Archive for 2011

Cedar Waxwings in Cleyeras

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Around four o’clock one sunny, cool afternoon last weekend, I noticed some birds in the trees outside one of our windows, and when I cautiously pulled up the blind, a tiny, bright Ruby-crowned Kinglet was moving through the branches of a water oak right at eye level, not three feet away. Its ruby crown didn’t show – but it was spritely and pretty, a clear gray-green, with white wingbars and white ring around the eye.

Further out in the yard, Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice were going back and forth from trees to both of two feeders. White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos scratched in the leaves below the feeders and around the shrubs. Chipping Sparrows were feeding in the grass up near the roadside. Several Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from spot to spot in the trees, and House Finches perched on branches and visited the feeders. One Eastern Phoebe hunted from low limbs. Two Downy Woodpeckers checked over the bark of an oak, and a female Eastern Bluebird preened on a branch in the sun.

Two Yellow-rumped Warblers and one male House Finch perched together on the rim of the bird bath, sipped water, hopped in and out – and then one Yellow-rumped Warbler and the House Finch both plunged all the way in and fluttered their wings and bathed vigorously. This time of day – around 4:00 in the afternoon – often seems to be a popular time to come for baths, and though no bluebirds were here while I was watching this time, they’re among the most frequent afternoon bathers.

The most colorful part of the party – at least from my perspective in a second-floor window – came when about a dozen Cedar Waxwings suddenly appeared in a rush and flurry – almost hurtling down out of nowhere – into three large cleyera bushes close to the house. They dived into the glossy green leaves and rustled around so that the bushes were all aflutter with them. Three or four at a time came out into view, then disappeared again, and one emerged and sat briefly still and stunning – an unusually close and beautiful view. The taupe-brown plumage looked so smooth it might have been polished. On the face, feathery lines of white edged the black mask; an enameled drop of red touched the wing and yellow rimmed the tip of the tail. Altogether I could only breathe, “wow.” They did not stay long enough.

This is the most activity I’ve seen around our front yard so far this season. Many days this fall I’ve looked or stepped outside and could see or hear not a single bird – something so unusual I still am puzzled. This is the first year ever when there’ve been so few birds so often. So it was a particular pleasure to watch all this activity, and my only complaint was that I could hear nothing, because the windows were closed, and felt sure I was missing still other birds. But to open a window, even a crack, or to go downstairs and out the front door, would have sent all the birds flying, so I just enjoyed a silent show. The one exception was a pair of Carolina Wrens in nearby branches. The male’s full-throated song and the female’s rich trill came right through the glass – quite unlike the small chips, mews, peeps, chitters and other dry sounds of most of our winter birds.

Sunny Pine Warbler in a Feeding Flock, with Chipping Sparrows and Phoebe

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

On the same morning in early December – mostly quiet all around – a feeding flock of several dozen small birds spread out across a large grassy yard under several pecan trees, rustling around like dry brown leaves, so low to the ground and kind of in the shadows, they were all but invisible, even though there were so many. I might not even have seen them except for one bright yellow Pine Warbler among them that brought them into focus – lots of Chipping Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, several Eastern Bluebirds, a few Dark-eyed Juncos and House Finches swarmed over the grass, creeping and pecking. Two Carolina Wrens trilled and burbled around the trunk of a tree. An Eastern Phoebe even fed on the ground with all the other birds, searching the grass and leaves, foraging like the sparrows, making me wonder if maybe the cold of the early morning had made ground insects sluggish and easy pickings.

Then something startled part of the flock and Chipping Sparrows, Bluebirds and Finches flashed up, several at a time, into the low branches of nearby small trees. Dark-eyed Juncos scattered into a thicket, jingling with low, muffled alarm calls. Yellow-rumped Warblers fled in all directions, calling check as they went. The Phoebe flew to a low branch, bobbed its tail, and flew off to hover at a small hollow in the trunk of a tree, coming away with an insect, probably plucked from a spider’s web there.

Two Red-tailed Hawks

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

About ten o’clock on a cold, sunny December morning, with a crisp blue and white sky, two Red-tailed Hawks sat in the upper branches of a large red oak just down the road from our house. This red oak is a favorite perch of many birds, including a Scarlet Tanager that sometimes sings there in the summer. The oak stands alone at the crest of the hill, spreading its craggy branches wide and dominating the view.

The limbs of the red oak are completely bare now, and the large, pale shapes of the two Red-tailed Hawks glowed softly against the blue sky, visible from some distance away. One faced toward me, and toward the sun, as I walked by. The other – slightly smaller – sat very close to the first, on a little higher branch, its back turned toward me, but its head in profile. They sat quite still as I passed, and did not fly even when I stopped to lift binoculars for a closer look. A loose band of dark brown streaks crossed the broad, cream-toned chest. The head and back were dark brown, flecked only a little with white – the plumage looked almost smooth. I didn’t linger long because I didn’t want to disturb them.

When I came back, after more than an hour, the two hawks were still there, sitting in the same spot, though now they both faced in the same direction, toward me and toward the sun. The size difference now was even more apparent – and I assume it was probably a pair, the female noticeably larger than the male.

I stayed outside for almost an hour longer, sitting in a chair on our front porch, watching the hawks and watching other smaller, busier birds around the feeders and bushes in the yard. When I went inside at noon, the two hawks still were sitting in the same place in the Red Oak tree.

Their quiet, majestic presence impressed me, in part because they stayed so long, and in part because their patience stood in such contrast to the way I usually feel – busy, with a long list of things to do for the day, and a constant process of figuring out what to do when and how long I can spend on each errand or task, and almost always feeling as if there are not enough hours in the day. But here were these two big hawks – spending hours on a cold, bright morning sitting peacefully in the sun, and watching. Their presence felt calming and wise.

A Red-shouldered Hawk on a Hill

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

On the same morning in late November, in another, more wooded part of the neighborhood, a Red-shouldered Hawk sat in the very top of a tall bare tree, near the crest of a small hill. Its coloring showed up even in the rather gray light – brown head and back, black wings flecked with white, and ruddy, reddish-orange breast.

Somewhat surprisingly, there were many active small birds around in this same area too – though maybe this particular hawk is not too much of a threat to them. Although a Red-shouldered Hawk will capture smaller birds, it more often feeds on small mammals like mice and chipmunks. Still, it seemed interesting to see the large hawk sitting conspicuously up in the treetop on a hill, overlooking a wooded area below that was lively with small birds.

I could hear the calls of what seemed to be several Golden-crowned Kinglets – all around in the pines and hardwoods, and watched two flitting around in the green needles of a pine, both showing golden-yellow crowns. Two Ruby-crowned Kinglets chattered jidit-jidit­ and one moved quickly through the low branches of pines, a tiny olive-gray bird with white wing bars and a white ring around its eye – but no ruby crown showing. Several Dark-eyed Juncos were feeding in grassy spots and flew up into low branches of trees when startled, flashing the white edges of their tails and giving soft, jingling alarm calls. Lots of Chipping Sparrows also flew up from the grass like sparks. A few Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from spot to spot. One Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, with crimson throat and crown, worked on the trunk of a young oak. A Hairy Woodpecker called from nearby in the woods several times, an emphatic, repeated peenk! – as well as Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a Northern Flicker. White-throated Sparrows and Carolina Wrens rustled and called in the bushes and Eastern Towhees called chur-whee. Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice chattered in the trees.

Meanwhile, the Red-shouldered Hawk sat up in its tree at the top of the hill, just looking down on the scene around it.

A solitary Great Blue Heron flew over, its long wings slowly, steadily rising and falling, a large dark-gray silent form against the paler gray-white sky.

A Midday Break for 28 Rusty Blackbirds

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

A flock of around two or three hundred Common Grackles and other blackbirds has been a regular feature in the yards and trees in our neighborhood almost every day this November. I don’t always see the flock, but almost always can hear them sometime during the day. Among them there have been at least a few Rusty Blackbirds now and then, and on one memorable morning toward the end of the month, twenty-eight Rusty Blackbirds perched in the bare branches of a pecan tree along the edge of a yard. I think it’s the largest number of Rusty Blackbirds I’ve ever seen together, and one of the easiest to see well and clearly.

It was late in the morning on a warm, cloudy day. I could hear the loud, harsh calls of Grackles in one of the areas where they most often can be found, and as I crested a hill, I could see the silhouettes of many blackbirds in the bare-limbed trees in several yards.

They were moving in waves, a few at a time, through the trees. But in this one tree several blackbirds perched and showed no signs of leaving, even when I got very close and stopped almost directly below them. This was unusual. I counted twenty-eight birds – and all were Rusty Blackbirds, considerably smaller than Grackles, with thin pointed bills. About half were male and half female. The males looked all-black, with pale eyes, but in some I could see the rusty tinge, especially on the edges of the wings. The females were in their elegant mixed shades of brown, rust, fawn and gray, with crowns that looked reddish-chestnut, a wide buff stripe over the eye, and a smoky-dark patch and streak through the eye.

Because populations of Rusty Blackbirds have declined so dramatically and there is concern for their future, it always feels special to see them, so I stayed and watched them for at least 15 minutes, maybe more. Most were facing in the same direction, and many were preening. They made low, intimate chuck calls. All in all, it looked and sounded like a quiet midday break.

Although they had seemed to be associated with the larger flock of blackbirds, they did not move with the others but stayed in this tree, and after several minutes, all the other blackbirds had moved on and disappeared. Against a deeply quiet background then, I could hear the high, thin calls of several Cedar Waxwings in a tree across the street. An Eastern Bluebird sang some blurry notes. A Red-bellied Woodpecker and then a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker both flew into the same tree with the Rusty Blackbirds, on lower branches. A Northern Flicker’s kleer and a Downy Woodpecker’s peenk came from nearby, like sharp punctuations in the quiet. Dozens of Chipping Sparrows moved around in the grass and dead leaves in the yards.

Though I seldom get such a beautiful view of them, I finally decided it was time to leave them alone and walked on, leaving the Rusty Blackbirds still sitting in this tree, still preening and chucking softly to each other.

A Sparkling Blue-headed Vireo

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Late Sunday morning leaves showered down in light breezes under a softly-clouded sky with some blue showing through now and then. Most of the pecan trees in our neighborhood are almost bare now – after freezing temperatures and heavy frost the past two nights – but oaks, tulip poplars, sweet gums and a good many other trees, shrubs and vines still are quietly colorful.

In a wooded area along the road, I was very surprised to find a bright and lively Blue-headed Vireo foraging in pines and water oaks along with several other small birds – Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Downy Woodpecker, at least a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets and one Ruby-crowned Kinglet among them.

The colors, markings and behavior of the Blue-headed Vireo were an eye-catching contrast to the sepia tones of the foliage all around – bold white spectacles on a dark blue-gray face and head, greenish back, pure white throat and breast and a glint of yellow showing on the sides. It was very active, moving more quickly from spot to spot than may be usual – a Blue-headed Vireo is known for foraging in a slow, deliberate, almost serene way. This one looked like a sprite, with light, quick movements so that it almost seemed to sparkle – a trick of the light. It hovered at the tip of green pine needle clusters, in what I think is called “sallying” behavior, flying from a perch to catch insects. Once it paused in a water oak with what looked like a berry or maybe a small acorn in its bill.

Blue-headed Vireos are common here in migration, both in spring and fall, but I haven’t often seen one this late in the year. This one was probably a late migrant still moving further south, but a few may stay here through the winter.

Meanwhile more than a dozen Chipping Sparrows, two or three Eastern Bluebirds and two Dark-eyed Juncos – the first ones I’ve seen here this season – were feeding in an open grassy area below the pines and oaks.

A Quiet Red-shouldered Hawk

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

On down the road, the trees on all sides became quiet. I came around a curve, walked past a tangled brown thicket surrounding several tall pines, sweet gums and oaks, and ahead, in a bare-limbed pecan tree on the edge of a yard saw the large shape of a hawk – at first just a dark silhouette, then the rich, varied tones of a Red-shouldered Hawk came into focus, with ruddy red-orange barring on the breast, brown head and deep brown back speckled with white. It sat quietly, very still, looking down. Below in the grass, five or six American Crows walked around, apparently unconcerned, and several smaller birds and two squirrels were scattered out across the yard.

Though I stopped, it was only a few seconds before the hawk spread its wings and swept low across the road, across another yard and into the trees beyond – showing its colors in flight – the broad, pale underside of the wings, reddish breast and brightly-banded black and white tail. I felt sorry to have disturbed it.

Four Rusty Blackbirds

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

A little further on, a medium-sized songbird moved around among the speckled leaves of a water oak. Slender and graceful in shape, thin pointed bill, brown – several shades of brown – it took me a minute or so to recognize a female Rusty Blackbird. She was quite beautiful, patterned in different tones of warm, rosy brown, fawn, tan and grayish-brown, with a pale buff stripe over the eye, and a dark streak or patch through the yellow eye.

She walked along a large branch of the oak, strolling along it as if it were a boulevard, looking down at the bark as she went. There was a second female – and then two male Rusty Blackbirds flew into the same tree. The males looked all-black, with no hint of winter rust in the plumage that I could see, but they were partially shaded among the leaves. The slender shape, thin pointed bills and startling, pale yellow eyes were clear. The soft chuck calls the birds exchanged were so low and intimate a sound that I almost didn’t notice them.

At one point, one of the females held a very small twig in her beak with a couple of small leaves as she strolled along a branch – maybe a bug or spider on the twig? I don’t know. After about four or five minutes, they all flew. There may have been other Rusty Blackbirds around – but these four were the only ones I saw, and they did not seem to be part of a larger flock. There was a flock of Common Grackles and maybe other blackbirds in a different part of the neighborhood, but far enough away so that I couldn’t even hear their clamor as I was watching these.

Populations of Rusty Blackbirds have declined dramatically in the past three or four decades. Some estimates of population decreases are as high as 99 percent. The reasons for their decline are not fully understood, though loss of habitat is one likely factor. Because they have become so much less common, it’s especially interesting to see and watch them.

Seeing both the Blue-headed Vireo and the Rusty Blackbirds was very unexpected – with the Red-shouldered Hawk as a bonus – especially because it continues to seem there are dramatically fewer birds in our neighborhood this fall season. Although most of our usual winter resident birds have returned, there just don’t seem to be as many of them, at least not so far.

A New Note from a Brown Thrasher

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Though the month of October seemed unusually quiet here, with fewer migrants and fewer returning winter residents than in previous years, there have been several interesting moments. On one of many sunny, cool days with clear blue skies and Monarch Butterflies drifting over one or two at a time, a Brown Thrasher perched in a large dogwood tree and sang some smooth, rounded notes that I’d never noticed before. Quite different from its usual long song of paired phrases, these calls were one or two syllables at a time, and they sounded different, rich and more fluid – but in between them the thrasher also gave a few of its loud, sharp chack calls. I watched as it made these calls – and I now suspect a Brown Thrasher might have been my unseen “Baltimore Oriole” heard earlier in the month, because the area where I heard it is one where many Brown Thrashers can be found. For a more skilled birder who knows all the songs well, I’m sure there would have been no confusion between the two. But I’m always having to relearn what I already knew, anyway – and wishful thinking can do a lot, too.

Brown Thrashers do have a very large repertoire – but this particular call seemed to have a quite different character from its usual song. It’s only a “new” call to me, though. The species account in Birds of North America Online, citing A.C. Bent, describes one common call of a Brown Thrasher as a “whistled teeola,” and The Sibley Guide to Birds mentions “a rich, low whistle peeooori or breeeew.” Either of these could describe the notes that I heard – notes I’ve never before noticed from one of our most familiar birds. Which only goes to show how much I easily miss.

(John F. Cavitt and Carola A. Haas. 2000. Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

(David Allen Sibley, 2000, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.)

The Songs of White-throated Sparrows

Monday, October 31st, 2011

It’s been a quiet fall in our neighborhood this year, with fewer migrating birds than usual, and muted, mostly weary colors in the foliage. In some ways the quiet of the birds has been disturbing, but change will come. And I try to remind myself to be open to seeing what’s here – and not to miss it by looking for something that’s not.

On the last morning of October, a thick quilt of gray-white clouds almost covered a chilled blue sky. The colors of fall, though not spectacular, have changed the mood and light from green to mellow orange, rust and wine. A blush of subdued rose-red is spreading over the already thin green leaves of our two red maples. Our three river birches arch tall and almost bare, with pale peeling bark and very sparse, small, dull-yellow leaves. Brown patches splotch the dense green of white oaks, and the red oaks have faded to burgundy. Pecans are turning their usual crusty, withered and curled gray-green, showering leaves in the wind.

Around some houses, more brightly colored maples, crape myrtles and Bradford pear trees light up the yards with coral and scarlet. And a persimmon tree at one corner glows deep saffron and still holds many fruits; the dogwoods droop, dusty-red and also still full of lots of red berries. Yellow, brown and dark-red sweet gum leaves litter the ground and roads like stars, scattered on a background of brown pine needles. The yellow leaves of wild grape vines twist through the edge of the woods, with a red-orange fringe of sumac. Tulip poplars still hold a mix of yellow and yellow-green leaves, and water oaks form a massed background of faded green, orange and brown. The few hickory trees in our woods burn with perhaps the most intense color, a searing golden brown.

The bittersweet beauty of the subtle, understated colors and the cloud-gray light of the morning formed the perfect backdrop for the songs of White-throated Sparrows. In the large old field just outside our neighborhood, the songs of three, four, five White-throated Sparrows drifted up from thick cover in the weeds, a sweet, whistled music associated here with fall and winter seasons. Other White-throated Sparrows flew from place to place. One perched out on the edge of a privet bush, showing off its clean white throat, gray breast, deep-brown streaked back and wings, black-and-white striped head, and touch of gold in front of the eye. Most of the songs sound a little shaky, tentative, maybe the songs of young, first-year sparrows, though apparently this is not known for sure.

The first White-throated Sparrow of the season showed up here about two weeks ago, in a privet thicket, and since then I’ve heard the sibilant calls of a scattered few from hidden spots, but this morning it seemed as if many more might have arrived overnight with the latest cold front – or maybe they just were suddenly more active. Either way, welcome back!

One Red-tailed Hawk circled over the field where the sparrows sang, and another perched on a pole overlooking the highway. Several Northern Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Northern Cardinals and Eastern Towhees called and moved around among the privet, chinaberries, dry blackberry vines, pokeweed, dead-brown grass, and other weeds.