Archive for January, 2012

Eastern Towhee Singing

Monday, January 30th, 2012

Early on a clear, spring-like morning in the first week of January, the sun was just about to rise as I walked up the driveway for the Sunday paper. The air felt barely cool. The grass and shrubs were wet from light rain overnight. Several small birds chattered and flew around the front yard – all the usual suspects, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren and Downy Woodpecker. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew into a Savannah holly right beside me, flashing a sliver of red on its crown. A Mourning Dove flew up on whistling wings from the ground. Dark-eyed Juncos fled from spot to spot among the dark leaves of wax myrtles along the driveway.

But the clear highlight of the morning was an Eastern Towhee sitting near the top of a large crape myrtle by the mailbox, singing Drink-your tea! Drink-tea! Drink-your-tea! The song was musical and ringing, with a light, delicate quality that seemed a little different from the Towhee’s usual rich, mellow tones – but maybe it was the setting, the fresh, early-morning light and air. In big, bold patches of color – coal-black back and head, red-orange flanks and white belly – the Towhee glowed like a bright flag caught among the dry, pale brown branches in the top of the bush.

He sang, apparently undisturbed, all the while I sauntered up the driveway, stopped right beside the crape myrtle and picked up the paper, and walked back down the driveway to the porch.

Since then he’s been singing from the same spot almost every morning – at least every morning when I’ve been up and out early enough to notice. Occasionally, a female Towhee joins him in the branches of the same bush, or – more often – she sits nearby, screened among the leaves of the wax myrtles.

For some reason, Eastern Towhees are songbirds I far too often overlook. Often when I’m making notes about the birds I’ve seen on a walk, a Towhee is the last bird I think of – the one I’m most likely to forget. And I don’t know why. It’s a beautiful bird, with its striking colors and dark red eye – black, red-orange and white in the male; warm brown, a more subdued red-orange and white in the female. Its song is one of the most familiar and pleasing birdsongs, confident and strong, as bold as its colors – but more nuanced, with a richly trilled quality to the notes. And its calls are equally nuanced – a full-throated, burry chur-WHEE, and a good many interesting variations.

The easy answer to why it’s often overlooked is that Towhees spend most of their time hidden in or under thick shrubs and underbrush. The sound of their scratching in the leaves, searching for food, is often the only way you might know they’re around. But that’s true of a lot of birds I don’t overlook, many are more often heard than seen. Somehow it seems to me that even though their songs and calls are so familiar a part of the background, for some reason Eastern Towhees don’t usually stand out. They blend.

Eastern Towhees are widely distributed, and are year-round residents here. I’ve found them in shrubby habitats everywhere from the southeastern coastal marshes, to the top of mountains in North Georgia. I well remember sitting on the top of a mountain after a hike one rainy morning in the spring and listening to an Eastern Towhee sing – after a moment of puzzling over what the birdsong was, because we weren’t expecting to find one there – one of the most familiar of birdsongs, but we didn’t immediately recognize it. They’re at home in rural old fields and pastures, and in suburban yards, but even there, they are perhaps not so much noticed as other birds like cardinals and mockingbirds.

I’m not sure how they do it, with their plump, fairly large size; bold, bright colors; animated behavior with intriguing personality; plenty of noisy scratching in the leaves, and full-throated, frequent singing and calling – but they really know how to blend in with their surroundings, in quite remarkable ways.

Barred Owl on the Winter Solstice

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Early evening on the Winter Solstice, December 22 of last year, was dark gray, misty and wet. A warm rain had fallen for most of the day but had stopped for at least a short break. The bare branches of oaks, tulip poplars and pecans stood black and bleak against low, foggy clouds. Crickets were singing, grass looked green even in the fading light, and lots of small birds foraged in grassy yards and flew from tree to tree, most of them little more than dark, indistinct silhouettes, though I’m sure there were Chipping Sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds, House Finches and maybe Eastern Phoebe and Pine and Yellow-rumped Warblers. I heard the soft ringing jingles of Dark-eyed Juncos, and the clear bright mew of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, the chatter of Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees, chips of Yellow-rumped Warblers, tseets of White-throated Sparrows and peeps of Northern Cardinals, the songs and trills of Carolina Wrens and rattle of a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

I was on my way home from a late afternoon walk, passing through a lane of trees and bushes where sparrows, cardinals, towhees and thrashers were still scratching around in the leaves under shrubs, when I heard an agitated chattering of small birds behind me. I turned around and saw a very large dark shape on a bare branch of a pecan tree at the edge of the road. At first I thought it was a hawk – but when I lifted binoculars was amazed to see a Barred Owl.

There was no mistaking it. The head was big and round, with round patterns around the eyes – no neck, a large, stocky body, with streaks on the breast and indistinct bars in the wings. The feathered head and round owl face looked spectral and hypnotic, other-worldly, especially in the gray, misty light.

The Owl looked my way and seemed to lower its head and push it forward – in the way owls do – then it turned away. I watched. And watched. It did this several times, looking toward me and then away, and I could not take my eyes away from watching. Meanwhile, a car drove past. The Owl did not fly. Several small birds fussed in a flurry all around, but none of them came close to the Owl. They kept their distance.

After several minutes, an SUV drove past, and I took that chance to try to walk a step or two closer – and the Owl spread its big broad wings and flew. I had an impression of grayish-brown and white streaks and barring, and maybe of a banded tail, and of the big round, muscular-looking head – it flapped its wings, then glided quickly out of sight, into the misty gray trees between our neighborhood and another.

It was a beautiful gift on a Winter Solstice evening, and one that I thought of often during the rest of the busy season, an antidote to the bright lights and noise of stores and shopping malls and highways where I’d been spending most of my time. Not long after I got back home and inside, the rain began again and continued, often steady and hard, for several hours, bringing in slightly cooler weather, though still unseasonably warm. Around midnight, I could still hear crickets singing through the rain.

An American Kestrel at Sunset

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

So far this season, it’s been almost a year without winter. We’ve had a few good spells of freezing weather, with temperatures in the 20s, but most of December and January have seemed unusually mild, many days with temperatures in the 60s. For me it’s also been a period with unusually little time for birding – but there have been a few memorable sightings and days.

For the 2011 Christmas Bird Count December 17, with friends from the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society, the weather could not have been better – clear and cold in the morning, sunny and a little warmer for the rest of the day. Our count included a Hermit Thrush, at least two White-breasted Nuthatches, a good many Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, a Cooper’s Hawk, a Hairy Woodpecker, four Field Sparrows perched together in a bush as if they were posing for a picture – and stunning, closeup views of a Red-shouldered Hawk sitting low in the branches of a small tree near the Oconee River, early in the morning.

But the highlight of the day for me came at the very end, as the sun was going down. On a high utility wire over a large, quiet field of weeds and tall grasses and briars – and full of sparrows – sat an American Kestrel.

When my friend Marianne Happek and I first saw it, I thought it was a Mourning Dove – embarrassing to admit, but true. It was silhouetted against an orange sky, with the sun about to go down. “No – look at the head,” Marianne said. “It’s not little. And the tail. It’s a Kestrel.”

And so it was – when we walked to a spot with a better view, I could see it then. And it stayed in the same spot, perched on the wire overlooking the field, for 30 minutes or more, the whole time we were at this location. We had come there looking for sparrows, mainly – and found many, including White-throated, Field, Song and Savannah Sparrows. But while Marianne waded with determination into the briar-filled weeds in search of more sparrows and better views, I stood on the edge and mostly watched the Kestrel.

My view of it was never very clear, because of the light, but as the sun went down, its back and tail glowed russet-red. It was a small but almost chunky bird with a very long tail and what appeared to be rather long folded wings. Once it fanned its tail, preening, and the last rays of the sun shone through the orange-rufous feathers. Bold black patterns marked a white face. Even though I felt frustrated not to be able to see all the details more clearly, especially the vivid colors of its plumage, it was still a rare sight, especially in the magical light of sundown and twilight, with the quiet sounds of the sparrow field below.

The sun went down and light faded quickly, from orange to paler orange and buff and soft gray. The tseet, chink, tsit, and chip notes of sparrows came from the grasses and weeds, birds settling in for the night. When we finally left, calling it a day, the Kestrel still perched in the same spot on the wire.

Field Sparrow on a Foggy Morning

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

A small gray head striped with soft, reddish-brown was all I could see at first, the top part of a small brown sparrow scratching around in a matted pile of wet leaves in the corner of a yard, with three Dark-eyed Juncos. As the rest of the little bird came into view, I saw what I had suspected, and was pleasantly surprised to find – a Field Sparrow.

As their name suggests, Field Sparrows used to be so common in the pastures and old farm fields around here that I paid them little attention. Now they’ve become much less common here because suburban development has replaced much of the brushy, second-growth habitat they prefer. Although still considered common, their populations are declining throughout most of their range in the eastern U.S.

A Field Sparrow is a study in muted colors. Often described as dull and drab, it can easily blend in with the scrubby, grassy kind of habitat it prefers. But a closer look shows subtle coloring in earth tones with the look of soft-brushed suede. The dove-gray head and face are marked with stripes of warm sienna. The back and wings are darker brown and streaked, with reddish tones, the breast is a plain, pale gray or buff. A thin white ring around the eye gives it an alert look. Its small pink bill and pink legs are distinctive, and among the easiest ways to identify it. The tail is rather long.

Altogether its appearance is quiet and gentle, though I don’t know if its behavior reflects this look. Its song is simply lovely – a clear, light whistled series of notes that start out long and slow, teew – teew – teew, and build into a rapid crescendo of silvery bouncing notes, like a ping-pong ball. It’s a sunny, airy song that dances up over an old field or pasture in the summer like a butterfly.

This one was quiet, of course, in the winter, moving with quick, delicate focus, flicking small pieces of leaves and debris aside with its bill, searching for food.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

On a cool, spring-like morning big sweeps of cirrus clouds spread across an open, soft-blue, sunlit sky. A small, compact hawk with a long slender tail was one of the first birds I saw as I started out on a late-morning walk. Flying just over the treetops it came toward me and circled around, directly overhead – a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Its compact shape, with relatively small head, broad wings that arch slightly forward, long narrow tail with a very thin white band at the squarish tip – all could be seen with unusual clarity and detail. It’s one of the best and longest views I’ve ever enjoyed of a Sharp-shinned Hawk. Its head looked brown, the breast ruddy-orange, the wings richly barred in black and white, the tail with bands of dark and lighter gray, white on the tip. Once it fanned the tail out as it circled, but most of the time it was held long and narrow.

As it flew, its long thin legs were not tucked up against the body, but were held slightly out, as if kind of trailing along.

Its pattern of flight at first was a quick flap-flap-flap – glide, and as it began to make wide circles and climb, it flapped less often and soared on outspread wings, swiftly rising higher, until it was barely a sliver in the blue.

It looked like a good day for soaring. A little further on, in a more heavily wooded area of the neighborhood, I heard the kee-yer calls of a Red-shouldered Hawk from somewhere not far away, maybe hidden by the tree-line.

And several minutes later, three Red-tailed Hawks soared and circled, at least one of them hoarsely screaming, maybe because they were being harassed at first by several cawing Crows. As the Hawks climbed higher, the Crows seemed to lose interest and drifted away. The Hawks looked glorious, their deep brown backs, pale undersides and dull-red tails glowing.