Archive for December, 2008

Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

Today was another gray, cloudy, drizzly day, and I didn’t have much time to be outside, but just by chance saw four hawks in the neighborhood – two Red-tailed Hawks, one Red-shouldered, and one Cooper’s Hawk.

The Red-tailed Hawks were in the woods behind our house, which seems a little unusual, but I’ve seen them like this several times in the past few weeks, low among the trees, rather than perched in the open or soaring. This morning, I first saw one when I stepped out onto the back deck around nine o’clock. It came flying through the trees not far away and settled on the branch of an oak about midway up, a big, hulking, shadowy shape that was impossible to miss when moving, but blended into the misty gray and white background as soon as it was still. In only a minute or two a second Red-tailed Hawk flew across the edge of the woods in the open, showing its dull red tail. The first one took flight, too, and both of them flew around the side of the house and out of sight, with a couple of Crows in pursuit.

A little later in the morning, as we were in the car on our way out, we passed a slim gray Cooper’s Hawk perched in the big red oak at the corner of our cul de sac, in the same vicinity where we’ve often seen it recently.

And then as we drove on, in a stretch of road lined with pecan and cedar trees, a Red-shouldered Hawk suddenly flew low across the road in front of the car, flashing its rufous breast, banded tail and the black and white patterns on its wings – so much more vividly colored than the rather pale and dull-colored Red-tails, though they’re equally handsome and impressive in different ways.

Cedar Waxwings and Persimmons

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

On a gray, foggy, damp, dreary morning, a flock of Cedar Waxwings filled the branches of an old persimmon tree near the road. There were at least two or three dozen Waxwings, coming and going from other trees nearby and perched in the branches eating the fruit. Along with their high, thin calls, there was the sound of soft thuds as persimmon fruits fell from the tree onto the grass. The Waxwings ate by tearing bites from the fruit, and many of the fruits fell as they did, but I didn’t see any birds eating on the ground. There seemed to be plenty of other fruits still clinging to the tree. The Cedar Waxwings were so absorbed in eating, I stood almost right under them for several minutes, watching, and admiring the satin-brown breasts, crested heads, black masks outlined in white, wax-yellow tip of their gray tails, and the white markings on their folded wings in back.

The bleak weather made the day and the surroundings feel muted or muffled, and not even the bright, cheery song of a Carolina Wren was enough to dispel the mood. When I first stepped outside, the world seemed quiet and almost empty of life, with the bare limbs of hardwoods and the skeletons of dead pines forming the background all around, drenched brown leaves thick on the ground, broken branches fallen here and there, and the shrubs a drooping, drab gray-green.

Gradually, sounds and movement emerged here and there. Several Chickadees and Titmice arrived to chatter around the feeders in the front yard, and I heard the calls of White-throated Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Eastern Phoebe, and Red-bellied Woodpecker, and the repeated, sharp calls and tapping of a Hairy Woodpecker working in the dead pines on the edge of the woods out back.

In the thickets at the corner of two streets in our neighborhood, a Downy Woodpecker and a few Chipping Sparrows and Juncos foraged, and Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted in and out of the two tall Leyland Cypress trees there. A Northern Flicker called a loud Kleer! Crows passed over in groups of four or five or six. A Yellow-breasted Sapsucker mewed somewhere way in the distance.

The best surprise of the day was a Pine Warbler singing in the bleak gray woods across the street from our house.

Gray Shadow of a Bird – A Cooper’s Hawk

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Today was another cloudy, gray day – damp, barely cool, and generally gloomy. Around mid-morning, several small birds foraged in the front yard around the feeders and bushes, the usual suspects – White-throated Sparrows, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Titmice, Chickadees, and four Carolina Wrens singing nearby in the woods. One Eastern Towhee foraged in the mulch under the wax myrtles, and I was unreasonably happy to see it – bright black, white and rust-red in the shadow of the shrubs – because, as common as they used to be, we haven’t had Towhees around much at all recently, and I’ve missed them.

Much later this afternoon – still gray and cloudy, not long before sundown – few birds were active when I went out for a short walk, except for small flocks of Cedar Waxwings perched in bare branches, or calling as they flew over. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed from somewhere in the woods, and a lone Yellow-rumped Warbler called chek! as it flew from tree to tree.

But not far down the street, a Cooper’s Hawk perched silently in the bare limbs of a pecan tree, facing directly toward me in perfect view, showing its soft, red-barred breast and the gray of its dark head, which turned from side to side, and the long, rounded tail with rather wide bands of dark and light gray. From the front view, its shoulders formed smooth gray rounds against the reddish-orange breast.

After four or five minutes, it spread its wings and flew downward, gliding with wings outspread very low over the pale brown grass of two yards, its smoke-gray back and wings like the shadow of a bird – then it swooped up and into the dark-green depths of a tall, dense magnolia tree. This is the same tree where I’ve seen a Cooper’s Hawk disappear about this time of day and this time of year in

Red-shouldered Hawk and Downy Woodpecker

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

Late yesterday afternoon, under gray skies layered with rumpled clouds, I saw a large, indistinct shape near the top of a bare-limbed pecan tree several yards away from where I was walking. Through binoculars, a vividly colored Red-shouldered Hawk came into view, its breast a blur of sunset-red, its wings ink-black and patterned with white, looking especially bright against the murky background of milky-gray sky and tangled limbs. It sat still, not moving much, just turning its head now and then, but sort of hunched down or its shoulders drawn up, so that it looked more round in shape than usual.

In the same bare tree, apparently no more than a couple of feet away from the hawk – though the distance was hard to judge – was one small Downy Woodpecker that called pink! repeatedly, and hopped up and down and from place to place in the limbs and branches around the hawk in a somewhat aimless fashion. It pecked at a branch now and then, but not with any real focus, not as if it were foraging seriously, and mostly just kept moving around, often pausing and standing with its head held sharply up – and all the time staying very close to the hawk, which seemed to ignore it.

The little woodpecker – looking insect-like beside the big sturdy hawk – did not dive at the hawk or harass it, though sometimes it came closer to it, and sometimes further away, turning its back. It continued to call constantly and sharply, in what seemed to be an agitated way – but it did not fly away or try to hide.

A small flock of Cedar Waxwings flew over, making high, thin, sharp calls. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered somewhere in a row of cedars. A White-throated Sparrow sang. Several loose-knit groups of blackbirds streamed across the sky behind the hawk, heading southeast, as they always do at this time of day.

After ten minutes or more of watching, I had taken my binoculars down for a moment to rest, when I saw the hawk lean over and stretch out, and I put them back up just as it spread its wings and flew. It came toward me and over, with its legs hanging down, and something held in its talons. It flew through the cedars beyond me and into the low, bare limbs of another tree where it perched again, but where I could no longer see it well.

I don’t know if it’s likely, but I wondered if maybe the Red-shouldered Hawk had caught another Downy Woodpecker and been holding it all this time. Could the one that stayed beside it in the tree have been a mate, distressed? This is purely speculation on my part. There may have been another, entirely different explanation for the scene. Red-shouldered Hawks are known to take some small birds, but small mammals like chipmunks are more commonly their prey, while Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks are known to be predators of Downies. But Red-shouldered Hawks are woodland raptors, known for their ability to maneuver with amazing skill through the trees, and we have lots of Downy Woodpeckers in this wooded neighborhood, so it doesn’t seem too farfetched. I’ll never know for sure. But it was interesting.

Brewer’s Blackbirds?

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Sunday afternoon a flock of a thousand or more Blackbirds moved through our neighborhood, including many Red-winged Blackbirds, Rusty Blackbirds, Common Grackles – and maybe Brewer’s Blackbirds. These were a brilliant iridescent green that stood out among all the other birds. Their heads showed a sheen of purple, and they had pale yellow eyes and rather long tails. Also, there were drab, grayish individuals with dark eyes that looked like Brewer’s females.

It was a beautiful day – cold, clear, with an intensely blue sky and brisk wind. I heard the Blackbird gathering as I was walking, and at first they were in trees in an area where I couldn’t see them well, but as I headed back toward home, they began flying over me in waves, settling on grassy yards and in trees, then flying up again with a hollow whoosh of wings each time as I got too close. There were so many that it was exhilarating just to stand as they flew over, settled, and flew again – hundreds of birds in restless motion all around me, calling in several different raspy, creaking voices.

Once, as three or four dozen Red-winged Blackbirds flew up suddenly together, their red wing-patches all flashed in synchrony – a stunning sight.

In one area where many Blackbirds had settled on pale tan grass, there was a small group foraging together, with shimmering emerald-green plumage. I watched especially two of the males that were closest to me, and they seemed to have a habit of frequently cocking their tails up just slightly and quickly.

I don’t fully trust myself on this identification, because I might have been fooled by the light, and I’ve never seen a Brewer’s Blackbird before, and I think they are still considered uncommon in this area. But on the other hand, their coloring, posture, and shape was distinctly different from either the Rusty Blackbirds or Red-winged, both of which were in the same flock. I’ve posted the sighting on a local birding site and am hoping another birder might be interested in coming by to check them out – and maybe confirm it, or not. This large flock of Blackbirds has been around our neighborhood often recently – just about any time of day – though it’s impossible to predict exactly where they’ll be or when.

Rusty Blackbirds

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

This afternoon around 3:00, several Rusty Blackbirds were among a small flock of other blackbirds (maybe 100 at most), including Common Grackles and Red-winged, foraging in yards in our neighborhood. The day was damp and gray and chilly, and a light rain had just begun to fall.

The “rusty” pattern on the plumage of the male Rusty Blackbirds looked bright and vivid, almost like copper.

I think this was a small part of a larger mixed flock of Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds (as many as four or five hundred at a time on a couple of days) that I’ve seen several times recently, but this is the first time this season I’ve been able to find Rusty Blackbirds among them. I’ve been watching for them because the past two years we’ve had a number of Rusties that stayed around through the winter season, and it was fun to be able to spend some time watching them and become more familiar with them. They’re considerably less noisy and smaller than Common Grackles, and usually seem to sort of stick together within a larger mixed flock.

Rusty Blackbirds are “perhaps the least well known of North America’s blackbirds,” according to the species account in Birds of North America.* There are some indications that their populations are declining, but because they are rather inconspicuous and have not been widely studied, there’s much that remains to be learned about them.

Discovering Rusty Blackbirds has been another lesson for me in not taking common things for granted. When I saw a flock of blackbirds in the past, I used to just see “blackbirds.” The first time I saw the Rusties two years ago, it was like suddenly seeing a hidden image in a complex picture – they were there all along, but I hadn’t seen them because I just hadn’t looked. It seems to be a lesson I have to learn over and over again – to really look at what’s here right in front of me.

*Avery, Michael L. 1995. Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

A Robin and a Cooper’s Hawk

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Late this afternoon, as the sun was low, shimmering and spilling into a thin lake of gold clouds behind the tree-line, several small birds perched in the tops of trees to catch the last rays of light. It was cold and clear, after a day that began with a heavy frost and stayed cold all day. Three House Finches, a Bluebird and a Phoebe all glowed in deceptively rich shades of rose, red and yellow in separate treetops. And one solitary Robin looked especially bright, with its feathers fluffed out and burning a fiery rust-red at the top of a big water oak with a shaggy brown stubble of remaining leaves, on the crest of a hill.

I was standing just below the tree, looking up and admiring the Robin, when suddenly it called chirp-chuck-chuck-cheep! and flew – and a Cooper’s Hawk swooped over, wings outspread, and glided swiftly across the street and into a thick line of trees. This particular corner is a spot where I’ve often seen a Cooper’s Hawk, so I think one is spending the fall and winter season in this area again this year, where there are nearby woods and a creek, as well as open grassy yards and shrubs with lots of small and medium-sized yard birds.

It was a brief sighting, but the size and sturdy shape of the hawk – its barred breast and long, banded tail, and the way it held its wings and turned as it flew – left an image that lingered like a photo. And it came at a nice time, because I was just feeling kind of discouraged about how little bird activity I’ve seen the past few days around here.