Archive for January, 2008

Cedar Waxwings in Mistletoe and a Flock of Red-winged Blackbirds

Thursday, January 31st, 2008

January leaves us on a characteristic note – cold, gray, and bleak, with rain expected tonight. All day, a strong wind has rattled the dry brown leaves that still cling to the white oaks, swept through the hollies and wax myrtles, tossed the pines, ruffled the feathers of birds, and made the bare limbs of the hardwoods creak and moan. Early this morning was cold enough so that water in the bird baths was frozen solid again, though by midday most of it had melted, and the clouds broke for an hour or two, leaving a pale blue sky veiled in white and gray.

This was the most pleasant part of the day, still cold and windy, but graced with a pearl-gray light, with hints of color and iridescence. As I walked through the neighborhood around noon, small flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers, mixed with Chipping Sparrows and Bluebirds fed along the roadside and out in the middle of the road. I heard the songs of a Pine Warbler and a House Finch, the call of a Northern Flicker, and saw one Phoebe in a tree and one Black Vulture soaring.

As I passed below a large old oak, I heard the calls of Cedar Waxwings, but it took me a while to find them. The branches of the tree looked bare and empty. The Cedar Waxwings were scattered around in several large clumps of Mistletoe, almost hidden among its leaves, feeding on the berries.

On my way back home, I could hear a large flock of Blackbirds from some distance away. They were spread out over a wide area in the top branches of bare trees, and there may have been as many as three hundred or more. Among them were many Red-winged Blackbirds, as well as Common Grackles and Rusty Blackbirds, all together much noisier than our usual flock of Rusty Blackbirds are alone.

The Mockingbird and the Wren

Monday, January 28th, 2008

A Mockingbird continues to try to keep all other birds away from the two feeders in the front yard. Several times a day, though, it goes somewhere else for a while, and when it does, Titmice, Chickadees, Nuthatches and Downy Woodpeckers all return, darting back and forth from feeder to branches, taking advantage of their own version of Happy Hour.

During one of these intervals, I watched as a Carolina Wren cautiously made its way across the yard to the pecan tree where a Downy Woodpecker was chipping away at one of the feeders. The Wren bounced up and down nervously as it went, as if its legs were on springs, and frequently stopped to look around, this way and that. It clung to the bark of the trunk for a while, worked its way up to a branch, and finally flew to the feeder and started to peck at the seeds.

It hadn’t been there more than 30 seconds before the Mockingbird returned, and flew like a fury toward the feeder, white wings flashing. Both Downy Woodpecker and Carolina Wren scattered – and the Mockingbird homed in on the Wren and chased it so closely it seemed actually to nip at its tail. The Wren squeaked in a high-pitched twitter as it flew, close to the ground, sounding like a frightened mouse being chased by a cat, and the two birds disappeared around the corner of the house.

The Mockingbird returned and took up its post on the feeder. In three or four minutes, the Carolina Wren also returned, this time keeping to the ground around some thick holly bushes at first. Gradually it got braver, and ventured out further and began to check out the ground around the roots of a water oak, then it hopped onto the lowest part of the trunk, creeping over it and poking into crevices in the bark. Suddenly, the Mockingbird came down fiercely on the Wren, as if with a vengeance, and chased it away again – even though it hadn’t come anywhere near one of the feeders.

This is the first time I’ve seen the Mockingbird pay any attention to a bird that wasn’t on the feeders. It completely ignores the White-throated Sparrows, Juncos, Cardinals and Mourning Doves that often feed beneath them, and the Titmice, Chickadees and Yellow-rumped Warblers that hang around nearby in the branches. But for some reason, the Mockingbird – at least on this day – wouldn’t tolerate this one little Carolina Wren anywhere in the area – which is interesting, in part, because the Wren is usually so bold and pugnacious itself. Of course, a Mockingbird’s a great deal bigger than a Carolina Wren. This Wren was very watchful and cautious – but persistent. Maybe even stubborn. Not exactly standing his ground, but not giving up either.

Watching Rusty Blackbirds

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Our flock of about 200 Rusty Blackbirds is still in the neighborhood. This morning – a peaceful, cold, clear day – they were spread out across some grassy yards, under bare-limbed pecan trees, and I was able to get closer to them than usual and spent several minutes watching them. They all seemed to be Rusties. I saw no Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds or others. They were relatively quiet, just making smacking calls to each other as they hunted busily in the grass.

Although at first glance they just look like “blackbirds,” a closer look shows a lot of variation in coloring, and many individual birds are distinctive – which makes them fun to watch. The glossy black males have startlingly pale, yellow eyes, and most show some degree of rusty coloring across their back and shoulders that glows in the sunlight. The females show more variations in the patterns and shades of their tawny plumage, but all have the characteristic dark eye patch and pale streak over the eye – and altogether they have a much more nuanced and interesting appearance than the males.

I still don’t know if there are Brewer’s Blackbirds among them. It’s possible. A few of the females did not appear to have pale eyes, and a few of the males looked very iridescent and showed no rusty coloring – but that might have been a trick of the light.

Gray Winter Days

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

“January observation can be almost as simple and peaceful as snow, and almost as continuous as cold. There is time not only to see who has done what, but to speculate why.”

Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac

We’ve had a string of dark, gray, wet, cold winter days, and the weather has reflected my own mood – cooped up with bronchitis for almost two weeks. Bird activity around the house – as much as I can see of it through the windows and on brief trips outside – has been sporadic. Often when I look out, there’s not a single bird to be seen or heard. At other times, all the usual suspects are around and the yard looks and sounds lively, though in a stark, winter way, with a clarity that’s never felt in other seasons.

The dry chatter of Titmice and Chickadees, and the sharp pink! of a Downy Woodpecker animate the bare limbs of the pecans and oaks. White-throated Sparrows call tseet from the bushes and venture out to hunt in the places where dry brown leaves have piled up. Yellow-rumped Warblers chase each other around, frequently calling check! Carolina Wrens burble and fuss, and often come to the bird baths and feeders. The mew of a Yellow-billed Sapsucker, the onk-onk of a White-breasted Nuthatch or ank-ank-ank of a Red-breasted Nuthatch, and the squeaky-toy calls of Brown-headed Nuthatches are the most colorful sounds, and their appearance always seems to make the scene more interesting.

Occasionally I hear the dry, stuttering call of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and less often, the high, thin voices of Golden-crowned Kinglets, but we’ve seen much fewer of both kinglet species this year than last year.

A small mixed flock of Juncos, Chipping Sparrows and a few Bluebirds usually comes by in the mornings to feed in the grass along the roadside. And we’ve been seeing more and more Goldfinches – especially since putting up a finch feeder on the back deck a few days ago. I’ve also seen one male House Finch there, and Chickadees, Titmice, Juncos and Cardinals all are attracted by the seeds that get scattered around the deck and under it on the ground.

This morning one Goldfinch stayed on the feeder for a long time by itself – at least an hour. Its back was turned to me, and it sat on the perch and ate steadily, filling its bill greedily with seeds. I watched it for a while at close range, admiring the soft olive color of its back, flecked with pale spots, the lemon-yellow under its chin, and the greenish-yellow of its cheeks – and then I noticed that one of its eyes was held in a squint. It was closed to no more than a slit. The other eye was open and bright. It kept the bad eye toward the feeder, and the good eye on the open side.

A Mockingbird Bully – and a Dissatisfied Sparrow

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

A Mockingbird has been doing its best the past few days to keep all other birds away from the two feeders in our front yard. So far it hasn’t succeeded completely, but I think it has discouraged a few. There seems to be less activity than usual. It sits on top of the hanging block feeder, or squeezes awkwardly onto the tray of the tube feeder and hunches over there, taking a bite now and then, but mostly just looking around.

The Chickadees and Titmice hang out in the branches nearby, and whenever the Mockingbird leaves its post for a while, they take advantage of the break and come back to the feeders quickly. Today I’ve also seen Brown-headed Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Carolina Wrens and one or two Goldfinches also come to the feeders during times when the Mockingbird is somewhere else. Then after a few minutes, it swoops back in, white wings flashing, scattering all the smaller birds away, and takes up its belligerent watch again.

Meanwhile, the bully on the feeders doesn’t seem to bother other birds in the trees and on the ground. White-throated Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a few Juncos, Cardinals, and Mourning Doves have all been around. Today has been darkly gray and drizzly, with temperatures barely above freezing. Some slushy ice remains in sheltered spots from last night’s brief but lovely snowfall, but mostly everything is just very soggy, cold and dreary.

White-throated Sparrows seem to be everywhere – perched in the bare limbs of a crape myrtle, kicking up wet brown leaves beneath the feeders, and searching under bushes, around tree trunks and in the grass for food. While most of the sparrows industriously went from spot to spot kicking up leaves and pecking at the ground, I watched one for a while that spent most of its time, instead, watching other sparrows. Whenever one of them looked like it had found a good spot, this one hurried over to chase that one away and try the spot for itself. But once it got there, it always seemed to find the spot wasn’t so good after all, and the next minute it was looking around at the other sparrows again. Looking for an easy meal, I guess – but it looked like a losing effort.

A Brown-headed Nuthatch Pair

Friday, January 11th, 2008

This afternoon a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches stayed around the feeders and in nearby trees for a long time. Most of the time they were quiet, only calling to each other in very soft peeps. They seem to like the same broken stub of a branch in a water oak tree that the Red-breasted Nuthatches like. One sat on it for a long time, tucked up against the trunk, facing the lowering sun. For a good while, it just sat and looked around, then it began preening, stretching out the white patch on the nape of its neck as its head bent over.

A Red-breasted Nuthatch flew into some high branches nearby, and one of the Brown-headed Nuthatches flew toward it and seemed to chase it away. Shortly after that, both of the Brown-headed Nuthatches sat together on the broken stub, side by side, and one preened the other, combing through the feathers on its nape and back with its beak.

Hooded Mergansers on a Small Pond

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

Late this afternoon, between 5:00 and 6:00, as I walked past the small pond on Summit Drive, I saw two spots of white out in the water that might be ducks, but I hadn’t brought my binoculars because it was cloudy and getting late, so I thought it was too dark to see much – and of course, any time I don’t take binoculars, I’m certain to run into something interesting. I walked off the road, toward the pond, and as I got closer I could see a bat circling over it. A Great Blue Heron emerged from the brush on the western edge and flew up in slow, ponderous motion. By then I could see for sure that the two white spots were ducks, and that there was also a third duck of a duller color. I kept walking toward the pond, and not surprisingly, they flew – with a whistle of wings and a flash of white marked by partial black bands. They were Hooded Mergansers, which I’ve seen on the pond once before, a year or two ago, two males and one female.

Hooded Mergansers are fairly common ducks here during the winter months, but the showy looks of the males are far from common – with big fan-shaped crests that, when raised, show a snowy white patch surrounded in black, and give them an impressive, large-headed appearance. The bill is long and very thin, the back is black, the sides a dull orange or rufous color, and two black stripes mark the edges of a white breast.

Altogether, it’s a colorful and unusual-looking duck that lends an exotic touch to a plain little pond on a gray winter day.

A Winter Flock of Rusty Blackbirds

Wednesday, January 9th, 2008

A flock of more than 200 Blackbirds has been spending a lot of time in our neighborhood, often somewhere around the small pond near the entrance to the subdivision. You wouldn’t think it would be hard to get a good look at a few of so many birds out in the open! But I’ve spent a lot of frustrating time trying to see them well, and I still don’t feel confident in identifying a Rusty or a Brewer’s Blackbird quickly. But I’m working on it.

In the winter months, Blackbirds often travel together in mixed flocks that include both common resident species and less-common species – like Rusty or Brewer’s Blackbirds, which spend their breeding seasons further north or west. A few of the birds in our flock are Common Grackles – easy enough to identify with their long tails and heavy bills. A few are Red-winged Blackbirds, whose red shoulder-patches (on the males) make them also easy to spot.

The rest seem to be mostly, if not all, Rusty Blackbirds, and these are the ones I’m still trying to learn to recognize more confidently. They’re smaller than Grackles, with shorter tails and thin, pointed bills, and rust-red highlights in their winter plumage, which give them their name, but are not always easy to see. If there are any Brewer’s Blackbirds among the flock, I haven’t identified them yet for sure. Usually I see them all while walking, when I’m not carrying a scope.

This afternoon, I found three Rusty Blackbird males feeding together on the faded grass of a lawn, well apart from the rest of the flock, and got my first chance this season to study them closely. These three looked mostly black, with yellow eyes, and a stippling of rusty-bronze across their upper backs, necks and heads. They held themselves erect, head high, when walking around, and even when leaning down to forage, kept a certain fine posture.

In the flock itself, the female Rusty Blackbirds are easier to pick out than the males, because of their tawny color and distinctive facial patterns, with a dark line or patch through the eye, and a pale buff band above it. But even they can be frustrating in a flock of mixed species that’s milling around in constant motion. The markings are rarely exactly the way they look in the field guides, and there seem to be infinite variations, so after several minutes, sometimes they all just turn into a blur of “blackbirds” and I walk on. But it’s fun to have them around and have a chance to try again tomorrow.

A Cooper’s Hawk in a Blackbird Flock

Saturday, January 5th, 2008

This afternoon on a walk through the neighborhood, I stopped to watch a large flock of 150 or more Blackbirds spread out across several grassy lawns. A few were Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, but most seemed to be Rusty Blackbirds. It was hard to get close to them, and hard to see them well because the light was gray and every time I moved a little closer, the closest Blackbirds flew up and moved a little further away.

Suddenly almost all of the birds flew up in a thundering Whoosh! into the bare limbs of the pecan trees scattered over the lawns, as a Cooper’s Hawk, wings and tail outspread, swooped down into the flock only a few yards away from me. It all happened fast, and the Cooper’s Hawk was unsuccessful. It flew to a high branch of another tree, near a house, where I had a nice view of its reddish breast and long, rounded, banded tail.

A Hermit Thrush Ushers In the New Year

Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

This morning – icy cold and clear, with a deep blue sky – a Hermit Thrush welcomed us home from more than two weeks of holiday travel. It flew across the front yard and perched in a low branch of a bare water oak, and sat there, quickly lifting its cinnamon-colored tail and slowly lowering it, again and again, and looking around with round, dark, watchful eyes. It’s the first Hermit Thrush I’ve seen or heard around our house this season.

A Hermit Thrush is a quiet bird shaped something like a Robin, but smaller, with a gray-brown back, reddish tail and boldly dark-spotted breast. While it’s here in the winter months, it spends most of its time on the ground, under bushes or around the edge of the woods, and usually when I see one it’s foraging alone – not among other birds in a flock. We seldom get to hear its fabled song – widely praised as one of the loveliest of woodland birdsongs – which it sings on its breeding grounds in northern and western hardwood forests. So for me, it always has something like the allure of a celebrity in hiding while it’s here. Its quiet, solitary behavior serves as a screen, allowing it to move around mostly unnoticed, calling out only a soft chup-chup! now and then. But when it thinks no one is looking, it hops out into the open and runs from spot to spot with nervous, suppressed energy, looking around as if it’s watching for something – not so much for danger, but for something it’s expecting. It looks like a bird with an interesting story to tell.

Meanwhile, the water in our two bird baths was frozen solid, so I added a little more on top and put out fresh feed in both feeders, and the yard was pretty busy with activity all day. In addition to the usual Chickadees, Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers, Carolina Wrens and Cardinals, several White-throated Sparrows and Juncos fed around the bushes and on the ground. Yellow-rumped Warblers rustled in the wax myrtles. A Mockingbird came to a feeder now and then, looking big and clumsy and scattering all the small birds away, but it never stayed long. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings passed through, filling the treetops with a spray of high, thin calls. Eastern Towhees called and fed under the bushes, out of sight. A Pileated Woodpecker flew low across the yard and disappeared into the trees to the east. Two Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked and came to a feeder briefly, but mostly stayed up in the tops of the pines.

Two White-breasted Nuthatches came closer and stayed around for a long time, creeping up, down and around the branches of several pecan trees. They chattered softly to each other almost constantly in low, nasal tones. There was no sign or sound of a Red-breasted Nuthatch at all.