Archive for May, 2011

Young Male Blue Grosbeak

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

A young Blue Grosbeak male continues to sing in and around the old field. This morning under a hot, sunny blue sky, it sang from a chinaberry tree across the road, on the edge of a rough clearing, and it seemed to be singing today with a little more gusto and fluency. And this time, I was able to get a much better look when it flew from the tree, across the road and into the field, and perched on top of a weed there to sing. Its coloring is a fine, muted, parchment brown, paler on the belly, slightly darker on wings and back, and out in the open a distinct blue shows up in the head, back and tail, like a rich blue shadow. When it disappeared for a few minutes into thick grassy weeds near the ground, it gave its chink call. Then it flew from there back across the road and into one of several large old oaks.

Earlier in the morning I walked through a low, wooded section of the neighborhood where the air still felt cool, and heard the songs of Louisiana Waterthrush, Acadian Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo and even a Wood Thrush, all seeming to come from along the wooded creek. A Great-crested Flycatcher called breet. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, speee. And the wispy, insistent calls of baby birds in several different places.

One Summer Tanager sang closer to the roadside, but no Scarlet Tanager, and because I haven’t heard a Scarlet Tanager for several days now, I had just about decided they might have all moved on further north for the summer.

Then in one of the most unlikely areas – just outside our subdivision, across the road from the old field, a Scarlet Tanager was singing in the top of an oak tree. It’s not an area where I would expect to find one at all, and might not have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. But there it was, bright red with black wings in the top of the tree, singing two or three phrases of its song, then putting in a chick-brrr call, then singing again. I can only guess that it might have come across the highway from the more thickly wooded land there.

Indigo Bunting

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

This morning the sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-sweet song of an Indigo Bunting pierced the air over the old field, a small sound but somehow clear and sharp enough to stand out even above the traffic noise from the highway below.

It was mid-morning, already hot and sunny, with a hazy blue sky. Small orange and yellow butterflies flew over banks of pink wild roses, rampant among the grass, vines and briars in the field, and along the roadside bloomed tall-stemmed daisies, furry rabbit’s foot clover, false dandelions, low-growing purple stiff verbena and other small wildflowers in dusty white, yellow, pale violet, blue and red. The warm, summery scent of honeysuckle and gardenias drifted out from privet thickets and dense green shrubs.

Though the Indigo Bunting sang and sang, at first glance it looked impossible to find such a little bird in such a large, complicated expanse of shrubs and weeds and trees – but I knew it was likely to be at the top of something. After only a few minutes of looking, sure enough, there it was – standing out as clearly as its song – a tiny shape of gleaming indigo-blue against a faded powder-blue sky. It was perched in the top of a water oak in the heavily wooded section of the field, on the edge of a power cut, a small drop of sheer intensity and purity of color and song, an exquisite jewel of a bird in a rough, tough setting.

In the background, White-eyed Vireo, Brown Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Towhee and Pine Warbler sang, Northern Cardinals peeped, and a Mourning Dove cooed. A Brown-headed Cowbird high on a wire creaked a rusty, jingling call.

Where There’s a Wren, There’s a Way

Thursday, May 19th, 2011

One afternoon in early May, I almost stepped on what looked like a little pile of brown lumps by the driver’s side of our car, in the garage. When I leaned down and looked closer, the little brown lumps looked back up at me with bright black eyes.

Three Carolina Wren fledglings were huddled there on the concrete floor, and must have just come out of a nest. A leap of faith that had ended, for the moment, on a cold, hard gray floor – with no sign, perhaps, of the grass and leaves and sky they’d been promised. When I opened the garage door, one of the young birds flew immediately to the sunshine and bushes just outside, but these two stayed where they were for several more minutes, ignoring the calls of the parents. Meanwhile, another baby wren plunged down from a box on a shelf on the wall of the garage, and quickly out the door. The two on the floor finally flew out, too, with a little careful nudging. So at least four young Carolina Wrens successfully fledged from the nest and made it out to the wide, bright, dangerous world beyond.

For several days before this, we had heard peeping from somewhere up in a corner of the garage, so we started leaving the door cracked at the bottom, though now and then we forgot, and closed it again. We usually keep it closed for just this reason – to discourage Carolina Wrens from building a nest in a box or clay pot or inside an old lampshade. We still don’t know how a pair managed to get in and out often enough to raise a family, but somehow they did. They must have been coming in through cracks around the garage door that would barely be big enough.

A Young Blue Grosbeak Singing

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

In a patch of small pines and oaks on the edge of a clearing this morning, a Blue Grosbeak flitted from branch to branch, singing short pieces of its richly warbled song. It looked and sounded familiar – the large peaked head, the very large silver, conical beak and longish tail – and this is an area where Blue Grosbeaks have often nested in previous years. But something about this one was different.

Most notably, it wasn’t blue at all – certainly not the deep ink-blue of a Grosbeak with rust-orange wingbars – or even the dark gray-blue that Grosbeaks can appear to be in certain light. This one was brown. A pale brown on the belly, with darker brown on wings and head, similar to a Blue Grosbeak female – but female Grosbeaks do not sing.

I think this was probably a first-summer or sub-adult male, not yet in the full blue plumage of a mature male. There probably was some blue in the plumage that I couldn’t see because of the way it stayed mostly in the shadows of the leaves.

It seemed interesting to me that this young male was not singing the way a mature Grosbeak usually would – perched up in a treetop or top of a bush or on a wire, out in the open, singing its song repeatedly and boldly. Instead, it sang as it moved around in the trees and shrubs from place to place, staying low and screened among the needles and leaves of small trees. And the song itself was slightly different, a more casual, off and on series of fluent but less emphatic warbled phrases, fragments of the full song, and the effect was strangely more musical.

After several minutes in these trees, the Grosbeak flew across the road into low shrubs and grassy weeds along the edge of the old field, and from there began to give its hard, metallic chink call, several times. Then it flew again, into some large old oaks with privet and other shrubs around them, so I could no longer see it, but I continued to hear the chink calls.

Great-crested Flycatcher

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

After being away for most of the first two weeks of May, I returned home to unseasonably warm weather, even for here, with a string of sunny days and temperatures in the low 90s. Suddenly it’s summer. Among the familiar sounds that welcomed me home were the rich Breet and Whreep calls of Great-crested Flycatchers – one of the first things I heard when I stepped outside.

We often hear these calls in the trees around our yard, and occasionally these large, handsome flycatchers even visit the deck – like this one, which stayed around for several minutes yesterday afternoon, hawking insects from the air and also hunting around the umbrella and corners of the deck rails and windows.

The songs of Summer Tanager, Pine Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, Brown Thrasher and Northern Mockingbird also greeted me, and the spee calls of at least a couple of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers – though they seem less common here than in past years – the rattles of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, the trumpeted call of a Pileated Woodpecker, and the swishy songs of Eastern Phoebes. Chimney Swifts twittered and swept overhead. Two Red-tailed Hawks soared and circled.

A pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds comes frequently to the feeder on the deck. Red-eyed Vireos sing steadily from the woods, and other birdsong this morning included a Scarlet Tanager near the top of a tall sweet gum, a Louisiana Waterthrush along the creek, a Black-and-white Warbler in trees along the roadside in a wooded area and – finally – a White-eyed Vireo in the Old Field. I had begun to think one would not return here this season. The effervescent songs of House Wrens also have arrived in the yards of several homes around the neighborhood, bubbling like musical fountains.

Four Red-shouldered Hawks circled high overhead at one time, near noon, one or two of them crying kee-yer repeatedly, and two of the four circling up higher until they became specks and then disappeared completely, melting into the blue.

The most haunting sound of the morning was the high, clear whistled pee-eeeeeeee of a Broad-winged Hawk. It came from somewhere to the north, beyond the wooded area where a pair of Broad-winged Hawks nested last summer. I’ve been watching for them and hoping they might return, but this is the first time I’ve heard one – and I only heard it call a couple of times, and did not see it, though I watched and waited for several minutes.

Last Days of April – A Myrtle Warbler’s Farewell Song

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

On April 29 in the morning, under a deep blue, very clear sunny sky, a sweet whistled series of notes came from the green leaves of one of the oaks over our deck. The song sounded so pure and lovely I had to look to make sure – it was a Yellow-rumped Warbler in bright spring plumage, singing more fluently than any I’d heard before this.

All winter long, Yellow-rumped Warblers are abundant here, as in much of eastern North America, little gray-brown birds in drab, streaked winter plumage punctuated by a yellow patch on the rump and pale yellow smudges on the sides, frequently giving dry, colorless check calls as they fly like windblown leaves from spot to spot among trees and shrubs.

Before they leave in the spring – for breeding territories in northern and western forests –Yellow-rumped Warblers begin to fill the new green foliage of hardwood trees with gently jangling music, like delicate tambourines, and their plain plumage turns to a striking pattern of steel-gray back and wings, white wing-bars, white throat, black mask, and black-streaked vest over a white belly – and a yellow spot on the crown, and of course, a yellow rump.

For the past few weeks, their songs had filled many trees, and I’d listened to them mostly as a chorus of birds singing together. This was one of the few times I had listened to just one spring-colored Yellow-rumped Warbler singing alone, and watched as it lifted its head, parted its beak and sang – and flitted from branch to branch of the white oak. It seemed to me like a farewell song, and I took the time, for a change, to fully appreciate a winter bird I too often take for granted.

The next day I left for more than ten days of travel, and when I returned yesterday, the Yellow-rumped Warblers seemed all to be gone.

I used to know Yellow-rumped Warblers as Myrtle Warblers, a much more lyrical and fitting name, before they were grouped together with Audubon’s Warbler into one species with the sadly unimaginative – though descriptive – name of yellow-rumped. The two subspecies are still recognized, however, and this one was a Myrtle Warbler, distinguished by its white throat (not yellow). Most Yellow-rumped Warblers in the eastern U.S. are Myrtle, while Audubon’s are more common in the west.