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Bald eagles still soaring as inspirational success symbol

Photo by Pixabay.com • The bald eagle became the official bird of the United States in 1782.

In addition to an abundance of red, white and blue decorations, the recent celebration of the Fourth of July likely featured various images and depictions of the bald eagle, which has served as the official bird of the United States of America since the latter decades of the 18th century.

I thought that readers would be better prepared to celebrate Independence Day with some interesting information on our national bird, the American bald eagle, which officially became the national emblem in 1782 when the great seal of the United States was adopted. Although Benjamin Franklin famously expressed reservations about making the bald eagle our national bird, in hindsight it’s clear that Americans made the right choice.

Despite elevating this native bird to such lofty status, we have not always been kind to the bald eagle. We allowed habitat destruction and toxic pesticides to bring this eagle to the brink of extinction. With well-deserved protection, however, the bald eagle rebounded, and the Department of Interior finally took the eagle off the threatened species list on June 28, 2007.

The bald eagle has been more frequently observed by birders in Northeast Tennessee in recent years. Some of the region’s rivers and lakes are good places to look for bald eagles, particularly in the fall and winter. A few lakes even regularly host nesting bald eagles. I’ve observed bald eagles in Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia. There are even eagle cams on nesting sites at Boone Lake and South Holston Lake. I monitored the local eagle cams this spring. There was some drama and heartbreak, but the new eaglets look like they’ve made it. They are a testament to the fact that the resurgence of the once-endangered bald eagle in the lower 48 states has been a laudable accomplishment that all Americans should view with pride.

Photo by Moonzigg/Pizabay.com • The bald eagle is a fitting symbol for the United States of America despite the bad treatment the eagle sometimes receives from Americans.

The bald eagle and golden eagle are the only eagles found in the lower 48 states. Go north to Alaska, however, and you can encounter Steller’s sea eagle, which is named for the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. To this day, Steller is renowned for his work as a pioneer in the natural history of Alaska. The 49th state to join the union is also the stronghold for the bald eagle. On occasion, Steller’s sea eagle has strayed into U.S. territory at Alaskan locations including the Pribilof Islands and Kodiak Island. Steller’s sea eagle is bigger than the bald eagle. In fact, it is the largest member of the Haliaeetus genus of eagles, making this bird one of the largest raptors in the entire world.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted an accurate depiction of a bald eagle scavenging a catfish.

The naturalist for which the bird is named has also been honored by the naming of other creatures, including Steller’s sea lion and the now-extinct Steller’s sea cow, as well as several birds, including Steller’s jay and Steller’s eider. He was the first naturalist to describe several creatures native to Alaska, although two of these, the sea cow (a relative of the manatees) and the spectacled cormorant, are now extinct. The latter, which was the largest cormorant to ever live, is a particularly sad story. These cormorants were basically eaten into extinction, exploited as a food source by sailors and fur traders. The last spectacled cormorants perished around 1850 on a Russian island off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Fortunately, we have proven a little more far-sighted in our treatment of the bald eagle, which was removed from the U.S. government’s list of endangered species on July 12, 1995, and transferred to the list of threatened species. In 2007, bald eagle numbers had rebounded enough in the Lower 48 states to also allow for the bald eagle to be removed from the list of threatened species.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • The fact that bald eagles still soar is a triumph for conservation efforts that succeeded at saving America’s official bird.

The bald eagle, however, is not considered closely related to eagles in the genus Aquila, or “true eagles,” in which the golden eagle is included. North America’s other eagle is a very rare visitor to the region. The golden eagle is primarily a bird of the western United States while the bald eagle ranges widely across the United States as well as into Canada and Mexico. Other true eagles include the Spanish imperial eagle, tawny eagle and wedge-tailed eagle.

Both male and female adult bald eagles have a blackish-brown back and breast; a white head, neck and tail; and yellow feet and bill. Juvenile bald eagles are a mixture of brown and white and reach full maturity in four to five years. The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches in length, slightly larger than the male, with a wingspan that ranges from 72 to 90 inches. Bald eagles weigh from 10 to 14 pounds. The bald eagle’s diet consists mostly of fish, some of which are scavenged, but these large raptors are also capable of preying on everything from muskrats and ducks to rabbits and snakes. The bald eagle will also feed on carrion.

Two-hundred and thirty-eight years after it was declared an official emblem of the United States, the bald eagle has become an instantly recognizable American symbol. Long may the eagles fly.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him 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.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A bald eagle suns itself on a cold winter day along a river in northeast Tennessee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below is the total for the count:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Migrating rose-breasted grosbeaks thrill observers with recent visits

Photo provided by Shannon Stimson • A male rose-breasted grosbeak checks out some well-stocked feeders.

They’re not as dependable as ruby-throated hummingbirds, but they are every bit as impressive. Of course, I am referring to rose-breasted grosbeaks, which have been delighted people across the eastern half of the United States for the past couple of weeks.

Among these grosbeaks, it’s the male that wears the exquisite apparel. Males have a black head, wings, back and tail, with a bright splash of rose coloring across the front of their breast. Males and females exhibit marked sexual dimorphism, which is simply a scientific way of saying that males and females are quite different in their appearance.

The female rose-breasted grosbeak lacks the male’s showy plumage. She could easily be mistaken for a large, chunky sparrow with her brown, streaked feathers. She does have the large beak in common with the male. In fact, the term “grosbeak” is derived from German and simply means “big beak.” Incidentally, I’m told by bird banders that rose-breasted grosbeaks can give a nasty nip with that sizable and sturdy beak.

My email in-box and my Facebook page have been active this migration season with reports from people eager to share observations of these showy songbirds.

Carla Honaker sent me an email on Monday, April 27, about visiting rose-breasted grosbeaks.

“Two days ago I ran out of bird seed and changed from a mix to a black oil seed,” Carla reported. “I had heavy bird traffic yesterday and this morning my mother went over to open the blind that faces the front yard where the bird feeder hangs on a limb in a dogwood tree. To her surprise, there was a rose-breasted grosbeak sitting on the feeder eating the sunflower seeds.”

Understandably, Carla and her mother were very excited to see this unknown visitor at the feeder. Curious about the bird’s identity, Carla used the app Cornell Lab Merlin and made the identification.

Photo by Paintspreader/Pixabay.com • Male rose-breasted grosbeaks provide a jolt of excitement during migratory stopovers in yards and gardens throughout the eastern United States every spring.

Carla said the grosbeak stayed around for a few more minutes, long enough for her to take a picture of the side of his wing and back and tail.

She also had a question, asking if there are many rose-breasted grosbeaks in this area and whether there is a chance he will be a regular at her feeder.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male rose-breasted grosbeak perches in a tree on Roan Mountain in Tennessee.

Alas, rose-breasted grosbeaks are usually only spring and fall migrants unless one lives in the higher elevations of some of our local mountains. Visit area mountains in summer if you want to see these birds away from your feeders. They’re still fairly common in the region, but sadly, their numbers have declined overall.

I also let Carla know that grosbeaks are very fond of sunflower seed, so changing the mixed seed to black oil sunflower was probably helpful in attracting the visitor.

Elizabeth “Liz” Wynacht, who lives outside Atlanta in the town of Roswell, Georgia, also shared her own rose-breasted grosbeak story in an email she sent to me on Wednesday, April 29.

Elizabeth provided some interesting background to preface her story. “A few years ago, I looked up and saw this bright red “kiss” on this creamy colored breast of a bird,” she wrote. “I ran in to get my camera but he was gone when I got back. After researching what I thought I saw, my guess was a grosbeak. I have been looking for him ever since.”

Photo Provided by Byron Tucker • A male rose-breasted grosbeak squares off with a red-bellied woodpecker in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.

After a couple of years, her wait ended. “This past Friday, while sitting on my porch, I looked up from my phone, and I saw that beautiful red kiss coming toward the feeder,” she wrote. “Of course, my movement startled him and he flew away.”

Once again, she fetched her camera and waited. Liz reported that the male grosbeak showed up again along with his little wife. They visited for three days.

“He was a wonderful surprise in the midst of this crazy pandemic,” Liz wrote. “Really lifts the spirit to see such a beautiful bird.”

Shannon Stimson sent me an email on Monday, May 4, with some attached photos of male rose-breasted grosbeaks. “I had three males at my feeders two days ago followed by one female,” Shannon wrote. “One male that looked less mature stayed on for two days gorging on nuts and seeds for hours and engaging in a slight disagreement with a red-headed woodpecker over possession of the feeder.”

Sadly, Shannon reported that the grosbeaks moved on, but noted that their visit brought a great deal of cheer in this isolating time.

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

Kaylynn Wilster, who lives in Jonesborough, Tennessee, emailed me on Thursday, April 30, about her own rose-breasted grosbeak sighting. “He was not afraid of me and let me walk around the yard,” she wrote.

The very same day that Kaylynn saw her grosbeak, I looked out my window and saw one at my feeders. There had been a storm the previous night, so I suspect that helped “persuade” the bird to visit.

I posted on Facebook about my sighting and several friends shared their own.

“I was just reading an old article of yours about rose-breasted grosbeaks and, lo and behold, I have a flock of them hanging out on my feeders for the first time ever,” wrote Mary Ragland in a Facebook message to me.

Carolyn Grubb in Washington County, Virginia, reported seeing one.

Amy Wallin Tipton, who lives in Unicoi County, Tennessee, reported that her parents had been hosting a male and female rose-breasted grosbeak for the past two days.

James and Pattie Rowland, of Erwin, Tennessee, also reported on Facebook sightings of rose-breasted grosbeaks.

Keep the reports coming. If nothing else, sharing bird sightings is a way to feel less socially distant from others.

Photo Provided by Elizabeth “Liz” Wynacht  • A male rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in a suburban area near Atlanta, Georgia.

Returning ruby-throats, like the rest of world’s hummingbirds, never fail to dazzle

Photo by Anne and Saturnino Miranda/Pixabay.com • The Cuban emerald is a species of hummingbird found in a wide range of semi-open habitats in Cuba, as well as the Isle of Pines and the western Bahamas. Numbering 330 species, the world’s hummingbirds dazzle humans with their incredibly diverse plumages.

Experts estimate that there are 330 species of hummingbirds, all of which are found in the New World. Consider that these dazzling little birds have been given vividly descriptive names, such as cinnamon-throated hermit, red-tailed comet, blue-chinned sapphire, lazuline sabrewing, sparkling violetear, fiery topaz, green-tailed goldenthroat, bronze-tailed plumeleteer,  amethyst-throated mountain-gem, peacock coquette, red-billed emerald, empress brilliant, purple-backed sunbeam, green-backed hillstar, orange-throated sunangel, black metaltail, marvelous spatuletail and blue-tufted starthroat.

The only reliable species to inhabit the eastern United States from spring to fall each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird, which is currently arriving at various points from Florida to Maine and westward to states like Illinois, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but people should see a spike in their numbers when the hummingbirds end summer nesting and start migrating south again this autumn.

One of my most memorable hummingbird sightings took place in January of 1999 during a cruise in the Bahamas. A stopover in Nassau and a visit to the Paradise Island Resort permitted me a fleeting glimpse of a Bahama woodstar, a small hummingbird with a superficial resemblance to the ruby-throated hummingbird. The real beauty from my visit to the Bahamas, however, took place on a private cay maintained by the Disney Cruise line. While many passengers enjoyed the sun and sand of the beach, I walked nature trails to find birds. 

Photo by Daniel Roberts/Pixabay.com • The calliope hummingbird is the smallest of its kind known to reside in North America.

I found Western spindalis, then known as stripe-headed tanager, as well as black-faced grassquits and bananaquits, and I got several close looks at male and female Cuban emeralds, a hummingbird found in a wide range of semi-open habitats in Cuba, the Isle of Pines and the western Bahamas. The male is almost entirely metallic or iridescent green and measures almost four inches long. The ones I encountered were also curious and quite tame, often flying within inches of my face. 

Other than the two hummingbirds I saw during that trip, my remaining hummingbird observations have been confined to the United States. That hasn’t prevented me from seeing such unexpected hummingbirds as green-breasted mango, calliope hummingbird, black-chinned hummingbird, rufous hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, and broad-tailed hummingbird. 

Photo by Anne and Saturnino Miranda/Pixabay.com • It’s not difficult at all to see how the male Cuban emerald in such vibrant green plumage acquired its common name.

If I ever win the lottery, I plan to see as many hummingbirds as I can. For now, I am happy to report that ruby-throated hummingbirds are returning to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina.

I received an email from Susie Parks, who lives in the North Cove section of McDowell County in North Carolina. “My daughter, Luanne Graham, and I sighted our first hummer on March 28,” Priscilla noted. 

“I read your column in the McDowell News,” she added. “I am 84 years old and have been a birder most of my life.” 

Susie added that she and her daughter are both retired teachers who live next to each other. “We put our feeders out earlier than usual because she had heard that the hummers might be arriving earlier this year,” Susie wrote.

Susie noted that the first hummingbird sighted at her own feeder arrived on the first day of April, a few days after the hummingbird that visited her daughter’s feeder. “I keep a journal and I always note the first sighting,” she added, “and this is the earliest hummer I have ever recorded.”

This sightings by Susie and Luanne are the earliest I’ve had reported to me this year. 

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Facebook friend Jimmie Daniels in Newland, North Carolina, reported on her Facebook page that the first hummingbird of spring arrived at 6:24 p.m. on Wednesday, April 8.  “We just saw our first hummingbird and that always makes me happy,” she wrote. “If you have not put out feeders yet, it is a good time to do that.”

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Bob Cheers of Bristol, Virginia, reported a ruby-throated female arrived at his home at 7:55 a.m. on Friday, April 10. He speculated that the hummingbird was possibly “the same gal that arrived last year on the same day but 10 hours later.” Bob added that hummingbirds are amazing and that it was almost inconceivable to him that it could be the same bird. Bob, who had read in previous columns that downy woodpeckers and Carolina chickadees occasionally take a sip of sugar water from hummingbird feeders, also asked if I had ever heard of a red-bellied woodpecker feeding regularly at a hummingbird feeder. I’ve not personally witnessed this, but perhaps some readers have seen red-bellied woodpeckers at sugar water feeders. Let me know!

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

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Brenda Hickman Dishner posted on my Facebook page that she spotted her first hummer of spring on Friday, April 10. “We live near Highway 421 and Houston Dam in Bristol, Tennessee,” she added.

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Philip Laws, who lives in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County, reported to me on Facebook that he saw his first hummingbirds on April 10. “Hummers returned to Limestone Cove on Good Friday,” Philip noted.

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Jeanne Siler Lilly reported her first spring hummingbird with a comment on my Facebook page. “I saw one at my feeder on April 10,” she wrote, adding that the bird visited a couple of times.

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Mary Jones in Johnson City said her first hummingbird this year arrived on April 11. “I had one show up the Saturday before Easter and every day since,” she wrote in a Facebook comment. 

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Dianna Lynne in Elizabethton saw her first hummingbird this spring on April 11. “They stopped in on Easter morning at the porch feeder here in Stoney Creek,” Dianne said in a comment on Facebook.

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Erwin resident Amy Wallin Tipton saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird on Easter Sunday.  “I just wanted to let you know I just saw my first male ruby-throat of the season,” Amy wrote in a Facebook message. “It was at 11:55 a.m.”

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Lia Pritchard saw her first hummer of the season on Easter Sunday at her home in Fall Branch, Tennessee. Her father, Glen Eller, shared the report of Lia’s sighting.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Keep hummingbirds happy with a sugar water solution of four parts water to one part sugar.

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Lynda Carter, who lives in Jonesborough, saw her first hummingbird at 8:45 a.m. on Monday, April 13, after a stormy night. “The bird may have blown in sideways from Arkansas last night,” Lynda joked in an email.

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Richard Lewis in Bristol sent me a message on Facebook to announce the arrival of his first spring hummingbird. “I had my first ruby-throated hummingbird Monday, April 13, at 6 p.m. at my home in Bristol, Tennessee,” he wrote.

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Joneen Sargent, who lives in Sullivan County west of Holston Lake off Highway 421, emailed me at 8:06 p.m. on Monday, April 13, to report her first spring hummingbird. “Just saw my first hummingbird of the season,” Joneen wrote. “Gives me hope.”

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Jane Arnold emailed me to notify me of her mother’s hummingbird sighting. Her mother, Betty Poole, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird — a female — on Wednesday, April 15. Jane’s still awaiting her first spring hummer. 

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Priscilla Gutierrez saw the first hummingbirds of spring the morning of Wednesday, April 15. “I put out a feeder and by 6 p.m. they were coming to [the] feeder,” Priscilla added in a comment on my Facebook page. 

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Erwin resident April Kerns Fain posted on her Facebook page at 5:32 p.m. on Thursday, April 16, that she saw her first hummingbird. 

Erwin resident Pattie Rowland posted on my Facebook page that she saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird on Friday, April 17. “Just saw a hummer in Erwin,” Pattie wrote. 

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Sharee Bowman reported her first hummingbird of spring in a Facebook message. “I saw my first hummingbird in Cedar Bluff, Virginia, on Friday, April 17,” she wrote. 

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

Brown thrashers make first spring appearance

 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A brown thrasher visits a feeder for a helping of suet. These large songbirds are usually among spring’s early arrivals.

In this time of social distancing when the daily routine can become flat and dull, I’m rejoicing that many of my favorite birds are returning after their long winter absence. One of the first to return has been brown thrashers, which made a first spring appearance on March 25. I suppose I should use the word “appearance” with reservations since I only heard a thrasher singing from deep in the concealment of a brushy thicket. A few days, later, however, a pair of brown thrashers began visiting my suet feeders.

I posted about the return of this large songbird on Facebook and immediately discovered that the brown thrashers must have returned to the region en masse.

Aubrie Abernethy, a resident of Johnson City, Tennessee, posted that her brown thrasher has arrived a day earlier than mine.

Dianne Draper, a resident of Jonesborough, Tennessee, posted, too. “Ours is back also,” Dianne wrote.

Photo by Ken Thomas
The Brown Thrasher is an alert, sharp-eyed observer of its surroundings.

Michelle Sparks in Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page that she had seen her first spring brown thrasher earlier that same week.

Diane Gonzalves from Abingdon, Virginia, responded on the post about brown thrashers by asking about another imminent arrival. “I assume the hummingbirds should be here soon?” Diane asked.

I responded that the first ruby-throated hummingbirds should be arriving at any time. Please watch out for these tiny birds and get your sugar water feeders outside to welcome them. I will do my annual round-up on first hummingbird sightings of the spring again this year. Share your sighting by emailing the time and date of the arrival to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Readers can also contact me via Facebook.

The brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belongs to the family of “mimic thrushes,” which provides a label for a group of songbirds capable of imitating the songs of other birds. Mimidae, the Latin root for “mimic,” provides the scientific name for the family, which includes mockingbirds and the New World catbirds, as well as thrashers. The Northern mockingbird is best known for the ability to mimic, but relatives like the gray catbird and brown thrasher are also talented mimics.

The thrasher is a fairly large songbird about 11.5 inches long with a wingspan of 13 inches. Much of the body length comes from the bird’s long tail feathers. A thrasher weighs, however, only about 2.5 ounces.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pair of Brown Thrashers forage for food on the ground below a feeder.

The brown thrasher is not a picky eater. It’s known to eat everything from berries and nuts to insects and small lizards. It’s also aggressive in defending its nest and young. John James Audubon, a French-American ornithologist, naturalist and painter, painted quite the dramatic scene of a group of brown thrashers valiantly defending a nest from an attacking snake. The painting is so detailed that one has to imagine Audubon based his work on a real-life experience. His work, originally painted in the early decades of the 1800s, still holds up today.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted a dramatic scene of brown thrashers defending their nest from an attacking snake.

Incidentally, Audubon knew the brown thrasher as the “ferruginous thrush.” Another former common name for this species was “brown thrush.” The brown thrasher breeds across the United States and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains. Thrashers withdraw from the northern part of their range in the winter months, spending the season in the southeastern United States.

They are familiar birds in southern gardens. In fact, the brown thrasher is the official state bird of Georgia and also provided the name for Atlanta’s National Hockey League team, the Atlanta Thrashers. The thrasher became Georgia’s state bird due to passage of a Joint Resolution of the Georgia General Assembly in 1970.

Other new arrivals in the closing days of March included blue-gray gnatcatcher, blue-headed vireo and broad-winged hawk. So, what are you seeing? Let me know when the hummingbirds arrive.

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter • A brown thrasher scans the grass for insect prey.

Wandering flocks of cedar waxwings surprise with their visits

Photo by DivaDan/Pixabay.com • A cedar waxwing plucks a single berry from the laden branches of a fruit-bearing tree.

Early last month I received an email from Ernie Marburg about some visitors at his home in Abingdon, Virginia. “Just wanted to let you know that the Cedar Waxwings are in the neighborhood,” he wrote. “The flocks are looking for berries in the holly trees.” 

Waxwings have a brown and gray silky plumage, a black mask and a perky crest. Some of the wing feathers show red tips. The similarity of these wing tips to melted drops of wax gives these birds the common name of waxwing.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The waxy tips to the wing feathers are evident in this photograph of a cedar waxwing.

The cedar waxwing has few relatives. Worldwide, there are only two other species: the Bohemian waxwing, of the northern forests of Eurasia and North America; and the Japanese waxwing, found in such northeast Asian countries as Japan, Korea and China.

Although it’s classified as a songbird, the cedar waxwing does’t truly produce a vocalization that anyone would contend qualifies as a song. They are, however, very vocal birds, producing shrill, high-pitched notes as they pass through the upper branches of tall trees.

As much as the waxwing has a fondness for fruit, it’s also a bird that would have made an excellent flycatcher. Flocks of these birds will often congregate in trees near the edge of a pond, garden or yard — anywhere winged insects might be found in good numbers — in order to hawk insects on the wing. A waxwing will sally forth from a branch, snatch its prey in mid-air, and return to its perch for a quick snack.

Photo by dmgreen44/Pixabay.com • A flock of cedar waxwings strip berries from the branches of a cedar tree.

Waxwings are rather nomadic, coming and going with a maddening unpredictability. Other birds are more dependable, arriving and departing at roughly the same time year after year. One such bird should soon make its triumphant and welcome return to yards and gardens throughout the region. According to the website Hummingbird Guide, ruby-throated hummingbirds usually return to Tennessee and Virginia the first week of April. These tiny flying jewels arrive earlier in North and South Carolina, typically arriving the third week of March in those states.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of cedar waxwings.

The popularity of hummingbirds in general, and the ruby-throated hummingbird specifically, is simple to understand.

These tiny birds are perfectly willing to insert themselves into our lives, offering hours of fascinating entertainment as they visit our gardens, duel at our sugar water feeders and occasionally even nest in trees and shrubs in our yards.

I’m hoping to hear from readers about their first spring hummingbird observations. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Be sure to include the time and date of your sighting, as well as your locations. You can also find me through Facebook.

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

Sounds of spring grow more varied as season advances

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Former common name rufous-sided towhee became Eastern towhee, which is far less descriptive of the bird’s appearance. In spring, male towhees become persistent singers. Listen for their “drink-your-tea” song as the males perch on elevated branches and twigs.

The sounds of spring surround us from sunrise to sunset with much of this seasonal chorus being provided by our feathered friends, the birds. In these weird weeks in need of something distracting, I’ve been letting nature’s sounds, as well as sights, provide some measure of relief from stressful headlines and anxious thoughts.

The mornings around my home often begin with a loud, insistent “Peter! Peter! Peter!” uttered from the woods or even just outside my bedroom window. Male tufted titmice, little gray relatives of chickadees with a distinctive crest and large, dark eyes, sing their urgent “Peter! Peter! Peter!” as a constant refrain in their efforts to attract mates now that they feel spring in their blood.

A series of rat-a-tat-tats echoes from deeper in the woods as woodpeckers tap their sturdy bills against the trunks of trees. The three most common woodpeckers at my home are red-bellied, downy, and pileated, and they all have their own unique vocalizations, as well.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Woodpeckers not only vocalize, they also add to the spring cacophony by drumming against the trunks of trees.

The pileated woodpecker produces clear, far-carrying resonant piping sounds that can last for a few seconds each blast. The much smaller downy woodpecker produces a whinny of high-pitched notes that descend in pitch toward their conclusion. The red-bellied call is probably the one that stands out the most. The call’s a harsh, rolling “Churr, churr, churr” given almost like an expression of exasperation as they circle tree trunks and explore branches.

Since their return earlier this month, the resident red-winged blackbirds are often some of the earliest singers these days. According to the website All About Birds, the male red-winged blackbird’s “conk-la-ree!” is a classic sound of wetlands across the continent of North America. According to the website, the one-second song starts with an abrupt note that transforms quickly into a musical trill.

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

Some birds helpfully introduce themselves with a song that repeats their name. One such common bird is the Eastern phoebe. In recent weeks, a pair has been checking out the rafters of my garage for potential nest sites. The male spends much of the day producing his strident “fee-bee” call, which is a perfect phonetic rendition of the bird’s common name.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Eastern Phoebe’s song is a repetitive rendition of its own name — “fee-bee” — given over and over.

Then there’s one of my favorite songs of spring, which is produced by the Eastern towhee, which is also known by such common names as “ground robin” and “swamp robin.” These birds, which are actually a species of sparrow, also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite accurately, as “drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “€œChew-ink”€ and “€œToe-Hee,” of which the latter provides the basis for this bird’s common name.

Of course, other wildlife joins the chorus. I have so many spring peepers at the fish pond and in the wet fields around my house that the noise from these tiny amphibians can reach deafening levels. The chorus is bound to grow more diverse and louder as spring advances. Take some time to enjoy the sounds of nature at your own home.

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To share your own sighting, make a comment or ask a question, send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An alert Eastern towhee female forages on a lawn.