Tag Archives: birds

‘Science’ article warns that people need to focus on the needs of disappearing birds

Photo by Pixabay.com • Birds are disappearing. Some populations have seen a dangerous decline. Loggerhead shrikes are declining across the continent, and the reasons are complicated but can ultimately be traced to human activity.

Imagine the sky growing dark and, looking up, you notice that the cause is not approaching storm clouds but a passage of birds — millions of individual birds, their wings darkening the skies as they pass overhead.

The early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon once described the passage of enormous flocks of passenger pigeons that blotted out the light “as by an eclipse” and described the noise of the multitude of wings “like thunder.” His observation of these flocks took place in 1813. A century later, the world’s last passenger pigeon, a species that had ranked as one of the continent’s most numerous birds, died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Legislation like the Endangered Species Act can and does save birds like the Bald Eagle from possible extinction.

The passenger pigeon was the avian equivalent of the American bison, albeit with a more tragic outcome. Bison, also commonly called buffalo, still survive. As with the bison, we’ve had avian rescue success stories — whooping cranes, Kirtland’s warblers, bald eagles — with efforts to bring some birds back from the brink of extinction. At the same time, we’ve lost others, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, the eskimo curlew and Bachman’s warbler. Now a new study indicates that our birds may be under assault as never before.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Northern cardinal visits a feeder.

The journal Science dropped a bombshell article recently about declining bird numbers in North America. The article’s claim that nearly 3 billion — that’s billion with a “b” — fewer wild birds exist on the continent than in 1970 is a shocking figure, but the sad fact is that the article probably doesn’t come as a complete surprise to birders or even backyard bird enthusiasts. The evidence of our own eyes and ears confirms the details of the comprehensive study reported in the pages of Science. There are fewer birds, which has been becoming painfully clear over the past few decades.

I first got into birding in 1993. Now, 26 years later, I have noticed some of the declines in just the past quarter of a century. Every autumn, the variety and numbers of migrating warblers that visit my yard has gone down.

The new study in Science focuses on the drop in sheer numbers of birds. According to most experts, the bird population in the United States and Canada was probably around 10.1 billion individual birds nearly half a century ago. That number has fallen 29 percent to about 7.2 billion birds, an alarming loss of nearly 3 billion birds just in North America.

I have personally noticed signs of this dramatic loss. Let me share some personal anecdotes. These stories don’t serve as definitive proof, but they add to my unease about the state of our feathered friends.

For one thing, I no longer host large flocks of birds at my feeders during the winter. One would expect birds to mass in sizable flocks in the vicinity of feeders during a season when resources can be scarce. In the 1990s, I hosted flocks of pine siskins and evening grosbeaks that numbered in the hundreds and dozens, respectively. At times, large flocks of American goldfinches, purple finches and house finches flocked to my feeders, too. I haven’t seen an evening grosbeak since 2001. Pine siskins still visit, but I consider myself fortunate to host a flock that numbers a dozen or more.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pine siskin in a spruce at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain.

The sights and sounds of summer have changed, too. Two of the most dependable summer songsters used to be Northern bobwhite by day and Eastern whip-poor-will after dark. I haven’t heard a whip-poor-will at home in more than 20 years. The last time I heard a Northern bobwhite was about a decade ago. I live in a rural area that used to be fairly agricultural. The disappearances of bobwhite quail and whip-poor-wills is reported throughout the ranges of these two species.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Some birds have grown even more common in recent decades. Regionally, look at birds like great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, and cliff swallows, which have also shown an increased presence.

What killed the passenger pigeon? People did. What’s caused the precipitous drop in bird numbers since the 1970s in North America? Once again, people must shoulder most of the blame. We have destroyed or altered habitats essential for birds to thrive. We’ve paid little attention to the signals from some of these kin of the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” that something’s wrong in nature.

Yet “hope is the thing with feathers,” as the poet Emily Dickinson phrased it, and the losses are a signal to pay attention, not to panic. Birds are amazingly resilient. Birds need only the same things as humans — food, shelter, water. Well, perhaps they need one more thing. Birds require a safe and welcoming space in which to unfurl their wings and fly.

The great flocks of passenger pigeons may be no more, but there’s no reason to think our remaining birds can’t continue to soar, so long as we provide them with their essential needs and offer them a degree of protection and compassion.

An artist sketched this scene of hunters firing on one of the last great flocks of passenger pigeons.

Birds are not the only fall migrants sharing the skies

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Experts have documented long-distance migration flights by the Wandering Glider, a species of dragonfly.

Rhonda Eller of Chilhowie, Virginia, posted a question on my Facebook page about some dragonflies that appeared in her yard on Sept. 10.

“We have had a sudden breakout of dragonflies in our yard,” Rhonda explained. “We seldom see more than one or two at a time.”

Rhonda wondered if the dragonflies might have been drawn to her yard in pursuit of some sort of favorite insect prey. She also speculated that the recent dry conditions might have attracted the dragonflies.

I responded to her query by explaining that birds are not the only migrant in the skies at this time of year. Some dragonflies, just like birds, migrate. A species known as green darner is one that migrates. These darners are rather large, for a dragonfly, and travel in swarms. A couple of years ago I observed thousands of these dragonflies swarming over a municipal swimming pool and a nearby fish pond at a park in Erwin, Tennessee.

The WSLS Channel 10 television station out of Roanoke, Virginia, reported on swarms of dragonflies so large that they got picked up by local radar. Rhonda shared a link to the station’s story on my Facebook page.

Photo by Jean Potter • A common nighthawk rests on a metal railing.

Of course, swarms of migrating insects are bound to get the attention of predatory birds. The same day that Rhonda experienced the influx of migrating dragonflies, I witnessed dozens of common nighthawks and chimney swifts swooping through the skies over my home. With a little more attention to detail, I also noticed the dragonflies sharing the skies with these birds.

I suspect that the nighthawks were feeding on the large darners while the swifts, which are much smaller birds, focused their foraging efforts on smaller winged insects. Tom McNeil, a neighbor and fellow member of the Elizabethton Bird Club, reported seeing nighthawks and swifts, too. Tom lives on the other side of a mountain ridge that separates our homes.

Tim Morris, a Facebook friend from Australia, noted in a comment on my post about the nighthawks that his country is home a bird known as the tawny frogmouth, a relative of the common nighthawk. Tim noted that frogmouths are big birds with camouflage markings that allow them to pretend to be dead tree boughs by day. “They feed not only on insects but mice and lizards, too,” he added.

Evidence of fall migration continued the next day when I detected a small wave of warblers foraging in trees at the edge of my yard. I saw five different species — American redstart, worm-eating warbler, Cape May warbler, Blackburnian warbler and Tennessee warbler — in the space of half an hour. Of the warblers in the flock, the Blackburnian and Cape May are some of the more vibrant ones.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • While the Cape May warbler doesn’t breed locally, these warblers are fairly common spring and fall migrants in the region.

The Blackburnian warbler’s common name commemorates Anna Blackburne, an English naturalist who lived from 1726 to 1793. Her brother, Ashton, had immigrated to the United States, which made it possible for him to send his sister many specimens, especially birds. Their father, a salt merchant by trade, was also a well-respected amateur naturalist. In addition to the warbler that bears her name, Anna Blackburne also had a species of beetle named in her honor.

Both the Cape May and Tennessee warblers are named for the locations from which they were first collected. Neither of these small songbirds are closely affiliated with Cape May, New Jersey, or the Volunteer State. The Cape May warbler is also known as the “tiger warbler” for the dramatic black striping across its bright yellow breast. A green back and chestnut cheek patch make the Cape May warbler quite unlike any of its close kin. Even its scientific name — Setophaga tigrina — pays homage to the striped big cat. The term “setophaga” translates to “moth eater” and is a reference to this warbler’s intense fondness for the caterpillars known as spruce budworms that occasionally produce outbreaks in the northern spruce forests that serve as the nesting range for the Cape May warbler.

 

Photo by insitedesigns/Pixabay • A Cape May warbler peers from its perch on a tree branch.

According to the website, “All About Birds,” Cape May warblers have unusually shaped tongues that allow them to sip nectar from tropical flowers during the winter months spent in Central America and the Caribbean. Their unique tongues also make it possible for them to enjoy sips of sugar water from hummingbird feeders.

Whether its dragonflies, nighthawks, warblers or hummingbirds, plenty of birds and other flying creatures will be moving through the region for the next few weeks. Now’s the time to get outdoors and look for some of these migrants.

Photo by insitedesigns/Pixabay.com • The Cape May warbler migrates out of North America every fall to spend the winter in Central America and the Caribbean.

Some birds stand out from the flock with their amazing migratory feats

Photo by jasonjdking/Pixabay.com • The bobolink is also known as the “rice bird” for its tendency to feed on cultivate grains such as rice. Even the bird’s scientific name, oryzivorus, means “rice eating” and refers to this bird’s appetite for many of the same grains consumed by humans. This small songbird also undertakes yearly migration flights equalling more than 12,400 miles.

The peak of fall migration is approaching. Birds of all species are winging their way southward ahead of the months of cold and scarcity. September and October are months of flux and transition. Like a bear fattening for hibernation, I gorge on sightings of warblers, hummingbirds, tanagers and other favorites, knowing that I won’t be seeing many of these birds again until next spring. Their memories will sustain me, as will my feeders, which will still bring plenty of colorful and entertaining birds into my yard even in times of snow and ice.
Bird migration at any season is a spectacle. Many of the birds that nested in mountain hollows or vegetation-choked wetlands will winter in Central and South America, the Caribbean or other distant but warmer destinations. The following snapshots of fall’s bird migration capture the phenomenon’s drama.

Bobolink
The bobolink is a small bird in the family of blackbirds, which includes grackles, orioles and cowbirds. Nesting across North America during the summer, bobolinks retreat to South America for the winter. These small birds undertake amazing migrations, making a round-trip of about 12,400 miles to regions south of the equator in Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina each fall. Come spring, they make the trip again, but in a northerly direction.
According to the website All About Birds, migrating bobolinks orient themselves with the earth’s magnetic field. These small birds are able to accomplish this feat due to iron oxide in bristles of its nasal cavity and in tissues around the olfactory bulb and nerve. Bobolinks also use the stars scattered across the night sky to guide their migratory flights. Capable of living as long as nine years, a long-lived bobolink will rack up some serious miles simply migrating to its nesting grounds and back to its wintering habitat each year.

Bar-tailed godwit
Shorebirds, which in North America can consist of birds ranging from turnstones and sandpipers to willets and avocets, are champion migrants. For instance, the bar-tailed godwit makes an impressive non-stop migratory flight. This shorebird nests in the United States only in parts of remote Alaska, but this godwit also ranges into Scandinavia and northern Asia. Some of these godwits make a nine-day, non-stop migratory flight that takes them from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea of China and beyond, a distance of almost 6,000 miles each way.
Needless to say, since the godwits make no stops along the way, they must also go without food for the duration of their journey. The female godwit is larger than the male, but she still weighs only 12 ounces. The long-billed, long-legged bird is about 17 inches in length from the tip of the bill to its tail. That a creature so small can make such a distant, arduous trip and be the none the worse for wear is truly inspiring.

Broad-winged hawk
Many North American raptors migrate, but the broad-winged hawk dislikes the lonely aspects of solitary travel. Instead, these hawks form large flocks during migration, and in autumn the majority of these raptors travel past human-staffed hawk migration observation points, which are dubbed “hawk watches,” during a brief and concentrated period of only a few weeks. Observing the phenomenon locally is possible at the Mendota Fire Tower Hawk Watch site atop Clinch Mountain at an abandoned fire tower near Mendota, Virginia.
Broad-winged hawks are part of the family Accipitridae, which includes 224 species of hawks, eagles, vultures and other birds of prey. Broad-winged hawks are truly long-distance migrants. Many hawks passing over Mendota may end their migration as far south as Brazil. These hawks travel in flocks that can consist of hundreds or thousands of individuals. The birds conserve energy by soaring on thermals and mountain updrafts.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Warblers, such as this American redstart, stage impressive migratory flights. The blackpoll warbler makes an incredibly arduous journey for a bird that is less than five inches long.

Blackpoll warbler
Most of the warblers that nest in North America retreat to Central and South America during the winter months. Few warblers, however, make as great a journey as the blackpoll warbler. Instead of migrating over land, this five-inch-long warbler undertakes a two-stage migration. The first half of the migration is a non-stop flight of about 1,500 miles. Every fall, these tiny birds fly over the ocean during this part of their migration, departing from Canada or the northern United States and not stopping until they reach various locations in the Caribbean. There they will spend some time recovering from the exhausting first half of their journey before they continue their way to such South American countries as Colombia and Venezuela. Once again, during the time they spend flying over open ocean, these tiny warblers do not feed.

* * * * *

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A migrating Great Egret makes a stop at a golf course pond.

Wading birds topic for program
I’ll be presenting a program on herons, egrets and other wading birds at the September meeting of the Elizabethton Bird Club. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, at the Elizabethton campus of Northeast State Community College, 386 Highway 91. The meeting will be held on the second floor in Room 208. The free program is open to the public and will follow a brief business meeting.

Readers with questions are welcome to email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or send a friend request on Facebook at facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. I also love to receive comments and hear about bird observations.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A spotted sandpiper and a solitary sandpiper rest at the edge of a pond during a migration rest stop.

Welcoming Eastern towhees into yards, gardens easy to accomplish

Photo by Ken Thomas • A male Eastern towhee forages for food in the grass beneath a feeder.

It’s the time of year when young birds start making their first forays to feeders, usually accompanied by their parents and siblings. In recent weeks, I’ve seen everything from young brown thrashers and tufted titmice to ruby-throated hummingbirds and Eastern bluebirds.

Ann Windsor posted an interesting photo on my Facebook page last month that illustrates this emergence of a new generation of feathered friends. Her photo showed a male Eastern towhee escorting one of his offspring to a feeder on the deck of Ann’s home in Selmer, Tennessee.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted these Eastern towhees.

Her post followed up a video she had posted of a pair of towhees visiting her feeder.

“I wanted to share with you about our towhee bird,” Ann noted in her post. “We call him ‘pretty boy,’ and he has been coming to our feeder now for two years or more.”

Back in early June, the male towhee showed up with a female for the first time. “She was more comfortable around us and got in the feeder with him,” Ann wrote. “We have so enjoyed him.”

Ann has made some interesting observations about the male towhee. “When he is in the little feeder dish, he’s the boss,” she wrote. “Any other birds come along, even the blue jays, and he runs them off.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • Female Eastern towhees are retain the male’s white and rusty-orange plumage, but they are brown instead of black like their male counterparts.

Ann’s day-to-day encounters with the towhees has turned into a “fun relationship” as the birds have learned to trust her enough that they don’t fly away when she’s in the yard.

I mentioned in a response to her first posting that the towhees would likely bring their young to her feeders once they left the nest. Indeed, about a month later, Ann posted another photo. In this particular picture, the male towhee arrives at the feeder with one of his recently fledged young.

“We have seen three so far,” Ann noted. She added that the young towhee in the photo loves to get up in one of the flower pots and dig around.

“I was wondering, as the young ones grow up, do they stay in the area, or do they go off to find their own territory?” Ann asked at the end of her post.

In my response, I told Ann that many birds have fidelity to the place where they were born, but things could get crowded if the adult birds also stay put. The parent towhees will probably “encourage” the young birds to strike out on their own and establish their own territories as adults. They might, however, become “neighbors” and choose a location not too far from her home.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern towhee scratches for seeds on the ground beneath a feeder.

Eastern towhees spend a considerable amount of time on the ground and hidden in thickets and hedges. Other common names for this bird includes “ground robin” and “swamp robin.”€ They are one of the larger members of the sparrow family, however, and not related to the thrush family, which includes such birds as American robin, Eastern bluebird and wood thrush.

Unlike the many “€œbrown”€ members of the sparrow family, the Eastern Towhee is a brightly colored bird. Males have a black hood. The black coloration extends into the back and tail. The belly is white, and the sides are flanked with a rusty-red orange. In flight, their black tails are bordered with white feathers, which produces a dramatic flash of contrasting colors. The female Eastern Towhee is an attractive bird in her own right. She shares the rufous sides and white coloration that are present in the male’s plumage. However, the male’€™s black feathers are replaced by a warm, chocolate brown plumage in the female.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Eastern Towhee visits a feeder in July. The chance to see young birds is a great reason to offer food during the summer, but some precautions should be taken to minimize uninvited guests.

The Eastern towhee is one of my favorite yard birds, but not just because of its dramatic appearance. These birds also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males will seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite aptly, as “Drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “€œChew-ink”€ and “€œToe-Hee,” which is the basis for this bird’s common name.

The sparrows known as towhees are spread across two different genuses and consist of Abert’s towhee, California towhee and canyon towhee in the Melozone genus and the Eastern towhee, spotted towhee, green-tailed towhee, and collared towhee in the genus Pipilo. The genus name Pipilo is derived from Latin and roughly translates as “the chirping bunting.”

Keep watching your feeders. At this time of year, they provide one of the best venues for observing quality family time among our feathered friends.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern towhee peeks from the grass as she forages on the ground.

Pigeons belong to a remarkable and diverse family of birds

 

Photo by Karen McSharry • This rock pigeon made a recent visit to a home in Bristol, Virginia. Not native to North America, the pigeon has been here almost since the first Europeans arrived on the continent.

Karen McSharry, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, emailed me recently with some photos asking for help in determining an identification of the bird depicted in her photos.

“This fellow made a sharp descent and landed on my deck with a thud,” Karen wrote. “He just stood there, seemed stunned and didn’t move or make a sound.”

After an hour or so, her husband picked the bird up and set him in the wooded area behind their house.

“He doesn’t seem to be there now, over a week later,” she added.

Karen said that at first glance pigeon came to mind as she tried to identify her visiting feathered friend. “But his head is bigger and black,” she wrote. “There didn’t seem to be any iridescence.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • The Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica) is a striking wild pigeon in appearance that is found on small islands and in coastal regions from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India, east through the Malay Archipelago, to the Solomons and Palau.

I wrote back and told Karen to trust her instincts. The bird she photographed was indeed a pigeon, known more formally as rock pigeon.

Once also known as rock doves, this pigeon is not native to North America, but the species has been here almost from the time the first Europeans began to sail to the shores of what eventually became the United States and Canada. The rock pigeon is native to Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, but the species has long been domesticated. Pigeons display a lot of variety in their appearance. Through artificial selection, the rock pigeon has been bred into all sorts of other patterns and colors beyond the wild bird’s standard appearance.

I don’t usually get pigeons at my home, although I did once have a domesticated bird visit my feeders for a few days. This particular bird had a band on one leg. I found out later it was a “homing” pigeon, which are pigeons trained to carry messages. After they deliver their message, they return “home,” hence the term “homing pigeon.” But they are still basically just a domesticated variety of rock pigeon.

Gordon Randall Smith, a resident of Saltville, Virginia, might be one of the region’s foremost authorities on pigeons. Eighty-one years old, he has bred pigeons for the past 76 years. He’s also raised game chickens and described his place as once being “like a zoo.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • The Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria) is a large, bluish-grey pigeon with elegant blue lace-like crests, maroon breast, and red irises. A wild bird, this pigeon shows that nature is just as inventive as humans at giving some birds unusual and outlandish appearances.

Gordon has understandable difficulty naming a favorite domestic pigeon strain. “With hundreds of breeds available, choice becomes overwhelming,” Gordon wrote. “Throughout years of close relationships and interested involvement, preferences creep in.”

After consideration, he identified the Bohemian fairy swallow as his favorite variety of pigeon, followed by Chinese owls, crested helmets and Budapest muffed stork tumblers, as well as Lahore and Indian ribbon tailed fantails.

An uncle, Landon Smith, introduced him to the love for the propagation of a variety of domestic pigeons. “I’ve been a fancier, breeder and vivid admirer of birds throughout my amazing and very fruitful life on this planet earth,” Gordon wrote in a letter.

“I was introduced to a covey of ringneck mourning doves and pigeons at uncle Landon Smith’s passing,” Gordon noted. He described his uncle as a very dedicated person who kept various birds, animals and even exotic creatures of nature.

I looked up some of these whimsical names online. Although the basic pigeon stock is apparent in their makeup, these fanciful breeds truly show how enthusiastically the rock pigeon has embraced domestication.

In the wild, rock pigeons display an affinity for nesting and roosting on cliffs and rock ledges, hence the bird’s common name. Feral pigeons in large cities like New York have merely substituted high rises and skysrcapers for craggy cliffs.

Pigeons and doves constitute the avian family Columbidae and the order Columbiformes, which includes about 42 genera and 310 species. North America is home to several native doves, including the mourning dove, Inca dove, common ground dove, ruddy ground dove and white-winged dove. The latter was made famous in a refrain in the song “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks.

Other doves and pigeons found around the globe include such fancifully named birds as pink-necked green pigeon, lemon dove, silvery pigeon, black cuckoo-dove, pheasant pigeon, purple-tailed imperial pigeon, topknot pigeon, common emerald dove, blue-headed wood dove, ruddy quail-dove, red-billed pigeon and Victoria crown pigeon. The diversity of form and function among wild doves and pigeons rivals anything that has been produced in their domesticated kin.

The now-extinct dodo was arguably the most famous member of the diverse family that includes pigeons and doves.

Eastern phoebe belongs to extensive flycatcher family

Photo by leoleobobeo/Pixabay.com • An Eastern phoebe perches on a garden shepherd’s hook. Phoebes, a member of the extensive New World flycatcher family, are adept at capturing flying insect prey by utilizing elevated perches.

Jill Henderson, who resides in Saltville, Virginia, emailed me recently with a question about a bird nesting atop a column on her back porch.

Jill provided me with four photographs attached to her email that greatly assisted in identifying the nesting birds on her back porch. 

“It seems to enjoy the water in my pool,” she added. Indeed, a couple of the photos showed the bird perched poolside on one of her lawn chairs. 

The nesting birds turned out to be Eastern phoebes, which are a member of the extensive family of birds known as “tyrant flycatchers.” The information about the pool assisted with the identification. Phoebes show an affinity for water, whether the source is a creek, pond or even a residential swimming pool.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe scans from a perch for flying insect prey.

Considering the bright finery worn by some of the more colorful spring arrivals, it’s understandable if the return of Eastern phoebes escape immediate notice each year. In comparison with vibrant birds like rose-breasted grosbeak, ruby-throated hummingbird, scarlet tanager and yellow warbler, the Eastern phoebe is downright drab with its gray-black and dingy white plumage. Nevertheless, this member of the flycatcher clan has earned itself a favorite spot in the hearts of many a birdwatcher. It’s one of those birds that even beginning birders find surprisingly easy to recognize and identify after a bit of study. While it may not have a dramatic plumage pattern to hint at its identity, the Eastern phoebe is quite at home around human dwellings and comes into close contact with people going about their daily routines. Rather tame — or at least not too bothered by close proximity with humans — the Eastern phoebe has one behavior that sets it apart from all the other similar flycatchers. When this bird lands on a perch, it cannot resist a vigorous bobbing of its tail. Every time a phoebe lands on a perch, it will produce this easily recognized tail dip and rise. It’s a behavior that makes this bird almost instantly recognizable among birders with a knowledge of the trait.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe fledgling only recently out of the nest.

Photo by Sarangib/Pixabay.com • A black phoebe perches on a post near a palm tree.

The Eastern phoebe is also an enthusiastic springtime singer, and the song it chooses to sing is an oft-repeated two-syllable call “FEE-bee” that provides the inspiration for this bird’s common name. The Eastern phoebe, known by the scientific name of Sayornis phoebe, has two relatives in the genus Sayornis. The genus is named after Thomas Say, an American naturalist. The Eastern phoebe’s close relatives include the black phoebe and Say’s phoebe. The black phoebe ranges throughout Oregon, Washington and California and as far south as Central and South America. As its name suggests, this bird has mostly black feathers instead of the gray plumage of its relatives. The Say’s phoebe, also named for the man who gave the genus its name, is the western counterpart to the Eastern phoebe.

The phoebes belong to the the world’s largest family of birds, which is known collectively as the “tyrant flycatchers.” With more than 400 species, this family of birds consists of species known as tyrannulets, elaenias, pygmy tyrants, tody-flycatchers, spadebills, flatbills, attilas, kingbirds and kiskadees. 

Since they belong to the vast family of New World flycatchers, it’s probably no surprise that these phoebes feed largely on insects. The birds will often perch patiently until an insect’s flight brings it within easy range. A quick flight from its perch usually allows the skillful bird to return with a morsel snatched on the wing. In the winter months, the Eastern phoebe also eats berries and other small fruit. Phoebes can even feed on poison ivy berries without risk of ill effects.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern Phoebe perches on barbed wire.

Phoebes are fond of nesting on human structures, including culverts, bridges and houses. With the latter, they were once known for their habit of placing their nests under sheltering eaves. At my home, a pair of Eastern phoebes often chooses to nest on the wooden rafters in my family’s garage.  Although the species is migratory, a few hardy individuals will usually try to tough out winters in the region. The others that depart in the autumn will migrate to the southern United States and as far south as Central America. On some rare occasions, Eastern phoebes have flown far off their usual course and ended up in western Europe. I can usually count on Eastern phoebes returning to my home in early March, making them one of the first migrants to return each year. Their arrival rarely goes unnoticed since the males tend to start singing persistently as soon as they arrive.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern phoebe nestlings stay in their nest atop a blade on an outdoor ceiling fan.

 

John James Audubon, an early naturalist and famed painter of North America’s birds, conducted an experiment with some young phoebes that represents the first-ever bird banding in the United States of America. His novel experiment, which he carried out in 1803, involved tying some silver thread to the legs of the phoebes he captured near his home in Pennsylvania. He wanted to answer a question he had about whether birds are faithful to home locations from year to year. The following year, Audubon again captured two phoebes and found the silver thread had remained attached to their legs. Today, ornithologists still conduct bird banding to gather information on birds and the mystery of their migrations. So, that pair of phoebes that returned to your backyard this spring — they just might be the same ones that have spent past summer seasons providing you with an enlightening glimpse into their lives.

Jill reminded me that she had written to me a few years back and had mentioned difficulty with hummingbird feeders and bears. “I am happy to report that so far this summer, there have been no incidents,” she wrote.

Her email also reminded me of a recent surprise. I awoke recently to the sound of a disturbance outside my bedroom window. I figured rambunctious squirrels were raiding my feeders. I raised the blind and surprised myself and a young black bear. Standing on his hind legs, the bear had managed to hook its paws on one of my feeders that hangs about four feet off the ground. The bear, probably a yearling based on its size, fled the scene, which probably spared my feeder. 

If you have a question, wish to comment on a column or share an observation, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. If you want help with identification, photographs definitely help.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe utilizes a hiking trail sign as an elevated perch.

Indigo buntings common and colorful summer bird in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting’s one of the region’s more vibrantly colored birds of summer.

The recent five-county Spring Bird Count, conducted Saturday, May 4, by the Elizabethton Bird Club, found 145 species in the five Northeast Tennessee counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington. The count included such cities as Bristol, Johnson City, Jonesborough, Kingsport, Erwin, and Mountain City. A total of 57 participants in 11 parties counted during the annual survey of avian populations in the region. The long-running count is the only spring census of birds conducted in the area.

Not surprisingly, some of the most abundant birds included Canada goose, European starling, American crow, red-winged blackbird and common grackle. Some of the more common songbirds included red-eyed vireo, Northern cardinal, American robin, hooded warbler, American goldfinch and Indigo bunting.

The indigo bunting is one of the reasons spring is such a wonderful time of the year to watch the visitors to feeders. This small songbird likes to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer. One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings — still return each year to my yard and gardens.

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

These birds usually arrive in the region in late April, and I’ve seen them linger until late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September. Upon arrival, male indigo buntings become tenacious singers, repeating their jumbled notes even during the hottest hours of summer afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees, where they are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

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

Early American naturalist and artist captured the differences in male, female and immature indigo buntings in this painting of the species.

Soon after returning to the eastern United States each spring, female buntings begin to gather materials to construct a well-crafted, cup-shaped nest. The male usually stays close to her, but he offers no assistance with nest building. She usually lays a clutch of three to four eggs, but she may nest another two times in a single season.

She will incubate the eggs for almost two weeks, but the young remain in the nest another two weeks after being hatched as featherless, blind and helpless young completely dependent on the care of attentive parents. The task of raising so many broods in the space of only a few months requires the participation of both the female and her mate, who must work hard to bring enough insects to the nest to keep the young fed.

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

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. Although some books indicate that males are not very active in rearing young, I have on numerous occasions witnessed male buntings feeding fledglings at feeders. Indigo bunting juveniles, like the young of many other birds, beg for tidbits from parents by “bowing,” spreading their wings and shivering. These actions usually prompt a parent to pop some morsel into an impatient youngster’s open bill. Indigo buntings are relatively easy to view. They frequent weedy fields and roadside brush. During the breeding season, males can also be seen singing from prominent perches. The song, a distinctive jumble of notes, can help observers find these dedicated singers.

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

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Newly-returned neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increased the total number of species for the annual spring count.

One of the most attractive summer scenes is to observe American goldfinches and indigo buntings feeding together on the nodding heads of summer sunflowers. The goldfinch males, resplendent in their bright yellow and black plumage, compete with the blue indigo bunting males for the fresh sunflower seeds. When bright red male Northern cardinals join in, observers have a complete artists’s palette for summer viewing.

The indigo bunting will usually respond to human squeaks that imitate a bird’s call. When a flock or family group of buntings are disturbed by a human observer, they usually begin a chorus of alarmed “chipping.”

As I indicated earlier, indigo buntings remain in the region until late September. Although this bird typically winters in Mexico, Panama and the Caribbean, in recent decades some indigo buntings have only gone as far south as Florida to spend the winter. There in the Sunshine State, the indigo buntings may mingle with a close relative, the splendidly multi-colored painted bunting. I usually see these vibrant songbirds whenever I visit coastal South Carolina in spring or summer. Male painted buntings are probably one of the most colorful birds in the United States with hues of red, green, purple and blue in their feathers.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male painted bunting enjoys a bath in a fountain at Hunting Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Other North American buntings include the snow bunting, the lazuli bunting and the lark bunting, which is also the official state bird for Colorado. Some of the common but descriptive names for some of the world’s other buntings include rose-bellied bunting, orange-breasted bunting, cinereous bunting, white-capped bunting, lark-like bunting, ochre-rumped bunting, golden-breasted bunting, chestnut-bunting, red-headed bunting, yellow bunting, blue bunting, little bunting, brown-rumped bunting, meadow bunting, corn bunting and crested bunting.

Keep your feeders stocked with millet and sunflower seeds if you want to increase your chances of seeing indigo buntings, as well as other handsome summer songbirds such as American goldfinch, chipping sparrow and Eastern towhee.

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