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Wandering birds provide some surprising moments for birders

Photo by Roger Mullins • A little blue heron, right, shares a perch with a white ibis at the Buffalo Valley Golf Course in Unicoi. These wading birds are usually found near the coast, but individuals tend to disperse and wander widely after the summer nesting season comes to an end.

Late summer has a sort of lazy feel. Most birds are finishing up their nesting season. Hungry fledglings appear at feeders in the company of adults. In recent weeks, I’m starting to notice a slight uptick in the number of hummingbirds visiting my feeders and garden flowers. It helps that I’ve got dense stands of naturalized bee balm at the edge of my woods. The cedar waxwings have finished off the mulberries, but I suspect they will stick around for the wild cherries. I’ve also noticed the vanguard of migrant birds that are starting to make appearances as fall migration approaches. It’s not just songbirds, however, that are on the move. Some large and rather conspicuous birds have been attracting attention in recent weeks, including a variety of wading birds.

Sightings this summer of long-legged wading birds in Northeast Tennessee that are outside of their usual range have included little blue herons, white ibis and great egrets. The little blue heron and ibis have been recent visitors to Unicoi County. To toss another species into the mix, Tom and Cathy McNeil recently found an American anhinga near Austin Springs at Boone Lake in Washington County. Their anhinga sighting followed their discovery of seven or eight little blue herons and 14 great egrets at this well-known birding hot spot.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Adult little blue herons, like this adult preening at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, have a mix of blue and purple feathers.

Roger Mullins discovered both an immature little blue heron and an immature white ibis during one of his regular visits to scan the ponds along the former Buffalo Valley Golf Course in Unicoi.

“I first spotted the little blue on July 5, and then on July 10 I saw the white ibis standing just a few feet away on the same limb.

“Within minutes they were standing next to each other,” he continued. “They were even following each other from place to place, almost like they were siblings.”

Roger noted that the little blue heron gradually learned to trust him, but he could only get so close without making the bird feel uncomfortable.

“Being extremely patient, taking it slow and easy, is pretty much how I approach all wildlife, and it usually pays off well,” Roger shared.

“I first started visiting the golf course ponds back in the winter when someone told me about seeing a male hooded merganser there,” he noted. “There is not always an abundance of wildlife present, but I always check it out just in case. The best thing about these ponds is the consistent peace and tranquility, since people don’t usually go there for family recreation or to walk their dogs.”

Roger added that he doubted that the little blue heron would have lingered at a public park with more activity.

Most of my own observations of little blue herons have taken place in SouthCarolina, Georgia and Florida, although I have seen this species a couple of times in Tennessee. I have also found little blue herons more skittish than some herons and egrets.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This photo of a little blue heron at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, shows the intermediate phase of plumage that makes identification even more of a challenge.

While diverting storms can’t be ruled out for causing some unexpected birds to detour into the region, it’s also normal behavior for young wading birds to disperse far and wide after leaving the nest. North American waders, or wading birds, include such long-legged species as herons, egrets, bitterns, ibises, storks and spoonbills. Most species are associated with wetlands or coastal areas.

Late summer birding is usually a period of doldrums as heat and humidity can discourage birders as well as diminish bird activity. However, it’s also the time of year when birders can make some unexpected surprises as wandering waders explore uncharted territory.

The great egret – a larger relative of the little blue heron – became a motivational symbol for conservation with the foundation of the National Audubon Society in 1905. Today, the organization has nearly 500 local chapters, each of which is an independent non-profit organization voluntarily affiliated with the National Audubon Society. These chapters often organize birdwatching field trips and conservation-related activities. The National Audubon Society spearheaded efforts to end the mass slaughter of various bird species. Some birds were killed for food, but millions were also killed for their showy feathers that were destined to decorate stylish attire worn as a symbol of high fashion. As early as 1910, some states began passing legislation to abolish trade in bird plumes. The federal government also came to the assistance of birds with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was a law first enacted in 1916 to implement measures to protect and conserve migratory birds.

Photo by Tom McNeil • An American anhinga at Boone Lake found by Tom and Cathy McNeil represents an unusual find for the region. Even more unusual, Tom McNeil found another anhinga in Johnson County, Tennessee, a few days later.

Scientifically speaking, the little blue heron would be more accurately described as an egret. With the scientific name of Egretta caerulea, the little blue heron’s closest relatives are other members of the genus Egretta, which includes such other North American wading birds as snowy egret, reddish egret and tricolored heron. Other members of the genus found in other global localities include little egret, slaty egret and Chinese egret. I’m not sure why the tricolored heron and little blue heron were not named tricolored egret and little blue egret, but there are some Egretta species that also bear the name heron, including black heron, white-faced heron, Pacific reef heron and Western reef heron. It’s probably important to note that there are no real physical differences between herons and egrets. They are all classified together in the family Ardeidae.

I’m fairly confident that Roger’s sighting of a little blue heron is the first documented occurrence of the species in Unicoi County. His white ibis is unexpected but not unprecedented. An immature white ibis spent several days in July of 2011 at the ponds and fields at the home and farm of former Unicoi mayor Johnny Lynch.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American Anhinga dries off feathers after a swim at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

As for the anhinga spotted by the McNeils, this rare visitor was found the following day by several area birders, including Michelle Sparks who relocated the anhinga from her kayak. The anhinga is a large waterbird with a slender neck and a dagger-shaped bill reminiscent of a heron’s bill. These birds spend much of their time swimming beneath the water, often with only their neck and bill above the surface. Apparently the term “anhinga” comes from a native tribe in Brazil. Anhingas prefer fresh water, but they are often found in coastal areas. Most reports from Tennessee come from near Reelfoot Lake in the western portion of the state. Other common names for the anhinga include “water turkey,” “snake bird,” “American darter” and “devil bird.” Worldwide, there are only four species of anhingas, or darters as they are called in other parts of the world. The other three are the Indian darter, the African darter and the Australian darter.

Tom shared an amusing anecdote on Facebook about their sighting of the anhinga.

“Cathy and I found this bird (the anhinga) yesterday evening out of absolute luck,” he wrote. “We had already birded the area and had some great fun observing the little blue herons and great egrets.  We stopped at the Austin Springs bridge for a few moments and saw four river otters playing under the bridge and then just decided to drive back the way we came.”

On their way back, Cathy had Tom stop so she could look at the “white birds” in the top of the trees across the water.

“We both pulled up our binoculars to look at them, but it was the bird perched below them that was the star of the show,” he reported. “We shouted ‘anhinga’  at the exact same time!”

That’s the beauty of birding – those “anhinga” moments. I’m hoping readers are enjoying some fun birds this summer. Share sightings, ask questions or make comments by emailing me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

 

 

Long-running count tallies summer’s nesting bird species

Photo by Jean Potter • Counters found 116 species on the recent Carter County Summer Bird Count, including this female wood duck and ducklings photographed on the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee. A total of 13 wood ducks were found on the day of the count.

The 28th Carter County Summer Bird Count was held Saturday, June 12, with 28 observers taking part.

The weather, which was less than optimal, challenged observers. Rain held steady for much of the day. The rain, along with dense fog on Roan Mountain and other high elevations, resulted in reduced birdsong in many areas. Thus, numbers of individuals were low for many species, especially songbirds.

Despite these hurdles, the count tallied 116 species, which is just one species shy of the recent 10-year average and actually two above the average of the previous 27 years, so, it was not bad considering the weather.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Nesting neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increased the total number of species for the annual summer count.

Participants included Fred Alsop, Rob Biller, Catherine Cummins, Dianne Draper, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Don Holt, David Kirschke, Rick Knight (compiler), Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Dianna Lynn, Vern Maddux, Larry McDaniel, Joe McGuiness, Tom and Cathy McNeil, Brookie and Jean Potter, Judith Reid, Brenda Richards, Judi Sawyer, Michele Sparks, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud, Scott Turner, Charles Warden and John Whinery.

Some species were missed, including yellow-crowned night-heron, great horned owl, chuck-will’s-widow, willow flycatcher, brown creeper, hermit thrush, Kentucky warbler and magnolia warbler. These species are often, but not always, found on this count, according to long-time count compiler Rick Knight.

See if one of your favorite birds was hit or miss, common or uncommon, by scanning over the listing of the total.

The tally follows:
Canada goose, 218; wood duck, 13; mallard, 92; ruffed grouse, 1; wild turkey, 40; double-crested cormorant, 16; great blue heron, 23; and green heron, 2.
Black vulture, 7; turkey vulture, 25; osprey, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 3; bald eagle, 2; red-shouldered hawk, 4; broad-winged hawk, 7; and red-tailed hawk, 10.
Killdeer, 8; American woodcock, 1; rock pigeon, 101; Eurasian collared-dove, 2; mourning dove, 177; yellow-billed cuckoo, 5; Eastern screech-owl, 5; barred owl, 2; common nighthawk, 2; and Eastern whip-poor-will, 7.
Chimney swift, 99; ruby-throated hummingbird, 28; belted kingfisher, 11; red-bellied woodpecker, 24; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 2; downy woodpecker, 19; hairy woodpecker, 3; Northern flicker, 36; pileated woodpecker, 15; and American kestrel, 1.
Eastern wood-pewee, 24; Acadian flycatcher, 9; alder flycatcher, 2; least flycatcher, 13; Eastern phoebe, 48; great crested flycatcher, 7; and Eastern kingbird, 21.
White-eyed vireo, 5; yellow-throated vireo, 2; blue-headed vireo, 38; warbling vireo, 1; red-eyed vireo, 117; blue jay, 77; American crow, 185; fish crow, 4; and common raven, 5.
Purple martin, 38; Northern rough-winged swallow, 34; tree swallow, 109; barn swallow, 154; and cliff swallow, 137.
Carolina chickadee, 32; tufted titmouse, 65; red-breasted nuthatch, 3; white-breasted nuthatch, 10; house wren, 60; winter wren, 3; Carolina wren, 84; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 8; and golden-crowned kinglet, 2.
Eastern bluebird, 113; veery, 23; wood thrush, 35; American robin, 510; gray catbird, 42; brown thrasher, 38; Northern mockingbird, 62; European starling, 1,203; and cedar waxwing, 45.
Ovenbird, 50; worm-eating warbler, 4; Louisiana waterthrush, 10; golden-winged warbler 1; black-and-white warbler 27; Swainson’s warbler, 2; common yellowthroat, 12; hooded warbler, 67; American redstart, 8; Northern parula, 30; Blackburnian warbler, 4; yellow warbler, 1; chestnut-sided warbler, 12; black-throated blue warbler, 20; pine warbler, 2; yellow-throated warbler, 9; prairie warbler, 3; black-throated green warbler, 14; Canada warbler; 5; and yellow-breasted chat, 9.
Eastern towhee; 112; chipping sparrow, 61; field sparrow, 58; savannah sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 253; dark-eyed junco, 46; scarlet tanager, 25; Northern cardinal, 157; rose-breasted grosbeak, 5; blue grosbeak, 5; and indigo bunting, 102.
Red-winged blackbird, 109; Eastern meadowlark, 15; common grackle, 67; brown-headed cowbird, 43; orchard oriole, 4; and Baltimore oriole, 2.
House finch, 132; pine siskin, 1; American goldfinch, 97; and house sparrow, 44.

•••••

 

I received a phone call from Marian Swanson of Aldie, Virginia, this past week. Marian was looking for advice on feeders for attracting indigo buntings, which she had observed near her home. She was specifically seeking a feeder that would prevent the seed from getting wet during rainstorms.

At her request, I provided Marian with some links to websites offering a variety of feeders for sale.

It’s always great to hear from readers. If you have a bird-related question, email me at bstevens@erwinrecord.net or ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I also enjoy hearing about bird observations or general comments from readers.

Couple glimpses odd bird at Unaka Mountain’s Beauty Spo

 

This American woodcock was photographed by Erwin resident Amy Tipton during a stop that she and her husband made recently at the Unaka Mountain Beauty Spot.

Known for migrating incredible distances, the shorebirds are often referred to as “wind birds,” a romantic allusion to their habit of taking wing for the epic journeys that astound scientists and birders alike.

Among the far-flung family known as the shorebirds are species known as sandpipers and plovers, as well as whimbrels, willets, tattlers, godwits, turnstones and an array of others.

Still, among the general public, as well as some birders, the shorebirds are a much misunderstood group of birds. For example, most people could hardly be blamed for believing that shorebirds are inhabitants of only the beach and shore.

In fact, some species are at home in a variety of habitats, ranging from woodlands and prairies to the Arctic tundra and mudflats. Some are notoriously elusive, their camouflage and low-key behavior allowing them to escape casual notice at most times.

In late winter and early spring, a true oddball among the shorebirds begins courting. The American woodcock, also known by such whimsical names as “bog sucker” and “timberdoodle,” is a shorebird that has completely abandoned the shore in favor of woodlands and fields. Beginning as early as February, American woodcocks in the region conduct nightly courtship displays, starting at dusk, that combine aerial acrobatics with an assortment of unusual acoustical flourishes. Any wet field adjacent to a wooded area could offer a stage for these evening displays, but unless you know where to look and make an effort to do so, the American woodcock might as well remain a phantom of the night.

These mating rituals provide almost the only time of the year during which this bird makes itself available for observation. It’s only during this brief window that opens into their lives that we can be assured a glimpse. Even then, our peeks at woodcocks often consist of a fuzzy twilight escapade as the bird flings itself heavenward only to make a spiraling descent a few seconds later. The displays begin with a distinct vocalization, a type of “pent,” that also has the quality of sounding like some sort of mechanical buzzer.

Once the displays conclude for the season, the birds assume nesting duties, usually unobserved by humans. The rest of the year, almost nothing but blind, sheer luck would allow a birder to stumble across an American woodcock. It’s almost as if they disappear after these spring flights of fancy.

Of course, they don’t actually disappear. They are still out there, going about their daily lives. On occasion, someone can stumble across one without even trying.

Amy Tipton can claim to be so fortunate after she and her husband, Paul, recently encountered an “unusual bird” on Unaka Mountain near the well-known Beauty Spot.

“We had gone to the Beauty Spot to watch the sunset on Sunday, June 27,” Amy wrote in a Facebook message to me. “It was the 20th anniversary of our first date.”

On the way back to the Jeep, Paul noticed a very unusual bird. He pointed out the bird and asked Amy if she knew what it was.

“It was just sitting at the edge of the parking area where the gravel/dirt road meets the tall grass,” Amy wrote. “It was not dark enough to keep us from seeing it, but plenty dark enough to keep me from getting a good photo.”

Amy said that she knew she only had one chance to get a photo.

“I set the flash and hoped for the best,” she wrote. “It’s blurry, but I’m thankful I was able to get anything. As soon as the flash fired, it made a funny noise and flew into the trees.”

Amy added, “It looked more like a sea bird to me, and we thought it might have flown off course. We had no idea such a strange bird lived on Unaka Mountain. We’ll always remember the first time we saw a timberdoodle.”

An American woodcock patrols a patch of bare ground in a photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife.

One look at Amy’s photo confirmed that she and her husband had encountered a woodcock. With its big head and large eyes, the American woodcock is rather gnome-like in its appearance. There’s something downright odd about this shorebird that has chosen to exile itself so far from seashores.

Its chosen lifestyle, however, has proven advantageous for the species. The woodcock is an efficient forager, feeding on earthworms, as well as insects, millipedes and spiders. Scientists theorize that the woodcocks can actually hear and feel the earthworms as they move underground.

About 20 years ago, Joe McGuiness, an Erwin resident and a fellow member of the Elizabethton Bird Club, found an American woodcock one summer making itself at home in his neighborhood of Rolling Hills. I got to see that bird, which to date is my only upclose and personal observation of an American woodcock.

I have traveled to locations such as Shady Valley in Johnson County and Persimmon Ridge Park in Jonesborough to witness the courting flights of these unusual birds. Of course, since these flights do not commence until dusk, the experience is more auditory than visual.

The woodcock is closely related to the snipes. The only snipe species usually found in the United States is Wilson’s snipe, formerly known as the common snipe.

There is also a Eurasian woodcock and several species endemic to islands. These include the Amami woodcock of Japan, the Bukidnon woodcock of the Philippines, the Javan woodcock, New Guinea woodcock, the Moluccan woodcock of the Malaku Islands in Indonesia and the Sulawesi woodcock, also of Indonesia.

Worldwide, there are about 20 snipe species, including species with such descriptive name as giant snipe, noble snipe, pin-tailed snipe and imperial snipe.

So, if the legend of the snipe hunt ever made you doubt the actual existence of snipe, rest assured that both snipes and their odd cousins, the woodcocks, do exist.

Among feathered friends, catbirds are individuals

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although often considered shy, skulking birds, some catbirds show a great deal of curiosity about and trust in humans.

I received an email on June 15 from Linda Durette, who lives in Townsend, Massachusetts, which is on the New Hampshire border.

“I live in a country environment with thickets and fields,” she noted.

Linda informed me that she had run across an article I wrote in 2019 about gray catbirds.
“I have always been mildly intrigued by the catbird,” she wrote. ‘Working around the yard and having a cat myself, I always got a kick out of their vocal annoyance with my cat.”

She said the catbirds begin squawking at her cat the minute he steps out the door.

Photo by by Jennifer Beebe from Pixabay • Gray catbirds have a reputation for being either shy skulkers or bold scolders. In fact, these birds are known for being individuals with unique and distinctive personalities. Like mockingbirds and thrashers, the gray catbird is considered a mimic thrush and can imitate snippets of the songs of other birds.

“I always kept him away from any nesting area, although he isn’t a particularly adventurous cat, anyway,” she noted.

“This year was the same,” she said. “My cat seemed to almost ignore the bird. He just sat there and allowed the bird to squawk loudly. I think the bird was miffed.”

She said she finally put her cat back in the house.

“But I have been noticing that the bird comes very close to me,” she wrote.

She wrote that the catbird appears to watch what she does when she is outdoors.

“I have been talking with him, chattering while I garden,” she wrote. “It’s a riot. He lands on the wheelbarrow handle after I walk away or allows me to walk pretty close to him as he watches.”
Linda concluded that this individual catbird, at least, seems to have quite the personality.
I’d mentioned in my previous column on catbirds about the fondness of these birds for fruit and how I occasionally offered berries to them.

“I will attempt some fruit, too,” she said. “It is so interesting. We’ll see what happens.”
Perhaps readers will recall the folksy expression “sitting in the catbird’s seat” that denotes self-satisfaction and perhaps a degree of smugness. As expressions go, it’s not a bad fit for this charming, somewhat eccentric bird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A curious Gray Catbird peeks from dense cover. Attendees at the fall rally can look for catbirds and other species at any of the offered bird hikes.

The gray catbird is a baffling bird with a personality that runs the gamut from introverted to extroverted, sometimes depending on the season and at other times seemingly just on a whim. With some gentle persuasion, however, people can gain a catbird’s trust – as Linda has done with the bird in her Massachusetts garden – and develop a fun friendship with these clever songbirds.

One summer, all I needed to do to win over the catbirds was to offer some less-than-perfect strawberries and blueberries. A few blemishes on the fruit didn’t bother the resident catbirds at all, and they soon became accustomed to receiving such treats.

A person’s first introduction to the catbird is likely going to occur when one hears what sounds like an irritable feline hiding in a hedge, thicket or dense shrub. Upon closer examination, observers may get a glimpse of a charcoal gray bird roughly the shape of a Northern mockingbird but smaller. A black cap and a patch of rusty-red feathers under the tail are the only exceptions to this bird’s overall gray plumage.

The catbird is related to thrashers and mockingbirds, but scientists find the gray catbird just different enough to warrant placing it in its own genus. The genus name Dumetella means “small thicket.” It’s an apt name for this secretive skulker. Catbirds only feel secure in dense cover such as hedges, brush piles and dense thickets.

A relative known as the black catbird, which ranges throughout the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, as well as northern Guatemala and northern Belize, also belongs to a genus of its own. The genus name Melanoptila for this close relative is a compound word created from two Greek words: melas, meaning “black” and ptilon, meaning “plumage.” Both of these catbirds are classified as “mimic thrushes,” or Mimidae, of which there are about 30 species in the New World. There is a totally unrelated family of catbirds that ranges through Australia, Asia and parts of Africa.

The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. Males have motivation to constantly expand their repertoire, however, as doing so increases the likelihood of attracting a mate. They imitate other birds, but some have been recorded imitating frogs and other non-avian singers.

The website All About Birds also offers some helpful advice for attracting gray catbirds. To entice these birds, plant native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs such as dogwood, winterberry and serviceberry.

While the closely related brown thrasher and Northern mockingbird have both been honored with recognition as official state birds, this designation has never been bestowed on the gray catbird.

The female catbird constructs the nest, but her mate may helpfully provide some of the nesting materials. She may spend as long as a week building a rather bulky nest. She usually lays one to six eggs, which require an incubation period of about two weeks. Once the young hatch, both parents are kept busy bringing food to the young. Hatchlings will remain in the nest for about 10 days, but parents continue to care for and feed young even after they have fledged and departed the nest. Catbirds nest two or three time in a season.

According to the website All About Birds, the oldest known gray catbird was at least 17 years and 11 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in New Jersey in 2001. That individual had been banded in Maryland in 1984. So, if you do manage to strike up your own friendship with a catbird, there’s a good possibility that it could become a long-term relationship, especially since many birds like to return to a home territory year after year.

To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, please send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I enjoy hearing from readers about shared interests in birds.

Hummingbird numbers normally fluctuate from year to year

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

Russ MacIntyre, Jonesborough, Tennessee, emailed me recently with a question about hummingbirds.

“Are there fewer around this year?” Russ wrote in his email. “My neighbor hasn’t seen any for a month and neither have we. Both of us have feeders and usually have hummingbirds all summer.”

I responded to Russ’s question by sharing with him that I have not seen as many hummingbirds as usual myself.

It’s important to note, however, that hummingbird numbers always fluctuate from year to year. While Russ and I may not be seeing as many hummingbirds, someone else in Jonesborough, Erwin or other small towns might be overwhelmed with these tiny gems. For instance, numbers might appear down in Northeast Tennessee but could be booming across the border in Western North Carolina.

I get these questions every year. Last year was a great year for hummingbirds based on my personal experience. I was also staying at home a lot more last year due to COVID-19, so I might simply have had more leisure time to observe the hummingbirds in my yard and garden.

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

I usually tell people a decline in numbers one year doesn’t mean hummingbird numbers might not boom next year. Quite simply, all the hummingbirds could be a few miles down the road having a great time in someone else’s yard and garden. One thing that all hummingbird enthusiasts should do is plant more nectar-providing flowers, in addition to providing sugar water feeders. Flowers can help persuade hummers to stay put.

To recognize the importance of native, nectar-bearing flowers, simply consider a few facts about hummingbirds from an article by Lisa M. Genier for the Adirondack Council.

“Hummingbirds have a very high metabolism and must eat all day long just to survive,” wrote Genier, a program analyst for the Adirondack Council. “They consume about half their body weight in bugs and nectar, feeding every 10 to 15 minutes and visiting 1,000 to 2,000 flowers throughout the day.”

It’s not just the sugary treat that waits in each bloom that draws in hummingbirds.

“In addition to nectar from flowers and feeders, these birds eat small insects, beetles, ants, aphids, gnats, mosquitoes and wasps,” Genier wrote in her article, which was published on July 3, 2018, on the website for the Adirondack Council. The organization was founded in 1975 with a mission to ensure the ecological integrity and wild character of the Adirondack Park near Lake Placid in New York.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated hummingbirds such as this male make themselves at home in yards and gardens throughout the eastern United States from spring to fall each year. .

If you’re disappointed with seemingly low numbers of hummingbirds this spring, my best advice is to wait until late July and early August when young birds are out of the nest and parents and young start the slow-paced migration back south. Invariably, I see more hummingbirds in late summer and early fall than in the spring.

Hummingbirds are a lovely diversion for nature enthusiasts, but they also play a crucial role in the ecosystems where they make their homes. Hummingbirds are pollinators. Every time they visit a flower, they will carry away some pollen on their bills or foreheads. If they carry the pollen to the correct plant, they fulfill their role as one of nature’s many pollinators.

There’s even an entire week dedicated to pollinators and their importance in nature. Pollinator Week was initiated in 2007 when the United States Senate unanimously approved a week in June to be designated as “National Pollinator Week”. This decision was a critical step to address the decline in pollinators across the globe.

Now an international celebration, Pollinator Week raises awareness on the plight of pollinators and celebrates all of the benefits provided by the thousands of insect, bird, and small mammal pollinator species. As people learn more about pollinators, they become advocates – indeed voices – for the pollinators they come to love and understand. We can all play our part to secure a healthier, more sustainable future for pollinators. Pollinator week was started and is managed by the Pollinator Partnership. For more information explore the Pollinator Partnership website.

According to the website, Pollinator Week was initiated and is managed by Pollinator Partnership, and fourteen years ago the U.S. Senate’s unanimous approval and designation of a week in June as “National Pollinator Week” marked a necessary step toward addressing the urgent issue of declining pollinator populations. Pollinator Week has now grown into an international celebration, promoting the valuable ecosystem services provided by bees, birds, butterflies, bats and beetles.

While this year might not be a typical Pollinator Week due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people across the planet have pledged to continue promoting pollinator health and well-being through socially distant and responsible events. Through the numerous virtual gatherings, webinars, responsible planting sessions, socially distant garden and farm walks and monument lightings, Pollinator Week 2021 is geared to be the busiest and best one yet.

This year, Pollinator Week is being observed Monday-Sunday, June 21–27. For more information, email info@pollinator.org.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Monarch sips nectar from blooming Ironweed. Butterflies are important pollinators for many plants.

Ovenbird part of the returning warbler lineup

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Ovenbirds are content to spend most of their time near the forest floor.

It’s been a week of arrivals at my home. Several species of warblers made their spring debuts, including a handful of male ovenbirds.

These warblers arrived on April 14 and immediately began singing their loud and ringing “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” song from concealment within the woodlands surrounding my home.

The ovenbird is not one of the brightly colored warblers, such as black-throated blue warbler or yellow warbler. The ovenbird is a small brown bird with a white breast with dark streaking — an appearance that bears a superficial resemblance to the larger thrushes that share the same woodland habitat. The only hint of color is an orange crown bordered by dark stripes atop the bird’s head. Even this orange crown patch is not easily seen. When agitated, an ovenbird may raise its head feathers, which makes this orange mark easier to detect. The ovenbird also shows a distinct white ring around each eye, as well as pink legs and a pinkish bill.

The resemblance to North America’s brown thrushes didn’t go unnoticed by some early American naturalists. Painter and famous naturalist John James Audubon painted a pair of ovenbirds, which he knew as “golden-crowned thrushes.” When comparing the two names, one can’t help but wish that the inaccurate but more romantically descriptive golden-crowned thrush had stuck.

While not likely to take an observer’s breath away with an unexpected explosion of vibrant plumage, the ovenbird’s not a drab bird. These warblers possess a subtle beauty all their own that is worth taking the time to behold.

Photo by Peggy Dyar from Pixabay • Despite the oliver-brown plumage, a closer look shows that the overbird is a bird with a subtle beauty, including an inconspicuous orange crown.

Unfortunately, ovenbirds are stubborn about letting themselves be seen. They’re easily heard. The males begin singing a loud, rollicking “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher” song almost as soon as they arrive on potential nesting grounds.

The ovenbird, unlike many warblers, is not named for its appearance. Instead, the bird’s name derives from the shape of the nest it builds. The nest is a domed structure placed on the ground, woven from vegetation and containing a side entrance. Early European settlers in North America thought the nest looked like a Dutch oven, hence the name “ovenbird” for the small warbler with the intricate nest.

Rather than hopping along the length of a branch or limb, an ovenbird walks in a deliberate fashion. This bird feeds on insects, spiders and other small prey items foraged from the woodland floor. On rare occasions, a lingering ovenbird shows up at feeders during the winter months.

Again, the most persistent characteristic of this warbler is the fact that it’s shy. It’s not as notoriously shy as warblers like mourning warbler of Connecticut warbler, but the ovenbird spends much of the time near the woodland floor and out of sight. The best time to catch a look at this warbler is once they begin nesting. Parents are extremely protective and defensive of their nest and young. Intruding too close is sure to bring some sharp alarm notes. The parents will often confront an intruder, flitting from branch to branch in nearby trees, utterly neglecting their usual preference for remaining unseen if not unheard.

Photo by Jean Potter • An ovenbird sings from a perch in the leaf canopy.

Ovenbirds spend the summer nesting season in mature deciduous and mixed forests across Canada and the eastern United States. They do not make as lengthy a migration as that undertaken by some of their relatives. Ovenbirds migrate each fall to the southeastern United States, the West Indies and also spreads out from Mexico to northern South America for the winter season.

It’s one of several warblers that nest in Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Others include Louisiana waterthrush, Kentucky warbler, common yellowthroat, Swainson’s warbler, black-throated blue warbler and American redstart, among others.

•••••

My mom saw her first hummingbird of spring on April 16 at 9:34 a.m. Of course, the bird waited until I’d left for work to make an appearance.

My solace has been an influx of other migrants in the past week. A blue-gray gnatcatcher’s fussy buzz alerted me to its return on April 10. I eventually got binoculars focused on the fidgety bird as it flitted in the upper branches of a cherry tree.

I heard the familiar chittering cries overhead while walking in downtown Erwin on April 14. Looking skyward, I watched a flock of chimney swifts flying gracefully over the rooftops of downtown buildings.

New warblers at home this week, other than the ovenbird, have included hooded warbler and black-throated green warbler, both of which put in their first spring appearance on April 15.

•••••

As noted, hummingbirds are returning. I’ve had reports from Western North Carolina and all across Northeast Tennessee. I will compile a listing of those who have shared their first sightings with me for next week’s column.
Keep sharing your hummingbird observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

Tree swallows are the latest spring arrivals

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tree swallow checks out a nesting box soon after returning in the spring.

Waiting for spring? Join the club. Between alternating bouts of unseasonably warm temperatures and frigid blasts, the weather cannot seem to decide if winter’s hanging in there a little longer or if it’s time to proceed with spring’s arrival.

I’m hopeful it’s the latter. I enjoyed a stroll in the spring sunshine on March 30 along the section of the trail near the industrial park. From the boardwalk over the water I saw my first spring swallows (a purple martin and a couple of Northern rough-winged swallows) as well as a belted kingfisher and several American robins. I also saw my first dragonflies and butterflies of spring, as well as one muskrat enjoying a leisurely swim.

Early Birds

One might think that the wild swings in weather would translate into a messy arrival timetable for some of our returning birds, but so far my own personal observations indicate a different story. At home, the usual spring “early birds,” including wood duck, red-winged blackbird, blue-headed vireo, ruby-crowned kinglet and brown thrasher, have been their usual punctual selves.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

The swallows I saw during my Erwin stroll, however, reminded me that one bird hasn’t returned at my home. The early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon knew this particular bird as “white-bellied swallow,” which is a descriptive name, but today the species is known simply as tree swallow.

Tree swallows have been back in the region for weeks, but they sometimes take their time finding their way to the waiting birdhouses at my fish pond. Their return dates in years past have ranged from early March to the middle of April.

Insect-heavy Diet

Swallows are insectivores, so those that return early in the spring must deal with temperature fluctuations. In prolonged cold spells, these insect-eating birds can be hard pressed to locate their usual prey. At such times, they are often forced to retreat to the area’s lakes and larger rivers, where they can swoop over the water and have an easier time plucking cold-numbed flying insects out of the air.

Once milder spring temperatures prevail, the flocks of swallows forced into these necessary habitats will disperse as pairs begin seeking nesting sites. Tree swallows are cavity-nesting birds, which often puts them into competition with Eastern bluebirds. The two species usually manage to work out a truce and settle down to nest in close proximity to each other.

The iridescent blue-green male tree swallow, complete with white underparts and a forked tail, is a handsome bird and a welcome addition to the bird population in any yard or garden. Tree swallows enjoy water, so a nearby pond or creek is a boon for attracting these birds.

Tree swallows haven’t always nested in Northeast Tennessee. Only in the last 40 years have these birds become regular nesting birds in the region. The first nesting record took place in the early 1980s at Austin Springs on Boone Lake in Washington County, Tennessee, according to The Birds of Northeast Tennessee by Rick Knight. Tree swallows soon became regular nesting birds every summer in all five counties that comprise Northeast Tennessee.

Other Swallows

It’s usually not too difficult to find five of the six species of swallows that are known to make Northeast Tennessee and Western North Carolina their home from spring to fall. In addition to tree swallow, the region’s other swallow species include: barn swallow, purple martin, cliff swallow and northern rough-winged swallow. These are all fairly common summer birds in the region. The sixth species, the bank swallow, is a bit of a specialist when it comes to nesting and occurs only sporadically in the region.

While only a handful of swallows range into the United States and Canada, a total of 83 species of swallows can be found worldwide. Some of the common names for these different swallows (also called martins in other parts of the world) are quite descriptive. A sampling includes white-eyed river martin, grey-rumped swallow, white-backed swallow, banded martin, blue swallow, violet-green swallow, golden swallow, brown-throated martin, brown-bellied swallow, pale-footed swallow, white-bibbed swallow, pearl-breasted swallow, red-breasted swallow, mosque swallow, fairy martin, pale martin, tawny-headed swallow and streak-throated swallow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Northern rough-winged swallows perches on a metal pipe.

While many swallows and martins have proven highly adaptive when faced with human disturbances to their habitat, a few species have experienced declines. One species — the white-eyed river martin — was last seen in Thailand in the 1980s and very well may be extinct. Closer to home, the golden swallow is now found only on the island of Hispaniola after disappearing from Jamaica in the 1980s. The Bahama swallow, which nests on only four islands in the Bahamas, is also vulnerable. Incidentally, both these swallows are closely related to the tree swallow, with all of them belonging to the genus Tachycineta. Translated from Greek, the genus name means “fast mover,” a quite accurate description of these graceful and agile flyers.

Good 

Neighbors

With their enthusiastic twittering to each other, tree swallows make for friendly neighbors. The local bluebirds may disagree, at first, but they’ll get their feathers unruffled eventually. It’s also a pleasant diversion to watch them swoop over fields and ponds as they help control the insect population.

To increase your chances of hosting your own tree swallows, offer a bird box placed in an open area. Right now is the time to attract their attention with some prime real estate. Plans are available online to help construct your own or pick up one at a gardening center, hardware store or farm supply outlet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern Bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.

Many would-be hosts for Eastern bluebirds express disappointment when a pair of tree swallows become tenants instead. The remedy to the disappointment is simple: provide an additional nesting box.  Although there will be some initial squabbles, tree swallows and Eastern bluebirds will co-exist if they don’t have to compete for the same nesting box.

There’s one last selling point I want to mention on behalf of tree swallows. While not exactly songsters, they do produce an energetic, chirpy trill that they vocalize persistently when in the company of their fellow tree swallows. It’s hard not to be cheerful when hearing such a jubilant noise issuing from one of our feathered friends.

Hummingbird Observations

While tree swallows and their kin are great to have back, one of the most anticipated returns each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post on my Facebook to share your first sightings. You can also leave a comment here on the blog.

Nature Challenge event easy with a phone, keen eye for details

Photo Illustration by nayansolanki/Pixabay • A phone will be helpful during the upcoming iNaturalist City Nature Challenge.

Many new arrivals are making spring an exciting time for birders. At my home, Eastern phoebes have been back for several weeks. They make quite the racket every morning with their incessant “fee-bee” calls that commence just after sunrise. A pair of wood ducks made a stopover at the fish pond on March 16. By the end of the month, swallows, warblers, vireos and perhaps even hummingbirds should start showing up.

If you like to record and document these yearly returns, there is also a way that your record-keeping can benefit science and its knowledge of the world around us. Anyone with a phone or a computer with internet access can take part in an upcoming survey of flora and fauna in Northeast Tennessee.

Organizers for the upcoming iNaturalist City Nature Challenge point out that a cellphone can be a great citizen science tool.

The extent of the Challenge goes far beyond East Tennessee. The iNaturalist City Nature Challenges pits cities around the world against each other in a rivalry to see who can report the most observations of wild flora and fauna during a four-day period.

One of the world’s most popular nature apps, iNaturalist helps users identify the plants and animals they encounter on a daily basis. Get connected with a community of over a million scientists and naturalists who can help everyone learn more about nature. What’s more, by recording and sharing observations, users of the app help create research quality data for scientists working to better understand and protect nature. iNaturalist is a joint initiative by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.

Before the end of April, interested naturalists are urged to download and learn to use the iNaturalist app to contribute to scientific knowledge of Northeast Tennessee trees, plants and animals.

Melanie Kelley, a volunteer with Johnson City Parks and Recreation, has helped organize this year’s City Nature Challenge.

“JCPR is the main City Nature Challenge organizer for our ten county area,” Kelley said.

Parks in other locations are also participating. For instance, Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport is participating, according to Marty Silver, a ranger with WPSP.

According to Kelley, other parks and groups are co-organizers for the event.
Kelley said that taking part in the challenge is simple.

A smartphone or computer is needed to input the data.

“Using either a phone with the iNaturalist app or uploading photos to the http://www.inaturalist.org website, everyone is invited to go out and record wild species,” Kelley said. “From birds to grasses, trees to snakes.

“Wild is the key,” she added. “Any place it can be found! Backyards, schools, parks and gardens.”
Kelley said the City Nature Challenge is a global effort to get a worldwide snapshot of all life on earth during a four-day period.

“It is the world’s largest multi-species BioBlitz,” Kelley said.

Identifications are also crucial, according to Kelley. “This part of the challenge encourages folks to log into the website and review and confirm identifications of what others have uploaded,” she said.

Kelley noted that iNaturalist requires users to be 13 or older but that there is a parental consent method for younger users for both the app and the website.

“Each participating park/group will likely have their own age rules,” she noted.

“Last year was the first year JCPR participated in the CNC,” Kelley said. “If COVID-19 was not an issue, the CNC would be back to its roots as a direct city to city or area to area challenge.”

The rivalries can get intense.

“Last year, our good friends at Zoo Knoxville directly challenged us, so it was Knox vs Washington Counties,” Kelley said. “It was also the first year Knox participated. “

Kelley said that JCPR and Zoo Knoxville knew they would expand their areas after their first successful year taking part in the challenge.

“This allows us to better compete with Nashville’s seven-county project and Chattanooga’s 16 counties over two states,” Kelley explained.

She hopes the COVID-19 shadow over the event is felt less this year.

“Last year, we had daily group events scheduled and all those, of course, had to be cancelled,’ Kelley said.

“This year, the main CNC is again, less of a competition and more of a collaboration worldwide,“ she said. “However, this year, under a hybrid model, those that wish to have head to head challenges can do so. Oh, and yes, we do so want to take on Knox, which includes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We can do this!”

Kelley said that expanding the project area to the upper ten Northeast Tennessee counties means partnering with local state and city parks.

Some of the other parks on board include Bristol’s Steele Creek Park, Kingsport’s Warrior’s Path, Elizabethton’s Sycamore Shoals and Roan Mountain’s Roan Mountain State Park.

Kelley noted that Johnson City Parks are all planning on some type of group-led events to help folks who are new to iNaturalist get their feet wet with the program.

“Each park will have its own guidelines as to how they need to handle such events,” she added.

The upcoming event is both valuable to science and an entertaining way to enjoy nature.
“Overall, as a regular iNaturalist user, it is fun,” Kelley said. “More importantly to me, it is such a great way to introduce folks to the native world.

“People walk by and see a flower or a tree or anything and they probably don’t know what it is other than a bird/flower/tree,” she continued. “The app has a really good identification tool where you learn right there what that species is.”

Once identification is made easy, Kelley said that the next big challenge is getting them to the next step of understanding that species role in the larger ecology.

“This is where these group-led observation hikes play a critical role,” she said.

Kelley said that plenty of reports that show up from iNaturalist users are from Unicoi County.
She noted that there are some 4,552 individual observations recorded from Unicoi County.

“These observations represent 1,339 unique species have been recorded by 404 individual iNaturalist users,” Kelley said.

The possibilities of what can be observed and reported are seemingly endless. Everything from birds and insects to salamanders and ferns is fair game as observers scramble to make reports. Grab a phone and start taking snapshots of snakes, squirrels, sassafras trees or anything else that crosses your path. Organizers hope to get plenty of public participation for this year’s City Nature Challenge.

Kelley also quoted Doug Tallamy, a professor in the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, where he has authored eighty research articles and has taught numerous classes, including behavioral ecology and humans and nature, for more than 30 years.

Kelley said that Tallamy has been quoted saying, “Knowledge generates interest, and interest generates compassion.”

She added that iNaturalist is a great way to generate knowledge.

“Birders can upload a spreadsheet from their eBird reports for the event days and those will count in our totals,” Kelley said. “These are the only observations made during the CNC that do not require photos to count.”

Observations for the challenge must be submitted between April 30 and May 3. All observations are required to be found within the upper 10 northeast Tennessee counties of Washington, Sullivan, Unicoi, Carter, Greene, Johnson, Hancock, Cocke, Hawkins and Hamblen.

To learn more about the event, Unicoi County residents or people living in or near Northeast Tennessee can visit https://bit.ly/CityNatureChallengeNETN.

Below are events corresponding with the challenge:

• Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport will offer City Nature Challenge 2021, a friendly competition open to nature lovers. The main event at the park will be held Saturday, April 10, from 10 a.m. to noon. The park’s event is sort of an informative preview of the actual Challenge. Observations for the challenge itself must be submitted between April 30 and May 3. Ranger Brian Glover will teach participants how to use the iNaturalist app to photograph, identify, and share their nature observations with a worldwide community of scientists and nature enthusiasts. He’ll also show those taking part how to join the region’s 2021 City Nature Challenge. Be sure to download the iNaturalist app from your app store, and create an iNaturalist account before arriving at the event. Come dressed for the weather and wear good walking footwear. This is not a hike, but attendees will be wandering over some rocky and uneven ground.

• Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton will offer an educational hike about better ways to enjoy interacting with nature through handy apps and tools on the average smart phone. “Tech in Nature” will be taught by Park Ranger Cory Franklin from 2 to 3 p.m. on Friday, March 26. Most people are inseparable from their smart phones and mobile devices. Franklin wants participants to embrace this cultural change and will show how to better use technology on a day to day basis in nature. Using tools such as GPS locating, plant identification and other easily accessible resources and apps, he will show ways to enhance the experience rather than take away from it. Join him for a walk around the park to better understand the tools everyone carries with them daily. The program will meet and begin at the picnic area beside the visitor center. Cost is $5, but those six and under can participate for free. For more information, call 543-5808.

Note: Although this event has already happened, perhaps Sycamore Shoals will offer this walk again in the future.

•••••

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches for a leisurely drink of sugar water.

As mentioned at the start of the column, spring is bringing back many of our favorite wildflowers, insects and, of course, birds. One of the most anticipated returns each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird. As I’ve done in years past, I want to hear from readers when they see their first hummingbird of spring. Email me your observations at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post them on my Facebook page. Please include the date and the approximate time of your sighting.

This year, there’s more incentive to share your sighting. The Erwin Record and Jonesborough Herald & Tribune will be giving away a hummingbird-related prize from a drawing of all the individuals who report hummingbirds. If you don’t happen to be one of the lucky people to see one of the first hummingbirds of 2021, don’t worry. To be eligible for the contest, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or post on my Facebook page a sentence or two explaining why you love hummingbirds.

Observations will be accepted through April 18. Winners will be announced in this column on April 28.

Hermit thrushes brave East Tennessee winters

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perched on a fence rail shows the reddish tail, a reliable field mark to separate this species from close relatives. The tail contrasts from the rest of the bird’s plumage.

Karen Miller sent me an email about a winter visitor in her yard at her home in Parrottsville, Tennessee. “I have seen a hermit thrush eating holly berries for 10 days,” Karen wrote. “Is he migrating or is he perhaps a winter visitor here in Parrottsville?”

To answer her question, I replied and informed her that the thrush is a winter visitor. The hermit thrush takes up residence after its kin have already departed the region in the fall, making it one of the few thrushes to remain in Northeast Tennessee during the winter months. I’ve always thought a good nickname for this bird would be the “winter thrush” because of its presence during the colder months of the year. Of course, for those who know where to look, a few hermit thrushes spend the summer nesting season at high elevation peaks such as Roan Mountain on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

The hermit thrush is one of the larger brown thrushes, which also includes such related birds as Swainson’s thrush, veery, gray-cheeked thrush and wood thrush. Other less closely related members of the thrush family include the American robin, Eastern bluebird and Townsend’s solitaire.

USFWS • Hermit thrushes like to keep to the shadows.

The poet Walt Whitman employed a hermit thrush as a symbol in his poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a moving pastoral elegy in honor of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Whitman evidently knew his birds, and it’s not difficult for naturalists and bird enthusiasts to identify that he referred to the hermit thrush when he wove this songbird as a symbol into his stanzas honoring Lincoln. “Sing on there in the swamp,” Whitman wrote in his poem. “O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call. I hear, I come presently, I understand you…”

Whitman evidently knew of this bird’s bashful, retiring habits, and he had obviously enjoyed the flute-like notes of the hermit thrush’s call. Whitman and many other Americans have been made fans of this gifted songbird. In fact, the citizens of Vermont even proclaimed the hermit thrush as their official state bird. The hermit thrush is well known for its song — a series of clear, musical notes, each on a different pitch, consisting of a piping introductory note and a reedy tremolo. The song had often been described as melancholy by various bird experts. The birds don’t usually sing in winter, but they do produce a call note when disturbed or alarmed that is described as a low “chuck.”

The visiting hermit thrush at her home has allowed Karen Miller to get to know this somewhat reclusive bird better. “He sits on the ground, cocks his head, spies a berry and then jumps up and gets it,” she wrote. She noted that her visitor has a good appetite. “He eats four or five at a time,” she said. “I’m so glad to see him.”

Photo by USFWS • Like many thrushes, the hermit thrush is fond of fruit and berries, especially during the winter.

According to the Smoky Mountains Visitors Guide website, the hermit thrush forages for most of its food from the ground. This bird’s diet includes insects, spiders, snails, and earthworms, plus considerable amounts of wild fruits during the fall and winter. Hermit thrushes may join up with mixed flocks of birds during the winter, often associating with such songbirds as kinglets, brown creepers, chickadees and titmice. For those not fortunate enough to host a wintering hermit thrush, this bird can be found during the summer months atop some high-elevation peaks. Close to home, look for this thrush in the Roan Mountain Rhododendron Gardens. The hermit thrush is also found at some locations in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Female hermit thrushes collect nesting materials and construct the nest, within which she will lay three to six eggs. These thrushes nest once or twice a season. According to the website All About Birds, nesting habits differ between hermit thrushes in the western North America and their counterparts in the eastern half of the continent. Eastern thrushes tend to nest on the ground, but those in the west often place their nests in shrubs or tree branches.

At home on Simerly Creek Road, my first hermit thrush of the winter arrived in early November of last year. During a woodland stroll with neighbor Beth McPherson, the resident thrush put on an impressive show, hopping and scraping on the woodland floor beneath a rhododendron thicket bordering a mountain spring. In such surroundings, it’s not difficult to fathom why this bird has developed such a subtle plumage of muted browns and grays. Even when foraging actively, the bird blended remarkably with the background of fallen leaves and other woodland debris.

The hermit thrush is known by the scientific name, Catharus guttatus. The term guttatus is Latin for “spotted,” which seems appropriate. Surprisingly, the hermit thrush is not closely related to the other North American migrant species of Catharus thrushes. Instead, the hermit thrush is more closely related to the russet nightingale-thrush, a Mexican songbird. The hermit thrush could accurately be called the “red-tailed thrush” for the fact that this species has a rusty-red tail that stands apart from the warm brown-gray tones of the rest of its plumage. A white eye ring, pink legs and a heavily spotted breast complete the rest of this bird’s understated appearance.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A hermit thrush perches on a branch in a winter woodland.

The wintering hermit thrushes in the region will likely stay put for the next couple of months, but they will mostly depart the area in April or early May. If you want to look for them, now’s the time.

••••• Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

Baffling visitors turn out to be Northern flickers

Photo by NatureLady/Pixabay.com • A Northern flicker grasps a board with its talons. These medium-sized woodpeckers spend much more time on the ground than the other woodpeckers in the region.

Irene and Peter Cannatelli emailed me recently to ask for some help identifying birds in their yard at their home in Jonesborough, Tennessee.

“We have a pair of birds we’ve never seen,” Irene wrote in the email.

They were unable to get a photo of the birds, but Irene provided a detailed description. “They have a red crown, black under neck, like a collar, a long thin beak, and brown speckled bodies,” she wrote. In addition, she noted that the birds showed white down the middle of their backs when flying off.

“They are ground feeders,” she added.

Once I studied her description of the birds in question, I felt confident that the visitors were Northern flickers, a member of the woodpeckers family, albeit a less than typical member of the extensive clan. Most of the region’s woodpeckers are black and white birds. The Northern flicker, on the other hand, shows considerable color— for a woodpecker. Irene’s description left me in no doubt of my identification.

After I responded to the email, Irene googled Northern flicker and confirmed my identification. “That is what they looked like,” she agreed.

She also shared more about her enthusiasm for local birds. “We have five bird feeders in our little bird garden,” Irene wrote.

“We made suet for the first time this past week using Crisco, oatmeal, peanut butter, sunflower seeds, cornmeal and raisins,” Irene added. “We made four blocks. When we put the first one out it was gone in one day.”

Many birds appreciate both homemade and store-bought suet cakes, which provide a needed protein boost in the winter season when insects are scarce.

Irene noted that some of the clientele at her feeders include cardinals, finches, lots of doves and blue jays. Now the couple can add flickers to that growing list.

While flickers can be found during all seasons in the region, this woodpecker is one of the migratory ones. I see the most Northern flickers during fall migration. This woodpecker is one of the few of its kind that usually migrates to warmer climates during the colder months, although the species is not completely absent from the region in the winter season.

As mentioned earlier, this is a woodpecker with many other common names, including yellow-hammer — a popular name in the Deep South — and harry-wicket, heigh-ho and gawker bird. The Northern flicker is also the only woodpecker to serve a state — Alabama — as an official bird. The flicker earned this distinction back in 1927. Soldiers from Alabama who fought for the Confederacy were nicknamed “yellowhammers” because of their grey-and-yellow uniforms, which matched the colors of the bird. Incidentally, Alabama was one of the first states to ever name an official state bird.

Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • A Northern flicker peers from a tree cavity.

There are two races of Northern flicker — yellow-shafted and red-shafted — found in the United States. Eastern flickers show yellow feather shafts beneath the wings while western counterparts show red beneath the wings. A trip to Utah several years ago gave me a chance to also see the red-shafted race of this bird.

The Northern flicker is also not the only flicker in the United States. The gilded flicker inhabits many of the deserts — Sonoran, Yuma and Colorado — in the United States. Of course, trees are scarce in deserts, but that hasn’t proven an obstacle for this woodpecker. The bird is closely associated with saguaro cactus. Other desert dwellers depend on this woodpecker. Once the flickers are no longer making use of their nest and roost holes in the multi-armed cacti, other wildlife moved into the chambers.

The Northern flicker is an enthusiastic drummer, pounding loudly on the sides of trees with its stout bill. The purpose of the drumming is to communicate with mates and signal potential rivals that they’re intruding. Toward that objective, flickers sometimes substitute metal utility poles or the sides of buildings for the trunks of trees. In addition to drumming, the flicker also employs a variety of loud vocalizations that are fairly distinctive. A loud, repeated vocalization, often translated as “wicka-wicka-wicka,” is similar to the cluck-like call of the larger pileated woodpecker. The flicker is also known for emitting a sharp, loud “kleeer” call that can be heard from a considerable distance. Flickers are probably most vocal during the spring months.

When searching for flickers, however, don’t concentrate on scanning tree trunks. Flickers spend a lot of time in fields or on lawns in search of insect prey, which mostly consists of ants and beetles. This non-typical behavior by this particular bird is what threw off the Cannatellis’ attempt to identify their visitors. Flickers also eat seeds and fruit, and these woodpeckers will also visit feeders for peanuts, sunflower seed and suet.

The adult flicker is a brown bird with black bars on the back and wings. A distinctive black patch occupies the upper breast, while the lower breast and belly are beige with black spots. Males can be identified by a black or red mustache stripe at the base of the beak. They also have a red stripe on the back of their gray heads. The flicker’s dark tail is set apart by a white rump patch that is conspicuous when the bird takes flight.

Photo by USFWS • A researcher extends a flicker’s wing to show the yellow feather shafts.

The Northern flicker, as either the red- or yellow-shafted reach, ranges across the United States and Canada. The flicker also ranges to Central America, Cuba and the Cayman Islands. Known scientifically as Colaptes auratus, which can be roughly translated as the “golden woodpecker,” there are about a dozen species of flickers in North, Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

Look for Northern flickers in fields, orchards, city parks and well-planted suburban yards. These woodpeckers are usually not too shy around human observers and will sometimes allow for extended observation. If you’re even more fortunate, you could find one visiting your yard or garden. Just remember to scan the ground. This is one woodpecker that’s not a consistent tree-hugger like many of its kin.