Category Archives: Elizabethton Star

Native wrens offset lack of size with fiercely competitive spirit

 

Nature’s not always neat and tidy. In fact, nature operates with rough-and-tumble mechanisms that, all too often, put some of our favorite birds at odds with each other. Like any other living creature, birds compete for resources — food, water, prime nesting real estate and even mates. Some of those pretty and entertaining birds at your feeder or bird baths have a dark side that isn’t often glimpsed.

When some insight is gained into these behaviors, it’s only human to feel discouraged, disenchanted or dismayed. Nonetheless, some recent emails have reminded me to look at some of these more distressing incidents as teaching moments.

Joy Stewart emailed me asking for advice on a problem with rival nesting birds in her yard.

HouseWren-JEAN

Photo by Jean Potter • A house wren brings a delivery of food to waiting young.

“I have a total of 10 bird houses in my yard,” she wrote. “They are sized for a variety of bird species, and most years nearly all are filled—usually wrens, bluebirds, tree swallows, nuthatches or finches.”

At a recent get-together, she talked with a woman who also puts out bird houses and works hard to attract birds. “She talked at length about how bad house wrens are and how they destroy or kill bluebird eggs and babies,” Joy wrote. “She described how these wrens had just killed a house full of baby bluebirds. The woman also said house wrens are not native to this country.”

Joy noted that she usually tries to keep track of these types of issues, but the woman’s claims were all shocking news to her and made her wonder if such cutthroat competition might explain why her bluebirds seem to have absented themselves from her yard.

She ended her email by asking two questions. “Is the problem as bad as it sounds?” Joy inquired. “Also, how do I now work to get rid of the house wrens that have been coming to my two wren houses for over 10 years?”

She noted that just permanently taking down the houses would likely not work. “If nothing else, they will just move into the slightly larger houses,” she noted.

I replied to Joy’s email, noting that her friend is partly correct, but has confused house wren and house sparrow. From her description, I also noted that it appears she has house wrens in her yard.

The house wren is a native bird; the house sparrow is not a native bird, but was introduced into the country. Its true origins are Africa/Europe.

However, as cavity-nesting birds, both the sparrow and the wren compete with bluebirds. Legally, Joy can take steps to “control” house sparrows. As non-native birds, they are not protected.

House_sparrow (1)

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • House sparrows, such as this female, are non-native birds that pose a serious threat to native cavity-nesting birds such as Eastern bluebirds.

However, the house wren is a native bird. I also happen to like house wrens. They have such bubbly, happy songs, and they’re good parents. They can raise as many as 10 young in one nest box.

Unfortunately, both the wren and the sparrow engage in ruthless behavior when it comes to nesting. Both species will evict bluebirds and other birds from boxes. They will even destroy eggs and young. Bluebirds can and do fight back, but despite their small size, house wrens are very feisty.

House wrens like brushy habitat that offers a lot of cover. I suggested Joy might consider trimming back or eliminating brush and hedges. Open space is also more attractive to bluebirds. Of course, chickadees and nuthatches also like brushy habitat and woodland edges, just like the house wrens.

It’s complicated, but I come down on the side of our native birds. House wrens have their place, but house sparrows should never have been in this country in the first place. I advised that Joy leave the wren boxes available to forestall the wrens deciding they have to fight other birds for a box. At the same time, I would not place any other boxes close (at least not within easy view) of the wren boxes, as wrens are very territorial.

Bluebird-2

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Eastern bluebirds compete with native cavity-nesting birds such as house wrens and tree swallows for prime nest locations. Non-native birds, such as European starlings and house sparrows, can out-compete native birds for limited resources.

In response to a follow-up query, I suggested that placing the boxes completely out of sight would be the best rule of thumb. Try to have a building, a wall, or perhaps a large tree blocking the wren boxes from other boxes. At least this way, perhaps the adult wrens won’t be viewing the competition. It would be advisable to keep as much space between the wren boxes and the boxes meant for other birds as is practical and possible.

•••••

An email from another reader likely involved a nesting wren. These small birds are rather notorious for choosing odd nesting sites. I’m thinking it is that tendency that explains Vivian Tester’s recent email asking for some suggestions for a somewhat unique problem.

“I’m looking for advice,” Vivian wrote. “I have a bird that has made a nest on my car windshield. I have driven the car a few times and she will fly away when I start the car, but I don’t want to do anything to harm her or the eggs.”

The situation had her baffled. “How long should it take for the process of laying eggs and them hatching and leaving the nest?” Vivian asked.

She noted that she had not been able to see any eggs. She added that the nest’s construction starts at the windshield and goes into the area under the hood. “I haven’t tried to open the hood in case it would destroy the nest,” she wrote.

Surprisingly, Vivian said the same thing happened last year but she just kept removing the nest. “I’m just not sure what I should do,” she wrote.

In my reply, I told Vivian that it sounds like she has a wren or perhaps a sparrow, and it can take 12-16 days for the eggs to hatch. The young must then spend another 10-12 days in the nest, so it could be at least four weeks for the entire process.

I suggested that, unless she could go without her car for a month, she should open the hood and gently remove the nest somewhere close by. A box or crate could hold the nest and the parent birds are likely to simply move from the car over to the new location for the nest. The parents are more attached to the nest itself than they are your car.

I admitted that I was sort of “winging” it on this problem. While a car is an odd choice for nesting, I’ve heard of birds such as swallows that nest on boats and then follow the boats along their river routes.audubon-ix-songsters-and-mimics-house-wren

After I responded, Vivian emailed me back. “I wanted to update you on the bird nest,” she wrote. “I did move it today into a hanging basket just above my car.”

The nesting bird flew away when Vivian opened the hood. “I am hoping she will return since I did see four little eggs in it,” she wrote.

I believe Vivian’s bird is probably a Carolina wren. I’ve observed these wrens, a slightly larger relative of the house wren, nesting in an old apron my grandmother used as a bag for her clothespins, as well as a plastic shopping bag hanging from a nail in my garage. A pair also once tried to nest in the exhaust vent for my clothes dryer.

Worldwide, there are about 80 species of wrens. All but one of the world’s wrens are confined to the New World. A variety of common names describe the various species with some creativity, including such monikers as tooth-billed wren, flutist wren, white-headed wren, sepia-brown wren, fawn-breasted wren and moustached wren.

•••••

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To share a sighting, make a comment, or ask a question, send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Keep a look out for wandering waders during late summer season

Summer heat and humidity make the summer season my least favorite one for birding, but every season brings birding surprises. I was reminded of this fact when Larry and Amelia Tipton sent me a recent email asking for help with the identification of some birds near their home.

Attaching a photo with their email, the Tiptons wrote, “These birds showed up a few days ago and we cannot identify them. We would like to know what they are.”

When I opened the photo, I realized that the birds captured in the image would not be considered out of place if the Tiptons lived near the coast of the Carolinas, Georgia or Florida. The birds in the photo, however, were somewhat unexpected in the foothills of western North Carolina near their home in the town of Old Fort.

WhiteIbises

Photo Courtesy of  Larry and Amelia Tipton • Immature white ibises in a field near the Catawba River in North Carolina.

“We live on a farm near the Catawba River but have mostly woodland and fields,” the couple added. “We do not have a pond on our property but have a branch and a larger creek nearby.”

I wrote back and told the Tiptons that the birds they photographed were young white ibises. I informed the Tiptons that the two young ibises are likely testing their wings, so to speak, after leaving the care of their parents. If they like the area, and it sounds like they do, they may decide that the branch and creek are just what they need.

I received a followup email. “We sort of knew these were water birds but were surprised to find them so far away from marsh or wetlands or the ocean,” the Tiptons wrote. “We thought maybe a storm blew them off course during flight.”

While a diverting storm can’t be ruled out, it’s normal behavior for young wading birds to disperse far and wide after leaving the nest. North American waders, or wading birds, include such long-legged species as herons, egrets, bitterns, ibises, storks and spoonbills. Most species are associated with wetlands or coastal areas.

Late summer birding is usually a period of doldrums as heat and humidity can discourage birders as well as diminish bird activity. However, it’s also the time of year when birders can make some unexpected surprises as wandering waders, such as the ibises discovered by the Tiptons, explore uncharted territory.

Other waders this season showing up in unexpected location have included a wood stork found by Linda Walker in Polk County, Tennessee. Likes the ibises in North Carolina, the stork was confining its activities to a small branch bordered by heavy vegetation. These branches are a far cry from the usual wetland haunts of these two species.

Overall, the white ibis and wood stork have some superficial similarities. They are both long-legged white birds with black wing tips and unusual down-turned bills that they use to probe for food, which largely consists of fish and other aquatic prey.

The latter is North America’s only native stork. According to the National Audubon Society, Florida once provided a stronghold for the wood stork in the United States. Unfortunately, the population crashed in the 1990s, decreasing from around 150,000 birds to fewer than 10,000. In recent years, numbers have increased and wood storks have expanded their breeding range into South Carolina. Wood storks are nearly four feet tall, making them one of the tallest of the waders. Wood storks have a dark, featherless heads, giving them a resemblance to vultures. For the most part, they’re rather grotesque birds when observed at close quarters. Soaring overhead on thermal updrafts, wood storks look quite graceful and even majestic thanks to their white plumage and black accents. A wingspan of 65 inches gives them the means to soar easily.

Storks-Two


Photo by Bryan Stevens 
Worldwide there are 19 species of storks, but the wood stork (pictured) is the only native stork   found in the United States.

The Audubon Society identifies the white ibis as one of the most numerous wading birds in Florida, but the bird is common also in other parts of the southeast with appropriate wetland habitat. Like the wood stork, the ibis has declined in Florida in recent decades largely as a result of human encroachment. The white ibis looks like a bird that could have been invented by Dr. Seuss. The all-white plumage is contrasted by pinkish-orange legs, a reddish-pink bill and bright blue eyes. In flight, the white ibis shows black feathers on the edges of its wings.

The affinity for water and wetlands relates to the diet of most waders, which consists of fish and other aquatic prey such as amphibians, crustaceans and even insects. For the remainder of July and into August and September, birders should monitor ponds, small lakes, rivers and even branches and creeks for any wandering waders. For instance, I once made a trip to a park in Greeneville, Tennessee, to observe a pink-hued roseate spoonbill that had made a rare stopover in the region. While that observation took place nearly 20 years ago, I remember vividly finding the pale pink bird playing odd man out among a flock of several dozen Canada geese as a soft rain drizzled from an overcast sky. Although many of the waders cling to coastal habitats, they have wings like other birds and know how to use them. Other waders have been known to show up in unlikely locations, including birds such as tri-colored heron, limpkin and snowy egret.

Of course, I hope to hear from any readers lucky enough to glimpse one of these unanticipated finds. Enjoy your birding.

•••••

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.

Skittish nature means getting to know towhees takes some effort

Mary Beierle, who lives in Elizabethton, Tennessee, sent me an email to share information about recent nesting activity by a pair of Eastern towhees at her home in the Stoney Creek community.

“Just wanted to tell you that we have a nesting pair of Eastern towhees here in Stoney Creek,” Mary wrote in her email. “This is the first year they have stayed after a brief visit in early spring.”

While not as many people may be familiar with Eastern towhees as, say, northern cardinals or ruby-throated hummingbirds, those who have made an acquaintance with these unusual songbirds are, like Mary, captivated instantly.

“I am very fond of these birds,” she noted in her email. “The male is really beautiful and the female is also lovely, although not as colorful as the male.”9780307370020-us 2

Eastern towhees spend much of their time on the ground and hidden in thickets and hedges. As a result, other common names for this bird includes “ground robin” and “swamp robin,” which refer to some of this bird’s habitat preferences. They’re not thrushes, however, and are unrelated to thrush family members such as American robin, Eastern bluebird and wood thrush. Instead, towhees are one of the larger members of the sparrow family.

Mary noted some of this bird’s typical behavior from her observations. “I love the way they hop around,” she wrote. “They are very skittish, and I can’t get them to stand still for a photo.”

At my own home, I have a pair of Eastern towhees currently occupied with nesting. When I get too close, both parents claim an elevated perch and call in agitation as long as I am in the vicinity. The towhees are just one of many nesting birds so far this spring. Other nesting birds in my yard or the surrounding woodlands this spring have included tree swallow, Eastern bluebird, brown thrasher, song sparrow, American robin and Eastern phoebe.

The Eastern towhee represents a bit of a milestone in my personal birding history. I saw and identified my first Eastern towhee in early spring in 1993. At that time, I was struggling to identify some of the common visitors at my feeders. I was acquainted with white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, downy woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, dark-eyed juncos and a handful of other birds. When I looked out a window and saw this bird feeding on the ground, the morning sun illuminating his dramatic plumage of black, white and rufous red, I was immediately aware this visitor represented something new and unexpected.

Consulting a field guide — I was using the Golden Nature Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds at the time — I soon found a painted illustration of a rufous-sided towhee that matched in every detail the bird I had just observed on the ground beneath a blue spruce in my yard.

Many of the older field guides still list the Eastern towhee as “rufous-sided towhee” which is actually more descriptive of the bird’s appearance than the word “eastern.” In 1995, ornithologists renamed the rufous-sided towhee to Eastern towhee and also separated the Eastern species from its western counterpart, the spotted towhee. Until that point, these two towhees had been considered different races of the same species. In 2003, I saw a spotted towhee during a visit to Salt Lake City, Utah. The bird looks almost identical to an Eastern towhee except for considerable white spotting — hence its common name — on the bird’s back.

3544493082_02f675508f_o

Male Eastern Towhee sings from a perch.

Male and female Eastern towhees each possess a stately if subtle beauty. Males have a black hood. The black coloration extends into the back and tail. The belly is white and the sides are flanked with a rusty-red color. In flight, their black tails are bordered with white feathers, which produces a dramatic flash of contrasting colors. The female Eastern towhee is an attractive bird in her own right. She shares the rufous sides and white coloration that are present in the male’s plumage. However, the male’s black feathers are replaced by a warm, chocolate brown plumage in the female. In addition, their bright red eyes help set these birds apart from other songbirds.

The Eastern towhee is one of my favorite yard birds, but not just because of its dramatic appearance. These birds also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males will seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite accurately, as an emphatically delivered “Drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “Chew-ink” and “Toe-Hee,” which provides the basis for this bird’s common name.

Eastern_Towhee

Female Eastern Towhees are usually more retiring than males.

They are often found in the same sort of tangled habitat favored by Northern cardinals, gray catbirds and brown thrashers. To attract these birds, simply refrain from doing too much to alter your landscape. For instance, don’t manicure every square inch of your yard. Leave some wild corners that will run rampant and provide a luxurious tangle for birds that thrive under cover. In the southern United States, towhees prosper in scrub palmetto habitats. In our region, any hedge or bramble thicket will provide adequate cover to make these birds feel welcome.

While they may never completely lose their wariness, towhees will become gradually more accepting of sharing a yard with people. It helps that they will readily visit feeders for sunflower seeds. If you succeed in attracting a family of Eastern towhees to your yard and garden, I am confident you’ll not be disappointed.

County’s Summer Bird Count finds 104 species

Members and friends of the Lee & Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society enjoyed a busy June, conducting its two annual summer bird counts last month. To the satisfaction of everyone involved, these counts encountered normal temperature after a spring count this past May that actually saw some snowfall when it was held on May 6.

IMG_4140

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Nesting Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers can be found at higher elevations in Unicoi County. This woodpecker is usually considered a winter bird in the region, but a few nest in the mountains.

According to long-time compiler Rick Knight, the chapter holds these summer counts in the counties of Carter and Unicoi to provide a set of baseline data on the diversity and numbers of breeding birds in these two local counties. This supplements other summertime data collection projects, such as the long-running Breeding Bird Survey (one route in Carter County) and the Nightjar Survey (three local routes).

The Carter County Summer Bird Count was initiated shortly after the conclusion of the Tennessee Breeding Bird Atlas project. The Unicoi County Summer Bird Count’s origins are more recent, with this survey making its debut in June of 2014. The fourth consecutive Unicoi County Summer Count was held June 17 with 21 observers in five parties looking for birds on Unaka Mountain, as well as such locations as Erwin, Limestone Cove and Flag Pond. Morning weather was favorable, but scattered rain in the afternoon hindered some efforts. A total of 104 species were tallied, down slightly from the three-year average of 111 species. Highlights included a Bald Eagle, Merlin and six Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, including a nest with young. A total of 20 species of warblers were tallied, including Swainson’s Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler and Prairie Warbler. Other notable birds include Hermit Thrush and Blue Grosbeak.

I took part on the count, looking for birds in the Limestone Cove area of the county with Brookie and Jean Potter, Charles Moore, and David and Connie Irick. Beyond bird, we saw other wildlife, including skunks, white-tailed deer, rabbits, groundhogs and various butterflies.

IMG_4146

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young Red-winged Blackbird begs food from its attentive mother.

A highlight of our count took place near the Appalachian Trail along Highway 107 at Iron Mountain Gap where we found a pair of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers delivering food to young inside a nesting cavity in a tree easily viewed from the roadside. In addition, a singing Chestnut-sided Warbler put on quite a show for a group of admiring birders enchanted with this bird’s dazzling plumage and energetic antics.

The total for the count follows:

Canada Goose, 73; Wood Duck, 22; Mallard; Wild Turkey, 19; Great Blue Heron, 13; and Green Heron, 3.
Black Vulture, 300; Turkey Vulture, 28; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 1; Bald Eagle, 1; Broad-winged Hawk, 7; Red-tailed Hawk, 4; American Kestrel, 2; and Merlin, 1.
Rock Pigeon, 67; Mourning Dove, 87; Great Horned Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 2; Chuck-will’s-Widow, 4; Whip-poor-will, 9; and Chimney Swift, 61.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 15; Belted Kingfisher, 4; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 13; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 6; Downy Woodpecker, 10; Hairy Woodpecker, 3; Northern Flicker, 7; and Pileated Woodpecker, 8.
Eastern Wood-Pewee, 7; Acadian Flycatcher, 24; Eastern Phoebe, 30; Great Crested Flycatcher, 3; and Eastern Kingbird, 14.
White-eyed Vireo, 4; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 26; Red-eyed Vireo, 95; Blue Jay, 53; American Crow, 88; Fish Crow, 7; and Common Raven, 7.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 36; Purple Martin, 14; Tree Swallow, 70; Barn Swallow, 77; and Cliff Swallow, 149.
Carolina Chickadee, 51; Tufted Titmouse, 43; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 18; Brown Creeper, 3; House Wren, 14; Carolina Wren, 42.

IMG_4172

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Most swallows, like this Barn Swallow, have fledged and will join their parents in migrating south in the coming weeks of late summer.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 5; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 7; Eastern Bluebird, 33; Veery, 25; Hermit Thrush, 4; Wood Thrush, 37; American Robin, 281; Gray Catbird, 31; Brown Thrasher, 12; Northern Mockingbird, 24; European Starling, 534; and Cedar Waxwing, 49.
Ovenbird, 29; Worm-eating Warbler, 2; Louisiana Waterthrush, 4; Black-and-white Warbler, 12; Swainson’s Warbler, 6; Common Yellowthroat, 2; Hooded Warbler, 37; American Redstart, 4; Northern Parula, 19; Magnolia Warbler, 3; Blackburnian Warbler, 2; Yellow Warbler, 1; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 15; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 29; Pine Warbler, 1; Yellow-throated Warbler, 3; Prairie Warbler, 3; Black-throated Green Warbler, 16; Canada Warbler, 9; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 2.
Eastern Towhee, 55; Chipping Sparrow, 49; Field Sparrow, 8; Song Sparrow, 120; Dark-eyed Junco, 37; Scarlet Tanager, 27; Northern Cardinal, 83; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 4; Blue Grosbeak, 2; and Indigo Bunting, 82.
Red-winged Blackbird, 84; Common Grackle, 58; Eastern Meadowlark, 9; Brown-headed Cowbird, 29; and Orchard Oriole, 1.
House Finch, 33; American Goldfinch, 96; and House Sparrow, 17.

YoungCardinal

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Young birds, like this Northern Cardinal, point to a successful nesting season for most of the region’s birds.

Next week, I’ll post results from the Elizabethton Summer Bird Count.

 

••••••

To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or friend Stevens on Facebook.

Fruit increases chances of visit from scarlet tanagers

 

Last summer, Annette Bryant emailed me some beautiful photos she had taken of birds at her home in Marion, North Carolina.

“Photographing birds has been a passion of mine for many years,” Annette wrote to me. “I look forward to our blueberries getting ripe because I see certain birds only at that time.”

ScarletTanager-Bryant

Photo Courtesy of Annette Bryant • This male Scarlet Tanager adds a splash of tropical color whenever he appears.

One of those birds, she noted, is the scarlet tanager. Anyone who has beheld a scarlet tanager is hardly likely to forget the observation. Thanks to a recent observation I made of one of these birds, I have been reminded of some of the breathtaking birds — including the scarlet tanager — that make the mountains of northeast Tennessee, western North Carolina and southwest Virginia their summer home. The extraordinary appearance of the male scarlet tanager is certainly one that sets it apart from most other songbirds.

This tanager is not typically a feeder visitor, but bird enthusiasts can lure these birds with fruit, such as orange slices placed in special feeders or simply spiked onto the branches of backyard trees. As an added bonus, orange slices can also attract birds such as brown thrashers, Baltimore orioles and gray catbirds. The scarlet tanager indulges its fondness for fruit by incorporating various berries into its diet. In addition to the blueberries mentioned by Annette, other fruit-bearing trees and shrubs — mulberry, elderberry, serviceberry and wild cherry — will make your yard or garden more inviting to this somewhat elusive bird.

I usually have a few scarlet tanagers in residence around my home during the summer months, but I haven’t seen one so far this spring. However, my luck changed while taking part in the Summer Bird Count for Carter County, Tennessee. The count, conducted by members and friends of the Elizabethton Bird Club, has been a long-running survey of summer birds in the region. Along with fellow birders Jean and Brookie Potter, Chris Soto and Mary-Anna Wheat, I got a timely reminder of the beauty of the scarlet tanager while we searched for birds on Holston Mountain near Elizabethton, Tennessee. A stunning male tanager showed up and entertained us with fantastic looks for several moments.

The male scarlet tanager boasts a brilliant plumage of crimson red paired with black wings and tail. Of course, like many other birds, the female scarlet tanager makes no real claim to the common name with her comparatively drab greenish plumage. However, the scientific name, Piranga olivacea, gives a nod to the olive-green plumage of females, young males and even adult males when they’re molting their feathers.

So, why is it so difficult to lay eyes on such a brightly colored bird? The answer rests with this bird’s daily routine, which is usually conducted among the upper woodland canopy in such tall trees as oaks and poplars.

Scarlet-Tanager

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter A male Scarlet Tanager brightens shadowy woodlands with a flash of tropical colors.

Fortunately, male tanagers produce a distinctive song. Upon first hearing it, listeners might mistake the hidden singer for an American robin. Listen a little closer, however, and the song sounds as if it is being delivered by a hoarse robin with a sore throat. The male tanager also makes a vocalization described as “chip-burr” that is easily heard.

If we were to see a scarlet tanager in a rain forest in South America, we might not be so surprised by its vibrant plumage, usually associated with many tropical birds. The scarlet tanager is certainly better attired than most birds to provide observers a glimpse of a creature that would indeed look more at home in the jungle.

Worldwide, there have traditionally been about 240 species of tanagers. Experts have changed some of the ways they classify tanagers, so that figure is no longer set in stone. Tanagers are a New World family of birds, concentrated mainly in the tropics of Central and South America. Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including yellow-backed tanager, blue-and-yellow tanager, seven-coloured tanager, gilt-edged tanager, green-capped tanager, beryl-spangled tanager, opal-rumped tanager and blue-gray tanager.

Scarlet

A print of Scarlet Tanagers by early North American naturalist and painter John James Audubon.

Warblers exert special pull for many birders

KirtlandsWarbler

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • The Kirtland’s Warbler, while endangered, is slowly building its numbers with intensive human assistance. Nearly 50 different warbler species nest in the eastern half of the continental United States. The rest of the world’s warblers reside mostly in Central and South America.

I’ve been fascinated with the group of small, energetic songbirds known as warblers almost from the start of my time as a birder. Many birds have inspired poetry, but to me, the warblers are poetry. I suppose another, more down-to-earth part of my fascination is that a little effort is usually required to see these birds. Although many species of warblers spend the summer months in the region, few of them would really be described as backyard birds. That being said, I am also fortunate to live in a location surrounded by woodlands that are inhabited by several species of warblers in the months spanning April to September on the calendar.

Of course, it’s always gratifying to hear from readers who have also caught the “warbler bug” and find these tiny, colorful songbirds as fascinating as I do. Graham Gardner of Abingdon, Virginia, sent me a recent email about the warblers, an extensive family of neotropical migrants that happen to be among my favorite birds.

CanadaWarbler

Photo by Graham Gardner • A Canada warbler wears a dark necklace of feathers across its yellow breast.

“I just wanted to share another great birding experience that I recently had with my father this past weekend,” Graham wrote in an email sent on May 1. “As you know, the spring migration of neotropical migrants is upon us. My father and I decided to take a trip to Peaks of Otter Lodge in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains to attempt to observe some of the more difficult-to-find warblers that I had not yet checked off my life list.”
He reported that the trip was wildly successful.

“We observed 10 warbler species in total in just under two days of birding.” Among them were three species that were new for him: cerulean warbler, Blackburnian warbler, and bay-breasted warbler.

He also shared some photos. “These guys are really quite difficult to photograph,” he wrote. “They are either constantly on the move, bouncing from branch to branch, or they are high in the canopy staying mostly out of sight.”

Graham wrote that he looks forward to searching for warblers in the coming weeks as they continue to pass through, and in some cases settle in, our Appalachian Mountains.
I congratulated Graham for his success with some of my favorite birds. I also let him know that he succeeded with a bird — the cerulean warbler — that has been elusive for me over the years. It’s one of the few warblers that spend time in the eastern United States that I haven’t managed to add to my life list. The other two warblers I need are the Connecticut warbler and Kirtland’s warbler.

Cerulean 2

Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of cerulean warblers, a bird that he knew as the “Azure Warbler.”

 

“The cerulean was definitely the highlight of the trip for me,” Graham noted in a second email to me.

The cerulean warbler makes infrequent appearances in the region, but it has been observed as recently as the spring of 2016 at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee. Some other locations — Frozen Head State Park, Edgar Evins State Park and Falls Creek Falls State Park — support breeding populations of this warbler within the Volunteer State.

Unfortunately, the cerulean warbler is one of the fastest declining songbirds in the United States. Habitat destruction in its breeding range in the Appalachian Mountains and its wintering range in South America is to blame for its plummeting numbers.

Among a family of several breathtakingly beautiful species, the cerulean warbler is one of the most exquisite of its kind in terms of appearance. Adult males have pale cerulean blue upperparts — hence the bird’s common name — and white underparts with a black necklace across the breast. They also show black streaking on the back and flanks.

Beyond its uncommon status, there are other reasons why it’s difficult to lay eyes on a cerulean warbler. First and foremost, cerulean warblers prefer to forage in the treetops. In that leafy, lofty habitat, observing these warblers can be difficult for ground-bound humans.

NoWaterthrush

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The Northern waterthrush is a warbler fond of foraging near slow, flowing water.

I’ve been very close to seeing a cerulean warbler twice. During a past Spring Naturalists Rally at Roan Mountain, Tennessee, several people watched a cerulean warbler flitting in some tall trees while I struggled unsuccessfully to get my binoculars on the rapidly moving bird. More recently, I was looking for birds with fellow birder Jean Potter along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee, for a Fall Bird Count. She found a female cerulean warbler in a tree overhanging the river, but I failed to get my binoculars on the bird in time.

So, while my luck with cerulean warblers hasn’t changed (yet), I have seen several warblers at my home this spring, including hooded warbler, ovenbird, black-throated green warbler, black-and-white warbler and Northern parula. In addition, I’ve seen other warblers — yellow-breasted chat, Cape May warbler, yellow warbler and chestnut-sided warbler — at other locations in the region.

Black-and-WhiteWarbler

Photo by Graham Gardner • The black-and-white warbler, which is aptly named, is one of the most easily identified warblers.

The warblers are poetry written with splashes of movement and hints of color written across an often green background. While not easy to observe, they’re worth seeking out. Glimpsing one of these energetic songbirds is always a moment that puts a smile on my face — and in my heart.

•••••

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at http://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.

Readers report on robin, purple martin that stand out from other members of their flocks

 

Albino-Swallow

Photo by Jean Potter • Two barn swallows in typical plumage perch on a wire with an albino individual.

Birds of a feather, as the old saying goes, tend to flock together, but what happens when a member of the flock stands out from the rest? Although conventional wisdom mandates that being conspicuous is not helpful for most wild creatures, some of them can’t help but get attention. Different readers have brought to my attention some birds at their homes that instantly stood out.

Sara and Ed Gschwind, residents of Bristol, Tennessee, have been keeping tabs on an American robin in their yard that is showing an extensive amount of white feathers in its plumage. For the most part, this particular robin has a white head, largely white wings and extensive white in the typically red breast. “My 88-year-old mother, Nora Rockett, suggested I send a photo to you,” Sara wrote in an email.

Robin-PartialAlbino

Photo by Ed Gschwind • A leucistic American robin enjoy time in a bird bath. Albino and leucistic birds are rather rare in nature.

Sara said that her mother, who has lived in Bristol all her life, has never seen anything like it. I replied to Sara’s email, asking for a few more details.

While the robin interacts with others of its kind, the Gschwinds haven’t seen any evidence this particular robin is attempting to nest. Ed took a photograph of the robin enjoying the water in a bird bath in the Gschwind yard.

“The robin bathes every day, and loves the water like all robins do,” Sara wrote. “The robin has been here since the robins returned three months ago. I’m trying to keep it happy.” Since the robin is a regular visitor, I agree that they’re doing a good job keeping the bird happy, since it’s not shown any inclination to leave their yard.

Tom Brake, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, contacted me through Facebook about a male purple martin with extensive white feathers residing at the purple martin colony he has established at his home.

Purple martins are the largest member of the swallow family in the United States. Like many other swallow species, they nest in colonies. Martins are cavity-nesting birds that readily accept hollow gourds or special purple martin condominiums for nesting.

“Currently I have nests in 43 compartments with 20 being active (eggs having been laid),” Tom wrote. “Last year I had 51 pairs, and I hope to get close to being back to 60 or 70 active pairs this year. The next two weeks will be the busy time for completion of nests and laying.”

PurpleMartin-Albino-TomBrake

Photo by Tom Brake • A leucistic male purple martin perches with its mate, a typical female purple martin, near a hollow gourd they may use for nesting purposes.

As for the bird showing the white feathers, Tom has named him “Leuie” because the bird is an example of leucism, a condition related to albinism.

Albinism is a genetic, or inherited, condition resulting in a complete lack of production of pigmentation. Albino birds are, for the most part, extremely uncommon. I’ve heard of a variety of birds, ranging from hummingbirds and American robins to various ducks and swallows, that have a tendency to produce albino individuals.

Leucism is another genetic mutation that causes affected birds to grow feathers that are pale or whitish overall. A faint pattern may be visible. Leucism is also uncommon, but is more common that albinism. Both the robin in the Gschwind yard and the purple martin at Tom’s home are examples of leucistic birds.

Tom noted that “Leuie” is doing well so far. “He has a mate, but their first clutch of four eggs was either thrown out by a second year male martin or discarded by themselves because they sensed non-viability,” Tom wrote in a Facebook message. “Maybe the cold, wet weather had something to do with the loss.” He noted that the same thing happened recently to two other nests.

“Leuie and mate are still using their gourd, so I expect they will re-clutch,” Tom wrote. The term “re-clutch” means that Leuie’s mate will lay a new batch of eggs and Leuie will be ready to carry out his own paternal duties to help raise any resulting young.

Albinism and leucism are not the only conditions that can affect pigment in a bird’s feathers. Some birds have the opposite problem in that they produce too much pigment, resulting in a much darker bird than what would be typical. The plumage of such affected birds is described as melanistic, which is in stark contrast to an albino bird. With a melanistic bird, the feathers are much darker than usual because of an abundance of pigment. In rare albino birds, the opposite occurs and the lack of pigment in the feathers leave them looking white. Completely albino birds also tend to have red eyes. It’s probably better for a bird to be melanistic. Albino birds tend to stick out like sore thumbs, attracting the attention of predators.

Robins-AlbinoAndRegular

Photo by Ed Gschwind • Compare the leucistic American robin in the bird bath with the typical robin perched in a nearby chair. Albino birds are rather rare in nature.

I’ve only seen a few albino or partial albino birds in person, although I have observed videos and photographs of such birds. During a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2006, I observed an albino Brewer’s blackbird. An albino blackbird is almost an oxymoron. This particular blackbird had a white upper body and head and a black lower body. At first, I thought it might be a small tern, but closer observation — and identification of the birds with which it was associating — eventually confirmed that it was a Brewer’s blackbird, a common species in Salt Lake City.

Those observations remain my best looks at albino birds in the wild. I’ve also seen partial albinos, including an American Crow with white feathers in its wings that inhabited the woodlands and fields at my home for several years. I’ve also observed a couple of American goldfinches over the years that would probably qualify as leucistic birds.

A few years ago, I saw an albino Red-tailed hawk while driving between Erwin, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina, on Interstate 26. The hawk was often present near the North Carolina Visitors Center. I’ve also heard from readers over the years about birds such as American goldfinches and downy woodpeckers exhibiting albino tendencies.

Albino-Hawk

Photo by Jean Potter • This partial albino red-tailed hawk was spotted for several years near the state line dividing northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.

These issues involving the absence or abundance of pigment can complicate bird identification. After all, all-white birds, from snowy owls and tundra swans to great egrets and snow geese, do exist in nature. Even in these birds, however, there’s usually some other color present to break up the uniformity of the bird’s plumage. Keep in mind that such rarities as albino individuals of such common species as house finches and American robins can show up at your feeders or in your yard. It’s just another way birds constantly surprise us.

•••••

To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more.