Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-shouldered Hawk, Pileated Woodpecker

October 19th, 2018

On our first really cool morning this fall, a sunny day with a soft blue sky, I heard the mewing call of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for the first time since last spring – and saw it fly to the trunk of a pecan tree in a neighbor’s yard. Of course, it stayed on the other side of the trunk, out of sight at first, but after a minute or two, its head appeared, looking cautiously around the trunk, showing its striking black-and-white striped face, long pointed bill, and bright red crown and throat.

I was especially happy to see the colorful view of this Yellow-bellied Sapsucker peering around the trunk, because it’s the first of our winter birds to return. A migrant species that we don’t find here during the summer months, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers arrive about this time of year to stay through the winter – and then leave again in the spring for breeding territories in more northern parts of North America.

On the rest of a walk through the neighborhood, birds seemed scarce and generally quiet most of the way, and yet, there still were some nice surprises, as well as a number of our most familiar birds.

In one partly-wooded spot there seemed to be a small burst of activity, maybe a feeding flock moving through the trees. Mostly there were Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens, also two Brown-headed Nuthatches, one White-breasted Nuthatch, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, and an Eastern Phoebe. As I was looking up at the nuthatches, I heard some low, kind of short, soft calls – and a big, richly-colored Red-shouldered Hawk sailed up from behind me and glided low across the road in front of me. Breathtaking. I caught just a brief but vivid flash of its red-orange breast, dark wings and black-and-white striped tail, as it flew through a sparse patch of trees on a hill, and stopped on a low branch overlooking a scrubby patch of land that was partially cleared of trees about a year ago, for a house that was never built. Now that area has grown up in tall grasses, small shrubs, and vines, as well as a few scattered trees. So it looked like it might be a good hunting spot for the hawk.  It sat with its back to me, but several times turned its calm brown head around, and I could see it fairly well. Before I walked on, three Blue Jays had begun to harass it, but so far it didn’t seem much bothered by them.

Walking through more open areas of large, grassy yards and scattered shade trees, I passed several Eastern Bluebirds, a few Chipping Sparrows and House Finches, and heard the cherwink calls of Eastern Towhees and the kleer! of at least three Northern Flickers. One Northern Mockingbird was singing short bursts of song, and a Brown Thrasher called a sharp smack, and then a pretty teeur from somewhere in a thicket.

The sudden trumpeted call of a Pileated Woodpecker broke the quiet around a tangled grove of trees and shrubs that stretches from the road back to the edge of a county water treatment plant. The big black and white woodpecker with its flamboyant red crest had just flown to the dead stub of a pine tree, where it sat, whacking loudly and intently on the branch. Wood chips flew, and the woodpecker found something there that it ate quite a lot of – most likely wood-loving carpenter ants.

October Dawn

October 19th, 2018

At seven o’clock this morning, the day was barely light, the sky pearl-gray, the trees still shaped by night. I opened a bedroom window and felt very chilled air – in the 40s for the first time this year, and it felt so good! A few crickets chirped, but mostly the shrubs and yard lay still and quiet. Then a Mockingbird sang a few notes – it’s been singing off and on for several days and is usually one of the first birds I hear in the morning now. Then a Cardinal peeped, and over the next half hour or so, I very gradually heard the calls of an Eastern Towhee, the trilling and fussing of a Carolina Wren, the distant caws of Crows, the teeur calls of a Brown Thrasher, the chatter of a Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, and White-breasted Nuthatch, and the cries of a Blue Jay. An Eastern Phoebe called tsup a few times, and then began to sing. I think it was after sunrise before I heard the chuck-chucking calls of a Red-bellied Woodpecker and the whinny of a Downy.

Carolina Wren in a Golden Glow

October 14th, 2018

On a sunny, pleasantly warm Sunday afternoon, things around our front yard seemed very quiet, except for the dry leaves and acorns that showered down in even the lightest breeze. After spending several minutes sitting on the front porch, I’d only seen a very few birds. A Northern Mockingbird sat in a small pecan tree in the middle of our cul de sac, and now and then it sang for several minutes, then fell silent again. Its pieces of song sounded more casual than a spring or summer song, much less intense.

An Eastern Towhee came out from below some azalea shrubs to forage in the leaf-mulch, and I watched it for several minutes as it came very close to where I sat. Its plumage looked slightly mottled, especially on the head, so I think maybe it was young, a first-fall male. With a black head, bib and back; warm reddish sides, and white belly, the color pattern was complete, but the black head was subtly striped with brown, and the rest of its coloring was similarly mottled, just a little. I watched as it picked up a water oak acorn and held it in its beak, as if not sure what to do with it, then dropped it and went back to scratching up leaves, looking for something else. It did this three different times, at least, maybe because there were so many acorns on the ground, but it didn’t ever eat an acorn while I was watching – though acorns are said to be common parts of a Towhee’s diet. What it did eat was something that it found in the crack of the sidewalk – whatever that was, it snapped up quite a lot before moving back into the shrubs.

Two Carolina Wrens joined the Towhee in foraging around some Yaupon hollies. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called chuck-chuck high up in trees around the yard, moving from one to another. A Downy Woodpecker also called from somewhere near. A Brown Thrasher joined the Mockingbird in the small pecan tree.

Then the Towhee flew to the rim of the birdbath – only a few feet away from where I was sitting – and without much hesitation, he hopped in and just stood there for a moment, and then flew away. The two Carolina Wrens followed him to the birdbath, and they each got right in and took full, exuberant, splashing baths, one at a time. It must have been the bathing hour – late afternoon – because the wrens were followed by four Tufted Titmice that flew in noisily and took turns bathing, one at a time, while the others chattered in the bushes, making the quiet yard seem as if it had suddenly, briefly come to life.

The afternoon was getting late, and I was just about ready to go inside, when I noticed a Carolina Wren nestled in the glossy green leaves in the very top of a big shrub near the porch, its head turned up toward a slanting ray of sunlight coming through the trees. It sat in a pool of light, its rich brown and cream colors all caught in a golden glow, and it was so very close and lit so well that the details of each feather seemed to shimmer – even in the white around the eyes, the cream-white eyebrow, white throat, and the cinnamon head and back. And the buffy breast, especially, looked as if its feathers were spun of pale reddish-gold.

An Eastern Towhee’s SEEE Calls

October 14th, 2018

About this time of year each fall, I start to listen for the calls of White-throated Sparrows. These handsome, plump sparrows with bright white throats usually arrive from their summer homes in the north sometime in October. Their haunting, whistled songs are perhaps our most beautiful winter music.

As they forage for food in leaf mulch below and around shrubs in yards, thickets, vacant lots and fields, they also keep in touch through short, sibilant contact calls that sound like tseet. This quiet, low call is one that I’ve long thought of as familiar – and yet, every year about this time I think I hear them long before I actually do. It’s wishful thinking, mainly, but possible because there are several other songbirds that spend a lot of time in the same kind of habitat – and some of them have calls that are very similar to those of White-throated Sparrows.

This morning when I heard a call that sounded like a tseet, I stopped beside a large group of shrubs and listened, and almost immediately, an Eastern Towhee flew out of a bush and up to a low branch just over my head, where it perched, and called again, a soft, sweet seee.

Eastern Towhees are among our most common birds here, known for their drink-your-tea song, and rich chewink call. But I had never recognized this quiet seee call, which they use to keep in touch with other Towhees as they search for food. The Birds of North America species account describes it as a “lisp call,” and notes that it is perhaps the second most common Towhee call, after chewink. It is “high-pitched, clear, sibilant . . . soft, thin, barely audible beyond a few meters. . . . evidently functions as a contact note.”*

Now I’m not at all sure I’ll be able to tell the difference between the calls of a White-throated Sparrow – and those of an Eastern Towhee – not to mention other similar sounds. Calls like these can be pretty subtle and confusing, and I have no doubt that I’m wrong more often than right in identifying them. But I’m looking forward to trying, and maybe learning more.

*Greenlaw, J.S. (2015). Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) version 2.0. in The Birds of North America (P.G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

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.