Archive for November, 2012

Great Horned Owls at Twilight

Friday, November 30th, 2012

The last day of November was cool and half-cloudy, with a soft, milky light, high clouds and patches of blue sky here and there. It was the end of the day before I could get outside for a walk, so it ended up being a sunset walk. As I walked along the old field, with loud traffic noise coming from the highway hidden on the other side of it, the sun slipped down behind a layer of dark-gray clouds, rimming them in gold, while higher clouds scattered all over the sky turned pale, rose-pink.

At this time of year, light and colors fade fast at the end of the day, and by the time I got back home, it was deep twilight, the sky crowded in dark gray clouds, with a band of pale orange on the horizon in the west. As I walked down our driveway, from somewhere in the darkness of the woods in back of the house came the deep, resonant hoots of an owl – but not the Barred Owl we usually hear. These were the hoots of a Great Horned Howl – a distinct, repeated pattern of hoo-h’hooo; hooo-hooo, so low and expressive I felt the hoots as much as heard them. Then I realized there were two owls calling – one call followed by an answering call that sometimes overlapped the first. This was repeated several times. I stood and listened, watching the woods in the direction from which the calls came, the black silhouettes of bare-limbed trees melting into the last dim light of the sky, but I never saw any movement, or sign of a large bird.

I think this is only the second time I’ve ever heard a Great Horned Owl here. Barred Owls have been common since we arrived twelve years ago, though we hear them less and less often now.

Hearing the deep, foggy hoots of Great Horned Owls from some hidden place in the dark woods, in a gray November twilight, felt like the perfect end to the month.

Rusty Blackbird Flock

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

White frost covered the grass early this morning, under a clear blue sky, but by mid morning the sun felt warm, and many small birds were active. Yellow-rumped Warblers seemed to be everywhere; also Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Downy Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco, Field Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Phoebe, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Eastern Towhee, as well as American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Northern Flicker. One Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk was circling again, already fairly high and climbing, very close to the same area where I saw one yesterday. The view of it today was clear and sunlit – showing the ruddy chest, the narrow, banded, very long tail; the short broad wings and the relatively small head. It flapped and glided and soared until it was no more than a tiny speck in the blue – beautiful to watch.

As I passed under a ragged, bare pecan tree near the roadside, a sound like a sheet flapping in the wind came from above me, as three huge black shapes spread their wings and flew from low branches in the tree – Turkey Vultures that I hadn’t even noticed until they moved. A little further on, beside the old field, two Black Vultures came sailing in, one behind the other, to sit on top of a utility pole that’s a favorite perch for them. One sat right on top of the pole, the other close beside it on the wire.

The highlight of the morning was one of the largest flocks of Rusty Blackbirds I’ve ever seen here. Around the middle of the neighborhood, in an area with lots of pecan trees in the yards, at least 60 blackbirds – a conservative estimate – perched in bare-limbed trees and spread out feeding in the grass, and most, if not all, appeared to be Rusty Blackbirds. I didn’t see any other blackbirds among them, though I could have missed some. The males actually looked rusty on the back and nape of the neck. Often I have trouble seeing this and have to rely on other characteristics – medium-sized blackbirds, smaller than Grackles, with thin bills and pale yellow eyes. The females looked handsome in their winter plumage of warm, tawny brown and taupe, with a buffy eyebrow and dark patch over the pale eye.

They made quiet clucking sounds – to me they sound much quieter, less raspy and harsh, than most other blackbirds. The low, frequent calls of this flock as they foraged made a peaceful, pleasant sound. The large mixed flock of blackbirds that visits the neighborhood almost daily is much noisier, mostly Common Grackles, but also Red-winged Blackbirds, Rusty Blackbirds and European Starlings.

For some reason the Rusty Blackbird flock seemed less nervous and flighty than the mixed flock usually is. I was able to walk fairly close and watch them for several minutes before they began to fly away, a few at a time. It’s one of the best times I’ve ever spent watching and studying Rusty Blackbirds. Very nice!

Feeding Flock – With Hermit Thrush, Cedar Waxwings, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Several minutes later, around the entrance to our subdivision, the grass and shrubs and trees rustled with the activity of songbirds, a feeding flock of several different species – Chipping Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Eastern Bluebirds, Downy Woodpecker. A Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed from back in the trees somewhere. The impossibly high, thin seets of Cedar Waxwings pierced the air from where they sat, almost invisible at first, fairly low in some pines.

Two Northern Mockingbirds fed with the much smaller birds in the grass. Eastern Towhees scratched up leaves below the bushes. Northern Cardinals pecked at the ground in the shadows. Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees chattered in the trees. A soot-gray Eastern Phoebe quietly hunted, swooping down from a perch and back up like a shadow.

Some chup-chup calls sounded like a Hermit Thrush, except that the calls were doubled – the familiar chup repeated twice, again and again. Then sure enough, a Hermit Thrush flew up from the ground near a hedge and into a small tree, where I could see it fairly well, with its round and watchful eye and dark-spotted breast, quickly raising and slowly lowering the tail, and continuing to call.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet moved through holly bushes, stuttering its dry jidit-jidit-jidit. At least two or three Golden-crowned Kinglets called from much further up in the trees. Tiny gray birds, flickering through the branches, never still, they were hard to see, but I managed to get one good, clear look at the black and white striped face and head, and yellow crown of one – probably the best view I’ve had of a Golden-crowned Kinglet so far this fall.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

From a tangled patch of pines, water oaks and privet at the corner of our street this morning, a Sharp-shinned Hawk burst suddenly out like a flash of light. The morning was sunny and cool, and the hawk seemed to shine, unusually close and clear against a deep blue sky. With short, broad wings outspread at first, it sailed up and then began to flap and glide, circle and climb. Its tail was long, narrow and square-tipped, with a narrow white band at the tip; its overall shape – and the way it flew – were compact and neat.

It soared up swiftly, and soon moved out of sight toward the northeast, so vividly there and quickly gone, it seemed almost to leave an image lingering in the air.

Hermit Thrush

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

The sky late today was very dark and gray, after a day of off and on drizzling rain. It was about the time of sunset, but no hint of sunset color could be seen. I walked through a fine mist of chilly fog.

At the crest of a wooded hill, a bird the shape of a robin but not nearly as dark or as large ran quickly across a patch of wet brown leaves beside a driveway. In the misty light it looked like a pale brown wraith in the shape of a bird. It stopped and looked around, head held high – and I knew it had to be a Hermit Thrush. I wished for binoculars but hadn’t carried them with me, and in the dim light they might not have helped anyway. I stood still, and the thrush stood still for a few moments. Then it flew up into a very small, bare tree, and perched there, quickly raising and slowly lowering the tail, and flicking its wings. From there, it flew to another small tree, staying in the wooded area along the driveway. It was quiet – I wished for a familiar call of chup, but still it was a delight to see, maybe a particular delight because of the dark gray, fading light and the fog. Seeing a Hermit Thrush for the first time this season in this setting held a special charm.

A short walk further down the hill, in scrubby trees on the edge of another yard, I heard the tsup call of an Eastern Phoebe – and then quite distinctly, the chup of a Hermit Thrush. It seemed to me that this must be a second thrush, though it’s possible it was the same one that had flown down the hill. It was far enough away so that it’s more likely to have been a different one, but I don’t know for sure.

European Starlings in Flight

Monday, November 19th, 2012

As the sun went down, completely hidden behind the clouds, a faint glow of red and orange spread up across the western sky. Northern Cardinals peeped in the old field along the highway, already gathering darkness, Eastern Towhees called, a White-throated Sparrow raised a plaintive whistled song. Small groups of European Starlings had begun to gather in bare-limbed chinaberry trees in the field, and more were flying in. They arrived in small, dark, silhouetted flocks that settled briefly in a tree, then immediately flew up again and into another tree. Each new small group that arrived sent up another wave of Starlings to coalesce in sinuous, shape-shifting images that flowed, moving smoothly together as one, then shattering into pieces and dropping into the trees. Their graceful flight, in constant, fluid motion, was mesmerizing to watch, perhaps the nicest thing about Starlings.

This fall season I’ve seen more European Starlings in our neighborhood than ever before, and while that doesn’t seem a particularly good thing, and in general Starlings are noisy, aggressive and not very appealing birds – when they fly together like this, they become something beautiful.

Solitary Rusty Blackbird Flicking Its Tail

Monday, November 19th, 2012

On a barely cool, cloudy, gray afternoon, with brown leaves thick on the ground and some still in the trees, the neighborhood seemed unusually quiet, even for this time of year. A few small birds were foraging in the faded grass of yards – Chipping Sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, House Finch, an Eastern Bluebird here and there. In the trees, I heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, and a few Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, but not as many as usual.

A Northern Flicker hitched its way backwards down the trunk of an oak, quiet except for the scratching sound of its claws on the bark. A little further on, one solitary blackbird sat in the top of a bare-limbed pecan tree, calling churk over and over. Each time it called, it flicked its tail. Though my view in the gray light wasn’t good, I could see the shape of a medium-size blackbird with a slender bill, pale yellow eyes and a faint rusty color on the nape and back – a Rusty Blackbird. It appeared to be completely alone, no other blackbirds around that I could see or hear – though there may have been many not far away. A fairly large flock of Common Grackles, Rusty Blackbirds and Red-winged Blackbirds is frequently around.

On other occasions, I have noticed the flicking of a Rusty Blackbird’s tail as it calls. This is not often mentioned or highlighted in field guides, but in the species account for Rusty Blackbird in Birds of North America Online I found this note: “Call notes are accompanied by rapid down and up flicking of the tail.”*

I don’t know that this is a dependable identification tip for a Rusty Blackbird – other birds do this, too. But it was interesting to me, to confirm that it is a characteristic behavior.

* Michael L. Avery. 1995. Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Dark-eyed Junco

Monday, November 12th, 2012

In a large, rambling yard this morning, many small birds were feeding in a mixture of tall and short grasses, bushes and trees – Eastern Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, more than a dozen House Finches, an Eastern Phoebe, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Northern Mockingbird and at least one singing Carolina Wren. It seemed like the place to be. A flock of Cedar Waxwings perched in the bare branches of a pecan tree. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered as it moved through a bush. A Northern Flicker called a sharp kleer!

Then a small, very dark gray bird flew up from the grass into the edge of a shrub along a fence – its dark, solid color with flashes of white standing out against a background of mostly brown and muted tones. It was a Dark-eyed Junco, the first one I’ve seen here this season – another returning winter resident. A plump, slate-gray bird with a round head, pink bill, white belly, and white feathers on the edges of the tail, a Dark-eyed Junco usually forages in grassy areas with flocks of sparrows and other ground-feeding birds. Its light, jingling trills sound to me like a ringing of small bells. Usually there are several together, but this one seemed to be alone – though there might have been others around that I just didn’t see.

Nearby, a Chipping Sparrow perched in a yellow-leafed bush, its plumage an autumn mix of dark and light streaked brown, with a smooth gray breast, white eye stripe, and faded reddish-brown crown.

The Call of a Hermit Thrush

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

A soft, silk-blue morning sky with high, white, windswept clouds looked beautiful but empty, and the woods and yards seemed mostly quiet, so my thoughts had drifted off to somewhere else. As I walked past an area of shrubs and trees around the entrance to our subdivision it took a few seconds for the rich, almost musical tchup, tchup calls, slow, with pauses in between, to bring me back to the moment – and to realize that I was hearing the calls of a Hermit Thrush.

For several minutes I stood and listened and watched, scanning the shrubs, small trees and vines. The bird continued to call, and it sounded as if it were right in front of me, but I could not find it in the orange, brown and green speckled foliage. Finally I saw a bird dive from a small tree down into the dense leaves of hollies, where it disappeared and fell quiet. It had been right in front of me.

It was frustrating – not for the first time, or the last, I’m sure – but nice to hear, and to know that a Hermit Thrush is here. For us a Hermit Thrush is a winter bird, similar in size and shape to a robin, but smaller, more insubstantial in appearance, and not at all as bold in coloring or in behavior. Its back is brown, with dark spots on a pale breast, and a cinnamon-colored tail that it raises and slowly lowers, over and over. A faint eye-ring gives its face a watchful look, and it often holds its head high with the bill pointed slightly up.

The Hermit Thrush is well named – subdued in color, unobtrusive, and somewhat reclusive and solitary in habit. But it’s not always hard to find, especially in winter months. Though it does most often seem to be alone, it may travel along with feeding flocks of other birds, and commonly forages on the ground for insects, seeds and other food with sparrows, towhees and others. It moves like a robin on open ground, running a few steps, then stopping and looking around. When startled, it may fly only a short distance onto a low limb and sit there, raising and slowly lowering its cinnamon tail, flicking its wings and calling a soft, musical tchup.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Around 5:00 this afternoon, on a cool, sunny day, as I was driving home from an errand, coming down the last hill on the way to our house, a fairly large bird was standing in the middle of the road ahead. I slowed to a stop not too far away, expecting it to fly, but it didn’t move.

I had no binoculars but was close enough to see it well. It was a medium-size hawk, not as large as a Red-tailed or Red-shouldered, but considerably larger than a songbird. It looked tall and slender, but sturdy, with a prominent head and profile, and a long, narrow tail stretched out behind it, resting on the pavement. It was a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, with brownish-gray back and head, very pale, almost white breast, streaked with fine, dark brown, especially on the upper breast. For at least three or four minutes, it just stood there, turning its head to look around. No other vehicles came along, and it seemed not bothered by my pickup truck. Finally, I began to inch the truck very slowly forward – and as soon as it moved, the hawk flew, spreading its wings and sailing low over the road, over the open grass of a yard and into the trees beyond.