Archive for June, 2010

Yellow-throated Vireo

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

In the morning on the last day of June, a Yellow-throated Vireo sang in the treetops around the edge of the woods behind our neighbor’s house and ours, the first time I’ve heard one in several weeks – and I’ve missed them this summer, so it was a particular pleasure to hear.

The mellow four-phrase song sounded rich and full, a riper version of the Red-eyed Vireo’s crisp refrain.

With its bright yellow throat and yellow spectacles around the eyes, greenish-gray head and back, and white wing bars, a Yellow-throated Vireo is one of our more colorful summer birds, rather sturdy in shape.

Much later, as a long, cloudy twilight faded, lots of lightning bugs flashed low over the grass and up into the lower branches of trees, and two bats circled over open areas, against a murky orange and pink sky. Cicadas still sang, and a few katydids were beginning.

Silence in the Marsh

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

On the NBC Nightly News two nights ago (June 28) Brian Williams interviewed Plaquemines Parish president and Louisiana native Billy Nungessor. What Mr. Nungessor said about the destruction in the marshes, and his description of the silence in the marsh made the effects of the Gulf Oil disaster feel painfully real and close.

“This is the real fight, this is the real war, out here,” he said. “We may never clean this marsh up, we may never get the rookeries, we may never get the wildlife, the oyster beds, the breeding grounds back. You go out to an area where this oil has destroyed the marsh, and you go out there and turn the engine off in your boat, and you don’t hear a bug, a cricket. It’s dead.”

Imagining that silence in the sweeping marshes of the coast is heartbreaking and frightening in a way that feels like being hit in the stomach. It seems undeniable that we are losing a vast and beautiful network of life and thousands, millions of living plants and animals at a stunning rate, more of them every day as this cloud of poison grows and spreads.

Three Red-shouldered Hawks in the Woods

Monday, June 28th, 2010

This morning was a great morning for Red-shouldered Hawks here! After months of seeing and hearing these woodland raptors very infrequently, suddenly today there were three in different parts of the woods around our neighborhood, two juveniles and one mature.

Around 7:45 it was already very warm, with a sunny blue sky but not yet the oppressive heat that would come later in the day. In shady spots the air still felt a hint of freshness. A Wood Thrush sang along one of the creeks, and near that spot, the first Red-shouldered Hawk was perched on a large dead stub of a sweet gum tree, surrounded by green foliage. With its back toward me and the sun climbing behind the trees, I couldn’t see much more than its silhouette, but it cried a clear kee-yer several times.

Further on, as I walked past a different part of the woods, I heard a call something like a rough, gargled djeeeurrr, repeated. A juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk was perched on a very low branch and making this call. When I stopped to listen and watch, it flew a short distance away, to another spot a little deeper in the woods, and called again.

Only a few minutes further along, another juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk flew low through the trees from one spot to another, passing by me fairly close with its wings outspread, and up onto a branch where I could see it well for a few minutes.

Somehow the hawks seem to fill these woods with a different, more exhilarating spirit – a bigger and more expansive air. The warblers, vireos and flycatchers all are beautiful in their own ways and each one adds its own character to the mix, but a woodland hawk gives the place a whole new dimension.

Spined Micrathena – An Orb Web

Monday, June 28th, 2010

When I stepped outside this morning, I stood on the front porch for a few minutes before starting out to walk. What caught my eye was the circular rim of a perfectly round, exquisite spider web suspended among water oak branches to my right so that it was lit by the early sunlight. About two or three inches of the outside rim were completed, so it looked like a saucer, and the spider – too small for me to see except by her movements – was making her way around, constructing the new web, working from the outside in. I could see the silk strands being tugged by the spider as she moved.

It was almost certainly the web of a Spined Micrathena, a very common woodland spider here. The female is about a half-inch long, with black legs and a whitish abdomen surrounded by black spines. She spins a new web each morning, suspending it between shrubs or trees, and takes it down each night, though the anchoring silk strands that form a frame for the web may stay in place for days or weeks. When the day’s web is complete, the female hangs in the center and waits for prey to be caught, usually small flying insects like mosquitoes and gnats.

I’ve walked through the webs of Spined Micrathena many times because they’re often suspended at just about face level in the woods and are not easily visible, especially if you’re the first person to walk along a trail in the morning. So I’ve often seen the little whitish spider at closer than comfortable range – like on the end of my nose – and combed the sticky strands out of my hair. But I don’t remember ever noticing or appreciating the elegance of a fresh, new, unblemished web like this one. It just happened to be hanging in the right sunlit spot, a filmy round, delicately complex orb taking shape.

Summer Solstice – Swallow-tailed and Mississippi Kites

Monday, June 21st, 2010

About 9:45 this morning – a hot, sunny, perfect day for the Summer Solstice, with a burning blue, empty, cloudless sky – a slender-winged bird came flying toward me from the southwest, with strong, deep wing-beats. As it got closer and passed, it turned swiftly to one side and flashed white and black – a Swallow-tailed Kite, a large, graceful raptor that we rarely see here, with dramatic white and black coloring and a deeply-forked tail. It flew steadily on, disappearing over the trees in the northeast. Although Swallow-tailed Kites usually soar and glide, riding the air, rarely flapping their wings, this one was using its wings in slow, deep, steady motion.

About five minutes later, another slender, dark raptor with long wings and a shallow, fan-shaped tail, circled low over the treetops and then settled into the top of an oak. From there, its white head gleamed in the sun – a Mississippi Kite. It stayed only for a minute or two before flying again and disappearing behind a tree line. Mississippi Kites are not as large and less flashy than the Swallow-tailed, but falcon-like, buoyant and acrobatic in flight, with dark gray plumage and round white heads. They also are uncommon here, so to see both kite species on one day was a nice surprise – and a perfect celebration to mark the Summer Solstice.

I stayed outside, walking through the neighborhood and watching the skies for more than an hour, and didn’t see the Kites again, but a Cooper’s Hawk soared and circled above me slowly for several minutes, and two juvenile Red-tailed Hawks perched close to each other on a wire and a utility pole overlooking the old field and the highway beyond. They have recently begun to perch out here, more in the open, after two or three weeks of staying mostly back in a stand of pines near a pond, screaming often for attention from the adults.

A Wood Thrush sang from a low, deeply-shaded part of the woods near a creek, and another sang from patchy woods on higher ground. Their liquid, lyrical songs are among the loveliest parts of a summer morning, and it feels lucky to have them here because they’ve been less and less common in the past few years. Most other birds were rather quiet, few tanagers or vireos. A Great-crested Flycatcher called whreep, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers speee, one Red-eyed Vireo repeated its four-phrase refrain, and an Indigo Bunting sang in the field. Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers continue to sing here and there, and Acadian Flycatchers call wheet-SIT from near the creeks. The rise and fall of cicadas’ songs continues all day, and grasshoppers snap and crackle, wasps buzz and chimney swifts twitter overhead. Chipping Sparrows sing long, thin trills, Bluebirds flash their startling vivid blue, and Phoebes hunt quietly from low perches in the shade.