Photo by Bryan Stevens * A male mallard lounges by the edge of a fish pond in a previous spring season.
Signs of spring are, as the old saying goes, popping up all over. Daffodils and crocuses unfurling their blooms, a pair of mallards paying a visit to my fish pond and the blue skies overhead on sunny days have signaled the transition toward spring as surely as the turning of the calendar page to March.
Some of these familiar sights have been hazy for me during this season of transition. In early February I lost vision in my right eye. After visits to various medical experts, an MRI, blood tests and other procedures, I got a diagnosis of optic papillitis, a form of optic neuritis. In simpler terms, I suffered a stroke of the eye that aggravated and inflamed the optic nerve.
The good news, as I see it, tests have not found any evidence of underlying conditions like cancer or a brain tumor. The bad news, also as I see it, is that recovery is not guaranteed and can take time. The process is usually measured in weeks and months, not days.
It’s been unsettling, to describe it mildly. Reading requires the assistance of a magnifying glass. Too much time focused on a bright screen brings discomfort.
I’m carrying on with birding as best I can. Binoculars, as birders know, are made for use by two eyes. I have feeders to lure the birds in close, but my favorite cardinals, chickadees and wrens are a bit blurry.
I’ve always tried to stay optimistic. I’m hopeful that by the time the ruby-throated hummingbirds return for a sip of sugar water at my feeders in April, my sight will be good enough to enjoy the beauty of their green and white plumage and the brilliant red throat if the visiting hummer is a male.
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.
If spring’s too soon, I’ll push the goal farther along in the 2023 calendar and hope to be ready to identify the annual fall parade of warblers.
As I wait, nothing’s stopping me from enjoying the sounds of spring. On rainy days, the chorus of spring peepers produce their amphibious cacophany at dusk and throughout the night. Many of the birds are also singing their hearts out. Eastern phoebes, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees and Northern cardinals all make their presence with their loud, persistent songs.
On Monday, Feb. 20, I watched as the fuzzy shapes of two dozen red-winged blackbirds dropped down into the cattails in the marshy area near the fish pond. It’s not February for me until I’ve seen a migrating flock of blackbirds benefitting from an overnight stay in the cattails.
Photo by Bryan Stevens * A mallard drake looks vibrant with his green, glossy head.
On Sunday, Feb. 26, a mallard pair visited the fish pond. They were the first mallards that I’ve observed at my fish pond for many years. In full disclosure, my mom spotted them and informed me of their arrival. Mallards are big enough that I saw the male of the pair easily enough. His green head and chestnut breast stood out from the brown cattails and other vegetation bordering the pond. The female mallard blended nicely with the background and evaded my gaze. Regardless, I was thrilled to welcome mallards back to the pond. They only lingered for a single day, but they have me hoping that other ducks, such as blue-winged teal or wood ducks, will make similar visits as the season progresses.
On March 1, I saw my first spring butterfly. The seasonal first was a spring azure, a tiny, delicate butterfly. The sighting reminded me that nature will provide plenty of incentive to work on regaining my full vision. I still have more butterflies, as well as dragonflies, damselflies, moths and June bugs to look forward to seeing as we progress through spring and summer.
I’ve always believed that nature is a restorative force. Now I am going to test that theory in my goal to have my vision back at or near normal capacity by the time I hear the buzzy whir of hummingbird wings in April.
In the meantime, there will still be plenty of time to focus on our myriad feathered friends. I have someone who has been great at taking down my dictated words for my weekly column.
As always, make a comment, share an observation or ask a question by emailing me at email@example.com.
Photo by Jack Bumer from Pixabay • For many people, the dark-eyed junco is a winter bird, not arriving until the first frost or snowfall of the season. These songbirds typically remain until late spring when they disperse to their nesting grounds.
I wrote my first bird column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this weekly column is marking its 26th anniversary this week.
This column has appeared over the last three decades in a total of six different newspapers, which I regard as a personal achievement, as well as an accomplishment for our feathered friends. It’s on their behalf that I pen these weekly efforts to promote conservation and good will toward all birds. I have also posted the column as a weekly blog posting since February 2014 at www.ourfinefeatheredfriends.com.
I’ve played detective, helping people identify everything from “rain crows,” or cuckoos, to Muscovy ducks, chukars and double-crested cormorants. I’ve observed unusual birds, including white pelicans, brants and roseate spoonbills, in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina and spotlighted them in these columns. I still take delight in the kaleidoscopic parade of colorful warblers that pass through the region each spring and fall as well as the fast-paced duel of ruby-throated hummingbirds and the occasional rufous hummingbirds straying through the region.
At my home, I also provide sunflower seed and other supplemental food for the resident birds like Carolina chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, song sparrows and downy woodpeckers.
Even as I tweak my anniversary column for “Feathered Friends,” parts of the region just experienced the first heavy frost. This prognostication of approaching winter weather is a perfect time to dust off this week’s column, which is a revision of the first bird column I ever wrote. This column focused on a common visitor to yards and feeders during the winter months. In fact, dark-eyed juncos should bereturning to the region any day. Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column.
Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.
John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.
Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”
Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.
During the summer months, a visit to higher elevations mountaintops is almost guaranteed to produce sightings of dark-eyed juncos. Juncos may nest as many as three times in a season. A female junco usually lays three to six eggs for each nest, which she constructs without any assistance from her mate.
Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.
Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.
Since juncos are primarily ground feeders they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.
Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.
The juncos are a small branch of the sparrow clan. Some of the other juncos include the endangered Guadalupe junco, yellow-eyed junco, Baird’s junco and volcano junco. The last one on the list is endemic to the Talamancan montane forests of Costa Rica and western Panama. Baird’s junco is named for Spencer Fullerton Baird, an American ornithologist and naturalist.
Baird served as secretary for the Smithsonian Institution from 1878 until his death in 1887. He greatly expanded the natural history collections of the Smithsonian from 6,000 specimens in 1850 to over two million by the time of his death.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to juncos. There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.
Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!
Orders are being accepted for the 2022 bird calendar produced by Elizabethton Bird Club members. Calendars feature bird photographs taken by club members. The calendars sell for $15, plus $2 for postage and handling for those needing a calendar mailed to them. This year’s cover features a beautiful photograph of a chestnut-sided warbler among spring blossoms taken by Charles Warden. Anyone interested in the purchase of a calendar can email Bryan Stevens at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
If you’d like to share your first sighting this season of dark-eyed juncos as the temperatures get colder, email me at email@example.com. As always, the column is also a line of communication with fellow bird enthusiasts. I’ve enjoyed sharing stories about birds with countless readers over the past 26 years. I can also be reached on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.
Photo by Kevinsphotos by Pixabay • A barn owl flies through the darkness without any difficulty whatsoever. Special adaptations make barn owls a silent, highly efficient predator on rodents, some songbirds, and some reptiles and amphibians.
Halloween is drawing closer, and it’s definitely the one night of the year that we become acutely aware of things that go bump in the night.
While goblins and ghouls can be dismissed as mere apparitions of the imagination, some real-life feathered phantoms do roam the darkness, perhaps even in your own backyard. If so, you are more likely to have heard them than to have seen them.
If you do hear anything unusual Halloween night, chances are the sounds may have been produced by an owl.
Several species of owl reside in Northeast Tennessee, including the Eastern screech-owl, the barred owl, the great horned owl and the barn owl. A fifth owl, the tiny Northern saw-whet owl, can be found at some high-elevation locations, including Unaka Mountain in Unicoi County. A few other owls have made sporadic appearances in the region, including long-eared owl, short-eared owl and even snowy owl.
The barn owl is an owl that has adapted its ways to co-exist with humans. Even its common name refers to the fact that these owls will roost and nest in barns and other structures. They are also known to select natural tree cavities, caves and other human structures, including recesses build into sports stadiums and arenas. My most recent sightings of barn owls took place at a grain silo in Sullivan County a few years ago, a large barn located on Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006 and under the eaves of the old theatre on the campus of the Mountain Home Veterans Administration near East Tennessee State University back in 2000. These sporadic sightings are testimony to the overall elusive nature of this owl.
I was surprised to learn during my background research that the barn owl is the most widely distributed species of owl as well as one of the most widespread birds on the planet. This owl is also referred to as common barn owl, to distinguish it from other species in the barn-owl family Tytonidae. Owls in this family comprise one of two main lineages of living owls, the other being the typical owls in the Strigidae family. The barn owl, known by the scientific name, Tyto alba, is found almost worldwide except in polar and desert regions, Asia north of the Alpide belt, most of Indonesia, and the Pacific islands.
The genus name for this owl is Tyto, a variation of the ancient Greek word, “tutō,” which meant “owl.” The barn owl family, Tytonidae, consists of true barn owls, as well as grass owls and masked owls.
All owls are carnivores, but the barn owl specializes on rodents more than many of its kin. However, this owl will also eat other birds and insects.
Because of their pale plumage and nocturnal habits, barn owls have been saddled with such common names as demon owl, death owl, night owl and ghost owl.
Other common names include rat owl, inspired by one of its major prey items, and barnyard owl and church owl, which are two haunts where these owls often roost or perch. I also liked the name scritch owl and hissing owl, which were acquired because of vocalizations from this bird.
Barn owls have several adaptations that allow them to hunt in complete darkness. These owls have excellent hearing, allowing them to pinpoint prey even when the absence of light renders vision useless. The characteristic facial disc of the barn owl helps channel sounds toward the bird’s ears.
Even the feathers of owls have adapted to the need to stalk wary prey without revealing their presence. Specialized feathers permit owls to fly almost silently. Their feathers absorb flight noises and even alter air turbulence to keep the flight smooth and quiet. Most prey never suspect the owl’s approach until it’s far too late.
For the average person the term “owl” is representative of what is actually an extremely diverse family of birds. Worldwide, there are about 220 species of owls varying in size and habits.
Humans have come up with some descriptive names for various owls around the world. A sampling of these names includes fearful owl, pharaoh eagle-owl, collared owlet, pearl-spotted owlet, least pygmy-owl, red-chested owlet, buff-fronted owl, Stygian owl, vermiculated fishing-owl, black-and-white owl, bare-legged owl, maned owl, bearded screech-owl, spectacled owl and golden-masked owl.
Owls, according to Linda Spencer, author of “Knock on Wood: A Serendipitous Selection of Superstitions,” have inspired a mixed bag of superstitions ever since humans stood up. Owls have long been associated with the forces of both good and evil. The “hoot” or call of an owl is believed by people of many cultures to foretell death. There are some interesting ways to counter the ominous hoot of an owl, according to Spencer. Means of warding off the evil owl power include putting irons back in the fire, throwing salt, pepper and vinegar on the fire, tying a knot or taking one’s clothes off, turning them inside out and putting them back on.
According to Laura Martin, author of “The Folklore of Birds,” one of the earliest human drawings depicting owls dates back to the early Paleolithic period. The scene is of a family of snowy owls painted on a cave wall in France.
Owls have also entered the culture as symbols of wisdom and goodness. The wise old owl, Martin writes, dates back to the time of King Arthur. The sorcerer Merlin was always shown with an owl on his shoulder. During the Middle Ages owls became symbols of learning and intelligence. The Greeks didn’t fear owls as did the Romans. In fact, the owl was the sacred mascot of the Greek goddess Athena.
There’s one more owl-related myth I forgot to mention. There is a Chinese belief that owls snatch the souls of unwary people — just something you should know if you are out and about after dark on Halloween night.
Photo by skitter photos/Pixabay • Look for owls on Halloween and every other dark night.
Autumn’s a chance for me to indulge my passion for warblers, with a few dozen species of these songbirds passing through the region in the span of a few weeks. I always try to keep in mind, however, that the warblers are not the only migrating birds winging through the region.
The Elizabethton Bird Club had planned a “nighthawks and hot dogs” party at the home of Larry McDaniel near Jonesborough, but that event had to be cancelled because of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the region.
My silver lining was that I saw a large flock of common nighthawks at my home on Aug. 29. It was an evening of birding dominated by insect-eaters and fruit-eaters.
Cedar waxwings and one American robin perched in the wild cherry trees and plucked ripening fruit from the branches.
Swooping overhead a handful of Chimney Swifts and about 30 Common Nighthawks (the first I have seen this fall) collected insects just over the treetops. Flycatching from a dead blue spruce was an Eastern Wood-Pewee, another fall first.
Other birds included a pair of Northern cardinals feeding three young, an Eastern towhee and one hooded warbler. At one point an irritable ruby-throated hummingbird chased the pewee round and round the trunk of the dead spruce. They almost looked like they were characters in a zany cartoon.
Photo by Jean Potter • A common nighthawk rests on a metal railing.
Like such birds as warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, flycatchers and hummingbirds, the common nighthawk is a neotropical migrant. In addition, this nighthawk has one of the longest migration routes of any North American bird. Twice a year, these birds migrate for distances ranging from 1,600 to 4,200 miles. Nighthawks that spend the spring and summer in Canada travel to southern South America for the winter months.
With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the treetops for passing warblers, vireos and tanagers, but I also remember to direct my gaze to the skies. Forgetting to look skyward could result in missing the passage of such varied migrants as chimney swifts, broad-winged hawks and common nighthawks.
So, what is a common nighthawk? First, this bird, despite what is implied by its name, is not a hawk. It’s also not strictly nocturnal. Particularly in the fall, nighthawks are active during daylight hours when engaged in catching winged insects. Outside of fall migration, these birds can often be observed over large parking lots or well-lit streets, snatching up insects swarming around the light poles.
Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A common nighthawk adopts an elongated pose atop a fencepost.
The common nighthawk is one of three members of the nightjar family found in the region during the summer months. The other two nightjars are the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow, birds that produce their namesake vocalizations in the nocturnal hours. Both of these species migrate, but they don’t take the dramatic approach employed by nighthawks. Each fall, common nighthawks form large flocks, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of individuals, as they migrate south for the winter.
Unlike whips and chucks, the common nighthawk isn’t active only after dark, which makes it much easier to observe these birds. They look somewhat like swifts and swallows but are much larger. They are brownish-gray birds with pointed wings and forked tails. They are easily identified by distinctive white patches on the underside of their wings.
A perplexing nickname for the common nighthawk is “bull-bat.” This merger of the words “bull” and “bat” makes sense when you explore a little deeper. The common nighthawk earned the nickname “bull-bat” because of its perceived “bat-like” flight and a “bull-like” boom produced by its wings as it pulls out of a dive.
The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” Apparently, in trying to explain the nocturnal tendencies of these birds, the Greeks came up with the imaginative but erroneous idea that birds like nighthawks liked to sneak into barns and have a meal of fresh goat’s milk. In reality, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, including ants, wasps, beetles, caddisflies, moths, mayflies, flies, crickets, grasshoppers, and other insects. They capture much of their insect prey on the wing.
There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.
So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move in August and throughout September.
I will keep watching the skies. Nighthawks can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air. First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds.
Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds make a non-stop crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. A hurricane in the Gulf during migration could have serious consequences for this small bird.
Mack Hayes, a resident of Telford, posted on my Facebook page recently about hummingbird experiences.
“I have two hummingbird feeders out, and boy are they really working them,” Mack wrote. “I see several of them, and of course they fight each other. Males and females both. Guess they are getting ready for their long flightahead of them.”
Mack’s post reminded me that many of our favored summer visitors will soon make their return migrations to regions more hospitable for the duration of the winter season.
I replied to his post with my own comment.
“I am sure they are getting ready, but I still hope they don’t get in too great a hurry. I would like to keep them with us as long as possible.”
At home, I have enjoyed some fun bird observations. It was a veritable feeding frenzy in a corner of my yard for about an hour on Tuesday, Aug. 10. Everything kicked off with a Red-eyed Vireo enjoying some elderberries. I was reminded that, with a really good look, the Red-eyed Vireo should never be mistaken for a warbler. That bill is so much bigger than a warbler bill! I was watching the vireo in binoculars when he coughed and popped up an elderberry. He immediately swallowed it again! Waste not, want not, I suppose.
I am counting this burst of bird activity as the official kickoff for my fall migration watching.
I watched the vireo a long time before I realized there was a Gray Catbird perched lower in the shrub and also enjoying the elderberries. Then, in rapid succession, three warblers: Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Parula and Worm-eating Warbler. On the fringes of all this activity I noticed a Brown Thrasher, Downy Woodpecker, a couple of Mourning Doves, and the resident Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens.
I also saw some parents hard-pressed to satisfy their young, including a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher being followed and pestered by a couple of young gnatcatchers, and a male Eastern Towhee leading a youngster around on the ground as they foraged beneath the forsythia tangle.
Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter A red-eyed vireo sits on its basket-shaped nest.
At the feeders I saw American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, and several Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, which don’t know the meaning of the word “share” as they dived and attacked any of their fellow hummers that came too close to “their” feeder. All in all, a fun Tuesday evening.
The start of migration appears to be more of a crawl than a sprint this fall, but I have picked up a few additional signs. For instance, I’ve been hearing the scolding sounds of red-eyed vireos from woodland edges for the past few weeks even before I observed the vireo feeding on the elderberries. A dedicated singer at most times, this vireo seems more likely to produce a harsh, scolding cry at this time of the year. Other hints of the steady advance of fall migration include flocks of chimney swifts congregating in the skies over my home and the unmistakable croaking of common ravens from nearby ridges.
So far, I’ve seen only a few warblers. At a glance, vireos would appear related to the wood warblers. Research into DNA, however, has led many experts to contend that vireos are more closely related to crows and shrikes. Like the flycatcher and hummingbird families, the vireo family is exclusive to the New World. With a mere 50 species, vireos and their kin are vastly outnumbered by flycatchers and hummingbirds. The majority of vireos resides in the tropics, but about a dozen species nest in the United States.
In East Tennessee Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina, vireos resident during the summer months include red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow-throated vireo and warbling vireo. Most people are likely unaware of vireos. Although not uncommon, these birds are more frequently heard than seen. They spend much of their time in the forest canopy or in dense brush. When singing, they can remain at a perch, unmoving, for long periods of time.
Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue-headed vireos, such as this bird, are high-elevation summer residents in the region. In the fall, they are also common migrants.
The loud scolding calls of red-eyed vireos often heard this time of year are given apparently when the vireo is alarmed or irritated. This scolding vocalization is quite unlike the usual ones produced by this bird. First and foremost, the call is louder than one would think could be produced by a bird that is only about six inches long. During the summer season, the red-eyed vireo is also one of the most persistent of singing songbirds. Another common name for the red-eyed vireo is “preacher bird,” so called because of its tendency to unceasingly deliver its song.
The red-eyed vireo is still considered one of eastern North America’s most common summer breeding birds. At one time, the red-eyed vireo was probably the most common breeding bird in eastern woodlands. That, sadly, is no longer the case. Red-eyed vireos are olive-green above and clean white below. These birds show a distinctive head pattern consisting of a gray crown and white eyebrow stripe bordered above and below by black lines. Adults also have the red eyes that give this particular vireo its common name. The term “vireo,” originating in Latin, can be translated into English as “green bird.” It’s an apt description, as many of these small birds are primarily dull green in coloration. Consider the vireos the “Plain Janes” of songbirds.
Some of the more colorful common names for vireos include the dwarf vireo, golden vireo and yellow-winged vireo.In Central and South America, the vireo family expands to include many birds with common names such as shrike-vireo, greenlet and peppershrike. Some of the varied species include lemon-chested greenlet, green shrike-vireo and the black-bellied peppershrike.
I still focus most of my birding efforts on warblers in the autumn, but vireos are always a pleasant diversion when the colorful warblers make themselves scarce.
Keep your eyes open for new visitors. Those hummingbirds that scorned you this spring may give your home a second glance as they pass through this fall. In addition, the skies are filled with migrating raptors, flycatchers, thrushes, nighthawks and many other birds.
Share sightings, ask questions or make comments by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Pexels from Pixabay • Many human masks feature feathers, but many of our feathered friends sport masks.
Who was that masked bird?
While asking pardon from “The Lone Ranger,” which originated the memorable “Who was that masked man?” question, I thought I’d take a look this week at some of our feather friends known for going about their lives fully masked. After all, masks are all the rage, apparently.
When we look back, perhaps not fondly but inevitably, on the years 2020 and 2021, I’m confident that the one icon of this blip in the arc of history will be the mask. Living in the time of COVID-19 has been a cross to bear for current generations, but remember that our great-grandparents withstood the Spanish flu and our more distant ancestors weathered the plague known as “the black death.”
Many of them did so by using masks, some more effectively than others, to shield themselves from infection. Even back in the 1300s as the black death, i.e. the bubonic plague, rampaged through Europe, masks were recognized as a means of dealing with a contagion.
Image by Enrique Meseguer from Pixabay • In their dark costumes with bird-beaked masks, these “doctors” must have presented a nightmarish appearance to their patients.
To complete the circle connecting masks and birds, I’ll remind readers that a strange costume arose in the 1300s among “doctors” attempting to combat the pandemic of their time. Plague doctors traveled across Europe, seeking public employment from desperate towns and cities, in an easily recognizable costume that consisted of dark robes and a weird mask with a prominent bird-like beak. The result was a look straight from some fevered nightmare.
Looking at illustrations of these strange beaked masks and reading about some of the absurdly horrendous “cures” offered by these charlatans, I’m surprised that an anti-bird sentiment didn’t rise up and turn people against some of our fine feathered friends.Ironically, the masks offered little or no protection from disease. Let’s just say that these were not the quality of some of the better surgical masks available today.
It may surprise people to learn that many birds are “masked.”For mask-wearing birds, however, it’s not a choice but simply a quirk of their plumage that has given so many of our feather friends a distinctive mask, or in some cases even a complete hood, to complete their appearance. Birds ranging from popular backyard visitors like the cedar waxwing to more unusual avians such as the masked flowerpiercer and the masked fin foot wear masks.
The masked tityra is a medium-sized songbird. It has traditionally been placed in the cotinga or the tyrant flycatcher family, but many experts believe it is better placed in Tityridae. The maskedtityra has been spotted once north of the border, being found in the Bentsen/Rio Grande Valley State Park in February of 1990.
Photo by Pixabay • The loggerhead shrike sports a classic black mask. With this shrike, both males and females are identical in appearance.
Shrikes are a family with many mask-wearing members. The loggerhead shrike, in addition to wearing a bandit’s mask, even has the unsavory nickname of “butcher bird” due to its gruesome habit of impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire fences. The loggerhead shrike is native to the United States and is the only member of the family found in Northeast Tennessee. The Northern shrike, which is the only other shrike in North America, is also masked.
Some warblers sport masks, including the common yellowthroat and hooded warbler. Well, the latter wears an encompassing black hood, but you get the idea. The Kentucky warbler sports a partial black mask around the eyes. There’s also the masked yellowthroat — the name seems a bit too on point — that maintains separate resident breeding populations in Central and South America. Based on photos, the masked yellowthroat’s mask is even more pronounced than the mask of the common yellowthroat.
There’s also the masked booby, which is a large seabird in the booby/gannet family, Sulidae. This bird spends most of its time at sea, coming to land to breed and nest. The name “booby” is actually derived from the Spanish word “bobo,” which can be translated to mean “fool” or “clown.” These seabirds are not truly stupid, but the Spanish, seeing them on land and out of their element, only noticed how awkward and clumsy the birds are on land. Some relatives of the masked booby include blue-footed booby, brown booby, red-footed booby, Nazca booby and Abbott’s booby of Christmas Island in the eastern Indian Ocean.
Photo by Nadine Doerlé from Pixabay • The shorebird known as the masked lapwing is an Australian species.
The masked lapwing is a large, common and conspicuous shorebird native to Australia, particularly the northern and eastern parts of the continent, as well as New Zealand and New Guinea. In the family Charadriidae, which consists of plovers, lapwings and dotterels, the masked lapwing is the biggest of the bunch. The masked lapwing reaches a length of 14 inches and can weigh 368 grams.
The cedar waxwing sports a jaunty crest. Unlike many birds with only males wearing the mask, both sexes wear sleek black masks. The world’s two other waxwings — bohemian waxwing and Japanese waxwing – are also masked. I’ve seen large flocks of cedar waxwings in recent weeks. Late summer is usually a good time to find these jaunty birds in the region.
Photo by David Mark from Pixabay • The Bohemian waxwing is a larger relative of the Cedar Waxwing. Both species sport a prominent black facial mask.
There’s no masked crow, but there is a hooded crow. Ranging across Europe and Asia, this crow has different common names in various countries.In Ireland, it is called caróg liath or grey crow, while in Germany its often called the “mist crow.” It’s also called the Scotch crow and the Danish crow. The hooded crow is associated with fairies in the Scottish highlands and Ireland. There’s an 18th century tradition in Scotland in which shepherds would make offerings to them to keep fairies from attacking sheep.
There’s a masked duck native to the American tropics. From time to time, these small ducks even stage invasions into southern states like Florida and Texas. A male masked duck in breeding plumage has a black face mask, bright blue bill and dark rusty-red body.
The masked trogon is another bird of the American tropics, ranging mostly in the Andes of South America. Males are variously glossy green, reddish-bronze or golden-green on their head, chest and back, with a red belly and a distinct red eye-ring. There’s usually a white band of feathers that separates the red belly from the greenish plumage of this bird. The trogons are closely related to the family of brilliant birds known as quetzals.
The masked flowerpiercer is related to tanagers and can be found in Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Flowerpiercers are so named because of a sharp hook on the tip of their upper mandible which they use to slice open the base of flowers to get at the nectar. It’s a simple but effective hack for a bird unable to hover like a hummingbird.
Found in Vietnam and China, the masked laughing thrush is a sociable, noisy thrush reflected by its common Chinese name, which means “seven sisters.” These birds often produce their harsh chattering when deep under cover of tangled vegetation.
The masked finch is a small songbird found in dry savannah across northern Australia. Like the aforementioned masked laughingthrush, this finch is a noisy bird. Hundreds or even thousands of individuals may gather at popular watering holes to drink, bathe and preen, all while chattering constantly.
The masked fin foot is found in the brackish waters of the eastern Indian subcontinent, which includes Indochina, Malaysia and Indonesia. This odd bird has been described as a combination of a cormorant and hornbill. This unique bird is endangered. Although a 2009 survey indicated that 600 to 1,700 masked finfoots existed, a worrisome 2020 survey found only 100 to 300 individuals. Most of the surviving individuals are found in Bangladesh and Cambodia.
Lesser masked weaver, an African species, is a colony-nesting bird. Only the males show a distinctive mask of black feathers over the face. The rest of the male’s plumage is a bright yellow-green.
The golden masked owl is a barn owl endemic to the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. This owl’s facial disc, which is white in most barn owls, is tinged with russet-gold that does indeed form the shape of a partial mask like those used for masquerades.
There are other “masked” birds, but I think this sampling provides ample evidence that the mask appears frequently in the various plumage patterns worn by the world’s almost 10,000 species of birds.
Take care and stay well. For questions about birds, or to make a comment or share an observation, email me at email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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 email@example.com. I enjoy hearing from readers about shared interests in birds.
Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Ovenbirds are content to spend most of their time near the forest floor.
It’s been a week of arrivals at my home. Several species of warblers made their spring debuts, including a handful of male ovenbirds.
These warblers arrived on April 14 and immediately began singing their loud and ringing “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” song from concealment within the woodlands surrounding my home.
The ovenbird is not one of the brightly colored warblers, such as black-throated blue warbler or yellow warbler. The ovenbird is a small brown bird with a white breast with dark streaking — an appearance that bears a superficial resemblance to the larger thrushes that share the same woodland habitat. The only hint of color is an orange crown bordered by dark stripes atop the bird’s head. Even this orange crown patch is not easily seen. When agitated, an ovenbird may raise its head feathers, which makes this orange mark easier to detect. The ovenbird also shows a distinct white ring around each eye, as well as pink legs and a pinkish bill.
The resemblance to North America’s brown thrushes didn’t go unnoticed by some early American naturalists. Painter and famous naturalist John James Audubon painted a pair of ovenbirds, which he knew as “golden-crowned thrushes.” When comparing the two names, one can’t help but wish that the inaccurate but more romantically descriptive golden-crowned thrush had stuck.
While not likely to take an observer’s breath away with an unexpected explosion of vibrant plumage, the ovenbird’s not a drab bird. These warblers possess a subtle beauty all their own that is worth taking the time to behold.
Photo by Peggy Dyar from Pixabay • Despite the oliver-brown plumage, a closer look shows that the overbird is a bird with a subtle beauty, including an inconspicuous orange crown.
Unfortunately, ovenbirds are stubborn about letting themselves be seen. They’re easily heard. The males begin singing a loud, rollicking “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher” song almost as soon as they arrive on potential nesting grounds.
The ovenbird, unlike many warblers, is not named for its appearance. Instead, the bird’s name derives from the shape of the nest it builds. The nest is a domed structure placed on the ground, woven from vegetation and containing a side entrance. Early European settlers in North America thought the nest looked like a Dutch oven, hence the name “ovenbird” for the small warbler with the intricate nest.
Rather than hopping along the length of a branch or limb, an ovenbird walks in a deliberate fashion. This bird feeds on insects, spiders and other small prey items foraged from the woodland floor. On rare occasions, a lingering ovenbird shows up at feeders during the winter months.
Again, the most persistent characteristic of this warbler is the fact that it’s shy. It’s not as notoriously shy as warblers like mourning warbler of Connecticut warbler, but the ovenbird spends much of the time near the woodland floor and out of sight. The best time to catch a look at this warbler is once they begin nesting. Parents are extremely protective and defensive of their nest and young. Intruding too close is sure to bring some sharp alarm notes. The parents will often confront an intruder, flitting from branch to branch in nearby trees, utterly neglecting their usual preference for remaining unseen if not unheard.
Photo by Jean Potter • An ovenbird sings from a perch in the leaf canopy.
Ovenbirds spend the summer nesting season in mature deciduous and mixed forests across Canada and the eastern United States. They do not make as lengthy a migration as that undertaken by some of their relatives. Ovenbirds migrate each fall to the southeastern United States, the West Indies and also spreads out from Mexico to northern South America for the winter season.
It’s one of several warblers that nest in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Others include Louisiana waterthrush, Kentucky warbler, common yellowthroat, Swainson’s warbler, black-throated blue warbler and American redstart, among others.
My mom saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 16 at 9:34 a.m. Of course, the bird waited until I’d left for work to make an appearance.
My solace has been an influx of other migrants in the past week. A blue-gray gnatcatcher’s fussy buzz alerted me to its return on April 10. I eventually got binoculars focused on the fidgety bird as it flitted in the upper branches of a cherry tree.
I heard the familiar chittering cries overhead while walking in downtown Erwin on April 14. Looking skyward, I watched a flock of chimney swifts flying gracefully over the rooftops of downtown buildings.
New warblers at home this week, other than the ovenbird, have included hooded warbler and black-throated green warbler, both of which put in their first spring appearance on April 15.
As noted, hummingbirds are returning. I’ve had reports from Western North Carolina and all across Northeast Tennessee. I will compile a listing of those who have shared their first sightings with me for next week’s column.
Keep sharing your hummingbird observations at firstname.lastname@example.org or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.