Photo by Mary Curry
Birds and Beyond
Claire Curry, April 2003, Wise County Messenger, © 2003
Wise County has a wonderful variety of birds in the summer. You probably know about the bright red cardinals, the fierce little hummingbirds, and other common birds that live here. Here I will describe some lesser-known summer residents of Wise County.
The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is a rather hard-to-see bird. You usually hear its odd call, “guck-guck-guck-guck-guck kow kow kowp kowp”, before you see the cuckoo up in the trees. The cuckoo is brown above, with reddish brown visible in the wings during flight. The underside is creamy white and the slightly curved bill is yellow at the base. There are large, round spots on the underside of the tail, which show as white tips in flight. This stealthy bird is also called the rain crow, since some people say it calls before a rain. The cuckoo may call before rain, but it sure calls a lot when it doesn’t rain, too!
There are five species of flycatchers that live in Wise County in the summer, plus one year-round resident (the Eastern Phoebe). Eastern and Western Kingbirds and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers are usually seen frequently, but the two other summer flycatchers, Great Crested Flycatcher and Eastern Wood-Pewee, are not noticed as often. Despite its name, the Great Crested Flycatcher doesn’t have too much of a crest like a cardinal, but it does have a rather bushy head of feathers when it gets excited. It is brown above, with rufous in the wings and tail and a yellow underside. This flycatcher is sometimes easier heard than seen, as it gives a loud rolling “brreep!” call. The last flycatcher on the list, the Eastern Wood-Pewee, is not quite as common as the others. It is a nondescript olive color with two wingbars. This bird calls its name, giving an upward-sounding “peeaweeee” call.
The tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is another interesting summer resident. These delightfully antsy birds hop all over, regularly giving busy buzzing calls. They are a pretty blue-gray color, with a long tail and thin beak. The males have a slightly brighter blue tint to their plumage than the females, and a dark line over the eye. With their long tails and wandering, buzzy song, I sometimes think of them as miniature mockingbirds.
Of the vireos, small insect-eating birds, we have three summering species. The two most common are White-eyed Vireo and Red-eyed Vireo. The other, Bell’s Vireo, is scarcer. The White-eyed Vireo sings quite persistently and loudly, but even with the frequent clues as to its location it can be a pain to find. When you do see it, the White-eyed Vireo is quite a bird. It is greenish above, with a flush of yellow below on the flanks. On its head, it has yellow “spectacles” around its white eyes. (Juveniles have dark eyes.) A quick and insistent “chuck chip and marie! chuck” is its song, although the exact notes vary from song to song. The Red-eyed Vireo is similar in its ability to sing loudly and not be seen, but it sings from way high up in the trees, so you get to strain your neck while you look! Its song has been described as “I am here. Where are you. Look at me. Here I am. Way up here. In the tree,” and so forth.
There are many species of warblers that migrate through this area, but only one seems to stay for the summer. This is the Black-and-white Warbler, which, as the name suggests, it streaked black and white. This pretty bird has a thin, high-pitched song that can be approximated to: “seepy seepy seepy seepy seepy”.
We have cardinals here all year long, but in the summer you may want to double-check your red birds. You might find the Summer Tanager, a superficially cardinal-like bird. However, instead of a bright orange, conical beak, the tanager’s beak is longer and more of a grayish, off-white color. The two birds’ red colors are slightly different, too. The tanager has a hint more of rose red, while the cardinal seems to have a shade of orange in its plumage. Female Summer Tanagers vary from greenish-yellow to a more orange yellow.
Three sparrows show up here for the summer (two other species stay year-round). These are Lark Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows, plus the less common Cassin’s Sparrow. The Lark Sparrow is one of our most boldly marked sparrows. It has a bright rufous, black, and tan face pattern, a smudged spot on its breast, and in flight, white corners on its tail. This sparrow also has an interesting courtship display; the male puffs up and sticks his tail in the air like a turkey gobbler. The Grasshopper Sparrow seems like the exact opposite of the Lark Sparrow, being an inconspicuous bird with a quiet, insect-like buzz for a song. Its plumage is streaked brown on the back, light tan on the front, and a hint of yellow in front of the eye.
Now, for a taste of the tropics. The Painted Bunting is dressed in a rainbow of red (on the underside), blue (on the head), yellow (on the back), and green (on the wings and tail). Its song is a short, sweet, downward warble. The females and immature males are greenish yellow and can be harder to spot. Even the adult male, with his brilliant plumage, can be surprisingly hard to see. A relative of the Painted Bunting, the Indigo Bunting, also can be found spending the summer here in Wise County. The male is bright blue in good light, but appears dark at times. The female of this species is brown. Another brightly colored summer bird is the Blue Grosbeak. It resembles the Indigo Bunting, but has a bulkier, cardinal-shaped beak, and chestnut wingbars. The female grosbeak is brown, not unlike the Indigo Bunting, but the heavy beak gives away its identity.
Orchard Orioles, which are actually in the blackbird family (this family also includes meadowlarks, cowbirds, and grackles), are occasionally seen in the summer. The males are rich brick-red and black, while the females are greenish yellow, with gray wings and whitish wingbars. Orioles have pointed beaks, rather like a meadowlark’s.
Eastern Meadowlarks live here year round, but in the summer a smaller look-alike shows up. It is the Dickcissel, which has a shorter, more sparrow-like bill, reddish shoulders, less extensive yellow, and a very different song. The Eastern Meadowlark sings a clear whistle, while the Dickcissel gives monotone chirps (usually in sets of three).
With all these exciting birds roaming the woods and fields, there are plenty of feathered reasons to brave the humid, hot summer weather, and go birding.