Returning ruby-throats, like the rest of world’s hummingbirds, never fail to dazzle

Photo by Anne and Saturnino Miranda/Pixabay.com • The Cuban emerald is a species of hummingbird found in a wide range of semi-open habitats in Cuba, as well as the Isle of Pines and the western Bahamas. Numbering 330 species, the world’s hummingbirds dazzle humans with their incredibly diverse plumages.

Experts estimate that there are 330 species of hummingbirds, all of which are found in the New World. Consider that these dazzling little birds have been given vividly descriptive names, such as cinnamon-throated hermit, red-tailed comet, blue-chinned sapphire, lazuline sabrewing, sparkling violetear, fiery topaz, green-tailed goldenthroat, bronze-tailed plumeleteer,  amethyst-throated mountain-gem, peacock coquette, red-billed emerald, empress brilliant, purple-backed sunbeam, green-backed hillstar, orange-throated sunangel, black metaltail, marvelous spatuletail and blue-tufted starthroat.

The only reliable species to inhabit the eastern United States from spring to fall each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird, which is currently arriving at various points from Florida to Maine and westward to states like Illinois, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

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

One of my most memorable hummingbird sightings took place in January of 1999 during a cruise in the Bahamas. A stopover in Nassau and a visit to the Paradise Island Resort permitted me a fleeting glimpse of a Bahama woodstar, a small hummingbird with a superficial resemblance to the ruby-throated hummingbird. The real beauty from my visit to the Bahamas, however, took place on a private cay maintained by the Disney Cruise line. While many passengers enjoyed the sun and sand of the beach, I walked nature trails to find birds. 

Photo by Daniel Roberts/Pixabay.com • The calliope hummingbird is the smallest of its kind known to reside in North America.

I found Western spindalis, then known as stripe-headed tanager, as well as black-faced grassquits and bananaquits, and I got several close looks at male and female Cuban emeralds, a hummingbird found in a wide range of semi-open habitats in Cuba, the Isle of Pines and the western Bahamas. The male is almost entirely metallic or iridescent green and measures almost four inches long. The ones I encountered were also curious and quite tame, often flying within inches of my face. 

Other than the two hummingbirds I saw during that trip, my remaining hummingbird observations have been confined to the United States. That hasn’t prevented me from seeing such unexpected hummingbirds as green-breasted mango, calliope hummingbird, black-chinned hummingbird, rufous hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, and broad-tailed hummingbird. 

Photo by Anne and Saturnino Miranda/Pixabay.com • It’s not difficult at all to see how the male Cuban emerald in such vibrant green plumage acquired its common name.

If I ever win the lottery, I plan to see as many hummingbirds as I can. For now, I am happy to report that ruby-throated hummingbirds are returning to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina.

I received an email from Susie Parks, who lives in the North Cove section of McDowell County in North Carolina. “My daughter, Luanne Graham, and I sighted our first hummer on March 28,” Priscilla noted. 

“I read your column in the McDowell News,” she added. “I am 84 years old and have been a birder most of my life.” 

Susie added that she and her daughter are both retired teachers who live next to each other. “We put our feeders out earlier than usual because she had heard that the hummers might be arriving earlier this year,” Susie wrote.

Susie noted that the first hummingbird sighted at her own feeder arrived on the first day of April, a few days after the hummingbird that visited her daughter’s feeder. “I keep a journal and I always note the first sighting,” she added, “and this is the earliest hummer I have ever recorded.”

This sightings by Susie and Luanne are the earliest I’ve had reported to me this year. 

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Facebook friend Jimmie Daniels in Newland, North Carolina, reported on her Facebook page that the first hummingbird of spring arrived at 6:24 p.m. on Wednesday, April 8.  “We just saw our first hummingbird and that always makes me happy,” she wrote. “If you have not put out feeders yet, it is a good time to do that.”

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Bob Cheers of Bristol, Virginia, reported a ruby-throated female arrived at his home at 7:55 a.m. on Friday, April 10. He speculated that the hummingbird was possibly “the same gal that arrived last year on the same day but 10 hours later.” Bob added that hummingbirds are amazing and that it was almost inconceivable to him that it could be the same bird. Bob, who had read in previous columns that downy woodpeckers and Carolina chickadees occasionally take a sip of sugar water from hummingbird feeders, also asked if I had ever heard of a red-bellied woodpecker feeding regularly at a hummingbird feeder. I’ve not personally witnessed this, but perhaps some readers have seen red-bellied woodpeckers at sugar water feeders. Let me know!

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

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Brenda Hickman Dishner posted on my Facebook page that she spotted her first hummer of spring on Friday, April 10. “We live near Highway 421 and Houston Dam in Bristol, Tennessee,” she added.

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Philip Laws, who lives in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County, reported to me on Facebook that he saw his first hummingbirds on April 10. “Hummers returned to Limestone Cove on Good Friday,” Philip noted.

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Jeanne Siler Lilly reported her first spring hummingbird with a comment on my Facebook page. “I saw one at my feeder on April 10,” she wrote, adding that the bird visited a couple of times.

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Mary Jones in Johnson City said her first hummingbird this year arrived on April 11. “I had one show up the Saturday before Easter and every day since,” she wrote in a Facebook comment. 

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Dianna Lynne in Elizabethton saw her first hummingbird this spring on April 11. “They stopped in on Easter morning at the porch feeder here in Stoney Creek,” Dianne said in a comment on Facebook.

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Erwin resident Amy Wallin Tipton saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird on Easter Sunday.  “I just wanted to let you know I just saw my first male ruby-throat of the season,” Amy wrote in a Facebook message. “It was at 11:55 a.m.”

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Lia Pritchard saw her first hummer of the season on Easter Sunday at her home in Fall Branch, Tennessee. Her father, Glen Eller, shared the report of Lia’s sighting.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Keep hummingbirds happy with a sugar water solution of four parts water to one part sugar.

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Lynda Carter, who lives in Jonesborough, saw her first hummingbird at 8:45 a.m. on Monday, April 13, after a stormy night. “The bird may have blown in sideways from Arkansas last night,” Lynda joked in an email.

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Richard Lewis in Bristol sent me a message on Facebook to announce the arrival of his first spring hummingbird. “I had my first ruby-throated hummingbird Monday, April 13, at 6 p.m. at my home in Bristol, Tennessee,” he wrote.

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Joneen Sargent, who lives in Sullivan County west of Holston Lake off Highway 421, emailed me at 8:06 p.m. on Monday, April 13, to report her first spring hummingbird. “Just saw my first hummingbird of the season,” Joneen wrote. “Gives me hope.”

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Jane Arnold emailed me to notify me of her mother’s hummingbird sighting. Her mother, Betty Poole, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird — a female — on Wednesday, April 15. Jane’s still awaiting her first spring hummer. 

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Priscilla Gutierrez saw the first hummingbirds of spring the morning of Wednesday, April 15. “I put out a feeder and by 6 p.m. they were coming to [the] feeder,” Priscilla added in a comment on my Facebook page. 

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Erwin resident April Kerns Fain posted on her Facebook page at 5:32 p.m. on Thursday, April 16, that she saw her first hummingbird. 

Erwin resident Pattie Rowland posted on my Facebook page that she saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird on Friday, April 17. “Just saw a hummer in Erwin,” Pattie wrote. 

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Sharee Bowman reported her first hummingbird of spring in a Facebook message. “I saw my first hummingbird in Cedar Bluff, Virginia, on Friday, April 17,” she wrote. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird lifts its wings to shake water droplets off its back.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds make welcome return to region

Photo by TheSOARnet / Pixabay.com • Male ruby-throated hummingbirds usually migrate ahead of females. These tiny birds must cross the Gulf of Mexico, without stopping, to reach their nesting grounds in the eastern United States. The journey across the Gulf can take them 18 to 22 hours, dependent on weather conditions.

Pat Stakely Cook‎ of Marion, North Carolina, reported the earliest spring sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird.
Pat posted, “Hummingbird is back here in Marion, North Carolina,” on my Facebook page at 5;45 p.m. on Sunday, April 5.
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Sam Jewett emailed me to report a first spring sighting.
“My first red-throated one showed up Monday, April 6, at Lake James in North Carolina, and boy, has he been hungry,” Sam wrote.
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Judy and Bill Beckman, who reside on Springbrook Road in Unicoi, reported their own sighting.
“We just had our first hummingbird visit our feeder at around 5:50 p.m. on Monday, April 6,” the couple wrote in an email to me.
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Joy Patton, who lives in Marion, North Carolina, also reported her first hummingbird on April 6.
“I put my feeder up a few days early this year because the weather has been so nice,” Joy wrote in an email. “The second day, April 6, a male ruby-throated hummingbird visited and ate and ate!”
Joy added that her daughter, Cindy Pierce, who lives near Fayetteville, North Carolina, saw her first hummingbird that same day.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird lifts its wings to shake water droplets off its back.

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Judi Sawyer, a resident of Roan Mountain, Tennessee, reported the first hummingbird arrival on her Facebook page. Judi is a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. “The hummers are back,” Judi wrote on her page on Tuesday, April 7.
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Bristol resident Vivian C Tester posted on my Facebook page on Wednesday, April 8, about her first sighting. “I just had my first hummer stop by,” Vivian wrote. “So glad I had just put my feeder out.”
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The ruby-throated hummingbird, known by the scientific name of Archilochus colubris, is one of more than 300 species of hummingbirds. All hummingbirds are found in the New World and are completely absent from the Old World. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds launch their spring migration about 10 days prior to female hummingbirds. Most of these tiny birds make an incredible non-stop journey across the Gulf of Mexico each year to return to our yards and gardens across the Eastern United States.

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

Based on the number of people who shared hummingbird sightings with me, these tiny birds have a lot of big fans. If you would like to host your own hummingbirds, here are some crucial tips:
• Make your yard a zone that’s free of insecticides and pesticides. Residues of these chemicals can remain on blossoms, which then run the risk of sickening a hummingbird. In addition, hummingbirds subsist on more than nectar. They consume many tiny insects and spiders. Eating bugs that have been contaminated with dangerous chemicals can also sicken or kill hummingbirds.
• Provide shrubs and trees in your landscape to make your yard more inviting. Hummingbirds claim favorite posts and perches, where they will rest when they are not visiting our gardens or feeders. Shrubs and trees can also provide locations for concealing nests built by female hummingbirds.
• Cultivate plants that offer nectar-producing blooms. While hummingbirds are known to favor the color red, these nectar-sipping birds will also visit blooms of other colors. Some favorite spring blooms include the flowers of red buckeye, wild columbine, crossvine and native varieties of azaleas. As spring advances into summer, the diversity of flowers available to lure hummingbirds into your garden will increase dramatically.

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

I am still awaiting my first hummingbird of spring. I’m confident it won’t be long. Invariably, the first hummingbird to show up in my yard is a male with the gorget — or throat patch — of red, iridescent feathers that gives his species its common name.
He’ll be especially welcome this particular spring.
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Share a sighting, ask a question, or make a comment by emailing ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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

Brown thrashers make first spring appearance

 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A brown thrasher visits a feeder for a helping of suet. These large songbirds are usually among spring’s early arrivals.

In this time of social distancing when the daily routine can become flat and dull, I’m rejoicing that many of my favorite birds are returning after their long winter absence. One of the first to return has been brown thrashers, which made a first spring appearance on March 25. I suppose I should use the word “appearance” with reservations since I only heard a thrasher singing from deep in the concealment of a brushy thicket. A few days, later, however, a pair of brown thrashers began visiting my suet feeders.

I posted about the return of this large songbird on Facebook and immediately discovered that the brown thrashers must have returned to the region en masse.

Aubrie Abernethy, a resident of Johnson City, Tennessee, posted that her brown thrasher has arrived a day earlier than mine.

Dianne Draper, a resident of Jonesborough, Tennessee, posted, too. “Ours is back also,” Dianne wrote.

Photo by Ken Thomas
The Brown Thrasher is an alert, sharp-eyed observer of its surroundings.

Michelle Sparks in Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page that she had seen her first spring brown thrasher earlier that same week.

Diane Gonzalves from Abingdon, Virginia, responded on the post about brown thrashers by asking about another imminent arrival. “I assume the hummingbirds should be here soon?” Diane asked.

I responded that the first ruby-throated hummingbirds should be arriving at any time. Please watch out for these tiny birds and get your sugar water feeders outside to welcome them. I will do my annual round-up on first hummingbird sightings of the spring again this year. Share your sighting by emailing the time and date of the arrival to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Readers can also contact me via Facebook.

The brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belongs to the family of “mimic thrushes,” which provides a label for a group of songbirds capable of imitating the songs of other birds. Mimidae, the Latin root for “mimic,” provides the scientific name for the family, which includes mockingbirds and the New World catbirds, as well as thrashers. The Northern mockingbird is best known for the ability to mimic, but relatives like the gray catbird and brown thrasher are also talented mimics.

The thrasher is a fairly large songbird about 11.5 inches long with a wingspan of 13 inches. Much of the body length comes from the bird’s long tail feathers. A thrasher weighs, however, only about 2.5 ounces.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pair of Brown Thrashers forage for food on the ground below a feeder.

The brown thrasher is not a picky eater. It’s known to eat everything from berries and nuts to insects and small lizards. It’s also aggressive in defending its nest and young. John James Audubon, a French-American ornithologist, naturalist and painter, painted quite the dramatic scene of a group of brown thrashers valiantly defending a nest from an attacking snake. The painting is so detailed that one has to imagine Audubon based his work on a real-life experience. His work, originally painted in the early decades of the 1800s, still holds up today.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted a dramatic scene of brown thrashers defending their nest from an attacking snake.

Incidentally, Audubon knew the brown thrasher as the “ferruginous thrush.” Another former common name for this species was “brown thrush.” The brown thrasher breeds across the United States and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains. Thrashers withdraw from the northern part of their range in the winter months, spending the season in the southeastern United States.

They are familiar birds in southern gardens. In fact, the brown thrasher is the official state bird of Georgia and also provided the name for Atlanta’s National Hockey League team, the Atlanta Thrashers. The thrasher became Georgia’s state bird due to passage of a Joint Resolution of the Georgia General Assembly in 1970.

Other new arrivals in the closing days of March included blue-gray gnatcatcher, blue-headed vireo and broad-winged hawk. So, what are you seeing? Let me know when the hummingbirds arrive.

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter • A brown thrasher scans the grass for insect prey.

Wandering flocks of cedar waxwings surprise with their visits

Photo by DivaDan/Pixabay.com • A cedar waxwing plucks a single berry from the laden branches of a fruit-bearing tree.

Early last month I received an email from Ernie Marburg about some visitors at his home in Abingdon, Virginia. “Just wanted to let you know that the Cedar Waxwings are in the neighborhood,” he wrote. “The flocks are looking for berries in the holly trees.” 

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

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

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

Although it’s classified as a songbird, the cedar waxwing does’t truly produce a vocalization that anyone would contend qualifies as a song. They are, however, very vocal birds, producing shrill, high-pitched notes as they pass through the upper branches of tall trees.

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

Photo by dmgreen44/Pixabay.com • A flock of cedar waxwings strip berries from the branches of a cedar tree.

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

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

The popularity of hummingbirds in general, and the ruby-throated hummingbird specifically, is simple to understand.

These tiny birds are perfectly willing to insert themselves into our lives, offering hours of fascinating entertainment as they visit our gardens, duel at our sugar water feeders and occasionally even nest in trees and shrubs in our yards.

I’m hoping to hear from readers about their first spring hummingbird observations. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Be sure to include the time and date of your sighting, as well as your locations. You can also find me through Facebook.

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

Sounds of spring grow more varied as season advances

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Former common name rufous-sided towhee became Eastern towhee, which is far less descriptive of the bird’s appearance. In spring, male towhees become persistent singers. Listen for their “drink-your-tea” song as the males perch on elevated branches and twigs.

The sounds of spring surround us from sunrise to sunset with much of this seasonal chorus being provided by our feathered friends, the birds. In these weird weeks in need of something distracting, I’ve been letting nature’s sounds, as well as sights, provide some measure of relief from stressful headlines and anxious thoughts.

The mornings around my home often begin with a loud, insistent “Peter! Peter! Peter!” uttered from the woods or even just outside my bedroom window. Male tufted titmice, little gray relatives of chickadees with a distinctive crest and large, dark eyes, sing their urgent “Peter! Peter! Peter!” as a constant refrain in their efforts to attract mates now that they feel spring in their blood.

A series of rat-a-tat-tats echoes from deeper in the woods as woodpeckers tap their sturdy bills against the trunks of trees. The three most common woodpeckers at my home are red-bellied, downy, and pileated, and they all have their own unique vocalizations, as well.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Woodpeckers not only vocalize, they also add to the spring cacophony by drumming against the trunks of trees.

The pileated woodpecker produces clear, far-carrying resonant piping sounds that can last for a few seconds each blast. The much smaller downy woodpecker produces a whinny of high-pitched notes that descend in pitch toward their conclusion. The red-bellied call is probably the one that stands out the most. The call’s a harsh, rolling “Churr, churr, churr” given almost like an expression of exasperation as they circle tree trunks and explore branches.

Since their return earlier this month, the resident red-winged blackbirds are often some of the earliest singers these days. According to the website All About Birds, the male red-winged blackbird’s “conk-la-ree!” is a classic sound of wetlands across the continent of North America. According to the website, the one-second song starts with an abrupt note that transforms quickly into a musical trill.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

Some birds helpfully introduce themselves with a song that repeats their name. One such common bird is the Eastern phoebe. In recent weeks, a pair has been checking out the rafters of my garage for potential nest sites. The male spends much of the day producing his strident “fee-bee” call, which is a perfect phonetic rendition of the bird’s common name.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Eastern Phoebe’s song is a repetitive rendition of its own name — “fee-bee” — given over and over.

Then there’s one of my favorite songs of spring, which is produced by the Eastern towhee, which is also known by such common names as “ground robin” and “swamp robin.” These birds, which are actually a species of sparrow, also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite accurately, as “drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “€œChew-ink”€ and “€œToe-Hee,” of which the latter provides the basis for this bird’s common name.

Of course, other wildlife joins the chorus. I have so many spring peepers at the fish pond and in the wet fields around my house that the noise from these tiny amphibians can reach deafening levels. The chorus is bound to grow more diverse and louder as spring advances. Take some time to enjoy the sounds of nature at your own home.

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To share your own sighting, make a comment or ask a question, send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An alert Eastern towhee female forages on a lawn.

 

Mystery birds turn out to be Northern flickers

Photo Courtesy of Barbara Lake • A Northern flicker forages for insects on a lawn.

Barbara Lake sent me an email and several attached photos recently asking for help with a new bird she had noticed in her yard.

“Can you identify this bird?” Barbara wrote. “He was pecking at the ground like a woodpecker might do if the yard was a tree. I’ve never seen it before.
She added that she saw two of the birds. “They aerated the yard nicely,” she noted.

Barbara’s instincts were correct. The bird was a woodpecker. Most of the region’s woodpeckers are black and white birds. The Northern flicker, on the other hand, shows considerable color— for a woodpecker. Barbara’s two visitors were flickers.

While flickers can be found during all seasons in the region, this woodpecker is one of the migratory ones. I see the most Northern flickers during fall migration. This woodpecker is one of the few of its kind that migrates to warmer climates during the colder months, although the species is usually not absent from the region in the winter season.

Photo by Barbara Lake • Northern flickers, such as this individual, spent a lot of time foraging on the ground for insect prey.

As mentioned earlier, this is a woodpecker with many other common names, including yellow-hammer — a popular name in the Deep South — and harry-wicket, heigh-ho and gawker bird. The Northern flicker is also the only woodpecker to serve a state — Alabama — as an official bird. The flicker earned this distinction back in 1927. Soldiers from Alabama who fought for the Confederacy were nicknamed “yellowhammers” because of their grey-and-yellow uniforms, which matched the colors of the bird. Incidentally, Alabama was one of the first states to ever name an official state bird.

The Northern flicker — both the yellow- and red-shafted races — is not the only flicker in the United States. The gilded flicker inhabits many of the deserts — Sonoran, Yuma and Colorado — in the United States. Of course, trees are scarce in deserts, but that hasn’t proven an obstacle for this woodpecker. The bird is closely associated with saguaro cactus. Other desert dwellers depend on this woodpecker. Once the flickers are no longer making use of their nest and roost holes in the multi-armed cacti, other wildlife moved into the chambers.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • Northern flickers create nesting cavities that will in subsequent years be used by other cavity-nesting birds.

The Northern flicker is an enthusiastic drummer, pounding loudly on the sides of trees with its stout bill. The purpose of the drumming is to communicate with mates and signal potential rivals that they’re intruding. Toward that objective, flickers sometimes substitute metal utility poles or the sides of buildings for the trunks of trees. In addition to drumming, the flicker also employs a variety of loud vocalizations that are fairly distinctive. A loud, repeated flicker, often translated as “wicka-wicka-wicka,” is similar to the cluck-like call of the larger pileated woodpecker. The flicker is also known for emitting a sharp, loud “kleeer” call can be heard from a considerable distance. Flickers are probably most vocal during the spring months.

If you search for flickers, however, don’t concentrate all your scanning on tree trunks. These woodpeckers spend a lot of time in field or on lawns in search of insect prey, which mostly consists of ants and beetles. Barbara’s observation gave her a glimpse into the usual behavior of these unusual woodpeckers. Flickers also eat seeds and fruit, and these woodpeckers will also visit feeders for peanuts, sunflower seed and suet.

Photo Courtesy of Barbara Lake • A Northern flicker hunts beetles, ants, and other insects in a grassy lawn.

The adult flicker is a brown bird with black bars on the back and wings. A distinctive black patch occupies the upper breast, while the lower breast and belly are beige with black spots. Males can be identified by a black or red mustache stripe at the base of the beak. They also have a red stripe on the back of their gray heads. The flicker’s dark tail is set apart from a white rump patch that is conspicuous when the bird takes flight.

The Northern flicker, as either the red- or yellow-shafted reach, ranges across the United States and Canada. The flicker also ranges to Central America, Cuba and the Cayman Islands. Known scientifically as Colaptes auratus, which can be roughly translated as the “golden woodpecker,” there are about a dozen species of flickers in North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

A couple members of the flicker clan are now extinct. The human introduction of cats and goats to Guadalupe Island, offshore from the western coast of Baja California, Mexico, led to the extinction of this woodpecker in 1906. The Bermuda flicker apparently died out centuries ago, although a few may have lingered into the 17th century. John Smith, the early explorer associated with the Jamestown colony of Virginia, may have written of the Bermuda flicker in a journal recording his voyages. English-born John Abbot explored southeastern Georgia, collecting specimens and painting birds such as this Northern flicker during the Revolutionary era in Colonial America.

Look for Northern flickers in fields, orchards, city parks and well-planted suburban yards. These woodpeckers are usually not too shy around human observers and will sometimes allow for extended observation. If you’re even more fortunate, you could find one visiting your feeders.

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • Flickers come in two varieties. The yellow-shafted race, shown here, is found primarily in the Eastern United States. In western states, the red-shafted variety replaces its eastern counterpart. In this photo, a researcher demonstrates the yellow feather shafts in an individual’s wing.

Playing host for ‘bluebirds of happiness’ in your own yard

 

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

Eastern bluebirds returned to my home much earlier than usual this year, which I hope is a good sign. The presence of a pair of these beautiful and trusting birds is always sure to put people in a good mood. Is it any wonder that bluebirds are widely considered harbingers of happiness?

Many Native American tribes, including the Navajo and Cochiti, paid special reverence to bluebirds. Russian folklore and Chinese mythology also offer interest tales about “blue birds,” but those are not species closely related to any of North America’s three species of native bluebirds.

People have known for generations that bluebirds make good neighbors. A pair of bluebirds in your yard or garden provides hour upon hour of free entertainment as one watches these birds go about their daily routine. At this time of the year, much of that routine is focused on finding and claiming the best possible nesting location for the upcoming spring season.

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

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

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

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male Eastern Bluebird is beloved by many bird enthusiasts.

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

Portrait by E. O. Hoppé of Alexander Teixeira De Mattos, who helped popularize “The Bluebird of Happiness.”

Fortunately for bluebirds, this species will also accept lodging in a nest box, or birdhouse, provided for them by human landlords. One of the simplest ways to bring bluebirds close is to offer wooden boxes, constructed to their specific requirements, for their use as nesting locations.

Because of their trusting nature when it comes to their human neighbors, the Eastern bluebird is one of our most beloved birds. In fact, bluebirds are such popular birds that interest in them and their well-being has inspired the foundation of organizations such as the North American Bluebird Society. The Eastern bluebird has also been designated the official state bird for New York and Missouri, which provides more testimony to the immense popularity of this bird.

So, where exactly did the phrase “bluebird of happiness” originate? As it turns out, the phrase became popularized with the American public thanks to a musical and a pop song. Maurice Maeterlinck in 1908 published a symbolist stage play named “The Blue Bird.” Translated into English by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, it played on Broadway from 1910. The play was eventually adapted into a children’s novel, an opera and at least seven films between 1910 and 2002.

In 1934, the endurance of the phrase received reinforcement, thanks to the popular American song “Bluebird of Happiness,” which was written by Sandor Harmati and Edward Heyman. The song was recorded several times by American tenor Jan Peerce, as well as by Art Mooney and His Orchestra.

Photo by skeeze/Pixabay.com • Eastern bluebirds are already scouring the countryside for suitable nesting cavities. Consider adding a nesting box to your yard or garden to attract these beautiful tenants for the nesting season.

Buffleheads among delightful winter surprises in region

Marion Howe sent me a stunning photograph of an impressive visitor at her feeders. Shortly after I wrote about Pileated Woodpeckers a few weeks ago, Marion sent me a photo of a Pileated Woodpecker at her suet feeder.

Photo by Marion Howe • This Pileated Woodpecker visited the home of Marion Howe in Kingsport, Tennessee..

“Although I now live in Bristol, I previously lived in Kingsport where I had the pleasure to watch a multitude of birds in my yard, including this one,” Marion wrote. “What a treat when she decided to stop by for a bite to eat!”

Away from our backyard feeders, what sort of birds can one expect to find during the late winter and early spring in northeast Tennessee?

If you’re ready to look a little farther afield, the region offers some great locations for searching for wintering and migrating waterfowl. A variety of ducks and geese pass through the region in late fall and winter. A few species stop to spend the season on area lakes and rivers.

Wilbur Lake in Carter County offers one of the largest wintering populations of Bufflehead in the entire region, if not the state.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Lingering waterfowl, such as these buffleheads, are found in the region in winter and spring.

The Bufflehead belongs to the genus Bucephala, which also includes Common Goldeneye and Barrow’s Goldeneye. These three ducks are all small tree-hole nesting sea ducks found exclusively in the Northern Hemisphere.

The “sea duck” family consists of several other types of ducks, including scoters, mergansers and eiders. All but two of the 20 species in this grouping occur only in the Northern Hemisphere. Most of the sea ducks, not surprisingly, are adapted to life in salt-water environments.

The Bufflehead stands out from its fellow sea ducks for many reasons. The breeding habitat of this little duck consists of wooded lakes and ponds in Alaska and Canada, almost entirely within the boreal forest, or taiga, habitat. In the winter months, Buffleheads migrate to quiet bays or open inland lakes on both the eastern and western coasts of North America, as well as the southern United States as far as southern Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo by bryanhanson1956/Pixabay.com • A pair of Buffleheads enjoy a swim together.

Wilbur Lake has hosted a winter population of Buffleheads for decades. This small duck usually arrives in the final days of October and a few will remain until late April or early May. The flock at Wilbur ranges from about 100 to 200 individuals.

There’s another flock of Buffleheads that spends the winter at Osceola Island Recreation Area in the tailwaters below South Holston Dam in Sullivan County. A one-mile recreational trail at this location offers views of the waterways and any waterfowl congregated on them. The Buffleheads usually remain close to the weir dams at this location. Other wintering ducks at this area include American Wigeon, Mallard and Ring-necked Duck.

Carter County’s high-elevation Ripshin Lake often hosts wintering Buffleheads, but usually only a few individuals are present for as long as this small lake remains unfrozen.

The Bufflehead’s name is derived from “Buffalo Head,” which refers to this small duck’s oversized head. Male Buffleheads have a large, white patch across the back of the head that extends from cheek to cheek, forming a bushy crest that gives the head its large appearance. From a distance, the remainder of the head looks blackish, but when viewed from close range in good light the black plumage in the head shows an iridescent green and purple sheen. The back and rump are black, but the rest of the body is glossy white. The black-and-white pattern is quite unique, making a male Bufflehead impossible to mistake for any other bird. The male’s bill is blue-gray and his legs and feet are pink.

Female Buffleheads are brownish-gray, except for an oval white patch that extends from below the eye back towards the nape of the neck. The belly is whitish, and the female’s bill is dark gray and her legs and feet are grayish.

The Bufflehead is the smallest of North America’s diving ducks. One of the dabbling ducks, the Green-winged Teal, rivals the Bufflehead for the distinction as the continent’s smallest duck. The Bufflehead ranges between 12 and 16 inches long and can weigh 13 ounces. Males are larger than females. By comparison, the Green-winged Teal is usually 14 to 15 inches long and weighs 11 to 12 ounces.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A raft of buffleheads swim on the Watauga River.

Buffleheads spend a lot of time diving for food beneath the water’s surface. Their varied diet consists of insects, crustaceans, some aquatic plants and fish eggs.

The Bufflehead depends on one of our native woodpeckers to provide nesting habitat. The Bufflehead is just the right size to fit into abandoned nesting cavities previously occupied by Northern Flickers.

I’m not sure why the Wilbur Buffleheads choose not to spend the winter months on a salt-water bay farther south, but I am very happy that some of these small, entertaining ducks are so close at hand. I suspect the woodlands around Wilbur Lake may, in fact, resemble some of the wooded lakes on this duck’s summer nesting range.

The Bufflehead is a fairly common duck and appears to be thriving. In 1992, the continent-wide breeding population was estimated at 1,390,000 birds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A raft of Buffleheads brave some rough waters on the Watauga River.

Flocks of red-winged blackbirds, other sightings, could signal winter’s end

Photo by JudaM/Pixabay.com • Feeders are a good way to tempt red-winged blackbirds closer for great views. Males are exceptional in their glossy black plumage with red wing patches accented by a hint of yellow. Females are brown and striped, giving them a similar appearance to large sparrows.

 

H. Lea Jones, Jr. of Bristol, Virginia, wrote to me after seeing my post about pileated woodpeckers a few weeks ago.

“I read with interested your story about this woodpecker,” Lea wrote in an email. “I have been keeping up feeding the birds, which both of my now deceased parents loved to watch, outside the large kitchen windows of their home which I inherited. One day, a couple of years back, while manning the chair and watching the birds, I was startled to see two of these woodpeckers hanging from my extra large suet cage. There was one on each side. Maybe a male and a female?”

Photo by Mike Dobe/Pixabay.com • A pileated woodpecker visits a suet feeder.

Lea noted that the two woodpeckers stayed at the suet for maybe 30 seconds. “I was shocked to see these huge birds and only could assume, at the time, they were woodpeckers. Just very beautiful birds!”

After a little research, Lea discovered the identity of the visitors. “And now I know the ‘sound’ in the wooded area behind the house,” Lea wrote. I had also described the sound in my post.

“Nothing like it I’d ever heard before,” Lea wrote. “Since reading your article, I now realize what a rare sight I have been blessed with. It was truly an amazing sight indeed.”

Dr. John Brenner sent me an email recently about an unexpected sighting at his home in Abingdon, Virginia, on Thursday, Feb. 13, around 5 p.m.

“I saw a Baltimore oriole in my back yard,” he reported. “It was sitting on a fence then flew over to my feeders where it walked around under them.”

He explained that he lives in the heart of Abingdon and has been living at his current address for about three and a half years. “This is the first time I have seen this bird,” he said. “I thought it was unusual.”

Photo by USFWS • Baltimore orioles, like this male, are members of the blackbird family, making them relatives of species such as Eastern meadowlarks, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds.

Winter sightings of orioles are rather unusual, but they are not unheard of. The North Carolina Birds website details the emerging phenomenon of wintering orioles.

“Until the 1960s, it (Baltimore oriole) essentially did not winter in the United States, but with milder winters and people putting out oranges and peanut butter on their feeders, and not just various seeds and suet, a number of orioles started wintering from North Carolina to Florida,” according to a profile of the species. Straying into Virginia would certainly not be out of the question, although Baltimore orioles are usually expected in southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee from April to October.

In the last couple of weeks, large flocks of red-winged blackbirds have been making stops at my home. The largest flock numbered about 50 individual birds. Red-winged blackbirds are often considered harbingers of spring, but these birds arrived with some of the recent wintry weather that arrived in February.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

I’ve long associated red-winged blackbirds with early spring. I also had a single red-winged blackbird make a one-day visit earlier in February during a snowstorm. Those February visitors are the vanguard of large numbers of red-winged blackbirds that return in impressive numbers every March. The blackbirds arriving now behave much differently than the quiet, shy ones that often make brief visits to feeders during late winter snowstorms.

The showy and loud red-winged blackbirds made themselves at home at my fish pond and adjacent stands of cattails, producing quite a commotion. “The kon-ke-ree song of the male red-winged blackbird is a sure indication that spring is on the way,” according to a profile of the species located at the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website. At this time of year, the male red-winged blackbirds seek elevated perches to display and vocalize.

The male red-winged blackbirds is a very aptly named bird. Glossy black males sport red wing patches that are often trimmed with a narrow band of yellow feathers. By contrast, female red-winged blackbirds are mostly brown birds that could easily be mistaken for large sparrows. Both sexes have sharply pointed bills.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Red-winged blackbirds arrive as a noisy flock on a wintry February evening.

After I posted on Facebook about the sightings of the red-winged blackbird flocks, Rita Schuettler, a fan of these birds and a resident of Elizabethton, Tennessee, asked whether these flocks were unseasonably early.

Photo by Lintow/Pixabay.com • Female red-winged blackbirds could easily be mistaken for a large sparrow.

I told Rita in a subsequent post that a friend in Atlanta has informed me that he began seeing the blackbird flocks in his neighborhood a couple of weeks ago. So they are right on time for make their appearance in Northeast Tennessee. Laura Evans Barden also posted on my Facebook page that she has been seeing red-winged blackbirds in recent weeks, as well as more common grackles and European starlings.

Red-winged blackbirds are fond of wetlands. Any marsh, damp field or flooded pasture is likely to attract a few resident red-winged blackbirds. Females choose nesting locations in cattails or other marsh vegetation. She usually lays three or four eggs. Although she does receive some help from the male, most of the responsibility for raising the young is left to her.

There is a reason that male red-winged blackbirds are not always quite as engaged in feeding and tending their young. Male red-winged blackbirds are often polygynous, which means that males will often court multiple mates. His time is often occupied defending females and their respective nests from the advances of other male red-winged blackbirds.

Other relatives of the red-winged blackbird in the United States include the tricolored blackbird found along the Pacific Coast and the yellow-headed blackbird resident in wetlands west of the Great Lakes. Rusty blackbird, common grackle and brown-headed cowbird are other species of blackbirds found in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

Photo by Bryan Stevens  • This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed at Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006.

Several different species of hawks make their home in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

In recent weeks, I’ve enjoyed some observations of the region’s larger raptors, including red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks.

Anyone who travels along the region’s Interstate Highway System has probably noticed hawks perched in trees or on utility lines adjacent to the roadway. The section of Interstate 26 that runs between Unicoi and Johnson City is often a productive area for keeping alert for raptors. The raptor I have most often observed along this stretch of road is the Red-tailed Hawk, although I have also observed Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and American Kestrel. In the time of spring and fall migration, it’s also possible to observe Broad-winged Hawks.

The Red-tailed Hawk is named for its prominent red tail. However, only adults show the characteristic red tail. The affinity for Red-tailed Hawks for roadsides is a double-edged sword. Viewing a large hawk from your car is an easy way to watch birds. For inexperienced or careless raptors, however, roadside living is often rife with the chance for a collision with a car or truck. The Red-tailed Hawk, which prefers open countryside, is attracted to the margins of roads and highways because these locations also attract their favorite prey, which includes rodents like rats, squirrels and mice and other small mammals such as rabbits.

Human behavior contributes to some of the problems that hawks encounter in the zone that brings them too close for comfort to motorized vehicles. When people toss trash from a car, the scent of the litter will lure curious and hungry rodents. In turn, hunting hawks are brought to the edges of roads in search of their preferred prey, increasing the likelihood of colliding with automobiles.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A calling red-shouldered hawk perched in a dead tree on Pawleys Island in South Carolina.

In recent days, I have also noticed a Red-shouldered Hawk lurking among the branches of the large weeping willow next to the fish pond. The Red-shoulder Hawk typically prefers wetland habitats and is less likely to haunt roadsides. According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

The Red-shouldered Hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a Killdeer. The visiting Red-shouldered Hawk has been silent so far, perhaps not wishing to draw attention. The few times the local crows have noticed the presence of any sort of raptor, they’ve flocked together to mob the unfortunate hawk. It’s also not the right time of year; during courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal, but at other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible to mistakenly think you have heard one of these large hawks. Blue Jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related Red-tailed Hawk, the Red-shouldered Hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive. The Red-shouldered Hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the Red-tailed Hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often the dominant avian predators in their respective habitats.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of red-shouldered hawk.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos Hawk and the Hawaiian Hawk. Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the White-throated Hawk, Gray-lined Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk and Short-tailed 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 and Broad-winged Hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

All too often, our large hawks 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.