Archive for March, 2014

Hermit Thrush in the Morning and a Barred Owl’s Call at Night

Monday, March 31st, 2014

Back at home – March has ended with another sunny day, a soft blue sky, cool in the morning, warm by mid afternoon. Early this morning a Brown Thrasher sang from the top of a pecan tree and a Chipping Sparrow drilled its long dry trill from a branch of our red maple tree by the road. An Eastern Towhee sang Drink-your-tea! A Red-bellied Woodpecker called quuurrr, Tufted Titmice sang peter-peter-peter, and Carolina Chickadees chattered chick-a-dee-dee-dee. A couple of quiet American Crows strutted around the front yard. A Blue Jay perched in an oak. A Northern Cardinal, Eastern Bluebird, Pine Warbler, and Carolina Wren also sang.

Some of our winter birds seem to have left – I haven’t seen or heard the flock of Red-winged Blackbirds for several days now – while others still are around, including White-throated Sparrows, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Yellow-rumped Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I’m not sure if Golden-crowned Kinglets are still here, but I haven’t seen or heard one in several days.

The best surprise of the day was one of one of my favorite winter birds that I’m happy to have had a chance to see at least one more time before they head north for the summer – a Hermit Thrush. It was feeding on the ground with several Dark-eyed Juncos on the edge of a yard near the roadside. It stood in a grassy spot near a bush, head raised and looking around as it so often is, and I had just a couple of moments to take a good clear look at its brown face with wide round eye – a face so expressive and appealing – and its spotted breast, brown back and cinnamon tail; and then something startled the Juncos, sending them all flying with soft jingling calls into nearby trees, and the Hermit Thrush fled for cover, too.

The young Red-headed Woodpecker was in its usual area, flying from trunk to trunk among the trees, though today it was quiet, not calling. I might remember this year as the Year of the Red-headed Woodpecker, because it’s been a rare visitor here for the winter. I’ve enjoyed being able to hear its rolling, chorry calls most days, and to watch it fly from tree to tree. Its presence has transformed this particular yard and given it a different character, a spirit of a kind.

In a different wooded area, late this morning I heard the distinct long, rolling rattle of a Hairy Woodpecker – a year-round resident here, but one that I’ve seen and heard less often in the past year or two.

This evening after dark, a Barred Owl hooted from somewhere close around our back yard, its full Who-Cooks-for-You-awwwl call, ending the day and the month on a hopeful note.

Female Scaup and Red-necked Grebe

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

Out in the ocean, beyond the breaking waves, I could see dozens and dozens of dark ducks, maybe hundreds, widely scattered and floating and bobbing in the water. They were almost impossible to see well, even with a scope, but I could see them well enough to know that among them were Black-winged Scoters, White-winged Scoters and Scaup.

Then, as if out of nowhere, there were three dark ducks, very close, just beyond the breaking waves, bobbing up and down, in and out of sight among the swells. They were female Scaup – a kind of diving duck often found in the ocean along the coast. Because their heads looked more round than crested, I think they were Greater Scaup – but really can’t be sure. Lesser Scaup are very similar. The angle of the late afternoon light made possible a beautiful view of them, and they stayed close enough so that I could watch them for several minutes.

When floating, they looked copper-brown all over, with a reddish glow that may have come from the afternoon light. It looked as if they were bathing. They frequently rose up out of the water and flapped their wings, showing white or very pale bellies. Their heads looked round, and I could see white at the base of the bills and white stripes in the wings.

When they finally drifted further out, another swimming bird appeared fairly close in, going in and out of sight among the waves – and diving out of sight for seconds at a time. With a very pale chin and front of the neck that looked white, a distinctive, angular shape of the head and a long, heavy, pointed bill – it was a Red-necked Grebe in winter colors.

Though I’ve seen a Red-necked Grebe before, when it was pointed out by other birders, this is the first time I’ve seen and identified one by myself – a completely different experience. It was this kind of time and this kind of experience that was the best part of the short trip to Kiawah. There were no really spectacular sightings, no new birds for a life list, just time to take time, to walk and wait and watch closely, and enjoy seeing again some familiar birds in different ways.

Three Willets

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

After a night of cold, strong, blustery winds that rattled palmettos against the windows and even sent some branches crashing down to the deck, this morning dawned clear, with a deep-blue sky. It still was cold and breezy, but brightly sunny, and by early afternoon, the ocean looked calm and peaceful, with gentle waves rolling in. Walking east on the beach, I again passed Sanderlings, Dunlins, and lots of Willets, gulls, pelicans and dozens of silvery-white Forster’s Terns in flight, many close over the line of the surf, and more were further and further out, as far as I could see. Two Osprey flew up and down the beach the whole time I was out, chattering their high, clear calls.

With four Sanderlings running along the edge of the waves were two Piping Plovers and several Semi-palmated Plovers, very similar, but a darker, richer brown. It was a good chance to watch the two together and compare them. In winter plumage they can be confusing, but seeing them together today, the differences were more clear.

Suddenly three Willets flew up together with their clear, sharp calls and dramatic black and white stripes in the wings. They settled at the edge of the surf very close to where I stood and immediately all tucked their heads back under a wing and stood on one leg in the edge of the surf. As they settled, all three hopped and wobbled several times to get into position or maybe to get their balance, but they never put a second leg down, as well as I could see. They got settled and stood there, heads tucked away, taking a mid-afternoon rest.

White-winged Scoters, Blue-winged Teal, and a Bald Eagle

Monday, March 24th, 2014

A small flock of White-winged Scoters came flying over the dunes toward the pond, black ducks with white patches flashing in their wings. They dropped down and settled onto the water, disappearing from site behind another island. Two small, brown Pied-billed Grebes floated in the water like toy ducks, while two gray American Coots and one Common Moorhen with its startling red-orange bill lurked around the edges of the grassy islands.

Way across the pond, on a stretch that looked like sand, lay several dark-gray shapes that at first I didn’t even think were birds, because they were so still. Then suddenly they all flew up in a flutter of cinnamon color – and disappeared back onto the water behind the same island of tall grass that hid the scoters. For many minutes they stayed out of sight, but eventually two came swimming out into an open area where I could just barely see them – and through a scope saw a gray head and face marked with a prominent white crescent. The body looked mostly cinnamon, with a white patch near the back of the wing. They were Blue-winged Teal. Eventually several more floated out into the open water where I could see watch them for several minutes.

Meanwhile, the pines beside the platform where I stood had begun to fill with Double-crested Cormorants. Two or three dozen of them sat in the branches of the trees, making strange, harsh calls and behaving in a way that looked irritable with each other. They made some amazing sounds. At one point, two of them were either fighting or courting – it seemed hard to tell, though it didn’t look friendly. In the other direction, a little further away, the white egrets sat mostly quiet in the green vegetation, some preening, a few restless, others just sitting, their feathers and plumes ruffled by the wind.

It was a magical afternoon when time passed, and the scene changed, but it felt like a place out of time, more like stepping into a complex, colorful painting, with myriad stories and details in its sweep that I could have watched for hours and still kept finding new things.

I think I was looking up, watching an Osprey flying over, when I heard something and looked down in time to see the huge, dark-brown wings and white head and tail of a Bald Eagle just as it dropped its feet to the surface of the pond with a splash, picked up a fish and flew away. It didn’t look as if it had been diving or flying fast. It looked almost casual, as if it were going to land in the water, with wings outspread, legs and feet down – and it just picked up the fish and flew, holding the fish in its talons. I didn’t see the Eagle approach, or what happened right before it came for the fish, but there were several other birds around it, though not one of the Ospreys. So it’s possible the Eagle had stolen the fish from another bird, but if so, I missed it.

Egrets, Herons, Osprey, Anhinga – The Willet Pond

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Later in the afternoon, the green mass of trees and shrubs around one edge of a large pond called the Willet Pond was crowded with large white birds. Most of them were Great Egrets, with their long yellow bills, and smaller Snowy Egrets, with fairy-like plumes of feathers, thin black bills and legs, and golden feet. At least one appeared to be an immature Little Blue Heron, all white, but a little stockier than the Snowy Egrets, and with greenish legs and feet. During the hour or two I spent at the pond, watching from a small observation platform along one edge, more egrets drifted in, one by one, to join those already in the vegetation.

Several yards away, near tall grass around the edge of an island in the pond, the striking long neck and tall, blue-gray form of a Great Blue Heron immediately drew the eye with black plumes on the head, and fierce long bill, like a dagger. It was several minutes before I noticed a shadowy, dark Little Blue Heron only a few feet away, a smaller, very dark bruised-blue lurking against the background of marsh grass and wind-rippled water. Three, four, five Tri-colored Herons were dotted here and there around the edges of the islands and the pond – animated and colorful, in different shades of dark blue-gray on the back and neck, with tints of dark maroon, and white bellies.

Several Forster’s Terns hunted over the pond the whole time I was there, a dozen, maybe more. There were always at least a few in the air, hovering so gracefully and so much fun to watch, so light and delicate and airy, plunging into the pond for fish. One Royal Tern flew over low and circled around for several minutes, sleek and stronger in appearance, looking almost heavy by comparison, though graceful in its own calmer way, the golden-orange of its bill clearly visible.

Double-crested Cormorants sat on a snag out in the water and on the edge of a dock and in the low branches of trees. A Belted Kingfisher rattled and flew out from a branch on the edge of the pond, its brilliant blue colors flashing, then it disappeared into the trees and I didn’t see it again.

On the opposite side of the pond from where I stood, the water merged into an expanse of tall brown marsh grass. In the distance, beyond the far side of the pond rose the clubhouse of a golf course, and beyond that, the dunes that line the beach.

Red-winged Blackbirds and Boat-tailed Grackles sat in the marsh grass, their conkaree and creaking calls mixing with the cries of seagulls and terns – and the high, clear chattering calls of two Osprey circling over, long, slender, angled wings, patterned in very dark brown, with bright white belly. They flew low enough to see the dark eye-stripe on the face. Like the Forster’s Terns, they were flying overhead and calling most of the time I was there, a constant part of the scene.

The thin, dark, long-necked, serpentine head of an Anhinga – sometimes called a Snakebird – emerged from the water – truly a strange, almost eery sight. Another Anhinga perched on a snag over the water, silver wings draped out to dry, showing elegant contrasting colors and textures in smooth black, rippled gray and light, shimmering tan.

Piping Plover

Monday, March 24th, 2014

After several minutes, I left the Red Knots and walked further east along the beach, passing more Willets, gulls, and one Forster’s Tern standing along the edge of the surf. Around a long, shallow tidal pool, several Sanderlings and Dunlins were foraging, and with them was a small, pale bird that I can’t help describing as cute and endearing. A Piping Plover.

It was dabbling in the shallow water with one foot, stirring up the water and sand, in search of food. A very pale-sand color and white, with thin orange legs and neat black markings, a Piping Plover almost looks like a charming little ghost in the sand, especially in its paler winter plumage. This one was a very small, plump bird with a round head and a plain, pale face with dark eyes, a small black bill, and a short coal-black forehead band. A single, narrow black band encircled the neck. At the base of its bill I could see just a small spot of orange.

For several minutes I stood still and watched as it scurried to different spots, stirring water in the edges of the tidal pools and running quickly and lightly for short distances, then stopping and pecking at the sand. I never walked closer to it, but several times it came close to me, running up quickly, all around me, maybe just foraging, but it often has seemed to me that Piping Plovers are somewhat curious in their behavior and not too shy.

Piping Plovers are considered threatened or endangered in almost all of their range, mostly because of disturbance from human activity and development of beach habitat, especially in their nesting areas.

Kiawah Island, SC – Red Knots

Monday, March 24th, 2014

On a cold and blustery, but brilliantly sunny morning on Kiawah Island, the tide was coming in, the beach still wide and open, with only a few other walkers in sight. A few Laughing Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls and Herring Gulls flew over, one by one, and others stood along the edge of the surf, widely scattered. Brown Pelicans sailed low over the water further out. One Forster’s Tern flew over the waves, quite low and close, so silvery-white it looked translucent, as if it were made of light. With slender wings and deeply-forked tail, a black mask and black bill at this time of year, in flight a Forster’s Tern is animated, graceful, and always fun to watch. This one was flying into the wind, hovering over the waves for seconds at a time.

This was the first day of a four-day visit to Kiawah Island during which I spent most of every day watching birds – a real luxury of time – on the beach, around ponds and some in woods and marshes. It was the perfect break and change of scene, completely different from the woods and fields of home. Here, it’s a world of light – and sun and sea and sand and marsh, and an abundance of birds – herons, egrets, eagles, osprey, pelicans, ducks, shorebirds, songbirds. The possibilities seem endless. There’s an openness and clarity that’s different, and being here even for a short few days does wonders to clear the mind of clutter.

At first I saw almost no birds along the beach, but then they began to appear – or I began to see them. The beach was so open and big it seemed they could almost disappear. Sanderlings scurried here and there along the edge of the waves, the most familiar little white sandpipers with gray backs, black legs, and straight black bills, so quick and energetic and bright they seem to sparkle. With them were Dunlins, a study in contrast – a more drab, brownish-gray color with pale, brownish-gray “bibs,” they didn’t run around so much, but clustered together with heads down, probing industriously in the sand with long, dark, drooping bills and shoulders that look slightly hunched.

Several Willets walked along the edge of the surf, one by one; larger, gray sandpipers on long legs, with long straight bills, they look so plain and quiet and nondescript, with no dramatic markings and unassuming behavior, until they’re startled into flight – flashing brilliant white and black stripes in the wings, and whistling a high, sharp klee-ee!

A flock of Red Knots flew in with a rush, low over the water, and settled on the sand at the shallow edge of the waves, bustling right to work, probing the sand. Maybe a hundred of them – a relatively small flock – they mostly stayed together in a tight group to feed, though a few scattered out more widely. Slightly larger and stockier than the Dunlins and Sanderlings, with short, thicker legs and relatively short, straight bill, they seemed at first to have few distinguishing features – just sort of grayish backs, pale bellies, and mottled breasts on which I could see no hint of red. They seemed still to be in gray winter plumage. Their heads stayed down most of the time, very busily probing into the sand like the Dunlins, intensely focused on feeding.

Then a bicyclist came along and passed them, and they burst into flight – and became breathtakingly beautiful. They fly so closely together, sweeping up and out and catching the sunlight on their breasts, which then showed a flush of warm rose, all of them together in the sunlight, like a sunset in flight. They flew up and out and circled back almost immediately to the same spot they had just left.

I watched them from a few yards away, trying to be careful not to disturb them. Populations of Red Knots have declined dramatically in the past two or three decades and there is serious concern for their future. Thousands of Red Knots stop here on Kiawah in the course of their extremely long northward migration in the spring, from Tierra del Fuego in South America to the Arctic. The food they find here and in other coastal stops along the way is vital to their survival. It’s believed that loss of adequate food sources during their migration may be responsible for their decline.

On the Spring Equinox – A Louisiana Waterthrush Returns

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

On the first day of spring the ringing song of a Louisiana Waterthrush rose from down in the woods, along one of the creeks in our neighborhood. Its clear, shining song always seems to me like an anthem, a flourish of notes announcing that spring is near – though usually it comes closer to the middle of March, a week or two before the Equinox. This year I had not heard its song until today.

Two other songbirds that have usually returned before now, and that I think of as heralds of spring – Black-and-white Warbler and Blue-headed Vireo – I haven’t yet heard or seen. Maybe soon.

When I first stepped out the front door – into a cool, crisp, beautiful spring morning – the first bird I saw was one of our winter residents – a gorgeous Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. It flew into a water oak right in front of me and paused in profile on the trunk, gleaming with a crimson throat and crown and a flush of yellow on the belly, dramatic black and white stripes on the face, and a wide white stripe down each dark wing.

Though few spring migrants have shown up yet, more and more birds seem to be singing each day – Pine Warbler, Chipping Sparrow, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, Carolina Wren, and Brown Thrasher. Red-bellied Woodpeckers call their soft, musical quuurrr, Downy Woodpeckers whinny, and the juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker was in its usual area today, giving its rolling, churry call. It looks very bright and boldly colored now, with red head, black back and wings, white belly and broad white wing panels – only a few traces of its juvenile plumage still are showing.

A Chipping Sparrow’s Song – and a Red-shouldered Hawk in the Woods

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

On a warm, sunny afternoon with soft blue sky and veils of chalk-white clouds, a Chipping Sparrow sang its long, level trill from somewhere among the white blooms of a Bradford pear tree in a neighbor’s yard – the first Chipping Sparrow song I’ve heard this spring.

Much later in the afternoon, about an hour before sunset, another Chipping Sparrow sang from a pine tree in our own back yard. This one sat where I could see it well – the smooth gray breast, dark-brown, streaked wings, white eye-stripe and black streak through the eye, and bright red-brown crown. An American Robin flew into one of the white oaks and began to sing, too, a more musical, cheery song, and it stayed and sang a kind of serenade for several minutes. A Belted Kingfisher rattled as it flew over, heading toward the creek, and about a dozen honking Canada Geese passed by.

Not far inside the woods on the edge of the yard, a Red-shouldered Hawk sat quietly on a low limb of an oak. Its colors blended in so well with the leaf-brown floor of the woods and the dark trunks of the trees, I’d been outside for several minutes before I even noticed it was there. It sat with its back to me, surrounded by trees, but in a spot where it was clearly visible. Its smooth, velvet-brown head looked down toward the ground and in the direction of a large brushpile. In the late afternoon light, it looked as if the hawk had soaked up the warmth and color of the sun, and glowed in earth tones of brown and red-orange, with the contrasting black and white bands of the tail and black-and-white checkered wings.

While it faced away from me, it turned its head around and seemed to look directly at me several times. Then it shifted position so that it sat in profile, showing more of the reddish barred breast. Most of the time, its head was turned down toward the ground, watching for small animal prey – the brushpile is probably a pretty good spot for it to hunt.

After several minutes, it spread its wings and flew, low and suddenly, through the trees and further into the woods.

Two Ruby-crowned Kinglets Clash

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

March has begun with classic, constantly changing March weather – windy, cloudy and cool one day, sunny and warm the next – and now today it’s chilly again, with strong winds and big gray and white clouds, and sun that comes and goes, as a cold front moves through.

Carpets of purple henbit have begun to appear in fields and pastures, and tiny bluets speckle yards and roadsides with petals the color of the sky. Many Brown Thrashers now are sitting in the tops of trees and singing. A pair of Eastern Bluebirds hunt from low branches in the trees around our front yard, and now and then one of them sits on top of the bluebird box possessively. Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Pine Warbler, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee and House Finch sing. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings flew over once, late this morning, against the low gray clouds – a strangely unusual sight, because I haven’t seen them often this winter.

From the edge of some shrubs tangled with dead brown vines, came a small, explosive burst of twittered song, fast and furious in tone, and a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet, with its red crest raised, chased another Ruby-crowned Kinglet through the bushes. The encounter was quickly over in a blur of gray wings, the whistled song almost snapping with intensity, as the kinglet being chased flew away. The other one remained on a branch in front of me for maybe a minute, as if to catch its breath, a bit ruffled but victorious, at least for the moment – a very small bird with gray-green head, white eye-ring, crisp white wing bars, and a ruby crown still fluffed up in an indignant feathered peak. Then it moved away, deeper into the thicket, chattering its stuttered jidit-jidit call.