Late January – The Usual Suspects

This morning began at first light with a plain orange glow that rose and spread quietly over the eastern sky, beneath a fold of steel-gray clouds, and with the songs of a Pine Warbler, a Carolina Chickadee and a Carolina Wren, and the spring-like quurrrr of a Red-bellied Woodpecker.

Many of the past few days have been gray and cloudy, often foggy, damp and chilly, sometimes cold enough to freeze the water in the bird baths. Today was still dreary and gray, but much warmer and the air felt soft, with a southwest wind blowing low, dark, dingy clouds across the sky. White-throated Sparrows called tseet from beneath the bushes, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered in its dry, stuttering way, and several Chickadees and Titmice arrived at the feeders in the front yard, along with a Downy Woodpecker with a bright red patch on the back of his head. Brown-headed Nuthatches squeaked somewhere nearby. A Brown Thrasher lurked under the wax myrtles, foraging nervously, maybe keeping an eye out for the neighborhood cats. A Mockingbird called out in a harsh, loud squawk.

Two Crows came to one of the birdbaths. They stop by almost every morning lately, and if the water is frozen, they peck at the surface to break it up. This morning they took turns drinking – one on the ground while the first one drank, then they changed places. Several early mornings I’ve seen about eight or nine Crows in the bare branches of a pecan tree on the edge of our yard, and I don’t know if they roost there, or if this has become a regular stop in their early morning routine.

Out back, Pine Siskins continued to swarm the feeders. A couple of American Goldfinches competed for space, and one Dark-eyed Junco scrounged up seeds scattered on the deck and ground.

Later in the morning when I went for a walk, it hadn’t yet started to rain, but the clouds looked dark and threatening and – like the past several days – the murky gray light made it hard to see any color or detail. Birds were little dark shapes perched on branches and flitting from tree to tree – or big dark shapes drifting against the clouds. But sounds were sharp and clear, and most of the birds along the way were familiar – the usual suspects in their usual haunts. The check calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers ticked all around as they chased each other in and out of evergreens, a Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered in the thickets at one corner, a Phoebe called tsup – tsup, and the coo of a Mourning Dove drifted through the mist – bringing me to an unexpected stop.

It cooed again, a low, echoing, whoo-OOH-hoo-oo-oo that is so familiar a part of the background I rarely even notice it. But this morning, for some reason, I wondered what if it were not. It’s a lovely, graceful call, especially evocative on a day like this.

The high, thin calls of Cedar Waxwings passed overhead, and I saw about three dozen fall out of formation and into the bare branches of a couple of small trees. All along the way I passed several other flocks of Cedar Waxwings, sometimes perched, often flying by, sounding like sparkles in the wind.

Suddenly, the big, black wings of a Turkey Vulture loomed up from behind some trees and swooped down over me, very low, coming so close over my head I could hear the heavy whump-whump of its wings, and see its dull red head. Flapping and tilting in the wind, it blew up over the crest of a hill and out of sight, as suddenly as it had come.

A little further on, a House Finch sang – a cheery, whistled, but quiet song – and several others murmured from where they perched in a small tree. Not far away, near the top of another small tree, was a pair of Bluebirds sitting together, and the male was singing.

About midway through the neighborhood, there’s an area where the Blackbirds usually gather, and this morning they were there as usual. I could hear them long before I got to the top of the hill and saw them spread out on the grass and in the trees. Most are Red-winged Blackbirds, with a few Common Grackles. I haven’t seen any Rusty Blackbirds among them since late in the fall, though it’s possible I’m just missing them. On a day like today, it’s almost hopeless to try to see them well, but all I could hear were the creaky voices of the Red-winged Blackbirds and the harsh, noisy chucking of the Grackles.

In a line of tall, dense cedars, several little birds flew from tree to tree – Chipping Sparrows, more Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-throated Sparrows – and two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers tapped on the trunks of pecan trees. Several times recently, I’ve seen both a Pileated Woodpecker and a Red-shouldered Hawk in this area, but no sign of either one this morning.

In the Old Field just outside our subdivision, White-throated Sparrows called from the weeds, Cedar Waxwings perched in shabby bare chinaberry trees, and several Robins called in squeaky voices and moved restlessly around. I stood for several minutes watching sparrows in a tangle of dead vines, looking for maybe a Song Sparrow or a Field Sparrow or something more exotic. All I found were White-throated Sparrows, but that’s not a complaint. They’re among my favorite winter birds and I’m happy they still return, despite the changes brought by every passing year.

On my way back home, a Red-tailed Hawk flew out of some tall trees, chased by several crows. It worked its way higher and left the Crows behind, and in only three or four minutes, it was soaring high and fast, almost swirling like leaves in a blurry white and gray sky, with another Red-tailed Hawk, three Black Vultures and two Turkey Vultures.

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