Archive for February, 2012

Two Soaring Sharp-shinned Hawks

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

The last day of February was cloudy and warm all day, uncomfortably warm and humid by late in the afternoon, with a strong southwest wind blowing low grim clouds steadily across the sky.

Two Black Vultures soared high, and a Turkey Vulture lower, and as I was watching them fly in the wind, two small hawks came into view – Sharp-shinned Hawks. At first they both were fairly low, and they took several minutes to circle and climb until they were quite high.

They were perfect Sharp-shinned Hawks, neat and compact in shape, with long narrow tail, distinctly square at the tip; the head relatively small, the wings broad and short and slightly arcing forward. The flight of both hawks was classic – several light, quick flaps followed by a glide, then flapping and gliding again. Sharp-shinned Hawks are a joy to watch. Their flight is clean and crisp and sleek – giving an impression of intensity and focus. As they rose higher, they soared more and flapped less, and when gliding, the wings and tail were held so still, so perfect – they almost looked like toy gliders.

Much later in the day, as the last light of February faded away, spring peepers sang from down around the creek in a cloudy, windy, warm twilight.

The Song of a White-breasted Nuthatch – and a Honeybee on a Dandelion

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

A little further up the road, a good many birds were scattered out in another yard – more Robins, Chipping Sparrows, Bluebirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers, a couple of Starlings – and one very fine male Rusty Blackbird with yellow eyes and picture-perfect black plumage with a rippled shadow of rusty-brown across the shoulders and back.

A Northern Flicker called kleer! from the woods. A Pine Warbler trilled its song. Two Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered squeakily in some pines. A flock of Cedar Waxwings flew over, scattering their high, thin calls like rain. Several Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from limb to limb in the trees, calling check as they flew. One handsome male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker worked quietly on the trunk of a pecan tree.

Clouds had moved in and begun to cover most of the sky as I came to the summit of a hill, with wooded yards on both sides and a power cut beyond the back yards on one side of the road. A fluctuating nasal call came from the edge of the woods not far away, a long, repeated ahn-ahn-ahn-ahn-ahn-ahn. I knew it was a White-breasted Nuthatch, but it wasn’t until I looked it up later that I realized it wasn’t a call really, but the song of a White-breasted Nuthatch.

Along the roadside, bluets, purple henbit and yellow dandelions were all in bloom, and in one lush dandelion flower, a honeybee combed through the petals. Because honeybees face such serious threats, their populations shrinking and in peril, I’ve begun to feel it as a small sign of hope whenever I see one, and it’s strange – something that used to be so common, but we can no longer take for granted.

The Glory of a Red-shouldered Hawk

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Late in the morning on another warm, balmy spring-like day, the front yard had fallen quiet and was almost empty when I headed out for a walk. I could hear only the peter-peter song of a Tufted Titmouse, the cawing of distant Crows, and an Eastern Phoebe singing from across the street. As I walked up the driveway and down the road under an open, soft-blue sky, swept with rumpled sheets of high white clouds, a Cardinal, a Bluebird and a House Finch sang; a Red-bellied Woodpecker called its spring-time quurrrr; and a scattered gathering of Robins, Dark-eyed Juncos and Red-winged Blackbirds fed in the grass of one large yard.

But all in all, the day seemed rather quiet, and my thoughts had begun to drift off to other things as I walked through a wooded section with trees on both sides of the road, when suddenly I heard – and felt – a close, explosive kee-yer! kee-yer! A Red-shouldered Hawk burst into view right above me, at no more than treetop level – breathtakingly colorful and clear. The sky behind it was blue with sunlight shining through the plumage so that almost every feather seemed to be visible, and all the markings were vividly clear – the ruddy red breast and well-defined reddish upper parts of the wings, the checkered black and white in the outer wings, and the black and white barring of the fanned-out tail. It circled quite low a couple of times, and I think I almost held my breath the whole time. It sailed away toward the north, staying just above the treetops. I could see it in the distance and still heard its calls as I walked on.

To see such a spectacular hawk so dramatically is to be reminded of the amazing beauty and wildness that still lives here around us, not somewhere distant and pristine, but right here, in these second-growth woods around our homes and towns. A Red-shouldered Hawk is a woodland hawk, dependent on the continued existence of large enough forested areas in which it can nest and hunt. Similar to the more familiar Red-tailed Hawk, but more colorful and less often seen, a Red-shouldered Hawk may soar on outspread wings in open skies and is one of the most vocal of hawks, especially at this time of the year, when pairs are mating and nesting – or weave swiftly and quietly through the trunks of trees in a woodland. It usually hunts from a perch in a tree in the woods, well camouflaged despite its size.

Possible Brewer’s Blackbird

Monday, February 27th, 2012

In a large yard of pecan trees and grass, a blackbird shimmering with iridescent blue and green, and with a striking yellow eye, was feeding with a mixed gathering of Red-winged Blackbirds, Starlings, Robins, Chipping Sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds and House Finches. I think it was a male Brewer’s Blackbird, though I’m not completely sure. In field guides, at least, Brewer’s and Rusty Blackbirds look very similar in size and shape, and the males are both all-black – though the Brewer’s is supposed to be more iridescent, while the Rusty is a duller black, usually with a ripple of rusty color in its winter plumage.

It seemed to me this blackbird looked different in the way it stood and moved, slightly different in shape or character, in addition to the iridescence. But wishful thinking can be persuasive, I know, and since it’s much less common for us to find Brewer’s here, that might color my impressions. Brewer’s Blackbirds are more common in the west though they can be found here, while Rusty Blackbirds winter in the eastern U.S. Brewer’s Blackbirds are said to prefer open fields, pastures or suburban areas, while Rusties prefer wooded swamps. Here we have a little of both, plus an old pecan grove.

A large flock of blackbirds has continued to visit our neighborhood almost every day this winter, and I often stop to watch them. Lately Red-winged Blackbirds have been the most prominent members of the flock, but there are usually at least a few Rusty Blackbirds, as well as Common Grackles and some Starlings and Brown-headed Cowbirds. Even when most of the flock is not around, there often will be just a few stray birds like this, feeding with other species.

Two or three weeks ago I watched a blackbird flock spread out across the grass and trees in several yards, and among them found male and female Rusty Blackbirds – and some birds that puzzled me at the time, but now I think it’s very likely they were female Brewer’s Blackbirds. They appeared to be plain, grayish-brown birds with dark eyes, not pale, and not so attractively colored and patterned as a female Rusty is. At the time, I just thought maybe the light was bad and I couldn’t see them well enough.

Watching and studying a blackbird flock is a good reminder never to assume. At first glance, they all just look like blackbirds. But a closer look begins to show the several different forms the idea of “blackbird” can take – the big, glossy, noisy Common Grackles; the smaller, more slender, elegant Rusty Blackbirds, with subtle patterns of rust in the male and rust, brown, taupe, buff and gray in the female; and Red-winged Blackbirds, easily known by the red and yellow patches on the wings, and by their marshy con-ka-reeee songs; dowdy, stocky Brown-headed Cowbirds; speckled, yellow-billed Starlings – and, maybe, the iridescent blues and greens and fierce yellow eye of a Brewer’s Blackbird male, or the plain, unstreaked grayish-brown of the females.

A Pair of White-breasted Nuthatches

Monday, February 27th, 2012

The low, soft, nasal calls caught my attention at first – a constant, quiet exchange of notes. They weren’t hard to find – two very small, quick gray and white birds creeping over the branches of a bare-limbed pecan tree. White-breasted Nuthatches.

It was late in the afternoon and I’d just stepped out onto the front porch to go for a walk. The calls were not the brazen awnk-awnk chatter that usually announces that a White-breasted Nuthatch is around, but much more intimate, steady communication between the pair – staying in touch – as they foraged for food in the bark of the tree, working separately but never too far apart.

Although White-breasted Nuthatches have become more common here in the past couple of years, I still don’t see them very often, so it was fun to get this chance to watch them for several minutes. They stayed and stayed in the same tree, moving very quickly and lightly over the larger limbs, going round and round a branch, probing with long, thin, slightly upturned bills, now and then stopping to probe more deeply and flick up bark, or to raise a head and look up in the classic nuthatch pose. Sometimes they spiraled upward as they moved, sometimes down, sometimes straight around the branch.

Because it was a sunny afternoon with clear, filtered light, and because the tree was very close to where I stood, I had an unusually good view of the two small, pert birds – the blue-gray back, neat black crown, snow-white face and breast, and even the rusty smudges of color under the very short tail. The very long bill turns up slightly in a rather comical way, as if it had been bent. They were still there when I finally stepped off the porch and headed up the driveway, under a big, soft-blue sky with high cirrus clouds and balmy air, an afternoon that looked and felt like spring.

We’ve had lots of those days lately – and it would be easier to enjoy them if not for the fact that we’ve had so little winter weather this year it seems as if we’ve had no winter at all. Bluets, henbit and dandelions are all in bloom along the roadsides, the tiny bluets especially pretty, scattered in profusion over the drab, ground-hugging weeds. Japanese magnolias, daffodils and even some forsythia, redbuds and a wild plum here and there are in bloom, though the flowering trees and bushes look hesitant and sparse, as if not quite sure whether to come out – and yet, it’s so warm and the sky is so blue.

The early warmth also has many birds singing, and on this day the sun – which had come out late in the day, after a cloudy start – seemed to have encouraged a lot of activity. Before I even left the porch, while standing and watching the nuthatches, I saw or heard at least 20 different species of birds.

Two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers visited another pecan tree in the yard, one chasing the first one away. A Yellow-rumped Warbler perched on one of the feeders, and Chickadees and Titmice went back and forth from feeders to trees. A flock of about two dozen Cedar Waxwings burst up from a tree and flew away – the first of many Cedar Waxwings I later saw all through the neighborhood, two, three, four hundred in all, maybe, though I didn’t try to count carefully.

A Dark-eyed Junco and several Mourning Doves searched the ground under the feeders, a Northern Cardinal and a Carolina Wren sang, Crows cawed in the distance and Blue Jays cried. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called its spring-time quuurrr, a Downy Woodpecker called pink! and one Northern Flicker called kleer! from the woods across the street. Two Turkey Vultures floated over the treetops, a Mockingbird swooped low across the yard and into a holly bush, a couple of Eastern Bluebirds sang, and a Brown-headed Nuthatch or two began to get closer, traveling through the pines and calling squeaky-dee.

Several American Robins were scattered out across the grass and in the trees in our yards and neighbors yards – and all through the neighborhood. Like the Cedar Waxwings, they seemed to be everywhere.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Monday, February 20th, 2012

The clear morning light also brought a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker into unusually vivid view. It mewed loudly from an old pecan tree in a yard, where it was inspecting sapsucker holes that ringed the trunk. It was a brilliantly-colored male, with crimson throat and crown bordered in black, a black and white striped face, black and white barred back, and a broad white stripe down the wing. It worked its way up the trunk, checking out the holes, pausing several times to lift its head and look around, its colors and patterns highlighted against the soft blue sky.

Though I’ve seen dozens, maybe hundreds of Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers over the years, an encounter like this never fails to amaze me, that such an elegant bird can live here among us, passing most days for the most part quietly and peacefully unnoticed among the drab gray bare-limbed trees of winter. Despite its often laughed-at name, the sheer beauty of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker on a sunny morning offers one good, pure, simple reason why a birdwatcher watches birds – even birds you’ve seen countless times before.

A Morning for Hawks

Monday, February 20th, 2012

An Eastern Phoebe, Pine Warbler and Northern Cardinal sang as I walked down the road this morning, under a soaring pale blue sky with high white cirrus clouds and criss-crossed with spreading jet trails. The air was chilly, brisk, but not cold, the sun high and bright. In the east, the last big white clouds from yesterday’s long, dark rain were drifting away, crowded together like a herd. It was a morning that looked and felt and sounded like spring.

Eastern Bluebirds – sunbirds, with their colors reflecting the sky and the light – sang their blurry chorry-chorry from the tops of tall trees. Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens and House Finches sang. Woodpeckers rattled and drummed, Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered excited squeaky-dees; Chipping Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers sprayed up into flight from the roadsides.

But above all the activity of small songbirds and woodpeckers, the morning belonged to hawks – at least four Red-shouldered Hawks and three Red-tailed Hawks, at different times and places – soared and circled and cried, so glorious to watch that it was hard to look away from the sky.

The first was a Red-shouldered Hawk that flew directly overhead, flapping its wings several times, the undersides of the wings flashing pale in the sunlight, its ruddy breast glowing. I watched it flying alone – as far as I could see – for several minutes before it was joined by a second Red-shouldered Hawk and soon after that by a third.

The three soared and circled fairly low, then slowly began to make their way higher. The black-and-white striped wings now more visible, with pale crescents near the wing-tips; the banded tails and ruddy breasts all showing in unusual detail in the clear light. They circled and cried kee-yer and climbed higher. Toward the north, from somewhere in some tall pines around the edges of the woods, I heard a fourth Red-shouldered Hawk making choppy, agitated cherra-cherra-cherrra calls. A few minutes later, after the three soaring together had drifted out of sight, the fourth one flew up roughly out of the pines, still calling in what sounded like agitation. It seems likely the four hawks may have been two pairs contesting the boundaries of their territories. It’s a happy thought that we might have two nesting pairs somewhere nearby.

The first Red-tailed Hawk appeared as a small spot quite high, in another, less wooded area of the neighborhood, big, broad wings placidly stretched out wide. Less animated than the vibrant Red-shouldered Hawks, but more regal, maybe, it glided steadily up in wide circles, its dull red-orange tail tilting as it turned and caught the light of the sun. Then it drifted back down lower and passed right over me, showing the pale under side and the dark-brown hooded head.

Another Red-tailed Hawk – or maybe the same one – sat on top of a utility pole near the highway, just outside our subdivision.

Then later, as I was headed back home, two Red-tailed Hawks were circling together fairly low, and a third soared directly above but much higher, barely visible. I watched this one until it disappeared from view, just melting into the blue. The other two below gradually rose higher in big wide circles, not flapping at all, just riding on broad outspread wings, until they appeared only as small, small winged shapes that drifted off very high, toward the west.

An Elusive Hermit Thrush

Saturday, February 18th, 2012

Late on a chilly, gray, drizzly morning lots of small birds crept around in a large, soggy grass yard, searching for food. They might have gone unnoticed, moving mostly low to the ground, like wind-rustled brown grass or dry leaves. But a closer look revealed several different kinds and colors among them, the brown-streaked back and bright red-brown cap of Chipping Sparrows; smooth, rounded, slate-gray Dark-eyed Juncos with small pink bills; drab gray-streaked Yellow-rumped Warblers; the startling blue flash of an Eastern Bluebird’s wings; warm yellow Pine Warblers; rouge-red and brown-streaked House Finches; and even a gray-toned Eastern Phoebe. Pine Warblers trilled their songs from nearby trees. Northern Cardinals sang. Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice chattered and sang. A flock of blackbirds that sounded like mostly Red-winged Blackbirds, further up the road, made a constant background clamor of chucking calls and the Red-wings’ rusty, ringing ker-EEEEEE. Several American Robins were widely scattered out in treetops and neighboring yards.

One Robin and one smaller, paler bird were walking around in weedy grass along the edges of the roadside, at the foot of a driveway, and inspecting puddles of rainwater in the road. The smaller bird was a Hermit Thrush – recognizable even from a distance because of its light brown color and erect posture, the way it stands with its head up and bill slightly raised. I stopped to watch because I haven’t often seen a Hermit Thrush this winter.

Beside the sturdy, confident dark gray-black and brick-red Robin, the smaller Hermit Thrush looked almost insubstantial and frail, and its coloring intensified this appearance – compared with the bold, solid colors of the Robin, the Hermit Thrush’s subtle brown tones looked almost ghostly in the gray, misty light, the quiet appearance living up to its name. Its back was olive-brown, the tail dull cinnamon, the eye looked round and watchful, the head held erect with the bill turned up. Dark spots clustered high on the chest and throat.

For a while, the Robin kept chasing the Thrush away from whatever it considered its space, but the Hermit Thrush just scurried a little further away each time, not going far, and continued to peck in the grass and puddles, then raised its head and looked around. When I finally got too close, it flew up into the low branches of a small tree draped in withered vines and stayed there, flicking its wings, and raising and slowly lowering its tail.

Robins are easy to see. There are lots of them, and they’re out in the open, in treetops, in the grass, flying over, vocal and social – fine birds with appealing personality and a beautiful song. But a Hermit Thrush is much less common and not so sociable or vocal. Mostly solitary in the winter here, they often stay hidden in bushes and shrubs or unobtrusively feeding with other species of birds on the ground. Unlike Robins or Blackbirds, they don’t congregate in large flocks, though they do often forage in the same areas with feeding flocks of mixed species – though I’ve also often watched a Hermit Thrush in the winter – around our yard and in other places, too – that seems to follow pretty much its own individual and solitary pattern each day.

While a Hermit Thrush usually doesn’t sing in the winter, it makes a low but rich, expressive chup call, typically heard from a shrubby area or low in the branches of a tree where one has taken refuge. It’s an easy call to recognize once learned, and it’s nice to know they’re around, even when not seen.