Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Northern Parula and Cooper’s Hawk

This morning was a picture-perfect Spring morning. Under a soft, pale-blue sky traced with high white clouds, a haze of new-green leaves flickered in warm sunshine. The first big filmy-pink blooms have opened on our azaleas, and our young cherry tree is beginning to blossom, and the redbuds and dogwoods are full of buds. A Brown Thrasher sang, along with Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Chipping Sparrows, a Pine Warbler, and a White-throated Sparrow. An Eastern Phoebe hunted from low branches all around the yard. Several White-throated Sparrows foraged in the grass and leaf mulch. A Black-and-white Warbler sang weesa-weesa-weesa around the edges of the woods, and a Louisiana Waterthrush raised its shining anthem from somewhere down along the creek.

The morning seemed almost painfully beautiful, so full of promise and new life, given the ongoing coronavirus epidemic that holds us all in a kind of suspension. Waiting. The contrast is hard to fully grasp. Our every day now begins with waking up to the latest news, the latest numbers, new cases, and the steady spread, and wondering what more this day will bring.

At the same time, Spring has arrived, and the first migrating birds have begun to appear – returning or passing through. As I walked through a wooded area where most of the trees are still bare and gray, I heard a dry spee-spee – and found a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher flitting through some low branches near the road – a pretty, petite gray bird with a long, expressive tail edged in white, and a silvery flash in its color, it moved quickly and called several times. It’s the first one I’ve seen or heard this season. 

In a different spot, more thickly wooded and with a tangle of green undergrowth, a buzzy, rising and falling song came from somewhere back in the trees – the song of a Northern Parula, a small, charming, colorful wood warbler with a blue-gray head and back, a yellowish patch in the middle of the back; bright yellow throat and breast, and a rust and black band across the chest, and tiny white crescents around the eyes. I would love to have seen it – but even though it sang and sang, it stayed well hidden back among the tangled trees. This was the first Northern Parula I’ve found this season, another returning migrant. 

As I walked through the neighborhood, Mourning Doves cooed, Red-bellied Woodpeckers called quurrr, and lots of Northern Cardinals and Carolina Wrens sang. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings called their high, thin calls from the branches of a scraggly tree. A few Ruby-crowned Kinglets called jidit-jidit and whistled their quick, complex songs. One Northern Mockingbird was singing from a tall treetop, and four or five Brown Thrashers, widely spaced, also sang.

I had stopped to look for one of the Ruby-crowned Kinglets that seemed to be unusually high up in some pines when a flash of pale gray wings against the blue sky caught my eye. It was a Cooper’s Hawk, circling above the treetops, not too high. It stayed in view long enough to circle three or four times, gradually climbing, showing a beautiful view of its sleek shape – blue-gray back and wings, pale underneath, and long narrow tail, with bands of dark and light. As it rose higher, it flapped its wings less and began to hold them mostly outstretched, soaring higher – and out of sight. 

I’m pretty sure this was a Cooper’s Hawk, because of the size and shape of its head and the way it flew – but it’s often difficult to distinguish a Cooper’s from the very similar Sharp-shinned Hawk. The differences between the two can be subtle, and it’s always possible that I could be wrong. Here in our own neighborhood, Cooper’s Hawks usually have been more common, though I have seen both, most often during the winter season – and they’re always a joy to watch.

Leave a Reply