Winter Birds

Most of the month of December this year has been too busy for me to be outside, or even to stop to notice the birds around our house – and that’s way too busy, I know. But it was an unusual time.

A late-afternoon walk today, the last day of the year, was cloudy and gray like so many other days lately, but outside it didn’t seem gloomy. The light was a clear gray, and the clouds were high, layered, curled, and varied, the kind of winter sky in which there seems no end to the variations in shape and shade of the clouds, even though they’re all gray – milky, gray-white, pewter, silver, slate, smoke, pearl, dusky, taupe, blue-gray, ash, and streaks of charcoal.

It was chilly and damp, in the low 40s, and a slight breeze felt sharp and good. As I stepped out the front door, a Carolina Chickadee chattered, and an Eastern Towhee called a rich chur-wheee. The hard, sibilant tseeeeets of White-throated Sparrows came from the dark leaves of wax myrtles and hollies. A young Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, its markings muted and mottled brown and black like tree-bark, showing only the faintest hint of red in the crown, worked quietly on the trunk and large limbs of a pecan tree. Dark-eyed Juncos twittered in high, soft, nervous tones in the trees.

In thickets around the first corner I came to, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered its dry jidit-jidit. Down the street and around the corner, birds seemed mostly quiet at first – only the peeps of Northern Cardinals, and the pink of a Downy Woodpecker, and isolated other calls from somewhere in the patchy trees – the rattle of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, the fussing of a Tufted Titmouse. Somewhere an Eastern Phoebe sang, one Carolina Wren trilled and another sang. Several Eastern Bluebirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Chipping Sparrows foraged in a grassy yard, scattering up into low branches as I walked by, with dry flicks and chips. A Pileated Woodpecker called its kuk-kuk-kuk traveling call from down in the woods.

A little further up the road I heard a lot of chattering and found a feeding flock that included at least four, and I think six Brown-headed Nuthatches in the pines and hardwoods along the roadside. I’ve rarely seen so many Brown-headed Nuthatches together. With them were Carolina Chickadees, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewing several times, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Carolina Wren, Eastern Phoebe, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, and Tufted Titmice.

After watching them all for a while, I walked on up the hill, and around the crest of the hill, near a heavily wooded yard, I listened and watched for the Hermit Thrush I’ve sometimes found here, but there was no sign of it, no soft, liquid chup.

Two small flocks of quiet Blackbirds flew over, at least a few Common Grackles among them. Further on, a much smaller and faster flock of other birds that at first looked like Cedar Waxwings flew across the sky ahead of me, well above the treetops. Then this flock was followed quickly by another, much larger flock of 100 or more birds that looked about the same, and so I don’t know for sure what they were. They didn’t fly like Starlings or Blackbirds or Robins – so I don’t know. It was that kind of day, gray and now-fading light, with mostly quiet flocks of dark birds fleeing toward the west, like words I couldn’t quite hear, or fragments of a dream, or moments almost grasped, but lost.

Meanwhile, a White-throated Sparrow whistled its plaintive song from a yard of mixed shrubs and tall, brown grasses, especially sweet in the lovely, winter-gray quiet of late day.

Leave a Reply