Category Archives: Bird

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.

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Rally to offer sneak peek at bird migration, other nature activities

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • While the Cape May warbler doesn’t breed locally, these warblers are fairly common spring and fall migrants in the region.

The 56th Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally will draw nature enthusiasts from far and wide to this jewel of the Southern Appalachians on the first weekend after Labor Day with programs, nature walks, catered meals, and much more.

The annual Fall Naturalists Rally is always a great opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and, for birders, get a sneak peek at fall migration with any of the walks and programs focusing on our fine feathered friends. The best naturalists in the region volunteer their time and energy to make this a landmark event for people of all ages.

This year’s rally, which is scheduled for Friday-Sunday, Sept. 7-9, will feature guest speakers, Gabrielle Zeiger and Dr. Joey Shaw, for the main programs on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Zeiger’s Friday program, “Zen and the Art of Mushroom Hunting,” will get underway at 7:30 p.m. following a catered dinner at 6:30. Zeiger has been studying mushrooms in the region for 23 years. She considers herself more of a mushroom enthusiast than an expert. She is a member of the North American Mycological Association, and attends their national forays. She is involved in the association’s annual Wildacres foray in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Mount Mitchell in North Carolina.

 

Photos by Bryan Stevens • Mushrooms will feature in one of this year’s evening programs at the Fall Naturalists Rally.

 

Her program will focus on the two basic approaches — looking for good edibles and scientific study — to mushroom hunting. Her talk will touch on both approaches and include basic information on common mushrooms found in the area, species diversity and poisonous versus edible mushrooms. The program will include various types of fungi from gilled mushrooms, boletes, corals, stinkhorns and polypores, as well as the roles that they play in the environment such as decomposition and forest ecology. She will also talk about what mycologists do at forays. Findings will be included regarding 20 years of record keeping at Roan Mountain and scientific information on studies at Mount Mitchell regarding amount of rainfall and diversity of fruiting.

Photos Contributed • From left: Gabrielle Zeiger and Joey Shaw are this year’s featured speakers.

 

Saturday’s program on “Digitizing Tennessee’s One Million Herbarium Specimens,” will also start at 7:30 p.m. followed by a catered meal at 6:30. Dr. Joey Shaw received a bachelor’s of science in biology from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1998, and that same year began his graduate education in the Department of Botany at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2001, he received his master’s in botany for a floristic investigation of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee and Kentucky. In 2005 he received his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for his work on the phylogeny and phylogeography of the North American plums and molecular evolution of different genetic regions of the chloroplast genome.

Shaw is currently serving the Association of Southeastern Biologists as Past President and will rotate off this Executive Committee in April 2019, after having served for over ten years and in all ranks of that committee. He is also serving as Chair of the Wildflower Pilgrimage Organizing Committee, and in this capacity he organizes this annual event that brings together more than 120 professional biologists with 850 members of the public to participate in more than 150 different events over four days every spring in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue-headed vireos, such as this bird, are high-elevation summer residents in the region. In the fall, they are also common migrants.

Evening and lunch programs will take place in Roan Mountain State Park’s Conference Center and unless other noted, field trips will leave from the field on the left before the cabins in the park.

In addition to the programs, morning and afternoon walks will be held Saturday and Sunday on a vast array of subjects, including birds, salamanders, butterflies, spiders, snakes, geology, mosses and liverworts. A “moth party” will be held after the Friday and Saturday programs. Larry McDaniel will host this party taking a look at these winged nocturnal insects outside the Conference Center.

Consider joining the Friends of Roan Mountain, if you are not a member. Members get free admission to all Naturalists Rally events and the newsletter, “Friends of Roan Mountain.”

The rally offers catered evening meals by City Market of Elizabethton, as well as brown bag lunches on Saturday. All meals must be pre-paid in advance.

Registration and payment for meals and other activities can be made at the website for Friends of Roan Mountain at friendsofroanmtn.org. The website can also provide a brochure for download that offers a complete schedule and details all the available activities at this year’s rally. Whatever your interest, the Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally is sure to have an activity available. For local birders, it’s often the kick-off to the fall migration season as warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, birds of prey and many other species pass through the region on their way to their wintering grounds.

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

Meadowlarks fond of grassland habitats

Jean-MeadowlarkPhoto by Jean Potter • A rocky outcrop provides a perch for this singing male Eastern meadowlark.

 

It’s always fun to add another notch to one’s list of birds. Whether you’re a casual lister or a devoted birder, a new species always offers a burst of excitement in the wake of a first-time observation.

Sharon Foster sent me an email recently to share her excitement about a sighting.

“I’m excited to say my daughter and I spotted a meadowlark up on Cross Mountain last week,” Sharon wrote in her email.

Sharon said she hadn’t been able to do a lot of bird watching other than in her yard and nearby places.

“I never thought I was going to see a meadowlark,” she noted. They are fantastic. We were thrilled. He was just sitting on the fence.’

She added that she didn’t have her good zoom camera with her, or else she could have taken a picture. She will still have her memory of her first sighting, and that’s what is important.

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Photo by USFWS • Baltimore orioles, like this male, are members of the blackbird family, making them relatives of species such as Eastern meadowlarks, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds.

She also told me about a Baltimore oriole feeder she bought last fall late in the season.

“I read they usually come around early in spring,” Sharon wrote. She added that she spotted one in her yard by South Holston Lake several years ago.

Of course, when spring rolled around she nearly forgot about the feeder. “It was around mid-April when I thought about it and thought it was too late,” she wrote. “But I put it up anyway and lo and behold the next day there was an oriole in our pine tree.”

It was another memorable birding moment. “Talk about being excited,” Sharon wrote. “Wow! Birds can do that to you!”

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Both the Baltimore oriole and the Eastern meadowlark belong to the family of birds known as icterids, or blackbirds, which also includes species like bobolink, brown-headed cowbird, common grackle and red-winged blackbird.

The Eastern meadowlark is a distinctive bird. It has brown plumage accented by black, with bright-yellow underparts and a bold black V across the chest. Though most of the tail is brown with blackish barring, the outer feathers are white and are a conspicuous trait to look for when the bird is in flight.

The Eastern meadowlark is considered a grassland bird and remains common in habitats such as prairies and other native grasslands. The meadowlark has proven adaptable as long as it can occupy unbroken grassland of about six acres or more. Pastures, fields and even airports have proven suitable habitats for meadowlarks. As suburban areas and subdivisions expand into rural areas, meadowlarks can hang on unless the grassland habitat becomes too segmented and broken into sections too small to be of value.

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Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS • Eastern meadowlarks spend a lot of time on the ground while searching for insects.

Meadowlarks eat mostly insects, especially in summer. For the winter months, these birds will adapt their diet to include seeds, spilled corn and fruit. Meadowlarks, unlike other relatives among the Icterids, or blackbirds, do not typically visit feeders.

These birds construct nests close to the ground. Meadowlarks nesting in fields mown for hay face disaster if the grass is cut before their young have left the nest. The female meadowlark constructs the nest and lays two to seven eggs, which will require an incubation period of about two weeks. Even after hatching, the young are not capable of leaving the nest for another 10 to 12 days. Consequently, young meadowlarks are vulnerable for a month, not only to predators but to a farmer deciding to mow a hayfield.

While the Eastern meadowlark remains common, its numbers have suffered severe declines. such that they are considered to be a declining species. Populations fell more than 3 percent a year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 89 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. According to the website All About Birds, early mowing, overgrazing by livestock and pesticide use are all detrimental to meadowlark survival.

The highest population densities for the Eastern meadowlark are found in the Central Mixed Grass Prairie and the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie regions of the central United States. As the name suggests, the Eastern meadowlark has a counterpart in the western half of the United States. This is reflected in the fact that five central and western states — Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming — have made the Western meadowlark their official state bird. Ironically, the Eastern meadowlark has not been honored with that designation by any of the states it inhabits.

The difference in the two species rests not so much in their appearance as in their songs. The western meadowlark has distinctive vocalizations described as rather flute-like, which distinguish it from the closely related eastern meadowlark. Male Eastern meadowlarks seek out elevated perches to produce a musical, flute-like song in the spring. Utility wires, treetops and fence posts provide some of their favorite perches. Their singing is mostly used to define the borders of their grassland territory.

Finally getting your binoculars on a bird you’ve never seen is always an exciting moment. As we draw closer to the fall season, many different birds will migrate through the region. Fall migration is a great time to spend some time outdoors and try to see some birds that are new. Do some advance homework with a good field guide and study the birds that migrate through the region. Then, simply monitor your yard or a favorite park and wait to see some new species as they make migratory stops in the region.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painting this scene depicting nesting meadowlarks.

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.

Male scarlet tanager stands out from other birds

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Photo by Jeana Chapman • A male scarlet tanager forages close to the ground, which is not typical behavior for these birds. Tanagers, although brightly colored, spend most of their time in the tree canopy obscured from view.

I received an email from Lewis and Jeana Chapman detailing a dazzling discovery they made.

The couple have been adding a few new birds to their bird list and decided to give me an update on what they’ve been seeing. The Chapmans reside in the community of Laurel Bloomery in Johnson County, Tennessee. The wooded slopes of Pond Mountain where they make their home provide an attractive location for migrating birds, as well a summer residents.

“The tree swallows returned this spring to nest in our bluebird box,” Lewis wrote in his email reporting his new sightings. “The great crested flycatcher has moved its nest from the front porch to the barn. Last year the flycatchers raised five chicks on the front porch. The nest got so full the chicks were perched around the edge.”

Some new additions to their list have included golden-crowned kinglet and the Northern flicker. “Most recently we spotted a scarlet tanager,” Lewis continued.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter A male scarlet tanager brightens shadowy woodlands with a flash of tropical colors yet remains mostly inconspicuous in the forest canopy.

They had never seen a scarlet tanager at their home. Over the years I have heard from other readers left stunned by the tropical beauty of the male scarlet tanager. That description would not be that far off. While the scarlet tanager resides in the United States and Canada from April to October each year, this bird spends the rest of the year in South America. Citizens of the United States and Canada get the better part of the bargain when it comes to hosting this bird. After the summer nesting season, male scarlet tanagers lose their brilliant red plumage and look more like the greenish females. By the time they get back to the tropics for the winter, this striking bird has transformed into a rather drab specimen.

I’ve written in previous columns about the scarlet tanager, which is one of those birds that always takes an observer’s breath away upon first seeing it. Of course, it’s the male scarlet tanager that bewitches observers with his dazzling feathers of vivid red and jet black. Female and immature tanagers are a dull olive-yellow in coloration with dark wings and tails.

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

During their summer stay in the region, scarlet tanagers largely prey on insects. Although renowned as a fruit-eating bird, the scarlet tanager primarily feeds on fruit during its migration flights and on its wintering range in the tropics. This tanager breeds in deciduous and mixed deciduous-evergreen woodlands across the eastern half of North America. I’ve often heard that oaks are a favorite tree for this woodland dweller.

It’s unlikely that you’ll run across the nest of a scarlet tanager. These birds nest high in trees, often locating their nests 50 feet or more above the ground. After building a nest, a female tanager will incubate her three to five eggs for about two weeks. It’s during this time that her inconspicuous appearance is a plus, helping her blend well with her surroundings. After the young hatch, the parents are kept busy feeding the nestlings for another 10 to 15 days.

The website All About Birds notes that the population of scarlet tanagers has declined in the last half-century. Between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, scarlet tanager numbers declined by 14 percent. The environmental organization Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.2 million, with 93 percent of these birds spending some part of the year in the United States and the other seven percent breeding in Canada. These birds do poorly in forests that have been harvested for lumber. Other causes of habitat fragmentation probably also affect the well-being of scarlet tanagers. It’s worth keeping an eye out for any other signs of decline in this beautiful birds.

The scarlet tanager is a fairly common songbird during the summer months, but it also has a less common relative that can be found in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. The male summer tanager is the only entirely red bird found in North America. Lacking the scarlet tanager’s black wings, the summer tanager’s red feathers are also of a rosier hue.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter The Summer Tanager is the only all-red bird in North America. It is less common in Northeast Tennessee than the related Scarlet Tanager.

 

While I have seen summer tanagers in Tennessee on occasion, most recently at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee, I saw my first summer tanager during a spring trip to South Carolina many years ago. Overall, the summer tanager has more of a southern stronghold than the scarlet tanager, as the summer tanager’s range also extends into the southwestern United States.

Both of these tanagers are birds fond of dense, undisturbed woodlands. Most of the time, unfortunately, these tanagers reside in the dense woodland canopy. They’re more often heard than seen, producing a song similar to an American robin’s, but usually described as somewhat more raspy. The apt description I like for these two tanagers is that their songs sound like one sung by a hoarse robin with a sore throat.

Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including seven-colored tanager, flame-colored tanager, lemon-rumped tanager, green-headed tanager, golden-chevroned tanager, azure-shouldered tanager, fawn-breasted tanager, metallic-green tanager, emerald tanager, gilt-edged tanager, golden-naped tanager, opal-crowned tanager, blue-gray tanager and silver-beaked tanager.

The tanager wasn’t the only unexpected feathered visitor to the Chapman home this spring. The same week the tanager made its appearance, a male hooded warbler also visited with the Chapmans. “This we found ironic because of your email address,” Lewis wrote. For readers who may not have noticed, my email address is ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’ve used this email address for many years to celebrate one of my favorite birds.

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Photo by Lewis Chapman • A male hooded warbler also impressed the Chapmans during this small songbird’s recent visit.

The Chapmans also provided me with photos of all their colorful birds. In subsequent emails, they also informed me of some other unusual visitors. “One of our strangest visitors was an albino American goldfinch,” Lewis also revealed in his email. “Over this past weekend, we had rose-breasted grosbeak and indigo bunting show up.”

Many of these birds — the rose-breasted grosbeak, the scarlet tanager, the indigo bunting — always wow observers experiencing their first observation of them. Our two native tanagers — scarlet and summer — are definitely two memorable birds for anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing one. It’s a great time of year to get outdoors and keep your eyes open for a splash of bright color. You never know what you may see when you lift your binoculars.

 

Hummingbirds are back, and readers share first spring sightings

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated hummingbirds returned to the region earlier this month. This male, sipping sugar water from a feeder, shows its namesake red throat patch.

As many readers have already noticed, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are back. These tiny flying gems began returning to the region in the first days of April, but reports of their arrival spiked during the second week of April.

What do the hummingbirds that make their homes in our yards from April to October do during the five months they are absent from the region?

Most ruby-throated hummingbirds retreat to southern Mexico and Central America, some winging their way as far south as extreme western Panama, as well as the West Indies and southern Florida. They utilize a variety of habitats, ranging from citrus groves and forest edges to tropical deciduous forests and the edges of rivers and wetlands.

Those ruby-throated hummingbirds that make it as far south as Panama may find that they must compete with 59 other species of hummingbirds that call the Central America country home. In their winter home, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are definitely just another face in the crowd when its comes to their kin. In Panama, a ruby-throated hummingbird might encounter violet-headed hummingbirds, white-necked jacobins, black-throated mangos and green violet ears.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A young ruby-throated hummingbird shows a hint of the red throat gorget that gives this bird its common name.

It must be nice to live among so many hummingbirds. Closer to home, the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only one of its kind to nest in the eastern United States. Some of the ones arriving at our feeders now will speed their way farther north, but some will settle in our yards and gardens as they bring forth the next generation of ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Dianne Draper reported the earliest observation of which I am aware. A friend on Facebook and a fellow birder, Dianne posted that the first hummingbird of spring arrived at her home in Jonesborough, Tennessee, on the morning of April 4. Her sighting was seven days earlier than any of the others I received.

Harold and Elizabeth Willis in Marion, North Carolina, reported their first hummingbird at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, April 11.

Helen Whited in Richland, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird at 12:40 p.m. on Thursday, April 12.

Judy and Bill Beckman saw their first spring hummer at 7:25 p.m. on April 12 at their home in Unicoi, Tennessee.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female ruby-throated hummingbird settles onto the perch of a sugar water feeder.

Lois Wilhelm, who lives on Little Bald Creek Road on Spivey Mountain in Erwin, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of 2018 at 3:30 p.m. on April 12.

Glen Eller in Kingsport, Tennessee, saw his first spring hummingbird around 5 p.m. on April 12. The bird — a male — drank for about four minutes. “I guess he needed a good fill up,” Glen commented.

Nola Martin from Nebo, North Carolina, reported her first hummer arrived just before 11 a.m. on April 12.

“He was a little green bird….not sure which kind or which sex,” she wrote in her email. “It certainly remembered where one of my feeders was last year, though, as it was looking for it in that spot, I didn’t have that one out yet.”

Nola said she now has five of her seven feeders filled and placed out for the returning hummingbirds.

Betty Poole saw her first male hummingbird of spring when the bird arrived at 9:05 a.m. on Friday, April 13, at her home in Bristol, Virginia. Her daughter, Jane P. Arnold, emailed me the information about her mother’s sighting. Jane is still awaiting her own first spring sighting of a hummingbird.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird lifts its wings to shake water droplets off its back.

Debbie Oliver, while watching Wheel of Fortune on the evening of April 12, got her first glimpse of a spring hummer at her deck feeders in Bristol, Tennessee.

“I couldn’t observe if it was male or female due to the dimming light,” she wrote in an email.

“It was a curious ruby-throated hummingbird just flying around the feeder without taking a sip of nectar,” she added.  Around 9 a.m. the following morning, she spotted a male ruby-throated hummer drinking nectar at the feeder.

She speculated about whether the bird was the same individual that visited the previous evening. “We’ll never know,” she decided.

Joneen Sargent emailed me to let me know that her husband, Dale, saw a ruby-throated hummingbird on April 12 at 7 a.m. The Sargents live off of Booher Drive in Bristol, Tennessee.

Bob Cheers of Bristol, Virginia, saw his first ruby-throated hummingbird at 6:45 a.m. on April 13. Bob keeps a record of the arrival dates for this tiny bird. In 2015, he saw the first hummer on April 9. Last year, he saw his first hummer on April 11. In 2016, the first bird arrived on April 13. In 2014, he had to wait until April 14 to see the first hummer of spring.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches near a feeder that he is ready to defend from all comers.

Mark Hurt, who lives on Glenway Avenue in Bristol near Virginia High School, said that his “little buddy,” the ruby-throated hummingbird, returned about 1 p.m. on April 13.

Sandra Loving reported that her first hummer sighting took place at 6:17 p.m. on April 13 at South Holston Lake in Tennessee.

Peggy Oliver saw her first male ruby-throated hummingbird of spring at 6:15 p.m. on April 13.

Ashley Russ of Abingdon, Virginia, emailed me to share that she spotted her first hummingbird of the season at 7:20 p.m. on April 13.

Terry Fletcher saw her first male ruby-throated hummingbird at her feeder at 6:50 a.m. on April 14 at home in the First Colony subdivision in Bristol, Tennessee. Away from home the previous day, Terry was told by a next-door neighbor that the hummingbirds actually showed up on April 13.

Janice Denton, who lives on Canthook Hill Road in Bristol, Tennessee, emailed me news of her first sighting.

“I’m excited to let you know that I saw my first ruby-throated hummingbird on Friday, April 13,” she wrote. “I have had my feeders out for about two weeks and was sitting on my front porch in the afternoon hoping to see a hummingbird.”

On April 15 around noon, Janice also reported that she saw a male ruby-throated on a feeder outside her kitchen window, and another one came along and chased it off.  “I hope they all stick around for the summer,” she wrote.

Ruby-Spot-Two

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Only adult male ruby-throated hummingbirds show the namesake ruby-red throat patch.

Lynne Reinhard reported via Facebook that she had her first hummingbird sighting at her home on the upper end of South Holston Lake on April 14. She noted that the hummingbird arrived a day earlier than last spring.

Linda Sproles, who lives on Hunter Hills Circle in Bristol, Tennessee, observed the first arrival of a hummingbird at her deck feeder at 10:43 a.m. on April 14. “It was a female, I believe, because it did not have a red throat patch,” she added.

Kathy Maggio, who lives between Benhams and Mendota in Washington County, Virginia, spotted her first hummingbird of spring at 1:15 p.m. on April 14.

Phyllis Moore of Bristol, Virginia, saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird of the spring at 4 p.m. on April 14.

Pat Stakely Cook, who resides in Marion, North Carolina, reported two ruby-throated hummingbirds at her feeders on April 14. The two male hummers stayed busy feeding and chasing each other.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted this work featuring the ruby-throated hummingbird. From the moment New World explorers arrived in the New World from Europe, they were impressed by the tiny, dazzling hummingbirds, a family of birds unknown in the Old World.

Amy Wallin Tipton, a resident of Erwin, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird, a male, at 4 p.m. on April 14. She shared her sighting via Facebook.

Judi Sawyer, a resident of Roan Mountain, Tennessee, saw her first spring hummingbird, a male, at her home on the morning of April 14. Some house wrens decided to make their arrival the same day, she reported on Facebook.

Ginger Wertz-Justis in Baileyton, Tennessee, saw a male hummingbird at 6:30 p.m. on April 14.

Richard Trinkle emailed me to report that he saw a male ruby-throated hummingbird at 6:15 p.m. on April 14 at his Bristol home near Friendship Ford.

Robin Small saw the first hummer at 6:15 p.m. on April 14. “As I was looking at the snow falling and the cardinals, woodpeckers and regular visitors to my deck feeders, I saw my first hummingbird of 2018,” Robin wrote in an email. Robin put the feeder out the previous day when temperatures had been in the 80s and added that the hummer visited several times as the snow fell the evening of its arrival.

Janice Humble, who lives near South Holston Lake, put out her feeder on April 14. “It wasn’t 15 minutes until I had a hummingbird,” she wrote in her email.  “I saw two others that same evening.”

Lewis Spicer of Abingdon, Virginia, had both a male and female hummingbird visit his home for the first time this spring on the same day on April 15. He saw the male at 9:35 a.m. The female hummer arrived during afternoon rain at 12:45.

Frank and Myra Renault of Abingdon, Virginia, saw their first hummingbird of spring — a female — at 12:06 p.m. on April 16.

Sheila Myers, who lives on Porter Valley Road in Marion, Virginia, saw her first hummer at noon on April 16.

Rhonda Eller in Chilhowie, Virginia, saw her first spring hummingbird at 4:53 p.m. on April 18.

I am pleased to report that my own first hummingbird sighting for 2018 took place when a feisty male zipped into the yard while I was seated on the front porch. He sipped at four different feeders before he zoomed off. He arrived at 5:40 p.m. on April 14, one day earlier than last year’s first arrival. My feeders had been waiting for the arrival of hummingbirds for about a week when he first appeared.

Ruby-throated-WILLOWS

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

 

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.

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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.

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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.