Archive for May, 2009

Dawn Song of a Great Crested Flycatcher

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Already the early morning chorus is much less exuberant and crowded than three or four weeks ago. This morning one cardinal began singing a little after 5:00 am, joined about 5:15 by a bluebird and several minutes later by a phoebe. About 5:45 other birds began to sing or call, including the pik-a-tuk calls of a summer tanager, the spees of blue-gray gnatcatcher and songs of Carolina wren, chipping sparrow, chickadee, titmouse and the whinny of a downy woodpecker. These are the birds I can hear from a window facing the front yard – not the woods and back where there might have been a Louisiana waterthrush, Acadian flycatcher, northern parula, red-eyed vireo, yellow-throated vireo, scarlet tanager, maybe even a wood thrush – or not.

The most persistent song this morning – and the closest to my open bedroom window – came from a great-crested flycatcher giving a soft, musical, almost purring two-part song. Over and over it called wheer, whurr; wheer, whurr; wheer, whurr. The sound was intimate and low, very different from its loud daytime calls. After 30 minutes or so, I have to say, it became a little monotonous. Still, it was unusual to hear, and interesting.

The dawn chorus, such as it was, ended about 6:15 with the flourish of a full, dry, drawn-out call from a yellow-billed cuckoo. A cardinal, bluebird, phoebe, and Carolina wren continued to sing here and there, as they would all day, and a summer tanager sang in the distance, but the first flush of early-morning music was over, and the sun was about to come up.

An Early Summer Day

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

The day began with the song of a Wood Thrush, lyrical, flute-like notes drifting up through the leaves of the woods from somewhere down around the creek. The morning was cloudy and gray, the trees restless in a light breeze. I stood for several minutes in a fine, barely perceptible sprinkle of rain, feeling very lucky, just listening to the unexpected song, impossibly lovely and increasingly uncommon here.

There’s one other Wood Thrush singing in our neighborhood this spring, in a wooded area behind a small pond. Each year, there seem to be fewer, and each year I think that maybe we won’t hear one at all – so when I do, it feels like a gift.

From around the same area near the creek came the sharp WHEET-sit call of an Acadian Flycatcher, the bright whistle and tumbling notes of a Louisiana Waterthrush, the buzzy song of a Northern Parula, and the less-frequently heard dry, rising and falling cow-cow-cow-CAWP-cawp-cawp-cawp of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

A Pine Warbler trilled in the pines all around the edges of the woods, and very active Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called spee. A Yellow-throated Vireo sang in the trees behind a neighbor’s yard, a Red-eyed Vireo deeper in the woods, and a Great-crested Flycatcher called breet and whreep. The cries of a Red-shouldered Hawk soaring very high in the southeast sounded made it sound much closer than it was.

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird made frequent trips to the feeder, now and then buzzing over to me and hanging in the air, coming closer and closer, checking me out. A couple of times another hummingbird zoomed past her like a warning shot, maybe the male, but a male never came to the feeder while I was watching, though their twittering calls were all around. The nest I watched a female construct four weeks ago sits empty on its pine branch, so I assume she’s built another somewhere else.

Rain clouds hung low, gray and dark all day, with occasional sprinkles, but despite the gloomy weather, there was a surprising amount of bird activity around our yard and woods. Now and then a breeze brought the summery scent of gardenias, now in bloom. I don’t think birds were unusually active today. It’s just that I happened to be out at the right times. Some of the observations were typical of an early summer day but others were surprising and interesting.

American Redstart

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Early in the afternoon while I was sitting outside reading after lunch, a female American Redstart – gray with yellow patches in wings and tail – flitted out of the foliage and briefly perched on a bare branch while she ate something. After that, I could hear two Redstarts singing among the leaves of the oaks nearby for an hour or more, but never could spot them. I was surprised to see and hear them, and don’t know if they are late migrants or maybe staying to nest, though usually I have not found them here during the summer months. Their cheery, high songs – sort of tsee-tsee-tsee or tseeta-tseeta-tseeta-tsee – and colorful behavior always brighten a day.

Hairy Woodpecker Pair

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

A male Hairy Woodpecker flew to a spot high up on a tall dead pine calling as it arrived in an long, unusual string of loud wicka-chew sort of notes that sounded agitated or excited. Then it flew with loud peenk! calls to the lowest part of another pine trunk, where it met a female Hairy Woodpecker, and both immediately began tapping industriously on the trunk and stayed there working for several minutes.

A male and female Bluebird hunted from low branches in the back yard, and juveniles made zee-zee begging sounds somewhere among the leaves where I couldn’t see them, except for one that flew down to the grass and began pecking around and feeding itself. Meanwhile, a Phoebe called tsup-tsup as it perched on branches and swept out or down to the grass for insects.

Suddenly, a pugnacious little Carolina Wren flew to the top of a plant-hanger on the deck and sang very loudly and richly, continuing to sing as it made its way over each of the tomato cages on the plants in pots, then to the deck rail, to another plant-hanger, and finally into a hanging fern at the corner of the deck, where it scrabbled around deep in the greenery for several minutes. The female wren came along quietly a few minutes behind him, carrying small twigs in her bill and following his general path across the deck, but instead of going into the fern, she flew to the branches of nearby bushes, and the male followed her.

A warm-red male Summer Tanager made its way, quiet and leisurely, through the oaks and pines, not calling, not singing, stopping here and there to preen and wipe its bill.

A Brown Thrasher Conflict

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Two Brown Thrashers also were moving around in the branches of the white oaks near the house, and one sang for four or five minutes, then fell silent. A few minutes later, one of the Brown Thrashers suddenly hurtled out of the oaks in a loud, fierce squabble and tangle with something. Because of the cries – which sounded alarmed and hurt – at first I thought it must have been caught by a small hawk, but it wasn’t. It happened so quickly I never saw what the other bird was – only a feathered, furious ball of the two flying out and falling to the ground together – but I think it was probably the other Thrasher. If so, their conflict sounded and looked pretty serious. One Brown Thrasher flew away – I did not see what happened to the other bird, but it must also have flown, in a different direction.

Barred Owls

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

The day ended after dark, with the raucous calls of two Barred Owls that sounded as if they were in the branches right outside our windows. They didn’t stay long. We may have frightened them away when we turned out the light and walked to the window to listen. But it’s nice to know they’re around.

Trio-flying Chimney Swifts

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

Late this morning three Chimney Swifts passed low over me, flying close together and twittering loudly and constantly, with stiff wings fluttering. They swept through the trees and down over open grassy yards, then streaked back up again high, swooping over me several times while I was walking, always twittering and flying fast, diving, climbing, and weaving in and out of trees.

This “trio-flying” is a common behavior of Chimney Swifts at this time of year – something I have noticed in the past and sort of halfway wondered about, but never took the trouble to learn more about or question until now. There was something about their constant, expressive twittering calls that made me stop and watch them more closely this time, and the fact that they swept so low and in such dramatic patterns – quite different from the way they might pass over much higher on a lazy summer day.

The Birds of North America species account says trio-flying seems to be performed by one female and two males. Its function is not known, though apparently it’s a part of aerial courtship displays early in the season. It’s “characterized by three swifts following each other as they thread their way among buildings and trees, with incessant, louder-than-normal Chipper Calls . . . At peak intensity, trio-flying results in the most rapid flight speeds, ascending to much greater heights than normal, and flying horizontally great distances.” *

Learning about “trio-flying” is another reminder to me of how much I often take for granted – how much there is to learn about things I see and don’t think to question, or to really watch and listen carefully and with an open mind.

In the course of looking for this information, I also discovered an interesting description of Chimney Swift voices by Winson Marrett Tyler, in A.C. Bent’s Life Histories, which reveals that what I’ve always heard as just a rather nondescript “twittering” actually consists of a surprising variety of calls, though I have to admit it’s hard to imagine hearing these variations in the rapid-fire chatter of the birds as they pass so quickly overhead.

“The notes of the swift remind us of the bird itself – energetic and quick; sharp and hard like the bird’s stiff wings,” Tyler wrote. “The note most commonly heard as the birds shoot about over our heads is a bright clear, staccato chip or tsik – whichever suggests the sharper sound – often repeated in a series and sometimes running off into a rapid chatter. . . . Simple as these notes are, the birds introduce a good deal of variety into them by modifying the interval between them, thereby changing the expression of their lively theme.

“One modification . . . serves to illustrate this ability and may be regarded as representing the song of the swift. It is made up of a long series of notes in which the birds, after giving several isolated chips, change abruptly to a series of very rapid notes, a sort of chatter, then with no pause between, change back to the chips, then back again – chips – chatter – chips, and so on. We may term it the “chips and chatter call.”. . . Another modification of the chip note, often heard in summer when the birds are in a comparatively quiet mood, is a long chatter in which the volume increases and lessens, suggesting the sounding of a minute watchman’s rattle.” **

*Calvin L. Cink and Charles T. Collins. 2002. Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

** Winson Marrett Tyler, Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) in Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds. Arthur Cleveland Bent, 1940, United States Government Printing Office. Selected and edited for online publication by Patricia Query Newforth, 1996-2009.

The Soft Calls of a Tanager Pair

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

The soft, clicking pit-oo, pit-oo calls of a pair of Summer Tanagers have been traveling through the trees all around the house for the past few days. These are quieter, more intimate calls than their usual, conversational pik-a-tuk.

Late this morning the pair were calling softly like this and going from place to place among the lower branches of trees in the back yard. The female emerged to sit on a bare stretch of a branch alone, where she swallowed something she had caught and wiped her bill on the branch. Her coloring was very deep, dusky yellow, almost orange, a shade darker on her head, with yellow-brown wings.

The rose-red male flew to the branch beside her and presented her with an insect in his bill, which she took and ate. He flew away, and after only a few seconds she followed him, and I could hear their pit-oo calls again. One of the nicest, most peaceful and pleasant sounds on a warm summer-like morning.

American Redstart

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

A flash of black and orange wings fluttering in and out of thick green leaves, and a high, clear song in several different variations – American Redstarts seemed to be almost everywhere today. The ones I saw were all males – small active black birds with splashes of orange in the wings and tail – in treetops, shrubs and thickets. The gray and yellow females are equally colorful and eye-catching, fluttering like moths among the leaves, nothing shy or reclusive about them, looking as if they twirl around like children, purely for joy, as well as for catching their food. They are said to fan their tails and spread their wings, flashing their colors, to flush insect prey from the leaves.

An American Redstart’s song always gets my attention, but I never recognize it at first. I just know it’s something different, something I should recognize but can’t quite place – so I have to learn it again every year. But it sounds like a Redstart looks – bright, animated and changeable, reflecting its lively behavior. Though its voice has a unique, consistent quality, it songs can sound a little like several other warblers, and instead of having one easily-recognizable pattern, it varies the phrasing in several ways.

Indigo Bunting and Roadside Weeds and Wildflowers

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

It’s been another warm, humid, windy day with a damp blue sky full of huge, restless gray and white clouds. An Indigo Bunting – the first of the season here – sang from somewhere among the tangle of weeds in the old field just outside the entrance to our subdivision. I couldn’t see where it was, but its chanting sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-sweet mixed with the songs of White-eyed Vireo, Mockingbird and Eastern Towhee, and the spees of a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Two Red-tailed Hawks soared low over the field and over the busy highway just beyond it.

The wild grasses, weeds and wildflowers along the edge of the field have made a flowing tapestry of colors and textures for the past two or three weeks that’s a pleasure to walk by. The mixture changes gradually, some plants fading, others appearing as the days go by, and I don’t know the names of most of them, only a few. Clouds of tall white daisies, Queen Anne’s lace, low-growing deep-purple verbena and a graceful, coral-colored, branching sort of weed, speckles of yellow dandelions, furry pink rabbit-foot clover, tall feathery grass-tops, tan brushy grass, fresh, new-green grass, and the crusty brown and rust of old grasses and tiny wildflowers. Puffs of filmy panic grass hover like mist over several kinds of twisted, tough-looking plants. Tiny yellow balls of blooms hug the ground, clumps of tall, harsh, spiky purple thistles, lush honeysuckle vines and flowers and white blackberry blossoms, the soft dusty lilac of Chinaberry trees in bloom – and on the other side of the road, a riot of sunny pink roses tumble over the banks of the ditch.

Indigo Buntings love shrubby, weedy old fields like this. As the species account in Birds of North America notes, “Their colorful appearance and cheerful songs are good reasons to fallow old fields and to spare (not spray) herbicides along railways and roads.”*

*Robert B. Payne. Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.