Monthly Archives: September 2016

Ovenbird often a difficult bird to get to know

Last week, I discussed the worm-eating warbler, which is one of the more drab warblers in terms of appearance. I think that must have started a trend, because so far this migration season has been dominated by some of the less colorful — but still very interesting — warblers. The opening days of September brought with them the annual fall parade of migrating warblers. As usual, this yearly opportunity to view visiting warblers began as a trickle of species but has picked up in intensity as each day passed.

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Photo by Jean Potter                                         Ovenbird sings from an elevated perch in the woodland canopy.

 By Sunday, Sept. 11, I had already observed close to a dozen species of warblers, including hooded warbler, black-throated green warbler, Northern waterthrush, ovenbird, magnolia warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, black-and-white warbler, Tennessee warbler, and American redstart. 
 
One of the first warblers to arrive at my home this spring was the enigmatic ovenbird. With its loud, ringing song — “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” — it’s impossible not to notice the arrival of this warbler.  Why describe this warbler as enigmatic? For starters, ovenbirds do not easily permit even stealthy birders to glimpse them. I have gotten good looks at ovenbirds throughout the years, but they are still difficult to observe. They are one of the warblers more easily heard than seen. When they are observed, it’s usually no more than a fleeting look before the bird dives back into heavy cover. That’s not always the case, however.
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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Steve Maslowski                      The ovenbird is not named for its plumage or its habitat preference. Instead, its name refers to the shape of its nest. Ovenbirds and other warblers are currently migrating through the region.

 
I’ve actually seen three different ovenbirds this fall, with increasingly good looks at this warbler each time I have encountered it. The ovenbird is not one of the brightly colored warblers, such as black-throated blue warbler or yellow warbler. The ovenbird is a small brown bird with a white breast with dark streaking — an appearance that bears a superficial resemblance to the larger thrushes that share the same woodland habitat. The only hint of color is an orange crown bordered by dark stripes atop the bird’s head. Even this orange crown patch is not easily seen. When agitated, an ovenbird may raise its head feathers, which makes this orange mark easier to detect. The ovenbirds I’ve observed recently have all shown off that orange crown patch to great effect. The ovenbird also has a distinct white ring around its eyes, as well as pink legs and a pinkish bill.
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Early naturalist John James Audubon painted a pair of Ovenbirds, which he knew as “Golden-crowned Thrushes.”

 
The ovenbird, unlike many warblers, is not named for its appearance. Instead, the bird’s name derives from the shape of the nest it builds. The nest is a domed structure placed on the ground, woven from vegetation and containing a side entrance. Early European settlers in North America thought the nest looked like a Dutch oven, hence the name “ovenbird” for the small warbler with the intricate nest.
 
Rather than hopping along the length of a branch or limb, an ovenbird walks in a deliberate fashion. This bird feeds on insects, spiders and other small prey items foraged from the woodland floor. On rare occasions, a lingering ovenbird shows up at feeders during the winter months.
 
Ovenbirds spend the summer nesting season in mature deciduous and mixed forests across Canada and the eastern United States. They do not make as lengthy a migration as that undertaken by some of their relatives. Ovenbirds migrate each fall to the southeastern United States, the West Indies, and from Mexico to northern South America for the winter season. 
  
The two warblers most closely related to the ovenbird are the Louisiana waterthrush and Northern waterthrush. These atypical warblers share a preference for leading lives spent mostly near the ground adjacent to streams. The Louisiana waterthrush seeks out the rushing water of our mountain streams during early spring while the Northern waterthrush prefers quiet pools of water farther north during its nesting season. The ovenbird, however, is not as closely associated with water.
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Amateur ornithologist and artist Genevieve Jones painted this depiction of the Ovenbird’s namesake nest.

 
While I have used the adjective “drab” to describe some of these brown warblers, it is not truly accurate. Although these warblers lack bright colors like orange, yellow and blue, they have an incredible, subtle beauty all their own. In the coming weeks, I will discuss some of the brighter warblers in this fascinating family of migratory songbirds.
 
Warblers are not the only birds migrating through the region. Other notable migrants I’ve observed recently have included common nighthawks, red-eyed vireos and green herons. 
 
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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.
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Worm-eating warbler less conspicuous member of family of bright, active migratory songbirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Woman gets glimpse into life of a nesting ruby-throated hummingbird

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger                        This nest, filled with two tiny eggs, was discovered in a maple tree in a Bluff City yard by Donna Ottinger.

For Bluff City, Tennessee, resident Donna Ottinger, the show in her front yard beats anything you might find on television this summer. Since late July, Donna has been watching a female ruby-throated hummingbird that she has named Bliss carry out her nesting duties.

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger                  Bliss the ruby-throated hummingbird visits a feeder for a sip of sugar water.

Like all female ruby-throated hummingbirds, Bliss produced two eggs for containment in a delicate nest of spiderweb, lichen and plant fibers woven onto a maple tree branch. There are some reasons why it’s always a pair of 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 rear more would most likely prove impossible.

Donna compared the two tiny eggs to Tic Tac mints. The entire process — from building the nest to incubating eggs to tending hatchlings — requires a commitment of more than two months. Donna noted that even after the young hummingbirds hatched, Bliss continued to reinforce the nest with collected silk from spider webs.

Donna kept the nest under observation after she discovered it in late July. As she noted on her Facebook page, finding a hummingbird nest is not an everyday occurrence. The nest is on one of the lower branches of a large maple tree in her front yard only a short distance from her porch. She was able to sit comfortably while watching Bliss come and go to her tiny nest.

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger                                           Bliss, a ruby-throated hummingbird, sits on her nest to incubate her two eggs.

“It’s been a real blessing,” Donna told me when we met in person on Aug. 19. She was gracious enough to permit my mom and me to sit on her front porch and enjoy the show. During our visit, we got to watch as Bliss arrived to feed the babies. It’s not a spectacle for the squeamish. Bliss plunged her long bill deep into the throats of each baby bird in turn and pumped some nutritious contents into the growing youngsters. Despite the fact that it looked like she could easily impale the babies, they suffered no ill effects and looked quite full and satisfied after the visit.

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger              On Aug. 1, one chick hatched. The second chick hatched the following day, making for a very full nest.

The two babies were hatched on Aug. 1 and Aug. 2, respectively. The staggered hatching reflects the fact that Bliss also laid the eggs on separate days. Not knowing the gender of the babies, Donna named the Aug. 1 hatchling Monday for the day of the week hatching took place. In turn, the second baby, which escaped its shell on Aug. 2, was named Tuesday.

Once hatched, young hummingbirds remain in the nest about 28 days (nearly a month) and depend on their mother to bring them regular meals. If that’s not enough, the ruby-throated hummingbird is known to nest twice in a season. It certainly must rank a female hummingbird as one of the busiest of our summer birds. At the time I wrote this column, Monday and Tuesday had still not left the nest.

The young hummers have grown at an astonishing rate and Donna has witnessed their progress day by day. She noted that young hummers start off life with a short bill. Like the rest of their bodies, however, their bills have grown accordingly as Monday and Tuesday received regular feedings from Bliss.

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger                Having grown at a rapid pace, hummingbird chicks Monday and Tuesday find their nest growing rather cramped by mid-August.

Female hummingbirds receive no assistance from their mates. Males don’t assist with the rearing of their own young. For male hummingbirds, summer is mainly a time to thrive on the abundance of nectar-bearing blooms, as well as a profusion of tiny insects and spiders that also make up a good portion of their diet.

When I saw them, I knew that little Monday and Tuesday would be out of the nest in a short time. It would also be necessary for them to soon begin fall migration. On Aug. 23, Donna reported on her Facebook page that the young hummers had left the nest.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                   Bliss feeds her two young hummingbirds.

“Just three weeks after hatching, the baby hummers have both left the nest,” she wrote in her post. “They didn’t go far, and Bliss is still feeding them in a nearby tree where they have taken up new residence.”

The next generation of hummingbirds always helps swell the number of these tiny birds in our yards in late summer and early fall. Keeping visiting ruby-throated hummingbirds can be as simple as planting an abundance of the flowers they love, but offering multiple sugar water feeders also helps. 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.

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Photo Courtesy of Donna Ottinger  Monday and Tuesday find the nest increasingly crowded in the days before they fledged.

It was absolutely wondrous to observe Bliss and her babies. The experience has motivated me to keep a closer watch on the hummingbirds in my yard. There are female hummers present every summer. They have to be nesting somewhere, and I’d like to find a nest in my own yard.

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

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Photos Courtesy of Donna Ottinger            Monday and Tuesday share a compact nest.

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Bliss incubates her eggs at her nest in Bluff City, Tennessee.

Grosbeaks in region include blue, rose-breasted representatives of family

 

Daryl Herron, a real-life friend as well as a Facebook one, posted a photo of a bird on my page recently, seeking help with identifying the bird. His sister, Monica Cody, took the photo at her Kingsport home. The stunning bird depicted in the photo, as I happily reported back to Daryl, was a blue grosbeak. The grosbeak is an impressive bird, with males showing off an overall blue plumage save for some brown and black feathers in the wings.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/ David Brezinski Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will likely be among the colorful birds present for this year's rally.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/ David Brezinski
Rose-breasted Grosbeaks will likely be among the colorful birds present for this year’s rally.

Blue grosbeaks are mostly southern birds with Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia representing the northern tier of this bird’s range in the southeastern part of the country. Look for these chunky, blue birds in brushy fields or along hedgerows in fairly open country. They favor the same habitats as such birds as yellow-breasted chat, brown thrasher and loggerhead shrike.

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Photo by Monica Cody                    This male blue grosbeak showed up near Monica Cody’s home in Kingsport, Tennessee. The blue grosbeak is an uncommon visitor in the region.

It’s a shame this bird isn’t more common in the region. Blue grosbeaks will visit feeders, but in more than 20 years of maintaining well-stocked feeders, I’ve managed to attract only one of these birds. If more common, it would surely be a favorite bird among the people offering free seed for their feathered friends.

The blue grosbeak is related to the better-known rose-breasted grosbeak. Male rose-breasted grosbeaks are absolutely stunning, especially for people getting their first-ever glimpse of this bird. It’s the adult male with his vibrant black and white feathers and the large rosy-red splash of color across the breast that gives this bird its common name. Females are brown, streaked birds that are larger than but easily confused with some of our sparrows.

Among grosbeaks, both sexes have a massive bill, which they use to hull sunflower seeds at feeders or glean insects from leaves and branches. It’s the heavy, blunt bill for which the term “grosbeak” is derived. “Gros” is a German term for large or big, so grosbeak simply means a large-beaked bird. People who band birds to further the study of them will tell you that rose-breasted grosbeaks have a wicked bite and are capable of delivering quite a nip. Bird banders in the region frequently encounter rose-breasted grosbeaks in their mist nets — and some bear the scars to prove it.

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Photo by Tammie Kroll                                      The male rose-breasted grosbeak is probably one of the least difficult songbirds to identify with his unmistakable plumage pattern.

The spring arrival of rose-breasted grosbeaks is usually a fleeting visit. Finding suitable arrangements, which can consist of well-stocked feeders and perhaps a convenient water source, the migrating birds may linger for several days. These birds nest at higher elevations, however, and are usually impatient to continue the journey to where they will spend the summer months tending to their young.

This spring, Tammie Kroll was one of the lucky people to receive visits from rose-breasted grosbeaks. Tammie emailed me to share a beautiful photo she took of the male grosbeak that visited her home in Washington County, Virginia, near Exit 13 off Interstate 81.

There’s good news for those who didn’t receive springtime visits from these pretty birds. The rose-breasted grosbeak is also a common fall migrant and can again be attracted to yards offering sources of food and water. While males usually don’t look quite as dramatic by August and September, they’re still sure to cause a stir when visiting a feeder.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                         A rose-breasted grosbeak sings from a tree on Roan Mountain, Tennessee.

 

Plenty of rose-breasted grosbeaks pass through northeast Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, and a few even decide to make their summer homes in the mountains in these regions. However, these birds spread out widely across the eastern half of the North American continent, ranging from northeastern British Columbia to Quebec and Nova Scotia in Canada. They also range south from New Jersey to Georgia. The rose-breasted grosbeak also reaches Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas.

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John James Audubon painted this family of  blue grosbeaks.

For the most part, however, the rose-breasted grosbeak is replaced in the western United States by the closely related black-headed grosbeak. I saw several of these birds during a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, back in 2006. Other grosbeaks in the United States include the evening grosbeak and pine grosbeak. In the American tropics other grosbeaks are found, including the descriptively named yellow-green grosbeak, crimson-collared grosbeak, ultramarine grosbeak and yellow-shouldered grosbeak.

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