Category Archives: Spring birds

Osprey’s fishy diet sets it apart from most other raptors

Jim and Tammie Kroll emailed me about a very interesting bird observation on the Virginia Creeper Trail last month.

They saw a bald eagle along the Virginia Creeper Trail on May 14. “It was between Alvarado and Damascus,” Jim wrote in the email. We got to see it at two different locations and watched it around 15 minutes at each location.”

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Photo by Jim and Tammie Kroll • This adult bald eagle was seen along the Virginia Creeper Trail.

He added that they talked to a woman who informed them that she also sees an eagle in the same area on the Creeper Trail.

The Krolls also shared a photo of the eagle. I’m always glad that to hear that observing the nation’s official bird is no longer a rare occurrence in the region. While I haven’t seen any bald eagles this year, I have observed a raptor that share many characteristics with them.

Ospreys, also known by the common name of “fish hawk,” occur worldwide. Ospreys migrate through the region in spring and fall, making sightings more likely along some lakes and larger rivers. I see them even more often when I travel to South Carolina, where these medium-sized raptors are common along the coast and in wetlands.

Some recently published books provide insight into the lives of bald eagles and ospreys. Teena Ruark Gorrow and Craig A. Koppie are the authors of the recent book, The DC Eagle Cam Project: Mr President and First Lady. This book profiles a celebrity pair of eagles that have nested for the past few years in U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.

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Front cover of a book by Teena Ruark Gorrow and Craig A. Koppie featuring photos of a nesting season in the life of a family of ospreys.

Gorrow and Koppie have also written other books together, including one offering a pictorial journey through an osprey nesting season. Titled “Inside an Osprey’s Nest,” this book provides an account of two fostered osprey chicks that receive new parents in a heartwarming, real-life account of a family of ospreys associated with the Chesapeake Conservancy Osprey Nest Cam.

During a recent interview, Gorrow shared that bald eagles and ospreys share more than a few things in common.

“The bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is America’s national bird and symbol,” Gorrow said. “It is a large raptor, or bird of prey, found only in North America. Also a raptor, the osprey, Pandion Haliaetus, is a large hawk found on every continent across the globe except Antarctica.”

Like the American bald eagle, Gorrow noted that ospreys experienced devastating health effects and reproductive failures from widespread human use of dangerous pesticides like DDT.

“By the 1970s, population numbers had plummeted to catastrophic levels for both eagles and ospreys,” she said. “Federal actions were put into place which imposed migratory bird protection and banned DDT. These measures, along with the work of dedicated scientists, conservationists and citizens, have helped these magnificent raptors recover.”

Gorrow said that when selecting a nest site, bald eagles and ospreys identify an area near water with a plentiful food supply and nearby trees. “With diets consisting mostly of fish, both require foraging areas rich in fishery resources,” she said.
During nesting season, ospreys and eagles are seen as competitors, even though food is abundant in the Chesapeake Bay region. “Bald eagles are opportunists and will usually pirate fish prey from osprey when given the chance,” Gorrow said.

Nesting season for eagles begins earlier than ospreys, so they have the upper hand in defending territories. “Eagle pairs in the Chesapeake Bay area usually lay eggs in mid-February, while the ospreys return from their southern wintering destinations around mid-March,” Gorrow said. “Ospreys generally build nests in March or April and lay eggs soon after.”

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Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this work of art featuring an osprey with a fish held in its talons.

The two large raptors also demonstrate other distinct preferences.

“Bald eagles utilize living and dead (known as snags) trees as nest sites,” she said. “Eagles rarely tolerate humans near their nests.

“On the other hand, ospreys are relatively tolerant of humans and sometimes build nests on private pavilions or docks beside waterfront properties,” Gorrow continued. “They seem to favor artificial structures and often construct over-water nests on the steel supports of bridges, channel markers, navigational buoys, fishing piers, jetties, and manmade nesting platforms. Ospreys sometimes choose snags with an open treetop or claim tall, artificial structures resembling dead trees, such as towers, utility poles, television antennas, road signs and stadium lights. They also sometimes nest on chimneys and rooftops on uninhabited buildings.”

A more in-depth glance into the lives of ospreys is available in the book “Inside an Osprey’s Nest,” which retails for $24.99. When purchased through the Chesapeake Conservancy at http://www.chesapeakeconservancy.org, $10 from every purchase supports conservation programs along the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The book is also available at http://www.schifferbooks.com, Amazon.com and other booksellers.

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

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • An osprey perches in a tree along the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

Warblers exert special pull for many birders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 http://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. He is always posting about local birds, wildlife, flowers, insects and much more. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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

 

Albino-Swallow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spring Bird Count participants deal with unseasonal cold snap

The 74th annual Elizabethton Spring Bird Count was held on Saturday, May 6. A total of 43 observers in nine parties took part in the annual survey, which consists Carter County and parts of adjacent Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington counties. In addition to Elizabethton, the count includes territory in such cities as Elizabethton, Erwin, Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male gobbler seeks the attention of hens, as all these Wild Turkeys add to the number of this species found during the count.

The most unusual aspect of this year’s count involved rather cold conditions, according to long-time count compiler Rick Knight. Although held nearly a week into May, this was one of the coldest days ever experienced on a spring count. The temperature range was 36 to 54 degrees. Light rain fell before sunrise; the morning was partly cloudy to cloudy, then the afternoon saw light rain, with light snow showers at the higher elevations and a half-inch accumulation of snow on Roan Mountain.

Knight noted that previous cold spring counts included: 32 to 55 degrees in 1979, 44 to 52 degrees in 1987, and 27 to 54 degrees in 1992. Despite the weather, participants managed to find 148 species, which is exactly the average over the last 30 years, but below the average over the last decade, which stands at 154 species.

The most common species on this year’s Spring Bird Count was the Cliff Swallow with 1,046 individuals — a new record for this species — found this year. Other common species include European Starling (704), American Robin (693) and Tree Swallow (526).

A Stilt Sandpiper found in Washington County represented only the third time this species has been observed during the Elizabethton Spring Bird Count. As always, Knight said there were a few notable misses, such as Northern Bobwhite, Ruffed Grouse, Pied-billed Grebe, Brown Creeper, Winter Wren, Swamp Sparrow and Pine Siskin. In addition, no gulls were found on any of the area lakes.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Purple Martins, like this male, were sluggish on the day of the count thanks to cold temperatures and steady rainfall.

In addition, several species of warblers that nest in the region showed rather low numbers. Some of the low numbers for some species may be attributable to the weather. Nevertheless, the count produced observations of 28 different warbler species.

The total is listed below:
Canada Goose, 390; Wood Duck, 27; Mallard, 93; Blue-winged Teal, 5; and Hooded Merganser, 2.
Wild Turkey, 54; Common Loon, 2; Double-crested Cormorant, 42; Great Blue Heron, 115; Great Egret, 1; Green Heron, 13; Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, 8; and Black-crowned Night-heron, 1.
Black Vulture, 74; Turkey Vulture, 108; Osprey, 10; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 1; Cooper’s Hawk, 5; Bald Eagle, 13; Broad-winged Hawk, 5; Red-winged Hawk, 25; and American Kestrel, 11.
Virginia Rail, 4; Killdeer, 35; Spotted Sandpiper, 27; Solitary Sandpiper, 19; Greater Yellowlegs, 1; Lesser Yellowlegs, 1; Stilt Sandpiper, 1; and Least Sandpiper, 6.
Forster’s Tern, 1; Rock Pigeon, 155; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 3; Mourning Dove, 224; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 4; Black-billed Cuckoo, 1; Eastern Screech-owl, 6; Great Horned Owl, 1; Barred Owl, 2; Common Nighthawk, 1; Chuck-will’s-widow, 2; Whip-poor-will, 10.
Chimney Swift, 66; Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 23; Belted Kingfisher, 23; Red-headed Woodpecker, 5; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 54; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 3; Downy Woodpecker, 23; Hairy Woodpecker, 5; Northern Flicker, 30; and Pileated Woodpecker, 34.

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Several species of herons, including this Yellow-crowned Night Heron, were found for this year’s Spring Bird Count.

Eastern Wood-pewee, 1; Acadian Flycatcher, 5; Willow Flycatcher, 1; Least Flycatcher, 6; Eastern Phoebe, 42; Great Crested Flycatcher, 13; Eastern Kingbird, 43; and Loggerhead Shrike, 1.
White-eyed Vireo, 5; Yellow-throated Vireo, 10; Blue-headed Vireo, 41; Warbling Vireo, 9; Red-eyed Vireo, 122; Blue Jay, 138; American Crow, 301; Fish Crow, 2; and Common Raven, 22.
Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 345; Purple Martin, 36; Tree Swallow, 526; Barn Swallow, 259; and Cliff Swallow, 1,046.
Carolina Chickadee, 82; Tufted Titmouse, 140; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 13; House Wren, 30; Marsh Wren, 1; Carolina Wren, 99; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 39; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 11; and Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 2.
Eastern Bluebird, 136; Veery, 44; Swainson’s Thrush, 5; Hermit Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 82; American Robin, 693; Gray Catbird, 35; Brown Thrasher, 51; Northern Mockingbird, 95; European Starling, 704; and Cedar Waxwing, 272.
Ovenbird, 117; Worm-eating Warbler, 19; Louisiana Waterthrush, 18, Northern Waterthrush, 1; Golden-winged Warbler, 3; Black-and-White Warbler, 47; Swainson’s Warbler, 2; Tennessee Warbler, 1; Kentucky Warbler, 1; Common Yellowthroat, 17; Hooded Warbler, 95; American Redstart, 6; Cape May Warbler, 7; Northern Parula, 25; Bay-breasted Warbler, 4; Blackburnian Warbler, 1; Yellow Warbler, 3; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 9; Blackpoll Warbler, 1; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 25; Palm Warbler, 1; Pine Warbler, 15; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 18; Yellow-throated Warbler, 20; Prairie Warbler, 4; Black-throated Green Warbler, 53; Canada Warbler, 1; and Yellow-breasted Chat, 11.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Migrating shorebirds, such as this Solitary Sandpiper, added diversity to this year’s Spring Bird Count in Northeast Tennessee.

Eastern Towhee, 132; Chipping Sparrow, 67; Field Sparrow, 35; Savannah Sparrow, 4; Grasshopper Sparrow, 1; Song Sparrow, 166; White-throated Sparrow, 4; White-crowned Sparrow, 2; Dark-eyed Junco, 28; Summer Tanager, 2; Scarlet Tanager, 60; Northern Cardinal, 212; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 19; Blue Grosbeak, 5; Indigo Bunting, 79; Bobolink, 22; Red-winged Blackbird, 271; Eastern Meadowlark, 89; Common Grackle, 327; Brown-headed Cowbird, 97; Orchard Oriole, 21; Baltimore Oriole, 16; House Finch, 64; American Goldfinch, 228; and House Sparrow, 52.

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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. 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 • Newly-returned neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increased the total number of species for the annual spring count.

Writer and artist Julie Zickefoose to share wisdom at Abingdon program, nature walk

 

With the nesting season for some of our favorite birds kicking off, the timing is especially fortuitous for an upcoming program. Acclaimed nature writer and wildlife illustrator Julie Zickefoose will be the a featured speaker for Sunday with Friends at the Washington County Public Library in Abingdon, Virginia, later this month. Her talk will be followed by a book sale and signing.

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Julie Zickefoose and a feathered friend. — Photo Contributed

In addition, Zickefoose will take part in a bird walk along the Virginia Creeper Trail at 8 a.m. on Saturday, April 22. Those wishing to participate in this Earth Day event are invited to meet at the trailhead in downtown Abingdon. I’m planning on attending the walk, which I hope will produce many interesting migrant birds. The walk is free and open to the public.

Zickefoose, the author of the new book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest,” will speak Sunday, April 23, at 3 p.m. at the Washington County Public Library. Her event is free and will be held in the Conference Room at the Main Library in Abingdon, Virginia.

The public is invited to meet Zickefoose on the day after Earth Day to celebrate her new book. Life-sized baby birds wriggle, crawl and flutter off the pages of this beautiful book, the product of 13 years of deep involvement and close observation of nesting birds. Lively writing describes the development of 17 bird species from egg to fledgling, with the wonder, humor and relentless curiosity that Zickefoose is known for. She provided commentary on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” for five years and for 12 years has written a thrice-weekly natural history blog.

She has written several other books, including “The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds,” “Natural Gardening for Birds: Create a Bird-friendly Habitat in Your Backya26312954._UY1628_SS1628_rd,” and “The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America,” a co-writing venture with Bill Thompson.

 

According to Zickefoose’s website, she began her career as a field biologist for The Nature Conservancy. She became a magazine and book illustrator. Eventually, she began illustrating her own stories. She writes and paints from Indigo Hill, her 80-acre sanctuary in Appalachian Ohio. Zickefoose also writes a blog. To read entries, visit juliezickefoose.blogspot.com.

Ben Jennings helped secure Zickefoose’s lecture. He has worked for the past 15 years organizing “Sunday with Friends,” a series of book and author events hosted by the Washington County Public Library’s Friends of the Library organization.

“I get tips from lots of folks about writers, as well as doing research on my own,” Jennings said.

He also noted that Kate Foreman persuaded him to invite Zickefoose to take part in the series. “Kate is a longtime friend, and currently the director of advancement at Barter Theatre,” Jennings said. “I certainly trust her judgment. Kate had to remind me — but I did remember — Julie’s commentary on NPR several years ago. Julie was thrilled to come to be with Kate for the weekend.”

The Friends of the Washington County Public Library is a voluntary, non-profit organization whose purpose is to help strengthen the resources of the library and to make it a dynamic force in the community. Friends’ activities generally fall into four main categories— advocacy, fundraising, programming and volunteerism. First organized in the mid-1960s, the Friends groups has made an important contribution over the years by helping to raise funds to improve library facilities and providing financial support for special projects. The Washington County Public Library is located at 205 Oak Hill St., Abingdon, Virginia. For more information, visit http://www.wcpl.net.

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A female bluebird checks out a potential nesting box. — Photo by Bryan Stevens

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A pair of Eastern bluebirds, a species of birds often featured in Zickefoose’s writings, has been exploring the nest box options available at my home. The bluebirds actually started checking the boxes in late February. With the arrival of March, the pair has had to contend with as many as three tree swallow interlopers. I’m not sure of the status of the third tree swallow, but it definitely gives the swallows an edge in numbers.

While bluebirds are not totally loyal to previous nesting locations, studies indicate that as many as 30 percent of bluebirds return to previous nesting sites the following season. So, if you can attract a pair of bluebirds to your yard, that’s half the battle. The same pair, or perhaps some of their offspring, will quite possibly return to yard in future years.

Habitats with spacious areas of short grass are perfect for bluebirds. So, homes with large lawns or that are located adjacent to fields, will attract bluebirds looking for a place to nest. If you lack any trees with natural cavities, a bluebird nesting box is necessary to secure their extended stay. Nesting box plans are easily obtained online if you want to build your own boxes, or you can purchase boxes at many farm supply stores and garden centers.

To keep the bluebirds happy and safe, avoid using herbicides or pesticides on your lawn to prevent accidental poisoning of adult bluebirds and their young. A few small trees and shrubs spaced throughout the yard will provide convenient perches for bluebirds as they hunt for insects to feed themselves and their young.

Get ready to welcome spring’s returning hummingbirds

All bird enthusiasts have their personal favorites among our feathered friends. Cardinals, bluebirds, robins and chickadees would certainly find a place in any Top 10 lists. What bird would top the list? I have no qualms predicting that the ruby-throated hummingbird would be a frontrunner for such a ranking.

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A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird seeks nectar at tiny blooms. — Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

 

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.

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.

If you do want to take extra steps to attract these diminutive, feathered saccharine 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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A male ruby-throated hummingbird surveys his territory from a convenient perch. — Photo by Bryan Stevens

Nevertheless, few bird enthusiasts are truly frugal when it comes to our feathered friends. Even if the cost of bringing hummingbirds and other birds was much higher, I don’t think we would abandon the undertaking. Quite simply, the birds mean too much to us. They fascinate us with their speed and agility, their pugnacious relations with each other, and of course their tiny size. The irony is that, although hummingbirds are so small, they don’t seem to recognize that fact as they zig and zag through yard and garden.

While the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummer that nests in the eastern United States, which is what brings these tiny birds into our lives every year from April to October, there are more than 300 species of hummingbirds. Much creativity has gone into giving each of these hummingbirds a descriptive common name.

Sometimes, words fail. Mere adjectives are somewhat inadequate in providing common names for many of the world’s more than 300 hummingbirds, but that doesn’t keep us from trying to give descriptive names to each hummingbird species. For instance, we have the beautiful hummingbird of Mexico; the charming hummingbird of Costa Rica and Panama; the festive coquette of northwestern South America; and the magnificent hummingbird of the southwestern United States.

Other names are even more elaborate and occasionally outlandish, such as the white-tufted sunbeam of Peru; the violet-throated metaltail of Ecuador; the violet-throated starfrontlet of Peru and Bolivia; the hyacinth visorbearer of Brazil; and the rainbow-bearded thornbill of Colombia and Ecuador.

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A male ruby-throated hummingbird ignores honeybees for a sip of sugar water. — Photo by Bryan Stevens

It would seem then that our own ruby-throated hummingbird is in good company. After spending the winter months in Central America, ruby-throated hummingbirds are already streaming north. Just to reach the United States, these tiny birds undertake an arduous journey. Most of these tiny birds, which are barely four inches long, make a non-stop flight of more than 500 miles across the Gulf of Mexico. The journey can take almost an entire day!

Sightings are already being reported, and ruby-throats typically arrive in the region in early April. In fact, a male ruby-throated hummingbird showed up at my feeders on Saturday, April 15.

If you don’t have your feeders outdoors and waiting for them, it’s time to do so. As always, I love to hear from readers about their first hummingbird sighting of the year. Jot down the time and date and contact me by email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I can hardly wait for one of our favorite birds to get back. Let’s give them a hearty welcome.

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

 

Arrival of tree swallows one of season’s firsts among spring’s returning birds

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Tree swallows are among the different species of birds returning to the region after spending the winter months farther south. These birds will be looking for nesting boxes or natural cavities in the coming weeks.

Waiting for spring? Join the club. Between alternating bouts of unseasonably warm temperatures and frigid blasts, the weather cannot seem to decide if winter’s hanging in there a little longer or if it’s time to proceed with spring’s arrival.

You might think that would translate into a messy arrival timetable for some of our returning birds, but so far my own personal observations indicate a different story. For instance, a pair of tree swallows arrived at my home on March 8. Curious, I explored my Facebook newsfeed and discovered that the first tree swallows returned in 2016 on the very same date! These punctual arrivals never cease to amaze me. It’s almost like clockwork for some of the birds that I have observed for many years at my home.

When John James Audubon painted these tree swallows, he knew them as “white-bellied swallows.”

When I posted about the arrival of the swallows on Facebook, some other people shared their own arrival stories. Paul Elmore in Bristol, Tennessee, mentioned the arrival of the first brown-headed cowbirds at his home. “Their sounds got my attention first,” he noted in his reply to my post, describing the sound as similar to “a marble being dropped into a pail of water.”

In addition to tree swallows and brown-headed cowbirds, other recent returns have included red-winged blackbirds and American robins, which have both been hailed as traditional harbingers of spring. Over the next few weeks, I look for the pace to pick up as returning birds like chipping sparrows, brown thrashers, blue-gray gnatcatchers and yellow-throated warblers mingle with lingering winter birds such as dark-eyed juncos, purple finches and yellow-rumped warblers.

The pair of swallows that returned on March 8 probably regretted the timing. Arriving during a warm spell that saw temperatures climb into the high 70s, the swallows were soon enduring a chilly blast that saw the mercury in outdoor thermometers dipping into the 20s. The swallows are insect-eating birds, so extended cold spells often force them to retreat to the area’s lakes and larger rivers, where they can swoop over the water and have an easier time plucking cold-numbed flying insects out of the air.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Tree swallows usually return to the region in late February and early March. Look for other birds, such as brown thrashers and chipping sparrows, to return in the coming weeks.

Once milder spring temperatures prevail, the flocks of swallows forced into these necessary habitats will disperse as pairs begin seeking nesting sites. Tree swallows are cavity-nesting birds, which often puts them into competition with Eastern bluebirds. The two species usually manage to work out a truce and settle down to nest in close proximity to each other.

The iridescent blue-green male tree swallow, complete with white underparts and a forked tail, is a handsome bird and a welcome addition to the bird population in any yard or garden. Tree swallows enjoy water, so a nearby pond or creek is a boon for attracting these birds.

Tree swallows nesting in southwest Virginia are a relatively recent happening. According to Tony Decker’s The Birds of Smyth County, Virginia, tree swallows have only been common summer residents since about 1975. Some of the early records of these birds nesting in the region took place at locations like the ponds in Saltville, Virginia, and Laurel Bed Lake in Russell County, Virginia.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female Eastern bluebird stakes claim to a box to ward off inquisitive tree swallows. The two cavity-nesting species are often competitors for prime nesting real estate.

A decade later, tree swallows began nesting in northeast Tennessee. The first nesting record took place at Austin Springs on Boone Lake in Washington County, Tennessee, according to The Birds of Northeast Tennessee by Rick Knight. Tree swallows soon became regular nesting birds every summer in all five counties that comprise Northeast Tennessee.

It’s usually not too difficult to find five of the six species of swallows that are known to make Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia their home from spring to fall. In addition to tree swallows, other swallows such as barn swallows, purple martins, cliff swallows and northern rough-winged swallows are fairly common summer birds in the region. The barn swallow and tree swallow are the two members of the family that are probably best known to people. They have adapted to life in both suburban and rural areas, which brings them into frequent contact with people.

The golden swallow, which today exists only on the island of Hispaniola.

While only a few swallows range into the United States and Canada, a total of 83 species of swallows can be found worldwide. Some of the common names for these different swallows (also called martins in other parts of the world) are quite descriptive. A sampling includes white-eyed river martin, grey-rumped swallow, white-backed swallow, banded martin, blue swallow, violet-green swallow, golden swallow, brown-throated martin, brown-bellied swallow, pale-footed swallow, white-bibbed swallow, pearl-breasted swallow, red-breasted swallow, mosque swallow, fairy martin and streak-throated swallow.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male tree swallow perches on a utility wire extending over a fish pond.

While many swallows and martins have proven highly adaptive when faced with human disturbances to their habitat, a few species have experienced declines. One species — the white-eyed river martin — was last seen in Thailand in the 1980s and very well may be extinct. Closer to home, the golden swallow is now found only on the island of Hispaniola after disappearing from Jamaica in the 1980s. The Bahama swallow, which nests on only four islands in the Bahamas, is also vulnerable. Incidentally, both these swallows are closely related to the tree swallow, with all of them belonging to the genus Golden Swallow. Translated from Greek, the genus name means “fast mover,” a quite accurate description of these graceful and agile flyers.

With their enthusiastic twittering to each other, tree swallows make for friendly neighbors. It’s also a pleasant diversion to watch them swoop over fields and ponds. To increase your chances of hosting your own tree swallows, offer a bird box placed in an open area. Right now is the time to attract their attention with some prime real estate.

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