Archive for October, 2013

Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, White-throated Sparrow

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

This morning the high thin ti-ti-ti calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets moved through the tops of pines and oaks on the edge of the back yard. With a layer of shining white clouds covering the sun in the background, the tiny birds high up in the trees were almost impossible to see, but I caught broken glimpses of one small gray bird, with its black-and-white striped face and golden crown and white specks of wingbars as it flitted quickly through the branches.

I heard their calls two days ago for the first time this season, and today brought two more new arrivals of winter birds – a Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered jidit-jidit in the thickets around a corner at the end of our street. And in the old field just outside the neighborhood, the whistled Oh sweet Canada song of a White-throated Sparrow rose above a loud roar and rush of traffic.

It has seemed to me that winter birds have been very slow in returning this year, though maybe I’m just impatient, as always. These last few days of October have been quiet, though warm and sunny, colorful autumn days with showers of leaves drifting down gradually, and brown leaves beginning to pile up on the ground. Fall foliage has changed the light from green to orange and gold, with a kaleidoscope of colors all around in yellow, scarlet, coral, wine, rose, ochre, tan and chestnut, and more.

The writing spider that hung in its web outside my office window for 15 days is gone now. It disappeared after our first hard freeze and heavy frost about a week ago. The remains of its web with the thick white writing still hang outside the screen, and a few curled black shells of insects lie on the window ledge.

Since then, warm weather has returned, and today has seemed the perfect last day of October – if anything, a little too warm, in the upper 70s. Crickets and grasshoppers are singing again, and I’ve even seen a few small orange and yellow butterflies. A soft blue sky is veiled in clouds, with more clouds moving in and rain in the forecast for the night and for tomorrow. There’s a dreamy, dusky-orange light, and it’s breezy, with lots of leaves tumbling and showering down.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Friday, October 18th, 2013

After a cloudy, drizzly day yesterday, a very light rain continued into the night. By morning the sky had cleared, and the sun rose in a blue and salmon sky. A Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Towhee, Tufted Titmouse and Carolina Wren all sang.

A little after nine, high white cirrus clouds swept across a clear blue sky, and the air felt cool and crisp – a gorgeous fall morning. A small bird flitted from one maple tree to another – still thick with green leaves – calling a sharp, dry chip! Our first-of-the-season Yellow-rumped Warbler.

A Halloween Writing Spider

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

A big, long-legged, black, orange and yellow writing spider has spun its web right outside my office window, and has been there now for about a week. It hangs there head down and impressive – the perfect Halloween spider, with long, slender orange and black legs spread out over the thick white zig-zagged “writing” in the center of its orb-web. The plump, egg-shaped black abdomen is vividly patterned in yellow spots. This window is on the third floor of our house – a long way from the ground.

The first morning, the writing spider (Argiope aurantia) had captured a katydid. With its long, green folded wings, the katydid looked just about as large as the spider itself, so it looked like too much to handle. But I later read that a writing spider can take prey up to twice its own size. The spider held the katydid by the head or upper parts, and appeared to be in the process of wrapping it in a thin layer of silk.

By late in the day, the katydid lay on the window ledge below the web, a discarded shell, still only partially wrapped in spidery silk. There appeared to be little remaining except for the wings. I think the body of the insect, or its contents, had mostly been consumed.

The next morning, the first katydid shell still lay on the ledge, and the writing spider was holding a freshly-caught big green katydid. Again, the insect appeared to be partially wrapped in silk, especially the upper parts but it also looked as if the spider was feeding on the katydid at that time. After that, I noticed that the window ledge below the spider’s web holds not only the discarded shell of a katydid, but also several other smaller dark and dry-looking remnants of insects. As far as I can see, there are no insects wrapped in silk and stored in the web, though there may be a part of it that’s out of my sight.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – First of the Season

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

About the middle of the afternoon today, through an open window, I heard the mewing of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The calls seemed to be coming from a large pecan tree not far from the house. I didn’t see the Sapsucker, but the mewing calls were distinct, and sounded both sweet and tart – reflecting the colors and scents and feel of the season.

Three Blue Grosbeaks

Sunday, October 6th, 2013

Early October’s stretch of warm sunny days has continued, with almost no sign of fall color in the trees yet, though dry leaves have begun to drift down. One of the nicest parts of a walk late this morning was stopping for a few minutes to watch three Blue Grosbeaks in the field and on the edge of an old oak grove across from the field.

With a hard, distinctive chink call, a brown bird flew up from the field onto a wire where it sat for several moments. It had a long, restless tail, a slightly crested head, and in direct sunlight looked golden brown. When it flew across the road into the more shaded light of oaks and other small trees, its colors turned warm, tawny brown all over, with rusty wing bars.

Two more Blue Grosbeaks flew up out of the weeds along the edge of the field, and followed the first into the oaks and the smaller trees below them. Both of these birds showed patches of blue mixed in with the brown of their plumage. They all exchanged chink calls almost constantly as they moved around in the trees, and before long, had moved further away and out of sight.

Magnolia Warbler – A Pearl Among the Leaves

Friday, October 4th, 2013

Despite a crisp, sunny fall morning, with a clear cerulean sky, very few birds were active in our neighborhood. Even most of the usual suspects seemed rather quiet, except for the Crows and Blue Jays. If there were migrant songbirds passing through, they were well concealed in the trees and shrubs and thickets, which is where I found just one, a pretty gray and yellow bird – a Magnolia Warbler.

I had stopped beside a densely tangled area of privet and trees along the road that’s a favorite with many different kinds of birds. At first the leafy vegetation all looked quiet and still. Then a small movement rustled in a large dogwood with lots of red berries.

After I watched for a few minutes, following the rustling leaves, a smooth, round gray head with a thin white ring around the eye emerged from the leafy cover for just a few seconds – then disappeared again. As it continued to move, foraging for insects in the tree, I saw a flash of bright yellow throat and breast, two narrow white wing bars, and a clear view of bright white under the tail.

For several seconds, all I could see was the under side of the tail itself – clean white with a very dark (it looked black) tip. Finally, the quiet little bird moved into a more open patch where I could see it all, and put the pieces together – an immature Magnolia Warbler. Like many warblers in the fall, its plumage was a more subdued, less flashy version of its full, very colorful and more easily recognized breeding plumage.

That often makes watching warblers in the fall confusing, but it also can make finding one feel like discovering a little unexpected jewel in a hidden spot.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013


A loud squeak – exactly like the sound of a sneaker squeaking on a floor – caught my attention late this afternoon just as I had started to walk up our driveway. Following the squeaking calls, I found not one, but three Rose-breasted Grosbeaks in a white oak tree.

The first one I saw was a first-winter male, I think – a lightly streaked tawny-orange breast, black crown with white and dark-gray stripes on the face, and two indistinct white wingbars.

Then I saw the mature male – spectacular! I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an illustration or photo that captures the full impact of these birds. For some reason I’m always a little surprised that a Rose-breasted Grosbeak is such a big bird, strong, broad-chested and solid in appearance, not at all chunky and round, as they often appear in pictures. But it’s the colors, of course, that are always so breathtaking – large black head and big conical beak, black back with prominent white wing bars, and very white belly; and the deep-rose pattern on the breast that bleeds down like a wounded heart.

Then I saw a third Grosbeak, a female, with boldly-striped brown and white face and streaked breast.

I stood below them watching as they moved around and gave the squeaking call several times. They appeared to be foraging in the oaks, maybe for caterpillars. Their main diet in migration is said to be berries, but they also eat a lot of insects.

Just about that time a truck came down our driveway and the Grosbeaks all flew. I heard the squeaking call coming from not too far away, but was unable to locate them again.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Swainson’s Thrush

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Late on a warm, sunny, beautiful fall morning – blue sky covered loosely with a quilt of soft white clouds – a Yellow-billed Cuckoo was quietly feeding in the leafy shadows of one of many trees in a dense thicket of privet, vines, and other shrubs and weeds. I had stopped to check out the area because it’s often a good spot for birds. A large dogwood tree on the edge of the thicket is full of red berries. The Cuckoo was further back among the leaves of an elm, and at first I could only see a part of its distinctive velvet-brown head and back, and creamy white throat. But as I watched, it gradually moved enough into the open to see a full view, even the subtle, pale-rufous color in the folded wings, the down-curved bill, yellow on the lower part, and the long tail, with big, dramatic white spots on the dark under side.

On the other side of the thicket, in shrubs near the ground, a Swainson’s Thrush emerged just long enough to see its olive-brown back and head, buffy face, pale eye-ring and spotted chest.

These two were the only migrant birds I found this morning, but other birds seemed much more active than in a while, so that the neighborhood felt more lively, with an energy in the air. A Pine Warbler sang.