Archive for October, 2012

Hoping for a Hermit Thrush

Friday, October 26th, 2012

October is coming to an end with a string of warm, sunny, colorful days, with trees and all the vegetation now turning red, orange, yellow and brown. Leaves drift down in almost constant showers, and many acorns and pecans are falling – it’s a good year for both, and squirrels are working overtime and everywhere.

Eastern Phoebes, Carolina Wrens and Eastern Bluebirds sing. Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Northern Cardinals and Downy Woodpeckers come and go from the feeder, while Mourning Doves pick up seeds underneath. Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Brown-headed Nuthatches and White-breasted Nuthatches are usually around; Crows and Blue Jays, always. Northern Mockingbirds quietly patrol, except for an occasional loud, harsh call. Brown Thrashers and Eastern Towhees forage under the shrubs, and sometimes venture out.

Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures soar, and several times I’ve seen a Cooper’s Hawk, soaring or flying low nearby. Small flocks of American Robins fly over, and rustle in the treetops with squeaking calls. Northern Flickers punctuate quieter days with kleer calls.

It’s been a month of arrivals and departures. We saw the last two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds at our feeder October 16. Now winter residents have returned and begun to settle in – Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and White-throated Sparrows – bringing changes to the soundscape that echo the seasonal changes in color, activity, weather and mood. I’ve heard the high, thin calls of Cedar Waxwings several times in the past few days, but so far haven’t seen them. The ank-ank calls of a Red-breasted Nuthatch have so far always been in the distance, and I haven’t seen one yet.

And I’m hoping for a Hermit Thrush.

A Chipping Sparrow Feeding on a Tall Grass Stem

Friday, October 26th, 2012

This morning I watched as a Chipping Sparrow hopped to the top of a tall stem of grass on the side of the road, held on while the stem bent down to the ground, then stood on the stem and ate the seeds in its top. This may be common behavior, but I had never seen it before, and found it both interesting and entertaining. Feeding in a spot where there were many tall grasses that had gone to seed, it hopped again and again to the top of a stem, rode it down to the ground and held it there to eat the seeds.

A Chipping Sparrow is easy to spot by its bright reddish-brown crown. It’s a small, colorful, active bird with brown streaked back, gray breast, a long tail and gray rump, and a black line through the eye. Chipping Sparrows are common in our neighborhood year-round, but in the fall and winter months their numbers here increase as more migrate in for the season, forming flocks of several dozen and foraging together for food. They often spray up in flight like sparks from a roadside or a yard, when startled, into nearby bushes and low limbs of trees.

They feed on the ground or in low vegetation, usually scratching up seeds, small fruits and small bugs, and grass seeds are a favorite. This Chipping Sparrow appeared to be alone though there probably were others nearby.

“Even though common and abundant, the Chipping Sparrow is surprisingly under-studied,” notes the species account in Birds of North America Online.*

*Chipping Sparrows are known as partial migrants. Some populations do not migrate, while others move various distances. The species account notes that there’s still a lot that’s not known about Chipping Sparrow migration, and more data and studies are needed for all aspects of their seasonal movements. Alex L. Middleton. 1998. Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passserina), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

More Arrivals – Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and White-throated Sparrow

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012

Late this morning birds were so active that I counted 16 species even before leaving our own front yard for a walk. It was a warm, sunny day with fall colors all around. The first highlight was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flying from tree to tree and testing the trunks and large branches – in pecan trees, not the oaks. It was the first I’ve seen here this season, a juvenile, with all its markings muted, brownish with blurred white barring on the back, and a thick white stripe down the wing, and no red showing in crown or throat.

Others birds in the yard included several Mourning Doves under the feeder, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, an Eastern Phoebe calling tsup, Blue Jay, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet singing again, in the wax myrtles, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Mockingbird, several Yellow-rumped Warblers flying in and out of the river birches, Eastern Towhee, and Northern Cardinal.

In another part of the neighborhood, several minutes later, two White-throated Sparrows were foraging in rough weedy grass and scrubby privet along the side of the road. For several days I’ve been hearing the tsseeet calls of White-throated Sparrows, but this is the first time I’ve seen them this season. These two were quiet, and appeared to be juveniles, their colors and markings less crisp and well-defined than an adult – plump brown-streaked sparrows, with striped crown and an indistinct white throat – but they weren’t skittish, and let me get quite close and watch them for several minutes. Further up the road, a few high, sweet, whistled notes rose from the tall grass and shrubs of a meadow-like yard, a partial song from another White-throated Sparrow. It’s good to have them back.

An even greater surprise was a Great Blue Heron that flew up from the old field along the highway and out across the power cut. I see one here occasionally, though not often, usually flying over.

A Hairy Woodpecker gave several sharp, emphatic peenk calls in the woods. Several Turkey Vultures and one Red-shouldered Hawk soared; a Pileated Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch and three or four Northern Flickers called; a House Finch sang, and two Chipping Sparrows flew up into low branches from a grassy yard.

Painted Lady Butterfly

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

Much later in the day, after the morning of meteors – early afternoon, under a sunny, cloudless blue sky, with a light breeze and fall colors spreading quickly now – Golden-crowned Kinglets were calling high, elusive ti-ti-ti in trees all around the back yard, but I still could not manage to see even one among the brown, orange and green leaves of the oaks, or even in the pines.

An orange and black butterfly with white spots flew into the butterfly bush beside the deck and stayed for several minutes. It was a Painted Lady – a medium-size deep-orange butterfly with black spots and other black markings, and black upper wing-tips with bright white spots.

A Painted Lady is one of the most widespread butterflies in the world, but I am sorry to say that I seldom notice one – I’m sure that’s purely because I am not observant enough, and haven’t taken the time to become familiar with them. One of the reasons it is so widespread is that its preferred host plant is thistle, which grows almost all over the world. Though Monarch butterflies are best known for their migrations, Painted Ladies also migrate in large numbers and for great distances – and in some cases, the nature and extent of their migrations remain unknown.

A recent study of Painted Lady migration in the United Kingdom has solved a long-standing mystery about where they go each autumn there. The butterflies travel from Africa to the Arctic, making a 9,000-mile round trip, not by individual butterflies going the whole distance, but in a series of steps that takes up to six generations.*

The Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) I saw here just a few days ago is a close relative of Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui), and they also migrate, sometimes in spectacular numbers.

In trying to learn more about Painted Ladies and their migrations, I soon began to appreciate how much about butterflies – even the most common – I do not know, and realized that it would be easy to get lost for days, following a kaleidoscopic trail of more and more information – and more and more questions. These small, colorful parts of the natural world that we take so much for granted are full of intricate mysteries.

*Butterfly Conservation.

Meteors Falling and Barred Owls Calling

Sunday, October 21st, 2012

At 5:00 am this morning, we pulled chairs up to the top of our driveway and sat down under a starry sky to watch for meteors – finding a spot where large shrubs mostly screened the outside lights of two houses on our street. The Orionid Meteor Shower, produced by a stream of dust left over from the tail of Halley’s comet, was expected to be at its most visible about two hours before sunrise this morning.

We bundled up – it was cold, though not freezing. From where we sat, we looked up and had a sweeping view of the constellation Orion, spread across the southern sky above us – right above our house – and millions of stars all around. The starry sky was beautiful, the cold air crisp, and a few minutes after we sat down, two Barred Owls began hooting deep, resonant Who-cooks-for-you; who-cooks-for-you-awwwwl. Several times they hooted back and forth, from behind us, not too far away, maybe from a large Red Oak at the corner, at least that’s what I guessed. All in all, with the starry sky and the Barred Owls calling, it was well worth getting up for – even though we saw very few meteors.

In back of us as we sat, were the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and the North Star. Above us in the South, Orion, and a little to the left, I think, was Sirius, the bright star in the constellation Canus Major. There were other constellations and many bright stars – later I looked them up and tried to learn more about what we had seen. At the time, we just watched. One very large, spectacular meteor streaked down, a silvery ball of light with a tail, coming as if from the back of Orion’s belt; and at least five much smaller, fainter meteors appeared, quick streaks of light, distinct but not so big and bright.

Many times we both thought we might have seen a meteor – a very faint streak, but so faint it could have been wishful thinking. I think our view of the sky, though it looked sparkling and star-filled and clear, is obscured by ambient light from all directions now – a busy highway only a mile away, a large gas station only a little further, and homes and businesses in all directions whose lights stay on all night. Though their lights are not directly visible to us, I’m sure they make many stars – and meteors – invisible, and that’s too bad. In the north, the lights of Athens, a few miles away, give the night sky a glow. Only a decade ago, when we first moved here, the sky was noticeably darker. We could see the Milky Way then, and many more stars. But it’s hard to tell now – it’s hard to see what you can’t see, what you’re missing.

Yellow-rumped Warblers

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

On a cool, gray, cloudy day birds seemed mostly quiet – though maybe it was only that it was a busy day for me, with not much time to spend outside. An Eastern Bluebird sang from the top of a maple tree whose leaves were faded yellow and almost gone. Below it, among the few remaining leaves, were two Yellow-rumped Warblers – the first of the season here. The first one I saw looked pale and drab gray-brown, in winter plumage, with muted streaks of gray and smudges of yellow on the sides – and the yellow rump. The other appeared to be still at least partly in summer plumage, much darker, with some markings almost black, bright white, and yellow. They flew with dry, flat calls of tchek.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Late in the afternoon, I heard the high, thin ti-ti-ti calls of a Golden-crowned Kinglet through my open office windows. I went downstairs and out – and could still hear the calls. They were very hard to see among the yellow and brown leaves of a sweet gum and the green of an oak beside it, two tiny, round, quickly moving gray birds with bold black and white striped faces – I could not see a golden crown. Not a very good view, but enough, with the calls – so both kinglets have returned today, the first of the season. In the trees with them were also several Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, a Carolina Wren, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, and somewhere nearby an Eastern Bluebird sang.

Red Admiral

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Around noon today, a brightly colored butterfly outside the kitchen window caught my eye – a Red Admiral. Though they’re widespread and considered common, I haven’t seen them often here. It flew to a dry flower-head on a potted hydrangea on the deck, and stayed there long enough for me to enjoy a nice close view. Its coloring is dramatic – an uneven band of red-orange marks each upper wing, and the lower wings are edged in the same shade of red-orange. Several large and small white spots dot the upper wing tips, with a very thin edging of white all around the delicately scalloped edges of the wings. The under side of the wings looked more subdued, or muted, with red spots in a row and some faint blue showing among them.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012

Late this morning a familiar, stuttering jidit-jidit call announced the arrival of the first of our winter birds to return – a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A tiny little gray bird with a bright eye ring and white wing bars, it flitted in the branches of a small pecan tree growing in the middle of a ring of thick juniper out in the middle of our cul de sac.

It flew to the trees in our yard, disappearing into the leaves of some oaks, and from there – it sang, a rapid, lively song that begins with three very high, sharp whistles, then three or four tur-tur-turs and then a tumbling series of musical notes. This is one of the few times I’ve noticed a Ruby-crowned Kinglet singing in the fall, though we hear them often before they leave each spring. It seemed to sing a little more quietly than in the spring, not quite so exuberant, but spritely.

It’s been a sunny, warm, beautiful day, though even now, in mid October, there’s only the beginning of fall color in the foliage. Mostly the leaves are still green all around, though beginning to fade and change. Maples show patches and edges of coral or dark rose-red; our three river birches still hold an unusual number of leaves – faded to yellow and brown, they are thin and showering off a few at a time, but still enough to shimmer in a breeze. Pecan trees – never colorful – have begun to wither and shed a few leaves, but not many yet. Even the water oaks show only speckles of orange and brown among the faded green, and the white oaks still hang heavy with green, though acorns have begun to fall, small ones peppering down from the water oaks, and big heavy ones thumping down from the white oaks. Sweet gums – mostly yellow, yellow-brown and some wine-red – seem to be the most colorful trees so far, and their starry leaves are scattered on the ground.

Two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds Still Here – Or Passing Through

Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

Early this morning at least two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds were still coming to the feeder on our back deck. I watched them for a few minutes, coming and going between the feeder and nearby oaks, and wondered if they might leave tonight with the cold front now moving through. We’ve had a lot of fun watching hummingbirds all summer, beginning with the first bright-throated male that appeared in early April and came alone for several days before a female joined him later in the month. We noticed that the male almost always hovered at the feeder, staying on guard; when the female came, she perched to sip. Through the summer, males, females and then juveniles came to the feeder frequently, all day every day; and now the last few migrants are moving through.

Because the feeder hangs from the deck not far from our kitchen windows, we’ve seen them often, and I hear their twittering through my open office windows. They’ve been a regular part of our daily lives. When we had lunch on the deck or sat outside in long, warm, lingering summer twilights, the hummingbirds would come and go from the feeder, sometimes zipping over to hover very close in front of one of us, to check us out, then zip away; or visit some of the flowering potted plants, while titmice, chickadees and nuthatches also took advantage of water in the small moat in the middle of the hummingbird feeder. We’re going to miss them when they’re all gone for the year.

By late afternoon the day had become cloudy, gray and cool, with high, thick clouds and moody, pearl-gray autumn light. Birds were mostly quiet – the usual Chickadees, Titmice, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a Northern Flicker’s kleer, Eastern Towhees, Blue Jays, American Crows – and a Northern Mockingbird sang from the top of a small tree along a wooden fence. A Brown-headed Nuthatch or two chattered their squeaky-dee calls in some pines, and – the most surprising event of the day – I heard the clear and repeated ank-ank calls of a Red-breasted Nuthatch. They came from a wooded area in back of a large yard, and weren’t close enough even to try to see, but the calls were repeated several times. I have noticed several reports of Red-breasted Nuthatches in the area recently, so maybe it’s going to be a good year for them here.

As I neared the end of a walk through the neighborhood, coming up the last hill toward our cul de sac, a Cooper’s Hawk suddenly flew low from trees in a yard across the road ahead of me, and swiftly disappeared into a bank of wax myrtles and Leyland cypress trees.  It was a brief, but dramatic view of a medium-size, sturdy gray hawk with broad wings, long, slender, banded tail, and what appeared to be a white patch at the base of the tail, but was – I think – white feathers from below the tail ruffled up and over.

A nice way to end the day.