Archive for December, 2023

Yellow-rumped Warblers

Tuesday, December 19th, 2023

As I was cleaning up the kitchen after breakfast this morning, I stopped to watch through the kitchen window as several birds came to our small back deck. A Tufted Titmouse, a bright red Northern Cardinal, a Carolina Wren – and three Yellow-rumped Warblers. They checked out the corners and crevices of the deck flooring, rails, edges around the screened porch and the porch roof. I don’t know what, if anything, they found. We used to have a lot more spiders and insects, even in winter, that might hide out in corners. But the past few years we’ve seen fewer and fewer spiders and insects of any kind – and I do worry that birds are not able to find enough food. In fact, I’m almost certain this scarcity must take a toll.

The Yellow-rumped Warblers were especially sweet, and they came so close to the window that I enjoyed a beautiful and rare close-up view of these little gray-brown birds, so that each one came so clearly to life I could almost feel what it would be like to touch them. In their subdued winter plumage, they are small gray-brown songbirds with streaks on the breast and sides, smudges of yellow under the wings, and of course, a butter-yellow rump.  

Most of the time they appear as almost anonymous “little gray birds” flitting around the trees, so it’s special to have a chance to see them so close-up and appreciate the fine and even intricate details of their winter feathers that might look very plain from a distance.

Red-headed Woodpecker and a Favorite Standing Dead Tree

Wednesday, December 13th, 2023

Late on a cold, clear, softly sunny morning, a scattering of birds moved around our front yard. Northern Cardinals, White-throated Sparrows and two Dark-eyed Juncos scratched up leaves and foraged for seeds. There was a lot of rustling in dry leaves under the shrubs, and I caught glimpses of Eastern Towhees, a Carolina Wren, a Brown Thrasher. Two Chipping Sparrows sat on one feeder as they so often do, just sitting for long periods of time, eating. 

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet called jidit-jidit as it moved through the wax myrtles and into a Savannah holly. A few Yellow-rumped Warblers scattered chip calls as they flew from branch to branch in the bare-limbed oaks and pecan trees. A Downy Woodpecker whinnied and explored the bark of a tree near the feeders. Both Brown-headed Nuthatch and White-breasted Nuthatch called from somewhere nearby, but neither came close enough to see.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flew to the middle of a pecan tree, and paused just briefly in a spot where the sun lit it beautifully, showing a gleaming crimson throat and crown and black-and-white striped face, before it flew away again.

As I walked to the bottom of our driveway I heard the now-familiar rattle of a Red-headed Woodpecker. I have continued to hear it almost any day when I’m outside, though in this busy holiday season, that hasn’t been as often as I’d like. It only took a minute to spot it on a dead standing tree just below the driveway. The snag is broken off at the top and has lost about half of its bark, but it is still fairly tall, and stands among several living oaks. The woodpecker stayed on this snag for several minutes, moving from spot to spot, and as I watched, I realized that it showed quite a bit of red on its head, though still mixed with brown. Its large white wing panels were marked with broken black bars. 

The brown heads of juvenile Red-headed Woodpeckers gradually turn red during their first winters, and this one seems to be turning red fairly early in the season. 

I left the woodpecker still working on the standing remnant of a dead tree and walked through the neighborhood, and when I returned, I found it in the same area, and watched it fly several times to other trees, but return each time to the dead tree, which must have offered some good places to find and store food. 

A Winter Morning with Rusty Blackbirds

Tuesday, December 12th, 2023

This morning was a glorious, spirit-lifting day. A gentle blue December sky with long, trailing fingers of clouds here and there, high and thin. The temperature was in the upper 30s, with a crisp northwest breeze. And quite a lot of bird activity.

When I first stepped out onto the front porch, several White-throated Sparrows, two Northern Cardinals and two Dark-eyed Juncos were searching the leaf-mulch below the feeders for seeds. Two Chipping Sparrows, a Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, a Downy Woodpecker and a Carolina Wren crowded the larger feeder, coming and going. The dry jidit-jidit call of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet laced its way through wax myrtles and Savannah holly. An Eastern Towhee, White-breasted Nuthatch and Brown-headed Nuthatches all were calling nearby. A Red-bellied Woodpecker explored the trunk of one tree after another, stopping to call chuck chuck.

And – maybe best of all – the chip calls of several Yellow-rumped Warblers skipped through the bare treetops as the little birds flew from spot to spot. 

But then, for several minutes, as I left our yard and walked down the road, the day became very quiet. Winter quiet, with no insect sounds and, for a while, few or no birds nearby. 

Until, from far up in the bare branches of pecan trees along the edge of the road came the very high, sibilant ti-ti-ti calls of a Golden-crowned Kinglet. In the cold, crisp, quiet winter air, the calls were very distinct, and no doubt at all about what it was. I could see a little bird, moving like a kinglet, but it was too high up for me to be able to see any details or even catch a glimpse of color before it flew further away. But it was still so nice just to know that this winter we are lucky enough to have a Golden-crowned Kinglet or two that I can find now and then. 

Soon after that, I heard several mewing calls from a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – also standing out so clearly against the background quiet. I found it on the side of a pecan tree, far back from the road and moving around the trunk, so I couldn’t see it very well. But it continued to mew again and again, a pretty, expressive, familiar call. 

A large shadow suddenly sailed low over my head, and I looked up to see the pale underside and wide, outstretched wings of a Red-tailed Hawk. It swept up to a branch in a bare-limbed tree not far away, showing a warm red tail as it settled. And immediately, as if they’d been waiting, a dozen or more American Crows came from another direction, cawing wildly, their “hawk alarm” calls. They kept harassing it until it flew away again.

Further on, a Pine Warbler sang its lovely trill from trees around a small pond that sits far back from the road in a kind of small, manicured meadow. This area often attracts a good many birds, and this morning was a good example. Three handsome Northern Flickers foraged in the short, dry grass around a cluster of trees. A Northern Mockingbird sat in the top of a big old cedar tree, facing the morning sun. An Eastern Phoebe hunted from low branches, quietly bobbing its tail. A few American Goldfinch flew over, calling their light “potato-chip” calls. Several Blue Jays cried. A few plaintive calls of House Finches. And more Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Eastern Towhees, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. A solitary Turkey Vulture flew over rather low.

Although the whole walk this morning was beautiful, like a southern winter scene in a clear globe, sparkling with birds and sounds, the highlight for me came near the end, as I was on my way back home. In one yard, two Common Grackles were foraging among grass and shrubs and trees along the edge of the road. Big, showy, strutting birds with long bills, long tails and iridescent black plumage. I could hear a very few more blackbirds not far away but at first didn’t see any others. We have seen so few blackbirds this winter here compared to past years that I’m very happy to see two Grackles – and I stood for a few minutes watching them. This was in an area that’s very close to the county’s water treatment plant and a creek.

On the far side of this same yard and much further back from the road, I saw several songbirds searching the ground around a large forsythia bush, including a Brown Thrasher, two White-throated Sparrows – and six blackbirds that were not grackles. They were smaller, moving differently, with pale yellow eyes and slender bills. They kept moving around the bush, so I could only see glimpses of them at a time until two emerged into a sunlit spot – showing a warm rusty sheen over their backs. Both were Rusty Blackbirds.