Category Archives: Bryan Stevens

Hermit thrushes brave East Tennessee winters

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 ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Birds make headlines in 2020

Photo by Irene K-s/Pixabay.com  • The ongoing pandemic with its social distancing protocols has motivated many people to connect with nature, especially through activities like bird feeding and birdwatching. Even common birds, like these chipping sparrows and an American goldfinch, help people cope with the stresses of the global pandemic.

To state that it has been a strange year is an exercise in understatement. Nevertheless, the few 2020 bright spots have focused on our fine feathered friends, whether it was the long-awaited return of birds like evening grosbeaks or a welcome spike in interest in all things related to birds. While we wait for 2021 and hope for better days to come, I decided to take a glimpse at some of the bird-related news headlines for this past year.

New birds found

Scientists discovered five new species of birds in 2020. Some of the most recent additions to the world’s avifauna include songbirds from various remote islands, including the Peleng fantail, Peleng leaf warbler, the Taliabu grasshopper warbler, the Taliabu myzoemla and the Taliabu leaf warbler. These newly-discovered species will help swell the ranks of the world’s estimated 9,000 to 10,000 bird species. Since many headlines have concerned warnings about disappearing birds, it’s nice to know that scientists are still finding new birds in some unexpected locations. 

Photo by thịnh nguyễn xuân/Pixabay.com • This red and green macaw in captivity shows the bright plumage of its wild kin, which are again flying free in Argentina.

Don’t cry for the macaws, Argentina

Red and green macaws, which have been exterminated from other parts of Argentina, are thriving in Iberá National Park after the country reintroduced these large, colorful birds in 2015. This year, a pair of the 15 macaws living in the park produced three chicks. It’s a start and marks the first red and green macaws hatched in Argentina in more than 150 years.

Birds provide cure for COVID blues

In a year that saw the human species suffer from an ongoing pandemic, many people turned to nature, particularly birds, as a means to cope with the stresses of life during the time of COVID-19. The Audubon Society’s website spotlighted the way birds have brightened the lives of humans during the imposition of social distancing to help prevent the spread of the virus. Sales of bird seed and birdhouses have increased since the early months of the pandemic. It’s not difficult to understand the reason. People have been doing more to invite birds into their lives, whether it’s bribing them with a well-stocked feeder or providing shelter for such necessary activities as nesting and roosting. For more articles on the magic of birds during a global pandemic, visit the Audubon website at Audubon.org. 

Wisdom’s maternal instincts unabated

Wisdom has returned to Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument on the island of Midway. Wisdom, a Laysan albatross that is at least 69 years old, is set to become a mother again after laying an egg in early December as she has been done more than 30 times since 1956. At an age when human mothers might be looking to a chance to enjoy becoming grandmothers or even great-grandmothers, Wisdom wants another crack at motherhood. She has been immensely successful as a breeding albatross, surviving with her offspring the great tsunami that swept over the island in March of 2011. Much studied by scientists, Wisdom has successfully hatched a chick every year since 2006 and looks to replicate this feat again in 2021. 

Evening grosbeaks return to region

After being absent for 20 years, evening grosbeaks have made sporadic appearances at feeders throughout the region with sightings reported from Elizabethton, Roan Mountain, Hampton and Townsend, as well as other locations across the Volunteer State. Part of an irruption of other Northern finches, the grosbeaks have been joined by such species as purple finches, pine siskins and common redpolls. Dianna Lynne, who lives on Stoney Creek in Elizabethton, Tennessee, reported a small flock of both male and female evening grosbeaks at her feeders on Dec. 9. She joins a list of some other people lucky enough to host these entertaining birds this winter.

Brookie and Jean Potter, as well as their neighbors, Jim and Diane Bishop, continued to host a flock of grosbeaks at their homes near Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton, Tennessee. They first saw their grosbeaks in early December, but the flock, which has grown to as many as 17 individuals, now visits daily and has extended its stay into 2021.

Without a doubt, the approaching year 2021 will offer its own surprises. People and birds will make more headlines. Remember to keep space in your life and schedule for birds and nature. These will help anyone weather any storm. To share observations, ask questions, or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

Photo by Jean Potter • A male evening grosbeak perches for a view of a nearby feeder.

 

Welcome white-throated sparrows with abundant cover, stocked feeder

Photo by Pixabay.com • A yellow dot on the white-throated sparrow’s lores, a region on the face between the bill and the eyes, is one easy means of distinguishing the winter bird from its fellow sparrows, a family often dismissed as “little brown birds.”

Winter’s a season painted in shades of gray. Or brown, in the case of some of the “little brown birds” known as sparrows that enliven our yards and gardens during the colder months. A few, like the song sparrow, reside near us through all the seasons, but most of the sparrows are visitors only during the colder months of the year. This diverse family includes such birds as dark-eyed junco, chipping sparrow, white-throated sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, field sparrow, fox sparrow, and Eastern towhee.

I host many of these sparrows every winter, but one of the most reliable visitors is the white-throated sparrow. The white-throated sparrow and the closely related white-crowned sparrow both belong to a genus of American sparrows known as Zonotrichia, which includes three other species. The other three — golden-crowned sparrow, rufous-collared sparrow, and Harris’s sparrow — range mostly outside the continental United States. The rufous-collared sparrow ranges throughout Mexico, as well as the island of Hispaniola. Harris’s sparrow is a bird that occurs mostly in Canada, although there are a handful of records in our region. The golden-crowned sparrow is a bird that occurs mostly in Alaska, although some of this sparrow’s population ranges into the northwestern corner of the state of Washington.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A white-throated sparrow perches on a branch to sing its easily recognizable song. Many Americans translate the sparrow’s song as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

The genus name, Zonotrichia, refers to two ancient Greek words for zone and hair, which refers to the pattern of streaks on the backs of these five sparrow species. The Zonotrichia sparrows belong to a large group of birds known as Passerellidae, or American sparrows, which also includes birds such as juncos, towhees and brush finches. Some of the more descriptive names for American sparrows include orange-billed sparrow, white-eared ground sparrow, green-backed sparrow, olive sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, five-striped sparrow and golden-winged sparrow.

Many sparrows, including the white-throated sparrow, prefer to forage for food on the ground. It’s often helpful to purchase a supply of millet seed. When filling feeders with sunflower seeds, scatter a couple of handfuls of millet seed on the ground beneath the feeders or at the edge of a brushy area. Sparrows like to have quick access to dense cover, so they will feed more securely if the scattered seeds are within quick reach of shelter.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A white-throated sparrow perches on a branch to sing its easily recognizable song. Many Americans translate the sparrow’s song as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

In fact, food and shelter are probably the two most compelling factors sparrows take note of when selecting a yard for their winter residence. There are easy means of providing the shelter that gives these small birds peace of mind. Leave an edge or corner of your yard in a unkempt manner. Don’t cut down grass, weeds, and saplings. Even if human neighbors look askance, your feathered friends will be grateful. An alternative is to create a brush pile with discarded trimmings taken during periodic spruce-ups of the yard and garden. Sparrows, as well as other birds, will use the brushy cover as a shelter from the elements and as protection from visiting raptors such as sharp-shinned hawks.

The white-throated sparrow is so named for the patch of white feathers on the throat. While this field mark help with identification, there are other distinct features of this particular sparrow that helps contrast it from members of the “little brown bird” gang. For starters, adults have a bold face pattern of black and white crown stripes. The most obvious field mark for attentive observers is the yellow spot between the eye and the bill. It’s a vivid splash of color not commonly found in the plumage of most of its kin.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The white-crowned sparrow is a very aptly named bird.

Most songbirds live a precarious life that can be measured in only a few years. However, an occasional individual defies the odds. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, the oldest recorded white-throated sparrow was at least 14 years, 11 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Alberta, Canada.

Although they are fairly common winter visitors in the region, the white-throated sparrow makes its presence known most strongly each spring when the birds begin to sing a familiar refrain that has been transcribed in a couple of different ways. Many Americans render the song of the white-throated sparrow as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” For those living north of the border, the white-throated sparrow sings “O’Canada, O’Canada, O’Canada.” No matter how you translate this sparrow’s song, it’s a sweet and welcome addition to the spring aural landscape.

Most white-throated sparrows depart the region by late April to reach their summer nesting grounds throughout the forests across Canada, the northeastern U.S. and the northern Midwest. In the influx of more showy birds each spring, their absence sometimes goes unnoticed. Nevertheless, it always feels good to welcome them when they return in late October and early November as winter begins extending its grip for the season.

Share your own sightings. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com with observations, comments or questions.

 

Rufous hummingbirds appear after other hummers depart for the winter

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:

https://share.icloud.com/photos/0wh7RBoUKoPsxXBvQi39coTCQ

“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 ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Common grackles part of November’s changing bird lineup

 

Photo by Bernell MacDonald/Pixabay.com • Common grackles are quite accomplished at foraging for food in a variety of habitats.

November is a month of transition. The birds of summer have all “flown the coop,” returning to warmer climes to the south in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Of course, even as hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers, vireos, and others have fled North America in advance of winter’s imminent arrival, other birds are arriving to take their place.

Many of the newcomers don’t offer the vibrant plumage of a scarlet tanager or a rose-breasted grosbeak, but they make up for the lack of striking feathers by remaining quite faithful to our feeders during the bleak, short days of winter. A hermit thrush and a dark-eyed junco represented some first-of-autumn arrivals when they showed up Nov. 6, followed the next day by a swamp sparrow. In addition to the sparrow, three ravenous common grackles descended on my suet feeders that same day.

For many bird enthusiasts, the “common” in this particular bird’s name is particularly apt. Tending to form large, noisy flocks, common grackles can easily wear out even the most generous welcome. Perhaps because I live at a mid-elevation area, common grackles are extremely infrequent visitors to my yard. I can be a little more welcoming to a bird that I know is not likely to linger.

Photo by diapicard/Pixabay.com • A common grackle perches on a shepherd’s hook in a garden. These large birds, which are part of the blackbird family, form flocks and bring big appetites to feeders during migratory stops.

Nevertheless, that same evening these three grackles must have spread the word because a flock of about 30 of these birds arrived. If I needed a reminder, the flock provided a quick one. A handful of grackles isn’t too disruptive, but a large flock can quickly overwhelm and intimidate smaller feeder birds.

Even so, I remain inclusive in my embrace of all feathered friends. A much maligned bird if ever there was one, the common grackle is worth a second look. For those who are able to overlook the occasional bad habits of birds such as Northern mockingbirds, mourning doves, or even cantankerous ruby-throated hummingbirds, there may be hope for this large member of the diverse family of blackbirds, known by scientific types as a member of the family Icteridae. This grouping of New World species, also known as New World blackbirds, includes such members as orioles, meadowlarks, cowbirds, bobolinks, marshbirds, orependolas, caciques and, of course, blackbirds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A boat-tailed grackle sings, if the bird’s harsh, grating notes can be considered a song, from a perch in a wetland in South Carolina.

The common grackle is known by the scientific name Quiscalus quiscula. In the southeast, in particular along the coast and in wetland areas, a common and related species is the boat-tailed grackle. Other species of grackles found in the New World include the great-tailed grackle, Nicaraguan grackle, Great Antillean grackle and the Carib grackle. A little more distantly related are the South American species golden-tufted mountain grackle and the Colombian mountain grackle.

One species — the slender-billed grackle of Mexico — suffered extinction at the dawn of the 20th century. Reasons for this bird’s disappearance are not clearly understood, but habitat destruction of Mexican wetlands and hunting pressures have been theorized as causes. Like others of its kind, the slender-billed grackle may also have been persecuted as an agricultural pest.

Like many other birds dependent on wetlands, common grackles have experienced population declines in recent decades. Although it seems odd to refer to a bird with a population estimated at around 73 million individuals in North America as on the decline, common grackles have suffered an estimated population loss of about 60 percent from historic highs.

Male grackles stand out from other blackbirds due to their sheer size. Males can reach a length of 13 inches, although much of that can be measured in an exceptionally long tail. A grackle’s plumage has a black sheen that can shine with brilliant iridescence that tends to appear purple, green or blue when the sun shines just right on the feathers. Females tend to be smaller than males and are a muted black and brown. Both sexes have long, sturdy bills and yellow eyes.

Most rural residents don’t have to worry about common grackles overwhelming their feeders, but some people living in urban and suburban settings have found grackles to be difficult guests. The birds have bottomless appetites and are aggressive toward more desirable feeder birds. Fortunately, migrating flocks in the fall tend not to linger. After a brief visit, which can still deplete supplies of seed and suet cakes, the grackles continue migrating.

Grackles are usually one of the earliest birds to return each spring. In fact, it’s not at all unusual for these large birds to make their way back to the region as early as late February. I am usually glad to welcome them back since I know that their return is a strong indication that some more favored species are certain to follow in their wake and that winter’s grip is waning.

Are you seeing new arrivals in your yard or at your feeders? Let me know by emailing ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Boat-tailed grackles perch on viewing equipment at an observation platform at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Finches arrive ahead of winter in impressive numbers

I’d watched with some degree of envy after friends posted on social media about the arrival of purple finches and pine siskins earlier this fall. What was wrong with my yard?

Fortunately, I only needed to remain patient. People began reporting the arrival of these two species of winter finches at their feeders weeks ago all across Tennessee. The purple finches and pine siskins showed up, finally, at my home on Oct. 23.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male and female purple finches share space at a feeder.

The pine siskin nests during the summer on the higher elevations of Roan Mountain. These small finches, which are related to the American goldfinch, are common winter feeder visitors some years and completely absent other years. This looks to be a year for siskin abundance. Andrew Del-Colle, Site Director and Editor for Audubon Magazine, posted a recent article about this autumn’s dramatic irruption of pine siskins.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pine siskin in a spruce at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain.

Project FeederWatch, which has monitored North American bird population trends for decades, defines the term irruption as a sudden change in the population density of an organism. In the case of birds, irruptions refer to the movement of northern-wintering species to the south in years of low food availability. Other species that often stage winter irruptions include evening grosbeaks, red-breasted nuthatches and common redpolls. There’s also some indication that some of these other birds may make their way south this winter.

“If you’ve never seen a pine siskin, this is your year,” Del-Colle wrote. “In the past month, the birds have invaded the United States in search of food, inundating backyard feeders across the country. Without question, it’s one of the biggest irruption years in recorded history for the finches.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Purple finches jostle for space in a feeder stocked with sunflower seeds.

The pine siskins at my home spend much of their time in weedy fields adjacent to my home and visit my feeders on a semi-regular basis. I suspect their feeder visitation will increase once some truly wintry weather arrives.

The purple finches that arrived on the same day do not rival the siskins in sheer numbers. Nevertheless, the purple finches have lingered, as well. The purple finch, which is a winter visitor to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina, is apparently not as common as in the past. Experts have speculated that the decline in the numbers of purple finches each winter can be attributed, at least in part, to the closely related house finch. The house finch may simply be out-competing the purple finch for scarce natural resources.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male house finch perched on a cable. These finches are native to the western United States but became established in the eastern states thanks to the illicit pet trade.

The house finch is quite widespread across the United States. Originally, however, the house finch was a bird of the western part of the country, living in Mexico and the southwestern United States. About 1940, the house finch became established in the eastern United States. In violation of federal law, these small finches were being sold in New York City as pet birds described as “Hollywood Finches.” To avoid trouble with authorities, vendors and even some owners released their “Hollywood Finches” into the wild. Finding the area around New York City to their liking, house finches spread. Within a few decades, they were common birds throughout the eastern United States, including Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

As the house finch claimed a new range, they inevitably encountered the related purple finch. During the winter, both finches are often present at feeders in the region. When both are available for observation, bird enthusiasts should take advantage of the opportunity to compare and contrast these birds. I have never had any difficulty distinguishing a purple finch from a house finch. The two species, at least in my eyes, are easily recognized. I can understand why some people might have trouble separating the two birds. The late Roger Tory Peterson once described the purple finch as a bird “dipped in raspberry juice.” Think about that imagery for a moment and you’ve got a good start to distinguishing a male purple finch from a male house finch. With some practice, observers will come to notice the subtle differences between a purple finch and a house finch.

These two finches belong to the genus Haemorhous, which can be roughly translated as “the color of blood.” The two species are also simply classified as American rosefinches. This grouping also includes a third species, Cassin’s finch, which occurs in the western United States. I have seen all three species, adding Cassin’s finch during a visit to Utah in 2006.

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Differentiating purple finches

from house finches can be a challenge

Let’s deal first with the males. Male purple finches are delicate pink-red (that raspberry coloration) on the head and breast, mixing with brown on the back and cloudy white on the belly. The red of a male purple finch is definitely a color I have not observed with many other birds. Even “red” birds such as male Northern cardinals and male scarlet tanagers do not show the same red color. Once you learn the way the red appears in the plumage of a male purple finch, you are on your way to telling this bird apart from its relative.

The red in the plumage of male house finches is surprisingly variable. In most cases, the heads, necks and shoulders of male birds are reddish and the red at times extends to the stomach and between the wings on the bird’s back. The intensity of the red changes with the seasons and is also derived from the berries and fruits in the bird’s diet. Pale yellow and bright orange are alternatives to the typical red plumage.

Look closely at the photograph of the purple finches accompanying this column. There’s a distinctive facial pattern evident on the birds. The strong facial markings include a whitish eye stripe and a dark line down the side of the throat. This pattern simply doesn’t exist with the male house finch. When I make a snap identification of these two birds, I always look for the facial pattern even before I study any other aspects of the appearance of the bird. In addition, purple finches have powerful, conical beaks and a tail that appears short and is clearly notched at the tip. Rounding out the description of a male house finch is the fact that they have a long, square-tipped brown tail and are brown or dull-brown across the back with some shading into gray on the wing feathers. The breast and stomach feathers may be streaked.

Females of both house finches and purple finches are dull brown birds that could easily be mistaken for sparrows. Again, the facial pattern is much more apparent on a female purple finch than on the related female house finch. In addition, I have always noticed that female purple finches are usually a darker shade of brown than the dull brown female house finches. Both male and female house finches are more slender than their more chunky-bodied counterparts.

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Although not closely related to our American birds, there is also a group known as rosefinches common to Europe and Asia. Some of these distant relatives include such descriptively named birds as scarlet finch, streaked rosefinch, red-mantled rosefinch, pink-browed rosefinch, long-tailed rosefinch, three-banded rosefinch and Himalayan beautiful rosefinch.

Purple finches occupy a variety of winter habitats, including fields, woodland edges, lawns and gardens. All it takes to lure these finches to feeders is a plentiful offering of sunflower seeds. If you are lucky enough to have both of these finches visiting your feeders, take time to study the differences. It takes some practice, but they can be distinguished quite confidently.

 

Two types of black-throated warblers number among New World bird family

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. 

Warbler parade imminent as September advances

Photo by Mickey Estes/Pixabay.com • A pine warbler takes a brief rest on a perch during a break from foraging for insects.

I detected some signs of migration during a backyard lawn chair birding session on Thursday, Sept. 3. A croaking great blue heron circling the property, the shrill cries of cedar waxwings, scolding vireos, and the intermittent buzz of hummingbird wings all contributed to the background noise. 

The first warbler of the season, a quick blur of yellow and white, disappeared into the green and thus escaped identification. That’s the way of it: Sometimes, you identify the bird, but at other times it slips past without lingering enough for that moment of confidence. You have to love September, even if the birds are entirely ignorant of pages on a calendar. As summer wanes, the pace of migration has spiked. If that first warbler got away, I know others will follow behind it.

Some of them will have fanciful names like blue-winged warbler, black-throated blue warbler, Blackburnian warbler and American redstart. Each of the warblers exists as a sort of magnet to induce me to keep binoculars always close at hand.

 

The 50 or so species of warblers that make their home in the eastern parts of the United States and Canada during the spring and summer months are now winging their way south.  The blackpoll warbler, which holds the distinction for the longest migration of any species of New World warbler, will journey from the forests of Canada to spend the colder months in northern South America. Because of a peculiarity of this bird’s fall migratory habits, birders in Northeast Tennessee are far more likely to see this late-arriving warbler in May than in the autumn.

A few warblers — pine warbler, magnolia warbler and palm warbler — are named for trees for the simple reason that their European discoverers happened to first observe them in the branches of their namesake trees.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Palm Warbler forages along a chain-link fence.

For most of these warblers named to honor various trees,  their common names are, at best, a misnomer. Throughout most of its life, the palm warbler doesn’t even encounter palm trees. Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist who lived from 1748 to 1804, saddled the palm warbler with its inappropriate name. Gmelin based his naming of the bird on the fact that a specimen had been collected on Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean with an abundance of palm trees. Gmelin published several textbooks in the fields of chemistry, pharmaceutical science, mineralogy, and botany. He also had a hand in publishing a catalog of scientific names for various species, including some birds that had until that point never been given a species classification. Thanks to his efforts, the palm warbler has forever been linked with a type of tree that is, at best, entirely incidental to the bird’s life cycle.

The same is true for the Magnolia Warbler, which would have been more suitably named the spruce or fir Warbler, as the species is highly dependent on northern coniferous forests as nesting habitat. The pine warbler, at least, restores credibility to some of the early experts who have these tiny birds their common names. The pine warbler does indeed prefer stands of pine trees, showing particular favor for pitch pines.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Yellow-throated Warbler makes a migratory stop in my yard on the first day of September.

These three “tree warblers” are all fairly common fall migrants, making stops in gardens, backyards and woodland edges throughout Northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina. They and their relatives will make the remaining weeks of September and early October an exciting time for warbler enthusiasts. 

 

Belted kingfisher and its kin successful at fishing, much more

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.

Belted kingfisher

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.

 

Unicoi County’s Summer Bird Count finds 110 species

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A trio of Northern Rough-winged Swallows perch on a branch. A total of 39 of these swallows were found on the seventh annual Unicoi County Summer Bird Count.

For the past seven summers, the members of the Elizabethton Bird Club have conducted a Summer Bird Count for Unicoi County.

The seventh annual survey of Unicoi County’s bird life was made more memorable due to the fact it was conducted during a global pandemic with counters practicing social distancing protocols. The Unicoi County Summer Count was held on Saturday, June 6, with 26 observers in 10 parties. The weather was favorable with a temperature range between 62 and 82, mostly to partly cloudy skies, and little wind.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Song Sparrow brings a beakful of caterpillars back to the nest to feed young.

 Counters tallied 110 species, which is near the six-year average of 109. Total species for this count has ranged from 104 to 112 species. Participants included Joe McGuiness, Vern Maddux, Kim Stroud, Dave Gardner, Don Holt, Dianne Draper, Debi and J.G. Campbell, Bryan Stevens, Brookie and Jean Potter, Eric Middlemas, Ken Rea, Roy Knispel, Jerry Bevins, Michele Sparks, Tammy Griffey, Jim Anderson, Pete Range, Harry Lee Farthing, Tom McNeil, Cathy McNeil, Fred Alsop, Catherine Cummins, Larry McDaniel and long-time count compiler Rick Knight. 

The bird found in most abundance was the European Starling with 536 individuals counted. Other common birds included Red-eyed Vireo (226) and Song Sparrow (245). A few birds went undetected, including Great Horned Owl.

This annual count covers territory such as Unaka Mountain, the Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park, Limestone Cove, the Erwin Linear Trail, and much more. Unicoi County offers many natural treasures, not the least of which being the varied and interesting birds that reside within its borders.

 The List:

 Canada Goose, 54; Wood Duck, 23; Mallard, 42; Ruffed Grouse, 3; Wild Turkey, 5; Great Blue Heron, 5; and Green Heron, 4.

Black Vulture, 6; Turkey Vulture, 45; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Broad-winged Hawk, 6; and Red-tailed Hawk, 9.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • The Cooper’s hawk, like this individual, is a larger relative of the sharp-shinned hawk. It’s larger size allows this raptor to prey on larger birds, such as mourning doves.

Killdeer, 14; Rock Pigeon, 111; Mourning Dove, 152; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 6; Eastern Screech-Owl, 3; Barred Owl, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 5; and Eastern Whip-poor-will, 9.

Chimney Swift, 45; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 8; Belted Kingfisher, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 33; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 14; Hairy Woodpecker, 2; Northern Flicker, 13; and Pileated Woodpecker, 26.

American Kestrel,1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 13; Acadian Flycatcher, 56; Least Flycatcher, 6; Eastern Phoebe, 81; Great Crested Flycatcher, 2; and Eastern Kingbird, 11.

White-eyed Vireo, 2; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 35; Warbling Vireo, 3; Red-eyed Vireo, 226; Blue Jay, 108; American Crow, 122; and Common Raven, 8.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 39; Purple Martin, 30; Tree Swallow, 65; Barn Swallow, 79; and Cliff Swallow, 106.

Carolina Chickadee, 102; Tufted Titmouse; 100; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 17; Brown Creeper, 4; House Wren, 54; Winter Wren, 1; Carolina Wren, 146; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 15; and Golden-crowned Kinglet, 12.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The male Eastern Bluebird is beloved by many bird enthusiasts.

Eastern Bluebird, 94; Veery, 15; Hermit Thrush, 3; Wood Thrush, 57; American Robin, 397; Gray Catbird, 27; Brown Thrasher, 24; Northern Mockingbird, 48; European Starling, 536; and Cedar Waxwing, 48.

Ovenbird, 63; Worm-eating Warbler, 40; Louisiana Waterthrush, 14; Black-and-white Warbler, 34; Swainson’s Warbler, 3; Common Yellowthroat, 3; Hooded Warbler, 64; American Redstart, 8; Northern Parula, 39; Magnolia Warbler, 1; Blackburnian Warbler, 3; Yellow Warbler, 9; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 32; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 29; Pine Warbler, 5; Yellow-throated Warbler, 30; Prairie Warbler, 4; Black-throated Green Warbler, 52; Canada Warbler, 6; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 2.

Eastern Towhee, 80; Chipping Sparrow, 68; Field Sparrow,  21; Song Sparrow, 245; Dark-eyed Junco,  33; Scarlet Tanager, 33; Northern Cardinal, 163; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 6; Blue Grosbeak, 4; and Indigo Bunting, 131.

Red-winged Blackbird, 71; Eastern Meadowlark, 15; Common Grackle, 156; Brown-headed Cowbird, 23; Orchard Oriole, 6; Baltimore Oriole, 2; House Finch, 70; Red Crossbill, 1; American Goldfinch, 110; and House Sparrow,  33.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American goldfinch visits a feeder for a meal of thistle seeds.