Archive for September, 2012

A Barred Owl’s Call

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Not late, but well after dark this evening, as we sat in a room with windows open behind us, a Barred Owl called several times, a female, I think (but am not sure), from the purring vibrato at the end of each call. The WHOO-aawwwwww calls sounded very close, though it’s hard to tell. The owl fell silent, and we thought maybe it had gone. Crickets and other night insects sang, and the night air drifting in felt cool and damp. After several minutes, the Barred Owl called again, still nearby, maybe on the edge of the woods, a rich, low WHOOOO-aawwwwww, ending in a long, soft-growling purr.

Then it called again, but from further away – and further – until we heard no more.

Several times over the past three or four weeks, I’ve heard the call of a Barred Owl, sometimes early in the evening like this, more often in the very early hours of the morning, around three or four am. It’s always been the shorter WHOO-awww call, not the longer Who-cooks-for-you. And each time, I could only hear one owl calling, and no response from another – but there might be another too far away for me to hear.

Tennessee Warbler

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were dueling around the feeder – one of them zipping so close to my head I could feel the whirring buzz of its wings – and a Tufted Titmice was hovering under the deck umbrella, cleaning out the spider webs, when a small, quickly moving bird arrived in the leaves of the white oak next to the deck. A plain, greenish-gray on the back and wings, pale underneath, with a hint of a yellow throat, a white eye-stripe and very faint wing-bars – it was a female Tennessee Warbler. She moved mostly over the smaller branches, gleaning insects or spiders from the leaves. Some Carolina Chickadees and more Tufted Titmice were foraging in the oak leaves, too, but I couldn’t find any other warblers or migrants.

Brown-headed Nuthatch and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds – Afternoon on the Deck

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

Early this afternoon on the back deck, the weather almost felt like a return to summer. It was very warm, though pleasant in the shade of the oaks. High, loose white clouds crowded in a soft blue sky. A Red-shouldered Hawk cried kee-yer, soaring somewhere in the east. Light warm breezes brought down showers of acorns, with loud, startling pops – under the table’s umbrella was the safest place to sit. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds – all females or juveniles now – came and went steadily. Two Red-bellied Woodpeckers called back and forth, churk-churk, as they flew from tree to tree and worked on the trunks. Squirrels rustled in leaves. Grasshoppers and crickets sang. Some Crows cawed in the distance.

We were supposed to be on our way to Boston today, but complications from a strep infection kept me at home. So I’m not good for much but sitting out here and taking it easy today – and feeling pretty depressed. But it’s hard to feel too sorry for myself – if one has to be sick, a sunny deck on a beautiful, warm afternoon is a pretty luxurious way to endure it.

A Northern Cardinal sings, and a Carolina Wren – then another, answering the song. The first few leaves have begun to fall. Last week sometime, while walking, I noticed a thick sprinkling of sweet gum leaves on the ground and the road and roadside, drab-yellow stars splotched with brown.

A tiny green anole with a very long, thin dark tail paused on the deck rail to look around with its miniature dinosaur head. A Mockingbird sang from somewhere in the front yard. A Blue Jay cried. Then an Eastern Phoebe began to sing. A Downy Woodpecker in the oaks called a sharp, high peenk; a male with a bright red patch on the back of its head, going quickly over the branches, in and out of sunlight in the white-oak leaves. A White-breasted Nuthatch was not far away in the woods. Its nasal awnk-awnk calls moved through the trees, roughly following the course of the creek. More acorns fell.

A Pileated Woodpecker’s traveling cuk-cuk-cuk call also moved through the woods, even further away. Abruptly, a quiet Brown-headed Nuthatch flew in for a few upside-down sips from the feeder moat, then flew away with one of its softly murmured calls. Its visit seemed a special sight, even though a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches are frequent visitors to drink from the moat. And then puh-weeee – in trees to the southeast, not far away, an Eastern Wood-Pewee’s call was repeated for several minutes, somewhere screened by trees, out of sight.

A small Blue-tailed Skink (a young Broadheaded Skink), crossed the deck, slithering more slowly than usual and even pausing out in the open, soaking up some sun along the way.

Palm Warbler

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Late this morning on a beautiful warm, sunny day, a small sunny bird flew up from a grassy spot along the roadside into a pecan tree. I was facing into the sun and couldn’t see it well at first, but it stayed around that area, and I gradually got close enough to see it well – a western Palm Warbler.

Small and delicate in shape, it moved around in a quick, light way, frequently wagging its tail and showing a bright yellow color under the tail. It looked more gray than brown on the back and head, though the sunlight may have made it seem so, and I could see no chestnut cap at all. Its sides were yellow, with light streaks. It flew from the branch down to the grass, foraged there, and returned to a tree several times. It seemed to be the only warbler among several Eastern Bluebirds, a couple of Chipping Sparrows, an Eastern Wood-Pewee hunting quietly, and a Northern Flicker near the top of a tree in a nearby brushy thicket. There may have been other warblers around, but though I stayed for a while watching, I could find no more.

This is an area of our neighborhood where the road is lined with pecan trees and lots of shrubs, and where I’ve often found Palm Warblers in previous years, during migration, but this is the first and only one so far this season here. I’m sure I’m just missing some, not out often enough or not observant or persistent enough – but I also think it’s likely that for some reason there are just fewer of them – and of almost all neotropical migrants – moving through our neighborhood this year. So, it was particularly nice to find this one and enjoy watching it for a while.

Red-spotted Purple

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Late in the morning along a stretch of road with woods on both sides, a Red-spotted Purple butterfly fluttered on the edge of the roadside. Its colors looked fresh and bright, pristine, with black wings that shimmered a subtle bronze on the upper parts, and large patches of iridescent blue on lower back of the wings. A rim of very thin white edged the wings. It fluttered low to the ground and then lit, so I was able to watch it closely for several seconds. It held its wings mostly outspread as it moved around on the ground, only now and then folding them up briefly, to show several large, irregular, brick-red spots, and a row of smaller, red-orange spots that lined the edge.

The body and head were black, marked with white; the long, thin antennae were clubbed on the ends. It probed the ground with a long proboscis, and also touched the ground with both antennae. The ground in this spot was hard red clay, mixed with lots of small granite stones, very hard, rough ground, with only low, poor-looking, drab-green weeds creeping fiercely over the clay. The spot looked almost barren and as if there could not possibly be anything of substance there, but there must have been something of interest, because the butterfly stayed for quite a while, five minutes at least. Once it paused to curl the proboscis up, and held it there for a few seconds. Then it curled it out and began to move and probe the ground again. And finally, after a few more minutes, it flew away.

Looking it up later, I learned that while the caterpillars of Red-spotted Purples feed on the leaves of trees and shrubs, such wild cherry, poplar, willow, birch and oaks, the adult butterflies may feed on sap flows, rotting fruit, carrion, dung, and occasionally the nectar of tiny flowers, including spiraea, privet and viburnum.

Our Bird of Late Summer – An Eastern Wood-Pewee

Thursday, September 20th, 2012

On one of the last days of summer, an Eastern Wood-Pewee’s drowsy puh-weee began a cool, clear, beautiful morning, after a day of heavy rain two days ago, slow clearing yesterday, and welcome, cooler weather moving in. Most other bird songs and calls – if there were many – were drowned out by the cawing of several American Crows as the sun came up – then the day-day fussing of Tufted Titmice, the chatter of Carolina Chickadees, the song of a Carolina Wren and the peeping of Northern Cardinals – the usual suspects. Big soft dusky morning clouds crowded a pale blue sky with a warming sun. Pine Warblers sang. Red-bellied Woodpeckers rattled, Downy Woodpeckers tapped on trunks, an Eastern Phoebe called tsup as it hunted from the branch of a holly tree.

But the bird of the morning – our bird of late summer – has been the Eastern Wood-Pewee. Its dreamy puh-weee fall song could be heard in several different places in the neighborhood, and colored the day – as it has for much of September, as the small, neat gray flycatchers with white wingbars and slightly crested heads, move through on their fall migration, heading South, but lingering here for a while. Their languid, sensual whistled puh-weee reminds me of the days when they used to be here all summer long, singing their full pee-a-wee; whee-ooo. So even these shorter, fall songs evoke the best parts of the summer, and can bring back memories of lazy, shady afternoons; hot blue skies with orange cloud-castles far away; the taste of a fresh tomato from the garden, the smell of fresh-cut grass, the drowsy drone of bees and wasps, and the scent of summer roses.

The first Wood-Pewee sang this morning in a tree in our own yard. Another sang and hunted from the bare branches in the top of a pecan tree down the street – and then I realized there were two Wood-Pewees there, both calling and hunting from the same high spot. They seemed to be contesting that particular desirable perch, at least for a few minutes. Then one flew away, and the other flew after it.  Another Wood-Pewee sang from trees around the pond, and another from an area of mixed woods and open grass.

Several Northern Mockingbirds also sang, and there seems to be a more relaxed and sweeter sound to their songs right now – or maybe it’s in the ear of the listener. My mood today. Eastern Towhees called chur-wheee; Eastern Bluebirds flashed their colors, sweeping in and out of trees, down to the grass and back up; three Chipping Sparrows with brown-streaked back, gray breast and bright reddish crown flushed up from the grass along the roadside, into the limb of a pecan tree.

In the old field, morning glories still spill out gloriously over and among the tall grass, goldenrod, ragweed, asters, camphorweed, kudzu, foxtails, pokeweed, and myriad other weeds of all kinds – the morning glories now even more colorful, with big open blooms of white, pale blue, pink, magenta, and deep purple, and the separate, tiny bright red ones, too. A White-eyed Vireo was singing again, a Gray Catbird mewed, two or three Brown Thrashers called a harsh tchack repeatedly. And a Pine Warbler sang from the dense, tall stand of pines at the south end of the field.

As I headed back toward home, I heard the cries of a soaring Red-shouldered Hawk, and paused to look up to try to find it. The last few morning clouds were melting away, leaving filmy veils of white and mostly open blue. I couldn’t find the hawk, but saw one Chimney Swift, flying very high, and apparently alone, though others may have been around. It’s the only Chimney Swift I’ve seen in a very long time, and I don’t know if I’ve just not been listening and looking closely enough – that’s possible – but it seems to me they’ve been scarce around here in the later part of the summer.

A Magnolia Warbler’s Tail

Monday, September 17th, 2012

On a warm, gray, humid morning, low clouds covered the sky, and water still dripped from the trees, after a long, steady rain for much of the night. All the trees and shrubs and grass looked drenched, and birds were relatively quiet, but an Eastern Wood-Pewee sang, a White-breasted Nuthatch called its nasal awnk, and Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered brightly.

In the old field the morning glories looked a little drenched and drooping, along with all the other weeds and grasses. A Gray Catbird gave a raspy mew. I was looking for the Catbird in a mass of privet, when I caught just a glimpse of a small, delicate bird that was almost certainly a warbler. I could see it moving around, but it moved very quickly and I could not quite get a look at its head or face. Even after watching for as long as it seemed to be there, all I could really see was a flash of pure yellow on its throat and breast – no streaks – and gray on the back – and a good clear view of the underside of the tail, which was very white, tipped with a broad band of black. Because of that view of the tail, I’m pretty sure it was a female Magnolia Warbler.

I think this is one of the few times I’ve identified a warbler by the underside of its tail – though I’ve often used this as additional information to help confirm one. And in this case, I could be wrong, and probably would not count it as certain unless someone else had seen it, too. But the tail was clear and distinctive, and it was just kind of fun to recognize a bird like this, with such a glimpse.

Chestnut-sided Warblers

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Early this afternoon, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees were taking turns bathing in a shallow clay saucer on the rail of our back deck, when two small round yellow-green heads and gray faces emerged among the leaves of the white oaks just above the rail. They were Chestnut-sided Warblers, each face marked with a crisp white eye ring, and their fall colors neat and fine – olive-yellow back, two distinct cream-yellow wing bars on dark wings, and a clean white breast. One dropped down to the deck rail and sat there for two or three minutes, waiting its turn among the low-hanging leaves. Unfortunately, the Titmice and Chickadees were in no hurry. One after another – sometimes two at once – they took their time fluttering and splashing and thoroughly soaking in the water. Meanwhile, three Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zipped and twittered around the feeder that hangs nearby, several times startled away by splashing water or the other birds, but always returning. Finally the warblers gave up and flew away. Maybe they came back later.

It was an active half-hour or so in a back yard that has seemed more often quiet than not for several weeks. The Chestnut-sided Warblers are among the few neotropical migrants we’ve seen so far this migration season.

Early Morning – Summer Tanager and a Pair of Eastern Towhees

Sunday, September 16th, 2012

Early on a quiet, almost cool gray morning, a Pine Warbler sang in the woods. A Carolina Wren burbled and another trilled. Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice made small, high, chipping, ticking sounds in the treetops. A Northern Cardinal peeped. A Downy Woodpecker whinnied. Two Red-bellied Woodpeckers flew from tree to tree, making churck-churck calls and stopping to work on a trunk here and there. An Eastern Bluebird murmured. Distant Crows cawed, and a Blue Jay squawked. A Mourning Dove I hadn’t noticed flew up suddenly from the ground on whistling wings, and away.

Under a tall, dense hedge of wax myrtles, a pair of Eastern Towhees hopped and scratched up leaves. Even in the gray light and shadows, their colors stood out – the male a bold black, red-orange and white; the female warm, suede-brown, orange and white. Two American Robins and a pair of Cardinals flew in under the shrubs to join them. A Northern Mockingbird sat near the top of one of the wax myrtles, head high, tail lifted slightly, looking alert, watching the yard. A Brown Thrasher lurked near the bottom of the same wax myrtles, looking handsome and strong as always, with its long fierce bill – but hiding cautiously there. It always seems interesting and almost a paradox to me that, except in the spring when they’re singing, Thrashers are so skittish and shy.

On the other side of the shrubs, in an open area of grass, one small, brown-streaked Chipping Sparrow hunted, apparently alone, almost invisible except when it moved. A Brown-headed Nuthatch arrived in some pines with squeaky chatter. An Eastern Phoebe sang. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird zipped over the street and shrubs, through the trees and over the roof, heading for the oaks and the feeder out back.

Then a quiet Summer Tanager flew into the branches of a tall, slender river birch – one of three that grow together gracefully on the edge of the yard – and remained there, glowing rose-red, among the small, shimmering, yellow-green leaves of the birch for several minutes.

Morning Glories – and a Black-and-white Warbler

Saturday, September 1st, 2012

A profusion of white and deep-purple morning glories has begun to spill out and over a roadside ditch choked with tall grass, kudzu, and other vines and weeds along the edge of the old field. I’ve been watching for them to appear – it’s a spot where they usually bloom in late summer, gracing the grass and weeds with unexpected color. The vines of hundreds of tiny bright-red morning glories also twist among them and spread even further out into the field. A burning-orange Gulf Fritillary, several lemon-yellow Cloudless Sulphurs and Sleepy Orange butterflies and a Red-spotted Purple flew over the field, some stopping on the yellow blooms of dandelions. A few early Foxtails have begun to appear. From the shadows of dense privet thickets came the raspy mews of a Gray Catbird and the song of a White-eyed Vireo, which for some reason sounded more musical than usual, a tumble of whistled notes between the beginning and ending tchick!

In a ragged old pecan tree just down the road, a female Black-and-white Warbler crept lightly over the limbs, looking for insects, her black-and-white striped coloring slightly muted, not as bright and crisp as a male’s. Among the dull-green and brown leaves of some privet nearby, a flash of yellow showed another warbler, though all I could see was a small, fluttery bird with a grayish back, very yellow throat and chest, clean white on the lower belly, and some kind of facial marking that might have been an eye-ring. My best guess was a female Magnolia Warbler – but I’ll never know for sure.