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Bucks for Birds #5: A Colorful Assortment

We’ve officially reached the end of April’s Bucks for Birds campaign! Spring migration continues, so I’ll be doing a wrap-up with some of my favorite photos in a few weeks, most of which are quite different than the ones I’ve posted so far. (The wood thrushes have really started to cooperate, for one thing.) But we’ll finish off the month in the next two posts.

You can no longer pledge per bird since the month is over, but you can make a fixed-amount donation. Right now we’re about $700 short of our $2,500 goal. Help us eradicate harmful invasive plants from the Old Forest and make a gift!

Today’s theme is “colorful non-warblers.” Four of these eight birds have a color in their names, and this one is, well, bright orange. The Baltimore oriole is usually found high in the canopy, although word has it you can attract them to a backyard feeder by putting out orange halves. (I attempted that one year and it made the mockingbirds very happy, but I never saw an oriole.) They’ve also been known to sample the nectar in hummingbird feeders, so they definitely have a sweet tooth. (This is false–birds don’t have teeth, although their reptile ancestors did!)

Baltimore oriole

One of the big reliefs of being a beginning birder is realizing that some birds are named after the noises they make. The Eastern wood-pewee is one of them. If you hear a high-pitched “Pee-wee!” echoing through the forest, you’ll know you’re sharing space with one of these little birds. The pewee is a member of the tyrant flycatcher family, which is the largest family of birds. Members of the flycatcher family are found in virtually every habitat in North America, and many of them are notoriously hard to tell apart because their dominant color is gray. I clambered onto a log to get a closer look at this one because I thought it was an Eastern phoebe, which is another bird named after its call (“fee-bee”) and also one that I didn’t have on my Bucks for Birds tally. Since this was my third pewee of the week, it didn’t net us any extra funds, but it did put me in position to spot a warbler I’d never seen before! But more about that tomorrow.

Eastern wood-pewee

The gray catbird is also named after the noise it makes, and you truly might think you’ve encountered a cat when you hear one call for the first time. Despite seeming plain at first, catbirds have some striking features, including a black stripe on the top of their heads and a bright maroon patch under their tails. Like their relatives the mockingbirds and brown thrashers, they can sing a variety of other species’ songs. There’s one very reliable spot to see these in the park: if you enter the Old Forest at the golf clubhouse, walk the limestone trail until you reach the edge of the woods where the park becomes the golf course. There are often a dozen or more hanging out in the vines there.

Gray catbird

One of the most persistent regional misconceptions I’ve encountered surrounds this common (and very large) bird. The great blue heron frequents ponds, rivers, and anywhere there’s water nearby to catch fish and other prey. Growing up, I always called this bird a crane, and I hear that over and over from people who have spotted one of these. We’re very unlikely to see either of the two types of cranes here–highly endangered whooping cranes use a flight path west of Tennessee, and sandhill cranes also spend most of their time west of here (although a huge wintering colony hangs out at the Hiwassee National Wildlife Refuge outside Chattanooga). Size-wise, the heron is a bit smaller than these two birds, but still a majestic sight. If you keep your distance, you can watch them stalk their prey in Rainbow Lake from time to time.

Great blue heron

A more reliable and less skittish Rainbow Lake/forest edge resident is the mallard. Usually you’ll see them in a pair (the female was swimming on this particular morning), as mallards mate for life. They are so common that they’ve hybridized with all kinds of other ducks, and they’re the ancestor of most domestic forms of duck too.


Another common bird that hangs around the forest edges, rarely venturing into the interior, is the Northern mockingbird. They can imitate everything from frogs to car alarms to many other birds, and they keep learning new songs throughout their lives. The loudmouths that seem to never stop singing, day or night, are likely to be males without a mate. You’ve probably seen this bird in your yard but not at your bird feeder; they enjoy insects in the summer and fruit in the other seasons.

Northern mockingbird

I checked off two of our four common hawk species during this project. While I find hawks difficult to identify, seeing a red-tailed hawk soaring overhead makes it easy. That rusty color on the underside of the tail is a sure giveaway. These hawks are more numerous in the winter, when the ones living in our area year-round are joined by migrants from the far north who prefer to winter in a warmer climate.

Red-tailed hawk

We end on probably the prettiest bird of this set: the scarlet tanager. Like the summer tanager from last week, this bird is strikingly red, but its wings and tail are black. It’s also here for a limited time only: while we’ll be hearing the summer tanager in the canopy all season long, these birds don’t breed in our area and will be moving along soon. Although they stay up pretty high in the canopy, every now and then you’ll get lucky and see a flash of red at eye level!

Scarlet tanager

We’re almost there! Tomorrow I’ll reveal the final tally, which hinges entirely on how many warblers I was able to photograph over the past couple of weeks. Spoiler alert: this was a challenge.

The list to date (45):

  • American robin
  • Baltimore oriole
  • Barred owl
  • Blue-gray gnatcatcher
  • Blue jay
  • Broad-winged hawk
  • Brown-headed cowbird
  • Carolina chickadee
  • Carolina wren
  • Cedar waxwing
  • Chimney swift
  • Chipping sparrow
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Eastern wood-pewee
  • European starling
  • Gray catbird
  • Great blue heron
  • Great crested flycatcher
  • Hairy woodpecker
  • Hermit thrush
  • Hooded warbler
  • Indigo bunting
  • Mallard
  • Mourning dove
  • Myrtle warbler
  • Northern cardinal
  • Northern mockingbird
  • Northern parula
  • Orange-crowned warbler
  • Palm warbler
  • Pileated woodpecker
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Red-eyed vireo
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Rose-breasted grosbeak
  • Ruby-crowned kinglet
  • Ruby-throated hummingbird
  • Scarlet tanager
  • Summer tanager
  • Swainson’s thrush
  • Tufted titmouse
  • White-breasted nuthatch
  • White-eyed vireo
  • White-throated sparrow
  • Wood thrush