Monday, April 28, 2008

Hawks Moving To The Suburbs

Once thought to be meadow, wood and stream dwellers, several species of hawk have become yuppies, moving into suburban areas, seemingly without fear.

Weeding a flower bed during one of the few balmy days of early April we hear the asthmatic squeal of a red-tailed hawk. The closeness of the "keer-r-r, keer-r-r" startles us. Looking up, there sat two red-tailed hawks in a large sweet gum tree in a neighbor's yard, the branches where the hawks are perched hanging over our heads.

Were the hawks there when we came out into the yard? We don't know. But now a big black crow is harassing them. The two leave the tree together and begin ascending the warm thermals. They are oblivious to the crow chasing them, the black tormentor using all the expletives in crow language as he follows them skyward.

The two hawks rise slowly in spirals and circles, with the crow screaming and mounting with them. The crow shoots from one bird to the other, squawking and seemingly slapping their backs. In ascending spirals, the hawks soon appear no larger in size than a robin. At last the antagonizer, so high in the sky he appears the size of a chickadee, gives up and descends earthward disappearing over the hill.

It is only minutes before the soaring hawks are back over our yard, still flying not far above the treetops with outstretched wings and tail.

On a balmy day a few days before, we watched the nuptial flight of two hawks. Hearing a blue jay's call, we think, the call being similar to a red-shouldered hawk's cry, we look toward the wooded lot from where the call had come.

Gazing skyward we are surprised to see two red-shouldered hawks flying in circles and touching wings, or so it seems. Such beautiful and majestic movements as they play around in the warm thermals.

Sailing in wide spirals, balancing on wide, outstretched wings, tails wide open like a fan, floating serenely with no apparent effort, they seem to be enjoying their honeymoon flight.

Most hawks mate for life, though they go through nuptial festivities each spring. We haven't located a nest yet, but last summer red-shouldered hawks hung out in the wooded lot and the wooded buffer zones between neighbor's houses.

These two big buteos have been accused of taking chickens but research has shown they seldom take poultry. Their main diet is mice, moles, squirrels, rabbits, grasshoppers and other large insects. The morning we observed the red-tails we found a squirrel's tail in a flower bed, perhaps a victim of the hawks.

The rufous red tail is one of the best identifying marks of the brown-backed red-tailed hawk. Heavy dark bands across both sides of the tail are a good field mark of the red-shouldered hawk. The red shoulders can't always be seen from below.

Although the sexes of both species are similar, females are usually larger. Both hawks are residents of the Central Savannah River Area. Each species increases in number in winter when the more northern nesting hawks come south for some rest and relaxation.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The American Coot Is A Hoot

Laughable and lovable, it is loud, noisy and fun-loving pond dweller. If you watch it long enough you will die laughing at its antics.

It is an odd-ball. It walks like a chicken, dives like a duck, croaks like a frog and swims like a fish. Wherever there's a pond to its liking, this amusing chicken-like bird with its impish fellows gather like a gang of hootin' football spectators.

This sooty black rail (many people think it is a duck) breeds from Alaska to South America. Wherever it breeds, the inland ponds and lakes are home. It is in our area now, the American coot.

Garbed almost entirely in sombre black, its short and stubby tail is tipped in white. A thick, gleaming white beak sets off its black face. Its eyes glitter and twinkle like scarlet jewels on black velvet. Its feet are pale greenish-olive with toes lobed along the edges.

After a tempestuous courtship, the jovial male coot turns the home building duties over to his wife. With her beak, she pounds together dead stalks of reeds and rushes to build a platform. She curves the stalks over with her bill and "hammers" them to live rushes floating in the water. With all the knocking and hammering going on during nesting season, you would think the prime interest rate has just been reduced again, for construction is booming in the marsh where coots abound.

When the nest is finished and anchored to floating vegetation, it drifts in the water like a pontoon boat. Nests are woven together in somewhat of a wicker basket fashion. Eggs number from six to at times more than a dozen. They are cream-colored and are distinguishable by the small 'pepper-spot' markings evenly sprinkled over them. Incubation is about 21 days and is shared by both parents. Being precocial, as soon as their down is dry, the young leave the nest and swim and dive almost as well as their parents. The father acts as baby-sitter during this time.

It's fun to watch a coot any time. But they are especially hilarious to observe during mating season. Find a choice seat in the reads along side a pond filled with the laughable creatures. (Bring along popcorn to eat for what you see will be equivalent to a three-ring circus.) Scuffling, calling skittering, courting, charging, these spastic, black-colored clowns turn the [pond into a jumble of confusion. Sometimes they fight savagely . . . the eternal love triangle being involved. Feathers fly, and raspy, screechy, honking voices fill the air. In their battles they lock claws as well as bills.

Whenever swimming or walking the coot nods its head in step with its foot movements, like a dove. Its white bill, in contrast to its black head, fairly gleams in the sunlight, an excellent field mark.

The coot is another bird that appears to be adapting to the ways of civilization. It is a wild bird with wild ways, and it can be found in the remotest swamp ponds. But it is also found along heavily traveled freeways where it nonchalantly lets the noise and the constant movement of traffic roll off its back like water off a duck's.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Birds Returning From Tropics On The Decline

It was in the golden afternoon that he came. A summer tanager, bright even in the subdued April light.

We have been expecting him, though he doesn't nest at our place anymore. He came to the feeder that is set with cones of peanut butter, halves of oranges, apples and grapefruit. He ate, then bathed in the pool, hopped onto the rocks and fluffed his feathers. He then flew to a giant sweet gum tree in the wooded lot without a single chip or chirp, much less song. We believe he had just winged in from his winter vacation.

For some years he nested in our yard in a water oak. But then one year he came, full of joy and singing only to find his summer housing and eateries had been replaced with people houses and bricked walks, lawns and gardens and paved streets. It's enough to make a tanager cry, and I think he did, for he left us and hasn't been back to nest since.

We have more to concern us though than whether he nests in our yard. Scientific reports show that tanagers, flycathers, orioles and vireos are drastically decreasing in numbers each year when they return to the States from their winter stays in the tropics. Why? Because their winter habitat -- Latin American forests -- are being destroyed at almost 100 acres a minute. These forests serve as the only home for more than half of the world's species of plants and animals, including birds.

When migrating birds arrive in the States each spring and find their nesting habitat destroyed, they go looking for other suitable sites just as our tanager has done for the past few years.

Both male and female are beautiful birds, though of different colors. He wears a solid red suit. The wings and tail are usually tinged with a grayish or brownish color, edged in red. The 7 1/2 inch male stays a rosy red all year. Females have a yellow-orange underpants with a light yellow-green back.

First year males look much like the female. Young males by their first spring are not fully red, but are a strange mixture of red and green patches. They mate in this color. Once on a birding walk along the edges of the Savannah River, we saw such a male tending young in the nest.

Of the 350 species of tanagers in the tropics, only five think it worthwhile to visit the States. Two species, the scarlet and summer, nest in the eastern United States.

The summer tanager is the only breeding tanager in our area. The scarlet migrates through the spring and fall and, of course, has the jet black wings and tail, a mark that easily distinguishes him from the summer.

To distinguish the summer tanager from the cardinal, a year-round resident, and often called the winter redbird, the summer is a smaller, more slender bird with protruding black eyes. And he has no crest. The tanager's bill is longer and more slender than the cardinal's red conical-shaped one.

We still have real estate in our yard for sale. We'll sell it for a song and a little grass and rootlet hangout.

May Is An Outdoors Month

Get ready for May! It is the time for getting out into the marshes and ponds and lake shores. These bodies of water are the most fascinating of the outdoors.

The root-stained, weed-grown, algae-brown waters of the marsh, the cattail-fringed pond, and the lush green necklace of willows and sedges around a blue lake harbor fascinating creatures.

There's just something about a body of water that lures man to it. Is it the timeless sound of the lake waves lapping against a stony shore, or the plant tangled shallows of a pond filled with creatures from insects to alligators, or fresh water ponds formed behind barren dunes on ocean beaches?

May! -- the time of wild strawberries, wild sweet william, wild ginger and wild geraniums, often called cranesbill because of the queer shape of its seed capsules. In the marsh skunk cabbages emerge, beautiful to view from a distance. Its foul odor belies its beauty.

Around swamps and ponds marsh marigolds glitter in the warm sun. The common dandelion is everywhere, its golden flowers enhancing weedy fields and roadsides.

This is the season when indigo buntings sing from lofty, leafless treetops, when meadowlarks sing along fence rows, when orchard orioles are spotted with long green grass lengths for the nest hanging at the tip end of a branch of water oak, and the yellow-breasted chat who you know is around by his grunts, screeches and snorting noises.

Bobolinks, from the pampas of Argentina on their way to northern nesting grounds, sweep over the ripening grain fields with tinkling melodies in their throats.

May is the time to see the striking scarlet tanager, with jet black wings and tail, on his way to more northern nesting grounds. Red-wing black birds throw camouflage aside and blaze crimson epaulets from every bending cattail stalk. Wafting over the gray water is their liquid song, "o-ka-leee, o-ka-leeee." The protective-colored dowdy female is busy nest building.

Look around. There's a common yellow-throat hiding in dense vegetation. You can hear him, "witchity, witchity, witchity," but you don't see him. Lisping among the pines and oaks hung with Spanish moss is a parula. These colorful tiny warblers love swamps, ponds and lake shores where they nest in a swinging swag of Spanish moss. The hooded warbler's haunts are swampy environments . . . low, heavily shaded woods with thick undergrowth. Damp woods around lakes and ponds are favored by this handsome yellow and black feathered beauty.

A great blue heron stalking along the shore of lapping lake water, or standing motionless in the brown water of a pond among reed grass and spatter-dock, is one of the most spectacular visitors of the water habitats.

May! Don't miss the show that's quickly pulling the curtain for the next scene -- summer.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Birds Can Teach Us A Lesson or Two

Yellowed with age, this tale of the cardinals was found in my grandmother's clippings file.

Characteristics of birds, as we have said before, change little, if any, over the eons of time. Consequently, this scenario could happen outside your window today just as it did at the feeding tray of this couple some 85 to 90 years ago. Birds don't change!

Following is an enchanting account by the observers of the "way of birds:"

"My husband and I were delighted and amused at breakfast recently by an episode outside our dining room window, so amazingly human as to make an almost unbelievable bird story.

"Having fed sunflower seeds all winter to a rose-taupe Mrs. Cardinal and a scarlet Mr. Cardinal from a feeding tray outside our window, we are this summer feeding in addition little Jenny and Jane and Jim Cardinal. (There seem to be two small females and one rose-spotted young male.)

"As soon as these three were able to leave the nest, the parent birds brought them to the tray, and shelling sunflower seeds, put the kernels into the wide open mouths of the little ones. This feeding was accompanied by constant trembling of little wings and strange crying on the part of the babies, which sounded to us like the insistent ringing of little silver bells.

"Soon we noticed that the young birds came alone to feed. They were very helpless at first, and seeing their inability to crack the husks, we fed them shelled seeds at one meal. Deciding, however, that this was an unsound pedagogical principle, we straightway abandoned it and in little more than a day's time all three youngsters could not only feed themselves ably, but could drive away the sparrows that plagued them as well.

"However, (and this is where my story really begins), one morning while Jenny was having her breakfast, Mother Cardinal flew to the tray to break her fast also. Before our astonished eyes and ear, the young scamp, who until that moment had been feeding herself with perfect ease, at once dropped the seed from her mouth and began the infantile fluttering of her wings, accompanied by her babyhood cry -- which she could still muster and which still sounded to us exactly like the ringing of the little silver bell.

"The mother gave no heed to this display -- whereupon Jenny took a seed in her bill and shifted it about with the unjustable pretense of being unable to shell it.

"This method of appeal she alternated with the whimperings and teasings I have just described, until Mrs. Cardinal -- exasperated as nay mother would be -- said to her in effect, 'Oh, stop the nonsense child!' and slapping Jenny with her bill, flew away.

"Thereupon (and to this I set my sign and seal) the little feathered child at once resumed her feeding in a sensible and very grownup manner."

Oh, but what we humans could learn if we would but observe nature!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Warblers Fill The Air With Song

April is the month of migrant warblers, for it is in this month that the preponderance of these beautiful birds pass through our lawns, forests and parks, northward bound.

Few warblers spend their winters with us. One is the lovely yellow and olive-green pine warbler, a year-round citizen of the South's forests and lawns. He has put on a new bright suit for spring and has already left our yards to build his nest high in a tall pine.

On some sunny morning, we might awaken to find our trees and shrubs alive with colorful creatures that have appeared from somewhere in the night.

This flashy one with yellow, black-flecked breast and bars of white across tail and wings . . . a magnolia. From Yucatan the night before he set out straight across the Gulf, flying ever northward. Today he is resting and feeding along North Augusta's Greenway. Tonight perhaps he will push on. No doubt thoughts of mating and nesting in his old neighborhood have triggered his hurrying on.

Within a week he'll be building his nest in the same spruce thicket in Maine or Quebec where last year he and his mate raised their brood of four. Some members of the family will return to the same area next breeding season.

From his West Indies winter home, this chestnut-cheeked warbler in his spring migration flight passed through the Bahamas and Florida, steadily pushing through Georgia and South Carolina. Some of the flock drop down to feed and rest for the night along streams and wood edges in our area.

A sighting one never forgets is seeing the Cape May warbler feeding from the blossom, the color of his cheek patch, of the tulip poplar. The pointed fir and spruce forests of Nova Scotia beckon this beautiful warbler home for the summer. Here he will build a nest for the six or seven creamy white eggs, richly blotched with shades of brown. These tiny eggs will produce youngsters that in the fall will repeat the age-old migration journey on the same sky roads that their ancestors have followed for eons past.

This flame breasted blackburnian, of fire-throat, as he is often called, is in from the jungles of Peru or Ecuador where he spends the winter. Now during these lengthening, warming, sunny days he is hurrying to the pine grove of southern Quebec where he nested last spring. He and his mate will hand their nest far out on a lofty swaying branch in a jack pine.

Migrating through our area from his winter home in South America, the blackpoll warbler breeds mainly in Canada but has extended his nesting range into the mountains of New York, Vermont and New Hampshire. This white and black warbler can easily be mistaken for a chickadee, though the migrant is a good inch or more larger than his look-alike.

He wears a solid black cap and has a solid, somewhat triangular white cheek patch. His solid white breast is streaked on the sides with black. His back is black and gray striped.

The blackpoll is a late migrant and perhaps has not been through our area yet. Look for him!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Birds Known By Their Eggs

This spring, think eggs!

Nesting time has rolled around again. Not only will the shape, size, material used and in what situation the nest is placed (a thorny vine, low shrub, in a hedge, in a tall tree, or on a shelf) tell you who the owner is, but the eggs will sometimes clinch the identification.

A bird's egg is one of nature's masterpieces. From the tiny eggs of the hummingbird to the large eggs of the Canada goose, there are remarkable differences.

The range of colors, shapes and markings on bird's eggs are incredible. Many blend perfectly with their surroundings.

For instance, the killdeer's light buff with bold blackish-brown or black blotched eggs blend so well with the surroundings that it takes a sharp-eyed person to find them. This bird builds no nest but deposits the eggs in a slight depression of debris or pebbles. Around a home, a good chance to hide the treasure is a gravelly driveway.

Many of us have cardinals nesting in our yards. If you are not sure the nest you have found is that of a cardinal, being able to identify the eggs will help in its identification. The ground color of the greenish-white, heavily speckled and spotted with different shades of brown will tell you the nest is that of a cardinal. The clutch is usually four eggs.

The mockingbird is another common yard bird. Although material used in its nest is decidedly different than the cardinal's, the eggs are much alike in color and size, and might be hard for one to determine the owner. The bluish or greenish ground color is heavily marked with various shades of brown. To be sure which eggs you are seeing, the difference in the nests would be your best clue. Seeing the owner at home would be indisputable.

There's a great variety in bird's eggs . . . in number, size and color. Yard birds such as robins, cardinals, towhees and brown thrashers produce a clutch of four eggs usually, but sometimes there might be a large set of five or six. The Carolina wren's usual clutch is six slightly buffy colored, reddish-brown spotted eggs in a dome-shaped nest.

Brown thrashers nest at least twice in a season, with robins, cardinals and towhees nesting commonly three times. In the South, the nesting season is longer than in northern states. We had a towhee in our yard once whose young fledged in mid-September.

Cavity nesting birds usually lay pure white eggs. Owls, some hole-nesting, others in open nests, lay pure white round eggs. All woodpecker's eggs are white.

A flicker's nest was found in a felled tree and I examined the eggs. Although the shell was white, the eggs had a pink glow. The shell was translucent and the yolk showing through it caused a lovely pinkish blush.

The eggshell of most song birds is spotted with shades of light to dark brown. Many species of birds have eggs spotted with purple and lilac along with brown and black. Eggshells vary from white, glossy white, buff, to different shades of light blue to blue greens and various shades of green.

No one clue may be enough to ensure accurate identification. It is by the combination of several pieces of evidence that you will succeed in your search to "know your eggs".

Friday, April 18, 2008

Bald Eagles Return To Nest

First Bird Dance-Off

Scholarships For Bird Camp

Robin's Nests Reveal Secrets

The big northern robins have gone, leaving behind our smaller southern robin who sings to us every day now.

They are all over our lawn and large trees. I suspect they're looking for a nesting site. Although they build in other situations, the most common one around here is to saddle their nest on a large branch of a large tree.

The lawn is full of noisy activity. Males, I assume rivals for the attention of a female, chase after one another, even touching the one chased with his wings. They prance around with the pomposity of a pigeon. Then one flies away with the other following. Some of this activity could be between the sexes.

Without question, the best known and best loved bird in America is the red-breasted robin. Early settlers named this people-loving bird robin because it reminded them of the cheerful little red-breasted bird they left in England. The robin is a species of the thrush.

Why do robins migrate? Cold weather? To keep warm? No. Food is the answer. The bird can take the cold, by fluffing up its downy body feathers, it fashions a pair of thermal longjohns that keeps it snugly warm. What it can't take is the cold frozen ground that sends its favorite goodies, worms and insects, too far underground to be snatched from the frozen turf. Flying south for the winter is a bird's way of finding food in the cold months.

To our northern neighbors, the robin is the true bird of spring. The southern robin is with us here in the South all year, though they leave our lawns and go to nearby sunny swamps for a few weeks during the colder months. Here fruit and seed are plentiful and sustain them until the earth warms and worms start wiggling in the warm, moist ground.

By early April, if the weather has been warm and there have been rains to make mud (a robin's bricks), robin's nests are everywhere to be seen.

Summer days are enhanced by the robin and all his neighbors as they fill the dawn and dusk of each day with a medley of song for an hour or more.

Robins have been called the pottery makers of the bird world. Take a good look at an abandoned robin's nest. Pull off the lining of grass and straw. You'll find a rough, hard, earthen bowl. Using her breast as a mold, the female smooths the wet mud into shape. A robin's nest, because of the thick dried mud layer, is heavier than most birds' nests. Most of the nest building is done by the female.

After the nest is finished one blue-green egg is laid each day until the clutch numbers four. The female broods the eggs for 12-13 days. The spotted-breasted young leave the nest when about 14-15 days old.

Now that you know the secrets of the robin's nesting life, find a nest and keep records of these big events in the lives of a nest of robins. It's exciting and fun!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Name Truly Fits

Often habits and body markings are the clue to a bird's name. Just so the chipping sparrow's moniker comes from the dry, one tone chip he "chips" over and over again.

Chippies, or chipping sparrows, are the smallest of the species. You may know them by the name Chip-bird, Hair-bird, Hair sparrow or Red-headed chipping bird.

Measuring only 5 to 5 1/2 inches, this littlest sparrow wears atop his head a cinnamon-rufous cap edged in broad white stripes. A dark streak seems to go through his dark eyes. His throat, breast and rump are silvery gray. His coat is light brown streaked with darker brown. The female is dressed like her mate but sometimes in duller colors. Immature chippies are browner looking than either of the adults and have not yet developed any rufous in the crown.

This spiffy little sparrow is a dooryard bird in our area and nests in evergreen shrubbery and trees around our homes as well as in fields and along roadsides. Winter populations of this social bird are much heavier than summer populations because winter visitors merge with local yokels, creating tremendous numbers.

In early spring, northern visitors begin to migrate from wintering playgrounds in small waves of from a half-dozen to a dozen or more to northern nesting grounds.

This littlest sparrow prefers evergreen trees (in the South, pines) or evergreen shrubs to place its small, delicate cup of grass and curly rootlets, cleverly interwoven and lined with hair. Chippy nests have been found lined with black horse hair, white hair, and even red hair, almost the color of their crown. The red hair could have come from a fox, horse, a dog or even a human.

Four bullish-green eggs, thinly spotted with blackish-brown, are laid in the small cradle. Incubation lasts for northern nesting chippies for 11 to 14 days, with the nestlings fledging in about the same period. In the warm South, the incubation period is close to 11 days and the nestlings fledge in 10 to 11 days.

Its diet is mostly wees seed though it does eat a great many insects and worms, largely caterpillars. I watched one morning as a chippy pounced upon a tent caterpillar. Scores were crawling about not long out of the web. While attempting to swallow it, I thought he would choke, but after several jerks and yanks of his head and neck, one big gulp took it down. Such a large worm for such a small stomach.

The chippy's tinkling trill is easily confused with the quavering trill of the dark-eyed junco and the more musical and slower trill of the pine warbler. Until you are able to distinguish the three (veteran bird watchers are sometimes confused), you must observe the bird to be sure which of the three is singing to you.

The first winter visitors of these friendly little chippies usually arrive in the Central Savannah River Area in late October or the first few days of November where they mingle with the southern born. We always find them on bird walks around these dates, hobnobbing with white-throated, song, field, vesper and swamp sparrows. Along wood edges we observe them with chickadees, Carolina wrens, titmice and kinglets.

The southern chippy could nest in your yard this summer. Look for him.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

An Unexpected Surprise

We awake early on a sunny, dewy day to be greeted by the morning chorus. We lie in bed with windows open and try to name all the birds that are singing so delightfully. We pick out the robin, the brown thrasher, the wood thrush, crested flycatcher (two summer visitors), the mockingbird, Carolina wren, the mourning dove, the titmouse and oh my, yes, it's the red-eyed vireo.

In early April these energetic wood sprites return to us from Central and South America where they have enjoyed another summer with plenty of insects. Now they are back to build their nests and rear their young. Come August and September they'll hazard another long journey so they might live in perpetual summer with an abundance of food.

After breakfast we open the doors to the patio and our little dull, olive-green friend is still singing the same monotonous notes. He doesn't stop, but goes on and on with the monotonous song, "Look up, over here, see me, up here" he sings, repeating the phrase as often as forty times a minute. It has now been an hour and fifteen minutes since we first heard his greeting to us. He seems to be working the new growth of foliage on the oaks, maples and sweet gum trees.

The red-eye of this vireo is not a distinctive field mark unless one is close to the bird. A clearer identification mark of this six-inch vireo is the clear white line over the eye, bordered with black. An olive-greenish back with no wing bars and a gray head are more distinctive markings. The under parts are dull white with sides and flanks being washed with a dirty greenish-yellow. The slight hook at the tip of the large bill, characteristic of all vireos, is also a good field mark in distinguishing vireos from warblers.

The red-eye is a common nester in this area. Check your yard borders, all trees on lawns and wood lots and you'll probably find his nest, if he's in your neighborhood at all.

Its nest is made of wood fibers, bark, weed stems, dried leaves, moss and lichens. The small cup-shaped hanging cradle is placed almost to the end of a branch, usually ten to twenty feet from the ground. It is attached to a fork with part of the nest attached to a third twig growing from one of the branches forming the fork, thus forming a parallelogram. All red-eyed's nests that I have seen are placed in such a situation, the clincher that tells you you've found a red-eyed's nest in bare winter woods when no vireos are around.

The nest is about two and one-half inches across and the same, or nearly so, in depth. It is so strongly and compactly built that it can stand the storms of winter. One hung in our yard for three years.

Vireos are our best leaf debuggers. The spastic warblers flit from twig to twig, leaf to leaf, without cleaning the foliage. Vireos, on the other hand, leisurely search each leaf and twig, cocking their little heads to look up at the underside of the leaf and peck off the bugs hidden there.

Vireos work as the seven dwarfs did . . . singing as they work. Sometime sit in the yard and watch them labor.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Flycatchers Arrive

When first you see the great-crested flycatcher in the spring, back from his winter vacation in the tropics, he may look as if he collided with a tropical storm on his way across the Gulf. Sometimes his crest looks ratted, a sign that he is not yet over jet lag.

This bushy, crew-cut bird wears a drab olive coat on his back, accentuated with bright mahogany wings and tail. Its lemon-yellow shirt adds to its camouflage of the yellow-green leaves of spring.

A large flat bill, with bristles at the base to help scoop in those noxious insects, is a good field mark. You hear this bird more often than you see him because his voice is so loud and grating. But with all his roughness, he is beautiful.

Found in our wooded neighborhoods from Florida and the Gulf Coast into Canada, this big flycatcher was once considered a woods bird, not a suburbanite. If in your neighborhood you have large trees scattered with woodpecker holes or natural cavities, he'll probably be your neighbor this spring.

The great-crested is a hole-nesting bird and natural cavities seem to be his preference, though he will build in man-made boxes, mailboxes and other cavities.

Hardly a summer passed that we didn't have at least one flycatcher nest on our bluebird trail. Usually the opening of the boxes used had been enlarged by squirrels.

He has a reputation of always using a snake skin in the nest, and it is still used in many. But because man is such a litter freak, this magnificent bird has become a garbage collector, for we now find in his nest long pieces of plastic and other shiny material carelessly discarded by man. This habit of his collecting shiny strings of material can probably put to rest the centuries old tale that he uses snake skins to frighten away predators. Now, we can assume he uses the natural litter of snake skins as decoration.

Twice on our bluebird trail there was a nest with snake skin hanging from the nest almost to the ground five feet below. It fell between the crack in the door and the wall of the box. Now, how did the bird accomplish this?

Eggs laid by this flycatcher usually number from five to six. They have a ground color of creamy or pinkish buff with streaks, scratches and blotches of brown and various shades of purple or lavender. Incubation lasts about 15 days and the young leave the nest when they are around 18 days old.

By September these youngsters are ready to leave for their winter vacation in Mexico, Central and South America.

During the hot days of lingering July this noisy bird drops the harshness of his "wheep" and becomes more or less quiet. His loud "wheep" of early summer is now toned down to a low, almost insignificant note. In August and early September the note has a sadness to it, almost a mournful intonation, like that of his cousin the wood peewee's mournful fall note, ">pur-eee."

You might say he comes upon the spring scene arrogant and self-determined, flinging out his harsh notes at random. But come early September, with his brashness subdued, he bids us farewell until the next April. He's due now. Look and listen for him.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

From Barns to Bridges

Traveling over the 13th Street bridge into Augusta or clicking along I-20, are you aware of a fork-tailed bird gracefully skimming over the new golf course in North Augusta or over the fields and meadows along I-20? Have you noticed that he darts under bridges, probably fluttering about and checking out last year's nest sites?

Twenty-five years or more ago the barn swallow was only an early spring transient through this area. It nested from the piedmont areas of Georgia and South Carolina and north to Canada and Alaska.

Before this country was settled, the barn swallow nested in caves and on rocky cliffs. The early settlers began to change the land to a rural environment with barns and sheds for cattle and for grain storage. This little metallic blue swallow changed the site of his pad quickly, preferring to plaster his nest on the beams and shelves of such buildings.

Barn swallows are people-loving birds like purple martins. They like to build around houses and dilapidated barns. Though barns are decreasing today, we can lure these swallows to build near us by supplying the needs for a nest site, if we live in the right habitat.

A two-by-four joist, rough, not planed, nailed to the outside of a building, flat, wide side against the wall and placed well up under the eaves with about five inches of clearance will bring them in.

The nest is made out of mud and straw and lined with fine hay and feathers, usually white. Five to six white, reddish-brown spotted eggs are laid and hatch in around fifteen days. Within three weeks, six more young swallows are added to the graceful, engaging flights of the chattering swallows.

These swallows have proved they are adept at change. From the time of the earliest colonists, these beautiful birds chose to build their nests in old weathered barns and sheds with open doors and windows where they could enter to safety from weather and predators.

Barns on farms are not needed today as in the past. They're being replaced by tight new buildings with no open doors or windows that swallows love. Horses are being replaced by automobiles and tractors, leaving the birds to find other nest sites when these older buildings are destroyed or replaced.

Being able to easily change its habits, now one of its chosen sites in under bridges and that is one circumstance that has brought it southward. Until around three decades ago, it was a spring and fall migrant in the Central Savannah River Area. As in the past though, it quickly adapted to man's extended highways and bridges and began to nesting space all along these river-crossing cement spans. Now it is a common breeder in our area.

The barn swallow's food consists entirely of insects caught on the wing as it skims low over ponds, fields and meadows.

Measuring 6 1/2 inches, this dark, metallic blue swallow with glistening reddish-buff breast and deeply forked tail has a light chestnut breast and dark chestnut face. The sexes are much alike, though the female is paler in color than the male.