Archive for January, 2014

Golden-crowned Kinglets

Friday, January 31st, 2014

On the last day of January, a few last traces of snow still lingered in the shadiest spots, especially in the woods, the brown landscape dotted and frosted here and there with white. But by late afternoon the day had become sunny and balmy, almost warm, with sunlight that seemed to illuminate details with unusual clarity.

The crimson throat and crown of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker glowed like glass as it clung to the trunk of an oak. The bold, curving black-and-white striped patterns of its face, the broad white stripe down the wing, and even the yellow flush on the belly looked vivid and fresh.

A White-breasted Nuthatch working over the trunk and branches of a large old pecan tree showed a snow-white face and throat, ink-black cap, and steel-blue back, as it paused now and then to raise its head and bark a nasal call. It crept up and down and around and sideways, paying special attention to the forks in the branches, and where the branches met the trunk.

But the prettiest surprise of the afternoon was finding two Golden-crowned Kinglets in the treetops of a scrappy, patchy area of gray water oaks. I heard their high, thin ti-ti-ti calls and stopped to look for them, without much hope of being able to see them very well, because they were up so high. Although a few Golden-crowned Kinglets have spent the winter here, and I’ve heard them now and then, I haven’t seen them often this winter.  This time I could see two tiny birds flitting over the branches in the treetops, too high to see their markings clearly at all – but as they went, they turned sideways and upside down, and the sunlight caught the black-and-white stripes on the face, and the bright yellow of their crowns several times – turning them into the gold of their name. A perfect touch.

Fox Sparrow

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

Wow. In a weedy area of bushes and withered vines along the edge of an old grove of oaks, I was watching for sparrows, towhees, maybe a thrasher, but so far hadn’t found any in this particular place. It was late in the afternoon, still cold enough so that remnants of snow remained in many places, but the sky was clear and sunny.

Some movement and a glimpse of bright red-brown among the tangled branches caught my eye, and I stopped to look. The sunlight was perfect, coming from behind me, though at first I still could only see glimpses of the bird rustling in leaves on the ground – a bright red-brown tail, then the shape of a big, plump sparrow, and then it turned so that I saw its head and face – elegantly marked in soft gray and red-brown with a large conical bill. It was a Fox Sparrow, a shy and beautiful bird whose appearance lives up to its name, with a mix of red and gray colors that can vary greatly in pattern.

The sparrow quickly became very still, knowing it was watched, half-hidden among the dry brown vines, branches and grasses, but because of the clear light, I now could see it fairly well. It stood with its back to me, looking over its shoulder toward me and nervously flicking all over, just slightly.

The expressive tail was a rich, blazing red-brown, looking especially brilliant in the sunlight. The wings and back were a mix of red-brown, dark-brown and gray; the white breast thickly spotted and streaked with deep red-brown, especially in the center of the chest, and the throat clean white. Blurry streaks of a more muted, reddish brown marked the sides. The whole bird was an alluring mix of colors and patterns so subtle and appealing that I could have watched for a very long time, lost in some realm of imagination.

So I wanted to keep watching, but felt guilty for frightening the reclusive bird and causing it to pause in finding food on such a cold day. After a few moments, I took a step back, to see if it might think I was leaving – and amazingly, it worked. After I took just one small step backward, the sparrow immediately began to move again, and went back to foraging in the leaves as if I’d gone, giving me an even fuller and clearer view.

It moved in a quick and delicate way, with a lightness and energy, and stayed close around this same area to forage, scratching up leaves with its feet in a two-legged hop like a towhee, and feeding.

It was a fascinating sighting, and so nice to have such a clearly lit, close, long view. I think this is only the second Fox Sparrow I’ve seen here in our neighborhood, and the first in at least two or three years. They probably are here more often, and I just overlook them. Although a Fox Sparrow is one of the largest and most colorful of sparrows – dramatic and memorable in appearance – it’s not often seen, because it’s a shy bird that prefers dense, brushy vegetation in the woods. A bird of the far North, it’s only here in the winter months, and usually seems to forage in small groups, with a few other Fox Sparrows, or with other ground-feeding birds like sparrows, towhees and thrushes.

Four Hermit Thrushes after a Snow

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

Yesterday a light dusting of snow was just enough to leave the landscape looking iced in white – and enough to cause schools and businesses to close, and massive traffic jams in Atlanta.

Here we were lucky, with no problems, and today some snow still lingers in shady places. It’s a sunny day, but still quite cold. Late this afternoon I was surprised to find relatively few birds active around the neighborhood – I had thought the sun might bring more out – but even more surprised that among the few I saw were four Hermit Thrushes in four different places.

The first one was sitting among the bare branches of a small maple tree, repeatedly calling its liquid chup, chup. The small tree stood on the chillier, shaded side of a hill. The feathers of the thrush looked very ruffled up in the cold, but the dark spots on the throat and breast were easy to see, and it continued to call as I stood below the tree to listen and watch.

The second Hermit Thrush looked more comfortable in a warmer spot, foraging with several White-throated Sparrows, a Brown Thrasher, and a pair of Eastern Towhees on a sunlit grass-covered slope lined with a rough hedge of shrubs. The thrashers and towhees stayed mostly up under the shrubs, but the Hermit Thrush came out further onto the sunny, open grass, along with the sparrows – a slender, robin-like bird with brown back and wings, warm-cinnamon tail, and prominent dark spots on the throat and breast. It stood erect, with head held high, in a watchful manner.

The third one was foraging with several American Robins – and when I first saw it, I thought no, it couldn’t be another one – but it was. As I walked closer, at first the robins and thrush all hopped away from me, preferring to hop or walk, and not fly – but when I finally got too close, the robins all flew to nearby shrubs – but the Hermit Thrush just kept hopping ahead of me, head up, looking startled, but not flying, even as I walked on past.

The fourth Hermit Thrush perched on a branch of another small bare tree along the side of the road – again in a sunlit spot. Several Chipping Sparrows and a few Yellow-rumped Warblers and Eastern Bluebirds perched in other small trees and shrubs in the same sunny area, and flew from spot to spot.

It’s not uncommon to find a Hermit Thrush here, and I’m not at all surprised to know there might be several spending the winter in the neighborhood. There are certain spots where I usually look for one. But most often they’re so quiet and unobtrusive that they easily escape notice, so to find so many on a single afternoon is unusual – and a delight. The behavior of all four also reminds me that, although Hermit Thrushes are reclusive and quiet, they’re not necessarily shy.

The Sounds of Blackbird Wings

Monday, January 27th, 2014

Again this afternoon, a large flock of blackbirds came through our back yard and woods and stayed around for an hour or more. Today the weather was warm and balmy, with a silk-blue sky and only a few high, scattered white clouds.

Despite the calm weather, this time the birds were very difficult to see, because the sun was shining almost directly behind them. Also, the flock seemed even more skittish and flighty, with large numbers of them frequently moving from place to place, flying up into the trees, then dropping down to the ground again. The only ones I could see or hear for sure were Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds.

Like all blackbird flocks, this one was loud, with a constant mix of harsh creaking, gurgling, and trilling calls that all together wouldn’t usually be described as peaceful or pleasant. But in contrast, the sounds of their wings can be enchanting.

When a large number of them burst up into flight at once, they make the very familiar sound so often heard in large flocks of blackbirds – like a blanket being snapped in the wind, a sudden clap, followed by a big, rushing swoosh of their wings all together. A fraction of a second before this burst of wings, there’s a sudden, abrupt silence of their clamorous calling – then comes the clap and the swoosh – and then the calls begin again immediately as they settle into a different spot, usually in the trees.

Today I also was charmed by another sound of their wings that I don’t remember noticing before. A large part of the flock had been startled into flying up into the trees just inside the woods. Their calls began again the second they touched the trees. After no more than a minute or two, a few began to drop down to the ground again and began tossing through the leaves – and then a great number of them began to shower down out of the trees to the ground, not all at once, but a flowing curtain of fluttering birds – and the sound they made as they came down was magical – a quiet sort of whispering, hissing, crackling, like the sound of sleet pattering down, dozens and then hundreds of blackbirds at a time.

Brewer’s Blackbird

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

In another part of the large, widespread flock, several Red-winged Blackbirds, a few Common Grackles and American Robins were tossing up leaves on the floor of the woods, and among them was a very plain blackbird that caught my eye because it looked different from the others. It was slender, with a thin straight bill, and plumage that was a very plain, drab gray all over – maybe it was grayish-brown, but it looked shadowy gray – with slightly darker wings, and its eye was dark, not yellow or pale. I think it may have been a female Brewer’s Blackbird.

Rusty Blackbirds

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

This afternoon a large flock of blackbirds arrived with a great deal of commotion in the trees around our back yard, and in the woods that stretch downhill, beyond the yard. Hundreds of blackbirds perched in the trees and dropped down to forage on the leaf-covered floor of the woods. The flock included Common Grackles, Red-winged Blackbirds and Rusty Blackbirds, at least a thousand birds in all, a very rough, conservative estimate. A good many American Robins were mixed in with them, probably here before the blackbirds flew in.

The flock stayed around for almost an hour. The day was chilly, half-sunny and very windy, so the pines were tossing and the hardwoods creaking in the gusts. Although the blackbirds all were constantly moving from tree to tree and trees to ground, it was still possible to get some beautiful views through a scope set up on our back deck. The best view was of a group of several Rusty Blackbird males foraging together in a sunny spot, where the yellow eyes, buffy eyestripe and rusty stippling on the back and chest showed up unusually well.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Friday, January 24th, 2014

In a bed of brown leaves on the ground around a weedy hedge of bushes, trees and vines, several different songbirds foraged – together, but in different ways.

A pair of colorful Eastern Towhees – the male black, brick-red and white; the female brown, orange-red and white – and half a dozen White-throated Sparrows scratched up the leaves with their feet, hopping on two feet at a time to kick the leaves backward, then pecking at what they might find, maybe seeds, berries, insects, or spiders. A big, brassy Brown Thrasher went at it head first, instead, tossing up leaves and soil with its long curved bill.

While the towhees and thrasher stayed very close to the base of the shrubs, where the leaves and the cover were deepest, the White-throated Sparrows ventured further out into the open, hopping, scratching and pecking at the ground, and also watching each other. Several times one sparrow quickly flitted to take over a spot where another was, as if it thought the grass was greener – or the leaf-mulch richer. So the sparrows looked at times as if they were constantly in shifting motion, trading places, each one never quite satisfied with where it was, and trying somewhere else.

Once the thrasher flew aggressively to the spot where the female towhee was scratching – only two or three feet away – and she temporarily flew out of the way, but she didn’t go far, and returned when the thrasher went back to its spot.

A Northern Mockingbird made several short, agitated flights into the group of ground-feeding birds, lunging at one or two of them, maybe warning them away from its territory, which seemed to be around some more open, manicured shrubs a few yards away. The other birds moved out of its way briefly, but mostly seemed to ignore it.

A tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew into a privet shrub in the thicket, and began to flit over its branches, flicking its wings and feeding by gleaning from the branches and leaves.

Red-headed Woodpecker Drinking from Birdbath

Friday, January 24th, 2014

A young Red-headed Woodpecker continues to be active and usually easy to find around the same wooded yard near a creek where it’s been since early December. Almost every day I’ve walked past there since then, I’ve seen or heard it, regardless of the time of day. It seems to stay very close around this relatively small area.

This afternoon it flew from tree to tree as it usually does, flashing its contrasting white and black colors, and giving its rolling, churry calls frequently. Then it did something I haven’t seen it do before today – though it probably often does, I’m just not there to see it. It flew to a birdbath near the edge of the yard by the road, not far from where I stood, and sat on the rim of the birdbath for several moments, drinking water. It took several sips, each time leaning over to drink, then sitting up and looking around for several seconds before leaning down to drink again.

This is the closest and best view I’ve seen of this striking bird. Its brown head now has begun to turn red, especially on the throat and on the back of the neck. It’s still a long way from the brilliant crimson that will cover the whole head when it’s fully mature, but a deep-red color is beginning to spread. The crown still looks mostly brown, and the white breast still looks dingy and streaked, with black spots or streaks still prominent in the large white wing patches.

A mature Red-headed Woodpecker is a gorgeously colorful bird, with a full crimson head, snow-white body, and ink-black wings with large panels of white. Many decades ago, Red-headed Woodpeckers were common in towns and neighborhoods. I can remember seeing at least a few – maybe 25 or 30 years ago – in residential areas of Athens, Georgia, where I lived. But over the past 50 years, populations of Red-headed Woodpeckers have declined dramatically, and they now are found here only in certain areas, especially along river corridors or in wetlands, and they are far from common. The decline in their populations is thought to have occurred mainly because of habitat loss, especially loss of the nut-bearing trees, large dead trees and snags, and open-forest surroundings they need. So I feel lucky to have one here, at least for the winter.

Red-headed Woodpeckers are generally solitary during the winter months, but there’s still a great deal not known about their migratory patterns and behavior. They are described as a somewhat nomadic species, moving to follow their food sources. The species account in Birds of North America notes, “It is surprising how much basic information about this relatively common and easily identified species remains unknown.”*

* Kimberly G. Smith, James H. Withgott and Paul G. Rodewald. 2000. Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

A Barred Owl’s Call

Friday, January 24th, 2014

In a different, more wooded area of the neighborhood, not far from a creek, the deep, husky who-cooks-for-you calls of a Barred Owl echoed through the trees – even though it was still mid-afternoon and the sky still clear and bright, sunny blue. The calls were repeated several times, but I could only hear one owl, pretty far in the distance, and not another one answering. Several times recently I’ve also heard one or sometimes two Barred Owls calling around five in the morning. They sound as if they’re somewhere in the oaks around our back yard or the edge of the woods.

A Large Blackbird Flock – Common Grackles, Red-winged and Rusty Blackbirds

Friday, January 24th, 2014

On another cold afternoon, the temperature barely above freezing, a blue sky, bright sun and lots of active birds made the day feel warmer than it was. During a walk of an hour and a half, I counted 33 species, including one Red-tailed Hawk; Red-headed, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpecker; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Northern Flicker, Eastern Phoebe, Brown-headed Nuthatch, both Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrush, Cedar Waxwing, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-throated Sparrow, Brown Thrasher – and a blackbird flock with Common Grackles and both Red-winged and Rusty Blackbirds. Blackbirds have been scarce here this winter so far – so I was happy to see a flock that seemed fairly large.

Gathered in the branches of several oaks and pecan trees, and spread out in restless, milling crowds across three or four yards, there may have been around 1,000 birds – a very rough guess. The harsh creaking, gurgling, and trilling sounds of their calls were very loud.

The greatest number seemed to be Common Grackles. Big, iridescent black birds with yellow eyes, long tails, long legs and imperious bearing, they vigorously tossed up leaves and mulch with heavy bills and stopped often to raise their heads and look around. They walked around with a swagger. When they moved into pools of sunlight, their plumage glistened and shimmered with bronze and purple colors. I watched as several pulled up long wiggling worms from leaf-covered ground.

Among the Grackles also were a good many Red-winged Blackbirds, smaller, and feeding in less bold and flamboyant ways, heads more often down than up, often seeming to crouch rather than stand. The colors in the wings of most only showed up as narrow strips of red and yellow.

As usual, the flock as a whole was very skittish, moving further away whenever I got close – sometimes with a shiver of wings as a few shifted away – sometimes with a sudden thunder of wings as a large group burst up together and into the trees.

One small group of about a dozen Rusty Blackbirds perched in the limbs of a pecan tree near the edge of the road. All of these were males, black with yellow eyes, a buffy stripe above the eye, thin pointed bills and rusty patterns of color on the back and wings and chest.