Archive for October, 2020

Bay-breasted Warbler

Friday, October 23rd, 2020

Late this morning I was surprised to find a slender, greenish warbler moving along the lichen-covered branches of a pecan tree, searching for food. It moved quickly and intently over the branches, not fluttery or flitting from place to place. Because I haven’t often seen this warbler, it took me a few minutes to identify it – though I should have known immediately. Its breast was pale, and the soft buffy-bay color on its flanks and under its tail was distinctive. A beautiful Bay-breasted Warbler.

While identifying a warbler in fall plumage can be confusing and frustrating, it’s also a lot of fun, and this Bay-breasted Warbler stayed in clear view in the same tree for several minutes, so it was a good chance to study field marks. It was a warm sunny morning, and it helped that the warbler wasn’t fluttery or flying from place to place often. It foraged quickly and neatly along the branches and stopped often to eat something – some of what it ate looked like tiny caterpillars. 

This male was much less brilliantly colored than it would have been in spring, but the markings were still clear – dark wings with two bright white wing bars; a smooth greenish head; thin, sharply pointed bill; dark streak through the eye and a slight hint of a yellow band over the eye; a rather long tail – and I even got a good look at the underside of the tail itself, which was white, with a slight dark marking about halfway up. But the most obvious and definitive part was the soft buffy-bay color on the flanks and under the tail. It also showed this soft-bay color very pale under the chin.

Muted streaks on the sides confused me for a while, because most accounts of this species describe its underside as smooth and unstreaked. Back at home later, I eventually found photos on the Audubon Society website that show the blurry streaking in the male’s fall plumage – almost too subtle to see, but it’s there. And maybe in the one I watched there was some trick of the light that made the streaks show up more.

Bay-breasted Warblers breed mostly in northern spruce and fir forests and migrate through the eastern U.S. to winter homes in South America. They are considered an uncommon species whose remote breeding areas make them somewhat difficult to track.

I didn’t see any other Bay-breasted Warbler, or other migrant birds – though maybe there were others around that I didn’t find. This one seemed to be part of a small feeding flock of resident birds that included Eastern Bluebirds, a Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadees, and at least five Chipping Sparrows, two of them searching along the pecan branches for food near the warbler. After a minute or two, the Bay-breasted Warbler flew at the Chipping Sparrows and chased them away from its branch. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed from not far away, and a Northern Flicker called a sharp kleer!

Hermit Thrush and White-throated Sparrow

Tuesday, October 20th, 2020

This morning was another clear, sunny day, and quite a bit warmer than it has been – very warm for this time of year. Birds throughout the neighborhood seemed widely scattered and few in number, and I was beginning to feel that things were too quiet. In truth, I think things are too quiet – there are too few birds and too few butterflies and moths, and too few insects overall. 

This is true, and not to be ignored. But today, two small quiet birds in widely different places brightened the day immensely, each in its own characteristic way:  The low, expressive sound of a Hermit Thrush’s call in trees on the edge of the woods; and the glowing beauty of a colorful White-throated Sparrow sitting in full sun on the edge of a privet thicket. 

Both are winter birds here, the first of the season I’ve seen or heard. 

The Hermit Thrush’s call came from a wooded area near a creek where there were few other sounds of birds at all, not even the chatter of chickadees and titmice. I was only hearing the background chirping of insects and the distant cries of crows and jays, and the sound of my own footsteps. But then a familiar low, liquid chup, repeated over and over, came from somewhere in the oaks and sweet gums and pines not far from the road. For several minutes I listened and scanned the lower branches of the trees for the thrush. It continued to call, chup, chupchup, but stayed hidden somewhere in the trees and a lot of leafy vines. Eventually it fell silent, and I walked on.

It would have been nice to see, but this quiet little call is so much a part of the fall and winter landscape here that it’s almost as good just to hear. It sounds like mellow autumn shades, muted and earth-toned, like the yellow leaves of grape vines, and the crusty patches of orange in the oaks, the soft rose-green of the dogwoods.

Hermit Thrushes are solitary, woodland birds, not particularly shy, but unobtrusive and well-camouflaged in soft brown and cream with dark spots on the throat and breast. In winter they don’t stay in flocks with other thrushes, but often search for food on the ground with other birds like sparrows, towhees and pine warblers. When startled, a Hermit Thrush will fly up into a nearby bush or tree and sit watchfully, raising its cinnamon-colored tail sharply and lowering it slowly, over and over again, and calling its soft chupchup.

Walking on, I passed large, grassy yards that looked mostly empty, but here and there an Eastern Bluebird flashed its brilliant colors, a Northern Flicker called a bright kleer! Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers rattled, a Carolina Wren sang and another trilled, an Eastern Phoebe sang its swishing song. Despite the warm sun, I saw almost no butterflies. Only two yellow Sulphurs. 

In the dense thickets of the old field just outside our subdivision, some sibilant tseeet calls cut through the traffic sounds on the nearby highway. There seemed to be quite a lot of rustling in the leaves of the privet and other rough shrubs, grasses and vines. A Northern Mockingbird flew to the top of a tree with dark-green leaves and sang exuberantly. A Pine Warbler trilled its softer, lyrical song from somewhere deep in the pines nearby. An Eastern Towhee called chur-whee. More rustling in the shrubs – and a pair of Northern Cardinals emerged briefly, followed by a handsome pair of Eastern Towhees, splashes of bold color in orange and brown and red, black and white.

When a beautiful White-throated Sparrow emerged on the edge of a bush in clear, full view, it looked as if it had blossomed there. Lit by the morning sun against a tangled background of faded grasses and rough weeds, the small, plump, elegant sparrow glowed with life – warm brown-streaked back and plain gray breast, bright black and white striped crown, gray cheeks, clean white throat, and the touch of a small yellow mark between the eye and the bill. I always think of a White-throated Sparrow as dapper – its colors and patterns so neat and crisp.

White-throated Sparrows, like the Hermit Thrush, are just arriving now, after spending the summer in northern forests. In the winter months here, they love overgrown old fields like this one but can also be found in yards with plenty of shrubs, and often come to feeders. 

First Yellow-bellied Sapsucker of the Fall

Sunday, October 11th, 2020

This afternoon after a brief heavy downpour of rain, I heard the mewing calls of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in trees around our next-door neighbor’s yard. The rain had stopped, but dark gray clouds remained, and water still dripped from trees all around, already drenched from two days of showery rain, as the remnants of Hurricane Delta moved through. 

The mewing calls continued for half an hour or more, soft and plaintive among the sounds of water dripping on wet leaves, calling to mind a water-color image of a Yellow-bellowed Sapsucker with its boldly striped black and white face and crimson throat and crown. I hoped it might come closer, but it never did. But it’s always nice to know, at this time of year, that one has returned. 

A Barred Owl’s Early Morning Call

Friday, October 9th, 2020

At 6:30 this morning it was still dark outside my windows, and I lay awake watching and listening as the first light began very gradually to appear. Crickets sang and there were the sounds of dry cracking and scratching things, and an Eastern Phoebe sang far in the distance. My attention was kind of drifting when I realized I had heard the deep hoo-aww hoots of a Barred Owl. It wasn’t very close, and I could only hear one, but it called again, and again, four, maybe five times I think, each deep, hooted, booming, echoing call a sound I could feel as well as hear. 

After the owl fell quiet, a dry patter of leaves showered down in a breeze, and acorns thumped to the ground. 

Brown Thrashers began their smacking calls. An Eastern Bluebird murmured a blurry song, another Eastern Phoebe sang, this one closer, and four Carolina Wrens began to sing in different directions, all different songs. Then the harsh cries of several Blue Jays, the peeps of Northern Cardinals, the chatter of a Carolina Chickadee, and the chur-whee of an Eastern Towhee. American Crows cawed in the distance. A Carolina Wren burst into very loud song right below my window – past time to get up. 

Maybe the Last Hummingbird of Summer

Wednesday, October 7th, 2020

Early yesterday evening Clate and I sat on the screened porch as the sun dropped low and then set, and light faded on another mild, lovely Fall day. What we could see of the sky through the trees was at first soft blue, then gently turned to cream and orange and soft pink. A few katydids began to sing and crickets. A lingering Scarlet Tanager called a sharp chick! from trees around the yard, now and then the full chick-brrr call. Cardinals peeped loudly. 

One little Ruby-throated Hummingbird sat on the feeder just outside the porch and sipped nectar until it was almost dark. Now and then it zipped off to a nearby branch or to sit for a moment on top of the crook that holds the feeder, but mostly it sat and sipped and sometimes twittered. I watched it, noticing the fine, delicate shape of its head, and the white throat with a faint pattern of speckles, and green, iridescent feathers on its back when there was still enough light to see them well, and the way the nectar rippled when the long tongue dipped in to sip. For the first day in many weeks, it seemed to be the only one around, so it stayed uncommonly still for a longer time. Just two days ago there were still at least two hummingbirds vying for position on the feeder – but even then, they weren’t spending nearly as much time on duels, more focused on feeding as much as they could, and often sharing the feeder. 

This morning when we came downstairs for breakfast, the feeder hung vacant. No hummingbird sat there, intently feeding after a long night. And when we sat on the porch for lunch, we didn’t see a single hummingbird come – or hear the bright, high twittering and humming, zipping sounds. So we wonder if the one we saw last night might be our last hummingbird of the summer, and if it might have left here during the night and begun its long flight south.

We don’t know for sure. We might still have others coming through in migration, and we’ll keep the feeder up for a good while longer. But it’s getting late in the year, and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds must leave for their winter homes in Central America. 

This summer of the pandemic, the Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have been among many birds around our woods and yard that have brightened the difficult times and reminded us daily of the things that matter most. This year that’s felt more important than ever. They’ve given us beauty. They’ve made us smile. They’ve kept us connected to the living world on which we all depend, and whose future we should be doing so much more to protect.