Blue-headed Vireo – A Very Cool Bird

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.

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