Robins, hummingbirds surprise observers with winter season visits

10:34 am | January 16, 2012

From wintering American Robins to lingering hummingbirds, this winter has already been notable for being so mild. It’s also been noteworthy for some unexpected birds.

Photo by Ken Thomas - Bright red berries lure an American Robin to a holly tree. Robins are fond of fruit, but they will also feed on earthworms and insects.

I got a call on Jan.3 from Lorraine Whitson in Unicoi about a hummingbird that had been coming to her feeders since last fall. She granted permission for me to report the birds to some regional experts.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Although the American Robin is often considered a harbinger of spring, these large songbirds are perfectly capable of withstanding some frost and snow. The presence of a reliable food source, such as these berries, helps them survive wintry weather.

She also told me that this is not the first time a wintering hummingbird has visited her yard. She hosted a Rufous Hummimgbird back in the winter of 2005.

One of the people I notified was Mark Armstrong, curator at the Knoxville Zoo and a licensed bird bander. He meant to make the trip to Unicoi to band Lorraine’s tiny visitor, but before he could do so, the bird departed.

I had already learned of the bird’s departure from some other birding friends who had made contact with Lorraine after my phone call with her.

“I talked to Lorraine today and it looks like her bird has moved on to some place warmer,” Mark reported in an email to me on Jan. 7.

He noted that the last day she saw the bird was Jan. 4.

“Lorraine had a light on the feeder and was taking good care of it, but that was the morning when we had 18 degree temperatures and the previous day wasn’t above freezing,” Mark reported in his email. “So the bird probably just decided to move on.”

Mark noted that it’s not unheard of for birds to move around sometimes. “I just banded one on Thursday in west Knoxville that showed up at a different feeder on Tuesday, so you never know,” he said.

Mark said he has enjoyed a banner year for wintering hummers.

“I’ve banded 11 Rufous, one Allen’s and one Ruby-throat, plus I had a return bird in Oak Ridge that I banded in 2010,” he noted.

He also informed me that Rufous Hummingbirds have been observed and documented in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio and in larger than usual numbers in Alabama.

“It is a pretty special year,” he said.

Wintering hummingbirds occur on an almost annual basis in Northeast Tennessee. The majority of them turn out to be Rufous Hummingbirds, and not the Ruby-throated Hummingbird that is present from spring to fall in the region. Most people do not notice these hummingbirds at their feeders until after the departure of the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in early October.

After that time, the remaining hummingbird becomes more conspicuous in the absence of any other individuals of its kind. If anyone is still hosting hummingbirds, let me know by calling 297-9077.

In addition to Lorraine’s bird in Unicoi County, Carter County residents Eric and Kathy Noblet have hosted a Rufous Hummingbird. Like Lorraine, this is also not the first time the Noblets have hosted a wintering hummingbird.

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Linda Croy called me this past week to ask about American Robins. She and her husband live on Rosewood Circle in Elizabethton and are seeing robins in their yard on an almost daily basis. Linda said she thinks the robins are attracted to the fruit that has fallen to the ground from some Bradford pear trees in her yard.

She wondered if it isn’t unusual to see so many robins in early January.

It’s true that most of us think of the American Robin as one of spring’s early arrivals, a signal that winter’s grip is finally easing. After the long, cold wintry months, there’s nothing quite like watching as a flock of these large songbirds hop across your lawn, tilting their heads to look for earthworms and other potential prey hidden in the grass and just beneath the soil.

While American Robins do migrate, there’s inevitably a few of these birds that feel they can “tough” things out without imitating human “snowbirds” and heading to milder locations. One factor in determining whether you host American Robins during the winter involves the attractiveness of your yard when it comes to luring these songbirds closer to your home. Fruit trees — such as the Bradford pears mentioned by Linda during her phone call — attract hungry robins, especially when the ground is frozen or buried beneath a layer of snow. Other fruit-bearing trees appreciated by robins include the American holly. People who feed the birds may even want to offer fruit. Many people suggest raisins and chopped apples. In addition to fruit, berries and earthworms, the American Robin’s diet includes insects and caterpillars. They will also visit bird baths, for a simple dip and splash or for a thirst-quenching sip.

The American Robin is a member of the thrush family and is native to North America. In fact, it is one of the most wide-ranging birds on the continent, ranging from Alaska to Newfoundland and from Florida to California.

As a thrush, the American Robin is related to other much-loved songbirds such as the Eastern Bluebird, Wood Thrush and Veery.

So, how unusual is it to observe American Robins in the region during winter? In the recent Christmas Bird Counts conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society in Elizabethton and Roan Mountain, the American Robin appeared on both counts. In the Elizabethton count area the American Robin was one of the most numerous birds with 755 individuals counted. On the other hand, only 17 American Robins were found within the Roan Mountain count area. This suggests to me that the robins that are present this winter are concentrated in the lower elevations.

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The annual Great Backyard Bird Count is the perfect opportunity to get outside and find out what birds are common or uncommon in your yard or favorite birding destination. The annual event is hosted by Audubon, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Canadian partner Bird Studies Canada. The results provide a snapshot of the whereabouts of more than 600 bird species.

This year’s four-day count is scheduled for Friday-Monday, Feb. 17-20. Anyone can participate in this free event and no registration is needed. Watch and count birds for at least 15 minutes on any day of the count, February 17-20, 2012. Enter your results at www.birdcount.org, where you can watch as the tallies grow across the continent. The four-day count typically records more than 10 million observations.

“When thousands of people all tell us what they’re seeing, we can detect patterns in how birds are faring from year to year,” said Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“The Great Backyard Bird Count is a perfect example of Citizen Science,” noted Audubon Chief Scientist, Gary Langham. “Like Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, volunteers help us with data year after year, providing scientific support that is the envy of many institutions. It’s also a lot of fun.”

The number of participants increases yearly.

“We’re finding that more people are taking part in our bird count programs every year — and the more that take part, the better it is for the birds,” said Richard Cannings, Senior Projects Officer for Bird Studies Canada.

The 2011 GBBC brought in more than 92,000 bird checklists submitted by participants from across the United States and Canada. Altogether, bird watchers identified 596 species with 11.4 million bird observations. Results from the 2011 GBBC included:

• Increased reports of Evening Grosbeaks, a species that has been declining;

• A modest seasonal movement of winter finches farther south in their search for food;

• The Eurasian Collared-Dove was reported from Alaska for the first time, more evidence of an introduced species rapidly expanding its range.

Although it’s called the Great “Backyard” Bird Count, the count extends well beyond backyards. Lots of participants choose to head for national parks, nature centers, urban parks, nature trails or nearby sanctuaries. For more information, including bird-ID tips, instructions, and past results, visit www.birdcount.org.

The count also includes a photo contest and a prize drawing for participants who enter their bird checklists online.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is made possible in part by sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited.

Mark the four days of the count on your calendar and get ready to enjoy some “citizen science” for a good cause.

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

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