Birding Notes

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

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Best of Autumn

This morning was another in a string of beautiful autumn days – frosty mornings that turn breezy, cool, sunny, and clear, with intensely blue skies. We’re having a surprisingly colorful fall, given the extremely dry weather, and it’s unusual that most of the hardwoods are still full of leaves in mid November. In most past years, the trees would have been bare or nearly bare by now.

Around our house and neighborhood, fall colors are at their most intense – the crusty gold foliage of the water oaks blends with yellow and wine-red sweet gums, dusty-russet dogwoods, and maples in flaming orange or deep rose-red. A few hickories here and there burn their distinctive burnished gold; deep in the woods, the pale copper leaves of beeches catch the sunlight; a few dull yellow leaves still cling to tulip poplars; and clusters of brown and orange splotch the faded green of white oaks. The leaves on the pecan trees – never very colorful – abruptly turned greenish gray and shriveled in the first hard frost and are falling fast now, piling up on lawns and roads. Some kind of small, spindly tree along the roadsides is particularly brilliant, a shiny cherry-red. Leaves and acorns shower down in the wind.

Bird activity around the house this morning was typical of recent days. White-throated sparrows called tseet from under the wax myrtles and other shrubs, and one – looking sharply dressed with its smooth gray breast, neatly defined white throat, rufous-streaked back and wings, white stripe over the eye, and accent of dark yellow between its eye and bill – came out to feed on the edge of the grass. Cardinals peeped, an Eastern Towhee called to-wheeee, a Mockingbird flew quietly from mailbox to lamp-post to shrubs, two Carolina Wrens sang from somewhere in the woods, a Downy Woodpecker called pink! and two or three Mourning Doves flew in with whistling wings to the branches above the feeders.

And Phoebes were singing. In fact, one of the first sounds I heard this morning was the song of an Eastern Phoebe. For the past two or three weeks, at least, they’ve been mostly quiet, but today I heard them often, singing, fussing and chattering. At one point, one Phoebe was singing in our yard, another sang from the yard next door, and another was singing further down the street – plus, a quiet Phoebe sat in the low branch of a pecan tree near me, switching its tail and flying off to catch insects. I don’t know why there suddenly seem to be so many, and so vocal, unless maybe more have moved in from further north. The Birds of North America species account says little is known about their migration patterns, but that fall migration is late, and they seem to follow the frost-line, moving south as cold weather causes declines in insect populations.*

A Northern Flicker called a sharp kleer! A Hairy Woodpecker worked steadily on a large dead pine – I’m beginning to recognize the sound of its industrious, steady pecking almost as well as its emphatic calls of peenk! A Red-breasted Nuthatch called ank-ank-ank and was answered by another. Then one flew in to one of the feeders, sat on top of it for a few moments, craned its head up to look around, then began to eat. I heard the cry of a Red-tailed Hawk, and a Bluebird’s warble – and a different kind of tapping that turned out to be an immature Yellow-bellied Sapsucker working on the trunk of a white oak. Surrounded by the sunlit green and rusty-orange leaves of the oak, its plumage was streaked and patterned in several shades of brown, gray, black, white and buff, looking like a reflection of the bark of the tree.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker rattled somewhere in the woods. Crows cawed in the distance. Several chattering Chickadees came in to the lower tree branches and the feeders, and one Yellow-rumped Warbler, chirping softly, flew into the Savannah Holly beside the porch and cautiously made its way through it, eventually coming to the edge of the birdbath for a drink. In its faded fall plumage, it looked bland and forgettable, just a little gray bird with soft streaks – except for the smudges of yellow on its sides and the bright yellow patch on its rump.

With a great deal of squeaking conversation, a couple of Brown-headed Nuthatches traveled through the front-yard trees and stopped by for both water and a few trips to the feeders. An uncharacteristically quiet Ruby-crowned Kinglet also made its way through the trees and shrubs, coming close enough so that I could see the bright ring around its eye, the crisp wing bars and the greenish-gray of its back. One sound missing in the morning bustle, however, was the high, thin call of a Golden-crowned Kinglet. Although I’ve seen and heard them a few times this fall, they are not frequent visitors around the house as they were last year, and I’m wondering if this year might be one in which we see them less often – or maybe we’ll see more of them later in the season.

*Weeks Jr., Harmon P.,1994. Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


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