Archive for July, 2009

Northern Flicker

Monday, July 20th, 2009

A walk around noon today was notable mainly for how very quiet birds were. When I first stepped out the door, I heard not a single bird, only the shrieking of cicadas. It was a pleasant day, sunny and warm, but not nearly as hot as usual for this time of year. Three or four Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zoomed around the feeder and the geraniums in the back yard, and there were the distant, scattered calls of Cardinal, Titmouse and Carolina Wren. But partly because of the time of year, partly the time of day, not much else was happening, with one exception.

A Northern Flicker gave its loud but level pileated-like rattle and flew into some bare branches at the top of a tree where its warm brown back, gray head and bright black bib and red crescent on the back of the neck glowed in the sun.

Wood Thrush and Eastern Wood-Pewee

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

This morning – a rare cool summer morning, with temperatures in the mid 60s and the air feeling fresh and clean – two Wood Thrushes sang in the same low area of woods around a creek from where I heard one sing a few days ago. A quiet Black-and-white Warbler crept over the limbs of a large pecan tree nearby, on the edge of a thicket, and a Northern Parula was hidden somewhere in the foliage of the same tree, singing.

By 8:30 or so, the sun had already climbed well up into a soft blue sky with patches of broken white clouds rippling out like fish scales, turned by the sunlight into an amazing iridescent array of aqua-green, mauve, pink and salmon. Not quite a rainbow, but the aqua-green color, in particular, was very unusual and pretty.

Birds were more active and vocal than usual lately throughout the neighborhood – just on a morning walk I counted 28 species, even though some of the most common were missing – but the biggest surprise was an Eastern Wood-Pewee, singing its full, languid pee-a-wee – WHEE-ooo song from a small group of trees.

Black-and-white Warbler at my Window

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Late this morning as I was coming down the stairs in our front hall, I saw a small black and white bird fluttering around a long, narrow, rectangular window over our front door. It was a female or juvenile Black-and-white Warbler, very slender and pretty, with sharp black and white striping on the head, and black wings with bright white wing bars. It was looking into the window and apparently trying to get through it, repeatedly fluttering up against the glass and moving all along the length of the window. It did not appear to be foraging for spiders or insects, but just trying to get through the glass – and most frustrated at this invisible barrier to wherever it wanted to go.

Not easily discouraged, the little warbler fluttered up again and again for more than five minutes, I think, maybe as long as ten. Several times it stopped and tilted its head, as if studying the situation and trying to figure this out. Then it would fly up again, trying every spot along the way before it finally gave up, turned its back on the impassable glass and flew away.

This is a small window, and I’ve never known of a bird flying into it, but maybe from the right position they can see through it and through the kitchen windows on the other side of the house – outside of which are flowering plants and ferns on the deck, and trees beyond that.

Although we usually have several Black-and-white Warblers here during the summer, this year I have not heard or seen any since the spring, until now. So it was fun to see this one, and particularly interesting to watch its persistence and puzzlement, its attempts to solve the mystery, and eventual deduction that this just wasn’t going to work.

Crows – Bathing and Anting

Sunday, July 12th, 2009

This afternoon, in the hottest part of a hot, sunny, humid day, six American Crows gathered in the grass around a spot on the edge of our driveway. They sat low down on the grass, bellies to the ground, with wings spread. One or two stayed down like this for several minutes, occasionally lifting a wing or wiggling on the ground. Others on the ground stayed with wings spread out for a shorter time. When they stood up, some stood nearby on the grass and shook their wings, preened or raked a bill through their feathers, others flew to nearby trees to do the same. Later we checked the spot and, indeed, found a nest of black ants.

A group of six or seven Crows has been spending a lot of time around the yard – I don’t know if these were the same ones or different. They often visit one of the birdbaths in the morning. Sometimes all six or seven of them crowd onto the rim in a circle to drink, but they take turns bathing, one at a time, then strut around in the grass, shaking and preening.

Yellow-breasted Chat, Gray Catbird and Blue Grosbeak

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

This morning – another in a string of pleasantly cool early mornings, with blue sky and rumpled white clouds – a Mockingbird was singing from its usual perch on a wire overlooking the old field. Most of the Mockingbirds in the neighborhood have fallen quiet now, but this one still sings enthusiastically – including the sounds of red-tailed hawk, blue grosbeak, wood thrush, white-eyed vireo and bluebird, as well as others. Two Mourning Doves sat on a wire. A Blue Grosbeak was singing from the far north end of the field, and one silent Red-tailed Hawk sat on a pole overlooking the highway.

I heard the chick-a-perioo-chick of a White-eyed Vireo, as often, and just happened to catch a glimpse of it flying out to catch an insect on the edge of a thick growth of trees and vines. It was too far away to see well – not much more than a little gray bird – but it was singing as it moved.

Then I heard a hoarse chet-chet-chet-chet for the first time this summer – and again was just lucky to see a flash of bright yellow-gold – a Yellow-breasted Chat. It was closer than the Vireo, moving around on the outside of a thicket, so I could also see the pure-white belly and white spectacles.

Because there seemed to be an unusual amount of activity in the field, I watched for a few minutes, and found a quiet Gray Catbird lurking in the weeds and vines – for the first time this summer.

Both a male and a female Blue Grosbeak flew from shrub to shrub at the edge of the power cut, calling bright chink! notes. Two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flashed silver as they flitted in and out of bushes.

An Eastern Towhee was singing its tink-tink-tink song again, both from the field and from a perch on the wire, toward the southern end of the field. He didn’t seem disturbed by my standing right below him to listen. The song begins with a trilled, downward chee-ur, then a sharp, quick tink-tink-tink.

Seeing the Yellow-breasted Chat and the Gray Catbird – both of which I had not seen or heard this season until today – makes me think these birds are not just suddenly here. I think I’ve just been distracted and not observant enough to see or hear them recently. Too much lost in thought and not paying enough attention to what’s around me.

Red-tailed Hawks

Friday, July 10th, 2009

A juvenile Red-tailed Hawk and one or two mature Red-tailed Hawks sit on top of utility poles overlooking the old field and Highway 441 almost every morning lately. They’ve been there regularly for about the last three weeks, usually sitting on separate poles or sometimes in nearby trees, the juvenile often giving its high, hoarse scream. As the day warms up, they leave their perches, circle up and soar, and the young one continues to call.

This morning one of the adults perched on a pole as usual, its breast looking silvery-white in the bright sunlight, with the streaks of a broken-brown bar across the breast and brown, hooded head. The juvenile sat on a wire right beside it, a darker, more mottled brown and white.

Wood Thrush

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

Early this morning a Wood Thrush was singing in the woods just around the corner, not far from a creek. I’ve rarely heard their song this summer, so the beautiful fluted notes drifting out of the dark green trees felt like a gift.

The morning was fresh and cool, with a blue and white sky. A Northern Parula sang from trees around our house, a Scarlet Tanager from its usual territory in the treetops of the woods across the street, and a Summer Tanager from deeper in the woods, pretty far away. A Red-eyed Vireo gave its nasal, complaining call. A Chipping Sparrow sang a long, light, level trill from the top of a very small pine. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird zipped over my head into a thicket of shrubs.

A Great-crested Flycatcher – with lemon-yellow belly, long cinnamon tail and gray head with crest erect – perched in a tall tulip poplar and called breet. It was answered by another – and another, all close together. At least four Great-crested Flycatchers called back and forth to each other and moved around in the leaves of the tulip poplar and some oaks.

The Fourth of July – Scarlet Fireworks

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

Early this morning a Scarlet Tanager sang from the top of an oak at the edge of the woods across the road. Its clear, pure red and black gleamed in the sunlight as it lifted its head and parted its beak and sang again and again – a small, fiery, solo celebration in song.

The morning air still felt barely cool, and the sky was blue and clear. Thanks to the holiday, it was unusually quiet, no yard machines, and almost no sound of traffic in the distance. Most birds have become rather quiet now, too, as usual at this time of year, their songs and activity more scattered and subdued.

A Northern Parula wheezed in the trees around our house. A Great-crested Flycatcher called breet. Bluebirds and Phoebes hunted from low branches, Goldfinches flew over calling potato-chip, and a Chipping Sparrow sang a long, light, airy trill. A juvenile Chipping Sparrow followed a parent into the grass, begging with a high, thin ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti. A Downy Woodpecker rattled, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker flew from one tree to another. A House Wren perched in a river birch and sang its cheery, bubbly song. Chimney Swifts swooped quietly, low over the grass. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird twittered as it zipped over my head, heading for the back yard and probably for the feeder and the geraniums on the deck. With a strangled whistle and jingle, a pair of Brown-headed Cowbirds came to the birdbath for a drink.

About a week ago, a Bluebird pair began working on a new nest. The male sat often on top of the nest-box while the female flew in with nesting materials. Today I only saw the male and it wasn’t near the nest-box, and wondered if the female is brooding eggs – or not. I’ve never liked to open the box to see, even though supposedly it doesn’t bother them. I’d rather wait.

On a walk around the neighborhood, mostly what I noticed was the lazy green quiet and the hum and whine and buzz of cicadas and other insects. A Red-eyed Vireo whistled from the woods around one corner, a less urgent, slower-paced, sweeter song than a week or two ago. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo called a dry cawp-cawp-cawp. Two Barn Swallows swooped and dipped over the big grassy yard where I always stop to watch them for a while.

Two Red-tailed Hawks perched on the tops of poles overlooking the highway, and another – a juvenile – flew from one pine to another on the edge of the woods, pursued by two agitated Mockingbirds. The juvenile and at least one of the mature hawks have been around this area every morning recently, sitting on the poles or soaring, the juvenile often crying loudly.

Mockingbirds, Towhees and a White-eyed Vireo were singing in the field, but there were no signs this morning of Indigo Bunting or Blue Grosbeak. Sometimes they’re here, these days, and sometimes not. Just as I started to turn back toward home, a Cooper’s Hawk flew from a line of trees across the road and over me and into the pines and oaks on the far side of the field.

Missing – Eastern Wood-Pewee, Field Sparrow, Chuck-will’s-widow

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

As we settle into the long, hot days of summer, birdsong has shifted to a much more scattered and less exuberant pace and spirit, as always. But even given this normal pattern, some songs are conspicuously missing from our neighborhood this year.

The first one that comes to mind – and probably the one I miss the most – is the lazy, dreamy pee-a-wee – whee-oo of an Eastern Wood-Pewee. This used to be one of the most familiar sounds of a summer afternoon, as the small grayish, flycatching birds with white wing-bars and slightly crested, dusky-dark heads sang from trees scattered across shady yards. For the past several years, their numbers here have seemed to decline steadily, and this year I’ve heard no Wood-Pewees singing here at all. Not even one.

The light, bouncing notes of a Field Sparrow have completely disappeared from the overgrown fields and open areas, along with the rising, buzzy, piping song of a Prairie Warbler, and the strange squawks and whistles of a Yellow-breasted Chat. Perhaps most surprisingly, I have not heard or seen a Gray Catbird this year in any of their usual spots.

Though fireflies flash and bats circle and dip in the long orange twilights, and katydids and other insects chatter loudly, warm summer nights seem strangely empty without the shimmering, resonant call of a Chuck-will’s-widow. Now and then we hear the deep who-cooks-for-you calls of a Barred Owl or two – but their visits, too, have become less and less common, no longer a real and near presence in our woods.

Other birds, especially neotropical migrants like Indigo Bunting and Blue Grosbeak in the fields and power cuts, and Wood Thrush and Acadian Flycatcher in the woods, have not been completely absent this year, but they are noticeably fewer and less often heard. In recent years, Black-and-white Warblers have been common in our woods, regular singers in several different places, but this year I heard them rarely in the spring and so far not at all in summer.

On a brighter note, we regularly see and hear both Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, a Northern Parula, Great-crested Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Cuckoo.