Hermit Thrush

November 26th, 2023

This morning began in the low 40s and felt colder, with a raw, damp edge in the air and a breeze from the east. It was a very gray day with layers of gray clouds but no rain until the early afternoon. When I stepped out onto our front porch, Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice were coming and going from the two feeders. A Downy Woodpecker was working here and there in the bare limbs of the trees. Several Northern Cardinals foraged in dry leaves on the ground, especially under the feeders. Two Chipping Sparrows sat on one of the feeders eating, as they often do, now and then dislodged by a Titmouse or Chickadee. A Carolina Wren clung to the hanging block feeder it favors, eating what looked like black sunflower seeds. Yellow-rumped Warblers flew from spot to spot among the wax myrtles and trees, calling their chip calls. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered. 

I could hear lots of rustling in dry leaves, under the shrubs and all around, and very quiet seet calls, and slowly I began to see a White-throated Sparrow here – and there. One sitting up on the edge of an azalea shrub. Another scratching up leaves below the birdbath. Another two – or three – out foraging in the carpet of leaves and woody mulch.

A fawn-brown bird flew to the rim of the birdbath right in front of me – and though it sat with its back to me, I knew immediately from the smooth brown of its back and the distinctly reddish tail and the upward tilt of its head, it was a Hermit Thrush. One of the happiest sights I could have wished for. It was only a few feet away, so close! And it turned its head toward me a bit, so I could see its face in clear close-up, with its wide, watchful eye, and some of the streaks on its throat and upper chest. 

I’ve been hoping for a Hermit Thrush for weeks now, and this is the first one I’ve seen. Though a Hermit Thrush is not actually very shy, it is solitary in its habits, at least in the winter season when it’s here. So I wouldn’t expect to find flocks of them, but individual birds that each seem to settle into their own winter territories – like our yard, and the yards of some of our neighbors, and certain spots in the woods – where I might count on seeing one often.

After only a minute or so, a big red Northern Cardinal flew to the birdbath and the Hermit Thrush flew away. But then, in not too many more minutes, the Cardinal flew away and the Hermit Thrush returned to the same spot on the birdbath, and I watched it sit and take several sips of water, tipping its head far back with each careful sip to swallow. My view of it was so close and so very clear, and it felt as if it didn’t mind my presence or my watching. I’m sure it was only my imagination that it watched me with as much interest as I watched it. But who knows. 

I can’t know if this is the same Hermit Thrush that spent last winter here around our yard, or a different one, but it still feels like a friend returning. And I don’t even know if this one has only just arrived, or if maybe it’s been around for a while. But I have been watching and listening for it – especially for its quiet, liquid chup call – and I have not heard that call until today, when I heard it coming from somewhere in the line of wax myrtles after it had flown away again. 

Red-headed Woodpecker Storing an Acorn

November 20th, 2023

Since late October, we’ve continued to hear the loose, rattling calls of a juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker in trees around our back yard and our neighbor’s. It often sounds close, but I don’t often see it. This morning when I got back home after a walk, I heard the calls again – and this time I was lucky enough to see it just as it flew to a rather high spot on one fork of a tall pecan tree. In its bill was something that looked like a large acorn, and I watched as the woodpecker tucked the object into a crevice in the tree. It didn’t work at it long, just immediately tucked its bill toward and into the tree. It tapped at it two or three times, and then began to explore other spots nearby with its bill. 

Red-headed Woodpeckers are one of only four woodpecker species in North America that are known to store food like acorns and other nuts and seeds, or even insects like grasshoppers. They wedge them into crevices and cover them with wood or bark. So this was really interesting to see! My view wasn’t close enough to see if this one was covering what it had stored, but it did tap at it briefly.

The woodpecker – a juvenile with a full brown head and brownish-black back, and wings with large white panels – stayed in this one pecan tree for several minutes, calling its rattling call from time to time. Across the lower part of the white wing panels was a pattern that looked like dark, partly-scalloped lines. The woodpecker moved from the fork of the tree out onto a much-thinner branch, where it sat for a while and preened, addressing its back and wings and breast, each in turn. In only a minute or two its feathers looked fluffed up and downy all over. 

I kept watching until my neck was sore from leaning back – the woodpecker was pretty high up in the tree. But it was a lot of fun to see, and it’s not every year we have one stay around for a while. 

Golden-crowned Kinglets

November 10th, 2023

Today has been a cloudy day with cooler temperatures and drizzling rain all afternoon. Our home feels submerged in the orange-brown leaves of the white oak trees that surround us. Around noon, as we sat on the screened porch for lunch, with a very light patter of rain all around, the high, thin calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets sparkled in the oaks above us. They were too high up for me to see, but they stayed around for half an hour or more as the kinglets moved here and there among the leaves, sounding silvery and twinkling, like glitter scattered over a small part of the misty, mellow, contemplative day.

A Blue-headed Vireo’s Scolding Call

November 8th, 2023

A little later in the morning as I headed out for a walk, Yellow-rumped Warblers were still scattering chip calls around the yard and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet called its dry jidit-jidit. Light showers of tan and yellow leaves drifted down gently. I was searching an open grassy area for Chipping Sparrows when a clear, pretty song took my attention in a different direction. 

It was a song that sounded more like spring than fall, a series of slow, sweet notes and phrases – the song of a Blue-headed Vireo, a bird whose appearance is as cool and lovely as its song. It wasn’t hard to find among the patchy brown and green leaves of an oak, partly because it wasn’t too high and it moved deliberately, not fluttering or flitting. And partly because – once seen – the face of a Blue-headed Vireo is so striking that it stands out as if in a spotlight. 

Its head was a deep blue-gray, with bright white markings around the eyes that look like spectacles. Its back was olive-green, wings dark gray with white wing bars, its breast pale with a wash of lemon-yellow on the sides. And its throat was snowy-white, which I saw especially well as it lifted its head to sing, again and again. 

But it wasn’t only singing. This Blue-headed Vireo was also making a frequent buzzy, chattery, insistent call, and I watched as it made this call several times. I later learned that it’s one of its most common vocalizations, described as a scolding call – very different from its gentle song. For me the call was a new one to learn, so this was maybe the most interesting part of watching it this morning – though it’s also always just a pleasure to see this beautiful bird. The scolding call is one I’ve heard many times in the past, but I didn’t know what it was. This is the first time I have watched a Blue-headed Vireo as it scolded, and could really connect it – and I hope, begin to learn it. 

Seeing a Blue-headed Vireo here is always special, and almost always takes me by surprise. They are not among our most common birds – though they do commonly show up now and then. I have seen them most often in very early spring, and sometimes like this, late fall. And it’s certainly possible that they are around more often that I realize, because they’re often more quiet.  

Blue-headed Vireos breed in Canada and in higher elevations in the eastern U.S. and winter in very southern parts of the U.S. and Central America. Some may spend the winter in this part of the Piedmont in Georgia – they are said to be expanding their winter range into this region, though it seems that most still move further south.

When I first started birding, several decades ago, I learned to know this songbird as a Solitary Vireo – and that name still seems to me to capture the essence of its independent spirit and elusive ways. Its name was changed in the late 1990s when the Solitary Vireo species was split into three different species to reflect more accurate genetic knowledge. But it’s nice that the Blue-headed Vireo’s scientific name remains, Vireo solitarius.

Sunrise Birds

November 8th, 2023

At 7:00 this morning, the sun just up, the temperature was 48 degrees and the day looked clear and crisp, with multi-colored leaves shimmering against a pale blue sky, and birds calling and singing. Yellow-rumped Warblers flew here and there, scattering chip notes. A White-throated Sparrow sang its high, sweet song. Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and a Downy Woodpecker were coming and going from our two newly-filled bird feeders.

Two or three dozen American Robins were spread out through the trees around the front yard, chortling and chuckling their morning calls. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet flitted its way through the wax myrtles, calling its dry jidit-jidit. Some Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered in the pines, and I heard the whistling wings of Mourning Doves in flight, the distant cries of a Red-shouldered Hawk, the chucking of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, the chur-whee of an Eastern Towhee, and the peeping of several Northern Cardinals.

On a large, thick branch of the pecan tree closest to the house, a White-breasted Nuthatch crept down the branch in shallow curves, searching the bark and what looked like moss or fungi growing on the limb, and making the small, quiet, intimate calls that are some of the sweetest bird sounds I know. I think these soft, short little murmurs are contact calls between a pair, and it always feels a special privilege to be close enough to hear them. 

A White-throated Sparrow flew to the rim of the birdbath, not far at all from where I stood on the porch. It took several sips of the water – then it moved to the far rim and sat with its back to the water. From that perch, it took several sips from sparkling drops of water that had collected on needles of the yews that surround the birdbath, where it must have splashed out.

Red-headed Woodpecker

November 6th, 2023

One morning in late October I heard a loose, bubbly kind of rattle we don’t usually hear around our yard. The bird fell quiet or drifted away, but I’ve heard the same calls several more times since then. I felt pretty sure it was a Red-headed Woodpecker, and Merlin agreed. So I’ve been hoping to find it. 

Late this morning I was checking out trees around the back yard when I heard the rattle again, and as I stood at the end of our driveway a fine young Red-headed Woodpecker flew to the trunk of an oak not far at all from where I stood. There it was! A juvenile, with a full brown head, and plumage that was maybe more brown than black on its back and wings, and big white panels in the wings. It didn’t stay long on this trunk, flew to another tree and then back toward me again, and then flew further away and out of sight. 

Red-headed Woodpeckers are not common in our neighborhood, but over the past twenty-three years here in Summit Grove, I have found solitary Red-headed Woodpeckers that stayed here for the winter season several times – though not every year. Always they have been juveniles, and when the spring arrives – they disappear. 

A mature Red-headed Woodpecker is brilliantly colorful – with full pure-red head, snow-white belly, and black wings with big white wing panels. They are very active and fascinating to watch. Although they used to be common across much of the eastern U.S., in the past several decades their populations have declined alarmingly, and they are now considered uncommon and local in most parts of their range. The main reason is thought to be loss of habitat and of the foods they need.

Because acorns are among a wide variety of foods Red-headed Woodpeckers favor, especially in the winter, I wonder if our very abundant acorns have attracted them this year. We’ve had so many acorns falling from the white oaks, especially, that for weeks we’ve had to be careful about walking under them, and now the ground in both front and back yards is thickly carpeted with acorns. 

Cloudless Sulphur

November 3rd, 2023

By late morning the day had warmed up quite a lot, but I was still pleasantly surprised this late in the year to see a pretty yellow butterfly fluttering around the edges of some water oaks. It settled on the rim of an oak leaf and clung there, wings held up, as if soaking up the warmth of the sun. A medium-size butterfly, its wings were a clear pure yellow, with only a couple of very small dark-rimmed irregular spots on the underside. I’m not sure, but think it was a Cloudless Sulphur butterfly. It had settled just a little too high up for me to be able to try a photo.

Cloudless Sulphurs are among our most common butterflies, and at this time of year they are migrating in large numbers, many of them passing through Georgia on their way to a winter home in Florida or further south. This late summer and fall I have only seen a scattered few passing through our neighborhood, many fewer than in past years. I don’t know if their populations have decreased overall or if it’s a change that has only happened here. In general, they are still considered widespread and common. But this year – when we have seen so very few butterflies at all here, it seems to me that almost no butterfly species can be considered safe. 

The simple joy of watching a lemon-yellow butterfly on a sunny day is no longer something we can take for granted. When the chance comes along, the only thing to do is to stop everything and just watch. Watch it fly, watch it settle on a leaf or flower or blade of grass, search its delicate wings and try to remember every intricate trace, until it flies away again. And be grateful. 

Chipping Sparrows

November 3rd, 2023

This crisp, bright morning also seemed to bring out a good many other birds around our neighborhood, with more activity than in quite a while. One of the happiest pieces of news was to find about a dozen Chipping Sparrows foraging in the grass of our front yard. As I walked by them, they all sprayed up from the ground into small trees and bushes, along with several Yellow-rumped Warblers – and two landed in the bare limbs of a redbud tree, where I could see them well.

A Chipping Sparrow is a lively, pretty sparrow with a brown-streaked back, smooth gray breast and belly, a black line through the eye with a white eyebrow above it – and a crown of bright rusty-red. Some are here year-round, and through the summer their long, level trills are among the most familiar birdsong. At this time of year they’re not singing, but more may arrive from a little further north, and through the late fall and winter season they feed and move in flocks of various sizes. Usually on walks in late fall and winter I pass at least a few gatherings along the roadside and in grassy yards, where – as I walk by – they scatter up and into trees and shrubs like leaves blown up into the air.

A White-throated Sparrow Day

November 3rd, 2023

A heavy white frost covered open areas of grass and rimmed the edges of leaves early this morning, making, with a bright sun, cloudless blue sky, and warm fall colors, a sparkling and colorful November day – and a perfect setting for the return of White-throated Sparrows. Their sweet, high, whistled songs were the first thing I heard as I stepped out the door, coming not from one, but from several hidden spots in the shrubs around our front yard and neighbors’ yards. Here – there – here again – a clear, lovely song curled up like a wisp of fog. Later I heard the songs all through the neighborhood, too – not in great numbers, but quite a few. I’ve heard one or two stray songs before today, but this is really the first day when many were announcing their return. 

White-throated Sparrows are among our most abundant winter birds here, and are certainly among my favorites. They are large, plump, handsome sparrows, with a brown-streaked back, gray breast, black-and-white striped crown and face, a gold accent mark between the eye and bill, and a neat white throat. The mature sparrows always look very sharply dressed. Immatures may show less-distinct markings and more streaks, and there are usually a mix of the two. They forage for food on the ground, scratching up leaves and mulch, and very often visit our bird feeder or the ground under it – though today, even though it was clear they have arrived, they stayed hidden in the shrubs. 

They sing even through the winter months, and their songs are among the most beautiful and haunting music of the season. 

Welcome back! 

Golden-crowned Kinglets

October 30th, 2023

This morning I stepped outside into a stained-glass world of mellow fall colors. Under a deep-blue sky a bright sun shined through a shifting canopy of yellow, brown, orange, red and green leaves. A young dogwood tree in our front yard still holds a shimmering umbrella of drooping wine and coral leaves that looks like a shower of tears. The gingko is golden, the river birches all but bare, the white oaks half wood-brown; the big red maples a mix of green and crusty scarlet. 

Winter birds are slowly, slowly arriving. A few more each recent day, it seems. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet sang a quick, bright song and others called their dry jidit-jidit as they flitted through wax myrtles and other shrubs. Yellow-rumped Warblers scattered chip calls as they flew. A Northern Flicker called a bright loud kleer! A few hesitant, whistled notes from a White-throated Sparrow drifted out from some tall dark shrubs – the first hint that they’re here. 

The best surprise of the day was to find two little birds I have found here very seldom in the past few years – two Golden-crowned Kinglets. Tiny, exquisite birds with black-and-white striped faces and crowns of bright lemon-yellow, they were moving quickly through a maze of leafy branches near the top of a small tree, and making very high, thin calls – ti-ti-ti, ti-ti-ti. Only a little bigger than hummingbirds, they look like small jewels and are very animated in their movements, light, airy and inquisitive. Their backs are olive-gray, with a warm-yellow wash on the wings, the breast grayish-pale. They were unusually close and easy to see, even though they move so quickly, intent on the search for food. I watched for several minutes as they explored the leaves and small branches, and watched as one held on and balanced on the very tip of a very thin branch, almost walking on air, it seemed.

Golden-crowned Kinglets spend summers further north, mostly in the boreal forests of North America – though they have been expanding their breeding range further south in parts of the U.S. During the winter, they spread out through much of the U.S., including here in Georgia. The past few years they’ve been hard to find here in our neighborhood, though they used to be fairly common – and I’ve missed them. These might be just passing through, but I’m hoping maybe they might stay.