Birds of Summer

(NOTE: This is an unusually long entry, a summary of all our summer birds in Summit Grove for the 2006 season.)

This summer, the “chip-burr” of a Scarlet Tanager moves like a rumor through the leafy woods behind our house. An Acadian Flycatcher calls its sharp “pit-see” from down around the creek. The “whreep!” of a Great Crested Flycatcher and the exotic “cawp-cawp-cawp-cawp” of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo punctuate hot, humid summer afternoons, and against a background chorus of cicadas, the sweet, musical trill of a Pine Warbler in the woods sounds cool, like shade and shallow, rippling water.

Mornings begin with a colorful burst of song at first light from Carolina Wren, Cardinal, and Towhee, and the swish of a Phoebe’s call. As the sun comes up, a Yellow-throated Vireo sings “three-eight” as it moves steadily through the treetops around our house, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers call “spee-spee” from the front-yard shrubs and small trees.

I’ve counted a total of 52 species seen often enough for me to feel sure they’ve nested somewhere in or near our neighborhood this season, and four interesting flyovers – Osprey, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, Great Blue Heron and Cooper’s Hawk. The Cooper’s Hawk probably nests nearby. I’ve seen one at least four or five times during the spring and early summer, but I’m not sure enough to count it as nesting here.

While many of our summer bird species are the same from year to year, the mix always changes slightly. This year, for instance, we hear the song of a Red-eyed Vireo in our woods less often and not as close by as in previous seasons. I rarely see the Scarlet Tanagers, but often hear their song and call. The Summer Tanagers also seem to be staying out of sight in the woods more than last year, but they sing almost every day, and their “pik-a-tuk” calls lace through the woods.

Eastern Bluebirds are feeding their second family in the bluebird house in our front yard now. I can hear the noisy young ones cheeping every time a parent ducks in with food. The Bluebirds’ first nesting effort succeeded, with at least two, and I think three fledged juveniles. We enjoyed watching the family hunting from low branches in our back yard for two or three weeks in late spring.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, both male and female, visit the feeder on our back deck frequently now, so their twittering and swift humming are familiar sounds whenever we step outside. We have one Mockingbird that’s been singing for at least a month, all day and all night long, and several others are still singing throughout the neighborhood. Brown Thrashers also continue to sing here and there, and two or three often hunt in the grass or under the bushes in the front yard. The coo of Mourning Doves, and the songs or calls of Robin, Goldfinch, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Chipping Sparrow and Blue Jay are heard all day around our house and throughout the neighborhood; the chatter of Chimney Swifts passes overhead, and occasionally I hear the squeaking calls of Brown-headed Nuthatches or the distinctive loud “peenk!” of a Hairy Woodpecker. I don’t hear the high, thin songs of Black and White Warblers as often this year as last – when they were one of our most frequent singers – but there’s at least one around our house and another on Summit Circle, the street I follow on my early morning walks.

Most days we hear the insistent “kee-yer!” calls of Red-shouldered Hawks circling overhead or just beyond the treeline. Occasionally, one will swoop low and suddenly across our back yard, black and white tail fanned out dramatically, and perch in the low branch of a tree on the edge of the woods. The calls of Pileated Woodpeckers are less frequent, but we do still hear them now and then, and they sometimes visit the woods nearby to feed in dead or dying pines. In the twilight, and sometimes even in the middle of the day, we hear the booming calls of a pair of Barred Owls coming from the direction of the creek, and at night, there’s the song of a Chuck Wills Widow, though it seems to be singing from further away this year. In my imagination or my fears, that seems to be a sign of things to come, as our area, like so many, becomes more and more developed, and some of the most beautiful bird songs recede further and further, until they may become only memories. Our neighborhood still has woods, fields and a good, diverse mix of habitat, but the larger, contiguous areas of both fields and woods all around us are increasingly fragmented and shrinking in size.

This summer, for instance, I rarely hear the plaintive, summery “pee-a-wee – wheee-oo” of an Eastern Wood Peewee. The big grassy, shady lawns of our neighborhood, surrounded as they are by nearby woods and creeks, have always seemed the perfect place for them – but each year their numbers have seemed to decrease. Last year there was only one I could count on hearing each day as I walked, and this year none. I’ve counted them as a breeding species, though, because I heard them singing in the spring and one morning recently I saw and heard one singing in a wooded section of Summit Circle, so they’re not far away. But most days I do not hear them – and I miss their song and their presence very much.

At least one Louisiana Waterthrush sang from around our creek in early and mid spring, but I haven’t heard it for some time now. Its song was never as close or as frequent as in previous summers, and I didn’t hear them singing in as many different areas along the creek, so I think we may have had only one or two pairs at most instead of last year’s three or four.

I also do not hear the songs of Parula Warbler or Hooded Warbler this year in the woods near our house or even in the deeper, denser woods along the creek on Summit Circle, and I haven’t recently heard the rattling call of a Belted Kingfisher flying over the creek. We’ve never had a Wood Thrush nesting in the woods near our house since we moved here six years ago, but I do still hear their liquid, fluted songs when I walk through the neighborhood. This summer there’s one that sings in an area I call Hilda’s Thicket, a low tangle of privet and other shrubs and vines and trees, and another singing in the trees around the pond behind the fire station near the entrance to our subdivision. It seems an unlikely area for a Wood Thrush, except for an abundance of privet, but it’s been singing there all season.

I have never personally seen Wild Turkey in the neighborhood, so have not counted them, but two of our neighbors have told me of seeing them as recently as last fall, and I trust them on this and hope they’re still around.

In previous summers, I heard the song of a Common Yellowthroat in the grasses and weeds of the vacant lots around the pond, but have not heard it this year, even before clearing and building started on the house that’s now being built on those five or six acres. Also missing this year is the dramatic sight and high-pitched call of a Mississippi Kite, much to my disappointment, but last year we were unusually fortunate to have them near. I have not seen or heard a single one this year, and I’ve been looking and listening.

But on the bright side, on my early morning walks, there are several sights or songs I can count on bringing a smile to my face and a happy, optimistic start to the day. Bluebirds are active everywhere every day. A House Wren’s cheery, burbling song fills the air around one house on Summit Circle, and a little further along, at the crest of a steep hill, a Great Crested Flycatcher calls; still further up the street, Barn Swallows swoop in and out of the shade of a wrap-around porch where they have nested, and over the adjacent large, open grassy yard, and a Robin sings from one of the tall old pecan trees. Both Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures soar among big cumulous clouds or circle lower overhead most days, and there’s usually at least one Red-tailed Hawk either soaring or perched on top of a pole over Highway 441 or on the edge of the Old Field that buffers our subdivision from the highway and its traffic – though this year for the first time in five or six summers, I haven’t seen or heard a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk hanging around the Old Field and screaming repeatedly.

In the Old Field, choked with blackberry thickets, honeysuckle vines, pokeweed, privet, thistles and kudzu, but graced by Queen Anne’s lace and a few late-blooming purple thistles, a male Blue Grosbeak sings in the mornings, and he and his mate call “tink!” from among the tall grasses and weeds and shrubs and trees. At least three Indigo Bunting males sing, as well as White-eyed Vireo, Field Sparrow, Yellow-breasted Chat, and Brown-headed Cowbird, and occasionally I hear the mew of a Gray Catbird.

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