Category Archives: Songbirds

Don’t overlook subtle beauty of winter’s little brown birds

Photo by Kaz/Pixabay.com • The yellow lores on the white-throated sparrow makes this species easy to pick out from a flock of related “little brown birds.”

Amy McGill, a reader from Ohio, sent me an email following last week’s column about dark-eyed juncos. Amy, as it turns out, is a fellow junco lover.

At the time of her email, she was still waiting to see my favorite of all birds make their appearance at her home. She noted that juncos usually return to her home about a week before the end of October, so they are slightly late this year. Consequently, Amy’s “little timely visitors” are making her wonder what has delayed them.

At my own home in northeast Tennessee, the dark-eyed juncos appear to vie with white-throated sparrows for abundance each year. Last winter, the sparrows were far less conspicuous than the juncos. Although we’re only a week into November, both the dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows have absented themselves from my feeders.

With temperatures dipping lower after a particularly hot, dry autumn, some cold-season arrivals have made themselves at home. On Saturday, Nov. 3, a common raven flew over my house. Perhaps to make certain I didn’t neglect to take note, the raven produced its trademark croaking call the entire time the large, dark bird soared overhead.

Photo by Ken Thomas • A Northern Mockingbird patrols a thicket.

A Northern mockingbird visited the feeders on Saturday, Oct. 27, to see what was the commotion from the other birds. After one quick peek, the mocker paid no attention to the available offering of sunflower seeds. At my home, mockingbirds are strictly fall/winter birds and are fairly uncommon.

Ravens and mockingbirds are easier to recognize and identify than sparrows, which are also referred to by birders with some frustration as “little brown birds.” Lumping the sparrows together as a family of similar-looking species does a disservice to them, however.

While most are definitely “little brown birds,” the sparrows offer quite a range of subtle differences in plumage as well as song, making it possible — if at times challenging — to identify them. Some of the winter sparrows in the region include fox sparrow, swamp sparrow, song sparrow, chipping sparrow, white-crowned sparrow and the aforementioned white-throated sparrow.

In similarly distinctive fashion, the white-throated sparrow — especially as spring gets nearer — also acquires a plumage that makes it stand out from the flock. These sparrows have a plumper shape than some of their kin. They have a black-and-white pattern to their head, and a neat “bib” of white feathers covers the throat. The standout feature to this bird’s appearance is the bright yellow spot located between each eye and the bird’s bill. In winter, some white-throated sparrows may lack this spot of yellow or show a less dramatic version, but the approach of spring usually puts puts these birds back into fine form.

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.”

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

If your yard is devoid of brushy retreats, you can make your own brush pile, perhaps with trimmings from routine autumn landscape maintenance. A brush pile makes a popular gathering place for not only sparrows but also wrens, kinglets and other small songbirds. In addition to security, the brush pile lessens the impact of cold winter winds.

Sparrows don’t always co-exist peaceably. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, many of the larger sparrow species are quite aggressive with their kin. This aggression usually demonstrates itself in a tendency to chase other birds. Apparently, white-crowned sparrows will share their territories with fox sparrows — which are larger birds — but they will give chase to chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos in an attempt to drive them from the territory.

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

So, while it’s easy to overlook the sparrows, I’d recommend giving them a second glance. Here are a few relatives of the white-throated sparrow with common names that suggest the identifying feature that helps them stand out from the flock: golden-crowned sparrow, rufous-collared sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, black-chinned sparrow and black-throated sparrow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Vesper sparrows are uncommon birds in spring and fall in the region, although they do nest on the grassy balds of Roan Mountain.

Water a magnet for waxwings, other birds

Photo by Patrice_Audet/Pixabay.com • Cedar waxwings feed extensively on various fruits and insects, forming large nomadic flocks that can quickly deplete local resources.

The extended spell of dry, hot weather we’ve experienced for the past several weeks threatens to spoil fall colors, but if you’re a person who can offer a water feature or bird bath, this might be the perfect time to observe thirsty flocks of birds. In particular, cedar waxwings, which often travel in large flocks, embrace water with an exceptional avian enthusiasm.

I still remember my first look at a cedar waxwing. Sleek as silk, wearing a mask like a bandit, with a jaunty crest atop its head, this fairly common bird commands attention when making an appearance in a yard or garden. Of course, it’s usually not alone, more often traveling as a member of a larger flock that can number as high as dozens or even hundreds of individuals.

Flocks of these sociable birds win fans almost anywhere they go. Chances of luring these birds to your home and property can increase by offering some essential requirements. Tall trees, especially those that bear fruit, are attractive to these sociable birds. It’s more often water, not food, however, that will bring a flock of these birds close. They love a good splash in a bath, whether the source is a shallow stream or an ornamental pool set into the landscape.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pair of cedar waxwings hawk for insects near a pond.

As noted, they travel in often sizable flocks, usually in search of new food sources. The many members comprising a flock can deplete resources in a remarkably short time. During the winter season, I’ve watched a flock of waxwings make short work of a harvest of berries from a holly tree. Their nomadic lifestyles make it nearly impossible to predict where cedar waxwings might make an appearance.

In most years, the wild cherry trees scattered around the edges of my yard are fully laden with berries. As they ripen in late August and into September, waxwings appear and commence harvesting the fruit. Once again, they arrived at just the right time last month to catch the wild cherries at their peak.

As much as the waxwing has a fondness for fruit, it’s also a bird that would have made an excellent flycatcher. Flocks of these birds will often congregate in trees near the edge of a pond, garden or yard — anywhere winged insects might be found in good numbers — in order to hawk insects on the wing. A waxwing will sally forth from a branch, snatch its prey in mid-air, and return to its perch for a quick snack.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of cedar waxwings.

Perhaps because of the late-summer abundance of bugs and berries, cedar waxwings are known for nesting late into the summer. They’re certainly not among the birds impatient to begin nesting as soon as temperatures turn mild in the spring. Some fellow birders recently reported seeing cedar waxwings feeding fledgling just out of the nest as the calendar flipped from September of October.

Why is the term “waxwing” applied to this bird? According to the website All About Birds, the name comes from the waxy red secretions found on the tips of wing feathers. The site also notes that the precise function of these waxy tips is not known. There’s speculation among some experts that the bright red tips on the feathers could play a role in helping waxwings attract mates.

The cedar waxwing has few relatives. Worldwide, there are only two other species: the Bohemian waxwing, of the northern forests of Eurasia and North America; and the Japanese waxwing, found in such northeast Asian countries as Japan, Korea and China.

Although it’s classified as a songbird, the cedar waxwing does’t truly produce a vocalization that anyone would contend qualifies as a song. They are, however, very vocal birds, producing shrill, high-pitched notes as they pass through the upper branches of tall trees. The excitable commotion of an active flocks of these sleek and elegant birds is always a welcome sound at my home.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The waxy tips to the wing feathers are evident in this photograph of a cedar waxwing.

Feeding birds can draw some unwelcome guests

Squirrel-AttackPhoto by Dianna Lynne • Leaping onto a fully stocked feeder, an Eastern gray squirrel scatters seeds in all directions. The unconquerable squirrel is one of the most unwanted guests at many bird-feeding stations.

 

The winter bird-feeding season is coming to a close, but there’s no need to pull the welcome mat completely. Some of our summer visitors appreciate some supplemental food. Of course, there’s less need for our offerings during warm weather when insects and other food sources are readily available.

People in Great Britain spend 200 million pounds per year on wild bird food. In the United States, people are spending $4 billion each year on feed for the birds. Another $800 million in spending goes to feeders, bird baths and other accessories used to attract wild birds.

People have been feeding birds in the United States of America since before it was a nation. The father of our country, George Washington, fed wild birds at his home, Mount Vernon. The great writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau fed the birds and learned to identify many of the birds around Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Poet Emily Dickinson tossed crumbs to sparrows and then turned those special moments with her feathered friends into poetry.

Since the time of Washington, Thoreau and Dickinson, if not before, Americans have been supplying food, as well as shelter and water, to persuade birds to bring themselves closer. In return, we enjoy their color, their interesting behavior, their songs, and much more.

I continue feeding during the warmer months, although I do cut back on the quantity of my offerings. One of the best bonuses for engaging in year-round bird feeding is the chance to see parent birds bring their offspring to feeders to introduce them to human-offered fare. Be aware, however, that when you put out a table offering free food, you’re bound to attract some unexpected guests. Sometimes those unanticipated visitors can wreak havoc on the smooth management of a feeding station for your birds.

Here is my version of the Top 5 candidates for a “Not Welcome” list of the wildlife most people would prefer not to entertain at their feeders.

Hawks

The raptors are, of course, birds themselves. Therein rests the irony. Flocks of birds active around feeders are like ringing a dinner bell for some raptors, which have learned that songbirds in such situations on occasion make easy pickings.

It’s not any single raptor that can be identified as the most obvious threat to songbirds. Species such as American kestrel, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, red-shouldered hawk, merlin, peregrine falcon and red-tailed hawk will prey on their fellow birds if given ample opportunity.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Raptors, like this red-tailed hawk, can cause concern when they take up residence near a feeder in a yard or garden.

If a hawk does begin to show interest in your feeders, it may be necessary to curtail or even cease feeding songbirds until after the raptor loses interest and moves on to other hunting grounds.

I hesitate to even place raptors on this list because I believe that every bird is a wonderful creation. It’s best to remember that hawks view smaller birds flocking to a feeder in the same way those small songbirds view the abundance of seeds. For both hawks and songbirds, our offerings represent easy meals. It’s not easy, but the best choice is to co-exist — if not at peace, then at terms with nature’s reality.

Opossums

The Virginia opossum, also known as the North American opossum, or simply “possum,” is often overlooked because its raids on feeders take place after dark. Although the opossum has 50 teeth (that’s more than any other North American mammal has) in its jaws, it shares the night with other active omnivores, including bears and raccoons.

Regardless of its toothy grin, the possum is not adept as hulling sunflower seeds. The telltale sign that a possum is raiding your feeders involves the discovery of little piles of pulped sunflower seeds, hull and all, in your feeder or on the ground beneath it. The possum pulverizes the sunflower seed and evidently tries to extract what nutritional content it can. Of course, suet, nuts and other feeder fare are on the possum’s menu.

This particular possum is the only marsupial found north of Mexico. The continent of Australia is more famous for its marsupials, which include kangaroos, wallabies and wombats.

black brown and white animal

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com • Although the opossum has 50 teeth (that’s more than any other North American mammal has) in its jaws, it shares the night with other active omnivores, including bears and raccoons.

Raccoons

These masked, ring-tailed bandits are the bane of many a person who enjoys feeding birds. While they primarily restrict their raids to the hours between sunset and dawn, some emboldened raccoons will occasionally become brazen enough to stake a claim to feeders in broad daylight. A couple of years ago, a trio of young raccoons arrived early in the evening with plenty of daylight remaining to feed in the feeders while I watched from a nearby lawn chair with my binoculars.

Raccoons will also spirit away feeders. I’ve found hummingbird feeders, suet feeders and small plastic feeders carried a good distance into the woods before the thieving raccoon dropped them. The stolen items are usually damaged but, on occasion, I’ve recovered some of my items that were more or less no worse for the wear.

On one occasion, a crafty raccoon managed to remove a sunflower seed feeder from its branch on a tree outside one of my windows, I later found the portly critter reclining lazily on his back wedged between the trunk and a branch high on a nearby tree, holding the feeder in one arm and reaching into it with the other like a person eating popcorn.

Raccoons are highly intelligent and inquisitive, which only makes them more difficult to discourage from raiding feeders. They can be amusing and entertaining in their own right, but it’s best not to encourage their visits. If they prove too persistent, cease feeding birds until the raccoons have moved to a new location.

Raccoon-Contest

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Curious and intelligent, raccoons can think of many ways of ransacking a feeding station meant for birds.

 

Bears

A visit from a black bear is hard to miss. With their brute strength, bears are capable of mangling and destroying even the most sturdily constructed of bird feeders. While there are many other unwanted feeder guests, none can match the bear for its sheer capacity for destruction. Black bears can weigh between 200 to 600 pounds, so it’s not hard to imagine their potential for wreaking havoc.

Amanda Austwick lives in Flag Pond, Tennessee. She is a dedicated feeder of our feathered friends, which has led to repeated incidents with problem bears over the years. Amanda lives within the official boundaries of the Cherokee National Forest. Black bears have been thriving in the Cherokee National Forest, as well as throughout the southeastern United States.

When I first corresponded with Amanda several years ago, she was writing to me about a bear attack on her feeders. “One feeder was completely bent over on the ground,” she wrote. I also pointed out that the bear is actually just feeding on the seed. The damage to the feeder is a by-product caused by the fact bears probably don’t know their own strength.

I’ve not gone completely unscathed when it comes to bears and my feeders. Several years ago I owned a nice feeder with a metal meshwork used for holding shelled peanuts, which are loved by birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers. I woke one morning to find the feeder had been mangled into the equivalent shape of a pretzel.

Compared to the stories told by Amanda, as well as other people who have shared their own bear tales over the years, I got off lucky to only lose a single feeder to a bear. Brookie and Jean Potter, friends who live near Wilbur Lake in Carter County, Tennessee, have had to innovate to stay one step ahead of the bears living in proximity to them. Brookie managed to raise their feeders beyond a bear’s reach using a complicated system of poles and pulleys.

If such proactive measures are not something one wishes to do, there’s one simple step that can be taken. People can bring in their feeders at night to ensure there’s nothing left outdoors to attract the attention of a meandering bear. Bears are omnivores, eating a varied diet ranging from insects and fish to amphibians and bird eggs. When a bear finds a bird feeder, they’re happy to include sunflower seeds or other such fare in their diet. When such food is no longer available, they’re likely to move on.

Bear-FeederPole

Photo Courtesy of Amanda Austwick • This bear caused considerable damage to the Austwick feeders.

Squirrels

They may not match a black bear for sheer destructive capability, but I regard the Eastern gray squirrel as Public Enemy Number One when it comes to having peace and tranquility at a bird-feeding station. What justifies this ranking? It’s simple, really. I know of no sure-fire way to deny a hungry and determined squirrel access to any type of feeder. It’s possible to slow them down, but I think the best we can do is maintain an uneasy truce of co-existence with squirrels.

I wouldn’t begrudge the squirrels some bird seed if they didn’t show such ingratitude by gnawing on feeders. With their sharp incisors, squirrels can chew up and spit out plastic and even wood feeders. More expensive feeders made of ceramics, metal and glass are immune to the same type of squirrel vandalism.

Although I’ve not tried it, I’ve heard that sunflower seed laced with capsaicin will deter squirrels. This spicy substance is even used to deter such large mammals as elephants and grizzly bears. Capsaicin, which is derived from hot peppers, reacts entirely differently with birds. While many mammals will avoid food containing even minute amounts of capsaicin, birds will readily consume it. The difference seems to be that bird receptor cells are largely insensitive to capsaicin.

nature animal cute fur

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com • The gray squirrel is a cunning and often destructive guest at feeders intended for the benefit of birds.

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To be sure, I could have added some other wildlife species to the list. White-tailed deer can graze on flowers planted for the benefit of hummingbirds. Deer have even been documented eating the eggs of songbirds, perhaps more for the calcium shell than any other reason. Chipmunks are almost as wily as squirrels, but they’re cuter and non-destructive. Insects, such as bees and hornets, can overwhelm sugar water feeders intended for hummingbirds.

Don’t even get me started on stray cats! A few years back, a study by researchers from the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Center found that between 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds lose their lives to cats each year in the United States. In addition to birds, cats kill billions of small mammals — shrews, voles, mice, rabbits — every year. Most of the carnage is committed by feral or stray cats, not house cats. My own two cats are kept indoors to avoid contributing to the problem.

photography of brown chipmunk eating on top of rock

Photo by Adriaan Greyling on Pexels.com • A chipmunk accepts crumbs. The cute factor usually works in preventing this rodent from being considered a pest.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Timely arrival of blue-gray gnatcatcher signals the rush of spring migration

A blue-gray gnatcatchers finally put in a first spring appearance at my home on April 11. Most likely, these tiny birds had already arrived, but my schedule hadn’t yet allowed me a glimpse of this punctual songbird. Back in March, I saw and heard dozens of them during a trip to the South Carolina Low Country.

Gnatcatcher

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter • Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are tiny, energetic bundles of feathers.

 

Birds are as dependable as clocks and calendars when it comes to noting the passage of time. I can keep track of the changing seasons based on the composition of the birds in my yard. The gnatcatcher has long been my signal to the start of the frenzied pace of spring migration for many of the birds returning to the region after sojourns much farther south. For example, the first gnatcatcher arrived in my yard in 2014 on April 4. Two days earlier, I had observed my first blue-grey gnatcatcher of the spring while visiting Winged Deer Park in Johnson City, Tennessee. It doesn’t hurt that the arrival of gnatcatchers coincides with the annual blooming of bluebells, a wildflower for which this local park is famous.

Once again, Winged Deer Park provided me with my first spring sighting of this bird when I finally saw one this year on April 6. Over the years I’ve kept track of such matters, blue-gray gnatcatchers reliably return every year in the final days of March and first days of April. A blue-gray gnatcatcher put in its first appearance at my home on April 2 in 2011. In 2009, I also saw my first gnatcatcher on April 2, although in 2008 I had to wait until April 5 for my first spring sighting of a gnatcatcher. In 2007, the blue-gray gnatcatcher was an “April Fool’s” bird, arriving on the first day of April. Arrival dates in March are a little less frequent. For instance, in 2003, a blue-gray gnatcatcher arrived on March 28. I saw my first spring gnatcatcher on March 30 in 1998. In 2006, the arrival date was March 31.

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The blue-gray gnatcatcher is a tiny, active bird with noisy habits that make it fairly easy to detect in early spring before foliage has grown dense in the branches of trees. This gnatcatcher ranks with the kinglets and hummingbirds as one of the smallest birds to range within the United States. This tiny bird tips the scales at only a fourth of an ounce. A gnatcatcher is an incredible bundle of feathered energy, seemingly always on the move as it snatches small winged insects out of the air or plucks other prey items from leaves or branches. Gnatcatchers are also quite curious birds that, more than once, have given me the distinct impression that I am the one being observed while watching their antics.

So, as the name suggests, do gnatcatchers truly eat gnats? The website All About Birds contends that, despite its name, the gnatcatcher does not concentrate its feeding efforts on gnats. This tiny bird does, however, prey on a variety of small insects and spiders. Winged insects, such as small flies and gnats, are part of the menu for a gnatcatcher, but this bird is also capable of plucking spiders from their webs or snatching tiny caterpillars from the underside of leaves.1-blue-grey-flycatcher-john-james-audubon

Like the hummingbirds, the gnatcatchers are an exclusively New World family of birds. They lack the diversity of the hummingbirds. Instead of several hundred species, there are only about a dozen species of gnatcatchers worldwide. Of that number, four — blue-gray gnatcatcher, California gnatcatcher, black-tailed gnatcatcher and black-capped gnatcatcher — range within the United States. The blue-gray gnatcatcher is the only member of this family to reside in the eastern United States. Other representatives of this family of small songbirds include the Cuban gnatcatcher, white-lored gnatcatcher, creamy-bellied gnatcatcher, tropical gnatcatcher and masked gnatcatcher.

The blue-gray gnatcatcher builds an exquisite and compact nest using such materials as spider silk and lichens. I have found many nests over the years by listening for the scolding notes of the parents which, even near their nest, have not learned the virtue of silence. The blue-gray gnatcatcher is one of the birds that, in my mind, truly kicks off the arrival season of many of my favorite neotropical migrants. With the arrival of gnatcatchers, I can now expect to enjoy the arrival of birds like hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers, vireos, thrushes, and grosbeaks.

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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.

Berry-rich diet makes waxwings profuse water drinkers

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A cedar waxwing perches on a branch while taking a break from flycatching insect prey near a community park pond.

Ernie Marburg, a resident of Abingdon, Virginia, shared an interesting observation about a flock of cedar waxwings he observed recently in his yard.

Waxwings have a brown and gray silky plumage, a black mask and a perky crest. Some of the wing feathers show red tips. The similarity of these wing tips to melted drops of wax gives these birds the common name of waxwing.

Waxwing-Audubon

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of cedar waxwings.

“The typical flock of waxwings has arrived,” he wrote in his email. He added that the birds exhibited an unusual behavior during their visit.

“From their roosts in the tops of some tall nearby trees, they appeared to be leaving their roosts briefly and returning to the trees as though they were catching flies,” Ernie noted. “There were, however, no flies available.”

The waxwings, he went on to explain, appeared to be going after snowflakes. “Could they have been going after the snowflakes to drink water?” Ernie asked.

While I wasn’t sure that catching snowflakes is an energy-efficient way to relieve thirst, the waxwings might have had a different motivation for their behavior. As I informed Ernie in my reply to his email, waxwings are very social with each other. These birds form large flocks that travel, feed, roost and bathe together. They have also come up with interesting “rituals” to reinforce their social ties with each other.

Waxwing-Erwin

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The waxy tips to the wing feathers are evident in this photograph of a cedar waxwing.

These rituals, or games, they “play” with each other include a flock of perched birds passing a single berry or fruit in a line, one bird to another, without any of the birds eating the item. I speculated that snowflake catching was their idea of a fun game and a way to practice for fly-catching season, which is just around the corner.

Perhaps I should have conducted some research. As it turns out, other people have witnessed this snowflake-catching behavior, which has led those who have studied the birds to determine that the birds do indeed eat snowflakes to ease thirst. Apparently their diet, which is rich in sugar thanks to the various berries that provide a huge percentage of their food, waxwings are often afflicted with intense thirst. In addition to catching snowflakes, they have been observed eating fallen snow. A single Bohemian waxwing — a relative of the cedar waxwing — can gobble down 300 berries in a couple of hours. According to some statistics, one of these birds can eat up to three times its weight in fruit in a single day. The next time I am lucky enough to observe waxwings in a snowstorm, you can bet I will be watching for this snowflake-eating behavior.

The cedar waxwing has few relatives. Worldwide, there are only two other species: the Bohemian waxwing, which is native to the northern forests of Eurasia and North America; and the Japanese waxwing, found in such northeast Asian countries as Japan, Korea and China.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but people should see a spike in their numbers as the hummingbirds end summer nesting and start migrating south again.

Hummingbirds due back soon

Waxwings are rather nomadic, coming and going with a maddening unpredictability. Other birds are more dependable, arriving and departing at roughly the same time year after year. One such bird should soon make its triumphant and welcome return to yards and gardens throughout the region. According to the website Hummingbird Guide, ruby-throated hummingbirds usually return to Tennessee and Virginia the first week of April. These tiny flying jewels arrive earlier in North and South Carolina, typically arriving the third week of March in those states.

The popularity of hummingbirds in general, and the ruby-throated hummingbird specifically, is simple to understand. These tiny birds are perfectly willing to insert themselves into our lives, offering hours of fascinating entertainment as they visit our gardens, duel at our sugar water feeders and occasionally even nest in trees and shrubs in our yards.

Individuals who feed birds know that it can be an expensive undertaking. The cost of providing sunflower seeds and suet cakes for hungry flocks during the winter months can nibble at the monthly budget, but hardly anyone would begrudge the sparrows, finches, wrens and woodpeckers. After all, they return the favor, putting on daily shows just outside our windows.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers in front of the camera as it seeks nectar from tiny flower blossoms.

The same is true of hummingbirds. For a relatively modest investment, people putting out feeders or planting nectar-producing flowers are rewarded with the fun and amusing antics of these pint-sized and hyperactive birds.

Attracting hummingbirds is generally much less expensive than feeding other birds. After all, you need only a mixture of sugar water — four parts water to one part sugar — to fill a feeder and catch the attention of a visiting hummer. A few pounds of sugar will last a lot longer than that bag of sunflower seeds, and it’s much less expensive to purchase at the grocery store.

Do not add red coloring or dyes to your sugar water mixture. Some studies have indicated these substances are harmful to hummingbird health. This means tossing out many of the pre-packaged mixtures sold with sugar water feeders. After all, the entire purpose is to attract hummingbirds. Risking their health is simply not acceptable. If you do want to take extra steps to attract these diminutive, feathered sugar junkies, consider supplementing your landscape with a variety of flowering plants. To explore some of the best choices for flowers to tempt hummingbirds, visit the website of The Hummingbird Society at http://www.hummingbirdsociety.org.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird visits a feeder for a sip of sugar water.

I always put out my sugar water feeders in early April. I usually end up waiting a couple of weeks before the first hummingbird appears, but it’s worth the wait. I miss these tiny birds during the winter months, which they spend in much warmer surroundings in southern Mexico and Central America. A male with the namesake red throat is usually the first to appear at my feeders. However, female ruby-throated hummingbirds, which lack the dazzling ruby throat patch, are migrating, too. The females usually lag a week or two behind the pace of the migration for the males.

As always, I enjoy hearing from readers about their first spring sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird. Readers are encouraged to jot down the date and the time of arrival when they observe their first hummingbird of the season. If the sighting’s duration allows you to verify, note whether the hummingbird was a male or female. These reports can be emailed to me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Together, we’ll track the arrival of these tiny birds as they return to the region.

 

North America’s bluebirds never fail to impress with their winning ways

A famous song declares that “somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly,” so you’ll have to excuse me if I have been looking for those elusive rainbows during the unseasonably warm weather the region’s enjoyed in recent weeks.

Also, like the song promises, “dreams really do come true,” which was fulfilled by the arrival of this year’s first pair of Eastern bluebirds at my home on Friday, Feb. 23. The presence of a pair of these beautiful and trusting birds is always sure to put people in a good mood. People have known for generations that bluebirds make good neighbors. A pair of bluebirds in your yard or garden provides hour upon hour of free entertainment as one watches these birds go about their daily routine. At this time of the year, much of that routine is focused on finding and claiming the best possible nesting location for the upcoming spring season.

Bluebird-Comic

The Eastern bluebird is one of the most beloved American songbirds.

The Eastern bluebird is one of North America’s best-known cavity-nesting birds. About 85 species of North American birds use cavities in trees for nesting purposes. Cavity-nesters include ducks, such as buffleheads and wood ducks, as well as birds of prey such as Eastern screech-owls and American kestrels.

Woodpeckers and nuthatches can excavate their own cavity in a dead or decaying tree. Others, such as the bluebirds, must find a cavity already in existence. Such cavities are scarce real estate and can be subject to some intense competition. The Eastern bluebird is at a disadvantage when forced to compete with non-native introduced birds such as aggressive European starlings and house sparrows. Even native competitors such as house wrens and tree swallows are serious rivals when it comes down to staking a claim to prime nesting real estate.

Over the years, I have found bluebirds nesting in cavities inside wooden fence posts, but there are fewer wooden fence posts every year. This reinforces the idea of how changing landscapes have affected these birds. Instead of wooden fence posts, many farmers now use metal ones, and dead or dying trees — a much sought-after resource for cavity-nesting birds — are often removed from woodlands.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern Bluebird gathers pine needles to use as nesting material.

Fortunately for bluebirds, this species will also accept lodging in a nest box, or birdhouse, provided for them by human landlords. One of the simplest ways to bring bluebirds close is to offer wooden boxes, constructed to their specific requirements, for their use as nesting locations. Because of their trusting nature when it comes to their human neighbors, the Eastern bluebird is one of our most beloved birds. In fact, bluebirds are such popular birds that interest in them and their well-being has inspired the foundation of organizations such as the North American Bluebird Society. The Eastern bluebird has also been designated the official state bird for New York and Missouri, which provides more testimony to the immense popularity of this bird.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flock of Eastern bluebirds perches on fenceposts.

There are two other species of bluebirds found in North America. The Western bluebird is found throughout the year in California, the southern Rocky Mountains, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as in part of Mexico. The species ranges in the summer as far north as the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Montana. The Mountain bluebird nests in open country in the western United States as far north as Alaska. They are short-distance migrants, retreating as far south as Mexico during the winter season.

Other than these three species, North America offers few others birds with mostly “blue” plumages. Some examples include indigo bunting, blue grosbeak, and blue jay, as well as birds like great blue heron and belted kingfisher.

In addition to housing, food and water can be used to lure Eastern bluebirds closer. This bird doesn’t eat seeds, but it can be attracted with an offering of mealworms — live or freeze-dried – or commercially prepared peanut butter nuggets. A water feature in a yard is also a magnet for bluebirds and a host of other bird species.

Bluebird-Pool

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

If your home doesn’t provide suitable open, spacious bluebird habitat, it’s still easy to enjoy these beautiful birds. An afternoon or evening drive into open country, such as agricultural farmland, is likely to yield sightings of this bird on fences and utility lines. Golf courses, some of which go the extra mile to accommodate bluebirds, also provide habitat for these lovely birds.

The Eastern bluebird is present in the region in all seasons and is one of our more common birds. If you’re already an experienced landlord and host for these birds, you probably already know they joys they can bring. If not, why not try to attract them closer to you? Most bluebirds in the region have already started looking for a nesting site. Many of these birds may nest two or even three times in a single season. March has only just arrived, so there’s still time to place a nest box or two on your property to get their attention.

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If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Bluebiord-Male-Playground

Photo by Bryan Stevens A male Eastern Bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.