Archive for November, 2013

Brown Thrasher and White-throated Sparrows

Saturday, November 30th, 2013

The last few days of November have passed in a blur, the rush of the holiday season already upon us, it seems, along with several days of cold, heavy rain. Then the weather turned sunny, pleasant and cool, but still without much time to spend outside watching birds.

After weeks of looking very quiet and empty at times, the morning of Thanksgiving Day, our front yard suddenly seemed to be full of birds. Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, a Northern Cardinal, one Brown-headed Nuthatch, and a Downy Woodpecker came and went from the feeder. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered in one of the Savannah hollies. Mourning Doves flew up in a flurry of whistling wings from the ground. Carolina Wrens sang, burbled and fussed. Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted from branch to branch through the pecans and oaks. Five White-throated Sparrows and one handsome Brown Thrasher – the most fun to watch – foraged in the mulch around ferns, yews and Lenten roses, kicking up the brown leaves.

Hermit Thrush

Monday, November 18th, 2013

A good many small birds were active late this morning, on a clear and sparkling day, with blue sky, a few high white clouds, and a bright warm sun. The sunlight turned the lingering brown of the oaks to glowing copper and brought out the beauty in the last few orange and dull yellow colors of fall, so different from the way the landscape now looks on a cloudy day – and we’ve had so many cloudy days this year.

As I walked down the road, an Eastern Bluebird flew from a tree to the ground, breathtakingly blue. A dozen or more Chipping Sparrows scattered up from the grass into small trees. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered, and Yellow-rumped Warblers called chip as they flew from tree to tree. Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked up high in the pines, and one White-breasted Nuthatch honked its small, nasal call. A Red-bellied Woodpecker chucked, a Downy Woodpecker whinnied. A Northern Flicker called kleer!

In one of the more wooded parts of the neighborhood, a solitary bird about the size and shape of a Robin, but more slender, with a certain willowy grace, stood in the middle of the road ahead of me, head up, looking around. It was a Hermit Thrush – the first one I’ve found here this season. It was pecking now and then at a litter of leaves, pine needles and other debris in the road, washed down by recent rains.

It was especially nice to find a Hermit Thrush here, in exactly the same area where I often watched one last winter, near one particular yard with lots of hardwood trees and a scattering of young beech trees. Because it stood in a shady spot, I couldn’t see its markings very well or the rufous in the tail, but the spots on its chest showed up, and its shape and posture and behavior identified it well – the way it held its head, slightly tilted back, with the thin, pointed bill held slightly up. It twitched its tail from side to side – not raising and lowering it as it often does. When I took a couple of steps closer, it flew, along with several other, smaller birds feeding along the roadside.

Gray Catbird

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

On a dark-gray, drizzly day, flocks of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings filled the thickets and trees in and around the old field with a bustle of activity. The Robins squeakily called, perched in several trees, and restlessly flew back and forth across the road. I could hear the thin high tseees of the Waxwings, but couldn’t see them in the murky, misty light until they flew – one flock, then another and another, suddenly flying up and away, at least four dozen Cedar Waxwings, maybe more.

Then a raspy call came from a very tangled and weedy area across the road from the field – a Gray Catbird, perched on a low limb of a tree choked in weeds and vines. Dark-gray all over, the Catbird blended in with the shadows, but switched its tail back and forth assertively, and repeated its cat-like mew several times, a prickly, abrasive mew that reflected the scrubby, tangled surroundings a Catbird often loves.

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet Singing and a Red-tailed Hawk in Flight

Friday, November 8th, 2013

Late this morning I heard the quick, complex little song of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet coming from the thickets around one corner at the end of our street. The briskly whistled and twittered song sounds exactly like what I might imagine for the tiny, spritely bird. Hearing the song surprised me a little – it may not be unusual for it to sing in the fall, but I don’t remember noticing it often until the spring.

A Pine Warbler also sang its looser, musical trill in the woods, maybe in response to the lovely, cool, sunny fall day. A Northern Flicker clung to the trunk of a pine, feeding on the berries of a vine. A small feeding flock of birds moved through the woods, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, and Brown-headed Nuthatch, and I heard the nasal calls of a White-breasted Nuthatch in the distance. Yellow-rumped Warblers, lots of Chipping Sparrows, Eastern Bluebirds and an Eastern Phoebe foraged in the grass and hunted from low branches of trees in large rolling yards.

Several times I stopped to look for the Golden-crowned Kinglets I could hear – their calls like high, glassy splinters of ti-ti-ti, ti-ti-ti – but they stayed high up and hidden in the multi-colored mix of sunlit leaves and needles.

But another Ruby-crowned Kinglet was much easier to see, calling jidit-jidit as it traveled through a stand of privet along the roadside, bright-eyed and perky, moving quickly and lightly and close enough to watch its small round greenish-gray shape, bright white wing-bars, and white eye-ring. No ruby crest was showing. For a few seconds it hovered in the air over a tall weed, its wings a blur, then it flitted back to the privet and wild grape vines and other weeds.

A Red-tailed Hawk circled and climbed in a clear blue sky with blurry white clouds here and there. With large dark brown head, orange-red tail that appeared to be tipped in white, and broad, spread wings, and the pale of its under-side catching the light, it soared, rising above the traffic on the highway and all the roads and houses and noise in more ways than one.

Twelve Black Vultures circled together high in a loose column, climbing up, then sailing off toward the south, one after another.

Barred Owls at Sunset – Caterwauling

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Shortly after sunset on yet another warm, pleasant day, two Barred Owls called a raucous duet from the woods along a creek. The light of day and the colors of a golden sunset had begun to fade quickly. The owls – somewhere down in the woods, too far away to see – called cook-cook-cook-cook-for-YOUUUU-awwl, YOUU-awwl, and their cook-cook-cook-cook calls overlapped, and rose in intensity and broke into caws and cackles and a wild circus of sounds that lasted for only a minute or two before they abruptly fell quiet. In the hush that followed, crickets chirped, and even a few katydids still sang. An Eastern Towhee called a rich, mellow chur-wheee from the shadows of a darkening hedge.

Cooper’s Hawk and Red-tailed Hawk Soaring

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

Late this morning, on a cool, sunny, colorful, breezy day, two hawks soared high in a soft blue sky traced with white cirrus clouds – a Red-tailed Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk, both circling up in the same wide column of air. They appeared to come very close together several times, crossing paths, though they may not have come as close as it looked, and there was no sign of any contact or interaction.

But it was fun to watch them fly. Exhilarating. The Red-tailed Hawk rose in slow, steady, large circles with broad wings outstretched. The Cooper’s Hawk flapped frequently, then glided, then flapped again. It turned swiftly, its banded tail sometimes flared and turned, and other times held more narrow and long. Its chest glowed red-orange in the sun.

Cedar Waxwings

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

Soon after leaving the White-throated Sparrows, I heard the high, thin calls of Cedar Waxwings, and a small flock of about a dozen flew out of the treetops and away – the first Cedar Waxwings I’ve seen here this season.

All through the neighborhood this morning birds seemed to be more active than usual lately.  Ruby-crowned Kinglets called jidit-jidit in low branches and shrubs. Golden-crowned Kinglets called from high up in the pines, and Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered and squeaked. A Pine Warbler trilled a light, musical song. At least two dozen Chipping Sparrows flew up from the grass on the edge of one yard. Bluebirds flashed their colors.

Several Northern Flickers called their sharp kleer calls, and Eastern Phoebes sang and fussed in their chattery way. At least two Northern Mockingbirds were singing. A Hairy Woodpecker called an emphatic peenk! and then a long, rolling rattle. Two Black Vultures and one Turkey Vulture soared.

On the trunk of a pecan tree, a White-breasted Nuthatch crept up and around and down, probing the cracks in the bark, and pausing to crane its white neck up and look around. White-breasted Nuthatches have continued to become more common in our neighborhood over the past couple of years, though I still don’t see or hear them nearly as often as our more familiar Brown-headed Nuthatch.

White-throated Sparrows and a Fire Ant Nest

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

On a sunny autumn morning, with colorful foliage still all around, I stopped to watch three White-throated Sparrows that came out of a hedge of shrubs to forage in some grass along the side of the road. One looked like a young, first-winter sparrow, with muted colors and somewhat blurry markings.* The other two were vividly-marked large, plump sparrows, with clean white throat outlined in black; black and white striped head and face; and cinnamon, brown and black-streaked back, gray breast, and touches of gold above the bill.

The young sparrow hopped into the middle of a fire ant mound. It stood there and pecked at the loose red dirt and seemed to be eating ants – or something. At the same time, it frequently jumped and pecked awkwardly at its tail, as if it might be getting stung. If it was getting stung, it must have seemed worth it, because it did not leave the mound. It kept pecking and eating – and jerking around to snap at its rump, in a dance that looked pretty comical, but might have been really uncomfortable, if not dangerous for the sparrow.

One of the mature sparrows hopped onto the fire ant mound and displaced the young one, as if thinking this looked like a good spot. It pecked a couple of times, maybe eating ants, then hopped quickly off the mound and back to the grass, where it stayed. Then the young one came back and continued to peck at the mound and hop around in its jerky dance for a few more minutes, before it finally left the mound and went to forage in the grass instead.

I stood for several minutes watching, in part because the behavior on the fire ant mound was interesting, and in part because this is the first good view I’ve had of White-throated Sparrows this season, and they all looked very handsome. I’ve been hearing their songs and calls for a few days now, but these are the first I’ve seen so well. It’s nice to have them back.

*What appeared to be a first-winter sparrow might have been a different form of White-throated Sparrow known as “tan-striped,” with a face pattern that’s buffy and brown instead of white and black. I’m not sure I can tell the difference, though I assumed this one was an immature.