Archive for March, 2013

Blue-headed Vireo

Saturday, March 23rd, 2013

On a stormy, dark, windy, rainy day, I hadn’t spent much time outside. Late in the afternoon, I had just returned from a trip to the store during a break in the rain, and was carrying in the groceries when I heard the song of a vireo. It was high and sweet and clear – a Blue-headed Vireo, singing from somewhere in trees on the edge of our yard. By the time I had gotten binoculars and come back out, it had moved further away, too far to see, but I could still hear the song for several minutes.

A Blue-headed Vireo used to be one of our earliest signs of spring, but I haven’t heard or seen one as often in the past few years, so I was disappointed not to be able to see this one. A small songbird with a blue-gray head and bold white spectacles, it moves steadily, deliberately through the trees in a characteristic, sedate way, searching the branches for insects. Though it’s not usually quick and fluttery as it moves, a Blue-headed Vireo often will fly up or hover to catch insects in flight. I first learned to know it as a Solitary Vireo, a name that still seems to me to fit it better, though Solitary Vireos now have been broken into three separate, similar species, each with a new name.

The Blue-headed Vireo’s song is a series of varied, short phrases, similar to some other vireos, but with a distinctive clear and airy quality, sung in a slower, almost dreamy way. The song sounds, to me, like the Blue-headed Vireo looks – cool, smooth, deliberate, pretty.

A Hermit Thrush

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013

The Spring Equinox came on a cool, calm, cloudy day that felt more like a farewell to winter than the first day of spring. The only sign of sunrise was a glow of orange that appeared and spread all across the eastern and southern sky for a few transcendent moments, then faded and was gone, leaving a moody patchwork quilt of clouds in many shades and shapes of gray.

The sunny song of a Louisiana Waterthrush rising from along the wooded creek was the clearest sign of spring, though many year-round resident birds also sang in the first light of the day – an Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinal, Pine Warbler, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, Chipping Sparrow, Brown Thrasher and Northern Mockingbird – and a few Canada Geese honked as they flew overhead.  American Crows cawed in the distance, and a Blue Jay cried. A pair of Eastern Bluebirds hunted together from low branches around the yard, and often perched on or near the bluebird box. A Mourning Dove cooed, two Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered, an Eastern Towhee called its rich chur-wheee, a Red-bellied Woodpecker called quuurrr, and a Downy Woodpecker drummed loudly on a large dead branch of a pecan tree. A Pileated Woodpecker flew across the road, the white in its black wings flashing, and a few seconds later I heard its trumpeted call.

Two Northern Flickers sat quietly together on a branch in a tall pine, side by side, both showing the striking, stylish markings and patterns of a Flicker – a black bib on the upper breast; smooth brown face and handsome gray head with long pointed bill, prominent black moustache and red crescent on the nape of the neck; black spots on the pale brown breast and belly, and barred brown back. Then one of them flew, flashing a very bright yellow on the under-side of the wings.

As I walked through the neighborhood, I found myself paying most attention to the winter birds that before too long will leave for the season. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered jidit-jidit in some bushes along the road. A quiet Yellow-bellied Sapsucker worked on the trunk of a pecan tree, its throat and crown both deep crimson; black and white stripes on the face curved down to meet a broad white stripe down the wing, and its belly was flushed with clear lemon-yellow. The zhreeee calls of a good many Pine Siskins still mixed with the mews of American Goldfinches.

Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted from tree to tree, calling check! Round-headed little Dark-eyed Juncos – dark, sooty gray with white bellies, pink bills, and white outer feathers in their tails that flash when they fly up startled out of the grass – mixed with flocks of other small birds feeding on the ground and with large numbers of American Robins. I heard the high, thin calls of Cedar Waxwings flying over in tight formation – and found literally hundreds of Cedar Waxwings perched in trees along the way, especially in two different areas at opposite ends of our subdivision.

The old field along the highway was mostly rather quiet, but one White-throated Sparrow sang its plaintive, whistled Oh sweet Canada, Canada.

In a wooded area where I’ve watched a Hermit Thrush several times this winter, I stopped, hoping to find one there. I gave up after a couple of minutes, seeing and hearing no sign of one, but had only walked a short way further down the road when I heard the familiar chup-chup calls, and found a Hermit Thrush perched on a very low branch near the edge of the road, almost right in front of me. It was so close, in such clear view that it felt like the gift of the day, almost too good to be true, set against a background of brown leaves on the ground, bare trees all around, and a gray, moody sky. The plumage on its back and wings was smooth, soft brown, the tail cinnamon, the breast with dark spots. It perched erect on the branch, holding its bill tilted slightly up, its wings held low. It watched me with a round, dark eye, raising and slowly lowering its tail, and calling a soft, liquid chup. I can’t know for sure if this is the same Hermit Thrush I’ve stopped to watch so often, but think it probably is, and if I don’t see it again this year, it was a sweet way to say goodbye.

A Louisiana Waterthrush Returns, and Great Horned Owls Hoot at Sunset

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Late this afternoon, the bright whistled notes of a Louisiana Waterthrush rose from down in the woods around the creek, the first one I’ve heard here this season. Its song – three or four clear whistled notes followed by a tumble of silvery chirping phrases – always feels to me like a flourish announcing the arrival of spring. It feels like the renewal of a promise when a Waterthrush returns, a sign that the woods and the creek are doing okay.

Though a Louisiana Waterthrush is a wood warbler – and definitely stays in the woods, close to the creek most of the time – it looks more like a thrush, with its smooth brown back, brown-streaked breast and white stripe over the eye, and a long, slender pointed bill. It bobs its tail as it walks along the banks or the rocks of a stream on bright pink legs. It’s an active, animated, expressive bird, lots of fun to watch and easy to find – but much of the time I’m just happy to hear its song and know that it’s there.

Later, not long before sunset, I heard the deep, foggy hoots of two Great Horned Owls again. During the past week I’ve heard them most evenings, usually just before or just after sunset. Last December, I also heard them almost every evening for three or four weeks – then not again until now. It’s possible I just haven’t been getting outside at the time of day when they are calling, so I don’t know for sure if they have been here since December, or if they come and go. It’s been a busy several months – so they could have been calling, and I just wasn’t hearing them. The hoots seem to come from the woods that cover the steep slope down to the creek behind many of the homes in our neighborhood – or they might come from trees along a power cut not far away. Sometimes they sound very close, but it’s hard to tell.

Field Sparrow

Sunday, March 10th, 2013

Late this morning on a sunny, cool day, a Field Sparrow perched on a ragged branch of a privet thicket in the old field. It was a day when a good many sparrows were active in the field – more than I have usually found there this winter. Most were White-throated and Song Sparrows, coming out to forage along the roadside in the rough, dry weeds and grasses. This one was a little different, a drab-colored sparrow with pale rufous and gray-striped head, a white ring around its eye and a pink bill. Unlike most of the other sparrows, it did not disappear back into the thicket when alarmed, but flew to another exposed spot on the edge of the bushes, and then to another, several times as I watched.

Field Sparrows used to be very common here, but in recent years they have become much less widespread, and around our own neighborhood and here in the old field, I see one only infrequently, and seldom hear their cheery, bouncing songs – and I especially miss those songs.

Field Sparrow populations are declining throughout their range, though they are still considered common and fairly abundant. They nest in scrubby, second-growth habitat like abandoned old fields and the edges of woodlands, but do not generally nest in developed suburban or urban areas, so in a county like ours, where fields and woodlands are being replaced with subdivisions and shopping centers, their habitat is being lost and I see and hear them much less often.

A Chipping Sparrow’s Song

Friday, March 8th, 2013

On a sunny, mild, spring-like morning, a Chipping Sparrow perched on a fencetop along the edge of a yard and sang – a long, sweet, level trill. The red-brown of its crown was very bright, its breast glowed smooth gray in the sunlight, its back a streaked dark brown, and a sharp dark eyeline marked the pale face. It’s the first Chipping Sparrow I’ve heard singing this season, and its trill was a new part of the soundscape, joining the songs of Brown Thrashers, Eastern Phoebe, Pine Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Eastern Bluebird and Carolina Wren.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed in trees around the edge of the woods, a Northern Flicker called a loud kleer, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered its jidit-jidit. The zhreeees of Pine Siskins mixed with the mews of American Goldfinches, a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered their squeaky, cheery calls; a Downy Woodpecker whinnied, a Red-bellied Woodpecker called quuurrr, and one or two Golden-crowned Kinglets in the bare limbs of some oaks called their high, whispery ti-ti-ti.

It was a gorgeous morning with a cloudless blue sky. Two Turkey Vultures and one Red-shouldered Hawk were soaring. Dozens, maybe hundreds of American Robins were scattered on the grass of yards all through the neighborhood. Bright and brassy and colorful, they’re everywhere – harbingers of Spring.

But it was the Chipping Sparrow’s trill that felt like the highlight of the morning – because it’s new. Even though they’re among the most common birds here year-round, they are favorites of mine, in part because, except when they’re singing, they are quiet, unobtrusive little birds, and often go unnoticed. Unlike the constantly chattering, familiar Titmice, Chickadees, and Carolina Wrens, the Chipping Sparrows call in plain quick chips.

During the winter months, dozens of them may be foraging in short brown grass along a roadside or in a yard, and I don’t even see them until something startles them and they suddenly spray up in a sparkling flash of wings, into nearby low branches, in a characteristic way. Even when they do start to sing, a Chipping Sparrow’s colorless trill is not flamboyant or musical, though it’s one of the most characteristic and common birdsongs in our neighborhood in spring and summer. It’s quiet and steady and plain – or seems to be, though when I listen closely, I often hear different qualities in the trill – at different times of day, or different times of the season, or different individual birds – subtle variations that are not obvious.

So I find them interesting, and think a Chipping Sparrow may like some quiet persons, not calling attention to itself, but when you get to know it, revealing unexpected facets.

A Cooper’s Hawk in the Yard

Friday, March 1st, 2013

When I got home, I noticed there seemed to be no small birds around the feeder or in the yard. Everything looked pretty quiet, but that’s not too unusual. So I was surprised when I got almost to the bottom of the driveway, and a fairly large gray bird suddenly flushed up from the ground behind some hollies and into a low branch of a water oak not far away.

It was a Cooper’s Hawk, and though I know size can be hard to judge, it looked quite large, with smooth gray wings and back, a long tail with bands of dark and light gray, and a ruddy-barred breast. From where I stood, the head looked dark and strong, and I could even see the red of its eye. It perched on the branch for several moments, turning its head to look around, with many of its feathers looking slightly puffed out, and ruffled by the wind.

When it finally flew, it spread its wings and sailed swiftly down, flaring the banded tail. It seemed to disappear into some large shrubs around the house next door, but I couldn’t tell exactly where.

It might have been hunting the Mourning Doves that hang out under the feeder, or Robins, or smaller birds – or maybe the chipmunks that we often see around these hollies and the edge of the driveway, right around where the hawk had been.

The Song of a Tufted Titmouse

Friday, March 1st, 2013

In another, more wooded part of the neighborhood, a Tufted Titmouse sang this morning. Many Titmice have been singing for a month or so now, and their whistled peter-peter songs are so familiar and common that I’m guilty of usually hearing them more as background sound, and not paying much attention to them. A small, silver-gray bird with bright black eyes and perky crest, white breast, and peach-colored patches under its wings, a Tufted Titmouse is among the most common birds around our yard and woods year-round, very often coming to the feeders and flocking with Carolina Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers and Brown-headed Nuthatches. Its raspy day-day-day alarm calls are frequently heard.

Maybe because this one was so close, in a tree by the side of the road, its song sounded particularly clear and pure, with a more complex quality in the notes than I’ve ever noticed before. Its simple, whistled peter-peter-peter suddenly sounded exotic. Each note carried a hint of a stringed sound, with a slightly varied quality, lyrical and expressive. I don’t think this particular song was unusual for a Titmouse – it’s just that I had never really stopped and listened carefully to one sing.

Song Sparrow Singing on a Tall Weed

Friday, March 1st, 2013

March arrived with a cold, breezy morning, and a brisk blue sky with lots of white clouds, and by late morning, a strong, gusty wind. In all the beautiful, cloud-clotted, blue March sky, I only saw a few Crows and one Turkey Vulture soaring.

Although the sound of traffic on the highway beyond the old field seemed especially loud this morning, a Song Sparrow perched on top of a tall, ragged stem of a weed among many weeds, on the edge of the old field – out in clear view. It was a particularly pretty Song Sparrow, with a russet and gray-striped head; short, thick, pointed bill; white throat bordered by dark patches, coarse dark-brown streaks on the sides, converging in a rather small dark spot in the middle of its chest; and pinkish legs. It sang several times as I stopped to watch and listen – against the background noise of the traffic and the wind. The song sounded hesitant and broken, not fluent, not confident, but enthusiastic and determined. Its long tail wasn’t twitching around nervously as Song Sparrows so often do. It sat still on the top of the tall weed stem and just sang, again and again, a series of creaky but musical whistles and chirps, ending in a trill.