Birding Notes

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

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dawn Song of a Great Crested Flycatcher

Already the early morning chorus is much less exuberant and crowded than three or four weeks ago. This morning one cardinal began singing a little after 5:00 am, joined about 5:15 by a bluebird and several minutes later by a phoebe. About 5:45 other birds began to sing or call, including the pik-a-tuk calls of a summer tanager, the spees of blue-gray gnatcatcher and songs of Carolina wren, chipping sparrow, chickadee, titmouse and the whinny of a downy woodpecker. These are the birds I can hear from a window facing the front yard – not the woods and back where there might have been a Louisiana waterthrush, Acadian flycatcher, northern parula, red-eyed vireo, yellow-throated vireo, scarlet tanager, maybe even a wood thrush – or not.

The most persistent song this morning – and the closest to my open bedroom window – came from a great-crested flycatcher giving a soft, musical, almost purring two-part song. Over and over it called wheer, whurr; wheer, whurr; wheer, whurr. The sound was intimate and low, very different from its loud daytime calls. After 30 minutes or so, I have to say, it became a little monotonous. Still, it was unusual to hear, and interesting.

The dawn chorus, such as it was, ended about 6:15 with the flourish of a full, dry, drawn-out call from a yellow-billed cuckoo. A cardinal, bluebird, phoebe, and Carolina wren continued to sing here and there, as they would all day, and a summer tanager sang in the distance, but the first flush of early-morning music was over, and the sun was about to come up.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

An Early Summer Day

The day began with the song of a Wood Thrush, lyrical, flute-like notes drifting up through the leaves of the woods from somewhere down around the creek. The morning was cloudy and gray, the trees restless in a light breeze. I stood for several minutes in a fine, barely perceptible sprinkle of rain, feeling very lucky, just listening to the unexpected song, impossibly lovely and increasingly uncommon here.

There’s one other Wood Thrush singing in our neighborhood this spring, in a wooded area behind a small pond. Each year, there seem to be fewer, and each year I think that maybe we won’t hear one at all – so when I do, it feels like a gift.

From around the same area near the creek came the sharp WHEET-sit call of an Acadian Flycatcher, the bright whistle and tumbling notes of a Louisiana Waterthrush, the buzzy song of a Northern Parula, and the less-frequently heard dry, rising and falling cow-cow-cow-CAWP-cawp-cawp-cawp of a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.

A Pine Warbler trilled in the pines all around the edges of the woods, and very active Blue-gray Gnatcatchers called spee. A Yellow-throated Vireo sang in the trees behind a neighbor’s yard, a Red-eyed Vireo deeper in the woods, and a Great-crested Flycatcher called breet and whreep. The cries of a Red-shouldered Hawk soaring very high in the southeast sounded made it sound much closer than it was.

A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird made frequent trips to the feeder, now and then buzzing over to me and hanging in the air, coming closer and closer, checking me out. A couple of times another hummingbird zoomed past her like a warning shot, maybe the male, but a male never came to the feeder while I was watching, though their twittering calls were all around. The nest I watched a female construct four weeks ago sits empty on its pine branch, so I assume she’s built another somewhere else.

Rain clouds hung low, gray and dark all day, with occasional sprinkles, but despite the gloomy weather, there was a surprising amount of bird activity around our yard and woods. Now and then a breeze brought the summery scent of gardenias, now in bloom. I don’t think birds were unusually active today. It’s just that I happened to be out at the right times. Some of the observations were typical of an early summer day but others were surprising and interesting.

American Redstart

Early in the afternoon while I was sitting outside reading after lunch, a female American Redstart – gray with yellow patches in wings and tail – flitted out of the foliage and briefly perched on a bare branch while she ate something. After that, I could hear two Redstarts singing among the leaves of the oaks nearby for an hour or more, but never could spot them. I was surprised to see and hear them, and don’t know if they are late migrants or maybe staying to nest, though usually I have not found them here during the summer months. Their cheery, high songs – sort of tsee-tsee-tsee or tseeta-tseeta-tseeta-tsee – and colorful behavior always brighten a day.

Hairy Woodpecker Pair

A male Hairy Woodpecker flew to a spot high up on a tall dead pine calling as it arrived in an long, unusual string of loud wicka-chew sort of notes that sounded agitated or excited. Then it flew with loud peenk! calls to the lowest part of another pine trunk, where it met a female Hairy Woodpecker, and both immediately began tapping industriously on the trunk and stayed there working for several minutes.

A male and female Bluebird hunted from low branches in the back yard, and juveniles made zee-zee begging sounds somewhere among the leaves where I couldn’t see them, except for one that flew down to the grass and began pecking around and feeding itself. Meanwhile, a Phoebe called tsup-tsup as it perched on branches and swept out or down to the grass for insects.

Suddenly, a pugnacious little Carolina Wren flew to the top of a plant-hanger on the deck and sang very loudly and richly, continuing to sing as it made its way over each of the tomato cages on the plants in pots, then to the deck rail, to another plant-hanger, and finally into a hanging fern at the corner of the deck, where it scrabbled around deep in the greenery for several minutes. The female wren came along quietly a few minutes behind him, carrying small twigs in her bill and following his general path across the deck, but instead of going into the fern, she flew to the branches of nearby bushes, and the male followed her.

A warm-red male Summer Tanager made its way, quiet and leisurely, through the oaks and pines, not calling, not singing, stopping here and there to preen and wipe its bill.

A Brown Thrasher Conflict

Two Brown Thrashers also were moving around in the branches of the white oaks near the house, and one sang for four or five minutes, then fell silent. A few minutes later, one of the Brown Thrashers suddenly hurtled out of the oaks in a loud, fierce squabble and tangle with something. Because of the cries – which sounded alarmed and hurt – at first I thought it must have been caught by a small hawk, but it wasn’t. It happened so quickly I never saw what the other bird was – only a feathered, furious ball of the two flying out and falling to the ground together – but I think it was probably the other Thrasher. If so, their conflict sounded and looked pretty serious. One Brown Thrasher flew away – I did not see what happened to the other bird, but it must also have flown, in a different direction.

Barred Owls

The day ended after dark, with the raucous calls of two Barred Owls that sounded as if they were in the branches right outside our windows. They didn’t stay long. We may have frightened them away when we turned out the light and walked to the window to listen. But it’s nice to know they’re around.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Trio-flying Chimney Swifts

Late this morning three Chimney Swifts passed low over me, flying close together and twittering loudly and constantly, with stiff wings fluttering. They swept through the trees and down over open grassy yards, then streaked back up again high, swooping over me several times while I was walking, always twittering and flying fast, diving, climbing, and weaving in and out of trees.

This “trio-flying” is a common behavior of Chimney Swifts at this time of year – something I have noticed in the past and sort of halfway wondered about, but never took the trouble to learn more about or question until now. There was something about their constant, expressive twittering calls that made me stop and watch them more closely this time, and the fact that they swept so low and in such dramatic patterns – quite different from the way they might pass over much higher on a lazy summer day.

The Birds of North America species account says trio-flying seems to be performed by one female and two males. Its function is not known, though apparently it’s a part of aerial courtship displays early in the season. It’s “characterized by three swifts following each other as they thread their way among buildings and trees, with incessant, louder-than-normal Chipper Calls . . . At peak intensity, trio-flying results in the most rapid flight speeds, ascending to much greater heights than normal, and flying horizontally great distances.” *

Learning about “trio-flying” is another reminder to me of how much I often take for granted – how much there is to learn about things I see and don’t think to question, or to really watch and listen carefully and with an open mind.

In the course of looking for this information, I also discovered an interesting description of Chimney Swift voices by Winson Marrett Tyler, in A.C. Bent’s Life Histories, which reveals that what I’ve always heard as just a rather nondescript “twittering” actually consists of a surprising variety of calls, though I have to admit it’s hard to imagine hearing these variations in the rapid-fire chatter of the birds as they pass so quickly overhead.

“The notes of the swift remind us of the bird itself – energetic and quick; sharp and hard like the bird's stiff wings,” Tyler wrote. “The note most commonly heard as the birds shoot about over our heads is a bright clear, staccato chip or tsik – whichever suggests the sharper sound – often repeated in a series and sometimes running off into a rapid chatter. . . . Simple as these notes are, the birds introduce a good deal of variety into them by modifying the interval between them, thereby changing the expression of their lively theme.

“One modification . . . serves to illustrate this ability and may be regarded as representing the song of the swift. It is made up of a long series of notes in which the birds, after giving several isolated chips, change abruptly to a series of very rapid notes, a sort of chatter, then with no pause between, change back to the chips, then back again – chips – chatter – chips, and so on. We may term it the "chips and chatter call.". . . Another modification of the chip note, often heard in summer when the birds are in a comparatively quiet mood, is a long chatter in which the volume increases and lessens, suggesting the sounding of a minute watchman's rattle.” **

*Calvin L. Cink and Charles T. Collins. 2002. Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

** Winson Marrett Tyler, Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica) in Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds. Arthur Cleveland Bent, 1940, United States Government Printing Office. Selected and edited for online publication by Patricia Query Newforth, 1996-2009.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Soft Calls of a Tanager Pair

The soft, clicking pit-oo, pit-oo calls of a pair of Summer Tanagers have been traveling through the trees all around the house for the past few days. These are quieter, more intimate calls than their usual, conversational pik-a-tuk.

Late this morning the pair were calling softly like this and going from place to place among the lower branches of trees in the back yard. The female emerged to sit on a bare stretch of a branch alone, where she swallowed something she had caught and wiped her bill on the branch. Her coloring was very deep, dusky yellow, almost orange, a shade darker on her head, with yellow-brown wings.

The rose-red male flew to the branch beside her and presented her with an insect in his bill, which she took and ate. He flew away, and after only a few seconds she followed him, and I could hear their pit-oo calls again. One of the nicest, most peaceful and pleasant sounds on a warm summer-like morning.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

American Redstart

A flash of black and orange wings fluttering in and out of thick green leaves, and a high, clear song in several different variations – American Redstarts seemed to be almost everywhere today. The ones I saw were all males – small active black birds with splashes of orange in the wings and tail – in treetops, shrubs and thickets. The gray and yellow females are equally colorful and eye-catching, fluttering like moths among the leaves, nothing shy or reclusive about them, looking as if they twirl around like children, purely for joy, as well as for catching their food. They are said to fan their tails and spread their wings, flashing their colors, to flush insect prey from the leaves.

An American Redstart’s song always gets my attention, but I never recognize it at first. I just know it’s something different, something I should recognize but can’t quite place – so I have to learn it again every year. But it sounds like a Redstart looks – bright, animated and changeable, reflecting its lively behavior. Though its voice has a unique, consistent quality, it songs can sound a little like several other warblers, and instead of having one easily-recognizable pattern, it varies the phrasing in several ways.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Indigo Bunting and Roadside Weeds and Wildflowers

It's been another warm, humid, windy day with a damp blue sky full of huge, restless gray and white clouds. An Indigo Bunting – the first of the season here – sang from somewhere among the tangle of weeds in the old field just outside the entrance to our subdivision. I couldn’t see where it was, but its chanting sweet-sweet, chew-chew, sweet-sweet mixed with the songs of White-eyed Vireo, Mockingbird and Eastern Towhee, and the spees of a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Two Red-tailed Hawks soared low over the field and over the busy highway just beyond it.

The wild grasses, weeds and wildflowers along the edge of the field have made a flowing tapestry of colors and textures for the past two or three weeks that’s a pleasure to walk by. The mixture changes gradually, some plants fading, others appearing as the days go by, and I don’t know the names of most of them, only a few. Clouds of tall white daisies, Queen Anne’s lace, low-growing deep-purple verbena and a graceful, coral-colored, branching sort of weed, speckles of yellow dandelions, furry pink rabbit-foot clover, tall feathery grass-tops, tan brushy grass, fresh, new-green grass, and the crusty brown and rust of old grasses and tiny wildflowers. Puffs of filmy panic grass hover like mist over several kinds of twisted, tough-looking plants. Tiny yellow balls of blooms hug the ground, clumps of tall, harsh, spiky purple thistles, lush honeysuckle vines and flowers and white blackberry blossoms, the soft dusty lilac of Chinaberry trees in bloom – and on the other side of the road, a riot of sunny pink roses tumble over the banks of the ditch.

Indigo Buntings love shrubby, weedy old fields like this. As the species account in Birds of North America notes, “Their colorful appearance and cheerful songs are good reasons to fallow old fields and to spare (not spray) herbicides along railways and roads.”*

*Robert B. Payne. Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Bats and a Full Orange Moon

After a hot, gusty, cloudy day, by evening the wind had died down, the clouds had dispersed, and the air was calm and almost sultry as a big full round orange moon rose and shimmered behind the dark outlines of the trees. Two bats swooped low over the grass and all around us as we walked up to the top of the driveway in deep twilight to see the moon and watch the bats appear and disappear and the last light fade from the sky. It felt like a preview of summer.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Phoebes Fledge – And Other Nest News

Late yesterday afternoon when gray clouds finally broke up into warm, humid sunshine and blue sky, I went out to have a look at the Eastern Phoebe nest – from way below its perch in the elbow of a gutter pipe, just below the roof – and found three big, healthy-looking Phoebe nestlings there, crowding the nest, all of them easily visible with binoculars, and even better through a scope. They all sat with bills gaping open, showing the orange insides of their mouths, panting, and a couple of times one snapped up an insect that got too close.

This afternoon when I looked again – they were gone. So I hope they’ve fledged successfully.

Meanwhile, the Eastern Bluebird pair continues to make frequent trips to the nest box with caterpillars and other insects. Both parents carry in food. The female seems to go in and out more often when I’ve been watching – but I haven’t watched long enough or consistently enough to say that for sure. Several times I’ve seen the male fly to the top of the nest box just as the female flies into the entrance with food. He waits there until she comes back out, then flies away with her.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Nest Sits Empty

The nest made by the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, though, has been empty every time I’ve looked at it for the past several days. It’s been 13 days since I first watched her constructing the nest, and she continued to work on it for at least three days more. On these following days, she seemed to work at a more leisurely pace and spent a lot of time sitting in the nest and looking around. Periods of rest like this alternated with periods of work, when she would fly away, bring something back, and add it to the nest.

As before, when she brought back material for the interior, she perched on the rim to poke it in, then sat in the nest and wiggled around, maybe working with her feet, and often poking at it with her long bill.

Once, after sitting for several minutes looking around, she whirred up to perch on the rim and look down into the nest, then flew up and down the pine branch, as if searching for something or checking out the immediate surroundings, then back to the nest where she settled down onto it, wiggled, fluttered her wings, poked with her bill, and slowly made a complete 360-degree turn, all the way around, wiggling the whole way – then whirred out onto the rim and flew away again. She was very pretty, iridescent green where the sun struck her feathers, striped with gray where the pine needles cast shadows.

By the third day, the nest had become much larger, rounder and deeper, extending further up the branch, and much more thickly covered with lichens. That was the last time I saw her in the nest. After then I was away from home for a couple of days and since then have not been out on the deck often, but have checked now and then and see only the empty nest – and we’ve not yet seen a male Hummingbird, though that doesn’t mean for sure there’s not one.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

A Scarlet Tanager – Really Singing Like a Robin?

The highlight of the morning was a glorious and completely unexpected view of a male Scarlet Tanager perched in the top of a pecan tree flooded in sunlight. A red so clear it looked like glass with light pouring through it, and with the ink-black wings there was no doubt at all what it was – but at the same time, coming from what seemed to be the same place, was the unmistakable song of a Robin.

For a minute or two I couldn’t figure it out. The Tanager was preening, but it even seemed to pause and open its short, sharp bill, lift its head, and the Robin’s lyrical cheer-up - cheerio notes spilled out. Then the Tanager flew, and I saw that, of course, a Robin was perched just below it and to the left in the same tree, still singing.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

A slow gray dawn began the day, with rainwater dripping from the trees from showers overnight, and a burst of birdsong that reached a peak about 6:15 – 6:45, led by the lisping songs of a Northern Parula and a Phoebe, both in the trees right outside my bedroom window. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Great-crested Flycatcher, Chipping Sparrow, Red-eyed Vireo, Yellow-throated Vireo, Cardinal, Chickadee, Bluebird, Brown-headed Nuthatch, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker . . . . and then a song I’m not so sure of, but think it may have been a Palm Warbler, a string of notes with a slightly ringing quality, but not loud. It drifted away, and I’ll never know for sure.

It’s the laziest way to go birding – and one of my favorite ways at this time of year when so many birds are singing, with new arrivals almost every day – just lying in bed with the windows open, listening as the different singers come and go. Getting up and being outside early is much better, I admit, but it kind of depends on your mood.

By 7:30 I was outside, with sunlight breaking through the clouds, a Red-eyed Vireo traveling through the leaves of the water oaks overhead, a Yellow-throated Vireo singing down the street, Summer Tanager, Scarlet Tanager and Louisiana Waterthrush songs from somewhere deeper in the woods, along with the calls of an Acadian Flycatcher, the twitter of Chimney Swifts passing over, and the weesa-weesa-weesa of a Black and White Warbler in the oaks on the edge of the yard.

Then a loud, rising and falling ca-ca-ca-ca-cawwp-cawwp-cawwp from the woods across the road – a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, the first time I’ve heard one this season.

Friday, May 01, 2009

A Summer Tanager Day

A Summer Tanager has been singing in the woods often since its arrival in mid April, and the pik-a-tuk calls of a pair frequently lace through the leaves of the trees around the house, but I hadn’t been able to see one until today. This morning after breakfast, the rumors continued. Through the kitchen window I saw movement in the big, floppy green leaves of the white oak branches that hang over the deck and went outside – and could hear the pik-a-tuk calls and see the rustling movement as birds moved through the foliage, but they remained mostly hidden still, moving further and further away.

It was late in the morning as I walked up the driveway toward the mailbox – when my mind was on something else entirely and I least expected it – when a male Summer Tanager appeared right in front of me, perched on a low branch of a pecan tree. It sat there, calm and quiet, stretched out in its typical, rather low posture, giving me a beautiful close-up view, deep blushing-red all over, with darker, shadowed red wings and long, heavy bill. The feathers on his crown were fluffed into a crest.

A little further up the driveway, in accidental contrast to the sturdy, handsome, deliberate Tanager, a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovered like a whisper, low over a carpet of tiny, low-growing wildflowers that spread in a yellow-spotted cloud over an open stretch of the yard. Many of the flowers have gone to fluffy seeds, like dandelions, and she was gathering the fluff.

It was a warm, sunny, perfect May Day with a soft blue sky thickly scattered with loose white clouds, and lots of birdsong and activity.

Black-throated Green Warbler

Early in the afternoon, I was sitting out front after lunch for a few minutes – much too nice a day to stay inside – listening to the calls of a Great-crested Flycatcher, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Phoebe, and a couple of Brown-headed Nuthatches, and the songs of a Yellow-throated Vireo, Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Parula and Chipping Sparrow, and watching our Bluebird pair continue to bring food to the nest box – when I heard a buzzy song in the treetops that caught my attention – trees-trees-whispering trees. I’m not good at recognizing most wood warbler songs, but this is one I’ve always especially loved – a Black-throated Green Warbler, a small, vividly-patterned woodland bird that looks like its name – with a greenish back, bright yellow face, olive crown, black throat and bold patterns of black and white in its wings and flanks. Its song is usually described as something like zee-zee-zee-zooo-zeet, but somewhere I heard the more poetic description, and that’s what I’ve always remembered. Trees-trees-whispering trees.

I could see it rustling through the highest part of the treetops, but the most I could make out was a glimpse of black as it moved, so I never really saw it, and then it disappeared and I couldn’t hear its song anymore, so it must have flown on.

Great-crested Flycatcher at End of Day – And the Call of a Barred Owl

A little before 7:00 this evening, the weather was warm, murky, cloudy, and humid, and the woods were mostly rather quiet. But a Great-crested Flycatcher put on quite a show at the edge of the woods, flying from low limb to limb, calling whreep in a clear, sharp way, and sometimes whrrrreeep in a deeper, rolling, burry way, and sometimes a short, gurgled burrt. It perched on broken-off dead snags in full view, looking all around, showing off a long-necked regal profile with the fine crested head, long bill, pale yellow breast and long cinnamon tail. Directly from the front, it looked comical, its eyes tiny in a big head that looked like a beehive hairdo, turning sideways as if to peer down at me. It moved from branch to branch, hawking insects, and once coming out of a cluster of oak leaves with a wriggling caterpillar, which it snapped quickly down.

The day ended well after dark with the call of a Barred Owl, something we have rarely heard the past few months. It only called three or four times, a simple, long HOOO-oooawww, ending in a long, rumbling vibrato. I made the mistake of going to the window and pushing it open a little further, and heard no more after that.