Category Archives: Our Fine Feathered Friends

Think of the vireos as ‘Plain Janes’ of songbirds

Photo by FotoRequest/Adobe Stock • A red-eyed vireo grasps a tree branch, a common pose for this bird that spends time concealed in the woodland canopy. The red eye can be difficult to detect unless lighting conditions are optimal for observers.

The start of migration appears to be more of a crawl than a sprint this fall, but I have picked up a few signs. For instance, I’ve been hearing the scolding sounds of red-eyed vireos from woodland edges for the past few weeks. A dedicated singer at most times, this vireo seems more likely to produce a harsh, scolding cry at this time of the year. Other hints of the steady advance of fall migration include flocks of common nighthawks and chimney swifts congregating in the skies over my home and the unmistakable croaking of common ravens from nearby ridges.

So far, I’ve seen only a few warblers, including black-throated blue warbler and hooded warbler. At a glance, vireos would appear related to the wood warblers. Research into DNA, however, has led many experts to contend that vireos are more closely related to crows and shrikes. Like the flycatcher and hummingbird families, the vireo family is exclusive to the New World. With a mere 50 species, vireos and their kin are vastly outnumbered by flycatchers and hummingbirds. The majority of vireos resides in the tropics, but about a dozen species nest in the United States.

In East Tennessee Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina, vireos resident during the summer months include red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow-throated vireo and warbling vireo. Most people are likely unaware of vireos. Although not uncommon, these birds are more frequently heard than seen. They spend much of their time in the forest canopy or in dense brush. When singing, they can remain at a perch, unmoving, for long periods of time.

Photo by Jean Potter • A red-eyed vireo sits on its carefully woven nest among a canopy of leaves.

The loud scolding calls of red-eyed vireos often heard this time of year are given apparently when the vireo is alarmed or irritated. This scolding vocalization is quite unlike the usual ones produced by this bird. First and foremost, the call is louder than one would think could be produced by a bird that is only about six inches long. During the summer season, the red-eyed vireo is also one of the most persistent of singing songbirds. Another common name for the red-eyed vireo is “preacher bird,” so called because of its tendency to unceasingly deliver its song.
The red-eyed vireo is still considered one of eastern North America’s most common summer breeding birds. At one time, the red-eyed vireo was probably the most common breeding bird in eastern woodlands. That, sadly, is no longer the case. Red-eyed vireos are olive-green above and clean white below. These birds show a distinctive head pattern consisting of a gray crown and white eyebrow stripe bordered above and below by black lines. Adults also have the red eyes that give this particular vireo its common name. The term “vireo,” originating in Latin, can be translated into English as “green bird.” It’s an apt description, as many of these small birds are primarily dull green in coloration. Consider the vireos the “Plain Janes” of songbirds.

Photo by Jean Potter • A red-eyed vireo fledgling calls for a food delivery, which will arrive in the beak of one of the young bird’s parents.

A red-eyed vireo painted by John James Audubon.

Other vireos that can be found in the United States, for at least part of the year, include Philadelphia vireo, plumbeous vireo and Cassin’s vireo. A specialty of Florida is the black-whiskered vireo, while the black-capped vireo is an endangered species found in Texas. Two others, Bell’s vireo and gray vireo, are identified as species of concern on the Audubon Watchlist.

Many species of vireo are also found in the islands of the Caribbean, including Jamaican vireo, Cuban vireo and Puerto Rican Vireo. The thick-billed vireo can be found in the Bahamas, which were recently pulverized by Hurricane Dorian. The thick-billed vireo is very similar to the white-eyed vireo, which is a summer resident in our region.

My only birding outside of the United States took place in the Bahamas 20 years ago. My highlights included two hummingbirds — Bahama woodstar and Cuban emerald — as well as bananaquits, black-faced grassquit, Western spindalis, Cuban pewee and other interesting species. I didn’t see a thick-billed vireo, but I did get my first-ever look at a Cape May warbler. I was visiting the Bahamas in January of 1999, which proved a fortunate time since many warblers migrate to these islands for the cold months. I’m hopeful that both people and birds on the islands Abaco and Grand Bahama and smaller islands most affected by the monster storm are able to recover soon.

Some of the more colorful common names for vireos include the dwarf vireo, golden vireo and yellow-winged vireo.  In Central and South America, the vireo family expands to include many birds with common names such as shrike-vireo, greenlet and peppershrike. Some of the varied species include lemon-chested greenlet, green shrike-vireo and the black-bellied peppershrike.

I still focus most of my birding efforts on warblers in the autumn, but vireos are always a pleasant diversion when the colorful warblers make themselves scarce.

Photo by Jean Potter • The blue-headed vireo prefers wooded habitats at higher elevations.

Gray catbirds require some gentle coaxing to give up shy habits

The gray catbird is a baffling bird with a personality that runs the gamut from introverted to extroverted, sometimes depending on the season and at other times seemingly just on a whim. With some gentle persuasion, however, people can gain a catbird’s trust and develop a fun friendship with these clever songbirds.

One summer, all I needed to do to win over the catbirds was to offer some less-than-perfect strawberries and blueberries. A few blemishes on the fruit didn’t bother the resident catbirds at all, and they soon became accustomed to receiving such treats.

Your first introduction to the catbird is likely going to occur when you hear what sounds like an irritable feline hiding in a hedge, thicket or dense shrub. Upon closer examination, you may get a glimpse of a charcoal gray bird roughly the shape of a Northern mockingbird but smaller. A black cap and a patch of rusty-red feathers under the tail are the only exceptions to this bird’s overall gray plumage.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A curious Gray Catbird peeks from dense cover. Attendees at the fall rally can look for catbirds and other species at any of the offered bird hikes.

Catbirds are experts at concealing themselves from prying eyes. The gray plumage blends into the shadowy sections of the tangles and thickets where the bird likes to hide itself. However, even when gray catbirds are reluctant to be seen, they’re almost eager to be heard. The catbird is extremely vocal, with several calls and songs in its repertoire, including the rather faithful rendering of a fussy cat’s meow that provides this bird its common name.

They’re part of a family related to thrushes that are known as “mimic thrushes.” Besides its surprisingly accurate rendition of a feline, the catbird has several other common vocalizations. Despite their shy nature, they’re extremely curious. Imitating their calls or simply producing a squeaky sound will usually persuade the bird to move out of cover and search for the source of the noise.

Catbirds are part of the parade of returning birds each spring that includes species like rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, but because they lack the brilliant plumages of these other birds their arrival would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact they are extremely noisy for the first few weeks they are back. Then they go silent again and remain quieter as they take up the serious business of raising young.

However, in a mood that appears to swing with the seasons, gray catbirds emerge again in late summer and early fall when they feast on such fruit as elderberries and wild cherries while making their whiny cacophony of calls from any tangle or thicket where they happen to be.

The catbird belongs to the genus Dumetella. The name is based upon the Latin term dūmus, which roughly translated means “thorny thicket.” Dumetella, in turn, means “dweller in the thornbushes” or “small bird of the thornbushes.” It’s a rather apt description for a bird fond of habitats often dominated by thorny vegetation. Older common names for the gray catbird included cat thrush and slate-colored mockingbird.

They are related to thrashers and mockingbirds, but scientists find them just different enough to warrant placing the gray catbird in its own genus. A relative known as the black catbird, which ranges throughout the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, as well as northern Guatemala and northern Belize, also belongs to a genus of its own. Both catbirds are classified as “mimic thrushes,” or Mimidae, of which there are about 30 species in the New World. There is a totally unrelated family of catbirds that ranges through Australia, Asia and parts of Africa.

The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. Males have motivation to constantly expand their repertoire, however, as doing so increases the likelihood of attracting a mate. They imitate other birds, but some have been recorded imitating frogs and other non-avian singers.

While not generally considered a bird to visit feeders, people have succeeded in attracting catbirds to feeders designed to offer grape jelly or orange slices. Planting fruit-bearing shrubs and trees is the best means of attracting these fascinating birds to your yard and garden.

 

Long-running Elizabethton Summer Bird Count finds 115 species

The Elizabethton Bird Club holds two summer bird counts to supplement other bird population monitoring efforts on the birdlife of Tennessee.

This count focuses exclusively on locations within Carter County and was held Saturday, June 9, with 16 observers in five parties plus two yard watchers. A total of 115 species was found, which is slightly above the average of 113 per count. The all-time high was 123 species in 2017. Several species restricted to the higher elevations of East Tennessee were found.

The count yielded some surprises and highlights, including the following:

A single Northern bobwhite represented a species that has been increasingly difficult to find in the area.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Great egret, seen here among cypress trees, made the count for the first time this year.

A couple of birds made their debut appearance on this count, including great egret and fish crow, which is expanding its range rapidly in the region.

Other good finds included ruffed grouse, sharp-shinned hawk, American woodcock, Eurasian collared-dove, yellow-bellied sapsucker, alder flycatcher, least flycatcher, common raven, red-breasted nuthatch, brown creeper, winter wren, golden-crowned kinglet, hermit thrush, grasshopper sparrow, rose-breasted grosbeak, purple finch and pine siskin.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hermit thrush, pictured here, is an uncommon summer nesting bird at high elevations.

The count also found 20 species of warblers, including golden-winged, Swainson’s, magnolia, Blackburnian and yellow-rumped.

Of course, there are always unexpected misses. Birds usually found on summer counts but missed this year included green heron, yellow-crowned night-heron, bald eagle, great horned owl, white-eyed vireo, warbling vireo, purple martin, Kentucky warbler, prairie Warbler and vesper sparrow.

The count total follows:

Canada goose, 91; wood duck, 7; Mallard, 78; Northern bobwhite, 1; ruffed grouse, 2; wild turkey, 35; great blue heron, 42; and great egret, 1.

Black vulture, 2; turkey vulture, 58; sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 3; broad-winged hawk, 1; red-tailed hawk, 10; American kestrel, 1.

Killdeer, 4; American woodcock, 1; rock pigeon, 69; Eurasian collared-dove, 3; mourning dove, 171; and yellow-billed cuckoo, 3.

Eastern screech-owl, 2; barred owl, 1; chuck-will’s widow, 3; whip-poor-will, chimney swift, 46; ruby-throated hummingbird, 35; and belted kingfisher, 10.

Red-bellied woodpecker, 15; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 3; downy woodpecker, 15; hairy woodpecker, 1; Northern flicker, 9; and pileated woodpecker, 14.

Eastern wood-pewee, 17; Acadian flycatcher, 21; alder flycatcher, 3; least flycatcher, 4; Eastern phoebe, 40; great crested flycatcher, 4; and Eastern kingbird, 15.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern phoebe is a common flycatcher in the region and abundant on summer counts.

Yellow-throated vireo, 2; blue-headed vireo, 44; red-eyed vireo, 105; blue jay, 66; American crow, 133; fish crow, 1; and common raven, 5.

Northern rough-winged swallow, 21; tree swallow, 123; barn swallow, 106; and cliff swallow, 313.

Carolina chickadee, 63; tufted titmouse, 71; red-breasted nuthatch, white-breasted nuthatch, 15; brown creeper, 3; house wren, 48; winter wren. 8; and Carolina wren, 54.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher, 17; golden-crowned kinglet, 23; Eastern bluebird, 71; veery, 41; hermit thrush, 1; wood thrush, 62; American robin, 245; gray catbird, 44; brown thrasher, 12; Northern mockingbird, 34; European starling, 358; and cedar waxwing, 54.

Overnbird, 47; worm-eating warbler, 6; Louisiana waterthrush, 11, golden-winged warbler, 6; black-and-white warbler, 32; Swainson’s warbler, 3; common yellowthroat, 20; hooded warbler, 76; American redstart, 14; Northern parula, 18; magnolia warbler, 6; Blackburnian warbler, 4; yellow warbler, 2; chestnut-sided warbler, 32; black-throated blue warbler, 39; pine warbler, 1; yellow-rumped warbler, 1; yellow-throated warbler, 7; black-throated green warbler, 29; Canada warbler, 11; and yellow-breasted chat, 3.

Eastern towhee, 73; chipping sparrow, 73; field sparrow, 43; grasshopper sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 151; and dark-eyed junco, 55.

Scarlet tanager, 18; Northern cardinal, 108; rose-breasted grosbeak, 11; blue grosbeak, 6; indigo bunting, 106.

Red-winged blackbird, 79; Eastern meadowlark, 1; common grackle, 74; brown-headed cowbird, 18, orchard oriole, 1; and Baltimore oriole, 1.

House finch, 43; purple finch, 2; pine siskin, 2; American goldfinch, 55; and house sparrow, 6.

Carter County’s Roan Mountain and Holston Mountain offer excellent high elevation habitat. Lower elevations along the Doe and Watauga Rivers also provide plenty of terrain for looking for a variety of birds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • American goldfinches look their very best for the summer count.

April sees the annual return of hummingbirds to the region as readers share their first spring sightings of tiny gems

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male ruby-throated hummingbirds 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.

Bob Cheers, a resident of Plantation Road in Bristol, Virginia, sent an email to announce the arrival of his first hummingbird of spring at 6:20 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10.

“I put the feeder out April 2, which is earlier than previous years, after reading your March 31 article in the Bristol Herald Courier,” Bob wrote. “It brought to mind the one year that I failed to get the feeder out early and spotted a hummingbird hovering outside of my family room window, in the exact location my feeder has hung for the last 30 plus years. That little guy had to have been a repeat customer.”

Bob wrote that he’s intrigued by the fact that this year’s arrival date falls within the spread that ranges from April 9 to April 14 that he has established since he started recording the returns in 2009. “What triggers their departure from Central America and their guidance system, considering the variable winds encountered, that sends them back to my feeder within a five-day period each year?” Bob asked in his email.

I had to do some digging to find an answer to Bob’s question. According to the website, Hummingbird.net, the phenomenon of migration among hummingbirds is not well understood.

Hummer-Male

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird sips from a sugar water feeder.

“Most ruby-throated hummingbirds winter between southern Mexico and northern Panama,” the website reveals. “Since hummingbirds lead solitary lives and neither live nor migrate in flocks, an individual bird may spend the winter anywhere in this range where the habitat is favorable, but probably returns to the same location each winter.”

The time they spend on this wintering range is remarkably brief. “Ruby-throats begin moving north as early as January, and by the end of February, they are at the northern coast of Yucatan, gorging on insects and spiders to add a thick layer of fat in preparation for flying to the United States,” the website notes.

According to the website, some hummingbirds skirt the Gulf of Mexico and follow the Texas coast north, while most apparently cross the Gulf, typically leaving at dusk for a nonstop flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours depending on the weather.

The force that compels hundreds of thousands of individual hummingbirds to all migrate at the same time remains mysterious. The reason these birds migrate is simpler. In the eastern half of the United States and Canada, ruby-throated hummingbirds face no competition from their own kind. If they remained in Central America, they would have to compete with dozens of species of hummingbirds during the nesting season. From the standpoint of the ruby-throated hummingbird, why not take a trip and claim a monopoly over some resource-rich terrain? It’s worked for these tiny flying jewels so far.

So, Bob became the first person to report a hummingbird arrival to me this year, but plenty of other people lined up to share their sightings, too.

Amy Wallin Tipton in Erwin, Tennessee, sent a message via Facebook to report her first hummingbird arrival for the spring. “Just saw my first hummer,” she wrote. Amy reported that the hummer, a male, arrived at 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10. “I’m so glad they are back,” she shared.

Ginger Brackins also reported that she saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird of spring on Wednesday, April 10, at her home in Erwin, Tennessee. She noted that it was a week earlier than last year. Ginger notes the arrival dates each year on her calendar. Ginger’s message about her sighting arrived thanks to her daughter, Gina McKinney, who emailed me on her mother’s behalf

Hummer-Farm

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated hummingbirds returned to the region in early April.

Joneen Sargent reported that her first hummingbird put in an appearance at 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 11, at her home in Bristol, Tennessee. In her email, she also asked if I had heard of downy woodpeckers drinking from sugar water feeders.

I answered her question by informing her that I’ve noticed downy woodpeckers, as well as Carolina chickadees, taking sips from my feeders. The chickadees can get quite acrobatic in their efforts to indulge their taste for sweets.

“We had our first male hummer at the feeder on Thursday, April 11, here in Bristol, Tennessee,” reported Tom and Sue Faucette in an email. “He came back on April 12-13.”

Lynne Reinhard reported that she saw her first hummingbirds of spring on Friday, April 12. “They are back!” Lynne proclaimed in a Facebook message. She wrote that the first hummingbird of the season arrived at 3 p.m. at her home on the upper end of South Holston Lake.

Snad Garrett saw her first hummingbird of spring on Stoney Creek in Elizabethton, Tennessee, on the evening of Friday, April 12.

Merry Jennings in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird on Friday, April  12, around 6 p.m., but hasn’t seen it since. “I put out the feeder on Thursday, April 11,” she noted in the email she sent me.

Lisa Brewer, who lives near Boone Lake in Piney Flats, Tennessee, reported that her first hummer arrived around 3 p.m. on Friday, April 12.

“I put my hummingbird feeders out last Sunday and had been watching every day for the first hummer to arrive,” she wrote in her email. “I was really excited to see a male ruby-throated hummingbird, and I saw what appeared to be the same one on Saturday and Sunday.”

Lisa added that this is the first year she has been able to get her feeders out in time for the first hummingbirds arriving in this area. “So I wanted to be sure to let you know when I saw my first one,” Lisa wrote.

Hummer-CloserUp

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Keep hummingbirds happy with a sugar water solution of four parts water to one part sugar.

Glen Eller saw his first hummingbird for the spring season on Friday, April 12, at 5:55 p.m. at his home in Fall Branch, Tennessee. “it was a male,” Glen reported in an email.

Karen Fouts posted on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird of 2019 on Friday, April 12, at her home in Marion, Virginia. She also reported rose-breasted grosbeaks at her feeders.

Lois Cox and Wilma Boy reported their first male ruby-throat hummingbird on Saturday, April 13, at 2:30 p.m. at home in Bluff City, Tennessee. In her email, Lois noted that they needed to get out their feeders for the visiting bird. “It was a male,” Lois wrote in the email. “Hope it comes back.”

Deb Clark sent me an email on behalf of her mother and her sighting of a spring hummingbird. “My mother, Louise Tilson, has asked that I send you a message sharing her good news that she’s having hummingbirds at her backdoor feeder,” Deb wrote in the email.

Deb added that her mom lives in the Riverside community near Chilhowie, Virginia, on the banks of the South Fork of the Holston River. “She put out her feeder about a week ago,” Deb wrote. “The first little fellow showed up Friday, April 12, at about three-thirty in the afternoon.”

Deb relayed that her mother said the hummer came and perched on the feeder, drinking like he was starving.

Louise reported multiple visits by solitary male hummingbirds several times through Friday afternoon, but she wasn’t sure whether it was one bird making several trips or different birds.

Lane and Phyllis Duncan, who reside in the Rich Valley community in Smyth, Virginia, sent me an email to report their first hummer of spring on Friday, April 12, at 3:30 p.m.

Karen Shaffer sent me an email to announce the arrival of a hummingbird at her home. “I’m so excited to report we saw our first hummer on Saturday, April 13, at 11 a.m. at our home on Rich Valley Road, Bristol, near the Benhams and Nordyke communities.”

Karen said she heard the bird before she saw it. “It was visiting our blooming yellow holly bush,” she wrote. “Such a tiny thing — but vivid in color at the throat, so a male, I guess. Yay!”

Gloria Walter Blevins reported in a Facebook message that she saw her first hummingbird this spring on Friday, April 12, at her home in Damascus Virginia. The hummingbird — or another one — returned the following morning. Gloria also noted that she has bluebirds building a nest at her home.

Priscilla Gutierrez, Limestone Cove community in Unicoi County, Tennessee, reported on my Facebook page that she saw the first spring hummingbird Friday, April 12, at 6:45 p.m. “They have been coming ever since,” she noted.

April Kerns Fain in Erwin, Tennessee, posted about her hummingbird sightings on Saturday, April 13, on Facebook. “The hummingbirds are back,” she wrote. “I’ve seen a male at my feeders several times today.”

Rubythroat-TheSoarNet

Photo by TheSOARnet / Pixabay.com • Male ruby-throated hummingbirds usually migrate ahead of females. These tiny birds must cross the Gulf of Mexico, without stopping, to reach their nesting grounds in the eastern United States. The journey across the Gulf can take them 18 to 22 hours, dependent on weather conditions.

Jane P. Arnold sent me an email to notify me of her mother’s hummingbird sighting. Her mother, Betty Poole, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird — a male — on Saturday, April 13. The following day, a female ruby-throated hummingbird also showed up at the feeder.

Jane added that she’s still waiting to see her own first hummingbird for the spring.

Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, reported her first spring hummingbird arrived on Saturday, April 13. “I just saw my first hummingbird of the season,” she wrote in her email. “Just one male so far. I have had my feeders out and waiting for a couple days. I thought this warm spring weather might bring in a few. So exciting!”

Sharee Bowman wrote a post on her Facebook page to announce her first spring hummer sighting on Saturday, April 13. “Hummingbird came yesterday to my feeder and, yes, it is the first one I have seen this year,” she wrote.

Felicia Mitchell saw her first spring hummingbird on Saturday, April 13. “He is happy to be home,” she reported in a comment on my Facebook page.

Brenda Hickman Dishner posted on my Facebook page about hummingbird arrivals. “They arrived at our house in Bristol, Tennessee, near Holston Dam on Highway 421, on Saturday, April 13, about 10:30 a.m.,” she wrote in her posting.

Vivian C. Tester sent me a Facebook message to report that she saw her first spring hummer at her home in Bristol, Tennessee, on Sunday, April 14.

Linda Kessinger Rhodes saw her first spring hummingbird visiting her feeders at her home in Tennessee Hills by the Walmart on the Parkway in Bristol, Tennessee, on Sunday, April 14. She posted her sighting on my Facebook page.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches near a feeder that he is ready to defend from all comers.

Rhonda Eller saw her first hummingbird on Sunday, April 14, at 1:20 p.m. In her post on my Facebook page, she noted that she hung the feeder out last Wednesday before heading to Louisville to visit family. “I am always pleasantly surprised for the first spotting of one here on Horseshoe Bend in Chilhowie, Virginia,” she added. “Oh, the bluebirds are here, too, and have a nest with three eggs.”

Cheri Miller posted on my Facebook page about her sighting. “I saw one Sunday, April 14, in the Brown’s Branch community in Hampton, Tennessee, eyeing an orchid blooming in the window,” she wrote in her post.

Ron Bartlett reported by email that a single male showed up at his feeder on Sunday, April 14. “I live in McDowell County, North Carolina,” Ron shared. “This is about a week later than normal. Perhaps he was held up trying to cross the border.”

Donna Barnes Kilday of Erwin, Tennessee, posted to my Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on the morning of Monday, April 15.

Janie Compton, a resident of Chesterfield, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird on Monday, April 15. Her friend, Phyllis Moore, posted news of Janie’s sighting on my Facebook page.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

Emily Rogers, from Jonesborough, Tennessee, reported on my Facebook page that she had her first hummingbird of spring in Tennessee’s oldest town on Monday, April 15.

Linda K. Sproles of Bristol, Tennessee, got her first visit from a female hummingbird on Monday, April 15, in the late afternoon. Last year, she said her first sighting took place on Apr.14 while in 2017 she first saw a returning hummingbird on April 16.

Philip Laws, a resident of Limestone Cove in Unicoi County, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird on Tuesday, April 16, at 4:20 p.m.

Tom and Cathy McNeil, who reside in the Piney Grove community of Hampton, Tennessee, reported their first spring hummingbird on Facebook on Tuesday, April 16.

I saw my first hummingbird this spring when a male visited several of my feeders around 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16. I enjoyed welcoming him home.

Readers are welcome to continue sharing their hummingbird sightings. Plenty of other colorful birds are also making spring migration stops, and I love to hear what everyone is seeing in their own yards. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com with questions, comments or observations.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female ruby-throated hummingbird settles onto the perch of a sugar water feeder.

April brings flurry of spring migrants to region

Louisiana Waterthrush

Photo by Adobe Stock • Subtle plumage differences, as well as habitat, behavior and seasonal presence, are factors in distinguishing the Louisiana waterthrush, pictured, from the closely related Northern waterthrush. The Louisiana waterthrush nests along fast-moving streams in the area while the Northern waterthrush does not breed in the region.

I’m always happy for the arrival of April because I know the month hails the arrival of some of my favorite birds. The roughly 50 species of New World warblers that occur in the Eastern United States have captivated me from the time I first picked up a pair of binoculars. The warblers offer color, energy, complex songs and much more for the bird enthusiast to enjoy.

The month started out with my first sighting of a purple finch for the year. The finch must have been a harbinger of birds to come because in quick succession I observed many early migrants, including brown thrasher, blue-headed vireo, blue-gray gnatcatcher and chipping sparrow, as well as several warblers.

PurpleFinches

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A study of the facial pattern of a female purple finch helps contrast her from similar female house finches. Again, the notched tail is also a good indication of the bird’s identity.

The first warbler to arrive in the woods around my home this year was a singing male black-throated green warbler. Three others — black-and-white warbler, yellow-throated warbler and Louisiana waterthrush — followed quickly after my sighting of the black-throated green warbler.

The Louisiana waterthrush stood out among these early observations. This warbler is a specialist of creeks and streams, and my sighting took place near a roaring creek swollen by a rainy spring. This water-loving warbler also has a loud, ringing song that can still be hard to hear because of the fact the bird is usually near the background noise of rushing water.

B&WWarbler

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-and-white warbler creeps over the bark of a pine in search of insect prey.

 

While many warblers have shown signs of decline in recent years, the Louisiana waterthrush appears to have bucked that trend. According to the website, “All About Birds,” Louisiana waterthrush populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, based on statistics from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight, a network of organizations engaged in all aspects of avian conservation, estimates a global breeding population of 360,000, with almost all of those individuals spending at least part of the year in the United States. About a quarter of the population retreats into Mexico during the winter season. The rest winter in Florida and some of the Gulf Coast states, as well as the islands of the Caribbean.

While most songbirds are fortunate to survive two or three years in the wild, at least one Louisiana waterthrush lived to the age of at least 11 years and 11 months. The bird, a male, was seen in New Jersey in the wild and identified by a band on one of his legs. He had been banded in the same state, according to the website, “All About Birds.”

The waterthrushes are the only two species in the genus Parkesia, so named to honor American ornithologist Kenneth C. Parkes, who was for many years curator of birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The common name of the Louisiana waterthrush is not a very apt one, as this bird does not have any special affinity for the state of Louisiana. Someone collected some of the early specimens of the Louisiana waterthrush in its namesake location, and the name has stuck through the years.

The only other warbler in the genus Parkesia is the Northern waterthrush which, unlike its relative, likes to live near quiet, sedate pools, ponds and bogs, not rushing streams.

Hummingbirds getting closer to region

Tommy and Virginia Curtis of Smithville, Tennessee, reported their first ruby-throated hummingbirds of the spring on the email group, “TN-Birds.” The hummingbird arrived on April 7.

“We had two male ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive late Sunday afternoon,” they wrote in their email. “That is a little later than the April 1 arrival times in the past.”

The two visitors had apparently agreed to co-exist.

“So far they are eating peacefully, and neither is attacking or dominating the one feeder,” the couple reported. “We keep wondering when the white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos plan to leave, as we have had many of them all winter.”

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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 couple also shared that they have been hosting a small flock of purple finches. “They normally don’t show up at our feeders unless there is snow on the ground, but we have enjoyed seeing them daily,” they wrote in their email.

Of course, the Curtises live in DeKalb County in Middle Tennessee. As of press time, I still haven’t received any reports of hummingbirds arriving in East Tennessee or Southwest Virginia. I’m confident these tiny winged gems will arrive soon. I hope to update on hummingbird arrivals in next week’s column.

Remember to share your hummingbird sighting by emailing me the date and time of the sighting to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook should anyone want to contact me through that social media platform.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches near a feeder that he is ready to defend from all comers.

 

Smallest of the nuthatches finds a niche at woman’s feeders

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Photo by Lee Karmey/USFWS • A pygmy nuthatch captures a caterpillar.

Veronica Rausch contacted me by email to share a story of the nuthatches that frequent the feeders at her home in central Oregon.

“I have a small flock of pygmy nuthatches coming into the feeders next to my dining room window on a regular basis,” Veronica wrote, adding that the nuthatches began their visits about three weeks ago.

Veronica wrote that she lives in the pine forests of Central Oregon at an elevation of about 4,200 feet.

“The pygmy nuthatches are delightful little birds and share the feeders with the chickadees and juncos,” she wrote. “The bigger birds such as the Stellar’s jays and the woodpeckers will cause them to leave.”

Veronica has also enjoyed observing their unusual antics. “I saw one do a little dance on a branch by the suet feeder,” she described in her email. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to grab the camera fast enough! I hope they stick around.”

I replied to Veronica’s email, noting how I consider her fortunate to be hosting the smallest of North America’s nuthatches at her home. Admitting to some envy at her good fortune, I explained that I hope to some day add this species to my life list so I can check all of the continent’s nuthatches off my list of target birds.

Even by nuthatch standards, the pygmy nuthatch is a small bird. In appearance, this nuthatch shows buffy-white underparts contrasted with a brown head and a slate-gray back. They often breed in large extended family flocks, so the four individuals observed by Veronica might very well have been closely related to each other.

Nesting pygmy nuthatches are often assisted in their chores by “nest helpers,” which are close relatives that help the busy parents gather food and feed hungry young. These nest helpers also deliver food to females as they incubate eggs and will mount a spirited defense of a nest threatened by intruders. Their communal nature extends to nocturnal roosting when many individuals will huddle together to ensure their combined body heat helps them survive extremely cold nights.

So how small is the pygmy nuthatch? The adults are barely four inches long and weigh only a third of an ounce. A common fountain pen weighs more than this tiny nuthatch, which goes a long way towards explaining the bird’s scientific name, sitta pygmaea.

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Photo by theSOARnet/Pixabay.com • The brown-headed nuthatch, the southeastern counterpart to the pygmy nuthatch that ranges throughout the Rocky Mountain states, is strongly associated with various types of pine trees.

Pygmy nuthatches are not at all likely to be found in the Mountain Empire or any adjacent areas, but there is another small nuthatch that is found in some extremely localized habitats in the region. The brown-headed nuthatch is a specialist of pine woodlands throughout the southeastern United States, favoring loblolly-shortleaf pines and longleaf-slash pines. This nuthatch requires standing dead trees for nesting and roosting. They forage for food, however, on live pines. The birds are more abundant in older pine stands.

I saw several brown-headed nuthatches during a recent stay on Fripp Island in South Carolina. I’ve also observed this small nuthatch during visits to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia, as well as various other locations in South Carolina. This nuthatch even occurs in the Mountain Empire region, most recently with four of these birds being found at Washington County Park on South Holston Lake near Bristol during the 2018 Christmas Bird Count conducted by the Bristol Bird Club.

These small birds will occasionally forage close to the ground, but they are often in the upper branches of pine trees. Their presence is often revealed by their call, which sounds amazingly like a squeeze toy. They produce their “squeaky toy” call persistently when agitated or curious. Brown-headed nuthatches often associate with mixed flocks in company with Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, pine warblers and other small songbirds.

The power of flight gives most birds a perfectly valid reason to disregard the power of gravity. The family of tree-clinging birds known as nuthatches lives an even more topsy-turvy lifestyle than many other of their winged kin. Nuthatches prefer a headfirst stance, even “walking” upside down as they search for food in the nooks and crannies of tree trunks and branches.

The United States is home to four species of nuthatches: white-breasted, red-breasted, brown-headed and pygmy. White-breasted nuthatches are probably the most familiar nuthatch to backyard birders in this area.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A white-breasted nuthatch clings to the bark of a tree.

Because of their gravity-defying antics, the white-breasted nuthatch and other members of the family can provide hours of entertainment at our bird feeders. Individual white-breasted nuthatches will follow a single-minded path along the trunk of a tree or a branch on the way to a feeder. An individual nuthatch rarely varies from this path. It’s amusing to watch the jerky progress along the trunk as this bird prepares for a flight to a feeder holding sunflower seeds or a hanging wire basket of suet.

At my home, nuthatches typically remain aloof from the always-ongoing rivalry between the chickadees and titmice. The white-breasted nuthatch is also a no-nonsense visitor. Rarely distracted by disturbances among other birds, this nuthatch is content to grab a seed and go or hang on to the wire frame of a suet basket and peck off chunks of suet.

The more numerous titmice and chickadees give way when a white-breasted nuthatch claims a feeder. At times, however, among the frantic activity, a tufted titmouse or a Carolina chickadee will forget itself and fly to a position on a feeder already claimed by a nuthatch. If surprised enough to retreat to a nearby perch, the nuthatch will go through a rather comical little dance to express its displeasure. Wings spread out in a rigid pose, the bird will turn around in tight circles, showing definite resentment at being displaced by an offending chickadee or titmouse.

The stubby red-breasted nuthatch is another member of the family that occasionally finds its way to our yards. Smaller than the related white-breasted nuthatch and, as far as I can tell, complacent in the company of chickadees and titmice, the red-breasted nuthatch is always a welcome visitor. It has a tell-tale “yank yank” call that it produces when excited that sounds very much like little tin horns. The red-breasted nuthatch, perhaps because it spends so much of the year in more remote areas, can also be amazingly tame when it pays a winter visit.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A red-breasted nuthatch clings to the mesh of a feeding tube to get at the peanuts contained within.

Nuthatches can be attracted to feeders by offering peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet. They are also cavity-nesting birds, but are more reluctant about accepting a nesting box as a place to rear young. They will gladly accept an old woodpecker hole or other natural cavity in a tree.

I also want to complete my list of North American nuthatches by adding the fourth species — pygmy nuthatch — to my life list. I have made two trips to western North America, where this species ranges, but haven’t managed to find this bird. Both the pygmy and brown-headed are among the smallest members of the nuthatch family.

On the other end of the size scale is the appropriately named giant nuthatch, which reaches a length of almost eight inches. The giant nuthatch ranges through China, Thailand and Burma. This nuthatch is bigger than a downy woodpecker, one of our more common visitors at backyard feeders in our region.

Worldwide, there are about 25 species of nuthatches, some of which have surprisingly descriptive names for birds that spend most of their lives creeping in obscurity along the trunks and branches of trees. Some of the more creative common names for these little birds are inspired by locations around the globe, giving us species like Siberian nuthatch, Kashmir nuthatch, Burmese nuthatch, Bahama nuthatch, Algerian nuthatch, Indian nuthatch and Chinese nuthatch.

These birds are named “nuthatch” for the habit of some species to wedge a large seed in a crack and hack at it with their strong bills. I like to refer to them as “upside-down birds” because of their gravity-defying nature. It must give them an interesting perspective on the world around them.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • In some areas, brown-headed nuthatches are feeder visitors. These small nuthatches are specialists that favor stands of loblolly pine.

High school senior looking out for interests of the region’s bluebirds

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A handsome male Eastern bluebird perches on a chain-link fence.

Observant people have probably noticed Eastern bluebirds already checking out possible nesting locations. These cavity-nesting birds begin scouting for possible nest sites in February and March. By April, female bluebirds may be incubating a clutch of eggs.

Although bluebirds will nest in natural cavities in trees, they respond readily to the availability of nesting boxes provided by human landlords. Many people are devoted to the cause of seeing that bluebirds — a favorite of many — continue to thrive in the face of certain challenges.

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Photo by Adrianna Nelson • Bluebirds are skillful at foraging for insects.

Eighteen-year-old Adrianna Nelson is one such person. A senior at John S. Battle High School, Adrianna said she recently became involved with the Tennessee Bluebird Society as a way to become active with a conservation-related activity involving birds.

“I only recently got involved with TBS,” she said.

She began looking last summer for a way to contribute locally to the welfare of birds.

“I came across the TBS website,” she said. “They didn’t have a coordinator for Sullivan County, so I decided to fill the position.”

Nelson said she is interested in all birds but enjoys focusing on bluebirds and other cavity nesters to spread knowledge about their importance.

“TBS focuses on bluebirds,” she said.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A male Eastern Bluebird inspects a nesting cavity in a wooden fence post. When such cavities are scarce, bluebirds readily build in nest boxes.

Bluebirds are like the “poster child” for the organization, Nelson noted, but she also pointed out that TBS also promotes the conservation of other native cavity nesters.

As county coordinator for TBS, her job primarily involves giving presentations to raise awareness about bluebirds and other cavity-nesting bird species.

“I have already presented to the Bristol Bird Club, and I plan to still give a few more presentations,” she said.

“I can also set up bluebird trails,” Nelson said. “I have not done any trails this year, but I have plans for next year. Part of my responsibilities is also to maintain trails and answer questions from the community.”

 

There are some good reasons for people to offer extra support to help bluebirds thrive.

“Eastern bluebirds are native cavity nesters,” Nelson said. “They are not strong enough to excavate their own cavities, so starlings and house sparrows can take over natural and man-made structures very quickly. It is important to promote the longevity of native species. Not only are they important, they are very beautiful.”

There are several things that people can do to make their yards and gardens more attractive to bluebirds.

“One of the most important is to make sure that there is proper habitat,” Nelson explained. “Bluebirds prefer open areas with some trees or other perches for spotting insects.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern Bluebird gathers pine needles to use as nesting material. Bluebirds are a cavity-nesting species that will use natural or manmade cavities.

For those interested in attracting nesters, Nelson said that picking the right nest box and proper placement is important.

She helps maintain nesting boxes along a bluebird trail at Steele Creek Park in Bristol.

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Photo by Adrianna Nelson • Eastern bluebirds are a beautiful bird to welcome into the backyard.

In addition, providing plenty of water helps. “Bluebirds also like meal worms, but plants such as dogwoods, sumac, pokeweed, viburnum, and others can provide food, especially in the winter,” Nelson said.

Keeping predators away is crucial. According to Nelson, this can be achieved with simple actions such as keeping cats indoors.

“There are more details about bluebirds, boxes, nesting, predators, habitat and more online on the North American Bluebird Society website,” Nelson added.

Nelson shared some fascinating facts about bluebirds.

“They can spot insects from over 50 yards away,” she said.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern Bluebirds are year-round residents in Northeast Tennessee.

Bluebirds are bigger than small songbirds like chickadees, wrens and warblers, yet they weigh only about one ounce.

Bluebirds are truly “early birds,” according to Nelson. “Eggs usually hatch within the first two hours after dawn,” she said.

There are no local meetings of the Tennessee Bluebird Society, but an annual meeting for TBS is held in November. The meeting is open to the public.

TBS and North American Bluebird Society members get quarterly journals and newsletters. There is also information on the websites of the two organizations for anyone interested in bluebirds.md19917207443

NABS was founded in 1978 by Dr. Lawrence Zeleny in order to promote the preservation of bluebirds, a cavity-nesting species in decline at that time. Zeleny, with the support of his wife, Olive, dedicated much of his life to providing nestboxes and managing bluebird trails. He promoted bluebird conservation through hundreds of talks and articles in many periodicals.

The Eastern bluebird has two close relatives — the Western bluebird and the mountain bluebird. These species belong to the genus, Sialia, which is counted among the world’s thrushes.The Western bluebird ranges throughout California, the southern Rocky Mountains, Arizona and New Mexico. The mountain bluebird is widespread in the western United States, as well. Two states — Idaho and Nevada — have bestowed official status on the mountain bluebird as their official state bird. The Eastern bluebird has also been honored with that designation by the states of Missouri and New York.

The Eastern bluebird suffered serious decline from 1940 into the 1960s, but it is now a common bird in the region. Rick Knight, author of The Birds of Northeast Tennessee, notes that nest boxes were instrumental in the recovery of the Eastern bluebird.

Nelson is continuing the work pioneered by others to conserve the Eastern bluebird. She lives in Bristol, Virginia, with her parents, Sandi and Shawn Nelson. She welcomes the public to contact her about bluebirds by emailing adriannan1@hotmail.com.

To learn more about the Tennessee Bluebird Society, visit http://www.tnbluebirdsociety.org. For more information on the North American Bluebird Society, visit wwwna.bluebirdsociety.org.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A young Eastern Bluebird slowly gains independence after leaving the nest.