Category Archives: Spring migration

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.

BGGnatcatcher

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

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Upcoming Roan Mountain Spring Naturalists Rally will offer chances to enjoy migrating birds and much more

TreeSwallow-April13

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A tree swallow checks out a nesting box soon after returning for the nesting season on Friday, April 13 to Hampton, Tennessee.

Spring has certainly sprung. In the past week, several birds have made their return after a long absence, including broad-winged hawk, brown thrasher, blue-gray gnatcatcher, tree swallow and black-and-white warbler. It’s a good time to get outside and see what birds one can see without even really trying.

One long-running annual event will help interested people see birds and experience other aspects of the natural world. The upcoming 60th annual Roan Mountain Spring Naturalists Rally promises three days of nature-packed activities and events for people of all ages. This year’s rally will be held Friday-Sunday, April 27-29.

As always, in addition to bird walks and other nature hikes, the rally will offer evening programs by guest speakers on Friday and Saturday after a catered dinner.

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Photo Courtesy of Friends of Roan Mountain • Kris Light is shown during a nature walk while on a trip to Germany.

Kris Light will speak on Friday at 7:30 p.m. on “The Birds and Bees of Wildflowers: Pollination Strategies of Flowers.” Light is a lifetime Tennessean who grew up in Nashville and graduated from University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She has experience teaching classroom science for elementary school students and is an outreach educator for the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge. She is a lifelong student of nature and a favorite leader of wildflower walks for various parks around the state.

Light described her program as focusing on the fascinating interaction between flowers and their pollinators and how colors, odors, shape, and even the presence of stripes or spots on the petals can greatly influence the type of pollinators that will be attracted to them.

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Photo Courtesy of Friends of Roan Mountain • Kevin Hamed is shown holding a salamander. These amphibians will be the focus of his upcoming presentation at the Roan Mountain Springs Naturalists Rally.

Dr. Kevin Hamed will discuss the diversity of salamanders on Roan and other neighboring mountains during his Saturday program at 7:30 p.m. His presentation is titled “The Future of Appalachian Salamanders: What the Past Tells Us.”

Hamed is a professor of biology at Virginia Highlands Community College where he is dedicated to getting his students out of the classroom and into nature, where they gain experience collecting specimens and recording data. This field data has been useful to various local, state, and federal organizations in making important land management decisions.

Hamed is recognized as an expert on salamanders of the southern Appalachians. For his program Saturday night he will discuss the unique environment of the area’s mountains which makes this area “holy ground” for salamander study, present his research on the nesting behavior of salamanders, and discuss the importance of salamanders as indicators of environmental change.

Bloodroot-Last

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Spring’s ephemeral wildflowers, like these bloodroots, are a major attraction during the Roan Mountain Spring Naturalists Rallies.

All activities and programs are free to members of the Friends of Roan Mountain. There is a charge, however, for the Friday and Saturday evening meals, which are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Visit friendsofroanmtn.org to register and pay online to reserve meals for Friday and Saturday. Deadline to reserve a meal is April 24. The website also offers a complete listing of morning and afternoon hikes, as well as other programs and activities. Charges do apply for attendees who are not members of FORM.

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Ruby-throated hummingbirds are back. My first ruby-throated hummingbird, a feisty male, zipped into the yard while I was on the front porch grading papers. He sipped at four different feeders before he zoomed off. He arrived at 5:40 p.m. on April 14. I’ve heard from other people who have already seen one of these tiny flying gems. I’ll provide more details on their arrival in next week’s blog post. Keep those reports coming to me by sending an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Please list the date and time when you saw your first spring hummer.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated hummingbirds such as this male are returning to the region.

 

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.

Houghton_MS_Am_21_(46)_-_John_James_Audubon,_robin 3

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

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

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

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

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

Robin-OnNest

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

Ernie proposed a theory about the behavior of the robins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AmericanRobin

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.

Warblers exert special pull for many birders

KirtlandsWarbler

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

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

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

CanadaWarbler

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

NoWaterthrush

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

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

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

Black-and-WhiteWarbler

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

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

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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.

Count-Gobbler

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.

Count-MaleMartin

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.

Count-NightHeron

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.

SolitarySandpiper-One

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.

Count-IndigoBunting

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

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.