Archive for April, 2023

Cape May Warbler

Friday, April 28th, 2023

After two dark, cool, rainy days, by noon today the clouds were breaking apart, leaving blue sky and a bright, warm sun. In the trees around our back yard, a Red-eyed Vireo sang very clearly and close, weaving its way through the treetops. A Wood Thrush sang from much further away, down the wooded hill toward a creek. A Great Crested Flycatcher called deep Breets. An Eastern Phoebe, Easter Bluebird, Northern Cardinal, and Yellow-throated Vireo sang in the trees nearby. A Downy Woodpecker called its silvery whinny.

Yellow-rumped Warblers also were singing in the nearby trees, their pretty, softly chanting notes sounding as if the leaves themselves have begun to sing.

And then I heard a different song, almost like an echo of the Yellow-rumped Warblers but much more quiet and softer. A string of notes on mostly one pitch, high and almost whispery. I had no idea what it was, but when I used the Merlin app, it quickly identified Cape May Warbler. Wow. A male Cape May Warbler is a small, very colorful neotropical bird. A chestnut patch on the cheek and a yellow collar create a distinctive face, and its breast is yellow, streaked with black in a tiger-like way. It might be passing through here in spring migration, on its way from a winter home in the Caribbean to its summer, breeding home in forests of the far north. Though they are fairly common migrants in the eastern U.S., I haven’t seen them often. It would be a wonderful bird to see.

I searched the leaves of the trees from which the songs were coming. It sounded as if there were at least two or three birds somewhere very close, in a particular white oak tree or other trees beside it. In fact, the songs seemed to come from the oak leaves right in front of me. And yet – I couldn’t see any sign of a bird. They stayed hidden among the leaves. 

I watched and listened for several minutes, at first determined to stay until I’d found them. But then I stopped hearing the songs, and it seemed they had drifted away. Frustration – but at the same time, it was a delight just to have heard the songs and to know Cape May Warblers are here in our trees for this day.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Wednesday, April 26th, 2023

Again this morning I decided not to take binoculars when I went out for a walk, this time because the weather was cool and cloudy with a possibility of light rain. As so often, I immediately regretted this because when I got to the top of our driveway, I heard a squeaking call from high in the pecan tree there. I couldn’t see the bird but there was no question in my mind – it was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, a big, especially beautiful songbird. The male is colored dramatically in black, white and rose – a black head and back, white belly, and a patch of rose-red spilling down the chest. Its call is distinct, sounding just like the squeak of a sneaker on a gym floor. 

By the time I’d gone back to the house, picked up binoculars and returned, it was too late. I didn’t hear another call and couldn’t find the Grosbeak among the leaves. After only a moment or two of searching, I saw a bird flying from the treetop across the cul de sac and into a deeper wooded area. Alas.

Gray Catbird

Thursday, April 20th, 2023

When I went out for a walk this morning, I didn’t take binoculars with me because I had a busy day ahead and felt pressed for time. The morning was lovely, still slightly cool with a soft blue sky, high cirrus clouds and fading jet trails, though already the sun felt very warm, heating up fast. As I walked, I spent too much of the time lost in thought and plans, not listening fully to birds or appreciating the day around me. 

About halfway up a steep hill with a large undeveloped stretch of land on one side, a slender, dark bird with a long tail emerged from a tangle of weedy vegetation at about eye level and brought me back into the moment. A Gray Catbird. Looking almost like a shadow at first, the Catbird quickly became animated and stood on a slender branch of a shrub and looked around, switched its tail expressively. It was so close I could see it well, even without binoculars, and it stayed in view for several moments. Shadowy-gray all over, with a neat black cap and a graceful, light way of moving. I wasn’t quite close enough to see the patch of rusty color beneath its tail.

Gray Catbirds are not common here in our neighborhood, though in some years a pair will nest in an area with enough dense vegetation. This one might be passing through, but I hope it might stay around. I didn’t walk on until it slipped back out of sight in a tangle of vines and shrubs.

Black-and-white Warbler and Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Wednesday, April 19th, 2023

A Black-and-white Warbler is a small, slender wood warbler, true to its name, striped all over in crisp black and white. And its song has a black-and-white quality, too. Not musical or flashy at all, it’s a high, sibilant, lisping song – weesa, weesa, weesa – that can easily blend in with the background and go unnoticed. Especially now that the trees are fully out with new green leaves and there’s so much birdsong around.

A Black-and-white Warbler has been singing in the trees around our back yard since the middle of March, and its song is a quiet but definitive part of the scene. It’s like a subtle touch in a painting, maybe not obvious, but it changes everything. 

The song of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet brings a different kind of touch to the scene. A quick, lively little song, it starts with three or four soft whistles and then bursts into a tumble of bright, sparkling notes like bubbles in champagne. It’s a pretty and joyous song, bold and bright, but with a light, elusive, fairy-like quality, as if it vanishes into the air.

While a Black-and-white Warbler is a spring migrant that has recently returned, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet has been here for the winter and soon will be leaving for its summer home much further north. 

Today I was lucky enough to watch each of them, one after the other, in a white oak tree on the edge of our back yard. I first noticed the Black-and-white Warbler when it flew into the tree and sat on a branch and immediately began preening. It moved very quickly, as if it had no time to waste, shaking out one wing and combing it with its bill, then the other wing, and breast, maybe a little on the back or shoulder, feathers rumpled up – it all happened fast. After a minute or two of preening, it began to forage again, creeping over the branches, with its body stretched low and its bill probing for insect prey. Constantly on the move – and pausing often, though only briefly, to raise its head and sing. 

Only a few minutes later, after the Black-and-white Warbler had flown further back into the woods, a very small, gray-green bird flitted its airy way in and out of clusters of leaves, flicking its wings as it went. A tiny bird with a round gray head and face, and a bold white ring around the eye. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Its ruby crown was folded down and not in sight, but its gray-green plumage, brightly marked with the white eye ring and white wing bars looked crisp, and its personality sparkled with color. 

Palm Warbler Singing

Wednesday, April 19th, 2023

By the time I stepped outside this morning, the sun was high in a clear blue, cloudless sky and the day already felt very warm. The trees are almost all leafed out in green, and birds have come out and blossomed into song. Just standing on our front porch before heading out to walk, I heard Chipping Sparrow, Pine Warbler, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, House Finch, Eastern Bluebird and Eastern Phoebe. American Goldfinches chattered and sang in the trees all around the yard – it sounded as if they filled the trees and I could see several of them in branches just overhead. A Brown Thrasher sang from the top of a tall red oak. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called its musical quurr. Two White-throated Sparrows splashed in the bird bath.

Several minutes later, along a low, shady stretch of road with woods on both sides, a Red-eyed Vireo sang as it moved through the treetops, a Louisiana Waterthrush whistled its clear anthem from somewhere along the nearby creek, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called spee-spee. Among the songs of several other birds was a kind of gentle, chanting song that I couldn’t place. When I used the Merlin app to check it, it identified the singer as a Palm Warbler – to my great surprise. I don’t think I have ever heard the song of a Palm Warbler before now. I usually see a few here as they pass through in migration, but they are almost always in a more open spot, around shrubs or on the edge of a thicket or foraging somewhere low to the ground – a medium-size warbler with an olive-brown back, a yellow breast with rusty streaks, a bright rusty crown, and a prominent pale or yellow stripe over its eye. And most of the time, it’s walking on the ground – and constantly wagging its tail. These characteristic behaviors set a Palm Warbler apart from most other wood warblers. 

This one was somewhere up in the trees, singing and singing – and with a little luck, I found it, not far away. It moved with delicate grace, searching the branches and leaves, often curling itself around a branch or a branch tip, and now and then flitting off in the air to hawk an insect. But even with this different kind of foraging, it frequently wagged its tail. And every few seconds it paused, lifted its head up and tilted it back – and sang. 

Its song was a gentle, chanting series of notes almost all on one pitch. Although a Palm Warbler’s song is often described as a “buzzy trill,” I would not have described it as either buzzy or a trill – but this was the first time I’ve heard one, so I have a lot to learn. And this was fun – a new song for me – from a bird in an unexpected setting. And the chance to listen and watch for several happy minutes.

Northern Parula

Saturday, April 1st, 2023

When the sun rose this morning, the sky was so covered in thick, dark clouds there was little hint of light. Thunder rumbled in the distance and the air felt warm and restless. But through an open window I heard a light, buzzy, airy song that sounded carefree, as if the little bird were skipping through the treetops. It was the song of a Northern Parula, a very small, pretty wood warbler with a bright yellow throat and breast, a blue-gray head and back, a greenish patch in the middle of its back, and a black and chestnut band across its yellow chest. I couldn’t see it from the window, but it sang several times. It’s the first Northern Parula I’ve heard or seen here so far this spring, returned from its winter further south to spend the breeding season. Northern Parulas nest in lowland, forested areas in swamps or near streams across much of the eastern U.S., and are known for preferring habitat with mosses or lichens, which they use to make their nests, placing them very high up on the end of a branch in the forest canopy.