Hermit Thrush

November 8th, 2017

Today has been the most beautiful kind of Fall day, cloudy, gray and moody, cool and damp, after rain overnight that washed down still more leaves. The wet yards and roads were thickly spattered with yellow and brown. By mid-morning the rain had paused, but clouds hung low and dark, and more rain was expected later in the day. It’s been the rare and wonderful kind of day when the temperature falls as the day goes on – it began in the mid 60s and by mid-afternoon would fall into the low 50s, and yet, there was hardly any wind at all. An unusual quiet surrounded me as I walked, peaceful and mellow, with the bittersweet feeling that comes in late Fall.

There were not a great many birds at first, and I didn’t carry binoculars because of the chance of rain – I would regret that, as I usually do. But it was a good day for listening, and as it turned out, the highlights of the morning were not what I saw – but what I heard. For the first part of the way, there were the usual suspects – the scattered chatter of Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and Carolina Wrens, the peeps of a Northern Cardinal here and there, the whinny of a Downy Woodpecker.

Then as I was walking past a stretch of woods I heard a liquid chup-chup call from somewhere among the trees, not too far away. It was a sound I’ve been waiting to hear, listening every day for the past two or three weeks at least, and beginning to wonder if one would return this year, and finally here it was – a Hermit Thrush.

A Hermit Thrush is a pale-brown songbird similar in shape to a robin, with a spotted throat and breast, and a habit of raising its long cinnamon tail sharply and lowering it slowly, often doing this as it calls a soft chup, and looks around alertly with its head erect and watchful. Hermit Thrushes are only here at this time of year – from late Fall into Spring, when they leave to spend the nesting season in northern forests and a wide range of territories throughout North America. Though I don’t often hear them sing while they’re here – a song so lovely it has inspired many poets and other writers – the soft, simple call of chup seems to me almost as haunting and as sweet. Hermit Thrushes are woodland birds, not particularly shy, but easy to overlook because of their quiet appearance and solitary behavior. In the winter here, I often find them – each one alone – around wooded yards, feeding on the ground close to shrubs and flying up to low branches of trees when startled.

I stood for several moments on the edge of the road, listening and looking, trying to spot a bird among the trees, but I couldn’t find it and finally walked on. Even without seeing it, to hear its call was the highlight of the morning, as vivid as any sighting could be.

Blue-headed Vireo – A Very Cool Bird

November 6th, 2017

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.

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.