Cedar Waxwings

January 9th, 2019

In the old field this morning, a small flock of maybe two dozen Cedar Waxwings sat almost hidden in a tangle of faded vines and shrubs around two chinaberry trees and some other kind of wild fruit tree. This part of the field is very dense with huge stands of privet and other dry-looking shrubs and weeds that grow much taller than my head. The Cedar Waxwings were eating berries in trees near the roadside, so their movements caught my attention – and with a closer look, their polished, gleaming shapes and colors glowed in contrast to the rough, drab thickets around them. The sound of traffic from the highway not far away made their high, thin calls very hard to hear.

Many of them sat very close and not too high, and the day was clear and softly sunny. So the view was especially fine. Slender, crested birds, each one impeccably dressed – a fox-brown crest and head with a sleek black mask outlined in white; short brown neck blending into taupe on the chest and back, and lemon-yellow belly; gray wings barely touched with red; and a gray tail tipped in yellow, as if it had been dipped in paint. 

It’s impossible really to describe the colors just right, or to capture the subtle blend of different textures. It’s like studying a great painting closely, and the more you look, the more details and exquisite touches you find. 

A Red-shouldered Hawk Encounter

January 6th, 2019

A Red-shouldered Hawk sat almost directly above me, on a branch of a bare-limbed tree, looking vividly colored and larger than life against a pale blue sky. So close and so impressive. Rippling bars of red-orange covered its breast, and its head looked silky brown. What I could see of its back and wings was very dark brown and flecked with white, with reddish-brown glowing on the shoulders in a way that’s often hard to see. It turned its head one way, and another, then called a loud kee-yer! and spread its wings and flew, fanning a black-and-white banded tail. 

When it disappeared, the sky seemed suddenly quiet. For the past several minutes, I’d been watching a noisy and dramatic encounter among three Red-shouldered Hawks in some trees behind a house in our neighborhood. This was the last part of that experience. I was walking up a long hill when I first heard the calls of one Red-shouldered Hawk – a repeated kee-yer– and when I came to the top of the hill, I found it sitting in a tree with its back to the road, not close, but clearly visible from the road where I stood. Then a second Red-shouldered Hawk began to call from somewhere out of sight, toward the north, and the two called back and forth. 

Three Blue Jays flew into the tree where the hawk was sitting, and began to harass it, a couple of times diving quite close, but it seemed unperturbed and fully focused on responding to the calls in the distance. 

After several minutes, a second Red-shouldered Hawk flew out of the woods in the north, and directly to the tree where the first hawk sat. The first hawk turned around to face it. Then a third Red-shouldered Hawk flew from the same area of woods, following the second, and also flew to the same tree, so that all three sat on branches that didn’t look far apart. All this time, the three hawks were calling in a very agitated way. Abruptly, the second hawk flew at the first one aggressively – but they didn’t seem to make contact, and the first one didn’t move right away.  

It looked like the pair of hawks were not happy with the presence of the single hawk and were trying to chase it away from territory they considered their own. It did not leave immediately, but after a few more minutes of harassment by the pair, it moved to a different branch in the same tree, further away from the other two – and then it flew, but not far, directly over me and into a pecan tree near the edge of the road, where I had such a close and vivid view. 

After that hawk had flown and disappeared, I looked back for the other two, and they both were gone, too. 

Because I’ve seen a Red-shouldered Hawk so seldom here this winter season, I was especially happy to see these three. They seem to have become less common, maybe because the woods both in and around our neighborhood have become more fragmented, and more and more areas have been cleared – both of trees and of thickets and undergrowth. Some particular spots that used to be favorite haunts of the Red-shouldered Hawks have been changed quite a bit. 

Red-shouldered Hawks are forest birds that love the deep woods, and we’ve been very lucky to have them living around us here. I’m hopeful that maybe we still have enough large trees and wooded areas close enough so that we’ll continue to see these magnificent birds.

Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Hermit Thrush

January 6th, 2019

On another spring-like morning, this one clear and sunny and cool, as soon as I stepped out the door, I heard the scattered chek calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers, and found two of them flitting from branch to branch around the front yard. In their winter plumage Yellow-rumped Warblers are small, rather plain, gray-brown birds with some white in the wings, a touch of yellow on the sides – and a prominent yellow rump. One of the two looked uncommonly bright yellow for this time of year, and I was happy to see – and hear – them both. It seemed a good sign. Yellow-rumped Warblers used to be very common and abundant here in the winter – but this year, like the past year or two, I see disturbingly few. The drop in their numbers here in our neighborhood has been dramatic, and it’s really amazing how their absence has changed the feel and sound of a winter day. They don’t sing at this time of year, but just the sound of those quiet little cheks all around in the trees is something I had always taken for granted.

So those chek calls this morning were a happy start to the day, and the whole front yard was bustling with birds. A male Eastern Towhee called a rich, musical chur-whee from a bare crape myrtle, looking bright in his pattern of black, red-orange and white. Another male and two female Towhees were noisily scratching up leaves and mulch around shrubs, all of them calling back and forth, and the females only slightly more subdued in their leaf-brown, orange and white.

 A Brown Thrasher lurked under the azaleas, a pair of Northern Cardinals peeped, an Eastern Bluebird called a blurry chorry-chorry, a Brown-headed Nuthatch or two squeakily chattered. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called quurrr, a Carolina Wren sang and another wren trilled, an American Goldfinch called as it flew overhead. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered jidit-jidit as it moved through the bushes quickly, flicking its wings in a fairy-like way, a tiny little green-gray bird with a smooth round head, crisp white wingbars and white ring around the eye, the ruby crown hidden this morning.

 A Northern Mockingbird sat in a young pecan tree in the middle of the grassy circle in our cul de sac, its usual spot, and this morning it had some company there – a White-throated Sparrow perched in the top of a dense stand of hollies that surround the small tree.

Walking on down the road, I passed Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, a Downy Woodpecker and an Eastern Phoebe hunting from a low branch of a persimmon tree. From a tall stand of pines across a busy two-lane road came the lovely, musical trill of a Pine Warbler’s song. And then, the rest of the way seemed surprisingly quiet. There were Blue Jays and American Crows, as always, and a scattering of other birds here and there, but many big patches of woods and yards looked empty, even on this lovely, strangely warm, sunny morning. But then came a nice surprise.

On the edge of what used to be a big, rambling, tangled thicket under a strip of oaks and pines, a robin-like bird stood quietly in the shadows, almost blending into the background in a spot where there’s still a little privet and some fallen branches littering the ground below the trees. It was a Hermit Thrush, standing on one of the fallen branches, among the skimpy cover of a few old vines and weedy plants. The spot felt sad and empty. Most of the thicket was cleared below the trees several months ago, leaving very little cover for ground- and shrub-loving birds like the Hermit Thrush. But here it was. It may have returned to the spot it has come to in previous winters. It seems to me that Hermit Thrushes do this, returning year after year not only to an area, but to particular places – there’s almost always one that spends the winter in the shrubs around our front porch, and there are other spots where I also can count on finding one from year to year. I stopped to watch it for only a few moments – a sweet and modest bird with soft brown back, bright dark spots on its upper breast, an erect head and watchful eye. The cinnamon tail raised up – and lowered slowly. It’s one of my favorite winter birds, but I didn’t linger long, not wanting to disturb it more.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Chipping Sparrows

January 1st, 2019

The first day of this new year began with a cool, foggy morning, the grass and trees still dripping wet from rain yesterday and overnight. The songs and trills of Carolina Wrens, the soft quurrr of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, the chips of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitting from branch to branch, the chorry, chorry of an Eastern Bluebird, and the peter-peter songs of a Tufted Titmouse were the first birds I heard around our front yard. It sounded like spring. A Brown Thrasher sat in the top of a big wax myrtle, looking alert and nervous, as if to ask if he had overslept or missed his cue, and should he be singing, too?

The weather, though lovely in its way, was balmy and way too warm for this time of year, when it should be icy and cold, or at least decently chilly – even here in Georgia. Fog hung over the ground low, with an open space of clear air between it and a sky veiled in filmy white. Later in the morning when I went out for a walk, the clouds remained, thick with many layers, some shimmering silver, some creamy or dusky or dark gray, all drifting slowly from west to east. Now and then the sun came out, but never for long. Already, mid-morning, it was tee-shirt weather, near 70 degrees.

A bird in rolling flight landed on the trunk of a pecan tree – a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker so vividly clear that even its yellow belly showed uncommonly bright, along with a crimson crown and throat, and the bold, black and white sinuous stripes that curve along the face. I watched for a few moments as it hitched backwards down one large fork of the pecan tree, stopping now and then to explore a hole or a crevice. A coat of green moss covered much of the bark on the fork, making the view of the Sapsucker even more brightly colorful.

A little further on, a pair of Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in some pines; a Downy Woodpecker trilled its descending call; a small flock of Cedar Waxwings flew overhead, scattering their high, thin calls. One little Dark-eyed Junco flew up from the roadside grass with a soft, jingling call, and into a tree, flashing the white edges of its tail. A few American Robins foraged in grassy yards, and a very small, creaking, chuckling flock of blackbirds perched in the bare branches of some oak trees. They stayed far enough away so that I couldn’t see them well. Most seemed to be Common Grackles, though there may have been others among them – I looked for Rusty Blackbirds, but couldn’t say for sure.

I passed the usual many Blue Jays and American Crows, a couple of quiet Northern Mockingbirds, and quite a few Eastern Bluebirds, some flashing very bright blue on this mostly gray day. The whistled song of a White-throated Sparrow rose from the field along the highway, Eastern Towhees called chur-whee. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered its dry jidit-jidit in a bush, a Northern Flicker called an emphatic kleer! Four Black Vultures sat close together on the wires around one utility pole on the edge of a power cut through the field. An Eastern Phoebe perched on a lower wire, and a pair of House Finches sat together in a tree.

When I got back home, a dozen or more Chipping Sparrows flew up from the grass in our front yard and into the small, bare redbud and cherry trees there. So small and well-camouflaged, the Chipping Sparrows are nearly invisible in the brown winter grass, and I know I often miss them. But it always seems to me a happy thing and a good sign to see them – brown-streaked little birds with crisp red-brown caps and plain gray underneath, very common, but so easily overlooked. And on this lovely, but far too warm first day of January, an uneasy and foreboding sense of change is in the air, and the only thing that feels certain is that we can take no life, no living thing, for granted.




Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Red-shouldered Hawk, Pileated Woodpecker

October 19th, 2018

On our first really cool morning this fall, a sunny day with a soft blue sky, I heard the mewing call of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker for the first time since last spring – and saw it fly to the trunk of a pecan tree in a neighbor’s yard. Of course, it stayed on the other side of the trunk, out of sight at first, but after a minute or two, its head appeared, looking cautiously around the trunk, showing its striking black-and-white striped face, long pointed bill, and bright red crown and throat.

I was especially happy to see the colorful view of this Yellow-bellied Sapsucker peering around the trunk, because it’s the first of our winter birds to return. A migrant species that we don’t find here during the summer months, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers arrive about this time of year to stay through the winter – and then leave again in the spring for breeding territories in more northern parts of North America.

On the rest of a walk through the neighborhood, birds seemed scarce and generally quiet most of the way, and yet, there still were some nice surprises, as well as a number of our most familiar birds.

In one partly-wooded spot there seemed to be a small burst of activity, maybe a feeding flock moving through the trees. Mostly there were Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens, also two Brown-headed Nuthatches, one White-breasted Nuthatch, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, and an Eastern Phoebe. As I was looking up at the nuthatches, I heard some low, kind of short, soft calls – and a big, richly-colored Red-shouldered Hawk sailed up from behind me and glided low across the road in front of me. Breathtaking. I caught just a brief but vivid flash of its red-orange breast, dark wings and black-and-white striped tail, as it flew through a sparse patch of trees on a hill, and stopped on a low branch overlooking a scrubby patch of land that was partially cleared of trees about a year ago, for a house that was never built. Now that area has grown up in tall grasses, small shrubs, and vines, as well as a few scattered trees. So it looked like it might be a good hunting spot for the hawk.  It sat with its back to me, but several times turned its calm brown head around, and I could see it fairly well. Before I walked on, three Blue Jays had begun to harass it, but so far it didn’t seem much bothered by them.

Walking through more open areas of large, grassy yards and scattered shade trees, I passed several Eastern Bluebirds, a few Chipping Sparrows and House Finches, and heard the cherwink calls of Eastern Towhees and the kleer! of at least three Northern Flickers. One Northern Mockingbird was singing short bursts of song, and a Brown Thrasher called a sharp smack, and then a pretty teeur from somewhere in a thicket.

The sudden trumpeted call of a Pileated Woodpecker broke the quiet around a tangled grove of trees and shrubs that stretches from the road back to the edge of a county water treatment plant. The big black and white woodpecker with its flamboyant red crest had just flown to the dead stub of a pine tree, where it sat, whacking loudly and intently on the branch. Wood chips flew, and the woodpecker found something there that it ate quite a lot of – most likely wood-loving carpenter ants.

October Dawn

October 19th, 2018

At seven o’clock this morning, the day was barely light, the sky pearl-gray, the trees still shaped by night. I opened a bedroom window and felt very chilled air – in the 40s for the first time this year, and it felt so good! A few crickets chirped, but mostly the shrubs and yard lay still and quiet. Then a Mockingbird sang a few notes – it’s been singing off and on for several days and is usually one of the first birds I hear in the morning now. Then a Cardinal peeped, and over the next half hour or so, I very gradually heard the calls of an Eastern Towhee, the trilling and fussing of a Carolina Wren, the distant caws of Crows, the teeur calls of a Brown Thrasher, the chatter of a Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, and White-breasted Nuthatch, and the cries of a Blue Jay. An Eastern Phoebe called tsup a few times, and then began to sing. I think it was after sunrise before I heard the chuck-chucking calls of a Red-bellied Woodpecker and the whinny of a Downy.

Carolina Wren in a Golden Glow

October 14th, 2018

On a sunny, pleasantly warm Sunday afternoon, things around our front yard seemed very quiet, except for the dry leaves and acorns that showered down in even the lightest breeze. After spending several minutes sitting on the front porch, I’d only seen a very few birds. A Northern Mockingbird sat in a small pecan tree in the middle of our cul de sac, and now and then it sang for several minutes, then fell silent again. Its pieces of song sounded more casual than a spring or summer song, much less intense.

An Eastern Towhee came out from below some azalea shrubs to forage in the leaf-mulch, and I watched it for several minutes as it came very close to where I sat. Its plumage looked slightly mottled, especially on the head, so I think maybe it was young, a first-fall male. With a black head, bib and back; warm reddish sides, and white belly, the color pattern was complete, but the black head was subtly striped with brown, and the rest of its coloring was similarly mottled, just a little. I watched as it picked up a water oak acorn and held it in its beak, as if not sure what to do with it, then dropped it and went back to scratching up leaves, looking for something else. It did this three different times, at least, maybe because there were so many acorns on the ground, but it didn’t ever eat an acorn while I was watching – though acorns are said to be common parts of a Towhee’s diet. What it did eat was something that it found in the crack of the sidewalk – whatever that was, it snapped up quite a lot before moving back into the shrubs.

Two Carolina Wrens joined the Towhee in foraging around some Yaupon hollies. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called chuck-chuck high up in trees around the yard, moving from one to another. A Downy Woodpecker also called from somewhere near. A Brown Thrasher joined the Mockingbird in the small pecan tree.

Then the Towhee flew to the rim of the birdbath – only a few feet away from where I was sitting – and without much hesitation, he hopped in and just stood there for a moment, and then flew away. The two Carolina Wrens followed him to the birdbath, and they each got right in and took full, exuberant, splashing baths, one at a time. It must have been the bathing hour – late afternoon – because the wrens were followed by four Tufted Titmice that flew in noisily and took turns bathing, one at a time, while the others chattered in the bushes, making the quiet yard seem as if it had suddenly, briefly come to life.

The afternoon was getting late, and I was just about ready to go inside, when I noticed a Carolina Wren nestled in the glossy green leaves in the very top of a big shrub near the porch, its head turned up toward a slanting ray of sunlight coming through the trees. It sat in a pool of light, its rich brown and cream colors all caught in a golden glow, and it was so very close and lit so well that the details of each feather seemed to shimmer – even in the white around the eyes, the cream-white eyebrow, white throat, and the cinnamon head and back. And the buffy breast, especially, looked as if its feathers were spun of pale reddish-gold.

An Eastern Towhee’s SEEE Calls

October 14th, 2018

About this time of year each fall, I start to listen for the calls of White-throated Sparrows. These handsome, plump sparrows with bright white throats usually arrive from their summer homes in the north sometime in October. Their haunting, whistled songs are perhaps our most beautiful winter music.

As they forage for food in leaf mulch below and around shrubs in yards, thickets, vacant lots and fields, they also keep in touch through short, sibilant contact calls that sound like tseet. This quiet, low call is one that I’ve long thought of as familiar – and yet, every year about this time I think I hear them long before I actually do. It’s wishful thinking, mainly, but possible because there are several other songbirds that spend a lot of time in the same kind of habitat – and some of them have calls that are very similar to those of White-throated Sparrows.

This morning when I heard a call that sounded like a tseet, I stopped beside a large group of shrubs and listened, and almost immediately, an Eastern Towhee flew out of a bush and up to a low branch just over my head, where it perched, and called again, a soft, sweet seee.

Eastern Towhees are among our most common birds here, known for their drink-your-tea song, and rich chewink call. But I had never recognized this quiet seee call, which they use to keep in touch with other Towhees as they search for food. The Birds of North America species account describes it as a “lisp call,” and notes that it is perhaps the second most common Towhee call, after chewink. It is “high-pitched, clear, sibilant . . . soft, thin, barely audible beyond a few meters. . . . evidently functions as a contact note.”*

Now I’m not at all sure I’ll be able to tell the difference between the calls of a White-throated Sparrow – and those of an Eastern Towhee – not to mention other similar sounds. Calls like these can be pretty subtle and confusing, and I have no doubt that I’m wrong more often than right in identifying them. But I’m looking forward to trying, and maybe learning more.

*Greenlaw, J.S. (2015). Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) version 2.0. in The Birds of North America (P.G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Cedar Waxwings Open the Holiday Season

November 24th, 2017

Today has been a spectacularly beautiful fall day – sheets of heavy white frost in the morning across the grass and tops of shrubs, followed by a cool, crisp, sunny afternoon. Our home and neighborhood are surrounded in the bronze-brown colors of white-oak leaves, at their fullest and most handsome now, turning light golden against a clear blue sky.

Eastern Towhees called from bushes, and Eastern Bluebirds from treetops facing the sun. An American Goldfinch called a wispy potato-chip as it flew overhead. An American Robin stood in a grassy yard; Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Downy Woodpeckers chattered and rattled and peeped. Eastern Phoebes sang and called tsup. Northern Flickers called kleer! Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown-headed and White-breasted Nuthatches called, too, in their different ways. Several Chipping Sparrows flew up from the roadside, into the low branches of trees, where their rust-red crowns looked especially bright. A quiet Northern Mockingbird sat in the bare branches of a crape myrtle. One Black Vulture and one Turkey Vulture soared.

Near some scrubby trees and shrubs along a small hill, I stopped when I heard the loud, buzzy fussing of a Carolina Wren – and sure enough, lots of small birds began to appear. Chickadees, Titmice, a second Carolina Wren and a third, a pair of Cardinals – and two Ruby-crowned Kinglets flitted low in the trees with a sliver of ruby showing in the tops of their heads. As one moved quickly from branch to branch, it seemed to be trembling all over its tiny body, flicking wings and tail. Both kinglets were fussing, too, a stuttering jidit-jidit-jidit. Two Golden-crowned Kinglets also showed up, a little higher in the trees, their striped crowns bright. A big Red-bellied Woodpecker clung to a trunk – while tapping sounds from across the road came from a White-breasted Nuthatch working on the trunk of a pecan tree with its long, powerful bill.

One bird I did not come across today was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, though I’ve seen them fairly often recently, so I know they’re around. The same is true for a Hermit Thrush, and I probably just didn’t listen for them carefully enough. But I also could not find a single Yellow-rumped Warbler – a much more worrisome bird to miss. I couldn’t even hear a chip note here or there, while in years past there would have been dozens scattered all through the neighborhood, maybe even hundreds. I’ve seen a few around this fall, just not nearly as many as in the past. They used to be so common here in winter that I never thought I’d say this – but I miss them.

There were, however, Cedar Waxwings – the first ones I’ve seen here this season, or almost the first. I began hearing their very high, thin, elusive calls several days ago, but hadn’t been able to see them until today. Moments after I heard their calls this time, a small flock of about a dozen or more flew into a large Savannah holly tree. As always, their sleek, smooth plumage and colors – taupe-brown and pearl-gray, with a pale lemon belly, narrow black mask and warm brown crest, and a gleaming yellow-tipped tail – looked exquisite, like gleaming ornaments perched among the leaves of the evergreen tree.

Thankful for the Song of a Blue-headed Vireo

November 23rd, 2017

Mid-morning on a sunny, cool and colorful Thanksgiving Day, I stood on the edge of a small patch of woods, watching two Golden-crowned Kinglets flit through leaves of orange and brown, along with several other small birds. After a few minutes, I realized that among the familiar calls of birds nearby, I was hearing the song of a vireo. A Blue-headed Vireo. It’s not a song I would expect to hear at this time of year – and it’s funny how much expectations can affect what one does hear or see.

When it finally did register, I pretty quickly found the small bird, very high in the branches of oaks, with the sun almost directly behind it, so it was difficult to see well. But it sang several times over the course of many minutes, and I caught at least a brief glimpse or two of the bold white spectacles on its blue-gray face.

A Blue-headed Vireo’s song is made up of clear phrases, separated by pauses, similar to the songs of Red-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos, but more musical and sweeter. It’s also distinguished by a slightly slower pace and a gently-slurred quality to the notes.

It was a special pleasure to hear this unexpected and lovely song on a peaceful Thanksgiving Day.