Archive for January, 2024

Barred Owl at Twilight

Sunday, January 28th, 2024

Late on a dark gray, damp and cloudy January day, the sky was crowded with big leftover rain-clouds and a strong, cold wind was blowing from the west. Water stood and flowed in ditches and low spots and down hills all through the neighborhood, after yesterday’s heavy rains, and the ground was littered with small branches and other debris. All day a strong wind had kept the trees and shrubs tossing and bending and rippling wildly, as the temperature dropped. 

As I walked, the wind became a little less harsh, and the clouds were beautiful to watch, with blushes of pink and peach and cream here and there, appearing and disappearing, and small breaks where very pale turquoise showed through. But twilight seemed to come early, so when I saw a big dark shape among the tangled, bare branches of an oak near the side of the road, all I could see was a silhouette among the black-etched branches, sitting very still. But the shape and size were so distinctive there was never any doubt – it had to be a Barred Owl. With a very large, round head and thick neck, thick body, and a few tail feathers extending down from the branch where it sat. I could hardly believe my eyes, and came to a stop not far from the tree at all, and stood, looking up. This is the first time in many years I have seen a Barred Owl here, though we do still hear them now and then. 

And of course – I did not have binoculars. It was so late in the day, and so gray and so windy – and indeed, I saw and heard very few other birds. But rarely have I missed binoculars so much! Though it looked like full twilight, I’m sure I could have seen much more detail if I’d had them. A Barred Owl is large and mostly brown with white barring and mottling on its back and tail, and a buffy front with dark barring and streaks. It’s head and face are round, and its face is especially beautiful, with big dark eyes and very fine, intricate markings defining it. It does not have ears. As it was, I stood and watched and watched for many minutes. And the owl – sat where it was. Formidable and calm, mostly still, occasionally turning its big head one way or the other. It looked huge. I gradually moved a little closer and closer until I was right underneath the tree, but the owl was up pretty high, so I still couldn’t see any hint of color or detail. I tried some photos with my phone, without much luck, and even this did not seem to bother the owl.

Finally, I walked on a few steps further and turned so that I could see it from the other direction – and at that point, it flew, dropping down and turning away from me and the road to fly low across a mostly open grassy yard. Its wings flapped most of the way, not gliding. When it reached a line of trees beyond the yard, it flew swiftly up into one and at that point I had a very brief, clear view of its brown back and wings, before it melted into the woods.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet – A Close Encounter on a Very Cold Day

Sunday, January 21st, 2024

Today has been sunny, windy and very cold all day. When I went for a walk about half an hour before the sun went down, the wind had eased a little, the sky looked clear, and a blurry gibbous moon was rising in the east. As I walked past a house with a large grassy yard, a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew suddenly to the edge of the grass along the road – only inches away from my feet – and immediately began rapidly searching in the short, dry grass-edge for food, flicking its wings and moving quickly. It was so close that if I had leaned down, I could have touched it. And so close that its extremely small size was much more obvious than usual. It looked fragile in this frigid, windy weather – though I know it must be pretty tough to survive at all. 

Its colors were bright and clear, a little gray-green bird with sharp white marks on its wings and a white ring around its eye, and I could even see – because it was right below me – a thin sliver of ruby-red on its crown. I stopped and watched, and it seemed to pay no attention to me at all, completely absorbed in its search for food. As it moved, I walked along beside it, very slowly, and for a few moments it continued to forage like this, right along the edge of the road and grass. After a few minutes, it suddenly flew back across the road toward a line of evergreen trees and big shrubs. 

I hope it found enough food and survived the night – maybe tucked deep into a good thick evergreen. 

White-throated Sparrow Taking an Icy Bath

Monday, January 8th, 2024

This morning when I came downstairs, a White-throated Sparrow was sitting on the rim of the birdbath trying to sip water from around the edges – most of the water was frozen solid. So I took out a pitcher of warm water and poured it onto the ice, and it was only a few minutes before a number of birds began to come again.

The day was cold and half-cloudy with only a pale blue sky and veiled sunlight. A Carolina Wren sat on top of a large bush by the front porch and sang brightly. Several of our most familiar birds were visiting both feeders – Chipping Sparrows, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse. White-throated Sparrows and Northern Cardinals scratched in the thick leaf-cover under the feeders and around all the shrubs. The bare-limbed oaks and pecan trees overhead seemed mostly empty, but I saw a couple of small birds and heard the chip calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers. An Eastern Towhee sat high in the branches of a crape myrtle and called its rich chur-whee.

A White-throated Sparrow and a Chickadee were among the first birds to come for water – one on each side. Then I was happy to see a big, handsome Brown Thrasher come and stay long enough to take several drinks, before diving back into the nearby cover of azalea shrubs. Then a very pretty Eastern Bluebird flew to the birdbath rim and also stayed to take several sips. In the misty morning light, its colors looked muted and soft, like an Impressionist painting. 

It was later in the morning when I looked out our living room windows to check out the birdbath again – the temperature still below freezing – and there sat a White-throated Sparrow, right in the middle of the water, its neatly-outlined white throat and gray breast, and black-and-white striped crown, and warm, streaked brown back all looking clean and sparkling. It dunked itself fully under the water, raised its head and shook all over, and then submerged again, and again, taking a good full bath, as if the day were as balmy as May. When it flew away and into the cover of the bushes, I could see many shards of ice still floating on the surface of the water. 

A Red-headed Woodpecker Winter

Friday, January 5th, 2024

As I came down the driveway, back home from the walk, I heard the chattering rattles of “our” Red-headed Woodpecker in the area where it so often seems to be – in the oaks that spread below the end of our driveway and up a slope to the edge of our neighbor’s yard. 

The woodpecker was clinging to the side of a large pecan tree at the corner of our neighbor’s house where I have watched it several times. Its brilliant, flashy colors stood out so brightly that I realized the young woodpecker now seems to be almost completely in mature plumage. When I first saw it, it was rather brownish all over, with a totally brown head. Its head now looks almost completely bright red, with just a little brown still showing around the edges. With its snow-white breast and panels in the wings, and its black back and wings – it is stunning.

I watched as it did something in this pecan tree – perhaps storing more food there, though I wasn’t sure. Then it flew – calling its loose rattle as it did – back to the trees below our driveway. And for a few minutes, I watched as it flew back and forth among the nearby trees. It called frequently – very vocal! But I wasn’t able to see it well enough to see exactly what it was doing in each tree. 

We’ve been very lucky to have this young Red-headed Woodpecker spend the winter season in trees so close around our home. And not only is this one special enough – but I’ve also heard the calls of Red-headed Woodpeckers from at least two other locations behind homes on our road, fairly widely spaced. In both of these areas, there are lots of trees and wooded spaces, in areas that slope down to a creek. Because they are pretty far back away from the road, I have not seen any of the others – but I hear their calls almost every time I walk along this road – and have been able to confirm this with Merlin.So this winter here in Summit Grove seems to be a rare Red-headed Woodpecker winter!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Other Winter Birds on a Quiet, Cloudy Day

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2024

Late this morning, under an iron-gray sky, the air felt cold and still. But quite a few small birds brought the front yard to life. Chipping Sparrows, Carolina Chickadees and American Goldfinches crowded the feeders, justling for space. Several Northern Cardinals, male and female, foraged on the ground, perched in shrubs and flew from spot to spot with flashes of red. I think we’ve seen more Cardinals here this winter than ever before. I didn’t see a White-throated Sparrow but heard lots of rustling in dry leaves from hidden spots, and some quiet tseet calls. Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted in the bare branches of the oaks and pecan trees. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet called jidit-jidit as it traveled through shrubs – and very briefly paused close enough so that I could see its tiny gray-green head, bright, white-ringed eye and quickly flicking wings among the leaves of a Savannah holly.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker called its dry chucking calls, and an Eastern Bluebird sang from somewhere near – the most musical sound on this rather quiet morning. I looked especially for a Hermit Thrush – but didn’t see a sign of one today.

Birds along most of my walk through the neighborhood were much more quiet and less active than around our own yard, but it was still a fine walk in crisp and cold fresh air, and I counted 21 species in all, though very few birds in number, most of them heard, not seen. I especially noticed the complete absence of any blackbird flocks. This has been a sad change this winter season here. For the past many years blackbird flocks have been almost daily visitors to Summit Grove, spreading out across the many large, grassy yards. Most have been Common Grackles, but we’ve also been lucky enough to see a fair number of Rusty Blackbirds too. Watching and following them as they fed in grassy spots and standing under the sudden whoosh! of their wings when a large flock suddenly flies – those are happy memories from years past. And – I can hope, maybe next year. This year I have seen very few, very small numbers of blackbirds now and then, but they’ve been sporadic and infrequent. And in general, there certainly have been fewer birds here this winter than in the past – a lot has changed around the neighborhood and I think our observations here also reflect the fact that birds are disappearing at a frightening rate almost everywhere.

But it’s still worth watching and listening – and you never know when an unexpected sighting or sound will come along. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed several times from trees well back from the road, too far away to see. And a small flock of Cedar Waxwings showered high, needle-like calls from the bare branches of trees along the roadside. When they took flight, I saw about ten together – and I think there were others still in the trees.

As I was approaching home, about a dozen Chipping Sparrows flew up in sprays from our front yard grass and I stopped to say good morning to two of them perched in the small, bare-limbed redbud trees. The Chipping Sparrows looked pert and pretty with bright, rusty-red crowns.