Archive for September, 2015

Red-eyed Vireos and a Feeding Flock of Migrants

Friday, September 25th, 2015

After leaving the Magnolia Warbler, I walked along the old field outside our subdivision, where things continued to seem pretty quiet. An Eastern Towhee called its rich chur-wheee. One Brown Thrasher sat out on the edge of a privet branch, and several others hidden in the field gave sharp, dry tchk! calls, over and over. Sometimes they added a short, softer, musical call that sounded something like toorah.

Back inside our own neighborhood, a small flock of about three dozen Brown-headed Cowbirds perched in the tops of pecan trees, and an Eastern Phoebe sat on a low branch and called tsup. But it wasn’t until I was almost home that I found the most active spot of the day, with a small bonanza of birds. In a large area of trees and thickets a feeding flock of migrants included Chestnut-sided, Black-and-white and Pine Warblers; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Northern Parula – and an amazing number of Red-eyed Vireos.

The first birds I noticed all were Red-eyed Vireos – first one, then another very nearby in the trees, then four that I could see at once, spread out in different trees, and in all, there were at least a half-dozen – all Red-eyed Vireos. Most of them seemed to be near or in a large dogwood tree at the center of all the activity.

It was a luxury to see so many Red-eyed Vireos, some of them so close, almost at eye-level. Sleek olive-gray birds with clean white breast, gray crown and a striking facial pattern, with a black streak through the eye, bordered in white stripes. On one, I could see the faint yellow below the tail as it leaned over to capture a caterpillar. They moved deliberately, searching branches and leaves for caterpillars and other prey, and I watched one eating a red dogwood berry. Another hawked an insect from the air.

Then I began to see other small songbirds in the same large area around the large dogwood tree. A flash of yellow turned out to be the second Magnolia Warbler of the day; and another blink of color was a Chestnut-sided Warbler – a crisp and cleanly marked first-winter bird, with gray face, neat white eye-ring, yellowish wing bars, and a brilliant green crown and back. At such close range, I could see this green on the back much more clearly than usual.

A Northern Parula, small and kind of stubby, but quick and brightly colored, with yellow throat and dark coral band on the breast, was moving constantly and very quickly in and out of the leaves. But it was so close, I could still clearly see the very white belly, and the very green mantle on its back, the broken white eye ring (or white arcs) and two small white wing bars. Pure delight!

At the same time, two White-breasted Nuthatches called nearby, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher foraged in the dogwood with the warblers, now and then calling spee-spee. A Northern Flicker called kleer! A Pine Warbler trilled a song from the edge of the woods, and an Eastern Wood-Pewee hunted quietly from a low branch in a craggy old apple tree just on the edge of the thicket.

Another bird in the old apple tree, high up near the top, was creeping over and around its gnarled branches and trunk – a Black-and-white Warbler, the first one I’ve seen here this season, I think. With its striking black-and-white striped pattern and long, slender, almost serpentine shape, it crept along the branches, searching under the bark for insects.

And then there were a few other small birds that I couldn’t quite see well enough to identify. One of them may have been an immature Hooded Warbler – or not. I watched for several minutes, trying to get a better look, but then, as the feeding flock seemed to be drifting away, I walked on toward home, more than happy with the late September day.

Magnolia Warbler

Friday, September 25th, 2015

A cool, gray, misty morning followed a night of heavy rain. By mid-morning, gray clouds still hung very low and dark, and a light mist continued to fall. Rainwater dripped from trees and large bushes, crickets and grasshoppers sang. At first, as I started a walk down the street, I heard no birds, except for the distant caws of American Crows. Then gradually I began to hear a few, the chatter of Carolina Chickadees, the nasal calls of two White-breasted Nuthatches, the whistled puh-wee of two Eastern Wood-Peewees. A quiet Northern Mockingbird ruffled its wet wings as it perched among drenched leaves on a crape myrtle branch.

A little further on, I passed the scattered chatter of Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals, the cries of Blue Jays, the chucking calls of Red-bellied Woodpeckers and delicate rattles of Downies. With a flash of sudden color in the fog, an Eastern Bluebird flew to the top of a tree.

A small flutter of wings and rustle of leaves, and a flash of yellow caught my attention in a tangle of kudzu, privet and young water oaks. For several minutes I watched and followed the constant movement of a small bird that I couldn’t quite see well – though I could follow its movement through the wet, very dense vegetation, showing only quick, partial, frustrating glimpses of wings or head or tail.

Finally, it came out for one good, clear moment, and I saw a brightly-marked immature Magnolia Warbler – a small, fluttery wood warbler with smooth gray head and face, white eye-ring, bright yellow throat and breast, and faint dark streaks on the sides, white wing bars and yellow rump. A small indentation of pale gray at the shoulder may have been part of a pale-gray neckband. As it moved again, turning around, it showed the under side of the tail, clean white with a broad black band at the edge. Very nice!

Northern Flicker on the Fall Equinox

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

The first day of fall began cool, cloudy and gray, but by mid-morning the clouds had begun to break apart and the day soon became bright and warmly sunny. Streaks of red and yellow in leaves showed the first hints of fall color, and a few dry leaves and acorns showered down in light breezes.

Purple and white morning glories bloomed in the ditch by the field, though most of them were almost hidden and choked out by tall, rough grasses and other weeds. Tiny red morning glories twisted up the stems of some of the weeds. The yellow blooms of camphorweed spread over a large part of the field, though most of it was a faded green and brown tangle of privet, honeysuckle, blackberry brambles, kudzu and red-stemmed pokeweed. The foxtails – a soft, gentle brown not long ago – now already look dark, almost black, as if singed by the heat.

Butterflies have been very, very scarce here all summer long – their absence has been strange and sad – but this morning I saw several, including a few sulphurs and skippers, one buckeye, one Gulf fritillary, and a sleepy orange.

On this beautiful first day of fall, though, there were surprisingly few birds. Around our own yard, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds came frequently to the feeder, and Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees and Eastern Bluebirds visited the shallow saucer of water on a corner of the deck under a fern, to drink and to bathe. Carolina Wrens were the most vocal birds of the morning, singing, fussing and calling.

On a walk through the rest of the neighborhood, I found a total of only 19 species. The few highlights included a brief but vivid glimpse of a ruddy-gold female Summer Tanager; the songs of two Eastern Wood-Pewees; one lone Chimney Swift flying over very high; and a small gathering of about a dozen Chipping Sparrows feeding in a grassy yard, under a small tree.

A statuesque Northern Flicker posed in the top of a pecan tree turned out to be the most memorable highlight of the day. From its perch overlooking a meadow and a small pond, it sat facing the sun, which lit its colors in autumn shades of brown, gray and red. It clung upright on the side of a branch, round gray head held high, brown face tilted up, with its long, sturdy bill. Wavy black bars patterned a brown back. A red crescent marked the nape of the neck, and a black crescent crossed its chest, above a tawny breast boldly spotted with black.

Northern Parula

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

Toward the end of an hour-long walk, I stopped to check out several small birds in the trees and shrubs of an area along a small grassy ridge just inside the entrance to our subdivision. The deep yellow color of a female Summer Tanager on a low branch of a water oak was the first thing to catch my eye. She held a long dark caterpillar in her heavy bill, and I watched as she worked it back to swallow. Then she flew, and another much smaller, colorful bird flitted into view.

It was a Northern Parula, a wood warbler whose buzzy song I often hear – especially in spring and fall, less often through the summer – and it’s much less often that I manage see one here, because they can be hard to find, deep in the dense foliage of trees, shrubs and vines that they prefer. This one was quiet, but in perfect view as it moved through the lower branches of pecan trees. A tiny, plump, fairy-like bird, it glowed with a bright yellow throat and breast, and a band of coral and black spread across its chest like a necklace. Its blue-gray head and wings, bright, short white wing bars, white belly and a short tail all were clear, though the view was not quite good enough to see the green coloring on its back or the white arcs that frame the eye. I watched it for several moments as it flitted in and out of view quickly among the leaves, adding a hint of magic to a quiet late-summer morning.

The Late-Summer Call of an Eastern Wood-Pewee

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

By nine o’clock this morning the temperature was still barely 60 degrees, and the sky was a gentle blue with high white clouds. Though it was a lovely day, there were surprisingly few birds along the way as I walked through the neighborhood, and at first, no pockets of activity or feeding flocks in the grass or trees. Widely scattered here and there, were the songs, calls, trills and burbling of Carolina Wrens; the caws of American Crows, the cries of Blue Jays, the rattle of Red-bellied Woodpeckers in the woods, and the whinny of a Downy Woodpecker; the trill of a Pine Warbler’s song; the peter-peter songs of Tufted Titmouse and the chatter of a Carolina Chickadee – and then a small bird swooped across the grass on the edge of a yard and up to perch on a low limb of a pecan tree.

It was an Eastern Wood-Pewee, a small, neat flycatcher that used to be a familiar summer bird here in our neighborhood. In more recent years, we see it and hear its song only in migration – especially in late summer and fall. It was perched in full view on the limb, and paused there long enough for a good, clear look. A small gray bird, very trim in appearance and in the way it moves, with dark back and wings, thin white wing bars, off-white throat and belly, and darker gray head in a slight crest. I could just barely see the orange color of its lower bill. As I watched, it swooped down again to capture a flying insect near the grass, and returned to the same spot on the limb. Then it whistled a sweet puh-whee once, twice and even a third time, before I walked on.

I first heard the sweet, summery whistled call of an Eastern Wood-Pewee this season in the last week of August, and since then, have heard it almost every day, and seen one several times, often in this same spot. There seem to be two or three in different areas of the neighborhood. At this time of year, they occasionally will whistle their full pee-a-wee – wheee-oooh summer song, but most often now, they whistle a soft but clear puh-wheee, which may technically be a call, rather than a song.

So the Eastern Wood-Pewee now has become a characteristic late summer bird for us, one of the first migrating songbirds to begin passing through. A very few seem to stay around for two or three weeks or more, and their slurred, whistled calls reflect the mellowing, quieter mood of the season, the scent of fresh-mown grass, the swarms of tiny insects in shafts of sunlight, the fading green of the trees and first few hints of yellowing leaves.

Although still considered common in most of its range, the Eastern Wood-Pewee has “declined significantly on its breeding grounds over the last 25 years,” according to the species account in Birds of North America, “perhaps in part because of heavy browsing of forests by white-tailed deer.” *

Here, in and around our own neighborhood, we have an over-abundance of white-tailed deer, and their browsing has greatly changed the landscape, almost completely clearing out the understory vegetation in the woods. So this may be one reason we’ve lost Eastern Wood-Pewees as familiar nesting birds during the summers here.

*John P. McCarty, 1996, Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens), The Birds of North America Online, (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


A Little Brown Bird with a Bodacious Voice – and Personality

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

The first birdsong of the morning was the bright, musical song of a Carolina Wren. Belted out like a Broadway tune, the melody rang from the shrubs on the edge of the house, jubilee-jubilee-jubilee – just one song variation in the extensive repertoire of a Carolina Wren.

The second and third songs also came from Carolina Wrens – our most vocal birds right now. While many other songbirds have fallen rather quiet at this time of year, Carolina Wrens fill the days with a variety of songs and a wide array of calls that are almost as varied and impressive in different ways – trills, buzzy fussing, burbling, bleating calls that tumble through the bushes and around the yard.

A Carolina Wren is a small, cinnamon-brown bird with a short, stubby shape and an abundance of attitude. A jaunty white stripe over its eye; a long, strong, down-curved bill; and a long tail often turned up – all help to reflect its confident, bold demeanor, which at times seems out of all proportion to its size.

Though I think of a Carolina Wren as a typically southern bird, it’s now common throughout most of the eastern U.S. As the climate has warmed, it has expanded its range substantially over the past century or so. It’s very much at home around the house and yard, the one most likely to build its nest in a hanging plant or an old flower pot or a forgotten basket on the shelf of a garage.

This little brown bird graces our days with beautiful music – also out of all proportion to its size and appearance. We’re very lucky to have them.


Baltimore Oriole – A Royal Progress

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

The deep, burning orange and black of a Baltimore Oriole, accented with bright white wing bars, eclipsed all the other birds in a small wave of migrants moving through a stand of water oaks this morning. The Oriole’s size, demeanor and brilliant colors looked regal. It stood out clearly near the top of the tree, solid black head held high and thin, pointed bill tilted slightly up. It moved at a stately pace through the branches, its breast and body as orange and brilliant as the sun.

Meanwhile, in the same water oaks and nearby privet, kudzu and other shrubs and vines, a diminutive, neat gray Eastern Wood-Pewee, two silvery, long-tailed Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, a Red-eyed Vireo, White-eyed Vireo, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Northern Parula, and several Carolina Chickadees and Carolina Wrens all were moving through the same patch of trees. All fell into the background for me – like colorful, fluttering, chattering attendants – because I so seldom see a Baltimore Oriole here. Whenever one does move through, in spring or fall migration, it feels like a special occasion.

It moved quietly and made its stately, unhurried way through the upper branches of the oaks, seeming to search intently for food – which might have been insects or flowers or fruits on a vine. A couple of times it flew out from a treetop to hawk an insect from the air. After a few minutes, it had moved further and further away, and finally disappeared into more trees.

Though my image of the Baltimore Oriole as royalty was purely subjective, of course, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website includes this interesting note:

Unlike robins and many other fruit-eating birds, Baltimore Orioles seem to prefer only ripe, dark-colored fruit. Orioles seek out the darkest mulberries, the reddest cherries, and the deepest-purple grapes, and will ignore green grapes and yellow cherries even if they are ripe. 

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Friday, September 4th, 2015

September began here in Summit Grove with a warm, sunny day, a clear, deep-blue sky, and what felt like a profusion of colorful birds and a hint of fall in the air. Among the highlights of a good long morning walk were lots of Eastern Bluebirds; the songs of Carolina Wrens, Pine Warblers and a Northern Parula; the whistled puh-weee of an Eastern Wood-Pewee; the wispy spee-spee of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers; and – moving quietly around among the leaves of pecan trees in the corner of one yard – a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Red-eyed Vireo and an elegant Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

After a period of several months of frequent travel and other demands, I’m hoping now for a spell of staying at home and watching the birds of our neighborhood more often again – and I couldn’t have asked for a happier start than today. There was nothing uncommon, and not really large numbers of birds, but I was reminded of how much I’ve been missing – and of how much I purely enjoy being outside and watching birds.

A small fluttering flash of yellow and white among dark green leaves turned out to be a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a small, active bird that’s a common and familiar fall migrant here. This was the first one I’ve seen this season. It was a first-winter bird in fall plumage, with a yellow-green head and back; a pale, almost white belly; two bright yellowish wing bars, a gray face and a white eye-ring. Both its appearance and its movements looked crisp and neat as it moved quickly through the leaves, flitting from spot to spot, gleaning for insects and other food.

Near the top of another tree, a Red-eyed Vireo emerged more sedately from the foliage. A small, sturdy bird that’s relatively large for a vireo and is often described as chunky –for some reason a Red-eyed Vireo always looks slender and sleek to me. Maybe it’s just the angle of view, or the way it moves, or an illusion created by its markings. Its back was a smooth, grayish green, its breast and belly clean white, and its narrow face distinctively marked with a gray crown, and white eyebrow stripe outlined in black, and a black streak through the eyes. It moved methodically – not fluttering or flitting – through the leaves, gleaning for caterpillars and other prey. Often its body was stretched out long and low on the branches.

Seeing a Red-eyed Vireo was more interesting than usual because this past summer here they’ve been noticeably absent most of the time. This was a dramatic and sudden change – in past years they’ve been among our most common summer birds – so it’s very good to see one now, again.

A few steps further on, I heard rustling in a pecan tree directly above me, looked straight up, and saw the most dramatic bird of the day – a stunning Yellow-billed Cuckoo. One of our most exotic-looking birds, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo is large, long and slim in shape, with a smooth brown back, creamy-white under side, and a long, dramatic tail of white spots on black in a scalloped pattern.

It was fairly high in the tree but in very clear view, so that I could see almost all of its markings unusually clearly. At such close range, it looked big – long and sleek and substantial. Its belly and throat and lower cheek were a pure, creamy, beautiful white; the brown back shaded with taupe – and I could even see the rich cinnamon touch of color in the wings. The large down-curved bill was mostly yellow, but I could also see a darker upper part. It was all as clear and beautiful a view as I could possibly wish, and the best view of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo I’ve enjoyed for a long time.

It never fails to amaze me to find such a lush and exotic-looking bird here in these patchy woodlands around our own back yards. It moved very little as I watched for several minutes, making its way slowly, deliberately through the branches, catching a large caterpillar in its bill and eating it, then moving a little more. It was quiet, not giving its long, percussive call – a sound as exotic as the Cuckoo’s appearance. I watched it as long as I could, until it climbed up further into the leaves, where I could no longer see it.

When I walked on, Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Downy Woodpeckers – all the usual suspects – peeped, chipped, fussed, and rattled in the trees; Eastern Towhees called chur-whee from low in shrubs and in the fields. Chimney Swifts twittered as they flew overhead. An Eastern Phoebe sang. Blue Jays cried, and American Crows cawed. American Goldfinches gave their potato-chip flight calls as they flew over. Two Brown-headed Nuthatches moving through some pines chattered squeaky calls.

Two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flitted around in the branches of some shrubs, and I stopped to watch them for a few minutes, diminutive, silver-gray birds with long tails and quick movements, neat and crisp in appearance and behavior, they seem to me so similar to summer sunlight in the leaves, shifting, changing, bright; now here, now danced away, the whole scene changing as they come and go.

In a heavily shaded, wooded stretch of road, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew silently out of the trees on one side, swept low across the road ahead of me on broad, outstretched wings, and disappeared into the trees on the other side. Only a moment later, it was followed by a second Red-shouldered Hawk that followed the same path. Very large hawks, with back and wings in warm brown colors with a reddish glow, they came and went like spirits of the woods, so quiet and in shades of patterned brown, with banded tails. Two White-breasted Nuthatches called their nasal awnk-awnk, repeatedly. Mourning Doves cooed.

Just outside our neighborhood, in the large, overgrown old field on a hill that hides a busy highway below, a White-eyed Vireo sang, a Gray Catbird rasped its plaintive mew, and several Brown Thrashers called their sharp, smacking chak calls. The vireo sounded close, and I paused briefly to see if I could spot it, but it stayed too far back in the tangle of weeds and small trees and vines, well hidden. A Red-tailed Hawk sat quietly on top of a utility pole overlooking the highway.

Gulf Fritillaries, a Red-spotted Purple and several Sulphur butterflies flew around the field; grasshoppers crackled and snapped and sang; stiff purple verbena bloomed low along the roadside; and vines of large purple and tiny red morning glories wound up the stems of tall, rough grasses. A patch of soft-brown foxtails stood in a low, shaded spot, lit by a shaft of sunlight so they glowed a golden tan.

And so – it was a fine welcome to September.

Yellow-throated Vireo – A View from Above

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

In a large thicket of trees, shrubs and vines near the side of the road that’s often a good birding spot, a small bird with a shimmering olive-green head and back emerged from the leaves, almost at eye level. As it moved out further, a startling olive-green face appeared, with yellow spectacles around the eyes, a brilliant yellow throat, and clean white bars marking the wings – a Yellow-throated Vireo.

A Yellow-throated Vireo is a bird found most often in the treetops, and though it sings a distinctive, strong and repeated song, it’s often difficult to see – or at least, to see very well. I think I’ve most often watched one from below – looking up through a tangle of branches and leaves as it sang, and seeing mostly its yellow throat.

But this time, I watched it from above for a few moments. It was an unusually close, clear view, and what I remember most vividly are the delicate wash of green on the head and the back, and the striking yellow spectacles around the eyes as it turned toward me – which made the encounter feel even closer than it was. It was quiet, moving rather slowly through the leaves, gleaning for insects and other prey.

Like a number of other forest birds, Yellow-throated Vireos have become less and less common here in the woods in Summit Grove over the past few years. Instead of hearing their songs all summer, as I used to, now I hear one only occasionally in the spring and summer as they pass through. While Yellow-throated Vireos prefer a habitat on the edges of a forest, they are known to require larger areas of forest for them to breed successfully. So here, it’s possible the woodlands that surround us have become too patchy and fragmented for them, though I don’t know that for sure.

Female Summer Tanagers in Sunrise Colors

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

Early this morning, a line of crape myrtles and large shrubs along a fence rustled with several birds flying in and out of the foliage. Among them was a deep-yellow bird with a long sturdy bill that emerged from the leaves and paused for a moment – a female Summer Tanager. She was completely yellow all over, but in different shades, her face and breast a brighter, lemon-yellow, her wings and back a darker olive-gold, with hints of brown and green. A medium-size songbird, a female Summer Tanager appears long and solid, with a fairly large head. Her long, heavy bill may be particularly suited for catching and subduing bees and wasps, which are among the Summer Tanager’s favorite prey.

There were also several Northern Cardinals moving around in these same trees and shrubs, but another reddish bird perched on the edge of a tree turned out to be, instead, a second and quite different female Summer Tanager. She also appeared deep yellow all over, but softly splotched on the chest and back and head with rose. She sat facing the morning sun, which gave her a rosy glow all over. The red in her plumage was not bright or in large patches, but subdued and appeared more as accents and shadows. It’s really almost impossible to describe, as if the rose-red color were a blush, under the surface of the yellow.

Lit by the morning sun, the colors of these two birds were enchanting, subtly changing like the colors of clouds, as they moved from sun to shadow and tree to shrub, from rose and red to gold and saffron, green and olive.