Archive for 2015

Early Morning Birdsongs and Calls

Monday, November 30th, 2015

In the gray light of early morning, well before sunrise, a Carolina Wren greeted the day with a burst of musical song – a sunny jubilee-jubilee-jubilee, answered by a long, ringing trill from another Carolina Wren. An Eastern Towhee called a colorful chur-whee, and a White-throated Sparrow whistled its haunting Oh sweet Canada.

The morning air drifting in through an open bedroom window felt cool and damp, but not at all cold. Outside, a light fog shrouded the ground. A soft patter of what sounded like rain was not rain, but showers of small dry leaves from water oak trees that fell in the slightest breeze. A Hermit Thrush called a soft, liquid chup, from branches right outside the window – one of the sweetest and most welcome sounds of the morning.

Then Northern Cardinals began to peep, several White-throated Sparrows called tseeet and began to rustle and scratch in dry leaves on the ground. A Brown Thrasher called a sharp tschack! There were the distant caws of American Crows, the chuck-chuck of a Red-bellied Woodpecker in the woods, and the gray, intense, lisping song of an Eastern Phoebe, followed by the sudden bright rattle of a Belted Kingfisher flying over the house toward the creek.

Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice began to chatter, a Downy Woodpecker whinnied, and a Dark-eyed Junco gave a soft, muffled, jingling call. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered its dry jidit-jidit-jidit in some shrubs, and a Golden-crowned Kinglet called a high, thin ti-ti-ti from high in the trees. Blue Jays cried from somewhere down the street. In the last few minutes before sunrise – a sunrise likely to be hidden in gray clouds and fog – a Pileated Woodpecker moving through trees on the edge of the woods clucked in its traveling cuk-cuk-cuk-cuk.

So even on this last day of November, foggy, gray and cool, an early morning still begins with a musical tribute to the dawn and the calls of neighbor to neighbor, making the rounds and checking in.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

Much later in the day, I went outside for a short break, and watched a Ruby-crowned Kinglet moving through the low branches and small, faded leaves of a water oak near the porch. It was close enough to see in beautiful detail – a tiny gray bird with a green tint over the back and short white bars in the wings, a white ring around the eye, and a pale gray breast. The ruby crest wasn’t showing, but even without it, the kinglet looked bright and vivid. It moved quickly, often flitting from spot to spot and flicking its wings, and it chattered a dry, stuttering jidit-jidit now and then. Twice it flew up to catch a small flying insect, but mostly it searched the drab orange and brown and yellow leaves and picked off very tiny things, mites and insects much to small for me to see. It seemed to be finding a lot of something, and it stayed and went from leaf to leaf to leaf, sometimes also capturing something from a twig or branch. The little bird with its crisp colors and movements looked like an animated jewel among the dry and muted leaves.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker Day

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

After watching and listening for a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in vain for most of this fall, today I suddenly found four in our neighborhood – a small Sapsucker bonanza.

It was a clear, sunny morning, with a soft blue sky and high veils of white clouds. The air felt gentle and mild, with light, cool breezes, and the sun felt warm. It almost looked and sounded more like spring than very late November. Several birds were singing – Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Bluebird, Pine Warbler – and I even heard one Ruby-crowned Kinglet burst into its quick, complex little song. Dozens of Chipping Sparrows flew up from the grassy roadside along our yard and perched in crape myrtles, young maples and young pines. An American Goldfinch called potato-chip as it flew over, and I saw the first of many flashy bluebirds.

A woodpecker flew to the trunk of a pecan tree on the edge of our front yard and stayed for just a few moments, exploring the bark and looking around, long enough for a clear and colorful view of the first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker I’ve seen in our yard this fall. It was a colorful male, with brilliant crimson crown and throat, and I watched it until it flew away, very happy to see one again.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is a winter bird for us here, and in past years we’ve been lucky enough to have several around for the season and to see them almost every day from mid September through late spring. This fall has suddenly been quite different. Until today, I had only heard one call and seen one other from a distance.

With its barred black and white back, broad white stripe down the wings, black bib across the chest, dramatic black and white stripes on the face, and brilliant crimson crown, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is distinctly different from all of our other woodpecker species. A male is also marked by a crimson throat. The yellow color of the belly can be very faint, and often looks more white or cream, flecked with black patterns. In warm sunlight, though, the belly glows a subtle mellow-yellow. Despite the colorful touches, the overall pattern and color blend in so well with the trunks and branches of bare winter trees that one can easily escape notice. Its mewing call or the tapping of its bill often are what call attention to its presence.

Almost all of the pecan trees in our neighborhood show several rings of the holes made by Sapsuckers during the winter months. The Sapsuckers make these holes and return to them repeatedly to drink the sap produced by the tree, along with insects, spiders and other prey that may be caught in the sap.

As I walked through the neighborhood later that morning, I passed three more Sapsuckers, all working on the trunks and branches of pecan trees. In every case, it was the mewing calls or delicate tapping sounds that caught my attention first. All three were juveniles or females, with pale throats, not red, but the places where I saw each one were far enough apart so that I think it’s likely there were three different ones.

The Magic Hour

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

Late on this Thanksgiving Day, the neighborhood lay in unaccustomed quiet and peace, without the usual background sounds of traffic and yard machines. Under a calm blue sky and mellow sun, our own front yard lay quiet and still, apparently abandoned even by birds. At first I couldn’t hear or see a single one. A chilly northwest breeze shook down showers of water oak leaves. After several minutes, a Northern Cardinal flew to the hanging feeder, and sat there without eating, looking hunched and almost sullen. Another Cardinal peeped from somewhere in the shrubs. Suddenly, the bright, flamboyant song of a Carolina Wren broke out from a hedge of wax myrtles, and I noticed a silent Brown Thrasher perched in a small pecan tree across the street, warmly lit by the sun.

Gradually I began to hear the sibilant calls of several White Throated Sparrows, and the rustle and scratching of birds in dry leaves, hidden somewhere under the bushes. A Northern Flicker called a loud, sharp kleer! from somewhere high in the trees.

When I looked down, I found a White-throated Sparrow energetically kicking up leaves around some Lenten Roses near the porch. An Eastern Phoebe called tsup from high in the oaks, and stayed on a branch for several moments, preening. An Eastern Towhee called from a neighbor’s yard.

As the sun dropped below the line of trees along the horizon, the yard fell deeper into shadow and the air felt cooler and damp. With a startling rush of wings that I almost could feel, a Hermit Thrush flew to the birdbath only a few feet away, and sat on the rim. At first it sat with its brown back toward me, raising its ruddy tail and lowering it again. Then it turned around to face me fully, and looked very bright, with the dark spots on its breast and watchful face. Though I felt charmed to see it so close, I think it didn’t feel the same. It looked nervous, and hopped to the rim on the other side of the birdbath – and paused there again, posing perfectly for a long moment. Then it flew away, without bathing or even taking a drink. I felt guilty about that, not wanting to disturb the birds in their end-of-day routines.

Then I realized there were suddenly lots of White-throated Sparrows all around the yard, as if the fading light and end of day had animated them all and brought them out of the shadows. There were at least two dozen, maybe three, scattered around in the grass, in the leaves, in the mulch, under the shrubs, along the flagstone path, and some even coming out onto the sidewalk. They were searching for food, scratching up leaves, pecking at the ground and calling tseeet back and forth all the while.

Several pairs of them came together in funny, quick spats that looked like brief disputes – in which one or both flew or hopped straight up into the air with a snap, maybe contesting a choice spot. They were all very active, moving quickly and intent on foraging. Among all the sparrows, one quiet Brown Thrasher lurked around the bottom of some bushes, fending off a sparrow or two from its spot. A nearby Eastern Towhee called chur-whee. One White-throated Sparrow whistled a few sweet notes of a song.

The twilight faded swiftly, and as if a spell had broken, almost as suddenly as all the sparrows had appeared, they all began to disappear, melting away and falling quiet, with a last few peeps and chips and tseets coming from deep inside the darkened bushes as they settled in for the night.

Two Golden-crowned Kinglets

Friday, November 13th, 2015

This afternoon was bathed in the golden light that is the special grace of this time of year. The sun felt warm, under a soft blue sky veiled in high white clouds. Dry leaves swirled down in the wind. The weather is changing, with much cooler temperatures forecast for tonight.

Among a flurry of small birds in a thicket along the side of the road, a Hermit Thrush flew up from the ground to a low branch in a tree. It sat for several moments facing toward me, looking nervous and agitated, with head sharply raised. Its tail remained down, and it did not flick its wings or call. The restless shadows of branches rippled over the dark spots on its breast. After a few moments, it flew up to a higher branch, and then a higher one and out of sight.

Then two much smaller birds appeared in very low branches in the same tangled area – two tiny, beautiful Golden-crowned Kinglets with bright yellow crowns and black-and-white striped faces. Both were so close and clearly in view, crisply marked and vivid – the best views I have enjoyed of Golden-crowned Kinglets this season, though I’ve often heard their high, ti-ti-ti calls. Usually they’ve been much higher up in the trees, and difficult to see. Tiny gray birds with a round shape, short wings, and small white wing-bars, they moved very quickly and constantly, searching for small insects and other prey on branches and leaves.

A little further down the road, in a large yard dotted with bare-limbed pecan trees, several Eastern Bluebirds and House Finches foraged in the grass, with one glowing yellow Pine Warbler that made its way steadily across the grass and leaves and around the base of the trees.

White-throated Sparrows

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Very late this afternoon, not long before sunset, several White-throated Sparrows called their sibilant tseets from hidden spots around our front yard. One whistled a clear Oh Sweet Canada song. Although I’ve been hearing the calls and songs of a few White-throated Sparrows since mid October, I hadn’t really seen one well until today.

Deep in the glossy green leaves of a cleyera bush I saw something rustling around, and a fine, plump White-throated Sparrow came into clear view – only a few feet away from where I sat on the porch. It was handsomely marked, with a rich brown back and wings beautifully patterned in black and orange-brown streaks; a gray breast with slight shadowy streaks along the gray flanks; a black-and-white striped head with a touch of deep yellow over the bill; and a neat white throat.

There seemed to be very few other birds around at all, though sometimes this is an active time of day, when birds come for a dip in the birdbath or a last drink of water before the night. Today I could only hear the distant calls of Carolina Wren, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and a closer Northern Cardinal. An Eastern Towhee kicked up leaves under a hedge of wax myrtles.

It had been a mild, warm, breezy day, full of brown leaves showering down from the white oaks around the house. Now, as the sun dropped lower, the yard fell deeper into shadows and a few katydids joined crickets in singing – though it seems very late in the year for katydids. When the sun went down, White-throated Sparrows in the bushes all around began to exchange more calls as they settled in for the night, mostly tseeets and a few sharp, emphatic chinks.

In summer, White-throated Sparrows live and nest in the forests of Canada and parts of the northern U.S. In winter, they move further south, and are among the most common sparrows here, found in many places – around yards with plenty of shrubs or hedges, and in vacant fields and thickets, in parks and neighborhoods, and anywhere with low, dense vegetation. They come out often to forage by kicking up leaves like Towhees, but they also stay hidden much of the time in the shrubs, and sometimes make their presence known best by their calls – an important part of winter’s landscape here. Their high, haunting whistled songs are among the loveliest sounds of the season, especially at twilight times.

A Scarcity of Birds

Saturday, October 31st, 2015

October came to an end with a beautiful, moody day; cool and gray, with high, variegated clouds and muted fall colors all around, leaves drifting and showering down. The air has felt chilly and damp, and rain is expected later tonight.

On a walk through the neighborhood late this morning, the most noticeable birds were lots of American Robins, some flying over in flocks, and others scattered out in grassy yards and perched in trees. At least four White-throated Sparrows sang in the old field by the highway.

And so this month of October ends with a continuing scarcity of birds here – at least, far fewer birds than usual in previous years. The most conspicuous missing bird so far this fall is a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but others have also been scarce – maybe just later arriving, as I hope.

A complete species list of birds seen or heard during this last week of October includes Black Vulture, Turkey Vulture, Cooper’s Hawk (seen twice in flight), Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Mourning Dove, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker (there do seem to be several around this year), Pileated Woodpecker (one heard a few times, not seen), Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, American Crow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Carolina Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet (I’ve heard their high calls often), Ruby-crowned Kinglet (have also heard their stuttering calls several times now), Eastern Bluebird, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwings (one small flock), Yellow-rumped Warbler (just a very few; I hear their chip calls and sometimes catch a glimpse of the flashing yellow rump), Pine Warbler (singing their musical trills), Eastern Towhee, Chipping Sparrow (quite a few around now, though not large numbers), White-throated Sparrow (at least a few, not many yet), Northern Cardinal, Brown-headed Cowbird (about three dozen seen this morning perched in trees; these are the only blackbirds at all so far this season), and House Finch.

Song of a White-throated Sparrow

Monday, October 19th, 2015

On a crisp, chilly, brightly-sunny morning, not a cloud in a deep blue sky, the world here looked like fall, with crusty faded leaves and many of them falling now. There’s not much color in the foliage this year, but the summer greens are fading, and there are some spots of yellow, orange and brown. A few small trees already stand bare.

Though it was a beautiful morning, there were surprisingly few birds around. I might hope it was because of the chilly temperatures, but don’t really think that’s true. I stopped several times while walking to listen and look. The one new note was the haunting whistled song of a White-throated Sparrow, the first one I’ve heard this season. The singer was hidden way out in the old field by the highway, and its song could barely be heard through the noise of heavy traffic. It only sang once, and I found no others along the way.

Although I counted 27 species in all, they were very widely scattered, and few in number, and the overall feeling was of a great quiet, and almost an absence of birds. It may just have been the day, or the time of day, or my luck – and yet, this is the way it has seemed this whole month of October so far, usually a month of a lot of migrating bird activity, both birds passing through, going further south, and others arriving for the winter. I have not yet seen or heard a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – very unusual – and have heard only one very distant Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and a few Golden-crowned Kinglets.

So, though I don’t want to feel pessimistic or negative, this is simply the way it has seemed so far this month.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

An early morning thunderstorm and heavy rain were followed by a mostly cloudy, wet and dripping day – again. So far, it’s been a rainy fall.

But even though the day was cloudy, the air felt fresh and crisp and wonderfully cool. As I walked, the clouds began to break apart, and by the time I got back home, the sky was mostly a soft, pale blue, with only high, scattered white clouds. Showers of leaves drifted down all around me, and once, a yellow sulphur butterfly tumbled among them, as if falling, too.

Birds were scattered and scarce, it seemed, but from the tops of oaks and pecan trees in a neighbor’s yard, I heard a high, sibilant ti-ti-ti call for the first time this season – the call of a Golden-crowned Kinglet – or maybe two or three, as the calls were repeated several times. The tiny gray birds with black-and-white striped face and yellow-orange crown were too high up to see, and too well hidden in the leaves, but it’s nice to know they’re back.

Hermit Thrush

Friday, October 9th, 2015

This morning brought a welcome sign of the changing seasons – a Hermit Thrush in a patch of weeds, vines and trees on the edge of the woods. It’s the first returning winter bird I’ve seen this fall.

It was a cool, sunny morning, after several days of dark weather and heavy tropical rain. I had gone for a walk and stopped to check out the thicket – often a good spot for birds – and mostly it seemed pretty quiet. I could hear a few tiny chips, a rustle in dry leaves here and there, and the sweet, whistled puh-wheee of an Eastern Wood-Pewee not far away. A light breeze brought down a dry shower of leaves in the woods that sounded like rain. All around was a mix of muted fall colors in the trees, faded green, crusty brown, olive, yellow, dull orange, with accents here and there of dusky red.

A bird flew up from the ground on the edge of the shrubs where I hadn’t seen it at all. I could tell where it was, from small movements among the leaves, and after only a moment or two, it moved into view – the smooth, olive-brown back and wings, cinnamon tail, spotted breast, and watchful face of a Hermit Thrush, with its thin sharp bill and bright eye circled in a thin white ring. A very nice surprise. Its breast was a parchment shade, dotted with dark spots that were brightest on the upper breast and faded to more blurry dots as they spread lower. At first, its back was toward me, but then it turned all the way around so that it faced me, and raised its tail, and slowly lowered the tail again, then leaned over and flicked its wings – all in a characteristic way that said as clearly as its appearance, Hermit Thrush.

 A Hermit Thrush spends its summers in northern forests, where its ethereal, fluted song has enchanted poets and writers like Thoreau, and anyone who’s lucky enough to hear it, especially in a fading summer twilight.

Here in the winter months, it lives up to its name, at least in some ways, more by being unobtrusive and quiet than by really being reclusive. It spends its time in the lower story of shrubs and small trees, or low limbs of trees, and often comes out to forage on the ground in yards or on the edge of a woodland, along with other small birds. In both coloring and behavior, it blends in well with the background, so it doesn’t easily attract attention.

Its call – which I didn’t hear today – is a soft, liquid chup, a distinctive and expressive sound that’s an integral part of our woods in late fall and winter. Though it most often goes unnoticed, once learned, it becomes a familiar sound that calls attention to the presence of the Thrush. It’s one of my favorite winter birds, because even though it’s not uncommon, to see it never feels ordinary. It always feels like a special glimpse into the mostly-hidden life of the winter woods.