Tag Archives: Songbirds

Worm-eating warbler less conspicuous member of family of bright, active migratory songbirds

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                The worm-eating warbler is one of the more nondescript warblers.

It’s September, which for me signals the autumn migration season of warblers and other neotropical birds. The warblers are a family of small songbirds that also happens to be the main reason I enjoy bird watching. Although warblers can be a challenge to observe and a puzzler to identify, they’re bundles of multi-colored feathers brimming with high-octane energy as they forage in treetops, along woodland edges, in weedy fields and around ponds and streams.

Like all migrating birds, warblers face numerous obstacles and hazards as they fly back south every fall after spending most of the spring and the entire summer spread across the United States and Canada for the season of nesting and raising young. Storms, such as the recent Hurricane Hermine, can be a hazard. Predatory raptors, like peregrine falcons and merlins, follow the migration routes and pick off various migrants. Even something as mundane as a window pane can bring a tragic halt to migration each year for thousands of our smaller songbirds.

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Photo Courtesy of Dianna Lynne Tucker           This worm-eating warbler perched on a flower pot while recovering from an impact with a window.

I recently received an email from Chris Soto, a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. Her sister, Dianna Lynne Tucker, resides in Elizabethton, Tennessee, near Holston Mountain. Her home has a yard that is a magnet for a variety of songbirds. One of the birds passing through her yard had an unfortunate impact with a window. Chris and Dianna already suspected the identity of the bird, but they emailed me asking for help to confirm it. I concurred that the bird was a worm-eating warbler.

“After a brief rest, the bird recovered,” Chris noted in the email. I always like a story with a happy ending.

The scientific name for this warbler is interesting. The worm-eating warbler, or Helmitheros vermivorum, is in a genus of one. It’s the only species contained within the genus. Vermi means “of or relating to worms” while vorum is related to eating. Hence, vermivorum is quite literally an “eater of worms.” The worms in this warbler’s diet, however, are not earthworms. Instead this bird feeds on caterpillars, the larval form of moths and caterpillars. The worm-eating warbler has one unusual foraging method to look for caterpillars. This warbler will often cling to a cluster of dead leaves while probing into the tangle to seek out any concealed caterpillars, as well as small insects and spiders. All in all, the worm-eating warbler doesn’t feed any more exclusively on caterpillars than other warblers.

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Photo Courtesy of Dianna Lynne Tucker         Like other songbirds, the migratory worm-eating warbler faces many perils during its annual fall migration.

This warbler’s non-musical song is a dry trill that compares with the songs of chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. Since these other birds can be found in similar habitats, it can be a bit of a challenge for beginners to identify this warbler by sound alone. The worm-eating warbler isn’t one of the more colorful members of the family. It has a subtle beauty, however, with a plumage of brown and buff feathers. The most distinctive part of its appearance are the black stripes that run along the crown and a dark stripe through the eye. This warbler has a pinkish bill. Both males and females look alike.

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Photo Courtesy of Brian Rovira                        This worm-eating warbler recovered after striking a window at the home of Brian Rovira in Unicoi, Tennessee.

According to the website All About Birds, the oldest worm-eating warbler ever documented was a male that was at least eight years, one month old when he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Connecticut. I’ve seen fewer of this particular warbler over the past ten years, but the overall population figures for this species have actually trended slightly upward. The worm-eating warbler’s population is concentrated in the southeastern United States. It favors deciduous woodland habitat with shaded banks, steep gullies and ravines. The habitat around my home must have changed enough that they are no longer a frequent visitor. The worm-eating warblers will migrate to Mexico and Central America this fall, electing to spend the winter months in warmer terrain.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted the worm-eating warbler in company with some native butterflies.

Warblers and their active lifestyles can be a challenge for human observers. Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort to seek out these colorful, energetic and interesting songbirds. Many people like to look for returning spring warblers, but I’ve always found the fall season the best time to look for these birds. September is the month when the majority of these warblers will migrate through our region. Warblers ignore offerings of seeds at our feeders, but a bird bath, ornamental fountain, pond or stream is like a magnet drawing these migrants to stop, enjoy a cool drink and a vigorous splash in the inviting water.

Keep a pair of binoculars at hand and your eyes open. If you’d like to share your observations of migrants passing through your yard this fall, I’d love to hear from you.

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

Moths, songbirds share top billing for programs at this year’s Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally

BALTIMORE-MOTH

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                       The Baltimore Snout Moth, or Baltimore Hypena, is a moth found in the Eastern part of the United States, west and south to Wisconsin, Missouri and Florida and Texas. The larvae feed on maple leaves, mainly red and silver maple.

For 54 years the annual Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally has brought nature enthusiasts from near and far to the slopes of Roan on the weekend after Labor Day. The tradition continues this year Friday-Sunday, Sept. 9-11, with two area naturalists presenting evening program on moths and songbird behavior.

 

For this year’s rally, the program spotlight will shine on local moths and songbirds. As always, a variety  of walks, hikes, strolls and workshops will also be offered on Saturday and Sunday. Top naturalists volunteer their time and energy to make the event both enjoyable and educational for people of all ages.

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Larry McDaniel and some goats in residence at the farm he owns with his wife, Janet Brown.

This fall rally continues to celebrate the natural world by providing two top speakers for this year’s event. Larry McDaniel, a naturalist at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee and a long-time member of the Friends of Roan Mountain, will deliver the program on “Moths of Roan Mountain and Northeast Tennessee.” Dr. Steven Hopp, naturalist and teacher at Emory and Henry College in Virginia, will present a program titled “Beyond Birding: A Look at the Life History of Local Songbirds.”

 

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Steven Hopp teaches at Emory and Henry College in Virginia.

Because of the continued support of the Friends of Roan Mountain, the seasonal rallies have the resources they need to prosper and grow and the FORM provides support for research and restoration projects on the Roan, as well as support for Roan Mountain State Park. Consider joining the Friends of Roan Mountain, if you are not a member. Members get free admission to all Naturalists Rally events and the organization’s newsletter, “Friends of Roan Mountain.” Gary Barrigar, director for the fall rally, said many thanks are due to Roan Mountain State Park’s staff for long-time support of the rallies, as well as the speakers and the trip leaders who donate their time and expertise.

 

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Clymene Moth

Evening and lunch programs will take place in Roan Mountain State Park’s Conference Center and field trips will leave from the field located on the left before the cabins in the park. A variety of morning and afternoon field trips are planned on topics ranging from butterflies and salamanders to birds and wildflowers.

 
McDaniel, the Friday evening speaker, grew up in College Park, Maryland, where he spent a great deal of time exploring in the woods. It was there that he developed a lifelong love for nature. He started birding while in high school and has been going at it ever since. He spent 15 years living and birding in Florida. It was during those years that he started traveling all over North America to see birds. He moved to Bristol, Tennessee, in 1993 and started attending the Roan Mountain Naturalists Rallies within weeks of having moved to the area. Legendary Bristol birder Wallace Coffey introduced him to the area and the birding community where he has met and spent time in the field with many outstanding birders and naturalists. While working as a letter carrier in Bristol he began volunteering to lead bird walks in the area.

 

Large Maple Spanworm Moth

Large Maple Spanworm Moth

He eventually became involved with the Bristol and Elizabethton bird clubs and served several years as the president of the Bristol club. Like many birders, during the 1990s he branched out and began studying butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies, reptiles and amphibians, wildflowers and a little of just about everything. Soon he began leading bird hikes for the Roan rallies and before long became a board member of the Friends of Roan Mountain. In 2006, having retired from the Postal Service, he started working as a naturalist at Steele Creek Park, where he has been for ten years. He increased his interest of insects during this time and in 2008 he started studying and photographing moths. Local naturalist Don Holt helped to get him started in that endeavor.

 

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Hummingbird Moth

McDaniel, lives with his wife, Janet Brown, on a hobby farm near Johnson City, where they tend a menagerie of mini-farm animals. Larry and Janet met at a Roan Rally and in 2003 got married in Roan Mountain State Park.

 
His presentation will discuss many aspects of the natural history of moths and the growing trend of studying them. It will include many of his photographs of moths from Roan Mountain State Park and the Tri-Cities area. He has photographed about a thousand species of moths, but he promises he won’t include them all in the presentation.

 
Dr. Steven Hopp will be the feature Saturday evening speaker. Hopp is broadly trained in the life sciences, and received his Ph.D. in Animal Behavior from Indiana University. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1984 to teach at Emory and Henry College, and has been tied to this region ever since. He taught ornithology courses at the University of Arizona from 1994 to 2004, at which time he moved back to Virginia full time. He teaches courses in wildlife management and sustainable agriculture in the Environmental Studies program at Emory and Henry.

 

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Blue-headed Vireo

Dr. Hopp has studied different species of vireos for over 25 years. His main interest is in their vocal behavior, but he has broadly studied their natural history including life history strategies, breeding ecology and behavior on their wintering grounds. More recently, he has become interested in Sustainable Agriculture, and is co-author of the national best-selling book, Animal Vegetable Miracle, with his wife, Barbara Kingsolver. The book is about local food systems and sustainable agriculture. He is founder and director of The Meadowview Farmers’ Guild, a community development project devoted to promoting local products, with an emphasis on agriculture. He serves on the board of Appalachian Sustainable Development. Hopp and his wife live in Meadowview, Virginia, on a mostly wooded farm with Icelandic Sheep and Dexter Cattle.

 
The evening programs are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Prior to the programs, evening meals catered by City Market of Elizabethton, Tennessee, will also be served on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 9-10. Cost is $9.50 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under. A bag lunch is also available on Saturday for field trip participants for $6. Advance reservations are required for the meals and bag lunch.

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Eight-spotted Forester Moth

For a brochure with information on making reservations, write to: Treasurer Nancy Barrigar, 708 Allen Ave., Elizabethton, TN 37643, or visit the organization’s website at http://www.friendsofroanmtn.org/Fall%20Rally%20Brochure%202016web.pdf for a downloadable PDF of the brochure. For more information about the fall rally, call Gary Barrigar at 543-7576 or email him at gbarrigar@friendsofroanmtn.org.

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White-spotted Sable Moth

 

Family of brown thrushes excels at birdsong

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Photo by Jean Potter                                                        A wood thrush perches in the upper branches of a tree. This thrush’s flute-like notes produce a haunting song from shaded woodlands.

Kathy Shearer, who resides in Emory, Virginia, sent me a recent email asking for help with bird identification.
“My husband and I hear this lovely bird song in the evenings and early morning close to our house, which is in the woods at Emory,” she explained in her email. She also attached an audio recording of the mystery singer and asked me to listen to the file.

 

I did so, and from the very first of the flute-like notes, I recognized the singing bird as a wood thrush, one of the most talented avian songsters in North America.I’ve been hearing singing wood thrushes in the woods near my home during the evenings, often in the wake of some energetic but short-lived July thunderstorms.

 

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                  The wood thrush is a shy, retiring bird that prefers to sing its melodic song from dense cover.

The wood thrush has a well-developed organ called a syrinx, which is the human equivalent of a larynx or voice box. For many songbirds, such as the thrushes, this specialized organ is more like a double voice box that permits the birds to produce two notes simultaneously while singing its song.

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

 
The wood thrush is a fairly common bird in the region from April to October. Wood thrushes migrate south in the fall, dispersing to Mexico and Central America for the winter months.

 
The shy wood thrush does not usually venture too far from its preferred woodland habitat, but freshly disturbed soil in a garden will attract these birds as they seek out earthworms and insect larvae. Wood thrushes also feed on various fruits and berries, which means they can be attracted by plantings of suitable trees and shrubs.

 

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The poet Walt Whitman incorporated the hermit thrush and its melancholic song in his elegy to the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

The wood thrush, like many of its relatives, sings mainly in the early morning and again in the evening hours. Listening to the song of this bird from a comfortable seat on a deck or porch is a great way to conclude the day.

 
Naturalists often point to one of the wood thrush’s close kin — the hermit thrush — as the most gifted singer in this clan of gifted songsters. For discerning listeners, the hermit thrush’s flute-like notes are somewhat more melancholy, haunting and ethereal than even the enchanting notes of the wood thrush’s song.

 
The poet Walt Whitman employed a thrush as a symbol in his poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” a moving pastoral elegy in honor of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln.

 
Whitman evidently knew his birds, and it’s not difficult to identify that he referred to the hermit thrush when he wove this songbird as a symbol into his stanzas honoring Lincoln.

 
“Sing on there in the swamp,” Whitman wrote in his poem. “O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call. I hear, I come presently, I understand you…”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens The hermit thrush, pictured, and wood thrush are rivals for title of best singer among North America’s songbirds.

Whitman and many other Americans have been made fans of this gifted songbird. In fact, the citizens of Vermont even proclaimed the hermit thrush as their official state bird.
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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Field guides crucial components to improving your bird knowledge

Earlier this spring, I received an email from Jill Henderson, who resides in Saltville, Virginia, asking for some advice on obtaining a good field guide to help enhance her knowledge of the region’s birds.

“I appreciate your expertise and thank you for helping me learn about the many different types of birds that we have here in southwest Virginia,” Jill wrote in her email. “Can you recommend a good field guide/reference book for a novice bird watcher?”

Photo-FieldGuides

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                  A variety of birding field guides are available to help beginners hone their identification skills. Peruse and choose the guide that works best for you.

I provided Jill with some information about field guides especially valuable for beginning birdwatchers.

In my own experience, I look for three things in a field guide: detailed illustrations, convenient size and complete listings of birds likely to be encountered. I prefer field guides with paintings/illustrations of birds rather than book featuring photographs. It’s a personal preference, of course, but I believe a good painting beats a photograph for capturing and conveying the important details to look for when trying to identify a bird.

With those criteria in mind, some of my favorite guides are David Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America; The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer; and A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America by the late Roger Tory Peterson. The latter is a classic among bird texts and helped kick off birdwatching for the average individual. The Sibley and National Geographic field guides are more modern takes on a field reference guide to assist in bird identification.9780307370020-us 2

All these books have counterparts featuring Western species of birds. Sibley also has a large guide (too large to easily take into the field) that has both Eastern and Western species in it.

I also suggested to Jill that before she makes a purchase, she should thumb through the pages of some of the guides available at a local book store or, even better, borrow a copy from a library. It’s always good to get some hands-on time with these books in order to decide which guide fits your own personal preferences. For instance, some people may prefer a guide with photographs. I’ve always liked painted illustrations better than photos. However, I own some field guides that rely on photos. I often use these guides as secondary references to consult for confirmation of a particularly puzzling identification. Among the best photo field guides available are the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman and the Stokes Field Guide to Birds Eastern Region by Donald and Lillian Stokes.517doMN-H7L._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_

Overall, field guides are a valuable investment and crucial for individuals looking to expand their knowledge of birds. Best of all, most field guides are not expensive. Most guides cost around $20. It’s sometimes possible to pick up a good guide at a store specializing in used books for an even more modest price.

One thing to keep in mind is that we’re living in a technology-driven age. Some tech-savvy birders have begun to rely on electronic guides on mobile devices for use in the field while birding. I’m a little more old-fashioned and still prefer a portable book while looking for birds.1071890

Not all guides are dedicated to using visual cues to identify birds. Once beginners have mastered some of the visual means of identifying birds, they will perhaps want to advance to some of the excellent “birding by ear” guides to help develop the ability to match bird songs with the birds that produce these audio clues to their identities. There are literally dozens of marvelous field guides.

Although birding helped kick off the demand for nature field guides, the industry has branched out in the past couple of decades. It’s easy to obtain extensive and informative field guides on a variety of subjects, ranging from butterflies and moths to dragonflies, wildflowers, trees, reptiles, fish, mammals and much more.81a1885b-80a6-4e50-a941-f0079f122a97_1000

Jill sent me her email with the query about field guides about the time the first ruby-throated hummingbirds were returning to the region, and she shared a story about her efforts to attract hummingbirds that was sidetracked by an unwelcome visitor.

“Also, as an avid hummingbird watcher, I was so excited to prepare and hang two feeders,” she wrote. “However, the only thing attracted to them at this point has been a local bear who proceeded one night to tear down and destroy both feeders!”

Jill said that the offending bear left paw prints on her porch and sticky, red remnants of hummingbird food on the side of her house underneath the garage sconce light (also destroyed by the bruin), which he mistook for a third feeder.

“Oh well, I will try again with the feeders here soon,” she added. The incident did prompt her to change her strategy. This time, she wrote, she planned to locate the feeders a little farther from her house.

I sympathized with her about the bear’s attack on her feeders, and shared an account of an incident that befell one of my feeders. A bear mangled one of my peanut feeders this past winter, bending the mesh tube into a pretzel shape.

I added a postscript to my email reply to Jill, prompted by learning where she lives.

“I love the wetlands in Saltville,” I wrote to her. “Great habitats for birds!”

Through the years, I have observed some interesting birds in the Saltville wetlands, including surf scoter, Caspian tern, great egret and spotted sandpiper. During those visits, I always had a trusted field guide with me for consultation.e34fe1ca-5b5d-4c45-956c-41ff096610d0_1.58baeab0e8cc1f26ab894e3cbcf9f22d

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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.

Regional spring bird count sets several new records

IndigoBunt

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                  Newly-arrived migrant birds such as Indigo Bunting were well represented on the 73rd annual Elizabethton Spring Bird Count.

The 73rd consecutive Elizabethton Spring Bird Count, which was held Saturday, April 30, set numerous records for this long-running survey of the region’s birds. The 59 observers in 13 parties (both representing record highs for participation) enjoyed favorable weather over the coverage area, which included Carter County and parts of adjacent Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington Counties.

 

Rose-breastedGrosbeak

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                              A total of 166 species of birds, including Rose-breasted Grosbeak, pictured, helped participants in the Elizabethton Spring Bird Count, establish a new record high for this annual survey. The old record of 161 species was set back in 2005.

Long-time count compiler Rick Knight announced that the annual count tallied 166 species, eclipsing the previous record of 161 set in 2005. By comparison, the average number over the last 30 years has been 147 species.

Highlights for this year’s Spring Bird Count included American Golden-Plover and Fish Crow, which were new to this annual survey of birds in the region.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                           The presence of several nesting colonies of Great Blue Herons could help explain a new record-high for this species on this year’s count.

Other notable find included Hooded Merganser (a hen with two young), a lingering pair of Common Mergansers, Virginia Rail, Black-billed Cuckoo, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Peregrine Falcon, Sedge Wren and Cerulean Warbler.

Amazingly, given the long history of this count, 21 species occurred in record high numbers this year. Knight said the increased number of observers and parties certainly contributed to this.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                      Although the Sora is rarely found during this annual count, the four individuals found this year represented an all-time high for the species on this yearly survey.

The record highs were for the following species:  Canada Goose (653), Mallard (332), Wild Turkey (57), Great Blue Heron (107), Yellow-crowned Night-Heron (14), Black Vulture (152), Spotted Sandpiper (83), Barred Owl (12), Belted Kingfisher (30), Red-bellied Woodpecker (97), Warbling Vireo (20), Red-eyed Vireo (257), Ovenbird (244), Worm-eating Warbler (39), Yellow-throated Warbler (44), Eastern Towhee (222), Scarlet Tanager (82), and Baltimore Oriole (38). Three species — Orchard Oriole (42), Northern Saw-whet Owl (3) and Sora (4) — tied previous high counts.

Several of these good finds were made by observers counting in Unicoi County at such locations as Rock Creek Recreation Area and Unaka Mountain. The final total follows:

Cardinal_CloseCrop

Photo by Bryan Stevens Common backyard birds, such as Northern Cardinal, were among the record-high 166 species found.

Canada Goose,  653; Wood Duck, 85; American Wigeon, 2; Mallard, 332; Blue-winged Teal, 6; Bufflehead, 5; Hooded Merganser, 3; and Common Merganser, 2.
Northern Bobwhite, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 1; Wild Turkey, 57; Common Loon, 1; Pied-billed Grebe, 5; Horned Grebe, 1; and Double-crested Cormorant, 65.
Great Blue Heron, 107; Green Heron, 16; Black-crowned Night-heron, 1; Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 14; Black Vulture,  152; and Turkey Vulture,  212.
Osprey,  15; Bald Eagle, 10; Sharp-shinned Hawk,  2; Cooper’s Hawk, 7; Broad-winged Hawk, 16; and Red-tailed Hawk,  38.
Virginia Rail,  1; Sora , 4; American Coot, 3; American Golden-Plover, 1; Killdeer,  46; Spotted Sandpiper,  83; Solitary Sandpiper,  34; Greater Yellowlegs,  2; Lesser Yellowlegs , 2; Least Sandpiper, 5; and Pectoral Sandpiper, 2.
Bonaparte’s Gull, 1; Ring-billed Gull, 7; Forster’s Tern, 7; Rock Pigeon, 166; Eurasian Collared-Dove,  3; Mourning Dove,  254; Yellow-billed Cuckoo,  9; and Black-billed Cuckoo, 1.
Eastern Screech-Owl, 10; Great Horned Owl,  6; Barred Owl,  12; Northern Saw-whet Owl, 3; Common Nighthawk, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 10; Eastern Whip-poor-will, 32; Chimney Swift , 209; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 31; and Belted Kingfisher, 30.
Red-headed Woodpecker, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker,  97; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 4; Downy Woodpecker,  37; Hairy Woodpecker, 10; Northern Flicker,  33; Pileated Woodpecker, 43; American Kestrel, 19; and Peregrine Falcon, 1.
Eastern Wood-Pewee,  7; Acadian Flycatcher, 12; Least Flycatcher, 6; Eastern Phoebe, 77; Great Crested Flycatcher, 15; and Eastern Kingbird, 57.
Loggerhead Shrike, 1; White-eyed Vireo, 12; Yellow-throated Vireo, 9; Blue-headed Vireo,  78; Warbling Vireo, 20; Red-eyed Vireo,  257; Blue Jay, 320; American Crow, 338; Fish Crow, 1; Common Raven,  and 14; Horned Lark,  2.
Purple Martin, 81; Tree Swallow, 426; Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 133; Barn Swallow, 217; and Cliff Swallow, 807.
Carolina Chickadee,  173; Tufted Titmouse, 166; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 16; White-breasted Nuthatch, 26; and Brown Creeper,  4.
House Wren,  45; Winter Wren, 4; Sedge Wren, 1; Carolina Wren,  129; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher,  97; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 5; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 4.

RedeyedVireo-Jean

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                        Vireos, such as this Red-eyed Vireo on a nest, were quite abundant. The numbers of Red-eyed Vireos and Warbling Vireos set all-time highs for the count.

Eastern Bluebird, 157; Veery, 13; Swainson’s Thrush,  2; Wood Thrush, 138; American Robin,  888; Gray Catbird, 55; Brown Thrasher, 45; Northern Mockingbird, 122; European Starling,  986; and Cedar Waxwing, 44.
Ovenbird, 244; Worm-eating Warbler, 39; Louisiana Waterthrush, 32; Golden-winged Warbler, 2; Black-and-white Warbler, 90; Swainson’s Warbler, 6; Nashville Warbler, 1; Kentucky Warbler, 5; Common Yellowthroat, 27; Hooded Warbler, 208; American Redstart, 21; Cape May Warbler, 4; Cerulean Warbler, 2; Northern Parula, 56; Magnolia Warbler, 3; Bay-breasted Warbler, 2; Blackburnian Warbler, 7; Yellow Warbler, 15; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 36; Blackpoll Warbler, 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 85; Palm Warbler, 8; Pine Warbler, 10; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 62; Yellow-throated Warbler, 44; Prairie Warbler, 5; Black-throated Green Warbler, 81; Canada Warbler, 44; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 8.
Eastern Towhee, 222; Chipping Sparrow, 126; Field Sparrow, 72; Savannah Sparrow, 1; Grasshopper Sparrow, 4; Song Sparrow, 276; Swamp Sparrow, 5; White-throated Sparrow, 13; White-crowned Sparrow, 11; and Dark-eyed Junco, 63.

Hairy_Male

Photo by Bryan Stevens While some species set record highs, only 10 Hairy Woodpeckers, like this male, were found by participants in the annual Elizabethton Spring Bird Count.

Summer Tanager, 1; Scarlet Tanager, 82; Northern Cardinal, 299; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 30; Blue Grosbeak, 6; and Indigo Bunting, 126.
Bobolink, 1; Red-winged Blackbird,  480; Eastern Meadowlark, 142; Rusty Blackbird, 2; Common Grackle, 477; Brown-headed Cowbird, 91; Orchard Oriole, 42; and Baltimore Oriole, 38.
House Finch, 56; Pine Siskin, 59; American Goldfinch, 354; and House Sparrow, 80.
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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.

Eastern phoebe easily wins friends with its trusting nature

Considering the bright finery worn by some of the more colorful spring arrivals, I could hardly blame you if the return of the Eastern phoebes escaped your notice. In comparison with vibrant birds like rose-breasted grosbeak, ruby-throated hummingbird, scarlet tanager and yellow warbler, the Eastern phoebe is downright drab.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      This fledgling Eastern phoebe waits patiently on a branch for a parent to bring it a morsel of food. Phoebe-Baby

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                               The Eastern phoebe is a common bird in much of the Eastern United States.

Nevertheless, this member of the flycatcher clan has earned itself a favorite spot in the hearts of many a birdwatcher. It’s one of those birds that even beginning birders find surprisingly easy to recognize and identify. While it may not have a dramatic plumage pattern to hint at its identity, the Eastern phoebe is quite at home around human dwellings and comes into close contact with people going about their daily routines. Rather tame — or at least not too bothered by close proximity with humans — the Eastern phoebe has one behaviorism that sets it apart from all the other similar flycatchers. When this bird lands on a perch, it cannot resist a vigorous bobbing of its tail. Every time that a phoebe lands on a perch, it will produce this easily recognized tail wag. It’s a behavior that makes this bird almost instantly recognizable among birders with the knowledge of this behavioral trait.

The Eastern phoebe is also an enthusiastic springtime singer, and the song it chooses to sing is an oft-repeated two-syllable call “FEE-bee” that provides the inspiration for this bird’s common name.

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A painting by John James Audubon of Eastern phoebes, or, as he knew them, pewee flycatchers.

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Thomas Say

The Eastern phoebe, known by the scientific name of Sayornis phoebe, has two relatives in the genus Sayornis. The genus is named after Thomas Say, an American naturalist. The Eastern phoebe’s close relatives include the black phoebe and Say’s phoebe. The black phoebe ranges throughout Oregon, Washington and California and as far south as Central and South America. As its name suggests, this bird has mostly black feathers instead of the gray plumage of its relatives. The Say’s phoebe, also named for the man who gave the genus its name, is the western counterpart to the Eastern phoebe.

Since they belong to the vast family of New World flycatchers, it’s probably no surprise that these phoebes feed largely on insects. The birds will often perch patiently until an insect’s flight brings it within easy range. A quick flight from its perch usually allows the skillful bird to return with a morsel snatched on the wing. In the winter months, the Eastern phoebe also eats berries and other small fruit.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                      An Eastern phoebe forages for insects in the branches of a willow tree.

Phoebes are fond of nesting on human structures, including culverts, bridges and houses. With the latter, they were once known for their habit of placing their nests under sheltering eaves. At my home, a pair of Eastern phoebes often chooses to nest on the wooden rafters in my family’s garage. Phoebes also like to reside near a water source, such as a creek, stream or pond.

Although the species is migratory, a few hardy individuals will usually try to tough out winters in the region. The others that depart in the autumn will migrate to the southern United States and as far south as Central America. On some rare occasions, Eastern phoebes have flown far off their usual course and ended up in western Europe. I can usually count on Eastern phoebes returning to my home in early March, making them one of the first migrants to return each year. Their arrival rarely goes unnoticed since the males tend to start singing persistently as soon as they arrive.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                            An Eastern Phoebe perches on a sign at Roan Mountain State Park in Roan Mountain, Tennessee.

A few weeks ago I wrote about opportunities to take part in citizen science projects for the benefit of birds. The concept of ordinary citizens making a difference in scientific discovery isn’t a new one. More than two centuries ago, one of the most influential birders in history and the namesake of the National Audubon Society used Eastern phoebes to help add to the knowledge of bird migration.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens            An Eastern phoebe during the fall of the year.

John James Audubon, an early naturalist and famed painter of North America’s birds, conducted an experiment with some young phoebes that represents the first-ever bird banding in the United States of America. His novel experiment, which he carried out in 1803, involved tying some silver thread to the legs of the phoebes he captured near his home in Pennsylvania. He wanted to answer a question he had about whether birds are faithful to home locations from year to year. The following year Audubon again captured two phoebes and found the silver thread had remained attached to their legs. Today ornithologists still conduct bird banding to gather information on birds and the mystery of their migrations.

So, that pair of phoebes that returned to your backyard this spring — they just might be the same ones that have spent past summer seasons providing you with an enlightening glimpse into their lives.

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To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Bryan 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.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                                                                                                          A family of young Eastern Phoebes shares a perch.

Returning birds add their songs to the spring’s chorus

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                Eastern Towhee sings from a limb on a sapling.

As we welcome April, I’ve noticed the additions to the early morning chorus produced by the birds in residence around my home. From American robins and Eastern towhees to song sparrows and Carolina chickadees, all our feathered friends produce their own unique serenades to greet each new day.

Songbirds sing to attract mates, discourage rivals, establish territories and for a variety of other reasons.

Of course, the songs of birds play important roles in their daily lives. Half of the world’s bird species are known as passerines, or songbirds; in itself a good indication of the importance of song in the day-to-day routines of birds.

The scientific definition of a songbird is that it is a species with a specialized voice box known as a syrinx. This amazing organ allows for the production of some of the melodic and complex songs characteristic of birds such as wood thrush, Northern cardinal and Carolina wrens. Many of the warblers — a family of birds that should be beginning to returning to the region — produce a diverse range of songs.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A Boat-tailed Grackle sings from a South Carolina wetland.

Among other purposes, attracting mates, intimidating rivals and signaling territorial borders are some of the reasons birds sing. For human listeners, it’s easy to think that birds also sing for the sheer joy of producing these amazing choruses. That belief, however, is probably based more on the ear of the beholder.

We would probably be unaware of the presence of many birds if it wasn’t for their vocalizations. This fact is particularly true of nocturnal birds or denizens of inaccessible habitats such as swamps and marshes.

I was reminded of this fact when Facebook friend Kenneth Oakes sent me a message on March 23 about the arrival of the first whip-poor-will of the spring.

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A painting of a Whip-poor-will by the artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

“A whip-poor-will has just arrived,” he wrote in his message. “It is about 12 days early.” Kenneth noted that usually the arrival date for whip-poor-wills, as well as for hummingbirds, is about April 5.

“This is the earliest I’ve ever seen them arrive in this area,” Kenneth wrote. For the past two years, he noted that whip-poor-wills have been a week to 12 days late in arriving in the spring.

Kenneth is not the only person who has reported “early bird” whip-poor-wills. Brookie Potter, who lives with his wife, Jean, near Wilbur Lake in Carter County, Tennessee, heard two calling whip-poor-wills near his home on Easter Sunday, March 27. He reported his observation on bristol-birds, an online list-serve forum for sharing area bird sightings.

Ironically, the whip-poor-will is not one of the world’s many passerine, or songbird, species. Nevertheless, this bird’s nocturnal serenades are one of my fondest childhood memories. I remember sitting on my grandparents’ front porch to listen for hours to the whip-poor-wills as they sang the syllables of their own names from the nearby edges of the woodlands.

Kenneth also reported that he thinks the juncos have departed. “Winter is not over until they leave,” he wrote. “Let’s hope for an early spring.”

All indications, such as the early arrivals of birds such as whip-poor-wills, are that an early spring could be in the works. This is also the time of year when I keep my eyes open for the arrival of the first ruby-throated hummingbirds of spring. In fact, I put out my sugar water feeders the last week of March.

According to websites that track the annual northward migration of these tiny birds, the first hummingbirds should start arriving in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina any day now. As always, I invite readers to share with me the date and time of these first sightings.

Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or send me a message on Facebook to notify me when you observe your first hummingbird of spring 2016.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A pair of Wood Ducks visited the fish pond several times in March and April.

While I haven’t yet seen hummingbirds, plenty of other birds have been making appearances. My fish pond has been visited twice by pairs of wood ducks. My other recent sightings have included tree swallows, brown thrashers and chipping sparrows. I love spring for the simple fact you never know when a new bird will surprise you with an unanticipated arrival.

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