Tag Archives: Virginia

Winter season wouldn’t be complete without the splendor of cardinals

Photo by Jill Wellington/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal grasps a branch of winter greenery.

I have enjoyed an opportunity to observe the many Northern cardinals visiting my feeders in recent weeks. The beauty of both male and female cardinals is undeniable, but it’s their behavior that’s worth a second look. Nervous, twitchy birds, they are always anxiously surveying their surroundings even as they linger on a feeder long enough to hull a sunflower kernel from its shell. It’s almost as if they know their bright plumage stands out in a drab winter landscape dominated by shades of gray.

The Northern cardinal, especially the brilliant red male, stands out against a winter backdrop of snow white, deep green or drab gray. Over the years, the cardinal has also become associated with the Christmas season. How many Christmas cards have you received this holiday season with a cardinal featured in the artwork? I’d wager that at least a few cards in any assortment of holiday greetings will feature the likeness of a Northern cardinal.

There’s some more evidence to put forward as testimony to the popularity of the Northern Cardinal. It’s the official state bird of seven states: North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Virginia. Only the Northern mockingbird, which represents five states as official state bird, even comes close to the Northern cardinal in this respect.

The Northern cardinal belongs to a genus of birds known as Cardinalis in the family Cardinalidae. There are only two other species in this genus, and they range across North America and into northern South America.

The two relatives are the pyrrhuloxia, or Cardinalis sinuatus, of the southwestern United States, and the Vermilion cardinal, or phoeniceus, a bird found in Colombia and Venezuela. Two other South American birds — red-crested cardinal and yellow-billed cardinal — are more closely related to tanagers than to our familiar Northern cardinal. Both the Northern cardinal and red-crested cardinal have been introduced into the state of Hawaii, so two non-native birds from different parts of the globe are now resident in the Aloha State.

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay.com • A male cardinal grips a branch to make a quick survey of its surroundings.

The Northern cardinal is a native and abundant bird. Cardinals are a widespread species, ranging westward to the Dakotas and south to the Gulf Coast and Texas. The southeastern United States was once the stronghold of the cardinal population. In the past century, however, cardinals have expanded their range into New England and Canada.

The cardinal accepts a wide variety of food at feeders. Sunflower seed is probably their favorite, but they will also sample safflower seed, cracked corn, peanuts, millet, bakery scraps and even suet. While we may get the idea that cardinals feed largely on seed, that is a misconception based on our observation of the birds at our feeders. Cardinals away from our feeders eat insects and fruit, including the berries of mulberry, holly, pokeberry, elderberry, Russian olive, dogwood and sumac.

The cardinal uses its large beak to efficiently hull sunflower seeds or deal with other foods foraged in field and forest away from our feeders. The large, heavy beak hints at the cardinal’s kinship with birds such as tanagers and grosbeaks. In fact, some of America’s early naturalists referred to the bird as “cardinal grosbeak.” Other common names include the apt “redbird” moniker and “Virginia nightingale.”

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • A male Northern cardinal lands on a snowy perch. Cardinals are perfect symbols for the Christmas season with their bright red plumage.

Even once the holidays are past, there’s nothing like a glimpse of a Northern cardinal to add some cheer to a bleak winter day. People can also choose to further the cause of science by taking part in studies such as Project FeederWatch, a nationwide survey of bird populations focused on birds coming to feeders maintained by project participants.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Northern cardinal pays a visit to a feeder.

In the 2015-16 winter season, 1,373 individuals participated in Project FeederWatch in the southeastern United States. The most common birds reported by observers were Northern cardinal, Carolina chickadee, mourning dove, American goldfinch and tufted titmouse. Finishing out the Top 10 feeder birds in this section of the nation were Carolina wren, house finch, blue jay, red-bellied woodpecker and downy woodpecker. Almost 98 percent of participants reported Northern cardinals at their feeders, which means the cardinal has become an almost universal feeder visitor in the southeast.

It’s not surprising that such a popular bird has also become associated with many trappings of the Christmas season.

“You see cardinals on greeting cards, stationery, paper plates, paper napkins and tablecloths, doormats, light switch plates, candles, candle holders, coffee mugs, plates, glasses, Christmas tree ornaments and lights, bookmarks, mailboxes, Christmas jewelry,” writes June Osborne in her book The Cardinal. “And the list goes on. Cardinals have become an integral part of the way that many people celebrate the holiday season.”

I can be included among such people. My Christmas decorations include an assortment of cardinal figurines and ornaments. There are other birds — doves and penguins for example — associated with the holiday season, but for me the holidays magnify the importance of one of my favorite birds. The cardinal, in its festive red plumage, appears made to order for a symbol of the holiday season.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Northern cardinal seems much less descriptive of this popular bird than such common names as Virginia nightingale and Kentucky redbird.

Here’s some additional cardinal trivia to increase your knowledge of this fascinating bird:

• Cardinals differ in appearance based on gender. The male boasts crimson plumage, a crest, a black face and orange bill. The female, although less colorful, is also crested. Female cardinals are soft brown in color, with varying degrees of a reddish tinge in their feathers, particularly in their wings.

• The cardinal’s preference for dense cover makes them likely neighbors for such birds as Carolina wrens, Eastern towhees and brown thrashers.

• The oldest recorded Northern Cardinal was a female, and she was 15 years, nine months old when she was found in Pennsylvania, according to the website, All About Birds.

• An uncommon genetic variation sometimes produces a cardinal with yellow or orange feathers instead of the typical red. The scientific name for the condition that produces yellow cardinals is known as xanthochroism. This condition also often occurs in house finches.

• Nests are built by the female cardinal, but her mate delivers food as she incubates her clutch of eggs, which usually numbers three or four.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Northern Cardinal feeds during a snowstorm at a hanging tray filled with sunflower seeds.

With apologies to Arthur Carlson, wild turkeys can fly

Photo by Pixabay.com
A couple of wild turkeys stroll through an autumn woodland. Although quite capable of flight, turkeys prefer to walk or run over the ground.

NOTE: I wrote this column back in November of 2015. With some revisions, here’s a timely column on one of the nation’s premier fowls.

As Americans, we all have our holiday traditions. Although this year’s pandemic may interfere with the annual lavish meals shared with family and friends, there is one tradition I will not forego. I will carve 30 minutes from my schedule to watch one of my favorite holiday sitcom episodes.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flock of Wild Turkeys make their way across a snowy field.

Not surprisingly, there’s an element linked to birds in the episode, which is often cited as one of the most ingenious sitcom episodes in the history of television. The episode is “Turkeys Away” from the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati, a sitcom that aired from 1978 to 1982 and revolved around the antics of the staff of a down-and-out radio station. The “Turkeys Away” episode originally aired Oct. 30, 1978, early in the first season of the series. I especially like that every member of the ensemble cast was woven into the storyline for this classic Thanksgiving episode.

In the event that there are readers who haven’t seen the episode, I’ll try to avoid any blatant spoilers. The action involves a radio promotion that, in hindsight, was destined for disaster. The episode unfolds at the perfect pace, finally culminating in a hilarious series of scenes as the promotion backfires in spectacular fashion. I’ve memorized most of the lines of dialogue, but I still enjoy hearing them delivered by the talented actors Richard Sanders, Loni Anderson, Howard Hesseman and the late Gordon Jump. It’s Jump who gets the pivotal line with his perfectly delivered, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”

The actors on WKRP in Cincinnati truly came together as an ensemble cast for the famous Thanksgiving episode.

It’s that classic line that provides my segue into the subject of this week’s column, which is America’s wild turkey. I sometimes wonder if my favorite episode of WKRP, which aired more than 40 years ago, has had some influence in persuading many people that turkeys cannot fly. It’s a widely held misconception that the wild turkey cannot fly. The turkey is perfectly capable of flying at speeds up to 55 miles per hour, but they often prefer to walk and run over the ground. They’re good sprinters, in fact, and can reach a running speed of 25 miles per hour. Turkeys can even swim!

 

On the other hand, the domesticated barnyard turkey is a fowl of a completely different kind than its wild cousin. Although the wild turkey — the largest of North America’s game birds — can weigh as much as 37 pounds, it’s the domestic turkey that holds the record as a heavyweight. The largest domestic turkey on record tipped the scales at 86 pounds. That bird certainly could have provided an ample banquet for your Thanksgiving meal. Domestic turkeys are bred to be big, which means they are incapable of flight and are also poor runners. Of course, these domestic kin of wild turkeys don’t face a gauntlet of predators.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male gobbler seeks the attention of hens, but they seem more intent on foraging for food.

The wild turkey is a paradoxical fowl, fully capable of shifting from bravado to timidity to meet the situation. Strutting toms have no hesitancy about making themselves the center of attention when the reward is making a favorable impression on a bevy of hens. At other times, these same turkeys, both the performers and their audiences, adopt a more stealthy mode of life. Wild turkeys know that the world’s a dangerous place.

Wild turkeys face various perils at all points in their life cycles, from eggs to newly-hatched young to adult birds. Turkey eggs are a favorite food of such wild animals as raccoons, skunks, opossums and some snakes. Young turkeys, known as poults, are often the prey of domestic dogs and cats, a range of raptors, and other birds such as crows and ravens. Larger predators — bobcats, cougars, coyotes, foxes and eagles — prey on adult turkeys.

I remember the first time that I observed wild turkeys in flight. I was driving near Persimmon Ridge Park in Jonesborough, Tennessee, when about a dozen large, dark birds flew across the road just above the roof of my vehicle. I was definitely perplexed as my mind worked to figure out the identity of these birds. I had almost settled on vultures — although the flight pattern had been all wrong — when I saw that some of these flyers had landed in a field adjacent to the road. On the ground, they were easily recognized as wild turkeys.

The wild turkey’s scientific name is Meleagris gallopavo. The wild bird is exclusively resident in North America, but domesticated turkeys are now raised around the globe. The wild turkey has only one close relative, the ocellated turkey, or Meleagris ocellata, which ranges throughout the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico as well as the northern parts of Belize and Guatemala. The extent of this fowl’s range is only about 50,000 square miles, while the wild turkey ranges throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.

 

It’s simply too bad that Jump’s WKRP character, bumbling but amiable station manager Arthur Carlson, lacked some crucial knowledge about the differences between wild turkeys and their domestic relatives. If he had gathered a flock of wild turkeys instead of directing his sales manager to acquire domestic fowl, his radio promotion might not have been such a stupendous flop. Of course, we would then have never had this classic episode of comedic television and I wouldn’t have my familiar Thanksgiving ritual to enjoy annually.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A decorative turkey pays homage to the real bird.

Warbler parade imminent as September advances

Photo by Mickey Estes/Pixabay.com • A pine warbler takes a brief rest on a perch during a break from foraging for insects.

I detected some signs of migration during a backyard lawn chair birding session on Thursday, Sept. 3. A croaking great blue heron circling the property, the shrill cries of cedar waxwings, scolding vireos, and the intermittent buzz of hummingbird wings all contributed to the background noise. 

The first warbler of the season, a quick blur of yellow and white, disappeared into the green and thus escaped identification. That’s the way of it: Sometimes, you identify the bird, but at other times it slips past without lingering enough for that moment of confidence. You have to love September, even if the birds are entirely ignorant of pages on a calendar. As summer wanes, the pace of migration has spiked. If that first warbler got away, I know others will follow behind it.

Some of them will have fanciful names like blue-winged warbler, black-throated blue warbler, Blackburnian warbler and American redstart. Each of the warblers exists as a sort of magnet to induce me to keep binoculars always close at hand.

 

The 50 or so species of warblers that make their home in the eastern parts of the United States and Canada during the spring and summer months are now winging their way south.  The blackpoll warbler, which holds the distinction for the longest migration of any species of New World warbler, will journey from the forests of Canada to spend the colder months in northern South America. Because of a peculiarity of this bird’s fall migratory habits, birders in Northeast Tennessee are far more likely to see this late-arriving warbler in May than in the autumn.

A few warblers — pine warbler, magnolia warbler and palm warbler — are named for trees for the simple reason that their European discoverers happened to first observe them in the branches of their namesake trees.

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

For most of these warblers named to honor various trees,  their common names are, 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 on the fact that a specimen had been collected on Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean with an abundance of palm trees. 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, the palm warbler has forever been linked with a type of tree that is, at best, entirely incidental to the bird’s life cycle.

The same is true for the Magnolia Warbler, which would have been more suitably named the spruce or fir Warbler, as the species is highly dependent on northern coniferous forests as nesting habitat. The pine warbler, at least, restores credibility to some of the early experts who have these tiny birds their common names. The pine warbler does indeed prefer stands of pine trees, showing particular favor for pitch pines.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A Yellow-throated Warbler makes a migratory stop in my yard on the first day of September.

These three “tree warblers” are all fairly common fall migrants, making stops in gardens, backyards and woodland edges throughout Northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia, and western North Carolina. They and their relatives will make the remaining weeks of September and early October an exciting time for warbler enthusiasts. 

 

Arctic tern migratory champion among world’s birds

September’s arrival puts fall migration into overdrive. The birds that returned this past spring — the warblers, vireos, tanagers, grosbeaks, flycatchers and hummingbirds — have begun or are beginning to make their way back to the locations where they will spend the winter months far from the cold, bleak conditions over most of North America.

Photo by Jonathan Cannon/Pixabay.com • The Arctic tern outdoes all other birds when it comes to migration. These seabirds journey from their Arctic nesting grounds to spend the winter around the Antarctic, a journey of some 50,000 miles a year.

Some of these birds migrate out of the tropics to avoid competition. Others find North America a land of abundant, albeit temporary, resources. This land of plenty offers a wealth of insects, seeds, fruit and other nourishing, nutritious food to help parent birds keep their strength while they work to ensure their young thrive. Of course, once the bountiful period concludes, they return to the tropics of Central and South America to winter. Those that do so successfully will make the journey back to the United States and Canada in the spring.

The phenomenon of migration isn’t exclusive to the neotropical migrants of the New World. Birds in other parts of the world migrate, too. Waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors are among some of the families of birds that stage impressive migrations.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female scarlet tanager is a study in contrast from her mate with her dull greenish-yellow plumage being much less vibrant than the male’s bright red and black feathers.

The Arctic tern, for example, truly takes migration to extremes. This small seabird travels each year from its Arctic nesting grounds to the Antarctic region, where it spends the winter months. Put into terms of mileage, the Arctic tern can travel about 50,000 miles in a single year. For a bird with a body length of about 15 inches and a wingspan of about 28 inches, this incredible migration is an astonishing feat. These statistics permit the Arctic tern to easily lay claim to the title of champion migrant among our feathered friends.

According to the website for National Geographic, Arctic terns face a serious threat from climate change. In a profile on the tern at its website, National Geographic warns that Arctic terns are projected to lose 20 to 50 percent of their habitat due to the temperature changes linked to climate change. They also face loss of habitat due to encroachment by human activities such as oil drilling.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, a favorite of many bird enthusiasts living in the eastern United States, makes an impressive migration each year. Just to reach the United States, these tiny birds undertake a strenuous journey. They leave their wintering grounds in Central America to return to the United States and Canada for the nesting season. Most of these tiny birds, which are barely four inches long, make a non-stop flight of more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. The journey can take almost an entire day. With the end of summer, the entire population of ruby-throated hummingbirds, increased by a new generation of young birds, makes the Gulf crossing for a second time in a year to return to the American tropics for the winter months.

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

Among North America’s buteo hawks, which includes raptors such as red-shouldered hawk and red-tailed hawk, the broad-winged hawk stands out as a dedicated migrant. These hawks form flocks that at times number in the hundreds or thousands as they sail and glide on thermals rising over various mountain ranges. These hawks and other raptors are well-known in the region for migrating past the Mendota Fire Tower in Southwest Virginia every September and early October.

The broad-winged hawk’s counterpart in the western United States is Swainson’s hawk, which shares the broad-winged hawk’s inclination for migrating in large flocks. Swainson’s hawk is named for William John Swainson, the famous 19th century English naturalist for which Swainson’s thrush is also named.

The hooded warbler, my favorite member of the migratory New World warblers, migrates back to Mexico and Central America for the winter months after nesting during the spring and summer in a range concentrated in the southeastern United States. The males, after going quiet in late summer, have started singing on occasion from the shaded woods around my house. I think this has more to do with restlessness as they prepare for to depart on a migration flight that will take them to the balmy Caribbean, Mexico and Central America while we shiver through the months between October and April. It’s not a migration of an incredible distance, but it’s still quite an accomplishment for a bird only five inches long and weighing less than half an ounce.

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

Fall’s a great time to witness the variety of avian life. Look for some of these migrants passing through your yards, gardens or favorite birding spots.

 

 

 

Green herons, one of the smaller wading birds, often overlooked as they lurk near water’s edge

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron elevates a shaggy crest of feathers, a behavior often initiated when the bird feels alarmed.

Byron Tucker and Ricky Dunklin, friends from Atlanta, contacted me on Facebook to ask if I could help identify a bird they had photographed during a trip to Sunset Beach in North Carolina in early August. When I saw the photographs I recognized that the visitor to a small dock at their vacation spot was a green heron.

Photo Contributed by Byron Tucker/Ricky Dunklin • A Green Heron visits a dock at Sunset Beach in North Carolina.

Green herons are not restricted to coastal areas, but it was still somewhat unexpected when I stepped onto my front porch on Aug. 19 and saw a green heron flying at treetop level. I suspect the bird had been perched in one of the tall trees on the ridge behind my house. The slamming of my front door probably spooked the bird into flight.

Green herons and other wading birds are usually quite abundant in wetlands across the country in late summer. The scientific name — Butorides virescens – of this bird comes from a mix of Middle English and Ancient Greek and roughly translates as “greenish bittern.”

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron grasps a perch overlooking a small creek in Erwin, Tennessee.

There are only two other species in the genus Butorides — the lava heron, which occurs on some of the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, and the striated heron, which is found in wetlands throughout the Old World tropics from West Africa to Japan and Australia. This heron, which is also known as the mangrove heron, also occurs in South America.

The green in the bird’s plumage appears as a dark green cap, as well as a greenish back and wings. Adult birds also have chestnut-colored neck feathers and a line of white feathers along the throat and belly. These herons often assume a hunched position, which can make them look smaller than they actually are.

It’s been a good summer for wading birds. In addition to the green heron, a great blue heron has been lurking in the creek in front of my home and at my fish pond. Much larger than the green heron, the great blue heron has not escaped the notice of a local flock of American crows. The crows harass the heron whenever the larger bird takes flight.

On the first day of August, I stopped with my mom at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. We were treated with an observation of a great egret fishing along the edges of the pond. Egrets and herons are known for wandering outside their normal range in late summer after the nesting season has concluded.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Green Heron rests at the edge of a pond.

Keep alert when walking along the trails in Erwin, Tennessee, and you may catch sight of one of these interesting herons or egrets, too. The edges of the fish pond at Erwin Fishery Park is also a reliable haunt for green herons. Farm ponds in the countryside around Jonesborough, Tennessee, as well as wetland habitat around the town’s Persimmon Ridge Park, are also good places to look for this small heron. The wetlands at Sugar Hollow Park in Bristol, Virginia, is another dependable location for seeing this small heron. Most green herons will depart in late September and early October. This small heron retreats from the United States during the winter season but will return next spring in April and May.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Green herons are short, stocky herons that can assume some comical poses.

The green heron’s range during the nesting season includes Canada and much of the United States. Green herons will sometimes form loose nesting colonies, but at other times a pair will choose a secluded location as a nest site. The female will usually lay from three to five eggs. Snakes, raccoons and other birds such as crows and grackles are potential threats to eggs.

For the most part, the population migrates to Central and South America for the winter months. A few herons — great blue heron and black-crowned night heron — remain in the region throughout the year, even enduring the cold winter months in Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and Western North Carolina.

These herons are probably more common than we realize. They are skilled at blending with their surroundings, but sharp eyes can find these herons around almost any body of water, whether it is pond, marsh, river, creek or lake.

They usually depart the region in October, so the remaining days of August and September provide opportunities to observe both resident green herons and their migrating kin.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Green Heron finesses a captured tadpole in its bill.

Hummingbirds complete another nesting season before starting south on annual fall migration

Photo by Katy Jefferson/Pixabay.com • A ruby-throated hummingbird sips sugar water at a feeder. During migration, blooming flowers and sugar water feeders are valuable sources of quick energy for these tiny flying gems.

Mildred Wright of Fall Branch, Tennessee, recently shared a story through Facebook about a nesting hummingbird in her yard.

In this photo provided by Mildred Wright, the young hummingbirds can be glimpsed in their nest.

“I discovered this hummingbird nest in a tree in my front yard,” she wrote in a Facebook message. “I have watched mom take excellent care of her babies through some really rough weather.”

She explained that she found the nest on June 8 and has observed as the female hummingbird incubated her eggs and then raised her two hatchlings.

Interestingly, there are a few simple reasons it’s always two eggs for hummingbirds. First, the nest is so small — about the size of a walnut half-shell — that there is barely room for two eggs, let alone more. Second, once the young hatch, the nest has just enough room to accommodate them as they grow, fed well by their mother. Third, feeding two hungry young hummingbirds is a demanding task. A female hummingbird has to find enough food to fuel her own body and help her young in the nest grow and thrive. It’s a full-time job during the daylight hours. She’s pressed hard to succeed at raising two young. Attempting to care for more would most likely prove impossible.

In this photo provided by Mildred Wright, two eggs are shown snug inside the female ruby-throated hummingbird’s nest.

Now that many female hummingbirds are finishing up the task of bringing forth a new generation of hummingbirds, the leisurely fall migration can begin. Hummingbirds are not as frantic about moving south in the fall as they are single-minded about heading north every spring. Numbers of these birds always reach a peak in late summer and early fall at my home, and this year’s shaping up to be a repeat of past ones.

Hummingbird species number around 340, making the family second in species only to the tyrant flycatchers in sheer size. Both of these families consist of birds exclusive to the New World.

With so many hummingbird species, people have been hard pressed to give descriptive names to all these tiny gems. Some of the dazzling array of names include little hermit, hook-billed hermit, fiery topaz, sooty barbthroat, white-throated daggerbill, hyacinth visorbearer, sparkling violetear, horned sungem, black-eared fairy, white-tailed goldenthroat, green mango, green-throated carib, amethyst-throated sunangel, green-backed firecrown, wire-crested thorntail, festive coquette, bronze-tailed comet, black-breasted hillstar, black-tailed trainbearer, blue-mantled thornbill, bearded mountaineer, colorful puffleg, marvelous spatuletail, bronzy inca, rainbow starfrontlet, velvet-purple coronet, pink-throated brilliant, coppery emerald, snowcap, golden-tailed sapphire and violet-bellied hummingbird.

Photo by Peggy_Marco/Pixabay.com • The “Doctor Bird,” which is also known as the swallow-tailed hummingbird, resides only on Jamaica.

Our own hummingbird, which we can claim from April through October every year, is the ruby-throated hummingbird. Ruby-throats are remarkable birds that nest throughout the eastern United States as well as southern Canada. In winter, most ruby-throats withdraw to Central America and Mexico, although a few winter in Florida. They are famous for the amazing feat of crossing the Gulf of Mexico twice each year as they travel to their nesting grounds and then back to their overwintering homes.

Photo by BarbeeAnne/Pixabay.com • The bee hummingbird of Cuba is the smallest bird in the world.

The next generation of hummingbirds always helps swell the number of these tiny birds in our yards in late summer and early fall. It’s our duty as host to keep them safe as they stop in our yards and gardens during their fall migration. Many of the hummingbirds in the fall will be making their first migration, so they will need all the help we can provide to make a successful journey.

Perhaps consider enhancing your plantings of summer flowers while also continuing to offer multiple sugar water feeders. Keep the sugar water mix at a four parts water to one part sugar ratio. Don’t offer honey in your feeders. When mixed with water, it can spoil and spread fungal diseases. Remember that hummingbirds don’t subsist on sugar water alone. They also eat numerous tiny insects and spiders to obtain the protein they need for their dietary needs, so don’t use insecticides near feeders or flowers that hummers are likely to visit.

So, until October frosts eventually drive them out of the region, enjoy the ruby-throated hummingbirds while you can.

Photo by Geschenkpanda/Pixabay.com • The buff-bellied coronet is a hummingbird native to Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Gray catbird noisy visitor, but not one of region’s more showy birds

Gray

Photo by Jack Bulmer/Pixabay.com • A gray catbird visits a backyard bird bath for a drink.

Thomas A. Kidd contacted me in late June with a comment about one of my favorite summer birds. “I have lived in the City of Columbia, Tennessee, for 37 years and until this spring and early summer I had never seen the Gray Catbird,” he wrote. “They are very pretty birds that I enjoy watching from my kitchen window at the bird bath.”

Catbirds are experts at concealing themselves from prying eyes. The gray plumage blends into the shadowy sections of the tangles and thickets where the bird likes to hide itself. However, even when gray catbirds are reluctant to be seen, they’re almost eager to be heard. The catbird is extremely vocal with several calls and songs in its repertoire, including the rather faithful rendering of a fussy cat’s meow that provides this bird its common name.

They’re part of a family related to thrushes that are known as “mimic thrushes.” Besides its surprisingly accurate rendition of a feline, the catbird has several other common vocalizations. Despite their shy nature, they’re extremely curious. Imitating their calls or simply producing a squeaky sound will usually persuade the bird to move out of cover and search for the source of the noise.

Catbirds are part of the parade of returning birds each spring that includes species like rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, but because they lack the brilliant plumages of these other birds their arrival would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact they are extremely noisy for the first few weeks they are back. Then they go silent again and remain quieter as they take up the serious business of raising young.

Catbirds are experts at concealing themselves from prying eyes. The gray plumage blends into the shadowy sections of the tangles and thickets where the bird likes to hide itself. However, even when gray catbirds are reluctant to be seen, they’re almost eager to be heard. The catbird is extremely vocal, with several calls and songs in its repertoire, including the rather faithful rendering of a fussy cat’s meow that provides this bird its common name.

Photo by Bryan Stevens A curious Gray Catbird peeks from dense cover. Attendees at the fall rally can look for catbirds and other species at any of the offered bird hikes.

They’re part of a family related to thrushes that are known as “mimic thrushes.” Besides its surprisingly accurate rendition of a feline, the catbird has several other common vocalizations. Despite their shy nature, they’re extremely curious. Imitating their calls or simply producing a squeaky sound will usually persuade the bird to move out of cover and search for the source of the noise.

Catbirds are part of the parade of returning birds each spring that includes species like rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and indigo buntings, but because they lack the brilliant plumages of these other birds their arrival would probably go unnoticed if not for the fact they are extremely noisy for the first few weeks they are back. Then they go silent again and remain quieter as they take up the serious business of raising young.

They are related to thrashers and mockingbirds, but scientists find them just different enough to warrant placing the gray catbird in its own genus. A relative known as the black catbird, which ranges throughout the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico as well as northern Guatemala and northern Belize, also belongs to a genus of its own. Both catbirds are classified as “mimic thrushes,” or Mimidae, of which there are about 30 species in the New World. There is a totally unrelated family of catbirds that ranges through Australia, Asia and parts of Africa. Some of these birds include the ochre-breasted catbird, tooth-billed catbird and spotted catbird.

The gray catbird is not as an accomplished mimic as some of its relatives, such as the Northern mockingbird. Nevertheless, experts have documented that the gray catbird can produce more than 100 different sounds. Males have motivation to constantly expand their repertoire, however, as doing so increases the likelihood of attracting a mate. They imitate other birds, but some have been recorded imitating frogs and other non-avian singers.

While not generally considered a bird to visit feeders, people have succeeded in attracting catbirds to feeders designed to offer grape jelly or orange slices. Planting fruit-bearing shrubs and trees is the best means of attracting these fascinating birds to your yard and garden. It’s also best not to clear away brush and tangles from your yard if you wish to attract catbirds. These are shy birds and will avoid areas that are too open and spacious. 

 

Unicoi County’s Summer Bird Count finds 110 species

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A trio of Northern Rough-winged Swallows perch on a branch. A total of 39 of these swallows were found on the seventh annual Unicoi County Summer Bird Count.

For the past seven summers, the members of the Elizabethton Bird Club have conducted a Summer Bird Count for Unicoi County.

The seventh annual survey of Unicoi County’s bird life was made more memorable due to the fact it was conducted during a global pandemic with counters practicing social distancing protocols. The Unicoi County Summer Count was held on Saturday, June 6, with 26 observers in 10 parties. The weather was favorable with a temperature range between 62 and 82, mostly to partly cloudy skies, and little wind.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Song Sparrow brings a beakful of caterpillars back to the nest to feed young.

 Counters tallied 110 species, which is near the six-year average of 109. Total species for this count has ranged from 104 to 112 species. Participants included Joe McGuiness, Vern Maddux, Kim Stroud, Dave Gardner, Don Holt, Dianne Draper, Debi and J.G. Campbell, Bryan Stevens, Brookie and Jean Potter, Eric Middlemas, Ken Rea, Roy Knispel, Jerry Bevins, Michele Sparks, Tammy Griffey, Jim Anderson, Pete Range, Harry Lee Farthing, Tom McNeil, Cathy McNeil, Fred Alsop, Catherine Cummins, Larry McDaniel and long-time count compiler Rick Knight. 

The bird found in most abundance was the European Starling with 536 individuals counted. Other common birds included Red-eyed Vireo (226) and Song Sparrow (245). A few birds went undetected, including Great Horned Owl.

This annual count covers territory such as Unaka Mountain, the Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park, Limestone Cove, the Erwin Linear Trail, and much more. Unicoi County offers many natural treasures, not the least of which being the varied and interesting birds that reside within its borders.

 The List:

 Canada Goose, 54; Wood Duck, 23; Mallard, 42; Ruffed Grouse, 3; Wild Turkey, 5; Great Blue Heron, 5; and Green Heron, 4.

Black Vulture, 6; Turkey Vulture, 45; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Broad-winged Hawk, 6; and Red-tailed Hawk, 9.

Photo by Skeeze/Pixabay.com • The Cooper’s hawk, like this individual, is a larger relative of the sharp-shinned hawk. It’s larger size allows this raptor to prey on larger birds, such as mourning doves.

Killdeer, 14; Rock Pigeon, 111; Mourning Dove, 152; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 6; Eastern Screech-Owl, 3; Barred Owl, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 5; and Eastern Whip-poor-will, 9.

Chimney Swift, 45; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 8; Belted Kingfisher, 2; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 33; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 14; Hairy Woodpecker, 2; Northern Flicker, 13; and Pileated Woodpecker, 26.

American Kestrel,1; Eastern Wood-Pewee, 13; Acadian Flycatcher, 56; Least Flycatcher, 6; Eastern Phoebe, 81; Great Crested Flycatcher, 2; and Eastern Kingbird, 11.

White-eyed Vireo, 2; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 35; Warbling Vireo, 3; Red-eyed Vireo, 226; Blue Jay, 108; American Crow, 122; and Common Raven, 8.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 39; Purple Martin, 30; Tree Swallow, 65; Barn Swallow, 79; and Cliff Swallow, 106.

Carolina Chickadee, 102; Tufted Titmouse; 100; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 17; Brown Creeper, 4; House Wren, 54; Winter Wren, 1; Carolina Wren, 146; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 15; and Golden-crowned Kinglet, 12.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The male Eastern Bluebird is beloved by many bird enthusiasts.

Eastern Bluebird, 94; Veery, 15; Hermit Thrush, 3; Wood Thrush, 57; American Robin, 397; Gray Catbird, 27; Brown Thrasher, 24; Northern Mockingbird, 48; European Starling, 536; and Cedar Waxwing, 48.

Ovenbird, 63; Worm-eating Warbler, 40; Louisiana Waterthrush, 14; Black-and-white Warbler, 34; Swainson’s Warbler, 3; Common Yellowthroat, 3; Hooded Warbler, 64; American Redstart, 8; Northern Parula, 39; Magnolia Warbler, 1; Blackburnian Warbler, 3; Yellow Warbler, 9; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 32; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 29; Pine Warbler, 5; Yellow-throated Warbler, 30; Prairie Warbler, 4; Black-throated Green Warbler, 52; Canada Warbler, 6; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 2.

Eastern Towhee, 80; Chipping Sparrow, 68; Field Sparrow,  21; Song Sparrow, 245; Dark-eyed Junco,  33; Scarlet Tanager, 33; Northern Cardinal, 163; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 6; Blue Grosbeak, 4; and Indigo Bunting, 131.

Red-winged Blackbird, 71; Eastern Meadowlark, 15; Common Grackle, 156; Brown-headed Cowbird, 23; Orchard Oriole, 6; Baltimore Oriole, 2; House Finch, 70; Red Crossbill, 1; American Goldfinch, 110; and House Sparrow,  33.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American goldfinch visits a feeder for a meal of thistle seeds.

Indigo buntings among summer’s most welcome birds

Photo by HeronWorks/Pixabay.com • An indigo bunting feeds on millet seeds at a backyard feeder. These dazzling blue birds are a common summer visitors in Northeast Tennessee.

It’s been a wet summer so far, and a verdant hue has been the rule as trees and other plants seem to be thriving. The green canopy of trees around my home offers concealment for hidden singers, including red-eyed vireos, wood thrushes, and indigo buntings. Those last ones have been a source of some frustration. I have heard a male indigo bunting singing persistently on a daily basis all last month, but glimpsing him in the green foliage has been a challenge.

Two recent summer bird counts have also emphasized some of the more commonplace birds in the region. While American robins and European starlings were extremely abundant, these two birds are permanent residents and are present year-round. A few other summer songbirds also helped swell the ranks of some of the seasonally common birds. For instance, the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count found a total of 131 indigo buntings, while the Carter County Summer Bird Count tallied 105 of these little blue beauties. Both of these Northeast Tennessee surveys are conducted by members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Neotropical migrants, such as this indigo bunting, provide some vibrant color during the hot summer months.

Buntings like 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 and a stunning yellow and black bird sharing perches 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 and American goldfinches — return year after year to my yard and gardens.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This male’s indigo bunting’s plumage is beginning to look somewhat worn in late summer.

These birds usually arrive in the region in late April and I’ve seen them in late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September. Male indigo buntings are persistent singers, and in the past couple of weeks one very enthusiastic male has been singing even during the hottest hours of recent July afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees. 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. It’s all an illusion, however. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue; the male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of refraction. This process absorbs all but blue light, which explains why the indigo bunting appears blue. 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.

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, where they are 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 very beneficial bird. Tangible value and exceptional beauty — that’s not a bad combination for such a tiny bird.

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

Bald eagles still soaring as inspirational success symbol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

•••••

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

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