Archive for September, 2020

Swainson’s Thrush

Wednesday, September 30th, 2020

After an all-day showery rain yesterday, this morning dawned clear and bright and sunny, and became a picture-perfect day to end the month. The sky was a deep September-blue, not a cloud in sight, and cool breezes kept the trees in motion and rang the wind chimes softly. Such heartbreakingly beautiful weather in such dark and painful times. The pandemic continues, and presidential politics dominate the news. The levels of anger, corruption, racism and utter lack of compassion are frightening. Every day seems to bring more and more grim news, of a kind we could never have imagined only four years ago.

Early this afternoon, a White-breasted Nuthatch murmured its low, intimate call from trees around the back yard. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds twittered and hummed, much less combative now than a week or two ago, more focused just on fueling up for migration. Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice chattered inside the woods. 

When I saw a lot of rustling in the leaves of a dogwood tree on the edge of the yard, I watched for several minutes and finally a graceful Swainson’s Thrush came into view, eating a bright red dogwood berry.

A Swainson’s Thrush is a bird we only see here during spring or fall migration, and I don’t often find one even then, so it was especially fun to see – especially such a clear, vivid view. It’s a medium-size thrush with a plain brown back and wings, and a white breast with dark spots, especially heavy on the throat and upper breast. A distinct pale ring around the eye gives its face an appealing, watchful expression. It stayed in view only for a minute or two, then disappeared back into the leaves. 

Like other thrushes, Swainsons are known for their ethereal, fluted songs, which I’ve never been lucky enough to hear. They spend summers in far northern forests, and migrate through a large part of the U.S. to their winter homes in South America. 

The dogwood tree on the edge of our back yard has often attracted migrating birds in the fall, like the Swainson’s Thrush. It’s full of red berries now, and I’m hopeful we might see more birds stopping by in the next week or so.

Blackburnian Warbler, American Redstart, Chestnut-sided Warbler

Sunday, September 27th, 2020

On a soft, warm, dove-gray morning, lots of small birds flew back and forth across the road in a wooded spot, going from trees on one side to the other. Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered and a White-breasted Nuthatch called its nasal ank. There were Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and a Downy Woodpecker. An Eastern Phoebe sang in the woods nearby and a Pine Warbler trilled its song. Among this feeding flock of small songbirds, flashes of yellow and green turned out to be at least three migrating warblers. A Chestnut-sided Warbler, an American Redstart, and – best of all – an elegant Blackburnian Warbler.

The first one I saw, flitting from spot to spot among the leaves, was a small gray-green bird with a round yellowish head, a gray face and a very distinct white eye ring, and yellow wing bars – an immature Chestnut-sided Warbler. It’s the first one I’ve seen in a while, though I used to see them here almost every year in fall migration. It’s a lively, quick-moving little bird that’s charming to watch as it searches for insects in the leaves and sometimes flies up to capture an insect in the air.

Closer to the ground, some other small birds were more fluttery, flashing yellow as they darted in and out of sight among the grape vines and lower vegetation. They seemed to be in constant motion, so they were hard to catch, staying mostly obscured by the leaves, but finally one fluttered up in a butterfly-like way, its tail flaring and flashing sunny yellow – a female American Redstart. While a male Redstart is black with bright orange patches on the sides, wings and tail, a female is gray and yellow, and the wide bands of yellow when the tail flares are especially noticeable. Redstarts are thought to flash the colors in their wings and tails to flush out insect prey. 

It wasn’t movement that drew my eyes to another, rather long and slender warbler moving along a branch. It was the deep-yellow throat and upper breast of a Blackburnian Warbler. This one, too, was a female or immature male. In fall plumage, its colors were not as brilliant as they would have been in spring, but they still looked vibrant and created a striking appearance. 

The head was olive, the face framed by a distinctive yellow eyebrow and an olive cheek that contrasted with the bright yellow throat. It was yellow on the sides, with dark streaks, and a grayish, streaked back and dark wings with bright white wing bars. The underside of its tail was very white with a dark tip, and when it briefly flared the tail once, it showed white in the edges.

I was able to watch for several minutes as it moved along the branches searching for prey in the leaves, and saw it stretch out low along one branch to capture and eat a rather large caterpillar.

A male Blackburnian Warbler in spring is a spectacular bird, black and white with a fiery-orange throat and face. They are mostly birds of the high treetops, especially in their breeding range in northern forests. But in migration like this, they may search for food lower in the trees or even in shrubs. They mostly eat insects, especially caterpillars, searching along branches and twigs and sometimes hovering over leaves to pick off their prey.

A Hummingbird Catching Insects in the Air

Sunday, September 6th, 2020

Early this afternoon a Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovered in a shaft of sunlight several feet above the ground, out in the middle of our back yard. A tiny, shimmering haze of green, it moved up, and down, wings whirring, for several moments, now and then making small, quick, darting movements. It looked like a dancing fairy in flight, iridescent and silvery-green. 

I think the hummingbird was probably catching tiny flying insects that we couldn’t see in this column of light, maybe a swarm of gnats or something like that. While hummingbirds are more well known for feeding on nectar, they also often capture insects – including gnats, fruit flies, mosquitoes, small bees and small caterpillars. They glean insects from leaves, pull spiders from webs, and hunt by perching on a tree branch and flying off to capture insects in the air – “hawking” like a flycatcher. 

According to one source I found, some observers even refer to hummingbirds in general as “nectar-powered flycatchers,” suggesting that insects and spiders may be equally or even more important in their diet than nectar. Another source noted there is much more to be learned about the importance of insects in the diet of hummingbirds.  

The behavior we watched was a little different because this hummingbird was not returning to a branch like a flycatcher, it hovered in this one shaft of sunlight out in the middle of the yard for two or three minutes, up and down, and then it flew away, out of the light and toward the shady woods. 

Carolina Sphinx Moth

Tuesday, September 1st, 2020

At this time of the year I’m often watching butterflies more than birds, because it’s a kind of quiet and in-between time for birds. Today, on a very sunny, hot and humid first day of September, I was looking, but there seemed to be very few butterflies around our own yard or in the rest of the neighborhood. In a three-mile walk, I found only one Sleepy Orange, one Gulf Fritillary, several beautiful Tiger Swallowtails, a few Buckeyes, Fiery Skippers and Sootywings. 

When I got back home though, a very large, interesting moth was hovering over the yellow blooms in a big lantana bush, looking like a dark-brown version of a hummingbird moth. But its coloring was not the more colorful black and yellow, or red of the Snowberry Clearwing or Hummingbird Clearwing. This one was a Carolina Sphinx Moth, I believe.  

I watched it for several minutes as it moved through the lantana. It did not stop to rest and was never still. Looking very closely, I could see subtle dark patterns in the wings and bands around the body. And I watched its very long proboscis, delicate and curved as it went down to the blooms. 

Several species in the family of moths known as Sphinx or Hawk Moths (Sphingidae) are known for flying during the day and for their hummingbird-like behavior. From a distance they can easily be mistaken for hummingbirds as they drift from flower to flower, sipping nectar with their long mouthparts. The Carolina Sphinx Moth is very common. Its caterpillar is the tobacco or tomato hornworm, a large, bright green caterpillar, which we’ve sometimes found feeding on our tomato plants, though it has never seemed to do a great deal of damage – and it’s easily seen and removed.