Category Archives: Warblers

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.

Pine warbler among a few of its kind to attempt wintering in United States

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A pine warbler check out an offer of suet.

I’ve wondered on occasion if “warbler withdrawal” is a legitimate medical condition. Of about 40 species of warblers that spend the nesting season in the eastern United States, almost all of them absent themselves from the country between late October and early March. That’s a problem for people who consider this energetic family of birds one of their favorites.

For the most part, the winter months are bereft of warblers, which number among my favorite birds. Most of the warblers retreat during the cold season to the tropics, hence their inclusion under the umbrella of neotropical migrants. Such migrant birds visit North America for the nesting season. By autumn, having raised their young, these birds are ready to wing their way back south to spend the winter in far more comfortable conditions.

Fortunately, warbler fans don’t have to quit their favorite birds “cold turkey.” A handful of these birds tough out the winter season, especially in the southeastern United States. One of them has in recent decades become a faithful visitor to feeders.

The pine warbler is an attractive member of its clan with a plumage consisting mostly of various hues of yellow and gray. Some males will show extremely bright yellow feathers, but females and young birds may show only a bare minimum of yellow coloration.

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Photo by Jean Potter •  A pine warbler perches on the edge of a feeder filled with seeds.

Unlike warblers such as the magnolia warbler and the palm warbler, the pine warbler truly does have an affinity for the tree for which its named. Magnolia warblers, on the other hand, are really more at home gleaning the branches of spruce trees while a weedy field is often the preferred habitat of a palm warbler. The pine warbler is rarely found away from pine trees, but the bird is not too particular about the type of pine, being known to frequent about a dozen different varieties of pine trees.

The pine warbler is less of an insect-eater than other warblers, but when it comes to feeders this bird’s often looking for supplemental protein. This fact explains why suet cakes, as well as homemade or commercial mixtures of suet and peanut butter, are one of the best ways to lure these warblers to feeding stations.

The population of this warbler has actually been on the increase since 1966, according to various surveys conducted on pine warbler numbers. Almost the entire population spreads out across the eastern United States, with much lesser numbers of pine warbler making their home in Canada.

Keep a careful watch on your feeders for this species. From a casual glance, pine warblers could easily be mistaken for American goldfinches. The two birds are about the same size, but the warbler has a longer bill than the goldfinch, which has a blunt, cone-shaped bill. Individual pine warblers will join mixed flocks of birds. The membership of some of these flocks will consist of such regular feeder visitors as Carolina chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets and downy woodpeckers. Farther south, especially in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, the mixed flock members might shift to include brown-headed nuthatches and ruby-crowned kinglets.

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American naturalist and painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes painted this pine warbler.

The late John V. Dennis in his book, “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” identified the pine warbler as one of a handful of warblers that are winter visitors to feeding stations. Dennis noted that it’s not difficult to appeal to the appetite of a pine warbler. In addition to its customary preferences — suet, peanut butter and crushed nut meats — this warbler will also feeds on sunflower seeds, especially after other birds have hulled the kernels from the outer shell. Pine warblers quickly become experts at gleaning dropped bits of sunflower kernels dropped by other birds.

Dennis also noted that “food is usually an afterthought” to many warblers. A more reliable magnet for attracting these birds is a source of water, which warblers need for drinking and bathing. So, keep an eye on your bird baths or ornamental ponds if you would like to observe this bird. The other warblers identified as potential feeder visitors by Dennis include orange-crowned warbler, Cape May warbler, yellow-rumped warbler and yellow-breasted chat.

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Photo by Jean Potter • A mix of suet and seeds proves attractive to pine warblers.

In northeast Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina, there are only three warblers that bird enthusiasts are likely to see in the winter. The yellow-rumped warbler is by far the most common winter warbler, but palm warblers and pine warblers are also occasional winter residents. I observed a palm warbler about a week ago near the boardwalk on Erwin’s linear trail. A few other warblers are occasional stragglers, attempting to eke out a living during the cold months. For instance, I’ve seen a few common yellowthroats during the winter over the years.

With the exception of the yellow-rumped warbler, however, the chances of enjoying warblers during the winter are rather slim. So, if you can succeed at persuading a pine warbler to establish residence at your feeders, you’ll be able to enjoy the accomplishment with daily visits from this entertaining bird.

According to the website All About Birds, an occasional pine warbler defies longevity expectations. For instance, a female pine warbler was recaptured and rereleased during a 2013 banding operation. The bird was at least seven years and 10 months old based on this documentation, which represents a new longevity record for the species. Give a pine warbler a helping hand this winter by offering plenty of its favorite foods at your feeders. Should no pine warblers show up, I’m certain that the other birds in the neighborhood will benefit from the offerings.

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Photo by Judy and Bill Beckman • The Beckmans photographed this bald eagle near the Cane River in North Carolina.

Judy and Bill Beckman emailed me recently about a bald eagle they spotted along the Cane River on a drive to Burnsville, North Carolina. The Beckmans live on Spivey Mountain in Unicoi County. They saw the eagle in late November. Bald eagles have made a strong comeback in the region and are becoming much more common than in past decades.

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The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, based in Elizabethton, is once again offering for sale its annual calendar.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A wintering pine warbler visits a suet feeder.

All proceeds from sales of the 2017 calendar benefit the chapter’s work to promote birds and birding. This year’s calendar features nearly 100 full-color photographs. Calendars are $15, plus $2 for shipping and handling. To reserve a copy, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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

Hooded warbler favorite member from an exceptional family of birds

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                   Hooded Warblers, like this male, prefer to remain in the shadows of shrubs and thickets.

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A plushie Hooded Warbler.

I watched a male hooded warbler flitting among the branches of a forsythia shrub during a soft rainfall on Sept. 18. As I watched the small bird dash after unseen insects among the thicket formed by the forsythia branches, I marveled at the bird’s exquisite appearance. The gold and green feathers seemed to glow brightly in the dim light as a drizzle of rain wet both bird and leaves. The black hood and bib surrounding the male’s yellow face stood out by virtue of its stark contrast from the brighter feathers.

The appearance of the male bird provides this species with its common name. The female has an identical yellow-green coloration as the male, although she is slightly more drab. She lacks the black hood and bib, although older females may acquire some dark plumage on the head and around the face. Both sexes also show white tail feathers that they constantly flick as the move about in thick vegetation and shrubbery.

I know that every migrant passing through my yard is making its way south and it may be another five to six months before I again see any of my favorite songbirds. The hooded warbler will make itself at home in the forests of Mexico, as well as Belize, Costa Rica and other Central American nations. Most hooded warblers begin returning to their winter haunts as early as mid-September, but lingering individuals continue to entertain birders in the United States throughout October.

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Photo by Jean Potter                                            A male Hooded Warbler perches in a rhododendron thicket.

Like many of the ruby-throated hummingbirds that make their home in the United States for the summer, the hooded warbler’s fall migration takes it across the vast open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, crossing to the Yucatan and then dispersing from there to various points in Central America. That birds as small as hummingbirds and warblers make this incredible migration twice yearly is one of nature’s most phenomenal feats of endurance.

The warblers, also known as wood-warblers, are an exclusively New World family of birds, numbering approximately 116 species. About 50 of these species of warblers make their home in the eastern United States and Canada for the spring and summer, departing in the fall and returning to tropical wintering grounds. Some of them are extremely bright and colorful birds. As I’ve indicated in recent columns, however, some members of the family show more subdued plumages of tan, beige and brown. The hooded warbler would have to be included among the more brightly colored warblers.

Other colorful warblers that share similar tastes in range and habitat with the hooded warbler include the American redstart, black-throated blue warbler and black-throated green warbler. None of the eastern warblers show any true red in their plumage, but red and pink warblers can be found south of the border. The pink-headed warbler, red warbler and red-faced warbler all make their home in Mexico and and Central America.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A male Hooded Warbler perches in a thicket during a fall migration stopover.

While some of the neotropical migrants that venture into North America boast even brighter kin in the tropics, we need not feel cheated with the warblers that make their home in the United States for half of the year. Some of their relatives are beautiful birds, including the white-faced whitestart, golden-bellied warbler, three-striped warbler and rose-breasted chat, but few can really hold a candle to their relatives that venture north and brighten the lives of the lucky humans fortunate enough to observe them during the summer nesting season or the seasonal migration journeys.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                   The male Hooded Warbler isn’t likely to be mistaken for any other warbler.

The hooded warbler has long been my favorite member of this family of interesting, energetic and engaging songbirds. Hooded warblers reside in the woodlands around my home, nesting and rearing young each year. I’ve never found a nest, but many years ago I watched a pair of hooded warblers fend off a song sparrow that ventured too close to one of their fledglings. Of course, the sparrow posed no realistic threat to the young warbler, but that didn’t make the conflict with the hooded warblers any less intense. The poor sparrow looked completely befuddled and uncertain about its offense. After the warblers drove the sparrow from the vicinity, I watched both parents deliver some food to the young bird.

Like most warblers, the hooded warbler feeds almost exclusively on small insects and arachnids. Some warblers will also feed on fruit, seeds and even nectar. The hooded warbler favors habitats featuring woodlands with an understory of smaller trees and shrubs, such as stands of willows or rhododendron thickets. Of course, a tangle of forsythia is enough to attract a visit from a migrating hooded warbler.

9781408134610The warblers have become such popular songbirds that they warrant field guides devoted exclusively to their ranks. My long-time favorite guide is Warblers of the Americas by Jon Curson, David Quinn and David Beadle published in 1994. More recently, other guides have been published, including A Field Guide to Warblers of North America, a book in the Peterson Field Guide series, and the Stokes Field Guide to Warblers. If you want a book to enlighten you about the magic of this family of birds, consider Chasing Warblers, a book by Bob and Vera Thornton about an adventure to find and photograph all 52 species of warblers that nest in the United States.

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John James Audubon painted this image of Hooded Warblers about two centuries ago.

The warblers are, in short, an incredible family of birds. I’ve seen all but a handful of the species that reside for part of the year in the eastern United States. I still want to see a Connecticut warbler and cerulean warbler, as well as the endangered Kirtland’s warbler of Michigan and the golden-cheeked warbler of Texas. I’ll miss the warblers once fall migration has run its course. For those few months they are here, the warblers belong to us. They seem like “our” birds. They’re only on loan, though. Our winter birds bring their own favorites back to our yards, but I’ll be impatiently awaiting that flash of gold in the shadows of a rhododendron thicket next April.

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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                                                                                             A female Hooded Warbler poses for her picture after being banded at Carver’s Gap on Roan Mountain.

Ovenbird often a difficult bird to get to know

Last week, I discussed the worm-eating warbler, which is one of the more drab warblers in terms of appearance. I think that must have started a trend, because so far this migration season has been dominated by some of the less colorful — but still very interesting — warblers. The opening days of September brought with them the annual fall parade of migrating warblers. As usual, this yearly opportunity to view visiting warblers began as a trickle of species but has picked up in intensity as each day passed.

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Photo by Jean Potter                                         Ovenbird sings from an elevated perch in the woodland canopy.

 By Sunday, Sept. 11, I had already observed close to a dozen species of warblers, including hooded warbler, black-throated green warbler, Northern waterthrush, ovenbird, magnolia warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, black-and-white warbler, Tennessee warbler, and American redstart. 
 
One of the first warblers to arrive at my home this spring was the enigmatic ovenbird. With its loud, ringing song — “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” — it’s impossible not to notice the arrival of this warbler.  Why describe this warbler as enigmatic? For starters, ovenbirds do not easily permit even stealthy birders to glimpse them. I have gotten good looks at ovenbirds throughout the years, but they are still difficult to observe. They are one of the warblers more easily heard than seen. When they are observed, it’s usually no more than a fleeting look before the bird dives back into heavy cover. That’s not always the case, however.
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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Steve Maslowski                      The ovenbird is not named for its plumage or its habitat preference. Instead, its name refers to the shape of its nest. Ovenbirds and other warblers are currently migrating through the region.

 
I’ve actually seen three different ovenbirds this fall, with increasingly good looks at this warbler each time I have encountered it. The ovenbird is not one of the brightly colored warblers, such as black-throated blue warbler or yellow warbler. The ovenbird is a small brown bird with a white breast with dark streaking — an appearance that bears a superficial resemblance to the larger thrushes that share the same woodland habitat. The only hint of color is an orange crown bordered by dark stripes atop the bird’s head. Even this orange crown patch is not easily seen. When agitated, an ovenbird may raise its head feathers, which makes this orange mark easier to detect. The ovenbirds I’ve observed recently have all shown off that orange crown patch to great effect. The ovenbird also has a distinct white ring around its eyes, as well as pink legs and a pinkish bill.
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Early naturalist John James Audubon painted a pair of Ovenbirds, which he knew as “Golden-crowned Thrushes.”

 
The ovenbird, unlike many warblers, is not named for its appearance. Instead, the bird’s name derives from the shape of the nest it builds. The nest is a domed structure placed on the ground, woven from vegetation and containing a side entrance. Early European settlers in North America thought the nest looked like a Dutch oven, hence the name “ovenbird” for the small warbler with the intricate nest.
 
Rather than hopping along the length of a branch or limb, an ovenbird walks in a deliberate fashion. This bird feeds on insects, spiders and other small prey items foraged from the woodland floor. On rare occasions, a lingering ovenbird shows up at feeders during the winter months.
 
Ovenbirds spend the summer nesting season in mature deciduous and mixed forests across Canada and the eastern United States. They do not make as lengthy a migration as that undertaken by some of their relatives. Ovenbirds migrate each fall to the southeastern United States, the West Indies, and from Mexico to northern South America for the winter season. 
  
The two warblers most closely related to the ovenbird are the Louisiana waterthrush and Northern waterthrush. These atypical warblers share a preference for leading lives spent mostly near the ground adjacent to streams. The Louisiana waterthrush seeks out the rushing water of our mountain streams during early spring while the Northern waterthrush prefers quiet pools of water farther north during its nesting season. The ovenbird, however, is not as closely associated with water.
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Amateur ornithologist and artist Genevieve Jones painted this depiction of the Ovenbird’s namesake nest.

 
While I have used the adjective “drab” to describe some of these brown warblers, it is not truly accurate. Although these warblers lack bright colors like orange, yellow and blue, they have an incredible, subtle beauty all their own. In the coming weeks, I will discuss some of the brighter warblers in this fascinating family of migratory songbirds.
 
Warblers are not the only birds migrating through the region. Other notable migrants I’ve observed recently have included common nighthawks, red-eyed vireos and green herons. 
 
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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. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Worm-eating warbler less conspicuous member of family of bright, active migratory songbirds

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                The worm-eating warbler is one of the more nondescript warblers.

It’s September, which for me signals the autumn migration season of warblers and other neotropical birds. The warblers are a family of small songbirds that also happens to be the main reason I enjoy bird watching. Although warblers can be a challenge to observe and a puzzler to identify, they’re bundles of multi-colored feathers brimming with high-octane energy as they forage in treetops, along woodland edges, in weedy fields and around ponds and streams.

Like all migrating birds, warblers face numerous obstacles and hazards as they fly back south every fall after spending most of the spring and the entire summer spread across the United States and Canada for the season of nesting and raising young. Storms, such as the recent Hurricane Hermine, can be a hazard. Predatory raptors, like peregrine falcons and merlins, follow the migration routes and pick off various migrants. Even something as mundane as a window pane can bring a tragic halt to migration each year for thousands of our smaller songbirds.

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Photo Courtesy of Dianna Lynne Tucker           This worm-eating warbler perched on a flower pot while recovering from an impact with a window.

I recently received an email from Chris Soto, a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. Her sister, Dianna Lynne Tucker, resides in Elizabethton, Tennessee, near Holston Mountain. Her home has a yard that is a magnet for a variety of songbirds. One of the birds passing through her yard had an unfortunate impact with a window. Chris and Dianna already suspected the identity of the bird, but they emailed me asking for help to confirm it. I concurred that the bird was a worm-eating warbler.

“After a brief rest, the bird recovered,” Chris noted in the email. I always like a story with a happy ending.

The scientific name for this warbler is interesting. The worm-eating warbler, or Helmitheros vermivorum, is in a genus of one. It’s the only species contained within the genus. Vermi means “of or relating to worms” while vorum is related to eating. Hence, vermivorum is quite literally an “eater of worms.” The worms in this warbler’s diet, however, are not earthworms. Instead this bird feeds on caterpillars, the larval form of moths and caterpillars. The worm-eating warbler has one unusual foraging method to look for caterpillars. This warbler will often cling to a cluster of dead leaves while probing into the tangle to seek out any concealed caterpillars, as well as small insects and spiders. All in all, the worm-eating warbler doesn’t feed any more exclusively on caterpillars than other warblers.

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Photo Courtesy of Dianna Lynne Tucker         Like other songbirds, the migratory worm-eating warbler faces many perils during its annual fall migration.

This warbler’s non-musical song is a dry trill that compares with the songs of chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. Since these other birds can be found in similar habitats, it can be a bit of a challenge for beginners to identify this warbler by sound alone. The worm-eating warbler isn’t one of the more colorful members of the family. It has a subtle beauty, however, with a plumage of brown and buff feathers. The most distinctive part of its appearance are the black stripes that run along the crown and a dark stripe through the eye. This warbler has a pinkish bill. Both males and females look alike.

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Photo Courtesy of Brian Rovira                        This worm-eating warbler recovered after striking a window at the home of Brian Rovira in Unicoi, Tennessee.

According to the website All About Birds, the oldest worm-eating warbler ever documented was a male that was at least eight years, one month old when he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Connecticut. I’ve seen fewer of this particular warbler over the past ten years, but the overall population figures for this species have actually trended slightly upward. The worm-eating warbler’s population is concentrated in the southeastern United States. It favors deciduous woodland habitat with shaded banks, steep gullies and ravines. The habitat around my home must have changed enough that they are no longer a frequent visitor. The worm-eating warblers will migrate to Mexico and Central America this fall, electing to spend the winter months in warmer terrain.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painted the worm-eating warbler in company with some native butterflies.

Warblers and their active lifestyles can be a challenge for human observers. Nevertheless, it’s worth the effort to seek out these colorful, energetic and interesting songbirds. Many people like to look for returning spring warblers, but I’ve always found the fall season the best time to look for these birds. September is the month when the majority of these warblers will migrate through our region. Warblers ignore offerings of seeds at our feeders, but a bird bath, ornamental fountain, pond or stream is like a magnet drawing these migrants to stop, enjoy a cool drink and a vigorous splash in the inviting water.

Keep a pair of binoculars at hand and your eyes open. If you’d like to share your observations of migrants passing through your yard this fall, I’d love to hear from you.

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

Migrating warblers offer surprises for alert birders

 

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Photo by Steve Maslowski/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Black-throated green warblers are nesting birds in the region. Other warblers wing their way much farther north to habitats where they prefer to nest and raise young.

April kicked off with some excitement when I heard my first warbler of the spring season singing on the first day of the month from the woodlands near my home. Although I never managed to catch sight of the singer, I identified the bird as a black-throated green warbler by the whistled syllables of its song.

The black-throated green warbler is a common nesting bird in the region’s mountains. Warblers are exclusively birds of the New World. The majority of the world’s 118 species of warblers live in Central and South America, as well as in the Caribbean, but about 50 species spend the nesting season in the United States and Canada before retreating to southern strongholds for the winter months.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                           A male Hooded Warbler lurks in a thicket of rhododendron.

The warblers have long been one of my favorite bird families, partly because of their ephemeral natures when it comes to visits in the region. Several of these small songbirds only pass through the region for a few weeks each spring and autumn as they migrate from their wintering grounds to breeding habitats spread across North America. The warblers are, for the most part, birds of the fast-moving, insect-eating persuasion.

Many of these energetic birds will bypass the region except for occasional migratory stops as they wing their way quickly to bug-ridden bogs or coniferous forests farther north. Species with names like mourning warbler, bay-breasted warbler and Wilson’s warbler shoot past northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia in their haste to reach suitable habitat for raising young in the provinces of Canada or the New England states.

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The last verified sightings of Bachman’s Warbler took place in the 1970s and the species is probably extinct.

A couple of endangered warblers — Kirtland’s warbler of Michigan and the golden-cheeked warbler of Texas — require extensive management by the federal government to protect their nesting habitat and ensure successful nesting. These two warblers, along with a handful of others, are the only members of the warblers nesting in eastern North America that I haven’t added to my birding life list.

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The Rev. John Bachman

Only one of the warblers known to nest in the United States has ever gone extinct. Bachman’s warbler hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s, although there have been sporadic and unconfirmed sightings since the 1980s. The bird was named in honor of the Rev. John Bachman, an early naturalist and friend of John James Audubon. The species was first collected by Bachman in his native South Carolina in the early 1830s. Historically, Bachman’s warbler bred as far north as Virginia, but the bird’s stronghold was in the states along the Atlantic southern coastal plain. Almost the entire population spends the winter months in Cuba. The disappearance of this small, yellowish bird has never been fully explained and will likely linger as a biological mystery. From its discovery to the plunge toward extinction, Bachman’s warbler was known for only slightly more than a century.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                              A female Black-and-White Warbler gathers nesting materials.

 

Most warblers have managed to adapt to changing landscapes brought out by human activity. Some, like the yellow warbler and the yellow-rumped warbler, are quite widespread. The yellow warbler nests across most the continental United States and also reaches Alaska. Closer to home, a few of these warblers nest in the woodlands around my house. The expected species each summer include hooded warbler, black-and-white warbler, ovenbird and Northern parula.

I usually have better luck observing migrating warblers in the fall. I think part of the reason rests with the fact that warblers migrating in the spring are in a hurry to reach their destinations. In contrast, the fall migration is a more leisurely activity that affords these tiny birds the luxury of spending a few days in different locations. If one of those locations happens to be my backyard, I take great pleasure in getting my binoculars on species ranging from Kentucky warbler to blue-winged warbler.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                              A Pine Warbler visits a suet feeder. Most warblers ignore feeders, but these energetic songbirds will visit fountains and water features.

Most warblers will ignore offerings at our feeders, although the occasional pine warbler learns the advantages of visiting suet feeders during the cold months. The most reliable means to attract these tiny, energetic birds is with a water feature, such as a bird bath, ornamental pool or even a bubbling fountain or artificial waterfall. On my property, I have a cattail marsh, a fish pond and a modest creek. As a result, I don’t spend much time working on providing supplemental water sources. For those not blessed with such resources, I highly recommend some sort of water source to increase your chances of visits from warblers.

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Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                            A Black-throated Blue Warbler is captured in preparation for banding.

These tiny birds are not the easiest ones to learn to identify. However, only about four dozen species migrate through the region or stop to spend the summer months. With a good field guide and some practice, it’s not that difficult to learn the different species. The reward is that undeniable spark of magic imparted by an observation of a bird as glorious as a fiery-throated Blackburnian warbler or a handsome black-throated blue warbler.

Departures, new arrivals signal approach of winter

October represented a transitional time for the region’s birds. Many of our summer birds have now departed for wintering grounds, which means we won’t be seeing them again until April or May of 2016.

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The last Ruby-throated Hummingbird of 2015.

I saw hummingbirds daily in my yard during October through the 17th day of the month, when I saw only a single bird at the feeders. The following day no hummingbirds appeared in the yard.
I am still hanging sugar water feeders in the unlikely chance I might attract a visit from one of the Selasphorus hummingbirds, a genus of these tiny birds that spends the nesting season in the western United States. A few of these species appear to migrate through the southeastern United States each fall and early winter. Rufous hummingbird is the species most likely to make an appearance, but other species — Allen’s hummingbird and black-chinned hummingbird — are a possibility.

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A Rufous Hummingbird I observed being banded several years ago in Hampton, Tennessee.

These “winter” hummingbirds are easy to recognize. Their plumage is more brown than green, making them quite distinguishable from the usual ruby-throated hummingbird, which is not usually present in the region after the end of October.
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Most of the warblers have also departed. I saw a couple of common yellowthroats on Oct. 10, but they represented the last gasp of warbler migration. Most of the warblers winter in Central America or the Caribbean, although a few travel only as far as Florida.

 

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The Yellow-rumped Warbler is one of the few warblers that remains in the region for the winter months.

Of course, there’s always an exception to the rule. The aptly-named yellow-rumped warbler is a winter resident throughout much of Virginia and Tennessee. I had a couple of yellow-rumped warblers in the yard on Oct. 25. The winter diet of this warbler includes the berries of poison ivy, so the bird helps with the spread of this noxious plant.
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I often think of October as the season for sparrows, and this year proved no exception. Three different species marked their return during October.
Of all the birds associated with winter weather, few are as symbolic as the dark-eyed junco, or “snow bird.” The junco occurs in several geographic variations.
John V. Dennis, author of “A Complete Guide to Bird Feeding,” captures the essence of the junco in the following description: “Driving winds and swirling snow do not daunt this plucky bird. The coldest winter days see the junco as lively as ever and with a joie de vivre that bolsters our sagging spirits.” The dark-eyed junco’s scientific name, hyemalis, is New Latin for “wintry,” an apt description of this bird.
Most people look forward to the spring return of some of our brilliant birds — warblers, tanagers and orioles — and I must admit that I also enjoy the arrival of these birds. The junco, in comparison to some of these species, is not in the same league. Nevertheless, the junco is handsome in its slate gray and white plumage, giving rise to the old saying “dark skies above, snow below.”
The first junco showed up this year on Halloween. Sheila Boyd, a Facebook friend who lives in Marion, North Carolina, sent me a message to let me know she saw her first juncos on Oct. 29.

 

 

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The Swamp Sparrow is most often found in wetland habitats.

My junco sighting on Oct. 31 followed observations earlier in the month of some other wintering sparrows. I have allowed a stand of cattails to grow unmolested on my property, and now my action is paying dividends. I’ve seen numerous swamp sparrows in my small cattail marsh, beginning with one that I saw on Oct. 11.
The cattails also persuaded a marsh wren to pay a visit on Oct. 4. Marsh wrens and swamp sparrows are not the only birds fond of cattails. These plants also attract birds as diverse as rails and snipes, as well as red-winged blackbirds, common yellowthroats and various waterfowls.
White-throated sparrows showed up on Oct. 15, which is fairly typical for this winter resident. The numbers of this attractive sparrow have been increasing since that date.

 

 

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Photo by Ken Thomas                                            A White-throated Sparrow shows off its namesake white throat.

While I have learned to associate this bird with winter’s arrival, some Native American tribes connected the white-throated sparrow with the annual return of spring. According to Laura C. Martin, author of “The Folklore of Birds,” the Blackfoot Indians called the white-throated sparrows “summer-bringers.” The members of this tribe believed that the message of the sparrow’s song was “the leaves are budding and summer is coming.”
The song of the white-throated sparrow has also earned distinctive translations among the residents of Canada and the United States. Those translations can be described as “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada” or “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”
While the shy swamp sparrows usually maintain a reclusive presence in the cattails, white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos are regular visitors at my feeders once they arrive. Both the junco and the white-throated sparrow prefer to feed on the ground beneath the feeders. A few other sparrows will visit feeders, including song sparrow, field sparrow, chipping sparrow and white-crowned sparrow.

 

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A Song Sparrow perches on a dry cattail stalk.

Of course, the real entertainment from our sparrows comes from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and began a furious period of eating, I don’t even have to glance skyward or tune in the television weather forecast. I know what they know. Bad weather is on the way!

 

With our winter birds beginning to arrive, I’d love to hear what readers are seeing at their own feeders. Send me an email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com to ask questions, share observations or makes a comment.