Tag Archives: Birdwatching

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.

Unusual ducks pick Bristol’s Middlebrook Lake for brief visit

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-bellied whistling duck rests inside an aviary located at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. In the wild, this species of duck has been expanding its range in the southern United States.

 

Joanne Campbell notified me via Facebook of a visit of an unusual waterfowl on Saturday, May 18, at her home near Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee.

I needed a moment to look past the obvious Canada goose in the photograph before my eyes registered the four small ducks on the grassy bank. I recognized them instantly as black-bellied whistling ducks.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are members of a group of ducks known as “tree ducks” and “whistling ducks.” There is some debate about whether they are more closely related to ducks or geese.

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Photo courtesy of Joanne Campbell • The four visiting black-bellied whistling ducks line up along the edge of Middlebrook Lake as a Canada goose swims past.

Joanne’s recent sighting near her home culminates a series of sightings throughout the region over the past month or so. For whatever reason, these ducks have popped up in various locations throughout the region in recent weeks.

Birder and photographer Adam Campbell found 11 black-bellied whistling ducks at a new retention pond off Exit 14 along Interstate 81 in Abington, Virginia, on Sunday, May 12.

A month earlier, birder Graham Gerdeman, a resident of Nashville, Tennessee, found a black-bellied whistling duck at the Harpeth/Morton Mills Greenway in Nashville on Friday, April 12.

On Friday, April 19, another lone black-bellied whistling duck was spotted in a grocery store parking lot in Fairview near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, by birder Kathy Malone.

Birders Ronald Hoff and Dollyann Myers observed a black-bellied whistling duck on Friday, May 17, on a small lake on Highway 411 south of Maryville, Tennessee, on the line between Blount and Loudon counties.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although widely kept in aviaries, black-bellied whistling ducks are becoming increasingly frequent wild visitors in the Volunteer State. East Tennessee saw a spike of sightings this spring of this duck.

In West Tennessee, closer to the Mississippi River waterfowl migration flyway, the black-bellied whistling duck is a more common bird. The ducks, which are typically found in Central and South America, range into the United States typically only in southern Texas and Arizona, as well as occasionally in Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Florida. Some field guides indicate that these ducks are not long-distance migrants, but birders in western Tennessee would disagree with that assessment.

In appearance, males and females are similar with long necks, red bills and long, pinkish-red legs. The plumage is mostly chestnut with a black belly and a readily visible white wing patch.

These ducks are often described as being somewhat similar to geese and are not considered true ducks. They are classified by biologists in the genus Dendrocygna. Species in the genus include the West Indian whistling duck, wandering whistling duck, fulvous whistling duck, plumed whistling duck, spotted whistling duck, lesser whistling duck and white-faced whistling duck. Only the fulvous whistling duck joins the black-bellied whistling duck in ranging into the United States in such locations as Florida, Louisiana, Texas and California.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-bellied whistling duck (foreground) and a fulvous whistling duck (background) share space within an aviary at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina.

Black-bellied whistling ducks will nest both in natural cavities or on the ground in areas with thick vegetation. If nesting boxes are available, these ducks will gladly nest in them. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, black-bellied whistling-ducks have been expanding their range in the southern United States. These ducks have experienced strong population growth, estimated at more than 6 percent per year from 1966 to 2014. The world population is estimated at 1,100,000 to 2,000,000 birds and increasing, which could explain why appearances are becoming somewhat more commonplace in states like Tennessee, as well as Virginia and the Carolinas.

Formerly called the black-bellied tree duck, this waterfowl has also been given common names such as “whistling duck” and “Mexican squealer.” As indicated by these different names, these are highly vocal birds with a clear, piercing whistled call.

The black-bellied whistling ducks at Middlebrook Lake lingered for several hours, which allowed many birders in the region to make the drive to the lake to observe such an interesting visitor to the region.

Joanne later posted on Facebook about the excitement generated by the ducks. “I couldn’t get any work done for watching them,” she wrote in her post.

The ducks are not the first rare bird that Joanne has alerted me to at Middlebrook. Back in November of 2015, she notified me of an American white pelican that spent a couple of days on the lake. I’m grateful to her for notifying me about both the black-bellied whistling ducks and the pelican.

I always enjoy hearing from readers with observations to share. To make a comment, ask a question, or share a sighting, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-bellied whistling duck enjoys a vigorous bath within its enclosure in an aviary at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. This duck is often kept in captivity. The wild population has expanded its range in recent years from Central America into the southern United States.

Woodpecker still bears name of historic expedition’s charismatic leader

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The Lewis’s woodpecker’s common and scientific names pay tribute to the famed explorer Meriwether Lewis, who with his partner, William Clark, explored the American West.

The 215th anniversary of the launch of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition will be observed May 14. Also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, the enterprise became the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States and explore the recently acquired lands known collectively as the Louisiana Purchase. The Lewis and Clark expedition officially extended from May 14, 1804, to Sept. 23, 1806. As they drove deep into the American West, the members of the expedition saw wonders, including the feathered variety, never before beheld by people outside of various Native American tribes.

In authorizing the expedition, President Thomas Jefferson wanted to establish a reliable route for travel through the western half of the nation and to fend off any attempts by European nations to gain a foothold beyond the nation’s frontier. Jefferson also hoped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would make some important discoveries about the nation’s native fauna and flora. Jefferson gave instructions for Lewis and Clark to collect bones they found during their journeys. He also asked them to keep alert for large animals that would be new to science. In particular, Jefferson hoped that the men he chose to head the expedition would help prove that the American mastodon still roamed the American West.

Mastodon bones had been found in the eastern half of the United States early in the nation’s history. Jefferson, accepting the widely held view of his time that God would not let animals go extinct, entertained the optimistic belief that large herbivores such as the bison of the American West roamed portions of the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase along with American mastodons. The expedition failed to find great herds of American mastodons trumpeting their way across the vast prairies and grasslands of the Western United States. As any student of history knows, however, the expedition made many important biological discoveries ranging from unique animals as the pronghorn antelope and grizzly bear to various fish, reptiles and plants.

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Meriwether Lewis gave his name to the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. as well as to the woodpecker named Lewis’s woodpecker.

The expedition also described nearly half a dozen species of birds that, at the time, had never been discovered and detailed by European Americans. These birds included the common poorwill and the greater sage-grouse. One of the birds — Lewis’s woodpecker — even memorializes the name of Meriwether Lewis and his important contributions to the success of the venture.

Lewis described the woodpecker that now bears his name as a bird “new to science” in one of his journal entries dated May 27, 1806. He made his observations of the bird while the expedition camped on the Clearwater River in what is now known as Kamiah, Idaho. He had mentioned the “black woodpecker” in earlier accounts in his journal, but during his time in the Idaho camp, he managed to shoot and preserve several of the birds. In his account, he described the bird’s behavior as similar to the red-headed woodpecker of the Atlantic states back in the eastern United States.

As it turns out, both Lewis’s woodpecker and the red-headed woodpecker belong to the Melanerpes genus of woodpeckers, which also includes about two dozen species ranging North and South America, as well as the islands of the Caribbean. The other members of the genus found in the United States include acorn woodpecker, gila woodpecker and red-bellied woodpecker. The term Melanerpes comes from ancient Greek words for black (melas) and creeper (herpes), which roughly translates as “black creeper.” Lewis’s woodpecker, one of the largest of its kind found in the United States, can reach a length of 10 to 11 inches. In 1811, the famous naturalist Alexander Wilson composed the first description of the bird for science and named it Melanerpes lewis after Meriwether Lewis. In addition, the bird’s common name has always identified it as Lewis’s woodpecker.

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Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • Lewis’s woodpecker is found primarily in the west. It eats insects, mostly caught in the air, as well as fruits and nuts. The woodpecker also shells and stores acorns in the bark of trees.

These woodpeckers nest in open ponderosa pine forests and burned forests with a high density of standing dead trees. They also breed in woodlands near streams, oak woodlands, orchards, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. In appearance, Lewis’s woodpecker stands out from other American woodpeckers. Its unique appearance includes a pink belly, gray collar and dark green back, quite unlike any other member of its family. In behavior, it also differs from other woodpeckers. This woodpecker is fond of flycatching, perching on bare branches or poles and then making flight sallies to capture winged insect prey. It has also been described as flying more like a crow than a woodpecker.

We haven’t been good stewards of the woodpecker that the famous Expedition brought to our notice. According to the organization Partners in Flight, Lewis’s Woodpeckers are uncommon and declining. Their populations declined by 72 percent between 1970 and 2014. Lewis’s Woodpeckers are threatened by changing forest conditions as a result of fire suppression, grazing and logging. These factors often leave pines of a uniform age in the woodpecker’s favored habitat and fewer of the dead and decaying pines crucial for the bird’s nesting success. Humans could help Lewis’s woodpecker thrive by not removing dead or dying trees from western forests.

After the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to the eastern United States and reported back to Jefferson, he was awarded with 1,600 acres of land. He meant to work on publishing the journals he kept during the Expedition, but kept finding himself distracted. In 1807, Jefferson appointed Lewis governor over the Louisiana Territory that Lewis and Clark had so famously explored. He governed the territory from the Missouri city of St. Louis, which became known as the “Gateway to the West” as more Americans expanded into the territory they had learned about thanks to the famous Expedition.

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Meriwether Lewis in a pose painted with him wearing garb he chose for the expedition.

Lewis spent two troubled years trying to administrate the new territory, but he became entangled in political squabbles and financial difficulties. Things got so difficult for him that Lewis decided he needed to travel to the nation’s capital in person to clear up the mess. On his way to Washington, D.C., he stopped at an inn along the Natchez Trace about seventy miles southwest of Nashville. He died of gunshot wounds on Oct. 11, 1809, and historians have debated ever since whether his death resulted from suicide or murder. Regardless of the nature of his demise, he earned a place in the history books. He’s also remembered every time a birder lays eyes on the woodpecker that bears his name. When the bird is researched in a field guide or on a web page, the more curious individuals are sure to dig a little deeper to learn who provided the Lewis in the woodpecker’s name. His name will continue to be recalled as long as this unusual western woodpecker continues to fly in its beloved pine forests.

I’ve never seen a Lewis’s woodpecker, although I have visited Utah twice to make the attempt. Lewis’s woodpecker is listed as an uncommon permanent resident on the state checklist, so perhaps I will need to be more diligent the next time I visit its home range. I see the red-bellied woodpecker, a smaller relative of Lewis’s woodpecker, on a regular basis. This common bird more closely resembles what most people expect a woodpecker to look like, and it will visit feeders for such fare as sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The red-bellied woodpecker is a close relative to Lewis’s woodpecker.

In next week’s column, I’ll continue my anniversary tribute to the Lewis and Clark Expedition with a discussion of the bird that honors William Clark, the other partner in the famous westward expedition of discovery.

Readers continue to share hummingbird tales
Garry Cole sent me an email recently to share a hummingbird story.

“I have been following the progress of hummingbird sightings as the birds moved closer to East Tennessee,” Garry wrote. “I read with envy how neighbors all around me had seen these jewels, but none had visited my home here in Hickory Tree near Bluff City.”

Then, on April 23, as Garry sat in the yard, a male ruby- throated hummingbird stopped and hovered less than a foot in front of his face.

“He looked me squarely in the eye as if to say, ‘Well, I’m here. When are you going to feed me?’”

Garry noted that the bird arrived at about 8:15 p.m. “I immediately went inside and prepared my feeder,” he said. “Now, I have at least four that visit my feeder every day. There may be more, but I have only seen four at one time.”

His hummingbirds drink about eight ounces of sugar mix every two or three days and seem to feed more frequently between 5 and 7 p.m.

Tom Brake shared via Facebook that hummingbirds have also returned to his home on Peaceful Valley Road in Abingdon, Virginia. In his posting to my Facebook page, he informed me that he had his first hummingbird sighting of spring on April 28.

Myra Harris message me on Facebook to let me know her mom, Mae Bell Byrd, who lives in Flag Pond in Unicoi County, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird on April 12.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Welcoming back hummingbirds also involves making sure that they remain healthy and safe while spending the next six months in our yards and gardens.

Birds serve as muses to inspire poets to greater heights

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Photo by makamuki0/Pixabay.com • The turtledove has featured prominently in poems and other literature, including the holiday song “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

With May’s arrival, other migrating birds have made stops in my yard, providing some excitement to the daily routine. It’s easy to wax poetic about the birds around us. Indeed, poets have been incorporating birds into some of their best-known work for centuries.

The Bard himself penned a poem titled “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” While the phoenix is a mythical bird and not one actually found in nature, the “turtle” in the poem’s title refers to the well-known European turtledove. Even before Shakespeare glorified the turtledove in his poetry, this small dove had already been entangled with myth and legend stretching back to Ancient Greece and Rome. For instance, the turtledove was considered by the Greeks as sacred to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Romans adopted the turtledove as an emblem of their goddess Fides, who reigned over the attributes of trust and faith. Perhaps, even more famously, the turtledove is still known today in the lyrics of the enduring Christmas carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” as the gift given on the second day of Christmas.

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Photo by skylarvision/Pixabay.com • The phoenix was a legendary bird that, if destroyed, arose from its own ashes to live again.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave us his gloomy “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1798. The longest of his poems, it tells of a sailor who brings ill fortune upon himself by shooting an albatross, which is a family of sea-going birds consisting of about two dozen species. The poem also inspired the phrase “having an albatross around one’s neck” as a metaphor for bad luck.

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The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized the phrase “albatross around one’s neck” to suggest a period of ill fortune in his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Albatrosses are large birds with wingspans larger than most other birds, making them capable of spending almost their entire lives at sea except for the times they come ashore for the purpose of nesting. The entire family has been besieged by a variety of problems, many of which are caused by humans. Three albatross species are critically endangered, five species are endangered, seven species are near threatened and seven species are considered vulnerable.

One of America’s most famous poets often looked to the natural world, especially its feathered inhabitants, for inspiration for some of her most famous poetry. “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson is arguably one of the finest metaphors in American poetry, with the abstract concept of hope being equated with a bird Dickinson likely observed in her gardens in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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The poet Emily Dickinson’s perceptive observations of the natural world show in her poetry.

I’ve always enjoyed Dickinson’s “A Bird Came Down the Walk,” which transforms an ordinary encounter between a bird and a woman tossing it a crumb into an inspiring message of perseverance. One cannot help but feel that Dickinson, a famously reclusive woman, also envied the bird its power of flight and the freedom its wings gave it.

A near contemporary of Dickinson, and one famous for his moody, rhythmical works, Edgar Allan Poe published his masterpiece “The Raven” in 1845. While the poem won him many fans, he received a paltry $9 from the magazine “The American Review” for the work. Perhaps because of the insulting matter of compensation, Poe first allowed the work to be published under a pseudonym. “The New York Evening Mirror” became the first outlet to publish the poem with Poe’s name attached to it.

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Edgar Allan Poe

The young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a classic poem titled “To a Skylark” in 1820. Shelley, one of the English Romantic poets, has been overshadowed in some ways by his wife, the novelist Mary Shelley, who provided the world with the enduring novel Frankenstein. Shelley apparently wrote his poem after he and his wife encountered one of these birds during a stroll in the countryside during a trip to Italy.

As is the case with good literature, Shelley’s poem inspired other authors. Reportedly, the English playwright Noël Coward and the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald received inspiration from lines in the poem to create titles for their respective works, “Blithe Spirit” and “Tender is the Night.” American playwright Tennessee Williams titled his first play “Not About Nightingales,” apparently as a reaction to Shelley’s ode.

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Although his wife arguably achieved more fame with her novel, Frankenstein, Percy Bysshe Shelley won immortality with his memorable poems in the spirit of English Romanticism.

The Eurasian skylark is a widespread species found across Europe and Asia. This bird has also been introduced in various locations around the world. In North America, introduced populations of skylarks are found on southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia and San Juan Island in the state of Washington.

The only native lark in North America is the horned lark, also known by its scientific name of Alauda alpestris, which translated means “lark of the mountains.” The horned lark is a common, widespread bird of open country, such as prairies, deserts, and agricultural lands. Although horned larks also sing in flight like their relative, only the Eurasian skylark seems to be famous enough for its song to inspire poets to write tributes. The Eastern meadowlark, a fairly common bird in the region, is not an actual lark but a member of the blackbird family.

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Photo by Kathy2408/Pixabay.com • A Eurasian skylark perches on a wire. This bird once inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write his famous poem “To a Skylark.”

 

Based on the opening lines to Shelley’s poem, it can be safely argued that Shelley was particularly impressed by the skylark’s song.

“Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”

Birds are continually inspiring us, much like a singing skylark once served as an avian muse for one of Shelley’s most famous poems. Whether it is their song, their beauty, or their free spirits, birds are certainly worthy of a poem or two.

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all – And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm – I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.                                   — by Emily Dickinson

 

 

April brings flurry of spring migrants to region

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Photo by Adobe Stock • Subtle plumage differences, as well as habitat, behavior and seasonal presence, are factors in distinguishing the Louisiana waterthrush, pictured, from the closely related Northern waterthrush. The Louisiana waterthrush nests along fast-moving streams in the area while the Northern waterthrush does not breed in the region.

I’m always happy for the arrival of April because I know the month hails the arrival of some of my favorite birds. The roughly 50 species of New World warblers that occur in the Eastern United States have captivated me from the time I first picked up a pair of binoculars. The warblers offer color, energy, complex songs and much more for the bird enthusiast to enjoy.

The month started out with my first sighting of a purple finch for the year. The finch must have been a harbinger of birds to come because in quick succession I observed many early migrants, including brown thrasher, blue-headed vireo, blue-gray gnatcatcher and chipping sparrow, as well as several warblers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A study of the facial pattern of a female purple finch helps contrast her from similar female house finches. Again, the notched tail is also a good indication of the bird’s identity.

The first warbler to arrive in the woods around my home this year was a singing male black-throated green warbler. Three others — black-and-white warbler, yellow-throated warbler and Louisiana waterthrush — followed quickly after my sighting of the black-throated green warbler.

The Louisiana waterthrush stood out among these early observations. This warbler is a specialist of creeks and streams, and my sighting took place near a roaring creek swollen by a rainy spring. This water-loving warbler also has a loud, ringing song that can still be hard to hear because of the fact the bird is usually near the background noise of rushing water.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-and-white warbler creeps over the bark of a pine in search of insect prey.

 

While many warblers have shown signs of decline in recent years, the Louisiana waterthrush appears to have bucked that trend. According to the website, “All About Birds,” Louisiana waterthrush populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, based on statistics from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight, a network of organizations engaged in all aspects of avian conservation, estimates a global breeding population of 360,000, with almost all of those individuals spending at least part of the year in the United States. About a quarter of the population retreats into Mexico during the winter season. The rest winter in Florida and some of the Gulf Coast states, as well as the islands of the Caribbean.

While most songbirds are fortunate to survive two or three years in the wild, at least one Louisiana waterthrush lived to the age of at least 11 years and 11 months. The bird, a male, was seen in New Jersey in the wild and identified by a band on one of his legs. He had been banded in the same state, according to the website, “All About Birds.”

The waterthrushes are the only two species in the genus Parkesia, so named to honor American ornithologist Kenneth C. Parkes, who was for many years curator of birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The common name of the Louisiana waterthrush is not a very apt one, as this bird does not have any special affinity for the state of Louisiana. Someone collected some of the early specimens of the Louisiana waterthrush in its namesake location, and the name has stuck through the years.

The only other warbler in the genus Parkesia is the Northern waterthrush which, unlike its relative, likes to live near quiet, sedate pools, ponds and bogs, not rushing streams.

Hummingbirds getting closer to region

Tommy and Virginia Curtis of Smithville, Tennessee, reported their first ruby-throated hummingbirds of the spring on the email group, “TN-Birds.” The hummingbird arrived on April 7.

“We had two male ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive late Sunday afternoon,” they wrote in their email. “That is a little later than the April 1 arrival times in the past.”

The two visitors had apparently agreed to co-exist.

“So far they are eating peacefully, and neither is attacking or dominating the one feeder,” the couple reported. “We keep wondering when the white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos plan to leave, as we have had many of them all winter.”

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Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay • A white-throated sparrow perches on a branch to sing its easily recognizable song. Many Americans translate the sparrow’s song as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

The couple also shared that they have been hosting a small flock of purple finches. “They normally don’t show up at our feeders unless there is snow on the ground, but we have enjoyed seeing them daily,” they wrote in their email.

Of course, the Curtises live in DeKalb County in Middle Tennessee. As of press time, I still haven’t received any reports of hummingbirds arriving in East Tennessee or Southwest Virginia. I’m confident these tiny winged gems will arrive soon. I hope to update on hummingbird arrivals in next week’s column.

Remember to share your hummingbird sighting by emailing me the date and time of the sighting to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook should anyone want to contact me through that social media platform.

RubyRed

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches near a feeder that he is ready to defend from all comers.

 

Feeding birds can draw some unwelcome guests

Squirrel-AttackPhoto by Dianna Lynne • Leaping onto a fully stocked feeder, an Eastern gray squirrel scatters seeds in all directions. The unconquerable squirrel is one of the most unwanted guests at many bird-feeding stations.

 

The winter bird-feeding season is coming to a close, but there’s no need to pull the welcome mat completely. Some of our summer visitors appreciate some supplemental food. Of course, there’s less need for our offerings during warm weather when insects and other food sources are readily available.

People in Great Britain spend 200 million pounds per year on wild bird food. In the United States, people are spending $4 billion each year on feed for the birds. Another $800 million in spending goes to feeders, bird baths and other accessories used to attract wild birds.

People have been feeding birds in the United States of America since before it was a nation. The father of our country, George Washington, fed wild birds at his home, Mount Vernon. The great writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau fed the birds and learned to identify many of the birds around Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Poet Emily Dickinson tossed crumbs to sparrows and then turned those special moments with her feathered friends into poetry.

Since the time of Washington, Thoreau and Dickinson, if not before, Americans have been supplying food, as well as shelter and water, to persuade birds to bring themselves closer. In return, we enjoy their color, their interesting behavior, their songs, and much more.

I continue feeding during the warmer months, although I do cut back on the quantity of my offerings. One of the best bonuses for engaging in year-round bird feeding is the chance to see parent birds bring their offspring to feeders to introduce them to human-offered fare. Be aware, however, that when you put out a table offering free food, you’re bound to attract some unexpected guests. Sometimes those unanticipated visitors can wreak havoc on the smooth management of a feeding station for your birds.

Here is my version of the Top 5 candidates for a “Not Welcome” list of the wildlife most people would prefer not to entertain at their feeders.

Hawks

The raptors are, of course, birds themselves. Therein rests the irony. Flocks of birds active around feeders are like ringing a dinner bell for some raptors, which have learned that songbirds in such situations on occasion make easy pickings.

It’s not any single raptor that can be identified as the most obvious threat to songbirds. Species such as American kestrel, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, red-shouldered hawk, merlin, peregrine falcon and red-tailed hawk will prey on their fellow birds if given ample opportunity.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Raptors, like this red-tailed hawk, can cause concern when they take up residence near a feeder in a yard or garden.

If a hawk does begin to show interest in your feeders, it may be necessary to curtail or even cease feeding songbirds until after the raptor loses interest and moves on to other hunting grounds.

I hesitate to even place raptors on this list because I believe that every bird is a wonderful creation. It’s best to remember that hawks view smaller birds flocking to a feeder in the same way those small songbirds view the abundance of seeds. For both hawks and songbirds, our offerings represent easy meals. It’s not easy, but the best choice is to co-exist — if not at peace, then at terms with nature’s reality.

Opossums

The Virginia opossum, also known as the North American opossum, or simply “possum,” is often overlooked because its raids on feeders take place after dark. Although the opossum has 50 teeth (that’s more than any other North American mammal has) in its jaws, it shares the night with other active omnivores, including bears and raccoons.

Regardless of its toothy grin, the possum is not adept as hulling sunflower seeds. The telltale sign that a possum is raiding your feeders involves the discovery of little piles of pulped sunflower seeds, hull and all, in your feeder or on the ground beneath it. The possum pulverizes the sunflower seed and evidently tries to extract what nutritional content it can. Of course, suet, nuts and other feeder fare are on the possum’s menu.

This particular possum is the only marsupial found north of Mexico. The continent of Australia is more famous for its marsupials, which include kangaroos, wallabies and wombats.

black brown and white animal

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com • Although the opossum has 50 teeth (that’s more than any other North American mammal has) in its jaws, it shares the night with other active omnivores, including bears and raccoons.

Raccoons

These masked, ring-tailed bandits are the bane of many a person who enjoys feeding birds. While they primarily restrict their raids to the hours between sunset and dawn, some emboldened raccoons will occasionally become brazen enough to stake a claim to feeders in broad daylight. A couple of years ago, a trio of young raccoons arrived early in the evening with plenty of daylight remaining to feed in the feeders while I watched from a nearby lawn chair with my binoculars.

Raccoons will also spirit away feeders. I’ve found hummingbird feeders, suet feeders and small plastic feeders carried a good distance into the woods before the thieving raccoon dropped them. The stolen items are usually damaged but, on occasion, I’ve recovered some of my items that were more or less no worse for the wear.

On one occasion, a crafty raccoon managed to remove a sunflower seed feeder from its branch on a tree outside one of my windows, I later found the portly critter reclining lazily on his back wedged between the trunk and a branch high on a nearby tree, holding the feeder in one arm and reaching into it with the other like a person eating popcorn.

Raccoons are highly intelligent and inquisitive, which only makes them more difficult to discourage from raiding feeders. They can be amusing and entertaining in their own right, but it’s best not to encourage their visits. If they prove too persistent, cease feeding birds until the raccoons have moved to a new location.

Raccoon-Contest

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Curious and intelligent, raccoons can think of many ways of ransacking a feeding station meant for birds.

 

Bears

A visit from a black bear is hard to miss. With their brute strength, bears are capable of mangling and destroying even the most sturdily constructed of bird feeders. While there are many other unwanted feeder guests, none can match the bear for its sheer capacity for destruction. Black bears can weigh between 200 to 600 pounds, so it’s not hard to imagine their potential for wreaking havoc.

Amanda Austwick lives in Flag Pond, Tennessee. She is a dedicated feeder of our feathered friends, which has led to repeated incidents with problem bears over the years. Amanda lives within the official boundaries of the Cherokee National Forest. Black bears have been thriving in the Cherokee National Forest, as well as throughout the southeastern United States.

When I first corresponded with Amanda several years ago, she was writing to me about a bear attack on her feeders. “One feeder was completely bent over on the ground,” she wrote. I also pointed out that the bear is actually just feeding on the seed. The damage to the feeder is a by-product caused by the fact bears probably don’t know their own strength.

I’ve not gone completely unscathed when it comes to bears and my feeders. Several years ago I owned a nice feeder with a metal meshwork used for holding shelled peanuts, which are loved by birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers. I woke one morning to find the feeder had been mangled into the equivalent shape of a pretzel.

Compared to the stories told by Amanda, as well as other people who have shared their own bear tales over the years, I got off lucky to only lose a single feeder to a bear. Brookie and Jean Potter, friends who live near Wilbur Lake in Carter County, Tennessee, have had to innovate to stay one step ahead of the bears living in proximity to them. Brookie managed to raise their feeders beyond a bear’s reach using a complicated system of poles and pulleys.

If such proactive measures are not something one wishes to do, there’s one simple step that can be taken. People can bring in their feeders at night to ensure there’s nothing left outdoors to attract the attention of a meandering bear. Bears are omnivores, eating a varied diet ranging from insects and fish to amphibians and bird eggs. When a bear finds a bird feeder, they’re happy to include sunflower seeds or other such fare in their diet. When such food is no longer available, they’re likely to move on.

Bear-FeederPole

Photo Courtesy of Amanda Austwick • This bear caused considerable damage to the Austwick feeders.

Squirrels

They may not match a black bear for sheer destructive capability, but I regard the Eastern gray squirrel as Public Enemy Number One when it comes to having peace and tranquility at a bird-feeding station. What justifies this ranking? It’s simple, really. I know of no sure-fire way to deny a hungry and determined squirrel access to any type of feeder. It’s possible to slow them down, but I think the best we can do is maintain an uneasy truce of co-existence with squirrels.

I wouldn’t begrudge the squirrels some bird seed if they didn’t show such ingratitude by gnawing on feeders. With their sharp incisors, squirrels can chew up and spit out plastic and even wood feeders. More expensive feeders made of ceramics, metal and glass are immune to the same type of squirrel vandalism.

Although I’ve not tried it, I’ve heard that sunflower seed laced with capsaicin will deter squirrels. This spicy substance is even used to deter such large mammals as elephants and grizzly bears. Capsaicin, which is derived from hot peppers, reacts entirely differently with birds. While many mammals will avoid food containing even minute amounts of capsaicin, birds will readily consume it. The difference seems to be that bird receptor cells are largely insensitive to capsaicin.

nature animal cute fur

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com • The gray squirrel is a cunning and often destructive guest at feeders intended for the benefit of birds.

••••••

To be sure, I could have added some other wildlife species to the list. White-tailed deer can graze on flowers planted for the benefit of hummingbirds. Deer have even been documented eating the eggs of songbirds, perhaps more for the calcium shell than any other reason. Chipmunks are almost as wily as squirrels, but they’re cuter and non-destructive. Insects, such as bees and hornets, can overwhelm sugar water feeders intended for hummingbirds.

Don’t even get me started on stray cats! A few years back, a study by researchers from the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Center found that between 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds lose their lives to cats each year in the United States. In addition to birds, cats kill billions of small mammals — shrews, voles, mice, rabbits — every year. Most of the carnage is committed by feral or stray cats, not house cats. My own two cats are kept indoors to avoid contributing to the problem.

photography of brown chipmunk eating on top of rock

Photo by Adriaan Greyling on Pexels.com • A chipmunk accepts crumbs. The cute factor usually works in preventing this rodent from being considered a pest.

Smallest of the nuthatches finds a niche at woman’s feeders

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Photo by Lee Karmey/USFWS • A pygmy nuthatch captures a caterpillar.

Veronica Rausch contacted me by email to share a story of the nuthatches that frequent the feeders at her home in central Oregon.

“I have a small flock of pygmy nuthatches coming into the feeders next to my dining room window on a regular basis,” Veronica wrote, adding that the nuthatches began their visits about three weeks ago.

Veronica wrote that she lives in the pine forests of Central Oregon at an elevation of about 4,200 feet.

“The pygmy nuthatches are delightful little birds and share the feeders with the chickadees and juncos,” she wrote. “The bigger birds such as the Stellar’s jays and the woodpeckers will cause them to leave.”

Veronica has also enjoyed observing their unusual antics. “I saw one do a little dance on a branch by the suet feeder,” she described in her email. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to grab the camera fast enough! I hope they stick around.”

I replied to Veronica’s email, noting how I consider her fortunate to be hosting the smallest of North America’s nuthatches at her home. Admitting to some envy at her good fortune, I explained that I hope to some day add this species to my life list so I can check all of the continent’s nuthatches off my list of target birds.

Even by nuthatch standards, the pygmy nuthatch is a small bird. In appearance, this nuthatch shows buffy-white underparts contrasted with a brown head and a slate-gray back. They often breed in large extended family flocks, so the four individuals observed by Veronica might very well have been closely related to each other.

Nesting pygmy nuthatches are often assisted in their chores by “nest helpers,” which are close relatives that help the busy parents gather food and feed hungry young. These nest helpers also deliver food to females as they incubate eggs and will mount a spirited defense of a nest threatened by intruders. Their communal nature extends to nocturnal roosting when many individuals will huddle together to ensure their combined body heat helps them survive extremely cold nights.

So how small is the pygmy nuthatch? The adults are barely four inches long and weigh only a third of an ounce. A common fountain pen weighs more than this tiny nuthatch, which goes a long way towards explaining the bird’s scientific name, sitta pygmaea.

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Photo by theSOARnet/Pixabay.com • The brown-headed nuthatch, the southeastern counterpart to the pygmy nuthatch that ranges throughout the Rocky Mountain states, is strongly associated with various types of pine trees.

Pygmy nuthatches are not at all likely to be found in the Mountain Empire or any adjacent areas, but there is another small nuthatch that is found in some extremely localized habitats in the region. The brown-headed nuthatch is a specialist of pine woodlands throughout the southeastern United States, favoring loblolly-shortleaf pines and longleaf-slash pines. This nuthatch requires standing dead trees for nesting and roosting. They forage for food, however, on live pines. The birds are more abundant in older pine stands.

I saw several brown-headed nuthatches during a recent stay on Fripp Island in South Carolina. I’ve also observed this small nuthatch during visits to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia, as well as various other locations in South Carolina. This nuthatch even occurs in the Mountain Empire region, most recently with four of these birds being found at Washington County Park on South Holston Lake near Bristol during the 2018 Christmas Bird Count conducted by the Bristol Bird Club.

These small birds will occasionally forage close to the ground, but they are often in the upper branches of pine trees. Their presence is often revealed by their call, which sounds amazingly like a squeeze toy. They produce their “squeaky toy” call persistently when agitated or curious. Brown-headed nuthatches often associate with mixed flocks in company with Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, pine warblers and other small songbirds.

The power of flight gives most birds a perfectly valid reason to disregard the power of gravity. The family of tree-clinging birds known as nuthatches lives an even more topsy-turvy lifestyle than many other of their winged kin. Nuthatches prefer a headfirst stance, even “walking” upside down as they search for food in the nooks and crannies of tree trunks and branches.

The United States is home to four species of nuthatches: white-breasted, red-breasted, brown-headed and pygmy. White-breasted nuthatches are probably the most familiar nuthatch to backyard birders in this area.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A white-breasted nuthatch clings to the bark of a tree.

Because of their gravity-defying antics, the white-breasted nuthatch and other members of the family can provide hours of entertainment at our bird feeders. Individual white-breasted nuthatches will follow a single-minded path along the trunk of a tree or a branch on the way to a feeder. An individual nuthatch rarely varies from this path. It’s amusing to watch the jerky progress along the trunk as this bird prepares for a flight to a feeder holding sunflower seeds or a hanging wire basket of suet.

At my home, nuthatches typically remain aloof from the always-ongoing rivalry between the chickadees and titmice. The white-breasted nuthatch is also a no-nonsense visitor. Rarely distracted by disturbances among other birds, this nuthatch is content to grab a seed and go or hang on to the wire frame of a suet basket and peck off chunks of suet.

The more numerous titmice and chickadees give way when a white-breasted nuthatch claims a feeder. At times, however, among the frantic activity, a tufted titmouse or a Carolina chickadee will forget itself and fly to a position on a feeder already claimed by a nuthatch. If surprised enough to retreat to a nearby perch, the nuthatch will go through a rather comical little dance to express its displeasure. Wings spread out in a rigid pose, the bird will turn around in tight circles, showing definite resentment at being displaced by an offending chickadee or titmouse.

The stubby red-breasted nuthatch is another member of the family that occasionally finds its way to our yards. Smaller than the related white-breasted nuthatch and, as far as I can tell, complacent in the company of chickadees and titmice, the red-breasted nuthatch is always a welcome visitor. It has a tell-tale “yank yank” call that it produces when excited that sounds very much like little tin horns. The red-breasted nuthatch, perhaps because it spends so much of the year in more remote areas, can also be amazingly tame when it pays a winter visit.

Red-breastedNuthatch

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A red-breasted nuthatch clings to the mesh of a feeding tube to get at the peanuts contained within.

Nuthatches can be attracted to feeders by offering peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet. They are also cavity-nesting birds, but are more reluctant about accepting a nesting box as a place to rear young. They will gladly accept an old woodpecker hole or other natural cavity in a tree.

I also want to complete my list of North American nuthatches by adding the fourth species — pygmy nuthatch — to my life list. I have made two trips to western North America, where this species ranges, but haven’t managed to find this bird. Both the pygmy and brown-headed are among the smallest members of the nuthatch family.

On the other end of the size scale is the appropriately named giant nuthatch, which reaches a length of almost eight inches. The giant nuthatch ranges through China, Thailand and Burma. This nuthatch is bigger than a downy woodpecker, one of our more common visitors at backyard feeders in our region.

Worldwide, there are about 25 species of nuthatches, some of which have surprisingly descriptive names for birds that spend most of their lives creeping in obscurity along the trunks and branches of trees. Some of the more creative common names for these little birds are inspired by locations around the globe, giving us species like Siberian nuthatch, Kashmir nuthatch, Burmese nuthatch, Bahama nuthatch, Algerian nuthatch, Indian nuthatch and Chinese nuthatch.

These birds are named “nuthatch” for the habit of some species to wedge a large seed in a crack and hack at it with their strong bills. I like to refer to them as “upside-down birds” because of their gravity-defying nature. It must give them an interesting perspective on the world around them.

Spring-Nuthatch

Photo by Bryan Stevens • In some areas, brown-headed nuthatches are feeder visitors. These small nuthatches are specialists that favor stands of loblolly pine.