Archive for June, 2009

Blue Grosbeak in Old Field

Friday, June 26th, 2009

This morning, for the first time this season, I heard a Blue Grosbeak singing in the old field. The warbled high notes of its song cut through the traffic noise of the highway below, though just barely. It was hard to hear anything else but trucks and cars and SUVs.

I found the Grosbeak low, going from spot to spot in pokeweed and other ragged shrubs and stopping to sing along the way. His intensely blue plumage and big silver beak stood out brightly. He swished his tail from side to side, and now and then called a hard metallic chink! He was one of the most brilliantly colored Blue Grosbeaks I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if the color was all in the bird or the early morning light or a combination of both, but he looked uncommonly clear, fresh, sunlit blue.

He kept moving and I lost him in the thickets, then found him again, singing from the top of a small chinaberry tree half covered in kudzu vines. From there, too, he looked very colorful.

Meanwhile, a Red-tailed Hawk sat on a pole overlooking the highway. Mockingbirds and Towhees sang. Three Brown Thrashers preened in the upper branches of ragged shrubs. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and a Downy Woodpecker called from the shade of the clustered pines, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird zipped over the tops of the weeds and grasses. The purple thistles have almost all gone to seed, the grasses look faded and yellow, all the shrubs and vines look baked and curled by the heat, and the big white flowers of wild potato-vines splotch the shaggy grasses in the power cut.

First-spring Summer Tanager

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

A first-spring Summer Tanager sang a tentative song from the branches of oaks and pecans in the front yard this morning. The song was clearly the slurred, musical whistle of a Summer Tanager, but much softer and more hesitant. Splotched about half and half rose-red and deep yellow, he sang not from a treetop, but from low in the branches, moving from place to place, singing a few bars here, and a few bars there.

A Different Eastern Towhee Song

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

This morning – another hot, sunny day – a male Eastern Towhee sat on a wire along the road that runs by the old field, singing a song that ends in three sharp, quick tink-tink-tinks. This song is different from a Towhee’s usual drink-your-tea song or to-whee call, and it often takes me a minute to remember what bird it is. The Towhee in the field has been singing it all this week, and maybe longer, and I remember it from previous years. Today I watched him sing this song several times from his perch on the wire.

I have not been able to find any description of this song or a reference to it, except for notes that Eastern Towhees sing a number of different songs that have not been fully described. It is somewhat similar to the drink-your-tea song, except that it’s backward. Instead of beginning with short notes and ending with a trill, this song seems to begin with something like a garbled trill and end with three very crisp, distinct notes. These notes are not rising and falling, but are all the same pitch – tink-tink-tink.

Turkey Vulture Sunning

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Also this morning, I walked off the road that runs along the field and up a rutted driveway that leads to an abandoned house and an overgrown, weedy area, and found two Black Vultures and one Turkey Vulture all perched on the tops of separate poles. One Black Vulture and the Turkey Vulture sat with their backs to the sun and with wings held out to warm them. The Turkey Vulture, in particular, looked much more impressive than one usually does, almost handsome, its dull black feathers and red head standing out clearly against a blue sky.

On the Summer Solstice – Scarlet Tanager, Red-tailed Hawks, Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

Back home in northeast Georgia, we’re in the middle of a heat wave as summer officially arrives, with temperatures near 100 for the past few days, and more of the same in the forecast for next week. The rasp of cicadas rises and falls, and grasshoppers sing. Wasps, bees, dragonflies and other flying insects buzz and hum. Chimney Swifts chatter as they sweep low over the grass in the morning. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds visit the feeder and flowers on the back deck often. Red-eyed Vireos sing fast and constantly all day, but stay deep in the woods. Now and then I hear the sharp wheet of an Acadian Flycatcher from down near the creek.

The highlights of a morning walk for me – trying to beat the worst of the heat – were the summery call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks and a juvenile, and a Scarlet Tanager perched in a treetop and singing.

About 7:30 this morning it was already very warm and humid when I left the house. The sky was covered in high, rumpled clouds that drifted apart and faded away as I walked, clearing the way for another blistering sunny day. Around our yard the songs of a Northern Parula and a Pine Warbler sounded shady and cool. A Great-crested Flycatcher called whreep. Downy Woodpeckers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers rattled. Two Phoebes hunted from low branches.

Seven Crows stalked in the grass of a neighbor’s lawn across the street. Several Robins were scattered across the grass of another yard, and a couple of Robins sang from treetops. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called spee from a thicket. Bluebirds flashed their colors all along the way, very active, and some perched in treetops and sang. Bird songs and calls generally were scattered and muffled and mostly in the distance, with a few exceptions – the dry cawp-cawp-cawp-cawp of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the lisping song of a Phoebe, the warbling of House Finches – and the enthusiastic songs of several Mockingbirds. One that sings from an area near the small pond does a near-perfect imitation of a Kingfisher’s rattle, as well as the scream of a Red-tailed Hawk, and variations on Carolina Wren, Brown-headed Nuthatch, White-eyed Vireo, Blue Jay, Cardinal and several more.

Goldfinches passed over, trailing their potato-chip calls, House Wrens sang cheery, energetic bursts of song here and there. Carolina Wrens, Chickadees, Titmice, Blue Jays, Cardinals and too many Brown-headed Cowbirds sang or called.

When I got to the old field, a Red-tailed Hawk was sitting on top of a pole overlooking the highway. Several mornings during the past week, two Red-tailed Hawks and one juvenile have been around this area – the juvenile often screaming while the adults perch quietly. This time, while I was watching, a second Red-tailed Hawk flew up and joined the first one on top of the same pole. Both of these were adults. They lifted their wings, looking as if they had a little trouble finding footing, but then they both settled down and sat there sharing the space, facing in opposite directions. I walked on, and when I saw them again on my way back, one had flown to the next pole out over the highway. A third Red-tailed Hawk – the juvenile – then circled high over the same area, crying repeatedly.

Earlier in the week a single Indigo Bunting sang almost every day in or near the field – sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-sweet – but this morning it wasn’t there.

As I got close to home again, I heard the squeaking calls of Brown-headed Nuthatches, the long dry trill of a Chipping Sparrow, and saw several Bluebirds perched in trees and flying from place to place. But the best part of the walk came just as I reached our driveway, when I heard a few hoarse bars of a song and saw a tiny shape in the leaves at the top of a water oak across the street. It was a glass-red Scarlet Tanager, singing, in the same territory where one sang all day every day last summer.

Wood Stork, Gull-billed Tern and Other Activity Around Marsh Ponds

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

In addition to the Black-necked Stilts and Ospreys, many other birds were active around the Willet Pond and Ibis Pond on Kiawah. Clate got some amazing photographs – the best part of these postings by far! Click here to see a slide show.

Four Wood Storks soared overhead and then flew in to wade in shallow water with Great Egrets, foraging for small fish and other prey. Two Glossy Ibis foraged on the far edge of the Willet Pond, too far away to see their dark blue-green and rust-colored plumage well, though their shapes and long down-curved bills were distinctive. Twice I saw a fairly large, rufous-orange bird fly up out of the grass and back down again, so warmly colored I think it must have been a King Rail.

Snowy Egrets, with their bright yellow “golden slippers;” Tricolored Herons in blue-gray and white, with a thin ribbon of orange down the throat and neck and hints of purple and mauve; and at least one Little Blue Heron foraged in open areas of shallow water. Many Red-winged Blackbirds sang and flashed the colors in their wings, and an Orchard Oriole – with handsome chestnut-red body and black hood – perched in the top of a shrub and whistled a clear, musical song.

Two Green Herons stalked in the grass and shrubs near the edge of the water. Lots of Laughing Gulls flew over and all around us, perched on the rail of an observation deck, and dove down to fish, and three or four Royal Terns flew by.

Four Least Terns were among the most fun to watch, fluttering, hovering and diving into the water. These small, graceful terns are considered species of concern because the sandy beaches they need for nesting habitat are also increasingly popular and heavily used for recreation.

We also saw this beautiful Gull-billed Tern flying over the Ibis Pond. I’m not familiar enough with terns to be completely sure of the identification, but its size, coloring and rather heavy, all-black bill were distinctive. If any readers could let me know, I’d be very interested to confirm if I’ve correctly identified it. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

Osprey in Owls’ Nest, Kiawah

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

On our visit to Kiawah Island, SC, last week, a pair of Ospreys were active around a nest occupied by a Great Horned Owl in mid-March. (March 15 blog posting) Photos by Clate Sanders

The two Ospreys were present around the nest area each of four times we went there during the week – soaring, perching in pines very near the nest, and bringing fish to nearby pines to eat. Twice one of the Ospreys flew to the nest and sat in it for a few moments, then left it. On the last day we were there, we saw one of the Ospreys fly to the nest with a stick and appear to be working it in.

After we returned home, I found an April 18 report from the nature program on Kiawah Island that “the last owlet at Willet pond is now gone and the Ospreys have moved in, they were spotted re-building the nest and courting.” (Kiawah Island Golf Resort) So I’m not sure what was happening now, two months after that report – but it seems like they have reclaimed the nest even after it was used by the Great Horned Owls.

Black-necked Stilts, Kiawah Island

Monday, June 15th, 2009

The birding highlight of a visit to Kiawah Island last week was finding Black-necked Stilts in the marsh grasses around the Willet Pond – along with four Wood Storks, two Glossy Ibis, several Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Tri-colored Herons, at least one Little Blue Heron, two Green Herons, four Least Terns, Royal Terns, lots of Laughing Gulls, and two Ospreys around the nest occupied in March by Great Horned Owls. Photos by Clate Sanders

We first saw the Black-necked Stilts Sunday, June 7, at the Willet Pond. I had been watching herons, egrets and the wood storks, when I began noticing agitated calls that sounded to me like repeated breeks, and saw something fly up around one of the Wood Storks. To my amazement, it was a Black-necked Stilt – a very elegant, slender, black-and-white patterned wading bird with long thin red legs. For me, it was a life bird. I had never seen one before anywhere, and had not known they might be here on Kiawah. A pair were flying up again and again around the Wood Stork and calling, and finally, after five or ten minutes, the stork spread its wings heavily and drifted to a different spot, out of the grass, in an area of open shallow water.

After seeing those first two Black-necked Stilts, we began to see others spread out all through the marsh grass around the pond. They flew up here and there briefly, sometimes flew from place to place, low over the edge of the water, and several stalked out into open areas of mudflat and shallow water, where we were able to see them very well. Their black, white and red coloring caught the eye quickly.

A June 5 report on the Kiawah Island Golf Resort’s website says that Black-necked Stilts are a rare summer visitor to Kiawah. “This year, we are fortunate to have several pairs on our island. In fact, according to our Town Biologists, “the stilts are exhibiting behaviors which lead us to believe they may be nesting.”

Cooper’s Hawk Pair

Monday, June 1st, 2009

Today looked like the first of June – a hot, clear, sunny day with a deep blue sky and gleaming big white cumulous clouds – and felt like it, with afternoon temperatures in the 90s. Late in the morning as I was walking, a pair of Cooper’s Hawks flew over together just above treetop level. They were a handsome sight against the sunny blue sky, with ruddy breast, wide bands in the long, narrow, slightly rounded tail, white tip at the end of the tail, and intricate dark and white patterns in the wings. But they were most remarkable for the significant difference in their size. The male looked small and compact next to the much larger female, though he, too, showed the same shape and plumage, and flew with the sturdy, rather heavy flapping characteristic of a Cooper’s Hawk.