Archive for January, 2014

A Hermit Thrush

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

A small, solitary light-brown bird that flew across the road in front of me and paused in the mulch around some bushes turned out to be a Hermit Thrush. I only saw it for a brief moment as it stood with round head erect, looking carefully around – a slender, Robin-like bird with a thin bill, held slightly turned up, a brown back, pale breast and dark brown spots on throat and chest, a watchful round eye, and a restless cinnamon tail. Then it skittishly ducked into the bushes and disappeared.

I was reminded again of the hard-to-describe airy, almost insubstantial quality of a Hermit Thrush. I don’t think it’s a particularly frail bird at all, really – or no more frail than most small birds. But it very often looks elusive and vague, not quite fully there, in this place, at this moment. As if it’s halfway vanishing, even as I see it.

Eastern Phoebe – Flycatching in Freezing Weather

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

On the edge of a rough, roadside slope covered in withered vines, weeds and small trees, three Eastern Phoebes appeared to be hunting, flying up from perches to catch an insect in the air. I watched them for several minutes and wondered what they could possibly be catching on such a chilly day. It was late in the afternoon, and the temperature might have been in the mid 30s at most, after a day mostly below freezing – but I guess it’s possible there might have been some insects in warm shafts of sunlight, and in this particular place, the Phoebes were hunting in a tangle of vegetation on a slope lit by the sun. In this part of the South, it doesn’t take much to bring out at least a few flying insects.

But there’s another possibility. Though the main food of Eastern Phoebes is flying insects, they also eat small fruits and seeds, especially in the winter when insects are hard to find. So I wonder if maybe they were eating some kind of berries or seeds, but instead of perching or walking along a branch to get them, like other kinds of small birds, maybe they hover or flit among the leaves to get seeds or berries or other fruits. I’ve often watched Phoebes hovering under the ledges of our roof, where they hunt for spiders or other bugs in spiders’ webs – so maybe they use the same kind of behavior when feeding on plant-food.

In a very brief search, I didn’t find any information specifically about this question, but the species account in Birds of North America Online notes that Eastern Phoebes very rarely walk or hop. They “rarely even move from limb to limb in vegetation or even pivot on a perch. Movement from one perch to another is accomplished via flight.”*

So I really don’t know if they were catching insects taking advantage of a warm shaft of sunlight – or making quick flights up to the vines and branches around them to pluck off berries or seeds.

* Harmon P. Weeks, Jr. 2011. Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Eastern Bluebirds and Chipping Sparrows

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

Late this afternoon the sky was clear and blue, not a cloud to be seen, and the sun shined brightly – though the air felt very cold, in the mid 30s, with an icy northwest wind.

Despite the cold, Eastern Bluebirds and Chipping Sparrows seemed to be everywhere, all along the way as I walked through the neighborhood, almost sparkling in their colors and flashing movements. Feeding together in big open yards, along with other small songbirds like Yellow-rumped Warblers and House Finches, they almost disappeared in the faded grass. But as I walked past, they all scattered up in waves, with a startling blue splash of color in the male bluebirds’ wings, and the sharp chips of the Yellow-rumped Warblers, the plaintive little cries of the House Finches and the silvery flash of dozens of Chipping Sparrows all spraying up like sparks.

In wooded areas, I heard the chatter of Chickadees, the day-day fussing of Titmice, and a few Titmice whistling peter-peter. Northern Cardinals peeped. Several Carolina Wrens were singing, trilling and fussing; Red-bellied Woodpeckers chucked and rattled, and Downy Woodpeckers whinnied. A Northern Flicker called a sharp kleer! One Turkey Vulture tilted in the wind.

American Robins also were scattered all through the neighborhood, in yards and in trees. Less flighty than the smaller birds, they mostly stood placidly and watched as I walked past, not greatly disturbed. A few blackbirds restlessly perched in trees and flew short distances in small groups. I heard the calls of both Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, but none were close enough to see well, and they didn’t seem to be gathered or moving as part of a larger flock.

Pine Warbler’s Song

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

On a bright, sunny, very cold morning, a Pine Warbler sang – a warm, rich trill that filled the bare, gray, winter-rough branches of the trees in the woods with the music and color of spring.

A pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered as they shared the feeder in our front yard with a Downy Woodpecker and a Carolina Chickadee. Several Chipping Sparrows and two White-throated Sparrows scratched on the ground for seeds below the feeder. Dark-eyed Juncos twittered and foraged under the hedge of wax myrtles. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, with crimson throat and crown and a yellow-flushed belly, worked its way up the trunk and over large branches of a pecan tree riddled with sapsucker holes.

Pine Warbler

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

A grassy, slope along the roadside that’s lined with evergreen shrubs is often a gathering spot for ground-feeding songbirds like sparrows, towhees, finches, robins and thrashers, as well as bluebirds, phoebes, kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and sometimes a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. This morning the slope looked deserted, except for a single small bird that flew up from the quiet expanse of grass into a small tree. When I looked at it closely, I saw the warm-yellow breast of a Pine Warbler.

Pine Warblers are among the few wood warbler species that spend winters here, instead of flying further south. True to their name, they are most often found in the pines, but at this time of year especially, they also mix with feeding flocks of other small songbirds in yards, and they may come to a feeder – a small gray and yellow bird with an olive back and head, a sunny-yellow breast, blurry streaks on the sides and two white bars in gray wings. This year, however, I have not seen nearly as many Pine Warblers as in previous years, so this one was a bright and welcome sight. About this time of January, I usually notice Pine Warblers beginning to sing, or to sing more often, and their simple but musical trilled songs sound especially lovely in the drab and creaking winter woods. I haven’t yet heard one sing this year, but it may be that I just haven’t been outside at the right time.

Red-winged Blackbirds

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

On a chilly, sunny morning, a Black Vulture sailed across a deep blue sky, quilted with high white clouds. The white patches in the wings of the vulture flashed, and its silent flight reflected the quiet of the landscape all around. Even though it was such a beautiful day, few birds were active here, at least when I was out. A Carolina Wren was singing. Crows quietly walked across yards. A few American Robins foraged in other yards, here and there. The dry chatter of a Chickadee or two, a Titmouse, a Red-bellied Woodpecker came from the woods. An Eastern Phoebe hovered above a tangle of withered vines around a mailbox. Not even Bluebirds or Chipping Sparrows seemed to be out and about.

Then at the crest of a hill, I began to hear the conk-a-ree calls of Red-winged Blackbirds and rusty creaking calls of Common Grackles, and saw a Blackbird flock settled mostly in a patch of scrappy oaks and pines not far in the distance, but too far to see very well, especially against a very bright sky. It was not a large flock – maybe a hundred or two, as well as I could tell, a very rough guess – but it’s the most blackbirds I’ve seen coming into the neighborhood so far this season.

After the Storms – Dark-eyed Juncos in Sunlit Pines

Saturday, January 11th, 2014

Overnight a foggy, misty rain became a showering rain, and then about 3:00 am, close, frequent lightning, thunder, wind and heavy rain arrived and continued for several hours – the worst thunderstorms we’ve had here in a long time. Even after the lightning and thunder had passed, a hard, steady, heavy rain continued to pour down all morning and into the early afternoon.

Sometime around mid-afternoon the rain stopped, and within an hour or two, the clouds had all gone, leaving behind a weakly shining sun in a pale, washed-out blue sky, as if even it were water-logged. The all-night, all-morning deluge left our world here drenched, soggy, and streaming with water everywhere – in roadside ditches, gullies, and down sloping yards water flowed. Pools of water stood in flat depressions. Bushes and evergreens sagged with the weight of wet leaves. Both the creeks down in the woods rushed loudly with torrents of water.

As I walked along the road with the edge of the woods on one side, I heard the high, whispery twittering calls of Dark-eyed Juncos and stopped to look, and to see what else might be with them. Several Juncos were in the trees, both hardwoods and pines, along with a few Chickadees, Titmice, Carolina Wrens and a Downy Woodpecker.

Two Dark-eyed Juncos perched high up in the green needles of a sunlit pine. The light touched the soft, powder-gray of their plumage with tiny glints of color, and with their round heads, pink bills, white bellies and twittering chatter, they looked and sounded gentle and peaceful, a welcome scene after the hours of violent storms and torrential rain.

Otherwise, there were only a few birds out and about – Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Towhee, House Finch, a scattering of American Robins, a White-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Flicker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, one Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, White-throated Sparrows, Eastern Phoebe – and a stunning Red-shouldered Hawk that flew low over housetops and into a line of trees, looking deep rose-brown in the lowering sun.

As the sun began to set, a waxing gibbous moon shined bright straight overhead, and several large flocks of blackbirds began to fly over, mostly Common Grackles, but also others that I couldn’t identify for sure. One flock after another streamed over, calling as they flew, all heading north, maybe 1,000 blackbirds in all – a conservative estimate, I think.

This was the most blackbirds I’ve seen this winter, and these were just flying over, not stopping. So far this year I have not seen the large blackbird flocks that have been regular visitors here in our neighborhood the past few years, often congregating and moving through yards and trees. So the winter seems pretty quiet here without them.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

The first few days of January have been cold and often windy. When I got back home after a walk late this morning – on another gray, cloudy, chilly day – I was surprised to see the back of a big, vividly-colored Red-shouldered Hawk sitting on top of the bluebird house in our front yard, not far away from where I stood. It was facing away from me – the dark-brown back checkered with black and white, the red shoulders showing up especially well, and the black-and-white banded tail. For one good moment, the view was perfect – then it turned its head toward me, spread its wings and swept low across the yard and up into a tree along the driveway. There it sat on a low branch, again with its back toward me. In more shadows now, its colors looked a more subdued brown and orange, but the reddish shoulders still glowed, and its large head showed feathers of a dark reddish-brown.

It probably was watching for the chipmunks that live around the house, since small mammals are a Red-shouldered Hawk’s most common prey, along with other small animals like lizards, frogs and snakes. Although they do sometimes take small birds that come to feeders like the one in our yard, I can’t mind having it around. We’re very lucky to have them here in our neighborhood, and to see them fairly often.

Red-shouldered Hawks are still relatively widespread, but their populations have declined considerably in many areas of the Eastern U.S. They are woodland raptors, most at home in a deep forest of some size, though they also can be found in suburban areas where enough large trees remain. The greatest threat to Red-shouldered Hawks is continued clearing of their wooded habitat.*

I walked slowly down the driveway, trying not to disturb the hawk again, and when I went up the front steps and into the house, it had not flown and was still sitting in the same tree.

* The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds

Ruby-crowned Kinglet and White-breasted Nuthatch

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

As the sun rose this morning, on the first day of the New Year, layers of gray clouds blanketed the sky and the horizon, and the only signs of color were pale ribbons of yellow that soon faded. But a Carolina Wren sang a bright and optimistic song.

The whole day remained cloudy and gray, and when I first stepped outside for a walk around the middle of the afternoon, it seemed there were no birds at all in the yard or anywhere near, only stillness and cold and quiet.

It was a day in which individual sounds and movements stood out against a hushed background. At first there were only a few anonymous chips and peeps. Gradually the usual suspects showed up, though not many in any one place. The chatter and fussing of Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse; the calls of a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a Downy Woodpecker from somewhere in the woods; the song of a Carolina Wren and peeping of a Northern Cardinal from a hedge of shrubs. A Yellow-rumped Warbler flew here, another there, scattering emphatic chips as they flew. Two Eastern Bluebirds and several Chipping Sparrows flushed up from the grass along the roadside.

From down the road I heard the squeaky chatter of a Brown-headed Nuthatch. The white patch on the rump of a Northern Flicker flashed as it flew across the road and into some trees in a thicket of vines and shrubs. A tiny, round feathered ball of energy hurtled into the same weedy bushes, chattering a dry, ruffled jidit-jidit – a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, the first bird close enough to see clearly and watch. A neat gray-green little bird with sharp white wing bars and a white ring around the eye, it flitted quickly from spot to spot, flicking its wings and gleaning something from the drab leaves and branches of the privet. Its ruby-red crown was hidden so the head looked smooth and gray.

A little further up the road, a solitary and silent White-breasted Nuthatch crept down the trunk of a pecan tree, its back a clean blue-gray, its crown ink-black, its throat and face snow-white. The high, thin calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets – ti-ti-ti – whispered in the treetops, but the light was too gray and they were too high up for me to see anything but little birds moving very quickly over the branches. A few more Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from tree to tree, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed clearly several times.

Around the wooded yard where the young Red-headed Woodpecker seems to be spending the winter, I heard its churry, rolling calls again, and saw it briefly on the broken-off standing-dead remnant of an oak that it seems to like best.

The harsh squawk of a Northern Mockingbird, the chur-wheee of an Eastern Towhee, the cries of Blue Jays now and then broke the quiet. Six American Crows flew over and cawed. In one large yard, a very small flock of Blackbirds foraged in the short brown grass under bare-limbed trees. Among them were a few Common Grackles, and others that may have been Red-winged or Rusty Blackbirds, but I was too far away to see them well.

A Red-tailed Hawk sat on top of a pole overlooking the highway below, and in the tall brown grass and weeds of the old field by the highway, as trucks and cars rushed by, one White-throated Sparrow sang.