Archive for May, 2021

American Redstart and Blackpoll Warbler

Monday, May 10th, 2021

A gentle, steady rain began this morning in the dark, well before dawn. I opened a window wider and lay back down in bed and listened for the first bird songs – a Northern Cardinal, then an Eastern Phoebe, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee and Chipping Sparrow. The rain, a beautiful sound in itself, made it hard to hear the full morning chorus of birds all around, so I only heard the closest ones, but gradually, as the day grew into a soft gray light, a Red-eyed Vireo sang in the trees around our front yard, a Great Crested Flycatcher called a deep, rich breet, and both Summer Tanager and Scarlet Tanager sang in the woods nearby. The rain gradually slowed and stopped, leaving trees and shrubs all drenched and dripping. The clouds lifted and lightened, but the sky stayed mostly overcast all morning.

A couple of hours later, on a gray and damp walk through the neighborhood, a bird sang from some oaks near a side of the road, a string of very high, sweet notes with a rising note at the end. With its flashy colors, it wasn’t too hard to find. An American Redstart – a small black bird with showy patches of bright orange in the wings and tail and on the sides. It was flitting from tree to tree among the dark shadows of this small wooded area, and singing and singing. There were at least two, both males, with orange and black plumage, and I think there were more, but I only saw these two for sure. 

American Redstarts are lively, very colorful birds that flash their wings and tails often as they hop through branches searching for insects. They sang the whole time, and I listened intently, trying to impress this song in my memory. Because I don’t hear it often, it’s a hard one for me to remember well, even though they are common migrants here and I should know it well by now. 

In another wooded spot a little further on, I found a female American Redstart with a small feeding flock of other birds – gray with patches of yellow in wings and tail and on the side, she also flashes her wings and tail often, just as animated as the male. In the same trees with her, were a Black-and-white Warbler, Great Crested Flycatcher, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Tufted Titmice, and a Red-eyed Vireo.

There also were some other, very small, grayish birds with neat streaks on the sides that I couldn’t identify at first. They were up pretty high, so I was seeing them mostly from underneath, and had to be patient to finally glimpse part of a head, a wing, a face – and orange legs. They were Blackpoll Warblers, and the one I could see best was a female, a small gray bird with a short tail, a thin, sharp bill, a pale breast, white wing bars, a pale, broken ring around the eye and a thin dark streak through the eye, fine streaking on the sides – and orange legs. She moved in a delicate and quick way over the branches, not fluttery, but moving steadily, intent on searching the branches and leaves for prey. I did not see a male, whose spring plumage is a brighter black and white pattern.

Blackpoll Warblers are here in this part of Georgia only in migration. They spend the breeding season in boreal forests of Canada and Alaska and the far north, and migrate to South America and the Caribbean for the winter. Blackpoll Warblers migrate the longest distance of any North American warblers, some traveling from Alaska to Brazil. So the small, delicate bird I’m seeing here in May is in the middle of an amazingly long journey, on its way north for the summer.

Scarlet Tanager in the Rain

Monday, May 3rd, 2021

Early this evening, very late in a day of heavy rain and storms, a brilliant Scarlet Tanager appeared among the wet green leaves of a small tree on the edge of our back yard – its clear, bright red gleamed in the mist and light rain and green leaves, with black wings glistening. It moved along the branches, staying in view, searching for insects and other prey. Another bird of a quieter color came very near it briefly, but stayed in the shadows. I think it was a female Scarlet Tanager, though it didn’t stay long, and I didn’t see it well enough to be sure. A few minutes later, after the male had moved out of view, the electric chick-brrr calls of Scarlet Tanagers drifted through the trees, as a gentle rain continued to fall. 

A male Scarlet Tanager is a medium-size, roundish songbird with a thick bill. A pure, clear red with jet-black wings and a black tail, it’s a stunning bird to see, exotic in appearance, and it’s hard to believe it can stay as well hidden as they usually do, deep among the foliage of hardwood trees. It’s unusual to watch one that stays out of the leaves in view as this one did, for any length of time. The female’s color is a mix of olive and yellow, with darker wings and tail, striking in her own way, but in colors that blend more easily into the background shades of a forest. 

We’ve had the very good luck this spring to have a pair of Scarlet Tanagers singing and calling in the trees around our back yard and the nearby woods. Almost every day the male’s insistent song can be heard nearby, a series of hoarse, robin-like phrases. The quiet, expressive chick-brrr calls of the pair lace through the trees. I especially love to hear them late in the day, even in early twilight, because the calls reveal that these beautiful birds are here. They stay so hidden in the foliage that without the calls and songs, we might not even know they were around.

Scarlet Tanagers prefer to nest in large areas of deciduous forest, especially in oaks. They are particularly sensitive to the loss of forested habitat and to forest fragmentation. In smaller patches of woods where they do nest, they often are less successful, often parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds and suffering other risks because of not having the protection of a deeper forest interior. 

So while it’s lucky for us to have such exotic, colorful songbirds nesting near our home, it may not be so lucky for the Scarlet Tanagers themselves, because the woods that surround our home are very patchy and fragmented. We do have a lot of large and beautiful oaks, and I can hope that these will give the tanagers enough protection and good success in this nesting season.