tiny bird was banded and identified on Nov. 16. The verdict? The tiny visitor is a first-year female rufous hummingbird.
Noblet, who also hosted rufous hummingbirds when she lived in Tennessee, has posted on Facebook about her most recent winter hummingbird. She noted that the hummingbird, which she has named Reba, first appeared on Nov. 14. Temperatures have dipped into the 20s during the bird’s stay.
“Why a few of these tiny creatures want to hang around this far north is a mystery, but she looks happy and healthy and cannot be existing on just sugar water,” Noblet noted in a Facebook post on Nov. 24. “I have to trust she knows what she is doing.”
Closer to home, some Roan Mountain residents have reported lingering hummingbirds.
Leslie and Kathie Storie, who reside on Heaton Creek in Roan Mountain, Tennessee, posted to Facebook on Oct. 29 about a visiting hummingbird.
Photo by Bryan Stevens • A rufous hummingbird grasps a briar as a perch for a moment’s rest from its frantic activities.
“We had a hummingbird on Heaton Creek about 6 o’clock today,” they noted in a post on my Facebook page.
Although they had already taken down their feeders, they reported still having pineapple sage and lantana in bloom in their yard. These flowers are favorites of hummingbirds and would no doubt help attract one of these tiny birds.
Judi Sawyer, also a resident of Roan Mountain, has hosted not one but two rufous hummingbirds this fall. She noticed the birds in early October. One of the two birds was banded and documented on Oct. 4. One of the birds evaded the bander’s traps, but the one that was banded was identified as an immature male rufous hummingbird.
I also received an email recently from Susan Jensen, a resident of Carmel, New York, about a lingering hummingbird at her feeders. She had found one of my online articles about wintering hummingbirds and contacted me for more information.
“We have had ruby-throated hummingbirds for many years and I have three feeders for them during the season,” Jensen said. “I always leave one up until I know for sure everyone has passed through to their winter location.”
In October, she reported a feeder visitor that looked like a strange ruby-throated hummingbird. She described the bird as bronze and rusty with a bit of green.
Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rufous hummingbirds have been extensively documented as wintering throughout the southeastern United States. This male rufous hummingbird was documented in Hampton, Tennessee, a couple of years ago.
“For about two weeks I thought it was a ruby-throated hummingbird until I realized it wasn’t,” Susan wrote in her email.
After a quick Google search, I emailed Susan and put her in touch with Robert Yunick of Schenectady, New York. On Friday, Nov. 20, he traveled to Susan’s home. He banded the bird, which he identified as juvenile female rufous hummingbird, confirming Susan’s thoughts on the bird’s identity. Susan shared a video of the banding process at this link:
“It has been here since Oct. 10,” she informed me in an email. She noted that the bird has endured at several freezing nights when the temperature dipped down to 20 degrees.
“I change the feeder every three days and, if it is frozen like it was this morning, I change it again,” she said. “We are now going to bring the feeder in at night and put it out early the next morning.”
A rufous hummingbird hosts in a host’s hand after being banded and documented in Hampton, Tennessee, several years ago.
Susan enjoyed observing the banding process. “The whole process was surprising,” she wrote to me. “I had never witnessed anything like it.”
Susan said the visiting hummingbird got caught in the trap fairly quickly.
“Bob worked very quickly to measure and band her,” Susan added. “It took about 20 minutes and he fed her three times.”
At the conclusion of the process, she got to hold the tiny visitor. “I have held a hummingbird before, but it was still very special,” Susan said.
She also shared what she termed an “extra story” about hummingbirds.
“About three to four years ago, I was sitting on my deck, watching the babies (immature) hummingbirds buzz around later in the evening,” she said. “They chase each other, and do all kinds of acrobatics.”
During that evening’s antics, one of the hummingbirds flew right into the post used to hold Susan’s feeder.
“It knocked itself out, falling on the railing,” Susan explained. “I was stunned. I picked her up and proceeded to do everything wrong until my son came home. He looked up what to do, and we righted all the wrongs.”
They realized that the bird needed to be fed, so they took down the feeder and fed her twice.
“After that, she took off,” Susan noted. “It was amazing.”
Susan shared that she has been feeding the birds at her home in New York’s Hudson Valley for over 30 years.
“My parents got me interested,” she explained. “They took up bird watching when I was in high school and I have been bird watching ever since.”
Watching birds, she noted, is her all-time favorite thing. “Even when my husband and I are hiking we are always looking for something new,” she said. “It never gets old.”
Photo by Daniel Roberts/Pixabay.com • An adult male rufous hummingbird is a dazzling bird. Many of the winter rufous hummingbirds look much less vibrant.
Through the years, I have seen several of these seemingly out-of-place hummingbirds. Some of them remain at their host’s feeders for a brief stay of a few days or a couple of weeks, but some of these hummingbirds have extended their stay for several months, lingering throughout the winter months before eventually departing in February or March.
The big question concerns whether these hummingbirds are truly lost and out of place. The answer, based on everything I have managed to learn, is that these hummingbirds are precisely where they want to be. For still unknown reasons, some of these western hummingbirds make a migration swing through the eastern United States.
Many of the visiting winter hummingbirds turn out to be rufous hummingbirds, which is a species native to the western United States. The birds visiting at the homes of Katherine, Judi, and Susan all turned out to be rufous hummingbirds. It’s likely the visitor reported by the Storeys was also a rufous hummingbird.
In the summer months, the ruby-throated is the expected species of hummingbird in the eastern United States. In the winter months — not so much. However, in regions all across the Eastern United States, as well as along the Gulf Coast, a few ruby-throated hummingbirds are attempting to overwinter.
The rufous hummingbird has basically become an expected winter visitor each year in Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee, and western North Carolina. A few reports are received each winter. I have observed rufous hummingbirds in many different locations throughout East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
Winter hummingbirds, while always a delightful surprise for their hosts, no longer shock long-time birders. We’ve grown to expect them. If any readers are still hosting lingering hummingbirds at their feeders, I’d love to hear their stories. Email me at email@example.com.
Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com The female black-throated green warbler lacks the male’s all-black throat, but she is a striking bird in her own right. Black-throated green warblers and the related black-throated blue warbler are common birds in the Southern Appalachians from April to October.
I’ve enjoyed some lawn chair birding on recent September evenings, delighting in my observations of birds ranging from flycatchers and catbirds to warblers, vireos and hummingbirds. I enjoy my casual study of the daily changes in the bird population present in my yard and adjacent woods. The parade of warblers hasn’t been as productive as in past autumns, but I have managed to spot and identify hooded warbler, American redstart, chestnut-sided warbler, magnolia warbler, Northern parula, and black-throated green warbler visitors.
The black-throated green appeared suddenly in a fast-paced burst of foraging in a cherry tree. Alongside birds such as an Eastern wood-pewee and red-eyed vireo, the warbler gleaned the leaves of the trees for concealed caterpillars. I watched the bird swallow with gusto several of the caterpillars so skillfully plucked with its thin, pointed bill.
The black-throated green warbler and one other species, the black-throated blue warbler, share the appellation of “black-throated,” and rightfully so. Males in the spring look their best with a dark black throat in striking contrast to the rest of their plumage. The female black-throated green shows some black on the throat, but female black-throated blue warblers exhibit no black throat patch. In fact, black-throated blue males and females are extremely different in appearance. Scientists call such dramatic appearances differences “sexual dimorphism.” Among the warblers, this species provides the most striking example of sexual dimorphism of any of the warblers. The male and female do share one identifying mark — a white square near the outer edge of the middle of each wing. This square is usually more pronounced in the male, but it stands out enough that it helps distinguish the female black-throated blue from similar dull-plumaged birds such as vireos.
German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin described the black-throated blue warbler in 1789. I noted in last week’s column that Gmelin woefully misnamed such warblers as palm warbler and magnolia warbler. With the black-throated blue warbler, Gmelin did a better job. This bird’s scientific name name is the Latin term caerulescens, which translates into English as “turning blue.” The male is a stunning bird. Arguably, the black-throated blue warbler is one of the most distinctive members of the family of wood warblers. The adult male has a black face and cheeks, deep blue upperparts and a clean white underbelly. In contrast, the adult female is olive-brown above and light yellow below.
When one’s binoculars first focus on a black-throated green warbler, the first impression is likely to be the black, yellow and white feathers in the bird’s plumage. The greenish-yellow coloration that gives this species part of its common name is mostly limited to the bird’s back, which is often not as evident when the bird’s being watched through binoculars. Both of the black-throated warblers nest in northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina, and southwestern Virginia. In the spring, the males of both these warblers are persistent singers from prominent perches in the green woodland canopy. Male black-throated greens contribute to the avian chorus by frequently singing a high-pitched song often described as a buzzy zee-zee-zee-zooo-zeet. Male black-throated blues produce a buzzy zee-zee-zeeee.
The black-throated green warblers currently departing the region will likely travel as far as Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and southern Florida for the colder winter months. Black-throated blue warblers, on the other hand, migrate to the Caribbean for the winter, making their homes on Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, as well as other islands. Nearly half of the world’s New World warblers spend the months between spring and fall in North America. The other half reside exclusively in Central and South Americas, as well as the Caribbean. Some of the more descriptively named individuals residing in the tropical areas south of North America include flame-throated warbler, crescent-chested warbler, arrowhead warbler, white-rimmed warbler, buff-rumped warbler, golden-bellied warbler, fan-tailed warbler, pink-headed warbler and pale-legged warbler.
The warblers bring some exciting tropical flair into the hills and hollows of Southern Appalachia for several months every year. I miss them once they’re gone for the winter season, but the promise of their return keeps my spirits buoyed during the cold, darker months until spring.
Photo by Dr. Thomas G. Barnes/ USFWS • A common nighthawk perches on a low clump of vegetation during a rest period. Nighthawks are known for migrating in large flocks.
Autumn’s a chance for me to indulge my passion for warblers, with a few dozen species of these songbirds passing through the region in the span of a few weeks. They’re not the only migrating birds worth watching, however, as a recent Facebook post reminded me.
John Whinery, a fellow birder who resides in Fall Branch, Tennessee, reported some interesting observations Sept. 6 on Facebook.
“Been watching several hundred common nighthawks the last few nights fly down the valley next to the farm,” John wrote in his post. He also reported that he saw a female Northern harrier fly by at eye level about 20 feet from him as he watched the migrating nighthawks. The Northern harrier, once known as the “marsh hawk,” is one of many raptors known to migrate.
Like such birds as warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, flycatchers and hummingbirds, the common nighthawk, is a neotropical migrant. In addition, the common nighthawk has one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. Twice a year, these birds migrate for distances ranging from 1,600 to 4,200 miles. Nighthawks that spend the spring and summer in Canada travel to southern South America for the winter months.
With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the treetops for passing warblers, vireos and tanagers, but I also remember to direct my gaze to the skies. Forgetting to look skyward could result in missing the passage of such varied migrants as chimney swifts, broad-winged hawks and common nighthawks.
So, what is a common nighthawk? First, this bird, despite what is implied by its name, is not a hawk. It’s also not strictly nocturnal. Particularly in the fall, nighthawks are active during daylight hours when engaged in catching winged insects. Outside of fall migration, these birds can often be observed over large parking lots or well-lit streets, snatching up insects swarming around the light poles.
The common nighthawk is one of three members of the nightjar family found in the region during the summer months. The other two nightjars are the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow, birds that produce their namesake vocalizations in the nocturnal hours. Both of these species migrate, but they don’t take the dramatic approach employed by nighthawks. Each fall, common nighthawks form large flocks, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of individuals, as they migrate south for the winter.
Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A common nighthawk chooses a perch atop a fence post for a survey of its surroundings.
Unlike whips and chucks, the common nighthawk isn’t active only after dark, which makes it much easier to observe these birds. They look somewhat like swifts and swallows but are much larger. They are brownish-gray birds with pointed wings and forked tails. They are easily identified by distinctive white patches on the underside of their wings.
The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” Apparently, in trying to explain the nocturnal tendencies of these birds, the Greeks came up with the imaginative but erroneous idea that birds like nighthawks liked to sneak into barns and have a meal of fresh goat’s milk. In reality, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, including ants, wasps, beetles, caddisflies, moths, mayflies, flies, crickets, grasshoppers, and other insects. They capture much of their insect prey on the wing.
There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.
So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move throughout September.I’ve managed only three sightings of solitary nighthawks so far this migration season, which falls far short of the number John Whinery reported at his farm.
I will keep watching the skies. Nighthawks can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air. First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds.
Photo by Jean Potter • A common nighthawk rests on a metal railing.
Photo by Katy Jefferson/Pixabay.com • A ruby-throated hummingbird sips sugar water at a feeder. During migration, blooming flowers and sugar water feeders are valuable sources of quick energy for these tiny flying gems.
Mildred Wright of Fall Branch, Tennessee, recently shared a story through Facebook about a nesting hummingbird in her yard.
In this photo provided by Mildred Wright, the young hummingbirds can be glimpsed in their nest.
“I discovered this hummingbird nest in a tree in my front yard,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “I have watched mom take excellent care of her babies through some really rough weather.”
She explained that she found the nest on June 8 and has observed as the female hummingbird incubated her eggs and then raised her two hatchlings.
Interestingly, there are a few simple reasons it’s always two eggs for hummingbirds. First, the nest is so small — about the size of a walnut half-shell — that there is barely room for two eggs, let alone more. Second, once the young hatch, the nest has just enough room to accommodate them as they grow, fed well by their mother. Third, feeding two hungry young hummingbirds is a demanding task. A female hummingbird has to find enough food to fuel her own body and help her young in the nest grow and thrive. It’s a full-time job during the daylight hours. She’s pressed hard to succeed at raising two young. Attempting to care for more would most likely prove impossible.
In this photo provided by Mildred Wright, two eggs are shown snug inside the female ruby-throated hummingbird’s nest.
Now that many female hummingbirds are finishing up the task of bringing forth a new generation of hummingbirds, the leisurely fall migration can begin. Hummingbirds are not as frantic about moving south in the fall as they are single-minded about heading north every spring. Numbers of these birds always reach a peak in late summer and early fall at my home, and this year’s shaping up to be a repeat of past ones.
Hummingbird species number around 340, making the family second in species only to the tyrant flycatchers in sheer size. Both of these families consist of birds exclusive to the New World.
With so many hummingbird species, people have been hard pressed to give descriptive names to all these tiny gems. Some of the dazzling array of names include little hermit, hook-billed hermit, fiery topaz, sooty barbthroat, white-throated daggerbill, hyacinth visorbearer, sparkling violetear, horned sungem, black-eared fairy, white-tailed goldenthroat, green mango, green-throated carib, amethyst-throated sunangel, green-backed firecrown, wire-crested thorntail, festive coquette, bronze-tailed comet, black-breasted hillstar, black-tailed trainbearer, blue-mantled thornbill, bearded mountaineer, colorful puffleg, marvelous spatuletail, bronzy inca, rainbow starfrontlet, velvet-purple coronet, pink-throated brilliant, coppery emerald, snowcap, golden-tailed sapphire and violet-bellied hummingbird.
Photo by Peggy_Marco/Pixabay.com • The “Doctor Bird,” which is also known as the swallow-tailed hummingbird, resides only on Jamaica.
Our own hummingbird, which we can claim from April through October every year, is the ruby-throated hummingbird. Ruby-throats are remarkable birds that nest throughout the eastern United States as well as southern Canada. In winter, most ruby-throats withdraw to Central America and Mexico, although a few winter in Florida. They are famous for the amazing feat of crossing the Gulf of Mexico twice each year as they travel to their nesting grounds and then back to their overwintering homes.
Photo by BarbeeAnne/Pixabay.com • The bee hummingbird of Cuba is the smallest bird in the world.
The next generation of hummingbirds always helps swell the number of these tiny birds in our yards in late summer and early fall. It’s our duty as host to keep them safe as they stop in our yards and gardens during their fall migration. Many of the hummingbirds in the fall will be making their first migration, so they will need all the help we can provide to make a successful journey.
Perhaps consider enhancing your plantings of summer flowers while also continuing to offer multiple sugar water feeders. Keep the sugar water mix at a four parts water to one part sugar ratio. Don’t offer honey in your feeders. When mixed with water, it can spoil and spread fungal diseases. Remember that hummingbirds don’t subsist on sugar water alone. They also eat numerous tiny insects and spiders to obtain the protein they need for their dietary needs, so don’t use insecticides near feeders or flowers that hummers are likely to visit.
So, until October frosts eventually drive them out of the region, enjoy the ruby-throated hummingbirds while you can.
Photo by Geschenkpanda/Pixabay.com • The buff-bellied coronet is a hummingbird native to Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • A female belted kingfisher returns to a perch after a successful catch.
A belted kingfisher has visited the fish pond quite frequently throughout this summer. The bird’s arrival is usually heralded by its hoarse, rattling call. The bird is rather shy, so any observation usually has to be done with some degree of stealth.
I know fishing is a favorite pastime for many people. In these times of social distancing, there’s probably nothing better for some people to do than to spend a lazy summer afternoon baiting a hook and trying their luck at their favorite fishing spot. While doing so, they have probably encountered the angling counterpart among our feathered friends. The belted kingfisher’s nature as an angler rules out this bird visiting feeders in the backyard, but that doesn’t mean one is unlikely to see this bird. With a little strategic effort, a glimpse of a belted kingfisher is fairly easy to obtain, especially during the summer months. Any stream, pond, river or other body of water increases the chances of observing this fascinating bird.
The belted kingfisher prefers to perch on an exposed branch or a wire that overlooks a body of water that offers ample fishing opportunities. The belted kingfisher, however, is capable of hovering in place in order to spot and then capture its prey in an impressive plunge and lunge into the water.
Most of my observations of hunting kingfishers have involved the birds in their ambush approach to fishing — perching and diving on the unsuspecting fish. I have on a few occasions also observed kingfishers as they hover over the water in a quest for a meal.
The belted kingfisher, like most of its kin, looks to have a head and bill that are slightly too large for the rest of the body. It’s the long, heavy bill that the belted kingfisher uses to snatch fish from their watery homes.
The term “belted” refers to bands of feathers across the bird’s belly. Female belted kingfishers sport bands of rusty-red and blue feathers, while males are limited to a blue belt across the upper breast. Female belted kingfishers are an exception to the rule that most male birds are more vividly colored than their female companions.
A walnut tree with some dead branches overlooking my family’s fish pond is a favorite perching site for visiting belted kingfishers. A few become become regular visitors almost every spring and summer. In past years, I’ve been delighted by pairs of kingfishers that have brought as many as six of their offspring to hunt around the edges of the pond and creek near my home.
When a belted kingfisher does manage to capture a fish — not always a certainty, despite their great skill — the bird will usually fly to a perch where they will beat the fish unconscious before swallowing it. I remember one particular kingfisher that liked to catch fish in the creek and then fly to the corner of the metal garage roof where the bird proceeded to beat senseless the unlucky fish.
Photo by Pixabay.com • The pied kingfisher is a common member of the kingfisher family that ranges throughout Europe.
While the belted kingfisher is the only one of its kind in the eastern United States, the kingfishers are a large family of birds found around the globe. Worldwide, there are about 90 species of kingfishers that range in size from the 16-inch-long laughing kookaburra of Australia to the tiny African dwarf kingfisher, which at four inches in length is smaller than most sparrows. This family of birds is divided into three groupings: the river kingfishers, the tree kingfishers and the water kingfishers.
Despite the name “kingfisher,” not all kingfishers exist on a diet of fish. Some members of the kingfisher family instead prey on other quarry, such as snakes, lizards and insects.
Some of the varied names for members of this far-flung family of birds include moustached kingfisher, malachite kingfisher, shining-blue kingfisher, azure kingfisher, hook-billed kingfisher, little kingfisher, banded kingfisher, red-breasted paradise kingfisher, lilac kingfisher, glittering kingfisher, great-billed kingfisher, chocolate-backed kingfisher, ultramarine kingfisher, chattering kingfisher and yellow-billed kingfisher.
Photo by WelshPixie/Pixabay.com • The malachite kingfisher is a river kingfisher widely distributed in Africa south of the Sahara.
The family also consists of a group of related birds from Australia and New Guinea known as kookaburras, which includes blue-winged kookaburra, spangled kookaburra, rufous-bellied kookaburra, and the well-known laughing kookaburra. Hollywood often dubs the raucous calls of kookaburras into the background soundscapes of movies and shows with tropical themes.
Photo by Magee/Pixabay.com • The raucous calls of the kookaburra, an Australian kingfisher, are often incorporated into the background of jungle scenes in Hollywood movies.
There’s nothing quite so disappointing as coming home empty-handed after a day of fishing. Belted kingfishers rarely suffer that disappointment. Although not successful in every attempt, the belted kingfisher is certainly exceptional in its pursuit of fish. According to John Eastman in his book, “Birds of Lake, Pond and Marsh,” the belted kingfisher typically captures about 10 fish per day. That’s a feat that many human anglers might envy.
Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male red-winged blackbird perches in an alert stance, ready to curb intrusions by other birds into his territory.
A trio of American crows (I’m not sure if a mere three individuals represent a murder of crows) flew past my porch on a recent morning. They were immediately bombarded by the resident male red-winged blackbird. The blackbird dove onto the back of the first crow, then doubled back and attacked the second crow. The third crow, perhaps seeing what happened to the others, perched and cawed for a couple of moments. Mistakenly thinking the coast now clear, the third crow set out to join its companions. The blackbird immediately attacked again, just as ferociously as in the previous two incidents.
Since arriving in April, the red-winged blackbirds have ruled the roost around the cattail-bordered fish pond. At the start of the nesting season, they even swooped at me when I got too close before we eventually settled into an uneasy truce. At home and at other locations, I have watched these blackbird attack everything from turkey vultures and great blue herons to white-tailed deer and cats.
Simply put, red-winged blackbird brook no interlopers. The observations of the blackbird with the crows got me to thinking of other birds known for their pugnacious natures. In no particular order, here are some bantam weight candidates for the title of “Most Pugnacious Bird.”
Photo by Bryan Stevens • The scientific name of the Eastern kingbird is Tyranus tyranus, a good indicator of this bird’s haughty attitude toward other birds.
The Eastern kingbird, a member of a large family of birds known as “tyrant flycatchers,” is famous for displaying an outsized attitude toward larger birds. The scientific name for this bird is Tyrannus tyrannus, which succinctly summarizes the kingbird’s belligerent attitude toward other birds. Mated pairs of kingbirds work together to drive intruders out of their territory. Kingbirds will launch themselves into battle against much larger foes, including red-tailed hawks, American crows and blue jays. Crows and jays are well-known for robbing the nests of other birds, so the aggression of kingbirds for these corvids is quite justified.
Photo by AdrianKirby/Pixabay.com • The merlin is a pint-sized falcon with plenty of feisty spirit. These raptors do not hesitate to duel with birds many times their size.
Merlins have a reputation for being pint-sized punks among raptors. The merlin is a member of the falcon family, which also includes birds like the American kestrel and peregrine falcon. I once saw a merlin harassing a turkey vulture, diving on the much larger but less agile bird until the vulture finally veered in another direction. This observation reinforces the merlin’s reputation for aggressively meeting incursions into its territory by other raptors. The merlin has long been associated with the forests of North America and Eurasia, but in recent decades it has proven capable of adapting to life in urban landscapes.
Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue-gray gnatcatchers are noisy and, quite often, quarrelsome birds that don’t let their small size get in the way of attempting to intimidate other birds.
Blue-gray gnatcatchers are noisy, scolding songbirds at the best of times. They are also determined to protect their nesting territories at all costs and will attack much larger birds. They don’t hesitate to call for reinforcements when warranted. They will drum up a brigade of feisty, feathered fighters to repel intrusions by potential predators too large for a gnatcatcher and its mate to handle on their own. In North America, the gnatcatcher ranks in size with birds like kinglets and hummingbirds. Despite its diminutive status, the gnatcatcher acknowledges no superiors.
Photo by BlenderTimer/Pixabay.com • In a family of rather insufferable bullies, the rufous hummingbird stands out as particularly pugnacious.
In a family known for cantankerous behavior, one hummingbird stands out. In North America, the rufous hummingbird has a reputation for having a bad temper. These tiny birds with huge metabolisms must compete fiercely for resources, but they often appear go out of their way to attack other hummingbirds. The rufous hummingbird ranges along North America’s Pacific Coast and the Rockies as far north as Alaska and western Canada. A migration quirk occasionally brings these hummingbirds to Northeast Tennessee during fall and early winter.
Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern mockingbird is zealous in defending its territory from other mockingbirds or any other intruders, including humans, cats, dogs, snakes and almost any other real or imagined threat.
I’m not sure every person who has had a Northern mockingbird nest in their yard or garden would describe the experience as a pleasant one. It’s not without cause that the mockingbird is often described as ruthless, aggressive and pugnacious in defense of its nest and young. These birds don’t hesitate to attack humans or their pets, such as cats and dogs, if any wander too far into their territory. In fact, mockingbirds appear to take positive glee in forcing intruders to flee. Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon captured a dramatic moment when he painted a pair of mockingbirds defending its nest from a rattlesnake. The painting is also an early example of the ties between humans and mockingbirds. The nest is located in a hanging basket of yellow flowers. Even during Audubon’s time, mockingbirds had quietly adjusted to human activity and had deigned to allow us into their daily lives. It’s just best not to step out of line. Mockingbirds have ways of dealing with pushy people.