Archive for January, 2013

Winter Music

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

In the deepest part of winter here, Pine Warblers begin to sing. Their musical trills move through the pines and bring a prelude of spring to the gray, bare-limbed woods. This winter season, I heard the first Pine Warbler’s song December 22, just after the Winter Solstice, and in January more and more have been singing.

A Pine Warbler is a small warm-yellow bird with gray wings, white wing-bars, blurry streaks on the sides, and a subtle ring around its eye. The only wood warbler that stays here year-round, it’s well-named, most often found in the pines. It’s not bright or flashy – especially a plainer, less-colorful female or juvenile – and can be hard to find as it moves through a tree, searching the needles for insects. Sometimes they’ll be out foraging on the ground with other small birds like sparrows, finches and bluebirds in grassy yards or along the roadside, yellow smudges of color glowing against a drab background.

While the Pine Warbler’s trill seems to me the emblematic birdsong of January, other birds already are singing now, too, and some recent early mornings have almost sounded like spring – especially through the middle of January, when we had several days of unseasonably warm, sunny weather. The Pine Warblers and Carolina Wrens have been joined by Tufted Titmice singing peter-peter, and the rich, flowing burdy-burdy-burdy, what-cheer, what-cheer of Northern Cardinals.

The songs are sung against a background of many other bird calls, mostly dryer and not so musical sounds, more wintery in their character – the chicka-dee-dee-dee of Carolina Chickadees and day-day-day of Titmice coming and going from the feeder in the yard; the ubiquitous caws of American Crows in the distance; the whinny and pink of a Downy and the rattle, chuck and quurrr of Red-bellied Woodpecker; the sweet, clear mew of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, sharp kleer of Northern Flicker, and now and then the emphatic peenk or kingfisher-like rattle of a Hairy Woodpecker as it flies to the trunk of a dead pine.

Ruby-crowned Kinglets stutter jidit-jidit in low shrubs, and occasionally there’s the high ti-ti-ti of a Golden-crowned Kinglet in the treetops – though they have not been abundant here in our neighborhood this season. There’s the cheery, squeaky-dee chatter of Brown-headed Nuthatch and nasal ahnk-ahnk of White-breasted Nuthatch; the high, thin tsees of a flock of Cedar Waxwings flying over in formation or perched like ornaments of glistening colors in a cedar tree; the dry check calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers as they flit from branch to branch; the soft, jingling ring of a startled Dark-eyed Junco, flashing the white sides of its tail as it flies up from the ground to a branch; the coo of a Mourning Dove; the blurry chur-a-wee of an Eastern Bluebird – already sitting possessively on top of the bluebird box; the short squeak of an American Robin sitting in a tree; the harsh jay-jay calls of a Blue Jay.

A mellow chup comes from a Hermit Thrush, its spotted breast and cinnamon tail screened by a tangle of low tree limbs; White-throated Sparrows hidden in thickets or bushes hiss tsseeet; a bold black, brick-red and white Eastern Towhee in a bare crape myrtle sings a bright chur-wheeee – and now and then we hear the deep, thrumming, foggy hoots of a Great Horned Owl around sunset, not every day, but pretty often.

The agitated cawing of a large number of Crows often means they’ve found a Red-tailed Hawk. I usually see at least one or two during a day – soaring, or perched on a pole overlooking the highway, or flying low across the treetops, pursued by Crows. One flew from a pecan tree in a yard as I approached, just this afternoon, its tail sunset orange. It landed in another tree way across the yard and then screamed, a good long scream.

The Red-shouldered Hawks have been mostly quiet lately, with a kee-yer call now and then, and the finest sight of one recent morning was a soaring Red-shouldered Hawk, its banded tail flared, its breast ruddy-red, the sun shining through the feathers of its wings. In contrast, the Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures are silent background birds, sailing and soaring and glistening on sunny days; shadowy on gray days, sitting hunched and gothic-looking on utility poles, or in a scrubby, craggy oak in the tangle of thickets and abandoned land between our subdivision and the next.

After thinking of all of these songs and calls, all these birds, it seems strange to say it – but overall, it’s been a rather quiet month, this January – quiet in the sense of fewer birds than in previous years. I have not seen the very large mixed flocks of blackbirds that in other years have been common here in our neighborhood – not even as many as just before Christmas. There are blackbirds now, but not nearly so many. I’ve also not seen the large mixed feeding flocks of smaller birds – the sparrows, finches, and others that usually spread out across grassy yards in fairly large numbers almost every day this time of year. This year, birds are here, but they seem to be more scattered, and fewer in number.

Because there’ve been many days this month when I’ve been out of town or for other reasons did not get outside, this may not be an accurate observation, so I’m not sure it’s true. Maybe I’ve just been out at the wrong times. But this is how it has seemed.

Brown Creeper – A Feathered Wisp of Magic

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

On a cool afternoon of soft sunlight barely showing through high, layered clouds, a small, slender, dark-brown spot shivered up the trunk of a pecan tree at the edge of our front yard – a Brown Creeper. It’s the first Brown Creeper I’ve seen in many months, maybe a year or more.

A tiny sliver of a bird, with a mottled, dark-brown back patterned in a way that blends in with the bark, a Creeper is often almost invisible. But its distinctive way of moving can catch the eye. Close to the tree on very short legs, it scuttles up quickly, insect-like, turning slightly this way and that as it spirals around the trunk, probing into crevices and under the bark with a down-curved bill. This one was near the bottom of the trunk when I first saw it, and I watched as it moved up – the brown, mottled patterns of the back, long tail, the snow-white throat, and especially that swift, slightly jerky, creeping movement.

It went around the trunk and up as far as the first large branch, then flew back down to the bottom of the same tree and made its way back up once more before flying to another tree nearby.

There’s a magical feeling about a Brown Creeper, in part because it’s so seldom seen, but also because, even when seen, it appears so much a part of its surroundings. It’s like a trick of the light, a flake of the tree that turns into feathers and flies, but not far, a small shift in the scene as it blends back in, and disappears.

A White-breasted Nuthatch, Hermit Thrush – and 21 Species in a Short Morning Break

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

Late on a cool, cloudy morning the front yard was active with small birds, and though there never seemed to be large numbers or a flock at any time, in no more than 20 minutes standing on the front porch, I saw or heard 21 different species.

A Northern Mockingbird sat on the feeder when I first came out – probably trying to monopolize it. But it soon gave up and flew away, and Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, a Downy Woodpecker, a House Finch pair, a Brown-headed Nuthatch and a Carolina Wren all came and went. Two Dark-eyed Juncos, a White-throated Sparrow and three, four, five Mourning Doves searched for seeds under the feeder.

A male Eastern Bluebird sat on top of the bluebird nest box – already looking possessive – up near the edge of the yard, and a female Bluebird hunted from low branches of nearby oaks, flying down frequently to pick up an insect or something. An Eastern Towhee called a rich chur-wheeee, and an Eastern Phoebe whispered tsup, tsup. Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from tree to tree, scattering check calls. Two bright spots of red, Northern Cardinals, foraged on the ground under shrubs near the road, a Red-bellied Woodpecker chucked and called its spring-like quurrrr, and a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet moved quickly and quietly through the branches of shrubs. Crows cawed in the distance, and several Canada Geese honked as they passed by.

A White-breasted Nuthatch – an infrequent visitor to our yard, though I often hear the call of one or two in the neighborhood – flew to the trunk of a pine, where I watched it spiral around, pause while upside down, and look up in its classic pose, showing off the sleek, sharp lines, the snow-white face and throat, black cap and blue-gray back.

But my favorite bird of the morning was a Hermit Thrush that flew in a flurry out of some bushes not far from the porch and into a Savannah holly tree beside where I stood, and perched there a minute or two, not far away, sitting very quietly among a tangle of branches and sparse leaves, maybe hoping to blend in. With soft-brown back and dark-spotted breast, it lifted its cinnamon tail and lowered it again, and watched me with a round dark eye.

The Song of a Carolina Wren

Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

The New Year began with the song of a Carolina Wren, its music bright and colorful enough to light up a morning of dark gray clouds and no sign of a sunrise. A cold gray rain began to fall, slow and steady, and it fell all day and into the night.

The small, feisty Carolina Wren, cinnamon-brown with a long, upturned tail, warm orange-buff breast and pale stripe over the eye, is such a familiar presence around our house and yard that I too often take them for granted. It’s the little brown wren that rustles in the bushes next to the porch, searches for spider webs all around the deck, stops by the feeder now and then, and so often tries to nest in a corner of the garage or in a hanging fern. A plain little bird with a glorious voice.

Bold, curious, and very vocal – with a wide repertoire of songs, trills, buzzing, scolding, burbles and other calls – the Carolina Wren is a compact feathered package of boundless energy and persistence. It’s assertive, active, entertaining and sometimes even comical to watch – but when it sings, the sheer beauty and power of its song can take your breath away. It sits on the deck rail here, head back, bill parted, throat throbbing, and its whole body bounces up and down with the passion of its song.