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Warbler parade imminent as September advances

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Woman documents special relationship with pine warblers in photographs

Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Pine warblers Petey and Petunia take mealworms from a waiting hand. These two warblers have learned to trust Rebecca “Becky” Boyd in order to get a quick meal.

For Becky Boyd, the ongoing pandemic has provided an unexpected opportunity to get to know some of her resident birds on a more personal basis. She has even won the trust of some of her backyard birds, succeeding at persuading them to take food right from her hands. She has posted photographs of some of these up close and personal engagements with birds to her Facebook page, where I first began to look with awe at her success.

Boyd, who resides in Knoxville, Tennessee, discussed some of her incredible stories involving some of her own feathered friends. “First, I feel like I should explain my bird-feeding station,” she said. “My bedroom window is on the second story, adjacent to a deck.”

She noted that there is a flower box under the window that she placed a board across so that she could set food containers right outside the window. “I also have a mealworm feeder hanging from a swing arm near this window,” Becky said.

She removed the screen covering the window so that she could pull the window open to take pictures up close. “This window is next to my home office work desk, where I sit every day during the COVID pandemic while working from home,” Becky continued. “The birds have become accustomed to seeing me at the window, and the first bird that I was able to feed by hand was a ruby-throated hummingbird.”

The process didn’t take all that much effort. “I got one of those little ‘button’ feeders’ that I held out the window next to the regular feeder,” she explained. “After a half dozen attempts, it worked!”

She added that she was even able to take a video of the experience.

Boyd also spoke about her relationship with the Eastern bluebirds living in her yard. “I have a bonded pair of bluebirds that live in my yard year round, and produce three broods of babies every year,” she said. “During time periods when natural food is scarce and when they are raising offspring, I provide live mealworms in addition to dried mealworms.”

She also has a section of a tree limb with recessed holes in which she spreads Wild Birds Unlimited’s Bark Butter (a specially formulated suet) onto. The limb hangs from a hook outside the same window.

Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Petey the pine warbler grabs a mealworm from a waiting hand. Petey’s trust eventually helped introduce his mate, Petunia, to the concept of a “free lunch” at the Knoxville home of Rebecca Boyd.

Most birding enthusiasts know that bluebirds and hummingbirds are among the most trusting of birds in regard to people, but Becky has enjoyed success with some species that are usually more aloof. For instance, the limb with the “bark butter” attracted the notice of a male pine warbler earlier this year.

“Sometimes when I would spread new butter on the stick, he would flutter around close by, being impatient to get something to eat,” she explained. “A few times he landed on my hand or arm during the process.”

Then the warbler discovered the little white dish that Becky keeps filled with live mealworms intended for the bluebirds. “At first, I would reach out to take the bowl away,” she said. “Live worms are sort of expensive.”

But the persistent warbler, who she named Petey, started landing on the lip of the bowl while she held it in her hand to protect the mealworms for the bluebirds.

“Once he associated that white bowl with yummy live worms, he started watching from a nearby tree for me to open the window to put out worms,” Becky said. “He would fly over immediately to grab some.”

His forward nature inspired her to conduct an experiment.

“Often, he would helicopter over the bowl in my hand with impatience, so I tried keeping the bowl in my hand instead of setting it on the ledge,” Becky continued. “He adapted right away, and before long his mate, Petunia, started copying his behavior.”

Becky expanded the experiment. “Within a week or so, I decided to try just putting the worms in the palm of my hand instead of in the bowl,” she said. “Petey adapted right away, but Petunia was a bit more reluctant.”

Becky noted with pride that Petey will perch on her hand for quite a while to gobble up some worms for himself. He will then grab a few in his beak to take back to the nest for their offspring.

“Petunia is more tentative and strategic, and will typically land just long enough to grab a few worms,” Becky said. “I’ve noticed that oftentimes they will take their worms and squish them into the bark butter or dunk them in the birdbath before taking them back to the nest. I wonder if that makes the worms stop wiggling to make it easier for the babies to eat them.”

Becky assumed that the warblers would only eat from her hand stuck out through the window opening, but one day she was sitting in a lawn chair in her back yard.

Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Pine warbler Petey ducks his beak into a bowl of mealworms for a quick snack.

“Petey found me and started fluttering around looking for food,” she recalled. “He followed me back to the house and waited on the deck ledge for me to fetch him some worms.”

He has become quite insistent. “When I would sit on the deck to read or watch the birds, he would land on the table and trill at me with a loud, shrill song until I met his requirements,” Becky said.

Now, when she is sitting at her desk working, Petey often gets her attention by pecking on the window to let her know he’s there and waiting for worms.

“So, I keep a cup with some worms next to the window so I can quickly slide the window open and shake a few into my hand to offer him,” Becky said. “Once the first brood of fledglings started coming to the window, they chose to only eat the bark butter instead of gravitating to the mealworm feeder.”

Becky added that the fledglings have moved on now, and Petey and Petunia are working on their second brood.

Becky has some aspirations about other resident birds. “I would love to be able to hand-feed the bluebirds,” she shared. “They will come very close to me — sometimes almost nose to beak through the closed window — but they are not willing to get close enough to hand-feed.”

She has had some success getting a few of her resident tufted titmice to accept food from her hands. Petey and Petunia deserve some of the credit.

“The titmice watched how the pine warblers ate from my hand and picked up the routine very quickly,” Becky said. “One of them is so bold, I sometimes have to try to shake him off my hand like he’s a housefly, but he comes right back to latch onto my fingers!”

She often names some of the regular cast of characters among her feathered friends.

Pine warbler pair Petey and Petunia have raised two fledglings, which Becky dubbed Posey and Pansy.

She has given her Eastern bluebird pair the names of Bogie and Bacall.

“They lost all but one fledgling from their first brood this year, so I named her Solo,” Becky added. “This pair has nested in my yard for four years in a row.

Her two reliable ruby-throated hummingbirds have been given the names LeRoy and Loretta.

Photo by Jean Potter • A pine warbler visits a seed feeder at the home of Brookie and Jean Potter near Wilbur Lake in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

I asked if she has ever been described as a “bird whisperer” by her friends. “All the time!” Becky responded. “Many of my friends and Facebook Birding Group members are as amazed as I am about this experience.

Becky noted that her backyard attracts a wide variety, as well as volume, of birds. “I try to make it attractive to the birds versus pretty for the people,” she said. “I always keep two clean birdbaths available to them, and consistently keep feeders full of different types of seeds.”

In addition, she said that she plants bird-loving trees and shrubs and even left a couple of dead trees standing in the yard for the woodpeckers to enjoy. “I also try to make myself visible to the birds on a regular basis so that they understand that I’m not a threat,” Becky said. “I’m not sure if I have an actual gift, or if this is all just a wonderful result of spending so much time at home in their environment.”

Her special encounters with backyard birds provides a “rewarding feeling of awe and intrigue,” she said. “Having such a personal relationship with wild birds deepens my awareness of nature and makes me even more determined to help our songbird populations survive and thrive. That being said, I do recognize that wild birds should not be tamed such that they lose their fear of humans. Understanding this risk, I feel a mixture of joy and a little guilt. I don’t plan to encourage this behavior with any new birds, but I sure am enjoying my bond with this pine warbler pair.

Friends don’t always fully understand her enthusiasm for birds.

“Some don’t understand my passion for this or recognize how rare it is to have a personal relationship with wild birds, but most of my friends are also nature lovers who are in awe of this and wish they could do it, too,” Becky said.

“I joke that I should build a solid fence around my property and charge admission to my bird park,” Becky said. “My friends have encouraged me to start my own website to display and sell my bird photos, and I am in the process now of building my website, which will be named RidgeRockArts.com.”

In the meantime, Petey is on the verge of achieving a taste of international fame.

“An accomplished artist in Amsterdam recently saw one of my photos of Petey perched on my hand and asked to paint him to add to her portfolio,” Becky said.

Petey even crowded into the interview’s conclusion. “Here he is right now pecking on the window during this interview,” Becky said. “I must stop what I’m doing and get him a handful of worms right this instant. I think he is the one that trained me versus me training him.”

 

Mississippi kite glimpsed on spring count becomes latest listed ‘life bird’

Photo by Richard/Adobe Stock • A solitary Mississippi Kite sits perched in a lakeside tree. These graceful raptors take their prey mostly while on the wing.

If you know many birders, you have likely heard them talk about “life birds.” These are any species that a birder has seen and identified in the wild for the very first time. It can be any bird species at all that the birder observes for the first time, whether it is a commonplace bird like a song sparrow or something slightly more exotic.

While taking part in the 77th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Count on Saturday, May 2, I saw something that, for our region, could be considered a little more exotic. The sighting certainly ranked as unexpected.

Unless one travels extensively, life birds can be hard to get once people have added to their lists most of the common birds around their homes. Finding a life bird during the ongoing pandemic brings its own challenges. I haven’t added a new life bird to my own list since a visit to South Carolina in June 0f 2016. During that visit to Huntington Beach State Park, I added a least bittern to my list of “life birds.”

My most recent “life bird” appeared closer to home and might qualify as my most unexpected life bird ever. The bird flew into view and onto my life list during the annual Spring Bird Count, which was conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Due to social distancing, many participants counted solo this year, myself included, although a few married couples birded together. I’ll always remember my pandemic spring count, especially for the 46th bird on my tally list for the day.

I found myself in the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton around 11 in the morning. I wanted to scan the evergreens in that vicinity for Cape May warblers, a migrant that finds the tall conifers to its liking. I didn’t find any warblers, but I did surprise a perched raptor into making a short flight.

The instant I saw the bird launch itself into flight, I knew I was watching something out of the ordinary. The bird flew with a combination of grace and power that reminded me of a falcon, but I also glimpsed a barred tail that reminded me of one of the accipiter hawks. Then it landed on a dead branch in a tall sycamore that must have permitted the raptor an unobstructed view of the entire park. Although I’d never until that moment seen a Mississippi kite, I have studied illustrations and photographs. I felt fairly certain of the bird’s identity even before I used my phone to call up some birding sites to confirm my identification.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This Mississippi Kite became the first of its kind ever observed on one of the Elizabethton Bird Club’s Spring Bird Counts for Northeast Tennessee.

That’s when the fact I was birding solo hit home. I wanted some additional witnesses to this very unexpected find. In lieu of other observers, I turned to my camera. The bird had turned its back to me, but I snapped some photos and then made my way to a position that I hoped would allow for better photographs.

Alas, the resident American crows at the park had different ideas. Detecting a raptor in their midst, about a half dozen crows gathered to harass the perched kite. Before I could snap a new round of photos, the kite took flight and flew into a stand of tall trees located between the park and Sycamore Shoals Hospital.

Only a few years ago, a Mississippi kite in Northeast Tennessee would have been unheard of. The hills and mountains of the region are simply not the expected habitat for these graceful raptors. Faith Reeves, a resident of Elizabethton, Tennessee, a Facebook friend and fellow birder, saw the first two Mississippi Kites ever found in Northeast Tennessee. She saw and photographed the birds in her own yard on May 20, 2014, and May 13, 2016.

In addition, Don Holt observed a Mississippi kite in Washington County, Tennessee, on April 16, 2017.

Rick Knight and several other birders also saw several Mississippi Kites for about a week in late August of 2016. Observers estimated that these sightings involved from two to five different kites.

“The August observations are our only fall records,” said Rick Knight, a long-time compiler of birds sightings in the region. He added that fall is the season when kites are likely to linger.

“All spring records are overshooting migrants and are one-day-wonders,” Knight explained.

Hearing his explanation, I felt even more privileged to have witnessed this “one-day wonder” in my home county.

Photo by Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay.com • The red kite is an abundant member of the kite family in Europe and northwest Africa.

The Mississippi kite is a beautiful raptor. Adults are grayish-white with the head often appearing pale gray or almost white. Although the Mississippi kite can attain a wingspan of three feet, these birds weigh only seven to thirteen ounces. They feed almost exclusively on insects, which they capture in flight. Some of the insects, such as cicadas and grasshoppers, are ones that damage crops, making the Mississippi kite a friend to farmers.

These kites breed and nest in the central and southern United States, but they have expanded their range north in recent years. They leave the United States in fall to spend the winter in southern South America.

Several years ago I got the thrill of adding a swallow-tailed kite to my life list in some agricultural fields in southwestern Washington County. I’ve also seen swallow-tailed kites in Florida. There is one other member of the kite family that I’d like to add to my list. The snail kite is a dark bird with a hooked beak designed for feeding on snails found in wetlands. This specialist resides in Florida, as well as the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Other kites found around the world include the double-toothed kite, plumbeous kite, whistling kite, square-tailed kite, red kite and black kite.

It’s been a spring filled with many amazing bird observations. I can’t speak for others, but thanks to that remarkable kite sighting and glimpses of some other fascinating birds, not even having to bird solo in a pandemic can bring me down. I’ll provide more details on this year’s Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee in next week’s column.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Mississippi Kite perched in a tree prior to being dispersed by some defensive American crows.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds make welcome return to region

Photo by TheSOARnet / Pixabay.com • Male ruby-throated hummingbirds usually migrate ahead of females. These tiny birds must cross the Gulf of Mexico, without stopping, to reach their nesting grounds in the eastern United States. The journey across the Gulf can take them 18 to 22 hours, dependent on weather conditions.

Pat Stakely Cook‎ of Marion, North Carolina, reported the earliest spring sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird.
Pat posted, “Hummingbird is back here in Marion, North Carolina,” on my Facebook page at 5;45 p.m. on Sunday, April 5.
•••••
Sam Jewett emailed me to report a first spring sighting.
“My first red-throated one showed up Monday, April 6, at Lake James in North Carolina, and boy, has he been hungry,” Sam wrote.
•••••
Judy and Bill Beckman, who reside on Springbrook Road in Unicoi, reported their own sighting.
“We just had our first hummingbird visit our feeder at around 5:50 p.m. on Monday, April 6,” the couple wrote in an email to me.
•••••
Joy Patton, who lives in Marion, North Carolina, also reported her first hummingbird on April 6.
“I put my feeder up a few days early this year because the weather has been so nice,” Joy wrote in an email. “The second day, April 6, a male ruby-throated hummingbird visited and ate and ate!”
Joy added that her daughter, Cindy Pierce, who lives near Fayetteville, North Carolina, saw her first hummingbird that same day.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird lifts its wings to shake water droplets off its back.

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Judi Sawyer, a resident of Roan Mountain, Tennessee, reported the first hummingbird arrival on her Facebook page. Judi is a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. “The hummers are back,” Judi wrote on her page on Tuesday, April 7.
•••••
Bristol resident Vivian C Tester posted on my Facebook page on Wednesday, April 8, about her first sighting. “I just had my first hummer stop by,” Vivian wrote. “So glad I had just put my feeder out.”
•••••
The ruby-throated hummingbird, known by the scientific name of Archilochus colubris, is one of more than 300 species of hummingbirds. All hummingbirds are found in the New World and are completely absent from the Old World. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds launch their spring migration about 10 days prior to female hummingbirds. Most of these tiny birds make an incredible non-stop journey across the Gulf of Mexico each year to return to our yards and gardens across the Eastern United States.

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

Based on the number of people who shared hummingbird sightings with me, these tiny birds have a lot of big fans. If you would like to host your own hummingbirds, here are some crucial tips:
• Make your yard a zone that’s free of insecticides and pesticides. Residues of these chemicals can remain on blossoms, which then run the risk of sickening a hummingbird. In addition, hummingbirds subsist on more than nectar. They consume many tiny insects and spiders. Eating bugs that have been contaminated with dangerous chemicals can also sicken or kill hummingbirds.
• Provide shrubs and trees in your landscape to make your yard more inviting. Hummingbirds claim favorite posts and perches, where they will rest when they are not visiting our gardens or feeders. Shrubs and trees can also provide locations for concealing nests built by female hummingbirds.
• Cultivate plants that offer nectar-producing blooms. While hummingbirds are known to favor the color red, these nectar-sipping birds will also visit blooms of other colors. Some favorite spring blooms include the flowers of red buckeye, wild columbine, crossvine and native varieties of azaleas. As spring advances into summer, the diversity of flowers available to lure hummingbirds into your garden will increase dramatically.

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

I am still awaiting my first hummingbird of spring. I’m confident it won’t be long. Invariably, the first hummingbird to show up in my yard is a male with the gorget — or throat patch — of red, iridescent feathers that gives his species its common name.
He’ll be especially welcome this particular spring.
•••••
Share a sighting, ask a question, or make a comment by emailing ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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

Region’s biggest woodpecker is surprisingly shy

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker pays a visit to a walnut tree.

I heard the raucous antics of the large woodpecker before I saw it. A large Pileated Woodpecker had landed in the upper branches of a wild cherry tree near the creek that runs past my home. From spring to summer, the leaves of the tree provide green shelter for a variety of songbirds. During the winter, the tree is a stark outline against the winter sky and offers no concealment — not that a bird as large as a Pileated Woodpecker — it’s the size of a crow — would find it easy to hide itself.

One thing’s certain. A sighting of a Pileated Woodpecker never fails to impress. This bird has a loud, raucous cackling call, which is often heard before the bird is observed. This woodpecker spends a good amount of its time low to the ground, so when one takes flight unexpectedly, often calling loudly as its powerful wing beats carry it away from an observer, the moment can be somewhat startling. These experiences of sudden and unexpected sightings of one of these woodpeckers is often accompanied by exclamations of surprise. Hence common names such as “wood-hen” and “Lord God Bird” have been adopted for these woodpeckers. Other names for the pileated have included carpenter bird, cock-of-the-woods and wood-hen.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker pokes its head into a cavity excavated into a dying tree.

At one point, the Pileated Woodpecker was relegated to second place when it came to the size of native woodpeckers. The often inaccessible swampy woodlands and river bottoms of the American south were home to the former title holder, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. With the unsettled status of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker — is it extinct or is it still lingering in an Arkansas swamp? — the Pileated Woodpecker is considered the largest woodpecker in the United States. If incontrovertible evidence of the existence of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers should emerge in the future, the Pileated Woodpecker would once again find itself overshadowed by this dramatically larger relative.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Pileated Woodpecker climbs the trunk of a walnut tree.

Although the Pileated Woodpecker can reach a length of 19 inches, the bird weighs only about 11 ounces. Male and female look similar with a black and white body and a bright red crest on the head. In fact, the term “pileated” in the species’ name comes from from the Latin “pileatus,” meaning “capped.” Males show a red stripe — or mustache — on the cheek that is not present in females.

As mentioned earlier, the Pileated Woodpecker often can be found low to the ground, foraging on tree stumps and fallen logs, as well as in taller, living trees. The reason for this behavior rests with one of its favorite foods — the humble carpenter ant. The pileated is not the only woodpecker that supplements its diet with ants. For instance, the Northern Flicker is also fond of dining on these insects. Studies conducted on the dietary preferences of Pileated Woodpeckers have revealed that as much as 40 percent of the diet is made up of ants. Some pileated woodpeckers appear to have developed quite an addiction for ants with some individuals dining almost exclusively on ants. These woodpeckers also eat wild fruits and nuts, as well as other insects and their larvae. The Pileated Woodpecker will occasionally visit a feeder for suet or seeds, but I’ve not had much luck overcoming their instinctive wariness.

Pileated Woodpeckers — usually a mated pair — have been among my wild neighbors for years, but they are shy, retiring birds. Despite their bold appearance and capacity for making quite a racket, the Pileated Woodpecker usually otherwise goes out of its way not to attract attention to itself. Because of this, close-up observations of the largest of our woodpeckers are experiences to savor.

The bird’s enthusiastic ability to excavate cavities in rotten trees is a boon to other species of birds. Certain species of ducks as well as owls, bats, squirrels and other species of wildlife will often make use of cavities created by Pileated Woodpeckers for roosting locations or to raise their own young.

Worldwide, there are about 180 different woodpeckers, but the family is conspicuous in its absence from Australia, Madagascar and New Zealand. The Pileated Woodpecker ranges across the North American continent, with birds present in the forests across Canada and the eastern United States as well as certain areas along the Pacific coast.

Many of the world’s other woodpeckers have quite interesting common names, including Melancholy Woodpecker, Powerful Woodpecker, Speckle-breasted Woodpecker, Yellow-crowned Woodpecker, Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, White-naped Woodpecker, Crimson-backed Flameback and Pale-headed Woodpecker.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Pileated Woodpecker hitches its way along the trunk of a Live Oak laden with Spanish moss.

People report American robins lingering this winter

Photo by fotocitizen/Pixabay.com • An American robin fluffs its feathers to stay warm on a cold, wintry day. While the robin is a migratory bird, it’s not unusual for many individuals to forego migration in order to stay on their nesting range the whole year.

A stroll on some walking trails through the woods on Jan. 11 near my home resulted in my first 2020 observation of American robins. The presence of robins during the winter can be a hit-or-miss affair. After I posted my sighting on Facebook, I received plenty of anecdotal evidence to support my belief that many robins decided to skip migration this past fall and spend the winter in the region.

Jennifer Bauer, park superintendent for Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee, posted that she saw a flock of about 25 robins at the park on Jan. 10.

Anne Powell Cowan, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, commented that she has seen robins in Bristol all winter. “They never left,” Anne wrote in her comment. “We also have a red-headed woodpecker at our farm in Sullivan County.”

Betty Lacy in Elizabethton, Tennessee, posted that she is hosting a “swarm” of robins. “They love my tall hemlock hedges,” Betty wrote. “I know there was well over 100 of them. They have made little openings all over the hedge where they go in and out!”

Photo by Bryan Stevens •  American robins, prominent in lawns and gardens during their annual spring migration, will turn their attention to nesting duties as soon as spring arrives. For now, some are content to spend the cold winter season a little farther north than some of their kin.

Vivian Hicks has noticed plenty of robins, too. “Robins have been hopping around and feeding in my yard in Southwest Virginia,” Vivian posted.

Mimi Hale has noticed the same in Elizabethton, Tennessee. “Robins have been all over my yard for the last several weeks,” she commented on my post.

Dawn Peters, who resides in Jonesborough, Tennessee, posted that robins have been present at her home since before Christmas.

Gloria Walton Blevins in Damascus, Virginia, also indicated the robins haven’t flown south. “They have been in Damascus all winter,” Gloria commented.

Teresa Treadway in Elizabethton, Tennessee, offered a humorous take on the abundance of robins. “Mine were so confused, they never left,” Teresa posted.

It was left to Catherine Romaine Henderson of Greer, South Carolina, to leave a question on my post. “Does that mean an early spring?” Catherine wondered in reaction to this winter’s abundance of robins.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American robin perches on a branch. The robin is one of the best-known song birds in the United States.

The American robin is indeed widely held to be a harbinger of spring. Furthermore, the robin is a popular American bird. In fact, this bird has been designated the official state bird by Wisconsin and Michigan.

In truth, many robins forego migration to endure a few months of cold weather. Their ability to shift their diet from earthworms and insects to fruit and feeder fare helps robins eke out a living. Robins remain an abundant bird but their fondness for co-existing with humans can leave them vulnerable to pesticides applied to lawns and gardens.

According to the website, “All About Birds,” the American robin nests three times a year. On average, however, only 40 percent of robin nests succeed at fledging young. Even once out of the nest, young robins are vulnerable. The website estimates that only 25 percent of each year’s fledged robins will reach November. So, the young robins that join some of the large flocks people are seeing in the region are birds that have beaten the odds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Even once out of the nest, young robins, such as the one pictured here, are vulnerable. Experts estimate that only 25 percent of each year’s fledged robins will reach November.

Even the robins that do depart the region each fall don’t migrate far. Many robins that spend the summer in Canada or the United States only migrate as far as the Gulf States, southern Florida, southern California, Baja California and Mexico.

Robins are such friendly and engaging birds. If we can have them near us for 12 months of the year, who’s going to complain? They have even adapted to take food at feeders. If you’d like to try your luck at attracting robins to feeders, know that they like their sunflower seeds hulled. They will also eat mealworms, fruit, peanut hearts and suet. Robins prefer to feed on the ground or on an open platform feeder.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • While American robins like fruit when its available, they also spend a lot of time feeding on earthworms and insects.

Dreaming of winter finches flocking south

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Red crossbills use unique beaks to pry seeds from a conifer cone. These birds are among the so-called “northern finches” that occasionally stage massive winter migrations fueled by food shortages in their usual range. They are also nomadic residents throughout the year in northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.

I recently got a shoutout on Facebook from Tom McNeil, a longtime birding friend and a neighbor here in the mountains of Northeast Tennessee. Tom asked if I’d been seeing any red crossbills on my side “of the ridge” and informed me he had been seeing these odd-beaked birds for the past couple of weeks.

I hadn’t noticed any crossbills and told him so, but I am definitely keeping alert for them after Tom’s notification. Every winter I hope my feeders will be visited by representatives of a group of birds known collectively as “northern finches.” This loose grouping consists of a half dozen species — purple finch, pine siskin, evening grosbeak, pine grosbeak, white-winged crossbill, red crossbill and common redpoll — that periodically stage irruptions from their traditional northern ranges to push south in large numbers during the colder months.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A red crossbill uses its unique beak to pry seeds from a conifer cone. These birds are among the so-called “northern finches” that occasionally stage massive winter migrations fueled by food shortages in their usual range.

I’ve been feeding birds since the winter of 1993, and over the years, the first three species I listed have graced my feeders. Although I haven’t seen any this winter, pine siskins and purple finches have continued to be occasional winter visitors. Sadly, however, I haven’t been visited by showy evening grosbeaks since the late 1990s. The last time I saw an evening grosbeak in the region was back in 2000.

I’ve never laid eyes on a common redpoll, although I spent several hours 20 years ago staking out a yard in Shady Valley, Tennessee, in an unsuccessful bid to observe a redpoll that had been a reliable visitor at a feeder in that small community.

I have seen red crossbills, but my observations of these birds have always taken place during the summer months. Pine grosbeaks and white crossbills are almost unheard of in the region, and I haven’t had opportunity to visit the nesting summer ranges of these birds.

So, as the weather turns cold each year, hope springs eternal that perhaps this will be the winter that will bring some of these northern finches to my feeders, or at least to a feeder in the general area.

The factor that drives these irruptive northern finches to come south is food — or the lack thereof — in their usual ranges. When seed crops are poor in the north, these seed-eating birds may wander as far south as the Gulf States in search of supplemental food sources such as feeders stocked with sunflower seed.

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • Crossbills and other finches often migrate in source of food.

The red crossbill is a specialist when it comes to foraging for its food. The bird uses its unique bill to open the cones of various conifers. The upper and lower mandibles of the bill are twisted in a way to make them cross when the beak is closed, hence the name “crossbill.”

Worldwide, there are only five species of crossbills — the red crossbill of North America, Asia and Europe; the parrot crossbill of northwest Europe and western Russia; the Scottish crossbill of Scotland; and the white-winged crossbill of Canada, the northern United States, including Alaska, as well as Asia and northeastern Europe. There’s also the endangered Hispaniolan crossbill of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean.

Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male evening grosbeak perches on the side of a sunflower-stocked feeder.

W. Herbert Wilson Jr. wrote an article about the northern finches for the Oct-Dec. 1999 edition of “North American Bird Bander.” Wilson noted that supplemental food, such as feeder fare, can influence the migratory habits of many birds, including these finches. He cited the example of black-capped chickadees, which have been shown to demonstrate an increased chance of survival during lean winter times when they have access to feeders. He also noted that the provision of food at feeders has helped birds like the tufted titmouse, house finch and Northern cardinal extend their range northward. In part, Wilson theorized that more people are feeding birds closer to the northern climes where these birds live. As a result, the long-distance irruptions are no longer necessary to find supplemental food.

Other theories have also been advanced by other experts, including changing migratory routes, diminishing overall finch numbers and climate change. Theories aside, I will continue to hope some of these birds wing their way toward my feeders this winter. If I’m lucky, this could even be the year the evening grosbeaks return! If anyone is seeing any of these “northern finches,” I’d

love to hear about it. Contact me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American goldfinch visits a feeder for sunflower seeds

Birds made news headlines in 2019

Photo by Public Domain Photos/Pixabay.com • California condors have gradually returned to parts of their range beyond California. A family of condors now resides in Zion National Park, marking a return of these birds to Utah.

 

Birds made headlines in 2019. Some species, having been presumed extinct, were rediscovered — some in the mostly unlikely of places. One of the major bird-related stories of the year involved a stark warning about a sharp decline in overall bird numbers. Below, in no particular order, are some of last year’s top stories about our fine feathered friends.

69 years old and a mother again

The Laysan albatross known as Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, became parents again in 2010. Wisdom is at least 69 years old and ranks as the world’s oldest known banded wild bird. Her mate’s name, by the way, translates as “lover of wisdom.” The chick hatched in February at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial. Wisdom has raised more than 30 chicks in her lifetime. While Laysan albatrosses are not considered endangered, some of their kin are threatened with extinction.

Photo by J. Klavitter/USFWS • Wisdom, one of Midway Atoll’s oldest residents, became a mother again in 2019. The female Laysan albatross is approaching her 70th birthday.

While walking to church

The year started with some good birding news when a bird thought extinct was rediscovered in a suburb of Medellín, Colombia, on Jan. 7, 2019. Rodolfo Correa Peña was headed to a church service when he spotted an odd bird in a garden. The bird turned out to be an Antioquia brushfinch, a bird known previously only from museum specimens. Peña, an engineering student with an interest in birding, knew the local brushfinches and recognized that the bird was different. He secured photos of the bird and stunned the scientific community with the rediscovery of a bird presumed extinct.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Endangered California condors receives some good news in 2019..

Condors soaring high

California condors continue to delight with their success stories, even extending their range beyond California. Estimates indicate that 300 condors exist in the wild with about 200 more birds in captivity for use with breeding programs. Evidence that the work to preserve the species is working was provided this year in Utah’s Zion National Park, which became home to a condor named “1K” because it is the 1,000th chick hatched as part of an extensive condor restoration program. The chick hatched in May and took a rather clumsy first flight in September. The chick represents the first condor born within Zion National Park in more than a century. In 1987, when the condor population totaled only 27 known condors, wildlife officials captured the surviving wild birds and made them part of an existing captive breeding program. In 1992, the condor recovery program started to release the birds back into the wild. There are now more condors flying free in the wild than are maintained in captivity.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A large flock of Great Egrets flies over the Watauga River in Elizabethton. There is mounting evidence that many bird populations are on the decline.

Fewer birds?

Bird enthusiasts were shaken by the publication in September of an article warning that the number of birds in the United States and Canada has fallen by 29 percent since 1970. The analysis, published in the journal “Science,” is an extensive attempt to determine what is happening to avian populations. The results shocked — there are 2.9 billion fewer birds taking wing now than there were 50 years ago.

A painting of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker by Mark Catesby, an English naturalist.

Hope

Yet, in words penned by poet Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Birds are among the most resilient lifeforms on the planet. If humans can get out of the way and quit making life more difficult for the feathered inhabitants of the planet, birds are more than capable of rebounding. The federal government needs to maintain safeguards and regulations that are in place to protect birds while ordinary people must alter their ways by shunning pesticides, preserving a variety of habitats and simply giving more regard to the fellow creatures they share the Earth with. If we can do these things, the birds will be fine. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the examples of Wisdom the Laysan albatross and a California condor known as “1K.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Canada geese forage in a field in Unicoi County, Tennessee.

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.

Sighting points out the weakness in relying on field guide range maps


Photo by Rodney Krey/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The double-crested cormorant is a water bird designed for preying on fish. The population of this cormorant has increased in recent years.

 

For those interested in learning to identify the birds they see during trips or that show up in their gardens or yards, a good field guide is an indispensable tool. But for whatever the reason, I’ve got to add a slight caveat to my recommendation to obtain a field guide for bird identification help: The range maps in many of our field guides are in need of a good update.

As a case in point, I recent received an email from reader Beth Webb, who had a question about an observation she made recently.

“While at South Holston Lake this weekend, I saw about 12 or 18 birds in a tree,” Beth wrote. “I could not identify them.”

She noted that her binoculars were not the best and the boat was rocking. Nevertheless, she had an idea on the identity of the perched birds.

“They had the silhouette of a cormorant,” Beth wrote. “My field guide is older and it does not place cormorants in this area, but I am wondering if they have been sighted here.”

Beth added that several years ago she saw a cormorant at South Holston Lake and was able to watch it dive in one spot and come up several seconds later in another.

Photo courtesy of Sandy Loving • This photo taken on June 14, 2019, probably shows some of the same cormorants that Beth Webb saw on South Holston Lake.

I emailed Beth back an answer to her query, telling her that double-crested cormorants have not always been a common bird in our region. For the past couple of decades, their numbers have been increasing nationwide, not just in our region.

The fact that she saw so many of them in a single tree makes me think she probably came close to a nesting rookery. Cormorants often nest near wading birds like great blue herons, which are also known to nest at South Holston Lake.

So, even with a rocking boat, Beth did a great job identifying the cormorants. Beth’s observation points out a weakness in some field guides. Birds are not static creatures. They have the power of flight and are constantly using that ability to expand into new places, Publishers of bird identification field guides are often challenged to keep pace.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A double-crested cormorant dries its wings after a swim.

For instance, the region’s birders birding in the 1970s would have considered the now ubiquitous Canada goose a rare bird. Before the 1980s, the tree swallow hardly ever nested in the region. Another swallow – the cliff swallow – has abandoned the faces of cliffs to nest beneath concrete bridges and has gone from being a rare swallow in the region to one of the most common summer nesting birds in the entire region in just the last couple of decades. Species ranging from cattle egret to Eurasian collared dove may not appear on the range maps in your guide books, but they can be found in the region.

Most bird identification guides follow a simple format: illustrations (photographs or paintings) that are accompanied by brief, precise text and maps showing a particular bird’s expected range, sometimes delineated by season. Many birds may be absent in summer but present in winter, for instance, so a color-coded range map designating year-round, summer and winter residency is highly desirable.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Field guides are an essential tool for bird identification, but features such as range maps can quickly go out of date.

A good field guide should also be small enough to be easily carried and consulted in the field. One that slides into a pocket is ideal. Many tech-savvy people are relying on their smart phones as an alternative to a field guide, but the printed page is hard to beat in remote areas where a phone experiences difficulty finding enough signal bars.

Hopefully future field guides will include updates to the range maps that show cormorants do indeed reach Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Two of the field guides that I recommend for beginning birders are the Golden Guide to Birds of North America by Chandler S. Robbins and the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America by Roger Tory Peterson.

The cormorants are certainly a bird worth knowing. The double-crested cormorant belongs to a family of 40 birds consisting of species referred to as both cormorants and shags. Some of the world’s other cormorants include the flightless cormorant, black-faced cormorant, white-breasted cormorant, crowned cormorant, little cormorant, pygmy cormorant and the imperial shag, which is also known as the blue-eyed shag.

Besides the double-crested cormorant, North America is home to five other species. The great cormorant lives along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean from Canada down to southern Florida. The pelagic cormorant and the Brandt’s cormorant can be seen along North America’s Pacific coastline. The red-faced cormorant lives in the southern regions of Alaska out into the Aleutian Islands. The most southern of these North American cormorants is the Neotropic cormorant, which is found along the southeast areas of Texas down into Mexico.

All cormorants primarily fish for their meals. They have strong legs to propel them though the water when they dive for fish. They also have a serrated bill with a hooked tip that is excellent for grasping slippery fish.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A double-crested cormorant rests on a fallen log after a swim in a lake near Atlanta, Georgia.

On the recent Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, a total of 82 double-crested cormorants were found on area waterways. Those birds provide a good indication that cormorants are now an established species in the region.