Archive for June, 2011

After a Storm

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Well, we missed the rise of the full moon tonight. After a day that was all sunshine and heat and blue sky with high white fluffy clouds, the western sky turned into a wall of dark, bruised purple, and within minutes a fierce summer storm blew in. Somewhere between 7:30 and 8:00, a good hour before the sun would have set, it looked as dark as night outside, and trees were tossing in the wind. Then the rain came, and the power went out.

We lit candles and our one oil lamp, and ate dinner by their light as lightning and thunder snapped outside the windows, and sheets of gray rain pelted down, thrown by the wind against the glass. Later, with the power still out, we lit more candles and opened windows, letting in damp, cool air and the scent of wet green leaves, and sat down to read by candlelight. Rain continued to fall, steady but not so hard, and thunder continued to rumble for another hour or two, sounding like Rip Van Winkle’s bowling balls and pins, but more and more distant. And I realized I was in no hurry for the power to come back on. The luxurious quiet and the soft glow of candlelight seemed so gentle and relaxing, compared with electric light and TV and all the other machines.

When the power came back on, after a couple of very peaceful hours, it came with a buzz, a hum, some clicks – and sudden light that felt harsh – and the magic of the night disappeared.

Of course, no one says we have to turn on lights at night, or watch TV or run the air conditioning. It’s a tradeoff we make. A choice. But it’s not a bad thing to be reminded now and then that it is a choice, and that we do give up some things in exchange for others. For convenience, comfort, entertainment or diversion, we are less in touch with nature and with our own imaginations, and our own thoughts.

And I think what I noticed most in those quiet candlelit hours was not the more obvious absence of TV or music or even the lights, but the background noise, the constant, low, thrumming presence of machines, like a current running through me, not just through the wires. In its absence, I could feel the peaceful quiet more than hear it.

Summer Mornings

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

Less than a week away from the summer solstice, we’ve had day after day of hot, sunny, dry weather, temperatures often in the mid to upper 90s, and it’s beginning to seem less like an early heat wave and more just what summer is going to be this year.

But early mornings are beautiful – fresh and cool, with scattered birdsong that’s less exuberant than earlier in the spring, but pleasant in a slower-paced way, and often there have been surprises lately, isolated visitors passing through. This morning a Yellow-billed Cuckoo called in woods along a creek, the first time this summer I’ve heard its dry cawp-cawp-cawp, so I think it had probably wandered by from woods not far away.

Yesterday morning a White-breasted Nuthatch gave a sharp, nasal ahnk! ahnk! from the trees around our yard – a rare visitor. And down the road in another part of the neighborhood, an Eastern Wood-pewee whistled its summery pee-a-wee, wheee-oooo.

Earlier in the week, just for one morning, a Northern Parula stopped by to sing its buzzy, rising and falling trill in the trees on the edge of the woods – another rare visitor so far this summer.

Meanwhile, one of the nicest parts of this time of year – when it can seem birds are so quiet and so scarce – is the relaxed, repeated rhythm of finding familiar birds in familiar places, a daily ritual, more ephemeral than it seems right now – a Scarlet Tanager that sings in the trees all around our house, a Summer Tanager that’s often singing at the same time from the top of the large red oak on the corner, Chipping Sparrows that trill from the branches of young red maples in our front yard, the breet of a Great-crested Flycatcher from the edge of the woods, a Black-and-white Warbler singing its wispy weesa-weesa-weesa in a scrappy patch of woods on a hilltop, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher calling spee and flashing like a slender elf of silver-gray in the leaves of pecans by the roadside; the twitter of Chimney Swifts sweeping overhead; a Gray Catbird that mews loudly from big shrubs around one yard; a family of Red-shouldered Hawks whose cries can be heard most mornings in deeper woods along a creek; Barn Swallows with long forked tails that swoop and dip and streak over a large grassy yard.

In the old field, the young Blue Grosbeak now sings boldly from the tops of trees every day, its song a confident, full, rich warble; an Indigo Bunting chants its sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-chew from the tops of chinaberry and wild cherry trees, a smaller, neater, more compact song – like the diminutive bird itself – but even more brilliantly colored and bright; one White-eyed Vireo, a Pine Warbler and several Eastern Towhees sing also in the field. It seems a little strange, but that’s the only place where I usually hear a Pine Warbler singing right now.

Steamy Twilight after Welcome Rain

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Late yesterday afternoon and early evening thundershowers moved through, bringing a good soaking rain, welcome, if brief, relief in a long spell of very hot dry days that look likely to continue for some time to come. At twilight, even though the rain had cooled off the temperature a little, steam rose in clouds from the pavement on the roads, turning orange in the last glow of sunset. Rainwater dripped from the trees. Fireflies flashed low over the grass. A Summer Tanager sang from its favorite perch in a large old red oak tree down the street, and a Scarlet Tanager sang from woods along a creek in the other direction, to the east.

Two Great Crested Flycatchers Sunbathing

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

Shortly after noon today – another hot day, temperatures in the 90s – two Great Crested Flycatchers came to the sunny part of the deck, right outside our kitchen window, and settled down for a sunbath.

Sitting side by side, both lowered their bellies to the wood floor, long cinnamon tail and wings with cinnamon feathers spread out wide, big gray heads turned slightly upward, dark eyes watchful. They sat very still like this for several minutes. Feathers all over their bodies seemed to be ruffled and spread out. At times their bills were open and they might have been panting, but at other times their bills were closed. The deck must have been very warm, if not hot, and the sun was directly overhead, but they looked as if it felt good.

Then something startled them and both flew away abruptly to a nearby tree. Later – maybe an hour or so – one of them was back, basking in the sun again.

Sunbathing appears to be a fairly common activity for many species of birds, and while a number of different reasons for it have been suggested, it seems likely that sunning helps keeps plumage healthy, especially by helping to discourage or get rid of parasites.

A Black Rat Snake, an Eastern King Snake, and Two Fence Lizards

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Early June has been a good time for seeing reptiles. One warm morning a long Black Rat Snake stretched from a grassy roadside in a shady area out onto the pavement, on its way across the road, but very slowly. Its back half looked lumpy and looped or kinked in several curves. At first I thought it had recently eaten – but later read that Black Rat Snakes may wrinkle themselves into kinks when startled. It was a very fine snake, at least four feet long, maybe more, black on top and white underneath, and I was afraid it would almost certainly be run over if it stayed in the road.

It was large enough so that I was afraid to pick it up, even with a long stick. Instead, I tried to coax it back into the grass with a large leafy branch that had fallen in a recent windstorm. Probably not a good idea. This only caused the snake to coil its upper body, raise its head, swell its jaws and flick out its tongue in a defensive posture. It swiveled its head to watch me as I moved around it, trying in vain to convince it to turn around and leave the road.

After a couple of minutes, I decided I was doing more harm than good, and walked away, feeling guilty but not knowing what else to do. I noticed at least three or four cars drive into the subdivision as I walked along the road by the field, and was really afraid I’d return to find a dead-on-the-road snake – but was pleasantly surprised when I headed home to find that it had completely disappeared. Maybe once I was gone and out of the way, it moved quickly into cover again somewhere, whether across the road or not. Good!

Only a couple of days later, a big beautiful Eastern King Snake, black with a chain-like pattern of yellow, slithered across the road several yards ahead of me as I walked. This one wasn’t wasting any time – it moved very quickly across the road, swift and as fluid as silk, through some grass and into some shrubs where it disappeared as if it had never been. It’s the first King Snake I’ve seen in many years – and perversely, I wished it had not been in such a hurry so that I could get a longer look.

Both Black Rat Snakes and Eastern King Snakes are non-poisonous and generally beneficial to have around, even though they will both eat birds and bird eggs. They eat rodents, including mice, rats and squirrels, and Eastern King Snakes are known especially for being resistant to the venom of pit vipers, so they eat copperheads, rattlesnakes and cottonmouths. Although Black Rat Snakes are still considered common and widespread, their habitat is shrinking. Eastern King Snakes are still common in some regions, but in others have almost disappeared, possibly in part because of loss of habitat.

That same afternoon, we found two Eastern Fence Lizards that appeared to be in a mating posture on a large rock at the corner of an area of shrubs on a corner of our house. One lizard was on top of the other and seemed to be gripping the back of the neck of the other in its jaws – but they did not seem actually to be mating. They were frozen in position, maybe because we were there. The one on top was a much paler color, mostly fawn brown, with darker brown markings, and bright turquoise blue showing on the sides of the belly. The one on the bottom seemed larger and darker, charcoal gray and patterned in different shades of gray and black. We watched from a couple of feet away for several minutes. But when we tried to get closer – suddenly, very suddenly – they both leapt up and scurried away, in a flash, out of sight among the bushes. I think they were very briefly airborne – that’s how I see them in my mind, suspended – then on the ground. But it happened so fast, I’m not sure. It could not have taken them more than two seconds to leap and run and be gone – maybe not that long. A blip.

Queen Anne’s Lace, Purple Thistles, Cicadas, and Summer Birds

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

June has begun with more than a week of long, sunny, very hot summery days, temperatures in the mid and upper 90s, with hazy blue skies and blurry, distant clouds, and no rain. The weather’s hot and dry and oppressive, but all things considered, so far it’s been kinder to us here than in many other parts of the country.

Cicadas have begun to sing. Grasshoppers crackle and fly. Queen Anne’s lace and dandelions bloom along the roadsides, and tall, tough but brilliant purple thistles bloom in the old field, attracting butterflies like a fresh, bright Black Swallowtail I watched one morning. A Green Anole patrols the rails of the deck, and a Blue-tailed Skink slithers in and out of crevices. A pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds come often to a feeder hanging from the back deck.

A Scarlet Tanager sings from dawn to dusk, and calls chick-brrrr, weaving its way through the woods behind our house. A Summer Tanager sings in a big Red Oak at the corner, a Red-eyed Vireo in the woods, an Acadian Flycatcher down by the creek, a young Blue Grosbeak smudged with blue and a jewel of an Indigo Bunting in the Old Field – and early one morning, though it was unusual, an Eastern Wood-Pewee came by to whistle its sweet, sensual pee-ah-wee, wheeee-ooo outside our bedroom windows for several minutes.

In the long summer twilight, fireflies flash low over the grass, thunder rumbles in the distance, and bats circle over open yards in fading orange light and air that’s warm and sultry, fragrant with the scent of gardenias.

Many songs still greet the first gray light of day and sunrise, but by mid morning birds have become much more quiet and dispersed. The songs of Red-eyed Vireo, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren and Chipping Sparrow, and the Breet calls of Great-crested Flycatcher most often begin the day around our own yard, and are heard throughout the day. A Northern Mockingbird sings from the top of a tall Leyland cypress; a Brown Thrasher from the top of a pecan tree. An American Robin joins in now and then. A family of Eastern Bluebirds – parents and three juveniles – hunts from low branches and visits the birdbath, the male an always-startling flash of blue. The birdbaths stay pretty busy, and the small moat filled with water in the center of the hummingbird feeder is a popular drinking spot for Titmice, Chickadees and Goldfinch.

Over the past few days, I’ve taken a very informal count of bird species in our neighborhood for the breeding season, and have found a total of 47 species. Although there are many beautiful birds and any day can hold a surprise, I can’t help feeling that the news is mostly not too good. The trend toward fewer neotropical species, and fewer numbers of those that are here, seems to be continuing. For the first time in eleven years in this neighborhood, I have not heard or seen a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The absence of its dry, exotic call leaves the woods here feeling less like summer should.

Also missing for the first time this year are Yellow-throated Vireo and Northern Parula – two more very characteristic birds of our summer woods. There are fewer numbers of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (very surprising), Summer Tanager, White-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush and Acadian Flycatcher. In the old field just outside the subdivision, a more open habitat, numbers of Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting have been declining over the years, and this summer, there’s only one Indigo Bunting singing, and only one first-summer Blue Grosbeak male. Meanwhile, numbers of Brown-headed Cowbird, Blue Jay and House Wren have increased, and we even have a few European Starlings.

On the other hand, Great-crested Flycatchers are flourishing; a Black-and-white Warbler sings in one section of the woods, along with a couple of Louisiana Waterthrush, and occasionally I hear the fluted song of a Wood Thrush. Gray Catbirds mew their loud, plaintive calls from large shrubs around a neighbor’s yard.

The kee-yer calls of Red-shouldered Hawks can be heard most days, and they’re often soaring. Red-tailed Hawks are more likely to be out soaring over the highway or the field – though I haven’t seen them as often lately. Both Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture often perch on top of utility poles over the field.

Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, Chimney Swift, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Pine Warbler, Carolina Wren, House Wren, Eastern Phoebe, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, American Robin, American Goldfinch, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker – all are abundant. And Brown-headed Nuthatch, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker and Barred Owl are less numerous, but still around.

So really, I shouldn’t be complaining. Summer is always a rather quiet time for birds, and even though I know that, the quiet always seems to come sooner than I expect. And while it’s undoubtedly true and perhaps inevitable that significant changes have taken place here over the past decade, especially given the loss of wooded and open land in the surrounding area, there is still a great deal more to see and hear than I ever manage to find. Plenty more to learn.

I do think it’s important to note the decline or disappearance of species – but at the same time, it’s equally important to appreciate and value what is here now – the common species as well as the rare. What seems to be common today may all too likely become rare or even disappear in the not too distant future. And the greatest hope of that not happening is to appreciate and become familiar with the natural world around us, where we live. Not in some distant, special place, but here at home.