Archive for June, 2012

Blue Grosbeak Singing Over a Busy Highway

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Late this morning four Black Vultures circled and climbed in a hot blue, cloudless sky, the only soaring birds in sight. Eastern Bluebirds hunted from low branches in shady yards, with House Finches, Chipping Sparrows, American Robins and an Eastern Phoebe here and there. Mourning Doves cooed. Few birds were singing – Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Northern Cardinal – and a Scarlet Tanager in the sweet gum and tulip poplar treetops of the wooded area where it usually can be found.

The temperature was rising toward a late afternoon high of 100 degrees, on the first day of an amazing heat wave here. The forecast for the next three days is for a high of 106 tomorrow, 107 on Saturday, and 104 on Sunday. So early mornings will be the only reasonable time to be outside. The extreme heat means a difficult time for birds as well as for trees and all vegetation and wildlife. I try to keep a bird bath in the front yard and two in the back yard rinsed out and refilled a couple of times a day, hoping that will at least help some. They’ve all stayed pretty busy, even before this latest blast of heat.

About a mile away from our house, the old field just outside our subdivision looks drab and dry and withered already, with no obvious source of water for the many birds and other wildlife that live there – though there are creeks and a pond not too far away. The traffic noise from Highway 441, on the other side of the field, seemed particularly loud and rough this morning, but a White-eyed Vireo sang undaunted from somewhere down in the thickets. And I could hear the song of a Blue Grosbeak from the far north end of the field. As I walked in that direction, toward the dead-end of the road, an Indigo Bunting chanted along the opposite side in an old oak grove, unfortunately often trashed and rutted with abuse, but still the home of a dozen or more big, grand old oaks.

The Blue Grosbeak seemed to be singing from across the highway beyond the field, so I scanned the trees – and to my surprise, found it, a small dark shape that looked more gray than blue in the hazy distance, in the top of a tall, scruffy, thin-leafed tree that rose above the pines around it. It faced out over the highway from a spot that looked far from inviting, but the richly warbled song of this little bird somehow rose above the constant noise of big trucks, SUVs, pickups and cars. Though I was too far away to see the shimmering, intense blue of its plumage, the distinctive shape of the Blue Grosbeak was clear – the slightly crested head and glint of its silver beak in the sun, the way it switched its long tail, and the burnt sienna of its wing bars – and I could see it lift its head and sing.

Mississippi Kite – Summer’s Raptor

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

About 10:30 this morning, against a loose carpet of white quilted clouds in a hot blue sky, a Mississippi Kite appeared over our neighborhood. Fairly low at first, it slowly, steadily circled and climbed higher.

I could not see the white head or gray color in its plumage, because the sun was high and directly behind it almost all of the time, but the sleek, dark shape, with long slender wings, round head and rather long, fan-shaped tail were clear. It was very beautiful to watch, flying so easily and gracefully. It never flapped while I watched, but sailed on open wings, rising higher and higher until it was only a speck against the cottony clouds.

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo and a Brown-headed Nuthatch Pair – End of Day

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

Most early evenings, around 6:00-7:00 pm, we sit for a while on the deck, in the shade of the oaks, enjoying the end of the day. In truth, there’s still a lot more day to come – the sun doesn’t go down until about 8:45 right now, and even after it does, the orange light of the long summer twilight lingers until 9:30 or later, with fireflies flashing and bats flying.

But earlier in the evening, well before sunset, seems to be a busy time for birds. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird male and female come to the feeder hanging from the deck (as they do all day long – the male coming much more often than the female). And a moat of water in the middle of the feeder, meant to keep ants away, is a popular watering hole for lots of small birds.

Near the feeder, we also keep a shallow clay saucer filled with water on the corner of the deck rail under a hanging fern. At this time of day Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, American Goldfinch and Eastern Bluebirds come to drink and to bathe, and sometimes an Eastern Phoebe. It’s a sweet and peaceful feeling to sit quietly nearby while they come, chattering, fluttering their wings and splashing – then retreating to the branches of the oaks to preen and dry off. A pair of American Goldfinches that usually arrive together are especially fun to watch, the male bright lemon-yellow and black, the female more subdued.

A Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker and Carolina Wrens often are in trees around the edge of the back yard, too, with a Red-eyed Vireo singing in the woods, or sometimes making its whining nyanh calls. Most evenings we hear at least one or two echoing calls from a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, sometimes fairly nearby. Once we caught just a glimpse of it as it flew across the back yard from tree to tree, a fairly good-size, brownish bird with a flash of white and a very long tail. We did not see its markings well – not even the long spotted tail – but only a few seconds after it flew by, it gave a good, long, loud ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-cawwp-cawp-cawp call.

This evening, as three or four Titmice, a Chickadee and a Goldfinch pair all were debating in chirps and chips whether or not it was safe to come for water with us sitting so nearby – as they always seem to do for several minutes before they finally do – a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches suddenly flew in together, making their soft, low, short calls to each other as they paused briefly in the branches of the oak, then came immediately down to the hummingbird feeder, and took turns hanging upside down to drink from the moat. When both had taken several sips, they flew away to a large pine that stands at the corner of the back yard, where they stayed for several minutes more.

The Nuthatches don’t come as often as the other birds, but when they do, they don’t waste time sitting around, fidgeting and pondering whether to come or not. They just come directly to the feeder, drink, and fly away again, quite boldly.

Two Tanagers and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

When I stepped out the door about 9:30 this morning, the air already felt warm and sultry. This first full day of summer would be a hot one. From the front porch, I saw an Eastern Bluebird slip into the bluebird box in the shade of some oaks, so it looks like a pair is, indeed, nesting there again. A Great Blue Heron flew slowly over the house, heading south in a hazy blue and white sky – a good omen.

Birds were rather quiet all through the neighborhood, except for Northern Mockingbirds, which seem to love this hot weather. Several sang with great enthusiasm and flourishes in different places. Many Northern Cardinals also sang, and few Brown Thrashers, Chipping Sparrows, an Eastern Phoebe and an occasional Carolina Wren.

Near the crest of a wooded hill, a Scarlet Tanager was singing in the same area where I’ve heard it just about every day for the past two weeks. I usually don’t even try to see it, he stays so well hidden in the foliage of the treetops, but this morning, he sounded close to the road in a tall pine, so I stopped to look – and found not only a brilliant male Scarlet Tanager, but also a rose-red Summer Tanager male, on another branch of the same tree, only a few feet away.

The Summer Tanager appeared to be eating something, though I was too far away to see what, maybe a caterpillar or some kind of insect. The Scarlet Tanager looked agitated by the presence of the other red bird, though I only saw them briefly, not long enough to tell for sure. At the same time, a Great Crested Flycatcher called whreeep from somewhere in the green needles of the same tree several times.

With the two tanagers so close together in the same tree, the contrast between them was particularly clear. Though both are very red, the shades of red, the size and shape of the birds, their postures and behaviors – all are quite different. The Scarlet Tanager looked smaller, neater, more compact, with glassy red plumage and sleek black wings, and a small, round head and bill. Its posture was low to the branch. The Summer Tanager, with its crested head, long heavy bill, slightly blowsy rose-red color and more upright posture looked larger, though I think there’s only a slight difference in their size. The Summer Tanager appeared more relaxed, easygoing and confident; the Scarlet more intense.

The Scarlet sang a couple of times, then watched the Summer Tanager as it ate whatever it had found. Then the Summer Tanager flew, and the Scarlet flew immediately after it, as if in pursuit. I could hear the Scarlet Tanager sing again in just a few seconds, proclaiming his control of this territory. This is an area where both tanager species have often been found in previous summers, but this year I’ve only occasionally heard a Summer Tanager song or call along this wooded road, or seen one.

An Eastern Phoebe hunted from low branches in a shady yard. A Blue Grosbeak sang from a treetop on the edge of a meadow-like yard with lots of shrubs and small trees. A Barn Swallow swooped around another open yard and flew up under the porch roof where I think the Swallows are nesting – and I could hear the cries of baby birds. A little further on, an Eastern Bluebird flew out of the blue newspaper box by the roadside where a pair is nesting – and the cries of baby birds came from inside there, too. I hope they make it. With free-roaming cats and other hazards all around, their nest seems in a particularly vulnerable situation.

In the past couple of days, the roadside along the old field has been mowed, so where there had been tall grasses, purple thistles, Queen Anne’s Lace, false dandelions and other wildflowers and weeds, now there’s a wide swathe of drying mowed grass, for several yards between the road and the field. But an Indigo Bunting still sang, a tiny, intensely-blue dot in the top of a shaggy tree – maybe a wild cherry tree – in the field, and a White-eyed Vireo sang from somewhere in the thickets. Two or three Mockingbirds sang, Mourning Doves sat on the wires, and a Black Vulture sat on top of one of the utility poles.

When I got back home, a silvery-gray little bird with a long upturned tail was foraging in mulch around the side of the driveway, near some blooming lantana – a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. I haven’t seen or heard them very often lately, so it was nice to see this one. It hopped and pecked around for a couple of minutes as I watched – then flew to a nearby tree. Later in the day, at least two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called their whispery spee-spee calls from trees all around the back yard.

Good News – A Broad-winged Hawk

Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

Late this morning, as I walked along a shady road with woods and wooded yards on both sides, a large hawk suddenly swept past me very low, and so close that I felt and heard the sound of its wings in the air before I saw it – though it all happened fast. It passed by me almost at eye level, flew on across the road, and swept up onto a low branch of a tree on the edge of a yard. I thought it was a Red-shouldered Hawk, because I hear and see them fairly often in this area.

It sat with its back to me, turning its head one way and another, and it took me longer than it should have to realize that it was not a Red-shouldered – but a Broad-winged Hawk. A solid, stocky bird, its back was brown and the tail looked black, with one wide white band in the middle, and a narrow rim of white along the tip. The tail switched back and forth, from side to side, as if to call attention to itself – the obvious wide white band making it clear that this was a Broad-winged Hawk. After a couple of minutes like this, it turned around on the branch, facing toward me, showing a reddish breast, then abruptly flew down to the ground, catching and eating something small, taking several bites.

Broad-winged Hawks hunt from a perch like this, swooping down on their prey – large insects, frogs, toads, small mammals, sometimes small birds. I couldn’t see what this one caught – it might have been a frog, chipmunk or lizard, but because it seemed to consume it in just a few bites, I think probably it was a large insect like a beetle or grasshopper, or maybe a cicada. After only a minute or two, it then flew back across the road to another low branch in a tree, where it sat with its back to me again, and again the tail switched back and forth from side to side as it sat and looked around.

Two summers ago, Broad-winged Hawks nested successfully in this same area, but last summer, though I watched for them, I never heard their calls or saw one. And until this encounter today, I had not heard or seen one this year. Broad-winged Hawks are known for being very secretive in their nesting habitat, so maybe it’s not surprising I could have missed them, though I am surprised I haven’t heard their distinctive high, whistled calls – very different from the cries of either a Red-tailed or a Red-shouldered Hawk. The whistle of a Broad-winged Hawk sounds more like a small bird, and can pretty easily escape notice. It’s yet another good reminder for me of how easy it is to overlook something if I’m not paying full attention to what’s around me, especially if I’m not consciously watching or listening for it.

I don’t know for sure that this one is nesting here – but it seems likely. And now I’ll be watching and listening more closely. It’s very good news to see one again this year.

Hackberry Butterfly

Friday, June 15th, 2012

This afternoon a Hackberry Butterfly – much prettier than its name might suggest – stayed for an hour or more around the back deck, mostly sitting with folded wings on the white plastic surface of a deck chair. The underside of its wings was pearl gray, with seven dark spots with circles around them, like eyes – dark blue in the center, then a ring of yellow, then a wide black spot, and a yellow ring around this, and finally a thin black ring.

Now and then, the butterfly opened its wings, showing the upper surface. Against a background of orange and brown, it was velvety black near the upper wing tips, with four white spots of varying size and shape near the tip, then seven saffron-yellow spots on the hind wing, and behind that, it was orange with big black spots – these were the spots that looked like eyes on the underside of the wings. The antennae were thin, with marked segments, like a delicate strand of tiny dots, and yellow bulbous tips. The body was furry orange-brown, the wing edges barely scalloped, with a very thin trim of white on the edge.

It was a placid butterfly, not easily scared into flight, and most of the time it sat with wings folded up, probing the white plastic of the chair with a long, thread-like proboscis. When it did fly up, it flew to the sunny brick wall above, stayed there only briefly, then came back to the chair – though I can’t imagine what might have been the attraction there, except that it was in the shade and a little bit dirty and dusty. Nearby on the deck were the bright yellow blooms of lantana and the red blooms of geraniums – but they seemed of no interest at all to the Hackberry Butterfly.

The larvae of Hackberry Butterflies (Asterocampa celtis) feed on the leaves of hackberry trees, usually in colonies. Adults feed on rotting fruit, dung and sap flows, and may also get some nutrients from road surfaces and wet spots. They are said often to have favorite perches to which they repeatedly return.

I’m not at all sure I’m using the correct terms for butterfly parts and markings, and I’m certainly not knowledgeable about butterflies – but I enjoyed watching this one closely and trying to note as much about it as I could, then later looking it up and learning more.

Sunbathing Great Crested Flycatcher

Friday, June 1st, 2012

On a sunny, breezy afternoon, a Great Crested Flycatcher greeted the first day of June by coming to the deck for a sunbath. Last summer a pair of Great Crested Flycatchers came regularly to soak up the sun, almost every day around the middle of the day, on the warm wood of the deck. I don’t know if this is one of the same pair, but hope we might see them often again this year.

Great Crested Flycatchers are often in the trees around our house and yard, we hear their calls and see them often – and in a couple of other areas of the neighborhood, too. A Great Crested Flycatcher was one of the first birds I saw when we moved here twelve years ago, and they have continued to be one of our most characteristic and familiar summer birds, as well as one of the most impressive and interesting. Its frequent rolling calls of Breet or Whreep come often from the treetops, more frequently heard than seen. But when seen – it’s a large, very handsome, active and colorful bird, with yellow belly, big gray head, and long cinnamon-colored tail, and cinnamon in the wings.

With its love of large deciduous trees, open woodlands, creeks and park-like areas, and a tolerance for fragmented forest, woodland edges and suburban habitat, a Great Crested Flycatcher may be the emblematic bird of this place.