Archive for October, 2010

Brown Creeper

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

After a long stretch of warm, sunny, very dry days, it felt like a luxury to wake up this morning to the sound of soft rain falling through the leaves of the oaks. It wasn’t much rain, but was welcome, and was followed by a slightly cooler and breezy day of cloud-screened sunlight.

When I stepped out onto the front porch mid-morning, the sky was still cloudy, the light gray. A Brown-headed Nuthatch flew from one of the feeders up into the trees, a Carolina Wren sang from the edge of the woods, Golden-crowned Kinglets whispered their high, crisp ti-ti-ti and Chickadees and Titmice chattered nearby. But the surprise of the morning was a very small, solitary bird on the trunk of a water oak beside one of the feeders – a Brown Creeper.

A tiny bird that clings close to the bark of a tree in an almost insect-like way, it crept around the trunk, moving upward in a spiral pattern, in and out of view, then flew back down to the lowest part of the trunk of the same tree and began creeping up it again, probing the bark with a thin down-curved bill, searching for small insects and other prey. Exquisitely patterned in shades of dark brown and white on the back, with a cream-white throat and breast, a Brown Creeper moves quietly and usually alone, at least not with other Creepers – though it often travels with a feeding flock of other small birds.

This one didn’t stay long enough for me to watch it more than a minute or two, but it was a pretty nice way to start the day. I seldom see one. Brown Creepers are inconspicuous at all times – small and quiet and blending in well with the trunks of the trees where they forage. Though their populations are not declining overall, there is concern for their future, especially in some areas, because of loss and degradation of the habitat they prefer – old-growth forests with mature live trees for foraging and dead or dying trees for nest sites. In our own neighborhood – where we see them only in the fall and winter – I’ve found them less often over the past few years, as suburban development has replaced more of the surrounding woodlands.

So it feels special whenever I see one, a rare glimpse into a part of the usually hidden or unnoticed life of these woods all around us.

Northern Flickers in a Ritual Duel

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

On a bare branch near the top of a pecan tree this morning – a cool, gray, wet morning with clouds just beginning to break up and blue sky showing through – two Northern Flickers performed an interesting duel that appeared as much like a ritual dance as a confrontation. From perches close together on the branch, the two Flickers repeatedly lunged at each other and stabbed with their very long, sharp bills, making low wicka-wicka-wicka sounds as they fenced.

Meanwhile, a third Northern Flicker perched higher, among the withering leaves of the pecan, not taking part in the action, but staying near by.

All three were Yellow-shafted Northern Flickers – fairly large woodpeckers whose habits and appearance are quite different from other woodpeckers – with rich tawny-brown faces and throats, bold-spotted breasts, gray cap and a red crescent on the nape of the neck. The two dueling Flickers were males, with black moustache stripes. I couldn’t see the third Flicker well, but suspect it was a female. Both of the dueling Flickers showed deep-yellow feathers on the underside of their wings.

I first noticed them when I heard a Flicker’s loud kleer call, then saw three fly across the road ahead of me and into the upper branches of a pecan tree near the side of the road. There, the two males perched several inches apart on the same branch, more or less facing each other, and repeatedly came closer together and made the wicka-wicka-wicka sounds and lunged toward each other over and over, making flashy, circular and up and down movements with their bills. They never actually seemed to touch each other, though at times they came close.

They made these forays at each other several times, and between them retreated to the same positions and sat still. The lower one looked larger, plumper, more arrogant. It sat erect with its bill slightly raised. The one further up on the branch perched sort of stretched out sideways, and only turned to face its opponent when they engaged each other again. It looked smaller and less confident, but that may have been only my angle of view. During one bout, this smaller Flicker seemed to be forcing the larger one slightly backwards on the branch and to be winning the confrontation. Then it fell back, and they both resumed their original positions.

Each wicka-wicka-wicka encounter lasted several seconds, followed by a longer break of several seconds more, but probably less than a minute. When I left after about 10 or 15 minutes, they were still there, still dueling, with the female screened among the leaves above them.

Although we have Northern Flickers here year-round, they become more conspicuous in the fall and winter months, very often feeding in grassy yards with flocks of smaller birds.

The species account for Northern Flicker in Birds of North America Online says these mock “fencing duels” or dances play a role in territory establishment and pair formation and are most common in breeding season, but are also seen at other times of the year. The account also mentions that these dances show a great deal of variation in their movements, intensity and other characteristics, and that much remains to be learned about the dances and their meaning and purpose. Usually the duels end when one bird flies away, but the encounters can go on for hours.*

*Karen L. Wiebe and William S. Moore. 2008. Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Trees Full of Golden-crowned Kinglets

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

Yesterday and today, the oaks and pines around our house have seemed at times to shimmer with the high, light calls of an unusual number of Golden-crowned Kinglets. They come and go all day. This afternoon I went outside one time when I heard them moving through. The first one I saw showed a yellow-gold crown, the second, a bright orange crown. Both were low among the branches, moving quickly around, gleaning tiny insects and calling their crisp, almost whispered ti-ti-ti. With bold black and white stripes surrounding the colorful crowns, white wing bars and greenish backs, they brought flashes of color and animation to the trees – which have seemed remarkably quiet for the past couple of weeks or so. For some reason, I have seen fewer migrant species here this fall than in any year I can remember, though I’m not completely sure if there were fewer birds – or if it’s because I’ve been outside less often or been too busy and preoccupied and not fully observant when I do get out.

Meanwhile, a Northern Flicker called kleer! from an area just inside the woods with a good many dead standing pines. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed from further away in the woods – I haven’t yet seen the first one here, but its calls are familiar, and it’s nice to know they are back. Several times I’ve thought I heard the nasal call of a Red-breasted Nuthatch, but I haven’t yet seen it and am not certain.

Other sounds of the warm, sunny fall day came from our year-round resident birds – the loud kee-yer of a soaring Red-shouldered Hawk, the softly-trilled song of a Pine Warbler, the tsup of an Eastern Phoebe, the chatter and fussing of Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees, the bouncing burble of a Carolina Wren, an Eastern Bluebird’s blurry churry-churry, the squeaking calls of Brown-headed Nuthatches, the chuck-chuck and rattle of a Red-bellied Woodpecker and pink! of a Downy, the harsh squawk of a Northern Mockingbird – and a silent Brown Thrasher stood on the rim of the bird bath.

Yesterday morning as I walked up the slope of our driveway shortly after sunrise, twelve Chimney Swifts came flying out of the north in a pale blue sky flecked with small orange-pink clouds. They flew spread out widely, moving directly from north to south, as if on a mission, flew up and over me, and disappeared. I don’t know for sure that they were leaving – but they looked as if they were, the way they flew in one direction, with purpose, not circling around, like a perfect image of the last birds of summer, finally on their way.

Last Friday, October 8, we still had one female Ruby-throated Hummingbird coming to our feeder. I haven’t seen one since then, though our weekend was busy so I’m not sure they all have left.

Hooded Warbler and Other Fall Migrants – Missing a Lot

Monday, October 4th, 2010

One warm mid morning in late September, the trees in our front yard seemed lively with little birds. A Pine Warbler sang, an Eastern Phoebe hunted from low branches, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds swept down to the grass for insects and back up into an oak, and an Eastern Wood-Pewee repeatedly flew off and returned to a high bare branch in a pecan tree. A Carolina Wren fussed and trilled and came to the birdbath for a drink. Two Chipping Sparrows chased each other through the wax myrtles and river birches. Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers called.

With a flash of bright yellow, a small bird flew down from the branches of a water oak onto the ground a few yards away from where I stood. It snapped up something from the mulch, took a quick look around and flew back up into the tree – a female Hooded Warbler, with brilliant yellow face, throat and breast, dramatically framed by a smooth, dark-olive hood and back.

This brief, colorful view of a Hooded Warbler was one of the few migrants I’ve seen this fall season, mainly because of traveling and other commitments. I know I’ve missed a lot. But despite being often away or distracted, there still have been some other nice highlights.

Chestnut-sided, Magnolia and Black-and-white Warblers, American Redstart, and Eastern Wood-Pewees have passed through. The Eastern Wood-Pewees stayed around for two weeks or more, hunting from high open perches and giving soft puh-wee calls. I’ve come across a good number of Red-eyed Vireos, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos – some probably migrants, as well as those that spent the summer here. But so far I haven’t seen a single spotted thrush – Wood Thrush, Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked, Hermit – one September not so long ago, I found all four in one big dogwood tree at the edge of the woods, eating red berries.

But each year is different, and the habitat around the neighborhood and around our own yard changes from year to year. We’ve lost a good many pines near the edge of the woods, opening up some new scrubby habitat, although there still are some large pines and plenty of oaks, tulip poplars, sweet gums, dogwoods and other hardwoods.

Acorns shower down from the white oaks all day and all night – sounding like hailstones as they land on the deck outside our bedroom windows. The pecans don’t fall because the squirrels get most of them first. Almost every day we see several white-tailed deer grazing in the yard – does, young fawns, and young bucks, and I hope they’re mostly eating acorns, though they also munch on just about anything green along the way.

One female Ruby-throated Hummingbird was still visiting our feeder toward the end of last week, but I haven’t seen her in two or three days now, and I haven’t heard a White-eyed Vireo sing or a Gray Catbird mew in the old field for about a week, so I think they’ve gone. Most active in the field are dozens of Northern Mockingbirds. Fiery orange Gulf Fritillary butterflies flicker like tiny flames over the grasses and dense stands of yellow goldenrod and ragweed. The Red-tailed Hawks that used to sit on the utility poles have drifted away to spend most of their days in some other territory. Instead, two or three Black Vultures often are perched on the poles or soaring.

In more wooded areas, the cries of Red-shouldered Hawks have become more common, I’m not sure why. One morning recently, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew low across the road in front of me as I walked through a wooded section, out of pecan trees scattered around a large grassy yard and into deeper woods. The kleer! calls of Northern Flickers also have become more common, as more Flickers drift in here for the season.

And very welcome cooler weather has arrived. Temperatures dipped into the 40s last night for the first time, and all day today has been beautifully chilly and breezy. Barred Owls called several times during the night.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet – First of the Season

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Late this afternoon a little bird came flitting through water oak branches and into a Savannah holly beside our front porch where I was standing – our first-of-the-season Ruby-crowned Kinglet. The sunny afternoon had become windy and cool, and there were few other birds around. The kinglet moved quickly among the tossing limbs and leaves in the holly and back into the water oaks, gleaning from leaves, a stubby, roundish little bird with quick flitting movements, gray back and head with a distinctly greenish tint, a round white eye-ring, and neat shape of white wing bars on darker wings. The ruby crown was not visible, and the kinglet was quiet. After several minutes, I heard just a couple of stuttering little jdit-jdits, a piece of its usual chatter.

As I watched, I wondered if it was here to stay for the winter, or just passing through on its way further south. And has it been here before, returning to a familiar place, or is this the first time? How many summers and winters has it seen, and what was it like to fly so far, from the deep evergreen forests in the far north where it lives and nests in spring and summer – and come here, where the habitat is so different and more open to spend the fall and winter.

It looked young, fresh and a little tentative or uncertain in new surroundings, a little stunned, without the bold, inquisitive air of most Ruby-crowned Kinglets – but that was probably in the eye of the beholder.