Odes add summer excitement when heat makes the birds scarce

Photo by Bryan Stevens Photo by Bryan Stevens A female common skimmer, a species of dragonfly, basks in the sunshine to help boost her energy reserves for hunting. Dragonflies, with a kill rate of 90%, are one of the world’s most deadly and efficient predators.

 

I am taking a hiatus from the birds for one week to introduce readers to some “other things with wings.”

Specifically, I want to discuss dragonflies and damselflies, otherwise known as “odes,” or members of the insect order of Odonata. Surprisingly, beyond the fact that both have wings, the odes and birds have a lot in common.

When birds are scarce during the heat of the day, I find that other winged creatures get active and can provide some fun observations. In late summer I spend a great deal of time focused on the dragonflies and damselflies that live along the creek and at the fish pond at my home. The “odonates” are insects with long brightly colored bodies, two pairs of membranous wings and large compound eyes.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A glimpse through the vegetation at one of the pond’s most voracious predators. Dragonflies consume many other species of insects, including some that are considered pests. Pictured is a female Blue Dasher.

Some of the more prevalent dragonflies in the region include widow skimmer, common whitetail, Eastern pondhawk, Eastern amberwing and slaty skimmer. There are less common odes that also put in appearances at my home along Simerly Creek Road. Gray petaltails and tiger spiketails, two larger dragonfly species, put in almost annual appearances.

I also often find the ebony jewelwing, a species of damselfly, fluttering along the creek. These delicate-looking insects like to find a sunny perch near flowing water. I’ve noticed the ebony jewelwings for many years because they are particularly difficult to miss. They have dark wings and a tapering body that glistens with a metallic blue-green sheen.

Damselflies, which are closely related to dragonflies, are usually smaller and less swift. A dragonfly at rest keeps its wings extended horizontally like an airplane’s wings, but damselflies fold their wings over their backs.

All odes are predators, feeding on other insects, but they are harmless to humans. Despite an enduring myth, they cannot sting. They are capable of biting, but will not do so unless they are handled in a careless manner.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The aptly-named Autumn Meadowhawk is one of the last dragonflies to emerge each year.

If you observe dragonflies long enough, you will start to notice they share one trait with hummingbirds: they are intolerant of any intrusion into their personal space. Like feisty hummingbirds, dragonflies constantly chase rivals away from a favorite perch, restlessly patrolling the edge of a pond. They are unceasing in their chasing and harassing of rivals.

Some cultures consider a dragonfly landing on a person a sign of good fortune. My sister-in-law would disagree. She has an intense, if irrational, fear of dragonflies. Perhaps she learned too much of the misinformation handed down in various human cultures about dragonflies.

Europeans have long linked dragonflies with sinister forces. Some common names for dragonflies, such as darners, come down from older names such as “devil’s darning needle.” Swedes call dragonflies “troll spindles” and Norwegians refer to them as “eye pokers.” Some cultures in South America call dragonflies “horse killers” and others refer to them as caballito del diablo, or the “devil’s little horse.” Some residents of the Southern United States refer to dragonflies as “snake doctors,” believing these insects can stitch and repair any injuries that a serpent suffers. It’s no wonder some people fear a harmless and rather beneficial insect.

Native Americans as well as some Asian cultures have a more positive outlook on dragonflies. In Japan, dragonflies represent such concepts as strength, courage and joy. Dragonflies are often depicted in Zuni pottery, and the Navajo use the dragonfly as a symbol to represent “pure water,” which was an important resource for people living in very arid conditions. For both birds and dragonflies, water is also a crucial resource if they are to thrive.

The Hopi and Pueblo tribes also incorporate dragonflies into their art. Many Native Americans consider dragonflies a symbol of renewal. Many others see them as a symbol representing illusion and seeing through deception. I wonder if the use of the dragonfly as a renewal symbol evolved because of the life cycle of dragonflies.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A painted skimmer grasps the tip of a cattail.

Odes spend the first stage of life as aquatic larvae living below the surface of the water. Later, they emerge as adult dragonflies. During their time spent as larvae, or nymphs, they are voracious predators, tackling other aquatic organisms, including small fish. At the same time, these nymphs are important food sources for some larger fish. Nymphs may spend as long as three years living beneath the water, but adult dragonflies usually live only a few weeks or months.

Adult dragonflies continue to consume prey, which is mostly other insects. Among the odes, there are no vegetarians. “Mosquito hawk” is another common name for them because they catch and eat mosquitoes. They also consume gnats, flies and other insects. So, along with birds such as swallows and nighthawks, the dragonflies help keep in check the numbers of many nuisance insects.

Some of the larger dragonflies are also reputed to attack and eat hummingbirds. I tried to find conclusive evidence, but the jury’s still out in my opinion. However, some of the larger species of praying mantis have been documented capturing and consuming hummingbirds, so it is not too far-fetched to believe some of the larger dragonflies might be capable of preying on hummers.

Like many birds, some dragonflies migrate. Species such as Carolina saddlebags, green darners and wandering gliders are known to migrate hundreds of miles.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern pond hawk perches on the bloom of an impatiens.

In recent years, dragonfly-watching has emerged as a nature pastime to rival the watching of birds and butterflies. Why watch dragonflies? Well, in many ways, they are just as fascinating as birds and other wildlife

Here’s some additional fun trivia about dragonflies:

• Odes have excellent eyesight. Their compound eyes have up to 30,000 facets, each of which is a separate light-sensing organ arranged to give nearly a 360 degree field of vision. Their vision also makes it difficult to sneak up on a dragonfly. I have learned this during my attempts to photograph them.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A spangled skimmer at rest near the water’s edge.

• Dragonflies are built for speed. Many experts credit dragonflies with the ability to fly at speeds between 19 to 38 miles per hour. They have also been documented traveling as much as 85 miles in a single day.

• Dragonflies can hover and fly backwards, a feat achieved by only hummingbirds among our winged friends with feathers.

• Dragonflies are among the world’s most efficient predators, successfully capturing prey at a whopping 90% of their attempts. In other words, nine times out of 10, dragonflies capture and eat other insects.

• Dragonflies are ancient. They appeared 100 million years before dinosaurs and 150 million years before birds.

• The largest dragonfly to ever live was Meganeura monyi, which lived during the Carboniferous period about 300 million years ago. It resembled and was related to present-day dragonflies. With a wingspan of almost 26 inches, it is one of the largest known flying insect species.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A gray petaltail clings to the side of a post.

Wandering birds provide some surprising moments for birders

Photo by Roger Mullins • A little blue heron, right, shares a perch with a white ibis at the Buffalo Valley Golf Course in Unicoi. These wading birds are usually found near the coast, but individuals tend to disperse and wander widely after the summer nesting season comes to an end.

Late summer has a sort of lazy feel. Most birds are finishing up their nesting season. Hungry fledglings appear at feeders in the company of adults. In recent weeks, I’m starting to notice a slight uptick in the number of hummingbirds visiting my feeders and garden flowers. It helps that I’ve got dense stands of naturalized bee balm at the edge of my woods. The cedar waxwings have finished off the mulberries, but I suspect they will stick around for the wild cherries. I’ve also noticed the vanguard of migrant birds that are starting to make appearances as fall migration approaches. It’s not just songbirds, however, that are on the move. Some large and rather conspicuous birds have been attracting attention in recent weeks, including a variety of wading birds.

Sightings this summer of long-legged wading birds in Northeast Tennessee that are outside of their usual range have included little blue herons, white ibis and great egrets. The little blue heron and ibis have been recent visitors to Unicoi County. To toss another species into the mix, Tom and Cathy McNeil recently found an American anhinga near Austin Springs at Boone Lake in Washington County. Their anhinga sighting followed their discovery of seven or eight little blue herons and 14 great egrets at this well-known birding hot spot.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Adult little blue herons, like this adult preening at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, have a mix of blue and purple feathers.

Roger Mullins discovered both an immature little blue heron and an immature white ibis during one of his regular visits to scan the ponds along the former Buffalo Valley Golf Course in Unicoi.

“I first spotted the little blue on July 5, and then on July 10 I saw the white ibis standing just a few feet away on the same limb.

“Within minutes they were standing next to each other,” he continued. “They were even following each other from place to place, almost like they were siblings.”

Roger noted that the little blue heron gradually learned to trust him, but he could only get so close without making the bird feel uncomfortable.

“Being extremely patient, taking it slow and easy, is pretty much how I approach all wildlife, and it usually pays off well,” Roger shared.

“I first started visiting the golf course ponds back in the winter when someone told me about seeing a male hooded merganser there,” he noted. “There is not always an abundance of wildlife present, but I always check it out just in case. The best thing about these ponds is the consistent peace and tranquility, since people don’t usually go there for family recreation or to walk their dogs.”

Roger added that he doubted that the little blue heron would have lingered at a public park with more activity.

Most of my own observations of little blue herons have taken place in SouthCarolina, Georgia and Florida, although I have seen this species a couple of times in Tennessee. I have also found little blue herons more skittish than some herons and egrets.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This photo of a little blue heron at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, shows the intermediate phase of plumage that makes identification even more of a challenge.

While diverting storms can’t be ruled out for causing some unexpected birds to detour into the region, it’s also normal behavior for young wading birds to disperse far and wide after leaving the nest. North American waders, or wading birds, include such long-legged species as herons, egrets, bitterns, ibises, storks and spoonbills. Most species are associated with wetlands or coastal areas.

Late summer birding is usually a period of doldrums as heat and humidity can discourage birders as well as diminish bird activity. However, it’s also the time of year when birders can make some unexpected surprises as wandering waders explore uncharted territory.

The great egret – a larger relative of the little blue heron – became a motivational symbol for conservation with the foundation of the National Audubon Society in 1905. Today, the organization has nearly 500 local chapters, each of which is an independent non-profit organization voluntarily affiliated with the National Audubon Society. These chapters often organize birdwatching field trips and conservation-related activities. The National Audubon Society spearheaded efforts to end the mass slaughter of various bird species. Some birds were killed for food, but millions were also killed for their showy feathers that were destined to decorate stylish attire worn as a symbol of high fashion. As early as 1910, some states began passing legislation to abolish trade in bird plumes. The federal government also came to the assistance of birds with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was a law first enacted in 1916 to implement measures to protect and conserve migratory birds.

Photo by Tom McNeil • An American anhinga at Boone Lake found by Tom and Cathy McNeil represents an unusual find for the region. Even more unusual, Tom McNeil found another anhinga in Johnson County, Tennessee, a few days later.

Scientifically speaking, the little blue heron would be more accurately described as an egret. With the scientific name of Egretta caerulea, the little blue heron’s closest relatives are other members of the genus Egretta, which includes such other North American wading birds as snowy egret, reddish egret and tricolored heron. Other members of the genus found in other global localities include little egret, slaty egret and Chinese egret. I’m not sure why the tricolored heron and little blue heron were not named tricolored egret and little blue egret, but there are some Egretta species that also bear the name heron, including black heron, white-faced heron, Pacific reef heron and Western reef heron. It’s probably important to note that there are no real physical differences between herons and egrets. They are all classified together in the family Ardeidae.

I’m fairly confident that Roger’s sighting of a little blue heron is the first documented occurrence of the species in Unicoi County. His white ibis is unexpected but not unprecedented. An immature white ibis spent several days in July of 2011 at the ponds and fields at the home and farm of former Unicoi mayor Johnny Lynch.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American Anhinga dries off feathers after a swim at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

As for the anhinga spotted by the McNeils, this rare visitor was found the following day by several area birders, including Michelle Sparks who relocated the anhinga from her kayak. The anhinga is a large waterbird with a slender neck and a dagger-shaped bill reminiscent of a heron’s bill. These birds spend much of their time swimming beneath the water, often with only their neck and bill above the surface. Apparently the term “anhinga” comes from a native tribe in Brazil. Anhingas prefer fresh water, but they are often found in coastal areas. Most reports from Tennessee come from near Reelfoot Lake in the western portion of the state. Other common names for the anhinga include “water turkey,” “snake bird,” “American darter” and “devil bird.” Worldwide, there are only four species of anhingas, or darters as they are called in other parts of the world. The other three are the Indian darter, the African darter and the Australian darter.

Tom shared an amusing anecdote on Facebook about their sighting of the anhinga.

“Cathy and I found this bird (the anhinga) yesterday evening out of absolute luck,” he wrote. “We had already birded the area and had some great fun observing the little blue herons and great egrets.  We stopped at the Austin Springs bridge for a few moments and saw four river otters playing under the bridge and then just decided to drive back the way we came.”

On their way back, Cathy had Tom stop so she could look at the “white birds” in the top of the trees across the water.

“We both pulled up our binoculars to look at them, but it was the bird perched below them that was the star of the show,” he reported. “We shouted ‘anhinga’  at the exact same time!”

That’s the beauty of birding – those “anhinga” moments. I’m hoping readers are enjoying some fun birds this summer. Share sightings, ask questions or make comments by emailing me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

 

 

Long-running count tallies summer’s nesting bird species

Photo by Jean Potter • Counters found 116 species on the recent Carter County Summer Bird Count, including this female wood duck and ducklings photographed on the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee. A total of 13 wood ducks were found on the day of the count.

The 28th Carter County Summer Bird Count was held Saturday, June 12, with 28 observers taking part.

The weather, which was less than optimal, challenged observers. Rain held steady for much of the day. The rain, along with dense fog on Roan Mountain and other high elevations, resulted in reduced birdsong in many areas. Thus, numbers of individuals were low for many species, especially songbirds.

Despite these hurdles, the count tallied 116 species, which is just one species shy of the recent 10-year average and actually two above the average of the previous 27 years, so, it was not bad considering the weather.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Nesting neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increased the total number of species for the annual summer count.

Participants included Fred Alsop, Rob Biller, Catherine Cummins, Dianne Draper, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Don Holt, David Kirschke, Rick Knight (compiler), Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Dianna Lynn, Vern Maddux, Larry McDaniel, Joe McGuiness, Tom and Cathy McNeil, Brookie and Jean Potter, Judith Reid, Brenda Richards, Judi Sawyer, Michele Sparks, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud, Scott Turner, Charles Warden and John Whinery.

Some species were missed, including yellow-crowned night-heron, great horned owl, chuck-will’s-widow, willow flycatcher, brown creeper, hermit thrush, Kentucky warbler and magnolia warbler. These species are often, but not always, found on this count, according to long-time count compiler Rick Knight.

See if one of your favorite birds was hit or miss, common or uncommon, by scanning over the listing of the total.

The tally follows:
Canada goose, 218; wood duck, 13; mallard, 92; ruffed grouse, 1; wild turkey, 40; double-crested cormorant, 16; great blue heron, 23; and green heron, 2.
Black vulture, 7; turkey vulture, 25; osprey, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 3; bald eagle, 2; red-shouldered hawk, 4; broad-winged hawk, 7; and red-tailed hawk, 10.
Killdeer, 8; American woodcock, 1; rock pigeon, 101; Eurasian collared-dove, 2; mourning dove, 177; yellow-billed cuckoo, 5; Eastern screech-owl, 5; barred owl, 2; common nighthawk, 2; and Eastern whip-poor-will, 7.
Chimney swift, 99; ruby-throated hummingbird, 28; belted kingfisher, 11; red-bellied woodpecker, 24; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 2; downy woodpecker, 19; hairy woodpecker, 3; Northern flicker, 36; pileated woodpecker, 15; and American kestrel, 1.
Eastern wood-pewee, 24; Acadian flycatcher, 9; alder flycatcher, 2; least flycatcher, 13; Eastern phoebe, 48; great crested flycatcher, 7; and Eastern kingbird, 21.
White-eyed vireo, 5; yellow-throated vireo, 2; blue-headed vireo, 38; warbling vireo, 1; red-eyed vireo, 117; blue jay, 77; American crow, 185; fish crow, 4; and common raven, 5.
Purple martin, 38; Northern rough-winged swallow, 34; tree swallow, 109; barn swallow, 154; and cliff swallow, 137.
Carolina chickadee, 32; tufted titmouse, 65; red-breasted nuthatch, 3; white-breasted nuthatch, 10; house wren, 60; winter wren, 3; Carolina wren, 84; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 8; and golden-crowned kinglet, 2.
Eastern bluebird, 113; veery, 23; wood thrush, 35; American robin, 510; gray catbird, 42; brown thrasher, 38; Northern mockingbird, 62; European starling, 1,203; and cedar waxwing, 45.
Ovenbird, 50; worm-eating warbler, 4; Louisiana waterthrush, 10; golden-winged warbler 1; black-and-white warbler 27; Swainson’s warbler, 2; common yellowthroat, 12; hooded warbler, 67; American redstart, 8; Northern parula, 30; Blackburnian warbler, 4; yellow warbler, 1; chestnut-sided warbler, 12; black-throated blue warbler, 20; pine warbler, 2; yellow-throated warbler, 9; prairie warbler, 3; black-throated green warbler, 14; Canada warbler; 5; and yellow-breasted chat, 9.
Eastern towhee; 112; chipping sparrow, 61; field sparrow, 58; savannah sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 253; dark-eyed junco, 46; scarlet tanager, 25; Northern cardinal, 157; rose-breasted grosbeak, 5; blue grosbeak, 5; and indigo bunting, 102.
Red-winged blackbird, 109; Eastern meadowlark, 15; common grackle, 67; brown-headed cowbird, 43; orchard oriole, 4; and Baltimore oriole, 2.
House finch, 132; pine siskin, 1; American goldfinch, 97; and house sparrow, 44.

•••••

 

I received a phone call from Marian Swanson of Aldie, Virginia, this past week. Marian was looking for advice on feeders for attracting indigo buntings, which she had observed near her home. She was specifically seeking a feeder that would prevent the seed from getting wet during rainstorms.

At her request, I provided Marian with some links to websites offering a variety of feeders for sale.

It’s always great to hear from readers. If you have a bird-related question, email me at bstevens@erwinrecord.net or ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I also enjoy hearing about bird observations or general comments from readers.

Couple glimpses odd bird at Unaka Mountain’s Beauty Spo

 

This American woodcock was photographed by Erwin resident Amy Tipton during a stop that she and her husband made recently at the Unaka Mountain Beauty Spot.

Known for migrating incredible distances, the shorebirds are often referred to as “wind birds,” a romantic allusion to their habit of taking wing for the epic journeys that astound scientists and birders alike.

Among the far-flung family known as the shorebirds are species known as sandpipers and plovers, as well as whimbrels, willets, tattlers, godwits, turnstones and an array of others.

Still, among the general public, as well as some birders, the shorebirds are a much misunderstood group of birds. For example, most people could hardly be blamed for believing that shorebirds are inhabitants of only the beach and shore.

In fact, some species are at home in a variety of habitats, ranging from woodlands and prairies to the Arctic tundra and mudflats. Some are notoriously elusive, their camouflage and low-key behavior allowing them to escape casual notice at most times.

In late winter and early spring, a true oddball among the shorebirds begins courting. The American woodcock, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” is a shorebird that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. Beginning as early as February, American woodcocks in the region conduct nightly courtship displays, starting at dusk, that combine aerial acrobatics with an assortment of unusual acoustical flourishes. Any wet field adjacent to a wooded area could offer a stage for these evening displays, but unless you know where to look and make an effort to do so, the American woodcock might as well remain a phantom of the night.

These mating rituals provide almost the only time of the year during which this bird makes itself available for observation. It’s only during this brief window that opens into their lives that we can be assured a glimpse. Even then, our peeks at woodcocks often consist of a fuzzy twilight escapade as the bird flings itself heavenward only to make a spiraling descent a few seconds later. The displays begin with a distinct vocalization, a type of “pent,” that also has the quality of sounding like some sort of mechanical buzzer.

Once the displays conclude for the season, the birds assume nesting duties, usually unobserved by humans. The rest of the year, almost nothing but blind, sheer luck would allow a birder to stumble across an American woodcock. It’s almost as if they disappear after these spring flights of fancy.

Of course, they don’t actually disappear. They are still out there, going about their daily lives. On occasion, someone can stumble across one without even trying.

Amy Tipton can claim to be so fortunate after she and her husband, Paul, recently encountered an “unusual bird” on Unaka Mountain near the well-known Beauty Spot.

“We had gone to the Beauty Spot to watch the sunset on Sunday, June 27,” Amy wrote in a Facebook message to me. “It was the 20th anniversary of our first date.”

On the way back to the Jeep, Paul noticed a very unusual bird. He pointed out the bird and asked Amy if she knew what it was.

“It was just sitting at the edge of the parking area where the gravel/dirt road meets the tall grass,” Amy wrote. “It was not dark enough to keep us from seeing it, but plenty dark enough to keep me from getting a good photo.”

Amy said that she knew she only had one chance to get a photo.

“I set the flash and hoped for the best,” she wrote. “It’s blurry, but I’m thankful I was able to get anything. As soon as the flash fired, it made a funny noise and flew into the trees.”

Amy added, “It looked more like a sea bird to me, and we thought it might have flown off course. We had no idea such a strange bird lived on Unaka Mountain. We’ll always remember the first time we saw a timberdoodle.”

An American woodcock patrols a patch of bare ground in a photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife.

One look at Amy’s photo confirmed that she and her husband had encountered a woodcock. With its big head and large eyes, the American woodcock is rather gnome-like in its appearance. There’s something downright odd about this shorebird that has chosen to exile itself so far from seashores.

Its chosen lifestyle, however, has proven advantageous for the species. The woodcock is an efficient forager, feeding on earthworms, as well as insects, millipedes and spiders. Scientists theorize that the woodcocks can actually hear and feel the earthworms as they move underground.

About 20 years ago, Joe McGuiness, an Erwin resident and a fellow member of the Elizabethton Bird Club, found an American woodcock one summer making itself at home in his neighborhood of Rolling Hills. I got to see that bird, which to date is my only upclose and personal observation of an American woodcock.

I have traveled to locations such as Shady Valley in Johnson County and Persimmon Ridge Park in Jonesborough to witness the courting flights of these unusual birds. Of course, since these flights do not commence until dusk, the experience is more auditory than visual.

The woodcock is closely related to the snipes. The only snipe species usually found in the United States is Wilson’s snipe, formerly known as the common snipe.

There is also a Eurasian woodcock and several species endemic to islands. These include the Amami woodcock of Japan, the Bukidnon woodcock of the Philippines, the Javan woodcock, New Guinea woodcock, the Moluccan woodcock of the Malaku Islands in Indonesia and the Sulawesi woodcock, also of Indonesia.

Worldwide, there are about 20 snipe species, including species with such descriptive name as giant snipe, noble snipe, pin-tailed snipe and imperial snipe.

So, if the legend of the snipe hunt ever made you doubt the actual existence of snipe, rest assured that both snipes and their odd cousins, the woodcocks, do exist.

Unicoi County Bird Count finds 109 species, couple share tales of a remarkable catbird

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

I wrote last week about how gray catbirds are often quite the characters when they take up residence in our homes and gardens. I received some confirmation about the unique personalities of some of these birds when I received an email from Doreen Lancaster from Abingdon, Virginia.

“We have an awesome catbird that we’ve made a friendship with over the last month,” Doreen wrote. “His name is Claude, aka Claudie Bells.”

Claudie sounds remarkably tame, according to Doreen’s email.

“Up until a few days ago, he fed from our hands all day long and would come to us when we called him,” she added. “He even walked into our house when we called him.”

Recently, however, she noted that Claudie seems distracted with making sure his babies are doing all right on their own.

“Now his focus seems to be finding a mate as he’s been singing a lot but ignoring us,” she wrote. “He’s such a special little guy who has stolen our hearts! I hope he sticks around all summer.”

The acquaintance with Claudie has given Doreen an opportunity to also acquire a lot of cool video footage of her visiting catbird. She shared several of the videos with me. They made for entertaining viewing. Some of the videos showed Claudie coming for treats, such as blueberries and raisins.

Claudie could get impatient when treats were not immediately forthcoming.

“My husband had a cool experience on the deck,” Doreen said. “He was on a business call and Claude came up to him wanting a treat. My husband ignored him and Claude came up to his bare feet and started pecking him until my husband acknowledged him and fed him!”

Claudie is a perfect example of what I meant when I suggested that some individual catbirds have rather distinctive  personalities and inquiring minds.

Catbird-WhoTrainingWho

On a recent summer bird count conducted in Unicoi County, a total of 26 gray catbirds were found. This is not too surprising since the catbird’s a relatively common summer visitor in the region.

That particular survey – the eighth consecutive Unicoi County Summer Bird Count – was held Saturday, June 5. Nineteen observers in seven parties found 109 species. According to Rick Knight, the compiler for the count, the total is right on the average of the previous seven years. The range since the start of this yearly count has been between 104 to 112 species.

Participants included  Glen Eller, Dianne Draper, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Don Holt, David Kirschke, Rick Knight, Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Tom and Cathy McNeil, Brookie and Jean Potter, Pete Range, Brenda Richards, Michele Sparks, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud and John Whinery.

The weather was good with a temperature span of 53 to 88 degrees, clear to partly cloudy skies and little to no wind.

I’ve participated on seven of the eight counts. I missed one of the counts due to a vacation in coastal South Carolina that conflicted with the date. Since the onset of this annual survey in 2014, I’ve counted in the Limestone Cove area of Unicoi County. I was accompanied this year by Brookie and Jean Potter of Elizabethton and Brenda Richards of Bluff City. Some of our best birds included yellow-bellied sapsucker, Eastern kingbird, fish crow and scarlet tanager.

The cumulative species found included:

Canada goose,  35; wood duck. 7; mallard, 24; ruffed grouse, 4; wild turkey, 7; great blue heron, 4; and green heron, 3

Black vulture, 2; turkey vulture, 32; sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 1; bald eagle, 1; red-shouldered hawk, 2; broad-winged hawk, 8; and red-tailed hawk, 5.

Killdeer, 17; rock pigeon,  52; mourning dove, 55; yellow-billed cuckoo,  2; Eastern screech-owl, 2; great horned owl, 1; barred owl, 2; chuck-will’s widow, 4; and whip-poor-will, 6.

Chimney swift, 31; ruby-throated hummingbird, 6; belted kingfisher, 2; red-bellied woodpecker, 13; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 2; downy woodpecker, 9; hairy woodpecker, 5; Northern flicker, 10; pileated woodpecker, 22; and American kestrel, 1.

Eastern wood-pewee, 15; Acadian flycatcher, 29;  least flycatcher,  5; Eastern phoebe,  69;  Great crested flycatcher, 4; Eastern kingbird , 1.

White-eyed vireo  2; blue-headed vireo  57; warbling vireo  2; red-eyed vireo  157; blue jay  62; American crow  97; fish crow, 1; common raven  9

Purple martin, 9; Northern rough-winged swallow, 10; tree swallow, 39; barn swallow, 48; and cliff swallow, 65.

Carolina chickadee, 47; tufted titmouse, 88; red-breasted nuthatch, 7; white-breasted nuthatch, 5; brown creeper, 2; house wren, 36; winter wren, 4; Carolina wren, 95; and blue-gray gnatcatcher, 20.

Golden-crowned kinglet, 7; Eastern bluebird, 67; veery, 16; wood thrush, 37; American robin,  285; gray catbird, 26; brown thrasher, 7; Northern mockingbird, 18, European starling, 225; and cedar waxwing, 38.

Ovenbird, 47; worm-eating warbler, 15; Louisiana waterthrush, 14; black-and-white warbler, 28; Swainson’s warbler, 9; Kentucky warbler, 2;  common yellowthroat, 3; hooded warbler, 57; American redstart, 6; Northern parula, 36; magnolia warbler, 3; Blackburnian warbler, 2; yellow warbler, 1; chestnut-sided warbler, 10; black-throated blue warbler, 20; yellow-throated warbler, 6; black-throated green warbler, 36; Canada warbler, 7; and yellow-breasted chat, 2.

Eastern towhee, 73; chipping sparrow, 72; field sparrow, 11; song sparrow. 187; dark-eyed junco, 30; scarlet tanager, 31; Northern cardinal, 102; rose-breasted grosbeak, 4; blue grosbeak, 2; and indigo bunting, 104.

Red-winged blackbird, 61; Eastern meadowlark, 8; common grackle, 53; brown-headed cowbird, 19; orchard oriole, 4; house finch, 18; American goldfinch, 31; and house sparrow, 12.

Among feathered friends, catbirds are individuals

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although often considered shy, skulking birds, some catbirds show a great deal of curiosity about and trust in humans.

I received an email on June 15 from Linda Durette, who lives in Townsend, Massachusetts, which is on the New Hampshire border.

“I live in a country environment with thickets and fields,” she noted.

Linda informed me that she had run across an article I wrote in 2019 about gray catbirds.
“I have always been mildly intrigued by the catbird,” she wrote. ‘Working around the yard and having a cat myself, I always got a kick out of their vocal annoyance with my cat.”

She said the catbirds begin squawking at her cat the minute he steps out the door.

Photo by by Jennifer Beebe from Pixabay • Gray catbirds have a reputation for being either shy skulkers or bold scolders. In fact, these birds are known for being individuals with unique and distinctive personalities. Like mockingbirds and thrashers, the gray catbird is considered a mimic thrush and can imitate snippets of the songs of other birds.

“I always kept him away from any nesting area, although he isn’t a particularly adventurous cat, anyway,” she noted.

“This year was the same,” she said. “My cat seemed to almost ignore the bird. He just sat there and allowed the bird to squawk loudly. I think the bird was miffed.”

She said she finally put her cat back in the house.

“But I have been noticing that the bird comes very close to me,” she wrote.

She wrote that the catbird appears to watch what she does when she is outdoors.

“I have been talking with him, chattering while I garden,” she wrote. “It’s a riot. He lands on the wheelbarrow handle after I walk away or allows me to walk pretty close to him as he watches.”
Linda concluded that this individual catbird, at least, seems to have quite the personality.
I’d mentioned in my previous column on catbirds about the fondness of these birds for fruit and how I occasionally offered berries to them.

“I will attempt some fruit, too,” she said. “It is so interesting. We’ll see what happens.”
Perhaps readers will recall the folksy expression “sitting in the catbird’s seat” that denotes self-satisfaction and perhaps a degree of smugness. As expressions go, it’s not a bad fit for this charming, somewhat eccentric bird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A curious Gray Catbird peeks from dense cover. Attendees at the fall rally can look for catbirds and other species at any of the offered bird hikes.

The gray catbird is a baffling bird with a personality that runs the gamut from introverted to extroverted, sometimes depending on the season and at other times seemingly just on a whim. With some gentle persuasion, however, people can gain a catbird’s trust – as Linda has done with the bird in her Massachusetts garden – and develop a fun friendship with these clever songbirds.

One summer, all I needed to do to win over the catbirds was to offer some less-than-perfect strawberries and blueberries. A few blemishes on the fruit didn’t bother the resident catbirds at all, and they soon became accustomed to receiving such treats.

A person’s first introduction to the catbird is likely going to occur when one hears what sounds like an irritable feline hiding in a hedge, thicket or dense shrub. Upon closer examination, observers may get a glimpse of a charcoal gray bird roughly the shape of a Northern mockingbird but smaller. A black cap and a patch of rusty-red feathers under the tail are the only exceptions to this bird’s overall gray plumage.

The catbird is related to thrashers and mockingbirds, but scientists find the gray catbird just different enough to warrant placing it in its own genus. The genus name Dumetella means “small thicket.” It’s an apt name for this secretive skulker. Catbirds only feel secure in dense cover such as hedges, brush piles and dense thickets.

A relative known as the black catbird, which ranges throughout the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, as well as northern Guatemala and northern Belize, also belongs to a genus of its own. The genus name Melanoptila for this close relative is a compound word created from two Greek words: melas, meaning “black” and ptilon, meaning “plumage.” Both of these catbirds are classified as “mimic thrushes,” or Mimidae, of which there are about 30 species in the New World. There is a totally unrelated family of catbirds that ranges through Australia, Asia and parts of Africa.

The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. Males have motivation to constantly expand their repertoire, however, as doing so increases the likelihood of attracting a mate. They imitate other birds, but some have been recorded imitating frogs and other non-avian singers.

The website All About Birds also offers some helpful advice for attracting gray catbirds. To entice these birds, plant native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs such as dogwood, winterberry and serviceberry.

While the closely related brown thrasher and Northern mockingbird have both been honored with recognition as official state birds, this designation has never been bestowed on the gray catbird.

The female catbird constructs the nest, but her mate may helpfully provide some of the nesting materials. She may spend as long as a week building a rather bulky nest. She usually lays one to six eggs, which require an incubation period of about two weeks. Once the young hatch, both parents are kept busy bringing food to the young. Hatchlings will remain in the nest for about 10 days, but parents continue to care for and feed young even after they have fledged and departed the nest. Catbirds nest two or three time in a season.

According to the website All About Birds, the oldest known gray catbird was at least 17 years and 11 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in New Jersey in 2001. That individual had been banded in Maryland in 1984. So, if you do manage to strike up your own friendship with a catbird, there’s a good possibility that it could become a long-term relationship, especially since many birds like to return to a home territory year after year.

To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, please send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I enjoy hearing from readers about shared interests in birds.

Hummingbird numbers normally fluctuate from year to year

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

Russ MacIntyre, Jonesborough, Tennessee, emailed me recently with a question about hummingbirds.

“Are there fewer around this year?” Russ wrote in his email. “My neighbor hasn’t seen any for a month and neither have we. Both of us have feeders and usually have hummingbirds all summer.”

I responded to Russ’s question by sharing with him that I have not seen as many hummingbirds as usual myself.

It’s important to note, however, that hummingbird numbers always fluctuate from year to year. While Russ and I may not be seeing as many hummingbirds, someone else in Jonesborough, Erwin or other small towns might be overwhelmed with these tiny gems. For instance, numbers might appear down in Northeast Tennessee but could be booming across the border in Western North Carolina.

I get these questions every year. Last year was a great year for hummingbirds based on my personal experience. I was also staying at home a lot more last year due to COVID-19, so I might simply have had more leisure time to observe the hummingbirds in my yard and garden.

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

I usually tell people a decline in numbers one year doesn’t mean hummingbird numbers might not boom next year. Quite simply, all the hummingbirds could be a few miles down the road having a great time in someone else’s yard and garden. One thing that all hummingbird enthusiasts should do is plant more nectar-providing flowers, in addition to providing sugar water feeders. Flowers can help persuade hummers to stay put.

To recognize the importance of native, nectar-bearing flowers, simply consider a few facts about hummingbirds from an article by Lisa M. Genier for the Adirondack Council.

“Hummingbirds have a very high metabolism and must eat all day long just to survive,” wrote Genier, a program analyst for the Adirondack Council. “They consume about half their body weight in bugs and nectar, feeding every 10 to 15 minutes and visiting 1,000 to 2,000 flowers throughout the day.”

It’s not just the sugary treat that waits in each bloom that draws in hummingbirds.

“In addition to nectar from flowers and feeders, these birds eat small insects, beetles, ants, aphids, gnats, mosquitoes and wasps,” Genier wrote in her article, which was published on July 3, 2018, on the website for the Adirondack Council. The organization was founded in 1975 with a mission to ensure the ecological integrity and wild character of the Adirondack Park near Lake Placid in New York.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated hummingbirds such as this male make themselves at home in yards and gardens throughout the eastern United States from spring to fall each year. .

If you’re disappointed with seemingly low numbers of hummingbirds this spring, my best advice is to wait until late July and early August when young birds are out of the nest and parents and young start the slow-paced migration back south. Invariably, I see more hummingbirds in late summer and early fall than in the spring.

Hummingbirds are a lovely diversion for nature enthusiasts, but they also play a crucial role in the ecosystems where they make their homes. Hummingbirds are pollinators. Every time they visit a flower, they will carry away some pollen on their bills or foreheads. If they carry the pollen to the correct plant, they fulfill their role as one of nature’s many pollinators.

There’s even an entire week dedicated to pollinators and their importance in nature. Pollinator Week was initiated in 2007 when the United States Senate unanimously approved a week in June to be designated as “National Pollinator Week”. This decision was a critical step to address the decline in pollinators across the globe.

Now an international celebration, Pollinator Week raises awareness on the plight of pollinators and celebrates all of the benefits provided by the thousands of insect, bird, and small mammal pollinator species. As people learn more about pollinators, they become advocates – indeed voices – for the pollinators they come to love and understand. We can all play our part to secure a healthier, more sustainable future for pollinators. Pollinator week was started and is managed by the Pollinator Partnership. For more information explore the Pollinator Partnership website.

According to the website, Pollinator Week was initiated and is managed by Pollinator Partnership, and fourteen years ago the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval and designation of a week in June as “National Pollinator Week” marked a necessary step toward addressing the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Pollinator Week has now grown into an international celebration, promoting the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles.

While this year might not be a typical Pollinator Week due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the planet have pledged to continue promoting pollinator health and well-being through socially distant and responsible events. Through the numerous virtual gatherings, webinars, responsible planting sessions, socially distant garden and farm walks and monument lightings, Pollinator Week 2021 is geared to be the busiest and best one yet.

This year, Pollinator Week is being observed Monday-Sunday, June 21–27. For more information, email info@pollinator.org.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Monarch sips nectar from blooming Ironweed. Butterflies are important pollinators for many plants.

Tri-Cities Young Naturalists looks to help kids of all ages engage with nature

Photo by Larry McDaniel • This pine warbler was photographed during a field trip conducted by the Tri-Cities Young Naturalists to Rocky Mount State Historic Site in Piney Flats.

I’m glad that my parents introduced me to nature. I also had grandparents who also loved to get outdoors.

My paternal grandfather knew the name of every tree in the woods. I always got his help when time came for those perennial “leaf collection” assignments in elementary classes.

My maternal grandparents loved to fish, so I learned about bluegills, walleyes and other local fishes from them. My grandmother was also quite knowledgeable about natural edibles, including wild-growing branch lettuce and morel mushrooms.

So, I’m all for efforts to introduce young people to nature. I met a boy named Gunnar at a bird walk that I led at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park last month. This young attendee wanted to see a killdeer, which unfortunately were absent from the park that day. I did help him see such birds as a yellow warbler and a nesting American robin, so I hope the day wasn’t a total bust for him.

I learned with great interest last year that there was a new group being formed to introduce younger people to nature. Unfortunately, the group had just gotten off the ground in July of 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spike.

A year later, Larry McDaniel, the organizer of Tri-Cities Young Naturalists and the administrator of the group’s Facebook page, is trying again to attract more members to the group and hold in-person field trips.

McDaniel retired five years ago from a position at Steele Creek Park in Bristol. That job, he noted, let him interact with young visitors to the park curious to learn more about different aspects of nature.

“I was taking a walk and it popped into my head that I could still do that,” he said. “I could form something to let kids learn about and enjoy nature.”

McDaniel, a resident of Jonesborough, started the Tri-Cities Young Naturalists as a project with iNaturalist, but it didn’t gain momentum.

He changed course and created a Facebook group a couple of months later, which has produced better results.

“Facebook has been a lot of fun,” he said. “We’ve got people on the Facebook group who like to share photos and stories about nature.”

He has been assisted by Cade Campbell, who serves as a moderator for TCYN and helped get the Facebook group up and running.

“As a naturalist, my passion is largely founded in the Southern Appalachians,” Campbell shared. “Growing up here, in one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots, it’s hard for me to focus on just one group of species.

“As a result, I try to learn about as many different kinds of animals, plants and fungi as I can at intervals, learning how they all work together to build verdant, natural habitats,” he continued.

Campbell said he personally became involved in TCYN because he wanted to give young nature enthusiasts an opportunity to learn how amazing the natural world can be.

“As a young naturalist myself, I understand how exciting it can be to have a community of other young people to share exciting finds and learn new ways to find wildlife with,” he said. “It’s awesome to find a toad in the backyard every time one makes an appearance.

“However, visiting a ‘secret’ bend of the river full of lime-green map turtles, egrets perched on driftwood, and limestone bluffs full of colorful clumps of rare wildflowers and neon-green tiger beetles, with friends who can experience this same excitement and knowledgeable naturalists who can share detailed accounts about what you’re seeing, is an unforgettable experience,” he continued.

“I see TCYN as a way this frontier of discovery can be strengthened in our Appalachian Highlands region to really give local children an opportunity to form a strong connection with nature; something desperately needed in today’s time where nature deficit disorder is rampant,” Campbell added.

Campbell, who currently lives in Bristol, once lived in Indian Springs just outside of Kingsport.

“I spent a great deal of time learning about nature at Warriors Path State Park from Marty Silver, and many other mentors while I was still in elementary school,” he said. “That’s actually how I met Larry McDaniel, and he’s taught me how to better explore, appreciate and know the region’s wildlife ever since.”

Campbell said that his best advice for young naturalists is to simply appreciate nature.

“Appreciate the beauty of nature, learn thoroughly and intentionally, and be sure to have great adventures in the process,” he said. “You will never run out of things to learn about wildlife, and remember, that’s what makes this pursuit so exciting and rewarding.”

He also noted that things learned about nature can stick with people for a lifetime.

He noted that TCYN is designed to offer an opportunity to make the most out of this connection with nature, and share that experience with others.

Now that summer’s kicked off for 2021, McDaniel has made a renewed effort to offer more field trips. Helping in that effort is the fact that the pandemic seems to be lessening in intensity, perhaps thanks for an increase in vaccinations.

“We were going to have field trips last year, but then the pandemic worsened,” he said.

This summer, the outlook seems brighter. The Tri-Cities Young Naturalists held their first field trip at Rocky Mount State Historic Site in Piney Flats. Several events were held last fall at this location.

McDaniel said that Melanie Kelley has been working hard to promote more nature events at Rocky Mount.

A more recent gathering was held at Twin Springs Picnic Area on Roan Mountain on April 29.

“It was a great time at Twin Springs Picnic Area on Roan Mountain yesterday,” McDaniel posted on the group’s Facebook page. “We held an event for the Northeast Tennessee City Nature Challenge. I was especially pleased to see three young naturalists participating and representing Tri-Cities Young Naturalists.”

The group has held other field trips, including a bird walk at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton on June 7. McDaniel noted that Jennifer Bauer, the park manager for Sycamore Shoals, has helped immensely in recruiting memberships for the Tri-Cities Young Naturalists.

Upcoming events include a snake talk/walk at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City at 9 a.m. on July 5 that will be led by Connie Deegan, who was recently honored as top Conservation Educator by the Tennessee Wildlife Federation.

McDaniel said that the Tri-Cities Young Naturalists boasts 175 memberships on Facebook, but noted that some of those memberships include multi-member families.

McDaniel said that Tri-Cities Young Naturalists started primarily as an “environmentally conscious” effort to introduce young people to various aspects of the natural world.

“It’s good for kids to get outdoors and away from gadgets,” McDaniel said, explaining his primary motivation for starting Tri-Cities Young Naturalists.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue Dasher photographed during a trip to South Carolina.

He also wants to instill a love of nature in the younger generation. “We need the upcoming generation to make changes, or else things for the planet will continue to go downhill.”

To join the group, search Tri-Cities Young Naturalists on Facebook. The group is set to private but is visible for searches. Requests to join can be sent to McDaniel for approval.

Whether your interest rests with birds, frogs, lizards, dragonflies, wild orchids or bees, Tri-Cities Young Naturalists will help you learn more about these topics and many others related to the natural world.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Large Maple Spanworm Moth on a wall.

Orioles are among the region’s most colorful birds

Photo by Michael McGough from Pixabay • The Baltimore oriole is a bird with a taste for sweets. Citrus fruits, grape jelly and even specialty feeders for dispensing sugar water are ways to draw these birds closer. Otherwise, they can be difficult to observe as they prefer to spend their time in the tops of tall trees.

The Baltimore oriole would stand out among North American birds even without its colorful plumage and its long association with the city of Baltimore and its affiliated major league baseball team.

For instance, few other birds can match the Baltimore oriole for the sheer elaborate nature of the woven nest these birds construct for the purpose of sheltering eggs and young. The nests resemble hanging baskets that the female oriole weaves from a variety of collected strips of grass. The lining inside is even more elaborate and features soft materials such as plant down, feathers or even wool that can insulate and cushion the eggs. The nest itself is anchored securely in the fork of a tree branch. 

A family of tropical birds known as oropendolas are native to Central America, with some ranging as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. Some of their fantastic hanging nests put those constructed by Baltimore orioles to shame. Not surprisingly, orioles and oropendolas are closely related and claim kinship among the extensive family of New World blackbirds. Many species of oropendolas also nest in colonies, which makes their intricate nests even more prominent.

Orioles also have a tendency to indulge a sweet tooth or, I suppose, a sweet beak in their case. Slices of citrus fruits, as well as specially designed feeders to suit their size and shape can offer these birds sugar water that they will sip as eagerly as any hummingbird. Dispensers of grape jelly can also be set out to lure these birds.

Photo Courtesy of Helen Whited • A Baltimore Oriole visits a feeder “baited” with an orange slice.

Baltimore orioles have been changing their usual habits almost from the time the first Europeans arrived in North America. Instead of migrating south each fall, more of these birds are staying behind at some northern locations, especially along the Atlantic Coast, and successfully overwintering, often at backyard feeders.

For many year s, I have helped unwittingly perpetuate the myth that the oriole derived its common name from an association with history’s first Lord Baltimore, also known as George Calvert, Baron Baltimore. 

As it turns out, the bird and the English nobleman may not be as closely affiliated with each other as popular lore would have us believe. According to an article published by Hervey Brackbill in 1949 in the Wilson Bulletin, the origins of the Baltimore oriole’s vernacular, or common, name is not authentically tied to Lord Baltimore.

George Calvert by the artist Daniël Mijtens. In this portrait, the family colors of black and orange are clearly visible.

On a side note, there should be a bird named “Brackbill,” just because that seems a ready-made term for describing some sort of odd bird. Alas, I can’t find any evidence that Mr. Brackbill ever had a bird named after him. 

In summarizing the myth of the man and the bird, the article states that Calvert visited Chesapeake Bay in 1628. He saw the oriole and, impressed with the bird’s orange and black plumage, adopted those colors as his own, incorporating them into his family’s coat of arms. 

The historic record turns up several inaccuracies with this charming but perhaps misleading tale. First and foremost, the Calvert family coat of arms of gold (orange) and black had already been established before the first Lord Baltimore ever visited the New World. A statement regarding the coat of arms was published in England in 1622, six years prior to Calvert’s visit to the Chesapeake Bay.

Calvert did eventually (in 1629) visit the Chesapeake Bay, but there’s no actual account of his ever observing the bird that we know as a Baltimore oriole. Calvert’s son, the second Lord Baltimore, never ventured to the New World.

The famous Carl Linnaeus is often given credit for bestowing the common name on the oriole, but he was apparently a bit late to the game. The Swedish botanist, zoologist, taxonomist and physician famous for his binomial nomenclature, which is the basis for the modern system of naming organisms, first gave the bird the scientific name of Coracias Galbula in  1758. In 1766, with the publication of an updated version of his Systema Naturae, Linnaeus got around to giving the oriole the scientific name Oriolus Baltimore, or more simply “the oriole of Baltimore.”

Unfortunately, credit does not really belong to Linnaeus. A century before Linnaeus got around to giving the oriole its enduring name, colonists in America were calling the bird in question “the Baltimore bird.”

The famous naturalist, writer and artist Mark Catesby referred to the bird as “the Baltimore bird.” Catesby, who lived from 1683 to 1749, was famous for his studies of the flora and fauna of the New World. Catesby also was the first to refer to the bird as an oriole because he was reminded of the unrelated orioles of the Old World. He gave the bird its “icterus” designation that today is used to describe an array of New World blackbirds, orioles, and other related birds. By the time people began to suspect the New World orioles were not at all like their Old World counterparts, Catesby’s classification stuck.

So, ordinary colonists, not noblemen, naturalists or ornithologists, actually provided the name “Baltimore bird,” but due to a mistake on the part of the experts who should have known better, the erroneous “oriole” was also attached to the bird’s name.

All in all, I like the name oriole. Baltimore blackbird, while it does have some alliteration and is more scientifically accurate, just doesn’t have the same ring to it. 

The region is home during the summer to another oriole, the smaller orchard oriole. Other New World orioles include Audubon’s oriole, orange oriole, Altamira oriole, Bullock’s oriole, hooded oriole and white-edged oriole. 

Bullock’s oriole is the western counterpart to the Baltimore oriole.  The two birds were once considered the same species and lumped together under the unimaginative name of Northern oriole. I got the pleasure of observing many Bullock’s orioles during a May visit to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2008.

Some of the Old World orioles, the birds with the rightful claim to be “orioles,” include the brown oriole, green oriole, white-lored oriole, Eurasian golden oriole, green-headed oriole,  black oriole, maroon oriole and silver oriole. The Old World orioles are also closely related to the figbirds of Indonesia and Australia and the pitohuis of New Guinea. 

Incidentally, I have tried the trick of offering orange slices, as well as grape jelly, to attract Baltimore orioles to my yard. Unfortunately, this oriole remains definitely “hit or miss” at my home on Simerly Creek Road. I’ve only ever observed them at my home during spring and fall migration. Thanks to gray catbirds, the orange slices didn’t go to waste, and the ants loved the grape jelly. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Baltimore oriole in tall trees at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City, Tennessee.

To find orioles, keep your gaze directed upward. Larry McDaniel with Tri-Cities Young Naturalists was recently asked on Facebook whether there are orioles in the area. He gave a good answer, so I’ve borrowed it. He explained that while orioles do nest in the region, they are surprisingly hard to spot high up in the thick foliage of tall trees.

Some good locations to look for Baltimore orioles are the waterfront along Winged Deer Park in Johnson City and in tall trees around the lake at Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport.

Blue of indigo bunting’s plumage is a trick of the light

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

The indigo bunting is one of the reasons I love to pay attention to the clientele visiting my feeders. This small songbird likes to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer.

One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings — still return each year to my yard and gardens.

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

Upon arrival, male indigo buntings become tenacious singers, repeating their jumbled notes even during the hottest hours of summer afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees, where they are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

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

The male indigo bunting is the only solid blue bird in the eastern United States, but it’s all an illusion — literally a trick of the light. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue; the male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of diffraction of light around the structure of the bird’s feathers. This process scatters all but the blue light, and the resulting color shifts from black to blue to turquoise as the angle of reflected light changes. In bright light, it can even look unnaturally vivid blue. In poor light, however, an indigo bunting male can appear black. Fortunately, indigo buntings have both a characteristic body shape and song, so even if the birds are not seen at their best, they can still be recognized.

Soon after returning to the eastern United States each spring, female buntings begin to gather materials to construct a well-crafted, cup-shaped nest. The male usually stays close to her, but he offers no assistance with nest building. She usually lays a clutch of three to four eggs, but she may nest another two times in a single season. She will incubate the eggs for almost two weeks, but the young remain in the nest another two weeks after being hatched as featherless, blind and helpless young completely dependent on the care of attentive parents. The task of raising so many broods in the space of only a few months requires the participation of both the female and her mate, who must work hard to bring enough insects to the nest to keep the young fed.

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

Photo by Dan Sudia/USFWS • Female and young indigo bunting do not show the intense blue of adult males.

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. Indigo bunting juveniles, like the young of many other birds, beg for tidbits from parents by “bowing,” spreading their wings and shivering. These actions usually prompt a parent to pop some morsel into an impatient youngster’s open bill. Indigo buntings are relatively easy to view. They frequent weedy fields and roadside brush. During the breeding season, males can also be seen singing from prominent perches. The song, a distinctive jumble of notes, can help observers find these dedicated singers.

The indigo bunting belongs to a genus of birds known as Passerina, which is included the family Cardinalidae, which includes birds like Northern cardinal and rose-breasted grosbeak. They are often lumped into a group known as North American buntings, although they are not closely related to such birds as snow bunting and lark bunting. The latter is even recognized as the official state bird for Colorado, a unique honor for this group of birds. The other members of the Passerina genus include lazuli bunting, varied bunting, painted bunting, rose-bellied bunting, orange-breasted bunting and blue grosbeak.

Worldwide, other birds known as buntings include such descriptively named species as slaty bunting, corn bunting, white-capped bunting, gray-necked bunting, cinereous bunting, lark-like bunting, cinnamon-breasted bunting, chestnut-eared bunting, little bunting, yellow-throated bunting, golden-breasted bunting, black-headed bunting, red-headed bunting and yellow bunting.

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

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