Archive for April, 2012

A Tanager Afternoon

Sunday, April 29th, 2012

This afternoon, warm and breezy, with a drowsy blue sky and only a few small, high white clouds, the calls of both Scarlet and Summer Tanagers laced through the green leaves of the woods on the edge of our back yard – the electric CHIK-brrrr of Scarlet Tanagers and the quiet, percusive pik-a-tuk calls of Summer Tanagers. Among the most evocative sounds of summer, Tanager calls are subtle, seldom noticed, not music, but the real gossip of the woods, the conversation between members of a pair as they move through the trees.

A Mourning Dove cooed. A male Ruby-throated Hummingbird came often to the feeder hanging from the back deck – and once this afternoon, a female came to the feeder, too. For some reason, we have rarely seen a female so far, even though a male comes frequently.

In the distance, Chickadees and Titmice chattered. Closer, a pair of Cardinals peeped, and Chimney Swifts chittered overhead. A Carolina Wren sang, and another answered. A Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled. A Great Crested Flycatcher called Breet! Out in the front yard, Chickadee parents continue to feed young in the hanging ceramic nest in the pecan tree. The forecast for this afternoon was 90 degrees, and it felt close to that. It looked and felt like a summer day.

Then a Summer Tanager pair flew into an oak on the edge of the yard – one of the first times I’ve seen them this season. They sat on separate branches, both in full view, the male rose-red, the female dull yellow-orange and olive, both with stout, long bills. They sat for a few minutes, each just looking around, then flew back into the woods, and began to call pik-a-tuk, or pi-tuk, pi-tuk, back and forth again.

Black-and-white Warbler in Oaks, a Carolina Chickadee Nest and a Wood Thrush Song

Friday, April 27th, 2012

On a very warm, calm, sunny morning, a Black-and-white Warbler moved quietly through the branches of the water oaks in our front yard. It made its way steadily over one branch after another, searching for insects and other prey, paying particular attention to the ragged ends of large, broken branches. The warbler’s bright, crisp black-and-white striped colors merged into a kind of black patch on the throat. It frequently turned upside down to check out the bottom side of a branch, showing soft black spots on the white underside of the tail. I watched it for several minutes, and the whole time it was quiet, not singing, not seeming to make a sound.

Meanwhile, only a few yards away, a pair of Carolina Chickadees made several visits to a small ceramic birdhouse hanging from a branch of a pecan tree. They seem to be feeding young. This birdhouse has been hanging in the same spot for several years, and this is the first time we’ve seen any sign of birds nesting there. The Chickadee parents come frequently, one at a time, stopping first on a nearby branch, then quickly dart inside the nest hole.

Much later in the day, early evening, with dark clouds and thunder rumbling in the west, a Wood Thrush sang from somewhere very far away. The lyrical, fluted notes seemed to come from woods along the creek, barely close enough to hear. It’s the only Wood Thrush song we’ve heard so far this year, and it was hard not to hear it as a haunting, fading echo of a song that always used to be a defining part of summer.

Blue Grosbeak in the Old Field

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Late on a warm, cloudy, windy morning, a single sharp, metallic chink! caught my attention as I walked past the old field along the dead-end road outside our neighborhood. I walked back a short way, heard a chink! again, and found a small dark shape with a slightly crested head in the top of a chinaberry tree, surrounded by huge, ragged, swelling mounds of dusty-white privet in bloom. The bird flew almost immediately, and perched in the top of another, taller tree in the middle of the field, where I could see him a little more clearly, even in the cloudy gray light – a male Blue Grosbeak. Not really a small songbird – more medium-size – a deep, dark blue all over with rusty-orange wing bars and a big silver, conical beak, he perched quietly, not singing, and not calling again, but switching his long tail back and forth, and swaying a little as the treetop swayed in the wind. He stayed there for three or four minutes before flying again, to another treetop at the far north end of the field.

Each year I hope Blue Grosbeaks will return to the field, where one or sometimes two pairs have nested in past seasons. Last year, I think only one sub-adult male stayed and sang for several weeks. The one I saw today might stay, or it might be only passing through.

Maybe because it was late in the morning, or because it was cloudy, or maybe because of the wind, few birds were singing in the field – a Northern Cardinal, an Eastern Towhee, an American Robin in a hedge across the road and a Brown Thrasher up in the top of an oak. A shadowy Gray Catbird flew across the road and into some shrubs, disappearing before I could see it well. A Black Vulture sat hunched on a utility pole just beyond the field, overlooking the busy highway below. A small flock of about 15 Cedar Waxwings flew over.

Yellow-breasted Chat

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

The most vivid highlight of the morning was a colorful and vocal Yellow-breasted Chat, singing in a huge privet bush in the old field, near a chinaberry tree in bloom. I heard its song first – a strange, harsh mixture of whistled notes, and a characteristic chet-chet-chet-chet. It took at least five or ten minutes of standing, listening and watching the privet bush and chinaberry tree before I finally saw a flash of yellow as it emerged from the dusty-white privet blooms into the open. It didn’t stay out long, but long enough to see the brilliant deep yellow of its throat and breast, the white belly, plain olive back, heavy bill, and the startling, bold white spectacles. It stretched out low on the branch, looked around, and flew to another bush, where it disappeared.

Palm Warbler

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Later in the morning, the sky still cloudy, the light gray, a small, plump bird flew from a low branch down to the edge of the grass near a hedge of large wax myrtles. I thought it was a sparrow, but took a closer look – and saw a warm yellow throat and yellow breast streaked with reddish brown, a brown back, and a very bright red-brown cap – a Palm Warbler. Because it’s one of very few migrant warblers passing through our neighborhood so far this spring, I was particularly happy to see it, and watched as it moved along the edge of a mulched area, wagging its tail as it went. It flew up into the wax myrtles, where I could see it for a few minutes longer before it disappeared in the leaves.

Meanwhile, a Pine Warbler sang its loose, musical trill from the edge of the woods, while a Chipping Sparrow trilled its long, level song from a small pine in a neighbor’s yard. A flock of Cedar Waxwings flew over, trailing a spray of high, thin mews. A Great-crested Flycatcher called Breeet, a Mourning Dove cooed, a Red-bellied Woodpecker called quuurrrr. A Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Phoebe, House Finch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Eastern Towhee sang – and yet, somehow it seemed quiet, which doesn’t make sense, except that the songs and calls were scattered all around, maybe cushioned by the low gray clouds and the wind. One White-throated Sparrow whistled its Come-a-way-with-me in the distance.

Gray Catbird

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

Earth day began cloudy, damp, cool and breezy, after light rain showers overnight, and by eight in the morning, the trees around the house seemed rather quiet, except for the gentle chanting of a few Yellow-rumped Warblers. I was in my office working when I heard the emphatic meaah of a Gray Catbird – and found it sitting in the open, on the rail of the back deck. Slate gray all over, with its neat black cap, orange under the tail, it called several times, then flew up to a shepherd’s crook that holds a hanging geranium plant, sat there for about a minute, then flew away into the trees.

Gray Catbirds always seem to me to have a particular mystique, partly because of their sleek and shadowy plumage, and partly because they stay most often hidden in dense foliage. But I also like them because they bring back memories of seeing them many times in different places, habitats and circumstances. Though they mimic the songs of other birds, as Mockingbirds and Thrashers do, I think their cat-like call is more characteristic – and their behavior might fairly be described as feline, in some ways. They seem self-absorbed, secretive, often aloof, and move stealthily. But they can be very animated, and in unguarded moments almost playful.

Several years ago, a pair of Gray Catbirds returned in the spring to an unusually thick stand of abelia bushes outside the office where I worked in the house we lived in then. The Catbirds announced their arrival one morning with sharp, repeated meaah calls, and flitted from branch to branch in the abelias, switching their tails and creating their own homecoming fanfare that went on for most of that day. They nested in these abelia bushes for several years – I don’t know if it was the same birds or the same pair, but it seemed to be a favorite spot, with a creek and woods not far away, and plenty of shrubs and tangled undergrowth.

Variegated Fritillaries

Friday, April 13th, 2012

Long-stemmed white daisies have bloomed all along the roadsides, joining a mix of tall grasses, ground-hugging weeds, red clover, bands of low-growing, intensely purple stiff verbena; clumps of slender, coral-colored wild sorrel; and hundreds of dandelions, some yellow, some gone to fluffy seed. The first tall, rough purple thistles have appeared in the field. White flowers bloom on the blackberry vines, and the huge, looming privet bushes are blooming dirty-white too – not such a pretty sight, and their scent is sharp and unpleasant, drowning out the sweeter fragrance of honeysuckle. Kudzu and wild grape vines are green and spreading, and in shadier spots and ditches, and climbing up trees, twist the leafy-green vines of poison ivy.

Fluttering over the wildflowers, grasses and weeds along the roadside late this morning were dozens of small orange butterflies with elegant patterns of black and several shades of orange in the wings – Variegated Fritillaries. These are common, widespread butterflies that fly with shallow, fluttery wingbeats and don’t settle down easily or long on any one flower. As I watched them, it was hard even to find one that settled on a plant at all, and when it did, it barely stayed long enough to see well. They may find feed on violets, thistles, asters, red clover and many other plants often found in old fields, pastures and roadsides.

Earlier this morning – a crisp, cool, sunny morning, with a few white clouds in a blue sky – a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird came to the feeder I hung from the back deck yesterday afternoon. Hummingbirds have been around for many days by now, I’m sure, but this is the first one I’ve seen, so it feels like a kind of “first of the season.” In the front yard, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds are going in and out of the bluebird house. The male spends most of his time sitting on top of the house, but occasionally ducks inside. A Red-eyed Vireo sings from far away in the woods, and a Great Crested Flycatcher calls a deep, rolling breeeet! from somewhere closer. I first saw one this spring three days ago, and since then have heard one calling each day, and it’s good to have their confident, summery calls back in the woods again.

Northern Parula, Red-eyed Vireo and Green, Green Woods Again

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

After more than a week of being away – kind of enjoying a last taste of somewhat cold and gray weather in the northeast, though even there, it’s been an unusually mild winter – I’ve come home to a warm, sunny and suddenly green and singing world.

Late this morning, the soft jangling trills of Yellow-rumped Warblers seemed to be everywhere in the new-green leaves. A Northern Parula sang at the edge of the woods, a Red-eyed Vireo further down in the woods, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called spee in the white oaks close to the house, and three Chimney Swifts chattered as they flew over – all first of the season here, for me at least – arrived while I was away. A Louisiana Waterthrush continues to sing from down by the creek, and other birdsong included Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Phoebe, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Pine Warbler, Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, White-breasted Nuthatch, White-throated Sparrow and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Mourning Doves cooed, and Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers rattled. Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered. Many Cedar Waxwings still are around, mewing and perching in the hollies and cedars.

A Tiger Swallowtail fluttered across the yard and up into the trees. Bees and wasps buzzed around. A blue-tailed skink slithered under a planter. On the deck rail, from the wide-open jaws of a green anole, about half of a very fat, pale green caterpillar waved in the air. The anole’s throat bulged. Slowly, gradually, it snapped and swallowed and stuffed the caterpillar in, until it was gone.