Archive for March, 2016

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

Late this afternoon, under a half-cloudy, half-sunny sky, I was just about to sit down on the deck when a buzzing, thrumming hum zipped over my right shoulder, making me flinch a little as it always does – and a tiny blur of a bird flew out over the rail and circled back to the hummingbird feeder we’d put out almost a week ago. It was the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird we’ve seen this spring. It hovered over the feeder for just a few moments, posing perfectly, its ruby throat glistening in a shaft of sunlight. Then it zipped away and out of sight. We didn’t see it again the rest of the early evening, but it’s nice to know they’re back.

Blue-headed Vireo

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

This morning began cloudy, cool, and misting rain. New leaves had opened overnight, it seemed, transforming the trees around our house from gray to pale spring green, and dogwoods had bloomed, scattering white flowers all through the woods. A Louisiana Waterthrush sang from down by the creek, a brilliant song. A Black-and-white Warbler whispered a softer, lisping weesa-weesa-weesa as it made its way through pines and hardwoods. A Northern Parula sang its buzzy, rising ssssssssip! These have been our earliest migrant birds, returned in the past few days, and bringing a greater variety of songs to the woods, along with the beauty of new green leaves and dogwoods in bloom.

All of our winter birds and many year-round residents were singing, too, though not all at the same time or in the same place. After the first flush of very early birdsong, the singers became more scattered – Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Phoebe, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, American Robin, and Eastern Bluebird. Brown Thrashers sang from perches in the tallest trees, and Northern Mockingbirds from treetops, fence-posts, and bushes. The whistled, lingering refrain of a White-throated Sparrow; the long, level trills of Chipping Sparrows; the quick, complex, sharp little tunes of Ruby-crowned Kinglets; and the lyrical trills of Pine Warblers were among the most expressive.

But the highlight of the morning for me was the song of a Blue-headed Vireo, singing as it made its way through high branches in a tall oak tree. I first heard just one note and stopped to look up – then a clear, slow, deliberate string of phrases with a slightly finch-like quality, each note slurring down or up in an almost plaintive, but pretty way. I hadn’t carried binoculars out with me because of the misting rain, but very much wished for them, because I could only see a little dark silhouette of a bird, moving steadily through the branches as it sang. In the misting rain and blurry gray light, it sounded like glistening beads of color, patiently strung together into music.

A Blue-headed Vireo is another early-returning migrant here. Its song is usually the first of the vireos to be heard in our woods – small, relatively sturdy neotropical migrants that are similar to wood warblers, but slightly larger and more solid. It’s only passing through, but if we’re lucky, might stay around for a few days – so I’m hoping there might be another chance to see it.

Black-and-White Warbler and Northern Parula – More New Arrivals

Thursday, March 17th, 2016

Yesterday and today, our sunny, very warm weather has continued, with blue skies and scattered white clouds, and each day has brought a new returning songbird, another sign of spring. Yesterday, it was a Black-and-white Warbler, singing in woods of mixed pines and oaks. And this morning, a Northern Parula trilled its buzzy song in trees near our yard.

The wispy weesa-weesa-weesa song of a Black-and-white Warbler is sometimes described as sounding like “a squeaky wheel.” The one singing this morning was making its way through a wooded area well back from the road, so I didn’t try to see it, but it’s nice to know one’s here again. A Black-and-white Warbler is a small, slender songbird striped all over in black and white. It creeps along branches, intently searching for food, and singing as it goes.

The Northern Parula makes a striking contrast to the slender, creeping black and white warbler – though I didn’t manage to see either one. It’s a smaller, more rounded, quick-moving bird, often flitting from spot to spot, with a bright yellow throat and chest, a gray head and wings, green back, and a black and coral band across its breast. It sang from very high up in water oaks across the street from our house. I could hear and follow its buzzy, rising trill, but it stayed too well hidden in the leaves to see.

Meanwhile, two more Louisiana Waterthrush also have returned and are singing along different sections of the creek.

These three wood warblers, all related but quite difference in appearance and behavior, each paint a different, small but luminous piece of the landscape here at this changeable time of year.

Louisiana Waterthrush and Its Anthem to Spring

Monday, March 14th, 2016

After a few cool days very early in the month, our weather turned unseasonably warm and sunny, and has remained that way for more than a week now. It’s beautiful, I guess, for those who are tired of winter, but to me it feels too warm for this time of year and at times oppressive, with bright sunshine and the hardwood trees all around still bare and bleak and gray.

But early morning today was cool and pretty, beginning before dawn with enough birdsong from our year-round residents to make it sound almost like spring – Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Towhee, Brown Thrasher, Northern Mockingbird, Eastern Phoebe, and Chipping Sparrow – and also a White-throated Sparrow. Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers called and I heard woodpeckers drumming – but I haven’t seen or heard a Sapsucker in quite some time now, and this is unusual. I never did see as many or see them as often this winter as in past years, and this has been a significant change.

The best part of the morning came a little later, when I heard the song of a Louisiana Waterthrush, coming from along a creek in the woods. This is the first one I’ve heard this season, a bright, soaring song that rises through the woods with a flourish that sounds like a fanfare – an anthem to spring. A Louisiana Waterthrush is almost always one of the first migrating songbirds to return here after wintering further south. A small, sturdy bird with a dark-brown back and dark-brown streaks on a white breast, a prominent white stripe over the eye, and pink legs, it lives along forested streams.

It can often be found walking – and bobbing its tail constantly – as it searches the banks, or fallen branches or logs, looking for insects and other small prey by probing into crevices and under rocks and debris. It’s a very lively, active bird, always fun to watch, though probably not often seen and not familiar to many people, since it stays in the lowest part of the woods, along creeks and streams. So it may go unnoticed, even though in some places – like here – it may not be far from suburban back yards and its brilliant song can clearly be heard. I think of it as one of the hidden jewels of these much-abused, patchy and fragmented woods.


Pine Warbler

Friday, March 11th, 2016

This morning, yellow dandelions dotted the rough grass along the roadside, along with clouds of tiny bluets. It was a quiet, very warm morning with a pale blue sky and veils of high white clouds.

In a large pine tree on the edge of the woods, a small, sunny-yellow songbird worked its way along the branches directly above me, searching the needles and bark for insects and other small prey. Now and then it paused to lift its head and sing a lovely, expressive trill. It was a Pine Warbler, one of our year-round residents here, a songbird that is true to its name, staying mostly in the pines, with an olive-yellow back and head, and warm-yellow throat and breast, blurry olive streaks along its sides, and a thin, inconspicuous yellow ring around the eye. Its belly is dull white and its wings gray with white wing bars, but in general, what a male Pine Warbler looks like is yellow, not all over, but almost. On this softly sunny morning, against a background of green pine needles and gray woods, its color glowed.

Though Pine Warblers are common here in our patchy woodlands, I hear their trilled songs much more often than I see them, because they’re small and unobtrusive, staying mostly in the trees – though during the winter months, I do often find one or more foraging in a grassy yard along with other small birds. Today was an uncommon chance to have such a close-up and colorful view from below, and see into its world, in a way, watching for several moments as it foraged through the tree.

White-breasted Nuthatch

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

When I first stepped out onto the front porch this morning, I heard the nasal awnk-awnk calls of a White-breasted Nuthatch and soon found it, pausing head down on the trunk of an oak and craning its neck to look up. A White-breasted Nuthatch is a sleek, striking bird, with a blue-gray back; short stubby tail; long slender bill, and a black cap that contrasts sharply with a snow-white face, throat and breast. Its demeanor is bold, sometimes even pugnacious, and it calls often in a loud nasal voice as it moves.

From the first tree trunk, it flew to another, and another, making its way through the yard. Each time, it flew to a spot several feet up on the trunk of a tree, then moved down the trunk head-first in a wide, curving way, until it reached the bottom of the tree or the ground. A couple of times it pecked at something on the ground, but it didn’t stay long before flying to another tree, and starting over again. It never lingered long in one spot, and didn’t seem to find a particular spot or a tree much to its liking. It looked as if it was searching for something it never found, but I think maybe it just moved too quickly for me to see the seeds, nuts or insects it found. It stayed around for several minutes, constantly on the move, and calling often. At times it came quite close to where I stood, so I could watch its behavior and appearance very close-up, close enough to see the smudge of coral color under its tail.

A White-breasted Nuthatch is not as common here in our neighborhood as the smaller Brown-headed Nuthatch. Ten years ago, I rarely saw one at all, but over the past few years they’ve steadily become more frequent, and now I hear or see one almost every day.

Hermit Thrush

Thursday, March 3rd, 2016

On a chilly, softly clouded, breezy March morning, a Golden-crowned Kinglet called its high, thin ti-ti-ti in branches above me, and five Dark-eyed Juncos flushed up from the roadside, into low tree branches, calling in alarm with softly-ringing trills. A pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked and chattered to each other as they searched the trunk of a pine tree, both heading downward on the trunk, investigating crevices in the bark, searching for insects and other small prey.

A couple of times the sun broke through the high screen of wooly clouds, pouring down warmth that felt like magic, but when clouds closed over and the day became gray again, the feeling of sharp, icy cold returned.

Two Red-tailed Hawks soared very high, and a small flock of blackbirds flew restlessly from tree to tree around a small pond. They were too far away to see well, but didn’t look or sound like either Common Grackles or Red-winged Blackbirds, and may well have been Rusty Blackbirds. I don’t know a Rusty Blackbird’s call well enough to be sure. Because we’ve been lucky enough to see a fair number of Rusty Blackbirds here in past winters, I have missed them a great deal this year. This is one of the few occasions when I’ve seen a blackbird flock of any size, all winter long.

Brown Thrashers sang from the tops of trees in widely different spots, and one very handsome pair of Brown Thrashers posed quietly together in the branches of a small bare pecan tree. Pine Warblers trilled their songs. White-throated Sparrows and Eastern Towhees scratched in leaves and grass along a dense hedge of shrubs.

As I got back home from walking, coming down the driveway and feeling kind of glad to be back at home where I could warm my hands and make some soup for lunch, a Hermit Thrush flew out of a Savannah holly and stopped to perch on the back of a bench. It paused there for a few moments, looking over its shoulder at me nervously, raising and lowering its cinnamon tail, before it dove into the dark green leaves of a bush. Having a Hermit Thrush here to spend the winter around our yard, and seeing it from time to time like this has been one of the nicest things about this winter.

A Chipping Sparrow’s Dawn Song

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Just after sunrise this morning, a morning chorus of birdsong came through the open bedroom windows. Eastern Towhee, Northern Cardinal, Brown Thrasher, Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee all were singing, and woodpeckers were drumming – but what caught my attention most were the short, repeated trills that seemed to come from a large hedge of wax myrtles, though the singer may have been in a tree on the other side of these large shrubs. I think these shortened trills were part of a Chipping Sparrow’s very early morning songs. Donald Kroodsma, in The Singing Life of Birds describes the dawn songs of Chipping Sparrows and how they gradually lengthen into the longer trills each day, and also explores the great and perhaps surprising diversity in their songs.*

Later in the morning, a Chipping Sparrow – maybe the same one – sang its more familiar long, pretty trill from a perch near the top of a maple tree on the edge of our yard, and I watched it for several minutes as it sang, lifting its head again and again. Its gray breast and brown-streaked back blended in with the network of gray branches in the maple, but the small, pert red crown glowed in the morning sun.

*Donald Kroodsma, The Singing Life of Birds, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pages 313-320.