Archive for February, 2011

Windblown Sharp-shinned Hawk, Hairy Woodpecker and Song Sparrow

Friday, February 25th, 2011

A soft, sleepy rain overnight left behind a sunny, blustery morning that looked and felt like March. A gusty wind blew big white and gray clouds across a blue sky, changing the light from blinding bright to dull and back to bright again. Cloud shadows drifted over the ground. The air felt warm and damp. The grass was wet from the rain. Dandelions, bluets, pale purple henbit and tiny dusty white weed-flowers have popped up, dotting and carpeting patches of grass. Daffodils bloom in shady, low spots. And birds sang, though hard to hear through the wind in the trees – Pine Warbler, Eastern Phoebe, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Eastern Bluebird. The sounds of early spring.

Though the wind muffled birdsong and most other sounds, a late morning walk turned up a few nice surprises – including a Hairy Woodpecker; an unusually handsome Song Sparrow; and a wind-tossed Sharp-shinned Hawk.

When I stopped to listen to the tapping of a woodpecker on a bare-limbed pecan tree, it was only out of idle curiosity, or habit, just checking it out and expecting to see a Downy. But I couldn’t find it. I could hear the tapping very distinctly, right above me, and it had to be there, but for three or four minutes at least, I walked one way, then another, searching all the limbs – all bare of leaves and nowhere to hide. It was impossible that it was not there – and very frustrating to know that it had to be right in front of me, but I could not see it.

All the while, I was thinking, why am I bothering? It’s just a Downy Woodpecker, and I see them every day. But it became a minor challenge, and finally I found it – a black and white woodpecker with a sturdy, long, pointed bill, a female Hairy Woodpecker.  She was right out in clear view, of course, working intently on the top edge of a raggedly broken-off branch of the tree, close to the trunk. Her black and white plumage, ruffled by the wind, blended in well with the bark of the tree. Though Downy Woodpeckers are fun to see, too, the larger Hairy is much less common here, and I haven’t heard its sharp, emphatic call or seen one in several weeks. This one was not calling, somewhat unusually quiet except for the steady tapping. As I watched, she paused, looking around, maybe disturbed by my standing below her, but she didn’t fly away. I left soon, and she returned to her work.

In the wind, three Turkey Vultures tilted along low, almost like blowing leaves. Two Black Vultures soared higher, circling, and even they looked a little unsteady and ruffled by the gusts. A Red-tailed Hawk rode the wind up, wings spread wide and tail fanned.

A Brown Thrasher continues to sing in its privet-choked territory of young spindly oaks and weeds a few yards back from the roadside. But Mockingbirds were quiet this morning, and I only saw two, I think, and only five or six Robins in all. Lots of other common small birds were out of sight, maybe staying sheltered in the bushes.

In the old field, few birds were out, but one flew to a perch in a ragged bush and glowed like a light against the rusty-brown shrub. It was a Song Sparrow, looking unusually sleek and sitting unusually still. Its breast was ivory-white, with dark brown streaks on the upper chest and sides. Its head was striped in reddish-brown and gray, its white throat framed by dark stripes. Instead of the prominent dark splotch on the chest, there was only a slightly denser streaking. The long tail looked dull cinnamon, and a similar shadowy cinnamon showed in the brown, streaked wings. It sat very calm in the bush – not twitching its tail and moving restlessly as they most often do. I’ve heard Song Sparrows singing this past week, several times. But this one was quiet. I’m not sure if the markings and plumage were fresher and more vivid than most – or if its fine appearance was a trick of the light, and the fact that it sat so still and calm – maybe it’s their constant motion that usually makes Song Sparrows look more streaky and blurred. But it’s also true that Song Sparrows are known for showing a great deal of variation in the basic pattern of their appearance.

I was almost back home when a small, compact hawk came soaring high, flying out of the east, into the wind. At first, from a distance, it looked windblown, sailing on open wings and turning one way, then another. As it came closer, and a little lower, it flapped now and then, with quick, neat wing-beats, followed by a long, sailing glide. It passed directly over me, broad wings outspread, and long narrow tail with subtle dark and gray bands and a softly-square tip, barely rimmed in white at the end. A Sharp-shinned Hawk. It flew toward the woods and dropped out of sight.

A Pine Siskin That Didn’t Want Wet Feet

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Early this morning, under a low, murky gray sky, with a damp and chilling northwest wind, a perky Pine Siskin came to the birdbath in the front yard for a drink. The brownish feathers on its head were raised into a slight, ruffled point, its small body was slender, its posture erect, and it was covered in neat dark streaks, with only the slightest hint of yellow in the wings. For a minute or two, it sat there, looking around, but never completely still for a second, seeming almost to vibrate all over with energy from within.

It had come for a drink, but faced a problem. Only a small amount of shallow, leafy water remained in the bottom of the birdbath, and from its perch on the rim, the Siskin could not reach it. It leaned down toward the puddle of water, clinging to the rim with its thin, bare bird-feet, and straightened back up. It worked around the rim of the birdbath to another position, and tried again from there. No luck. I wondered why it didn’t just hop closer down to the water, but it didn’t – instead, it worked its way all around the rim, trying again and again to reach the water from its dry-footed perch there. I have to admit, I wouldn’t have wanted to get my bare feet wet in that cold, damp wind either, but most of the time birds seem to not to mind a lot of things I might.

Finally, after going around full circle once and halfway around again, it managed to find a spot where it could lean way over, turn its head sideways, and scoop up some water.

It didn’t look very satisfactory, and the Siskin flew up to a branch, giving up. A few minutes later, two more Pine Siskins flew to the birdbath rim – and both of these hopped right down to the bottom, stood on some damp, soggy leaves, and helped themselves to a drink.

Before I went inside, I rinsed out the birdbath and filled it with fresh water.

A Touchy Bluebird Pair

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Meanwhile, the front yard was busy with most of the usual suspects. American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins on one feeder, with Siskins calling zhreeeee from the branches above. Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice coming and going on the other feeder. Dozens of Chipping Sparrows fed in the grass, looking like shapeless, restless little brown spots moving around. Dark-eyed Juncos, Mourning Doves and Northern Cardinals pecked under the feeders, and American Robins were scattered all over the yard. A Mockingbird gave a raspy call.

A Pine Warbler trilled nearby, and another in the woods, not far away. A Carolina Wren sang jubilee-jubilee-jubilee, and a female answered with a lusty long trill. A Cardinal, Phoebe, Bluebird, Titmouse and Song Sparrow also were singing. A crimson-throated male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flew quietly to the trunk of a pecan tree, two Red-bellied Woodpeckers flew from tree to tree and rattled and called quuurrr, and a Pileated Woodpecker gave its cuk-cuk-cuk call from the edge of the woods. A Northern Flicker called kleer, over and over, as it traveled through trees across the road.

When a pair of Eastern Bluebirds flew to the bluebird box together, they seemed to have a sudden, brief disagreement about who was going in. There was a flurry of wings and something that sounded like a snap, and the female ducked inside. The male retreated first to the top of the birdhouse, then – as if thinking better of it – to a branch nearby, his feathers literally ruffled, and waited there, maybe regaining his dignity. When the female came back out after several seconds, she sat pointedly on top of the box. He flicked his wings. She did not look his way, and after a few more seconds, she flew to a branch in another tree. He fluttered his wings once again, like a shrug, and followed her.

A Blue Jay Session of Hawk Calls

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Several Blue Jays flew into the trees, and began to give loud and convincing imitations of the cries of both Red-tailed Hawk and Red-shouldered Hawk. They did this many times, first the Red-tail’s cry, and then switching to the Red-shoulder’s kee-yer, and I wondered why. It sounded as if one of them started it, and one or two others joined in, and they went back and forth, taking turns, practicing or competing or just having fun. I don’t know. But they really were pretty good.

The Music of Many Pine Warblers – Not All Songs Alike

Monday, February 21st, 2011

The simple, musical trill of a Pine Warbler may be much more than it seems.

With their sunny yellow throat and breast, Pine Warblers bring a welcome wash of color to the drab winter landscape. And now they’re bringing warm, spring-like music to the bare woods, too, in songs with a subtle and somewhat surprising variety of slightly different sounds.

Because Pine Warblers are fairly common here year-round, it’s easy to hear their songs as just a sort of background music, all sounding pretty much alike. But this year we’ve had an unusually large number in our neighborhood, and I can often hear two or three singing in different directions at the same time, and even more further down the road – so I’ve begun to notice and to listen more closely for their different voices and different expressions.

Usually described as a simple, loose, musical trill, the song of a Pine Warbler can sound soft, languid and lyrical; or more mellow and rich; like a delicate, pretty rattle; or a somewhat insistent purr. Occasionally it’s almost a dry monotone, like a Chipping Sparrow; more often, it’s a fluctuating, pulsing, floating warble – though in all of the variations, it’s still a recognizable Pine Warbler’s trill.

This morning I listened to two Pine Warblers singing at the same time, in different directions from where I stood. One sang from the pines in the old field. Its song was a classic sweet trill, but at the end of each trill, it dropped down to a lower pitch, just for a couple of notes. The Pine Warbler in the other direction sang a slower, more fluctuating series of notes with a sensual, pulsating rhythm – still a trill, but a quite different effect.

I don’t know how much the differences reflect different meanings or moods, and how much they reflect the voices and inflections of individual birds. From what I’ve been able to learn so far, it seems to be some of both.

The species account in Birds of North America Online notes that Pine Warblers are known to have more than one song type and may alternate types during periods of singing. Songs may vary in speed or frequency, and sometimes males sing two-parted songs, with trills of different frequencies and other variations. Beyond this, it says, little is known about their repertoire and delivery of songs.*

* Paul G. Rodewald, James H. Withgott and Kimberly G. Smith. 1999. Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet and a Bluebird Pair – Like Winter and Spring

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

Mid-February mornings begin with more and more birdsong. Though the morning chorus still is somewhat muted and easy-going – not the full-throated urgency of spring – Pine Warbler, Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Wren, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse and House Finch all are singing and a few woodpeckers are drumming. At least one Brown Thrasher and one Northern Mockingbird have begun to sing in the neighborhood, though not those around our own yard. The Mockingbird was singing today from a perch low in a bush, almost hidden – like the Brown Thrasher. It sang a typically fast-paced, accomplished song, but kept it low and rather quiet.

The first thing I saw when I stepped out the front door this morning was a pair of Eastern Bluebirds sitting possessively on and near the bluebird box. The female sat on top of the box, and the male perched in low branches of a water oak very close by. It seems pretty early for nesting, but they looked as if they might at least be considering the spot.

Meanwhile, our winter birds remain – the Pine Siskins continue to call their breezy wintery zhreeees from the high bare branches of oaks and sweet gums, and to gobble up birdseed as fast as I can keep it in the feeder; Dark-eyed Juncos feeding in the grass burst up into the trees when startled, calling out in soft jingles of alarm.

Several Golden-crowned Kinglets seemed active this morning, including one with a yellow crown, held flat, calling ti-ti-ti, ti-ti-ti from low in some oaks near the roadside, where it was easy to see, moving quickly over the branches, spending a little time in a cluster of dry brown leaves, then flying.  Because I haven’t seen them often lately, I enjoyed just watching it, and listening to the high, small, almost whispered call that seems to fit so well with its flitting, sprite-like behavior, and its appearance – the crisp little shape, neat white and charcoal wing-bars against a pale gray body, and sharp white-and-black striped pattern of the face.

A Busy Thicket in Late Afternoon Light

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Late this afternoon, the place to be was a messy-looking roadside thicket of privet and other shabby shrubs and weeds, all draped with withered brown kudzu vines. In the midst of the weeds stand several struggling, broken old oaks, with thick, sturdy trunks but scarred and hacked with holes, and many of the larger limbs torn off.

In a clear, soft blue sky with high traces of white clouds, a filmy gibbous moon was rising in the east, still a few days short of full. In the other direction, a bright sun was sinking low, and for several minutes, its light reached this bramble of an overgrown old grove and lit it in a warm rosy glow – and the place was full of birds.

Several bright red, peeping Northern Cardinals flew from perch to perch. At least four black, red-orange and white Eastern Towhees competed for space in the branches of one old oak. Dozens of American Robins rustled under the shrubs and squeaked, and one even tried a few bars of its cheer-up, cheerily, cheer-up song. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet called jidit-jidit. Two Eastern Phoebes flew from spot to spot. The tseet calls of White-throated Sparrows and their scratching and rustling filled the bushes, and a few came out briefly into view.

Four Mourning Doves and two Northern Mockingbirds sat quietly on wires overhead, and from the old field across the road, a Carolina Wren sang a loud and beautiful che-wortle, che-wortle, che-wortle.

A female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker clung to the trunk of one of the oaks, richly colored, with crimson crown, white and black-striped face, white throat, large white slash on the side, and buffy-charcoal-white barring, and even a subtle dull-yellow showing on the belly.

Cedar Waxwing – A Solitary Gem

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Yellow flashed like a flash of light, as a slender bird hawked an insect. It dropped to a high, bare oak branch, clear against the sky – an exquisite Cedar Waxwing. It sat facing the very low sun, with a sleek black mask and feathery cinnamon crest, its breast soft, velvety brown and belly pure smooth yellow, and the tip of its tail a glimmering yellow-gold. It appeared to be alone – I could hear or see no others around, though I think there must have been some, somewhere near. I stood watching it for several seconds, and it seemed maybe longer than it was, struck especially by the smooth, silky, polished look of its plumage.

Later, I looked for more information about Cedar Waxwing feathers and what gives their plumage this moth-smooth silky appearance, but so far I’ve found no explanation, though this distinctive look is often noted. This one was spectacular, especially because of the dramatic setting and lighting.

The Shadow – A Gray Catbird in Privet and Vines

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

And then – turning attention from the clear, colorful light in a treetop back to the murky tangles of the thicket – a dark shadow emerged and hopped up to the top of a bush – a Gray Catbird. What a surprise! All sleek, slate-gray with an ink-black cap, it sat with its tail slightly held up, erect and alert, looking around, and even mewed once. Then it flew to another spot, a low branch in an oak, and stayed there for several seconds before diving back out of sight into the weeds.

It might have wintered here, but if so, it’s been very quiet and reclusive. It’s certainly the first one I’ve seen or heard here all winter. In general, Catbirds here seem to move at least a little further south, then reappear early each spring. But I really don’t know. Either way, it was fun to see and nice to know it’s there.

Brown Thrasher Singing and Bluets in Bloom

Monday, February 14th, 2011

On a warm, sunny, spring-like morning, a profusion of tiny bluets bloomed among the stubbly, dry brown grass along the roadside, and a Brown Thrasher sang – the first one I’ve heard singing this year.

The shy bluets only showed up when I walked right by them, almost through them – invisible from further away, very common small wild flowers, each with four pale blue petals and a sunburst-yellow center, satiny and warm, all together like a filmy cloud floating over the rough winter ground.

It took me several minutes to find the Thrasher, screened by a tangle of water oak limbs and weedy shrubs. He was perched in an oak, but only about halfway up, not at the top, and after a minute or two, I realized that there were two Thrashers singing, back and forth, not far away from each other. Their songs both sounded a little slow and rusty, with longer than usual pauses between the phrases, and sort of casual and easy, not too competitive yet. But – along with Pine Warblers, Eastern Bluebirds, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Northern Cardinals, all singing, too – it’s beginning to sound like spring.

It’s been a long, unusually cold winter here, and it’s far from over yet, but it looks like the week ahead will be mostly warm and sunny.

By noon today, the wind had become strong and gusty, swinging the bird feeders in our front yard back and forth, ringing the wind chimes, and rushing through the pines and dry leaves still clinging to some of the oaks. The warm air felt restless and strange. Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures soared, and a Red-tailed Hawk sailed low over the treetops and then up fast, riding the wind. Small birds seemed mostly to be staying in the shelter of shrubs, but Pine Siskins called zhreeeee from somewhere high in a mixed stand of pines and young oaks, American Goldfinch mewed, Yellow-rumped Warblers flung out check notes as they flew, Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker clung to the trunk of a pecan tree and tapped steadily.

The conkaree song of a very few Red-winged Blackbirds could be heard, and this morning there seemed to be fewer Robins around than there have been most days lately.