Category Archives: Uncategorized

Unicoi County Summer Bird Count finds 109 species

The ninth annual Unicoi County Summer Count was held Saturday, June 18, with 15 observers in five parties. Participants tallied 102 species, which is below the average of 109 species for this count.

My party of counters included Brookie and Jean Potter, Rob Armistead and myself. We counted in the Limestone Cove community, which meant I had the convenience of counting practically in my own back yard.

Some good birds were found by the count parties, including yellow-billed cuckoo, yellow-bellied sapsucker, warbling vireo and fish crow, which was found for a second consecutive year. Fish crows have been expanding their presence in counties throughout Northeast Tennessee.

My group was pleased to get good looks at birds like rose-breasted grosbeak and yellow-bellied sapsucker.

European starling came out on top as most abundant bird with 339 individuals counted. The American robin came in a distant second with 269 individual robins found.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The European Starling ranked as the most common species on the count.

The list:

Canada goose, 54; wood duck, 6; mallard, 47; wild turkey, 1; rock pigeon, 86; mourning dove, 100; and yellow-billed cuckoo, 1.

Chuck-will’s-widow, 2; Eastern whip-poor-will, 12; chimney swift, 19; ruby-throated hummingbird, 7; and killdeer, 13.

Great blue heron, 3; green heron, 1; black vulture, 10; turkey vulture, 48; Cooper’s hawk, 1; red-shouldered hawk, 1; broad-winged hawk, 6, and red-tailed hawk, 3.

Eastern Screech-Owl, 2; barred owl, 1; belted kingfisher, 3; red-bellied woodpecker, 13; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 4; downy woodpecker, 10; Northern flicker, 5, and pileated woodpecker, 9.

Great crested flycatcher, 1; Eastern kingbird, 13; Eastern wood-pewee, 6; Acadian flycatcher, 23; least flycatcher, 2; and Eastern phoebe, 65.

White-eyed vireo, 4; blue-headed vireo, 36; warbling vireo, 2; red-eyed vireo, 108; blue jay, 56; American crow, 173; fish crow, 2; and common raven, 4.

Tree swallow, 78; Northern rough-winged swallow, 25; purple martin, 40; barn swallow,  50; cliff Swallow  100; Carolina chickadee, 50; tufted titmouse, 37; red-breasted nuthatch, 1; white-breasted nuthatch, 2; and brown creeper, 3.

House wren, 26; Carolina wren, 92; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 12; golden-crowned kinglet, 4; Eastern bluebird, 82; veery, 10; hermit thrush, 1; wood thrush, 36; American robin, 269; gray catbird, 20; brown thrasher, 14; and Northern mockingbird, 25.

European starling, 339; cedar waxwing, 35; house sparrow, 16; house finch, 32; and American goldfinch, 80.

Chipping sparrow, 67; field sparrow, 13; dark-eyed junco, 10; song sparrow, 166; Eastern towhee, 32.

Yellow-breasted chat, 1; Eastern meadowlark, 6; orchard oriole, 2; red-winged blackbird, 67; Brown-headed cowbird, 21; and common grackle, 54.

Ovenbird  37; worm-eating Warbler, 13; Louisiana waterthrush, 6; black-and-white warbler, 10; Swainson’s warbler, 5; Kentucky warbler, 1; common yellowthroat, 3; hooded warbler, 45; American redstart, 1; Magnolia warbler, 1; Northern parula, 20; Blackburnian warbler; 2; yellow warbler; 1; chestnut-sided warbler, 6; black-throated blue warbler, 26; yellow-throated warbler, 7; black-throated green warbler, 27; and Canada warbler, 1.

Scarlet tanager, 17; Northern cardinal, 98; rose-breasted grosbeak, 3; and indigo bunting, 108.

Tanagers are among world’s most colorful birds

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter
A male scarlet tanager brightens shadowy woodlands with a flash of tropical colors yet remains mostly inconspicuous in the forest canopy.

The daily chorus of songbirds greeting the dawn is usually welcome unless I’m feeling particularly sleepy. Carolina wrens are one of the first birds in residence to sing each day. This time of year they get plenty of accompanists, including American robins, Eastern phoebes, Carolina chickadees, Northern cardinals, Eastern towhees, red-eyed vireos, indigo buntings, hooded warblers, ovenbirds and others.

As June arrived, however, I began to take notice of the absent voice of scarlet tanagers. It wasn’t until June 9 that I heard the first male scarlet tanager of the season singing from the wooded ridge behind my home.

In late April and throughout May, once the oaks, the maples, the poplars and other trees begin spreading out new green leaves to create a concealing woodland canopy, a familiar song can be heard from the treetops. 

Upon first hearing it, listeners might mistake the hidden singer for an American robin. Listen a little closer, however, and the song sounds as if it is being delivered by a robin stricken a bit hoarse with a sore throat.

The producer of the hoarse but melodic song is a scarlet tanager, one of the most showy birds of Eastern woodlands from April to early October. Like the warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other songbirds, the scarlet tanager is migratory. They spend the winter months in the tropical forests of Central and South America. The scarlet tanager is better attired than most birds to provide us a glimpse of what life must be like in the tropical rain forests, which are a riot of color and sound.

It takes only one sighting to sear the vision of these vibrant birds into our retinas, as well as into our memories. The scarlet tanager boasts a brilliant plumage of crimson red paired with black wings and tail. Of course, this is the male. The female scarlet tanager makes no real claim to the common name with her comparatively drab greenish plumage. However, the scientific name, Piranga olivacea, gives a nod to the olive-green plumage of females, young males and even adult males when molting their feathers.

Although once nominated as a candidate for state bird by the school children of Minnesota, the scarlet tanager ultimately failed to gain the designation. Instead, as perhaps is fitting for the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” the common loon represents Minnesota as official state bird.

The related summer tanager is less widespread in Northeast Tennessee, but males of this species are no less dramatic in appearance than the Scarlet Tanager. Male summer tanagers are a rosy-red over all their body. Females, with a dull greenish plumage, are relegated to the background. She can be distinguished from her counterpart, the scarlet tanager, because of their darker wings and larger bills.

The summer tanager holds the distinction of being the only all-red bird in North America. Birds like Northern cardinals and scarlet tanagers also have some black in their plumage.

I’ve seen summer tanagers at Steele Creek Park in Bristol and Willow Springs Park in Johnson City. Sadly, over the years my sightings of this attractive songbird have been few and far between. My most memorable observation of a male summer tanager took place many years ago during a spring visit to Fripp Island, South Carolina. Most of the summer tanagers I have observed in Northeast Tennessee have been females.

On the other hand, I usually have a few scarlet tanagers in residence around my home during the summer months. If the woodlands at my home fail to attract this bird, I can usually make a visit to higher elevations on Roan Mountain, Unaka Mountain or Holston Mountain to gain an exciting glimpse of this beautiful bird.

Worldwide, there have traditionally been about 240 species of tanagers. Experts have changed some of the ways they classify tanagers, so that figure is no longer set in stone. Tanagers are a New World family of birds, concentrated mainly in the tropics.

In the western United States, the scarlet and summer tanagers are replaced by Western tanagers and hepatic tanagers. During a visit to Salt Lake City in Utah in 2006 I saw several Western tanagers.

Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including flame-colored tanager, green-headed tanager, golden-chevroned tanager, azure-shouldered tanager, fawn-breasted tanager, saffron-crowned tanager, metallic-green tanager, turquoise tanager, scarlet-bellied mountain tanager and diademed tanager.

A print of Scarlet Tanagers by early North American naturalist and painter John James Audubon.

Scientists have recently given fresh consideration to the relationship of many tanagers to the other birds of the world. As a result, many of the North American tanagers are now closely allied with such birds as Northern cardinal and have been pushed into a tenuous relationship with tropical tanagers.

The scarlet tanager is not typically a feeder visitor, but you can lure these birds with orange slices placed in special feeders or simply spiked onto the branches of backyard trees. As an added bonus, orange slices can also attract birds such as baltimore orioles and gray catbirds.

Fond of fruit, the scarlet tanager incorporates various berries into its diet. Landscape around your home with fruit-bearing trees such as mulberry, serviceberry and wild cherry to make your yard more inviting to these elusive bird.

Yes, the scarlet tanager is more often heard than seen, but it is a bird worth seeking out. A sighting is guaranteed to impress. Seeing a scarlet tanager will almost make observers feel like they’ve been dropped into a tropical jungle instead of standing beneath a woodland canopy in the Southern Appalachians.

I’ll be participating in some summer bird counts over the next few weeks, so I am hopeful that my 2022 drought of scarlet tanager sightings will soon be at an end.

Bird count finds 147 species in region

Photo Hans Tooms/ Pixabay • A male black-and-white warbler sings his buzzy song from a woodland perch. A total of 37 individual black-and-white warblers were found during the recent Spring Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club in Northeast Tennessee.


The 79th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Count was held Saturday, May 7, with 28 observers in about a dozen parties, plus two feeder watchers. The area covered included Carter County and parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Washington and Unicoi.

The weather was less than ideal, with cool temperatures ranging from 45 to 60 and mist or light rain for part or most of the day. The mountainous areas had the most rain.

Long-time compiler Rick Knight noted that participants tallied 147 species, which is slightly below the recent 30 year average of 150 species.

In addition, most species were in reduced numbers, likely due to the difficulties presented by the weather (less singing, fewer soaring birds) during the count. On the other hand, the weather may have grounded some of the shorebirds. Large numbers of swallows and swifts were foraging low over the water in different locations due to the cool temperatures.

Also significant were some of the species missed by participants, including ruffed grouse, sora, American woodcock, both night-herons, sharp-shinned hawk, red-shouldered hawk, brown creeper, ruby-crowned kinglet and hermit thrush.

Some of the more abundant birds included American robin (924), European starling (730), Canada goose (482) and red-winged blackbird (302).

The list follows:

Canada goose, 482; wood duck,  58, blue-winged teal,  4; mallard, 113; bufflehead, 1; hooded merganser,  3; and common merganser,  1.

Wild turkey, 41; rock pigeon, 124; Eurasian collared-dove, 4; mourning dove, 259; yellow-billed cuckoo, 2; common nighthawk, 1; chuck-will’s-widow, 6; Eastern whip-poor-will, 12; chimney swift, 401; and ruby-throated hummingbird, 19.

Killdeer, 32; least sandpiper, 16; pectoral sandpiper, 2; semipalmated sandpiper, 1; spotted sandpiper, 34; solitary sandpiper, 13; lesser yellowlegs, 5;  greater yellowlegs, 1; and ring-billed gull,  3.

Common loon, 3; double-crested cormorant, 75; great blue heron, 51; great egret, 3; and green heron, 10.

Black vulture,  40; turkey vulture, 56; osprey, 4; cooper’s hawk, 3; bald eagle, 5; broad-winged hawk, 2; red-tailed hawk, 8; Eastern screech-owl, 3; great horned owl, 2;  and barred owl,  1.

Belted kingfisher, 11; red-headed woodpecker,  2; red-bellied woodpecker, 46; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 3; downy woodpecker,  20; hairy woodpecker,  7; Northern flicker,  36; and pileated woodpecker,  29.

American Kestrel,  8; great crested flycatcher, 14; Eastern kingbird, 30; Eastern wood-pewee, 11; Acadian flycatcher,  15; least flycatcher, 2; and Eastern phoebe,  61.

White-eyed vireo, 7; Yellow-throated vireo, 4; Blue-headed vireo,  25; warbling vireo,  8; red-eyed vireo,  149; blue jay,  192; American crow,  280; fish crow,  4  (present third year in a row) and common raven,  8.

Bank swallow, 6; tree swallow, 399; northern rough-winged swallow,  168; purple martin,  94; barn swallow,  405; and cliff swallow,  499.

Carolina chickadee, 123; tufted titmouse,  140; red-breasted nuthatch, 1; white-breasted nuthatch,  11; house wren,  53; winter wren,  1; Carolina wren, 161; and blue-gray gnatcatcher, 51.

Golden-crowned kinglet,  2; Eastern bluebird, 141; veery, 19; gray-cheeked thrush, 1; Swainson’s thrush, 3; wood thrush,  51; American robin,  924; gray catbird, 75; brown thrasher,  64; Northern mockingbird,  93; European starling, 730; and cedar waxwing,  75.

House sparrow, 50; house finch, 62; pine siskin, 3; and American goldfinch,  224.

Grasshopper Sparrow, 1; chipping sparrow, 95; field sparrow,  29; dark-eyed junco, 19; white-crowned sparrow, 1; white-throated sparrow, 1; savannah sparrow,  1; song sparrow, 290; Lincoln’s sparrow, 1; and Eastern towhee,  151.

Yellow-breasted chat, 11; Eastern meadowlark,  91; orchard oriole,  20; Baltimore oriole, 11; red-winged blackbird,  302; brown-headed cowbird, 101; and common grackle,  281.

Ovenbird,  88; worm-eating warbler, 13; Louisiana waterthrush, 25; Northern waterthrush, 1; golden-winged warbler, 1; black-and-white warbler, 37; Swainson’s warbler, 6; Tennessee warbler, 1; Kentucky warbler, 5; common yellowthroat, 17; hooded warbler,  85; American redstart,  14; Cape May warbler, 1; Northern parula, 46; magnolia warbler,  2; bay-breasted warbler, 2; Blackburnian warbler,  3; yellow warbler, 9; chestnut-sided warbler, 15; blackpoll warbler,  2; black-throated blue warbler,  33; palm warbler, 1; pine warbler,  9; yellow-rumped warbler,  9; yellow-throated warbler,  44; prairie warbler,  1; black-throated green warbler, 33; and Canada warbler, 10.

Summer tanager, 1; scarlet tanager,  60; Northern cardinal,  270;  rose-breasted grosbeak,  11; blue grosbeak,  8; indigo bunting , 104; and dickcissel,  2.


Based on the count results, it’s not difficult to see that many birds are moving through the region as part of the yearly phenomenon of spring migration. Share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment by emailing

Red-headed woodpeckers more uncommon than some of their kin


Photo by Pixabay • The red-headed woodpecker is accurately named for its entirely red head. Male and female red-headed woodpeckers are identical in appearance, but young birds lack the red head.

Some readers asked for help in determining the identity of some birds that they have encountered. I tried to offer some insight into each query.

First, Lynda Carter in the Lamar community of Washington County emailed me recently with a question about a possible sighting of a red-headed woodpecker.

“I know they are uncommon and I did not get my binoculars on the bird,” Lynda wrote. “I saw the bird land in a large open-crowned oak after hearing a call very like (a) red-bellied (woodpecker) but different somehow.”

Lynda noted that she could see a lot of red on head and when the bird flew across her pasture to a pine tree, she could see big blocks of black and white in the plumage.

“I shared my sighting with my sister who lives up the mountain from me and she thought she spotted the same bird on a telephone pole in her yard a few days later,” Lynda said.

Lynda added that she and her sister live on the end of Embreeville Mountain. “We are interested in your thoughts concerning our mystery bird,” she wrote.

I responded to Lynda with my absolute confidence that she and her sister did see a red-headed woodpecker. Here are a few reasons for my belief in the identification she came up with.

The large patches of black and white are trademark characteristics of a red-headed woodpecker. The black is actually almost a glossy blue-black.

Of course, the entirely red head also separates the aptly-named red-headed woodpecker from all other members of the family in the region.

She and her sister also live in a section of Washington County near some known locations for finding red-headed woodpeckers.

Photo by USFWS • The red-headed woodpecker is an easily identified bird for anyone getting a good look.

It’s also spring. Red-headed woodpeckers are partly migratory, so her sighting could have involved a migrating bird. I’ve seen several red-headed woodpeckers in the spring in some surprising locations over the years.

We corresponded a bit more and Lynda shared more about the birds around her home.

“I do live in a great spot for birding,” she wrote.  “We have open pasture, wooded gullies and the mountain behind us. Cherokee National Forest is my neighbor to the south and the Nolichucky River is just down the road.”

Lynda hosts nesting wood thrushes that return to the same open wooded patch behind her house. “I just love hearing their song in early morning hours and again in the evening,” she wrote.

She also wrote that she has seen more scarlet tanagers, which is always a thrill, in the last year or two.

“I have had male and female rose-breasted grosbeak at my bin feeder,” she added.

She has recently heard Eastern meadowlarks, red-eyed vireo and ovenbird. She also provides several nest boxes currently occupied by Eastern bluebirds and tree swallows.

The red-headed woodpecker and its relative, the red-bellied woodpecker, belong to a genus of tree-clinging birds known as Melanerpes. The term, translated from Latin, means “black creeper.” Indeed, many of the two dozen members of the Melanerpes genus have an extensive amount of black feathers in their plumage. Other members of the genus include woodpeckers from the Caribbean, as well as from Central and South American. Some of them have quite colorful names, such as yellow-tufted woodpecker, golden-cheeked woodpecker and the accurately named beautiful woodpecker, a native of Colombia.

The red-bellied is a common bird in the region, but some effort or simple good luck is needed to find red-headed woodpeckers. These woodpeckers, which often form family flocks, have localized populations that shift from year to year.

One reason the red-headed woodpecker may be less common than its cousin relates to its fondness for hawking for flying insects along roadsides. The woodpeckers are frequently struck by cars when swooping after their winged prey. Historically, the American chestnut and beech trees also provided much of the mast crops consumed by these birds. With the extermination of the chestnut and the scarcity of beech in some locations, the red-headed woodpecker now depends on oaks and acorns. In fact, this woodpecker is rarely encountered outside of woodlands offering an abundance of oak trees.


Ed Wells, who lives in Nebo, North Carolina, near Lake James, emailed me recently and presented me with another identification challenge.

“I enjoy reading your feature each week,” Wells wrote.  “You always inform and teach me.”

He  also attached some photographs of a bird that flew into the side of his house in 2021.

“I have not been able to make a positive ID,” he said.  “It appeared to be a small shorebird with a straight bill of medium length. Wing span was probably 10 inches or less and perhaps about the same from bill to tail.”

“I moved the stunned bird out of the cold wind and placed it on some mulch,” Ed wrote. “It eventually recovered and flew away.”

Ed also shared that while boating on the lake recently, he saw a bird that he believes might be the same species as his mystery bird. The shorebird was perched on rocks near the waterline.

“My boat startled it and it flew rapidly away,” he added.

Based on his photos, the best I could do was determine the bird was some sort of “peep,” which is a birding nickname for a group of small- to medium-sized sandpipers.

I speculated that the bird might have been a stilt sandpiper, but I also consulted Rick Knight, a veteran birder with much more experience with shorebirds.

“The bill looks too short for stilt sandpiper,” Rick concluded. He said that he would lean toward the bird being a least sandpiper or pectoral sandpiper.

Many shorebirds have been migrating through the region in recent weeks. During the recent five-county Spring Bird Count conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club, counters found several shorebird species, including least sandpiper, pectoral sandpiper, semipalmated sandpiper, spotted sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, lesser yellowlegs greater yellowlegs and killdeer.


Have questions about birds? Email me at Feel free to make comments and share observations, too.

Common yellowthoat, other birds help make migration exciting time

Photo by Pixabay • With a black mask, the male common yellowthroat resembles a tiny feathered bandit as he goes about his daily routine interrupted by bouts of singing his “witchety! witchety! witchety!” song.

Photo by Pixabay
With a black mask, the male common yellowthroat resembles a tiny feathered bandit as he goes about his daily routine interrupted by bouts of singing his “witchety! witchety! witchety!” song.

A hummingbird flew in to one of my porch feeders at 6:28 p.m. on April 23. The arrival made this bird the first hummingbird I have seen this spring. Although quite a bit later than expected, I decided that it’s better late than never. The bird, a male with a dazzling red throat, flew right to the feeder hanging on the porch. I had switched out the water in all three of my feeders only a few minutes prior to the bird’s initial appearance. The bird knew exactly where the feeder was hanging, so I am confident he had already been around for a few days.

There have been other new arrivals, too. A hooded warbler announced its return in song, singing from the shaded woodlands the same day the first hummingbird arrived. On April 28, a common yellowthroat made sure to get noticed by singing from some willows near the creek before popping into view as I watched through binoculars.

In the past week, flocks of chimney swifts have also begun twittering and swooping over the streets of Erwin.

A few more people have shared their stories of first spring sightings of hummingbirds.

Ann Windsor in Selmer, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page on April 23 that her hummingbirds had returned a few days earlier. “He has set up his sole ownership of our feeder,” she noted.
“I just now saw my first hummingbird of the season here in Abingdon,” Mary Ragland commented on my Facebook page on April 23.
Betty Lacy in Elizabethton has also welcomes back hummingbirds.
“My hummingbirds are here daily,” she wrote. “I love to watch them.”
Dawn Peters in Jonesborough saw her first hummingbird on April 23.
“I saw my first one about 5 p.m. today,” she wrote on my Facebook page.
Linda Cauley noted that she is hosting two of the tiny birds.
“Two showed up in Unicoi at my feeders,” she wrote on my Facebook page.
The hummingbirds at Kaylynn Wilster’s home at Boone Lake played a bit coy.
“I didn’t see mine at first but the level in the feeders was dropping so I knew they were here,” she wrote on my Facebook page on April 23. “Saw my first one about four days ago — a beautiful male.”
She also saw one at a greenhouse that she visited recently. “The greenhouses go to great effort to get them out,” she added in her comment.
Donna Barnes Kilday in Erwin saw her first on April 14.
“Now I have at least two that want control of both feeders,” she wrote on my Facebook page. “So much fun to watch!”

Philip Laws in Limestone Cove wrote a comment on my Facebook page on April 27 about his hummingbirds.
“We have had them for several days,” Philip wrote.
“My favorite story was when I returned to a former house that we had been out of a couple of years,” he wrote. “A male came up and flew to and circled the spot where a feeder had hung two years before. Needless to say, I quickly returned with a feeder and kept it going for the rest of that summer.”
Mack Hayes, who resides in the Bowmantown community in Washington County, saw his first male ruby-throated hummingbird on April 22. In another comment on my Facebook page, he added a few days later, a female hummingbird has also arrived.
“Glad to see they made it back,” Mack wrote.
As I mentioned at the start of the column, warblers have been putting in sporadic appearances this spring.

I thought I’d spotlight the common yellowthroat this week. The male common yellowthroat looks like a dapper feathered bandit with his black mask with a silvery-gray eye stripe, brown upper parts and a bright yellow throat. Females have the yellow throat but lack the black mask.
The website All About Birds notes in a profile on the species that male common yellowthroats arrive first on breeding grounds in the spring and begin defending territories.

According to the profile, fighting among males grows more intense once the female birds arrive. Researchers have also found that the black mask of male yellowthroats acts as a trigger for some of this fighting. Some enterprising researchers added a black paper mask to a stuffed female yellowthroat. When placed within view of male yellowthroats, the stuffed bird weathered attacks from territorial males.

Photo by USFWS • The male common yellowthroat wears a mask like a feathered bandit.

The common yellowthroat at my home was probably one of these eager males ready to get a head start on the summer’s nesting season. Common yellowthroats are one of the many warblers that nest in the Northeast Tennessee during the summer months. They can be found from lower elevation to higher ones, but they will usually not be found outside of a habitat that offers dense vegetation to their particular liking. A weedy slope in a backyard, a marshy stand of cattails, or overgrown fields are some places suitable for this noisy if “under the radar” bird.
The common yellowthroat is one of the birds that benefits from a lawn and garden that are not kept trimmed and manicured. They will only thrive in habitats that offer dense thickets and other tangles of vegetation. To attract birds like the common yellowthroat, keep some corners of your property in a more “natural” state. The neighbors may look askance, but the birds will thank you.

It’s the female yellowthroat that will build the nest. She lays one to six eggs. She will often locate the nest close to the ground, but it’s always well hidden.

The common yellowthroat belongs to a genus of warblers known as Geothlypsis. Three other members – MacGillivray’s warbler, mourning warbler and Kentucky warbler – in the genus are resident in the United States and Canada for part of the year.

It’s easy to detect the presence of this warbler in the springtime. The male invariably gives himself away by singing his ringing syllables of “Witchety! Witchety! Witchety!” In fact, my recent visitor alerted me to his presence by doing just that. As with many warblers, the male’s song helps attract mates and also establishes the boundaries of his territory.

Although this warbler would prefer to skulk under a weedy canopy, it has one weakness. Common yellowthroats are incredibly curious birds. They will respond to squeaking or mechanical bird calls. Unlike some birds that pop into view for a brief look before diving back into cover, common yellowthroats can often be called into view several times during an observation.

There will no doubt be plenty of migrant sightings as we continue into May. Look for such vibrant visitors as orioles, tanagers, indigo buntings and rose-breasted grosbeaks in the coming days.  To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, email me at


Erwin woman reports early date  for spring return of hummingbird

Photo by  Amy Tipton • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches in a quince bush at the home of Amy Tipton in Erwin. The hummingbird, which arrived April 1, represents the earliest date so far this season for returning hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds returned to the region the first week of April. If you’ve not yet seen one, and I am still waiting for my own first sighting of one this spring, take heart. Many people are already reporting the return of these tiny flying gems.


The date might have been Friday, April 1, but Amy Tipton’s first hummingbird of the year was no April Fool’s prank.

“Just saw my first hummingbird of the season!” Amy messaged me on Facebook to share her sighting, which took place on the first day of April at 7:15 p.m.

“It was a male feeding in the quince bush in our backyard,” she added. “I’m sure he’s just passing through, but I was so happy to see one.”

The Erwin resident reported the following day that the hummingbird had lingered overnight, which allowed her to get some photographs.


Ray Gorecki, a resident of the Dysartsville area in McDowell County, North Carolina, emailed me about his first hummingbird sighting this spring.

“I am happy to say that we had our first ruby- throated male arrive this past Monday (April 4),” Ray wrote. “We set the feeders out on Sunday. We have had a male at the feeders each day this week.”

Ray added that being from western New York and being new to the area, he was thrilled to see hummingbirds so early in the spring. “Looking forward to seeing many more,” he added.


Chris Amsbary in Marion, North Carolina, said he saw his first hummer of spring on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 5, at his home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains east of Asheville.


Rebecca Morgan emailed me to report that she spotted her first ruby-throated hummingbird on Randolph Drive in Marion, North Carolina, on Wednesday, April 6, at 6:30 p.m.


Reflect for a moment on the epic journey each ruby-throated hummingbird must make in order to return to northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina or southwest Virginia each spring.

According to the website for, a retailer  of bird feeders, ruby-throated hummingbirds spend the winter months in Central America and southern Mexico. When the weather begins to turn warm, they will start to make their northern trip up to the United States. As the website points out, this can be a grueling journey for such a tiny creature, as many of them choose to fly over the Gulf of Mexico. This flight alone, the website points out, can take 18 to 22 hours of non-stop flight before reaching land on the other side of the gulf.

Simply crossing the Gulf of Mexico is only the first stage. Most of the hummingbirds must still travel hundreds of miles to reach locations where they will spend the summer. Males, after some time courting females, will not do much more than sip nectar and duel with other male hummers during the summer.

It’s the female hummingbirds that will work diligently all summer long as she constructs a nest, incubates eggs and feeds hungry young, all without any assistance from her erstwhile mate.

Hummingbird species number around 340, making the family second in species only to the tyrant flycatchers in sheer size. Both of these families consist of birds exclusive to the New World.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Male ruby-throated hummingbird show the namesake red throat. The feathers on a male’s throat are iridescent, which means they can change when seen from different angles. In poor light, the ruby-red throat can look almost black.

With so many hummingbird species, people have been hard pressed to give descriptive names to all these tiny gems. The term “ruby-throated” pales in comparison to some of the richly descriptive names that have been given to some of the world’s hummingbirds.

Some of the dazzling array of names include little hermit, hook-billed hermit, fiery topaz, sooty barbthroat, white-throated daggerbill, hyacinth visorbearer, sparkling violetear, horned sungem, black-eared fairy, white-tailed goldenthroat, green mango, green-throated carib, amethyst-throated sunangel, green-backed firecrown, wire-crested thorntail, festive coquette, bronze-tailed comet, black-breasted hillstar, black-tailed trainbearer, blue-mantled thornbill, bearded mountaineer, colorful puffleg, marvelous spatuletail, bronzy inca, rainbow starfrontlet, velvet-purple coronet, pink-throated brilliant, coppery emerald, snowcap, golden-tailed sapphire and violet-bellied hummingbird.

Knowing a little more about these tiny birds known as hummingbirds, I hope you’ll look upon them with increased admiration.

(I am still getting arrival reports and will continue to mention those in upcoming columns/posts.)

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


Turkeys strutting their stuff as spring begins to take hold

Photo by Robert Pos/USFWS • A tom turkey displays to a hen in a ritual meant to attract the female turkey as a potential mate. Winter’s flocks will break up as the nesting season progresses. Raising young is a solitary affair for a hen turkey.

In my experience, rainy days always seem to bring out wild turkeys. 

I saw five of these large wild fowl in the fields adjacent to Bell Cemetery in Limestone Cove on my drive to work on the morning of March 16. I posted my sighting on Facebook and got some responses from friends who have had their own recent encounters with turkeys.

Erwin resident Michael Briggs posted that on another recent rainy day he counted 17 turkeys in his yard. 

Kaylynn Sanford Wilster, a resident of Piney Flats, posted photos of a large flock of wild turkeys roaming her yard. 

Few birds have featured so prominently in the history of the United States as the wild turkey. Thanks to the federal government eventually moving to protect the wild turkey population, this bird today is quite common across the nation. Fields bordering woodlands are a great place to observe wild turkeys strutting their stuff, especially during the autumn and winter seasons when turkeys form large flocks, which are also known as “rafters.” Watching a male turkey, or tom, fan his impressive tail feathers to get the attention of hens or intimidate other male rivals offers a peek into the thinking some of the nation’s founders held regarding the wild turkey.

While turkeys are often associated with early winter and the Thanksgiving holiday, they are actually rather active in the springtime. The large flocks are still holding together, albeit loosely, as male turkeys, known as toms, strut and fan their impressive tail feathers in an attempt to make an impression on as many hens as possible. 

Once this business of attraction is settled with successful matings, the tom turkey will go his own way and leave the hard work of incubating eggs and caring for young entirely to the hen. 

The Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website puts it like this: “The male wild turkey provides no parental care. The female alone incubates the eggs. The young follow her immediately after hatching and quickly learn to catch food for themselves. Several females and their broods may form flocks of 30 or more birds.”

The website also points out that the wild turkey is the largest nesting bird found within the Volunteer State. Males can tip the scales at a little over 16 pounds while the average female weighs slightly more than nine pounds. 

According to Watchable Wildlife, males begin competing to attracts females in late winter and early spring. The tom’s efforts feature both an audio and visual component. The male turkey produces his trademark “gobble” to attract any listening hens. When the female appears, he puffs up his body feathers and struts around her with his tail spread and wingtips dragging on the ground.

Tom turkey also compete with each other. The dominant males will mate with several females in one season, but the hen alone is left to usher a new generation of turkeys into the world.

The Watchable Wildlife site reveals that a turkey’s nest is a simple affair, usually fashioned inside a slight depression in the ground that is lined with dead leaves or grass, usually placed at the base of a tree or bush and concealed in thick vegetation.

The hen will lay from seven to 14 eggs, which she will then spend about 28 days incubating. 

According to Tennessee Watchable Wildlife, the young depart the nest shortly after hatching and follow the female. She will take them to favorable spots to forage for food. Young turkeys, known as poults, begin to fly at six to 10 days old. Male young remain with the female until the fall; female young remain with the female until the spring.

It’s always fun to follow the progress of a hen and her brood throughout the spring and summer. Fortunately, wild turkeys are fairly common these days, but that hasn’t always been the case. 

Although an important food source for early settlers and Native Americans, the wild turkey was subjected to extensive over-hunting. The population crashed, and by the beginning of the 1900s was on the verge of extermination in many areas of the country.

Reintroduction efforts by various government game agencies helped the wild turkey recover. Today, the wild turkey is found in every county in the state of Tennessee. The wild turkey population has also recovered nationwide. 

To share your own sighting, make a comment or ask a question, please email me at 

Man’s enthusiasm for bald eagles expanding the knowledge of region’s nesting birds

Photo Courtesy of Ryan Rice • Nesting bald eagles becoming a regular occurrence is a dream come true for local resident and photographer Ryan Rice. He has been an enthusiastic fan of bald eagles since childhood.

Ryan Rice loves bald eagles. He’s loved the nation’s official bird since he was a child.

As an adult, he’s channeled that enthusiasm into helping collect valuable data on nesting eagles in the region. Along the way, he’s also managed to capture some impressive photos of bald eagles. Ryan and his photos have even recently been featured in Blue Ridge Country Magazine for his work on bald eagles.

The fact that eagles are nesting again in Northeast Tennessee and the surrounding areas is a dream come true for Rice.

All told, he has located about 10 nests in the Tennessee counties of Carter, Washington, Sullivan, Johnson and Hawkins. He has also found nests in Scott County, Virginia, and in Watauga County, North Carolina.

He has also learned of a nest along the Nolichucky River in Erwin.

“The adult eagles have been seen around the area of the nest pretty regularly,” he said. “I have not personally seen that pair — just the nest.”

From drawing eagles when he was a kid to picking up a camera and getting actual photos of his dream bird, Rice said he has always been interested in bald eagles.

“They were talked about a lot in the ’80s,” Rice said. “About how they were endangered and almost extinct in the lower 48 states. I used to dream of seeing them here in Northeast Tennessee but didn’t think it would ever actually happen.”

He explained that by the early 1960s, the bald eagle was nearly extinct in the continental U.S. The bald eagle had also been almost wiped out in Northeast Tennessee. Rice noted that prior to the 1980s bald eagles had not been seen in the region for decades. Now he is happy to report that the area’s eagle population is flourishing and sightings are becoming commonplace. In Northeast Tennessee, Rice noted, reports of bald eagle sightings on date back to 2005. By 2010, the bald eagle population truly rebounded in the region.

Rice said he has conducted a lot of research in an attempt to locate nesting eagles.
“I talked to a lot of people to learn more about their nesting habits,” he said. “I research a lot of eagle sightings people post to ebirds. I use that info to search for nests.
Rice said that getting good photos of eagles isn’t easy. Patience and hard work are key. Even tracking down a nesting site is not a guarantee. He has often gone to a lot of effort to get close enough to photograph the birds only for the eagles to decide to stay away from the nest during his visit.

However, eagles are creatures of habit, according to Rice.

One simple trick he has learned is to always locate their favorite trees for perching. Armed with that knowledge, his photography ventures have become much more successful.

Rice admitted that some nests are simply difficult to reach. Some are accessible only by water, so he said he gets out his kayak and loads up his camera equipment. Other nests are located in trees on steep terrain. On occasion, he must seek permission from landowners in order to observe and photograph a nest on private property.

To get his photos of eagles, he use a Canon 90d camera. “That is a cropped frame DSLR,” he said. He noted that he uses a telephoto lens (Sigma 150-600 mm lens) to get his shots. “On my cropped frame camera that is the equivalent of 960mm on a full frame camera,” Rice said.

Rice and a friend have also formed Above Ground Media, which uses drones for photography for real estate, advertising and special events. He does not use the drones to photograph eagles or their nests. For more information, Rice invites the public to visit

His photography remains a hobby for the moment, but he likes to devote all the time he possibly can to it.

“I have gotten into watching and searching out other birds, too,” Rice said. “At the start of COVID I started working from home and I put up bird feeders and started photographing all the different birds that would come to my feeders,” he said. “Then I started going out to bird hot spots to get photos.”

An Eastern screech-owl perches in the entrance to a house Ryan Rice fashioned out of a fallen log.

He also recently built an owl house out of a section of a fallen hollow tree.

“I hung it in a tree in my yard,” he said. “I live in a neighborhood so wasn’t real optimistic I would get any owls. About a month after hanging it, an Eastern screech-owl has appeared to move in.”
Rice said most people built owl houses out of plywood.

“I choose to use an actual section of a tree so that I could get more natural looking photos,” he explained. “The owl has been around for four or five days now. It often spends six to eight hours sitting in the opening of the house.”

He posted some of the photos of the owl house and the screech-owl on social media. “They have gotten a huge response on Facebook,” Rice said.

He recently did a presentation on local bald eagles for the Bristol Bird Club.

“I got a lot of great information from that group on bald eagle nests in the area that I didn’t know about,” Rice said. “That is where I got the information for the Erwin nest. The members of that group have been a huge help. They really appreciated what I was doing in trying to document as many of the local bald eagles as I could.”

Rice said his work is important to help eagles continue to thrive.

As an example, he pointed to a nest he located in the Hunter community of Carter County along the Watauga River.

“The land owners didn’t even know the nest was there,” he explained. “The day I found the nest I found out the land owners were planning to log the area the nest was in.”

Rice reached out to local wildlife officials so that a happy accommodation could be reached with the landowners to protect the eagles and their nest.

He noted that logging is not an option at a site of an active nest because of federally protections.

After all, it seems only fitting that the federal government take steps to protect the nation’s official bird and ensure that bald eagles continue to soar for many years to come.\

Although birds made headlines in ’21, stories for some species come to an end

Photo by Bob Peyton/USFWS • At 70, Wisdom, a female Laysan albatross and the world’s oldest known breeding bird in the wild, became a mother once again in 2021. In this photo from a previous nesting in 2018, when she was then 67 years old, Wisdom cares for a chick in her nest on Midway Atoll.

Our feathered friends made the headlines in 2021. For a few, the final curtain dropped. For others, their stories offer a ray of hope in some occasionally bleak times.

Feathered time capsule

Testing conducted by scientists identified the bird as a female horned lark, a species that can be found in a few locations in Northeast Tennessee, mostly during winter and early spring. I find it amazing that this bird lived during the same era as now extinct Ice Age beasts, including mastodons, mammoths and woolly rhinos. The horned lark is a small songbird. Males have black masks and a yellowish wash on the head and throat. Males also have the namesake “horns” that are actually dark feather tufts atop the sides of the head giving them the look of a small feathered comical devil. The bird is known as “horned lark” in North America and “shore lark” in Europe.

A mother again

Motherhood suits a Laysan albatross known as Wisdom. She hatched her most recent chick in February of 2021. Why is that worthy of a headline? Well, Wisdom is at least 70 years old, making her the world’s oldest known bird. She was first documented when she was banded in 1956 on Midway Atoll in the Pacific. Since that time, she has weathered storms, earthquakes and tsunamis. In her lifetime to date, Wisdom has flown millions of miles in search of food at sea. She still returns faithfully to Midway Atoll, which is home to the world’s largest colony of albatrosses, when it’s time to nest. Biologists estimate that Wisdom has hatched at least 30 to 36 chicks in her lifetime, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bell tolls for the ‘Lord God Bird’

The ivory-billed woodpecker was officially declared extinct in 2021. More accurately, the species was proposed for removal from the Endangered Species Act. This decision came 17 years after the largest of North America’s woodpeckers was “rediscovered” in 2004 in the Big Woods region of Arkansas. Despite a resurgence of interest in a bird also known dramatically as the “Lord God Bird,” the scientific community, no further evidence surfaced to support the belief in some quarters that ivory-billed woodpeckers still exist. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service made the extinction declaration in a press release issued on Sept. 29, 2021. The release also identified other birds as candidates for a declaration of extinction, including Bachman’s warbler. Like the woodpecker, the warbler’s last stronghold was in Southern swamps. Several species of native Hawaiian birds have also likely passed into oblivion. Other candidates for de-listing from the Endangered Species Act included several species of fish and mussels. The press release acknowledges that while protections were provided too late for the 23 species mentioned within its pages, the ESA has been successful at preventing the extinction of more than 99% of species listed. In total, 54 species have been delisted from the ESA due to recovery, and another 56 species have been downlisted from endangered to threatened. The Service’s current work plan includes planned actions that encompass 60 species for potential downlisting or delisting due to successful recovery efforts. It’s still cold comfort to fans of North America’s largest woodpecker and the mysterious Bachman’s warbler.

Silver Linings

If you’re looking for evidence that the COVID-19 lockdowns came with a silver lining, turn your gaze to our fine feathered friends. There’s growing evidence that some birds thrived during strict lockdown periods because they experienced less pressure to cope with human disturbances. Scientists also agree, however, that these benefits will likely prove fleeting for birds as the pace of human activity returns to normal levels.

The babbler babbles again

A living black-browed babbler was captured in 2020 by a pair of researchers. They found the bird on the island of Borneo. Before releasing the bird, they documented their find with photographs. In February of 2021, they published their findings in the journal, BirdingASIA. The rediscovery of the black-browed babbler is significant because the only other time the bird had ever been documented was between 1843 and 1848 when the naturalist Carl Schwaner captured one on the island of Java. After that one “blip” on the radar screens of naturalists and ornithologists, Schwaner’s specimen was put into storage and not much attention paid to the species in the intervening 170 years.

Photographic evidence

A tiny songbird known as the Urich’s tyrannulet has been documented with photos and audio recordings by a research team during an expedition to Venezuela. According to a press release from American Bird Conservancy, the tyrannulet (a species of flycatcher) was first described by science in 1899. Second and third sightings of the bird occurred in the 1940s and in 2005, respectively.

Mystery outbreak fades away

An outbreak of disease among birds across the United States surged in spring and summer of 2021 before gradually fading away by fall. A joint statement of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine on Sept. 17, 2021, all states affected by the mysterious bird illness earlier in the year had lifted their do-not-feed recommendation. No cause has yet been determined, but cases are no longer being reported. Symptoms of the illness included crusty eyes, tremors and paralysis among songbirds. The species most frequently affected were fledgling (juvenile) blue jays, common grackles, European starlings and American robins, along with a few other species. While the cause of the outbreak is still unidentified, several possibilities — West Nile, salmonella, avian influenza, house finch eye disease and trichomonas parasites — have been ruled out as possible causes.


Take a second glance at the tufted titmouse: you’ll be glad you did

Photo by Anne773/Pixabay • A tufted titmouse visits a feeder.

Don’t dismiss our feathered friends as “bird brains.” They’re smart. They demonstrate that fact in various ways.

For an impish cousin of the chickadee, that intelligence shines through when they visit my feeders. I’m referring to the tufted titmouse, a curious sprite with some mischievous tendencies.

When I go outdoors to fill the feeders with another helping of black oil sunflower, the titmice appear seemingly out of the woodwork or, in their case, out of the woods. Small flocks of titmice show up and perch in the branches of nearby tree and watch me at my task.

There’s also a fascinating and ingrained hierarchy regarding which titmouse gets to approach the feeder first. I’m not aware of how they come to their mutually understood ranking, but when one of their number transgresses, the offense can set off a round of bitter scolding. I’ve also seen two titmice accidentally arrive at a feeder at the same time. When that happens, one of the birds will usually flinch and depart. After the higher-ranking individual grabs a seed and leaves, the other bird can return.

It’s all neat and orderly. In the long run, this structure probably prevents needless waste of energy on birds coming into conflict. Winter’s a lean time. Although the birds can count on my supplemental source of food, they continue to act as if there are no guarantees.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The tufted titmouse is a backyard bird with an impish personality.

Although they’re most prevalent in the winter, titmice are present throughout the year. Like chickadees and bluebirds, they are cavity-nesting birds and will gladly take up nesting duties inside a bird box.

They are one of the first and most enthusiastic birds to greet the spring with joyous song each year. The tufted titmouse’s song — a persistent repetition of “Peter! Peter! Peter!” — rings through the woodlands around my home along with the urgent “fee-be fee-bo” of the Carolina chickadee. These birds form mixed flocks with each other and other species to explore their surroundings and search for food.

In addition to singing, titmice are enthusiastic scolders. They will scold over any transgression, real or imagined, focusing their ire on their fellow titmice or other birds, potential predators and even human observers. They’re quite persistent at their raucous scolding, which is just another reason I label them as imps of the woods.

In appearance, the tufted titmouse is a drab bird that could easily slip beneath the radar. The bird’s appearance does, however, offer a few distinctive qualities. Although mostly a gray bird, the titmouse sports a distinctive crest and a rusty-pinkish coloration along the flanks. Titmouse eyes are black as coal and look large in proportion to their heads, which lends them an expressive appearance as they explore in yards and gardens.

The term “titmouse” refers to the old English word “tit” meaning “small,” as well as the old English “mase,” also a reference to small size. Probably because of the bird’s small size and gray coloration, “mase” evolved into “mouse” and combined to form the word “titmouse.”

The titmice living in my yard visit my house windows at times, which drives my cats to distraction. I’ve wondered if the titmice are curious and trying to peek inside the house, but I believe I have a more down-to-earth explanation. These little birds are very thorough when foraging for food, and I’ve watched them pluck spiders and other insects from the window frames.

Like chickadees, titmice are fond of sunflower seeds. No other offering will so readily lure them to feeders, although they do develop a fondness for suet cakes. I’ve also had success attracting titmice to my feeders by offering unsalted, shelled peanuts. I sometimes break up the peanuts into smaller, more manageable pieces for the benefit of the titmice. These foods and a few trees or saplings around your home is all you really need to welcome titmice.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young titmouse visits a suet feeder.

In the early 1900s, the tufted titmouse would have been considered a southern bird with its stronghold in states like Tennessee, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Perhaps it was the titmouse’s innate curiosity that pushed the species to expand successfully beyond the southern United States. The titmouse has steadily expanded its range northward, thriving in new locations. Some experts credit this expansion to more readily available access to supplemental food at feeders.

During the nesting season, titmice forage for a variety of insects. Many spiders, beetles, caterpillars and other small bugs will be fed to hungry young titmice in a tree cavity or a nesting box. Like chickadees, titmice build exquisite nests, often using mostly moss with other materials, such as bark, cloth scraps, dry leaves and shed snakeskins. These small birds line their nests with hair or fur of other animals.

Over the years, many readers have shared observations documenting the fur-collecting skills of tufted titmice. The birds are not content to simply collect shed fur. They seem to prefer collecting the fur fresh from a living animal. Many dogs fall victim to impish titmice that boldly pluck strands of fur from the canine’s coat.

In another funny story, a woman once told me about a titmouse that flew onto her head every time she stepped outside her home. Perhaps the bird sensed her affection for birds since it never failed to pluck strands of hair from her head to carry back to its nest. For any would-be skeptics, the woman provided photographic documentation of the incidents. In addition to dogs and humans, animals ranging from squirrels and opossums to mice and woodchucks have also been observed “sacrificing” fur for the nesting success of tufted titmice.

The female tufted titmouse incubates the eggs. She lays between three and nine eggs, although a usual clutch size is five to six eggs. The female titmouse is protective of her nest and is known for a behavior known as a “snake display.” I’ve observed titmice perform this display when I’ve peeked into nesting boxes. She remains tightly seated on her eggs, or young, while she hisses loudly and strikes in a manner very much like a striking serpent. Not all titmice engage in this display. Some remain still and try to “blend” with the nest, while others will fly away if a nest box is opened. Regardless, it’s a convincing display of bravado on the part of such a small bird. If it looks scary to people, I am sure it could succeed at repelling a squirrel or mouse. I’m uncertain if the behavior would deter an actual snake.

Other titmice in North America include bridled titmouse in Arizona and New Mexico; oak titmouse of the Pacific Coast region; juniper titmouse from the Great Basin, which consists of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California; and the black-crested titmouse, which ranges from Missouri into east-central Mexico.

Titmice occur exclusively in North America and belong to the genus Baeolophus. Europe, Asia and Africa are home to some other crested birds in the family of chickadees and titmice. For instance, the European crested tit and the grey crested tit are species that sport a crest of feathers like titmice but are more closely related to chickadees.

The tufted titmouse, for the reasons I’ve mentioned and more, is one of nature’s imps, but it’s also an entertaining neighbor. Get to know these visitors by offering sunflower seeds or other fare and, if you want to go the extra step, place some bird boxes around your yard as potential nesting sites. By next winter, you may have an entire flock of these feathered imps as your guests.


Need a last-minute Christmas gift? The Elizabethton Bird Club is selling its 2022 bird calendar again this holiday season.

The front cover features a stunning photo of a chestnut-sided warbler. The inside pages of the professionally produced calendar feature dozens more full-color photographs and an informative and educational grid.

These calendars sell for $15 plus $2 for shipping. All sales help the club fund birding programs, public park feeders, conservation efforts and other activities in upper Northeast Tennessee.

For more information on how to obtain a calendar, email me at or stop by the office of The Erwin Record at 218 Gay St., Erwin.