Tag Archives: Tennessee

Palm warbler’s name an unfortunate misnomer that has stuck

Photo by Jean Potter The palm warbler’s name is a mistaken assumption that this warbler held special affinity for palm trees. It doesn’t.

The warbler parade that begins each autumn with such brightly colored migrants as Blackburnian warbler, black-throated blue warbler and magnolia warbler usually ends with some of the less vibrant members of this family of New World birds.

On a recent bird walk at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee, I helped locate a flock of 13 palm warblers and a single yellow-rumped warbler. These two warblers, which look rather brownish and nondescript in the fall, pass through the region later than most other migrating warblers. In fact, the yellow-rumped warbler is one of the few warblers that routinely spends the winter months in the region.

The yellow-rumped warbler has a most suitable name thanks to the yellow patch of feathers on the bird’s rump. The resemblance of the patch to a pat of butter is uncanny enough to have encouraged birders to nickname this often abundant winter warbler the “butter butt.”

The palm warbler’s name is, at best, a misnomer. Throughout most of its life, the palm warbler doesn’t even encounter palm trees. Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist who lived from 1748 to 1804, saddled the palm warbler with its inappropriate name. Gmelin based his naming of the bird based on the fact that a specimen had been collected on Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean with an abundance of palm trees.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Palm Warbler forages along a chain-link fence.

Gmelin published several textbooks in the fields of chemistry, pharmaceutical science, mineralogy, and botany. He also had a hand in publishing a catalog of scientific names for various species, including some birds that had until that point never been given a species classification. Thanks to his efforts, a warbler has forever been linked with a type of tree that is, at best, entirely incidental to the bird’s life cycle.

Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these palm warblers.

Palm warblers do seek out warmer domains during the winter months, including the islands of the Caribbean. Some of them do not even migrate that far, choosing to remain along the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines of the southern United States. On occasion, individual palm warblers choose to remain in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia or western North Carolina during the winter months.

Every spring, however, palm warblers make a long migration flight north. This warbler is one of the northernmost breeding warblers, spending the summer months in the boreal forests of Canada. They build their nests in the thickets surrounding the many bogs along the edges of the great coniferous forests of this region of Canada.

The female palm warbler lays four to five eggs, but both parents will stay busy collecting insects once the young hatch. On an insect-rich diet, the young birds develop quickly and are able to leave the nest in 12 days. They will remain with their parents as their wings strengthen and they learn to fend for themselves.

While not able to flaunt vibrant plumage like such relatives as the Cape May warbler or the American redstart, the palm warbler is not truly as unattractive as a first glance might suggest. In fact, one subspecies, known as the “yellow palm warbler,” is quite dramatic in appearance with a profusion of yellow feathers accented with a bold russet cap and dramatic rufous striping across the yellow underparts. Even in autumn, the other palm warblers are not devoid of color. Most palm warbler show a splash of bright yellow on the throat and beneath the tail.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A black-and-white warbler creeps over the bark of a pine in search of insect prey. The reason for this warbler’s common name is self-evident in its appearance.

In fall migration and during the winter season, palm warblers often inhabit weedy fields, grasping the dried stalks of tall weeds as they forage for berries, seeds and insects and their larvae. Look for the spot of yellow beneath the warbler’s tail, which is constantly bobbed up and down as the bird goes about its routine. The tail-bobbing behavior is a good way to distinguish this warbler from the sparrows of similar size and brown coloration that often share the fields and woodland edges.

The last of the October Saturday bird walks will be held at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park on Oct. 26. Participants should meet in the parking lot at the park’s visitors center at 8 a.m. for a 90-minute stroll along the gravel walking trails. The walks are conducted by the Elizabethton Bird Club and are free and open to the public. Bring binoculars to increase viewing enjoyment. There’s a chance that palm warblers will be seen on the walk, but with our fine feathered friends, nothing is ever guaranteed.

Photo by Jean Potter • A “yellow” palm warbler searches leaf litter for insects and other prey items.

 

Water a magnet for waxwings, other birds

Photo by Patrice_Audet/Pixabay.com • Cedar waxwings feed extensively on various fruits and insects, forming large nomadic flocks that can quickly deplete local resources.

The extended spell of dry, hot weather we’ve experienced for the past several weeks threatens to spoil fall colors, but if you’re a person who can offer a water feature or bird bath, this might be the perfect time to observe thirsty flocks of birds. In particular, cedar waxwings, which often travel in large flocks, embrace water with an exceptional avian enthusiasm.

I still remember my first look at a cedar waxwing. Sleek as silk, wearing a mask like a bandit, with a jaunty crest atop its head, this fairly common bird commands attention when making an appearance in a yard or garden. Of course, it’s usually not alone, more often traveling as a member of a larger flock that can number as high as dozens or even hundreds of individuals.

Flocks of these sociable birds win fans almost anywhere they go. Chances of luring these birds to your home and property can increase by offering some essential requirements. Tall trees, especially those that bear fruit, are attractive to these sociable birds. It’s more often water, not food, however, that will bring a flock of these birds close. They love a good splash in a bath, whether the source is a shallow stream or an ornamental pool set into the landscape.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pair of cedar waxwings hawk for insects near a pond.

As noted, they travel in often sizable flocks, usually in search of new food sources. The many members comprising a flock can deplete resources in a remarkably short time. During the winter season, I’ve watched a flock of waxwings make short work of a harvest of berries from a holly tree. Their nomadic lifestyles make it nearly impossible to predict where cedar waxwings might make an appearance.

In most years, the wild cherry trees scattered around the edges of my yard are fully laden with berries. As they ripen in late August and into September, waxwings appear and commence harvesting the fruit. Once again, they arrived at just the right time last month to catch the wild cherries at their peak.

As much as the waxwing has a fondness for fruit, it’s also a bird that would have made an excellent flycatcher. Flocks of these birds will often congregate in trees near the edge of a pond, garden or yard — anywhere winged insects might be found in good numbers — in order to hawk insects on the wing. A waxwing will sally forth from a branch, snatch its prey in mid-air, and return to its perch for a quick snack.

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of cedar waxwings.

Perhaps because of the late-summer abundance of bugs and berries, cedar waxwings are known for nesting late into the summer. They’re certainly not among the birds impatient to begin nesting as soon as temperatures turn mild in the spring. Some fellow birders recently reported seeing cedar waxwings feeding fledgling just out of the nest as the calendar flipped from September of October.

Why is the term “waxwing” applied to this bird? According to the website All About Birds, the name comes from the waxy red secretions found on the tips of wing feathers. The site also notes that the precise function of these waxy tips is not known. There’s speculation among some experts that the bright red tips on the feathers could play a role in helping waxwings attract mates.

The cedar waxwing has few relatives. Worldwide, there are only two other species: the Bohemian waxwing, of the northern forests of Eurasia and North America; and the Japanese waxwing, found in such northeast Asian countries as Japan, Korea and China.

Although it’s classified as a songbird, the cedar waxwing does’t truly produce a vocalization that anyone would contend qualifies as a song. They are, however, very vocal birds, producing shrill, high-pitched notes as they pass through the upper branches of tall trees. The excitable commotion of an active flocks of these sleek and elegant birds is always a welcome sound at my home.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The waxy tips to the wing feathers are evident in this photograph of a cedar waxwing.

‘Science’ article warns that people need to focus on the needs of disappearing birds

Photo by Pixabay.com • Birds are disappearing. Some populations have seen a dangerous decline. Loggerhead shrikes are declining across the continent, and the reasons are complicated but can ultimately be traced to human activity.

Imagine the sky growing dark and, looking up, you notice that the cause is not approaching storm clouds but a passage of birds — millions of individual birds, their wings darkening the skies as they pass overhead.

The early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon once described the passage of enormous flocks of passenger pigeons that blotted out the light “as by an eclipse” and described the noise of the multitude of wings “like thunder.” His observation of these flocks took place in 1813. A century later, the world’s last passenger pigeon, a species that had ranked as one of the continent’s most numerous birds, died in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Legislation like the Endangered Species Act can and does save birds like the Bald Eagle from possible extinction.

The passenger pigeon was the avian equivalent of the American bison, albeit with a more tragic outcome. Bison, also commonly called buffalo, still survive. As with the bison, we’ve had avian rescue success stories — whooping cranes, Kirtland’s warblers, bald eagles — with efforts to bring some birds back from the brink of extinction. At the same time, we’ve lost others, including the ivory-billed woodpecker, the eskimo curlew and Bachman’s warbler. Now a new study indicates that our birds may be under assault as never before.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Northern cardinal visits a feeder.

The journal Science dropped a bombshell article recently about declining bird numbers in North America. The article’s claim that nearly 3 billion — that’s billion with a “b” — fewer wild birds exist on the continent than in 1970 is a shocking figure, but the sad fact is that the article probably doesn’t come as a complete surprise to birders or even backyard bird enthusiasts. The evidence of our own eyes and ears confirms the details of the comprehensive study reported in the pages of Science. There are fewer birds, which has been becoming painfully clear over the past few decades.

I first got into birding in 1993. Now, 26 years later, I have noticed some of the declines in just the past quarter of a century. Every autumn, the variety and numbers of migrating warblers that visit my yard has gone down.

The new study in Science focuses on the drop in sheer numbers of birds. According to most experts, the bird population in the United States and Canada was probably around 10.1 billion individual birds nearly half a century ago. That number has fallen 29 percent to about 7.2 billion birds, an alarming loss of nearly 3 billion birds just in North America.

I have personally noticed signs of this dramatic loss. Let me share some personal anecdotes. These stories don’t serve as definitive proof, but they add to my unease about the state of our feathered friends.

For one thing, I no longer host large flocks of birds at my feeders during the winter. One would expect birds to mass in sizable flocks in the vicinity of feeders during a season when resources can be scarce. In the 1990s, I hosted flocks of pine siskins and evening grosbeaks that numbered in the hundreds and dozens, respectively. At times, large flocks of American goldfinches, purple finches and house finches flocked to my feeders, too. I haven’t seen an evening grosbeak since 2001. Pine siskins still visit, but I consider myself fortunate to host a flock that numbers a dozen or more.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pine siskin in a spruce at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain.

The sights and sounds of summer have changed, too. Two of the most dependable summer songsters used to be Northern bobwhite by day and Eastern whip-poor-will after dark. I haven’t heard a whip-poor-will at home in more than 20 years. The last time I heard a Northern bobwhite was about a decade ago. I live in a rural area that used to be fairly agricultural. The disappearances of bobwhite quail and whip-poor-wills is reported throughout the ranges of these two species.

Of course, there are always exceptions. Some birds have grown even more common in recent decades. Regionally, look at birds like great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, and cliff swallows, which have also shown an increased presence.

What killed the passenger pigeon? People did. What’s caused the precipitous drop in bird numbers since the 1970s in North America? Once again, people must shoulder most of the blame. We have destroyed or altered habitats essential for birds to thrive. We’ve paid little attention to the signals from some of these kin of the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” that something’s wrong in nature.

Yet “hope is the thing with feathers,” as the poet Emily Dickinson phrased it, and the losses are a signal to pay attention, not to panic. Birds are amazingly resilient. Birds need only the same things as humans — food, shelter, water. Well, perhaps they need one more thing. Birds require a safe and welcoming space in which to unfurl their wings and fly.

The great flocks of passenger pigeons may be no more, but there’s no reason to think our remaining birds can’t continue to soar, so long as we provide them with their essential needs and offer them a degree of protection and compassion.

An artist sketched this scene of hunters firing on one of the last great flocks of passenger pigeons.

Welcoming Eastern towhees into yards, gardens easy to accomplish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinals don’t always look their best during late summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unicoi County summer survey finds 107 bird species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Indigo buntings common and colorful summer bird in region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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