Archive for August, 2010

American Redstart and Northern Parula – A Change in the Air

Friday, August 20th, 2010

When I stepped outside this morning, the first thing I heard was the buzzy song of a Northern Parula. It was singing from the branches of some oaks across the street, fluttering among the leaves as it searched for insects – a tiny bird with bluish head, greenish back and deep-yellow throat. It might have been a Parula that nested here this season, or a migrant moving through. Either way, it’s a song not heard lately on these long, hot summer days, so it sounded like a change in the air.

Further down the road and up a hill, in the area where the Broad-winged Hawks can usually be found – a green, deeply-wooded spot of mixed pines, oaks, sweet gums, tulip poplars and other hardwoods – a feeding flock of small birds included a vivid orange and black American Redstart, another Northern Parula, a sleek, elegant Red-eyed Vireo – and I think maybe an Eastern Wood-pewee. A sweet whee-oo sounded like the autumn, partial call of a pewee, but I only heard it once, so can’t be sure. Chickadees, Titmice, a Downy Woodpecker and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher also were part of the flock.

A Broad-winged Hawk whistled its high call several times from somewhere nearby in the trees, but stayed frustratingly out of sight and I never could see it until it flew after several minutes – a glimpse of broad brown wings outspread as it dropped from a treetop and threaded low through the trunks, fading into the shadows of the deeper woods.

The morning was cloudy and gray, but very warm and humid, sultry, muggy, steamy weather.

In the old field along the highway, one Red-tailed Hawk perched on a utility pole, and there seemed to be a good bit of activity in the field, but it was hard to catch sight of birds as they flew from one tangled mess of weeds into another. White-eyed Vireo and Eastern Towhee sang. And the two bright yellow female Orchard Orioles surprised me again by still being here – and being out and active as usual. One flew across the road in front of me, calling a raspy chuff-chuff-chuff as it flew, and continuing to call as it moved from place to place among the bushes.

Several American Robins were scattered out in grassy yards, more and more of them it seems, each day. And Eastern Bluebirds are very active. I’m not sure how the pair are doing in our bluebird box. We’ve had some work being done on the corner of our house that required a crew doing a lot of digging, but I’m hoping it was far enough away not to keep the Bluebirds from their nest.

Black and Yellow Writing Spider

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

Yesterday morning on the front porch in the shade, the day felt more gentle than the past week or more. Still hot and sunny, with blue sky and white clouds, but a lazier, more peaceful and pleasant feeling in the air. Cicadas sang, Mourning Doves cooed, Carolina Wrens trilled and fussed, and Chickadees and Titmice chattered as they came and went. American Goldfinches flew over again and again, calling their potato-chip call, and sometimes perched in the treetops and mewed or sang. Goldfinches seem to be almost everywhere right now, all through the neighborhood, brilliant little golden flashes of color.

Earlier in the morning, when we were cleaning up the area around the garden, I found a big yellow and black writing spider on the mesh of a soil-sifting box – the first one I’ve seen in quite a while. Officially Argiope aurantia, it’s a large, dramatically-colored spider with long black legs extended in the shape of a cross. It weaves an orb web, and across its center spins a thick zig-zag pattern that looks like writing. It’s a familiar spider commonly found in gardens, and sometimes we’ve had one spin a web across a window where it’s fascinating to watch for several days.

Lots of bumblebees and butterflies hovered in and out of the Rose of Sharon blooms on plants that have grown lush and tall against the warm brick on the east side of the house. These are some of my favorite flowers of summer, deep pink and pale pink, with accents of red, with a sensuous, languid, abundant beauty. A Hairy Woodpecker called peenk! emphatically from the woods, and I could hear its industrious tapping on a trunk.

Bluebirds Feeding Young – Late in the Season

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

A pair of Eastern Bluebirds are now making frequent trips in and out of the bluebird box in the front yard. Carolina Chickadees occupied the box earlier in the season, while Bluebirds nested instead in our neighbor’s bluebird house. I thought nesting was pretty much over for this year, but these two are apparently feeding young. The female makes most of the trips in and out, while the male perches in a nearby tree. But I think now and then he goes in with food, too.

They often sit close together, bills parted, panting, in the branches of river birches on the far side of the yard from the nest box. From there the female drops down to the grass to hunt, then swoops low across the yard and up and into the opening of the box.

Young Brown Thrasher Taking a Bath

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

As I sat on the porch, being completely lazy, watching Bluebirds, Brown Thrashers, and Carolina wrens, a female or juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbird zhroomed up – with that low, thrumming hum that always brings an involuntary shudder to the back of my neck when one comes close – and visited the blooms of the lantana and other flowering plants in the planters. It checked out the coral flowers of the New Guinea impatiens but seemed uninterested in them, hummed over my head and around my shoulders, hovered in front of my face for a few seconds, then to the planters on the other side of me – and then zipped away.

Meanwhile a juvenile Eastern Phoebe with a mottled gray breast had flown into the branches of the Savannah holly beside me and begun hunting from low branches there, silently. Its manner was shy and a little tentative, but it seemed to be growing in confidence – though I’m probably reading more into its behavior than I should. It also came very close, and seemed undisturbed by my presence, staying right around me to hunt for several minutes, bobbing its tail as it sat on a branch, flying off to catch an insect, and returning to a slightly different spot.

Two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers chased each other through the pecan trees and down into the wax myrtles, calling spee-spee. Two Chipping Sparrows sat among the shimmering leaves of a river birch, a juvenile begging from an adult. All the small birds are hard to see and follow in the dense foliage when they’re moving around. But one of the Gnatcatchers came out into the leaves on the end of a water oak branch right over my head – very pretty, crisp, silvery-gray, with black down the middle of the upturned tail framed by white on the edges. The tree is loaded with small acorns – and there are lots of pecans, too. All the heat and rain seem to be making for an abundant year of all kinds of fruit and nuts.

Three juvenile Brown Thrashers seemed playful under the wax myrtles and lauropetelum. They chased each other in and out of the branches, tails often raised, and then turned away abruptly to spend time alone, tossing up flecks of mulch and eating. A Robin ran across the grass – running and stopping and looking around, bob-bob-bobbin, and joined another Robin, two Brown Thrashers and a feisty juvenile Carolina Wren, all foraging in the mulch around one of the pecan trees. Seemed to be a popular place. Two Mourning Doves flew in with a whistle of wings and joined the others hunting and pecking in the mulch.

One of the young Brown Thrashers hopped up onto the rim of a bird bath, looked around a few seconds, and then hopped into the water and took a good splashing bath, dipping down into the water several times, fluttering, sending water furiously flying. Lots of gray feathers showed in its face and sides and rump, and its head still looked kind of fluffy and gray, with that slightly stunned and uncertain look of a young bird – not quite knowing what to expect next, maybe.

I don’t think the Thrasher was really finished with its bath when an imperious looking Robin flew up to the rim of the bird bath and sat there staring down at it like a bossy adult – only my imagination, I’m sure. But the young Thrasher paused uncertainly in its bathing, then reluctantly hopped up to the rim and flew away. The Robin continued just to sit and look around, and never even took a drink before it flew away, too.

Morning Glories by the Roadside

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Although still hot and humid this morning, the sky looked a softer, hazier blue, with distant dreamy cumulous clouds, and something in the air felt softer, too, the heat just a little less fierce.

Traffic along Highway 441, on the other side of the old field – out of sight but not out of hearing – has become busier and louder every day this week, though. With the university and public schools about to start again, the summer is coming to a premature end.

The field itself looks, at the same time, lush and green and bedraggled and worn, with old weeds fading and new ones growing up. Lots of birds dart in and out of vine-covered trees and shrubs, but it’s hard to hear many songs or calls over the noise of the traffic. Eastern Towhee and White-eyed Vireo sing, Northern Cardinals peep and Brown Thrashers call harshly. Lots of young Mockingbirds chase each other around. Mourning Doves sit on the wires. I haven’t seen a Red-tailed Hawk the past few mornings – for the first time in several weeks, I think. But a dozen Chimney Swifts swept high overhead.

This morning a colorful tumble of morning glories spilled up and out over the tough, tall grasses that grow thick and as tall as corn in the ditch along the side of the road – blooms of delicate purple, fuschia, blue and white, and among them even a few tiny miniature red morning glories, tubular in shape and bright red-orange in color.

A juvenile Mockingbird, still a little mottled in plumage, perched on the wire over the field, with a smudge of grape color on its breast, maybe from feeding on some kind of berries.

Broad-winged Hawk in a Pine

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Yesterday morning and this morning – both days hot, humid and sunny again – I was lucky enough to get brief but very clear views of a young Broad-winged Hawk.

The one I saw yesterday was a good example of how these birds blend into the woods, how surely they belong, screened by green leaves and sunlight. Standing beneath the trees, green light all around me, I heard a single clear, whistled call from somewhere very close, but it took several minutes of looking before I finally saw it – and then wondered how I could have missed it – a dark solid block of a big stocky bird, perched on a relatively low limb of an oak in full view and not far away, but if it hadn’t called, I wouldn’t have seen it. It looked like a shadow.

As soon as I lifted binoculars, it flew a little deeper into the trees, but not far, and I could still see it well enough, and from there, it called again.

This morning again, the hawks were quiet at first. I waited for several minutes and was about to give up when I heard the high whistled call from a scrubby stand of young pines and oaks on the edge of a yard, and a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk flew to a branch of a pine tree in full, open view from where I stood – as beautiful as if it had been posing. It sat directly facing me, now and then turning its head in profile.

Its breast was creamy white, boldly streaked with dark brown; its back chocolate brown, speckled with white; the tail showed narrow bands of light and dark sooty brown. The tip of the tail appeared almost white.

Female Summer Tanager in an Apple Tree

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

One of my favorite spots in our neighborhood is a rambling, tangled thicket of pines, privet and other trees, shrubs and vines that grows on the edge of a yard and along the road. I almost always stop by here on a walk, because it’s a good place to find many different kinds of birds. A kind of small, unmowed oasis, it’s surrounded on three sides by a large grassy yard shaded by many pecan trees – an area where Red-shouldered Hawks sometimes sit on low limbs to hunt – and on the other side, the thicket’s just across the road from a heavily wooded area with a creek, so woodland birds like warblers and vireos sometimes wander in. A couple of mornings ago, fairly early, while the road was still in shade, two does and four fawns came tumbling out of the thicket and ran in almost single file across the road in front of me, into the deeper woods.

This morning a female Cardinal flew into a tall old apple tree that stands just on the edge of the thicket, and I noticed that it’s as loaded with big apples as the peach tree in the field is with its fruit. And in the apple tree (though not interested in the apples, I think) was a female Summer Tanager. A tawny brown with rose-orange in her wings and tail, she was holding a caterpillar in her thick bill. She seemed to notice me when I stopped, and slipped behind some leaves where she was less easy to see, to subdue and eat the caterpillar.

Meanwhile, a little further up the road, two Broad-winged Hawks were out this morning, but hard to see. They were perched in treetops close to the road, but well screened by foliage. I only found them because several Crows were harassing them loudly, and now and then one of the hawks would whistle. Finally one hawk flew across the road and over the trees toward the south, and three or four minutes later another flew in the other direction, back toward the woods. The Crows kept cawing for a few minutes, then flew away, too.

In our yard, a female Eastern Bluebird is making trips in and out of the bluebird house. It has surprised me because it seems very late for nesting and very hot – but there she is. She sits in tree limbs in between trips, panting. I try to keep all the bird baths full of fresh water, so maybe that helps a little. The creek’s not far away, but the bluebirds are frequent visitors to the bird baths.

Today has been very hot again, mid or maybe upper 90s, with a burning blue sky and big white cumulous clouds forming by mid afternoon. The loud, rasping whine of cicadas is almost constant, rising and falling all day, gradually replaced by the chattering songs of katydids at night, a sound I love and find strangely relaxing. Surely this long hot spell must break at some point soon, but it just keeps coming, day after day. At least we’ve been lucky here to get plenty of rain, too, with late afternoon thunder showers and storms now and then. That’s a saving grace.

Sunbathing Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Yesterday shortly after noon, I was standing at the kitchen sink, looking out the window while I washed something, when a Ruby-throated Hummingbird flew to the deck rail just outside the window. It was another very hot day, and the deck rail there is in full, bright sun. I often see a hummingbird going past, visiting the red blooms on the geranium plants, or going back and forth to the feeder in the shade.

This hummingbird sprawled out there on the wooden rail, wings outstretched, feathers fluffed up, and head tilted at an angle, with its long bill pointed slightly upward and parted. Its back looked faintly blue, rather than green, but I’m sure that was a trick of the light and the way its feathers were fluffed.

It sat like this, barely moving, for three or four minutes or more, long enough for me to get binoculars and take a closer look through the window, and because it looked as if it were panting and its head seemed to be listing to one side, I thought maybe it was injured, so I started out the door to the deck – and it immediately sprang up and zipped into the branches of the oak that hang over the other half of the deck and the bird baths and hummingbird feeder. Apparently it was fine.

Today around the same time, and in the same blistering hot weather, the same thing happened again, with the little hummingbird sprawled and fluffed out on the deck rail, head tilted, bill raised and parted, and this time I decided it must be doing this on purpose – taking a sunbath.

Orchard Orioles

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Two Orchard Oriole females were foraging in the field again this morning, easy to see because of the bright round olive-yellow head and yellow throat and breast, and because they are so active and often in the tops of small trees or shrubs. They really are fun to watch, diving in and out of the weeds and thickets, looking more brownish as they fly, because their wings are tan-brown with narrow white wing-bars, popping up bright yellow in the middle of drab withered weeds, stretching the neck up to look around, and always the two staying together like close friends.

Today they were mostly moving around in an area of shrubs I can’t identify, but nearby stood an old, vine-draped peach tree, surrounded by tall rough weeds, but still looking sturdy – and loaded with big round peaches. I think it’s left over from an orchard that used to be here more than two decades ago, when much of this land was a pecan grove and farm.

Several persimmon trees nearby also are full of fruit. Brown Thrashers sat in the shrubs, looking sedentary and almost sullen next to the lively Orchard Orioles. Mourning Doves perched on the wires, several Mockingbirds flew around flashing white wing patches, and one Red-tailed Hawk sat on top of a utility pole overlooking the highway, as usual. A Blue Grosbeak sang from the woods across the highway. Eastern Towhees and one White-eyed Vireo sang in the field, the most tireless of singers, I think. An Eastern Phoebe perched near the top of a tall sweet gum in the most densely wooded part of the field, shaking out its wings, spreading its tail and preening, as if it had just taken a morning bath somewhere near.

Broad-winged Hawks

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

About the middle of last week, I began noticing a call I couldn’t quite place from a deeply-wooded area along one of the roads where I walk. High and strong, it sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite figure it out, a whistled sort of EEE-uurr. On Saturday morning when I was passing this spot I heard the call again and this time it seemed to be closer, so I stopped and scanned the trees – and saw the unmistakable shape of a good-size hawk flying low through the trees from one spot to another, with a pale breast and banded tail. Of course! A Broad-winged Hawk.

This is the first time I’ve found a Broad-winged Hawk in our woods, and after checking on them for several days now, I think it’s possible and even likely that a pair nested here this summer, in this area where there are lots of hardwood trees on a hill that slopes down to a creek. Since I’ve been gone for long periods of time – and because Broad-winged Hawks are known for being secretive during nesting season – I could easily have missed them until now. A better birder would have known the call immediately, but all I can say is that I wasn’t expecting it and haven’t heard it for a long time – not very good excuses. Yet another lesson in being more alert, instead of hearing and seeing only what I expect.

Although they are widespread throughout eastern North America, Broad-winged Hawks are relatively uncommon during nesting season here, so it’s especially interesting to find them.

A Broad-winged Hawk is similar in shape and appearance to the Red-shouldered Hawks that we’re used to seeing around our neighborhood, but it’s somewhat smaller and more compact, with dramatic wide dark and white bands in the tail of a mature hawk. Both are woodland raptors, nesting and hunting in forests.

While Red-shouldered Hawks are year-round residents here, Broad-winged Hawks are migratory, and are especially well known for their spectacular migration flights, when thousands of birds may gather to make the trip to winter grounds in Central and South America.

Since Saturday, the hawks have been calling every morning when I walk past this same area, and I’ve seen them briefly several times, both perched and making short flights. There are at least two, and I think three. They call repeatedly to each other, back and forth – a high, strong, insistent whistle that doesn’t sound like a hawk, but more like a smaller bird. Each one I’ve seen has been a juvenile, with a pale breast streaked with dark brown, chocolate brown back, lightly speckled with white, and a tail with narrow bands of light and dark.