A Winter Morning with Rusty Blackbirds

This morning was a glorious, spirit-lifting day. A gentle blue December sky with long, trailing fingers of clouds here and there, high and thin. The temperature was in the upper 30s, with a crisp northwest breeze. And quite a lot of bird activity.

When I first stepped out onto the front porch, several White-throated Sparrows, two Northern Cardinals and two Dark-eyed Juncos were searching the leaf-mulch below the feeders for seeds. Two Chipping Sparrows, a Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, a Downy Woodpecker and a Carolina Wren crowded the larger feeder, coming and going. The dry jidit-jidit call of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet laced its way through wax myrtles and Savannah holly. An Eastern Towhee, White-breasted Nuthatch and Brown-headed Nuthatches all were calling nearby. A Red-bellied Woodpecker explored the trunk of one tree after another, stopping to call chuck chuck.

And – maybe best of all – the chip calls of several Yellow-rumped Warblers skipped through the bare treetops as the little birds flew from spot to spot. 

But then, for several minutes, as I left our yard and walked down the road, the day became very quiet. Winter quiet, with no insect sounds and, for a while, few or no birds nearby. 

Until, from far up in the bare branches of pecan trees along the edge of the road came the very high, sibilant ti-ti-ti calls of a Golden-crowned Kinglet. In the cold, crisp, quiet winter air, the calls were very distinct, and no doubt at all about what it was. I could see a little bird, moving like a kinglet, but it was too high up for me to be able to see any details or even catch a glimpse of color before it flew further away. But it was still so nice just to know that this winter we are lucky enough to have a Golden-crowned Kinglet or two that I can find now and then. 

Soon after that, I heard several mewing calls from a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – also standing out so clearly against the background quiet. I found it on the side of a pecan tree, far back from the road and moving around the trunk, so I couldn’t see it very well. But it continued to mew again and again, a pretty, expressive, familiar call. 

A large shadow suddenly sailed low over my head, and I looked up to see the pale underside and wide, outstretched wings of a Red-tailed Hawk. It swept up to a branch in a bare-limbed tree not far away, showing a warm red tail as it settled. And immediately, as if they’d been waiting, a dozen or more American Crows came from another direction, cawing wildly, their “hawk alarm” calls. They kept harassing it until it flew away again.

Further on, a Pine Warbler sang its lovely trill from trees around a small pond that sits far back from the road in a kind of small, manicured meadow. This area often attracts a good many birds, and this morning was a good example. Three handsome Northern Flickers foraged in the short, dry grass around a cluster of trees. A Northern Mockingbird sat in the top of a big old cedar tree, facing the morning sun. An Eastern Phoebe hunted from low branches, quietly bobbing its tail. A few American Goldfinch flew over, calling their light “potato-chip” calls. Several Blue Jays cried. A few plaintive calls of House Finches. And more Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Downy Woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Eastern Towhees, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. A solitary Turkey Vulture flew over rather low.

Although the whole walk this morning was beautiful, like a southern winter scene in a clear globe, sparkling with birds and sounds, the highlight for me came near the end, as I was on my way back home. In one yard, two Common Grackles were foraging among grass and shrubs and trees along the edge of the road. Big, showy, strutting birds with long bills, long tails and iridescent black plumage. I could hear a very few more blackbirds not far away but at first didn’t see any others. We have seen so few blackbirds this winter here compared to past years that I’m very happy to see two Grackles – and I stood for a few minutes watching them. This was in an area that’s very close to the county’s water treatment plant and a creek.

On the far side of this same yard and much further back from the road, I saw several songbirds searching the ground around a large forsythia bush, including a Brown Thrasher, two White-throated Sparrows – and six blackbirds that were not grackles. They were smaller, moving differently, with pale yellow eyes and slender bills. They kept moving around the bush, so I could only see glimpses of them at a time until two emerged into a sunlit spot – showing a warm rusty sheen over their backs. Both were Rusty Blackbirds. 

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