Archive for October, 2023

Golden-crowned Kinglets

Monday, October 30th, 2023

This morning I stepped outside into a stained-glass world of mellow fall colors. Under a deep-blue sky a bright sun shined through a shifting canopy of yellow, brown, orange, red and green leaves. A young dogwood tree in our front yard still holds a shimmering umbrella of drooping wine and coral leaves that looks like a shower of tears. The gingko is golden, the river birches all but bare, the white oaks half wood-brown; the big red maples a mix of green and crusty scarlet. 

Winter birds are slowly, slowly arriving. A few more each recent day, it seems. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet sang a quick, bright song and others called their dry jidit-jidit as they flitted through wax myrtles and other shrubs. Yellow-rumped Warblers scattered chip calls as they flew. A Northern Flicker called a bright loud kleer! A few hesitant, whistled notes from a White-throated Sparrow drifted out from some tall dark shrubs – the first hint that they’re here. 

The best surprise of the day was to find two little birds I have found here very seldom in the past few years – two Golden-crowned Kinglets. Tiny, exquisite birds with black-and-white striped faces and crowns of bright lemon-yellow, they were moving quickly through a maze of leafy branches near the top of a small tree, and making very high, thin calls – ti-ti-ti, ti-ti-ti. Only a little bigger than hummingbirds, they look like small jewels and are very animated in their movements, light, airy and inquisitive. Their backs are olive-gray, with a warm-yellow wash on the wings, the breast grayish-pale. They were unusually close and easy to see, even though they move so quickly, intent on the search for food. I watched for several minutes as they explored the leaves and small branches, and watched as one held on and balanced on the very tip of a very thin branch, almost walking on air, it seemed.

Golden-crowned Kinglets spend summers further north, mostly in the boreal forests of North America – though they have been expanding their breeding range further south in parts of the U.S. During the winter, they spread out through much of the U.S., including here in Georgia. The past few years they’ve been hard to find here in our neighborhood, though they used to be fairly common – and I’ve missed them. These might be just passing through, but I’m hoping maybe they might stay. 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Northern Flicker, Palm Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler

Tuesday, October 24th, 2023

The past several days we’ve been enjoying another stretch of picture-perfect October weather, with cool mornings, sunny blue skies, and warm afternoons. In these picture-perfect fall days, birds all through the neighborhood have been scarce and widely scattered. I’ve seen few migrating birds, and haven’t yet found a feeding flock of small birds like those that used to visit big grassy yards – mixed flocks of bluebirds, pine warblers, chipping sparrows, house finches and others. Maybe they’ll still appear. But certainly there are many fewer birds this fall than ever in the past. 

Nevertheless, there are still many beautiful birds to be discovered – even when it seems there are almost none. And today was a good example.

It began when I stepped out the front door and saw a tiny little bird flitting around the trunk and low branches of an oak, moving quickly and flicking its wings as it went, and calling a soft, low jidit-jidit. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a very small and active olive-gray bird with white wing bars, a bright white ring around its eye, and yellow-edged wings and tail. The ruby-red crown is often hidden, so the head looks smooth and gray. Then a second Ruby-crowned Kinglet appeared from the other side of the trunk, and they flew at each other and up and away. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are among the birds that come here to spend the winter, from summer homes much further north, and this year they’re among the first winter birds to arrive. 

A Brown Thrasher called a smack call, then a musical tee-ur from a bush. A Northern Cardinal peeped. An Eastern Towhee called chur-whee! And an Eastern Phoebe sat on a branch of our front yard dogwood tree – still pretty with dusty, faded coral leaves now – and bobbed its tail. 

As I left the head of the driveway, a large brown bird flew across the road ahead of me, flashing a big patch of white on its rump as it stopped in a small pine tree. A Northern Flicker. A big, sturdy woodpecker with colorful plumage and lively behavior. Unlike most other woodpeckers, Northern Flickers search most often for food on the ground – not in trees – using the long, sharp bill to dig for ants, beetles and other prey. A Northern Flicker is a handsome, showy bird, predominantly in shades of brown, but with a round gray head, a sweeping black crescent on the chest and a black-spotted belly. Flickers here in the eastern U.S. have a red crescent on the gray nape of the neck, a black moustache strip and golden-yellow feathers in the wings and tail that show up mostly when they fly. All in all, the appearance of a Northern Flicker is remarkable, with many other subtle and complex touches of color.

In contrast to the flashy Flicker, a pretty pink House finch sat demurely in the top of a maple tree, facing the sun and glowing. A Pine Warbler trilled a gentle song. The sky was a soft blue with very small, isolated tufts of clouds here and there, a sun that felt warm and an easterly breeze that felt chilly. Perfect walking weather! 

About a mile further on, in a small tree along the edge of the road, I stopped to check out a few birds flitting in and out of the leaves – and spotted a slender little bird walking over the branches and bobbing its tail in a lively and constant way. Bright, warm yellow under the tail, and yellow on its belly and sides and flanks, with soft dark streaks – it was a very fine, quiet Palm Warbler that continued to forage in this little tree long enough for me to watch for several moments.  In breeding plumage, it would have shown a bright rusty crown, but at this time of year its colors were a little more subdued. Palm Warblers migrate through this part of Georgia on their way further south for the winter, so this one is just passing through. 

 A few minutes later, in a different, more shaded spot, two small birds flew into a tree right on the edge of the road, and when I looked more closely at one, I was happily surprised to see a Yellow-rumped Warbler – a small songbird that may be arriving for the winter. It’s the first one I’ve seen here this fall. Yellow-rumped Warblers are small, grayish-brown streaked birds that spend the summer months in northern North America and migrate in great numbers to the central and southern US. and Central America for the winter. Although they are brilliantly colorful in breeding plumage, at this time of year they look rather plain – just little gray birds – except for the butter-yellow patch on the rump, and their habit of giving a soft chip call each time they fly, so that when they’re around these little calls become a familiar background sound of winter.   

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Monday, October 23rd, 2023

At seven o’clock this morning, still more dark than light, two Barred Owls began to hoot from somewhere not far away from my open bedroom windows. They hooted three or four times, back and forth, who-cooks-for-you and shorter hoo-owwhoo-oww, and then there was a loud, piercing scream, followed by another piercing scream that kind of melted into a partial hoot. After that the owls fell silent and must have flown away. 

About an hour later, I stepped out onto our front porch into a clear, chilly day. The sun was just up, with pale traces of pink clouds still lingering in a soft blue sky. The yard seemed mostly quiet, but there was a rustle in the bushes here and there and some small birds high in the trees. A Brown Thrasher flew out of some shrubs to the rim of the birdbath, sat there for a moment, then fled to the cover of the big azalea bushes. An Eastern Towhee called a rich chur-whee, and emerged on top of the spiny mahonias. A Pine Warbler trilled its song from the wooded edge of the yard. An Eastern Phoebe sang from a neighbor’s yard. An Eastern Bluebird flew into the top of a pecan tree, calling a soft, blurry call, and sat with its rosy breast facing the sun. A chipmunk ran out of cover onto the sidewalk – and froze there for three or four minutes before it finally dived into a hole beneath a big rock. 

In a tall water oak next to the corner of our house a long, slender bird sat quietly in the shadows of a low branch. Though it was half-hidden by leaves and blurry light, its size and elegant lines and striking colors were unmistakable – a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, an exotic bird in every way. Taupe-brown back and head, creamy-white throat and breast, with a long yellow bill, and a cinnamon tinge in the wings. 

When it flew to another nearby oak, I was surprised to see the Cuckoo fly up as if it were hawking an insect from the air. It flew into the leaves on the tree in a rather awkward-looking way, and then it dropped to a low branch, where it sat and ate a long, wiggling caterpillar. Over the next few minutes I watched it do this several times. Each time it flew up as if hawking an insect from the air, flapping its wings and rustling into the dry leaves on the tree as it snatched a caterpillar from a leaf surface. Then it sat on a branch to eat – I could see the caterpillars as it ate them, one by one. 

As it ate, it was often in full, very clear view so I could see it from several angles, admiring especially the soft brown of its back and head, and the clean line of contrast with creamy-white on throat and breast. Its most showy characteristic though – a long black tail with big white spots – was too much in the shadows to ever show up well. I could make out the spots, but they looked muted. Once it paused to scratch its head with a foot. 

This water oak apparently had a lot of caterpillars – maybe an infestation of webworm caterpillars. I don’t know for sure. The Cuckoo stayed for 10-15 minutes, repeatedly flying up, rustling the leaves, and capturing a caterpillar from a leaf, then settling on a branch to eat. 

We were lucky enough to hear the hollow, percussive calls of Yellow-billed Cuckoos in trees around our yard and nearby woods frequently this summer, though it seemed to me there were fewer than we’ve found in previous years. The one I watched this morning would have been on its way in migration. Yellow-billed Cuckoos spend the summer in a large area of North America and migrate to South America for the winter.

Unfortunately, Birds of the Worldnotes that “the future of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo is uncertain. Populations are declining precipitously throughout its distribution.” The cause seems mostly to be habitat loss.

*Hughes, J. M. (2020). Yellow-billed Cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Silvery Checkerspot

Sunday, October 15th, 2023

Today I saw a small orange and black butterfly fluttering low over a rough grassy patch of ground. It settled for several moments on the low-cut grass with wings outspread. It was very small, with a striking pattern of vivid orange and black with tiny white spots on black near the upper wing-tips and a very thin outline of white around both upper and lower wings. Its coloring was such an intense orange and black I thought it looked like a good butterfly for Halloween. I also saw what I think was a faint hint of turquoise color on the body just behind the head. 

It was a clear, sunny late morning, and I was able to see it well but only for a few moments. When I tried to get a photo with my phone, it flew – and fluttered away in a kind of erratic pattern into a nearby line of trees, staying fairly low to the ground. After doing a little research, I’m pretty sure it was a Silvery Checkerspot butterfly, (Chlosyne nycteis), which is considered locally common in several areas of Georgia, and a large part of the eastern U.S. However, it was difficult to find much more information about it at all. I very much wish I could have gotten a photo. Butterflies in general have been 

Yellow-throated Warbler

Monday, October 9th, 2023

After the Ovenbird flew, I walked on up our driveway on this beautiful, cool, sunny morning, and stopped to check out several small birds in the grass – six little Chipping Sparrows looking bright with their rusty caps. When they’re foraging close to the ground like this they could so easily be overlooked. I haven’t seen a Chipping Sparrow in a while now, so it was fun to watch them for a few minutes. Blue Jays cried, Cardinals peeped, a Carolina Wren sang, and an Eastern Wood-Pewee whistled its sweet song from a tree not far away. Some Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered, a White-breasted Nuthatch called its nasal call, and American Crows cawed in the distance. A Pine Warbler trilled its song from a wooded spot across the road. 

Then for several minutes I walked down the road without hearing or seeing many birds at all, until a flash of yellow on the edge of a tangled thicket caught my attention. It was a female Scarlet Tanager, pausing in full, clear view for only a moment or two. Pale, pretty yellow all over except for darker wings and tail, she briefly looked diaphanous in the early morning sunlight – before slipping back into the vegetation and out of sight.

Walking on, I passed the smack and tee-urr calls of Brown Thrashers, the rattles of Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers, and a Northern Mockingbird singing a full, glorious song in an open, sunny spot. In the shade of one wooded yard, a large, shadowy form flew up to a low branch of a pecan tree where it sat quietly, looking down and around – a Red-shouldered Hawk with reddish breast and black and white banded tail. 

A little further on, I stopped for a few minutes to watch a small gray flycatcher hunting from low branches of an oak – an Eastern Wood-Pewee. It sat still and erect and quiet on first one branch and then another as it flew off several times to capture flying insects, again and again. At times it sat with its back to me, so that I could see its small shape, erect posture and the white wingbars folded over the back, and its rather long tail. At other times it sat facing me, even closer, so I could see its neat gray crested head, a dusky breast and even a flash of orange now and then from its lower bill. What I always think when watching an Eastern Wood-Pewee is how neat and compact it appears, both when sitting still on a branch and when it’s in flight. It looks crisp and efficient – while its lovely, ethereal song sounds almost completely the opposite, a dreamy, summery, whistled pee-a-wee . . . whee-oooh. I had already heard a Wood-Pewee singing earlier in the morning, but this one never sang while I watched.

In a line of water oaks along the top of a grassy slope, small birds were darting in and out of the faded, crusty green foliage. Among them was one that sparked bright yellow – so they looked like they might be migrating warblers. They were all high in the trees, moving quickly from one spot to another and staying mostly screened among the leaves. For several minutes I stood looking almost straight up, trying to follow one or another of the tiny creatures flitting quickly, weaving their way through the treetops. Finally I was able to see just one clearly – a Yellow-throated Warbler, one of the most colorful neotropical migrants we might find here. It’s a small, slender bird with a burning yellow throat and contrasting black streaks on the sides, and a black-and-white striped face, white eyebrow, black cheek. But especially that deep-yellow throat. Spectacular! 

An Ovenbird

Monday, October 9th, 2023

On a cool, clear, sunny October morning, flecks of orange and red here and there among the faded greens, a small, soft-brown bird flew past me and into the tangled branches of a large forsythia bush on the edge of our neighbor’s yard. It might have been a leaf blown by the wind. Several minutes later, after watching and following it from one spot to another, I finally got a good, clear look when it flew back into our yard and walked out into the open, across a bed of mulch and crumpled leaves. A bright and lively Ovenbird!

With a soft, olive-brown back and dark, abundant streaks on its breast, the Ovenbird looked like a small, perky thrush. The crown of its head rose almost into a crest, and was striped in black and soft orange. A bold white ring circled its eye, giving it a wide-eyed, alert appearance. Its small bill was pointed, its tail looked short and was held slightly up, and its looked pink. All in all, it was a crisp and animated little bird, its colors reflecting the hints of autumn in the trees. It stayed on the ground and walked, moving in a kind of jerky way, searching for food in the mulch and fallen leaves and grass for several minutes. It came so close I barely needed binoculars to see it well. After several minutes, it finally flew again, low across the shrubs, back to the neighbor’s yard. 

I could not have been more surprised to see an Ovenbird here. Even though they are fairly common birds in their breeding areas, I’ve only seen one twice ever – and once was just this past summer, in the spruce woods along the coast of Maine, near Acadia National Park. Ovenbirds pass through this part of Georgia in Fall migration – and some even nest in the northern part of the state – but I haven’t been lucky enough to see one here in many years.

So this was a delightful surprise, and to watch it so closely and clearly for several minutes left an image that will stay with me as one of my favorite bird sightings ever.

An Ovenbird is a wood warbler. During the summer months in its breeding territory in a large area of the eastern US and Canada, the female weaves a nest with a domed roof and a side entrance that is said to look like a Dutch oven – which is where it got its name. 

An Ovenbird is probably heard more often than seen. Its loud and clear song – teacher-teacher-teacher! – is very recognizable and familiar throughout its breeding territory. But the Ovenbird I watched this morning was quiet as it stopped over here on its way further south in fall migration.