Archive for November, 2008

Birding on a Segway

Friday, November 28th, 2008

Because back problems have kept me from walking as much as usual for the past several weeks, a friend offered to let me try out a Segway – a battery-powered “self-balancing personal transporter” – and it turned out to be a great new way to go birding. It’s amazingly easy to ride, and so quiet I could hear Yellow-throated Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Brown-headed Nuthatches, House Finches, Bluebirds and other little birds as I glided along. The weather was warm and balmy, with five Black Vultures and several Turkey Vultures soaring in a big, open, soft-blue sky.

You can go along at a pretty brisk pace on the Segway – or slow it down so that you’re barely moving forward, or even come to a complete stop and still stay balanced, though I’m not yet confident enough to use my binoculars quickly or easily without getting off. I should mention, also, that I didn’t have a helmet and was riding in a pretty safe area with little traffic – but it’s certainly better to wear one.

Along the Old Field just outside our subdivision, I stepped off the Segway and walked for a while. White-throated Sparrows called from the tangle of dead weeds in the field, and one or two whistled a broken fragment of song. Two Red-tailed Hawks circled very low overhead, slowly making their way higher. One was a juvenile, with a finely-barred tail and a dark-streaked band across the breast. The other was mature, with a red-orange tail that glowed when it turned and caught the sunlight. Just watching the two of them gradually circle and climb, lit from above and suffused in a clear, almost golden light, was enough to make the day.

Back on the Segway and headed back home, I passed a flock of at least 100 Red-winged Blackbirds perched in the limbs of trees in several yards, and stopped to look for Rusty Blackbirds among them, but found only a few Common Grackles. I’m hoping the flock of Rusties we saw regularly the last couple of years will return again this season.

Several Bluebirds and Chipping Sparrows flew up from the grass in one yard as I glided quietly past, and I heard the calls of a Pileated Woodpecker, a Northern Flicker, Golden-crowned Kinglets and a few Robins. All in all, there was nothing remarkable to report, but the Segway gave me the welcome freedom to go a good bit further than usual lately, especially up and down the steep hills I’m not supposed to walk right now. And it was lots of fun!

This Segway model wasn’t meant for off-road use, so I had to stick to the roads, but there are models designed for trails and uneven terrain that are even better for birding. Bill Thompson has a good posting on his Bill of the Birds blog that describes using a Segway for birding through the woods and fields of a farm in southeastern Ohio and includes several photos.

A Pileated Woodpecker on Thanksgiving Day

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

The dead pines clustered in one section of the woods behind our house continue to attract woodpeckers, including Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied – and early this afternoon a Pileated Woodpecker that spent more than an hour working on one trunk after another. I heard its traveling call as it moved through the trees down near the creek, and about 15 minutes later, heard the sound of loud whacks nearby, and found it about three-quarters of the way up the trunk of one of the larger dead trees. It was a male, with a full red crest and thin red moustache stripe punctuating the white and black stripes on its face.

He worked hard and steadily, turning his head on the snake-like neck to chop at the bark sideways, and using his bill to flick off huge slabs that went flying. Then he struck the bared bark more directly and occasionally seemed to find something to eat. I couldn’t see well enough to see the barbed tongue coming out to lick up the ants or grubs he was probably finding. He made his way up the trunk, staying longer in some spots than in others, and leaving rectangular patches stripped of bark behind him. As he hitched his way up, his big gray claws made scratching sounds. He stayed remarkably focused on the task, not often looking around, but turning his head to flip off chunks of bark and then pounding straight into the cleared spots.

It was a clear, colorful day, warm in the sunshine, cool in the shade, with a soft blue sky and faint breezes. Brown-headed Nuthatches, Chickadees and Titmice carried on a lively chatter in the green pines and hardwoods, and Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted from place to place. Two or three Carolina Wrens sang and fussed somewhere nearby, and one Ruby-crowned Kinglet made its dry, staccato call as it moved through a dogwood and the dry, red-brown leaves of an oak.

After several minutes, the Pileated Woodpecker hopped to another dead pine close by, spreading its wings enough to show dramatic flashes of white. From there, he moved to another tree fairly soon, then to another and another, each time trying out several spots on the trunk, fiercely clearing off patches of bark, but apparently not finding much of interest, and moving on. Finally, he found a spot about midway up another tree that seemed to his liking, and stayed there working for a good while. In this tree, he was often in perfect profile against the blue sky, showing off the broad black back and tail, the large head and powerful bill, the long ribbon of white on the black neck, and the pure, clear scarlet of his crest.

Pileated Woodpeckers are considerably less common here than they were only a few years ago, so I’m particularly happy when I get the chance to watch one for a while like this. This one was still working in the dead pines when I finally had to go back inside – one thing among many to be thankful for on a beautiful, peaceful Thanksgiving Day.

Sharp-shinned Hawk at Sundown

Saturday, November 22nd, 2008

The sun was just above the western horizon when we went out for a short walk late this afternoon. It was cold and clear, with not a cloud in the fading blue sky, only the short marks of several jet trails lit by the sun. Most birds were quiet, except for the sibilant calls of White-throated Sparrows. One Phoebe perched in the top of an oak, and two Mourning Doves huddled on lower limbs of smaller trees. A large, loose flock of Robins flew over us heading southwest, and a smaller flock of Blackbirds flew over toward the south.

Toward the end of our walk, a small hawk appeared from behind a line of trees to the north and flew over us, disappearing into the woods beyond our house – a Sharp-shinned Hawk. I hadn’t taken my binoculars with me – it never fails! – but the hawk was low enough to see well, and its compact shape and crisp way of flying were so distinctive that it was unmistakable. We could clearly see the long tail with its pattern of bars, and the neat square tip. It flapped several quick times as it came over the trees, glided over us with wings outspread, then flapped again and glided as it disappeared from view.

A Good Year for Golden-crowned Kinglets

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Late this morning, two Golden-crowned Kinglets foraged in the pines and oaks around our house, close enough for me to watch them for several minutes. Tiny birds with a round shape and faces vividly striped in black and white, and a yellow-gold crown on the top of the head, they look like little animated ornaments moving through the trees – and make high-pitched, wintery music with their ti-ti-ti calls and chatter.

Because they’re so small and move so quickly and constantly – and because there are years when we don’t see many of them at all – I think of them as somewhat elusive. They breed in forests of spruce and other conifers in more northern parts of North America, and migrate here for the winter, when sometimes we see a good many of them, and other years few. This seems to be a good year for them here, and I’m discovering that they’re not at all shy.

These two moved over the branches, quickly picking up something like tiny insects or spiders from clusters of pine needles or dry brown and green leaves still on the oaks, turning sideways and upside down, and once or twice darting up to capture an insect in the air. The day was fairly warm – sunny, breezy and in the lower 60s – but we’ve had several freezing nights this week, and most of the foliage, except for the pines and other evergreens, is withered and faded. So the Kinglets bring a welcome splash of color.

Late this afternoon I was standing on the front porch when I heard them in the dry, speckled leaves of a water oak overhead. Then I noticed one making its way through the branches of a Savannah holly not more than five feet away from me. It hopped all the way out to the very end of a branch near me and paused there, as if checking me out, turning its head sharply back and forth, then it flitted down and joined a Titmouse and a Chickadee on the rim of a birdbath, which both seemed as surprised as I was to see it.

Even though the Kinglet only paused there for one or two seconds at most, the three birds together made a priceless picture – both the Titmouse and Chickadee, looking huge next to the Kinglet, turned to look at it as if to say, “What do you think you’re doing here?” And though neither of them made a move toward the smaller bird, the Kinglet quickly seemed to think better of it and flew back up to a branch of the oak.

Cedar Waxwings, Kinglets and a Cooper’s Hawk

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

On a wet gray day that looked like a watercolor painting, with the browns, reds and yellows of the foliage blurring in a light rain that continued to fall through the morning, birds around here were very active. Highlights included an abundance of Yellow-rumped Warblers, our first-of-the-season Cedar Waxwings, two Ruby-crowned Kinglets, one with its red crest dramatically fluffed up, two Golden-crowned Kinglets feeding in the low branches of a thicket, at least three dozen Chipping Sparrows, and a solitary, low-flying Cooper’s Hawk.

When I first stepped outside this morning, it almost seemed to be raining Yellow-rumped Warblers, because the small, gray-streaked birds with yellow rumps were everywhere – in the wax myrtles, hollies, oaks, and all the trees and shrubs around the yard. Thick layers of wet brown leaves covered the grass and walkways and spattered the roof and shrubs, making everything look speckled and fragmented, as if the world itself were breaking up into pieces. Raindrops tapped on the leaves still on the trees, and Yellow-rumped Warblers shivered them here and there.

A Phoebe hunted from the bare branches of river birches. Four or five different Carolina Wrens sang, burbled, fussed, and trilled. White-throated Sparrows called tseet! A bright red Cardinal stood out like a Christmas ornament on the dull green of a hedge. A streaked Brown Thrasher made its way toward the top branches of a wax myrtle but stopped while it was still well-screened.

Two Ruby-crowned Kinglets moved, one after the other, through the water oak branches that hang over our front porch, coming very close to where I was standing as they picked insects from the undersides of leaves. A small patch of red was visible on both of their crowns, and as I watched, they began to chatter aggressively, and one of them fluffed up its crest into an agitated spray of ruby-red.

By mid-afternoon, the rain had passed, but the sky remained gray and featureless. As I walked a short way down the street, Chipping Sparrows flew up from the grass like sparks from a fire, shooting off in several different directions and flashing silvery gray, landing in the branches of small trees and bushes. A close-up view of one sitting on the branch of a pine showed a placid-looking sparrow of vivid brown, gray and white coloring – brown-streaked back and bright cinnamon crown – that sat calmly gazing around, showing nothing of the nervous pizzazz of the group’s scattering flight whenever they’re startled up from the ground.

In a spot where there’s a thicket of young trees, grasses and shrubs on one side of the road and a yard on the other, a collection of small birds perched together in the bare limbs of a pecan tree – five Bluebirds, a Downy Woodpecker, two Brown-headed Nuthatches, three Chipping Sparrows, a Phoebe and a pair of House Finches.

While I was looking at this gathering, I heard the calls of Cedar Waxwings – very high, needle-thin whistles of several birds. At first I couldn’t find them, and walked on down the street, but a few minutes later, on my way back, I heard them again and this time they flew overhead – a flock of about 30 Waxwings flying in tight formation together, turning abruptly in one direction and then another, as if constantly changing their minds, then just as abruptly showering down like falling leaves into the top of a water oak where they stayed for several minutes before flying again.

Meanwhile, two Golden-crowned Kinglets foraged in the thickets, both of them coming out fully into the open in a scrawny bare tree for a few seconds. Little gray birds with bright-white wing bars and short tails, they moved so quickly they weren’t easy to see well even though they were very close, turning sideways and upside down, darting from spot to spot and making quick stabs at insects on leaves. White and black stripes bordered their yellow crowns, with a thin, crisp black streak through the eye, and they carried on a string of high-pitched chattering, only once or twice giving a clear, familiar ti-ti-ti call.

Just as I turned around to walk back toward our house, a large bird flew toward me almost at eye level, in the gray light showing only a blurry dark gray coloring and a slender shape, but with shoulders and wings that looked surprisingly muscular – a Cooper’s Hawk. It rose up enough to fly over me and across a yard, and disappeared into the trees beyond with a flash of what appears to be a white rump, which Cooper’s Hawks often show, though none of my field guides note this and it’s hard to find references to it. It was here and gone too quickly to see any details, and the main impression that remained with me was of how strong and sturdy it looked at close range.

The Cedar Waxwings had broken up into two or three smaller groups and flew from tree to tree, not settling anywhere for long, until finally, as I came to the edge of our yard, several of them settled in one of our flame-colored red maples, still dense with leaves. Here I was able to get a very good, close-up look and be reminded of their satiny gray-brown backs, and the thin white line around the black mask over the eyes – and the glossy tip of the tail that looks as if it’s been dipped in yellow wax. Within a minute or two, they tucked themselves deep into the foliage of the maples and disappeared – after that, I would never have known they were there.

Hawks and Vultures on a Windy Day

Sunday, November 9th, 2008

Late this morning – another beautiful, sunny, colorful fall day – a Red-tailed Hawk, a Black Vulture and a Turkey Vulture all soared high in a big, deep-blue sky with not a cloud in sight. Both Vultures flew fast, in a way that looked sweeping, sailing and exuberant, as if they loved the speed of the wind, like daredevil skiers. The Black Vulture, its white wing-tips flashing when they caught the sun, and its wings held out flat and steady, flew higher and more aggressively, and soon was little more than a speck in the blue. The Turkey Vulture tilted crazily and flew in wide circles, sliding down the wind in a way that almost looked out of control at times, though I’m sure it was not. The Hawk flew more deliberately, looking more powerful and more in control – a master of the wind, rather than abandoning itself to the wind so freely as the Vultures seem to do.

At one point as I watched, the Red-tailed Hawk circled around and turned into the wind and hung in the air, almost motionless, as if suspended, moving only its wings and tail slightly. Then it turned and sailed away downwind. In a minute or two, it reappeared and did this again, hanging suspended almost directly above me for several seconds. It was impressive to watch, and I almost could not believe the way it seemed to hold itself so still in the sky. Later, I found this passage in Hawks in Flight (1988), by Pete Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton: “Only the Red-tailed and Ferruginous hawks are capable of kiting – holding themselves immobile into the wind on set wings like a kite tugging against a string. Any bird that loses its forward momentum and holds fast over a spot east of Missouri may with virtual certainty be identified as a Red-tailed Hawk.”

Falling Leaves and a Yellow-rumped Warbler – First of the Season

Friday, November 7th, 2008

This afternoon, under a warm, sunny blue sky with small white clouds, showers of leaves blew down and swirled around in the wind, making the day look and feel even more like Fall. Many were coming from pecan trees and water oaks, and our three river birches are now completely bare – just today they suddenly let go of all the rest of their leaves. Our two sturdy young red maples, though, which always turn later than the other maples on our street, are still thick with dark green leaves fast turning rose-red.

Around 3:00, I took a break from work and looked out through a window to the front yard and there, only inches away, perched in the branches of a Savannah holly, was a Yellow-rumped Warbler. It was the first one I’ve seen this season, a rather drab, grayish, sort of streaked little bird with pale yellow under its wings and a bright yellow rump. If this year is like others, we’ll soon be seeing many of them just about everywhere around the yard and throughout the neighborhood, and their dry check! calls will be a familiar and welcome sound again.

Sunrise Songs – White-throated Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Phoebe and Carolina Wren

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

The sunny song of a Carolina Wren just outside our window woke me this morning when the day was barely light, and by 6:45 I was standing on the front porch watching as the trees across the road and up and down the street began to glow orange and gold and red. The foliage here is just about at the peak of fall color, with a chaotic mixture of green, brown, scarlet, rose, wine, coral, copper and yellow and more, speckled and splotched and somehow all blending together into an overall impression of mellow orange.

The sky was perfectly clear gray-blue, the air crisp and cool, and the noise of morning trucks and cars on Highway 441 more than a mile away was very loud, much louder than usual, but for some reason it didn’t seem to spoil the peaceful early morning feeling around the yard and the woods.

A Carolina Wren sang again from the edge of the woods, and White-throated Sparrows called tseet from shrubs and bushes. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered as it traveled through the low branches. Cardinals peeped. Then I was surprised to hear the exuberant song of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a quick, high cascade of whistled notes – I’m not sure I’ve ever heard one sing at this time of year before, though maybe it’s not uncommon. It’s a familiar song we often hear in the spring before they leave for the summer.

Bluebirds called from somewhere down the street, Crows cawed as they flew over, Robins also flew over in small groups and two or three squeaked in the trees nearby. Two Mockingbirds screeched out their harsh morning calls, Goldfinches called potato-chip, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed. Then a White-throated Sparrow sang – the most beautiful song of the morning, sweet and plaintive, and so nice to hear again after it’s been gone for several months, a reminder that fall and even winter months don’t necessarily mean the absence of birdsong here.

Two Phoebes called tsup, and another Carolina Wren sang chura-REEEchender-REEEchender-REEchendre-churrrr, one of a wide variety of songs, calls and fussing sounds the wrens liven up the days with.

Three Bluebirds flew over, making soft burbling calls and glowing rose in the sunlight. I think the sun was surely up by now, though I couldn’t see it through the trees, and could only see a flood of red-orange along the eastern horizon. I heard the rattle of a distant Red-bellied Woodpecker, two Phoebes singing back and forth, two more White-throated Sparrows singing, and a Towhee calling To-whee from way down the street.

Chickadees and Titmice arrived in the trees around the feeders around 7:15, fussing and chattering, and two Mourning Doves flew in a nervous flutter to the ground below the feeders. Then I heard the high ti-ti-ti calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the leaves of the water oaks overhead, and the cry of a Red-shouldered Hawk in the east, out of sight beyond the line of trees, just before I went inside for breakfast.