Pine Warbler Feeding a Fledgling

May 8th, 2020

This morning brought a cool, gray, moody day, breezy, with the damp feel of rain in the air, though showers didn’t come until early afternoon. Clouds in many shades of gray layered the sky, rumpled and scalloped and constantly changing. Birds seemed quiet and not very active. Few were singing. 

When I heard the deep, foggy who-cooks-for-you call of a Barred Owl, I first thought I had imagined it. But the call came again, and again, coming from somewhere back in a wooded area, not close, but not too far away. I’ve often heard a Barred Owl call in the daytime, especially on a cloudy day like this, but the past year or two or three, we’ve been hearing them less and less often at all. So it’s nice to know they’re still around.

Later in the morning, I stopped to check out a burst of activity in trees on both sides of the road as small birds flew back and forth. Some were Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice and Brown-headed Nuthatches – but there were others I couldn’t see well. They were moving too fast, flitting along the branches very quickly and constantly in motion. When I finally did get one in focus, I saw a yellow bird moving over the pine branches very fast – almost frantically. It was a Pine Warbler, with a bright yellow throat, streaked sides, olive-yellow head, a broken yellow eye-ring, and white wing bars – but because of the way it was moving, I briefly thought it might be some other kind of bird. Pine Warblers usually move through the branches, searching for food, more slowly than other warblers, and I’d never seen one foraging as hurriedly as this. 

Then I realized that I was hearing, all this while, the cheep-cheep-cheeping of baby birds. And then I saw one – a little grayish bird sat on a pine branch and fluttered its wings and begged to be fed – and the yellow Pine Warbler, a male, hurried up to feed it. Of course! Another bird also moving frantically through the pines nearby was probably the female. And I could hear other babies cheeping too, though I only saw this one very clearly. It was sweet to watch. And interesting to observe that Pine Warblers can be such harried parents. I don’t know how many fledglings they had to feed, but they were working very hard.

Indigo Bunting

May 6th, 2020

A tiny spot of neon-bright blue shined in the middle of the big, privet-choked field that separates the road where I walk from highway 441. A very small bird stood out against the tangled background like a drop of purest blue. An Indigo Bunting. And it chanted a song as bright as its color, sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-sweet, that rang clear, even through the constant traffic noise of the highway. 

It was sitting in the top of a bare dead branch that stuck up above the leaves and flowers of a chinaberry tree, facing the morning sun and singing and singing. It’s the first Indigo Bunting I’ve seen here this season – one of our last summer birds to return. An Indigo Bunting is a very small, compact bird, intensely blue all over. It prefers shrubby, weedy habitat with dense cover, like this old field. If we’re lucky, it may stay here to nest.

Somehow this morning that little spot of color lifted my spirits immensely. As I walked, my thoughts had often wandered to other things, especially to the changes the coronavirus pandemic has brought into our lives. I think I’ve known from the beginning that this is not something that would soon be gone, though there was the temptation to think of it that way. Our lives are likely to change for a very long time, though we don’t yet know exactly how. And today this was much on my mind. Despite the actions of our governor and the president, and despite the very natural desire in us all to get back to our normal lives – it simply isn’t going to happen easily. Or soon. And I think that’s just very hard to fully comprehend. And even harder to accept and begin to adjust, to figure out exactly what kind of changes we need to make, and how. 

So this morning these thoughts and many more were on my mind, when the cheerful song and brilliant blue of the little Indigo Bunting brought me back to the moment. This moment. This day. This small miracle of a tiny, beautiful bird, singing in an overgrown field.

Gray Catbird

May 4th, 2020

May has begun with warm, sunny days that feel like almost like summer, a gentle, storybook version of summer. Clear blue skies and high white clouds and warmth that soaks in and feels good. Daisies and dandelions and other yellow wildflowers bloom, and a butterfly floats by now and then. Most of our winter birds have left and the rush of spring migration is coming to an end, with the last few birds arriving for the summer.

Today the new arrival was a Gray Catbird, one of my favorites. I’ve been watching for the Catbirds to return for the past week or more, and today I finally saw one. It was in the same area where I’ve found them the past few summers, sitting in the very top of a large Leyland Cypress tree, against a deep-blue, cloudless sky, and singing.

A Gray Catbird is a dapper-looking bird, slate-gray all over, with a neat black cap, and rusty-orange feathers under the tail – which I couldn’t see today. It’s shaped like a Mockingbird, slender, with a long tail. Related to Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers, it sings a song that also includes mimicked sounds – though it’s not at all as fluent as a Mockingbird. A Gray Catbird’s song is a long series of notes, and many of them might be described as nasal or creaky – or they might be described as individual and different, more artistic and inventive. Going his own way. A Gray Catbird has character. It has a sense of style.

Some Gray Catbirds might spend winters here, but most seem to move at least a little further south for the winter, closer to the coast, then return here for the breeding season. They generally live in dense, tangled shrubs and thickets, so I’m not sure why they like this particular area, in a very suburban environment with well-kept yards and shrubs – though there are a lot of large trees, including evergreens. 

When I first saw it today, the Gray Catbird was just emerging from the thick green foliage of the Leyland cypress and making its way to the top of the tree. At the same time, a Northern Mockingbird sat on the peak of the roof of a house in the same yard, singing exuberantly. When the Catbird reached the top of the cypress tree, it sat for a few moments, and I wondered if it would sing.  The Mockingbird’s song was so loud and so flamboyant, it seemed that any other song didn’t have a chance of being heard above it. But finally the Catbird began to sing, too, first one note, then another, and another, and it kept going. Not musical, but distinctive. One note was like the Catbird’s raspy, mewing call, others were whistles and gurgling notes, one note at a time, not repeated. It kept singing, growing more confident, apparently undaunted by the competition. And in the end, it was the Mockingbird that stopped singing first – and flew away.

Blue Grosbeak Singing in a Chinaberry Tree

May 1st, 2020

On a perfect May Day morning – sunny, with a deep-blue, cloudless sky, breezy and mild – a Blue Grosbeak sang from a branch just below the top of a chinaberry tree in bloom. The green leaves and pink flowers of the tree sheltered the singing bird and framed it in a very picturesque way. 

Because it was shaded by leaves, the brilliant, ink-blue color of the Blue Grosbeak looked more gray than blue, but the orange-brown bars in the wings and the big silver beak stood out clearly. Its eyes looked very black. It lifted its head and parted its beak again and again to sing a shining, flowery series of notes. Like the shaded color of the bird, the song sounded a little softened, gentled, maybe by the wind. 

Each spring I watch for the return of a Blue Grosbeak to the old field above the highway where I found it this morning. It’s almost always the song that lets me know it’s back. Blue Grosbeaks are considered to be widespread in southern North America, but are widely scattered and not easy to find. They nest in forest edges, shrubby places, and in old fields like this – overgrown with privet, honeysuckle, blackberries and other shrubs, vines and weeds, as well as a good many trees. 

Cape May Warbler

April 25th, 2020

The new green leaves of trees all through the neighborhood have been filled the past several days with the softly-ringing, gentle songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Late this morning I was standing by the side of the road, listening to their songs and watching several of them move through the branches of oaks. Now in spring plumage, their drab winter grays have changed into colorful patterns of black, gray, white and yellow – with black mask, white throat, and yellow patches on the sides and rump.

Among the songs of the Yellow-rumped Warblers and other small birds nearby, I began to hear a different song that was not one I recognized – a high, bright series of notes all on one pitch. And then I saw it – a small, brilliant yellow bird with black streaks on the breast and a prominent chestnut patch on its cheek. A Cape May Warbler. 

It stayed in the same few oaks for several minutes, moving through the foliage, searching branches and leaves for prey. Its movements were not especially slow, but it wasn’t fluttery or very quick, and so it was fairly easy to watch and was often in clear, open view. And it continued to sing often. The plumage was so vibrant and rich it looked exotic. The black streaks on the yellow breast are often described as “tiger-striped.” The face is yellow, with the distinctive chestnut patch on the cheek. A thick strip of white marks the wing, and there’s a subtle patch of green in the middle of the back – I was never able to see this very well. The underside of the tail was white, with a thin strip of dark at the tip.

It was not a life bird for me, but it felt like one, because I think this was the first time I’ve ever seen a Cape May Warbler in spring, breeding plumage. Until now I have only seen them during fall migration, when they are much less colorful. And even then, I have not seen them often here. So I stood watching for as long as it stayed in sight, trying to see all the details. It was a lot of fun to watch! Great birding.

Summer Tanager and Yellow-billed Cuckoo

April 21st, 2020

On a warm, breezy morning clouds blew across the sun, changing the light in a constant flicker from sunny and bright, to somber gray, and back to sunny again. In the woods on the edge of our back yard, a Summer Tanager sang a strong, clear, lilting song, and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo called a percussive string of unmistakable notes from high in the treetops – ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-cow-cow-cow-cawwp, cawwp, cawwp. For both birds, today was the first time this season I had heard them – I have not yet seen either one, but it’s always good to know when they’re back. 

A Scarlet Tanager has continued to sing in the woods not far away, since I first heard it exactly a week ago, and early in the evening yesterday I listened to the low, electric chik-brrr calls of two Scarlet Tanagers as they moved through the trees. I haven’t yet seen them either, though they’ve come pretty close now and then. They manage to stay well hidden among the new green leaves of the oaks. But just listening to their calls is always a special pleasure, as they, along with the songs and calls of other returning summer birds, bring the woods steadily back to more and more vibrant life.

Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Red-eyed Vireo also sang in trees around the back yard today, and I’ve still heard the rapid songs of a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Eastern Bluebirds and an Eastern Phoebe hunted from perches, and three baby Carolina Wrens begged for food in wispy voices, following their parents through the grass, while the parents intently searched for food and fed them. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird – a brilliant iridescent male – made several trips to the feeder.

Palm Warbler

April 15th, 2020

Late this morning I was close to home near the end of a walk, and my thoughts had begun to drift away, thinking ahead to a list of things to do today, when a small bird flew into a pecan tree, perched on a branch, and began vigorously twitching its tail. When I stopped to take a closer look, I saw a sunny-yellow bird with a rusty-red crown. A Palm Warbler. 

The day was clear, sunny and chilly, with gentle light that made the view of the little bird very clear – though only for a few moments before it flew again. A Palm Warbler is a diminutive bird that looks yellow all over, more brownish yellow on the back and brighter yellow on its throat and breast. It has a bright rust-red cap and rusty streaks on the breast, and a yellow stripe over the eye. It’s known for its characteristic habit of almost constantly wagging its tail. We only see Palm Warblers here during migration, as they move between their winter homes further south, and their breeding range, which is mostly in Canada. 

Field Sparrow

April 11th, 2020

On a brightly sunny, cool and breezy morning, the new green leaves of oaks shimmered with the gentle songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet sang its sharp, rapid, complex little song. The whistled songs of White-throated Sparrows rose like curls of fog from thickets and bushes, fading into the air. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called wispy spee-spee. A White-eyed Vireo sang its percussive chick-per-chicory-chick from a tangled area of vines and young trees in the tangled corner I call the Lost Woodland. 

From this same patch of land came another song, too, that I hadn’t heard in quite a long time. A series of three or four clear, accelerating notes, followed by a cheerful tumble of notes that sound like a bouncing ping-pong ball – the song of a Field Sparrow. 

A Field Sparrow is a small, brown-streaked sparrow that used to be as common as its name still sounds. Their bouncing songs were a familiar part of the landscape in rural and partly suburban areas in this part of the South. But in the past ten years or more, populations of Field Sparrows have declined sharply throughout North America, and here around our neighborhood it’s now very unusual to find one. 

It took me a few minutes to find this one, listening to the song, repeated again and again, and watching for movements in the leaves. Finally I saw it through a loose screen of green leaves – first the round head capped with a rusty crown, and a gray face with a small, neat white ring around the eye, a rusty smudge behind the eye – and a small pink bill. Then it moved a little, and came fully into view, showing its brown-streaked wings, gray breast, rather long tail, and pink legs. It lifted its head, and sang.

I watched it through the leaves for several minutes, not wanting to leave, not knowing when I might have another chance to see a Field Sparrow. Until it finally flew deeper into the tangle of leaves and disappeared.

Red-eyed Vireo and Prairie Warbler

April 9th, 2020

This morning began sunny and fresh and wet from overnight showers. The sky was a soft, gentle blue with veils and ribbons of white, and dusky, lingering rain clouds drifting away to the east. High up in the new-green leaves of trees beside our driveway, a Red-eyed Vireo sang – the first one of the season here. A Red-eyed Vireo is a greenish-gray bird that mostly stays hidden in the woods, its underside is white, its crown gray, and its face defined by a sleek stripe of white and a black line through the eye. Its repeated refrain – a series of short phrases repeated again and again – is one of the most familiar and constant sounds of our spring and summer woods, and even those who may not have any idea what a vireo is might notice the return of its song, in some unconscious way. Here I am. Where are you? Over here. Up in the tree. The words can’t capture the bright, musical notes, but they catch some of the cadence.

Later in the morning and in a different part of the neighborhood, I was surprised and very happy to hear a quite different song – a series of high, piping notes rising up the scale, with a slightly buzzy, elusive quality. The song came from the tops of some tall oaks in a neighbor’s yard, and when I stopped to listen, I saw a small bird fly out of a treetop, watched it pass straight overhead with a flash of yellow and then it kept going and disappeared into the top of another tree. And from there, it sang again. The song has always been one of my favorites, easily recognized – a Prairie Warbler. Though I didn’t see it well at all in flight, a male Prairie Warbler is a small, brilliant yellow warbler with black streaks on the sides, an olive head and back, a yellow face with black markings around the eyes, and a chestnut patch in the middle of its back.

Although I used to find Prairie Warblers here all through the summer, in recent years I’ve only seen them and heard their songs when they pass through in migration. This one was almost certainly passing through, maybe stopped by the overnight rains. So it may not stay around long, but it was a joy to hear its airy, magical song, which always sounds to me like the notes of a fairy-flute. 

Hermit Thrush

March 31st, 2020

This morning change was in the air. In the wind and sky and trees and light, all in motion, constantly shifting. Restless clouds filled a soft blue sky – tufts and puffs and sheets and streaks of dusky white, all blowing toward the east, and a spreading bruise of blue-gray storm clouds low in the west. A strong, often gusty wind felt glorious, full of promise – and full of pollen. Catkins rained down on me, clung in my hair and to my shirt. At times, an especially strong wave of wind would rise with a sound like the sea, rushing through the new-green leaves of the trees.

It’s that very sweet time of the year when, in just a few days’ time, a faint green haze in the woods turns into leaves – and then one day like today, there’s suddenly fresh new-green all around again. And the gray of winter is gone.

Maybe it was this feeling of change that made me more aware of the winter birds that still are here – but will be leaving before too long. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet sang its quick, complex little song as it moved through the leaves of a wax myrtle along our driveway. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed from trees around a neighbor’s yard, a tender, plaintive mew. It called once, twice, and again as I walked on. The lovely, whistled song of a White-throated Sparrow rose, sounding, as always, like a bittersweet farewell.

As I walked down a short hill toward a tangled patch of tall pines and sparse shrubs and vines, I saw one small bird fly out into the middle of the road ahead of me and just stand there. I lifted binoculars to check it out – and saw a Hermit Thrush. What a beautiful gift! It’s one of my favorite winter birds, but I haven’t seen or heard a Hermit Thrush for some time now, and had thought I might not for the rest of this season. It stood in the middle of the road, in a low, deeply shaded spot, on spindly pale legs, lifting and lowering its tail just slightly, but repeatedly. A small bird shaped something like a robin, with a brown back and wings and head, a cinnamon tail, and a pale white breast, heavily spotted with brown. It turned and faced me directly, showing its spotted breast and lifting its bill, like a chin tilted up, and seemed to be watching me. I watched as long as it stayed there, not wanting to startle it. Finally it flew, back into the tangle of the thicket.