Archive for August, 2008

The Old Field in Late Summer – Blue Grosbeak Still Singing

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

The song of a Blue Grosbeak, the mews of Gray Catbirds, and a Black Vulture sunning itself on a pole were highlights from a rather quiet late morning walk. It was cloudy, warm and humid, with very little bird activity. The Blue Grosbeak sang from a scraggly pecan tree on the edge of a vacant lot, across the road from the Old Field.

Big white and purple morning glories spill across the weeds in a roadside ditch now, and vines of tiny, deep red-orange morning glories twist through the ditch and up into thickets of ragweed, blackberries, kudzu, privet, poke weed, dead thistles, and grasses. Sleepy Orange and Cloudless Sulphur butterflies fly in and out of the weeds, purple stiff verbena blooms along the roadside, along with a few ragged dandelions, and there’s the too-sweet, grape-like scent of kudzu blooms in the air.

Mourning Doves and Mockingbirds sat on the wires this morning, the Mockingbirds quietly chasing each other in and out of the shrubs. Two Gray Catbirds mewed, but stayed hidden. Brown Thrashers called harsh thwacks. Chimney Swifts swooped overhead. Two Black Vultures perched on separate poles, one spreading its wings out and turning in the direction of the cloud-covered sun.

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Monday, August 25th, 2008

This morning began cloudy and warm, and with the song of an Eastern Wood-Pewee. I was sitting at the breakfast table, and when I heard it, went out onto the deck. It was in the branches of the big White Oak beside the deck, and I couldn’t see it, but it continued to sing. It sang its “fall song,” of just the puh-weee part, over and over, but once it added a sweet, descending wheee-oo.

This is the first time I’ve heard its song in several weeks. Although Eastern Wood-Pewees used to sing throughout the summer in our neighborhood, sitting in the branches of pecan trees over shady yards, their lazy, summery whistles are now uncommon, and I think this one is probably stopping by here as it begins to travel south for the winter. For the past year or two, we have had an Eastern Wood-Pewee visitor each spring and each fall, and usually they stay for a few days. So – I’m happy to hear its song.

An Osprey Flying Over

Saturday, August 23rd, 2008

This morning as I walked in light, showery rain, an Osprey sailed over me flying east to west, banking just long enough for me to see the pale body, dark markings on the long, slender wings, and the dark mask across the down-turned head. It seemed like an apparition in the gray, blurry light, especially because very few other birds were out, and the day was defined mostly by cool wind and dark clouds.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Red-eyed Vireo and a Hummingbird Moth

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

We came home to hot, sunny, humid weather early this week, but thanks to tropical storm Fay, now moving west across north Florida and already influencing our weather, today is cloudy, windy and a little cooler. Birds seem very quiet around the yard and in the neighborhood, though I still heard the calls of an Acadian Flycatcher in the woods on Tuesday. The Bluebird house is empty. Inside it, I found only the nest and one perfect aqua-blue egg that had never hatched. I’ve seen no sign of juveniles or parent Bluebirds since we returned, but hope maybe to see them soon. It’s amazing how much happens in one week. How much things can change, though I’ve been busy and haven’t yet had time to find out much about what’s different, or what’s happening now. Cicadas and grasshoppers still sing vigorously during the day, and it was especially nice to come back to the songs of Katydids at night – our consolation for the warm, humid southern summer nights.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are busy around the feeder, and all around the yard, chasing each other and checking out anything red or pink or orange. Earlier in the week when it was sunny, the butterfly bush out back and the yellow lantana around the mailbox were both full of butterflies – Tiger Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple, Gulf Fritillary, Cloudless Sulphur, Fiery Skipper, and two lovely, lacy American Painted Ladies. Late Monday afternoon, a Hummingbird Moth was feeding in the lantana – a fascinating, rather plump-bodied moth with a broad, brushy tail and clear, reddish wings that whirr as it visits the flowers, so that it looks almost more like a tiny bird than a moth, and even makes a whirring sound similar to a hummingbird. This is the first one we’ve noticed here in a couple of years. They feed on flowers during the daytime and in twilight.

On a late morning walk, I watched the sky for Kites, but saw no soaring birds at all, except for one Turkey Vulture and one Black Vulture, and heard almost no birds except for Blue Jays and Goldfinches. But at one spot where there’s a thicket of pines, oaks, privet and vines across the road from the edge of a woodland that leads down to a creek, several Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were calling and flitting here and there among the leaves, flashing their long, silvery, white-edged tails, and one Red-eyed Vireo was calling its complaining Nyanh! from somewhere hidden among the foliage. I stopped for several minutes to watch, as Chimney Swifts chattered and swept overhead, and two Carolina Wrens sang nearby.

Barred Owl on Deck

Monday, August 18th, 2008

While we were out of town, our four-year-old granddaughter, Tallulah, spotted a Barred Owl sitting on the rail of our back deck early Saturday evening. Her father, Darby, took this picture through the window screen. The Owl flew before he could get a photo from outside – but they saw it well enough to identify. It stayed nearby in trees on the edge of the woods for the rest of Saturday evening, where Darby, Tallulah and our daughter-in-law, Jenny, saw it in two or three different spots.

I’ve been watching for it ever since we got back. So far it hasn’t come back to the deck or the nearby trees, and we haven’t heard it calling. But I’m still hoping. And I’m proud of Tallulah’s sharp eyes and interest in birds! She was the one who saw it first, and she knew immediately it was an owl.

Indian Pipes

Monday, August 18th, 2008

The ghostly-white and pale pink stems pushed up through dark, damp soil and leaf litter on the roadside, among weeds, mushrooms, and the roots of trees. Waxy-white, tulip-shaped flowers on the top of each translucent stem bent over like bowed heads as they emerged from the dirt then, as they matured, straightened up and eventually opened their petals to reveal pink fruits in the center, shaped like tiny amphorae.

At first we thought these strange-looking formations were fungi, but then learned they were Indian Pipes – saprophytic flowering plants that contain no chlorophyll and get their nourishment through a fungal relationship associated with the roots of other plants, especially trees. They’re also sometimes known as Ghost Flowers or Corpse Plants.

We found several different clusters of Indian Pipes along the road that circles around Dublin Lake in New Hampshire. Some were just beginning to push their nodding, ghostly heads up through the soil; others were standing on taller stems, with flowers still drooping over. One cluster – shown in these photos – stood about 10 inches tall, with the flowers erect, and white or pale-pink petals open to reveal the pink fruits.

August in New Hampshire – Common Loons on Dublin Lake and a Baltimore Oriole

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

During a week visiting some of our family in Dublin, New Hampshire, on the slopes of Mount Monadnock, another highlight for me was seeing two Common Loons on Dublin Lake – a small, picturesque lake surrounded by trees. Although we see Common Loons here in Georgia during the winter months or in migration, especially along the coast, it was a different experience to watch them in their summer home and nesting territory, and in such a characteristic setting. Also, I was able to watch them longer and at closer range, coming to know them much better.

Despite their name, they are far from common. Although worldwide their populations are considered secure, they are listed as a threatened species in New Hampshire, and as endangered in Vermont, and concern about declining populations in some areas has led to extensive efforts to protect their habitat. Maybe because of their association with clear, northern lakes surrounded by forest, and because of their melancholy, yodeling call, Common Loons have a certain mystique and are often seen as a symbol of wild places – that’s how I think of them.

With their black heads, white breasts, black and white checkered backs, and distinctive silhouettes, riding low in the water with long, pointed black bills turned upward, they often appeared alone, and looked as if they had the lake almost to themselves. We saw them – usually one at a time – several times, and always they appeared unexpectedly – suddenly there, where a moment before there was nothing but the glassy, empty surface of the lake. One would float for a moment or two, or maybe flap its wings and rise part-way out of the water, then it would dive and disappear again, sometimes for so long we gave up waiting for it and walked on.

I had hoped also to hear the Loons’ yodeling call, but even though we went to the lake several times to listen, including early in the morning and shortly after sundown, we never heard them – though we did meet two fishermen who said they had been calling about an hour before we arrived one evening so I guess we just missed it. Still – it was fun to watch them here.

We also saw several Common Mergansers and one Great Blue Heron on Dublin Lake, and at least two Common Ravens. It’s a pretty quiet time of year, but many Red-eyed Vireos still were singing, and I also heard or saw several White-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, two Hairy Woodpeckers, one Eastern Wood Pewee, Gray Catbirds, Goldfinches, one Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and an amazing number of Cedar Waxwings – they seemed to be almost everywhere.

The most colorful sighting of the trip was a brilliant orange and black Baltimore Oriole, high in a tall oak tree with at least four Red-eyed Vireos. The Oriole stood out brilliantly among the green leaves, like an early splash of fall color – and best of all, it was singing. It was the first time I’d ever heard a Baltimore Oriole’s clear, mellow, whistled song.

Hermit Thrushes at Twilight

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

We arrived at twilight, visiting a home on the road between Dublin, New Hampshire, and Jaffrey, on the western side of Mount Monadnock. The path to the back door passed along a small clearing surrounded by the tall hardwood trees of a forest that rolled in gentle, blue-green hills as far as I could see, to the sloping sides of the mountain in the distance. Even under a cloudy sky, the view was lovely, but it wasn’t the view that stopped me and held me spellbound for several minutes.

It was the ethereal, fluted songs of Hermit Thrushes, coming from the woods all around and from the waves of forest ahead, several in every direction, as far as I could hear. The forest and the hills rippled with their songs, like dozens of candles lit and flickering in the last light of day. They sang on either side of me, and further out, and further, like echoes, but not echoes, and I stood for many minutes, surrounded in pure, clear music, and feeling as if I had stepped into a dream.

I have always wanted to hear the song of a Hermit Thrush, but had never heard one until now. I could never have imagined how enchanting it could be to hear so many singing at once, and in such a peaceful, quiet setting.

Two Wood Thrushes also were singing, and at first, I thought that’s what I was hearing all around, because their lyrical eee-oh-lay songs are familiar to me. But as I listened, I knew there was something about many of the songs that was different, and guessed that the singers might be Hermit Thrushes. I hadn’t listened to a recording of a Hermit in a long time, so I wasn’t prepared, and I have to admit that I probably will never know for sure, though as well as I can tell and as well as I can remember, what I heard were the twilight songs of Hermit Thrushes.

Listening to recordings later didn’t help much. I listened to several different recordings of Hermit Thrushes, over and over again, but not one of them captured the quality of the songs I had heard. Poets and nature writers have described it, however, much better than my words do. And then I was amazed to find this account in Donald Kroodsma’s The Singing Life of Birds, of a very similar experience in almost the same location:

“Perhaps John Burroughs said it best: ‘Mounting toward the upland again, I pause reverently as the hush and stillness of twilight come upon the woods. It is the sweetest, ripest hour of the day. And as the hermit’s evening hymn goes up from the deep solitude below me, I experience that serene exaltation of sentiment of which music, literature, and religion are but faint types and symbols.’

“It was as if Burroughs had been with us on that late July evening in 1997. . . . Late that afternoon we had climbed Monadnock Mountain in southern New Hampsphire. We then descended the western flank, where we would linger on a rock ledge to prepare our dinner. What we planned was a feast: a gourmet meal shared with each other at sunset, seasoned with hermit thrush songs. In the hush of that July evening, when other birds had stopped singing for the year, first one hermit sang, then another, and another, until the entire mountainside flamed with the glow of the sun and the hermits’ songs.”
(Donald Kroodsma, The Singing Life of Birds, page 255)

Mississippi Kites

Thursday, August 7th, 2008

At least three Mississippi Kites were soaring over our neighborhood this morning between about 10:25 and 10:45. This is about the same time I’ve seen them pass over on previous days. I’m fairly sure there were six Mississippi Kites and possibly more, but I never saw more than three at one time. Two of these were males, with white heads clearly showing, and one appeared to be a female.

All were moving in a general northeast to southwest direction, just as they have on previous days. When I first saw them this morning, they were in the distance and very high, in or near a loose spiral of a dozen or more birds circling up. They were not all Kites. Three or more were Black Vultures and some were too high to identify. But as I watched, the Kites kept circling and drifting closer and dropping a little lower. Some of them were doing some pretty impressive acrobatics now and then, diving, swerving, catching insects and flashing white as they turned sharply.

Swallow-tailed Kite and Mississippi Kites – Again!

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

While I was sitting on the front porch this morning around 9:30, watching the Bluebirds make trips in and out of their house and two Phoebes hunting from low branches in the pecans, two Mississippi Kites appeared above the tops of the trees directly to the north. They did not stay in view long, though it was long enough to see them clearly before they disappeared beyond the trees.

About an hour later I decided to walk down the street, just in case I could see more Kites. It was very hot and humid, but chances to see these remarkable raptors don’t come along very often, so I thought it was worth a try. At first the hazy, bleached-blue sky looked absolutely empty. Not a vulture, not a crow, nothing. Then – as if it had materialized out of nowhere – there it was. A Mississippi Kite.

Its slender shape and elegant flight were immediately recognizable. It was fairly high, over the trees to the northeast, and it was joined in just a few minutes by a second Mississippi Kite. Both were males. I could see their white heads and white secondaries catch the sunlight, and was impressed again with how thin and flat their wings are held, seen from behind, and how gracefully they fly. They remained fairly high all the time, making large circles, and I only saw them swerve for an insect a couple of times. They stayed in view for a few minutes, then drifted away back to the northeast – not moving toward the southwest as they have at other times.

I heard the scream of a Red-tailed Hawk and turned around to find it high above me, an immature, screaming repeatedly and looking handsome and strong, with a dark brown band of streaks across its breast, a dark brown head, and clean, crisp patterns in its wings that are hard to describe. It gradually climbed higher and higher until it was barely an eyelash in the sky.

As I turned to walk back toward home, two Black Vultures were soaring low over the road and beginning to rise higher. As I watched them, I saw another Kite way above them – and this one was a Swallow-tailed Kite. Wow! That’s all I could say, over and over. It was very high, and I’m not sure I would have seen it if I had not been watching the Vultures. But once seen, it was unmistakable – dramatic black and white wings, long swallow-tail, and white flashing in the sun. It stayed very high, circling around for approximately five minutes, drifting from northeast to southwest. I watched it until it grew too small to see at all, and disappeared.