Rusty Blackbird Flock

White frost covered the grass early this morning, under a clear blue sky, but by mid morning the sun felt warm, and many small birds were active. Yellow-rumped Warblers seemed to be everywhere; also Carolina Wren, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Downy Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco, Field Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Phoebe, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Eastern Towhee, as well as American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Northern Flicker. One Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk was circling again, already fairly high and climbing, very close to the same area where I saw one yesterday. The view of it today was clear and sunlit – showing the ruddy chest, the narrow, banded, very long tail; the short broad wings and the relatively small head. It flapped and glided and soared until it was no more than a tiny speck in the blue – beautiful to watch.

As I passed under a ragged, bare pecan tree near the roadside, a sound like a sheet flapping in the wind came from above me, as three huge black shapes spread their wings and flew from low branches in the tree – Turkey Vultures that I hadn’t even noticed until they moved. A little further on, beside the old field, two Black Vultures came sailing in, one behind the other, to sit on top of a utility pole that’s a favorite perch for them. One sat right on top of the pole, the other close beside it on the wire.

The highlight of the morning was one of the largest flocks of Rusty Blackbirds I’ve ever seen here. Around the middle of the neighborhood, in an area with lots of pecan trees in the yards, at least 60 blackbirds – a conservative estimate – perched in bare-limbed trees and spread out feeding in the grass, and most, if not all, appeared to be Rusty Blackbirds. I didn’t see any other blackbirds among them, though I could have missed some. The males actually looked rusty on the back and nape of the neck. Often I have trouble seeing this and have to rely on other characteristics – medium-sized blackbirds, smaller than Grackles, with thin bills and pale yellow eyes. The females looked handsome in their winter plumage of warm, tawny brown and taupe, with a buffy eyebrow and dark patch over the pale eye.

They made quiet clucking sounds – to me they sound much quieter, less raspy and harsh, than most other blackbirds. The low, frequent calls of this flock as they foraged made a peaceful, pleasant sound. The large mixed flock of blackbirds that visits the neighborhood almost daily is much noisier, mostly Common Grackles, but also Red-winged Blackbirds, Rusty Blackbirds and European Starlings.

For some reason the Rusty Blackbird flock seemed less nervous and flighty than the mixed flock usually is. I was able to walk fairly close and watch them for several minutes before they began to fly away, a few at a time. It’s one of the best times I’ve ever spent watching and studying Rusty Blackbirds. Very nice!

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