Archive for November, 2009

Red-bellied Woodpeckers Continue Their Work

Friday, November 20th, 2009

A female and a male Red-bellied Woodpecker are continuing to excavate what I assume is a roost hole in a tall dead pine. Both yesterday and today, one of the two were at work in the same spot each time I went outside to look for them. They work so quietly that if I didn’t know where to look I wouldn’t know they were there – unusual for a bird I usually think of as very vocal and certainly not shy or secretive. Yesterday I again saw the female leave when the male arrived, giving a low, brief rattle in flight as he approached, and he immediately began to work just as she had.

Though I can’t see it, the hole must be getting larger and deeper. When the woodpeckers lean over to work on it now, they almost disappear from my view, leaving only the end of a bobbing tail visible on the pine trunk from my location on our back deck. But they still come back repeatedly to a vertical position on the trunk in full profile, and I’ve watched through the scope again as they lean in, come up with a big bill-full of wood fiber and toss it away, doing this several times in a row, then pausing, and leaning over several times just to dig or peck.

Gray Catbird and Song Sparrow

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

The surprise of the day was finding a Gray Catbird feeding on clusters of dark purple fruit in a privet thicket among all the withered, tangled brown weeds in the old field. The Catbird was quiet and stayed mostly screened in the brush, but came out in the open long enough to see very well – a slender, all-gray bird with a thin black cap, one of my favorites. Usually we don’t see them often at this time of year. Most migrate a little further south for the winter or to the neotropics.

I only saw it because many White-throated Sparrows, several Eastern Towhees and Northern Mockingbirds, a Brown Thrasher, a small flock of Cedar Waxwings, Cardinals, Carolina Wrens and at least three Ruby-crowned Kinglets were all very lively in the weedy grasses and thickets of the field, especially in the privet. So I stopped to watch for several minutes. There also are persimmon trees with fruit in the field. The kudzu vines are all shriveled and dead, the grasses are brown and gray, with lots of dusty, drab gray-brown clumps of goldenrod gone to seed.

Among the other birds were Song Sparrows – brown-streaked backs and wings with darker streaks on a pale breast that come together into a central dark spot in the middle of the breast – the first ones I’ve seen this season. Two came out onto open branches, tails twitching and swishing fast, heads held high and erect, nervously looking around but lingering, as if to soak up some sunlight.

It was almost noon, usually a very quiet time for birds, but the day had begun with dense fog and heavy clouds. The sky had begun to clear about 11:00, and as the clouds dissipated and the sun came out, birds became more active, so it was a good time to be out.

A Red-tailed Hawk flew low, pursued by several cawing Crows. Six Black Vultures and two Turkey Vultures soared very high. The high, thin calls of Cedar Waxwings passed over as small, tight flocks flew. And almost all the other usual suspects seemed to be out, warmed to action by the sun – or maybe it was only that the sun warmed me to action and made me more aware and open to seeing and hearing. Either way, it was a particularly nice walk at a beautiful time of day.

Our Winter Cooper’s Hawk

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

The bold gray swoop of a Cooper’s Hawk always takes me by surprise. Although they’re here year-round, dramatic, impressive raptors that perch and hunt low, they’re secretive and quiet, especially during the warmer, sunnier months. So I always feel lucky to see one now and then.

The past few years though, there’s a certain area in our neighborhood where I often see a Cooper’s Hawk during the late fall and winter. Along this stretch of road, there are large grassy yards with widely-spaced oaks and pecans, lots of shrubs, the woods and creek not far away, and in one yard a big solitary magnolia tree where several times I’ve seen a hawk disappear into its dark, dense foliage at twilight.

So today, I was happy when a Cooper’s Hawk suddenly flew low and close across the road in front of me as I walked past this same area. It was late in the day, cloudy, with muted, fading fall foliage and spots of still-vibrant color – maples glowing a soft rose-red, crape myrtles flaming orange, and the white oak leaves deepening almost to mahogany now.

As I left our yard a few minutes earlier, a Mockingbird was doing its best to chase away smaller birds from the feeders, with limited success. Chickadees, Titmice, a Downy Woodpecker and two House Finches pretty much ignored it or flew to the one where it was not. Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked in the treetops and Golden-crowned Kinglets called high ti-ti-ti. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered in low branches nearby. A Carolina Wren sang from the woods, and another flew up out of some bushes as I walked past and fussed at me furiously from a safe spot deep inside a wax myrtle.

Still, the prevailing mood was quiet as I walked down the street, with most bird sounds in the distance – Blue Jays, Crows – only muffled traffic, and no leaf blowers, wood chippers, or weed eaters for a change. The light was soft and gray. Yellow-rumped Warblers called chek as they flew from spot to spot. Red-bellied Woodpeckers chuck-chuck-chucked. Five Eastern Bluebirds perched in the bare top branches of some pecan trees, with one American Robin. A small flock of Grackles passed over.

As I came to the bottom of a hill, the Cooper’s Hawk swept low across the road from one yard into another, startling up four or five Mourning Doves that flew away in a whistling flurry of wings, and perched on a limb in the shadows, but in full view and facing toward me – a sleek, smooth gray, with russet-barred breast and long tail with dark and light bands and a rounded band of white on the tip. Rarely have I had such a close and clear view of a Cooper’s Hawk, though it didn’t last long. It flew to another branch and then to another, still in the same yard, among the same stand of trees, but out of my sight.

It’s nice to know that it’s here – again or still – a familiar winter presence.

Two Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a Roost Hole – A Pair? Or Not?

Monday, November 16th, 2009

Early this afternoon – a warm, sunny day with a flannel blue sky, not a cloud in sight, and light breezes sending down showers of brown leaves from the oaks – I watched a female Red-bellied Woodpecker working on a hole high up in a tall dead pine tree just inside the woods behind our house.

She worked for at least an hour, her claws clinging to a large loose slab of bark so that she perched on the trunk in profile to me, and through a scope I had a clear view, framed all around in the copper-brown leaves of white oaks. After about an hour I heard a low, rattled call from nearby. The female woodpecker moved quickly out of the way, around the trunk, and a male flew in to the exact same spot, clinging to the same piece of loose bark, and immediately started working in the same way. The female disappeared quietly.

It looked to me as if the two were a pair, working together on this hole and making a smooth change in the work shift, so one rests while the other works. But – when I looked this up, the information I found indicates that Red-bellied Woodpeckers are generally solitary through the fall and winter and only form pair bonds in nesting season.* So I’m not sure if these two are working together – or if they are competing for this spot. They certainly looked as if they were cooperating peacefully, no indication of aggression or objection or fussing. But I don’t know. I first saw one of the woodpeckers working on the hole yesterday, so they’ve been working on it for at least two days now. Maybe they sometimes share work on a hole even if they’re not a mated pair.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker is sturdy, medium-size, and one of the most common woodpeckers in most areas in the eastern U.S. With its shimmering red nape and crown, smooth gray face, round head, long dark bill, tawny gray breast and black wings barred with white, it’s a handsome, vocal and very active bird. The soft reddish blush on the lowest part of its belly is not at all obvious, so its name can be confusing.

The female – whose red covers the back of the neck but not the crown – clung to the loose slab of bark on the side of the trunk and leaned around the trunk, using her tail as a brace, to work on the hole, which is on the opposite side of the tree, facing south, where I can’t see it. What I could see was that her whole body worked as she knocked or dug at the hole for several seconds, then came back to an upright position, usually with a bill-full of pale wood fiber, which she tossed away with a flick of her head. After a pause of a few seconds to look around, she leaned over to work on the hole again. Sometimes I could hear her knocking on the wood, but mostly she was quiet. She continued this pattern, working steadily, sometimes leaning around further so that her tail came off the trunk, as if her head were further inside a growing hole.

Once when she paused, the sun lit her face, showing big bright amber-brown eyes and a smudge of soft red over the long dark bill. Below her tail were scattered dark spots, some in the shape of hearts.

When the male Red-bellied Woodpecker arrived, he worked quietly and steadily, as she had, after only that approaching, relatively low call. Once he stopped briefly to scratch his lower belly with his bill, and I could see the dull reddish-fawn feathering.

*The species account in Birds of North America Online says the pair bond lasts about seven months, through the nesting season, and it is “rare to find mated pairs from September through January.” It mentions that both sexes excavate cavities for roosting, and both sexes change roost sites frequently, but says “adults roost singly in cavities at night,” and does not describe pairs working together on roost holes. Clifford E. Shackelford, Raymond E. Brown and Richard N. Conner. 2000. Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carollinus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

November Twilight – Partial Song of a Hermit Thrush

Friday, November 6th, 2009

Just after sundown last night, the sky was clear, violet-gray, orange on the horizon, and the last warm, hoarded light made maples, oaks, sweet gums and tulip poplars glow as if lit from within, briefly, before they faded. Gone are the long, lingering twilights of summer. There were few birds to see, but many to hear as they settled in for the night – peeps of Cardinals, whistle of Mourning Dove wings, gentle moans of Bluebirds, mews of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, chips of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Chipping Sparrows, tseet calls of White-throated Sparrows, little chits and ticks of Chickadees and Titmice, tsup of Phoebe, the muted rough call of a Mockingbird. A small flock of Robins flew over.

From the edge of a rough patch of woods came the airy, ornate notes of part of a Hermit Thrush’s song, like a summer leaf drifting down, falling only once. I stopped to listen, but heard no more. Hermit Thrushes come to spend the winter here, but I seldom hear them sing here, so this was an unexpected, rare, fleeting pleasure.

Then White-throated Sparrows began to sing from all around, hesitant, often partial songs, sometimes a bit off-key, but others true and sweet, whistling O Sweet Canada or Old Sam Peabody or Come A-way With Me.

Several tall, thick Leyland cypress trees, dark against the pale orange sky, were lively with the peeps and chips and tseets of birds and with little birds chasing each other and diving into the depths of the trees and disappearing for the night.

The moon, just past full, had not yet risen, but later the night remained clear and the moon shone bright, flooding the trees and grass in pure, white, brilliant light.