Birding Notes

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

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Before the Storm

The first few days of 2009 have been mostly gray, gloomy days, sometimes cool, mostly unseasonably warm. The most notable thing about bird activity around our house and yard has been how little activity there is, and how few birds. There seem to be few in number, and fewer different species than in years past.

Late this afternoon, in an interval between periods of rain, the clouds broke and let the sun shine through for an hour or more, creating a glorious end of day. About five o’clock a strong wind was blowing away a dark bank of gray clouds to the east, and blowing in more clouds from the southwest, and between them lay a stretch of open, silver-blue sky scattered with hundreds of small smoky-gray and salmon-colored clouds. High in the east hung a blurry white gibbous moon. On the western horizon, thin, flowing layers of red-gold surrounded the setting sun.

I saw few birds along the way, maybe because I was lost in thought and not paying much attention. A flock of Cedar Waxwings flew by, flashing in a burst of light and diving into some trees, almost like fireworks falling out in streamers. I passed the check calls of Yellow-rumped Warblers, the rattle of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, the kleer! of a Northern Flicker, the chatter of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and in one spot, the high ti-ti-ti calls of Golden-crowned Kinglets – which I stopped and tried to spot, but could not. A Pileated Woodpecker bugled its traveling call and flew just over the tops of the trees toward the area around a small pond.

In one big, picturesque grassy yard with pecan trees spread all over it, dozens of little birds were feeding – mostly House Finches. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many House Finches together at once, several males as well as females, and along with them a few Bluebirds, Chipping Sparrows and Juncos. From a distance, it looked as if the grass itself was alive and erupting here and there in the shape of little birds. I walked as close as possible – thinking I saw what might have been a Purple Finch among them, a taller finch of a deeper, more purplish-red, it seemed, but probably not. And when I got too close, they all flew up and scattered into the trees and shrubs.

On the way back home, after the sun had gone down, a Cooper’s Hawk flew across the road in front of me and perched, with its back toward me, among a tangle of bare branches in a stand of oaks and pecans. It was almost silhouetted against a milky-gray part of the sky with no clouds and no color, but I could see it fairly well, its head turning from side to side, the long tail, the gray back, and the tufts of white showing from underneath, on either side of the gray rump. It was a beautiful image of how much there is to see that we – especially I – so often miss. I would never have seen it there if I hadn’t seen it fly.

The Cooper’s Hawk stayed in this perch for several minutes, then flew back toward me and to my right, across the street low, and up and into the big dense magnolia tree where I’ve seen it take refuge before at this time of day.

Back at home, I stayed outside walking around for several minutes, watching as the clouds lost their colors and turned into tufts of ash-gray all over the sky, and the first pinprick of a sparkling star appeared. A bat made a big sweeping circuit over our grass and up and down the street. Crickets sang, some big moth-like insects fluttered in a small swarm, and I think there were spring peepers singing down near the creek.


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