Category Archives: Virginia

April brings flurry of spring migrants to region

Louisiana Waterthrush

Photo by Adobe Stock • Subtle plumage differences, as well as habitat, behavior and seasonal presence, are factors in distinguishing the Louisiana waterthrush, pictured, from the closely related Northern waterthrush. The Louisiana waterthrush nests along fast-moving streams in the area while the Northern waterthrush does not breed in the region.

I’m always happy for the arrival of April because I know the month hails the arrival of some of my favorite birds. The roughly 50 species of New World warblers that occur in the Eastern United States have captivated me from the time I first picked up a pair of binoculars. The warblers offer color, energy, complex songs and much more for the bird enthusiast to enjoy.

The month started out with my first sighting of a purple finch for the year. The finch must have been a harbinger of birds to come because in quick succession I observed many early migrants, including brown thrasher, blue-headed vireo, blue-gray gnatcatcher and chipping sparrow, as well as several warblers.

PurpleFinches

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A study of the facial pattern of a female purple finch helps contrast her from similar female house finches. Again, the notched tail is also a good indication of the bird’s identity.

The first warbler to arrive in the woods around my home this year was a singing male black-throated green warbler. Three others — black-and-white warbler, yellow-throated warbler and Louisiana waterthrush — followed quickly after my sighting of the black-throated green warbler.

The Louisiana waterthrush stood out among these early observations. This warbler is a specialist of creeks and streams, and my sighting took place near a roaring creek swollen by a rainy spring. This water-loving warbler also has a loud, ringing song that can still be hard to hear because of the fact the bird is usually near the background noise of rushing water.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-and-white warbler creeps over the bark of a pine in search of insect prey.

 

While many warblers have shown signs of decline in recent years, the Louisiana waterthrush appears to have bucked that trend. According to the website, “All About Birds,” Louisiana waterthrush populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, based on statistics from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight, a network of organizations engaged in all aspects of avian conservation, estimates a global breeding population of 360,000, with almost all of those individuals spending at least part of the year in the United States. About a quarter of the population retreats into Mexico during the winter season. The rest winter in Florida and some of the Gulf Coast states, as well as the islands of the Caribbean.

While most songbirds are fortunate to survive two or three years in the wild, at least one Louisiana waterthrush lived to the age of at least 11 years and 11 months. The bird, a male, was seen in New Jersey in the wild and identified by a band on one of his legs. He had been banded in the same state, according to the website, “All About Birds.”

The waterthrushes are the only two species in the genus Parkesia, so named to honor American ornithologist Kenneth C. Parkes, who was for many years curator of birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The common name of the Louisiana waterthrush is not a very apt one, as this bird does not have any special affinity for the state of Louisiana. Someone collected some of the early specimens of the Louisiana waterthrush in its namesake location, and the name has stuck through the years.

The only other warbler in the genus Parkesia is the Northern waterthrush which, unlike its relative, likes to live near quiet, sedate pools, ponds and bogs, not rushing streams.

Hummingbirds getting closer to region

Tommy and Virginia Curtis of Smithville, Tennessee, reported their first ruby-throated hummingbirds of the spring on the email group, “TN-Birds.” The hummingbird arrived on April 7.

“We had two male ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive late Sunday afternoon,” they wrote in their email. “That is a little later than the April 1 arrival times in the past.”

The two visitors had apparently agreed to co-exist.

“So far they are eating peacefully, and neither is attacking or dominating the one feeder,” the couple reported. “We keep wondering when the white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos plan to leave, as we have had many of them all winter.”

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Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A white-throated sparrow perches on a branch to sing its easily recognizable song. Many Americans translate the sparrow’s song as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

The couple also shared that they have been hosting a small flock of purple finches. “They normally don’t show up at our feeders unless there is snow on the ground, but we have enjoyed seeing them daily,” they wrote in their email.

Of course, the Curtises live in DeKalb County in Middle Tennessee. As of press time, I still haven’t received any reports of hummingbirds arriving in East Tennessee or Southwest Virginia. I’m confident these tiny winged gems will arrive soon. I hope to update on hummingbird arrivals in next week’s column.

Remember to share your hummingbird sighting by emailing me the date and time of the sighting to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook should anyone want to contact me through that social media platform.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches near a feeder that he is ready to defend from all comers.

 

Brief stay of Virginia’s warbler along Kingsport’s Holston River leaves birders amazed

At times, there’s nothing left to do but scratch your head and wonder. It’s a gesture many birders have been making around the Holston River in Kingsport as walks in the area along Netherland Inn Drive on the greenbelt have produced numerous warbler sightings in recent weeks.

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Photo by Sherrie Quillen • The Virginia’s warbler found in January in Kingsport represented the first Tennessee record for the species and one of only a few records east of the Mississippi River.

The list includes expected winter warblers such as orange-crowned, pine, and yellow-rumped, as well as such off-season puzzlers as American redstart, common yellowthroat, Northern parula, Cape May warbler and Nashville warbler; these warblers really should be wintering far to the south in locations around the Caribbean and in Central America. So far this winter, sharp-eyed birders have seen at least 12 different warbler species on the Riverfront Greenbelt. None of them have generated the level of excitement that has been produced by a small plain gray and yellow bird that is doggedly devoted to its daily routine. Birders have rushed from all parts of Tennessee, as well as from as far afield as Virginia and New Jersey, for a chance to see a visiting Virginia’s warbler, a bird that has only been observed on a handful of occasions east of the Mississippi River.

This warbler is not named for the state of Virginia. Spencer F. Baird, who first described the Virginia’s Warbler in 1860, named the species after Virginia Anderson, the wife of Dr. W. W. Anderson, who collected the first specimen in 1858 in New Mexico. Virginia’s warbler is not all that exceptional in appearance. While gray overall the bird shows a white eyering and some yellow highlights to feathers on the chest and under the tail. The bird also wags its tail, a behavior that can be helpful in identifying it.

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Northeast Tennessee is outside of the expected range in the American southwest of Virginia’s warbler.

The Virginia’s warbler is a species known for showing up in some rather odd locations. Back in 2012, one of these warblers generated birding excitement around New York City when one was found in Alley Pond Park in the New York City borough of Queens. In their usual range, however, Virginia’s warblers nest in arid terrain, including open pinyon-juniper and oak woodlands in the southwestern Rocky Mountain states, which is a far cry from the banks of the Holston River in Kingsport or Queens in New York.

The Kingsport specimen pulled a vanishing act when the weather turned milder in early February. Well-known birder Rick Knight, who lives in Johnson City, Tennessee, addressed the status of the bird in a post he made to the list-serve, “TN-Bird”:

“The Virginia’s Warbler and the other unusual warblers present at Riverfront Park in Kingsport seem to wander some on warm days and then return to the water’s edge on cold days to take advantage of the milder microclimate there.” Knight went on to speculate that the bird may still be in the vicinity and will return to its usual haunts when cold temperatures return. So far, despite a mix of warm days with colder ones, the Virginia’s warbler hasn’t been seen since Feb. 2.

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Photo by Sherrie Quillen • The influx of birders to view the Virginia’s warbler led to other unexpected finds along the Kingsport greenbelt, including such out-of-season birds as blue-gray gnatcatchers, Nashville warbler and Northern parula. More than a few birders referred to the famous Patagonian Picnic Table Effect to describe the sightings.

Several birders who found the bird and added it to their life lists commented on the fact that so many other unexpected species were found at the same time in the same location. It wasn’t long before people began evoking the famous birding phenomenon known as the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, which is a birding phenomenon named for a famous hotspot in southeast Arizona. The lure of a bird called the rose-throated becard at the location attracted a rush of birders to the area. More eyes resulted in more discoveries of other rare birds. In turn, the additional finds continued attracting even more birders and resulted in the discovery of even more rare bird species.

So, who first noticed the presence of the out-of-place warbler? The credit for the discovery goes to two Kingsport residents. On a post to Facebook, the two women who discovered the bird shared details of their exciting find. Bambi “Birdfinder” Fincher posted the notice of the bird’s discovery.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A couple of blue-gray gnatcatchers, such as this invidiual, represented an unusual find in winter in the region. The gnatcatchers were spotted by sharp-eyed birders in their quest to observe the Virginia’s warbler in Kingsport.

“Yesterday (Saturday, Jan. 19) in the pouring rain, Sherrie Quillen and I found a Virginia’s warbler on Kingsport Birding Trail-Riverfront Greenbelt,” she wrote in a post to the Birding Kingsport Facebook page. “This is the first record of this bird in the state of Tennessee.”

Bambi explained her birding success simply. “I’m always looking! Keeps me birding!”

She also invited other birders to join her some time. “It can be pretty amazing,” she wrote. “No promises of a state record or life bird, but I can promise you that you will learn something about your surroundings and yourself.”

She earned her nickname “birdfinder” about 10 years ago when she first started birding. “I was out birding with Bill Moyle or Bill Grigsby — one of the Bill’s, anyway — and I was really ‘finding’ birds but didn’t know what they were.”

The Bills didn’t let her get discouraged. “They said, ‘That’s OK, you will learn the birds, but you are a birdfinder.’ It stuck.”

I met both Bambi and Sherrie for the first time on the day I traveled to Kingsport to try my luck at observing this warbler. Bambi quickly proved her “birdfinder” talents. Although I had to wait for about an hour for the bird to make an appearance, when it did arrive, it flew right to the spot by the river that Bambi had recommended I keep under observation. The specific spot consisted of a thin stand of privet rooted in the riverbank only a few yards from a bench located near the paved walking path. When the bird arrived, making telltale chip notes, I got my binoculars on it and enjoyed a satisfying but brief look at the bird. Birds are rarely as cooperative as this particular Virginia’s warbler turned out to be. Several other birders waiting with me also got to see the warbler at the same time. As warblers are my favorite family of birds, getting to observe this unexpected visitor has been the highlight of my birding year thus far.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The author of the blog hasn’t yet seen a handful of species among the Eastern warblers, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler, pictured here. The remaining elusive eastern warblers include Connecticut, Kirtland’s and cerulean.

In the Eastern United States, there are only a handful of warblers I haven’t yet observed. I need to see a cerulean warbler and Connecticut warbler, as well as a Kirtland’s warbler and golden-cheeked warbler. The latter two species are considered endangered and highly localized warblers occurring mostly in Michigan and Texas, respectively — two states I’ve not yet visited.

I’ll always remember my first look at a Virginia’s warbler just before noon on Jan. 28, 2019. The bird had already been present for ten days by the time I made the drive to Kingsport to try my luck. In addition, I saw many other interesting birds while waiting for my target bird to arrive. Some of the other observed birds included palm warbler, blue-gray gnatcatcher, ruby-crowned kinglets and golden-crowned kinglets.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A palm warbler forages along a chain-link fence. This warbler is often a wintering bird in the region and a few were seen by observers who trekked to the Kingsport greenbelt to view the visiting Virginia’s warbler.

Overwintering birds make their return to some familiar area haunts

Mergansers

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female hooded merganser flaps her wings as another preens her feathers behind her.

Now that the warblers, hummingbirds and other birds of summer have, for the most part, departed, new arrivals have filtered into the region to take their place and prevent the winter months from seeming too bleak.

At my own home, these new arrivals have included a field sparrow — the first I’ve seen at home in several years — and a swamp sparrow. I’ve not caught sight of white-throated sparrows or dark-eyed juncos so far, but these hardy sparrows often don’t arrive until the first incidents of truly snowy weather. However, Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, emailed me to let me know that she saw her first dark-eyed junco of the season on Monday, Nov. 5.

Different species of waterfowl have also returned to some familiar haunts, and I’m grateful to readers who have kept me informed about some of these arrivals. Joanne Campbell of Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page that hooded mergansers have returned to Middlebrook Lake near her home on Saturday, Nov. 3. The hooded merganser, Joanne noted, is one of her favorite birds. Brookie and Jean Potter of Elizabethton, Tennessee, reported that four male buffleheads returned to Wilbur Lake near their home on Oct. 27.

Middlebrook Lake has served as a winter home for hooded mergansers since 1987, while buffleheads have congregated on Wilbur Lake for decades. Another good location to look for buffleheads during the winter months is in the weir below South Holston Dam around the Osceola Island Recreation Area. Several hundred of these ducks have been reported in past winters at these various locations.

Although classified as sea ducks, the mergansers are more at home in river habitats. There are six closely related species in three genera: Mergus, Mergellus and Lophodytes. The latter two genera have only a single species each: the hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) and the smew (Mergellus albellus).

The typical mergansers are fish-eating waterfowl in the genus known as Mergus. The hooded merganser’s genus name of Lophodytes is derived from Greek and, roughly translated, means “crested diver.” Both male and female hooded mergansers have crests capable of being raised or lowered. Females are mostly brown, but males have a striking plumage in a pattern of brown, white and black.

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Photo by Photo by Tim McCabe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The male hooded merganser stands out among ducks with his black, white, and brown plumage.

Everyone has probably heard the phrase “as scarce as hen’s teeth.” It means almost exactly what you think. Birds don’t have teeth, so it’s a way to describe something exceptionally rare. It’s a characteristic that sets birds apart from other creatures, such as mammals.

There are some birds, however, that come closer to having teeth than their other beaked counterparts. Mergansers would definitely fall into that category. The mergansers are a type of duck known collectively as “sawbills,” a reference to their long, thin bills with serrated edges that help them grip prey. The “sawbills” come closer than any of our other birds in having teeth, although not in the same sense as mammals have teeth.

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Photo by Alexas-fotos/Pixabay.com • This closeup of a female common merganser shows in detail the serrated bill, which assists this duck in seizing and grasping the fish that makes up a good portion of the bird’s diet.

The other mergansers in the Mergus genus consist of four species: common merganser, Brazilian merganser, red-breasted Merganser and scaly-sided Merganser. The last of these is an endangered species with only about 5,000 birds in the worldwide population. These remaining scaly-sided mergansers are found in the border regions of China, North Korea and Russia.

While today’s birds, even mergansers, all lack teeth, that hasn’t always been the case. About 80 million years ago, a bird known as Hesperornis (“western bird”) swam the inland seas that stretched over areas from Kansas to Canada. They swam through those ancient seas because they could not fly.

The body plan of Hesperornis was similar to modern loons and mergansers. Instead of a serrated bill, however, this ancient bird had actual teeth in its long beak. Just like today’s loons and mergansers, it probably fished for its food. At almost six feet in length, however, it dwarfed our modern mergansers and loons and probably fed on larger piscine prey.

Hesperornis_Heinrich_Harder

This early 20th century illustration of Hesperornis is no longer considered scientifically accurate by scientists, but it does demonstrate one striking feature – the toothed jaws of this ancient bird.

Hooded mergansers are content to seek smaller fish. According to the website for the Ducks Unlimited organization, the hooded merganser is the smallest of the three North American mergansers. In addition to fish, hooded mergansers feed on crayfish and other crustaceans, as well as aquatic insects.

The hooded merganser prefers forested wetlands. As a cavity-nesting bird, it seeks out natural cavities in trees for nesting, although it will also accept nest boxes provided by human landlords. This duck breeds from as far north as Alaska and Canada and as far south as Louisiana and Georgia.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hooded merganser females, or hens, have a gray-brown head and neck with a reddish-brown crest, which marks quite a contrast from the male’s appearance.

Late fall and winter are good times to see ducks in the region. Some will spend a good portion of the winter season on area lakes, rivers and ponds, while others will make only brief stops during their migration to their preferred wintering grounds. Some of the other ducks that are usually somewhat common in the region in winter include ring-necked duck and American wigeon. If you live or work near a body of water, stay alert for the comings and goings of waterfowl as winter approaches. You may be afforded an opportunity to see a hooded merganser or bufflehead for yourself.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female hooded merganser enjoys a swim.

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The Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society produces an annual calendar featuring some exceptional bird photography from its members. This 2019 calendar will feature full-color photographs of some of the region’s most colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes here in Northeast Tennessee. For instance, the club pays for bird seed to stock the feeders at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The club also regularly supports causes that benefit birds.HerndonCalendar2019(Cover) (1)
The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays, as well as important bird-related dates. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites and some not-so-common visitors. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a gorgeous male rose-breasted grosbeak. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email or send a message via Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Calendars can be mailed to any destination in the United States for an additional charge of $2 for shipping and postage.

 

Dark-eyed junco heralds winter’s approach and marks milestone in weekly bird musings

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A dark-eyed junco, usually a harbinger of wintry weather and snowy days, shells sunflower seeds beneath a feeder.

I wrote my first column about our “feathered friends” on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this column will soon celebrate its 23rd anniversary.

This column has appeared on a weekly basis for the last 23 years in a total of five different newspapers, and in recent years it has been syndicated to several more. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested birds and birding. I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well. Since February 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.

I saw my first swamp sparrow of the fall on Oct. 23. Autumn’s a time when many of those so-called “little brown birds,” also known as the sparrows, return to live in the fields, gardens, yards and woodlands around our home. Two of the other anticipated arrivals are white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Sparrows, like this swamp sparrow, often spend the winter months in fields, woods, and wetlands, sometimes visiting feeders in our homes and gardens.

In fact, that first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents— the dark-eyed junco. Experts place juncos among the varied sparrow family. All juncos are resident of the New World, ranging throughout North and Central America. Scientists are continually debating precisely how many species of junco exist, with estimates ranging from a mere three species to about a dozen species.

Some of the other juncos include the volcano junco, yellow-eyed junco, Chiapas junco, Guadalupe junco, pink-sided junco, Oregon junco and Baird’s junco, which is named in honor Spencer Fullerton Baird, a 19th century American naturalist and a former Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

With that introduction and with some revisions I have made through the years, here is that very first column that I ever wrote about birds.

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Photo by Skeeze-Pixabay • A dark-eyed junco clings to a snowy perch.

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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.

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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.

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.

Junco

Photo by Ken Thomas • A dark-eyed junco perches on some bare branches on a winter’s day.

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.

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.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Dark-eyed junco nests on high mountain slopes during the summer month. This dark-eyed junco was photographed at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain during the summer nesting season.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin 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!

•••••

Back when I wrote that original column, juncos often returned each fall in the final days of October or first days of November. In the last few years, however, their arrival times have grown consistently later in November. At times, it takes a serious snowfall to drive these hardy birds to seek out easy fare at my feeders. I’m hoping they’ll return soon. In the meantime, if you want to share your first dark-eyed junco sighting of the fall, I’d love to hear from you. If you want to share a sighting, have a question or wish to make a comment, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female dark-eyed junco scrambles for sunflowers seeds in the snow.

Indigo bunting one of summer’s common songbirds

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting is a resplendent bird.

Two recent summer bird counts emphasized some of the more commonplace birds in the region. While American robins and European starlings were extremely abundant, these two birds are permanent residents and are present year-round. A few other summer songbirds also helped swell the ranks of some of the seasonally common birds. For instance, the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count found a total of 141 indigo buntings while the Elizabethton Summer Bird Count tallied 82 of these little blue beauties. Both of these Northeast Tennessee surveys are conducted by members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society.

The indigo bunting likes to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer. One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings — return year after year to my yard and gardens.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increase the variety of bright and colorful birds in eastern North America from spring until fall each year.

These birds usually arrive in the region in late April and I’ve seen them in late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September.

Male indigo buntings are persistent singers, and in the past couple of weeks one very enthusiastic male has been singing even during the hottest hours of recent July afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees. They are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

The indigo bunting is the only solid blue bird in the eastern United States. It’s all an illusion, of course. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue. The male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of refraction. This process absorbs all but blue light, which explains why the indigo bunting appears blue. In bright light, it can even look unnaturally vivid blue. In poor light, however, an indigo bunting male can appear black. Fortunately, indigo buntings have both a characteristic body shape and song, so even if the birds are not seen at their best, they can still be recognized.

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Photon by Bryan Stevens • Indigo Buntings will perch on wires and sing for hours even during hot summer days.

Like many species of songbirds, the male is by far the most colorful. In this instance, the male is also responsible for the species’ name. Indigo is a blue dye that was once an important crop in the South. The drab female may boast some blue highlights in her plumage. Juvenile birds just out of the nest also resemble the female. Pay close attention to any indigo buntings you observe as summer progresses. Juvenile birds will look mostly brown with just a hint of blue in the wings and the tail. These will be the young buntings that were hatched this spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders.

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. Although some books indicate that males are not very active in rearing young, I have on numerous occasions witnessed male buntings feeding fledglings at feeders. Indigo bunting juveniles, like the young of many other birds, beg for tidbits from parents by “bowing,” spreading their wings and shivering. These actions usually prompt a parent to pop some morsel into an impatient youngster’s open bill. Indigo buntings are relatively easy to view. They frequent weedy fields and roadside brush. During the breeding season, males can also be seen singing from prominent perches. The song, a distinctive jumble of notes, can help observers find these dedicated singers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although bright blue, a male indigo bunting will often blend with its surroundings.

The male indigo bunting is one of the most colorful birds to visit feeders in the region. This species is also extremely fond of millet seed. I like to have some feeders stocked with millet when the buntings begin to return each spring. They will also feed on thistle and sunflower seeds. Away from our feeders, they also devour plenty of seeds from various noxious weeds. Because of the indigo bunting’s appetite for the seeds of destructive weeds, it is considered a very beneficial bird.

One of the most attractive summer scenes is to observe American goldfinches and indigo buntings feeding together on the nodding heads of summer sunflowers. The goldfinch males, resplendent in their bright yellow and black plumage, compete with the blue indigo bunting males for the fresh sunflower seeds. When bright red male Northern cardinals join in, observers have a complete artists’s palette for summer viewing.

The indigo bunting will usually respond to human squeaks that imitate a bird’s call. When a flock or family group of buntings are disturbed by a human observer, they usually begin a chorus of alarmed “chipping.”indigo-bunting-john-james-audubon

As I indicated earlier, indigo buntings remain in the region until late September. Although this bird typically winters in Mexico, Panama and the Caribbean, in recent decades some indigo buntings have only gone as far south as Florida to spend the winter. There in the Sunshine State, the indigo buntings may mingle with a close relative, the splendidly multi-colored painted bunting. I usually see these vibrant songbirds whenever I visit coastal South Carolina in spring or summer. Male painted buntings are probably one of the most colorful birds in the United States with hues of red, green, purple and blue in their feathers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male painted bunting is one of North America’s most colorful birds.

Other North American buntings include the snow bunting, the lazuli bunting and the lark bunting, which is also the official state bird for Colorado. Some of the common but descriptive names for some of the world’s other buntings include striolated bunting, cinnamon-breasted bunting, cinereous bunting, white-capped bunting, lark-like bunting, ochre-rumped bunting, golden-breasted bunting, chestnut-bunting, red-headed bunting, yellow bunting, little bunting, brown-rumped bunting, meadow bunting, corn bunting and crested bunting.

Keep your feeders stocked with millet and sunflower seeds if you want to increase your chances of seeing indigo buntings. They will need some dependable places to re-fuel and rest during their upcoming fall migration.

No cowbird ever knows its biological parents

While many birds are excellent parents, others lack any maternal or paternal instincts altogether. The common cuckoo, a nesting bird in Europe and Asia, is a well-known brood parasite that would rather slip its eggs into the nest of other bird than raise its own young. In scientific terms, “brood parasite” refers to creatures that rely on others to raise their young. In addition to some birds, this tactic is also employed by some species of insects and fish.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female brown-headed cowbirds stay alert to observe bird leaving or coming to a nest. Once they have located a nest, these birds slip their own eggs into the nests of other birds.

The strategy is effective, if, in the human way of thinking, rather heartless. In biological terms, however, this “foster parenting” allows brood parasites to ensure a new generation without expending much energy on the part of the actual parents. Some recent contacts with readers have reminded me that not all of our feathered friends would qualify for “parent of the year.”

Mike Dickenson of Bristol, Tennessee, contacted me on Facebook about a discovery he made in a nest built under the steps of his house.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female brown-headed cowbird visits a feeder.

“I noticed two blue eggs,” he said. “I checked a few days later and noticed two gray eggs also. Did another bird sneak her eggs into the nest?” Mike also informed me that some of the eggs hatched shortly after he discovered them.

James Rowland of Erwin, Tennessee, sent me a message on Facebook asking me to identify a bird in a photograph he had taken. “What is this bird?” James asked. “It’s larger than a sparrow.”

He added that he observed and photographed the bird near the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, Tennessee. A study of the bird in the photo revealed a very nondescript bird in largely gray plumage. Few of our birds are this plain and gray with almost no standout characteristics.

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Photo by James Rowland • A brown-headed cowbird, probably a young bird or a female, near the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

In both cases, one of North America’s most successful brood parasites was involved. I responded to Mike and told him that is was entirely possible that a female brown-headed cowbird slipped some eggs into the nest beneath his steps. I likewise informed James that the bird in his photo looked like a brown-headed cowbird. I added that the bird was either a female or a young bird, since a male would have the brown head that gives the species its common name.

In North America, one of the best-known feathered brood parasites is the brown-headed cowbird. While many brood parasites are specialists, with females slipping their eggs into the nest of a specific species of host bird, the brown-headed cowbird approaches brood parasitism in a less discriminating manner. Female cowbirds have been known to lay their eggs in the nests of at least 221 different species of birds. No baby brown-headed cowbird ever knows its biological parents.

How did the brown-headed cowbird turn to a life of foisting eggs onto unsuspecting foster parents? The answer is connected with the American bison, also known as buffalo. When the bison roamed the Great Plains of the United States by the millions, flocks of brown-headed cowbirds followed the great herds, feeding on the insects flushed by the hooves of millions of bison. As the herds stayed on the move constantly, the cowbirds also developed a nomadic lifestyle. After the bison herd diminished, the cowbirds survived a potential crisis by simply transferring their bovine affinity from bison to domesticated cattle.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male brown-headed cowbird displays the brown head that gives this bird its common name.

At times, this random and undiscriminating approach to reproduction fails. Some finches feed their young a diet that consists of a great deal of vegetable matter. Young cowbirds fed this protein deficient diet fail to thrive and ultimately perish.

Other birds blissfully bring a rich assortment of protein snacks — insects, spiders and other small invertebrates — that permits the young foster bird to thrive, at times at the expense of the host bird’s own young. About 20 years ago I observed a willow flycatcher bringing food to a young brown-headed cowbird at least twice the size of the “parent” trying to feed it. I’ve also seen song sparrows, dwarfed by a cowbird changeling, trying to keep their enormous baby bird well fed.

Cowbirds are members of the blackbird family, which includes such relations as orioles, meadowlarks and grackles. All cowbirds are confined to the New World and include species such as the screaming cowbird of Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil, as well as the bronzed cowbird of Central America and the southern United States, especially the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. Other cowbird family members include giant cowbird and the shiny cowbird.

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted this pair of brown-headed cowbirds.

White-faced ibis creates birding stir with rare visit to region

When I awoke on April 19, I didn’t expect that I’d end up seeing a new state bird before the day ended. Thanks to timely notices of a new bird sighting by email, I used my work break to drive to Elizabethton, Tennessee, to see a white-faced ibis at the Carter County Rescue Squad pond. The opportunity for unexpected appearances by birds like the white-faced ibis is why I love spring migration.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The red eye of this white-faced ibis allowed observers to confirm the identity of the bird. The similar glossy ibis does not have red eyes.

Tom McNeil spotted the bird at a much larger pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton. After he reported the bird, I was able to use a work break to travel to the location and find the bird nearby at the smaller pond, where several area birders had already arrived. The ibis had moved to this smaller pond after departing the larger pond where it was first detected.

This is only the second record of a white-faced ibis for Northeast Tennessee.

The white-faced ibis is a widespread wading bird, nesting from the western United States and Canada south through Mexico, as well as from southeastern Brazil and southeastern Bolivia south to central Argentina, and along the coast of central Chile.

I saw white-faced ibises for the first time during a trip to Utah in May of 2006. The state had enjoyed a spring with ample rainfall, and every flooded field and pasture contained flocks of these distinctive wading birds. These flooded fields provided temporary habitat for numerous other birds, including cinnamon teal and Wilson’s phalarope.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flooded field in northern Utah near the border with Wyoming provided foraging habitat for this white-faced ibis.

The white-faced ibis is almost identical in appearance to the glossy ibis, which is the most widespread ibis in the world. The glossy ibis ranges across six continents, absent only from Antarctica. In the United States, the glossy ibis ranges mostly along the southern Atlantic coastal area. I have observed this bird at several locations in South Carolina.

The similar appearances of white-faced and glossy ibis presents challenges to identification, which was the case with this recent visitor. The bird found in Elizabethton lacked the white plumage in the face that gives the species its common name. Fortunately, the bird did plainly show one physical trait — red eyes — that easily distinguishes it from the related glossy ibis. Sometimes, all it takes to clinch an identification is a simple physical characteristic such as, in this case, a red eye.

A third ibis native to North America is the white ibis. The Audubon Society identifies the white ibis as one of the most numerous wading birds in Florida, but the bird is common also in other parts of the southeast with appropriate wetland habitat. Like the wood stork, the ibis has declined in Florida in recent decades largely as a result of human encroachment.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A white ibis forages for food by probing in water and mud.

The white ibis looks like a humorously absurd bird that could have been invented by Dr. Seuss. The extravagant, all-white plumage is contrasted by pinkish-orange legs, an extremely long, downcurved, reddish-pink bill and bright blue eyes. In flight, the white ibis shows black feathers on the edges of its wings.

I’ve seen white ibises in Tennessee as well as in South Carolina and Florida. In the Sunshine State, another relative — the unmistakable scarlet ibis — is sometimes observed in the wild. The scarlet ibis inhabits tropical South America and islands of the Caribbean, but the species if often held in zoos and other attractions. Escaped birds rather than strays are often the source of sightings in Florida of this vibrant scarlet-feathered ibis.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A glossy ibis flock feeds in a wetland located at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

All ibises have long, downcurved bills. These birds usually feed in small flocks, probing wetlands for prey such as crustaceans, small fish, amphibians, insects, and various invertebrates. Worldwide, there are about 34 species of ibis, including the red-naped ibis, black-faced ibis, green ibis, straw-necked ibis and African sacred ibis, which is the bird often depicted in tombs and other monuments of ancient Egypt. This ibis was associated with the Egyptian god, Thoth, who was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis.

The brief visit from the white-faced ibis provides a good reminder that we’re in the midst of spring migration. Stay alert for those unexpected birds. You never know what you might see.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The white-faced ibis found in Elizabethton, Tennessee, is shown walking past a domestic duck and a mallard.

Readers continue to report hummer arrivals

A few other readers have shared their first spring hummingbird sightings.
• Bunny Medeiros of Abingdon, Virginia sent me an email to announce her first sighting. “To my delight, the day after I put out my feeder a hummer appeared,” she wrote. The bird, a male, made his appeared on April 14.
• Rhonda Eller of Chilhowie, Virginia, saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird of spring on April 18. “Surely spring is going to come and stay!” Rhonda predicted on her post of my Facebook page.

Bird survey seeks volunteers

The Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas is getting ready for a third year of surveying the state’s birds. The atlas is a citizen science project, and volunteers conduct most of the key data collection. Organizers are hopeful that Virginia’s strong birding community will partner with the Virginia Ornithological Society and Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to accomplish the largest bird conservation effort in the state to date.
“This is our third year, and we can always use more volunteers to participate,” said Steven Hopp with Environmental Studies at Emory and Henry College. “Our region down here in the corner is one of the least-covered areas of the state.”
Anyone interested in participating and learning more about the atlas is welcome to email Hopp at shopp@ehc.edu.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The white-faced ibis probed the edge of a pond in its search for food, occasionally catching and consuming tadpoles.