Archive for May, 2012

Planting Flowers and Listening to Birds

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Later in the morning, I spent a couple of hours outside planting flowers – yellow lantana around the mailbox and some yellow and pink lantana in another sunny spot beside the driveway. It felt great to be working outside, the sun warm, the soil easy to work after an overnight rain and full of earthworms. As I planted, Chimney Swifts twittered overhead. A Red-shouldered Hawk cried kee-yer high up in a blue and white sky. A Chipping Sparrow trilled from its favorite small stand of pines; a Pine Warbler and Red-eyed Vireo sang from the edge of the woods; a Louisiana Waterthrush from around the creek; and a Summer Tanager from somewhere way down the street. From a shrubby area with tall pines around the edge of the yard, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called spee, and from deeper in the woods, came the crisp, cool chick-brrr calls of a Scarlet Tanager.

Meanwhile, on the back deck, among pots of geraniums, ferns and a hydrangea in bloom, a pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds made frequent visits to the feeder. A Mourning Dove cooed. A Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled, and another called quurrr. American Goldfinch, Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice all came to the birdbaths for water, and a Carolina Wren took a long, leisurely bath and then sat on a shepherd’s crook that holds a hanging fern to preen for a good long time, combing its bill vigorously through its breast feathers, under the wings, on the wings – then going back for another fluttering dip and another, repeating the process.

Indigo Bunting, White-eyed Vireo and Blue Grosbeak in the Old Field

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

This morning – warm and sunny again – a Great Blue Heron flew majestically over the old field, heading west. We don’t see them often, just one now and then, passing by. An Indigo Bunting chanted its sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-sweet song from near the top of a pine on the edge of the power cut in the field; a White-eyed Vireo sang chick-a-periooo-chick from the deep in the shadows of a thicket of privet and vines. The prickly purple heads of thistles dotted the field, and small orange and yellow butterflies fluttered through tall tan grass, scattered yellow asters and lots of dusty-white Queen Anne’s lace. A boldly colored black, red-orange and white Eastern Towhee, with a gleaming ruby-red eye, sat in the edge of a large bush and sang Drink-TEE.

A Blue Grosbeak sang in the middle part of the field, around the power cut at first, then it flew from treetop to treetop as I walked along. Its back was usually toward me, and it looked rather brown, so I think it was a sub-adult, and not the full deep-blue one I saw as part of a pair – I haven’t yet seen them again. But this one was singing and singing and I could see its big silver beak when it turned its head from the top of a chinaberry or a pine or a wild cherry tree.

As I walked back home through the neighborhood, an Eastern Bluebird female flew out of the newspaper box beside the road where they’re trying to nest again – almost every time I walk past, even if I try to walk way over on the other side and not disturb her, she flies out. Bluebirds seem to be everywhere, lots of them, flashing their bright colors and singing their blurry songs. Cardinals, Chipping Sparrows, House Finches, Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers also sang, here and one or two effervescent House Wrens. A Downy Woodpecker whinnied, and two Eastern Phoebes hunted from low branches.

Song of a Yellow-throated Vireo

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

As May begins to drift toward an end with warm, sunny days of blue skies and white clouds – and a couple of days of good rain – the first few cicadas have begun to sing, and fireflies flash over the grass and among the dark shrubs at twilight. Two Yellow-throated Vireos continue to sing; one in the woods around our house and yard, the other in another wooded part of the neighborhood, about a half a mile away. This morning I stopped to listen to a Yellow-throated Vireo somewhere in the tops of several tall sweet gum trees. It sang and sang its burry, ringing, full-throated song, with frequent three-eight phrases, but stayed hidden among the leaves. Though I never could see it, and could only imagine the bright yellow throat and breast, white wingbars, olive-green head and face, and yellow spectacles, the song itself was just as richly colorful and expressed.

Later in the afternoon, with a clearing sky after a sudden, brief rain shower, two juvenile Red-bellied Woodpeckers made wheezy calls, fluttered their wings and were fed by both parents in pines on the edge of the yard.

A Great Crested Flycatcher flew into this same area of pines, lit by the low sun, and sat on an open branch facing our way, with the sun lighting its lemon-yellow belly and long, cinnamon tail, and big, handsome gray head. Thunder still rumbled in the east, remnants of the rain that had passed through, and there were dark blue clouds all around on the horizon, but also brilliant sunlight coming through the clouds in the west and pouring through the leaves of the oaks, so the shifting light and shadows all around looked softly dramatic, like a watercolor painting in motion.

Gray Tree Frog

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

One afternoon in late April, we found this Gray Tree Frog in a folded deck chair. We moved it into the shelter of a large hydrangea plant in a pot, in a corner close to the white oaks that shade the deck. I’d been hearing the song of the frog for several days but had not thought to look for it.

The habitat of a Gray Tree Frog is said to be woods, swamps and back yards with trees. Its color is subject to variation, and can change from gray to green. This one was a very pretty, clear gray, with paler gray around its cheek, bordered in black. The light spot under the eye is characteristic. The song is a musical, chirping trill, and for at least a couple of weeks, into the first half of May, we continued to hear it sing now and then – especially in the evenings or when it was cloudy or had rained. I don’t think we’ve heard it singing nearby in the past week or two, though Gray Tree Frogs may sing through much of the summer, and hope it just moved away, maybe into the nearby oaks.

Saturday Afternoon on the Deck – Green Anole, Broadhead Skink, Common Sooty Wing, and a Pair of Summer Tanagers

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

In a warm, sunny hour on the deck this afternoon, it felt good to be lazy for a while, leaning back and watching white clouds drift across a big blue sky, while a surprising number of birds and other animals were active all around the yard – not lazy at all.

A male and a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird came frequently to the feeder that hangs from the deck rail, thrumming and twittering. A Red-shouldered Hawk cried kee-yer, soaring in the southeast. Chimney swifts chittered overhead. A Mourning Dove cooed from the woods. Summer Tanagers called a rapid pik-a-tuk, and sometimes an even quicker, long tik-a-tik-a-tit-tit-it-it-it-it, descending, like a finger running over a comb. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called quuurrrr, a Great Crested Flycatcher, breet. A Pine Warbler sang around the edges of the back yard. A Chipping Sparrow trilled out front. Carolina Chickadees chattered, a Tufted Titmouse sang its peter-peter song, a Carolina Wren and a Cardinal sang.

A Tiger Swallowtail lingered in the butterfly bush beside the deck, a Red-spotted Purple fluttered over the red blooms of a hanging geranium plant, and a smaller, dark Common Sooty Wing butterfly came to visit the yellow and pink blooms of six lantana plants I’d bought just this morning, still in their black plastic pots. Similar to the Scalloped Sooty Wing, a small, dark butterfly with a stocky body, black and dark copper-colored, but with more white spots, a cluster of white spots toward the outer wing, and its wings not scalloped, though the edges appeared to be lightly ruffled and fringed.

Our resident Green Anole patrolled the deck as usual, lithe, and bright clear green in the sun, running along the rail, pausing to puff out its pink throat, and making its way toward a fern that hangs from a shepherd’s crook, where it likes to sit – stretched out and draped over the top of the crook. The anole is almost always somewhere around the deck, often the less showy female, too. She looks a little smaller, but maybe that’s only because she’s more reclusive, more likely to stay in the shadows, and she usually appears a muted greenish-brown, not so bright green.

This afternoon, a Fence Lizard and a Broadhead Skink also were nearby – both on the warm, sunny brick side of the house. The gray and scaly Fence Lizard was climbing up the corner of the house. When it paused and lifted its head to look around, a deep-blue throat flashed in the sunlight. The Broadhead Skink is a much stranger-looking creature, I think, but maybe that’s only because I’ve seen it much less often. This one was large, thick-bodied and shiny-brown all over, with a very big, broad, neon-orange head. The back of the head was especially wide, looking swollen and orange. It slithered straight up the brick wall and disappeared over the ledge of my office windows, but on the way, stopped long enough for a good look. We often see the dark-striped, blue-tailed juvenile skinks on the deck, scurrying to hide under a folded chair or potted plant, but seldom see an adult. This one was impressive. The orange or red color in the head will fade when breeding season is over.

The pik-a-tuk calls of Summer Tanagers came closer, and a red male flew into a pine on the edge of the yard and perched in view for three or four minutes. Sometimes the plumage of male Summer Tanagers looks a little ragged or uneven to me, but this one seemed uncommonly handsome and fresh rose-red. The female flew into the same tree, but stayed screened by pine needles and all I could see was a shadowy yellow shape.

Several hours later, when we were back out on the deck at the end of the day, the chick-brrr calls of a Scarlet Tanager moved through the woods nearby. I haven’t heard the song of a Scarlet Tanager for quite a while and was afraid a conflict with the Summer Tanagers might have made the Scarlet leave. So it’s nice to know it’s still around.

And for the first time this evening – though they may have been out before now – I noticed fireflies in the yard, low over the grass and shrubs at twilight.

Red-shouldered Hawk – A Close-up View in Shady Woods

Friday, May 18th, 2012

By late morning when I went out to walk, the day was warm, sunny, and windy but still very pleasant, with lots of big white cumulous clouds. Birds were few and rather quiet. Chimney Swifts twittered overhead. A tiny, deep-blue Indigo Bunting sang from the top of a small ragged tree in the old field, maybe a wild plum tree – but no Blue Grosbeak today, and no White-eyed Vireo singing. A Great Crested Flycatcher called Breet in the woods, one Summer Tanager sang from a small patch of trees and shrubs – the only tanager heard all morning, and no vireos at all. One Louisiana Waterthrush sang from near a creek, and a Brown Thrasher from the top of the big, dead, red-brown Leyland cypress at the end of our road. Northern Mockingbirds and two or three American Robins sang. Three Eastern Phoebes, an abundance of Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Cardinals, Northern Mockingbirds, House Finches, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers and Chipping Sparrows were active – and lots of baby birds begged in wheezy voices. Mourning Doves cooed. Blue Jays and American Crows here and there.

Near the top of a shady hill, with woods on both sides of the road, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew low across the road several yards ahead of me, wings wide outspread and tail flared, and swept up into a low branch where it sat facing toward me – deeply shaded by green leaves but in full, clear view. If I had not seen it fly, I would have walked right past and never seen it, it blends so well with the shadows of the trees.

As it flew across the road, so close, the brown, black and white patterns of its back and wings, the black and white bands of the tail, and even the warm red across the shoulders all looked bright, leaving a vivid, colorful image. Sitting silent on the branch, its head was turned in profile, showing the large, hooked bill, dark on the tip. Its breast was broad and barred with ruddy-red, and its white-checkered, dark-brown wings also showed. Only the tail was obscured by some leaves.

I watched for several quiet minutes as it perched, seeming to move only its head, looking one way and another, and it didn’t even fly when I finally walked on, angling away toward the other side of the road, hoping not to disturb it. But then when I came even with where it perched, I couldn’t resist stopping for one more look with binoculars – and as soon as I stopped it flew, dropping low on outstretched wings again and gliding further back into the woods and out of sight. Ah well – I should not have stopped.

In the Ear of the Listener – A Chipping Sparrow’s Summer Song

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Few birdsongs could be more common, more dependable, more characteristic a part of a day in late May, than a Chipping Sparrow’s long level trill. Late this morning – a warm, sunny day with blue sky and big white clouds – a Chipping Sparrow sang from a cluster of small pines just across the road from our front yard. Two other Chipping Sparrows answered with similar dry, rapid trills, each in a different direction. And all through the neighborhood, Chipping Sparrows perched in trees and shrubs and sang, spaced apart in what seemed to be a pretty regular way.

Though a Chipping Sparrow’s song appears to be one of the most simple and unadorned – a long dry trill, or series of chips on one pitch – there are variations. Sometimes it sounds lighter, more airy; at other times, more intense; sometimes it sounds almost musical, with fluctuations in the trills, similar to a pine warbler’s song. Some of this may be in the ear of the listener, I know, but I think some is in the singer, too.

When I left to walk this morning, the Chipping Sparrow in the cluster of small pines across the road was singing from somewhere low in the dark-green needles. It was still singing when I returned home about an hour later, but now perched in the very top of one of the pines. So I paused to admire his clean pale-gray throat and breast and cheeks, with a crisp dark line through the eye, a very bright chestnut-red cap, long tail, and dark-streaked brown and cinnamon back and wings, with white wing bars.

Earlier this morning – and most mornings the past few weeks, when I’ve been awake early enough to listen – a Chipping Sparrow was one of the first singers in the gray light of dawn, probably this same one singing from the small pines now. Its early morning songs are different from any other time of day – short, light bursts of almost delicate trills with a faintly ringing quality. At this time, too, the sleepy mood of a listener and the soft light and damp, still air may well affect the way a bird song sounds – and imagination can color the expression or mood of the music. But even on different mornings, the short, rapid trills of a Chipping Sparrow’s Dawn Song seem almost always to sound light, brisk and airy.

Scalloped Sooty Wing Butterfly

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Along the roadsides, all the tall-stemmed daisies are drab and fading now, but patches of furry pink rabbit’s-foot clover have begun to appear, and clouds of dusty-white Queen Anne’s Lace. And there are still lots of dandelions. In one patch of dandelions, a small dark butterfly was fluttering and feeding, and it stayed on a yellow blossom long enough for a long, close look. It was patterned in several shades of dark copper, with a shimmering sheen, and sooty-black, with three tiny white flecks in the upper part of the upper wings. The wing edges were scalloped and lightly fringed. When I looked it up later, I learned that it was a Scalloped Sooty Wing butterfly, a kind of skipper.

A Blue Grosbeak Pair

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

The highlight of the morning walk was a pair of Blue Grosbeaks in a tangled area of privet, kudzu and other shrubs and trees across the road from the old field. I had already passed this area and was headed home when I heard the Grosbeak sing – a rising and falling cascade of colorful notes. So I walked back down toward where it was singing, just hoping – and found two Grosbeaks very low in a small scrubby sweet gum tree entangled in a climbing kudzu vine and its leaves. The Grosbeaks were making short, flashy flights from branch to branch, chasing each other, flaring wings and tails.

Behind the sweet gum tree, rose a large thicket of privet, and behind that, several pines. As I approached, both birds settled down on separate branches of the tree, both quite low, and the male began to sing again.

The male was a deep shimmering blue, with rusty-orange wing bars and a big silver beak rimmed in black. Simply gorgeous. He sat on the edge of a branch, in the open, but no more than five feet from the ground, far from the top of the tree, and surrounded in shadowy leaves.

A couple of feet lower than him, and over to one side, sat the female, more screened by leaves from me than the male. I could not see her well, except to see that she looked pale tawny brown.

Young Pine Warblers Being Fed

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

This morning began with the song of a Yellow-throated Vireo in the branches of the white oaks right outside our open bedroom windows, very close, and yet it stayed hidden in the leaves, and I never could see it. Its song was a rich, blurry series of notes that included frequent, buoyant three-eight phrases. An American Redstart also sang in the oaks, high and sharply clear, also hidden in the foliage, lower in the tree than the Vireo. The serenade was a beautiful way to begin a sunny, blue-sky day.

By mid-morning, the sun felt warm but the air still felt fresh with a hint of coolness when I headed out for a walk. Chimney Swifts twittered overhead. A Red-eyed Vireo sang in the woods around our yard, though it turned out to be the only Red-eyed Vireo I heard all morning, and in fact the woods seemed rather quiet – with only one Summer Tanager and one Yellow-throated Vireo all along the way; no Scarlet Tanager, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher or Black-and-white Warbler – though of course, I might have just come by at the wrong time.

Birds were not particularly active, but most of the usual suspects from the past week or two were singing or calling here and there – Pine Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Phoebe, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, House Finch, and one or two American Robins sang. Mourning Doves cooed. Red-bellied Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker rattled. Lots of Eastern Bluebirds were active, American Goldfinches mewed in the trees.

High in a tall pine near the crest of a wooded hill, two young Pine Warblers were begging in wheezy voices, fluttering their wings, and being fed by a male parent. He fed one of the juveniles, then paused to raise his head and sing, lifting a warm yellow throat to the sun.

An Indigo Bunting chanted its sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-sweet song in a big, rambling, meadow-like yard with lots of scattered shrubs and trees. A Great Crested Flycatcher called Breet! and flew to a small tree on the edge of the same large meadow-like yard, where it perched in the open for a few minutes, turning its large, handsome gray head in profile. It called again – and a second Great Crested Flycatcher answered from a nearby tree.