Summer Tanager and Yellow-billed Cuckoo

April 21st, 2020

On a warm, breezy morning clouds blew across the sun, changing the light in a constant flicker from sunny and bright, to somber gray, and back to sunny again. In the woods on the edge of our back yard, a Summer Tanager sang a strong, clear, lilting song, and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo called a percussive string of unmistakable notes from high in the treetops – ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-cow-cow-cow-cawwp, cawwp, cawwp. For both birds, today was the first time this season I had heard them – I have not yet seen either one, but it’s always good to know when they’re back. 

A Scarlet Tanager has continued to sing in the woods not far away, since I first heard it exactly a week ago, and early in the evening yesterday I listened to the low, electric chik-brrr calls of two Scarlet Tanagers as they moved through the trees. I haven’t yet seen them either, though they’ve come pretty close now and then. They manage to stay well hidden among the new green leaves of the oaks. But just listening to their calls is always a special pleasure, as they, along with the songs and calls of other returning summer birds, bring the woods steadily back to more and more vibrant life.

Yellow-rumped Warblers and a Red-eyed Vireo also sang in trees around the back yard today, and I’ve still heard the rapid songs of a few Ruby-crowned Kinglets. Eastern Bluebirds and an Eastern Phoebe hunted from perches, and three baby Carolina Wrens begged for food in wispy voices, following their parents through the grass, while the parents intently searched for food and fed them. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird – a brilliant iridescent male – made several trips to the feeder.

Palm Warbler

April 15th, 2020

Late this morning I was close to home near the end of a walk, and my thoughts had begun to drift away, thinking ahead to a list of things to do today, when a small bird flew into a pecan tree, perched on a branch, and began vigorously twitching its tail. When I stopped to take a closer look, I saw a sunny-yellow bird with a rusty-red crown. A Palm Warbler. 

The day was clear, sunny and chilly, with gentle light that made the view of the little bird very clear – though only for a few moments before it flew again. A Palm Warbler is a diminutive bird that looks yellow all over, more brownish yellow on the back and brighter yellow on its throat and breast. It has a bright rust-red cap and rusty streaks on the breast, and a yellow stripe over the eye. It’s known for its characteristic habit of almost constantly wagging its tail. We only see Palm Warblers here during migration, as they move between their winter homes further south, and their breeding range, which is mostly in Canada. 

Field Sparrow

April 11th, 2020

On a brightly sunny, cool and breezy morning, the new green leaves of oaks shimmered with the gentle songs of Yellow-rumped Warblers. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet sang its sharp, rapid, complex little song. The whistled songs of White-throated Sparrows rose like curls of fog from thickets and bushes, fading into the air. Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called wispy spee-spee. A White-eyed Vireo sang its percussive chick-per-chicory-chick from a tangled area of vines and young trees in the tangled corner I call the Lost Woodland. 

From this same patch of land came another song, too, that I hadn’t heard in quite a long time. A series of three or four clear, accelerating notes, followed by a cheerful tumble of notes that sound like a bouncing ping-pong ball – the song of a Field Sparrow. 

A Field Sparrow is a small, brown-streaked sparrow that used to be as common as its name still sounds. Their bouncing songs were a familiar part of the landscape in rural and partly suburban areas in this part of the South. But in the past ten years or more, populations of Field Sparrows have declined sharply throughout North America, and here around our neighborhood it’s now very unusual to find one. 

It took me a few minutes to find this one, listening to the song, repeated again and again, and watching for movements in the leaves. Finally I saw it through a loose screen of green leaves – first the round head capped with a rusty crown, and a gray face with a small, neat white ring around the eye, a rusty smudge behind the eye – and a small pink bill. Then it moved a little, and came fully into view, showing its brown-streaked wings, gray breast, rather long tail, and pink legs. It lifted its head, and sang.

I watched it through the leaves for several minutes, not wanting to leave, not knowing when I might have another chance to see a Field Sparrow. Until it finally flew deeper into the tangle of leaves and disappeared.

Red-eyed Vireo and Prairie Warbler

April 9th, 2020

This morning began sunny and fresh and wet from overnight showers. The sky was a soft, gentle blue with veils and ribbons of white, and dusky, lingering rain clouds drifting away to the east. High up in the new-green leaves of trees beside our driveway, a Red-eyed Vireo sang – the first one of the season here. A Red-eyed Vireo is a greenish-gray bird that mostly stays hidden in the woods, its underside is white, its crown gray, and its face defined by a sleek stripe of white and a black line through the eye. Its repeated refrain – a series of short phrases repeated again and again – is one of the most familiar and constant sounds of our spring and summer woods, and even those who may not have any idea what a vireo is might notice the return of its song, in some unconscious way. Here I am. Where are you? Over here. Up in the tree. The words can’t capture the bright, musical notes, but they catch some of the cadence.

Later in the morning and in a different part of the neighborhood, I was surprised and very happy to hear a quite different song – a series of high, piping notes rising up the scale, with a slightly buzzy, elusive quality. The song came from the tops of some tall oaks in a neighbor’s yard, and when I stopped to listen, I saw a small bird fly out of a treetop, watched it pass straight overhead with a flash of yellow and then it kept going and disappeared into the top of another tree. And from there, it sang again. The song has always been one of my favorites, easily recognized – a Prairie Warbler. Though I didn’t see it well at all in flight, a male Prairie Warbler is a small, brilliant yellow warbler with black streaks on the sides, an olive head and back, a yellow face with black markings around the eyes, and a chestnut patch in the middle of its back.

Although I used to find Prairie Warblers here all through the summer, in recent years I’ve only seen them and heard their songs when they pass through in migration. This one was almost certainly passing through, maybe stopped by the overnight rains. So it may not stay around long, but it was a joy to hear its airy, magical song, which always sounds to me like the notes of a fairy-flute. 

Hermit Thrush

March 31st, 2020

This morning change was in the air. In the wind and sky and trees and light, all in motion, constantly shifting. Restless clouds filled a soft blue sky – tufts and puffs and sheets and streaks of dusky white, all blowing toward the east, and a spreading bruise of blue-gray storm clouds low in the west. A strong, often gusty wind felt glorious, full of promise – and full of pollen. Catkins rained down on me, clung in my hair and to my shirt. At times, an especially strong wave of wind would rise with a sound like the sea, rushing through the new-green leaves of the trees.

It’s that very sweet time of the year when, in just a few days’ time, a faint green haze in the woods turns into leaves – and then one day like today, there’s suddenly fresh new-green all around again. And the gray of winter is gone.

Maybe it was this feeling of change that made me more aware of the winter birds that still are here – but will be leaving before too long. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet sang its quick, complex little song as it moved through the leaves of a wax myrtle along our driveway. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed from trees around a neighbor’s yard, a tender, plaintive mew. It called once, twice, and again as I walked on. The lovely, whistled song of a White-throated Sparrow rose, sounding, as always, like a bittersweet farewell.

As I walked down a short hill toward a tangled patch of tall pines and sparse shrubs and vines, I saw one small bird fly out into the middle of the road ahead of me and just stand there. I lifted binoculars to check it out – and saw a Hermit Thrush. What a beautiful gift! It’s one of my favorite winter birds, but I haven’t seen or heard a Hermit Thrush for some time now, and had thought I might not for the rest of this season. It stood in the middle of the road, in a low, deeply shaded spot, on spindly pale legs, lifting and lowering its tail just slightly, but repeatedly. A small bird shaped something like a robin, with a brown back and wings and head, a cinnamon tail, and a pale white breast, heavily spotted with brown. It turned and faced me directly, showing its spotted breast and lifting its bill, like a chin tilted up, and seemed to be watching me. I watched as long as it stayed there, not wanting to startle it. Finally it flew, back into the tangle of the thicket. 

White-eyed Vireo

March 30th, 2020

Late in the morning, I slowed down as I walked past a large, wooded stretch of land with thick undergrowth – a vacant lot that backs up to a water treatment plant on a creek, a spot that’s a wonderful refuge for birds. I think of it as Tulip Poplar Hill, because a towering tulip poplar is one of the most prominent of many trees there. Several Eastern Towhees were singing, and a Pine Warbler, and others. And among them, I heard a few sharp, complex notes that especially got my attention – chick-perchicoree-chick! The song of a White-eyed Vireo. The sharp chick calls at the beginning and end of the song are distinctive. 

At first it was almost lost among all the other bird songs, and the bird itself was hidden in very tangled and dense vegetation. But after a few minutes, the song moved closer to the edge of the trees and tall weeds where I stood. Because White-eyed Vireos like densely vegetated places like this, one can be kind of hard to spot. I wasn’t sure I could find it. But luck was with me today. I saw a rustle of movement in the leaves of a small tree, and finally I saw it – moving slowly, stopping often to raise its head and sing.

A White-eyed Vireo is a striking bird with a gray head and a yellow pattern around the eyes that looks like spectacles. It has a greenish back, dark wings, white wing bars, a white throat, and pale yellow on the sides. The iris of the eye is white – but that’s often difficult to see. 

I never could see the full bird all at one time – but could see parts of it very clearly. Its quivered all over each time it sang. Through the leaves, I saw the white throat and belly, and pale yellow on the sides, and caught glimpses of the head and face, but couldn’t see the yellow spectacles well. Still – it was more than I’d hoped for – and seen like this through a pattern of leaves it looked especially alluring as it sang. 

Chipping Sparrows

March 30th, 2020

On another soft, clear, sunny morning, lots of birds were singing – Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, Eastern Phoebes, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, House Finches, American Goldfinches, Eastern Towhees, Brown Thrashers, Pine Warblers, one Louisiana Waterthrush and one Black-and-white Warbler. 

The wispy spee-spee calls of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers seemed to be almost everywhere. Now and then I caught a glimpse of a small, slender gray bird like a sprite, with a long tail edged in white, moving quickly through the branches and new-green leaves. 

Chipping Sparrows also seemed to be almost everywhere this morning, singing their long, level trills, and I had fun noticing, as I walked, the different qualities of their songs. They fascinate me. At first all Chipping Sparrow songs sound so plain, and so all-alike – a dry, almost mechanical trill. But it seems to me that when you listen closely, it’s amazing how many variations there can be on that one simple trill. A little faster, a little slower. A little shorter, a little longer. And subtle individual inflections that are difficult to describe. 

To be sure – I don’t know how much of this is in the songs themselves, and how much in the ear of the listener. Maybe the differences I hear can be explained by conditions other than the songs themselves – how far away the bird is, or high in a tree it might be, or even the time of day and the weather. I’m sure these and other factors can affect the subtle qualities I might hear in a song. And maybe it’s largely my own imagination. But I do enjoy listening. 

In one spot with trees on both sides of the road, there were lots of little birds flying back and forth between the oaks with new green leaves that seem to have come out almost overnight. I stopped to check them out – and all of them were Chipping sparrows. I watched two of them together in the same tree for several minutes, one of them lifting its head and singing, over and over again. 

Chipping sparrows are among the most common of our birds, but for some reason I never tire of watching them and listening to their songs. Small, brown-streaked sparrows, with smooth gray breast, long tail, a dark line through the eye, and a bright red-brown cap. I think I like them so much because they are not showy or obvious. It takes a closer look – and a more careful listen – to appreciate their charm. 

Cedar Waxwings Hawking Insects

March 27th, 2020

While the last couple of mornings have been crisp and cool, this morning the air felt balmy when I first stepped outside. It was going to be a very warm day, the forecast for the afternoon, an unseasonable high of 86 degrees. But it was still pretty, softly sunny, blue sky and high, distant white clouds, and lots of flowering trees and shrubs, and singing birds. 

Two birds were hawking insects from the branches of pecan trees in a neighbor’s yard – and when I took a closer look, I was surprised to see two brilliantly colorful Cedar Waxwings. The two repeatedly flew from low branches to catch insects in flight. Some they caught in the air, and several times they flew down and skimmed the top of the grass to catch insects there.

When they sat on a branch, their plumage showed uncommonly clear and vivid in detail, glowing in the morning sun and looking as smooth and polished as silk – a soft rose-brown on the head and chest, with lemon-yellow bellies, and gray wings tipped in waxy-red and tails edged in yellow. Sleek black masks outlined in white surrounded their eyes. And their crests were each fluffed up into rose-brown tufts. I watched them for several minutes as they continued to fly off, catch insects, and fly back to a perch. One sat for a long time on a branch, turning its head from one side to another and all around.

Cedar Waxwings feed mostly on fruits and berries of many kinds, but – as I learned after looking it up – they also eat insects, often caught in flight like this. So it’s not unusual behavior, but I haven’t often seen it. They are so strikingly colorful, and the lighting was perfect, and their flight graceful, it almost felt like watching a ballet. 

Two Blue-headed Vireos

March 25th, 2020

After heavy rain and thunderstorms all day yesterday and much of the night, this morning dawned clear and breezy and cool. The sky was still crowded with remnants of big, damp-looking rain clouds, but they were broken apart and blowing away. A March sky. Trees and grass were drenched, everything was wet and sparkling in early sunlight. The songs of Louisiana Waterthrush, Northern Parula and Black-and-white Warbler, and the spee calls of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers added their own sparkle to the morning. These earliest-returning migrant songbirds have stayed around for the past few days, beginning to change the way our world sounds, like small, bright accents in a painting that alter it entirely. 

At the very end of a morning walk through the neighborhood, I was just about to head down our driveway to the house when I heard a new song – a series of high, sweet phrases, repeated in a lovely, unhurried way. It was a Blue-headed Vireo, another songbird back from winter a little further south – and one I don’t often find here. 

I walked across the road to the patch of close-growing oaks and pines, not really expecting to see it – but after just a couple of minutes, it did come into view, a small bird making its way slowly through the branches from tree to tree, pausing often to look around. Everything about a Blue-headed Vireo is cool, calm and serene – its colors, the way it moves, and even its song. Its head is a smooth, round blue-gray, with bold white markings around the eyes that look like spectacles. Its back is olive green, its dark wings marked with bright white wing bars, and its breast is white, with a gentle wash of yellow on the sides. 

As I watched it move through the trees, I realized that I was also hearing the song of a second Blue-headed Vireo not far away, and within a minute or two, the second one flew into the same tree with the first. They didn’t seem to be antagonistic – but they didn’t stay in view long after that, both flew further back into the trees and out of sight. I could still hear the sweet song for several minutes.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Northern Parula and Cooper’s Hawk

March 20th, 2020

This morning was a picture-perfect Spring morning. Under a soft, pale-blue sky traced with high white clouds, a haze of new-green leaves flickered in warm sunshine. The first big filmy-pink blooms have opened on our azaleas, and our young cherry tree is beginning to blossom, and the redbuds and dogwoods are full of buds. A Brown Thrasher sang, along with Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Chipping Sparrows, a Pine Warbler, and a White-throated Sparrow. An Eastern Phoebe hunted from low branches all around the yard. Several White-throated Sparrows foraged in the grass and leaf mulch. A Black-and-white Warbler sang weesa-weesa-weesa around the edges of the woods, and a Louisiana Waterthrush raised its shining anthem from somewhere down along the creek.

The morning seemed almost painfully beautiful, so full of promise and new life, given the ongoing coronavirus epidemic that holds us all in a kind of suspension. Waiting. The contrast is hard to fully grasp. Our every day now begins with waking up to the latest news, the latest numbers, new cases, and the steady spread, and wondering what more this day will bring.

At the same time, Spring has arrived, and the first migrating birds have begun to appear – returning or passing through. As I walked through a wooded area where most of the trees are still bare and gray, I heard a dry spee-spee – and found a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher flitting through some low branches near the road – a pretty, petite gray bird with a long, expressive tail edged in white, and a silvery flash in its color, it moved quickly and called several times. It’s the first one I’ve seen or heard this season. 

In a different spot, more thickly wooded and with a tangle of green undergrowth, a buzzy, rising and falling song came from somewhere back in the trees – the song of a Northern Parula, a small, charming, colorful wood warbler with a blue-gray head and back, a yellowish patch in the middle of the back; bright yellow throat and breast, and a rust and black band across the chest, and tiny white crescents around the eyes. I would love to have seen it – but even though it sang and sang, it stayed well hidden back among the tangled trees. This was the first Northern Parula I’ve found this season, another returning migrant. 

As I walked through the neighborhood, Mourning Doves cooed, Red-bellied Woodpeckers called quurrr, and lots of Northern Cardinals and Carolina Wrens sang. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings called their high, thin calls from the branches of a scraggly tree. A few Ruby-crowned Kinglets called jidit-jidit and whistled their quick, complex songs. One Northern Mockingbird was singing from a tall treetop, and four or five Brown Thrashers, widely spaced, also sang.

I had stopped to look for one of the Ruby-crowned Kinglets that seemed to be unusually high up in some pines when a flash of pale gray wings against the blue sky caught my eye. It was a Cooper’s Hawk, circling above the treetops, not too high. It stayed in view long enough to circle three or four times, gradually climbing, showing a beautiful view of its sleek shape – blue-gray back and wings, pale underneath, and long narrow tail, with bands of dark and light. As it rose higher, it flapped its wings less and began to hold them mostly outstretched, soaring higher – and out of sight. 

I’m pretty sure this was a Cooper’s Hawk, because of the size and shape of its head and the way it flew – but it’s often difficult to distinguish a Cooper’s from the very similar Sharp-shinned Hawk. The differences between the two can be subtle, and it’s always possible that I could be wrong. Here in our own neighborhood, Cooper’s Hawks usually have been more common, though I have seen both, most often during the winter season – and they’re always a joy to watch.