Category Archives: Common Birds of Northeast Tennessee

Reader’s mystery bird turns out to be Louisiana waterthrush

On occasion, readers seek out my help with identifying birds they encounter. I am always glad to assist. Photographs, a recording of the bird’s song, or even a well-written description are often all that’s necessary to pinpoint the identities of mystery birds.

Lewis and Jeana Chapman, residents of Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, notified me in an email that they have been enjoying some good birdwatching trips. They also wanted some help with the identity of a bird they observed last summer.

NoWaterthrush

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern waterthrush, pictured, has a beige eye line rather than the white one usually shown by the Louisiana waterthrush.

“My wife and I love to go to the Creeper Trail in Virginia and enjoy the creek,” Lewis wrote in an email. “On these trips in the summer months, we have watched this bird run along the rocks of the shore feeding.”

He also mentioned that he had attached in his email some photos, which proved extremely helpful. “Our closest guess at what type of bird it is was a spotted sandpiper, but its beak/bill seems too short. Any help you can give us would be greatly appreciated.”

A quick scan of the photos the Chapmans sent with their email helped me narrow the options down to two related birds — a Louisiana waterthrush and a Northern waterthrush. I used three criteria — location, season and plumage — to identify the bird in their photos as a Louisiana waterthrush.

Louisiana Waterthrush

Photo by Adobe Stock • Subtle plumage differences, as well as habitat, behavior and seasonal presence, are factors in distinguishing the Louisiana waterthrush, pictured, from the closely related Northern waterthrush. The Louisiana waterthrush nests along fast-moving streams in the area while the Northern waterthrush does not breed in the region.

 

The Chapmans had good reason to suspect the bird might have been a spotted sandpiper, but for the true identity of the bird in question, it’s necessary to delve into the family of warblers, which includes species such as American redstart, ovenbird, common yellowthroat, Northern parula and black-throated blue warbler.

The two waterthrushes are very similar in appearance. Louisiana Waterthrushes has a heavier bill and a white eye line, while the Northern Waterthrush’s eye line is usually somewhat yellowish-beige. A Louisiana waterthrush typically also has a whiter belly and underparts.

Appearance wasn’t even the most important element of the criteria. Location and season more readily helped confirm the identity. The Louisiana waterthrush has a range concentrated on the southern part of the eastern half of the United States, mostly south of the states of New York, Michigan and Wisconsin. In this region, only the Louisiana waterthrush is known to nest. The Northern waterthrush is strictly a spring and fall migrant, electing to nest near bogs and slow streams in Canada and the northern tier of states in the United States.

The Louisiana waterthrush also attracts attention with its characteristic “teetering” gait. Much like the spotted sandpiper, this waterthrush bobs the rear half of its body up and down as it walks and forages by the sides of streams. In their behavior, this shorebird and this warbler are very much alike. The waterthrush will often turn over wet leaves or other stream debris to search for prey items, such as aquatic insect larvae, crustaceans, snails and even small fish. The Louisiana waterthrush was once known as the water wagtail, which makes reference to the aforementioned teetering gait.

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Early artist and naturalist John James Audubon painted this Louisiana waterthrush.

Many warblers have shown signs of decline in recent years. The Louisiana waterthrush, however, appears to have bucked that trend. According to the website All About Birds, Louisiana waterthrush populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, based on statistics from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 360,000, with almost all of those individuals spending at least part of the year in the United States. About a quarter of the population retreats into Mexico during the winter season. The rest winter in Florida and some of the Gulf Coast states, as well as the islands of the Caribbean.

While most songbirds are fortunate to survive two or three years in the wild, at least one Louisiana waterthrush lived to the age of at least 11 years and 11 months. The bird, a male, was seen in New Jersey in the wild and identified by a band on one of his legs. He had been banded in the same state, according to All About Birds.

The two waterthrushes are the only species in the genus Parkesia, so named to honor American ornithologist Kenneth C. Parkes, who was for many years Curator of Birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The common name of the Louisiana waterthrush is not a very apt one, as this bird does not have any special affinity for the state of Louisiana. Someone collected some of the early specimens of the Louisiana waterthrush in its namesake location, and the name has stuck through the years.

Waterthrush

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Even in migration, both waterthrushes like to stay near water.

Not every bird mystery that comes my way via Facebook or in an email is so easily resolved. This identification, which happened to involve the New World warblers, my favorite family of birds, once again showed me the amazing diversity of this group of birds. From the terrestrial Louisiana waterthrush to the treetop-dwelling cerulean warbler, it’s an amazing group of songbirds I’m always happy to introduce to bird enthusiasts.

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No cowbird ever knows its biological parents

While many birds are excellent parents, others lack any maternal or paternal instincts altogether. The common cuckoo, a nesting bird in Europe and Asia, is a well-known brood parasite that would rather slip its eggs into the nest of other bird than raise its own young. In scientific terms, “brood parasite” refers to creatures that rely on others to raise their young. In addition to some birds, this tactic is also employed by some species of insects and fish.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Female brown-headed cowbirds stay alert to observe bird leaving or coming to a nest. Once they have located a nest, these birds slip their own eggs into the nests of other birds.

The strategy is effective, if, in the human way of thinking, rather heartless. In biological terms, however, this “foster parenting” allows brood parasites to ensure a new generation without expending much energy on the part of the actual parents. Some recent contacts with readers have reminded me that not all of our feathered friends would qualify for “parent of the year.”

Mike Dickenson of Bristol, Tennessee, contacted me on Facebook about a discovery he made in a nest built under the steps of his house.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female brown-headed cowbird visits a feeder.

“I noticed two blue eggs,” he said. “I checked a few days later and noticed two gray eggs also. Did another bird sneak her eggs into the nest?” Mike also informed me that some of the eggs hatched shortly after he discovered them.

James Rowland of Erwin, Tennessee, sent me a message on Facebook asking me to identify a bird in a photograph he had taken. “What is this bird?” James asked. “It’s larger than a sparrow.”

He added that he observed and photographed the bird near the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, Tennessee. A study of the bird in the photo revealed a very nondescript bird in largely gray plumage. Few of our birds are this plain and gray with almost no standout characteristics.

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Photo by James Rowland • A brown-headed cowbird, probably a young bird or a female, near the Covered Bridge in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

In both cases, one of North America’s most successful brood parasites was involved. I responded to Mike and told him that is was entirely possible that a female brown-headed cowbird slipped some eggs into the nest beneath his steps. I likewise informed James that the bird in his photo looked like a brown-headed cowbird. I added that the bird was either a female or a young bird, since a male would have the brown head that gives the species its common name.

In North America, one of the best-known feathered brood parasites is the brown-headed cowbird. While many brood parasites are specialists, with females slipping their eggs into the nest of a specific species of host bird, the brown-headed cowbird approaches brood parasitism in a less discriminating manner. Female cowbirds have been known to lay their eggs in the nests of at least 221 different species of birds. No baby brown-headed cowbird ever knows its biological parents.

How did the brown-headed cowbird turn to a life of foisting eggs onto unsuspecting foster parents? The answer is connected with the American bison, also known as buffalo. When the bison roamed the Great Plains of the United States by the millions, flocks of brown-headed cowbirds followed the great herds, feeding on the insects flushed by the hooves of millions of bison. As the herds stayed on the move constantly, the cowbirds also developed a nomadic lifestyle. After the bison herd diminished, the cowbirds survived a potential crisis by simply transferring their bovine affinity from bison to domesticated cattle.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male brown-headed cowbird displays the brown head that gives this bird its common name.

At times, this random and undiscriminating approach to reproduction fails. Some finches feed their young a diet that consists of a great deal of vegetable matter. Young cowbirds fed this protein deficient diet fail to thrive and ultimately perish.

Other birds blissfully bring a rich assortment of protein snacks — insects, spiders and other small invertebrates — that permits the young foster bird to thrive, at times at the expense of the host bird’s own young. About 20 years ago I observed a willow flycatcher bringing food to a young brown-headed cowbird at least twice the size of the “parent” trying to feed it. I’ve also seen song sparrows, dwarfed by a cowbird changeling, trying to keep their enormous baby bird well fed.

Cowbirds are members of the blackbird family, which includes such relations as orioles, meadowlarks and grackles. All cowbirds are confined to the New World and include species such as the screaming cowbird of Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil, as well as the bronzed cowbird of Central America and the southern United States, especially the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana. Other cowbird family members include giant cowbird and the shiny cowbird.

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Early naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted this pair of brown-headed cowbirds.

Majesty of bald eagle suitable for America’s official bird

american bald eagle

Photo by David Dibert on Pexels.com A bald eagle comes in for a landing.

Here’s an early “Happy Fourth of July” to all my American readers. I thought this week’s post should focus some attention 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.

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 some protection, however, the bald eagle rebounded. In fact, the Department of Interior took the eagle off the endangered species list on June 28, 2007.

bald eagle over the body of water

Photo by Wayne Christensen on Pexels.com A bald eagle scoops a fish from the water with its talons.

The bald eagle has been more frequently observed by birders in Northeast Tennessee in recent years. Some of the area lakes in the region are good places to look for Bald Eagles, particularly in the fall and winter. A few lakes even host nesting bald eagles. For instance, this eagle has been documented nesting at Holston Lake in recent years.

I’ve observed bald eagles in Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia. My most unusual observation of a wild bald eagle took place on Labor Day many years ago when an adult eagle flew over my grandparents’ home in Limestone Cove in Unicoi County. North America’s other eagle, the golden eagle, is a very rare visitor to northeast Tennessee. 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.
The eagles are incredibly majestic birds and important symbols of the value of natural places and creatures.

close up photography of white black eagle during daytime

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com The bald eagle had rebounded in population.

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a member of a genus known as Haliaeetus, or sea eagles. There are seven other living species in the genus: the white-bellied sea eagle, Sanford’s sea eagle, African fish eagle, Madagascar fish eagle, Pallas’s fish eagle, white-tailed eagle and Steller’s sea eagle.

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.

close up photography of bald eagle

Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com The bald eagle’s place as the nation’s symbol seems very well secured.

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.

bald eagle bird clouds country

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com Bald eagles are often associated with wetland habitats.

 

Despite these impressive characteristics, the bald eagle is dwarfed in comparison to one of its now-extinct relatives. The largest eagle ever to evolve was Haast’s eagle, which once thrived in New Zealand. This eagle was named for the German geologist Julius von Haast, who founded Canterbury Museum at Christchurch in New Zealand. Haast, who died in 1887, was one of the first scientists to study large flightless birds such as the moa family that once roamed New Zealand.

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Julius von Haast

In fact, Haast’s eagle was considered a major predator on the population of New Zealand moas, some of which reached a height of 12 feet tall and a weight of more than 500 pounds. By contrast, female Haast eagles probably reached a weight of 22 to 33 pounds. Males, as is the case with most living eagles, are smaller than females and probably weighed between 20 to 26 pounds. This mega-sized eagle possessed a relatively short wingspan of roughly 8 to 10 feet wide. This wingspan compares to that recorded for large specimens of golden eagle and Steller’s sea eagle. Even the largest of today’s eagles, however, are about 40 percent smaller in body size than the size of Haast’s eagles. Despite their superior size, moas simply lacked any defense against the huge razor-like talons and sharp bill of the Haast’s Eagle.

Here are a few other eagle facts:

— Eagle bones are light because they are hollow. The beak, talons and feathers are made of keratin.
— The Madagascar fish eagle is the most rare eagle on earth, and one of the most rare birds. The current population is estimated at less than 400 individual birds, with perhaps around 120 breeding pairs.
— Bald eagles have 7,000 feathers.
— Wild bald eagles are long-lived birds and may live as long as 30 years. In captivity, however, the oldest documented Bald Eagle lived to be 47 years old.
— Bald eagles can lift as much as four pounds. They feed mainly on fish, but they will take advantage of carrion and scavenge for their meals. They will occasionally also take waterfowl as prey.
— The hunting area of bald eagles varies from 1,700 to 10,000 acres. Home ranges are smaller where food is present in great quantity.
— Bald eagles can fly to an altitude of 10,000 feet. During level flight, they can achieve speeds of about 30 to 35 miles per hour.
— All eagles are renowned for their excellent eyesight.
— Once paired, bald eagles remain together until one dies. Bald eagles lay from one to three eggs. The 35 days of incubation duties are shared by both male and female.
— Today, there are about 10,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles.

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I look forward to hearing from readers. Those who wish to ask a question, share an observation or make a comment may reach me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

bald eagle in macro photography

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com Happy Fourth of July!

Timely arrival of blue-gray gnatcatcher signals the rush of spring migration

A blue-gray gnatcatchers finally put in a first spring appearance at my home on April 11. Most likely, these tiny birds had already arrived, but my schedule hadn’t yet allowed me a glimpse of this punctual songbird. Back in March, I saw and heard dozens of them during a trip to the South Carolina Low Country.

Gnatcatcher

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter • Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are tiny, energetic bundles of feathers.

 

Birds are as dependable as clocks and calendars when it comes to noting the passage of time. I can keep track of the changing seasons based on the composition of the birds in my yard. The gnatcatcher has long been my signal to the start of the frenzied pace of spring migration for many of the birds returning to the region after sojourns much farther south. For example, the first gnatcatcher arrived in my yard in 2014 on April 4. Two days earlier, I had observed my first blue-grey gnatcatcher of the spring while visiting Winged Deer Park in Johnson City, Tennessee. It doesn’t hurt that the arrival of gnatcatchers coincides with the annual blooming of bluebells, a wildflower for which this local park is famous.

Once again, Winged Deer Park provided me with my first spring sighting of this bird when I finally saw one this year on April 6. Over the years I’ve kept track of such matters, blue-gray gnatcatchers reliably return every year in the final days of March and first days of April. A blue-gray gnatcatcher put in its first appearance at my home on April 2 in 2011. In 2009, I also saw my first gnatcatcher on April 2, although in 2008 I had to wait until April 5 for my first spring sighting of a gnatcatcher. In 2007, the blue-gray gnatcatcher was an “April Fool’s” bird, arriving on the first day of April. Arrival dates in March are a little less frequent. For instance, in 2003, a blue-gray gnatcatcher arrived on March 28. I saw my first spring gnatcatcher on March 30 in 1998. In 2006, the arrival date was March 31.

Gnatcatcher 2

The blue-gray gnatcatcher is a tiny, active bird with noisy habits that make it fairly easy to detect in early spring before foliage has grown dense in the branches of trees. This gnatcatcher ranks with the kinglets and hummingbirds as one of the smallest birds to range within the United States. This tiny bird tips the scales at only a fourth of an ounce. A gnatcatcher is an incredible bundle of feathered energy, seemingly always on the move as it snatches small winged insects out of the air or plucks other prey items from leaves or branches. Gnatcatchers are also quite curious birds that, more than once, have given me the distinct impression that I am the one being observed while watching their antics.

So, as the name suggests, do gnatcatchers truly eat gnats? The website All About Birds contends that, despite its name, the gnatcatcher does not concentrate its feeding efforts on gnats. This tiny bird does, however, prey on a variety of small insects and spiders. Winged insects, such as small flies and gnats, are part of the menu for a gnatcatcher, but this bird is also capable of plucking spiders from their webs or snatching tiny caterpillars from the underside of leaves.1-blue-grey-flycatcher-john-james-audubon

Like the hummingbirds, the gnatcatchers are an exclusively New World family of birds. They lack the diversity of the hummingbirds. Instead of several hundred species, there are only about a dozen species of gnatcatchers worldwide. Of that number, four — blue-gray gnatcatcher, California gnatcatcher, black-tailed gnatcatcher and black-capped gnatcatcher — range within the United States. The blue-gray gnatcatcher is the only member of this family to reside in the eastern United States. Other representatives of this family of small songbirds include the Cuban gnatcatcher, white-lored gnatcatcher, creamy-bellied gnatcatcher, tropical gnatcatcher and masked gnatcatcher.

The blue-gray gnatcatcher builds an exquisite and compact nest using such materials as spider silk and lichens. I have found many nests over the years by listening for the scolding notes of the parents which, even near their nest, have not learned the virtue of silence. The blue-gray gnatcatcher is one of the birds that, in my mind, truly kicks off the arrival season of many of my favorite neotropical migrants. With the arrival of gnatcatchers, I can now expect to enjoy the arrival of birds like hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers, vireos, thrushes, and grosbeaks.

BGGnatcatcher

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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.

Tufted titmouse small songbird with big personality

In last week’s post I wrote about chickadees. These friendly little birds have an impish cousin that is also a frequent visitor to feeders in the region. If chickadees are active woodland sprites, their relative, the titmouse, is a curious imp with mischievous tendencies.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tufted titmouse puffs up its feathers on a cold day.

The tufted titmouse’s song — a persistent repetition of “Peter! Peter! Peter!” — is ringing through the woodlands around my home along with the urgent “fee-be fee-bo” of the Carolina chickadee. These birds form mixed flocks with each other and other species to explore their surroundings and search for food. They know that spring, despite the usual false starts, is drawing nearer with each passing day.

In addition to singing, titmice are enthusiastic scolders. They will scold over any transgression, real or imagined, focusing their ire on their fellow titmice or other birds, potential predators and even human observers. They’re quite persistent at their raucous scolding, which is just another reason I label them as imps of the woods.

Titmouse-Suet

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young titmouse visits a suet feeder.

The tufted titmouse is a mostly gray bird with a distinctive crest and a pinkish-rusty coloration along the flanks. Titmouse eyes are black as coal and look large in proportion to their heads, which lends them an expressive appearance as they explore in yards and gardens. The term “titmouse” refers to the old English word “tit” meaning “small,” as well as the old English “mase,” also a reference to small size. Eventually, probably because of the bird’s small size and gray coloration, “mase” evolved into “mouse” and combined to form the word “titmouse.”

The titmice living in my yard visit my house windows at times, which drives my cats to distraction. I’ve wondered if the titmice are curious and trying to peek inside the house, but I believe I have a more down-to-earth explanation. These little birds are very thorough when foraging for food, and I’ve watched them pluck spiders and other insects from the window frames.

Titmouse-Creek

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tufted titmouse approaches a stream for a quick drink.

Like chickadees, titmice are fond of sunflower seeds. No other offering will so readily lure them to feeders, although they do develop a fondness for suet cakes. I’ve also had great success attracting titmice to my feeders by offering unsalted, shelled peanuts. I sometimes break up the peanuts into smaller, more manageable pieces for the benefit of the titmice. These foods and a few trees or saplings around your home is all you really need to welcome titmice.

In the early 1900s, the tufted titmouse would have been considered a southern bird with its stronghold in states like Tennessee, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Perhaps it is the titmouse’s innate curiosity that has pushed the species to expand successfully beyond the southern United States. The titmouse has steadily expanded its range northward, thriving in new locations. Experts credit this expansion to more readily available access to supplemental food at feeders.

Titmouse-Eye

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tufted titmouse turns an eye on the camera.

During the nesting season, titmice forage for a variety of insects. Many spiders, beetles, caterpillars and other small bugs will be fed to hungry young titmice in a tree cavity or a nesting box. Like chickadees, titmice build exquisite nests, often using mostly moss with other materials, such as bark, cloth scraps, dry leaves and shed snakeskins. These small birds line their nests with hair or fur of other animals.

Over the years, many readers have shared observations documenting the fur-collecting skills of tufted titmice. The birds are not content to simply collect shed fur. They seem to prefer collecting the fur fresh from a living animal. Many dogs fall victim to impish titmice that boldly pluck strands of fur from the canine’s coat.

In another funny story, a woman once told me about a titmouse that flew onto her head every time she stepped outside her home. Perhaps the bird sensed her affection for birds since it never failed to pluck strands of hair from her head to carry back to its nest. For any would-be skeptics, the woman provided photographic documentation of the incidents. In addition to dogs and humans, animals ranging from squirrels and opossums to mice and woodchucks have also been observed “sacrificing” fur for the nesting success of tufted titmice.

Titmouse-PHOTO

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The tufted titmouse is a backyard bird with an impish personality.

The female tufted titmouse incubates the eggs. She lays between three and nine eggs, although a usual clutch size is five to six eggs. The female titmouse is protective of her nest and is known for a behavior known as a “snake display.” I’ve observed titmice perform this display when I’ve peeked into nesting boxes. She remains tightly seated on her eggs, or young, while she hisses loudly and strikes in a manner very much like a striking serpent. Not all titmice engage in this display. Some remain still and try to “blend” with the nest, while others will fly away if a nest box is opened. Regardless, it’s a convincing display of bravado on the part of such a small bird. If it looks scary to people, I am sure it could succeed at repelling a squirrel or mouse. I’m uncertain if the behavior would deter an actual snake.

Other titmice in North America include bridled titmouse in Arizona and New Mexico; oak titmouse of the Pacific Coast region; juniper titmouse from the Great Basin, which consists of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California; and the black-crested titmouse, which ranges from Missouri into east-central Mexico.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tufted titmouse pounds at a peanut held in its feet.

Titmice occur exclusively in North America and belong to the genus Baeolophus. Europe, Asia and Africa are home to some other crested birds in the family of chickadees and titmice. For instance, the European crested tit and the grey crested tit are species that sport a crest of feathers like titmice but are more closely related to chickadees.

Yes, the tufted titmouse is one of nature’s imps, but it’s also one of our more entertaining birds. Get to know these visitors by offering sunflower seeds or other fare and, if you want to go the extra step, place some bird boxes around your yard as potential nesting sites. By next winter, you may have an entire flock of these feathered imps as your guests.

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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. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Titmouse-OnSuet

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tufted titmouse makes a quick visit to a suet feeder.

North America’s bluebirds never fail to impress with their winning ways

A famous song declares that “somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly,” so you’ll have to excuse me if I have been looking for those elusive rainbows during the unseasonably warm weather the region’s enjoyed in recent weeks.

Also, like the song promises, “dreams really do come true,” which was fulfilled by the arrival of this year’s first pair of Eastern bluebirds at my home on Friday, Feb. 23. The presence of a pair of these beautiful and trusting birds is always sure to put people in a good mood. People have known for generations that bluebirds make good neighbors. A pair of bluebirds in your yard or garden provides hour upon hour of free entertainment as one watches these birds go about their daily routine. At this time of the year, much of that routine is focused on finding and claiming the best possible nesting location for the upcoming spring season.

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The Eastern bluebird is one of the most beloved American songbirds.

The Eastern bluebird is one of North America’s best-known cavity-nesting birds. About 85 species of North American birds use cavities in trees for nesting purposes. Cavity-nesters include ducks, such as buffleheads and wood ducks, as well as birds of prey such as Eastern screech-owls and American kestrels.

Woodpeckers and nuthatches can excavate their own cavity in a dead or decaying tree. Others, such as the bluebirds, must find a cavity already in existence. Such cavities are scarce real estate and can be subject to some intense competition. The Eastern bluebird is at a disadvantage when forced to compete with non-native introduced birds such as aggressive European starlings and house sparrows. Even native competitors such as house wrens and tree swallows are serious rivals when it comes down to staking a claim to prime nesting real estate.

Over the years, I have found bluebirds nesting in cavities inside wooden fence posts, but there are fewer wooden fence posts every year. This reinforces the idea of how changing landscapes have affected these birds. Instead of wooden fence posts, many farmers now use metal ones, and dead or dying trees — a much sought-after resource for cavity-nesting birds — are often removed from woodlands.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern Bluebird gathers pine needles to use as nesting material.

Fortunately for bluebirds, this species will also accept lodging in a nest box, or birdhouse, provided for them by human landlords. One of the simplest ways to bring bluebirds close is to offer wooden boxes, constructed to their specific requirements, for their use as nesting locations. Because of their trusting nature when it comes to their human neighbors, the Eastern bluebird is one of our most beloved birds. In fact, bluebirds are such popular birds that interest in them and their well-being has inspired the foundation of organizations such as the North American Bluebird Society. The Eastern bluebird has also been designated the official state bird for New York and Missouri, which provides more testimony to the immense popularity of this bird.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A flock of Eastern bluebirds perches on fenceposts.

There are two other species of bluebirds found in North America. The Western bluebird is found throughout the year in California, the southern Rocky Mountains, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as in part of Mexico. The species ranges in the summer as far north as the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Montana. The Mountain bluebird nests in open country in the western United States as far north as Alaska. They are short-distance migrants, retreating as far south as Mexico during the winter season.

Other than these three species, North America offers few others birds with mostly “blue” plumages. Some examples include indigo bunting, blue grosbeak, and blue jay, as well as birds like great blue heron and belted kingfisher.

In addition to housing, food and water can be used to lure Eastern bluebirds closer. This bird doesn’t eat seeds, but it can be attracted with an offering of mealworms — live or freeze-dried – or commercially prepared peanut butter nuggets. A water feature in a yard is also a magnet for bluebirds and a host of other bird species.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A handsome male Eastern bluebird perches on a chain-link fence.

If your home doesn’t provide suitable open, spacious bluebird habitat, it’s still easy to enjoy these beautiful birds. An afternoon or evening drive into open country, such as agricultural farmland, is likely to yield sightings of this bird on fences and utility lines. Golf courses, some of which go the extra mile to accommodate bluebirds, also provide habitat for these lovely birds.

The Eastern bluebird is present in the region in all seasons and is one of our more common birds. If you’re already an experienced landlord and host for these birds, you probably already know they joys they can bring. If not, why not try to attract them closer to you? Most bluebirds in the region have already started looking for a nesting site. Many of these birds may nest two or even three times in a single season. March has only just arrived, so there’s still time to place a nest box or two on your property to get their attention.

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If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens A male Eastern Bluebird perched on playground equipment at Winged Deer Park in Johnson City.

American robins become more prominent with shifting of seasons

 

 

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Returning American robins, prominent in lawns and gardens during their annual spring migration, will soon turn their attention to nesting duties.

I don’t think I’m alone in doing what I can to speed along the process of spring’s arrival. I’ve heard from different people, all eager to share their observations of one of the sure signals — the arrival of flocks of American robins — of the shifting of the winter season to spring.

Bobby Howser phoned me to let me know of a large flock of American Robins he encountered at the Sullins College building in Bristol, Virginia.

He said the flock “swarmed like bees” into a tall holly tree. He was surprised to see so many robins in a single tree and asked if it was an unusual occurrence.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted this American robin with a couple of the bird’s eggs.

Ernie Marburg in Abingdon, Virginia, emailed me about the same time.

“I just wanted to report that we have been inundated with a huge flock of mostly robins,” he wrote. He estimated that the flock contained 300 to 500 individuals.

“They ate all the red berries from my neighbor’s large holly tree yet appear to avoid other holly trees with many red berries just a short distance away,” Ernie wrote. The flock remained active in the tree from morning into early afternoon.

Not long after he first emailed me, Ernie contacted me again. “I wanted to give you an update on the robin invasion,” he wrote. “They have been here two additional mornings since I first reported to you. Their pattern is different now though. They are spaced apart and appear to be ground feeding individually.”

Robin-OnNest

Photo by Bryan Stevens • American robin sitting on its nest in the shelter of a side of a bridge spanning the Doe River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

Ernie proposed a theory about the behavior of the robins.

“I think they followed the south to north weather pattern we had recently that provided significant rainfall,” he explained. “The rainfall, in turn, caused the ground to thaw and the earth worms to come to the surface thus providing a food source for the robins. In summary, the robins are following their food source.”

I responded to Ernie and congratulated him on what I thought was an excellent theory.

Ernie also wrote me that he had read an article some time ago that said robins would eat cooked elbow macaroni if put out for them.

“We did that, but not one robin ate the macaroni,” he said. “Moral of the story is, as you would expect, don’t believe everything you read.”

I’ve read similar suggestions of unusual items to try to tempt birds not prone to visit feeders. I told Ernie that I wasn’t too surprised that the robins ignored the macaroni. The observations of robin feeding habits made by Bobby and Ernie also correspond to the changing seasons. Holly trees retain their berries into late winter, which provide an abundant food source for robins, as well as other birds. As the temperatures begin to rise in early spring, the birds switch their diet in favor of earthworms. This protein-rich food source fuels the impressive migration made by robins each year.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • An American robin scans for prey in the grass and clover of a lawn.

I posted on my Facebook page about the flocks of robins I’d observed, which resulted in several comments on my original post.

Johnny Mann, who lives in Bristol, Tennessee, shared on my Facebook page after I posted about seeing flocks of robins almost everywhere I have gone recently. He noted that he has been seeing Eastern bluebirds, which are a smaller relative of robins. He noted in his comment that the bluebirds are feeding on suet.

Jackie Lynn, who lives in Wytheville, Virginia, also posted a comment on my Facebook page. Jackie saw a large flock of robins feeding in a field, enjoying the worms brought to the surface by recent rains. “Dinner was served,” Jackie reported.

Several other people responded optimistically on my Facebook page, sharing the hope that the influx of robins does indeed signal the approach of spring.

The American robin is known by the scientific name Turdus migratorius, which can be translated as “migratory thrush.” Indeed, this well-known American bird is related to other thrushes, including the Eastern bluebird, wood thrush and veery. The relationship to other thrushes is quite visible in young birds, which display a spotted breast until they mature and acquire the familiar red breast associated with robins.

There are 82 other species in the genus, which ranges not only in the Americas, but Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, as well. Some of the American robin’s fellow genus members include the olive thrush, the bare-eyed thrush, pale thrush, great thrush, black-billed thrush and cocoa thrush.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • While American robins like fruit when its available, they also spend a lot of time feeding on earthworms and insects.

When the first European settlers arrived in North America, the robin was still a bird living in the forests. Robins proved incredibly capable of adapting to the presence of humans. Soon enough, these once shy forest birds began to frequent lawns and city parks. The robin soon became one of America’s most popular songbirds. Three states — Connecticut, Michigan and Wisconsin — have conferred official state bird status on the American robin.

Robins begin nesting almost as soon as they return each spring. Nesting success in a previous season instills fidelity to the location where the birds nested, resulting in many robins returning to the same nesting area year after year. Although some robins invariably spent the entire winter season in the region, it is still a welcome sight to see migrating flocks of these birds in February and early March. The sudden resurgence of the American robin each spring is a reminder that another winter will soon be history. I know I’m always pleased to welcome them back.

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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. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon captured this family of American robins in one of his masterful paintings.