Archive for September, 2010

Last Days of Summer

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

In these last days of summer, one of my favorite places has been the weed-choked old field that stretches along one side of a dead-end road just outside our neighborhood, blocking the view (though not the sounds) of Highway 441 beyond it. For the past two or three weeks the field and roadside have been glorious with furry foxtails, tall red-top grasses gone to seed, pokeweed, yellow bitterweed and camphor weed, lush yellow-green ragweed, and – best of all – a profusion of white, purple and pink morning glories and tiny tubular red morning glories blooming on vines that tumbled over the ditches and climbed up the stalks of rough weeds.

I know many of these are invasive species, “aliens,” weeds, not generally considered desirable plants. But they’re also part of a community that has colonized an abused and abandoned field of poor red soil and helped to bring it back to life over the past two decades or more.

Persimmon trees, chinaberries, and other trees and shrubs hang full of fruit and berries. Pines, sweet gums and water oaks have grown tall and formed a small, dense woodland at one end of the field. Kudzu vines spread all over, but have not completely covered more than a small tree here and there, and now they’ve begun to wither from the summer’s heat, though still in bloom with shabby purple, grape-scented flowers. Blackberry, wild grape and honeysuckle vines crowd the privet and other shrubs.

Grasshoppers sing and snap and fly, and butterflies animate the browning, thorny, tangled mess with flutters of yellow and orange – Cloudless Sulphur, Sleepy Orange, Gulf Fritillary – with its bright orange wings and silver-white shimmer of spots underneath, Buckeye, Tiger Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple – and these are only the ones that I know, the most common and familiar and fairly large ones, not counting all the skippers and tiny little hairstreaks and blues.

A White-eyed Vireo continues to sing in the field. A Gray Catbird mews. Brown Thrashers lurk in the thickets. Mockingbirds chase each other and flash their white wing-patches. Mourning Doves, House Finches and Eastern Bluebirds perch on the wires. Eastern Towhees sing. Eastern Phoebes hunt among the bushes. Now and then a Ruby-throated Hummingbird zips by. One early morning recently, three white-spotted fawns fed together along the edge of the field in the damp, cool air, and two Black Vultures crowded on the top of one pole, while a third perched on another.

The young Red-tailed Hawk that sat on a utility pole somewhere over the field every morning since mid summer hasn’t been around the past few mornings. I still see and hear a Red-tailed Hawk or two in the neighborhood or soaring most days – but the young one’s habit of hanging out here daily seems to have changed.

Among my favorite memories of the field this summer are the two female Orchard Orioles that I watched many days, feeding among the weeds and thickets, their round, olive heads bobbing up on long necks like otters in a river, bright yellow throats and breasts glowing, and always so animated and fun to watch. I haven’t seen them since late August. The Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings have been gone for even longer, though I wouldn’t be surprised to find some migrants passing through.

This morning I walked out of the entrance to our subdivision and found that the roadside along the field was mowed yesterday in a big wide swathe – it was bound to happen soon, I know. But all the foxtails now are gone, and the big tall red-top grasses, and – oh, the morning glories! Gone. Or almost. Only a couple of wilted purple blooms lay flat in the ditch.

I can’t help wishing the mowing could have been put off until a little later in the season, but nothing lasts forever, and for a while the roadside was beautiful in a rough, wild, messy way – the kind of beauty you probably have to be walking to appreciate. From a passing car – as most people see it – I guess it just looked neglected and not neat.

On the bright side, the field itself remains happily neglected, untamed and thick with the most disreputable and rampant weeds, and fall is just beginning. There still are many butterflies – just further away from the edge – though right now, there are fewer flowers in sight, especially the tiny roadside white and yellow and pink ones, and I especially miss the morning glories. But I don’t think many of the birds were inconvenienced by the mowing, and it won’t be long before White-throated Sparrows arrive for the winter, and Song Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Cedar Waxwings – and you never know what else might show up here.

Very Late Summer – Broad-winged Hawks and American Redstart

Friday, September 17th, 2010

Near noon on a late summer day, temperatures back up in the sweltering mid 90s after a few days of slightly less hot weather, and a general quiet settled over most of the woods and fields, I heard the alarm calls of Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice around a spot near the edge of the woods. The Titmice, especially, were giving harsh, raspy alarm calls and gathering in agitation around a brushpile of fallen limbs and logs. There might have been a snake there, somewhere among the debris, though I could not see it.

The alarm calls attracted other small birds to see what was going on – including a Downy Woodpecker, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Carolina Wren, a Black-and-white Warbler that crept along the branches in the brushpile, near the Titmice, and a young American Redstart that came to low, overhanging branches of trees nearby. The Redstart had me puzzled for a moment, because its back and wings and head looked smooth gray and olive, no sign of any markings in the wings, but it fanned its tail several times, flashing neon-yellow panels. So I think it was a first-year Redstart and maybe the dappled light and shadows obscured the yellow in the wings and on the sides. It fluttered around and flashed its tail in typical Redstart fashion.

After a few minutes, the Titmice and Chickadees and all the other small birds drifted away. Wish I knew what they had seen.

But just about that time, I heard the whistled cry of a Broad-winged Hawk very nearby, just up the hill in the same patch of woods – which surprised me, because I thought they were gone for the season. Almost immediately, one Broad-winged Hawk flew out of the trees and passed directly over me, wings outstretched and tail fanned, showing the wide bands of white and dark, and whistling. At the same time, I could hear the cries of a second Broad-winged Hawk coming from a perch somewhere in the trees. The one that had flown disappeared from view, over the trees, but the other one kept crying. I walked up the hill and tried to find it, but it stayed well screened and high in the foliage.

I don’t know if these were migrants passing through – or if they might be two of the same Broad-winged Hawks that nested here this summer, still hanging around, not yet on their way South.

Earlier in the morning, the songs of an Eastern Phoebe and a Pine Warbler greeted the day, a mostly cloudy early morning and very warm, though the clouds had lifted by the time the sun was fully up. A Red-shouldered Hawk flew around our house for a few minutes, mid-morning, crying kee-yer several times – I heard its calls while I was still inside.

By the time I was able to get out for a walk, things had gotten pretty quiet, and there seemed to be very little bird activity around – but it was almost noon by then. A White-eyed Vireo continues to sing in the field, and a Gray Catbird gives loud, complaining mews. A few young Mockingbirds practice their songs – sounding rather sweet and carefree, with a light, clear quality that’s different from the full-throated virtuosity of a Mockingbird song in spring and summer. Phoebes hunt and Bluebird families chase each other around. One Eastern Wood-Pewee hunted quietly for a few minutes from the stub of a tall dead pine. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird came zipping past me, tiny green back shimmering, and disappeared into the leaves of a tree.

Hummingbirds are the most active and noticeable birds around – two or three females or juveniles zip and zoom and twitter around the feeder and red flowers on the deck all day long, and perch in branches nearby when they’re not feeding. Big yellow and black Tiger Swallowtails float and feed among the purple blooms of the butterfly bush, almost always at least four or five or more.

Broad-winged Hawks Further From Home

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

The past several days I haven’t seen or heard a Broad-winged Hawk around the wooded area where they used to be, and where I think they nested. Some days I haven’t seen them at all, on other days I’ve found them in other parts of the neighborhood.

Almost a week ago, a juvenile Broad-winged Hawk dropped down from a tree along the side of the road as I walked past, captured something on the ground, and flew across the road in front of me and up onto the stub of a pine at the edge of the woods. It sat there and ate whatever it had captured, holding it with its talons on the branch and leaning down to tear up pieces. It was something fairly small, maybe a frog or toad, maybe even a large insect. After eating, the young hawk stayed perched on the stub for maybe ten or fifteen minutes, looking around. Twice it scratched one side of its head with a foot. Dark, clean streaks marked a cream-white breast. Its back and wings were chocolate brown, mottled with pale speckles. Its eyes and bill looked dark, the head very streaked, and paler in color than the back, and the back of the neck was especially streaked. It looked as if the hawk sort of sat back, with legs folded, so that its rear end rested on the branch – but I’m not sure that was accurate. It might have been an illusion from my point of view.

More days passed when I didn’t see or hear the Broad-winged Hawks at all. Then on August 30, I heard their whistled call as I walked down the road not far from our house, and also could hear the agitated cawing of a bunch of crows. As I rounded a corner and headed down toward where all the noise was coming from, two Broad-winged Hawks, one close behind the other, flew together out of some trees, low across a large shady yard, and across a road, into another wooded area, with several cawing crows in pursuit. I think they stopped there in the trees, because the crows continued to caw.

Later that afternoon, while I was outside talking with a landscaper about some work in the yard, I heard the high, repeated whistles of at least one Broad-winged Hawk. It was not visible from beneath the trees in our yard, but was somewhere fairly close and the whistled calls continued for at least half an hour. It may have been soaring or not. There may have been more than one, or not. It was frustrating not to be able to see – but on the other hand, exhilarating to hear those cries, so close, imagining that maybe the young hawks that were born here in our woods were soaring, getting ready to go on their long migration flights.