Archive for December, 2007

Variations on the Theme of Nuthatch

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

This fall we’ve been experiencing the rare pleasure of having three different species of Nuthatches around our yard daily. All three – Brown-headed, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatch – visit the feeders and forage in the nearby trees, and their calls add spice, and often a comical touch, to the dry sounds of the late-autumn woods. Each of the three is a variation on the theme of Nuthatch – a small, short-tailed, long-billed family of birds that creep over tree-trunks or branches, often moving downward head first, feeding on insects.

It’s been a great opportunity, especially, to observe the Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, neither of which we’ve ever had around for more than brief visits before now. I’m having fun listening to their calls and trying to learn them well. While the Red-breasted Nuthatch’s most common call is the “tin-horn toot” of ank-ank-ank, the White-breasted’s call is deeper, slightly hoarse, and more like cronk, cronk. Both make much softer nasal calls while they’re foraging, a very gentle eenh, frequently repeated as they creep up and down and over branches.

The more familiar squeaky-dee chatter of our year-round resident Brown-headed Nuthatches is probably heard less often than the other two right now, though they still come around at some time every day. When they do, they seem to dominate the other two species, as well as I can tell, and while they’re at the feeders, the others seem to stay out of the way. But in general, all three of the Nuthatch species are pretty bold and even aggressive. I’ve seen a Red-breasted Nuthatch chase a Chickadee away from a feeder several times – though larger birds like the Titmice aren’t so easily intimidated. On the other hand, I’ve often seen Brown-headed Nuthatches sharing a feeder with Chickadees, Titmice, a Downy Woodpecker and other birds – maybe because they live here together all year long.

Red-breasted Nuthatches – with ruddy red breasts, bluish backs and bright white and black stripes over and through the eye – first showed up here in early October, and since then, at least two have been visiting the feeders regularly, pretty much all day, every day. They also come to the birdbaths, and are less shy when I’m around than most of the other birds. One of them will often come for a drink when I’m sitting only a few feet away, as if it’s just too busy to be bothered by my presence.

When I took down a feeder one morning recently to refill it, one Red-breasted Nuthatch waited in a branch just over my head and as soon as I walked away, it came immediately back to the tray. One sometimes will stay on the hanging block feeder for a long time, mostly hanging upside down and feeding from the bottom of it, snaking its head up to look around frequently. On the tube feeder, they more often grab a bite and fly away with it toward the back yard, where there are several pines, or fly up to one particular stub of a branch to work on whatever seed or nut they have taken.

So I’m having a good time watching them all. I like the small, feisty Red-breasted Nuthatch for its intensity and apparently unwavering focus on food gathering; for the way it’s not shy and will come so close to me; and for its funny ank-ank-ank calls that carry like echoes of another time through the pines and the bare gray branches of the woods.

When the Brown-headed Nuthatches arrive, chattering back and forth to each other, they brighten up the whole yard, sounding cheerful and seeming to bring sociability and activity with them. Though I know that’s only my interpretation, it always sounds like a party when they’re around.

The White-breasted Nuthatch – my favorite right now – I admire for its beauty and grace, for the elegant lines of the black head and nape against the snow-white of the throat and breast; for the sleek arch of its neck as it looks up, and for the artful way it moves over a branch as it forages, as if the movement itself were a pleasure.

An Inconspicuous Hawk

Wednesday, December 12th, 2007

Late this morning, a very fine Cooper’s Hawk perched in the top bare branches of a tall pecan tree in a neighbor’s yard. At first, it looked like just a big buffy part of a branch, but when I looked with binoculars, the branch turned into a Hawk with a rather flat, neatly-shaped gray head turned in profile. Its body looked deceptively big, with gray shoulders and wings, and a broad reddish-streaked breast that was muted in color, almost pale. The feathers of the lower belly were fluffed out, maybe by a breeze, and snowy white.

I couldn’t see its tail, which was hidden by a tangle of branches, but then it flew, maybe because I had disturbed it. It flapped deeply several times, then soared on outspread wings, showing off the long, slender, slightly rounded tail, tipped in white. It gained altitude quickly, but instead of continuing to climb, after only a minute it suddenly plummeted down toward a clump of trees a little further up the street.

I wasn’t able to find it again, but I’m happy to know that we may have a Cooper’s Hawk in the neighborhood for the winter, since this is the second time I’ve seen one recently. Although they’re here year-round, I don’t see them often in any season. I think it’s only by luck when I see one – even when it’s sitting in a bare-limbed tree out in full view, it blends with the background amazingly well.

The species account in Birds of North America* describes a Cooper’s Hawk as “a secretive, inconspicuous species,” and as “a quintessential woodland hawk. With short, powerful, rounded wings and a relatively long tail that ensures maneuverability in dense cover, it is well adapted for quick pursuit of forest birds and mammals.” They apparently adapt well to suburban settings, as long as enough woodlands or forested areas remain a part of the landscape.

*Rosenfield, R.N., and J. Bielefeldt. 2006. Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Watching a Kinglet Watching Me

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

For a few minutes this morning, the front yard was quiet. Not a bird to be seen or heard anywhere near. The air was cold. The bare branches of the pecans and water oaks made gray patterns against a blue sky, with big rafts of gleaming white clouds drifting from west to east. Sharp, chilly breezes shook and rattled the dark-red, dry leaves on the white oaks, and each breeze sent a few more of them tumbling down. One silent Black Vulture flew low over the tops of the trees at the edge of the woods across the street.

Then all at once, there seemed to be birds everywhere. Several Chickadees and two Red-breasted Nuthatches flew to the feeders and up into the branches above them. A pair of Cardinals peeped in the low branches. A Mockingbird came to one of the birdbaths for a drink. A Towhee called, and a Carolina Wren trilled cheer-cheer-cheer.

About a dozen Dark-eyed Juncos flew in and settled in the grass only a few feet away from me and began to hunt around in the grass at the edge of the sidewalk. (We saw our first Junco of the season here over the weekend.) Two Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from a branch down to the Savannah holly. Three or four White-throated Sparrows began to kick up leaves beside the porch.

One tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew into the Savannah holly tree whose branches are the usual stopping point for one of the birdbaths, made its way down the limbs of the holly, paused and looked my way for a few seconds, then moved into the large tea olive bush right beside me. I could hear the rustling as it moved through the thick dark-green leaves of the bush until it emerged on the edge nearest me, close enough so that I could have reached out and touched it. It looked directly at me, turning its head and seeming to be checking me out. Meanwhile, I sat as still as I could, delighted at the close view. I could see its greenish-gray head, bright white eye-ring, and neat white bars on each wing. No sign of its ruby crest – but the main thing that impressed me was simply how very, very small it was. Then it flew to a low limb of a pecan, where it turned to look back at me one more time and make a bold, gossipy comment before it moved on.

Eurasian Collared-Doves

Tuesday, December 4th, 2007

Late this afternoon – a cool, sunny, windy day – three Eurasian Collared-Doves perched in the bare limbs of a pecan tree in a yard in our neighborhood. It’s the first time I’ve seen them here.

I was walking along the road and had stopped to look at four Blackbirds perched in the top of a tree in the distance. Although they were too far away for me to see well, I thought they were Rusty Blackbirds, two males and two females, and I was trying to see them well enough to be sure. As I moved my binoculars from one of them to another, one of the Doves come into sight, much closer to me and lower. When I brought it into focus, it was immediately clear that it was not a Mourning Dove, which is what I had expected.

Instead, I saw a large very pale, chalky-gray Dove with a slender neck and a dark, neat half-collar, like a crescent around the back of its neck, edged with white. Two similar Doves perched on branches near it.

Eurasian Collared-Doves belong to a non-native species that began showing up in Georgia in the 1990s, after first being introduced to the New World in the Bahamas in the 1970s. They quickly spread in the southern part of the state, and are now apparently spreading throughout the Piedmont and other parts of Georgia. It’s not clear what effect, if any, they might have on native populations, such as our common Mourning Dove.

These three were perched near a flock of a dozen or more Mourning Doves, and when the Mourning Doves flew up in a flurry of whistling wings, the Eurasian Collared-Doves flew with them. It’s possible that they’ve been around for some time now and I just haven’t noticed them, assuming that any dove I see is a Mourning Dove – another instance of my assuming and not being observant enough of what’s really there. On the other hand, their appearance is different enough that I think they would stand out in any crowd of Doves, and I’m sure I haven’t yet heard their Hoo-HOO-hoo calls – but will be listening for them now.

I don’t know whether their presence here is good or bad or neither, but it’s interesting.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s Flight Call?

Saturday, December 1st, 2007

The last day of November was sunny, bright, and chilly – and a good day for Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. Maybe they’re just easier to see now that most of the leaves on the trees are gone – though even now it’s not always that easy. Seeing one is like seeing a part of a tree come to life in the shape of a bird. The barred patterns on their wings, back and tail, in several subtle shades of black, white, gray and buff, blend in well with the muted colors of the season, and I always associate them with the fall and winter since that’s when we have them here. But in the right light, the black-and-white striping on the face, the crimson throat and head of a male, and even the warm yellow of the belly shine like brilliant accents against a winter background. And often they’ll give away their presence with a nasal, mewing call, or with their steady tapping on a trunk.

This afternoon I heard a funny call that I didn’t recognize – something like djeer-djeer-djeer-djeer, sort of a fast, rolling call – and it turned out to be a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker that was flying from one tree to another and calling as it flew. When it got to the second tree, it gave its more familiar mewing neeah before it started tapping on the trunk, and another Sapsucker nearby seemed to answer with the djeer-djeer call.

Of course, Sapsuckers (like most birds) have many more vocalizations than the ones most of us are familiar with, and this one was new for me. After looking it up in several sources, I think it was probably the call The Sibley Guide to Birds describes as one sometimes given in flight.