Archive for December, 2009

A Phoebe in the Fog

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

The last day of 2009 was dark and cloudy, cold, damp and drizzly, with off and on rain. Late in the afternoon a dense fog had gathered as I went out for a walk in the last light (such as it was) of the year. Sunset was supposed to be around 5:40, I think, but there was no hint of color to be seen, in the sky or all around – all was gray, cold, murky fog, with the black shapes of bare trees, evergreens and shrubs.

Earlier in the day birds had been fairly active in the yard, but by this late, there were few to be seen or heard – not even a single Red-bellied Woodpecker or Tufted Titmouse or Crow. Mourning Doves perched silently in bare-limbed trees. A Chickadee chattered here and there, a Carolina Wren fussed, a Downy Woodpecker called pink! One quiet Eastern Bluebird sat in the top of a bare pecan. The tseet calls of White-throated Sparrows and chatter of Ruby-crowned Kinglets came from beneath a few bushes. Yellow-rumped Warblers called sharp cheks as they flew from tree to tree. A good many Robins were scattered here and there, mostly in the trees, calling and even one or two singing pieces of songs. Eastern Towhees called from the thickets of the old field.

But mostly as I walked I noticed the tsup calls of several Eastern Phoebes coming through the fog from different spots along the way. I only saw one, as it flew into a small tree and sat on a bare branch pumping its tail up and down, but the short tsup call has become very familiar. It’s a quick, quiet call, but more complex, with more character and shading than a chip or a peep or a chek or a tseep. It’s been a good year for Phoebes here, and the past several weeks they have been among the most active and vocal of birds around the neighborhood, maybe because our resident birds have been joined by migrants from further north coming in for the winter.

A small gray flycatcher with a dark, soot-gray head, no facial markings, a faint yellow or gray-white breast, and a consistent habit of wagging its tail up and down quickly as it perches, an Eastern Phoebe is a year-round resident here, apparently finding enough insects even through the winter to live on, supplemented with spiders, other invertebrates and fruits, especially in very cold weather. Phoebes always have been among my favorite birds to have around – last spring a pair built a nest in the curve of a gutter high over our garage and successfully raised three big, strong-looking young.

So as the year comes to an end, it seems fitting enough that a Phoebe, calling somewhere out of sight in the fog, marks its last fading light.

December Birds

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Birds have seemed rather quiet in the neighborhood, with not as many different species and fewer numbers this December than in recent years. As always, I’m not sure this is an accurate observation because it could be that I’ve just been too busy or preoccupied – but even though other obligations have kept me from posting blogs through most of the month, I have been outside at some point for an hour or more most days, and keeping a journal.

On a good walk through the neighborhood in late December, most days I could count on finding around 20-25 species, and the total number of species for the month – not all seen on one day – has been 36. Highlights have included a Sharp-shinned Hawk that flew low overhead one cold cloudy day, its neat, compact shape perfectly held right above me; a Cooper’s Hawk seen two or three times in a certain stretch along Summit Drive, perched in low branches and sailing low over the grass; the mews of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, and their visits to the pecan trees in our front yard; the little-bell-like calls of Dark-eyed Juncos foraging below shrubs and below the feeders; the quick scattering of Chipping Sparrows flying up from brown grass along the roadsides; the chatter of Ruby-crowned Kinglets in bushes and low branches; the occasional high ti-ti-ti of Golden-crowned Kinglets in the higher branches of pines and hardwoods; the cuck-cuck-cuck calls of a Pileated Woodpecker in a particular section of woods; one sighting of a quiet Hermit Thrush in early December; many Black Vultures soaring, usually three or four together; a pair of Red-tailed Hawks soaring together and calling on a blue-sky, sunny cold day; the squeaking calls and bold behavior of Brown-headed Nuthatches that visit the feeders daily; the high, thin calls of small flocks of Cedar Waxwings; and the to-WHEE calls and activity of Eastern Towhees, bright splotches of black, red, brown and white scratching in dry brown leaves below bushes.

Conspicuously missing from my list are Red-shouldered Hawk and Pine Warbler – both of which I’m sure are around, but I have not seen or heard them since late fall – and Barred Owl, heard seldom lately. I’ve not yet seen a Pine Siskin, Red-breasted Nuthatch or White-breasted Nuthatch this winter, and no Brown Creeper or Winter Wren in several years now – but keep watching.

Maybe the most significant missing birds are the fairly good-size flocks of Blackbirds we usually see here in winter. So far this season I’ve only seen one lone Red-winged Blackbird, a very few Common Grackles and no certain Rusty Blackbirds, though there have been a few flying over that I wasn’t sure about. I’m still watching and hoping for the flocks to come along.

*Complete list of species seen or heard in Summit Grove, December 2009: Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Song Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, House Finch, American Goldfinch.

Hermit Thrush

Monday, December 7th, 2009

Near noon on a cold, damp, cloudy day, a Hermit Thrush perched high among the bare top branches of a pecan tree. A small, dark, quiet shape against a dismal gray sky, it flicked its wings, flipped up its tail and lowered it slowly, over and over, each time calling a soft, soft chup.

I didn’t expect to see a Hermit Thrush so high and almost walked by without taking a second look at the bird on the branch. More often they’re under the bushes and shrubs or along the edges of the woods. In the blurry gray light, its coloring and markings were barely visible – darkly spotted upper breast, brownish back and wings and faded cinnamon tail, and I could only imagine the white eye-ring that gives it a wide-eyed and trusting look. But the shape, with head held high, and the tail and the call were distinct, and it stayed on the branch long enough for me to get a closer and closer look.

Its presence there – a little anonymous spot in a muffled expanse of grayness was a reminder – again – of how much I often miss. What I see and hear depends so much on how open my own mind is to the world around me, not locked inside myself. On this day, though persistent thoughts kept drawing me back in, I cleared them away now and then – and was lucky enough to see the Hermit Thrush and hear its gentle call.

While here in the South for the winter months, Hermit Thrushes are not as shy as their name implies, and it’s usually not hard to find one, taking no more than the trouble to stop and listen for the chup or watch in likely places. They’re fun to watch and seem to have regular habits, each day following a similar pattern of foraging around an area. Usually we have one in the bushes around our house, though I haven’t heard or seen one here so far this season, maybe discouraged by the neighborhood cats that too often hang around. A little bit like a Robin, a Hermit Thrush hops or scurries from favorite spot to spot, making its rounds – from shrub to stepping stone to potted plant to deck rail to the branch of a bush – stopping and looking around, and scurrying again, searching for insects and fruit.