A Red-headed Woodpecker Winter

February 1st, 2019

A little later in the morning I stopped for a while to watch a Red-headed Woodpecker that has spent this winter in trees around one particular yard in our neighborhood. I can usually hear its somewhat harsh, rolling churrr, or – if it’s quiet and I stop to look for it – can find it high up on the trunk of one of the trees. When it’s quiet, a Red-headed Woodpecker can be surprisingly unobtrusive. Despite its flashy coloring, somehow it can manage to blend in with the black and gray and white of the winter trees. But once found, those colors pop out and amaze – a full deep-red head; a snow-white breast, black back, and broad white panels on the wings. It looks like a flag in flight – with its big, bold pattern of red, black and white.

I found it this morning on what seems to be its favorite tall, bare, half-dead water oak, up near the very top, working on a stub. It’s the same craggy tree that a pair of Mississippi Kites seemed to like for a perch last summer. For a few moments I stayed, admiring its colors and watching it work, before it flew, heading deeper into the trees along a creek. 

This winter at least four Red-headed Woodpeckers have spent the winter months here in Summit Grove. This is the first time I have ever been aware of more than one – though, of course, I might have missed one now and then. So this year I’ve tried to take advantage of the opportunity to watch them as often as possible. 

They all stay well spaced-out and solitary, each one in its own particular area of the neighborhood. Two are mature and vividly colored. One is a juvenile, in more subdued colors, with a full brown head and dark-brownish back. The fourth, I haven’t seen, but have heard calling many times from a low, wooded area near a creek and a power cut and a water treatment plant. Their distinctive rolling churrr has become very familiar this season – in part because one of the mature woodpeckers has stayed in trees around the edge of our own back yard, which slopes down steeply to a creek. It’s a rare delight on a winter day to walk out and hear its call and sometimes see it fly to a tree nearby – it never fails to surprise me with the simple, remarkable fact that it is here. 

A Pine Warbler’s Song

February 1st, 2019

February began with a cold, frosty morning, around 28 degrees very early, clear and sunny, with pale, almost white light, and a soft blue sky with high, feathery clouds and spreading jet trails. When I first stepped outside, I caused a flurry of wings and leaves as Eastern Towhees, a Brown Thrasher, and maybe some sparrows or wrens fled into the shrubs. Towhees called chur-whee, and a House Finch and an Eastern Bluebird sang. Three Northern Cardinals, two females and a male, were foraging in a small strip of grass along the road. Some Brown-headed Nuthatches called their squeaky-dees from nearby. 

As I walked uphill along our driveway, a Pine Warbler trilled its song from a wooded area across the road. Pine Warblers have been singing for almost a month now, since early January, which is about the time I usually begin to notice them again. I haven’t heard many, but here and there, a lyrical trill brings a touch of spring-like color to the grim gray woods.

The rest of a walk through the neighborhood was pleasant and mostly uneventful, with the usual suspects along the way – American Robins scattered out in big, grassy yards; a Ruby-crowned Kinglet calling its dry jidit-jidit in thickets on the edge of Colliers Woods; Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees and Carolina Wrens fussed and sang; an Eastern Phoebe hunted from a low branch; Red-bellied Woodpeckers called chuck-chuck; and one Downy Woodpecker called its silvery, descending rattle. In one rough patch of trees and tangled undergrowth, a well-hidden White-throated Sparrow called a clear, repeated alarm – chink! chink!

All in all, the day felt mostly quiet and peaceful. Mourning Doves cooed. A Turkey Vulture drifted above, the only soaring bird in the sky. One Northern Flicker fed in some grass, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker worked on a pecan tree. A flock of around 200 blackbirds, mostly Common Grackles, as well as I could tell from a distance, moved restlessly around in several yards, flying constantly in small groups from trees to grass and back to trees. 

Four Northern Flickers

January 31st, 2019

This month of January ended with a day that felt like winter should – cold and clear with a sharp, westerly wind, and a thin blue sky and high, feathery clouds. A beautiful day, but quiet, with very few birds, maybe because of the wind. 

Late in the afternoon, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers – even the usual suspects seemed fewer and more quiet. A Turkey Vulture drifted over and around, in and out of sight. A female Eastern Bluebird perched on a branch, feathers ruffled in the wind, and some House Finches called and one sang. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed. Three or four Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in some pines, and a Pine Warbler sang. A bright red Northern Cardinal sat in a leafless tree, up high. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew across the road low, a tiny, flickering ball of gray-green, and disappeared into a thicket. Two little Chipping Sparrows flew up from the edge of our own front yard and hid in plain sight among the sparse leaves of wax myrtles. 

Four Northern Flickers burst up from a circle of grass in the middle of a cul de sac, white rumps and yellow under the wings and in the tail flashing brightly. Big, handsome woodpeckers seen as often on the ground as in trees, Northern Flickers can be found here year-round, but we see them much more often in winter, when some have moved south for the season. They mainly eat food found on the ground, especially ants and other insects. Mostly brownish overall, a Northern Flicker is regal in bearing, with a gray head held erect, a brown face, long, sturdy bill, and a bold pattern of colors including a black bib; a black-spotted belly; a red crescent on the nape of the neck, and a black moustache on a male. 

Although Northern Flickers are still widespread and often seen, data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey show a disturbing decline in their numbers. The reasons for the decline are not known for sure, but habitat loss and competition from European Starlings for nest cavities are considered likely. “This declining trend should be viewed with concern,” according to the species account in Birds of North America Online, “because the species plays a central role in the ecology of woodland communities where it excavates many of the cavities later used by other hole-nesting species.”*

*K.L. Wiebe and W.S. Moore (2017). Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), version 2.1. In The Birds of North America(P.G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Brown Creeper

January 11th, 2019

This morning was cold, crisp, clear and bright. White frost still lingered in low places, even late in the morning, and the sky was a deep cloudless blue. Birds seemed to be as happy with the good cold weather as I felt, active almost everywhere. As I walked through the neighborhood, I passed Red-headed, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Brown-headed and White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Phoebe, American Goldfinch and House Finch, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee, one Red-shouldered Hawk that flew across the road low ahead of me, and a small flock of about 60 blackbirds that I felt pretty sure were Rusty Blackbirds, but I could not get close enough to them to be sure.

In a tangled spot on the edge of some woods, several small birds were moving around near the ground. There were titmice, one pretty Ruby-crowned Kinglet with its ruby-red crest raised up, and from across the road, came the clear, mewing calls of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. As I watched the kinglet flit through some bushes, a very small sliver of mottled brown slipped up the trunk of a pine tree. It was partially obscured by the trunks of a couple of other trees, but I held my breath and hoped it wouldn’t fly away – and then it came more clearly into view: a Brown Creeper. It scuttled up the trunk of the thin pine tree from very low near the ground, and worked its way up higher than my head before it flew to another tree, probably not far away, but I couldn’t find it again. It was only in view for two or three minutes, but close and clear during that time.

A Brown Creeper is a tiny jewel of a bird that’s hard to find and rare to see around here, a fragment of the winter woods that’s becoming less and less common as forested land is cleared. It’s a very small, slender bird with a dark brown back, mottled with white and other shades of brown in a way that blends in well with the trunks of trees. It clings very close to the trunk and moves in an insect-like way, so it almost looks like a piece of bark that’s moving. With a long, down-curved bill, it stops to probe under pieces of bark, looking for spiders and small insects. Its stomach is a smooth, creamy white, its legs short, and its long tail helps to brace it on the side of trunks. 

Brown Creepers are only here in this part of Georgia in the winter. They breed mostly in northern forests with large mature trees, but in winter months can be found in a variety of wooded settings. It’s a bird that is seldom seen, even when they are around, in part because it’s so small, quiet, and so well camouflaged, and also because it stays mostly in the woods. But it often travels along with flocks of feeding birds like titmice, chickadees, nuthatches and kinglets, and can be found along the edges of woods like this one today. Its call – which I did not hear this morning – is a high, sibilant tseeet, a delicate, ringing sound, something like a tiny chain falling into a heap.

Cedar Waxwings

January 9th, 2019

In the old field this morning, a small flock of maybe two dozen Cedar Waxwings sat almost hidden in a tangle of faded vines and shrubs around two chinaberry trees and some other kind of wild fruit tree. This part of the field is very dense with huge stands of privet and other dry-looking shrubs and weeds that grow much taller than my head. The Cedar Waxwings were eating berries in trees near the roadside, so their movements caught my attention – and with a closer look, their polished, gleaming shapes and colors glowed in contrast to the rough, drab thickets around them. The sound of traffic from the highway not far away made their high, thin calls very hard to hear.

Many of them sat very close and not too high, and the day was clear and softly sunny. So the view was especially fine. Slender, crested birds, each one impeccably dressed – a fox-brown crest and head with a sleek black mask outlined in white; short brown neck blending into taupe on the chest and back, and lemon-yellow belly; gray wings barely touched with red; and a gray tail tipped in yellow, as if it had been dipped in paint. 

It’s impossible really to describe the colors just right, or to capture the subtle blend of different textures. It’s like studying a great painting closely, and the more you look, the more details and exquisite touches you find. 

A Red-shouldered Hawk Encounter

January 6th, 2019

A Red-shouldered Hawk sat almost directly above me, on a branch of a bare-limbed tree, looking vividly colored and larger than life against a pale blue sky. So close and so impressive. Rippling bars of red-orange covered its breast, and its head looked silky brown. What I could see of its back and wings was very dark brown and flecked with white, with reddish-brown glowing on the shoulders in a way that’s often hard to see. It turned its head one way, and another, then called a loud kee-yer! and spread its wings and flew, fanning a black-and-white banded tail. 

When it disappeared, the sky seemed suddenly quiet. For the past several minutes, I’d been watching a noisy and dramatic encounter among three Red-shouldered Hawks in some trees behind a house in our neighborhood. This was the last part of that experience. I was walking up a long hill when I first heard the calls of one Red-shouldered Hawk – a repeated kee-yer– and when I came to the top of the hill, I found it sitting in a tree with its back to the road, not close, but clearly visible from the road where I stood. Then a second Red-shouldered Hawk began to call from somewhere out of sight, toward the north, and the two called back and forth. 

Three Blue Jays flew into the tree where the hawk was sitting, and began to harass it, a couple of times diving quite close, but it seemed unperturbed and fully focused on responding to the calls in the distance. 

After several minutes, a second Red-shouldered Hawk flew out of the woods in the north, and directly to the tree where the first hawk sat. The first hawk turned around to face it. Then a third Red-shouldered Hawk flew from the same area of woods, following the second, and also flew to the same tree, so that all three sat on branches that didn’t look far apart. All this time, the three hawks were calling in a very agitated way. Abruptly, the second hawk flew at the first one aggressively – but they didn’t seem to make contact, and the first one didn’t move right away.  

It looked like the pair of hawks were not happy with the presence of the single hawk and were trying to chase it away from territory they considered their own. It did not leave immediately, but after a few more minutes of harassment by the pair, it moved to a different branch in the same tree, further away from the other two – and then it flew, but not far, directly over me and into a pecan tree near the edge of the road, where I had such a close and vivid view. 

After that hawk had flown and disappeared, I looked back for the other two, and they both were gone, too. 

Because I’ve seen a Red-shouldered Hawk so seldom here this winter season, I was especially happy to see these three. They seem to have become less common, maybe because the woods both in and around our neighborhood have become more fragmented, and more and more areas have been cleared – both of trees and of thickets and undergrowth. Some particular spots that used to be favorite haunts of the Red-shouldered Hawks have been changed quite a bit. 

Red-shouldered Hawks are forest birds that love the deep woods, and we’ve been very lucky to have them living around us here. I’m hopeful that maybe we still have enough large trees and wooded areas close enough so that we’ll continue to see these magnificent birds.

Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Hermit Thrush

January 6th, 2019

On another spring-like morning, this one clear and sunny and cool, as soon as I stepped out the door, I heard the scattered chek calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers, and found two of them flitting from branch to branch around the front yard. In their winter plumage Yellow-rumped Warblers are small, rather plain, gray-brown birds with some white in the wings, a touch of yellow on the sides – and a prominent yellow rump. One of the two looked uncommonly bright yellow for this time of year, and I was happy to see – and hear – them both. It seemed a good sign. Yellow-rumped Warblers used to be very common and abundant here in the winter – but this year, like the past year or two, I see disturbingly few. The drop in their numbers here in our neighborhood has been dramatic, and it’s really amazing how their absence has changed the feel and sound of a winter day. They don’t sing at this time of year, but just the sound of those quiet little cheks all around in the trees is something I had always taken for granted.

So those chek calls this morning were a happy start to the day, and the whole front yard was bustling with birds. A male Eastern Towhee called a rich, musical chur-whee from a bare crape myrtle, looking bright in his pattern of black, red-orange and white. Another male and two female Towhees were noisily scratching up leaves and mulch around shrubs, all of them calling back and forth, and the females only slightly more subdued in their leaf-brown, orange and white.

 A Brown Thrasher lurked under the azaleas, a pair of Northern Cardinals peeped, an Eastern Bluebird called a blurry chorry-chorry, a Brown-headed Nuthatch or two squeakily chattered. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called quurrr, a Carolina Wren sang and another wren trilled, an American Goldfinch called as it flew overhead. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered jidit-jidit as it moved through the bushes quickly, flicking its wings in a fairy-like way, a tiny little green-gray bird with a smooth round head, crisp white wingbars and white ring around the eye, the ruby crown hidden this morning.

 A Northern Mockingbird sat in a young pecan tree in the middle of the grassy circle in our cul de sac, its usual spot, and this morning it had some company there – a White-throated Sparrow perched in the top of a dense stand of hollies that surround the small tree.

Walking on down the road, I passed Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, a Downy Woodpecker and an Eastern Phoebe hunting from a low branch of a persimmon tree. From a tall stand of pines across a busy two-lane road came the lovely, musical trill of a Pine Warbler’s song. And then, the rest of the way seemed surprisingly quiet. There were Blue Jays and American Crows, as always, and a scattering of other birds here and there, but many big patches of woods and yards looked empty, even on this lovely, strangely warm, sunny morning. But then came a nice surprise.

On the edge of what used to be a big, rambling, tangled thicket under a strip of oaks and pines, a robin-like bird stood quietly in the shadows, almost blending into the background in a spot where there’s still a little privet and some fallen branches littering the ground below the trees. It was a Hermit Thrush, standing on one of the fallen branches, among the skimpy cover of a few old vines and weedy plants. The spot felt sad and empty. Most of the thicket was cleared below the trees several months ago, leaving very little cover for ground- and shrub-loving birds like the Hermit Thrush. But here it was. It may have returned to the spot it has come to in previous winters. It seems to me that Hermit Thrushes do this, returning year after year not only to an area, but to particular places – there’s almost always one that spends the winter in the shrubs around our front porch, and there are other spots where I also can count on finding one from year to year. I stopped to watch it for only a few moments – a sweet and modest bird with soft brown back, bright dark spots on its upper breast, an erect head and watchful eye. The cinnamon tail raised up – and lowered slowly. It’s one of my favorite winter birds, but I didn’t linger long, not wanting to disturb it more.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Chipping Sparrows

January 1st, 2019

The first day of this new year began with a cool, foggy morning, the grass and trees still dripping wet from rain yesterday and overnight. The songs and trills of Carolina Wrens, the soft quurrr of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, the chips of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting from branch to branch, the chorry, chorry of an Eastern Bluebird, and the peter-peter songs of a Tufted Titmouse were the first birds I heard around our front yard. It sounded like spring. A Brown Thrasher sat in the top of a big wax myrtle, looking alert and nervous, as if to ask if he had overslept or missed his cue, and should he be singing, too?

The weather, though lovely in its way, was balmy and way too warm for this time of year, when it should be icy and cold, or at least decently chilly – even here in Georgia. Fog hung over the ground low, with an open space of clear air between it and a sky veiled in filmy white. Later in the morning when I went out for a walk, the clouds remained, thick with many layers, some shimmering silver, some creamy or dusky or dark gray, all drifting slowly from west to east. Now and then the sun came out, but never for long. Already, mid-morning, it was tee-shirt weather, near 70 degrees.

A bird in rolling flight landed on the trunk of a pecan tree – a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker so vividly clear that even its yellow belly showed uncommonly bright, along with a crimson crown and throat, and the bold, black and white sinuous stripes that curve along the face. I watched for a few moments as it hitched backwards down one large fork of the pecan tree, stopping now and then to explore a hole or a crevice. A coat of green moss covered much of the bark on the fork, making the view of the Sapsucker even more brightly colorful.

A little further on, a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in some pines; a Downy Woodpecker trilled its descending call; a small flock of Cedar Waxwings flew overhead, scattering their high, thin calls. One little Dark-eyed Junco flew up from the roadside grass with a soft, jingling call, and into a tree, flashing the white edges of its tail. A few American Robins foraged in grassy yards, and a very small, creaking, chuckling flock of blackbirds perched in the bare branches of some oak trees. They stayed far enough away so that I couldn’t see them well. Most seemed to be Common Grackles, though there may have been others among them – I looked for Rusty Blackbirds, but couldn’t say for sure.

I passed the usual many Blue Jays and American Crows, a couple of quiet Northern Mockingbirds, and quite a few Eastern Bluebirds, some flashing very bright blue on this mostly gray day. The whistled song of a White-throated Sparrow rose from the field along the highway, Eastern Towhees called chur-whee. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered its dry jidit-jidit in a bush, a Northern Flicker called an emphatic kleer! Four Black Vultures sat close together on the wires around one utility pole on the edge of a power cut through the field. An Eastern Phoebe perched on a lower wire, and a pair of House Finches sat together in a tree.

When I got back home, a dozen or more Chipping Sparrows flew up from the grass in our front yard and into the small, bare redbud and cherry trees there. So small and well-camouflaged, the Chipping Sparrows are nearly invisible in the brown winter grass, and I know I often miss them. But it always seems to me a happy thing and a good sign to see them – brown-streaked little birds with crisp red-brown caps and plain gray underneath, very common, but so easily overlooked. And on this lovely, but far too warm first day of January, an uneasy and foreboding sense of change is in the air, and the only thing that feels certain is that we can take no life, no living thing, for granted.

 

 

 

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

October 19th, 2018

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.

October Dawn

October 19th, 2018

At seven o’clock this morning, the day was barely light, the sky pearl-gray, the trees still shaped by night. I opened a bedroom window and felt very chilled air – in the 40s for the first time this year, and it felt so good! A few crickets chirped, but mostly the shrubs and yard lay still and quiet. Then a Mockingbird sang a few notes – it’s been singing off and on for several days and is usually one of the first birds I hear in the morning now. Then a Cardinal peeped, and over the next half hour or so, I very gradually heard the calls of an Eastern Towhee, the trilling and fussing of a Carolina Wren, the distant caws of Crows, the teeur calls of a Brown Thrasher, the chatter of a Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, and White-breasted Nuthatch, and the cries of a Blue Jay. An Eastern Phoebe called tsup a few times, and then began to sing. I think it was after sunrise before I heard the chuck-chucking calls of a Red-bellied Woodpecker and the whinny of a Downy.