Archive for October, 2007

Golden-crowned Kinglet and Red-breasted Nuthatch – A Busy Morning in the Yard

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

On a cool, clear, sunny morning, traffic was busy around both of the feeders in the front yard. For a while, it looked like planes waiting to land at a major airport – several Chickadees and Titmice lined up in the nearby branches, one by one darting onto the tube feeder, grabbing a bite and flying away before the next one flew in for its turn. After a few minutes, the game seemed to be over, and three or four at once began to share the space again. But there was still a lot of coming and going.

A pair of Downy Woodpeckers worked on branches of the pecans, a turkey vulture soared lazily in a deep, open blue sky, and I heard the song of a Blue-headed Vireo again, this time singing in the woods. Then I noticed a short-tailed, long-billed, short-necked bird among all the others on the feeder – a Red-breasted Nuthatch. It’s the first one I’ve seen at our feeders, and I watched it come and go for half an hour or more. Most of its visits were quick. It flew in directly, grabbed a bite and flew straight away toward somewhere around the corner of the house. Once, though, it paused on a branch in full sunlight, which made all its colors glow, especially the ruddy-red breast, blue back and bright black and white eye stripes. It was silent. I didn’t hear its call all morning. After a while, it began to stay longer on the feeder, sharing it with the Chickadees and Titmice, but always on the tray at the bottom, not on any of the perches. Our resident Brown-headed Nuthatches almost always fly to the chain that’s holding the feeder and work their way down, head first.

Two Red-bellied Woodpeckers called, and one made a visit to the block-feeder. Small acorns showered down in breezes. Most of the trees are still green, though they’re beginning to look a little thin, and to show hints of fall color here and there. There were no calls of White-throated Sparrows. There didn’t seem to be a single one around, and I wondered if the ones that were here earlier in the week have moved on further South. But I did hear the stuttering call of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and caught a glimpse of its white-ringed eye as it moved quickly from spot to spot in the wax myrtles.

A very small, active bird appeared in the low branches of a water oak just above me – and turned out to be a Golden-crowned Kinglet, our first one of the season here. It moved quietly through the leaves, showing its bright white wing bar, black and white stripes around the eyes and head – and a sliver of yellow-gold on the top of its head. Later in the day, I heard its call – or maybe the call of another – a very high, needle-thin see-see-see.

A Solitary Serenade and a Silent Nuthatch

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

On a cool, gray, rainy morning, I was feeling kind of gloomy and thinking nothing much of interest was likely to happen when I stepped out the door, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. At first, there was nothing unusual – the front yard was quietly busy with Chickadees, Titmice, a couple of Downy Woodpeckers, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker around the feeders. Several White-throated Sparrows were feeding below the wax myrtles and on the edge of the grass along with two Eastern Towhees, a Mockingbird and a pair of Cardinals. A Phoebe with a pale yellow breast hunted from low perches.

Except for the dripping of the rain, the sounds were more like conversation than music – the calls of the White-throated Sparrows and Towhees, the chatter of Titmice and Chickadees, the sharp pink of the Downies, the tsup of the Phoebe, and the rustling of squirrels in the trees. Brown water oak leaves and acorns littered the ground, and misty smudges of autumn rust, orange and red were beginning to show in the trees across the road.

Against this background, the familiar sound of a sweet, musical song came as a surprise, and at first I was puzzled to hear it at this time of year. But it wasn’t long before the singer came close enough to see – a Blue-headed Vireo looking as elegant as its song was lovely, with a blue-gray head, white spectacles, cream-colored bars on dark wings, and a light wash of yellow on the sides of a white breast. It stayed around for several minutes, catching insects in the oaks and singing a pattern of slow, high, clear, slightly plaintive notes.

As if that wasn’t enough of a gift for one day, as I was watching the Vireo and listening to its song, I noticed another, smaller bird with a muddy red breast, steel-blue back, stubby tail, and a vivid black stripe through the eye, with a white stripe over it – a Red-breasted Nuthatch. Finally! They’ve been widely reported around here this year, and I’ve heard their calls several times in the high pine tops around the house, but had not seen one until this morning. It was worth the wait. This one fed in the low branches of a pecan tree for several minutes, and came out into full view several times. It was a brightly marked male intensely focused on his search of the pecan leaves and branches, moving quickly and deliberately – and completely quiet the whole time. He made no sound, and he showed no interest in the two feeders very near by.

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Falling Star

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

Last night I stepped out onto our back deck for a brief look at the night sky. A gibbous moon hung bright and high in the Southeast, and a thick sprinkling of stars were visible, even in the moonlight.

Suddenly, a brilliant silvery light arced across the sky below the moon, trailing a long shimmering tail like a comet. The sight was literally breathtaking. The largest and brightest falling star I’ve ever seen, by far, it came from the east and carved a graceful arc across the sky toward the west, and was gone as suddenly as it had appeared. From what I was able to learn later, it may have been part of the Orionid meteor shower, an annual event made up of a stream of dust from Halley’s Comet. This meteor shower was supposed to be at its peak early this morning, after the moon set, around 2:00 am. The reports I read predicted that most of the meteors would be relatively small and faint.

I didn’t even think to make a wish, but there are few things I could wish for that would be as rare and memorable as this spectacular sight.

Black-throated Green and Magnolia Warblers

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

Early this afternoon, several Magnolia and Black-throated Green Warblers visited the oaks around our back yard, along with a feeding flock of Chickadees, Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers and two Brown-headed Nuthatches. For more than an hour, the trees – which have often seemed disturbingly quiet and almost empty lately – were lively with activity.

It was a beautiful bright sunny day, with a deep blue sky, pleasantly warm, and Cloudless Sulphur Butterflies here and there. Both warbler species stayed much deeper in the leaves than the Chickadees, Titmice and Nuthatches. The Magnolia Warblers fed separately, each one traveling quickly from spot to spot in the oaks, never staying put for long. Their deep yellow breasts with prominent black streaks on the sides were the first thing to catch the eye; then the thick white markings on the wings, white under-tail coverts, and thin white eye-ring. One, I think, was a first-winter male, with few or no streaks on the sides, but a pure yellow throat and breast. Although the wide white band in the tail is what usually identifies them quickly for me, I never saw it clearly this time, because I couldn’t see them well when they flew, only when they were moving along the branches.

The Black-throated Greens seemed more sociable, though maybe that was just the way I happened to see them that day. They came out into the open more often, and seemed to be moving together, two or three at a time. They also seemed to be less fluttery than the Magnolias, more deliberate, more likely to sit and look around from time to time.

The image that will stay most in my mind is of three Black-throated Green Warblers in full view near the end of a cluster of branches, surrounded by oak leaves. Their olive green and yellow markings looked as if they had been created by a mingling of sunlight and tree shadows – green head and back, yellow face with a distinctive olive pattern around the eyes. The rest – white bars on grayish wings, and pale breast streaked with black on the sides and toward the middle – seemed only an afterthought. None of the ones I saw appeared to have a black throat, so I think they were probably females.

Although Black-throated Green Warblers are widespread and fairly common in northeastern forests and into the Appalachians, they only pass through here in migration, so for me they’re always a fleeting and almost dream-like sight – here one afternoon, gone the next.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped Warbler . . . Winter Arrivals Trickle In

Friday, October 19th, 2007

This morning, as a soft, welcome rain dripped through the leaves of the oaks, I heard the stuttering voice of our first Ruby-crowned Kinglet of the season. As if to say hello, it came out near the end of a branch for a minute, a tiny, greenish-gray, active bird with bright, alert eyes and neat white wing bars. Nice to have them back again – they’ll bring a spark of liveliness to a landscape that has lately seemed weary and depressed.

The kinglet is the latest of a slow trickle of birds arriving for the winter season. Yesterday morning the first Yellow-rumped Warbler flew across the driveway in front of my car as I was leaving, flashing the patch of yellow on its rump as it passed, and diving into a wax myrtle bush.

An Eastern Wood-Pewee with a Hoarse Voice

Sunday, October 14th, 2007

The yard and neighborhood have seemed so quiet the past week that I’d all but given up on seeing any more migrants passing through, when I heard an Eastern Wood-Pewee’s distinctive rising call this morning – puh-weeee. Instead of sounding clear and sweet as it usually does, though, this Pewee’s voice sounded raspy and hoarse. It called repeatedly, and then I saw it, hunting from the low branches of a pecan tree and pausing long enough for me to see it well – dark, slightly pointed head; crisp white wing bars; rather long, slightly notched tail; pale throat and dusky “vest”; and only a very faint trace of an eye-ring. Its bill was dark on the upper mandible and tip, and the lower mandible orange.

It stayed in view for several minutes, perching on low branches, moving its head quickly from side to side, fluttering off to catch an insect. Its voice was the most interesting thing about it – it called over and over again, the same rising puh-weeee, hoarse and scratchy in quality.*

It was also a pleasure to watch, and I was sorry when an Eastern Phoebe came along and chased it away for the moment, though it stayed around off and on for the rest of the day. Although I like Phoebes too, both the markings and the movements of a Wood-Pewee seem more delicate and graceful, as if drawn with a sharper pen and a lighter, crisper touch. And, of course, they’ll be gone soon, for the winter. The Phoebes, year-round residents which have been particularly active and vocal lately, are a lot of fun in their own way, with more gregarious personalities – full of energy, lively, and frequently singing, chattering, or calling a soft tsup.

It’s interesting that we did not hear the songs of Eastern Wood-Pewees regularly during this past summer – I think there was only one pair nesting in or near the neighborhood – but this fall we’ve seen and heard several passing through in migration, and one or two have stayed around for several days.

(*It occurred to me to wonder if this could possibly have been a Western Wood-Pewee, since this species is described as almost identical to the Eastern, but with a burry, rough-quality voice. The recordings of a Western Wood-Pewee I’ve listened to, however, don’t sound anything like the call of the one I was watching, they sound much harsher, with a very different quality, and I found one reference to the fact that both species may at times call with either burry or clear voices. So I think this one was an Eastern Wood-Pewee with an unusually hoarse voice.)

A Quiet Mid-October

Friday, October 12th, 2007

The past week in Summit Grove has been notable mainly for the welcome change to cooler weather, and for the relative quiet in the woods and around the yard. The weather began to change with a good hard shower late Tuesday afternoon, and softer rain continued overnight. Not enough to do much for reservoirs or streams, but enough to give some relief to our trees and other vegetation here, at least temporarily.

Nights since then have been wonderfully cool – in the low 50s and 40s – and days have been pleasantly warm, with spectacularly beautiful deep blue skies and sparkling sunshine, but fewer migrating birds, and it often seems eerily quiet outside. Tuesday morning, one Magnolia Warbler hunted for a while through the tired green leaves of the oaks and pecans out front, flashing the white bands in its tail and a bright yellow breast and throat with black-streaked sides, and still showing a trace of its “necklace” of black marks across the upper breast. The same afternoon, I heard the tooting calls of a Red-breasted Nuthatch again, up high in the pines, but still haven’t seen one.

Early this afternoon a solitary Black and White Warbler stayed for several minutes in the branches of a White Oak out back, methodically creeping, sort of turning this way and that as it worked its way along, frequently turning upside down to inspect the lower side of a branch or the leaves there – and showing a nice view of its pretty, dark-spotted undertail coverts.

The usual Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and Downy Woodpeckers frequent the feeders and bird baths off and on all day, with occasional visits from Brown-headed Nuthatches, Eastern Bluebirds and a Red-bellied Woodpecker. But we’ve seen no Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at the feeders this fall. I’ve also seen not a single migrating thrush, which is unusual. In previous falls, we’ve almost always had at least a few Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked and Wood Thrushes, often in the dogwoods eating red berries. But this year, none, and I miss seeing them here – although I know from seeing other birding reports that many thrushes, including Veerys, have been seen in this area. So maybe I just haven’t been out at the right times.

Pine Warblers and Carolina Wrens are singing in the woods, and their songs seem especially lovely right now, in the prevailing quiet. Mockingbirds fly around the yard, flashing their white wing patches, and occasionally breaking into short bursts of song. Phoebes hunt from low branches all around the house and regularly check out the eaves and window ledges for spiders. Brown Thrashers scuttle around in the dead leaves under bushes, and venture out to feed along the edge of the grass. And this morning, an Eastern Towhee looked as if he was bathing in dew, fluttering around in the thickest part of the leaves in a crape myrtle.

On walks through the neighborhood, I usually hear the song of a House Finch and the loud Kleer! of three or four Northern Flickers. A Belted Kingfisher rattles near the small pond along Summit Drive. A Red-tailed Hawk can usually be seen around the Old Field, sitting on a utility pole or, as I approach, leaning forward on the pole, stretching out its neck, spreading its wings and dropping off into a glide, and gradually circling higher, dusty red tail fanned, up over the treetops and the highway. Higher up Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures soar in a big, deep, blue autumn sky.

Most days I hear the cries of a Red-shouldered Hawk from the woods around the creek. The Hairy Woodpeckers that for a while came every day to the dead pines at the edge of the woods have been conspicuously absent lately, but we’ve often heard the bugling call of a Pileated Woodpecker, and over the weekend watched as one worked for several minutes on a jumble of fallen limbs on the floor of the woods, its blood-red crest glowing in fingers of sunlight.

Singing While He Preens – A Northern Mockingbird

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

When I think of a bird singing, usually I picture a feathered head lifted, bill parted, and throat quivering as the notes come out – a classic image. I’ve known that many birds can sing with their mouths full, or even with their bills closed, but I had never fully appreciated this until I watched a Northern Mockingbird running through his repertoire this morning while preening.

It was late morning, hot and sunny, but sitting on the front porch, I was in the shade and could feel a light northwest breeze. The parched grass and shrubs were thickly littered with small brown water oak leaves and acorns – making it at least look like fall, even if it didn’t feel like it. Except for Chickadees, Titmice and one female Red-bellied Woodpecker on the feeders, the yard was quiet until the Mockingbird began to sing.

For a while, I watched the Red-bellied Woodpecker feeding, admiring the silky-sheen of soft red on the back of her head, the small smudge of reddish-orange over the long, sharp bill, the mottled markings on the white underside of the tail, and the fine detail of white patterns on black wings and back.

Then she flew, and I turned my attention to the Mockingbird’s song and, feeling lazy, began to try to identify the different songs it incorporated . . . Blue jay, Bluebird, Carolina Wren, Titmouse, Chickadee, Phoebe, Cardinal, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, White-eyed Vireo? – I think so – Towhee, Goldfinch, Brown-headed Nuthatch . . .

The Mockingbird sat in a pecan tree, on a low-hanging branch that was mostly bare of leaves and in full view, and sang enthusiastically for fifteen or twenty minutes. For almost all of this time, it was also preening and scratching, and after a minute or two, I realized that it rarely seemed to open its bill at all, except to part it slightly now and then. The effect was disconcerting. As it poured out a steady, uninterrupted stream of songs, it preened its breast and wings, fanned its tail and raked its bill through the feathers, and scratched its head vigorously several times. This looked so remarkable that I briefly thought maybe there must be one bird I was watching and another that was singing. But there was no other Mockingbird around, and even when it did not seem to open its bill at all, I could see its throat and upper breast trembling with song.

For a minute or two, he fell silent, and sat still, head up alertly. Another Mockingbird was singing in the distance. Then he scratched his head, and began to sing again.

He showed a decided preference for Bluebird, Blue Jay, and Carolina Wren songs or calls and returned to them most often. He also seemed to like Phoebes – both their song and their fussing, burbling calls. More than once I heard the chik-brrr of a Scarlet Tanager, a Hairy Woodpecker’s kingfisher-like rattle, a Summer Tanager’s pik-a-tuk, the high, needle-thin calls of Titmice and Chickadees, and the perfect whreep of a Great Crested Flycatcher.

For a few minutes, he stopped preening and settled down just to sitting and singing, but even then he still did not seem to open his bill more than parting it slightly. Then he scratched his head, stretched out one wing, and began to preen again, still singing. The rich, full, musical sounds seemed to come from nowhere. Certainly it didn’t look as if they were coming from this bird so obviously preoccupied with its grooming.

In a brief search of books and web resources, the best explanation I found of this ability of some birds to sing without seeming to open their bills is in The Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Bird Life, by Christopher W. Leahy (2004). Leahy explains that bird songs and calls are produced in an organ called the syrinx, which is analogous to the human voice box (larynx), but unique to birds. “Attached to the syrinx are pairs of muscles that control the quality of sound production. The songbirds have a maximum complement of syringeal muscles, up to 8 or 9 pairs.”

“It will be noticed,” Leahy continues, “that birdsong, unlike human speech, is not inflected much (if at all) by resonating in nasal, mouth, or throat cavities. This is dramatized by the ability of many species to sing full, rich songs with their mouths full or their bills closed.”

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Monday, October 8th, 2007

Another very warm fall day. The morning was sunny with a deep blue, cloudless sky, calm and rather quiet in the front yard, except for Chickadees and Titmice around the feeders, and Carolina Wrens and a Pine Warbler singing in the woods. A Phoebe sang in a neighbor’s yard. A Monarch butterfly sailed overhead, backlit against the blue.

Then from high in the pinetops on my right, I heard a small, sharp Ank-ank! Ank-ank! The calls of a Red-breasted Nuthatch. It was too high in the pines to see, and although it called repeatedly for three or four minutes, it gradually moved away to the east and out of hearing. Even though I didn’t see it, and it didn’t stay around long, I was ridiculously happy to hear these funny little calls that are often described as sounding like a tin horn.

Red-breasted Nuthatches live year-round in northern coniferous forests, but are well known for having “irruptive” years in which they are seen in abundance much further south during the fall and winter. Similar to our southern Brown-headed Nuthatches, they are small, stubby birds, with bluish-gray back, soft cinnamon-red breast and black head, with a vivid black streak through the eye and bright white stripe over the eye. They typically move head down on the trunks of trees, searching for insects, and they frequently come to feeders.

This year seems to be one of their irruptive years – a good year to take advantage of the chance to see them here. There have been numerous reports of sightings in Georgia, so I’ve been watching and listening for them but until today hadn’t had any luck. Now it’s good to know they’re around in our area, too – at least passing through now and then.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

It was a cloudy, warm morning with the hope, but not the promise of rain in the air. Our serious rain deficit continues, and all the trees and other vegetation look very dry. Oconee County and surrounding counties are now under complete bans of outdoor water use 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and everyone’s being urged to reduce water use as much as possible.

Raindrops spattered down now and then, but by mid morning hadn’t amounted to much. The woods on the edge of our back yard seemed very quiet except when stirred by the wind. No bird activity other than the dry sounds of little chips here and there among the leaves, the loose, cool trill of a Pine Warbler, and the burbling and fussing of two or three Carolina Wrens. I last saw a Hummingbird on Sunday, the last day of September. Since then, the feeder has seemed abandoned, except for the Chickadees and Titmice that come now and then to sip from the water moat in the middle of it.

A tiny, dark shadow of a bird darted from branch to branch among the slender young oaks just inside the woods, so small and quick I almost thought it was just a speck in my eye. But when I looked with binoculars, it turned out to be a stunning Black-throated Blue Warbler. He stayed in view for less than a minute, but his color and markings were so intense and distinctive the image stayed with me as clear as a photo – dark-blue back and head, black throat and face, pure white belly, and bright white “handkerchief” on the wing. A vivid splash of color against the muted, grayish background of the day.

I walked around and looked for several minutes, but could find no other warblers or other migrants – no sound or sight of any but this one, and it, too, had disappeared.