Archive for February, 2014

Song Sparrows in the Old Field

Monday, February 24th, 2014

On a warm, sunny, spring-like morning, Pine Warbler, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebird, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, House Finch and at least one Brown Thrasher all were singing. The Pine Warblers, especially, are trilling their songs almost everywhere in the neighborhood. Two Red-shouldered Hawks called kee-yer from somewhere behind the tree line in the woods, out of sight.

Under a clear, deep-blue sky, yellow daffodils bloomed in yards and even along the roadside. An orange butterfly flew by, fluttering up and away toward the woods. Three Eastern Phoebes perched in a sunny spot on the edge of a large, sprawling thicket, flying out to catch insects in the sun-warm air.

A Golden-crowned Kinglet called its high, whispery ti-ti-ti from treetops along the side of the road. The facial stripes of black and white, and the sliver of gold in its crown flashed brightly enough to see, even on such a tiny bird so high, as it very quickly but deliberately moved over the branches and needles of a pine, intensely focused. And below, in the same area, a quiet Ruby-crowned Kinglet flitted over the branches of a dense patch of privet, a little less focused, it seemed, more inclined to stop and look around, though certainly also quick and busy.

Along the edge of the old field by the highway, at least a dozen Song Sparrows emerged from the tall grasses and weeds to forage in the rough grass along the roadside. Each one seemed to work mostly in one of the clumps and windrows of dry, dead brown grass left over from mowing last fall. These clumps look pretty deep, and the sparrows pecked into them industriously and seemed to be finding food. As they foraged, the Song Sparrows’ movements were quick and twitchy, as if with nervous energy, tails switching back and forth, or up and down vigorously – this kind of movement seems characteristic of Song Sparrows, though I don’t know enough about other sparrow species to be sure it’s a reliable trait for identifying them. I most often see them here along with White-throated Sparrows, which seem more calm and deliberate in the way they move – though the White-throated Sparrows also seem more shy and quicker to flee for cover.

Pine Warbler and Field Sparrow

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

Later this morning, under a sky veiled in filmy-white, I walked through a light mist that must have been fog. No sunlight made its way through the mist, but the morning felt cool and spring-like, not cold or gloomy.

Out of the fog, two clear images emerged along the way. A Pine Warbler flew across the road in front of me, in a flash of warm, deep yellow, and stopped on the top of a utility box – not the most picturesque setting, but it was colorful and beautiful, just the same – a small, slender bird with yellow throat and breast and olive-yellow head, yellow spectacles around the eyes, and blurry olive streaks on the sides. Recently, the Pine Warblers’ musical trills have been among the most frequent bird songs, one of the first to sing in the morning, and often singing outside my office windows off and on all day.

Near the north end of the old field along the highway, several White-throated and Song Sparrows had flown out of the thickets to forage in the weedy, short grass along the roadside – and among them was a Field Sparrow. It flew up from the grass into a small, raggedy tree on the edge of the field and sat in clear view – a diminutive, pale, but pretty sparrow with a light-reddish brown and gray-striped face and head, brown-streaked wings, a long tail and plain grayish breast – and a white eye ring and pink bill.

Field Sparrows used to be so common here I pretty much took them for granted, and their cheerful, bouncing songs rose from many old fields and pastures as surely as the grasses, weeds and blackberry vines. These days I see and hear them much less often. They are not considered seriously threatened, but their populations are declining throughout their range, probably because of loss of habitat. In this area, more and more of the brushy old fields and pastures they need are being replaced by subdivisions, shopping centers and other suburban development.

A Field Sparrow is a good example of a bird that thrives on “abused land” that’s given a chance to recover, and is a testimony, perhaps, to the value of this kind of land – and its natural place in the process of succession.

Early Morning Birdsong – Prelude to Spring

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

At dawn this morning, first light, a fog of faint pink and orange spread over the southeastern sky. A Carolina Wren was the first bird to sing, followed soon by the blurry notes of an Eastern Bluebird. A Tufted Titmouse whistled peter-peter-peter, and an Eastern Phoebe swished its raspy song. American Crows cawed. A Northern Cardinal’s clear, colorful What-cheer, what cheer; birdy, birdy, birdy rang like a morning wake-up call. The honking of Canada Geese came and went as a small group flew over. A Pine Warbler’s sweet, gentle, but insistent trill moved through the edges of the woods.

There aren’t a great number of morning singers yet, but with the bedroom windows open to soft, damp, spring-like air, and the foggy light of a day that promises rain, it felt like a prelude to Spring.

Brown Thrasher Singing

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Very late in the afternoon today, just before sunset, a Brown Thrasher sang from a branch near the top of a big sprawling shrub on the edge of a neighbor’s yard. The day had been sunny and mild, almost warm, with a soft blue sky. It’s the first Brown Thrasher song I’ve heard this year, marking another familiar event in the seasons, right about on schedule. The past few days I’ve been out of town, so I may well have missed the real first singer here – but it’s right about the time when they usually start to sing, mid February.

Snow had lingered for two or three days, very slowly melting, until finally, yesterday and today, the weather warmed and the last small, sheltered patches disappeared.

Tracks in the Snow

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Soon after breakfast, I suited up in warm clothes and went out to walk in the snow – we don’t often get the chance and I didn’t want to miss it. The snow had stopped, the sun was shining, and a strong, cold wind had almost cleared the soft blue sky of clouds, except for a few small, cottony puffs. Dark gray trunks of trees in the woods stood in pools of frigid shadows all around, rising from a patchwork quilt of white snow and brown leaves on the floor of the woods.

A good many songbirds were scattered around the feeders, in the trees and under the shrubs in the yard. Chipping Sparrows, Brown-headed Nuthatch, White-throated Sparrows, Northern Mockingbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker – but I didn’t see the Fox Sparrow again.

The bright colors of a Northern Cardinal and an Eastern Bluebird perched in tall shrubs stood out like vivid, miniature paintings against the white snow and a blur of gray and brown limbs. A half dozen Dark-eyed Juncos flew up like soot-gray flecks of ashes from the ground into a bush as I walked past, twittering their high, sweet calls.

Pine Warbler, Carolina Wren and Northern Cardinal sang, and Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees chattered. From down the road I could hear the conkarees of a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, and American Robins stood and skittered here and there, foraging in snow-covered yards. Blue Jays cried. And not too far away I could hear the sounds of children’s laughter – out playing in the snow.

As I walked, I could see the tracks of crows, smaller birds, white-tailed deer, rabbits, raccoon, a couple of neighborhood dogs, and other tracks that I couldn’t identify. I think one was a possum. Others might have been the tracks of a fox.

Fox Sparrow on a Snowy Day

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

After two days of sleet, misty rain and temperatures staying just above freezing, this morning we awoke to a world of white. Snow had fallen overnight, covering the ground, the roads, piling up on the balcony railing and even blowing into drifts against the garage door, almost a foot deep in places, though mostly three or four inches. Snow continued to fall for a while, very lightly dusting down – rare and lovely for us here.

Early in the morning, in tiny flakes of swirling snow, a big, plump sparrow was hopping and scratching under the bushes right outside our living room windows. Its wings and tail looked dark red-brown, and thick, blurry red-brown streaks marked its sides – a beautiful red Fox Sparrow. Its breast was very thickly streaked in rich red-brown, its belly white, and its face was patterned in dove-gray and fox-red – warm, lush colors in a snow-white setting, seen through a very light blur of snow. It turned toward me and spent a few minutes hopping to scratch up leaves and snow around the base of a cleyera bush.

I could hardly believe it was right there in our own front yard, very near the windows where I stood. Fox Sparrows spend the winter here, but because they are shy and usually stay hidden in shrubby places, they’re not often noticed, and it always seems special to me when I find one. I’ve rarely seen one in our yard – and yet, this is the second one I’ve seen in our neighborhood this winter. I watched for several minutes as it foraged right around this spot under the bushes and near the window – until it finally flew low toward the corner of the house and out of sight.

Chipping Sparrows and Showering Sleet

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

This morning began with the soft hiss of sleet before dawn, and by the time the gray sky grew light, a thick white coat of sleet that looked like snow already covered the balcony outside our bedroom windows. The snug early quiet of the morning was broken by the grating shriek of a weather alert on my iPhone, warning of another winter storm.

With the temperature hovering in the low 30s, all morning a mix of sleet and light rain fell, but this was only the first wave of more to come, with the possibility of a seriously damaging ice storm before it ends. Schools, businesses and government offices have been closed in much of the state, and the forecasts all day have been dire.

Late in the afternoon there seemed to be a bit of a break in the weather, so I bundled up and went out for a short walk and fresh air. It felt great. It was cold, but with very little wind. A light, misty sleet fell the whole time I was out, but never enough to feel wet, and though I watched for icy patches, the roads and other surfaces all seemed fine so far. I could still hear a few trucks and cars on the highway, but traffic was lighter than usual. The trees stood silent and still against a low, murky gray sky, and the feel of the misty sleet on my face was clean and crisp.

The few birds I passed included an Eastern Phoebe, Red-bellied Woodpecker, a few Eastern Bluebirds, several Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Northern Cardinals and Carolina Wrens, and small flocks of American Robins scattered all around. Several White-throated Sparrows and Song Sparrows foraged in the sleet-frosted brown grass along the side of the road, one Eastern Towhee called chur-wink, and a Brown Thrasher sat quietly in the top part of a shrub in the old field. I could hear the calls of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles scattered around, but saw no flock or gathering.

In our own front yard, especially around the feeders, Chipping Sparrows outnumbered all the other birds – even the Chickadees and Titmice. Four or five Chipping Sparrows at a time crowded onto one of the feeders, jostling for space – though every now and then a Cardinal or Downy Woodpecker or even a tiny, pugnacious Brown-headed Nuthatch would chase them away. But they’d come back.

All this winter we’ve had many more Chipping Sparrows visiting the feeders than in past years. We always have a good many, especially during the winter months, but they more often feed somewhere on the ground, usually in the grass, with two or three coming to a feeder now and then. Most days recently, there have been several at once crowding onto the feeder, and more underneath. I don’t know if it’s the particular mix of birdseed or some other factor – but I don’t really mind because they don’t seem to keep other birds away for long, as far as I can tell.

Also, as common as they are, I never seem to get tired of Chipping Sparrows. I find them appealing and endlessly entertaining to watch. Though several dozen Chipping Sparrows can almost disappear into a grass-covered yard, so small and unobtrusive as they hunt for food, just anonymous “little brown birds” – a closer look at an individual sparrow reveals a beautiful bird with bright, red-brown cap, crisp dark streak through the eye, a smooth gray breast, and streaked brown back and wings.

Two Red-shouldered Hawks and a Sharp-shinned Hawk

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Today began cool and mostly cloudy, but by late in the morning, the clouds had begun to break up and blow away, with spreading patches of blue sky. As I walked up a road through a wooded area, a Red-shouldered Hawk cried a loud kee-yer repeatedly from a perch in the top bare branches of a tall hardwood tree. It was pretty far back from the road, but close enough to see the warm glow of its reddish breast.

A little further up the hill, a smaller hawk with a long tail suddenly streaked low across the road in front of me, in a swift gray blur, and up into a tree near the crest of the hill, where it sat with its back to me, partially screened by bare branches. I could see the long, narrow, banded tail, and the head looked rather small – it was either a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk – two closely-related long-tailed, short-winged hawks. Though I couldn’t see it well enough to tell for sure, I think it was the smaller, more compact Sharp-shinned Hawk.

It’s always an interesting and fun challenge when it’s not immediately clear, because these two can be very hard to tell apart, and I’m sure at least half the time I get them wrong. So it’s a chance to study the field marks and distinguishing characteristics and maybe learn something new. I was watching the small hawk closely and wishing I could see it better, when a Red-shouldered Hawk – considerably larger and unmistakable in its colors – flew into this same tree and perched on a branch in the very top, not far above the smaller hawk. For two or three minutes, they both remained in this tree, quietly. I kept watching the smaller one, trying to get a better, definitive view, until, abruptly, it flew, spreading its wings and gliding down and sailing out. Its clean, compact shape and sleek, quick flapping wings, followed by another glide, added to my impression that it probably was a Sharp-shinned Hawk, but it disappeared before I could be certain.

It was only then, when I turned back to look again at the Red-shouldered Hawk still in the top of the tree, that I noticed a second Red-shouldered Hawk perched below it, further down than the Sharp-shinned Hawk had been. As far as I could see, there had been no obvious interaction among the three, so I don’t know if they all just happened to pause in the same tree at once, or if there was a great deal more to the story that I missed.

Mid-Winter Birdsong

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

These first few days of February have been a mix of cool, misty mornings and almost warm, half-sunny afternoons, with a new softness in the air. Pine Warblers sing more and more often, and their musical trills seem to become more fluent and expressive as the days go by.

Brown Thrashers are beginning to emerge from under the bushes and climb up into the lower limbs of trees, and I think they’re getting ready to sing.

Already Northern Cardinal, Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse and House Finch are singing, too – all year-round residents here. An Eastern Towhee called a rich chur-wink from a perch in a crape myrtle in our front yard this morning, while a Brown-headed Nuthatch, two American Goldfinch, Chickadees, Titmice, two Downy Woodpeckers and several Chipping Sparrows more or less shared the two hanging feeders. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered as it moved through some shrubs, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed. Several Dark-eyed Juncos flew up together, flashing the white edges of their tails, from the mulched area around a hedge. White-throated Sparrows in the bushes called tight sibilant tseeeets, and Mourning Doves cooed.

Two Black Vultures and a Spooky Old Tree

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

Late this afternoon, on a cool, half-cloudy day, two Black Vultures sat together near the top of a crooked old oak that rose above an overgrown area of trees, shrubs, and weeds. The oak is one of the tallest of several in this small, scruffy patch of land between two subdivisions. The pair of vultures sat so close together their wings were touching. Big, strange black creatures with wrinkled gray heads and faces, they looked out of place, as if they might have drifted in and settled here by accident, from another world or time.

A few yards away from the tree in which they perched, there’s another old oak with a very large hole in the trunk that looks like it opens into a hollow space. This tree looks a lot like the Spooky Old Tree in a children’s book by Stan and Jan Berenstain that’s been one of my grandchildren’s favorites. I wondered if the vultures might be getting ready to nest in the hollow in its trunk. For several years now I have seen a pair of Black Vultures perched like this, in this same spot, about this time of year, and later in the spring and early summer have watched two and sometimes three in this area, perching together in a tree or on a utility pole, or even walking and pecking around on the ground together.

Black Vultures do not build a nest, but lay their eggs inside places like hollow trees or stumps, brush piles or abandoned buildings. Pairs may spend several weeks perching near a nest site before laying eggs. They are monogamous and a pair may stay together, year-round, for many years, and may return to the same nest site repeatedly for years. Black Vultures are known for maintaining strong social bonds with their families throughout their lives. They gather at night in large communal roost sites that appear to play an important role in their complex and extensive social life.*

Black Vultures are carrion eaters, and often are seen as sinister in appearance. When perched or standing on the ground, they look ungainly and awkward, but when soaring on a clear, sunny day – they are beautiful to watch, with broad, strong black wings with large white patches that flash silver in the sun. They usually seem to soar much higher and with more grace than their relatives, the Turkey Vultures.

A vulture’s perspective on life is clearly much different from our own, but it’s interesting to think about what this pair might be experiencing as they sit in this old tree, and to wonder whether they’ve returned here year after year. From where they sit, they can surely see the busy highway just on the other side of the field, as well as a good many cars, and people and dogs walking by on the closer road, not far away, including me.

This small patch of old oaks overgrown with weeds has become a smaller and smaller scrubby island over the past decade or two, now bounded on three sides by the streets and homes and manicured lawns of two subdivisions. So if the vulture pair has been nesting here for several years, they’ve seen a lot of changes.

* Neil J. Buckley. 1999. Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.