Archive for August, 2012

Scarlet Tanager

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

As August drifts to an end, with many of the birds of summer now quiet and maybe even gone for the year, this morning in a warm, light rain, the electric chick-brrrr call of a Scarlet Tanager moved through the wet green leaves of the woods, in the same area where one often sang a month or two ago. An Eastern Wood-Pewee sang puh-weee in the trees around a meadow-like yard. A White-eyed Vireo continues its brisk chick-a-perioo-chick in the old field, one of the last singing birds of the summer.

Toward the end of the day, we began to get good, hard, steady rain, probably coming from the outermost bands of a tropical storm moving in from the Gulf.

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Monday, August 27th, 2012

This morning – a warm, sunny, blue-sky day, with cicadas and grasshoppers singing loudly – an Eastern Wood-Pewee sang a clear, dreamy puh-wee from the branch of a pecan tree on the edge of a thicket. It’s the first one I’ve heard this season. It sang several times as I watched – flying off to catch an insect and returning to the same branch.

A small, neat gray flycatcher, an Eastern Wood-Pewee looks pale on the throat and around the neck, has dark gray wings with two white wing-bars; a dark, slightly crested head and sometimes a very faint eye-ring. I wasn’t close enough to see an eye-ring, but the song and the flycatcher’s neat, crisp shape were both familiar, and its way of flying is distinctive, too – frequent flights from a branch to catch an insect, focused, quick and efficient, somewhat in contrast to the languid song.

Eastern Wood-Pewees used to be here around our neighborhood all summer, and their sweetly whistled, rising and falling songs – pee-a-weeee; wheeee-oo – were among the most characteristic sounds of summer. Unfortunately, the past few years I’ve heard them only in migration, though during the fall, especially, we usually are lucky enough to hear and see them for three or four weeks, as they pass through. Their fall puh-weee, sung by migrants, is different from the summer song, but the quality is so much the same it’s not hard to recognize the singer.

“Although still considered common in most of its range, this species declined significantly on its breeding grounds over the last 25 years,” says the species account in Birds of America Online, “perhaps in part because of heavy browsing of forests by white-tailed deer.”

In the woods around our neighborhood, the browsing of white-tailed deer has almost completely eliminated the usual vegetation that makes up the understory of the forest, so this change may well be at least one of the reasons Wood-Pewees are missing here in the summers now.

*John P. McCarty. 1996. Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Gray Catbird in the Field, and Two Mississippi Kites Soaring

Sunday, August 12th, 2012

This morning dawned beautiful, clear, sunny and cool, in the sixties for the first time in a long while, and birds seemed more vocal than for the past few days, maybe welcoming the weather, too. The quiet’s not unusual for August, with the songs of cicadas, grasshoppers and other insects often drowning out most other sounds. Many mornings lately, I could stand on the porch and hear only one bird or two, at most. Very, very quiet. But this morning, even before leaving our own front yard, I heard an Eastern Bluebird’s blurry call, the song of a Carolina Wren, an Eastern Towhee, a Red-eyed Vireo’s song, the caw of a Crow, the squawk of a Blue Jay (and another Blue Jay doing a pretty good imitation of a Red-shouldered Hawk). American Goldfinch called as they flew over, and a Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled.

On the edge of a neighbor’s yard, four Chipping Sparrows flew up from the grass into a small tree, their bright reddish-brown crowns glowing. A Northern Cardinal ducked into the dark green depths of a Leyland cypress.

For most of a walk through the neighborhood, the usual suspects were around, widely scattered – the spee calls of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, the WHEET-sit of an Acadian Flycatcher, a Downy Woodpecker’s silvery rattle, the soft pi-tuk calls of one Summer Tanager; the chatter and songs of Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees and Carolina Wrens; a scattering of quiet American Robins, the coo of Mourning Doves, several quiet but active Northern Mockingbirds, and the song of one White-breasted Nuthatch. A Red-shouldered Hawk sailed silently, suddenly just over the treetops ahead of me, and disappeared into the woods. The long, dry, percussive call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo came from very far away.

In the old field, the vines of small deep-red blooming morning glories have begun to twist and spread through the tall grasses and other weeds near the roadside. A Red-tailed Hawk sat on the top of a pole. A Gray Catbird gave a raspy mew from a perch on the edge of a ragged privet thicket, well camouflaged, a dark-gray shadow of a bird among dull-green leaves.

As I walked along the field toward its southern end, two tiny field mice ran out of the grass and weeds onto the open pavement in front of me, pretty close, and froze there. They were so very small, barely an inch or two long each, plus thread-thin tail, light brown and frail looking – they looked like little cartoon mice. I stood very still for several seconds, then stomped a foot lightly – and they both scurried off into the weeds again.

The sky was beautiful, blue and all but empty, with one Turkey Vulture the only soaring bird until I was almost back home, when two Mississippi Kites appeared, dark slivers of wings, soaring high in the southeast, and soon drifting away, out of sight.

On a Warm, Foggy Morning, the Songs of Red-eyed Vireos and an Indigo Bunting

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

At 7:00 this morning, when I stepped outside, our yard and street were shrouded in a warm gray fog. Two Red-eyed Vireos sang from different directions in the woods nearby. After listening for a minute or two, I started down the steps and ran face-first into a spider web strung between the two big shrubs on either side of the porch. Combing sticky strands of silk away from my eyes and nose and hair, I walked on up the driveway, without binoculars today, and ducked under the heavy, wet, low-hanging branches of crape myrtles, the ground and pavement beneath them scattered with white petals, washed down by yesterday’s rain. The sun was up, but not yet visible behind the fog and clouds.

An Eastern Phoebe sang, an Eastern Towhee called, Northern Cardinals peeped. Crows strutted around grassy yards and cawed and croaked. Several Eastern Bluebirds sang – four perched in the bare top branches of one pecan tree, waiting to welcome the sun. An Acadian Flycatcher sang a sharp WHEET-sit from the woods along a creek. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called its raspy spee from the thickets of trees and vines around a corner where they usually are, and a Great Crested Flycatcher called whreep from a big Red Oak.

The morning seemed very quiet, no sounds of traffic or people, maybe muffled by the fog, with my own footsteps sounding on the pavement. Crickets chirped. A lone cicada buzzed as it flew a long distance from tree to tree – it looked more like a hurtle than a flight, a desperate plunge from one spot to another.

Up a steep hill in a wooded stretch, Tufted Titmice fussed their day-day-day; Carolina Chickadees sang a more relaxed fee-bee, fee-bay. A Downy Woodpecker whinnied. A Carolina Wren sang – and another sang in response. Several Carolina Wrens trilled, burbled and buzzed. At this time of year they always seem to become more vocal, as other birds become more quiet, and their songs on a morning like this are especially musical, expressive and welcome.  Two Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered high in some pines. One White-breasted Nuthatch called a nasal awnk-awnk from further away. An American Goldfinch called as it flew over.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled and chucked. A Summer Tanager called pik-a-tuk from the leaves of a tall tulip poplar. Mourning Doves cooed. A Northern Flicker whistled a loud kleer! At the crest of the hill, several Crows noisily cawed and croaked and flew from spot to spot among some trees. I couldn’t find a hawk, but suspect there might have been one hidden there. A quiet Northern Mockingbird perched in its usual large, rambling bush along a wooden fence, where I’m pretty sure a pair of Mockingbirds has had a nest. A Chipping Sparrow trilled a long, level summer song from a low branch of a tree in a large yard. Several American Robins were scattered out in the grass below.

Just outside our subdivision, an Indigo Bunting chanted its sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-sweet from the top of a dead tree on the edge of the power cut that runs through the old field. I could barely see it, and not its color at all – just a tiny dark dot. Eastern Towhees called chur-whee. A White-eyed Vireo sang. Mockingbirds and Mourning Doves perched on the wires. Though often there’s a Red-tailed Hawk sitting on one of the poles overlooking the highway below, the poles were all empty this morning. Fog hung over the highway, and cars and trucks streamed by with headlights shining.

Late in the morning the day became sunny and clear, with a bright blue sky and rain-green trees. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds came often to the feeder that hangs from the deck out back.