Archive for August, 2013

Vireos Singing, and Red-shouldered Hawks

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

After an unusually gray and rainy summer, the end of August has brought several days of very warm, sunny, beautiful weather, a gift, with cool mornings, soft blue and white skies and light breezes.

Because summer birds have seemed so quiet and scarce this year, some I would usually see or hear almost every day now are less frequent and seem more special each time I find them. This morning, a Red-eyed Vireo sang its clear, quick, repeated series of phrases, in the trees around one corner, not far from the woods.

A Yellow-throated Vireo sang its similar, but more burry, mellow song in an area of crowded crape myrtles and tall shrubs. Though distinct, it was singing rather softly. Then it surprised me by coming out into the edge of the branches as it foraged, and showing its bright yellow throat and breast, yellow-green head, very white wing bars, white belly, and yellow spectacles around the eye.

A small round whirring form zipped past me, twittering as it went, and hovered over a big mound of orange and yellow lantana – a Ruby-throated Hummingbird. This is one species whose numbers seem to be about normal this summer. At least three or four now visit our feeder on the back deck almost constantly all day every day, and several of our neighbors also report watching hummingbirds at their feeders. Every once in a while, like today, one will pass me in other parts of the neighborhood, twittering as it zips by in a speedy blur, like a very tiny Road Runner cartoon.

Along a mostly quiet, wooded stretch of road, cicadas sang, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called spee, and a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered as they moved through some pines. The sudden, loud kee-yer calls of a Red-shouldered Hawk nearby were startling, and abruptly, a hawk flew out of the trees on one side of the road and glided on open wings across an open space and into more trees. It flew low across the grass and up as it came to the woods, showing a breathtaking view of the upper side of its checkered wings, and black and white banded tail. The warm deep-red shoulders glowed.

It disappeared into the trees, and was immediately followed by a second Red-shouldered Hawk gliding low along the same path, showing just a glimpse of its ruddy-red breast as well as the back, head and tail. One or maybe both cried kee-yer loudly several times more, after they were out of sight.

To see Red-shouldered Hawks like this, so close, and in such clear light and colorful detail feels dramatic and stunning. Their presence fills the moment in every way with life – and then, they are gone. Though not far. Much of the time they blend quietly into the trees, and sit unseen, like spirits of the woods.

Little Wood Satyrs

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

A little further up the road, two small, delicate brown butterflies fluttered low over a mixture of grass and short weeds along the edge of the woods. They paused to rest in the grass, sometimes with wings spread, and sometimes with wings held up, then fluttered up again but did not fly away or fly far, staying around this small spot for several minutes at least.  They were Little Wood Satyrs – moth-brown butterflies, small but not tiny, with wings patterned in soft, intricate shades and scalloped lines of brown, tan, and taupe, and several large dark eye-spots ringed in yellow around the edges of the wings.

Often found in open grassy areas in or near woodlands, they’re common and widespread in the eastern U.S., but uncommonly lovely, with a gentle, understated charm. They are known for basking on tree leaves or leaf litter in early morning and late afternoon with wings open, and for their slow, bouncing flight, usually close to the ground, though they also fly up into trees.

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

Late this morning, on a warm, sunny day, I heard the sweet whistle of an Eastern Wood-Pewee, coming from a pecan tree surrounded by tall shrubs, along a fence in a neighbor’s yard. A small, plain gray flycatcher with pale wing-bars and a slightly crested head, it perched on a dead branch of the tree and flew up several times to catch an insect, then returned to the same branch. It called several times in its shortened song, a down-slurred wheee-ooo.

The species account in Birds of North America notes, “Although still considered common in most of its range, this species declined significantly on its breeding grounds over the last 25 years, perhaps in part because of heavy browsing of forests by white-tailed deer.”*

This could help to explain why Eastern Wood-Pewees, whose song used to be a familiar part of summers in our neighborhood, have not spent summers here in the past few years – and probably why some other bird species have become much less common or are completely absent, too. A large number of white-tailed deer in woods around the neighborhood keep much of the undergrowth cleared out and significantly change the habitat.

I usually hear the song of an Eastern Wood-Pewee now only in migration – or at least, once the breeding season is over and birds have started to move – and especially in the fall, when sometimes one will stay around for several days.

*John P. McCarty. Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Gray Catbird Eating Poke Berries

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

This morning a big open blue sky marbled with high white clouds looked utterly empty as far as I could see, except for one soaring Black Vulture. Birds mostly were very quiet, just the chatter of Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice, the nasal calls of a White-breasted Nuthatch, and now and then a song or burbled call of a Carolina Wren.

It’s the time of year when the old field is at its most colorful, wild and overgrown, especially this year after so much rain. It’s rough and thorny with grasses, weeds, vines and shrubs, and for some reason the kudzu has not spread much at all. Along the roadside, foxtails have appeared among tall, tough green grasses that almost smother out the low-growing purple stiff verbena and a few yellow dandelions.

One of my favorite spots is a ditch along the edge of the field, where morning glories spill up and out through the weeds in a profusion of white, deep-purple, blue and pink blooms. Twisting among them and even further out among the weeds are the tiny bright blooms of red morning glories. And further out in the power cut, the first few big white blooms of wild potato vines have opened.

Sleepy Orange and Cloudless Sulphur butterflies and one burning-orange Gulf Fritillary fluttered by – and I’m sure there were many other butterflies I missed as I walked by this morning.

A Gray Catbird flew out of a thicket and perched on a tall, sturdy red stem of pokeweed, where it sat for several minutes, eating purple poke berries. Slate-gray all over, with a neat black cap, a slender bird with a long tail and bright dark eyes, the Catbird looked momentarily relaxed, at home among the thickets and weeds, and yet, its shadowy body seemed to hum all over with restless energy.

Though very active and vocal, Gray Catbirds are also secretive and stay hidden in low shrubby vegetation most of the time. I’ve been hearing its raspy mews in the field since mid July, but this was one of the few times this summer I’ve seen it.