Archive for April, 2007

Splendor in the Weeds – A Blue Grosbeak

Saturday, April 28th, 2007

At 6:30 this evening, the sun was still well above the horizon and the day warm when I went for a late walk. It was windy, and the traffic noise from Highway 441 was especially loud. I had not taken binoculars with me, and was concentrating more on thinking than on watching or listening for birds. But a dark gray bird caught my eye when he flew from one bush to another in the weedy Old Field that lies between the road where I walk and the highway.

He sat low on a branch of privet, switching his tail, mostly in shadow, so that what I could see of him was little more than a silhouette. But his beak glinted silver, and his head looked large and slightly peaked. With all these hints, I still didn’t recognize him for a moment, and it wasn’t until he flew, crossing the sunny road to a small tree on the other side, and showing his large silver bill even more clearly, as well as a hint of blue in his plumage, and bronze in the wings that I realized what it was – a male Blue Grosbeak. Welcome back!

Blue Grosbeaks are among my favorite birds around our neighborhood. Despite the heavy traffic on the nearby highway, at least one or two pairs have nested in the Old Field just outside the entrance to our subdivision each year since we’ve been here. Against the background roar and rush of trucks, cars and SUVs, and the tangle of weedy shrubs, trees, grasses, honeysuckle, blackberry and kudzu vines, the Grosbeaks grace the scene with splashes of bright color, interesting behavior, and beautiful songs. Why they choose to live here, I can’t imagine, but I’m glad they do. Dark blue with orange wing bars and large silver beaks, the males sit in the tops of Chinaberry trees or small oaks and sing enthusiastically, especially early in the mornings. Depending on the light, they may appear more gray than blue, like the one I saw this evening, but when the sunlight strikes them clearly, their colors are intense.

Morning Chorus and More New Arrivals

Friday, April 27th, 2007

These are the days when the morning chorus of birdsong is the fullest and most exuberant, and almost every day seems to bring a new song or sighting, as migrants pass through and summer birds return for the nesting season. Yesterday’s arrivals here in our neighborhood included a Wood Thrush, an Acadian Flycatcher, and Barn Swallows.

The morning began at 5:30, still dark, with the far-off song of a Robin. About 10 minutes later, the first Cardinal began to sing, soon joined by an Eastern Phoebe. Then I fell back asleep and didn’t wake up until 7:00. By that time, a full chorus was singing – Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Black and White Warbler, Pine Warbler, Summer Tanager, Goldfinch, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Bluebird, Carolina Wren, Brown Thrasher, and House Finch. Downy Woodpeckers whinnied, Red-bellied Woodpeckers churred, Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked, and Mourning Doves cooed.

As I stepped out onto the front porch around 8:30, Chimney Swifts twittered overhead, and I could hear the high mews of a small flock of Cedar Waxwings. A Red-shouldered Hawk sailed low across the cul de sac to the east and into the trees. Mockingbirds were quiet, but active, flashing their wings as they flew from spot to spot. Two Brown Thrashers and one Robin fed in the grass, and the Bluebird pair was busy carrying food in and out of the birdhouse. A Louisiana Waterthrush sang from down near the creek.

A Great Crested Flycatcher called “whreep!” and “prrrrrt” and – wow! He was gorgeous, perched in the top branches of a big pecan tree, facing the sun, against a blue and white sky with fresh green catkins and small leaves around him. His belly glowed soft yellow, his big gray crested head looked proud, and sunlight filtered through the long cinnamon-colored tail.

By 11:00 am, when I went out for a walk, the skies had begun to thicken with high, slow-moving clouds in many variations and shades of gray. The west looked blue-gray, bruised with the promise of rain later. It was very warm, in the 70s already. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks soared over the Old Field, where blackberries are in bloom. A Wood Thrush sang along one of the creeks – the first and only one I’ve heard so far this season here. White-eyed Vireos sang in the Old Field. And two Barn Swallows were swooping over the grass of a vacant lot near where they nest every year. This was the first time I’ve seen them this season, but they may have been here a while because I haven’t walked along that street for several days. One came quite close to me, over my head, and the other ducked under the roof of a large porch, into the area where their nest has always been.

Later, sometime during the early afternoon, I heard the small, sharp “whit-sah!” of an Acadian Flycatcher calling from down in the woods behind our house, near the creek. This was the first time this season I had heard it, though again, it may have been here for a day or more, and I just hadn’t taken the time to listen for it among all the other bird songs.

Background Music

Thursday, April 26th, 2007

All morning today, a warm, cloudy day with rain in the forecast, a Red-eyed Vireo has been singing outside the open windows of my office. “Here I am. Where are you? Over here. Up in the tree.” It sings very sweetly and constantly, several times a minute, making its way through the green leaves of the water oaks and sweet gums around the edge of the woods. Now and then, he pauses to utter a nasal “nyaah” that sounds like a mild complaint. The Red-eyed Vireo is one of the most common birds in eastern forests, but because its song is so continuous, and often sung from high in the canopy where the bird can’t be seen, it’s a little like background music that can easily go unnoticed.

Early this morning, I watched him singing and hunting for insects among the leaves of a small water oak, admiring his clean, elegant look – slender, with a greenish-gray back, white breast, a blue-gray crown and distinct white stripe over the eye – which is indeed red, but I wasn’t close enough to see that.

Although a Red-eyed Vireo’s song is sometimes called monotonous, I think it’s lovely, especially at this time of year, when it sounds fresh and clear. The voice is expressive, and sounds more like warbling to me than most warblers’ songs. The notes are often slightly varied, not quite the same every time it goes through the four phrases. The variations, the pauses in between, and the curious lilting quality of the notes all combine to make a gentle, pleasant song that ripples through the high green leaves at the tops of the trees, where it’s most often found – welcome background music to work by.

A Summer Tanager Returns

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

After being out of town over the weekend, I stepped outside this morning into a beautiful, clear spring day, and the first thing I heard was the song of a Summer Tanager, the first one I’ve heard around our neighborhood this year. A rose-red, medium-sized bird with a heavy bill, he stood out brightly against a blue and white sky, among the new green leaves in the top branches of a pecan tree, singing his rather hoarse, Robin-like song repeatedly. Nearby, I heard the dry, staccato “pik-a-tuk, pik-a-tuk” call of another Summer Tanager –– and thought it was probably the less colorful female, but couldn’t find her.

A faint smell of woodsmoke hung in the air, and I later heard in the news that winds had carried smoke from large wildfires in southeast Georgia, near the Okefenokee Swamp, up through the state.

A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly wove in and out among the pines and the green leaves of water oaks and sweet gums. The bare limbs of white oaks and many pecan trees still have only the shriveled husks of leaves killed in the freeze two weeks ago. Many birds were active. A Great Crested Flycatcher called “Whreep! Whreep!” Tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatchers hissed “Spee-spee!” Cardinals, Titmice, Goldfinches, a Pine Warbler, a Mockingbird, a Phoebe, and a Black and White Warbler all were singing. Chimney Swifts twittered overhead. A Red-bellied Woodpecker whirred, a Mourning Dove cooed, and a Robin sang sweetly in the top of a water oak above me. Our Bluebird pair was hard at work hunting insects and flying them into the house – but I couldn’t yet hear the small peeps of the young.

With all this activity, a few birds seemed to be missing – most noticeably, Ruby-crowned Kinglets. On Thursday before we left, their stuttering calls and exuberant songs were still heard frequently all around our house and in the neighborhood. But after listening and watching for them all day today, I suspect many, if not most of them, may have left over the weekend for their summer homes. Until last Thursday, we also had several Chipping Sparrows – small gray-breasted sparrows with brownish wings and bright rufous caps – around the yard all day long, often singing their monotone trills. But today I neither saw nor heard one.

Other winter residents have been gone for some time now – Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Dark-eyed Juncos, and our one Hermit Thrush. On the other hand, Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows remain, though it seems like not as many of them as two or three weeks ago. So every day there are changes now, as winter birds leave and summer birds return.

Territorial Issues – A Mockingbird Pair and Me

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

A warm, sunny, very windy afternoon, with occasional strong gusts that bend the pines and toss the oaks. The ground is littered with fresh green leaves blown down by the strong winds that have continued since rain storms passed through early Sunday. Undeterred, a pair of tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flit from place to place in the treetops calling a raspy “Spee! Spee!” Several Chipping Sparrows hunt in the grass or sit on low branches and sing their long, intense trills. Our Bluebird pair is feeding babies now, making frequent trips in and out of the bluebird house. Chimney Swifts swoop overhead, twittering, and several lemon-yellow Goldfinches – not quite in their full spring gold yet – visit the feeder and sing and call from all around.

A pair of Mockingbirds is trying to build a nest in a large tea olive bush right beside the porch where I’m sitting. One has flown to several branches nearby, carrying in its bill some dry stems. I’m guessing it’s a male, since a Mockingbird male selects a nest site and builds most of the nest, though it could be either, because the female helps some, too. This one is obviously disturbed by my presence. Once, he came to the top of the tea olive bush for several seconds and considered me – then flew away again, still with the nesting materials in his bill. He and his mate sat on a low branch of a water oak and discussed the situation in harsh tones, or maybe they were scolding me. I’m not sure what’s going to happen if they continue to build a nest here – I have no intention of giving up sitting on the porch, but they certainly won’t like having me so near.

April Showers and Songs of Farewell

Wednesday, April 11th, 2007

Today was a cool, gray, rainy day. April showers seemed to turn the trees green and greener as they fell. Through a misty gray fog in late afternoon came the sweet, sad songs of White-throated Sparrows. Although their songs are usually described as sounding like “Old Sam Peabody,” or sometimes as, “O sweet Canada,” to me they seem to be saying something much more romantic.

White-throated Sparrows are here in the South only for the winter, so at this time of year they’re getting ready to leave, and when they sing, especially at twilight or in rainy, moody weather, it sounds to me as if they’re singing, “Come a-way with me.” Their songs are the perfect expressions of sad and reluctant, but inevitable, partings, and of time and the seasons moving on, no matter how much we might wish they could linger.

Of course, this has everything to do with my point of view and nothing to do with theirs – I’m the one staying here, while they fly away.

Hummingbird Inspection

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

On Easter weekend, a hard freeze for two nights hit many of our shrubs and trees, leaving even the leaves on large white oaks dark and shriveled. I can only wonder how it may have affected our songbirds, especially the recent arrivals from much further South. Despite a warm sun and blue sky this morning, birds seemed rather quiet and not very active, but later in the day, there were encouraging signs. A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird came to our feeder – our first one of the season here, though there have been many earlier reports from nearby. A little later, we saw a male at the feeder, too.

In the evening, just after a soft red sunset, I was sitting on the front porch, enjoying the quiet and the fading light, when I was startled by a sudden loud buzz very near my shoulder. It was a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird, wings whirring as he moved from spot to spot around me, closely checking me out – maybe because I was wearing a bright red sweater. After several seconds of inspection, no doubt disappointed, he zoomed off into the twilight with what sounded like a buzzing sigh.

A Field Sparrow’s Backwards Song

Monday, April 2nd, 2007

Field Sparrows are singing in the Old Field on the edge of our neighborhood. But they’re singing songs that are backwards from the familiar ones that end in the jumble of bouncing notes. For several days last spring, I heard this song around the Old Field, and could not figure out what it was. I knew it sounded like something I should recognize – but couldn’t place it. It began with a sort of jumble of notes, and ended with a clear, ringing, down-slurring “tew-tew-tew.”

Finally, one morning I tracked the singer down, and there, sitting on the branch of a small tree was a Field Sparrow – a small, rather plain sparrow with a rusty cap and a pink bill – singing the mystery song. Although I couldn’t find this song on any of my birdsong recordings, the species account in Birds of North America describes it clearly, and identifies it as the Chipping Sparrow’s “complex song,” as opposed to its more familiar “simple song.” The authors explain that males sing the complex song at dawn and in defending their territories.*

This makes sense to me, because I’ve heard this song mainly early in the spring. Later in the season and all summer last year, the old familiar Field Sparrow song, which begins with three clear whistles and ends in a jumble of notes that sound a little like bouncing ping-pong balls, is usually heard instead.

(*Carey, M., D. E. Burhans, and D. A. Nelson. 1994. Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla). In The Birds of North America, No. 103 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists’ Union.)

White-eyed Vireo in an Old Field

Monday, April 2nd, 2007

The first day of April brought much-needed April showers, after a March that was unusually dry and warm. Trees, fields and lawns are turning greener every day now, and yards and woods are dusted with the white of dogwood blossoms.

I heard the song of our first White-eyed Vireo of the season this morning, from the privet thickets in the Old Field just outside our subdivision – a percussive call with a whistled tune in the middle – “Chik! A-peri-oo chik!” The roadsides are sprinkled with dandelions, and with hundreds of tiny purple, pink, blue, white and yellow weedy wildflowers. The first big, loose leaves and vines of kudzu are snaking through the gullies and up the banks.

Lots of other birds were active, too. Among all the usual suspects, I especially noticed a Louisiana Waterthrush singing from down near the creek; Blue-gray Gnatcatchers calling “spee! spee!” from the low branches of trees in our yard; a pair of Phoebes singing and fussing in the back yard; a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaking and visiting the feeders; Brown Thrashers hunting in the grass; and very vocal Chipping Sparrows that seemed to be singing almost everywhere.