Northern Flicker on the Fall Equinox

The first day of fall began cool, cloudy and gray, but by mid-morning the clouds had begun to break apart and the day soon became bright and warmly sunny. Streaks of red and yellow in leaves showed the first hints of fall color, and a few dry leaves and acorns showered down in light breezes.

Purple and white morning glories bloomed in the ditch by the field, though most of them were almost hidden and choked out by tall, rough grasses and other weeds. Tiny red morning glories twisted up the stems of some of the weeds. The yellow blooms of camphorweed spread over a large part of the field, though most of it was a faded green and brown tangle of privet, honeysuckle, blackberry brambles, kudzu and red-stemmed pokeweed. The foxtails – a soft, gentle brown not long ago – now already look dark, almost black, as if singed by the heat.

Butterflies have been very, very scarce here all summer long – their absence has been strange and sad – but this morning I saw several, including a few sulphurs and skippers, one buckeye, one Gulf fritillary, and a sleepy orange.

On this beautiful first day of fall, though, there were surprisingly few birds. Around our own yard, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds came frequently to the feeder, and Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees and Eastern Bluebirds visited the shallow saucer of water on a corner of the deck under a fern, to drink and to bathe. Carolina Wrens were the most vocal birds of the morning, singing, fussing and calling.

On a walk through the rest of the neighborhood, I found a total of only 19 species. The few highlights included a brief but vivid glimpse of a ruddy-gold female Summer Tanager; the songs of two Eastern Wood-Pewees; one lone Chimney Swift flying over very high; and a small gathering of about a dozen Chipping Sparrows feeding in a grassy yard, under a small tree.

A statuesque Northern Flicker posed in the top of a pecan tree turned out to be the most memorable highlight of the day. From its perch overlooking a meadow and a small pond, it sat facing the sun, which lit its colors in autumn shades of brown, gray and red. It clung upright on the side of a branch, round gray head held high, brown face tilted up, with its long, sturdy bill. Wavy black bars patterned a brown back. A red crescent marked the nape of the neck, and a black crescent crossed its chest, above a tawny breast boldly spotted with black.

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