Winter Music

In the deepest part of winter here, Pine Warblers begin to sing. Their musical trills move through the pines and bring a prelude of spring to the gray, bare-limbed woods. This winter season, I heard the first Pine Warbler’s song December 22, just after the Winter Solstice, and in January more and more have been singing.

A Pine Warbler is a small warm-yellow bird with gray wings, white wing-bars, blurry streaks on the sides, and a subtle ring around its eye. The only wood warbler that stays here year-round, it’s well-named, most often found in the pines. It’s not bright or flashy – especially a plainer, less-colorful female or juvenile – and can be hard to find as it moves through a tree, searching the needles for insects. Sometimes they’ll be out foraging on the ground with other small birds like sparrows, finches and bluebirds in grassy yards or along the roadside, yellow smudges of color glowing against a drab background.

While the Pine Warbler’s trill seems to me the emblematic birdsong of January, other birds already are singing now, too, and some recent early mornings have almost sounded like spring – especially through the middle of January, when we had several days of unseasonably warm, sunny weather. The Pine Warblers and Carolina Wrens have been joined by Tufted Titmice singing peter-peter, and the rich, flowing burdy-burdy-burdy, what-cheer, what-cheer of Northern Cardinals.

The songs are sung against a background of many other bird calls, mostly dryer and not so musical sounds, more wintery in their character – the chicka-dee-dee-dee of Carolina Chickadees and day-day-day of Titmice coming and going from the feeder in the yard; the ubiquitous caws of American Crows in the distance; the whinny and pink of a Downy and the rattle, chuck and quurrr of Red-bellied Woodpecker; the sweet, clear mew of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, sharp kleer of Northern Flicker, and now and then the emphatic peenk or kingfisher-like rattle of a Hairy Woodpecker as it flies to the trunk of a dead pine.

Ruby-crowned Kinglets stutter jidit-jidit in low shrubs, and occasionally there’s the high ti-ti-ti of a Golden-crowned Kinglet in the treetops – though they have not been abundant here in our neighborhood this season. There’s the cheery, squeaky-dee chatter of Brown-headed Nuthatch and nasal ahnk-ahnk of White-breasted Nuthatch; the high, thin tsees of a flock of Cedar Waxwings flying over in formation or perched like ornaments of glistening colors in a cedar tree; the dry check calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers as they flit from branch to branch; the soft, jingling ring of a startled Dark-eyed Junco, flashing the white sides of its tail as it flies up from the ground to a branch; the coo of a Mourning Dove; the blurry chur-a-wee of an Eastern Bluebird – already sitting possessively on top of the bluebird box; the short squeak of an American Robin sitting in a tree; the harsh jay-jay calls of a Blue Jay.

A mellow chup comes from a Hermit Thrush, its spotted breast and cinnamon tail screened by a tangle of low tree limbs; White-throated Sparrows hidden in thickets or bushes hiss tsseeet; a bold black, brick-red and white Eastern Towhee in a bare crape myrtle sings a bright chur-wheeee – and now and then we hear the deep, thrumming, foggy hoots of a Great Horned Owl around sunset, not every day, but pretty often.

The agitated cawing of a large number of Crows often means they’ve found a Red-tailed Hawk. I usually see at least one or two during a day – soaring, or perched on a pole overlooking the highway, or flying low across the treetops, pursued by Crows. One flew from a pecan tree in a yard as I approached, just this afternoon, its tail sunset orange. It landed in another tree way across the yard and then screamed, a good long scream.

The Red-shouldered Hawks have been mostly quiet lately, with a kee-yer call now and then, and the finest sight of one recent morning was a soaring Red-shouldered Hawk, its banded tail flared, its breast ruddy-red, the sun shining through the feathers of its wings. In contrast, the Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures are silent background birds, sailing and soaring and glistening on sunny days; shadowy on gray days, sitting hunched and gothic-looking on utility poles, or in a scrubby, craggy oak in the tangle of thickets and abandoned land between our subdivision and the next.

After thinking of all of these songs and calls, all these birds, it seems strange to say it – but overall, it’s been a rather quiet month, this January – quiet in the sense of fewer birds than in previous years. I have not seen the very large mixed flocks of blackbirds that in other years have been common here in our neighborhood – not even as many as just before Christmas. There are blackbirds now, but not nearly so many. I’ve also not seen the large mixed feeding flocks of smaller birds – the sparrows, finches, and others that usually spread out across grassy yards in fairly large numbers almost every day this time of year. This year, birds are here, but they seem to be more scattered, and fewer in number.

Because there’ve been many days this month when I’ve been out of town or for other reasons did not get outside, this may not be an accurate observation, so I’m not sure it’s true. Maybe I’ve just been out at the wrong times. But this is how it has seemed.

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