Tag Archives: birds

Common grackles part of November’s changing bird lineup

 

Photo by Bernell MacDonald/Pixabay.com • Common grackles are quite accomplished at foraging for food in a variety of habitats.

November is a month of transition. The birds of summer have all “flown the coop,” returning to warmer climes to the south in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Of course, even as hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers, vireos, and others have fled North America in advance of winter’s imminent arrival, other birds are arriving to take their place.

Many of the newcomers don’t offer the vibrant plumage of a scarlet tanager or a rose-breasted grosbeak, but they make up for the lack of striking feathers by remaining quite faithful to our feeders during the bleak, short days of winter. A hermit thrush and a dark-eyed junco represented some first-of-autumn arrivals when they showed up Nov. 6, followed the next day by a swamp sparrow. In addition to the sparrow, three ravenous common grackles descended on my suet feeders that same day.

For many bird enthusiasts, the “common” in this particular bird’s name is particularly apt. Tending to form large, noisy flocks, common grackles can easily wear out even the most generous welcome. Perhaps because I live at a mid-elevation area, common grackles are extremely infrequent visitors to my yard. I can be a little more welcoming to a bird that I know is not likely to linger.

Photo by diapicard/Pixabay.com • A common grackle perches on a shepherd’s hook in a garden. These large birds, which are part of the blackbird family, form flocks and bring big appetites to feeders during migratory stops.

Nevertheless, that same evening these three grackles must have spread the word because a flock of about 30 of these birds arrived. If I needed a reminder, the flock provided a quick one. A handful of grackles isn’t too disruptive, but a large flock can quickly overwhelm and intimidate smaller feeder birds.

Even so, I remain inclusive in my embrace of all feathered friends. A much maligned bird if ever there was one, the common grackle is worth a second look. For those who are able to overlook the occasional bad habits of birds such as Northern mockingbirds, mourning doves, or even cantankerous ruby-throated hummingbirds, there may be hope for this large member of the diverse family of blackbirds, known by scientific types as a member of the family Icteridae. This grouping of New World species, also known as New World blackbirds, includes such members as orioles, meadowlarks, cowbirds, bobolinks, marshbirds, orependolas, caciques and, of course, blackbirds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A boat-tailed grackle sings, if the bird’s harsh, grating notes can be considered a song, from a perch in a wetland in South Carolina.

The common grackle is known by the scientific name Quiscalus quiscula. In the southeast, in particular along the coast and in wetland areas, a common and related species is the boat-tailed grackle. Other species of grackles found in the New World include the great-tailed grackle, Nicaraguan grackle, Great Antillean grackle and the Carib grackle. A little more distantly related are the South American species golden-tufted mountain grackle and the Colombian mountain grackle.

One species — the slender-billed grackle of Mexico — suffered extinction at the dawn of the 20th century. Reasons for this bird’s disappearance are not clearly understood, but habitat destruction of Mexican wetlands and hunting pressures have been theorized as causes. Like others of its kind, the slender-billed grackle may also have been persecuted as an agricultural pest.

Like many other birds dependent on wetlands, common grackles have experienced population declines in recent decades. Although it seems odd to refer to a bird with a population estimated at around 73 million individuals in North America as on the decline, common grackles have suffered an estimated population loss of about 60 percent from historic highs.

Male grackles stand out from other blackbirds due to their sheer size. Males can reach a length of 13 inches, although much of that can be measured in an exceptionally long tail. A grackle’s plumage has a black sheen that can shine with brilliant iridescence that tends to appear purple, green or blue when the sun shines just right on the feathers. Females tend to be smaller than males and are a muted black and brown. Both sexes have long, sturdy bills and yellow eyes.

Most rural residents don’t have to worry about common grackles overwhelming their feeders, but some people living in urban and suburban settings have found grackles to be difficult guests. The birds have bottomless appetites and are aggressive toward more desirable feeder birds. Fortunately, migrating flocks in the fall tend not to linger. After a brief visit, which can still deplete supplies of seed and suet cakes, the grackles continue migrating.

Grackles are usually one of the earliest birds to return each spring. In fact, it’s not at all unusual for these large birds to make their way back to the region as early as late February. I am usually glad to welcome them back since I know that their return is a strong indication that some more favored species are certain to follow in their wake and that winter’s grip is waning.

Are you seeing new arrivals in your yard or at your feeders? Let me know by emailing ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Boat-tailed grackles perch on viewing equipment at an observation platform at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Club holds 51st annual Fall Bird Count

Photo by NatureLady/Pixabay.com • Northern flickers made a strong showing on the 51st consecutive Fall Bird Count. Eighty of these woodpeckers were found by count participants spread across the five-county area of Northeast Tennessee.

The 51st  consecutive Elizabethton Fall Count was held on Saturday, Sept. 26, with 48 observers in 18 parties. The participants were dispersed more than normal due to social distancing protocols. This is the third seasonal count conducted since the start of the Covid 19 pandemic.

The area covered included all of Carter County, as well as parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.

A total of 132 species were tallied, which is above the recent 30-year average of 125 species. The all-time high on this count was 137 species set in 1993.

Photo by U.S. FWS   Many birds, such as Northern bobwhites, have seen alarming population crashes in the last half century.

Some interesting finds included a Northern bobwhite covey near the community of Bowmantown in Washington County. Such high numbers of bobwhites have become increasingly rare in recent years.Thirteen unidentified species of Empidonax flycatchers were found, but these birds do not count into the total of species. These small flycatchers are so similar in appearance that their song is usually needed to confirm identification. In fall migration, however, these flycatcher go silent for the most part. A yellow-bellied flycatcher and two least flycatchers were identified.

A total of 23 species of warblers were found, including such interesting finds as golden-winged warbler, blackpoll warbler and Wilson’s warbler.

European starling proved the most abundant bird with 1,757b individuals counted. Other common birds for the count included Canada goose (1,220), Rock Pigeon (629) and Chimney Swift (478).

Photo by Jean Potter • The rock pigeon is one of the most successful members of the bird family Columbidae, which is comprised of some 310 species of doves and pigeons. One of the most famous representatives of the family is the dodo, an extinct relative of such common birds as the mourning dove and rock pigeon.

The participants for the 2020 Fall Bird Count included: Fred Alsop, Rob Armistead, Betty Bailey, Gary Bailey, Jerry Bevins, Rob Biller, Debi Campbell, J.G. Campbell, Ron Carrico, Robin Cooper, Catherine Cummins, Dianne Draper, Glen Eller, Harry Lee Farthing, Bambi Fincher, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Bill Grigsby, Jean Henson, Neal Henson, Jacki Hinshaw, Don Holt, David Kirschke, Rick Knight, Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Dianna Lynne, Vern Maddux, Joe McGuiness, Cathy McNeil, Tom McNeil, Eric Middlemas, Harry Norman, Susan Peters, Brookie Potter, Jean Potter, Sherrie Quillen, Pete Range, Ken Rea, Judith Reid, Judi Sawyer, Chris Soto, Michele Sparks, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud, Scott Turner, Charles Warden, Joyce Watson; plus Connie Irick, David Irick, and Peggy Stevens as feeder watchers.

There were no glaring misses, but shorebirds were scarce with not much available habitat this year. Birds that might have been expected for a fall count but were not found included Loggerhead Shrike, Winter Wren, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Blue Grosbeak and Bobolink.

“All in all, it was a very good count,” said long-time compiler Rick Knight. “Thanks to all who participated.”

The list:

Canada Goose, 1,220; Wood Duck, 71; Mallard, 219; Blue-winged Teal, 27, Northern Bobwhite, 10; Ruffed Grouse, 2; and Wild Turkey, 66.

Common Loon, 1; Pied-billed Grebe, 11; Double-crested Cormorant, 62; Great Blue Heron, 37; Great Egret, 5; Green Heron  4; Black-crowned Night-Heron, 2; and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 1.

Black Vulture, 141; Turkey Vulture, 191; Osprey, 14; Northern Harrier, 1; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 3; Cooper’s Hawk, 11; Bald Eagle, 15; Red-shouldered Hawk, 2; Broad-winged Hawk, 4; and Red-tailed Hawk, 14.

Killdeer, 54; Greater Yellowlegs, 1; American Woodcock, 1; Caspian Tern, 3; Rock Pigeon, 629; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 11; and Mourning Dove, 355.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 4; Eastern Screech-Owl, 28; Great Horned Owl, 2; Barred Owl, 6; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1; and Common Nighthawk, 46.

Chimney Swift, 478; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 34; Belted Kingfisher, 29; Red-headed Woodpecker, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 103; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker,  6; Downy Woodpecker, 82; Hairy Woodpecker, 18; Northern Flicker, 80; and Pileated Woodpecker, 36.

American Kestrel, 17; Merlin, 2; Peregrine Falcon, 1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 34; Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, 1; Least Flycatcher, 2; Empidonax species, 13; Eastern Phoebe, 124; and Eastern Kingbird, 4.

White-eyed Vireo, 3; Yellow-throated Vireo, 5; Blue-headed Vireo, 16; Warbling Vireo, 1; Philadelphia Vireo, 1; Red-eyed Vireo, 34; Blue Jay, 578; American Crow, 503; Common Raven, 14.

Tree Swallow, 274; Barn Swallow, 15; Carolina Chickadee,  251; Tufted Titmouse, 208; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 18; White-breasted Nuthatch, 80; and Brown Creeper, 1.

House Wren, 10; Carolina Wren, 285; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 10; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 7; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Eastern Bluebird, 246; Veery, 3; Gray-cheeked Thrush, 10; Swainson’s Thrush, 193; Hermit Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 19; American Robin,  574; Gray Catbird,  85; Brown Thrasher, 27; Northern Mockingbird, 126; European Starling, 1,757; American Pipit, 2; and Cedar Waxwing, 312.

Ovenbird, 2; Northern Waterthrush, 12; Golden-winged warbler, 1; Black-and-white warbler, 2; Tennessee warbler, 52; Common Yellowthroat, 32; Hooded warbler, 9; American Redstart, 90; Cape May Warbler, 32; Northern Parula,12; Magnolia  warbler, 29; Bay-breasted warbler, 45; Blackburnian Warbler,16; Chestnut-sided warbler, 15; Blackpoll warbler, 3; Black-throated Blue  Warbler, 4; Palm warbler,  65; Pine warbler, 16; Yellow-throated warbler, 7; Prairie warbler, 2; Black-throated Green warbler, 18; Canada warbler,  2; and Wilson’s warbler,  2.

Eastern Towhee, 80; Chipping Sparrow,  41; Field Sparrow, 26; Song Sparrow, 116; Swamp Sparrow, 1; and Dark-eyed Junco, 26.

Summer Tanager,  3; Scarlet Tanager. 40; Northern Cardinal, 251; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 119; and Indigo Bunting, 37.

Red-winged Blackbird, 209; Eastern Meadowlark,  17; Common Grackle,  54; Brown-headed Cowbird,  8; House Finch, 76; Pine Siskin, 4; American Goldfinch, 303; and House Sparrow, 18.

Two types of black-throated warblers number among New World bird family

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com The female black-throated green warbler lacks the male’s all-black throat, but she is a striking bird in her own right. Black-throated green warblers and the related black-throated blue warbler are common birds in the Southern Appalachians from April to October.

I’ve enjoyed some lawn chair birding on recent September evenings, delighting in my observations of birds ranging from flycatchers and catbirds to warblers, vireos and hummingbirds. I enjoy my casual study of the daily changes in the bird population present in my yard and adjacent woods. The parade of warblers hasn’t been as productive as in past autumns, but I have managed to spot and identify hooded warbler, American redstart, chestnut-sided warbler, magnolia warbler, Northern parula, and black-throated green warbler visitors.


The black-throated green appeared suddenly in a fast-paced burst of foraging in a cherry tree. Alongside birds such as an Eastern wood-pewee and red-eyed vireo, the warbler gleaned the leaves of the trees for concealed caterpillars. I watched the bird swallow with gusto several of the caterpillars so skillfully plucked with its thin, pointed bill.

The black-throated green warbler and one other species, the black-throated blue warbler, share the appellation of “black-throated,” and rightfully so. Males in the spring look their best with a dark black throat in striking contrast to the rest of their plumage. The female black-throated green shows some black on the throat, but female black-throated blue warblers exhibit no black throat patch. In fact, black-throated blue males and females are extremely different in appearance. Scientists call such dramatic appearances differences “sexual dimorphism.” Among the warblers, this species provides the most striking example of sexual dimorphism of any of the warblers. The male and female do share one identifying mark — a white square near the outer edge of the middle of each wing. This square is usually more pronounced in the male, but it stands out enough that it helps distinguish the female black-throated blue from similar dull-plumaged birds such as vireos. 


German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin described the black-throated blue warbler in 1789. I noted in last week’s column that Gmelin woefully misnamed such warblers as palm warbler and magnolia warbler. With the black-throated blue warbler, Gmelin did a better job. This bird’s scientific name name is the Latin term caerulescens, which translates into English as “turning blue.” The male is a stunning bird. Arguably, the black-throated blue warbler is one of the most distinctive members of the family of wood warblers. The adult male has a black face and cheeks, deep blue upperparts and a clean white underbelly. In contrast, the adult female is olive-brown above and light yellow below. 


When one’s binoculars first focus on a black-throated green warbler, the first impression is likely to be the black, yellow and white feathers in the bird’s plumage. The greenish-yellow coloration that gives this species part of its common name is mostly limited to the bird’s back, which is often not as evident when the bird’s being watched through binoculars.  
Both of the black-throated warblers nest in northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina, and southwestern Virginia. In the spring, the males of both these warblers are persistent singers from prominent perches in the green woodland canopy. Male black-throated greens contribute to the avian chorus by frequently singing a high-pitched song often described as a buzzy zee-zee-zee-zooo-zeet. Male black-throated blues produce a buzzy zee-zee-zeeee. 

The black-throated green warblers currently departing the region will likely travel as far as Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and southern Florida for the colder winter months. Black-throated blue warblers, on the other hand, migrate to the Caribbean for the winter, making their homes on Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, as well as other islands. 
Nearly half of the world’s New World warblers spend the months between spring and fall in North America. The other half reside exclusively in Central and South Americas, as well as the Caribbean. Some of the more descriptively named individuals residing in the tropical areas south of North America include flame-throated warbler, crescent-chested warbler, arrowhead warbler, white-rimmed warbler, buff-rumped warbler, golden-bellied warbler, fan-tailed warbler, pink-headed warbler and pale-legged warbler. 


The warblers bring some exciting tropical flair into the hills and hollows of Southern Appalachia for several months every year. I miss them once they’re gone for the winter season, but the promise of their return keeps my spirits buoyed during the cold, darker months until spring. 

Warbler parade imminent as September advances

Photo by Mickey Estes/Pixabay.com • A pine warbler takes a brief rest on a perch during a break from foraging for insects.

I detected some signs of migration during a backyard lawn chair birding session on Thursday, Sept. 3. A croaking great blue heron circling the property, the shrill cries of cedar waxwings, scolding vireos, and the intermittent buzz of hummingbird wings all contributed to the background noise. 

The first warbler of the season, a quick blur of yellow and white, disappeared into the green and thus escaped identification. That’s the way of it: Sometimes, you identify the bird, but at other times it slips past without lingering enough for that moment of confidence. You have to love September, even if the birds are entirely ignorant of pages on a calendar. As summer wanes, the pace of migration has spiked. If that first warbler got away, I know others will follow behind it.

Some of them will have fanciful names like blue-winged warbler, black-throated blue warbler, Blackburnian warbler and American redstart. Each of the warblers exists as a sort of magnet to induce me to keep binoculars always close at hand.

 

The 50 or so species of warblers that make their home in the eastern parts of the United States and Canada during the spring and summer months are now winging their way south.  The blackpoll warbler, which holds the distinction for the longest migration of any species of New World warbler, will journey from the forests of Canada to spend the colder months in northern South America. Because of a peculiarity of this bird’s fall migratory habits, birders in Northeast Tennessee are far more likely to see this late-arriving warbler in May than in the autumn.

A few warblers — pine warbler, magnolia warbler and palm warbler — are named for trees for the simple reason that their European discoverers happened to first observe them in the branches of their namesake trees.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Palm Warbler forages along a chain-link fence.

For most of these warblers named to honor various trees,  their common names are, at best, a misnomer. Throughout most of its life, the palm warbler doesn’t even encounter palm trees. Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist who lived from 1748 to 1804, saddled the palm warbler with its inappropriate name. Gmelin based his naming of the bird on the fact that a specimen had been collected on Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean with an abundance of palm trees. Gmelin published several textbooks in the fields of chemistry, pharmaceutical science, mineralogy, and botany. He also had a hand in publishing a catalog of scientific names for various species, including some birds that had until that point never been given a species classification. Thanks to his efforts, the palm warbler has forever been linked with a type of tree that is, at best, entirely incidental to the bird’s life cycle.

The same is true for the Magnolia Warbler, which would have been more suitably named the spruce or fir Warbler, as the species is highly dependent on northern coniferous forests as nesting habitat. The pine warbler, at least, restores credibility to some of the early experts who have these tiny birds their common names. The pine warbler does indeed prefer stands of pine trees, showing particular favor for pitch pines.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Yellow-throated Warbler makes a migratory stop in my yard on the first day of September.

These three “tree warblers” are all fairly common fall migrants, making stops in gardens, backyards and woodland edges throughout Northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina. They and their relatives will make the remaining weeks of September and early October an exciting time for warbler enthusiasts. 

 

Green herons, one of the smaller wading birds, often overlooked as they lurk near water’s edge

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron elevates a shaggy crest of feathers, a behavior often initiated when the bird feels alarmed.

Byron Tucker and Ricky Dunklin, friends from Atlanta, contacted me on Facebook to ask if I could help identify a bird they had photographed during a trip to Sunset Beach in North Carolina in early August. When I saw the photographs I recognized that the visitor to a small dock at their vacation spot was a green heron.

Photo Contributed by Byron Tucker/Ricky Dunklin • A Green Heron visits a dock at Sunset Beach in North Carolina.

Green herons are not restricted to coastal areas, but it was still somewhat unexpected when I stepped onto my front porch on Aug. 19 and saw a green heron flying at treetop level. I suspect the bird had been perched in one of the tall trees on the ridge behind my house. The slamming of my front door probably spooked the bird into flight.

Green herons and other wading birds are usually quite abundant in wetlands across the country in late summer. The scientific name — Butorides virescens – of this bird comes from a mix of Middle English and Ancient Greek and roughly translates as “greenish bittern.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron grasps a perch overlooking a small creek in Erwin, Tennessee.

There are only two other species in the genus Butorides — the lava heron, which occurs on some of the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, and the striated heron, which is found in wetlands throughout the Old World tropics from West Africa to Japan and Australia. This heron, which is also known as the mangrove heron, also occurs in South America.

The green in the bird’s plumage appears as a dark green cap, as well as a greenish back and wings. Adult birds also have chestnut-colored neck feathers and a line of white feathers along the throat and belly. These herons often assume a hunched position, which can make them look smaller than they actually are.

It’s been a good summer for wading birds. In addition to the green heron, a great blue heron has been lurking in the creek in front of my home and at my fish pond. Much larger than the green heron, the great blue heron has not escaped the notice of a local flock of American crows. The crows harass the heron whenever the larger bird takes flight.

On the first day of August, I stopped with my mom at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. We were treated with an observation of a great egret fishing along the edges of the pond. Egrets and herons are known for wandering outside their normal range in late summer after the nesting season has concluded.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Green Heron rests at the edge of a pond.

Keep alert when walking along the trails in Erwin, Tennessee, and you may catch sight of one of these interesting herons or egrets, too. The edges of the fish pond at Erwin Fishery Park is also a reliable haunt for green herons. Farm ponds in the countryside around Jonesborough, Tennessee, as well as wetland habitat around the town’s Persimmon Ridge Park, are also good places to look for this small heron. The wetlands at Sugar Hollow Park in Bristol, Virginia, is another dependable location for seeing this small heron. Most green herons will depart in late September and early October. This small heron retreats from the United States during the winter season but will return next spring in April and May.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Green herons are short, stocky herons that can assume some comical poses.

The green heron’s range during the nesting season includes Canada and much of the United States. Green herons will sometimes form loose nesting colonies, but at other times a pair will choose a secluded location as a nest site. The female will usually lay from three to five eggs. Snakes, raccoons and other birds such as crows and grackles are potential threats to eggs.

For the most part, the population migrates to Central and South America for the winter months. A few herons — great blue heron and black-crowned night heron — remain in the region throughout the year, even enduring the cold winter months in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

These herons are probably more common than we realize. They are skilled at blending with their surroundings, but sharp eyes can find these herons around almost any body of water, whether it is pond, marsh, river, creek or lake.

They usually depart the region in October, so the remaining days of August and September provide opportunities to observe both resident green herons and their migrating kin.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron finesses a captured tadpole in its bill.

Many pint-sized birds pack plenty of pugnacious attitude

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male red-winged blackbird perches in an alert stance, ready to curb intrusions by other birds into his territory.

A trio of American crows (I’m not sure if a mere three individuals represent a murder of crows) flew past my porch on a recent morning. They were immediately bombarded by the resident male red-winged blackbird. The blackbird dove onto the back of the first crow, then doubled back and attacked the second crow. The third crow, perhaps seeing what happened to the others, perched and cawed for a couple of moments. Mistakenly thinking the coast now clear, the third crow set out to join its companions. The blackbird immediately attacked again, just as ferociously as in the previous two incidents.

Since arriving in April, the red-winged blackbirds have ruled the roost around the cattail-bordered fish pond. At the start of the nesting season, they even swooped at me when I got too close before we eventually settled into an uneasy truce. At home and at other locations, I have watched these blackbird attack everything from turkey vultures and great blue herons to white-tailed deer and cats.

Simply put, red-winged blackbird brook no interlopers. The observations of the blackbird with the crows got me to thinking of other birds known for their pugnacious natures. In no particular order, here are some bantam weight candidates for the title of “Most Pugnacious Bird.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The scientific name of the Eastern kingbird is Tyranus tyranus, a good indicator of this bird’s haughty attitude toward other birds.

Eastern kingbird

The Eastern kingbird, a member of a large family of birds known as “tyrant flycatchers,” is famous for displaying an outsized attitude toward larger birds. The scientific name for this bird is Tyrannus tyrannus, which succinctly summarizes the kingbird’s belligerent attitude toward other birds. Mated pairs of kingbirds work together to drive intruders out of their territory. Kingbirds will launch themselves into battle against much larger foes, including red-tailed hawks, American crows and blue jays. Crows and jays are well-known for robbing the nests of other birds, so the aggression of kingbirds for these corvids is quite justified.

Photo by AdrianKirby/Pixabay.com • The merlin is a pint-sized falcon with plenty of feisty spirit. These raptors do not hesitate to duel with birds many times their size.

Merlin

Merlins have a reputation for being pint-sized punks among raptors. The merlin is a member of the falcon family, which also includes birds like the American kestrel and peregrine falcon. I once saw a merlin harassing a turkey vulture, diving on the much larger but less agile bird until the vulture finally veered in another direction. This observation reinforces the merlin’s reputation for aggressively meeting incursions into its territory by other raptors. The merlin has long been associated with the forests of North America and Eurasia, but in recent decades it has proven capable of adapting to life in urban landscapes.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue-gray gnatcatchers are noisy and, quite often, quarrelsome birds that don’t let their small size get in the way of attempting to intimidate other birds.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are noisy, scolding songbirds at the best of times. They are also determined to protect their nesting territories at all costs and will attack much larger birds. They don’t hesitate to call for reinforcements when warranted. They will drum up a brigade of feisty, feathered fighters to repel intrusions by potential predators too large for a gnatcatcher and its mate to handle on their own. In North America, the gnatcatcher ranks in size with birds like kinglets and hummingbirds. Despite its diminutive status, the gnatcatcher acknowledges no superiors.

Photo by BlenderTimer/Pixabay.com • In a family of rather insufferable bullies, the rufous hummingbird stands out as particularly pugnacious.

Rufous hummingbird

In a family known for cantankerous behavior, one hummingbird stands out. In North America, the rufous hummingbird has a reputation for having a bad temper. These tiny birds with huge metabolisms must compete fiercely for resources, but they often appear go out of their way to attack other hummingbirds. The rufous hummingbird ranges along North America’s Pacific Coast and the Rockies as far north as Alaska and western Canada. A migration quirk occasionally brings these hummingbirds to Northeast Tennessee during fall and early winter.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern mockingbird is zealous in defending its territory from other mockingbirds or any other intruders, including humans, cats, dogs, snakes and almost any other real or imagined threat.

Northern mockingbird

I’m not sure every person who has had a Northern mockingbird nest in their yard or garden would describe the experience as a pleasant one. It’s not without cause that the mockingbird is often described as ruthless, aggressive and pugnacious in defense of its nest and young. These birds don’t hesitate to attack humans or their pets, such as cats and dogs, if any wander too far into their territory. In fact, mockingbirds appear to take positive glee in forcing intruders to flee. Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon captured a dramatic moment when he painted a pair of mockingbirds defending its nest from a rattlesnake. The painting is also an early example of the ties between humans and mockingbirds. The nest is located in a hanging basket of yellow flowers. Even during Audubon’s time, mockingbirds had quietly adjusted to human activity and had deigned to allow us into their daily lives. It’s just best not to step out of line. Mockingbirds have ways of dealing with pushy people.

 

Gray catbird noisy visitor, but not one of region’s more showy birds

Gray

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay.com • A gray catbird visits a backyard bird bath for a drink.

Thomas A. Kidd contacted me in late June with a comment about one of my favorite summer birds. “I have lived in the City of Columbia, Tennessee, for 37 years and until this spring and early summer I had never seen the Gray Catbird,” he wrote. “They are very pretty birds that I enjoy watching from my kitchen window at the bird bath.”

Catbirds are experts at concealing themselves from prying eyes. The gray plumage blends into the shadowy sections of the tangles and thickets where the bird likes to hide itself. However, even when gray catbirds are reluctant to be seen, they’re almost eager to be heard. The catbird is extremely vocal with several calls and songs in its repertoire, including the rather faithful rendering of a fussy cat’s meow that provides this bird its common name.

They’re part of a family related to thrushes that are known as “mimic thrushes.” Besides its surprisingly accurate rendition of a feline, the catbird has several other common vocalizations. Despite their shy nature, they’re extremely curious. Imitating their calls or simply producing a squeaky sound will usually persuade the bird to move out of cover and search for the source of the noise.

Catbirds are part of the parade of returning birds each spring that includes species like rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, but because they lack the brilliant plumages of these other birds their arrival would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact they are extremely noisy for the first few weeks they are back. Then they go silent again and remain quieter as they take up the serious business of raising young.

Catbirds are experts at concealing themselves from prying eyes. The gray plumage blends into the shadowy sections of the tangles and thickets where the bird likes to hide itself. However, even when gray catbirds are reluctant to be seen, they’re almost eager to be heard. The catbird is extremely vocal, with several calls and songs in its repertoire, including the rather faithful rendering of a fussy cat’s meow that provides this bird its common name.

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.

They’re part of a family related to thrushes that are known as “mimic thrushes.” Besides its surprisingly accurate rendition of a feline, the catbird has several other common vocalizations. Despite their shy nature, they’re extremely curious. Imitating their calls or simply producing a squeaky sound will usually persuade the bird to move out of cover and search for the source of the noise.

Catbirds are part of the parade of returning birds each spring that includes species like rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, but because they lack the brilliant plumages of these other birds their arrival would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact they are extremely noisy for the first few weeks they are back. Then they go silent again and remain quieter as they take up the serious business of raising young.

They are related to thrashers and mockingbirds, but scientists find them just different enough to warrant placing the gray catbird in its own genus. 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. Both 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. Some of these birds include the ochre-breasted catbird, tooth-billed catbird and spotted catbird.

The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. Nevertheless, experts have documented that the gray catbird can produce more than 100 different sounds. 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.

While not generally considered a bird to visit feeders, people have succeeded in attracting catbirds to feeders designed to offer grape jelly or orange slices. Planting fruit-bearing shrubs and trees is the best means of attracting these fascinating birds to your yard and garden. It’s also best not to clear away brush and tangles from your yard if you wish to attract catbirds. These are shy birds and will avoid areas that are too open and spacious. 

 

Daily twittering of chimney swifts part of summer’s background noise

Photo by Vinoverde/Adobe Stock • Chimney swift foraging on the wing for insects. Swifts are designed for life in flight. These birds do not perch but have special claws that help them cling to the sides of vertical surfaces such as cliffs or chimneys.

As spring turns into summer, afternoons and evenings at my home have presented daily shows from a small flock of resident chimney swifts. These graceful and aerodynamic birds are designed for a life lived almost exclusively on the wing. In fact, chimney swifts are incapable of perching in the manner of most birds. They can only cling to vertical surfaces, such as rocky cliff faces or the interiors of chimneys.

As they fly overhead, these swifts produce a high-pitched twittering. It’s not as musical as the songs of some birds, but neither is the sound unpleasant. In fact, the twittering of chimney swifts is a sound that I’ve grown to associate with pleasant summer evenings. Listening to these birds as they swoop in the sky overhead is a great way to relax.

Chimney swifts are often most prevalent over the rooftops of cities, but swifts also spend the summer months in more rural areas. Flocks returning to summer roosting sites at dusk are an impressive sight. Hundreds of these birds can swoop in ever tightening circles around a large chimney, disappearing inside the chimney like feathered smoke.

Former names for the chimney swift have included chimney sweep, American swift and chimney bat. These birds, however, do nothing to clean the inside of chimneys, and bats are, of course, mammals. Swifts are not difficult to recognize, and their overall shape has often been described as “cigars with wings.” They are designed for flight and feed almost exclusively on winged insects. They even bathe on the wing, flying low over rivers and other bodies of water and skimming the surface in order to dampen their breast feathers.

In the United States, the chimney swift is the only member of its family found in the eastern half of the country. On the other side of the continent, the white-throated swift, Vaux’s swift and black swift replace the chimney swift in the western United States and southern British Columbia in Canada.

Worldwide, there are about 75 swift species. The family also consists of birds known as swiftlets, needletails and spinetails, but they’re all just variations on the the basic swift model. Some of the world’s other species include band-rumped swift, pale-rumped swift, white-throated swift, white-tipped swift, mottled swift, plume-toed swiftlet, drab swiftlet, silver-rumped spinetail and brown-backed needletail.

The largest member of the swift family is the purple needletail, a species native to Asia. This bird is almost ten inches long and can weigh nearly seven and a half grams. Another species, the cliff swift, makes a nest that is prized in Asian cuisine as an ingredient for “Bird’s Nest Soup.” The governments of various Asian nations regulate the harvesting of nests quite strictly to ensure that the human demand for the soup doesn’t deplete the overall swift population. It’s a lucrative enterprise, however, and some experts worry that poaching and unethical harvesting methods, such as taking the nests before young birds are capable of flight and survival, could endanger the swifts.

Fortunately, nests of chimney swifts in the New World have never become coveted for culinary purposes. According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website, chimney swifts once nested and roosted in hollow trees in old-growth forests. When European settlers arrived, they greatly increased the number of potential nesting sites for swifts by putting chimneys on their buildings. The responsive swifts quickly took advantage of these new nesting and roosting sites. They build their nests, whether in chimneys or hollow trees, of twigs cemented together with their own saliva.

While chimney swifts are spread across much of the eastern United States during the nesting season, their winter home remained unknown for many years. In 1943, Peruvian natives recovered bands that had been attached to the legs of 13 swifts, helping to finally solve the mystery of where the birds spent the winter months. According to an article on the TWRA website, eight of the 13 bands came from birds that had been banded in the Volunteer State.

Of course, swifts are not the only birds in the summer skies. Taking a moment to gaze upward can reward you with views of soaring raptors, swooping swallows and foraging common nighthawks.

Photo by The Other Kev/Pixabay.com • This flying European swift is one of 100 species of swifts found around the world. Only one species, the chimney swift, is found in eastern North America.

 

On the menu: everything from ‘murder hornets’ to snails among some of the things birds eat

Photo by Noutch/Pixabay.com • Although its name might suggest otherwise, the honey buzzard isn’t looking to dip its beak in something sweet. These unusual raptors raid the hives of bees and wasps to feed on the larval form of these stinging insects.

It’s not all bird seed and suet cakes for many of our feathered friends. Some of the world’s nearly 10,000 species of birds show some unusual tastes when it comes to their food. Facebook friend Philip Laws, who resides in Limestone Cove in Unicoi, shared a photo recently of a European honey buzzard, a type of raptor that’s developed a knack for raiding the hives of bees and wasps. A comment on the post suggested that the buzzard had developed a taste for sweets.

Actually, the truth’s a bit stranger. While many of the hives attacked by the buzzard are loaded with sweet honey, this aberrant raptor’s more interested in the larval bees and wasps housed in the hive’s honeycomb nursery chambers. The honey buzzard, also known as a pern or common pern, is related to such carnivorous raptors as sharp-shinned hawks and rough-legged hawks. 

If you’re worried about the so-called “murder hornets” in recent news articles, just know that the honey buzzard is the only predator known to feed on these insects. In fact, the honey buzzard takes great relish in dining on the larval forms of these wasps, which are more accurately known as Asian giant hornets. The honey buzzard’s head feathers are like scales, helping protect this vulnerable area from stings. In addition, some experts believe the buzzard’s feathers contain a chemical insect deterrent. This raptor also has long toes and claws it can use to dig into a hive.

Photo hbieser/Pixabay.com • The hoatzin, a bird native to South America, feeds almost exclusively on foliage, making it one of the few “grazers” among the world’s birds.

While many birds are seed-eaters, few of them have evolved as grazers and vegetarians. In South America, however, there’s a most unusual bird known as the hoatzin. Also known by such names as “reptile bird,” “stink bird,” “skunk bird” and “Canje pheasant,” the hoatzin lives in swamps and mangrove forests in the Amazon and Orinoco basins of South America. 

One of the hoatzin’s claim to fame is that it’s a folivore, which simply means it eats foliage, or leaves, as well as fruit and flowers. The bird has even developed a special stomach called a “rumen,” that permits bacterial fermentation of the leaves it devours. Some studies indicate that as much as 80 percent of a hoatzin’s diet consists of leaves. 

The great blue turaco is an African bird that, like most other members of the turaco family, eats mostly fruit, but this bird will eat leaves and even algae when fruit is scarce. Closer to home, the cedar waxwing’s a well-known fruit lover. Birds that eat mostly fruit are known as “frugivores.” A large flock of waxwings can make short work of the fruit of holly or mulberry trees. The berries they eat can even affect their appearance. Some waxwings show an orange, not yellow, tail tip. The orange coloration is the result of the birds eating honeysuckle berries with a red pigment.

Photo by Arkin54/Pixabay.com • Turacos, such as this Guinea turaco, are mostly eater of fruits.

Fans of French cuisine have probably sampled “escargot,” which is basically culinary snails. Of course, humans have a wide range of unusual tastes. There is a species of bird that specializes on feeding on snails, albeit without the garlic and butter of the traditional French dish. The snail kite is found in southern Florida, especially in the Everglades. This raptor feeds almost exclusively on apple snails and has even evolved a specialized hooked beak to help rip the snail from its protective shell. 

Around the globe, various birds have evolved as “sanitation crews” for the ecosystems that they inhabit. Vultures in both the Old World and New World feed on carrion, although a few species will tackle living animals. On the African plains, different vultures have evolved to clean up the carcasses of large herbivores. Different ones have become quite familiar to fans of nature documentaries. These are the large vultures that quickly claim a carcass once lions and other predators have eaten their fill.

Photo by Pixabay.com • The lappet-faced vulture is a scavenging bird, feeding mostly from animal carcasses found in dry savannah habitats.

Some of the species include Egyptian vulture, Indian vulture, lappet-faced vulture and griffon vulture. Many of the Old World vultures are declining at alarming rates largely due to poisoning by insecticides and other chemicals. Their populations are crashing in a similar way to that of bald eagles, which were brought to the brink of extinction because of the use of the pesticide DDT in the 1950s an 1960s. 

While I wouldn’t suggest we offer snails, salads or carrion at our feeders, the dietary habits of some of our birds just go to show what fascinating creatures birds truly are.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Turkey vultures scavenge a road-killed animal.

Ongoing pandemic doesn’t stop club’s annual Spring Bird Count

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Several species of herons were located on the Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee,, including Black-crowned Night Heron.

Not even a pandemic could prevent the Elizabethton Bird Club from conducting the 77th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Bird Count. The annual survey was held Saturday, May 2. The area covered included Carter County and parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington. Fifty-one observers participated in 22 parties using the suggested social distancing protocols.

Although I counted alone due to social distancing, I had a wonderful day. I even added a new life bird to my list when I saw a Mississippi Kite at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. My fellow participants also found some good birds.

Photo by Richard/Adobe Stock • A solitary Mississippi kite sits perched in a lakeside tree.

A total of 159 species were tallied. The recent 30-year average is 149 species. However, broken down by decades, this particular count has seen a steady increase during that period, as follows: 1990s had an average of 145 species, the 2000s saw that increase to 150 species, and the 2010s saw another rise to 153 species. The all-time high on this count was 166 species back in 2016.

The count found 27 species of warblers, including such notable finds as Blackpoll Warbler and Nashville Warbler. The most abundant warblers were Hooded Warbler — which is my personal favorite — and Ovenbird. Each of these had 171 individuals counted.

The most abundant bird was Cliff Swallow with a total of 782 individuals counted. These swallows form nesting colonies under bridges and other structures. They have greatly increased in numbers over the past couple of decades. The other common birds, in descending order, were American Robin, 780; European Starling, 740; Canada Goose, 440; and Cedar Waxwing, 381.

Some of the notable misses on this spring’s count included Northern Bobwhite, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Common Nighthawk, Horned Lark, and Cape May Warbler.

Below is the total for the count:

Canada Goose, 440; Wood Duck, 55; Mallard, 115; Blue-winged Teal, 20; Bufflehead, 9; Common Goldeneye, 1; and Red-breasted Merganser, 3.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wood ducks were among the few waterfowl reported on the recent summer count.

Ruffed Grouse, 1; Wild Turkey, 26; Common Loon, 10; Pied-billed Grebe, 1; Double-crested Cormorant, 95; Great Blue Heron, 74; Green Heron,16; Black-crowned Night-Heron, 5; and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 5.

Black Vulture, 105; Turkey Vulture, 140; Osprey, 11; Mississippi Kite, 1; Northern Harrier, 1; Bald Eagle, 8; Cooper’s Hawk, 4; Broad-winged Hawk, 14; and Red-tailed Hawk, 30.

Sora, 3; Killdeer, 58; Spotted Sandpiper, 17; Solitary Sandpiper, 57; Lesser Yellowlegs, 25; Least Sandpiper, 3; Pectoral Sandpiper, 1; and Wilson’s Snipe, 2.

Bonaparte’s Gull, 2; Ring-billed Gull, 2; Forster’s Tern, 1; Rock Pigeon, 141; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 4; Mourning Dove, 253; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 3; and Black-billed Cuckoo, 2.

Eastern Screech-Owl, 8; Great Horned Owl, 4; Barred Owl, 1; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 13; and Eastern Whip-poor-will, 24.

Chimney Swift, 129; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 32; Belted Kingfisher, 11; Red-headed Woodpecker, 9; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 117; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 9; Downy Woodpecker, 69; Hairy Woodpecker, 11; Northern Flicker, 47; and Pileated Woodpecker, 57.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern Kingbirds are easily identified thanks to the band of white at the end of the bird’s black tail feathers.

American Kestrel, 4; Peregrine Falcon, 1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 11; Acadian Flycatcher, 10; Least Flycatcher, 10; Eastern Phoebe, 166; Great Crested Flycatcher, 21; Eastern Kingbird, 60; Loggerhead Shrike, 1.

White-eyed Vireo, 9; Yellow-throated Vireo, 9; Blue-headed Vireo, 107; Warbling Vireo, 12; Red-eyed Vireo, 248; Blue Jay, 273; American Crow, 349; Fish Crow, 2; Common Raven, 12.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 121; Purple Martin, 61; Tree Swallow, 315; Barn Swallow, 170; Cliff Swallow, 782.

Carolina Chickadee, 236; Tufted Titmouse, 226; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 8; White-breasted Nuthatch, 44; Brown Creeper, 3; House Wren, 82; Winter Wren, 8; Marsh Wren, 1; Carolina Wren, 245; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 102; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 5; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 5.

Eastern Bluebird, 238; Veery, 14; Swainson’s Thrush, 6; Hermit Thrush, 3; Wood Thrush, 112; American Robin, 778; Gray Catbird, 91; Brown Thrasher, 89; Northern Mockingbird, 149; European Starling, 740; and Cedar Waxwing, 381.

Ovenbird, 171; Worm-eating Warbler, 29; Louisiana Waterthrush, 44; Northern Waterthrush, 4; Golden-winged Warbler, 5; Black-and-white Warbler, 113; Swainson’s Warbler, 9; Nashville Warbler, 1; Kentucky Warbler, 3; Common Yellowthroat, 25; Hooded Warbler, 171; American Redstart, 25; Northern Parula, 68; Magnolia Warbler, 4; Blackburnian Warbler, 12; Yellow Warbler, 8; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 36; Blackpoll Warbler, 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 103; Palm Warbler, 4; Pine Warbler, 13; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 57; Yellow-throated Warbler, 32; Prairie Warbler, 3; Black-throated Green Warbler, 144; Canada Warbler, 37; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 9.

Eastern Towhee, 266; Chipping Sparrow, 125; Field Sparrow, 81; Savannah Sparrow, 6; Grasshopper Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 333; Swamp Sparrow, 3; White-throated Sparrow, 20; White-crowned Sparrow, 1; and Dark-eyed Junco, 91.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Song Sparrow brings a beakful of caterpillars back to the nest to feed young.

Summer Tanager, 1; Scarlet Tanager, 94; Northern Cardinal, 364; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 49; Blue Grosbeak, 5; and Indigo Bunting, 97.

Bobolink, 1; Red-winged Blackbird, 346; Eastern Meadowlark, 103; Rusty Blackbird, 2; Common Grackle, 304; Brown-headed Cowbird, 122; Orchard Oriole, 35; and Baltimore Oriole, 26.

House Finch, 111; Red Crossbill, 5; Pine Siskin, 28; American Goldfinch, 353; and House Sparrow, 59.

The birds found in Northeast Tennessee in the spring are much the same as those found in Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina. The key is to keep your eyes open and get into the field whenever possible. As always, I enjoy hearing from readers when they have an interesting observation to share. I hope everyone’s seeing wonderful birds this spring.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Rose-breasted Grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.