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!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

English Sparrows Seen As A Nuisance

I seldom see English (house) sparrows around our place anymore. Nor or they as visible around downtown North Augusta or shopping centers as I remember them not too many years ago.

Our most familiar bird alien is the English sparrow. After its introduction in the 1850s in New England, it took less than fifty years for it to "capture" the country, establishing itself in California and other western states by the 1890s.

Perhaps more than any other feathered creature, this sparrow takes advantage of man's progress. Its rapid spread across the country was not only by its own wings but it has been attributed to its bumming a ride in cattle railroad cars loaded with grain from which it fed en route to the west coast. Free ride, free food, free shelter. Why not go for it? And it did!

Sparrows are mainly seed eaters and rural America was just their thing. When these brown-backed birds first arrived in the States in the 1850s no gas guzzling machines existed. All local transportation was by wagon, buggy, carriage or cart, all driven by grain-eating horses. Much grain was dropped around these animals and sparrows followed wherever the animals went.

Some people say the house sparrow is a pest and call it a tramp, a hoodlum and a gamin . . . a sort of street urchin . . . for years ago it was a city dweller.

This little free loader also has a talent for multiplying and is known as the mouse of the bird world, hatching brood after brood from early spring through late fall. But now his numbers are decreasing, possibly because horses have been replaced by automobiles and his food supply is dwindling.

Our sweet-singing native sparrows are shy little birds that live quiet lives along wood edges and in thickets and grassy fields. Until the 1850s they were the only sparrows in North America.

The house sparrow is really not a sparrow but is of the weaver family of the Old World. Early settlers called them sparrows and the name stuck. It was quite natural to call it the English sparrow since most of the birds were imported from England, though the species is widely distributed throughout the world.

This saucy, keen-witted little gamin, who thrives where other birds would starve, and who insists on driving away other cavity nesting birds such as purple martins, bluebirds, chickadees and titmice by destroying their eggs and young then usurping the house for themselves, is now considered a nuisance.

The decrease in these birds is most marked in the eastern states, especially in the cities and towns, though the sparrows are still common in rural districts around poultry and cattle farms where there is still plenty of grain fed to livestock.

Nonetheless, with all his shortcomings, the male is a good looking chap in his black and hazelnut-striped coat and chestnut, black and white head and black bib. The female looks much like the male but lacks the conspicuous markings about the head and the black bib.

Song wise the house sparrow flunks. All he can usually manage is a harsh chirping and chattering.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Drowsy Days Of July Just Around The Corner

The drowsy days of July are on their way. The hot, brassy sun, the droning of bees and the still, flower-perfumed air seem to voice the peacefulness of the mid-summer day.

It is in the month of July that the new generation of birds, frogs, mammals, yard and garden weeds and other forms of animal and plant life begin to mature and come into their own.

After the hustle and bustle of May and June, July seems to bring a sense of maturity to the young of the feathered tribe and you see them coming to feeders alone. Young cardinals, more than any other young I have observed, seem to be skilled in "working the parents for food" as long as the parents will allow it. Sometimes you will see a good-sized young-of-the-year cowbird being cared for by a vireo or cardinal.

July is the first full month the sun begins its southward journey. Our calendars say summer is just beginning and we like to believe these long, sweet days will last forever. But we know days are now growing shorter and shorter, and will continue to do so until the winter solstice in December.

July, like any other month of the year, has dumped into her thirty-one days left overs of the months before and signs of what is to be in the months ahead. Along roadsides and in abandoned fields, early goldenrods, black-eyed Susans, sunflowers and butter-and-egg toadflax say "autumn" loud and clear.

Somehow we get the idea that trees don't begin to shed their leaves until the calendar says "fall". But look. Some of the trees are beginning to drop colorful leaves now, leaves that are hidden deep within the green tree. Notice the leaves on your lawn. First a yellow one here and there, then an occasional red or wine one. These falling leaves will increase steadily until late October and early November when the last ones are downed by winter winds and rain. Even if we have a wet summer, leaves will drop.

Trumpet vine and jewel weed are the most bounteous in July, just in time for hummers north of us to join our locals, giving our yards more flash over flower beds and lawns as they sip nectar from the feeders.

Killdeer are leading about their spindle-legged fledglings, hatched from a quartet of earth-colored eggs deposited on a slight depression in a graveled plot of a cemetery.

Purple martins, red-winged blackbirds and grackles are early flockers. Already you may see them in small bands in trees or strung along a utility line like a row of beads. The orchard oriole is usually on its way back to the tropics by the end of July, staying in the temperate zone less than four months, just long enough to rear a brood of five brownish-yellowish youngsters. So soon do they vanish from our turf that usually the young-of-the-year are still in juvenile plumage when they arrive in Central America.

During July sunsets begin to change. The sun no longer sets behind the same tree or house as it did before the twenty-first of June. It is slowly moving southward (notice the shadows), and this will bring to the Central Savannah River Area the migration of the million of birds making their way to South and Central America for the winter.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds will be the first to hit our area. Be on the lookout! Some will be fattening up at your feeders in the next few weeks for the six hundred mile trip over the Gulf.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Drought Takes Toll On Birds Too

When hot and sultry days of summer bring thirst to the South and salvia droops and impatiens hang their pretty heads, it is then we must be aware of the needs of birds.

There has been neither dew nor rain for days and a bird must wet its whistle if there is to be song in the red-leafed maple tree. So we turn on the sprinkler.

A bold robin is the first to come under the delightfully refreshing drops. He smacks his beak as if he's tasting the wet stuff. Evidently he's delighted with the taste. He fluffs his feathers, shakes himself like a feathered Elvis, then smacks his beak again. He moves into the pool, dimpled by drops of water from the sprinkler.

A female towhee flutters down timidly to sip the water. Acting as if she's on her lunch break, she stays but a moment, just long enough to take a quick shower. That darling of the yard, the chickadee, comes floating in and alights ever so lightly upon a rock washed by the flowing water.

The robin has moved farther into the pool, standing knee-high in the water and seems to close his eyes. A fat bee is droning on the begonias. The day is drowsy with noon.

Yellow eyes gleaming, a brown thrasher plunges into the pool, disturbing the sleeping robin, who, frightened, bolts away. Bathing and fluffing his feathers, the thrasher seems to be bold and self-assured. But wait, here comes a blue jay screaming his head off, followed by another. It looks as if he well alight on the thrasher and that's enough to make Mr. Bold Guy fly away through the shrubbery, leaving the pool to the jays.

Bathing, shaking wet feathers, preening . . . the jays take over for some minutes. One scolds. Not another bird in sight. Evidently the scold must be for the mate, who must be crowding him in the shower. They take another bath but use separate tubs this time. Now they are gone.

Empty of avian creatures for awhile, the pool soon plays host to a small band of house finches, probably mama, papa and four young. They bathe in the water, then one rises in a tiny welter of spray, scuds with tingling wings to the edge and perches there on the rocks, tossing a shower around him.

No summer day, and especially one with a pool of clear water, can get by without a visit from the troubadour, the mockingbird. He stands on the rocky edge, raises his tail and wings, pulls them down, then drops onto the silvery rocks barely covered with the gurgling water. Splashing and flashing, wetting himself all over, he finally hops onto the edge of the pool and fluffs his feathers.

Before he is through with his primping, house finches again descend on the pool, look it over, and without drinking or bathing, leave. Under the refreshing spray are two gray-bodied, pink-footed doves.

A noisy Carolina wren, poking in and out all the rock crevices around the pool, finds the little waterfall refreshing as he hops hurriedly through it, bursting into song as he flies away.

Hidden in the red-leafed maple tree, a robin is signing a song to the hot summer day.

Albino Crows Sighted

Friday, June 20, 2008

Look-alikes Can Fool Birders

For the beginning birder, look-alikes are tormenting.

First, let's take the house finch and the purple finch. The purple finch, of course, is not in the Central Savannah River Area except during winter months but a beginner might not know this and will confuse the two finches.

Arriving in our area in late November and early December, the purple finch is a purplish rosy-red, while the color of the house finch is usually a bright fire-truck red. The male purple finch looks as if he's been dipped in "cranberry juice", giving his brown feathered back an overall purplish look. The rosy color of the purple finch's throat and breast blend into the white of the belly. The brown-backed house finch has a brown-streaked breast and belly while the purple finch has a plain rosy breast.

Female purple finches have a distinct face patch defined by a whitish eyebrow line and cheekstripe. They are heavily streaked overall with dark brown on a white background.

Female house finches have light brown streaks on a beige background and lack the eyebrow line and cheek stripe and are slimmer.

Other look-alikes are the mockingbird and the loggerhead shrike, both permanent residents of the Central Savannah River Area. Though both birds are gray and white, and both have solid white breasts and gray wings with white patches, the grays are different shades.

The shrike's gray is almost a charcoal color while the mockingbird's feathers are a soft, light gray. The mockingbird has a slim bill. The shrike's is dark, short and hooked. Another distinguishing field mark of the shrike is the black eye mask. And he is a stouter bird than the mockingbird, though not as long.

Summer tanagers are solid red, sometimes with a dark washing on the wings and tail. The trouble here are the females, with the summer tanager looking much like the female orchard oriole, both summer residents of this area. Both are yellow, though in slightly different shades. Oriole beaks are dark, sturdy and pointed. Tanager beaks are not as long as the oriole's and are blunt at the tip and are whitish in color. The female orchard oriole has grayish wings with white wingbars. Wingbars on the tanager are hardly noticeable.

The wood thrush is a summer visitor, the hermit thrush a winter tourist. Usually, the wood thrush is on his way to Central America before the hermit arrives for the winter, though sometimes they meet in the South long enough to say "hello". Both thrushes are brown-backed, with off-white, brown-spotted breasts. Look at the head and tail to distinguish the two. The wood thrush has a reddish-brown head, with duller brown on the wings, back and tail. The hermit thrush has a reddish-brown tail, with the remainder of its body a duller brown.

There are two wrens that you might see around your place during the colder months . . . our State bird, the Carolina wren and the little mousy winter wren. The winter wren is much smaller than the Carolina, with a short, stubby tail, grayish-brown back and barred belly. The Carolina's back is reddish-brown and its belly is buffy, not white, and it has a strong eye line. There's little risk that these two wrens will be confusing.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Spring Begins To Slip Away

Songs of second and third courtships bring the last days of June to a close. After spring's first frenzied courtships and nestings, the feathered world quietens down for a few weeks. The chores of incubation and the feeding of young take their toll from the adult bird's free-spirited life. But now the males are belting out their courting songs from dawn to dusk, anxious to get on with the busy life of a second family.

After this recurrence of activity, the birds usually cease singing until the next spring. About mid to late July most summer visitors go into molt and cease their singing. During this time summer visitors and permanent residents become almost totally silent.

The scrappy little Carolina wren belts out a song occasionally, singing more often than any other bird of this season. (Silence must be pure torture to him . . . he is such a vocal ball of feathers.) The blue jay might squall a few notes and doves continue to coo, the pewee continues his plaintive, sad song, and the wood thrush gives fewer evening concerts. The lessening of song is a sure sign the days of spring are slipping away into summer.

The brown thrasher is singing lustily and I see why. The female is sneaking twigs into a dense photinia shrub. Looking like sleek ballerinas in gray tutus, two mockingbirds gracefully soft-toe it down the driveway. But now scientists tell us it is two males bidding for territory. Evidently thinking of another nest and four more mouths to feed this summer.

Towhees are singing in the late June performance. They nest as many as three times in one season. They are with us year round. I have just seen a pair pack a brood off on their own. Now they are busy on another nest. Several years ago, a pair nested in the photinia hedge in September.

I hear the robin's cheery song each day now that he's building next door in a dogwood tree. Soon his bubbling song will cease for the season. Chasing blue jays burn green leaves with blue fire. After the chase, I watch the male feed the female. This is a courtship gesture used by many birds. He's probably courting her for the second nest and the last of the season.

Whistling loud and clear, the cardinal, no doubt, has another family in mind and before long I should find the nest in some thorny shrub or rose vine.

Soon after the active days of June are over, summer visitors hide in the wooded lot and dense borders of our yard and change into their traveling duds. Now about all we'll hear from these guys is a half-hearted short song, but usually we hear only chips and chirps.

Though summer is but a few days away, already preparations for another season have begun.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mocker Turns Into Migrant

For a number of years a mockingbird has built a nest in a Jessamine vine at the corner of our yard. The vine crawls up a wild cherry tree, kept trimmed to keep the vine fairly low and thick-leaved. This spring we were disappointed . . . no nest in the Jessamine vine.

We began a search for the new location of the nest, for the birds were still in the yard and singing from high perches, especially the chimney. We found the nest in a dense sasanqua bush about twenty feet away from its old nesting site. There were four tawny-spotted, greenish-blue eggs in the nest. Later, all four eggs hatched.

The fledglings left the nest in mid-May. One of the adults, we assume the female, and two youngsters were observed bathing in the pool. The slender, but dowdy-looking, mother was cleaning her gray and white frock while the brownish-gray youngsters stood in the shallow water unsure of their new environment. We didn't see papa and the other two youngsters. Perhaps the "boys" were out learning other lessons.

The mockingbird, until recently, has been considered a southern bird and year-round resident of the area. To mention the mockingbird would bring memories of the moonlight and roses and these birds singing all night. They are synonymous with lovely brick-walled gardens and magnolias and scented flowers. Never would one think of a mockingbird in the snow-clad pines and hemlocks of New England or the towering spruces of Michigan or the red cedars of Iowa, bent low with snow and ice.

But no more can we think of the mocker as strictly a southern bird. He has jubilantly traveled the sky ways as far north as Maine and Illinois, Michigan and Iowa. The mocker has been considered a non-migrant, but now perhaps his travels north and west will move him to come South again each winter with the human snowbirds. By changing his range, he'll be considered a migrant within the United States.

Regardless of where he might hang out, the mocker is known as the best singer (not the most musical) of the avian clan. He loves to sing on moonlit nights. He usually repeats a phrase five times before he grabs another phrase from his pocket to repeat it five times, then another phrase, and so on. This goes on for days while he's courting and nest building. Although he is a good husband and helps with the cozy nest, he spends more time singing than working.

Fluttering from his chimney perch to a dead pine branch, to a swaying branch of a river birch, to a telephone line, and then bounding into the air again, leaving a trail of golden notes behind as he dips and turns in flight appearing to have everlasting energy, always in motion.

Even with all these wonderful attributes, sometimes a resident mocker is a bully. He takes over berried bushes in winter and chases all other birds away. He's a bully at feeding stations too, perching nearby all day so that he does not miss one bird that tries to feed.

By mid-August all is quiet on the mockingbird's high perches, his song not to be heard again until October when he comes out of hiding wearing a newly pressed gray and white suit. After two or three weeks of vigorous singing, he again ceases song until spring.

He sings a few notes in February, increases his medley in March. By April he once more is on the chimney tossing into the perfumed spring air his repetitive refrain. By May he will again be nesting in the thick-leaved sasanqua bush.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Insect Control? Look To Natural Predator

Have a need for insect control? Why not try a natural predator, himself a blood-thirsty insect. In different sections of the country he is known as prophet, mule-killer, soothsayer and devil's rear horse.

Measuring from two to five inches in length, this grayish-green fellow has two sets of slim grasshopper-like back legs and prizefighter-looking front legs. These strong, muscular-filled arms have wicked hooks underneath to hold its victim while it actually eats it alive.

The praying mantis is also a cannibal. He has no love for his own kind. If he's hungry, he'll eat his brother.

His color and shape resemble the plants on which he spend the day to escape notice.

Like a pair of binoculars, his black eyes protrude from a heart-shaped face. His body is slender, the wings short and broad.

The praying mantis is a pretender. As soon as dark begins to fall, he crawls from his hideout onto foliage or bark, a perfect camouflage for his twig-colored and twig-looking body. Kneeling in a pious position, he lifts his huge front paws as if in prayer, but really he's getting in position to attack unsuspecting prey. He remains in this pious position until an unfortunate insect ventures near. Then he snatches him, pinning down the victim with his vicious claws and eats it alive.

A birder once snapped a mantis at dusk devouring a ruby-throated hummingbird at a nectar feeder.

The female, larger than the male, has even stronger cannibalistic traits. She takes advantage of this and after mating will turn on her husband, kill him, or make a meal out of him while he is still alive. Her weakling mate, resigned to his fate, lifts not a hooked claw to save his life.

In the fall the mantis cycle begins anew when the female lays an oval mass of eggs on the stem of a plant and covers it with mucus that hardens in an eye-catching, creamy-tan case, assuring the next summer's supply of praying mantises.

This beguiling insect with ravenous appetite is considered beneficial, especially to gardeners. It is a glutton and feeds on nothing but insects (with the exception of a small bird or two) and can be called nature's garden vacuum cleaner.

A single mantis eggcase, hardly an inch in diameter, holds scores of hungry nymphs. Pushing out of the eggcase, they, like butterflies and moths, need only to hang upside down for a few minutes until their bodies and legs harden in the cool air.

Within minutes after hatching, these young cannibals are snatching and devouring destructive insects in your garden. Mantises are also fond of some beneficial insects such as honeybees and ladybugs, but they do away with harmful insects in greater numbers.

The easiest way to stock a garden with mantises is to buy eggcases (available at some nurseries) and tie them to bushes or low trees during late fall, winter or early spring. The nymphs stay secure in the snug eggcases throughout the winter months.

Then when the spring sun is warming in the sky and the air is fine and sweet with the fragrances of roses and the first insects are hatching and humming, the little nymphs crawl out of their cozy bedroom, hang themselves up to dry and charge!

Monday, June 9, 2008

How To Pick The Right Bird House

Rare Kinglet Visit Always Pleasant

The budding trees of May in the far north call the ruby-crowned kinglets to come home. The sun is climbing higher in the sky each day and it has that spring warmth that fattens buds and brings a glow to spring flowers.

After wintering in the sunny South, they hear the call and heed it. We have not seen one of these vivacious little jewels now for three weeks. We won't see them around again until they replace our hummingbirds in September when they come bouncing in to fill the void.

We know they are busy and happy for now they are in their breeding grounds. The male must win a mate, help build the dainty little nests, usually lined with rabbit fur and feathers, and all the while keep up his exuberant, almost tumultuous chorus in song. Into this cozy nest of moss, lichens and grasses, the female lays nine teeny, pale buffy eggs with tiny dots of henna-brown. With nine hungry mouths to feed, who has time for singing.

Discarding pansies and planting impatiens one day in mid-May several years ago, I was startled with a loud burst of tumultuous birdsong I had never heard before. I dropped my trowel and sprang to my feet, hoping I could find the author of such a gay melody.

To my surprise there he was, a small midget in feathers. How could such a loud melody come from such a small buffy throat? There, on a limb of a water oak, sat a tiny olive-gray bird, his crown patch glowing . . . a ruby-crowned kinglet!

"Why", I asked him, "are you still here?"

I feel the most fortunate of birders to have heard this boisterous song for I might never be in his far northern breeding range when he is in full, rich song.

Kinglets are wee, plump little birds clad in olive and buffy gray plumage. The bright red crown patch of the male is a positive field mark but it is often covered by the head feathers. Other good field marks are the white eye ring, making the small black eyes appear pop eyed, and the two white wing bars.

The ruby-crowned kinglet is a common winter visitor in the Central Savannah River Area. They move about through the naked trees and luxuriant growth of evergreen trees and shrubs in search for food. Not being noisy or flocking birds, though they are abundant in our area, one would scarcely notice.

During the winter they stay busy just hunting food. Then by early May a wee voice tells them the trees are budding in the northern states and they zoom away on a silvery, moonlit night.

Why was this perky little fellow still at my place in mid-May when he should be helping a mate trim their cozy home with green moss?

We'll never know but from his exuberant bursts of song in the water oak on that May day, wild wisdom sent him a message and courting, mating and nesting were on his mind. Why else would he explode with such melody?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Birds Experience Housing Crisis Too

Unusual nesting sites of birds are always interesting, especially when the nesters use locations that aren't in the books.

Some years ago an article appeared in the Atlanta Constitution of an unusual mockingbird's nest. Adelaide and Laurance Sawyer of Ringgold, GA, put up a log bird house for bluebirds with a metal flange around the opening to exclude larger birds. An arbor supported the 10-foot pole. The arbor, the pole and the bluebird house were supported by trellises for growing tomatoes and climbing beans, come spring.

In the spring, before the bluebirds could nest, a yellow-shafted flicker comes bouncing in and tries to enlarge the cavity. Day after day he works at it. His constant drilling gains the sympathy of the Sawyers and they remove the flange thinking they are helping the flicker. That does it. He doesn't want anyone messing around with the construction of his house and never returns.

To their surprise a pair of mockingbirds become interested in the bluebird house. One day they see both birds go into the box. One goes in and stays. When the Sawyers check, they find one egg . . . a mocker's egg in a mocker's nest.

If another article was in the paper giving the outcome of the nesting, I missed it. I never knew if they completed incubation and the youngsters fledged.

On our bluebird trail we had a mockingbird build in a hanging basket of begonias on the porch of a family who had one of our bluebird boxes on their premises. Eggs were laid in the nest but they disappeared. There were no clues as to what happened to the eggs. The birds didn't attempt another nesting in the basket.

To our surprise and excitement, a robin started a nest in somewhat of a crotch on a slopping branch of a sweet gum tree outside our living room window. It was not saddled on the branch as usual, but about half of it hung somewhat like an oriole's nest from the unstable fork.

One day it looked as if it were complete. That afternoon a strong thunder shower came through the area and the nest was thrown to the ground. I examined the fallen nest. The same materials were used as in other robin's nests. The nest was not as large as usual, but the inside depth seemed to be about the same.

The next day the female starts another nest using some of the material from the nest nature had foreclosed on. She placed the nest on the same spot on the branch. In a few days it appeared to be near completion. It was not meant to be. A strong wind comes out of the west and brings destruction to the second nest.

Two days later the robin was busy rebuilding . . . same style, same spot, same materials.

Again, in a few days, the nest appears ready for use. A determined mother, wouldn't you say? A few mornings later we find this nest on the ground. At the time, no eggs were in the nest.

There had been no wind nor rain. We never knew what brought the third nest down. She used mud on it, as all robins do, and that makes a robin's nest heavy and not very suitable for swinging in the wind.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Take Part In Bird Banding At Chatfield

Whip-poor-will's Song Tugs At A Memory

Nostalgia sweeps over me when I hear the call of the whip-poor-will as he passes through the Central Savannah River Area in spring migration.

This wisp-of-the-night is a summer resident of the North Georgia mountains where I lived as a child. Consequently, his continuous calls were one of the first "bird voices" I could recognize. These denizens of the night came into the edge of our yard as the sun splotched glades of the surrounding woodlands were overtaken by the spooky twilight of dusk.

Although many people have heard the songs of this ghost of the night, few people have ever seen the author. These birds sleep all day on dead leaves and other debris on the forest floor, their mottled coloration protecting them from enemies.

I used to sit with my dad on the steps of a stone wall in the deepening dusk to listen to the whip's calling as he did almost every night throughout the summer. Suddenly, there the bird was on an almost bare oak branch where he began his incessant "whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will". Then he dropped to a sandy spot in the road where he continued his calling for a hundred times or more. Reluctantly, I had to go to bed most nights with the whip still calling.

This spectral bird belongs to the Goatsuck family. Believing these birds sucked milk from goats during the night, centuries ago Europeans gave them the ill-named moniker of goatsucker. These birds did and do fly around goats and cattle at twilight, but it is to catch insects bothering the animals rather than the whip's love of milk.

This fellow has an enormous mouth, bordered above by long, stiff bristles which act as a net in catching insects, their only diet.

Measuring around ten inches from his short, dark bill to the short, rounded tail, the whip's overall plumage mimics the color of dead leaves of the forest floor. He wears a narrow white necklace around his throat. In flight, white tail feathers flash out. The female appears all brown. The large, black pair of button eyes, typical of nocturnal birds and mammals, is the easiest field mark to attract attention.

No attempt at nest building is made. The two eggs, buff colored with gray or light lavender splotches, are laid on a litter of dead leaves where the flickering light of the woodland tends to give them protection. The incubation period is around twenty days. During incubation, the female sits with her eyes closed, the better to avoid detection.

The nestlings match the dead leaves on which they are hatched. Their down is soft and silky, shading in color from cinnamon on the back to pinkish cinnamon on the crown and abdomen.

The whip is a common summer resident of both north Georgia and the upstate of South Carolina. It is now thought to breed along the Edisto River in Aiken County and in the Lake Thurmond area. It has been heard calling in midsummer, a good indication that it is expanding its breeding range southward. It winters along the Gulf and Florida coasts. Some of the more daring will go on to the Islands for their winter respite.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Don't Confuse A Loggerhead With A Mocker

We haven't seen him in our yard for several years, but on a sunny warm May day, he arrived. He sits on a dead limb of a dogwood tree and surveys the comings and goings of the large insects and butterflies fluttering by. I make myself comfortable to watch for the catch, but it doesn't materialize. Evidently, beetle or butterfly fingers don't whet his appetite, or the warm sun has made him too lazy to make the effort for such a small prize.

Slightly smaller than a robin, the loggerhead shrike has a big rounded head, thick neck and an all black, hawk-like bill and hook-like claws.

Having the weak feet of song birds, the shrike kills its prey with his strong bill, shaking, twisting and choking it until it is dead. Small birds, shrews, small rodents, grasshoppers and other large insects are some of its favorite catches. Shrikes hunt only by day and have remarkable eyesight, comparable to that of hawks, eagles and falcons. They are the only truly predatory songbirds in that they consistently prey on vertebrate animals.

The shrike gets its nickname "butcher bird" from the habit of hanging its prey on thorny trees, barbs of wire fence, or wedging them into the crotches of limbs. The head of the victim is up, the body hanging suspended, much like a butcher hangs a leg of lamb or a side of beef from a hook in his shop.

These situations are used as pantries to store food for future use as well as a "dish" for his present meal. The thorny branch, his plate, holds the prey while he eats it. There are scientists who say shrikes don't return to eat the impaled food. There are others who say it does occasionally return for its stored food. I wouldn't know, but when I'm out on walks I see dried insects, a mouse or bird hanging on thorns, indicating the prey has been there for awhile.

Light gray covers the back and head of the shrike. A black mask covers the eyes. Black wings with a white patch, white throat and dirty white breast complete his attire. He blends well with his surroundings.

The only bird that could be confused with the shrike in our area is the mockingbird. Though both are black and white and gray birds, the shades and tones of the colors differ, the shrike's being much lighter. The shrike is a chunkier bird than the mocker and his head is larger with a thicker neck. The black, gray and white of the shrike are distinctly defined. They don't blend as they do in the mocker's plumage.

Breeding from Florida northward to southern Canada and westward to Louisiana, the loggerhead is a common resident of the Central Savannah River Area. He builds a bulky nest of twigs, leaves and grasses in a thorny bush or dense tree from eight to twenty feet above ground. Usually, a clutch of four to seven dull white to grayish or creamy white eggs is laid. They are thickly and evenly spotted and blotched with dull browns and light lavender.

The loggerhead is a poor songster. About the best he can do is a series of squeaky whistles, strangling gurgles and high-pitched pipings, though sometimes he might burst into harsh warble-like notes.

Common nicknames are French mockingbird, butcher bird and cotton bird, from the habit of using cotton in his nest.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Noisy Outcast Pretty But Annoying

In every family there's a black sheep, usually. The yellow-breasted chat is that dude in the warbler family.

When you think of a warbler, you think of a small songster dressed in olive-greens, yellows, grays, blues and black and whites. The chat fits into the family as far as colors are concerned, but there his qualifications end.

His song, if you can call it a song, unlike that of any other warbler, is loud and fractious. Not only is the song unusual but the manner of singing is different. He flies from one bush to another while getting his garrulous message across. All the other little warblers' songs are soft and pleasing.

He is a full two inches larger than most warblers. He has a long tail like a mocker, a bill that is larger, heavier and more curved than the smaller warblers and his wings are shorter and rounded.

He's a handsome guy. He wears this year's fashionable olive-green on his back with a yellow shirt. His colors glisten in the golden sunlight. The white strip over his eye and his size distinguish him from the small yellow-throated vireo.

He prefers brushy habitats for his hangouts, the better to hide, for he is more often heard than seen.

The eccentric, ludicrous, almost clownish behavior is one of the chat's most outstanding characteristics. He hides in dense thickets and from this secluded place he sends out "bizarre noises", whistling, chuckling, barking, mewing, scolding and swearing. He gurgles, laughs, chatters, squeaks and cackles.

But wait, when the females arrive from the tropics his language changes. He finds some elevated perch and there pours out what melody he can muster. Then, pitching himself into the air . . . straight up . . . with wings fluttering and legs dangling limply like a Raggedy Ann doll, he lets fall from his yellow throat a wild, rich, rapturous love song. While he's courting he leaves off name calling.

Measuring 1 and 1/2 inches from the stout, arched bill to the long, rounded tail, this largest of all warblers is the good ole boy of the bird world. He's here now, joking and cat-calling and generally interrupting the sweet songs of other birds.

The chat claims a characteristic of the mockingbird and that is singing all night on moonlit nights, but the chat adds dark nights also to deliver his repertoire.

One chat observer says the olive-clad bird on her premises usually starts singing at 10:30 in the evening and keeps up his "noise" all through the night. The next morning she serves breakfast, accompanied by his squeaks and squawks. She serves the noon meal. The shrieking goes on and on. Sometime in the late afternoon the songster stops, apparently to rest up for his next performance at 10:30 that night.

Becoming involved with keeping four hungry nestlings satisfied, he quietens down. He's so quiet you might think he's left his tangled haunts, but he's still skulking around.

By late August, however, he heads south and calm once again reigns in thickets and tangles across the countryside.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Small Effort Brings A Treat

Walking in the yard, I heard distinctly the feeding cries of young birds. Because the cries seemed to be near I searched every shrub and tree for a nest.

Several species of birds were in and about the yard but not being able to find a nest, the birds' cries haunted me.

The next day I sat down on the terrace with glasses and followed each bird that came into view. It was not long before I picked up a tufted titmouse with food in its beak. It alighted in a nearby pine tree and quickly disappeared without my seeing where it vanished. Again, I heard the feeding cries of nestlings.

I examined the tree and found no cavity. To my amazement a few seconds later the bird popped out of an old squirrel's nest. The rodent's nest was situated on a large branch approximately four inches in diameter and about two-thirds out on a limb from the trunk of the tree. It was placed among three small branches that grew out from the larger one. The opening of the squirrel's nest was directly in line with the large branch. Each time the bird came with dinner for the nestlings it alighted on the large branch near the opening, then tip-toeing into the hole, it went down into the cavity.

On leaving the nest, it first stuck its head out of the opening and looked around as if checking to see if all were safe. Then it came up out of the cavity and flew away.

The large-eyed, black-eyed, tufted titmouse is a permanent resident in the Central Savannah River Area. It has a gray pointed crest, which it can raise or lower at will, gray back, off-white breast and belly with rusty-red sides and short, rounded wings.

Usual nesting sites of the titmouse are old woodpecker holes or other cavities. Because the bill is short and stout without a chisel, it is unable to excavate its own cavity, unless the wood is very rotted, and much search for a deserted cavity or openings in posts, dead trees, or bird boxes.

A pair of titmice visit our yard each summer and raise a family in cavities of old trees or in bird boxes placed near the wooded lot.

Titmice are fairly early nesters and usually only one brood is raised in a season. By the time the young are on the wing and are finding their own beetles, caterpillars and wasps, having perfected their "peto, peto, peto" song, you will be unable to tell the young from the mother and father when they visit the sunflower feeders in your yard this fall.

After fledging, all the families of titmice in the neighborhood get together as one big party for the rest of the summer until they join mixed flocks of chickadees, gnatcatchers and white-throated sparrows that roam the woods during fall and winter.

But, if you feed them well, you might expect a lively troupe of titmice in your yard during the cold, gray days of winter.

What a treat for such small effort!