Archive for April, 2020

Cape May Warbler

Saturday, April 25th, 2020

The new green leaves of trees all through the neighborhood have been filled the past several days with the softly-ringing, gentle songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Late this morning I was standing by the side of the road, listening to their songs and watching several of them move through the branches of oaks. Now in spring plumage, their drab winter grays have changed into colorful patterns of black, gray, white and yellow – with black mask, white throat, and yellow patches on the sides and rump.

Among the songs of the Yellow-rumped Warblers and other small birds nearby, I began to hear a different song that was not one I recognized – a high, bright series of notes all on one pitch. And then I saw it – a small, brilliant yellow bird with black streaks on the breast and a prominent chestnut patch on its cheek. A Cape May Warbler. 

It stayed in the same few oaks for several minutes, moving through the foliage, searching branches and leaves for prey. Its movements were not especially slow, but it wasn’t fluttery or very quick, and so it was fairly easy to watch and was often in clear, open view. And it continued to sing often. The plumage was so vibrant and rich it looked exotic. The black streaks on the yellow breast are often described as “tiger-striped.” The face is yellow, with the distinctive chestnut patch on the cheek. A thick strip of white marks the wing, and there’s a subtle patch of green in the middle of the back – I was never able to see this very well. The underside of the tail was white, with a thin strip of dark at the tip.

It was not a life bird for me, but it felt like one, because I think this was the first time I’ve ever seen a Cape May Warbler in spring, breeding plumage. Until now I have only seen them during fall migration, when they are much less colorful. And even then, I have not seen them often here. So I stood watching for as long as it stayed in sight, trying to see all the details. It was a lot of fun to watch! Great birding.

Summer Tanager and Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Tuesday, April 21st, 2020

On a warm, breezy morning clouds blew across the sun, changing the light in a constant flicker from sunny and bright, to somber gray, and back to sunny again. In the woods on the edge of our back yard, a Summer Tanager sang a strong, clear, lilting song, and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo called a percussive string of unmistakable notes from high in the treetops – ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-cow-cow-cow-cawwp, cawwp, cawwp. For both birds, today was the first time this season I had heard them – I have not yet seen either one, but it’s always good to know when they’re back. 

A Scarlet Tanager has continued to sing in the woods not far away, since I first heard it exactly a week ago, and early in the evening yesterday I listened to the low, electric chik-brrr calls of two Scarlet Tanagers as they moved through the trees. I haven’t yet seen them either, though they’ve come pretty close now and then. They manage to stay well hidden among the new green leaves of the oaks. But just listening to their calls is always a special pleasure, as they, along with the songs and calls of other returning summer birds, bring the woods steadily back to more and more vibrant life.

Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Red-eyed Vireo also sang in trees around the back yard today, and I’ve still heard the rapid songs of a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Eastern Bluebirds and an Eastern Phoebe hunted from perches, and three baby Carolina Wrens begged for food in wispy voices, following their parents through the grass, while the parents intently searched for food and fed them. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird – a brilliant iridescent male – made several trips to the feeder.

Palm Warbler

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020

Late this morning I was close to home near the end of a walk, and my thoughts had begun to drift away, thinking ahead to a list of things to do today, when a small bird flew into a pecan tree, perched on a branch, and began vigorously twitching its tail. When I stopped to take a closer look, I saw a sunny-yellow bird with a rusty-red crown. A Palm Warbler. 

The day was clear, sunny and chilly, with gentle light that made the view of the little bird very clear – though only for a few moments before it flew again. A Palm Warbler is a diminutive bird that looks yellow all over, more brownish yellow on the back and brighter yellow on its throat and breast. It has a bright rust-red cap and rusty streaks on the breast, and a yellow stripe over the eye. It’s known for its characteristic habit of almost constantly wagging its tail. We only see Palm Warblers here during migration, as they move between their winter homes further south, and their breeding range, which is mostly in Canada. 

Field Sparrow

Saturday, April 11th, 2020

On a brightly sunny, cool and breezy morning, the new green leaves of oaks shimmered with the gentle songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet sang its sharp, rapid, complex little song. The whistled songs of White-throated Sparrows rose like curls of fog from thickets and bushes, fading into the air. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called wispy spee-spee. A White-eyed Vireo sang its percussive chick-per-chicory-chick from a tangled area of vines and young trees in the tangled corner I call the Lost Woodland. 

From this same patch of land came another song, too, that I hadn’t heard in quite a long time. A series of three or four clear, accelerating notes, followed by a cheerful tumble of notes that sound like a bouncing ping-pong ball – the song of a Field Sparrow. 

A Field Sparrow is a small, brown-streaked sparrow that used to be as common as its name still sounds. Their bouncing songs were a familiar part of the landscape in rural and partly suburban areas in this part of the South. But in the past ten years or more, populations of Field Sparrows have declined sharply throughout North America, and here around our neighborhood it’s now very unusual to find one. 

It took me a few minutes to find this one, listening to the song, repeated again and again, and watching for movements in the leaves. Finally I saw it through a loose screen of green leaves – first the round head capped with a rusty crown, and a gray face with a small, neat white ring around the eye, a rusty smudge behind the eye – and a small pink bill. Then it moved a little, and came fully into view, showing its brown-streaked wings, gray breast, rather long tail, and pink legs. It lifted its head, and sang.

I watched it through the leaves for several minutes, not wanting to leave, not knowing when I might have another chance to see a Field Sparrow. Until it finally flew deeper into the tangle of leaves and disappeared.

Red-eyed Vireo and Prairie Warbler

Thursday, April 9th, 2020

This morning began sunny and fresh and wet from overnight showers. The sky was a soft, gentle blue with veils and ribbons of white, and dusky, lingering rain clouds drifting away to the east. High up in the new-green leaves of trees beside our driveway, a Red-eyed Vireo sang – the first one of the season here. A Red-eyed Vireo is a greenish-gray bird that mostly stays hidden in the woods, its underside is white, its crown gray, and its face defined by a sleek stripe of white and a black line through the eye. Its repeated refrain – a series of short phrases repeated again and again – is one of the most familiar and constant sounds of our spring and summer woods, and even those who may not have any idea what a vireo is might notice the return of its song, in some unconscious way. Here I am. Where are you? Over here. Up in the tree. The words can’t capture the bright, musical notes, but they catch some of the cadence.

Later in the morning and in a different part of the neighborhood, I was surprised and very happy to hear a quite different song – a series of high, piping notes rising up the scale, with a slightly buzzy, elusive quality. The song came from the tops of some tall oaks in a neighbor’s yard, and when I stopped to listen, I saw a small bird fly out of a treetop, watched it pass straight overhead with a flash of yellow and then it kept going and disappeared into the top of another tree. And from there, it sang again. The song has always been one of my favorites, easily recognized – a Prairie Warbler. Though I didn’t see it well at all in flight, a male Prairie Warbler is a small, brilliant yellow warbler with black streaks on the sides, an olive head and back, a yellow face with black markings around the eyes, and a chestnut patch in the middle of its back.

Although I used to find Prairie Warblers here all through the summer, in recent years I’ve only seen them and heard their songs when they pass through in migration. This one was almost certainly passing through, maybe stopped by the overnight rains. So it may not stay around long, but it was a joy to hear its airy, magical song, which always sounds to me like the notes of a fairy-flute.