Birds on the Wing

Spring is perhaps the best time of year for watching birds, and, ironically, is one of only a couple times each year one might actually see a Tennessee warbler in Tennessee or a Nashville warbler stop to rest its wings on a WSM transmitter.

There is no better time to watch birds than when they make their return to nesting areas. There are more birds to see and hear and many old friends stop by for a short visit. In addition to birds living in the region year round and those currently returning to nesting sites, the region is also host to many transient fliers, such as the Tennessee and Nashville warblers. The birds, themselves, spend little time in the Volunteer State. These warblers were simply named for the place they were discovered, when ornithologist Alexander Wilson found them in the early 1800s. The neo-tropical migrants nest in the Northern U.S. and Canada.

Another bird returning from the tropics is the cliff swallow. The Appalachian cliff swallows might be as faithful and punctual to a Mail Pouch barn in Virginia as some of their fellow cliff swallows are to the Mission of San Juan Capistrano in California.

“As many birds return to stay, others are simply temporary residents, stopping to eat seeds or insects like one would stop for a burger on a drive to the beach,” said Janet Butler, outdoor recreation planner for the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge. “Many birds follow major rivers like the Ohio as they migrate, and most of the birds seen in the Ohio River Valley at this time don’t live there,” she noted.

About 200 species of birds have been seen on the refuge’s islands, which are located on the Ohio River from Pennsylvania to Kentucky. Only about 80 actually build nests there, but adequate habitat is important for the migratory fowl also. “We like to think of the islands as restaurants and hotels for our birds. The vast majority of birds are just on their way”, Butler said. “They need habitat in their nesting areas, but it is just as critical they have habitat when they migrate, a place to rest and replenish their energy.”

Seasonal movement

At any given time, some species of bird is likely migrating somewhere. However, most of that movement occurs during the spring and fall. “Some birds, mostly waterfowl, have already arrived to their nesting areas in the region or passed over on their way farther north,” said Patty Morrison, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist. April is one time of the year people on the bank of the Ohio River in Kentucky would be as likely to see gull as someone on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, as many gulls that spend summer in the Great Lakes fly from their winter homes as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. Some eagles also can be seen as they fly north, Morrison said. “When the water freezes, eagles fly just south enough to find open water and places to loaf,” she said.

Another bird of prey, the osprey, returns to its nesting sites in the Appalachians or flies farther north during the spring after wintering in South America. “Ospreys don’t all stop. A lot of them are moving through and you can see more of them,” Morrison said. Ospreys return to the site of their last nest or the place they were reared. After being extirpated from the Ohio Valley, the Ospreys are again being seen in the Ohio Valley, Butler said. “It’s really a good story. They disappeared and hadn’t been seen in the Ohio Valley in decades, then in the late 1980s, the DuPont Wildlife Habitat Enhancement Committee started working on reintroducing them. That program has resulted in a return of nesting birds,” Butler said.

Frequent flier miles

Some of the long-range fliers use one of the North American migration highways. The Appalachians are flanked by two of them, the Atlantic flyway to the east and Mississippi and Ohio River paths to the west. Each species of bird has its own path and sense of timing, Morrison said. “Each bird has its own strategy. They don’t want to all go to the same place, there wouldn’t be enough food for them,” she said.

After the waterfowl, the neo-tropical birds begin arriving in late April. The peak migration time occurs in early May and International Migrational bird day is held in conjunction with the approximate time of the peak migration, noted Morrison. International Migratory Bird Day was created in 1993, by officials at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The day is celebrated throughout North and Central America as birds move north along their migration pathways. It is also a time when people throughout the continent document the species of birds they see, which provides biologists with valuable information about how different species fare.

“This is a time when you have the smaller birds, the tanagers and cuckoos are arriving. The first week of May is the peak for land birds and you get all these neat vireos and warblers. They’ll also migrate at night. You’ll go somewhere one evening and its quiet, come in the next morning and the place is alive and you wonder when they came in. They fly at night,” Morrison said.

While the migratory birds arrive for nesting or simply pass through, birds who live in the region year-round begin to consider settling down and having a family, at least for a nesting season. For most species, it’s time to think about finding a mate and building a home. Among the most memorable of these are the cardinal, whose sweet song and colorful red plumage earned it the title of state bird in North Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The cardinal is one of many colorful winter birds, like the blue jay, which have for years kept people filling their backyard bird feeders to carry the birds through the lean winter months.
However, more people are now choosing to keep their feeders full year round, Butler said. “I think that the biggest increase in birding has been with backyard feeders. People enjoy seeing what they can attract in their yards. People are really fascinated by what they see and never realized how many different species come to their yards,” Butler said.

Contact Dave Payne Sr. via e-mail at


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