Feathered Friends – Winter wren one of season’s low-profile visitors

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. (Photo by Jean Potter)

By Bryan Stevens

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.

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.


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. They make great Christmas gifts. 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. The club also regularly supports causes that benefit birds.

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 Erwin Record, 218 Gay St. Erwin, and Herald and Tribune, 702 W. Jackson, Blvd., Jonesborough.

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.

Library Happenings – New novel recounts visit from Saint Nicholas

By Angie Georgeff

Happy Saint Nicholas Day! Clement Moore’s poem notwithstanding, I somehow doubt the original Nicholas, the fourth-century Greek Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor, would ever have been called “a right jolly old elf.” The “good holy man” whose modern-day counterparts deliver presents to well-behaved Dutch children as Sinterklaas, gave us our Santa Claus.

Sinterklaas makes his visits on Saint Nicholas Eve (Dec. 5) in some provinces of the Netherlands and on Saint Nicholas morning (Dec. 6) in other parts. The venerable, bearded saint is dressed in red bishop’s robes and miter. He carries a crozier and a big, red book that tells him which children have been good and which have been naughty. With his hands full, Sinterklaas is assisted by Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who hands out candy and gifts.

By 1660, many of the traditions concerning Saint Nicholas were well established in the Low Countries. Jan Steen’s painting, “The Feast of Saint Nicholas,” portrays a family celebrating the holiday amid abundance and comfort. A little girl – evidently good – clutches her doll and bucket of goodies. Her older brother – evidently naughty – cries when he is shown his empty shoe, while his younger brother points at him and laughs.

Dutch colonists brought Sinterklaas to America. One of our new novels, Francis Spufford’s “Golden Hill,” recounts a particularly momentous visit from Saint Nicholas to a family of Dutch origin who are living in New York City in 1746. It’s only one chapter of a book chock full of drama and tidbits of history, but I found it fascinating.

I enjoy well-researched historical fiction and actually prefer endings that leave one or two questions unanswered even after most of a character’s secrets are revealed. Like many who came to America in those early days, Richard Smith had a skeleton in his closet, which prompted a series of adventures and misadventures. We finally learn how and why he came to New York, but where he went from there is left for the reader to imagine – or perhaps a sequel…

Holiday Outreach

The kids and teens who attend our programs are helping us make the holidays a little brighter for local nursing home residents this Christmas. They have been making cards and decorations for all of the residents and looking for presents for two octogenarians they have “adopted.” If you would like to help, a list of the simple gifts this lady and gentleman would like to receive is available at our circulation desk, along with their sizes. Handy calendars with a complete listing of programs for kids and teens are available in the Children’s Room, or check our Unicoi County Public Library Kids and Teens Facebook page for details.

Feathered Friends – Good intentions can have ill effects for ducks, geese


A male Mallard swims and forages in a stream. Mallards and other species of ducks feed on a variety of foods and usually do not need supplemental feeding by humans. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

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, 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.

On the other hand, McRuer warned that 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.

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.

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.


Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To learn more about birds and other topics from the natural world, friend Stevens on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Library Happenings – Library may close when inclement weather arrives

By Angie Georgeff

It’s hard to believe we are now on the cusp of December. When I consider how warm this year has been, I wonder whether we’ll have much snow. We hardly were closed at all last winter due to inclement weather, but one never knows. Ever since the year the Mississippi Gulf Coast enjoyed a white Christmas, I don’t discount possibilities. Of course it melted before the end of the day, but for a few fun-filled hours snowmen temporarily doubled the population of the coastal counties. It was an opportunity not to be missed.

In case of inclement weather, the library may open late, close early or even be closed all day.  Our decision is made based on the condition of our parking lot and the ability of our staff to safely drive to or from their homes. Even when Unicoi County schools are closed, we may well be open, so please call 743-6533 to make sure we’re not closed if road conditions are questionable. We will waive fines for library materials that fall due on a day when we are closed if they are returned or renewed on the following business day.

Coloring Bookmarks

Winter-themed coloring bookmarks are back. I believe there are few better antidotes to the stress of the holidays than books, movies and coloring. We have all three and you won’t have to spend a dime. When you come to the library to check out books and videos, take a few minutes to color a bookmark. It is a pleasure to choose the hues and make the design your own.

Throughout the holidays, we will have stations set up with bookmarks and colored pencils. Four designs are available, so you may take your choice from snowflakes, snowmen, trees or ornaments. These patterns are intended for adults, but they’re not too intricate for older children to enjoy.

Spotlight Book

It’s time once again for James Patterson’s Christmas present to his readers: an Alex Cross novel. Most of James Patterson’s books are written with the help of a coauthor, but “The People vs. Alex Cross” is pure Patterson. As you probably surmised from the book’s title, the detective finds himself on trial. The charge is murder.

Although Cross knows he fired in self-defense, the evidence against him appears damning.  Prosecutors and the press are baying for blood, and even Cross’s children entertain doubts about their father’s innocence.

Cross is, of course, suspended from the force pending the outcome of his trial. Nevertheless, he can’t help but investigate a shocking video that may preserve clues to the disappearances of several young women. Innocent lives hang in the balance.

Feathered Friends – Many reasons to admire America’s wild turkey

A wild turkey tom displays in the hope of attracting potential mates. The history of America is entwined with the story of this wild fowl. (Photo by Jean Potter)

By Bryan Stevens

I’ve seen a few small flocks of wild turkeys this fall, although larger flocks have been elusive so far. As the fields and woods grow more stark as the cold season advances, I am confident I will start seeing more turkeys. I am even thinking of spending part of my upcoming Thanksgiving holiday looking for some of these very American birds.

The wild turkey has been venerated as an example of an American success story almost from the time the first Europeans settlers set foot on the continent of North America. Even prior to the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans hunted the wild turkey and also made a place for the bird in their myths and lore.

Here are my top three reasons to celebrate the wild turkey, one of America’s most fascinating birds:

First, who doesn’t like to root for a contender? Many people have heard accounts of how the wild turkey was a candidate for America’s national bird. It’s a well-known example of historic trivia that the wild turkey had its supporters among the nation’s founding fathers, but was it ever seriously considered for the elevated status as America’s official bird? The answer’s not cut and dry.

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams formed a committee assigned the task of designing an official seal for the new United States of America. As is often the case with government committees, the job of designing the seal took longer than expected. After three different committees came up with different designs, Pennsylvania lawyer named Thomas Barton eventually came up with one featuring a white eagle. Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson recommended replacing that eagle design with one depicting the native bald eagle. Eventually, the bald eagle received designation as the nation’s official bird.

Nevertheless, some of the committee members had second thoughts. Franklin later wrote a letter to his daughter that seemed to bemoan the choice of the bald eagle. He labeled the eagle “a bird of bad moral character” and lauded the wild turkey as a “bird of courage.”

Perhaps Franklin suffered some buyer’s remorse. “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country,” he wrote in his letter. “The turkey is a much more respectable bird.” He also noted that the turkey is a true and original American native. Of course, the bald eagle is also a bird unique to North America. So while there’s no direct evidence that Franklin did anything to actively promote the turkey as the nation’s official bird, he didn’t exactly provide a ringing endorsement of the bald eagle.

Second, the wild turkey has a wide range of experience, both foreign and domestic, as a representative of the United States. While wild turkeys still roam through North America, to the tune of seven million individuals, their domesticated kin are farmed in huge numbers. Native tribes in the Americas began domesticating the wild turkey centuries ago. When early Spanish explorers conquered the Aztec empire in Mexico they found that turkeys were among the domesticated animals kept by the Aztecs. The Spaniards returned to Europe with domesticated turkeys around 1520. In the next few decades, domesticated turkeys spread into other European countries, arriving in England between 1525 and 1540.

In a strange twist of fate, colonists in New England and Virginia brought domestic turkeys with them to the New World in the early decades of the 1600s only to be surprised to find the native forests already populated by wild turkeys, which were the ancestors of their domesticated fowls. Today, that back-and-forth saga regarding the turkey continues. One of the most important customers for U.S turkey farmers is the nation of Mexico. Almost 70 percent of U.S. turkey exports go to Mexico.

Finally, the wild turkey has that “in-your-face” attitude that is so American and helps turkeys thrive no matter where they live. In recent decades, some turkeys have taken to suburban living. An article by Brian Handwerk on the National Geographic website puts the spotlight on these turkeys that have taken so readily to living in the ‘burbs.

Massachusetts and Connecticut, former strongholds of the first settlements by Europeans in the New World, are home to densely populated cities like Boston and Hartford. These days, however, turkeys demand their share of the pie, figuratively speaking, when it comes to prime real estate. All a turkey really needs is some cover, which is adequately provided by landscaped lawns in the suburbs, and a few trees that provide nightly roosts. As social birds, they roam in flocks that don’t particularly pay attention to property lines.

In addition, a wild turkey’s a fairly big bird. A male turkey, or tom, can weigh between 16 and 24 pounds. The females, or hens, are usually about half that size. Human-turkey conflicts occur most often in the spring when the boisterous toms are focused intently on besting rivals and impressing potential mates. Unfortunately, these hormone-addled tom turkeys sometimes mistake humans going about their daily lives as rivals.

In addition, many human residents of the suburbs have a tendency to offer food to wildlife ranging from squirrels and deer to perhaps a flock of resident turkeys. Providing food can make turkeys expectant and demanding. To put it mildly, a turkey can be a little intimidating. They’re not likely to harm a human being, but occasionally turkeys will also stand their ground, refuse to back down and even give chase to any human who crosses them. Sounds like a proud American, right?

Now, one last thing for which Americans can be thankful. We don’t chow down on bald eagles every Thanksgiving. It would be awful, wouldn’t it, to eat our national bird?


Bryan Stevens lives in Roan Mountain, Tennessee. If you have a question, wish to make a comment or share a sighting, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. He also welcomes friend requests on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler.

Library Happenings – New books from local authors generate excitement

By Angie Georgeff

With Thanksgiving upon us, our thoughts naturally turn to home and family. The mountains that embrace us and the people who populate them have an enduring claim upon our affections.  Therefore stories set in these hills and tales about our people pique our interest. A new book from Sharyn McCrumb, Ron Rash or another regional writer generates nearly as much excitement and demand at our library as bestsellers by James Patterson, David Baldacci, and Janet Evanovich.

Two weeks ago we were introduced to another local author when Bev Freeman came to the library and read an excerpt from her book “Where Lady Slippers Grow.” This book, which is scheduled for release at the end of this month, will be the second volume of Bev’s “Madison McKenzie Files” trilogy. All three books will be set along the southern reaches of the Appalachian Trail. While she was here, she presented the library with a copy of “Silence of the Bones,” the first book in the series.

On her twenty-first birthday, Aunt Denny gives Madison McKenzie the day off from work so she can hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail. Madison is accompanied on the morning run by her beloved dog Bud. When the dog’s curiosity is attracted by a tooth he finds along the way, his sensitive nose lures him off the trail to unearth a skull. The remains prove to be human, so the question becomes who, when and why. When she was a baby, Madison’s mother had vanished without a trace. While aching to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance, Madison takes a personal interest in the questions that surround the skull.

Spotlight Books

December is remarkable for the abundance and variety of products that are offered and for the paucity of books that are released. There’s too much competition for the consumer’s time and money in December, so many authors and publishers make an effort to get books out before Thanksgiving.

Consequently, I was not surprised when we recently received books by the aforementioned James Patterson, David Baldacci and Janet Evanovich.

Patterson’s “Count to Ten” is a “Private” novel co-written by Ashwin Sanghi. Jack Morgan, global head of the elite investigation agency, persuades Santosh Wagh to take on Private’s new office in Delhi. He may live – or die – to regret it.

In Baldacci’s “End Game,” assassins Will Robie and Jessica Reel investigate the disappearance of their handler “Blue Man,” who vanished while on vacation in his rural Colorado hometown. Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is back in Evanovich’s “Hardcore Twenty-four,” along with Joe Morelli, Ranger, Diesel, Grandma Mazur and a boa constrictor named Ethel. Hmmm: Ethel and Diesel. Do you think they’ll get along?

Bad reputation of world’s owls being rehabilitated

A great horned owl and a chick rest in a nest constructed in the fork of a tree. (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

By Bryan Stevens

As I sit at my computer working on this week’s column, I can hear the low, sonorous call of a great horned owl from the woods located behind my house. The great horned owl is one of two species I often hear near my home. In addition, I regularly hear the much smaller Eastern screech-owl calling from the same woods. The intervals around dusk and dawn are popular times for owls to produce their eerie calls. At present, there’s a pair of great horned owls living in the woods near my home. If I hear one, I usually hear the other. These large owls call to each other to communicate their whereabouts. Perhaps it helps them avoid surprise encounters with each other once they begin hunting after the sun sets.

The great horned owl lives and hunts in the woodlands of northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. These large owls thrive in rural areas, but these adaptable predatory birds have also learned to survive in the suburbs and even city parks. While quite at home in the region, the great horned owl is not confined to the Southern Appalachians. These owls also make their home in the wetlands along the southern Atlantic coast, as well as arid deserts of the American southwest. If nothing else, the great horned owl has shown amazing resilience and adaptability.

With about 200 different species, the world’s owls form an order known as Strigiformes. Characteristics that define owls include a mostly solitary and nocturnal existence. These predatory birds are also typified by such physical traits as an upright stance, binocular vision, exceptional hearing, sharp talons, and feathers adapted for silent flight.

The smallest owl — weighing as little as an ounce and measuring a mere five inches) — is the elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi). To give you some perspective, that DVD of your favorite movie also weighs about an ounce. The common house sparrow that flocks in shopping center parking lots is slightly bigger than this tiny owl. According to the website, The Owl Page, the elf owl was originally known as Whitney’s Owl. The scientific name whitneyi is a Latinized word formed from the last name of Josiah Dwight Whitney, a prominent American geologist for whom the diminutive owl was named. Whitney was considered the foremost authority of his day on the economic geology of the United States. In addition to having a tiny owl named in his honor, Whitney’s name graces Mount Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States, and the Whitney Glacier, which was the first confirmed glacier in the United States.

The miniature elf owl is every bit the predator, but its prey generally consists of various insects as well as such desert dwellers as scorpions and spiders. Despite the extremes of the environment in which it lives, the elf owl does just fine. It prefers areas offering plenty of saguaro cactus. Cavities in these iconic desert plants provide roosting and nesting locations for this tiny owl. The elf owl range from the southwest regions of the United States to Central Mexico and Baja California. Unfortunately, the numbers of this owl in Texas and California have declined in recent times.

To find the world’s largest owl, head to the other side of the world to the islands of Japan, as well as remote areas of Siberia, Manchuria and Korea. With a body comparable in size to that of a young child and a wingspan wider than six feet, the Blakiston’s fish owl (Bubo blakistoni) earns its distinction as the largest owl in the world.  The fish owls are part of a larger grouping of birds known as eagle owls, which specialize in hunting in habitats found along large rivers. Female Blakiston’s fish owls are larger than males, and a large female can weigh as much as 10 pounds and attain a 6.5-foot wingspan. This big owl was named after English naturalist Thomas Blakiston (1832-1891) who found the first specimen on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido in 1883. According to Paul Frost of The Raptor Foundation, this owl is sacred to the Ainu, a native people residing on Hokkaidu. The Ainu refer to this owl as “kotan kor kamuy,” which means “god of the village” or “god who defends the village”.

While many cultures view owls with misgivings, often associating their nocturnal tendencies with more sinister motives, that’s not always the case. For instance, the Japanese people believe that owls bring good fortune. In addition, owls offer protection from suffering. Other cultures have feared and reviled owls. The ancient Romans share much of the blame for the negative image owls are still overcoming. Romans considered owls as harbingers of death, defeat and other disasters. To ward off the evil caused by an owl, Romans advised that the offending owl should be killed and nailed to a door. Such a bloodthirsty solution leads me to think that owls had more to fear from Romans than Romans had to fear from them.

The need for common names for the 200 species of owls has resulted in some creative monikers. Some of the most descriptive common names for some of the world’s owls include ashy-faced barn owl, barking owl, brown owl, cuckoo owlet, fearful owl, giant eagle owl, Christmas Island hawk owl, snowy owl, laughing owl, rufous owl, tawny-bellied screech owl, winking owl, and spotted wood owl.

Many relatives of the great horned owl have proven equally adaptive, carving out niches for themselves in habitats as diverse as jungles, deserts and the frozen tundra. Indeed, the great horned owl has many relatives living in our region. The Eastern screech owl is a tiny cousin, but some other large owls that live in the area include the barred owl and the barn owl. More rare to the region are visits by such owls as the short-eared owl and the long-eared owl.

There’s even another tiny relative — the Northern saw whet owl — that is rarely heard and even more seldom seen.

Regardless of the species, the activities of owls are invariably cloaked in darkness. Despite electric lights and other trappings of civilization, people still delight in the shivers that result from hearing the hoots of an owl. It’s truly no surprise that owls have become popular motifs for the celebration of the Halloween holiday we celebrated a couple of weeks ago. Owls may live alongside us, but we’ll never truly belong to their world, which consists of all the spooky things that go bump in the night.


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

Library Happenings – Board of Trustees to meet Nov. 16

By Angie Georgeff

Thanksgiving will come early this year. Merchants are happy, even if turkeys are not. Since I like stuff – and stuffing – as well as the next girl, I am on the side of the merchants. Let Thanksgiving come just as soon as possible! By way of apology, I will wear my turkey socks and compose an ode to the noble bird if I can just think of enough words to rhyme with turkey.  Let’s see, going down the alphabet: Durkee, jerky, murky, perky, and quirky. I’d say that should be enough.

“The master of the woodland verge is hailed the noble turkey,

But I would rather cook that Tom with seasonings from Durkee.

Now roast him low and baste him slow so he won’t turn to jerky

And serve him up with vegetables and gravy brown and murky.

An apple crisp or pumpkin pie with whipped cream lofting perky

Tops off the feast that stars a bird both elegant and quirky.”

My grandfather George O’Dell liked to write poems. He lived in Arizona, so we didn’t see him often, but he never missed sending a birthday card with an original poem to each of his many grandchildren. His poems mean a lot to me, but frankly they’re not very good, so you can see where I get my talent. In fact, one of George’s surviving poems was written about having a poem rejected by the Johnson City Press-Chronicle.

If you would like to try your hand at praising whichever “bird” will grace your Thanksgiving table (even Tofurky), bring your poem down to the library by noon on Wednesday, Nov. 22.  We will post the poems and choose the one we like best. The winner will receive a $25. Food Lion gift card to help you buy the “roast beast” for your Christmas feast. Adults over the age of 18 are eligible to enter.

Board Meeting

The Board of Trustees of the Unicoi County Public Library will meet in the library lobby at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16. The public is welcome to attend. If you should require any special accommodations in order to attend the meeting, please call the library at 743-6533.

Youth Events

The Thanksgiving celebration for our teens will take place Friday, Nov. 17. It will begin at 5:30 p.m. and be finished by 8 p.m.

Looking ahead, Story Time will be held as usual at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 22, but the Reading Buddies will not meet that afternoon. Reading Buddies will resume on Wednesday, Nov. 29, from 3:30-4:30 p.m.

Feathered Friends – Dark-eyed junco faithful visitor to feeders during wintry weather

By Bryan Stevens

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

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. 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 am celebrating 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, including The Erwin Record and the Jonesborough Herald and Tribune. 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.


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.

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.

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.

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!


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

Library Happenings – Teen Advisory Group continues to recruit members

By Angie Georgeff

One reason I like my job is because it’s a bit different every day. I never know who will come through the library door or what that patron will need or want. Of course, most will come in to borrow or return books or DVDs, use our public access computers or attend a program. But there are days when someone needs special assistance with a problem. And we stand ready to help.

I remember one time when family members came into the library looking for information about the diagnosis a loved one had received. The doctor had given them very little information, and they were upset. They didn’t know how to spell the word, and I was unfamiliar with it, so we just had to try searching a number of possible spellings until we came at last upon a condition that fit with what they had been told. They obtained the information they needed from reliable Internet sources.

Very often patrons who are seeking employment make the library the headquarters for their job search. We may see them sitting at our computers several hours each day for weeks. We help them print, scan and fax documents and soon get to know them. We become fond of them, so we’re thrilled when we hear they have found a job, even though we know we will see them less often.

Some of our most enthusiastic patrons are those exploring their family history. As English poet Alexander Pope expressed it, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

I know from my own experience that discovering where an ancestor is buried or learning the maiden name of a foremother can make a 200 mile drive through rain or snow completely worth the time, effort and expense. After all, each maiden name plants a new family tree in your genealogical garden. So how can we help you?

Board Meeting

The Board of Trustees of the Unicoi County Public Library will meet in the library lobby at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16.

The public is welcome to attend. If you should require any special accommodations in order to attend the meeting, please call the library at 743-6533.

Teen Topics

Our Teen Advisory Group is still recruiting members. We especially need teens who are interested in our Reading Buddies program, which aims to strengthen reading skills by pairing beginning readers with teens who help and encourage the youngsters.

The teen group also enjoys a monthly party all their own which can include movie nights, murder mystery dinners, Pinterest craft parties, and other special events. For more information about teen programs, please call the library and ask for Katrina.

Feathered Friends – Crows show intelligence yet can’t shake dark reputation

A trio of American crows forage in grass. A flock of crows is referred to as a “murder,” perhaps one of the reason this bird has endured a dark and ultimately undeserved bad reputation. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

There’s something rather autumnal about watching a flock of American crows glean the last scattered kernels of corn from a harvested field as a sentry stands guard ready to utter the alarm with some guttural “caws” should anything potentially threatening appear on the scene. Crows are such a part of the landscape that they would almost escape our notice if they didn’t come with centuries of accumulated baggage that makes us distrust them and suspect their every action.

The crow, largely thanks to its black plumage, but perhaps also with a nod to its avian intelligence, has long been associated with Halloween. Greeting cards and decorations for the holiday often feature depictions of bats, owls and black cats, as well as the inevitable crow and the accompanying scarecrow. It’s not like the straw-filled sentries that stand guard over a farmer’s fields do anything to intimidate or even discourage crows. With a brain about as big as a man’s thumb, the crow is renowned among ornithologists and other scientists for its keen intelligence. Crows are not fooled for a second by the masquerade of a scarecrow propped in a field.

The intelligence of this bird has long been known. Early American naturalist William Bartram wrote about a crow named Tom in a unique naturalist essay titled “Anecdotes of an American Crow.” Bartram, who lived from 1739 to 1823, brought humor and insight to his subject as he wrote about the joys, as well as tribulations, of living with Tom, a crow that enjoyed tormenting Bartram’s dog and stealing the writer’s spectacles and trying to hide them.

The essay demonstrates that almost as soon as Europeans arrived in North America, some of those with a bent toward the natural world recognized the intelligence and amazing adaptability of the American crow. As well as writing about the natural world, Bartram earned widespread acclaim for his drawings of botanical and ornithological subjects. Tom, the featured crow in Bartram’s brief essay, certainly exhibited intelligence of an impressive degree. Not only did the crow steal his owners eyeglasses, he foiled Bartram’s first attempt to reclaim them. Noting Bartram’s attention to his efforts to hide the purloined spectacles, Tom snatched the eyeglasses a second time when Bartram made a premature attempt to reclaim them. The situation makes very humorous reading.

What else have crows done down through the ages to gain such a dark and much undeserved reputation? It probably doesn’t help matters that a flock of crows is known as a “murder.” Ancient Greeks considered crows as omens, which often foretold death and other disasters. On the positive side, many Native American tribes revere crows as communicators between worlds. Crows have been documented using tools and solving problems, which shows an uncanny ability to analyze and strategize. Early Celtic people also noted and admired these traits in crows.

In addition, crows forage beyond the cornfield for their food. Many crows scavenge road-killed wildlife, such as squirrels, opossums and rabbits. While they eat carrion, they do so less often than birds such as turkey vultures, black vultures and the crow’s fellow corvid, the common raven.

The kinship to the raven is evident, but even moderately experienced birders rarely confuse these similar species. The raven is a large bird with a heavy beak, a distinctive profile and a wedge-shaped tail. In a direct comparison with a raven, a crow looks downright puny. Both are members of the corvid family, which consists of 120 species including jays, rooks, magpies and jackdaws.

Many years ago I fed a flock of ducks that took up residence at my fish pond. Before long, the crows arrived within minutes after I tossed shelled corn on the ground for the benefit of the ducks. If the ducks took too long consuming the corn, the impatient crows crowded closer and competed directly with the ducks for the kernels. The crows that live around my home are usually too cautious and wary to visit feeders situated near my home. Feeders set farther from the house receive occasional hurried visits by crows.

American author and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher summed up the American crow in the frequently quoted remark, “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.” It’s an apt tribute and comes from the man whose sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” a book often credited with helping to launch the American Civil War.

Crows, perhaps more than any other North American bird, have learned to co-exist with human beings. Make an effort to get past some pre-supposed superstitions about these interesting birds and learn to appreciate them for their many good qualities.


To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, send an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Library Happenings – Halloween party for teens set for Oct. 27

By Angie Georgeff

Nuts, leaves and temperatures are falling as stores stock up for Christmas. That can only mean one thing. It is almost time for ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggedy beasties to go bump in the night. On the appointed day, don your fey apparel and begin the evening’s festivities at the library.

Library Trick or Treat will commence at 4 p.m. and continue until 6 p.m. Stations will be set up throughout the library offering stories, games, crafts and refreshments in keeping with the spirit of the season. Since candy will naturally be a part of the celebration, donations of individually wrapped candies would be appreciated.

Teen Party

Our teen Halloween party is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 27. Costumes are optional, but don’t be surprised if there is a witch or superhero in attendance.

A Halloween-themed movie will headline the entertainment. Refreshments will be served, but if participants want to bring a treat to share, it will be welcomed. The fun will begin at 5:30 p.m. and continue until 8 p.m.

Spotlight Book

I gave up trick-or-treating at an earlier age than most children of my generation. I loved the candy, of course, but the cold weather and those awful plastic masks we wore combined to make the evening a misery for me. I soon opted to stay home, pass out candy and enjoy seeing the inevitably-inappropriate-for-the-weather costumes that other kids were wearing.  My mother always bought “good” candy for Halloween, so I stayed warm, helped myself and never felt the least deprived. I still don’t enjoy cold weather, which is one of the reasons I shuddered when I saw the title of this week’s spotlight book.

“Deep Freeze,” John Sandford’s latest novel, finds Virgil Flowers in Trippton, Minnesota. If you’re a fan, you may be acquainted with Trippton because of its memorable school board.  Most governing bodies of that sort don’t have a history of corruption and murder, but Trippton, as Virgil well knows, is an exception to that rule.  It’s not the kind of thing their Chamber of Commerce would tout.

Once Trippton High School’s Girl Most Likely to Succeed, bank president Gina Hemming has been fished out of the river in the only spot where it wasn’t frozen – near the town’s sewage treatment plant. She died after a meeting of the committee planning the twenty-fifth reunion of the THS Class of 1992. It soon becomes apparent to Virgil that resentment in the small town runs even colder and deeper than the river – so deep that death alone may not be vengeance enough.

Sheriff warns citizens of scam

From Staff Reports

Sheriff Mike Hensley has issued a warning about a new scam that has arrived in the county.

“Please be advised that a telephone scam is circulating in the region where individuals are being contacted by scam artists posing as law enforcement,” Hensley said. “The intended scam victim will be told that someone in their family has been arrested and that they are being held in jail on a bond of usually a couple thousand dollars.”
Hensley said the caller will tell the victim that the process can be kept confidential if electronic payment of the bond is made via credit, debit, electronic check or green dot money card and that if the payment is made the individual will be released from jail. Oftentimes, the scam artist will have the name of a close friend or family member.

“Do not give anyone posing as law enforcement with the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Office any financial information over the telephone,” Hensley said.
If you are contacted and told that your loved one is in the Unicoi County Jail, please contact the jail directly at 743-1858 or dispatch at 743-1850.

“These are the only numbers that are affiliated with the confirmation of incarcerated individuals,” Hensley said. “In any event where an individual is arrested, you cannot simply pay a fee over the telephone to make bond. If you receive one of these calls, contact my office immediately and do not send money.”

Feathered Friends – Bristol resident reports visit from rofous hummingbird

Although usually resident from spring to fall in western regions of the United States, including Alaska, the rufous hummingbird migrates with some regularity into the southeastern United States during fall and early winter. People are often surprised to find this hummingbird visiting a sugar water feeder after all the ruby-throated hummingbirds have departed. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

An email from Bristol resident Ralph Beamer offered a timely reminder about the need to keep a watchful eye on our sugar water feeders even as most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds depart the region.

“For the past week, I have had a red hummingbird coming to the feeder,” Ralph explained in his email. He added that he had never seen a hummingbird like this recent visitor.

“Have you had any reports of a similar sighting?” Ralph asked.

Ralph is the first person to make such a report this fall, but sightings of a species of hummingbird other than the expected ruby-throated hummingbird are becoming more commonplace each year. Once the numbers of ruby-throated hummingbirds are reduced as these tiny birds migrate from the region, noticing an unusual hummingbird at a feeder becomes even easier.

In a reply to Ralph’s email, I sought more information on the hummingbird’s coloration. He confirmed that the bird’s feathers looked more reddish brown than bright red, which supports my belief that he has received a visit from a rufous hummingbird.

I speak from personal experience. My yard has attracted rufous hummingbirds on a couple of occasions. In October of 2016 I received my most recent visit from a rufous hummingbird, which lingered into November and was banded by Mark Armstrong. A former curator of birds for the Knoxville Zoo, Armstrong has devoted several years to studying the phenomenon of rufous hummingbirds that appear to migrate on a regular basis through the eastern United States every fall and early winter. Mark’s efforts have largely focused on Tennessee reports of rufous hummingbirds, but other banders operating from the Gulf Coast to New England have confirmed rufous hummingbirds in their respective regions.

The possibility of attracting a rufous hummingbird is the reason I encourage others to keep a sugar water feeder available into October and November. Experts who have studied the matter note that the presence of a feeder will not encourage ruby-throated hummingbirds to linger. These tiny birds know instinctively when it’s time to depart. Without the attraction of a feeder, however, a visiting rufous hummingbird might reject any extended stay in your yard.

Selasphorus rufus, or the rufous hummingbird, is about the same size as the ruby-throated hummingbird. Both species reach a body length of a little more than three inches and weigh only a few grams. In fact, one of these small hummingbirds might weigh the equivalent of a dime. Female rufous hummingbirds are slightly bigger than males, so a well-fed female rufous hummingbird might weigh as much as a nickel. So, to get an accurate impression of this sort of size, simply think of these tiny birds as weighing less than some of the spare change in your pocket.

Although hummingbirds are not known for their longevity, the website for Tennessee Watchable Wildlife notes that the oldest rufous hummingbird on record reached an age of eight years and 11 months. For the most part, hummingbirds blaze like tiny comets and enjoy typically brief but fast-paced lives. Despite a prevalent impression, hummingbirds are not delicate creatures. For instance, the rufous hummingbird’s tolerance for cold allows it to survive temperatures that dip briefly below zero. This adaptation has allowed the rufous hummingbird to breed as far north as Alaska.

The Selasphorus genus of hummingbirds consists of the rufous and six other species. Of those species, the Allen’s hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird and calliope hummingbird are known to also migrate through the eastern United States although with less frequency than the rufous. The remaining Selaphorus hummers — scintillant hummingbird, glow-throated hummingbird and volcano hummingbird — range in the tropical regions of Costa Rica and Panama. Those rufous hummingbirds that don’t spend the fall and early winter in the southeastern United States choose to overwinter in the region of Mexico around the city of Acapulco. This majority of the rufous hummingbird population migrates north again in the spring to claim nesting territory that can range from the Rocky Mountains of the western United States, as well as the Pacific Coast states of California, Oregon and Washington, all the way north to southern Alaska, as well as British Columbia in Canada.

Those rufous hummingbirds that continue to migrate through the southeastern United States each autumn constitute more evidence that we still have a lot to learn about birds. Even an abundant species like the rufous hummingbird offers mysteries that curious humans can attempt to understand.

While I can’t guarantee hummingbirds, I want to remind readers of the bird walks at 8 a.m. each Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee. Remaining walks, which are free and open to the public, are scheduled for Oct. 21, and Oct. 28. Meet at the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing pleasure.


To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Library Happenings – Library planning to celebrate Halloween with activities

By Angie Georgeff

Most of the time I highlight novels of one genre or another because the majority of our patrons prefer fiction, but nonfiction also has its partisans. I just happen to be one of them, with a healthy appetite for history and biographies. One of the books in our most recent shipment caught my eye because it combines history with biography, local interest and the accolades that accompany inclusion on the bestseller lists.

With “The Last Castle,” Denise Kiernan, who previously climbed the charts with “The Girls of Atomic City,” shifts her focus east from Oak Ridge to Asheville. Unicoi County’s proximity to Asheville means that many of us have been introduced to Biltmore House, the largest and most sumptuous residence ever built in the United States. But are we as familiar with the house’s story as we are with its iconic façade?

George Washington Vanderbilt aimed to carve a European-style estate out of the wilderness of western North Carolina, and he spared no expense to hire the architects and craftsmen who could make his dream a reality. I’ve heard it said that George “Biltmore” of a house than he could afford to maintain. That did ultimately prove true, but George’s wife Edith Stuyvesant Dresser refused to let his legacy be lost.

Vanderbilt 37650?

In 1876, Unicoi County’s new county seat was christened Vanderbilt in hopes of attracting the interest and investment of G. W. Vanderbilt. The ploy didn’t work and so the name didn’t last.  When George chose the Asheville area for his sprawling estate in 1879, the name of the town was changed to Ervin and the name of the post office to Erwin. Of course, there is still a Vanderbilt in Tennessee, but most University of Tennessee fans are just not that impressed.

Halloween Programs

And speaking of orange … our weekly story time will focus on pumpkins today and on Halloween next Wednesday, so bring the kids to the library at 10:30 a.m. for stories, crafts and activities suited to the season. Reading buddies meet at 3:30 p.m. each Wednesday afternoon. The teen Halloween party is scheduled for Friday, Oct. 27, and the children’s party for Tuesday, Oct. 31, from 4-6 p.m. Please call the library at 743-6533 for more information about any library program.

Our Halloween Film Festival for adults will continue this week with another movie inspired by literature.

If you want to try to guess which film we’ll be watching, the author whose stories suggested it is Guy de Maupassant. Join us at 6 p.m. for popcorn, candy and a movie, and feel free to bring a bottle of water or your favorite soft drink.

Feathered Friends – Coffee drinkers owe debt to pest-eating warbler

The black-throated blue warbler, a common summer nesting bird in the Appalachian Mountains, spends the winter months on various Caribbean islands, often favoring the habitat provided by coffee farms in Jamaica and other locations. (Photo by Mark Musselman/National Audubon Society)

By Bryan Stevens

Do you like to have a morning cup of coffee as you watch the early-bird arrivals at your backyard feeders? If so, you may want to thank some of the warblers and other neotropical migrants that consume tiny insect pests injurious to coffee farms.

The website Coffeehabitat.com provides an archive of interesting reading material about the connections between coffee farming and many neotropical birds. According to a profile on the black-throated blue warbler at the website, this particular warbler has a strong affinity for wintering on coffee farms.

The black-throated blue warbler is a nesting bird in hardwood and mixed forests in many mountainous regions of eastern Tennessee, southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina. In fact, the species nests as far south as northern Georgia along the Appalachian Mountains. Those birds not nesting in the Appalachians make their summer home in southern Canada, as well as northern states like New York and Pennsylvania.

Thanks to scientific tests of the birds’ feathers, scientists now know that most of the black-throated blue warblers that spend the summer nesting season in the Appalachians are in turn wintering in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. The black-throated blue warblers from the northern part of the range for the species spend the winter months in Cuba and Jamaica.

I’ve been spending more time than usual in my yard since the arrival of September, and I’ve been rewarded with glimpses of numerous migrating warblers, including Tennessee warbler, Blackburnian warbler, Cape May warbler, black-and-white warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, hooded warbler, Northern waterthrush and black-throated green warbler, as well as a dazzling male black-throated blue warbler.

If you recall the 1980s hit song, “Sharp Dressed Man,” by ZZ Top, perhaps I can give an accurate impression of the male black-throated blue warbler. He a dapper, sprightly fellow with a blue topcoat that dominates first impressions. It’s only after seeing the shock of blue that the observer takes notice of the black throat and the black feathers forming a dark facial mask, as well as a clean divide between the bird’s blue crown and back and the clean white underparts. The male even carries a fresh pocket “handkerchief” in the form of a white block on each wing. This becomes a diagnostic mark in the female’s less impressive version.

The sexes of black-throated blue warbler are the most markedly different among all the warblers. Even the famous early naturalist and painter John James Audubon got confused by the black-throated blue warbler male and female. He even made the mistake of painting a young black-throated blue warbler and misidentifying it as “pine swamp warbler.” The female black-throated blue has nary a trace of black in her feathers. Her plumage is mainly a dull olive-gray with dingy white underparts. Her only tie to her mate when it comes to appearance is her much more modest version of the “pocket handkerchief” on each wing.

In Jamaica, black-throated blue warblers are identified by Coffeehabitat.com as the number one predator of the dreaded coffee berry borer. So, as you raise that cup of affordable morning coffee, thank the black-throated blue warbler for eating all of those harmful pests that, left unchecked, would cause coffee prices to spike.


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

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

Library Happenings – Dan Brown releases fifth Robert Langdon thriller

By Angie Georgeff

Each month has its own appeal, but October is undoubtedly my favorite. I love the deep, rich colors of the fall foliage, the sound of leaves skittering down the street, the plump, round pumpkins looking forward to their big night, and the autumnal smells of smoke and spice. It’s the perfect time to curl up with a good book or scary movie, so be sure to stop by your library on the way home.

With many bestselling authors releasing new novels in the past few weeks, we’ve added a lot of fresh materials recently.

I recommend that you make our new books shelves your first stop, but there is a lot to be said for literary classics – and classic films.

Film Festival

Speaking of classic films, our annual Halloween Film Festival will commence with a movie beloved by generations of filmgoers and critics alike.

Join us at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 12 for popcorn, candy and a movie. Please feel free to bring a bottle of water or your favorite soft drink. We ask only that you bring one that can be capped so we can avoid spills.

Youth Programs

Since this week is National Fire Prevention Week, fire safety will be Wednesday’s story time focus. The fun will begin at 10:30 a.m., with stories, crafts and a snack to follow.

Reading Buddies, which pairs beginning readers with teens who listen to help and encourage them, meet Wednesday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.. If you have questions about any of our programs, please call the library at 743-6533.

Spotlight Book

Who has not dreamed of traveling to Spain? Its sunshine, beaches, castles, cathedrals, art and history are compelling. While I was living in Europe, I managed to get to Barcelona, but I was unable to explore the rest of the Iberian Peninsula. I still regret it and would love to go back.  Reading “Origin,” Dan Brown’s fifth Robert Langdon thriller, I could pick up where I left off.

It proceeds from the jagged peaks of Montserrat near Barcelona on the Mediterranean Sea to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a port in the Basque country on the Atlantic Bay of Biscay.

Among the Guggenheim’s masterful modern art, tech magnate Edmond Kirsch is set to reveal a breakthrough he believes will revolutionize our understanding of science and religion, but the announcement is never made.

With his life hanging in the balance, Langdon flees the museum in company with its director, Ambra Vidal. The symbologist and the art historian race to discover the password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret – a secret that someone is willing to kill to conceal.

Feathered Friends – October walks will offer migrant-viewing opportunities

Warblers, like this bay-breasted warbler, are experts at remaining hidden in the leaves of trees. Their energetic movements make warblers difficult to follow through binoculars. In addition, bay-breasted warblers are among those species described as “confusing fall warblers,” because their autumn appearance is a dramatic departure from the look they had in the spring. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

The autumn season is a great time to practice birdwatching skills. The temperatures are milder, some of the concealing leaves have dropped from the trees and many migrating birds are moving through the region. With those factors in mind, the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, also known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, will conduct morning bird walks every Saturday in October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee.

The walks will begin at 8 a.m. and participants are asked to meet in the parking lot in front of the park’s visitors center. The dates for this year’s walks are Oct. 7, Oct. 14, Oct. 21 and Oct. 28. Participants are advised to bring binoculars to increase viewing enjoyment. Persons of any skill level are invited to take part in these walks along the park’s walking trails, which offer river, field and woodland habitats. Members of the Elizabethton Bird Club will happily answer questions and help new birders with identification of any birds encountered. Targeted species will include migrants such as warblers, tanagers, thrushes and flycatchers, as well as resident songbirds ranging from Northern cardinals and blue jays to Carolina chickadees and red-bellied woodpeckers.

I enjoy fall birding probably more than any other season. It’s always nice to welcome some of our favorites when they return in the spring, but autumn’s the most productive season (at least in my own experience) when it comes to seeing the greatest diversity of birds in a relatively brief period of time.

Birding in my yard during September has produced sightings of several species of warblers, a family of birds that is always one of the anticipated highlights of the migration season. Migrants spotted in my yard this fall have included American redstart, Blackburnian warbler, Cape May warbler, Tennessee warbler, Northern parula, magnolia warbler, hooded warbler, black-and-white warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, black-throated blue warbler, black-throated green warbler and Northern waterthrush.

The warblers are the warmth-chasing retirees of the bird world. Like their human counterparts with summer homes in the mountains to escape the worst of summer’s scorching temperatures, warblers retreat southward every fall, spreading into the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Central and South America for the winter months.

Of course, warblers are not the only neotropical birds to employ this technique of nesting and raising young in the northern latitudes during the summer only to return south for the winter. Tanagers, vireos, flycatchers and some other families do the same, but not with the same niche-exploiting diversity of the warblers. As a family, the warblers boast 114 species. Not quite half of the species make some part of North America their summer home, which leaves the rest of the more sedentary family members living year-round in the American tropics.

Warblers pose a worthy challenge for birders. It takes practice to chase their movements in binoculars as they flit among the upper branches of tall trees. They are, for the most part, a family of almost frantically active birds that rarely pause for long while foraging for food, which mostly consists of various insects or insect larvae. Warblers migrating through the region during the autumn season bring another challenge to the table. Many warblers wear completely different plumages in spring and fall, which requires some mental adjustments when trying to match a binoculars view of a warbler to its illustration in a field guide. Known as the “confusing fall warblers,” these tricky cases prompt some novice birders to throw up their arms in defeat. I know because I once felt like that myself. As with all worthwhile pursuits, practice makes perfect.

Come out and join me and other bird club members at one of the Saturday strolls at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, which is located at 1651 W. Elk Ave., Elizabethton, Tennessee. We’ll chase some warblers through the treetops. We may not identify every single one, but we’ll have a fun time in the attempt.


Bryan Stevens lives near Roan Mountain, Tennessee. To ask a question, make a comment or share a sighting, email him at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Feathered Friends – Hurricanes: Bane for birds, boon for birders

The sooty tern, pictured, nests mainly in Hawaii, but some also nest on the islands of the Dry Tortugas, west of the Florida Keys. In 2004, Hurricane Frances blew one of these tropical birds to Holston Lake in Bristol. Severe storms also present devastating obstacles for migrating shorebirds. (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Duncan Wright)

By Bryan Stevens

During a program I presented on birds and birding at the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library, an attendee asked me if I knew what happens to birds in a hurricane? The question, no doubt prompted by such recent storms as Harvey and Irma, is of particular concern now that many of our favorite birds are migrating south along paths that could take them into harm’s way.

Well-known birder Kenn Kaufman shared his knowledge about birds and hurricanes when interviewed back in 2011 on the Audubon website. Among some fascinating insight he shared, Kaufman noted that the way intense storms affect birds depends on the species. He noted that a whimbrel, a large shorebird, would be more likely to fly through a major hurricane and live to tell the tale. On the other hand, such a storm would likely prove lethal for songbirds like warblers and thrushes.

To the questioner at my program, I also admitted that dedicated birders are, at times, rather atypical people. For a birder looking to find a totally unexpected bird, every hurricane comes with a proverbial silver lining. In the case of birders, that lining involves some of those stronger flyers — birds like whimbrels, noddies, terns, jaegers or tropicbirds — that get swept into the eye of the storm, carried far inland and dropped onto large lakes as the storm weakens.

My first direct observation of one of these hurricane-transported displaced birds took place back on Sept. 8, 2004. I had been drawn to Musick’s Campground on South Holston Lake by reports of an incredible fallout of such birds, which included species like whimbrel and red knot. More than a dozen fellow birders were present in the swirl of wind, mist and rain when a graceful bird with a dramatic two-toned black and white plumage flew overhead. I had no idea of the bird’s identity, but I knew instantly it was a species I’d never observed. I heard someone yell “sooty tern” — the identity of the shouter turned out to be area birding legend Rick Knight — and then pandemonium broke out as birders in rain gear got their binoculars into position to track the bird before it flew out of sight.

We needn’t have worried. The bird lingered long enough for all those present to get a good look. I was accompanied that day by the late Howard P. Langridge, a well-known birder in both Florida and Tennessee. Howard had seen sooty terns, but he had found them when visiting the islands of the Dry Tortugas, west of the Florida Keys.

Two months after the exciting observation of that sooty tern, Howard passed away at age 81. So, even to this day, memories of that bird are tinged with some bittersweetness from the fact it was one of my last birding adventures with a man who served as a bit of a birding mentor for me. On our drive back home after that exciting encounter with the storm-driven tern, Howard talked excitedly about sooty terns and some of the other rare birds he had seen in a birding career that spanned more than 50 years.

In addition, we learned a valuable lesson that day. It’s an accepted fact that no bird is worth risking life or limb. It’s also a good idea to be careful where you park when going out to a rain-drenched lakeshore to look for birds from a diminished hurricane. Howard and I lingered after the other birders departed. When we started to leave, he discovered his car’s back tires had gotten stuck in the clay mud. With Howard behind the wheel, I pushed his car as the tires spun madly for traction. I ruined a new pair of denim jeans, but I got the car out of the mud. It’s one more memory that will put a smile on my face to this day.

The sooty tern, blown to a Bristol lake in 2004 by Hurricane Frances, remains a highlight of my birding; however, it’s hardly the only unusual bird to be dumped on area lakes thanks to hurricanes that formed in tropic waters.

Hurricane Hugo back in 1989 remains one of the most legendary storms in the minds of most long-time birders in the area. I hadn’t yet taken up birding, but birders like Howard made sure I knew all about the bird bounty stirred up by Hugo. Two species of jaegers — parasitic and pomarine — were among the birds blown inland to Watauga Lake in Carter County. Seeing these birds usually requires a seat on a boat capable of traveling far out to sea to look for birds that hardly ever venture near the shoreline except for nesting.

Hurricane Hugo also blew more than 50 Forster’s terns — a record number for the region — to Watauga Lake. In addition, a single royal tern — a first record for Tennessee — was also detected by birders looking for birds displaced by Hurricane Hugo.

Much farther back, a high count of Caspian terns was recorded Sept. 5, 1964, at Boone Lake in the wake of Hurricane Cleo. The late Wallace Coffey, a well-known birder in Bristol, was present to witness those 130 Caspian terns. Both Caspian and royal terns are birds usually found along the Atlantic Coast in places like Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.

As I write this column, I’m keeping track of the progress of Hurricane Irma, on record as one of the largest hurricanes ever to form in the Atlantic Ocean. Its projected path could also bring remnants of this monster storm over Tennessee. Will area lakes see another incredible fallout of birds uprooted from their tropical homes? Time will tell. If something unusual does make an appearance, I hope to bring it to the attention of readers in an upcoming column.


Join Bryan Stevens on Saturday, Sept. 30, for a one-hour morning bird walk on the trails at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. The walk will begin at 8 a.m. from the parking lot at the park’s visitors center. Bring binoculars to help increase your chances of seeing some migrating birds along the park’s trails.

Library Happenings – McCrumb releases ‘The Unquiet Grave’

By Angie Georgeff

Some bestselling authors are prolific, producing one or more books per month. Others take a year or more – or even a lifetime – to research and write a book. Sharyn McCrumb’s novels tend to appear just about as often as birthdays, so fans work up a pretty good appetite for them in between. Her latest opus, “The Unquiet Grave,” recounts the true story of a murder trial that hinged on the testimony of a ghost. More than 30 years after the verdict, the tale is told by Trout’s lawyer, James P. D. Gardner, who was the first black attorney to practice law in West Virginia. When we meet Mr. Gardner, he is confined to a segregated asylum because of a failed suicide attempt, but he still stands on ceremony.

It is 1897 in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Pert and pretty Zona Heaster falls head over heels for blacksmith Erasmus Trout Shue. Trout is a once-divorced and once-widowed newcomer to the county with a 10-year-old daughter whom he never sees. Zona’s mother does not trust him, but Zona is 21 and determined to wed. She soon regrets her hasty marriage.

Mary Jane Heaster had been right to suspect Trout’s disposition. When Zona is found dead at the foot of the stairs within months of her wedding, her mother doesn’t believe it was an accident. After all, Trout’s second wife had died in a fall. Her doubts are confirmed when Zona’s ghost appears to her and tells her how she died. When Zona’s body is exhumed, her death is ruled a homicide and her husband is brought to trial.

Board Meeting

The Board of Trustees of the Unicoi County Public Library will meet in the library lobby at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 21. The public is welcome to attend. If you should require any special accommodations in order to attend the meeting, please call the library at 743-6533.

Story Time

The autumnal equinox will occur this Friday afternoon, Sept. 22. The sun will shine directly on the equator and day and night will be nearly equal in length. The journey to winter will begin, but nature has not yet finished her work. There are still seeds to be distributed in readiness for next spring. Bring your kids to the library at noon on Wednesday, Sept. 20, for stories and songs about seeds. They will learn how nature prepares for her winter rest and for the new year full of promise that always lies ahead.