Archive for January, 2010

Eastern Towhees in a Thicket – Land for Sale

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

On a cold, gray, dreary, foggy, lightly icy day – like much of the last two weeks in January – four Eastern Towhees rustled in leaf litter on the ground in a tangled thicket of privet and other weedy faded shrubs and vines. Two were males, with dark red eyes and boldly patterned in black, red-orange and white; two females with the same overall pattern, but instead of black, a rich velvet-brown. Now and then one called cher-WINK. They kicked up the litter vigorously, searching for seeds, fruits, insects, spiders and larvae. They don’t much look like sparrows, but are – big, plump, brightly colored sparrows with colorful songs and calls to match. Robust, lively and earthy, they looked warm in the middle of a cold, gray day, glowing like the colors of a welcome fire against the withered background of the deepest part of winter.

The area of thickets where I saw them has become a favorite stopping place for me these last couple of weeks – on the rare occasions when I’ve been home long enough to get outside for a walk. It’s a vacant lot just outside our subdivision, happily neglected, overgrown with weeds and vines and grass, with a large red, white and blue “commercial property for sale” sign planted right in the middle of it. It’s not particularly attractive even when the foliage is green, and right now it looks especially bedraggled – but a lot of birds seem to like it.

White-throated Sparrows and Song Sparrows join Towhees in feeding on the ground, often coming out to the roadside nearby to forage in the grass, and sometimes they sing. Brown Thrashers lurk deep in the tangles giving smack calls loudly. There’s often the chatter of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet as it flits quickly, weaving through the bushes, the fussing of a Carolina Wren, the chatter of a Chickadee, or an Eastern Phoebe quietly stopping by to perch on a branch, wagging its tail. Usually there are at least a few Robins in the trees overhead, and the high, thin calls of a small flock of Cedar Waxwings.

Though Eastern Towhees are quite common in eastern North America, and a familiar bird around many yards, many details of its natural history remain poorly known, according to the species account in Birds of North America. “Because the bird spends much of its time near or on the ground in dense habitats and scrubby growth . . . it is usually difficult to study . . . and deserves much additional study.”*

* Jon S. Greenlaw. 1996. Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

As January Ends – A Scarcity of Birds

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

For the last two weeks of January, I was away from home much of the time, so my impressions of bird activity during these days are fragmentary. But whenever I could, I went out for at least one walk during the day, and my general impression has been that this winter we have fewer species of birds and smaller numbers here than in previous winters – except for some of our most common birds, like Chickadees, Titmice, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, Cardinals and Blue Jays. All of these seem to be doing fine.

Most days I’ve seen Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures soaring, and at least one Red-tailed Hawk, sometimes soaring, but often perched in the trees or flying low along the edge of the woods. So far this winter, however, I have not seen or heard a Red-shouldered Hawk, and this is unusual. Until now, Red-shouldered Hawks have almost always been around, and in previous winters there were many days when I encountered one or two hunting from low perches in trees near the woods.

I have still seen a Cooper’s Hawk several times along a certain stretch of road that runs between yards with a combination of open space and woods.

Most days I run across at least one Yellow-bellied Sapsucker or hear its mewing call, but they are not nearly as common in the neighborhood’s many pecans and other trees as they have been in previous winters. So far we’ve seen very few Goldfinches, no Pine Siskins, and no sign of the large Blackbird flocks of previous winters.

But – to end the month on a less-gloomy note, there’s a handsome pair of Northern Flickers that usually can be found foraging in one large grassy yard with Eastern Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos and other small birds. The check calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers can be heard just about everywhere, and one or two small sparkling flocks of Cedar Waxwings are usually around.

A pair of feisty Brown-headed Nuthatches are regular visitors to the feeders in our front yard, along with a pair of Downy Woodpeckers, and a few tiny, exquisite Golden-crowned Kinglets can usually be found in the pines. Carolina Wrens sing glorious songs – too often I overlook them – and also visit the feeders often. Large numbers of Robins are scattered throughout the neighborhood, spread out across yards, perched in treetops, and at end of day, glowing red in the setting sun as they fly over in small groups toward the west.

A Pine Warbler continues to trill its spring-like song outside my office window early in the morning and all around the house, all day, even in the coldest, grayest, dreariest weather.

Birdsong on a Winter Morning – Pine Warbler and Others

Friday, January 15th, 2010

“The calendar may tell me that the toughest days of winter are yet to come, but I know in my heart that on December 21 it is already spring. I have heard it in the air. I have heard it in the lusty singing of nuthatches and titmice and chickadees. The woodpeckers are drumming, female jays and crows rattling. In the grand cycle through the seasons, these birds know what time it is.” (Donald Kroodsma, Birdsong by the Seasons)*

It wasn’t on the winter solstice, but near the end of the first week in January when I heard the first Pine Warbler sing – a rich, musical trill like a breath of spring air on a very cold, icy, clear mid-winter morning. That was several days ago, and since then they’ve been singing every day. As I work in my office, one sings just outside my window, and I’ve also heard their songs in other parts of the neighborhood. A pair has been coming to the feeders in our front yard, a splash of warm yellow among the more somber-colored Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Chickadees, Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers, Brown-headed Nuthatches and Chipping Sparrows.

This morning – still cold enough for ice in the bird baths, but sunny and warming up fast, with a bright blue sky – several other birds were also singing, reminding me of Kroodsma’s words and of his chapter, “The Winter Solstice Is the First Day of Spring.” Two Carolina Wrens sang back and forth, matching each other’s songs and switching from one to another, a Tufted Titmouse sang peter-peter-peter, a Carolina Chickadee fee-bee, fee-bay, an Eastern Towhee drink-your-tea, an Eastern Bluebird warbled and a House Finch whistled its cheery song. A Red-bellied Woodpecker gave its spring-like quurrr call over and over. Northern Cardinals also began to sing in the first week of January, but this morning they were quiet, at least while I was listening.

Later in the morning two Brown-headed Cowbirds sat in the top branches of a bare tree along the edge of the road, giving a surprisingly nice sort of dry, feathery, trilled call together as they flew. I’ve been watching and hoping for Blackbirds, but the Cowbirds weren’t exactly what I had in mind. There’s still no sign of larger flocks with Red-winged and Rusty Blackbirds that we’ve had in previous winters. The big open grassy yards where they used to spread out every day seem empty this year, and very quiet.

Two Red-tailed Hawks perched together on the top of a utility pole in a power cut, facing each other and looking content to sit together and soak up some sun. After a few minutes one dropped down from the pole and spread its wings, gliding out and circling up with ease and calling as it got higher, as if urging the other to come along.

Two Golden-crowned Kinglets called ti-ti-ti from some pines, and one came down low enough to see for several minutes, showing a bright gold-orange crown. Some years there are more Golden-crowned Kinglets here than others, and this year there seem to be fewer, so it feels like a good day when I can catch a glimpse of one or hear their calls.

Brown Thrashers seemed to be more active than they have been for a while. Several in the old field were exchanging loud smack calls, and while I was walking past the field three came out into the tops of bushes to call and look around. I don’t know if I just happened to come by at a time when they were out, or if they, too, are beginning to feel like spring.

*Donald Kroodsma, Birdsong by the Seasons, A Year of Listening to Birds 2009, page 275.

Killdeer – An Unusual Visitor

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

Late this afternoon the weather was cool and sunny, with a clear blue sky and high wind-swept white cirrus clouds, with temperature in the 50s, much warmer than the past 10 days or so, almost balmy.

The most surprising sighting of the day was a Killdeer – the first time I’ve ever seen one in our neighborhood. It was foraging in short, dry grass near the driveway of a home and I watched it for several minutes, just walking around. But I wasn’t the first one to see it. A couple of days ago, a neighbor had stopped me to ask about a bird he had seen and could not identify – he described it well, as a good-size bird that flew and landed in a distinctive way, mostly brown, with a long dark bill and a white ring around its neck. I couldn’t figure it out at the time since I’d never seen one here, but after I got home, decided from his description that it must have been a Killdeer – and sure enough, today I saw it not far from his house.

The Killdeer is an upland plover that’s fairly common on farmland and open grassy fields. We often see them – and hear their loud, peeping calls – in parks and ball fields. I’ve even found their eggs, in a shallow gravel nest, laid right on the edge of a walking trail in one park. But to see one here in our neighborhood is new. It’s a handsome bird, with rather long legs, white markings on the face, brown back, white throat and belly, and what looks like a white ring around its neck is created by black bands around the upper breast.

Thanks to my neighbor for a very interesting sighting!

New Year’s Resolution: eBird

Friday, January 8th, 2010

Today I began keeping a New Year’s Resolution to post at least one report a week this year to eBird.

eBird is an online checklist program maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Audubon Society. Its purpose is to collect information on bird distribution and numbers. Currently observations are collected throughout North and South America, Antarctica and New Zealand, with plans eventually to expand data collection worldwide.

Participants also can use eBird to maintain personal birding records, and the website includes a number of internet tools – interactive maps, graphs, bar charts, summaries – that may be of interest.

For myself, the main reason I want to participate is to do what I can to help develop a better understanding of birds and their distribution and status, especially so that we might learn better how to help and protect them. I’ve submitted checklists sporadically over the past couple of years – but this year hope to contribute regularly. At the end of a year or two, I’ll be interested to look back and see what changes, if any, are reflected in the species and numbers of birds in my own neighborhood and other places where I bird regularly.

Birders of all levels are encouraged to participate, and it’s easy to do. You fill out a simple form on the eBird website with information on when, where and how you went birding on a particular day, and complete a checklist of all the birds seen and heard during the outing. You can also provide and track more detailed information – but the checklist is the basic tool.

The biggest drawback for me in using eBird has been that I don’t usually count birds – I like just to be out walking, watching and enjoying, and don’t want the pressure of counting to spoil that. But I’ve decided to give it a try, in the belief that the trouble it takes may be well worth the results. I should add that you don’t have to include the numbers of birds seen when you submit a checklist – but counts are definitely encouraged.

For more information, see

Hermit Thrush, Pine Warblers and Accipiter

Friday, January 8th, 2010

Two highlights of a nice long walk through the neighborhood late yesterday morning – the source of my first 2010 eBird report – came in my own front yard just as I started out – a Hermit Thrush perched among the dense green leaves of a lauropetulum bush, and two Pine Warblers, one visiting a feeder and the other singing from nearby. The weather was clear and cold, but clouds were moving in as I walked, and by the time I got home again, quilted clouds covered almost all the sky. Snow and sleet were in the forecast for late in the day.

The Hermit Thrush appeared at first as a pale blob shining among the dark leaves, and when I lifted the binoculars I expected to see a Mockingbird. Instead, there was a cream-white, spotted breast (though the spots looked more like streaks than spots, maybe because of the way it was fluffed up in the cold), and the alert-looking brownish-gray head and face, thin white eye-ring, and slender bill of a Hermit Thrush. Its crown was more brown and its face more gray. Its back and tail were hidden in the shrub, and I watched it for several minutes, hoping it would emerge or fly down to the grass, but it just sat there for a long time, head raised high with the bill pointing slightly up, looking around, and then suddenly flew low across the ground and into some bushes on the edge of the woods, and that was the last I saw of it. I looked for it off and on all day but never saw it again – or heard its soft chup.

The Pine Warblers stayed around later in the day, and seem to have become regular visitors to the feeders.

Toward the end of my walk, around noon, a small hawk, either a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-shinned, flew into a tree in a neighbor’s front yard. I could see its silhouette pretty clearly as it perched for several seconds – long tail, rather flat head, hooked bill – it was certainly an Accipiter, but I couldn’t see it well enough to be sure which it was, even when it flew, dropping down low, gliding swiftly over the ground and up into another stand of trees where it disappeared from view. Either way – Cooper’s Hawk or Sharp-shinned – it’s always special to see one. The Cooper’s Hawk seems to be more common here, but I have seen a Sharp-shinned at least once earlier this winter.

In all, I counted 30 species (reported to eBird with numbers for each): Turkey Vulture, Accipiter species, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Cedar Waxwing, Pine Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Northern Cardinal, Common Grackle, House Finch, American Goldfinch.

Conspicuously missing: No Eastern Bluebird, Black Vulture, Golden-crowned Kinglet or Song Sparrow.

It’s also interesting that several birds were singing – including the Pine Warbler, Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, White-throated Sparrow and Northern Cardinal.

Pine Warbler, Common Grackles, Dark-eyed Juncos

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Like much of the rest of the country, we are in the middle of a stretch of very cold winter weather, with lows in the mid teens and highs only in the 30s. Today was clear and windy, with a pale blue sky and bright but colorless sunlight.

Maybe because of the wind, there seemed little activity even around the feeders in our front yard. Both bird baths remained frozen in solid blocks all day. I poured pitchers of warmer water over them to make a little water available at least for a while, but all day never saw much bird activity – though I admit I didn’t spend much time outside.

Late in the afternoon, the day still clear and blustery, getting even colder, the most noticeable thing when I stepped out the front door was the quiet – no insect sounds, no birds. Only the sound of the wind in the trees, though that was quite a bit of sound in itself. I walked for several minutes along the road before hearing or seeing even the first bird – not even the call of a Blue Jay or Crow, not even a Vulture or a Red-tailed Hawk in the big empty sky.

In one spot, along a stretch of road lined with cedars and lots of shrubs along the edges of grassy yards, however, dozens of little birds were active – Eastern Bluebirds, White-throated Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, an Eastern Phoebe and a pair of Cardinals all flitted from tree to shrub to grass, and feeding among them on the ground was one warm, deep-yellow Pine Warbler, the first I’ve seen in several weeks. A nice surprise.

In the same area were Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker and a Northern Flicker that flew out across several open yards, flashing the broad “yellow-shafted” undersides of its wings in the sunlight, then perching in a treetop where the black bib on its breast and red crescent on its nape glowed.

A little further up the road, a flock of at least 60 Common Grackles perched noisily in the treetops. I stopped to watch them for a while, but could find no other Blackbird species among them, even when they flew, streaming low over me. They all seemed to be Grackles. This is the largest flock of Blackbirds I’ve seen so far this winter and is still considerably smaller than the numbers we usually have seen.

Dark-eyed Juncos today seemed to be almost everywhere – maybe the bird of the day. They’re often called “snowbirds,” and snow is in our forecast for later this week – a rare occurrence for us, if it comes. Juncos are common winter residents here but I haven’t seen too many this year until now. Small, familiar soot-gray birds with round heads, pink bills, white belly and white outer edges on the tail. I think they are making calls I would describe as high “little-bell-ringing” trills, but so far I haven’t found this call described clearly, so I’m not completely sure, but am trying to listen for them more closely and try to learn them. In our yard early in the afternoon, I watched for a few minutes as four emerged cautiously from the bushes and made their way across some open space to the area under the feeders – darting back to a shrub now and then, nervous in the wind.

New Year’s Day – Carolina Wren

Friday, January 1st, 2010

The first day of 2010 began with a cloudy sky gradually breaking up to allow a bright sun to shine through, a strong wind that shook the branches and few dry brown leaves of the white oaks outside our bedroom windows, and the song of a Carolina Wren from somewhere along the edge of the woods in our back yard. Half a dozen Black Vultures blew by, soaring, circling against the clouds, flying high and fast.

As the day went on, the cold, blustery wind swept away all trace of clouds, leaving a clear, pale blue sky. A few birds were active around the feeders and bird baths in the front yard – the usual suspects – Titmice, Chickadees, Mourning Doves, Cardinals, and a pair of Downy Woodpeckers – but it was the musical, defiantly colorful songs and trills of Carolina Wrens, strong even against the wind, that captured the spirit of the day.

On a late afternoon walk through the neighborhood, I saw and heard amazingly few birds, maybe because of the wind, and only counted a total of 12 species, with many of our most common birds not seen or heard. The most interesting sightings were several Cedar Waxwings, whose high thin calls sparkled in the air as they flew over, and about four or five Common Grackles also calling as they flew over.