Archive for 2007

Variations on the Theme of Nuthatch

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

This fall we’ve been experiencing the rare pleasure of having three different species of Nuthatches around our yard daily. All three – Brown-headed, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatch – visit the feeders and forage in the nearby trees, and their calls add spice, and often a comical touch, to the dry sounds of the late-autumn woods. Each of the three is a variation on the theme of Nuthatch – a small, short-tailed, long-billed family of birds that creep over tree-trunks or branches, often moving downward head first, feeding on insects.

It’s been a great opportunity, especially, to observe the Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, neither of which we’ve ever had around for more than brief visits before now. I’m having fun listening to their calls and trying to learn them well. While the Red-breasted Nuthatch’s most common call is the “tin-horn toot” of ank-ank-ank, the White-breasted’s call is deeper, slightly hoarse, and more like cronk, cronk. Both make much softer nasal calls while they’re foraging, a very gentle eenh, frequently repeated as they creep up and down and over branches.

The more familiar squeaky-dee chatter of our year-round resident Brown-headed Nuthatches is probably heard less often than the other two right now, though they still come around at some time every day. When they do, they seem to dominate the other two species, as well as I can tell, and while they’re at the feeders, the others seem to stay out of the way. But in general, all three of the Nuthatch species are pretty bold and even aggressive. I’ve seen a Red-breasted Nuthatch chase a Chickadee away from a feeder several times – though larger birds like the Titmice aren’t so easily intimidated. On the other hand, I’ve often seen Brown-headed Nuthatches sharing a feeder with Chickadees, Titmice, a Downy Woodpecker and other birds – maybe because they live here together all year long.

Red-breasted Nuthatches – with ruddy red breasts, bluish backs and bright white and black stripes over and through the eye – first showed up here in early October, and since then, at least two have been visiting the feeders regularly, pretty much all day, every day. They also come to the birdbaths, and are less shy when I’m around than most of the other birds. One of them will often come for a drink when I’m sitting only a few feet away, as if it’s just too busy to be bothered by my presence.

When I took down a feeder one morning recently to refill it, one Red-breasted Nuthatch waited in a branch just over my head and as soon as I walked away, it came immediately back to the tray. One sometimes will stay on the hanging block feeder for a long time, mostly hanging upside down and feeding from the bottom of it, snaking its head up to look around frequently. On the tube feeder, they more often grab a bite and fly away with it toward the back yard, where there are several pines, or fly up to one particular stub of a branch to work on whatever seed or nut they have taken.

So I’m having a good time watching them all. I like the small, feisty Red-breasted Nuthatch for its intensity and apparently unwavering focus on food gathering; for the way it’s not shy and will come so close to me; and for its funny ank-ank-ank calls that carry like echoes of another time through the pines and the bare gray branches of the woods.

When the Brown-headed Nuthatches arrive, chattering back and forth to each other, they brighten up the whole yard, sounding cheerful and seeming to bring sociability and activity with them. Though I know that’s only my interpretation, it always sounds like a party when they’re around.

The White-breasted Nuthatch – my favorite right now – I admire for its beauty and grace, for the elegant lines of the black head and nape against the snow-white of the throat and breast; for the sleek arch of its neck as it looks up, and for the artful way it moves over a branch as it forages, as if the movement itself were a pleasure.

An Inconspicuous Hawk

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Late this morning, a very fine Cooper’s Hawk perched in the top bare branches of a tall pecan tree in a neighbor’s yard. At first, it looked like just a big buffy part of a branch, but when I looked with binoculars, the branch turned into a Hawk with a rather flat, neatly-shaped gray head turned in profile. Its body looked deceptively big, with gray shoulders and wings, and a broad reddish-streaked breast that was muted in color, almost pale. The feathers of the lower belly were fluffed out, maybe by a breeze, and snowy white.

I couldn’t see its tail, which was hidden by a tangle of branches, but then it flew, maybe because I had disturbed it. It flapped deeply several times, then soared on outspread wings, showing off the long, slender, slightly rounded tail, tipped in white. It gained altitude quickly, but instead of continuing to climb, after only a minute it suddenly plummeted down toward a clump of trees a little further up the street.

I wasn’t able to find it again, but I’m happy to know that we may have a Cooper’s Hawk in the neighborhood for the winter, since this is the second time I’ve seen one recently. Although they’re here year-round, I don’t see them often in any season. I think it’s only by luck when I see one – even when it’s sitting in a bare-limbed tree out in full view, it blends with the background amazingly well.

The species account in Birds of North America* describes a Cooper’s Hawk as “a secretive, inconspicuous species,” and as “a quintessential woodland hawk. With short, powerful, rounded wings and a relatively long tail that ensures maneuverability in dense cover, it is well adapted for quick pursuit of forest birds and mammals.” They apparently adapt well to suburban settings, as long as enough woodlands or forested areas remain a part of the landscape.

*Rosenfield, R.N., and J. Bielefeldt. 2006. Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Watching a Kinglet Watching Me

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

For a few minutes this morning, the front yard was quiet. Not a bird to be seen or heard anywhere near. The air was cold. The bare branches of the pecans and water oaks made gray patterns against a blue sky, with big rafts of gleaming white clouds drifting from west to east. Sharp, chilly breezes shook and rattled the dark-red, dry leaves on the white oaks, and each breeze sent a few more of them tumbling down. One silent Black Vulture flew low over the tops of the trees at the edge of the woods across the street.

Then all at once, there seemed to be birds everywhere. Several Chickadees and two Red-breasted Nuthatches flew to the feeders and up into the branches above them. A pair of Cardinals peeped in the low branches. A Mockingbird came to one of the birdbaths for a drink. A Towhee called, and a Carolina Wren trilled cheer-cheer-cheer.

About a dozen Dark-eyed Juncos flew in and settled in the grass only a few feet away from me and began to hunt around in the grass at the edge of the sidewalk. (We saw our first Junco of the season here over the weekend.) Two Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from a branch down to the Savannah holly. Three or four White-throated Sparrows began to kick up leaves beside the porch.

One tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew into the Savannah holly tree whose branches are the usual stopping point for one of the birdbaths, made its way down the limbs of the holly, paused and looked my way for a few seconds, then moved into the large tea olive bush right beside me. I could hear the rustling as it moved through the thick dark-green leaves of the bush until it emerged on the edge nearest me, close enough so that I could have reached out and touched it. It looked directly at me, turning its head and seeming to be checking me out. Meanwhile, I sat as still as I could, delighted at the close view. I could see its greenish-gray head, bright white eye-ring, and neat white bars on each wing. No sign of its ruby crest – but the main thing that impressed me was simply how very, very small it was. Then it flew to a low limb of a pecan, where it turned to look back at me one more time and make a bold, gossipy comment before it moved on.

Eurasian Collared-Doves

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

Late this afternoon – a cool, sunny, windy day – three Eurasian Collared-Doves perched in the bare limbs of a pecan tree in a yard in our neighborhood. It’s the first time I’ve seen them here.

I was walking along the road and had stopped to look at four Blackbirds perched in the top of a tree in the distance. Although they were too far away for me to see well, I thought they were Rusty Blackbirds, two males and two females, and I was trying to see them well enough to be sure. As I moved my binoculars from one of them to another, one of the Doves come into sight, much closer to me and lower. When I brought it into focus, it was immediately clear that it was not a Mourning Dove, which is what I had expected.

Instead, I saw a large very pale, chalky-gray Dove with a slender neck and a dark, neat half-collar, like a crescent around the back of its neck, edged with white. Two similar Doves perched on branches near it.

Eurasian Collared-Doves belong to a non-native species that began showing up in Georgia in the 1990s, after first being introduced to the New World in the Bahamas in the 1970s. They quickly spread in the southern part of the state, and are now apparently spreading throughout the Piedmont and other parts of Georgia. It’s not clear what effect, if any, they might have on native populations, such as our common Mourning Dove.

These three were perched near a flock of a dozen or more Mourning Doves, and when the Mourning Doves flew up in a flurry of whistling wings, the Eurasian Collared-Doves flew with them. It’s possible that they’ve been around for some time now and I just haven’t noticed them, assuming that any dove I see is a Mourning Dove – another instance of my assuming and not being observant enough of what’s really there. On the other hand, their appearance is different enough that I think they would stand out in any crowd of Doves, and I’m sure I haven’t yet heard their Hoo-HOO-hoo calls – but will be listening for them now.

I don’t know whether their presence here is good or bad or neither, but it’s interesting.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s Flight Call?

Saturday, December 1st, 2007

The last day of November was sunny, bright, and chilly – and a good day for Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Maybe they’re just easier to see now that most of the leaves on the trees are gone – though even now it’s not always that easy. Seeing one is like seeing a part of a tree come to life in the shape of a bird. The barred patterns on their wings, back and tail, in several subtle shades of black, white, gray and buff, blend in well with the muted colors of the season, and I always associate them with the fall and winter since that’s when we have them here. But in the right light, the black-and-white striping on the face, the crimson throat and head of a male, and even the warm yellow of the belly shine like brilliant accents against a winter background. And often they’ll give away their presence with a nasal, mewing call, or with their steady tapping on a trunk.

This afternoon I heard a funny call that I didn’t recognize – something like djeer-djeer-djeer-djeer, sort of a fast, rolling call – and it turned out to be a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that was flying from one tree to another and calling as it flew. When it got to the second tree, it gave its more familiar mewing neeah before it started tapping on the trunk, and another Sapsucker nearby seemed to answer with the djeer-djeer call.

Of course, Sapsuckers (like most birds) have many more vocalizations than the ones most of us are familiar with, and this one was new for me. After looking it up in several sources, I think it was probably the call The Sibley Guide to Birds describes as one sometimes given in flight.

White-breasted Nuthatch

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Wow! This afternoon about 4:30, I stepped out my front door, and for the first time ever, here around our house, saw a White-breasted Nuthatch. It was working its way along a large branch of a pecan tree, only a few feet away from me. As it moved, it repeatedly made a soft, low, nasal call.

Although I’m still very much enjoying watching the Red-breasted Nuthatches that have become regulars around our yard and feeders this fall, and always love the lively personalities of our year-round Brown-headed Nuthatches, this White-breasted Nuthatch is by far the most striking of the three in appearance. It looked regal – noticeably larger than the others, with a somewhat more upright and graceful posture, not so hunched down, and clean, crisp coloring – a pure, almost gleaming white breast contrasted sharply with glossy black cap and half-collar, and slate-gray back and wings. Its black eyes looked bright and keen against a white face, and its long dark bill turned up just slightly on the end.

One reason I could see it so well is that almost all of the leaves have fallen now from the pecan trees, and most from the oaks, leaving many bare branches open to view. I stood for several minutes watching as it worked its way up the branch, pausing to examine spots, to peck at the bark, and sometimes to turn head-downward for a minute or two. When it neared the end of the branch, it flew to another pecan tree nearby, and began the same pattern.

I think it may have been around for a while. Several days ago, I heard a nuthatch calling, and the sound was lower and more guttural than the Red-breasted Nuthatch’s usual ank-ank. I wasn’t sure then, but now I think what I heard may have been a White-breasted Nuthatch, and now I’ll be listening more carefully for both and hoping to see this one again.

It seems like this fall might be remembered as the Year of the Nuthatches.

A Flock of Cedar Waxwings and a Soaring Cooper’s Hawk

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

This morning a heavy frost turned the grass white, and sheets of ice covered the bird baths. The early morning was clear, cold, sunny and bright, and sunlight filtered through the thinning leaves of brown, yellow and orange in the woods. The White Oaks that rise over our roofline and fill the windows on the southern side of our house have turned an unusually rich reddish-brown.

As I walked up the driveway for the paper, I heard the ank-ank-ank calls of at least two Red-breasted Nuthatches, which have become a regular, daily part of the scene now. They are frequent visitors to the feeders, and I hear their calls off and on all day. Chickadees and Titmice chattered, a Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled, and one White-throated Sparrow sang from somewhere deep in the wax myrtles, while others called tseet. A Northern Flicker called a loud kleer!

A pair of Cardinals perched in the bare limbs of a Crape Myrtle, and a female Downy Woodpecker sat on a branch of a pecan tree, framed in yellow leaves. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker arrived with a mew and immediately began to tap on the trunk of an oak, and two Brown-headed Nuthatches flew to one of the feeders, squeaking loudly to each other.

Then I heard the high, thin, needle-like calls of Cedar Waxwings, and looked up in time to see a small flock of about 15 flying from one treetop to another, looking like a handful of flashing sparks against the blue sky. These are the first Cedar Waxwings I’ve heard or seen here this season.

Later in the morning, as I walked through the neighborhood, two Turkey Vultures and two Black Vultures soared in a big, soft blue sky traced with cirrus clouds. Several Crows harassed a Red-tailed Hawk, chasing it, cawing and diving toward it repeatedly. I couldn’t tell if they actually made contact or not. The Hawk veered away, speeded up to avoid them, banked, turned, and finally seemed to fly away from them.

As I came to the crest of a hill, I saw another raptor, this one with a long, narrow tail and a breast that glowed red in the sunlight – a Cooper’s hawk. It was circling and climbing, and the white under the reddish breast was pronounced against the dark of the tail. Once it flapped several times, but as it climbed higher, it held its wings outspread and the tail fanned out. I stood watching for several minutes, until my neck hurt and the hawk was only a speck like an eyelash way up in the sky.

The Best of Autumn

Monday, November 12th, 2007

This morning was another in a string of beautiful autumn days – frosty mornings that turn breezy, cool, sunny, and clear, with intensely blue skies. We’re having a surprisingly colorful fall, given the extremely dry weather, and it’s unusual that most of the hardwoods are still full of leaves in mid November. In most past years, the trees would have been bare or nearly bare by now.

Around our house and neighborhood, fall colors are at their most intense – the crusty gold foliage of the water oaks blends with yellow and wine-red sweet gums, dusty-russet dogwoods, and maples in flaming orange or deep rose-red. A few hickories here and there burn their distinctive burnished gold; deep in the woods, the pale copper leaves of beeches catch the sunlight; a few dull yellow leaves still cling to tulip poplars; and clusters of brown and orange splotch the faded green of white oaks. The leaves on the pecan trees – never very colorful – abruptly turned greenish gray and shriveled in the first hard frost and are falling fast now, piling up on lawns and roads. Some kind of small, spindly tree along the roadsides is particularly brilliant, a shiny cherry-red. Leaves and acorns shower down in the wind.

Bird activity around the house this morning was typical of recent days. White-throated sparrows called tseet from under the wax myrtles and other shrubs, and one – looking sharply dressed with its smooth gray breast, neatly defined white throat, rufous-streaked back and wings, white stripe over the eye, and accent of dark yellow between its eye and bill – came out to feed on the edge of the grass. Cardinals peeped, an Eastern Towhee called to-wheeee, a Mockingbird flew quietly from mailbox to lamp-post to shrubs, two Carolina Wrens sang from somewhere in the woods, a Downy Woodpecker called pink! and two or three Mourning Doves flew in with whistling wings to the branches above the feeders.

And Phoebes were singing. In fact, one of the first sounds I heard this morning was the song of an Eastern Phoebe. For the past two or three weeks, at least, they’ve been mostly quiet, but today I heard them often, singing, fussing and chattering. At one point, one Phoebe was singing in our yard, another sang from the yard next door, and another was singing further down the street – plus, a quiet Phoebe sat in the low branch of a pecan tree near me, switching its tail and flying off to catch insects. I don’t know why there suddenly seem to be so many, and so vocal, unless maybe more have moved in from further north. The Birds of North America species account says little is known about their migration patterns, but that fall migration is late, and they seem to follow the frost-line, moving south as cold weather causes declines in insect populations.*

A Northern Flicker called a sharp kleer! A Hairy Woodpecker worked steadily on a large dead pine – I’m beginning to recognize the sound of its industrious, steady pecking almost as well as its emphatic calls of peenk! A Red-breasted Nuthatch called ank-ank-ank and was answered by another. Then one flew in to one of the feeders, sat on top of it for a few moments, craned its head up to look around, then began to eat. I heard the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk, and a Bluebird’s warble – and a different kind of tapping that turned out to be an immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker working on the trunk of a white oak. Surrounded by the sunlit green and rusty-orange leaves of the oak, its plumage was streaked and patterned in several shades of brown, gray, black, white and buff, looking like a reflection of the bark of the tree.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled somewhere in the woods. Crows cawed in the distance. Several chattering Chickadees came in to the lower tree branches and the feeders, and one Yellow-rumped Warbler, chirping softly, flew into the Savannah Holly beside the porch and cautiously made its way through it, eventually coming to the edge of the birdbath for a drink. In its faded fall plumage, it looked bland and forgettable, just a little gray bird with soft streaks – except for the smudges of yellow on its sides and the bright yellow patch on its rump.

With a great deal of squeaking conversation, a couple of Brown-headed Nuthatches traveled through the front-yard trees and stopped by for both water and a few trips to the feeders. An uncharacteristically quiet Ruby-crowned Kinglet also made its way through the trees and shrubs, coming close enough so that I could see the bright ring around its eye, the crisp wing bars and the greenish-gray of its back. One sound missing in the morning bustle, however, was the high, thin call of a Golden-crowned Kinglet. Although I’ve seen and heard them a few times this fall, they are not frequent visitors around the house as they were last year, and I’m wondering if this year might be one in which we see them less often – or maybe we’ll see more of them later in the season.

*Weeks Jr., Harmon P.,1994. Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Red-breasted Nuthatch Pair

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

This morning a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches came together to drink from a birdbath only a few feet away from me. They flew into the low branches of a Savannah Holly tree beside the front porch, making soft, sort of muffled squeaks to each other as they moved. Without much delay, one of them flew to the edge of the birdbath and took several sips while the other waited, screened among the leaves, on a branch of the holly. Then the first one flew back into the tree and waited there while the other came for a drink. Then they flew away together.

The Red-breasted Nuthatches have become regular visitors to the feeders and birdbaths in our front yard, and I can’t get enough of watching them and listening to their various calls. I find myself spending much more time than maybe I should just sitting outside and watching them, because it’s so unusual to have them around as we do this year—apparently one of their “irruptive” years when they move south in large numbers from their homes in more northern or western forests.

Off and on all day long, I hear their “ank-ank” calls in the treetops, usually rather soft, but occasionally one of them will call loudly and repeatedly for several seconds, a long, emphatic string of ank-ank-anks that sound exactly like the classic description of tooting a toy horn.

They don’t seem to be particularly shy, but they move quickly and always seem to be looking around alertly. The bright black and white head and eye stripes usually catch my eye first, then the long, thin bill and characteristic shape and posture and way of moving, often as not upside down or sideways on a trunk or a feeder, with the head snaking up frequently to look around. Then when they stay in sight for a few moments, there’s time to see more closely the bluish back and soft reddish breast, the narrow bands of white on the outer edges of the stubby tail, and even the mottled red under the tail.

They are now among the most constant visitors to the feeders, but they usually come one at a time. I don’t think I’ve yet seen them both on a feeder together, so I wonder if they wait for each other as they did for the birdbath – though that may not be the case. They come to both the hanging block of seeds, where one often stays for three or four minutes at a time, and to the tube feeder with seeds, nuts and fruit, where they’re more likely to come and go quickly. They can be aggressive, and often seem to try to chase the Chickadees away, though the Chickadees don’t go far and quickly come back. On the other hand, I’ve seen the Brown-headed Nuthatches chase the Red-breasted away when both are around.

It’s really a treat – and a rare opportunity – to have them around this year.

Hey, You, Get Off of My Cloud

Saturday, November 10th, 2007

This afternoon as I walked up the road through our neighborhood in mild, sunny weather, a Red-tailed Hawk sat on top of a utility pole just outside the entrance to the subdivision. I had stopped to admire it when another Red-tailed Hawk flew up, chased it away, and took its place on the pole. I walked on, and when I came to the road that parallels the Old Field and began to walk along it, I saw the first hawk perched on another pole overlooking Hwy. 441. The second hawk left its pole, flew, and chased the first hawk away from this pole, too, again taking its place. The first hawk flew then to another pole, on the far southern end of the field, near the fire station. After only two or three minutes, the second hawk pursued it there, too, chased it away, and took its place on the pole.

The first hawk flew to yet another pole, a little further away, across the road. Apparently it wasn’t far enough. The second hawk again came to chase it away, and this time, instead of sitting on the pole, it flew after the first hawk – which it apparently considered an intruder – diving at it two or three times, and continuing to pursue it until they both flew out of sight beyond a line of trees.