The Steele Creek Park Wildlife Weekend in Bristol, Tennessee will take place from October 8th – 9th. Join us for the fun activities planned for this weekend!
The Steele Creek Park Wildlife Weekend in Bristol, Tennessee will take place from October 8th – 9th. Join us for the fun activities planned for this weekend!
I woke up early this morning, excited to drive up the mountain. After a short hike to the rocky overlook, I set up my spotting scope and trusty binoculars. This peak towers over the forested valley and allows views of the mountain ridges as far as the eye can see. Out of thin air, a large hawk soars out into the open. It streaks quickly across the sky until it begins a gentle upwards ascent on an air thermal. It flies overhead, fanning and tilting its tail like a rudder, narrow bands of black and white stretching across the tail feathers. Another hawk joins in, then another, and another. Suddenly, dozens of birds are criss-crossing and swirling in the invisible column of warm air. One by one, each hawk breaks away and speeds down the mountain ridge until they gracefully rise yet again into the endless sky. This intriguing pattern is none other than the migration of the Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus).
When soaring, the Broad-winged Hawk can be easily recognized by its shape and pattern. Adults have fine, horizontal streaking across the breast, black borders along the trailing edge of the wing, and black and white barring across the tail. Juveniles look very similar except the tail is marked with distinctly narrower lines and the barring across the breast is more variable. Dark morph individuals are less recognizable. They possess dark brown plumage over nearly their entire bodies, except for the white tail bands. Like other Buteo hawks, its silhouette can be described as stout with large, bulky wings and rounded tail. Accipiters and falcons generally have a different body form. Accipiters, like Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, have longer tails and narrower wings. Falcons are generally recognized by having long, tapering wings and a stronger flight pattern than Buteos. Broad-wings are similar in appearance to Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus), and Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii).
During the breeding season, they call the deciduous forests and wooded edges of Eastern US and Southern Canada home. They munch on a number of woodland creatures, both vertebrates and invertebrates. Birds, small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and insects make up a large portion of their diet. Many times, I have encountered Broad-wings perched in the woods, poised to drop to the forest floor at any moment in pursuit of prey. The abundance of trees and branches in our woodlands provide the perfect vantage point for scoping out an unsuspecting victim. Broad-wings call occasionally, giving a high-pitched, whistled “pur-ee.” This sound is anything but the intense screech that many people associate with formidable birds of prey!
The journey between their breeding grounds in the United States and wintering grounds in Central and South America is perhaps the most captivating aspect of the Broad-wing’s life history. Thousands of enthusiastic birders gather at observation points along their migration route to take part in annual hawk watching events. The Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) has played a huge role in organizing volunteer-sourced data for extensive research (and appreciation!) of the movements of migratory raptors in North America.
Observing a migrating Broad-winged Hawk is truly fascinating. Traveling hundreds of miles is energetically taxing, so, if at all possible, hawks try to avoid burning valuable energy on flapping. How is it possible for them to voyage across the continent without flapping the whole way?
The answer: thermals!
The incredible phenomenon of raptor migration is made possible by the simple heating of air by the sun. As the sun begins to climb in the morning, surfaces like mountain ridges warm up and heat the above air. The newly warmed air rises above the cooler surrounding air. This creates columns of rising air called “thermals,” which are the key ingredient for raptor migration. Raptors often fly into a thermal, passively circle to the top of the air column, break away once they have achieved enough lift, then soar until they encounter another thermal. Dozens, hundreds, even thousands of hawks can join into one thermal. These large groups are referred to as “kettles.”
Broad-winged Hawk populations appear to be doing very well. Over the past several decades, it seems that their numbers have remained relatively stable and might even be increasing in some locations. Breeding habitat is probably increasing in North America due to the succession of abandoned farmlands. Sadly, habitat destruction, hunting, and car collisions are still an issue for birds on their wintering grounds. In fact, the Puerto Rican population is currently on the Watch List of the Endangered Species Act.
Raptor migration in our region lasts from early September through early October. There is still some time to grab your binoculars and head out to a local hawkwatch near you!
In the still of a mid-August afternoon, not many creatures stir. Cicadas buzz their shrill song; leaves refuse to rustle in the heaviness of the humid air. Suddenly, a noise breaks the silence. The clear, sweet phrases ring throughout the quiet forest. The sound weaves through trees and carries through the air as smooth as silk. While most birds have hushed for the day, this bird sings double – sending out questioning phrases and immediately replying with an answer. To many, the Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus) is a much loved part of Eastern forests. It’s conspicuous song makes it familiar to those who frequent the woods while its secretive habits give the vireo an air of mystery.
Found across the Eastern US, Southern Canada, and parts of the American Northwest, the Red-eyed Vireo generally occupies deciduous forests. Specific forest habitat varies by region, and even more so during migration. While usually inhabiting the interior of woods during the breeding season, vireos will take advantage of forest edges and other habitats during migration. Once they arrive on wintering grounds in South America, they feel at home in forested edges, some agricultural lands, mangroves, and more.
Anybody who is persistent (or lucky) enough to get a view of these birds will find that they are aptly named. The vireo’s gray cap fades into an olivaceous back and stark white belly. Their scientific name, Vireo olivaceus, refers to the birds’ olive color. Their white eyebrow contrasts greatly with the cap and is outlined with a fine black line, a characteristic that gives the bird a serious demeanor. Immature birds have black eyes, but the adults’ turn into a striking red just like the name suggests. The vireo is roughly the size of a sparrow with a long, narrow body, blocky head, and hooked bill.
Despite it’s subtle yet beautiful appearance, the Red-eyed Vireo is perhaps best recognized for its song. Sometimes called “preacher birds,” they frequently sing throughout the day when most other bird song dies down in the summer slump. They send out a string of short, clear phrases punctuated with brief pauses in between. Each phrase seems to alternate between rising and falling inflection, which sounds like the bird is asking a question and then giving a reply. Males are incredible songsters, and individuals can produce up to 30 song variations. Over 12,000 song types have been recorded across the species. One male in Canada was recorded giving an astounding 22,197 songs over nearly 10 straight hours of singing!
Once males claim a territory and find a mate, the pair begins working on a nest. Vireo nests are truly fascinating. After the female finds a suitably forked tree branch within thick vegetation, she then begins construction with a variety of plant materials. The nest does not sit in the fork, but rather hangs below the fork. It looks like a miniature basket hanging in the tree. To keep all the plant materials together, the female glues the nest with spider webs. Adults are fiercely territorial. I have watched them scold and chase away birds twice their size. Blue jays, crows, other birds, and small mammals don’t stand a chance of intruding the nest when a vigilant adult is on the lookout.
The vireo feasts on a variety of food items. Their menu changes as the seasons roll by. In summer, their diet can be made up of nearly 50% caterpillars. As fall approaches, they tend to consume a mix of both berries and insects. By the time they reach their wintering grounds in South America, they will have transitioned to eating mostly fruits. The Red-eyed Vireo is difficult to see because it often forages in leafy treetops. They are foliage gleaners, moving methodically along branches and picking invertebrates off of leaves.
Despite its seemingly ubiquitous presence across eastern forests, they still face the same threats that afflict other migratory songbirds. Because they prefer large tracts of intact forest, forest fragmentation and habitat degradation is a potential threat to the species. Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) frequently parasitize vireo nests, and fragmentation is allowing cowbirds to infiltrate more Red-eyed Vireo habitat. They also are victims to increased predation at fragmented edges and building collisions during nocturnal migration. While still a common species, these threats to their populations are concerning.
The Red-eyed Vireo is a charming member of many forest communities. Their tireless song is a hallmark of nearly any forest. Go outside to a patch of woods near you and listen for the continuous question-and-answer song of the omnipresent vireo.
From the moment that winter melted into spring, I patiently awaited the arrival of a particular migrant warbler. For weeks, I strained to hear the faint buzz of this annual traveler. Chestnut-sided Warblers had already arrived, performing their hurried songs. The Indigo Buntings appeared overnight, bringing their shining exteriors and crystal whistles. One morning, I finally heard the lazy buzzing song that I had been waiting for. Out of the bushes hopped a stunning bird. As it methodically gleaned insects from the leaves, I glimpsed lemon patches highlighted by bold splashes of black. This bird is none other than the Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera).
The Golden-winged Warbler is a wonderful example of how cross-continental conservation practices have the potential to protect a species. They breed in the northernmost reaches of the Eastern United States and parts of Canada. Their range also extends down the Appalachian Mountains in a scattered patchwork. When the breeding season comes to a close, their migration pathway, which covers most of the Eastern US, leads these warblers to Central and South America. This species has faced significant population declines over the last half century, and conservation efforts across their entire range are necessary to preserve them.
The reason for the decline is due largely to three reasons: habitat loss, hybridization, and competition. The Golden-wings are very particular about their breeding habitat. They prefer early successional forest adjacent to mature forest. Bogs, marshes, recently clear-cut, and shrubby habitats are perfect for these birds. This kind of habitat was once maintained by natural disturbances. With recent changes caused by anthropogenic land use, the processes that once sustained suitable forest openings have now been disrupted. In the northern portion of the Appalachian Mountains, satisfactory Golden-winged habitat has declined by an astounding 43 percent. While breeding habitat is important, the species can only persist if there is equally suitable habitat in their wintering range. In Central and South America, they often frequent coffee farms. Shade-grown coffee farms are the most suitable for over-wintering songbirds, as they provide diverse flora, fauna, and habitat. Sun-grown or monoculture coffee farms, however, are typically unsuitable or undesirable for migrant songbirds. Besides habitat loss, interactions with other species appear to be a persistent issue with Golden-winged population declines.
The Blue-winged Warbler (Vermivora cyanoptera) is the only other representative of the genus Vermivora in North America. Because the two species are so similar, they often hybridize. This may not seem so bad at first glance considering that they can still produce viable young; however, hybridization can change the genetic makeup of the species. Hybrids may also have difficulty finding a mate, effectively reducing the number of breeding individuals in the population. Additionally, the Blue-wings prove to be quite the formidable competitor. The two species frequently compete for the use of breeding grounds where their ranges overlap, and Blue-wings often come out victorious. As Golden-wings become more scarce, it is important to examine aggressive interaction with other species as well. A recent study noted that Chestnut-sided Warblers were frequently observed engaging in agonistic behaviors with Golden-winged Warblers. While the situation is not fully understood, this study is a good example that there might be other factors contributing to their decline.
No matter the reason, the losses are staggering. Their overall population has dropped by 66 percent over the past half century. Approximately 98 percent of the Appalachian population has disappeared. While they once thrived across their range, the biggest breeding stronghold is now only concentrated in Minnesota. The Golden-winged Warbler has “suffered one of the steepest population declines of any songbird” (American Bird Conservancy).
Luckily, many organizations have been active in efforts to rehabilitate Golden-winged numbers. The American Bird Conservancy is working to restore much needed habitat across the warbler’s entire range. Partnerships and funding with the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture, Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, and El Jaguar Reserve in Nicaragua are just a few ways that concerned naturalists are coming together to help this species. Practices such as grazing, clear cutting, selective reforestation, and maintaining shade-grown coffee farms have been effectively restoring the places that these birds need in order to prosper. While these organizations have done great work, there are several ways that you can help the Golden-wings too. For the coffee connoisseur, consider switching your morning roast to a certified bird-friendly brand to support farmers in Central and South America who manage their farms for wildlife. For land owners who are interested in trying their hand at land management, contact a local wildlife agency or USDA service center for assistance (and maybe even receive a financial incentive in the process!). Donations and volunteers are always welcome at regional conservation groups. In fact, the Appalachian Mountains Joint Venture and the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy cover sites in our region of the VA, TN, and NC mountains – there are plenty of opportunities to contribute to this species preservation!
There are many great locations across the Southern Appalachian Mountains for viewing Golden-winged Warblers. As this year’s breeding season draws to a close, the warblers will be departing for their continental journey very soon. Plan a trip to see these birds and their special habitat as they prepare to leave behind the mountains until their buzzing songs hum across the ridgetops once again at the return of spring.
The Mendota Days festival is coming up on Saturday August, 21st at the Mendota Community Center. There will be great food, music, and activities, including information about hawk watching provided by local birder Ron Harrington.
Hope to see you there!
After a short break since the start of Covid-19, the Bristol Bird Club is getting back on its feet. We are ramping up club activities with a couple trips and meetings. The first meeting with be on July 20th at 7pm via Zoom. For more info on how to join, please contact Larry McDaniel at [email protected]
Join the BBC and the High Country Audubon Society on a joint field trip to Roan Mountain. The trip will be split into two times. The early hike will begin at 7 am at the Carver’s Gap parking lot and will go to the top of Jane Bald.
The second part of the hike will start roughly around 10:30 am in the Rhododendron Garden parking area and take place on the Cloudland Trail. There is a $2 – $3 fee per car, so plan to bring cash or carpool.
This should be a fun hike with lots of great birds (and people!). Please email [email protected] with any questions.
See you there!
A gray streak bounds around the branches of a tree. A flick of the tail, a flash of white, and a wheezy call are the clues needed to identify this lively bird. This energetic puffball is recognized by birders as the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). Found across nearly three-quarters of the United States, many bird watchers are familiar with the hyperactive gnatcatcher.
The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a member of the family Polioptilidae, is one of four gnatcatcher species in the US. Weighing only a few grams, this bird is scarcely larger than a hummingbird. They can be identified by their gray, white, and black plumage. The head and back are a cool, blue-gray, which fades into a white belly. The gnatcatcher also has a small bill and complete, white eyering. One of the most recognizable features is the black tail outlined by stark white outer retices (tail feathers). This color scheme is rather similar to the much larger Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos). Because the two species look so similar, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is sometimes referred to as “Little Mockingbird.” Breeding males sport additional markings. Their distinct black eyebrows lend them a serious air, which is amusing given the gnatcatcher’s ebullient personality.
In the East, gnatcatchers can be found bouncing around trees and shrubs in forests and edges. They seem to move constantly, hardly giving birdwatchers a chance to focus their binoculars. With tails held perkily upwards, these birds frequently can be seen snacking on insects. Despite their name, gnats actually do not make up a large part of their diet. Instead, they hunt for a variety of other insects. The white outer tail feathers are flashed while foraging, which flushes bugs out of hiding. This strategy is seen in other birds as well. The Northern Mockingbird flaunts its white wing patches for the same purpose – scaring up a nutritious insect meal.
When not foraging, they might be busy collecting nesting materials. Keep an eye out for deep-cupped nests made primarily of plant matter. The outside is garnished in lichens for camouflage and wrapped with spider webs or silk threads. The gnatcatcher is a common breeder across most of the country. In fact, its range has been expanding northward across the United States. One estimate places total range expansion at an astounding 200 miles north over just a couple decades. This change corresponds with the average increase in global temperature. Such a small bird is susceptible to many dangers, which can make nesting a difficult endeavor. To save time and energy, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher parents recycle material from previous nests for reuse in successive attempts. They can build (or rebuild, rather) up to seven nests in a single breeding season!
Their miniature size and endless movement can make them tricky to spot. It is often easier to locate them by their wheezy calls. They are capable of a variety of short utterances, all of which have a distinct raspy quality. Songs are given mostly during the breeding season. Gnatcatchers are able to mimic sounds, and their songs are generally embellished with snippets of mimicked phrases. Territorial disputes spur songs, aggressive calls, and non-vocal sounds like bill snaps.
While several subspecies of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher are currently recognized, the species shows little morphological variation across its range in the US. Western individuals tend to be more drab than their Eastern counterparts. Several other species resemble the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. The California, Black-tailed, and Black-capped Gnatcatchers display slight differences in plumage and reside in restricted regions of the American Southwest. Golden- and Ruby-crowned Kinglets can be easily mistaken for gnatcatchers at first glance. They both share an incredibly exuberant behavior packed into a micro-bird body. However, range, time of year, and plumage can be used to separate gnatcatchers and kinglets. Several vireo species can also be misidentified as gnatcatchers. Range, vocalization, and behavior can clue birdwatchers into correctly identifying gnatcatchers in the field.
Charming, spunky, and indefatigable are just a few words that describe this tireless bird. They are genuinely entertaining and provide a range of intriguing behaviors – a joy for birders of any level of experience. Go out to your yard or local park and find some gnatcatchers near you!
Very few birds share the same brilliant attire, cheerful persona, and backyard-friendly reputation as the Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis). Found in lawns across the Eastern United States, they are a much-loved favorite of many bird enthusiasts.
These birds hardly need description, as most of us could recognize them in an instant. Males are a vibrant blue with a striking orange breast and stark white belly. Females look identical except they are markedly paler. The Eastern Bluebird is one of three bluebird species in the United States. It shares the country with its western counterparts – the Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) and Mountain Bluebird (Sialia currucoides). Their song is a series of genial whistles and chatters, and the call is a wavering “tu-a-wee.” Being a member of the Thrush family (Turdidae), they are closely related to another familiar backyard bird – the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). Though the adults look different, the close relationship between robins and bluebirds is why fledglings of both species share a similar speckled appearance.
While bluebirds are a backyard staple nowadays, they were not always so common. Their populations had begun seriously declining as early as the 1920s because of alterations in land use. Urbanization, forest fragmentation, reduction of natural open spaces, fire suppression, forest thinning (i.e. clearing dead material that could serve as nesting sites), and use of pesticides all contributed to a drop in bluebird numbers. The negative effects of these changes were compounded by invasive species and predation. European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) are extremely aggressive nonnative birds. They compete for nesting cavities, often driving away or even killing breeding bluebirds. To top it off, an extremely severe ice storm in 1978 reduced vital food sources, further dropping bluebird numbers. Populations declined so drastically in some regions that several state wildlife agencies declared the species as rare. Sadly, many of the threats that Eastern Bluebirds faced throughout the 20th century persist today. However, the introduction of nest box programs has helped to combat these declines.
The North American Bluebird Society has been a major player in the bluebird’s recovery by encouraging nationwide public involvement in bluebird conservation. Due to extensive efforts over the past decades, citizen-run nest box initiatives have restored bluebird populations. Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina all have active bluebird organizations. Local chapters are working to maintain regional bluebird numbers and educate community members about cavity nesting bird conservation. NestWatch, a Cornell Lab of Ornithology platform, also promotes citizen-powered support for breeding birds. Check out the NestWatch and North American Bluebird Society websites to get started with building boxes and monitoring your own bluebirds.
In East TN, Southwest VA, and Western NC, the bluebird breeding season begins around late March and lasts until mid-August. Eastern Bluebird females typically construct their nests out of pine straw in an artificial or natural cavity. Once the nest cup is fully formed and lined with soft grasses, she lays 3-5 sky-blue eggs. Sometimes other colors are laid – approximately 4-5% of females lay white eggs. After several weeks of incubation and brooding, the young fledge from the nest. The male continues feeding the fledglings while the female begins working on another clutch. It is common for bluebirds in our area to lay a second and occasionally even a third brood. The older fledglings sometimes stick around to help raise the new nestlings. Talk about built-in babysitting!
The Eastern Bluebird is primarily insectivorous. Bugs make up almost 70% of their diet. Caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, beetles, and everything in between are on the menu for the bluebird. It has been said that they can catch up to 2,000 insects a day. That equates to nearly 350,000 insects over a single breeding season. Hunting small insect prey requires excellent eyesight. They can spot a creepy crawly from over 50 yards away. For reference, that is half the length of a football field! Berries like viburnum, sumac, dogwood, mulberry, pokeweed, holly, etc. make up the rest of their diet. When insects are scarce in winter, they rely almost entirely on these plants. Dried mealworms are also a tasty snack that birdwatchers can provide at feeders. However, too many mealworms can deplete a bluebird’s calcium, so be sure to provide recommended amounts as supplemental feeding only.
These stunning birds are truly a joy to observe. Becoming a bluebird landlord is fun, interesting, and a great way to contribute to a successful, decades-old conservation initiative. Consider putting up a nestbox this season and watch the fascinating life of our Eastern Bluebird unfold from the comfort of your own home.
The May Birding Kingsport meeting will be held on Tuesday, May 25th at 7:00 pm at the Eastman Bays Mountain Recreation Area, Shelter #9. The meeting program will feature Cyndi Routledge, Nashville Tennessee Ornithological Society, who will discuss her research on hummingbirds. Please contact [email protected] or visit the Birding Kingsport page (www.mountainempirebirds.net/birdingkingsport-org/) for more details.
Good morning and happy spring birding! The City Nature Challenge (https://citynaturechallenge.org/) will be starting this Friday (4/30)! Join any of the following walks for a fun time outdoors and to contribute to the project:
Friday April 30
Jacob’s Nature Park
Beginning Birding and more! Both beginners and experienced birders will enjoy Jacob’s Park eBird hotspot. So far, 140 species of birds have been identified at the park. Hosted by David Kirschke. 1920 Ocala St (Classroom entrance) at 8:00 am
Also David has set up a zoom meeting for those interested in learning more birding tips. Especially helpful for beginners.
Time: Apr 29, 2021 06:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
https://us05web.zoom.us/j/82177405490…; Meeting ID: 821 7740 5490 Passcode: bVr9Bp
Friday April 30
Rocky Fork State Park
Intro walk to Rocky Fork’s incredible biodiversity and unique to our events, you’ll learn some of Rocky Fork’s role in American history!
501 Rocky Fork Road, Flag Pond, TN 376579 to 11 am
Host John Beaudet of the East Tennessee Trail Association
Friday April 30
Buffalo Mountain Park, 570 High Ridge Rd from10 to 11 am
Host- Connie Deegan, JCPR
Friday April 30
Phipps Bend Trail, Schmiede Rd, Surgoinsville, TN 37873 from1:00 to 3:00
Host- Cade Campbell
Saturday May 1
Roan Mountain State Park Twin Springs Picnic Area from 9 to noon
Hosted by Larry McDaniel, TriCities Young Naturalists
Saturday May 1
Watauga River Bluffs State Natural Area from 9 to noon
Hosted by Ranger Marty Silver
https://tnstateparks.com/…/event_details/warriors-path/… This is not a CNC event but a wonderful local event which will give people the opportunity to make iNaturalist observations that will count in our CNC totals.
Saturday May 1
Intro walk, Rocky Fork’s incredible biodiversity.
501 Rocky Fork Road, Flag Pond, TN 37657 from 9 to 11 am
Host volunteer Van Hovey
Saturday May 1
Jacob’s Nature Park, King Springs Rd, Johnson City from 3 to 5pm
Hosted by Mel Kelley/Friends of Jacob’s Nature Park
Sunday May 2
ETSU Arboretum Walk/ Wildlife in the Trees from 1 to 3 pm
Monday May 3
Winged Deer Park, Disc Golf Parking Lot from 10 to 11am
Hosted by Connie Deegan, JCPR
Monday May 3
Laurel Run Park Wildflower and Birding from 11 to whenever
Host- Mel Kelley/ Tri-Cities Sierra Club Committee
NO CELL SERVICE, cameras best at this site
Monday May 3
Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park from 5pm to 6pm
Hosted by Heather Hendrix