Archive for March, 2009

Northern Parula, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Louisiana Waterthrush

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

This morning a Northern Parula sang from the branches of a large sweet gum tree on the edge of our back yard. A small, round, colorful bird with a blue-gray head, greenish back, and a blurry coral band across a yellow breast and throat, the Parula sings a crisp, buzzy song that rises to a crescendo and quickly drops down.

In this same tree yesterday morning – where new-green leaves are beginning to open – an even smaller, slim and trim Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, with a long, often upturned tail, called its wheezy spee! spee! hello.

Today the weather is gray and cool, with more rain in the forecast. From down near the creek I can hear the brightly slurred song of a Louisiana Waterthrush. I first heard it sing last Friday, March 27, early in the evening during a break in the rain.

With a pale green haze of new leaves spreading through the woods, the lacy white sprays of lots of dogwoods in bloom, and the arrival of these first returning migrants, it’s beginning to really feel like Spring.

Siskin Silence

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

The Pine Siskins have gone. The little brown-streaked birds with ravenous appetites that first appeared in our yard in mid January, swarming the finch feeder and keeping it busy every day since then, have finally left for their homes in the far north and west.

Their absence was the first thing I noticed when I stepped outside this morning, into a cool, gray, drizzly day. The chirping and zhrrreeeeee calls that had become a familiar part of the sounds around the house could not be heard. The pine tops where they had gathered stood empty and quiet.

We had taken down the finch feeder a couple of days ago, on Sunday, deciding that it was time to let them go. All Sunday afternoon and most of Monday several Siskins continued to hang around in the branches over where the feeder had been, sometimes fluttering in the air, as if it must be there somewhere, or they were certain it would return. Even yesterday there still were a dozen or two Siskins in the pines, a few visiting the bird baths and feeders out front, and many chirping and calling.

But this morning – Siskin silence.

Pine Siskins – Rehearsal for Departure?

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

Yesterday morning I was working outside for a while and noticed the pines getting louder and louder with a congregation of Pine Siskins. Three came to one of the bird baths for a drink, and three or four more perched in some low limbs of an oak, but many more of them seemed to be gathering in the pines. Their chirping and zhrrreeeee calls got louder and louder, until their voices drowned out just about everything else around. But it was not unpleasant – in fact, I’m going to miss that unusual, twanging zhrrreeeee when they’re gone, and probably all the sense of lively activity that they bring, too.

The morning was cool, and the sky had clouded over, turning the daylight gray and pensive. All of a sudden, a flock of Pine Siskins – maybe two or three dozen – rushed out of the pine tops and away, flying north, almost as if they were flinging themselves into the wind – and the pines fell silent. For some reason, the rest of the yard suddenly became quiet, too. The titmice and chickadees deserted the feeders, a Red-bellied Woodpecker flew away, two Juncos, several Robins and a Chipping Sparrow darted up from the ground and into the shrubs.

Was that it? I wondered. Had the Pine Siskins just left us for their homes in the north? No. A few minutes later, there was one lone Pine Siskin singing from the very top of a pecan tree, and not long after that several more returned to flutter all over the feeder in the back yard again. So their morning flight was nothing unusual, I guess. But at the time, it seemed like a preview of their departure, bound to come before too long.

Waiting for Warblers – and Other Spring Birds

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

About 8:30 this morning a gray-brown thrush with prominent dark spots on its breast and a wide-eyed look perched for just a moment on a low branch on the edge of our yard. It flew into thick shrubs before I could get a good look, and I wasn’t able to find it again later, so I’m not sure, but think it may have been a Swainson’s Thrush, passing through on its migration north.

At about the same time, a Louisiana Waterthrush sang from very far down the creek, almost too far away to hear at all. It sang three times, but was so distant that it was almost like a wish or a wisp of my imagination, though it was real enough, the first of the season here. Although I’ve been listening for their loud, ringing song – usually the anthem that marks the arrival of spring here – I have not yet heard one in their usual territory along the creek in the woods behind our house.

I also have not yet heard or seen a Black and White Warbler or a Blue-headed Vireo, usually our other two earliest migrants, and harbingers of spring. Maybe I’m just impatient, but a quick check of my journal notes confirms that in previous years, all three of these species have been here by now.

Meanwhile, almost all of our resident birds are singing now so the early mornings sound like spring – Carolina Wren, Cardinal, Phoebe, Titmouse, Chickadee, Pine Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird, and House Finch, plus the quuurrr calls of Red-bellied Woodpecker and whinny of Downy Woodpecker, the kleer! of a Northern Flicker, the clucking of a traveling Pileated Woodpecker, the squeaking of a Brown-headed Nuthatch and the coo of a Mourning Dove. A little later in the morning, there’s often the kee-yer call of a Red-shouldered Hawk. A couple of Mockingbirds sing now and then, but for the most part I don’t think they’ve really gotten serious yet.

Some of our winter residents are singing, too, including the sweet, plaintive whistles of White-throated Sparrows and the lively jumbled tune of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Every now and then I hear the ti-ti-ti of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the pines, and there are still lots of Pine Siskins chirping. Dark-eyed Juncos are more quiet, feeding on the ground or in the grass or low branches. Small flocks of Cedar Waxwings still perch in the trees and send out sprays of their high, thin seets. Yellow-rumped Warblers chase each other in and out of shrubs, calling check!

Flocks of Robins are scattered over grassy yards, and several have begun to sing, and there are still a few Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and even a few Rusty Blackbirds, plus several Brown-headed Cowbirds, though not the large blackbird flocks of January and February.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at Work

Saturday, March 21st, 2009

I hadn’t seen or heard one for a while and thought they might be gone for the season, but this morning a vividly-colored Yellow-bellied Sapsucker spent more than an hour working on the lichen-covered trunk and large branches of a pecan tree in the front yard. Its throat and crown looked like shimmering silk, intensely red. Its back blended into the rough gray, black and brown bark of the tree. Its belly glowed a warm yellow-tan, streaked with charcoal.

The morning was very cool, with a soft blue sky and sunlight often muffled by low white clouds. For a long time, the Sapsucker moved methodically up one large fork of the tree, tapping for several minutes at one spot, then moving on to another. Finally, it rested. It stopped and clung to the side of the trunk for several minutes, then lifted its head, turned it to one side and inserted its bill into one of the holes it had been working on.

After several more minutes of resting, it did the same thing again and then began to make its way down and around the tree, inserting its bill into holes, and only tapping a little bit now and then. Although I had not tracked exactly where it went, I think it was retracing its path up and around the trunk, inserting its bill to look for sap in the holes it had earlier made or worked on.

All this time, it did not call or mew. The only sound it made was its tapping on the tree.

Meanwhile Here at Home . . . Under Siege by Cedar Waxwings

Friday, March 20th, 2009

Cedar Waxwings are among the most elegant and attractive birds, with sleek black mask edged in white, velvety gray-brown back, an upswept crest, lemon-yellow breast, and exquisite touches of gleaming red in the wing and yellow at the tip of the tail. All winter long, I enjoy hearing their high, thin calls, marveling at the way a flock moves together as one in flight, and admiring them when they perch in the top limbs of bare trees at the end of a day, facing the sun and turning to gold in the last of its light.

But! At this time of year, they often congregate in the two Savannah hollies around the front entrance of our house to eat the red berries – and make a mess. We came home from Kiawah to find at least four dozen or more eating holly berries and perched in the high bare limbs of the pecans and water oaks over the sidewalk and porch and driveway, dropping blotches of purple poop everywhere.

Yesterday I made the mistake of leaving my pickup in the driveway under a tree, and when I went out to run an errand late in the afternoon, I found it so encrusted with the droppings of Cedar Waxwings I had to clean off the windshield before driving – and then went straight to a carwash and spent half an hour scrubbing before doing anything else.

The birdbaths in the front yard have to be rinsed out two or three times a day at least, and I finally just emptied one and turned it upside down, and I don’t dare sit on the porch in my usual spot – with a dozen Cedar Waxwings perched in the limbs directly above me.

Oh well. It’s a small price to pay, I know. And it can’t be long before all the holly berries are gone. It’s probably a good reminder that Cedar Waxwings are not here for my benefit or to give me pleasure – if anything, they have more right to be here than I do.

So I shouldn’t complain – but it helps!

Great Blue Heron – Kiawah Island

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

A great blue heron, that almost spectral image of a prehistoric past, rises majestically out of the marsh on big, bowed, misty gray-blue wings, then settles some distance further on, disappearing into the confines of a ditch.
John Hay, “Migrants in Winter”

Last week we spent three days on Kiawah Island, off the coast of South Carolina, and enjoyed a welcome change of scene – from the woods and fields of the Piedmont, which in these last straggling days of winter had begun to seem gray and bleak and dreary, to the wide open expanses of the coastal marsh and the white sandy beach of a barrier island. With me, I took The Way to the Salt Marsh, a collection of essays by John Hay, whose eloquent writing about the marsh, beach and wildlife of Cape Cod turned out to be a good companion.

Much of Kiawah is a golf resort, but large areas of marsh and beach have been protected, and its habitat still attracts a wide variety of shorebirds, wading birds, raptors, songbirds and other species.

This time our trip was short, but we packed the days full and had a great time – thank you, Janet, Bruce, Rebecca and Maggie! Our generous hosts. And thank you, Clate, for lots of beautiful photos! (For a larger view, click on each photo.)

In the Marshes and Ponds – Little Blue Herons

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

While sometimes they’re hard to find at all, Little Blue Herons seemed to be almost everywhere on this trip. One perched in a tangle of branches on the edge of a canal – its head and neck a smoky rose-blue, its back and wings slate blue. We also saw several immature Little Blue Herons – all white, with a long, gray, dark-tipped bill and greenish legs.

. . . Tri-colored Herons and Egrets

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

Tri-colored Herons, with their contrasting colors and animated behavior were fun to watch as they foraged in several shallow ponds around the island, often raising their wings, lunging, or turning sharply as they hunted for fish.

Three Greater Yellowlegs were too far away to photograph, but we watched them through a scope as they moved quickly, chasing fish through the water – tall, grayish birds with white bellies and long, slightly upturned bills, at first they look rather drab in winter plumage. But their bright yellow legs, active personalities and lively teew-teew-teew calls make them colorful.

Northern Harriers swept over the orange-brown grass of the marshes, Belted Kingfishers hunted from snags, and twice in the late afternoons, we saw several White Ibis fly up and away, silent, ghostly silhouettes with black-tipped wings and down-curved bills. And in the marshes and ponds and just about everywhere Great Egrets stalked and flew and posed – no less impressive for being so often around.

On the Beach – Willets, Sanderlings, Plovers and Terns

Tuesday, March 17th, 2009

Over the exposed flats at low tide, flocks of gray and white sanderlings, with many brown dunlins intermixed, are deftly probing the surface for tiny crustaceans or mollusks. . . . At times, they rise up, dip, turn, and swing like a casting of silver facets into the air . . .

Is it not possible to follow the light through the medium of a bird? Without them, the days would go by without definition. – John Hay, “Migrants in Winter”

A Willet was among a scattering of sandpipers foraging along the edge of the waves late one morning as the tide was going out. Sanderlings scurried from spot to spot, lots of Dunlins probed the sand with long, down-turned bills, very business-like and focused on feeding, and one solitary Ruddy Turnstone flipped over little shells and shell fragments.

Forster’s Terns flashed pale gray and silvery white over the breaking waves, and several large rafts of Scaup – black diving ducks with white flanks – floated not far offshore. Brown Pelicans sailed low over the water, while Ring-billed Gulls and Laughing Gulls swarmed in the wake of a shrimping boat.

All in all, we didn’t spend a lot of time on the beach or see large numbers of shorebirds, but the highlights on the beach for me were a Bonaparte’s Gull, a Caspian Tern, and four Piping Plovers. The Bonaparte’s Gull – a small, graceful gull that flies on pale gray and white wings with an airy, tern-like ease – shows a black spot behind its eye and a thin black bill. It flew low over the waves coming toward us and past, but was quickly gone. The Caspian Tern – a big, muscular bird with a long, thick red bill with a dusky-dark tip – flew in and stood at the edge of the surf for a while.

Further up the beach, the pale, sand-colored Piping Plovers – which look so small and gentle – hunted in the sand near the edge of the dunes with a few Sanderlings. We watched them only for a few minutes, and not from too close, because they look vulnerable – and are. The Piping Plovers are seriously threatened and endangered shorebirds whose precarious future is widely recognized.

But even the Sanderlings, which we think of as the most common of little sandpipers on almost every beach, the little clockwork birds that scurry back and forth along the edges of the waves, have suffered serious declines in population in some areas, including our own Atlantic coast. Not surprisingly, it’s thought that increased recreational use and development along beaches may threaten their future.