Feathered Friends: Labor Day kicks off fall birding season

9:03 am | September 10, 2012

I started off my Labor Day weekend with the soft wails and trembling whistles of an Eastern Screech-Owl as the hidden raptor made its presence known during the daylight hours on Saturday, Sept. 1.

Photo courtesy of Kathy Noblet
A male Cape May Warbler made a migration stop this spring to forage in a spruce tree at the home of Eric and Kathy Noblet in Carter County.

I’ve noticed over the years that late summer and early fall represent a good time to listen for these small owls outside of their usual nocturnal hours. I suppose these owls, like many other birds at this time of the year, get a little restless with the changing of the seasons.

Labor Day birding on Sept. 3 brought sightings of a Cape May Warbler, three Tennessee Warblers, Scarlet Tanager, Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Eastern Towhee, Song Sparrows, Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatch, Belted Kingfisher, Blue Jay and American Crow.

A couple of days later, my evening birding session started with a bang that was later highlighted by a flock of at least 39 Common Nighthawks that flew over around 7 p.m. I may have missed one or two here or there, but it was definitely an impressive flock.

The wild cherry trees — as they have for many years — remain incredibly attractive to migrating birds and resident birds alike. These trees attracted 4 American Robins, 3 Cedar Waxwings, 2 Cape May Warblers, 1 Tennessee Warbler, 2 Gray Catbirds, 1 Brown Thrasher and two Eastern Pewees in the space of about an hour.

Other birds that I saw included a single Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Song Sparrows, American Goldfinches and, of course, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds.

The Cape May Warbler and Tennessee Warbler do not nest in the region, so they represent some of the first true migrants to pass through my yard this fall. I haven’t had to work hard to make my yard attractive to warblers. Several willow trees also provide a place for warblers and other birds to forage for food, which includes caterpillars and insects. Because willow leaves are so wispy, I think it is also easier to follow a bird’s movements as they fly from branch to branch in one of these trees. They provide less concealing cover than trees with broad leaves, which also helps explain my success at finding warblers and other birds in these trees.

It’s also interesting that several species of warblers are named for their associations with trees. Some examples include Pine Warbler, Magnolia Warbler and Palm Warbler. Only the Pine Warbler, however, really expresses any affinity for the tree for which it is named. This warbler inhabits open pine woods in eastern North America.

The Magnolia Warbler actually prefers a habitat comprised of spruce-fir forests, and the Palm Warbler is fond of weedy fields, especially in migration.

There are 116 species of New World warblers, also known as wood-warblers, in the world. Of that number, more than half occur south of the United States and Canada, ranging through Central and South America as well as the Caribbean.

In Northeast Tennessee, about 25 species of warblers nest and rear young during the summer months. Another dozen or so warbler species migrate through the region each spring and fall.

Some of the warblers that occur south of the United States have rather descriptive common names, such as Gray-and-gold Warbler, Two-banded Warbler, Golden-bellied Warbler, Pale-legged Warbler, Citrine Warbler, Black-crested Warbler, Gray-headed Warbler, White-lored Warbler, Russet-crowned Warbler, Three-banded Warbler, Golden-browed Warbler, Three-striped Warbler, White-rimmed Warbler, Red Warbler, Pink-headed Warbler, Flavescent Warbler and Buff-rumped Warbler.

Not all warblers carry the word “warbler” in their common names. Such groups of warblers include the various whitestarts, yellowthroats and redstarts. Closer to home, birders in the region are familiar with the waterthrushes (Northern and Louisiana), Ovenbird and Northern Parula.

The world’s largest wood-warbler is the Yellow-breasted Chat, which is noticeably larger than all other warblers, reaching a length of 7.5 inches and having a wingspan of 9.75 inches. Ironically, this bird may not actually be a warbler. Experts have debated for years whether or not the Yellow-breasted Chat truly belongs to the family of New World warblers.

Some wood-warblers are endangered or declining in numbers. Only a few species, however, have actually gone extinct.

Semper’s Warbler of Saint Lucia — an island nation in the eastern Caribbean Sea on the boundary with the Atlantic Ocean — is probably extinct.

Apparently abundant in the 19th century, the last reliable sighting of a Semper’s Warbler took place in 1961. Introduced mongooses played a factor in this bird’s extinction.

Bachman’s Warbler, named by John James Audubon in honor of his friend, the Rev. John Bachman, is possibly extinct. Ironically, Aububon himself never saw a live Bachman’s Warbler but relied on the skins of specimens sent to him by Bachman for his painting of the species.

The last sighting of a Bachman’s Warbler in the United States took place in South Carolina in 1961. Then, on Jan. 14, 2002, a bird similar to a female Bachman’s Warbler was filmed in Cuba. The island of Cuba had historically been the location of this warbler’s main wintering grounds. So, the status of this warbler remains quite elusive.

Two warblers designated with endangered status breed in the United States. Kirtland’s Warbler is confined mostly to Michigan during the nesting season while the Golden-cheeked Warbler nests only in Central Texas. These birds are habitat specialists. Kirtland’s Warbler requires large areas of dense young jack pine for its breeding habitat while the Golden-cheeked Warbler needs an abundance of juniper and live oak trees for successful nesting.

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To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, call me at 297-9077 or 542-4151 or send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com or bstevens@starhq.com. I am also on Facebook.

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