Archive for October, 2018

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-shouldered Hawk, Pileated Woodpecker

Friday, October 19th, 2018

On our first really cool morning this fall, a sunny day with a soft blue sky, I heard the mewing call of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for the first time since last spring – and saw it fly to the trunk of a pecan tree in a neighbor’s yard. Of course, it stayed on the other side of the trunk, out of sight at first, but after a minute or two, its head appeared, looking cautiously around the trunk, showing its striking black-and-white striped face, long pointed bill, and bright red crown and throat.

I was especially happy to see the colorful view of this Yellow-bellied Sapsucker peering around the trunk, because it’s the first of our winter birds to return. A migrant species that we don’t find here during the summer months, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers arrive about this time of year to stay through the winter – and then leave again in the spring for breeding territories in more northern parts of North America.

On the rest of a walk through the neighborhood, birds seemed scarce and generally quiet most of the way, and yet, there still were some nice surprises, as well as a number of our most familiar birds.

In one partly-wooded spot there seemed to be a small burst of activity, maybe a feeding flock moving through the trees. Mostly there were Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens, also two Brown-headed Nuthatches, one White-breasted Nuthatch, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, and an Eastern Phoebe. As I was looking up at the nuthatches, I heard some low, kind of short, soft calls – and a big, richly-colored Red-shouldered Hawk sailed up from behind me and glided low across the road in front of me. Breathtaking. I caught just a brief but vivid flash of its red-orange breast, dark wings and black-and-white striped tail, as it flew through a sparse patch of trees on a hill, and stopped on a low branch overlooking a scrubby patch of land that was partially cleared of trees about a year ago, for a house that was never built. Now that area has grown up in tall grasses, small shrubs, and vines, as well as a few scattered trees. So it looked like it might be a good hunting spot for the hawk.  It sat with its back to me, but several times turned its calm brown head around, and I could see it fairly well. Before I walked on, three Blue Jays had begun to harass it, but so far it didn’t seem much bothered by them.

Walking through more open areas of large, grassy yards and scattered shade trees, I passed several Eastern Bluebirds, a few Chipping Sparrows and House Finches, and heard the cherwink calls of Eastern Towhees and the kleer! of at least three Northern Flickers. One Northern Mockingbird was singing short bursts of song, and a Brown Thrasher called a sharp smack, and then a pretty teeur from somewhere in a thicket.

The sudden trumpeted call of a Pileated Woodpecker broke the quiet around a tangled grove of trees and shrubs that stretches from the road back to the edge of a county water treatment plant. The big black and white woodpecker with its flamboyant red crest had just flown to the dead stub of a pine tree, where it sat, whacking loudly and intently on the branch. Wood chips flew, and the woodpecker found something there that it ate quite a lot of – most likely wood-loving carpenter ants.

October Dawn

Friday, October 19th, 2018

At seven o’clock this morning, the day was barely light, the sky pearl-gray, the trees still shaped by night. I opened a bedroom window and felt very chilled air – in the 40s for the first time this year, and it felt so good! A few crickets chirped, but mostly the shrubs and yard lay still and quiet. Then a Mockingbird sang a few notes – it’s been singing off and on for several days and is usually one of the first birds I hear in the morning now. Then a Cardinal peeped, and over the next half hour or so, I very gradually heard the calls of an Eastern Towhee, the trilling and fussing of a Carolina Wren, the distant caws of Crows, the teeur calls of a Brown Thrasher, the chatter of a Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, and White-breasted Nuthatch, and the cries of a Blue Jay. An Eastern Phoebe called tsup a few times, and then began to sing. I think it was after sunrise before I heard the chuck-chucking calls of a Red-bellied Woodpecker and the whinny of a Downy.

Carolina Wren in a Golden Glow

Sunday, October 14th, 2018

On a sunny, pleasantly warm Sunday afternoon, things around our front yard seemed very quiet, except for the dry leaves and acorns that showered down in even the lightest breeze. After spending several minutes sitting on the front porch, I’d only seen a very few birds. A Northern Mockingbird sat in a small pecan tree in the middle of our cul de sac, and now and then it sang for several minutes, then fell silent again. Its pieces of song sounded more casual than a spring or summer song, much less intense.

An Eastern Towhee came out from below some azalea shrubs to forage in the leaf-mulch, and I watched it for several minutes as it came very close to where I sat. Its plumage looked slightly mottled, especially on the head, so I think maybe it was young, a first-fall male. With a black head, bib and back; warm reddish sides, and white belly, the color pattern was complete, but the black head was subtly striped with brown, and the rest of its coloring was similarly mottled, just a little. I watched as it picked up a water oak acorn and held it in its beak, as if not sure what to do with it, then dropped it and went back to scratching up leaves, looking for something else. It did this three different times, at least, maybe because there were so many acorns on the ground, but it didn’t ever eat an acorn while I was watching – though acorns are said to be common parts of a Towhee’s diet. What it did eat was something that it found in the crack of the sidewalk – whatever that was, it snapped up quite a lot before moving back into the shrubs.

Two Carolina Wrens joined the Towhee in foraging around some Yaupon hollies. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called chuck-chuck high up in trees around the yard, moving from one to another. A Downy Woodpecker also called from somewhere near. A Brown Thrasher joined the Mockingbird in the small pecan tree.

Then the Towhee flew to the rim of the birdbath – only a few feet away from where I was sitting – and without much hesitation, he hopped in and just stood there for a moment, and then flew away. The two Carolina Wrens followed him to the birdbath, and they each got right in and took full, exuberant, splashing baths, one at a time. It must have been the bathing hour – late afternoon – because the wrens were followed by four Tufted Titmice that flew in noisily and took turns bathing, one at a time, while the others chattered in the bushes, making the quiet yard seem as if it had suddenly, briefly come to life.

The afternoon was getting late, and I was just about ready to go inside, when I noticed a Carolina Wren nestled in the glossy green leaves in the very top of a big shrub near the porch, its head turned up toward a slanting ray of sunlight coming through the trees. It sat in a pool of light, its rich brown and cream colors all caught in a golden glow, and it was so very close and lit so well that the details of each feather seemed to shimmer – even in the white around the eyes, the cream-white eyebrow, white throat, and the cinnamon head and back. And the buffy breast, especially, looked as if its feathers were spun of pale reddish-gold.

An Eastern Towhee’s SEEE Calls

Sunday, October 14th, 2018

About this time of year each fall, I start to listen for the calls of White-throated Sparrows. These handsome, plump sparrows with bright white throats usually arrive from their summer homes in the north sometime in October. Their haunting, whistled songs are perhaps our most beautiful winter music.

As they forage for food in leaf mulch below and around shrubs in yards, thickets, vacant lots and fields, they also keep in touch through short, sibilant contact calls that sound like tseet. This quiet, low call is one that I’ve long thought of as familiar – and yet, every year about this time I think I hear them long before I actually do. It’s wishful thinking, mainly, but possible because there are several other songbirds that spend a lot of time in the same kind of habitat – and some of them have calls that are very similar to those of White-throated Sparrows.

This morning when I heard a call that sounded like a tseet, I stopped beside a large group of shrubs and listened, and almost immediately, an Eastern Towhee flew out of a bush and up to a low branch just over my head, where it perched, and called again, a soft, sweet seee.

Eastern Towhees are among our most common birds here, known for their drink-your-tea song, and rich chewink call. But I had never recognized this quiet seee call, which they use to keep in touch with other Towhees as they search for food. The Birds of North America species account describes it as a “lisp call,” and notes that it is perhaps the second most common Towhee call, after chewink. It is “high-pitched, clear, sibilant . . . soft, thin, barely audible beyond a few meters. . . . evidently functions as a contact note.”*

Now I’m not at all sure I’ll be able to tell the difference between the calls of a White-throated Sparrow – and those of an Eastern Towhee – not to mention other similar sounds. Calls like these can be pretty subtle and confusing, and I have no doubt that I’m wrong more often than right in identifying them. But I’m looking forward to trying, and maybe learning more.

*Greenlaw, J.S. (2015). Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) version 2.0. in The Birds of North America (P.G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.