Archive for October, 2011

A New Note from a Brown Thrasher

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Though the month of October seemed unusually quiet here, with fewer migrants and fewer returning winter residents than in previous years, there have been several interesting moments. On one of many sunny, cool days with clear blue skies and Monarch Butterflies drifting over one or two at a time, a Brown Thrasher perched in a large dogwood tree and sang some smooth, rounded notes that I’d never noticed before. Quite different from its usual long song of paired phrases, these calls were one or two syllables at a time, and they sounded different, rich and more fluid – but in between them the thrasher also gave a few of its loud, sharp chack calls. I watched as it made these calls – and I now suspect a Brown Thrasher might have been my unseen “Baltimore Oriole” heard earlier in the month, because the area where I heard it is one where many Brown Thrashers can be found. For a more skilled birder who knows all the songs well, I’m sure there would have been no confusion between the two. But I’m always having to relearn what I already knew, anyway – and wishful thinking can do a lot, too.

Brown Thrashers do have a very large repertoire – but this particular call seemed to have a quite different character from its usual song. It’s only a “new” call to me, though. The species account in Birds of North America Online, citing A.C. Bent, describes one common call of a Brown Thrasher as a “whistled teeola,” and The Sibley Guide to Birds mentions “a rich, low whistle peeooori or breeeew.” Either of these could describe the notes that I heard – notes I’ve never before noticed from one of our most familiar birds. Which only goes to show how much I easily miss.

(John F. Cavitt and Carola A. Haas. 2000. Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

(David Allen Sibley, 2000, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.)

The Songs of White-throated Sparrows

Monday, October 31st, 2011

It’s been a quiet fall in our neighborhood this year, with fewer migrating birds than usual, and muted, mostly weary colors in the foliage. In some ways the quiet of the birds has been disturbing, but change will come. And I try to remind myself to be open to seeing what’s here – and not to miss it by looking for something that’s not.

On the last morning of October, a thick quilt of gray-white clouds almost covered a chilled blue sky. The colors of fall, though not spectacular, have changed the mood and light from green to mellow orange, rust and wine. A blush of subdued rose-red is spreading over the already thin green leaves of our two red maples. Our three river birches arch tall and almost bare, with pale peeling bark and very sparse, small, dull-yellow leaves. Brown patches splotch the dense green of white oaks, and the red oaks have faded to burgundy. Pecans are turning their usual crusty, withered and curled gray-green, showering leaves in the wind.

Around some houses, more brightly colored maples, crape myrtles and Bradford pear trees light up the yards with coral and scarlet. And a persimmon tree at one corner glows deep saffron and still holds many fruits; the dogwoods droop, dusty-red and also still full of lots of red berries. Yellow, brown and dark-red sweet gum leaves litter the ground and roads like stars, scattered on a background of brown pine needles. The yellow leaves of wild grape vines twist through the edge of the woods, with a red-orange fringe of sumac. Tulip poplars still hold a mix of yellow and yellow-green leaves, and water oaks form a massed background of faded green, orange and brown. The few hickory trees in our woods burn with perhaps the most intense color, a searing golden brown.

The bittersweet beauty of the subtle, understated colors and the cloud-gray light of the morning formed the perfect backdrop for the songs of White-throated Sparrows. In the large old field just outside our neighborhood, the songs of three, four, five White-throated Sparrows drifted up from thick cover in the weeds, a sweet, whistled music associated here with fall and winter seasons. Other White-throated Sparrows flew from place to place. One perched out on the edge of a privet bush, showing off its clean white throat, gray breast, deep-brown streaked back and wings, black-and-white striped head, and touch of gold in front of the eye. Most of the songs sound a little shaky, tentative, maybe the songs of young, first-year sparrows, though apparently this is not known for sure.

The first White-throated Sparrow of the season showed up here about two weeks ago, in a privet thicket, and since then I’ve heard the sibilant calls of a scattered few from hidden spots, but this morning it seemed as if many more might have arrived overnight with the latest cold front – or maybe they just were suddenly more active. Either way, welcome back!

One Red-tailed Hawk circled over the field where the sparrows sang, and another perched on a pole overlooking the highway. Several Northern Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Northern Cardinals and Eastern Towhees called and moved around among the privet, chinaberries, dry blackberry vines, pokeweed, dead-brown grass, and other weeds.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Yellow-rumped Warbler

Monday, October 31st, 2011

During the past couple of weeks, several of our other winter resident birds also have made an appearance, though so far they seem to be unusually few in number. The high, precise ti-ti-ti calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets move through the tops of the pines, while the jidit-jidit chatter of Ruby-crowned Kinglets animates the lower branches of trees and shrubs here and there. Yellow-rumped Warblers have returned, drab, grayish-brown streaked birds that flash yellow colors as they fly from spot to spot, with check calls.

This morning a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker with mottled brown, black and white plumage and pale red smudges of color on throat and crown – a young male, I think – worked on the trunk of an oak. A Northern Flicker flew from another tree out into a burst of sunlight as the clouds began to break up, flashing its white rump, and stopping on the trunk of a pecan tree, where the patterns of its plumage glowed – black band across a spotted breast, brown face, red crescent on a gray nape, and barred brown back.

In one small dogwood tree at least seven Eastern Bluebirds fluttered around, and one pair of House Finches, all apparently feeding on red berries, making the tree look as if the leaves had wings. An Eastern Phoebe with a pretty, pale-yellow belly perched on a fence rail, and several other Eastern Phoebes were active, as they have been lately, often singing or calling tsup, tsup.

White-breasted Nuthatch

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Along a wooded stretch of road, I heard the persistent, nasal ahnk-ahnk calls of a White-breasted Nuthatch, and even though the gray light made it difficult to see details very well, I found the very small bird with short stubby tail near the top of a dead pine still full of brown needles and cones. The sleek black head, snow-white face, throat and breast, long thin bill, and head craned upward as it headed down the trunk in its classic pose – all made it clearly familiar. White-breasted Nuthatches used to be very uncommon here, but in the past year or so they have become more frequent visitors, especially in the area where I saw and heard this one this morning.

Only a minute or two after this one flew further down the road, into a large yard with many widely-spaced pecan trees, a couple of Brown-headed Nuthatches came along through the same pines, squeaking their toy-like calls – and suddenly there was a burst of activity as a number of small birds began to fly back and forth between water oaks on both sides of the road. Because of the murky light, I wasn’t able to see many of them well, but among them were Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice (the usual ringleaders), Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, one or two American Robins, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and at least one Pine Warbler.

The Cat-like Grace of a Young Cooper’s Hawk

Monday, October 31st, 2011

On a cool, sunny, breezy morning in mid-October, I was standing on the back deck when a Cooper’s Hawk swept low over the grass and up into an oak not far inside the woods, where I had a beautiful view of it through the leaves. It was a juvenile, a mottled dark brown on the back, with fine, charcoal-dark streaks on the breast, long, narrow, banded tail, white on the tip, and a dark head and slightly paler brown face, with hooked bill and gleaming eyes. Cat-like, it sat very still and watchful, with slow, stealthy movements, leaning over and stretching out, then easing back up, and turning its head. After several minutes, it flew again, not far, but I lost it among the trees.

After the Rain – Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in a Dogwood

Friday, October 14th, 2011

Our long spell of hot, dry weather finally came to an end early this week with a cloudy, cooler day and rain that began slowly. About 4:30 the next morning I awoke to the beautiful, welcome sound of heavy, steady, hard rain. It fell for hours, and continued to rain all the next day, slacking up now and then to only a drizzle for a while, then becoming heavy again. It’s the kind of rain we should get in the fall – a familiar rain, feeling tropical, dark and moody.

Although the heavy rain had passed through by Wednesday morning, the day began with deeply clouded and gray skies, and a misty rain still falling. It was almost ten before the mist faded away, leaving the air damp and warm, the ground saturated, trees dripping.

The same dogwood full of red berries, on the edge of a thicket by the roadside, was again attracting several small birds. Most of them were even more difficult to see in the gray, blurry light, but after a few minutes, a flash of black and white wings was the first sign of a brilliantly colored male Rose-breasted Grosbeak that emerged just long enough for me to get a good look, before he slipped back into the foliage – a big, sturdy songbird with black back, head and face, a large conical bill, white markings in the wings, white belly, and a splotch of deep rose-red on the upper breast.

At almost the same time, another Rose-breasted Grosbeak flew into a sweet gum tree close beside the dogwood and perched in full view for a longer time – showing a completely different look. This Rose-breasted Grosbeak was a study in brown, with a face boldly striped in brown and white, white cheeks, and finer, more tawny brown-streaked breast. Its back was darker brown and streaked, with a dull brown tail. While not so flamboyantly colored and eye-catching as the first, this one had a more subtle, varied beauty, in colors made for an autumn day. At first I thought it was a female, but later realized the tawny breast and finer streaks were those of a first-year male. Interesting, and another reminder that what appears to be obvious often is not.

A female Scarlet Tanager emerged from the dogwood leaves, softly colored in muted shades of yellow and yellow-green. And there was also a thrush of some kind – it appeared to have no eye ring and a plain gray-brown back, and dark spots very high on the breast and a pale belly. I did not ever get a clear enough look to be sure, but because of the very plain gray face, think it was probably a Gray-cheeked Thrush, and can only wish I had seen it better.

Hermit Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, Tennessee Warbler and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

September came to an end with weather that continued hot and very dry. The Autumn Equinox came and went, and day after day seemed the same – sunny, hot, dry – and very quiet. The trees and all vegetation looked parched and stressed, and – while not related to the weather, as far as I know – very few migrant birds showed up here in our neighborhood. Compared to this time of year for the past 10 years since we’ve lived here, this is very unusual. While migrating warblers, vireos, tanagers, flycatchers and other species have been reported all around this part of the state, here – there have seemed to be few and on most days none.

It’s always hard to say how much my observations accurately reflect what’s going on in the natural world – and how much they reflect my own moods and preoccupations. But I do think the number and variety of migrant species have been uncommonly fewer here in September and early October.

Two or three Eastern Wood-pewees continued to stay around for most of September, calling their sweet puh-weee, and one morning I watched one hunting from the upper branches of a small tree – a small, neat gray bird with peaked dark gray head, two white wing bars, and orange on the lower part of its sharply pointed bill. It sat erect, with tail held still, looked around with head held high, left the branch in quick, efficient, short flights to catch insects, and returned to the same spot several times.

It was not until October 7 – after we returned from a short trip and the weather had turned slightly cooler but still was dry – that I found the first small gathering of migrants, and the first of our winter resident species.

The day began about 4:30 am, when a loud, boisterous, yipping pack of coyotes passed by, not far away. Then, well before dawn, came the broken phrases of a Northern Mockingbird’s song, from just outside the open windows.

It was another sunny day, but still cool and crisp by mid-morning, so the sun felt warm, a cloudless deep-blue sky, zero-percent chance of rain.

Two small birds flew into a large dogwood tree full of red berries, on the edge of a thicket, and disappeared in the foliage. I could see the rustling of leaves – but the birds were pretty well hidden. After a few minutes, though, in a slightly open spot I could see the shape of an olive-brown thrush with a spotted breast. It raised and lowered a cinnamon tail, and then its face came into view, with a white ring around the eye – the first Hermit Thrush of the season here. It seemed very much in character to see it like this, quietly screened and framed among the leaves.

In the same dogwood, a minute later, I saw a flash of yellow, and a bright male Scarlet Tanager emerged out into the open, deep yellow all over, with black wings, and a bright red berry held in its bill.

Another, smaller bird also came out to the edge of a branch – a small, plain, olive-gray bird with a white eyestripe and rather short, squarish tail – a Tennessee Warbler. It’s not exactly the first migrant warbler of the season here, but it’s one of the first, and there have been so few it felt rare and I was delighted to see it, and watched it flit around the leaves. It seemed to be gleaning insects, but may also have been eating dogwood berries.

A few minutes later, in woods on a hillside, I heard the calls of two Downy Woodpeckers and saw a third woodpecker fly to the trunk of a tree – and when I looked through binoculars saw not another Downy, but our first-of-the-season Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. And it was a beautiful one! Vivid plumage with white and back striped face, crimson crown and throat, barred back, and sulfur tinge on the belly. It did not call, but worked quietly on the trunk of a slender hardwood, where I watched it for several minutes. Maybe because they’re one of the most characteristic winter birds in our neighborhood, where they seem to like the many old pecan trees, the arrival of the first Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers always seems to mark the real beginning of the fall season for me.

Colorful Notes from Somewhere in the Leaves – Maybe a Baltimore Oriole

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Further down the road, several fluted, clear, mellow, rich whistles came from a bird hidden somewhere in the dense green foliage near the top of a tall old pecan tree. I’m not sure, but think it was the voice of a Baltimore Oriole. I stood beneath the tree, listening for several minutes as it called, slow, short calls with long pauses in between, not a full song, but phrases, and I tried to find the singer, but couldn’t ever see it.

It’s hard to see how a bird so brilliantly colored as the flaming orange and black Baltimore Oriole could hide itself, even in thick leaves. I thought surely I should be able to catch a glimpse of orange – if that’s what it was. But I couldn’t. So I’ll never know for sure. The alluring, musical voice sounded so familiar and so distinctive – almost as colorful as the bird’s plumage – but I don’t know this one well enough to be certain without seeing it. So it’s another of those small but very common frustrations of birding – the glimpses, the broken phrases, the ones you don’t quite see.

Two Gray Catbirds

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

A few sleepy orange and sulphur butterflies fluttered over a very parched and struggling field of weeds. Goldenrod bloomed yellow on the tops of withered brown and black stems, and tall red-top grasses and a few foxtails waved along the roadside, but the whole field mostly looked tired and bedraggled and dry. A few white, purple and pink morning glories tumbled over a ditch very rough with weeds, and among them twisted a vine of tiny red-orange morning glories. A Mockingbird sat on a wire, and a couple of Brown Thrashers called out sharp tchacks.

I was a little surprised to see a flash of slate gray in a privet bush – and first one, then two Gray Catbirds came out on the edge of the branches, close enough to see the neat black caps and the orange under the twitching tails.

Two Red-tailed Hawks circled and soared overhead, screaming their hoarse cries in a very deep-blue sunny, cloudless sky.