Brown-headed Nuthatches

August 24th, 2021

Two little Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered as they explored the top part of a dead pine snag this morning. The snag has lost most of its bark so its surface is bare and pocked with holes and cracks of different shapes and sizes. There’s one hole larger than most, very near the jagged, broken-off top, and I watched as one of the nuthatches hopped inside this hole, and then I heard tapping that went on for several moments. The other nuthatch stayed nearby, searching over the top part of the snag, and the two called in squeaky, cheerful-sounding notes, back and forth.

Brown-headed Nuthatches are very small birds with short tails and long bills, a blue-gray back, brown cap, and white throat and breast. Lively and active, they are found most of the time in pine trees. They stay in touch with notes that sound like squeaky toys as they move quickly up, down and sideways over trunks and branches and in clumps of pine needles, searching for insects and spiders. 

Brown-headed Nuthatches are closely associated with southeastern pine forests, usually found in areas where pines are the dominant trees. They need standing dead trees for nesting and roosting, and mostly search for food in living trees. We’re lucky to have them here in our neighborhood, in patchy woods that are a mix of hardwoods and pines. Over the past two decades, many of the pines have died or been removed, so there are fewer than there used to be. But the nuthatches still have stayed around, so far, so maybe there are enough pines and snags to provide what they need. They are year-round residents here, and some stay in the same territories for years. They often come to our feeders in the winter – and in some summers they have come regularly to our hummingbird feeder with a water moat in the middle, to drink from the moat. 

Red-eyed Vireo and Summer Tanager – Grace Notes on a Hot Summer Day

August 24th, 2021

Early morning on a very warm, humid, brightly sunny day, two, maybe three, maybe four Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zipped and hummed and dueled around the porch, flying between two feeders, whizzing past the screens, perching in nearby oak branches. One twittered for several minutes as it hovered, visiting pink impatiens blossoms on the deck. 

A Mississippi Kite called a sweet pee-tooopee-too, nearby but not in sight, maybe perched in a tree, or circling low.

And this morning’s special gift – a Red-eyed Vireo sang its bright refrain in trees all around the edge of the back yard, traveling from one side to another and on, passing through.

Later in the morning, as I walked up a wooded hill, a rather long, sturdy songbird, in shades of mellow-yellow and brown, flew out of the trees and paused on a low branch of a pine. A Summer Tanager, a female or an immature male, reminding me that fall migration has begun. Birds still seem quiet and scarce, and hot summer days will linger here for another month or more, but it’s late August, and changes have begun. Lots of brown, crumpled leaves of pecan trees litter the ground, and sprinkles of red-orange leaves dot some of the water oaks. Two Common Grackles flew over, calling harsh checks, and American Robins are gathering in small groups in shady yards.

Arrow-shaped Micrathena Spider

August 20th, 2021

This morning I found this very tiny, colorful spider in an intricate orb web among the leaves of a holly bush at one corner of our house. With its vibrant colors it sparkled in the sun, showing up well, even though it’s only about .3 inch long. 

Arrow-shaped Micrathena spiders (Micrathena sagittata) are common in eastern North America and Central America, usually found in wooded places, often close to the ground. Instead of being round, the abdomen is triangular in shape, like the head of an arrow, and sharp spines stick out from its edges. Two large, fierce-looking, black and red points extend from the rear of the abdomen and point away from each other. The spines may serve to deter predators. Micrathena spiders are also called Spiny Orbweavers.

A Different Call from a Mississippi Kite

August 13th, 2021

Today while I was walking, I again heard the sweet, whistled pee-tooo calls of a Mississippi Kite, and turned around in time to see one flying toward the dense green canopy of several tall trees. As it neared the treetops, the kite gave a pretty, stuttering series of high call notes that sounded different – similar to the pee-tooo calls but with more and shorter notes. The kite disappeared into the trees, and a second Mississippi Kite whistled as it circled nearby. 

I’d never heard this call before, and when I looked it up after I got back home, I learned that this multi-syllable call is less often heard, and is commonly used by the kites when interacting with a mate or nestlings. 

Mississippi Kites

August 12th, 2021

On a hot and humid morning, two graceful, slender, long-winged raptors circled over a cul de sac in the neighborhood next to ours. At first glance, they looked black, but a closer look showed pearl-gray plumage with white heads and dark-gray wings with white edges – Mississippi Kites. I’ve seen them here off and on all summer, but this is the first time this year I’ve enjoyed such a good view and watched them in flight. As they flew, they called in high, whistled notes, pee-tooo.

Their legs and feet were extended as they flew, and they were catching insects in the air, and leaning over to eat them in flight. As they hunted, they flew with acrobatic grace, with sudden turns and sharp dives, and smooth soaring on narrow, outstretched wings, looking lighter than air. Their tails constantly shifted with small adjustments. Once, when one circled down lower, just over the rooftops, I could see the black patch over its eye on a white face and head. 

A Mississippi Kite is a medium-size raptor, with narrow, pointed wings. It’s known for its graceful, buoyant flight. Over the past several years, they have become more common here around our neighborhood and the surrounding area, and I’ve often watched them from this same cul de sac – sometimes perched in a line of trees along the edge of a stretch of woods that extends behind the houses here. This summer for the first time, I’ve also been hearing the pee-tooo calls around our own back yard, and now and then I’ve seen one circling low, just over the treetops. 

We’re extremely lucky to have these elegant birds spending the summer here. They have been extending their breeding range in the U.S. over the past several decades. They appear to adapt well to living urban and suburban areas. They breed in scattered areas of the southern and central U.S., using a variety of different habitats in different regions, and they migrate in large flocks to South America for the winter. 

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Gray Catbird

August 9th, 2021

This morning Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were again flitting all along the edge of the thickets in what remains of the old field. Three in one spot, four in another, two further along, they animate the drab green weeds and tangle of vines. 

A dark-gray bird flew up to perch near the top of a thin, near-leafless wild pear tree out in the middle of the field – a Gray Catbird, adding to the list of surprises I’ve found in this spot in the past few days. This one’s especially nice to see because this summer Gray Catbirds have not nested in our neighborhood or the subdivision next to us, for the first time in recent years. I’ve watched for them ever since the spring, and they never showed up here. There was a pair around our own front yard that I saw a few times in late spring, and I was hoping they might stay. But they didn’t – at least, not anywhere I’ve been able to find them. So it’s nice at least to see one passing through. 

Gray Catbirds are among my favorite birds, very animated in their behavior, all dark gray with jaunty black cap, and rusty-orange feathers under the long, expressive tail. Like its close relatives, Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers, a Gray Catbird sings a song that includes mimicked sounds, though it’s not as fluent as a Mockingbird. A Gray Catbird’s song is a long series of unusual and sometimes awkward-sounding notes, many of them nasal or creaky in tone.

This one today was not singing – or calling its raspy, cat-like mew. It only stayed in the treetop for a few moments, holding its long tail down and looking around, before flying back down into the thickets and out of sight.

Green Crab Spider

August 9th, 2021

Later in the morning, in a wooded spot of deep shade, a very tiny pale-green spider was making its way across the road to grass on the other side. It was smaller than a fingernail, and I don’t know why it caught my eye except that its color was almost white and it was moving, and its shape looked unusual – with very long legs on its front part, curving out, and a rounded diamond-shaped body. 

It was a Green Crab Spider (Misumessus oblongus), common in Georgia and the Southeast. It does not spin a web, but lives in plants, hiding among the petals and leaves to feed on insect prey, which it captures with its extremely long front legs. As I learned when I looked it up later, a Green Crab Spider, only about 3-7 mm long, can walk forward, sideways and backwards, which must be how it got its common name. The one I watched was traveling in a very ordinary way, straight across a road and into grass and clover, where it disappeared.

I should have taken a photo, and wish I had, but it didn’t occur to me at the time – as usual. I was just fascinated to watch such a beautiful, small, intricate creature.

Cicada-killer Wasp

August 5th, 2021

Among a tangle of vines in this same thicket, a shimmer of glistening copper caught my eye. It was a very large and frightening-looking insect sitting on a leaf in the sun. A Cicada-killer wasp. 

Its body was long and black, with a distinct pattern of yellow stripes, and its wings were a beautiful translucent copper. It was sitting with wings folded on a large, leathery-looking leaf of a vine that I think was some kind of greenbrier. 

Cicada-killers are fearsome-looking solitary wasps that dig underground burrows for their larvae and feed them with paralyzed cicadas. They are the largest wasps found in Georgia and are considered beneficial because they help to control cicada populations. The sting of a cicada-killer wasp is powerful but they are not aggressive at all, and they do not normally sting people, only cicadas.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Blue Grosbeak, Yellow Warbler, and a Flurry of Songbirds Hidden in a Tangled Old Field

August 5th, 2021

This morning a rough and thorny tangle of privet thickets, chinaberry trees, wild pears, and a mess of weedy shrubs and vines turned out to be a small spot full of beautiful songbirds – including a Blue Grosbeak, several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a White-eyed Vireo, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, two Great Crested Flycatchers, a Northern Parula, and – most surprising of all – a warm and sunny Yellow Warbler.

It all started with the calls of Blue Grosbeaks – bright calls of clink, coming from somewhere in the thickets as I walked along the dead-end road that runs by this small remnant of an old field. When I stopped to see if I could find them, instead I saw two silvery Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flitting in and out of shrubs on the edge of the field, and lisping wispy spee-speecalls. Tiny, animated birds, blue-gray and white, with long, slender black tails edged in white, they flew up to catch small insects in the air, and hovered to glean prey from leaves. Constantly in motion, they look like little sprites, airy and bright – and lots of fun to watch.

Walking further along the field, still following the calls of Blue Grosbeaks, I found several more Blue-gray Gnatcatchers spread out all along the edge of the thickets, catching the light and sparkling against the drab background of weeds.

A larger, more stocky songbird with a slightly crested head flew into the top of a chinaberry tree on the other side of the field from where I stood, and sat in full view, looking golden yellow in the sun. When it turned its head in my direction, a big, pale, conical beak showed up clearly. It was a Blue Grosbeak – a female or an immature male. Both are a warm cinnamon color all over, with brown wing bars, and the sunlight made this one look gold from a distance. 

A little further along, two Great Crested Flycatchers emerged from the weeds with a flash of wings and tails, foraging down so low they were almost on the ground. Large gray flycatchers with big, crested heads, lemon-yellow breasts, long cinnamon tails, and cinnamon touches in the wings, they snapped insects out of the air and from low in the grass. It’s more common to see Great Crested Flycatchers hunting from perches much higher in trees, so they looked a little out of place, but they are known to search for food near the ground, too.

They didn’t stay out long, and as I watched them move back into the thickets and out of sight, I came across the stunning view of a very long, dramatic black tail with big white spots. That’s all I could see, just the tail of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. Its top part was screened by leaves, and before I could get a better look, it fled back into the bushes, leaving me with just the image of its isolated, spectacular tail, a little like the smile of a Cheshire Cat. 

Two more Blue-gray Gnatcatchers appeared, and I spent a few more minutes watching them, then walked along the field until I heard the song of a White-eyed Vireo that sounded close to the edge. I was surprised to find it almost at once, moving through a very thick tangle of grape vines, greenbrier and privet. A small songbird with a gray head and yellow spectacles, a white throat, yellow sides, and bright white wing bars, moving quickly but pausing often to sing.

At the same time, another bird was moving through the tangle of vines and branches a little lower than the vireo. This one was tiny and round, with a very yellow throat, a white belly, and small, bright white bars on each wing. White half-crescents surrounded the eyes – and its back was mossy green. It was a Northern Parula. An immature, I think, because it had no dark band across the chest. 

Then a very small, all-yellow bird popped out completely into the open, very low along the edge of the shrubs, and hopped daintily across some rough grass and sticks. It was a female Yellow Warbler. All smooth, warm yellow on the face and breast and belly, and the shadow of olive-yellow on the upper parts. It had a very round head, and a bright black eye that shined. It only stayed in view for a very few moments, before flitting back into the thickets. I’ve rarely seen a Yellow Warbler here, and only during spring or fall migration. Their breeding territory appears to be a little further north. But I’ve learned that Yellow Warblers are among the earliest species to begin fall migration, and they may be moving south by mid to late July. 

Rough, scrubby places like this remnant of an old field can offer valuable habitat for a variety of songbirds, both for nesting and for food and cover after the nesting season and during migration. So it’s really not surprising to find any of these birds here, but to see so many in a small spot in just this one morning did feel amazing. 

Summer Tanager Family

July 6th, 2021

Early this afternoon, on a very warm, sunny day, a bird that looked golden-brown in the sun flew in a flashy way across our back yard to perch briefly in a pine. It flew again right away, to an oak, a little deeper inside the shade of the woods, where it sat on a branch and quivered its wings, begging to be fed. 

It was a juvenile Summer Tanager. Beside it on the same branch sat a rose-red adult Summer Tanager, feeding a second juvenile also quivering its wings.

For the next hour or more, I watched as the Summer Tanager juveniles flew from tree to tree around the yard, and the male parent hunted and fed them. There might have been more than two, but two was all I saw at the same time. I didn’t see a female parent, but she might have been around. Her coloring doesn’t stand out as well as the male – who’s impossible to miss. The male sang from time to time, and I heard a few pik-a-tuk calls now and then. 

At one point, one of the juvenile tanagers flew to a shepherd’s crook on the edge of our deck and perched there for several moments, in perfect view. Its color was mostly yellow all over, but not the deep, full yellow of a female. Its plumage was mixed with olive, brown, buffy-brown and gray; and mottled on the crown of the head. It sat in full sun, highlighting the yellow feathers.

As it sat on the crook, it snapped several times at flying insects in the air and seemed to be catching something at least part of the time, wiping its bill on the edge of the crook after one – or it might have been subduing an insect before eating it. Summer Tanagers specialize in capturing bees and wasps, and they may beat an insect and remove a stinger by wiping the prey on a branch before eating it. 

At least this one was getting in practice. Once it flew up to catch an insect out of the air, and then back to the perch on the crook. But soon after that, it flew up and away – with sunlight pouring through the yellow feathers, looking golden-brown again.

We’ve been lucky enough to have a pair of Summer Tanagers around our back yard all this spring and early summer, hearing their songs and calls often, and now and then catching glimpses of the rose-red male and yellow female. It’s a happy feeling to know that they must have nested somewhere near and that the nest has been successful. 

Summer Tanager fledglings are barely able to fly when they leave the nest. They’re fed by the parents for at least three weeks, and during this time stay mostly hidden in the forest canopy, and are difficult to observe. For this reason, it’s not known exactly how soon the young can acquire their own food. Even after they’ve learned to fly well, they continue to follow the adults and beg to be fed.* So it may be that the juveniles I watched today fledged at least two or three weeks ago and are just now becoming able to fly well, and beginning to capture their own food, while still begging to be fed by the parents.

Summer Tanagers are neotropical migrants that spend the summer breeding season in the eastern and southern U.S. and Mexico, and winters in Central and South America. They are handsome, robust songbirds with rather long, sturdy bills. The male’s song is a lilting series of musical phrases, similar to a robin’s song but with its own quality that’s easy to get to know. The calls of Summer Tanagers are clicking pik-a-tuk phrases that often lace through the foliage as the birds move, a lovely, evocative summer sound. 

Robinson, W.D. (2020). Summer Tanager (Piranga rubra), version 1.0. In Birds of the World, (A.F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.