Erwin woman reports early date  for spring return of hummingbird

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

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

•••

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

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

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

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

•••

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

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

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

•••

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

•••

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

•••

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are returning. Are you ready?

Photo by Katy Jefferson • A male ruby-throated hummingbird visits a sugar water feeder for a quick refuel.

The website Journey North noted on March 15 that ruby-throated hummingbird migration was off to a slow start for spring 2022.  According to the website, Journey North volunteers along the Gulf Coast and in the Southeast are noting new arrivals, but the total number of reports is lower than at this same time last year.

On a posting made on March 22, Journey North indicated that the pace had quickened. After a slow start, according to the website, ruby-throated hummingbird migration is picking up in the Southeastern United States.

According to the website, most first spring observations of hummingbirds are males, although a few females are being spotted. Male hummingbirds, the posting noted, arrive first so they can find and defend a territory.

The first migration reports of ruby-throated hummingbirds began as a trickle in early March from along the Gulf Coast. Observers in states such as Texas and Louisiana reported ruby-throated hummingbirds as early as March 1.

The website made note that spring migration is a challenging time for hummingbirds. Temperature, wind patterns and storms can influence the pace of migration.

Even once these tiny birds make their epic spring crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, they will need time to rest and refuel before moving northward. By mid-March, the advance of ruby-throated hummingbirds had reached states such as Georgia and South Carolina. By the end of March, the first reports began to arrive at Journey North from Tennessee and North Carolina. (There’s already been a local sighting, but that will come with next week’s column.)

Now that the ruby-throated hummingbirds have officially returned to the Volunteer State and its neighbors, it’s time to put out those sugar water feeders. Consider planting some colorful native flowers to provide nectar sources for hummingbirds.

Northeast Tennessee usually gets its first spring hummingbirds the first week of April. If you’re seeing hummingbirds, I’d love to know. I have tracked arrivals for several years now. To share your first spring sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or contact me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. Please include the date and time of your sighting.

In the meantime, take steps now to welcome hummingbirds back and keep them safe during their stay.

Some ways of ensuring that our hummingbird guests are kept healthy and secure are simply common sense. For instance, don’t use pesticides, herbicides or any other sort of toxin anywhere close to the vicinity of a sugar water feeder or a flower garden. Hummingbirds are such tiny creatures with such intense metabolisms that it only takes a small amount of any harmful substance to sicken or kill one of these little flying gems.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but they usually begin returning each spring in early April in Northeast Tennessee and the surrounding region.

Feeding hummingbirds is easy, but many people try to complicate the process. Only common, pure cane sugar, mixed to a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, is a safe choice for these birds.

For emphasis, I’ll repeat again that only common, pure cane sugar is safe for hummingbirds. There are no safe substitutes. Do not use organic, raw or brown sugar. Confectioner’s sugar, which contains an anti-caking substance (often corn starch, silicates or stearate salts), is also hazardous to hummingbirds.

There’s also a type of sugar known as turbinado sugar, which is named for the process of spinning the sugar in turbines to crystallize it. The crystals are rich in vitamins and minerals valuable for human health, but they are lethal for hummingbirds. Iron is one of the minerals contained in turbinado sugar. Hummingbird metabolism has a low tolerance for iron, which is present in the molasses added to brown sugar and in agave nectar. These are natural substances, but that doesn’t make them safe for hummingbirds.

The ratio of four parts water to one part sugar utilizing pure cane sugar most closely duplicates the nectar that hummingbirds obtain from some of their favorite flowers. Why try to mess with nature’s perfection?

I cannot imagine why anyone would supplement sugar water for hummingbirds with such human beverages as a sports drink or Kool-aid, but there have been reports of people doing so. Be aware that such additives will only risk the health of these tiny birds.

Most experts also suggest avoiding red dyes, which are often found in commercially marketed hummingbird sugar water. Don’t risk the health of hummingbirds for a little convenience.

It’s easy to make your own sugar water mix, which can be stored in the refrigerator in an empty plastic juice jug. Boil some water and then add one cup of sugar for every four cups of water in your pot. Stir thoroughly. Bottle the mixture until it cools. Fill your feeders and store any remaining sugar water in the fridge in the aforementioned jug. Refrigerated, the mix should stay good to use for at least a week.

In our milder spring weather, changing the sugar water in feeders can probably be done on a weekly basis. When hotter summer temperatures prevail, it’s usually necessary to change the sugar water every two or three days.

Brown thrashers return to rude, cold awakening

Photo by Bryan Stevens
Brown Thrasher perched in a Mimosa Tree.

Just when it appears safe to welcome spring, nature throws a curveball in the form of a snowstorm and a frigid but brief cold snap.

At least the snowstorm had a silver lining at my home when a pair of brown thrashers chose to make their spring arrival at the same time.

Many of the resident birds looked a bit peeved to find snow and ice after a bout of mild spring weather, but the two thrashers outside my window on March 12 looked absolutely stunned.

I’ve always thought that brown thrashers are expressive birds, but the expressions of these birds looked like a mix of bewilderment and consternation to find that their return coincided with a short-lived dip into temperatures in the single digits.

Karen Fouts, who resides in Marion, Virginia, commiserated with the thrashers, agreeing with my post that the poor birds appeared stunned by the change in the weather.

“I’ve been waiting for ours but hope they wait a week or so,” Karen wrote in a comment to my post.

Although a few brown thrashers linger in Northeast Tennessee through the winter season, the majority of these birds fly a little farther south for the cold months. Invariably, brown thrashers make their return in March and can be considered another of our feathered friends whose arrival represents more evidence that spring is returning.

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

A few years ago, quite by accident, I came across a brown thrasher nest. I hadn’t gone looking for it. The nest, expertly woven into a thicket of honeysuckle vines, was tucked beneath a sheltering eave of an outdoor storage building. I don’t think anything but a fortunate accident could have ever revealed the nest. I still remember peeking into that tangle of vines and seeing a golden eye staring back. The bird didn’t look in the least pleased that I had accidentally stumbled across her nest.

The otherwise extroverted brown thrasher, which prefers to nest in difficult-to-access, tangled messes, found the cluster of vines a perfect location.

For those not familiar with brown thrashers — relatives of the Northern mockingbird — they are known for their feisty and fearless protection of their nest and young. I’m probably fortunate the thrasher on her nest decided to choose stealth instead of attack. Sometimes, discretion is truly the better part of valor and the bird probably decided that, if she remained motionless, she would blend in well with her surroundings.

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.

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

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 a dramatic scene of a group of brown thrashers valiantly defending a nest from an attacking snake. The painting is so detailed that one must 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.

Incidentally, Audubon knew the brown thrasher as the “ferruginous thrush.” Another former common name for this species was “brown thrush.”

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.

Returning to the expressive nature of brown thrashers, I think it’s the bird’s golden eyes that make them seem so alert and attentive. Once they feel secure in a lawn or garden, they become less shy. As one might expect from a large songbird, thrashers have voracious appetites. Among the feeder fare I offer, thrashers seem to prefer suet cakes. They’re not woodpeckers, however, so the awkward attempts of these long-tailed birds to access the suet offer some comic antics for observers.

More birds are due to make their spring returns soon. The return of ruby-throated hummingbirds is a highly anticipated arrival for many people. These birds usually get back in the first weeks of April. As always, I hope to track the return of these tiny flying gems.

To share your first spring hummingbird sighting, send me an email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or contact me on Facebook. Please provide the date, time and location for your sightings.

Turkeys strutting their stuff as spring begins to take hold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To share your own sighting, make a comment or ask a question, please email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. 

Members of blackbird clan known for early spring arrivals

Photo by Shauna Fletcher/Pixabay • A male red-winged blackbird produces his “kon-ke-ree”song and flashes his red wing patches to claim territory and attract mates.

I’ve long come to associate red-winged blackbirds with early spring. Most years, I get a friendly reminder in February that spring’s on its way when a vanguard of of red-winged blackbirds return in impressive numbers every March.

This year, my first returning male red-winged blackbird arrived on the evening of March 3. The early spring arrival perched atop one of the tall cypresses by the fish pond and sang is heart out. He’s been singing every day since his arrival, but I’ve not yet noticed any female red-winged blackbirds. It’s been my experience that the females lag a week or so behind the males in returning to their familiar territory.

The blackbirds arriving in spring behave much differently than the quiet, furtive ones that often make brief visits to feeders during late winter snowstorms.

The showy and loud red-winged blackbird male that’s once again taken up residence at my fish pond and adjacent stands of cattails has made himself right at home

“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 located at the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website.

At this time of year, the male red-winged blackbirds seek elevated perches to display and vocalize. Their loud antics are not designed solely to attract mates. Male red-winged blackbirds also sing to warn rival males from intruding into their territories.

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.

Red-winged blackbirds are fond of wetlands. Any marsh or even a 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 Pixabay • A common grackle perches on a shepherd’s hook while approaching a feeder.

The common grackles have also returned. I’ve been noticing grackles on lawns through downtown Erwin on some of my recent walks. Like American robins, grackles form loose flocks that spread out and forage on lawns and in gardens.

The grackle, as well as the red-winged blackbird, belong to the family known as Icteridae, also known as New World blackbirds. This rather large family of birds consists of such groups as blackbirds, New World orioles, bobolink, meadowlarks, grackles, cowbirds, oropendolas and caciques.

Old World blackbirds are actually thrushes while Old World orioles are not closely related to the orioles of the New World.

The human clearance of land for farming and residences has helped the common grackle spread far and wide. Grackles can become threats to crops and large flocks of these birds can certainly overwhelm the average backyard feeder. The grackle is an opportunistic bird and can learn to adjust its behavior to take advantage of a source of easy food. For example, grackles have learned to frequent outdoor areas where humans dine and inevitably drop food. Grackles will also eat almost anything they can swallow, including insects, small fish, amphibians, small rodents and the eggs of other birds, as well as berries, seeds and grains.

Grackles only make brief visits to my home during migration, but the red-winged blackbirds that arrive in early spring will stick around to nest, usually not departing until late summer. To reduce competition with other songbirds, consider scattering seed on the ground for grackles, which actually prefer foraging at ground level. Providing for them in this way may spare the users of platform and hanging feeders, which can include such smaller birds as chickadees, wrens and sparrows.

The larger the songbird, the longer lifespan they usually enjoy. Still, the longevity record for a wild grackle strikes me as quite exceptional. According to the website All About Birds, the oldest recorded common grackle was a male that lived to be at least 23 years old. He might have lived longer, but he was killed by a raptor in Minnesota.

Other birds will be returning this month, so keep an eye out for them. Some of the species I expect in March include brown thrasher and blue-gray gnatcatcher.

To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Eager American robins arrive each spring ready for nesting

Photo by Peter Pearsall/ USFWS • An American robin at Cape Mears NWR perches on a sign. Robins have long been a beloved sign of spring’s return in North America.

I don’t think I’m alone in doing what I can to speed along the process of spring’s arrival. The arrival of flocks of American robins has long been a dependable signal coinciding with the shifting of the winter season into spring. This year, the robins appeared almost overnight. One day, I didn’t notice any robins; on the next, they were everywhere I looked.

The American robin is known by the scientific name Turdus migratorius, which can be translated as “migratory thrush.” Indeed, this well-known American bird is related to other thrushes, including the Eastern bluebird, wood thrush and veery. The relationship to other thrushes is quite visible in young birds, which display a spotted breast until they mature and acquire the familiar red breast associated with robins.

One of the first things robins do after returning each spring is switch their diet. Instead of focusing heavily on fruit, robins will hunt for invertebrate prey items, including insects and earthworms once warming temperatures make these creatures widely available for the hungry birds. Forming large flocks as they migrate, dozens of these restless birds can descend on a lawn. Hopping through the short grass, these sharp-eyed birds can spy the slightest movement from an insect, grub or worm concealed in the grass. They forage efficiently and diligently.

The website, Journey North, focuses on tracking the migration of various species of wildlife, relying on the contributions of “citizen scientists” to help with its mission of conservation and protections of migratory species.

The website also offers some interesting facts about American robins. According to Journey North, robins are bursting to sing once they return each spring.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • American robin sitting on its nest in the shelter of a side of a bridge spanning the Doe River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

“Robins sing when they arrive on their breeding territories. Sometimes robins even sing in winter flocks, due to surging hormones as the breeding season approaches,” the website states. “However, in the majority of cases, robins really do wait to sing until they have reached their territory.”

Once robins start singing each spring, it’s also the time when the large flocks break up. When male robins sing, it is to proclaim and protect territories, so the attractiveness of a flock is different for a robin depending on whether the season is winter or spring.

The poet Emily Dickinson made note of this penchant for song that robins express with such enthusiasm upon their return each spring in her poem “The Robin,” writing these lines:

“The robin is the one

That interrupts the morn

With hurried, few, express reports

When March is scarcely on.”

Even in Dickinson’s time, the month of March was associated with the return of the American robins to towns, yards and gardens across New England and the rest of the United States.

There are 82 other species in the genus, which ranges not only in the Americas, but Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, as well. Some of the American robin’s fellow genus members include the olive thrush, the bare-eyed thrush, pale thrush, great thrush, black-billed thrush and cocoa thrush.

When the first European settlers arrived in North America, the robin was still a bird living in the forests. Robins proved incredibly capable of adapting to the presence of humans. Soon enough, these once shy forest birds began to frequent lawns and city parks. The robin soon became one of America’s most popular songbirds. Three states — Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin — have conferred official state bird status on the American robin.

Robins begin nesting almost as soon as they return each spring. Nesting success in a previous season instills fidelity to the location where the birds nested, resulting in many robins returning to the same nesting area year after year.

According to the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website, American robins usually raise two broods of young during their nesting season in the Volunteer State. Many start nesting in late winter, but peak egg laying is in mid-April. The spring months are also when robin pairs will be kept busy finding enough earthworms and insects to feed a nest filled with three to five hungry young.

Although some robins invariably spent the entire winter season in the region, it is still a welcome sight to see migrating flocks of these birds return every February and early March. The sudden resurgence of the American robin each spring is a reminder that another winter will soon be history. I know I’m always pleased to welcome them back.

Bluebirds welcome spring by searching for nesting locations

Photo by  NatureLady/Pixabay • A male Eastern bluebird perches atop a nest box. The region’s bluebirds are already actively seeking nesting locations as winter changes into spring.

I began hearing the pleasant warbling of Eastern bluebirds back in January on sunny but frosty mornings. Their presence has only grown in February and now as we turn the calendar to March.

The bluebirds know that spring is close, 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?

Perhaps the poet Emily Dickinson summarized it best with these lines from her aptly named poem, “The Bluebird.”

“Before you thought of spring,

Except as a surmise,

You see, God bless his suddenness,

A fellow in the skies

Of independent hues,

A little weather-worn,

Inspiriting habiliments

Of indigo and brown.”

Other great American poets, including Robert Frost, have also waxed poetic about bluebirds. Before poets wrote their poems, many Native American tribes, including the Navajo and Cochiti, paid special reverence to bluebirds. Russian folklore and Chinese mythology also offer interesting 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.

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.

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.

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.

Our Eastern bluebird has some counterparts in other parts of the nation. The Western bluebird and the mountain bluebird are both Western species. I got a chance to see mountain bluebirds during trips to Salt Lake City in Utah in 2004 and 2006. These uniformly “blue” bluebirds lack the red breast plumage of the other two species.

To share a sighting, ask a question or make a comment, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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

Kettle of red-shouldered hawks drums up birding excitement

Photo by Judith Hayes/Pixabay • Red-shouldered hawk are raptors known for noisy antics and a fondness for woodland habitats bordering sources of wate

I was proven correct on Feb. 15. I’d returned home from work in time to enjoy the last of a sunny day. I’d no sooner stepped from my car when I heard the screams of a red-shouldered hawk from a nearby ridge.

The red-shouldered hawks are, to make a point on the punctuality of birds, right on time. They usually return in late January or early February to the woodlands around my home.

My recent sighting, however, involved more than a single hawk. I detected at least two hawks, seemingly screaming at each other. Curious, I searched for them and found them soaring overhead as the sunny day had generated warm, rising thermals of air.

To my surprise, I soon had a small kettle of red-shouldered hawks calling, soaring and swooping at each other. Two hawks rose to three, then five and finally six! I’d never observed so many red-shouldered hawks in one spot.

I shared the remarkable observation on Facebook and pondered if fellow birder Tom McNeil had seen or heard any of these noisy hawks on his side of the ridge.

After all, the hawks were soaring rather high by the time they flew out of sight and could easily have been seen in Piney Grove as they rose above the ridge separating the community from Simerly Creek Road.

Tom later responded with some interesting information. “Last year a pair nested in the pines across the road,” he wrote. “They were insanely noisy through the early spring.”

He noted, however, that his high count has been four individuals, not six.

Another Facebook friend, Kris Hawkins Rosalina, also shared sightings of this hawk.

“I saw two on Sunday morning, and we’re probably a mile from you as the crow flies on Brown Branch Road,” Kris wrote.

Michael Briggs, who resides in Erwin, also shared about his own pair of hawks. “I’ve had one, maybe two, living near my house for some time now,” he said.

Michael also noted that he had heard one the same day I made my post about the six hawks at my home.

Although at least two of the hawks I observed seemed engaged in an aerial duel, constantly folding their wings, diving and swooping at each other, I think it was mostly bluster and bluff on their part.

Red-shouldered hawks appear animated by a feisty spirit and, as Tom pointed out in his Facebook remarks, are on occasion “insanely noisy” raptors.

The red-shouldered hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a killdeer. 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.

The red-shouldered 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 belongs to a genus of raptors known as Buteo hawks.The red-tailed hawk is the largest and most common buteo hawk found in the region. The genus includes about two dozen large raptors that are often the dominant avian predators in their respective habitats.

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.

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.

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.

The red-shoulder hawk preys on many of the small mammals, such as chipmunks or voles, as well as reptiles, amphibians and crustaceans. This hawk will also occasionally prey on smaller birds, such as doves, starlings or sparrows.

The overall population trend for this hawk species appear to be on the increase throughout the United States. I see them more frequently these days compared to when I first began birding in the early 1990s.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sparrows keep things hopping at feeders during snowstorms

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The white-crowned sparrow is a very aptly named bird.

I recently received an email from a reader in New York.

“I just read your article about juncos and saw it is from November 2021,” wrote Alice H. Poundstone. “I just wanted to drop you a note.”
Alice wrote that the juncos were late arriving at her home.

“They did not arrive until about a month ago,” she said. “Normally we get them closer to early November. I live in Congers, New York, in the Hudson Valley.”
Alice’s email got me to thinking about the winter sparrows at my feeders. Along with juncos, I’ve been hosting song sparrows and white-throated sparrows, especially during the recent snowstorms. They are sometimes timid visitors. In addition, there can be squabbles among these flocking birds. It keeps feeder watching entertaining on snowy days.

On a trip to Roan Mountain, I also saw the first white-crowned sparrow that I’ve observed in many years. The white-crowned sparrow and the white-throated sparrow are both members of the genus known as  Zonotrichia, which refers to two ancient Greek words for zone and hair, which refers to the pattern of streaks on the backs of these five sparrow species. The Zonotrichia sparrows belong to a large group of birds known as Passerellidae, or American sparrows, which also includes birds such as juncos, towhees and brush finches. Some of the more descriptive names for American sparrows include orange-billed sparrow, white-eared ground sparrow, green-backed sparrow, olive sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, five-striped sparrow and golden-winged sparrow.

Many sparrows, including the white-throated sparrow, prefer to forage for food on the ground. It’s often helpful to purchase a supply of millet seed. When filling feeders with sunflower seeds, scatter a couple of handfuls of millet seed on the ground beneath the feeders or at the edge of a brushy area. Sparrows like to have quick access to dense cover, so they will feed more securely if the scattered seeds are within quick reach of shelter.
Although they are fairly common winter visitors in the region, the white-throated sparrow makes its presence known most strongly each spring when the birds begin to sing a familiar refrain that has been transcribed in a couple of different ways. Many Americans render the song of the white-throated sparrow as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” For those living north of the border, the white-throated sparrow sings “O’Canada, O’Canada, O’Canada.” No matter how you translate this sparrow’s song, it’s a sweet and welcome addition to the spring aural landscape.

Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • The aptly-named white-crowned sparrow is not easy confused with the more drab “little brown birds” that comprise a family of birds known as American sparrows.

Most white-throated sparrows depart the region by late April to reach their summer nesting grounds throughout the forests across Canada, the northeastern U.S. and the northern Midwest. In the influx of more showy birds each spring, their absence sometimes goes unnoticed. Nevertheless, it always feels good to welcome them when they return in late October and early November as winter begins extending its grip for the season.
White-crowned sparrows are a little more erratic with their presence in the region. I’ve found them in Roan Mountain on previous visits. I’ve also observed these sparrows in rural western Washington County and at Musick’s Campground at Holston Lake in Sullivan County.

White-crowned sparrows are medium-sized sparrows with considerable gray on breast and back of the neck. Adults of both sexes are adorned with bold black and white head stripes, which gives this bird its common name. Thanks to this distinctive feature, this sparrow truly stands out among a family of birds often labeled as “little brown birds” by birders.
The white-crowned sparrow is known by the scientific name Zonotrichia leucophrys, which translates into English from Ancient Greek as “white eyebrow.”

During the winter season, white-crowned sparrows are known for forming large flocks. They prefer to feed on the ground beneath feeders but will visit platform feeders if they don’t face too much crowding from other birds. In winter, they feed mostly on seeds. In warmer weather, these sparrows will forage for flying insects.

Although this sparrow usually ranges across the United States and Canada, it has been documented as an unusual vagrant to Western Europe. Sightings have taken place in England, Scotland, Ireland and even Norway.

White-crowned sparrows have shown up at my home on a handful of occasions. Their visits have usually been brief affairs during spring and fall migration.
White-crowned sparrows do not nest in the region. They nest far to the north in brushy areas of the taiga and tundra in Alaska and Northern Canada.
It’s not difficult to attract sparrows. White-crowned sparrows can best be encouraged to visit a yard or garden if there is plenty of dense brush and other cover. In this regard, they are similar to Eastern towhees, fox sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.