Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Northern Flicker, Palm Warbler, and Yellow-rumped Warbler

The past several days we’ve been enjoying another stretch of picture-perfect October weather, with cool mornings, sunny blue skies, and warm afternoons. In these picture-perfect fall days, birds all through the neighborhood have been scarce and widely scattered. I’ve seen few migrating birds, and haven’t yet found a feeding flock of small birds like those that used to visit big grassy yards – mixed flocks of bluebirds, pine warblers, chipping sparrows, house finches and others. Maybe they’ll still appear. But certainly there are many fewer birds this fall than ever in the past. 

Nevertheless, there are still many beautiful birds to be discovered – even when it seems there are almost none. And today was a good example.

It began when I stepped out the front door and saw a tiny little bird flitting around the trunk and low branches of an oak, moving quickly and flicking its wings as it went, and calling a soft, low jidit-jidit. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a very small and active olive-gray bird with white wing bars, a bright white ring around its eye, and yellow-edged wings and tail. The ruby-red crown is often hidden, so the head looks smooth and gray. Then a second Ruby-crowned Kinglet appeared from the other side of the trunk, and they flew at each other and up and away. Ruby-crowned Kinglets are among the birds that come here to spend the winter, from summer homes much further north, and this year they’re among the first winter birds to arrive. 

A Brown Thrasher called a smack call, then a musical tee-ur from a bush. A Northern Cardinal peeped. An Eastern Towhee called chur-whee! And an Eastern Phoebe sat on a branch of our front yard dogwood tree – still pretty with dusty, faded coral leaves now – and bobbed its tail. 

As I left the head of the driveway, a large brown bird flew across the road ahead of me, flashing a big patch of white on its rump as it stopped in a small pine tree. A Northern Flicker. A big, sturdy woodpecker with colorful plumage and lively behavior. Unlike most other woodpeckers, Northern Flickers search most often for food on the ground – not in trees – using the long, sharp bill to dig for ants, beetles and other prey. A Northern Flicker is a handsome, showy bird, predominantly in shades of brown, but with a round gray head, a sweeping black crescent on the chest and a black-spotted belly. Flickers here in the eastern U.S. have a red crescent on the gray nape of the neck, a black moustache strip and golden-yellow feathers in the wings and tail that show up mostly when they fly. All in all, the appearance of a Northern Flicker is remarkable, with many other subtle and complex touches of color.

In contrast to the flashy Flicker, a pretty pink House finch sat demurely in the top of a maple tree, facing the sun and glowing. A Pine Warbler trilled a gentle song. The sky was a soft blue with very small, isolated tufts of clouds here and there, a sun that felt warm and an easterly breeze that felt chilly. Perfect walking weather! 

About a mile further on, in a small tree along the edge of the road, I stopped to check out a few birds flitting in and out of the leaves – and spotted a slender little bird walking over the branches and bobbing its tail in a lively and constant way. Bright, warm yellow under the tail, and yellow on its belly and sides and flanks, with soft dark streaks – it was a very fine, quiet Palm Warbler that continued to forage in this little tree long enough for me to watch for several moments.  In breeding plumage, it would have shown a bright rusty crown, but at this time of year its colors were a little more subdued. Palm Warblers migrate through this part of Georgia on their way further south for the winter, so this one is just passing through. 

 A few minutes later, in a different, more shaded spot, two small birds flew into a tree right on the edge of the road, and when I looked more closely at one, I was happily surprised to see a Yellow-rumped Warbler – a small songbird that may be arriving for the winter. It’s the first one I’ve seen here this fall. Yellow-rumped Warblers are small, grayish-brown streaked birds that spend the summer months in northern North America and migrate in great numbers to the central and southern US. and Central America for the winter. Although they are brilliantly colorful in breeding plumage, at this time of year they look rather plain – just little gray birds – except for the butter-yellow patch on the rump, and their habit of giving a soft chip call each time they fly, so that when they’re around these little calls become a familiar background sound of winter.   

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