Archive for February, 2013

A Mockingbird’s Song

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

February came to an end with several days of cold, gray rain, broken by a sunny day or two, then more rain. Today was a chilly, windy, cloudy day, clearing, but the sky still crowded with gray and white, and small patches of blue. Now and then the sun came out, then slipped behind the clouds again.

Few birds were out in the strong, late afternoon wind. A Black Vulture soared, high and fast. Crows flew over and cawed. Lots of Robins and a small flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, with a few European Starlings and a very few Common Grackles fed in one yard, and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Chipping Sparrows in another, all staying close to the ground.

One Northern Mockingbird sang from a perch low in a bush, close to the roadside, the first Mockingbird I’ve heard singing this season.

As I walked along the edge of the old field, head down in the wind this afternoon, I saw mostly only brown, drab, flat weeds and grass, brushed with the soft gold-tan of broomsedge on the edge of the dreary thickets of vines and privet in the field. No sparrows came out today. Instead, along the roadside I passed a blue Bud Lite can, an empty, crumpled package for Camel cigarettes, odd bits of white paper and styrofoam, a plastic water bottle, a thin strip of orange plastic, a white elastic band for a ponytail, another Bud Lite can, some wrinkled cellophane, a piece of faded yellow paper with print on it, another plastic bottle, still half-full of dark soda – and four lush yellow daffodils blooming on tall, drooping stems in a clump of dark-green leaves.

Close to a Hermit Thrush

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

Late in the afternoon – the day still sunny and mild – the front yard looked and sounded as if a party were going on. Dozens of brash and brassy American Robins perched in trees, drank from the birdbath and ran across the ground in quick spurts. One of them somewhere was singing – a hesitant, tentative Robin song. Five American Crows strutted around the edge of the road.

An Eastern Phoebe sang as it traveled from spot to spot – and another sang in response from the yard next door. Yellow-rumped Warblers flicked check calls as they flew around in the river birches, maples and wax myrtles. On the feeder, a pair of House Finch, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, a Downy Woodpecker and several Chipping Sparrows jostled for space – only room enough for three or four at a time, at the most. Two Brown-headed Nuthatches darted in to grab seeds, then sat on nearby branches to crack them. Several Mourning Doves, Dark-eyed Juncos and more Chipping Sparrows picked up seeds from below the feeder. A Pine Warbler sang.

Then a small brown bird with a dark-spotted breast flew up into the Savannah holly tree beside the porch where I was sitting. I always forget how small a Hermit Thrush is, really. It looks larger when seen alone, especially through binoculars. This close – too close for binoculars – it looked very small and vulnerable, with smooth brown head and back; dark-spotted breast, and pale-ringed eyes that give it a perpetually watchful, guarded look. It ate a holly berry, then turned its back to me and sat very still, not even lifting its tail, for several minutes. Its feathers all looked fluffed out, in its wings and on the belly, and it held the tail down and still. Occasionally it looked over its shoulder toward me, looking at me with a round, dark eye, but still it stayed. Finally it turned around again – and then it flew. It never made a sound, except for the flutter of its wings.

It’s very different to watch a small bird like this – not removed by distance or binoculars, but just to sit there very close and share the space and the moment. Time does not stop. But it seems to.

After several minutes more, I began to hear the tsseeet calls of White-throated Sparrows and heard scratching in dry leaves. Gradually they began to emerge, materializing out of bushes not far away from me. Their plumage and patterns were vividly sharp, with russet, black-streaked back; smooth gray breast; black-and-white striped head; clean-white throat outlined in black, and the small smudge of gold above the eye.

A Chipmunk Hole Among Bluets

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

On my way back toward home, walking through a more open area, past yards dotted with pecan trees and houses surrounded in shrubbery, set back well from the road, a startled chipmunk suddenly dashed across the road in front of me – a small, striped, reddish-brown chunk of fur with an upturned tail – and disappeared into a sloping green bank along the side of the road.

In the spot where it had disappeared I found a neat, dark little hole set in a miniature lush green landscape. It looked charming, like an illustration in a children’s book. All around the entrance rose ruffled mounds of tiny green rounded leaves –speckled with delicate bluets in bloom. A Red-winged Blackbird sat in a bare-limbed tree above me calling a liquid churk, and an Eastern Bluebird sang.

Red-winged Blackbirds, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red-shouldered Hawk

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

On a spring-like morning in late February, cool and clear, with a deep-blue sky, not a cloud in sight, a Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren and Pine Warbler all were singing. A Mourning Dove cooed. A big, boldly colorful Eastern Towhee perched in the pale brown branches of a crape myrtle and called chur-wheee.

The wintery mews of American Goldfinches and zhreeee calls of Pine Siskins filled trees in the background, and American Robins were scattered everywhere, especially in large grassy yards. Red-bellied Woodpeckers rattled and called quuurrr, and Downy Woodpeckers whinnied, and one woodpecker somewhere drummed a loud roll.

A tiny Golden-crowned Kinglet called a whispery, high ti-ti-ti as it flitted around in some oaks, hard to see, but after watching it for several frustrating minutes, trying to follow as it moved so quickly and constantly – almost like trying to watch a flying gnat – I finally caught a glimpse of black and white stripes on the face – and a tart orange crown.

Carolina Wrens and House Finches sang, and as I walked up a hill in a wooded part of the neighborhood, I began to hear the conkaree calls of Red-winged Blackbirds. The flocks of Common Grackles and Rusty Blackbirds that were common here in December and very early January haven’t been around for quite a while now. The flocks were never as large as in previous winters, and they now seem to be gone. But there’s a relatively small flock of Red-winged Blackbirds around most days, maybe 200-300 birds at most, and usually only two or three dozen. This morning I found only a few feeding in the grass in one of their favorite yards with European Starlings and Robins, and a few more Red-wings up in the trees.

A Brown Thrasher sat in the top of a tree and sang a full, fluid song; a Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered its jidit-jidit calls from a hedge of hollies. One Black Vulture soared over, and a Red-tailed Hawk sat on top of a utility pole overlooking the highway beyond the old field.

Along the roadsides and in yards, yellow dandelions, purple henbit and bluets are in bloom; the dandelions dotting expanses of brown grass; the frail little bluets all but invisible unless you look for them; the henbit spreading in big dark purple patches, with Yellow-rumped Warblers and Chipping Sparrows almost disappearing as they forage among the faded grass and weedy flowers.

As I walked down a hill with lots of trees on both sides, the kee-yer calls of a Red-shouldered Hawk pierced the mostly quiet morning, and after a few moments, I could see it flying low just beyond a line of trees. Then it flew into sight, still calling, and perched in a very tall, bare-limbed sweet gum, out in full view. It sat with its back to me and its head turned in profile, and called over and over, a little different from its usual cry, though only slightly – almost one syllable instead of two – Kyeer! Kyeer! The colors and patterns of its plumage were vivid in the sunlight, the black back checkered with white and mixed with dark brown, the warm red shoulders and ruddy-red breast just barely visible from behind. When it flew, the tail fanned out, showing the bands of black and white.

Two Red-shouldered Hawks

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

As I was watching the Downy and the Siskins, I heard the choppy, agitated calls of a Red-shouldered Hawk not far away, and a minute or two later, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew out of the woods on the edge of the yard, and sailed low on outspread wings almost right over me, and up into a branch in the pecan tree in front of where I sat on a bench. As it flew over, it looked huge and its tail was spread, showing the bright black and white bands, and the checkered pattern of its wings, but its underside looked mostly pale, only vaguely reddish on the breast.

It perched on a branch with its back to me. Then, within a minute, a second Red-shouldered Hawk flew in from the same direction and swooped up onto the same branch, sitting very close beside the first one. This hawk sat facing me and sitting erect, showing a beautiful view of its head and face and richly ruddy, red-orange breast.

Both hawks sat there for maybe four or five minutes, the first with its back to me and tail lifted, so that it kind of stretched out in an almost horizontal position. I could see the warm, tawny-orange back of the neck and upper shoulders. The other hawk stayed facing in my direction. It turned its head, looking around, as if assessing the scene. Then it leaned back toward the other hawk, and the two may have touched bills – there were some small branches obscuring my view a little, so I’m not sure.

After another minute or two of just looking around, the hawk facing me spread its wings and flew, gliding low across the yard and into the trees across the street. The first hawk turned around on the branch so then I could see its breast – it was less-deeply colored than the other, but I think was larger, maybe the female.  Very quickly it, too, flew, following the other one this time, into the same area of woods.


Downy Woodpecker and Pine Siskins

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Later in the morning the front yard seemed busier than usual. The zhreeee calls of Pine Siskins were all around. A Pine Warbler sang. An Eastern Towhee called chur-wheee. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered its dry jidit. A pair of House Finches, the male bright red; and Brown-headed Nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, two Chipping Sparrows, a Carolina Wren and several Goldfinches – some beginning to turn bright yellow-gold – all came to the feeder in turns, sometimes three or four at once. White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos and Mourning Doves scratched for seeds on the ground.

The aggressive little brown-streaked Pine Siskins crowded the feeder three and four at a time, hovering and pushing, all trying to chase each other and other birds away. Most of the other small birds didn’t seem to be intimidated, except maybe the Goldfinches, which give up easily and fly away – coming back when the coast is briefly clear. The other small birds either ignored the Siskins or flew in quickly, grabbed a seed and flew away.

One Downy Woodpecker sat on a branch and watched three voracious Siskins on the feeder below for minute or two, with its head cocked to the side. Then it flew down to the feeder and sent the Siskins scattering away. The Downy – a regular visitor that often shares the feeder with other small, but less pushy birds – clung there and sort of shook itself all over, feathers rumpled, and looked around, as if generally annoyed and offended by these rude and pesky little intruders.

Brown Thrasher Singing

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

A swarm of Black Vultures slowly swirled in the distance, in a big open blue sky, with high, thin veils of white clouds around ten o’clock this morning. A solitary Turkey Vulture tilted low overhead. It was a peaceful morning, clear and cool, with the songs and calls of several birds, including most of the usual suspects. Pine Warblers and Eastern Phoebes sang, and Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals and Tufted Titmice. A scattering of American Robins fed in yards with Yellow-rumped Warblers and Chipping Sparrows. Pairs of Eastern Bluebirds flashed their colors. The zhrees and mews of Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches filled patches of trees.

And somewhere high up in a scrubby patch of water oaks, privet and withered vines, a Brown Thrasher sang.

Almost a week ago, I heard the first tentative notes of a Brown Thrasher coming from a much lower spot, hidden in the hollies, gardenias and other shrubs around the entrance to our subdivision. Its notes were hesitant and widely spaced, and it fell silent when I stopped to listen.

Today, the song was full, with paired notes flowing, though still a little rough around the edges, and the singer was not yet sitting up in the top of a tree in the open where I could see it.

Eastern Phoebe Singing

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

This morning’s sunrise singer was an Eastern Phoebe – for the first time in several weeks or maybe months – singing outside our bedroom windows as the sun rose in a colorful, clearing sky. Later, as I stood at the kitchen window cleaning up the breakfast dishes, I watched a Phoebe moving from tree to tree around the back yard.

Not to be outdone, a boisterous little Carolina Wren perched on the corner of the deck rail and raised its voice in a high-energy, full-intensity performance – while the Phoebe, cool and shadowy, lisped its song and flitted around.

Pine Siskins

Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

On a cold, crisp, sunny morning with a clear blue sky, the bare limbs of the trees all around the front yard hummed and sizzled with a sibilant rustle. A pair of Eastern Bluebirds hunted together, the male from a perch on top of the bluebird box, the female from branches nearby. Chickadees, Titmice, a Brown-headed Nuthatch and a Downy Woodpecker came and went from the feeder. A Pine Warbler sang.

Then – zzhrreeeeee. The strangely entrancing, rising, metallic call of a Pine Siskin emerged from the low, constant sizzle of calls in the trees, mingled with the mews of American Goldfinches. A Pine Siskin flew to the feeder, quickly joined by two more. Diminutive, slender, brown-streaked birds with short, pointed bills, and a touch of yellow in the wings, Pine Siskins seem to have arrived in great numbers all over this part of Georgia the past few days or weeks.

Pine Siskins breed in more northern and western parts of North America and migrate south for the winter, but their movements are described as nomadic – variable and unpredictable, apparently depending on availability of food sources, especially certain kinds of seeds. Some years they arrive here in large numbers, while in others few are seen. Because we don’t have a thistle feeder this year, I didn’t expect to see many around – but today they were coming to an ordinary block of songbird feed – mostly sunflower seeds, with millet, safflower seeds and peanuts.

Despite their tiny size, Pine Siskins are aggressive and voracious, even fierce feeders, lunging not only at other Siskins, but also at much larger birds, trying to dominate the feeder. The Chickadees, Titmice, Downy Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatch and other frequent visitors seemed undeterred while I was watching, more or less ignoring the Siskins – but the Siskins had a big advantage in numbers. I couldn’t see how many were in the trees, but it sounded like quite a few.

I have mixed feelings about Pine Siskins, finding them disconcerting to watch at times, but intriguing and uncommon visitors. And I love to listen to their edgy, sliding, electric calls, like a current of alien music.