Archive for July, 2008

A Tireless Singer Finally Takes a Break

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Since early May, a Scarlet Tanager has been singing in the woods around our house. In early June or maybe even sooner, it began to sing almost all day every day, one of the first birds to sing every morning, and one of the last to sing each night. But I think it finally has decided to take a break.

Although it sings almost constantly, I haven’t often seen it. Last Saturday morning as I was starting out for a walk, it was singing from the top of the big Red Oak down the street. I stopped on the edge of our driveway and from there was able to see it very clearly in the treetop. It looked tiny in my binoculars – but perfect. A jewel-like bright, glassy scarlet with jet-black wings.

It sang a song of six, then seven phrases; now and then only five. It sang one song (one group of six or seven phrases), then moved slightly, turning to face in a different direction, or moving a little further over in the tree, then it sang again. Each time it sang, it moved just a little before singing again. Unlike a Pine Warbler or Red-eyed Vireo, it wasn’t foraging and singing as it went – at least not in these few minutes while I was watching. It seemed completely focused on its song, but was constantly on the move, as if it wanted to leave not even the smallest part of its territory undeclared.

Sunday evening it sang from the same big Red Oak tree as the sun went down behind it, turning the sky a brilliant mass of gold and orange and lavender clouds. As it turned out, that may have been the last time we’ll hear it this year.

Monday morning when I stepped outside, there was no Scarlet Tanager’s song. I thought it might just have taken a break – but didn’t hear it all day Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or today. I’m not sure what this means. Since Scarlet Tanagers sing almost continuously through the breeding season, it may mean the Tanagers’ young have hatched, and maybe that they have fledged. I hope so. I also hope we’ll continue to see them now and then, and hear their chik-burr calls for several more weeks – but the singing may be over.

The Dean Martin of Birdsong

Monday, July 21st, 2008

For two and a half weeks, I didn’t hear the song, or even the pik-a-tuk calls of a Summer Tanager – usually one of our most vocal summer birds. I last heard them on June 27 – then not again until last Wednesday, July 16, when I was leaving for an early morning appointment and heard the familiar song again from one of the trees in our front yard. I’m sure they’ve been around, but they’ve been pretty quiet.

Since then, a Summer Tanager has been singing often around our house and in the woods nearby. This morning, it was the first song I heard when I awoke, and when I went out for a walk about 8:00, the male was sitting in a low branch of a pecan tree, in full view, singing rather lazily, barely seeming to open his bill as he crooned his song of smooth, velvety phrases.

As I watched him, a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird flew up and perched beside the Tanager, just a little further out on the same branch. For maybe 30 seconds they both sat there – the relatively big, placid, solid-red bird with the long thick bill and the full, rich voice, and the tiny little gray and green bird, a whirring, nervous ball of energy, momentarily still. The Tanager blinked first, leaning forward and flying, and the hummer zoomed off after it, as if chasing it – but I don’t know if it really was or not.

Two Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks

Sunday, July 20th, 2008

Early this morning, two juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks were hunting in the grass near a thicket in a neighbor’s yard. The area was shaded by several pecan trees, and the air still felt cool. I almost walked by without seeing them because they were on the ground, and because they were quiet and alone – no smaller birds around were sounding an alarm.

They seemed to be catching something in the grass, maybe grasshoppers or cicadas or other insects. Several times as I watched, one or the other flew up into some low branches in the thicket and disappeared there, then came out again and dropped to the grass. Both had dark brown throats and pale breasts with dark brown streaks. Once or twice they made what looked like playful flights at each other, spreading their wings – mottled brown on top, but very pale underneath – and flaring tails with narrow bands in shades of brown.

Bluebirds Nesting Again

Saturday, July 19th, 2008

Other highlights of an early morning walk included a Summer Tanager singing in a tree beside our driveway, a Scarlet Tanager singing at the same time in the woods across the street, a Red-eyed Vireo’s Here I am, Where Are You? in the trees around our house, the long, dry trill of a Chipping Sparrow as I walked down the street, nine Chimney Swifts sweeping overhead in a soaring blue sky with small white clouds, several Robins feeding in grassy yards, the spee calls of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and the fluted song of a Wood Thrush near the pond.

In the Old Field, a Blue Grosbeak sang from the highest wire over the power cut. It looked like nothing more than a little dark blob, the blue color not showing up well until I got in just the right spot, but the big silver beak shined in the sun, and it sang there for several minutes, as long as I was walking along the field. An Indigo Bunting and a White-eyed Vireo also sang, from somewhere hidden or camouflaged in the weeds. A Gray Catbird emerged from a mass of kudzu and perched briefly in the bare upper branches of a small tree, then dropped back down into the kudzu. One Phoebe sat on a wire near the north end of the field, and beneath it, two House Finches, male and female, chirped and hopped around in a tangle of brownish weeds, the male’s head and throat gleaming silky orangish-red.

Just as I got close to the top of our driveway, I heard the song of a Bluebird, and then saw the female Bluebird slipping quickly into the bluebird house, so I think they’re working on a second nest – and I’m not sure, but I think the eggs may have been laid and incubation has begun. I’m not out watching them often – and I don’t like to open the box and look, even though it supposedly doesn’t disturb them – but the past day or two, I’ve noticed the male singing from somewhere near the birdhouse when the female flies out and stays gone for a short while. He sings a softly-warbled song before she leaves, and while she’s gone, and stops after she has returned.

Dawn – A Barred Owl’s Call and a Scarlet Tanager’s Long Song

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Lying awake around five o’clock this morning, through the open bedroom windows I could hear the muted, rustling songs of katydids, much softer than earlier in the night. I had just started to drift back off to sleep when I heard a deep, booming HOOooo. I waited a few seconds, and sure enough it called again, just a one-syllable, strong but velvety HOOooo, a Barred Owl, calling from somewhere fairly close. It sounded like the edge of the woods around the side of our house. It called again, and again. I could not hear a response from another owl. Every time it was a single hoot ending in a low, guttural purr – so I think it was a female. She called several times before falling silent about 5:30.

For a few minutes after that, I heard nothing but whispering katydids, until about 5:45, when the first Cardinal began to sing. It was quickly joined by several other Cardinals until at least a half dozen, and probably more were singing, one right outside my window, another further out in the yard, another two or three in neighbors’ yards, and more in the distance. Their songs are so clear and loud and there were so many of them singing that it was hard to distinguish any other sounds.

At 6:00, a Chipping Sparrow began what Donald Kroodsma* describes as its dawn song – short bursts of brisk rapid-fire trills, one right after another. At least one Chipping Sparrow and probably more sang for several minutes as the sky grew lighter and lighter. At 6:04, a Scarlet Tanager began to sing from the woods across the street. It sang constantly, and seemed to move rather quickly from one spot to another, as if it were going all around the edges of its territory faster than it would later in the day.

For a few minutes between 6:10 and 6:30, the Scarlet Tanager sang a long series of phrases without pausing. Usually its song is six or seven phrases, followed by a distinct pause before repeating them. This was just one long string of phrases – I don’t know how long or how many phrases exactly, but it was quite different from the song it sings the rest of the day. As it was singing, I also heard a second Tanager, maybe a female, calling Chik-brrr, chik-brrr.

Meanwhile, a Carolina Wren joined in about 6:10, and then another, and soon there were at least a half dozen Carolina Wrens singing in different directions. Mourning Doves began to coo, and a few Canada Geese passed overhead, honking. Around 6:20, I heard the twittering of Chimney Swifts, the cawing of Crows, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s repeated spee! A Goldfinch called potato-chip, potato-chip, an Eastern Towhee began to sing To-WHEE, a Red-bellied Woodpecker churrred, and I began to hear a high, indistinct peeping that I think was probably Titmice and Chickadees.

Soon after 6:30, the busiest part of the dawn chorus was over. Most of the Cardinals and Carolina Wrens had stopped singing for a while, the Chipping Sparrows had changed to their daytime, longer trills, and the Scarlet Tanager had begun to sing its more familiar six or seven-phrase song. At this time of year, the dawn chorus isn’t nearly as busy or full as it is in the spring, but it’s still the best way I know of to begin the day.

*Donald Kroodsma, The Singing Life of Birds, Houghton Mifflin, 2005.

Summer Morning – Songs of Red-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush, Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

My walk this morning was a reminder that even in the heat and slower pace of mid-summer, there’s still a lot going on. Often there are stretches of quiet, during which I’m likely to get lost in thought and forget to listen or look around – but even then, there’s almost always something interesting if I just pay attention enough.

As I stepped outside this morning about 8:00, the first thing I heard was the clear, close song of a Red-eyed Vireo, singing in a small wooded area near the house. It sang a little more slowly than earlier in the season, with less urgency and more as if with pleasure – maybe. The sky was a soft, fresh-washed blue, with high white clouds, and a few cicadas had begun to hum and whine. All the usual suspects were chattering around the yard – Goldfinch, Chipping Sparrow, Cardinal, Titmouse, Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker – and from the woods in the back, I could hear the calls of a Hairy Woodpecker and an Acadian Flycatcher. In the woods across the street, a Scarlet Tanager sang and sang, as it has been doing tirelessly for many days now.

At the entrance to our cul de sac, a Mockingbird and a Towhee perched in the top branches of two tall, thick cedar trees. The Towhee whistled a rich To-WHEE. The Mockingbird preened and mumbled slow and half-hearted phrases, not really into it yet. To my right, from a densely-shaded wooded area that slopes down to a creek, came the flute-like notes of a Wood Thrush, and the dry, cowp-cowp-cowp-cowp of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

On down the street, a dozen or more Chimney Swifts twittered overhead. Several Bluebirds and Chipping Sparrows flew across the road, hunted in the grass, perched in the tops of some trees, and flew from mailboxes to bushes. A Brown Thrasher hopped across the road in front of me, then flew low across the grass of a yard. A Phoebe hunted from a low branch. Goldfinches called potato-chip as they flew over. A few Robins foraged in the grass here and there, and at least one Robin was singing, and I heard the cheery song of a House Wren. We don’t seem to have as many House Wrens in the neighborhood this year as last year, but I’ve heard them singing in three different spots along my usual walk.

A Red-tailed Hawk screamed, and flew rather low over the trees, chased by several Common Grackles. In all, spread out in a loose flock, there were at least 40 Grackles, and it surprised me to see so many of them together at this time of year here, but it’s probably not unusual. Just something I haven’t noticed.

As I came out from under a shady tunnel of branches formed by several tall pecan trees on both sides of one stretch of the road, a Gray Catbird flew across the road in front of me and perched only a few feet away, in a crape myrtle full of big pink blooms. I stopped to watch it for a few minutes, because I’ve heard its calls several times recently, but this was the first time I’d seen it.

A second Wood Thrush was singing near the pond as I got closer to the entrance to our subdivision. About that time, I also could hear the high, baroque notes of a Blue Grosbeak coming from the thickets ahead – but when I got up to the road along the Old Field, it had stopped singing or moved away to some other part of its territory, and I couldn’t find it.

Instead, there was an Indigo Bunting singing brightly from a perch on the end of a waving tendril of a kudzu vine in the top of a chinaberry tree. The vine looked too slender to hold up a bird, but the little bunting perched there with ease, very bright and blue in the early morning sunlight, singing and singing, sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-sweet.

A White-eyed Vireo also sang, and at the north end of the field, an immature Red-tailed Hawk perched on a kudzu-covered utility pole near a small billboard, hunched over, with mottled brown feathers fluffed out roughly. Mockingbirds were the most active birds along the edges of the field, but there also were Cardinals, House Finches, Towhees, Brown Thrashers, Phoebes, Downy Woodpeckers, Goldfinches, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Mourning Doves, and Brown-headed Cowbirds – a few up on the wires or poles, but mostly out of sight in the tangle of trees and weedy shrubs and grasses. Just as I was about to turn back down the road into our neighborhood, I realized that I was hearing the chet-chet-chet-chet-chet of a Yellow-breasted Chat singing from somewhere out in the middle of the field, well hidden in the thickets and vines.

On my way home, for the first time in several weeks (finally working back up to it as the injury in my foot has healed), I walked up and down the hills on the road that makes a circle back to our street and – as I had hoped – saw two Barn Swallows sweeping over the open expanse of a large grassy area. I think I could stand for hours and just watch the way they fly, with glistening blue-black wings and back catching the light, brick-orange breasts and deeply forked swallow-tails, they swoop and soar and turn and sail as if for pure joy.

Finally, passing through a low area with woods and a creek along one side, I heard the squeaky calls of a couple of Brown-headed Nuthatches, the twitter of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird zooming over my head, and then – one of the best parts of the walk coming at the end – the calls of not one, but two Yellow-billed Cuckoos very nearby in the trees – ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-ca-COW-cowp-cowp-cowp-cowp.

Mississippi Kite

Monday, July 7th, 2008

Late this morning, a Mississippi Kite – a dark and streamlined raptor with long, slender, pointed wings and a rather long, flared tail – soared over our neighborhood. I saw it for only a few minutes, circling slowly in a watery blue sky crowded with damp, loose white clouds. A heavy early morning fog had dissipated, but a haze still hung in the air.

The Kite looked uniformly dark all over, too far away and too close to the sun for me to see its true gray color or the pale, rounded head or white trailing edges on the wings of a male. One of its wings looked ragged, maybe missing a feather or two. It circled several times without climbing higher, gliding slowly, wings outstretched, then flew upwards, tucked its wings and plummeted toward the trees in the east very fast, and disappeared from my view.

It was the first Mississippi Kite I’ve seen this year, and the first one I’ve seen in our neighborhood since three summers ago, when we saw one or two almost every day for several weeks. Several have been reported along the Oconee River recently not too many miles from here.

Mississippi Kites spend winters in South America, and summers in the central and southern Great Plains, a few areas in the Southwest, and parts of the Southeast. In this part of Georgia, we’re on the edge of their range, and we’re not always lucky enough to see them. Sometimes when we do, there will be several Kites soaring, hunting or roosting together.

Watching Mississippi Kites on a steamy summer afternoon, soaring against a background of towering orange and white cumulous clouds, or swooping low over a field to catch grasshoppers, beetles or cicadas on the wing – beautiful to watch in the air, artistic, buoyant flyers – reminds me that a hot, humid, sticky Georgia summer day can have its good side.

Yellow-throated Vireo and Katydids

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

July began today with an unusually cool, breezy morning, and a Yellow-throated Vireo singing in the woods to the east – a song we’ve seldom heard this season, and I’ve missed it. It was a soft, gentle, rare summer morning in a far from gentle world. The news, national and international, is all bad and seems worse every day. So it felt like a gift to be able to sit here for a few peaceful minutes, enjoying the pure blue sky and fresh green leaves, and listening to the Yellow-throated Vireo, and to the calls of a Hairy Woodpecker and the songs of a Scarlet Tanager, a Towhee and an Acadian Flycatcher. A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird checked out all the bright red geranium blooms, and came and went from the feeder. We haven’t seen a male Hummingbird yet this year. But I think there may be a nest somewhere in one of the pecan trees out front, because I’ve seen the female go there several times.

Last night I heard katydids singing for the first time this year, just after dark, while the night was still warm.