Category Archives: Bird

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.

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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.

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Berry-rich diet makes waxwings profuse water drinkers

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A cedar waxwing perches on a branch while taking a break from flycatching insect prey near a community park pond.

Ernie Marburg, a resident of Abingdon, Virginia, shared an interesting observation about a flock of cedar waxwings he observed recently in his yard.

Waxwings have a brown and gray silky plumage, a black mask and a perky crest. Some of the wing feathers show red tips. The similarity of these wing tips to melted drops of wax gives these birds the common name of waxwing.

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Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of cedar waxwings.

“The typical flock of waxwings has arrived,” he wrote in his email. He added that the birds exhibited an unusual behavior during their visit.

“From their roosts in the tops of some tall nearby trees, they appeared to be leaving their roosts briefly and returning to the trees as though they were catching flies,” Ernie noted. “There were, however, no flies available.”

The waxwings, he went on to explain, appeared to be going after snowflakes. “Could they have been going after the snowflakes to drink water?” Ernie asked.

While I wasn’t sure that catching snowflakes is an energy-efficient way to relieve thirst, the waxwings might have had a different motivation for their behavior. As I informed Ernie in my reply to his email, waxwings are very social with each other. These birds form large flocks that travel, feed, roost and bathe together. They have also come up with interesting “rituals” to reinforce their social ties with each other.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The waxy tips to the wing feathers are evident in this photograph of a cedar waxwing.

These rituals, or games, they “play” with each other include a flock of perched birds passing a single berry or fruit in a line, one bird to another, without any of the birds eating the item. I speculated that snowflake catching was their idea of a fun game and a way to practice for fly-catching season, which is just around the corner.

Perhaps I should have conducted some research. As it turns out, other people have witnessed this snowflake-catching behavior, which has led those who have studied the birds to determine that the birds do indeed eat snowflakes to ease thirst. Apparently their diet, which is rich in sugar thanks to the various berries that provide a huge percentage of their food, waxwings are often afflicted with intense thirst. In addition to catching snowflakes, they have been observed eating fallen snow. A single Bohemian waxwing — a relative of the cedar waxwing — can gobble down 300 berries in a couple of hours. According to some statistics, one of these birds can eat up to three times its weight in fruit in a single day. The next time I am lucky enough to observe waxwings in a snowstorm, you can bet I will be watching for this snowflake-eating behavior.

The cedar waxwing has few relatives. Worldwide, there are only two other species: the Bohemian waxwing, which is native to the northern forests of Eurasia and North America; and the Japanese waxwing, found in such northeast Asian countries as Japan, Korea and China.

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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.

Hummingbirds due back soon

Waxwings are rather nomadic, coming and going with a maddening unpredictability. Other birds are more dependable, arriving and departing at roughly the same time year after year. One such bird should soon make its triumphant and welcome return to yards and gardens throughout the region. According to the website Hummingbird Guide, ruby-throated hummingbirds usually return to Tennessee and Virginia the first week of April. These tiny flying jewels arrive earlier in North and South Carolina, typically arriving the third week of March in those states.

The popularity of hummingbirds in general, and the ruby-throated hummingbird specifically, is simple to understand. These tiny birds are perfectly willing to insert themselves into our lives, offering hours of fascinating entertainment as they visit our gardens, duel at our sugar water feeders and occasionally even nest in trees and shrubs in our yards.

Individuals who feed birds know that it can be an expensive undertaking. The cost of providing sunflower seeds and suet cakes for hungry flocks during the winter months can nibble at the monthly budget, but hardly anyone would begrudge the sparrows, finches, wrens and woodpeckers. After all, they return the favor, putting on daily shows just outside our windows.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers in front of the camera as it seeks nectar from tiny flower blossoms.

The same is true of hummingbirds. For a relatively modest investment, people putting out feeders or planting nectar-producing flowers are rewarded with the fun and amusing antics of these pint-sized and hyperactive birds.

Attracting hummingbirds is generally much less expensive than feeding other birds. After all, you need only a mixture of sugar water — four parts water to one part sugar — to fill a feeder and catch the attention of a visiting hummer. A few pounds of sugar will last a lot longer than that bag of sunflower seeds, and it’s much less expensive to purchase at the grocery store.

Do not add red coloring or dyes to your sugar water mixture. Some studies have indicated these substances are harmful to hummingbird health. This means tossing out many of the pre-packaged mixtures sold with sugar water feeders. After all, the entire purpose is to attract hummingbirds. Risking their health is simply not acceptable. If you do want to take extra steps to attract these diminutive, feathered sugar junkies, consider supplementing your landscape with a variety of flowering plants. To explore some of the best choices for flowers to tempt hummingbirds, visit the website of The Hummingbird Society at http://www.hummingbirdsociety.org.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A ruby-throated hummingbird visits a feeder for a sip of sugar water.

I always put out my sugar water feeders in early April. I usually end up waiting a couple of weeks before the first hummingbird appears, but it’s worth the wait. I miss these tiny birds during the winter months, which they spend in much warmer surroundings in southern Mexico and Central America. A male with the namesake red throat is usually the first to appear at my feeders. However, female ruby-throated hummingbirds, which lack the dazzling ruby throat patch, are migrating, too. The females usually lag a week or two behind the pace of the migration for the males.

As always, I enjoy hearing from readers about their first spring sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird. Readers are encouraged to jot down the date and the time of arrival when they observe their first hummingbird of the season. If the sighting’s duration allows you to verify, note whether the hummingbird was a male or female. These reports can be emailed to me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Together, we’ll track the arrival of these tiny birds as they return to the region.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Carolina chickadees are easy birds to befriend and bring into your daily life

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Carolina chickadee perches on a branch.

In last week’s post, I pointed out that Eastern bluebirds have already started seeking nesting locations for the upcoming spring nesting season. They’re hardly the only cavity-nesting birds already checking out every nook and cranny for the perfect place to raise a family of young.

I’ve been hearing the familiar “fee-bee-fee-bo” song of the Carolina chickadee from the woodlands around my home. With the recent turn in the weather, the male chickadees are persistent singers, making the woods ring with their attempts to woo a mate.

The Carolina chickadee is at home in mixed or deciduous woods in the United States from New Jersey west to southern Kansas and south to Florida and Texas. The Carolina chickadee also ranges along the Appalachian Mountains, but on some of the higher peaks they are replaced by their cousin, the black-capped chickadee. In Tennessee, birders need to visit some of the higher peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to find black-capped chickadees.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Carolina chickadee visits a feeder for sunflower seeds.

Once a pair of chickadees settles down into domestic bliss, they almost at once start work upon constructing a nest. These little songbirds, looking quite smart in their handsome black, white and gray feathers, build an exquisite nest. The primary nesting material is green moss, which they stuff into a natural cavity or bird box in great quantities. The female chickadee fashions a depression in the collection of moss. She lines this shallow basin with plant fibers as well as strands of fur or hair to provide soft cushioning for her eggs.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Carolina chickadee endures a cold winter’s day.

A female chickadee can lay a large number of eggs, with the clutch size ranging between three and ten eggs. Once the young hatch, both parents are kept busy delivering food to a large brood of hungry, noisy chicks. The young grow quickly, but they take advantage of the safety of their cavity nest and don’t depart for the wider world until 20 days after their hatching.

Energetic chickadees, birds of the most engaging antics, make wonderful feeder visitors. With their tame and trusting natures, chickadees are one of the birds I welcome to my feeders. Chickadees are daily visitors to my feeders in the winter season as well as other times of the year. I love to watch a chickadee land on a feeder, snatch a single sunflower seed and fly to a perch close at hand to hack open the seed’s shell and devour the kernel before they repeat the entire process again.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Carolina chickadee makes a food delivery to nestlings.

North America’s other chickadees include the aforementioned black-capped chickadee, as well as boreal chickadee, chestnut-backed chickadee, grey-headed chickadee, Mexican chickadee, and mountain chickadee. On a trip to Utah in 2003 and 2006, I saw both black-capped chickadee and mountain chickadee.

In other parts of the world, chickadees are known as “tits,” which is from an Old English word denoting small size. Worldwide, there are about 60 species of chickadees and tits, which are classified collectively under the scientific family name, Paridae. Other members of this family range into Europe, Asia and Africa, including species with colorful names like fire-capped tit, yellow-bellied tit, azure tit, green-backed tit and cinnamon-breasted tit.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Caroline chickadee waits for a chance to visit a crowded feeder.

It’s easy to attract chickadees to your yard. Shrubs and small trees, feeders stocked with sunflower seeds and perhaps a mesh cage offering a suet cake are sure to make these small birds feel welcome. If you want to witness the family life of chickadees, build or buy a box suitable for wrens and other smaller birds. Chickadees will happily take up residence. These birds often comprise the nucleus of mixed flocks of various species, so they will also bring other birds into your yard and within easy viewing range.

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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 Carolina chickadee grasps a branch near a feeder.

 

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.”

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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.

Unlikely orange-crowned warbler becomes daily visitor this winter at woman’s feeders

After you have fed the birds long enough, you’re going to get visits from “mystery” birds. No matter how thoroughly you thumb through the pages of your field guides or how many online Google searches you conduct, it can be hard to pin down the identity of certain birds, especially when you encounter them for the first time.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • This orange-crowned warbler has found a favorable winter residence at the home of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee, making frequent visits to suet feeders to supplement its usual diet of insects and berries.

In the summer and fall, young birds recently out of the nest can cause some confusion when they show up in the company of their parents at feeders. In the winter, often a season characterized by subdued plumages and nomadic wanderers, the surprise visitors can be one of the many “little brown birds” in the sparrow clan or a summer bird like an oriole or thrush that has decided to take a shot at overwintering.

Or, with greater frequency each winter, it might be one of the warblers. That was the case when Rebecca Boyd, a resident of Knoxville, Tennessee, contacted me recently via Facebook asking for assistance with a bird identification.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • This orange-crowned warbler is one of the more nondescript members of the warbler family.

Although most of the warblers beat a hasty retreat from North America every fall, a handful of species have increasingly begun to spend the winter months far north of their usual tropical haunts. Some of these species include yellow-rumped warbler, pine warbler and palm warbler, but the low-profile orange-crowned warbler is also becoming more common between November and March, especially in yards and gardens offering supplemental food such as suet cakes.

The small greenish-yellow bird that showed up at Rebecca’s home was easily identified, thanks to some great photographs that she took of her visitor. I communicated to her that I believed her bird to be an orange-crowned warbler. She had also conducted her own research, which had also led her to that conclusion.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • This orange-crowned warbler has found a home at the residence of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee, this winter.

Rebecca said she also shared some photos with birding groups on Facebook, which brought some helpful feedback. “I’ve gotten numerous responses that orange-crowned warblers are becoming a lot more common on the east side of the Mississippi, with quite a few people saying they are seeing them in their yards, too,” Rebecca wrote.

The orange-crowned warbler is one of the more undistinguished members of this New World family of birds that numbers about 115 species. The bird gains its common name from a physical feature that is rarely seen — an orange patch of feathers that, unless the bird is extremely excited or agitated, is usually concealed beneath its dull greenish-yellow feathers. It’s not a field mark that’s considered reliable for identifying the bird.

Rebecca got a lucky break and managed to photograph this elusive feature on her visiting bird. She said the feathers on the bird’s head appeared wet, which may have explained the appearance of the orange crown.

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Wet feathers made the rarely seen orange crown visible on this orange-crowned warbler that has taken up residence at the home of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee, this winter.

So, what does signify an orange-crowned warbler? The lack of wing bars, as well as the absence of a strong facial pattern is a strong indicator. The bird in Rebecca’s photo is not nearly as drab as this warbler can appear. Some appear very gray with only a hint of yellow or green in their plumage. There is often faint gray streaking evident in their yellow-green breast feathers. This warbler always shows yellow beneath its tail, a feature that is often only glimpsed as an observed bird is diving into cover. These birds also have sharp, thin bills. It’s usually a process of eliminating other suspects that brings birders to identify one of these warblers.

Unlike some warblers restricted to either the eastern or western United States, the orange-crowned warbler migrates and winters throughout the nation, east and west, although it primarily only nests within the western United States, as well as Alaska and Canada.

Although Rebecca said she has only been bird-watching and taking pictures for a little over a year, she has been a general point-and-shoot photography hobbyist for years. “My backyard is a bird paradise that attracts numerous and varied species,” Rebecca noted. “My favorites are bluebirds and hummingbirds, but the little warblers are also very special.”

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Photo by Rebecca Boyd • Besides orange-crowned warbler, like this individual, other warblers on occasion winter in the United States. Species most often attempting to spend the winter months in the United States include palm warbler, pine warbler, and yellow-rumped warbler.

Most of the warblers are currently residing on the island of the the Caribbean, or far south in Central and South America. A few others spend the winter in Florida or other southern states. The 50 or so species that nest in the United States and Canada will begin arriving as early as next month, although the majority of these summer residents will arrive or pass through the region in late April and May.

So, while it has a colorful name, the orange-crowned warbler is one of the more drab and nondescript members of its family. Other warblers living throughout the Americas include flame-throated warbler, crescent-chested warbler, citrine warbler and arrowhead warbler.

I’ll just keep daydreaming on the occasional snowy day of the approach of spring, which signals that the kin of the orange-crowned warbler will be winging their way north again in only a couple more months. I, for one, can’t wait.

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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 Rebecca Boyd • This orange-crowned warbler grabs a bit of suet from a feeder at the home of Rebecca Boyd in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Visit by Yellow-headed blackbird, last seen in region in 1994, creates a stir

Bugaboo Springs Road near Jonesborough, Tennessee, saw some heavier vehicular traffic in mid-January after the exciting observation of a yellow-headed blackbird associating with a sizable flock of brown-headed cowbirds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • This yellow-headed blackbird has been residing with flocks of brown-headed cowbirds and European starlings at a cattle pasture near Jonesborough, Tennessee. The bird, the first of its kind seen in Northeast Tennessee since 1994, has generated excitement among birders. Some people have traveled from as far as Knoxville, Tennessee, and Roanoke, Virginia, to see the bird.

The bird came to the attention of Dawn Peters, a resident along Bugaboo Springs Road, who noticed the unusually colorful bird at her feeders while looking out the window of her laundry room. At first, she thought the bird might be an oddball member of the cowbird flock.

“I’d never seen one before,” she said. “I knew it was something strange and something new.”

Dawn took the time to take a photograph of the bird and then contacted friends Jean and Brookie Potter, who also happened to be birders. They alerted her to the rare status of her feeder visitor.

“He really stood out,” Dawn said of the blackbird with a yellow head.

The yellow-headed blackbird arrived at her feeders on a snowy day when the temperatures had plunged. Dawn said she has been feeding birds for 20 years since she and her husband moved to Bugaboo Springs Road near Jonesborough, Tennessee. “The birds know where to come for food,” she said. “I try to feed them all, but they can eat you out of house and home.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens This yellow-headed blackbird and several brown-headed cowbirds perch in a tree after foraging for food in a cattle lot near Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Dawn said she gets a variety of birds at her feeders, ranging from sparrows and cardinals to mourning doves and finches. “I also get downy woodpeckers and towhees,” she added.

On occasion, she will notice a hawk in the yard. In the summer, she puts out several feeders with sugar water to attract hummingbirds. “Last summer, I had brown thrashers raise a family in my yard,” she said.

Although the yellow-headed blackbird arrived with a flock of brown-headed cowbirds, the other flock members didn’t exactly embrace him. “Some of the cowbirds would peck at him,” she said.

While the yellow-headed blackbird hasn’t been back to her feeders since Jan. 13, the bird was rediscovered less than a mile from her home in a feed lot for cattle. The yellow-headed blackbird has continued to associate with large flocks of cowbirds and European starlings and has been observed by dozens of birders.

The yellow-headed blackbird, known by the scientific name Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, is a relative of cowbirds, as well as the familiar red-winged blackbird. It’s a unique species in that it is the only member of the genus, Xanthocephalus. Breaking this word down from its ancient Greek origins, the name means, quite literally “yellow headed.”

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Photo by Bryan Stevens This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed at Antelope Island State Park in Utah in 2006.

The yellow-headed blackbird’s also a species that has been only a rare visitor to the region. While a common bird in wetland habitats west of the Great Lakes, the yellow-head blackbird has not been reported often in East Tennessee. In fact, there are only a handful of records since the 1930s, the most recent sightings being reported and documented in 1990 and 1994. Since it has been almost a quarter of a century since the last time a yellow-headed blackbird was found in East Tennessee, one could argue that a visit from a vagrant individual of this species was long overdue. In southwest Virginia, there are a couple of records from Smyth County dating back to July of 1985 and March of 1988.

It’s not quite clear why a yellow-headed blackbird ventured into the region in mid-January. Normally, these birds spend the winter months in the southwestern United States and Mexico. They often migrate in huge flocks with other species of birds, which could explain why the bird found itself an honorary member of a flock of cowbirds estimated to number about 300 individuals.

My first attempt to add this species to my Tennessee list ended in failure, although I did enjoy seeing several white-crowned sparrows, a handsome bird that definitely doesn’t deserve being classified as one of the “little brown birds” that so often serves as an offhand designation for sparrows. That attempt was made on the morning of Jan. 18 and may have been ended prematurely. When I got access to a computer later, I checked to see if any other observations had been reported. I noticed a report from local birder Michelle Sparks, who saw the bird probably less than 90 minutes after I had ended my first attempt.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted these yellow-headed blackbirds.

Speculating that the yellow-headed blackbird and its accompanying flocks of brown-headed cowbirds and European starlings would return to the feedlot to forage before dark, I returned at 4 p.m. to try again. I found the feedlot overwhelmed by hundreds of cowbirds and starlings, but I didn’t see any sign of a bird with a yellow head. Many of the cowbirds carpeted the pasture as they gleaned seeds and other food items. Many of the starlings were perched in the branches of trees and on the roof of an old farmhouse. At some point, almost every bird in the chaotic flock spooked and took to the air. The flock wheeled and turned, with most of the birds settling into the upper branches of some of the taller trees at the location. I soon detected a flash of yellow. I’m not sure where the bird had been hiding earlier, but the yellow-headed blackbird proved unmistakable, perched high in the trees with the sun shining brightly. He couldn’t hide from my binoculars or camera, which I used to snap several photos of this rare visitor to the region.

I have this species on my life list, having seen yellow-headed blackbirds during visits to Utah in 2003 and 2006. While in Utah, I also saw red-winged blackbird, brown-headed cowbirds and Brewer’s blackbirds, including a partial albino individual that presented a challenge in identifying.

While technically a songbird, the yellow-headed blackbird routinely ranks as one of the worst singers among North America’s songbirds. The yellow-headed blackbird is not all musical, with its song repertoire ranging from what has been described as “cacophonous strangling noises” and “honking gurgles” on the website for the publication, “Birdwatcher’s Digest.”

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Photo by Jean Potter • This yellow-headed blackbird was photographed in Colorado in 2016.

The New World’s blackbirds belong to the family of birds, Icteridae, which also consists of birds such as meadowlarks, orioles, cowbirds, grackles, bobolinks and oropendolas. Although many blackbirds show predominantly black plumage, these birds often contrast their dark coloration with yellow, orange or red feathers. The name of the genus stems from Ancient Greek and Latin words that, translated into English, mean roughly, “jaundiced ones,” which stems from the yellow feathers present in the plumage of many species. Other blackbirds in the New World include tawny-shouldered blackbird, saffron-cowled blackbird, melodious blackbird, oriole blackbird and scarlet-headed blackbird. In the United States, other nesting species in the family include Brewer’s blackbird, tri-colored blackbird and rusty blackbird. The last of these species has shown chronic long-term and acute short-term population declines, based both on breeding season and wintering ground surveys. Some estimates suggest that the rusty blackbird population has declined by 80 percent, which could soon endanger the species.

I’m hoping the yellow-headed blackbird on Bugaboo Springs Road is liking where it has found itself this winter and will continue to delight observant birders over the upcoming weeks.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. 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 • Birders from near and far converged on Bugaboo Springs Road near Jonesborough, Tennessee, to search for the yellow-headed blackbird.