Tag Archives: The Erwin Record

Chipping sparrow a common summer nesting bird

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Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • A black line running through the eye bordered by a white stripe, as well as a rusty-red cap, helps distinguish the chipping sparrow from other “little brown birds” that belong in the sparrow family.

I needed to do some homework before I could answer a question posed to me by Frances Rosenbalm of Bristol, Tennessee. As she communicated to me in an email, she had discovered a bird’s nest in her garden and wanted help identifying the species that built the nest.

“I have a bird that made a nest in the top of my tomato vines,” Frances explained in her email. “It had four turquoise speckled eggs in it.”

Frances described the nest as being made with large twigs and moss. “What kind of bird do you think it may be?” she wrote. She also noted that her garden is located near a farm field.

“I was so surprised to find this nest,” she wrote. “In all of all the years I have put a garden out, this has never happened,” Frances concluded.

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After doing some research, which included poring over the pages of a great book by Hal H. Harrison titled, “A Field Guide to Birds’ Nests: United States East of the Mississippi River,” a work in the Peterson Field Guides series, I was able to write back to Frances with the news that I might have solved the mystery of the nest in the tomato vines.

The Harrison field guide is an exceptional book and one that’s perfect for someone who wants to know a little more about the birds other than their names. Entries for each bird include photographs depicting both the nest and the eggs as well as informative text with supplemental information about nesting birds in the Eastern United States.

Based on the description of the nest and its eggs, as well as its location near a farm field, I identified the nest described by Frances as belonging to chipping sparrows. I found some photographs online of chipping sparrow eggs in a nest and sent that in an email for her to consider.

Frances responded in another email. “I do believe you are right,” she wrote. “The eggs look a lot like the photo, and I have seen some birds that look like (chipping sparrows) flying around.”

For a species often lumped under the grouping of “Little Brown Birds,” the chipping sparrow is quite distinctive. In spring and summer, chipping sparrows sport a crisp, neat plumage with frosty gray underparts, a gray and white face and a striking black line through the eye. An easily recognizable field mark is the bright rusty crown atop the bird’s head.

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Photo by Dave Menke/USFWS • Chipping sparrows will form flocks for the winter season.

When horses were more common in daily American life, the chipping sparrow took advantage of this resource to almost invariably line their nests with horsehair. Now that not all nesting chipping sparrows have access to horses, these birds use fine plant fibers or hair gathered from other sources, including people, to line their nests.

Once a nest is constructed, a female chipping sparrow lays and incubates three to four eggs, which take about 14 days to hatch. Chipping sparrows often attempt to raise two broods in a single nesting season. Although dense evergreen trees are a preferred nesting location, these birds will also nest in vines.

During the warm months of the summer nesting season, chipping sparrows feed almost exclusively on insects. When winter makes insects scarce, these small birds switch their diet to one of seeds. Chipping sparrows will also feed on small fruits and berries.

Chipping sparrows will sometimes nest as many as three times in a single season. Although territorial during the nesting season, these birds form sizable flocks for migration and during the winter season. In making reference to these flocks, observers can use other descriptive terms. Flocks of sparrows have also been called a crew, a flutter, a host, a tournament and a quarrel. I am partial to a flutter of sparrows, but anyone who has watched the pecking order at the feeders will also understand the origins of a quarrel of sparrows.

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John James Audubon painted this chipping sparrow.

There are a couple of well-known Biblical passages using sparrows for powerful pieces of symbolism. One alludes to the fact that if God provides for small songbirds like sparrows, he will certainly provide for human beings. In addition, there is a passage that maintains that not a single sparrow falls without God being aware of the loss. A famous hymn, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” is based on such biblical verses.

The world’s sparrows are divided into two large groupings — the Old World, or true sparrows, and the American sparrows of the New World.

Although largely considered rather dull, plain birds in appearance, some of them have earned descriptive names such as great sparrow, Arabian golden sparrow, green-backed sparrow, five-striped sparrow, yellow-browed sparrow and golden-crowned sparrow.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A field sparrow perches on a branch. These sparrows are closely related to chipping sparrows and relatively common in Northeast Tennessee.

Welcome chipping sparrows and their kin with a well-stocked feeder and perhaps some thick tomato vines for concealing a nest. Unfairly dismissed by some as plain, dull songbirds, the sparrows reward a closer look with some subtle behaviors and plumages as worthy of additional attention as much as some of their more colorful relatives.

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Rally to offer sneak peek at bird migration, other nature activities

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • While the Cape May warbler doesn’t breed locally, these warblers are fairly common spring and fall migrants in the region.

The 56th Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally will draw nature enthusiasts from far and wide to this jewel of the Southern Appalachians on the first weekend after Labor Day with programs, nature walks, catered meals, and much more.

The annual Fall Naturalists Rally is always a great opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and, for birders, get a sneak peek at fall migration with any of the walks and programs focusing on our fine feathered friends. The best naturalists in the region volunteer their time and energy to make this a landmark event for people of all ages.

This year’s rally, which is scheduled for Friday-Sunday, Sept. 7-9, will feature guest speakers, Gabrielle Zeiger and Dr. Joey Shaw, for the main programs on Friday and Saturday evenings.

Zeiger’s Friday program, “Zen and the Art of Mushroom Hunting,” will get underway at 7:30 p.m. following a catered dinner at 6:30. Zeiger has been studying mushrooms in the region for 23 years. She considers herself more of a mushroom enthusiast than an expert. She is a member of the North American Mycological Association, and attends their national forays. She is involved in the association’s annual Wildacres foray in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Mount Mitchell in North Carolina.

 

Photos by Bryan Stevens • Mushrooms will feature in one of this year’s evening programs at the Fall Naturalists Rally.

 

Her program will focus on the two basic approaches — looking for good edibles and scientific study — to mushroom hunting. Her talk will touch on both approaches and include basic information on common mushrooms found in the area, species diversity and poisonous versus edible mushrooms. The program will include various types of fungi from gilled mushrooms, boletes, corals, stinkhorns and polypores, as well as the roles that they play in the environment such as decomposition and forest ecology. She will also talk about what mycologists do at forays. Findings will be included regarding 20 years of record keeping at Roan Mountain and scientific information on studies at Mount Mitchell regarding amount of rainfall and diversity of fruiting.

Photos Contributed • From left: Gabrielle Zeiger and Joey Shaw are this year’s featured speakers.

 

Saturday’s program on “Digitizing Tennessee’s One Million Herbarium Specimens,” will also start at 7:30 p.m. followed by a catered meal at 6:30. Dr. Joey Shaw received a bachelor’s of science in biology from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 1998, and that same year began his graduate education in the Department of Botany at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2001, he received his master’s in botany for a floristic investigation of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Tennessee and Kentucky. In 2005 he received his Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, for his work on the phylogeny and phylogeography of the North American plums and molecular evolution of different genetic regions of the chloroplast genome.

Shaw is currently serving the Association of Southeastern Biologists as Past President and will rotate off this Executive Committee in April 2019, after having served for over ten years and in all ranks of that committee. He is also serving as Chair of the Wildflower Pilgrimage Organizing Committee, and in this capacity he organizes this annual event that brings together more than 120 professional biologists with 850 members of the public to participate in more than 150 different events over four days every spring in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Blue-headed vireos, such as this bird, are high-elevation summer residents in the region. In the fall, they are also common migrants.

Evening and lunch programs will take place in Roan Mountain State Park’s Conference Center and unless other noted, field trips will leave from the field on the left before the cabins in the park.

In addition to the programs, morning and afternoon walks will be held Saturday and Sunday on a vast array of subjects, including birds, salamanders, butterflies, spiders, snakes, geology, mosses and liverworts. A “moth party” will be held after the Friday and Saturday programs. Larry McDaniel will host this party taking a look at these winged nocturnal insects outside the Conference Center.

Consider joining the Friends of Roan Mountain, if you are not a member. Members get free admission to all Naturalists Rally events and the newsletter, “Friends of Roan Mountain.”

The rally offers catered evening meals by City Market of Elizabethton, as well as brown bag lunches on Saturday. All meals must be pre-paid in advance.

Registration and payment for meals and other activities can be made at the website for Friends of Roan Mountain at friendsofroanmtn.org. The website can also provide a brochure for download that offers a complete schedule and details all the available activities at this year’s rally. Whatever your interest, the Roan Mountain Fall Naturalists Rally is sure to have an activity available. For local birders, it’s often the kick-off to the fall migration season as warblers, vireos, thrushes, tanagers, birds of prey and many other species pass through the region on their way to their wintering grounds.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A female scarlet tanager is a study in contrast from her mate with her dull greenish-yellow plumage being much less vibrant than the male’s bright red and black feathers.

Meadowlarks fond of grassland habitats

Jean-MeadowlarkPhoto by Jean Potter • A rocky outcrop provides a perch for this singing male Eastern meadowlark.

 

It’s always fun to add another notch to one’s list of birds. Whether you’re a casual lister or a devoted birder, a new species always offers a burst of excitement in the wake of a first-time observation.

Sharon Foster sent me an email recently to share her excitement about a sighting.

“I’m excited to say my daughter and I spotted a meadowlark up on Cross Mountain last week,” Sharon wrote in her email.

Sharon said she hadn’t been able to do a lot of bird watching other than in her yard and nearby places.

“I never thought I was going to see a meadowlark,” she noted. They are fantastic. We were thrilled. He was just sitting on the fence.’

She added that she didn’t have her good zoom camera with her, or else she could have taken a picture. She will still have her memory of her first sighting, and that’s what is important.

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Photo by USFWS • Baltimore orioles, like this male, are members of the blackbird family, making them relatives of species such as Eastern meadowlarks, brown-headed cowbirds, common grackles and red-winged blackbirds.

She also told me about a Baltimore oriole feeder she bought last fall late in the season.

“I read they usually come around early in spring,” Sharon wrote. She added that she spotted one in her yard by South Holston Lake several years ago.

Of course, when spring rolled around she nearly forgot about the feeder. “It was around mid-April when I thought about it and thought it was too late,” she wrote. “But I put it up anyway and lo and behold the next day there was an oriole in our pine tree.”

It was another memorable birding moment. “Talk about being excited,” Sharon wrote. “Wow! Birds can do that to you!”

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Both the Baltimore oriole and the Eastern meadowlark belong to the family of birds known as icterids, or blackbirds, which also includes species like bobolink, brown-headed cowbird, common grackle and red-winged blackbird.

The Eastern meadowlark is a distinctive bird. It has brown plumage accented by black, with bright-yellow underparts and a bold black V across the chest. Though most of the tail is brown with blackish barring, the outer feathers are white and are a conspicuous trait to look for when the bird is in flight.

The Eastern meadowlark is considered a grassland bird and remains common in habitats such as prairies and other native grasslands. The meadowlark has proven adaptable as long as it can occupy unbroken grassland of about six acres or more. Pastures, fields and even airports have proven suitable habitats for meadowlarks. As suburban areas and subdivisions expand into rural areas, meadowlarks can hang on unless the grassland habitat becomes too segmented and broken into sections too small to be of value.

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Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS • Eastern meadowlarks spend a lot of time on the ground while searching for insects.

Meadowlarks eat mostly insects, especially in summer. For the winter months, these birds will adapt their diet to include seeds, spilled corn and fruit. Meadowlarks, unlike other relatives among the Icterids, or blackbirds, do not typically visit feeders.

These birds construct nests close to the ground. Meadowlarks nesting in fields mown for hay face disaster if the grass is cut before their young have left the nest. The female meadowlark constructs the nest and lays two to seven eggs, which will require an incubation period of about two weeks. Even after hatching, the young are not capable of leaving the nest for another 10 to 12 days. Consequently, young meadowlarks are vulnerable for a month, not only to predators but to a farmer deciding to mow a hayfield.

While the Eastern meadowlark remains common, its numbers have suffered severe declines. such that they are considered to be a declining species. Populations fell more than 3 percent a year between 1966 and 2015, resulting in a cumulative decline of 89 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. According to the website All About Birds, early mowing, overgrazing by livestock and pesticide use are all detrimental to meadowlark survival.

The highest population densities for the Eastern meadowlark are found in the Central Mixed Grass Prairie and the Eastern Tallgrass Prairie regions of the central United States. As the name suggests, the Eastern meadowlark has a counterpart in the western half of the United States. This is reflected in the fact that five central and western states — Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming — have made the Western meadowlark their official state bird. Ironically, the Eastern meadowlark has not been honored with that designation by any of the states it inhabits.

The difference in the two species rests not so much in their appearance as in their songs. The western meadowlark has distinctive vocalizations described as rather flute-like, which distinguish it from the closely related eastern meadowlark. Male Eastern meadowlarks seek out elevated perches to produce a musical, flute-like song in the spring. Utility wires, treetops and fence posts provide some of their favorite perches. Their singing is mostly used to define the borders of their grassland territory.

Finally getting your binoculars on a bird you’ve never seen is always an exciting moment. As we draw closer to the fall season, many different birds will migrate through the region. Fall migration is a great time to spend some time outdoors and try to see some birds that are new. Do some advance homework with a good field guide and study the birds that migrate through the region. Then, simply monitor your yard or a favorite park and wait to see some new species as they make migratory stops in the region.

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Early American naturalist and painter John James Audubon painting this scene depicting nesting meadowlarks.

Family of pigeons, doves features one famous member

Vivian Tester of Bristol, Tennessee, sent me an email seeking help with a pigeon problem.

“I need your advice on trying to keep the pigeons off my bird feeders,” Vivian wrote. “They are chasing off the birds I want to feed and devouring all the seed. My neighbor says they are doves but whatever they are, they are annoying. I don’t know if the squirrel-proof feeder would work or not. I would appreciate any help.”

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Photo of a rock pigeon by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I recommended that Vivian offer only black oil sunflower seeds to see if that might can discourage the unwanted guests. While pigeons will eat sunflower seeds, they much prefer smaller seeds like milo and millet often found in mixed seed packages. If their preferred food source dries up, they may be convinced to move elsewhere.

Stopping feeding for a trial period is another possibility. Remove food for a week and then slowly start offering seeds again. If the pigeons have moved to other feeding grounds, perhaps they will be slow to return.

It’s a tough problem to solve. Although some feeders can be designed to prevent a large bird like a pigeon or dove from perching, the birds are going to still make the attempt. In doing so, they knock seed to the ground below and will happily feed on the spillage. The best option for avoiding pigeons would be to use tube feeders designed for minimal spillage if jostled. Doves and pigeons prefer to feed on the ground, so scattering seeds there, intentionally or inadvertently, is an invitation for flocks to gather.

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Photo by Jean Potter • The widespread rock pigeon is one of the most successful members of the bird family Columbidae, which is comprised of some 310 species of doves and pigeons. One of the most famous representatives of the family is the dodo, an extinct relative of such common birds as the mourning dove and rock pigeon.

Nature, too, offers a solution. Several species of raptors prey readily on doves and pigeons. Peregrine falcons and Cooper’s hawks are two effective controls on such birds, but it is not easy to issue an invitation for one of these birds to take up residence in your yard.

The two mostly likely offenders in the region are the mourning dove and the rock pigeon. Mourning doves are an abundant native species at home in both rural areas and suburbs. The rock pigeon is not a native species but has thrived in the United States since it first arrived with early colonists from Europe. Rock pigeons are mostly a problem for people attempting to feed birds in urban and suburban areas.

Pigeons and doves constitute the animal family Columbidae, which is comprised of some 310 species. One of the most famous members of this family is the extinct bird known as the dodo. The well-known story of the dodo doesn’t often make reference to the relations this bird had to living doves and pigeons.

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In the lower right corner of this illustration, a dodo is visible along with such birds                        as macaws, cranes, and even a wild turkey. Titled “Landscape with Birds,” this painting            was done by artist Roelant Savery in 1628.

Early scientists did not know what to make of the dodo and theorized that the unusual flightless bird was everything from a small ostrich to flightless versions of an albatross or a vulture. Johannes Theodor Reinhardt, a zoologist from Denmark, hinted at the dodo’s relationship to the world’s pigeons and doves as early as 1842. At first his theory was ridiculed, but other biologists and zoologists eventually came to accept the fact that the dodo was indeed a large, flightless pigeon.

The dodo stood a few inches over three feet tall and could weigh close to 40 pounds. Most of what is known about the dodo comes from paintings and drawings of the bird made by early explorers in the 17th century. Some of the humans who observed the bird also left behind valuable written accounts. First discovered by Dutch sailors who visited the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1598, the dodo became extinct only 64 years later. So about the same time the rock pigeon was establishing itself as an introduced species of bird in North America, around the world one of its cousins slid quietly into extinction.800px-Van_den_Venne_dodo 2

The dodo has acquired a reputation in popular culture as slow-witted, lethargic, fat, clumsy and stupid, dooming the bird as a creature too ill-suited to exist. Today, most scientists believe that the dodo was adapted perfectly to its island habitat. Having evolved as a flightless bird, the arrival of humans in its paradise meant its doom. The reputation for stupidity is unfair. Having never encountered humans, dodos did not have an instinctive fear of them. This lack of fear made it easy for the early explorers of their island home to quickly render them extinct.

Modern science has even pinpointed the dodo’s closest living relative. Thanks to DNA analysis, the Nicobar pigeon of southeast Asia has been identified as the closest relation of the dodo. The Nicobar pigeon is much smaller (only 16 inches long) and, unlike its famous relative, is capable of flight. This pigeon feeds mostly on fruit and seed. When grain of any kind is available, it will also make use of such a food source.

Most contemporary sources reveal that the dodo enjoyed a diet rich in fruit, but modern biologists speculate the dodo probably also foraged for nuts, seeds and tubers. It’s ironic that the dodos were slaughtered to extinction to provide food for early explorers of their island. An English explorer by the name of Sir Thomas Herbert recognized the dodo’s exploitation as a food source, but disparaged the bird’s taste. “To the delicate they are offensive and of no nourishment,” Herbert wrote in his published work, “A Relation of Some Years Travel into Africa and the Greater Asia.”

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This sketch, completed in 1634 by Sir Thomas Herbert, shows a broad-billed parrot, a red rail and possibly one of the last dodos to exist on the planet. Herbert described the dodo as a rather poor food source for early explorers to its island home. 

Like the pigeons that have become a scourge on Vivian’s feeders, it’s very likely that, had they survived, dodos might visit feeders today on the island of Mauritius. For the most part, the world’s doves and pigeons are considered successful birds.

In the United States, some other native doves include the widespread mourning dove, as well as white-winged dove, common ground dove and Inca dove. The Eurasian collared-dove, introduced into the Bahamas and Florida, has now spread extensively into the United States and is known to have established populations through northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A mourning dove stretches a wing while perched on a feeder.

Some descriptive names for some of the world’s doves include purple-winged ground dove, lemon dove, zebra dove, ochre-bellied dove, tambourine dove, white-faced cuckoo-dove, ring-necked dove, little cuckoo-dove and sapphire quail-dove. Pigeons have also been bestowed with such colorful names as snow pigeon, speckled pigeon, yellow-eyed pigeon, pale-capped pigeon, metallic pigeon, crested pigeon, pink pigeon and squatter pigeon.

We all like to attract as many birds as possible to our yards and gardens. A variety of food will help achieve that objective. Be aware, though, that such free buffets will also encourage messy birds like pigeons that make feathered pigs of themselves and almost always overstay their welcome. There’s also the option to admire pigeons and doves as survivors with a lineage worthy of some admiration. Hang some tube feeders accessible to smaller songbirds but toss some seeds into a corner of the yard for the ground-feeding pigeons and doves. They’re birds, too, after all.

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English naturalists dissected a dodo skull, shown in this sketch, in 1848 to help prove the relationship of the dodo to pigeons.

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Indigo bunting one of summer’s common songbirds

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male indigo bunting is a resplendent bird.

Two recent summer bird counts emphasized some of the more commonplace birds in the region. While American robins and European starlings were extremely abundant, these two birds are permanent residents and are present year-round. A few other summer songbirds also helped swell the ranks of some of the seasonally common birds. For instance, the Unicoi County Summer Bird Count found a total of 141 indigo buntings while the Elizabethton Summer Bird Count tallied 82 of these little blue beauties. Both of these Northeast Tennessee surveys are conducted by members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society.

The indigo bunting likes to reside in the boundary region where forests and woodlands meet fields and pastures. Personally, the indigo bunting has always been a bird that is suggestive of the long, hot days of summer. One of my earliest and still quite vivid birding memories is a recollection of a shockingly blue bird atop a blue spruce tree in my yard. Several decades later, the tree is no longer standing, but these beautiful birds — I now know these summer visitors were indigo buntings — return year after year to my yard and gardens.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Neotropical migrants, such as this Indigo Bunting, increase the variety of bright and colorful birds in eastern North America from spring until fall each year.

These birds usually arrive in the region in late April and I’ve seen them in late October, although most indigo buntings have left the region by late September.

Male indigo buntings are persistent singers, and in the past couple of weeks one very enthusiastic male has been singing even during the hottest hours of recent July afternoons. The preference of this small songbird is to sing from the tops of tall trees. They are often concealed by the green leaves. When I do get a glimpse of the obscured songster, often all I see is a dark shape silhouetted against the bright sky. Sometimes, if he plunges from the upper branches into the woodland understory, I get that telltale glimpse of blue feathers.

The indigo bunting is the only solid blue bird in the eastern United States. It’s all an illusion, of course. The indigo bunting’s feathers are not really blue. The male’s brilliant azure plumage is caused by the process of refraction. This process absorbs all but blue light, which explains why the indigo bunting appears blue. In bright light, it can even look unnaturally vivid blue. In poor light, however, an indigo bunting male can appear black. Fortunately, indigo buntings have both a characteristic body shape and song, so even if the birds are not seen at their best, they can still be recognized.

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Photon by Bryan Stevens • Indigo Buntings will perch on wires and sing for hours even during hot summer days.

Like many species of songbirds, the male is by far the most colorful. In this instance, the male is also responsible for the species’ name. Indigo is a blue dye that was once an important crop in the South. The drab female may boast some blue highlights in her plumage. Juvenile birds just out of the nest also resemble the female. Pay close attention to any indigo buntings you observe as summer progresses. Juvenile birds will look mostly brown with just a hint of blue in the wings and the tail. These will be the young buntings that were hatched this spring and early summer. They will often accompany their parents to feeders.

Indigo buntings are particularly fun birds to observe in late summer. Although some books indicate that males are not very active in rearing young, I have on numerous occasions witnessed male buntings feeding fledglings at feeders. Indigo bunting juveniles, like the young of many other birds, beg for tidbits from parents by “bowing,” spreading their wings and shivering. These actions usually prompt a parent to pop some morsel into an impatient youngster’s open bill. Indigo buntings are relatively easy to view. They frequent weedy fields and roadside brush. During the breeding season, males can also be seen singing from prominent perches. The song, a distinctive jumble of notes, can help observers find these dedicated singers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Although bright blue, a male indigo bunting will often blend with its surroundings.

The male indigo bunting is one of the most colorful birds to visit feeders in the region. This species is also extremely fond of millet seed. I like to have some feeders stocked with millet when the buntings begin to return each spring. They will also feed on thistle and sunflower seeds. Away from our feeders, they also devour plenty of seeds from various noxious weeds. Because of the indigo bunting’s appetite for the seeds of destructive weeds, it is considered a very beneficial bird.

One of the most attractive summer scenes is to observe American goldfinches and indigo buntings feeding together on the nodding heads of summer sunflowers. The goldfinch males, resplendent in their bright yellow and black plumage, compete with the blue indigo bunting males for the fresh sunflower seeds. When bright red male Northern cardinals join in, observers have a complete artists’s palette for summer viewing.

The indigo bunting will usually respond to human squeaks that imitate a bird’s call. When a flock or family group of buntings are disturbed by a human observer, they usually begin a chorus of alarmed “chipping.”indigo-bunting-john-james-audubon

As I indicated earlier, indigo buntings remain in the region until late September. Although this bird typically winters in Mexico, Panama and the Caribbean, in recent decades some indigo buntings have only gone as far south as Florida to spend the winter. There in the Sunshine State, the indigo buntings may mingle with a close relative, the splendidly multi-colored painted bunting. I usually see these vibrant songbirds whenever I visit coastal South Carolina in spring or summer. Male painted buntings are probably one of the most colorful birds in the United States with hues of red, green, purple and blue in their feathers.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • The male painted bunting is one of North America’s most colorful birds.

Other North American buntings include the snow bunting, the lazuli bunting and the lark bunting, which is also the official state bird for Colorado. Some of the common but descriptive names for some of the world’s other buntings include striolated bunting, cinnamon-breasted bunting, cinereous bunting, white-capped bunting, lark-like bunting, ochre-rumped bunting, golden-breasted bunting, chestnut-bunting, red-headed bunting, yellow bunting, little bunting, brown-rumped bunting, meadow bunting, corn bunting and crested bunting.

Keep your feeders stocked with millet and sunflower seeds if you want to increase your chances of seeing indigo buntings. They will need some dependable places to re-fuel and rest during their upcoming fall migration.

Regional bird count detects population trends

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Photo by Pattie Rowland • A Great Blue Heron explores a paved driveway at a home in Erwin, Tennessee. Rookeries, or nesting colonies, in Erwin have expanded the population of this large wading bird locally.

Members of the Elizabethton Bird Club and birding organizations in Kingsport and Bristol fanned out across Northeast Tennessee on Saturday, May 5, for the 75th consecutive Elizabethton Spring Bird Count. A total of 60 observers (a new participation record) looked for birds in Tennessee’s Carter County and parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.

Counts like this one, as well as surveys such as the Virginia Breeding Bird Atlas, now in its third season, provide valuable information to assist responsible agencies and organizations with the protection and preservation of the nation’s birds.

This year’s spring count tallied 152 species, slightly better than the overall average of 149 species established over the last 30 years. The most ever species tabulated for this count was 166 species back in 2016.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Many of the birds found during a survey liked the Spring Bird Count are observed at feeders, such as was the case with this downy woodpecker.

I counted birds along the Watauga River in Elizabethton and on Holston Mountain. Some of the better birds I saw during the daylong outing included Baltimore oriole, Blackburnian warbler, warbling vireo, and yellow-billed cuckoo.

I also saw numerous great blue herons. It’s notable that this large wading bird has become much more common in the region, thanks to recent rookeries, or nesting sites, in Erwin, Elizabethton, Bristol and other locations. In recent years, new rookeries have also been established in southwest Virginia in locations such as Saltville and Damascus. A total of 123 great blue herons were found on this year’s spring count.

So it was with much interest that I read on my Facebook page the story of an encounter Pattie Rowland, a resident of Erwin, Tennessee, had with a rather tame great blue heron. Instead of flying away when Pattie stepped outside, a visiting heron strolled around her yard and down her neighbor’s driveway.

Pattie wondered if the heron could be a fledgling from the rookery in Erwin. While that’s certainly a possibility, the bird could also be an adult nesting in the rookery and wandering a little farther afield than usual in search of food for its young. In addition to fish, great blue herons will also feed on earthworms, amphibians, reptiles and even small rodents. As I mentioned to Pattie, herons are like people. Each bird is an individual; some are shy, others are curious and adventurous, which may find a heron exploring a paved driveway instead of a water lily-choked pond.

Heron-OnNest

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Great blue herons have expanded their nesting range into the region.

This heron has only been known to nest in Unicoi County since 2007. In addition, count participants found 144 double-crested cormorants, another bird affiliated with water that has proliferated as a summer nesting bird in the region.

Despite the increasing numbers of great blue herons and double-crested cormorants, they were far from the most numerous bird found on the spring count. The European starling claimed the distinction of most abundant bird on this year’s count with a total of 921 individuals found. Other abundant birds included cliff swallow (864); American robin (844); Canada goose (648); red-winged blackbird (546); and American crow (377). Although the count produced many good birds, it was also notable for some misses, including Northern bobwhite, sharp-shinned hawk and Kentucky warbler.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male red-winged blackbird sings to attract mates and ward off rivals.

In the wild, great blue herons can live for 15 years. The great blue heron’s diet is often dictated by opportunity with these large birds known to feed on prey that ranges from fish and crustaceans to small alligators and baby turtles. These herons will also feed on insects, rodents, amphibians, reptiles and even nestling birds. A great blue heron will basically try to eat anything that it can capture and swallow.

The great blue heron is the largest North American heron, as well as the world’s third-largest heron species. Other herons around the world with descriptive common names include Goliath heron, black-headed heron, purple heron, zigzag heron, capped heron and whistling heron.

The great blue heron isn’t the only heron found in the region. Other herons that can be found locally include green heron, yellow-crowned night-heron and black-crowned night-heron, all of which were found on the recent bird count.

If you’re interested in observing great blue herons for yourself, consider visits to the wetlands at Sugar Hollow Park in Bristol, Virginia, or the waterways around Osceola Island Recreation Area near Holston Dam in Bristol, Tennessee. These herons can also often be found stalking fish, frogs and other prey around the edges of ponds or streams.

The official results of the Spring Bird Count by the Elizabethton Bird Club are presented below:

Canada goose, 648; wood duck, 70; mallard, 176; Northern shoveler, 1; greater scaup, 1; bufflehead, 1; and red-breasted merganser; 4.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A family of Canada geese swims in the Watauga River in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

Ruffed grouse, 4; wild turkey, 45; common loon, 5; double-crested cormorant,144; great blue heron, 123; great egret, 2; green heron, 29; black-crowned night-heron, 2; and yellow-crowned night-heron, 8.

 

Black vulture, 121; turkey vulture,167; osprey,12; bald eagle, 8; cooper’s hawk, 8; red-shouldered hawk, 2; broad-winged hawk, 8; and red-tailed hawk, 27.

 

Killdeer, 41; spotted sandpiper, 37; solitary sandpiper, 35; greater yellowlegs, 2; lesser yellowlegs, 8; least sandpiper, 10; white-rumped sandpiper, 1; and ring-billed gull, 2.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • Killdeer, a species of shorebird in the plover family, is a permanent resident in the region.

 

Rock pigeon, 217; Eurasian collared-dove,10; mourning dove, 251; yellow-billed cuckoo, 17; black-billed cuckoo, 3; Eastern screech-owl, 8; great horned owl, 2; barred owl, 8; common nighthawk, 5; chuck-will’s-widow, 7; Eastern whip-poor-will, 43; chimney swift, 185; ruby-throated hummingbird, 51; and belted kingfisher, 15.

Red-headed woodpecker,10; red-bellied woodpecker, 129; yellow-bellied sapsucker, 5; downy woodpecker, 55; hairy woodpecker, 6; Northern flicker, 44; and pileated woodpecker, 59.

American kestrel, 19; Eastern wood-pewee, 43; Acadian flycatcher, 32; least flycatcher, 2; Eastern phoebe, 82; great crested flycatcher, 31; Eastern kingbird, 123; and loggerhead shrike, 1.

 

White-eyed vireo, 21; yellow-throated vireo,10; blue-headed vireo, 86; warbling vireo, 17; red-eyed vireo, 280; blue jay, 231; American crow, 377; fish crow, 2; and common raven, 22.

Purple martin, 82; tree swallow 206; Northern rough-winged swallow, 131; barn swallow, 226; and cliff swallow, 864.

Carolina chickadee, 197; tufted titmouse, 213; red-breasted nuthatch, 11; white-breasted nuthatch, 44; brown creeper, 3; house wren, 53; winter wren, 7; Carolina wren, 225; blue-gray gnatcatcher, 110; golden-crowned kinglet, 5; and ruby-crowned kinglet, 2.

Eastern bluebird,181; veery, 15; gray-cheeked thrush, 1; Swainson’s thrush, 3; wood thrush, 109; American robin, 844; gray catbird, 77; brown thrasher, 72; Northern mockingbird, 138; European starling, 921; and cedar waxwing, 144.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A handsome male Eastern bluebird perches on a chain-link fence.

Ovenbird, 170; worm-eating warbler, 42; Louisiana waterthrush, 37; Northern waterthrush, 3; golden-winged warbler, 2; black-and-white warbler, 118; Swainson’s warbler, 3; Tennessee warbler, 1; common yellowthroat, 23; hooded warbler, 192; American redstart,12; Cape May warbler, 4; Northern parula, 44; magnolia warbler 7; Blackburnian warbler, 11; yellow warbler, 34; chestnut-sided warbler, 18; blackpoll warbler, 5; black-throated blue warbler, 71; palm warbler, 5; pine warbler, 13; yellow-rumped warbler, 53; yellow-throated warbler, 43; prairie warbler, 14; black-throated green warbler, 97; and Canada warbler, 34.

Eastern towhee, 250; chipping sparrow,137; field sparrow, 74; savannah sparrow, 2; grasshopper sparrow, 4; song sparrow,322; swamp sparrow, 1; white-throated sparrow, 10; white-crowned sparrow, 7; and dark-eyed junco, 74.

Summer tanager, 3; scarlet tanager, 97; Northern cardinal, 376; rose-breasted grosbeak, 37; blue grosbeak, 6; indigo bunting, 148; dickcissel, 2; and yellow-breasted chat, 10.

Bobolink,16; red-winged blackbird, 546; Eastern meadowlark, 144; common grackle, 474; brown-headed cowbird, 144; orchard oriole, 28; Baltimore oriole, 35; house finch, 96; pine siskin, 79; American goldfinch, 382; and house sparrow, 47.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male house finch perched on a cable. These finches are native to the western United States but became established in the eastern states thanks to the illicit pet trade.

Male scarlet tanager stands out from other birds

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Photo by Jeana Chapman • A male scarlet tanager forages close to the ground, which is not typical behavior for these birds. Tanagers, although brightly colored, spend most of their time in the tree canopy obscured from view.

I received an email from Lewis and Jeana Chapman detailing a dazzling discovery they made.

The couple have been adding a few new birds to their bird list and decided to give me an update on what they’ve been seeing. The Chapmans reside in the community of Laurel Bloomery in Johnson County, Tennessee. The wooded slopes of Pond Mountain where they make their home provide an attractive location for migrating birds, as well a summer residents.

“The tree swallows returned this spring to nest in our bluebird box,” Lewis wrote in his email reporting his new sightings. “The great crested flycatcher has moved its nest from the front porch to the barn. Last year the flycatchers raised five chicks on the front porch. The nest got so full the chicks were perched around the edge.”

Some new additions to their list have included golden-crowned kinglet and the Northern flicker. “Most recently we spotted a scarlet tanager,” Lewis continued.

Scarlet-Tanager

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter A male scarlet tanager brightens shadowy woodlands with a flash of tropical colors yet remains mostly inconspicuous in the forest canopy.

They had never seen a scarlet tanager at their home. Over the years I have heard from other readers left stunned by the tropical beauty of the male scarlet tanager. That description would not be that far off. While the scarlet tanager resides in the United States and Canada from April to October each year, this bird spends the rest of the year in South America. Citizens of the United States and Canada get the better part of the bargain when it comes to hosting this bird. After the summer nesting season, male scarlet tanagers lose their brilliant red plumage and look more like the greenish females. By the time they get back to the tropics for the winter, this striking bird has transformed into a rather drab specimen.

I’ve written in previous columns about the scarlet tanager, which is one of those birds that always takes an observer’s breath away upon first seeing it. Of course, it’s the male scarlet tanager that bewitches observers with his dazzling feathers of vivid red and jet black. Female and immature tanagers are a dull olive-yellow in coloration with dark wings and tails.

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A female scarlet tanager is a study in contrast from her mate with her dull greenish-yellow plumage being much less vibrant than the male’s bright red and black feathers.

During their summer stay in the region, scarlet tanagers largely prey on insects. Although renowned as a fruit-eating bird, the scarlet tanager primarily feeds on fruit during its migration flights and on its wintering range in the tropics. This tanager breeds in deciduous and mixed deciduous-evergreen woodlands across the eastern half of North America. I’ve often heard that oaks are a favorite tree for this woodland dweller.

It’s unlikely that you’ll run across the nest of a scarlet tanager. These birds nest high in trees, often locating their nests 50 feet or more above the ground. After building a nest, a female tanager will incubate her three to five eggs for about two weeks. It’s during this time that her inconspicuous appearance is a plus, helping her blend well with her surroundings. After the young hatch, the parents are kept busy feeding the nestlings for another 10 to 15 days.

The website All About Birds notes that the population of scarlet tanagers has declined in the last half-century. Between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, scarlet tanager numbers declined by 14 percent. The environmental organization Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.2 million, with 93 percent of these birds spending some part of the year in the United States and the other seven percent breeding in Canada. These birds do poorly in forests that have been harvested for lumber. Other causes of habitat fragmentation probably also affect the well-being of scarlet tanagers. It’s worth keeping an eye out for any other signs of decline in this beautiful birds.

The scarlet tanager is a fairly common songbird during the summer months, but it also has a less common relative that can be found in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. The male summer tanager is the only entirely red bird found in North America. Lacking the scarlet tanager’s black wings, the summer tanager’s red feathers are also of a rosier hue.

Summer-Tanager

Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter The Summer Tanager is the only all-red bird in North America. It is less common in Northeast Tennessee than the related Scarlet Tanager.

 

While I have seen summer tanagers in Tennessee on occasion, most recently at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee, I saw my first summer tanager during a spring trip to South Carolina many years ago. Overall, the summer tanager has more of a southern stronghold than the scarlet tanager, as the summer tanager’s range also extends into the southwestern United States.

Both of these tanagers are birds fond of dense, undisturbed woodlands. Most of the time, unfortunately, these tanagers reside in the dense woodland canopy. They’re more often heard than seen, producing a song similar to an American robin’s, but usually described as somewhat more raspy. The apt description I like for these two tanagers is that their songs sound like one sung by a hoarse robin with a sore throat.

Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including seven-colored tanager, flame-colored tanager, lemon-rumped tanager, green-headed tanager, golden-chevroned tanager, azure-shouldered tanager, fawn-breasted tanager, metallic-green tanager, emerald tanager, gilt-edged tanager, golden-naped tanager, opal-crowned tanager, blue-gray tanager and silver-beaked tanager.

The tanager wasn’t the only unexpected feathered visitor to the Chapman home this spring. The same week the tanager made its appearance, a male hooded warbler also visited with the Chapmans. “This we found ironic because of your email address,” Lewis wrote. For readers who may not have noticed, my email address is ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’ve used this email address for many years to celebrate one of my favorite birds.

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Photo by Lewis Chapman • A male hooded warbler also impressed the Chapmans during this small songbird’s recent visit.

The Chapmans also provided me with photos of all their colorful birds. In subsequent emails, they also informed me of some other unusual visitors. “One of our strangest visitors was an albino American goldfinch,” Lewis also revealed in his email. “Over this past weekend, we had rose-breasted grosbeak and indigo bunting show up.”

Many of these birds — the rose-breasted grosbeak, the scarlet tanager, the indigo bunting — always wow observers experiencing their first observation of them. Our two native tanagers — scarlet and summer — are definitely two memorable birds for anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing one. It’s a great time of year to get outdoors and keep your eyes open for a splash of bright color. You never know what you may see when you lift your binoculars.