Blue Grosbeak, Indigo Bunting and Gray Catbird

July 1st, 2019

By mid-morning the sun felt very hot, bleaching the sky as it climbed. Chipping Sparrows trilled their songs from trees along the roadside. Mourning Doves cooed. Three Chimney Swifts twittered as they flew over and swooped down close to a roof. As I walked down the road, I heard a scattering of calls from the usual suspects – a few Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, several Carolina Wrens, two Brown-headed Nuthatches, a White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-bellied Woodpecker, a Northern Mockingbird and several House Wrens and House Finches singing, and many Eastern Bluebirds, some sitting in the tops of trees, facing the morning sun. I didn’t hear a single Red-eyed Vireo – one of our summer birds that used to be so common here, but now I seldom find. But one Yellow-throated Vireo was singing high up in the foliage of trees around the edge of a neighbor’s yard. They, too, have become much less common here, so it’s been good to hear this one’s mellow, burry phrases for the past several days.

In the hazy, blue and white sky, two Mississippi Kites seemed to appear out of nowhere. They were high, but not too high to see well – the smooth gray color, and ash-white head, and white in part of the long, gray wings. I watched as they circled several times, gradually climbing, watching their quiet, graceful flight, the clean, sharp lines, the tilt of the dark, fanned tail just as one passed low over my head. Sailing, gliding, buoyant – they rose higher and higher, and finally soared away toward the South, over the trees and out of sight. 

When I came to the entrance of our subdivision, oh my! A Blue Grosbeak sat in the very top of a tall pecan tree, singing. A richly colorful bird with a richly colorful song – deep, ink-blue, with orange-brown bars in the wings and a big silver bill that glinted in the sun, the Grosbeak lifted its head and warbled a shining cascade of notes that rose and fell. 

Just across the road, in the large, overgrown old field that hides the view – though not the sound – of a busy highway below, a tiny Indigo Bunting also sang. Perched in the top of one of the tallest pines on one side of a power cut, the small, bird-shaped dot of brilliant blue chanted its sweet-sweet-chew-chew-sweet-sweet over and over again. Apparently undaunted by the constant growling roar of traffic. 

Two White-eyed Vireos repeated chik-per-chickory-chik in the field from hidden spots deep in the thickets, along with the notes of Eastern Towhees, Carolina Wrens, and a Northern Mockingbird sitting on a wire. A sparkling, silvery Blue-gray Gnatcatcher flitted and hovered in and out of the weeds, catching insects. And a little further on, on a street of neatly-manicured lawns and shrubs, a Gray Catbird mewed a raspy call from among the leaves of a large crape myrtle, where I saw its slender, dark-gray shape and long, jaunty tail just briefly before it flew and disappeared into a Leyland cypress tree.

Early Morning on a Summer Day

July 1st, 2019

Soon after sunrise this morning, the day already felt very warm. The sky was still a gentle blue with scattered, small white clouds. From somewhere in the woods around our back yard, a Pine Warbler trilled a cool and shady song. Two Eastern Towhees called back and forth, chur-whee, one on either side of the yard. A Summer Tanager sang from trees around the edge of the woods, and from further away, I could also hear the more strident notes of a Scarlet Tanager. An Acadian Flycatcher sang its sharp but quiet pit-sah! from down around the creek. A Great Crested Flycatcher whistled a burry whreep – and another answered. 

An Eastern Bluebird pair made frequent trips to and from a nest box, feeding babies that cheeped loudly each time a parent arrived. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zipped often to the feeder that hangs from the deck. A Chipping Sparrow sang a long, level trill; Carolina Wrens burbled, fussed, and sang. A Tufted Titmouse piped peter-peter. A Downy Woodpecker whinnied. An American Goldfinch flew over, and I could hear the distant caws of American Crows, as well as the muffled noise of morning traffic. 

The long, percussive ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-cawp-cawp-cawp-cawp of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo echoed through the trees from pretty far away. Even though it rarely comes close, I’m happy to hear a Yellow-billed Cuckoo at all, because it’s the only one I’ve found around our whole neighborhood so far this summer. Sometimes the distant songs and calls of once-familiar birds like the Cuckoo, the Scarlet Tanager, and the Wood Thrush we hear now and then, sound like birds that are fading away, not a sudden disappearance, but drifting further and further away each year. 

Mississippi Kite in Flight

June 30th, 2019

Just a few days later, I watched another Mississippi Kite. It was a hot, humid, sunny summer morning, with cicadas singing loudly and small insects swarming in shafts of light. The sleek, dark raptor with long, pointed wings appeared in a soft blue sky. Its shape and flight were so neat and crisp they might have been drawn in ink against the sky. 

For several minutes, it circled directly above me, slowly rising higher, and I watched the whole time, only turning away when it flew right across the path of the sun. It was absolutely glorious to watch – its cool, dark gray and shining near-white pattern cutting through the hazy air with such cool grace. 

I watched as it sailed in large circles, floated in the air, and once it appeared to lean over to eat something from its talons. After several minutes, it had climbed a little higher and I thought it was going to keep climbing and maybe sail away, but instead, it suddenly plunged down fast, from fairly high, directly down, and disappeared behind some distant trees. I waited for a few minutes more, but it didn’t reappear.

Like the essence of summer in flight, a Mississippi Kite was a beautiful note on which to end this month of June. 

Mississippi Kite

June 26th, 2019

Mid-morning on this warm, rather quiet summer day, a dark, slender phantom of a bird, with flashes of ghost-white in its wings flew low out of trees on one side of a neighborhood road, and disappeared into trees behind houses on the other side. I stopped to watch, and after only a few moments, it flew again, emerging from one spot in the trees and flying to another – and then much deeper into the woods. Though it was only a very brief look, it was enough to see the distinctive near-white head and dark gray color and shape of a Mississippi Kite. 

I wasn’t expecting to see a Mississippi Kite here, in the middle of a neighborhood of neat green lawns and manicured landscapes, where mockingbirds, cardinals and towhees are more common. An elegant raptor known for its graceful, acrobatic flight over sunny fields and pastures, the kite felt like a very exotic visitor down here in the shadows of these suburban oaks and pines. And yet, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen one here this summer. 

Mississippi Kites are still relatively uncommon in this part of Georgia, though over the past few years they seem to be reported more often, and in our own neighborhood, I’ve been seeing one or two fairly often this summer. I can’t say for sure that a pair is nesting here, but I see them most often around one particular wooded area near a creek, sometimes perched in a tree and sometimes in flight. They are only here in the summer months, and spend winters in central South America. 

In some regions of North America, like the southern Great Plains, Mississippi Kites are much more common and even abundant. They frequently nest in large colonies and often in urban areas. East of the Mississippi, where they are found in several southern states, including Georgia, they are much less abundant, and nest most often in old-growth forest. 

A Mississippi Kite is a slender raptor with long pointed wings and a long, square-tipped tail. It is pale gray below and darker gray above, with a very pale head that looks almost white, and white in part of the dark-gray wings. The wingtips and tail are black. When it’s soaring high, it often appears all dark, even black, but when it’s low enough the gray color and pattern becomes apparent, and the head glows white in the sun.

Known for their acrobatic, buoyant flight, Mississippi Kites are a joy to watch as they circle, dive, turn, and swoop, catching large flying insects in their talons and often eating them as they fly. 

Winter Morning Birdsong

February 7th, 2019

This morning would have been a lovely day in April or May. But in early February, it didn’t feel right. After a few cold, crisp days to begin the month, the weather has now turned unseasonably warm. The air drifting through my open windows between 7:00 and 8:00 felt soft and balmy, and birds filled the morning with song. Pine Warbler, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee, Eastern Bluebird, Tufted Titmouse, and Carolina Chickadee all were singing. Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Brown-headed Nuthatch, American Goldfinch, and Downy Woodpecker called. A Red-bellied Woodpecker purred its spring-like quurrr. A Mockingbird squawked harshly, and Northern Cardinals peeped. American Crows cawed, and a flock of blackbirds scattered their calls as they flew over. A Mourning Dove cooed.

By afternoon on a sunny day, the temperature had risen to 80 degrees. 

A Red-headed Woodpecker Winter

February 1st, 2019

A little later in the morning I stopped for a while to watch a Red-headed Woodpecker that has spent this winter in trees around one particular yard in our neighborhood. I can usually hear its somewhat harsh, rolling churrr, or – if it’s quiet and I stop to look for it – can find it high up on the trunk of one of the trees. When it’s quiet, a Red-headed Woodpecker can be surprisingly unobtrusive. Despite its flashy coloring, somehow it can manage to blend in with the black and gray and white of the winter trees. But once found, those colors pop out and amaze – a full deep-red head; a snow-white breast, black back, and broad white panels on the wings. It looks like a flag in flight – with its big, bold pattern of red, black and white.

I found it this morning on what seems to be its favorite tall, bare, half-dead water oak, up near the very top, working on a stub. It’s the same craggy tree that a pair of Mississippi Kites seemed to like for a perch last summer. For a few moments I stayed, admiring its colors and watching it work, before it flew, heading deeper into the trees along a creek. 

This winter at least four Red-headed Woodpeckers have spent the winter months here in Summit Grove. This is the first time I have ever been aware of more than one – though, of course, I might have missed one now and then. So this year I’ve tried to take advantage of the opportunity to watch them as often as possible. 

They all stay well spaced-out and solitary, each one in its own particular area of the neighborhood. Two are mature and vividly colored. One is a juvenile, in more subdued colors, with a full brown head and dark-brownish back. The fourth, I haven’t seen, but have heard calling many times from a low, wooded area near a creek and a power cut and a water treatment plant. Their distinctive rolling churrr has become very familiar this season – in part because one of the mature woodpeckers has stayed in trees around the edge of our own back yard, which slopes down steeply to a creek. It’s a rare delight on a winter day to walk out and hear its call and sometimes see it fly to a tree nearby – it never fails to surprise me with the simple, remarkable fact that it is here. 

A Pine Warbler’s Song

February 1st, 2019

February began with a cold, frosty morning, around 28 degrees very early, clear and sunny, with pale, almost white light, and a soft blue sky with high, feathery clouds and spreading jet trails. When I first stepped outside, I caused a flurry of wings and leaves as Eastern Towhees, a Brown Thrasher, and maybe some sparrows or wrens fled into the shrubs. Towhees called chur-whee, and a House Finch and an Eastern Bluebird sang. Three Northern Cardinals, two females and a male, were foraging in a small strip of grass along the road. Some Brown-headed Nuthatches called their squeaky-dees from nearby. 

As I walked uphill along our driveway, a Pine Warbler trilled its song from a wooded area across the road. Pine Warblers have been singing for almost a month now, since early January, which is about the time I usually begin to notice them again. I haven’t heard many, but here and there, a lyrical trill brings a touch of spring-like color to the grim gray woods.

The rest of a walk through the neighborhood was pleasant and mostly uneventful, with the usual suspects along the way – American Robins scattered out in big, grassy yards; a Ruby-crowned Kinglet calling its dry jidit-jidit in thickets on the edge of Colliers Woods; Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees and Carolina Wrens fussed and sang; an Eastern Phoebe hunted from a low branch; Red-bellied Woodpeckers called chuck-chuck; and one Downy Woodpecker called its silvery, descending rattle. In one rough patch of trees and tangled undergrowth, a well-hidden White-throated Sparrow called a clear, repeated alarm – chink! chink!

All in all, the day felt mostly quiet and peaceful. Mourning Doves cooed. A Turkey Vulture drifted above, the only soaring bird in the sky. One Northern Flicker fed in some grass, and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker worked on a pecan tree. A flock of around 200 blackbirds, mostly Common Grackles, as well as I could tell from a distance, moved restlessly around in several yards, flying constantly in small groups from trees to grass and back to trees. 

Four Northern Flickers

January 31st, 2019

This month of January ended with a day that felt like winter should – cold and clear with a sharp, westerly wind, and a thin blue sky and high, feathery clouds. A beautiful day, but quiet, with very few birds, maybe because of the wind. 

Late in the afternoon, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers – even the usual suspects seemed fewer and more quiet. A Turkey Vulture drifted over and around, in and out of sight. A female Eastern Bluebird perched on a branch, feathers ruffled in the wind, and some House Finches called and one sang. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed. Three or four Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in some pines, and a Pine Warbler sang. A bright red Northern Cardinal sat in a leafless tree, up high. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew across the road low, a tiny, flickering ball of gray-green, and disappeared into a thicket. Two little Chipping Sparrows flew up from the edge of our own front yard and hid in plain sight among the sparse leaves of wax myrtles. 

Four Northern Flickers burst up from a circle of grass in the middle of a cul de sac, white rumps and yellow under the wings and in the tail flashing brightly. Big, handsome woodpeckers seen as often on the ground as in trees, Northern Flickers can be found here year-round, but we see them much more often in winter, when some have moved south for the season. They mainly eat food found on the ground, especially ants and other insects. Mostly brownish overall, a Northern Flicker is regal in bearing, with a gray head held erect, a brown face, long, sturdy bill, and a bold pattern of colors including a black bib; a black-spotted belly; a red crescent on the nape of the neck, and a black moustache on a male. 

Although Northern Flickers are still widespread and often seen, data from the North American Breeding Bird Survey show a disturbing decline in their numbers. The reasons for the decline are not known for sure, but habitat loss and competition from European Starlings for nest cavities are considered likely. “This declining trend should be viewed with concern,” according to the species account in Birds of North America Online, “because the species plays a central role in the ecology of woodland communities where it excavates many of the cavities later used by other hole-nesting species.”*

*K.L. Wiebe and W.S. Moore (2017). Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), version 2.1. In The Birds of North America(P.G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Brown Creeper

January 11th, 2019

This morning was cold, crisp, clear and bright. White frost still lingered in low places, even late in the morning, and the sky was a deep cloudless blue. Birds seemed to be as happy with the good cold weather as I felt, active almost everywhere. As I walked through the neighborhood, I passed Red-headed, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Brown-headed and White-breasted Nuthatch, Eastern Phoebe, American Goldfinch and House Finch, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee, one Red-shouldered Hawk that flew across the road low ahead of me, and a small flock of about 60 blackbirds that I felt pretty sure were Rusty Blackbirds, but I could not get close enough to them to be sure.

In a tangled spot on the edge of some woods, several small birds were moving around near the ground. There were titmice, one pretty Ruby-crowned Kinglet with its ruby-red crest raised up, and from across the road, came the clear, mewing calls of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. As I watched the kinglet flit through some bushes, a very small sliver of mottled brown slipped up the trunk of a pine tree. It was partially obscured by the trunks of a couple of other trees, but I held my breath and hoped it wouldn’t fly away – and then it came more clearly into view: a Brown Creeper. It scuttled up the trunk of the thin pine tree from very low near the ground, and worked its way up higher than my head before it flew to another tree, probably not far away, but I couldn’t find it again. It was only in view for two or three minutes, but close and clear during that time.

A Brown Creeper is a tiny jewel of a bird that’s hard to find and rare to see around here, a fragment of the winter woods that’s becoming less and less common as forested land is cleared. It’s a very small, slender bird with a dark brown back, mottled with white and other shades of brown in a way that blends in well with the trunks of trees. It clings very close to the trunk and moves in an insect-like way, so it almost looks like a piece of bark that’s moving. With a long, down-curved bill, it stops to probe under pieces of bark, looking for spiders and small insects. Its stomach is a smooth, creamy white, its legs short, and its long tail helps to brace it on the side of trunks. 

Brown Creepers are only here in this part of Georgia in the winter. They breed mostly in northern forests with large mature trees, but in winter months can be found in a variety of wooded settings. It’s a bird that is seldom seen, even when they are around, in part because it’s so small, quiet, and so well camouflaged, and also because it stays mostly in the woods. But it often travels along with flocks of feeding birds like titmice, chickadees, nuthatches and kinglets, and can be found along the edges of woods like this one today. Its call – which I did not hear this morning – is a high, sibilant tseeet, a delicate, ringing sound, something like a tiny chain falling into a heap.

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.