Archive for April, 2011

Scarlet Tanager

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

About 9:30 this morning, the air felt very warm already, and humid. Big gray and white clouds blew from the south across a mostly sunny blue sky. A Great-crested Flycatcher called Breet from the treetops across the street, a Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse and Chipping Sparrow sang.

Among the green leaves near the top of a tall pecan tree, a Scarlet Tanager gleamed like a small red sliver against the sky, its color so intense, to see it felt like a shock. A clear, glassy red with slashes of ink-black wings, formed into a smooth, compact shape.

It was quietly moving around in the leaves and hawking insects, flying up to catch one, settling back in a slightly different spot, but staying in the same treetop for three or four minutes before it flew away.

Later in the afternoon, the crisp, dry CHICK-brrrr calls of a Scarlet Tanager moved through the trees outside my office windows. Usually elusive birds, despite their flamboyant colors and brassy songs, they tend to stay hidden in foliage and deeper in the woods, so it feels lucky and unusual to have them so close around.

Mississippi Kites

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

Earth Day here has been a cool, cloudy, damp spring day of gray light and glassy-green leaves all around. It began before dawn with a good hard rain. After the rain, an Eastern Phoebe sang. Then a Scarlet Tanager, a Summer Tanager, a Red-eyed Vireo, and a gathering cascade of birdsong.

By late in the morning things seemed rather quiet when I first went out, but by the end of an hour-long walk, I had been surprised to see two Mississippi Kites soaring, a Blue Grosbeak perched in a chinaberry tree, and to hear the sharp WHEET-sit call of our first Acadian Flycatcher of the season.

The Mississippi Kites were the most unexpected sight because it’s early in the season to find them here. I think of them as summer birds. But there they were – against a chilly background of gray clouds, two falcon-like raptors circling, flying close together and fairly low. Their sleek, streamlined shapes are so distinctive – long, slender, pointed wings, long tails and round heads. They drifted with wings outspread, tails fanned, riding the air like gray paper cutouts of bird shapes. After five or six minutes in view, they sailed away slowly toward the south.

Mississippi Kites spend winters in South America, and breed across the central and southern U.S. Graceful, acrobatic flyers, they catch and eat insects in flight, and can be a joy to watch. Though I’ve never seen more than five or six together at one time over our own neighborhood, they commonly forage in flocks of two dozen or more. During summers here, they’re more often found in rural areas, hunting over fence-rows, farm fields and pastures. Over the past few years, though, I’ve also seen reports of them in other wooded suburban areas.

Blue Grosbeak – First of the Season

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

From the top of an oak by the side of the road, across from the old field, I heard several emphatic, metallic chink calls. Just as I got close enough to see it, the Blue Grosbeak flew, but perched again only a short way down the road in the top of a chinaberry tree, in full view. In the gray light, it didn’t look very blue, just dark, but I could see the rusty orange wing-bars and the big silver, conical bill, and it continued to call chink!

Unfortunately, though, at the same time I heard no White-eyed Vireo singing in the nearby field. Although they usually are among the earliest migrant birds to return in the spring, this year I’ve only heard one singing in the field and one in an area of thickets near our yard, and each of these I only heard one day, and not again. I’m always amazed that any birds at all find the old field along the highway an attractive place to nest – although it’s lush with weeds, shrubs, vines and a good many large trees now in some places, the noise of tractor trailers and other traffic gets louder every year. So I’m not too surprised if birds choose to go somewhere else. Each year, it seems, fewer species return. And I really don’t know whether to hope a White-eyed Vireo will show up yet – or not.

Acadian Flycatcher

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

The Acadian Flycatcher sang its sharp, dry WHEET-sit from down in the woods along a creek. In the same area, a Black-and-white Warbler continues to sing weesa-weesa-weesa, a Northern Parula gave its buzzy, rising and falling song, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher rasped spee-spee, a Pileated Woodpecker trumpeted and clucked, and a Red-shouldered Hawk cried loud kee-yer and circled overhead.

Ruby-crowned Kinglets fussed and sang, and one White-throated Sparrow’s sweet, high, whistled song drifted up from somewhere in the distance. American Goldfinches and Yellow-rumped Warblers filled many of the trees with a shimmer of music.

Although it seems to me there are noticeably fewer species and numbers of neotropical migrants – warblers, vireos, thrushes and others – passing through our neighborhood this season than in previous years, there’s still much be appreciated. I’m often tempted to be pessimistic, but I’m not sure my observations fully reflect what’s happening, and also, there’s still much more to be discovered, on even the most ordinary day, than I usually even begin to find.

Looking Back – A Great-crested Flycatcher Pair

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

A little after noon today, a pair of Great-crested Flycatchers flew into the white oak branches hanging low over our back deck. As often with songbirds, they looked much smaller close-up than they do from a distance. A Great-crested Flycatcher is large compared to other flycatchers, and through binoculars it has a bold, flashy appearance and behavior – a proud, erect posture, with a large dark-gray crested head, a rather sturdy, pointed bill, brownish back and long wings, pale wing-bars, lemon-yellow belly, and long, cinnamon-tinted tail.

It hunts from perches, flying off to catch insects in the air, or sometimes on the ground, often flaring its cinnamon tail and calling in a loud, imperious, rolling Breeeet.

Watching these two from only a few feet away, though, I was impressed by how very small they really are, they looked slender and light – but also how much more personality shows up, especially in the dark-gray face with its dark, watchful eye and the remarkably fluid movements of the head.

One perched in a branch, the other on top of a crook over a hanging fern – then it flew to the top of an umbrella over the table, where it sat for four or five minutes, just looking around. Several times, it turned its head around – it seemed to turn a full 180 degrees, looking backwards. Maybe it wasn’t quite so far, but it looked like it, and yet it looked easy, a languid, graceful move.

Both flycatchers flitted from spot to spot around the deck for several minutes, checking out some chairs, ferns and other potted plants. Then one flew to the top of the umbrella again, leaned low, stretching out, and fluttered its wings – but the other didn’t seem interested at the moment. Then they both flew away, though not far. All afternoon I could hear their animated calls in the trees around the yard.

A Chuck-will’s-widow in the Morning

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

About 6:30 this morning, the clear, ringing song of a Chuck-will’s-widow woke me like an alarm. Close and bright, singing from somewhere around our back yard, it was a voice from the past, an echo of what summers used to be. A relative of the Whip-poor-will, a Chuck-will’s-widow is a southern nocturnal bird that feeds on insects caught in flight. From the ground or a favorite perch it sings its name over and over and over again. This one stayed and sang for several minutes – long enough to attract our neighbor’s attention and curiosity, as well as mine.

The song of a Chuck-will’s-widow used to be a regular part of summer nights around our neighborhood,* but over the past ten years they became steadily less and less common, and this is the first one I’ve heard here in more than two years, so this one is a rare visitor – though it would be an even nicer surprise if it decided to stay around.

* “No Chuck-will’s-widow on a Summer Night,” Like the Dew, A Journal of Southern Culture and Politics, October 2009.

Scarlet Tanager in White Oaks

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

This morning at first light, well before sunrise, I heard the quiet but sharp CHICK-brrr call of a Scarlet Tanager in the branches of the white oak trees right outside our bedroom windows. The call was followed by the Scarlet Tanager’s song, and for several minutes I lay in bed, listening to it sing, so close, though screened from view somewhere among the oak leaves.

It’s not a pretty or very musical song. It’s a flat, hoarse series usually of six or seven phrases that sound to me as if the notes are being flung out with some effort. But it also sounds joyous and exuberant, and because I know the singer is a drop-dead gorgeous scarlet bird with jet-black wings it’s a song I love to hear, and it’s always good to know one has returned from its tropical winter home for another season here.

A Pair of Cooper’s Hawks in Flight

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Late this morning, in a sky already a hot, hazy blue, two Cooper’s Hawks flew from one side of our road to the other, well above treetop height. One was noticeably smaller than the other, and this confused me for a moment, before realizing it must be a pair. I know a Cooper’s Hawk female is larger than a male, but I had never before seen a pair together. I wasn’t close enough to see the reddish breast or details of the plumage, but the shape of both hawks was distinctive, with large head, broad wings and long narrow tail with bands of dark and light. The rounded white tip of the tail was visible.

They flew together, in a captivating way quite different from their usual flight. It almost looked like lazy or sensual flying – rather slow, deep wingbeats, followed by a long, easy glide. They made a couple of looping half circles, not flying in a direct line as if headed toward a destination, but just flying around. When gliding, the tails were held long and narrow, the wings outstretched, and they sailed and banked and turned. The smaller bird seemed to follow the larger, almost to mirror its moves, and to stay fairly close behind it. Too soon, they drifted away toward the south, over the treetops and out of sight.

Only a couple of days ago, on Sunday, I had seen a Cooper’s Hawk sitting among the fresh new green leaves of oak trees in a different part of the neighborhood, but not too far away. I had stopped to check out the area where Broad-winged Hawks nested last year – I’m hoping they might return this year, but have not seen or heard one yet. The Cooper’s Hawk flew in and perched in the oaks, facing toward me, with the head turning to show the profile – giving me an unusually close and clear view, a perfect picture. That time I could see very well the shadowy, powder-gray shoulders and head, reddish bars on the breast, fierce eye, hooked bill, and long, rounded, banded tail, all lit by leaf-filtered sunlight. It sat there for several seconds, maybe a minute or two, then turned and flew a short distance away, into another tree where it was hidden.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird at the Window

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

By mid-afternoon the weather was very hot and sunny. I was working inside when a Ruby-throated Hummingbird purred up to the window beside me and hung there just long enough to get my attention, then zipped away. I had already seen one a couple of days ago checking out the spot on the back deck where the feeder usually hangs, and not finding it there, and I think they’ve probably been around for several days. But we’ve been traveling and busy – and, and – I just hadn’t gotten around to it.

So – feeling more than a little guilty, I got out the feeder, cleaned it well, filled it with nectar and hung it outside. I didn’t see a hummingbird come the rest of the day, but wasn’t constantly watching, and I’m sure it won’t be long.

A Prairie Warbler’s Song

Sunday, April 10th, 2011

Very late in the morning, near noon – an unseasonably hot, sunny day with a burning blue sky – a Prairie Warbler sang among the thickets of the old field just outside our neighborhood. Its husky, rising tzoo-tzoo-tzoo-tzoo-tzoo-tsee sounded like the piping of a fairy, hidden somewhere in the densest part of the weeds. It’s a subtle and elusive song, quiet and not showy, but it’s one of the loveliest and most expressive bird songs, capturing perfectly the spirit of the scratchy, scrappy, hopeful habitat in which it lives.

A Prairie Warbler is a small yellow bird with bright black streaks on its sides and less obvious rusty-orange streaks on its back. The crown and back are an olive shade, while the throat, breast and belly glow bright yellow. The face is yellow, with olive and almost black markings around the eye, and a dark streak through the eye.

It’s an active, colorful bird, fun to watch, known for often wagging or bobbing its tail. But – I didn’t see even a glimpse of this one singing in the field, though I listened and looked for several minutes. The singer stayed hidden somewhere deep in the shrubs and vines.

At home in scrubby old fields and pastures, abandoned orchards, and the edges of rough young, second-growth woods, a Prairie Warbler is a good example of the abundance of wildlife that can flourish in this kind of habitat – heavily used and abused land that doesn’t get much respect. But this is land in the early stages of succession and recovery, and many wildlife species like the Prairie Warbler depend on it.

Since about 1970, numbers of Prairie Warblers have declined, and it is considered a species of concern, largely because of habitat loss. Around our own neighborhood, ten years ago Prairie Warblers could be found during the breeding season in a large, nearby overgrown area of abandoned field and orchards, along with Field Sparrows, Blue Grosbeaks and Indigo Buntings. When a new subdivision replaced the weeds, shrubs, cedars and small pines, the Prairie Warblers and Field Sparrows disappeared, and for the past several years I’ve only heard or seen them passing through in migration. Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks have become less and less common, too.

As this Prairie Warbler sang in the remaining undeveloped land that still runs along a ridge over a busy highway, a Brown Thrasher also was singing from a perch in a scrawny, vine-choked chinaberry tree. A White-eyed Vireo, Northern Mockingbird and Eastern Towhee sang, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called spee-spee, all just barely audible over the sound of constant traffic not far away.