Archive for December, 2011

Cedar Waxwings in Cleyeras

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Around four o’clock one sunny, cool afternoon last weekend, I noticed some birds in the trees outside one of our windows, and when I cautiously pulled up the blind, a tiny, bright Ruby-crowned Kinglet was moving through the branches of a water oak right at eye level, not three feet away. Its ruby crown didn’t show – but it was spritely and pretty, a clear gray-green, with white wingbars and white ring around the eye.

Further out in the yard, Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice were going back and forth from trees to both of two feeders. White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos scratched in the leaves below the feeders and around the shrubs. Chipping Sparrows were feeding in the grass up near the roadside. Several Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from spot to spot in the trees, and House Finches perched on branches and visited the feeders. One Eastern Phoebe hunted from low limbs. Two Downy Woodpeckers checked over the bark of an oak, and a female Eastern Bluebird preened on a branch in the sun.

Two Yellow-rumped Warblers and one male House Finch perched together on the rim of the bird bath, sipped water, hopped in and out – and then one Yellow-rumped Warbler and the House Finch both plunged all the way in and fluttered their wings and bathed vigorously. This time of day – around 4:00 in the afternoon – often seems to be a popular time to come for baths, and though no bluebirds were here while I was watching this time, they’re among the most frequent afternoon bathers.

The most colorful part of the party – at least from my perspective in a second-floor window – came when about a dozen Cedar Waxwings suddenly appeared in a rush and flurry – almost hurtling down out of nowhere – into three large cleyera bushes close to the house. They dived into the glossy green leaves and rustled around so that the bushes were all aflutter with them. Three or four at a time came out into view, then disappeared again, and one emerged and sat briefly still and stunning – an unusually close and beautiful view. The taupe-brown plumage looked so smooth it might have been polished. On the face, feathery lines of white edged the black mask; an enameled drop of red touched the wing and yellow rimmed the tip of the tail. Altogether I could only breathe, “wow.” They did not stay long enough.

This is the most activity I’ve seen around our front yard so far this season. Many days this fall I’ve looked or stepped outside and could see or hear not a single bird – something so unusual I still am puzzled. This is the first year ever when there’ve been so few birds so often. So it was a particular pleasure to watch all this activity, and my only complaint was that I could hear nothing, because the windows were closed, and felt sure I was missing still other birds. But to open a window, even a crack, or to go downstairs and out the front door, would have sent all the birds flying, so I just enjoyed a silent show. The one exception was a pair of Carolina Wrens in nearby branches. The male’s full-throated song and the female’s rich trill came right through the glass – quite unlike the small chips, mews, peeps, chitters and other dry sounds of most of our winter birds.

Sunny Pine Warbler in a Feeding Flock, with Chipping Sparrows and Phoebe

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

On the same morning in early December – mostly quiet all around – a feeding flock of several dozen small birds spread out across a large grassy yard under several pecan trees, rustling around like dry brown leaves, so low to the ground and kind of in the shadows, they were all but invisible, even though there were so many. I might not even have seen them except for one bright yellow Pine Warbler among them that brought them into focus – lots of Chipping Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, several Eastern Bluebirds, a few Dark-eyed Juncos and House Finches swarmed over the grass, creeping and pecking. Two Carolina Wrens trilled and burbled around the trunk of a tree. An Eastern Phoebe even fed on the ground with all the other birds, searching the grass and leaves, foraging like the sparrows, making me wonder if maybe the cold of the early morning had made ground insects sluggish and easy pickings.

Then something startled part of the flock and Chipping Sparrows, Bluebirds and Finches flashed up, several at a time, into the low branches of nearby small trees. Dark-eyed Juncos scattered into a thicket, jingling with low, muffled alarm calls. Yellow-rumped Warblers fled in all directions, calling check as they went. The Phoebe flew to a low branch, bobbed its tail, and flew off to hover at a small hollow in the trunk of a tree, coming away with an insect, probably plucked from a spider’s web there.

Two Red-tailed Hawks

Sunday, December 11th, 2011

About ten o’clock on a cold, sunny December morning, with a crisp blue and white sky, two Red-tailed Hawks sat in the upper branches of a large red oak just down the road from our house. This red oak is a favorite perch of many birds, including a Scarlet Tanager that sometimes sings there in the summer. The oak stands alone at the crest of the hill, spreading its craggy branches wide and dominating the view.

The limbs of the red oak are completely bare now, and the large, pale shapes of the two Red-tailed Hawks glowed softly against the blue sky, visible from some distance away. One faced toward me, and toward the sun, as I walked by. The other – slightly smaller – sat very close to the first, on a little higher branch, its back turned toward me, but its head in profile. They sat quite still as I passed, and did not fly even when I stopped to lift binoculars for a closer look. A loose band of dark brown streaks crossed the broad, cream-toned chest. The head and back were dark brown, flecked only a little with white – the plumage looked almost smooth. I didn’t linger long because I didn’t want to disturb them.

When I came back, after more than an hour, the two hawks were still there, sitting in the same spot, though now they both faced in the same direction, toward me and toward the sun. The size difference now was even more apparent – and I assume it was probably a pair, the female noticeably larger than the male.

I stayed outside for almost an hour longer, sitting in a chair on our front porch, watching the hawks and watching other smaller, busier birds around the feeders and bushes in the yard. When I went inside at noon, the two hawks still were sitting in the same place in the Red Oak tree.

Their quiet, majestic presence impressed me, in part because they stayed so long, and in part because their patience stood in such contrast to the way I usually feel – busy, with a long list of things to do for the day, and a constant process of figuring out what to do when and how long I can spend on each errand or task, and almost always feeling as if there are not enough hours in the day. But here were these two big hawks – spending hours on a cold, bright morning sitting peacefully in the sun, and watching. Their presence felt calming and wise.