Birding Notes

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

Friday, February 27, 2009

Bird Showers

In a calm, cool, steady rain this morning, a Red-bellied Woodpecker sat out in the open on a branch and took a nice long shower, fluffing up its feathers, fluttering its wings and preening. It stretched out low on a lichen-covered pecan branch and rubbed its belly vigorously, sat up, preened its breast and belly and under each wing again, and scratched its head with one foot.

In the branches of other trees nearby at the same time, two Blue Jays, a Titmouse, a Cardinal and a Mockingbird also sat out in the rain and fluttered, fluffed and preened.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – a handsome black and white and buff, with a deep crimson throat – stopped by one of the pecan trees looking wet and disheveled. He shook his feathers and fluffed them out, but never paused in his work, tapping and circling around.

More than two dozen Robins foraged in the open grass, heads held high, running, stopping, looking around, now and then poking at the ground. Chipping Sparrows fed in the grass all around them, much harder to see, low to the ground, looking like moving pieces of the grass. Two black Starlings stood apart from the others, on the edge of the grass, as if not sure they wanted to be there.

Two Pine Warblers and one Phoebe sang, a Mourning Dove cooed somewhere in the distance, and four or five Pine Siskins sat high up in the treetops and chirped and twanged zhreeeeee, a sound that still makes me smile every time I hear it. It’s a strange, exotic kind of music that for me is almost hypnotic – I just want to listen to it over and over again.

Lots of birds were active in the rain around the yard – Downy Woodpecker, Titmice, Chickadees, several Dark-eyed Juncos, Yellow-rumped Warblers, one Pine Warbler feeding in grass at the edge of the driveway, Bluebirds, and a male Towhee pecking at the ground in the shelter of wax myrtle shrubs.

The rain continued all day – a steady, soaking, welcome rain – until late afternoon, when it paused for a while and I took advantage of the break to get outside for a quick walk. Clouds filled the sky in many shades and shapes and fantasies of gray and white, some high and silky smooth, others low, dirty gray and thin, some whipped charcoal-blue, or milky-cream, or soft dove gray, or pearl, or sullen, drooping dark gray – and more. They kept my attention most of the way.

On the edge of the Old Field, a spray of about a dozen Song Sparrows flew up into tall, dead brown grassy weeds. Small flocks of Cedar Waxwings clustered in the tops of trees looking wet and less lively than usual. House Finches, Bluebirds, Cardinals and Brown Thrashers sang. And one Turkey Vulture perched on top of a utility pole with its wings stretched out to dry.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Birdsong in the Morning – Beginning to Sound Like Spring

The day began with a cool, fresh-washed early spring morning, rainwater from light showers overnight dripping from the trees and a pale blue sky with clouds of peach and gold – and birdsong all around. Pine Warblers, Carolina Wrens, Cardinals, Chickadees, Titmice, Phoebe, Brown Thrasher and House Finches sang. A vivid black, rust-red and white Towhee sang from a sprawling yellow forsythia bush on one side of the yard, then from a small tree, then from the wax myrtles – making his rounds, I think.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker drummed on a limb and called its spring-time quuurrrr, Yellow-rumped Warblers called chek, Dark-eyed Juncos chittered, Mourning Doves cooed, Goldfinches mewed, Pine Siskins chirped and called zhreeeee. A pair of Bluebirds flew low across the yard, the male perched on top of the birdhouse and sang – then popped down and into the entrance.

The Evening Star and a Crescent Moon at Night

In the last light of day, deep twilight, spring peepers sang from down around the creek in the woods. The western sky was a soft cloud-painting of mauve, orange, very pale turquoise, and smoky dark gray. Close to the horizon hung the thinnest sliver of a crescent moon on its back, with the outline of the full moon barely showing. And straight above the moon, directly, shined Venus, a big, bright, silvery star, looking much more brilliant than the thin, orange wisp of moon.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Mixed Flock of Blackbirds

About 11:30 this morning I heard a sudden big whoosh of wings outside my office window, and when I looked, sure enough, the front yard was full of Blackbirds, several hundred perched in the bare limbs of the trees and spread over the grass and pine needles and leaf mulch, all making a racket in creaky, gurgling, chucking calls.

Although the largest number of Blackbirds in the neighborhood recently have been Red-wings, most of this flock were Common Grackles, gleaming iridescent black, with pale eyes, long tails and large, thick bills, looking sleek and handsome, especially the ones in the sunlight. It was a cold, clear, sunny day, and earlier in the morning the yard had been pretty busy with Titmice, Chickadees, Chipping Sparrows, Brown-headed Nuthatches, Pine Siskins, Downy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Dark-eyed Juncos.

The Grackles took over completely, crowding impatiently onto the bird baths – as many as nine at a time trying to squeeze onto the rim of one – and covered the ground in a swarm, vigorously tossing up pine needles and leaves all over the place, and apparently finding something to eat there, maybe insects, maybe seeds. One Grackle held a large acorn in its bill. Several big Grackles also clung awkwardly to both feeders, pushing and shoving for a spot as they swung back and forth.

Red-winged Blackbirds were mixed in with the Grackles, plus a few Rusty Blackbirds and at least one Brown-headed Cowbird. In the bare limbs of one tree, two Common Grackles, one male Red-winged Blackbird and three male Rusty Blackbirds perched together, giving me a good opportunity to see and compare them – each quite different from the others, making me wonder why I sometimes have so much trouble distinguishing among them, even in a restless, quickly moving flock.

Several times they all flew up into the trees when something startled them, then pretty quickly filtered back onto the ground and feeders and bird baths. I watched from inside, through unscreened windows, because I knew if I opened a door and went out they’d all fly away. So I couldn’t see the whole flock well enough to get a good estimate of how large it was, but as they drifted on down the street after about 20 or 30 minutes, a cloud of several hundred rose up together at one point.

A Cooper’s Hawk, a Great Blue Heron, and a Rusty Blackbird Singing

Late this afternoon, with the sun low but still bright, Pine Siskins called their twanging zhrreEEE from the pines as I went out for a walk. It was pleasantly cool, with a light westerly breeze. Cedar Waxwings scattered high, thin, piping notes and perched in the tops of trees, facing the sun. Chipping Sparrows flew up from the grass along the roadside ahead of me. I had stopped to watch a House Finch singing from the top of a tree in one yard when a Cooper’s Hawk glided low across the grass and up into a tree on the other side of the yard. It sat facing away from me, calm and still for three or four minutes, turning its head one way and the other. It was a juvenile, with a brownish back, and when it flew, it showed a very pale, brown-streaked belly, breast and under side of the wings, and wide bands of dark and light in the flared tail. It stayed fairly low, flapping until it was out of sight.

Red-winged Blackbirds sang all along the way, scattered out here and there, but it wasn’t until I was heading back toward home that I came to a small part of the usual large flock spread out on grassy yards and in trees. Most of these were Red-winged Blackbirds and a few were Common Grackles. In the bare limbs of one pecan tree, six Rusty Blackbird males perched together. All were glossy black, with yellow eyes, thin, sharp bills, and a little rust still showing in the wings.

Two were perched close together, one slightly above the other, facing the sun and in particularly good view, and one of them was singing – a creaky, repeated song with two chucks, then a few gurgling notes – Chck-chck. Churk-urk-a-WEE! It had something of the quality of a Red-winged Blackbird’s song, but not nearly as full or colorful or appealing. Still, it was really fun to watch and listen as it sang.

When I was almost home, a Great Blue Heron flew over, flying north to south in a pale blue, quiet sky, flapping its huge gray wings slowly, steadily and gradually disappearing over the top of the treeline.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Carolina Wren’s Morning Song

Each morning for the past several days, a Carolina Wren has begun the day by singing from a perch on the top of a plant hanger just outside our kitchen window. I hear its song first thing as I wake up, and later, it sings as we make breakfast and eat and read the paper and do the early morning chores.

A small, audacious cinnamon-brown wren with an upturned tail and a pale stripe over the eye, he sings a rich three-syllable song that sounds cheerful and bright and full of energy, and is answered in a loud purring buzz by a female Carolina Wren near by, and by another male in the distance repeating the same pattern of his song.

On the other side of the deck, Pine Siskins crowd the finch feeder in perpetual motion, and their chirps and zhreeeee calls make background music, along with the quurrrr of a Red-bellied Woodpecker and the loose, musical trill of a Pine Warbler in the woods.

In Donald Kroodsma’s book, The Singing Life of Birds,* he captures the stirring quality of a Carolina Wren’s early morning song perfectly, in a description of an hour before sunrise in Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp:

“I’m early, perhaps half an hour early, but I didn’t want to chance missing them. I need to just stand here, too, silently, listening, smelling, absorbing all that these wrens experience during these waking minutes. . . . . LIB-er-ty! LIB-er-ty! LIB-er-ty! LIB! There’s the first wren of the morning, a hundred yards to the east, a single song, a bold phrase repeated three and a half times on what must be the next territory over. The emphatic, powerful waves of his song radiate out, to be heard by all, everyone put on notice. Every leaf, twig, and trunk, every being within a quarter mile reverberates with each LIB-er-ty!, rousing every molecule and bone in my body, too.”

* Donald Kroodsma, The Singing Life of Birds, 2005, pages 346-347.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Pine Siskin Photos

Several Pine Siskins continue to visit the feeder on the edge of our back deck. Mornings are the busiest hours of the day. At times there are Siskins at each opening on the feeder and several waiting on the deck rail or the top of the feeder or the branches overhead. From time to time, one of the waiting Siskins will decide it’s time for a change. It flies to the feeder and causes a great commotion of fluttering wings all around, and when they settle, the new one usually has a place.

My favorite part of watching the Siskins is listening to their calls. Around the feeder, there’s a constant chirp-chirp-chirping. When they’re up in the pines, several of them gathered to preen, or maybe foraging there, too, they use their buzzy-ringing zhreeeeeee calls, usually with a long, rising inflection – but I’ve also heard a slightly shorter zhreeee as a downward slurring call.

At times – usually during the late morning or afternoon – one Pine Siskin (not always the same one) will try to monopolize the feeder, fending off all others, lunging with spread wings and open bill at any others that approach.

Often during the day, one or two American Goldfinches manage to work their way in for a while. But most of the time, the Siskins seem to dominate, and we do not have large numbers of Goldfinches. Two Dark-eyed Juncos often feed on seeds scattered below the feeder.

Thanks, Clate, for these photos!

Friday, February 13, 2009

Red-shouldered Hawk Pair

Late this morning – a beautiful cool, sunny, spring-like morning with a quilt of white clouds slowly drifting from west to east across a blue sky – two Red-shouldered Hawks flew into the top of a pine tree on the edge of our yard, calling a squeaking eee-er, eee-er a couple of times as they arrived. They perched close together there for a couple of minutes, a little unsteady among the pine needles, looking around, one slightly lower than the other. Then they flew together, staying close, dropping down on open wings and gliding up and over the tops of the trees in the woods across the street.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Female Rusty Blackbird and a Sharp-shinned Hawk

Late this afternoon, the sky was a clear, cool blue and the sun was sinking low as I went out for a walk. A Northern Flicker perched in the top of a tree in one yard, a House Finch and a Bluebird sang, and a few Cedar Waxwings flew over – but there don’t seem to be nearly as many Cedar Waxwings now as there were a week or two ago, when small flocks were scattered throughout the neighborhood.

Two Pileated Woodpeckers flew across the road ahead of me, one followed by the other, in the same wooded area around the middle of the neighborhood where I’ve often seen them recently. And I could hear the noisy chucking and creaking of the usual large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles spread out further up the hill.

When I saw a slender bird facing the sun in the bare top branches of a pecan tree by the side of the road, I almost didn’t stop to check it out, but did, and through binoculars saw a taupe-colored bird with a thin, pointed bill – and a big bright yellow-gold eye. It was a female Rusty Blackbird in breeding plumage, with the sunlight giving her gray breast a warm brownish glow. I could hardly have been more surprised. I’ve been trying to find some Rusties among the mixed flock of Blackbirds that have stayed around for several weeks, but until now had not been able to find any since last fall.

As I watched, a small group of other Blackbirds flew over, making rather quiet chucking calls, and she flew with them.

About twenty minutes later, as I was on my way home and passing back through the same area, the large flock had moved in and settled restlessly in the trees and on the grass, and I found a few Rusty Blackbird males among them, all in glossy black breeding plumage, with no remnants of their rusty winter coloring.

A little further down the road, about the time the sun was going down, a bird of a different kind flew toward me, flapping and gliding, several feet above the treetops so that it still caught the light of the sun. It was a Sharp-shinned Hawk – the second one I’ve seen in a week, when I almost never see one at all. So I could hardly believe my luck. It flew directly over me, and I had a perfect view of its shape, with the long, distinctly square-tipped tail, small head and short, broad wings. It flapped quickly and glided, flapped quickly and glided, several times, and all in all, it was the clearest, best view I’ve ever enjoyed of a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Sharp-shinned Hawk Flying

About 2:30 this afternoon, as I was driving out on my way to do some errands, a Sharp-shinned Hawk flew over the highway ahead of me, a little above tree level. Its compact shape and fluttery way of flying caught my eye. It flapped several quick times, then a short glide, then several more quick flaps and another glide. At one point, it banked, showing its pale under side and a perfect view of its shape – the small head and broad, short wings, and slender squarish tail. Even though it was a very brief sighting, it left a vivid impression, and lightened up a busy afternoon, putting things in a better, more relaxed perspective.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk are so similar in appearance that it’s easy to mistake one for the other – and I’m sure I’ve been wrong more than once. The reasons I’m pretty sure this was a Sharp-shinned Hawk were its compact shape and the way it flew – quick flaps followed by glides. It was flying between two areas of wooded land, on either side of the highway.

Both Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks are woodland raptors designed for flight through trees and dense cover, in pursuit of their prey – smaller birds and some mammals. The Sharp-shinned especially is known for preying on songbirds. I see Cooper’s Hawks fairly often, but Sharp-shinned only now and then, but I wouldn’t say that’s a good measure of which is more common here. The Sharp-shinned is not only smaller but also more secretive, and its habits in general make it less likely to be observed, except during migration.

So for me, it’s less common to see a Sharp-shinned Hawk, and it always feels like a particular stroke of luck, and an uncommon glimpse of a bird that usually stays well hidden in the trees. I also couldn’t help thinking, as I drove on, that these woods on either side of the highway, where the Sharp-shinned Hawk had flown, are steadily being replaced by development, and in another few years they probably will be gone.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Cardinal Duet

Early this morning – a clear, cold day – a Cardinal sat in the top of a pecan tree, catching the first rays of the rising sun, and sang. His bright song – seeer-seeer-purdy-purdy-purdy – was closely echoed by another, slightly softer purdy-purdy-purdy-purdy that chimed in near the end each time he sang. The second singer was a female Cardinal perched lower down in the branches of a tree on the other side of the yard. They sang like this together several times, all the while I was walking up the driveway to get the morning paper, and walking back.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Birds In Motion – Variations in the Obvious

Late this morning the sky was a soaring soft blue, marbled with swirling white clouds, and a northwest breeze was stiff and cold – it felt good to be outside and walking. Birds were active everywhere. A Bluebird flashed against a background of drab and faded grass. A Phoebe swooped down to the ground and up to a limb where it quickly bobbed its tail. Yellow-rumped Warblers chased each other in and out of evergreens. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered as it flew out to the edge of a bush, looking around curiously. House Finches – invisibly perched high up in a tangle of gray-brown branches – whistled long, rambling tunes. Red-bellied Woodpeckers flew in roller-coaster, dipping flight from tree to tree, and a Downy gave its high, cascading whinny. Pine Warblers sang from the edges of the woods.

A vivid Yellow-bellied Sapsucker mewed repeatedly as it hitched and peered around the trunk of a pecan tree, his throat and crown deep crimson. A female, more subdued in her coloring, watched him quietly from the trunk of a nearby tree with interest, but without responding.

Dark-eyed Juncos, Chipping Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows rustled and pecked in leaves on the ground, each moving in a different, distinct sort of way. Juncos peck at the ground, look up and around, and scurry to another spot, often in the direction of where another bird is foraging. Chipping Sparrows appear more calm and casual, often staying in one spot for several seconds or longer – unless startled, when they fly up in a sudden, silvery flash of wings, as if becoming a different bird. It always amazes me how they change so quickly. White-throated Sparrows venture out from beneath the shrubs watchfully and forage methodically, sometimes sitting quietly against the base of a trunk for several minutes, just looking around, diving straight for the bushes when disturbed.

Two warm-yellow Pine Warblers searched for food with several Yellow-rumped Warblers along the sides of the road and on the road itself, littered with leaves and maybe with seeds or insects of some kind. Some of the Yellow-rumped Warblers looked less drab and more spring-like, with bright yellow sides and crisp dark streaks.

A Red-tailed Hawk soared over, wings outstretched, all pale underneath with dark brown band and wing tips, brown head, and dull orange tail. We’re lucky to have a pair that we see almost every day, and I never get tired of watching their flight, especially on a day like today, when it looks majestic, broad wings spread out and lit against the blue sky. A second Red-tailed Hawk flew up from a bank of trees, and the high one screamed, answered by the other.

Pine Siskins’ Metallic Zhree-eee-eee

From a stand of several pines came a grating, sharply rising call – zhree-eee-eee – and a twitter of shorter, raspy chirps. The trees were full of Pine Siskins. These were the first ones I’ve run into away from the feeders in our yard, and it was interesting to watch them in a different setting – or just to listen to them. Their zhree-eee-eee calls are fascinating. The sound makes me wince like a shock, and yet, I stood there listening to it again and again because it’s so intriguing. It’s a like a buzz of electricity zipping up a wire, with a tense quality of warning to it, and an eery undercurrent of music.