Archive for March, 2008

A Barred Owl in the Morning, Nesting Bluebirds, and a White-eyed Vireo

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Today began at first light with the call of a Barred Owl, heard through our open windows. It’s the first time we’ve heard one since late last fall.

Neotropical migrants are gradually returning. Today I heard the chik-perioo-chik! of a White-eyed Vireo in a privet thicket near the entrance to our subdivision.

Two Louisiana Waterthrushes continue to sing near the creek – one up the creek toward the west, the other down the creek toward the east – and there’s been lots of bird activity and birdsong all day from all the usual suspects. It was cool and slightly overcast this morning, but became half-sunny and warmer as the day went on. As I worked in my office with the windows open, I could hear the exuberant songs of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, as well as the songs of Pine Warblers, Phoebes and Goldfinches. Chipping Sparrows seem to be everywhere right now, on the feeders, in the grass, and in the trees. They sing the characteristic long, monotone trill, but also sing shorter, lighter songs that sound less business-like, especially when there are several of them around at once, and I’m fascinated right now with the variety in their singing and spend far too much time listening to them.

A pair of Bluebirds seems to be building a nest in our bluebird house – finally! I had begun to wonder if all the activity from the new house under construction across the street had discouraged them. But both today and yesterday the pair have been making regular trips in and out of the house, and the brilliant blue male sits in the branches around it and sings. Once I saw him singing as he flew – all the way into the birdhouse entrance. He also likes to perch on our mailbox – which is perpetually covered in evidence of its general popularity with the yard birds.

Around 6:30 this evening, a Pileated Woodpecker announced its arrival with a loud, trumpeted call. We haven’t seen or heard them often lately, so I walked outside and found it working on a fallen pine trunk near the edge of the woods, where it stayed for more than half an hour. The sky was cloudy, and the air very humid and warm, but with a slight cool breeze. The Pileated made loud thwacks as it worked on the log. As I stood watching, a Louisiana Waterthrush sang, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called spee! overhead, and a half-dozen White-throated Sparrows foraged in dry leaves near me. The Pileated Woodpecker used its whole head and snake-like neck as it pounded, twisting it this way and that, and stopping frequently to look around. Because of the way it moved, the white stripes on its neck looked like zig-zags of lightning at times. Its back and tail spread in a broad, dull expanse of black. The full red crest shimmered, even in the cloudy gray light. It hopped along the log, or onto the ground or to another spot, or spread its wings, flashing white, as it half-hopped, half-flew to a low spot on the trunk of a standing dead pine.

So the day began with the call of one old friend and ended with a visit from another.

Purple Finch in a Pine Tree

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

Today a Purple Finch came to our back deck and to the pine trees nearby. He looked like a glowing cherry-red smudge among the green needles of the pines, in late morning light. His whole head and face were deeply, darkly red, as if they had been stained with juice, and the stain spread also down his back. The crown of his head rose up in a rounded peak, and he held himself erect and tall on the branch.

And he sang. That was a bonus! I don’t know finch songs well at all, and seldom see or hear a Purple Finch, and would not have recognized it if I hadn’t seen him singing. It sounded generally “finch-like,” but was lower in pitch and more mellow, more rounded in tone than a House Finch, I think.

Unfortunately, he didn’t stay long. He flew deeper into the woods, and I did not see him again the rest of the day, nor did I see a female, though I looked for them around the edges of the yard several times.

Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Red-breasted Nuthatch

Sunday, March 23rd, 2008

For me, the song of a Louisiana Waterthrush is the anthem that officially announces the arrival of Spring each year. Cardinals, Chickadees, Pine Warblers and many other year-round residents have been singing for some time now, and a Black and White Warbler or a Blue-headed Vireo are usually our earliest returning migrants. But when the song of a Louisiana Waterthrush rings out from down in the still-gray woods around the creek, it sounds like a fanfare – loud, clear notes heralding the rush of musical birdsong that’s just about to begin.

This year, I was beginning to worry because its arrival here was later than usual. There’s been a steady, slow spread of development around the area, and over the past eight years we’ve seen a noticeable change in the kinds and numbers of bird species that nest here. So when I heard the song this morning, it really made me smile. Of course, it remains to be seen whether it will stay around or not, but I’m hopeful.

We also heard the spee-spee calls of our first Blue-gray Gnatcatcher this afternoon, in trees around the back yard, and at the same time, the nasal ank-ank of a Red-breasted Nuthatch in the woods nearby. At least one Red-breasted Nuthatch is still coming to our feeders, though not as often as earlier in the season.

Field Pansies and Other Wildflowers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, and a Black and White Warbler’s Song

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

This morning clouds of pale purple Field Pansies (Viola bicolor) spread across the rough, ragged edges of the Old Field that runs along the dead-end road just outside our neighborhood. The individual blooms look like frail, miniature violets on tall stems with long, lobe-shaped leaves. They’re an introduced wildflower and probably considered a weed, but in this drab, much-abused spot, they look lovely.

Bluets, Henbit, Dandelions and several other tiny blue, yellow and white wildflowers also are blooming along the roadsides. Mockingbirds have joined the Brown Thrashers in singing, along with Pine Warblers, Bluebirds, Phoebes, Robins, House Finches, Chickadees, Titmice, Cardinals, and Carolina Wrens – just about all of our year-round resident birds are singing now, I think.

White-throated Sparrows also are singing, and their plaintive Come-a-way with me sounds especially bittersweet at twilight or on a day like today, under a melancholy sky heavy with quiet, layered gray clouds. And today I heard the “squeaky-wheel” song of a Black and White Warbler for the first time this season. Since we’ve been gone so much lately, I’m sure I’ve missed a lot, but for me, it’s a first.

After a winter season in which Golden-crowned Kinglets have been infrequently heard or seen around our house, the past two days I’ve been hearing their high-pitched see-see-see calls often in the pines, and today watched one with a bright yellow crown feeding in the limbs of a pine. It’s nice to see and hear them again!

At least one Red-breasted Nuthatch is still coming to our feeders regularly, possibly two. I haven’t yet been out often enough to be sure.

And finally, when I returned from a walk just after noon, I stopped to listen for a while to a Chipping Sparrow singing from a perch on the bare branch of a water oak. I watched for several minutes as it sang a high, delicate song that was recognizable, but quite different from its usual monotone trill. Chipping Sparrows are constantly amazing me with the variety of their songs. This song sounded silvery and pretty. It was a rather high, metallic, jingling sound, mostly all on one note, but with subtle variations, and it was quieter than the usual Chipping Sparrow song, not so strong or held so long. At the same time, another Chipping Sparrow on a nearby branch sang back to this one, in the same kind of song.

Other Kiawah Birding Highlights

Monday, March 17th, 2008

Among other birding highlights of our trip to Kiawah Island –

Northern Gannets – large, dramatic seabirds with long white wings tipped in black, long necks and pointed tails – gleaming in the sunlight as they dived with outspread wings in deep water. Several were close enough in to see well, and it looked as if there were many more in the air as far out as I could see.

A mature Bald Eagle that flew low and directly over us, sunlight filtering through its white tail and highlighting its huge white head against a blue sky. Crying loudly, it was followed by an immature Bald Eagle – a dark, mottled brown – also crying, and pursued by a crow.

The courtship display of an Osprey – One morning while walking on the beach, I heard an Osprey’s calls and found it flying very high, hovering and shallow diving repeatedly. When I later checked species accounts, I learned that this display is often performed over the nest site, but high overhead, with the male Osprey giving screaming calls.

A pair of Ospreys beginning to bring sticks to a nest platform on top of a tower. One of these may or may not have been the one I saw displaying. We watched as each of the two Ospreys on the nest, in turn, left and returned to the platform with a stick. Each time one returned, the two exchanged loud, overlapping cries. Occasionally one would seem to move a stick around slightly, but in general they didn’t seem too concerned about the arrangement, and there were only a very few sticks so far.

Two bright-colored American Oystercatchers feeding with several sandpipers around tidal pools on the east end of the beach. Their flamboyant coloring is unlike anything else on the beach at this time of year – when most of the birds along the shore are pretty drab and grayish. The Oystercatchers are painted in big, bold striking colors and shapes – round black head and neck, chestnut-brown back, white belly, round red-orange eyes against a black face, and very long, thick red-orange bills. Their behavior is equally eye-catching. They’re very animated, moving quickly, stabbing into the sand or water with their preposterous bills. After I watched them for a while, I turned and headed back down the beach, and they followed me – or seemed to – calling out peeeeeep over and over, all the way down the beach until they finally came to a tidal pool they liked and stayed there as I walked on.

Two Lesser Black-backed Gulls picking up large shells on the edge of the surf as the tide came in, and flying up to drop them onto the sand, sometimes three or four times before the shell would crack enough for the gull to pull out the fleshy animal inside. There was also a Herring Gull – even larger and really more impressive and handsome than the Lesser Black-backed Gulls – doing the same thing. The Lesser Black-backed Gulls had bright yellow legs, yellow, red-rimmed eyes and were smaller than the Herring Gull but considerably larger than the Ring-billed Gulls, which were hanging around and trying now and then to steal one of the large broken-open shells – at least once they succeeded in taking one away from the huge Herring Gull. One of the Lesser Black-backed Gulls had a white head streaked with brown, with especially heavy streaking around the eyes, and a back that was more gray than black. The other was, I think, more nearly in spring plumage, with only a very few faint streaks on the head, and a dark charcoal back. Although Lesser Black-backed Gulls are uncommon on the eastern U.S. coast, I’ve seen them on Kiawah during the winter in previous years, and while I could always be wrong about an identification (and too often am!), the bright yellow legs, combined with the other markings and size seem to me to distinguish them clearly.

One small flock of Least Sandpipers feeding near a tidal pool with a Sanderling – which looked like a giant beside them. One small flock of Dunlins, little elephant-like birds with hunched shoulders and downward turning bills, all probing the sand around a tidal pool. Four Black-bellied Plovers and one solitary Ruddy Turnstone.

Many Forster’s Terns and a few Royal Terns flying over the surf-line of the beach every day. At times I could count more than two dozen terns at a time in the air, strung out up and down the beach and further out. Most were Forster’s Terns, hovering and fluttering like moths over the breaking waves, looking pale gray, white and silvery. The Royal Terns usually hunted a little further out.

One female Northern Harrier that flew very low over us and out over brown marsh grass, hovering, then gliding low over the grass, then hovering again. She was close enough for us to see the details in the dark brown, streaked and barred plumage, as well as the prominent white rump patch – I don’t think I’ve ever seen one so close for so long. It was mid afternoon, and very quiet in the marsh, with only the sound of the wind in the grass, and the Harrier’s flight was silent and seemed almost in slow motion.

Red Knots – Hundreds of Birds, One Thought

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

They appeared out of nowhere, suddenly, a large flock of shorebirds flying fast in tight formation, swooping low over the edge of the surf, the rush of their wings passing by me. Two or three hundred birds, moving as one, they turned sharply out to sea and then back again, flying up, then down, flowing this way and that, catching the sunlight and changing colors as they changed direction – tan and cream and cinnamon and pewter. It was a breathtaking display of flight, and they looked not like separate birds, but like one form in fluid motion, one thought.

Red Knots.

An individual Red Knot in winter plumage is one of the plainest and most nondescript of birds – a sturdy, rather large sandpiper with a gray back, dingy gray breast, dark legs, and a dark, straight, medium-sized bill. Its beauty is not in the individual bird, but in the glorious way hundreds of Red Knots move together, especially in flight. The first time I saw them during this visit to Kiawah Island, the flock flew by me and away down the beach so fast that it seemed almost like an apparition, leaving an image lingering in the air after they were gone – and leaving me with a frustrated wish that they’d return.

They didn’t come by again that day, but a couple of days later they did. I was walking on the beach late in the morning with the tide coming in, and the sky sunny and clear. The Red Knots appeared with a whoosh – again, it was a flock of at least two hundred – but this time they settled right in front of me, as if the grains of sand in a whirlwind had fallen out and sprouted legs. The instant their feet touched the sand they began to run from spot to spot and probe into the sand – in constant, rapid motion as if they had not a second to spare. They spread out in a long line up and down the beach, and although they broke up into several loose groups, within each group many, if not all, of the birds moved in sync, running and probing together.

Most were still in gray-on-gray winter plumage, but a good many showed faint highlights of soft brown, and a few showed the beginnings of reddish mottling that would later become the salmon-red breast that gives them their name.

Red Knots are the cover story in the March-April issue of Birdwatcher’s Digest, and I had just read the article before coming to Kiawah, so I had hoped to see them. Their population numbers have declined steeply in recent years, and there are serious concerns about their future. One area of concern is the importance of habitat and food supply along their migration routes each spring. Unfortunately, I was so absorbed in watching the way they moved, and in the sense of urgency and intensity they brought to the beach, I completely forgot to look for color bands or color marking.

It may have been five or ten minutes at most when, just as suddenly as they had arrived, they took flight again, the whole long, strung-out line of them rising swiftly and flowing back into the tight formation of the flock, silent except for the sound of their wings, becoming one again, and disappearing up the beach.

Piping Plovers on the Beach – Kiawah Island, SC

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

We recently spent five days, March 9 – March 13, on Kiawah Island, just off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. Although the island is steadily becoming more heavily developed – no slowdown in the housing market seems apparent there, and all the houses are huge – large areas of coastal marsh have been protected, and during several months of the year it’s still possible to find stretches of a wide, quiet beach where more birds than people can be seen.

Bald Eagles, Ospreys, Northern Gannets, Lesser Black-backed Gulls, American Oystercatchers, Forster’s Terns, Tri-colored Herons, Red Knots and Least Sandpipers were among the birds we saw. One of my favorite experiences was watching four Piping Plovers on the beach. I saw them almost every day while we were there, at some point along the beach. Already in spring plumage, they looked more brightly marked than when I had seen them before in winter plumage – but their pale color, white forehead and eyestripe, sharp black band across the brow, and narrow black breast-band were familiar. With their small size, round, plump shape, very short orange bill tipped in black, and orange legs, it’s hard not to call them cute. They’re very appealing and fun to watch, but knowing that they’re a threatened and endangered species, I tried to be careful not to disturb them by getting too close.

They usually were traveling with a small flock of Sanderlings. When the Sanderlings flew, the Piping Plovers flew with them. But while the Sanderlings fed intently in their scurrying way along the edge of the surf, the Piping Plovers usually foraged separately, a little further back from the waves, more spread out from each other, and less intense. They were more likely to stand and look around from time to time, and often wandered over to explore around a tide pool. They foraged by running from one spot to another, probing into the sand or – and this was the most entertaining thing to watch – in very wet sand on the edge of the surf, they often stuck one foot into the sand and stirred it quickly, meanwhile looking around as if just admiring the scenery – then leaned over and poked a bill into the sand. They did this repeatedly, and I assume the motion stirred up prey in some way. I also saw Semipalmated Plovers doing the same kind of thing.

The Scene in Early March – Pine Warblers Singing, Rusty Blackbirds in Changing Colors, and Nuthatches Still Around

Friday, March 7th, 2008

After traveling for much of the month of February, only back home for a day or two here and there, I’ve felt out of touch with what’s going on here at home. This morning was a perfect time to spend a while outside catching up – a calm, clear, spring-like day with a cloudless blue sky – and lots of birds singing.

The earliest singer was a Cardinal perched in the top of a bare pecan tree, sounding as bright and colorful as the bird itself. Then came the swishing song of a Phoebe sitting on the edge of the back deck, the To-wheee of a Towhee from under the holly bushes, the trilled song of a Pine Warbler on the edge of the woods, and the songs of Titmouse, Chickadee, House Finch, Carolina Wren, Brown Thrasher and Bluebird.

Our large, visiting flock of Red-winged Blackbirds were somewhere near, and their rattles and creaks and conkarees formed a kind of background music. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called its springtime churrrr, a Downy Woodpecker called pink! and flew to one of the feeders, and I even heard the kingfisher-like rattle of a Hairy Woodpecker as it flew over toward the line of woods across the street. Mourning Doves cooed in the distance. Yellow-rumped Warblers darted here and there, chasing each other, flashing silver-gray wings and yellow rumps, and calling repeated cheks! A Chipping Sparrow and a female House Finch flew into the Savannah holly near one of the bird baths – and flew away when they saw me sitting too near. A Turkey Vulture floated low overhead.

Goldfinches crowded and fluttered and hunched on the perches of the finch feeder, stuffing themselves. A Mockingbird lurked in the branches of the wax myrtles, White-throated Sparrows called tseet, kicked up dry leaves, and fed on the edge of the grass, and I heard the low, honking call of a White-breasted Nuthatch. After a while, all three nuthatches, one at a time – White-breasted, Red-breasted and Brown-headed made an appearance at the front-yard feeders, and I was happy to see that they’re still around. A Pine Warbler also is a regular visitor to the feeders, and at least two Pine Warblers sing often around the house all day long.

It was especially nice to see a female Bluebird perching in a low, bare branch not far from the bluebird house. Although there are many Bluebirds in the neighborhood, this winter we haven’t seen them often in our yard – so I’m hoping this is a good sign.

Early this afternoon, dozens of Robins milled over the floor of the woods behind our house, making the brown leaf-litter look alive. A pair of Hairy Woodpeckers – their crisp black and white plumage standing out sharply against the murky gray-brown background – worked on some of the standing dead pines. And a small flock of about three dozen Rusty Blackbirds perched among the green pinetops. At one point, many of them together made a rippling, burbling noise of calls, a chorus of rolling prrrts and churrrrs that was enchanting to hear.

Several solitary male Rusty Blackbirds left the group to feed on the grass or in low branches, and I watched one whose plumage, somewhere between winter and summer colors, was a stunning mix of copper-brown stippling on the back and head and throat, and glossy blue-black wings and tail.

The Familiar Song of a Robin – “And Yet We Hardly Know Him”

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

This morning began with the song of a Robin – a sure sign of spring and a good wake-up call in more ways than one.

Wake up, wake up you sleepy head,
Get up, get up, get out of bed,
Cheer up, cheer up, the sun is red . . .

Not only was it a good message for me – because I’ve been really lazy the past few days – but the verse from the old, well-known song also sounds a lot like the phrases of the Robin’s song itself, usually described as something like cheer-up, cheer-up, cheerily cheer-up cheerio. I lay in bed listening to it this morning for a while, and listened again off and on all day as different Robins sang, each one with a slightly different variation on the general theme. A Robin’s song is one of the most familiar, and yet, as Donald Kroodsma eloquently describes in The Singing Life of Birds, when you really listen to it closely, it’s a song of fascinating complexity and many unexplored strains. “So familiar is this robin, yet we hardly know him,” Kroodsma says. “Robins have much they can teach us.”

“Learn to recognize the robin’s song,” he continues, “and you’ve got the standard for the songs of other birds, too. . . . Sitting in a lawn chair and listening to robins for a few hours prepares one for sparrows and starlings and wrens and flycatchers and warblers and thrushes and jays and goldfinches and blackbirds – indeed, almost anything that other birds may have to offer. Begin by listening to the robin, and realize then how easily one hears how all the others sing.”