Archive for April, 2008

Trees Full of Warblers

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Early this morning, I heard a familiar bird song – please-please-pleased to MEET-cha. Sure enough, when I went out onto the back deck, there were at least two Chestnut-sided Warblers singing in the lower branches of the white oaks – along with Blackpoll, Black-and-White, Parula, Yellow-rumped and Pine Warblers, and a Red-eyed Vireo. The trees jangled like a soft tambourine with song, and the singers flitted in and out of sight among the new-green leaves dripping with rainwater.

The two Chestnut-sided Warblers looked vivid in crisp, saturated colors. The chestnut streaks on either side gleamed dark, almost wine-red, especially against the white of the breast. With a prominent gold crown, white cheeks, black moustache stripes, a black stripe through the eye, and two white wing bars, a Chestnut-sided Warbler is one of the most colorful of all the wood warblers, both to see and to hear. Its song isn’t loud, but it’s quick and expressive, and easy to learn.

Several Blackpoll Warblers – more subtle in both coloring and song – flitted in and out of sight among the leaves. In their spring plumage, each male is a study in black, white and gray, with coal-black cap, white throat, black moustache stripes, and white cheeks that look like broad white crescents, two white wing bars, and black streaks on the sides and back. I could not hear their very high tsit-tsit-tsit-tsit-tsit song, but maybe it was just hard to pick out among all the others.

I did hear the song of one Black-throated Blue Warbler from down in some thickets on the edge of a neighbor’s yard, a buzzy, metallic zoo-zoo-zoo-ZREE – and wished I could have seen it, but did not. The Chestnut-sided, Blackpoll, and Black-throated Blue Warblers all are just passing through, on their way further north, and the Yellow-rumped Warblers, which have been with us all winter, will soon be moving north, too.

Red-shouldered Hawk Perched on a Grape Vine

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Late this morning, under a restless, clearing sky, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew low through the trees near the edge of our woods and perched on a grape vine that hung between two trees. The new green leaves all around drooped and dripped with with rainwater from heavy showers overnight, but the sun came out enough to trace the floor of the woods with light and shadows.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called spee! and a Summer Tanager pik-a-tuk. A Scarlet Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo, Black and White Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush and Acadian Flycatcher sang. Chimney Swifts twittered overhead.

The Red-shouldered Hawk sat facing in my direction, in perfect view, for several minutes, looking down toward the ground for most of the time, turning its head far from one side to another, and it was so close I could see the details in its plumage like fine lines and shades in a painting. Its head was dark with fine streaks, and a dark hood down the nape of the neck. Under its chin was pale. The curved beak was dark on the tip. I could even see the reddish shoulders glowing against the brown of its wings, and three white bars across the wings, as well as other white markings. Its breast looked tawny-red, flecked with rufous, while its belly was barred in a darker shade of robin-red. Usually the breast of a Red-shouldered Hawk looks deeper red than the belly, so maybe this was a trick of the light, or maybe because some of the plumage was wet. It appeared relatively small, so it may have been a male.

After a while, a Cardinal approached close to the Hawk, peeping loudly. Another small bird, maybe a Titmouse, also came close, but the Hawk seemed to pay no attention to them, keeping its attention focused on the ground. Then it began to look up – and abruptly called a loud KEE-yer! KEE-yer! and spread its wings, flying through the trees toward the east and then into the open and up, continuing to call, and being answered by another Red Shouldered Hawk. I could hear their calls for several minutes after it had flown out of sight.

Red-shouldered Hawks are woodland birds, and we’re lucky to have them here in the woods around our neighborhood. We see them often – many times flying low among and through the trees with amazing skill – but not so often at such close range and in such a perfect leafy setting as this, where the many complex nuances in its markings showed up unusually well.

Here am I, Where are you?

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

For the past several days, maybe two weeks or so – the height of the migration season here – I’ve been feeling frustrated because it’s seemed that many of the migrants I usually hear around our house have not come close. I’ve heard them and caught glimpses of some – but they’ve mostly been down in the woods or in the distance. I haven’t yet seen a Summer Tanager, for instance, though they arrived a couple of weeks ago and they’ve been singing and calling in the woods every day. The same thing was true of Red-eyed Vireos – I could hear them in the woods, but not around the yard.

This morning a Red-eyed Vireo singing very clearly in the trees on the edge of our yard felt like a gift. It was a mostly cloudy, warm, humid morning, with rain in the forecast, but with sun still breaking through now and then – an April showers kind of day. The sky in the west was a dark, bruised blue. One female Ruby-throated Hummingbird sat on the feeder as I stepped out onto the back deck, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called spee-spee in the oaks.

The Red-eyed Vireo’s song was its classic Here am I, where are you? Over here, up in the tree . . . sung over and over. At first it was too well hidden in the new foliage of the treetops to see, but I watched, and finally saw it flit from one cluster of leaves to another, where I could see the thick green leaves of the water oak tremble as it moved, and then finally, it came out into the open – a sleek, slender bird with a brownish-olive back, and cream-white breast and belly, and a sharp white stripe over the eye. It moved steadily through the leaves, gleaning insects, and singing as it moved.

In the background as I watched it, a Parula Warbler and an Acadian Flycatcher sang, and a Great-crested Fycatcher called whreeep and brrrrrt. A Scarlet Tanager sang from way down in the woods.

I guess I’ve just been impatient, as usual.

A Female Parula Warbler

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

About 10:00 this morning – a warm, sunny, breezy day, and very green all around – a female Northern Parula Warbler flew to a low branch of a water oak tree just at the edge of our back yard, and perched there in the open. She looked almost like a kinglet with her short tail and quick, darting movements – but then I saw her yellow throat and breast, blue-gray head and wings, two noticeably short, bright wing bars – and the indistinct white crescents around her eyes. She sat directly facing in my direction and immediately began to preen vigorously, raking the feathers on her breast and wings. After only three or four minutes of preening, she abruptly flew.

For several days now, since late last week, the buzzy trill of a Parula Warbler – whispery notes that rise up the scale and then quickly trip down at the end – has been lacing through the low branches of the woods, often frustrating close, but the singer has stayed invisible. It’s continuing to sing today, but now after seeing the female, I’m content just to listen and enjoy the male’s song.

A Flame in the Leaves

Saturday, April 26th, 2008

Early this morning as I walked up the driveway to get the paper, I heard a Scarlet Tanager singing in the big Red Oak tree just up the street at the corner. The sun was already up and shining on the tree. I searched for the singer, without much hope, because Scarlet Tanagers are well known for singing from perches hidden deep in the leaves. But there it was – a tiny sunlit flame of fierce red against a cloud of new-green leaves. It was too far away to see the contrasting jet-black wings.

I heard the first song of a Scarlet Tanager about a week ago, April 19, down in our woods near the confluence of the two creeks, so I think that’s about when they returned. A couple of days later, Monday, April 21, around 7:30 in the evening, I heard its familiar chick-brrrr calls in the woods around the back yard. Since then, at least one or two have been singing and calling every day.

Yellow-breasted Chat – Another Reason to Appreciate Weedy Old Fields

Monday, April 21st, 2008

Around 11:30 this morning, I walked along the road by the Old Field just outside our neighborhood. I stopped to listen for a few minutes to a White-eyed Vireo singing from the tangled undergrowth around the trees, chik! a-peri-oo chik!

The sun was warm, and my thoughts sort of drifted off, absent-mindedly noticing that the coral-colored wild sorrel is just beginning to come out along the edges of the field, and watching a small dusty-orange butterfly skimming the grass and weeds. So as I walked past a small overgrown patch of land on the other side of the road from the field – with a prominent For Sale sign on the edge of it – at first I didn’t pay any attention to some funny hoarse and rolling calls coming from low in the bushes – a kind of cronk – chet-chet-chet-chet-chet – creeek – chet-chet-chet-chet-chet – churr – interspersed with other sounds. I was just listening to it, kind of amused, when I suddenly stopped and realized what it was – a Yellow-breasted Chat.

It wasn’t hard to find, singing from the dense branches on the lowest part of a large bush, almost on the ground. The ripe, golden-yellow throat and breast blazed through the tangle of limbs like a small sun, and the white spectacles around its eyes looked bright. His throat swelled like a balloon when he sang cronk! and his long tail quivered as he sang chet-chet-chet-chet-chet.

I don’t know why the song of a Yellow-breasted Chat is so easy to overlook. It’s not musical, but it’s quite unusual. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t sound like one bird singing, but more as if there were four or five different birds making odd calls in the shrubs. The species account in Birds of North America* suggests that its “skulking, secretive nature” is the main reason it’s seldom seen, together with the fact that its habitat is brushy, dense, and often “impenetrable and unattractive.”

The kind of habitat a Yellow-breasted Chat prefers is overgrown, shrubby places like this, where a tree canopy has not yet developed. This kind of habitat naturally doesn’t last for many years, so in the best of times Yellow-breasted Chats must be adapted to finding new homes as their old areas grow into woodlands. Today, as more and more vacant land gets developed, they might have an increasingly difficult time finding the habitat they need – though at this point they’re not considered endangered or threatened in most of their range in North America.

I think the pleasure of seeing and hearing a Yellow-breasted Chat is another good reason to appreciate weedy “old fields” and vacant patches of land, and a reminder that even the most abused piece of land is alive, and may provide a haven for interesting and even beautiful wildlife species.

*Eckerle, Kevin P. and Charles F. Thompson. 2001. Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Great Crested Flycatcher

Monday, April 21st, 2008

It was a picture-perfect Spring morning. Cool, sunny and bright, with intensely green leaves and intensely blue sky. The leaves on our tall White Oaks are still very small and pale green tinged with salmon, not fully open, and the Red Maples also seem slow to leaf out, even though they started early. But almost all the other trees are green and full, and the woods look greener every day, dusted with the lingering white spray of dogwoods here and there. Tulip Poplars are in bloom with big orange and cream blossoms.

Lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers, a White-throated Sparrow, and a Black and White Warbler, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo and Louisiana Waterthrush all were singing, along with the spee! of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, the mew of Goldfinches, the chatter of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and the spring-time churrr of a Red-bellied Woodpecker – the most musical sound a woodpecker makes, I think. One female Ruby-throated Hummingbird made regular visits to the feeder.

Two Red-shouldered Hawks soared in the clear, cloudless sky, and called kee-yer! back and forth. I watched them for a while – just watching them and listening to their cries was enough to lift the spirit – and heard them calling off and on all morning.

A fairly good-sized bird flew into the branches of a pine tree and perched there – and when I looked through binoculars, I saw sunlight glowing on the sleek, lemon-yellow belly of a Great Crested Flycatcher. It sat, tall and handsome, partially screened in green needles, flying off several times to catch an insect, and returning to the same perch. Although it’s fairly common in the woods here in the summer, there’s nothing ordinary-looking about a Great Crested Flycatcher. With its ash-gray throat and darker gray head rising into a crest, the long, heavy bill and long cinnamon-colored tail, it looks regal and moves with a flashy, dramatic flair. Although it’s often overlooked, maybe because it hunts from leafy perches, a Great Crested Flycatcher is very vocal, and its calls are showy – though rather hoarse and deep. I’ve been hearing its rolling whreep and burrrrt-burrrrt-burrrrt for several days now, but this was the first time I’d seen one this season.

Puzzled Goldfinches

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

Yesterday I took down our finch feeder on the back deck and replaced it with a hummingbird feeder. There are many Goldfinches still around, and a few of them seemed puzzled when they came to the spot where their feeder had been. One of them decided that at least the moat in the middle was a good place to find a drink.

Goldfinch Video

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

The finch feeder on our back deck has stayed busy lately. Last Monday, Clate got a brief video of Goldfinches with a small FLIP video camera.

Finch Video

In another video clip not included here – because the feeder was just swinging empty for several minutes – there’s a Hooded Warbler clearly singing in the background. I was out of town that day, so wouldn’t even have known it had been here.

Fairy Pipers

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

Late yesterday morning, I heard the song of a Prairie Warbler from a shrubby, weedy patch of small pines and tall grass on a corner in our neighborhood. It was the first time I’ve heard one this season. Then today, another Prairie Warbler sang just across the street from our house, in the grass, shrubs and small pines that cover the one remaining vacant lot in our cul de sac. I could hear it whenever I stepped outside, all day long – a thin, buzzy zee-zee-zee-zee-zee-zee, with notes going up the scale.

I didn’t see either one, but was happy to hear them and to know they’re around – small yellow birds with olive-yellow heads, bright yellow breasts and faces, dark streaks along the sides, and dark streaks through and under their eyes. Their backs are subtly touched with reddish-orange streaks. They’re fun to watch, and are known for often bobbing their tails.

It’s impossible to capture in words the delicate, nuanced quality of a Prairie Warbler’s song. The first time I heard it, I thought it sounded like a buzzy, miniature pipe going up a scale. It has a light, airy, but elusive quality that – like so many birdsongs – perfectly reflects the habitat it prefers, which isn’t exactly prairies at all, but “early successional” habitat – the weeds, shrubs, and small trees that grow up in an old field or cleared area. Once the trees have grown large enough to create woods – or when the land is developed – the prairie warblers no longer nest there.

We have a lot of areas like that here in the South, where so much of our land has been abused, though many these old fields are being developed now, and there are fewer and fewer of them. For the first few years when we lived in this neighborhood, I used to see Prairie Warblers regularly, especially in an undeveloped area just outside our subdivision. Unfortunately, the ones I’m hearing now are probably just passing through, because most of the areas where they used to nest have been developed or cleared out during the past few years, leaving only small patches here and there of the weedy, shrubby habitat they need.

Prairie Warblers are listed on the National Audubon Society’s WatchList as a species of concern because their populations are declining throughout most of their range in North America, probably because of habitat loss due to development, and to the natural succession of shrubby habitat to forest.