Hermit Thrush, Scarlet Tanager, Tennessee Warbler and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

September came to an end with weather that continued hot and very dry. The Autumn Equinox came and went, and day after day seemed the same – sunny, hot, dry – and very quiet. The trees and all vegetation looked parched and stressed, and – while not related to the weather, as far as I know – very few migrant birds showed up here in our neighborhood. Compared to this time of year for the past 10 years since we’ve lived here, this is very unusual. While migrating warblers, vireos, tanagers, flycatchers and other species have been reported all around this part of the state, here – there have seemed to be few and on most days none.

It’s always hard to say how much my observations accurately reflect what’s going on in the natural world – and how much they reflect my own moods and preoccupations. But I do think the number and variety of migrant species have been uncommonly fewer here in September and early October.

Two or three Eastern Wood-pewees continued to stay around for most of September, calling their sweet puh-weee, and one morning I watched one hunting from the upper branches of a small tree – a small, neat gray bird with peaked dark gray head, two white wing bars, and orange on the lower part of its sharply pointed bill. It sat erect, with tail held still, looked around with head held high, left the branch in quick, efficient, short flights to catch insects, and returned to the same spot several times.

It was not until October 7 – after we returned from a short trip and the weather had turned slightly cooler but still was dry – that I found the first small gathering of migrants, and the first of our winter resident species.

The day began about 4:30 am, when a loud, boisterous, yipping pack of coyotes passed by, not far away. Then, well before dawn, came the broken phrases of a Northern Mockingbird’s song, from just outside the open windows.

It was another sunny day, but still cool and crisp by mid-morning, so the sun felt warm, a cloudless deep-blue sky, zero-percent chance of rain.

Two small birds flew into a large dogwood tree full of red berries, on the edge of a thicket, and disappeared in the foliage. I could see the rustling of leaves – but the birds were pretty well hidden. After a few minutes, though, in a slightly open spot I could see the shape of an olive-brown thrush with a spotted breast. It raised and lowered a cinnamon tail, and then its face came into view, with a white ring around the eye – the first Hermit Thrush of the season here. It seemed very much in character to see it like this, quietly screened and framed among the leaves.

In the same dogwood, a minute later, I saw a flash of yellow, and a bright male Scarlet Tanager emerged out into the open, deep yellow all over, with black wings, and a bright red berry held in its bill.

Another, smaller bird also came out to the edge of a branch – a small, plain, olive-gray bird with a white eyestripe and rather short, squarish tail – a Tennessee Warbler. It’s not exactly the first migrant warbler of the season here, but it’s one of the first, and there have been so few it felt rare and I was delighted to see it, and watched it flit around the leaves. It seemed to be gleaning insects, but may also have been eating dogwood berries.

A few minutes later, in woods on a hillside, I heard the calls of two Downy Woodpeckers and saw a third woodpecker fly to the trunk of a tree – and when I looked through binoculars saw not another Downy, but our first-of-the-season Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. And it was a beautiful one! Vivid plumage with white and back striped face, crimson crown and throat, barred back, and sulfur tinge on the belly. It did not call, but worked quietly on the trunk of a slender hardwood, where I watched it for several minutes. Maybe because they’re one of the most characteristic winter birds in our neighborhood, where they seem to like the many old pecan trees, the arrival of the first Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers always seems to mark the real beginning of the fall season for me.

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