Archive for October, 2009

Winter Birds

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

The arrival of beautiful new twin grand-daughters, Luna and Stella, has kept me busy and rather distracted from birding as much as usual for the past few weeks, but now and then I’ve gotten out to enjoy some picture-perfect autumn days and to welcome back some of our returning winter birds. In addition to Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers – White-throated Sparrows, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets and Yellow-rumped Warblers all have returned sometime during October. I haven’t yet heard the chup of a Hermit Thrush, but am hoping and listening, and also am watching and listening for a Red-breasted Nuthatch, hoping this might be another good year for them here.

The nights of October 18 and 19 brought our first light frost. Then toward the end of the month more long days of heavy rain returned, and October came to an end today with another all-day, drenching rain. The dark gray clouds, mist, fog and rain blurred the oranges, reds, saffron, wine, copper and faded green of the foliage, which is just now reaching its peak. Though it will be a late and somewhat subdued year for color, it’s at its best now, and the weather and mood are mellow, sleepy and make me want to curl up in a chair by the fire and read, and watch the rain fall through a blurry, softly colored window.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Late in the morning on a clear, sunny, colorful fall day, October 20, I heard the stuttering chatter of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet for the first time this season, coming from some low thickets along the roadside as I walked, a familiar dry, percussive little voice that is so natural a part of the fall and winter landscape here. Two or three days later I got my first look at one, moving around quickly in the low branches of a young water oak – a small, very active gray bird with darker wings, white wing-bar and white ring around the eye that give it an alert and watchful look. It’s always on the move, often flitting its wings. The small, bright ruby crest was not raised and visible – often the case at this time of year.

White-throated Sparrow

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Also on October 20, I first heard a few broken pieces of clear, sweet song from White-throated Sparrows in the old field along the highway, announcing their arrival. And when I got back home from walking, there were two White-throated Sparrows scratching in leaf litter below some bushes in our yard – plump, handsome, cleanly marked sparrows, with grayish breast, cinnamon and black-streaked back and wings, dark crowns, white stripe through the eye, a dab of deep yellow above the bill, and the bright white crisply-outlined throats for which they are named. I felt absurdly happy and pleased to find them here, in our own yard, somehow reassuring simply in their return and their presence. Since then, I’ve heard their tseet calls from weeds and thickets and shrubs all through the neighborhood.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

October 22 – another beautiful, clear, sunny fall day, breezy and cool, with a big blue sky marbled in high white clouds – I first heard the sharp chip! calls of several Yellow-rumped Warblers in a row of young water oaks along the road. Because it was late in the morning with the sun high and bright, I couldn’t quite see one among the still-thick leaves on the oaks, but a day or two later several Yellow-rumped Warblers searched for insects in low branches in our front yard, and I was able to get a good look and watch them for a while – small, streaked, rather drab little birds with a faint flush of yellow on their sides, and the distinctive flash of yellow on the rump, especially vivid when they fly – which they do often, chasing each other in big swoops from tree to tree. I used to know them as Myrtle Warblers, before they were classified together with their western counterparts as Yellow-rumped (or butter-butts, as birders often call them), and though the more general name is descriptive, “Myrtle Warbler” appeals much more to the imagination and captures something of their shrub and forest-loving habits.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Toward the end of October I began to hear the high ti-ti-ti calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets, but so far I haven’t yet succeeded in seeing even one. A couple of days ago, on a sunny day in a break between the rainy days that ended the month, their calls seemed to be everywhere, high in the oaks and in the pines. But the autumn foliage – a mix of colors in the leaves still thick on the trees, and the fractured light of bright sunshine made it a colorful frustration, hearing their calls, but not seeing them, catching only glimpses or pieces. Somehow that seems to reflect the season well, when the trees and landscape as we’ve come to know them all summer are thinning, changing colors and falling apart, into something different, stripped down, the constant process of change now more visible and noticeable – and yet, impossible to capture, to hold, to really see.

Magnolia Warbler – Tale of a Tail

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

This morning was gray, very cloudy, damp, cool and misty, with lots of bird activity and some nice surprises. As I stepped out onto the front porch, about a dozen Mourning Doves exploded up from the ground below the feeder, wings whistling as they flew in all directions. Gee. I like having a few Mourning Doves around, but don’t know about so many.

Chickadees and Titmice chattered as they went back and forth to the feeder, a Carolina Wren sang from out back, a pair of Cardinals peeped under the bushes, a Phoebe, Brown-headed Nuthatch and distant Blue Jays called.

One of the first things that caught my eye was the movement of a little bird with a yellow throat and breast in the branches of a pecan tree – it had to be a warbler. It took me several minutes to get a good look at it, but what I first saw most clearly was a great view of the underside of its tail – which may not sound like much, but can be distinctive, especially with warblers, often hard to see well among the foliage. This one was white, with a cleanly defined wide black tip, slightly notched – a tail belonging only to a Magnolia Warbler.

The little bird continued to be hard to see as it moved around quickly in the yellow-green, curling pecan leaves, which screened it from view most of the time as it gleaned insects. I put it all together in pieces – yellow throat and breast, white under the tail, faint streaks on the flanks and round, smooth gray head, a hint of a slight white eye-ring, and thin white wing bars. Then the tail fanned out as it moved and a wide white tail-band flashed.

Magnolia Warblers are common migrants here, moving through on their way from breeding grounds in northern boreal forests, to winter homes in Central America and the Caribbean. They are bright, active wood warblers, known best at this time of year by the yellow breast and wide white tail-band and their quick way of moving around as they glean insects and spiders from the leaves. In spring and summer, the male’s breeding plumage is a striking pattern of yellow, black and white, with a black mask and a necklace of black streaks.

Their name is traced to ornithologist Alexander Wilson, who collected one from a magnolia tree in Mississippi in the early 19th century.

The Smacking Calls of Brown Thrashers

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

A little before 10:30, I started out for a walk, passing a Northern Flicker that flew up from the grass, flashing its white rump patch. Although some Flickers are year-round residents here, at this time of year their numbers increase, as migrants arrive for the winter from further north.

I also passed several Brown Thrashers all along the way. For some reason, they seemed to be everywhere – and many were calling in a loud, sharp djak! Several perched in treetops, others called from shrubs, and in the old field, at least five or six different Brown Thrashers called from trees and weedy bushes. It may be that, as with the Flickers, more Brown Thrashers arrive here for the winter months, and – here I am just imagining – maybe some of them arrived recently – maybe even just last night as the cold front moved in – and their calls are part of settling in and establishing winter territories and relationships.

Phoebes and Bluebirds also were active, along with Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and one Pileated Woodpecker, Blue Jays, Crows and House Finch.

Red-shouldered Hawk on a Roof

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

As I came around a group of tall trees at one corner, I saw a big brown shape on the corner of a roof – a Red-shouldered Hawk. It was just sitting there, out in full view, with only the cloudy sky for a background, with its back to me, but turning its head in profile. For several minutes I watched as it sat there, moving very little except to look around. No crows or jays were harassing it at the moment. Then it leaned out, spread wings and tail and flew – not far, at first. It paused in the top of a pine, facing me, where I got a brief but clear view of its heavily brown-streaked breast, and tail with narrow bands in shades of brown – a juvenile. From there, it flew to a treetop further away, where a horde of smaller birds discovered it and flew around it like furies, diving at it and perching in nearby branches. Blue Jays, a Mockingbird, even a Red-bellied Woodpecker took a dive at it once. But the Hawk ducked and stood its ground for several minutes before finally giving up and flying again, low, and out of my sight.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – First of the Season

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

As I got back home and walked down the driveway, two Chipping Sparrows flew out of the wax myrtles and up into a tree, and one lone Chimney Swift flew over. By this time, the mist had become a light rain. I was just about to go inside when a woodpecker swooped down from over the roof, into one of the pecan trees, and when I looked more closely – sure enough – it was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The first of the season I’ve seen here. It was quiet, not mewing, and went quickly from spot to spot, up and down the trunk of the pecan, finally finding a spot it liked and tapping there for a few minutes. Even in the misty gray light, its colors looked rich – red crown and red throat, and a mellow, dark-flecked, yellow-brown belly. It stayed in the trees around the front yard until a couple of noisy racing squirrels seemed to disturb it into flying further away.

In Rain and More Rain – A Wren in a Puddle, and a Cooper’s Hawk Passing By

Wednesday, October 14th, 2009

After several days out of town, I returned home this weekend to more rainy weather. Sunday night and Monday a hard rain fell for hours and hours. Some streets in town were flooded, and the creeks that run through the woods below our house rushed with high water. But, I have to say, the rain made beautiful music to sleep by, and a drowsy background for the song of a Phoebe as I woke up Monday morning.

Yesterday brought a break of sunshine and blue sky, then the rain returned, and it rained all night again, this time soft but steady. When I stepped outside this morning, everything looked drenched and dripping, with puddles and streams all over, and a very soft rain that continued for most of the day. All the usual suspects were around – Chickadee, Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpecker, Phoebe, Mourning Dove, Blue Jay, House Finch and a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches that come often every day to the feeder. Mockingbirds continue to sing off and on throughout the day, not usually for long at a time. A Northern Flicker called kleeer! from the woods across the road, and a bright red Cardinal perched high among pecan leaves now beginning to turn crusty yellow-green. Some leaves have begun to fall from pecans and oaks and sweet gums, washed down by the rain and showering down with acorns when a gust of wind blows through.

Early in the afternoon, as a misty rain continued, a Carolina Wren bathed in very shallow puddles of water on the deck and deck rails. It lay down in the water and fluttered and turned, then stood up tall to shake off, looked around, bobbed up and down, then it flitted to another shallow puddle and bathed again, repeating the process three or four times before shaking off for the final time. Then it spent some time checking out the umbrella, table and chairs, and all along the underside of the deck rail, looking for spiders and insects.

Although I went for a pleasant walk in the rain and checked outside several times, most of today seemed quiet, with not a lot of activity and nothing new to report until late in the afternoon. The rain had drizzled to a near-stop, but the sky was still dark and gray. I walked out on the back deck to take a break from work, but nothing much seemed to be happening. The trees appeared to be empty. The big dogwood at the edge of the woods is heavy with lots of bright red berries, but no birds were around them. Then a Cooper’s Hawk flew over, a dark gray shape against the lighter, murky clouds, long narrow tail and broad wings flapping with somewhat heavy beats, and gliding, sailing over, a silent but substantial shadow in the mist.