Category Archives: flycatchers

Eastern kingbird, hummingbirds part of spring migration bonanza

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

•••

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

•••

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

•••

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

•••

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

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

•••

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

•••

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

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

•••

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

•••

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

•••

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

•••

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

•••

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

•••

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

Kingbird tyranny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

Some birds stand out from the flock with their amazing migratory feats

Photo by jasonjdking/Pixabay.com • The bobolink is also known as the “rice bird” for its tendency to feed on cultivate grains such as rice. Even the bird’s scientific name, oryzivorus, means “rice eating” and refers to this bird’s appetite for many of the same grains consumed by humans. This small songbird also undertakes yearly migration flights equalling more than 12,400 miles.

The peak of fall migration is approaching. Birds of all species are winging their way southward ahead of the months of cold and scarcity. September and October are months of flux and transition. Like a bear fattening for hibernation, I gorge on sightings of warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers and other favorites, knowing that I won’t be seeing many of these birds again until next spring. Their memories will sustain me, as will my feeders, which will still bring plenty of colorful and entertaining birds into my yard even in times of snow and ice.
Bird migration at any season is a spectacle. Many of the birds that nested in mountain hollows or vegetation-choked wetlands will winter in Central and South America, the Caribbean or other distant but warmer destinations. The following snapshots of fall’s bird migration capture the phenomenon’s drama.

Bobolink
The bobolink is a small bird in the family of blackbirds, which includes grackles, orioles and cowbirds. Nesting across North America during the summer, bobolinks retreat to South America for the winter. These small birds undertake amazing migrations, making a round-trip of about 12,400 miles to regions south of the equator in Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina each fall. Come spring, they make the trip again, but in a northerly direction.
According to the website All About Birds, migrating bobolinks orient themselves with the earth’s magnetic field. These small birds are able to accomplish this feat due to iron oxide in bristles of its nasal cavity and in tissues around the olfactory bulb and nerve. Bobolinks also use the stars scattered across the night sky to guide their migratory flights. Capable of living as long as nine years, a long-lived bobolink will rack up some serious miles simply migrating to its nesting grounds and back to its wintering habitat each year.

Bar-tailed godwit
Shorebirds, which in North America can consist of birds ranging from turnstones and sandpipers to willets and avocets, are champion migrants. For instance, the bar-tailed godwit makes an impressive non-stop migratory flight. This shorebird nests in the United States only in parts of remote Alaska, but this godwit also ranges into Scandinavia and northern Asia. Some of these godwits make a nine-day, non-stop migratory flight that takes them from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea of China and beyond, a distance of almost 6,000 miles each way.
Needless to say, since the godwits make no stops along the way, they must also go without food for the duration of their journey. The female godwit is larger than the male, but she still weighs only 12 ounces. The long-billed, long-legged bird is about 17 inches in length from the tip of the bill to its tail. That a creature so small can make such a distant, arduous trip and be the none the worse for wear is truly inspiring.

Broad-winged hawk
Many North American raptors migrate, but the broad-winged hawk dislikes the lonely aspects of solitary travel. Instead, these hawks form large flocks during migration, and in autumn the majority of these raptors travel past human-staffed hawk migration observation points, which are dubbed “hawk watches,” during a brief and concentrated period of only a few weeks. Observing the phenomenon locally is possible at the Mendota Fire Tower Hawk Watch site atop Clinch Mountain at an abandoned fire tower near Mendota, Virginia.
Broad-winged hawks are part of the family Accipitridae, which includes 224 species of hawks, eagles, vultures and other birds of prey. Broad-winged hawks are truly long-distance migrants. Many hawks passing over Mendota may end their migration as far south as Brazil. These hawks travel in flocks that can consist of hundreds or thousands of individuals. The birds conserve energy by soaring on thermals and mountain updrafts.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Warblers, such as this American redstart, stage impressive migratory flights. The blackpoll warbler makes an incredibly arduous journey for a bird that is less than five inches long.

Blackpoll warbler
Most of the warblers that nest in North America retreat to Central and South America during the winter months. Few warblers, however, make as great a journey as the blackpoll warbler. Instead of migrating over land, this five-inch-long warbler undertakes a two-stage migration. The first half of the migration is a non-stop flight of about 1,500 miles. Every fall, these tiny birds fly over the ocean during this part of their migration, departing from Canada or the northern United States and not stopping until they reach various locations in the Caribbean. There they will spend some time recovering from the exhausting first half of their journey before they continue their way to such South American countries as Colombia and Venezuela. Once again, during the time they spend flying over open ocean, these tiny warblers do not feed.

* * * * *

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A migrating Great Egret makes a stop at a golf course pond.

Wading birds topic for program
I’ll be presenting a program on herons, egrets and other wading birds at the September meeting of the Elizabethton Bird Club. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, at the Elizabethton campus of Northeast State Community College, 386 Highway 91. The meeting will be held on the second floor in Room 208. The free program is open to the public and will follow a brief business meeting.

Readers with questions are welcome to email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or send a friend request on Facebook at facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. I also love to receive comments and hear about bird observations.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A spotted sandpiper and a solitary sandpiper rest at the edge of a pond during a migration rest stop.

Eastern phoebe belongs to extensive flycatcher family

Photo by leoleobobeo/Pixabay.com • An Eastern phoebe perches on a garden shepherd’s hook. Phoebes, a member of the extensive New World flycatcher family, are adept at capturing flying insect prey by utilizing elevated perches.

Jill Henderson, who resides in Saltville, Virginia, emailed me recently with a question about a bird nesting atop a column on her back porch.

Jill provided me with four photographs attached to her email that greatly assisted in identifying the nesting birds on her back porch. 

“It seems to enjoy the water in my pool,” she added. Indeed, a couple of the photos showed the bird perched poolside on one of her lawn chairs. 

The nesting birds turned out to be Eastern phoebes, which are a member of the extensive family of birds known as “tyrant flycatchers.” The information about the pool assisted with the identification. Phoebes show an affinity for water, whether the source is a creek, pond or even a residential swimming pool.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe scans from a perch for flying insect prey.

Considering the bright finery worn by some of the more colorful spring arrivals, it’s understandable if the return of Eastern phoebes escape immediate notice each year. In comparison with vibrant birds like rose-breasted grosbeak, ruby-throated hummingbird, scarlet tanager and yellow warbler, the Eastern phoebe is downright drab with its gray-black and dingy white plumage. Nevertheless, this member of the flycatcher clan has earned itself a favorite spot in the hearts of many a birdwatcher. It’s one of those birds that even beginning birders find surprisingly easy to recognize and identify after a bit of study. While it may not have a dramatic plumage pattern to hint at its identity, the Eastern phoebe is quite at home around human dwellings and comes into close contact with people going about their daily routines. Rather tame — or at least not too bothered by close proximity with humans — the Eastern phoebe has one behavior that sets it apart from all the other similar flycatchers. When this bird lands on a perch, it cannot resist a vigorous bobbing of its tail. Every time a phoebe lands on a perch, it will produce this easily recognized tail dip and rise. It’s a behavior that makes this bird almost instantly recognizable among birders with a knowledge of the trait.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe fledgling only recently out of the nest.

Photo by Sarangib/Pixabay.com • A black phoebe perches on a post near a palm tree.

The Eastern phoebe is also an enthusiastic springtime singer, and the song it chooses to sing is an oft-repeated two-syllable call “FEE-bee” that provides the inspiration for this bird’s common name. The Eastern phoebe, known by the scientific name of Sayornis phoebe, has two relatives in the genus Sayornis. The genus is named after Thomas Say, an American naturalist. The Eastern phoebe’s close relatives include the black phoebe and Say’s phoebe. The black phoebe ranges throughout Oregon, Washington and California and as far south as Central and South America. As its name suggests, this bird has mostly black feathers instead of the gray plumage of its relatives. The Say’s phoebe, also named for the man who gave the genus its name, is the western counterpart to the Eastern phoebe.

The phoebes belong to the the world’s largest family of birds, which is known collectively as the “tyrant flycatchers.” With more than 400 species, this family of birds consists of species known as tyrannulets, elaenias, pygmy tyrants, tody-flycatchers, spadebills, flatbills, attilas, kingbirds and kiskadees. 

Since they belong to the vast family of New World flycatchers, it’s probably no surprise that these phoebes feed largely on insects. The birds will often perch patiently until an insect’s flight brings it within easy range. A quick flight from its perch usually allows the skillful bird to return with a morsel snatched on the wing. In the winter months, the Eastern phoebe also eats berries and other small fruit. Phoebes can even feed on poison ivy berries without risk of ill effects.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern Phoebe perches on barbed wire.

Phoebes are fond of nesting on human structures, including culverts, bridges and houses. With the latter, they were once known for their habit of placing their nests under sheltering eaves. At my home, a pair of Eastern phoebes often chooses to nest on the wooden rafters in my family’s garage.  Although the species is migratory, a few hardy individuals will usually try to tough out winters in the region. The others that depart in the autumn will migrate to the southern United States and as far south as Central America. On some rare occasions, Eastern phoebes have flown far off their usual course and ended up in western Europe. I can usually count on Eastern phoebes returning to my home in early March, making them one of the first migrants to return each year. Their arrival rarely goes unnoticed since the males tend to start singing persistently as soon as they arrive.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern phoebe nestlings stay in their nest atop a blade on an outdoor ceiling fan.

 

John James Audubon, an early naturalist and famed painter of North America’s birds, conducted an experiment with some young phoebes that represents the first-ever bird banding in the United States of America. His novel experiment, which he carried out in 1803, involved tying some silver thread to the legs of the phoebes he captured near his home in Pennsylvania. He wanted to answer a question he had about whether birds are faithful to home locations from year to year. The following year, Audubon again captured two phoebes and found the silver thread had remained attached to their legs. Today, ornithologists still conduct bird banding to gather information on birds and the mystery of their migrations. So, that pair of phoebes that returned to your backyard this spring — they just might be the same ones that have spent past summer seasons providing you with an enlightening glimpse into their lives.

Jill reminded me that she had written to me a few years back and had mentioned difficulty with hummingbird feeders and bears. “I am happy to report that so far this summer, there have been no incidents,” she wrote.

Her email also reminded me of a recent surprise. I awoke recently to the sound of a disturbance outside my bedroom window. I figured rambunctious squirrels were raiding my feeders. I raised the blind and surprised myself and a young black bear. Standing on his hind legs, the bear had managed to hook its paws on one of my feeders that hangs about four feet off the ground. The bear, probably a yearling based on its size, fled the scene, which probably spared my feeder. 

If you have a question, wish to comment on a column or share an observation, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. If you want help with identification, photographs definitely help.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe utilizes a hiking trail sign as an elevated perch.