Summer of Wood Thrush Songs

July 23rd, 2020

Early yesterday evening, when the sun was low but not yet down, two Wood Thrushes sang in the woods on the edge of our back yard. They sounded unusually close, the fluted songs rippling and overlapping and surrounding us in ethereal music that went on for several minutes, weaving an enchanting spell. 

The song of a Wood Thrush is one of the most beautiful of all bird songs, an inspiration for many poets. This year two have been singing in our woods since late April. It’s the first time I can remember ever hearing even one throughout the season – much less two. It feels like an extravagant luxury. Their songs are often the first thing I hear in the morning – one to the east of our home, one to the west, but neither very far away. They sing off and on throughout the day, and at times – especially at dusk – they sound as if they come almost together in the woods near the creek. These close encounters between two males create some of the most intricate and fascinating music. Sometimes they’re close enough for us to hear some of the soft, low notes of their full songs. 

A Wood Thrush is a plump bird with a shape similar to a robin, and a rich, red-brown back and white breast with bold dark spots. A reclusive, forest-loving bird, it’s often found near streams, scratching through leaf-litter for insects and other prey. Though still considered widespread in forests throughout eastern North America, their numbers have declined alarmingly over the past few decades, and they have become increasingly rare. Habitat loss is thought to be the main reason for their decline, especially fragmentation and destruction of forests.

The familiar, flute-like ee-oh-lay in a Wood Thrush song is actually only one part of a longer song made up of several different clear notes and soft, low notes, and trills. Individual males combine notes and phrases and trills in different ways to create their own variations, and a male may sing more than 50 different songs. A male can also sing two notes at once, giving the songs some of their otherworldly quality.

Twilight with Cicadas, Katydids and Fireflies

July 18th, 2020

This afternoon a good summer rain with rumbles of thunder brought at least a short break from the very hot, sunny weather. The temperature didn’t drop much. Steam rose from the road when the sun came back out. But the rain was welcome, and by early evening the air felt comfortable enough to have dinner on the screened porch, serenaded by the songs of two Wood Thrushes. 

After dinner, I stayed on the porch as light faded from a clear, gray-blue sky. Birds gradually stopped singing, and even the hummingbirds stopped coming to the feeder. The trees lost their green and turned dark. Fireflies began to flash all around, rising from the ground, bringing their magic to the hour. As light faded, the songs of cicadas became louder and louder and louder, until they filled the air and the trees, almost deafening, shrieking, drowning out everything else. Louder at this time of day than at any other. They sang in waves, a chorus swelling from one direction, overlapping with another and another. 

Early twilight became full twilight, and sank toward night. I was listening especially, then, for a special moment, when the songs of cicadas fade and give way – to the songs of katydids. It happens quickly. An elusive point of change from day to night, like the turn of a tide.

And it came in deepest twilight, the sky barely gray, trees only dark silhouettes, lots of fireflies flashing. The cicadas barely slowed in their songs but in hardly more than a breath or two they began to fall quiet and the first few clattering songs of katydids rose, and then more and more katydids sang. Until it was only katydids and crickets and other night insects. A beautiful way to end a summer day. 

. . . . . 

Cicadas are fascinating insects, and even though we’re surrounded in their songs for much of the summer, I’ve realized that I know very little about them. From just a little research, I’ve learned that there are several different species in Georgia. Some are annual, meaning they appear every year, but some are periodic cicadas that emerge only every 13 or 17 years. The annual Dog-Day Cicada is probably what I’m hearing here during the daytime. Common in the hot, humid days of July and August, they are two-inch long green, black and brown insects that make loud buzzing calls. 

But I think the ones singing in twilight are a different species, most likely the Northern Dusk-singing Cicada. Despite its name, it’s most common in the Southeast. Their songs are really much louder than those of cicadas that sing during the day. 

Katydids are very beautiful, large, leaf-green insects related to crickets and grasshoppers. The wings of those I have seen look like fresh green leaves. Several katydid species live in Georgia, and the loudest are said to be the Common True Katydids. The oaks around our home are filled with their rhythmic clacking songs every warm summer night. The best article I found about both cicadas and katydids in Georgia is this piece by Charles Seabrook in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, April 21, 2017, Droning Katydids, Dog Day Cicadas Say August Is Here.

Summer Tanagers

July 17th, 2020

Midmorning on a hot summer day, two Summer Tanagers called back and forth as they moved through a patch of trees near the side of the road. There were so few other sounds of birds or even of insects that the calls sounded especially distinct and clear and crisp. Pik-a-tuk, pik-a-tuk, pik-a-tuk-tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk-tuk. And variations, sometimes the full call, often a shorter two or three tuks. The calls sound expressive, and intimate, intriguing. 

Summer Tanagers are among the most handsome of songbird pairs, the male rose-red all over, and the female a muted two-tone yellow, sometimes more dull, sometimes almost orange. Both with big, sturdy bills that work especially well for catching large flying insects like bees and wasps. This summer we’ve been lucky enough to see and hear a pair often around our yard. They stay mostly hidden in the trees, not on the ground or in bushes. But they aren’t too hard to find, not particularly shy, and they don’t flutter around quickly but move more deliberately from place to place. 

To stand on the edge of the woods on a hot summer morning and listen to the calls of a pair of Summer Tanagers would usually be a pure and simple pleasure. But now, in the middle of a dark and worsening pandemic, the joy of watching birds and spending time outside cannot help but contrast sharply with the increasingly grim and disturbing news of the pandemic. And the very dark political situation that has made it so much worse here in the U.S than it might have been. Our lives feel as if they are lived in stark contrast – between the light of all that makes life good – and the dark uncertainty that hangs over us.

Here in Georgia, the virus is spreading at alarming rates, as in many other states. Hospitals are nearing capacity. The situation is serious. And yet, many people seem to be throwing caution to the winds, too many refusing even to take the simple precautions of wearing a mask and observing social distance. Our governor refuses to make wearing a mask mandatory. The public schools in my own county are planning to open as normal, with children in classrooms, in only three weeks, early August. The sidewalks of nearby downtown Athens are sometimes filled with people not staying distanced, and very few wearing masks. Bars and restaurants are open, and stores and gyms and hair and nail salons, and parking lots are full. We so badly want to “get back to normal” that too many act as if they just pretend things are normal – that somehow, magically, they will be. 

It’s a very strange time. We do our best to stay safe, to make reasonable decisions, and to stay in touch with the real world. 

Mid-summer Morning – Yellow-throated Vireo, Acadian Flycatcher, and Northern Parula

July 16th, 2020

Early this morning on another very hot, sunny day, a feeling of stillness and quiet lay over the trees in our yard and in the woods. Many birds that sang from spring through early summer have now fallen silent. But not all. And against the quiet, the songs and calls of a few birds began to emerge. 

A Yellow-throated Vireo sang from down in the woods, and made its way steadily closer and closer up the hill. Its mellow, slow-paced song of two and three-syllable phrases moved through the trees like sunlight, weaving in and out of the leaves. It wasn’t close enough to see, but I could imagine it, a small brightly-colored bird with a yellow-green head, brilliant yellow throat and yellow markings around the eyes that look like spectacles. 

An Acadian Flycatcher called its quiet, sharp, much less-musical song from the woods – ker-cheep! A small exclamation point repeated from a hidden spot deep within a dense cluster of leaves. An Acadian Flycatcher is a small gray-green bird with touches of pale yellow, and white wing bars and a thin white ring around the eye. It perches very still in a small tree in the tangled, lower levels of the woods, usually down near the creek, flying off frequently to catch insects. 

A Northern Parula, another deep-woods loving songbird, sang another quiet song from a hidden, leafy spot around the edges of the woods – a buzzy zee-zee-zee-zee-zup! – that rises to a crescendo and falls off sharply at the end. A small roundish wood warbler, a Northern Parula is an often-hidden jewel – a blue-gray head and back with a patch of green in the middle of the back, a deep yellow throat and breast, and a black and rusty-coral band across the chest.  

An Eastern Towhee called chur-wheee. A White-breasted Nuthatch honked its nasal ank-ank-ank. A Carolina Wren sang a bold and beautiful song. Two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds twittered and snapped fiercely as they flew from the feeder and away. 

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

July 15th, 2020

As we sat on our screened porch early yesterday evening, the hot, sunny, drowsy quiet was suddenly broken by a hollow-sounding burst of notes that rose to a crescendo and cascaded down – ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-kaw, kaw, kaawwwp, kaawwwp, kaawwwp. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo was giving its knocking, drawn-out call from somewhere up near the top of the oaks that shade the porch. 

Having Yellow-billed Cuckoos around our yard this summer has been one of the season’s best surprises. We hear their calls several times a day, though we rarely see one. They mostly stay hidden in the highest part of the trees. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo looks as exotic as it sounds, a large songbird with a slender, graceful form, a long tail, and a prominent, down-curving yellow bill. It’s exquisitely patterned, with a taupe-brown head, back and wings, orange-brown edges in the wings, clean white throat and breast, and a long tail with spectacular big white spots on the underside. It’s always amazing to see one from below, emerging like a jungle bird from the high, dense green leaves of the oaks. And even just to hear one call and to know that they’re around is a joy. Not fluttery birds, they move deliberately through the leaves, searching for caterpillars, and often staying in one spot for several moments. They also eat cicadas, katydids, beetles, and other insects and spiders.

Caterpillars are said to be the primary food of Yellow-billed Cuckoos, so their presence here seems like encouraging evidence that maybe there are more butterflies and moths around than there seem to be. I have been very much aware for the past few years of a sudden and dramatic drop in the abundance of butterflies and moths that we see here. In past years for as long as I can remember, it would have been common for us to see dozens, even hundreds of moths around our windows on summer nights. Last year and this year there are almost none. A very few. One here. one there. The change is stunning. There also has been a very noticeable drop in the number and variety of butterflies. 

And yet – we have Yellow-billed Cuckoos. A hopeful sign.

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.