Blackburnian Warbler, American Redstart, Chestnut-sided Warbler

September 27th, 2020

On a soft, warm, dove-gray morning, lots of small birds flew back and forth across the road in a wooded spot, going from trees on one side to the other. Brown-headed Nuthatches chattered and a White-breasted Nuthatch called its nasal ank. There were Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and a Downy Woodpecker. An Eastern Phoebe sang in the woods nearby and a Pine Warbler trilled its song. Among this feeding flock of small songbirds, flashes of yellow and green turned out to be at least three migrating warblers. A Chestnut-sided Warbler, an American Redstart, and – best of all – an elegant Blackburnian Warbler.

The first one I saw, flitting from spot to spot among the leaves, was a small gray-green bird with a round yellowish head, a gray face and a very distinct white eye ring, and yellow wing bars – an immature Chestnut-sided Warbler. It’s the first one I’ve seen in a while, though I used to see them here almost every year in fall migration. It’s a lively, quick-moving little bird that’s charming to watch as it searches for insects in the leaves and sometimes flies up to capture an insect in the air.

Closer to the ground, some other small birds were more fluttery, flashing yellow as they darted in and out of sight among the grape vines and lower vegetation. They seemed to be in constant motion, so they were hard to catch, staying mostly obscured by the leaves, but finally one fluttered up in a butterfly-like way, its tail flaring and flashing sunny yellow – a female American Redstart. While a male Redstart is black with bright orange patches on the sides, wings and tail, a female is gray and yellow, and the wide bands of yellow when the tail flares are especially noticeable. Redstarts are thought to flash the colors in their wings and tails to flush out insect prey. 

It wasn’t movement that drew my eyes to another, rather long and slender warbler moving along a branch. It was the deep-yellow throat and upper breast of a Blackburnian Warbler. This one, too, was a female or immature male. In fall plumage, its colors were not as brilliant as they would have been in spring, but they still looked vibrant and created a striking appearance. 

The head was olive, the face framed by a distinctive yellow eyebrow and an olive cheek that contrasted with the bright yellow throat. It was yellow on the sides, with dark streaks, and a grayish, streaked back and dark wings with bright white wing bars. The underside of its tail was very white with a dark tip, and when it briefly flared the tail once, it showed white in the edges.

I was able to watch for several minutes as it moved along the branches searching for prey in the leaves, and saw it stretch out low along one branch to capture and eat a rather large caterpillar.

A male Blackburnian Warbler in spring is a spectacular bird, black and white with a fiery-orange throat and face. They are mostly birds of the high treetops, especially in their breeding range in northern forests. But in migration like this, they may search for food lower in the trees or even in shrubs. They mostly eat insects, especially caterpillars, searching along branches and twigs and sometimes hovering over leaves to pick off their prey.

A Hummingbird Catching Insects in the Air

September 6th, 2020

Early this afternoon a Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovered in a shaft of sunlight several feet above the ground, out in the middle of our back yard. A tiny, shimmering haze of green, it moved up, and down, wings whirring, for several moments, now and then making small, quick, darting movements. It looked like a dancing fairy in flight, iridescent and silvery-green. 

I think the hummingbird was probably catching tiny flying insects that we couldn’t see in this column of light, maybe a swarm of gnats or something like that. While hummingbirds are more well known for feeding on nectar, they also often capture insects – including gnats, fruit flies, mosquitoes, small bees and small caterpillars. They glean insects from leaves, pull spiders from webs, and hunt by perching on a tree branch and flying off to capture insects in the air – “hawking” like a flycatcher. 

According to one source I found, some observers even refer to hummingbirds in general as “nectar-powered flycatchers,” suggesting that insects and spiders may be equally or even more important in their diet than nectar. Another source noted there is much more to be learned about the importance of insects in the diet of hummingbirds.  

The behavior we watched was a little different because this hummingbird was not returning to a branch like a flycatcher, it hovered in this one shaft of sunlight out in the middle of the yard for two or three minutes, up and down, and then it flew away, out of the light and toward the shady woods. 

Carolina Sphinx Moth

September 1st, 2020

At this time of the year I’m often watching butterflies more than birds, because it’s a kind of quiet and in-between time for birds. Today, on a very sunny, hot and humid first day of September, I was looking, but there seemed to be very few butterflies around our own yard or in the rest of the neighborhood. In a three-mile walk, I found only one Sleepy Orange, one Gulf Fritillary, several beautiful Tiger Swallowtails, a few Buckeyes, Fiery Skippers and Sootywings. 

When I got back home though, a very large, interesting moth was hovering over the yellow blooms in a big lantana bush, looking like a dark-brown version of a hummingbird moth. But its coloring was not the more colorful black and yellow, or red of the Snowberry Clearwing or Hummingbird Clearwing. This one was a Carolina Sphinx Moth, I believe.  

I watched it for several minutes as it moved through the lantana. It did not stop to rest and was never still. Looking very closely, I could see subtle dark patterns in the wings and bands around the body. And I watched its very long proboscis, delicate and curved as it went down to the blooms. 

Several species in the family of moths known as Sphinx or Hawk Moths (Sphingidae) are known for flying during the day and for their hummingbird-like behavior. From a distance they can easily be mistaken for hummingbirds as they drift from flower to flower, sipping nectar with their long mouthparts. The Carolina Sphinx Moth is very common. Its caterpillar is the tobacco or tomato hornworm, a large, bright green caterpillar, which we’ve sometimes found feeding on our tomato plants, though it has never seemed to do a great deal of damage – and it’s easily seen and removed.

Great Purple Hairstreak

August 31st, 2020

The real highlight of today was finding an exquisitely beautiful little butterfly called a Great Purple Hairstreak. A tiny, dark-winged butterfly with glittering touches of blue, white and orange, it looked like a jewel, sparkling in the morning sun in very green grass and clover still wet from overnight rain and dew.

The sun must have lit it in just the right way for me to see it in the grass because despite its grand name, it was a very small butterfly. At first, with its wings folded up, it just looked black, but it glistened in the sun. When I knelt down for a closer look, I began to see brilliant markings of iridescent blue and silvery-gold, and black tails on the back of the wing. In the part of the wings closer to the head and body, there were bright red-orange spots.  The back part of the abdomen was a softer orange. The head was black patterned with white spots, and with threadlike black antennae. 

And the wings themselves were lovely. It’s hard to describe them well enough to capture their elusive quality. They were very dark, at first I thought black, but the color seemed to change slightly with different angles, and I would describe it more as very dark coppery-brown with a slight purple sheen. Once when the wings shifted I saw a flash of rich iridescent blue. This was a glimpse of the much more showy upper side of the wings – which I never saw fully because the they remained folded, and I never saw it in flight. 

The delicate patterns of iridescent blue and silver-gold, together with the thin black tails at the back of the wings all came to life more when the back wings shifted slightly up and down – so that the back of the butterfly’s wings looked almost like another head. As with other hairstreak butterflies, this pattern and movement is thought to be a protective strategy against predators. 

Not at all fluttery, the tiny Great Purple Hairstreak stayed in this one place for many minutes. I was afraid I would frighten it into flight, but as the minutes went by, I even had time to take several photos with my iPhone. It was still there when I finally walked on toward home.

Great Purple Hairstreaks are found throughout the southern U.S., and while they are considered common, this is the first time I’ve ever seen one. Their larva feed only on mistletoe, and the adults may feed on nectar from many different kinds of flowers, including goldenrod, sweet pepperbush, saw palmetto and wild plum. They are said to be fairly easily attracted to flower gardens. 

Red Velvet Ant

August 31st, 2020

This last day of August began cloudy, warm and very humid. The harsh rasping of cicadas filled the air, a constant, enveloping background of edgy sound. Two Chimney Swifts flew over low, twittering, against a hazy blue sky. 

As I started out for a walk, I stopped along the driveway to watch a colorful Red Velvet Ant as it crawled across the driveway from grass on one side to the other. A Red Velvet Ant is actually a wasp, but a female has no wings and looks like a very large red and black striped ant. Red Velvet Ants are solitary, and are parasites of other, ground-living wasps and bees. They are not aggressive, but if handled or disturbed, have an extremely painful and powerful sting. 

When I walked on, the calls of birds all along the way were widely scattered and scarce – Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Northern Cardinals, Eastern Towhees, Carolina Wrens. A Downy Woodpecker whinnied, a Great Crested Flycatcher called its summery whreep! The soft pik-a-tuk calls of two Summer Tanagers moved through a stand of pines. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher called its wispy spee-spee from a water oak. In one large yard already littered with lots of crumpled fallen leaves, a dozen American Robins foraged in the grass, and two Brown Thrashers watched from under the shade of a bush. Blue Jays cried and flew from tree to tree. A White-eyed Vireo sang from a small, dense thicket of trees and shrubs. 

Five Mississippi Kites

August 20th, 2020

Late in the morning on a warm, sunny day, five Mississippi Kites circled, soared and hunted over the trees and rooftops of a cul de sac in the neighborhood next to ours. This is a spot where I’ve often seen Mississippi Kites this summer, sometimes perched in the tall, leafy trees behind the houses, or flying from one tree to another, often circling overhead like this and climbing higher. But this is the first time I’ve seen as many as five at the same time here.

It’s always a joy to watch them in flight, and today they were spectacular. They stayed in view for more than fifteen minutes, hunting and capturing flying insects. Slender, sleek, dark-gray raptors with pointed wings and long, dark, fan-shaped tails that played the air with delicate finesse, they circled and climbed, turned abruptly, swerved and sailed. A round white head caught the sun now and then.

Most of the time, two of the kites soared fairly high, though they stayed in sight. The other three flew lower, in very large circular paths, sailing swiftly over the cul de sac and trees, turning sharply, climbing much higher and diving back down, flying in and out of sight behind trees very fast. 

All of a sudden, one of the kites came swooping just over the treetops, over a roof and down toward me – I heard a crunchy thwack, and saw a rapid flash of gray and white, a blur of wings and tail as it captured an insect right over the road where I stood, no more than a few yards away. It happened so fast the kite had swept back up with its prey and was high above me, circling again, before I could catch my breath. 

I stood and watched as long as the kites were still in view. Gradually they all rose higher and began to drift away toward the south and west, fading to tiny specks and then they were gone. I stood in a quiet street in a pretty neighborhood with no one else around, and felt as if I’d come back down to earth. 

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

August 11th, 2020

In the orange and yellow flowers of a big lantana bush, a fuzzy black and yellow insect flew on humming wings from one orange bloom to another. It looked like a long bumblebee – but hovered and whirred like a hummingbird.  

It was a kind of hummingbird moth – a Snowberry Clearwing – that I found today in a neighbor’s lantana, along with four floaty Tiger Swallowtails, lots of smaller Fiery Skippers, a few dark Common Sootywings, one burning-orange Gulf Fritillary, and one Long-tailed Skipper. 

It was a very hot, sunny morning with a denim-blue sky and almost no clouds at all, only smudges and streaks here and there. The forecast was a high in the mid 90s, with a heat index well over 100. Cicadas already sang loudly, and Mourning Doves cooed. Three Mississippi Kites were circling overhead, long gray wings and white heads glinting in the sun. Their high pee-too calls drifted down. 

The Snowberry Clearwing made its way from bloom to bloom, wings whirring. It did not seem to linger long at most of the flowers, but went from one to another, steadily moving through the large bush. It’s a fascinating creature, unusual and fun to watch, with its long black and yellow body and face, a tawny-gold upper back and head, the face with bright white patterns, and transparent wings that whir too fast to see as it moves. One of its common names is “flying lobster,” and it’s easy to see why. The black and yellow body looks furry or fuzzy, like a bumblebee – but is long in shape like a lobster, with a tip of the tail that fans out. 

It surprised me by settling on a green leaf, folding its transparent wings and becoming very still. Now it looked like a moth – a moth with clear wings traced with dark patterns. For several minutes more I stayed, watching the butterflies and waiting to see if it would fly again. The moth remained very still on the leaf, and after a while I walked on, leaving it to bask in the sun. 

Several different species of moths are commonly called “hummingbird moths” because of their large size and because they look so much like hummingbirds as they hover in the air to sip nectar from flowers. While most moths are active at night, a few species are active during the day, including the Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis), which gets its somewhat-misleading name from one of its main host plants. The other most common species is a Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), which is more red in color, instead of yellow and black.  

Late Summer Quiet

August 6th, 2020

This morning no Wood Thrush sang, and very few other birds sang or called. A Carolina Wren, a Northern Cardinal, a Tufted Titmouse. One at a time. The most quiet time of the year is here, as the nesting season comes to an end and birds begin to drift away. 

The morning was warm and sunny with a soft blue sky and scattered dusky clouds. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds zipped and hummed, almost constantly coming and going from the hummingbird feeder, dueling, chasing, and now and then sitting to sip nectar. Two, three, four at a time – four is the most that I’ve seen at once, but there may be more. They’re coming so frequently now that we refill the feeder almost every day. 

A brilliant yellow American Goldfinch came to drink water from the moat in the middle of the feeder, making soft, sweet sounds, and when it flew to a nearby tree it looked like a daylight firefly. The sparkling chatter of several more Goldfinches came from trees on the edge of the yard. 

The day soon became hot. Cicadas filled the air with their harsh buzzing songs that rose and fell in waves all day, at times making it hard to hear much of anything else. Birds were scarce or staying out of sight. Everything seemed to come in a slow, almost dreamy summertime way – the soft, cool coos of Mourning Doves, the cries of Blue Jays, the shadowy, cawping calls of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo somewhere deep in the woods. An Eastern Phoebe hunted from trees in a big shady yard, bobbing its tail as it sat on a branch. Two Black Vultures soared very high against white clouds, and a Turkey Vulture floated lower. A Red-shouldered Hawk called a choppy kee-yer, kee-yer from a grove of old oaks. A Fish Crow cawed its nasal anh-anh. 

The wings of a Mourning Dove whistled as it flew. A few small grasshoppers hopped out into the road. Butterflies fluttered in the yellow blooms of lantana – two Tiger Swallowtails, lots of little Fiery Skippers, four Common Sootywings, one Buckeye – and one lone bumblebee. 

A Mississippi Kite came into view, circling and climbing higher. With the sun almost directly behind it, it looked mostly dark, but the crisp, sleek shape of its wings and tail was clear, and as it rose higher its white head gleamed now and then. A second, then a third Mississippi Kite appeared, all soaring and circling very high – and higher, until they disappeared into the blue.

Great Horned Owl

August 1st, 2020

Early this evening, when the sun was low but still well before sunset, a Great Horned Owl appeared in a tree on the edge of our back yard. I say “appeared” because we didn’t see it arrive. We’d been sitting on the porch and talking, and when we looked in that direction – there it was. A big, beautiful Great Horned Owl sitting silently on a low branch overlooking our old Ford tractor. It faced in our direction, in very clear view. With its big, broad chest and wise-owl face, ear tufts standing up, and intense round golden eyes, it looked almost unreal. The perfect storybook owl.  

Its plumage was an intricate pattern in several shades of dark brown, tawny brown, black and white. The main impression I felt as we watched was of how very big it was. And a sense of power. It appeared to have almost no neck at all, but turned its head in one direction and then another, and then swiveled its head all the way around to look backward and stayed that way for several moments. Then the head turned back, and the big, hypnotic eyes looked right at me.

After several minutes, the owl lowered its head, stretched out the upper part of its body, spread its wings and pushed off from the branch, wings beating deeply two or three times and then outspread flat, as it glided across the yard and into the trees and woods on the other side, and out of sight. As it left the branch and flew, there was nothing that felt startled or hurried in its movement. Just that it was ready to go. Its flight looked strong and direct, and swift. Regal.

Summer of Wood Thrush Songs

July 23rd, 2020

Early yesterday evening, when the sun was low but not yet down, two Wood Thrushes sang in the woods on the edge of our back yard. They sounded unusually close, the fluted songs rippling and overlapping and surrounding us in ethereal music that went on for several minutes, weaving an enchanting spell. 

The song of a Wood Thrush is one of the most beautiful of all bird songs, an inspiration for many poets. This year two have been singing in our woods since late April. It’s the first time I can remember ever hearing even one throughout the season – much less two. It feels like an extravagant luxury. Their songs are often the first thing I hear in the morning – one to the east of our home, one to the west, but neither very far away. They sing off and on throughout the day, and at times – especially at dusk – they sound as if they come almost together in the woods near the creek. These close encounters between two males create some of the most intricate and fascinating music. Sometimes they’re close enough for us to hear some of the soft, low notes of their full songs. 

A Wood Thrush is a plump bird with a shape similar to a robin, and a rich, red-brown back and white breast with bold dark spots. A reclusive, forest-loving bird, it’s often found near streams, scratching through leaf-litter for insects and other prey. Though still considered widespread in forests throughout eastern North America, their numbers have declined alarmingly over the past few decades, and they have become increasingly rare. Habitat loss is thought to be the main reason for their decline, especially fragmentation and destruction of forests.

The familiar, flute-like ee-oh-lay in a Wood Thrush song is actually only one part of a longer song made up of several different clear notes and soft, low notes, and trills. Individual males combine notes and phrases and trills in different ways to create their own variations, and a male may sing more than 50 different songs. A male can also sing two notes at once, giving the songs some of their otherworldly quality.