Archive for April, 2013

A Veery

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

A quiet, thrush-like bird foraging in weedy grass along the edge of a wooded area stood out brightly, impossible to miss – the smooth, pure, tawny color of its back and head seemed to glow. It was a Veery, a cool, elusive bird with a fluted, fairy-like song that I’ve rarely heard or seen – but knew immediately. It’s not a rare bird, but it’s rare for me.

Veerys nest in damp, deciduous forests in more northern parts of the U.S. and parts of Canada, and in forests in the mountains further south – but not here in the deep South, so we see them only in migration. They are known for the ethereal beauty of their songs at dusk.

When I stopped to watch, it flew up into a small tree not far away, still in full view and facing me – with pale reddish spots high on the chest, white throat and a bright white belly, and a thin eye ring that gives it a watchful look like a Hermit Thrush. After a couple of minutes, it flew back down to the ground, where it scratched around in the crumbling leaves and weeds. Then it flew again, this time further into the woods and out of sight.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen a Veery here in Summit Grove. With the Yellow Warbler from two days ago, that’s two new birds for the neighborhood this spring, a reminder that even in a year when migrants seem few and far between there still can be something new and unexpected.

Hidden in the New Green Leaves – Black-throated Blue Warbler, Female Scarlet Tanager, and Northern Parula

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

This morning a Black-throated Blue Warbler near the edge of the woods was close enough to see. It sang its buzzy beer-beer-beer-BEE as it moved through a tangle of wet green leaves in the undergrowth. First I saw its dark-blue back and the white patch in the wing, then it turned toward me, showing the black throat and snow-white belly – and it parted its bill and sang again – a beautiful view.

This last day of April has been a perfect April day, beginning foggy and cool, and slowly clearing. The pretty, jingling songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers still fill the trees, and I could also hear a Red-eyed Vireo, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Brown Thrasher, Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Great Crested Flycatcher, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and the mews of dozens of Cedar Waxwings. Three Chimney Swifts flew below the murky clouds, twittering.

I was checking out almost every small bird – most were Yellow-rumped Warblers – when one turned out to be a female Scarlet Tanager, olive-yellow with almost-black wings, eating a large fat green caterpillar.

A Northern Parula sang in the same area of trees, but was very hard to find among all the Yellow-rumped Warblers. Finally, I did succeed in catching just a very brief glimpse of its small, round shape with blue-gray head, deep-yellow throat and chest, white belly, and a fleeting impression of a dark coral band across the breast – and then it flew again. It was too high and moving too quickly among the leaves to see all the field marks – the green back, white wing bars and white crescents around the eyes. But even a shadowy glimpse like this made it feel closer and more real.

In contrast, the radiant red and black colors of a male Scarlet Tanager in a pecan tree stood out clearly. It sang, and gave its chick-brrr calls around our yard for most of the day. I am delighted to have it staying around, and also kind of amazed, it’s like having a celebrity drop by and stay a while.

Wood Warblers – A Fine Day Out

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Wow. After a night of heavy rain, this morning all the trees and shrubs and grass were drenched and dripping – and full of songbirds, including migrating warblers probably forced down by the weather – a Black-throated Blue Warbler, a Yellow Warbler, and two Western Palm Warblers, and a Yellow-breasted Chat.

I’m sure I only saw and heard a very few of many that may have been here, and it wasn’t as spectacular as a full-fledged “warbler wave,” but in a spring when it seems there’ve been very few migrating songbirds here, it felt like an abundance, and each one of the four species – two only heard and two seen – left a vivid impression.

Late in the morning, clouds still hung low enough for foggy patches here and there. The light was gray and misty, the air cool, with a light breeze. The first thing I heard when I stepped out the door – and the background music almost everywhere – were the songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers, the familiar drab little birds that have been with us in great numbers all winter and lately have begun to sing and to change into spring plumage. They fill the trees, and their songs are lovely, even if it is so often frustrating to look at all the birds flitting around in the dense green leaves – and 99 percent of them are Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called spee-spee. A Northern Mockingbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee and Chipping Sparrow sang; a Red-bellied Woodpecker called quuurrr and a Downy whinnied. Mourning Doves cooed.

As I was walking up a hill with woods and a creek along one side, I felt the shiver of a quiet, buzzy beer-beer-beer-BEEE coming from the woods, and stopped to listen. Beer-beer-beer-BEEE. It was a Black-throated Blue Warbler – a small, roundish warbler that lives up to its name – striking dark-blue on the back, with black face and throat and snow-white belly, and a small white patch in the dark-blue wing. Though I knew what it looked like, I couldn’t see the bird. It was a very small bird, too far back in the trees in an area with a lot of undergrowth, and even though I waited and listened for several minutes, hoping it would come closer, it did not. But its song was unmistakable, and it sang again and again – especially lovely in this misty, green-leafed setting.

A little further on, at the crest of a hill in a more open part of the neighborhood, passing the bubbly songs of House Wrens, the breeet calls of a Great Crested Flycatcher, the chatter of Chickadees and Titmice, the trill of a Pine Warbler – two small birds darted up and out of a pecan tree, then back into the foliage in a sharp, crisp way. I stopped just to check them out – and when the round, sunny head and breast of a stunning Yellow Warbler appeared out of the green leaves, I could not have been more surprised. It’s the first Yellow Warbler I’ve ever seen here in Summit Grove, and one of the few I’ve ever seen so well.

For just a moment or two, I had a very clear view – an all-yellow bird; warm, buttery, bright yellow, with blurry, red-orange streaks on the chest and sides. It disappeared back into the leaves, but I found it again, and was able to watch it through a screen of leaves for a few minutes more as it preened. It was quiet, not singing.

Walking on, I heard the songs of White-throated Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, American Robin and several Brown Thrashers. I had passed the old field and turned around and headed home, when I heard behind me a harsh, prickly chet-chet-chet-chet that sounded like a musical version of the dry and thorny vines and weeds in the field. I took a few steps back and heard it again – a Yellow-breasted Chat. It seemed to be singing from somewhere in a small chinaberry tree choked in vines and surrounded in privet, honeysuckle and other weeds – an odd song of whistles, hoarse notes, and the chet-chet-chet-chet. After several minutes, it moved even further away – so I gave up trying to see it and walked on, just happy to have heard its song.

Only a few yards further down the road, two small birds were flitting around in a large pecan tree at the entrance to our subdivision – two Western Palm Warblers. Because of the gray light, and the way they were moving around among the leaves, the view wasn’t ideal, but both slender little birds were pumping their tails energetically and constantly, in a way so typical of Palm Warblers there was little doubt. Watching them for a few minutes, I was able to pick out some of the markings – the reddish-brown crown, especially, and a dark streak through the eye, faint streaks on the sides, pale underneath, and a grayish-brown back. I could not see any yellow, on the throat or under the tail.

As if to make the day perfect, a Scarlet Tanager sang and called around the yard off and on all day. A Northern Parula sang its sharp, zippy song in the woods. And from deeper in the woods, along the creek, a Louisiana Waterthrush whistled its anthem. Though I don’t usually like to count birds, I couldn’t help it today, and counted 39 species in all, including eight species of warblers. On a day like this, it did seem worth remarking just on the numbers. A fine day out.

Scarlet Tanager

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

On yet another cool, rainy morning, a Scarlet Tanager sang from a branch near the top of a pecan tree on the edge of our yard. After showers all night and early in the morning, the rain had slowed to a fine mist, but the clouds were still low and the light very gray. In this quiet setting, the Tanager’s bright, insistent song stood out more vividly than its red and black colors.

When I first heard and saw it, I was working in the yard, taking advantage of the break in the rain. All I could see was a small, dark bird against a misty gray background, but the song was familiar. I was surprised, as I often am, to be reminded how small a Scarlet Tanager is – when seen through binoculars, its colors are so bold and dramatic that it often looks larger than life, or maybe that’s just the way I remember it, because it makes such a striking impression.

Once I had gotten binoculars, I watched for several minutes as it sang and sang from the same spot – it still looked small, but brilliant scarlet-red all over, with ink-black slashes of wings. Now and then, he threw in a chick-brrr, or just a sharp chick. While facing in my direction, he paused and preened, scratched his head with one foot, showing some small white flecks in the plumage. Then he turned around and sang some more. After several minutes, he flew into a tree in a neighbor’s yard, where he continued to sing.

Gray Catbird

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

While I was looking for the Blue Grosbeak, I had noticed some movement among the leaves of another tree in the same area of trees and shrubs, but lower and closer to me. When the Grosbeak flew, I took a closer look, not really expecting to see anything unusual – and found a Gray Catbird in sleek gray plumage and black cap, framed perfectly in lush green leaves. After a moment, it moved further back into the leaves – and then, from its hidden spot, it began to sing, a creaky, halting series of phrases of different kinds – whistles, squeaks, warbles, chirps. Now and then it added a sharp mew. Like a Mockingbird or a Brown Thrasher, a Gray Catbird strings together various mimicked sounds and songs of other birds, as well as phrases of its own, but its song is more interesting and curious than musical. Though secretive, preferring to stay mostly in brushy areas of shrubs, weeds and thickets, a Gray Catbird is a very animated and lively bird to watch. I know this is purely my imagination, but it appears to me a bird with a somewhat artistic temperament, reclusive but jaunty and flamboyant at the same time, with wry sense of humor and a unique sense of style – both in appearance and in song.

Blue Grosbeak

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

The rich, warbling song of a Blue Grosbeak was a nice surprise this morning, coming not from a sunny, open perch, but from somewhere deep inside the leaves near the top of a sweet gum. It was another cool, cloudy, windy day. The tree was in a tangled, shrubby area across the road from the old field, and because the bird was well hidden, it was several minutes before I could find it. But it kept singing, and I could see rustling patches in the leaves – and finally it came out, just enough to see. In shadowy spot where it sat, and in the gray light of the day, the Blue Grosbeak looked dark. I couldn’t see its deep, intense blue color, or the chestnut-orange wingbars, but it was clearly a Grosbeak, with a big, silver, conical bill, and as I watched, it flicked its tail from side to side, and sang again. Then it flew away, toward the field and out of sight.

Black-and-white Warbler and White-eyed Vireo

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

This morning – a cloudy, breezy, and very warm day – held the songs of two birds I usually hear much earlier in the spring or even late winter. A Black-and-white Warbler sang in a tangled area of shrubs and trees near the entrance to our subdivision – not an area where I would usually expect to find one. But its high, “squeaky-wheel” song was clear and sweet. In most years, Black-and-white Warblers are one of the first migrant birds to return or pass through the woods here, and usually I can count on hearing and seeing several – but this is the first and only one I’ve heard so far this season.

And in the old field near the highway, a White-eyed Vireo sang a crisp, percussive chick-a-perioo-chick! from somewhere hidden in a dense privet thicket. The traffic sounds from the highway were loud, and I could find few other birds in the field – an Eastern Towhee, Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, one Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Brown Thrasher singing in a chinaberry tree. A White-throated Sparrow whistled a sweet, long, full song.

Wood Thrush and Summer Tanager

Wednesday, April 17th, 2013

Early this morning (but maybe not quite early enough for the real first flush of birdsong) I opened the window beside the bed and lay back down and listened to birds singing – an Eastern Phoebe – often the first to sing; Northern Cardinal, a Tufted Titmouse that sang peter-peter so close and loud and repeatedly it became monotonous. Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Red-eyed Vireo, Brown Thrasher, Carolina Wren, Pine Warbler, House Wren, Brown-headed Nuthatch (not singing, but chattering), Eastern Towhee, the mews of Cedar Waxwings, whinny of a Downy Woodpecker – and then, miraculously, came the fluted notes of a Wood Thrush. It wasn’t close, but the haunting ee-oh-lay was unmistakable. As it sang, far away even to begin with, it drifted even further away, fading into the distance like the Wood Thrush in our lives – once a song I heard very often in the summer woods here, but now they are much less common. Still – not to complain – it’s beautiful to hear.

Much later in the morning, I heard the song of a Summer Tanager for the first time this season, singing somewhere near the edge of the woods, though not close enough for me to see it. Still later, sometime in the afternoon, the soft pik-a-tuk calls of a Summer Tanager laced through the trees around the back yard, another welcome, summery sound.

Great Crested Flycatcher and Northern Parula

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

On a clear, sunny, very warm morning, a strong whreeep and a guttural brrrrt announced the return of a Great Crested Fycatcher to the trees around our house. I couldn’t see this one, but on a walk through the neighborhood later in the morning, heard at least three other Great Crested Flycatchers, and found one perched out in full view on a branch of a pecan tree. It stayed in view for several minutes, calling brrrrt repeatedly, and moving around, as if it were a model on a runway, showing off all sides and angles – its handsome, big, gray crested head; the touch of cinnamon in the wings, and glowing lemon-yellow belly. It flared its long cinnamon tail, catching the sunlight in the feathers like stained glass.

In the trees between our yard and a neighbor’s, a Northern Parula sang – another first of the season migrant. It was singing and singing its buzzy song, a rising trill that trips over and down sharply at the end, somewhere high up among the leaves of water oaks and white oaks, and I never did succeed in seeing it – or distinguishing it from the many other birds in the same trees. There were dozens of Cedar Waxwings – maybe a hundred or more – and many Yellow-rumped Warblers, all moving around frequently, the Waxwings mewing and the Yellow-rumped Warblers singing.

I was looking for a very small, roundish bird with a yellow throat and breast, green back, blue-gray head, face and wings with two white wingbars, and a black and coral band across the chest. It stayed well hidden in the leaves, but its song was summery and good to hear.

A Yellow-throated Vireo, and the Tambourine Songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers

Monday, April 15th, 2013

This morning a Yellow-throated Vireo sang in the low limbs of the white oaks that hang over our back deck. When I heard the song from inside – especially the signature three-eight phrase – I went outside, only half hoping to be able to find it before it was gone, and was amazed to find it calmly singing from a branch so close I barely needed binoculars to see it well. Framed among the fresh-green new leaves of the oaks, almost at eye-level – olive-green head and back, bright yellow throat and breast, and striking yellow spectacles, two white wingbars – it was the closest and best view of a Yellow-throated Vireo I’ve enjoyed in a long time. As it sang, it moved slowly through the oaks, and then beyond, making its way through low branches around the edge of the yard and toward the trees next door – all the time singing and singing its burry, mellow phrases.

It was a clear, sunny morning with big white clouds, remnants of more rain showers yesterday, and many shades of very lush new green all around, as the leaves on most trees are out or coming out now. Yellow-rumped Warblers have begun to sing – the drab, brownish-gray, streaked little birds that all winter have spoken only in dry check calls as they fly – have now changed into spring plumage, coal-black, gray and white markings, with yellow patches on the sides and on the rump. There are so many of them, it seems as if they’re everywhere, filling the trees with their lovely, loose, musical songs, as if the leaves themselves were shaking like softly jingling tambourines.

Mourning Doves, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Brown-headed Nuthatch and two Downy Woodpeckers came and went from the feeder in the front yard. A Chipping Sparrow sang across the street, a Pine Warbler from nearby in the woods, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet in a wax myrtle. A Louisiana Waterthrush whistled from down around the creek, and a White-throated Sparrow from a hedge of dense shrubs. An Eastern Towhee called, and two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called spee-spee in an area of thickets and tall pines and sweet gums.