Tag Archives: Vireos

Think of the vireos as ‘Plain Janes’ of songbirds

Photo by FotoRequest/Adobe Stock • A red-eyed vireo grasps a tree branch, a common pose for this bird that spends time concealed in the woodland canopy. The red eye can be difficult to detect unless lighting conditions are optimal for observers.

The start of migration appears to be more of a crawl than a sprint this fall, but I have picked up a few signs. For instance, I’ve been hearing the scolding sounds of red-eyed vireos from woodland edges for the past few weeks. A dedicated singer at most times, this vireo seems more likely to produce a harsh, scolding cry at this time of the year. Other hints of the steady advance of fall migration include flocks of common nighthawks and chimney swifts congregating in the skies over my home and the unmistakable croaking of common ravens from nearby ridges.

So far, I’ve seen only a few warblers, including black-throated blue warbler and hooded warbler. At a glance, vireos would appear related to the wood warblers. Research into DNA, however, has led many experts to contend that vireos are more closely related to crows and shrikes. Like the flycatcher and hummingbird families, the vireo family is exclusive to the New World. With a mere 50 species, vireos and their kin are vastly outnumbered by flycatchers and hummingbirds. The majority of vireos resides in the tropics, but about a dozen species nest in the United States.

In East Tennessee Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina, vireos resident during the summer months include red-eyed vireo, white-eyed vireo, blue-headed vireo, yellow-throated vireo and warbling vireo. Most people are likely unaware of vireos. Although not uncommon, these birds are more frequently heard than seen. They spend much of their time in the forest canopy or in dense brush. When singing, they can remain at a perch, unmoving, for long periods of time.

Photo by Jean Potter • A red-eyed vireo sits on its carefully woven nest among a canopy of leaves.

The loud scolding calls of red-eyed vireos often heard this time of year are given apparently when the vireo is alarmed or irritated. This scolding vocalization is quite unlike the usual ones produced by this bird. First and foremost, the call is louder than one would think could be produced by a bird that is only about six inches long. During the summer season, the red-eyed vireo is also one of the most persistent of singing songbirds. Another common name for the red-eyed vireo is “preacher bird,” so called because of its tendency to unceasingly deliver its song.
The red-eyed vireo is still considered one of eastern North America’s most common summer breeding birds. At one time, the red-eyed vireo was probably the most common breeding bird in eastern woodlands. That, sadly, is no longer the case. Red-eyed vireos are olive-green above and clean white below. These birds show a distinctive head pattern consisting of a gray crown and white eyebrow stripe bordered above and below by black lines. Adults also have the red eyes that give this particular vireo its common name. The term “vireo,” originating in Latin, can be translated into English as “green bird.” It’s an apt description, as many of these small birds are primarily dull green in coloration. Consider the vireos the “Plain Janes” of songbirds.

Photo by Jean Potter • A red-eyed vireo fledgling calls for a food delivery, which will arrive in the beak of one of the young bird’s parents.

A red-eyed vireo painted by John James Audubon.

Other vireos that can be found in the United States, for at least part of the year, include Philadelphia vireo, plumbeous vireo and Cassin’s vireo. A specialty of Florida is the black-whiskered vireo, while the black-capped vireo is an endangered species found in Texas. Two others, Bell’s vireo and gray vireo, are identified as species of concern on the Audubon Watchlist.

Many species of vireo are also found in the islands of the Caribbean, including Jamaican vireo, Cuban vireo and Puerto Rican Vireo. The thick-billed vireo can be found in the Bahamas, which were recently pulverized by Hurricane Dorian. The thick-billed vireo is very similar to the white-eyed vireo, which is a summer resident in our region.

My only birding outside of the United States took place in the Bahamas 20 years ago. My highlights included two hummingbirds — Bahama woodstar and Cuban emerald — as well as bananaquits, black-faced grassquit, Western spindalis, Cuban pewee and other interesting species. I didn’t see a thick-billed vireo, but I did get my first-ever look at a Cape May warbler. I was visiting the Bahamas in January of 1999, which proved a fortunate time since many warblers migrate to these islands for the cold months. I’m hopeful that both people and birds on the islands Abaco and Grand Bahama and smaller islands most affected by the monster storm are able to recover soon.

Some of the more colorful common names for vireos include the dwarf vireo, golden vireo and yellow-winged vireo.  In Central and South America, the vireo family expands to include many birds with common names such as shrike-vireo, greenlet and peppershrike. Some of the varied species include lemon-chested greenlet, green shrike-vireo and the black-bellied peppershrike.

I still focus most of my birding efforts on warblers in the autumn, but vireos are always a pleasant diversion when the colorful warblers make themselves scarce.

Photo by Jean Potter • The blue-headed vireo prefers wooded habitats at higher elevations.

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.

Larry-McDaniel

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.”

 

shopp

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.

 

HaploaMoth

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.

 

Blue-headedVireo

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.

Eight-spottedForesterMoth

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.

White-spottedSableMoth

White-spotted Sable Moth

 

Region’s drab vireos more famous for persistent singing than their appearance

In some recent columns, I’ve focused on some of the summer songbirds — scarlet tanager, rose-breasted grosbeak – with flashy, bright plumages.  Not all our summer nesting birds boast such vivid coloration. In fact, one family of songbirds — the vireos — is known for its dull plumage.

Photo by Bryan Stevens      A blue-headed vireo sings from a woodland perch.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A blue-headed vireo sings from a woodland perch.

I’ve had some interesting encounters with vireos in the past few weeks. From early May through mid-June, a male red-eyed vireo sang daily from the woodland near my home. He would commence signing early in the morning and continue through late afternoon. I never saw him, which is not too surprising. Red-eyed vireos lead almost their entire lives in the forest canopy. If you do manage to observe one, you’ll see an olive green bird with white underpart. The red-eyed vireo, known scientifically as Vireo olivaceus, shows a narrow white eyebrow bordered above with black. It also has a grayish crown and the namesake red eye.
At a glance, the vireos would appear related to the wood warblers. Research into vireo DNA, however, has led many experts to contend that vireos are more closely related to crows and shrikes. Like the flycatcher, warbler and hummingbird families, the vireo family is exclusive to the New World. There are about 50 species of vireos. The majority reside in the tropics, but about a dozen species spend their nesting season within the United States.

JP-RedEyedVireo-Fledgling

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter A young red-eyed vireo begs for food, which will bring a prompt response from a nearby parent.

In Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, vireos resident during the summer months include red-eyed, white-eyed, blue-headed, yellow-throated and warbling.  Most people are likely unaware of vireos. Although not uncommon, these birds are much more frequently heard than seen. They spend much of their time in the forest canopy or in dense brush. When singing, they can remain at a perch, unmoving, for long periods of time. 
On recent woodland walks I have heard the loud scolding calls of red-eyed vireos. This call, given apparently when the vireo is alarmed or irritated, is quite unlike the usual vocalizations produced by this bird. First and foremost, the call is louder than one would think could be produced by a bird that is only about six inches long.
During the summer season, the red-eyed vireo is also one of the most persistent of singing songbirds. Another of its common names is “Preacher Bird,” so called because of its tendency to unceasingly deliver it song. To give you an idea of just how persistently this bird sings, the red-eyed vireo holds the record for singing its song the most times in a single day. Some individuals have been recorded singing the series of emphatic syllables more than 20,000 times in a day. The song is not particularly musical, consisting of whistled phrases, each slightly different and punctuated with brief pauses. 

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter A red-eyed vireo sits on its basket-shaped nest.

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter
A red-eyed vireo sits on its basket-shaped nest.

The red-eyed vireo is still considered one of eastern North America’s most common summer breeding birds. At one time, this bird was probably the most common breeding bird in Eastern woodlands. It is still one of the most widespread, ranging from the Eastern United States into the Northwestern United States and across Canada. In fall, they withdraw to spend the winter in South America.
The term “vireo,” originating in Latin, can be translated into English as “green bird.” It’s an apt description, as many of these small birds are primarily dull green in coloration.
There is an endangered vireo, the black-capped vireo, a bird with a limited breeding range in Texas. Black-capped vireos numbers have dwindled to perilous levels due to the loss of low growing woody cover these birds need for breeding purposes. The cause of the loss of habitat varies, but includes the clearance of land for livestock as well as overgrazing by livestock and deer. In the past, fires regularly opened up such habitats. Due to modern fire control practices, such fires are no longer a natural occurrence. Since this species is already endangered, brown-headed cowbirds have also contributed to the problem since the cowbirds slip their own eggs into the nests of black-capped vireos.

Vireo_blackcapped_B07T

Photo by USFWS The black-capped vireo is the only member of the vireo family in the United States classified as endangered.

Two others, Bell’s vireo and gray vireo, are identified as species of concern on the Audubon Watchlist. This listing spotlights species that may bear intense scrutiny to make certain they don’t become endangered.
Other vireos that can be found in the United States, for at least part of the year, include Philadelphia vireo, plumbeous vireo and Cassin’s vireo. A specialty of Florida is the black-whiskered vireo. 
Many species of vireo are also found in the islands of the Caribbean, including Jamaican vireo, Cuban vireo and Puerto Rican vireo. Some of the more colorful common names for vireos include the yellow-green vireo, golden vireo and yellow-winged vireo. 
In Central and South America, the vireo family expands to include many birds with common names such as “Shrike-Vireo,” “Greenlet” and “Peppershrike.” Some of the varied species include the lemon-chested greenlet, green shrike-vireo and the black-bellied peppershrike.

Warbling_Vireo

Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS A warbling vireo is the most drab member of a family known for its drabness. The warbling vireo’s impressive song, however, reminds many listeners of the song of the gaudy painted bunting.

Known by the scientific name, Vireo gilvus, the warbling vireo is another member of this family of songbirds that can be found in the region. It is named for its distinctive, warbling song. Some experts have likened its song to that of the painted bunting. That must be about all the two birds have in common. In contrast with the gaudy painted bunting, the warbling vireo can quite honestly stake a claim as one of our most drab songbirds. Overall, this is a grayish little bird with a white eyeline that is paler than the rest of its plumage. Its legs are blue-gray in color and this species has a bill that is stout like other vireos and unlike the beaks of most warblers. It’s their plainness that is the most distinctive aspect of their appearance.
Many vireos construct deep cup- or basket-shaped nests, often in the higher branches of tall trees. Male and female share incubation duties and work together to feed their young. 
Most vireos feed on in­sects during their summer stay north of the border. However, during migration they often feed on berries and continue to do so on their wintering grounds. Experts have noted that the white-throated vireo is particularly fond of gumbo-limbo seeds. This tropical tree can be found from southern Florida and Mexico, as well as throughout the Caribbean and in South America in Brazil and Venezuela.

Photo by Jean Potter The Blue-headed Vireo prefers wooded habitats at higher elevations.

Photo by Jean Potter
The Blue-headed Vireo prefers wooded habitats at higher elevations.

At times, it’s important to use our ears, as well as our eyes, when trying to find birds. That’s particularly true of the vireos. The widespread family can be found in rural areas, as well as suburban settings. Tall stands of trees are one of the essential requirements. So, when you next hear some whistled phrases coming from the treetops, be sure to look up. You may get lucky.
To hear a singing red-eyed vireo, visit the link below to view a video of the bird on YouTube: