Archive for January, 2019

Four Northern Flickers

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

This month of January ended with a day that felt like winter should – cold and clear with a sharp, westerly wind, and a thin blue sky and high, feathery clouds. A beautiful day, but quiet, with very few birds, maybe because of the wind. 

Late in the afternoon, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers – even the usual suspects seemed fewer and more quiet. A Turkey Vulture drifted over and around, in and out of sight. A female Eastern Bluebird perched on a branch, feathers ruffled in the wind, and some House Finches called and one sang. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed. Three or four Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in some pines, and a Pine Warbler sang. A bright red Northern Cardinal sat in a leafless tree, up high. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew across the road low, a tiny, flickering ball of gray-green, and disappeared into a thicket. Two little Chipping Sparrows flew up from the edge of our own front yard and hid in plain sight among the sparse leaves of wax myrtles. 

Four Northern Flickers burst up from a circle of grass in the middle of a cul de sac, white rumps and yellow under the wings and in the tail flashing brightly. Big, handsome woodpeckers seen as often on the ground as in trees, Northern Flickers can be found here year-round, but we see them much more often in winter, when some have moved south for the season. They mainly eat food found on the ground, especially ants and other insects. Mostly brownish overall, a Northern Flicker is regal in bearing, with a gray head held erect, a brown face, long, sturdy bill, and a bold pattern of colors including a black bib; a black-spotted belly; a red crescent on the nape of the neck, and a black moustache on a male. 

Although Northern Flickers are still widespread and often seen, data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey show a disturbing decline in their numbers. The reasons for the decline are not known for sure, but habitat loss and competition from European Starlings for nest cavities are considered likely. “This declining trend should be viewed with concern,” according to the species account in Birds of North America Online, “because the species plays a central role in the ecology of woodland communities where it excavates many of the cavities later used by other hole-nesting species.”*

*K.L. Wiebe and W.S. Moore (2017). Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), version 2.1. In The Birds of North America(P.G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Brown Creeper

Friday, January 11th, 2019

This morning was cold, crisp, clear and bright. White frost still lingered in low places, even late in the morning, and the sky was a deep cloudless blue. Birds seemed to be as happy with the good cold weather as I felt, active almost everywhere. As I walked through the neighborhood, I passed Red-headed, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Brown-headed and White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Phoebe, American Goldfinch and House Finch, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee, one Red-shouldered Hawk that flew across the road low ahead of me, and a small flock of about 60 blackbirds that I felt pretty sure were Rusty Blackbirds, but I could not get close enough to them to be sure.

In a tangled spot on the edge of some woods, several small birds were moving around near the ground. There were titmice, one pretty Ruby-crowned Kinglet with its ruby-red crest raised up, and from across the road, came the clear, mewing calls of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. As I watched the kinglet flit through some bushes, a very small sliver of mottled brown slipped up the trunk of a pine tree. It was partially obscured by the trunks of a couple of other trees, but I held my breath and hoped it wouldn’t fly away – and then it came more clearly into view: a Brown Creeper. It scuttled up the trunk of the thin pine tree from very low near the ground, and worked its way up higher than my head before it flew to another tree, probably not far away, but I couldn’t find it again. It was only in view for two or three minutes, but close and clear during that time.

A Brown Creeper is a tiny jewel of a bird that’s hard to find and rare to see around here, a fragment of the winter woods that’s becoming less and less common as forested land is cleared. It’s a very small, slender bird with a dark brown back, mottled with white and other shades of brown in a way that blends in well with the trunks of trees. It clings very close to the trunk and moves in an insect-like way, so it almost looks like a piece of bark that’s moving. With a long, down-curved bill, it stops to probe under pieces of bark, looking for spiders and small insects. Its stomach is a smooth, creamy white, its legs short, and its long tail helps to brace it on the side of trunks. 

Brown Creepers are only here in this part of Georgia in the winter. They breed mostly in northern forests with large mature trees, but in winter months can be found in a variety of wooded settings. It’s a bird that is seldom seen, even when they are around, in part because it’s so small, quiet, and so well camouflaged, and also because it stays mostly in the woods. But it often travels along with flocks of feeding birds like titmice, chickadees, nuthatches and kinglets, and can be found along the edges of woods like this one today. Its call – which I did not hear this morning – is a high, sibilant tseeet, a delicate, ringing sound, something like a tiny chain falling into a heap.

Cedar Waxwings

Wednesday, January 9th, 2019

In the old field this morning, a small flock of maybe two dozen Cedar Waxwings sat almost hidden in a tangle of faded vines and shrubs around two chinaberry trees and some other kind of wild fruit tree. This part of the field is very dense with huge stands of privet and other dry-looking shrubs and weeds that grow much taller than my head. The Cedar Waxwings were eating berries in trees near the roadside, so their movements caught my attention – and with a closer look, their polished, gleaming shapes and colors glowed in contrast to the rough, drab thickets around them. The sound of traffic from the highway not far away made their high, thin calls very hard to hear.

Many of them sat very close and not too high, and the day was clear and softly sunny. So the view was especially fine. Slender, crested birds, each one impeccably dressed – a fox-brown crest and head with a sleek black mask outlined in white; short brown neck blending into taupe on the chest and back, and lemon-yellow belly; gray wings barely touched with red; and a gray tail tipped in yellow, as if it had been dipped in paint. 

It’s impossible really to describe the colors just right, or to capture the subtle blend of different textures. It’s like studying a great painting closely, and the more you look, the more details and exquisite touches you find. 

A Red-shouldered Hawk Encounter

Sunday, January 6th, 2019

A Red-shouldered Hawk sat almost directly above me, on a branch of a bare-limbed tree, looking vividly colored and larger than life against a pale blue sky. So close and so impressive. Rippling bars of red-orange covered its breast, and its head looked silky brown. What I could see of its back and wings was very dark brown and flecked with white, with reddish-brown glowing on the shoulders in a way that’s often hard to see. It turned its head one way, and another, then called a loud kee-yer! and spread its wings and flew, fanning a black-and-white banded tail. 

When it disappeared, the sky seemed suddenly quiet. For the past several minutes, I’d been watching a noisy and dramatic encounter among three Red-shouldered Hawks in some trees behind a house in our neighborhood. This was the last part of that experience. I was walking up a long hill when I first heard the calls of one Red-shouldered Hawk – a repeated kee-yer– and when I came to the top of the hill, I found it sitting in a tree with its back to the road, not close, but clearly visible from the road where I stood. Then a second Red-shouldered Hawk began to call from somewhere out of sight, toward the north, and the two called back and forth. 

Three Blue Jays flew into the tree where the hawk was sitting, and began to harass it, a couple of times diving quite close, but it seemed unperturbed and fully focused on responding to the calls in the distance. 

After several minutes, a second Red-shouldered Hawk flew out of the woods in the north, and directly to the tree where the first hawk sat. The first hawk turned around to face it. Then a third Red-shouldered Hawk flew from the same area of woods, following the second, and also flew to the same tree, so that all three sat on branches that didn’t look far apart. All this time, the three hawks were calling in a very agitated way. Abruptly, the second hawk flew at the first one aggressively – but they didn’t seem to make contact, and the first one didn’t move right away.  

It looked like the pair of hawks were not happy with the presence of the single hawk and were trying to chase it away from territory they considered their own. It did not leave immediately, but after a few more minutes of harassment by the pair, it moved to a different branch in the same tree, further away from the other two – and then it flew, but not far, directly over me and into a pecan tree near the edge of the road, where I had such a close and vivid view. 

After that hawk had flown and disappeared, I looked back for the other two, and they both were gone, too. 

Because I’ve seen a Red-shouldered Hawk so seldom here this winter season, I was especially happy to see these three. They seem to have become less common, maybe because the woods both in and around our neighborhood have become more fragmented, and more and more areas have been cleared – both of trees and of thickets and undergrowth. Some particular spots that used to be favorite haunts of the Red-shouldered Hawks have been changed quite a bit. 

Red-shouldered Hawks are forest birds that love the deep woods, and we’ve been very lucky to have them living around us here. I’m hopeful that maybe we still have enough large trees and wooded areas close enough so that we’ll continue to see these magnificent birds.

Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Hermit Thrush

Sunday, January 6th, 2019

On another spring-like morning, this one clear and sunny and cool, as soon as I stepped out the door, I heard the scattered chek calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers, and found two of them flitting from branch to branch around the front yard. In their winter plumage Yellow-rumped Warblers are small, rather plain, gray-brown birds with some white in the wings, a touch of yellow on the sides – and a prominent yellow rump. One of the two looked uncommonly bright yellow for this time of year, and I was happy to see – and hear – them both. It seemed a good sign. Yellow-rumped Warblers used to be very common and abundant here in the winter – but this year, like the past year or two, I see disturbingly few. The drop in their numbers here in our neighborhood has been dramatic, and it’s really amazing how their absence has changed the feel and sound of a winter day. They don’t sing at this time of year, but just the sound of those quiet little cheks all around in the trees is something I had always taken for granted.

So those chek calls this morning were a happy start to the day, and the whole front yard was bustling with birds. A male Eastern Towhee called a rich, musical chur-whee from a bare crape myrtle, looking bright in his pattern of black, red-orange and white. Another male and two female Towhees were noisily scratching up leaves and mulch around shrubs, all of them calling back and forth, and the females only slightly more subdued in their leaf-brown, orange and white.

 A Brown Thrasher lurked under the azaleas, a pair of Northern Cardinals peeped, an Eastern Bluebird called a blurry chorry-chorry, a Brown-headed Nuthatch or two squeakily chattered. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called quurrr, a Carolina Wren sang and another wren trilled, an American Goldfinch called as it flew overhead. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered jidit-jidit as it moved through the bushes quickly, flicking its wings in a fairy-like way, a tiny little green-gray bird with a smooth round head, crisp white wingbars and white ring around the eye, the ruby crown hidden this morning.

 A Northern Mockingbird sat in a young pecan tree in the middle of the grassy circle in our cul de sac, its usual spot, and this morning it had some company there – a White-throated Sparrow perched in the top of a dense stand of hollies that surround the small tree.

Walking on down the road, I passed Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, a Downy Woodpecker and an Eastern Phoebe hunting from a low branch of a persimmon tree. From a tall stand of pines across a busy two-lane road came the lovely, musical trill of a Pine Warbler’s song. And then, the rest of the way seemed surprisingly quiet. There were Blue Jays and American Crows, as always, and a scattering of other birds here and there, but many big patches of woods and yards looked empty, even on this lovely, strangely warm, sunny morning. But then came a nice surprise.

On the edge of what used to be a big, rambling, tangled thicket under a strip of oaks and pines, a robin-like bird stood quietly in the shadows, almost blending into the background in a spot where there’s still a little privet and some fallen branches littering the ground below the trees. It was a Hermit Thrush, standing on one of the fallen branches, among the skimpy cover of a few old vines and weedy plants. The spot felt sad and empty. Most of the thicket was cleared below the trees several months ago, leaving very little cover for ground- and shrub-loving birds like the Hermit Thrush. But here it was. It may have returned to the spot it has come to in previous winters. It seems to me that Hermit Thrushes do this, returning year after year not only to an area, but to particular places – there’s almost always one that spends the winter in the shrubs around our front porch, and there are other spots where I also can count on finding one from year to year. I stopped to watch it for only a few moments – a sweet and modest bird with soft brown back, bright dark spots on its upper breast, an erect head and watchful eye. The cinnamon tail raised up – and lowered slowly. It’s one of my favorite winter birds, but I didn’t linger long, not wanting to disturb it more.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Chipping Sparrows

Tuesday, January 1st, 2019

The first day of this new year began with a cool, foggy morning, the grass and trees still dripping wet from rain yesterday and overnight. The songs and trills of Carolina Wrens, the soft quurrr of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, the chips of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting from branch to branch, the chorry, chorry of an Eastern Bluebird, and the peter-peter songs of a Tufted Titmouse were the first birds I heard around our front yard. It sounded like spring. A Brown Thrasher sat in the top of a big wax myrtle, looking alert and nervous, as if to ask if he had overslept or missed his cue, and should he be singing, too?

The weather, though lovely in its way, was balmy and way too warm for this time of year, when it should be icy and cold, or at least decently chilly – even here in Georgia. Fog hung over the ground low, with an open space of clear air between it and a sky veiled in filmy white. Later in the morning when I went out for a walk, the clouds remained, thick with many layers, some shimmering silver, some creamy or dusky or dark gray, all drifting slowly from west to east. Now and then the sun came out, but never for long. Already, mid-morning, it was tee-shirt weather, near 70 degrees.

A bird in rolling flight landed on the trunk of a pecan tree – a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker so vividly clear that even its yellow belly showed uncommonly bright, along with a crimson crown and throat, and the bold, black and white sinuous stripes that curve along the face. I watched for a few moments as it hitched backwards down one large fork of the pecan tree, stopping now and then to explore a hole or a crevice. A coat of green moss covered much of the bark on the fork, making the view of the Sapsucker even more brightly colorful.

A little further on, a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in some pines; a Downy Woodpecker trilled its descending call; a small flock of Cedar Waxwings flew overhead, scattering their high, thin calls. One little Dark-eyed Junco flew up from the roadside grass with a soft, jingling call, and into a tree, flashing the white edges of its tail. A few American Robins foraged in grassy yards, and a very small, creaking, chuckling flock of blackbirds perched in the bare branches of some oak trees. They stayed far enough away so that I couldn’t see them well. Most seemed to be Common Grackles, though there may have been others among them – I looked for Rusty Blackbirds, but couldn’t say for sure.

I passed the usual many Blue Jays and American Crows, a couple of quiet Northern Mockingbirds, and quite a few Eastern Bluebirds, some flashing very bright blue on this mostly gray day. The whistled song of a White-throated Sparrow rose from the field along the highway, Eastern Towhees called chur-whee. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered its dry jidit-jidit in a bush, a Northern Flicker called an emphatic kleer! Four Black Vultures sat close together on the wires around one utility pole on the edge of a power cut through the field. An Eastern Phoebe perched on a lower wire, and a pair of House Finches sat together in a tree.

When I got back home, a dozen or more Chipping Sparrows flew up from the grass in our front yard and into the small, bare redbud and cherry trees there. So small and well-camouflaged, the Chipping Sparrows are nearly invisible in the brown winter grass, and I know I often miss them. But it always seems to me a happy thing and a good sign to see them – brown-streaked little birds with crisp red-brown caps and plain gray underneath, very common, but so easily overlooked. And on this lovely, but far too warm first day of January, an uneasy and foreboding sense of change is in the air, and the only thing that feels certain is that we can take no life, no living thing, for granted.