A Phoebe in the Fog

The last day of 2009 was dark and cloudy, cold, damp and drizzly, with off and on rain. Late in the afternoon a dense fog had gathered as I went out for a walk in the last light (such as it was) of the year. Sunset was supposed to be around 5:40, I think, but there was no hint of color to be seen, in the sky or all around – all was gray, cold, murky fog, with the black shapes of bare trees, evergreens and shrubs.

Earlier in the day birds had been fairly active in the yard, but by this late, there were few to be seen or heard – not even a single Red-bellied Woodpecker or Tufted Titmouse or Crow. Mourning Doves perched silently in bare-limbed trees. A Chickadee chattered here and there, a Carolina Wren fussed, a Downy Woodpecker called pink! One quiet Eastern Bluebird sat in the top of a bare pecan. The tseet calls of White-throated Sparrows and chatter of Ruby-crowned Kinglets came from beneath a few bushes. Yellow-rumped Warblers called sharp cheks as they flew from tree to tree. A good many Robins were scattered here and there, mostly in the trees, calling and even one or two singing pieces of songs. Eastern Towhees called from the thickets of the old field.

But mostly as I walked I noticed the tsup calls of several Eastern Phoebes coming through the fog from different spots along the way. I only saw one, as it flew into a small tree and sat on a bare branch pumping its tail up and down, but the short tsup call has become very familiar. It’s a quick, quiet call, but more complex, with more character and shading than a chip or a peep or a chek or a tseep. It’s been a good year for Phoebes here, and the past several weeks they have been among the most active and vocal of birds around the neighborhood, maybe because our resident birds have been joined by migrants from further north coming in for the winter.

A small gray flycatcher with a dark, soot-gray head, no facial markings, a faint yellow or gray-white breast, and a consistent habit of wagging its tail up and down quickly as it perches, an Eastern Phoebe is a year-round resident here, apparently finding enough insects even through the winter to live on, supplemented with spiders, other invertebrates and fruits, especially in very cold weather. Phoebes always have been among my favorite birds to have around – last spring a pair built a nest in the curve of a gutter high over our garage and successfully raised three big, strong-looking young.

So as the year comes to an end, it seems fitting enough that a Phoebe, calling somewhere out of sight in the fog, marks its last fading light.

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