Tag Archives: Johnson City Press

Welcoming Eastern towhees into yards, gardens easy to accomplish

Photo by Ken Thomas • A male Eastern towhee forages for food in the grass beneath a feeder.

It’s the time of year when young birds start making their first forays to feeders, usually accompanied by their parents and siblings. In recent weeks, I’ve seen everything from young brown thrashers and tufted titmice to ruby-throated hummingbirds and Eastern bluebirds.

Ann Windsor posted an interesting photo on my Facebook page last month that illustrates this emergence of a new generation of feathered friends. Her photo showed a male Eastern towhee escorting one of his offspring to a feeder on the deck of Ann’s home in Selmer, Tennessee.

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted these Eastern towhees.

Her post followed up a video she had posted of a pair of towhees visiting her feeder.

“I wanted to share with you about our towhee bird,” Ann noted in her post. “We call him ‘pretty boy,’ and he has been coming to our feeder now for two years or more.”

Back in early June, the male towhee showed up with a female for the first time. “She was more comfortable around us and got in the feeder with him,” Ann wrote. “We have so enjoyed him.”

Ann has made some interesting observations about the male towhee. “When he is in the little feeder dish, he’s the boss,” she wrote. “Any other birds come along, even the blue jays, and he runs them off.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • Female Eastern towhees are retain the male’s white and rusty-orange plumage, but they are brown instead of black like their male counterparts.

Ann’s day-to-day encounters with the towhees has turned into a “fun relationship” as the birds have learned to trust her enough that they don’t fly away when she’s in the yard.

I mentioned in a response to her first posting that the towhees would likely bring their young to her feeders once they left the nest. Indeed, about a month later, Ann posted another photo. In this particular picture, the male towhee arrives at the feeder with one of his recently fledged young.

“We have seen three so far,” Ann noted. She added that the young towhee in the photo loves to get up in one of the flower pots and dig around.

“I was wondering, as the young ones grow up, do they stay in the area, or do they go off to find their own territory?” Ann asked at the end of her post.

In my response, I told Ann that many birds have fidelity to the place where they were born, but things could get crowded if the adult birds also stay put. The parent towhees will probably “encourage” the young birds to strike out on their own and establish their own territories as adults. They might, however, become “neighbors” and choose a location not too far from her home.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Eastern towhee scratches for seeds on the ground beneath a feeder.

Eastern towhees spend a considerable amount of time on the ground and hidden in thickets and hedges. Other common names for this bird includes “ground robin” and “swamp robin.”€ They are one of the larger members of the sparrow family, however, and not related to the thrush family, which includes such birds as American robin, Eastern bluebird and wood thrush.

Unlike the many “€œbrown”€ members of the sparrow family, the Eastern Towhee is a brightly colored bird. Males have a black hood. The black coloration extends into the back and tail. The belly is white, and the sides are flanked with a rusty-red orange. In flight, their black tails are bordered with white feathers, which produces a dramatic flash of contrasting colors. The female Eastern Towhee is an attractive bird in her own right. She shares the rufous sides and white coloration that are present in the male’s plumage. However, the male’€™s black feathers are replaced by a warm, chocolate brown plumage in the female.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Eastern Towhee visits a feeder in July. The chance to see young birds is a great reason to offer food during the summer, but some precautions should be taken to minimize uninvited guests.

The Eastern towhee is one of my favorite yard birds, but not just because of its dramatic appearance. These birds also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males will seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite aptly, as “Drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “€œChew-ink”€ and “€œToe-Hee,” which is the basis for this bird’s common name.

The sparrows known as towhees are spread across two different genuses and consist of Abert’s towhee, California towhee and canyon towhee in the Melozone genus and the Eastern towhee, spotted towhee, green-tailed towhee, and collared towhee in the genus Pipilo. The genus name Pipilo is derived from Latin and roughly translates as “the chirping bunting.”

Keep watching your feeders. At this time of year, they provide one of the best venues for observing quality family time among our feathered friends.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern towhee peeks from the grass as she forages on the ground.

Pigeons belong to a remarkable and diverse family of birds

 

Photo by Karen McSharry • This rock pigeon made a recent visit to a home in Bristol, Virginia. Not native to North America, the pigeon has been here almost since the first Europeans arrived on the continent.

Karen McSharry, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, emailed me recently with some photos asking for help in determining an identification of the bird depicted in her photos.

“This fellow made a sharp descent and landed on my deck with a thud,” Karen wrote. “He just stood there, seemed stunned and didn’t move or make a sound.”

After an hour or so, her husband picked the bird up and set him in the wooded area behind their house.

“He doesn’t seem to be there now, over a week later,” she added.

Karen said that at first glance pigeon came to mind as she tried to identify her visiting feathered friend. “But his head is bigger and black,” she wrote. “There didn’t seem to be any iridescence.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • The Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica) is a striking wild pigeon in appearance that is found on small islands and in coastal regions from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, India, east through the Malay Archipelago, to the Solomons and Palau.

I wrote back and told Karen to trust her instincts. The bird she photographed was indeed a pigeon, known more formally as rock pigeon.

Once also known as rock doves, this pigeon is not native to North America, but the species has been here almost from the time the first Europeans began to sail to the shores of what eventually became the United States and Canada. The rock pigeon is native to Europe, Africa and parts of Asia, but the species has long been domesticated. Pigeons display a lot of variety in their appearance. Through artificial selection, the rock pigeon has been bred into all sorts of other patterns and colors beyond the wild bird’s standard appearance.

I don’t usually get pigeons at my home, although I did once have a domesticated bird visit my feeders for a few days. This particular bird had a band on one leg. I found out later it was a “homing” pigeon, which are pigeons trained to carry messages. After they deliver their message, they return “home,” hence the term “homing pigeon.” But they are still basically just a domesticated variety of rock pigeon.

Gordon Randall Smith, a resident of Saltville, Virginia, might be one of the region’s foremost authorities on pigeons. Eighty-one years old, he has bred pigeons for the past 76 years. He’s also raised game chickens and described his place as once being “like a zoo.”

Photo by Pixabay.com • The Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura victoria) is a large, bluish-grey pigeon with elegant blue lace-like crests, maroon breast, and red irises. A wild bird, this pigeon shows that nature is just as inventive as humans at giving some birds unusual and outlandish appearances.

Gordon has understandable difficulty naming a favorite domestic pigeon strain. “With hundreds of breeds available, choice becomes overwhelming,” Gordon wrote. “Throughout years of close relationships and interested involvement, preferences creep in.”

After consideration, he identified the Bohemian fairy swallow as his favorite variety of pigeon, followed by Chinese owls, crested helmets and Budapest muffed stork tumblers, as well as Lahore and Indian ribbon tailed fantails.

An uncle, Landon Smith, introduced him to the love for the propagation of a variety of domestic pigeons. “I’ve been a fancier, breeder and vivid admirer of birds throughout my amazing and very fruitful life on this planet earth,” Gordon wrote in a letter.

“I was introduced to a covey of ringneck mourning doves and pigeons at uncle Landon Smith’s passing,” Gordon noted. He described his uncle as a very dedicated person who kept various birds, animals and even exotic creatures of nature.

I looked up some of these whimsical names online. Although the basic pigeon stock is apparent in their makeup, these fanciful breeds truly show how enthusiastically the rock pigeon has embraced domestication.

In the wild, rock pigeons display an affinity for nesting and roosting on cliffs and rock ledges, hence the bird’s common name. Feral pigeons in large cities like New York have merely substituted high rises and skysrcapers for craggy cliffs.

Pigeons and doves constitute the avian family Columbidae and the order Columbiformes, which includes about 42 genera and 310 species. North America is home to several native doves, including the mourning dove, Inca dove, common ground dove, ruddy ground dove and white-winged dove. The latter was made famous in a refrain in the song “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks.

Other doves and pigeons found around the globe include such fancifully named birds as pink-necked green pigeon, lemon dove, silvery pigeon, black cuckoo-dove, pheasant pigeon, purple-tailed imperial pigeon, topknot pigeon, common emerald dove, blue-headed wood dove, ruddy quail-dove, red-billed pigeon and Victoria crown pigeon. The diversity of form and function among wild doves and pigeons rivals anything that has been produced in their domesticated kin.

The now-extinct dodo was arguably the most famous member of the diverse family that includes pigeons and doves.

Cardinals don’t always look their best during late summer

Photo Courtesy of Gina Fannin • This female Northern cardinal, with a head devoid of feathers, appeared at a home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although these strange looking cardinals often surprise people, they are not all that uncommon in late summer.

Gina Fannin wrote about an unusual observation of a follicly challenged Northern cardinal at her home in Cincinnati, Ohio. The bird in question, a female cardinal, had lost most of the feathers on her head. Gina took a photo of the bird, which she sent with her email, in which she asked if I have ever encountered a cardinal with such a problem.

Gina said that she has seen male cardinals suffering from baldness, but never a female. “I’ve lived here 24 years, and this is the first time I’ve seen a bald female,” she wrote in her email.

I replied to Gina by informing her that I’ve heard of these strange instances for many years. Bald-headed cardinals seem to be a summer occurrence. I usually get some emails or calls this time of year about people surprised by visits from “weird bald-headed” cardinals. I first began to get calls and email from readers in the late 1990s about this unusual phenomenon that seems to usually afflict cardinals, although I have also seen blue jays suffering from this same ailment.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This female Northern cardinal, shown with one of her offspring at a feeder in late summer, is exhibiting some problems with her feather molt.

I have studied the opinions of various bird experts, but there doesn’t seem to be consensus about the cause. Some believe the “baldness” is caused by an infestation of mites, which are small relatives of spiders and other arachnids. Others believe that the loss of feathers around the head is a part of a normal molting process. This theory is supported by the fact that cardinals do undergo molting in late summer, usually after the conclusion of the nesting season.

The process of molting removes old feathers, which simply drop from the body as new feathers emerge to take their place. For some reason, some cardinals and jays lose all their head feathers at one time before new feathers are ready to take their place. That’s why the condition is typically observed in the summer months. Both male and female cardinals can be afflicted with “bald” heads. It’s strange that the condition primarily affects these two birds, cardinals and jays, both of which have feather crests. On the other hand, cedar waxwings are also crested birds, but I have never observed or received a report on a “bald-headed” cedar waxwing.

Whatever the cause, a “bald-headed” cardinal is an ugly bird. Without feathers, a cardinal is transformed from a showy favorite among bird enthusiasts to a rather grotesque oddity that could aptly be described as resembling a scavenging vulture. Birds like vultures, however, have heads devoid of feathers for a very important reason: As scavengers, a feathered head would become quickly fouled as the bird reaches into the carcasses of dead animals to feed.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This young Northern cardinal visits a feeder in the Atlanta suburbs.

The cardinals I have seen with “bald” heads have been visiting feeders stocked with sunflower seeds or perhaps a holder offering a suet cake. So, the absence of feathers is not a hygienic adaptation on the part of cardinals and jays similar to the hygienic necessity of bald heads among vultures. The good news is that the condition is temporary. The normal molt for a Northern cardinal takes two or three months. The feathers on the head do emerge eventually, which is probably very fortunate for the afflicted birds. Feathers serve as insulation during cold weather. A “bald-headed” cardinal would probably have difficulty surviving winter cold spells.

We’re all accustomed to seeing cardinals at our feeders, but people who feed birds would probably be surprised by how much food cardinals and other feeder visitors obtain away from our well-stocked offerings. During the summer months, cardinals eat a variety of wild seeds, fruit and insects. Some of the fruit consumed by cardinals include elderberry, dogwood, blackberry and wild grapes. Young cardinals still in the nest (and fledglings for some time after leaving the nest) are fed mostly insects, including crickets, spiders, moths and flies.

To make cardinals comfortable in every season, offer plenty of thick vegetation, such as a hedge or row of shrubs, and consider planting some of the fruit trees and shrubs that will help these beautiful birds supplement their diet.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Northern cardinal with most of her head featherless.

Long-running Elizabethton Summer Bird Count finds 115 species

The Elizabethton Bird Club holds two summer bird counts to supplement other bird population monitoring efforts on the birdlife of Tennessee.

This count focuses exclusively on locations within Carter County and was held Saturday, June 9, with 16 observers in five parties plus two yard watchers. A total of 115 species was found, which is slightly above the average of 113 per count. The all-time high was 123 species in 2017. Several species restricted to the higher elevations of East Tennessee were found.

The count yielded some surprises and highlights, including the following:

A single Northern bobwhite represented a species that has been increasingly difficult to find in the area.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Great egret, seen here among cypress trees, made the count for the first time this year.

A couple of birds made their debut appearance on this count, including great egret and fish crow, which is expanding its range rapidly in the region.

Other good finds included ruffed grouse, sharp-shinned hawk, American woodcock, Eurasian collared-dove, yellow-bellied sapsucker, alder flycatcher, least flycatcher, common raven, red-breasted nuthatch, brown creeper, winter wren, golden-crowned kinglet, hermit thrush, grasshopper sparrow, rose-breasted grosbeak, purple finch and pine siskin.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hermit thrush, pictured here, is an uncommon summer nesting bird at high elevations.

The count also found 20 species of warblers, including golden-winged, Swainson’s, magnolia, Blackburnian and yellow-rumped.

Of course, there are always unexpected misses. Birds usually found on summer counts but missed this year included green heron, yellow-crowned night-heron, bald eagle, great horned owl, white-eyed vireo, warbling vireo, purple martin, Kentucky warbler, prairie Warbler and vesper sparrow.

The count total follows:

Canada goose, 91; wood duck, 7; Mallard, 78; Northern bobwhite, 1; ruffed grouse, 2; wild turkey, 35; great blue heron, 42; and great egret, 1.

Black vulture, 2; turkey vulture, 58; sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 3; broad-winged hawk, 1; red-tailed hawk, 10; American kestrel, 1.

Killdeer, 4; American woodcock, 1; rock pigeon, 69; Eurasian collared-dove, 3; mourning dove, 171; and yellow-billed cuckoo, 3.

Eastern screech-owl, 2; barred owl, 1; chuck-will’s widow, 3; whip-poor-will, chimney swift, 46; ruby-throated hummingbird, 35; and belted kingfisher, 10.

Red-bellied woodpecker, 15; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 3; downy woodpecker, 15; hairy woodpecker, 1; Northern flicker, 9; and pileated woodpecker, 14.

Eastern wood-pewee, 17; Acadian flycatcher, 21; alder flycatcher, 3; least flycatcher, 4; Eastern phoebe, 40; great crested flycatcher, 4; and Eastern kingbird, 15.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern phoebe is a common flycatcher in the region and abundant on summer counts.

Yellow-throated vireo, 2; blue-headed vireo, 44; red-eyed vireo, 105; blue jay, 66; American crow, 133; fish crow, 1; and common raven, 5.

Northern rough-winged swallow, 21; tree swallow, 123; barn swallow, 106; and cliff swallow, 313.

Carolina chickadee, 63; tufted titmouse, 71; red-breasted nuthatch, white-breasted nuthatch, 15; brown creeper, 3; house wren, 48; winter wren. 8; and Carolina wren, 54.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher, 17; golden-crowned kinglet, 23; Eastern bluebird, 71; veery, 41; hermit thrush, 1; wood thrush, 62; American robin, 245; gray catbird, 44; brown thrasher, 12; Northern mockingbird, 34; European starling, 358; and cedar waxwing, 54.

Overnbird, 47; worm-eating warbler, 6; Louisiana waterthrush, 11, golden-winged warbler, 6; black-and-white warbler, 32; Swainson’s warbler, 3; common yellowthroat, 20; hooded warbler, 76; American redstart, 14; Northern parula, 18; magnolia warbler, 6; Blackburnian warbler, 4; yellow warbler, 2; chestnut-sided warbler, 32; black-throated blue warbler, 39; pine warbler, 1; yellow-rumped warbler, 1; yellow-throated warbler, 7; black-throated green warbler, 29; Canada warbler, 11; and yellow-breasted chat, 3.

Eastern towhee, 73; chipping sparrow, 73; field sparrow, 43; grasshopper sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 151; and dark-eyed junco, 55.

Scarlet tanager, 18; Northern cardinal, 108; rose-breasted grosbeak, 11; blue grosbeak, 6; indigo bunting, 106.

Red-winged blackbird, 79; Eastern meadowlark, 1; common grackle, 74; brown-headed cowbird, 18, orchard oriole, 1; and Baltimore oriole, 1.

House finch, 43; purple finch, 2; pine siskin, 2; American goldfinch, 55; and house sparrow, 6.

Carter County’s Roan Mountain and Holston Mountain offer excellent high elevation habitat. Lower elevations along the Doe and Watauga Rivers also provide plenty of terrain for looking for a variety of birds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • American goldfinches look their very best for the summer count.

Unicoi County summer survey finds 107 bird species

Photo by JudaM/Pixabay.com • Birds that nest at some high elevations, such as this red-breasted nuthatch, thrive at different locations in Unicoi County. A total of six red-breasted nuthatches were tallied on the recent Unicoi County Summer Bird Count.

The Elizabethton Bird Club holds two summer bird counts to supplement other population monitoring efforts on the birdlife of Tennessee. Six years ago, the club launched an annual survey of summer bird populations in Unicoi County.

The sixth annual Unicoi County Summer Count was held Saturday, June 15, with 16 observers in five parties. A total of 107 species was found, which is slightly below the average of 109 species. Unicoi County offers several high elevation species of birds not easily found in the region, according to compiler Rick Knight.

Knight noted that highlights for the count include sharp-shinned hawk, bald eagle, yellow-bellied sapsucker, least flycatcher, warbling vireo, common raven, red-breasted nuthatch, brown creeper, golden-crowned kinglet and hermit thrush. The count also found 18 species of warblers, including Swainson’s, Kentucky, magnolia and prairie.

Photo by Jean Potter • Golden-crowned kinglet is another high-elevation species found in Unicoi County during the summer.

The most common birds found in the count included American robin (241), European starling (224) indigo bunting (147) and song sparrow (146).

Some expected birds could not be found on the day of the count, including ruffed grouse, great horned owl, winter wren, Blackburnian warbler and pine warbler.

I counted with Dave and Connie Irick, Brookie and Jean Potter and Brenda Richards in the Limestone Cove community of Unicoi County. Some of our best birds included yellow-breasted chat, yellow-bellied sapsucker, rose-breasted grosbeak and Swainson’s warbler.

The total for this year’s Unicoi Bird Count follows:

Canada goose, 90; wood duck, 27; mallard, 33; wild turkey, 5; great blue heron, 2; and green heron, 3.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Both black and turkey vultures were well represented on the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count.

Black vulture, 7; turkey vulture, 33; sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 1; bald eagle, 1; broad-winged hawk, 9; red-tailed hawk, 7; and American kestrel, 3.

Killdeer, 9; rock pigeon, 78; mourning dove, 70; yellow-billed cuckoo, 7; Eastern screech-owl, 1; and barred owl, 3.

Chuck-will’s widow, 3; Eastern whip-poor-will, 9; chimney swift, 37; ruby-throated hummingbird, 14; and belted kingfisher, 2.

Red-bellied woodpecker, 8; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 8; downy woodpecker, 17; hairy woodpecker, 1; Northern flicker, 8; and pileated woodpecker, 11.

Eastern wood-pewee, 4; Acadian flycatcher, 26; least flycatcher, 1; Eastern phoebe, 41; great crested flycatcher, 2; and Eastern kingbird, 8.

White-eyed vireo, 3; yellow-throated vireo, 1; blue-headed vireo, 23; warbling vireo, 2; and red-eyed vireo, 105.

Blue jay, 66; American crow, 84; common raven, 8; Northern rough-winged swallow, 53; purple martin, 40; tree swallow, 106; barn swallow, 152; and cliff swallow, 128.

Carolina chickadee, 69; tufted titmouse, 55; red-breasted nuthatch, 6; white-breasted nuthatch, 15; brown creeper, 3; house wren, 22; and Carolina wren, 60.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher, 20; golden-crowned kinglet, 4; Eastern bluebird, 62, veery, 11; hermit thrush, 3; wood thrush, 41; and American robin, 241.

Gray catbird, 25; brown thrasher, 11; Northern mockingbird, 27; European starling, 224; and cedar waxwing, 34.

Ovenbird, 36; worm-eating warbler, 17; Louisiana waterthrush, 10, black-and-white warbler, 15; Swainson’s warbler, 8; Kentucky warbler, 1; common yellowthroat, 10; hooded warbler, 75; American redstart, 2; Northern parula, 20; magnolia warbler, 1; yellow warbler, 6; chestnut-sided warbler, 9; black-throated blue warbler, 19; yellow-throated warbler, 15; prairie warbler, 1; black-throated green warbler, 17; Canada warbler, 8; and yellow-breasted chat, 2.

????????????????????????????????????

Eastern towhee, 46; chipping sparrow, 55; field sparrow, 7; song sparrow, 146; and dark-eyed junco, 17.

Scarlet tanager, 30; Northern cardinal, 64; rose-breasted grosbeak, 5; blue grosbeak, 3; and indigo bunting, 147.

Red-winged blackbird, 70; Eastern meadowlark, 9; common grackle, 71; brown-headed cowbird, 14; orchard oriole, 3; Baltimore oriole, 1; house finch, 19; American goldfinch, 92; and house sparrow, 18.

Unicoi County offers some great habitat for finding birds. In addition to the new state park, the county also offers Erwin Fishery Park and adjacent walking trails, as well as Unaka Mountain. The diversity of birds found on the summer count is a testament to the value of these habitats for birds and other wildlife.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Green herons, such as this one, are found along the linear trail in Erwin during the summer months.

 

Eastern phoebe belongs to extensive flycatcher family

Photo by leoleobobeo/Pixabay.com • An Eastern phoebe perches on a garden shepherd’s hook. Phoebes, a member of the extensive New World flycatcher family, are adept at capturing flying insect prey by utilizing elevated perches.

Jill Henderson, who resides in Saltville, Virginia, emailed me recently with a question about a bird nesting atop a column on her back porch.

Jill provided me with four photographs attached to her email that greatly assisted in identifying the nesting birds on her back porch. 

“It seems to enjoy the water in my pool,” she added. Indeed, a couple of the photos showed the bird perched poolside on one of her lawn chairs. 

The nesting birds turned out to be Eastern phoebes, which are a member of the extensive family of birds known as “tyrant flycatchers.” The information about the pool assisted with the identification. Phoebes show an affinity for water, whether the source is a creek, pond or even a residential swimming pool.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe scans from a perch for flying insect prey.

Considering the bright finery worn by some of the more colorful spring arrivals, it’s understandable if the return of Eastern phoebes escape immediate notice each year. In comparison with vibrant birds like rose-breasted grosbeak, ruby-throated hummingbird, scarlet tanager and yellow warbler, the Eastern phoebe is downright drab with its gray-black and dingy white plumage. Nevertheless, this member of the flycatcher clan has earned itself a favorite spot in the hearts of many a birdwatcher. It’s one of those birds that even beginning birders find surprisingly easy to recognize and identify after a bit of study. While it may not have a dramatic plumage pattern to hint at its identity, the Eastern phoebe is quite at home around human dwellings and comes into close contact with people going about their daily routines. Rather tame — or at least not too bothered by close proximity with humans — the Eastern phoebe has one behavior that sets it apart from all the other similar flycatchers. When this bird lands on a perch, it cannot resist a vigorous bobbing of its tail. Every time a phoebe lands on a perch, it will produce this easily recognized tail dip and rise. It’s a behavior that makes this bird almost instantly recognizable among birders with a knowledge of the trait.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe fledgling only recently out of the nest.

Photo by Sarangib/Pixabay.com • A black phoebe perches on a post near a palm tree.

The Eastern phoebe is also an enthusiastic springtime singer, and the song it chooses to sing is an oft-repeated two-syllable call “FEE-bee” that provides the inspiration for this bird’s common name. The Eastern phoebe, known by the scientific name of Sayornis phoebe, has two relatives in the genus Sayornis. The genus is named after Thomas Say, an American naturalist. The Eastern phoebe’s close relatives include the black phoebe and Say’s phoebe. The black phoebe ranges throughout Oregon, Washington and California and as far south as Central and South America. As its name suggests, this bird has mostly black feathers instead of the gray plumage of its relatives. The Say’s phoebe, also named for the man who gave the genus its name, is the western counterpart to the Eastern phoebe.

The phoebes belong to the the world’s largest family of birds, which is known collectively as the “tyrant flycatchers.” With more than 400 species, this family of birds consists of species known as tyrannulets, elaenias, pygmy tyrants, tody-flycatchers, spadebills, flatbills, attilas, kingbirds and kiskadees. 

Since they belong to the vast family of New World flycatchers, it’s probably no surprise that these phoebes feed largely on insects. The birds will often perch patiently until an insect’s flight brings it within easy range. A quick flight from its perch usually allows the skillful bird to return with a morsel snatched on the wing. In the winter months, the Eastern phoebe also eats berries and other small fruit. Phoebes can even feed on poison ivy berries without risk of ill effects.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern Phoebe perches on barbed wire.

Phoebes are fond of nesting on human structures, including culverts, bridges and houses. With the latter, they were once known for their habit of placing their nests under sheltering eaves. At my home, a pair of Eastern phoebes often chooses to nest on the wooden rafters in my family’s garage.  Although the species is migratory, a few hardy individuals will usually try to tough out winters in the region. The others that depart in the autumn will migrate to the southern United States and as far south as Central America. On some rare occasions, Eastern phoebes have flown far off their usual course and ended up in western Europe. I can usually count on Eastern phoebes returning to my home in early March, making them one of the first migrants to return each year. Their arrival rarely goes unnoticed since the males tend to start singing persistently as soon as they arrive.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern phoebe nestlings stay in their nest atop a blade on an outdoor ceiling fan.

 

John James Audubon, an early naturalist and famed painter of North America’s birds, conducted an experiment with some young phoebes that represents the first-ever bird banding in the United States of America. His novel experiment, which he carried out in 1803, involved tying some silver thread to the legs of the phoebes he captured near his home in Pennsylvania. He wanted to answer a question he had about whether birds are faithful to home locations from year to year. The following year, Audubon again captured two phoebes and found the silver thread had remained attached to their legs. Today, ornithologists still conduct bird banding to gather information on birds and the mystery of their migrations. So, that pair of phoebes that returned to your backyard this spring — they just might be the same ones that have spent past summer seasons providing you with an enlightening glimpse into their lives.

Jill reminded me that she had written to me a few years back and had mentioned difficulty with hummingbird feeders and bears. “I am happy to report that so far this summer, there have been no incidents,” she wrote.

Her email also reminded me of a recent surprise. I awoke recently to the sound of a disturbance outside my bedroom window. I figured rambunctious squirrels were raiding my feeders. I raised the blind and surprised myself and a young black bear. Standing on his hind legs, the bear had managed to hook its paws on one of my feeders that hangs about four feet off the ground. The bear, probably a yearling based on its size, fled the scene, which probably spared my feeder. 

If you have a question, wish to comment on a column or share an observation, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. If you want help with identification, photographs definitely help.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern phoebe utilizes a hiking trail sign as an elevated perch.

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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