Tag Archives: Virginia

Winter wren one of the season’s low-profile visitors

WinterWren

Photo by Jean Potter
What the winter wren lacks in size, it makes up for with its voice. A boisterous and exuberant singer during the spring nesting season,  winter wrens are also quick to scold intruders into their winter territories.

 

Of late, every time I step outside my front door I’ve incurred the ire of a winter wren that’s taken up residency in my yard. This wren is a tiny bird among a family of birds known for small size, but it makes its presence known in unmistakable terms.

For starters, the winter wren is a noisy bird. The one living at my home arrived in late November and immediately claimed a niche to call its own. Any intrusion is met with a scolding chatter as the wren scurries low to the ground to drop out of view. In fact, the winter wren’s a very terrestrial bird. Observers are just as likely to see one of these wrens run across the ground as they are to see it take flight. I’m hopeful he will remain as winter’s grip tightens for the next couple of months.

The website All About Birds, managed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, offers advice on making a wren-friendly yard. “Landscaping with native plants is a good way to provide habitat for Winter Wrens,” according to the website. Other steps to take could extend to creating brush piles and ensuring some sections of the yard offers dense vegetation. The website also notes that this wren is often found making its home near streams.

In the summer, the winter wren often nests atop some of the high-elevation mountains in the region, especially ones with abundant fir and spruce trees. Otherwise, it’s mostly a winter visitor in the region. Other wrens common to the region include the Carolina wren and the house wren. In suitable habitats, especially during fall and spring migration, two other wrens — marsh wren and sedge wren — are observed occasionally in the region. Other wrens native to the United States include the rock wren, canyon wren, cactus wren, Pacific wren and Bewick’s wren.

The world’s 88 species of wrens are, for the most part, the quintessential “little brown birds,” but that hasn’t kept them from acquiring some interesting and descriptive common names. Some examples include the tooth-billed wren, flutist wren, riverside wren, whiskered wren, happy wren, musician wren, timberline wren, speckle-breasted wren, white-breasted wood wren and giant wren. The last species on the list resides in Mexico and is indeed a “giant” among a family of tiny birds, reaching a length of almost nine inches and weighing all of 1.8 ounces.

For the most part, wrens are birds of the New World. In fact, only the Eurasian wren represents the family in Europe, Asia and Africa. Experts recently split the winter wren into several different species, including the Pacific wren of the west coast of North America and the Eurasian wren of Europe, Asia and Africa.WinterWren_edited-1

Just as the winter wren thinks nothing of acting like a mouse when scurrying through leaf litter and over fallen logs in search of insect prey, this bird doesn’t hesitate to imitate mice by poking into shadowy holes in the ground or exploring the dark crevices of fallen logs. When winter temperatures drop sharply, many of these birds may cram themselves into a roosting hole to benefit from the communal heat from so many tiny feathered bodies in such close proximity. Winter wrens eat mostly insects and spiders, but in winter these birds will also eat some seeds and berries. Winter wrens rarely visit feeders, but a suet cake often attracts birds with similar dietary preferences, including kinglets and chickadees. A larger relative, the Carolina wren, is a common visitor to feeders.

In English and German lore, the winter wren was known as the “king of the birds.” Different tales provide varying explanations for how such a small bird earned such an inflated title. Ritual hunts were enacted in some European locations. These hunts, known as “wren hunts,” were conducted by “wren boys” who would parade through town on their quests. Wren Day fell on Dec. 26, which coincided with the holiday St. Stephen’s Day. Some myths blame the noisy bird for betraying the hiding place of Stephen, who was delivered up as a Christian martyr to his enemies due to the bird’s treachery. In some European cultures, various superstitions sprang up about wrens. For instance, in Scotland it is considered extremely unlucky to kill a wren.

Personally, I feel lucky to have the tiny winter wren spending time around my home and can guarantee no “wren hunts” will be staged here. At a time of year when feathered friends can be scarce, a winter wren is a welcome visitor.

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The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society produces an annual calendar featuring some exceptional bird photography from its members. This year’s calendar features full-color photographs of some colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes. For instance, the club pays for bird seed to stock the feeders at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The club also regularly supports causes that benefit birds.HerndonCalendar2018(Cover)

The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays, as well as important bird-related dates. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites, as well as a few more exotic birds. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a red-headed woodpecker. The photo was taken by Debi Campbell, a resident of Bluff City, Tennessee, and current president of the Herndon chapter. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Bristol Herald Courier located at 320 Bob Morrison Blvd. in Bristol, Virginia.

If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Bristol Herald Courier located at 320 Bob Morrison Blvd. in Bristol, Virginia.

•••••

Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

 

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Good intentions can have ill effects for ducks, geese, other waterfowl


Pattie Rowland contacted me on Facebook recently with a valid concern, especially now that the temperatures are turning a little cooler. People with good intentions often visit parks to feed the ducks and geese that reside at ponds and creeks.

 

“I see people with bags of bread thinking they are helping the ducks and geese,” she explained.

Despite the good intentions, Pattie, a resident of Erwin, Tennessee, has some concerns about the practice and requested that I help raise awareness about the possible unintended consequences.

While I’m not an expert, I applaud her attempt to raise the issue about what foods are nutritional and which are not when it comes to feeding wild or domesticated waterfowl. So, I did some research into the topic.

Dave McRuer, the director of Wildlife Medicine at the Wildlife Center of Virginia, wrote about the risks associated with feeding waterfowl in a 2015 article on the center’s website.

McRuer noted that wild ducks and geese feed on a variety of natural foods, such as wild grains and grasses, aquatic plants, and invertebrates. This varied diet provides the essentials waterfowl need to thrive.

Mallard-Drakes

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Mallard drakes share a log during a period of relaxation. Mallards, Canada Geese, and some other waterfowl have voluntarily semi-domesticated themselves in exchange for an easy, but not always healthy, life based on human handouts.

On the other hand, McRuer warned about some of the foods commonly fed to waterfowl in public parks, such as bread, popcorn and corn, are typically low in protein and essential nutrients and minerals. Waterfowl feeding heavily on such fare are at risk for developing nutritional disorders.

 

His ultimate conclusion was that any benefits are far outweighed by risks when it comes to the feeding of waterfowl at public parks. His recommendation was to stop all forms of supplemental feeding.

 

He based his recommendation on more than nutritional concerns. Supplemental feeding can also lead to overcrowding, disease concerns, habitat degradation, and an unhealthy habituation to humans or animals associated with humans.

 

There are some alternatives to the quitting “cold turkey” option when it comes to feeding ducks and geese. Melissa Mayntz, a birder with more than 30 years of experience, penned an article for the website, The Spruce, recommending some foods that will not expose waterfowl to potential harm.

 

In an article titled “What to Feed Ducks,” Mayntz wrote that it is important to realize that waterfowl are capable of fending for themselves and do not require human handouts to survive, no matter what the season nor how much they seem to beg for treats. She did offer some tips on choosing nutritious treats to supplement the wild diet of park waterfowl.

 

Various grains, such as cracked corn, wheat, barley, oats, and rice can safely be offered as an occasional treat. In addition, she recommended grapes (sliced in half), chopped lettuce or other greens and vegetable trimmings or peels chopped into small, easily eaten pieces.

Mallard-March28

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Mallard drake still shows some caution toward humans, arguing that this individual has not become dependent on human handouts.

Mayntz’s article basically echoes many of the warnings from the one by McRuer. Some of the foods commonly offered, such as bread, crackers, cereal and popcorn, offer very little nutritional value. In addition, bread and other similar foods are dangerous if they are moldy. Increasing the disk is the fact that any excess bread that isn’t eaten can quickly mold. Molded food can kill waterfowl, which is the last thing people would want to happen to these birds.

 

I agree with Mayntz in her conclusion, which admits that feeding waterfowl at local ponds and parks can be a fun experience in wildlife viewing for people of all ages. By avoiding potentially dangerous foods and restricting treats to items that actually provide nutritional value, birders can continue to enjoy this pastime without risking the lives of the birds they love so much.

 

As a general rule, I don’t feed the waterfowl at local parks. Many years ago I fed a flock of semi-domesticated mallards that took up residence at my fish pond. From a half dozen birds, the flock eventually grew to about two dozen ducks. The only food I fed them was cracked corn during the winter season. They foraged quite successfully for the rest of their food from the pond, the nearby creek and the fields. I’m convinced they helped control the numbers of pest insects during their stay. To this day, an occasional pair of mallards will visit on cold winter days. At times, they look at me like they’re expecting a handout and I wonder if they could be descendants of some of those mallards from the original flock.

Canada_Geese

Photo by Bryan Stevens • In some areas, Canada Geese have become so prevalent that they are considered pests. Human handouts to waterfowl are not always compatible with good health for the birds that receive them.

 

So, don’t let good intentions cause problems for any of our feathered friends. If you want to feed ducks at the local park, consider the healthy alternatives instead of providing bread. After all, people cannot live on bread alone, and neither can ducks.

 

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Calendars make fun Christmas presents

The Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society produces an annual calendar featuring some exceptional bird photography from its members. This year’s calendar features full-color photographs of some colorful and engaging birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes. For instance, the club pays for bird seed to stock the feeders at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. The club also regularly supports causes that benefit birds.HerndonCalendar2018(Cover)

The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays, as well as important bird-related dates. The calendar’s pages feature more than 80 full-color photographs of area birds, including common favorites, as well as a few more exotic birds. The front cover features a dazzling photograph of a red-headed woodpecker. The photo was taken by Debi Campbell, a resident of Bluff City, Tennessee, and current president of the Herndon chapter. If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Bristol Herald Courier located at 320 Bob Morrison Blvd. in Bristol, Virginia.

If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact ahoodedwarbler@aol.com by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Bristol Herald Courier located at 320 Bob Morrison Blvd. in Bristol, Virginia.

 

Annual Fall Bird Count finds 122 species in Northeast Tennessee

Heron-UnderBridge

Photo by Bryan Stevens • A Great Blue Heron wades through the creek running through downtown historic Jonesborough on a warm afternoon this past summer. These large herons, helped by recent nesting colonies in Erwin, Elizabethton and other locations, have become more commonplace in the region. The 66 Great Blue Herons found on the recent Fall Bird Count represented a new high number for the species on this annual autumn survey of bird populations in the region.

 

The 48th annual Elizabethton Fall Count was held on Saturday, Sept. 30, with 54 observers in 12 parties covering Carter County and parts of the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington. The participants tallied 122 species, which is slightly below the recent 30-year average of 126 species. The all-time high for this count was 137 species, which was reached in 1993.

Shorebirds were in very short supply due to a shortage of suitable habitat. Aside from killdeer, a solitary sandpiper was true to his name. In particular, two sites that formerly attracted shorebirds have undergone alterations that have essentially eliminated such conditions: Austin Springs and Bush Hog Pond.

This year’s count featured some other notable misses, as well, according to long-time count compiler Rick Knight. Birds missed include Northern Bobwhite (which has been found only four times in the last 24 years), Broad-winged Hawk, Spotted Sandpiper (first miss in last decade), Winter Wren, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Several birds set new high records for the number of individuals tallied, including Double-crested Cormorant (70); Great Blue Heron (66); Black Vulture (330); Turkey Vulture (215); Red-shouldered Hawk (6); Belted Kingfisher (40); and Red-bellied Woodpecker (90).

Bryan-KingfisherSunny

Photo by Bryan Stevens • The 40 Belted Kingfishers found during the Fall Bird Count represented a new high count for this long-running survey.

Fish Crow made its debut on a Fall Bird Count debut when two individuals were found in Kingsport along the Holston River.

The count total follows:

Canada Goose, 957; Wood Duck, 24; Mallard, 378; Blue-winged Teal, 2; Hooded Merganser, 1; Ruffed Grouse, 5; Wild Turkey, 79; Pied-billed Grebe, 11; and Double-crested Cormorant, 70.
Great Blue Heron, 66; Great Egret, 1; Green Heron, 4; Black-crowned Night-Heron, 2; Black Vulture, 330; and Turkey Vulture, 215.

Osprey, 12; Bald Eagle, 6; Northern Harrier, 2; Sharp-shinned Hawk, 7; Cooper’s Hawk, 7; Red-shouldered Hawk, 6; Red-tailed Haw, 27; American Kestrel, 16; Merlin, 1; and Peregrine Falcon, 1.

Killdeer 50; Solitary Sandpiper, 1; Ring-billed Gull, 1; Forster’s Tern, 1; Rock Pigeon, 404; Eurasian Collared-Dove, 2; Mourning Dove, 356; Yellow-billed Cuckoo, 1; Eastern Screech-Owl, 12; Great Horned Owl; 10; Barred Owl; 4; and Northern Saw-whet Owl; 1.

Common Nighthawk, 1; Chimney Swift, 254; Ruby-throated Hummingbird 8; Belted Kingfisher, 40; Red-headed Woodpecker, 7; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 90; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 16; Downy Woodpecker, 46; Hairy Woodpecker, 8; Northern Flicker, 63; and Pileated Woodpecker, 37.

Eastern Wood-Pewee 6; Eastern Phoebe, 76; Eastern Kingbird, 1; Loggerhead Shrike, 1; White-eyed Vireo; 2; Yellow-throated Vireo, 1; Blue-headed Vireo, 14; Red-eyed Vireo, 6; Blue Jay, 447; American Crow, 424; Fish Crow, 2; and Common Raven, 19.

SolitarySandpiper-One

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Migrating shorebirds, such as this Solitary Sandpiper, added diversity to this year’s Fall Bird Count in Northeast Tennessee.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow, 3; Tree Swallow, 68; Carolina Chickadee, 174; Tufted Titmouse,93; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 6; White-breasted Nuthatch, 44; Brown Creeper, 2; House Wren, 2; and Carolina Wren,180.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, 4; Ruby-crowned Kinglet,14; Eastern Bluebird, 163; Veery, 7; Gray-cheeked Thrush, 26; Swainson’s Thrush, 70; Hermit Thrush, 1; Wood Thrush, 19; American Robin, 301; Gray Catbird, 34; Brown Thrasher, 11; Northern Mockingbird, 100; European Starling, 2,106; and Cedar Waxwing, 205.

Ovenbird, 2; Black and White Warbler, 6; Tennessee Warbler, 32; Common Yellowthroat, 9; Hooded Warbler, 2; American Redstart, 5; Cape May Warbler, 8; Northern Parula, 3; Magnolia Warbler, 29; Bay-breasted Warbler, 10; Blackburnian Warbler, 2; Chestnut-sided Warbler, 2; Black-throated Blue Warbler, 5; Palm Warbler, 21; Pine Warbler, 11; Yellow-rumped Warbler, 5; Yellow-throated Warbler, 4; Prairie Warbler, 1; and Black-throated Green Warbler, 8.

grosbeak-photo

Photo by Bryan Stevens • Migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks were among the 122 species tallied for this year’s Fall Bird Count.

Eastern Towhee, 50; Chipping Sparrow, 57; Field Sparrow, 14; Song Sparrow,144; Lincoln’s Sparrow, 1; Swamp Sparrow, 1; Dark-eyed Junco, 75; Summer Tanager, 1; Scarlet Tanager, 11; Northern Cardinal, 173; Rose-breasted Grosbeak, 19; Indigo Bunting, 15.

Red-winged Blackbird, 41; Eastern Meadowlark, 17; Common Grackle, 859; Brown-headed Cowbird, 78; House Finch, 44; Pine Siskin, 1; American Goldfinch, 138; and House Sparrow, 33.

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Bryan Stevens has been writing about birds on a weekly basis since 1995. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Dark-eyed junco faithful visitor to feeders during wintry weather

Junco-Ground

Photo by Kenneth Thomas / Dark-eyed juncos, often referred to as “snow birds,” flock to feeders in winter during periods of inclement weather.

I recently took part in the 48th annual Elizabethton Fall Count. Although part of the count’s focus is on Carter County, significant attention is paid to the adjacent counties of Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington in Northeast Tennessee. This year’s count, which was held Saturday, Sept. 30, with 54 observers in 12 parties, tallied 122 species, which is slightly below the recent 30-year average of 126 species. The all-time high for this count was 137 species, which was reached in 1993.

Together with Brenda Richards, I travelled the Forest Service road on Holston Mountain to seek out some species that prefer higher elevation habitats, including dark-eyed juncos. The junco is also a winter visitor to yards and gardens throughout the region and should be returning any day now for a seasonal stay during the colder months of the year. During our progress up the mountain, we glimpsed several dark-eyed juncos as well as other birds such as blue-headed vireo and black-and-white warbler.

I have always had a fondness for juncos. In fact, I wrote my first birding column on Sunday, Nov. 5, 1995, which means that I recently celebrated the 22nd anniversary of my weekly accounts of birds and birding. The column has appeared weekly without interruption in various newspapers in the last 22 years. The column has also been a great conduit for getting to know other people interested in our “feathered friends.” I always enjoy hearing from readers, and I hope to continue to do so in the coming years. Since February of 2014, I’ve also been posting the column as a weekly blog on birds and birding.

Here, with some revisions I have made through the years, is that first column that has now involved into a look that is all “For the Birds.”
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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.dennisjl 2

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.”

Just as neotropical migrants make long distance journeys twice a year, the junco is also a migrating species. But in Appalachia, the junco is a special type of migrant. Most people think of birds as “going south for the winter.” In a basic sense this is true. But some juncos do not undertake a long horizontal (the scientific term) migration from north to south. Instead, these birds merely move from high elevations, such as the spruce fir peaks, to the lower elevations. This type of migration is known as vertical migration. Other juncos, such as those that spend their breeding season in northern locales, do make a southern migration and, at times, even mix with the vertical migrants.

Juncos are usually in residence around my home by early November. Once they make themselves at home I can expect to play host to them until at least late April or early May of the following year. So, for at least six months, the snow bird is one of the most common and delightful feeder visitors a bird enthusiast could want.

john-james-audubon-limited-centennial-edition-giclee-on-paper-dark-eyed-junco-2

Early American naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this pair of Dark-eyed Juncos.

Juncos flock to feeders where they are rather mild-mannered — except among themselves. There are definite pecking orders in a junco flock, and females are usually on the lower tiers of the hierarchy. Females can sometimes be distinguished from males because of their paler gray or even brown upper plumage.

Since juncos are primarily ground feeders, they tend to shun hanging feeders. But one winter I observed a junco that had mastered perching on a hanging “pine cone” feeder to enjoy a suet and peanut butter mixture.

Dark-eyed juncos often are content to glean the scraps other birds knock to the ground. Juncos are widespread. They visit feeders across North America. The junco is the most common species of bird to visit feeding stations. They will sample a variety of fare, but prefer such seeds as millet, cracked corn or black oil sunflower.

There’s something about winter that makes a junco’s dark and light garb an appropriate and even striking choice, particularly against a backdrop of newly fallen snow.

Junco-AtFeeder

Photo by Bryan Stevens / A Dark-eyed Junco perches on the side of a hanging feeder offering sunflower seeds.

Of course, the real entertainment from juncos come from their frequent visits to our backyard feeders. When these birds flock to a feeder and begin 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!

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

Skittish nature means getting to know towhees takes some effort

Mary Beierle, who lives in Elizabethton, Tennessee, sent me an email to share information about recent nesting activity by a pair of Eastern towhees at her home in the Stoney Creek community.

“Just wanted to tell you that we have a nesting pair of Eastern towhees here in Stoney Creek,” Mary wrote in her email. “This is the first year they have stayed after a brief visit in early spring.”

While not as many people may be familiar with Eastern towhees as, say, northern cardinals or ruby-throated hummingbirds, those who have made an acquaintance with these unusual songbirds are, like Mary, captivated instantly.

“I am very fond of these birds,” she noted in her email. “The male is really beautiful and the female is also lovely, although not as colorful as the male.”9780307370020-us 2

Eastern towhees spend much of their time on the ground and hidden in thickets and hedges. As a result, other common names for this bird includes “ground robin” and “swamp robin,” which refer to some of this bird’s habitat preferences. They’re not thrushes, however, and are unrelated to thrush family members such as American robin, Eastern bluebird and wood thrush. Instead, towhees are one of the larger members of the sparrow family.

Mary noted some of this bird’s typical behavior from her observations. “I love the way they hop around,” she wrote. “They are very skittish, and I can’t get them to stand still for a photo.”

At my own home, I have a pair of Eastern towhees currently occupied with nesting. When I get too close, both parents claim an elevated perch and call in agitation as long as I am in the vicinity. The towhees are just one of many nesting birds so far this spring. Other nesting birds in my yard or the surrounding woodlands this spring have included tree swallow, Eastern bluebird, brown thrasher, song sparrow, American robin and Eastern phoebe.

The Eastern towhee represents a bit of a milestone in my personal birding history. I saw and identified my first Eastern towhee in early spring in 1993. At that time, I was struggling to identify some of the common visitors at my feeders. I was acquainted with white-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, downy woodpeckers, Carolina wrens, dark-eyed juncos and a handful of other birds. When I looked out a window and saw this bird feeding on the ground, the morning sun illuminating his dramatic plumage of black, white and rufous red, I was immediately aware this visitor represented something new and unexpected.

Consulting a field guide — I was using the Golden Nature Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds at the time — I soon found a painted illustration of a rufous-sided towhee that matched in every detail the bird I had just observed on the ground beneath a blue spruce in my yard.

Many of the older field guides still list the Eastern towhee as “rufous-sided towhee” which is actually more descriptive of the bird’s appearance than the word “eastern.” In 1995, ornithologists renamed the rufous-sided towhee to Eastern towhee and also separated the Eastern species from its western counterpart, the spotted towhee. Until that point, these two towhees had been considered different races of the same species. In 2003, I saw a spotted towhee during a visit to Salt Lake City, Utah. The bird looks almost identical to an Eastern towhee except for considerable white spotting — hence its common name — on the bird’s back.

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Male Eastern Towhee sings from a perch.

Male and female Eastern towhees each possess a stately if subtle beauty. Males have a black hood. The black coloration extends into the back and tail. The belly is white and the sides are flanked with a rusty-red color. In flight, their black tails are bordered with white feathers, which produces a dramatic flash of contrasting colors. The female Eastern towhee is an attractive bird in her own right. She shares the rufous sides and white coloration that are present in the male’s plumage. However, the male’s black feathers are replaced by a warm, chocolate brown plumage in the female. In addition, their bright red eyes help set these birds apart from other songbirds.

The Eastern towhee is one of my favorite yard birds, but not just because of its dramatic appearance. These birds also have some instantly recognizable vocalizations. With the arrival of spring, the males will seek elevated perches for extensive singing bouts to attract mates and establish territories. Their song has been interpreted, quite accurately, as an emphatically delivered “Drink your tea!” They also have some alarm notes, such as “Chew-ink” and “Toe-Hee,” which provides the basis for this bird’s common name.

Eastern_Towhee

Female Eastern Towhees are usually more retiring than males.

They are often found in the same sort of tangled habitat favored by Northern cardinals, gray catbirds and brown thrashers. To attract these birds, simply refrain from doing too much to alter your landscape. For instance, don’t manicure every square inch of your yard. Leave some wild corners that will run rampant and provide a luxurious tangle for birds that thrive under cover. In the southern United States, towhees prosper in scrub palmetto habitats. In our region, any hedge or bramble thicket will provide adequate cover to make these birds feel welcome.

While they may never completely lose their wariness, towhees will become gradually more accepting of sharing a yard with people. It helps that they will readily visit feeders for sunflower seeds. If you succeed in attracting a family of Eastern towhees to your yard and garden, I am confident you’ll not be disappointed.

Readers report on robin, purple martin that stand out from other members of their flocks

 

Albino-Swallow

Photo by Jean Potter • Two barn swallows in typical plumage perch on a wire with an albino individual.

Birds of a feather, as the old saying goes, tend to flock together, but what happens when a member of the flock stands out from the rest? Although conventional wisdom mandates that being conspicuous is not helpful for most wild creatures, some of them can’t help but get attention. Different readers have brought to my attention some birds at their homes that instantly stood out.

Sara and Ed Gschwind, residents of Bristol, Tennessee, have been keeping tabs on an American robin in their yard that is showing an extensive amount of white feathers in its plumage. For the most part, this particular robin has a white head, largely white wings and extensive white in the typically red breast. “My 88-year-old mother, Nora Rockett, suggested I send a photo to you,” Sara wrote in an email.

Robin-PartialAlbino

Photo by Ed Gschwind • A leucistic American robin enjoy time in a bird bath. Albino and leucistic birds are rather rare in nature.

Sara said that her mother, who has lived in Bristol all her life, has never seen anything like it. I replied to Sara’s email, asking for a few more details.

While the robin interacts with others of its kind, the Gschwinds haven’t seen any evidence this particular robin is attempting to nest. Ed took a photograph of the robin enjoying the water in a bird bath in the Gschwind yard.

“The robin bathes every day, and loves the water like all robins do,” Sara wrote. “The robin has been here since the robins returned three months ago. I’m trying to keep it happy.” Since the robin is a regular visitor, I agree that they’re doing a good job keeping the bird happy, since it’s not shown any inclination to leave their yard.

Tom Brake, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, contacted me through Facebook about a male purple martin with extensive white feathers residing at the purple martin colony he has established at his home.

Purple martins are the largest member of the swallow family in the United States. Like many other swallow species, they nest in colonies. Martins are cavity-nesting birds that readily accept hollow gourds or special purple martin condominiums for nesting.

“Currently I have nests in 43 compartments with 20 being active (eggs having been laid),” Tom wrote. “Last year I had 51 pairs, and I hope to get close to being back to 60 or 70 active pairs this year. The next two weeks will be the busy time for completion of nests and laying.”

PurpleMartin-Albino-TomBrake

Photo by Tom Brake • A leucistic male purple martin perches with its mate, a typical female purple martin, near a hollow gourd they may use for nesting purposes.

As for the bird showing the white feathers, Tom has named him “Leuie” because the bird is an example of leucism, a condition related to albinism.

Albinism is a genetic, or inherited, condition resulting in a complete lack of production of pigmentation. Albino birds are, for the most part, extremely uncommon. I’ve heard of a variety of birds, ranging from hummingbirds and American robins to various ducks and swallows, that have a tendency to produce albino individuals.

Leucism is another genetic mutation that causes affected birds to grow feathers that are pale or whitish overall. A faint pattern may be visible. Leucism is also uncommon, but is more common that albinism. Both the robin in the Gschwind yard and the purple martin at Tom’s home are examples of leucistic birds.

Tom noted that “Leuie” is doing well so far. “He has a mate, but their first clutch of four eggs was either thrown out by a second year male martin or discarded by themselves because they sensed non-viability,” Tom wrote in a Facebook message. “Maybe the cold, wet weather had something to do with the loss.” He noted that the same thing happened recently to two other nests.

“Leuie and mate are still using their gourd, so I expect they will re-clutch,” Tom wrote. The term “re-clutch” means that Leuie’s mate will lay a new batch of eggs and Leuie will be ready to carry out his own paternal duties to help raise any resulting young.

Albinism and leucism are not the only conditions that can affect pigment in a bird’s feathers. Some birds have the opposite problem in that they produce too much pigment, resulting in a much darker bird than what would be typical. The plumage of such affected birds is described as melanistic, which is in stark contrast to an albino bird. With a melanistic bird, the feathers are much darker than usual because of an abundance of pigment. In rare albino birds, the opposite occurs and the lack of pigment in the feathers leave them looking white. Completely albino birds also tend to have red eyes. It’s probably better for a bird to be melanistic. Albino birds tend to stick out like sore thumbs, attracting the attention of predators.

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Photo by Ed Gschwind • Compare the leucistic American robin in the bird bath with the typical robin perched in a nearby chair. Albino birds are rather rare in nature.

I’ve only seen a few albino or partial albino birds in person, although I have observed videos and photographs of such birds. During a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2006, I observed an albino Brewer’s blackbird. An albino blackbird is almost an oxymoron. This particular blackbird had a white upper body and head and a black lower body. At first, I thought it might be a small tern, but closer observation — and identification of the birds with which it was associating — eventually confirmed that it was a Brewer’s blackbird, a common species in Salt Lake City.

Those observations remain my best looks at albino birds in the wild. I’ve also seen partial albinos, including an American Crow with white feathers in its wings that inhabited the woodlands and fields at my home for several years. I’ve also observed a couple of American goldfinches over the years that would probably qualify as leucistic birds.

A few years ago, I saw an albino Red-tailed hawk while driving between Erwin, Tennessee, and Asheville, North Carolina, on Interstate 26. The hawk was often present near the North Carolina Visitors Center. I’ve also heard from readers over the years about birds such as American goldfinches and downy woodpeckers exhibiting albino tendencies.

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Photo by Jean Potter • This partial albino red-tailed hawk was spotted for several years near the state line dividing northeast Tennessee and western North Carolina.

These issues involving the absence or abundance of pigment can complicate bird identification. After all, all-white birds, from snowy owls and tundra swans to great egrets and snow geese, do exist in nature. Even in these birds, however, there’s usually some other color present to break up the uniformity of the bird’s plumage. Keep in mind that such rarities as albino individuals of such common species as house finches and American robins can show up at your feeders or in your yard. It’s just another way birds constantly surprise us.

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

Writer and artist Julie Zickefoose to share wisdom at Abingdon program, nature walk

 

With the nesting season for some of our favorite birds kicking off, the timing is especially fortuitous for an upcoming program. Acclaimed nature writer and wildlife illustrator Julie Zickefoose will be the a featured speaker for Sunday with Friends at the Washington County Public Library in Abingdon, Virginia, later this month. Her talk will be followed by a book sale and signing.

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Julie Zickefoose and a feathered friend. — Photo Contributed

In addition, Zickefoose will take part in a bird walk along the Virginia Creeper Trail at 8 a.m. on Saturday, April 22. Those wishing to participate in this Earth Day event are invited to meet at the trailhead in downtown Abingdon. I’m planning on attending the walk, which I hope will produce many interesting migrant birds. The walk is free and open to the public.

Zickefoose, the author of the new book, “Baby Birds: An Artist Looks into the Nest,” will speak Sunday, April 23, at 3 p.m. at the Washington County Public Library. Her event is free and will be held in the Conference Room at the Main Library in Abingdon, Virginia.

The public is invited to meet Zickefoose on the day after Earth Day to celebrate her new book. Life-sized baby birds wriggle, crawl and flutter off the pages of this beautiful book, the product of 13 years of deep involvement and close observation of nesting birds. Lively writing describes the development of 17 bird species from egg to fledgling, with the wonder, humor and relentless curiosity that Zickefoose is known for. She provided commentary on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” for five years and for 12 years has written a thrice-weekly natural history blog.

She has written several other books, including “The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds,” “Natural Gardening for Birds: Create a Bird-friendly Habitat in Your Backya26312954._UY1628_SS1628_rd,” and “The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America,” a co-writing venture with Bill Thompson.

 

According to Zickefoose’s website, she began her career as a field biologist for The Nature Conservancy. She became a magazine and book illustrator. Eventually, she began illustrating her own stories. She writes and paints from Indigo Hill, her 80-acre sanctuary in Appalachian Ohio. Zickefoose also writes a blog. To read entries, visit juliezickefoose.blogspot.com.

Ben Jennings helped secure Zickefoose’s lecture. He has worked for the past 15 years organizing “Sunday with Friends,” a series of book and author events hosted by the Washington County Public Library’s Friends of the Library organization.

“I get tips from lots of folks about writers, as well as doing research on my own,” Jennings said.

He also noted that Kate Foreman persuaded him to invite Zickefoose to take part in the series. “Kate is a longtime friend, and currently the director of advancement at Barter Theatre,” Jennings said. “I certainly trust her judgment. Kate had to remind me — but I did remember — Julie’s commentary on NPR several years ago. Julie was thrilled to come to be with Kate for the weekend.”

The Friends of the Washington County Public Library is a voluntary, non-profit organization whose purpose is to help strengthen the resources of the library and to make it a dynamic force in the community. Friends’ activities generally fall into four main categories— advocacy, fundraising, programming and volunteerism. First organized in the mid-1960s, the Friends groups has made an important contribution over the years by helping to raise funds to improve library facilities and providing financial support for special projects. The Washington County Public Library is located at 205 Oak Hill St., Abingdon, Virginia. For more information, visit http://www.wcpl.net.

Bluebird-Box

A female bluebird checks out a potential nesting box. — Photo by Bryan Stevens

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A pair of Eastern bluebirds, a species of birds often featured in Zickefoose’s writings, has been exploring the nest box options available at my home. The bluebirds actually started checking the boxes in late February. With the arrival of March, the pair has had to contend with as many as three tree swallow interlopers. I’m not sure of the status of the third tree swallow, but it definitely gives the swallows an edge in numbers.

While bluebirds are not totally loyal to previous nesting locations, studies indicate that as many as 30 percent of bluebirds return to previous nesting sites the following season. So, if you can attract a pair of bluebirds to your yard, that’s half the battle. The same pair, or perhaps some of their offspring, will quite possibly return to yard in future years.

Habitats with spacious areas of short grass are perfect for bluebirds. So, homes with large lawns or that are located adjacent to fields, will attract bluebirds looking for a place to nest. If you lack any trees with natural cavities, a bluebird nesting box is necessary to secure their extended stay. Nesting box plans are easily obtained online if you want to build your own boxes, or you can purchase boxes at many farm supply stores and garden centers.

To keep the bluebirds happy and safe, avoid using herbicides or pesticides on your lawn to prevent accidental poisoning of adult bluebirds and their young. A few small trees and shrubs spaced throughout the yard will provide convenient perches for bluebirds as they hunt for insects to feed themselves and their young.