An Eastern Wood-Pewee’s Song

Walking this morning under a big, clear blue sky with only traces of white clouds here and there, feeling a hint of cool air in low, shady spots for the first time in weeks, and listening to the songs of Eastern Wood-Pewees all along the way – what better way could there be to celebrate the last day in the last full month of summer?

The Eastern Wood-Pewee’s sweet, lazy pee-a-wee – WHEE-ooo seems to me the essence of a late summer day, distilled into music. The smell of fresh-cut grass, the quiet ease of shady yards, the snap and whine and buzz of insects, vines and trees heavy with berries, the dry ripple of river birch leaves in a breeze, the flutter of a bluebird’s wings in shallow water, the warm feel of the sun. It’s still hot, but not so brutally hot as it was for so many days and weeks this year.

Eastern Wood-Pewees have been singing from three or four different spots in the neighborhood for the past several days, including one that sings often around the edges of our yard.

This morning one hunted from a skinny bare branch in a pecan tree near the roadside, and I watched for several minutes as it flew off to catch an insect and returned again and again to the same spot. It perched in the open, sitting quite still and erect, no tail bobbing, only turning its head one way and another. Its shape was slender and compact, with a gray head and back, whitish wing bars, and a notched, rounded tail. Grayish streaks on a pale breast formed a dusky vest. Its throat or chin was pale. Compared with an Eastern Phoebe – a very common flycatcher here in our neighborhood – the Wood-Pewee moves and hunts in a completely different way. While a Phoebe bobs its tail and always seems full of nervous and imaginative energy, swooping down or fluttering up to capture an insect, and traveling from spot to spot through a space as it hunts – an Eastern Wood-Pewee perches serenely, looking around – then darts off neatly, catches an insect and often returns to the same perch again and again.

As I watched this one hunt, it wasn’t singing, but another one sang from not far away.

Populations of Eastern Wood-Pewees are declining, but they’re not listed as threatened or of special concern at this time. In our own neighborhood, they’re noticeably less common today than they were ten years ago.

Meanwhile, as I walked along a road passing through a section with woods on both sides, two Yellow-billed Cuckoos called from opposite directions. One was giving its hollow, kind of echoing, one-syllable cawlp call, and the other gave the long, dry, percussive kek-kek-kek – cawp-cawp kind of call that’s more familiar to me. A Pileated Woodpecker rattled its traveling call. A Red-eyed Vireo whined nyanh, and a Northern Parula and Black-and-White Warbler sang.

The loud, ringing rattle of a Belted Kingfisher surprised me – and two Kingfishers flew from a treetop on the edge of the woods, flashing silver-blue and white in the sunlight. Although I hear a Kingfisher’s call now and then as one flies over, and sometimes hear them around one of the creeks, it’s unusual to see one here.

Back out in the open sunshine, Bluebirds sang and Chipping Sparrows chased each other through shrubs and grass. A fresh, bright orange and black Monarch butterfly fed in an orange lantana bush, the first one I’ve seen this season.

The old field looks a mess, choked and densely overgrown, a mix of worn-out withering summer weeds and vines, and the fresh green grasses and shrubs of early fall – and a good many small birds seem to love it. Foxtails wave along the roadside. Morning glories still spill color through the ditches. Persimmon, wild cherry and chinaberry trees, pokeweed and other plants and vines are loaded with fruit. Sulphur, Buckeye, and Sleepy Orange butterflies pass by, a Gulf Frittillary, Tiger Swallowtail, Red-spotted Purple; and one very pretty, pale, translucent green butterfly sits with folded wings on a kudzu leaf.

There were lots of active birds in the weeds and thickets, but most of them impossible to see. White-eyed Vireo and Eastern Towhee sang, and a Gray Catbird mewed. A Summer Tanager – more often found in our woods than out here in the field – called pik-a-tuk. A Pine Warbler sang in the taller trees. There were Chickadees, Titmice, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Mourning Doves. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher flitted among thorny plants; Mockingbirds flashed their wings; a Brown Thrasher lurked in a bush. I think I caught a glimpse of an Orchard Oriole again but didn’t see it well.

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