Category Archives: Uncategorized

Column began with visit from dark-eyed junco

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay • The dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird” as it’s often known, is a winter visitor to many feeders in the region.

I wrote my first bird column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this weekly column is marking its 27th anniversary this week.

This column has appeared over the last three decades in various newspapers, which I regard as a personal achievement, as well as an accomplishment for our feathered friends. It’s on their behalf that I pen these weekly efforts to promote conservation and good will toward all birds. I have also posted the column as a weekly blog posting since February  2014 at

I’ve played detective, helping people identify everything from “rain crows,” or cuckoos, to Muscovy ducks, chukars and double-crested cormorants. I’ve observed unusual birds, including whooping crane, black-necked stilt and clay-colored sparrow, in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina and spotlighted them in these columns.
I still take delight in the kaleidoscopic parade of colorful warblers that pass through the region each spring and fall.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A dark-eyed Junco visits a hanging feeder.

I’ve covered a lot of terrain in my quest to see birds. I’ve made numerous trips to Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake in Bristol to see bald eagles, merlins and other raptors, as well as various gulls, terns, shorebirds and waterfowl. I’ve pushed my way through Quarry Bog and Orchard Bog in Shady Valley in Johnson County in pursuit of elusive sparrows, wrens and rails. I’ve visited Winged Deer Park in Johnson City, Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton and Steele Creek Park in Bristol looking for everything from tanagers, thrushes and terns to avocets and cackling geese.

At my home, I also provide sunflower seed and other supplemental food for the resident birds like Carolina chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows and downy woodpeckers.
Even as I tweak my anniversary column for “Feathered Friends,” the region’s residents have already experienced some heavy frosts and freezes. This prognostication of approaching winter weather is a perfect time to dust off this week’s column, which is a revision of the first bird column I ever wrote. This column focused on a common visitor to yards and feeders during the winter months. In fact, dark-eyed juncos should be returning to the region any day. In fact, I’ve already seen my first dark-eyed junco at home this year.

Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column.


Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

During the summer months, a visit to higher elevations mountaintops is almost guaranteed to produce sightings of dark-eyed juncos. Juncos may nest as many as three times in a season. A female junco usually lays three to six eggs for each nest, which she constructs without any assistance from her mate.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A dark-eyed junco during the summer nesting season at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

The juncos are a small branch of the sparrow clan. Some of the other juncos include the endangered Guadalupe junco, yellow-eyed junco, Baird’s junco and volcano junco. The last one on the list is endemic to the Talamancan montane forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. Baird’s junco is named for Spencer Fullerton Baird, an American ornithologist and naturalist.
Baird served as secretary  for the Smithsonian Institution from 1878 until  his death in 1887. He greatly expanded the natural history collections of the Smithsonian from 6,000 specimens in 1850 to over two million by the time of his death.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to juncos. There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A dark-eyed Junco is a common visitor when the weather turns wintry.

Owls haunt the dark of night while flying on silent wings

Photo by Pixabay • A perched Great Horned Owl appears to blend into the structure of a tree’s limbs, offering the nocturnal predator excellent camouflage.

There’s nothing to send shivers traveling along your spine like listening to the haunting hoots of a great horned owl hidden from human eyes by the cloak of darkness. It’s no wonder that owls have also become popular motifs for the celebration of the Halloween holiday. Just remember there’s more to these creatures of the night than perhaps meets the eye. Owls may be our neighbors, but we’ll never truly belong to their world, which must be why they continue to intrigue us.

While human culture has turned owls into beloved creatures, keep in mind these birds are fierce and ferocious predators. For young American crows in their nests, this owl is the stuff of their avian nightmares. It’s no wonder that crows, which no doubt witness their peers taken by the great horned owl as prey when young and helpless, grow up with an abiding hatred of this large nocturnal raptor. Flocks of adult crows form quickly when an owl is discovered at a roost during the daylight hours. With safety in numbers, the crows mercilessly hound and harry such unlucky owls.

Quite often, it does take a crow’s sharp eye to detect a motionless owl at its daytime roost. Great horned owls have a plumage of mottled grays and browns, as well as some white feathers on the chin and throat. This plumage helps them blend into their surroundings. Even when on the move, the great horned owl rarely attracts attention. They can fly in almost perfect silence on their wide wings. I know this from firsthand experience. Back in the early 2000s I visited Orchard Bog in Shady Valley in Johnson County in early spring for a chance to witness the evening display of American woodcocks from the nearby woodlands. While standing with some other birders, I noticed a large shadow moving low over the fields heading toward us. As the bird got closer, it became recognizable as a great horned owl. The owl barely diverted from its flight. In fact, it flew just over our heads, gliding silently on wide wings. I still marvel at how the owl’s wings made no noise whatsoever. The owl continued to glide over the fields until we lost it in the dusk. 

Photo by Alexas-Fotos/Pixabay • A great horned owl is capable of almost silent flight, which helps the predatory bird take prey by surprise. Many myths and superstitions surround the world’s owls, but the truth about owls is often more fascinating.

On another occasion I also witnessed how, when they want to do so, great horned owls can be absolutely silent. While vacationing on Fripp Island, South Carolina, in the 1990s, I would accompany my family members on dusk gold cart excursions. We liked to pull off the side of the road on a causeway that crossed a series of tidal creeks and marsh. On that occasion, a great horned owl flew from nearby woodlands to land on a gnarled snag that rose above the marshland vegetation. Although the owl arrived on silent wings, it soon interrupted the silence with resonant hoots that carried over the marshes. The owl returned to the same snag for two additional evenings during our vacation stay.

I’ve seen other great horned owl over the years in locations from South Carolina and Florida to Utah and Tennessee. I’ve heard many more of these large owls than I have ever been able to get into focus in my binoculars.

Here are a few other interesting facts about the great horned owl:

• This owl is one of the few predators that preys regularly on skunks. Lacking a well-defined sense of smell, owls aren’t bothered in the least by the skunk’s powerful arsenal of stink.

• A wild great horned owl’s longevity peaks at around 13 years of age. Captive owls have been reported reach ages of more than 30 years old.

• Various Native American tribes have held owls in high respect. Dwight G. Smith, author of Great Horned Owl, a book in the Wild Bird Guides series, noted that members of the Zuni tribe of the southwestern United States often hold owl feathers in their mouths to impart the owl’s ability to hunt silently onto their own hunting abilities.

• Great horned owls will eat other birds. They will eat other predatory birds, as well, including ospreys, peregrine falcon and various hawks. The smaller barred owl knows to stay out of their way, too.

• The David Lynch drama “Twin Peaks,” which ran originally on ABC from April of 1990 to June of 1991, spent considerable time dwelling on the mystery that “the owls are not what they seem.” Footage of great horned owls provided a sinister, mysterious mood that fascinated viewers. The series was resurrected in 2017 on Showtime. Alas, although owls returned in the revival of the series, fans still really don’t know the truth about the owls and their importance to the fictional town of Twin Peaks.

• The Celtic people believed that owls knew the paths that led into the underworld. Perhaps that is how owls became regarded as messengers capable of crossing realms. Many Native American tribes have stories about owls delivering messages from the supernatural spirit world to our own reality. 

I align with the cultures that regard an owl as an omen of good fortune. Any time you get a chance to observe an owl, it’s a good thing. It’s not often we get to glimpse these fascinating birds as they emerge from the shadows. Celebrate any opportunity.


As always, email me at to share observations, make comments, or ask questions.

Region’s 53rd Fall Bird Count tallies one-day total of 125 species

Photo by Image by simardfrancois/Pixabay • A single great crested flycatcher was tallied during this year’s Fall Bird Count conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club.

The 53rd consecutive Elizabethton Fall Count was held Saturday, Sept. 24, conducted by 26 observers in nine parties. The weather was cool and cloudy, with scattered light showers in most areas. Counters covered parts of Carter County and territory in the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.

According to long-time count compiler Rick Knight, participants tallied 125 species, which is exactly the average of the last 30 years.

The all-time high for the count was 137 species in 1993. Conversely, the lowest total in the last 30 years was 102 species in 1999.

Along with Rob Armistead, I counted birds around Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and the linear walking trail along the Watauga River in Elizabethton.
The highlights of our morning included good looks at a male prairie warbler and some common mergansers on the river.

The list:
Canada goose, 881; wood duck, 50; blue-winged teal, 3; mallard, 195; American black duck, 1; and common merganser, 6.

Northern bobwhite, 6; wild turkey, 50; and pied-billed grebe, 1.

Rock pigeon, 477; Eurasian collared-dove, 8; mourning dove, 248; yellow-billed cuckoo, 3; common nighthawk, 1; chimney swift, 91; and ruby-throated hummingbird; 18.

Virginia rail, 2; sora, 1; killdeer, 12; semipalmated sandpiper, 1; and wilson’s snipe, 1.

Double-crested cormorant, 30; great blue heron, 25; great egret, 5; and green heron, 4, Black vulture, 43; turkey vulture, 82; osprey, 8; Northern harrier, 1; sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 5; bald eagle, 4; red-shouldered hawk, 7; and red-tailed hawk, 9.

Eastern screech-owl, 19; great horned owl, 7; barred owl, 4; belted kingfisher, 25; red-headed woodpecker, 8; Red-bellied woodpecker, 69; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 2; downy woodpecker, 32; hairy woodpecker, 24; Northern flicker, 50; and pileated woodpecker, 29.

American kestrel, 24; merlin, 1; and peregrine falcon, 2.

Great crested flycatcher, 1; Eastern wood-pewee, 12; Acadian flycatcher, 1; Empidonax species, 1; Eastern phoebe, 93; White-eyed vireo, 4; yellow-throated vireo, 3; blue-headed vireo, 15; and red-eyed vireo 11.

Blue jay, 415; American crow, 436; fish crow, 2; common raven, 11; tree swallow, 130; and barn swallow , 6.

Carolina chickadee, 167; tufted titmouse, 136; red-breasted nuthatch, 7; white-breasted nuthatch, 51; house wren, 9; winter wren, 1; marsh wren, 1; Carolina wren, 157; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 1; golden-crowned kinglet, 4; and ruby-crowned kinglet, 3.

Veery, 2; gray-cheeked thrush, 5; Swainson’s thrush, 85; American robin, 271; gray catbird, 37; brown thrasher, 9; Northern mockingbird, 69; and European starling, 453.

Cedar waxwing, 225; house sparrow, 28; house finch, 52; red crossbill, 2; and American goldfinch, 145.

Chipping sparrow, 72; field sparrow, 19; dark-eyed junco, 17; song sparrow, 83; Eastern towhee, 59; Eastern meadowlark, 17; and red-winged blackbird, 67.

Ovenbird, 4; worm-eating warbler, 1; Northern waterthrush, 2; black-and-white warbler, 13; Tennessee warbler, 57; Orange-crowned warbler, 1; Nashville warbler, 3; Common yellowthroat, 15; hooded warbler, 4; American redstart, 34; Cape May warbler, 18; Northern parula, 10; Magnolia warbler, 25; bay-breasted warbler, 16; Blackburnian warbler, 11; chestnut-sided warbler, 5; black-throated blue warbler, 15; palm warbler, 96; pine warbler, 6; Yellow-rumped warbler, 5; yellow-throated warbler, 1; Prairie warbler, 2; black-throated green warbler, 17; and Canada warbler, 1.

Summer tanager, 1; scarlet tanager, 14; rose-breasted grosbeak, 65; blue grosbeak, 2; and indigo bunting, 5.

Some notable misses, according to Knight, were ruffed grouse, broad-winged hawk, brown creeper, common grackle and brown-headed cowbird.

“Many thanks to all participants for another good count,” Knight remarked when posting the summary of the 2022 Fall Bird Count.


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

Bristol park’s Wildlife Weekend returns Oct. 7-8 to celebrate 25th anniversary

Contributed Photo by Michele Sparks • A Northern waterthrush is secured in a bander’s hand at a bird banding station operated at a previous Wildlife Weekend. Bird banders Richard Lewis and Rack Cross will also conduct a bird banding operation at this year’s Wildlife Weekend at Steele Creek Park in Brisol on Saturday, Oct. 8.

Members of the Friends of Steele Creek Nature Center and Park in Bristol are getting ready to observe a milestone in their yearly staging of Wildlife Weekend on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7-8.

This year’s event, which will feature the theme “Plants and Pollinators,” will mark the 25th anniversary of the yearly celebration of wildlife in it many forms.

Birds will certainly be part of the mix, as will reptiles and honeybees, not to mention insects, spiders and more. Bird-specific activities scheduled for Oct. 8 include an Early Bird Walk, which will be conducted at 9 a.m. by Bristol Bird Club member Larry McDaniel, as well as a bird banding station located at the thicket near the Civitan Pavilion. Banding will get underway at 9:30 a.m. with longtime bird banders Richard Lewis and Rack Cross on site to introduce bird banding and its value to science to those attending this event.

If you’ve never observed bird banding, I would encourage you to attend this event. Banders receive training and are licensed by the federal government. These sessions also provide an opportunity to observe birds in a way that differs greatly from peering at them through binoculars. Of course, it’s rather hit or miss on what birds might show up in the nets used to capture the birds. Some of the expected birds that may be caught and banded include warblers, sparrows, thrushes, grosbeaks and other songbirds.

Other Saturday activities will include a walk at 10 a.m. to look for spiders and insects with naturalist Cade Campbell, and the two-hour Commander’s Morning Hike. The latter is a guided hike to the highest point in Steele Creek Park.

On Saturday afternoon, another Commander’s Hike will be offered with a different focus: this three-hour hike, which starts at 1 p.m., will give participants a chance to visit the oldest tree within the park.

Other afternoon walks, focused on honeybees, reptiles and mushrooms, will be led by Jeremy Stout, Lance Jessee and Mike Martin respectively. The mushroom walk commences at 1 p.m. The honeybee walk begins at 2 p.m., and the reptile walk will start at 3 p.m.

The popular Wildlife Weekend Passport is back. This scavenger hunt can be played via a downloadable Goosechase app or with a traditional printed hole punch version. Completed passports must be returned to the registration table by 4 p.m. to be eligible for prizes.

Saturday will also offer a variety of interactive exhibits and information tables, both at The Lodge and Nature Center’s lakeside porch from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Themes for some of the kiosks will include fossil casting, rocks and minerals, and skins and skulls. 

Wes Walker, who has helped organize the events for Wildlife Weekend, noted that Saturday’s events will also be documented by a local photography group.

“We should be having the Eastman Camera Club on-site that day, “Walker said. “This club, comprised of both amateur and professional photographers, captures various events across the Tri-Cites area.”

Walker touted Wildlife Weekend as a chance to learn more about Steele Creek Park, which is a gem featuring more than 2,000 acres in the middle of Bristol. 

“Most folks are aware of the ‘park’ area, but that only encompasses a fraction of the entire park,” Walker said. “Wildlife Weekend is an opportunity for individuals and families to explore this local treasure, and learn about the natural wonders from local experts.” 

The numerous interactive activities range from crafts, to several-mile hikes. Wildlife Weekend also serves as an excellent way to introduce children to the wonders of nature, as well as a knowledge supplementation for more experienced nature enthusiasts. 

The Bristol Bird Club will operate a kiosk offering information on the region’s varied birds. In addition, members of the Washington County Master Gardeners program will host a kiosk adjacent to their pollinator garden next to the Nature Center’s lakeside porch. The Campbells (Tracy, Cade and Chloe) will offer a family crafts kiosk featuring crafts for making “Critter Keepers” and “Mosaic Magnets.” Megan and David Christian will operate an owl pellet kiosk. By dissecting the pellets, participants can get a hint at the varied diets of owls residing in the park. 

The 25th Wildlife Weekend kicks off on Friday, Oct. 6, with an opening reception at 6 p.m. in the Steele Creek park Nature Center. After a brief overview of the history of Wildlife Weekend, keynote speaker Gerardo Arceo-Gomez will present a program titled “Pollination in Action: Fantastic Bees and Where to Find Them.” Friday’s activities will conclude with an awards ceremony for the 2022 Wildlife Weekend Amateur Photography Contest. 

For more information on the 25th annual Wildlife Weekend, visit 


Birding the Big Apple

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Ring-billed Gull in flight. Several of these gulls were seen during my 2002 trip to New York City.

We’re observing 9-11 today, so I thought I’d pull out a post on my birding experiences during my one and only trip to New York City back in July of 2002. I visited not quite a year after the 9-11 attacks. I did visit Ground Zero. The shells of neighboring buildings adjacent to the fallen Towers remained standing and the construction of the memorial at the site was still far in the future.

I wrote this column about my birding experiences in the “Big Apple” for the Herald & Tribune of Jonesborough in July of 2002. It won me a second-place Tennessee Press Association award for “Best Personal Column” the following year.


During a recent trip to New York City, mainly for the purpose of visiting friends and seeing the sights, I also availed myself of the opportunity of trying to see a few birds in the Big Apple.

At first glance, New York City doesn’t seem a haven for birds or any other sort of wildlife. Without any serious effort on my part, however, I managed to see 15 different species of birds. My tour guide and friend, David, remained courteous enough to indulge my occasional lapses into birding. David, perhaps like many New Yorkers, is familiar on a daily basis with the Big Apple’s three most prominent members of the bird family — the House Sparrow, the European Starling and the Rock Dove, or pigeon.

Photo by U.S. FWS • New York’s pigeons no longer find the city a safe haven with the arrival of more peregrine falcon’s as the raptor’s numbers continue to rebound.

Everyone who has visited a city park, whether in Jonesborough or New York City, is probably familiar with the Rock Dove. Commonly called pigeon, the Rock Dove is not a native American bird. But their introduction to this continent paralleled the arrival of European colonists. Pigeons came to this country along with other farmyard animals, such as cattle and sheep. But, once here, the Rock Dove, which is a wild bird in Africa and in the Mediterranean, also managed to establish itself outside the farmyard. Nevertheless, more than most other birds, the Rock Dove still only thrives in the company of humans. In New York City, pigeons are a part of the landscape. They are everywhere! As a result, these birds can cause some problems. Their droppings can damage buildings and statues. They can also spread various diseases to humans. Efforts have been made to curb their numbers, but the pigeon looks to be a permanent part of the New York City landscape.

It’s no longer a paradise for pigeons in the Big Apple, however. The Peregrine Falcon, once endangered, has rebounded with protection from the government. The skyscrapers of New York City have replaced cliff faces as nesting sites for these sleek, aerodynamic predators. While I wasn’t fortunate enough to see a Peregrine Falcon while in New York City, they are there. Their presence has put some balance back into the food chain. The pigeons now have a natural predator.

Earlier this summer, David called me looking for advice about a problem with birds. Seems that a pair of House Sparrows had built a nest beneath his air conditioning unit at his apartment. The problem involved timing. David recently moved to a new apartment and he needed to take the air conditioner with him. In the end, David’s need for the air conditioner outpaced the nesting progress of the sparrows. Now, he’s convinced that the sparrows, like the gulls, are out to get him. More about the gulls later.

The House Sparrow is an non-native species introduced to the United States. The House Sparrow was released intentionally in the United States in the 1850s at different points between New York and New England. Other introductions of this species occurred at other points in the United States. The introductions were huge mistakes. By 1910, the House Sparrow had invaded the entire continent. The House Sparrow is also an aggressive bird. Soon, the House Sparrow came into conflict with a beloved American favorite, the Eastern Bluebird. The major competition between Eastern Bluebirds and House Sparrows is for nesting cavities. House Sparrows have the tenacity to evict even the larger Easter Bluebirds from occupied nests. Occasionally, the sparrows even kill nestling or adult bluebirds. I found the House Sparrow almost as numerous as Rock Doves in most areas of New York City.

But, there was still a third common bird — the European Starling. I encountered the first starlings of my trip in New York City’s famous Central Park. Ironically, Central Park is where the European Starling, now considered the most numerous bird in North America, got its start. The Rock Dove and House Sparrow got here first, but the European Starling didn’t waste any time once the first starlings were released in 1890. The first European Starlings were released at that time in Central Park because some fans of William Shakespeare wanted to release all the birds mentioned in The Bard’s plays. Apparently, only the release of the European Starling had any lasting consequence. Even today, starlings and Shakespeare are very much associated with Central Park. During the summer there is a popular Shakespeare festival held in Central Park. And, on any summer day, there will always be plenty of starlings in the park.

Those were three of the 15 birds I managed to observe on my trip. The remaining 12 species comprised a diverse and at times surprising list. I found American Robins, American Crow, Blue Jay, Chimney Swift, Carolina Wren and Downy Woodpecker within Central Park. In addition, at a large pond within the park I also observed a Green Heron and Mallards. The Robins, in particular, appeared as they would in any park setting. They hopped about on grassy lawns while foraging for food. David told me he recently saw a Roadrunner in the park. I told him that would be an extraordinary discovery since that bird is native to the western United States.

There’s a lot of water in and around New York City. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise to discover birds such as Double-crested Cormorants swimming in the East River. I also saw plenty of gulls. In fact, I saw three different species of gulls — Herring Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls and Laughing Gulls.

Surprisingly, gulls haven’t always been common in the vicinity of New York City. According to the book Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New York City by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdon, gulls did not frequent New York City 100 years ago. Now, there are as many as one million gulls in New York City. The book also mentions one of the attractions: Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Landfill, the largest garbage dump in the world.

The cover of the book Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places and Natural Phenomena of New York City by Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdon

My friend David considers gulls evil omens. I tried to do some research into the role of gulls in folklore. I turned to the book by Laura C. Martin titled The Folklore of Birds. Her entry on gulls proved sketchy. Here’s some of what I learned. The word “gull” comes from a Welsh word, “gwylan,” which can be translated as “wailing.” The term “gull” apparently derived from the bird’s wailing or plaintive call. The Latin genus name, Larus, for gull is translated as “ravenous seabird.” So, that leaves us with a ravenous, wailing seabird. Apt descriptions, but not exactly a rich folklore. Birds such as crows and the various species of owls have much more ominous superstitions surrounding them.


New York City has a “New York Rare Bird Alert.” If you would like to know what rare birds are being seen in New York City, dial (212) 979-3070. I dialed the number during my visit and received information about excitement regarding large flocks of migrating shorebirds, a Common Raven and nesting Blue Grosbeaks.

(NOTE: The number is still in use. So, if you’re planning any New York visits and would like to bird, the phone number is still valid.)


My friend David now lives in Baltimore. I haven’t visited him there, but he has visited me in the mountains near Asheville, N.C. I’d like to thank him again for my taste of the Big Apple.


I’d still love to hear from readers. Just post your thoughts here or email me at Keep up with me on Facebook, too.

High-rise doves: Pair nests twice on apartment balcony

Photo Courtesy of Rob Hicks • One of the parent doves checks on the two young in the nest.

In late July, I wrote about a couple of mourning doves nesting on a front porch column at the home of Star and Tim Barto in Telford, Tennessee.

Star sent another email recently to notify me that the doves are back, undertaking a fourth nesting for the year.

“Just had to share the amazing news — the doves are back on the porch column for the fourth time this year,” she wrote. “So exciting!  After three events this year, I was sure it would be next spring before their return. So glad to be wrong about that.”

Not only did I hear from Star about their nesting doves in Telford, I heard from a reader a little farther afield about a pair of mourning doves that have taken things to a higher level, literally.

Rob Hicks, a resident of Burlington in Ontario, Canada, informed me of an interesting nesting of mourning doves that have taken a liking to his apartment balcony.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Hicks • A view from the balcony where the mourning doves nested.

“I first noticed one (and then both) doves on my balcony railing up on the eighth floor when I was looking at the planters I have out there,” Rob explained in a Facebook message.

He said that the doves would hop around in each potted plant, look around and  then move to the next.  

“I assumed they were looking to set up a nest, but I knew that the balcony repairmen were going to be arriving in a few week,” Rob said.

In case the nesting conflicted with the mandatory maintenance, Rob tried to discourage the birds from setting up their nest.   

“I went out and got some decorative plastic picks and stuck them in the planters, hoping the birds would avoid them, but the following day I noticed the start of a nest in one planter,” he said.

Not only that, but the birds had pulled out the plastic picks. So much for his effort to deter the nesting birds.

The following day he noticed that the nest contained two eggs.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Hicks • The two parent doves stand guard over a nestling.

Presented with a fait accompli, Rob decided to enjoy the rare opportunity of watching the high-rise nesting birds.

“The parents took turns with the eggs for the next two weeks until they hatched,” he wrote. “I noticed the chicks were growing very quickly, and a few times each day I’d notice one of the parents coming back to the nest to feed them.”

After the squabs (the name for young doves) had grown, the parents stopped sitting with them and would only come back a few times a day to feed them.

“The chicks would be flexing their wings and flapping them, so I assumed they’d be flying out soon,” he added. 

He noticed that one of the young doves made its first flight from the planter to an adjacent planter on the railing.  

“The bird then managed to fly down off the balcony towards a clump of nearby trees, where I had seen the parents flying in and out of recently,” Rob wrote.

The other young dove was a little less confident in its abilities and waited two additional days before it finally left the nest.

“Over the next couple of days I saw them (at least one adult and one of the chicks each time) perched on the roof of the building,” he wrote.

Photo Courtesy of Rob Hicks • One of the doves returns for a visit.

He also watched them fly back to the same stand of trees, so he said he assumed the adults were still helping them learn to fly better or perhaps teaching them how to find food. 

Right on schedule, the maintenance workers arrived and he had to clear the plants off his balcony.   

“I moved them to a neighbor’s balcony,” he wrote.

About 10 days later, after his balcony had been repaired, he went to collect his plants from his neighbor’s balcony.

Readers will probably guess what happened next.

“I found the doves had not only found the same plants again on the neighbor’s balcony, but they had already put a nest in the planter and laid  eggs again,” Rob wrote.

Rob reported that four weeks and one day after they laid the second batch of eggs, the last chick in that brood also successfully flew out of the nest.

“Since they raised two broods successfully in those plants this year — so far —  I’m more than happy to welcome them back again if they want to try another nest in them,” he wrote.

Back in 2014, Rob also wrote to tell me about a brown creeper that crashed into his balcony. That story, too, had a happy ending. Although the bird was definitely stunned, it recovered and flew to nearby trees after a short rest.

So, we’re ready to turn the calendar to September and I’m still writing columns about nesting birds. I love it!

To share a bird-related story, make a comment or ask a question, email me at 


Wrench of warblers signals start of autumn migration

Photo by Hans Toom/Pixabay • An ovenbird, a member of the warbler family, perches on a branch. The bird gets its name from the shape of its nest, which resembles an old-fashioned Dutch oven. When male ovenbirds arrive on a potential nesting territory in the spring, they begin singing their loud, ringing “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” call almost tirelessly.

Autumn arrived Sunday, Aug. 14, heralded by a barely audible chip note that shattered the almost eerie silence that had accompanied my late morning woodland stroll up to that point. That timid chip note opened the floodgates, and I soon had a mixed flock of songbirds shadowing me, the scolding chorus increasing in volume as they demanded an explanation for my intrusion.

Of course, it’s not yet fall according to the calendar. The season won’t officially arrive until Thursday, Sept. 22. But there’s a day that comes every year that provides a tiny spark that kicks off my annual pastime of looking for migrating birds during my favorite season of the year.

The bird that unleashed the torrent of angry birds turned out to be an ovenbird, a species of warbler that nests in local woodlands every summer. In rapid succession, I also glimpsed a female black-throated blue warbler and a female hooded warbler. I also found it interesting that these warblers, particularly the hooded warbler, were also bus maneuvering to get a better look at me. I suppose it pays to be aware of one’s surroundings.

The in-your-face members of the mixed flock I encountered included a strident group of tufted titmice and some equally cantankerous Carolina chickadees. A couple of red-eyed vireos also took part in the songbird cacophony as these various birds joined forces to demand to know what I was doing in “their” woods.

Each warbler produces its own variation of the chip note, which is a vocalization that these nervous and energetic birds make as they flit from branch to branch through the woods. Learning to listen for the “chip” notes of the warblers that often join these mixed flocks is a great way to increase your warbler-watching opportunities. By “weeding” out the chickadees and titmice, it became easier to pinpoint the location of birds like the vireos and warblers.

Chip notes function for different purposes, but are usually produced when an individual warbler is alarmed by something, such as a human walking past their location. In some species, chip notes also provide a “contact call” to keep birds in touch with each other and aware of teach other’s location.

Many warbler species chip frequently while migrating, but there are also a few species such as Northern parula and black-and-white warbler that don’t usually produce these helpful chip notes. Unlike songs, which are almost exclusively produced by male warblers, both sexes produce chip notes.

I didn’t have binoculars with me when I encountered the flock, but I managed to put together enough behaviorisms and visual cues to identify the three species of warblers. 

Ovenbirds differ from other songbirds in that they do not hop along a branch or over the woodland floor. Ovenbirds walk. They take slow, deliberate steps, which is exactly how the bird I saw moved, sidling along a branch gently sloping toward the ground.

Female black-throated blue warblers are drab, especially in comparison to the breathtaking males of the species. They do have a little white square on each wing that is a good way to quickly identify them. At close range, I easily detected the square even without benefit of binoculars. I’m getting older, and my vision’s declined somewhat, but I’m pleased to still manage even tricky warbler identifications.

The female hooded warbler was easy. As she flew from branch to branch, she constantly fanned her tail, flashing the white outer tail feathers in a trademark manner for the species. Female hooded warblers don’t shine with the same radiance as the males, and they also lack the namesake black hood. A good look, however, is usually sufficient for identifying them. 

Most people have probably heard of a “murder” of crows as a way to describe a flock of these particular birds. Warblers also have their collective names. According to the Birdorable Blog, a flock of warblers is often referred to as a bouquet, a confusion, a fall, a cord or a wrench of warblers. 


This fact was new to me. I personally like “wrench of warblers.” It has alliteration and it describes how these amazing little songbirds can definitely “wrench” one’s attention from other matters.

I’ll be getting distracted a lot this fall as I seek not only warblers, but other migrants such as nighthawks and flycatchers, thrushes and tanagers, grosbeaks and sparrows, as well as raptors and shorebirds. August, September and October are busy months for some of our feathered friends. Keep alert and see if you can encounter your own “wrenches” of warblers this autumn.

If you’d like to share observations, make a comment or ask a question, email me at


Join a bird club to gain birding experience

Photo Courtesy of Michele Sparks • Joining a bird club is a great way of gaining expertise in birding by meeting like-minded people of various experience levels.

Where does a beginning birder look for help getting started in the engaging pastime of birding?

In my own case, I turned to local birding organizations in Elizabethton and Bristol in Northeast Tennessee. 

Today, those two organizations that helped nurture my interest in birding are known as the Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, also known as Elizabethton Bird Club, and the J. Wallace Coffey Chapter of TOS, also known as the Bristol Bird Club.

I didn’t know the namesakes for the Elizabethton club, but I knew J. Wallace Coffey from the late 1990s until his death in 2016. Coffey and many other individuals helped guide and polish my birding skills with helpful advice, suggestions and, above all else, friendship. Any novice birder needs to extend some feelers to local birding groups. No online resources, smart phone apps or printed field guides can match the reservoir of experience that veteran birders have to offer.

Today the Bristol Bird Club is headed by President Larry McDaniel. 

He echoed my advice to new birders.

Photo Courtesy of Michele Sparks • George Larkins, Larry McDaniel and Teresa Hutson watch for hawks from atop Mendota Mountain in Southwest Virginia.

“Becoming a part of a local bird club such as the Bristol Bird Club is a great way for new and beginning birders to be around experienced birders who love to help you learn about birding,” McDaniel said. 

“You can quickly learn where to find birds in the area, how to know the birds you see in your own yard and many ways of learning how to identify different species,” he added. 

McDaniel noted that joining a birding group is also a great way to meet new friends who share a common interest. 

“We offer many outings where you will get to be in the field with other birders,” he said. “All of our outings are suitable for all levels including kids.”

McDaniel noted that many of those outing will focus on some of the region’s birding hot spots.

“Some of our favorite places to bird include South Holston Lake, Osceola Island (Recreation Area) below South Holston Dam, Paddle Creek Pond, Steele Creek Park, Holston Mountain, Shady Valley, Jacob’s Nature Park in Johnson City, Roan Mountain, Whitetop Mountain and Burke’s Garden,” he said. “There are many other spots that we like to frequent.”

Later this fall, a seasonally popular spot will come into play.

“Another favorite destination is the Mendota Hawk Watch where Ron Harrington and others have been conducting hawk counts in September for many years,” McDaniel said. “There are days when we can observe thousands of broad-winged hawks fly over as they make their way south.”

In addition, the Mendota Hawk Watch is a great way to look for other migrating raptors, including ospreys, bald eagles and occasionally golden eagles. 

“The club has a master bird bander,” McDaniel added. “Richard Lewis bands birds at his property and does an annual public demonstration during Wildlife Weekend at Steele Creek Park.”

Photo Courtesy of Michele Sparks • Birding clubs organize bird walks to various locations known for producing good birding opportunities.

McDaniel also shared some of the club’s rich history.

“The Bristol Bird Club has a long history,” he noted. “The club has been active since 1950. We are the J. Wallace Coffey chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society and an affiliate club of the Virginia Society of Ornithology. 

“Wallace was a major force in leading the club for over 50 years,” McDaniel added. “When he passed away a few years ago, members decided to rename the club in his honor.”

McDaniel said that the club has also worked with local landowners over the years to establish some of the most important birding hotspots in the area. 

“We also sponsor several Christmas Bird Counts,” he said.

McDaniel said that the club meets at 7 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month in the Expedition Room of The Summit Building located at 1227 Volunteer Parkway in Bristol, Tennessee. 

“The meetings can also be joined on Zoom,” McDaniel said. “Zoom meeting invitations are sent to the BBC email group and posted on our Facebook group. To join the email group, send a request to You can also find us and join our Facebook group to get more information and current news about the club. We also sponsor an email list serve called Bristol-Birds that you may join to receive information on recent sightings.”

He pointed out that the club does not have regular meetings during the months when the group hosts a club picnic and yearly banquet. 

“These dates are announced well ahead of time,” he said. 

“There is no regular meeting in December, but we do usually have a BBC Christmas party some time in December.”

The club will also participate in the 25th anniversary of the annual Wildlife Weekend at Steele Creek Park on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7-8.  

McDaniel will lead a walk starting at 9 a.m. on Oct. 8 to the bird banding station operated by banders Richard Lewis and Rack Cross. “Plants and Pollinators” will provide the theme for this year’s Wildlife Weekend. Guest speaker for the Oct. 7 evening program will be Gerardo Arceo-Gomez, an associate professor in the biology department at East Tennessee State University.

Members of the Bristol Bird Club are also automatically members of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. 

“Membership with the Virginia Society of Ornithology requires individuals to join VOS on their own,” he noted.

Current BBC membership rates, including TOS membership, are family, $32; individual, $28; and student (K-12), $15. 

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


Bryan Stevens has been writing weekly about birds since November of 1995.

Photo Courtesy of Michele Sparks • Getting to know other birds can be a rewarding experience on many levels.

Broad-winged hawks staging for migration

The broad-winged hawk needs a better publicist.

Photo by USFWS • Broad-winged hawks nest in the region during the summer, but these raptors stage massive migration flights every fall to return to their winter range in Central and South America. These hawks are smaller relatives of such raptors as red-tailed hawk and red-shouldered hawk.

Monarch butterflies with their impressive migration flights to reach mountains in Mexico where they will spend the winter and ruby-throated hummingbirds with their twice-a-year non-stop crossings of the Gulf of Mexico have consumed much of the press coverage for long-distance migrants. Even the Arctic tern, a bird most people will never see, has monopolized the phenomenon of migration due to its astounding migratory journeys from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle. That feat, incidentally, equals a 18,641-mile round trip. 

The broad-winged hawk, known scientifically as Buteo platypterus, thrills onlookers every September by staging phenomenal migratory flights that can include hundreds or thousands of individual birds. Outside of birding circles, however, the broad-winged hawk is not nearly as widely known as the monarch butterfly or Eastern North America’s ruby-throated hummingbird.

The genus Buteo includes the broad-winged hawk’s larger kin, including red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, red-shouldered hawk and ferruginous hawk. Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as “buzzards.” When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both types of native vultures as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe such as the common buzzard.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos hawk and the Hawaiian hawk. There’s an endangered sub-species of broad-winged hawk known as the Puerto Rican broad-winged hawk that resides in forests on the island of Puerto Rico. 

Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the white-throated hawk, gray-lined hawk, zone-tailed hawk and short-tailed hawk, as well as long-legged buzzard, jackal buzzard and red-necked buzzard.

The broad-winged hawk is a relatively small hawk, ranging in body length from 13 to 17 inches. As is the case with most raptors, females are larger than males. The broad-winged hawk is a predator, but they prey on relatively small prey, including  insects, amphibians, snakes, crustaceans, rodents and the occasional songbird.

These hawks are extremely vocal during their summer stay in wooded areas across the Eastern United States. It’s their piercing two-part whistled call that often draws the attention of onlookers to the bird’s presence. 

These hawks are already growing restless. In the first days of August, I saw three broad-winged hawks in different locations in the span of a couple of days. Young hawks have left the nest and are gaining a degree of independence. They will soon join their parents for the yearly migration to southern wintering grounds as far south as southern Brazil. 

Some famous places to witness the annual broad-winged hawk migration include Hawk Ridge, Minnesota, and Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. 

Closer to home, birders have gathered every September since 1958 for the Mendota Fire Tower Hawkwatch. The site is located atop Clinch Mountain at an old fire tower near Mendota, Virginia. The site straddles the county line between the Virginia counties of Russell and Washington and reaches an elevation of 3,000 feet.

Even without traveling to a hawkwatch site, it’s not too difficult to see one of these raptors in September. I’ve seen large flocks, or kettles, of broad-winged hawks while birding on Holston mountain near Elizabethton.

All too often, hawks and other raptors don’t receive the love they deserve from the public. They may even run afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem, with each species filling a certain niche.


Stevens has been writing weekly about birds since 1995. To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email 

Eastern phoebe pair returns to familiar nest location

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Eastern phoebe not long out of the nest.

A pair of Eastern phoebes is nesting on one of the blades of my front porch ceiling fan. It’s the second time phoebes have selected the fan blades for a nesting site. Nothing was left of the previous nest, which was constructed several years ago. Suddenly, almost overnight, a new nest appeared.

The female phoebe sat diligently on the nest at night, and for the past couple of weeks I’ve avoided turning on the porch light at night so as not to disturb her.

Considering the bright finery worn by some of the more colorful summer birds, the Eastern phoebe can easily escape notice. In comparison with vibrant birds like rose-breasted grosbeak, ruby-throated hummingbird, scarlet tanager and yellow warbler, the Eastern phoebe is downright drab.

Nevertheless, this member of the flycatcher clan has earned itself a favorite spot in the hearts of many a birdwatcher. It’s one of those birds that even beginning birders find surprisingly easy to recognize and identify. While it may not have a dramatic plumage pattern to hint at its identity, the Eastern phoebe is quite at home around human dwellings and comes into close contact with people going about their daily routines. Rather tame — or at least not too bothered by close proximity with humans — the Eastern phoebe has one behaviorism that sets it apart from all the other similar flycatchers. When this bird lands on a perch, it cannot resist a vigorous bobbing of its tail. Every time that a phoebe lands on a perch, it will produce this easily recognized tail wag. It’s a behavior that makes this bird almost instantly recognizable among birders with the knowledge of this behavioral trait.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Young phoebes occupy a nest previously build on a blade of a porch ceiling fan.

The Eastern phoebe is also an enthusiastic springtime singer, and the song it chooses to sing is an oft-repeated two-syllable call “FEE-bee” that provides the inspiration for this bird’s common name.

The Eastern phoebe, known by the scientific name of Sayornis phoebe, has two relatives in the genus Sayornis. The genus is named after Thomas Say, an American naturalist. The Eastern phoebe’s close relatives include the black phoebe and Say’s phoebe. The black phoebe ranges throughout Oregon, Washington and California and as far south as Central and South America. As its name suggests, this bird has mostly black feathers instead of the gray plumage of its relatives. The Say’s phoebe, also named for the man who gave the genus its name, is the western counterpart to the Eastern phoebe.

Since they belong to the vast family of New World flycatchers, it’s probably no surprise that these phoebes feed largely on insects. The birds will often perch patiently until an insect’s flight brings it within easy range. A quick flight from its perch usually allows the skillful bird to return with a morsel snatched on the wing. In the winter months, the Eastern phoebe also eats berries and other small fruit.

Phoebes are fond of nesting on human structures, including culverts, bridges and houses. With the latter, they were once known for their habit of placing their nests under sheltering eaves. At my home, a pair of Eastern phoebes often chooses to nest on the wooden rafters in my family’s garage.  In fact, a pair nested in the garage earlier this year. Phoebes also like to reside near a water source, such as a creek, stream or pond.

I suspect this nesting is a second attempt since it began in mid June. I got my first glimpse of the babies in the best when two fuzzy heads and beaks appeared over the rim of the nest on Thursday, July 7. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe perches on a sign by a trail in Roan Mountain, Tennessee.