Northern Parula

July 5th, 2021

The highlight of a walk this morning was seeing a tiny, colorful Northern Parula in the dense, leafy top of a young water oak. I’ve heard the quiet, buzzy songs of Northern Parulas around our back yard and in other places in the neighborhood fairly often this spring and early summer, but this is the first one I’ve seen in a while. They most often stay well hidden in the trees.

Because this one sounded so close, I stopped to look for it. The leaves in the treetop rustled – and the delicate little bird came into view for just a few very clear moments, looking like a feathered jewel. Blue gray head, and very yellow throat and breast, crossed by a dark, rusty-orange and black band; a white belly, a green patch on the upper back, and small, bright white bars on blue-gray wings. Its face was blue-gray with tiny white crescents framing each eye. It appeared to be gleaning insects or spiders from leaves or the small branches there, curled over them at times. And it was in constant motion. Not too fluttery, just quick moving and never still. At one point, it turned its head up, showing the deep-yellow throat and thin, sharp bill very well. 

A Northern Parula is a small wood warbler, here during the spring and summer months. They spend winters in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. They’re most often found in forested areas, especially along streams, swamps and other wetlands, and their lives are intricately connected to forest vegetation. They suspend their nests in hanging clumps of mosses or lichens, from the end of a branch, very high above the ground.

Female Blue Grosbeak

June 24th, 2021

On a mild, unusually gentle June morning, with a soft blue sky veiled in high white clouds, a brown bird with a slightly crested head and a long, expressive tail flew back and forth several times between a dense privet thicket and a wide strip of tall grass along the roadside. It seemed to be capturing insects in the grass, most likely grasshoppers and crickets, and as it hunted, it frequently called a strong, ringing clink! Once when it flew out of the privet, it clung to a tall-stemmed weed among the grass, facing in my direction and in full, clear view for a few moments, lit by the sun. 

It was a beautiful Blue Grosbeak – a female or an immature male, with handsome coloring in shades of cinnamon and brown, rather than a breeding male’s deep blue. Its crested head was held high, with a very large, pale beak. When it flew from the tall stem, back to the edge of the shrubs, it remained in view for several more moments, switching its long tail rapidly and often, as Blue Grosbeaks often do. Then it went deeper into the vegetation and disappeared.

Blue Grosbeaks are colorful, very interesting songbirds that may not be as familiar as other species because they prefer to nest in scrubby, rough habitats like this old field. They nest during the summer season across a large part of southern North America, including here in this part of Georgia, but they are not generally common or frequently seen. A male in breeding plumage is deep, ink-blue with orange-brown wing bars and a large, prominent silver beak. He sings a melodious, warbled song, often from the top branches of the tallest tree or bush around, but he and his mate nest low, in a small tree or bush or briarpatch or tangle of vines, usually well hidden in dense vegetation.

A great deal about the biology and habits of Blue Grosbeaks is not yet known, maybe because they are so widely dispersed and live in habitats like this one here that are often overlooked. I’ve been lucky enough to find Blue Grosbeaks here in this part of an old field most summers for the past decade or more. They’re not often easily seen, but when they are out, their behavior can be very animated and fascinating to watch. 

Scarlet Tanager, Summer Tanager, Wood Thrush – After a Summer Rain

June 7th, 2021

Late this afternoon, a thundershower and briefly heavy rain cooled off a day that had been muggy and hot. When I sat down on the screened porch, the air felt wonderfully cool and fresh, and rainwater still dripped from the trees all around, so I sat in a green, wet world. With dark-gray clouds still lingering, light seemed to be fading already, even though it was more than an hour before the sun would go down. It looked like early twilight. 

The fluted notes of a Wood Thrush drifted up through the woods, and a second Wood Thrush also sang. One was closer, and slightly to the east, the other further away, to the west. The soft, ticking pik-a-tuk calls of Summer Tanagers moved through the trees much closer, on the eastern side of the yard. And the quiet, crisp chick-brrr calls of Scarlet Tanagers came from oaks on the edge of the woods, not far away. These tanager calls both are among the most alluring sounds of the spring and summer woods, little-noticed hints to the presence of the brilliant-colored and exotic birds. Just knowing they are here is a gift.

On the east side of the yard, where young trees and vines and shrubs blend into a very dense and leafy area, a Northern Parula sang its buzzy song – a small, blue-gray wood warbler with a green back and a black and dark-coral band across a yellow breast. It stayed well hidden in the leaves, but sang for several minutes. 

The call of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo – which always sounds sudden and surprising – came from a treetop just inside the woods. A loud, percussive, exotic-sounding ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-cawp-cawp-cawp. A Louisiana Waterthrush whistled its bright anthem from somewhere along the creek that runs along the bottom of the wooded hill that slopes down from our back yard. And a Great Crested Flycatcher called a full-throated Breeet! from a tall pine.

To have all of these birds around our own back yard and woods this spring and summer seems to me an amazing and hard-to-believe abundance. The Summer and Scarlet Tanagers, Northern Parula, Louisiana Waterthrush, Great Crested Flycatcher and Yellow-billed Cuckoo all are neotropical migrants that are only here in the summer breeding season, and will leave for winter homes much further south in the fall. A Red-eyed Vireo often comes to sing here, too, though it’s not as frequent as the others. I’m more likely to hear its song in the mornings than late in the day. Earlier in the spring a Yellow-throated Vireo was sometimes here singing here, though I haven’t heard it in a while. 

A pair of Gray Catbirds may be nesting in some of the large wax myrtles in our front yard, but I’ve only seen and heard their raspy, mewing calls and awkward, distinctive song now and then. I’m not sure they’ve stayed around. 

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird twittered as she came to the feeder just outside the porch. She sat and sipped nectar for several moments, looked up and around, sipped some more, then flew away, around the corner of the house. Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee all were singing too, at different times, and Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee. Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled, and Downy Woodpecker whinnied its delicate call. A White-breasted Nuthatch made small, nasal calls as it traveled over the branches and trunks. An Eastern Phoebe sang. 

American Redstart and Blackpoll Warbler

May 10th, 2021

A gentle, steady rain began this morning in the dark, well before dawn. I opened a window wider and lay back down in bed and listened for the first bird songs – a Northern Cardinal, then an Eastern Phoebe, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Eastern Towhee and Chipping Sparrow. The rain, a beautiful sound in itself, made it hard to hear the full morning chorus of birds all around, so I only heard the closest ones, but gradually, as the day grew into a soft gray light, a Red-eyed Vireo sang in the trees around our front yard, a Great Crested Flycatcher called a deep, rich breet, and both Summer Tanager and Scarlet Tanager sang in the woods nearby. The rain gradually slowed and stopped, leaving trees and shrubs all drenched and dripping. The clouds lifted and lightened, but the sky stayed mostly overcast all morning.

A couple of hours later, on a gray and damp walk through the neighborhood, a bird sang from some oaks near a side of the road, a string of very high, sweet notes with a rising note at the end. With its flashy colors, it wasn’t too hard to find. An American Redstart – a small black bird with showy patches of bright orange in the wings and tail and on the sides. It was flitting from tree to tree among the dark shadows of this small wooded area, and singing and singing. There were at least two, both males, with orange and black plumage, and I think there were more, but I only saw these two for sure. 

American Redstarts are lively, very colorful birds that flash their wings and tails often as they hop through branches searching for insects. They sang the whole time, and I listened intently, trying to impress this song in my memory. Because I don’t hear it often, it’s a hard one for me to remember well, even though they are common migrants here and I should know it well by now. 

In another wooded spot a little further on, I found a female American Redstart with a small feeding flock of other birds – gray with patches of yellow in wings and tail and on the side, she also flashes her wings and tail often, just as animated as the male. In the same trees with her, were a Black-and-white Warbler, Great Crested Flycatcher, Downy Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Tufted Titmice, and a Red-eyed Vireo.

There also were some other, very small, grayish birds with neat streaks on the sides that I couldn’t identify at first. They were up pretty high, so I was seeing them mostly from underneath, and had to be patient to finally glimpse part of a head, a wing, a face – and orange legs. They were Blackpoll Warblers, and the one I could see best was a female, a small gray bird with a short tail, a thin, sharp bill, a pale breast, white wing bars, a pale, broken ring around the eye and a thin dark streak through the eye, fine streaking on the sides – and orange legs. She moved in a delicate and quick way over the branches, not fluttery, but moving steadily, intent on searching the branches and leaves for prey. I did not see a male, whose spring plumage is a brighter black and white pattern.

Blackpoll Warblers are here in this part of Georgia only in migration. They spend the breeding season in boreal forests of Canada and Alaska and the far north, and migrate to South America and the Caribbean for the winter. Blackpoll Warblers migrate the longest distance of any North American warblers, some traveling from Alaska to Brazil. So the small, delicate bird I’m seeing here in May is in the middle of an amazingly long journey, on its way north for the summer.

Scarlet Tanager in the Rain

May 3rd, 2021

Early this evening, very late in a day of heavy rain and storms, a brilliant Scarlet Tanager appeared among the wet green leaves of a small tree on the edge of our back yard – its clear, bright red gleamed in the mist and light rain and green leaves, with black wings glistening. It moved along the branches, staying in view, searching for insects and other prey. Another bird of a quieter color came very near it briefly, but stayed in the shadows. I think it was a female Scarlet Tanager, though it didn’t stay long, and I didn’t see it well enough to be sure. A few minutes later, after the male had moved out of view, the electric chick-brrr calls of Scarlet Tanagers drifted through the trees, as a gentle rain continued to fall. 

A male Scarlet Tanager is a medium-size, roundish songbird with a thick bill. A pure, clear red with jet-black wings and a black tail, it’s a stunning bird to see, exotic in appearance, and it’s hard to believe it can stay as well hidden as they usually do, deep among the foliage of hardwood trees. It’s unusual to watch one that stays out of the leaves in view as this one did, for any length of time. The female’s color is a mix of olive and yellow, with darker wings and tail, striking in her own way, but in colors that blend more easily into the background shades of a forest. 

We’ve had the very good luck this spring to have a pair of Scarlet Tanagers singing and calling in the trees around our back yard and the nearby woods. Almost every day the male’s insistent song can be heard nearby, a series of hoarse, robin-like phrases. The quiet, expressive chick-brrr calls of the pair lace through the trees. I especially love to hear them late in the day, even in early twilight, because the calls reveal that these beautiful birds are here. They stay so hidden in the foliage that without the calls and songs, we might not even know they were around.

Scarlet Tanagers prefer to nest in large areas of deciduous forest, especially in oaks. They are particularly sensitive to the loss of forested habitat and to forest fragmentation. In smaller patches of woods where they do nest, they often are less successful, often parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds and suffering other risks because of not having the protection of a deeper forest interior. 

So while it’s lucky for us to have such exotic, colorful songbirds nesting near our home, it may not be so lucky for the Scarlet Tanagers themselves, because the woods that surround our home are very patchy and fragmented. We do have a lot of large and beautiful oaks, and I can hope that these will give the tanagers enough protection and good success in this nesting season. 

Hermit Thrush, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Blackbird Flock

November 10th, 2020

Early this morning I stepped out into a foggy, wet, copper-brown world that seemed to have changed overnight. The leaves on all of the white oaks – only yesterday still half green – this morning are mostly brown. There’s still yellow in the sweet gums, red in the maples, rose-coral in the dogwoods and some green in the oaks. But a big change came overnight, and we’re more and more surrounded in deep autumn-brown.

From somewhere in the trees on the edge of the woods came the sweet chup, chup calls of a Hermit Thrush. It’s been around for several days now. I haven’t yet succeeded in seeing it among the speckled leaves, but haven’t really tried too hard. It’s just very nice to hear its calls. It feels like a fall and winter counterpart of the Wood Thrushes that sang last summer. Not singing, of course, but with its very lovely, liquid calls, reflecting the background and sense of the season. 

Lots of little birds flitted around in the branches and leaves of the oaks – mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers, which I’m very happy to see. Also three or four Carolina Wrens, two Eastern Bluebirds, and some Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice. 

Later in the morning, on a walk through the neighborhood in very cloudy, soft gray light, things seemed mostly quiet in a peaceful way. The clear mewing call of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker drifted through the trees. Too far away to see, but the call was very clear, and repeated. A White-breasted Nuthatch called a nasal ank, ank, ank. An Eastern Phoebe sang. I passed the mewing calls of two more Sapsuckers, in widely different places, and the whistled songs of White-throated Sparrows from the thickets in the field. Around Pond Corner, I stopped to watch a handsome Northern Flicker searching for food in the grass. The bright red crescent on the gray nape of its neck reflected the softer, coral-red leaves of four dogwood trees nearby. 

The blackbird flock was around the area where it’s often been since late October, at least three hundred and probably many more pleasantly noisy birds spread out across grassy yards and in the bare branches of pecan trees, constantly moving from one spot to another, flowing like a river. Almost all were Common Grackles, but I saw a handful of birds that I think were probably Rusty Blackbirds, though I didn’t see them well enough to be sure. This is always a challenge for me. I think a better birder would be able to spot Rusty Blackbirds among a flock much more quickly – but for me, I always have to look hard, especially when the flock is steadily moving even on the ground, and often startled into flight. A Common Grackle is easy to identify – big, bold, iridescent black, with a long, heavy bill and long tail. But when I do find other blackbirds among the grackles, smaller, with a different shape and thinner bills and tails not quite so long, it takes me longer to be sure, and most of the time the flock flushes up with a rush of wings and moves further away, just when I’m finding a good clear view. The rusty color rarely shows up so well that they’re easy to spot from a distance. But it’s fun to try. And I’m very happy to have such a good flock around again this fall. It’s a good year for pecans here, and acorns, which may help.

Yellow-rumped Warblers

November 8th, 2020

Early this afternoon a Hermit Thrush called from trees on the edge of the woods around our back yard. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker flew to the trunk of an oak, a juvenile, with a ruffled look all over, and no red showing on its throat or crown, but a white and brown striped face, and a bold white bar down the wings.  

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Wren, Northern Cardinals and an Eastern Towhee all were calling now and then – on a warm, windy afternoon with low white clouds blowing fast across a gray sky. The landscape has become multi-colored, confetti-like, with green and brown and orange oaks, yellow sweet gums and tulip poplars, coral-red dogwoods, and leaves blowing and showering down.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker didn’t stay long, but a Ruby-crowned Kinglet flew into the oak and began moving quickly through the leaves in its flickering way, a tiny, gray-green bird that looked especially green and crisp today, with hints of yellow in the flicking wings, a bright white ring around its eye and a small white wing bar. 

Meanwhile, in the oaks all around the yard, lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted from spot to spot, scattering their check calls as they searched for food. I watched one move along a branch, methodically pecking at the branch as it went. Now and then one flew up to capture an insect in the air. Yellow-rumped Warblers are little gray birds, looking very nondescript in winter plumage – brownish-gray, with touches of yellow on the sides, and a bright yellow rump that can be hard to see when their wings are folded, but shows up especially when they fly. 

I’m especially happy to see them because the past two or three years the number of Yellow-rumped Warblers here in our neighborhood has been far fewer than in the past. While there used to be so many they seemed to be everywhere, last winter on many days it was hard to find more than a handful. So it’s very encouraging to see so many here this fall – not only around our own yard, but also in other parts of the neighborhood. It felt joyous just to stand and watch them, as if a part of life that had been missing had returned. 

Yellow-rumped Warblers are known for arriving each fall in very large numbers across much of the central and southeastern U.S. They are still described as widespread, and the most common winter warbler in North America, with no special concern for their populations. So I don’t know why I have observed such a dramatic drop in their numbers here in our own neighborhood in recent years – and I’m hopeful that this year they’ll continue to be abundant as the season goes on. 

Purple Finch

November 2nd, 2020

Back at home, my spirits lifted because it seemed like I’d finally found all the birds. Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees and a Downy Woodpecker were coming and going from the feeders. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet called jidit-jidit from some wax myrtles. An Eastern Towhee called a rich chur-whee, and two Towhees scratched up leaves under holly bushes. Several Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from tree to tree around the yard, scattering their quick, light check calls. 

From deep in the leaves of a bush beside the porch, the gentle face of a small grayish bird with a white throat and a white, broken ring around its eye peered out – a Yellow-rumped Warbler. A White-throated Sparrow flew into the same bush with a thumping flurry, and looked around. A bird bath stands very close to this bush, and they may both have been considering whether a visit to it was safe.

A stocky, heavily streaked bird flew to the feeder and sat for a moment on top of it, while a Tufted Titmouse sat below eating seeds. The new bird was one I haven’t seen here before, a small bird – but it didn’t look small. It had a sturdy presence. A brown finch, very heavily streaked on the breast and sides, and a striped face with a long white eyebrow and a large conical bill. It was a Purple Finch – a female or a first-year male. It’s the first Purple Finch I’ve seen in several years, and I’m not sure we have ever seen one here in Summit Grove until today.

Purple Finches are considered fairly common across much of the U.S., but they are not common here. A male Purple Finch is raspberry-red – much more colorful than the female, though her bold, brown-streaked plumage is striking in its own way. Although Purple Finches are described as widespread and often come to bird feeders, they have become less common in the eastern U.S. in the past several decades. Competition with House Sparrows and House Finches – two species not native to America – is thought to have contributed to a decline in their populations. 

House Finches are very common birds here, year-round. Both male and female House Finches look like smaller, washed-out versions of the more boldly colored Purple Finches. However, one study has shown that in competition between the two, Purple Finches lost out to House Finches 95 percent of the time – a fact that seems amazing to me, because Purple Finches look as if they should be more dominant. But looks can be deceiving.

The Purple Finch I watched this morning looked strong and aggressive. It chased the Titmouse away and sat on the feeder by itself, eating black sunflower seeds. When a second Purple Finch – also a female or first-year male – appeared on a nearby branch, the first one chased it away and returned to the feeder and kept eating. The second Finch stayed nearby in a tree – but then something startled them and they both flew away and did not come back while I was outside.

Hermit Thrush

November 2nd, 2020

On a crisp, cold, brightly sunny morning, the sky burned a clear, cloudless blue. Touches of red, orange, yellow and rust spotted the green trees and shrubs like confetti. It was a beautiful fall day, and yet, all through the neighborhood a strange quiet prevailed. In the big grassy yards were no feeding flocks of small birds, not even a bluebird or a robin. No towhees or thrashers or sparrows around the shrubs. The trees on the edge of the woods stood quiet, and even the old field appeared empty of birds except for Blue Jays everywhere and American Crows flying over now and then. Gradually I could find the chattering calls of Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens, an Eastern Towhee here and there, all sounding far away in the distance. The chuck-chuck calls of Red-bellied Woodpeckers were closer, and an occasional whinny from a Downy. 

From somewhere in the leaves of a water oak on the very edge of the road, surrounded by a thin tangle of fading grasses and weeds, skimpy bushes and vines, came a low, liquid call. Chup. Repeated again and again. Chup. Chup. It’s not possible to capture in words how lovely it is, the call of a Hermit Thrush, though it sounded somewhat forlorn in this spot, sitting on a branch among the spotty, orange-brown leaves of a vine that twisted up the trunk. The Hermit Thrush sat directly above me, so what I could see was its pale underside and the dark-spotted throat and breast, and the lifted head with its watchful eye. The reddish tail lifted and lowered, lifted and lowered, as it continued to call the low chup, chup. I only watched it for a few moments, before walking on, not wanting to disturb it more. 

Bay-breasted Warbler

October 23rd, 2020

Late this morning I was surprised to find a slender, greenish warbler moving along the lichen-covered branches of a pecan tree, searching for food. It moved quickly and intently over the branches, not fluttery or flitting from place to place. Because I haven’t often seen this warbler, it took me a few minutes to identify it – though I should have known immediately. Its breast was pale, and the soft buffy-bay color on its flanks and under its tail was distinctive. A beautiful Bay-breasted Warbler.

While identifying a warbler in fall plumage can be confusing and frustrating, it’s also a lot of fun, and this Bay-breasted Warbler stayed in clear view in the same tree for several minutes, so it was a good chance to study field marks. It was a warm sunny morning, and it helped that the warbler wasn’t fluttery or flying from place to place often. It foraged quickly and neatly along the branches and stopped often to eat something – some of what it ate looked like tiny caterpillars. 

This male was much less brilliantly colored than it would have been in spring, but the markings were still clear – dark wings with two bright white wing bars; a smooth greenish head; thin, sharply pointed bill; dark streak through the eye and a slight hint of a yellow band over the eye; a rather long tail – and I even got a good look at the underside of the tail itself, which was white, with a slight dark marking about halfway up. But the most obvious and definitive part was the soft buffy-bay color on the flanks and under the tail. It also showed this soft-bay color very pale under the chin.

Muted streaks on the sides confused me for a while, because most accounts of this species describe its underside as smooth and unstreaked. Back at home later, I eventually found photos on the Audubon Society website that show the blurry streaking in the male’s fall plumage – almost too subtle to see, but it’s there. And maybe in the one I watched there was some trick of the light that made the streaks show up more.

Bay-breasted Warblers breed mostly in northern spruce and fir forests and migrate through the eastern U.S. to winter homes in South America. They are considered an uncommon species whose remote breeding areas make them somewhat difficult to track.

I didn’t see any other Bay-breasted Warbler, or other migrant birds – though maybe there were others around that I didn’t find. This one seemed to be part of a small feeding flock of resident birds that included Eastern Bluebirds, a Downy Woodpecker, Carolina Chickadees, and at least five Chipping Sparrows, two of them searching along the pecan branches for food near the warbler. After a minute or two, the Bay-breasted Warbler flew at the Chipping Sparrows and chased them away from its branch. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed from not far away, and a Northern Flicker called a sharp kleer!