Archive for July, 2020

Summer of Wood Thrush Songs

Thursday, July 23rd, 2020

Early yesterday evening, when the sun was low but not yet down, two Wood Thrushes sang in the woods on the edge of our back yard. They sounded unusually close, the fluted songs rippling and overlapping and surrounding us in ethereal music that went on for several minutes, weaving an enchanting spell. 

The song of a Wood Thrush is one of the most beautiful of all bird songs, an inspiration for many poets. This year two have been singing in our woods since late April. It’s the first time I can remember ever hearing even one throughout the season – much less two. It feels like an extravagant luxury. Their songs are often the first thing I hear in the morning – one to the east of our home, one to the west, but neither very far away. They sing off and on throughout the day, and at times – especially at dusk – they sound as if they come almost together in the woods near the creek. These close encounters between two males create some of the most intricate and fascinating music. Sometimes they’re close enough for us to hear some of the soft, low notes of their full songs. 

A Wood Thrush is a plump bird with a shape similar to a robin, and a rich, red-brown back and white breast with bold dark spots. A reclusive, forest-loving bird, it’s often found near streams, scratching through leaf-litter for insects and other prey. Though still considered widespread in forests throughout eastern North America, their numbers have declined alarmingly over the past few decades, and they have become increasingly rare. Habitat loss is thought to be the main reason for their decline, especially fragmentation and destruction of forests.

The familiar, flute-like ee-oh-lay in a Wood Thrush song is actually only one part of a longer song made up of several different clear notes and soft, low notes, and trills. Individual males combine notes and phrases and trills in different ways to create their own variations, and a male may sing more than 50 different songs. A male can also sing two notes at once, giving the songs some of their otherworldly quality.

Twilight with Cicadas, Katydids and Fireflies

Saturday, July 18th, 2020

This afternoon a good summer rain with rumbles of thunder brought at least a short break from the very hot, sunny weather. The temperature didn’t drop much. Steam rose from the road when the sun came back out. But the rain was welcome, and by early evening the air felt comfortable enough to have dinner on the screened porch, serenaded by the songs of two Wood Thrushes. 

After dinner, I stayed on the porch as light faded from a clear, gray-blue sky. Birds gradually stopped singing, and even the hummingbirds stopped coming to the feeder. The trees lost their green and turned dark. Fireflies began to flash all around, rising from the ground, bringing their magic to the hour. As light faded, the songs of cicadas became louder and louder and louder, until they filled the air and the trees, almost deafening, shrieking, drowning out everything else. Louder at this time of day than at any other. They sang in waves, a chorus swelling from one direction, overlapping with another and another. 

Early twilight became full twilight, and sank toward night. I was listening especially, then, for a special moment, when the songs of cicadas fade and give way – to the songs of katydids. It happens quickly. An elusive point of change from day to night, like the turn of a tide.

And it came in deepest twilight, the sky barely gray, trees only dark silhouettes, lots of fireflies flashing. The cicadas barely slowed in their songs but in hardly more than a breath or two they began to fall quiet and the first few clattering songs of katydids rose, and then more and more katydids sang. Until it was only katydids and crickets and other night insects. A beautiful way to end a summer day. 

. . . . . 

Cicadas are fascinating insects, and even though we’re surrounded in their songs for much of the summer, I’ve realized that I know very little about them. From just a little research, I’ve learned that there are several different species in Georgia. Some are annual, meaning they appear every year, but some are periodic cicadas that emerge only every 13 or 17 years. The annual Dog-Day Cicada is probably what I’m hearing here during the daytime. Common in the hot, humid days of July and August, they are two-inch long green, black and brown insects that make loud buzzing calls. 

But I think the ones singing in twilight are a different species, most likely the Northern Dusk-singing Cicada. Despite its name, it’s most common in the Southeast. Their songs are really much louder than those of cicadas that sing during the day. 

Katydids are very beautiful, large, leaf-green insects related to crickets and grasshoppers. The wings of those I have seen look like fresh green leaves. Several katydid species live in Georgia, and the loudest are said to be the Common True Katydids. The oaks around our home are filled with their rhythmic clacking songs every warm summer night. The best article I found about both cicadas and katydids in Georgia is this piece by Charles Seabrook in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, April 21, 2017, Droning Katydids, Dog Day Cicadas Say August Is Here.

Summer Tanagers

Friday, July 17th, 2020

Midmorning on a hot summer day, two Summer Tanagers called back and forth as they moved through a patch of trees near the side of the road. There were so few other sounds of birds or even of insects that the calls sounded especially distinct and clear and crisp. Pik-a-tuk, pik-a-tuk, pik-a-tuk-tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk-tuk. And variations, sometimes the full call, often a shorter two or three tuks. The calls sound expressive, and intimate, intriguing. 

Summer Tanagers are among the most handsome of songbird pairs, the male rose-red all over, and the female a muted two-tone yellow, sometimes more dull, sometimes almost orange. Both with big, sturdy bills that work especially well for catching large flying insects like bees and wasps. This summer we’ve been lucky enough to see and hear a pair often around our yard. They stay mostly hidden in the trees, not on the ground or in bushes. But they aren’t too hard to find, not particularly shy, and they don’t flutter around quickly but move more deliberately from place to place. 

To stand on the edge of the woods on a hot summer morning and listen to the calls of a pair of Summer Tanagers would usually be a pure and simple pleasure. But now, in the middle of a dark and worsening pandemic, the joy of watching birds and spending time outside cannot help but contrast sharply with the increasingly grim and disturbing news of the pandemic. And the very dark political situation that has made it so much worse here in the U.S than it might have been. Our lives feel as if they are lived in stark contrast – between the light of all that makes life good – and the dark uncertainty that hangs over us.

Here in Georgia, the virus is spreading at alarming rates, as in many other states. Hospitals are nearing capacity. The situation is serious. And yet, many people seem to be throwing caution to the winds, too many refusing even to take the simple precautions of wearing a mask and observing social distance. Our governor refuses to make wearing a mask mandatory. The public schools in my own county are planning to open as normal, with children in classrooms, in only three weeks, early August. The sidewalks of nearby downtown Athens are sometimes filled with people not staying distanced, and very few wearing masks. Bars and restaurants are open, and stores and gyms and hair and nail salons, and parking lots are full. We so badly want to “get back to normal” that too many act as if they just pretend things are normal – that somehow, magically, they will be. 

It’s a very strange time. We do our best to stay safe, to make reasonable decisions, and to stay in touch with the real world. 

Mid-summer Morning – Yellow-throated Vireo, Acadian Flycatcher, and Northern Parula

Thursday, July 16th, 2020

Early this morning on another very hot, sunny day, a feeling of stillness and quiet lay over the trees in our yard and in the woods. Many birds that sang from spring through early summer have now fallen silent. But not all. And against the quiet, the songs and calls of a few birds began to emerge. 

A Yellow-throated Vireo sang from down in the woods, and made its way steadily closer and closer up the hill. Its mellow, slow-paced song of two and three-syllable phrases moved through the trees like sunlight, weaving in and out of the leaves. It wasn’t close enough to see, but I could imagine it, a small brightly-colored bird with a yellow-green head, brilliant yellow throat and yellow markings around the eyes that look like spectacles. 

An Acadian Flycatcher called its quiet, sharp, much less-musical song from the woods – ker-cheep! A small exclamation point repeated from a hidden spot deep within a dense cluster of leaves. An Acadian Flycatcher is a small gray-green bird with touches of pale yellow, and white wing bars and a thin white ring around the eye. It perches very still in a small tree in the tangled, lower levels of the woods, usually down near the creek, flying off frequently to catch insects. 

A Northern Parula, another deep-woods loving songbird, sang another quiet song from a hidden, leafy spot around the edges of the woods – a buzzy zee-zee-zee-zee-zup! – that rises to a crescendo and falls off sharply at the end. A small roundish wood warbler, a Northern Parula is an often-hidden jewel – a blue-gray head and back with a patch of green in the middle of the back, a deep yellow throat and breast, and a black and rusty-coral band across the chest.  

An Eastern Towhee called chur-wheee. A White-breasted Nuthatch honked its nasal ank-ank-ank. A Carolina Wren sang a bold and beautiful song. Two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds twittered and snapped fiercely as they flew from the feeder and away. 

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020

As we sat on our screened porch early yesterday evening, the hot, sunny, drowsy quiet was suddenly broken by a hollow-sounding burst of notes that rose to a crescendo and cascaded down – ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-kaw, kaw, kaawwwp, kaawwwp, kaawwwp. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo was giving its knocking, drawn-out call from somewhere up near the top of the oaks that shade the porch. 

Having Yellow-billed Cuckoos around our yard this summer has been one of the season’s best surprises. We hear their calls several times a day, though we rarely see one. They mostly stay hidden in the highest part of the trees. A Yellow-billed Cuckoo looks as exotic as it sounds, a large songbird with a slender, graceful form, a long tail, and a prominent, down-curving yellow bill. It’s exquisitely patterned, with a taupe-brown head, back and wings, orange-brown edges in the wings, clean white throat and breast, and a long tail with spectacular big white spots on the underside. It’s always amazing to see one from below, emerging like a jungle bird from the high, dense green leaves of the oaks. And even just to hear one call and to know that they’re around is a joy. Not fluttery birds, they move deliberately through the leaves, searching for caterpillars, and often staying in one spot for several moments. They also eat cicadas, katydids, beetles, and other insects and spiders.

Caterpillars are said to be the primary food of Yellow-billed Cuckoos, so their presence here seems like encouraging evidence that maybe there are more butterflies and moths around than there seem to be. I have been very much aware for the past few years of a sudden and dramatic drop in the abundance of butterflies and moths that we see here. In past years for as long as I can remember, it would have been common for us to see dozens, even hundreds of moths around our windows on summer nights. Last year and this year there are almost none. A very few. One here. one there. The change is stunning. There also has been a very noticeable drop in the number and variety of butterflies. 

And yet – we have Yellow-billed Cuckoos. A hopeful sign.