Summer Quiet

When I first stepped outside early on a warm, humid Sunday morning in late July, the only sounds were the background buzzing and chirping of insects. Not a single song or call of a bird. The woods and yard seemed very quiet. It was about 15 minutes after sunrise, the sky a pale silk-blue, with rumpled morning clouds spread across the east and a red-gold sun behind a screen of trees. Then crows cawed in the distance. An Eastern Towhee called to-wheee.

As I walked down the street, a Northern Cardinal fled without a peep into a bush. An Eastern Phoebe hunted from low branches of oaks. In the leaves of two persimmon trees at the first corner, several small birds rustled around, among them two tiny, silvery Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, flashing the white sides of their tails.

And that’s the way it was – though the morning seemed so quiet on the surface, all along the way as I walked, birds appeared in the grass and shrubs and trees, preening, hunting, foraging, calling in chips and peeps, mostly quiet but a few singing here and there. And for every one I saw or heard, I’m sure I walked past many more without ever knowing they were there – like a Red-shouldered Hawk perched low in an oak in a wooded yard. I wouldn’t have seen it if something hadn’t caused it to fly, low across the road in front of me and into another stand of trees, a brief but clear view of broad dark-brown wings and back checkered with white, ruddy breast and banded tail, before it disappeared into the shadows of leaves again.

A White-breasted Nuthatch called a nasal awnk-awnk-awnk, and two Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in some pines. A Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled. A Downy Woodpecker gave a bright whinny from the top of a tree. A Carolina Wren sang jubilee-jubilee-jubilee, and another wren answered with a trill. A Mourning Dove cooed.

From the highest part of a tall tulip poplar tree came the ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-cawp-cawp-cawp of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, a dry, exotic call that cracked the hazy quiet of the morning like a shell. I could see the dense green leaves shudder as it moved, but could not see the Cuckoo. A tall, slender, elegant bird with creamy-white breast, smooth brown back, down-curved bill, and long dramatically spotted black and white tail, the Cuckoo is a beautiful example of how much stays usually hidden behind the screen of the summer woods.

An Acadian Flycatcher called a sharp, crisp whit-seeet from down in the woods along a creek, the kind of sound you wouldn’t notice unless listening for it. It was too far away to see – though if I did walk into the woods and down toward the creek, it probably wouldn’t be hard to find. A small jewel of a bird, greenish-gray, with a slightly crested head, pale breast, white wing bars and a thin white ring around the eye, it sits in low branches in the lowland along a creek and gives its quick call often. Because they usually stay secluded in the woods, Acadian Flycatchers are not often seen, but they’re not really shy. Often when I walk near a creek an Acadian Flycatcher comes around to check me out, seeming as curious about me as I am about it.

Further on, two Summer Tanagers called back and forth to each other from opposite sides of the road, on either side of me, soft, repeated calls of pi-tuk, pi-tuk, as they moved through the trees. Then one of them came out into view near the top of a pine, a male, rose-red all over, with a large, heavy bill, and a quizzical tilt to his head as he looked around.

In the rather tall green grass of a yard, lush from a good bit of rain this month, four Common Grackles, two Starlings, five Robins, two Mourning Doves and two Northern Flickers were foraging, widely scattered and almost hidden in the overgrown grass. The Flickers were especially nice to see – recently I’ve been hearing their kleer calls and long, trumpeted rattles more often than earlier in the summer. In the deep grass, I could barely see the round, handsome gray head of each, brown back barred with black, and a red crescent on the nape of one.

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