White-eyed Vireo

March 30th, 2020

Late in the morning, I slowed down as I walked past a large, wooded stretch of land with thick undergrowth – a vacant lot that backs up to a water treatment plant on a creek, a spot that’s a wonderful refuge for birds. I think of it as Tulip Poplar Hill, because a towering tulip poplar is one of the most prominent of many trees there. Several Eastern Towhees were singing, and a Pine Warbler, and others. And among them, I heard a few sharp, complex notes that especially got my attention – chick-perchicoree-chick! The song of a White-eyed Vireo. The sharp chick calls at the beginning and end of the song are distinctive. 

At first it was almost lost among all the other bird songs, and the bird itself was hidden in very tangled and dense vegetation. But after a few minutes, the song moved closer to the edge of the trees and tall weeds where I stood. Because White-eyed Vireos like densely vegetated places like this, one can be kind of hard to spot. I wasn’t sure I could find it. But luck was with me today. I saw a rustle of movement in the leaves of a small tree, and finally I saw it – moving slowly, stopping often to raise its head and sing.

A White-eyed Vireo is a striking bird with a gray head and a yellow pattern around the eyes that looks like spectacles. It has a greenish back, dark wings, white wing bars, a white throat, and pale yellow on the sides. The iris of the eye is white – but that’s often difficult to see. 

I never could see the full bird all at one time – but could see parts of it very clearly. Its quivered all over each time it sang. Through the leaves, I saw the white throat and belly, and pale yellow on the sides, and caught glimpses of the head and face, but couldn’t see the yellow spectacles well. Still – it was more than I’d hoped for – and seen like this through a pattern of leaves it looked especially alluring as it sang. 

Chipping Sparrows

March 30th, 2020

On another soft, clear, sunny morning, lots of birds were singing – Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, Eastern Phoebes, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, House Finches, American Goldfinches, Eastern Towhees, Brown Thrashers, Pine Warblers, one Louisiana Waterthrush and one Black-and-white Warbler. 

The wispy spee-spee calls of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers seemed to be almost everywhere. Now and then I caught a glimpse of a small, slender gray bird like a sprite, with a long tail edged in white, moving quickly through the branches and new-green leaves. 

Chipping Sparrows also seemed to be almost everywhere this morning, singing their long, level trills, and I had fun noticing, as I walked, the different qualities of their songs. They fascinate me. At first all Chipping Sparrow songs sound so plain, and so all-alike – a dry, almost mechanical trill. But it seems to me that when you listen closely, it’s amazing how many variations there can be on that one simple trill. A little faster, a little slower. A little shorter, a little longer. And subtle individual inflections that are difficult to describe. 

To be sure – I don’t know how much of this is in the songs themselves, and how much in the ear of the listener. Maybe the differences I hear can be explained by conditions other than the songs themselves – how far away the bird is, or high in a tree it might be, or even the time of day and the weather. I’m sure these and other factors can affect the subtle qualities I might hear in a song. And maybe it’s largely my own imagination. But I do enjoy listening. 

In one spot with trees on both sides of the road, there were lots of little birds flying back and forth between the oaks with new green leaves that seem to have come out almost overnight. I stopped to check them out – and all of them were Chipping sparrows. I watched two of them together in the same tree for several minutes, one of them lifting its head and singing, over and over again. 

Chipping sparrows are among the most common of our birds, but for some reason I never tire of watching them and listening to their songs. Small, brown-streaked sparrows, with smooth gray breast, long tail, a dark line through the eye, and a bright red-brown cap. I think I like them so much because they are not showy or obvious. It takes a closer look – and a more careful listen – to appreciate their charm. 

Cedar Waxwings Hawking Insects

March 27th, 2020

While the last couple of mornings have been crisp and cool, this morning the air felt balmy when I first stepped outside. It was going to be a very warm day, the forecast for the afternoon, an unseasonable high of 86 degrees. But it was still pretty, softly sunny, blue sky and high, distant white clouds, and lots of flowering trees and shrubs, and singing birds. 

Two birds were hawking insects from the branches of pecan trees in a neighbor’s yard – and when I took a closer look, I was surprised to see two brilliantly colorful Cedar Waxwings. The two repeatedly flew from low branches to catch insects in flight. Some they caught in the air, and several times they flew down and skimmed the top of the grass to catch insects there.

When they sat on a branch, their plumage showed uncommonly clear and vivid in detail, glowing in the morning sun and looking as smooth and polished as silk – a soft rose-brown on the head and chest, with lemon-yellow bellies, and gray wings tipped in waxy-red and tails edged in yellow. Sleek black masks outlined in white surrounded their eyes. And their crests were each fluffed up into rose-brown tufts. I watched them for several minutes as they continued to fly off, catch insects, and fly back to a perch. One sat for a long time on a branch, turning its head from one side to another and all around.

Cedar Waxwings feed mostly on fruits and berries of many kinds, but – as I learned after looking it up – they also eat insects, often caught in flight like this. So it’s not unusual behavior, but I haven’t often seen it. They are so strikingly colorful, and the lighting was perfect, and their flight graceful, it almost felt like watching a ballet. 

Two Blue-headed Vireos

March 25th, 2020

After heavy rain and thunderstorms all day yesterday and much of the night, this morning dawned clear and breezy and cool. The sky was still crowded with remnants of big, damp-looking rain clouds, but they were broken apart and blowing away. A March sky. Trees and grass were drenched, everything was wet and sparkling in early sunlight. The songs of Louisiana Waterthrush, Northern Parula and Black-and-white Warbler, and the spee calls of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers added their own sparkle to the morning. These earliest-returning migrant songbirds have stayed around for the past few days, beginning to change the way our world sounds, like small, bright accents in a painting that alter it entirely. 

At the very end of a morning walk through the neighborhood, I was just about to head down our driveway to the house when I heard a new song – a series of high, sweet phrases, repeated in a lovely, unhurried way. It was a Blue-headed Vireo, another songbird back from winter a little further south – and one I don’t often find here. 

I walked across the road to the patch of close-growing oaks and pines, not really expecting to see it – but after just a couple of minutes, it did come into view, a small bird making its way slowly through the branches from tree to tree, pausing often to look around. Everything about a Blue-headed Vireo is cool, calm and serene – its colors, the way it moves, and even its song. Its head is a smooth, round blue-gray, with bold white markings around the eyes that look like spectacles. Its back is olive green, its dark wings marked with bright white wing bars, and its breast is white, with a gentle wash of yellow on the sides. 

As I watched it move through the trees, I realized that I was also hearing the song of a second Blue-headed Vireo not far away, and within a minute or two, the second one flew into the same tree with the first. They didn’t seem to be antagonistic – but they didn’t stay in view long after that, both flew further back into the trees and out of sight. I could still hear the sweet song for several minutes.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Northern Parula and Cooper’s Hawk

March 20th, 2020

This morning was a picture-perfect Spring morning. Under a soft, pale-blue sky traced with high white clouds, a haze of new-green leaves flickered in warm sunshine. The first big filmy-pink blooms have opened on our azaleas, and our young cherry tree is beginning to blossom, and the redbuds and dogwoods are full of buds. A Brown Thrasher sang, along with Carolina Wrens, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Chipping Sparrows, a Pine Warbler, and a White-throated Sparrow. An Eastern Phoebe hunted from low branches all around the yard. Several White-throated Sparrows foraged in the grass and leaf mulch. A Black-and-white Warbler sang weesa-weesa-weesa around the edges of the woods, and a Louisiana Waterthrush raised its shining anthem from somewhere down along the creek.

The morning seemed almost painfully beautiful, so full of promise and new life, given the ongoing coronavirus epidemic that holds us all in a kind of suspension. Waiting. The contrast is hard to fully grasp. Our every day now begins with waking up to the latest news, the latest numbers, new cases, and the steady spread, and wondering what more this day will bring.

At the same time, Spring has arrived, and the first migrating birds have begun to appear – returning or passing through. As I walked through a wooded area where most of the trees are still bare and gray, I heard a dry spee-spee – and found a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher flitting through some low branches near the road – a pretty, petite gray bird with a long, expressive tail edged in white, and a silvery flash in its color, it moved quickly and called several times. It’s the first one I’ve seen or heard this season. 

In a different spot, more thickly wooded and with a tangle of green undergrowth, a buzzy, rising and falling song came from somewhere back in the trees – the song of a Northern Parula, a small, charming, colorful wood warbler with a blue-gray head and back, a yellowish patch in the middle of the back; bright yellow throat and breast, and a rust and black band across the chest, and tiny white crescents around the eyes. I would love to have seen it – but even though it sang and sang, it stayed well hidden back among the tangled trees. This was the first Northern Parula I’ve found this season, another returning migrant. 

As I walked through the neighborhood, Mourning Doves cooed, Red-bellied Woodpeckers called quurrr, and lots of Northern Cardinals and Carolina Wrens sang. A small flock of Cedar Waxwings called their high, thin calls from the branches of a scraggly tree. A few Ruby-crowned Kinglets called jidit-jidit and whistled their quick, complex songs. One Northern Mockingbird was singing from a tall treetop, and four or five Brown Thrashers, widely spaced, also sang.

I had stopped to look for one of the Ruby-crowned Kinglets that seemed to be unusually high up in some pines when a flash of pale gray wings against the blue sky caught my eye. It was a Cooper’s Hawk, circling above the treetops, not too high. It stayed in view long enough to circle three or four times, gradually climbing, showing a beautiful view of its sleek shape – blue-gray back and wings, pale underneath, and long narrow tail, with bands of dark and light. As it rose higher, it flapped its wings less and began to hold them mostly outstretched, soaring higher – and out of sight. 

I’m pretty sure this was a Cooper’s Hawk, because of the size and shape of its head and the way it flew – but it’s often difficult to distinguish a Cooper’s from the very similar Sharp-shinned Hawk. The differences between the two can be subtle, and it’s always possible that I could be wrong. Here in our own neighborhood, Cooper’s Hawks usually have been more common, though I have seen both, most often during the winter season – and they’re always a joy to watch.

Black-and-white Warbler and Louisiana Waterthrush

March 18th, 2020

Very late this afternoon, almost early evening, a gentle spring rain was falling and thunder rumbled. Pale sunshine filtered through the clouds now and then, and a green mist of new green leaves just beginning to open shimmered in the woods.

As I sat on the screened porch listening to the rain, I heard the songs of two early spring birds for the first time this season. A Black-and-white Warbler sang its high, sibilant weesa-weesa-weesa song around the edges of the woods nearby. And the very different bright, shining notes of a Louisiana Waterthrush rose up the wooded hill from somewhere down along the creek. These two birds are both almost always among the earliest migrants to return, sure signs of spring. 

Four Rusty Blackbirds

March 14th, 2020

Late yesterday afternoon, the haunting song of a White-throated Sparrow drew me to a tangled patch of trees and privet and vines. I stopped to listen and watch for the sparrow, but then heard a different song – one that I knew I’d heard before but couldn’t identify at first. It sounded gurgling, like burbling water, with a slightly rusty, creaky quality. 

It didn’t take long to spot four birds on a branch of a small tree half-covered in vines, but the afternoon was cloudy, with the kind of murky gray light that makes it difficult to see color or details. I first saw a bird that looked brown, and then three others that were black. One of them was singing. Then I saw the flash of pale eyes, and thin, pointed bills, and the overall shape. These were four Rusty Blackbirds, one female and three males. 

Rusty Blackbirds are particularly interesting to find because their populations have declined alarmingly in the past few decades, and they are considered a species of great concern. Over the past twenty years, we’ve been lucky enough to find small numbers of Rusty Blackbirds here most winter seasons, as part of larger, mixed flocks of blackbirds (mostly Common Grackles) that have shown up almost daily. But this winter, I’ve seen very few blackbirds at all, and no large flocks. And before yesterday, no Rusty Blackbirds. So I stayed for several minutes watching through the leaves as at least one of the males continued to sing, and some of them called a dry, low, intimate chek.

This morning I had hardly dared to hope I might find them again, but was watching as I came to the same stretch of road – and I was really amazed when I heard the song again in a slightly different spot, and found three male Rusty Blackbirds perched in the bare branches of a pecan tree by the side of the road. I watched them for several minutes and then – could barely believe my luck. All three birds flew down to the ground and began to forage in the open, in very green grass and clover in a yard. They were close, and lit by clear sunlight, and this was one of the most beautiful, close-up views of Rusty Blackbirds I have ever enjoyed. The three males were very deep black overall, but still showed a pattern of rusty feathering over the back and wings, and bright pale-yellow eyes.

They walked around in the clover and did not seem at all bothered to have me nearby. I kept my distance, but they had flown down close to where I was standing, so I just stood quietly and watched. The exceptionally clear and vivid view of three Rusty Blackbirds with subtle rusty highlights rippling through their plumage, and pale, shining eyes, against the lush green clover and grass is one I will long remember.

I looked for the female that had been with them yesterday, but could not find her, and there were no other blackbirds around as well as I could hear or see, certainly no flock nearby – though maybe one not far away.

A Hairy Woodpecker’s Visit on the Eve of an Ominous Time

March 12th, 2020

After rain showers overnight, today was a softly cloudy, humid, spring-like day. Though I had no time to spend outside most of the day, early evening around the back yard felt soothing and peaceful – in striking contrast to the ominous news of the day and the changes that have now begun to affect us all. 

Mourning Doves cooed. American Robins, Carolina Wrens, Eastern Bluebirds, and Northern Cardinals sang. A Downy Woodpecker spilled a silvery cascade of notes. Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice chattered and fussed. A White-breasted Nuthatch called a nasal ahnk-ahnk. A Pine Warbler sang a pretty, lyrical trill. 

This week the World Health Organization officially declared the spread of the Covid-19 virus a worldwide pandemic, confirming the news we began to learn about in early January, as the virus began in China. We have watched as it steadily became more and more apparent that it was likely to spread around the world. Following the WHO announcement, this week has brought to Americans a sudden (if belated) cascade of closings, event cancellations and social distancing measures by state and local governments, universities, schools and businesses – and the beginning of what may be a long period of staying and working at home, and profound changes in our lives that we can only begin to imagine now.

While it might seem out of place even to mention this in a blog about birds and birding, the effects of this pandemic on our lives will inevitably have an impact on the natural world and our relationship with it. So that has to be a part of what I observe and think and write about. It certainly was in my thoughts this strange and gentle evening.

A black and white woodpecker flew to a spot high on the trunk of a bare-limbed oak and called a strong, emphatic Peenk! Peenk! A Hairy Woodpecker. It repeated the calls several times as it checked out the trunk of the oak, and I had a few minutes to take a closer look, and watch. A Hairy Woodpecker is slightly larger and more slender than the Downy, which is much more common and familiar here. Its black and white pattern is very similar to a Downy’s, but its shape is taller, more erect, and the bill is noticeably longer and more powerful. Its peenk call is similar, too, but more emphatic. 

While Downy Woodpeckers visit our feeders very often, I’ve rarely seen a Hairy come to them – though I understand they are said to be easily attracted to feeders. So I’m probably just not offering the right food. I have mostly seen them on the trunks and large branches of tall trees, and I find them more often in areas where there are at least some standing dead and dying trees. Though it seems natural to call a Downy Woodpecker cute, I would never say that of a Hairy. There’s something about its bearing and its behavior that feels more dignified and aloof.

After a few minutes on the trunk of the oak, this Hairy Woodpecker flew deeper into the woods, toward the creek, calling its kingfisher-like rattle as it went.

Golden-crowned Kinglet – a Small Winter Jewel

February 23rd, 2020

This winter, for the first time since we moved here to Summit Grove twenty years ago, I have not seen or heard a single Golden-crowned Kinglet – until today. 

Golden-crowned Kinglets are very small, charming birds that we only find here during the winter season. They nest and spend the summer in forests further north. A Golden-crowned Kinglet is a tiny, roundish gray bird with hints of yellow, thin white wing bars, a black-and-white striped face, and a flashing crown of yellow and orange. They flit very quickly through the branches of pines and bare hardwoods, searching for small insects, and often move with feeding flocks of other small winter birds like chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.

The calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets are very high, thin, faintly buzzy – ti-ti-ti – a familiar sound in the winter here. Most of the time I hear them before seeing them, because they tend to stay up fairly high, especially – though not always – in pines and other evergreens. 

But today, I didn’t hear the calls at all. The day was cold, crisp, and brightly sunny, with a soft blue sky and lots of high, long streaks and veils of white clouds. I was walking up a hill past a small patch of trees and tangled undergrowth, when the flickering movement of a small bird caught my eye. When I stopped to take a closer look with binoculars, I saw a very vivid, pretty little Golden-crowned Kinglet. Its crown was bright, deep yellow-gold. And all of the markings were very clean and clear. 

It was moving in a characteristic, quick, flitting way at about eye level in a small, bare-limbed tree, making its way intently over the branches. As it moved, it was not calling the familiar ti-ti-ti – it was chirping in a tiny, quiet, but distinct way. Chirp. Chirp. It made this very short, one-syllable chirping call over and over again as it moved. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this call from a Golden-crowned Kinglet before, and I have not been able to find it mentioned or described in species accounts, or in a recording. It was definitely not singing – but the Golden-crowned Kinglet’s song is described as complex, and these notes might have been similar to parts of it. 

I watched it for several minutes as it moved through the branches of small trees on the side of the road, staying down close to eye level. I never heard the ti-ti-ti calls. I also looked and listened for another Golden-crowned Kinglet nearby and could not find one, though it’s certainly possible there were others that I just didn’t see. There also didn’t seem to be a feeding flock of other small songbirds nearby. This one little jewel-like bird seemed to be alone.

Like many North American songbirds, populations of Golden-crowned Kinglets have declined alarmingly in the past several decades, but they are still described as numerous. Although they used to nest mostly in far northern spruce-fir forests, their breeding range has been expanding further south, into the midwestern U.S and the Appalachians. The reason for their winter disappearance in our own neighborhood may be largely the result of habitat changes here, especially the loss of trees, and fragmentation of more and more woodlands both here and in surrounding areas. 

A Carolina Wren and a Hermit Thrush

January 1st, 2020

As the sun came up this morning through pink and gold clouds, a Carolina Wren sang a brilliant song to begin this new year. 

I couldn’t have wished for a happier start. The small, bold brown bird with a long, expressive tail and a glorious song is one of our most common birds. Plain in appearance, but amazing when it sings – its voice is big and beautiful. It’s a perfect example of the uncommon beauty hidden in plain sight all around us still, in birds and in other parts of the natural world. 

At this time of year, of course, very few birds sing. So the song of a Carolina Wren is all the more welcome. And it doesn’t only sing – Carolina Wrens trill, fuss, burble, rasp and chatter, and sing several different songs. They are active, inquisitive birds, cinnamon brown on the head, back and tail, with a buffy brown breast, white throat, a white stripe over the eye and a long, down-curved bill. And they’re fascinating to watch – here, there and everywhere around the yard – foraging in leaf mulch on the ground, exploring the bottoms of tree trunks, rustling in the bushes, coming to a feeder, or checking out crevices and corners on the deck, or any any stray objects or containers. 

When I stepped outside a couple of hours later, the air felt cold and crisp, and the day was clear and softly bright, perfect for a walk through the neighborhood. Around our own front yard, a Downy Woodpecker clung to the hanging feeder, while Carolina Chickadees and bright red Northern Cardinals flitted in the branches of water oaks and visited the tube feeder. Carolina Wrens continued to sing and trill and fuss. Several White-throated Sparrows scratched in leaf mulch beneath the feeders and under the shrubs, along with a warm-yellow Pine Warbler. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet chattered jidit-jidit, and flew into a Savannah holly tree, showing a clear view of its round head, perky face, white-ringed eye, and flickering wings. I heard the calls of Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Towhee, Tufted Titmice, and the distant caws of American Crows.  

One surprise was a solitary Song Sparrow that came to the hanging block feeder and stayed there for several minutes. It’s the only Song Sparrow I’ve seen here so far this winter.

But my favorite sighting of the morning – after the Carolina Wren – was a Hermit Thrush. There’s one that seems to be spending the winter around our yard, but I don’t see it every day. I noticed some rustling in the faded leaves of the azaleas, and when I checked it out, saw a spotted breast, and a bright round eye and wary, watchful face turned up toward me. It seemed to be looking right back at me from its well-screened spot. I didn’t watch too long, not wanting to disturb it. I’m just happy to know it’s here, and that now and then I can see it, or hear its gentle chup-chup calls. 

Walking through the neighborhood, I stopped often to listen and watch more closely, and in the end, counted 27 species in all, but that was only by searching intently. Overall, birds were few and far between, with many species missing. So I’m afraid I couldn’t help feeling that the most important observation of this New Year’s Day was of how very, very few birds I could find. The contrast between the beauty of the day and the absence of so many birds was sad. 

After leaving our own yard and following the road through the neighborhood, there were long stretches when I could see and hear no birds at all – and this has not normally been the case in winter here. Many yards, woods and fields looked and sounded empty, not a bird to be heard or seen. One pretty Eastern Phoebe hunted from low branches in a tree near the edge of the road. A Turkey Vulture soared, and two Black Vultures rose up from trees along the road ahead of me, white wing patches flashing silver as they climbed higher. Blue Jays cried, and there were the scattered calls of more Chickadees, Titmice, Carolina Wrens, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers. On the edge of one yard there was a little flurry of small birds feeding in the grass and in the road, no more than a dozen in all – House Finches, Pine Warblers, and Eastern Bluebirds. 

In the old field across the road from our subdivision, two Northern Mockingbirds sat in the tops of a very dense, tall privet thicket. The field seemed otherwise quiet, except for the chur-whee calls of an Eastern Towhee, though I’m sure there were some other birds hidden somewhere in the privet and pines and weeds.

Near the far north end of the field, about a dozen Cedar Waxwings were feeding in a very scraggly, small, thin tree that was hung with some kind of red-berried vine. They seemed to be quiet – usually I hear Cedar Waxwings before seeing them – but maybe the traffic noise of the highway nearby was masking their calls. I stayed for a few minutes just to admire their sleek, polished plumage and gleaming colors, among the most elegant of birds, even in such a weedy, tangled setting.

I looked and listened for a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, but couldn’t find one today, though I have been seeing one or two most days. But there are certainly far fewer Sapsuckers here than in previous winters. I also didn’t see or hear a Yellow-rumped Warbler – not one – and this is a species that only a few years ago arrived here each winter in such large numbers that they seemed to be everywhere, the most common bird around. And perhaps most sadly, this year I have not found a single Golden-crowned Kinglet – and I’ve looked and listened for them often. This is the first winter in 19 years when Golden-crowned Kinglets have not been present in our neighborhood over winter. 

So the morning was a jarring contrast – beautiful, sunny, cold and crisp and bright, with the song of a Carolina Wren and the glimpse of a Hermit Thrush – and yet, so very few birds that it felt tragic. And it is. A tragedy in progress. We are right in the middle of it, as recent scientific reports have confirmed. A major study published in mid-September of last year reported that nearly 30 percent of all North American birds have disappeared in the last 50 years – more than three billion birds. Populations of even many of our most common birds have suffered alarming declines.* 

This news from scientific studies is not something that’s happening in other, faraway places – it’s happening right here at home, and we can see it every day, though it’s often hard to grasp the difference between what we see today – and what we might have seen ten or twenty or fifty years ago.

I think again of the Hermit Thrush, half-hidden in the branches of a shrub, near the ground, looking out at me with a wide round eye. I could only see it partly, the soft brown head and expressive face, and the spotted breast, the cinnamon tail. It looked – and was – so vulnerable, as if looking out at me to ask what is happening to its world. 

  • Decline of the North American Avifauna,” Science Magazine, October 4, 2019, Vol. 366, Issue 6461; Kenneth V. Rosenberg, Adriaan M. Dokter, Peter J. Blancher, John R. Sauer, Adam C. Smith, Paul A. Smith, Jesica C. Stanton, Arvind Panjabi, Laura Helft, Michael Parr, Peter P. Marra.