Archive for November, 2020

Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Blackbird Flock

Tuesday, November 10th, 2020

Early this morning I stepped out into a foggy, wet, copper-brown world that seemed to have changed overnight. The leaves on all of the white oaks – only yesterday still half green – this morning are mostly brown. There’s still yellow in the sweet gums, red in the maples, rose-coral in the dogwoods and some green in the oaks. But a big change came overnight, and we’re more and more surrounded in deep autumn-brown.

From somewhere in the trees on the edge of the woods came the sweet chup, chup calls of a Hermit Thrush. It’s been around for several days now. I haven’t yet succeeded in seeing it among the speckled leaves, but haven’t really tried too hard. It’s just very nice to hear its calls. It feels like a fall and winter counterpart of the Wood Thrushes that sang last summer. Not singing, of course, but with its very lovely, liquid calls, reflecting the background and sense of the season. 

Lots of little birds flitted around in the branches and leaves of the oaks – mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers, which I’m very happy to see. Also three or four Carolina Wrens, two Eastern Bluebirds, and some Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice. 

Later in the morning, on a walk through the neighborhood in very cloudy, soft gray light, things seemed mostly quiet in a peaceful way. The clear mewing call of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drifted through the trees. Too far away to see, but the call was very clear, and repeated. A White-breasted Nuthatch called a nasal ank, ank, ank. An Eastern Phoebe sang. I passed the mewing calls of two more Sapsuckers, in widely different places, and the whistled songs of White-throated Sparrows from the thickets in the field. Around Pond Corner, I stopped to watch a handsome Northern Flicker searching for food in the grass. The bright red crescent on the gray nape of its neck reflected the softer, coral-red leaves of four dogwood trees nearby. 

The blackbird flock was around the area where it’s often been since late October, at least three hundred and probably many more pleasantly noisy birds spread out across grassy yards and in the bare branches of pecan trees, constantly moving from one spot to another, flowing like a river. Almost all were Common Grackles, but I saw a handful of birds that I think were probably Rusty Blackbirds, though I didn’t see them well enough to be sure. This is always a challenge for me. I think a better birder would be able to spot Rusty Blackbirds among a flock much more quickly – but for me, I always have to look hard, especially when the flock is steadily moving even on the ground, and often startled into flight. A Common Grackle is easy to identify – big, bold, iridescent black, with a long, heavy bill and long tail. But when I do find other blackbirds among the grackles, smaller, with a different shape and thinner bills and tails not quite so long, it takes me longer to be sure, and most of the time the flock flushes up with a rush of wings and moves further away, just when I’m finding a good clear view. The rusty color rarely shows up so well that they’re easy to spot from a distance. But it’s fun to try. And I’m very happy to have such a good flock around again this fall. It’s a good year for pecans here, and acorns, which may help.

Yellow-rumped Warblers

Sunday, November 8th, 2020

Early this afternoon a Hermit Thrush called from trees on the edge of the woods around our back yard. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flew to the trunk of an oak, a juvenile, with a ruffled look all over, and no red showing on its throat or crown, but a white and brown striped face, and a bold white bar down the wings.  

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinals and an Eastern Towhee all were calling now and then – on a warm, windy afternoon with low white clouds blowing fast across a gray sky. The landscape has become multi-colored, confetti-like, with green and brown and orange oaks, yellow sweet gums and tulip poplars, coral-red dogwoods, and leaves blowing and showering down.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker didn’t stay long, but a Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew into the oak and began moving quickly through the leaves in its flickering way, a tiny, gray-green bird that looked especially green and crisp today, with hints of yellow in the flicking wings, a bright white ring around its eye and a small white wing bar. 

Meanwhile, in the oaks all around the yard, lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted from spot to spot, scattering their check calls as they searched for food. I watched one move along a branch, methodically pecking at the branch as it went. Now and then one flew up to capture an insect in the air. Yellow-rumped Warblers are little gray birds, looking very nondescript in winter plumage – brownish-gray, with touches of yellow on the sides, and a bright yellow rump that can be hard to see when their wings are folded, but shows up especially when they fly. 

I’m especially happy to see them because the past two or three years the number of Yellow-rumped Warblers here in our neighborhood has been far fewer than in the past. While there used to be so many they seemed to be everywhere, last winter on many days it was hard to find more than a handful. So it’s very encouraging to see so many here this fall – not only around our own yard, but also in other parts of the neighborhood. It felt joyous just to stand and watch them, as if a part of life that had been missing had returned. 

Yellow-rumped Warblers are known for arriving each fall in very large numbers across much of the central and southeastern U.S. They are still described as widespread, and the most common winter warbler in North America, with no special concern for their populations. So I don’t know why I have observed such a dramatic drop in their numbers here in our own neighborhood in recent years – and I’m hopeful that this year they’ll continue to be abundant as the season goes on. 

Purple Finch

Monday, November 2nd, 2020

Back at home, my spirits lifted because it seemed like I’d finally found all the birds. Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees and a Downy Woodpecker were coming and going from the feeders. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet called jidit-jidit from some wax myrtles. An Eastern Towhee called a rich chur-whee, and two Towhees scratched up leaves under holly bushes. Several Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from tree to tree around the yard, scattering their quick, light check calls. 

From deep in the leaves of a bush beside the porch, the gentle face of a small grayish bird with a white throat and a white, broken ring around its eye peered out – a Yellow-rumped Warbler. A White-throated Sparrow flew into the same bush with a thumping flurry, and looked around. A bird bath stands very close to this bush, and they may both have been considering whether a visit to it was safe.

A stocky, heavily streaked bird flew to the feeder and sat for a moment on top of it, while a Tufted Titmouse sat below eating seeds. The new bird was one I haven’t seen here before, a small bird – but it didn’t look small. It had a sturdy presence. A brown finch, very heavily streaked on the breast and sides, and a striped face with a long white eyebrow and a large conical bill. It was a Purple Finch – a female or a first-year male. It’s the first Purple Finch I’ve seen in several years, and I’m not sure we have ever seen one here in Summit Grove until today.

Purple Finches are considered fairly common across much of the U.S., but they are not common here. A male Purple Finch is raspberry-red – much more colorful than the female, though her bold, brown-streaked plumage is striking in its own way. Although Purple Finches are described as widespread and often come to bird feeders, they have become less common in the eastern U.S. in the past several decades. Competition with House Sparrows and House Finches – two species not native to America – is thought to have contributed to a decline in their populations. 

House Finches are very common birds here, year-round. Both male and female House Finches look like smaller, washed-out versions of the more boldly colored Purple Finches. However, one study has shown that in competition between the two, Purple Finches lost out to House Finches 95 percent of the time – a fact that seems amazing to me, because Purple Finches look as if they should be more dominant. But looks can be deceiving.

The Purple Finch I watched this morning looked strong and aggressive. It chased the Titmouse away and sat on the feeder by itself, eating black sunflower seeds. When a second Purple Finch – also a female or first-year male – appeared on a nearby branch, the first one chased it away and returned to the feeder and kept eating. The second Finch stayed nearby in a tree – but then something startled them and they both flew away and did not come back while I was outside.

Hermit Thrush

Monday, November 2nd, 2020

On a crisp, cold, brightly sunny morning, the sky burned a clear, cloudless blue. Touches of red, orange, yellow and rust spotted the green trees and shrubs like confetti. It was a beautiful fall day, and yet, all through the neighborhood a strange quiet prevailed. In the big grassy yards were no feeding flocks of small birds, not even a bluebird or a robin. No towhees or thrashers or sparrows around the shrubs. The trees on the edge of the woods stood quiet, and even the old field appeared empty of birds except for Blue Jays everywhere and American Crows flying over now and then. Gradually I could find the chattering calls of Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens, an Eastern Towhee here and there, all sounding far away in the distance. The chuck-chuck calls of Red-bellied Woodpeckers were closer, and an occasional whinny from a Downy. 

From somewhere in the leaves of a water oak on the very edge of the road, surrounded by a thin tangle of fading grasses and weeds, skimpy bushes and vines, came a low, liquid call. Chup. Repeated again and again. Chup. Chup. It’s not possible to capture in words how lovely it is, the call of a Hermit Thrush, though it sounded somewhat forlorn in this spot, sitting on a branch among the spotty, orange-brown leaves of a vine that twisted up the trunk. The Hermit Thrush sat directly above me, so what I could see was its pale underside and the dark-spotted throat and breast, and the lifted head with its watchful eye. The reddish tail lifted and lowered, lifted and lowered, as it continued to call the low chup, chup. I only watched it for a few moments, before walking on, not wanting to disturb it more.