Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Blackbird Flock

November 10th, 2020

Early this morning I stepped out into a foggy, wet, copper-brown world that seemed to have changed overnight. The leaves on all of the white oaks – only yesterday still half green – this morning are mostly brown. There’s still yellow in the sweet gums, red in the maples, rose-coral in the dogwoods and some green in the oaks. But a big change came overnight, and we’re more and more surrounded in deep autumn-brown.

From somewhere in the trees on the edge of the woods came the sweet chup, chup calls of a Hermit Thrush. It’s been around for several days now. I haven’t yet succeeded in seeing it among the speckled leaves, but haven’t really tried too hard. It’s just very nice to hear its calls. It feels like a fall and winter counterpart of the Wood Thrushes that sang last summer. Not singing, of course, but with its very lovely, liquid calls, reflecting the background and sense of the season. 

Lots of little birds flitted around in the branches and leaves of the oaks – mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers, which I’m very happy to see. Also three or four Carolina Wrens, two Eastern Bluebirds, and some Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice. 

Later in the morning, on a walk through the neighborhood in very cloudy, soft gray light, things seemed mostly quiet in a peaceful way. The clear mewing call of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drifted through the trees. Too far away to see, but the call was very clear, and repeated. A White-breasted Nuthatch called a nasal ank, ank, ank. An Eastern Phoebe sang. I passed the mewing calls of two more Sapsuckers, in widely different places, and the whistled songs of White-throated Sparrows from the thickets in the field. Around Pond Corner, I stopped to watch a handsome Northern Flicker searching for food in the grass. The bright red crescent on the gray nape of its neck reflected the softer, coral-red leaves of four dogwood trees nearby. 

The blackbird flock was around the area where it’s often been since late October, at least three hundred and probably many more pleasantly noisy birds spread out across grassy yards and in the bare branches of pecan trees, constantly moving from one spot to another, flowing like a river. Almost all were Common Grackles, but I saw a handful of birds that I think were probably Rusty Blackbirds, though I didn’t see them well enough to be sure. This is always a challenge for me. I think a better birder would be able to spot Rusty Blackbirds among a flock much more quickly – but for me, I always have to look hard, especially when the flock is steadily moving even on the ground, and often startled into flight. A Common Grackle is easy to identify – big, bold, iridescent black, with a long, heavy bill and long tail. But when I do find other blackbirds among the grackles, smaller, with a different shape and thinner bills and tails not quite so long, it takes me longer to be sure, and most of the time the flock flushes up with a rush of wings and moves further away, just when I’m finding a good clear view. The rusty color rarely shows up so well that they’re easy to spot from a distance. But it’s fun to try. And I’m very happy to have such a good flock around again this fall. It’s a good year for pecans here, and acorns, which may help.

Yellow-rumped Warblers

November 8th, 2020

Early this afternoon a Hermit Thrush called from trees on the edge of the woods around our back yard. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flew to the trunk of an oak, a juvenile, with a ruffled look all over, and no red showing on its throat or crown, but a white and brown striped face, and a bold white bar down the wings.  

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinals and an Eastern Towhee all were calling now and then – on a warm, windy afternoon with low white clouds blowing fast across a gray sky. The landscape has become multi-colored, confetti-like, with green and brown and orange oaks, yellow sweet gums and tulip poplars, coral-red dogwoods, and leaves blowing and showering down.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker didn’t stay long, but a Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew into the oak and began moving quickly through the leaves in its flickering way, a tiny, gray-green bird that looked especially green and crisp today, with hints of yellow in the flicking wings, a bright white ring around its eye and a small white wing bar. 

Meanwhile, in the oaks all around the yard, lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted from spot to spot, scattering their check calls as they searched for food. I watched one move along a branch, methodically pecking at the branch as it went. Now and then one flew up to capture an insect in the air. Yellow-rumped Warblers are little gray birds, looking very nondescript in winter plumage – brownish-gray, with touches of yellow on the sides, and a bright yellow rump that can be hard to see when their wings are folded, but shows up especially when they fly. 

I’m especially happy to see them because the past two or three years the number of Yellow-rumped Warblers here in our neighborhood has been far fewer than in the past. While there used to be so many they seemed to be everywhere, last winter on many days it was hard to find more than a handful. So it’s very encouraging to see so many here this fall – not only around our own yard, but also in other parts of the neighborhood. It felt joyous just to stand and watch them, as if a part of life that had been missing had returned. 

Yellow-rumped Warblers are known for arriving each fall in very large numbers across much of the central and southeastern U.S. They are still described as widespread, and the most common winter warbler in North America, with no special concern for their populations. So I don’t know why I have observed such a dramatic drop in their numbers here in our own neighborhood in recent years – and I’m hopeful that this year they’ll continue to be abundant as the season goes on. 

Purple Finch

November 2nd, 2020

Back at home, my spirits lifted because it seemed like I’d finally found all the birds. Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees and a Downy Woodpecker were coming and going from the feeders. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet called jidit-jidit from some wax myrtles. An Eastern Towhee called a rich chur-whee, and two Towhees scratched up leaves under holly bushes. Several Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from tree to tree around the yard, scattering their quick, light check calls. 

From deep in the leaves of a bush beside the porch, the gentle face of a small grayish bird with a white throat and a white, broken ring around its eye peered out – a Yellow-rumped Warbler. A White-throated Sparrow flew into the same bush with a thumping flurry, and looked around. A bird bath stands very close to this bush, and they may both have been considering whether a visit to it was safe.

A stocky, heavily streaked bird flew to the feeder and sat for a moment on top of it, while a Tufted Titmouse sat below eating seeds. The new bird was one I haven’t seen here before, a small bird – but it didn’t look small. It had a sturdy presence. A brown finch, very heavily streaked on the breast and sides, and a striped face with a long white eyebrow and a large conical bill. It was a Purple Finch – a female or a first-year male. It’s the first Purple Finch I’ve seen in several years, and I’m not sure we have ever seen one here in Summit Grove until today.

Purple Finches are considered fairly common across much of the U.S., but they are not common here. A male Purple Finch is raspberry-red – much more colorful than the female, though her bold, brown-streaked plumage is striking in its own way. Although Purple Finches are described as widespread and often come to bird feeders, they have become less common in the eastern U.S. in the past several decades. Competition with House Sparrows and House Finches – two species not native to America – is thought to have contributed to a decline in their populations. 

House Finches are very common birds here, year-round. Both male and female House Finches look like smaller, washed-out versions of the more boldly colored Purple Finches. However, one study has shown that in competition between the two, Purple Finches lost out to House Finches 95 percent of the time – a fact that seems amazing to me, because Purple Finches look as if they should be more dominant. But looks can be deceiving.

The Purple Finch I watched this morning looked strong and aggressive. It chased the Titmouse away and sat on the feeder by itself, eating black sunflower seeds. When a second Purple Finch – also a female or first-year male – appeared on a nearby branch, the first one chased it away and returned to the feeder and kept eating. The second Finch stayed nearby in a tree – but then something startled them and they both flew away and did not come back while I was outside.

Hermit Thrush

November 2nd, 2020

On a crisp, cold, brightly sunny morning, the sky burned a clear, cloudless blue. Touches of red, orange, yellow and rust spotted the green trees and shrubs like confetti. It was a beautiful fall day, and yet, all through the neighborhood a strange quiet prevailed. In the big grassy yards were no feeding flocks of small birds, not even a bluebird or a robin. No towhees or thrashers or sparrows around the shrubs. The trees on the edge of the woods stood quiet, and even the old field appeared empty of birds except for Blue Jays everywhere and American Crows flying over now and then. Gradually I could find the chattering calls of Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens, an Eastern Towhee here and there, all sounding far away in the distance. The chuck-chuck calls of Red-bellied Woodpeckers were closer, and an occasional whinny from a Downy. 

From somewhere in the leaves of a water oak on the very edge of the road, surrounded by a thin tangle of fading grasses and weeds, skimpy bushes and vines, came a low, liquid call. Chup. Repeated again and again. Chup. Chup. It’s not possible to capture in words how lovely it is, the call of a Hermit Thrush, though it sounded somewhat forlorn in this spot, sitting on a branch among the spotty, orange-brown leaves of a vine that twisted up the trunk. The Hermit Thrush sat directly above me, so what I could see was its pale underside and the dark-spotted throat and breast, and the lifted head with its watchful eye. The reddish tail lifted and lowered, lifted and lowered, as it continued to call the low chup, chup. I only watched it for a few moments, before walking on, not wanting to disturb it more. 

Bay-breasted Warbler

October 23rd, 2020

Late this morning I was surprised to find a slender, greenish warbler moving along the lichen-covered branches of a pecan tree, searching for food. It moved quickly and intently over the branches, not fluttery or flitting from place to place. Because I haven’t often seen this warbler, it took me a few minutes to identify it – though I should have known immediately. Its breast was pale, and the soft buffy-bay color on its flanks and under its tail was distinctive. A beautiful Bay-breasted Warbler.

While identifying a warbler in fall plumage can be confusing and frustrating, it’s also a lot of fun, and this Bay-breasted Warbler stayed in clear view in the same tree for several minutes, so it was a good chance to study field marks. It was a warm sunny morning, and it helped that the warbler wasn’t fluttery or flying from place to place often. It foraged quickly and neatly along the branches and stopped often to eat something – some of what it ate looked like tiny caterpillars. 

This male was much less brilliantly colored than it would have been in spring, but the markings were still clear – dark wings with two bright white wing bars; a smooth greenish head; thin, sharply pointed bill; dark streak through the eye and a slight hint of a yellow band over the eye; a rather long tail – and I even got a good look at the underside of the tail itself, which was white, with a slight dark marking about halfway up. But the most obvious and definitive part was the soft buffy-bay color on the flanks and under the tail. It also showed this soft-bay color very pale under the chin.

Muted streaks on the sides confused me for a while, because most accounts of this species describe its underside as smooth and unstreaked. Back at home later, I eventually found photos on the Audubon Society website that show the blurry streaking in the male’s fall plumage – almost too subtle to see, but it’s there. And maybe in the one I watched there was some trick of the light that made the streaks show up more.

Bay-breasted Warblers breed mostly in northern spruce and fir forests and migrate through the eastern U.S. to winter homes in South America. They are considered an uncommon species whose remote breeding areas make them somewhat difficult to track.

I didn’t see any other Bay-breasted Warbler, or other migrant birds – though maybe there were others around that I didn’t find. This one seemed to be part of a small feeding flock of resident birds that included Eastern Bluebirds, a Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadees, and at least five Chipping Sparrows, two of them searching along the pecan branches for food near the warbler. After a minute or two, the Bay-breasted Warbler flew at the Chipping Sparrows and chased them away from its branch. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed from not far away, and a Northern Flicker called a sharp kleer!

Hermit Thrush and White-throated Sparrow

October 20th, 2020

This morning was another clear, sunny day, and quite a bit warmer than it has been – very warm for this time of year. Birds throughout the neighborhood seemed widely scattered and few in number, and I was beginning to feel that things were too quiet. In truth, I think things are too quiet – there are too few birds and too few butterflies and moths, and too few insects overall. 

This is true, and not to be ignored. But today, two small quiet birds in widely different places brightened the day immensely, each in its own characteristic way:  The low, expressive sound of a Hermit Thrush’s call in trees on the edge of the woods; and the glowing beauty of a colorful White-throated Sparrow sitting in full sun on the edge of a privet thicket. 

Both are winter birds here, the first of the season I’ve seen or heard. 

The Hermit Thrush’s call came from a wooded area near a creek where there were few other sounds of birds at all, not even the chatter of chickadees and titmice. I was only hearing the background chirping of insects and the distant cries of crows and jays, and the sound of my own footsteps. But then a familiar low, liquid chup, repeated over and over, came from somewhere in the oaks and sweet gums and pines not far from the road. For several minutes I listened and scanned the lower branches of the trees for the thrush. It continued to call, chup, chupchup, but stayed hidden somewhere in the trees and a lot of leafy vines. Eventually it fell silent, and I walked on.

It would have been nice to see, but this quiet little call is so much a part of the fall and winter landscape here that it’s almost as good just to hear. It sounds like mellow autumn shades, muted and earth-toned, like the yellow leaves of grape vines, and the crusty patches of orange in the oaks, the soft rose-green of the dogwoods.

Hermit Thrushes are solitary, woodland birds, not particularly shy, but unobtrusive and well-camouflaged in soft brown and cream with dark spots on the throat and breast. In winter they don’t stay in flocks with other thrushes, but often search for food on the ground with other birds like sparrows, towhees and pine warblers. When startled, a Hermit Thrush will fly up into a nearby bush or tree and sit watchfully, raising its cinnamon-colored tail sharply and lowering it slowly, over and over again, and calling its soft chupchup.

Walking on, I passed large, grassy yards that looked mostly empty, but here and there an Eastern Bluebird flashed its brilliant colors, a Northern Flicker called a bright kleer! Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers rattled, a Carolina Wren sang and another trilled, an Eastern Phoebe sang its swishing song. Despite the warm sun, I saw almost no butterflies. Only two yellow Sulphurs. 

In the dense thickets of the old field just outside our subdivision, some sibilant tseeet calls cut through the traffic sounds on the nearby highway. There seemed to be quite a lot of rustling in the leaves of the privet and other rough shrubs, grasses and vines. A Northern Mockingbird flew to the top of a tree with dark-green leaves and sang exuberantly. A Pine Warbler trilled its softer, lyrical song from somewhere deep in the pines nearby. An Eastern Towhee called chur-whee. More rustling in the shrubs – and a pair of Northern Cardinals emerged briefly, followed by a handsome pair of Eastern Towhees, splashes of bold color in orange and brown and red, black and white.

When a beautiful White-throated Sparrow emerged on the edge of a bush in clear, full view, it looked as if it had blossomed there. Lit by the morning sun against a tangled background of faded grasses and rough weeds, the small, plump, elegant sparrow glowed with life – warm brown-streaked back and plain gray breast, bright black and white striped crown, gray cheeks, clean white throat, and the touch of a small yellow mark between the eye and the bill. I always think of a White-throated Sparrow as dapper – its colors and patterns so neat and crisp.

White-throated Sparrows, like the Hermit Thrush, are just arriving now, after spending the summer in northern forests. In the winter months here, they love overgrown old fields like this one but can also be found in yards with plenty of shrubs, and often come to feeders. 

First Yellow-bellied Sapsucker of the Fall

October 11th, 2020

This afternoon after a brief heavy downpour of rain, I heard the mewing calls of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in trees around our next-door neighbor’s yard. The rain had stopped, but dark gray clouds remained, and water still dripped from trees all around, already drenched from two days of showery rain, as the remnants of Hurricane Delta moved through. 

The mewing calls continued for half an hour or more, soft and plaintive among the sounds of water dripping on wet leaves, calling to mind a water-color image of a Yellow-bellowed Sapsucker with its boldly striped black and white face and crimson throat and crown. I hoped it might come closer, but it never did. But it’s always nice to know, at this time of year, that one has returned. 

A Barred Owl’s Early Morning Call

October 9th, 2020

At 6:30 this morning it was still dark outside my windows, and I lay awake watching and listening as the first light began very gradually to appear. Crickets sang and there were the sounds of dry cracking and scratching things, and an Eastern Phoebe sang far in the distance. My attention was kind of drifting when I realized I had heard the deep hoo-aww hoots of a Barred Owl. It wasn’t very close, and I could only hear one, but it called again, and again, four, maybe five times I think, each deep, hooted, booming, echoing call a sound I could feel as well as hear. 

After the owl fell quiet, a dry patter of leaves showered down in a breeze, and acorns thumped to the ground. 

Brown Thrashers began their smacking calls. An Eastern Bluebird murmured a blurry song, another Eastern Phoebe sang, this one closer, and four Carolina Wrens began to sing in different directions, all different songs. Then the harsh cries of several Blue Jays, the peeps of Northern Cardinals, the chatter of a Carolina Chickadee, and the chur-whee of an Eastern Towhee. American Crows cawed in the distance. A Carolina Wren burst into very loud song right below my window – past time to get up. 

Maybe the Last Hummingbird of Summer

October 7th, 2020

Early yesterday evening Clate and I sat on the screened porch as the sun dropped low and then set, and light faded on another mild, lovely Fall day. What we could see of the sky through the trees was at first soft blue, then gently turned to cream and orange and soft pink. A few katydids began to sing and crickets. A lingering Scarlet Tanager called a sharp chick! from trees around the yard, now and then the full chick-brrr call. Cardinals peeped loudly. 

One little Ruby-throated Hummingbird sat on the feeder just outside the porch and sipped nectar until it was almost dark. Now and then it zipped off to a nearby branch or to sit for a moment on top of the crook that holds the feeder, but mostly it sat and sipped and sometimes twittered. I watched it, noticing the fine, delicate shape of its head, and the white throat with a faint pattern of speckles, and green, iridescent feathers on its back when there was still enough light to see them well, and the way the nectar rippled when the long tongue dipped in to sip. For the first day in many weeks, it seemed to be the only one around, so it stayed uncommonly still for a longer time. Just two days ago there were still at least two hummingbirds vying for position on the feeder – but even then, they weren’t spending nearly as much time on duels, more focused on feeding as much as they could, and often sharing the feeder. 

This morning when we came downstairs for breakfast, the feeder hung vacant. No hummingbird sat there, intently feeding after a long night. And when we sat on the porch for lunch, we didn’t see a single hummingbird come – or hear the bright, high twittering and humming, zipping sounds. So we wonder if the one we saw last night might be our last hummingbird of the summer, and if it might have left here during the night and begun its long flight south.

We don’t know for sure. We might still have others coming through in migration, and we’ll keep the feeder up for a good while longer. But it’s getting late in the year, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds must leave for their winter homes in Central America. 

This summer of the pandemic, the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been among many birds around our woods and yard that have brightened the difficult times and reminded us daily of the things that matter most. This year that’s felt more important than ever. They’ve given us beauty. They’ve made us smile. They’ve kept us connected to the living world on which we all depend, and whose future we should be doing so much more to protect. 

Swainson’s Thrush

September 30th, 2020

After an all-day showery rain yesterday, this morning dawned clear and bright and sunny, and became a picture-perfect day to end the month. The sky was a deep September-blue, not a cloud in sight, and cool breezes kept the trees in motion and rang the wind chimes softly. Such heartbreakingly beautiful weather in such dark and painful times. The pandemic continues, and presidential politics dominate the news. The levels of anger, corruption, racism and utter lack of compassion are frightening. Every day seems to bring more and more grim news, of a kind we could never have imagined only four years ago.

Early this afternoon, a White-breasted Nuthatch murmured its low, intimate call from trees around the back yard. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds twittered and hummed, much less combative now than a week or two ago, more focused just on fueling up for migration. Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice chattered inside the woods. 

When I saw a lot of rustling in the leaves of a dogwood tree on the edge of the yard, I watched for several minutes and finally a graceful Swainson’s Thrush came into view, eating a bright red dogwood berry.

A Swainson’s Thrush is a bird we only see here during spring or fall migration, and I don’t often find one even then, so it was especially fun to see – especially such a clear, vivid view. It’s a medium-size thrush with a plain brown back and wings, and a white breast with dark spots, especially heavy on the throat and upper breast. A distinct pale ring around the eye gives its face an appealing, watchful expression. It stayed in view only for a minute or two, then disappeared back into the leaves. 

Like other thrushes, Swainsons are known for their ethereal, fluted songs, which I’ve never been lucky enough to hear. They spend summers in far northern forests, and migrate through a large part of the U.S. to their winter homes in South America. 

The dogwood tree on the edge of our back yard has often attracted migrating birds in the fall, like the Swainson’s Thrush. It’s full of red berries now, and I’m hopeful we might see more birds stopping by in the next week or so.