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

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.

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