Archive for May, 2010

Morning Chorus

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

As May comes to an end and spring blends into summer, the early morning chorus here begins in the dark before dawn, a little after 5:00, with the song of a Northern Cardinal, answered by another Cardinal, their clear, bright notes a musical preview of sunrise. A few minutes pass before an Eastern Phoebe begins to sing – often in the branches of the oaks right outside our bedroom windows – then a Carolina Wren, Summer Tanager, Northern Parula, and a Louisiana Waterthrush that comes up from the banks of the creek early each morning for just a few minutes to sing in the woods on the edge of our back yard. Occasionally a Black-and-white Warbler also comes by with its high weesa-weesa-weesa song.

Not long before 6:00, a Scarlet Tanager sings, joined by a Red-eyed Vireo and Pine Warbler in the woods and Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Towhee and Northern Mockingbird in the shrubs and trees around the house. A Great Crested Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers call, and the chorus reaches its fullest, most exuberant expression, which lasts for only about 15 minutes before subsiding, still well before sunrise, into more scattered, though continuing, songs here and there all day.

Unfortunately, we no longer hear a Chuck-will’s-widow singing in the night and early morning hours, and summer doesn’t seem the same without it. Some neighbors have told me they miss it, too, and we assume that clearing and development of land in the surrounding area has changed the habitat it needs. It’s not quite warm enough yet for katydids, so the nights are rather quiet, though crickets and frogs are chirping.

But we do still often hear the calls of Barred Owls – two were calling from not far away just last night – and it’s always a pleasure to hear their unexpected low, chest-rumbling who-cooks-for-you hoots, usually in deep twilight or around three or four in the morning, and sometimes even in the middle of a day.

Scarlet Tanager

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

At least two Scarlet Tanagers sing in the woods around the neighborhood. One makes the rounds of the trees across the street from our house and down into the woods around a creek there. I can see him best when he sings from a large red oak at the corner, though it’s amazing how well such a brilliantly colorful bird can blend in with the leaves. He rarely, if ever, sings from the very top of a tree, but usually just below the top, a small drop of blazing red with ink-black wings among the green leaves.

His song is flat and almost harsh, six or seven phrases flung out assertively, similar to the song of a Robin or a Summer Tanager, but without the Robin’s more musical, thrush-like, cheerful quality, and unlike the lilting hoarse phrases of a Summer Tanager.

A second Scarlet Tanager sings in the woods around a different part of the neighborhood. He’s almost always singing when I walk by in the morning, and often I find him among the leaves of a certain tall tulip poplar, just below the top.

Yellow-breasted Chat

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

After many days of hot May sunshine and plenty of rain toward the end of the month, the old field that runs along a dead-end road between our subdivision and highway 441 is a lush mess of grasses, kudzu, privet, blackberry and honeysuckle vines, wild grape, purple thistle, rough wild roses, pokeweed, chinaberry trees and dozens of other weeds and weedy trees, and a dense and spreading small woodland of pines, sweet gums and oaks. Bird songs there, especially early in the morning, have to compete with the highway’s busy, loud traffic.

This year for the first time in a decade, there’s no Blue Grosbeak singing in the field. I saw a male there once in the spring, but apparently it didn’t stay.

But there is an Indigo Bunting that chants from a perch on kudzu-covered bushes in the middle of the field, and two or three White-eyed Vireos, Eastern Towhees, Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers and Cardinals in abundance, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – and Brown-headed Cowbird. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks can be seen around here almost every morning, often perched on utility poles overlooking the highway, sometimes sharing a pole, and soaring later in the day.

And for the first time in three or four years, there’s a Yellow-breasted Chat in the field. That’s a happy surprise. Several times I’ve thought I heard its harsh chet-chet-chet-chet calls, but couldn’t find it for sure, and I just thought it was wishful thinking on my part. But two days ago, Saturday morning, I heard the call, this time repeated again and again as the bird moved quickly from bush to bush, and finally I saw a quick flash of deep gold-yellow as it flew. I haven’t gotten a good close look yet, but its call is familiar and distinct. I don’t know if it’s nesting in the field or if it’s there every day, or maybe it’s nesting in woods nearby and just visiting the field now and then.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher and Wood Thrush

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

In the band of woods that encircles our neighborhood, running along two creeks that converge, the songs or calls of Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Acadian Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Louisiana Waterthrush, Northern Parula and Black-and-white Warbler also can be heard. There seem to be at least four Acadian Flycatchers widely spaced out along the creeks, calling sharp WHEET-sits and at least two Louisiana Waterthrush, two or three Northern Parula, one Black-and-white Warbler and two Wood Thrush. One of the Wood Thrush sings in the deepest part of the woods along a creek, and the other sings from a very unlikely area somewhere beyond the trash-littered remains of an old oak grove across the dead-end road from the field and behind another subdivision. It seems unusually open and rather dry habitat for a Wood Thrush. But there it is, morning after morning, sending up ethereal fluted music to float through the battered trees, barely audible against the noise of traffic.

Cooper’s Hawk and Red-shouldered Hawk

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

In our own back yard, there seem to be babies everywhere – Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows, Titmice, Chickadees, Robins, Brown Thrashers – all begging to be fed. A Bluebird pair seems already to be starting on a second nest. There’s the song of a Red-eyed Vireo and the songs and pik-a-tuk calls of a pair of Summer Tanagers, the WHEET-sit calls of Acadian Flycatcher from the creek, the squeaky-dee chatter of Brown-headed Nuthatches in the pines, the rattles and whirrs of Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, and sometimes the racheting call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo or the traveling cuk-cuk-cuk of a Pileated Woodpecker. At least two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, a male and female, are regular and frequent visitors to the feeder hanging from the deck.

Three times recently I’ve seen a Cooper’s Hawk around the edge of the woods beyond our back yard. Once it tried to catch a small bird in the white oaks next to the house and failed, then swooped to a perch on a pine stub where it sat for several minutes in full view, where I could see the ruddy-streaked breast and long banded tail and proud profile.

We don’t see or even hear Red-shouldered Hawks as often as we used to, so I don’t think there’s a pair nesting nearby in the neighborhood this season. But fairly often I do hear their kee-yer calls from somewhere in the woods to the east, so at least there are some not too far away.

A Mississippi Kite

Sunday, May 9th, 2010

About six o’clock yesterday evening, we were sitting on the back deck, having a drink and listening to the pik-a-tuk calls of a pair of Summer Tanagers in the trees around the edge of the woods, enjoying a brief spell of cooler weather. The female Tanager paused on the branch of a pine, a deep, mellow yellow all over, an elusive color, saffron with dusky green shadows. All the trees were tossing and bending in a strong wind, and a pale blue sky overhead, traced with white cirrus clouds, looked deceptively calm. A pair of Great Crested Flycatchers whreeped and chortled and hunted from the branches close around us.

Like a shooting star, a falcon-like bird streaked high across the eastern sky, flashing dark and light, then turned and dove or stooped breathtakingly fast toward the ground, pulled up, and disappeared from sight for a few seconds. Then it returned, lower and slower, and sailed directly over us as we stood up looking for it – a dark, sleek bird with long slender wings, a wedge-shaped tail and a round white head. A Mississippi Kite. It circled over us, gaining altitude in the gusty wind again, and slid out of sight to the west.

It seemed very early in the season to see a Mississippi Kite here, and sometimes we don’t see them at all, so this was a lucky sighting. We just happened to be out at the right time, and happened to be looking up in the right direction.

Mississippi Kites are falcon-like raptors known for their graceful, often acrobatic flight. In some areas of the central plains they are fairly common, sometimes nesting in colonies. They also nest in the southeastern coastal plain. Here we’re lucky to see a few each summer. They capture insect prey in flight, and sometimes small birds.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Blue Grosbeak

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Late this morning, as I was walking up a sunny hill wishing I had gotten out earlier because it was already uncomfortably hot and humid, the dry, close full call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo came from a stand of water oaks just ahead of me – cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk-cawp-cawp-cawp-cawp. Welcome back! One of the most exotic and tropical sounds of our woods in summer.

The cuckoo was hidden somewhere deep inside the dense leaves of the oaks, dark green against an intensely blue sky. I stood beneath the trees for several minutes, trying to catch a glimpse of the long black and white-spotted tail, hoping it would call again – but no. Either it had flown without my seeing it, or it was staying hidden. Still, it was a bright spot in the day.

Several minutes later and much further up the road, along the old field, I heard a repeated, loud metallic chink! from the scrubby grove of large oaks that still survives near the dead-end of the road, just across from where the weeds have recently been mowed all around two billboards, to make sure they can be seen from the highway below.

A Blue Grosbeak flew from a thicket up to a branch on one of the oaks, where I had a beautiful view of its deep indigo-blue plumage, rusty-orange wing bars, and big silver beak. Switching his tail back and forth, he called out several more chinks! before flying away to a shrubby area beyond the end of the road.

The arrival of just two birds – colorful and striking though they are – returning from the tropics to the woods and fields around our neighborhood, seems a rather small thing against the backdrop of the devastating oil spill in the Gulf, and so much else that’s going on in the world. But it also seems perhaps even more important to note these things. Each bird that returns strikes me as one small piece of evidence, one more reason to do what we can to value and protect the natural world. A vivid reminder and example of how much we have to lose.

At the End of April . . . Wood Thrush, Summer Tanager, Acadian Flycatcher Arrive

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

April came to an end with a string of beautiful sunny days that began cool and bright, and warmed into the 70s or 80s, with a deep blue sky and lots of birdsong and bird activity, including several neotropical migrants returning to our woods, so it’s sounding more and more like spring and summer. On April 29, I heard an Acadian Flycatcher, Summer Tanager and Wood Thrush for the first time this season – though I haven’t been observant enough to know exactly when they returned, this was the first day I found them here around our yard and neighborhood.

The familiar WHEET-sit call of an Acadian Flycatcher came from somewhere down along the creek early in the morning and continued all that day. A Wood Thrush sang – flute-like and ethereal – from the low, tangled woods along a creek not close to our house, but I could hear its song as I walked past twice during the day, and it seems a gift to have one even this close.

I’d been hearing a Summer Tanager’s song for several days, but pretty far in the distance. This late April morning while I was sitting on the deck, two birds came flying over me low, and settled in the branches of a white oak not far away. One of them sat out in clear view, framed by new green leaves, like a perfect picture – a Summer Tanager male, warm-red all over, with its long, thick bill. A few minutes later the pik-a-tuk calls of the tanagers began to travel through the trees, and a male began to sing.

By the end of April a Red-eyed Vireo sang each morning steadily in the woods beyond our back yard. Great Crested Flycatchers and their throaty whreep calls seemed to be everywhere – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many! One morning two hunted from perches in trees all around the edge of the yard, and one even came to sit for a few minutes on a shepherd’s crook on the edge of our deck where a geranium plants hangs – only a few feet away from me, showing off its lemon-yellow belly, large crested gray head and long cinnamon tail. Now and then the glistening song of a Louisiana Waterthrush comes up from the creek, and there’s the spee-spee of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher calls – I wish I could say I hear their songs, but I have not learned them yet, though I know they must be singing. Chimney Swifts sweep overhead, twittering.

Along with the new arrivals, year-round residents all were singing – especially Eastern Phoebe, American Robin, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Pine Warbler and Chipping Sparrow. And we could still hear some of the last songs of winter residents like Ruby-crowned Kinglets, White-throated Sparrows, and Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Myrtle Warbler in the Spring – What’s in a Name

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

All winter long Yellow-rumped Warblers are so common here that I plead guilty to almost ignoring them most of the time. Little gray-brown birds with yellow rumps, they fill the trees with check! calls and seem to be just about everywhere.

One morning toward the end of April, though, a male in fresh spring plumage sang as he foraged among the leaves and branches of an oak – suddenly gorgeous, the drab gray-brown of his winter plumage transformed into vivid black, yellow and white – ink-blue-gray waistcoat, black streaks on the sides, black mask outlined in white, gray head with a yellow crown, dark gray stripes on charcoal-gray back, two white wing bars, rich yellow on the sides and rump and – most striking of all – a snow-white throat, identifying him as the sub-species now called Myrtle Warbler, the old name I learned for them years ago, and like so much better.

Myrtle Warblers, found mostly in the eastern U.S. and Canada, and Audubon Warblers, found more in the west used to be considered separate species but now are grouped together into one species and called Yellow-rumped. I’m sure it was a reasonable decision to combine them – but a sadly unimaginative and unfortunate choice for a new name. In fact, it seems to me that “yellow-rumped warbler” reflects the drab winter appearance of these birds and our own rather dismissive attitude toward them – and does little justice to their more alluring and colorful spring and summer lives.