Tag Archives: nature

Odes add summer excitement when heat makes the birds scarce

Photo by Bryan Stevens Photo by Bryan Stevens A female common skimmer, a species of dragonfly, basks in the sunshine to help boost her energy reserves for hunting. Dragonflies, with a kill rate of 90%, are one of the world’s most deadly and efficient predators.

 

I am taking a hiatus from the birds for one week to introduce readers to some “other things with wings.”

Specifically, I want to discuss dragonflies and damselflies, otherwise known as “odes,” or members of the insect order of Odonata. Surprisingly, beyond the fact that both have wings, the odes and birds have a lot in common.

When birds are scarce during the heat of the day, I find that other winged creatures get active and can provide some fun observations. In late summer I spend a great deal of time focused on the dragonflies and damselflies that live along the creek and at the fish pond at my home. The “odonates” are insects with long brightly colored bodies, two pairs of membranous wings and large compound eyes.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A glimpse through the vegetation at one of the pond’s most voracious predators. Dragonflies consume many other species of insects, including some that are considered pests. Pictured is a female Blue Dasher.

Some of the more prevalent dragonflies in the region include widow skimmer, common whitetail, Eastern pondhawk, Eastern amberwing and slaty skimmer. There are less common odes that also put in appearances at my home along Simerly Creek Road. Gray petaltails and tiger spiketails, two larger dragonfly species, put in almost annual appearances.

I also often find the ebony jewelwing, a species of damselfly, fluttering along the creek. These delicate-looking insects like to find a sunny perch near flowing water. I’ve noticed the ebony jewelwings for many years because they are particularly difficult to miss. They have dark wings and a tapering body that glistens with a metallic blue-green sheen.

Damselflies, which are closely related to dragonflies, are usually smaller and less swift. A dragonfly at rest keeps its wings extended horizontally like an airplane’s wings, but damselflies fold their wings over their backs.

All odes are predators, feeding on other insects, but they are harmless to humans. Despite an enduring myth, they cannot sting. They are capable of biting, but will not do so unless they are handled in a careless manner.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The aptly-named Autumn Meadowhawk is one of the last dragonflies to emerge each year.

If you observe dragonflies long enough, you will start to notice they share one trait with hummingbirds: they are intolerant of any intrusion into their personal space. Like feisty hummingbirds, dragonflies constantly chase rivals away from a favorite perch, restlessly patrolling the edge of a pond. They are unceasing in their chasing and harassing of rivals.

Some cultures consider a dragonfly landing on a person a sign of good fortune. My sister-in-law would disagree. She has an intense, if irrational, fear of dragonflies. Perhaps she learned too much of the misinformation handed down in various human cultures about dragonflies.

Europeans have long linked dragonflies with sinister forces. Some common names for dragonflies, such as darners, come down from older names such as “devil’s darning needle.” Swedes call dragonflies “troll spindles” and Norwegians refer to them as “eye pokers.” Some cultures in South America call dragonflies “horse killers” and others refer to them as caballito del diablo, or the “devil’s little horse.” Some residents of the Southern United States refer to dragonflies as “snake doctors,” believing these insects can stitch and repair any injuries that a serpent suffers. It’s no wonder some people fear a harmless and rather beneficial insect.

Native Americans as well as some Asian cultures have a more positive outlook on dragonflies. In Japan, dragonflies represent such concepts as strength, courage and joy. Dragonflies are often depicted in Zuni pottery, and the Navajo use the dragonfly as a symbol to represent “pure water,” which was an important resource for people living in very arid conditions. For both birds and dragonflies, water is also a crucial resource if they are to thrive.

The Hopi and Pueblo tribes also incorporate dragonflies into their art. Many Native Americans consider dragonflies a symbol of renewal. Many others see them as a symbol representing illusion and seeing through deception. I wonder if the use of the dragonfly as a renewal symbol evolved because of the life cycle of dragonflies.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A painted skimmer grasps the tip of a cattail.

Odes spend the first stage of life as aquatic larvae living below the surface of the water. Later, they emerge as adult dragonflies. During their time spent as larvae, or nymphs, they are voracious predators, tackling other aquatic organisms, including small fish. At the same time, these nymphs are important food sources for some larger fish. Nymphs may spend as long as three years living beneath the water, but adult dragonflies usually live only a few weeks or months.

Adult dragonflies continue to consume prey, which is mostly other insects. Among the odes, there are no vegetarians. “Mosquito hawk” is another common name for them because they catch and eat mosquitoes. They also consume gnats, flies and other insects. So, along with birds such as swallows and nighthawks, the dragonflies help keep in check the numbers of many nuisance insects.

Some of the larger dragonflies are also reputed to attack and eat hummingbirds. I tried to find conclusive evidence, but the jury’s still out in my opinion. However, some of the larger species of praying mantis have been documented capturing and consuming hummingbirds, so it is not too far-fetched to believe some of the larger dragonflies might be capable of preying on hummers.

Like many birds, some dragonflies migrate. Species such as Carolina saddlebags, green darners and wandering gliders are known to migrate hundreds of miles.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An Eastern pond hawk perches on the bloom of an impatiens.

In recent years, dragonfly-watching has emerged as a nature pastime to rival the watching of birds and butterflies. Why watch dragonflies? Well, in many ways, they are just as fascinating as birds and other wildlife

Here’s some additional fun trivia about dragonflies:

• Odes have excellent eyesight. Their compound eyes have up to 30,000 facets, each of which is a separate light-sensing organ arranged to give nearly a 360 degree field of vision. Their vision also makes it difficult to sneak up on a dragonfly. I have learned this during my attempts to photograph them.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A spangled skimmer at rest near the water’s edge.

• Dragonflies are built for speed. Many experts credit dragonflies with the ability to fly at speeds between 19 to 38 miles per hour. They have also been documented traveling as much as 85 miles in a single day.

• Dragonflies can hover and fly backwards, a feat achieved by only hummingbirds among our winged friends with feathers.

• Dragonflies are among the world’s most efficient predators, successfully capturing prey at a whopping 90% of their attempts. In other words, nine times out of 10, dragonflies capture and eat other insects.

• Dragonflies are ancient. They appeared 100 million years before dinosaurs and 150 million years before birds.

• The largest dragonfly to ever live was Meganeura monyi, which lived during the Carboniferous period about 300 million years ago. It resembled and was related to present-day dragonflies. With a wingspan of almost 26 inches, it is one of the largest known flying insect species.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A gray petaltail clings to the side of a post.

Wandering birds provide some surprising moments for birders

Photo by Roger Mullins • A little blue heron, right, shares a perch with a white ibis at the Buffalo Valley Golf Course in Unicoi. These wading birds are usually found near the coast, but individuals tend to disperse and wander widely after the summer nesting season comes to an end.

Late summer has a sort of lazy feel. Most birds are finishing up their nesting season. Hungry fledglings appear at feeders in the company of adults. In recent weeks, I’m starting to notice a slight uptick in the number of hummingbirds visiting my feeders and garden flowers. It helps that I’ve got dense stands of naturalized bee balm at the edge of my woods. The cedar waxwings have finished off the mulberries, but I suspect they will stick around for the wild cherries. I’ve also noticed the vanguard of migrant birds that are starting to make appearances as fall migration approaches. It’s not just songbirds, however, that are on the move. Some large and rather conspicuous birds have been attracting attention in recent weeks, including a variety of wading birds.

Sightings this summer of long-legged wading birds in Northeast Tennessee that are outside of their usual range have included little blue herons, white ibis and great egrets. The little blue heron and ibis have been recent visitors to Unicoi County. To toss another species into the mix, Tom and Cathy McNeil recently found an American anhinga near Austin Springs at Boone Lake in Washington County. Their anhinga sighting followed their discovery of seven or eight little blue herons and 14 great egrets at this well-known birding hot spot.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Adult little blue herons, like this adult preening at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, have a mix of blue and purple feathers.

Roger Mullins discovered both an immature little blue heron and an immature white ibis during one of his regular visits to scan the ponds along the former Buffalo Valley Golf Course in Unicoi.

“I first spotted the little blue on July 5, and then on July 10 I saw the white ibis standing just a few feet away on the same limb.

“Within minutes they were standing next to each other,” he continued. “They were even following each other from place to place, almost like they were siblings.”

Roger noted that the little blue heron gradually learned to trust him, but he could only get so close without making the bird feel uncomfortable.

“Being extremely patient, taking it slow and easy, is pretty much how I approach all wildlife, and it usually pays off well,” Roger shared.

“I first started visiting the golf course ponds back in the winter when someone told me about seeing a male hooded merganser there,” he noted. “There is not always an abundance of wildlife present, but I always check it out just in case. The best thing about these ponds is the consistent peace and tranquility, since people don’t usually go there for family recreation or to walk their dogs.”

Roger added that he doubted that the little blue heron would have lingered at a public park with more activity.

Most of my own observations of little blue herons have taken place in SouthCarolina, Georgia and Florida, although I have seen this species a couple of times in Tennessee. I have also found little blue herons more skittish than some herons and egrets.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This photo of a little blue heron at Huntington Beach State Park, South Carolina, shows the intermediate phase of plumage that makes identification even more of a challenge.

While diverting storms can’t be ruled out for causing some unexpected birds to detour into the region, it’s also normal behavior for young wading birds to disperse far and wide after leaving the nest. North American waders, or wading birds, include such long-legged species as herons, egrets, bitterns, ibises, storks and spoonbills. Most species are associated with wetlands or coastal areas.

Late summer birding is usually a period of doldrums as heat and humidity can discourage birders as well as diminish bird activity. However, it’s also the time of year when birders can make some unexpected surprises as wandering waders explore uncharted territory.

The great egret – a larger relative of the little blue heron – became a motivational symbol for conservation with the foundation of the National Audubon Society in 1905. Today, the organization has nearly 500 local chapters, each of which is an independent non-profit organization voluntarily affiliated with the National Audubon Society. These chapters often organize birdwatching field trips and conservation-related activities. The National Audubon Society spearheaded efforts to end the mass slaughter of various bird species. Some birds were killed for food, but millions were also killed for their showy feathers that were destined to decorate stylish attire worn as a symbol of high fashion. As early as 1910, some states began passing legislation to abolish trade in bird plumes. The federal government also came to the assistance of birds with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was a law first enacted in 1916 to implement measures to protect and conserve migratory birds.

Photo by Tom McNeil • An American anhinga at Boone Lake found by Tom and Cathy McNeil represents an unusual find for the region. Even more unusual, Tom McNeil found another anhinga in Johnson County, Tennessee, a few days later.

Scientifically speaking, the little blue heron would be more accurately described as an egret. With the scientific name of Egretta caerulea, the little blue heron’s closest relatives are other members of the genus Egretta, which includes such other North American wading birds as snowy egret, reddish egret and tricolored heron. Other members of the genus found in other global localities include little egret, slaty egret and Chinese egret. I’m not sure why the tricolored heron and little blue heron were not named tricolored egret and little blue egret, but there are some Egretta species that also bear the name heron, including black heron, white-faced heron, Pacific reef heron and Western reef heron. It’s probably important to note that there are no real physical differences between herons and egrets. They are all classified together in the family Ardeidae.

I’m fairly confident that Roger’s sighting of a little blue heron is the first documented occurrence of the species in Unicoi County. His white ibis is unexpected but not unprecedented. An immature white ibis spent several days in July of 2011 at the ponds and fields at the home and farm of former Unicoi mayor Johnny Lynch.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American Anhinga dries off feathers after a swim at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina.

As for the anhinga spotted by the McNeils, this rare visitor was found the following day by several area birders, including Michelle Sparks who relocated the anhinga from her kayak. The anhinga is a large waterbird with a slender neck and a dagger-shaped bill reminiscent of a heron’s bill. These birds spend much of their time swimming beneath the water, often with only their neck and bill above the surface. Apparently the term “anhinga” comes from a native tribe in Brazil. Anhingas prefer fresh water, but they are often found in coastal areas. Most reports from Tennessee come from near Reelfoot Lake in the western portion of the state. Other common names for the anhinga include “water turkey,” “snake bird,” “American darter” and “devil bird.” Worldwide, there are only four species of anhingas, or darters as they are called in other parts of the world. The other three are the Indian darter, the African darter and the Australian darter.

Tom shared an amusing anecdote on Facebook about their sighting of the anhinga.

“Cathy and I found this bird (the anhinga) yesterday evening out of absolute luck,” he wrote. “We had already birded the area and had some great fun observing the little blue herons and great egrets.  We stopped at the Austin Springs bridge for a few moments and saw four river otters playing under the bridge and then just decided to drive back the way we came.”

On their way back, Cathy had Tom stop so she could look at the “white birds” in the top of the trees across the water.

“We both pulled up our binoculars to look at them, but it was the bird perched below them that was the star of the show,” he reported. “We shouted ‘anhinga’  at the exact same time!”

That’s the beauty of birding – those “anhinga” moments. I’m hoping readers are enjoying some fun birds this summer. Share sightings, ask questions or make comments by emailing me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

 

 

Long-running count tallies summer’s nesting bird species

Photo by Jean Potter • Counters found 116 species on the recent Carter County Summer Bird Count, including this female wood duck and ducklings photographed on the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee. A total of 13 wood ducks were found on the day of the count.

The 28th Carter County Summer Bird Count was held Saturday, June 12, with 28 observers taking part.

The weather, which was less than optimal, challenged observers. Rain held steady for much of the day. The rain, along with dense fog on Roan Mountain and other high elevations, resulted in reduced birdsong in many areas. Thus, numbers of individuals were low for many species, especially songbirds.

Despite these hurdles, the count tallied 116 species, which is just one species shy of the recent 10-year average and actually two above the average of the previous 27 years, so, it was not bad considering the weather.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Nesting neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increased the total number of species for the annual summer count.

Participants included Fred Alsop, Rob Biller, Catherine Cummins, Dianne Draper, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Don Holt, David Kirschke, Rick Knight (compiler), Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Dianna Lynn, Vern Maddux, Larry McDaniel, Joe McGuiness, Tom and Cathy McNeil, Brookie and Jean Potter, Judith Reid, Brenda Richards, Judi Sawyer, Michele Sparks, Bryan Stevens, Kim Stroud, Scott Turner, Charles Warden and John Whinery.

Some species were missed, including yellow-crowned night-heron, great horned owl, chuck-will’s-widow, willow flycatcher, brown creeper, hermit thrush, Kentucky warbler and magnolia warbler. These species are often, but not always, found on this count, according to long-time count compiler Rick Knight.

See if one of your favorite birds was hit or miss, common or uncommon, by scanning over the listing of the total.

The tally follows:
Canada goose, 218; wood duck, 13; mallard, 92; ruffed grouse, 1; wild turkey, 40; double-crested cormorant, 16; great blue heron, 23; and green heron, 2.
Black vulture, 7; turkey vulture, 25; osprey, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 3; bald eagle, 2; red-shouldered hawk, 4; broad-winged hawk, 7; and red-tailed hawk, 10.
Killdeer, 8; American woodcock, 1; rock pigeon, 101; Eurasian collared-dove, 2; mourning dove, 177; yellow-billed cuckoo, 5; Eastern screech-owl, 5; barred owl, 2; common nighthawk, 2; and Eastern whip-poor-will, 7.
Chimney swift, 99; ruby-throated hummingbird, 28; belted kingfisher, 11; red-bellied woodpecker, 24; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 2; downy woodpecker, 19; hairy woodpecker, 3; Northern flicker, 36; pileated woodpecker, 15; and American kestrel, 1.
Eastern wood-pewee, 24; Acadian flycatcher, 9; alder flycatcher, 2; least flycatcher, 13; Eastern phoebe, 48; great crested flycatcher, 7; and Eastern kingbird, 21.
White-eyed vireo, 5; yellow-throated vireo, 2; blue-headed vireo, 38; warbling vireo, 1; red-eyed vireo, 117; blue jay, 77; American crow, 185; fish crow, 4; and common raven, 5.
Purple martin, 38; Northern rough-winged swallow, 34; tree swallow, 109; barn swallow, 154; and cliff swallow, 137.
Carolina chickadee, 32; tufted titmouse, 65; red-breasted nuthatch, 3; white-breasted nuthatch, 10; house wren, 60; winter wren, 3; Carolina wren, 84; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 8; and golden-crowned kinglet, 2.
Eastern bluebird, 113; veery, 23; wood thrush, 35; American robin, 510; gray catbird, 42; brown thrasher, 38; Northern mockingbird, 62; European starling, 1,203; and cedar waxwing, 45.
Ovenbird, 50; worm-eating warbler, 4; Louisiana waterthrush, 10; golden-winged warbler 1; black-and-white warbler 27; Swainson’s warbler, 2; common yellowthroat, 12; hooded warbler, 67; American redstart, 8; Northern parula, 30; Blackburnian warbler, 4; yellow warbler, 1; chestnut-sided warbler, 12; black-throated blue warbler, 20; pine warbler, 2; yellow-throated warbler, 9; prairie warbler, 3; black-throated green warbler, 14; Canada warbler; 5; and yellow-breasted chat, 9.
Eastern towhee; 112; chipping sparrow, 61; field sparrow, 58; savannah sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 253; dark-eyed junco, 46; scarlet tanager, 25; Northern cardinal, 157; rose-breasted grosbeak, 5; blue grosbeak, 5; and indigo bunting, 102.
Red-winged blackbird, 109; Eastern meadowlark, 15; common grackle, 67; brown-headed cowbird, 43; orchard oriole, 4; and Baltimore oriole, 2.
House finch, 132; pine siskin, 1; American goldfinch, 97; and house sparrow, 44.

•••••

 

I received a phone call from Marian Swanson of Aldie, Virginia, this past week. Marian was looking for advice on feeders for attracting indigo buntings, which she had observed near her home. She was specifically seeking a feeder that would prevent the seed from getting wet during rainstorms.

At her request, I provided Marian with some links to websites offering a variety of feeders for sale.

It’s always great to hear from readers. If you have a bird-related question, email me at bstevens@erwinrecord.net or ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I also enjoy hearing about bird observations or general comments from readers.

Among feathered friends, catbirds are individuals

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although often considered shy, skulking birds, some catbirds show a great deal of curiosity about and trust in humans.

I received an email on June 15 from Linda Durette, who lives in Townsend, Massachusetts, which is on the New Hampshire border.

“I live in a country environment with thickets and fields,” she noted.

Linda informed me that she had run across an article I wrote in 2019 about gray catbirds.
“I have always been mildly intrigued by the catbird,” she wrote. ‘Working around the yard and having a cat myself, I always got a kick out of their vocal annoyance with my cat.”

She said the catbirds begin squawking at her cat the minute he steps out the door.

Photo by by Jennifer Beebe from Pixabay • Gray catbirds have a reputation for being either shy skulkers or bold scolders. In fact, these birds are known for being individuals with unique and distinctive personalities. Like mockingbirds and thrashers, the gray catbird is considered a mimic thrush and can imitate snippets of the songs of other birds.

“I always kept him away from any nesting area, although he isn’t a particularly adventurous cat, anyway,” she noted.

“This year was the same,” she said. “My cat seemed to almost ignore the bird. He just sat there and allowed the bird to squawk loudly. I think the bird was miffed.”

She said she finally put her cat back in the house.

“But I have been noticing that the bird comes very close to me,” she wrote.

She wrote that the catbird appears to watch what she does when she is outdoors.

“I have been talking with him, chattering while I garden,” she wrote. “It’s a riot. He lands on the wheelbarrow handle after I walk away or allows me to walk pretty close to him as he watches.”
Linda concluded that this individual catbird, at least, seems to have quite the personality.
I’d mentioned in my previous column on catbirds about the fondness of these birds for fruit and how I occasionally offered berries to them.

“I will attempt some fruit, too,” she said. “It is so interesting. We’ll see what happens.”
Perhaps readers will recall the folksy expression “sitting in the catbird’s seat” that denotes self-satisfaction and perhaps a degree of smugness. As expressions go, it’s not a bad fit for this charming, somewhat eccentric bird.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A curious Gray Catbird peeks from dense cover. Attendees at the fall rally can look for catbirds and other species at any of the offered bird hikes.

The gray catbird is a baffling bird with a personality that runs the gamut from introverted to extroverted, sometimes depending on the season and at other times seemingly just on a whim. With some gentle persuasion, however, people can gain a catbird’s trust – as Linda has done with the bird in her Massachusetts garden – and develop a fun friendship with these clever songbirds.

One summer, all I needed to do to win over the catbirds was to offer some less-than-perfect strawberries and blueberries. A few blemishes on the fruit didn’t bother the resident catbirds at all, and they soon became accustomed to receiving such treats.

A person’s first introduction to the catbird is likely going to occur when one hears what sounds like an irritable feline hiding in a hedge, thicket or dense shrub. Upon closer examination, observers may get a glimpse of a charcoal gray bird roughly the shape of a Northern mockingbird but smaller. A black cap and a patch of rusty-red feathers under the tail are the only exceptions to this bird’s overall gray plumage.

The catbird is related to thrashers and mockingbirds, but scientists find the gray catbird just different enough to warrant placing it in its own genus. The genus name Dumetella means “small thicket.” It’s an apt name for this secretive skulker. Catbirds only feel secure in dense cover such as hedges, brush piles and dense thickets.

A relative known as the black catbird, which ranges throughout the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, as well as northern Guatemala and northern Belize, also belongs to a genus of its own. The genus name Melanoptila for this close relative is a compound word created from two Greek words: melas, meaning “black” and ptilon, meaning “plumage.” Both of these catbirds are classified as “mimic thrushes,” or Mimidae, of which there are about 30 species in the New World. There is a totally unrelated family of catbirds that ranges through Australia, Asia and parts of Africa.

The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. Males have motivation to constantly expand their repertoire, however, as doing so increases the likelihood of attracting a mate. They imitate other birds, but some have been recorded imitating frogs and other non-avian singers.

The website All About Birds also offers some helpful advice for attracting gray catbirds. To entice these birds, plant native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs such as dogwood, winterberry and serviceberry.

While the closely related brown thrasher and Northern mockingbird have both been honored with recognition as official state birds, this designation has never been bestowed on the gray catbird.

The female catbird constructs the nest, but her mate may helpfully provide some of the nesting materials. She may spend as long as a week building a rather bulky nest. She usually lays one to six eggs, which require an incubation period of about two weeks. Once the young hatch, both parents are kept busy bringing food to the young. Hatchlings will remain in the nest for about 10 days, but parents continue to care for and feed young even after they have fledged and departed the nest. Catbirds nest two or three time in a season.

According to the website All About Birds, the oldest known gray catbird was at least 17 years and 11 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in New Jersey in 2001. That individual had been banded in Maryland in 1984. So, if you do manage to strike up your own friendship with a catbird, there’s a good possibility that it could become a long-term relationship, especially since many birds like to return to a home territory year after year.

To share an observation, make a comment or ask a question, please send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I enjoy hearing from readers about shared interests in birds.

Blue of indigo bunting’s plumage is a trick of the light

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting is a resplendent bird.

The indigo bunting is one of the reasons I love to pay attention to the clientele visiting my 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.

Indigo buntings 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.

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

The male 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.

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 in spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders.

Photo by Dan Sudia/USFWS • Female and young indigo bunting do not show the intense blue of adult males.

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. 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 indigo bunting belongs to a genus of birds known as Passerina, which is included the family Cardinalidae, which includes birds like Northern cardinal and rose-breasted grosbeak. They are often lumped into a group known as North American buntings, although they are not closely related to such birds as snow bunting and lark bunting. The latter is even recognized as the official state bird for Colorado, a unique honor for this group of birds. The other members of the Passerina genus include lazuli bunting, varied bunting, painted bunting, rose-bellied bunting, orange-breasted bunting and blue grosbeak.

Worldwide, other birds known as buntings include such descriptively named species as slaty bunting, corn bunting, white-capped bunting, gray-necked bunting, cinereous bunting, lark-like bunting, cinnamon-breasted bunting, chestnut-eared bunting, little bunting, yellow-throated bunting, golden-breasted bunting, black-headed bunting, red-headed bunting and yellow bunting.

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

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.

78th annual Spring Bird Count for NE Tennessee finds 153 species

Photo by Ray Miller/Pixabay • One of my more exciting finds during the recent Spring Bird Count was a male red-breasted merganser from the TVA Overlook at Watauga Lake. Other count participants managed to locate another four red-breasted mergansers in the count area.

The 78th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Bird Count was held Saturday, May 1, covering Carter County plus parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.

With 40 observers in 13 parties, plus four feeder watchers, coverage of the count areas was extensive. Participants enjoyed a beautiful sunny day, although most areas had temperatures that had dipped into the upper 30s at sunrise. The day gradually warmed and got into the 70s.

Participants tallied 153 species, which is slightly above the recent 30 year average of 150 species. The all-time high on this count was 166 species and was set in 2016.

Some exceptional finds in Unicoi County included a red-headed woodpecker along the section of the linear trail near the McDonald’s. Each of the five counties in the region produced some good birds for this long-running survey.

Count participants included Fred Alsop, Rob Armistead, Betty Bailey, Gary Bailey, Jerry Bevins, Rob Biller, Ron Carrico, Catherine Cummins, Todd Eastin, Glen Eller, Harry Lee Farthing, Bambi Fincher, Dave Gardner, Tammy Griffey, Jean Henson, Neal Henson, Jacki Hinshaw, Lance Jessee, Jennifer Kennedy, David Kirschke, Rick Knight, Roy Knispel, Richard Lewis, Dianna Lynne, Vern Maddux, Frank McCollum, Larry McDaniel, Joe McGuiness, Cathy McNeil, Tom McNeil, Harry Norman, Susan Peters, Brookie Potter, Jean Potter, Sherrie Quillen, Pete Range, Judi Sawyer, Chris Soto, Michele Sparks, Bryan Stevens, Peggy Stevens, Kim Stroud, Charles Warden and Rex Whitfield.

Rick Knight, the long-time compiler for the count, made note of some of the misses, which included pied-billed grebe, common nighthawk, Acadian flycatcher (just the seventh miss in last 50 years), loggerhead shrike, horned lark, summer tanager and bobolink.

He also made some observations about other count finds.

• One species – brown-headed nuthatch – made its official count debut. Another – evening grosbeak – returned to the count after being absent since the spring of 2000.

• The American robin edged out the European starling for most common bird. Counters tallied 801 robins compared to 618 starlings.

• For only the sixth time in the last 18 years, Northern bobwhite made it onto the count. A single ruddy duck became only the second record for this waterfowl on the spring count. Also making only its second appearance on the spring count was willet, a species of shorebird that only migrates through the region.

• Some species appear to have moved into the region for good. Fish crows have been found the last five of the past six years, and Eurasian collared-doves have been found every year for the past 15 years.

• An amazing 29 species of New World warblers were found this year, including prothonotary warbler for only the third time in the last 15 years.

The total follows:

Canada goose, 412; wood duck, 31; mallard, 89; blue-winged teal, 13; bufflehead, 6; hooded merganser, 1; red-breasted merganser, 5; and ruddy duck; 1.

Ruffed grouse, 4; wild turkey, 28; common loon, 2; double-crested cormorant, 48; great blue heron, 69; green heron, 17; black-crowned night-heron, 2; and yellow-crowned night-heron, 5.

Black vulture, 60; turkey vulture, 128; osprey, 10; sharp-shinned hawk, 1; Cooper’s hawk, 6; bald eagle, 11; broad-winged hawk, 11; and red-tailed hawk, 21.

Virginia rail, 2; sora, 2; killdeer, 32; spotted sandpiper, 32; solitary sandpiper, 31; greater yellowlegs, 3; willet, 10; lesser yellowlegs, 2; and Wilson’s snipe, 1.

Bonaparte’s gull, 9; ring-billed gull, 6; rock pigeon, 106; Eurasian collared-dove, 6; mourning dove, 284; and yellow-billed cuckoo, 4.

Eastern screech owl, 13; great horned owl, 1; barred owl, 2; Whip-poor-will, 27; and chuck-will’s-widow, 16.

Chimney swift, 92; ruby-throated hummingbird, 34; belted kingfisher, 14; red-headed woodpecker, 4; red-bellied woodpecker, 125; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 7; downy woodpecker, 44; hairy woodpecker, 9; Northern flicker,41; and pileated woodpecker, 55.

American kestrel, 9; Eastern wood-pewee, 6; least flycatcher, 5; Eastern phoebe 119; great crested flycatcher, 12; and Eastern kingbird, 59.

White-eyed vireo, 15; yellow-throated vireo, 15; blue-headed vireo, 76; warbling vireo, 1; red-eyed vireo, 228; blue jay, 329; American crow, 358; fish crow, 1; and common raven, 20.

Northern rough-winged swallow, 95; purple martin, 71; tree swallow, 235; barn swallow, 218; and cliff swallow, 473.

Carolina chickadee, 139; tufted titmouse, 199; red-breasted nuthatch, 10; white-breasted nuthatch, 43; brown-headed nuthatch, 2; and brown creeper, 5.

House wren, 60; winter wren, 5; marsh wren, 1; Carolina wren, 202; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 75; golden-crowned kinglet, 6; and ruby-crowned kinglet, 4.

Eastern bluebird, 157; veery, 17; hermit thrush, 3; wood thrush, 80; American robin, 801; gray catbird, 80; brown thrasher, 66; Northern mockingbird, 121; European starling, 618; and cedar waxwing, 15.

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

Ovenbird, 157; worm-eating warbler, 35; Louisiana waterthrush, 29; Northern waterthrush, 5; golden-winged warbler, 2; black-and-white warbler, 79; prothonotary warbler, 1; Swainson’s warbler, 7; Nashville warbler, 1; Kentucky Warbler, 2;  common yellowthroat, 20; hooded warbler, 163; American redstart, 11; Cape May warbler, 6; Northern parula, 53; magnolia warbler, 4; bay-breasted warbler, 1; Blackburnian Warbler, 13; yellow warbler, 16;  chestnut-sided warbler, 17; black-throated blue warbler, 77; palm warbler,  5; pine warbler, 15; yellow-rumped warbler, 16; yellow-throated warbler, 25; prairie warbler, 4; black-throated green warbler, 95; Canada warbler, 18; and yellow-breasted chat, 9.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting is a resplendent bird.

 

Eastern towhee, 213; chipping sparrow, 117; field sparrow, 79; Savannah sparrow, 4; grasshopper sparrow, 1; song sparrow, 299; swamp sparrow, 9; white-throated sparrow, 27; white-crowned sparrow, 8; dark-eyed junco, 68; scarlet tanager, 96; Northern cardinal, 359; rose-breasted grosbeak, 36; blue grosbeak, 2; and indigo bunting, 62.

Red-winged blackbird, 550; Eastern meadowlark, 82; common grackle, 324; brown-headed cowbird, 99; orchard oriole, 29; and Baltimore oriole, 18.

House finch, 84; pine siskin, 31; American goldfinch, 283; evening grosbeak, 48; and house sparrow, 70.

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.

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?