Archive for January, 2011

A Purple Finch in the Snow

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Snow began to fall Sunday night, and by Monday morning, our northeast Georgia landscape was covered in at least six or seven inches of snow, maybe more. A steady mist of icy-snow continued to fall for several hours.

In the snow, cold and wind Monday morning, we set a tray of birdseed outside on a table on the deck and within minutes, dozens of Chipping Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, several Dark-eyed Juncos, a pair of Northern Cardinals, a few American Goldfinch, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and a pair of House Finches had arrived, and the tray stayed busy with birds all day. A Pine Warbler, several Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Carolina Wren came now and then.

One of the most interesting visitors was a female Purple Finch, the first Purple Finch I’ve seen here this year. Tall and sturdy, with bold brown and white coloring and a slightly pointed crown, she looked regal and larger than life, with a big, cone-shaped bill. A pattern of dark brown and white stripes marked her face, with short brown streaks down her breast and sides.

Beside her, the two House Finches – a rosy-red male and mousy, gray-streaked female that always seem to be together – looked gentle and diminutive, though there’s not supposed to be much difference in their size. I guess it’s all in the bearing, the attitude, maybe, or the erect posture, head held high, and behavior. The Purple Finch came several times to the feeder during the day, and whenever she was there, she seemed to dominate most of the other birds.

When she was not around, the Chipping Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows dominated. Chipping Sparrows would sit in the tray in one spot and eat and eat, sometimes trying to chase other birds away, but without much luck. White-throated Sparrows moved around and scratched at the seeds as they would if they were foraging on the ground, sending seeds flying down – which was fine with the Juncos and Cardinals, which stayed mostly on the deck below the table. Chickadees and Titmice flew back and forth, grabbing a seed or two, and flying away with it to a nearby branch.

In the front yard, I scattered extra seed on the ground around the shrubs, in addition to the two feeders, and several White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos and a couple of colorful Eastern Towhees found it within minutes.

Pine Warbler, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Carolina Wren and American Goldfinch joined the Chickadees, Titmice and Chipping Sparrows on the feeders out front. At times a Northern Mockingbird tried to monopolize one of the feeders, but it didn’t work. Mourning Doves fed on seeds that dropped to the ground.

Late in the afternoon, on a walk through the neighborhood, we heard three Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers mewing in the snow-cushioned quiet; a small flock of Cedar Waxwings flew over, barely visible in the still-blurry gray sky; two pretty brown female Rusty Blackbirds perched in a bare-limbed pecan tree; four warm-yellow Pine Warblers foraged with White-throated Sparrows, Eastern Towhees and Chipping Sparrows in and around a thicket of privet bushes; one Ruby-crowned Kinglet flashed a tuft of scarlet in its crown; a Northern Flicker called kleer; and one Red-shouldered Hawk lurked low in the trees, flying from one as we came too close, but settling again in another nearby

. . . And a Hermit Thrush

Wednesday, January 12th, 2011

Later in the afternoon, while working in my office, I heard a White-throated Sparrow’s sweet song just outside the window, and the chips, tseets and chatter of several little birds coming to the seeds in the tray on the deck.

Then a familiar chrup, repeated, sounded close – and when I looked out the window, saw a Hermit Thrush standing on top of several inches of frozen snow piled up on the deck rail. It stood there for four or five minutes. It flicked its wings, raised the cinnamon tail and said chrup over and over again, and turned around in one spot very gradually, making a complete circle a couple of times, as if just checking out the world all around. It looked watchful, as always, but not at all agitated. Its spindly feet splayed out on the snow. Its plumage a warm, muted brown. I have not seen it come to the feeder on the deck, but maybe it was attracted by all the other bird activity. A White-throated Sparrow flew up and perched briefly beside it, neither bird seemed to mind the other. Then the sparrow flew away, and a few seconds later, the Hermit Thrush flew into the woods.

Before the Snow – White-breasted Nuthatch

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Late last Friday morning – a deeply gray, cloudy, cold and windy day – against a background of bare-limbed trees, brown grass and shivering gray-green shrubs, the nasal, burry ahnk-ahnk calls of a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches came as a surprise. We don’t often hear or see them here in our neighborhood, though they seem to come by more often during the winter months. It didn’t take long to find them – little spots of blue-gray and white creeping over and around the forked trunks and limbs of pecan trees scattered around a neighbor’s large, grassy yard.

Small birds with a crisp silver-gray back, black cap, snow-white cheeks and face, and stubby tail – and a white breast that I could not see well from where I stood, they stayed in constant motion, moving quickly and close over the limbs and trunks, probing the bark and lichen with long thin bills, pausing now and then to crane their necks up and look around, and calling to each other frequently.

In the pearl-gray light and brisk wind, they looked like winter birds – all gray and white and black – though in truth they’re year-round residents here. But since they’re not common in our own neighborhood, it always seems special to me to see them.

They were a good reminder of how much I’ve missed over the past few weeks, as the holiday season and other things have left little time for birding and less for writing. But there have been a few other highlights during this time, at least brief glimpses of what’s going on in the world outside houses, restaurants and shopping malls – a Brown Creeper in the edge of our woods on the last day of 2010; a Fox Sparrow and a Sharp-Shinned Hawk on the edge of the old field on December 30; and a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers around our house on Christmas day.

A Brown Creeper on the Last Day of the Year

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

2010 came to an end with a brief warm spell and a softly-clouded, sometimes sunny, quiet day, the sky a gentle blue with high white clouds and several turkey vultures drifting low over the treetops.

We took advantage of the warm weather (in the low 60s) to eat lunch outside on the deck. A Carolina Wren, Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Towhee were around in the yard and the woods. One Black Vulture sailed over very high. The balmy air and soft blue sky felt relaxing, perfect for lying back and watching the clouds drift by, so when I began to hear some high, vaguely sibilant calls, at first I didn’t fully pay attention and sort of thought some Golden-crowned Kinglets had come around, as they often do. Then it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t hearing kinglets, and what it might be – and to my great surprise, there it was – an exquisite little Brown Creeper on the trunk of one of the oaks on the edge of the woods. A tiny bird with a dark back of mottled brown, black and white, an intricate pattern of sharp, clean colors that blended in with the bark of the trees, a white breast, and a long, thin, curved bill that it used to probe the bark.

Brown Creepers are not considered uncommon, but they are so quiet, small and inconspicuous they are not often seen, and in our neighborhood they seem to be less common than a few years ago, as more wooded land has been converted to homes and other suburban development.

It crept up and around one trunk, moving insect-like, close to the bark, upward in a spiral, then flew abruptly to another trunk, and another, staying in view for maybe four or five minutes, moving quickly – and best of all, calling again and again. The call is a high, thin tseeeee, an almost whispered sizzle, one long syllable at a time, but frequently repeated. It’s a distinctive and enticing call, fairylike and delightful – but very easily overlooked.

That was the best part of it for me – to recognize the call, and have a chance to hear it several times. It still makes me smile to think of it. A nice gift to end the year.

Fox Sparrow and Sharp-shinned Hawk, December 30

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

On a cool, softly-overcast day, the sun often breaking through high, many-layered clouds, a sparrow flew out of some weedy thickets in a field across the road in front of me as I walked – and perched near the top of a small bare tree along the roadside.

I expected to see a White-throated Sparrow or maybe a Song Sparrow – but instead discovered a large, plump bird with a proud head and striking red-brown coloring, with contrasting dove-gray patterns on the head and face, red-brown wings, and white breast heavily spotted and streaked with red-brown. A Fox Sparrow.

I hadn’t seen a Fox Sparrow in several years, but its vivid coloring and shape and behavior are familiar. It was like seeing an old friend because I used to see them often in the winter, when we lived in a different place in Oconee County. This is the first time I’ve seen a Fox Sparrow here in this neighborhood. It stayed perched quietly in the little tree for maybe two or three minutes, giving me a good long look before it flew again, back across the road and out of sight in the shrubs of the field.

Just as I turned around and started to walk away, a compact, sleek gray hawk with a long tail flew suddenly out of the trees behind me like a phantom and swooped low across the road, skimming the top of the weeds and shrubs, then flying up and a little higher and away toward the trees on the other side of the highway, in a crisp and distinctive flap-flap-flap – glide pattern of flight – a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Pileated Woodpeckers on Christmas Day

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Christmas day began with a soft orange light above the southeastern horizon that grew more and more intensely orange. A Carolina Wren sang, then a brilliant, shimmering red sun slipped up between gleaming gray clouds and behind a tangle of pines and bare branches. But only for a minute or two. It was quickly gone, hidden by a thick layer of clouds, but leaving a sheen of silver over the sky for a few morning hours.

Around 10 am, we heard the calls of two Pileated Woodpeckers in the trees on the edge of the woods behind our house, and watched them in the dead pines and other trees for several minutes, a male and a female. Several times they flew very close to the house as they moved around from tree to tree. Their black and white plumage and vivid red crests stood out against the drab gray and brown winter landscape, but after those first calls, they were quiet, except for the occasional thunk of their bills hitting a trunk, the scratch of claws on the bark, and the soft click of pine bark falling.

At the same time, several other woodpeckers and smaller birds were active around the back yard – a Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Eastern Phoebe, Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, American Goldfinch, and a pair of Northern Cardinals.

By early afternoon, a cold, steady rain had begun to fall. It continued the rest of the day and into the night – turning into a magical, picture-perfect snowfall before midnight, and by the next morning, our world was white, covered in three or four inches of snow, with a light, fluffy snow still falling. It was a pretty, dreamy snow, falling thickly, but fun to walk in, and before it ended the wind picked up and kept the trees blown free, so no harm done, and we enjoyed a rare snow day.