Archive for March, 2012

Two Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

Also this morning at the State Botanical Garden – late in the morning on another cloudy, warm day – a path was lined with cherry trees in filmy pink bloom, full of the peaceful humming of honeybees.

A little further on, I stood on a slope overlooking a large open area of graveled paths, small trees and other plantings, a part of the Heritage Garden, I think. It turned into a charmed few minutes there on the hill, because five or six Northern Rough-winged Swallows began to fly all around me, circling over the open area, often below me or at eye level, dipping and climbing, and sometimes coming very close to where I stood, close enough to see them well, even though they never were still – the plain brown back and wings, pale belly, and squarish tail, dark on the tip. They were mostly quiet, only a few times making small, low chirping calls.

As I watched the swallows, I began to hear the calls of a Red-shouldered Hawk from the trees beyond the open garden area. The calls were the choppy, agitated er-er call, not the soaring kee-yer. Soon I could see two Red-shouldered Hawks in the trees, continuing to make choppy calls and taking short flights, stopping in trees in between flights, raising and flapping their wings while perched. Then they both flew and circled a few times directly overhead, so I could see them very well, and they clearly were juveniles – very pale underneath with bold brown streaks. They went back to perch in the trees. After maybe 10-15 minutes of these short flights and perching, a third Red-shouldered Hawk flew in, and this one was an adult with a reddish breast, and it was calling kee-yer. The two juveniles appeared to join it and all three flew higher and drifted out of sight.

Because of their behavior, I couldn’t help but wonder if these might have been recently fledged juveniles, even though I knew it was very unlikely – and when I checked with other, more knowledgeable birders with the local Audubon chapter here, they confirmed that late March would be way too early for Red-shouldered Hawks to fledge here.

The most likely and obvious explanation is that these were juveniles from last year, still in their juvenile plumage, which they keep for approximately 18 months. While their behavior seemed puzzling to me, I’m sure there are many possible explanations. It was interesting, and memorable.

A Female Common Yellowthroat

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

At the State Botanical Garden again, late this morning, from a thicket close to the river came the distinctive “clicking marbles” call of a Common Yellowthroat, a call something like a bright, sharp tschick. The bird was hidden somewhere deep in a dense tangle of shrubs, but continued to call, so I could follow it as it moved. Now and then I could see a rustle of leaves and vines where it was – and finally a female Common Yellowthroat came out into full view for several moments. A softer, less flamboyant version of the male, she was lovely – with no black mask, but a yellow throat and chest, pale belly, olive back and wings, and thin white eye-ring.

It was especially fun to recognize the call, after not hearing it for some time now. My friends Marianne and David – who both taught me so much – were always very good at hearing it, but I was never quite sure until this morning, when I recognized it immediately. I haven’t been able to find it described anywhere else as sounding like “clicking marbles,” but this was David’s description – and it works.

Hermit Thrush, Northern Rough-winged Swallows and Eight Species of Warblers at State Botanical Garden

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

On a warm, cloudy morning with very gray light, a friend and I were greeted by the songs of a Black-and-white Warbler, an Eastern Phoebe, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and several Yellow-rumped Warblers when we arrived at the State Botanical Garden in Athens. The gray light made it a little hard to see birds all morning, but it was a very nice walk, rich with birds all along the way, and the perfect way to welcome the spring.

Eight warbler species were singing – including Northern Parula, Louisiana Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, and Yellow-rumped, Yellow-throated, Pine and Black-and-white Warblers, and one Hooded Warbler. Several White-eyed Vireos sang in shrubby areas along the river, and at least one Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called a spritely spee-spee.

Two brightly colorful Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers went round and round the trunk of a tree just inside the woods, one chasing the other, for several minutes – fun to watch. A wide-eyed and watchful Hermit Thrush came out from under a shrub to forage with White-throated Sparrows. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet flitted from branch to branch in a small tree, very close by. Two Great Blue Herons flew over, slowly, majestically. Northern Rough-winged Swallows swept low over the open garden areas. A Pileated Woodpecker trumpeted its call. And an amazing number of Cedar Waxwings flocked almost everywhere.

In the beaver pond area, we caught a glimpse of the bright yellow throat and black mask of a Common Yellowthroat that was singing and singing from a tangle of shrubs. A Swamp Sparrow came out to walk along a strip of dry mud. A Louisiana Waterthrush flew directly over us, low and singing, and a little further on, we watched another inspecting tree roots along the banks of a creek.

A Black-and-white Warbler in Foggy, New-green Woods

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

This morning the filmy hint of green that’s been hovering in the woods the past several days came out into new green leaves on many of the trees – mostly the water oaks, sweet gums and tulip poplars, I think. All of a sudden now, the woods look green again, instead of bare gray, though the foliage is still young and scattered and thin. A light fog hung among the trees, and a Black-and-white Warbler was singing in the white oaks close to the house. This time I could see it very well on the still-bare limbs of the oaks – a small, slim bird, crisply black-and-white striped all over, creeping over the branches, searching for food. It captured a long, wiggling caterpillar, and took several tosses of its head and snaps of the bill to consume it all.

A Pine Warbler sang nearby, a Mourning Dove cooed, a Red-bellied Woodpecker called a musical quuurrrr.

White-eyed Vireo

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Later in the morning a White-eyed Vireo sang in a vine-covered thicket in the old field – another first-of-the-season returning songbird. Its percussive chick-peri-ooo-chick! song rang out loud and strong, but I couldn’t quite see the bird. From a rustling of movement in the tangle of vines and leaves I could tell where it was, but could see no more of it than a glimpse of a shadowy gray wing with white wing bars. It sang and sang, but stayed hidden away, deep in the weeds, so I could only imagine, but never see the gray-green bird with bright yellow “spectacles,” white throat and lemon-yellow sides.

Dawn Songs on the Spring Equinox

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

At 7:00 this morning, about forty minutes before sunrise, a full chorus of birdsong was well underway. I celebrated the Equinox in a very lazy way – by lying in bed and sleepily listening through open windows, one of the most luxurious and pleasant ways to start a day. Many birds were singing, among them – Eastern Phoebe, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee – singing an especially pretty and rather delicate Drink-your-tee and also Drink-tee – Eastern Bluebird, Pine Warbler and a Chipping Sparrow singing its dawn song – short bursts of light trills.

Most of the birds singing were year-round residents here, but among them were at least two winter residents, too – the quick, sharp, complex song of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and the slow plaintive whistles of a White-throated Sparrow. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed several times as it seemed to move from tree to tree, very close to the house.

A Louisiana Waterthrush sang from down in the woods around the creek – the only returning summer songbird in the mix.

The dominant singers, however, were two Brown Thrashers – one singing in our next-door neighbor’s yard, and the other, I think, sang from the top of a tall, slender river birch on the far side of our front yard, where I saw it still singing later in the morning. By 7:30, the full flush of birdsong had faded, though singing continued in a more scattered way. Ten minutes later, I was out on the back deck in time to see the sun rise – a rouge-red, shimmering ball, with no clouds around, drifting up into a clear blue sky.

Black-and-white Warbler

Monday, March 19th, 2012

This morning, on the last full day of winter – though winter weather has been a distant memory for several weeks now – a Black-and-white Warbler sang its high, sibilant weesa-weesa-weesa in a wooded area near a creek. It was the Black-and-white Warbler to appear this season here in our neighborhood. It was too far away and backlit by the sun, so I could only see its silhouette as it crept over branches and flew from tree to tree, but once it paused on a short stub of a branch, lifted its head, parted its bill and sang again.

A Yellow-throated Warbler

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Early this afternoon a light green haze of new leaves coming out seemed to hover in the woods on the edge of our back yard. The sun felt very warm – mid 80s again, I think – and there’s no shade yet from the oaks beside the deck. But almost all of the trees are showing some signs of leaves or buds already. Water oaks, sweet gums and tulip poplars have new green or yellow-green leaves, and even the white oaks show a flush of color and small buds on the highest branches.

Yellow-rumped Warblers seemed to be everywhere, flying from tree to tree, with dry check calls scattering as they moved. A Cardinal sang, and a Carolina Wren, a Pine Warbler. An Eastern Phoebe hunted quietly from low branches and sometimes from the deck rail. Titmice, Chickadees and Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in the pines. A Green Anole with a very long, thin tail scuttled toward the ferns. Carpenter bees, wasps, and butterflies drifted by.

Everything seemed lazy, warm and perfect for a nap – and then a very sweet, clear song appeared in the woods not far away, and came closer. It’s a song I never can manage to remember – there’s something elusive about it for me – so when I found the singer among the needles of a tall pine, its flashy yellow, black and white plumage was a sudden surprise, as it always is – a crisp, intensely colorful bird against the hazy background of the day. A Yellow-throated Warbler.

A small, slender, willowy bird with a long thin bill, a Yellow-throated Warbler has a black and white striped face, white belly, and very bright yellow-gold throat and upper chest. Its back is gray, with white wing bars, a white spot on the side of the neck, and black streaks down white sides under the wings.

Well-named, I guess, though the name seems too plain and doesn’t fully capture its flare and spirit – the Yellow-throated Warbler crept quickly over the branches of the pine, searching through clumps of needles, and several times flew up to hawk an insect from the air. After four or five minutes in the pine, it flew further into the woods and out of sight, but it seemed to stay around because I heard its song again, two or three different times, later in the afternoon.

A Field Sparrow’s Quiet Complex Song

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

The most interesting find of the morning was a Field Sparrow singing in an oak tree in an overgrown area across the road from the old field. Its song first caught my attention as I was walking past – the familiar song that begins with clear, drawn-out, whistled notes that get faster until they fall into a bouncing cascade that’s almost a trill. It’s a song that used to be common here, but in the past few years has become increasingly rare.

I stopped and walked closer, not sure if I was right, and fairly quickly found it – a small sparrow with a long tail, pink legs, dark brown back and wings with faint wing bars – and a white-ringed eye and pink bill. It was moving over the branches of a water oak, and appeared to be eating catkins and singing as it went.

Or maybe it was humming, if sparrows can be said to hum, because after the first full, familiar song, the sparrow changed to a quite different pattern of notes. This song – if it was a song – was more melodious, rather soft, and more varied than the usual song, a mix of soft whistles, trills and some chip notes. Instead of perching on a branch delivering its song with purpose, the Field Sparrow seemed to be just kind of whistling different phrases to itself as it moved around the branches, eating catkins.

As well as I could figure out later, this may have been a form of a Field Sparrow’s “complex song,” most often heard at dawn, though sometimes at other times of day. In this song, the cascade of bouncing notes comes first, followed by slower, down-slurred whistles, and the pattern of phrases can be more varied. In this particular case, the Field Sparrow gave the impression not of territorial defense or any aggressive purpose – but more of rather casually and quietly whistling while it worked. I don’t know if that’s an accurate interpretation – there may have been some interaction going on that I completely missed. But I watched and listened for several minutes, and that’s how it seemed.

A Spring-like Sunday Morning – Almost Summer

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

Late on another very warm, sunny morning, a White-breasted Nuthatch was singing a nasal anh-anh-anh-anh-anh from the woods near our house as I left the yard for a walk, and a Louisiana Waterthrush whistled its bright anthem from down around the creek.

A short way down the road, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks soared, low at first, circling, coming close to each other and drifting away, climbing slowly, lazily in a hazy blue sky that looked more like summer than a day in mid March. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet raised its rapid, complex song from the privet thicket where it usually seems to be. A quiet, gentle-looking Dark-eyed Junco hid among the tangle of branches in the same shady spot. Many Cardinals, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Chipping Sparrows, Pine Warblers and a few Eastern Phoebes sang, and Brown Thrashers sang from treetops all through the neighborhood.

On the edge of a sprawling tangle of privet, pines, sweet gums, poison ivy and other vines and weeds, there’s a tall, slender, gnarled old apple tree that’s been in bloom for the past week or more, not lush, but with clumps of white blossoms clustered around its twisted limbs. This morning many of its small, delicate white petals had showered over the grass and on the road where I walked. I love that old tree, quite different from any others here, the only apple tree around that I know of – though there may be others in overgrown areas. Though I know nothing of its history, except for the past twelve years, it looks tough and gaunt and twisted, with limbs that stoop over at the top, and yet it blooms with such tender beauty.

Several flocks of Cedar Waxwings are still around, hurtling over in tight formation, their thin high calls peppering the air. A large holly bush in one yard, taller than the house, looked as if it had burst into bloom with fluttering birds, as a colorful mob of Waxwings flew in and out and rustled in the dark green foliage.

A scattering of American Robins are still here, too, but today I didn’t see a blackbird flock or any blackbirds at all, except for two pairs of Brown-headed Cowbirds feeding in the grass. Bluebirds sang and hunted from low branches, mostly in pairs now. One pair has started a nest in a newspaper paper box by the road.

Bluets, henbit and dandelions continue to bloom by the roadside, joined now by some common kind of low-growing deep-yellow four-petaled flowers, and another kind of deep-yellow five-petaled flowers, and by a flush of small pale purple-pink blooms spreading over and among clumps of lush green clover and rough grassy plants. Quite a few butterflies were out – tiger swallowtails, a black swallowtail, sulphurs, and several orange butterflies I only saw from a distance, as well as wasps, bees and many other flying insects – I even saw two dragonflies today.