Tag Archives: McDowell News

Ovenbird part of the returning warbler lineup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••••

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

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

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

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

•••••

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

Tree swallows are the latest spring arrivals

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

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

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

Early Birds

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

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

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

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

Insect-heavy Diet

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

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

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

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

Other Swallows

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

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

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

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

Good 

Neighbors

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

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

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

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

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

Hummingbird Observations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A smartphone or computer is needed to input the data.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rivalries can get intense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below are events corresponding with the challenge:

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

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

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

•••••

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

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

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

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

Getting ready for the spring migration of birds

It’s already the middle of March. While birds don’t follow calendars, they are punctual, and thanks to their boundless energies, the grand spectacle of spring migration is already upon us. The pace will quicken in April and early May as many of our favorite summer birds, including species ranging from hummingbirds and warblers to swifts and swallows, wing their way back to the region.

A few will stay, pair with a mate and begin the nesting season in earnest while others will continue toward destinations farther north. For fellow bird enthusiasts, now is the time to conduct some spring tasks to make our feathered friends feel more welcome when they do return.

Place birdhouses
Many birds are cavity-nesting species, which means they utilize natural nooks and crannies as locations for nests. Nesting in a natural tree cavity or in a human-provided birdhouse offers an extra degree of security not available to birds that build traditional cup-shape nests, not to mention all the birds that simply lay their eggs right on the ground without going to much effort to construct an actual nest.
Some of the cavity-nesting species in the region that will readily accept quarters in a bird house include Carolina chickadee, Eastern bluebird, white-breasted nuthatch, tree swallow, tufted titmouse, great crested flycatcher, prothonotary warbler and house wren.
Cavity-nesting isn’t restricted to songbirds. Wood ducks, Eastern screech-owls and American kestrels will make use of birdhouses built to their unique specifications.
Plans for constructing your own bird houses tailored to individual species can be found at various online sites. For those not as good with do-it-yourself projects, department stores, gardening centers and other other shops sell a variety of pre-made houses.

Put hummingbird
feeders out early
Journey North, a website that tracks the annual migration of hummingbirds as well as other wild creatures reports a slow start to the ruby-throated hummingbird spring migration. “Journey North citizen scientists in Texas and along the Gulf are noting arrivals, but reports are still few and far between,” notes an article on the website.
Reports had been received of a ruby-throated hummingbird in Fairhope, Alabama, on March 2, and another in Port O’Connor, Texas, on March 6.
However, Journey North reported February’s cold spell across much of the southern U.S. could have caused a delay in migration. To report first observations of migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds, visit journeynorth.org.
Whether they’re early, late or right on time, the hummingbirds are only weeks away. There will always be “early birds” even among hummingbirds. Increase the likelihood of seeing one of these tiny gems by putting out a sugar water feeder soon.
Remember to fill your feeder with a mixture of one part sugar to four parts water. Don’t add red coloring. Experts suspect that some dyes could be detrimental to hummingbird health. Why take the risk?

Clean feeders
This past winter saw large flocks of pine siskin, purple finch and evening grosbeak in some locations across the region. In some states, these large flocks also suffered from outbreaks of diseases, including salmonella.
As returning birds mingle with lingering winter visitors at our feeders this spring, the chance of spreading disease will increase.
Now is definitely the time to be proactive, cleaning feeders and bird baths regularly and keeping alert to any sign that ill birds might be among the visiting flocks.
Cleaning need not be laborious. Fill a spray bottle with a dilute solution of bleach water. A good ratio is no more than 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Remove feeders, give them a quick rinse, and then spritz them with the bleach solution. Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry before refilling with seed for the birds.
Keep feeding the birds, but play the diligent host. Put out only the amount of seed that visiting birds can eat in a single day. Monitor the flocks for any sign of illness and respond quickly if such signs are detected.

Refurbish brush piles
This past winter with its heavy snow and ice, as well as fierce winds, no doubt brought down many branches. When cleaning your yard of branches, consider adding them to an existing brush pile. I’ve long been a fan of keeping a brush pile in order to provide the resident songbirds with shelter and security from the elements, as well as from predators.
If you don’t have a brush pile, spring’s the perfect time to create one. If an unkempt pile of sticks offends your aesthetic sensibilities, tuck the brush pile into an obscure corner or locate it at the margins of the lawn or garden.
Personally, I like to locate brush piles near my busier feeders. A brush pile gives visiting birds a quick retreat if a predatory hawk arrives unexpectedly. For some birds, the need for dense cover is paramount.
Offering brush piles, as well as hedges and dense shrubbery, will help welcome visitors such as gray catbirds, Eastern towhees, brown thrashers and some sparrows. Wide, open spaces make many songbirds nervous.

Install
water features
With a large fish pond, a flowing creek and a couple of mountain seeps on my property, I’ve never needed to introduce an additional water source. For those with properties that don’t offer ready access to water, adding an ornamental pool or fountain, or even a bird bath or artificial waterfall, will act as a magnet for many birds. American robins and cedar waxwings love a place to splish and splash, as well as take a refreshing sip. Migrating warblers, which for the most part ignore feeders, are almost magically drawn to water features.
There is also something relaxing for the human psyche when it comes to water features. Treat yourself as well as the visiting birds by adding one to your lawn or garden.

Make beneficial
landscape additions
Spring’s a great time to plan ahead. While a handout of sunflower seed is appreciated by many birds, there’s nothing that beats organic sources of food.
Add plants and trees to the landscape of your yard and garden with the express purpose of providing birds with seeds, fruits and berries. Most experts urge native plant varieties that meet the nutritional needs of many bird species.
Flowers can be chosen that provide that desired burst of color for an interval but then go on to produce fruit or seeds craved by many birds. Native flowers can also be planted that offer a natural source of nectar for ruby-throated hummingbirds. Do some homework. Some nurseries specialize in native plants.

Give yourself a treat
Now is also the perfect time to indulge in a purchase that will enhance your enjoyment of the returning birds. If you have been wanting a new pair of binoculars, a new software app to help identify birds or a camera to let you document bird sightings with photographs, there’s no time like the present.
Welcome spring and the returning birds at the same time while ensuring maximum enjoyment of both.

Photo by Pixabay.com • A good pair of binoculars will bring birds much closer.

Love is in the air for visiting red-shouldered hawks

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Lee Karney • A Red-shouldered hawk perches in branches.

As spring creeps closer, lovebirds spring up among a variety of birds, ranging from Eastern bluebirds to Northern cardinals. Of course, this inclination for birds to establish bonded pairs isn’t limited to songbirds.

As has occurred for the past couple of years, a red-shouldered hawk arrived at my home in early February ahead of Valentine’s Day, which proved appropriate considering what transpired after the handsome raptor’s arrival.

The raptor’s usual habit is to choose a perch in the branches of a large willow tree at the fish pond to secure a prominent spot for surveying its surroundings. If it’s the same red-shouldered hawk that has visited in past years, it has overcome its past shyness and does not fly instantly when I step outdoors. In fact, the hawk has remained perched even while I have been engaged in activities around my parked car, the garage and my mailbox.

As I discovered on Feb. 21, this hawk’s not a loner this year. There’s a pair of these striking hawks in residence! There’s ample evidence that they’ve established a pair bond, too. In fact, the two raptors have shown no shyness at all, going about their enthusiastic mating in full view of any and all passersby.

I’m pleased, even if I feel a bit voyeuristic, at this evidence that there’s a mated pair of these hawks that have adopted my home as their own. I’d love for them to decide to nest and raise some young in the nearby woodlands. A neighbor who previously lived close to me had shared on her Facebook page observations and photographs of red-shouldered hawks spending the summer months on her property, so I’m hopeful that my visitors might do the same. My neighbor, now deceased, was extremely detailed in her day-to-day observations of the natural world that took place in the fields and woods around her home.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

Red-shouldered hawks are definitely a raptor worthy getting to know better. According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

Different raptors utilize different strategies for subduing prey. The red-shouldered hawk is an ambush predator. This raptor usually selects a favorable perch and remains motionless and patient while scanning for possible prey. The hawk will drop rapidly onto any prey that wanders carelessly within range. In the summer, prey items largely consist of reptiles and amphibians, including snakes and frogs, as well as some insects and crayfish. Most of these creatures are scarce during the colder months of the year, which prompts these hawks to adopt a diet that focuses on rodents and the occasional songbird. Other than the altercations with the resident crows, I haven’t observed any encounters between the hawk at my home and any other birds — with one exception.

Photo by Peter Benoit from Pixabay • A red-shouldered hawk perches on a suburban fence.

On a morning a couple of years ago, a red-shouldered hawk was on its usual perch when seven Canada geese, another rare visitor to my home, suffered some sort of fright and took flight. The noisy geese flew directly over the willow, which spooked the raptor into taking flight in the opposite direction of the departing geese. I still fondly recall that amusing but accidental clash between these two species of birds.

The frogs at my fish pond interrupted their hibernation on Feb. 12 to begin their own amphibious serendades daily. I’ve even speculated that the red-shouldered hawks may have timed their return to coincide with the emergence of this potential food source. Considering how many frogs of several different species make the pond their home, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think they are one of the major attractions bringing the hawks back year after year.

The red-shouldered hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a killdeer. The two hawks that are visiting this year have been more vocal than usual. In the past I took their atypical silence as an effort to avoid the local crows. So far, the crows have left them alone this year, but in years past the local crows would flock together to mob the unfortunate hawks if they happened to take notice of their presence.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A red-shouldered hawk levels a penetrating stare.

During courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal. At other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible for a person to mistakenly think they have heard one of these large hawks. Blue jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related red-tailed hawk, the red-shouldered hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive.

The red-shouldered hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the red-tailed hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often dominant avian predators in their respective habitats. The red-shouldered hawk is known by the scientific name Buteo lineatus.

The red-shouldered hawk is less common in the region than some of the other raptors. This hawk’s stronghold is in Florida and other southern states like South Carolina and Georgia. I’ve seen many of these hawks on visits to both the Sunshine State and Palmetto State.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos hawk and the Hawaiian hawk. Outside the United States, buteo raptors are often known as buzzards. When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both native vultures, as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s hawk and broad-winged hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

Around the world, there are some 30 species of Buteo hawks. In the Old World, these raptors are known as buzzards instead of hawks. In the New World, particularly in the United States, the term buzzard more often refers to vultures than hawks.

Some of the more descriptively named Buteo hawks include the gray-lined hawk of South America, the forest buzzard of South Africa and the Eastern buzzard, which is native to Mongolia, China, Japan and some offshore islands.

Several Buteo species have been given common names to honor people. Some of these include Ridgway’s Hawk, named for ornithologist Robert Ridgway; Archer’s buzzard, named in honor of the British explorer and colonial official Sir Geoffrey Francis Archer; and Swainson’s hawk, which is named for British naturalist William Swainson.

It’s been nice hosting these beautiful raptors, although the crows and jays likely disagree with me.

Restless robin flocks signal spring’s approach

When I posted Jan. 29 on Facebook about seeing my first flock of American robins in 2021, I didn’t anticipate the avalanche from other observant bird enthusiasts.

Priscilla Gutierrez commented on seeing about 30 robins in a field along Limestone Cove Road in Unicoi.

“They don’t come to the feeders,” Priscilla noted. “It was wonderful to see them.”

Alice Torbett in Knoxville shared that she saw her first flock of robins about two weeks ago when they swooped in to harvest berries from the holly tees at her Knoxville home. “They were very considerate to wait until after Christmas,” Alice wrote.

Erwin resident Brenda Marie Crowder commented that “tons of Robins are eating my holly berries right now. With snow dropping and all.”

Jonesborough resident Nan Hidalgo reported that she had five robins in her yard on a recent Friday afternoon.

Christine M. Schwarz in Alexandria, Virginia, shared her own sightings.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American robin grasps a perch and keeps an eye on its surroundings.

“Three weeks ago there was a large flock at Mount Vernon,” Christine wrote in a comment to my post. “I have seen a smaller group over here by Fort Belvoir, too. I can’t believe they’re migrating now — more like wintering over.”

Byron Tucker, who lives in Atlanta, commented, “The other day, I saw a flock of robins and blackbirds mixed together.”

Dee Obrien, formerly of Elizabethton, Tennessee, but now living in Florida, lamented the timing of the robins. “They always seem to come back to soon, poor little things,” she wrote. “It is too cold.”

Becky Boyd shared her own experience with robins. “I’ve had dozens here in Knoxville,” she said. “They all recently left, except one loner who is terrorizing the bluebirds and attacks them at the feeders.”

Erwin resident Donna Rea, and a former co-worker at The Erwin Record, posted a question to my Facebook robin discussion.

“What do robins eat this time of year?” Donna asked. “Will they eat out of our feeders if the ground is frozen and they can’t find a hibernating worm?”

Photo by Jack Bulmner/Pixabaycom • An American robin plucks a berry from a branch.

I suggested in my reply that robins might eat suet at feeders, as well as fruit. More likely, the restless robins in the region are probably scouring the countryside for holly trees with berries. Of course, robins are omnivorous in their appetite and would gladly take an earthworm if they could coax one out of the chilly ground.

South Carolina resident Catherine Romaine Henderson simply posted an optimistic comment on my robin post. “Please tell me spring is coming!”

The American robin is indeed widely held to be a harbinger of spring. Furthermore, the robin is a popular American bird. In fact, this bird has been designated the official state bird by Wisconsin and Michigan.

In truth, many robins forego migration to endure a few months of cold weather. Their ability to shift their diet from earthworms and insects to fruit and feeder fare helps robins eke out a living. Robins remain an abundant bird but their fondness for co-existing with humans can leave them vulnerable to pesticides applied to lawns and gardens.

According to the website, “All About Birds,” the American robin nests three times a year. On average, however, only 40 percent of robin nests succeed at fledging young. Even once out of the nest, young robins are vulnerable. The website estimates that only 25 percent of each year’s fledged robins will reach November. So, the young robins that join some of the large flocks people are seeing in the region are birds that have beaten the odds.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Returning American robins, prominent in lawns and gardens during their annual spring migration, will soon turn their attention to nesting duties.

Even the robins that do depart the region each fall don’t migrate far. Many robins that spend the summer in Canada or the United States only migrate as far as the Gulf States, southern Florida, southern California, Baja California and Mexico.

The American robin is a large bird in the thrush family, which in North America also includes such birds as Eastern bluebird, wood thrush, and Townsend’s solitaire.

In the British Isles, the European robin is simply known as “robin” or “robin redbreast.” When the first English colonists arrived in New England and other parts of colonial-era North America, they took pleasure in finding that some of the birdlife in the New World resembled familiar birds from their homeland. The red-breasted American robin looked like the bird they knew in the Old World as “robin,” which motivated them to name the New World bird “robin,” as well.

Other than the red breast, however, the two robins are not all that similar. The American robin is the larger of the two birds. Further separating these two birds is the fact that the European robin is not a thrush but rather a member of the family of Old World flycatchers.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • While American robins like fruit when its available, they also spend a lot of time feeding on earthworms and insects.

In some ways, the two robins are similar. Both are fond of earthworms, spending a great deal of their time on the ground foraging for worms. They will also follow human gardeners at their work, waiting patiently for the followed person to disturb the soil with a spade or hoe and expose earthworms for the waiting bird. They are also rather tolerant of humans and have learned to make their own homes close to human dwellings.

Some of the British transplants to North America must have felt homesick for familiar things because several unsuccessful attempts were made to introduce the European robin to the United States and Canada. European robins introduced in New York and Oregon failed to gain a foothold, unlike the introduction of such alien birds as the house sparrow and European starling.

On a few occasions, our American robins have overflown their destinations and ended up in the United Kingdom. For instance, an American robin became a first for London birdwatchers when one was found in that nation’s capital city in March of 2006. Whether of the European or American persuasion, robins have long been a favorite of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.

They have even adapted to take food at feeders. If you’d like to try your luck at attracting robins to feeders, know that they like their sunflower seeds hulled. They will also eat mealworms, fruit, peanut hearts and suet. Robins prefer to feed on the ground or on an open platform feeder.

Robins are such friendly and engaging birds. If we can have them near us for 12 months of the year, who’s going to complain?

 

Hermit thrushes brave East Tennessee winters

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

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

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

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

USFWS • Hermit thrushes like to keep to the shadows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Baffling visitors turn out to be Northern flickers

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

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

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

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

“They are ground feeders,” she added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tennessee and neighboring states hosting exceptional rare birds this winter

Photo by LoneWombatMedia from Pixabay • Among the unusual avian visitors to the Volunteer State this winter has been a snowy owl that has delighted observers in Chattanooga. Snowy owls, such as the individual pictured, are more commonly found on the tundra regions of the Arctic.

Birds have wings. Birds can fly. Birds confound our expectations.

Perhaps the mobility of birds is part of the human fascination with them. An unexpected bird can pop up at any time at almost any place. In fact, with 2021 less than a month old, the Volunteer State has already hosted some absolutely incredible birds.

For example, birder Evan Kidd found a Pacific Slope Flycatcher in Maryville on Jan. 7. 

A couple of weeks later, a snowy owl, which is a bird most people have only become acquainted with in the pages of J.K. Rowlings Harry Potter novels, made an appearance on Zephyr Lane near Lake Chickamauga in Chattanooga. 

Chattanoogas been a real hot spot so far this year. In addition to the snowy owl, Chattanoogas hosted such unlikely visitors as white-throated swift and Bullocks oriole. 

All of these birds quickly achieved celebrity status and attracted birders from near and far hoping for a glimpse of these rarities to Tennessee. 

Birder Michael Todd posted on Facebook on Jan. 13 about his own observation of the white-throated swift. This particular sighting came with a bit of an unnerving twist for all the people who had flocked to see the swift.

Luckily, the swift narrowly avoided being a snack for a marauding merlin that tried its best to have some swift for lunch today, Todd revealed in his Facebook post. 

Closer to home, a long-tailed duck has been hanging out with buffleheads and other ducks at the weir dam at Osceola Recreation Area in Bristol. 

Ray Miller from Pixabay • Long-tailed ducks, such as this individual, favor colder waters, but they occasionally venture into Tennessee.

The winter invasion of evening grosbeaks, a finch that usually inhabits the forests of Canada and the northern United States, continued into 2021 as well.

What brings birds to locations far beyond their typical range? Obviously, their wings and the associated power of flight makes it possible for birds to travel surprising distances.

But on a more down-to-earth level, some of these birds such as the snowy owl and evening grosbeaks have ventured far south of their normal ranges because their usual food sources are scarce. Climate change may be exacerbating those scarcities. On occasion, a major weather phenomenon like hurricanes or other strong storms will force birds into unfamiliar territory. And whos to say that an occasional bird doesnt succumb to the temptation of wanderlust and decide to explore greener pastures? Or maybe some of these birds are simply stubborn, lost, and reluctant to ask for directions.

The reasons an unexpected bird might grace any given location are myriad. Whats easily explained is the excitement that they can generate. Back in the winter of 2009 I traveled with some friends to Spring Hill, Tennessee, in the hope of getting a look at a snowy owl. After several hours staking out some large fields with dozens of other birders on property owned by General Motors at the time, we got our owl. Incidentally, that particular owl got the nickname Chevy due to its association with the GM production facilities in Spring Hill. The moment that owl unfurled its wing and made a short but majestic flight over the field remains a birding thrill of a lifetime. 

Making the moment even more memorable was the fact that I got to see my first (and so far only) snowy owl in my home state of Tennessee instead of traveling to the edge of the Arctic tundra during the summer to look for this awesome owl on its native turf. Its not that I would say no to a tundra tour, but it hasnt been in the cards yet.

I have a short list of some other exceptional birds that have made their way to Tennessee rather than forcing me to venture across the country and around the globe to see. I observed monk parakeets and a green-breasted mango hummingbird in North Carolina, as well as a harlequin duck and Virginias warbler along Netherland Inn Drive in Kingsport from the greenbelt that meanders along the Holston River. Earlier this year while birding alone, I felt a moment of thats different when a raptor took flight over the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton and materialized as a Mississippi kite once I got my binoculars on it. 

I think its part of the reason some birders are addicted to the chase. Theres nothing wrong with the cardinals and sparrows in the backyard, but a rare bird can truly generate a powerful jolt of excitement. 

Photo by Edbo23/Pixabay.com • During the winter months, a yellow-rumped warbler is a dull bird in mostly brown and gray plumage except for the rump patch of bright yellow feathers that provides the bird its common name. Although not a rare bird, these common resident make winter days more lively for observers.

Technology, including social media and GPS, has helped pinpoint these rarities when they stray into unfamiliar terrain. For instance, the snowy owl near Chattanooga is hardly the only one of its kind straying south of the Arctic this winter. These owls have made a major push south with individuals spotted in Lee, Illinois; Cumberland, Pennsylvania; Wood, Ohio; and Clinton, Iowa. A snowy owl has even been spending the winter on Ocracoke Island along the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Theres even dramatic photographs online of the owl against the backdrop of the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. 

Whats the best way to spot a rare bird? Keep your eyes open and learn to recognize the birds that arent part of the familiar local flocks. One word of warning: Looking for those rarities can become addictive.

Sapsucker an odd bird out among woodpeckers

Photo by Jean Potter • A yellow-bellied sapsucker visits a suet feeder.

I heard the whiny “mews” coming from a nearby tree and scanned with binoculars until I located a calling yellow-bellied sapsucker. I always think sapsuckers sound whiny, but I still celebrated seeing one from my front porch on the afternoon of Jan. 11. The new year is still young, which makes me eager to see what other birding surprises may arrive.

I’ve kept track of the birds in my yard since the winter of 1992-1993, and my recent observation is only the second sapsucker I have seen at home. I’ve found the evidence of their presence in sapsucker rings drilled in bands of holes around tree trunks and branches, but the actual flesh and feather sapsuckers have been extremely evasive.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A yellow-bellied sapsucker hitches its way up a tree trunk.

The aforementioned rings or bands are the visible evidence of a sapsucker’s penchant for drilling evenly spaced holes, or wells, into the trunk of a sap-bearing tree. These holes even form patterns completely encircling a tree’s trunk. The sticky wells trap insects. When sapsuckers return to the scene of the crime, they enjoy a sweet treat of oozing sap and a protein snack from the mired bugs.

I don’t think my lack of success with sapsuckers at home is for lack of effort. I heard the sapsucker the moment I stepped outside to fill up the feeders. The sapsucker blended almost perfectly into its surroundings, becoming almost invisible against the bark until making little hitching movements up the trunk. I wish I could report that I see yellow-bellied sapsuckers on a regular basis. I think they would be fascinating to observe in the same way I watch downy woodpeckers and red-bellied woodpeckers.

 

Worldwide, there are almost 10,000 species of birds. After awhile, one may begin to wonder if thinking of unique names for each of these species began to deplete creative reserves.

Then again, some of the names given to birds suggest someone really wanted just to have fun at the expense of birders and nature enthusiasts. After all, you have to be careful about shouting out bird names like blue-footed booby, great bustard and hoary redpoll in mixed company.

There are also bird names that just don’t make a lot of sense — dickcissel and phainopepla, for example — even to birders. Then there are names that are oxymoronic, including greater pewee and giant hummingbird.

There are some bird names that sound like fighting words that bring into question concepts like courage and honor. Indeed, I sometimes think people are waiting for a punchline when I inform them there truly is a species of bird known as the yellow-bellied sapsucker. This bird’s humorous name is only one of the ways the yellow-bellied sapsucker stands out as an oddball among the region’s clan of woodpeckers.

In profile clinging to the trunk of a tree, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is a rather pudgy, especially for a woodpecker. The sapsucker has black and white plumage enhanced by red foreheads in both sexes. Male sapsuckers also have a bright red throat patch. Both sexes also show a large white stripe on their black wings. And yes, there is enough of a pale yellow wash on the stomach of this odd woodpecker to justify the descriptive “yellow-bellied” as part of its common name.

As mentioned, sapsuckers harvest sap by using their bills to drill various sorts of holes into the bark of a tree. Some of the more shallow holes, which are usually made in a rectangular fashion, must be maintained on a frequent basis for the bird to continue to derive sap from the tree. These sap wells not only provide nourishment to the sapsucker but to other birds, including hummingbirds, that appreciate a quick sugar fix.

In the early 1800s, early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted the yellow-bellied sapsucker, known during his time as the yellow-bellied woodpecker. Although they tend to prefer trees like maple and birch, sapsuckers are known to feed on more than 250 different varieties of trees. Indeed, they actually do feed on the trees. Not only do these birds subsist largely on sap, they also feed on the cambium layer in the bark of a tree. The sapsucker also supplements its diet with insects, fruits and seeds. Unlike other members of the woodpecker clan, sapsuckers do not visit feeders all that frequently. When a sapsucker does visit a feeder, it is often lured there by the promise of suet.

 

While most woodpeckers attempt to tough out the winter season in the same region where they spent the summer, the yellow-bellied sapsucker is migratory. Ahead of the coldest months of the year, sapsuckers migrate to the southeastern United States, as well as the West Indies and Central America. During the summer months, most sapsuckers nest in forests across Canada, Alaska and the northeastern U.S. states. There is also a small population of breeding sapsuckers in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker has a call that sounds amazingly like the meow of a cat. I know about this call from personal experience. While birding in South Carolina a few years ago, I searched diligently for the source of such a call. It sounded somewhat like a gray catbird — another mimic of the common household feline — but not quite. Now I know that when I hear this unusual call I can train my binoculars on the branches and trunks of nearby trees to scan for a sapsucker.

There are actually another three sapsucker species — Williamson’s, red-breasted and red-naped — in North America, but they are all birds of the western half of the continent.

It is true of many species of birds that males and females look different. In the case of the Williamson’s sapsucker, males and females look so different that early naturalists mistakenly believed the male and female were entirely different species! Only two decades after the initial discovery of this bird did scientists finally realize that both male and female Williamson’s sapsuckers were the same species. This particular sapsucker was named in honor of Lt. Robert Stockton Williamson, who led a surveying expedition that collected the first male. The intent of the expedition wasn’t focused on collecting birds. Williamson and his men had actually been assigned the job of identifying the best route west for a railway to the Pacific Ocean.

Although I haven’t been too lucky with this bird at my home, it isn’t too difficult to find this bird during fall migration and in the winter months at city and state parks in the region. If you observe a yellow-bellied sapsucker in your own yard, consider yourself lucky to get a glimpse of this oddball woodpecker.