Tag Archives: Fall migration

Warbler parade imminent as September advances

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Arctic tern migratory champion among world’s birds

September’s arrival puts fall migration into overdrive. The birds that returned this past spring — the warblers, vireos, tanagers, grosbeaks, flycatchers and hummingbirds — have begun or are beginning to make their way back to the locations where they will spend the winter months far from the cold, bleak conditions over most of North America.

Photo by Jonathan Cannon/Pixabay.com • The Arctic tern outdoes all other birds when it comes to migration. These seabirds journey from their Arctic nesting grounds to spend the winter around the Antarctic, a journey of some 50,000 miles a year.

Some of these birds migrate out of the tropics to avoid competition. Others find North America a land of abundant, albeit temporary, resources. This land of plenty offers a wealth of insects, seeds, fruit and other nourishing, nutritious food to help parent birds keep their strength while they work to ensure their young thrive. Of course, once the bountiful period concludes, they return to the tropics of Central and South America to winter. Those that do so successfully will make the journey back to the United States and Canada in the spring.

The phenomenon of migration isn’t exclusive to the neotropical migrants of the New World. Birds in other parts of the world migrate, too. Waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors are among some of the families of birds that stage impressive migrations.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female scarlet tanager is a study in contrast from her mate with her dull greenish-yellow plumage being much less vibrant than the male’s bright red and black feathers.

The Arctic tern, for example, truly takes migration to extremes. This small seabird travels each year from its Arctic nesting grounds to the Antarctic region, where it spends the winter months. Put into terms of mileage, the Arctic tern can travel about 50,000 miles in a single year. For a bird with a body length of about 15 inches and a wingspan of about 28 inches, this incredible migration is an astonishing feat. These statistics permit the Arctic tern to easily lay claim to the title of champion migrant among our feathered friends.

According to the website for National Geographic, Arctic terns face a serious threat from climate change. In a profile on the tern at its website, National Geographic warns that Arctic terns are projected to lose 20 to 50 percent of their habitat due to the temperature changes linked to climate change. They also face loss of habitat due to encroachment by human activities such as oil drilling.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, a favorite of many bird enthusiasts living in the eastern United States, makes an impressive migration each year. Just to reach the United States, these tiny birds undertake a strenuous journey. They leave their wintering grounds in Central America to return to the United States and Canada for the nesting season. Most of these tiny birds, which are barely four inches long, make a non-stop flight of more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. The journey can take almost an entire day. With the end of summer, the entire population of ruby-throated hummingbirds, increased by a new generation of young birds, makes the Gulf crossing for a second time in a year to return to the American tropics for the winter months.

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

Among North America’s buteo hawks, which includes raptors such as red-shouldered hawk and red-tailed hawk, the broad-winged hawk stands out as a dedicated migrant. These hawks form flocks that at times number in the hundreds or thousands as they sail and glide on thermals rising over various mountain ranges. These hawks and other raptors are well-known in the region for migrating past the Mendota Fire Tower in Southwest Virginia every September and early October.

The broad-winged hawk’s counterpart in the western United States is Swainson’s hawk, which shares the broad-winged hawk’s inclination for migrating in large flocks. Swainson’s hawk is named for William John Swainson, the famous 19th century English naturalist for which Swainson’s thrush is also named.

The hooded warbler, my favorite member of the migratory New World warblers, migrates back to Mexico and Central America for the winter months after nesting during the spring and summer in a range concentrated in the southeastern United States. The males, after going quiet in late summer, have started singing on occasion from the shaded woods around my house. I think this has more to do with restlessness as they prepare for to depart on a migration flight that will take them to the balmy Caribbean, Mexico and Central America while we shiver through the months between October and April. It’s not a migration of an incredible distance, but it’s still quite an accomplishment for a bird only five inches long and weighing less than half an ounce.

Photo by Jean Potter • A male hooded warbler flits through the foliage of a rhododendron thicket.

Fall’s a great time to witness the variety of avian life. Look for some of these migrants passing through your yards, gardens or favorite birding spots.

 

 

 

Green herons, one of the smaller wading birds, often overlooked as they lurk near water’s edge

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron elevates a shaggy crest of feathers, a behavior often initiated when the bird feels alarmed.

Byron Tucker and Ricky Dunklin, friends from Atlanta, contacted me on Facebook to ask if I could help identify a bird they had photographed during a trip to Sunset Beach in North Carolina in early August. When I saw the photographs I recognized that the visitor to a small dock at their vacation spot was a green heron.

Photo Contributed by Byron Tucker/Ricky Dunklin • A Green Heron visits a dock at Sunset Beach in North Carolina.

Green herons are not restricted to coastal areas, but it was still somewhat unexpected when I stepped onto my front porch on Aug. 19 and saw a green heron flying at treetop level. I suspect the bird had been perched in one of the tall trees on the ridge behind my house. The slamming of my front door probably spooked the bird into flight.

Green herons and other wading birds are usually quite abundant in wetlands across the country in late summer. The scientific name — Butorides virescens – of this bird comes from a mix of Middle English and Ancient Greek and roughly translates as “greenish bittern.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron grasps a perch overlooking a small creek in Erwin, Tennessee.

There are only two other species in the genus Butorides — the lava heron, which occurs on some of the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, and the striated heron, which is found in wetlands throughout the Old World tropics from West Africa to Japan and Australia. This heron, which is also known as the mangrove heron, also occurs in South America.

The green in the bird’s plumage appears as a dark green cap, as well as a greenish back and wings. Adult birds also have chestnut-colored neck feathers and a line of white feathers along the throat and belly. These herons often assume a hunched position, which can make them look smaller than they actually are.

It’s been a good summer for wading birds. In addition to the green heron, a great blue heron has been lurking in the creek in front of my home and at my fish pond. Much larger than the green heron, the great blue heron has not escaped the notice of a local flock of American crows. The crows harass the heron whenever the larger bird takes flight.

On the first day of August, I stopped with my mom at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. We were treated with an observation of a great egret fishing along the edges of the pond. Egrets and herons are known for wandering outside their normal range in late summer after the nesting season has concluded.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Green Heron rests at the edge of a pond.

Keep alert when walking along the trails in Erwin, Tennessee, and you may catch sight of one of these interesting herons or egrets, too. The edges of the fish pond at Erwin Fishery Park is also a reliable haunt for green herons. Farm ponds in the countryside around Jonesborough, Tennessee, as well as wetland habitat around the town’s Persimmon Ridge Park, are also good places to look for this small heron. The wetlands at Sugar Hollow Park in Bristol, Virginia, is another dependable location for seeing this small heron. Most green herons will depart in late September and early October. This small heron retreats from the United States during the winter season but will return next spring in April and May.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Green herons are short, stocky herons that can assume some comical poses.

The green heron’s range during the nesting season includes Canada and much of the United States. Green herons will sometimes form loose nesting colonies, but at other times a pair will choose a secluded location as a nest site. The female will usually lay from three to five eggs. Snakes, raccoons and other birds such as crows and grackles are potential threats to eggs.

For the most part, the population migrates to Central and South America for the winter months. A few herons — great blue heron and black-crowned night heron — remain in the region throughout the year, even enduring the cold winter months in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

These herons are probably more common than we realize. They are skilled at blending with their surroundings, but sharp eyes can find these herons around almost any body of water, whether it is pond, marsh, river, creek or lake.

They usually depart the region in October, so the remaining days of August and September provide opportunities to observe both resident green herons and their migrating kin.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron finesses a captured tadpole in its bill.

Flocks of red-winged blackbirds, other sightings, could signal winter’s end

Photo by JudaM/Pixabay.com • Feeders are a good way to tempt red-winged blackbirds closer for great views. Males are exceptional in their glossy black plumage with red wing patches accented by a hint of yellow. Females are brown and striped, giving them a similar appearance to large sparrows.

 

H. Lea Jones, Jr. of Bristol, Virginia, wrote to me after seeing my post about pileated woodpeckers a few weeks ago.

“I read with interested your story about this woodpecker,” Lea wrote in an email. “I have been keeping up feeding the birds, which both of my now deceased parents loved to watch, outside the large kitchen windows of their home which I inherited. One day, a couple of years back, while manning the chair and watching the birds, I was startled to see two of these woodpeckers hanging from my extra large suet cage. There was one on each side. Maybe a male and a female?”

Photo by Mike Dobe/Pixabay.com • A pileated woodpecker visits a suet feeder.

Lea noted that the two woodpeckers stayed at the suet for maybe 30 seconds. “I was shocked to see these huge birds and only could assume, at the time, they were woodpeckers. Just very beautiful birds!”

After a little research, Lea discovered the identity of the visitors. “And now I know the ‘sound’ in the wooded area behind the house,” Lea wrote. I had also described the sound in my post.

“Nothing like it I’d ever heard before,” Lea wrote. “Since reading your article, I now realize what a rare sight I have been blessed with. It was truly an amazing sight indeed.”

Dr. John Brenner sent me an email recently about an unexpected sighting at his home in Abingdon, Virginia, on Thursday, Feb. 13, around 5 p.m.

“I saw a Baltimore oriole in my back yard,” he reported. “It was sitting on a fence then flew over to my feeders where it walked around under them.”

He explained that he lives in the heart of Abingdon and has been living at his current address for about three and a half years. “This is the first time I have seen this bird,” he said. “I thought it was unusual.”

Photo by USFWS • Baltimore orioles, like this male, are members of the blackbird family, making them relatives of species such as Eastern meadowlarks, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds.

Winter sightings of orioles are rather unusual, but they are not unheard of. The North Carolina Birds website details the emerging phenomenon of wintering orioles.

“Until the 1960s, it (Baltimore oriole) essentially did not winter in the United States, but with milder winters and people putting out oranges and peanut butter on their feeders, and not just various seeds and suet, a number of orioles started wintering from North Carolina to Florida,” according to a profile of the species. Straying into Virginia would certainly not be out of the question, although Baltimore orioles are usually expected in southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee from April to October.

In the last couple of weeks, large flocks of red-winged blackbirds have been making stops at my home. The largest flock numbered about 50 individual birds. Red-winged blackbirds are often considered harbingers of spring, but these birds arrived with some of the recent wintry weather that arrived in February.

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

I’ve long associated red-winged blackbirds with early spring. I also had a single red-winged blackbird make a one-day visit earlier in February during a snowstorm. Those February visitors are the vanguard of large numbers of red-winged blackbirds that return in impressive numbers every March. The blackbirds arriving now behave much differently than the quiet, shy ones that often make brief visits to feeders during late winter snowstorms.

The showy and loud red-winged blackbirds made themselves at home at my fish pond and adjacent stands of cattails, producing quite a commotion. “The kon-ke-ree song of the male red-winged blackbird is a sure indication that spring is on the way,” according to a profile of the species located at the Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website. At this time of year, the male red-winged blackbirds seek elevated perches to display and vocalize.

The male red-winged blackbirds is a very aptly named bird. Glossy black males sport red wing patches that are often trimmed with a narrow band of yellow feathers. By contrast, female red-winged blackbirds are mostly brown birds that could easily be mistaken for large sparrows. Both sexes have sharply pointed bills.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Red-winged blackbirds arrive as a noisy flock on a wintry February evening.

After I posted on Facebook about the sightings of the red-winged blackbird flocks, Rita Schuettler, a fan of these birds and a resident of Elizabethton, Tennessee, asked whether these flocks were unseasonably early.

Photo by Lintow/Pixabay.com • Female red-winged blackbirds could easily be mistaken for a large sparrow.

I told Rita in a subsequent post that a friend in Atlanta has informed me that he began seeing the blackbird flocks in his neighborhood a couple of weeks ago. So they are right on time for make their appearance in Northeast Tennessee. Laura Evans Barden also posted on my Facebook page that she has been seeing red-winged blackbirds in recent weeks, as well as more common grackles and European starlings.

Red-winged blackbirds are fond of wetlands. Any marsh, damp field or flooded pasture is likely to attract a few resident red-winged blackbirds. Females choose nesting locations in cattails or other marsh vegetation. She usually lays three or four eggs. Although she does receive some help from the male, most of the responsibility for raising the young is left to her.

There is a reason that male red-winged blackbirds are not always quite as engaged in feeding and tending their young. Male red-winged blackbirds are often polygynous, which means that males will often court multiple mates. His time is often occupied defending females and their respective nests from the advances of other male red-winged blackbirds.

Other relatives of the red-winged blackbird in the United States include the tricolored blackbird found along the Pacific Coast and the yellow-headed blackbird resident in wetlands west of the Great Lakes. Rusty blackbird, common grackle and brown-headed cowbird are other species of blackbirds found in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

Photo by Bryan Stevens  • This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed at Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006.

Success of wild turkey’s resurgence leads to foul fowls in New England

Photo by Avia5/Pixabay.com • A male wild turkey, often referred to as a “tom” or a “gobbler,” fans his tail in a display meant to impress hens and intimidate other males.

Celebrated in William Bradford’s written account of the First Thanksgiving in 1621, the wild turkey had all but vanished from Massachusetts and the rest of New England a mere two centuries later. By the time of Henry David Thoreau, who is arguably America’s first environmentalist, the noted author lamented in 1856 that the turkey and other wildlife were difficult to find in his native Massachusetts.

In a journal entry from the spring of 1856, Thoreau decried the part the descendants of those Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving more than 200 years earlier had played in the decimation.

“When I consider that the nobler animals have been exterminated here — the cougar, the panther, lynx, wolverine, wolf, bear, moose, dear, the beaver, the turkey and so forth and so forth, I cannot but feel as if I lived in a tamed and, as it were, emasculated country,” Thoreau wrote in his journal. “Is it not a maimed and imperfect nature I am conversing with?”

Henry David Thoreau

Perhaps, but Thoreau would probably be encouraged that many of the animals he mentioned in his journal have now recovered and once again roam throughout New England. The wild turkey has been in the vanguard of that resurgence. In fact, the revival of the wild turkey’s fortunes in New England has had unintended consequences. In short, this venerable fowl has run amok in some parts of its former stronghold.

An article by Brianna Abbott for the Audubon Society’s website estimates that before Europeans first colonized New England in the 1600s, as many as 10 million wild turkeys roamed from Maine to Florida to the Rocky Mountains of the American West.

Today, wild turkeys are back with a vengeance. Turkeys may have grievances, it turns out, for the persecution they suffered at the hands of Americans for the past few centuries. Touted as a major restoration success story, the wild turkey began to be reintroduced to New England about half a century ago.

Now that they’re back, turkeys are part of a dramatically changed landscape. Suburbs now stretch in wide swaths of terrain that once supported forests and associated wildlife. Luckily — for the turkey, anyway — it is a very adaptable bird. Turkeys have taken to life in the suburbs with such enthusiasm that they are now a wildlife management issue for the human residents who must share living space with them. Emboldened problem turkeys chase and intimidate women and small children, as well as pets. Whole flocks have gone rogue.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wild turkeys forage on a hillside.

Gone are the turkey’s natural predators — lynxes, cougars and wolves — that had kept America’s premier game bird’s population in balance. As Thoreau pointed out, nature is no longer perfect. More than 170,000 wild turkeys now live in New England and they’re not always at peace with their human neighbors.

Thoreau didn’t have the benefit of environmental science to back him up, but he would probably not be surprised that a “maimed” nature is causing some unexpected problems even as some of the animals he so sorely missed are returning to their former haunts.

The Tennessee Watchable Wildlife Website notes that the wild turkey was once nearly eliminated from the Volunteer State. By the early 1900s, over-hunting eliminated this species from most of its range, including much of Tennessee. Modern wildlife management has reestablished this bird throughout its historic range and into 49 of the 50 United States.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Wild turkeys have re-established themselves in many areas across the United States, including New England.

According to the website, the natural habitat for the wild turkey consists of mature woodlands with scattered openings or fields. In such areas, turkeys can forage for food such as acorns and other wild nuts, seeds, fruits, insects, buds, fern fronds and even the occasional salamander.

Wild turkeys roam the woods around my home, and I know of other areas that are dependable locations for observing these birds. While their numbers are increasing, the wild turkey has not yet turned the tables. For the foreseeable future, I suspect Americans will continue to dine on turkey every Thanksgiving, and not the other way around.

Who could blame them, however, if turkeys were to feel perfectly justified in biting back at the American public? We’ve not always been the best stewards for our native wildlife. Call me an optimist. I believe turkeys and people can co-exist. As residents in New England have learned, we just have to be prepared for some give and take.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male gobbler seeks the attention of hens, as all these Wild Turkeys add to the number of this species found during the count.

Mysterious owl retains a low profile even during Halloween season

Photo by jeanvdmeulen/Pixabay.com • The barn owl’s heart-shaped face helps this bird, which is also known by such names as death owl, ghost owl, and hobgoblin owl, stand out from the other owls that share the domain of night.

With common names such as cave owl, death owl, ghost owl, night owl and hobgoblin owl, the nocturnal hunter more widely known as the barn owl provides a fitting focus for exploration as the calendar counts down toward Halloween.

Barn owls lurk in the shadows of night, but most people would never know it unless they happen to hear some of the spine-tingling vocalizations produced by this poorly known predatory bird. Shiver-inducing shrieks and screams quite capable of piercing the veil of darkness are often produced by the barn owl. This owl doesn’t utter loud hoots like the great horned owl. Instead, the call of the barn owl is not likely one to be soon forgotten because of its raspy, nails-on-the-chalkboard nature. A hearer could easily be misled into misinterpreting the shrill vocalizations as originating from something far more ghoulish.

According to the website for the Owl Research Institute in Charlo, Montana, barn owls are the most widely distributed owl in the world, and they may be one of the most common, as well. In Montana, where ORI is located, barn owls observations are rather sparse. ORI has documented 12 barn owl nests and made numerous observations in the last 12 years, according to its website. Likewise, the barn owl is not too often observed in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Photo by dannymoore1973/Pixabay.com A barn owl’s wings and feathers provide almost silent flight for this efficient predatory bird.

The barn owl is often associated with rural, agricultural areas, which is one reason they can often be found in old barns, sheds and farm silos. However, the first barn owl I ever saw in the wild was living beneath the eaves of a building on the campus of Mountain Home Veterans Administration in Johnson City, Tennessee, within walking distance of commercial buildings and the campus of East Tennessee State University.

The barn owl has no close relatives among the other owls found in the region. The barn owl is in its own unique family known as Tytonidae. The family name comes from a Greek word, Tuto, which translates as “night owl.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern Screech Owl, pictured, is considered a member of the family called Strigidae, which consists of the owls described as “typical owls” by experts.

Other owls in our region — great horned owl, barred owl, Eastern screech-owl, short-eared owl— belong to a family called Strigidae, which are often described as “typical owls” by ornithologists and other experts.

The barn owl is one of nature’s most perfect predators. Among animals tested by scientists, the barn owl shows an almost uncanny ability to detect prey animals by sound alone. Prey, which is often small voles or other rodents, often doesn’t know of the danger until it’s too late. The structure of the barn owl’s wings and feathers is such that these predatory birds can fly through the darkness in almost perfect silence.

Early American painter John James Audubon captured this dynamic scene of barn owls with a capture chipmunk.

There’s a heavy cost that the owl must pay for these special adaptations. According to the Barn Owl Trust, an organization founded in 1988 in the United Kingdom to conserve one of the most beautiful birds on Earth, a barn owl’s specially adapted feathers are not particularly waterproof. In addition, barn owls are unable to store a lot of body fat. The Trust’s website notes that barn owls are unable to hunt in heavy rain and are particularly prone to starvation during prolonged periods of severe weather and/or prey shortage.

Much myth and legend have arisen around the world’s owls, including the barn owl. A native tribe in California known as the Newuks believed that warriors who proved courageous and virtuous became great horned owls after death. Men who practiced wicked ways, however, were thought to become barn owls.

This owl with the white heart-shaped face has long spooked humans. The bird’s head and upper body typically vary between pale brown and various shade of gray. Especially in flight, the barn owl can look rather pale.

The barn owl is the most widespread terrestrial bird species in the world, occurring on every continent except Antarctica. In addition to its various spooky common names, barn owls are also known by such descriptive monikers as monkey-faced owl, silver owl and golden owl. Some other common names include church owl and steeple owl. This owl acquired this name for its habit of utilizing steeples or bell towers in churches as roosting locations when barns or caves were lacking.

For a bird so closely associated with people and their dwellings and related structures, the barn owl remains an enigma to many. YouTube offers a variety of videos that showcase the creepy vocalizations of barn owls. Familiarize yourself with their calls, and you’ll be more likely to distinguish a barn owl calling after dark from the more sinister specters on the prowl this Halloween.

To learn more about barn owls or to make a contribution toward their conservation, visit www.barnowltrust.org.uk

Photo by mochawalk/Pixabay.com • A barn owl gives a penetrating stare to the camera.

Palm warbler’s name an unfortunate misnomer that has stuck

Photo by Jean Potter The palm warbler’s name is a mistaken assumption that this warbler held special affinity for palm trees. It doesn’t.

The warbler parade that begins each autumn with such brightly colored migrants as Blackburnian warbler, black-throated blue warbler and magnolia warbler usually ends with some of the less vibrant members of this family of New World birds.

On a recent bird walk at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee, I helped locate a flock of 13 palm warblers and a single yellow-rumped warbler. These two warblers, which look rather brownish and nondescript in the fall, pass through the region later than most other migrating warblers. In fact, the yellow-rumped warbler is one of the few warblers that routinely spends the winter months in the region.

The yellow-rumped warbler has a most suitable name thanks to the yellow patch of feathers on the bird’s rump. The resemblance of the patch to a pat of butter is uncanny enough to have encouraged birders to nickname this often abundant winter warbler the “butter butt.”

The palm warbler’s name is, at best, a misnomer. Throughout most of its life, the palm warbler doesn’t even encounter palm trees. Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist who lived from 1748 to 1804, saddled the palm warbler with its inappropriate name. Gmelin based his naming of the bird based on the fact that a specimen had been collected on Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean with an abundance of palm trees.

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

Gmelin published several textbooks in the fields of chemistry, pharmaceutical science, mineralogy, and botany. He also had a hand in publishing a catalog of scientific names for various species, including some birds that had until that point never been given a species classification. Thanks to his efforts, a warbler has forever been linked with a type of tree that is, at best, entirely incidental to the bird’s life cycle.

Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these palm warblers.

Palm warblers do seek out warmer domains during the winter months, including the islands of the Caribbean. Some of them do not even migrate that far, choosing to remain along the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines of the southern United States. On occasion, individual palm warblers choose to remain in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia or western North Carolina during the winter months.

Every spring, however, palm warblers make a long migration flight north. This warbler is one of the northernmost breeding warblers, spending the summer months in the boreal forests of Canada. They build their nests in the thickets surrounding the many bogs along the edges of the great coniferous forests of this region of Canada.

The female palm warbler lays four to five eggs, but both parents will stay busy collecting insects once the young hatch. On an insect-rich diet, the young birds develop quickly and are able to leave the nest in 12 days. They will remain with their parents as their wings strengthen and they learn to fend for themselves.

While not able to flaunt vibrant plumage like such relatives as the Cape May warbler or the American redstart, the palm warbler is not truly as unattractive as a first glance might suggest. In fact, one subspecies, known as the “yellow palm warbler,” is quite dramatic in appearance with a profusion of yellow feathers accented with a bold russet cap and dramatic rufous striping across the yellow underparts. Even in autumn, the other palm warblers are not devoid of color. Most palm warbler show a splash of bright yellow on the throat and beneath the tail.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-and-white warbler creeps over the bark of a pine in search of insect prey. The reason for this warbler’s common name is self-evident in its appearance.

In fall migration and during the winter season, palm warblers often inhabit weedy fields, grasping the dried stalks of tall weeds as they forage for berries, seeds and insects and their larvae. Look for the spot of yellow beneath the warbler’s tail, which is constantly bobbed up and down as the bird goes about its routine. The tail-bobbing behavior is a good way to distinguish this warbler from the sparrows of similar size and brown coloration that often share the fields and woodland edges.

The last of the October Saturday bird walks will be held at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park on Oct. 26. Participants should meet in the parking lot at the park’s visitors center at 8 a.m. for a 90-minute stroll along the gravel walking trails. The walks are conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club and are free and open to the public. Bring binoculars to increase viewing enjoyment. There’s a chance that palm warblers will be seen on the walk, but with our fine feathered friends, nothing is ever guaranteed.

Photo by Jean Potter • A “yellow” palm warbler searches leaf litter for insects and other prey items.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds are not the only fall migrants sharing the skies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Think of the vireos as ‘Plain Janes’ of songbirds

Photo by FotoRequest/Adobe Stock • A red-eyed vireo grasps a tree branch, a common pose for this bird that spends time concealed in the woodland canopy. The red eye can be difficult to detect unless lighting conditions are optimal for observers.

The start of migration appears to be more of a crawl than a sprint this fall, but I have picked up a few signs. For instance, I’ve been hearing the scolding sounds of red-eyed vireos from woodland edges for the past few weeks. A dedicated singer at most times, this vireo seems more likely to produce a harsh, scolding cry at this time of the year. Other hints of the steady advance of fall migration include flocks of common nighthawks and chimney swifts congregating in the skies over my home and the unmistakable croaking of common ravens from nearby ridges.

So far, I’ve seen only a few warblers, including black-throated blue warbler and hooded warbler. At a glance, vireos would appear related to the wood warblers. Research into DNA, however, has led many experts to contend that vireos are more closely related to crows and shrikes. Like the flycatcher and hummingbird families, the vireo family is exclusive to the New World. With a mere 50 species, vireos and their kin are vastly outnumbered by flycatchers and hummingbirds. The majority of vireos resides in the tropics, but about a dozen species nest in the United States.

In East Tennessee Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina, vireos resident during the summer months include red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow-throated vireo and warbling vireo. Most people are likely unaware of vireos. Although not uncommon, these birds are more frequently heard than seen. They spend much of their time in the forest canopy or in dense brush. When singing, they can remain at a perch, unmoving, for long periods of time.

Photo by Jean Potter • A red-eyed vireo sits on its carefully woven nest among a canopy of leaves.

The loud scolding calls of red-eyed vireos often heard this time of year are given apparently when the vireo is alarmed or irritated. This scolding vocalization is quite unlike the usual ones produced by this bird. First and foremost, the call is louder than one would think could be produced by a bird that is only about six inches long. During the summer season, the red-eyed vireo is also one of the most persistent of singing songbirds. Another common name for the red-eyed vireo is “preacher bird,” so called because of its tendency to unceasingly deliver its song.
The red-eyed vireo is still considered one of eastern North America’s most common summer breeding birds. At one time, the red-eyed vireo was probably the most common breeding bird in eastern woodlands. That, sadly, is no longer the case. Red-eyed vireos are olive-green above and clean white below. These birds show a distinctive head pattern consisting of a gray crown and white eyebrow stripe bordered above and below by black lines. Adults also have the red eyes that give this particular vireo its common name. The term “vireo,” originating in Latin, can be translated into English as “green bird.” It’s an apt description, as many of these small birds are primarily dull green in coloration. Consider the vireos the “Plain Janes” of songbirds.

Photo by Jean Potter • A red-eyed vireo fledgling calls for a food delivery, which will arrive in the beak of one of the young bird’s parents.

A red-eyed vireo painted by John James Audubon.

Other vireos that can be found in the United States, for at least part of the year, include Philadelphia vireo, plumbeous vireo and Cassin’s vireo. A specialty of Florida is the black-whiskered vireo, while the black-capped vireo is an endangered species found in Texas. Two others, Bell’s vireo and gray vireo, are identified as species of concern on the Audubon Watchlist.

Many species of vireo are also found in the islands of the Caribbean, including Jamaican vireo, Cuban vireo and Puerto Rican Vireo. The thick-billed vireo can be found in the Bahamas, which were recently pulverized by Hurricane Dorian. The thick-billed vireo is very similar to the white-eyed vireo, which is a summer resident in our region.

My only birding outside of the United States took place in the Bahamas 20 years ago. My highlights included two hummingbirds — Bahama woodstar and Cuban emerald — as well as bananaquits, black-faced grassquit, Western spindalis, Cuban pewee and other interesting species. I didn’t see a thick-billed vireo, but I did get my first-ever look at a Cape May warbler. I was visiting the Bahamas in January of 1999, which proved a fortunate time since many warblers migrate to these islands for the cold months. I’m hopeful that both people and birds on the islands Abaco and Grand Bahama and smaller islands most affected by the monster storm are able to recover soon.

Some of the more colorful common names for vireos include the dwarf vireo, golden vireo and yellow-winged vireo.  In Central and South America, the vireo family expands to include many birds with common names such as shrike-vireo, greenlet and peppershrike. Some of the varied species include lemon-chested greenlet, green shrike-vireo and the black-bellied peppershrike.

I still focus most of my birding efforts on warblers in the autumn, but vireos are always a pleasant diversion when the colorful warblers make themselves scarce.

Photo by Jean Potter • The blue-headed vireo prefers wooded habitats at higher elevations.