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.

Very Few Yellow-rumped Warblers

April 20th, 2016

This past winter, for the second year in a row, I’ve seen very few Yellow-rumped Warblers here in our neighborhood. This is a big change – and hard to believe. In past years, they’ve been among our most common winter birds. I could always expect to see a good many every day, around our own yard and just about everywhere – and to hear their dry chek calls all around.

In winter Yellow-rumped Warblers are small, grayish birds, not especially colorful, but easily identified by the prominent yellow patch on the rump. As the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website notes, “Yellow-rumped Warblers are impressive in the sheer numbers with which they flood the continent each fall,” arriving here from their summer homes further north and west. They are considered abundant, widespread, and among the most common warblers in North America. But this year and last, most days I’ve had to look carefully and pay attention to find even one or two, and there were many days when I didn’t see or hear a single one. It’s impossible to overstate just how unusual this is.

In past years by this time of early spring, the gentle, loosely-trilled songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers would be filling the woods and sounding almost like the myriad leaves themselves were singing. Today I could hear only a few here and there. Early in the afternoon I watched four Yellow-rumped Warblers move through the trees around our back yard. Two were in their brighter, more colorful spring plumage – a complex pattern of gray and black with deep-yellow sides and rump, snow-white throat, a black mask, a small patch of yellow on the crown, and white bars in the wings. Some were singing at times, and I could hear their sharp, dry chek calls as they flew from tree to tree. As with all things that become less common, I think I felt more appreciation for them than I might have in years past.

As far as I know, there haven’t been any reports of declines in Yellow-rumped Warbler populations generally or in other places – so this may be something that’s happened just here in our particular neighborhood. We’ve certainly also seen fewer of several other bird species in the past few years – and the complete loss of some – most likely because of increased development in the surrounding area, and loss of habitat. The change is particularly noticeable and dramatic with the Yellow-rumped Warblers, because they used to be so abundant and common here in the winter.

Great Crested Flycatcher and Other Recent Arrivals

April 20th, 2016

The past few days have been picture-perfect, beautiful spring days, with blue skies and scattered white clouds, and a very warm sun – and the arrival of more and more spring and summer birds – Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Chimney Swifts, at least one singing Red-eyed Vireo, and today I heard the first deep, rolling whreeep of a Great Crested Flycatcher.

Meanwhile, a Black-and-white Warbler continues to sing in the woods around our back yard; a Louisiana Waterthrush sings from down along the creek; and now and then a Yellow-throated Vireo passes through the treetops near the house – whenever I hear its song I stop whatever I’m doing, if I can, and just listen, happy to have it here. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds – both male and female – come often to the feeder now.

Early mornings begin with the songs of Northern Cardinal, Eastern Towhee, Carolina Wren, Eastern Phoebe, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird, Pine Warbler and Chipping Sparrow – and the sweetly whistled songs of White-throated Sparrows, which are all the sweeter because it won’t be long before they leave for their summer homes in the far north.

House Wrens have also returned to the neighborhood over the past week – and I can’t say I’m happy to see them. Their bubbly, cheery songs used to sound pretty to me – but now I’m afraid their arrival is not good news for our Carolina Chickadees and Eastern Bluebirds, both already nesting in four bluebird houses around the yard. Already we’ve seen a House Wren sticking its head out of one bluebird house that did have a bluebird nest, and we checked another house and found a chickadee nest in which several eggs and two tiny nestlings all had been destroyed.

On a brighter note, the nest of a pair of Eastern Phoebes in the high crook of a gutter along one corner of the house seems to be doing just fine. The parents are going back and forth frequently, feeding nestlings.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Singing – and Singing

April 18th, 2016

Yesterday as I sat on the deck reading after lunch, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet began to sing in the low limbs of oaks around the edge of our back yard – and it sang and sang and sang – one quick, complex little song after another, with hardly one second’s pause in between. After about 15 minutes or so, I put my book down and began to look for it. I wished that I had begun counting, because I’ve never heard one sing so many times, though it may not be unusual. Ruby-crowned Kinglets, which are winter birds for us here, always seem to be tiny balls of energy, constantly on the move through shrubs or low branches of trees, flicking their wings often as they go – very small, roundish, gray-green birds with white wing bars, a white ring around the eye, and a ruby-red crest that isn’t always visible.

Many Ruby-crowned Kinglets have been singing here for the past few weeks – I heard the first ones on March 10 – as they usually do before leaving for their summer homes in the north. This one stayed in the same area around the back yard for at least 15 minutes, maybe much longer, moving through the branches but not nearly as quickly as one usually does. I watched it for a few minutes as it made its way very gradually from branch to branch, singing as it moved. Now and then it paused and lifted its head, as if to sing with even more attention.

White-eyed Vireo

April 12th, 2016

Last night, rain began early in the evening and continued to fall for much of the night, a slow, steady, soaking rain. By early morning it had stopped, but the sky remained deeply overcast and dark with clouds, the ground and trees and all the vegetation drenched, still dripping, and the air felt wet and warm. Surprisingly few birds were singing when I first stepped outside – Eastern Towhee, Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse – and not far away, the long level trill of a Chipping Sparrow.

The new arrival of the morning was a White-eyed Vireo singing in the old field just outside our subdivision, the first time I’ve heard a White-eyed Vireo here this season. It seems like almost every day in April brings one or two returning summer birds or migrants passing through. The White-eyed Vireo’s familiar, percussive chick-per-chickory-chick sounded right at home in the tangle of dense privet, blackberry vines, honeysuckle, chinaberry trees and other trees, shrubs and grasses of the field, though at times it was almost lost in the constant noise of traffic on the highway not far away.

It sang from too far deep in the thickets to see – a small gray-green bird with yellow spectacles around the eyes, a white throat, and a flush of yellow on its sides. It’s a bird that prefers just this kind of scrubby, tangled vegetation for habitat and usually stays low out of sight, deep in the shrubs. I’m sure the traffic noise is not a welcome background, and as this gets louder every year, I always wonder if summer birds will return – and in fact, wonder why any would choose to be here. I don’t know the answer to that, but it may be that even marginal places like this old field provide important habitat when so much is being lost.


Yellow-throated Vireo – A Bird of the Treetops

April 8th, 2016

Late this afternoon, the trees with their new green leaves tossed in a gusty, chilly wind. After a few days of warm weather, it’s turned cooler again and clear, with a deep blue sky and lots of small, scattered white clouds – and a Yellow-throated Vireo singing in the treetops around our yard, the most recent migrant to make its appearance here. I first heard it singing three days ago, and since then it’s stayed around and I’ve often stopped to listen to its mellow, burry song.

A Yellow-throated Vireo is a small songbird with a bright yellow throat and breast, and bold yellow spectacles. Its back and head are olive-green, its belly pale, and its wings are marked with two white bars. It’s a very colorful bird, but sometimes hard to see as it moves steadily, rather slowly through the upper parts of trees, singing as it goes. Sometimes it stops to sing for a while from a high perch, clearly in view, but often it’s just a little lower and harder to find among the foliage, though the song is rich and clear, and often the most noticeable birdsong around. Today I saw it briefly through the leaves, well enough to glimpse the yellow throat and spectacles and wing bars, though it remained half-hidden in the shadows.

A Yellow-throated Vireo spends winters in tropical Central and South America and the Caribbean, and is usually among the earliest neotropical migrants to return here. It’s another colorful songbird that has been designated as climate-threatened by the National Audubon Society because of potential changes in the habitat it needs. A bird that depends on large areas of forest, it is considered very vulnerable to forest fragmentation and loss.

Blue-headed Vireo and Its Scolding Call

April 1st, 2016

After a night of steady, drenching rain, this morning dawned cloudy, gray and warm, and very green with more and more new leaves all around. Dozens of White-throated Sparrows came out early to forage in the soggy yard, and some whistled their sweet, haunting songs. A Louisiana Waterthrush sang a bright, repeated anthem down in the woods by the creek, and a Black-and-white Warbler sang weesa-weesa-weesa in trees around the edge of the woods.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet burst out with its tumbling song, Pine Warblers and Chipping Sparrows trilled, and an Eastern Bluebird warbled a gentle, blurry chi-wee-oo. Many other birds also sang, and I even heard the trumpeted calls of a Pileated Woodpecker somewhere in the woods – an increasingly uncommon visitor here.

I was especially happy to hear again the song of a Blue-headed Vireo – this time coming from the branches of a tall river birch fluttering with small, new-green leaves. This time it was easy to find, and I had a clear, dramatic view of a slender gray bird with a dark blue-gray head and striking, bold white spectacles, two prominent white wing bars, and a paler-gray breast, with just a hint of lemon-yellow on its flanks.

It moved steadily and deliberately through the branches, searching for insects and other small prey, and made its way into some nearby water oaks – but at times it became more animated and lively, fluttering up and hopping from branch to branch, head up and alert. It seemed to be interacting, maybe conflicting, with another bird in the same tree that I’m pretty sure was a Red-eyed Vireo, though it wasn’t singing and was hard to see well enough to be certain because it stayed more hidden in the leaves.

The Blue-headed Vireo continued to sing now and then as it moved through the trees, and it also several times gave a chuckling, rattling call. I believe it was what the Birds of North America species account* describes as a kind of “scolding” call – a rapid and somewhat varied cha-cha-cha-che-che-che-che, with a throaty quality that I would describe as chuckling. It opened its bill, and I could see its throat vibrate with the call. I watched as it gave this call several times, some – and maybe all – occurred when it was interacting with the other bird.

A Blue-headed Vireo is a very dramatic bird to see, and though it is still considered a relatively common bird of northeast forests, it always looks exotic and special to me. We see it as a migrant in spring and fall, and while its populations have been increasing over the past few decades generally – here in our own woods it seems to have become less common than a decade or two ago, probably because of forest fragmentation and other changes in habitat here.

*Morton, Eugene and Ross D. James. 2014. Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

March 31st, 2016

Late this afternoon, under a half-cloudy, half-sunny sky, I was just about to sit down on the deck when a buzzing, thrumming hum zipped over my right shoulder, making me flinch a little as it always does – and a tiny blur of a bird flew out over the rail and circled back to the hummingbird feeder we’d put out almost a week ago. It was the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird we’ve seen this spring. It hovered over the feeder for just a few moments, posing perfectly, its ruby throat glistening in a shaft of sunlight. Then it zipped away and out of sight. We didn’t see it again the rest of the early evening, but it’s nice to know they’re back.

Blue-headed Vireo

March 26th, 2016

This morning began cloudy, cool, and misting rain. New leaves had opened overnight, it seemed, transforming the trees around our house from gray to pale spring green, and dogwoods had bloomed, scattering white flowers all through the woods. A Louisiana Waterthrush sang from down by the creek, a brilliant song. A Black-and-white Warbler whispered a softer, lisping weesa-weesa-weesa as it made its way through pines and hardwoods. A Northern Parula sang its buzzy, rising ssssssssip! These have been our earliest migrant birds, returned in the past few days, and bringing a greater variety of songs to the woods, along with the beauty of new green leaves and dogwoods in bloom.

All of our winter birds and many year-round residents were singing, too, though not all at the same time or in the same place. After the first flush of very early birdsong, the singers became more scattered – Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Phoebe, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin, and Eastern Bluebird. Brown Thrashers sang from perches in the tallest trees, and Northern Mockingbirds from treetops, fence-posts, and bushes. The whistled, lingering refrain of a White-throated Sparrow; the long, level trills of Chipping Sparrows; the quick, complex, sharp little tunes of Ruby-crowned Kinglets; and the lyrical trills of Pine Warblers were among the most expressive.

But the highlight of the morning for me was the song of a Blue-headed Vireo, singing as it made its way through high branches in a tall oak tree. I first heard just one note and stopped to look up – then a clear, slow, deliberate string of phrases with a slightly finch-like quality, each note slurring down or up in an almost plaintive, but pretty way. I hadn’t carried binoculars out with me because of the misting rain, but very much wished for them, because I could only see a little dark silhouette of a bird, moving steadily through the branches as it sang. In the misting rain and blurry gray light, it sounded like glistening beads of color, patiently strung together into music.

A Blue-headed Vireo is another early-returning migrant here. Its song is usually the first of the vireos to be heard in our woods – small, relatively sturdy neotropical migrants that are similar to wood warblers, but slightly larger and more solid. It’s only passing through, but if we’re lucky, might stay around for a few days – so I’m hoping there might be another chance to see it.