Archive for February, 2010

White-breasted Nuthatch

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Cold weather has returned, and yesterday morning was drizzly and gray when I stepped out on the deck. From a dark stand of pines just inside the woods, a White-breasted Nuthatch called ahnk! It’s not a very glamorous sound, but it’s one I don’t hear often around here, and the bird making it is a cool, graceful little bird with a black crown and half-collar, blue-gray back, snow-white throat and breast, and a long, sharp bill, and to see one is a little like seeing a celebrity for me.

Although sociable, pine-loving Brown-headed Nuthatches are regular visitors to our feeders and the woods around the neighborhood, the more aloof White-breasted Nuthatches are not, probably because they prefer mature deciduous woodland and mixed forest, while our woods are younger and rougher, with few large, dignified trees, either pines or hardwoods. Every once in a while though, like today, one or two come around.

I tried for several minutes to find the White-breasted Nuthatch, but the light was gray and blurry. It gave its one-syllable ahnk call several more times, but remained invisible somewhere among the misty pine branches and foliage, a little too far away to see.

Blackbird Flock – Mostly Common Grackles

Later in the morning a large flock of blackbirds flew in and spread over the grass and trees in several yards in the neighborhood. There were maybe 500 birds – a very rough estimate. All I saw were Common Grackles and a few Red-winged Blackbirds. I could not find any Rusty Blackbirds among them, though there were many in the trees and further away that I couldn’t see well, and they were, as usual, restless and moving from place to place. There’s something disorienting about trying to distinguish one blackbird from another in a flock on the ground. It’s like an optical illusion in motion. I know what I’m supposed to see, but just can’t quite find it. But it was a good feeling just to stand among so many and to hear them – a loud congregation of creaky blackbird voices all around. When a truck drove past they all flew up with that sudden thumping rush of wings and moved in waves, even further away, too soon. It was nice to see a fairly large flock again, and I hope maybe to run into them again.

More and More Birdsong: Phoebe and Brown Thrasher

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

All weekend was warm and sunny, with temperatures this afternoon in the mid 70s, encouraging lots of birdsong and activity. The morning began with the song of an Eastern Phoebe sitting in the branches of a white oak just outside our windows, after Phoebes have been pretty quiet for the past several weeks. All day it has continued to sing and to do its chatter call around the house – so I’m hoping that maybe it’s one of a pair that might nest here again this year, after successfully raising three young Phoebes in a nest over the garage last summer.

Eastern Bluebirds were singing, and a pair is spending a lot of time around the nest box, the male sometimes sitting on top of it. On a walk through the neighborhood, I heard several others singing and saw four or five pairs together.

A Pine Warbler continues to give its musical trill all around the edge of the woods and around the house and comes to the feeder now and then. This morning for a while it sang in the branches of a water oak right over my head – he’s a bright, warm yellow, very colorful. Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, House Finches, Chickadees, Titmice – all are singing, so the mornings are beginning to sound more and more full of birdsong, especially on sunny days. A Red-shouldered Hawk called from somewhere over the woods to the east, not close. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker made the rounds of trees in the front yard, and although I still haven’t heard one around our yard in a while, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered in a thicket down the road.

Late this afternoon a Brown Thrasher sang from a low branch in a pine tree, the first time I’ve heard one sing this season. It sang for several minutes, running through several different pairs of phrases, but it sang from a perch screened by branches and pine needles and not very loudly – so maybe he’s rehearsing, not quite ready for the open stage of a treetop branch. Usually Brown Thrashers here do start singing in February, but maybe they’re a little late this year because of the cold, wet weather.

Red-tailed Hawk and Rabbit

Late this afternoon I stopped along the edge of the old field to look at a dead rabbit lying in brown grass. As I walked toward it, a Red-tailed Hawk flew out of a low perch in a tree on the edge of the field, into the open for a moment, then back into the trees, further in where the pines were denser. I looked for it and had just about given up when it flew out and across the road and away. I walked away feeling guilty about keeping the hawk from its prey, and hoping it would come back soon after I left – though with all the traffic and people around here, it must be fairly accustomed to such interruptions.

Brown-headed Nuthatch and Pine Warbler – Not So Friendly Competition

Friday, February 19th, 2010

After what seemed like a very long spell of cold, windy days, the weather here has gradually begun to warm up. Yesterday was still chilly, in the 40s, but sunny and with lighter winds. All day several American Goldfinches were active around the two feeders on the back deck, with three or four Tufted Titmice, a couple of Carolina Chickadees and a Carolina Wren hunting for whatever they could find in old plant pots and corners. Red-bellied Woodpeckers called their spring-like quurrrrr from the woods, and a Pine Warbler sang, making its way through the pines, changing the quality and mood of its song from time to time.

It’s probably the same Pine Warbler that visits the feeders out front regularly, a colorful male with warm yellow breast and soft streaks. Today I happened to be watching when a little Brown-headed Nuthatch – also a regular visitor – flew at the warbler aggressively. At first the Pine Warbler held its ground, but in only a second or two gave up and flew away, at least temporarily. Minor disputes like this are pretty common around the feeders, and the small but feisty Nuthatches don’t hesitate to take on larger birds and seem to win a confrontation more often than not.

The species account for Brown-headed Nuthatch in Birds of North America* notes that they are particularly competitive with Pine Warblers for food and foraging habitat in winter flocks. Studies seem to show that sometimes one wins and sometimes the other. The Nuthatches also try to chase off  Chickadees, Titmice and even a Downy Woodpecker sometimes – but most of the time they seem relatively content to share with these species.

*James H. Withgott and Kimberly G. Smith. 1998. Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Chipping Sparrow, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and a Cooper’s Hawk

Meanwhile, dozens of American Robins still are scattered all around our yard, feeding on the ground with White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves and Cardinals, and eating the red berries of the Savannah hollies. A Northern Mockingbird perches on the mailbox or on a small pecan tree in the middle of a juniper thicket. And a solitary, very wary Hermit Thrush ventures out from the bushes now and then to feed with the other ground birds. We don’t seem to have as many Yellow-rumped Warblers as in previous winters, but a few are usually around, especially in the wax myrtles, and one comes fairly often to a feeder.

Late yesterday afternoon when I went out for a walk, the sky was soft blue and white, with a high, pale sliver of a crescent moon. It was chilly, temperature in the 40s, but not windy, and very pleasant. A Cardinal and a Bluebird sang. In the distance, Chickadee, Titmouse and House Finch also were singing. A dozen or more Chipping Sparrows, looking at first like little mounds of grass in motion, flew up from the roadside like sparks as I walked by. One perched on the edge of a dense green cedar, facing the sun. With warm reddish-brown crown, white stripe above the eye, brown-streaked wings and gray breast, a bird that so often looks anonymous in flocks came fully into focus.

Small birds were active all along the way, but the defining presence throughout the neighborhood right now is Robins – they’re everywhere, in every yard, in many trees, clucking, squeaking, running across the grass, pulling up worms, and often standing and looking around.

I stopped for a while by a thicket of weeds and bushes and trees near the corner of two streets, listening to the calls of White-throated Sparrows and Eastern Towhees, and also heard the chatter of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet – a welcome sound because these usually common winter residents have been hard to find here recently. A woodpecker flew to the trunk of a pecan tree, and turned out to be a young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – its throat barely red, its black, white, gray and buff coloring blending in perfectly with the bark of the tree, and the feathers on its crown ruffled up into what looked a crest. It made quick scratching sounds as it hitched quickly around the tree and up in a spiral, stopping to check out some of the holes in several rings of holes around the trunk and branches.

When I had walked several yards further down the street, a Cooper’s Hawk came flying very low over the grass from the direction of trees in the thicket behind me. Sleek blue-gray, with russet breast, it only flapped once or twice, then sailed with wings outstretched, staying close to the ground. It glided over a low hill and disappeared into some large trees near a pond. A few minutes later, as I walked on, it flew from that same area and crossed the road ahead of me, flying now at treetop level up a hill and past three houses, disappearing this time further away, into more trees.

Northern Flicker and One Cedar Waxwing

A little further down the road, on my way back toward home, two birds perched in the top branches of a bare pecan tree, almost side by side, both facing the sun. One was a big handsome Northern Flicker, with long, sturdy bill, spotted breast, black breast-band and a scarlet crescent on the nape of its neck. Its brown, black and gray plumage was all ruffled up by the wind. The other was a solitary Cedar Waxwing, looking sleek and petite beside the Flicker, tawny brown and gray, with black mask and neat crest, it was completely undisturbed by the wind. Its belly glowed yellow in the low-slanting light. I could hear its single high, thin note, but could not hear or see any other Cedar Waxwings around, though I know there must have been others somewhere near.

Hermit Thrush at the Window

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Earlier yesterday morning when I checked out the front yard, all the usual suspects were around – Chickadees, Titmice, a pair of Downy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpecker, two Brown-headed Nuthatches, and a Mockingbird back and forth from the feeders, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds – the male several times sitting possessively on top of the bluebird house – and several White-throated Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves and Robins foraging on the ground. Among the ground birds was one Hermit Thrush, which flew to the cover of some wax myrtles when startled and stood there, raising and lowering its tail. Then – to my surprise – it flew again, this time into a Savannah holly tree right outside the window where I was standing. It hopped from branch to branch only inches away.

It may be the closest I’ve ever come to a Hermit Thrush, though I’ve often watched one from not far away. It ate a holly berry, then hopped to another branch and stopped, with its back to me, looking over its shoulder with a white-ringed eye, its slender bill slightly tilted up. The spotted breast looked muted, and overall it was a fawn brown, rather dull color, except for the reddish tail – but the behavior and personality of a Hermit Thrush are intriguing. Even though it may come out into the open often and regularly, it looks the part of an eccentric hermit, wide-eyed and easily spooked. It stops and looks around frequently, flicks its wings and hops or runs with a characteristic gait. It’s only and completely in the eye of the beholder, but to me a Hermit Thrush always looks slightly guilty and impish – but proud of itself.

We rarely hear the hauntingly beautiful song of a Hermit Thrush here, since it’s only here for the winter, so we get a somewhat different view of its life.

Nervously, this one raised and lowered its cinnamon tail several times, then hopped to another branch and flew away, back toward the wax myrtles.

Soaring Red-shouldered Hawks

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Late in the morning yesterday, on a cold but sunny Valentine’s Day, two Red-shouldered Hawks were soaring and calling kee-yer to each other in a big, soft blue sky with rumpled white clouds. The sun shined through their wings – held in a shape more bow-like than the wide spread of a red-tailed hawk – and the colors and patterns in their wings looked almost like stained glass, showing reddish-brown on the shoulders and breast, and a complex dark and white toward the edges, clear “windows” in each wing, and the tails fanned out in dark and white bands. When they turned, the rust-red shoulders showed up uncommonly well. They were a fine sight – and a fine sound. It’s about time for them to begin courtship and starting a nest, so it’s very good to know they are around – because I’d seen so little of them over the winter, I had begun to wonder. There was also a third Red-shouldered Hawk, this one a juvenile, darker and more brown all over, maybe the same one I saw a couple of days ago, flying over the road and crying its own kee-yer.

Seeing and hearing the Red-shouldered Hawks soaring in the big blue sky, especially after this long cold, gray winter, often dreary and raining for days, lifted my own spirits and made me feel lighter and more optimistic all over.

The O Canada Bird

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

As the 2010 Winter Olympics get underway in Vancouver, here in the southern U.S. a lovely echo of the O Canada anthem can sometimes be heard just by stepping outside. White-throated Sparrows – which leave their summer breeding grounds in the forests of Canada and other parts of the far North, and come here for the winter – whistle a clear, sweet song which can be heard as Oh sweet Ca-na-da.

One of our most common and widespread winter birds, White-throated Sparrows are classic sparrows – brown-streaked birds that feed mostly on the ground and dive quickly into the cover of bushes when disturbed. But on closer look, they are handsome and distinctively marked, with chestnut-brown and black-streaked back, black and white striped head and face, a touch of deep yellow between the eye and the bill, and a crisp white throat, neatly outlined against a gray breast. Their appearance, posture and rather deliberate, confident-looking way of moving give them a dignified look much of the time – though they’re also skittish and shy, like most sparrows, and they’re almost always found in or near areas of thick, low vegetation. Their sibilant tseet calls can be heard coming from the cover of weedy fields, vacant lots, thickets, and in and under shrubs in suburban yards.

Around our house they feed on the ground beneath the bird feeders or beneath the shrubs, scratching up the leaves and mulch to search for seeds and occasional insects or fruit. They often sit half hidden in the dense, dark foliage of the wax myrtles, only the white throat giving them away. Although they don’t sing often at this time of year, it’s not uncommon to hear a few tentative, broken bars of the Oh sweet Canada song, especially early in the morning or near the end of the day, at twilight.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

Late this afternoon a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk flew low across the road in front of me, from one yard to another, barely above the ground at first, then up a hill, across a garden spot and into some trees, where it passed out of sight. Its rich brown, barred coloring looked warm and slightly reddish. I was particularly happy to see it because it’s the first one I’ve seen this winter in our neighborhood.

Where Are the Ruby-crowned Kinglets?

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

It was a pleasant afternoon for a walk – after a very blustery, cold day yesterday – sunshine filtered by filmy, high cloud cover and temperatures in the mid 40s. Many American Robins are still scattered all through the neighborhood, almost everywhere. One Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tall pine, another sat on top of a utility pole overlooking the field and the highway. Most of the usual suspects were around – but two in particular were missing, and have been for several days.

I heard and saw no Ruby-crowned Kinglet – not one. This is unusual even for one day, and certainly for several days in a row. The stuttering chatter of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet is one of the most familiar sounds around our yard. There are several particular thickets or brushy spots throughout the neighborhood where I ordinarily can count on hearing or seeing one, and they are likely to turn up just about anywhere. But for the past several days I have not been able to find one.

Also, for several days now I have not heard or seen a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. This may be just chance or my not watching closely enough, because the Sapsuckers can be pretty elusive. But even in the areas where at least one or two have been fairly common earlier this season, I haven’t heard their mewing call or found one working on the trunk of a pecan.

I’m hoping that both of these observations will turn out to be just bad timing on my part, or just unusual days – and that both will turn up again soon.


Saturday, February 6th, 2010

After an all-day drenching hard, cold rain yesterday, ending in a blustery wind that rattled the branches and wind chimes all night, we awoke to a magical sunrise. The eastern sky was layered in heavy, dark gray clouds with breaks of light. A window of pale light just above the horizon widened and became soft orange, then brighter and deeper orange, red-orange that spread through the clouds like streams. When a shimmering red-gold sun slipped up over the horizon, the sunlight lit the sky and trees as if in a bubble of delicate, clear, rose-yellow light. The air was calm. The gray clouds looked blue. The brown leaves on the oaks hung still. Raindrops glittered with color on the branches. It felt like being inside a sparkling glass globe.

Then the sun slipped further up and the dense, coal-dark bank of clouds closed in again. The magic light disappeared in a breath. The day became heavy, dull and gray again and the wind began to blow. It all had lasted only moments.

Goldfinches mewed from the feeders on the deck below. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called quuuuurrrrr. A little brown Carolina Wren flew to the rail of the balcony outside our windows, tail cocked up high and head pumping up and down assertively, and sang, loud, energetic and bold.

Squirrel Chasing a Bird

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

On a cold, gray, rainy day, all the usual small birds were pretty active around the front yard feeders – Chickadees, Titmice, a pair of House Finches, Downy Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Mockingbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker. One Yellow-rumped Warbler made several visits to one of the feeders, which is a little unusual. Cardinals, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows and Mourning Doves fed on the ground.

One strange thing happened. I was inside, stopping to look out a large window on the second floor, and saw a gray squirrel at the base of a tree-trunk jumping around in a strange way, sort of like a cat playing with a mouse, but more clumsily. Suddenly a small bird streaked out, flying away from the squirrel and the squirrel ran after it. Both disappeared from view, and when I went downstairs to see if I could find them, I could not. I did not see what kind of bird it was, but when it flew, it looked like it got away.

It all happened very fast and was over quickly, but it certainly looked as if the squirrel was either trying to catch a bird or they were squabbling over something. After doing a very little research, I learned that squirrels are known to eat small birds sometimes – something I had never known. We have a lot of squirrels here, way too many – in part because we live in an old pecan grove and also have a lot of oaks. So far we’ve managed to prevent them from getting to the bird feeders (except for a new peanut-butter feeder out back – they’ve just figured that one out), but there are always several squirrels around. They’re a nuisance in many ways and I’m sure they compete with birds on the ground for fallen nuts, seeds and fruit from the feeders. But I assume eating birds is not something they do regularly.