Archive for June, 2008

Great Egret and Great Blue Heron – A Somewhat Odd Couple Traveling Together

Monday, June 30th, 2008

Late this morning, in a fresh-blue sky with high cottony white clouds and wind from the northwest, I saw a Great Blue Heron and a Great Egret flying close together. The Heron seemed to be following the Egret, which veered away once, as if the larger bird had come too close or was annoying. The Great Egret’s white plumage, black legs and long gold bill shined in the sunlight, and it looked much smaller, lighter and more graceful than the Great Blue Heron. The Egret stretched out its wings and began to circle and soar higher, rising like a feather in the wind and leaving the Heron behind. But the Heron persisted, circling and climbing more slowly, laboriously, wings pumping, following in the same direction. The Egret rose very high and then sailed off swiftly to the northeast, and the Heron followed.

Sunday Morning – Young Chipping Sparrows, Five Brown-headed Cowbirds, and a Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

The front yard early this morning was full of the cheep-cheep-cheep of juvenile Chipping Sparrows. Two adults and at least two young ones fed in the grass and flew from place to place. One juvenile flew to the large branch of a pecan tree close to where I was sitting – enjoying a warm, sunny, peaceful Sunday morning – and stayed there for several minutes. At first, it called a quiet tsip-tsip-tsip, then it fell silent and just sat there, looking around, well camouflaged against the grayish rough bark of the branch. It looked like a pale, muted version of an adult Chipping Sparrow, with a pale brown head instead of the adult’s bright chestnut-red crown. Strong breezes tossed the leaves and smaller branches all around it, and for a while, the young sparrow hunched down on the branch. Then it sat up again, preened for a few minutes, cheeped again, and flew off toward the wax myrtle bushes.

A little later in the morning I went for a walk, and passed five Brown-headed Cowbirds feeding in the shade of pecan trees in a neighbor’s grassy yard. Four males – black with brown heads – were all following one brownish-gray female around. Several times, all four males pointed their bills up toward the sky and sort of strutted together for several steps. Two of the males, at different times, displayed toward the female, with head down, tail up, and wings spread out, but she ignored both of them and walked away, foraging in the grass. The males did not seem aggressive toward each other. They seemed content to hang out together, just tagging along after the female and hoping to be the lucky one, I guess.

In the power cut that runs across a field and continues on the other side of Highway 441, one Red-tailed Hawk and two Turkey Vultures were lined up, each one perched on a utility pole, soaking up the sun. When I got close, the Hawk leaned forward, spread its wings and flew, screaming hoarsely as it circled and climbed, at first quite low over me. It was a juvenile, very handsome against the blue sky, pale underneath and spotted heavily with dark brown across the upper breast, its head hooded in brown, and its tail finely streaked in several mousy shades of brown, tan, and white.

A Place in the Sun

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

A Green Anole that lives around our back deck often climbs up the pole and down to the hummingbird feeder to drink from the water moat in its center. (The moat’s a favorite watering hole for Titmice, too.) Last weekend, the Anole was shedding its skin as it sunned on the pole for a long time. When a Hummingbird came to the feeder, she fussed at the Anole and hovered in the air near it, darting toward it, but not too close, and flying away without staying for nectar. The Anole seemed just to ignore her.

The Hoarse Song of a Scarlet Tanager – It Almost Hurts to Listen

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

There are no more persistent singers around our woods recently than Scarlet Tanagers. One sings in the woods across the street from our house almost all day every day. He’s one of the first to sing early each morning, soon after first light, and he continues to sing throughout the day – mid morning, late morning, early afternoon, mid-afternoon. I think surely he must take some breaks, but it seems that whenever I step outside, he’s singing.

In the evenings, he’s one of the last to sing, well after the sun has gone down. He sings so constantly that it’s tempting to think he sounds hoarse from singing so much – but the hoarse, almost harsh quality is the natural voice of the Scarlet Tanager. His song of five, six or seven rough phrases is often described as sounding like a Robin with a sore throat. Even knowing that, after hearing him sing for a long time, it almost hurts to listen.

He follows a regular path along the edge of the woods and then deeper into the woods, toward a creek, and usually stays down in the foliage out of sight, but twice in the past week I’ve caught vivid glimpses. Once, he was perched in the top of a large Red Oak at the corner of our street – the same spot where I saw him earlier in the spring – and the other time he was flying from one tree to another. Both times, he looked like a tiny, clear red drop of glass against the blue sky. His black wings were visible in contrast, but didn’t show up as strikingly as the red.

I have not seen a female, only the male. Occasionally I hear the chik-burr calls, especially at twilight. This is the first year I’ve ever seen and heard Scarlet Tanagers more often around the edges of our woods than Summer Tanagers – whose calls I frequently hear, but not their song, and I’ve rarely seen one. In previous years, there’s almost always been a Summer Tanager that sings around the yard, and a pair often foraging in the trees – but not this spring. One of our neighbors, however, says he sees them often and thinks they may have nested somewhere near. That’s good to know!

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

About 9:30 today, a warm, sunny morning, I heard the song of an Eastern Wood-Pewee from down the street. As I listened, it came closer and closer, until it sounded as if it was in the neighbors’ yard. I walked in that direction, to our driveway, and to my amazement it flew onto a low-hanging branch of a pecan tree almost right in front of me, only about 10 feet away, like a little gray shadow coming to life. There, it gave again its clear, whistled song – pity-a-wee – wheee-oo. It perched there for three or four minutes, turning its head sharply in one direction and then in another, flying up to catch an insect once or twice and returning to the same branch, and singing several times. I was close enough to see the orange of the lower bill, and its dark tip. Its coloring was a drab gray, with blurry-white wing bars, nothing to catch the eye. But it looked alert and busy, and did not stay long. It flew back down the street in the same direction from which it had come, as if it had just come by to sing for me for a few minutes.

It’s only the second time this season I’ve heard or seen an Eastern Wood-Pewee here. But I think it must be nesting somewhere in the neighborhood, or not far away, since it’s still here at this time of June.

Around the same time this morning – a quiet, peaceful summer morning with the songs of Cicadas in the background, small orange butterflies in the lantana and a male Bluebird hunting for insects in the grass – a Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager, Red-eyed Vireo, Pine Warbler, Northern Parula, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Phoebe, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Great-crested Flycatcher, Eastern Towhee, Cardinal, Titmouse, Goldfinch and Carolina Wren also were singing or calling – not all at once, but here and there. A Crow flew over with a Mockingbird chasing after it, rasping harshly.

Brown Thrashers Starting a New Nest?

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

This morning a Brown Thrasher was singing again, for the first time in a while. It sang from the top of a pecan tree on the edge of our yard – one of its favorite spots when it was singing so often earlier this spring. This time, though, it did not sing long.

After only two or three minutes, it flew down to the ground beside a hedge of wax myrtles and was joined there by another Brown Thrasher that I think was a female. The male picked up a leaf and flew with it up to a branch in one of the shrubs. At that point, I was distracted by something else and did not see what happened. A few minutes later, I heard the Brown Thrasher singing again, but it was singing from a low branch in an unusually soft, muted voice – the same song, but quite different from his usual style.

The species account for Brown Thrasher in Birds of North America* says that the male “also produces [a] ‘soft courtship song’ which is identical to the primary song but with drastically reduced amplitude given when a female is close by.” So our Brown Thrasher pair may be starting a new nest. I think their first nest was successful because on at least one occasion I saw three Thrashers feeding in the grass together.

*Cavitt, John F. and Carola A. Hass. 2000 Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Blue Grosbeak, Gray Catbird and Indigo Bunting in Old Field

Saturday, June 14th, 2008

For the past six weeks, a small fracture in one foot has kept me from taking my usual daily walks – as well as from field trips and walks in the woods – so most of my birding has been restricted to around our house and yard. This morning about 8:15, I drove up to the Old Field that runs along the dead-end road just outside our subdivision. I wanted to see if the Blue Grosbeaks, Indigo Buntings, Yellow-breasted Chats and Field Sparrows had returned this spring.

When I first got out of my pickup, the traffic noise from nearby Highway 441 was so loud I didn’t think I was likely to see or hear anything but trucks, SUVs, cars and more trucks. But despite the traffic, I almost immediately heard the song of a White-eyed Vireo, then an Eastern Towhee, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Phoebe. Three or four Mockingbirds sat quietly on a wire, but I didn’t see the Red-tailed Hawk that often sits out on one of the utility poles along the power cut that runs through the field.

Red-spotted Purple and Sleepy-orange Butterflies flew among the purple thistles that spread over several open areas of the field, the purple blooms turning into white fluffs of seeds. In the ditches and grassy areas, Queen Anne’s lace bloomed dusty white. Large areas of the field have now grown up in pines, sweet gums, chinaberrys and other trees. The more open areas are choked with thickets of privet and blackberry vines, and tall, rough grasses.

I was watching a Brown Thrasher in some privet when I heard it – the song of a Blue Grosbeak. And there he was, perched in the very top of one of the tallest trees in that part of the field – maybe a wild cherry – singing and singing. A small dark bird with a slightly crested head, he didn’t look blue at first, but I could see the rusty-orange wing bars, and the big silver beak gleamed as it caught the light and parted every time he tilted his head back to sing. For several minutes he sang from the same perch, pausing now and then to preen, lifting one wing and then the other, spreading his tail feathers. But never more than a few seconds passed before he lifted his head and sang again.

A Blue Grosbeak’s song is usually described as a long, rich, finch-like warble. In addition, what I recognize most quickly is the distinctive rhythm and the way it always crests in a certain high note roughly in the middle of the song. To me it sounds joyous, full of optimism and a sunny, persistent spirit – reflecting, as many bird songs do, the habitat in which it lives. In this case, the Blue Grosbeak is one of many plant and animal species that colonize rough, abused places like old fields and help bring them back to life.

Finally, he flew to another treetop only a few yards away, again perching in the very top, and continued to sing and preen for several more minutes, and from this different angle the blue of his back ran like a wide ribbon between the darker wings. At the same time, a Gray Catbird was singing and mewing from somewhere deep in the foliage of a chinaberry tree. I listened also for the sharp, metallic tink that might be a female Grosbeak calling, but I didn’t see or hear one.

After walking further along the field and finding no buntings, no field sparrows, no chats, I had just about decided to be happy to have found the Grosbeak when I saw a small dark ball hurtle across the road into the dense privet thickets along the power cut. I thought it was only wishful thinking when I said, “Indigo Bunting” – but then I heard its bright, clear sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-sweet song.

I heard no Field Sparrow and no Yellow-breasted Chat, but was only there for about 45 minutes on one rather noisy-traffic morning. So I wouldn’t say for sure. And it was certainly encouraging to find both Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting singing, and a good number of other bird species active. A Robin and one Mockingbird were singing, and I also saw or heard Chickadees, Titmice, Carolina Wren, Cardinals, Chimney Swifts, Goldfinch, Brown-headed Cowbird, Mourning Doves, two Black Vultures and one Turkey Vulture soaring, and a House Finch family feeding in the purple thistles.

Small Birds Flush a Red-shouldered Hawk

Saturday, June 14th, 2008

At 7:30 this morning, Summer Tanagers called a soft, repeated pik-a-tuk to each other near the edge of the woods, and Red-eyed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager, Pine Warbler, Northern Parula, Phoebe, Eastern Towhee, Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, and House Finch sang. A family of Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked in the pines. A Red-bellied Woodpecker’s churrrr sounded like a musical purr. A pair of Downy Woodpeckers foraged quietly in the oaks, and a Great-crested Flycatcher called its hoarse whreep from down near the creek. A male Bluebird perched in the low branches of yard trees and swept down to the grass for caterpillars or worms. A Chipping Sparrow sang its long dry trill from somewhere down the street. And for the first time this season I heard the harsh, loud songs of a few early-rising Cicadas.

It was a beautiful morning, with a sky as blue as the Bluebird’s wings and small white patchy clouds. From not far inside the woods, I heard a Red-eyed Vireo’s whining nyaanh! calls sharply repeated, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s spee! I was searching the trees to see if I could find the Vireo when a large, vividly colored Red-shouldered Hawk flew suddenly, quietly out of the trees and perched on a low limb in full view. Two small birds flew right behind it, fussing and darting at it from different directions. The Hawk’s broad breast was rufous-red, its head dark brown and its wings, seen from the front, dark brown flecked with white. It remained on the branch for less than two minutes, but made such a striking picture against the gray and green of the woods that the image still seems bright. When it flew, with both small birds in pursuit – I don’t know for sure if they were Vireos or Gnatcatchers or something else because I was focused on the Hawk – it flared its black and white striped tail, spread its wings and flew along the edge of the woods and back into the trees, still low. It probably didn’t go far, but far enough to be out of sight.

We’ve seen a Red-shouldered Hawk several times recently, so I think it’s often around, and often low among the lower branches of the trees, quiet, well-screened, and not easy to see unless it moves or small birds discover it and start alarm calls.

Scarlet Tanagers Continue to Sing

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

Although it seems to me that we have fewer neotropical migrants in our woods this spring than we’ve had in the past, it seems to be a good year for Scarlet Tanagers here. I’ve caught only one brief glimpse of the male’s brilliant red and black plumage, and have not seen a female at all, but their songs and calls are so distinctive and familiar that they’ve been one of the most characteristic parts of the scene around our house through all of May and into early June.

At least one, and maybe a pair, continues to sing and call in the woods near the creek, and also – this year for the first time – a Scarlet Tanager has been singing every day from a different direction, across the street from our house, along the edge of the woods that slope down to a different creek there. It’s one of the earliest singers every morning, and it seems to make its way along a path through these trees repeatedly throughout the morning. It sings most often from the highest parts of the trees – sweet gums and water oaks, mostly – but stays hidden in the dense green leaves.

In the evenings, it sings from a large, magnificent red oak tree down the street and toward the west, on the edge of the woods there. I once saw it singing there in the early morning, but in the evenings, it sings late, and the tree is silhouetted against the orange light of the horizon after the sun has gone down.

Except for that one time, I haven’t been able to see the bird singing, but I also hear the crisp CHIK-brrr calls. I don’t know for sure if I’m hearing one bird or two. It may be just a male, or a pair singing and calling back and forth to each other. While the Scarlet Tanager’s song is not particularly pretty, its call is alluring and one of my favorite sounds in the summer woods.