Archive for September, 2009

White-breasted Nuthatch

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

After a rainy, stormy month, September came to an end today with brisk, sunny, breezy weather, an intense blue sky, not a cloud in sight, and brilliant light. An Eastern Wood-Pewee sang off and on all morning from nearby in the woods, giving its full, sweet, whistled song. The trees are still full with green leaves, only beginning to fade and wither, and few spots of fall color yet –bright red berries on the dogwoods, some shadows of rust and red and amber in vines and shrubs.

Crickets and grasshoppers sing shrill songs. Yellowjackets, restless and pesky, seem to be everywhere. Cicadas have fallen quiet. Early in the night, a few katydids still rattle, but as the temperature falls, they also fall quiet.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, a Mockingbird, Eastern Phoebe, Carolina Wrens and Brown-headed Nuthatches are the most active birds around the yard – not to mention Cardinals, Blue Jays, Crows and Mourning Doves – and we’ve also been hearing a Pileated Woodpecker and a pair of Hairy Woodpeckers often around the edges of the woods. A Pine Warbler sings. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers call their wheezy spee-spee. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds continue to visit the feeder and late-blooming flowers. Now and then there’s a flicka-flicka-flicka or loud kleer! of a Northern Flicker.

The highlight of this last day of September, though, was hearing the nasal onk-onk calls of a White-breasted Nuthatch from the woods across the street. I also heard these calls a couple of days ago, but haven’t yet seen one. They are not residents here in our neighborhood during the summer, so I don’t know if this one might be just roaming, passing through, or – maybe – staying around for the winter.

An Eastern Phoebe’s “Chatter Call”

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

The past few days, each morning has begun with the persistent calls and song of an Eastern Phoebe in the branches of the oaks outside our bedroom windows, and one or two Phoebes have been active around the house all day – even more active than usual.

With its plain gray back and wings, darker gray, slightly crested head and gray-white breast, this small, shadow-like flycatcher isn’t flashy in appearance – but its animated behavior, characteristic habit of wagging its tail up and down when perched, and the way it hunts, nests and makes itself right at home around yards and houses makes it a familiar bird to many people. For me it’s a favorite.

An Eastern Phoebe sings its name with a scratchy whistle, gives a distinctive sharp tsup call, and occasionally erupts in a jumble of tumbling notes that sound agitated or excited. The species account in Birds of North America* describes a “chatter call” as a “rapid, harsh, nasal tree-tree-tree-tree, with occasionally as many as 30 elements” and that sounds like what I’ve often heard. The account goes on to say that this call is given only by males, and is almost always given around a nest or potential nest site. I’ve been hearing this call often the past few days and don’t always see the birds when I hear it. Of course, they’re not nesting right now, but on at least one occasion today, a Phoebe was perched on the site of last year’s nest when it called like this.

I had been watching as it hunted from different perches around the front yard, calling, singing, fluttering around under the eaves to check for spiders and insects, and perching on the rim of the birdbath briefly. From a low branch on a pecan tree, it flew to the crook in the gutter over the garage where a pair of Phoebes nested last spring and raised three healthy babies. It paused there for several seconds and gave this rapid call of tumbling notes. I thought it might be one of the young ones that were born there, but maybe it was the male of the pair.

I’m not 100 percent sure this call – which I usually describe as “fussing” – is the same as the “chatter call,” but the description given sounds like the same one.

*Harmon P. Weeks, Jr. “Eastern Phoebe (Sayomis phoebe), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Hummingbird in the House

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

This morning our front door stood open for several minutes while a new sofa was being delivered. It wasn’t until the delivery-men had left and I closed the door that I heard a funny buzzing way up near the high ceiling of the entry-way – and looked up to see a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird fluttering frantically.

I immediately opened the door wide again, but the Hummingbird showed no interest in flying down. It beat its wings and went all around the ceiling and corners, seeming convinced that the only way out would be up. When I went upstairs and stood on the landing, it flew over my head and buzzed against the ceiling there, and two or three times stopped, resting on the molding, almost close enough for me to reach out and touch.

I wasn’t at all sure what to do and worried that it would injure itself by battering against the ceiling. I don’t have a butterfly net and couldn’t think of anything else like it that might work. Finally – after closing the doors to all other rooms upstairs – I got a very loose, fluffy blue duster on a long pole, and fastened a large red ribbon around it. I also opened a bright red umbrella downstairs near the open door and spread out a big sheet of red paper over the doormat.

Then I stood at the railing on the second-floor landing and extended the duster toward the Hummingbird, very carefully, not touching it, hoping maybe just to nudge it in the right direction. At first, it continued to move around against the ceiling, avoiding the duster. Then to my amazement, it settled on the pole, just underneath the duster and clung there.

Very slowly, I lowered the pole, not really thinking it was possible that the Hummingbird would continue to hold on – but it did. It allowed itself to be lowered on the pole, as if calmly taking an elevator, until it reached the open doorway – and there, it flew immediately out the door and settled on one of the coral-pink blossoms outside that had attracted it to begin with. When I walked downstairs to close the door, it was still perched there on the flower. It looked up at me quickly, then turned and flew in a straight line away.

I still can hardly believe that it allowed itself to be lowered on the pole in this way and have no idea why it worked.

Later in the day, when I was sitting on the porch beside the New Guinea impatiens plants with the pink blossoms, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird came zooming low over my head to check out the flowers again – probably the same one, though I don’t know that for sure.

Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula and Other Migrants

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

This morning a small feeding flock brought several migrants through the yard, including Black-and-white and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Northern Parula, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Summer Tanager and Eastern Wood-Pewee. A Phoebe, a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches, and a singing Pine Warbler came with them, as well as Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Chickadees, Titmice and Carolina Wrens.

The day began cloudy, gray, warm, humid and soggy everywhere, with lots of leaves and debris down, but the sun gradually broke through the clouds and blue sky began to show. An Eastern Bluebird sang a blurry ter-wee, ter-wee. Crickets and grasshoppers cheeped. The leaves of the bushes beside where I stood on the front porch swarmed with hunting yellowjackets.

The first Chestnut-sided Warbler was a male with burgundy streaks on its sides and a clean gray breast, foraging among the leaves of a water oak. A few minutes later, a colorful first-year female came very close, out in full view on low oak branches, its back, head and wing-bars soaked in yellow, and white rings circling its eyes.

The Black-and-white Warbler crept along large oak branches. With bright white and black stripes on its head and more subdued – not so crisp and bold – black and white stripes and streaks over the rest of its body, I think it was a first-year female.

The Northern Parula announced its presence with repeated loud, sharp chipping calls, and as it slipped quickly from place to place I could only glimpse the yellow throat and upper breast and blurred coral breast-band – but a couple of minutes later, it sang once or twice, with a soft rising and falling zzzzzziiii-up.

It was a modest group – nothing spectacular. But the most diverse flock to come through our yard so far this fall, and lots of fun to watch.

Last Day of Summer – Chestnut-sided Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – and More Rain

Monday, September 21st, 2009

This morning we woke up to soggy gray-green skies again. Our long siege of rainy days continues, with little break. Although the moisture is welcome, gray day after gray day is getting depressing, and all sorts of critters are trying to make their way inside – scorpions, spiders, centipedes, ants, moths.

This morning I stood with the front door open for several minutes, just looking out at the front yard, and a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird almost flew inside – though I’m sure she didn’t mean to, and relieved that she didn’t. She had just come to check out the coral-pink New Guinea impatiens blooming in pots on the porch, and there I was, and she hovered in front of me, up, down, sideways – then dashed away in a bee-line.

A few minutes later, out back in a very soft, light sprinkle, two Phoebes hunted from the tops of dead pines. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called and flitted in and out of the leaves of the oaks, and three Chimney Swifts passed overhead. Two Red-eyed Vireos exchanged several emphatic REE-ang calls, much louder and more agitated-sounding than their usual whining nyanh, though the quality is similar. Two female or juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zoomed back and forth around the feeder – they stay busy all day long, even in the hardest rain, it seems. I watched one go to the geranium plants, so lush with red blossoms several days ago, but now they are rather washed out and bedraggled.

Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Chickadees, Titmice and – finally! – a Chestnut-sided Warbler, the first migrating warbler I’ve been able to see this season. I didn’t get a very good look, but could see two bright wing bars, a grayish-green back, and white belly.

The day – and the summer – ended with thunderstorms and torrential rain that caused widespread flooding. Here, we were lucky enough to have only a little dampness in the basement and no further problems.

End-of-Summer Rain

Friday, September 18th, 2009

The past three days have been cloudy, humid, and often rainy. It rained off and on all night last night, a hard, calm, steady rain, waking us in the morning with the sleepy sound of rain falling on the leaves of the oaks just outside our windows – making it hard to want to get out of bed, tempting just to pull the covers up and stay there and drift in and out of sleep – and rain continued most of the morning.

Late in the morning, I sat for a while in a doorway, watching the rain fall. The only bird I saw at first was a Brown Thrasher that dived from a Savannah holly at the corner of the house into a tangled thicket on the other side of the driveway.

The sound of the rain drowned out most other sounds. Then I heard the peep of a Cardinal and saw a very drenched pair of Cardinals perched in low branches. Titmice and Chickadees began to chatter and flit from bush to bush. A small grayish bird made its way through the highest parts of the trees, moving and behaving like a warbler, but I couldn’t make out a clear view, or hear a call. The leaves still are very dense and green and full on all the trees. Even with all this heavy rain, few leaves are washing down, only a stray solitary brown leaf tumbling down now and then.

Several Crows flew by, cawing. I heard the cry of a Blue Jay as the rain let up a little, and the rattle of a Red-bellied Woodpecker. Fog began to rise in a dense cloud all around, but the rain kept falling lightly, raindrops shuddering the leaves, spattering the ground, hitting in puddles, rainwater rattling down and out of gutters.

Rain continued most of the day, often hard. When I stepped outside in one brief break, with only a light sprinkle coming down, two Eastern Wood-Pewees and one Pine Warbler were singing in the woods. A Red-shouldered Hawk cried kee-yer from somewhere beyond the treeline in the east, and a Red-eyed Vireo gave a harsh, nasal REE-ang call. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Chickadees and Titmice all were active around the yard, and a tiny blue-tailed skink, maybe two inches long at most, including the tail, scurried in and out around the potted plants on the back deck.

After several dry, hot summers, this stretch of rainy weather feels like the way a summer should end.

Late Summer Songs of Carolina Wrens

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

Late in the morning on a mostly cloudy day, after a good rain last night, the sun now trying to break through, trees still dripping rainwater. An Eastern Wood-Pewee far down in the woods sings its full song as it moves from place to place. I can’t always hear the wheee-oo at the end, but hear the sweet pee-a-WEE, over and over.

Two Carolina Wrens sing from different directions, singing different songs – one, jubilee-jubilee-jubilee; the other, churry-churry-churry, and what-a-WHEET-aree-WHEET-aree. Their songs are so familiar that often I don’t pay much attention to them, but at this time of year, when there are few other birdsongs to compete with them, I always notice them more.

Mostly the woods around our house have continued to be pretty quiet, with little bird activity and few migrants. I hear the distant rattle of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, the calls of Crows and Blue Jays, the humming zoom of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird coming to the feeder. A gusty breeze rattles the leaves of the white oaks, and they clack and shudder as rainwater showers down. Grasshoppers and crickets sing, and now and then a few cicadas raise a metallic whine. Raindrops glisten from the tips of little red tomatoes on the ragged brown vines in pots on the deck, one drop hanging from each fruit. Wind chimes ring softly. A Goldfinch sings its per-chick-o-ree song as it flies over.

Now a Carolina Wren – maybe a female – gives a long, raspy, rattling trill, almost a hiss. And another, a male, follows this closely with a bright CHEER-uppy, CHEER-uppy, CHEER-uppy, CHEEP, repeated several times.

There’s the distant blurp of a Bluebird. One quiet Robin flies in, stops briefly in the top branches of a dead pine, then flies into the woods. I’ve been watching and listening for migrants, with no luck so far, except for the Eastern Wood-Pewees. In the thick foliage around me, I hear tiny little chips, sips, tseets, whits barely audible, tantalizing, and I think mostly they are probably Chickadees and Titmice, and maybe insects, maybe my imagination. But there could be some warblers there, hidden in the leaves.

A Carolina Wren gives its long burbling call, then fusses fiercely, zhjee-zhjee-zhjee! Another sings churry-churry-churry-churry-churry-CHEER. And still another, in a different direction, calls a loud and repeated cheeer-cheeer-cheer-cheeer!

There’s the tsup of a Phoebe somewhere in the woods, and a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird comes alone for an unusually long, uninterrupted session at the feeder, going round and round it and sipping from each of the holes two or three times. A Phoebe sings, way down in the woods.

The mood of the day is quiet, somber and gray. Too quiet, I think, but I’m probably just impatient, and restless because a fractured ankle is keeping me from walking in the neighborhood or in the woods. So most of my birding right now has to be done from the porch or the deck. Not being able to walk makes me appreciate more how important a part of my every day a walk has always been. It’s when I do my best thinking, and also – on the best walks – when I succeed in letting go of restless thoughts and feel most fully alive, observing, but not thinking.

A Carolina Wren gives a long Downy Woodpecker-like trill, then breaks it up into several short trill-pieces. I don’t think I’ve noticed that call before. Another sings chorry-chorry-chorry, and another, chur-WEEE-chur, WEE-chur, WEE-chur, WEE and a third, chiminy-chiminy-chiminy-CHEE. The three wrens seem to be trying out different songs on each other. They switch songs frequently, and seem always to answer one song with a different one.

I’m not at all sure this is what’s happening here, but in his new book, Birdsong by the Seasons, Donald Kroodsma says of wrens, “. . . get two rock wrens or marsh wrens or sedge wrens or Bewick’s wrens or Carolina wrens or house wrens or winter wrens engaged in a dispute, and they pull out all the stops, using a much greater variety of songs than when each male sings by himself.” (page 81)

A male Carolina Wren may have a repertoire of 20-50 different songs. Though spring and summer are the main singing seasons, mated pairs stay together year-round, defending their territory, and the male continues to sing. The female, on the other hand, adds only buzzy or rattling trills or calls, though as Kroodsma points out in his first book, The Singing Life of Birds, the line between what we call a “song” and what we consider a bird’s “call” is not entirely clear. His detailed descriptions and analyses of the songs and calls of many different species make fascinating reading, and open up new ways of listening to birds and thinking about what we are hearing.

September Songs – Few Migrants

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

At sunrise this morning, a Pine Warbler sang its warm, sensual trill from somewhere among the foliage of the white oaks outside our bedroom windows. This is the first time I’ve heard its song in many weeks. During the hottest part of the summer, the Pine Warblers retreated somewhere into the deep foliage and became quiet.

The day has been warm and sunny, with light breezes that stir the wind chimes on the back deck and keep the air pleasant. Although many warblers, thrushes and other migrants are being reported in this area now, here around our neighborhood the only migrants I’ve spotted so far are the Eastern Wood-Pewees that continue to sing in the woods and around the edges of the yard. Today, two sang – one toward the east and the other toward the west – both giving their full pee-di-a-WEEE – WHEEE-oo songs.

Late in the morning I listened as one of them made its way closer and closer. Three or four Carolina Wrens sang and fussed, Chickadees and Titmice chattered, a Downy Woodpecker worked on the trunk of a pine, a Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled, a Summer Tanager called pik-a-tuk and one Robin flew into the top of a dead pine, paused for a few minutes, then flew away. Then there it was – an Eastern Wood-Pewee – lower in the same tall dead pine, perched on a stub and singing. All I could really see of it was a silhouette against the bright eastern sky, but the Pewee sang as it hunted, flying up from a branch, catching an insect, landing on another branch, and flying up again, then – too soon – moving further back into the woods.

In its wake, a Hairy Woodpecker called out an emphatic peenk! and was answered by another Hairy Woodpecker nearby. Like the Pine Warblers, they’ve been quiet or not even around much for several weeks, but the past few days we’ve heard their calls and the sounds of their working often.

A Barred Owl’s Call – Like a Lullaby

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

August ended and September began with two good rainy days, bringing slightly cooler weather, especially at night. Through bedroom windows open wide, about two o’clock this morning, I heard the low, mellow hoots of a Barred Owl – who cooks for you, who cooks for you-oww – repeated several times, not close, but not far away. I could not hear an answering call, but it was very good to hear at least this one, because we have not heard them often lately. Its shadowy, expressive voice made the night feel more alive, and at the same time, more peaceful and right. I had been lying awake, worrying about something, but after the owl fell silent, I fell easily back to sleep, soothed by its presence.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Cherry Tomatoes

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

By eight o’clock this morning, a soft blue sky was emerging from wooly white clouds and the sun was high and already bright, but bird calls were few and scattered. Carolina Wrens are among the most vocal right now, singing, calling, fussing, trilling, burbling from the low shrubs around the house and edges of the woods. And Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the flashiest and easiest to watch. At least three or four stay busy around our back-deck feeder and the red geranium blossoms all day. One afternoon recently we watched as one persistent male visited almost all of the red cherry-tomatoes on a vine in a pot on the deck, coming back again and again, as if he just couldn’t believe all those glowing red fruits didn’t have anything sweet he could get to. At first I just laughed – then I wondered if sometimes the hummingbirds might get juice from overripe little tomatoes. I have not seen one do this, but will keep watching.

A Pileated Woodpecker trumpeted in the woods off and on all day, and once I heard the whreep! of a Great-crested Flycatcher. A Summer Tanager called pik-a-tuk-tuk-tuk, making its way through the woods but staying out of sight in the heavy, faded foliage.