Archive for March, 2011

Rain, Thunder, Hermit Thrush and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

March has come to an end with a full week of cool, rainy weather, several thunderstorms and long periods of heavy rain. The days have been gray, wet and moody – but it’s really good spring weather here – what I think of as a green rain, because you can almost see the green emerging all around, like a watercolor painting.

I also didn’t mind the weather because it made it more appealing to stay curled up inside with a book while getting over a bad cold, and this morning brought yet another cool, deeply cloudy day, with a steady mist of rain.

Lots of birds sang right through the rain all week, and this morning, the first one I heard as I stepped out the door was a Brown Thrasher, followed by the quick little song of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, then the irrepressible cheery-cheery-cheery-cheery of a Carolina Wren and the elegant, liquid song of a Northern Cardinal. A Louisiana Waterthrush continued to sing all along the creek. Three or four Chipping Sparrows spun their light, thin, lingering trills.

Dogwoods have come into lacey white bloom all through the woods, like white mist, a touch of kindness to these woods that look so ravaged with dead and dying pines and lots of fallen, broken trunks and branches on the ground. It’s been a rough winter – following a rough two or three years of pine beetle damage. Now sweet gums, water oaks, vines and other plants are leafing out and turning green, along with the dogwoods, so it’s beginning to look a little less sad and bedraggled.

A pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers seems happy enough with one tall, ragged dead pine just inside the woods. They go back and forth from a hole near its broken-off top frequently, so we think they may be nesting there.

A Pileated Woodpecker trumpeted from somewhere in the distance. A Tufted Titmouse sang peter-peter. A Red-bellied Woodpecker gave its lush quuurrrr call.

Cedar Waxwings perched in the still-bare limbs of pecan trees around the front yard, little blobs of crested-gray against a misty gray sky, at least three dozen of them, probably more. Their high, thin calls sounded so shrill and piercing they almost hurt the ears, an unpleasant sound, insistent and sustained, like a high, insect-like whine that seemed unusual. Maybe it’s because there were so many of them calling at once, and all in one place, not flying and passing quickly by.

A Mourning Dove cooed. A couple of Blue Jays creaked out jay-jay! And the slow, sweet, plaintive Come-a-way with me of a White-throated Sparrow rose like a curl of mist from a dense bank of shrubs, the song that seems most in tune with the bittersweet mood of the day, and the season.

A male Eastern Bluebird – and a Carolina Chickadee – both suddenly burst across the yard, both looking as if they had just emerged from the bluebird house, though that’s unlikely. Maybe one just happened to be in the vicinity. I didn’t see for sure. But I wonder what’s happening there, and who is in possession, if either.

Then a Hermit Thrush flew up to a branch with a chrup that I heard before I saw its olive-brown back and rusty-cinnamon tail. It stood with its back to me, looking over its shoulder with a wide eye and then flew down to the ground and somewhere out of sight.

Later – almost noon – the day was still gray and misting rain, and I was working in my office when I heard the emphatic spee-spee-spee! of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher just outside the windows, the first of the season here around our yard and woods.

Field Sparrow Singing – A Less Common Song

Friday, March 25th, 2011

A calm, cool, crisp, exquisite spring morning, with a cloudless blue sky and winter-bare trees in a hesitant haze of palest green, like a mist. Water oaks are leafing out in pale tiny leaves; sweet gums, further along, shimmer with fresh foliage, and dogwoods hover greenish-white with blooms almost ready to open. And all these trees around our yard, and a few remaining pines, too, were filled with sparkling, quivering, delicate music – the songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers. All winter long, all they’ve expressed is dry, gray comments of check! And now, suddenly, they bloom into floral, silvery songs.

Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Chipping Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Ruby-crowned Kinglet also sang – and a Black-and-white Warbler sang weesa-weesa-weesa. A couple of Mourning Doves and three Dark-eyed Juncos searched for seeds under the feeders in the front yard. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flew to the trunk of a pecan tree. A pair of Downy Woodpeckers tapped on branches and worked on one of the feeders. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called quurrrr.

But the real gift of the morning was the bright, cheery, bouncing song of a Field Sparrow, a series of clear whistled notes followed by several falling notes that are usually described as a trill, but sound to me like the tap-tap-tap-tapping of a ping-pong ball. The Field Sparrow perched in the limbs of a young red maple tree, among new young red leaves, a very small, plain, ordinary-looking, brown-streaked sparrow with a soft rusty cap, a gray and rusty face and thin white eye-ring, and a small pink bill and pink legs.

A common bird of old fields, pastures and clearings, the Field Sparrow used to be a bird I heard and saw often. It’s an old and familiar friend. But in recent years, I have found them less and less often, so when I hear or see one now, I notice it more. While still considered widespread in eastern North America, populations of Field Sparrows are known to be declining, probably because of loss of the brushy, weedy habitat they need. They like weeds and open fields – and fade away when subdivisions, lawns and street lights replace the open, untended spaces.

I don’t know why this one was here, and doubt it will stay, but it was a pleasure to hear and see it passing through.

Northern Parula

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

On a very warm, sunny day with clouds beginning to gather, a female Northern Parula flew into a thicket right along the roadside, and almost at eye level. It almost startled me, it was so close and so vivid – a small, stubby bird with a short tail, and a clear, glowing lemon-yellow throat and chest, very greenish back, blue-gray head, and what at first appeared to be a white eye-ring and white wing bars. The eye-ring was actually white arcs over and under the eye. This female showed no sign of the blurry, rusty-coral band across the chest that would quickly identify a male, and that some females also show more faintly. It’s another first of the season bird for me, and I have not yet heard the male’s buzzy, trilled song.

A Northern Parula is a small wood warbler that winters in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and returns to eastern North America to nest in forested areas, usually along streams or wetlands. I’ve been pleasantly surprised to have them nesting here in our woods for several years now – it’s really more a woodland than a forest here, a very fragmented woodland, but the creeks and young hardwood trees seem to be okay with them. Their colorful, and yet exotically dusky appearance and sultry song always remind me of Spanish moss and deep southern woods in the Lowcountry– though they’re not uncommon even much further north of here.

Spring Equinox – Louisiana Waterthrush and Black-and-white Warbler

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

Yesterday morning a Louisiana Waterthrush sang from along the creek in the woods, the first time this season I’ve heard its song – right on time, the herald of spring. Three clear, ringing, whistles, followed by a tumble of notes like creek water falling over rocks.

And this morning, our first Black-and-white Warbler of the season sang its high, thin weesa-weesa-weesa in the still bare limbs of the white oaks right outside our bedroom windows. The small, slender warbler, crisply striped in black and white, crept along the branches, searching one side and another, and stopping frequently to raise its head, show a snow-white throat and sing.

In the same tree, two Golden-crowned Kinglets whispered their wintery ti-ti-ti, ti-ti-ti, and an Eastern Phoebe flew to a branch and bobbed its tail.

A pair of Eastern Phoebes have built a nest on top of a gutter pipe over the garage, the same spot where Phoebes nested two years ago, though not last spring.

Both days have been warm and sunny. A Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, fresh yellow and black, fluttered low around some shrubs. Several other, smaller butterflies I didn’t know – some orange, some yellow – flew here and there, over grass and weedy flowers.

New Birdsongs – Chipping Sparrow and Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Back at home from a few days on the coast, we arrived at night, right after a good rain, so this morning the world looked fresh with touches of green and right on the brink of Spring. Many birds were singing – Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Eastern Phoebe, Brown Thrasher, American Robin – and the calls of Downy Woodpecker and Red-bellied Woodpecker, even the long rattle of a Hairy Woodpecker from not far away in the woods. Several American Goldfinches are still coming to the feeders, and beginning to light up with lemon-yellow color. There were the zhreeee calls of at least a few Pine Siskins still around in the treetops. And the chrup of a Hermit Thrush that I heard – though I couldn’t see it, it was somewhere near. Two Canada Geese honked as they fly over.

And a new note added to the morning chorus – the light, high, lingering trill of Chipping Sparrows. Not just one, but at least three or four were singing from different places around the yard – one perched in a low branch of a red maple tree dense with young dark-red leaves. Their songs at this time of year, especially in the early hours of the morning, seem to me to have a fresh, delicate quality that is less common as the season goes on. Before we left, Pine Warblers were singing everywhere, but now, I only heard one or two singing later in the morning, while the trills of Chipping Sparrows were everywhere.

Then another new song – the quick start and rapid, exuberant burst of notes from somewhere in a tangled privet thicket – a Ruby-crowned Kinglet.

Two dozen or more Cedar Waxwings perched in the still-bare limbs of pecan trees and came to the birdbath to bathe. A female Yellow-bellied Sapsucker stayed for a long time checking holes in the pecan trees in the front yard before a second Sapsucker, this one a male, flew in and chased her away. He stayed for a while, then – or maybe she came back. I lost track. Both are so well camouflaged against the bark of the trees. Robins squeaked and chucked. An Eastern Bluebird sang from somewhere, not too near, and I did not see one going in or coming out of the bluebird box.

A Black Swallowtail in Cherry Blossoms – and a Spring Azure

Friday, March 18th, 2011

Late in the morning, under a sunny, deep blue sky, the air cool and calm, a Black Swallowtail butterfly flew into the lush, filmy pink blossoms of a cherry tree in a neighbor’s yard. It was the first butterfly I’ve seen this season, and it made a very pretty picture, nectaring in the cloud of pink flowers, its big black wings tinged with blue, and spots of white and orange all fresh and bright. Looking very content to be where it was, it moved only from blossom to blossom, and obligingly turned all around as it moved, showing first its upper side, with wings spread; then the lower side, with wings folded; then the upper side, wings spread again. With wings folded up, at one time, the sunlight shined through them so they looked a clear brownish-black with orange spots.

Only a few minutes later, and further down the road toward home, a Spring Azure fluttered by me, a transitory puff of powder-blue, quickly gone. My second butterfly of the season, and I’m sure there are many more around, if I only stayed outside to look.

Four Red-shouldered Hawks

Friday, March 18th, 2011

In a different part of the neighborhood, four Red-shouldered Hawks circled and cried kee-yer, kee-yer and sometimes a more agitated, faster, choppy kyer, kyer, kyer. They seemed to be contesting territory in a wide band of woods along a creek – right around the area where Broad-winged Hawks nested last summer.

Against the clear blue sky, the ruddy chest, and rich brown back and even the red shoulders of the hawks glowed in the sun as they climbed, dived, wheeled, soared fast and chased one another, wings spread wide and tails fanned out with dark and white bands prominent.

American Oystercatchers

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

A pair of American Oystercatchers welcomed us to the beach on Kiawah Island, South Carolina, on a warm, sunny morning in mid March – a brief spring-break trip to the coast. They flew in close to where we were walking, announcing their arrival with lots of loud, clear, insistent whistles of queep-queep-queep-queedit-queedit that stood out as boldly as their colorful appearance.

The beach felt peaceful and quiet, with a big blue sky, wide stretch of sand, the tide about halfway in, a scattering of people, and the cushioning sound of the surf and the cries of gulls. Forster’s Terns – many of them – fluttered over the waves and flashed white in the sunlight, and Brown Pelicans sailed over the water further out. A few gray Willets waded in the rippled edge of the waves, and Ring-billed Gulls and Laughing Gulls flew over.

In one spot where the tide seemed to be coming in over a sandbar or maybe between two sandbars, a long pool of water had formed, and there must have been a good many fish trapped there. At least ten or fifteen Forster’s Terns were hovering, flickering, white and graceful, close together, low over the water and diving repeatedly here, strung out along the length of the pool. There were other shorebirds in this area, too – Willets, gulls probably, and maybe some sandpipers – but I was so fascinated by the terns that later I couldn’t remember for sure what else had been there. Some of the terns seemed to dive many times before catching a fish, even in such an easy spot.

Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plover, Lesser Yellowlegs and Greater Yellowlegs

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Further east along the beach, in a series of shallow lagoons and mud flats between the beach and a golf course, many sandpipers, wading birds, terns, gulls, and pelicans had gathered. It was the perfect place to practice shorebird identification – for me, an ongoing challenge and endless pleasure. Almost always, the behavior of a shorebird – the way it stands and moves and feeds, quick or deliberate, graceful or dowdy, alert, nervous or placid – identifies it even more quickly than its appearance. So many of them look alike – but their personalities are often vividly different.

Short-billed Dowitchers busily probed the shallow water, rarely lifting a round grayish head with its pale white eye-streak long enough to show the very long bill. A “Short-billed” Dowitcher’s bill is only short compared to a Long-billed Dowitcher. The two are very similar in appearance – stocky, sandpiper-like birds, in grayish barred and speckled winter plumage and typically very intent on probing steadily for food. Telling the difference between them is beyond my ability, unless I can hear their different calls – and these were all busy feeding, not coming and going, and not calling. I guessed Short-billed because they usually prefer beaches and mudflats like this – and checking a birding report by the Kiawah Island naturalist later confirmed they had been seen there.

Small, neat, snow-white and gray-backed Sanderlings, little Dunlins with their hunched postures and drooping bills, plump Red Knots and several long-legged Willets foraged in the shallow water, with a few Killdeer, one harlequin Ruddy Turnstone, and one watchful Black-bellied Plover that – as always – seemed to spend most of its time with its head held high, just looking around, darting in this direction and that, much less intent on feeding than most of the other birds, and giving the impression of keen awareness of its surroundings, and of the behaviors of all the other birds around – and of any approaching danger.

Meanwhile, three Lesser Yellowlegs stepped daintily in the shallow water very near the edge of one lagoon, and one Greater Yellowlegs foraged in the water nearby. Both are long-legged, slender, very active and a delight to watch – especially the slightly smaller and more delicate Lesser Yellowlegs. Like most shorebirds at this time of year, they were in grayish, almost nondescript winter plumage – but their long, spindly yellow legs are hard to miss. Both flew a short distance at different times, the Lesser Yellowlegs calling a sweet soft too-too, too-too, while the Greater Yellowlegs was louder and slightly rough, more zhreeoo-zhreeoo – I think this was their call usually described as tew, tew.

The Ringing Chatter of Semipalmated Plovers

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

Several Snowy Egrets fed together, spearing into the water with long thin bills, and lifting thin black legs to show a golden-yellow foot now and then. Three Brown Pelicans stood placidly in the pools.

A couple of Great Egrets, a Great Blue Heron and three or four Tri-colored Herons hunted in shallow water, and one pair of Buffleheads floated in the distance, small black and white ducks with big white patches on the sides of the head. Forster’s Terns hovered, shimmered and plunged into the water. Ospreys flew over on their way to and from the edge of the ocean. One Osprey bathed in a shallow pool. A mature Bald Eagle sailed directly overhead, silent, wings spread wide, white head and tail brilliant against a deep blue sky.

It seemed unreal, to be here like this. Each evening we watched the news on TV, and in the mornings, listened to NPR. An earthquake and tsunami had devastated Japan, and a nuclear crisis was beginning to unfold. Uprisings and conflict in the Middle East brought new chapters of change every day. And in the U.S. Congress, a painful, willful ignorance of reality seemed to prevail.

But here – four Semipalmated Plovers scurried around actively in the mudflats and sandy areas around the lagoons – and they were calling – a chirpy, chattery, rich series of varied whistles. I don’t think I’ve ever heard them calling like this before. They called several times, mostly as they flew from spot to spot – not while walking around and foraging.