Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Chipping Sparrows

The first day of this new year began with a cool, foggy morning, the grass and trees still dripping wet from rain yesterday and overnight. The songs and trills of Carolina Wrens, the soft quurrr of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, the chips of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting from branch to branch, the chorry, chorry of an Eastern Bluebird, and the peter-peter songs of a Tufted Titmouse were the first birds I heard around our front yard. It sounded like spring. A Brown Thrasher sat in the top of a big wax myrtle, looking alert and nervous, as if to ask if he had overslept or missed his cue, and should he be singing, too?

The weather, though lovely in its way, was balmy and way too warm for this time of year, when it should be icy and cold, or at least decently chilly – even here in Georgia. Fog hung over the ground low, with an open space of clear air between it and a sky veiled in filmy white. Later in the morning when I went out for a walk, the clouds remained, thick with many layers, some shimmering silver, some creamy or dusky or dark gray, all drifting slowly from west to east. Now and then the sun came out, but never for long. Already, mid-morning, it was tee-shirt weather, near 70 degrees.

A bird in rolling flight landed on the trunk of a pecan tree – a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker so vividly clear that even its yellow belly showed uncommonly bright, along with a crimson crown and throat, and the bold, black and white sinuous stripes that curve along the face. I watched for a few moments as it hitched backwards down one large fork of the pecan tree, stopping now and then to explore a hole or a crevice. A coat of green moss covered much of the bark on the fork, making the view of the Sapsucker even more brightly colorful.

A little further on, a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in some pines; a Downy Woodpecker trilled its descending call; a small flock of Cedar Waxwings flew overhead, scattering their high, thin calls. One little Dark-eyed Junco flew up from the roadside grass with a soft, jingling call, and into a tree, flashing the white edges of its tail. A few American Robins foraged in grassy yards, and a very small, creaking, chuckling flock of blackbirds perched in the bare branches of some oak trees. They stayed far enough away so that I couldn’t see them well. Most seemed to be Common Grackles, though there may have been others among them – I looked for Rusty Blackbirds, but couldn’t say for sure.

I passed the usual many Blue Jays and American Crows, a couple of quiet Northern Mockingbirds, and quite a few Eastern Bluebirds, some flashing very bright blue on this mostly gray day. The whistled song of a White-throated Sparrow rose from the field along the highway, Eastern Towhees called chur-whee. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered its dry jidit-jidit in a bush, a Northern Flicker called an emphatic kleer! Four Black Vultures sat close together on the wires around one utility pole on the edge of a power cut through the field. An Eastern Phoebe perched on a lower wire, and a pair of House Finches sat together in a tree.

When I got back home, a dozen or more Chipping Sparrows flew up from the grass in our front yard and into the small, bare redbud and cherry trees there. So small and well-camouflaged, the Chipping Sparrows are nearly invisible in the brown winter grass, and I know I often miss them. But it always seems to me a happy thing and a good sign to see them – brown-streaked little birds with crisp red-brown caps and plain gray underneath, very common, but so easily overlooked. And on this lovely, but far too warm first day of January, an uneasy and foreboding sense of change is in the air, and the only thing that feels certain is that we can take no life, no living thing, for granted.




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