Category Archives: Bryan Stevens Feathered Friends

Dark-eyed junco heralds winter’s approach and marks milestone in weekly bird musings

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A dark-eyed junco, usually a harbinger of wintry weather and snowy days, shells sunflower seeds beneath a feeder.

I wrote my first column about our “feathered friends” on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means this column will soon celebrate its 23rd anniversary.

This column has appeared on a weekly basis for the last 23 years in a total of five different newspapers, and in recent years it has been syndicated to several more. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested birds and birding. I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years as well. Since February 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.

I saw my first swamp sparrow of the fall on Oct. 23. Autumn’s a time when many of those so-called “little brown birds,” also known as the sparrows, return to live in the fields, gardens, yards and woodlands around our home. Two of the other anticipated arrivals are white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Sparrows, like this swamp sparrow, often spend the winter months in fields, woods, and wetlands, sometimes visiting feeders in our homes and gardens.

In fact, that first column I wrote back in 1995 focused on one of the region’s most prevalent winter residents— the dark-eyed junco. Experts place juncos among the varied sparrow family. All juncos are resident of the New World, ranging throughout North and Central America. Scientists are continually debating precisely how many species of junco exist, with estimates ranging from a mere three species to about a dozen species.

Some of the other juncos include the volcano junco, yellow-eyed junco, Chiapas junco, Guadalupe junco, pink-sided junco, Oregon junco and Baird’s junco, which is named in honor Spencer Fullerton Baird, a 19th century American naturalist and a former Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

With that introduction and with some revisions I have made through the years, here is that very first column that I ever wrote about birds.

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Photo by Skeeze-Pixabay • A dark-eyed junco clings to a snowy perch.

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Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.

John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.

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Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

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Photo by Ken Thomas • A dark-eyed junco perches on some bare branches on a winter’s day.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders, they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Dark-eyed junco nests on high mountain slopes during the summer month. This dark-eyed junco was photographed at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain during the summer nesting season.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

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Back when I wrote that original column, juncos often returned each fall in the final days of October or first days of November. In the last few years, however, their arrival times have grown consistently later in November. At times, it takes a serious snowfall to drive these hardy birds to seek out easy fare at my feeders. I’m hoping they’ll return soon. In the meantime, if you want to share your first dark-eyed junco sighting of the fall, I’d love to hear from you. If you want to share a sighting, have a question or wish to make a comment, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female dark-eyed junco scrambles for sunflowers seeds in the snow.

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Some birds expert at conjuring Halloween-style thrills and chills

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The  greater tit, a European relative of the Carolina chickadee, has learned to hunt and kill a species of small bat in the Hungarian mountains. • Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My ruby-throated hummingbirds set a new record this year, lingering until Oct. 17. Although present on the morning of that date, I didn’t see any that evening. The next morning, their absence — quite notable and somewhat saddening — continued. In all likelihood, I won’t see any more ruby-throated hummingbirds until next April. I hope they arrive early.

Carolyn Baker Martin commented on the post I made on Facebook about the departure of the hummers. Carolyn noted that 2018 has been an interesting year for birds and flowers. Carolyn, who lives in Elizabethton, Tennessee, also shared a recent observation she made of a hummingbird behavior that I’ve never personally witnessed.

“I had a hummer recently in torpor,” Carolyn wrote in her post. “It sat on the feeder a long time without moving or feeding. Finally, a tail feather began to move. It fed constantly for one more day and was gone.”

Despite their small size, most hummingbirds, including the ruby-throated hummingbirds, are less frail than they appear. Torpor is a biological adaptation possessed by hummingbirds and some other creatures that lets them survive a serious cold spell. It’s not quite the same thing, but think of these tiny birds as voluntarily going into a coma when they enter torpor. Comatose or catatonic creatures are a staple of some horror and suspense films, so perhaps a look at how some birds can induce shivers along the spine is in order in view of the celebration of Halloween this week.

The ultimate coma victim is the fabled zombie, but that’s not likely to afflict any of our feathered friends, right? Well, consider the great tits of Hungary, which are relatives of our tufted titmouse and Carolina chickadee. These birds — at least the Hungarian ones — have apparently acquired a taste for brains.

Not human brains, thankfully. The victims of these brain-hungry great tits are a species of bat — a flying creature often associated with the modern celebration of Halloween, as well as legends about vampires — that shared the habitat of these birds in the Bükk Mountains of Hungary. As it turns out, the tits only hunted bats, in this case a tiny species known as common pippistrelle, out of dire necessity.

Bat ecologists Péter Estók and Björn M. Siemers, after observing the odd behavior of the great tits during some winter seasons, conducted a study to see if great tits are consistent devourers of bats’ brains. They discovered that the birds did hunt the bats and had even learned to detect a special call the bats make as they emerge from hibernation. The ecologists conducted their study over two years and learned that the great tits teach others of their kind the special art of hunting bats. They also learned that the birds made efficient killers, dragging the bats from their roosts and cracking their skulls to get at their brains.

However, when provided with plenty of alternative food, including such favorite items as bacon and sunflower seeds, the great tits chose to eat these items rather than actively hunt bats. The researchers concluded that great tits only resort to harvesting the brains of small bats during times of scarcity during harsh winters. The bizarre story is even featured in the title of a fascinating book by Becky Crew titled “Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals.”

Cassowary

Photo by lailajuliana / Pixabay.com • The southern cassowary reaches a height of more than five feet and weighs 120 pounds. The bird has a fearsome but perhaps undeserved reputation for attacks on humans.

So, if humans have nothing to fear from brain-hungry birds, are there any birds that we should fear? Some experts suggest that precautions might be in order if one expects to come into close proximity with a southern cassowary, which is the third-tallest and second-heaviest living bird, smaller only than the ostrich and emu.

The cassowary, a native of New Guinea and northeastern Australia, has developed a reputation as a fearsome bird capable of injuring or killing humans. According to ornithologist Ernest Thomas Gilliard, cassowaries deserve their reputation. In his 1958 book, “Living Birds of the World,” he explained that the second of the three toes of a cassowary is fitted with a long, straight, dagger-like claw which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease. According to Gilliard, there have been many records of natives being killed by this bird.

A thorough study, however, has partly exonerated the cassowary from these misdeeds. In a total of 150 documented attacks against humans, cassowaries often acted in self-defense or in defense of a nest or chicks. The only documented death of a human took place in 1926 when two teenaged brothers attacked a cassowary with clubs. The 13-year-old brother received a serious kick from the bird, but he survived. His 16-year old brother tripped and fell during the attack, which allowed the cassowary to kick him in the neck and sever the boy’s jugular vein.

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Model of the terror bird Mesembriornis at the Chicago Field Museum, prepared by taxidermist Leon L. Pray, seen on the left.

So we can rest easier knowing that murderous birds that reach a height of almost six feet tall are unlikely to terrorize us should we travel to the lands down under. A more ancient relative of the cassowary, however, might have been a different story had humans lived during the same time period. Phorusrhacids, also known as “terror birds,” were a group of large carnivorous flightless birds that once had some members reign as an apex predator in South America before they went extinct around two million years ago. The tallest of the terror birds reached a height of almost 10 feet. Titanis walleri, one of the larger species, even ranged into what is now the United States in Texas and Florida.

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Terror birds were equipped with large, sharp beaks, powerful necks and sharp talons. Their beaks, which would have been used to kill prey, were attached to exceptionally large skulls. Despite their fearsome appearance, these birds probably fed on prey about the size of rabbits. Perhaps not knowing this, Hollywood has cast these birds as monsters in such films as 2016’s “Terror Birds” and 2008’s “10,000 BC.”

Besides, casting birds as the villains had already been done back in 1963 when Alfred Hitchcock released his film, “The Birds,” based loosely on a short story by Daphne du Maurier. The film, which starred some big Hollywood names such as Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Pleshette and Veronica Cartwright, cast a whole new light on a “murder” of crows. Today, the film has achieved the status of a Hollywood classic. I guess it just goes to show that werewolves, zombies, and other Halloween monsters have nothing on our fine feathered friends.

TheBIRDS!

Tennessee warbler visits Volunteer State only a few weeks each year

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A Tennessee warbler as painted by early naturalist and painted John James Audubon. Because the first of these warblers was found in Tennessee, the bird was given a rather inappropriate name. At most, they spend a few weeks each year in the Volunteer State during migration.

This fall has been a good time to see warblers. Some of the more common ones I have noticed in the yard so far have included American redstart, chestnut-sided warbler and black-throated green warbler. Of course, these two species nest in the region during the summer.

One of fall’s first true migrants showed up on Sept. 17 when a rambunctious Tennessee warbler made its debut by chasing a male Northern cardinal from the blue spruce near the creek.

The pioneering American ornithologist Alexander Wilson gave the Tennessee warbler its name, which, unfortunately, is not an accurate moniker.

Here’s some trivia for you should you ever find yourself competing on the game show “Jeopardy” and the category is “Warblers.” Four of our warblers — Kentucky Warbler, Louisiana waterthrush, Connecticut warbler and Tennessee warbler — bear common names that honor states. The Kentucky warbler and Tennessee warbler are named for the states where they were first found and described by Wilson in 1811. Neither the Tennessee warbler or Kentucky warbler are particularly affiliated with the states for which they were named. In fact, the Tennessee warbler passes through the Volunteer State only for a few weeks each year during spring and fall migration. Its closest breeding range is in the boreal forests of Michigan, and these warblers spend the winter in Mexico or farther south. Wilson got lucky and found his Tennessee warbler along the Cumberland River during migration.

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Tennessee Warbler Photo by Paul Spark/Adobe Stock • The Tennessee warbler, while named for the Volunteer State, spends very little time within Tennessee. These warblers migrate through the region each spring and fall but nest much farther north in the boreal forests.

 

Don’t blame Wilson too harshly for the mistake. Even after he “discovered” the first Tennessee warblers back in 1811, it would be almost another century before scientists finally located the bird’s nesting grounds in Canada in 1901. The remote and inaccessible nature of the the region helped prolong this mystery about the Tennessee warbler’s life cycle.

In almost 25 years of birding, I’ve never seen a Tennessee warbler during spring migration. I see many of these birds every autumn as they stage their fall migration through the Volunteer State to reach destinations farther south. The appearance of the Tennessee warbler varies greatly depending on the season. In autumn, most Tennessee warblers are greenish-yellow birds with whitish-gray underparts. In the spring, the basic green and white pattern remains evident, but both males and females sport a gray head and a black line that runs through the eye and along the side of the bird’s face. The plumage — at least in illustrations and photographs — is shown as more crisp and distinct with spring birds.

Some experts have floated the opinion that the Tennessee warbler should be named named “coffee warbler,” since wintering individuals are attracted to coffee plantations in Central America. According to the website, “Birds of North America,” recent studies demonstrate the importance of shade coffee plantations for Tennessee warblers during their time spent outside North America every winter. Other warblers, such as the black-throated blue warbler, are also closely associated with coffee plantations during the wintering season.

Some years find Tennessee warblers in great abundance, probably thanks to a feast of caterpillars infesting the spruce trees in the boreal forests where these warblers nest during the summer months. In years of famine when the caterpillars are less rampant in the forests the Tennessee warbler calls home, the birds raise fewer young, and the population grows less dramatically.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Tennessee warblers are nectar thieves, punching holes in the sides of flowers to get nectar without contributing to the pollination process.

The Tennessee warbler is not strictly an eater of caterpillars and insects. This warbler has a bit of a sweet tooth — or should that be sweet beak? They visit flowers to partake of nectar; however, the Tennessee warbler is not a good example of an avian pollinator. Tennessee warblers cheat by poking holes in the flower with their bills to steal the nectar without having to let the flower’s pollen accumulate on their bills and heads. The Tennessee warbler will also come to sugar water feeders put out on their wintering grounds to attract hummingbirds. The Tennessee warbler also supplements its diet with fruit and berries.

Here’s something that might also come in handy in a test of your knowledge of trivia some day: Not only is the Tennessee warbler named for the state, but the capital city of Nashville also has its name linked another member — the Nashville warbler — of the warbler clan. Once again, Wilson provided a rather inaccurate name, as the bird in question is only a visitor to Nashville during a limited window of time each year.

While the briefly visiting Tennessee Warbler already pays tribute to our state with its common name, the Northern mockingbird was selected in 1933 as the official bird for Tennessee. This relative of the brown thrasher and gray catbird also serves as the state bird for Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Texas. At my home, Northern mockingbirds are usually evident only during the winter months. I haven’t seen one at home so far this year. Gray catbirds were scarce this summer, but a pair of brown thrashers provided much entertainment as they raised young in my yard and gardens.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern Mockingbird has been the official state bird for Tennessee since 1933.

For now, I think Tennesseans will probably stick with the mockingbird, rather than the Tennessee warbler, when it comes to offering one of our feathered friends the accolade of official state bird. That’s not to say we can’t enjoy observations of this warbler during its brief forays through the state. Don’t wait too long, though. The window of opportunity usually closes by mid-October.

Mother Nature’s whims can produce major impacts on birds

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Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Duncan Wright The sooty tern, pictured, nests mainly in Hawaii, but some also nest on the islands of the Dry Tortugas, west of the Florida Keys. In 2004, Hurricane Frances blew one of these tropical birds to Holston Lake in Bristol. Severe storms also present devastating obstacles for other birds.

With Hurricane Florence dominating the headlines in recent weeks, it’s only natural to speculate on whether such storms can impact birds in a negative way.

According to a 2011 blog post made on the National Wildlife Federation website, hurricanes can be bad news for some birds. Naturally enough, sea birds and waterfowl are most exposed to the forces of a hurricane. Some birds will move inland to avoid the incoming storm. The birds that inhabit our yards and gardens will ride out the storm using special adaptations. Songbirds will automatically tighten their toes around their perches, riding out the winds of a hurricane by holding onto a branch with a death grip. It’s the same adaptation that lets them sleep on a branch without letting go and falling off during the night.

The blog points out that the news often covers the appearance of rare species after a major storm. Some of these birds transported to unusual locations are probably younger or weaker birds. Once transported far from their usual range by a hurricane, it can take weeks to return home — if they can find the right foods on their way back.

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Early naturalist and accomplished artist John James Audubon painted Bachman’s warbler without ever seeing a living one. A friend sent him some skins of the warbler collected near Charleston, South Carolina. A hurricane may have contributed to the extinction of Bachman’s warbler.

In a worst case scenario, hurricanes may have dealt fatal blows to some bird species. For instance, a hurricane may have delivered the knock-out blow to a species of warbler that went extinct last century, according to the website, Field Guide to Extinct Birds. A hurricane that slammed into Cuba in the 1930s when most of the Bachman’s warbler population was wintering on the island might have wiped out enough of the population to make the survivors too rare and far-flung to find each other to breed. The warbler, sensitive to habitat destruction from logging and already in a steep decline, never seemed to recover. It was the ultimate example of keeping all of one’s eggs — or birds — in one unlucky basket.

Discovered in 1832 near Charleston, South Carolina, by the Reverend John Bachman, this warbler attracted little attention for the first half century after its discovery. Bachman sent some skins of the bird to his friend, the artist and early naturalist John James Audubon. Subsequently, Audubon painted this warbler by using those skins and Bachman’s description of the bird’s habits for inspiration. Ironically, considering he described the species for science, Audubon never actually laid eyes on an actual living Bachman’s warbler.

The last specimens of Bachman’s warbler were collected in Mississippi in the early 1940s. The last strongholds for breeding Bachman’s warblers in the United States were Fairfax County, Virginia, in the 1950s and South Carolina’s I’on Swamp in the early 1960s. The last photograph documenting a Bachman’s warbler was taken in 1954. in Charleston, South Carolina, bringing the story of this warbler full circle from its discovery in the same vicinity back in 1832. No Bachman’s warbler sightings have been confirmed since 1961, despite reports in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as reports made in the spring of 2000 and 2001 in the Congaree Swamp National Monument in Richland County, South Carolina. None of those sightings could be confirmed.

Like the ivory-billed woodpecker and Eskimo curlew, Bachman’s warbler is another bird likely to be labeled for the near future with the tag “likely extinct” associated with its name. Like the large woodpecker and the shorebird with a penchant for long-distance migration, the Bachman’s warbler went out with a whimper, not a bang, with most of its viable population snuffed out by an October hurricane just as the species returned to Cuba for the winter season.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds make a non-stop crossing of the Gulf of Mexico. A hurricane in the Gulf during migration could have serious consequences for this small bird.

More recently, experts worried Hurricane Irma might have delivered a knockout blow to the population of another tiny species of warbler. The Barbuda warblers on the tiny Caribbean island of Barbuda were feared exterminated in the wake of Irma. When the storm hit the island in September of 2017, its path affected more than 90 percent of the island and nearly wiped out the available habitat for the warbler, which already had a Near Threatened status. After the passage of the storm, participants in searches for the warbler turned up sightings of the bird. Nevertheless, the population status and ability to fully recover remains uncertain.

Science keeps adding to its knowledge of how birds are affected by hurricanes and other storms. A 2017 study showed possible consequences for a seabird known as the sooty tern in relation to hurricanes.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed open-access journal PeerJ, is the first to map the birds’ annual migratory path and demonstrate how its timing and trajectory place them in the direct path of hurricanes moving into the Caribbean after forming over the Atlantic.

Climate change threatens to bring about more frequent and powerful hurricanes, which could be bad news for the terns. Migration is a stressful undertaking for birds. If they encounter a strong storm in a weakened state, the results could be catastrophic. The study revealed a strong relationship between the numbers and locations of bird deaths and the numbers and locations of hurricanes. The study also showed that it isn’t just monster storms with the potential to cause devastation. Tropical Storm Delia, a small storm in the Gulf of Mexico in 1973, killed a lot of sooty terns. Essentially, the terns were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A mixed flock of Short-billed and Long-billed Dowitchers and a Ruddy Turnstone at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. Hurricanes can interrupt the migrations of even these long-distance migrants.

Of course, the sooty tern is not a rare bird. About 80,000 or more of these terns are estimated to breed in the Dry Tortugas each year. That’s the entire point, however; Bachman’s warbler was also once considered a common bird.

All of these examples point to the resilience of birds, but there’s also a lesson to learn. We should never take any of our feathered friends for granted. While the winds and rains from a hurricane can decimate human lives, wildlife is not immune. Sadly, birds can weather many a storm, but sometimes they get swamped.

 

Common nighthawk flocks form part of fall migration spectacle

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Photo by Jean Potter • A common nighthawk rests on a metal railing.

With September advancing on the calendar, I have been keeping an eye on the skies. For the most part, I focus on the upper branches of trees and feeders during the migration season, but I don’t forget the need to look skyward from time to time.

The reason? Well, that’s the best way to detect soaring raptors or flocks of migrating common nighthawks. The autumn sky is also a popular flyway for other birds, including chimney swifts and swallows.

So, what is a common nighthawk? First, this bird, despite what is implied by its name, is not a hawk. It’s also not strictly nocturnal. Particularly in the fall, nighthawks are active during daylight hours when engaged in catching winged insects. Outside of fall migration, these birds can often be observed over large parking lots or well-lit streets, snatching up insects swarming around the light poles.

The common nighthawk is one of three members of the nightjar family found in the region during the summer months. The other two nightjars are the whip-poor-will and chuck-will’s-widow, birds that produce their namesake vocalizations in the nocturnal hours. Both of these species migrate, but they don’t take the dramatic approach employed by nighthawks. Each fall, common nighthawks form large flocks, ranging in size from dozens to hundreds or even thousands of individuals, as they migrate south for the winter.

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Early American naturalist and artist painted this dynamic scene of common nighthawks.

The whip-poor-will, after the common nighthawk, is the second most widespread member of its family to spend its breeding season in North America. The whip-poor-will ranges from southern Canada to the Gulf states. This bird also occurs in Arizona, New Mexico and southwestern Texas. The whip-poor-will favors habitat consisting of deciduous woodlands and the edges of forests.

All members of the nightjar family feed exclusively on insects that are caught on the wing. In this respect, the nightjars can be considered the nocturnal counterparts of the swallows. The nightjars have comparatively large, gaping mouths they use to scoop up flying insects. They also have large eyes, an adaptation to their nocturnal lifestyle.

Whip-poor-will numbers have been declining in the past few decades. These nocturnal birds frequent woodland edges, but they seem to be rather particular about such habitats. A forest that is too mature seems to hold little interest for them. Disturbed habitats, such as those created by logging, are acceptable to the birds once secondary growth begins. As this new growth matures, however, the whip-poor-will apparently abandons such territory. Because of these requirements, whip-poor-wills can be somewhat localized in their distribution and sometimes difficult to locate.

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Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service • A common nighthawk finds a perch for a brief rest.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite summer activities was sitting on the front porch of my grandparents’ home and listening to the whip-poor-wills call after dark. I remember how the plaintive call would be repeated for long intervals before a passing automobile’s headlights might frighten the bird into silence. Then, after a brief pause, the “whip-poor-will” calls would, tentatively at first, begin again and continue throughout the night.

Today, I’m living in my grandparents’ old home, and the whip-poor-wills no longer call. I heard a single individual that called for a single evening back in May of 1997, but that was apparently a migrating bird that did not remain in the surrounding woodlands. The only member of the nightjar family that I dependably encounter at home these days is the common nighthawk, and then only during that narrow window of late summer and early autumn.

Unlike whips and chucks, the common nighthawk isn’t active only after dark, which makes it much easier to observe these birds. They look somewhat like swifts and swallows but are much larger. They are brownish-gray birds with pointed wings and forked tails. They are easily identified by distinctive white patches on the underside of their wings.

The nightjar, or Caprimulgidae, family of birds is also sometimes known as “goatsuckers.” There are almost 80 species of nightjars in the world. Less than 10 occur in North America. The common nighthawk, whip-poor-will and the chuck-will’s widow are neotropical migrants. While they breed in a wide range of territory in North America, they spend their winters in Central and South America. Like all nightjars, nighthawks feed almost exclusively on insects, which they catch on the wing.

Many of the common nighthawk’s relatives have been given descriptive names, such as long-trained nightjar, collared nightjar, spot-tailed nightjar, red-necked nightjar, golden nightjar, fiery-necked nightjar, swamp nightjar, pennant-winged nightjar, lyre-tailed nightjar, little nightjar, sickle-winged nightjar, rufous-bellied nighthawk, short-tailed nighthawk, sand-coloured nighthawk and least nighthawk.

So, keep looking skyward. The next flock of migrating common nighthawks may fly over your home. These flocks are usually on the move throughout September although they begin to appear as early as late August. They can also appear almost magically, as if out of thin air. First, observers may see one of two birds, then several, followed quickly by dozens or sometimes hundreds as they wheel and cavort in the skies overhead with impressive grace and agility. I’ve seen flocks that would easily number more than 500 birds in locations throughout the region, although flocks often number only a couple of dozen birds. The two flocks I’ve observed so far this migration season numbered about thirty and fifty birds, respectively.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Rising clouds provide a backdrop for a flock of migrating nighthawks.

 

 

The world can be a big, bad place for tiny hummingbirds

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Large mantises have been known to prey on ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Many years ago I read an account of a scarlet tanager making a snack of a ruby-throated hummingbird. Memory being what it is, I am no longer sure if that account was corroborated or one of those urban legends of birding.

A few pertinent facts should be considered. Male scarlet tanagers look striking in their red and black plumage. Ruby-throated hummingbirds are attracted to the color red. In the details I recall of the story about the predatory tanager, the hummingbird kept flying close to the tanager as if attracted to the red plumage. If so, it was a case of curiosity kills the cat or, in this case, the hummingbird. The tanager seized the hummingbird in its bill and, for good measure and to “tenderize” its prey, beat the hummingbird against the side of a branch. All of this took place before a crowd of birders who observed the incident through their binoculars. I don’t recall anyone taking a photo of the hummingbird’s tragic demise.

An email from Gene Counts reminded me of the tale of the tanager and the hummingbird. Gene, who lives in Haysi, Virginia, sent me a photograph and a short note about a praying mantis that stalks hummingbirds as they visit his feeders for a sip of sugar water.

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Photo by Gene Counts • This photo was shared by Gene Counts, who described how the mantis stalked hummingbirds that came to his feeder.

Gene told me of his excitement upon capturing the large insect’s behavior in a photograph.

“I just had to share this picture with you,” Gene wrote. “After all, my wife, Judy, was more excited today than the day we married in Chicago 54 years ago.”

He certainly hooked my attention with that introduction.

“A praying mantis is using our feeder as his own private hunting preserve,” Gene continued in his email. “The mantis follows and stalks the hummingbirds all the way around 360 degrees.”

So far, the stalking has only resulted in “several near misses,” but Gene declared that he is ready to pounce in case the mantis gets lucky.

“It has been four hours and he has lowered his goal,” Gene wrote of the patient mantis. “He is now clinging to the bottom (of the feeder) waiting for an insect. Now I can expel my breath as he no longer an avian threat.”

While Gene’s mantis may not be an immediate threat to hummingbirds visiting his yard in Haysi, does that mean we can be complacent when these large insects share our yards and gardens with hummingbirds?

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Numbers of Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the region tend to fluctuate each year, but people should usually see a spike in their numbers as the hummingbirds end summer nesting and start migrating south again.

 

Documented evidence exists to identify large praying mantises as predators on ruby-throated hummingbirds. A brief foray online found numerous instances of hummers falling victims to these large carnivorous insects.

There are two species of mantises in the region — the European, or praying mantis, and the Chinese mantis — capable of capturing hummingbirds. Both species were introduced in the 1800s to act as a predator of insect pests detrimental to crops and gardens. The Chinese mantis can reach a length of 4.3 inches, while the European mantis achieves a length of about 3.5 inches. A third species — Carolina mantis — reaches only a length of 2.5 inches and should not pose a threat to ruby-throated hummingbirds, which are about 3.5 inches long.

Although introduced from Europe, the European mantis (Mantis religiosa) has earned recognition as the official state insect of Connecticut. The native Carolina mantis is the official state insect for South Carolina.

In Central and South America, where the world’s more than 300 species of hummingbirds reach their greatest diversity, there are also more species of predatory mantises. Some of these tropical insects prey on the tropical counterparts to the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Consider the way the mantis makes a perfect predator. It’s spiky forelimbs are spiky and serrated, making them perfect for seizing and grasping. This insect’s triangular head can turn their heads 180 degrees to scan its surroundings with two large compound eyes. A mantis also has three other simple eyes to increase its keen vision. Brutal mouthparts can easily tear apart and devour any prey the mantis manages to catch with its ambush hunting style.

Hummingbirds, regardless of species, are in a tough spot in the food chain. A bird not much bigger than many large insects is going to be a target for opportunistic predators like a mantis that will attempt to kill and consume anything small enough for them to make the effort.

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Maria Sibylla Merian, a German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator, was one of the first naturalists to observe insects directly. She painted this horrific work featuring a large spider preying on a hummingbird that had been dutifully incubating her eggs. When she died in 1717, she was recognized as one of the world’s foremost entomologists.

To make matters worse for ruby-throated hummingbirds, some large spiders and the bigger dragonflies have also been documented as hummingbird predators. When ruby-throated hummingbirds retreat to Central America for the winter months, they also face threats from lizards and snakes.

The list of predators that have been known to eat ruby-throated hummingbirds extends to bullfrogs, as well as many raptors, including kestrels, merlins and sharp-shinned hawks. Blue jays and other birds will raid hummingbird nests for eggs or young. Squirrels and chipmunks are also nest predators.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com. Large frogs have also been known to prey on hummingbirds.

Despite all these perils, some ruby-throated hummingbirds have achieved a “long” life. The oldest on record was a ruby-throated hummingbird banded at the age of nine years and one month. Most elder hummingbirds are females. Few male hummingbirds, perhaps because of the energy they expend dueling with each other, reach their fifth birthday.

It’s definitely not easy being as tiny as a hummingbird in a world of fearsome giants, but birders who have seen a hummingbird hover boldly in front of their faces know how these tiny birds take life in stride. They may have a disadvantage in size, but that doesn’t keep them from living life as if they were as big as an eagle.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Despite a perceived disadvantage of size, ruby-throated hummingbirds are quite capable of thriving in a giant world.

Chipping sparrow a common summer nesting bird

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Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • A black line running through the eye bordered by a white stripe, as well as a rusty-red cap, helps distinguish the chipping sparrow from other “little brown birds” that belong in the sparrow family.

I needed to do some homework before I could answer a question posed to me by Frances Rosenbalm of Bristol, Tennessee. As she communicated to me in an email, she had discovered a bird’s nest in her garden and wanted help identifying the species that built the nest.

“I have a bird that made a nest in the top of my tomato vines,” Frances explained in her email. “It had four turquoise speckled eggs in it.”

Frances described the nest as being made with large twigs and moss. “What kind of bird do you think it may be?” she wrote. She also noted that her garden is located near a farm field.

“I was so surprised to find this nest,” she wrote. “In all of all the years I have put a garden out, this has never happened,” Frances concluded.

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After doing some research, which included poring over the pages of a great book by Hal H. Harrison titled, “A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests: United States East of the Mississippi River,” a work in the Peterson Field Guides series, I was able to write back to Frances with the news that I might have solved the mystery of the nest in the tomato vines.

The Harrison field guide is an exceptional book and one that’s perfect for someone who wants to know a little more about the birds other than their names. Entries for each bird include photographs depicting both the nest and the eggs as well as informative text with supplemental information about nesting birds in the Eastern United States.

Based on the description of the nest and its eggs, as well as its location near a farm field, I identified the nest described by Frances as belonging to chipping sparrows. I found some photographs online of chipping sparrow eggs in a nest and sent that in an email for her to consider.

Frances responded in another email. “I do believe you are right,” she wrote. “The eggs look a lot like the photo, and I have seen some birds that look like (chipping sparrows) flying around.”

For a species often lumped under the grouping of “Little Brown Birds,” the chipping sparrow is quite distinctive. In spring and summer, chipping sparrows sport a crisp, neat plumage with frosty gray underparts, a gray and white face and a striking black line through the eye. An easily recognizable field mark is the bright rusty crown atop the bird’s head.

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Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • Chipping sparrows will form flocks for the winter season.

When horses were more common in daily American life, the chipping sparrow took advantage of this resource to almost invariably line their nests with horsehair. Now that not all nesting chipping sparrows have access to horses, these birds use fine plant fibers or hair gathered from other sources, including people, to line their nests.

Once a nest is constructed, a female chipping sparrow lays and incubates three to four eggs, which take about 14 days to hatch. Chipping sparrows often attempt to raise two broods in a single nesting season. Although dense evergreen trees are a preferred nesting location, these birds will also nest in vines.

During the warm months of the summer nesting season, chipping sparrows feed almost exclusively on insects. When winter makes insects scarce, these small birds switch their diet to one of seeds. Chipping sparrows will also feed on small fruits and berries.

Chipping sparrows will sometimes nest as many as three times in a single season. Although territorial during the nesting season, these birds form sizable flocks for migration and during the winter season. In making reference to these flocks, observers can use other descriptive terms. Flocks of sparrows have also been called a crew, a flutter, a host, a tournament and a quarrel. I am partial to a flutter of sparrows, but anyone who has watched the pecking order at the feeders will also understand the origins of a quarrel of sparrows.

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John James Audubon painted this chipping sparrow.

There are a couple of well-known Biblical passages using sparrows for powerful pieces of symbolism. One alludes to the fact that if God provides for small songbirds like sparrows, he will certainly provide for human beings. In addition, there is a passage that maintains that not a single sparrow falls without God being aware of the loss. A famous hymn, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” is based on such biblical verses.

The world’s sparrows are divided into two large groupings — the Old World, or true sparrows, and the American sparrows of the New World.

Although largely considered rather dull, plain birds in appearance, some of them have earned descriptive names such as great sparrow, Arabian golden sparrow, green-backed sparrow, five-striped sparrow, yellow-browed sparrow and golden-crowned sparrow.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A field sparrow perches on a branch. These sparrows are closely related to chipping sparrows and relatively common in Northeast Tennessee.

Welcome chipping sparrows and their kin with a well-stocked feeder and perhaps some thick tomato vines for concealing a nest. Unfairly dismissed by some as plain, dull songbirds, the sparrows reward a closer look with some subtle behaviors and plumages as worthy of additional attention as much as some of their more colorful relatives.