Tag Archives: Erwin Record

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

 

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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.

Readers share arrival stories about spring’s hummingbirds

Ruby-throated hummingbirds have returned. The annual first sighting of a hummingbird is one of my most cherished spring moments. Invariably, the first hummingbird to show up in my yard is a male with the gorget — or throat patch — of red, iridescent feathers that gives his species its common name.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds swarm to a feeder filled with a sugar water mixture.

As I indicated in a recent column, the ruby-throated hummingbird is one of more than 300 species of hummingbirds. All hummingbirds are found in the New World and are absent from the Old World. Male ruby-throated hummingbirds launch their spring migration about 10 days prior to female hummingbirds.

Based on the number of people who shared hummingbird sightings with me, these tiny birds have a lot of big fans. If you would like to host your own hummingbirds, here are some crucial tips.

• Make your yard a zone that’s free of insecticides and pesticides. Residues of these chemicals can remain on blossoms, which then run the risk of sickening a hummingbird. In addition, hummingbirds subsist on more than nectar. They consume many tiny insects and spiders. Eating bugs that have been contaminated with dangerous chemicals can also sicken or kill hummingbirds.

• Provide shrubs and trees to your landscape to make your yard more inviting. Hummingbirds claim favorite posts and perches, where they will rest when they are not visiting our gardens or feeders. Shrubs and trees can also provide locations for concealing nests built by female hummingbirds.

• Cultivate plants that offer nectar-producing blooms. While hummingbirds are known to favor the color red, these nectar-sipping birds will also visit blooms of other colors. Some favorite spring blooms include the flowers of red buckeye, wild columbine, crossvine and native varieties of azaleas. As spring advances into summer, the diversity of flowers available to lure hummingbirds into your garden will increase dramatically.

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Photo by Bill Buchanan/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • Hummingbirds visit flowers for nectar, so be sure your garden offers a variety of blooms.

 

Thursday, April 6

Eddie and Delores Phipps of Bluff City, Tennessee, reported seeing their first hummingbird.

“We were excited to see our first hummingbird at the feeder on the morning of April 6,” the couple wrote in an email.  “It was the earliest we have ever seen one. He has been back every day since!”

Eddie and Delores provided me with the report of the earliest arriving hummingbird. Soon after the couple reported their hummingbird, I began to receive more sightings from throughout northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

Sunday, April 9

Monica Black, a resident of Unicoi, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of the season about 5 p.m.

“Near the chairs in the back garden there is a spillway created from the koi pond down to the frog pond,” Monica said in the email she sent me. “The hummers like to drink and bathe in it.”

The visiting hummingbird also treated her to a viewing of the first bathing hummingbird of the season.

“The male is the only hummer spotted so far,” she added.

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Facebook friend Phyllis Moore informed me that her friend, Janie Compton, saw her first hummingbird at 6:34 p.m. on Sunday, April 9, in Chesterfield, Virginia.

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Nata Jackson, a resident of Greene County, Tennessee, shared details about her first sighting of spring. In her email, she said she had just put up her feeder when the bird arrived.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Only the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird has the brilliant red throat patch, or gorget, that gives the species its common name.

Tuesday, April 11

Nancy and Walt Vernon, of Bristol, Tennessee, emailed details of their first sighting. “We saw it about 12:30 while having lunch,” Nancy wrote in her email. “We have three feeders which we keep filled all summer.”

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Jeanie Campbell, who lives on Mendota Road in Abingdon, Virginia, also sent me an email. Her first spring hummer — a tiny female — wasn’t very active at first. “Then she began drinking away,” Jeanie wrote.

A few days later on April 15, a male — or “Mr. Red Throat” as Jeanie described him — appeared. “He buzzed around all day,” she said.

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Glen Eller, a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, posted on Bristol-Birds — a mailing list archive for area bird sightings — that his daughter, Lia, saw her first hummingbird at 6:55 a.m. Glen’s daughter lives in Fall Branch, Tennessee.

“It’s seemingly a little bit late in this warm spring,” Glen wrote in his post.

Wednesday, April 12

Philip Laws saw his first hummingbird of spring at 4:15 p.m. in the Limestone Cove community in Unicoi County. In his Facebook post to my page, Philip said the arrival served as a reminder that he had meant to put his feeders out a few days earlier, but had failed to do so. He quickly got out feeders to welcome the birds.

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Amy Wallin Tipton, in Erwin, posted on her Facebook page about the return of her hummingbirds.

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Kristy Dunn, who lives in Johnson City, sent me an email to share her first hummingbird sighting of spring.

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Bill and Judith Beckman sent me an email to report their first hummingbird of the season. The hummer arrived around 4 p.m. at their home on Spivey Mountain in Unicoi County.

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Preston Bowers emailed to let me know he saw his first hummingbird at about 5:30 p.m.

“I have lived in Blountville since 1970,” he wrote. “Oddly enough, I never noticed hummingbirds on this property until about three years ago.”

A creek in front of his house has an abundance of jewelweed, which the ruby-throat seems to like quite well.

“So I installed a hummingbird feeder at the corner of my porch where I sit in the porch swing and play ukulele,” he added. “What a joy to watch these amazing birds as they fly by at lightning speeds or hover ever so gracefully.” Preston noted that some of their antics seem like an aerial battle. “I hear sounds that are so similar to the sound of a World War II fighter plane in tactical operations,” he wrote.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird perches on the tip of a garden post.

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Sandra Loving sent an email notifying me that she got her first sighting of a spring hummer at her feeders at her home on South Holston Lake at 7:50 p.m.

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Sharon Foster, who lives on Friendship Drive at South Holston Lake, emailed me about the date of her first hummer’s arrival. “We’ve had hummingbirds at our feeders all week,” she added.

Friday, April 14

Lynne Reinhard saw her first hummingbird at 8:15 a.m. near the upper end of South Holston Lake in Bristol. She posted the news of her sighting on my Facebook page.

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Jill Henderson, who lives on Poor Valley Road in Saltville, Virginia, emailed about her first hummer sighting: “Just wanted to let you know that I saw my first hummingbird of the spring season at approximately 9:15 a.m. at my home.”

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Beverly Puerckhauer in the Graystone area of Bristol, Tennessee,

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Ruby-throated Hummingbird must share a feeder with hungry honeybees.

saw her first hummingbird and shared news of the arrival in a comment on my Facebook page.

Saturday, April 15

Linda Quinn Cauley posted on my Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird at 9:30 a.m. Linda lives off Sciota Road near Unicoi, Tennessee.

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Karen Fouts, of Marion, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird of spring — a male — and posted a comment on my Facebook page. Karen said she refers to these early arrival hummingbirds as the “advance scouts.”

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Mary Beierle, a resident of the Stoney Creek community in Elizabethton, Tennessee, sent me an email telling me she saw her first hummingbird around 3 p.m. “Only one so far, but we’re excited,” she added.

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Don and Shirley Cook, who reside on the upper end of South Holston Lake in Washington County, Virginia, sent me an email to notify me that they saw their first hummer at 3 p.m.

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Glenna Kiser, who lives near Lebanon, Virginia, informed me in an email of her first hummingbird this spring at 1 p.m.

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Several readers enjoyed their first spring sightings of hummingbirds on Easter Sunday.

Sunday, April 16

Nancy Estes emailed me just after she saw her first hummingbird of the season.

“I didn’t get a close look since I was inside my house, but I am assuming it is a ruby-throated hummingbird,” Nancy wrote. “I live in Bristol’s Middlebrook subdivision.”

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Reva Russell, who lives in the Lynnwood Hills subdivision in Bristol, Virginia, notified me in an email that she saw her first hummingbird of the season at 2 p.m.

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Terry Fletcher, who lives at First Colony Condominiums near the Bristol Country Club, sent an email about the first hummingbird of spring. Terry also photographed the hummingbird through a screen door and shared the photo in an email.

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Debbie Oliver, who resides in Bristol, Tennessee, emailed me about her first sighting.

“It wasn’t a visit from the Easter Bunny but a delightful visit from a ruby-throated hummingbird at our deck feeders around 2:30 in the afternoon,” she wrote in her email.

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Cheryl Jones in Damascus, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird of spring at 5:02 p.m. In her email, she said she was beginning to wonder what was keeping them.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have officially returned to the region as of the first week of April.

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The first hummingbird of spring showed up at at the home of Ken Croghan on Walden Road east of Abingdon, Virginia, while he was sitting on the front deck having dinner. He shared news of the arrival in an email.

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Lynn Heller and her husband were having dinner at their home in Holston Hills in Bristol, Tennessee, when they looked out the window at their hummingbird feeder. “I was telling my husband about your article and that you asked readers to share sightings of their first hummingbird,” she wrote in her email.  “About five minutes later, there he was — a ruby throated hummingbird at 6:31 p.m. on Easter Sunday. What a treat!”

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Donald Elliott Rice of Elizabethton, Tennessee, filled up his feeders on Easter Sunday. “Within a half hour, they showed up,” he posted on Facebook.

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Julie Carter Grason saw her first hummingbird at her home in the Clear Creek community of Bristol, Virginia. She shared the news in a comment on my Facebook page.

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Shirley Jenkins of Bluff City, Tennessee, saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird this spring and shared details in an email. “My family and I were sitting on the back porch about 3:30 when out of nowhere, a ruby red throat came zooming by,” she wrote in her email.

Shirley added that the bird checked out a wind chime hanging on the porch before he went on his way.

“I was thrilled to see it, since I love those adorable little creatures,” she noted. “I will definitely be putting my feeder out pronto.”

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I saw my own first ruby-throated hummingbird — a male — on Saturday, April 15. Although he acted somewhat tentative at first, he became more at ease with me as I watched him at the feeders during repeated visits throughout the day. In 2016, the first hummingbird arrived on April 12, so the arrival date was slightly later this year.

Grade school encounter with killdeer provides memorable teaching moment

With the arrival of April, the pace of migration will quicken. Throughout the month of March, the “early birds” made their return to my yard, including species like tree swallow, brown thrasher, chipping sparrow and blue-gray gnatcatcher.

Birders know they have a narrow window of opportunity to enjoy the arriving birds in the spring. Some will linger briefly and continue to points farther north, while others will take up residence but turn secretive quickly as they get down to the important business of building nests, incubating eggs and raising young.

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A young killdeer — looking like a fuzzy golfball on toothpics, is born precocial. They can leave the nest and feed themselves, all while wearing a coat of downy feathers. Photo by Krista Lundgren/U.S. Fish & Wildlife

 

The task of producing young is the most important one that birds undertake. Even with the most dedicated parents, many birds born this spring will never reach the age of one. Eggs in the nest are vulnerable to opportunist predators, including snakes, mice, squirrels, raccoons and even other birds. Many of the birds that nest in our yards, gardens and woodlands produce altricial young. The term “altricial” is a scientific one meaning the young birds are born helpless and blind, without feathers, with almost non-existent mobility. However, they grow quickly. Since just as many creatures would like to gobble up hatchling birds as like to consume eggs, it doesn’t pay to remain in a nest for any longer than absolutely necessary.

Birds hatched in cup-shaped nests placed in trees, shrubs or even on the ground usually leave their nests within a couple of weeks. On the other hand, cavity-nesting birds produce young that can afford to linger a little longer. Some of their hatchlings may remain inside a nesting cavity for as long as a month. Even after altricial young leave their nests, they will remain dependent on their parents for some time.

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Painting by John James Audubon of what he called the “Killdeer Plover.”

On the opposite side of the equation, many birds produce precocial young, which are born with their eyes open, bodies with feathers or down, and the mobility to follow their parents almost from the time they leave the egg. Precocial young can also find their own food, although parents may escort them to good foraging areas. Well-known precocial birds include ducks and chickens. Anyone who has ever observed ducklings or chicks following a mother hen is familiar with the attributes of precocial young.

Many wild birds produce precocial young, including shorebirds, grouse and quail, wild turkeys, loons and grebes. The ostrich, the world’s largest bird, also produces precocial young. Closer to home, one of my earliest bird memories involves a bird quite famous for the care and keeping of its precocial young. The killdeer is a North American shorebird that is at home in a variety of habitats, including rooftops, parking lots, golf courses, pastures and, in the case of my remembrance, an elementary school playground.

I don’t remember who discovered the nest, but I know that my teacher at Hampton Elementary School and her fellow faculty members protected the nest once they became aware of it. My teacher also had the wisdom to incorporate the nesting killdeer into her lessons. In other words, she made the discovery of these nesting birds a “teachable moment” for her young students.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Four eggs in a killdeer nest, which is assembled right on the ground.

I can’t think of a better bird for teaching some lessons about the strategies birds use to raise young. The killdeer doesn’t make much of a nest. The female often lays her amazingly well-camouflaged eggs — usually four, but occasionally three or five — in a shallow depression in dirt or gravel. On occasion, they may line the nest with plant materials or other items. I once observed a killdeer nest in a gravel parking lot of a mobile home dealership. The ingenious female killdeer, using an abundant material, had lined her nest with discarded cigarette butts — dozens of them. I’ve always joked that I hoped the young weren’t born with a nicotine addiction.

Killdeer parents are zealous parents in safeguarding their young. Adults are famous for feigning a “broken wing” to distract potential predators away from nests and offspring. They will also call loudly while faking their injury to keep the predator’s attention diverted. It’s the loud call — an exuberant “kill-deer” — that has given this member of the plover family its common name.

Like many memories from childhood, some details of that killdeer family’s fate are a little hazy. As far as I know, the parent killdeers succeeded at raising their young family. Perhaps that moment of learning, which let me glimpse into the private life of a fascinating family of birds, pointed me toward my eventual interest in birds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • An adult killdeer is usually a conspicuous, loud bird. 

Later, as an adult and during my early years as a birder, I had an encounter with a baby killdeer. I found the tiny bird limp and lifeless on the ground. Saddened, I reached down to pick up the young bird — it looked like a fuzzy golf ball on matchstick legs — for a closer look. As my fingers started to close around the bird, the baby revived and sprinted off with an impressive display of speed. That’s when I learned that killdeer young have one last defense against would-be predators; they can play possum!

While shorebirds, killdeers are not tied to the shoreline. Although I have observed them along beaches in South Carolina, these birds are just as much at home in cattle pastures, muddy edges of rivers and lakes or even baseball fields. Such terrestrial habitats provide these birds with plenty of food, which includes insects, spiders, centipedes, earthworms and the occasional seed. While many people remain unaware of the world’s shorebirds, the killdeer is the one member of the family that is probably frequently encountered by many Americans. Their fondness for habitats created by humans, from parking lots to gravel-covered rooftops, bring these birds close to us.

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Remember to share your first hummingbird sightings with me. Simply jot down the time and date that you first notice these tiny birds have returned. You can email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or though Facebook. I am increasingly impatient to see my first hummingbirds of the season.

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.