Feathered Friends: Hummingbirds, other migrants, make their return to Northeast Tennessee

10:23 am | April 9, 2012

The Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have returned to Northeast Tennessee, and they have established a new record for their yearly spring return in the process.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/James C. Leupold - Native Tree Swallows are cavity-nesting birds that will accept lodging in bird boxes or any natural nooks and crannies in trees or old fence posts.

Glen Eller, a fellow member of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, reported that his daughter, Lia, saw a hummingbird on the afternoon of April 3.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Dave Menke - The Chipping Sparrow, which is a widespread North American bird, disproves the notion that all sparrows are drab “little brown birds.”

“My daughter called me to excitingly tell me she had her first male Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the season today around two,” Eller reported.

His daughter put out her feeder on Saturday, March 31. She lives in the Fall Branch community of Washington County.

Well-known birder Rick Knight, who has kept statistics of area sightings for many years, noted that the hummingbird observed by Glen’s daughter represents a new early record for the five-county area of Northeast Tennessee that include the counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington. The previous early arrival date for a Ruby-throated Hummingbird was April 6.

Of course, I still haven’t heard from any readers in Elizabethton and Carter County about the arrival of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. If you’ve not placed your sugar water feeder outside, now is the time to do so. Give me a call when the feeder attracts its first visiting hummingbird.

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The Departments of Agriculture and Interior have announced a new partnership to use innovative approaches with farmers and forest landowners to restore and protect the habitats for specific wildlife species.

Working Lands for Wildlife focuses conservation dollars and wildlife expertise on the recovery of certain at-risk, threatened or endangered wildlife species while also helping other vulnerable and game species that depend on similar habitat.

The Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) is the species of concern for parts of 12 Tennessee counties including: Scott, Morgan, Campbell, Anderson and Claiborne in the Cumberland Plateau and Johnson, Carter, Washington, Unicoi, Greene, Cocke and Monroe in the Blue Ridge Mountains area. However, only private land at an elevation above 2,000 feet on the Cumberland Plateau area and at or above 2,500 feet in elevation on the Blue Ridge Mountains are eligible for enrollment.

The vast forested lands, grasslands, and forb-rich landscape of the Appalachian Mountains was once considered a population stronghold for the Golden-winged Warbler. Today, however, the population is at-risk for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

The most common explanations of population declines point to the loss and degradation of early successional habitat. Golden-winged Warblers and many other species, like Ruffed grouse or American Woodcock, depend upon shrubby, idle vegetated areas like forest clear-cuts, alder swamps, utility rights-of way and other similar habitats for breeding. Several factors have contributed to the decline of these habitats including direct losses to development, reforestation of farmland, fire suppression and changes in agricultural and forestry practices.

The Appalachian region offers a tremendous opportunity to improve habitat for the Golden-winged Warbler and other neotropical migratory birds. Providing structurally diverse vegetation for breeding and foraging offers a great opportunity to combat declines in golden winged warblers and other early successional species.

Working Lands for Wildlife will assist private land owners in the creation and maintenance of habitat necessary to sustain breeding populations of Golden-winged Warblers in their current range. It focuses on the creation, management and maintenance of early successional habitat in close association with forested landscapes, or adjacent to active agriculture or pastureland.

Interested producers and landowners in targeted areas can enroll in the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP) on a continuous basis at their local NRCS field office. NRCS funds from WHIP will share the cost of conservation practices with landowners in areas known to support one or more of the selected species.

For 14 years, WHIP has worked to protect, restore or develop fish and wildlife habitat for many species, including those considered at-risk. Since 2003, about $310 million has been committed to 23,000 farmers, ranchers and landowners to provide wildlife treatments on four million acres of private working lands.

The Elizabethton Service Center of NRCS is located at 419 W. Elk Avenue, Suite 200. For more information, call District Conservationist Jason Hughes at 542- 2341.

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The most reliable location for finding Golden-winged Warblers in Carter County is Hampton Creek Cove in Roan Mountain. This preserve is managed by the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee.

For several years now, I have made almost yearly pilgrimages to Hampton Creek Cove to observe this warbler.

I’ve had fairly good luck finding the Golden-winged Warbler during the spring and early summer at Hampton Creek Cove and a handful of other locations in Roan Mountain.

I’ve never seen this warbler at my home on Simerly Creek Road, although I have on just a couple of occasions hosted visits by the closely related Blue-winged Warbler.

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Speaking of warblers, Tony Hardin visited me at the Elizabethton STAR office recently to share a recent sighting. He observed a Nashville Warbler in his yard on March 29.

In addition, he said he has the luxury of also getting to watch the four Eastern Bluebirds that make their home in his neighbor’s yard.

I’ve always had better luck finding Nashville Warblers during fall migration. I’ve seen this warbler in both Tennessee and South Carolina. Despite its name, however, the Nashville Warbler is not closely affiliated with the capital of the Volunteer State. The bird just happened to be observed near Nashville by the man who described it for science back in the early 1800s.

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New birds continue to arrive at home. Chipping Sparrows made their first appearance of 2012 on the last day of March. Their timing could not have been better. Since I started birding in 1993, Chipping Sparrows have returned reliably from mid-March to early April. I watched as about a half dozen Chipping Sparrows searched for dandelion seeds and other food along the edge of the gravel driveway.

The Chipping Sparrow disrupts the misguided notion that all sparrows are “little brown birds.” The Chipping Sparrow is actually a pretty bird with a crisp plumage of brown and gray that is given a splash of color from its bright rufous cap. A vivid black line along the side of the face runs through the eye. These characteristics make adult Chipping Sparrows — the sexes look alike — fairly easy to identify. Chipping Sparrows are common across North America.

Their loud, trilling songs are one of the most common sounds of spring woodlands and suburbs. Experts believe that Chipping Sparrows evolved as birds that lived on the edge of coniferous forests. However, as human progress changed the landscape, they adapted and became associated with open habitats, including farmland and pastures.

Many birders refer to this small sparrow by the affectionate nickname, “Chippie.”

I also discovered on the same day that the Chipping Sparrows returned that a pair of Eastern Bluebird has already built a nest and deposited four eggs in one of my nesting boxes.

The bluebirds now have some competition. A pair of Tree Swallows put in their first appearance of the year at my home on April 4. They immediately began checking out their favorite nesting box next to the fish pond. Their interest put them into conflict with some other Eastern Bluebirds, which recently started showing an interest in that same box.

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I saw my first Tree Swallows of the year a few days earlier in Elizabethton. Three Tree Swallows swooped over the parking lot at Lakeo Japanese Steakhouse in Elizabethton. I was having lunch on March 29 with Elizabethton STAR photographer Brandon Hicks and we saw the swallows as we were entering the restaurant.

On April 3, I saw my first Northern Rough-winged Swallows of the year. Two of these birds were perched on a wire near Tetrick’s Funeral Home in Elizabethton.

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Despite the threat of rain that never materialized, the bird walk at Tipton-Haynes Historic Site in Johnson City on March 31 brought out about a dozen local birders. Part of the annual Andre Michaux Day, the walk produced a few dozen species of birds, including such notable observations as Swamp Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-winged Blackbird and a pair of Canada Geese nesting at the small spring house pond on the grounds.

I conducted the walk with fellow members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of TOS.

The next bird walk scheduled by the chapter will be held at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park at 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 12. By the time of this walk, migration should be at its peak. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing enjoyment and look for some colorful and interesting spring migrants. The walk is free and open to the public.

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I would still like for readers to share with me their first sighting of a hummingbird this spring. Readers are also welcome to share other sightings, ask questions or make a comment by calling 297-9077 or 542-4151 or sending e-mail to bstevens@ starhq.com or ahoodedwarbler@ aol.com. I’m also on Facebook and you are welcome to post your sightings to my wall.

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