Archive for December, 2012

A Sunset Walk and a Barred Owl’s Call

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Late afternoon on the last day of the year was cool, gray, cloudy and quiet. A pair of Bluebirds perched in a young red maple in our front yard. A Chipping Sparrow flew up from the edge of the road into another small tree. American Robins foraged in the grass. I heard the tsup calls of an Eastern Phoebe, the pink of a Downy Woodpecker, a Red-bellied Woodpecker’s chuck-chuck, an Eastern Towhee’s rich chur-wheee, a White-throated Sparrow’s sibilant tseet, and the chatter of Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Brown-headed Nuthatch and House Finch, the fussing and trill of a Carolina Wren. The usual suspects – and not even all of those – on a calm and peaceful evening.

Much later, around ten o’clock at night, a Barred Owl called, HOOO-owww. Just that, again and again, several times, from somewhere around the woods in our back yard. HOOO-owww. Much better than fireworks, I think – a very fine way to end the year.

A Pine Warbler’s Song and a Curious Yellow-rumped Warbler

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

On a cold, clear morning, four Mourning Doves stood and slipped on the icy surface of the birdbath and sipped at small spots of melted water. As Christmas approaches, the days have been busy, and there hasn’t been much time to spend outside, but this morning I took about ten minutes just to stand on the front porch with binoculars and look around, and listen.

A Pine Warbler sang from a scrubby, wooded area on the edge of our front yard. The song sounded a little different from the usual musical trill, adding a note or two each time at the end of the trill.

Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and one Downy Woodpecker came and went from the feeder, then a Chipping Sparrow joined them – and then a big Red-bellied Woodpecker flew up and temporarily displaced them all. A Dark-eyed Junco and a pair of Northern Cardinals foraged for seeds under the feeder. One Carolina Wren sang, and another flew to the feeder after the Red-bellied Woodpecker had flown away. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered jidit-jidit, moving through the bushes.

An Eastern Phoebe perched on a small shrub near the road, bobbing its tail; American Crows flew over, some cawing; a Blue Jay perched in the wax myrtle hedge; a Brown-headed Nuthatch squeakily chattered in the pines.

Several Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted from branch to branch in the trees – then one began to come toward me, making its way through low branches of nearby trees. It seemed to be watching me, and coming toward me on purpose, as if it were curious. As it got closer and closer, it chirped in a fuller, more musical kind of call than its usual dry flight chip. It moved through a water oak, then into the Savannah holly right beside me until it came quite close, paused there and cocked its head as if getting a good look – then it flew away.

Mystery Screams at Sunset – Maybe a Barn Owl

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

The sun was almost setting by the time we drove into the large protected area of woods and fields around the water treatment plant. While I checked out the pine woods around the plant – and found very few birds at all, only the peeps and chips of small birds settling into cover for the night – Marianne went down into what we call the sparrow fields, a huge expanse of grass and thorny weeds and shrubs that stretches all the way to the river. The sun went down and the sky turned orange. The sweet, whistled song of a White-throated Sparrow rose from the fields, which were full of sparrows – White-throated, Savannah, Song and Swamp Sparrows, and maybe other birds, too hard to see in the dying light; and close to the river, a Common Yellowthroat gave its “clicking marbles” call.

Just after the sun went down, we both heard several loud, screeching screams. They continued, with pauses, for several minutes, and seemed to come from woods across the river. It sounded like a large bird – but when we got back together several minutes later, as darkness fell, neither Marianne nor I could think of what kind of bird it could be. For us, it was a mystery. It was later that night, at the potluck gathering where the lists of all participants in the count were reported and compiled, that another birder suggested it must have been a Barn Owl.

In retrospect – and after listening to recordings – it seems very likely that’s what it was, but we may never know for sure. A few other birders at the meeting were hoping to return to the area and maybe hear the screams again, but I don’t yet know if anyone was able to confirm it.

A Barn Owl is a large, beautiful, rarely-seen bird, ghostly pale underneath, with a white heart-shaped face and black eyes. They are found in many parts of the world, but populations in parts of North America are in decline, and there are concerns for their future because of loss of the open habitat they need, like fields and grasslands.

A Field Full of Sparrows, Waxwings, Blackbirds and Robins

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

In the grass and weeds behind the fire station we watched several Savannah and Song Sparrows, many perching in the tops of tall weeds and in small bare trees, as well as along the old remnant of fence. This field of weeds and shrubs stretched out for several acres, into an abandoned orchard and beyond that, to an area where more trees and large shrubs had grown up. The area was full of hundreds, if not thousands, of birds – Chipping, White-throated, Song and Savannah Sparrows; Eastern Bluebirds; Northern Mockingbirds, Brown-headed Nuthatches, American Robins, Cedar Waxwings and a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds that also included Common Grackles and Rusty Blackbirds.

This place had, by far, more birds than any other spot we visited during the day. In part, this may have been because we came to it at a good time of the morning, but it also had a good mix of habitats – grass, tall weeds, shrubs, vines, and a wooded section of pines and oaks. At one point, we stood in the gloomy shadows of a huge thicket of privet that grew way over our heads, with hundreds of Cedar Waxwings fluttering, flapping and mewing their high, thin calls all around us and flashing glimpses of elegant crests, black masks and yellow-tipped tails. It was a magical, delightful feeling – until it suddenly occurred to me that maybe standing under this many waxwings feeding voraciously on privet berries might not be such a good idea. And right about that time I felt a wet plop of Cedar Waxwing poop hit the top of my head.

When we finally left this area, I heard a familiar hoo-HOOO-hoo call – and looked around for a Eurasian Collared Dove. We didn’t expect to find one there, so I thought I must have been mistaken, especially when we waited a few minutes, listening, and did not hear another call. But then as we drove out of the fire station parking lot, there sat two Eurasian Collared Doves, perched on utility wires along the busy road, easily recognized by their size, pale gray color and broad, squared-tipped tails – and the black half-collar on the nape of the neck. Later in the day, not far from this same spot, though further from the main road, we found nine Eurasian Collared Doves feeding under pecan trees.

Savannah Sparrow

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

The highlight of the Christmas Bird Count day for me was a small, rather plain, brown-streaked bird – a Savannah Sparrow, perched on a white wooden fence in clear, soft, late-morning sunlight, surrounded by tall brown grass and weeds. A neat pattern of thin, dark brown streaks marked its white breast.

A plump little sparrow with dark-brown back and wings; a short, notched tail; and a small yellow spot just over the eye, it perched with other sparrows on the fence in a rough, overgrown patch of weeds and grass behind a fire station, not far from the intersection of two busy urban roads.

Though I’ve seen Savannah Sparrows many times before, this was the best and clearest view I’ve ever enjoyed – and for the first time I fully appreciated its beauty and had the time to watch for several minutes. By the time we left this area, I felt as I had really come to know a Savannah Sparrow for the first time. Whenever I see one in the future, it’s this sighting I’ll remember.

The pattern of fine, clean streaks on the snow-white breast defined the Savannah Sparrow for me. A Song Sparrow perched beside it offered a good contrast – the dark brown streaks on its breast and sides looked more coarse and crowded, as if they had been painted with a thicker, less patient brush, and the central spot in the Song Sparrow’s breast was much larger and darker. The Song Sparrow also showed more russet and gray coloring, especially around the face, a longer tail – and it vigorously switched its tail in a characteristic way. The Savannah Sparrow did not do this, so it seemed more calm and serene in behavior.

Christmas Bird Count

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

Early on a cold, sunny morning in mid December, a Hermit Thrush perched in a small, bare tree near the North Oconee River and called a rich, low chup. My good birding friend Marianne and I watched it for several seconds, a light-brown, Robin-like bird with dark-spotted breast and a cinnamon tail that it repeatedly raised and slowly lowered as it watched us with a wide round eye. A second Hermit Thrush called chup from another tree nearby.

It was Christmas Bird Count day for the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society in Athens, Georgia – and for me, the gift of a beautiful day outside, watching birds, a break in the middle of the rush and pressure of a busy holiday season. Marianne and I have been doing the count together for several years, often along with two or three other birding friends, but this year it was just the two of us covering our traditional, assigned section of the area, and we had a great day. Not a spectacular number of species in the end, and none that were unusual or unexpected – but just a Grand Day Out, with a few memorable sightings – and at least one interesting mystery.

The day was mostly overcast, with high gray clouds, some breaks of sun, and no real threat of rain. It was cold when we began before sunrise, listening for early birds from the deck of Marianne’s home near the river as the sky flooded briefly in rose and gold. Marianne had been up earlier to listen for owls – with no luck. But as the sunrise color faded and the light gradually grew, we heard Carolina Chickadee, Northern Cardinal, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Towhee, Brown Thrasher, Downy Woodpecker, American Robin, Cedar Waxwings, American Goldfinch, White-throated Sparrow, the trill of a Pine Warbler, and the sweet mews of two very vocal Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.

The point of the Christmas Bird Count is to count every bird one finds – as well as possible – so after a quick break for hot tea and muffins, we headed out with clipboard, map, checklist and binoculars, and we birded all day, until the last light of twilight.

For the first half of the morning, and again in early afternoon, we stayed near the river, checking out several different, mostly wooded spots, and adding Pileated, Red-bellied, Hairy and more Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, many more White-throated Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers; Yellow-rumped Warblers, Carolina Wren, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal and Eastern Towhee, Northern Mockingbird, Dark-eyed Junco, and Cedar Waxwings, and the yank-yank calls of one Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Once we heard the cries of a Red-shouldered Hawk – and this turned out to be the only Red-shouldered Hawk all day, a little surprising, but on the whole, it just wasn’t a day for hawks, it seemed – we saw no other raptors, except for one Red-tailed Hawk late in the afternoon.

Even vultures seemed hard to find. We only saw one or two Turkey Vultures soaring – until mid afternoon, when we stumbled on a large and impressive gathering of vultures, maybe a roost area, in what seemed a very unlikely place, a small subdivision with few trees and small yards. But in the few, bare-limbed trees perched the black, hunched forms of scores of Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures. Overhead, many more circled, and as we settled in for a while and watched, hundreds of Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures sailed in from all around. It was a somewhat eerie feeling to watch as so many huge, black, funereal birds floated in over and all around us, and silently gathered.

Many More Rusty Blackbirds and a Windfall of Pecans

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

After several gray, chilly, rainy days, today was clear, sunny, and cool – though not cold. As usual in this busy holiday season, it was late in the day before I got outside for a walk, near sunset, and birds seemed scarce and quiet.

Then I began hearing Robins, Grackles and other Blackbirds, and came up over a hill and found a large flock of birds spread across the grass beneath pecan trees in several yards. Among them were a few Common Grackles, American Robins and European Starlings, but by far most of the birds were Rusty Blackbirds. There were many more birds in this flock than in the one I saw about a month ago, at least 300 Rusty Blackbirds, a conservative estimate.

Many of the Rusty Blackbirds were eating pecans – probably most of them were – and all were very active, moving around a lot, so the scene was lively and felt like a party, with a festive, busy and slightly frenzied mood. I watched several Rusty Blackbirds carrying what appeared to be whole pecans in their bills, running with them across the grass to escape competing birds. This has been a good year for pecans here, so there are plenty on the ground in many yards. Maybe the abundance was a cause for a kind of celebration – or at least an enthusiastic gathering.

A White-breasted Nuthatch

Friday, December 7th, 2012

The month of December has begun with several warm, sunny days. In the evenings, crickets chirp, and now and then I’ve even heard the raspy song of a katydid at twilight – that’s how unseasonably warm it’s been.

Today the weather turned a little cooler, in the 60s late this afternoon, with a clear blue sky and high cirrus clouds. Birds seemed mostly quiet when I first went outside, but as I was walking down a hill, a small flash of silvery gray flew past me like a missile, straight onto the trunk of a pine near the side of the road – a White-breasted Nuthatch. A small, short-tailed bird with blue-gray back, black cap, snow-white cheeks and a smudge of orange under the tail, it immediately began to move in a spiral up the pine, probing under slabs of bark with its long, slightly upturned bill.

I watched for three or four minutes as it spiraled around the tree, mostly moving upward, but sometimes turning sideways or upside down to examine a particular spot. As it moved and worked, it repeated a low, nasal, intimate, one-syllable call – answered by a second White-breasted Nuthatch making the same kind of call, from somewhere among the trees in a yard across the road.

During the past year, White-breasted Nuthatches have become more common in our neighborhood than they used to be. For several months now, I’ve heard their calls often, but it’s still unusual to see one here – though they’re the most common nuthatch in other areas. So it was fun to find one so close and easy to watch.

Except for the nuthatch, birds seemed quiet and widely scattered – no feeding flocks of blackbirds or smaller birds like sparrows and finches in the grass, maybe because it was late in the day. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings flew over. A few Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted from tree to tree, scattering check calls. Chipping Sparrows burst up from the roadside or a grassy yard here and there. One Yellow-bellied Sapsucker worked quietly on the trunk of a pecan tree. Some Dark-eyed Juncos flushed up from the ground with purring, jingling calls of alarm. Eastern Bluebirds sat quietly in the tops of bare trees, facing the lowering sun. Red-bellied Woodpeckers chucked and a Downy Woodpecker whinnied, two Mourning Doves flew past on whistling wings. Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, one Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a couple of Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in the woods, an Eastern Phoebe called tsup, and two or three Carolina Wrens sang and trilled.

As I came back down our street toward home, I heard again the deep, foggy hoots of a Great Horned Owl. Tonight I could only hear one. Since first noticing their calls in late November, we’ve heard them hooting several times, usually before and after sunset, always in the same general area, somewhere in the woods not far from our house, it seems. They sometimes sound very close, but it’s hard to tell.