Yellow-billed Cuckoo

September began here in Summit Grove with a warm, sunny day, a clear, deep-blue sky, and what felt like a profusion of colorful birds and a hint of fall in the air. Among the highlights of a good long morning walk were lots of Eastern Bluebirds; the songs of Carolina Wrens, Pine Warblers and a Northern Parula; the whistled puh-weee of an Eastern Wood-Pewee; the wispy spee-spee of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers; and – moving quietly around among the leaves of pecan trees in the corner of one yard – a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Red-eyed Vireo and an elegant Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

After a period of several months of frequent travel and other demands, I’m hoping now for a spell of staying at home and watching the birds of our neighborhood more often again – and I couldn’t have asked for a happier start than today. There was nothing uncommon, and not really large numbers of birds, but I was reminded of how much I’ve been missing – and of how much I purely enjoy being outside and watching birds.

A small fluttering flash of yellow and white among dark green leaves turned out to be a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a small, active bird that’s a common and familiar fall migrant here. This was the first one I’ve seen this season. It was a first-winter bird in fall plumage, with a yellow-green head and back; a pale, almost white belly; two bright yellowish wing bars, a gray face and a white eye-ring. Both its appearance and its movements looked crisp and neat as it moved quickly through the leaves, flitting from spot to spot, gleaning for insects and other food.

Near the top of another tree, a Red-eyed Vireo emerged more sedately from the foliage. A small, sturdy bird that’s relatively large for a vireo and is often described as chunky –for some reason a Red-eyed Vireo always looks slender and sleek to me. Maybe it’s just the angle of view, or the way it moves, or an illusion created by its markings. Its back was a smooth, grayish green, its breast and belly clean white, and its narrow face distinctively marked with a gray crown, and white eyebrow stripe outlined in black, and a black streak through the eyes. It moved methodically – not fluttering or flitting – through the leaves, gleaning for caterpillars and other prey. Often its body was stretched out long and low on the branches.

Seeing a Red-eyed Vireo was more interesting than usual because this past summer here they’ve been noticeably absent most of the time. This was a dramatic and sudden change – in past years they’ve been among our most common summer birds – so it’s very good to see one now, again.

A few steps further on, I heard rustling in a pecan tree directly above me, looked straight up, and saw the most dramatic bird of the day – a stunning Yellow-billed Cuckoo. One of our most exotic-looking birds, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo is large, long and slim in shape, with a smooth brown back, creamy-white under side, and a long, dramatic tail of white spots on black in a scalloped pattern.

It was fairly high in the tree but in very clear view, so that I could see almost all of its markings unusually clearly. At such close range, it looked big – long and sleek and substantial. Its belly and throat and lower cheek were a pure, creamy, beautiful white; the brown back shaded with taupe – and I could even see the rich cinnamon touch of color in the wings. The large down-curved bill was mostly yellow, but I could also see a darker upper part. It was all as clear and beautiful a view as I could possibly wish, and the best view of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo I’ve enjoyed for a long time.

It never fails to amaze me to find such a lush and exotic-looking bird here in these patchy woodlands around our own back yards. It moved very little as I watched for several minutes, making its way slowly, deliberately through the branches, catching a large caterpillar in its bill and eating it, then moving a little more. It was quiet, not giving its long, percussive call – a sound as exotic as the Cuckoo’s appearance. I watched it as long as I could, until it climbed up further into the leaves, where I could no longer see it.

When I walked on, Northern Cardinals, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Downy Woodpeckers – all the usual suspects – peeped, chipped, fussed, and rattled in the trees; Eastern Towhees called chur-whee from low in shrubs and in the fields. Chimney Swifts twittered as they flew overhead. An Eastern Phoebe sang. Blue Jays cried, and American Crows cawed. American Goldfinches gave their potato-chip flight calls as they flew over. Two Brown-headed Nuthatches moving through some pines chattered squeaky calls.

Two Blue-gray Gnatcatchers flitted around in the branches of some shrubs, and I stopped to watch them for a few minutes, diminutive, silver-gray birds with long tails and quick movements, neat and crisp in appearance and behavior, they seem to me so similar to summer sunlight in the leaves, shifting, changing, bright; now here, now danced away, the whole scene changing as they come and go.

In a heavily shaded, wooded stretch of road, a Red-shouldered Hawk flew silently out of the trees on one side, swept low across the road ahead of me on broad, outstretched wings, and disappeared into the trees on the other side. Only a moment later, it was followed by a second Red-shouldered Hawk that followed the same path. Very large hawks, with back and wings in warm brown colors with a reddish glow, they came and went like spirits of the woods, so quiet and in shades of patterned brown, with banded tails. Two White-breasted Nuthatches called their nasal awnk-awnk, repeatedly. Mourning Doves cooed.

Just outside our neighborhood, in the large, overgrown old field on a hill that hides a busy highway below, a White-eyed Vireo sang, a Gray Catbird rasped its plaintive mew, and several Brown Thrashers called their sharp, smacking chak calls. The vireo sounded close, and I paused briefly to see if I could spot it, but it stayed too far back in the tangle of weeds and small trees and vines, well hidden. A Red-tailed Hawk sat quietly on top of a utility pole overlooking the highway.

Gulf Fritillaries, a Red-spotted Purple and several Sulphur butterflies flew around the field; grasshoppers crackled and snapped and sang; stiff purple verbena bloomed low along the roadside; and vines of large purple and tiny red morning glories wound up the stems of tall, rough grasses. A patch of soft-brown foxtails stood in a low, shaded spot, lit by a shaft of sunlight so they glowed a golden tan.

And so – it was a fine welcome to September.

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