Stephen Lyn Bales is the former senior naturalist at Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville and the author of Ephemeral by Nature: Exploring the Exceptional with a Tennessee Naturalist, Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley, and Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, each published by UT Press. A native of Gatlinburg, he is the great-grandson of Jim Bales whose home site is preserved on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Bales has written for Smokies Life magazine, including a story on the winter wren, which appeared in one of our missing issues, Volume 9, #1. These missing issues are no longer in print but are available to view online at SmokiesInformation.org/MissingIssues. Stephen Lyn Bales also writes an online blog titled Nature Calling. We spoke with him on an online video chat while he was sitting outside in his Knoxville neighborhood, appropriately surrounded by the sounds of birds.
[Old-time guitar music and bird song]
Karen Key 00:05
Welcome to Smoky Mountain Air, a new series from Great Smoky Mountains Association where we'll bring you interviews and author readings that delve into the diverse natural and cultural history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I'm Karen Key, Senior Publications Specialist.
Valerie Polk 00:24
And I'm Valerie Polk, Videographer at GSMA.
Our guest Stephen Lyn Bales is the former senior naturalist at Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville and the author of Ephemeral by Nature: Exploring the Exceptional with a Tennessee Naturalist, Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley, and Ghost Birds: Jim Tanner and the Quest for the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, each published by UT Press. A native of Gatlinburg, he is the great-grandson of Jim Bales, whose home site is preserved on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Karen Key 00:57
Bales has written for Smokies Life magazine, including a story on the winter wren, which appeared in one of our "missing issues," Volume 9, #1. These "missing issues" are no longer in print but are available to view online at SmokiesInformation.org/MissingIssues. Stephen Lyn Bales also writes an online blog titled Nature Calling. We spoke with him on an online video chat while he was sitting outside in his Knoxville neighborhood, appropriately surrounded by the sounds of birds.
Welcome, Stephen Lyn Bales!
Stephen Lyn Bales 01:31
Hi, how are you?
Karen Key 01:33
Good! Thanks for joining us! Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Stephen Lyn Bales 01:37
Obviously, my name is Steven Lyn Bales. I'm originally from Gatlinburg. I grew up in Gatlinburg. That's my hometown. Grew up on Baskins Creek. My childhood home was burned down during the big fire five years ago. I went to Pi Beta Phi, went to Gatlinburg Pitman High School.
Uniquely I grew up with the national park as my background—as my place to go explore. The house was really only a half mile from the boundary of the park, which is just above on Baskins Creek Road. If you walk up Baskins Creek beside where the house was, eventually you get to Baskins Creek Falls, which is now one of the best places to go hike to.
I really am from the hills. That area up there is where the Bales family was and where the Ogle family was, and that's my grandparents. My dad was born literally on Baskins Creek in what now is part of the national park. So, I didn't migrate a long ways downstream.
But I became interested in birds, really, when I was a kid. I built a bird feeder out of boards, kind of your basic platform feeder. And mom became interested too. And we put the feeder up—I think that I was probably eight, nine, ten years old, somewhere in there—where we could see it from the living room windows. And so, we got used to the backyard birds—the basic birds you would see—and mom bought me one of those Little Golden Guides for birds, which had 50-60 species in it. So, we learned the basic birds that way. That was kind of my childhood growing up.
I did graduate there at Gatlinburg Pitman High School, went on to East Tennessee State University, and started seeing birds away from Gatlinburg. All of my original birds I had seen were in and around Gatlinburg, but really not very high up in the elevations. I didn't have an awareness at that point, that there were different birds on the top of the mountain than there are down in the city together.
But going away to school, I started amplifying—seeing other birds—and eventually got interested in learning bird songs and in birds of the Tennessee Valley and, in time, moved to Knoxville. And in time, I worked for Ijams Nature Center as a teacher and naturalist for 21 years. I retired last year, and I did a lot of programs there about birds and taking people to different locations around the Tennessee Valley to see birds, like the sandhill cranes down at Hiawassee. So, I did that and that was my job to do that.
I've also written three books for the University of Tennessee Press. All of them are about nature or natural history or birds. Birds are in all of them really, so I've had an interest in birds for a very, very long time.
Valerie Polk 04:35
We heard a recording of you doing some bird songs. And how did you learn the bird songs?
Stephen Lyn Bales 04:40
Bird songs are interesting. That's when really it becomes kind of an obsession, because they don't come easy. They come one at a time. You basically learn your backyard birds. What's the sound of a chickadee; what's the sound of a cardinal; what's the sound of a titmouse. That's some of your basic backyard birds, and most of them do have mnemonics, memory devices to help you kind of learn them. And somewhere along the line I remember reading that the mnemonic for the Tufted Titmouse was either "Peter-Peter-Peter, Peter-Peter-Peter" or simply "peep-peep-peep." I remember reading that and then going outside walking around, and all of a sudden I heard it like, "Whoa! That bird is saying "Peter-Peter-Peter-Peter!"
So, it is a matter of slowly adding to your repertoire. First you start with your backyard birds. I think every first grader knows Blue Jay; every first grader knows crow. There are certain things you just know from the beginning. So, then you have to add robin, you have to add the other birds that are around you every day and then start pulling in all the other sounds.
I remember going to a Smoky Mountain Field School with Dr. Fred Alsop. We were caravanning. We stopped at the Cherokee Orchard parking lot, the parking lot that leads up to Rainbow Falls and eventually to Mount Le Conte. And Dr. Fred got out of the car and all the students were around him. And he started pointing in every direction—over here is an Eastern Wood Peewee; over here is this; over here is that; over here's a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. And everybody in the class was like "Wow, how does he do that?" And, of course, it's all around you, and when you do start learning the songs, you really start using your ears. I mean, before that, it's all the sounds around you when you're outside all the time, but when you start recognizing those songs—say right now where I'm sitting, I can see a Mourning Dove. And the Mourning Dove is "coo-coo-coo." Once you've added that, you know it.
Birdwatchers really prefer the term "birder," because you use your ears as much as you use your eyes, especially when you really start doing it. Especially here in East Tennessee, because the birds are up in the trees. Yesterday, just passing through, I heard a Blue-headed Vireo, used to be called Solitary Vireo. I never saw it. You don't see vireos. They're hidden way up in the trees, up in the canopy. And this is a song I added somewhere along the line to my repertoire. And as soon as I heard it, I knew it was there, and I did start looking for it. But this is a bird, it bounces around very high up there—they're canopy birds. I never did see it, but I could hear as it was moving from tree to tree to tree. Vireos, particularly the Red-eyed Vireo and the Blue-headed Vireo—it's almost a conversation. It's not quite musical, but it's phrases. And the mnemonic for the Red-eyed Vireo is "I'm up here, do you see me? Please look up. I'm up here. I know you'd like to…" And it just goes on and on and on and on. And they can do the chatter, that conversational phrase, a thousand phrases or more a day, because they're just doing that.
Well, the bird I heard yesterday was very similar. That was a Blue-headed Vireo, but there's more dramatic pause. It's like the bird is leaving you the opportunity to fill in your part of the conversation. And it's more like "I'm up here… Don't you see me… I'm way up here…" And that's the only true difference between the two songs is the silence between phrases. But you just slowly add, and you slowly add the mnemonics, and in some cases, you create your own mnemonic.
I had a Hooded Warbler pass through the yard where I live, in the trees. The Hooded Warblers and the Blue-headed Vireo are nesting birds in the Smokies, but here they're just moving through. But the wonder of the Hooded Warbler is that they're understory birds. So they're down eye level, and if you hear one, you just freeze and start watching for movement, watching for a movement. And I was slowly walking out towards the mailbox along the driveway with my binoculars, and I could hear where the song was moving to. My mnemonic for them is, I call it the sneezy bird, is "achoo-achoo-achoo, achoo-achoo-achoo." But the published mnemonic is "the red-the red t-shirt, the red-the red t-shirt." But it's a sneezy kind of a song, if you can call a warbler "singing." They're vocalizing is what they're doing.
And eventually the Hooded Warbler popped up, and I got a good look at him through binoculars. And it's probably the only time all year I'll see a Hooded Warbler unless I do birding in the Smokies. And they nest in the Smokies in rhododendron thickets and understory—dog hobble, laurel, that kind of stuff. But the beauty of that is they tend to be eye level, and you do get a good look at them, whereas the Blue-headed Vireo, you probably never get a good look at them.
So, the truth is, you just slowly listen to the songs. Now it's easy—you go online, and you stream the different songs. When I was starting to learn the songs, it was, well, it was cassette tapes. So that kind of dates me there. But you just slowly learn them and add them. And we're talking… here in East Tennessee we're lucky. There's close to 200 species of birds, probably somewhere from 180 to maybe 200 if you count some of the birds that just kind of pop in and out that aren't necessarily here that often.
And that's how you do it. It's something you develop a dedication to, and you just practice, practice, practice. And each year, you hope to add two or three songs to your repertoire. And this time of year is a really an exciting time of year because it's spring. And principally what you're adding is the territorial song sung by the male to attract a female and to claim territory. Birds have other vocalizations, like partner calls where they talk to each, other alarm calls. Young birds have sounds they make for mom and dad to come feed them. And those are all secondary vocalizations, and some you slowly start learning those too, particularly the ones that are around your house.
So primarily what you learn initially is the territorial song sung by the male.
Valerie Polk 11:23
So that is the question that I had, because every bird will have more than one type of vocalization?
Stephen Lyn Bales 11:29
Oh yeah, all birds have an alarm call. It's fussy. And, say, you're in your backyard, and you're out there, and you're hearing all kinds of birds—chatter, chatter, chatter, singing calls—and all of a sudden, a Cooper's Hawk flies in. Cooper's Hawks are probably the one predator that all birds are afraid of because the Cooper's Hawk—they're agile, they're quick, and they chase birds. Their prey animal is other birds. And so, the first bird that sees the Cooper's Hawk will send out an alarm, like "chchch-chchch." And it tends to be harsh to our ears, but that's the point. And all the other birds know it. All the other birds say, "Uh-oh!" and they disappear and they're all hiding in the bushes—"Somebody saw a Cooper's Hawk! I don't know who it was, but they saw it!"
So, all birds have an alarm call. Birders, when they're, say, staring into shrubbery, and they think there's a Wide-eyed Vireo in the shrubbery, birders will do a thing called "pishing." That's where they make a sound that sounds like an alarm call. And that vireo all of a sudden will freeze, but his curiosity will bring him where he pops up on a branch just to look around. He'll say, "What is it? What do I need to be afraid of?" And it's really just the birder pishing that imitates the alarm call of all birds. So, the alarm calls, when you're sitting in your backyard next time, occasionally you'll hear something that sounds alarming, and it may mean that the neighbor's cat is walking through the yard or hiding in the bushes or a dog.
They're not afraid of you. Your birds are your birds. They know what you do, they know, "That's our person," and you do your normal things. They're fine with it. It's only when you do something unusual, like approach them all of a sudden, that they go, "What's our person walking this way for? That's kind of scary." So, they recognize you, they're not afraid of you.
A towhee is a good example. Towhees are basic backyard birds. They're shrubbery birds. They're hidden in their understory, and they're typically down on the ground because they feed on the ground, and they nest on the ground. And they're shy—they're incredibly shy because everything they do is literally on the ground. And once they get comfortable with you—"Oh, that's our person. They're not going to bother us"—that's when they'll start coming out, letting themselves be known. They'll come to your feeders. They feed on the ground of all the seeds that have been kicked out of the feeders. When you see your towhee, you go, "Awwww, everybody feels comfortable with me."
So anyway, yes, there's all kinds of vocalizations. Birds are incredibly vocal. They communicate within the species, within the family, and with each other to watch each other's backs. If they see a threat, they let everybody know there's something that could harm us. And all of those other vocalizations are not particularly easy to learn other than alarm call. It's harsh. All birds have a harsh kind of fussy call, but primarily where you start with learning bird vocalizations or bird songs is the territorial song sung by the male and that's most of the CD sets or things like that—if anybody buys CD s anymore—just contain that primary territorial song.
Karen Key 14:49
In one of our "missing issues" as we're calling them of Smokies Life magazine, you had authored a story about Winter Wrens. Why that particular bird?
Stephen Lyn Bales 14:58
Well, that's a bird I'm very fond of. Actually, I think Steve Kemp, I think he called and said, "Could you write about winter wrens," and I said, "Oh my goodness, yes! I love that bird."
Winter Wren is a bird we have that migrates downslope, so in the wintertime they're here. They nest in the Smokies in the higher elevations. And they're petite; they're a tiny bird. I am used to seeing them primarily down here in the valley, either at Ijams when I worked at the Nature Center or around my house. So, it's a wintertime bird for us, and we typically don't hear it singing down here. It's not very vocal. It wants to stay hidden.
And I tell folks when I do classes, if you want to draw a Winter Wren into your backyard, you need a brush pile. When you cut your brush down, find a place that you don't mind to pile it up, because that's where Winter Wrens will hide and roost during the wintertime. They go crawl in there where nothing can get to them. And so, I always try to keep a brush pile behind the house. I'm always searching for the Winter Wren there. It's a bird I'm fond of that I knew also nested in the Smokies higher elevations.
Karen Key 16:01
Do you remember the first time you saw winter wren in the Smokies?
Stephen Lyn Bales 16:06
I remember the first time I heard one. It was like, "Whoa…" I was hiking to Le Conte, probably again in the 1980s, maybe early 90s, I think probably on Alum Cave Trail, and I was at one of the switchbacks. They're called switchbacks, but they're really rest stops. And so, you get to one of the switchbacks, and you stop, and you look at the next section of trail, and go, "Okay, I can do one more…" And so, I'd paused at this switchback, and all of a sudden, I heard the most incredible song that went on and on and on, and then it seemed to be repeated further downslope. On and on like it had cascaded down or echoed down, and I did not know what it was. I really didn't. I'd never heard it. I had to then figure it out. That was the time when you didn't have a cell phone that you could kind of start Googling. You had to go home—you to do it the old-fashioned way, which then was to get your cassette tapes and drive around town listening to birdsongs. And eventually I stumbled into Winter Wren and went, "Oh my gosh, it was a Winter Wren!" And then did the research, oh yeah, they nest at the higher elevations of the Smokies and have this wonderful call, song, that is repeated by the next male down the slope, that is picked up by the next male further down. That wonderful way they chain sing… I do write about that in the article.
The funny thing about wrens, now here in the valley, and maybe where you both live, you've got Carolina Wrens. And wrens throw more effort into song. When you see a Winter Wren you think, "How did you produce that much noise?" Or when you see the Carolina Wren on your back porch, and it's mnemonics are either "cheeburger-cheeburger-cheeburger-cheeburger" or "teakettle-teakettle-teakettle." And you're looking at it and say, "How are you making that much noise? How can you do it?" Hang on to whatever they're perched on with both feet as tight as they can, and just throw every ounce of energy into their song. That's characteristic of wrens. They explode with song. And here, every house in the valley I think comes with a pair of Carolina Wrens. And so, we're used to hearing that song. And also, hearing their fussy calls, because they're the lookouts. They go round and around the house, and if they see something they don't like, they'll "chchch-chchch." They'll fuss. So anyway, Carolina wrens are one of my favorite backyard birds, and Winter Wrens are just one of the favorite birds.
I am part of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count down here in Knoxville. I have a zone just off Alcoa Highway that me and several other people have been counting for years, and we always are looking for that one or two Winter Wrens that are there. Not particularly easy to find but we kind of know where they like to hang out. When we start an Audubon Christmas Bird Count, there are certain birds—we got to find this, we got to find this. There's certain birds we know we're going to find, and certain birds we should find if we really work at it.
Valerie Polk 19:11
I feel like I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about the birds that I'm hearing in the background. I don't hear them right now though. I heard them a second ago.
Stephen Lyn Bales 19:11
We had, I see a cardinal flying over there. What's been on the feeders are house finches. There may be some other activity behind us. Right now, it's quiet.
Valerie Polk 19:33
Yeah, it is quiet. As soon as I ask the question.
Stephen Lyn Bales 19:35
Well, that's the way it is. Well, truthfully, I've taught a lot of classes and led a lot of bird walks. Soon as you go out and look, all of the sudden they get quiet. It's like, okay, you want us to sing? We're not going to.
Valerie Polk 19:50
I guess that's why you have to keep going out. They get used to you eventually.
Stephen Lyn Bales 19:54
Oh yeah, they do.
Valerie Polk 19:55
So, you touched on this a little bit when you were talking about the winter wren, their antiphonal singing—that type of singing where it's like a cascading song and it can sound like it's being passed from bird to bird. Are there any other birds in the Smokies that have that kind of song?
Stephen Lyn Bales 20:12
Not that I can think. That's another unique thing about Winter Wrens, and this is the time of year to hear it. We're in May, and so, this is the time of year—if you're so crazy being indoors, absolutely crazy—and a reminder to people listening, we are in the middle of the quarantine—go on a hike, and go to Mount Le Conte or one of the high trails and listen for it. So, this would be a time that the males are claiming various territories. And so, as they cascade and go from one male to the other, each is claiming his territory. And the next male down the line is claiming his territory. So, they're respecting each other, and then singing together. I can't think off the top of my head of another bird like that, although you're taught as a naturalist never to say never, because there's always somewhere else there probably is a bird that does do that.
Valerie Polk 21:07
Do you have a favorite birdsong?
Stephen Lyn Bales 21:10
I think one song that, really, I often think about and don't hear that often is a Smoky Mountain bird. Now, here Knoxville we have Wood Thrush, if there's trees around us. That's one of the most beautiful songs. Most people say they're the best singers, thrushes. Particularly thrushes have kind of two voice boxes and two vocal cords, so they can literally sing duets with themselves. And so, I have Wood Thrush around where I live. I don't hear one here.
But there's a bird that's closely related, and I remember the first time I heard it. I was camped at Cosby. And I took that lower trail, I don't remember the name of it, that kind of circles around the mountain and goes up to Mount Cammerer fire tower. And here again, this is probably a memory from the 80s, maybe early 90s. I heard this incredible song, again, another song I'd never heard. Sometimes you hear them and don't know what you're hearing, so they don't kind of enter your field of awareness. But this particular song, I'd never heard it. Didn't know what it was. And it sounds like—the song sounds like it swirls down a drainpipe. It's got this metallic and reverb to it and again this was a matter of doing the research. Back then you had to go pull out your set of tapes—or I've even got a set of LPs, so I really don't bring those out that much anymore. But I had to just drive around and listen, and all of a sudden—wow—that's it! The bird I'm talking about is a Veery—V-e-e-r-y. And it's closely related to a Wood Thrush and closely related to Swenson's Thrush. And all three of those birds, they can put a little bit of reverb into the song because they're really singing the song twice—just slightly off, not together.
But the Veery, it is so special because it swirls down—it sounds like you're swirling down a metal drainpipe. That is my way of remembering it, and if you look it up and listen to it, you may say, "Well, that doesn't sound like a drainpipe to me." But anyway again, that's my own mnemonic for it. And mnemonic simply means a memory device. But it's one of the most beautiful, otherworldly songs of a bird. And again, it's called a Veery—V-e-e-r-y. It looks a lot like a Wood Thrush, slightly different, but it's got that talented voice of singing a duet with itself.
Karen Key 23:42
What was the hardest, most sought-after Smokies bird you've found?
Stephen Lyn Bales 23:47
Oh, goodness! Everyone will tell you the holy grail of Smoky Mountain birds is a Red Crossbill. They're unpredictable. They tend to be high. You can see them at different months of the year. Yeah, I can't say go here, go there and you'll find them. But a Red Crossbill is kind of the Holy Grail, and I lucked out. I really wasn't looking for a Red Crossbill. I was taking part—I think, this was around 2002, taking part in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count for Cades Cove. And I was assigned Bote Mountain Trail—that's B-o-t-e—and a couple of the trails that are connected to it, to count birds up along the trail to do a Christmas Bird Count. And I think those are more like the end of the year. They're all not done on Christmas Day like they did originally.
It's a short day. You got 8-9 hours of daylight, and I got up and parked along the road near Bote Mountain Trail and started very early. The Sun was coming up and I'm walking up. And when you do a bird count, you walk so far and stop and look for movement. Listen for sounds, and that's how you do it. It's a slow methodical walk up the side of the mountain, really. As I recall, it was a cold day. Usually is a cold day in the Smokies at the end of December. The trick is, you got to go so far up the mountain, but not so far you can't get off before just dark. And I was about to turn around I thought, "Okay, you've had a decent day, not a great day, but a decent day." And here again I was headed towards—I guess that trail ends at Thunderhead. And I don't remember how far I was up the mountain from Thunderhead, but eventually I said, "Well, go ten more minutes, 15 more minutes, whatever, then you got to turn around because you're running out of daylight. And two birds, reddish birds, flew in to a tree, but I was kind of about eye level, because I was on the ridge, and the tree was below me.
And at first, I thought they were House Finches. And I thought, "What's House Finches doing way up here on the mountain?" And that's when I got my binoculars on them and noticed that incredibly wonderful bill. It's a crossbill. It looks like you've crossed your fingers. And the bird is reddish, very similar to a house finch, but it's got that very distinctive heavy crossbill. And why they had the crossbill is, they use it as a tool to pry open pinecones, cause they eat pine nuts. And it's a beautiful bird to look at. And so, here I was staring at two Holy Grail birds. And I thought, "Wow! This made my day." This absolutely was wonderful. I could mark on my little sheet of paper two Red Crossbills. "Oh, this is going to be cool. Everybody's going to be envious."
So I got down off the mountain about dark, and was still pretty high as a kite and was talking to some of the other local birders. And Charlie Muise and his wife Tracy, they were doing the same count on the same day, but their assigned spot was Foothills Parkway. So they were in their car most of the day, nice warm car. And they would pull over at different overlooks and look for birds in and around that overlook. And Charlie said, "We saw this little flock fly into the grass and parked and pulled in and couldn't believe it." It was like, I don't remember the numbers now, 20 or 30 Red Crossbills, so they didn't even have to get far out of their car. And we were the only two people in the whole state that turned in Red Crossbills for that count. They turned in 20 or 30 and I turned in my two. But anyway, I have not seen them since. If someone were to call and say, "Hey, where can I find a Red Crossbill?" I'd say, "Well, the only place I've ever seen them is Bote Mountain Trail in December," And it really needs to be a place that's got pines. They do open pinecones, so it's a ridge somewhere up through there that's got pines. So I think that's the Holy Grail of Smoky Mountain birds.
Karen Key 27:36
Do you have a call for that one?
Stephen Lyn Bales 27:38
I don't remember. And that would be wintertime, and they really wouldn't be territorial at that time. And they would be doing probably more like companion calls, which tend to be shorter and lower because they're just talking to each other. In the wintertime, there isn't a lot of singing. And in the wintertime, it's more watch each other's backs. In the valley, we have what's called mixed winter flocks where you'll have seven—six, seven, eight different species kind of hanging out together, and they're really kind of chipping at each other making vocalizations at each other. But they're not—it's not spring. The males aren't singing to claim territory and to attract mates. So the Red Crossbill, I'd really have to look it up. Off the top of my head, I'm guessing, the Red Crossbill is in the Red Finch family, so I suspect they sound something similar to House Finches, but again I could be easily totally surprised.
Karen Key 28:35
I would like to ask, what are some of your favorite songs that you do, or calls?
Stephen Lyn Bales 28:40
Well, we'll go to towhee—"drink-your-tea"—that's the male popping up and singing. It's funny, in the fall you hear young males practice. They don't always practice the entire song. I was chasing a bird—chasing it with the binoculars—and I heard a bird that was singing, "tea… tea… tea." And I go, "What is that bird?" And I finally got binoculars on it, and it was just a young male towhee practicing the end note before he added the "drink-your-tea" part. So, that's one mnemonic that everyone should know, and that's the shy bird that nests around them. Wood Thrush, I mentioned earlier, is probably many, many birders' favorite song, and a mnemonic for that one is "ee-oh-lay, ee-oh-lee, ee-oh-lay, ee-oh-lee," and again I heard that this morning walking to the mailbox where I live.
A blue jay is "jay-jay-jay." I tell the kids, what I would do with kids, I would say, "You cannot misidentify a Blue Jay, because they tell you what they are—jay-jay-jay-I'm a jay-come on-I'm a jay!"
In fall, usually around October, we get a migratory bird that comes in backyards, comes to feeders. And it's a White-throated Sparrow. When they arrive, they do some singing before winter gets here and they kind of get quiet. And their song mnemonic is "poor-Sam-Peabody-Peabody-Peabody, poor-Sam-Peabody-Peabody-Peabody." Now, they nest in Canada, so the mnemonic in Canada is, "oh-Canada-Canada-Canada-Canada." So that's another song—I like to hear it. Again, they usually arrive at our feeders around the end of October, and we'll hear some of the singing before they really kind of get quiet and do just chip notes and things like that. Because I know that's kind of the first of the winter migratory birds that come here for the winter. It's early October. And then we have several of the birds that come through.
I'm running through my Rolodex quickly of what are some of the other mnemonics I like so much…
Well, phoebe. Phoebe is a name-sayer. We all have phoebe's—that's the only flycatcher that spends it's wintertime and East Tennessee. All the other flycatchers say, "There's not going to be enough food for us," so they leave. But phoebes stay, and phoebe's tell you their name, who they are, "phoebe-phoebe, I'm a phoebe-phoebe." So. you listen for that and they're here all year round. But we do keep them in the wintertime. I'll think of others in a minute.
We've got a Song Sparrow singing to my left here, and the Song Sparrow—it's mnemonic is— and song sparrows, the song itself is broken into three parts. And the parts may vary in length because they want to put more pizazz to it. But the basic mnemonic is "maids-maids-maids-go-bring-in-your-teakettle-ettle-ettle-ettle." So, there's an introductory phrase that's something like "maids-maids-maids," "boop-boop-boop," and then there's a middle section to the song, "go-bring-in," and it can stretch out, and then they kind of wrap it up with a "ettle-ettle-ettle-ettle" at the end. So that's the basic mnemonic for a Song Sparrow, and they're called Song Sparrows because most barrels are just chippy, little chattery songs, but Song Sparrows are really good singers. But that's the mnemonic "maids-maids-maids-go-bring-in-your-teakettle-ettle-ettle-ettle." And I just heard one to my left. And I hear Cardinals back in there too, and I think there's a Carolina Wren back in there. Their songs—they're cranking up.
Valerie Polk 32:38
So, I'm fascinated by, like you mentioned earlier, you said your birds will get used to you. So, your birds are going to stay, really, in the same little area around your house?
Stephen Lyn Bales 32:58
Oh, yeah. Well, they really do. I mean, you're providing… a. Birds are sight-loyal, even if it's a migratory bird, it remembers you. If your home is inviting to them, if you have food out for them. Say hummingbirds—everyone's favorite little tiny birds. They weigh the same as two dimes, tiny little three grams. And they migrate all the way to the Caribbean Islands or to Central America, but they will migrate north, and they will come to your feeders. Say they don't even nest in East Tennessee. Say they nest in in Pennsylvania, but they remember "Oh, this down here is a great feeder. She's always got a great feeder here in April." And they'll come to your same feeder. So they're site-loyal. Chimney Swifts will come back to the same chimney over and over to nest even though they spend their winters in South America. They eat fling insects, and we don't really have a lot of flying insects in the wintertime.
But the birds that are your basic backyard birds, your cardinals, your Winter Wrens, your Tufted Titmice, your Carolina Chickadees… I read once that a Carolina Chickadee would rarely move more than a mile in its entire life. It's either in your backyard, or if you forgot the good seed in your feeder, it's in your neighbor's backyard. But that's their world. They don't migrate. They're here year-round. And same is true of your cardinals, same is true with the Carolina Wrens. The Carolina Wrens basically mate for life, the male and female. Some birds mate for life, some birds mate for the season, and some birds kind of mate for the clutch. And all that's kind of changing as people really start studying. And it's hard, you know. Say you're studying Caroline Wrens, and you wonder, do they mate for life? Are you going to watch them every day for 365 days, and know that that's the same pair you've been watching? So you've really got to tag and put numbers on them and really kind of follow them closely. But as it's my understanding Carolina Wrens do mate for life and they probably never leave your yard. As long as they're finding food—now if the feeder is empty, they look for a spider's nest or spider egg cases and spiders and whatever moths or butterflies might be hidden in the trees. So they're there, as long as they're finding food and water…
It's important in wintertime to make sure you've got a birdbath of water. On a very cold day, it's harder to find water for birds than food because water may be frozen everywhere. So as long as you've got a nice birdbath for water, if you're providing food, shelter, and water, then there's really no need for them to go anywhere else. That's your basic backyard birds, and they exist on different… some are high in the tree some are much lower. Like I said, your towhees are ground birds. They find their food by kicking over leaves and looking under leaves for worms and beetles and grubs, all those yummy little tidbits that they find under leaves. And so, that's what, they'll spend their wintertime just turning leaves over and over.
Did I digress from the original question? I think I did…
Valerie Polk 35:58
It just fascinated me. I never really thought about birds staying in the same area.
Stephen Lyn Bales 36:03
Okay, that's where we started with that, wasn't it? Yeah, they really do. There's a wonderful, wonderful book I completely recommend. It's called What the Robin Knows, and it was written—I think his name's Jon Young, J-o-n, but I'm not quite clear on the last name, so please John if you're listening to this, your book is wonderful. But What the Robin Knows, and it really just comes from him watching birds constantly and figuring out their behavior. I mean, it's one thing to be able to identify a bird and to know, "Oh, that bird comes to my feeder and likes sunflower seed." It's another thing just to see and watch them. Here again—there's a Song Sparrow—it's another thing just to sit and watch them and watch their behavior, what they do. They do more than just eat, in other words, and any time they're being vocal they're communicating with other birds around them, but they're also… there's danger there when they're being vocal. They are advertising to predators—cats, dogs, raccoons. They're advertising to predators—Cooper's Hawks—here's my location.
I often worry about cardinals. Male cardinals are so bright red in the wintertime. I mean, we see them from a quarter-mile away. That means a Cooper's Hawk can see them from two miles away. So, I always worry about the male cardinals in winter. I want to say, "Why don't you guys really drab up and hide somewhere?"
So, now your birds are your birds and they get used to your movements. And if you're out mowing—"Oh, they're mowing." And they love for you to mow, because you're going to kick up some insects. But no, those are your birds.
But small birds like what we're talking about, say the wrens, even the cardinals, their life expectancy is six, seven years, so they don't live a long time. As a general rule, the smallest birds have the shortest lives. Hummingbirds burn themselves out in probably three, four years, whereas larger birds—bald eagles live 30-35 years. Whooping cranes live 50 years. So, the larger birds live longer lives. But what you got going on in your backyard is kind of a constant turnover. And young birds that are born in your backyard or around your yard, they may move away because mom and dad keep their turf. If you have a pair of Carolina Wrens, that's their yard, and when they finish raising their young, they're going to say, "We've done absolutely everything in the world we can for you. Why don't you send us a postcard around Christmas?" So, the other birds will kind of leave, maybe, their backyard, but that's where they're born. I'm from Gatlinburg, that's where I feel bonded to, and your backyard birds are bonded to your backyard.
Valerie Polk 38:45
What is your favorite place in the Smokies?
Stephen Lyn Bales 38:47
It's hard to narrow it down. One place that is very close to the road is, if you go to Newfound Gap and drive towards Clingmans Dome, the first really nice big parking area is where the original Cherokee trail crosses over the mountains before we found Newfound Gap. It's a great place to go in May and June and sit in the grass at about twilight and listen for saw-whet owls. So, that's one place.
I love walking up the trail above Elkmont. I went with my sister about a year ago, and we just lucked out and there was more tiger swallowtail butterflies than I've ever seen. They were everywhere and I was shocked to see that many. I love Alum Cave Trail. I love Alum Cave because that's where you can go and see peregrine falcons this time of year. So, this is really an ideal time of year to go to see birds and hear birds.
Valerie Polk 39:48
So, what keeps you busy lately now that you've retired?
Stephen Lyn Bales 39:52
Oh goodness, everything else. I've become an even more avid birder now than I was before, because when you're teaching—well, you're teaching. And not only was I teaching about birds, I'd teach about frogs, I'd teach about salamanders, I'd teach the whole thing. So, I'm doing that more and I'm writing more. And I'm also an illustrator, so I'm drawing more. And last year, for the first time, I got to help Tremont with the monarch butterfly tagging. So, I'm still a naturalist—I will die a naturalist. It's just now I don't quite get paid to be a naturalist. And that's okay. I get to do what I want. I like to call it refocused.
Valerie Polk 40:36
Well, thank you Stephen Lyn Bales for being with us today. We appreciate it so much.
Stephen Lyn Bales 40:40
Well, thank you. It's been fun!
Valerie Polk 40:43
Have a good rest of your day.
Stephen Lyn Bales 40:44
Oh, I will. You have a good day up there, OK.
Valerie Polk 40:47
Alright, thanks! Bye-bye!
Karen Key 40:51
Stephen Lyn Bales is a naturalist, author, and illustrator. He also writes an online blog titled Nature Calling. His story on winter wrens appeared in Smokies Life magazine, Volume 9, #1. You can find this out-of-print issue and others at SmokiesInformation.org/MissingIssues.
Look for more episodes in our series Smoky Mountain Air from Great Smoky Mountains Association to come soon. Our theme music is from Old Time Smoky Mountain Music, GSMA's Grammy nominated music collection available at SmokiesInformation.org. Bird recordings by Mark Dunaway. Thanks for listening!
[Old-time guitar music and bird song]