Queen Anne’s Lace, Purple Thistles, Cicadas, and Summer Birds

June has begun with more than a week of long, sunny, very hot summery days, temperatures in the mid and upper 90s, with hazy blue skies and blurry, distant clouds, and no rain. The weather’s hot and dry and oppressive, but all things considered, so far it’s been kinder to us here than in many other parts of the country.

Cicadas have begun to sing. Grasshoppers crackle and fly. Queen Anne’s lace and dandelions bloom along the roadsides, and tall, tough but brilliant purple thistles bloom in the old field, attracting butterflies like a fresh, bright Black Swallowtail I watched one morning. A Green Anole patrols the rails of the deck, and a Blue-tailed Skink slithers in and out of crevices. A pair of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds come often to a feeder hanging from the back deck.

A Scarlet Tanager sings from dawn to dusk, and calls chick-brrrr, weaving its way through the woods behind our house. A Summer Tanager sings in a big Red Oak at the corner, a Red-eyed Vireo in the woods, an Acadian Flycatcher down by the creek, a young Blue Grosbeak smudged with blue and a jewel of an Indigo Bunting in the Old Field – and early one morning, though it was unusual, an Eastern Wood-Pewee came by to whistle its sweet, sensual pee-ah-wee, wheeee-ooo outside our bedroom windows for several minutes.

In the long summer twilight, fireflies flash low over the grass, thunder rumbles in the distance, and bats circle over open yards in fading orange light and air that’s warm and sultry, fragrant with the scent of gardenias.

Many songs still greet the first gray light of day and sunrise, but by mid morning birds have become much more quiet and dispersed. The songs of Red-eyed Vireo, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren and Chipping Sparrow, and the Breet calls of Great-crested Flycatcher most often begin the day around our own yard, and are heard throughout the day. A Northern Mockingbird sings from the top of a tall Leyland cypress; a Brown Thrasher from the top of a pecan tree. An American Robin joins in now and then. A family of Eastern Bluebirds – parents and three juveniles – hunts from low branches and visits the birdbath, the male an always-startling flash of blue. The birdbaths stay pretty busy, and the small moat filled with water in the center of the hummingbird feeder is a popular drinking spot for Titmice, Chickadees and Goldfinch.

Over the past few days, I’ve taken a very informal count of bird species in our neighborhood for the breeding season, and have found a total of 47 species. Although there are many beautiful birds and any day can hold a surprise, I can’t help feeling that the news is mostly not too good. The trend toward fewer neotropical species, and fewer numbers of those that are here, seems to be continuing. For the first time in eleven years in this neighborhood, I have not heard or seen a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The absence of its dry, exotic call leaves the woods here feeling less like summer should.

Also missing for the first time this year are Yellow-throated Vireo and Northern Parula – two more very characteristic birds of our summer woods. There are fewer numbers of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (very surprising), Summer Tanager, White-eyed Vireo, Wood Thrush and Acadian Flycatcher. In the old field just outside the subdivision, a more open habitat, numbers of Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting have been declining over the years, and this summer, there’s only one Indigo Bunting singing, and only one first-summer Blue Grosbeak male. Meanwhile, numbers of Brown-headed Cowbird, Blue Jay and House Wren have increased, and we even have a few European Starlings.

On the other hand, Great-crested Flycatchers are flourishing; a Black-and-white Warbler sings in one section of the woods, along with a couple of Louisiana Waterthrush, and occasionally I hear the fluted song of a Wood Thrush. Gray Catbirds mew their loud, plaintive calls from large shrubs around a neighbor’s yard.

The kee-yer calls of Red-shouldered Hawks can be heard most days, and they’re often soaring. Red-tailed Hawks are more likely to be out soaring over the highway or the field – though I haven’t seen them as often lately. Both Turkey Vulture and Black Vulture often perch on top of utility poles over the field.

Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, Chimney Swift, Eastern Phoebe, Northern Cardinal, Northern Mockingbird, Brown Thrasher, Pine Warbler, Carolina Wren, House Wren, Eastern Phoebe, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, American Robin, American Goldfinch, Red-bellied Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker – all are abundant. And Brown-headed Nuthatch, Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker and Barred Owl are less numerous, but still around.

So really, I shouldn’t be complaining. Summer is always a rather quiet time for birds, and even though I know that, the quiet always seems to come sooner than I expect. And while it’s undoubtedly true and perhaps inevitable that significant changes have taken place here over the past decade, especially given the loss of wooded and open land in the surrounding area, there is still a great deal more to see and hear than I ever manage to find. Plenty more to learn.

I do think it’s important to note the decline or disappearance of species – but at the same time, it’s equally important to appreciate and value what is here now – the common species as well as the rare. What seems to be common today may all too likely become rare or even disappear in the not too distant future. And the greatest hope of that not happening is to appreciate and become familiar with the natural world around us, where we live. Not in some distant, special place, but here at home.

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