Black-and-White Warbler and Northern Parula – More New Arrivals

March 17th, 2016

Yesterday and today, our sunny, very warm weather has continued, with blue skies and scattered white clouds, and each day has brought a new returning songbird, another sign of spring. Yesterday, it was a Black-and-white Warbler, singing in woods of mixed pines and oaks. And this morning, a Northern Parula trilled its buzzy song in trees near our yard.

The wispy weesa-weesa-weesa song of a Black-and-white Warbler is sometimes described as sounding like “a squeaky wheel.” The one singing this morning was making its way through a wooded area well back from the road, so I didn’t try to see it, but it’s nice to know one’s here again. A Black-and-white Warbler is a small, slender songbird striped all over in black and white. It creeps along branches, intently searching for food, and singing as it goes.

The Northern Parula makes a striking contrast to the slender, creeping black and white warbler – though I didn’t manage to see either one. It’s a smaller, more rounded, quick-moving bird, often flitting from spot to spot, with a bright yellow throat and chest, a gray head and wings, green back, and a black and coral band across its breast. It sang from very high up in water oaks across the street from our house. I could hear and follow its buzzy, rising trill, but it stayed too well hidden in the leaves to see.

Meanwhile, two more Louisiana Waterthrush also have returned and are singing along different sections of the creek.

These three wood warblers, all related but quite difference in appearance and behavior, each paint a different, small but luminous piece of the landscape here at this changeable time of year.

Louisiana Waterthrush and Its Anthem to Spring

March 14th, 2016

After a few cool days very early in the month, our weather turned unseasonably warm and sunny, and has remained that way for more than a week now. It’s beautiful, I guess, for those who are tired of winter, but to me it feels too warm for this time of year and at times oppressive, with bright sunshine and the hardwood trees all around still bare and bleak and gray.

But early morning today was cool and pretty, beginning before dawn with enough birdsong from our year-round residents to make it sound almost like spring – Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Towhee, Brown Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Phoebe, and Chipping Sparrow – and also a White-throated Sparrow. Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers called and I heard woodpeckers drumming – but I haven’t seen or heard a Sapsucker in quite some time now, and this is unusual. I never did see as many or see them as often this winter as in past years, and this has been a significant change.

The best part of the morning came a little later, when I heard the song of a Louisiana Waterthrush, coming from along a creek in the woods. This is the first one I’ve heard this season, a bright, soaring song that rises through the woods with a flourish that sounds like a fanfare – an anthem to spring. A Louisiana Waterthrush is almost always one of the first migrating songbirds to return here after wintering further south. A small, sturdy bird with a dark-brown back and dark-brown streaks on a white breast, a prominent white stripe over the eye, and pink legs, it lives along forested streams.

It can often be found walking – and bobbing its tail constantly – as it searches the banks, or fallen branches or logs, looking for insects and other small prey by probing into crevices and under rocks and debris. It’s a very lively, active bird, always fun to watch, though probably not often seen and not familiar to many people, since it stays in the lowest part of the woods, along creeks and streams. So it may go unnoticed, even though in some places – like here – it may not be far from suburban back yards and its brilliant song can clearly be heard. I think of it as one of the hidden jewels of these much-abused, patchy and fragmented woods.


Pine Warbler

March 11th, 2016

This morning, yellow dandelions dotted the rough grass along the roadside, along with clouds of tiny bluets. It was a quiet, very warm morning with a pale blue sky and veils of high white clouds.

In a large pine tree on the edge of the woods, a small, sunny-yellow songbird worked its way along the branches directly above me, searching the needles and bark for insects and other small prey. Now and then it paused to lift its head and sing a lovely, expressive trill. It was a Pine Warbler, one of our year-round residents here, a songbird that is true to its name, staying mostly in the pines, with an olive-yellow back and head, and warm-yellow throat and breast, blurry olive streaks along its sides, and a thin, inconspicuous yellow ring around the eye. Its belly is dull white and its wings gray with white wing bars, but in general, what a male Pine Warbler looks like is yellow, not all over, but almost. On this softly sunny morning, against a background of green pine needles and gray woods, its color glowed.

Though Pine Warblers are common here in our patchy woodlands, I hear their trilled songs much more often than I see them, because they’re small and unobtrusive, staying mostly in the trees – though during the winter months, I do often find one or more foraging in a grassy yard along with other small birds. Today was an uncommon chance to have such a close-up and colorful view from below, and see into its world, in a way, watching for several moments as it foraged through the tree.

White-breasted Nuthatch

March 6th, 2016

When I first stepped out onto the front porch this morning, I heard the nasal awnk-awnk calls of a White-breasted Nuthatch and soon found it, pausing head down on the trunk of an oak and craning its neck to look up. A White-breasted Nuthatch is a sleek, striking bird, with a blue-gray back; short stubby tail; long slender bill, and a black cap that contrasts sharply with a snow-white face, throat and breast. Its demeanor is bold, sometimes even pugnacious, and it calls often in a loud nasal voice as it moves.

From the first tree trunk, it flew to another, and another, making its way through the yard. Each time, it flew to a spot several feet up on the trunk of a tree, then moved down the trunk head-first in a wide, curving way, until it reached the bottom of the tree or the ground. A couple of times it pecked at something on the ground, but it didn’t stay long before flying to another tree, and starting over again. It never lingered long in one spot, and didn’t seem to find a particular spot or a tree much to its liking. It looked as if it was searching for something it never found, but I think maybe it just moved too quickly for me to see the seeds, nuts or insects it found. It stayed around for several minutes, constantly on the move, and calling often. At times it came quite close to where I stood, so I could watch its behavior and appearance very close-up, close enough to see the smudge of coral color under its tail.

A White-breasted Nuthatch is not as common here in our neighborhood as the smaller Brown-headed Nuthatch. Ten years ago, I rarely saw one at all, but over the past few years they’ve steadily become more frequent, and now I hear or see one almost every day.

Hermit Thrush

March 3rd, 2016

On a chilly, softly clouded, breezy March morning, a Golden-crowned Kinglet called its high, thin ti-ti-ti in branches above me, and five Dark-eyed Juncos flushed up from the roadside, into low tree branches, calling in alarm with softly-ringing trills. A pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked and chattered to each other as they searched the trunk of a pine tree, both heading downward on the trunk, investigating crevices in the bark, searching for insects and other small prey.

A couple of times the sun broke through the high screen of wooly clouds, pouring down warmth that felt like magic, but when clouds closed over and the day became gray again, the feeling of sharp, icy cold returned.

Two Red-tailed Hawks soared very high, and a small flock of blackbirds flew restlessly from tree to tree around a small pond. They were too far away to see well, but didn’t look or sound like either Common Grackles or Red-winged Blackbirds, and may well have been Rusty Blackbirds. I don’t know a Rusty Blackbird’s call well enough to be sure. Because we’ve been lucky enough to see a fair number of Rusty Blackbirds here in past winters, I have missed them a great deal this year. This is one of the few occasions when I’ve seen a blackbird flock of any size, all winter long.

Brown Thrashers sang from the tops of trees in widely different spots, and one very handsome pair of Brown Thrashers posed quietly together in the branches of a small bare pecan tree. Pine Warblers trilled their songs. White-throated Sparrows and Eastern Towhees scratched in leaves and grass along a dense hedge of shrubs.

As I got back home from walking, coming down the driveway and feeling kind of glad to be back at home where I could warm my hands and make some soup for lunch, a Hermit Thrush flew out of a Savannah holly and stopped to perch on the back of a bench. It paused there for a few moments, looking over its shoulder at me nervously, raising and lowering its cinnamon tail, before it dove into the dark green leaves of a bush. Having a Hermit Thrush here to spend the winter around our yard, and seeing it from time to time like this has been one of the nicest things about this winter.

A Chipping Sparrow’s Dawn Song

March 1st, 2016

Just after sunrise this morning, a morning chorus of birdsong came through the open bedroom windows. Eastern Towhee, Northern Cardinal, Brown Thrasher, Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee all were singing, and woodpeckers were drumming – but what caught my attention most were the short, repeated trills that seemed to come from a large hedge of wax myrtles, though the singer may have been in a tree on the other side of these large shrubs. I think these shortened trills were part of a Chipping Sparrow’s very early morning songs. Donald Kroodsma, in The Singing Life of Birds describes the dawn songs of Chipping Sparrows and how they gradually lengthen into the longer trills each day, and also explores the great and perhaps surprising diversity in their songs.*

Later in the morning, a Chipping Sparrow – maybe the same one – sang its more familiar long, pretty trill from a perch near the top of a maple tree on the edge of our yard, and I watched it for several minutes as it sang, lifting its head again and again. Its gray breast and brown-streaked back blended in with the network of gray branches in the maple, but the small, pert red crown glowed in the morning sun.

*Donald Kroodsma, The Singing Life of Birds, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pages 313-320.


Brown Creeper

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

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

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

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.