Bathing White-throated Sparrows

February 23rd, 2023

Early afternoon on a softly sunny, unusually warm day for this time of year, I opened windows in a room that faces the front yard, taking advantage of the weather to let some fresh air into the house. There’s a birdbath that stands among the shrubs just below these windows, and I was a little surprised to see not just one or two but several small birds in and around it. We’d filled the birdbath with fresh water in the morning, the birds were obviously delighted, and the scene made me think of a renaissance painting of bathing nymphs in a sylvan setting.

Most of the birds were White-throated Sparrows, plump brown-streaked sparrows with black and white-striped crowns, neat white throats and pale gray breasts, birds that most often stay well hidden in shrubby vegetation and come out cautiously to forage for food on the ground. These were all enjoying a warm-day outing with what looked like unusual abandon. One sat in the middle of the pool of water, dunking, splashing and doing its best to keep others away. Other White-throated Sparrows were all around in shrubs and on the ground, either waiting or trying to get in themselves. One and sometimes two at a time sat on the rim and took sips of water, and now and then one would hop in and splash briefly before being chased out. Three White-throated Sparrows waited in the dense green yews right beside the birdbath and others foraged nearby in brown mulch and green moss. All of them were coming and going in leisurely ways, looking unusually peaceful and at ease, for the moment feeling safe and hidden in this little spot.

The dominant White-throated Sparrow sat and soaked, splashing its wings and fluffing out its chest feathers, looking so sensual I could almost feel the fresh, cool water. The gold accent on its face gleamed, and the white throat feathers shined. After several minutes another bold sparrow flew up and got into the water with the first one, and they both splashed around while others came one or two at a time for drinks. 

The interlude lasted for several minutes and finally ended when a bright red male Northern Cardinal flew to the rim of the birdbath, sending all of the White-throated Sparrows scattering like dry leaves into nearby shrubs and out of sight. 

Hermit Thrush – Grace Note on a Difficult Day

January 31st, 2023

This morning I tested positive for covid for the first time. I felt pretty rough with cough, congestion and other symptoms, so it wasn’t a surprise. The weather was darkly gray, cold, damp and felt miserable in every way. But in the middle of this dismal day there came one charmed and happy moment. 

Through an open window in the kitchen as I stood at the sink, I heard a soft, familiar chup among the other calls of birds nearby. And sure enough, after finding my binoculars and just a few moments of searching, I found a Hermit Thrush sitting on a low branch of an oak on the edge of the back yard. A gentle, pale-brown bird with dark spots on its throat and chest and a reddish tail that it lifted up and lowered slowly. It held its head erect, with the bill pointed slightly up, and it seemed to be looking back at me with a round, watchful eye, as I looked at it. 

It’s a bird I don’t see very often, though I know one has spent this winter so far in the shrubs around our house, coming out to forage in the mulch with sparrows and cardinals and towhees. A quiet, unobtrusive songbird, it has long been one of my favorites, so today it felt comforting to have this brief, sweet connection. 

Brown-headed Nuthatches

August 24th, 2021

Two little Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered as they explored the top part of a dead pine snag this morning. The snag has lost most of its bark so its surface is bare and pocked with holes and cracks of different shapes and sizes. There’s one hole larger than most, very near the jagged, broken-off top, and I watched as one of the nuthatches hopped inside this hole, and then I heard tapping that went on for several moments. The other nuthatch stayed nearby, searching over the top part of the snag, and the two called in squeaky, cheerful-sounding notes, back and forth.

Brown-headed Nuthatches are very small birds with short tails and long bills, a blue-gray back, brown cap, and white throat and breast. Lively and active, they are found most of the time in pine trees. They stay in touch with notes that sound like squeaky toys as they move quickly up, down and sideways over trunks and branches and in clumps of pine needles, searching for insects and spiders. 

Brown-headed Nuthatches are closely associated with southeastern pine forests, usually found in areas where pines are the dominant trees. They need standing dead trees for nesting and roosting, and mostly search for food in living trees. We’re lucky to have them here in our neighborhood, in patchy woods that are a mix of hardwoods and pines. Over the past two decades, many of the pines have died or been removed, so there are fewer than there used to be. But the nuthatches still have stayed around, so far, so maybe there are enough pines and snags to provide what they need. They are year-round residents here, and some stay in the same territories for years. They often come to our feeders in the winter – and in some summers they have come regularly to our hummingbird feeder with a water moat in the middle, to drink from the moat. 

Red-eyed Vireo and Summer Tanager – Grace Notes on a Hot Summer Day

August 24th, 2021

Early morning on a very warm, humid, brightly sunny day, two, maybe three, maybe four Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zipped and hummed and dueled around the porch, flying between two feeders, whizzing past the screens, perching in nearby oak branches. One twittered for several minutes as it hovered, visiting pink impatiens blossoms on the deck. 

A Mississippi Kite called a sweet pee-tooopee-too, nearby but not in sight, maybe perched in a tree, or circling low.

And this morning’s special gift – a Red-eyed Vireo sang its bright refrain in trees all around the edge of the back yard, traveling from one side to another and on, passing through.

Later in the morning, as I walked up a wooded hill, a rather long, sturdy songbird, in shades of mellow-yellow and brown, flew out of the trees and paused on a low branch of a pine. A Summer Tanager, a female or an immature male, reminding me that fall migration has begun. Birds still seem quiet and scarce, and hot summer days will linger here for another month or more, but it’s late August, and changes have begun. Lots of brown, crumpled leaves of pecan trees litter the ground, and sprinkles of red-orange leaves dot some of the water oaks. Two Common Grackles flew over, calling harsh checks, and American Robins are gathering in small groups in shady yards.

Arrow-shaped Micrathena Spider

August 20th, 2021

This morning I found this very tiny, colorful spider in an intricate orb web among the leaves of a holly bush at one corner of our house. With its vibrant colors it sparkled in the sun, showing up well, even though it’s only about .3 inch long. 

Arrow-shaped Micrathena spiders (Micrathena sagittata) are common in eastern North America and Central America, usually found in wooded places, often close to the ground. Instead of being round, the abdomen is triangular in shape, like the head of an arrow, and sharp spines stick out from its edges. Two large, fierce-looking, black and red points extend from the rear of the abdomen and point away from each other. The spines may serve to deter predators. Micrathena spiders are also called Spiny Orbweavers.

A Different Call from a Mississippi Kite

August 13th, 2021

Today while I was walking, I again heard the sweet, whistled pee-tooo calls of a Mississippi Kite, and turned around in time to see one flying toward the dense green canopy of several tall trees. As it neared the treetops, the kite gave a pretty, stuttering series of high call notes that sounded different – similar to the pee-tooo calls but with more and shorter notes. The kite disappeared into the trees, and a second Mississippi Kite whistled as it circled nearby. 

I’d never heard this call before, and when I looked it up after I got back home, I learned that this multi-syllable call is less often heard, and is commonly used by the kites when interacting with a mate or nestlings. 

Mississippi Kites

August 12th, 2021

On a hot and humid morning, two graceful, slender, long-winged raptors circled over a cul de sac in the neighborhood next to ours. At first glance, they looked black, but a closer look showed pearl-gray plumage with white heads and dark-gray wings with white edges – Mississippi Kites. I’ve seen them here off and on all summer, but this is the first time this year I’ve enjoyed such a good view and watched them in flight. As they flew, they called in high, whistled notes, pee-tooo.

Their legs and feet were extended as they flew, and they were catching insects in the air, and leaning over to eat them in flight. As they hunted, they flew with acrobatic grace, with sudden turns and sharp dives, and smooth soaring on narrow, outstretched wings, looking lighter than air. Their tails constantly shifted with small adjustments. Once, when one circled down lower, just over the rooftops, I could see the black patch over its eye on a white face and head. 

A Mississippi Kite is a medium-size raptor, with narrow, pointed wings. It’s known for its graceful, buoyant flight. Over the past several years, they have become more common here around our neighborhood and the surrounding area, and I’ve often watched them from this same cul de sac – sometimes perched in a line of trees along the edge of a stretch of woods that extends behind the houses here. This summer for the first time, I’ve also been hearing the pee-tooo calls around our own back yard, and now and then I’ve seen one circling low, just over the treetops. 

We’re extremely lucky to have these elegant birds spending the summer here. They have been extending their breeding range in the U.S. over the past several decades. They appear to adapt well to living urban and suburban areas. They breed in scattered areas of the southern and central U.S., using a variety of different habitats in different regions, and they migrate in large flocks to South America for the winter. 

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Gray Catbird

August 9th, 2021

This morning Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were again flitting all along the edge of the thickets in what remains of the old field. Three in one spot, four in another, two further along, they animate the drab green weeds and tangle of vines. 

A dark-gray bird flew up to perch near the top of a thin, near-leafless wild pear tree out in the middle of the field – a Gray Catbird, adding to the list of surprises I’ve found in this spot in the past few days. This one’s especially nice to see because this summer Gray Catbirds have not nested in our neighborhood or the subdivision next to us, for the first time in recent years. I’ve watched for them ever since the spring, and they never showed up here. There was a pair around our own front yard that I saw a few times in late spring, and I was hoping they might stay. But they didn’t – at least, not anywhere I’ve been able to find them. So it’s nice at least to see one passing through. 

Gray Catbirds are among my favorite birds, very animated in their behavior, all dark gray with jaunty black cap, and rusty-orange feathers under the long, expressive tail. Like its close relatives, Northern Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers, a Gray Catbird sings a song that includes mimicked sounds, though it’s not as fluent as a Mockingbird. A Gray Catbird’s song is a long series of unusual and sometimes awkward-sounding notes, many of them nasal or creaky in tone.

This one today was not singing – or calling its raspy, cat-like mew. It only stayed in the treetop for a few moments, holding its long tail down and looking around, before flying back down into the thickets and out of sight.

Green Crab Spider

August 9th, 2021

Later in the morning, in a wooded spot of deep shade, a very tiny pale-green spider was making its way across the road to grass on the other side. It was smaller than a fingernail, and I don’t know why it caught my eye except that its color was almost white and it was moving, and its shape looked unusual – with very long legs on its front part, curving out, and a rounded diamond-shaped body. 

It was a Green Crab Spider (Misumessus oblongus), common in Georgia and the Southeast. It does not spin a web, but lives in plants, hiding among the petals and leaves to feed on insect prey, which it captures with its extremely long front legs. As I learned when I looked it up later, a Green Crab Spider, only about 3-7 mm long, can walk forward, sideways and backwards, which must be how it got its common name. The one I watched was traveling in a very ordinary way, straight across a road and into grass and clover, where it disappeared.

I should have taken a photo, and wish I had, but it didn’t occur to me at the time – as usual. I was just fascinated to watch such a beautiful, small, intricate creature.

Cicada-killer Wasp

August 5th, 2021

Among a tangle of vines in this same thicket, a shimmer of glistening copper caught my eye. It was a very large and frightening-looking insect sitting on a leaf in the sun. A Cicada-killer wasp. 

Its body was long and black, with a distinct pattern of yellow stripes, and its wings were a beautiful translucent copper. It was sitting with wings folded on a large, leathery-looking leaf of a vine that I think was some kind of greenbrier. 

Cicada-killers are fearsome-looking solitary wasps that dig underground burrows for their larvae and feed them with paralyzed cicadas. They are the largest wasps found in Georgia and are considered beneficial because they help to control cicada populations. The sting of a cicada-killer wasp is powerful but they are not aggressive at all, and they do not normally sting people, only cicadas.