Archive for January, 2009

Cedar Waxwings and Blackbirds

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Not long before sundown on this last day of January, twenty-one Cedar Waxwings glowed like small yellow lanterns hung in the bare branches at the very top of a tall oak. All facing the west and catching the last light of the day, they made a striking picture that felt like a fitting farewell to a long, cold, often dark gray month. All through January, the Waxwings have been among our most characteristic winter birds, seeming to be almost everywhere, often bringing vivid, elegant spots of color and movement and sound to gloomy days.

Today, though, was sunny and windy, chilly, but not cold. A large flock of several hundred Blackbirds streamed through the trees late this afternoon, looking like a cloud that went on and on, settling and moving in wave after wave, and making quite a bit of noise. All I could see or hear were Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles, and these, too, have been a common part of January here. I couldn’t get close enough to them to look for Rusty Blackbirds among them, but we haven’t had the regular flock of Rusties this year that we often saw last winter.

Chipping Sparrows and Scheming Dark-eyed Juncos

Thursday, January 29th, 2009

At 7:45 this morning, it was cold, clear and windy, with a silky blue sky and traces of high white clouds, all that were left of the dark clouds and rain of the past few days. A thin crust of ice topped the birdbaths. Three Chipping Sparrows sat on the block feeder in the front yard, eating seeds – and dozens of other Chipping Sparrows seemed to be everywhere – in the bushes, in the grass, in low limbs, and chasing each other here and there. The tall bare limbs of the river birches were dotted with little birds, a few Yellow-rumped Warblers and a couple of Bluebirds, but mostly Chipping Sparrows.

A Pine Warbler sang, and after standing for a few minutes on the front porch watching sparrows, I realized I was also hearing the bright, clear whistle of a Cardinal’s song, the first one I’ve heard since the start of winter. Chickadees, Titmice, House Finches and Carolina Wrens also are singing now, which sounds like a lot, but for the most part they’re sort of spaced out, and each song still sounds distinct against a background of prevailing quiet, quite different from the exuberant jumble of songs all together that will come in the spring.

A Downy Woodpecker, a Carolina Wren, Chickadees and Titmice shared the feeders with the Chipping Sparrows, and a half dozen Dark-eyed Juncos foraged for seeds in the dry leaves below. Although they’re said to be a very common feeder bird, I rarely see one on our feeders. They usually forage on the ground underneath with White-throated Sparrows, Cardinals and Mourning Doves.

I watched the Juncos for a while, trying to figure out why they remind me of Wallace and Gromit’s sneaky penguin, Feathers McGraw. There’s something about the dark, round gray head and hood, dark eyes, white belly, and pink beak, and also something about they way they move, a little shifty, maybe scheming. They always seem to be looking around to see if some other bird has found a better spot than they have. A Junco pecks at the ground half-heartedly, looks up – and scurries over to see what another Junco has found – only to be disappointed most of the time.

Chipping Sparrows don’t come often to our feeders every year until around this time – late January or early February. Until then, they’re scattered out through the neighborhood in small flocks, feeding in yards and along the roadside, and bursting up in scattering flight when startled. When they do start coming to the feeders, they usually come only two or three at a time, and they don’t come and go quickly. They stay sitting placidly, eating, resting, looking around, and eating.

Handsome little birds, with clear gray breast, brown-streaked back and wings, and chestnut-red crown, their personalities are an intriguing mix of calm and flighty, solitary and social, open and secretive, common and little-noticed. At home in open woodlands and around the edges of forests, they also thrive in suburban habitats and are common residents of yards and gardens.

Late January – The Usual Suspects

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

This morning began at first light with a plain orange glow that rose and spread quietly over the eastern sky, beneath a fold of steel-gray clouds, and with the songs of a Pine Warbler, a Carolina Chickadee and a Carolina Wren, and the spring-like quurrrr of a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Many of the past few days have been gray and cloudy, often foggy, damp and chilly, sometimes cold enough to freeze the water in the bird baths. Today was still dreary and gray, but much warmer and the air felt soft, with a southwest wind blowing low, dark, dingy clouds across the sky. White-throated Sparrows called tseet from beneath the bushes, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered in its dry, stuttering way, and several Chickadees and Titmice arrived at the feeders in the front yard, along with a Downy Woodpecker with a bright red patch on the back of his head. Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked somewhere nearby. A Brown Thrasher lurked under the wax myrtles, foraging nervously, maybe keeping an eye out for the neighborhood cats. A Mockingbird called out in a harsh, loud squawk.

Two Crows came to one of the birdbaths. They stop by almost every morning lately, and if the water is frozen, they peck at the surface to break it up. This morning they took turns drinking – one on the ground while the first one drank, then they changed places. Several early mornings I’ve seen about eight or nine Crows in the bare branches of a pecan tree on the edge of our yard, and I don’t know if they roost there, or if this has become a regular stop in their early morning routine.

Out back, Pine Siskins continued to swarm the feeders. A couple of American Goldfinches competed for space, and one Dark-eyed Junco scrounged up seeds scattered on the deck and ground.

Later in the morning when I went for a walk, it hadn’t yet started to rain, but the clouds looked dark and threatening and – like the past several days – the murky gray light made it hard to see any color or detail. Birds were little dark shapes perched on branches and flitting from tree to tree – or big dark shapes drifting against the clouds. But sounds were sharp and clear, and most of the birds along the way were familiar – the usual suspects in their usual haunts. The check calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers ticked all around as they chased each other in and out of evergreens, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered in the thickets at one corner, a Phoebe called tsup – tsup, and the coo of a Mourning Dove drifted through the mist – bringing me to an unexpected stop.

It cooed again, a low, echoing, whoo-OOH-hoo-oo-oo that is so familiar a part of the background I rarely even notice it. But this morning, for some reason, I wondered what if it were not. It’s a lovely, graceful call, especially evocative on a day like this.

The high, thin calls of Cedar Waxwings passed overhead, and I saw about three dozen fall out of formation and into the bare branches of a couple of small trees. All along the way I passed several other flocks of Cedar Waxwings, sometimes perched, often flying by, sounding like sparkles in the wind.

Suddenly, the big, black wings of a Turkey Vulture loomed up from behind some trees and swooped down over me, very low, coming so close over my head I could hear the heavy whump-whump of its wings, and see its dull red head. Flapping and tilting in the wind, it blew up over the crest of a hill and out of sight, as suddenly as it had come.

A little further on, a House Finch sang – a cheery, whistled, but quiet song – and several others murmured from where they perched in a small tree. Not far away, near the top of another small tree, was a pair of Bluebirds sitting together, and the male was singing.

About midway through the neighborhood, there’s an area where the Blackbirds usually gather, and this morning they were there as usual. I could hear them long before I got to the top of the hill and saw them spread out on the grass and in the trees. Most are Red-winged Blackbirds, with a few Common Grackles. I haven’t seen any Rusty Blackbirds among them since late in the fall, though it’s possible I’m just missing them. On a day like today, it’s almost hopeless to try to see them well, but all I could hear were the creaky voices of the Red-winged Blackbirds and the harsh, noisy chucking of the Grackles.

In a line of tall, dense cedars, several little birds flew from tree to tree – Chipping Sparrows, more Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-throated Sparrows – and two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers tapped on the trunks of pecan trees. Several times recently, I’ve seen both a Pileated Woodpecker and a Red-shouldered Hawk in this area, but no sign of either one this morning.

In the Old Field just outside our subdivision, White-throated Sparrows called from the weeds, Cedar Waxwings perched in shabby bare chinaberry trees, and several Robins called in squeaky voices and moved restlessly around. I stood for several minutes watching sparrows in a tangle of dead vines, looking for maybe a Song Sparrow or a Field Sparrow or something more exotic. All I found were White-throated Sparrows, but that’s not a complaint. They’re among my favorite winter birds and I’m happy they still return, despite the changes brought by every passing year.

On my way back home, a Red-tailed Hawk flew out of some tall trees, chased by several crows. It worked its way higher and left the Crows behind, and in only three or four minutes, it was soaring high and fast, almost swirling like leaves in a blurry white and gray sky, with another Red-tailed Hawk, three Black Vultures and two Turkey Vultures.

Siskin Winter

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Pine Siskins continue to visit the two feeders on our back deck off and on all day every day. They are aggressive little birds, and only a few Goldfinches succeed in getting to the feeders now and then. Early in the mornings, several Siskins swarm both of the feeders, and there’s a whirring of wings and jostling for places as little brown-streaked birds come and go, but they’re more tolerant of others at that time, more intent just on eating as much as they can. Later in the day, one or two particularly greedy Pine Siskins sometimes fend off others and try to keep a feeder to themselves, though there are always a few around to challenge them, and frequently several come together again and there’s another period of group feeding.

Because it’s uncommon for us to have so many Pine Siskins around, I’m trying to take advantage of this chance to watch them – who knows when we’ll have another winter invasion like this. So I watch them for several minutes at a time, and look for something about them to draw my interest, but really can’t find much, other than their rather mysterious and unpredictable nomadic nature. As individuals, they are not particularly appealing or interesting – though that may be my failure of imagination. They just perch or cling and furiously stuff their sharp, thin beaks with seeds, as fast as they can. Stuff, stuff, stuff – raise head and look around, swallow all those little seeds, then stuff, stuff, stuff again. I get the impression their beaks are pink, though they are not. It’s because they are open so much of the time, showing the pink inside of the mouth. In threat or aggressive display, the males seem to open their beaks, too.

They look like what they eat. (Don’t we all!) As if their streaks were made by the scattering flight of the tiny brownish gray seeds they send flying all around them. Their heads and faces are patterned in fine, delicately precise fawn-brown streaks. One or two of them show much more yellow in their wings and tail than others, and these appear to be more often the dominant ones that try to keep others away from the feeders.

In all, I think there are about two or three dozen Pine Siskins staying around in the branches of the trees near our back deck and feeding regularly, but there may be more.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Gleaning from Leaves

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Also yesterday morning, a female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was gleaning something from the gray-green leaves and branches of some privet at the edge of the woods. She was very pretty, with a rich lemon-yellow breast, pure white throat and crimson crown. She raked the branches and leaves of the shrub through her bill, and once flew up and appeared to hawk a flying insect from the air. I could not tell if she was getting insects or maybe water or some kind of plant excretions from the privet.

The Strange Uneasiness of Watching Pine Siskins

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

Plain little brown-streaked birds with thin, sharp bills and a touch of yellow in their wings – Pine Siskins have arrived at the feeders behind our house. The way they swarm the feeders in a frenzy of competition and feeding, from a short distance they look more like fluttering moths than birds.

For me, it’s a life bird. I’ve never seen a Pine Siskin before yesterday. But I had studied my field guides and knew what to watch for because there have been many reports of Pine Siskins in this area this year. So I was hoping to see them here, but had almost given up – and was surprised and delighted to have three dozen or more show up and stay around for at least a couple of days.

But I’ve discovered that I find watching the Pine Siskins somewhat disconcerting. There’s something about the constant competition and the frenzied pace that, while interesting, is sort of unsettling. It’s not just that there are so many of them, or that they’re in a flock – I love watching a large flock of blackbirds, for instance, spread out across a yard and feeding in the grass, flying up together in a hollow whoosh of wings. It’s the raw competitiveness, and the nervous energy and anxious aggressiveness among the little Siskins that’s disturbing. Watching them makes me feel edgy and uneasy.

Pine Siskins – closely related to our much more familiar American Goldfinches – breed in the northern forests of North America, especially in Canada and the far northeast and western U.S, and south through the Appalachians. They are known as an irruptive species, meaning they sometimes move south in large numbers in the winter, while in other years, very few are seen.

I first saw them yesterday morning while I was watching the Pileated Woodpeckers. Three small birds flew down to the birdbath only a few feet away, making rough little chirping noises that weren’t familiar to me. When I turned to look, there they were. Heavily streaked with grayish-brown, with tawny brown faces, darker wings, white wing bars, and – the mark that makes identification easy – a small patch of yellow that barely shows in the folded wings.

After the woodpeckers flew, I walked around to the back deck and found Pine Siskins all over both feeders, and more up in the branches of the oaks. I stood only about five feet away from the sock feeder, and a little further from the tube feeder, and they crowded all over both, stuffing seeds into their bills furiously, and constantly competing to get and keep a spot. Different personalities were immediately obvious – while some were very aggressive, clinging to a feeder and repeatedly fending off other birds, others seemed more passive, lurking in the branches or on the deck rail, waiting for a spot to open up – and jumping in as soon as one did. One or two calmer individuals seemed content to feed on thistle seed that had fallen onto the deck.

I watched for a few minutes as one particularly aggressive Siskin kept all others away from the sock feeder. Whenever another bird approached, it flared its wings and lunged at the newcomer, chasing it away. Meanwhile, most of the Goldfinches seemed to have backed off from the invasion, at least to begin with. Several sat in the branches nearby and mewed. Only one plump, sturdy-looking Goldfinch wasn’t intimidated. It clung to the feeder and kept eating, ignoring the little Siskin bully, and pretty soon the Siskin left it alone and the two of them stuffed their bills together, having the feeder to themselves for a while.

The Siskins chirped and flew around me in a whir of motion, and in some ways I enjoyed watching them, studying their markings and different behaviors. They’re often sideways or upside down on the sock feeder, showing a pale, feathered area under the tail that’s mostly white with a pretty pattern of brown spots.

Two Male Pileated Woodpeckers – An Interesting Encounter

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

Today began very dark, gray and cold, but by nine o’clock, the sun was almost breaking through a pale sky covered with high, thin, rumpled clouds. I had planned to spend a full morning working inside, but on my way up the driveway to the mailbox with some bills, heard a loud wik-wik-wik-wik and when I looked toward the edge of the woods saw two Pileated Woodpeckers that had just arrived on the lowest part of the trunk of a large living pine.

They were both males, with full, bright red crests and thin red moustache stripes. They clung to opposite sides of the trunk – which was big enough around so that one could be out of sight behind it at times – and both hitched up a short way, then hitched back down, making their way around the trunk in a circular fashion, with one seeming to follow the other, sometimes getting pretty close, but usually keeping a fair distance between them.

Now and then they both stopped to peck at the bark in a desultory way, but they didn’t seem to be foraging seriously. They never went further up the tree than about six or seven feet from the ground. A couple of times, one hopped off the lowest part of the tree onto the ground and pecked at a branch for a moment, then it hopped back onto the trunk. A few minutes later, the other worked its way down and around, and did the same thing in the same area of the ground.

They continued this behavior for at least half an hour, and after watching for a while, it seemed to me that one looked slightly sturdier or heavier, and also a little less bright in coloring, and this one seemed to be the more aggressive of the two. For most of the time after the calls when they first arrived, they were silent – except for the scratching sounds of their claws on the bark and the occasional knocking of bill against bark – but now and then, one stretched out its neck and bill toward the other in an aggressive way, and called a loud wik-wik-wik. This usually was not answered by the second male.

Several times one spread its wings, exposing the big white patches, and sometimes the other one would respond to this by spreading its own wings and they both flapped a few times in a flurry of flashing white and black – then they settled back onto the trunk of the pine and continued hitching up, down and around. It seemed clear that they were having a territorial confrontation – but if so, it was conducted in an almost formalized way, almost a kind of dance, with aggressive moves and a lot of posturing, but no seriously threatening action of one toward the other.*

About 10 minutes after I started watching them, a third Pileated Woodpecker flew in, calling the same sort of wik-wik call. This one was a female. At first she flew directly toward the two males, and there was a brief flurry of wing flapping from all three, then the female settled low on the trunk of another tree a few feet away from the one the two males were in, and she began to knock at the bark and flick off large slabs. I’m not sure how long she stayed – maybe five or ten minutes. She disappeared quietly at some point, flying without giving a call, while I was watching the males.

Finally, when it seemed as if the encounter could go on like this indefinitely, all of a sudden one of the two males gave a sharp wik-wik-wik call that might have been an alarm – or not – and flew swiftly toward the woods that lead down to the creek. The second one stayed on the trunk for maybe 15 seconds, then flew off in the same direction, and I could hear their calls continuing. As the second one flew, I saw a Red-tailed Hawk glide low across the street, just over the treetops in a different part of the woods. It did not seem to be heading in this direction at all, and I’m not sure it was the reason for their abrupt departure, but it may have been.

*The species account of Pileated Woodpeckers in The Birds of North America Online notes that a territory is defended by a Pileated Woodpecker pair all year. “Both members of a pair may chase off an intruder; more commonly, intruder and pair member of same sex as intruder will interact while the other member watches.”

The acccount also says that “Wing Spreading display is frequent in conflict between birds of same sex or members of pair; wings are raised and spread showing white patch . . . Birds may interact by posturing at one another on trunk; this typically involves posturing while circling trunk and periodically alternating direction.”

Bull, Evelyn L. and Jerome A. Jackson. 1995. Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s Early Morning Call

Saturday, January 10th, 2009

At this time of year I often try to convince myself that there’s really no need to get up so early. It’s cold out there, and so warm under the blankets and comforter, especially on a weekend morning with the sky growing light and slowly, lazily turning orange. Surely there’ll be birds enough a little later, too.

But this morning was a reminder that only the earliest hour of the day condenses so much bird activity into one brief, lively period. Missing that first light of day is like missing the first crucial part of a novel or a movie – the key action or event upon which the rest of the whole story depends.

This morning’s special highlights were the songs of two Pine Warblers, the truculent behavior of Brown-headed Nuthatches, and an unusually colorful call from a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

When I stepped out the door at 7:30 (already a little late), I heard the song of a Pine Warbler, the squeaking of Brown-headed Nuthatches, the tseet calls of White-throated Sparrows, the stutter of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and the warble of a Bluebird – much more activity than there would be at any other hour of the day. It was cold, but not freezing, and the air was calm. The sky was loosely covered in gray clouds that turned pink as the sun rose higher.

A female House Finch sat alone on one of the feeders, until a Brown-headed Nuthatch came along and chased her away. The same Nuthatch also chased away a female Cardinal and even a Downy Woodpecker, and briefly seemed determined to claim the feeders for its own private use – but none of the other birds stayed away long and it soon gave up the effort.

Three Tufted Titmice searched through the peeling bark of our river birches. Chickadees chattered and one or two sang FEE-bee, FEE-bay. Two female Bluebirds perched in the bare limbs of a pecan, and after a few minutes one chased the other away. A Brown Thrasher foraged under wax myrtles, and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet searched the branches of the same bushes.

The mew of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nearby sounded so different from its usual rather thin, whining mee-ah that I wasn’t sure what it was until I saw it. This was a mew, but more musical and mellow, with a sweet, clear, liquid quality that seemed more open and echoing than the Sapsucker’s common cry. It was a male, with red crown, red throat, white stripes on the face and wing, and dirty yellow breast, working low on the trunk of a pecan tree already riddled with sapsucker holes. The black, white, gray and buff patterns of its plumage blended in with the rough bark of the tree. It gradually moved down the trunk, pecking and stopping to probe into the holes with its bill; then made its way back up in a different section of the trunk, still in view.

Two Pine Warblers sang, one from trees in the front yard, and the other from the edge of the woods. They sang over and over, back and forth, their trills making background music for all the other sounds. Two Phoebes, a Carolina Wren, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Goldfinches, House Finches, Blue Jays and a Mockingbird also called, and a small flock of Red-winged Blackbirds flew over, making soft churk calls. A single Dark-eyed Junco and two Mourning Doves searched for seeds among the leaves under the feeders. A White-throated Sparrow made furtive scratching sounds in the dry leaves under some bushes and then – startled by something – suddenly flew out and away in a thudding of wings, straight into a bank of bushes on the other side of the yard.

Several Crows cawed a short way down the street for several minutes, and finally a Red-tailed Hawk glided on outstretched wings out of some tree-tops with Crows in pursuit.

A Pine Warbler’s Song – and Goldfinches at Last

Friday, January 9th, 2009

A Pine Warbler has been singing all around the house, on the edge of the woods, all day today. Its rich, loose, musical trill is a welcome contrast to the stark gray quiet of the bare-limbed trees, like a winter-blooming flower drifting from shadow to shadow.

And Goldfinches, finally! Our two finch feeders have been hanging off the back deck for almost a month now, full of finch-food but empty of birds. Until today, we had only seen two Goldfinches – and that may have been the same one visiting twice. This morning, I looked out the kitchen window into bright sunlight, and saw one Goldfinch clinging to the sock feeder and three perched on the tube feeder, all in grayish winter plumage with black wings, white wing bars, and a pale wash of lemon-yellow around the face and neck. All four stayed for a long time, just sitting and eating.

We’ve never had great numbers of Goldfinches, but last year at least a dozen or two visited the feeders regularly for several weeks. So I’m hoping this is the beginning of a little more activity there – maybe including some other species like Pine Siskins, which seem to be everywhere this year – except here. I haven’t seen a single one so far, though I keep watching.

Ice-skating Crows

Friday, January 9th, 2009

This morning – cold, clear and sunny – two American Crows came to one of our birdbaths as they often do around mid morning, and found the water frozen into a solid sheet. At first, they perched on the side of the birdbath and pecked at the hard surface, then drank by turning their heads to the side to sip water from the surface where it may have begun to melt, or maybe seeped up from the cracks they made. They both picked up small twigs and leaves that had fallen onto the ice and tossed them away.

Then one of them hopped onto the ice and took a couple of slippery steps, but kept its balance on big scaly dark feet and claws, and pecked harder at the surface until it seemed to break through a small spot and took another sip. When it flew to the ground, the second Crow stepped onto the ice and also slipped and slid for a moment, just walking around a bit, in one direction, then in the other, as if to see what it was like, then it pecked at a spot on the ice, and drank.

Even though I see dozens of Crows around here every day, I don’t stop often enough to watch them. The sunlight was shining directly on them, making their black plumage gleam, and at close range, their size, powerful build, and large, heavy bills were impressive. Their backs looked stippled with patterns of charcoal. Even in just the few minutes I watched them, each showed an individual and interesting personality, though they flew away too soon for me to learn more – leaving behind the broken surface of the ice where water was probably more easily available for smaller birds.