Archive for April, 2010

Blue-headed Vireos

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Late in the morning on a cool, brightly sunny, windy day almost two weeks ago – Sunday, April 18 – two Blue-headed Vireos sang in the fresh green leaves of young oaks and tulip poplars on the edge of the woods in our neighborhood. With smooth blue-gray head, brilliant white spectacles around the eyes, crisp white wing bars, white breast, and a very faint wash of lemon-yellow on the sides, the vireos looked sleek and elegant among the wind-tossed, new-green leaves, and sang cool, graceful songs that reflected both their plumage and the bright spring day. Staying a fair distance apart, but in the same general area of trees, not too high, they sang back and forth, and I was able to watch and listen for several minutes.

I had found time for a walk that morning, but the rest of the day and the following week and more became so busy that I’m only now posting this very late account – but seeing the Blue-headed Vireos and hearing their songs is still vivid in my mind. It’s an image and a memory that stayed with me, like a small oasis of peace and beauty.

I heard their songs first – repeated series of clear phrases, similar to a Red-eyed Vireo’s song, but slower, sweeter and with different individual phrases that are smoother and more lyrical. In the Sibley Guide to Birds, the song is described as see you, cheerio, be-seein-u, so-long, seeya, high and sweet, with slurred notes. The songs of Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos are so similar, though, that I wasn’t sure until I saw one, and watched it for several minutes as it moved through the foliage, gleaning insects or other prey, singing as it went.

Usually Blue-headed Vireos are among the earliest neotropical migrants to pass through here in early spring, but this year they have seemed quite a bit later. These are the only ones I’ve seen this season, and I’ve seen fewer reports of them overall. So it was especially nice to find them.

Earlier on the same Sunday morning, our first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the season came to the feeder. I think they’ve been in the area for much longer – it’s really late for us to see the first one – but just not coming to our yard, or maybe we haven’t been watching at the right times. Anyway – it was a female, and we were happy to see her.

It was a very windy day, tons of catkins blowing down from the oaks and pecans, with Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Pine Warbler, Phoebe and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet singing around the back yard, a very distant Red-eyed Vireo singing and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers calling spee-spee. Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers sang throughout the neighborhood, with Chipping Sparrows, Cardinals, Carolina Wrens and Bluebirds, and Brown-headed Nuthatches gave squeaky calls as they moved through the pines.

A Belted Kingfisher rattled as it flew over, flashing silver against the blue sky, and a Great Blue Heron also flew over, flapping ponderously. Both are not uncommon here, but we don’t see them every day.

Two Red-shouldered Hawks soared, calling kee-yer, so clearly lit by the bright sunlight the details of their warm, rich brown plumage were uncommonly clear, red shoulders glowing, and light pouring through the dark and light bands in their tails.

White-eyed Vireo – A Different Song

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Late this morning, a White-eyed Vireo sat on a branch in a small tree in an overgrown area of weeds, grass and shrubs and sang a somewhat unusual song. Instead of its familiar chik-a-perioo-chik, this one was singing:

Chik! Meew-chicoree-chik-chik-rasp-Chik!

The mew was very distinct, a good imitation of a Gray Catbird, but it wasn’t random. It was incorporated into a pattern that the vireo repeated several times while I watched. Each time the chik at the beginning and end of the song were both emphatic, and the two chik-chiks in the middle quick and close together. The rasp was a short, ringing buzz.

This might have been what’s described as a White-eyed Vireo’s rambling song. But it didn’t really sound like a Gray Catbird, except for the mew, and it wasn’t a long or rambling song with several imitations, but just this repeated and quite distinct pattern.

It was fun to have a good close-up look at the vireo in the little tree – the yellow spectacles, black streak from eye to bill, the white throat and breast and very faint tinge of yellow on the flanks, and two white wing bars. Not quite close enough to see the white of its eyes. It stayed in view for several minutes, singing, before flying away.

Earlier in the morning, a different White-eyed Vireo sang in the oaks in our back yard (about a mile away from the other) – the first time we’ve had one so close this season – and it also was singing a similar song that began and ended with a chik! and included a catbird-like mew. Later in the afternoon the same vireo (I think), switched to singing its more familiar chik-a-perioo-chik.

Prairie Warbler

Friday, April 16th, 2010

In the old field this morning, a Prairie Warbler sang. I was very happy to hear its wheezy, buzzy, rising zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-ZEE, which seemed right at home among the dense, weedy thickets in the field, especially on a warm, sunny day with pollen and dandelion fluff drifting everywhere, yellow and orange butterflies, four Black Vultures and three Turkey Vultures soaring among small white clouds, and a White-eyed Vireo, Eastern Towhee, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and other birds also singing nearby. I could hope that the Prairie Warbler will stay around, but think it’s probably just passing through. They used to stay in this area for the summer, when it was less developed and less busy with traffic, but for the past few years have not. So I stayed for several minutes just to listen while it’s here.

Great Crested Flycatcher

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

This morning for the first time this season, I heard the throaty, rolling whreep-whreep of a Great Crested Flycatcher – returned from its winter home somewhere further south, maybe Florida, Mexico or Central America. It’s nice to know they’re back. A large, proud-looking flycatcher with lemon-yellow belly, long cinnamon tail, and big gray-crested head, the Great Crested Flycatcher is one of the most characteristic birds around our neighborhood. Its burry calls are a defining part of the spring and summer sounds of the woods here, reflecting the combination of leaves, vines and sunshine in the woodland edges where it’s usually found.

Meanwhile, Yellow-throated Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Parula and Black-and-white Warbler continue to sing in the woods nearby, sometimes coming up into the trees around the house. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers call spee! One White-eyed Vireo sings among the weeds of the old field.

The squeaking calls of Brown-headed Nuthatches are heard fairly often, but I was surprised early this afternoon to hear the repeated yank-yank-yank calls of one, or maybe two, White-breasted Nuthatch that stayed in the vicinity for at least an hour.

Cedar Waxwings seem to have moved on further north – I haven’t seen them in several days now. But Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows are still here, and singing – the Ruby-crowned Kinglets sing a quick, lively little tune from thickets and low trees; the Yellow-rumped Warblers a loose, musical trill that sounds like sparkles or bangles scattered all through the new-green leaves; and the whistled, bittersweet song of White-throated Sparrows drifts up from brushy, shrubby areas, especially at twilight.

Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Chipping Sparrow, Pine Warbler and Eastern Towhee all fill the air with song from early morning until late in the day. Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers are less noticeable than in the quiet winter months, but still around and active, and this morning a Pileated Woodpecker gave its cuk-cuk-cuk call from somewhere along the floor of the woods nearby.

Eastern Bluebirds are nesting in a nest box in our neighbor’s yard, while a pair of Carolina Chickadees seem to have moved into the bluebird box in our yard.

Red-eyed Vireo and Louisiana Waterthrush

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

This morning at first light, I was awakened by the surprising song of a Louisiana Waterthrush in the oaks right outside our bedroom windows – three brightly whistled notes followed by a tumble of warbled chirps. A plump, lively warbler with brown back and crown, white stripe over the eye, white breast streaked with brown, and a song that sounds to me like the anthem of spring – a Louisiana Waterthrush has been here since mid March but usually stays pretty close to the creek and its banks, wagging its tail, walking and hopping over rocks and logs and poking into crevices.

Last weekend I took a walk along the creek, and heard a waterthrush downstream giving its loud spick! call repeatedly. Finally it came flying low and fast up along the creek and past me, still calling sharply. It seems unusual for one to come so far up the wooded hill to sing as it did this morning – but a very nice way to start the day.

Also over the weekend, on Sunday, our first Red-eyed Vireo of the season sang in the woods, not close, but very clearly. It has stayed around and continues to sing today.

A Golden Swamp Warbler

Monday, April 12th, 2010

The woods are coming to life not only with a profusion of lush new-green leaves and lacy white dogwood blooms, but also with the colors and songs of warblers, vireos, tanagers and other returning neotropical migrant songbirds. At this time of April, almost every day can bring something new.

A small, glowing-yellow Prothonotary Warbler, singing in the mucky bottomland near the North Oconee River, among a tangle of under-story shrubs and the frail white shimmer of silverbell blooms, was the highlight of a Saturday morning walk for me. The walk in the Whitehall Forest was sponsored by the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society, and the weather could not have been nicer – cool, sunny and bright, warming up as we walked through a variety of habitats, from bottomland forest with tall old trees, to open meadow-like power cuts, pine woods, upland hardwood forest, and scrubby early-succession fields.

From a spot at first hidden among the low shrubs and vines, the song of the Prothonotary Warbler rang out loud and clear – tsweet-tsweet-tsweet-tsweet-tsweet-tsweet-tsweet. After we searched for several minutes it was finally spotted, and cooperated, as if resigned to come out and give us a look in order to get rid of us. It hopped up onto a low branch and posed there, looking the part of its older name, the Golden Swamp Warbler, with its blue-gray wings, greenish back and brilliant deep-yellow, round head and breast glowing in a shaft of sunlight among the shady shrubs. As we watched, it tilted its head back, parted the long, pointed bill, and sang.

A signature bird of shrubby bottomland forests near rivers, creeks and beaver ponds in the South, Prothonotary Warblers have become less common here over the past two or three decades, mainly because of loss of the kind of habitat they need.

We also heard the songs of Yellow-throated, Red-eyed and White-eyed Vireos, Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Pine Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and – one of my favorites – the piping, rising zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-zoo-ZEEE of a Prairie Warbler; and the calls of White-breasted and Brown-headed Nuthatch.

We watched a Palm Warbler, with reddish-chestnut cap and yellow throat and breast, streaked red-brown on the sides, wag its tail on the low branch of a tree; and a vivid Yellow-throated Warbler – black and white and gray and lemon-gold – gathering nest materials from a clump of brownish debris suspended in the trees. At one point, a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew directly over, fairly low, giving us a perfect view of its compact shape, square-tipped tail and distinctive flap-flap-flap-glide pattern of flight. An Osprey soared over high, also giving everyone a glorious view of its long slender wings, and its white and dark patterns stretched out against a deep blue sky.

All in all, with a total of 49 species and clear views of a Yellow-throated Vireo, Louisiana Waterthrush and several other songbirds, it was a great morning of birding in a beautiful location. Thanks to trip leader Ed Maiorello and the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society!

Yellow-throated Warbler

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Wow. A brilliantly colorful Yellow-throated Warbler just spent several minutes in a water oak tree in our front yard. It looked magical. The sun had just come out after a thunder shower and briefly heavy rain, the clouds had passed quickly, leaving deep blue sky and new-green leaves wet and dripping, and a chilly wind was blowing – and there, among the leaves and catkins of the oak moved a sleek, slender, little gray bird with a long thin bill, and stunning black and white markings, and a bright yellow throat that blazed in the sunlight. It crept over the branches of the oak, probing into the bark and crevices and among the leaves and catkins.

Its head and back looked dark bluish-gray, its face was marked with a broad white stripe above the eye, and black around the eye and down the cheek, and a striking white patch on the side of the neck. Its belly was white, with dark streaks on the sides – and the yellow throat shined.

It looked as if it had gathered the gray clouds, wind and rain, with the clearing sky and glistening sun of the past few minutes together, and reshaped them into the form of a bird.

White-eyed Vireo and Lots of Other Birds – a Spring Morning

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

The highlights of a cool, showery April morning here included our first-of-the-season White-eyed Vireo, the continuing songs of a Yellow-throated Vireo, Northern Parula and Black-and-white Warbler, the somewhat unusual tink-tink-tink song or call of an Eastern Towhee, a flock of at least 86 Cedar Waxwings, and an Eastern Phoebe singing and giving its chatter-call from the spot on a gutter pipe over our garage where Phoebes nested successfully last year.

Early in the morning, in soft sunlight before the clouds moved in, the Parula’s rising buzz and the Yellow-throated Vireo’s throaty but clear, four-phrase musical notes stood out among the confusion of birdsong all around – the loose, shimmering trills of Yellow-rumped Warblers, the squeaky-wheel song of a Black-and-white Warbler, and the rapid, jubilant bursts of song from Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Carolina Wrens, Cardinals, Mockingbirds, Brown Thrasher, Pine Warbler, Chipping Sparrows, Phoebes, Titmice, Chickadees and one cheery Robin sang, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called spee-spee, and woodpeckers drummed. A Mourning Dove cooed. Chimney Swifts chittered, passing overhead. The Louisiana Waterthrush was missing this morning, or maybe I was just out at the wrong times.

A Pileated Woodpecker gave its cuk-cuk-cuk call from down in the woods, and a Red-shouldered Hawk cried kee-yer from behind the screen of trees to the east.

The old field up near Highway 441 was a tangle of sound, as well as a tangle of new green, weedy growth. No Black-and-white Warbler there this morning – but Mockingbirds, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Towhee, Cardinal and Carolina Chickadee all were singing, and Blue Jays called. Among the various birdsong, plus the noise of traffic from the nearby highway, I could just barely hear the percussive chick-a-peri-oo-chick of a White-eyed Vireo – finally! They seem to be a little later than usual arriving here this year – this is still only the first one I’ve heard around our neighborhood, though they’ve been reported other places nearby.

I also heard the possible call of a Yellow-breasted Chat in the field – but the familiar, harsh chet-chet-chet-chet-chet might have come from a Mockingbird, I can’t be sure. A Yellow-breasted Chat often used to stay for the summer in or near the field, but the past year or two I’ve only found them passing through, here for a day or two at most.

Eastern Towhees are singing drink-your-tea all through the neighborhood, and in the old field, one was singing a version of its song or call that includes an emphatic tink-tink-tink! at the end. I have not been able to find any other descriptions of this song but have heard it in previous springs – it begins with a garbled trill and ends with three very crisp, distinct notes all on the same pitch.

In three pecan trees with tiny new leaves, but still pretty bare-looking, several dozen Cedar Waxwings perched and called their high, hissing tseeees – I counted 86 waxwings, and there probably were more. They mostly were just sitting, not eating, clustered tightly in three main groups with others scattered around them, the wind ruffling the feathers in their crests. I kept finding more and more, the longer I looked.

One White-throated Sparrow whistled its sweet, plaintive song, and others fed quietly under shrubs – while at least two foraged in the tops of water oaks among new green leaves and catkins. Two Turkey Vultures soared below the gathering clouds, and one Black Vulture hunched on top of a utility pole, looking as if it was hoping for more promising weather.

By noon, a light rain was falling, and by late afternoon, a harder, more serious rain – very welcome after many days of unseasonably hot, dry, sunny weather.

Spring Arrivals – Black-and-white Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo and Chimney Swifts

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

Today was another in a stretch of unseasonably warm spring days, sunny, hazy with pollen, with temperatures in the upper 80s or 90 by afternoon. But the mornings are cool and pretty and bright with birdsong, with green leaves now opening on just about all the trees, even the white oaks, and dogwoods blooming like lacy clouds all through the woods. It’s the time of year when almost every day brings something new – with summer birds arriving, winter birds leaving and migrants passing through. It would be hard to stay inside at all if it weren’t already getting so hot by midday.

A Louisiana Waterthrush continues to sing along the creek in the woods behind our house, and a Northern Parula sings from the edge of the woods nearby. Black-and-white Warblers and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers arrived some time last week – I heard and saw the first ones on Friday, April 2 – and today a Black-and-White Warbler has been singing from trees all around the back yard – a squeaky, high, unmusical but pleasant song. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers have seemed uncharacteristically elusive so far, but I do hear their spee-spee calls here and there.

Chimney Swifts also arrived some time late last week, and yesterday morning for the first time I saw three as they chittered and swept overhead.

Yesterday morning I also heard the song of a Yellow-throated Vireo for the first time this spring – a burry, rich, four-phrase song, musical and expressive. It may have arrived over the weekend, when we were not here. So far it hasn’t come close enough to see, staying hidden in the woods.

There’s also the rusty jingle and creak of too many Brown-headed Cowbirds around. I heard several just today, in different spots in the neighborhood.

Meanwhile, our winter birds are drifting away, though it’s hard to tell for sure when they’ve gone. I haven’t seen or heard a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Dark-eyed Junco or Hermit Thrush since late March. But White-throated sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets still are here – all singing – and lots of Cedar Waxwings.

Northern Parula

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

The day began with the buzzy, summery song of a Northern Parula around the edges of the woods. The morning was cool, sunny, colorful and full of birdsong, and the Parula’s rising zzzzzzzhhhh-ip! that trips over and falls at the end was the highlight. It even came to a low branch right over my head to sing for a few minutes – a charming little wood warbler with blue-gray head, yellow throat and breast, and a mottled dark-coral band across its chest. Of all the returning neotropical migrants, the Northern Parula seems to me the one that sings most alluringly of the tropics and of warm air and sun and forest-filtered light, of rippling creeks and dense green leaves. It almost seems to bring spring with it. During breeding season it’s at home in forests with streams or wetlands throughout much of the eastern U.S. and into Canada, and it doesn’t winter as far south as many other migrants – still, it always makes me think of the low country, live oaks and tropical breezes, and it does prefer bottomland forests, using Spanish moss or beard moss for its nest.

Meanwhile, two Louisiana Waterthrush continue to sing along the creek, especially early in the mornings. The wheezy songs of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Black-and-white Warblers are still rumors in the trees for me – I hear them but haven’t yet seen one. Ruby-crowned Kinglets sing their elaborate, neat little songs, White-throated Sparrows whistle plaintive, heart-breaking come-a-way-with-me, on the brink of leaving for the north. And all the year-round residents seem to be singing. An Eastern Phoebe, Carolina Wren and Northern Cardinal usually are among the earliest around our yard, then Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Pine Warbler, American Goldfinch, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Towhee, American Robin, House Finch. Woodpeckers drum and rattle. Mourning Doves coo. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings sprays high, thin calls from hidden spots in a stand of pines.

Chipping Sparrows sing a delicate string of chipper-chipper-chipper-chipper that I think is one of the prettiest songs, when heard close by, though so often they’re described as mechanical and dry – at this time of year they can sing with an airy, musical touch.