Archive for April, 2009

Northern Parula

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

A Northern Parula – a small warbler that’s often found in wooded areas near streams or wetlands – has been singing in the trees around our house since late March. Its buzzy, rising trill has become one of the most familiar songs of the morning – and much of the day.

This morning a Parula visited our deck, checking out all the ferns and other plants, and then pausing on a table for several minutes, just looking around – long enough for Clate to get some very nice photos.

Its blue-gray head, green back, and bright yellow throat and breast were vivid. It always feels like catching a glimpse of something magical to see a tiny, colorful woodland bird like this so close up, one that usually stays well screened in the trees.

Because the breast band was little more than a smudge – not the coral and black of a male – I think this one was a female, but it might also have been a first-year. I don’t know them well enough to tell for sure.

Either way, it was special to see, and a nice way to start the day.

Baltimore Oriole

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

This morning between 7:00 and 7:30, a brilliant male Baltimore Oriole fed among clusters of catkins and new leaves in the tops of pecan trees in our yard. It sang a clear, mellow, whistled song and sometimes gave a rattling call as it moved. Its sunlit orange and black among the green leaves was stunning, and its song was lovely.

Acadian Flycatcher, House Wren, and Black and White Warbler

Friday, April 24th, 2009

Today three more bird species made their first-of-the-season appearance here. The familiar call of an Acadian Flycatcher from its usual territory down around the creek in the woods came about on schedule. I’d been listening for it the past few days, and thought I might have heard it yesterday and the day before – but this afternoon, its sharp WHEET-sit was clear and repeated.

Meanwhile, a Summer Tanager, Northern Parula, Red-eyed Vireo, Phoebe, and Carolina Wren sang in the woods nearby, with a Louisiana Waterthrush singing down near the creek now and then. A Great-crested Flycatcher called its deep, rolling Whreep, and four Chimney Swifts twittered overhead.

The female Ruby-throated Hummingbird sat on her nest, but left it for long periods of time. She did not seem to be working on it today, and each time I went outside, she flew away after only a few seconds.

First thing this morning, a House Wren was singing its bright, cheery song in the trees around our front yard, and it continued singing throughout the day – this was the second “first of the season” bird for the day, at least here around our house. I first heard a House Wren singing in another part of our neighborhood about a week ago, and on a late morning walk today – a very warm, bright, sunny day with temperatures that are expected to climb into the upper 80s – House Wrens were singing in four other places.

A Scarlet Tanager sings in the woods across the street, seeming to follow the same pattern of movement around a territory that one did last year. I’m thinking it’s the same one that has returned, but don’t know that for sure. A Red-eyed Vireo also sings in this area – and there are a good number of other Red-eyed Vireos in the woods around the neighborhood. One Yellow-throated Vireo sings from the treetops down near the corner. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are active all around the yard, and their spee-spee calls are heard all day.

The high point of the morning came near the end of my walk, when I was passing a deeply wooded area near a creek, and heard the high weesa-weesa-weesa call of a Black and White Warbler. This is the first time I’ve heard or seen a Black and White Warbler here this spring, and that’s very unusual. They’re usually among our earliest returning migrants, so I was beginning to wonder what had happened to them, and was happy to hear it.

Pileated Woodpecker – Listening?

Friday, April 24th, 2009

This afternoon a male Pileated Woodpecker flew into the lower part of a tall pine on the edge of the woods. After waiting for a few quiet, still minutes, he hitched up the trunk, making scratching sounds as he went, then suddenly let out a loud, startling trumpeted call. He attacked a small, thin dead stub, splitting it open, seemed to find nothing of interest there and moved further on up the trunk.

He paused, clinging to the bark and staring at the trunk, turning his head only slightly one way, then another, then staring at the trunk again. He scratched the side of his head with a foot, then rubbed one cheek against the trunk. I thought it interesting how much time he – and other Pileated Woodpeckers I’ve watched – spent apparently doing nothing. Just being there. Though I suspect he is doing something, and I just don’t know what it is. I wondered if he could be listening for the sounds of insects under the bark?

In a quick search, I did not find many references to this possibility. The Birdwatcher’s Companion to North American Birdlife (by Christopher W. Leahy, page 384) notes, “there is some evidence . . . that woodpeckers can hear grubs and other wood-inhabiting insects moving in bark and trunks.”

And I found this more specific account on a Texas Parks and Wildlife website:

“The evidence of [a woodpecker’s excellent hearing] can be seen in the following account by a forester. ‘I once saw a pileated woodpecker fly to a tough old hickory tree in which ants were using a little knothole as their entrance. The bird didn’t drill in this obvious place. Instead, it circled the trunk, gently tapping, then pausing. Finally it proceeded to whack into the very heart of the ant nest – five feet below the knothole.’

“We do not know whether the bird heard the movements of the disturbed insects or was able to distinguish subtle differences in the tapping sound caused by the ants’ hollowed-out tunnels and nest. However, we do know that something pinpointed the spot where further investigation was needed and, since the bird cannot boast x-ray vision, it is fairly safe to assume that the woodpecker’s hearing played a major role in locating the ant nest.”

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Nest

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird is building a nest on the branch of a large pine tree at the corner of our back yard. The nest is far out on the branch from the trunk, but under several other branches with some green needles that arch over it and may provide some shelter.

At first, the nest looks like just a grayish lichen-covered lump. I saw her fly into it by chance, when I had walked out onto the deck early this morning, and then watched as she made several trips to and from the nest, not staying gone for more than a few seconds at a time, and returning each time with something she applied to the rim and sides of the nest.

After a few minutes, I brought out my scope and was able to watch her for about an hour as she worked quickly and continuously and energetically.

What I can see of the nest looks like brown catkins covered with an outer layer of gray-green lichens and silk from spider webs.* I could not see inside the nest, except for little fluffy tufts of something sticking up that may be dandelion tufts or similar material. As I watched, she left for only a few seconds at a time and usually came back with spider-web silk in her bill – often with sticky strands streaming over her head and down her neck, too. Spider-web silk also extends up and down the branch from the nest.

Each time she returned, she sat in the nest and used her bill to apply the silk to the rim or outer sides, wiping her bill over the nest surface, and sometimes flicking out her tongue. Once she preened her rump feathers with her bill and then wiped it over the side of the nest. Sometimes she brought small tufts of other material and deposited it inside the nest with a vigorous stabbing motion.

Every time she came to the nest, after she had applied whatever materials she had brought, she wiggled around in the nest and seemed to be using her feet and belly to help press down the materials or shape the inside.

All of her feathers looked a little rumpled or ruffled up, on top of her head, and on her back, and this appeared to be because of her exertions. Her back and head were iridescent green. White showed around the outer corners of her eyes, giving her a wide-eyed look, and on her pale throat were subtle radiating rows of small soft spots. Every once in a while I heard her twitter, but she never came to the feeder while I was watching, and rarely seemed to be gone long enough to eat. During this time, she seemed entirely focused on nest building – though once she stayed gone for as long as a minute.

I have not yet seen a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird here, and saw no sign of one this morning as the female worked on her nest.

*The species account in Birds of North America Online says the nest usually is constructed of plant down such as thistle and dandelion, or bud scales, covered in lichen and all held together with spider webbing. So maybe what looks like catkins to me is scales or thistle. The account also says the nest is constructed by the female alone, and that she usually begins building it on arrival in the breeding area.

T.R. Robinson, R.R. Sargent and M.B. Sargent. 1996. Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Hooded Warbler

Friday, April 17th, 2009

About 9:00 this morning – another cool, clear, sunny day – a Hooded Warbler sang in the low branches on the eastern edge of our yard, at the edge of the woods. I heard its bright weeta-weeta-wee-TEE-oh song, and found it not far away, a little olive-green bird with a bright yellow face and striking black hood, lifting his head and singing three or four times before flying into a large forsythia bush and out of view. Later in the day, I heard his song again two or three times from generally the same area. I’d like to think he might stay around, maybe near one of the creeks, but it’s more likely he’s just passing through.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers Mating

Thursday, April 16th, 2009

Early on a cool, sunny, clear afternoon, a Parula Warbler sang and sang in the woods, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called spee, a Tiger Swallowtail floated through the trees, and a Phoebe, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Carolina Wren also sang nearby.

A male Red-bellied Woodpecker flew into the top part of a broken-off snag of a thick dead pine, about 25 feet tall. The snag has several broken limbs around the top and is partially screened by the leaves of a water oak beside it. A pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers has been very active and vocal around this area for the past several days, and I wondered if there might be a nest hole on the other side of the snag where I can’t see it.

The Woodpecker went around the snag at the top several times, pecking now and then, but seeming restless. Then he hopped onto one of the branches and called a loud quuooorrr. His red cap glistened and shimmered like silk. A female Red-bellied Woodpecker flew to the branch beside him, and he immediately hopped on top of her and – I presume – they mated. It was only a matter of a very few seconds.

He immediately flew away to another tree nearby and made chucking calls. She stayed on the branch and preened under her wings, sort of flattened her body out, looked around, and was silent. After three or four minutes, she also flew away.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak in a Green Rain

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

A gorgeous male Rose-breasted Grosbeak has been visiting the feeders in our front yard today. It is vividly colored, with black and white patterned wings, back and tail, an all-black head, large pinkish-ivory bill, and a deep rose-red bib that goes down the white breast in a perfect soft V-shape.

When not on the feeders, it’s been staying nearby in the new-green leaves of the water oaks and pecans. Among the sound of water dripping from the trees and shrubs, drenched from showers last night and this morning, the Grosbeak’s squeaking call – like the sound of a tennis shoe on a hardwood floor – gives away his location.

When he is on a feeder, he fends off just about all other birds. A male Cardinal approached once. The big Grosbeak partially flared its wings, parted its huge beak, and lunged toward the Cardinal, which flew away without further dispute.

The trees are all fast leafing out, and it seems to be raining green as the grass grows and more and more leaves open on oaks, sweet gums, and pecans, and even small dusty rose and green leaves are opening on some of the white oaks. Meanwhile, the white sprays of dogwoods still lace thickly through the woods. They’ve been especially pretty this spring.

White-eyed Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Blue Grosbeak – and a Robin’s Song

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Many other birds also were singing in and after the rain, including a White-eyed Vireo in shrubs near the edge of the woods, and a Red-eyed Vireo in trees around the house and in the woods, both recent spring arrivals. I first heard the chick-perchickoree-chick calls of two White-eyed Vireos in the old field just outside our subdivision last Thursday, April 9, and first heard and saw a Red-eyed Vireo here in our yard the following day, April 10. It sang its musical four-part song a little more slowly and deliberately than usual, but very clearly, as it moved through the trees. I think it had been singing in the woods for a couple of days, but this was the first time it came close enough for me to see its slim shape, white eye-stripe and dark cap.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, White-throated Sparrows, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Carolina Wrens, Cardinals, Titmice, Chickadees, Chipping Sparrows, Phoebes, a Mockingbird, Towhee, Downy Woodpecker, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers sang or called. A Red-shouldered Hawk cried from beyond the trees in the east, its usual territory. A Robin’s song was the first thing I heard this morning when I awoke, against the background music of the rain, and it’s continued to sing enthusiastically all day.

Maybe the most surprising sounds I heard this morning were the zhrreeee calls and chirpy squabbling of about a dozen Pine Siskins that are still here. Along with Goldfinches, several Siskins came to both feeders and chirped and sang high up in the trees.

A male Blue Grosbeak that flew by from the edge of the woods and disappeared around the corner of the house was another surprise, and it was gone so quickly, I could barely trust my eyes, especially in the gray, murky light. But its very dark blue coloring with rusty wings, together with its overall shape and size looked pretty familiar.

So the busiest time of the spring migration season seems to have arrived. Almost every day right now brings something new.

Barn Swallows

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Late this morning, under a sunny blue sky, two Barn Swallows sailed and swooped and dipped over a big grassy yard in our neighborhood – the first ones I’ve seen this season. I was walking near the house with the large porch where they usually nest each year, and wondering if they were back yet, when I heard a dry twittering, and there they were, right above me.

With steel-blue back, red-orange breast and long forked tail, they are striking in appearance, but the main reason I’m always happy to see them again is that their sweeping, fast, exuberant flight is so much fun just to stand and watch. I wonder if a Barn Swallow’s flight might be the equivalent of a Wood Thrush’s song – its most eloquent expression of being.