Tag Archives: Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Reader reports visit from rufous hummingbird

An email from Bristol resident Ralph Beamer offered a timely reminder about the need to keep a watchful eye on our sugar water feeders even as most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds depart the region.

“For the past week, I have had a red humming bird coming to the feeder,” Ralph explained in his email. He added that he had never seen a hummingbird like this recent visitor.

“Have you had any reports of a similar sighting?” Ralph asked.

Ralph is the first person to make such a report this fall, but sightings of a species of hummingbird other than the expected ruby-throated hummingbird are becoming more commonplace each year. Once the numbers of ruby-throated hummingbirds are reduced as these tiny birds migrate from the region, noticing an unusual hummingbird at a feeder becomes even easier.

In a reply to Ralph’s email, I sought more information on the hummingbird’s coloration. He confirmed that the bird’s feathers looked more reddish brown than bright red, which supports my belief that he has received a visit from a rufous hummingbird.Ruf-Drawing

I speak from personal experience. My yard has attracted rufous hummingbirds on a couple of occasions. In October of 2016 I received my most recent visit from a rufous hummingbird, which lingered into November and was banded by Mark Armstrong. A former curator of birds for the Knoxville Zoo, Armstrong has devoted several years to studying the phenomenon of rufous hummingbirds that appear to migrate on a regular basis through the eastern United States every fall and early winter. Mark’s efforts have largely focused on Tennessee reports of rufous hummingbirds, but other banders operating from the Gulf Coast to New England have confirmed rufous hummingbirds in their respective regions.

The possibility of attracting a rufous hummingbird is the reason I encourage others to keep a sugar water feeder available into October and November. Experts who have studied the matter note that the presence of a feeder will not encourage ruby-throated hummingbirds to linger. These tiny birds know instinctively when it’s time to depart. Without the attraction of a feeder, however, a visiting rufous hummingbird might reject any extended stay in your yard.

Selasphorus rufus, or the rufous hummingbird, is about the same size as the ruby-throated hummingbird. Both species reach a body length of a little more than three inches and weigh only a few grams. In fact, one of these small hummingbirds might weigh the equivalent of a dime. Female rufous hummingbirds are slightly bigger than males, so a well-fed female rufous hummingbird might weigh as much as a nickel. So, to get an accurate impression of this sort of size, simply think of these tiny birds as weighing less than some of the spare change in your pocket.

Although hummingbirds are not known for their longevity, the website for Tennessee Watchable Wildlife notes that the oldest rufous hummingbird on record reached an age of eight years and 11 months. For the most part, hummingbirds blaze like tiny comets and enjoy typically brief but fast-paced lives. Despite a prevalent impression, hummingbirds are not delicate creatures. For instance, the rufous hummingbird’s tolerance for cold allows it to survive temperatures that dip briefly below zero. This adaptation has allowed the rufous hummingbird to breed as far north as Alaska.

The Selasphorus genus of hummingbirds consists of the rufous and six other species. Of those species, the Allen’s hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird and calliope hummingbird are known to also migrate through the eastern United States although with less frequency than the rufous. The remaining Selaphorus hummers — scintillant hummingbird, glow-throated hummingbird and volcano hummingbird — range in the tropical regions of Costa Rica and Panama. Those rufous hummingbirds that don’t spend the fall and early winter in the southeastern United States choose to overwinter in the region of Mexico around the city of Acapulco. This majority of the rufous hummingbird population migrates north again in the spring to claim nesting territory that can range from the Rocky Mountains of the western United States, as well as the Pacific Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington, all the way north to southern Alaska, as well as British Columbia in Canada.

Those rufous hummingbirds that continue to migrate through the southeastern United States each autumn constitute more evidence that we still have a lot to learn about birds. Even an abundant species like the rufous hummingbird offers mysteries that curious humans can attempt to understand.

While I can’t guarantee hummingbirds, I want to remind readers of the bird walks at 8 a.m. each Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Remaining walks, which are free and open to the public, are scheduled for Oct. 21 and Oct. 28. Meet at the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing pleasure.

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Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Hummingbird numbers spike as summer season advances toward autumn

 

From the shade of my front porch, I watched about a half dozen ruby-throated hummingbirds cavort among the blooms of a large mimosa tree on a recent evening. The tree apparently holds an extraordinary attraction for the hummingbirds, as well as the pipevine swallowtail butterflies and other pollinating insects. I enjoyed watching the greenish hummingbirds zip among the profusion of pink mimosa blossoms, which have always reminded me of the thin fiber-optic filaments popular on some artificial Christmas trees and other decorations during the holidays. To draw so many different insects, as well as hummingbirds, the mimosa blooms must provide a rich source of nectar.

While I have almost wilted from the recent extended heat wave, the ruby-throated hummingbirds at my home appear to have downright thrived during these sunny, hot days of mid-summer. Once again, these tiny birds must have enjoyed a successful nesting season, based on the numbers of young hummers visiting both my feeders and flowers. The uptick in the presence of hummingbirds took place without much fanfare, but after a couple of months of “hummer doldrums,” it was impossible for any observer to miss the way these tiny birds have become much more prevalent in recent weeks.

Coinciding with this resurgence of the hummingbirds at my home, I received a post on Facebook from Philip Laws, a resident of Limestone Cove. Apparently, Philip, too, has noticed that hummingbird numbers are on the rise.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male ruby-throated hummingbird perches near a feeder that he is ready to defend from all comers.

“Seemed like a slow hummingbird summer,” he wrote. “But two days ago the babies started hitting the feeders and everything looks much brighter!”

I also enjoyed a recent phone conversation with Erwin resident Don Dutton, who wanted to know why hummingbirds have been scarce around his home this summer. I’ve noticed fewer hummers at my own home this summer, but it’s natural for numbers to fluctuate from year to year. I anticipate that numbers will rise as hummingbirds begin migrating south again in the coming weeks. At that time, the adult hummers will be joined by the young birds from this season’s successful nesting attempts.
Don shared that when he lived out west, he often visited Mount Charleston near Las Vegas, Nevada, where he saw swarms of hummingbirds comprised of various different species. In the eastern United States, the only nesting species is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird.

For readers who have felt slighted by hummers so far this season, perhaps it’s time to try your luck again at attracting them. The surest method is to keep a sugar water feeder available to attract them on their way south later this summer and into the fall. A visit to a plant nursery can also provide an abundance of blooms to use to lure hummers to your gardens. Some late-blooming summer flowers attractive to hummingbirds include canna, cardinal flower, gladiola and crocosmia. While the widely held belief is that hummingbirds prefer red blooms, they will gladly visit any flower that rewards them with a sip of nectar.501-7006-blk

Late summer and early fall, even more so than spring, are usually the best times to enjoy hummingbirds, when they are usually at their most common. There are a couple of reasons for this annual increase. First, nesting female hummingbirds have reared their young, which then begin visiting feeders and gardens to compete with their elders at flower blossoms and sugar water feeders. Second, adult males and females that migrated farther north usually begin swinging southward again in late July and early August.

According to the website hummingbirds.net, mature male hummingbirds usually follow an earlier departure date than adult females and immature birds. The organizers of the website theorize that by leaving early in the fall, the adult male hummingbirds free up resources for their developing offspring. After all, it’s the least they can do since adult male hummingbirds play absolutely no role in helping females with the process of nesting and rearing young. All young hummingbirds are, in effect, raised by single mothers.

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

Despite their tiny size, hummingbirds are tough birds. One species, the rufous hummingbird, ranges as far north as Alaska. Several tropical species have adapted to the frigid conditions that occur at the higher elevations of the Andes Mountains.

As I have done in years past, I advise a patient but proactive approach for attracting hummingbirds. Keep feeders readily available. If possible, offer flowers, too. Don’t keep your landscape too tidy. A perfectly manicured lawn is like a desert for hummingbirds. Provide some shrubs and trees to provide cover and perching branches. Water features, particularly waterfalls and fountains, are also a reliable means of attracting hummingbirds, as well as other birds.

If you have felt slighted by hummers so far this year, keep a sugar water feeder available to attract them on their way south later this summer and into the fall. To share a sighting, make a comment, or ask a question, send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

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Bryan Stevens has been writing about birds since 1995. 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.

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.

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.

 

Arduous migration journeys by some birds represent wondrous natural achievements

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                          This rose-breasted grosbeak struck a window Monday, Oct. 3, during fall migration. Although this bird rested and later recovered, many birds are felled by similar perils and obstacles as they migrate south each fall.

A stunned rose-breasted grosbeak recuperating on the front porch on Oct. 3 provided a reminder that migrating birds face a variety of perils and obstacles as they wing their way back south. Now that we’re into October, many of the birds of summer — orioles, tanagers, warblers and hummingbirds — are becoming scarce in our yards and gardens. These neotropical migrants are temporary visitors, remaining in North America only long enough to nest and raise young before they take to the wing to return to more tropical regions for the winter months that will grip their summer home in snow and ice for several months.

Some of these birds migrate out of the tropics to avoid competition. Others find North America a land of abundant, albeit temporary, resources. This land of plenty offers a wealth of insects, seeds, fruit and other nourishing, nutritious food to help parent birds keep their strength while they work to ensure their young thrive. The phenomenon of migration isn’t exclusive to the neotropical migrants of the New World. Birds in other parts of the world migrate, too.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                 The tiny ruby-throated hummingbird crosses the Gulf of Mexico twice yearly to migrate from Central America to North America in the spring and back again in the fall.

The Arctic tern, for example, truly takes migration to extremes. This small seabird travels each year from its Arctic nesting grounds to the Antarctic region, where it spends the winter months. Put into terms of mileage, the Arctic tern can travel about 50,000 miles in a single year. For a bird with a body length of about 15 inches and a wingspan of about 28 inches, this incredible migration is an astonishing feat.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, a favorite of many bird enthusiasts living in the eastern United States, makes an impressive migration each year. Just to reach the United States, these tiny birds undertake a strenuous journey. They leave their wintering grounds in Central America to return to the United States and Canada for the nesting season. 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! With the end of summer, the entire population of ruby-throated hummingbirds, increased by a new generation of young birds, makes the Gulf crossing for a second time in a year to return to the American tropics for the winter months.

The broad-winged hawk, a raptor found in the region during the summer, makes a fall migration back to South America every fall that astonishes human onlookers who gather along mountain peaks to witness the spectacle. The hawks form large flocks, also called kettles, that can number thousands of birds.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Steve Maslowski The bar-tailed godwit stages migrations that can take nine days of non-stop flight spanning nearly 6,000 miles.

Shorebirds, which in North America can consist of birds ranging from plovers and godwits to dowitchers and avocets, are champion migrants. The bar-tailed godwit makes an even more impressive non-stop migratory flight. This shorebird nests in parts of Scandinavia, northern Asia and Alaska. Some of these godwits make a nine-day non-stop migratory flight that takes them from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea of China, a distance of almost 6,000 miles. Needless to say, since the godwits make no stops along the way, they must also go without food for the duration of their journey.

Most of the warblers that nest in North America retreat to Central and South America during the winter months. Few warblers, however, make as great a journey as the blackpoll warbler. Instead of migrating over land, this five-inch-long warbler undertakes a two-stage migration. The first half of the migration is a non-stop flight of about 1,500 miles. Every fall, these tiny birds fly over the ocean during this part of their migration, departing from Canada or the northern United States and not stopping until they reach various locations in the Caribbean. There they will spend some time recovering from the exhausting first half of their journey before they continue their way to such South American countries as Colombia and Venezuela. Once again, during the time they spend flying over open ocean, these tiny warblers do not feed.

Even birds that cannot fly undertake migrations. For instance, flightless penguins swim hundreds or thousands of miles to reach preferred ranges for feeding or nesting. The Australian emu, a smaller relative of the ostrich, makes seasonal migrations on foot to ensure access to abundant food supplies at all seasons.

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Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Kirk Rogers         The Arctic tern’s migration, which takes it from the Arctic to the Antarctic, keeps this small seabird in the sky for about 50,000 miles each year.

Birds are not even the only animals to migrate. Many creatures, from whales and wildebeest to dragonflies and butterflies, impress humans with their endurance as they stage regular migrations.

Even as some of our summer favorites depart, we should prepare to welcome back some winter favorites, including dark-eyed juncos, yellow-rumped warblers, white-throated sparrows and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Fall is indeed a time of departure for many birds, but it’s also a time to make new friends with the other birds that should soon start arriving in our yards and gardens.

As for the rose-breasted grosbeak on the porch, that story had a happy ending. After taking some time to recover after apparently striking a window, the bird hopped around the porch for a moment and then took wing and flew to nearby hawthorn trees. The bird’s flight — strong and straight — delighted me. The grosbeak could have been badly injured or even killed. I wished it the best for the remainder of its journey.

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I’m dedicating this week’s column to the memory of J. Wallace Coffey, a great birder and wonderful individual who died Tuesday, Sept. 27. I met Wallace, a native of Bristol, Tennessee, back in the late 1990s. He introduced me to some wonderful birding destinations in the region, including such Virginia locations as Burke’s Garden, Steele Creek Park in Bristol, the wetlands of Saltville and Musick’s Campground on Holston Lake. Wallace was a tireless promoter of birds, birding and birders, and he loved to encourage young people to explore nature. He was also a great leader for the Bristol Bird Club, as well as the Elizabethton Bird Club. He will be greatly missed.
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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.

Returning birds add their songs to the spring’s chorus

Singing-Towhee

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                Eastern Towhee sings from a limb on a sapling.

As we welcome April, I’ve noticed the additions to the early morning chorus produced by the birds in residence around my home. From American robins and Eastern towhees to song sparrows and Carolina chickadees, all our feathered friends produce their own unique serenades to greet each new day.

Songbirds sing to attract mates, discourage rivals, establish territories and for a variety of other reasons.

Of course, the songs of birds play important roles in their daily lives. Half of the world’s bird species are known as passerines, or songbirds; in itself a good indication of the importance of song in the day-to-day routines of birds.

The scientific definition of a songbird is that it is a species with a specialized voice box known as a syrinx. This amazing organ allows for the production of some of the melodic and complex songs characteristic of birds such as wood thrush, Northern cardinal and Carolina wrens. Many of the warblers — a family of birds that should be beginning to returning to the region — produce a diverse range of songs.

Singiong-Grackle

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A Boat-tailed Grackle sings from a South Carolina wetland.

Among other purposes, attracting mates, intimidating rivals and signaling territorial borders are some of the reasons birds sing. For human listeners, it’s easy to think that birds also sing for the sheer joy of producing these amazing choruses. That belief, however, is probably based more on the ear of the beholder.

We would probably be unaware of the presence of many birds if it wasn’t for their vocalizations. This fact is particularly true of nocturnal birds or denizens of inaccessible habitats such as swamps and marshes.

I was reminded of this fact when Facebook friend Kenneth Oakes sent me a message on March 23 about the arrival of the first whip-poor-will of the spring.

Caprimulgus_vociferus-Louis-Agassiz-Fuertes-390x264

A painting of a Whip-poor-will by the artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes.

“A whip-poor-will has just arrived,” he wrote in his message. “It is about 12 days early.” Kenneth noted that usually the arrival date for whip-poor-wills, as well as for hummingbirds, is about April 5.

“This is the earliest I’ve ever seen them arrive in this area,” Kenneth wrote. For the past two years, he noted that whip-poor-wills have been a week to 12 days late in arriving in the spring.

Kenneth is not the only person who has reported “early bird” whip-poor-wills. Brookie Potter, who lives with his wife, Jean, near Wilbur Lake in Carter County, Tennessee, heard two calling whip-poor-wills near his home on Easter Sunday, March 27. He reported his observation on bristol-birds, an online list-serve forum for sharing area bird sightings.

Ironically, the whip-poor-will is not one of the world’s many passerine, or songbird, species. Nevertheless, this bird’s nocturnal serenades are one of my fondest childhood memories. I remember sitting on my grandparents’ front porch to listen for hours to the whip-poor-wills as they sang the syllables of their own names from the nearby edges of the woodlands.

Kenneth also reported that he thinks the juncos have departed. “Winter is not over until they leave,” he wrote. “Let’s hope for an early spring.”

All indications, such as the early arrivals of birds such as whip-poor-wills, are that an early spring could be in the works. This is also the time of year when I keep my eyes open for the arrival of the first ruby-throated hummingbirds of spring. In fact, I put out my sugar water feeders the last week of March.

According to websites that track the annual northward migration of these tiny birds, the first hummingbirds should start arriving in Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina any day now. As always, I invite readers to share with me the date and time of these first sightings.

Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or send me a message on Facebook to notify me when you observe your first hummingbird of spring 2016.

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WoodDucks-1

Photo by Bryan Stevens                                        A pair of Wood Ducks visited the fish pond several times in March and April.

While I haven’t yet seen hummingbirds, plenty of other birds have been making appearances. My fish pond has been visited twice by pairs of wood ducks. My other recent sightings have included tree swallows, brown thrashers and chipping sparrows. I love spring for the simple fact you never know when a new bird will surprise you with an unanticipated arrival.

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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.

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.

Hummer-Oct17

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.

Rufous-BettyKirby-Three-Program

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.

 

Yellow-Rump-Frippy

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.

 

 

Swamp_Sparrow

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.

 

 

White-throated_Sparrow-27527

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.

 

SongSparrow-Cattailss

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.