Tag Archives: Our Fine Feathered Friends

Bald eagles still soaring as inspirational success symbol

Photo by Pixabay.com • The bald eagle became the official bird of the United States in 1782.

In addition to an abundance of red, white and blue decorations, the recent celebration of the Fourth of July likely featured various images and depictions of the bald eagle, which has served as the official bird of the United States of America since the latter decades of the 18th century.

I thought that readers would be better prepared to celebrate Independence Day with some interesting information on our national bird, the American bald eagle, which officially became the national emblem in 1782 when the great seal of the United States was adopted. Although Benjamin Franklin famously expressed reservations about making the bald eagle our national bird, in hindsight it’s clear that Americans made the right choice.

Despite elevating this native bird to such lofty status, we have not always been kind to the bald eagle. We allowed habitat destruction and toxic pesticides to bring this eagle to the brink of extinction. With well-deserved protection, however, the bald eagle rebounded, and the Department of Interior finally took the eagle off the threatened species list on June 28, 2007.

The bald eagle has been more frequently observed by birders in Northeast Tennessee in recent years. Some of the region’s rivers and lakes are good places to look for bald eagles, particularly in the fall and winter. A few lakes even regularly host nesting bald eagles. I’ve observed bald eagles in Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia. There are even eagle cams on nesting sites at Boone Lake and South Holston Lake. I monitored the local eagle cams this spring. There was some drama and heartbreak, but the new eaglets look like they’ve made it. They are a testament to the fact that the resurgence of the once-endangered bald eagle in the lower 48 states has been a laudable accomplishment that all Americans should view with pride.

Photo by Moonzigg/Pizabay.com • The bald eagle is a fitting symbol for the United States of America despite the bad treatment the eagle sometimes receives from Americans.

The bald eagle and golden eagle are the only eagles found in the lower 48 states. Go north to Alaska, however, and you can encounter Steller’s sea eagle, which is named for the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. To this day, Steller is renowned for his work as a pioneer in the natural history of Alaska. The 49th state to join the union is also the stronghold for the bald eagle. On occasion, Steller’s sea eagle has strayed into U.S. territory at Alaskan locations including the Pribilof Islands and Kodiak Island. Steller’s sea eagle is bigger than the bald eagle. In fact, it is the largest member of the Haliaeetus genus of eagles, making this bird one of the largest raptors in the entire world.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted an accurate depiction of a bald eagle scavenging a catfish.

The naturalist for which the bird is named has also been honored by the naming of other creatures, including Steller’s sea lion and the now-extinct Steller’s sea cow, as well as several birds, including Steller’s jay and Steller’s eider. He was the first naturalist to describe several creatures native to Alaska, although two of these, the sea cow (a relative of the manatees) and the spectacled cormorant, are now extinct. The latter, which was the largest cormorant to ever live, is a particularly sad story. These cormorants were basically eaten into extinction, exploited as a food source by sailors and fur traders. The last spectacled cormorants perished around 1850 on a Russian island off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Fortunately, we have proven a little more far-sighted in our treatment of the bald eagle, which was removed from the U.S. government’s list of endangered species on July 12, 1995, and transferred to the list of threatened species. In 2007, bald eagle numbers had rebounded enough in the Lower 48 states to also allow for the bald eagle to be removed from the list of threatened species.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • The fact that bald eagles still soar is a triumph for conservation efforts that succeeded at saving America’s official bird.

The bald eagle, however, is not considered closely related to eagles in the genus Aquila, or “true eagles,” in which the golden eagle is included. North America’s other eagle is a very rare visitor to the region. The golden eagle is primarily a bird of the western United States while the bald eagle ranges widely across the United States as well as into Canada and Mexico. Other true eagles include the Spanish imperial eagle, tawny eagle and wedge-tailed eagle.

Both male and female adult bald eagles have a blackish-brown back and breast; a white head, neck and tail; and yellow feet and bill. Juvenile bald eagles are a mixture of brown and white and reach full maturity in four to five years. The female bald eagle is 35 to 37 inches in length, slightly larger than the male, with a wingspan that ranges from 72 to 90 inches. Bald eagles weigh from 10 to 14 pounds. The bald eagle’s diet consists mostly of fish, some of which are scavenged, but these large raptors are also capable of preying on everything from muskrats and ducks to rabbits and snakes. The bald eagle will also feed on carrion.

Two-hundred and thirty-eight years after it was declared an official emblem of the United States, the bald eagle has become an instantly recognizable American symbol. Long may the eagles fly.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him 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.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A bald eagle suns itself on a cold winter day along a river in northeast Tennessee.

Daily twittering of chimney swifts part of summer’s background noise

Photo by Vinoverde/Adobe Stock • Chimney swift foraging on the wing for insects. Swifts are designed for life in flight. These birds do not perch but have special claws that help them cling to the sides of vertical surfaces such as cliffs or chimneys.

As spring turns into summer, afternoons and evenings at my home have presented daily shows from a small flock of resident chimney swifts. These graceful and aerodynamic birds are designed for a life lived almost exclusively on the wing. In fact, chimney swifts are incapable of perching in the manner of most birds. They can only cling to vertical surfaces, such as rocky cliff faces or the interiors of chimneys.

As they fly overhead, these swifts produce a high-pitched twittering. It’s not as musical as the songs of some birds, but neither is the sound unpleasant. In fact, the twittering of chimney swifts is a sound that I’ve grown to associate with pleasant summer evenings. Listening to these birds as they swoop in the sky overhead is a great way to relax.

Chimney swifts are often most prevalent over the rooftops of cities, but swifts also spend the summer months in more rural areas. Flocks returning to summer roosting sites at dusk are an impressive sight. Hundreds of these birds can swoop in ever tightening circles around a large chimney, disappearing inside the chimney like feathered smoke.

Former names for the chimney swift have included chimney sweep, American swift and chimney bat. These birds, however, do nothing to clean the inside of chimneys, and bats are, of course, mammals. Swifts are not difficult to recognize, and their overall shape has often been described as “cigars with wings.” They are designed for flight and feed almost exclusively on winged insects. They even bathe on the wing, flying low over rivers and other bodies of water and skimming the surface in order to dampen their breast feathers.

In the United States, the chimney swift is the only member of its family found in the eastern half of the country. On the other side of the continent, the white-throated swift, Vaux’s swift and black swift replace the chimney swift in the western United States and southern British Columbia in Canada.

Worldwide, there are about 75 swift species. The family also consists of birds known as swiftlets, needletails and spinetails, but they’re all just variations on the the basic swift model. Some of the world’s other species include band-rumped swift, pale-rumped swift, white-throated swift, white-tipped swift, mottled swift, plume-toed swiftlet, drab swiftlet, silver-rumped spinetail and brown-backed needletail.

The largest member of the swift family is the purple needletail, a species native to Asia. This bird is almost ten inches long and can weigh nearly seven and a half grams. Another species, the cliff swift, makes a nest that is prized in Asian cuisine as an ingredient for “Bird’s Nest Soup.” The governments of various Asian nations regulate the harvesting of nests quite strictly to ensure that the human demand for the soup doesn’t deplete the overall swift population. It’s a lucrative enterprise, however, and some experts worry that poaching and unethical harvesting methods, such as taking the nests before young birds are capable of flight and survival, could endanger the swifts.

Fortunately, nests of chimney swifts in the New World have never become coveted for culinary purposes. According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency website, chimney swifts once nested and roosted in hollow trees in old-growth forests. When European settlers arrived, they greatly increased the number of potential nesting sites for swifts by putting chimneys on their buildings. The responsive swifts quickly took advantage of these new nesting and roosting sites. They build their nests, whether in chimneys or hollow trees, of twigs cemented together with their own saliva.

While chimney swifts are spread across much of the eastern United States during the nesting season, their winter home remained unknown for many years. In 1943, Peruvian natives recovered bands that had been attached to the legs of 13 swifts, helping to finally solve the mystery of where the birds spent the winter months. According to an article on the TWRA website, eight of the 13 bands came from birds that had been banded in the Volunteer State.

Of course, swifts are not the only birds in the summer skies. Taking a moment to gaze upward can reward you with views of soaring raptors, swooping swallows and foraging common nighthawks.

Photo by The Other Kev/Pixabay.com • This flying European swift is one of 100 species of swifts found around the world. Only one species, the chimney swift, is found in eastern North America.

 

Mississippi kite glimpsed on spring count becomes latest listed ‘life bird’

Photo by Richard/Adobe Stock • A solitary Mississippi Kite sits perched in a lakeside tree. These graceful raptors take their prey mostly while on the wing.

If you know many birders, you have likely heard them talk about “life birds.” These are any species that a birder has seen and identified in the wild for the very first time. It can be any bird species at all that the birder observes for the first time, whether it is a commonplace bird like a song sparrow or something slightly more exotic.

While taking part in the 77th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Count on Saturday, May 2, I saw something that, for our region, could be considered a little more exotic. The sighting certainly ranked as unexpected.

Unless one travels extensively, life birds can be hard to get once people have added to their lists most of the common birds around their homes. Finding a life bird during the ongoing pandemic brings its own challenges. I haven’t added a new life bird to my own list since a visit to South Carolina in June 0f 2016. During that visit to Huntington Beach State Park, I added a least bittern to my list of “life birds.”

My most recent “life bird” appeared closer to home and might qualify as my most unexpected life bird ever. The bird flew into view and onto my life list during the annual Spring Bird Count, which was conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Due to social distancing, many participants counted solo this year, myself included, although a few married couples birded together. I’ll always remember my pandemic spring count, especially for the 46th bird on my tally list for the day.

I found myself in the parking lot at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton around 11 in the morning. I wanted to scan the evergreens in that vicinity for Cape May warblers, a migrant that finds the tall conifers to its liking. I didn’t find any warblers, but I did surprise a perched raptor into making a short flight.

The instant I saw the bird launch itself into flight, I knew I was watching something out of the ordinary. The bird flew with a combination of grace and power that reminded me of a falcon, but I also glimpsed a barred tail that reminded me of one of the accipiter hawks. Then it landed on a dead branch in a tall sycamore that must have permitted the raptor an unobstructed view of the entire park. Although I’d never until that moment seen a Mississippi kite, I have studied illustrations and photographs. I felt fairly certain of the bird’s identity even before I used my phone to call up some birding sites to confirm my identification.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This Mississippi Kite became the first of its kind ever observed on one of the Elizabethton Bird Club’s Spring Bird Counts for Northeast Tennessee.

That’s when the fact I was birding solo hit home. I wanted some additional witnesses to this very unexpected find. In lieu of other observers, I turned to my camera. The bird had turned its back to me, but I snapped some photos and then made my way to a position that I hoped would allow for better photographs.

Alas, the resident American crows at the park had different ideas. Detecting a raptor in their midst, about a half dozen crows gathered to harass the perched kite. Before I could snap a new round of photos, the kite took flight and flew into a stand of tall trees located between the park and Sycamore Shoals Hospital.

Only a few years ago, a Mississippi kite in Northeast Tennessee would have been unheard of. The hills and mountains of the region are simply not the expected habitat for these graceful raptors. Faith Reeves, a resident of Elizabethton, Tennessee, a Facebook friend and fellow birder, saw the first two Mississippi Kites ever found in Northeast Tennessee. She saw and photographed the birds in her own yard on May 20, 2014, and May 13, 2016.

In addition, Don Holt observed a Mississippi kite in Washington County, Tennessee, on April 16, 2017.

Rick Knight and several other birders also saw several Mississippi Kites for about a week in late August of 2016. Observers estimated that these sightings involved from two to five different kites.

“The August observations are our only fall records,” said Rick Knight, a long-time compiler of birds sightings in the region. He added that fall is the season when kites are likely to linger.

“All spring records are overshooting migrants and are one-day-wonders,” Knight explained.

Hearing his explanation, I felt even more privileged to have witnessed this “one-day wonder” in my home county.

Photo by Myriams-Fotos/Pixabay.com • The red kite is an abundant member of the kite family in Europe and northwest Africa.

The Mississippi kite is a beautiful raptor. Adults are grayish-white with the head often appearing pale gray or almost white. Although the Mississippi kite can attain a wingspan of three feet, these birds weigh only seven to thirteen ounces. They feed almost exclusively on insects, which they capture in flight. Some of the insects, such as cicadas and grasshoppers, are ones that damage crops, making the Mississippi kite a friend to farmers.

These kites breed and nest in the central and southern United States, but they have expanded their range north in recent years. They leave the United States in fall to spend the winter in southern South America.

Several years ago I got the thrill of adding a swallow-tailed kite to my life list in some agricultural fields in southwestern Washington County. I’ve also seen swallow-tailed kites in Florida. There is one other member of the kite family that I’d like to add to my list. The snail kite is a dark bird with a hooked beak designed for feeding on snails found in wetlands. This specialist resides in Florida, as well as the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Other kites found around the world include the double-toothed kite, plumbeous kite, whistling kite, square-tailed kite, red kite and black kite.

It’s been a spring filled with many amazing bird observations. I can’t speak for others, but thanks to that remarkable kite sighting and glimpses of some other fascinating birds, not even having to bird solo in a pandemic can bring me down. I’ll provide more details on this year’s Spring Bird Count for Northeast Tennessee in next week’s column.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Mississippi Kite perched in a tree prior to being dispersed by some defensive American crows.

Region’s two oriole species make their spring return

Photo by MillionPM/Pixabay.com • Oranges, as well as offerings of grape jelly, are often successful at luring Baltimore orioles to feeders.

Earlier this spring, Kaylynn Wilster, who resides in Jonesborough, Tennessee, emailed me for information about orioles.

“Do you know when the orioles return to our area?” Kaylynn asked. In her email, she also shared that she had a female Baltimore oriole gathering nesting materials in her yard last summer.

“I put out an oriole feeder this year,” she added. So far, she noted, only chickadees have discovered the grape jelly.

In addition, Brenda Hickman Dishner, who lives near Holston Dam in Bristol, Tennessee, contacted me through Facebook to ask if I have seen orioles in the area.

Brenda added that she has put out oriole feeders for the past three years with no luck.

Photo provided by Gloria Blevins • A male Baltimore Oriole visits a feeder at the Blevins home in Damascus, Virginia.

It seems many people are hoping to welcome these bright orange and black birds to their feeders. In my reply to Kaylynn and Brenda, I told them to expect orioles to arrive in late April and early May. I’ve found orioles uncommon visitors to my home, but my prediction on timing proved more or less correct.

Gloria Blevins shared a photo of the Baltimore orioles that have been visiting her home in Damascus, Virginia. In a Facebook message, she shared that the orioles have been feeding on grape jelly that she had provided them since May 2.

Although she no longer lives locally, Kathy Noblet has been seeing lots of Baltimore orioles at her home in Mount Vernon, Ohio, since late April. Her photographs of these colorful birds have been nothing short of amazing. She has shared new photographs on Facebook on an almost daily basis for the past couple of weeks.

“The orioles continue to come to my deck and pig out on grape jelly,” Kathy posted on May 6. “They are fun to watch!”

I also heard back from Kaylynn on May 15. “There was a male oriole getting a drink at my pond about four days ago,” she informed me in an email.

Photo by USFWS • Baltimore orioles, like this male, are members of the blackbird family, making them relatives of species such as Eastern meadowlarks, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds.

The Baltimore oriole, despite its bright plumage, is a member of one of the blackbird clans, known in scientific circles as the Icterus genus. In his book, “Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket,” John Eastman notes that there are 26 species in the genus, eight of which nest in the United States.

In the eastern United States, there are only two orioles — the Baltimore oriole and its smaller relative, the orchard oriole. The western half of the nation is home to a half dozen orioles, including Bullock’s oriole, Scott’s oriole, Audubon’s oriole, hooded oriole and Altamira oriole. I saw several gaudy, noisy Bullock’s orioles during a trip to Utah in May of 2006.

Tall trees are an essential part of the Baltimore oriole’s favored habitat. Baltimore orioles are well-known for their colorful appearance, but their fame also rests with a sack-like nest that Eastman describes as a “durable marvel of tight-woven plant fibers” in his informational book. Eastman also notes that during another era in America, the Baltimore oriole often built its marvelous nests in American elms before Dutch elm disease almost eradicated these trees from the landscape. He reports that maples, willows and apples have served as nesting trees in the absence of elms. Once the hard-working female oriole sets to work, she may spend eight days or longer weaving plant fibers into a strong pouch suspended from the outer ends of drooping branches. The durability of the nest means that other birds, including house finches, may occupy the old nest once abandoned by the original inhabitant.

Orioles are present in the region from April to October, retreating to the American tropics for the winter. There they may live on plantations that produce such much-coveted crops as bananas, coffee and cacao, which is the essential ingredient for chocolate.

George Calvert, Lord Baltimore

The Baltimore oriole is named in honor of one of the founding fathers of the state of Maryland. George Calvert, or Baron Baltimore, was an influential English colonist instrumental in establishing the colony of Maryland. His servants wore orange and black uniforms, which inspired early American naturalist Mark Catesby to name the bird the Baltimore oriole. The bird’s association with the the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland have continued to this day. The bird is also famous as the namesake of one of America’s professional baseball teams.

Baltimore orioles eat insects and fruit, but these adaptive birds have also developed a fondness for sweet nectar. Orioles no longer have to raid sugar water feeders meant for hummingbirds. Many manufacturers of bird-feeding equipment now produce affordable sugar water feeders specifically designed for use by orioles. Many bird enthusiasts also use orange slices and grape jelly to lure orioles into their yards. I’ve tried these tricks, but I’ve attracted more gray catbirds and scarlet tanagers than I have orioles. In my book, that’s not a disappointment. I happen to like catbirds and tanagers.

With orioles, I’ve had better luck by refraining from a bit of pest control. Back in the late 1990s, I observed a male Baltimore oriole visiting a large caterpillar tent in the branches of a cherry tree. The bird methodically plucked the caterpillars from the silken tent, eating them one after the other. I’ve since learned that this is not an odd occurrence for Baltimore orioles. While many birds avoid spiny and hairy caterpillars, orioles actively seek them out and do a great service by reducing the damage these hungry caterpillars can inflict on the environment.

If you’re wanting to see orioles, I can share some area “hot spots” for these colorful birds. The waterfront at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City, Tennessee, has fewer tall trees than it did a few years ago, but the remaining trees still attract orioles. Warriors Path State Park in Kingsport, Tennessee, has long been a place that local birders depend on for sightings of Baltimore orioles. I also had some impressive sightings of both orioles at Hungry Mother State Park a few years ago. Although those birds could have been spring migrants, this park in Marion, Virginia, certainly offers habitat that orioles would find attractive.

Want more details on how to attract orioles to your yard using specialized feeders? Check out this helpful article from Birds and Blooms. https://www.birdsandblooms.com/birding/attracting-birds/bird-nesting/how-to-attract-orioles/

Photo by Bryan Stevens • In the western part of the United States, the Baltimore oriole is replaced by Bullock’s oriole.

Migrating rose-breasted grosbeaks thrill observers with recent visits

Photo provided by Shannon Stimson • A male rose-breasted grosbeak checks out some well-stocked feeders.

They’re not as dependable as ruby-throated hummingbirds, but they are every bit as impressive. Of course, I am referring to rose-breasted grosbeaks, which have been delighted people across the eastern half of the United States for the past couple of weeks.

Among these grosbeaks, it’s the male that wears the exquisite apparel. Males have a black head, wings, back and tail, with a bright splash of rose coloring across the front of their breast. Males and females exhibit marked sexual dimorphism, which is simply a scientific way of saying that males and females are quite different in their appearance.

The female rose-breasted grosbeak lacks the male’s showy plumage. She could easily be mistaken for a large, chunky sparrow with her brown, streaked feathers. She does have the large beak in common with the male. In fact, the term “grosbeak” is derived from German and simply means “big beak.” Incidentally, I’m told by bird banders that rose-breasted grosbeaks can give a nasty nip with that sizable and sturdy beak.

My email in-box and my Facebook page have been active this migration season with reports from people eager to share observations of these showy songbirds.

Carla Honaker sent me an email on Monday, April 27, about visiting rose-breasted grosbeaks.

“Two days ago I ran out of bird seed and changed from a mix to a black oil seed,” Carla reported. “I had heavy bird traffic yesterday and this morning my mother went over to open the blind that faces the front yard where the bird feeder hangs on a limb in a dogwood tree. To her surprise, there was a rose-breasted grosbeak sitting on the feeder eating the sunflower seeds.”

Understandably, Carla and her mother were very excited to see this unknown visitor at the feeder. Curious about the bird’s identity, Carla used the app Cornell Lab Merlin and made the identification.

Photo by Paintspreader/Pixabay.com • Male rose-breasted grosbeaks provide a jolt of excitement during migratory stopovers in yards and gardens throughout the eastern United States every spring.

Carla said the grosbeak stayed around for a few more minutes, long enough for her to take a picture of the side of his wing and back and tail.

She also had a question, asking if there are many rose-breasted grosbeaks in this area and whether there is a chance he will be a regular at her feeder.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male rose-breasted grosbeak perches in a tree on Roan Mountain in Tennessee.

Alas, rose-breasted grosbeaks are usually only spring and fall migrants unless one lives in the higher elevations of some of our local mountains. Visit area mountains in summer if you want to see these birds away from your feeders. They’re still fairly common in the region, but sadly, their numbers have declined overall.

I also let Carla know that grosbeaks are very fond of sunflower seed, so changing the mixed seed to black oil sunflower was probably helpful in attracting the visitor.

Elizabeth “Liz” Wynacht, who lives outside Atlanta in the town of Roswell, Georgia, also shared her own rose-breasted grosbeak story in an email she sent to me on Wednesday, April 29.

Elizabeth provided some interesting background to preface her story. “A few years ago, I looked up and saw this bright red “kiss” on this creamy colored breast of a bird,” she wrote. “I ran in to get my camera but he was gone when I got back. After researching what I thought I saw, my guess was a grosbeak. I have been looking for him ever since.”

Photo Provided by Byron Tucker • A male rose-breasted grosbeak squares off with a red-bellied woodpecker in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.

After a couple of years, her wait ended. “This past Friday, while sitting on my porch, I looked up from my phone, and I saw that beautiful red kiss coming toward the feeder,” she wrote. “Of course, my movement startled him and he flew away.”

Once again, she fetched her camera and waited. Liz reported that the male grosbeak showed up again along with his little wife. They visited for three days.

“He was a wonderful surprise in the midst of this crazy pandemic,” Liz wrote. “Really lifts the spirit to see such a beautiful bird.”

Shannon Stimson sent me an email on Monday, May 4, with some attached photos of male rose-breasted grosbeaks. “I had three males at my feeders two days ago followed by one female,” Shannon wrote. “One male that looked less mature stayed on for two days gorging on nuts and seeds for hours and engaging in a slight disagreement with a red-headed woodpecker over possession of the feeder.”

Sadly, Shannon reported that the grosbeaks moved on, but noted that their visit brought a great deal of cheer in this isolating time.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A rose-breasted grosbeak finds a meal of sunflower seeds at a feeder.

Kaylynn Wilster, who lives in Jonesborough, Tennessee, emailed me on Thursday, April 30, about her own rose-breasted grosbeak sighting. “He was not afraid of me and let me walk around the yard,” she wrote.

The very same day that Kaylynn saw her grosbeak, I looked out my window and saw one at my feeders. There had been a storm the previous night, so I suspect that helped “persuade” the bird to visit.

I posted on Facebook about my sighting and several friends shared their own.

“I was just reading an old article of yours about rose-breasted grosbeaks and, lo and behold, I have a flock of them hanging out on my feeders for the first time ever,” wrote Mary Ragland in a Facebook message to me.

Carolyn Grubb in Washington County, Virginia, reported seeing one.

Amy Wallin Tipton, who lives in Unicoi County, Tennessee, reported that her parents had been hosting a male and female rose-breasted grosbeak for the past two days.

James and Pattie Rowland, of Erwin, Tennessee, also reported on Facebook sightings of rose-breasted grosbeaks.

Keep the reports coming. If nothing else, sharing bird sightings is a way to feel less socially distant from others.

Photo Provided by Elizabeth “Liz” Wynacht  • A male rose-breasted grosbeak visits a feeder in a suburban area near Atlanta, Georgia.

Stunning summer tanager a lesser-known relative of scarlet tanager

Photo Provided by Helen Whited • A male summer tanager visits a feeder during a migration stop in southwest Virginia.

Helen Whited, a resident of Richlands, Virginia, recently emailed me a photo of a feathered visitor in her yard asking for help with identification. She had already narrowed down the possibilities. “I’m thinking a tanager of some kind,” Helen wrote in her email.

When I opened Helen’s attached photo file, I recognized the plump, red bird perched on her feeder near a suet cage. I wrote an email back, informing Helen that her visitor was indeed a tanager. The summer tanager is not rare, per se, but these birds do not seem as common in the region as the related and better known scarlet tanager. Farther south, summer tanagers are much more prevalent in the spring and summer months.

Helen also reported seeing her first ruby-throated hummingbird of spring on April 25. “It’s later than usual, but they’re here,” she wrote in an email.

She added that several neighbors in Richlands, Virginia, reported seeing hummingbirds as early as April 21, but they seemed to be shunning her until the morning of April 25.

Since the last couple of columns have been about hummingbirds, I want to shift the focus this week to Helen’s other visitor.

If the casual birder or nature enthusiast is aware of the summer tanager, it’s usually as the less showy cousin of the more fiery and vibrant scarlet tanager, one of the most striking birds inhabiting woodlands in the eastern United States.

That’s a shame, for many reasons.

Photo by Ronald Plett/Pixabay.com • A male summer tanager perches in the leafy canopy.

First and foremost, the summer tanager holds one unique distinction. The male summer tanager is the only completely red bird in North America. Other birds known for their red plumage — Northern cardinal, house finch, vermillion flycatcher — show other colors in their feathers besides red.

The strawberry-colored male summer tanager is often difficult to spot due to a propensity to keep hidden against the green leaves of the forest canopy. The website “All About Birds” describes the female as “mustard yellow” in her coloration, which is rather apt. Female summer tanagers are usually less greenish than female scarlet tanagers. The female is even harder to spot than the male, though both sexes have a very distinctive chuckling call note.

Over the years, different local spots have proven reliable for finding summer tanagers. Large trees near the Steele Creek Park Nature Center in Bristol, Tennessee, used to be a fairly dependable location for these tanagers during late spring and summer.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this work featuring a family of summer tanagers.

The summer tanager is classified in the genus Piranga, which includes the scarlet tanager as well as the western tanager of the states west of the Rocky Mountains. This genus also includes the flame-colored tanager, white-winged tanager and red-headed tanager. Experts now classify this genus with members of the cardinal family and have separated the Piranga tanagers from other New World tanagers.

The song of the summer tanager has been described as similar to that of the American robin. Like the scarlet tanager, the summer tanager is fond of fruit and berries, but it also eats insects, often catching them on the wing.

Confined mostly to the eastern United States during the nesting season, the summer tanager doesn’t range as far north as the scarlet tanager, making its stronghold in the Gulf and southern states.

The summer tanager’s scientific name, Piranga rubra, translates as “red bird.” It’s not really clear why this tanager acquired the word “summer” in its common name. After all, both the summer tanager and scarlet tanager are only present in North America for a brief nesting season from late April to early September.

Other birds besides tanagers are on the move as spring migration continues. Get outdoors and see what wanders into your yard or garden. To share your own observations, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook.

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter • The summer tanager is the only all-red bird in North America. It is less common in Northeast Tennessee than the related scarlet tanager.

Sandhill crane adopts grocery store parking lot during migration stop

I felt certain I’d misheard when fellow birder Brookie Potter phoned me and reported a sandhill crane in the parking lot of the Food City grocery store located in south Johnson City. Plagued with a bad connection, it took a second call to clarify his remarks. “Did you say there’s a sandhill crane in the parking lot at Food City?” I asked him when I called back and established a better connection.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The sandhill crane walks toward a flooded field behind the grocery store.

Early naturalist John James Audubon painted this work depicting a sandhill crane.

He confirmed that I’d heard correctly, which launched a quick trip to the aforementioned grocery store. I’m familiar with the store and knew that there are large fields surrounding this particular Food City and an adjacent section of stores. When I arrived, I began scanning the field. A sandhill crane is a fairly tall bird and should stick out. No luck. I called Brookie back and told him I was at the Food City but saw no sign of a crane.

“It’s here,” he said. “In the parking lot.” He gave me specific directions. Moments later I arrived in my car and saw a sandhill crane taking careful steps as it moved through the aisles of parked cars. 

The crane first attracted the notice of John Neth, a resident of the Milligan College community, who notified other area birders. When I arrived I found Brookie and his wife, Jean, who had her camera and was taking photos of the crane as it ambled tamely through the parking lot. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens• The sandhill crane looks more natural after retreating to a wet field behind the grocery store.

I saw my first sandhill crane in a harvested corn field in early 1999 In Shady Valley, Tennessee. Since that first sighting, I have observed sandhill cranes near Musick’s Campground at Holston Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, as well as along the Tennessee River in Knoxville. I also saw dozens of these majestic birds during a trip to Utah in the spring of 2006. I’ve also seen sandhill cranes in Florida. Many of the cranes living in the Sunshine State are quite tame, ranging into private yards and onto airport tarmacs. My theory is that the bird at the Food City is a Florida visitor based on its trusting nature toward humans and its level of comfort in the artificial environment of an asphalt parking lot.

A sandhill crane stands over four feet tall, with a wingspan stretching more than six feet, making it one of the largest birds found in Tennessee. Every winter, thousands of sandhill cranes migrate to the 6,000-acre Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge located on Chickamauga Lake at the confluence of the Hiwassee River with the Tennessee River. In the more mountainous areas of northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina and southwest Virginia, sightings of these cranes are considerably more rare.

In December 2011 and January 2012, a hooded crane made headlines by appearing with the sandhill cranes gathered at Hiwassee. Hooded cranes normally winter in southern Japan, as well as locations in South Korea and China. On occasion, endangered whooping cranes have also mingled with the large flocks of sandhill cranes at Hiwassee. 

My observations of a whooping crane are confined to a single occasion about 20 years ago when a migrating individual made a brief stop at a field in Greene County. The whooping crane is a continuing success story for the Endangered Species Act. A March 2018 Fish and Wildlife Service report estimates that the total current population of whooping cranes is about 800 individuals, which is a dramatic increase from the low point for the species in 1938 when the world’s whooping cranes numbered only 15 adult birds in a single flock.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A snapshot of the first arrival among male ruby-throated hummingbirds in 2020.

Readers continue to share hummingbird sightings

People have continued to report their first spring sightings of ruby-throated hummingbirds with me. 

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John Whinery reported that his first hummingbird of spring was a female ruby-throated hummingbird on the morning of April 19.  “I saw her just southwest of Fall Branch along Highway 93 a mile in Greene County,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

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Rhonda Eller reported her first hummingbird of the season on April 19. “So happy to see my first hummingbird at the feeder this morning,” Rhonda wrote on Facebook.

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“Got our first sighting of a hummingbird this morning about 10:30,” Russ MacIntyre wrote in an email on Monday, April 20. “We put our feeders out on April 4 or April 5.” Russ lives on Hazelnut Drive in Jonesborough, Tennessee. 

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Tom McNeil in the Piney Grove community of Hampton was pleased to announce on Facebook the arrival of a hummingbird at his home. “Finally! A male arrived at 4:20 p.m. on April 20.”

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Phyllis Moore shared on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird at home in Bristol, Virginia, on the morning of April 20.

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Anita Clemmer reported on Facebook that she saw her first spring hummingbird on April 22. “I got my first ruby-throated hummingbird today in Deep Gap, North Carolina,” she posted.

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Felicia Mitchell, Emory, Virginia, share the news of her first sighting in a Facebook message. “First hummingbird at my feeder on April 24 at 7:10 p.m.,” she wrote. 

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I appreciate all the responses I received this year from people glad to welcome their hummingbirds back. 

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Here are a few more photos of the sandhill crane during its April visit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Returning ruby-throats, like the rest of world’s hummingbirds, never fail to dazzle

Photo by Anne and Saturnino Miranda/Pixabay.com • The Cuban emerald is a species of hummingbird found in a wide range of semi-open habitats in Cuba, as well as the Isle of Pines and the western Bahamas. Numbering 330 species, the world’s hummingbirds dazzle humans with their incredibly diverse plumages.

Experts estimate that there are 330 species of hummingbirds, all of which are found in the New World. Consider that these dazzling little birds have been given vividly descriptive names, such as cinnamon-throated hermit, red-tailed comet, blue-chinned sapphire, lazuline sabrewing, sparkling violetear, fiery topaz, green-tailed goldenthroat, bronze-tailed plumeleteer,  amethyst-throated mountain-gem, peacock coquette, red-billed emerald, empress brilliant, purple-backed sunbeam, green-backed hillstar, orange-throated sunangel, black metaltail, marvelous spatuletail and blue-tufted starthroat.

The only reliable species to inhabit the eastern United States from spring to fall each year is the ruby-throated hummingbird, which is currently arriving at various points from Florida to Maine and westward to states like Illinois, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but people should see a spike in their numbers when the hummingbirds end summer nesting and start migrating south again this autumn.

One of my most memorable hummingbird sightings took place in January of 1999 during a cruise in the Bahamas. A stopover in Nassau and a visit to the Paradise Island Resort permitted me a fleeting glimpse of a Bahama woodstar, a small hummingbird with a superficial resemblance to the ruby-throated hummingbird. The real beauty from my visit to the Bahamas, however, took place on a private cay maintained by the Disney Cruise line. While many passengers enjoyed the sun and sand of the beach, I walked nature trails to find birds. 

Photo by Daniel Roberts/Pixabay.com • The calliope hummingbird is the smallest of its kind known to reside in North America.

I found Western spindalis, then known as stripe-headed tanager, as well as black-faced grassquits and bananaquits, and I got several close looks at male and female Cuban emeralds, a hummingbird found in a wide range of semi-open habitats in Cuba, the Isle of Pines and the western Bahamas. The male is almost entirely metallic or iridescent green and measures almost four inches long. The ones I encountered were also curious and quite tame, often flying within inches of my face. 

Other than the two hummingbirds I saw during that trip, my remaining hummingbird observations have been confined to the United States. That hasn’t prevented me from seeing such unexpected hummingbirds as green-breasted mango, calliope hummingbird, black-chinned hummingbird, rufous hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, and broad-tailed hummingbird. 

Photo by Anne and Saturnino Miranda/Pixabay.com • It’s not difficult at all to see how the male Cuban emerald in such vibrant green plumage acquired its common name.

If I ever win the lottery, I plan to see as many hummingbirds as I can. For now, I am happy to report that ruby-throated hummingbirds are returning to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina.

I received an email from Susie Parks, who lives in the North Cove section of McDowell County in North Carolina. “My daughter, Luanne Graham, and I sighted our first hummer on March 28,” Priscilla noted. 

“I read your column in the McDowell News,” she added. “I am 84 years old and have been a birder most of my life.” 

Susie added that she and her daughter are both retired teachers who live next to each other. “We put our feeders out earlier than usual because she had heard that the hummers might be arriving earlier this year,” Susie wrote.

Susie noted that the first hummingbird sighted at her own feeder arrived on the first day of April, a few days after the hummingbird that visited her daughter’s feeder. “I keep a journal and I always note the first sighting,” she added, “and this is the earliest hummer I have ever recorded.”

This sightings by Susie and Luanne are the earliest I’ve had reported to me this year. 

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Facebook friend Jimmie Daniels in Newland, North Carolina, reported on her Facebook page that the first hummingbird of spring arrived at 6:24 p.m. on Wednesday, April 8.  “We just saw our first hummingbird and that always makes me happy,” she wrote. “If you have not put out feeders yet, it is a good time to do that.”

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Bob Cheers of Bristol, Virginia, reported a ruby-throated female arrived at his home at 7:55 a.m. on Friday, April 10. He speculated that the hummingbird was possibly “the same gal that arrived last year on the same day but 10 hours later.” Bob added that hummingbirds are amazing and that it was almost inconceivable to him that it could be the same bird. Bob, who had read in previous columns that downy woodpeckers and Carolina chickadees occasionally take a sip of sugar water from hummingbird feeders, also asked if I had ever heard of a red-bellied woodpecker feeding regularly at a hummingbird feeder. I’ve not personally witnessed this, but perhaps some readers have seen red-bellied woodpeckers at sugar water feeders. Let me know!

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

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Brenda Hickman Dishner posted on my Facebook page that she spotted her first hummer of spring on Friday, April 10. “We live near Highway 421 and Houston Dam in Bristol, Tennessee,” she added.

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Philip Laws, who lives in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County, reported to me on Facebook that he saw his first hummingbirds on April 10. “Hummers returned to Limestone Cove on Good Friday,” Philip noted.

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Jeanne Siler Lilly reported her first spring hummingbird with a comment on my Facebook page. “I saw one at my feeder on April 10,” she wrote, adding that the bird visited a couple of times.

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Mary Jones in Johnson City said her first hummingbird this year arrived on April 11. “I had one show up the Saturday before Easter and every day since,” she wrote in a Facebook comment. 

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Dianna Lynne in Elizabethton saw her first hummingbird this spring on April 11. “They stopped in on Easter morning at the porch feeder here in Stoney Creek,” Dianne said in a comment on Facebook.

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Erwin resident Amy Wallin Tipton saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird on Easter Sunday.  “I just wanted to let you know I just saw my first male ruby-throat of the season,” Amy wrote in a Facebook message. “It was at 11:55 a.m.”

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Lia Pritchard saw her first hummer of the season on Easter Sunday at her home in Fall Branch, Tennessee. Her father, Glen Eller, shared the report of Lia’s sighting.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Keep hummingbirds happy with a sugar water solution of four parts water to one part sugar.

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Lynda Carter, who lives in Jonesborough, saw her first hummingbird at 8:45 a.m. on Monday, April 13, after a stormy night. “The bird may have blown in sideways from Arkansas last night,” Lynda joked in an email.

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Richard Lewis in Bristol sent me a message on Facebook to announce the arrival of his first spring hummingbird. “I had my first ruby-throated hummingbird Monday, April 13, at 6 p.m. at my home in Bristol, Tennessee,” he wrote.

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Joneen Sargent, who lives in Sullivan County west of Holston Lake off Highway 421, emailed me at 8:06 p.m. on Monday, April 13, to report her first spring hummingbird. “Just saw my first hummingbird of the season,” Joneen wrote. “Gives me hope.”

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Jane Arnold emailed me to notify me of her mother’s hummingbird sighting. Her mother, Betty Poole, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird — a female — on Wednesday, April 15. Jane’s still awaiting her first spring hummer. 

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Priscilla Gutierrez saw the first hummingbirds of spring the morning of Wednesday, April 15. “I put out a feeder and by 6 p.m. they were coming to [the] feeder,” Priscilla added in a comment on my Facebook page. 

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Erwin resident April Kerns Fain posted on her Facebook page at 5:32 p.m. on Thursday, April 16, that she saw her first hummingbird. 

Erwin resident Pattie Rowland posted on my Facebook page that she saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird on Friday, April 17. “Just saw a hummer in Erwin,” Pattie wrote. 

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Sharee Bowman reported her first hummingbird of spring in a Facebook message. “I saw my first hummingbird in Cedar Bluff, Virginia, on Friday, April 17,” she wrote. 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird lifts its wings to shake water droplets off its back.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds make welcome return to region

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

Pat Stakely Cook‎ of Marion, North Carolina, reported the earliest spring sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird.
Pat posted, “Hummingbird is back here in Marion, North Carolina,” on my Facebook page at 5;45 p.m. on Sunday, April 5.
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Sam Jewett emailed me to report a first spring sighting.
“My first red-throated one showed up Monday, April 6, at Lake James in North Carolina, and boy, has he been hungry,” Sam wrote.
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Judy and Bill Beckman, who reside on Springbrook Road in Unicoi, reported their own sighting.
“We just had our first hummingbird visit our feeder at around 5:50 p.m. on Monday, April 6,” the couple wrote in an email to me.
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Joy Patton, who lives in Marion, North Carolina, also reported her first hummingbird on April 6.
“I put my feeder up a few days early this year because the weather has been so nice,” Joy wrote in an email. “The second day, April 6, a male ruby-throated hummingbird visited and ate and ate!”
Joy added that her daughter, Cindy Pierce, who lives near Fayetteville, North Carolina, saw her first hummingbird that same day.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird lifts its wings to shake water droplets off its back.

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Judi Sawyer, a resident of Roan Mountain, Tennessee, reported the first hummingbird arrival on her Facebook page. Judi is a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. “The hummers are back,” Judi wrote on her page on Tuesday, April 7.
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Bristol resident Vivian C Tester posted on my Facebook page on Wednesday, April 8, about her first sighting. “I just had my first hummer stop by,” Vivian wrote. “So glad I had just put my feeder out.”
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The ruby-throated hummingbird, known by the scientific name of Archilochus colubris, is one of more than 300 species of hummingbirds. All hummingbirds are found in the New World and are completely absent from the Old World. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds launch their spring migration about 10 days prior to female hummingbirds. Most of these tiny birds make an incredible non-stop journey across the Gulf of Mexico each year to return to our yards and gardens across the Eastern United States.

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

Based on the number of people who shared hummingbird sightings with me, these tiny birds have a lot of big fans. If you would like to host your own hummingbirds, here are some crucial tips:
• Make your yard a zone that’s free of insecticides and pesticides. Residues of these chemicals can remain on blossoms, which then run the risk of sickening a hummingbird. In addition, hummingbirds subsist on more than nectar. They consume many tiny insects and spiders. Eating bugs that have been contaminated with dangerous chemicals can also sicken or kill hummingbirds.
• Provide shrubs and trees in your landscape to make your yard more inviting. Hummingbirds claim favorite posts and perches, where they will rest when they are not visiting our gardens or feeders. Shrubs and trees can also provide locations for concealing nests built by female hummingbirds.
• Cultivate plants that offer nectar-producing blooms. While hummingbirds are known to favor the color red, these nectar-sipping birds will also visit blooms of other colors. Some favorite spring blooms include the flowers of red buckeye, wild columbine, crossvine and native varieties of azaleas. As spring advances into summer, the diversity of flowers available to lure hummingbirds into your garden will increase dramatically.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches near a feeder that he is ready to defend from all comers.

I am still awaiting my first hummingbird of spring. I’m confident it won’t be long. Invariably, the first hummingbird to show up in my yard is a male with the gorget — or throat patch — of red, iridescent feathers that gives his species its common name.
He’ll be especially welcome this particular spring.
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Share a sighting, ask a question, or make a comment by emailing ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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

Brown thrashers make first spring appearance

 

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A brown thrasher visits a feeder for a helping of suet. These large songbirds are usually among spring’s early arrivals.

In this time of social distancing when the daily routine can become flat and dull, I’m rejoicing that many of my favorite birds are returning after their long winter absence. One of the first to return has been brown thrashers, which made a first spring appearance on March 25. I suppose I should use the word “appearance” with reservations since I only heard a thrasher singing from deep in the concealment of a brushy thicket. A few days, later, however, a pair of brown thrashers began visiting my suet feeders.

I posted about the return of this large songbird on Facebook and immediately discovered that the brown thrashers must have returned to the region en masse.

Aubrie Abernethy, a resident of Johnson City, Tennessee, posted that her brown thrasher has arrived a day earlier than mine.

Dianne Draper, a resident of Jonesborough, Tennessee, posted, too. “Ours is back also,” Dianne wrote.

Photo by Ken Thomas
The Brown Thrasher is an alert, sharp-eyed observer of its surroundings.

Michelle Sparks in Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page that she had seen her first spring brown thrasher earlier that same week.

Diane Gonzalves from Abingdon, Virginia, responded on the post about brown thrashers by asking about another imminent arrival. “I assume the hummingbirds should be here soon?” Diane asked.

I responded that the first ruby-throated hummingbirds should be arriving at any time. Please watch out for these tiny birds and get your sugar water feeders outside to welcome them. I will do my annual round-up on first hummingbird sightings of the spring again this year. Share your sighting by emailing the time and date of the arrival to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Readers can also contact me via Facebook.

The brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) belongs to the family of “mimic thrushes,” which provides a label for a group of songbirds capable of imitating the songs of other birds. Mimidae, the Latin root for “mimic,” provides the scientific name for the family, which includes mockingbirds and the New World catbirds, as well as thrashers. The Northern mockingbird is best known for the ability to mimic, but relatives like the gray catbird and brown thrasher are also talented mimics.

The thrasher is a fairly large songbird about 11.5 inches long with a wingspan of 13 inches. Much of the body length comes from the bird’s long tail feathers. A thrasher weighs, however, only about 2.5 ounces.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pair of Brown Thrashers forage for food on the ground below a feeder.

The brown thrasher is not a picky eater. It’s known to eat everything from berries and nuts to insects and small lizards. It’s also aggressive in defending its nest and young. John James Audubon, a French-American ornithologist, naturalist and painter, painted quite the dramatic scene of a group of brown thrashers valiantly defending a nest from an attacking snake. The painting is so detailed that one has to imagine Audubon based his work on a real-life experience. His work, originally painted in the early decades of the 1800s, still holds up today.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted a dramatic scene of brown thrashers defending their nest from an attacking snake.

Incidentally, Audubon knew the brown thrasher as the “ferruginous thrush.” Another former common name for this species was “brown thrush.” The brown thrasher breeds across the United States and Canada east of the Rocky Mountains. Thrashers withdraw from the northern part of their range in the winter months, spending the season in the southeastern United States.

They are familiar birds in southern gardens. In fact, the brown thrasher is the official state bird of Georgia and also provided the name for Atlanta’s National Hockey League team, the Atlanta Thrashers. The thrasher became Georgia’s state bird due to passage of a Joint Resolution of the Georgia General Assembly in 1970.

Other new arrivals in the closing days of March included blue-gray gnatcatcher, blue-headed vireo and broad-winged hawk. So, what are you seeing? Let me know when the hummingbirds arrive.

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