Archive for April, 2014

More Birdsong Than Birds

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

A tangled patch of pines and oaks surrounded by a dense thicket of privet, vines and other undergrowth was an active spot late this morning, full of dozens of small songbirds.

The first to catch my attention was a Yellow-throated Vireo singing from near the top of one of the trees. It’s one of very few Yellow-throated Vireos I’ve heard so far this season here. A Northern Parula also sang its rising, buzzy tsssssup! over and over from high among the leaves in another tree. Two Red-eyed Vireos sang; Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called spee-spee; a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in the pines; several Yellow-rumped Warblers trilled; Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice fussed; one Carolina Wren was singing and another answered cheeer, cheeer; and at least three American Redstarts tweeted their high, sweet songs from somewhere fairly low among the shrubs.

All of these I heard but didn’t see – the birds stayed hidden deep in the leaves and vines.

A female Pine Warbler that came quietly into view on a low branch of pine was one of the few birds I saw here. An overall grayish color, pale underneath, with blurry, indistinct wingbars and faint streaks on the sides, she showed only the slightest hint of yellow in her throat and a thin, pale eye-ring – as quiet in appearance as in behavior. Later, in other parts of the neighborhood, I heard other Pine Warblers singing, and several Red-eyed Vireos singing – a number of them seem to be passing through right now.

Chimney Swifts twittered as they swept overhead. Several Great Crested Flycatchers called Whreep and Burrrt. And from down along the creek in the woods across the road from the thicket came the sharp, clear peet-sah! of an Acadian Flycatcher – so nice to hear its song again this year.

Further along the road, in another wooded area, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo called its long, exotic, kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk-kuk – cawp-cawp-cawp-cawp, and a soaring Red-shouldered Hawk cried kee-yer. And as I walked through a more open part of the neighborhood, a Chipping Sparrow trilled a long, level song, an Eastern Towhee sang Drink-your-tea, tiny dots of flying American Goldfinch called potato-chip, potato-chip, and a Great Blue Heron flew slowly, ponderously, silently over a field, maybe heading toward one of the creeks in the woods, or to a pond. A Belted Kingfisher rattled harshly, also flying by.

On the edge of one yard, a handsome pair of Brown Thrashers perched restlessly in the branches of a large shrub. At least two Brown Thrashers sang in other spots along the way, and many Northern Mockingbirds are singing now, filling the morning with even more birdsong than birds.

When I got back home, four White-throated Sparrows, among the last of our winter birds still here, were kicking up mulch around bushes in our front yard, near the porch. Their markings still looked a little streaked and blurry, so I think maybe they were first-winter birds, not yet in full spring plumage.

April is almost always the month of the greatest changes here, as winter birds leave, migrants move through, and summer birds arrive for the season. This year there have seemed to be fewer birds and fewer species arriving or passing through our neighborhood. Several I still haven’t seen at all. The spring season isn’t over yet, so things could change – but maybe this difference shouldn’t be surprising. Gradual but substantial changes have occurred in the habitat here, with more development over the past few years, both in our subdivision and around it, so some species that used to be common may be either less common or completely missing now.

Gray Catbird

Monday, April 28th, 2014

This morning – sunny and full of colorful and exuberant birdsong and activity – my favorite sighting was a shadowy, dark Gray Catbird, calling a raspy meew from a brushy area of privet and vines and weeds. It sat on a low, scraggly branch, a slender slate-gray bird with a sleek black cap, switching and spreading its long, expressive tail. Though Catbirds prefer this kind of habitat and often stay among the tangles of thickets like this, their behavior is active, bright and full of spicy personality, and always fun to watch. They don’t seem particularly shy, and aren’t too hard to find. Their raspy meew is easy to recognize, and their song, like a Northern Mockingbird’s, is made up in part of the mimicked songs of other birds, though quite different in character. It’s a quirky, creaky string of phrases that also may include other animal calls, whistles, chirps, gurgles, and other sounds.

Though it’s not nearly so fluent and musical as a Mockingbird’s performance, a Catbird’s rough and prickly song often seems to me to have a highly imaginative and individual quality.

Black-throated Blue Warbler at Sandy Creek Nature Center

Sunday, April 27th, 2014

On a clear, cool, crisp spring morning, birds were singing all along the greenway trail that runs through a part of Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens. I was there for a bike ride with friends and had promised not to get too distracted by birds, so I didn’t stop often, but when I heard the buzzy zoo-zoo-zoo-ZEEE song of a Black-throated Blue Warbler, I had to take a break.

It was singing from low in a tangle of branches and vines along the edge of the river – a compact little bird that looked mostly dark with a very white belly and a small patch of white on the wing. In its shadowy, leafy setting, the slate-blue color of the back and black face, throat and sides couldn’t be distinguished very well. But it sang as it moved through the branches, and I watched as it snapped up a wiggling caterpillar in its small, thin bill, shook it and swallowed – and then lifted its head and sang again.

Also singing in different areas along the river were several White-eyed Vireos, Red-eyed Vireo, Summer Tanager, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Common Yellowthroat and Indigo Bunting. And one Barred Owl called a foggy Who-cooks-for-you several times from distant woods.

An Elusive Black-and-white Warbler

Friday, April 25th, 2014

The high, sibilant weesa-weesa-weesa song of a Black-and-white Warbler surprised me this morning, coming from an area where I might least expect to find it, and at a time when I had almost given up on them. So far this spring, I’ve been sorry to see and hear only one or two Black-and-white Warblers here in our neighborhood and neither stayed around for long. In past years, they’ve almost always been among the earliest and most familiar signs of spring, often showing up in mid or even early March and lingering for many days. They’re among my favorite birds, with their crisp black-and-white stripes, methodically creeping over and around the branches, searching for insects and spiders – and usually not particularly shy or hard to find.

So it was nice to hear this one this morning, singing from a scrappy patch of young pines, oaks and undergrowth that have spread into the area behind a small business just outside our subdivision and not far from the busy highway.

The morning had begun gray, overcast and cool, but the clouds were beginning to break apart, with blue sky and sunshine showing through. Following the song, I walked off the road and up a little dirt drive that leads to a large, empty expanse of bare red clay that used to be the yard of a house that’s now abandoned. This open space is encircled with the dense growth of young pines and hardwoods where the Black-and-white Warbler was singing and singing. Though I watched and listened for several minutes, and followed the song as it moved through the pines, I never did see it. I think it’s unusual for a Black-and-white Warbler to be so elusive, but maybe it was me – just one of those frustrating times when a bird is right there in front of me – somewhere – but I can’t find it.

Finally I gave up and left, deciding to be satisfied just to have heard the song.




An American Redstart on Earth Day

Tuesday, April 22nd, 2014

Late on a warm sunny morning a small, fluttery coal-black bird with bright orange patches in its wings and tail, and on its sides, flashed like a butterfly among the deep-green leaves in oaks along the roadside – an American Redstart. As it moved in a fairy-like way, it sang a very high, sweet series of tweets that sounded as bright and airy as it looked.

Though I only saw one Redstart at a time, I think there were two or three more, deeper in the foliage. With them in the trees were several Yellow-rumped Warblers, singing their loose trills, one Red-eyed Vireo, and several Tufted Titmice.

A Red-shouldered Hawk soared high in a soft blue and white sky, crying kee-yer repeatedly.

Yellow-throated Vireo and Chimney Swifts

Monday, April 21st, 2014

The anniversary of John Muir’s birthday began as a picture-perfect spring morning, sunny and cool, warming up fast under a deep-blue, cloudless sky. A Red-shouldered Hawk soared very high and cried a shrill kee-yer. Red-eyed Vireos sang in several wooded spots, Great Crested Flycatchers called whreeep and burrrt, and three Chimney Swifts twittered overhead – the first time this season I’ve seen them, though I know they’ve been back for a while, and have heard them several times.

Many birds were singing – Brown Thrashers, Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, House Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Chipping Sparrows, Eastern Towhees, House Finches and Pine Warblers. Downy Woodpeckers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers rattled and drummed. A White-throated Vireo sang in the old field, Blue Jays squawked, Crows cawed, Mourning Doves cooed.

For the first time this morning, I did not hear the songs of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and wonder if they’ve left along with this latest weather system. But the jingling trills of Yellow-rumped Warblers still filled the trees, and at least two White-throated Sparrows whistled their high, lingering songs. A Great Blue Heron flew slowly and majestically over.

Although it sounds like a great deal of birdsong – and is – I continue to find far fewer migrants moving through or arriving for the summer than in previous years. I try not to focus on the negative – there still are plenty of beautiful birds to watch and much to learn – but I can’t help but notice the difference and the many birds that seem to be missing so far, and this does seem at least worth noting.

And so to hear the burry song of a Yellow-throated Vireo today was especially sweet. It sang from the tops of pecan trees in a neighbor’s yard, a series of two and three-note phrases, somewhat slurred, including the distinctive phrase that sounds like three-eight. I wasn’t able to see it, though I watched and waited several minutes, as it sang and moved through the leaves, and then it flew. I could hear it continue to sing in the distance. Yellow-throated Vireos are among the summer birds that have become less common here in our neighborhood over the past few years. With brilliant yellow throat and breast, white belly, yellow-green head and back, and bright yellow spectacles around the eyes, it’s a striking bird to see, but even when it stays out of sight, its song adds a rich, mellow spice to a sunny spring morning like this.

Palm Warblers

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014

After drenching rain that lasted most of the night, this morning still was dark with heavy clouds and a chill, damp breeze. Rainwater dripped from trees, grass and shrubs, stood in low puddles and streamed in ditches. High up in the green leaves of several water oaks growing close together, lots of small birds moved around, all very hard to see in the misty light. Some were singing – Yellow-rumped Warblers, a Red-eyed Vireo, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. But I also saw some that looked brown, with hints of yellow, faint streaks on the sides, a chestnut cap and stripe over the eye. Small, active songbirds with a warbler’s neat shape – but the real clue was the way their tails wagged constantly, in short, quick movements. They were Palm Warblers, fairly common migrants here. Though usually seen foraging on or near the ground, these were gleaning insects fairly high up in the trees and frequently flying up to hawk insects from the air.

White-eyed Vireo

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Along the roadside by the old field, dandelions, daisies and some low, tiny, frail purple wildflowers bloomed, mixed with tall, pale grasses and the branching coral shadows of red sorrel. From deep in the messy thickets of privet that fill large parts of the field came the quick, percussive chick-per-chickory-chick song of a White-eyed Vireo.

I stood and listened for a while, hoping maybe it would come out into view – a small bird with olive-gray head and face and yellow spectacles around its eyes; white throat, pale yellow on the sides, with darker wings and two white wingbars. Most often it stays hidden deep in a thicket or shrubs, frequently singing its sharp-edged, prickly song. But it’s a lovely bird of gentle colors, and when it does come out – and sometimes it does, to sit on the edge of a bush – it can look like a soft flower blooming against the rough and tangled, weedy background of the scrubby habitat it prefers.

This time it stayed out of sight, but it was still good to hear its song again and know that it’s here – or at least passing through.

Yellow-rumped Warblers Singing

Monday, April 14th, 2014

On a cool, gray morning with new leaves filling out the trees more and more each day and white dogwoods in snowy bloom, a Red-eyed Vireo again sang in the woods around the back yard. Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet also sang. Blue Jays cried, and a Hairy Woodpecker flew over, calling its emphatic peenk several times, and then I could hear it begin to work on a tree not far away in the woods. A Great Crested Flycatcher called its deep whreep.

In the front yard, an Eastern Bluebird flew swiftly out of the bluebird box, a female, I think. A Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Phoebe, and Chipping Sparrow sang nearby, and the shining notes of a Louisiana Waterthrush rose from along the creek. A Downy Woodpecker whinnied, American Crows cawed as they flew over, and two walked around the yard. A Mourning Dove cooed. Azaleas bloomed in big, loose, pale-pink blossoms, like clouds of flowers drifting in the yard. A Brown Thrasher kicking up the mulch stopped, and ran for cover under a bush.

The soft, jingling songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers filled the trees all around with loose, gentle trills, like bracelets ringing. There were several small birds in the oaks above me, and all of them I could see were Yellow-rumped Warblers. A half dozen White-throated Sparrows scratched at the mulch and leaves under shrubs. Another White-throated Sparrow sang from down the street, then another and another, their high, whistled songs lingering like echoes.

Red-eyed Vireo

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

A Red-eyed Vireo sang this afternoon as it traveled through the young green leaves of oaks – here I am; where are you; over here; up in the trees – a familiar refrain that brings another piece of summer’s music to the woods again. The first Red-eyed Vireo I’ve heard or seen this season, it was high and moving constantly, so I couldn’t see it well, but caught glimpses of its cream-white breast, green-gray back, gray crown bordered in black, and white stripe over the eye. The day was warm and sunny, the air hazy with pollen.