Close encounters of the bird kind

During a bird walk in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area the other day, a group of birdwatchers was suddenly and deliberately “attacked” by a relentless assailant.

The “culprit”? A common, 7-inch, brown-and-white songbird known as the eastern phoebe.

The birders were students in the Atlanta Audubon Society’s Master Birder Program, a five-week intensive course in birding, ornithology and conservation, integrated with field trips.

According to student Charles McCoy of Marietta, he and fellow birders were on a boardwalk in the recreation areas’s Cochran Shoals unit when they spotted a phoebe perched in a tree. Then, the bird swooped down as if to attack one of the birders.

“It kept coming at us; then someone held out his hand and the phoebe landed on it, and then we took turns passing the bird around,” McCoy said. “At one point, it perched on my wife’s head.”

So, whether it actually was attacking may be debatable. Some in the group preferred to call it an “overly friendly, inquisitive phoebe.”

This is not the only report, however, of a close encounter with a wild phoebe. Several such incidents have been reported on the Georgia birders’ chat line.

Atlanta birder Jerry Brunner writes: “I had a similar experience with my birding class in November 2008 at the Chattahoochee recreation area (Johnson Ferry unit). A phoebe followed us and fluttered in the face of a couple of students. It landed on a student’s head…A friend (in College Park) also told me a phoebe kept coming near him and finally fluttered in his face and pecked him under the eye.”

Brunner notes that all the reported phoebe-people encounters have been in the fall, indicating that the birds are not defending territories and nesting sites as they would in spring and summer.

Ornithology experts are perplexed by the phoebes’ strange behavior, which appears to be increasing.

Known for its vigorous tail-pumping, the eastern phoebe, a type of flycatcher, breeds in North Georgia in summer and occurs throughout the state in winter. It often builds its cup-shaped mud nest on man-made structures, including porches of homes.

IN THE SKY: The North Taurid Meteor shower reaches a peak of about 15 meteors per hour on Monday night. Look to the east from about midnight until dawn, said David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer.

The moon will be first quarter Saturday night, high in the south just after dark and setting in the west around midnight. Mercury is very low in the east just before dawn. Venus is in the west at dusk and sets about three hours later. Mars rises in the east about four hours before sunrise. Jupiter rises out of the east at dusk and is visible the rest of the night.