Cedar Waxwings Open the Holiday Season

November 24th, 2017

Today has been a spectacularly beautiful fall day – sheets of heavy white frost in the morning across the grass and tops of shrubs, followed by a cool, crisp, sunny afternoon. Our home and neighborhood are surrounded in the bronze-brown colors of white-oak leaves, at their fullest and most handsome now, turning light golden against a clear blue sky.

Eastern Towhees called from bushes, and Eastern Bluebirds from treetops facing the sun. An American Goldfinch called a wispy potato-chip as it flew overhead. An American Robin stood in a grassy yard; Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Downy Woodpeckers chattered and rattled and peeped. Eastern Phoebes sang and called tsup. Northern Flickers called kleer! Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown-headed and White-breasted Nuthatches called, too, in their different ways. Several Chipping Sparrows flew up from the roadside, into the low branches of trees, where their rust-red crowns looked especially bright. A quiet Northern Mockingbird sat in the bare branches of a crape myrtle. One Black Vulture and one Turkey Vulture soared.

Near some scrubby trees and shrubs along a small hill, I stopped when I heard the loud, buzzy fussing of a Carolina Wren – and sure enough, lots of small birds began to appear. Chickadees, Titmice, a second Carolina Wren and a third, a pair of Cardinals – and two Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitted low in the trees with a sliver of ruby showing in the tops of their heads. As one moved quickly from branch to branch, it seemed to be trembling all over its tiny body, flicking wings and tail. Both kinglets were fussing, too, a stuttering jidit-jidit-jidit. Two Golden-crowned Kinglets also showed up, a little higher in the trees, their striped crowns bright. A big Red-bellied Woodpecker clung to a trunk – while tapping sounds from across the road came from a White-breasted Nuthatch working on the trunk of a pecan tree with its long, powerful bill.

One bird I did not come across today was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, though I’ve seen them fairly often recently, so I know they’re around. The same is true for a Hermit Thrush, and I probably just didn’t listen for them carefully enough. But I also could not find a single Yellow-rumped Warbler – a much more worrisome bird to miss. I couldn’t even hear a chip note here or there, while in years past there would have been dozens scattered all through the neighborhood, maybe even hundreds. I’ve seen a few around this fall, just not nearly as many as in the past. They used to be so common here in winter that I never thought I’d say this – but I miss them.

There were, however, Cedar Waxwings – the first ones I’ve seen here this season, or almost the first. I began hearing their very high, thin, elusive calls several days ago, but hadn’t been able to see them until today. Moments after I heard their calls this time, a small flock of about a dozen or more flew into a large Savannah holly tree. As always, their sleek, smooth plumage and colors – taupe-brown and pearl-gray, with a pale lemon belly, narrow black mask and warm brown crest, and a gleaming yellow-tipped tail – looked exquisite, like gleaming ornaments perched among the leaves of the evergreen tree.

Thankful for the Song of a Blue-headed Vireo

November 23rd, 2017

Mid-morning on a sunny, cool and colorful Thanksgiving Day, I stood on the edge of a small patch of woods, watching two Golden-crowned Kinglets flit through leaves of orange and brown, along with several other small birds. After a few minutes, I realized that among the familiar calls of birds nearby, I was hearing the song of a vireo. A Blue-headed Vireo. It’s not a song I would expect to hear at this time of year – and it’s funny how much expectations can affect what one does hear or see.

When it finally did register, I pretty quickly found the small bird, very high in the branches of oaks, with the sun almost directly behind it, so it was difficult to see well. But it sang several times over the course of many minutes, and I caught at least a brief glimpse or two of the bold white spectacles on its blue-gray face.

A Blue-headed Vireo’s song is made up of clear phrases, separated by pauses, similar to the songs of Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, but more musical and sweeter. It’s also distinguished by a slightly slower pace and a gently-slurred quality to the notes.

It was a special pleasure to hear this unexpected and lovely song on a peaceful Thanksgiving Day.

Golden-crowned Kinglets in a Dispute

November 13th, 2017

A few days ago, an oak tree on the side of the road sounded as if it were full of Golden-crowned Kinglets, making calls that sounded more shrill and louder than usual. That day I didn’t have binoculars with me – but today when I heard the same unusual calls coming from the same tree, I did.

What I saw high up in the branches were, indeed, several small birds, but the loud, shrill calls seemed to be coming mostly, if not entirely, from just two tiny Golden-crowned Kinglets that appeared to be in a dispute. They stood very close to each other on a branch, with their crowns erected into fluffy golden crests, and behavior that looked fiercely aggressive, with wings flicking, heads lowered, and the tiny birds hopping up and down. One of them seemed to be trying to chase the other away. Their fussing calls were very shrill, piercing and sustained – quite different from the kinglets’ usual quiet ti-ti-ti.

This behavior continued for several minutes, as the two kinglets moved along the branches from one spot to another, but they didn’t move far and did not fly away to another tree. A third Golden-crowned Kinglet flitted near these two and sometimes came close to them, but it didn’t interfere. At least one Ruby-crowned Kinglet and one Carolina Chickadee were foraging nearby in the same tree, and there were other small birds too high up for me to see well.

Golden-crowned Kinglet males are known to be territorial and combative during nesting season, but during the winter season they become more sociable and often move in feeding flocks with other kinglets and small songbirds like Chickadees and Titmice.

It might be unusual to see a confrontation between two kinglets at this time of year, but it doesn’t seem hard to believe that territorial disputes might arise now and then, even outside of nesting season. But it was something I’ve never seen before. Even more interesting, perhaps, was the fact that the same aggressive behavior between two Golden-crowned Kinglets seemed to have happened on two different days, in this same tree.

The Chirping Calls of Song Sparrows

November 13th, 2017

The day began cool and foggy, but by mid-morning the clouds had disappeared, leaving a deep-blue sky and a bright November sun. The first sounds I heard were the blurry calls of Eastern Bluebirds, then the chatter of Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe. A Hermit Thrush called its liquid chup from somewhere deep in the trees. Small songbirds were feeding in the grass here and there – in one place Eastern Bluebirds, a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and one warm-yellow Pine Warbler.

In the Old Field along the dead-end road outside our subdivision, two White-throated Sparrows came out of damp privet thickets into the morning sun, and one of them posed in perfect light on a tall blackberry cane. A big, plump sparrow with a clean white throat that makes it easy to recognize, it’s a stylish-looking bird, with a sense of flair – a gray breast and warm brown, dark-streaked wings and back, a black-and-white striped head, gray face, and deep-yellow mark over the bill.

Just a few yards away, in tall grass on the edge of a power cut, two more modest, rumpled, brown-streaked Song Sparrows also came out to sit in the sun, twitching their long tails nervously. An Eastern Mockingbird appeared, and a male Northern Cardinal – and a tiny, jewel-like Ruby-crowned Kinglet, with its crisp green-gray color and white-ringed eye, flicked in and out of a bush.

Several White-throated Sparrows and Song Sparrows were calling from hidden spots in the field, dotting the weedy grass and shrubs with their different sounds, and giving me a good chance to compare the dry tseets and ringing chinks of White-throated Sparrows, with the more chirping chips of Song Sparrows. Even after many years of birding, sometimes it seems a lost cause to try to recognize sparrows by their calls because the differences can be pretty subtle and confusing. But I always enjoy trying, and gradually have become familiar with some. There’s something almost magical about recognizing birds by the smallest of sounds, and knowing they’re there without having to see them. Really listening opens a quite amazing new perspective on so much that often goes unnoticed.

A White-throated Sparrow’s Song

November 10th, 2017

After yesterday’s all-day dark clouds, rain, and falling temperatures, this morning dawned bright, crisp, sunny – and cold. As sunlight moved over grassy yards, swirls of mist rose like fog. Dozens of filmy, fairy-like grass-spider webs lay scattered over yards and roadsides, sparkling with dew. Only a few stray white clouds streaked a clear, soft-blue sky.

From a bank of tall shrubs behind a neighbor’s house, the clear, whistled song of a White-throated Sparrow spiraled into the air – oh sweet Canada, Can-a-da. This was the first song of a White-throated Sparrow I’ve heard this season, and it was very welcome. It seems to me they’re late this year. From a distance, I could see three or four plump sparrows with clean white throats darting in and out of the bushes. They weren’t close enough to see too clearly or well. Though these are the first ones I’ve found, I think some almost certainly have been around for a while, and I just haven’t been out at the right time or place. The singing sparrow sang several times, lifting the notes high and slow, letting each one linger in the air and fade away.

In the Old Field, two Song Sparrows flitted in and out of dense privet bushes, twitching their long tails nervously. One paused for several moments on a tall, sunlit stem of grass to preen – and maybe to dry and warm.

Walking on, I passed two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers in different spots, both working intently on the trunks of pecan trees; several Chipping Sparrows feeding along the roadside and flying up into low branches when startled; several Ruby-crowned Kinglets, fussing jidiit-jidit; a few Golden-crowned Kinglets much higher up in the trees, and difficult to see, though I could hear their ti-ti-ti calls; two White-breasted Nuthatches creeping up the trunks of trees; and about a half dozen widely scattered Yellow-rumped Warblers, calling out dry chips as they moved through the trees. Eastern Phoebes sang, called tsup, and perched in the tops of treetops. A flashy pair of Eastern Towhees called chur-whee! from the tangle of privet and vines, moving in and out of the leaves.

Later, about a mile away, in a low, cool, wooded spot in a much different kind of area, I was listening and watching for small birds when a Red-shouldered Hawk suddenly came gliding fast out of the trees on one side of the road, across the road low, just barely ahead of me, and into the trees on the other side, and out of sight. It held its broad wings firmly outspread the whole way, and its tail folded narrow and long, making its shape look solid and very sleek. In the deep shade of this spot, the rich colors of its breast and wings and back showed up only in a fleeting glimpse. It was there, and gone, almost before I could breathe.

Golden-crowned Kinglets and a Mystery Tree

November 8th, 2017

Walking on through the neighborhood, I heard the chatter of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, the kleer calls of Northern Flickers, and the calls of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Eastern Phoebes, Northern Mockingbirds, and both White-breasted and Brown-headed Nuthatches. Several Mourning Doves flushed up in a flurry of whistling wings from a grassy yard, and there were Eastern Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows, House Finches and Eastern Towhees.

A Pileated Woodpecker worked on the trunk of a pecan tree, the loud whacks of its bill standing out against the quiet, and its big red crest like a flare in the misty light. Then a second Pileated Woodpecker flew to another tree nearby, flashing the white patches in its wings.

As I came close to a large oak tree on one side of the road, I began to hear what seemed to be the high, sibilant ti-ti-ti calls of many Golden-crowned Kinglets. Though I’ve seen a number of Golden-crowned Kinglets here this Fall, they’ve been widely scattered, with only one or two at a time. This sounded like a whole congregation. The very high calls – usually so quiet you might not even know they’re around – mingled together so that they sounded almost shrill.

This was when I really wished very badly for binoculars. Up in this tree – which still held a lot of faded leaves – I could, indeed, see many small birds flitting around, though what they were, I could not be sure. In the gray, blurry light, there was no way I could see more than little dark winged shapes. I’m sure that at least one or two were Golden-crowned Kinglets, but doubt that all of them were. Some probably were Chickadees and Titmice.

I thought there might have been a Brown Creeper among them, because its calls are similar, and I searched the trunk for several moments, trying to spot one – but if there was a Creeper, I couldn’t find it. After a long time standing there and watching, feeling very frustrated and annoyed with myself, I finally walked on with a deep sigh of resignation. I’ll never know for sure what all those little birds were.

Hermit Thrush

November 8th, 2017

Today has been the most beautiful kind of Fall day, cloudy, gray and moody, cool and damp, after rain overnight that washed down still more leaves. The wet yards and roads were thickly spattered with yellow and brown. By mid-morning the rain had paused, but clouds hung low and dark, and more rain was expected later in the day. It’s been the rare and wonderful kind of day when the temperature falls as the day goes on – it began in the mid 60s and by mid-afternoon would fall into the low 50s, and yet, there was hardly any wind at all. An unusual quiet surrounded me as I walked, peaceful and mellow, with the bittersweet feeling that comes in late Fall.

There were not a great many birds at first, and I didn’t carry binoculars because of the chance of rain – I would regret that, as I usually do. But it was a good day for listening, and as it turned out, the highlights of the morning were not what I saw – but what I heard. For the first part of the way, there were the usual suspects – the scattered chatter of Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and Carolina Wrens, the peeps of a Northern Cardinal here and there, the whinny of a Downy Woodpecker.

Then as I was walking past a stretch of woods I heard a liquid chup-chup call from somewhere among the trees, not too far away. It was a sound I’ve been waiting to hear, listening every day for the past two or three weeks at least, and beginning to wonder if one would return this year, and finally here it was – a Hermit Thrush.

A Hermit Thrush is a pale-brown songbird similar in shape to a robin, with a spotted throat and breast, and a habit of raising its long cinnamon tail sharply and lowering it slowly, often doing this as it calls a soft chup, and looks around alertly with its head erect and watchful. Hermit Thrushes are only here at this time of year – from late Fall into Spring, when they leave to spend the nesting season in northern forests and a wide range of territories throughout North America. Though I don’t often hear them sing while they’re here – a song so lovely it has inspired many poets and other writers – the soft, simple call of chup seems to me almost as haunting and as sweet. Hermit Thrushes are woodland birds, not particularly shy, but easy to overlook because of their quiet appearance and solitary behavior. In the winter here, I often find them – each one alone – around wooded yards, feeding on the ground close to shrubs and flying up to low branches of trees when startled.

I stood for several moments on the edge of the road, listening and looking, trying to spot a bird among the trees, but I couldn’t find it and finally walked on. Even without seeing it, to hear its call was the highlight of the morning, as vivid as any sighting could be.

Blue-headed Vireo – A Very Cool Bird

November 6th, 2017

With a pattering sound like rain, the small brown leaves of water oaks were showering down all around when I first stepped out the door this morning. Already they almost covered the grass, and still they fell, filling the air in tumbling leaves. Two red maples on the edge of our yard – which only yesterday were dense and full of coral-red in a blaze of autumn color – also were shedding steady cascades of leaves, as if they had suddenly realized how late the season has become.

Our weather has remained so unusually warm and sunny that until today it’s often felt more like late summer than fall. But this morning, under soft-blue skies half-covered in wooly clouds, the air felt damp and cool, and there was a sense of change in the air and in the light. Though fall colors have been spreading very slowly here and there for weeks, this morning many trees that had remained mostly green seemed overnight to have turned half brown or yellow or red.

But if the trees have finally begun to notice the time of year, birds still seem to be uncommonly few in number, especially the winter birds that usually would have arrived here by now. Some of them are here, but not nearly as many as we used to see. I’m hoping they’re just running late. Still – today held a brilliant surprise, a reminder that you never know what might show up.

For the first part of a morning walk, I mostly heard the calls of our most common year-round birds – Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals; Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, Eastern Phoebes, Chipping Sparrows, and House Finches. A few winter birds have joined them – the high ti-ti-ti calls of one or two Golden-crowned Kinglets high up in the pines, and the stuttering jidit-jidit chatter of Ruby-crowned Kinglets lower, in shrubs and small trees.

In one already-bare tree in the middle of a cul de sac, a handsome Brown Thrasher sat on a lower branch, facing west, while a Northern Mockingbird perched in a higher branch on the other side, facing east.

Just as I reached the top of a steep hill, I stopped to check out some tapping sounds and found a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker working on a large branch of a pecan tree. Its crown and throat gleamed crimson, with its face outlined in striking black and white stripes. Then suddenly there seemed to be little birds everywhere. Chickadees, Titmice, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and a Downy Woodpecker were moving through the trees and shrubs in a loose flock of feeding birds.

Traveling with them, a Pine Warbler paused on the edge of a tall shrub, a small gray bird with two blurry wing-bars, a very distinct pale ring around the eye, and a light wash of yellow on the breast – a female or a juvenile. A White-breasted Nuthatch flew to the trunk of a pecan tree and began working, creeping up and sideways, then down, probing the bark with its long bill. A very small bird with a large head and stubby body, its plumage is a crisp, wintery mix of blue-gray back, black cap and bright white face. Meanwhile, several Chipping Sparrows and House Finches foraged nearby in the grass. A colorful Northern Flicker perched in the top of another pecan tree.

Then a strikingly vivid bird flew to a low branch almost right in front of me – a small songbird with a smooth, blue-gray head and face, and bold white circles around its eyes that are usually described as spectacles. It was a Blue-headed Vireo, a bird I only find here now and then. Its dramatic appearance is always impressive – not only the contrast of white spectacles against the blue-gray face, but also the white throat, and white wing bars against a green-gray back, a pale breast with a flush of yellow on the sides, and an intricate pattern of white and greenish trim along the edges of the wings.

A Blue-headed Vireo moves in a slow and deliberate way, adding to the elegance of its appearance – a very cool bird in more ways than one. It moves along a branch, searching the surfaces and crevices of leaves and twigs for insects. It’s a bird that’s mostly seen here in migration, both spring and fall, though some spend the winter only a little further south. They nest in northern forests and in mountain forests of the eastern U.S.

Scarlet Tanager and Indigo Bunting

April 30th, 2016

The month of April drifted to a quiet end with several days of picture-perfect warm, sunny weather and gentle blue skies. A very few more summer birds arrived, or passed through in migration, including one Scarlet Tanager, whose distinct chick-brrrr calls and harsh song I heard one morning, from too far back in the woods to see; and a Gray Catbird whistling its awkward but intriguing song, and mewing a raspy call in the same water oaks where I often found a pair last summer. One morning two Northern Rough-winged Swallows swooped low over the trees and road near our house – the first Rough-winged Swallows I’ve ever seen here in our neighborhood, though they’re common throughout the U.S. in summer.

In the old field, a Common Yellowthroat warbled its rolling wichety-wichety-wichety song from somewhere very deep in the thickets of privet and vines. It’s almost certainly a migrant passing through because, for the past several years, I’ve occasionally heard one singing here, but only during spring or fall. They don’t usually stay for the summer. Though the small bright-yellow birds with a jaunty black mask like a shrubby, tangled habitat like this, they more often prefer somewhat wetter conditions, like lowlands or wetlands, with water somewhere nearby.

Also in the field, an Indigo Bunting arrived, and has been chanting its cheery sweet-sweet-chew-chew-sweet-sweet from perches in the very tops of small, scraggly trees or large bushes, often along the edge of the power-cut. It’s a tiny little dot of intense indigo-blue, persistently singing its sparkling, bouncing song over and over, notes of impossible beauty almost lost against the background noise of traffic on the highway nearby.

A Hooded Warbler Day

April 22nd, 2016

Today a Hooded Warbler sang in the woods around our back yard all day long. I first heard its song through open windows early this morning, and when I went outside, found it perched among the new green leaves of oaks, and watched as it lifted its head to sing.

A Hooded Warbler is small neotropical songbird with a brilliant yellow face, strikingly framed by a black hood and bib. Its breast and belly are yellow; its back and wings olive green. It often flares its tail, flashing its white edges. Its song is a loud, clear weeta-weeta-wee-TEEE-oh, a very distinct song that’s hard to miss. Over the years, we’ve seen a Hooded Warbler now and then, but it was very unusual to have one stay around so close for a whole day and to hear its bright, loudly whistled song always in the background.

Hooded Warblers spend winters in the rainforests of Central America and return to the eastern half of North America for the breeding season. They are still fairly common in this part of Georgia in the summer – though not often in our own neighborhood. They prefer more deeply-wooded habitat near streams or wetlands, in the bottomland of a forest.

All afternoon as I worked in my office, I could hear it singing through an open window beside me. It was a fine reminder of Earth Day, though at the same time, a reminder of the threats looming over so many songbirds today. The Hooded Warbler is among the songbirds considered “climate threatened” by the National Audubon Society because climate change is expected to bring drier conditions to regions where Hooded Warblers now depend on the lowland, under-story of humid, wetter forests.

Hooded Warblers are also considered at some risk because they are often parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds, especially in areas where woodlands have become patchy and fragmented.