Feathered Friends – Woodpecker still bears name of expedition’s charismatic leader

Lewis’s woodpecker is found primarily in the west. It eats insects, mostly caught in the air, as well as fruits and nuts. The woodpecker also shells and stores acorns in the bark of trees. (Photo by Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

By Bryan Stevens

The 215th anniversary of the launch of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition will be observed May 14. Also known as the Corps of Discovery Expedition, the enterprise became the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the United States and explore the recently acquired lands known collectively as the Louisiana Purchase. The Lewis and Clark expedition officially extended from May 14, 1804, to Sept. 23, 1806. As they drove deep into the American west, the members of the expedition saw wonders, including the feathered variety, never before beheld by people outside of various Native American tribes.

In authorizing the expedition, President Thomas Jefferson wanted to establish a reliable route for travel through the western half of the nation and to fend off any attempts by European nations to gain a foothold beyond the nation’s frontier. Jefferson also hoped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark would make some important discoveries about the nation’s native fauna and flora. Jefferson gave instructions for Lewis and Clark to collect bones they found during their journeys. He also asked them to keep alert for large animals that would be new to science. In particular, Jefferson hoped that the men he chose to head the expedition would help prove that the American mastodon still roamed the American west.

Mastodon bones had been found in the eastern half of the United States early in the nation’s history. Jefferson, accepting the widely held view of his time that God would not let animals go extinct, entertained the optimistic belief that large herbivores such as the bison of the American West roamed portions of the newly-acquired Louisiana Purchase along with American mastodons. The expedition failed to find great herds of American mastodons trumpeting their way across the vast prairies and grasslands of the Western United States. As any student of history knows, however, the expedition made many important biological discoveries ranging from unique animals as the pronghorn antelope and grizzly bear to various fish, reptiles and plants.

The expedition also described nearly half a dozen species of birds that, at the time, had never been discovered and detailed by European Americans. These birds included the common poorwill and the greater sage-grouse. One of the birds — Lewis’s woodpecker — even memorializes the name of Meriwether Lewis and his important contributions to the success of the venture.

Lewis described the woodpecker that now bears his name as a bird “new to science” in one of his journal entries dated May 27, 1806. He made his observations of the bird while the expedition camped on the Clearwater River in what is now known as Kamiah, Idaho. He had mentioned the “black woodpecker” in earlier accounts in his journal, but during his time in the Idaho camp he managed to shoot and preserve several of the birds. In his account, he described the bird’s behavior as similar to the red-headed woodpecker of the Atlantic states back in the eastern United States.

As it turns out, both Lewis’s woodpecker and the red-headed woodpecker belong to the Melanerpes genus of woodpeckers, which also includes about two dozen species ranging North and South America, as well as the islands of the Caribbean. The other members of the genus found in the United States include acorn woodpecker, gila woodpecker and red-bellied woodpecker. The term Melanerpes comes from ancient Greek words for black (melas) and creeper (herpes), which roughly translates as “black creeper.” Lewis’s woodpecker, one of the largest of its kind found in the United States, can reach a length of 10 to 11 inches. In 1811, the famous naturalist Alexander Wilson composed the first description of the bird for science and named it Melanerpes lewis after Meriwether Lewis. In addition, the bird’s common name has always identified it as Lewis’s woodpecker.

These woodpeckers nest in open ponderosa pine forests and burned forests with a high density of standing dead trees. They also breed in woodlands near streams, oak woodlands, orchards, and pinyon-juniper woodlands. In appearance, Lewis’s woodpecker stands out from other American woodpeckers. Its unique appearance includes a pink belly, gray collar and dark green back, quite unlike any other member of its family. In behavior, it also differs from other woodpeckers. This woodpecker is fond of flycatching, perching on bare branches or poles and then making flight sallies to capture winged insect prey. It has also been described as flying more like a crow than a woodpecker.

We haven’t been good stewards of the woodpecker that the famous Expedition brought to our notice. According to the organization Partners in Flight, Lewis’s Woodpeckers are uncommon and declining. Their populations declined by 72 percent between 1970 and 2014. Lewis’s Woodpeckers are threatened by changing forest conditions as a result of fire suppression, grazing and logging. These factors often leave pines of a uniform age in the woodpecker’s favored habitat and fewer of the dead and decaying pines crucial for the bird’s nesting success. Humans could help Lewis’s woodpecker thrive by not removing dead or dying trees from western forests.

After the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to the eastern United States and reported back to Jefferson, he was awarded 1,600 acres of land. He meant to work on publishing the journals he kept during the Expedition, but kept finding himself distracted. In 1807, Jefferson appointed Lewis governor over the Louisiana Territory that Lewis and Clark had so famously explored. He governed the territory from the Missouri city of St. Louis, which became known as the “Gateway to the West” as more Americans expanded into the territory they had learned about thanks to the famous Expedition.

Lewis spent two troubled years trying to administrate the new territory, but he became entangled in political squabbles and financial difficulties. Things got so difficult for him that Lewis decided he needed to travel to the nation’s capital in person to clear up the mess. On his way to Washington, D.C., he stopped at an inn along the Natchez Trace about seventy miles southwest of Nashville. He died of gunshot wounds on Oct. 11, 1809, and historians have debated ever since whether his death resulted from suicide or murder. Regardless of the nature of his demise, he earned a place in the history books. He’s also remembered every time a birder lays eyes on the woodpecker that bears his name. When the bird is researched in a field guide or on a web page, the more curious individuals are sure to dig a little deeper to learn who provided the Lewis in the woodpecker’s name. His name will continue to be recalled as long as this unusual western woodpecker continues to fly in its beloved pine forests.

I’ve never seen a Lewis’s woodpecker, although I have visited Utah twice to make the attempt. Lewis’s woodpecker is listed as an uncommon permanent resident on the state checklist, so perhaps I will need to be more diligent the next time I visit its home range. I see the red-bellied woodpecker, a smaller relative of Lewis’s woodpecker, on a regular basis. This common bird more closely resembles what most people expect a woodpecker to look like, and it will visit feeders for such fare as sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet.

In next week’s column, I’ll continue my anniversary tribute to the Lewis and Clark Expedition with a discussion of the bird that honors William Clark, the other partner in the famous westward expedition of discovery.

Readers continue to share hummingbird tales

Garry Cole sent me an email recently to share a hummingbird story.

“I have been following the progress of hummingbird sightings as the birds moved closer to East Tennessee,” Garry wrote. “I read with envy how neighbors all around me had seen these jewels, but none had visited my home here in Hickory Tree near Bluff City.”

Then, on April 23, as Garry sat in the yard, a male ruby-throated hummingbird stopped and hovered less than a foot in front of his face.

“He looked me squarely in the eye as if to say, ‘Well, I’m here. When are you going to feed me?’”

Garry noted that the bird arrived at about 8:15 p.m. “I immediately went inside and prepared my feeder,” he said. “Now, I have at least four that visit my feeder every day. There may be more, but I have only seen four at one time.”

His hummingbirds drink about eight ounces of sugar mix every two or three days and seem to feed more frequently between 5 and 7 p.m.

Tom Brake shared via Facebook that hummingbirds have also returned to his home on Peaceful Valley Road in Abingdon, Virginia. In his posting to my Facebook page, he informed me that he had his first hummingbird sighting of spring on April 28.

Library Happenings – 2019 Summer Reading programs begin soon

By Angie Georgeff

The countdown to Summer Reading 2019 has begun. We currently stand at t-minus three weeks and counting. Why am I using NASA terminology? Because this year’s theme is space and the slogan is “A Universe of Stories.” T-minus zero will arrive at 10:30 a.m. EDT on Wednesday, June 5, when children who will be entering Kindergarten and younger are invited to spend an hour at the library learning about the planets in our solar system. And yes, Pluto, even though you were demoted to dwarf planet status in 2006, kids will still learn about you! Our staff still holds you in high regard despite your lower profile.

Children in Grades 1 through 3 will meet on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. Grades 4 through 6 will lift off Thursdays at 11 a.m., and teens in Grades 7 through 12 will splash down each Thursday at 2 p.m. Our Friday Family Fun Day events will bring the whole family together each Friday from June 7 through July 5. The first is scheduled for Erwin’s Town Hall at 11 a.m. on Friday, June 7.  Although times and venues may vary, each of these programs will be held on a Friday.

Our inaugural program will be presented by Dr. Lori Meier, who is an Associate Professor at ETSU and a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador. She will share with us a brief overview of what is currently going on at NASA. This will include information about the SLS (Space Launch System) rocket that is scheduled to debut next year, the Orion crew capsule that will aid our quest to return to the Moon, the Curiosity rover and the InSight Mars lander. I was fortunate enough to see Dr. Meier present a similar program to an audience of children and adults late last year. She captivated everyone in the room, even the young kids!

Convenient schedules for all of our Summer Reading Programs for youth are available now at the circulation desk. Be sure to pick one up the next time you come in the library and keep it handy. Up-to-date information about all of our youth programs is also posted on our Unicoi County Kids and Teens Facebook page.

In addition, we have ordered a number of new children’s books about space that should be hitting the shelves any day now. The title that piqued my curiosity is Claire Freedman’s Aliens Love Underpants. I imagine a child you love would giggle to know, in rhyme and pictures, why she says that is so.

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 16.

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

Feathered Friends – Birds inspire poets to greater heights

A Eurasian skylark perches on a wire. This bird once inspired the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to write his famous poem “To a Skylark.” (Photo by Kathy2408/Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

With May’s arrival, other migrating birds have made stops in my yard, providing some excitement to the daily routine. It’s easy to wax poetic about the birds around us. Indeed, poets have been incorporating birds into some of their best-known work for centuries.

The Bard himself penned a poem titled “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” While the phoenix is a mythical bird and not one actually found in nature, the “turtle” in the poem’s title refers to the well-known European turtledove. Even before Shakespeare glorified the turtledove in his poetry, this small dove had already been entangled with myth and legend stretching back to Ancient Greece and Rome. For instance, the turtledove was considered by the Greeks as sacred to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest. Romans adopted the turtledove as an emblem of their goddess Fides, who reigned over the attributes of trust and faith. Perhaps, even more famously, the turtledove is still known today in the lyrics of the enduring Christmas carol, “The 12 Days of Christmas,” as the gift given on the second day of Christmas.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge gave us his gloomy “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1798. The longest of his poems, it tells of a sailor who brings ill fortune upon himself by shooting an albatross, which is family of sea-going birds consisting of about two dozen species. The poem also inspired the phrase “having an albatross around one’s neck” as a metaphor for bad luck.

Albatrosses are large birds with wingspans larger than most other birds, making them capable of spending almost their entire lives at sea except for the times they come ashore for the purpose of nesting. The entire family has been besieged by a variety of problems, many of which are caused by humans. Three albatross species are critically endangered, five species are endangered, seven species are near threatened and seven species are considered vulnerable.

One of America’s most famous poets often looked to the natural world, especially its feathered inhabitants, for inspiration for some of her most famous poetry. “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” by Emily Dickinson is arguably one of the finest metaphors in American poetry, with the abstract concept of hope being equated with a bird Dickinson likely observed in her gardens in Amherst, Massachusetts.

I’ve always enjoyed Dickinson’s “A Bird Came Down the Walk,” which transforms an ordinary encounter between a bird and a woman tossing it a crumb into an inspiring message of perseverance. One cannot help but feel that Dickinson, a famously reclusive woman, also envied the bird its power of flight and the freedom its wings gave it.

A near contemporary of Dickinson, and one famous for his moody, rhythmical works, Edgar Allan Poe published his masterpiece “The Raven” in 1845. While the poem won him many fans, he received a paltry $9 from the magazine “The American Review” for the work. Perhaps because of the insulting matter of compensation, Poe first allowed the work to be published under a pseudonym. The New York Evening Mirror became the first outlet to publish the poem with Poe’s name attached to it.

The young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a classic poem titled “To a Skylark” in 1820. Shelley, one of the English Romantic poets, has been overshadowed in some ways by his wife, the novelist Mary Shelley, who provided the world with the enduring novel Frankenstein. Shelley apparently wrote his poem after he and his wife encountered one of these birds during a stroll in the countryside during a trip to Italy.

As is the case with good literature, Shelley’s poem inspired other authors. Reportedly, the English playwright Noël Coward and the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald received inspiration from lines in the poem to create titles for their respective works, “Blithe Spirit” and “Tender is the Night.” American playwright Tennessee Williams titled his first play “Not About Nightingales,” apparently as a reaction to Shelley’s ode.

The Eurasian skylark is a widespread species found across Europe and Asia. This bird has also been introduced in various locations around the world. In North America, introduced populations of skylarks are found on southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia and San Juan Island in the state of Washington.

The only native lark in North America is the horned lark, also known by its scientific name of Alauda alpestris, which translated means “lark of the mountains.” The horned lark is a common, widespread bird of open country, such as prairies, deserts, and agricultural lands. Although horned larks also sing in flight like their relative, only the Eurasian skylark seems to be famous enough for its song to inspire poets to write tributes. The Eastern meadowlark, a fairly common bird in the region, is not an actual lark but a member of the blackbird family.

Based on the opening lines to Shelley’s poem, it can be safely argued that Shelley was particularly impressed by the skylark’s song.

“Hail to thee, blithe spirit!

Bird thou never wert,

That from heaven, or near it,

Pourest thy full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”

Birds are continually inspiring us, much like a singing skylark once served as an avian muse for one of Shelley’s most famous poems. Whether it is their song, their beauty, or their free spirits, birds are certainly worthy of a poem or two.

Upcoming walk celebrates Migratory Bird Day

In conjunction with International Migratory Bird Day, I will help conduct a bird walk at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park, Elizabethton, Tennessee, at 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 11. The walk is free and open to the public.

Participants will meet in the parking lot in front of the park’s Visitors Center. Bring binoculars to increase viewing opportunities. Participants will be looking for a variety of migrating birds, including warblers, tanagers, sparrows and many more.

Since 1993, International Migratory Bird Day has been celebrated during the second weekend in May in the Western Hemisphere, coordinated by  Environment for the Americas and sponsored by dozens of organizations, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, that are dedicated to birds and bird conservation.

In 2018, Environment for the Americas joined the  Convention on Migratory Species and the  Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds to create a single, global bird conservation education campaign.  World Migratory Bird Day celebrates and brings attention to one of the most important and spectacular events in the Americas – bird migration.

Come out and experience migration for yourself. For more information, email ahoodedwarbler@aol.com.

UCHS drama presents ‘Grease’

UCHS drama students rehearse for their upcoming production of “Grease: School Version.” (Contributed photo)

By Richard Rourk

The Unicoi County High School drama department will bring a one-of-a-kind production of “Grease: School Version” to the stage beginning May 2.

According to UCHS drama department teacher Lori Ann Wright, the production takes the audience back to 1959 when Rydell High School’s senior class is ready to rock the stage. The too-cool for school “Burger Palace Boys” and the incomparable “Pink Ladies” are back at Rydell for one more year (and one more dance contest). 

The school version of “Grease” is an abridged version of the popular story with content suitable for families and younger audiences. The musical focuses on the romance between street-smart Danny Zuko and the new girl, sweet Sandy Dumbrowski. Danny and Sandy had a beach romance over the summer, but now they are back at school where peer-pressure and cliques make their lives a little difficult.

The whole gang sings and dances around Danny and Sandy’s romance, performing favorite songs as “Greased Lightnin’,” “We Go Together” and “Summer Nights.”

“It was exciting to see the band and drama students working together on this production,” UCHS band director Evangeline Hurter said. “It is a wonderful chance for the students to see  similarities between the two different areas of performing arts.”

Wright acknowledged that the crew has been hard at work.

“It has been a busy few months on the UCHS stage as the cast and crew of ‘Grease: School Version’ rehearsed scene after scene to create the production running May 2 through May 4,” Wright said. “Time in rehearsal is the largest part of the production process and the most important.”

Despite the long hours, the cast has enjoyed the experience.

“We’ve worked countless hours for this show, but none of it feels like work, because we love each other and the show so much,” UCHS junior Kate Hollenbeck, who plays Frenchy and serves as the show’s dance choreographer, said.

According to Wright, “Grease: School Version” has been a difficult but rewarding project.

“After the show is selected, licensed, and auditions are over, the real work starts – and that work is done in rehearsals,” Wright said. “From doing the initial table read of the script, to blocking rehearsals where actors learn how to move throughout a scene, to working on line delivery and characterization, to memorizing and practicing the dances, songs and script, the time spent in rehearsal is what makes a show ready for opening night.”

Wright said that her department was not afraid to tackle such an enormous production. 

“A larger production, such as a musical like this one, requires specialized practices with additional help from a choreographer or a music director,” Wright said. “Vocalists, dancers and musicians have separate rehearsals added to their already busy schedules.”

According to Wright, the students made many sacrifices to present this production.

“Our students spend at least three days a week including every Saturday morning working on the show,” Wright said. “This is in addition to the class work and class productions they create such as the recently performed ‘And Then They Came for Me’ and the upcoming Beginning Theatre Arts I One-Act Night and ‘Charlotte’s Web’ also coming to the UCHS stage later in May.”

According to Wright, the students performing “Grease: School Version” are at a stage in rehearsals where the performances are starting to really come together.

“We are now entering the special part of the rehearsal period when all the theatrical elements such as set, props, tech, makeup, costumes and the orchestra are brought together with the cast and crew to do final run-throughs of the show,” Wright said. “The final rehearsal combines every element of a great show and runs just like the first performance.”

The students connect with the story of “Grease: School Version.”

“My favorite scene is where all of the Pink Ladies and Burger Palace Boys are in a circle singing,” UCHS senior Katelyn Reece, who plays Marty, said. “It’s such a surreal moment of these seniors experiencing their moments in high school just like it’s my last few moments in high school.”

Wright said that the UCHS drama department is thankful for all the support that they have received.

“The UCHS ‘Grease’ cast and crew would like to give a special thank you to the following organizations for their support of this production: Erwin Outdoor Supply, H&H Auto Sales Unicoi, LLC, Blountville Auto Salvage, and Omar Canvas and Awning,” Wright said. “The students would also like to thank the administration, faculty and staff of UCHS and Mr. (John) English and the Unicoi County Board of Education for supporting the performing arts in our schools.”

Tickets for the show are on sale now at the UCHS main office and at Erwin Outdoor Supply for advance purchase or can be bought 30 minutes before each performance. Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for students and $3 for children under 12. 

“Grease: School Version” is presented by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc. “Grease: School Version” book, music and lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey.

“The students have worked so hard and I am extremely proud of the show they have created, and I love it when students can work together and bring out their very best on the stage,” Wright said. “This is a truly entertaining show and the audience will enjoy the antics of the characters on the stage, and it will be a good time for the audience, for sure.”

Feathered Friends – Take steps to keep hummingbirds healthy

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are model guests, but keeping them healthy and safe does take some work on the part of the people hosting them. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

Bristol residents Don and Donna Morrell saw their first hummingbird of spring at 10:19 a.m. on Monday, April 15. “My wife put the feeder up last week,” wrote Don in an email to me. “We live behind South Houston Dam.”

Gordon Aiton, who lives on Elm Street in Erwin, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird of spring at 7:04 p.m. on Friday, April 19.

Phyllis Moore saw her first hummingbird — a male — at 7:50 p.m. on Friday, April 19, at her home in Bristol, Virginia.

Lynda Carter emailed me to report her first spring sighting of a male ruby-throated hummingbird at her feeder after lunch on Monday, April 15, and a second male appeared on Friday, April 19, a little after 1 p.m. Lynda said she lives at the end of Embreeville mountain in the Lamar community near Jonesborough, Tennessee.

Susan Okrasinski, a resident of Kingsport, Tennessee, saw her first hummingbird of spring on Easter Sunday, April 21.

“On my way into the kitchen I just saw (be still my heart) the first hummer of the season — whoo hoo!” Susan wrote in a post on her Facebook page. “It was a female, which is unusual as the males come up first and the females follow.  What a nice Easter surprise!”

Joanne Campbell, who lives at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol, Tennessee, posted on my Facebook page about her first spring hummer. “Had our first hummingbird sweep into our courtyard on Tuesday, April 23,” she wrote in her post.

Every hummingbird’s arrival at our homes after an absence of nearly six months is nothing short of an epic achievement on the part of this tiny bird. According to the website, hummingbird.net, most ruby-throated hummingbirds make a daring journey across the Gulf of Mexico to return to their summer homes in the United States and Canada. They typically depart at dusk for their nonstop Gulf flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours, depending on the weather.

Now that we’ve welcomed them back into our yards and gardens after such a harrowing journey, it’s important as good hosts to make sure these tiny wonders are kept safe.

Some ways of ensuring that our hummingbird guests are kept healthy and secure are simply common sense. For instance, don’t use pesticides, herbicides or any other sort of toxin anywhere close to the vicinity of a sugar water feeder or a flower garden. Hummingbirds are such tiny creatures with such intense metabolisms that it only takes a minute amount of any harmful substance to sicken or kill one of these little flying gems.

Feeding hummingbirds is easy, but many people try to complicate the process. Only common, pure cane sugar, mixed to a ratio of four parts water to one part sugar, is a safe choice for these birds.

For emphasis, I’ll repeat again that only common, pure cane sugar is safe for hummingbirds. There are no safe substitutes. Do not use organic, raw or brown sugar. Confectioner’s sugar, which contains an anti-caking substance (often corn starch, silicates or stearate salts), is also hazardous to hummingbirds.

There’s also a type of sugar known as turbinado sugar, which is named for the process of spinning the sugar in turbines to crystallize it. The crystals are rich in vitamins and mineral valuable for human health, but they are lethal for hummingbirds. Iron is one of the minerals contained in turbinado sugar. Hummingbird metabolism has a low tolerance for iron, which is present in the molasses added to brown sugar and in agave nectar. These are natural substances, but that doesn’t make them safe for hummingbirds.

The ratio of four parts water to one part sugar utilizing pure cane sugar most closely duplicates the nectar that hummingbirds obtain from some of their favorite flowers. Why try to mess with nature’s perfection?

I cannot imagine why anyone would supplement sugar water for hummingbirds with such human beverages as a sports drink or Kool-aid, but there have been reports of people doing so. Be aware that such additives will only risk the health of these tiny birds.

Honey is another substance, although perfectly natural in its origins, that should be avoided. Honey encourages the growth of fungus, which can quickly incapacitate or kill a hummingbird. A packet of artificial sweetener might taste great in your iced tea, but do not add such substances to the solution in your hummingbird feeder. These artificial sugar substitutes offer nothing of nutritional value for a bird with an extreme metabolism with excessive energy demands. In theory, a hummingbird mistakenly feeding on nothing but an artificial sweetener would soon starve to death.

It’s also important to change out your feeders and clean them as often as every one to three days. In extremely hot weather reaching more than 90 degrees, the sugar solution may need to be changed and the feeder cleaned on a daily basis. That’s not as difficult as it sounds. I prepare sugar water and store it in plastic juice containers. Refrigerated, the solution will last longer and can be doled out on a daily basis until a new supply is needed.

Don’t use any type of soap or detergent to clean the feeders. The best advice I’ve read is to stick to hot water and vinegar, which will not leave behind a residue that could potentially harm the hummingbirds.

Do not put any sort of red dye or coloring into the sugar water, and do not purchase commercial solutions that incorporate red dyes. Some scientific studies suggest that red dye is a recipe for disaster with hummingbird. Such dyes are thought to lead to kidney failure and certain death for the hummingbird. There’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that banning red dye is an exaggeration of the peril. Taking that into consideration, I still err on the side of caution. Perhaps the red dye will eventually be proven harmless. Until that time, I prefer not to risk the health of my resident hummingbirds.

I’m often asked if the sugar water feeder itself should be red. There is ample evidence that hummingbirds are attracted to red. According to information from the National Audubon Society website, current thinking is that the red dye, as just mentioned, may not be good for them, nor is it necessary to attract hummingbirds. The color on a feeder is enough to attract them. Most feeders incorporate some red parts into their construction. People can mix their own nectar using 1/4 cup sugar to every 1 cup of water.

It’s a lot of work to attract hummingbirds and keep them safe and healthy. I’d like to think the rewards we get from these small birds make the effort worthwhile.

Library Happenings – Events planned for Star Wars Day on May 4

By Angie Georgeff

May the Fourth be with you! Our Summer Reading Programs for children, teens and adults will be starting in about a month. Preparations are well underway and excitement is building.  Since the theme for the first five weeks is space and May 4 falls on Saturday this year, we want to give everyone a preview of Summer Reading fun by celebrating Star Wars Day. Your entire family is invited to join us on Saturday, May 4, from noon until 2 p.m. for games, crafts and snacks celebrating the Star Wars phenomenon.

Costumes are not required, but if you happen to have an outfit that makes you look like a “big walking carpet” (i.e., Chewbacca) or a “stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder” (Han Solo), this would be the perfect time to wear it. You know, you might not have many chances to wear an outfit like that. We also welcome droids, but please leave your bantha or tauntaun tethered in the parking lot. The library is simply not big enough to hold them.

Since we are speaking of costumes, the second half of our Summer Reading Programs will be inspired by the Harry Potter books and movies. Like our May the Fourth celebration, they will be events for the entire family. We hope to encourage families to read together, so that children see role models in their parents, grandparents and siblings.

Costumes are never required to attend our programs, but if you enjoy cosplay, you may want to start thinking about an outfit inspired by one of the Harry Potter characters. I already have mine.

New Books!

We placed a sizeable order for adult fiction and non-fiction last week, and it is expected to arrive any day. Ordering books for children and teens is next on our agenda, so be sure to let us know if there is a special book you want to see added to our collection and get your name on the hold list. 

Senior Services

Did you know that we offer home deliveries of books and audiobooks for homebound senior citizens and nursing home residents? Items are chosen by our Senior Services Coordinator with the needs and preferences of each individual in mind. Deliveries are made biweekly, and fines do not accrue to these accounts, so you don’t have to worry about returning something late.

Our Library Senior Services Train patrons are also given the opportunity to participate in our Summer Reading Program for adults. If you or someone you know might be interested in this program, please call the library at 743-6533 on Wednesdays or Thursdays for more information.  Connie will be happy to get you started.

Feathered Friends – Readers share hummingbird arrival tales

Male ruby-throated hummingbird show the namesake red throat. The feathers on a male’s throat are iridescent, which means the refracted color can change when seen from different angles. In poor light, the ruby-red throat can look almost black. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

Bob Cheers, a resident of Plantation Road in Bristol, Virginia, sent an email to announce the arrival of his first hummingbird of spring at 6:20 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10.

“I put the feeder out April 2, which is earlier than previous years, after reading your article,” Bob wrote. “It brought to mind the one year that I failed to get the feeder out early and spotted a hummingbird hovering outside of my family room window, in the exact location my feeder has hung for the last 30 plus years. That little guy had to have been a repeat customer.”

Bob wrote that he’s intrigued by the fact that this year’s arrival date falls within the spread that ranges from April 9 to April 14 that he has established since he started recording the returns in 2009. “What triggers their departure from Central America and their guidance system, considering the variable winds encountered, that sends them back to my feeder within a five-day period each year?” Bob asked in his email.

I had to do some digging to find an answer to Bob’s question. According to the website, Hummingbird.net, the phenomenon of migration among hummingbirds is not well understood.

“Most ruby-throated hummingbirds winter between southern Mexico and northern Panama,” the website reveals. “Since hummingbirds lead solitary lives and neither live nor migrate in flocks, an individual bird may spend the winter anywhere in this range where the habitat is favorable, but probably returns to the same location each winter.”

The time they spend on this wintering range is remarkably brief. “Ruby-throats begin moving north as early as January, and by the end of February, they are at the northern coast of Yucatan, gorging on insects and spiders to add a thick layer of fat in preparation for flying to the United States,” the website notes.

According to the website, some hummingbirds skirt the Gulf of Mexico and follow the Texas coast north, while most apparently cross the Gulf, typically leaving at dusk for a nonstop flight of up to 500 miles, which takes 18 to 22 hours depending on the weather.

The force that compels hundreds of thousands of individual hummingbirds to all migrate at the same time remains mysterious. The reason these birds migrate is simpler. In the eastern half of the United States and Canada, ruby-throated hummingbirds face no competition from their own kind. If they remained in Central America, they would have to compete with dozens of species of hummingbirds during the nesting season. From the standpoint of the ruby-throated hummingbird, why not take a trip and claim a monopoly over some resource-rich terrain? It’s worked for these tiny flying jewels so far.

So, Bob became the first person to report a hummingbird arrival to me this year, but plenty of other people lined up to share their sightings, too.

Amy Wallin Tipton in Erwin, Tennessee, sent a message via Facebook to report her first hummingbird arrival for the spring. “Just saw my first hummer,” she wrote. Amy reported that the hummer, a male, arrived at 6:45 p.m. on Wednesday, April 10. “I’m so glad they are back,” she shared.

Ginger Brackins also reported that she saw her first ruby-throated hummingbird of spring on Wednesday, April 10, at her home in Erwin, Tennessee. She noted that it was a week earlier than last year. Ginger notes the arrival dates each year on her calendar. Ginger’s message about her sighting arrived thanks to her daughter, Gina McKinney, who emailed me on her mother’s behalf.

Joneen Sargent reported that her first hummingbird put in an appearance at 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 11, at her home in Bristol, Tennessee. In her email, she also asked if I had heard of downy woodpeckers drinking from sugar water feeders.

I answered her question by informing her that I’ve noticed downy woodpeckers, as well as Carolina chickadees, taking sips from my feeders. The chickadees can get quite acrobatic in their efforts to indulge their taste for sweets.

“We had our first male hummer at the feeder on Thursday, April 11, here in Bristol, Tennessee,” reported Tom and Sue Faucette in an email. “He came back on April 12-13.”

Lynne Reinhard reported that she saw her first hummingbirds of spring on Friday, April 12. “They are back!” Lynne proclaimed in a Facebook message. She wrote that the first hummingbird of the season arrived at 3 p.m. at her home on the upper end of South Holston Lake.

Snad Garrett saw her first hummingbird of spring on Stoney Creek in Elizabethton, Tennessee, on the evening of Friday, April 12.

Merry Jennings in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird on Friday, April  12, around 6 p.m., but hasn’t seen it since. “I put out the feeder on Thursday, April 11,” she noted in the email she sent me.

Lisa Brewer, who lives near Boone Lake in Piney Flats, Tennessee, reported that her first hummer arrived around 3 p.m. on Friday, April 12.

“I put my hummingbird feeders out last Sunday and had been watching every day for the first hummer to arrive,” she wrote in her email. “I was really excited to see a male ruby-throated hummingbird, and I saw what appeared to be the same one on Saturday and Sunday.”

Lisa added that this is the first year she has been able to get her feeders out in time for the first hummingbirds arriving in this area. “So I wanted to be sure to let you know when I saw my first one,” Lisa wrote.

Glen Eller saw his first hummingbird for the spring season on Friday, April 12, at 5:55 p.m. at his home in Fall Branch, Tennessee. “it was a male,” Glen reported in an email.

Karen Fouts posted on Facebook that she saw her first hummingbird of 2019 on Friday, April 12, at her home in Marion, Virginia. She also reported rose-breasted grosbeaks at her feeders.

Lois Cox and Wilma Boy reported their first male ruby-throat hummingbird on Saturday, April 13, at 2:30 p.m. at home in Bluff City, Tennessee. In her email, Lois noted that they needed to get out their feeders for the visiting bird. “It was a male,” Lois wrote in the email. “Hope it comes back.”

Deb Clark sent me an email on behalf of her mother and her sighting of a spring hummingbird. “My mother, Louise Tilson, has asked that I send you a message sharing her good news that she’s having hummingbirds at her backdoor feeder,” Deb wrote in the email.

Deb added that her mom lives in the Riverside community near Chilhowie, Virginia, on the banks of the South Fork of the Holston River. “She put out her feeder about a week ago,” Deb wrote. “The first little fellow showed up Friday, April 12, at about three-thirty in the afternoon.”

Deb relayed that her mother said the hummer came and perched on the feeder, drinking like he was starving.

Louise reported multiple visits by solitary male hummingbirds several times through Friday afternoon, but she wasn’t sure whether it was one bird making several trips or different birds.

Lane and Phyllis Duncan, who reside in the Rich Valley community in Smyth, Virginia, sent me an email to report their first hummer of spring on Friday, April 12, at 3:30 p.m.

Karen Shaffer sent me an email to announce the arrival of a hummingbird at her home. “I’m so excited to report we saw our first hummer on Saturday, April 13, at 11 a.m. at our home on Rich Valley Road, Bristol, near the Benhams and Nordyke communities.”

Karen said she heard the bird before she saw it. “It was visiting our blooming yellow holly bush,” she wrote. “Such a tiny thing — but vivid in color at the throat, so a male, I guess. Yay!”

Gloria Walter Blevins reported in a Facebook message that she saw her first hummingbird this spring on Friday, April 12, at her home in Damascus Virginia. The hummingbird — or another one — returned the following morning. Gloria also noted that she has bluebirds building a nest at her home.

Priscilla Gutierrez, Limestone Cove community in Unicoi County, Tennessee, reported on my Facebook page that she saw the first spring hummingbird Friday, April 12, at 6:45 p.m. “They have been coming ever since,” she noted.

April Kerns Fain in Erwin, Tennessee, posted about her hummingbird sightings on Saturday, April 13, on Facebook. “The hummingbirds are back,” she wrote. “I’ve seen a male at my feeders several times today.”

Jane P. Arnold sent me an email to notify me of her mother’s hummingbird sighting. Her mother, Betty Poole, who lives in Abingdon, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird — a male — on Saturday, April 13. The following day, a female ruby-throated hummingbird also showed up at the feeder. Jane added that she’s still waiting to see her own first hummingbird for the spring.

Helen Whited of Richlands, Virginia, reported her first spring hummingbird arrived on Saturday, April 13. “I just saw my first hummingbird of the season,” she wrote in her email. “Just one male so far. I have had my feeders out and waiting for a couple days. I thought this warm spring weather might bring in a few. So exciting!”

Sharee Bowman wrote a post on her Facebook page to announce her first spring hummer sighting on Saturday, April 13. “Hummingbird came yesterday to my feeder and, yes, it is the first one I have seen this year,” she wrote.

Felicia Mitchell saw her first spring hummingbird on Saturday, April 13. “He is happy to be home,” she reported in a comment on my Facebook page.

Brenda Hickman Dishner posted on my Facebook page about hummingbird arrivals. “They arrived at our house in Bristol, Tennessee, near Holston Dam on Highway 421, on Saturday, April 13, about 10:30 a.m.,” she wrote in her posting.

Vivian C. Tester sent me a Facebook message to report that she saw her first spring hummer at her home in Bristol, Tennessee, on Sunday, April 14.

Linda Kessinger Rhodes saw her first spring hummingbird visiting her feeders at her home in Tennessee Hills by the Walmart on the Parkway in Bristol, Tennessee. She posted her sighting on my Facebook page.

Rhonda Eller saw her first hummingbird on Sunday, April 14, at 1:20 p.m. In her post on my Facebook page, she noted that she hung the feeder out last Wednesday before heading to Louisville to visit family. “I am always pleasantly surprised for the first spotting of one here on Horseshoe Bend in Chilhowie, Virginia,” she added. “Oh, the bluebirds are here, too, and have a nest with three eggs.”

Cheri Miller posted on my Facebook page about her sighting. “I saw one Sunday, April 14, in the Brown’s Branch community in Hampton, Tennessee, eyeing an orchid blooming in the window,” she wrote in her post.

Ron Bartlett reported by email that a single male showed up at his feeder on Sunday, April 14. “I live in McDowell County, North Carolina,” Ron shared. “This is about a week later than normal. Perhaps he was held up trying to cross the border.”

Donna Barnes Kilday of Erwin, Tennessee, posted to my Facebook page that she saw her first hummingbird of spring on the morning of Monday, April 15.

Janie Compton, a resident of Chesterfield, Virginia, saw her first hummingbird on Monday, April 15. Her friend, Phyllis Moore, posted news of Janie’s sighting on my Facebook page.

Emily Rogers, from Jonesborough, Tennessee, reported on my Facebook page that she had her first hummingbird of spring in Tennessee’s oldest town on Monday, April 15.

Philip Laws, a resident of Limestone Cove in Unicoi County, Tennessee, saw his first hummingbird on Tuesday, April 16, at 4:20 p.m.

Tom and Cathy McNeil, who reside in the Piney Grove community of Hampton, Tennessee, reported their first spring hummingbird on Facebook on Tuesday, April 16.

I saw my first hummingbird this spring when a male visited several of my feeders around 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 16. I enjoyed welcoming him home.

Readers are welcome to continue sharing their hummingbird sightings. Plenty of other colorful birds are also making spring migration stops, and I love to hear what everyone is seeing in their own yards. Email me at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com with questions, comments or observations.

Library Happenings – Voting open for favorite, least favorite novels

By Angie Georgeff

“It was the best of books; it was the worst of books.” Even though my bookcases at home are filled to capacity, not every novel I have read has been a keeper. Some of the books I had to read in high school were downright awful, while others are still favorites that I have enjoyed a dozen times or more.

I apologize to Charles Dickens and “A Tale of Two Cities” for the liberties I took with his famous first line, but I’m curious: Which novels do our patrons consider the best – and worst – they have ever read? Well, let’s find out. Starting today and continuing throughout the month of May, vote for the novels you like most and least whenever you come into the library. Both the winner and the loser will be announced in June when we have tabulated all the votes.

The ballots, boxes and pens are located on top of the bookcases where our Spanish-language books are shelved, to the right of our main entrance. You may vote once in each category every time you come into the library, since a new book could supplant a best-loved or least-liked choice at any time.

Spotlight Book

I recently finished reading Diane Setterfield’s “Once upon a River” (thumbs-up!), so now I’m moving on to the next novel in my teetering home library stack of books-to-be-read.

Delia Owens’s “Where the Crawdads Sing” is now in the batter’s box. The title alone was enough to attract my attention, but seeing that title on top of the bestseller list week after week has compelled me to move it to the top of the stack.

Our library’s copy has already checked out twenty times and every copy in the OWL consortium is currently checked out.

Kya Clark was abandoned by her mother when she was only six. Her older siblings moved out of the home soon thereafter. When her alcoholic father left, too, Kya grew up on her own in the marshes outside the coastal community of Barkley Cove, North Carolina.

Having forsaken school because she didn’t fit in and surviving in isolation, Kya is christened the “Marsh Girl” by the town’s residents. Tate Walker, the son of a local shrimper, is one of few people who befriend Kya. He teaches her how to read, but the wild coastal marshes are her true teacher, as well as her home and classroom.

When Tate goes away to college, Kya meets ladies’ man Chase Andrews and they commence a stormy relationship.

In 1969, the young man falls from a fire tower and dies. Foul play is suspected and the murder investigation soon focuses on Kya, but is she guilty?

Feathered Friends – April brings spring migrants

A Louisiana waterthrush pauses streamside to produce its loud, ringing song. (Photo by AdobeStock)

By Bryan Stevens

I’m always happy for the arrival of April because I know the month hails the arrival of some of my favorite birds. The roughly 50 species of New World warblers that occur in the Eastern United States have captivated me from the time I first picked up a pair of binoculars. The warblers offer color, energy, complex songs and much more for the bird enthusiast to enjoy.

The month started out with my first sighting of a purple finch for the year. The finch must have been a harbinger of birds to come because in quick succession I observed many early migrants, including brown thrasher, blue-headed vireo, blue-gray gnatcatcher and chipping sparrow, as well as several warblers.

The first warbler to arrive in the woods around my home this year was a singing male black-throated green warbler. Three others — black-and-white warbler, yellow-throated warbler and Louisiana waterthrush — followed quickly after my sighting of the black-throated green warbler.

The Louisiana waterthrush stood out among these early observations. This warbler is a specialist of creeks and streams, and my sighting took place near a roaring creek swollen by a rainy spring. This water-loving warbler also has a loud, ringing song that can still be hard to hear because of the fact the bird is usually near the background noise of rushing water.

While many warblers have shown signs of decline in recent years, the Louisiana waterthrush appears to have bucked that trend. According to the website, “All About Birds,” Louisiana waterthrush populations were stable between 1966 and 2015, based on statistics from the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight, a network of organizations engaged in all aspects of avian conservation, estimates a global breeding population of 360,000, with almost all of those individuals spending at least part of the year in the United States. About a quarter of the population retreats into Mexico during the winter season. The rest winter in Florida and some of the Gulf Coast states, as well as the islands of the Caribbean.

While most songbirds are fortunate to survive two or three years in the wild, at least one Louisiana waterthrush lived to the age of at least 11 years and 11 months. The bird, a male, was seen in New Jersey in the wild and identified by a band on one of his legs. He had been banded in the same state, according to the website, “All About Birds.”

The waterthrushes are the only two species in the genus Parkesia, so named to honor American ornithologist Kenneth C. Parkes, who was for many years curator of birds at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The common name of the Louisiana waterthrush is not a very apt one, as this bird does not have any special affinity for the state of Louisiana. Someone collected some of the early specimens of the Louisiana waterthrush in its namesake location, and the name has stuck through the years.

The only other warbler in the genus Parkesia is the Northern waterthrush which, unlike its relative, likes to live near quiet, sedate pools, ponds and bogs, not rushing streams.

Hummingbirds getting closer to region

Tommy and Virginia Curtis of Smithville, Tennessee, reported their first ruby-throated hummingbirds of the spring on the email group, “TN-Birds.” The hummingbird arrived on April 7.

“We had two male ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive late Sunday afternoon,” they wrote in their email. “That is a little later than the April 1 arrival times in the past.”

The two visitors had apparently agreed to co-exist.

“So far they are eating peacefully, and neither is attacking or dominating the one feeder,” the couple reported. “We keep wondering when the white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos plan to leave, as we have had many of them all winter.”

The couple also shared that they have been hosting a small flock of purple finches. “They normally don’t show up at our feeders unless there is snow on the ground, but we have enjoyed seeing them daily,” they wrote in their email.

Of course, the Curtises live in DeKalb County in Middle Tennessee. As of press time, I still haven’t received any reports of hummingbirds arriving in East Tennessee, Western North Carolina or Southwest Virginia. I’m confident these tiny winged gems will arrive soon. I hope to update on hummingbird arrivals in next week’s column.

Remember to share your hummingbird sighting by emailing me the date and time of the sighting to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook should anyone want to contact me through that social media platform.

Library Happenings – Staff receives message from Germany

By Angie Georgeff

When our library staff comes in through the back door each morning, we never quite know who or what the day will bring us.

Since most of our books and other library materials arrive via courier services, the mail delivery generally is not the highlight of our day. Bills and sales catalogs just aren’t that exciting.

One morning last week, however, the mail did bring us a surprise, and a good one: a postcard from Germany. It began: “Dear good people of the Erwin Library! It took a while – but I have not forgotten the kindness and support you gave me when I passed through your cute town during my AT-hike in June 2017.”

When I read the message through to the first-name-only signature, I surprisingly remembered the young lady who had sent it. A lot of hikers pass through the library, especially during the spring months, but not that many hail from Germany. I had enjoyed talking to her, especially since her English was much better than my very rusty German. The back of the postcard bore photos of the scenery and recreational facilities in her idyllic hometown of Bad Endbach.

The town’s name translates to “bath at the end of the brook.” It is one of many small spas in the vicinity of Frankfurt, where I once lived, and not far from where my German niece currently lives. 

The motto following the name of the town is ruhig mehr leben. Google Translate suggests “live quietly more,” but I prefer “live more peacefully.” The photos certainly reinforce that image.  Perhaps that was why the young lady felt so at home in Unicoi County.

Speaking of spas…

When we Americans say “spa,” we tend to think of salon services. When Europeans say “spa,” most of the time they are thinking of mineral springs and “taking the waters” either by drinking them or bathing in them.

The word comes from the city of Spa in Belgium, which has boasted its therapeutic mineral springs at least since the 1500s and its casinos since the 1700s. Only people with time and money to spare could travel to take the waters, so many spas and casinos have enjoyed a cozy marriage of convenience.

Of course, at the turn of the last century the citizens of Unicoi County didn’t have very far to travel, since the chalybeate (pronounced kuh-LIB-ee-it) waters of Unaka Springs were considered some of the finest in the South.

Here hiking, swimming, fishing and other rustic pleasures replaced the fevered occupation of gambling. Since the water was impregnated with iron salts, I strongly suspect it was something of an acquired taste. But then there was the food, and I’m sure that was delicious!

Feathered Friends – Feeding birds can draw unwelcomed guests

Leaping onto a fully stocked feeder, an Eastern gray squirrel scatters seeds in all directions as a surprised Northern cardinal looks on. The unconquerable squirrel is one of the most unwanted guests at many bird-feeding stations. (Photo by Dianne Lynne)

By Bryan Stevens

My next adventure out in the world on behalf of the Norwegian military presented itself in early spring of 1992, this time in (the former) Yugoslavia. The situation there had started to slowly unravel all the way back to the early 1980s when their authoritarian President Josip Tito died.

By the end of the 1980s and the fall of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, other former independent countries that had been a part of Yugoslavia now wanted their sovereignty and independence back. In 1991, Slovenia was the first to break free from the federation, followed by Croatia, and the ingredients for civil war was set.

This time Norway had decided to send down an ambulance unit to support other UN forces in the area. We were scheduled to only be there for three months when an ambulance unit from the British Army would relieve us. But before we could deploy, some of us had to pass a pretty challenging medic course. The course usually lasts for three months, but because of the urgency, they gave us the short, intensive three-week version. Those were some long grueling days reading, memorizing, practicing and testing.

Our unit had three ambulances, all white and marked with a big red cross on each side. We were stationed in a Croatian village called Daruvar. Luck would have it that they had an old resort hotel there and that became our new home for the next three months.

This mission was indeed a surreal experience. We were in a war zone less than a two-hour flight from Norway, almost in the heart of Europe. We would often drive through the front lines, and pass burning buildings, military vehicles, dead livestock and indeed human beings, civilians and soldiers alike in the ditches and fields along the roads. In a way, it was almost like being in a dream with images from World War II, but this was real.

We had to send one of our ambulances to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A few days after their arrival their hotel came under heavy artillery fire so with no time to spare they had to evacuate with other UN personnel. It was not until they came back to the town we were in that they discovered that the big red cross on the side of the ambulance had several bullet holes in it like someone had used it for a target. Luckily they all made it back in one piece.

War is always gruesome, and when you, like in this civil war, mix in ethnic cleansing and genocide it truly shows the worst side of human nature. Working in a war zone or even traveling to parts of the world where you see people fighting for survival makes one truly appreciate the freedoms and opportunities we are given, the blessings most of us can count on every day, or as the saying goes: “Many pray hard for what we take for granted.”

Until next time, be safe, be happy and be grateful.

Feathered Friends – Prepare to welcome returning hummingbirds

Male ruby-throated hummingbirds usually migrate ahead of females. These tiny birds must cross the Gulf of Mexico, without stopping, to reach their nesting grounds in the eastern United States. The journey across the Gulf can take them 18 to 22 hours, dependent on weather conditions. (Photo by TheSOARnet/Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

As it has done for many years now, the website journeynorth.org is tracking the progress of ruby-throated hummingbirds as they return to the United States.

Most of the first sightings of hummingbirds made each spring are of male hummingbirds. The males arrive first so they can find and defend a choice territory for the purpose of attracting females. Indeed, there are many more sightings this week for male ruby-throated hummingbirds from Journey North citizen scientists who live along the Gulf Coast states.

On Facebook, I have been doing my own tracking based on posts from friends living farther south. For instance, Marcie McGehee Daniels in Summerville, South Carolina, made a Facebook post on March 22 to share news of her first-of-season ruby-throated hummingbird.

“He drank for a few seconds and then rested in the shade for about 10 minutes, worn out from his trip!” Marcie posted on her Facebook page. She also posted a fantastic photo of the intrepid migrant.

As demonstrated by Marcie’s post, the migration of ruby-throated hummingbirds is drawing closer to our region. They cross the Gulf of Mexico without stopping to reach the Gulf States. Once they make that difficult flight, they will spend some time recuperating before they spread out to make their way northward. Residents in Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina should soon be making their first sightings of ruby-throated hummingbirds since these tiny flying gems departed last October.

On a recent visit to Fripp Island, South Carolina, I didn’t see any ruby-throated hummingbirds, but I did observe other birds that reminded me that many of my favorite birds should be returning to my home within the next few weeks. I enjoyed sightings of several species of warblers, as well as various shorebirds. Many warblers return to the region in April, and shorebirds may make migration stops at area lakes and rivers as they push rapidly toward breeding grounds in regions far to the north in Canada and Alaska.

Some of the first of the resident summer birds to return to the region each year include species such as Louisiana waterthrush, brown thrasher, chipping sparrow, tree swallow and blue-gray gnatcatcher. Not too long after these “early birds” have returned, people can expect to start seeing the vanguard of the ruby-throated hummingbird spring migration as these tiny birds, which weigh no more than a nickel, return to their summer nesting grounds across the eastern United States and Canada.

As one might imagine, such tiny birds face a range of threats. In addition to offering sugar water feeders and planting gardens with nectar-bearing plants, there are other ways to help ruby-throated hummingbirds thrive.

The American Bird Conservancy recommends paying attention to our buying habits. In the winter months when they are far from their summer homes, ruby-throated hummingbirds are known to winter on shade coffee farms. Unlike today’s typical “sun” coffee farm, which razes all trees but the coffee itself, these traditional farms grow coffee in the shade of native trees. By doing so, they produce superior coffee and provide habitat for dozens of migratory songbirds, according to the ABC.

The importance of shade coffee for migratory birds was confirmed by naturalists Kenn and Kim Kaufman, who estimated that a single shade coffee farm in Nicaragua sheltered more than 1,200 migratory bird species—including the ruby-throated hummingbird—on just 90 acres. The ABC notes that buying bird-friendly coffee is an easy way people can help hummingbirds and many other migratory birds.

While the eastern United States is home only to the ruby-throated hummingbird as a nesting hummingbird species, the western half of the United States and Canada can claim about a dozen nesting species, including rufous hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, Anna’s hummingbird, broad-tailed hummingbird, black-chinned hummingbird, calliope hummingbird, buff-bellied hummingbird, broad-billed hummingbird and violet-crowned hummingbird.

To track the progress of ruby-throated hummingbird migration for yourself, visit www.journeynorth.org to monitor their approach to our region. Ruby-throats typically arrive in our region in early April. The early date for a ruby-throated hummingbird arrival in 2018 took place on April 4. If you don’t have your feeders outdoors and waiting for them, it’s time to do so.

As always, I love to hear from readers about their first hummingbird sighting of the year. Jot down the time and date and contact me by email at ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. You can also report your sightings on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ahoodedwarbler. I can hardly wait for one of our favorite birds to get back. Let’s give them a hearty welcome.

Feathered Friends – White-throated sparrows advertise their presence with spring singing

A white-throated sparrow perches on a branch to sing its easily recognizable song. Many Americans translate the sparrow’s song as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” (Photo by MiniMe/Pixabay)

By Bryan Stevens

The calendar has turned to March, and — when it comes to birds — the month is a time of transition. The season doesn’t know whether it’s winter or spring, but the birds know. They, like me, are anticipating the busy spring season.

The clientele at your feeders may change significantly in March. The winter residents are still present, but newly-arrived birds make appearances. Red-winged blackbird, common grackles, and brown-headed cowbirds, all of which may have retreated farther south during the peak of winter, can arrive suddenly in large flocks to lay claim to offerings like suet and sunflower seeds.

On our lawns, we should be noticing flocks of American robins. Long considered a harbinger of spring, the American robin is actually a year-round resident in the region. Spring’s false starts sometimes take robins by surprise, which results in large flocks of these bird descending on lawns and fields to forage frantically for earthworms and insect grubs.

Many people are probably noticing more bird song in the morning. At my home, I’ve been hearing more from birds ranging from song sparrows and chickadees to bluebirds and Northern cardinals, as well as white-throated sparrows. Although they are fairly common winter visitors in the region, the white-throated sparrow makes its presence known most strongly each spring when the birds begin to sing a familiar refrain that has been transcribed in a couple of different ways. Many Americans render the song of the white-throated sparrow as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” For those living north of the border, the white-throated sparrow sings “O’Canada, O’Canada, O’Canada.” As I mentioned, it’s a song I’ve been hearing much more frequently in the past couple of weeks. No matter how you translate this sparrow’s song, it’s a sweet and welcome addition to the spring aural landscape.

The white-throated sparrow also has a close relative that is a little less common. The white-crowned sparrow is one of the more distinctive species in a family often unfairly dismissed as “little brown birds.” It’s fairly common to find mixed flocks of both of these and other sparrows feeding together. They start the mingling process in the fall, probably to prepare them for the necessity of close proximity when winter makes it necessary to crowd together to find food. At my own feeders, I often host mixed flocks of several sparrows, including song sparrows, chipping sparrows, white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, as well as the occasional field sparrow or swamp sparrow.

The white-throated sparrow and the closely related white-crowned sparrow both belong to a genus of American sparrows known as Zonotrichia, which includes three other species. These other three — golden-crowned sparrow, rufous-collared sparrow, and Harris’s sparrow — range mostly outside the continental United States.  The rufous-collared sparrow ranges throughout Mexico, as well as the island of Hispaniola. Harris’s sparrow is a bird that occurs mostly in Canada, although there are a handful of records in our region. The golden-crowned sparrow is a bird that occurs mostly in Alaska, although some of this sparrow’s population ranges into the northwestern corner of the state of Washington.

The genus name, Zonotrichia, refers to two ancient Greek words for zone and hair, which refers to the pattern of streaks on the backs of these five sparrow species. The Zonotrichia sparrows belong to a large group of birds known as Passerellidae, or American sparrows, which also includes birds such as juncos, towhees and brush finches. Some of the more descriptive names of some of the American sparrows include orange-billed sparrow, white-eared ground sparrow, green-backed sparrow, olive sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, five-striped sparrow and golden-winged sparrow.

I love white-crowned sparrows, but they are rare visitors to my feeders. They occasionally pass through my yard in the fall, but they rarely stay more than a couple of days. I get plenty of white-throated sparrows and dark-eyed juncos, however, which is nice compensation. The white-crowned sparrow is more numerous in the western half of the United States. In a trip to Utah in October of 2003, these large, striking sparrows were seemingly everywhere. In the eastern United States, the white-crowned sparrow usually makes appearances as a migrant or a winter resident. These sparrows do seem faithful to wintering locations once they have spent a season. The only requirement for attracting them is a yard that offers some extensive thickets or other brushy habitat. A hedgerow bordered by a spacious lawn or field is also a magnet for this particular sparrow.

This accurately named white-crowned sparrow is easy to distinguish from all the other “little brown birds” in the sparrow family. First, for a sparrow, it’s somewhat large. Second, there’s the distinctive black-and-white head pattern that gives the bird its name. Of course, only the adult sparrows show the black and white head pattern. Young birds show alternating bands of tan and brown in place of the black and white. Both adults and young birds show a crisp gray breast that also helps distinguish them from other sparrows, which often have brown streaking across the breast. A pale bill also sets them apart from most other sparrows likely to visit feeders.

In similarly distinctive fashion, the white-throated sparrow, especially as spring gets nearer, also acquires a plumage that makes it stand out from the flock. These sparrows have a plumper shape than some of their kin. They have a black and white pattern to their head and a neat “bib” of white feathers covers the throat. The standout feature to this bird’s appearance is the bright yellow spot located between each eye and the bird’s bill. Some winter birds may lack this spot of yellow or show a less dramatic version, but the approach of spring usually puts white-throated sparrows into fine form.

Many sparrows, including the white-throated sparrow, prefer to forage for food on the ground. It’s often helpful to purchase a supply of millet seed. When filling your feeders with sunflower seeds, scatter a couple of handfuls of millet seed on the ground beneath the feeders or at the edge of a brushy area. Sparrows like to have quick access to dense cover, so they will feed more securely if the scattered seeds are within quick reach of shelter.

Sparrows don’t always co-exist peaceably. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, many of the larger sparrow species are quite aggressive with their kin. This aggression usually demonstrates itself in a tendency to chase other birds. Apparently, white-crowned sparrows will share their territories with fox sparrows — which are larger birds — but they will give chase to chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos in an attempt to drive them from the territory.

Most songbirds live a precarious life that can be measured in only a few years. However, an occasional individual defies the odds. According to the website allaboutbirds.com, the oldest recorded white-throated sparrow was at least 14 years, 11 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Alberta, Canada.

Listen for the song of this garden and yard visitor as you go about your daily routine. It’s easy to recognize, depending on your preference for the Canadian or American version. Don’t wait too long. Most white-throated sparrows depart the region by late April to reach their summer nesting grounds throughout the forests across Canada, the northeastern U.S. and the northern Midwest.

ONLINE: Hear the song and see video footage of a white-throated sparrow at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sL_YJC1SjHE.

Missionary from Kenya serving at St. Michael’s

Glenmary Missioner Kenneth Wandera left his home in Kenya to serve at St. Michael’s in Erwin. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church recently brought a unique perspective to the congregation as Kenneth Wandera, a missionary from Kenya, is now serving the community.

Wandera, who has come to serve at the church from Glenmary Home Missioners, said he is excited to serve Unicoi County.

“Growing up in Kenya I wanted to be a missionary priest, which means I would leave my family and friends and go overseas,” Wandera told The Erwin Record.

Wandera grew up watching the missionary priests come from Europe and other countries to serve his community in Kenya and he was drawn to them.

Wandera said he loves the diversity in the Christian faith here in the United States.

“There’s something beautiful working among different Christian groups, because there is a lot that we share in common, and that is what blows me away,” Wandera said.

Wandera said he is able to view the United States from a different perspective.

“There is something beautiful being American that American’s sometimes fail to see,” he said. “There is a sense of hospitality, a love for one another and a deep rooted goodness of people here.”

It’s that perspective that gives Wandera a unique view of the Bible. When Wandera describes being a shepherd in a biblical sense, he can relate it to his upbringing where Wandera actually had to shepherd cattle in Kenya.

“I’m realizing that I can use that as a tool and that I don’t need an entire sermon – I just need one minute to change a life,” Wandera said. “One of my goals here is to continue building on my ‘theology of encounter and ecumenism’.”

Wandera said he is excited to meet new people.

“I’m getting to know people, sharing in their stories and their faith backgrounds, ultimately founded in God,” he added. “I hope to visit Christian churches here and pray with them and be allowed to be transformed by that encounter.

“The welcome and the joy of the people here has blown me away, whether it is the folks at the nursing homes, Clinchfield Senior Adult Center, or in our own church of St. Michael.”

St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church has Mass on Saturdays at 5 p.m. and bilingual service at 10 a.m. on Sundays. Children, aged preschool to eighth grades, have services on  Wednesday from 5:45-7:15 p.m. The youth group, from those in grades 9-12, have services on Sunday from 5:30-7:30 p.m. To keep up with Saint Michael Archangel Catholic Church, visit stmichaelthearchangeluc.org or St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Parish on Facebook. St. Michael’s is located at 657 N. Mohawk Drive in Erwin.

Feathered Friends – American wigeon also known as ‘baldpate’

This male American wigeon shows the white head patch that gives this duck its other common name of “baldpate.” In this photograph, a female wigeon rests near her mate while a male redhead, a species of diving duck, swims in the background. (Photo by Tim McCabe/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

By Bryan Stevens

Erwin resident Pattie Rowland recently asked my help identifying some ducks she had photographed at the pond at Erwin Fishery Park. She already suspected the ducks in her photo were American wigeons, but she wanted confirmation.

The ducks were indeed wigeons, which are classified with the “dabblers” instead of the “divers,” which are two broad categories for describing the wild ducks likely to occur throughout North America. Dabblers feed mostly near the surface of the water, foraging on everything for aquatic insects to roots and tubers. The “divers,” not surprisingly, dive into the depth to pursue fish, mollusks and other aquatic prey.

“This was my first time to see them,” Pattie noted in a Facebook message. I congratulated her because I know how exciting a new observation of a bird can be.

It’s not been an exciting winter for ducks in the region. Other than some redheads and buffleheads back in November and early December at the start of the winter, the wigeons are the only wild ducks of interest that I’ve observed at the pond.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its report this past summer on 2018 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations, based on surveys conducted in May and early June of 2018 by FWS and Canadian Wildlife Service.

Overall duck numbers in the survey area remained high, according to the report. Total populations were estimated at 41.2 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, 13 percent lower than last year’s estimate of 47.3 million but 17 percent above the long-term average. The projected mallard fall flight index was estimated at 11.4 million birds, down from the 2017 estimate of 12.9 million.

“The dip in the population for prairie-breeding puddle ducks is not unexpected and by no means unprecedented given that conditions on the prairies this spring were drier than last year,” said DU Chief Scientist Tom Moorman. “As a result, 2018 populations dropped accordingly. However, populations of all key species except northern pintails and scaup remain above long-term averages. This year’s breeding population decline is a reminder of the need to sustain the capacity of breeding habitats, particularly in the prairies as we go through natural variation in wetland conditions. Waterfowl populations are adapted well to short-term swings in habitat conditions, but we must continue to guard against the long-term loss of prairie breeding habitat.”

American wigeons, however, bucked the trend of some of the other prairie-breeding puddle ducks and showed a slight rise in overall numbers. The wigeon breeding population was estimated at 2.8 million individual ducks, according to the survey. Wigeons beat their long-term average, which rests at 2.6 million.

The American wigeon can be found all over North America. Their breeding grounds stretch from Alaska across the tundras of Canada all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. American Wigeons can be found in their wintering habitats from the American Northwest to central Mexico, from the southern prairie pothole region through the Gulf Coast and from New York to the Bahamas close to the Atlantic shoreline. American wigeons are also common winter visitors to Central America, the Caribbean, northern Colombia, Trinidad and occasionally Venezuela

Wigeons are aquatic grazers and forage on grasses and sedges in wet meadows and pastures. The American wigeon’s diet has a higher proportion of plant matter than the diet of any other dabbling duck.

It’s also called the “baldpate” for the same reason our national bird is known as the “bald” eagle. A white patch on the forehead reminded early naturalists of a bald man’s head in much the same way that our national bird earned the term “bald” eagle because of its own white head. Further, the word “bald” is thought to derive from an archaic word in Middle English meaning “white patch,” from which the archaic definition “marked or streaked with white” is drawn.

The origins of the term “wigeon” are a bit murkier. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the first known use of “wigeon” dates back to 1508, and other sources suggest that the term perhaps was derived from a French/Balearic term meaning “a kind of small crane.”

There are two other species of wigeons — the Eurasian wigeon of Asia and Europe and the Chiloé wigeon of South America. Wigeons belong to the Marecagenus of dabbling ducks, which also includes gadwall and falcated teal.

While female American wigeons produce a rather raspy quacking sound, wigeons more typically produce a vocalization when excited that sounds like “whew, whew, whew.”

Some ducks have become associated with certain bodies of water in the region, and the American wigeon is no exception. In addition to the pond at Erwin Fishery Park, there have been reports of American wigeons this winter from a large pond adjacent to the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton, Tennessee, as well as on the weir dam at Osceola Island Recreation Site in Bristol. Hooded mergansers have wintered in large numbers at Middlebrook Lake in Bristol. Hundreds of buffleheads have wintered at Wilbur Lake near Elizabethton, Tennessee, for decades. March and April, being periods of transition as winter changes into spring, could bring migrating ducks to the region’s ponds, lakes and rivers. Keep your eyes open and you could be surprised by what you find.

Library Happenings – Check out updates to library’s website

By Angie Georgeff

If you have visited www.sites.google.com/site/unicoipubliclibrary recently, you will have noticed that we’ve made some updates to our website. We have new photographs, new links, an interactive map of our location and feeds for both of our Facebook pages on the “News and Notes” page.

If you have ideas for something you would like to see on our website, please let us know. An ETSU student who is working as an intern through the Holston River Regional Library has been helping us.

This is obviously good news for us, but it may very well be good news for you, too. On specific days during March and April, he will be available to help our patrons with their information technology questions.

If you want to learn how to use Microsoft Word or Excel, he can help you with that. He also can teach you how to use the myriad resources in TEL (the Tennessee Electronic Library), or get you started borrowing eBooks, audiobooks and videos with Tennessee R.E.A.D.S (the Regional eBook and Audiobook Download System). If what you really need is to learn how to use your own electronic devices, he can even assist you with that.

The first date on which the intern will be available is Friday, March 8, from noon until 4 p.m. On the following week, he will be here during the same hours on Thursday, March 14. In addition, he is scheduled to work on March 21 and 22. If you would like to reserve some time for personal instruction, call the library at 743-6533 for information and an appointment. You also may walk in for assistance, but you may have to wait if someone else is being helped then.

Coding Classes

We are justifiably proud of the Cx3 Computer Coding Classes that have been offered at the library for the past several months. The kids are having loads of fun creating their own computer games, while the teens are already learning web design. The excellent instruction and collaborative atmosphere make learning a pleasure.

Could a young person you know benefit from one of these classes? The kids’ class meets on Tuesdays from 3-4 p.m. The teens’ class meets immediately afterwards from 4-5 p.m. Please feel free to call the library for more information.

Spotlight Book

Last fall, Jude Deveraux introduced readers to Sara Medlar, her niece Kate, Jack Wyatt and the seemingly sleepy town of Lachlan, Florida. Now, in “A Justified Murder,” a sweet little old lady has been found poisoned, stabbed and shot for good measure.

The Medlars want nothing to do with another murder mystery, but a number of townsfolk insist on coming to them to clear their names. Why would so many people fear they might be suspects?

Whitson survives premiere episode of ‘Survivor: Edge of Extinction’

“One Of Us Is Going To Win The War” – Gavin Whitson on the second episode of SURVIVOR: Edge of Extinction airing, Wednesday, Feb. 27 (8:00-9:00PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Robert Voets/CBS Entertainment ©2018 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

By Richard Rourk

Week one is in the books on Survivor: Edge of Extinction, and “the Tribe has spoken.”

Erwin native Gavin Whitson and his “Kama” tribe won immunity by winning the first obstacle course of the season. Due to contract requirements, Whitson will not be able to interview with The Erwin Record until the mid-season point of the juggernaut show.

The Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce held a watch party for the first episode of the new season on Wednesday, Feb. 20, at Unicoi County High School. Whitson was on hand to greet his fans, some of which traveled over two hours to meet the Survivor star.

A pre-show party included games, food trucks and other activities. Team Gavin merchandise, including T-shirts and bandanas, were sold.

Whitson’s southern wit, ingenuity and charm were on full display early in the first episode. Whitson even slipped a joke about what he would do with the $1 million prize.

“I might buy us a fourth stoplight for Main Street,” Whitson said.

Whitson showed off his athletic skills during the first challenge and also showed that he is a force to be reckoned with during the mental game of Survivor. Whitson was seen early on laying the groundwork for an alliance with other first-time players to oppose the veterans.

“Someone new needs to win this,” Whitson said.

Last week’s event had a large turnout.

“We had between 700-800 people stay for the screening in the auditorium,” Delp said.

That number does not include the individuals that came for the meet and greet only.

To purchase Team Gavin gear, please stop by the Unicoi County Chamber of Commerce on Main Avenue.

“T-shirt sales have been tremendous,” Chamber Executive Director Amanda Delp told The Erwin Record. “We sold roughly 300 shirts during the premiere.”

To follow Whitson’s progress and for future viewing party events, please follow Team Gavin on Facebook.

Union Street Taproom also had a successful viewing party for the premiere and will continue to have a viewing party for each episode for the rest of the season. For more information about these events, follow Union Street Taproom on Facebook

The upcoming episode of Survivor is entitled “One of us is going to win this war,” and will premiere on Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 8 p.m. on CBS.

Feathered Friends – Birds plan ahead for times of scarcity

Blue Jays often create food caches for acorns and other items. This jay is leaving a feeder with several peanuts thanks to an expandable esophagus. (Photo by dbadry/Pixabay.com)

By Bryan Stevens

Ernie Marburg sent me an email last month about an article he had read on chickadees that he thought might be of interest. The article’s main focus involved the fact that chickadees are apparently capable of remembering 1,000 cache sites and retrieving food several months after having placed it in various scattered locations.

“Their memories are better than ours,” Ernie wrote. “Mine, anyway.”

Ernie also had a question for me about observations he and his wife have made at their home in Abingdon, Virginia, about birds and the practice of caching food.

“My wife and I have both observed crows taking bread (five or six pieces at a time) in their beaks and flying off and burying it in lawns among the grass,” he wrote. “We have also observed that they march through the lawn apparently looking for such food caches. Is this something that is commonly known? Are we correct in our observation of this?”

Experts have indeed noticed this behavior. In fact, it’s fairly well known that crows are methodical in their approach to storing food. Crows, which belong to the corvid family that includes birds such as jays, ravens and magpies, are also highly intelligent animals. Their intelligence shows in the extra step they take after they have buried food. The crow will often take a leaf or twig and place it over the spot where the food has been buried. Experts suspect the bird takes this action to mark the spot and attract attention to the location when they return to look for the buried food.

Birds store food for convenience when they have more food than they can finish, but they also cache food in anticipation of periods such as inclement winter weather when food is likely to become scarce.

The blue jay, a relative of the American crow, is fond of acorns. The jay is so enamored of acorns — a nutrient-rich food for many birds and other animals — and so dedicated to caching acorns that the bird actually helps oak forests expand. A single jay may cache thousands of acorns each fall. Inevitably, some of the cache will be forgotten, to go uneaten and give the acorn the chance to sprout into a seedling in the spring that may grow into a mighty oak in a new stand of oaks.

The jay even has some modifications to help with the storing of food. Blue jays have a flexible esophagus that can distend and allow them to stuff multiple acorns down their throats. Caching food is hard work, so it helps reduce energy consumption if the jay can transport several acorns at a time instead of a single acorn on each trip to a cache site.

Now, back to chickadees for a moment. Research has shown that the brains of black-capped chickadees grow in anticipation of the need to remember where these tiny songbirds cache their sunflower seeds and other foods. The interesting finding is that only the part of the brain associated with memory grows. After all, it doesn’t do much good to store food for a rainy or snowy day if the bird promptly forgets where the food has been hidden.

The acorn woodpecker might qualify as a world-class cacher of food. As the bird’s name suggests, this woodpecker loves acorns. An acorn woodpecker will devote a significant amount of its time to establishing granaries. In this case, the granaries are holes drilled in the trunks of trees (or sometimes in a telephone pole or the side of a wooden building) for the storing of acorns. Some of these trees have hundreds of holes drilled into them with each hole containing an acorn placed there by the woodpecker. The woodpeckers often use dead trees, but they also utilize living trees. Surprisingly, the holes do not seem to affect the health of the trees.

From chickadees and woodpeckers to crows and jays, birds manage to continually surprise with seemingly infinite resourcefulness.

Library Happenings – Lego Club creating Mardi Gras themed project

By Angie Georgeff

Laissez les bon temps rouler! In English, that is “Let the good times roll!”  Next Tuesday, March 5, will be Shrove Tuesday, better known as Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras in French. We had fun marking the occasion last year, so once again we will celebrate with beads and crawdads.

In honor of the observance, our Lego Club for kids will have a special building project. Children are invited to join us at 6 p.m. to work on Mardi Gras floats for adorable little toy crayfish wearing purple, green and gold Mardi Gras masks and party hats. Please call the library at 743-6533 for reservations or more information.

Spotlight Book

Truth is not always stranger than fiction, but it often is quite strange enough. I guess that’s part of the reason why I prefer history to historical fiction. I also want to avoid coloring my understanding of history by confusing fantasy with the facts. When a novel is written by a trained historian, however, I’m prone to make an exception, especially when I’ve already enjoyed reading her histories.

Prolific historian Tracy Borman, author of “The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty” and “Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant,” turns her pen and imagination to the succeeding dynasty in a new novel with the refreshingly brief title “The King’s Witch.” When James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England from Elizabeth I as James I, he brought a well-documented dislike of women and fear of witches with him. The king’s attitudes permeate his court and threaten the lives of women who are skilled in healing with natural remedies.

Lady Frances Gorges is such a young woman. After she nursed the late queen through her final illness, Frances retired to her family home. She should have been safe there, but she is summoned to court to serve Princess Elizabeth, James’s daughter. Frances finds allies in the young princess and her mother, Queen Anne. Before long, a budding romance develops between Frances and Thomas Wintour, an up-and-coming lawyer. When a sick child whom she had helped dies, Frances is arrested on suspicion of witchcraft and tortured. Charges are dropped when Princess Elizabeth falls ill, but Frances stands on shaky ground and she knows it.

Tom then reveals a secret to Frances that tests her loyalty to him and to others. Since the novel’s Thomas – unlike Frances – is based on a historical figure of that name, readers who can’t wait for the second novel in the trilogy can search the Internet for clues to his probable fate. However, that would likely make you even more impatient for the second volume’s release.

Rock Creek students create cards for Nurturing Neighbors

Sharon Slagle, a local educator and Nurturing Neighbors organizer, speaks to Rock Creek students after they created supportive cards for those needing the organization’s services. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Students at Rock Creek Elementary recently learned what it means to give back to their community.

“It’s been exciting watching the children learn about changemakers during the most recent unit,” Rock Creek Elementary second grade teacher Kristen Allen told The Erwin Record. “The students learned about Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Katie Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King Jr., and many other change makers.”

Allen’s second-grade students chose to hand make cards to donate to Nurturing Neighbors. According to Mrs. Allen, the students decided to make the cards the previous week after the class read the story “Follow The Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea Turtles.”

Nurturing Neighbors is made up of organizers Sarah Shults, Jamie Rice, Sharon Slagle and Donna Seagroves. The program helps link volunteers to help people suffering from severe illnesses and their caregivers by utilizing the volunteers’ specific skill sets. The organization currently has more than 150 volunteers and are currently looking for citizens who could use the organization’s assistance.

At the Nurturing Neighbors meeting on Jan. 31, Shults stressed the importance of handmade items such as cards to someone who is sick. Allen saw an opportunity to blend her lesson with Nurturing Neighbors cause. Allen encouraged her students to be a change maker by creating cards for Nurturing Neighbors.

“Their goal was 75 cards, but they have made more than that,” Allen said.

To make the cards personal, the students were allowed the freedom to design the cards in their own way.

“The children were able to create the cards the way they wanted since it was their volunteer work,” Allen said.

Shults and Slagle visited Rock Creek Elementary Feb. 12 to explain to the students how Nurturing Neighbors works and to accept the students’ gifts.

If you or someone you know could use the services of Nurturing Neighbors, please contact nurturingneighborsofuc@gmail.com or 742-7508. Updates are also posted on the organization’s Facebook page.