A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s Early Morning Call

At this time of year I often try to convince myself that there’s really no need to get up so early. It’s cold out there, and so warm under the blankets and comforter, especially on a weekend morning with the sky growing light and slowly, lazily turning orange. Surely there’ll be birds enough a little later, too.

But this morning was a reminder that only the earliest hour of the day condenses so much bird activity into one brief, lively period. Missing that first light of day is like missing the first crucial part of a novel or a movie – the key action or event upon which the rest of the whole story depends.

This morning’s special highlights were the songs of two Pine Warblers, the truculent behavior of Brown-headed Nuthatches, and an unusually colorful call from a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

When I stepped out the door at 7:30 (already a little late), I heard the song of a Pine Warbler, the squeaking of Brown-headed Nuthatches, the tseet calls of White-throated Sparrows, the stutter of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and the warble of a Bluebird – much more activity than there would be at any other hour of the day. It was cold, but not freezing, and the air was calm. The sky was loosely covered in gray clouds that turned pink as the sun rose higher.

A female House Finch sat alone on one of the feeders, until a Brown-headed Nuthatch came along and chased her away. The same Nuthatch also chased away a female Cardinal and even a Downy Woodpecker, and briefly seemed determined to claim the feeders for its own private use – but none of the other birds stayed away long and it soon gave up the effort.

Three Tufted Titmice searched through the peeling bark of our river birches. Chickadees chattered and one or two sang FEE-bee, FEE-bay. Two female Bluebirds perched in the bare limbs of a pecan, and after a few minutes one chased the other away. A Brown Thrasher foraged under wax myrtles, and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet searched the branches of the same bushes.

The mew of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker nearby sounded so different from its usual rather thin, whining mee-ah that I wasn’t sure what it was until I saw it. This was a mew, but more musical and mellow, with a sweet, clear, liquid quality that seemed more open and echoing than the Sapsucker’s common cry. It was a male, with red crown, red throat, white stripes on the face and wing, and dirty yellow breast, working low on the trunk of a pecan tree already riddled with sapsucker holes. The black, white, gray and buff patterns of its plumage blended in with the rough bark of the tree. It gradually moved down the trunk, pecking and stopping to probe into the holes with its bill; then made its way back up in a different section of the trunk, still in view.

Two Pine Warblers sang, one from trees in the front yard, and the other from the edge of the woods. They sang over and over, back and forth, their trills making background music for all the other sounds. Two Phoebes, a Carolina Wren, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Goldfinches, House Finches, Blue Jays and a Mockingbird also called, and a small flock of Red-winged Blackbirds flew over, making soft churk calls. A single Dark-eyed Junco and two Mourning Doves searched for seeds among the leaves under the feeders. A White-throated Sparrow made furtive scratching sounds in the dry leaves under some bushes and then – startled by something – suddenly flew out and away in a thudding of wings, straight into a bank of bushes on the other side of the yard.

Several Crows cawed a short way down the street for several minutes, and finally a Red-tailed Hawk glided on outstretched wings out of some tree-tops with Crows in pursuit.

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