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.