Tag Archives: Northeast Tennessee

Hooded warbler and its kin bring tropical splash to area woodlands

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

I came away from a recent program on bird migration given by Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman learning a few new nuggets of information about warblers, which are one of my favorite bird families. The Kaufmans, well-known birders and activists on the behalf of birds, spoke Saturday, Aug. 31, on the topic of bird migration during the evening program at the Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally. They confirmed some things I have always suspected to be true about fall migration in the region. For instance, warbler migration in the Southern Appalachians is indeed often more productive in the fall than in the spring. The Kaufmans also noted that fall migration takes place at a more leisurely pace for most of the migrating warblers. They even pointed out that some of the warblers, such as magnolia warbler and Tennessee warbler, which are uncommon fall migrants at their home in Ohio, are actually quite common in East Tennessee.

Hooded warblers nest in the woodlands around my home. So, from the time my favorite warbler returns in April until the last individual departs in October, I enjoy regular glimpses of this colorful and interesting bird. Like all warblers, the hooded warbler is quite energetic, dashing after tiny insects in the branches of shrubs and trees. Hooded warblers often forage close to the ground, which makes observing them easier.

Every time I behold a hooded warbler, I marvel at the bird’s exquisite appearance. The gold and green feathers seem to glow brightly in the dim light of the shadowy thickets of rhododendron they prefer to inhabit. The black hood and bib surrounding the male’s yellow face stands out by virtue of its stark contrast from the brighter feathers. Large coal-black eyes complete the effect. The appearance of the male bird provides this species with its common name. The female has an identical yellow-green coloration as the male, although she is slightly more drab. She lacks the black hood and bib, although older females may acquire some dark plumage on the head and around the face. Both sexes also show white tail feathers that they constantly fan and flick as they move about in thick vegetation and shrubbery.

Photo by Bryan Stevens  • Only males show the well-formed black hood and bib that gives the hooded warbler its common name.

I know that every migrant passing through my yard at this time of year is making its way southward, and it will likely be another five to six months before I again see any of my favorite songbirds. The hooded warbler will make itself at home in the forests of Mexico, as well as in Belize, Costa Rica and other Central American nations, throughout the winter season. Most hooded warblers begin returning to their winter haunts as early as mid-September, but lingering individuals continue to entertain birders in the United States throughout October.

Like many of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that make their home in the United States for the summer, the hooded warbler’s fall migration takes it across the vast open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, crossing to the Yucatan and then dispersing from there to various points in Central America. That birds as small as hummingbirds and warblers make this incredible migration twice yearly is one of nature’s most phenomenal feats of endurance. In their presentation, the Kaufmans explained that these tiny birds put on incredible fat reserves to help fuel their efforts.

The warblers, also known as wood-warblers, are an exclusively New World family of birds, numbering approximately 116 species. About 50 of these species of warblers make their home in the eastern United States and Canada for the spring and summer, departing in the fall and returning to tropical wintering grounds. Some of them are extremely bright and colorful birds. The hooded warbler would have to be included among the more brightly colored warblers.

Other colorful warblers that share similar tastes in range and habitat with the hooded warbler include the American redstart, black-throated blue warbler and black-throated green warbler.

While some of the neotropical migrants that venture into North America boast even brighter kin in the tropics, we need not feel cheated with the warblers that make their home in the United States for half of the year. Some of their relatives are beautiful birds, including the white-faced whitestart, golden-bellied warbler, three-striped warbler and rose-breasted chat, but few can really hold a candle to their relatives that venture north and brighten our lives.

The warblers are, in short, an incredible family of birds. I’ve seen all but a handful of the species that reside for part of the year in the eastern United States. I still want to see a Connecticut warbler and cerulean warbler, as well as the endangered Kirtland’s warbler of Michigan and the golden-cheeked warbler of Texas. I’ll miss the warblers once fall migration has run its course. For those months they are here, the warblers belong to us. They seem like “our” birds. They’re only on loan, though. Our winter birds will offer some compensation in their absence, but I’ll be impatiently awaiting that flash of gold from the recesses of a rhododendron thicket next April.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A female hooded warbler sits tightly on her eggs in the cup-shaped nest she has build within the concealing branches of a shrub.

Welcoming Eastern towhees into yards, gardens easy to accomplish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinals don’t always look their best during late summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long-running Elizabethton Summer Bird Count finds 115 species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The count total follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unicoi County summer survey finds 107 bird species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Indigo buntings common and colorful summer bird in region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrival of tree swallows one of season’s firsts among spring’s returning birds

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Tree swallows are among the different species of birds returning to the region after spending the winter months farther south. These birds will be looking for nesting boxes or natural cavities in the coming weeks.

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.

You might think that would translate into a messy arrival timetable for some of our returning birds, but so far my own personal observations indicate a different story. For instance, a pair of tree swallows arrived at my home on March 8. Curious, I explored my Facebook newsfeed and discovered that the first tree swallows returned in 2016 on the very same date! These punctual arrivals never cease to amaze me. It’s almost like clockwork for some of the birds that I have observed for many years at my home.

When John James Audubon painted these tree swallows, he knew them as “white-bellied swallows.”

When I posted about the arrival of the swallows on Facebook, some other people shared their own arrival stories. Paul Elmore in Bristol, Tennessee, mentioned the arrival of the first brown-headed cowbirds at his home. “Their sounds got my attention first,” he noted in his reply to my post, describing the sound as similar to “a marble being dropped into a pail of water.”

In addition to tree swallows and brown-headed cowbirds, other recent returns have included red-winged blackbirds and American robins, which have both been hailed as traditional harbingers of spring. Over the next few weeks, I look for the pace to pick up as returning birds like chipping sparrows, brown thrashers, blue-gray gnatcatchers and yellow-throated warblers mingle with lingering winter birds such as dark-eyed juncos, purple finches and yellow-rumped warblers.

The pair of swallows that returned on March 8 probably regretted the timing. Arriving during a warm spell that saw temperatures climb into the high 70s, the swallows were soon enduring a chilly blast that saw the mercury in outdoor thermometers dipping into the 20s. The swallows are insect-eating birds, so extended cold spells often force them 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.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Tree swallows usually return to the region in late February and early March. Look for other birds, such as brown thrashers and chipping sparrows, to return in the coming weeks.

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 nesting in southwest Virginia are a relatively recent happening. According to Tony Decker’s The Birds of Smyth County, Virginia, tree swallows have only been common summer residents since about 1975. Some of the early records of these birds nesting in the region took place at locations like the ponds in Saltville, Virginia, and Laurel Bed Lake in Russell County, Virginia.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern bluebird stakes claim to a box to ward off inquisitive tree swallows. The two cavity-nesting species are often competitors for prime nesting real estate.

A decade later, tree swallows began nesting in northeast Tennessee. The first nesting record took place 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.

It’s usually not too difficult to find five of the six species of swallows that are known to make Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia their home from spring to fall. In addition to tree swallows, other swallows such as barn swallows, purple martins, cliff swallows and northern rough-winged swallows are fairly common summer birds in the region. The barn swallow and tree swallow are the two members of the family that are probably best known to people. They have adapted to life in both suburban and rural areas, which brings them into frequent contact with people.

The golden swallow, which today exists only on the island of Hispaniola.

While only a few 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 and streak-throated swallow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male tree swallow perches on a utility wire extending over a fish pond.

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 Golden Swallow. Translated from Greek, the genus name means “fast mover,” a quite accurate description of these graceful and agile flyers.

With their enthusiastic twittering to each other, tree swallows make for friendly neighbors. It’s also a pleasant diversion to watch them swoop over fields and ponds. 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.

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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.