Archive for November, 2007

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.

Starry Nights

Friday, November 9th, 2007

For the past month or so, at least since mid October, the night sky has often seemed unusually clear and full of stars, both faint and bright. I’m not sure why, but wonder if it’s because of the unusually low humidity. I can’t even say for sure that it is uncommonly clear – it may be only that our ritual of walking up the driveway to enjoy the long summer twilights this year turned into a ritual of admiring the dark, starry nights as the days grew shorter. But it does seem to me as if many more stars have been visible recently than usual here. On a few nights, I’ve even been able to see the faint powdery glow of the Milky Way – something I remember taking for granted two or three decades ago, but haven’t seen here at home in quite a long time.

Unfortunately, I don’t know many constellations or even the planets very well, but to walk outside on a night like this makes me wish I knew them better. The North Star, Big Dipper and Little Dipper have been easy to find, and I’ve been studying maps of the night sky and trying to identify others.

Last night about 11:00, I walked up the slope of our driveway to a spot beyond the trees, where much of the sky was visible. It was cold and clear and bright, and the eastern sky was especially thick with stars. Most prominent among them was the huge, sprawling constellation of Orion, just rising over the treetops that form our horizon. Above it, I think I could also see Taurus, Perseus and the sharp V of Pisces – and several other star patterns that I wished I could name.

Black Vultures

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

On a cold, clear, sunny morning, with the first hard frost of the season, the front yard was quiet except for the tseets of White-throated Sparrows hunting on the ground, out of sight, beneath the shrubs and wax myrtles. The trees in the background, across the road, glowed in muted fall colors, crusty yellow, faded green, dull orange and brown, with the russet tops of several tall Red Oaks rising above the others against a cloudless, deep blue sky.

A pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches arrived, calling squeaky-dee, and spent a few minutes on one of the feeders. A male Downy Woodpecker came quietly to another. A Red-breasted Nuthatch traveled quickly through the branches of the oaks, making only a soft, low, twittering sound. A Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled and a Carolina Wren fussed in the woods.

Above me, two Black Vultures soared in perfect silence against the perfect blue of the sky, white wing patches flashing silver in the sun, framed by the dense, gold-green leaves of a Water Oak. The Vultures sailed across the sky, wings outspread, barely seeming to move but circling and crossing paths as if in a dance, and in the clear light, cold air, crisp colors, and stillness in the leaves on the trees, which will soon be gone, it felt like a moment suspended in time.