Archive for August, 2010

An Eastern Wood-Pewee’s Song

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Walking this morning under a big, clear blue sky with only traces of white clouds here and there, feeling a hint of cool air in low, shady spots for the first time in weeks, and listening to the songs of Eastern Wood-Pewees all along the way – what better way could there be to celebrate the last day in the last full month of summer?

The Eastern Wood-Pewee’s sweet, lazy pee-a-wee – WHEE-ooo seems to me the essence of a late summer day, distilled into music. The smell of fresh-cut grass, the quiet ease of shady yards, the snap and whine and buzz of insects, vines and trees heavy with berries, the dry ripple of river birch leaves in a breeze, the flutter of a bluebird’s wings in shallow water, the warm feel of the sun. It’s still hot, but not so brutally hot as it was for so many days and weeks this year.

Eastern Wood-Pewees have been singing from three or four different spots in the neighborhood for the past several days, including one that sings often around the edges of our yard.

This morning one hunted from a skinny bare branch in a pecan tree near the roadside, and I watched for several minutes as it flew off to catch an insect and returned again and again to the same spot. It perched in the open, sitting quite still and erect, no tail bobbing, only turning its head one way and another. Its shape was slender and compact, with a gray head and back, whitish wing bars, and a notched, rounded tail. Grayish streaks on a pale breast formed a dusky vest. Its throat or chin was pale. Compared with an Eastern Phoebe – a very common flycatcher here in our neighborhood – the Wood-Pewee moves and hunts in a completely different way. While a Phoebe bobs its tail and always seems full of nervous and imaginative energy, swooping down or fluttering up to capture an insect, and traveling from spot to spot through a space as it hunts – an Eastern Wood-Pewee perches serenely, looking around – then darts off neatly, catches an insect and often returns to the same perch again and again.

As I watched this one hunt, it wasn’t singing, but another one sang from not far away.

Populations of Eastern Wood-Pewees are declining, but they’re not listed as threatened or of special concern at this time. In our own neighborhood, they’re noticeably less common today than they were ten years ago.

Meanwhile, as I walked along a road passing through a section with woods on both sides, two Yellow-billed Cuckoos called from opposite directions. One was giving its hollow, kind of echoing, one-syllable cawlp call, and the other gave the long, dry, percussive kek-kek-kek – cawp-cawp kind of call that’s more familiar to me. A Pileated Woodpecker rattled its traveling call. A Red-eyed Vireo whined nyanh, and a Northern Parula and Black-and-White Warbler sang.

The loud, ringing rattle of a Belted Kingfisher surprised me – and two Kingfishers flew from a treetop on the edge of the woods, flashing silver-blue and white in the sunlight. Although I hear a Kingfisher’s call now and then as one flies over, and sometimes hear them around one of the creeks, it’s unusual to see one here.

Back out in the open sunshine, Bluebirds sang and Chipping Sparrows chased each other through shrubs and grass. A fresh, bright orange and black Monarch butterfly fed in an orange lantana bush, the first one I’ve seen this season.

The old field looks a mess, choked and densely overgrown, a mix of worn-out withering summer weeds and vines, and the fresh green grasses and shrubs of early fall – and a good many small birds seem to love it. Foxtails wave along the roadside. Morning glories still spill color through the ditches. Persimmon, wild cherry and chinaberry trees, pokeweed and other plants and vines are loaded with fruit. Sulphur, Buckeye, and Sleepy Orange butterflies pass by, a Gulf Frittillary, Tiger Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple; and one very pretty, pale, translucent green butterfly sits with folded wings on a kudzu leaf.

There were lots of active birds in the weeds and thickets, but most of them impossible to see. White-eyed Vireo and Eastern Towhee sang, and a Gray Catbird mewed. A Summer Tanager – more often found in our woods than out here in the field – called pik-a-tuk. A Pine Warbler sang in the taller trees. There were Chickadees, Titmice, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Mourning Doves. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher flitted among thorny plants; Mockingbirds flashed their wings; a Brown Thrasher lurked in a bush. I think I caught a glimpse of an Orchard Oriole again but didn’t see it well.

First-fall Baltimore Oriole

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

A flash of deep yellow-orange among the dark green foliage of trees on the edge of the woods this afternoon turned out to be a first-fall male Baltimore Oriole. Its color was striking, and seemed almost to burn – even though it was very different and not nearly as flamboyant as the contrasting orange and black colors of a mature Baltimore Oriole.

The intense color was the first thing that caught my eye. The young Oriole flew in, perched high on a branch, facing me, and preened for several minutes, raking its bill through the breast feathers and turning his head over his back, stretching out the wings. The throat and breast were warm yellow-orange, and the head appeared to be olive and smooth, with a very dark eye, maybe a faint dark streak, and dark wings tipped in white, with one thick, short white wing bar. The round head and posture, sharp bill, and the way it moved reminded me of the female Orchard Orioles I’ve seen several times recently in the field.

After several minutes of preening intently, it stretched out low on the branch, looked around quickly, and hopped back further into the foliage and out of sight.

Gray Catbird Mewing and Calling Chet-chet-chet-chet

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

Last Friday and again this morning, I’ve finally seen the Gray Catbird that’s been mewing in the old field for about three weeks now. This morning it perched out on the edge of bushes and on a red-stemmed pokeweed plant full of green berries. Dark gray with a jaunty black cap – I could even see the rusty-orange under the base of the tail.

Its mewing is sharp, plaintive and kind of raspy, and this morning it also gave a harsh chet-chet-chet-chet call several times from deep in the thickets, where it mostly stays hidden.

Black-and-white Warbler and Eastern Wood-Pewee

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

About 9:30 this morning – a sunny, warm and very pleasant day – a Black-and-white Warbler came through the oaks and pecans around our house. One of the most aptly-named birds, a Black-and-white Warbler is small and patterned in a neat, crisp blend of black and white stripes. Its way of creeping over the bark of trunks and branches, searching for insects, is so distinctive, you almost don’t need binoculars to know what it is – but with them I had a very clear view and watched it for five minutes or so before it got lost in the foliage of trees on the edge of the yard.

At the same time, an Eastern Wood-Pewee was singing its full summer song from the woods across the street, over and over again. Pee-a-wee – WHEE-ooo. A very sweet and summery song. But I haven’t heard one singing in the neighborhood this summer until now, so I think this is one more little bird on the move already, as fall migration gets underway.

Four Broad-winged Hawks

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

Early yesterday morning (Monday morning) the grass, shrubs and pavement all were wet from unexpected overnight rain. In the northeast, through a screen of trees, a shimmering red round sun was rising through the remnants of rain clouds. As I walked, blue sky seemed to spread and open as the clouds drifted on, and by the time I got back home about an hour and a half later, the sky was completely clear with only high white wispy clouds, and still some lingering mist or fog in low places.

Birds seemed rather quiet, though, especially to begin with. The whreep of a Great Crested Flycatcher. The spee of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows and House Finches active just about everywhere. Robins scattered out in grassy yards.

When I began to climb the hill toward the area where the Broad-winged Hawks usually have been I didn’t hear their calls at first – then heard one high whistle from across the road and up the hill a little further. As I headed in that direction, one Broad-winged Hawk flew from a group of trees at the edge of a yard, across the road in front of me at about treetop level, and away toward the northwest. Though the morning light made its breast look red, the tail was not spread out and it was quickly gone, so I couldn’t tell for sure if it was an adult or a juvenile.

A minute later, I heard the whistles of one, then two more Broad-winged Hawks coming from the same cluster of trees, and found two there, moving restlessly from one treetop to another, as if disturbed by something. Before I could get a really close look, one – two – three Broad-winged Hawks flew out of the trees and across the road and away toward the northwest, whistling EEEE-yuurr as they flew. Even though I did not see them close enough to be sure, it seems likely that this had been two juveniles and two adults. All I could say was, Wow!

Later in the day, I emailed a good neighbor who lives close to that spot, and who is also interested in birds – and unfortunately found out that yes, he and his family have also seen the Broad-winged Hawks, especially the juveniles. Turns out the young hawks have been checking out the chickens in a pen in the back yard, and – needless to say – the chickens are not at all happy about their attentions.

So I guess that’s one good thing about the likelihood that the Broad-winged Hawks should be leaving on migration soon – and even before they’re finally gone, they’ll probably be spending more and more time soaring and ranging further from their nest area. I’m a little sad to see them go, but it’s been fun to watch them in these late days of summer, and I’ve been delighted to find that a pair successfully nested in these woods. Can’t ask for much more than that – and I’m sure the chickens will be much relieved once the hawks are on their way to Central or South America.

Pileated Woodpeckers

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

The rest of a morning walk through the neighborhood was pretty quiet – though it might also have been that my mind was preoccupied with other things and not open enough to see or hear what was happening around me. I usually try to clear away as many thoughts as possible, and just to listen and watch, but sometimes I can’t get something off my mind and when that happens I miss a lot, and something pretty dramatic has to come along to get my attention.

This time it was the trumpeted call of a Pileated Woodpecker nearby in the woods. The first loud call was followed by a string of more agitated calls from two Pileated Woodpeckers, something like coy-coy-coy-coy, repeated by both and overlapping each other. I couldn’t see more than a partial glimpse of the two near the top of a dead pine, with several leafy trees in the way, but saw a flapping of wings and heard more calls, and then they flew again, further back into the woods.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo Eating a Katydid

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

After an all-day rain on Saturday, yesterday dawned clear and sunny, with blue sky and high, thin white clouds, a beautiful day to be outside – and the birds seemed to agree. Several Chimney Swifts swept high overhead. An American Goldfinch flew over. The pair of Eastern Bluebirds in our front yard was busy making trips to the nest box, and in a tree at the end of the driveway, a rose-red male Summer Tanager moved through the branches. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird paused in flight to hover around my head and check me out, like a Disney cartoon bird, then zipped on toward the back-yard feeder.

One of the nicest surprises of the day was a Yellow-billed Cuckoo on a fairly low and close branch of a large dogwood in a thick stand of trees on the edge of a thicket. Not what I expected to find there – a tall, slender, sleek bird with smooth grayish-brown back and head, and pure white throat and breast, bright reddish-bronze edges on the wings, and a dramatic long tail with white spots on black, the Cuckoo turned its head toward me. The spindly, grasshopper-like legs of a large insect, maybe a katydid, were disappearing into the yellow, down-curved bill. After a couple of minutes, the Cuckoo finished its meal and unhurriedly hopped further into the leaves and out of sight.

In the same group of trees, a much smaller and more animated bird flitted around in the foliage, gleaning insects from the leaves – another Northern Parula. Small and round with a short tail, greenish back, bluish head and bright white wing bars, a yellow throat and very white belly, and white under the tail – I think it was a first-year female, because it showed no sign of a coral band across the breast.

Chickadees, Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Cardinals, Chipping Sparrows, lots of Bluebirds and several Phoebes, Robins, House Finches and Goldfinches, and the spee-spee of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher here and there – all the usual suspects seemed to be out and about in the pleasant sunshine and light breezes of early morning.

Another surprise of the day was a Pine Warbler singing in the dense, dark stand of tall pines and other trees toward one end of the field – which is flush and rampant with grasses, vines and weeds of every description taking full advantage of all the recent rain and sun – along with White-eyed Vireos, Eastern Towhees and the mewing calls of a Gray Catbird – at least, I think it was a Catbird, and not a White-eyed Vireo. I wasn’t able to see it, but it mewed several times.

Toward the other end of the field, a young Red-tailed Hawk circled very low, gaining altitude, and I stopped to watch as it flew slowly over and above me, wide pale wings outspread, feathers subtly shifting, tail turning slightly, making it look at the same time so easy and so intricate, silent music in the air, and finally sailed off toward the east.

Two Mississippi Kites

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

On my way back toward home, around 10:30 in the morning, two Mississippi Kites came flying over, low enough to see the brownish juvenile patterns and bars, and pale round heads, as well as the clean, sharp outlines of the wings and tail. They stayed around for several minutes, sweeping low over the treetops, disappearing out of sight, then climbing and circling, sometimes soaring very high, one tucked its wings and plummeted down, and sailed back up. They put on quite a show of acrobatic flight.

Juvenile Bluebird Helper

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Later still in the morning, the Eastern Bluebird pair were making frequent trips to the nest box. They each came and went quickly, not staying long inside, and in between visits perched in nearby branches with bill parted – looking the part of harried parents with demanding kids.

Meanwhile, a young bluebird – heavily streaked, but with blue in the wings and some blue in the tail – came to a low branch of a water oak in the yard, and from there I watched as it flew to the top of the nest box and sat there, staying as one of the parents flew in and came back out – and then I was amazed to see the juvenile bluebird fly into the nest box itself. It stayed inside while the parents made two or three more trips in and out.

A few minutes later, it was out again, perching in nearby branches, then it flew again to the top of the nest box – and back into the box again.

At first I wondered if this was one of the young birds fledging – but it did not look like a newly-fledged bird. So I think this was a young bluebird from earlier in the season that was helping to care for the nestlings in this later brood. Eastern Bluebirds here often raise two or three broods in a season – and this one seems especially late to me. In doing a little research, I found several mentions of juvenile bluebirds like this one, staying with parents later in the season and helping to feed later broods.

This seems even more likely today – because the parents are still going in and out of the nest box, so the young have not yet fledged. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to watch for the juvenile helper today and learn more about it.

Scarlet Tanager Family

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Too nice a day to stay inside, so early in the afternoon yesterday, I went out to sit on the deck for a while and was watching Ruby-throated Hummingbirds chase each other around the feeder when a small feeding flock of mostly Chickadees and Titmice came around, with a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a couple of Carolina Wrens, and Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. One Brown Thrasher and one Chipping Sparrow sat quietly screened in the leaves. A Cardinal peeped.

I heard the pik-a-tuk calls of Summer Tanagers – and then the sharp chik-brrr call of a Scarlet Tanager. There was a flurry of activity in the branches of some pines at the edge of the woods. After a couple of minutes, I realized that there were two Scarlet Tanager juveniles fluttering their wings and begging, and being fed by an adult.

The juveniles both looked dusky and streaked on the upper breast, and showed some yellow in the wings and under the tail. The adult was a female, yellow-green with darker, shadowy wings. The juveniles both stayed mostly low and huddled on a thick and sturdy branch of the pine, widely separated, well camouflaged against the lichen and bark, and partially screened by green needles. When the adult came in with food, they fluttered their wings and begged, and the adult seemed to alternate, feeding one and then the other, though I’m not sure it was exactly even. This went on for at least 15 minutes, maybe more, with the female feeding the juveniles several times. I did not see a male adult. When they finally flew – both juveniles following the parent – the young ones made little muted squeaking sounds.