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.

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