Category Archives: Tree Swallow

Think of the vireos as ‘Plain Janes’ of songbirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A red-eyed vireo painted by John James Audubon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“TBS focuses on bluebirds,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nelson shared some fascinating facts about bluebirds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New bird arrivals signal spring’s imminent approach

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A Ring-necked Duck visits a pond at Erwin Fishery Park.

The recent extremely warm weather — well, warm for the month of March — may have finally broken the back of winter. Signs of spring are becoming easier to detect, especially among our feathered friends. The pond at Erwin Fishery Park had been a great location to view migrating waterfowl for the past few weeks, but most of the visiting ducks — redheads, ring-necked ducks and American wigeon — appear to have concluded their late-winter visit.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A raft of Redheads floats on the surface of the pond at Erwin Fishery Park in Unicoi County, Tennessee.

Signs of spring are becoming easier to detect, especially among our feathered friends. I’ve heard from numerous readers about flocks of American robins making welcome visits. While not the only harbinger of spring among our birds, robins are probably foremost among the birds we like to associate with the arrival of spring weather. The numerous large flocks of robins I observed during the last couple of weeks of February and early March, however, consisted mostly of birds coping with heavy snowfalls.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                American robins are a familiar sight on lawns in spring. While the robin is widely believed to be a harbinger of spring, many other birds can also lay claim to this distinction.

The month of March is usually a time of transition, with many winter birds making ready to depart as some of our summer favorites return from their more southern wintering grounds. At home, I have noted the spring arrivals of Eastern phoebes and belted kingfishers. On March 6, a wary pair of wood ducks made a brief visit to the fish pond on my property. A couple of other bird species will probably make their appearance at some point in March. At my home, brown thrashers, tree swallows and red-winged blackbirds have returned and are already making themselves comfortable. These species and a handful of others are usually in the vanguard of spring arrivals. Let me know what you’re seeing as spring advances. I always enjoy hearing from readers.

Among the readers who have written to me recently was Shelly Jones, a resident of north Abingdon, Virginia.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    Song Sparrows are already making efforts to attract mates for the first spring nesting attempts.

“I have many bird feeders, with all kinds of seeds and suet cakes to attract as many different bird species that I can,” Shelly wrote in an email. “Like you, I have had all the common woodpeckers come to my feeders.”

Shelly commiserated with my never having been fortunate enough to get a visit from a red-headed woodpeckers at my home. She added that not only has she never been visited by a red-headed woodpecker at home, she has never seen one of these woodpeckers at all.

“I have seen the great pileated woodpecker flying through the tree tops,” she noted.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                   Tree Swallows perch on a wire over a pond in Hampton, Tennessee.

Her luck changed shortly after I ran the last installment on a series focused on the members of the woodpecker family.

“Today, when looking out at my feeders, there it was!” Shelly reported. It turned out to be a red-headed woodpecker. “My husband saw it, too,” she wrote. “I tried to get a photo, but it flew away before I could capture it. I’ll keep trying.”

Shelly and her husband live on five acres, mostly pasture for their two horses, but they are surrounded by woods on three sides, with many oak trees thriving in the woods. The habitat she described sounded imminently suitable for attracting red-headed woodpeckers.

I wrote an email back to Shelly congratulating her on the home visit from this woodpecker and joked that I was a little envious of her good fortune.

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Photo Courtesy of Gayle Riddervold      This photo of an adult Bald Eagle was taken this past winter along Simerly Creek Road.

Gayle Riddervold and Rebecca Kinder recently shared a photo of an adult Bald Eagle that they had taken along Simerly Creek Road in Hampton. They had been leaving for a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, when they saw the eagle and stopped to get a photo.  Bald Eagles are often seen along lakes and rivers in Carter County during the winter, but finding an eagle at higher elevations is somewhat unusual.

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Other readers have been sharing bird sightings that, if we’re fortunate, offer a signal of the changing seasons as winter wanes and spring nears.

Adelaide Moss in Abingdon, Virginia, wrote with a question about vultures. Vultures, by the way, are considered a harbinger of spring in some sections of the country. The two species — turkey vulture and black vulture — are year-round residents in our region.

“I am very curious about the vultures that hang out in trees in winter,” Adelaide wrote. “What on earth do they all eat? There are so many of them I can’t imagine there is enough roadkill to feed them all.

She added that she never sees vultures eating except occasionally on roads where they are eating roadkill.

“I would love to know more about them,” she wrote.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                    Turkey Vultures, unlike most birds, have a well-developed sense of smell.

I’ll focus on the turkey vulture, which benefits from a sense of smell that is absent in most other birds, the related black vulture included. With its finely-tuned olfactory senses, the turkey vulture can detect roadkill and other carrion from a distance of a mile.

These birds can also use their large wings to soar for hours. Soaring is much more energy-efficient than the flapping of wings. Experts who have studied turkey vultures estimate the birds may travel 200 miles or more in a single day in foraging for a meal such as a deer’s carcass or even an opossum squashed on the side of the road. Like many a scavenger, the turkey vulture’s not finicky and will eat almost anything. Pairing excellent eyesight with a good sense of smell means very little edible roadkill goes unnoticed by these birds.

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I recently received an email from Tom and Helen Stetler in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

They reported seeing several “early birds” in their yard recently, including a total of six Red-winged Blackbirds. “One even went up on the bird feeder,” they wrote.

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Photo courtesy of Tom and Helen Stetler     Red-winged Blackbirds, such as this bird, began returning to the region in February.

The couple noted that Red-winged Blackbirds are usually harbingers of spring, but they arrived with some of the last of the winter weather in February.

“Oh well, better days are coming, Lord willing,” the Stetlers wrote. They also added they have seen Song Sparrows and an Eastern Towhee at their feeder in recent days.

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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.