Archive for August, 2009

The Red Eye of a Vireo Among Dogwood Leaves

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

A mostly cloudy day, very warm and humid, but breezy. Highlights from a late morning walk included two Gray Catbirds mewing in the old field, a handsome Brown Thrasher sitting quietly among the branches of a weedy bush, a White-eyed Vireo singing a surprisingly rich song in a thicket, and about a dozen Chimney Swifts swarming against the clouds and chattering as they swept over, at first very high, then coming down low over the road around me.

A small flock of little birds in one grassy yard all scattered up into the branches of trees when I got too close. Among them were at least one juvenile Bluebird, looking very wide-eyed, sturdy and alert, and one juvenile Phoebe, looking rather rumpled and scruffy.

But the most memorable sighting today was a stunning Red-eyed Vireo in a large dogwood tree on the edge of a thicket. I saw it fly into the tree, but it was a few minutes before I could find it rustling among the thick leaves. When I did finally see it, it was a very close-up, clear view. The light must have been just right, coming through a break in the dogwood leaves, which were dense, but curled and fading, with lots of berries, a few already red. The Vireo looked sleek, with greenish back, creamy white breast and belly, and a pale, very faint wash of yellow below the wings and tail, a smooth gray head, elegant white eye-stripe and thin black eye-line – and the best part was a gleaming, ruby-red eye, something I’ve seldom been close enough to see.

Eastern Wood-Pewee – A Late Summer Song

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

This afternoon an Eastern Wood-Pewee’s soft puh-WEE call haunted the edge of the woods around our back yard. It moved from place to place, but I never was able to see the small grayish bird. We have not had a Wood-Pewee around regularly this summer, and I’ve missed them. So at least it’s nice to hear one visiting or passing through, and its shortened, late-summer song reflects a faded, somewhat weary, but still sweet end-of-summer mood.*

For the most part, birds have become pretty quiet. This morning when I stepped outside, at first all I heard were cicadas, grasshoppers and crickets. The sky was clear blue and the sun already high and warm, but not yet hot. Then a trill from a Carolina Wren at the edge of the woods was answered by some burbling notes from another. A Goldfinch flying over called its rolling ti-TEE-ti-ti. A Mourning Dove’s coo echoed through the trees. Several Chipping Sparrows in a grassy area across the street made little high-pitched, ringing calls to each other and flitted from grass to shrub to tree.

A Cardinal peeped, Chickadees chattered, a Titmouse rasped day-day-day, a Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled, a Downy gave a delicate whinny, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called spee-spee, and a Bluebird called in brief little blurry, warbled blurps. Crow, Blue Jay, Eastern Towhee, House Finch . . . most of the vocal birds these days seem to be common, year-round residents, while most of the neotropical migrants – warblers, vireos, tanagers, flycatchers and others – have fallen quiet, lurking in woods or shrubs or fields – or at least they’re not singing. It may be that I’m missing a lot, and just don’t recognize their less familiar and quieter calls as well as their songs.

Often I do hear a Summer Tanager’s pik-a-tuk call, or catch a glimpse of a Scarlet Tanager in deep yellow with black wings. But not today. The Blue Grosbeak that sang for several weeks in the field has fallen silent, and it’s been a while since I’ve even heard the whreep of a Great-crested Fycatcher, the sharp wheet-sit of an Acadian Flycatcher, the steady whistled song of a Red-eyed Vireo or the raucous cawp of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

But a Red-tailed Hawk screamed overhead, and a Ruby-throated Hummingbird zoomed past me and into some bushes. If anything, the Hummingbirds seem even busier and more active than earlier in the summer. Several come and go all day around the feeder and blooming plants on the back deck.

*David Sibley describes this song of an Eastern Wood-Pewee as “short, upslurred (given by migrants).” The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley, page 323.*

Crow with a Pebble

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Six or seven American Crows often come together to a birdbath in our front yard. They don’t stay long and don’t make a mess – they’re much neater than many of the other birds that visit. Several of them usually crowd together, perching around the rim to drink, then they take turns bathing in an orderly way, one at a time.

A few days ago, one of the crows picked up a smooth brownish pebble from underneath the birdbath, and carried it up and dropped it into the water. The pebble was oval-shaped, about the size of a pecan. The crow turned it over in the birdbath a few times and another crow tried to pick it up, but the first crow took it out of the water in its bill, dropped down to the ground and hopped a few feet away. It seemed to be possessive about the small stone, hopping further away from another crow that showed some interest in it.

We wondered why a crow would be interested in a small stone.

Crows are known to use objects as tools in several ways. In Aesop’s fable “The Crow and the Pitcher,” a crow uses stones to raise the level of water in a pitcher so that it can reach the water to drink it, and I found some references to more modern observations of crows doing something similar. But in this case, there was no need to raise the water level, and the crow’s interest was clearly in the stone itself.

I also found a few references that indicated crows and other corvids like and often collect shiny objects like foil or jewelry.

But the most likely – and at the same time, the most intriguing – explanation might be that these were young crows playing with something they found, though why this particular pebble was chosen from the many underneath the birdbath I don’t know.

The species account in Birds of North America says, “Juveniles and sometimes yearlings play with objects on the ground – e.g., bones, twigs, leaves – carrying them around, occasionally having tugs of war.”*

A.C. Bent refers to an account of young crows raised as pets that notes, “During the day the crows devoted much of their time to collecting and hiding objects of various kinds. As they grew older, berries and other food were hidden with the definite object of using it later when hungry.”**

*N.A. Verbeek and C. Caffrey. 2002. American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

**Alfred Otto Gross, “American Crow,” in Arthur Cleveland Bent, Life Histories of North American Birds, 1947, Smithsonian Institution, United States National Museum Bulletin 191 (Part 2):226-257. From the online collection,, selected and edited by Patricia Query Newforth.

Mississippi Kites – Again

Friday, August 14th, 2009

This morning, almost the same time as yesterday, two or three Mississippi Kites appeared again – and that’s how it seems. One minute the bright blue sky with big white clouds looks empty. The next, there are small dark birds with a slim, distinctive shape and way of flying. Two were soaring very high below the clouds, but the sunlight lit their round white heads and made their long gray wings – held out flat – gleam like pewter. Today they were not swooping up and down as they did yesterday, they were gliding in big, easy circles and climbing higher. After they passed out of sight to the southwest, another Mississippi Kite – or maybe one of the first two – flew back toward the northeast, still very high.

Mississippi Kites are often compared with Peregrine Falcons because they are raptors similar in size and shape – but the kites are much lighter birds, with more buoyant flight. They seem to me to belong to hot summer days. In temperament, they seem like southern birds, with southern ways – and artists in flight, expressive – telling stories in the air – and spellbinding to watch.

Mississippi Kites

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

This morning between 10:45 and 11:00, five Mississippi Kites were flying over our neighborhood. They flew both high and low, and put on a brief but dramatic show of acrobatic flight, catching insects in the air, before drifting out of sight to the south-southwest.

Summer and Scarlet Tanagers

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Early this afternoon the edge of the woods suddenly became rather active with birds. It was a cloudy day, after rain last night and early this morning, and the trees and shrubs were still wet. A female Summer Tanager perched on a short dead stub of a pine to eat a long fat caterpillar. It took her several seconds to get it all down. The Tanager was mostly orange, with a reddish tail and some yellow, especially on the belly.

Meanwhile, a male Scarlet Tanager lurked in the shadows around the same area, already in deep-yellow plumage with black wings. Both were silent at the time, but much later in the day, after sunset, a Summer Tanager moved through the woods calling pik-a-tuk.

Two Tufted Titmice briefly struggled over possession of an insect with very large pale green wings that were still fluttering – I think it was a Luna Moth. One of the Titmice quickly won the struggle and perched on a branch to tear off the wings and then eat the insect body.

A Chipping Sparrow and a Carolina Wren foraged in low shrubs close to the ground, and two or three juvenile Chipping Sparrows cheeped persistently. At least two, maybe three Ruby-throated Hummingbirds hovered around grape vines and low shrubs, visited the butterfly bush blooms and the feeder and zoomed up into the lower limbs of the trees.

A pair of Cardinals, a Downy Woodpecker and a juvenile Red-bellied Woodpecker also were active in the same patch of pines and oaks.

Yesterday afternoon, just after we had finished lunch, we saw a Red-tailed Hawk fly into a pine tree a little deeper in the woods around this same area, carrying something in its talons. It sat on the branch and tore bites from whatever it was for five minutes or so, before flying deeper into the trees.

Black Saddlebags Dragonfly

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Later in the afternoon, as the clouds began to part and the sun came out, a large dragonfly perched on a spindly top branch of a small redbud tree. With a huge bronze head, clear wings with black spots on the tips and a dark, leaf-like pattern on their inner part, and a tail that was narrow and striped at the end – I’m fairly sure it was a Black Saddlebags, a common kind of skimmer.

Home – Late Summer – Blue Grosbeak, Red-tailed Hawk, Gray Catbird

Saturday, August 8th, 2009

Back home in Georgia, today was hot, humid and sunny, with lots of big milky-white clouds growing larger and more towering as the day went on, and cicadas singing loudly. On a morning walk to check things out, I found birds still pretty quiet, but counted 28 species in all. The highlight was a still-colorful Blue Grosbeak singing energetically from the top of a small tree in a kudzu-draped thicket across the road from the old field.

Other highlights included a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaking and flying from tree to tree; a Gray Catbird low in a bush, raising its tail to show the red-orange undertail coverts which I rarely notice; and three Red-tailed Hawks – one soaring, two perched in treetops and screaming back and forth to each other.

Around our house and others, there were the usual yard birds – Titmouse, Chickadee, Cardinal, Goldfinch and a few scattered Blue Jays. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were busy around our feeder and flowering plants, and others zoomed past me as I walked – it seems to be a good year for them here. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called spee from bushes and trees. Bluebirds seemed very quiet and mostly out of sight. I only heard the short warbles of two or three.

A Chipping Sparrow gave one long dry trill from a small pine, and others foraged in the grass. Phoebes hunted quietly from low branches in shady yards. One distant Red-eyed Vireo sang in the woods, and several Carolina Wrens sang or trilled or fussed. One Great-crested Flycatcher called whreep. Crows cawed, Mourning Doves cooed, a few Red-bellied Woodpeckers rattled. Downy Woodpeckers were pretty quiet but now and then called a quick pink! Eastern Towhees called che-wink. One House Finch sang a few cheery notes and others gave plaintive bleeps as they flew.

Quiet Mockingbirds sat on wires over the field, no longer singing. But a White-eyed Vireo continued to call chick-a-perioo-chick! from the faded, tangled weeds.

Three Turkey Vultures and one Black Vulture soared, and two widely separated Chimney Swifts flew silently over.

Conspicuously missing were Robins – when we left in late July, I usually saw several scattered around grassy yards; Barn Swallows – I think maybe they’ve left the area where they nested; and Brown Thrasher, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager and Acadian Flycatcher – I’m pretty sure all of these are still around, but more quiet now. I did hear some short, hoarse cawps from the woods that may or may not have been a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

Acadia National Park

Friday, August 7th, 2009

On a five-day visit to Acadia National Park in Maine in late July, birding wasn’t our main focus. Most of our time was spent exploring the park – our first visit there – and biking on some of the 45 miles of wide, beautiful carriage roads that wind through it. But we took the scope along and enjoyed the birds we encountered along the way – most notably for me, Black Guillemots and Great Black-backed Gulls along the shore, Common Loons in quiet lakes and ponds surrounded by forest, and Hermit Thrushes singing in the woods in isolated spots along the trails. We also saw Common Eider, two Bald Eagles, and several Osprey, and it was fun to hear the songs of White-throated Sparrows and the calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets and Red-breasted Nuthatches – winter birds for us in Georgia – in their summer homes.

Unfortunately, we were just a few days too late to see the Peregrine Falcons that nested on Precipice Cliff. Park rangers still had scopes set up in the parking lot below the cliff, but the young birds were no longer staying close to the nest, and the popular Precipice Trail had been re-opened for use by hikers the day before we arrived. Although we stopped by three times, just in case, the falcons had not been seen on those days, and we never saw them.

Black Guillemot

Friday, August 7th, 2009

These small, compact oceanic birds – a life bird for me – were everywhere along the coast. Coal-black with a pointed dark bill, neatly upturned tail and white oval patches in the wings, they floated in the waves alone or in the company of many others, often close to shore. When one flew low across the water, it looked diminutive and dark, white flashing in the wings. Once in a while we could see their bright red legs and feet.

We first saw them from a rocky shore along the Ocean Path in the park, a place where we walked far out and sat on flat, sun-warmed pink granite rocks, and looked out over the water. Here there were many Black Guillemots bobbing in the waves and sometimes flying, along with a few Common Eider and Double-crested Cormorants, and Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls flying over and perched on the rocks.

Black Guillemots are members of the Alcid family, which also includes murres, auklets and puffins. They live in the cold waters of the Arctic and far northern Atlantic and polar regions, and nest on rocky shores.