Archive for November, 2011

A Red-shouldered Hawk on a Hill

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

On the same morning in late November, in another, more wooded part of the neighborhood, a Red-shouldered Hawk sat in the very top of a tall bare tree, near the crest of a small hill. Its coloring showed up even in the rather gray light – brown head and back, black wings flecked with white, and ruddy, reddish-orange breast.

Somewhat surprisingly, there were many active small birds around in this same area too – though maybe this particular hawk is not too much of a threat to them. Although a Red-shouldered Hawk will capture smaller birds, it more often feeds on small mammals like mice and chipmunks. Still, it seemed interesting to see the large hawk sitting conspicuously up in the treetop on a hill, overlooking a wooded area below that was lively with small birds.

I could hear the calls of what seemed to be several Golden-crowned Kinglets – all around in the pines and hardwoods, and watched two flitting around in the green needles of a pine, both showing golden-yellow crowns. Two Ruby-crowned Kinglets chattered jidit-jidit­ and one moved quickly through the low branches of pines, a tiny olive-gray bird with white wing bars and a white ring around its eye – but no ruby crown showing. Several Dark-eyed Juncos were feeding in grassy spots and flew up into low branches of trees when startled, flashing the white edges of their tails and giving soft, jingling alarm calls. Lots of Chipping Sparrows also flew up from the grass like sparks. A few Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from spot to spot. One Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, with crimson throat and crown, worked on the trunk of a young oak. A Hairy Woodpecker called from nearby in the woods several times, an emphatic, repeated peenk! – as well as Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a Northern Flicker. White-throated Sparrows and Carolina Wrens rustled and called in the bushes and Eastern Towhees called chur-whee. Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice chattered in the trees.

Meanwhile, the Red-shouldered Hawk sat up in its tree at the top of the hill, just looking down on the scene around it.

A solitary Great Blue Heron flew over, its long wings slowly, steadily rising and falling, a large dark-gray silent form against the paler gray-white sky.

A Midday Break for 28 Rusty Blackbirds

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

A flock of around two or three hundred Common Grackles and other blackbirds has been a regular feature in the yards and trees in our neighborhood almost every day this November. I don’t always see the flock, but almost always can hear them sometime during the day. Among them there have been at least a few Rusty Blackbirds now and then, and on one memorable morning toward the end of the month, twenty-eight Rusty Blackbirds perched in the bare branches of a pecan tree along the edge of a yard. I think it’s the largest number of Rusty Blackbirds I’ve ever seen together, and one of the easiest to see well and clearly.

It was late in the morning on a warm, cloudy day. I could hear the loud, harsh calls of Grackles in one of the areas where they most often can be found, and as I crested a hill, I could see the silhouettes of many blackbirds in the bare-limbed trees in several yards.

They were moving in waves, a few at a time, through the trees. But in this one tree several blackbirds perched and showed no signs of leaving, even when I got very close and stopped almost directly below them. This was unusual. I counted twenty-eight birds – and all were Rusty Blackbirds, considerably smaller than Grackles, with thin pointed bills. About half were male and half female. The males looked all-black, with pale eyes, but in some I could see the rusty tinge, especially on the edges of the wings. The females were in their elegant mixed shades of brown, rust, fawn and gray, with crowns that looked reddish-chestnut, a wide buff stripe over the eye, and a smoky-dark patch and streak through the eye.

Because populations of Rusty Blackbirds have declined so dramatically and there is concern for their future, it always feels special to see them, so I stayed and watched them for at least 15 minutes, maybe more. Most were facing in the same direction, and many were preening. They made low, intimate chuck calls. All in all, it looked and sounded like a quiet midday break.

Although they had seemed to be associated with the larger flock of blackbirds, they did not move with the others but stayed in this tree, and after several minutes, all the other blackbirds had moved on and disappeared. Against a deeply quiet background then, I could hear the high, thin calls of several Cedar Waxwings in a tree across the street. An Eastern Bluebird sang some blurry notes. A Red-bellied Woodpecker and then a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker both flew into the same tree with the Rusty Blackbirds, on lower branches. A Northern Flicker’s kleer and a Downy Woodpecker’s peenk came from nearby, like sharp punctuations in the quiet. Dozens of Chipping Sparrows moved around in the grass and dead leaves in the yards.

Though I seldom get such a beautiful view of them, I finally decided it was time to leave them alone and walked on, leaving the Rusty Blackbirds still sitting in this tree, still preening and chucking softly to each other.

A Sparkling Blue-headed Vireo

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Late Sunday morning leaves showered down in light breezes under a softly-clouded sky with some blue showing through now and then. Most of the pecan trees in our neighborhood are almost bare now – after freezing temperatures and heavy frost the past two nights – but oaks, tulip poplars, sweet gums and a good many other trees, shrubs and vines still are quietly colorful.

In a wooded area along the road, I was very surprised to find a bright and lively Blue-headed Vireo foraging in pines and water oaks along with several other small birds – Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Downy Woodpecker, at least a couple of Golden-crowned Kinglets and one Ruby-crowned Kinglet among them.

The colors, markings and behavior of the Blue-headed Vireo were an eye-catching contrast to the sepia tones of the foliage all around – bold white spectacles on a dark blue-gray face and head, greenish back, pure white throat and breast and a glint of yellow showing on the sides. It was very active, moving more quickly from spot to spot than may be usual – a Blue-headed Vireo is known for foraging in a slow, deliberate, almost serene way. This one looked like a sprite, with light, quick movements so that it almost seemed to sparkle – a trick of the light. It hovered at the tip of green pine needle clusters, in what I think is called “sallying” behavior, flying from a perch to catch insects. Once it paused in a water oak with what looked like a berry or maybe a small acorn in its bill.

Blue-headed Vireos are common here in migration, both in spring and fall, but I haven’t often seen one this late in the year. This one was probably a late migrant still moving further south, but a few may stay here through the winter.

Meanwhile more than a dozen Chipping Sparrows, two or three Eastern Bluebirds and two Dark-eyed Juncos – the first ones I’ve seen here this season – were feeding in an open grassy area below the pines and oaks.

A Quiet Red-shouldered Hawk

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

On down the road, the trees on all sides became quiet. I came around a curve, walked past a tangled brown thicket surrounding several tall pines, sweet gums and oaks, and ahead, in a bare-limbed pecan tree on the edge of a yard saw the large shape of a hawk – at first just a dark silhouette, then the rich, varied tones of a Red-shouldered Hawk came into focus, with ruddy red-orange barring on the breast, brown head and deep brown back speckled with white. It sat quietly, very still, looking down. Below in the grass, five or six American Crows walked around, apparently unconcerned, and several smaller birds and two squirrels were scattered out across the yard.

Though I stopped, it was only a few seconds before the hawk spread its wings and swept low across the road, across another yard and into the trees beyond – showing its colors in flight – the broad, pale underside of the wings, reddish breast and brightly-banded black and white tail. I felt sorry to have disturbed it.

Four Rusty Blackbirds

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

A little further on, a medium-sized songbird moved around among the speckled leaves of a water oak. Slender and graceful in shape, thin pointed bill, brown – several shades of brown – it took me a minute or so to recognize a female Rusty Blackbird. She was quite beautiful, patterned in different tones of warm, rosy brown, fawn, tan and grayish-brown, with a pale buff stripe over the eye, and a dark streak or patch through the yellow eye.

She walked along a large branch of the oak, strolling along it as if it were a boulevard, looking down at the bark as she went. There was a second female – and then two male Rusty Blackbirds flew into the same tree. The males looked all-black, with no hint of winter rust in the plumage that I could see, but they were partially shaded among the leaves. The slender shape, thin pointed bills and startling, pale yellow eyes were clear. The soft chuck calls the birds exchanged were so low and intimate a sound that I almost didn’t notice them.

At one point, one of the females held a very small twig in her beak with a couple of small leaves as she strolled along a branch – maybe a bug or spider on the twig? I don’t know. After about four or five minutes, they all flew. There may have been other Rusty Blackbirds around – but these four were the only ones I saw, and they did not seem to be part of a larger flock. There was a flock of Common Grackles and maybe other blackbirds in a different part of the neighborhood, but far enough away so that I couldn’t even hear their clamor as I was watching these.

Populations of Rusty Blackbirds have declined dramatically in the past three or four decades. Some estimates of population decreases are as high as 99 percent. The reasons for their decline are not fully understood, though loss of habitat is one likely factor. Because they have become so much less common, it’s especially interesting to see and watch them.

Seeing both the Blue-headed Vireo and the Rusty Blackbirds was very unexpected – with the Red-shouldered Hawk as a bonus – especially because it continues to seem there are dramatically fewer birds in our neighborhood this fall season. Although most of our usual winter resident birds have returned, there just don’t seem to be as many of them, at least not so far.