Category Archives: Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Hummingbirds not the only birds returning to region as spring migration advances

Hummer-Morning

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on a sugar water feeder.

A voiceover for a promotional trailer for an upcoming movie in the Jurassic Park franchise asks the question “Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur?” and answers it with the sentence “The first time you see them, it’s like a miracle!”

Obviously, dinosaurs aren’t walking the earth — except in this highly successful movie franchise — although experts maintain that dinosaurian descendants (birds) still roam the world.

Dinosaurs, of course, have impressed humans with immense size ever since their enormous fossils began to be uncovered. Hummingbirds also impress with size, or rather the lack of it. It’s that tiny size that has prompted people to describe them as “miracles” from the time the first European explorers sailed to the New World in the late 1400s. When Spanish explorers first encountered them, they had no equivalent birds in Europe to use as a reference. They referred to hummingbirds as “joyas voladoras,” or flying jewels.

So, how many remember their first sighting of a hummingbird? These tiny birds, still accurately and often described as flying gems, are worthy of the word “miracle” being used to define them. When we see the ruby-throated hummingbirds return to the region every spring, our belief in miracles is strengthened.

I still have readers sharing reports of their first hummingbird sightings this spring.

• Marty Huber and Jo Ann Detta in Abingdon, Virginia, sent me an email about their first spring hummingbird sighting.

They reported that they got their first look at a spring hummingbird on April 18 at 5:04 p.m. “We were excited and have been looking since the beginning of the month,” they wrote. “Last year we didn’t see our first until April 23.”

• Ed and Rebecca Feaster of Piney Flats, Tennessee, put out their feeders after reading one of my columns earlier in April.

“We are happy to report that we saw a little female ruby-throated hummer on the morning of April 20,” they wrote in their email. “We were thankful to offer her nectar as she seemed very, very hungry!”

The Feasters noted that they have been in the Tri-Cities area for three years.

They had previously lived more than 20 years in the Roanoke Valley. “Birders in that area said to look for the hummers to arrive when the azaleas bloom,” they wrote. “The same seems to hold true here as the ones around our home began to blossom just a couple days ago.”

• Jane Arnold, a resident of Bristol, Virginia, sent me an email about her first hummer sighting.

“Just wanted to let you know that my first hummer of the year arrived at 10:20 a.m. Saturday, April 21,” she wrote. “I was so excited to see him! I had taken my feeder out to hang (it was sitting on a table) and [the hummingbird] flew to it.”

• Don and Donna Morrell emailed me with their first hummingbird sighting of spring. “My wife Donna and I saw our first hummingbirds on April 22,” Don wrote.

The Morrells saw both a male and female hummingbird. “We are located behind South Holston Dam,” Don added. “We are glad our friends are back. Also on that same day we saw an eagle and white crane.”

Egretta

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

Most likely the white crane was a great egret, which is also migrating through the region right now. Although often called cranes, egrets are part of the family of wading birds that includes herons. North America’s true cranes are the endangered whooping crane and the sandhill crane.

• Facebook friend Sherry Thacker reported a first sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird on April 22.

IMG_0927

Photo Courtesy of Helen Whited • A Baltimore Oriole visits a feeder “baited” with an orange slice.

“It came looking at the thistle seed feeder that is red,” she reported. “I had not put up the sugar water feeder, but I did today.”

Sherry reported seeing some beautiful hummingbirds last year.

Of course, we are in the midst of spring migration, which means hummingbirds are hardly the only new arrivals.

• Helen Whited in Abingdon, Virginia, has seen two very brightly-colored species of birds pass through her yard this spring. On April 17, her feeders were visited by male rose-breasted grosbeaks. “I am so excited to see my first grosbeaks,” she shared in an email that also contained a photo featuring two of the visiting grosbeaks. On April 21, Helen sent me another email with a photo of a male Baltimore oriole visiting a specially designed feeder made to hold orange slices to attract fruit-loving orioles. Grosbeaks and orioles are two migrant species of birds that deliver splashes of tropical color to the region each year.

Helen had prepared for the visit by the Baltimore oriole. In an email from last year, she had told me that her husband had promised her an oriole feeder for her birthday. I’m glad she’s been able to report success in bringing one of these bright orange and black birds to her yard.

DDB1466C-233A-4CB8-8C73-BD7C30B4E4A3 (1)

Photo Courtesy of Helen Whited • A pair of Rose-breasted grosbeaks take turns visiting a feeder.

• Anita Huffman of Rugby, Virginia, saw a male rose-breasted grosbeak on April 22. She reported her sighting on Bristol-Birds, a network for sharing postings about bird observations in the region.

• John Harty, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, sought my help with identifying a new bird in his yard. Based on his description of the bird — the shape of a robin, reddish-brown coloration and a taste for suet cakes at John’s feeder — I suggested that his bird was probably a brown thrasher.

Brown thrashers returned to my home in late March and almost immediately sought out my suet feeders. Other recent arrivals have included several warblers — hooded, black-throated green and black-and-white — as well as tree swallows, which immediately got down to the business of selecting a nesting box. All of these birds nest in the gardens and woods around my home.

BrownThrasher-MIMOSA

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

Some birds, however, announce their arrival not with bright colors but with beautiful songs. On April 23, I listened as a wood thrush sang its flute-like song from the edge of the woods just outside my bedroom window. The sweet song of this thrush is one of my favorite sounds of spring.

Every bird is a miracle, whether you’re seeing or hearing them for the first time or welcoming them back for another spring and summer season.

wood-thrush-songbird-hylocichla-mustelina-looks-up-while-it-perches-on-a-branch

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Wood Thrush often sings its flute-like song from deep under cover in dense woodlands.

Arduous migration journeys by some birds represent wondrous natural achievements

grosbeak-photo

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                          This rose-breasted grosbeak struck a window Monday, Oct. 3, during fall migration. Although this bird rested and later recovered, many birds are felled by similar perils and obstacles as they migrate south each fall.

A stunned rose-breasted grosbeak recuperating on the front porch on Oct. 3 provided a reminder that migrating birds face a variety of perils and obstacles as they wing their way back south. Now that we’re into October, many of the birds of summer — orioles, tanagers, warblers and hummingbirds — are becoming scarce in our yards and gardens. These neotropical migrants are temporary visitors, remaining in North America only long enough to nest and raise young before they take to the wing to return to more tropical regions for the winter months that will grip their summer home in snow and ice for several months.

Some of these birds migrate out of the tropics to avoid competition. Others find North America a land of abundant, albeit temporary, resources. This land of plenty offers a wealth of insects, seeds, fruit and other nourishing, nutritious food to help parent birds keep their strength while they work to ensure their young thrive. The phenomenon of migration isn’t exclusive to the neotropical migrants of the New World. Birds in other parts of the world migrate, too.

rubythroated_hummingbird

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                 The tiny ruby-throated hummingbird crosses the Gulf of Mexico twice yearly to migrate from Central America to North America in the spring and back again in the fall.

The Arctic tern, for example, truly takes migration to extremes. This small seabird travels each year from its Arctic nesting grounds to the Antarctic region, where it spends the winter months. Put into terms of mileage, the Arctic tern can travel about 50,000 miles in a single year. For a bird with a body length of about 15 inches and a wingspan of about 28 inches, this incredible migration is an astonishing feat.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, a favorite of many bird enthusiasts living in the eastern United States, makes an impressive migration each year. Just to reach the United States, these tiny birds undertake a strenuous journey. They leave their wintering grounds in Central America to return to the United States and Canada for the nesting season. Most of these tiny birds, which are barely four inches long, make a non-stop flight of more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. The journey can take almost an entire day! With the end of summer, the entire population of ruby-throated hummingbirds, increased by a new generation of young birds, makes the Gulf crossing for a second time in a year to return to the American tropics for the winter months.

The broad-winged hawk, a raptor found in the region during the summer, makes a fall migration back to South America every fall that astonishes human onlookers who gather along mountain peaks to witness the spectacle. The hawks form large flocks, also called kettles, that can number thousands of birds.

bartailed_godwit_on_tundra

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Steve Maslowski The bar-tailed godwit stages migrations that can take nine days of non-stop flight spanning nearly 6,000 miles.

Shorebirds, which in North America can consist of birds ranging from plovers and godwits to dowitchers and avocets, are champion migrants. The bar-tailed godwit makes an even more impressive non-stop migratory flight. This shorebird nests in parts of Scandinavia, northern Asia and Alaska. Some of these godwits make a nine-day non-stop migratory flight that takes them from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea of China, a distance of almost 6,000 miles. Needless to say, since the godwits make no stops along the way, they must also go without food for the duration of their journey.

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.

Even birds that cannot fly undertake migrations. For instance, flightless penguins swim hundreds or thousands of miles to reach preferred ranges for feeding or nesting. The Australian emu, a smaller relative of the ostrich, makes seasonal migrations on foot to ensure access to abundant food supplies at all seasons.

arctic_tern

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Kirk Rogers         The Arctic tern’s migration, which takes it from the Arctic to the Antarctic, keeps this small seabird in the sky for about 50,000 miles each year.

Birds are not even the only animals to migrate. Many creatures, from whales and wildebeest to dragonflies and butterflies, impress humans with their endurance as they stage regular migrations.

Even as some of our summer favorites depart, we should prepare to welcome back some winter favorites, including dark-eyed juncos, yellow-rumped warblers, white-throated sparrows and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Fall is indeed a time of departure for many birds, but it’s also a time to make new friends with the other birds that should soon start arriving in our yards and gardens.

As for the rose-breasted grosbeak on the porch, that story had a happy ending. After taking some time to recover after apparently striking a window, the bird hopped around the porch for a moment and then took wing and flew to nearby hawthorn trees. The bird’s flight — strong and straight — delighted me. The grosbeak could have been badly injured or even killed. I wished it the best for the remainder of its journey.

•••••

I’m dedicating this week’s column to the memory of J. Wallace Coffey, a great birder and wonderful individual who died Tuesday, Sept. 27. I met Wallace, a native of Bristol, Tennessee, back in the late 1990s. He introduced me to some wonderful birding destinations in the region, including such Virginia locations as Burke’s Garden, Steele Creek Park in Bristol, the wetlands of Saltville and Musick’s Campground on Holston Lake. Wallace was a tireless promoter of birds, birding and birders, and he loved to encourage young people to explore nature. He was also a great leader for the Bristol Bird Club, as well as the Elizabethton Bird Club. He will be greatly missed.
•••••

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.

Grosbeaks in region include blue, rose-breasted representatives of family

 

Daryl Herron, a real-life friend as well as a Facebook one, posted a photo of a bird on my page recently, seeking help with identifying the bird. His sister, Monica Cody, took the photo at her Kingsport home. The stunning bird depicted in the photo, as I happily reported back to Daryl, was a blue grosbeak. The grosbeak is an impressive bird, with males showing off an overall blue plumage save for some brown and black feathers in the wings.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/ David Brezinski Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will likely be among the colorful birds present for this year's rally.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/ David Brezinski
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will likely be among the colorful birds present for this year’s rally.

Blue grosbeaks are mostly southern birds with Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia representing the northern tier of this bird’s range in the southeastern part of the country. Look for these chunky, blue birds in brushy fields or along hedgerows in fairly open country. They favor the same habitats as such birds as yellow-breasted chat, brown thrasher and loggerhead shrike.

BlueGrosbeak-CODY

Photo by Monica Cody                    This male blue grosbeak showed up near Monica Cody’s home in Kingsport, Tennessee. The blue grosbeak is an uncommon visitor in the region.

It’s a shame this bird isn’t more common in the region. Blue grosbeaks will visit feeders, but in more than 20 years of maintaining well-stocked feeders, I’ve managed to attract only one of these birds. If more common, it would surely be a favorite bird among the people offering free seed for their feathered friends.

The blue grosbeak is related to the better-known rose-breasted grosbeak. Male rose-breasted grosbeaks are absolutely stunning, especially for people getting their first-ever glimpse of this bird. It’s the adult male with his vibrant black and white feathers and the large rosy-red splash of color across the breast that gives this bird its common name. Females are brown, streaked birds that are larger than but easily confused with some of our sparrows.

Among grosbeaks, both sexes have a massive bill, which they use to hull sunflower seeds at feeders or glean insects from leaves and branches. It’s the heavy, blunt bill for which the term “grosbeak” is derived. “Gros” is a German term for large or big, so grosbeak simply means a large-beaked bird. People who band birds to further the study of them will tell you that rose-breasted grosbeaks have a wicked bite and are capable of delivering quite a nip. Bird banders in the region frequently encounter rose-breasted grosbeaks in their mist nets — and some bear the scars to prove it.

Tammie-RBGrosbeak

Photo by Tammie Kroll                                      The male rose-breasted grosbeak is probably one of the least difficult songbirds to identify with his unmistakable plumage pattern.

The spring arrival of rose-breasted grosbeaks is usually a fleeting visit. Finding suitable arrangements, which can consist of well-stocked feeders and perhaps a convenient water source, the migrating birds may linger for several days. These birds nest at higher elevations, however, and are usually impatient to continue the journey to where they will spend the summer months tending to their young.

This spring, Tammie Kroll was one of the lucky people to receive visits from rose-breasted grosbeaks. Tammie emailed me to share a beautiful photo she took of the male grosbeak that visited her home in Washington County, Virginia, near Exit 13 off Interstate 81.

There’s good news for those who didn’t receive springtime visits from these pretty birds. The rose-breasted grosbeak is also a common fall migrant and can again be attracted to yards offering sources of food and water. While males usually don’t look quite as dramatic by August and September, they’re still sure to cause a stir when visiting a feeder.

RM-RBGrosbeak

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                         A rose-breasted grosbeak sings from a tree on Roan Mountain, Tennessee.

 

Plenty of rose-breasted grosbeaks pass through northeast Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, and a few even decide to make their summer homes in the mountains in these regions. However, these birds spread out widely across the eastern half of the North American continent, ranging from northeastern British Columbia to Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada. They also range south from New Jersey to Georgia. The rose-breasted grosbeak also reaches Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.

blue-grosbeak-john-james-audubon

John James Audubon painted this family of  blue grosbeaks.

For the most part, however, the rose-breasted grosbeak is replaced in the western United States by the closely related black-headed grosbeak. I saw several of these birds during a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, back in 2006. Other grosbeaks in the United States include the evening grosbeak and pine grosbeak. In the American tropics other grosbeaks are found, including the descriptively named yellow-green grosbeak, crimson-collared grosbeak, ultramarine grosbeak and yellow-shouldered grosbeak.

•••••

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.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks always wow observers

Connie Jackson sent me a note on my blog, “Our Fine Feathered Friends,” about the excitement caused by her first-ever sighting this spring of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

Photo Courtesy of Byron Tucker A Rose-breasted Grosbeak joins a Red-bellied Woodpecker at a feeder in Atlanta.

Photo Courtesy of Byron Tucker
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak joins a Red-bellied Woodpecker at a feeder in Atlanta.

“Thank you. Thank you. I’m an amateur bird watcher for the first time this year,” Connie wrote. “My feeders are drawing many birds to my delight. Today, for the first time, I saw both a male and female grosbeak. It took me two hours on-line to come across your article and picture to find out what they were. They are beautiful. I have taken many pictures.”

Danny Baker, who lives in northwest Tennessee in Clarksville, also wrote to me about visiting Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.

“I have had several grosbeaks at my feeders for three weeks now,” Danny wrote. “I was just wondering why the change from normal? They are very pretty and have a wonderful song, and everyday I return from work hoping they will still be here.”

Other than Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the one bird whose return in the spring is guaranteed to generate excitement is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Every spring, I get phone calls and emails from people wanting to share the thrill of seeing these vibrant birds in their back yards.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Rose-breasted Grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

The spring arrival of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks is a temporary visit. Finding suitable arrangements, which can consist of well-stocked feeders and perhaps a convenient water source, the migrating birds may linger for several days. These birds nest at higher elevations, however, and are usually impatient to continue the journey to where they will spend the summer months tending to their young.

Single birds are occasionally the first to arrive, but Rose-breasted Grosbeaks do form flocks when migrating. Even if a scout shows up alone at your feeders, he will often soon be joined by other grosbeaks. My recent visit by a single male led to two and then three males visiting the feeders. Eventually a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak also made an appearance.

Plenty of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks pass through Northeast Tennessee, and a few even decide to make mountains like Unaka, Holston and Roan their home for the summer. However, these birds spread out widely across the eastern half of the North American continent, ranging from northeastern British Columbia to Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada. They also range south from New Jersey to Georgia. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak also reaches Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.

For the most part, however, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is replaced in the western United States by the closely related Black-headed Grosbeak.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/ David Brezinski Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will likely be among the colorful birds present for this year's rally.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/ David Brezinski
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will likely be among the colorful birds present for this year’s rally.

Both sexes have a massive bill, which they use to hull sunflower seeds at feeders or glean insects from leaves and branches. It’s the heavy, blunt bill for which the term “grosbeak” is derived. “Gros” is a German term for large or big, so grosbeak simply means a large-beaked bird. People who band birds to further the study of them will tell you that Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have a wicked bite and are capable of delivering quite a nip. In Northeast Tennessee, bird banders frequently encounter Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in their mist nets — and bear the scars to prove it.

It’s the adult male with his vibrant black and white feathers and the large rosy-red splash of color across the breast that gives this bird its common name. Females are brown, streaked birds that are larger than but easily confused with some of our sparrows.

Regional spring bird count sets several new records

IndigoBunt

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  Newly-arrived migrant birds such as Indigo Bunting were well represented on the 73rd annual Elizabethton Spring Bird Count.

The 73rd consecutive Elizabethton Spring Bird Count, which was held Saturday, April 30, set numerous records for this long-running survey of the region’s birds. The 59 observers in 13 parties (both representing record highs for participation) enjoyed favorable weather over the coverage area, which included Carter County and parts of adjacent Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington Counties.

 

Rose-breastedGrosbeak

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                              A total of 166 species of birds, including Rose-breasted Grosbeak, pictured, helped participants in the Elizabethton Spring Bird Count, establish a new record high for this annual survey. The old record of 161 species was set back in 2005.

Long-time count compiler Rick Knight announced that the annual count tallied 166 species, eclipsing the previous record of 161 set in 2005. By comparison, the average number over the last 30 years has been 147 species.

Highlights for this year’s Spring Bird Count included American Golden-Plover and Fish Crow, which were new to this annual survey of birds in the region.

Heron-CandlerMurphy

Photo by Bryan Stevens                           The presence of several nesting colonies of Great Blue Herons could help explain a new record-high for this species on this year’s count.

Other notable find included Hooded Merganser (a hen with two young), a lingering pair of Common Mergansers, Virginia Rail, Black-billed Cuckoo, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Peregrine Falcon, Sedge Wren and Cerulean Warbler.

Amazingly, given the long history of this count, 21 species occurred in record high numbers this year. Knight said the increased number of observers and parties certainly contributed to this.

Sora-Jean

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                      Although the Sora is rarely found during this annual count, the four individuals found this year represented an all-time high for the species on this yearly survey.

The record highs were for the following species:  Canada Goose (653), Mallard (332), Wild Turkey (57), Great Blue Heron (107), Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (14), Black Vulture (152), Spotted Sandpiper (83), Barred Owl (12), Belted Kingfisher (30), Red-bellied Woodpecker (97), Warbling Vireo (20), Red-eyed Vireo (257), Ovenbird (244), Worm-eating Warbler (39), Yellow-throated Warbler (44), Eastern Towhee (222), Scarlet Tanager (82), and Baltimore Oriole (38). Three species — Orchard Oriole (42), Northern Saw-whet Owl (3) and Sora (4) — tied previous high counts.

Several of these good finds were made by observers counting in Unicoi County at such locations as Rock Creek Recreation Area and Unaka Mountain. The final total follows:

Cardinal_CloseCrop

Photo by Bryan Stevens Common backyard birds, such as Northern Cardinal, were among the record-high 166 species found.

Canada Goose,  653; Wood Duck, 85; American Wigeon, 2; Mallard, 332; Blue-winged Teal, 6; Bufflehead, 5; Hooded Merganser, 3; and Common Merganser, 2.
Northern Bobwhite, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 1; Wild Turkey, 57; Common Loon, 1; Pied-billed Grebe, 5; Horned Grebe, 1; and Double-crested Cormorant, 65.
Great Blue Heron, 107; Green Heron, 16; Black-crowned Night-heron, 1; Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 14; Black Vulture,  152; and Turkey Vulture,  212.
Osprey,  15; Bald Eagle, 10; Sharp-shinned Hawk,  2; Cooper’s Hawk, 7; Broad-winged Hawk, 16; and Red-tailed Hawk,  38.
Virginia Rail,  1; Sora , 4; American Coot, 3; American Golden-Plover, 1; Killdeer,  46; Spotted Sandpiper,  83; Solitary Sandpiper,  34; Greater Yellowlegs,  2; Lesser Yellowlegs , 2; Least Sandpiper, 5; and Pectoral Sandpiper, 2.
Bonaparte’s Gull, 1; Ring-billed Gull, 7; Forster’s Tern, 7; Rock Pigeon, 166; Eurasian Collared-Dove,  3; Mourning Dove,  254; Yellow-billed Cuckoo,  9; and Black-billed Cuckoo, 1.
Eastern Screech-Owl, 10; Great Horned Owl,  6; Barred Owl,  12; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 3; Common Nighthawk, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 10; Eastern Whip-poor-will, 32; Chimney Swift , 209; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 31; and Belted Kingfisher, 30.
Red-headed Woodpecker, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker,  97; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 4; Downy Woodpecker,  37; Hairy Woodpecker, 10; Northern Flicker,  33; Pileated Woodpecker, 43; American Kestrel, 19; and Peregrine Falcon, 1.
Eastern Wood-Pewee,  7; Acadian Flycatcher, 12; Least Flycatcher, 6; Eastern Phoebe, 77; Great Crested Flycatcher, 15; and Eastern Kingbird, 57.
Loggerhead Shrike, 1; White-eyed Vireo, 12; Yellow-throated Vireo, 9; Blue-headed Vireo,  78; Warbling Vireo, 20; Red-eyed Vireo,  257; Blue Jay, 320; American Crow, 338; Fish Crow, 1; Common Raven,  and 14; Horned Lark,  2.
Purple Martin, 81; Tree Swallow, 426; Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 133; Barn Swallow, 217; and Cliff Swallow, 807.
Carolina Chickadee,  173; Tufted Titmouse, 166; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 16; White-breasted Nuthatch, 26; and Brown Creeper,  4.
House Wren,  45; Winter Wren, 4; Sedge Wren, 1; Carolina Wren,  129; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher,  97; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 5; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 4.

RedeyedVireo-Jean

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                        Vireos, such as this Red-eyed Vireo on a nest, were quite abundant. The numbers of Red-eyed Vireos and Warbling Vireos set all-time highs for the count.

Eastern Bluebird, 157; Veery, 13; Swainson’s Thrush,  2; Wood Thrush, 138; American Robin,  888; Gray Catbird, 55; Brown Thrasher, 45; Northern Mockingbird, 122; European Starling,  986; and Cedar Waxwing, 44.
Ovenbird, 244; Worm-eating Warbler, 39; Louisiana Waterthrush, 32; Golden-winged Warbler, 2; Black-and-white Warbler, 90; Swainson’s Warbler, 6; Nashville Warbler, 1; Kentucky Warbler, 5; Common Yellowthroat, 27; Hooded Warbler, 208; American Redstart, 21; Cape May Warbler, 4; Cerulean Warbler, 2; Northern Parula, 56; Magnolia Warbler, 3; Bay-breasted Warbler, 2; Blackburnian Warbler, 7; Yellow Warbler, 15; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 36; Blackpoll Warbler, 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 85; Palm Warbler, 8; Pine Warbler, 10; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 62; Yellow-throated Warbler, 44; Prairie Warbler, 5; Black-throated Green Warbler, 81; Canada Warbler, 44; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 8.
Eastern Towhee, 222; Chipping Sparrow, 126; Field Sparrow, 72; Savannah Sparrow, 1; Grasshopper Sparrow, 4; Song Sparrow, 276; Swamp Sparrow, 5; White-throated Sparrow, 13; White-crowned Sparrow, 11; and Dark-eyed Junco, 63.

Hairy_Male

Photo by Bryan Stevens While some species set record highs, only 10 Hairy Woodpeckers, like this male, were found by participants in the annual Elizabethton Spring Bird Count.

Summer Tanager, 1; Scarlet Tanager, 82; Northern Cardinal, 299; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 30; Blue Grosbeak, 6; and Indigo Bunting, 126.
Bobolink, 1; Red-winged Blackbird,  480; Eastern Meadowlark, 142; Rusty Blackbird, 2; Common Grackle, 477; Brown-headed Cowbird, 91; Orchard Oriole, 42; and Baltimore Oriole, 38.
House Finch, 56; Pine Siskin, 59; American Goldfinch, 354; and House Sparrow, 80.
•••••

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.

October Saturday Bird Walks at Sycamore Shoals producing interesting sightings

Yellowthroated

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                    A female Common Yellowthroat entertained bird walk attendees as she foraged among Joe-Pye Weed in the butterfly garden at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.

It’s funny how you can go most of the year without seeing a certain bird. Then, the drought ends and you enjoy a spike in the numbers of sighting within a short amount of time.

A female Common Yellowthroat became a highlight of the first of this year’s October bird walks at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, which was well attended with nine participants. The bird was foraging in the flower heads of Joe-Pye Weed in the butterfly garden at the park.

The Elizabethton Bird Club has offered these hikes for more than a decade at the park. Prior to conducting the walks at Sycamore Shoals, the club also led October hikes at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City and along the linear walking trail in Erwin.

BWteal-Flock

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                 A portion of the flock of 104 Blue-winged Teal found on the first of this year’s October Saturday Bird Walks.

Tess Cumbie, a former resident of Buladean, N.C., came up with the idea for the walks back in the late 1990s.

The first of this year’s walks at Sycamore Shoals took place on Saturday, Oct. 4. A raft of 104 Blue-winged Teal on the Watauga River ranked as another highlight of that morning’s bird walk. Pied-billed Grebes, Mallards, Wood Ducks and Canada Geese were also present on the river.

1618145_10203999628743449_4835781711182007808_o

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                     A Maple Spanworm Moth warms itself during the chilly morning bird walk.

Other birds found included  Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Chimney Swift, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Blue Jay, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Swainson’s Thrush, American Robin, Gray Catbird,  European Starling, Cedar Waxwing, Magnolia Warbler,  Song Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Meadowlark, House Finch and American Goldfinch.

When not looking at birds, participants enjoyed diversions such as the Maple Spanworm Moth blending with the fallen leaves on the gravel walking trails. I had never seen this particular moth, which spent some time warming itself on one of my fingers.

Although well attended by participants from as far as Abingdon, Va., the weather that greeted us was quite frigid. The cold appeared to bother us more than it affected the birds.

••••••

A male Wood Duck landed, briefly, on the fish pond on the morning of Oct. 5. If I hadn’t been outdoors at the time, he might have stayed longer. When I moved, he flew. It’s the first visit here at home from a Wood Duck in several years. Coincidentally, the last visit also took place in early October.

Flower-bed

Photo by Bryan Stevens              This densely-planted flower bed on the ETSU campus provided cover for a migrating Common Yellowthroat.

••••••

I am beginning to find that the campus at East Tennessee State University can produce some fun bird sightings. After witnessing a Cooper’s Hawk nearly catch a squirrel from the top branches of a tall tree near Gilbreath Hall, I have been paying closer attention to those feathered friends that visit the campus.

During a Sunday evening stroll on Oct. 6, I found a Common Yellowthroat in a well-planted flower bed. So, I have added my first warbler to my ETSU list. I also saw a Red-bellied Woodpecker flying over the Culp Center during the same walk.

It also got me to thinking about how many Common Yellowthroats I have been seeing this fall.

When I posted about the sighting on Facebook, Cathy Myers commented and informed me that she had recently observed a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on the campus.

•••••••

Catbird

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                          Gray Catbirds, such as this one, have been found on the first of the Saturday Bird Walks this October at Sycamore Shoals.

At the second of the four Saturday Bird Walks scheduled this October, rain threatened to impede the stroll. Fortunately, the showers held off until after the walk on Oct. 11 concluded at about 9:30 a.m.

The second of the October Saturday Bird Walks produced several highlights, including a duel between an Osprey and an adult Bald Eagle over the Watauga River, as well as four species of warblers — Tennessee, Bay-breasted, Palm and Yellow-rumped — and other birds, including Chimney Swift, Mockingbird, Starling, Northern Flicker, Blue Jay, Carolina Wren, Mourning Dove, Eastern Bluebird, Mallard, Carolina Chickadee, Canada Goose, Goldfinch, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Crow, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow and Downy Woodpecker.

Although we had fewer participants on this walk, we enjoyed better observations of the birds. One exciting moment involved the flock of irate Blue Jays gathered to scold a Red-tailed Hawk that had flown too close for comfort.

••••••

Two more Saturday Bird Walks remain during October. They will be held on Oct. 18 and Oct. 25. The public is welcome to these free strolls along the walking trails at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing enjoyment.

••••••

Common_Yellowthroat (1)

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                                                  A male Common Yellowthroat surveys his surroundings from a prominent perch.

The Common Yellowthroat is a warbler that is quite fond of weedy, damp habitats. Marshes and other wetlands are preferred habitat during the nesting season, although a few of these birds are also present in more dry habitats.

In migration, any weedy corner might attract one of these warblers. In fact, the one I found on the ETSU campus remained elusive in a raised concrete bed containing a thick planting of flowers and shrubs.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A male Common Yellowthroat visits an overgrown thicket during fall migration. Photo by Bryan Stevens A male Common Yellowthroat visits an overgrown thicket during fall migration.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A male Common Yellowthroat visits an overgrown thicket during fall migration.

The Common Yellowthroat belongs to the genus of warblers known as Geothlypis, which also includes the related Bahama Yellowthroat, Hooded Yellowthroat, Masked Yellowthroat, Black-polled Yellowthroat and Gray-crowned Yellowthroat. These other species are found in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

Recent classification of the Geothlypis warblers has led to the inclusion of three other warblers — MacGillivray’s, Mourning and Kentucky — being shuffled into this genus.

Although fond of skulking in deep vegetation, most Common Yellowthroats are curious birds and will allow brief glimpses. The males also betray their presence with a loud, easily recognized song that sounds very much like “Witchety, Witchety, Witchety, Witch.”

Yellowthroat-PyeWeeDForage

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                    The female Common Yellowthroat lacks the male’s black face mask.

Male and female yellowthroats show a bright, yellow throat. Males also sport a black mask bordered with a silvery-white line, and the male’s throat is usually a brighter yellow. Although males will sing in the open during the nesting season, these birds usually prefer to remain hidden from view as they go about their daily routines.

••••••

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.

Photo by Bryan Stevens

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                                            A flock of Canada Geese forage in a field near the Bell Cemetery in the Limestone Cove community of Unicoi County on a recent October afternoon.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks provide splash of springtime excitement

 

Other than Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, the one bird whose return in the spring is guaranteed to generate excitement is the Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Every spring, I get phone calls and emails from people wanting to share the thrill of seeing these vibrant birds in their back yards.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Rose-breasted Grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

The spring arrival of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks is a temporary visit. Finding the arrangements, which can consist of well-stocked feeders and perhaps a convenient water source, the migrating birds may linger for several days. These birds nest at higher elevations, however, and are usually impatient to continue the journey to where they will spend the summer months tending to their young.

This year, my first Rose-breasted Grosbeak arrived at my home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton around 3:30 p.m. on Friday, April 25. I saw a glimpse of black and white with a hint of red that lifted my spirits instantly. I had been hoping for about a week that migrating grosbeaks would visit as they often do in the spring. The lone male settled onto a small hanging feeder and began enjoying an offering of black-oil sunflower seeds. He made repeated trips throughout the afternoon and evening, allowing me to take several photos through a window.

Some of my posted photos drew enthusiastic comments from my Facebook friends. Dani Sue Thompson shared that the beautiful Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one of her favorite birds. Her mother, the late Donna Adams, was a huge fan of the related Blue Grosbeak, which is a less common visitor to Northeast Tennessee than the related Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Donna and I share many a grosbeak story over the years.

Byron Tucker, a friend from Atlanta, notified me on Facebook the day before the Rose-breasted Grosbeak arrived at my home that he was hosting them in Georgia. From a single bird to a flock of three males and three females, these visitors were a first for Byron. He was excited to host these colorful birds for several days at his feeders.

Photo Courtesy of Byron Tucker A Rose-breasted Grosbeak joins a Red-bellied Woodpecker at a feeder in Atlanta.

Photo Courtesy of Byron Tucker
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak joins a Red-bellied Woodpecker at a feeder in Atlanta.

Single birds are occasionally the first to arrive, but Rose-breasted Grosbeaks do form flocks when migrating. Even if a scout shows up alone at your feeders, he will often soon be joined by other grosbeaks. My recent visit by a single male led to two and then three males visiting the feeders. Eventually a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak also made an appearance.

Plenty of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks pass through Northeast Tennessee, and a few even decide to make mountains like Unaka, Holston and Roan their home for the summer. However, these birds spread out widely across the eastern half of the North American continent, ranging from northeastern British Columbia to Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada. They also range south from New Jersey to Georgia. The Rose-breasted Grosbeak also reaches Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.

For the most part, however, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is replaced in the western United States by the closely related Black-headed Grosbeak.

As fall approaches, the Rose-breasted Grosbeak migrates south to a winter range that spans central Mexico, Central America and northern South America. As they depart, many of these migrating birds will make autumn visits to again partake of offerings of sunflower seeds at backyard feeders. So, if you don’t get to see these showy birds in the spring, you get another chance in September and October.

The male Rose-breasted Grosbeak gives this species it name. Males are the epitome of the birds that make their home for part of the year in the American tropics. The contrasting black and white plumage is emphasized by a triangular slash of rosy-red color on the breast. Put all those elements together and the male Rose-breasted Grosbeak is not a bird that would be mistaken for any other.

The female grosbeak, however, doesn’t quite stand out in the same way. She is much less colorful than the male. With her brown and white plumage, she is often mistaken for a large sparrow or finch.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A young male Rose-breasted Grosbeak visits a feeder in September of 2013. Young males resemble females but show a splash of orange on the breast that will be replaced the following spring by the familiar rosy-red patch.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A young male Rose-breasted Grosbeak visits a feeder in September of 2013. Young males resemble females but show a splash of orange on the breast that will be replaced the following spring by the familiar rosy-red patch.

Both sexes have a massive bill, which they use to hull sunflower seeds at feeders or glean insects from leaves and branches. It’s the heavy, blunt bill for which the term “grosbeak” is derived. “Gros” is a German term for large or big, so grosbeak simply means a large-beaked bird. People who band birds to further the study of them will tell you that Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have a wicked bite and are capable of delivering quite a nip. In Northeast Tennessee, bird banders frequently encounter Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in their mist nets — and bear the scars to prove it.

With some birds, males play only a minor role in the nesting process. That’s not the case with the Rose-breasted Grosbeak male. The males help with nest-building chores and share responsibility with the female for incubating the eggs.

The female lays three to five eggs in a cup-shaped nest. It’s not easy to locate the nests since the birds usually place them in trees at least 20 feet above the ground. Within two weeks, the eggs have hatched and the parents are kept extremely busy finding enough food to satisfy the voracious nestlings. Well fed by both parents, the young grow quickly and usually are ready to leave the nest within 12 days. Often, when a first brood of young departs the nest, the male will care for the rowdy group of fledglings as the female starts a second nest to capitalize on the long days of summer.

Away from our feeders, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks feed on insects, seeds, fruit and even some leaf buds and flowers. I’ve seen these birds satisfying a sweet tooth — or should that be sweet beak? — by feeding on jewelweed flowers and apple blossoms. If sugar’s good for hummingbirds, I am sure it is a valuable energy source for Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, too.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is a cherished spring visitor that never fails to disappoint by bringing a hint of the tropics to the mountains of Northeast Tennessee. I’m hoping many readers are also enjoying their own opportunities for hosting this delightful songbird.

•••••

The bird walk at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site on Saturday, April 26, yielded a good range of birds, including American Robin, House Wren, Cardinal, Song Sparrow, Carolina Chickadee, American Goldfinch, Tufted Titmouse, Crow, Canada Goose, Chimney Swift, Brown Thrasher, Barn Swallow, Eastern Towhee, European Starling, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Mallard, Red-winged Blackbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Northern Flicker, Grackle, Gray Catbird, Blue Jay, Mourning Dove and Eastern Bluebird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A pair of Brown Thrashers provided quite a show for attendees at a recent bird walk at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A pair of Brown Thrashers provided quite a show for attendees at a recent bird walk at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site.

Attending the walk were Heather Jones, Charles Moore, David Thometz and myself. We enjoyed perfect spring weather and also admired the many wildflowers in the gardens and woodlands at the Johnson City historic site.

Members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society will also hold a bird walk at 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 10, at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. This walk is held in honor of International Migratory Bird Day and should provide participants with an excellent opportunity for seeing some fine birds.

•••••

I enjoy hearing from readers. Share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment by emailing me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or posting to my Facebook page.

Photo by Bryan Stevens The Rose-breasted Grosbeak never fails to impress.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The Rose-breasted Grosbeak never fails to impress.