Archive for August, 2011

Gray Hairstreak and Gulf Fritillary

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

Early in the morning not too many butterflies are out, but later in the day Tiger Swallowtail, Black Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple, Sleepy Orange, Cloudless Sulphur, and Buckeye may be around, as cicadas and grasshoppers sing. One of my favorite butterflies right now is the brilliant, burning orange Gulf Fritillary, with big silver spots on the under-wings that glitter as it flies.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zoom constantly around the feeder, and a Blue-tailed Skink slithers across the deck. A tiny green anole makes its way down a brick wall near the ferns.

This afternoon I found a very pretty small Gray Hairstreak – a tiny butterfly you have to look very closely to see well – with Fiery Skippers in lantana blooms. The skippers aren’t as quite colorful as their name sounds, mostly a dull orange. But the Hairstreak is a small jewel, a delicate, soft-gray color with two orange spots, bordered in dark spots, low on the under-side of the hind wings; a wavy orange band across the wings near the edge, and long thread-like “tails” that probe the air like antennae.

A Good Day for Woodpeckers

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

When I first stepped out the door this morning, I startled a Pileated Woodpecker on one of the oaks in the yard. It flew to the edge of the woods, where I could just barely see its dull black back and flaming red crest. It called a string of loud cuk-cuk-cuks and flew a short distance to another tree, still just barely in sight. After watching for a few minutes – and hearing hard thwacks on a dead pine, and another burst of cuk-cuk-cuks – I was pretty sure there were two Pileated Woodpeckers, one closer, the other a little further away.

A short while later in a low, wooded area near one of the creeks, I heard the strong, emphatic peenk of a Hairy Woodpecker, repeated several times, and found it working on the trunk of a broken-off dead pine tree. Handsome and tall-looking with its long, straight bill, erect posture and striking black and white pattern, the Hairy is the most reclusive woodpecker in our woods and seems to prefer the more deeply shaded, quiet areas, so it’s always worth stopping to watch for a while.

Both Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers were abundant and active this morning as almost always. For a while during the middle of the summer, Downies seemed to become very quiet and I saw and heard them less often, but lately they’ve been back out and calling again.

The larger Red-bellied Woodpecker – with its bright red cap, pale face and breast, and black and white back – is especially flashy and vocal, rattling or exchanging chuck-chuck calls. Two Red-bellied Woodpeckers this morning briefly confused me, though, when they made low, moaning flicka-flicka calls quite similar to those of a Northern Flicker – but I could see them clearly on a branch. This is not the first time I’ve heard them make this sound, though I have not found any description of its use by Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

A Northern Flicker, meanwhile, called out a loud, ringing kleer! from somewhere among the leaves in the top of a tall tulip poplar.

End of August – Female Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Wood-pewee, Northern Parula

Tuesday, August 30th, 2011

As August comes to an end, we’re having the longest spell yet of very hot, dry days. No rain at all. The whole summer has been unusually hot, but until early August, we got just enough rain now and then from afternoon thundershowers to keep things green. But now – the oaks, tulip poplars, pecans, dogwoods, pines – all of the trees and vegetation are showing signs of serious stress. And there’s no sign of relief for the next ten days, at least. The forecast is for one day after another in the mid to upper 90s, and little or no chance of rain.

Early mornings can still be nice, though, sometimes almost cool, in the upper 60s, and more bird activity each day, it seems, as early fall migrants begin to come through – and at the same time, even resident birds seem to be a little more active and vocal than three or four weeks ago.

This morning a female Scarlet Tanager flew up from our yard into a small oak and paused for a few moments among the leaves – a medium-size dusky, olive-yellow bird with slightly darker, brownish-yellow wings, and a relatively small, pointed bill.

A Northern Parula sang its buzzy, rising song from a thicket of water oaks and weeds across the street.

Further down the road, an Eastern Wood-pewee whistled its full, sweet summer song from somewhere in the trees behind a neighbor’s house, a languid, clear peeah-wee – WHEEeee-oo. Eastern Bluebirds flew in colorful bursts from grass to trees, and several bluebirds perched in the top bare branches that often stick up from pecan trees – a favorite spot in the early mornings as the sun is rising higher.

Two Pine Warblers sang loose, musical trills, one in a low, wooded area along a creek, the other in the dense pines and oaks that have grown into a small wooded patch at one end of the old field. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called spee-spee from shrubs and trees in several places. An Eastern Phoebe hunted quietly from low branches in a large yard shaded by pecan trees. Mourning Doves cooed.

A dozen or more Chimney Swifts swirled and chittered high overhead in a soft blue sky with sweeps of white cirrus clouds, and six Black Vultures soared even higher.

Two Gray Catbirds mewed raspy, whining meeeahs from shrubs in the old field, along with one singing White-eyed Vireo. One of the catbirds perched in the top of a tall, ragged pokeweed choked with kudzu, while a Brown Thrasher flew quietly to the branch of a privet bush and nervously looked around, switching its tail. Eastern Towhees called cher-wheee, and Northern Mockingbirds flashed white wing-patches as they foraged in the grass.

Carolina Wrens sang, chattered, trilled, burbled and fussed in wooded or shrubby areas. One young Chipping Sparrow begged and was fed by a parent, and several other Chipping Sparrows fed in the grass with House Finches and bluebirds. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird twittered as it zipped by, not far from my head. And most of the other usual suspects were around – chickadees, titmice, cardinals, blue jays, crows, and one pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches in some pines.

A Red-shouldered Hawk cried kee-yer – soaring very high, barely more than a small, bird-shaped spot in the sky. No Red-tailed Hawks were around this morning – but later in the day I heard the short, insistent cries of one that soars nearby most afternoons, a juvenile, I think.

The Peaceful Hum of Honeybees in Sumac Flowers

Saturday, August 27th, 2011

About ten o’clock on a very warm morning earlier this week, under a hot blue, cloudless sky, I was close to the end of a late walk – dripping wet and annoyed with myself for not getting out earlier – when I came into a shady stretch of road and became aware of a low, peaceful, hypnotic humming nearby. It was bees. Honeybees. At first I thought it might be a swarm, but then realized that a tree along the side of the road was in bloom, and was full of hundreds of honeybees, busy collecting pollen and nectar.

There are few sounds in nature as peaceful and soothing as the hum of honeybees at work. I stood under the tree for a long time, just listening and watching them come and go from the flowers, the pollen sacs on their legs packed full. There’s nothing threatening about bees at work like this – in the low thrum of the collective hum, a deep and ancient sense of harmony and well-being can be felt.

The tree was a smooth sumac, a small, rather awkward, sprawling tree, with leaves of many leaflets each, and loaded with clots of tiny yellow flowers. Bees worked over every cluster of blooms, especially on the ones most exposed to the sun. They seemed to be coming and going mostly from a thicket of trees and shrubs across the road – so maybe there was a hive in a tree there. They passed back and forth over my head.

The sound was familiar because I used to keep bees, and loved it, until I became allergic to their stings. It was fascinating, and I had enjoyed every part of it – including the honey, but also watching and learning about bees and their complex society and behaviors. Now, honeybees face very serious threats of several different kinds, most recently the puzzling and devastating epidemic of colony collapse disorder, which has caused the loss of large numbers of bee colonies in North America and Europe.

So to come across such a nice large gathering of honeybees was encouraging, as well as enjoyable, though it’s also a bittersweet reminder of how much we have to lose.

Brown-headed Nuthatch and Ruby-throated Hummingbird – An Interesting Encounter

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Late one afternoon earlier this week it was still very warm on the deck, hot really, but a strong breeze and the shade of the oaks made it pleasant enough to be out. The hummingbird feeder that hangs from a crook off the deck is a popular spot and fun to watch, not only for hummingbirds, but also for Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, American Goldfinches and Brown-headed Nuthatches – all of which come to the circular feeder to drink from water in the little moat in the middle, meant to discourage ants.

The chickadees, titmice, goldfinch and nuthatch cling to the arm of the hook from which the feeder hangs, and turn upside down to sip from the moat. They also sometimes go to a shallow clay saucer that I try to keep filled with water in a shady spot near the ferns and impatiens – but they seem to much prefer the moat in the feeder for drinking. At times, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird zooms up, backs off and hovers impatiently while a much larger chickadee or titmouse drinks.

The chickadees and titmice usually chatter loudly as they arrive and the whole time they’re on the feeder, the chickadees with long strings of dee-dee-dee-dee-dees. The goldfinches come more quietly, slipping in and away, while the nuthatches sometimes call, but are more often quiet. A pair come together and take turns, each one waiting nearby in the trees while the other sips from the moat.

On this afternoon, I was watching a quiet Brown-headed Nuthatch leaning upside down to drink, when a Ruby-throated Hummingbird male with a brilliant, iridescent throat came zipping up and hovered near the feeder. He hesitated. The nuthatch raised its head and looked at the hummingbird, then leaned back down to drink. The tiny hummingbird then cautiously, delicately settled at one of the nectar holes on the round feeder and began to sip. The nuthatch looked up again, and the hummingbird rose in the air and backed up a little – and the two exchanged a good long look. Then the hummingbird settled back down on the feeder, and the nuthatch turned back to the moat. It was only for a very few, tentative seconds, but they shared the spot.  The nuthatch took one more drink before flying away to join its mate.

In this summer’s brutally hot, dry weather, both food and water must be harder to find for birds and other animals, but I don’t know if that had anything to do with this incident of sharing – it might not have been unusual at all. But certainly the birdbaths and other water sources around our yard are pretty busy with everything from crows to hummingbirds all day long – though not often with different species sharing a spot. Bluebirds, robins, phoebes, house finches, Chipping Sparrows, mockingbirds, cardinals – and more – bathe and drink from the birdbath, but almost always they come at different times, as if by agreement of some unspoken kind.

Summerfolk – Mississippi Kites in August

Friday, August 26th, 2011

One of the few good things about the very hot humid weather of late summer here is that sometimes it brings a gathering of Mississippi Kites. When it does, they seem to me a little like the Summerfolk in a children’s book by Doris Burn – a whimsical and airy cast of characters that appear on a dreamy summer afternoon in a swamp.

One afternoon last week, around 2:30, I drove out to an area in the country where Mississippi Kites had been reported. It was hot, dry and sunny with a hazy blue sky, white clouds and orange cloud castles on the horizon. As I got close, a slim dark shape appeared in the hazy air, one kite sailing above a field, then another and another came into view. When I pulled off along the side of the road, I could see at least two dozen Mississippi Kites circling, diving, swooping up and feeding on insects over an open area of farm fields divided by bands of tall trees and shrubs. It was almost impossible to count them because they were in constant motion, like a large loose swarm, but other observers had estimated seeing around 30 kites in this same spot in recent days, and that seems about right.

Sleek, slender raptors with long wings and a buoyant, graceful way of flying that’s a joy to watch, Mississippi Kites often appear dark from a distance, but at closer range you can see the smooth gray color of the upper wings and back, a paler gray underneath, with round, very pale-gray heads that appear to be white, small black patch around the eye, a dark tail, and white edges on the wings. They flew smooth and fast, turning and circling in a wide area, a few always drifting off in one direction or another but then drifting back.

It was captivating, almost intoxicating to watch – focusing on one here, another there, a swirl of acrobatic, amazing flight. Sometimes a few came very close to where I stood, plunging suddenly toward the ground and sweeping back up with an insect in the talons, maybe a June bug, holding it up and leaning the head down to eat as they flew. Some flew directly overhead, among them a few juveniles, whose brown-streaked plumage and banded tails are as striking in appearance as the gray adults. Mostly the whole spectacle was quiet, but as they flew over, a few kites whistled a high, clear, two-syllable call, PEE-ooo, PEE-ooo.

Mississippi Kites are not common or abundant here, so it’s always special to see them, and it’s a good way to make the best of a hot, humid, withering summer afternoon. And like the Summerfolk, they eventually drift away into the haze, leaving a vague, bemused feeling of unreality about it all.

(The Summerfolk, written and illustrated by Doris Burn, was published in 1968 by Coward-McCann, Inc., New York. A favorite of our sons when they were young, it’s now become a favorite of our grandchildren, too.)

Three Northern Flickers

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Passing one of the more thickly wooded areas in the neighborhood, I heard soft flicka-flicka calls repeated, and found a Northern Flicker in a big dead broken-off pine back in the woods a way. The Flicker was standing on a branch and stretching out almost horizontal as it made these very soft, sensual flicka-flicka calls. It did this several times – then I realized there were two more Flickers, all three perched fairly close together in the bare branches of the same dead pine. Two of the Flickers faced each other, both making these calls, sometimes flaring the tail and turning the head and bill upward, and sometimes stretching out low. The third did not seem to be calling or engaging in the same posturing, at least not while I was watching. I could see them well enough to see the black crescent on the chest and speckled breast and the shape and tail – but could not see any of the faces clearly enough to see a mustache-streak, maybe because of the light. So I don’t know if they were males or females or one or two of each.

Their behavior was similar to what’s described as a “dance” or “fencing duel,”* in which two Flickers engage in a ritual of movements and calls, while a third watches. The behavior is associated with territorial defense and with pair formation, but has been observed at other times too, and apparently occurs in different situations and different ways, and not all are fully understood. The behavior I watched did not seem as intense as some of the ritual dances are described, but was like a lower-key, maybe off-season version. When I left after several minutes, the three birds were continuing their encounter. The soft flicka-flicka calls sounded gentle and expressive, and soon faded into the shadows of the woods behind me.

* Karen L. Wiebe and William S. Moore. 2008. Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

A Possible Cerulean Warbler, Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Vireo

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

The Yellow-billed Cuckoos were one of the highlights of the most active morning for birds in several weeks. Weather has been very hot and dry. Birds have been – as usual at this time of year – pretty quiet and staying mostly out of sight. But this morning temperatures had dropped into the upper 60s and the air felt cool and fresh, the sky soft blue with small high white clouds.

Three Eastern Bluebirds perched in the top, bare branches of a pecan tree, facing the sun as it climbed higher. An Eastern Phoebe gave a couple of tsup calls and flew into the top of a small scrubby tree and sat there, bobbing its tail before flying on further and singing once from another perch. This caught my attention mainly because even the Phoebes here have been so quiet and unobtrusive for the past few weeks.

From a thicket of small pines and other trees and shrubs, came a buzzy song with a distinctive pattern that I’m almost certain was the song of a Cerulean Warbler. It sang over and over – two or three quick buzzy notes then an even quicker chatter and high note. I listened and watched and tried for several minutes to find the singer – with no luck. Very frustrating – because I’ve never seen a Cerulean Warbler. I’ve listened to the recordings, and this sounded absolutely perfect. But I can’t be sure. There’s always the possibility of wishful thinking.

There definitely were two Northern Parulas singing in two different wooded areas in the neighborhood. Their buzzy, rising trills, with the tripping fall at the end, are familiar and sweet, and it’s only in the past week that I’ve begun to hear them again after the quiet lull of mid summer.

Another song not heard for quite a while until this morning was the slow, burry refrain of a Yellow-throated Vireo, with the three-eight phrase rising from the treetops somewhere along the edge of the woods. In past years, a Yellow-throated Vireo or two have stayed around throughout the summer, but this year I heard their songs only rarely, even in early spring.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers also have seemed less numerous this summer, but on most days their brisk, whispery spee-spees can be heard here and there. This morning when I stopped to check out several small birds flitting around in a small oak, one turned out to be a silvery-gray, exquisite Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Against the green background of the tree, its cool, crisp colors, slender, upturned tail, and bright white eye-ring caught the light and it almost looked as if it were made of glass.

The Old Field just outside our neighborhood looks parched and battered by the long very hot summer. Even the kudzu has not spread far and its leaves look limp. The Indigo Bunting and Blue Grosbeak that sang until late July have fallen quiet or maybe even left. I haven’t heard them since we returned from a trip in early August. Several Mockingbirds are active, but not singing; Brown Thrashers occasionally give loud smack calls but are pretty much lying low. But a Gray Catbird whines a loud, rasping meeew from privet thickets, Eastern Towhees call cher-wheee, and this morning for the first time in weeks, a Pine Warbler sang its loose, musical trill from the dense stand of pines and oaks at the south end of the field. A White-eyed Vireo also sang – one of the few birds here, along with Carolina Wrens, that has continued to sing all summer, though this year there seems to be only one White-eyed Vireo, not several as in previous years.

Morning glories have begun to bloom on vines in a roadside ditch by the field – deep purple, pink and white, despite the heat. A very few butterflies flit over the weeds – lemon-yellow Sulphurs, a Buckeye, a burning orange Gulf Fritillary, a low-fluttering Sleepy Orange.

Two Yellow-billed Cuckoos

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011

Early this morning, not long after sunrise, the drooping, dark-green leaves on a low-hanging branch of a persimmon tree rustled and out came a sleek brown head, bright eye and long, down-curved yellow bill, and a creamy white throat and neck and breast – a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. In its bill it held a very big fat dark caterpillar, which it slowly ate.

The Cuckoo was only a few feet away from where I stood on the side of a road, and almost at eye level, and it stayed in view, moving around, so close I could see it unusually well  – the dark top of the yellow bill, the pale yellow ring around the dark eye, the soft suede-brown color of the plumage on the back and head, with deep-reddish tinges in the wings, and the long startling tail with big white spots against black, on the under side.

I watched for two or three minutes as it ate the caterpillar and searched the branches and leaves for more, before realizing that there was also a second Yellow-billed Cuckoo in the same tree. For a couple of minutes both were in full view, though just inside the branches of the persimmon tree – which is heavy with fruit – and shaded by its leaves. Both were quiet.

On several days earlier in August I’ve heard the dry, exotic call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo from somewhere deep in the woods, but this is the first time this year I’ve seen one – and to see them so close and so clear was memorable. Especially that first surprising view as it emerged from the leaves.

The dramatic call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo is one of the most characteristic sounds of a southern woodland in summer, though the birds are secretive and not often seen, and their presence to me is a vivid example of the diversity of wildlife that still depends on these struggling second-growth woodlands for habitat.

It’s also encouraging that they still can be found here, because unfortunately, populations of Yellow-billed Cuckoos are declining rapidly,* most likely because of fragmentation and loss of the habitat they prefer – open woodlands near creeks or rivers, with clearings and low, dense shrubs and other vegetation. This kind of habitat here is steadily disappearing in the path of urban and suburban development.

*Janice M. Hughes. 1999. Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.