Archive for February 2016

Brown Creeper

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

The mild, sunny day was warm enough for lunch on the deck, and though it was very nice to be outside in the open air, the bare gray woods behind our house seemed utterly quiet and empty of birds for most of the time, and almost bleak. Then I heard a very high, sibilant, ringing call, repeated several times, and found a tiny brown-backed bird moving up the trunk of an oak. It was a Brown Creeper.

The very small, slender, delicate-looking Creeper has a deep brown back patterned beautifully in different, mottled shades of brown, and a cream-white breast and belly, and a long, stiff, paler-brown tail, tipped with spines that help support it on the trunk. Its bill is slender and down-curved, used to probe under the bark of trees for insects and other small prey. It clings and moves so close to the trunk of the tree that it almost looks as if it has no legs.

It has become rare for us to see a Creeper here, and this one stayed for 15 minutes or more, going from one tree to another and calling frequently, giving me the unusual luxury of watching it closely for quite a while – the rich dark pattern of its back, contrasting with the smooth, cream-white of the under side, the way it moved, and used its bill and tail.

It flew each time to a spot on a trunk a few feet above the ground, and from there, made its way steadily up and around the trunk in a spiral, until it flew from a high spot on one trunk down to a lower spot on the trunk of another, nearby tree. It didn’t seem to be flying all the way to the bases of most trees, as they sometimes do. It was an unexpected and delightful treat to see, in part because it has become so uncommon here – and in part because its appearance and behavior are unique – quite unlike any other little songbirds here.

Though Brown Creepers often move with feeding flocks of other birds like chickadees, titmice, and downy woodpeckers, as far as I could tell, this one seemed to be almost alone. The only other bird I could see or hear nearby at the time was one Golden-crowned Kinglet in some pines.

Though Brown Creepers are not considered endangered, they have certainly become much less common in our woods here over the past few decades, most likely because woodlands in this area are steadily being lost or greatly fragmented by development.

Two Red-shouldered Hawks

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

After watching the Rusty Blackbird – more than enough to make the day – the rest of a walk through the neighborhood was relatively uneventful, though quite nice.

Brown Thrashers sang in several spots, and there were the usual number of Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals, House Finch, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, American Crows and Blue Jays. Two Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in pines, and I heard the nasal unh-unh calls of one passing Fish Crow. One Great Blue Heron flew over low and slow.

I did not hear or see a single Ruby-crowned or Golden-crowned Kinglet, no Hermit Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco or Cedar Waxwings, and no White-breasted Nuthatch; and I saw only two Yellow-rumped Warblers all day. While Yellow-rumped Warblers are small and can be unobtrusive – so I easily might have missed some – in general there have seemed to be very few of them here all this season, compared to previous years.

Still, not to complain too much, Pine Warblers sang their musical trills in several wooded spots. Eastern Towhees called chur-whee and White-throated Sparrows called tseet from hidden spots in shrubs and thickets. Eastern Phoebes sang, and hunted from low branches. A few quiet Northern Mockingbirds perched in low places or stood in the grass. And one small yellow Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly fluttered past me.

Back at home, as I walked down our driveway toward the house, I heard the choppy calls of a Red-shouldered Hawk. I thought the calls were coming from the woods behind our yard because they didn’t sound too far away, and it was several moments before I thought to look up – and saw the breathtaking shape of a Red-shouldered Hawk soaring very high, straight above me. Sunlight made it shine all over, and poured through the translucent crescents toward the ends of its wings so clearly it was easy to see why they sometimes are described as “windows.”

Watching it soar in grand, sweeping circles, climbing higher, I realized there was a second Red-shouldered Hawk even higher – too high to see at all without binoculars. They were calling back and forth with short, choppy calls – not the clear, whistled kee-yer, but a harsher, more agitated sounding churk! sometimes one syllable, sometimes two – che-churk and it was amazing how clear and close the calls sounded as the hawks flew so high above.

Rusty Blackbird

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

Later in the morning when I went out to walk, the sky was a soft blue, with small scraps of white clouds scattered here and there – and for the most part, this beautiful sky was empty of birds, though a few American Crows flew past now and then. Over the course of an hour or more, I saw one Turkey Vulture and one Black Vulture soaring. The Black Vulture’s white wing patches gleamed like silver in the sunlight. One Red-tailed Hawk soared in the distance, barely close enough to see its orange-red tail as it turned.

Birds in general seemed widely scattered and few in number, as they have for many weeks here now – though by the end of an hour I’d counted 28 species. American Robins were the most numerous, with a great number scattered all through the neighborhood. I think one reason there seem to be few birds here this winter is that we haven’t often seen the large mixed flocks of blackbirds that in previous years have been common. This winter I’ve only found a small flock now and then, and today there were no blackbird flocks at all, no Grackles or Red-winged Blackbirds’ calls. And so it seemed quiet.

Toward the end of my walk, I noticed a single, solitary black bird foraging with several American Robins in a large grassy yard. I could see them through gaps in a line of old cedars. Though it raised its head as I began to move cautiously closer, it wasn’t skittish and didn’t fly, and I was able to get close enough for a beautiful view of an all-black bird with a slender bill just slightly down-curved, and bright yellow eyes – a Rusty Blackbird. It was standing in a spread of thick green grass and lots of tiny bluets.

It appeared to be black all over, not glossy, with a barely perceptible shadow of rippled rusty color over the back and shoulders. It stood among the bluets and grass with its head up and the bill pointed slightly up, looking around nervously in one direction and then another. After several minutes, it put its head back down and began to walk and forage again, pecking in the grass and tossing up pieces of leaf or mulch debris. When finally a car drove past, it flew into the low limbs of a cedar tree, where it was mostly hidden from view.

Rusty Blackbirds are among the most rapidly declining bird species. Their population numbers have fallen dramatically, between 85 and 98 percent in the past 40 years. The reasons for this decline are not known for sure, though habitat loss is one likely cause. They live in wooded swamps, spend the breeding season in northern boreal forests, and winter in the eastern U.S.

In the past few years, we’ve been very lucky to have small flocks of Rusty Blackbirds as regular winter visitors to our neighborhood, usually moving in mixed flocks with other blackbirds like Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, but also seen alone or in small groups of Rusty Blackbirds only. This winter is the second year in which these flocks have become less common and much smaller here.

All of this makes seeing such a beautiful, clear view of a Rusty Blackbird feel particularly lucky and rare.

A Chipping Sparrow’s Song

Sunday, February 28th, 2016

On a cold, clear morning, shortly after sunrise, the songs of Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, White-throated Sparrow, Brown Thrasher and Eastern Towhee made the morning sound and feel like spring. Three Red-bellied Woodpeckers moved from tree to tree, and a Downy Woodpecker flew into the top part of a pecan tree and drummed loudly on a large branch. I could hear the drumming of three or four other woodpeckers in other trees around the yard and the edge of the woods. White-throated Sparrows and Eastern Towhees rustled as they kicked up leaves in the mulch. Tufted Titmice and an American Goldfinch flew back and forth from the hanging feeder. Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered their squeaky calls from the pines, and a scattering of American Robins foraged in the grass and flew up into trees with nervous chuckles.

But the real highlight and news of the early morning was a Chipping Sparrow’s song. It stood out for me like a shimmering ray of sunlight – a long, level, delicate trill that came from a perch in young pines across the street on the edge of the road. It sang several times, steady trill after trill. It surprised me to hear it, because it seems early in the year for a Chipping Sparrow to sing – but there it was, one reason the morning sounded so much like spring.

Chipping Sparrows are small, common birds that feed most often in grassy spots, often in small congregations along the roadside, during the winter months, that flush up together and scatter in flashes of wings when disturbed. From a distance, on the ground, they look like anonymous little brown-streaked birds, but to take a good, close look at one perched in a tree – with its pale gray breast, brown and dark-streaked back, gray face and sharp black streak through the eye, and bright reddish crown – is to realize how uncommonly pretty it is. They’re generally quiet and unobtrusive, blending easily into the background and not often noticed. Their deceptively simple songs, like their appearance, also reward a second look – or listen. Usually described as plain, almost mechanical trills, a Chipping Sparrow’s song often varies in subtle and intriguing ways.