Archive for September, 2007

Autumn Songs: Northern Mockingbirds and Carolina Wrens

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

At 7:30 this morning, the air felt pleasantly warm and humid. Big soft gray clouds covered much of the sky, but in a loose, sleepy way, so that the sky looked mostly blue, and the sun rose clear and silver-yellow, burning away the clouds as it rose higher. Dew dampened the grass, and as I walked, big fat raindrops spattered down for several minutes, spotting the road, but never enough even to get me wet.

Several Mockingbirds have begun to sing throughout the neighborhood, so at times it sounds like a recap of the summer, a medley of Red-eyed Vireo, Tufted Titmouse, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Summer Tanager, Great-crested Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Wood Thrush, and even Chuck Wills Widow. One Brown Thrasher also was singing this morning, as well as three Phoebes and several Carolina Wrens. Four Bluebirds sat in the bare top branches of four different pecan trees along the roadside and warbled. A Catbird mewed in the Old Field, but the White-eyed Vireos have been silent – and presumably gone – now for several days.

As I passed the Old Field, a Carolina Wren sang from the thickets, winkery-winkery-winkery-weep, and another, across the road on the other side of me, responded, jubilee-jubilee-jubilee-chee. Almost the same song, but not the same – one sounded more “chewy” while the other was sharper and more metallic. Then I heard yet another singing the same kind of repeated three syllable pattern, that was more like the classic description of a Carolina Wren’s song, teakettle, teakettle, teakettle, tea! Basically the same, but distinctly different versions.

In this part of the South, Carolina Wrens are so common we often take them for granted. Small, pugnacious brown birds with upturned tail, down-curving bill, and a white stripe over the eye, they always seem full of energy. They’re familiar to many of us as the pesky little birds that are always trying to build a nest in a hanging fern or a box in the garage, or even on top of a wheel on a truck if it hasn’t been driven in a while. One of my favorite descriptions of a Carolina Wren is given by A.C. Bent, quoting a Mr. Dawson, who wrote in 1903: “On all occasions this nervous little creature appears to be full of a sort of compressed air, like the lid of a teakettle being jarred up and down by steam.”*

As common as they are, Carolina Wrens are among the most musical and virtuosic of all birds, and at this time of year, I’m always reminded of their amazingly varied and extensive repertoire of songs, calls, and other sounds like buzzy scolding, or alarm chirping or – especially in the fall – a sort of traveling, burbling call used as they move through bushes and low trees. Their most characteristic song is two or three syllables, repeated several times, but there seem to be an almost endless number of variations on a few basic patterns. At times, I have stood in one spot and heard as many as eight different Carolina Wrens singing eight distinctly different songs around me – some two-syllable, some three – and it was impossible not to wonder what different meanings their songs might be expressing.

*A.C. Bent, Life Histories of North American Birds. Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)

Fall Equinox – Chestnut-sided and Tennessee Warblers

Monday, September 24th, 2007

On the first day of Fall, a small feeding flock of migrating birds paid a quiet visit to the trees around our house. It was a cloudy, very warm and very humid day, with blue sky breaking through the big gray clouds now and then. The musical trill of a Pine Warbler’s song, and the sweet, repeated puh-weee of an Eastern Wood Pewee set the mood of the day.

Late in the morning, an Acadian Flycatcher called a sharp wheet! from the edge of the woods; two female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds chased each other off and on around the feeder; two Carolina Wrens sang back and forth; a Red-bellied Woodpecker whirred; and then the call of a Downy Woodpecker and the chatter of Titmice and Chickadees announced the arrival of a feeding flock of several different species of birds.

Except for the Titmice and Chickadees, most of the birds were migrants passing through on their way south, and most were moving and feeding quietly. A Black and White Warbler crept down the trunk of an oak and along its branches; a sleek-looking male Scarlet Tanager lurked deeper in the oak leaves, black wings contrasting with its yellow-green plumage; a Red-eyed Vireo made its way from branch to branch, eating caterpillars; and a tiny, rather plain-looking greenish warbler with a yellow throat and breast, very faint, indistinct wingbars, dingy white under the tail, and a pale streak over the eye fluttered in the leaves like a butterfly – a Tennessee Warbler.

At least two Chestnut-sided Warblers hunted in clusters of oak leaves at the ends of branches. With smooth green head and back, rich yellow wing bars, white eye-rings and no trace of the chestnut sides of their spring plumage, they looked bright and neat, and moved quickly. I watched one as it ate a green caterpillar – these green caterpillars in the oaks are popular. It hit the caterpillar against a branch once or twice, almost lazily, and then snapped it down quickly. At one point, it moved into a ray of sunlight that turned its greenish head and back to gold. Calling out a soft cheff! as it moved, it fluttered in a cluster of leaves near the hummingbird feeder, and one of the female Hummingbirds zoomed up aggressively and tried to chase it away, but the warbler ignored her, and only flew on to another tree after another caterpillar or two.

While the Tennessee Warbler moved mostly in the shadows, deep in the leaves, almost completely quiet, the Chestnut-sided Warblers looked sunny, lively and gregarious, even in their more subdued fall plumage, coming out into the open much more often.

The day ended with a break in the clouds and then, paradoxically, an unexpected but very welcome rain shower that fell steady and strong for a half-hour or more, much of the time raining through sunlight.

Mother and Fawn

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

The fawn that was born in May to the lame White-tailed deer that lives in our part of the neighborhood looks like it’s doing well. Early yesterday evening we saw both mother and fawn browsing near the edge of the woods just below our tomato garden. The mother – the one I call Braveheart because she’s lived for so long with one crippled front leg – looks a little thin, but otherwise seems fine, with bright, alert eyes. The young one looks strong and healthy, and has lost most of its spots, with just a few still lingering on its rump.

Tonight they both browsed on grassy weeds as they made their way along their usual path across the yard and into the woods, but a few days ago we also watched the mother munching on a juicy, overripe tomato from our compost pile.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Green Caterpillars

Monday, September 17th, 2007

A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak was in our White Oak trees this afternoon, eating some kind of large green caterpillars. They must be good – while I watched her for only a few minutes, she ate three, one after another, and they seemed to be easy to find in the oak. Each one was large enough to take a few seconds for her to get down. She held one in her bill, shook her head and snapped repeatedly, for several seconds, until she eventually got it swallowed. As I’ve read in species accounts, she didn’t use the help of a foot or a branch to subdue a caterpillar – she just kept shaking it in her large, thick, pinkish bill until was subdued. After eating one, she rubbed each side of her bill quickly against a branch.

The green caterpillars also attracted a Red-eyed Vireo with a different eating style to the same tree later in the afternoon. The Vireo held each caterpillar by one end in its bill and slapped it against a branch several times before swallowing it in one quick snap. Then it, too, wiped its long, comparatively slender bill against a branch.

We only see Rose-breasted Grosbeaks here during spring or fall migration. They stand out among the smaller, flighty fall migrants like warblers, which often can be maddeningly elusive. Relatively large and stocky, the Grosbeaks are not delicate or subtle in either shape or movement. The male’s bold coloring – black back, pure white belly and rose-red splotch on the upper breast – identifies him immediately. The female is handsome rather than flashy, but still distinctive, with rich brown and cream-white plumage that blends more easily with a leafy autumn background – her head striped in very dark brown and white, with a broad white stripe over the eye, dark brown wings with white wing bars, flecks of white across the lower wings and back, and breast heavily streaked in dark brown.

At times even Rose-breasted Grosbeaks can go unnoticed, when they’re quiet and stay hidden in deep or high foliage, but they often come to feeders, and the ones I’ve watched around our yard – both male and female – have shown personalities as colorful and assertive as the male’s appearance. They’re never dull.

The Last Word – A Hummingbird Pair

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

This evening not long before sunset, the edge of our deck lay in the shadow of the oaks while the last light of the sun lit the tops of pines at the edge of the woods. A Bluebird sang somewhere in the distance, and Chimney Swifts twittered overhead.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds had been chasing each other around all day, and one male seemed particularly insistent on keeping others away from the feeder. When he wasn’t sipping nectar or chasing off other Hummingbirds or Tufted Titmice – who came to drink water from the moat in the middle of the feeder – he perched over the feeder on the crook of the pole that held it, or nearby, on a low branch of one of the oaks.

As I watched, a female Hummingbird zoomed up to the feeder. The male zoomed in from the oak to chase her away. She veered off – but immediately turned back and hovered defiantly over the feeder, and the two faced off over it – she on the left, he on the right. She looked as if she were saying, “Who do you think you are?!”

With the male still hovering uncertainly, she settled down to sip at one of the openings. Out-bluffed, he lowered himself to sit on the opposite rim of the feeder and watched, turning his head this way and that, flashing his throat, and never taking a sip while she was there. She fed peacefully, and apparently in no hurry, for almost a minute. When she finally seemed satisfied and hummed softly away, he immediately flew to the spot she had left and took several sips of nectar there, as if reclaiming his territory – and maybe trying to reclaim some of his lost dignity. He stayed in that spot for at least a minute longer before flying off again to take up his perch in the oak.

Singing in the Weeds

Monday, September 10th, 2007

In the weed-choked thickets of the old field that runs along the dead-end road just outside our neighborhood, there’s a singer that’s rarely seen, but it’s one of the most characteristic members of the field’s wildlife community. A White-eyed Vireo has been singing almost every day since the first one arrived in early spring. On some days during the summer it was the only song I heard in the field – so much a part of the scene that it might have gone unnoticed – and there are still one or two singing now, after the Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings have left, and even the Cardinals, Mockingbirds, and Brown Thrashers are mostly quiet.

Like many birds, the White-eyed Vireo’s song reflects its habitat – dry and sharp-edged, but with a musical tune winding like a flowering vine through the crisp percussive notes – chik-aperioo-chik! To me, it sounds similar to the wildflowers that bloom in the field, like the blue and purple morning glories twisting among the woody and grassy weeds in the ditch along the roadside, just below the thickets of privet, blackberry and honeysuckle where the Vireo and other weed-loving birds take cover.

Although it sings most of the time from deep in the shrubs, a White-eyed Vireo also often comes out into the low, open branches of bushes or small trees. It’s not particularly shy, and well worth a little patience to find. It’s a small, grayish bird, with a white throat, a yellow wash under each wing, white wing bars, and bright yellow markings around the eyes that look like “spectacles.” The white iris of its eye is unique and rather startling, though it can be hard to see in the tricky light among lots of leaves and shadows.

White-eyed Vireos are common birds in overgrown pastures, abandoned fields and second-growth woody areas in this part of the South. But as the species account in Birds of North America notes, “A principal restriction on the White-eyed Vireo appears to be the availability of suitable habitat. Since the dense scrub this species prefers has little economic value, it is rarely protected.”*

As more and more second-growth woods and old fields disappear in the path of suburban development, this kind of habitat needed by White-eyed Vireos and other birds like Field Sparrows, Indigo Buntings, Blue Grosbeaks, Prairie Warblers and Yellow-breasted Chats is shrinking, and unless we do something to protect places like these, it seems inevitable that before too long we’ll have to go to “special places” to see many of these bird species we now think of as common.

*Hopp, S. L., A. Kirby, and C. A. Boone. 1995. White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus). In The Birds of North America, No. 168 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.


Friday, September 7th, 2007

At 6:45 this morning, thick, rumpled sheets of pink and dusky purple clouds spread across the eastern horizon. Above them hung a thin, still-bright crescent moon. The harsh morning rasp of a Brown Thrasher from deep in some bushes was the only sound against a quiet background.

As I walked down the street, heading west, the air felt fresh and almost cool. A bat fluttered over the treetops. Two big wispy, fog-like clouds, turning pink, floated in the gray-blue sky. A few scattered birds called here and there – Bluebirds, Carolina Wrens, peeping Cardinals. Outside the entrance to the subdivision, a Catbird complained from the thickets of the Old Field, and traffic was already noisy on the highway just beyond the field.

At the south end of the road where I turn around and head back, when I turned, I couldn’t see the rising sun, but the clouds had spread and turned into a glorious display of gold, coral, and aqua blue, fringed with pure, snowy white. From a weedy stand of chinaberry trees, kudzu and privet, still in dark silhouette against the bright sky, came the sharply whispered song of a White-eyed Vireo – chik-peri-oo-chik!

Back inside the neighborhood, following a different road home that circles up and down steep hills and passes closer to a wooded creek, I heard the chatter of Titmice and Chickadees and the soft call of an Eastern Phoebe. Then, somewhat lost in thought about something I needed to do later in the day, my attention was drawn by a repeated emphatic chek! chek! chek! Over and over again, just that one syllable. At first it puzzled me, and I stopped to listen – and then recognized the call of a Scarlet Tanager just before it added the rest in a confirming – chek-burrr!

Hairy Woodpecker in Dead Pines

Sunday, September 2nd, 2007

We awoke this morning to the bright peenk! of a Hairy Woodpecker in the oaks outside our bedroom window. A pair of Hairy Woodpeckers has begun coming regularly to our back yard, especially to three tall dead pines on the edge of the woods. Late yesterday afternoon, we watched a female working on one tree, and off and on all day today, a male has returned to the same pines, often working in full view, close enough to admire his slender, long-billed profile (I want to say “long-nosed,” because that’s how it looks), and a bright red patch on the back of the head. He also has a white eye-ring that looks more prominent than in any of my field guides, and gives him a wide-eyed look.

Usually he works his way up the tree, steadily pecking and frequently calling out a sharp, loud peenk! He stops, tests out several spots, flicks away large flakes of pine bark with a sharp turn of his head, and when he finds a spot he likes, he pecks repeatedly, making a hole and enlarging it until he reaches the prey. Sometimes it looked like he found several small bugs in one hole, but twice I watched as he pulled out fat white grubs and gobbled them down. Occasionally he works his way down the trunk instead.

A Hairy Woodpecker is a larger, less common version of the more familiar Downy Woodpecker. A forest-loving bird, it’s usually seen around here either deep in the woods or on the edges, but when it’s around, its loud, assertive, and frequently repeated peenk! doesn’t sound shy or retiring at all. By comparison, a Downy Woodpecker seems gentle and easy-going. A Hairy Woodpecker is intensely energetic, focused, very active, and watchful, often looking around, moving quickly and efficiently – and telling everybody about it at the same time, calling out frequently as it works.

They’re Back . . . Warblers, Vireo, Tanager, and an Eastern Wood Pewee

Sunday, September 2nd, 2007

September swept in yesterday with a fresh wind that blew away the murky, lingering clouds of several days with frequent – and very welcome – showers. Mushrooms have begun to pop up in yards and along the roadsides, and birds have become more active after what seemed like a very long, very quiet period in August. Resident birds have come out of hiding, and several migrants have begun to move through.

This morning around 8:00 am, a small feeding flock spent several minutes in the treetops all around our house. A brisk wind and gray sky – and maybe my sleepy eyes – made it hard to see many of them, but among them were an American Redstart that was impossible to miss, flashing the bright yellow patches on its tail and fluttering here and there like a butterfly; a Black and White Warbler creeping along the branches; a Scarlet Tanager, in autumn greenish-gold and black, lurking deep in the leaves; and a small gray Eastern Wood Pewee that hunted quietly from low branches, and later in the morning sang sweetly from the edge of the woods. A Red-eyed Vireo hunted in the upper branches of the trees, and I watched it once as it hung upside down like a chickadee to pull out and feed on something on a leaf cluster at the end of a branch. The underside of its tail glowed a soft, pale, creamy yellow.

Meanwhile, three or four Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zoomed and chased each other around the feeder. A Pine Warbler sang as it moved through the needles of the pines. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Eastern Bluebirds, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers and Carolina Wrens chattered, fussed and called, and the trees seemed very lively for a while.