Archive for October, 2015

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.