Tag Archives: Kingsport Times

Indigo buntings common and colorful summer bird in region

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting’s one of the region’s more vibrantly colored birds of summer.

The recent five-county Spring Bird Count, conducted Saturday, May 4, by the Elizabethton Bird Club, found 145 species in the five Northeast Tennessee counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington. The count included such cities as Bristol, Johnson City, Jonesborough, Kingsport, Erwin, and Mountain City. A total of 57 participants in 11 parties counted during the annual survey of avian populations in the region. The long-running count is the only spring census of birds conducted in the area.

Not surprisingly, some of the most abundant birds included Canada goose, European starling, American crow, red-winged blackbird and common grackle. Some of the more common songbirds included red-eyed vireo, Northern cardinal, American robin, hooded warbler, American goldfinch and Indigo bunting.

The indigo bunting is one of the reasons spring is such a wonderful time of the year to watch the visitors to feeders. This small songbird likes to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer. One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings — still return each year to my yard and gardens.

Photon by Bryan Stevens • Indigo Buntings will perch on wires and sing for hours even during hot summer days.

These birds usually arrive in the region in late April, and I’ve seen them linger until late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September. Upon arrival, male indigo buntings become tenacious singers, repeating their jumbled notes even during the hottest hours of summer afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees, where they are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

The indigo bunting is the only solid blue bird in the eastern United States, but it’s all an illusion — literally a trick of the light. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue; the male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of diffraction of light around the structure of the bird’s feathers. This process scatters all but the blue light, and the resulting color shifts from black to blue to turquoise as the angle of reflected light changes. In bright light, it can even look unnaturally vivid blue. In poor light, however, an indigo bunting male can appear black. Fortunately, indigo buntings have both a characteristic body shape and song, so even if the birds are not seen at their best, they can still be recognized.

Early American naturalist and artist captured the differences in male, female and immature indigo buntings in this painting of the species.

Soon after returning to the eastern United States each spring, female buntings begin to gather materials to construct a well-crafted, cup-shaped nest. The male usually stays close to her, but he offers no assistance with nest building. She usually lays a clutch of three to four eggs, but she may nest another two times in a single season.

She will incubate the eggs for almost two weeks, but the young remain in the nest another two weeks after being hatched as featherless, blind and helpless young completely dependent on the care of attentive parents. The task of raising so many broods in the space of only a few months requires the participation of both the female and her mate, who must work hard to bring enough insects to the nest to keep the young fed.

Like many species of songbirds, the male is by far the most colorful. In this instance, the male is also responsible for the species’ name. Indigo is a blue dye that was once an important crop in the South. The drab female may boast some blue highlights in her plumage. Juvenile birds just out of the nest also resemble the female. Pay close attention to any indigo buntings you observe as summer progresses. Juvenile birds will look mostly brown with just a hint of blue in the wings and the tail. These will be the young buntings that were hatched this spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders.

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. Although some books indicate that males are not very active in rearing young, I have on numerous occasions witnessed male buntings feeding fledglings at feeders. Indigo bunting juveniles, like the young of many other birds, beg for tidbits from parents by “bowing,” spreading their wings and shivering. These actions usually prompt a parent to pop some morsel into an impatient youngster’s open bill. Indigo buntings are relatively easy to view. They frequent weedy fields and roadside brush. During the breeding season, males can also be seen singing from prominent perches. The song, a distinctive jumble of notes, can help observers find these dedicated singers.

The male indigo bunting is one of the most colorful birds to visit feeders in the region. This species is also extremely fond of millet seed. I like to have some feeders stocked with millet when the buntings begin to return each spring. They will also feed on thistle and sunflower seeds. Away from our feeders, they also devour plenty of seeds from various noxious weeds. Because of the indigo bunting’s appetite for the seeds of destructive weeds, it is considered a beneficial bird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Newly-returned neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increased the total number of species for the annual spring count.

One of the most attractive summer scenes is to observe American goldfinches and indigo buntings feeding together on the nodding heads of summer sunflowers. The goldfinch males, resplendent in their bright yellow and black plumage, compete with the blue indigo bunting males for the fresh sunflower seeds. When bright red male Northern cardinals join in, observers have a complete artists’s palette for summer viewing.

The indigo bunting will usually respond to human squeaks that imitate a bird’s call. When a flock or family group of buntings are disturbed by a human observer, they usually begin a chorus of alarmed “chipping.”

As I indicated earlier, indigo buntings remain in the region until late September. Although this bird typically winters in Mexico, Panama and the Caribbean, in recent decades some indigo buntings have only gone as far south as Florida to spend the winter. There in the Sunshine State, the indigo buntings may mingle with a close relative, the splendidly multi-colored painted bunting. I usually see these vibrant songbirds whenever I visit coastal South Carolina in spring or summer. Male painted buntings are probably one of the most colorful birds in the United States with hues of red, green, purple and blue in their feathers.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male painted bunting enjoys a bath in a fountain at Hunting Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Other North American buntings include the snow bunting, the lazuli bunting and the lark bunting, which is also the official state bird for Colorado. Some of the common but descriptive names for some of the world’s other buntings include rose-bellied bunting, orange-breasted bunting, cinereous bunting, white-capped bunting, lark-like bunting, ochre-rumped bunting, golden-breasted bunting, chestnut-bunting, red-headed bunting, yellow bunting, blue bunting, little bunting, brown-rumped bunting, meadow bunting, corn bunting and crested bunting.

Keep your feeders stocked with millet and sunflower seeds if you want to increase your chances of seeing indigo buntings, as well as other handsome summer songbirds such as American goldfinch, chipping sparrow and Eastern towhee.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although bright blue, a male indigo bunting will often blend with its surroundings.

Birds serve as muses to inspire poets to greater heights

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Photo by makamuki0/Pixabay.com • The turtledove has featured prominently in poems and other literature, including the holiday song “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

With May’s arrival, other migrating birds have made stops in my yard, providing some excitement to the daily routine. It’s easy to wax poetic about the birds around us. Indeed, poets have been incorporating birds into some of their best-known work for centuries.

The Bard himself penned a poem titled “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” While the phoenix is a mythical bird and not one actually found in nature, the “turtle” in the poem’s title refers to the well-known European turtledove. Even before Shakespeare glorified the turtledove in his poetry, this small dove had already been entangled with myth and legend stretching back to Ancient Greece and Rome. For instance, the turtledove was considered by the Greeks as sacred to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Romans adopted the turtledove as an emblem of their goddess Fides, who reigned over the attributes of trust and faith. Perhaps, even more famously, the turtledove is still known today in the lyrics of the enduring Christmas carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” as the gift given on the second day of Christmas.

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Photo by skylarvision/Pixabay.com • The phoenix was a legendary bird that, if destroyed, arose from its own ashes to live again.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave us his gloomy “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1798. The longest of his poems, it tells of a sailor who brings ill fortune upon himself by shooting an albatross, which is a family of sea-going birds consisting of about two dozen species. The poem also inspired the phrase “having an albatross around one’s neck” as a metaphor for bad luck.

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The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge popularized the phrase “albatross around one’s neck” to suggest a period of ill fortune in his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Albatrosses are large birds with wingspans larger than most other birds, making them capable of spending almost their entire lives at sea except for the times they come ashore for the purpose of nesting. The entire family has been besieged by a variety of problems, many of which are caused by humans. Three albatross species are critically endangered, five species are endangered, seven species are near threatened and seven species are considered vulnerable.

One of America’s most famous poets often looked to the natural world, especially its feathered inhabitants, for inspiration for some of her most famous poetry. “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson is arguably one of the finest metaphors in American poetry, with the abstract concept of hope being equated with a bird Dickinson likely observed in her gardens in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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The poet Emily Dickinson’s perceptive observations of the natural world show in her poetry.

I’ve always enjoyed Dickinson’s “A Bird Came Down the Walk,” which transforms an ordinary encounter between a bird and a woman tossing it a crumb into an inspiring message of perseverance. One cannot help but feel that Dickinson, a famously reclusive woman, also envied the bird its power of flight and the freedom its wings gave it.

A near contemporary of Dickinson, and one famous for his moody, rhythmical works, Edgar Allan Poe published his masterpiece “The Raven” in 1845. While the poem won him many fans, he received a paltry $9 from the magazine “The American Review” for the work. Perhaps because of the insulting matter of compensation, Poe first allowed the work to be published under a pseudonym. “The New York Evening Mirror” became the first outlet to publish the poem with Poe’s name attached to it.

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Edgar Allan Poe

The young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a classic poem titled “To a Skylark” in 1820. Shelley, one of the English Romantic poets, has been overshadowed in some ways by his wife, the novelist Mary Shelley, who provided the world with the enduring novel Frankenstein. Shelley apparently wrote his poem after he and his wife encountered one of these birds during a stroll in the countryside during a trip to Italy.

As is the case with good literature, Shelley’s poem inspired other authors. Reportedly, the English playwright Noël Coward and the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald received inspiration from lines in the poem to create titles for their respective works, “Blithe Spirit” and “Tender is the Night.” American playwright Tennessee Williams titled his first play “Not About Nightingales,” apparently as a reaction to Shelley’s ode.

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Although his wife arguably achieved more fame with her novel, Frankenstein, Percy Bysshe Shelley won immortality with his memorable poems in the spirit of English Romanticism.

The Eurasian skylark is a widespread species found across Europe and Asia. This bird has also been introduced in various locations around the world. In North America, introduced populations of skylarks are found on southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia and San Juan Island in the state of Washington.

The only native lark in North America is the horned lark, also known by its scientific name of Alauda alpestris, which translated means “lark of the mountains.” The horned lark is a common, widespread bird of open country, such as prairies, deserts, and agricultural lands. Although horned larks also sing in flight like their relative, only the Eurasian skylark seems to be famous enough for its song to inspire poets to write tributes. The Eastern meadowlark, a fairly common bird in the region, is not an actual lark but a member of the blackbird family.

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Photo by Kathy2408/Pixabay.com • A Eurasian skylark perches on a wire. This bird once inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write his famous poem “To a Skylark.”

 

Based on the opening lines to Shelley’s poem, it can be safely argued that Shelley was particularly impressed by the skylark’s song.

“Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”

Birds are continually inspiring us, much like a singing skylark once served as an avian muse for one of Shelley’s most famous poems. Whether it is their song, their beauty, or their free spirits, birds are certainly worthy of a poem or two.

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all – And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – And sore must be the storm – That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm – I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea – Yet – never – in Extremity, It asked a crumb – of me.                                   — by Emily Dickinson

 

 

Now that hummingbirds are back, take some simple steps to keep them healthy

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Welcoming back hummingbirds also involves making sure that they remain healthy and safe while spending the next six months in our yards and gardens.

Bristol residents Don and Donna Morrell saw their first hummingbird of spring at 10:19 a.m. on Monday, April 15. “My wife put the feeder up last week,” wrote Don in an email to me. “We live behind South Houston Dam.”

Gordon Aiton, who lives on Elm Street in Erwin, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird of spring at 7:04 p.m. on Friday, April 19.

Phyllis Moore saw her first hummingbird — a male — at 7:50 p.m. on Friday, April 19, at her home in Bristol, Virginia.

Lynda Carter emailed me to report her first spring sighting of a male ruby-throated hummingbird at her feeder after lunch on Monday, April 15, and a second male appeared on Friday, April 19, a little after 1 p.m. Lynda said she lives at the end of Embreeville mountain in the Lamar community near Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Susan Okrasinski, a resident of Kingsport, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of spring on Easter Sunday, April 21.

“On my way into the kitchen I just saw (be still my heart) the first hummer of the season — whoo hoo!” Susan wrote in a post on her Facebook page. “It was a female, which is unusual as the males come up first and the females follow.  What a nice Easter surprise!”

Joanne Campbell, who lives at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page about her first spring hummer. “Had our first hummingbird sweep into our courtyard on Tuesday, April 23,” she wrote in her post.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A ruby-throated hummingbird seeks nectar from small blooms on a flower.

Every hummingbird’s arrival at our homes after an absence of nearly six months is nothing short of an epic achievement on the part of this tiny bird. According to the website, hummingbird.net, most ruby-throated hummingbirds make a daring journey across the Gulf of Mexico to return to their summer homes in the United States and Canada. They typically depart at dusk for their nonstop Gulf flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours, depending on the weather.

Now that we’ve welcomed them back into our yards and gardens after such a harrowing journey, it’s important as good hosts to make sure these tiny wonders are kept safe.

Some ways of ensuring that our hummingbird guests are kept healthy and secure are simply common sense. For instance, don’t use pesticides, herbicides or any other sort of toxin anywhere close to the vicinity of a sugar water feeder or a flower garden. Hummingbirds are such tiny creatures with such intense metabolisms that it only takes a minute amount of any harmful substance to sicken or kill one of these little flying gems.

Feeding hummingbirds is easy, but many people try to complicate the process. Only common, pure cane sugar, mixed to a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, is a safe choice for these birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Hummingbirds have even inspired ornaments and keepsakes in their image, a testament to their popularity and beloved status as yard and garden visitors.

For emphasis, I’ll repeat again that only common, pure cane sugar is safe for hummingbirds. There are no safe substitutes. Do not use organic, raw or brown sugar. Confectioner’s sugar, which contains an anti-caking substance (often corn starch, silicates or stearate salts), is also hazardous to hummingbirds.

There’s also a type of sugar known as turbinado sugar, which is named for the process of spinning the sugar in turbines to crystallize it. The crystals are rich in vitamins and mineral valuable for human health, but they are lethal for hummingbirds. Iron is one of the minerals contained in turbinado sugar. Hummingbird metabolism has a low tolerance for iron, which is present in the molasses added to brown sugar and in agave nectar. These are natural substances, but that doesn’t make them safe for hummingbirds.

The ratio of four parts water to one part sugar utilizing pure cane sugar most closely duplicates the nectar that hummingbirds obtain from some of their favorite flowers. Why try to mess with nature’s perfection?

I cannot imagine why anyone would supplement sugar water for hummingbirds with such human beverages as a sports drink or Kool-aid, but there have been reports of people doing so. Be aware that such additives will only risk the health of these tiny birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female ruby-throated hummingbirds must face many demands if they are to be successful at nesting and raising young, both tasks being done without assistance from male hummingbirds.

Honey is another substance, although perfectly natural in its origins, that should be avoided. Honey encourages the growth of fungus, which can quickly incapacitate or kill a hummingbird. A packet of artificial sweetener might taste great in your iced tea, but do not add such substances to the solution in your hummingbird feeder. These artificial sugar substitutes offer nothing of nutritional value for a bird with an extreme metabolism with excessive energy demands. In theory, a hummingbird mistakenly feeding on nothing but an artificial sweetener would soon starve to death.

It’s also important to change out your feeders and clean them as often as every one to three days. In extremely hot weather reaching more than 90 degrees, the sugar solution may need to be changed and the feeder cleaned on a daily basis. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. I prepare sugar water and store it in plastic juice containers. Refrigerated, the solution will last longer and can be doled out on a daily basis until a new supply is needed.

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Photo by sapphir1/Pixabay.com • Although a natural substance, honey should not be fed to hummingbirds as it can promote a fungus harmful to hummingbirds.

Don’t use any type of soap or detergent to clean the feeders. The best advice I’ve read is to stick to hot water and vinegar, which will not leave behind a residue that could potentially harm the hummingbirds.

Do not put any sort of red dye or coloring into the sugar water, and do not purchase commercial solutions that incorporate red dyes. Some scientific studies suggest that red dye is a recipe for disaster with hummingbird. Such dyes are thought to lead to kidney failure and certain death for the hummingbird. There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that banning red dye is an exaggeration of the peril. Taking that into consideration, I still err on the side of caution. Perhaps the red dye will eventually be proven harmless. Until that time, I prefer not to risk the health of my resident hummingbirds.

I’m often asked if the sugar water feeder itself should be red. There is ample evidence that hummingbirds are attracted to red. According to information from the National Audubon Society website, current thinking is that the red dye, as just mentioned, may not be good for them, nor is it necessary to attract hummingbirds. The color on a feeder is enough to attract them. Most feeders incorporate some red parts into their construction. People can mix their own nectar using 1/4 cup sugar to every 1 cup of water.

It’s a lot of work to attract hummingbirds and keep them safe and healthy. I’d like to think the rewards we get from these small birds make the effort worthwhile.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female ruby-throated hummingbird, lacking the bright throat patch of a male, surveys her surroundings from a low perch.

 

Feeding birds can draw some unwelcome guests

Squirrel-AttackPhoto by Dianna Lynne • Leaping onto a fully stocked feeder, an Eastern gray squirrel scatters seeds in all directions. The unconquerable squirrel is one of the most unwanted guests at many bird-feeding stations.

 

The winter bird-feeding season is coming to a close, but there’s no need to pull the welcome mat completely. Some of our summer visitors appreciate some supplemental food. Of course, there’s less need for our offerings during warm weather when insects and other food sources are readily available.

People in Great Britain spend 200 million pounds per year on wild bird food. In the United States, people are spending $4 billion each year on feed for the birds. Another $800 million in spending goes to feeders, bird baths and other accessories used to attract wild birds.

People have been feeding birds in the United States of America since before it was a nation. The father of our country, George Washington, fed wild birds at his home, Mount Vernon. The great writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau fed the birds and learned to identify many of the birds around Walden Pond in Massachusetts. Poet Emily Dickinson tossed crumbs to sparrows and then turned those special moments with her feathered friends into poetry.

Since the time of Washington, Thoreau and Dickinson, if not before, Americans have been supplying food, as well as shelter and water, to persuade birds to bring themselves closer. In return, we enjoy their color, their interesting behavior, their songs, and much more.

I continue feeding during the warmer months, although I do cut back on the quantity of my offerings. One of the best bonuses for engaging in year-round bird feeding is the chance to see parent birds bring their offspring to feeders to introduce them to human-offered fare. Be aware, however, that when you put out a table offering free food, you’re bound to attract some unexpected guests. Sometimes those unanticipated visitors can wreak havoc on the smooth management of a feeding station for your birds.

Here is my version of the Top 5 candidates for a “Not Welcome” list of the wildlife most people would prefer not to entertain at their feeders.

Hawks

The raptors are, of course, birds themselves. Therein rests the irony. Flocks of birds active around feeders are like ringing a dinner bell for some raptors, which have learned that songbirds in such situations on occasion make easy pickings.

It’s not any single raptor that can be identified as the most obvious threat to songbirds. Species such as American kestrel, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, red-shouldered hawk, merlin, peregrine falcon and red-tailed hawk will prey on their fellow birds if given ample opportunity.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Raptors, like this red-tailed hawk, can cause concern when they take up residence near a feeder in a yard or garden.

If a hawk does begin to show interest in your feeders, it may be necessary to curtail or even cease feeding songbirds until after the raptor loses interest and moves on to other hunting grounds.

I hesitate to even place raptors on this list because I believe that every bird is a wonderful creation. It’s best to remember that hawks view smaller birds flocking to a feeder in the same way those small songbirds view the abundance of seeds. For both hawks and songbirds, our offerings represent easy meals. It’s not easy, but the best choice is to co-exist — if not at peace, then at terms with nature’s reality.

Opossums

The Virginia opossum, also known as the North American opossum, or simply “possum,” is often overlooked because its raids on feeders take place after dark. Although the opossum has 50 teeth (that’s more than any other North American mammal has) in its jaws, it shares the night with other active omnivores, including bears and raccoons.

Regardless of its toothy grin, the possum is not adept as hulling sunflower seeds. The telltale sign that a possum is raiding your feeders involves the discovery of little piles of pulped sunflower seeds, hull and all, in your feeder or on the ground beneath it. The possum pulverizes the sunflower seed and evidently tries to extract what nutritional content it can. Of course, suet, nuts and other feeder fare are on the possum’s menu.

This particular possum is the only marsupial found north of Mexico. The continent of Australia is more famous for its marsupials, which include kangaroos, wallabies and wombats.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com • Although the opossum has 50 teeth (that’s more than any other North American mammal has) in its jaws, it shares the night with other active omnivores, including bears and raccoons.

Raccoons

These masked, ring-tailed bandits are the bane of many a person who enjoys feeding birds. While they primarily restrict their raids to the hours between sunset and dawn, some emboldened raccoons will occasionally become brazen enough to stake a claim to feeders in broad daylight. A couple of years ago, a trio of young raccoons arrived early in the evening with plenty of daylight remaining to feed in the feeders while I watched from a nearby lawn chair with my binoculars.

Raccoons will also spirit away feeders. I’ve found hummingbird feeders, suet feeders and small plastic feeders carried a good distance into the woods before the thieving raccoon dropped them. The stolen items are usually damaged but, on occasion, I’ve recovered some of my items that were more or less no worse for the wear.

On one occasion, a crafty raccoon managed to remove a sunflower seed feeder from its branch on a tree outside one of my windows, I later found the portly critter reclining lazily on his back wedged between the trunk and a branch high on a nearby tree, holding the feeder in one arm and reaching into it with the other like a person eating popcorn.

Raccoons are highly intelligent and inquisitive, which only makes them more difficult to discourage from raiding feeders. They can be amusing and entertaining in their own right, but it’s best not to encourage their visits. If they prove too persistent, cease feeding birds until the raccoons have moved to a new location.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Curious and intelligent, raccoons can think of many ways of ransacking a feeding station meant for birds.

 

Bears

A visit from a black bear is hard to miss. With their brute strength, bears are capable of mangling and destroying even the most sturdily constructed of bird feeders. While there are many other unwanted feeder guests, none can match the bear for its sheer capacity for destruction. Black bears can weigh between 200 to 600 pounds, so it’s not hard to imagine their potential for wreaking havoc.

Amanda Austwick lives in Flag Pond, Tennessee. She is a dedicated feeder of our feathered friends, which has led to repeated incidents with problem bears over the years. Amanda lives within the official boundaries of the Cherokee National Forest. Black bears have been thriving in the Cherokee National Forest, as well as throughout the southeastern United States.

When I first corresponded with Amanda several years ago, she was writing to me about a bear attack on her feeders. “One feeder was completely bent over on the ground,” she wrote. I also pointed out that the bear is actually just feeding on the seed. The damage to the feeder is a by-product caused by the fact bears probably don’t know their own strength.

I’ve not gone completely unscathed when it comes to bears and my feeders. Several years ago I owned a nice feeder with a metal meshwork used for holding shelled peanuts, which are loved by birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches and woodpeckers. I woke one morning to find the feeder had been mangled into the equivalent shape of a pretzel.

Compared to the stories told by Amanda, as well as other people who have shared their own bear tales over the years, I got off lucky to only lose a single feeder to a bear. Brookie and Jean Potter, friends who live near Wilbur Lake in Carter County, Tennessee, have had to innovate to stay one step ahead of the bears living in proximity to them. Brookie managed to raise their feeders beyond a bear’s reach using a complicated system of poles and pulleys.

If such proactive measures are not something one wishes to do, there’s one simple step that can be taken. People can bring in their feeders at night to ensure there’s nothing left outdoors to attract the attention of a meandering bear. Bears are omnivores, eating a varied diet ranging from insects and fish to amphibians and bird eggs. When a bear finds a bird feeder, they’re happy to include sunflower seeds or other such fare in their diet. When such food is no longer available, they’re likely to move on.

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Photo Courtesy of Amanda Austwick • This bear caused considerable damage to the Austwick feeders.

Squirrels

They may not match a black bear for sheer destructive capability, but I regard the Eastern gray squirrel as Public Enemy Number One when it comes to having peace and tranquility at a bird-feeding station. What justifies this ranking? It’s simple, really. I know of no sure-fire way to deny a hungry and determined squirrel access to any type of feeder. It’s possible to slow them down, but I think the best we can do is maintain an uneasy truce of co-existence with squirrels.

I wouldn’t begrudge the squirrels some bird seed if they didn’t show such ingratitude by gnawing on feeders. With their sharp incisors, squirrels can chew up and spit out plastic and even wood feeders. More expensive feeders made of ceramics, metal and glass are immune to the same type of squirrel vandalism.

Although I’ve not tried it, I’ve heard that sunflower seed laced with capsaicin will deter squirrels. This spicy substance is even used to deter such large mammals as elephants and grizzly bears. Capsaicin, which is derived from hot peppers, reacts entirely differently with birds. While many mammals will avoid food containing even minute amounts of capsaicin, birds will readily consume it. The difference seems to be that bird receptor cells are largely insensitive to capsaicin.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com • The gray squirrel is a cunning and often destructive guest at feeders intended for the benefit of birds.

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To be sure, I could have added some other wildlife species to the list. White-tailed deer can graze on flowers planted for the benefit of hummingbirds. Deer have even been documented eating the eggs of songbirds, perhaps more for the calcium shell than any other reason. Chipmunks are almost as wily as squirrels, but they’re cuter and non-destructive. Insects, such as bees and hornets, can overwhelm sugar water feeders intended for hummingbirds.

Don’t even get me started on stray cats! A few years back, a study by researchers from the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Center found that between 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds lose their lives to cats each year in the United States. In addition to birds, cats kill billions of small mammals — shrews, voles, mice, rabbits — every year. Most of the carnage is committed by feral or stray cats, not house cats. My own two cats are kept indoors to avoid contributing to the problem.

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Photo by Adriaan Greyling on Pexels.com • A chipmunk accepts crumbs. The cute factor usually works in preventing this rodent from being considered a pest.

Prepare to welcome returning hummingbirds as migrating birds make their way back

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

As it has done for many years now, the website journeynorth.org is tracking the progress of ruby-throated hummingbirds as they return to the United States.

Most of the first sightings of hummingbirds made each spring are of male hummingbirds. The males arrive first so they can find and defend a choice territory for the purpose of attracting females. Indeed, there are many more sightings this week for male ruby-throated hummingbirds from Journey North citizen scientists who live along the Gulf Coast states.

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

On Facebook, I have been doing my own tracking based on posts from friends living farther south. For instance, Marcie McGehee Daniels in Summerville, South Carolina, made a Facebook post on March 22 to share news of her first-of-season ruby-throated hummingbird.

“He drank for a few seconds and then rested in the shade for about 10 minutes, worn out from his trip!” Marcie posted on her Facebook page. She also posted a fantastic photo of the intrepid migrant.

As demonstrated by Marcie’s post, the migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds is drawing closer to our region. They cross the Gulf of Mexico without stopping to reach the Gulf States. Once they make that difficult flight, they will spend some time recuperating before they spread out to make their way northward. Residents in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina should soon be making their first sightings of ruby-throated hummingbirds since these tiny flying gems departed last October.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of ruby-throated hummingbirds in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but people should see a spike in their numbers as the hummingbirds pass through the region this month as they migrate north for another nesting season.

On a recent visit to Fripp Island, South Carolina, I didn’t see any ruby-throated hummingbirds, but I did observe other birds that reminded me that many of my favorite birds should be returning to my home within the next few weeks. I enjoyed sightings of several species of warblers, as well as various shorebirds. Many warblers return to the region in April, and shorebirds may make migration stops at area lakes and rivers as they push rapidly toward breeding grounds in regions far to the north in Canada and Alaska.

Some of the first of the resident summer birds to return to the region each year includes species such as Louisiana waterthrush, brown thrasher, chipping sparrow, tree swallow and blue-gray gnatcatcher. Not too long after these “early birds” have returned, people can expect to start seeing the vanguard of the ruby-throated hummingbird spring migration as these tiny birds, which weigh no more than a nickel, return to their summer nesting grounds across the eastern United States and Canada.

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

As one might imagine, such tiny birds face a range of threats. In addition to offering sugar water feeders and planting gardens with nectar-bearing plants, there are other ways to help ruby-throated hummingbirds thrive.

The American Bird Conservancy recommends paying attention to our buying habits. In the winter months when they are far from their summer homes, ruby-throated hummingbirds are known to winter on shade coffee farms. Unlike today’s typical “sun” coffee farm, which razes all trees but the coffee itself, these traditional farms grow coffee in the shade of native trees. By doing so, they produce superior coffee and provide habitat for dozens of migratory songbirds, according to the ABC.

The importance of shade coffee for migratory birds was confirmed by naturalists Kenn and Kim Kaufman, who estimated that a single shade coffee farm in Nicaragua sheltered more than 1,200 migratory bird species—including the ruby-throated hummingbird—on just 90 acres. The ABC notes that buying bird-friendly coffee is an easy way people can help hummingbirds and many other migratory birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A rufous hummingbird hovers nears a feeder.

While the eastern United States is home only to the ruby-throated hummingbird as a nesting hummingbird species, the western half of the United States and Canada can claim about a dozen nesting species, including rufous hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, Anna’s hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird, black-chinned hummingbird, calliope hummingbird, buff-bellied hummingbird, broad-billed hummingbird and violet-crowned hummingbird.

To track the progress of ruby-throated hummingbird migration for yourself, visit http://www.journeynorth.org to monitor their approach to our region. Ruby-throats typically arrive in our region in early April. The early date for a ruby-throated hummingbird arrival in 2018 took place on April 4. If you don’t have your feeders outdoors and waiting for them, it’s time to do so.

As always, I love to hear from readers about their first hummingbird sighting of the year. Jot down the time and date and contact me by email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. You can also report your sightings on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. I can hardly wait for one of our favorite birds to get back. Let’s give them a hearty welcome.

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

Smallest of the nuthatches finds a niche at woman’s feeders

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Photo by Lee Karmey/USFWS • A pygmy nuthatch captures a caterpillar.

Veronica Rausch contacted me by email to share a story of the nuthatches that frequent the feeders at her home in central Oregon.

“I have a small flock of pygmy nuthatches coming into the feeders next to my dining room window on a regular basis,” Veronica wrote, adding that the nuthatches began their visits about three weeks ago.

Veronica wrote that she lives in the pine forests of Central Oregon at an elevation of about 4,200 feet.

“The pygmy nuthatches are delightful little birds and share the feeders with the chickadees and juncos,” she wrote. “The bigger birds such as the Stellar’s jays and the woodpeckers will cause them to leave.”

Veronica has also enjoyed observing their unusual antics. “I saw one do a little dance on a branch by the suet feeder,” she described in her email. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to grab the camera fast enough! I hope they stick around.”

I replied to Veronica’s email, noting how I consider her fortunate to be hosting the smallest of North America’s nuthatches at her home. Admitting to some envy at her good fortune, I explained that I hope to some day add this species to my life list so I can check all of the continent’s nuthatches off my list of target birds.

Even by nuthatch standards, the pygmy nuthatch is a small bird. In appearance, this nuthatch shows buffy-white underparts contrasted with a brown head and a slate-gray back. They often breed in large extended family flocks, so the four individuals observed by Veronica might very well have been closely related to each other.

Nesting pygmy nuthatches are often assisted in their chores by “nest helpers,” which are close relatives that help the busy parents gather food and feed hungry young. These nest helpers also deliver food to females as they incubate eggs and will mount a spirited defense of a nest threatened by intruders. Their communal nature extends to nocturnal roosting when many individuals will huddle together to ensure their combined body heat helps them survive extremely cold nights.

So how small is the pygmy nuthatch? The adults are barely four inches long and weigh only a third of an ounce. A common fountain pen weighs more than this tiny nuthatch, which goes a long way towards explaining the bird’s scientific name, sitta pygmaea.

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Photo by theSOARnet/Pixabay.com • The brown-headed nuthatch, the southeastern counterpart to the pygmy nuthatch that ranges throughout the Rocky Mountain states, is strongly associated with various types of pine trees.

Pygmy nuthatches are not at all likely to be found in the Mountain Empire or any adjacent areas, but there is another small nuthatch that is found in some extremely localized habitats in the region. The brown-headed nuthatch is a specialist of pine woodlands throughout the southeastern United States, favoring loblolly-shortleaf pines and longleaf-slash pines. This nuthatch requires standing dead trees for nesting and roosting. They forage for food, however, on live pines. The birds are more abundant in older pine stands.

I saw several brown-headed nuthatches during a recent stay on Fripp Island in South Carolina. I’ve also observed this small nuthatch during visits to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia, as well as various other locations in South Carolina. This nuthatch even occurs in the Mountain Empire region, most recently with four of these birds being found at Washington County Park on South Holston Lake near Bristol during the 2018 Christmas Bird Count conducted by the Bristol Bird Club.

These small birds will occasionally forage close to the ground, but they are often in the upper branches of pine trees. Their presence is often revealed by their call, which sounds amazingly like a squeeze toy. They produce their “squeaky toy” call persistently when agitated or curious. Brown-headed nuthatches often associate with mixed flocks in company with Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, pine warblers and other small songbirds.

The power of flight gives most birds a perfectly valid reason to disregard the power of gravity. The family of tree-clinging birds known as nuthatches lives an even more topsy-turvy lifestyle than many other of their winged kin. Nuthatches prefer a headfirst stance, even “walking” upside down as they search for food in the nooks and crannies of tree trunks and branches.

The United States is home to four species of nuthatches: white-breasted, red-breasted, brown-headed and pygmy. White-breasted nuthatches are probably the most familiar nuthatch to backyard birders in this area.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A white-breasted nuthatch clings to the bark of a tree.

Because of their gravity-defying antics, the white-breasted nuthatch and other members of the family can provide hours of entertainment at our bird feeders. Individual white-breasted nuthatches will follow a single-minded path along the trunk of a tree or a branch on the way to a feeder. An individual nuthatch rarely varies from this path. It’s amusing to watch the jerky progress along the trunk as this bird prepares for a flight to a feeder holding sunflower seeds or a hanging wire basket of suet.

At my home, nuthatches typically remain aloof from the always-ongoing rivalry between the chickadees and titmice. The white-breasted nuthatch is also a no-nonsense visitor. Rarely distracted by disturbances among other birds, this nuthatch is content to grab a seed and go or hang on to the wire frame of a suet basket and peck off chunks of suet.

The more numerous titmice and chickadees give way when a white-breasted nuthatch claims a feeder. At times, however, among the frantic activity, a tufted titmouse or a Carolina chickadee will forget itself and fly to a position on a feeder already claimed by a nuthatch. If surprised enough to retreat to a nearby perch, the nuthatch will go through a rather comical little dance to express its displeasure. Wings spread out in a rigid pose, the bird will turn around in tight circles, showing definite resentment at being displaced by an offending chickadee or titmouse.

The stubby red-breasted nuthatch is another member of the family that occasionally finds its way to our yards. Smaller than the related white-breasted nuthatch and, as far as I can tell, complacent in the company of chickadees and titmice, the red-breasted nuthatch is always a welcome visitor. It has a tell-tale “yank yank” call that it produces when excited that sounds very much like little tin horns. The red-breasted nuthatch, perhaps because it spends so much of the year in more remote areas, can also be amazingly tame when it pays a winter visit.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A red-breasted nuthatch clings to the mesh of a feeding tube to get at the peanuts contained within.

Nuthatches can be attracted to feeders by offering peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet. They are also cavity-nesting birds, but are more reluctant about accepting a nesting box as a place to rear young. They will gladly accept an old woodpecker hole or other natural cavity in a tree.

I also want to complete my list of North American nuthatches by adding the fourth species — pygmy nuthatch — to my life list. I have made two trips to western North America, where this species ranges, but haven’t managed to find this bird. Both the pygmy and brown-headed are among the smallest members of the nuthatch family.

On the other end of the size scale is the appropriately named giant nuthatch, which reaches a length of almost eight inches. The giant nuthatch ranges through China, Thailand and Burma. This nuthatch is bigger than a downy woodpecker, one of our more common visitors at backyard feeders in our region.

Worldwide, there are about 25 species of nuthatches, some of which have surprisingly descriptive names for birds that spend most of their lives creeping in obscurity along the trunks and branches of trees. Some of the more creative common names for these little birds are inspired by locations around the globe, giving us species like Siberian nuthatch, Kashmir nuthatch, Burmese nuthatch, Bahama nuthatch, Algerian nuthatch, Indian nuthatch and Chinese nuthatch.

These birds are named “nuthatch” for the habit of some species to wedge a large seed in a crack and hack at it with their strong bills. I like to refer to them as “upside-down birds” because of their gravity-defying nature. It must give them an interesting perspective on the world around them.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • In some areas, brown-headed nuthatches are feeder visitors. These small nuthatches are specialists that favor stands of loblolly pine.

High school senior looking out for interests of the region’s bluebirds

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A handsome male Eastern bluebird perches on a chain-link fence.

Observant people have probably noticed Eastern bluebirds already checking out possible nesting locations. These cavity-nesting birds begin scouting for possible nest sites in February and March. By April, female bluebirds may be incubating a clutch of eggs.

Although bluebirds will nest in natural cavities in trees, they respond readily to the availability of nesting boxes provided by human landlords. Many people are devoted to the cause of seeing that bluebirds — a favorite of many — continue to thrive in the face of certain challenges.

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Photo by Adrianna Nelson • Bluebirds are skillful at foraging for insects.

Eighteen-year-old Adrianna Nelson is one such person. A senior at John S. Battle High School, Adrianna said she recently became involved with the Tennessee Bluebird Society as a way to become active with a conservation-related activity involving birds.

“I only recently got involved with TBS,” she said.

She began looking last summer for a way to contribute locally to the welfare of birds.

“I came across the TBS website,” she said. “They didn’t have a coordinator for Sullivan County, so I decided to fill the position.”

Nelson said she is interested in all birds but enjoys focusing on bluebirds and other cavity nesters to spread knowledge about their importance.

“TBS focuses on bluebirds,” she said.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A male Eastern Bluebird inspects a nesting cavity in a wooden fence post. When such cavities are scarce, bluebirds readily build in nest boxes.

Bluebirds are like the “poster child” for the organization, Nelson noted, but she also pointed out that TBS also promotes the conservation of other native cavity nesters.

As county coordinator for TBS, her job primarily involves giving presentations to raise awareness about bluebirds and other cavity-nesting bird species.

“I have already presented to the Bristol Bird Club, and I plan to still give a few more presentations,” she said.

“I can also set up bluebird trails,” Nelson said. “I have not done any trails this year, but I have plans for next year. Part of my responsibilities is also to maintain trails and answer questions from the community.”

 

There are some good reasons for people to offer extra support to help bluebirds thrive.

“Eastern bluebirds are native cavity nesters,” Nelson said. “They are not strong enough to excavate their own cavities, so starlings and house sparrows can take over natural and man-made structures very quickly. It is important to promote the longevity of native species. Not only are they important, they are very beautiful.”

There are several things that people can do to make their yards and gardens more attractive to bluebirds.

“One of the most important is to make sure that there is proper habitat,” Nelson explained. “Bluebirds prefer open areas with some trees or other perches for spotting insects.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern Bluebird gathers pine needles to use as nesting material. Bluebirds are a cavity-nesting species that will use natural or manmade cavities.

For those interested in attracting nesters, Nelson said that picking the right nest box and proper placement is important.

She helps maintain nesting boxes along a bluebird trail at Steele Creek Park in Bristol.

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Photo by Adrianna Nelson • Eastern bluebirds are a beautiful bird to welcome into the backyard.

In addition, providing plenty of water helps. “Bluebirds also like meal worms, but plants such as dogwoods, sumac, pokeweed, viburnum, and others can provide food, especially in the winter,” Nelson said.

Keeping predators away is crucial. According to Nelson, this can be achieved with simple actions such as keeping cats indoors.

“There are more details about bluebirds, boxes, nesting, predators, habitat and more online on the North American Bluebird Society website,” Nelson added.

Nelson shared some fascinating facts about bluebirds.

“They can spot insects from over 50 yards away,” she said.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern Bluebirds are year-round residents in Northeast Tennessee.

Bluebirds are bigger than small songbirds like chickadees, wrens and warblers, yet they weigh only about one ounce.

Bluebirds are truly “early birds,” according to Nelson. “Eggs usually hatch within the first two hours after dawn,” she said.

There are no local meetings of the Tennessee Bluebird Society, but an annual meeting for TBS is held in November. The meeting is open to the public.

TBS and North American Bluebird Society members get quarterly journals and newsletters. There is also information on the websites of the two organizations for anyone interested in bluebirds.md19917207443

NABS was founded in 1978 by Dr. Lawrence Zeleny in order to promote the preservation of bluebirds, a cavity-nesting species in decline at that time. Zeleny, with the support of his wife, Olive, dedicated much of his life to providing nestboxes and managing bluebird trails. He promoted bluebird conservation through hundreds of talks and articles in many periodicals.

The Eastern bluebird has two close relatives — the Western bluebird and the mountain bluebird. These species belong to the genus, Sialia, which is counted among the world’s thrushes.The Western bluebird ranges throughout California, the southern Rocky Mountains, Arizona and New Mexico. The mountain bluebird is widespread in the western United States, as well. Two states — Idaho and Nevada — have bestowed official status on the mountain bluebird as their official state bird. The Eastern bluebird has also been honored with that designation by the states of Missouri and New York.

The Eastern bluebird suffered serious decline from 1940 into the 1960s, but it is now a common bird in the region. Rick Knight, author of The Birds of Northeast Tennessee, notes that nest boxes were instrumental in the recovery of the Eastern bluebird.

Nelson is continuing the work pioneered by others to conserve the Eastern bluebird. She lives in Bristol, Virginia, with her parents, Sandi and Shawn Nelson. She welcomes the public to contact her about bluebirds by emailing adriannan1@hotmail.com.

To learn more about the Tennessee Bluebird Society, visit http://www.tnbluebirdsociety.org. For more information on the North American Bluebird Society, visit wwwna.bluebirdsociety.org.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A young Eastern Bluebird slowly gains independence after leaving the nest.