Archive for September, 2008

American Redstart – A Colorful Start to Fall Migration

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

On a warm, cloudy, muggy morning, a lively female American Redstart brought a spark of color to the back deck, fanning her tail and flashing its bright yellow sides as she fluttered around the red blooms of geraniums, competing with two Tufted Titmice. She’s the first migrating warbler I’ve seen this season – though I haven’t been able to be out as often as usual lately, so I’ve almost certainly missed some earlier warblers passing through. Still, she looked like a pretty and promising opening flourish for the fall migration season.

Also this morning, I heard both the song and the calls of a Summer Tanager several times, a Pine Warbler singing as it made its way all around the edges of the woods, and several Carolina Wrens singing different songs back and forth to each other. An Eastern Wood Pewee continues to hunt from trees around the back yard and to give its soft, fall puh-WEE call. Three Brown-headed Nuthatches went from feeders to pine trees and back again, squeaking often. Two Phoebes called tsup, tsup, and a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers, a juvenile Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a pair of Downy Woodpeckers all worked steadily in several recently-dead or dying pines near the edge of our woods.

By afternoon, the sky had cleared, with only high, thin white clouds against the blue. Cicadas, grasshoppers and other insects sang loudly. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, male, female and juveniles, chased each other around the feeder, every now and then managing to actually stop for some nectar. A few Chimney Swifts passed overhead. I heard the scream of a soaring Red-tailed Hawk, and the rattle of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and watched as a female Summer Tanager perched on an oak branch to eat a big fat caterpillar.

Female Summer Tanager Feeding Juvenile

Saturday, September 6th, 2008

This afternoon, in hot, sunny weather, with a soft blue sky, small white clouds and a welcome strong warm breeze, a female Summer Tanager spent an hour or more foraging in the oaks and pines at the edge of the woods in our back yard, and feeding a begging juvenile Summer Tanager. The mother Tanager hunted steadily and fed the juvenile often.

I first saw her as a flash of warm yellow in the branches of a white oak, then she flew into a pine and spent most of her time in the pines. All-over yellow, with olive-drab wings and a long, thick tanager’s bill, she wasn’t particularly striking in appearance, but as I watched her, I admired her skill in hunting. Sometimes she gleaned insects or spiders from leaves – I watched her eat one caterpillar – but most of the time she caught flying insects in the air. Some might have been bees or wasps, which Summer Tanagers particularly like. Certainly there are plenty of all kinds of flying insects around right now!

At one point, she made a swift turn in the air and caught a moth-like flying insect, and took it to a branch, where she shook it against the branch before eating it. Another time, she caught a large-winged insect in mid-air and carried it to a branch, where I could see that it was a praying mantis. She seemed to strip off the wings and to rub the mantis against the branch, and this time the juvenile flew up beside her, quivered its wings, begging, and she fed the mantis to it.

Meanwhile, I heard an unfamiliar call. A kind of a whimpering wee-ooor-whee, low and soft, and after a while discovered that the call was being made by the juvenile Summer Tanager. I could see it quivering its wings among the leaves as it made the call. I watched the female feed the juvenile several times – she was working hard. Most of the time I saw the juvenile only from the back. It appeared light olive-brown, with only a hint of yellow, and sort of mottled in color.

It was a great day to be out. Two Eastern Wood Pewees continue to call their fall puh-wee repeatedly and one often hunts from the branches of pines at the edge of the woods. A pair of Hairy Woodpeckers continue to work steadily on some newly-dead pines just inside the woods. A handsome juvenile Red-bellied Woodpecker, two mature Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and a pair of Downy Woodpeckers also worked on the pines. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are at their most active, visiting the feeder constantly, checking out all the flowers around, and chasing each other all around the yard, zooming, chattering, making little clicking noises when they make contact, and occasionally managing to stop at the feeder for some nectar for a few quiet seconds.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk Calling

Friday, September 5th, 2008

This morning about 10:30, under a partly cloudy sky, a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk flew to a pine branch on the eastern edge of our yard. It sat there for three or four minutes, then flew across the edge of the woods very low and fast, weaving through the trees, and perched on a low branch just inside the woods where it was in full view, facing in my direction, for about five minutes. I could clearly see its fine, slender, compact shape, rich dark brown head and brown back, and dark brown streaks on a white breast. Its eyes were pale yellow, and it showed a large area of snowy-white under the tail. It turned its head often, looking around, and when it did, very faint streaking showed in the back of the neck.

The best part was that several times it called in a rich, mellow, very distinctive voice, sort of eeee-o. The calls were strong and clear, but were not at all screams. They had a smooth, mewing quality, surprisingly full and expressive – very different from the kek-kek-kek kind of calls I’ve heard from Cooper’s Hawks at other times. Each call was separate and given distinctly – not strung together or fast – but they were repeated several times.

The species accounts I found indicate that an eeeee-o call is given by juveniles begging for food. I didn’t see any adults – but one could easily have been somewhere in the woods nearby. The yellow eye is also mentioned in species accounts as typical of a young bird.

For most of the time as I watched it, the tail of the hawk was hidden by leaves, but finally it turned completely around on the branch so that I got a full back view, and could see the long tail, banded in gray and darker gray-brown, tipped in white and only very slightly rounded. Then the hawk leaned over from the branch and flew, staying close to the ground, across a small grassy clearing in a neighbor’s yard and into the woods again and out of sight.

The Cooper’s Hawk is a woodland raptor, roughly the size of a crow though very different in shape and appearance. Its rounded wings and long tail allow it to fly swiftly through trees in pursuit of smaller birds, rodents and other prey. It’s secretive and relatively seldom-seen, so I always feel lucky to see one – and to hear it call was especially impressive.