Monday, August 4, 2008

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sunday, July 13, 2008

July Is A Time For Birds To Make Changes

July, the turning point of the year, comes tripping in with hints of fall.

Yellow leaves are already sprinkling green lawns. Spring flowers are hanging their straggly, browning heads, making room for vibrant fall colors of asters, dahlias, chrysanthemums, roadside flowers of Joe-Pyeweed, mullein and those fields of goldenrod that will delight us from now until frost.

July brings starlings, grackles and red-winged blackbirds in small flocks back to our yards. It seems only yesterday they left to build their nests and rear their families in the swamps and marshes of the Savannah River. Orchard orioles are planning and packing for their South American tour. By the end of the month, only now and then can we expect to see one of these orange and black songsters.

Young Carolina wrens are learning the "wren screech" and the "sheree-e, she-ree-e" song. Fledgling wrens are brought to the pool to drink and play by their dad who is baby-sitting while mom is busy constructing a new nest.

A nest full of spotted-breasted robins is hidden in a low-branched tree. Fledglings from a second nesting of towhees, rich brown above, streaked with darker brown all over, usually stay hidden in the foliage, but once or twice a day we see them in the pool splashing around. Dad is usually close by.

Honey bees, pollen-laden, are out in profusion. The humming of the honey-makers suckling nectar from purple wave petunias makes sultry July days even more slow motioned and oppressive.

Bird song begins to dwindle in this hot month. No longer does the dawn chorus greet us. Now the days and nights are filled with insect music.

That winsome jewel, the ruby-throated hummingbird visits our tubes more frequently now that the young are on the wing and the far north nesters are already moving southward. Expect a greater number of the dainty sprites to use your feeders from now until about mid-September when they begin to leave our area for the coast and Central America.

Millions of dashing little sandpipers and plovers that passed through our section of the country on moonlit nights just weeks ago on their way to nesting grounds in the Arctic will be making their way back to the Argentina plains during these hot days. Though we will miss the migration of the massive flocks that usually follow the coastline, hundreds will drop out along the way throughout the southern states to feed and rest in small pools, sandbars, and stream sides.

Purple martins are antsy and begin to gather in small groups on telephone wires. They are aware of their thousands of miles of journey to Amazon jungles and begin to prepare for it by flocking. Before July gives way to August, millions will have left the States.

In late July and early August, I am usually greeted with the pensive, almost pathetic, plaintive note of the wood peewee. He usually visits us for about a month before he leaves for sunny South America. He sits silently in the tall pine trees on our back lawn and waits for passing insects. If you sit silently and wait, you can observe his leaving his perch, grabbing an insect with a snap of his beak, then returning to the same perch he left. He is as much a part of July and August day as are fireflies and katydids and the simmering heat.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Birds A Source Of Inspiration

Birds can be a source of inspiration to those of us growing older in this constantly changing world. From all my childhood memories, it is only the birds that have not changed their personalities or appearances from when I first knew them as a gangling, tree-climbing child.

Houses we knew and loved are torn down, gurgling streams we waded in as children, picnicked by as young lovers, camped by with our families, have been filled in by huge earth moving machines. Forests we walked in with the soughing wind, woods that shaded jack-in-the-pulpits, trilliums, and hepaticas have fallen victim to the chain saw. Concrete replaces the forested beauty of the mountain valley.

My brothers and sisters, as well as childhood friends, have moved away from the North Georgia mountain. All have grayed and wrinkled and grown older with the passing years. Personality changes in us are not at all rare, but birds never change at all from the way we knew them when we were roaming youngsters learning the birds and their ways.

Recently, I visited my childhood home and was deeply moved by what I found. The window panes were shattered, the mill work was stripped, wallpaper hung in shreds and the stairs hung precariously from the second story.

Nothing was as I had remembered it as a child until we reached the front porch. There, on a ledge of a window, sat a phoebe on her nest, just as a phoebe has sat some sixty years before. No doubt she was a ten-times removed great grandchild of the phoebes I once knew. Before we left the male called out to us "phoebe-ee-eee" irritably, exactly as his ancestor had called to a mountain lass more than a half century before.

The orchard below the house where the orchard oriole sang each spring was gone. It had succumbed to a growing forest of maples, poplars and oaks.

I climbed an apple tree as a child, I remember, half-hiding myself with foliage, and watched the orioles build their green grass nest on a sloping limb. As the sun grew hotter each day, the grass nest dried to a pretty yellow. The nest was so low that from my perch I could see the eggs, bluish-white, with purplish-brown splotches. One was laid each day until the clutch of five was complete.

After a long time, counting in childhood days, five ugly little creatures hatched. I watched them grow and was disappointed the day I found the nest empty.

My dad told me that within a few weeks, when they learned to fly well, they would be on their way to South America, not to return until the next spring.

Each spring we eagerly awaited the return of these colorful black and orange birds. When they arrived we knew spring had crept into the mountain valley, over the hills, along the woods, roads, highways and gurgling brooks and singing waterfalls.

Beautifully feathered, singing birds . . . linking childhood memories with the aging years . . . a source of comfort and delight.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Rare Kites Making Home At Houndslake

An Aiken resident of Houndslake Country Club called in a sighting of a Mississippi kite near the sixth hole of the golf course.

This attractive hawk is seen only occasionally in the Central Savannah River Area, though it is a common to uncommon summer resident along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. When one is observed, usually there are about half a dozen or more about, as is the case in this report.

These kites at Houndlake have found a perfect kite habitat; borders of deep woods, with tall oaks, pines, sweet gums and elms aside meadows filled with large insects not far from creeks and lakes.

Measuring 14 inches from the tip of its pale gray head to the tip of the square black tail, it has a wingspan of 36 inches. Its aerial flight is spectacular. Swallow-like, it soars in great circles and hovers in the air. They play at skydiving. These amazing feathered fliers twist and turn in the air. They plunge earthward, then rocket skyward again with speed and grace, circling and floating high in the air.

Could it be possible that the Houndslake kites are nesting in some tall tree at the edge of the woods? Oaks, elms, hack berries and sweet gum seem to be their favorite trees.

If a kite nest is found, and it is low enough in the tree, check for a green-leaf lining. A green-leaf lining is a good identification point. Nesting is usually under way by the middle of May.

The rather small twig, leaf and moss nest is cradle to the two bluish-white eggs which require a 31 to 32 day incubation period. This would put the hatching by the middle of June.

Fledglings don't leave the nest for another four weeks or so. With this schedule, the young could possibly be in the nest at this time.

This kite is most aggressive in the defense of the nest. It has been known to attack the climber, diving at him repeatedly and threatening to strike him. Be cautious if you find a nest. Observe it from a distance with glasses.

Feeding almost exclusively on larger insects such as cicadas, locusts, grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, dragonflies and large beetles, this hawk is most beneficial to man. Small snakes, lizards and frogs are sometimes eaten. These stunning birds feed on the wing. The insect is grasped in the claws and eaten in the air.

By the middle of August these birds begin preparing for their southward migration and put on migration fat. By the first days of September, they usually vanish from the area.

The kite is in the hawk family. To most people a hawk is a more or less savage big bird that eats chickens, birds and small animals. Most hawks, however, are not like this and are beneficial to man. Not only is the Mississippi kite beneficial, but adds grace and beauty to the sky with its aerial ballet.

When you see these big birds, stop for a little while and observe. You'll be glad you did!