Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Thursday, February 25, 2010

New Site for Birding Notes

As of mid February, my Birding Notes blog has moved to a different host. The URL address remains the same, and most readers should see the new site automatically. If you have subscribed through an RSS feed, please go to and click on the “Subscribe to Feed” icon there. Thanks very much for your interest! I hope you like the new site.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The O Canada Bird

As the 2010 Winter Olympics get underway in Vancouver, here in the southern U.S. a lovely echo of the O Canada anthem can sometimes be heard just by stepping outside. White-throated Sparrows – which leave their summer breeding grounds in the forests of Canada and other parts of the far North, and come here for the winter – whistle a clear, sweet song which can be heard as Oh sweet Ca-na-da.

One of our most common and widespread winter birds, White-throated Sparrows are classic sparrows – brown-streaked birds that feed mostly on the ground and dive quickly into the cover of bushes when disturbed. But on closer look, they are handsome and distinctively marked, with chestnut-brown and black-streaked back, black and white striped head and face, a touch of deep yellow between the eye and the bill, and a crisp white throat, neatly outlined against a gray breast. Their appearance, posture and rather deliberate, confident-looking way of moving give them a dignified look much of the time – though they’re also skittish and shy, like most sparrows, and they’re almost always found in or near areas of thick, low vegetation. Their sibilant tseet calls can be heard coming from the cover of weedy fields, vacant lots, thickets, and in and under shrubs in suburban yards.

Around our house they feed on the ground beneath the bird feeders or beneath the shrubs, scratching up the leaves and mulch to search for seeds and occasional insects or fruit. They often sit half hidden in the dense, dark foliage of the wax myrtles, only the white throat giving them away. Although they don’t sing often at this time of year, it’s not uncommon to hear a few tentative, broken bars of the Oh sweet Canada song, especially early in the morning or near the end of the day, at twilight.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Red-shouldered Hawk

Late this afternoon a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk flew low across the road in front of me, from one yard to another, barely above the ground at first, then up a hill, across a garden spot and into some trees, where it passed out of sight. Its rich brown, barred coloring looked warm and slightly reddish. I was particularly happy to see it because it’s the first one I’ve seen this winter in our neighborhood.

Where Are the Ruby-crowned Kinglets?

It was a pleasant afternoon for a walk – after a very blustery, cold day yesterday – sunshine filtered by filmy, high cloud cover and temperatures in the mid 40s. Many American Robins are still scattered all through the neighborhood, almost everywhere. One Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tall pine, another sat on top of a utility pole overlooking the field and the highway. Most of the usual suspects were around – but two in particular were missing, and have been for several days.

I heard and saw no Ruby-crowned Kinglet – not one. This is unusual even for one day, and certainly for several days in a row. The stuttering chatter of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet is one of the most familiar sounds around our yard. There are several particular thickets or brushy spots throughout the neighborhood where I ordinarily can count on hearing or seeing one, and they are likely to turn up just about anywhere. But for the past several days I have not been able to find one.

Also, for several days now I have not heard or seen a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. This may be just chance or my not watching closely enough, because the Sapsuckers can be pretty elusive. But even in the areas where at least one or two have been fairly common earlier this season, I haven’t heard their mewing call or found one working on the trunk of a pecan.

I’m hoping that both of these observations will turn out to be just bad timing on my part, or just unusual days – and that both will turn up again soon.

Saturday, February 06, 2010


After an all-day drenching hard, cold rain yesterday, ending in a blustery wind that rattled the branches and wind chimes all night, we awoke to a magical sunrise. The eastern sky was layered in heavy, dark gray clouds with breaks of light. A window of pale light just above the horizon widened and became soft orange, then brighter and deeper orange, red-orange that spread through the clouds like streams. When a shimmering red-gold sun slipped up over the horizon, the sunlight lit the sky and trees as if in a bubble of delicate, clear, rose-yellow light. The air was calm. The gray clouds looked blue. The brown leaves on the oaks hung still. Raindrops glittered with color on the branches. It felt like being inside a sparkling glass globe.

Then the sun slipped further up and the dense, coal-dark bank of clouds closed in again. The magic light disappeared in a breath. The day became heavy, dull and gray again and the wind began to blow. It all had lasted only moments.

Goldfinches mewed from the feeders on the deck below. A Red-bellied Woodpecker called quuuuurrrrr. A little brown Carolina Wren flew to the rail of the balcony outside our windows, tail cocked up high and head pumping up and down assertively, and sang, loud, energetic and bold.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Squirrel Chasing a Bird

On a cold, gray, rainy day, all the usual small birds were pretty active around the front yard feeders – Chickadees, Titmice, a pair of House Finches, Downy Woodpecker, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Mockingbird, Red-bellied Woodpecker. One Yellow-rumped Warbler made several visits to one of the feeders, which is a little unusual. Cardinals, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows and Mourning Doves fed on the ground.

One strange thing happened. I was inside, stopping to look out a large window on the second floor, and saw a gray squirrel at the base of a tree-trunk jumping around in a strange way, sort of like a cat playing with a mouse, but more clumsily. Suddenly a small bird streaked out, flying away from the squirrel and the squirrel ran after it. Both disappeared from view, and when I went downstairs to see if I could find them, I could not. I did not see what kind of bird it was, but when it flew, it looked like it got away.

It all happened very fast and was over quickly, but it certainly looked as if the squirrel was either trying to catch a bird or they were squabbling over something. After doing a very little research, I learned that squirrels are known to eat small birds sometimes – something I had never known. We have a lot of squirrels here, way too many – in part because we live in an old pecan grove and also have a lot of oaks. So far we’ve managed to prevent them from getting to the bird feeders (except for a new peanut-butter feeder out back – they’ve just figured that one out), but there are always several squirrels around. They’re a nuisance in many ways and I'm sure they compete with birds on the ground for fallen nuts, seeds and fruit from the feeders. But I assume eating birds is not something they do regularly.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Robins, Robins

This afternoon – cool, partly cloudy, partly sunny and blue-sky – hundreds of American Robins were scattered throughout our neighborhood, as if they had fallen out of the sky like drifting leaves. There was not one large concentrated flock, but many red-breasted, chirping, chucking, cheeping birds foraging in almost every yard, others in treetops and along the roadsides. In some places there were clusters of Robins in the trees making squeaky calls – and a few were singing.

Rusty Blackbird Blitz

“A species that was once considered abundant is rapidly disappearing before our eyes.” (eBird)*

Feeding in the grass with some of the Robins were a relatively small flock of Red-winged Blackbirds, and among them, I’m fairly sure there were some Rusty Blackbirds, but I couldn’t ever get close enough to be certain. As I approached, the flock always flushed up and flew a little further away or into the trees. There were several birds with bright yellow eyes that did not seem to be Grackles, so I think they must have been Rusties – and when they flew, they flew together and made rather soft chuck calls, not the harsher calls of a Grackle, and seemed to have the shape of Rusty Blackbirds – well, if I were a more confident observer I would have no doubt. But I just don’t trust myself. So I’m hoping they might be around again tomorrow and maybe I can get a better look. The past few winters a fairly good number of Rusty Blackbirds have been regular visitors here, but this is the first time I’ve seen them this season.

At this time of year, male Rusty Blackbirds are black with rusty speckling, or feathered edges, and striking pale yellow eyes. The rusty speckling, however, is sometimes not easy to see, especially at a distance. They often flock with Grackles or Red-winged Blackbirds, but are smaller than Grackles, with thin bills and long, club-shaped tails – but not as long as the Grackles’ tails. The females are particularly attractive in winter plumage, in muted shades of brown, from rust and cinnamon to grayish-fawn, with a dark streak through the eye and a tawny stripe over the eye.

Right now we’re in the middle of the 2010 Rusty Blackbird Blitz – a two-week period January 30 through February 15, when birdwatchers are encouraged to report observations of Rusty Blackbirds to help compile information about their population numbers and status.

Populations of Rusty Blackbirds have declined dramatically in the past few decades, falling by more than 90 percent. “A species that was once considered to be abundant is rapidly disappearing before our eyes,” says the eBird website. “Your observations can help save this species by arming scientists with critical information about its ecology.”

* For more information about Rusty Blackbirds and how to participate in the Blitz, see the eBird website.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Eastern Towhees in a Thicket – Land for Sale

On a cold, gray, dreary, foggy, lightly icy day – like much of the last two weeks in January – four Eastern Towhees rustled in leaf litter on the ground in a tangled thicket of privet and other weedy faded shrubs and vines. Two were males, with dark red eyes and boldly patterned in black, red-orange and white; two females with the same overall pattern, but instead of black, a rich velvet-brown. Now and then one called cher-WINK. They kicked up the litter vigorously, searching for seeds, fruits, insects, spiders and larvae. They don’t much look like sparrows, but are – big, plump, brightly colored sparrows with colorful songs and calls to match. Robust, lively and earthy, they looked warm in the middle of a cold, gray day, glowing like the colors of a welcome fire against the withered background of the deepest part of winter.

The area of thickets where I saw them has become a favorite stopping place for me these last couple of weeks – on the rare occasions when I’ve been home long enough to get outside for a walk. It’s a vacant lot just outside our subdivision, happily neglected, overgrown with weeds and vines and grass, with a large red, white and blue “commercial property for sale” sign planted right in the middle of it. It’s not particularly attractive even when the foliage is green, and right now it looks especially bedraggled – but a lot of birds seem to like it.

White-throated Sparrows and Song Sparrows join Towhees in feeding on the ground, often coming out to the roadside nearby to forage in the grass, and sometimes they sing. Brown Thrashers lurk deep in the tangles giving smack calls loudly. There’s often the chatter of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet as it flits quickly, weaving through the bushes, the fussing of a Carolina Wren, the chatter of a Chickadee, or an Eastern Phoebe quietly stopping by to perch on a branch, wagging its tail. Usually there are at least a few Robins in the trees overhead, and the high, thin calls of a small flock of Cedar Waxwings.

Though Eastern Towhees are quite common in eastern North America, and a familiar bird around many yards, many details of its natural history remain poorly known, according to the species account in Birds of North America. “Because the bird spends much of its time near or on the ground in dense habitats and scrubby growth . . . it is usually difficult to study . . . and deserves much additional study.”*

* Jon S. Greenlaw. 1996. Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

As January Ends – A Scarcity of Birds

For the last two weeks of January, I was away from home much of the time, so my impressions of bird activity during these days are fragmentary. But whenever I could, I went out for at least one walk during the day, and my general impression has been that this winter we have fewer species of birds and smaller numbers here than in previous winters – except for some of our most common birds, like Chickadees, Titmice, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Mourning Doves, Cardinals and Blue Jays. All of these seem to be doing fine.

Most days I’ve seen Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures soaring, and at least one Red-tailed Hawk, sometimes soaring, but often perched in the trees or flying low along the edge of the woods. So far this winter, however, I have not seen or heard a Red-shouldered Hawk, and this is unusual. Until now, Red-shouldered Hawks have almost always been around, and in previous winters there were many days when I encountered one or two hunting from low perches in trees near the woods.

I have still seen a Cooper’s Hawk several times along a certain stretch of road that runs between yards with a combination of open space and woods.

Most days I run across at least one Yellow-bellied Sapsucker or hear its mewing call, but they are not nearly as common in the neighborhood’s many pecans and other trees as they have been in previous winters. So far we’ve seen very few Goldfinches, no Pine Siskins, and no sign of the large Blackbird flocks of previous winters.

But – to end the month on a less-gloomy note, there’s a handsome pair of Northern Flickers that usually can be found foraging in one large grassy yard with Eastern Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos and other small birds. The check calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers can be heard just about everywhere, and one or two small sparkling flocks of Cedar Waxwings are usually around.

A pair of feisty Brown-headed Nuthatches are regular visitors to the feeders in our front yard, along with a pair of Downy Woodpeckers, and a few tiny, exquisite Golden-crowned Kinglets can usually be found in the pines. Carolina Wrens sing glorious songs – too often I overlook them – and also visit the feeders often. Large numbers of Robins are scattered throughout the neighborhood, spread out across yards, perched in treetops, and at end of day, glowing red in the setting sun as they fly over in small groups toward the west.

A Pine Warbler continues to trill its spring-like song outside my office window early in the morning and all around the house, all day, even in the coldest, grayest, dreariest weather.