Feathered Friends – Cape May warbler part of intriguing songbird family

While the Cape May warbler doesn’t breed locally, these warblers are fairly common spring and fall migrants in the region. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

A small songbird, less than six inches in length, sang a series of shrill notes as it flitted from branch to branch about 40 feet off the ground in a tall tree. A group of about 20 birders lifted their binoculars and reacted with excitement when they focused on the bundle of yellow, black, orange and white feathers.

The unexpected discovery — a Cape May warbler — kicked off a bird walk held at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton, Tennessee, on May 12. The date deliberately coincided with this year’s observation of International Migratory Bird Day.

This special day is set aside once a year as a conservation initiative to raise awareness about conserving migratory birds and their habitats throughout the Western Hemisphere. This program is dedicated to international conservation efforts and environmental education in Canada, the United States, Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.

The Cape May warbler wasn’t the only warbler found on the morning walk. Like bookends, a sighting of a blackpoll warbler, a long-distance migrant with black and white feathers, took place near the conclusion of the walk with the same level of excitement that the discovery of the Cape May warbler generated at the walk’s start.

Slightly fewer than half of the world’s 116 warbler species make their home in North America for only a few months out of the year. The others range throughout the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America. Most of them are noted for leading fast-paced, energetic lives. For that very reason, warblers pose a challenge for people wishing to draw them closer by peering at them through binoculars.

Several dozen species of warblers pass through Southwest Virginia, Northeastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina each spring. Some of these birds end their journey in the region, content to build nests and raise young in the Appalachian Mountains and surrounding valleys and foothills. Springtime offers a great opportunity to glimpse many of these small, energetic and often colorful songbirds. It’s always an exciting and memorable moment to focus my binoculars on species ranging from Blackburnian warbler and common yellowthroat to bay-breasted warbler and Northern parula.

Becoming a dedicated “warbler watcher” is a bit of a challenge for several reasons. At the top of the list is the aforementioned pace of the average warbler’s lifestyle. These birds are constantly in motion. Observing and identifying warblers is sometimes accomplished one glimpse at a time while tilting one’s neck back at impossible angles to focus binoculars on tiny birds only a few inches long as they flit through the treetops. Get enough glimpses of that bird skillfully hiding behind autumn foliage and you’ll soon learn to identify the individual species.

Entire field guides have been written offering helpful hints and emphasizing characteristic field marks to make the task of spotting and identifying these birds somewhat simpler, especially for beginners. In birding, there are other challenging families of birds, including shorebirds and sparrows. These others are often studies in subtlety. For the most part, however, warbler’s aren’t subtle. Many of them sport bright and gorgeous plumage in shades of yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black. Each species has unique patterns, including facial markings, wing bars (or lack thereof) and other signature traits. Some have unusual behaviors that are diagnostic, such as the up-and-down “tail pumping” of a Northern waterthrush or palm warbler or the tail fanning of an American redstart or female hooded warbler.

The Cape May warbler observed at the spring bird walk most likely spent the winter months in such far-flung locations as the Caribbean, although a few of these warblers migrate only as far south as southern Florida. I saw my first Cape May warbler during a trip in the Bahamas back in January of 1999, years before I ever saw this species locally. In its wintering grounds, the Cape May warbler is known for a love of fruit. It also uses a tubular tongue — an oddity among warblers — to sip nectar from flowers and sugar water from feeders intended for hummingbirds.

The Tennessee Watchable Wildlife website explains the origins of this warbler’s common name, which refers to Cape May, New Jersey, the locality where early American naturalist Alexander Wilson first described the species. Interestingly, according to the website, it was not recorded again in Cape May for more than 100 years.

The Cape May warbler is one of the warblers that does not cut short its migration to nest locally. Instead, it spends the nesting season in the spruce forests of Canada and the northern United States. Its spring passage is usually brief, providing a window of opportunity of only two to three weeks to see this dazzling little bird. Fortunately, Cape May warblers migrate back through the region in the fall, usually at a somewhat less hectic pace.

The Cape May warbler’s scientific name — Setophaga tigrina — identifies the bird as a member of the genus Setophaga and also refers to the black striping against its yellow-orange breast that prompted early naturalists to describe this warbler as “tiger striped.”

The Cape May warbler is dependent on spruce budworms, caterpillars of a family of moths that feeds on spruce needles. When the caterpillars are abundant, Cape May warblers shift their nesting efforts into overdrive. As a result, reproductive success for these warblers is sometimes a matter of feast or famine, depending on the abundance of spruce budworms in the forests where they make their home during the nesting season. The size of the clutch of eggs these warblers lay is even dependent on the presence of these caterpillars. When these larval moths are numerous in a forest, the Cape May warbler may lay as many as nine eggs. In years offering less abundance, a clutch of four eggs is more common.

Other warblers I’ve seen around my home and on birding trips this year have included common yellowthroat, yellow-throated warbler, Northern parula, Blackburnian warbler, American redstart, and black-throated green warbler. Many warblers still continue to migrate through the region during the month of May. As mentioned earlier, some of them will also settle in the region long enough to nest before heading back south in the autumn.

In the eastern United States, I’ve seen all the expected warblers save for a handful of species. I’ve never seen a Connecticut warbler, a species notorious for being elusive and hard to spot, or a cerulean warbler. Two endangered species — the Kirtland’s warbler, with a narrow range in Michigan, and the golden-cheeked warbler of Texas — remain future targets for observation. But, when it comes to warblers, I’m always enchanted by these birds, whether I’m seeing them for the hundredth time or the first. So, get outdoors during the month of May and try your own luck at getting a glimpse into the world of warblers. You may find yourself as captivated by them as I am.

Library Happenings – Online shopping, couponing topics of May 31 class

By Angie Georgeff

When I flipped over the latest James Patterson thriller to scan the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) and get it into our catalog, I noticed two things. The first and worse was the $32 price tag! The second and better was an advertisement for Mr. Patterson’s next thriller. It was no surprise to see that he has a co-author, but I was shocked to see that name listed above his. I imagine that occurs only when the co-author happens to be a former President of the United States.

When I saw that Bill Clinton’s name was listed first, I checked to make sure “The President Is Missing” is on our standing order list for next month. We automatically get every book James Patterson writes, just as long as it is adult fiction and published in hardcover. If it is non-fiction, juvenile fiction or paperback, then I do have to place an order for it if we want it. There was no need for me to scramble. The distributor we use evidently anticipated that problem and placed Patterson in the first position in their catalog. The book touted as “the most authentic suspense novel of the year” should arrive by the release date, June 4. In the meantime, “Princess: a Private Novel,” co-written by Patterson and Rees Jones, helps a fictional member of the British royal family find her missing friend.

Couponing Class

If you are interested in online shopping and couponing, then join us at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 31. Learn how to take advantage of the choice, convenience and savings the Internet has to offer, while still remaining a careful consumer. Since our space is limited, please call the library at 743-6533 to reserve your place.

How puzzling!

A few of our staff members recently helped to assemble a jigsaw puzzle that will be used in our Summer Reading Program. It was so much fun that one of our patrons joined in.

We already had thought about having a Family Puzzle Night or perhaps a Family Puzzle Saturday. Our puzzle-solving patron is all in favor of it. Now we’re asking for your input. What do you think? If you might like to participate, or if you have a well-preserved puzzle that you would like to donate, please let us know.

Holiday Closing

After a long and dreary winter, it’s time for summer, vacations and beach reads! The library will be closed on Monday, May 28, in honor of Memorial Day.

No items will be due on that day, but books may always be returned to one of our drop boxes. They are located at the library in Erwin and at Town Hall in Unicoi. We wish you all a very safe and happy holiday.

Feathered Friends – Male scarlet tanager stands out from other birds

A male scarlet tanager forages close to the ground, which is not typical behavior for these birds. Tanagers, although brightly colored, spend most of their time in the tree canopy obscured from view. (Photo by Jeana Chapman)

By Bryan Stevens

I received an email from Lewis and Jeana Chapman detailing a dazzling discovery they made.

The couple have been adding a few new birds to their bird list and decided to give me an update on what they’ve been seeing. The Chapmans reside in the community of Laurel Bloomery in Johnson County, Tennessee. The wooded slopes of Pond Mountain where they make their home provide an attractive location for migrating birds, as well as summer residents.

“The tree swallows returned this spring to nest in our bluebird box,” Lewis wrote in his email reporting his new sightings. “The great crested flycatcher has moved its nest from the front porch to the barn. Last year the flycatchers raised five chicks on the front porch. The nest got so full the chicks were perched around the edge.”

Some new additions to their list have included golden-crowned kinglet and the Northern flicker. “Most recently we spotted a scarlet tanager,” Lewis continued.

They had never seen a scarlet tanager at their home. Over the years I have heard from other readers left stunned by the tropical beauty of the male scarlet tanager. That description would not be that far off. While the scarlet tanager resides in the United States and Canada from April to October each year, this bird spends the rest of the year in South America. Citizens of the United States and Canada get the better part of the bargain when it comes to hosting this bird. After the summer nesting season, male scarlet tanagers lose their brilliant red plumage and look more like the greenish females. By the time they get back to the tropics for the winter, this striking bird has transformed into a rather drab specimen.

I’ve written in previous columns about the scarlet tanager, which is one of those birds that always takes an observer’s breath away upon first seeing it. Of course, it’s the male scarlet tanager that bewitches observers with his dazzling feathers of vivid red and jet black. Female and immature tanagers are a dull olive-yellow in coloration with dark wings and tails.

During their summer stay in the region, scarlet tanagers largely prey on insects. Although renowned as a fruit-eating bird, the scarlet tanager primarily feeds on fruit during its migration flights and on its wintering range in the tropics. This tanager breeds in deciduous and mixed deciduous-evergreen woodlands across the eastern half of North America. I’ve often heard that oaks are a favorite tree for this woodland dweller.

It’s unlikely that you’ll run across the nest of a scarlet tanager. These birds nest high in trees, often locating their nests 50 feet or more above the ground. After building a nest, a female tanager will incubate her three to five eggs for about two weeks. It’s during this time that her inconspicuous appearance is a plus, helping her blend well with her surroundings. After the young hatch, the parents are kept busy feeding the nestlings for another 10 to 15 days.

The website All About Birds notes that the population of scarlet tanagers has declined in the last half-century. Between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, scarlet tanager numbers declined by 14 percent. The environmental organization Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.2 million, with 93 percent of these birds spending some part of the year in the United States and the other seven percent breeding in Canada. These birds do poorly in forests that have been harvested for lumber. Other causes of habitat fragmentation probably also affect the well-being of scarlet tanagers. It’s worth keeping an eye out for any other signs of decline in these beautiful birds.

The scarlet tanager is a fairly common songbird during the summer months, but it also has a less common relative that can be found in northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina. The male summer tanager is the only entirely red bird found in North America. Lacking the scarlet tanager’s black wings, the summer tanager’s red feathers are also of a rosier hue.

While I have seen summer tanagers in Tennessee on occasion, most recently at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee, I saw my first summer tanager during a spring trip to South Carolina many years ago. Overall, the summer tanager has more of a southern stronghold than the scarlet tanager, as the summer tanager’s range also extends into the southwestern United States.

Both of these tanagers are birds fond of dense, undisturbed woodlands. Most of the time, unfortunately, these tanagers reside in the dense woodland canopy. They’re more often heard than seen, producing a song similar to an American robin’s, but usually described as somewhat more raspy. The apt description I like for these two tanagers is that their songs sound like one sung by a hoarse robin with a sore throat.

Some of the world’s other tanagers are known by extremely descriptive names, including seven-colored tanager, flame-colored tanager, lemon-rumped tanager, green-headed tanager, golden-chevroned tanager, azure-shouldered tanager, fawn-breasted tanager, metallic-green tanager, emerald tanager, gilt-edged tanager, golden-naped tanager, opal-crowned tanager, blue-gray tanager and silver-beaked tanager.

The tanager wasn’t the only unexpected feathered visitor to the Chapman home this spring. The same week the tanager made its appearance, a male hooded warbler also visited with the Chapmans. “This we found ironic because of your email address,” Lewis wrote. For readers who may not have noticed, my email address is ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’ve used this email address for many years to celebrate one of my favorite birds.

The Chapmans also provided me with photos of all their colorful birds. In subsequent emails, they also informed me of some other unusual visitors. “One of our strangest visitors was an albino American goldfinch,” Lewis also revealed in his email. “Over this past weekend, we had rose-breasted grosbeak and indigo bunting show up.”

Many of these birds — the rose-breasted grosbeak, the scarlet tanager, the indigo bunting — always wow observers experiencing their first observation of them. Our two native tanagers — scarlet and summer — are definitely two memorable birds for anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing one. It’s a great time of year to get outdoors and keep your eyes open for a splash of bright color. You never know what you may see when you lift your binoculars.

Library Happenings – Beginning of Summer Reading Programs approaches

By Angie Georgeff

With less than three weeks to go before the start of our Summer Reading Programs for children, teens and adults, the library is abuzz with activity. Decorations are being made and displayed, and craft projects are being prepped. New picture books are anxiously awaiting their special story times. They’ve been cataloged and processed and are ready for their debut. After that introduction, they will be available to pay a two-week visit to your child. Don’t worry! They are ideal houseguests—always entertaining and willing to tailor their schedule to yours.

Registration is now open and programs are scheduled to start on Monday, June 4. Activities aimed at different age groups will be offered from Mondays through Thursdays and Family Fun Fridays will cap the week with special programs geared to entertain the entire clan.  Calendars for our youth programs are already available at the circulation desk. Be sure to pick one up so you won’t miss any of these opportunities for fun and learning.

And speaking of opportunities, if you have metal food cans you want to recycle, please bring them to the library. We need about two dozen cans and we are looking for a variety of sizes, from the small cans that hold tomato paste to the large ones used for commercial food service. We ask that they be clean, but we’ll be happy to remove the labels and smooth the edges.

Since the slogan for the 2018 program is “Libraries Rock,” you probably can guess that they’ll be used to make some music–or at least noise.  They also will be used to teach young children about the science of sound.  Who knows which budding musician or scientist might be attending the program?

Board Meeting

The Board of Trustees of the Unicoi County Public Library will meet in the library lobby at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 17. The public is welcome to attend. If you should require any special accommodations in order to attend, please call the library at 743-6533 for assistance.

Genealogy Class

The third in our series of classes about how to use the Internet to trace your family’s history will be offered at the library at 6 p.m. on Monday, May 21. I began my research decades ago, traveling to libraries, archives, courthouses and cemeteries in quest of precious nuggets of information. I still enjoy research trips to all of those destinations, but nowadays much of that information is available without ever leaving home. Be sure to join us Monday to learn more about some valuable online resources.

Feathered Friends – White-faced ibis creates birding stir with rare visit

This white-faced ibis was seen for one day last month at two different ponds in Elizabethton, Tennessee. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

When I awoke on April 19, I didn’t expect that I’d end up seeing a new state bird before the day ended. Thanks to timely notices of a new bird sighting by email, I used my work break to drive to Elizabethton, Tennessee, to see a white-faced ibis at the Carter County Rescue Squad pond. The opportunity for unexpected appearances by birds like the white-faced ibis is why I love spring migration.

Tom McNeil spotted the bird at a much larger pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton. After he reported the bird, I was able to use a work break to travel to the location and find the bird nearby at the smaller pond, where several area birders had already arrived. The ibis had moved to this smaller pond after departing the larger pond where it was first detected.

This is only the second record of a white-faced ibis for Northeast Tennessee.

The white-faced ibis is a widespread wading bird, nesting from the western United States and Canada south through Mexico, as well as from southeastern Brazil and southeastern Bolivia south to central Argentina, and along the coast of central Chile.

I saw white-faced ibises for the first time during a trip to Utah in May of 2006. The state had enjoyed a spring with ample rainfall, and every flooded field and pasture contained flocks of these distinctive wading birds. These flooded fields provided temporary habitat for numerous other birds, including cinnamon teal and Wilson’s phalarope.

The white-faced ibis is almost identical in appearance to the glossy ibis, which is the most widespread ibis in the world. The glossy ibis ranges across six continents, absent only from Antarctica. In the United States, the glossy ibis ranges mostly along the southern Atlantic coastal area. I have observed this bird at several locations in South Carolina.

The similar appearances of white-faced and glossy ibis presents challenges to identification, which was the case with this recent visitor. The bird found in Elizabethton lacked the white plumage in the face that gives the species its common name. Fortunately, the bird did plainly show one physical trait — red eyes — that easily distinguishes it from the related glossy ibis. Sometimes, all it takes to clinch an identification is a simple physical characteristic such as, in this case, a red eye.

A third ibis native to North America is the white ibis. The Audubon Society identifies the white ibis as one of the most numerous wading birds in Florida, but the bird is common also in other parts of the southeast with appropriate wetland habitat. Like the wood stork, the ibis has declined in Florida in recent decades largely as a result of human encroachment.

The white ibis looks like a humorously absurd bird that could have been invented by Dr. Seuss. The extravagant, all-white plumage is contrasted by pinkish-orange legs, an extremely long, downcurved, reddish-pink bill and bright blue eyes. In flight, the white ibis shows black feathers on the edges of its wings.

I’ve seen white ibises in Tennessee as well as in South Carolina and Florida. In the Sunshine State, another relative — the unmistakable scarlet ibis —  is sometimes observed in the wild. The scarlet ibis inhabits tropical South America and islands of the Caribbean, but the species is often held in zoos and other attractions. Escaped birds rather than strays are often the source of sightings in Florida of this vibrant scarlet-feathered ibis.

All ibises have long, downcurved bills. These birds usually feed in small flocks, probing wetlands for prey such as crustaceans, small fish, amphibians, insects, and various invertebrates. Worldwide, there are about 34 species of ibis, including the red-naped ibis, black-faced ibis, green ibis, straw-necked ibis and African sacred ibis, which is the bird often depicted in tombs and other monuments of ancient Egypt. This ibis was associated with the Egyptian god, Thoth, who was often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis.

The brief visit from the white-faced ibis provides a good reminder that we’re in the midst of spring migration. Stay alert for those unexpected birds. You never know what you might see.

Readers continue to report hummer arrivals

A few other readers have shared their first spring hummingbird sightings.

• Bunny Medeiros of Abingdon, Virginia sent me an email to announce her first sighting. “To my delight, the day after I put out my feeder a hummer appeared,” she wrote. The bird, a male, made his appearance on April 14.

• Rhonda Eller of Chilhowie, Virginia, saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird of spring on April 18. “Surely spring is going to come and stay!” Rhonda predicted on her post on my Facebook page.

Bird walk offers viewing opportunities

Come to Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton at 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 12, for a casual bird walk on the park’s trails. The walk, conducted by members of the Elizabethton Bird Club, is free and open to the public.

It’s a wonderful chance to see migrating birds such as warblers, tanagers, grosbeaks, vireos and much more. Bring binoculars to increase viewing enjoyment. For more information, email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. The walk will start from the parking lot at the park’s visitors center.

Library Happenings – Books make great gifts for all mothers in your life

By Angie Georgeff

Mother’s Day is Sunday, May 13. Don’t panic! You still have time to buy a card or gift. Books are always nice. You might even have enough time to make something special. Moms treasure those precious little mementos. And while you’re at it, remember to acknowledge grandmothers, favorite aunts, mothers-in-law and other mother figures on their special day.

My son got married last summer. I was there, of course, beaming with pride and joy, and so was his birth mother. Only in recent years has Andrew gotten to know Carol. Once I had started doing genealogical research, I had tracked down contact information for his birth grandmother, but I had left it up to him whether or not to get in touch with Carol.

Andrew made the leap a few years ago, so Carol was at the wedding, and every bit as happy as I was. Separately and together, Carol and I ran errands, entertained grandchildren and did all that we could to help. After a last minute phone call, we even stopped by Home Depot on our way to the ceremony and changed into our finery at the venue. My lace dress and “derby” hat might have been just a bit too conspicuous roaming the hardware aisles in search of tubs to hold iced drinks.

Andrew naturally was a bit stressed on the day before the wedding, and when he fussed about some inconsequential thing to Carol and me, I told him, “Don’t argue with your mothers!” Carol got tickled, so Andrew had to laugh. At the reception the next afternoon, Andrew referred to his two moms, but I reminded him, “No, it’s three moms now. You have a mother-in-law, too.” I think the moral of this story is that you can never have too many mothers to love you and support 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, May 17. The public is welcome to attend. If you should require any special accommodations to attend the meeting, please call the library at 743-6533 for assistance.

Social Media

If you would like to learn more about social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, join us at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 10. We can help you get started or learn how to do more with the accounts you already have. Since space is limited by the number of computers we have available, please sign up at the circulation desk or call us to reserve your place.

Feathered Friends – Hummingbirds are not only birds returning to region

Baltimore orioles will visit specially designed feeders that hold foods like orange slices and grape jelly enjoyed by this vibrant visitor. (File photo)

By Bryan Stevens

A voiceover for a promotional trailer for an upcoming movie in the Jurassic Park franchise asks the question “Do you remember the first time you saw a dinosaur?” and answers it with the sentence “The first time you see them, it’s like a miracle!”

Obviously, dinosaurs aren’t walking the earth — except in this highly successful movie franchise — although experts maintain that dinosaurian descendants (birds) still roam the world.

Dinosaurs, of course, have impressed humans with immense size ever since their enormous fossils began to be uncovered. Hummingbirds also impress with size, or rather the lack of it. It’s that tiny size that has prompted people to describe them as “miracles” from the time the first European explorers sailed to the New World in the late 1400s. When Spanish explorers first encountered them, they had no equivalent birds in Europe to use as a reference. They referred to hummingbirds as “joyas voladoras,” or flying jewels.

So, how many remember their first sighting of a hummingbird? These tiny birds, still accurately and often described as flying gems, are worthy of the word “miracle” being used to define them. When we see the ruby-throated hummingbirds return to the region every spring, our belief in miracles is strengthened.

I still have readers sharing reports of their first hummingbird sightings this spring.

• Marty Huber and Jo Ann Detta in Abingdon, Virginia, sent me an email about their first spring hummingbird sighting.

They reported that they got their first look at a spring hummingbird on April 18 at 5:04 p.m. “We were excited and have been looking since the beginning of the month,” they wrote. “Last year we didn’t see our first until April 23.”

• Ed and Rebecca Feaster of Piney Flats, Tennessee, put out their feeders after reading one of my columns earlier in April.

“We are happy to report that we saw a little female ruby-throated hummer on the morning of April 20,” they wrote in their email. “We were thankful to offer her nectar as she seemed very, very hungry!”

The Feasters noted that they have been in the Tri-Cities area for three years.

They had previously lived more than 20 years in the Roanoke Valley. “Birders in that area said to look for the hummers to arrive when the azaleas bloom,” they wrote. “The same seems to hold true here as the ones around our home began to blossom just a couple days ago.”

• Jane Arnold, a resident of Bristol, Virginia, sent me an email about her first hummer sighting.

“Just wanted to let you know that my first hummer of the year arrived at 10:20 a.m. Saturday, April 21,” she wrote. “I was so excited to see him! I had taken my feeder out to hang (it was sitting on a table) and [the hummingbird] flew to it.”

• Don and Donna Morrell emailed me with their first hummingbird sighting of spring. “My wife Donna and I saw our first hummingbirds on April 22,” Don wrote.

The Morrell saw both a male and female hummingbird. “We are located behind South Holston Dam,” Don added. “We are glad our friends are back. Also on that same day we saw an eagle and white crane.”

Most likely the white crane was a great egret, which is also migrating through the region right now. Although often called cranes, egrets are part of the family of wading birds that includes herons. North America’s true cranes are the endangered whooping crane and the sandhill crane.

• Facebook friend Sherry Thacker reported a first sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird on April 22.

“It came looking at the thistle seed feeder that is red,” she reported. “I had not put up the sugar water feeder, but I did today.”

Sherry reported seeing some beautiful hummingbirds last year.

Of course, we are in the midst of spring migration, which means hummingbirds are hardly the only new arrivals.

• Helen Whited in Abingdon, Virginia, has seen two very brightly-colored species of birds pass through her yard this spring. On April 17, her feeders were visited by male rose-breasted grosbeaks. “I am so excited to see my first grosbeaks,” she shared in an email that also contained a photo featuring two of the visiting grosbeaks. On April 21, Helen sent me another email with a photo of a male Baltimore oriole visiting a specially designed feeder made to hold orange slices to attract fruit-loving orioles. Grosbeaks and orioles are two migrant species of birds that deliver splashes of tropical color to the region each year.

Helen had prepared for the visit by the Baltimore oriole. In an email from last year, she had told me that her husband had promised her an oriole feeder for her birthday. I’m glad she’s been able to report success in bringing one of these bright orange and black birds to her yard.

• Anita Huffman of Rugby, Virginia, saw a male rose-breasted grosbeak on April 22. She reported her sighting on Bristol-Birds, a network for sharing postings about bird observations in the region.

• John Harty, a resident of Bristol, Tennessee, sought my help with identifying a new bird in his yard. Based on his description of the bird — the shape of a robin, reddish-brown coloration and a taste for suet cakes at John’s feeder — I suggested that his bird was probably a brown thrasher.

Brown thrashers returned to my home in late March and almost immediately sought out my suet feeders. Other recent arrivals have included several warblers — hooded, black-throated green and black-and-white — as well as tree swallows, which immediately got down to the business of selecting a nesting box. All of these birds nest in the gardens and woods around my home.

Some birds, however, announce their arrival not with bright colors but with beautiful songs. On April 23, I listened as a wood thrush sang its flute-like song from the edge of the woods just outside my bedroom window. The sweet song of this thrush is one of my favorite sounds of spring.

Every bird is a miracle, whether you’re seeing or hearing them for the first time or welcoming them back for another spring and summer season.


To get outdoors and look for some feathered miracles, consider attending an upcoming bird walk that will be conducted by myself and other members of the Elizabethton Bird Club. Meet other birders and naturalists at Sycamore Shoals Historic State Park for a morning of birding during the migratory season. The walk will begin at 8 a.m. from the parking lot at the Visitors Center. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing opportunities. The walk is free and open to all interested members of the public.


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

Library Happenings – Social media topic of upcoming computer class

By Angie Georgeff

Although it sometimes seems that everybody is already on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, there still are people who would like to participate but who have not yet made the leap. There also are people who have already opened an account, but who are not getting the most out of it. If you fit into either of these categories, you are invited to attend our new social media class. We can help you open an account and learn how to use it to keep in touch with your friends and family. This class will be held at the library at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 10. It is scheduled to last about 90 minutes.

There is no charge for any of our computer classes, but we do ask that you stop by the circulation desk or call the library at 743-6533 to register. Class size is limited by the number of computers we have available.

Thank you!

We want to thank the Daisies and Girl Scouts of Girl Scout Troop 547 for the wonderful work they did to beautify the planters and flower bed in front of the library’s main door. The cheerful little pansies they planted are smiling and nodding, and the salvia bed looks lovely with its fresh layer of mulch. I noticed yesterday that the honeybees which visit the salvia are humming with happiness. Thank you so much! We and the bees appreciate all of your hard work.

Spotlight Book

Iris Johansen’s latest thriller “Shattered Mirror” was released last week. If a package containing a badly burned human skull and a two-sided mirror arrived at your home, what would you do? Well, I would freak out for half a minute and then call the police. Forensic sculptor Eve Duncan, however, sets to work reconstructing the face of the person to whom it belonged. Eve tries to shield her six-year-old son Michael, but when he sees the reconstruction, he is captivated by the beautiful young woman it portrays. He calls her Sylvie.

When Eve’s ward Cara Delaney is attacked in her college dorm room, she and her roommate Darcy Nichols pay a visit to the safety and serenity of Eve’s lake cottage. As soon as Darcy comes through the door, Eve is struck by the uncanny resemblance between her and the reconstruction. Cue the opening theme to The Twilight Zone, because the skull on Eve’s worktable belonged to Darcy’s twin. Her name was Sylvie.

Eve’s husband, former Navy SEAL Joe Quinn, feels certain that the skull is connected to the recent attack on Cara, and protecting everyone involved becomes his immediate focus – and none too soon.

Feathered Friends – Hummingbirds are back, readers share sightings

Ruby-throated hummingbirds returned to the region earlier this month. This male, perched near a feeder, shows its namesake red throat patch. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

As many readers have already noticed, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are back. These tiny flying gems began returning to the region in the first days of April, but reports of their arrival spiked during the second week of April.

What do the hummingbirds that make their homes in our yards from April to October do during the five months they are absent from the region?

Most ruby-throated hummingbirds retreat to southern Mexico and Central America, some winging their way as far south as extreme western Panama, as well as the West Indies and southern Florida. They utilize a variety of habitats, ranging from citrus groves and forest edges to tropical deciduous forests and the edges of rivers and wetlands.

Those ruby-throated hummingbirds that make it as far south as Panama may find that they must compete with 59 other species of hummingbirds that call the Central America country home. In their winter home, the ruby-throated hummingbirds are definitely just another face in the crowd when its comes to their kin. In Panama, a ruby-throated hummingbird might encounter violet-headed hummingbirds, white-necked jacobins, black-throated mangos and green violet ears.

It must be nice to live among so many hummingbirds. Closer to home, the ruby-throated hummingbird is the only one of its kind to nest in the eastern United States. Some of the ones arriving at our feeders now will speed their way farther north, but some will settle in our yards and gardens as they bring forth the next generation of ruby-throated hummingbirds.

Dianne Draper reported the earliest observation of which I am aware. A friend on Facebook and a fellow birder, Dianne posted that the first hummingbird of spring arrived at her home in Jonesborough, Tennessee, on the morning of April 4. Her sighting was seven days earlier than any of the others I received.

Harold and Elizabeth Willis in Marion, North Carolina, reported their first hummingbird at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, April 11.

Helen Whited in Richland, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird at 12:40 p.m. on Thursday, April 12.

Judy and Bill Beckman saw their first spring hummer at 7:25 p.m. on April 12 at their home in Unicoi, Tennessee.

Lois Wilhelm, who lives on Little Bald Creek Road on Spivey Mountain in Erwin, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of 2018 at 3:30 p.m. on April 12.

Glen Eller in Kingsport, Tennessee, saw his first spring hummingbird around 5 p.m. on April 12. The bird — a male — drank for about four minutes. “I guess he needed a good fill up,” Glen commented.

Nola Martin from Nebo, North Carolina, reported her first hummer arrived just before 11 a.m. on April 12.

“He was a little green bird … not sure which kind or which sex,” she wrote in her email. “It certainly remembered where one of my feeders was last year, though, as it was looking for it in that spot, I didn’t have that one out yet.”

Nola said she now has five of her seven feeders filled and placed out for the returning hummingbirds.

Betty Poole saw her first male hummingbird of spring when the bird arrived at 9:05 a.m. on Friday, April 13, at her home in Bristol, Virginia. Her daughter, Jane P. Arnold, emailed me the information about her mother’s sighting. Jane is still awaiting her own first spring sighting of a hummingbird.

Debbie Oliver, while watching Wheel of Fortune on the evening of April 12, got her first glimpse of a spring hummer at her deck feeders in Bristol, Tennessee.

“I couldn’t observe if it was male or female due to the dimming light,” she wrote in an email.

“It was a curious ruby-throated hummingbird just flying around the feeder without taking a sip of nectar,” she added. Around 9 a.m. the following morning, she spotted a male ruby-throated hummer drinking nectar at the feeder.

She speculated about whether the bird was the same individual that visited the previous evening. “We’ll never know,” she decided.

Peggy Oliver saw her first male ruby-throated hummingbird of spring at 6:15 p.m. on April 13.

Pat Stakely Cook, who resides in Marion, North Carolina, reported two ruby-throated hummingbirds at her feeders on April 14. The two male hummers stayed busy feeding and chasing each other.

Amy Wallin Tipton, a resident of Erwin, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird, a male, at 4 p.m. on April 14. She shared her sighting via Facebook.

Judi Sawyer, a resident of Roan Mountain, Tennessee, saw her first spring hummingbird, a male, at her home on the morning of April 14. Some house wrens decided to make their arrival the same day, she reported on Facebook.

Ginger Wertz-Justis in Baileyton, Tennessee, saw a male hummingbird at 6:30 p.m. on April 14.

Richard Trinkle emailed me to report that he saw a male ruby-throated hummingbird at 6:15 p.m. on April 14 at his Bristol home near Friendship Ford.


I am pleased to report that my own first hummingbird sighting for 2018 took place when a feisty male zipped into the yard while I was seated on the front porch. He sipped at four different feeders before he zoomed off. He arrived at 5:40 p.m. on April 14, one day earlier than last year’s first arrival. My feeders had been waiting for the arrival of hummingbirds for about a week when he first appeared. I would still like to hear about other hummingbird arrivals, as well as news about other spring migration sightings. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com to share a sighting.

Library Happenings – New books perfect for fans of historical fiction

By Angie Georgeff

We received a large book order last week, so we will highlight two books this week, linked by women who defied the expectations of their times. For our fans of historical fiction, we have James Carroll’s “The Cloister.” Set in medieval cloisters and The Cloisters museum in New York City, this novel entwines the forbidden romance between 12th century philosopher and theologian Peter Abelard and his brilliant young student Eloise d’Argenteuil with the friendship between a priest and a survivor of the Holocaust in the aftermath of World War II.

The Cloisters is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that was constructed of several sections of medieval monasteries shipped over from France. It houses the Met’s collections of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, sculpture and decorative arts, so the two worlds merge effortlessly. Father Michael Kavanagh meets museum docent Rachel Vedette when he pops into the Cloisters to escape a rainstorm. Their acquaintance steadily blossoms as they share memories of their regrets and the loved ones they have lost.

Charles Frazier, author of “Cold Mountain,” turns again to the Civil War with “Varina.”  At 18, Varina Howell, the well-educated daughter of an impecunious planter, became the second wife of the much older Jefferson Davis. She bore her husband six children and became the first lady of the Confederate States of America when her husband was inaugurated in 1861. Just four years later, she and her children were forced to flee Richmond when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. Perhaps understandably, her embrace of the “lost cause” was less fervent than her husband’s.

With only one of her six children surviving, Varina lived in a Saratoga Springs rest home in her old age. Her story gradually unfolds in visits and conversations with James Blake, an African-American man she took in as a young child and raised with her own children.

Genealogy Class

You just never know what you will find when you start tracing your pedigree. My great grandmother’s family connects me distantly by marriage to Jefferson Davis – not through Varina Howell, but through his first wife Sarah Knox Taylor. Sarah was the daughter of President Zachary Taylor. Tragically, she died of yellow fever within a year of her marriage to Davis.  Sarah’s mother, Margaret Mackall Smith, would give Pascagoula, Mississippi, the town where I lived before moving here, the dubious distinction of being the town where a former first lady died. If you would like to explore your connections, join us at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 26, to learn the ins and outs of FamilySearch.org. For more information, please call the library at 743-6533.

Public invited to Community Opioid Forum on April 26

By Kendal Groner

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, in 2016 there were 1,631 deaths from opioid usage in Tennessee. In Unicoi County alone, a total of 32,610 opioid prescriptions were written that year, a staggering number for population numbers that have hovered around 18,000. While 2017 data has not yet been released, experts assume those numbers have only continued to increase.

To educate the public about the dangers of opioid misuse and discuss resources available to combat this epidemic, the Unicoi County Prevention Coalition, Community Medical Alliance, and Calvary Baptist Church are hosting a Community Opioid Forum on April 26.

“The Community Medical Alliance of Northeast Tennessee wanted to have several community forums on opioids in the Northeast region, and Unicoi County and Washington County will both be having two different forums,” said Christy Smith, executive director of Unicoi County Prevention Coalition.

Along with medical professionals, Town of Erwin Police Chief Regan Tilson and Andy Hagaman with the East Tennessee State University Misuse and Abuse Group will be present during the forum to provide information and answer questions.

Angelee Murray, who founded Red Legacy Recovery, a non-profit providing support for women battling drug or alcohol addiction, will also be sharing a personal anecdote of her own past struggles with opioid addiction.

“We (Unicoi County Prevention Coalition) are funded by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health Substance Abuse Services and primarily what we do is educate the community about the effects of opioid usage,” Smith said.

With a focus on youth, the coalition travels to county schools to educate students about the effects drug use can have on the body, conduct research and gain feedback. In addition to discussing opioid abuse and misuse, the coalition also addresses risky behavior such as alcohol or tobacco usage.

“In 2017, the coalition actually did a survey in grades 6-12 for risky behaviors and in 2017 the average age of a first time prescription drug being used, that was not prescribed for a 6-12 grade, was age 13,” Smith said.

Also in 2017, the coalition’s study found that 14 percent of 10th graders and seven percent of 12th graders used prescription drugs not prescribed to them.

“One of our biggest projects, aside from educating youth, is how to actually count your medications, lock them up and dispose of them properly,” Smith said. “We distribute for free medication lock boxes throughout the county.”

Clinchfield Drug, Neighborhood Service Center, Frontier Health, Roller Pharmacy, Unicoi County Insurance and the Urgent Care of Erwin all have these lock boxes available.

The coalition recently completed a billboard contest that received 45 entries from Unicoi County High School students that educate about the dangers of risky behaviors including alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse.

“When you over prescribe those pills, the leftover pills are still there and anybody can take them,” Smith said. “You see a lot of medications being stolen or ingested by children accidentally. A lot of times people don’t realise that opioids can really disrupt internal organs, especially your liver and kidneys.”

According to Drugabuse.gov, side effects of opiate abuse can include drowsiness, lethargy, paranoia and respiratory depression. In the long run, it is associated with increased dependence, nausea and vomiting, constipation, liver damage and brain damage resulting from respiratory depression.

Smith also noted the impact opiates have on the cortex of the brain, which is largely involved with cognitive behavior, such as decision making.

“Of course your judgment and driving ability are impaired and more people are actually drugged while driving than drinking while driving,” Smith said.

Local resources to combat opioid addiction and misuse include the LifeLine insight alliance with Jason Abernathy serving as the regional coordinator. LifeLine connects individuals with community support and recovery meetings.

First Christian Church in Erwin is currently the only church in the county offering a recovery group for those struggling with opioid addiction.

“There is a faith-based initiative going on across the state to get more churches involved to have support and recovery groups, so I hope with this forum some of the churches will be there to get better informed,” Smith said.

The Community Opioid Forum will be held on Thursday, April 26, from 6-8 p.m. at Calvary Baptist Church Life Center located at 540 Adams Ave, Erwin. Food will be provided and interested participants are encouraged to register by calling 735-8407.

Feathered Friends – Upcoming rally will offer chances to enjoy birds, much more

A newly arrived tree swallow immediately begins inspecting nesting boxes. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

Spring has certainly sprung. In the past week, several birds have made their return after a long absence, including broad-winged hawk, brown thrasher, blue-gray gnatcatcher, tree swallow and black-and-white warbler. It’s a good time to get outside and see what birds one can see without even really trying.

One long-running annual event will help interested people see birds and experience other aspects of the natural world. The upcoming 60th annual Roan Mountain Spring Naturalists Rally promises three days of nature-packed activities and events for people of all ages.  This year’s rally will be held Friday-Sunday, April 27-29.

As always, in addition to bird walks and other nature hikes, the rally will offer evening programs by guest speakers on Friday and Saturday after a catered dinner.

Kris Light will speak on Friday at 7:30 p.m. on “The Birds and Bees of Wildflowers: Pollination Strategies of Flowers.” Light is a lifetime Tennessean who grew up in Nashville and graduated from University of Tennessee-Knoxville. She has experience teaching classroom science for elementary school students and is an outreach educator for the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge. She is a lifelong student of nature and a favorite leader of wildflower walks for various parks around the state.

Light described her program as focusing on the fascinating interaction between flowers and their pollinators and how colors, odors, shape, and even the presence of stripes or spots on the petals can greatly influence the type of pollinators that will be attracted to them. 

Dr. Kevin Hamed will discuss the diversity of salamanders on Roan and other neighboring mountains during his Saturday program at 7:30 p.m. His presentation is titled “The Future of Appalachian Salamanders: What the Past Tells Us.”

Hamed is a professor of biology at Virginia Highlands Community College where he is dedicated to getting his students out of the classroom and into nature, where they gain experience collecting specimens and recording data. This field data has been useful to various local, state, and federal organizations in making important land management decisions.

Hamed is recognized as an expert on salamanders of the southern Appalachians. For his program Saturday night he will discuss the unique environment of the area’s mountains which makes this area “holy ground” for salamander study, present his research on the nesting behavior of salamanders, and discuss the importance of salamanders as indicators of environmental change.

All activities and programs are free to members of the Friends of Roan Mountain. There is a charge, however, for the Friday and Saturday evening meals, which are scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Visit friendsofroanmtn.org to register and pay online to reserve meals for Friday and Saturday. Deadline to reserve a meal is April 24. The website also offers a complete listing of morning and afternoon hikes, as well as other programs and activities. Charges do apply for attendees who are not members of FORM.


Ruby-throated hummingbirds are back, and I’ve heard from people in Unicoi County and beyond who have already seen one of these tiny flying gems. I’ll provide more details on their arrival in next week’s column. Keep those reports coming to me by sending an email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Please list the date and time when you saw your first spring hummer.

Library Happenings – Great American Read begins May 22 on PBS

By Angie Georgeff

Get ready to read! If the excitement generated by our annual Summer Reading Programs is not adequate incentive to get you reading, this summer PBS will be encouraging Americans to read and vote in order to determine the country’s best-loved novel. An eight-part television and online series, The Great American Read will kick off at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 22. A list of 100 fiction titles spanning a range of diverse themes will be announced in advance of the premiere. Viewers will be encouraged to read books on the list, vote for their favorite and share what those books mean to them. Voting will commence when the first episode airs and will remain open through the autumn broadcasts.

Which novels would you put on that list? When it is released, we’ll post it in the library. I hope I will already be familiar with many of the titles, but even more so, I hope I will learn about a book that will become a new favorite.  It’s just one more reason to look forward to summer!

Teen Scene

The last teen party of the school year is scheduled for Friday, April 27. Two hours of food and fun will begin at 5:30 p.m. And don’t forget the resume class designed especially for teens that will be held at 6 p.m. on Monday, April 30. If you have questions or want to register for either of these events, call us at 743-6533.

Spotlight Book

We placed a large book order last week, so be sure to check out our “New Books” shelves the next time you come into the library. If you are eagerly awaiting a particular book, you may give us a call to place a hold on it for you.

“After Anna” is bestselling author Lisa Scottoline’s latest domestic thriller. Six months after the birth of her daughter Anna, Maggie Ippolliti is hospitalized with postpartum psychosis. Her husband Florian divorces her and takes sole custody of their daughter. For a grieving Maggie, happiness is elusive until she meets and marries pediatric allergist Noah Alderman. Noah and his son Caleb fill her world, yet there is still a place in her heart reserved for Anna.

Maggie’s joy seems complete when Anna, now a high school student, calls her mother out of the blue and wants to leave her boarding school and come live with her. Noah is willing to welcome Anna, but the teenager proves difficult to live with. When Anna is murdered, Noah is convicted of the crime. He maintains his innocence, but Maggie does not believe him – not until she gets a call from Anna’s former therapist. With her eyes opened, she seeks the truth, which is all too often a slippery quarry.

Microfilm scanner makes archived materials readily available at library

Angie Georgeff, Unicoi County Public Library director, utilizes the new microfilm scanner at the library to look at old issues of The Erwin Record. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Kendal Groner)

By Kendal Groner

Thanks to a new microfilm scanner at the Unicoi County Public Library, patrons can now view and print information that has been preserved and archived on microfilm.

The microfilm scanner arrived at the library about a month ago and was made available through a Library Services and Technology Grant that required matching funds.

“This microfilm qualifies for that … the problem we have had in the past with getting one was having those matching funds,” said Angie Georgeff, Unicoi County Public Library Director.  “Fortunately, we have had a donor come in and make a sizeable donation toward those matching funds. We also had several other people contribute to it.”

The microfilm scanners operate similarly to an overhead projector. The film is illuminated as it travels through a series of mirrors that then projects a larger picture onto a computer screen. The microfilm scanner allows users to zoom in and out, adjust image quality with contrast or brightness, and also flip or rotate images.

“It was amazing, while I was sitting there trying to figure out how to use it, we received a call from someone wanting to view an obituary, and not long after that we had someone wanting information on a train wreck,” said Georgeff. “In order to do the research, we needed a microfilm scanner, so we got to use it twice in one day and two other times in that first week.”

The Unicoi County Public Library has Erwin newspapers dating back to 1887 on microfilm, although there are gaps in some of the years that are available. They also have Johnson City newspapers on microfilm from 1960 to 2007.

“We have a lot of county records for Unicoi County and we have a lot of editions of the Unicoi County newspapers starting with The Erwin Magnet way back in the 1800s,” Georgeff said. “A lot of the film hasn’t even been looked at in the years we’ve had it.”

Before acquiring the new microfilm scanner, the library was relying on an older microfilm viewer that they obtained from the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

“At the time, we had no way to view them (microfilm), and we were really glad to get that because at least people could look at them,” Georgeff said. “But since I have been here, no one could print the microfilm, but now we can actually print.”

The older microfilm viewer required a new light bulb in order to work properly, but since it was so old, no one was able to find a compatible replacement part.

“Now we have one we can be proud of, and it’s really a pleasure to go through the microfilm now,” Georgeff said.

Previously, the library staff was having to direct people to the East Tennessee State University Library, which has a microfilm scanner and reader.

“Of course the Tennessee State Library and Archives, they are the ones that digitized the film and they’ve got it all there,” Georgeff said. “If anybody has any old copies of newspapers from Unicoi County in particular, but really it can be any old newspapers, if it’s something that the state library doesn’t have, they would love to get it and scan it so they can preserve it for posterity.”

For those interested in learning how to utilize the new technology at the Unicoi County Public Library, a free class will be held on Thursday, April 12, at 6 p.m. to demonstrate how to use the microfilm scanner. Due to limited space, those interested in attending the class are encouraged to call ahead before attending. You can reach the Unicoi County Public Library at 743-6533.

Feathered Friends – Blue-gray gnatcatcher signals rush of migration

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are tiny, energetic bundles of feathers. (Photo courtesy of Jean Potter)

By Bryan Stevens

I’m still waiting for the arrival of blue-gray gnatcatchers. Most likely, these tiny birds have already arrived but my schedule hasn’t yet allowed me a glimpse at this punctual songbird. Back in March, I saw and heard dozens of them during a trip to the South Carolina Low Country.

Birds are as dependable as clocks and calendars when it comes to noting the passage of time. I can keep track of the changing seasons based on the composition of the birds in my yard. The gnatcatcher has long been my signal to the start of the frenzied pace of spring migration for many of the birds returning to the region after sojourns much farther south. For example, the first gnatcatcher arrived in my yard in 2014 on Aug. 4. Two days earlier, I had observed my first Blue-grey Gnatcatcher of the spring while visiting Winged Deer Park in Johnson City. It doesn’t hurt that the arrival of gnatcatchers coincides with the annual blooming of bluebells, a wildflower for which this local park is famous.

The Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers reliably return every year in the final days of March and first days of April. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher put in its first appearance at a home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton on April 2 in 2011. In 2009, I also saw my first Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher on April 2, although in 2008 I had to wait until April 5 for my first spring sighting of a gnatcatcher. In 2007, the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher was an “April Fool’s” bird, arriving on the first day of April.

Arrival dates in March are a little less frequent. For instance, in 2003, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher arrived on March 28. I saw my first spring Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on March 30 in 1998. In 2006, the arrival date was March 31.

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is a tiny, active bird with noisy habits that make it fairly easy to detect in early spring before foliage has grown dense in the branches of trees. This gnatcatcher ranks with the kinglets and hummingbirds as one of the smallest birds to range within the United States. This tiny bird tips the scales at only a fourth of an ounce. A gnatcatcher is an incredible bundle of feathered energy, seemingly always on the move as they snatch small winged insects out of the air or pluck other prey items from leaves or branches. They’re also quite curious birds that, more than once, have given me the feeling that I am the one being observed while watching their antics.

Like the hummingbirds, the gnatcatchers are an exclusively New World family of birds. They lack the diversity of the hummingbirds. Instead of several hundred species, there are only about a dozen species of gnatcatchers. Of that number, four — Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, California Gnatcatcher, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher and Black-capped Gnatcatcher — range within the United States. The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is the only member of this family to reside in the eastern United States. Other representatives of this family of small songbirds include the Cuban Gnatcatcher, White-lored Gnatcatcher, Creamy-bellied Gnatcatcher, Tropical Gnatcatcher and Masked Gnatcatcher.

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher builds an exquisite and compact nest using such materials as spider silk and lichens. I have found many nests over the years by listening for the scolding notes of the parents which, even near their nest, have not learned the virtues of silence.

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is one of the birds that, in my mind, truly kicks off the arrival season of many of my favorite neotropical migrants.

I’m still waiting to hear from readers about the dates Ruby-throated Hummingbirds return to their homes. To report your sighting, including the date and time, send me an email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

Library Happenings – Technology classes offered during April

By Angie Georgeff

We will be offering several technology classes to the public during April. At 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 12, we will teach patrons interested in history and genealogy how to use our newest tech acquisition. Our microfilm scanner makes our collection of county records and local newspapers easily available for research. We have the surviving editions of nearly a century of Unicoi County newspapers, beginning with the Erwin Magnet in 1887 and continuing with the Erwin Record through 1983. We also have Johnson City newspapers from 1960 through 2007. If you would like to see what was happening locally on the day you were born, find a grandparent’s obituary or locate a picture of a prominent politician, engaged couple or football hero, you can hunt for the article and print out a copy.

Just be aware that copies of most of the earliest editions have not survived the years, so there are some wide gaps in coverage. While we are on the subject, if you have local newspapers from the 1800s through 1930 that are not microfilmed, the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville can preserve them for future generations. We will be more than happy to help you get in touch with them.

The second class in our Using Computers for Genealogy series will be coming up on Thursday, April 26, at 6 p.m. This workshop will explore the free resources available at FamilySearch.org.  With billions of searchable names in their globe-spanning database, you’re bound to find connections you can use. Among the treasures I have found on their website are birth, marriage and death records from Germany for ancestors of two of my grandchildren.

The end of the school year is approaching. Teens will be applying for jobs. A workshop designed to help teens write a resume will be held on Monday, April 30, at 6 p.m. A thoughtfully written resume can make a good impression on prospective employers. Learn how to showcase your aptitudes and experience.

Spotlight Book

It should come as no surprise that Mary Higgins Clark’s new novel “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” begins with a murder. The victim is 18-year-old Kerry Dowling, a prospective college freshman who took advantage of her parents’ absence to throw a party at her home. Unknown to the murderer, the witness is her neighbor, Jamie Chapman, an intellectually disabled young man who liked Kerry and enjoyed her family’s pool. We glimpse the murderer through Jamie’s innocent eyes, but who is he? Since the end-of-summer bash was marred by an argument between Kerry and her boyfriend Alan Crowley, the police first set their sights on him. Jamie, however, is another likely suspect.

Erwin woman finds owl using deck at roosting spot

This Eastern screech-owl has been using a pipe beneath a deck at the home of Evelyn King as a roosting location. These owls are nocturnal, seeking out safe and sheltered places to rest during the daytime hours. (Photo courtesy of Evelyn King)

By Bryan Stevens

Erwin resident Evelyn King sent me an email and a photograph of a fun discovery she made beneath the deck at her home. The photo accompanying her email depicted a roosting owl.

“I wanted to identify it as a barred owl,” Evelyn wrote in her email. The owl’s appearance, however, didn’t quite match a barred owl.

“Because of its horned appearance, I thought it must be a horned owl,” she added, although there was still a problem with that identification.

“Its small size and markings confuse me. What kind of owl is it?”

Evelyn wondered if I could help clear up the confusion, which I was happy to do. The owl at her home turned out to be an Eastern screech-owl, which is one of the smaller owls in the region. Like the great horned owl, the screech owl has ear tufts, which are simply ornamental feathers atop their heads. The decorative tufts have nothing to do with hearing.

Evelyn discovered the owl perched on the gas line under her deck that is connected to her outdoor grill.

An adult Eastern screech-owl is usually between six and nine inches in length and weighs only about five or six ounces. By way of comparison, a great horned owl can weigh between three and five pounds and reach a length of 25 inches. Many people upon first seeing a screech-owl assume it’s a baby owl. On a recent South Carolina trip I made several visits to Brookgreen Gardens near Pawleys Island. On several of these visits I attended the daily educational programs conducted by the attraction’s zoo staff that are designed to introduce visitors to various examples of native wildlife. The presenter usually introduced a couple of animals to the audience. On several occasions, the show featured birds of prey, including hawks and owls.

Two of the shows featured Lucy, an Eastern screech-owl, and people in the audience invariably asked if she was a baby owl. To their astonishment, they learned that Lucy was an adult screech-owl and unlikely to grow any bigger. There are larger owls in our region, including the great horned owl and barred owl. Lucy and her kin must avoid these much larger owls, which would have no hesitation at trying to make a meal of the much smaller owl.

Although they prefer woodlands, screech owls have proven remarkably adaptable to manmade environments. I suspect the owl at Evelyn’s home is utilizing the deck for the excellent shelter and protection it provides. A cozy space beneath a deck is probably much more comfortable than a cavity in a tree.

Hummingbirds are

on their way

According to the website Hummingbird Guide, ruby-throated hummingbirds usually return to Tennessee and Virginia the first week of April. These tiny flying jewels arrive earlier in North and South Carolina, typically arriving the third week of March in those states.

The popularity of hummingbirds in general, and the ruby-throated hummingbird specifically, is simple to understand. These tiny birds are perfectly willing to insert themselves into our lives, offering hours of fascinating entertainment as they visit our gardens, duel at our sugar water feeders and occasionally even nest in trees and shrubs in our yards.

Individuals who feed birds know that it can be an expensive undertaking. The cost of providing sunflower seeds and suet cakes for hungry flocks during the winter months can nibble at the monthly budget, but hardly anyone would begrudge the sparrows, finches, wrens and woodpeckers. After all, they return the favor, putting on daily shows just outside our windows.

The same is true of hummingbirds. For a relatively modest investment, people putting out feeders or planting nectar-producing flowers are rewarded with the fun and amusing antics of these pint-sized and hyperactive birds.

Attracting hummingbirds is generally much less expensive than feeding other birds. After all, you need only a mixture of sugar water — four parts water to one part sugar — to fill a feeder and catch the attention of a visiting hummer. A few pounds of sugar will last a lot longer than that bag of sunflower seeds, and it’s much less expensive to purchase at the grocery store.

Do not add red coloring or dyes to your sugar water mixture. Some studies have indicated these substances are harmful to hummingbird health. This means tossing out many of the pre-packaged mixtures sold with sugar water feeders. After all, the entire purpose is to attract hummingbirds. Risking their health is simply not acceptable. If you do want to take extra steps to attract these diminutive, feathered sugar junkies, consider supplementing your landscape with a variety of flowering plants. To explore some of the best choices for flowers to tempt hummingbirds, visit the website of The Hummingbird Society at www.hummingbirdsociety.org.

I always put out my sugar water feeders in early April. I usually end up waiting a couple of weeks before the first hummingbird appears, but it’s worth the wait. I miss these tiny birds during the winter months, which they spend in much warmer surroundings in southern Mexico and Central America. A male with the namesake red throat is usually the first to appear at my feeders. However, female ruby-throated hummingbirds, which lack the dazzling ruby throat patch, are migrating, too. The females usually lag a week or two behind the pace of the migration for the males.

As always, I enjoy hearing from readers about their first spring sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird. Readers are encouraged to jot down the date and the time of arrival when they observe their first hummingbird of the season. If the sighting’s duration allows you to verify, note whether the hummingbird was a male or female. These reports can be emailed to me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Together, we’ll track the arrival of these tiny birds as they return to the region.


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.

‘Flat Broke with Two Goats’ chosen for Big Library Read

By Angie Georgeff

Monthly statistics show that many of our patrons use their library card to borrow books through Tennessee R.E.A.D.S, and more are joining every month. If you’re too busy, you can even participate in a book club without entering the library.

Overdrive’s current Big Library Read began Monday, April 2, and will continue through Monday, April 16. The idea is for large numbers of people to be reading and discussing the same book at the same time. To make that happen, during these two weeks, unlimited numbers of Tennessee R.E.A.D.S patrons will be able to borrow the featured book. With your Unicoi County Public Library patron id card and a computer, tablet or smartphone, you can too! The title will be available for checkout as an eBook or audiobook. For those without a compatible device, we’ve ordered a print book for our collection.

The book that was chosen for the Big Library Read is Jennifer McGaha’s new memoir “Flat Broke with Two Goats.” Jennifer enjoyed an upper-middle-class upbringing and a comfortable suburban lifestyle until she and her husband discovered they owed back taxes – and not a small amount, either. To settle their debts, they gave up their beloved home and moved to a ramshackle 100-year-old cabin in the woods that was owned by a distant cousin. For the first time, they encountered the mice, snakes and farm animals that their Appalachian ancestors had known so well. The family’s new life was not without challenges, but eventually they discovered that there were compensations.

If you participate in the Big Library Read and would like to get together with other readers to discuss the book in person, please call the library at 743-6533 to register for our discussion group. It will meet at the library at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 19. If you can’t wait to share your thoughts, you may join the conversation on Overdrive’s discussion board at https://discuss.biglibraryread.com or at #BigLibraryRead. Copies of the suggested discussion questions are available at our circulation desk.

Microfilm Scanner

Our new microfilm scanner is already being used, but we have had multiple requests for a class that will demonstrate how to use it and our microfilm collection. I’m afraid my fairy godmother proficiencies are sadly limited, but this is one wish that I can grant. You are cordially invited to join us at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 12 for an introduction to our latest acquisition. It may not be a prince, but it is charming. Let it whisk you away to a trove of resources that could make your genealogical and historical dreams come true. Class size is limited. Please call the library at 743-6533 to register or to get more information.

Feathered Friends – Tufted titmouse small songbird with big personality

The tufted titmouse is a feathered imp that is equally at home in woodland settings or at backyard feeders. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

In last week’s column I wrote about chickadees. These friendly little birds have an impish cousin that is also a frequent visitor to feeders in the region. If chickadees are active woodland sprites, their relative, the titmouse, is a curious imp with mischievous tendencies.

The tufted titmouse’s song — a persistent repetition of “Peter! Peter! Peter!” — is ringing through the woodlands around my home along with the urgent “fee-be fee-bo” of the Carolina chickadee. These birds form mixed flocks with each other and other species to explore their surroundings and search for food. They know that spring, despite the usual false starts, is drawing nearer with each passing day.

In addition to singing, titmice are enthusiastic scolders. They will scold over any transgression, real or imagined, focusing their ire on their fellow titmice or other birds, potential predators and even human observers. They’re quite persistent at their raucous scolding, which is just another reason I label them as imps of the woods.

The tufted titmouse is a mostly gray bird with a distinctive crest and a pinkish-rusty coloration along the flanks. Titmouse eyes are black as coal and look large in proportion to their heads, which lends them an expressive appearance as they explore in yards and gardens. The term “titmouse” refers to the old English word “tit” meaning “small,” as well as the old English “mase,” also a reference to small size. Eventually, probably because of the bird’s small size and gray coloration, “mase” evolved into “mouse” and combined to form the word “titmouse.”

The titmice living in my yard visit my house windows at times, which drives my cats to distraction. I’ve wondered if the titmice are curious and trying to peek inside the house, but I believe I have a more down-to-earth explanation. These little birds are very thorough when foraging for food, and I’ve watched them pluck spiders and other insects from the window frames.

Like chickadees, titmice are fond of sunflower seeds. No other offering will so readily lure them to feeders, although they do develop a fondness for suet cakes. I’ve also had great success attracting titmice to my feeders by offering unsalted, shelled peanuts. I sometimes break up the peanuts into smaller, more manageable pieces for the benefit of the titmice. These foods and a few trees or saplings around your home is all you really need to welcome titmice.

In the early 1900s, the tufted titmouse would have been considered a southern bird with its stronghold in states like Tennessee, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia. Perhaps it is the titmouse’s innate curiosity that has pushed the species to expand successfully beyond the southern United States. The titmouse has steadily expanded its range northward, thriving in new locations. Experts credit this expansion to more readily available access to supplemental food at feeders.

During the nesting season, titmice forage for a variety of insects. Many spiders, beetles, caterpillars and other small bugs will be fed to hungry young titmice in a tree cavity or a nesting box. Like chickadees, titmice build exquisite nests, often using mostly moss with other materials, such as bark, cloth scraps, dry leaves and shed snakeskins. These small birds line their nests with hair or fur of other animals.

Over the years, many readers have shared observations documenting the fur-collecting skills of tufted titmice. The birds are not content to simply collect shed fur. They seem to prefer collecting the fur fresh from a living animal. Many dogs fall victim to impish titmice that boldly pluck strands of fur from the canine’s coat.

In another funny story, a woman once told me about a titmouse that flew onto her head every time she stepped outside her home. Perhaps the bird sensed her affection for birds since it never failed to pluck strands of hair from her head to carry back to its nest. For any would-be skeptics, the woman provided photographic documentation of the incidents. In addition to dogs and humans, animals ranging from squirrels and opossums to mice and woodchucks have also been observed “sacrificing” fur for the nesting success of tufted titmice.

The female tufted titmouse incubates the eggs. She lays between three and nine eggs, although a usual clutch size is five to six eggs. The female titmouse is protective of her nest and is known for a behavior known as a “snake display.” I’ve observed titmice perform this display when I’ve peeked into nesting boxes. She remains tightly seated on her eggs, or young, while she hisses loudly and strikes in a manner very much like a striking serpent. Not all titmice engage in this display. Some remain still and try to “blend” with the nest, while others will fly away if a nest box is opened. Regardless, it’s a convincing display of bravado on the part of such a small bird. If it looks scary to people, I am sure it could succeed at repelling a squirrel or mouse. I’m uncertain if the behavior would deter an actual snake.

Other titmice in North America include bridled titmouse in Arizona and New Mexico; oak titmouse of the Pacific Coast region; juniper titmouse from the Great Basin, which consists of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California; and the black-crested titmouse, which ranges from Missouri into east-central Mexico.

Titmice occur exclusively in North America and belong to the genus Baeolophus. Europe, Asia and Africa are home to some other crested birds in the family of chickadees and titmice. For instance, the European crested tit and the grey crested tit are species that sport a crest of feathers like titmice but are more closely related to chickadees.

Yes, the tufted titmouse is one of nature’s imps, but it’s also one of our more entertaining birds. Get to know these visitors by offering sunflower seeds or other fare and, if you want to go the extra step, place some bird boxes around your yard as potential nesting sites. By next winter, you may have an entire flock of these feathered imps as your guests.


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 – Knoxville Symphony Orchestra will perform at library

By Angie Georgeff

One of the most popular programs we offered last spring was the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra’s Library Story Time. These 30-minute programs are designed to appeal to pre-school aged children and their parents, but I think I enjoyed it as much as any of the kids.  Many patrons who had come in merely to return a book or movie sat down and did not budge until the program was over. Even more impressive was the fact the kids were enthralled.

The only thing better than a good story is a good story accompanied by great music: talk about ear candy! These concerts combine colorful children’s picture books with classical music, sound effects and hands-on learning. Last year the children loved trying out some kid-friendly musical instruments with the help of KSO musicians. Our historic Clinchfield Depot building has such marvelous acoustics that almost everyone sounded good! These concerts are free and open to the public, so mark your calendar now for 1:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 5.  And plan to bring your kids or grandkids, especially if they have never had the opportunity to enjoy classical music.

Spotlight Book

Danielle Steel’s newest novel is, as usual, driven by character, but this book happens to be an action-packed thriller. “Accidental Heroes” begins with a postcard, which is not an unusual thing to find left behind at a busy airport.

This one, however, is found at a TSA checkpoint bearing a message that agent Bernice Adams finds troubling. The note is admittedly a bit ambiguous so her supervisor is not overly concerned. Nevertheless, she calls security and senior Homeland Security agent Ben Waterman is just as suspicious of the message as Bernice.

The postcard pictures the Golden Gate Bridge, and two jets have just left New York for San Francisco. Which airplane could be the target? Ben examines the manifests for both planes and finds several passengers on the smaller Airbus A321 who raise red flags. He soon becomes certain that one of them is planning to do something terrible. The questions that remain are which one, and how can that person be stopped? Passengers and crew join with experts on the ground as these accidental heroes try to foil the plot revealed by the postcard.

Good Friday

The library will be closed on Good Friday, March 30, but we will be open our regular hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 31.

Our drop boxes at the library in Erwin and at Town Hall in Unicoi will be available for book returns on Friday. We wish you all a very Happy Easter!