Archive for April, 2005

After a Storm

Saturday, April 30th, 2005

The last day of April began dark, under threatening clouds, and by mid morning thunder, lightning and heavy rain had begun, and continued until after noon, followed by almost an hour of strong, gusty winds that ebbed and flowed like nausea, tossing the trees wildly, then subsiding, only to return again and again. Then abruptly, the wind stopped and the sky began to lighten. I walked out onto the deck behind our house, surrounded by clouds of wet green leaves, and found the trees sparkling with birdsong and bird activity. A Red-eyed Vireo, Pine Warbler, Black and White Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Parula Warbler all were singing, and the song of the RE Vireo seemed especially sweet and crisp, as it went from branch to branch, low in a White Oak tree near the deck, singing intensely and fast.

Also in the trees nearby were a quiet Yellow-throated Vireo, a male Blackpoll Warbler, and a Cape May Warbler in full spring plumage. I had heard the Cape May singing earlier in the morning, before the rain began, but had been unable to spot it in the dim gray light. Now, as it moved from spot to spot in some low branches not far away, its bright yellow neck and breast, streaked with black, and its coral cheek, dark head, yellow rump, and prominent white wing coverts all stood out warmly among the green leaves.

From our front porch, on the north side of the house, I could see the clouds clearing from the West. A House Wren sang loudly and cheerily, along with a Bluebird, Robin, Chipping Sparrow and Carolina Wren, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker flew into the top of one of the trees and whirred.

I was watching a female Blackpoll Warbler that had just flown into a pecan tree, when I saw on a branch just above it a flash of red—a male Scarlet Tanager, and slightly above him, a female. For several moments, they fed in the tree, the male, “flaming scarlet,” as Peterson’s Field Guide says, with jet-black wings, went from branch to branch and flew up now and then to catch and swallow flying insects. The female, a soft, dark lemon color with wings just slightly darker, stayed closer to the branches, feeding on something in the leaves or flowers of the pecan. They could not have appeared more striking, as if posed for a photo, in green leaves glistening wet, with the clearing sky of gray and cream clouds behind them.

Two Tanagers and a Robin

Friday, April 29th, 2005

Summit Grove, Oconee County, Georgia.

A beautiful, slightly cool April morning. Soft blue and white sky, warm sunlight filtering through the new green leaves on our oaks and pecans. A Blue-headed Vireo feeds quietly in the branches of one pecan tree, and I watch as it travels from place to place, cocking its head this way and that and looking upward in its characteristic way, as if uncommonly curious about what’s going on around it. Its bold white spectacles add to that impression, giving it a wide-eyed, intensely interested look. It is silent, not singing or calling, just feeding. I watch it eat one long, wriggly shaped thing that’s probably a caterpillar. The Vireo’s blue-gray head, grayish-green back, pure white throat and breast and wash of yellow on the flanks look elegant in the early sunlight, and I can even see the slightly heavy bill and the way it turns down sharply at the end.

The woods and lawns of our neighborhood are full of birdsong, bird calls and bird activity, all beginning in earnest around 6:30 each morning recently. A Black and White Warbler goes from treetop to treetop all around our house singing its high, squeaky-wheel song. A newly-arrived House Wren sings brightly, loudly and constantly, a cheery, burbly song, and I’m hoping it might stay around (I think there are a pair) and nest here. We’ve never had them before. They arrived just yesterday morning, singing loudly to announce their presence, and they’ve been vocal and active ever since.

Cardinals, Eastern Towhees, Carolina Wrens, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Goldfinches, Chipping Sparrows, and a Pine Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo and Yellow-throated Vireo all are singing, and a Great-Crested Flycatcher calls “Whreep! Whreeep!” repeatedly from the woods. A Red-bellied Woodpecker calls its purring “whirrrrr” and flies from trunk to trunk around the edge of the woods. The loose, softly jangling songs of both Palm Warblers and Yellow-rumped Warblers ripple here and there all around the house, among the low branches of the trees.

But the highlight of the morning has been the songs of a Summer Tanager, a Scarlet Tanager and a Robin. All three have been singing nearby, and it has been a perfect opportunity to listen to them and compare. The Robin sings from two or three houses down the street from us, in a sweet, clear voice with distinctly thrush-like qualities. A Summer Tanager sings from a perch in the very top of one of our pecan trees, whose new leaves are still not fully opened. He glows a slightly orangish-red in the sunlight, and his song, though “robin-like,” is harsher, less musical, with distinctly “tanager-like” qualities, and clear pauses between the phrases. The Scarlet Tanager sings from the woods, hidden in the trees. He’s been singing for several days now in the same area, but I’ve not yet seen him, and I think he prefers singing from lower, less prominent perches than the Summer. His song, though, is unmistakable. It sounds more like a Robin than the Summer Tanager does, but is hoarse, and less musical than a Robin, and faster and less varied than the Summer. I think I would say that the Scarlet Tanager’s song is less baroque than the Summer, who sounds rather rounded and curled. The Scarlet’s song is more direct and less ornamented.

Summit Grove

Thursday, April 28th, 2005

Summit Grove is a small neighborhood in Oconee County, Georgia, about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. Most of the homes were built a decade or two ago on the site of an old pecan grove, and many pecan trees still shade the two quiet streets and large grassy yards. Located between two creeks that converge not far from our house, the neighborhood is buffered on roughly three sides by a wide band of woods extending down steep hillsides to the creeks. A few lots remain unoccupied by houses and have grown up in tall grasses, shrubs and small trees, and there’s one small pond. There’s also a large old field that runs the length of the dead-end road that leads to our subdivision and the one next to it, called Summit Oaks. Beyond that field lies a busy highway, U.S. 441.

The neighborhood’s mix of woods, fields, creeks, shrubs and lawns attracts many bird species, as well as white-tailed deer, bobcats, foxes, coyotes, bats, turtles, frogs, snakes, butterflies and other forms of wildlife. We’ve identified at least 102 species of birds, including both residents and those just passing through. The woods that provide the most important part of the landscape are made up mostly of hardwoods – white oak, red oak, water oak, tulip poplar, sweet gum, beech, and American hornbeam, with dogwoods in the understory and pines in some areas. Because I’m especially interested in them, most of my natural observations focus on birds, but I’m also trying to become a better observer, and to learn more about the other members of the natural community here.

Although I frequently visit other places to watch birds and other wildlife, I have always felt most interested in what I observe around our own home. I write about my observations here, in part, because I believe it’s important to live with the natural world – not only to visit it on weekends or vacations. It’s important that we learn to recognize and value the plants, animals and natural communities around our own homes, so that we understand that conservation of the natural world is not something that only needs to be done somewhere else, in some pristine or exotic place. The natural world – even the grandest and most spectacular places – will be protected in the long run only if more of us come to know it and respect it here at home.