Cedar Waxwings, Kinglets and a Cooper’s Hawk

On a wet gray day that looked like a watercolor painting, with the browns, reds and yellows of the foliage blurring in a light rain that continued to fall through the morning, birds around here were very active. Highlights included an abundance of Yellow-rumped Warblers, our first-of-the-season Cedar Waxwings, two Ruby-crowned Kinglets, one with its red crest dramatically fluffed up, two Golden-crowned Kinglets feeding in the low branches of a thicket, at least three dozen Chipping Sparrows, and a solitary, low-flying Cooper’s Hawk.

When I first stepped outside this morning, it almost seemed to be raining Yellow-rumped Warblers, because the small, gray-streaked birds with yellow rumps were everywhere – in the wax myrtles, hollies, oaks, and all the trees and shrubs around the yard. Thick layers of wet brown leaves covered the grass and walkways and spattered the roof and shrubs, making everything look speckled and fragmented, as if the world itself were breaking up into pieces. Raindrops tapped on the leaves still on the trees, and Yellow-rumped Warblers shivered them here and there.

A Phoebe hunted from the bare branches of river birches. Four or five different Carolina Wrens sang, burbled, fussed, and trilled. White-throated Sparrows called tseet! A bright red Cardinal stood out like a Christmas ornament on the dull green of a hedge. A streaked Brown Thrasher made its way toward the top branches of a wax myrtle but stopped while it was still well-screened.

Two Ruby-crowned Kinglets moved, one after the other, through the water oak branches that hang over our front porch, coming very close to where I was standing as they picked insects from the undersides of leaves. A small patch of red was visible on both of their crowns, and as I watched, they began to chatter aggressively, and one of them fluffed up its crest into an agitated spray of ruby-red.

By mid-afternoon, the rain had passed, but the sky remained gray and featureless. As I walked a short way down the street, Chipping Sparrows flew up from the grass like sparks from a fire, shooting off in several different directions and flashing silvery gray, landing in the branches of small trees and bushes. A close-up view of one sitting on the branch of a pine showed a placid-looking sparrow of vivid brown, gray and white coloring – brown-streaked back and bright cinnamon crown – that sat calmly gazing around, showing nothing of the nervous pizzazz of the group’s scattering flight whenever they’re startled up from the ground.

In a spot where there’s a thicket of young trees, grasses and shrubs on one side of the road and a yard on the other, a collection of small birds perched together in the bare limbs of a pecan tree – five Bluebirds, a Downy Woodpecker, two Brown-headed Nuthatches, three Chipping Sparrows, a Phoebe and a pair of House Finches.

While I was looking at this gathering, I heard the calls of Cedar Waxwings – very high, needle-thin whistles of several birds. At first I couldn’t find them, and walked on down the street, but a few minutes later, on my way back, I heard them again and this time they flew overhead – a flock of about 30 Waxwings flying in tight formation together, turning abruptly in one direction and then another, as if constantly changing their minds, then just as abruptly showering down like falling leaves into the top of a water oak where they stayed for several minutes before flying again.

Meanwhile, two Golden-crowned Kinglets foraged in the thickets, both of them coming out fully into the open in a scrawny bare tree for a few seconds. Little gray birds with bright-white wing bars and short tails, they moved so quickly they weren’t easy to see well even though they were very close, turning sideways and upside down, darting from spot to spot and making quick stabs at insects on leaves. White and black stripes bordered their yellow crowns, with a thin, crisp black streak through the eye, and they carried on a string of high-pitched chattering, only once or twice giving a clear, familiar ti-ti-ti call.

Just as I turned around to walk back toward our house, a large bird flew toward me almost at eye level, in the gray light showing only a blurry dark gray coloring and a slender shape, but with shoulders and wings that looked surprisingly muscular – a Cooper’s Hawk. It rose up enough to fly over me and across a yard, and disappeared into the trees beyond with a flash of what appears to be a white rump, which Cooper’s Hawks often show, though none of my field guides note this and it’s hard to find references to it. It was here and gone too quickly to see any details, and the main impression that remained with me was of how strong and sturdy it looked at close range.

The Cedar Waxwings had broken up into two or three smaller groups and flew from tree to tree, not settling anywhere for long, until finally, as I came to the edge of our yard, several of them settled in one of our flame-colored red maples, still dense with leaves. Here I was able to get a very good, close-up look and be reminded of their satiny gray-brown backs, and the thin white line around the black mask over the eyes – and the glossy tip of the tail that looks as if it’s been dipped in yellow wax. Within a minute or two, they tucked themselves deep into the foliage of the maples and disappeared – after that, I would never have known they were there.

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