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The Chorus Returns
--Wed, Fri, Sun, Sept 13/15/17 2023--
This brilliant second week of September, the balcony and the field remain two separate worlds, with only a highly mobile murder of crows to suggest a connection.
Wednesday begins gray and in the upper 50s, with the balcony dominated by silence. The nine female Common Mergansers follow exactly the same route out of the Gap, hugging Sapsucker Ridge then veering southwest, that they did the last time. House Finches in the low forties, just four Cedar Waxwings, and two American Robins. It definitely feels like the action is elsewhere.
On Thursday morning I go up to where the action is, but I’ll leave that until the next post (spoiler alert: potential zombies). As the weather has now turned crystal clear and there are weak winds from the north, it would seem like the perfect time for hawks. All week, I’ve been ducking out to the porch during work break, but there’s not a broad-wing to be seen, despite the hundreds that have been streaming by other hawk watches in the area this week. Perhaps they are too far up to see. At 1:30, the most I can spot are five Black Vultures, still a bit of a rarity around here, with a few Turkey Vultures and Common Ravens.
On Friday, I miss the dawn entirely due to an obligatory car checkup. At noon, I go out under the blue for the first time. Nada.
Around four, I sit for an hour in the warm and brilliant light watching an Osprey, a Red-tailed Hawk, and around 40 Turkey Vultures circling this way and that, almost on fire in the sunlight. Perfect weather, but where are the migrants?? Half a dozen yellowjackets in their fading days, angry at the world, buzz me but are not able to get in a sting. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays are getting louder by the day.
(On Saturday, another beautiful day, another trek up top, with somewhat hallucinatory results. It feels very much like the last day of summer.)
Autumn First: Balcony Edition
Sunday has all the look of another wash, and it’s not even clear. I’ve been getting spoiled on stars and planets. Today starts out leaden gray with hints of pink, and well down in the forties. A single cricket chirps in the parking lot.
Distant geese, distant American Crows, an almost-unheard House Finch: seems like it can’t get much better with the weather threatening rain. And then, at 6:42 AM, for the first time in what seems like ages, a soft but insistent melody: Song Sparrow . They’ve gone quite cryptic now, and I haven’t even heard one on top lately; it’s even hard to seem them.
Seconds later, more predictably, a Carolina Wren starts up from downriver somewhere, and then another call I’ve been missing down here: Gray Catbird. They are nearing the peak of their migration up top, where they also call, though like everything up there these days, 15 minutes before they do here.
By 6:45 AM, the sunrise is beginning to surprise me. A Blue Jay yells from a tree next to the balcony, a Northern Cardinal calls , then an American Robin tut-tut-tut’s and exclaims, the first time I’ve heard one make more than a whisper down here in quite a while.
By no means was it a burst of song (though a second Carolina Wren going through its full repertoire at the confluence helped), but at least the deadening silence is over. Even as the sunlight fades into dull gray again after seven, the show goes on. During the next hour, one surprise after another emerges.
Chimney Swifts barely show up, but with the 60 I saw around the confluence last night, I have hopes that they will last into next month. As for House Finches, their total dawn numbers are now below 20. And robins? They are down to a pair. Cedar Waxwings have also nearly abandoned this part of town. For the waxwings, the feed is just too good up on the ridges; they haven’t left the area. The robins I’m not so sure about, as I am only detecting a couple up top these days. Perhaps they’re holding out until the wild grapes come in.
The next surprise is a trio of Common Grackles over town, at 7:15, heading toward the interstate. I haven’t seen this species in weeks. And then the call of a Downy Woodpecker, another species that went missing for some time.
The local Mallards are restless today; ten or so are up and about town, upriver, downriver, up-creek, around the Gap. Every time they pass over my head they are quacking.
Things begin to settle down by 7:30, and I think about calling it a dawn. Today was a day we put Pepe out with me on the balcony, and for a while he was a decent birdwatcher, fixated on the steady stream of American Crows heading eastward far above, and then on some local House Sparrows. But he came to meet his first yellowjacket in an unpleasant way, which got him more excited, so I eventually put him back inside.
Right after this, what appears to be a pigeon zooms to the right, over my head and out of sight, emitting a loud ki-ki-ki. Definitely not a pigeon! I jump over to the far side of the balcony to get a line of sight toward the library in hopes that it will circle back around, as raptors often do, and I’m just in time to see and hear a pair of Merlins on the hunt: pigeon hawks indeed! Their name is for their shape, however, as pigeons are way too big for them. This pair, which I would guess is a migratory tag-team, is probably after House Sparrows or something similar; they go after large insects as well, but none of those are in the air right now.
Not long after this happens, as expected, the nine female Common Mergansers round the bend of Sapsucker Ridge and head southwest. Much more unexpected is the ‘chink’ call of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, hidden somewhere in the foliage along the river. It calls multiple times, a bit of the spillover of the dozens or more that are all through the hotspot, as I found yesterday.
A second Downy Woodpecker calls, and then at 7:54, the Eastern Phoebe finally shows up. Missing today are identifiable warblers, but one I think may be a Bay-breasted makes a fair amount of noise in the general area of the invisible grosbeak. Bay-breasted Warblers are among the most common warbler along the river in the second half of September.
The stars of the show today are Blue Jays. They haven’t quieted down for over an hour; at least eight fly back and forth in pairs and trios. As I found out yesterday, they’re all over the hotspot in small groups. Migrants or locals, they’re here for one major reason: acorns. At one point, one flaps right past the balcony with a nice, fat acorn in its beak.
At 27 species, the total is around 10 higher than usual for the balcony this time of year. Next week will tell whether this is a fluke or not. For now, it feels and sounds like the first day of fall. Within an hour of the wrap, it begins to rain.
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