Archive for January, 2007

January Yard Birds

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

We only have one feeder in our front yard right now, a mixed block of seeds in a hanging cage, but with shrubs, trees and open areas, and two bird baths that I try to keep filled with water, there’s been a good deal of activity all this month. Some of the coldest, rainiest days have been the most alive with birds.

Yellow-rumped Warblers seem to be everywhere, chasing each other and calling out “chek!” and often visiting one of the bird baths for a drink. White-throated Sparrows call “tsseet” and feed under the shrubs with Eastern Towhees, or on the ground under the feeder with Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves and one lone Robin that’s been here all month. A pretty, yellow-washed pair of Pine Warblers have been among the most consistent visitors to the feeder, clinging to it for several minutes at a time, and sometimes feeding on the ground underneath. Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, a pair of Downy woodpeckers and a Red-bellied Woodpecker come to the feeder every day – along with a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Carolina Wren, two species I haven’t often seen at our feeders in the past.

A handsome, nervous Brown Thrasher comes regularly to the bird bath that’s closest to the bushes, gets a quick drink, then hops down and tosses up leaves with its long, curved bill, stopping frequently to lift its head and look warily around. One or two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers forage in the bare-limbed trees almost every day, blending in with the bark of the trunks as they works steadily and quietly except for occasional bright “mews.” Most days I hear the high, thin calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets, though not as often as last fall. Chipping Sparrows and Song Sparrows stay around the shrubs on the edge of the yard, near the road, along with a pair of Eastern Bluebirds that hunt from a low branch near the bluebird house. One Mockingbird, at least two pairs of Cardinals, and three or four Blue Jays are usually somewhere in the front yard as well.

A Good Day for Woodpeckers

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

Early this morning, a Hairy Woodpecker flew into a tall thin pine in our front yard, calling out a sharp “peenk!” It worked its way quickly up to the top of the tree, then immediately flew away, calling out in a crisp, metallic rattle as it went. Its black and white plumage looked sharp and clean in the soft, early gray light. Its movements were equally sharp, decisive, almost impatient, and its voice rang clear in the icy cold air. Water in the birdbaths was frozen into solid circles of ice, and the shrubs hung stiff and dark.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker, two Downy Woodpeckers and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker all were feeding nearby at about the same time, and later in the day, I heard the trumpeting call of a Pileated Woodpecker from the woods as I walked – so today I saw or heard almost all of our winter woodpeckers. (Two winters ago a juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker also spent the winter season in the neighborhood, near a small spring-fed pond. But not this year or last. Occasionally, I’ll still see one passing through, but not often.)

A Cooper’s Hawk at Sunset

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

The sun hovered just above the horizon, ready to go down, a huge red shimmering ball; the sky was pale blue and empty, except for a high, bright gibbous moon in the east. I was on my way home, walking fast, fingers numb from cold, when I saw a flash of wings and the long tail of a Cooper’s Hawk as it flew to the middle of a bare-limbed oak and perched there. All I could see as I walked toward it was a tangle of branches and a silhouette from behind, but as I got closer, it flew and passed straight in front of me at eye level, leaving a very brief but vivid image – almost as if it hung in the air and reflected the colors of the sunset – of blue-gray back and wings, glowing red breast, flashing eye, and long banded tail of dark and lighter gray, with a wide band of white rounding the end. It flew directly into the dark green depths of a large magnolia, where it remained, well hidden, even though I lingered until after the sun had gone down, and turned around several times to look back when I finally walked on up the street.

Rusty Blackbirds

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2007

Late this afternoon – another cold, damp, dark gray day – a small flock of Rusty Blackbirds fed in the bleached-brown grass of a yard down the street from our house, beneath bare-limbed pecan trees. Still in winter plumage, the black males showed a lot of rusty or cinnamon color, especially across the wings, head and back, and the females were even more handsome, in tawny shades of tan and reddish-brown, with a prominent dark eye-line against a pale brown face. Rusty Blackbirds are only here in the winter, but it might be argued that we get to see them in their most appealing colors. In breeding plumage, the males are all black and the females are blackish gray – but during the fall and winter, they glow with the varied rusty highlights that give them their name.

Flocks of Common Grackles – larger, glossy black birds with long tails, large bills, and harsh voices are common here in the winter, and occasionally Red-winged Blackbirds with their more appealing “con-ka-reee” calls will join them. But Rusty Blackbirds are much less common. As these moved restlessly from one yard to the next, they also seemed shyer, more easily startled into flight, and less noisy than other Blackbird flocks.

Red-shouldered Hawks

Monday, January 22nd, 2007

A cold, gray day. Heavy rain yesterday and last night left muddy water standing in roadside ditches and puddles in potholes. In mid-afternoon, as I walked through the neighborhood, the landscape looked drenched and dreary, bare-limbed trees against a featureless sky, soggy pines, cedars and bushes, and brown, wet grass.

In a low branch of a bare-limbed pecan tree, an immature Red-shouldered Hawk sat quietly, its breast creamy-pale and streaked with a bib of dark brown. As I walked near, and paused to lift my binoculars, it spread its wings and flew, showing muted bands in its tail. It flew low, through a line of cedar trees, and disappeared from my view, but flying slowly, as if it did not intend to go far. From the cedars, I heard the calls of White-throated Sparrows, and the “see-see-see” of Golden-crowned Kinglets.

Just four days ago, on another cold, dark, gray afternoon at about the same time, I saw another Red-shouldered Hawk sitting on a low branch in a tree in the yard next door. This one was mature. It looked large and impressive, its breast glowing a rich red-orange in the gloom of the afternoon.

Warm Colors on a Cold Day

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

Under a cold, gray, mottled sky and the icy threat of freezing rain or sleet in the forecast, a warm yellow Pine Warbler clung to our bird feeder for several minutes, flying off only to chase away another male Pine Warbler nearby. When it left, a reddish House Finch took its place, along with a Downy Woodpecker and, briefly, even a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. An energetic Brown Thrasher tossed aside leaves from a site among our front yard bushes, feeding on something it found there. Yellow-rumped Warblers darted all around the house and yard, calling out “chek!” and “chek!” like leaves stirred up by the wind.

A Hermit Thrush

Wednesday, January 10th, 2007

After several days of unseasonably warm temperatures, it was cold again this morning, in the 20s, but sunny and bright. As I watched some White-throated Sparrows feeding in the back yard near several shrubs, a Hermit Thrush suddenly emerged from beneath a holly bush, ran quickly across a patch of bare ground, then stopped and stood still, looking wide-eyed and watchful. With grayish-brown plumage and a dark-spotted breast, a Hermit Thrush is a quiet, solitary bird that’s only here in the winter, and that’s more likely to be seen on or near the ground than up high in a tree.

I was especially happy to see it because it’s the first one I’ve seen or heard this year around our house, and it’s one of my favorite winter birds to watch – at the same time reclusive and lively, like a shy person who shows a colorful personality only when he thinks no one is looking. This one, like most Hermit Thrushes I’ve seen in the winter, was alone, and its behavior was typical. Emerging abruptly from beneath a bush, running for a few feet, then stopping and standing still, head held up high, then running and stopping again, now and then raising its rufous tail quickly, and lowering it slowly. Then – startled by something – it dove back into the bushes.

Sparrows in the Rain

Friday, January 5th, 2007

A dark, gray, rainy day, very warm, with storms around. We were under a tornado watch for several hours, but heard no more than passing thunder here. The birds around our house have been active and seem to like the warm, soft rain. It’s strangely spring-like. Two White-throated Sparrows sat in the top branches of a tea olive bush with raindrops plopping onto their feathers.

Pine Warblers, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, Cardinals, Mourning Doves, Downy Woodpeckers and House Finches were active around our one hanging feeder. Eastern Towhees scratched in leaves on the ground, and Song Sparrows and Chipping Sparrows fed in the bushes. A Phoebe, a Mockingbird and a couple of Bluebirds hunted around the yard, and two Black Vultures floated low over the bare-limbed trees.

Another White-throated Sparrow wallowed in a puddle of rainwater at the edge of the sidewalk, sinking down into the puddle repeatedly and fluffing out its feathers, fluttering and shaking all over, apparently having a fine time – and chasing away other sparrows from its puddle.

Five Bluebirds in Bare, Windy Branches

Monday, January 1st, 2007

On the first day of the new year, five Eastern Bluebirds sat in the bare branches of a tree in our front yard. The weather was cool and very windy, with gusts shaking the trees and rustling the dry brown leaves still clinging to white oaks. After a rainy, warm and foggy New Year’s Eve, the sky was gradually clearing and becoming blue and sunny, and temperatures were falling. Against the damp, drab background of winter shrubs and grass, the colorful Bluebirds looked like a preview of spring. Or maybe they could be seen as a good omen for the year ahead.

They flew in silently together, one female and four males, and sat widely spaced apart on the low branches of a pecan tree. They clung to the branches, their feathers rumpled by the strong, chilly wind. It rushed through pines and bare branches with great roars at times, and the Bluebirds swayed and rocked, keeping their balance as the branches trembled and bounced. Every now and then, in a lull, one would fly off to catch an insect in the air, or to snap up something from the grass, then return to its spot.

The Bluebirds remained quiet, but through the blowing wind, shaking leaves, and creaking branches, I could hear the small, sharp calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers, the chuck-chuck of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, the sibilant calls of White-throated Sparrows, the squeaky complaint of one Robin, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet’s stuttering chatter, and even the high, thin notes of a Golden-crowned Kinglet. Two Turkey Vultures tilted low over the cul de sac in front of our house, and disappeared over the line of trees in the woods beyond.