My hummer summer, part 2 — beauty in flight, beauty at rest

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8438-maria-de-bruynIn my previous blog, I mentioned that the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilocus colubris) had a greater variety of flowering plants to visit in my yard this year and that increased the size and diversity of their nectar buffet. The availability of multiple food sources also meant that they spent a bit more time visiting – they didn’t just dash to a feeder, perch or hover for a drink and then take off. They visited feeders, different blooms and took little rests between meals, giving me numerous chances to watch them and practice my hummingbird photography – a win-win for both us!



One of their favorite flowers were the lantanas (Lantana), which are also a favorite of mine as they attract many smaller pollinators such as bees and butterflies and are still profusely blooming in the latter half of October.







This year, several types of sage brightened my gardens. Some deep blue Brazilian sage plants (Salvia guaranitica), kindly donated to me by Gail, a fellow birder, added color and provided the hummers with deep blooms into which they could insert their long bills.



ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7519-maria-de-bruyn-resA small-leaf sage (also known as Festival or little-leaf sage, Salvia microphylla “San Carlos Festival”) provided an ongoing splash of deep red blooms that attracted the hummers over and over again. This plant not only graced the garden in the summer but is still blooming profusely now, making it another one of my favorites. A couple other different red sages and a red beebalm (Monarda didyma) were good nectar choices but they didn’t bloom as long or in such abundance. Perhaps next year, they will have gained strength.


ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1160-maria-de-bruyn-resThe two stonecrop plants (Hylotelephium Autumn joy), in my front garden, with their rounded bunches of little pink flowers, had hummer visitors on a few occasions, but these are not one of their preferred blooms. The milkweed plants (Asclepias syriaca) also only had a few visits as far as I could tell.




And it was the same story for the blue balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), which does get its fair share of bees.




ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a2198-maria-de-bruyn-resI had planted cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), which unfortunately didn’t get any flowers. I did see a bird visiting this plant species near Bolin Creek, however. The same happened with a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), but at a vine cluster near the Haw River I saw how they inserted their heads entirely into the tubular blooms.




In between feedings, the hummingbirds will perch to watch for intruders into “their space”. But they also will take sun-baths, pointing their faces upward and puffing themselves up.



They will then change shape, stretching their necks and spreading their wings and tail feathers to expose as much of their bodies as possible to the sunlight.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a6885maria-de-bruyn-res   ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a6891maria-de-bruyn-res

They may relieve themselves while they are in flight and then later take a little power nap of a few seconds.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1170-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a0553-maria-de-bruyn-res


Grooming is also a frequent activity – these little avians make sure that they stay just as beautiful as the sweet flowers that they frequent!

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a6905-maria-de-bruyn-res   ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8283-maria-de-bruyn

When the males turn their heads so that the light hits them in different ways, they do a nice job of demonstrating that their bright gorget colors are not in the feathers themselves but the result of prism cells in their feathers that change how the light is reflected depending on the angle we see.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1126-maria-de-bruyn-res    ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1120-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a6366-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen they’re done sun bathing, grooming and resting, the hummingbirds need to take off again. However, their feet are so tiny that they can’t walk and, when they lift off, they also don’t have the foot strength to push.  So they rise into the air using the power of their wings, quickly flapping as they set off and rapidly reaching their usual rate of about 50-53 beats per second.



ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7167-maria-de-bruyn-resMy last summer hummingbird residents appear to have left for their Central American wintering grounds on 7 October, just before Hurricane Matthew arrived in North Carolina. I really hope that they were able to get through the windy environment without problems as they began their long migratory journeys and I am already looking forward to seeing them arrive next spring. In the meantime, I’m keeping a couple feeders up in case another hummer species decides to over-winter here – and the Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) and tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) can continue to use the ant guards over the feeders as their preferred watering holes.


My hummer summer, part 1 – guarding the home front!



Just like human beings, some birds like to hang out in groups, while others are more solitary in nature, coming together mainly to reproduce. A prime example of the latter group are the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris).



ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7336-maria-de-bruyn-res2This past summer, some health and other problems led to my spending a good deal of time at home. The upside was that being a bit home-bound gave me plenty of opportunities to observe the comings and goings of these gorgeous little flyers and to learn more about their behavior towards one another.

I had at least four ruby-throats – and probably more as I couldn’t distinguish them all – visiting my feeders and yard regularly. A couple had a distinctive trait that helped me identify them, like some white feathers on top of their heads or at the bottom part of their gorgets.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1237-maria-de-bruyn-res   ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a9185-maria-de-bruyn-res



I usually had three or four nectar feeders up in my back yard and two in my front yard. In addition, as the summer progressed, the gardens were filled with increasing numbers of nectar-filled flowers so my home site was a fairly well-stocked larder for them.

The ruby-throats are among the more competitive hummingbirds and don’t really like to share their feeding space with others, although a friend and I visited a birder in a nearby town who had more than a dozen feeders up and many dozens of hummers visiting his back yard every day, feeding right next to one another. At my house, I suppose guarding their food source is an instinctual imperative, since they do consume half their own weight in nectar each day.


ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8255-maria-de-bruyn-resThe tiny birds were quite intent on protecting their territory from intruders. Only thing was, several of them considered my feeders THEIR territory, so there was a continual rotation of birds perched in nearby trees and shrubs to watch for “invaders”. Once spotted, the newly arrived hummers would have the current “resident” bird swoop down on them (at up to 60 miles per hour!), frequently chittering like mad as a warning to “get out of here.”

Sometimes, they would have a little “challenge flight ballet” as they confronted one another, until one gave up and flew off – sometimes across the street, sometimes to the yard on the other side of the house, and sometimes to a nearby tree or shrub at the side of the house.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8257-maria-de-bruyn-res   ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8256-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a9443-maria-de-bruyn-resThere was one particular male hummer who seemed particularly aggressive – or perhaps possessive is a better term as I never saw him body slam a rival; he just made sure that the other bird would leave. I recognized him as he often chose exactly the same spots on a nearby Rose of Sharon, a willow oak and a cedar as his watching posts,

Some of those who were run off didn’t travel far, however. They would fly to a nearby tree or shrub and wait to see if Hummer No. 1 would leave.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a0290-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1099-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a5725-maria-de-bruyn-resScientists have determined that the brain section responsible for memory and learning – the hippocampus – is five times larger in hummingbirds than in woodpeckers, seabirds and songbirds. They memorize where feeders and nectar flowers are and can remember when they last fed there. They can even estimate how long it will take each flower to fill up with nectar again.



The hummers’ memory is long-term, too – they recall not only where feeders are placed in their breeding territories but also in places along their yearly migration routes! Wouldn’t it be nice if we had such great memories making GPS and maps less of a necessity?




ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7716-maria-de-bruyn-resAnother behavior I observed several times was a hummer hovering in front of me, especially when the nectar feeders were getting low. Scientists have determined that they can recognize the people who replenish their food sources, which makes for a delightful encounter as one chirps at you while suspended in front of your face with its wings flapping at 60 beats per second!

While guarding their home turf, they may stick out their tongues briefly after feeding.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a5099-maria-de-bruyn-res   ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a2353-maria-de-bruyn-res



However, if you see one with its tongue stuck out permanently, this can be a sign of a fungal infection (often acquired from dirty feeders). Their tongues swell with the infection and they can no longer drink with these anatomical, elastic micro-pumps.




Often death ensues, so it’s important to keep the nectar feeders clean!




Coming up in part 2: the beauty of the hummingbirds at rest and in flight


Can you go home again? Apparently so!



This year, I had the good fortune to see both brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) and Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) raise broods in some of my nest boxes. I saw the babies fledge, which was truly an enjoyable event.



For some time, the parents continued feeding their babies after they left home, but eventually they got to the point that they could catch or find their own food. As summer progressed, the parents and children both visited my feeders and it was gratifying to see the families thrive. Then during September and October, I saw a behavior that I don’t remember from years past.


The nuthatches started to return to their nest box almost daily. They didn’t check out nearby boxes but went to their original home and today they are still visiting there, sitting on top, fluttering around it and looking inside.


Their frequent visits seem to have intrigued a local tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) who decided to take a look in their box, too,but that was only a one-time visit as far as I could see.

It’s not only the parents doing this, but also one or more of their offspring. So how true is the saying “you can never go home again” (origin a novel by Thomas Wolfe)? It originally meant that you can’t recapture exactly how things were in your youth because changes take place in situations and places. But people do often journey back to the places where they grew up and apparently birds do, too! Maybe they are wondering if their nest box is still the same good place for a home.




The bluebirds began doing the same with their home nest box as well. They take turns flying from nearby branches to cling to the box and investigate the now empty dwelling. While the nuthatches just lean and peer inside, the bluebirds eventually go inside for a bit.



eastern-bluebird-i77a9732-maria-de-bruyn-res brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a9653-maria-de-bruyn-res


Oddly, there seems to be some contention involved. For example, when this pair was investigating, they had a little tiff for some reason.

eastern-bluebird-i77a9722-maria-de-bruyn-res eastern-bluebird-i77a9725-maria-de-bruyn-res

eastern-bluebird-i77a9723-maria-de-bruyn-res eastern-bluebird-i77a9726-maria-de-bruyn-res

I can only guess that the birds are checking out the nest boxes in anticipation of next year’s nesting season. The nuthatches and bluebirds will begin breeding again around March, although nuthatches might already begin building a new nest as early as December. It will also be interesting to see if they end up roosting in the boxes during the colder winter nights.

brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a4527-maria-de-bruyn-resWatching the nuthatches and bluebirds nest, fledge and feed is an enjoyable pastime and I’m looking forward to seeing them repeat the process next year. In the meantime, perhaps I’ll continue seeing them around the nest boxes this winter – as Pliny the Elder said, “Home is where the heart is” and something is sure attracting them back! (And yes, I know, that is a bit of anthropomorphizing.)

A working farm as a nature reserve

cattle I77A8663© Maria de Bruyn resTo continue the saga of Braeburn Farm, I’d like to introduce you to some of the non-avian wildlife to be found there. As a vegetarian, I’ll admit I was originally a bit reluctant to go there, but I must acknowledge that the farm management does many things to give the cattle a good life.

Red Devon cattle I77A6581© Maria de Bruyn resThey keep their herd of Red Devons (Bos taurus) to about 300 animals and allow the calves to reach the age of at least 3 years. Some cows and bulls are allowed to grow much older (10-12 years or more) and they enjoy a peaceful life before they go to market, rotating through the farm’s varied habitats, which include meadows and fields, ponds, woods and creeks. No pesticides are used in the habitats and the vegetation is allowed to grow as naturally as possible. Farm manager Nick said that when it is time to shift the cows to a new pasture area, he just calls them. The older cows know that they will be enjoying fresh and different veggies so they follow him willingly, leading the rest of the herd along.

My visits in June and July showed how this farm is cultivating biodiversity among plants and wildlife. The fields were dotted with thistles, white clover (Trifolium repens), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and many other plants.

brown-eyed Susan I77A7112© Maria de Bruyn res        Moth mullein Verbascum blattaria I77A5812© Maria de Bruyn res

Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)                           Moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria)

Bees and butterflies were abundant, showing that the farm’s methods are good for the pollinators.

clouded sulphur I77A6930© Maria de Bruyn res    Clouded skipper I77A7102© Maria de Bruyn

Clouded sulphur (Colias philodice)                             Clouded skipper (Lerema accius)

Least skipper IMG_0155© Maria de Bruyn    Sachem skipper I77A7026© Maria de Bruyn res

Least skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor)          Sachem skipper (Atalopedes campestris)            cabbage white I77A6735© Maria de Bruyn res         monarch I77A6970© Maria de Bruyn res

Cabbage white (Pieris rapae)                      Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

Leaf-footed bugs (Leptoglossus phyllopus), margined leatherwing soldier beetles (Chauliognathus marginatus), bees and various species of syrphid flies (also known as hoverflies and often mistaken for bees) were exploring the thistles.

leaf-footed bug Leptoglossus phyllopus IMG_4412© Maria de Bruyn res   leaf-footed bug Leptoglossus phyllopus IMG_4400© Maria de Bruyn res

margined leatherwing soldier beetle IMG_4437© Maria de Bruyn resMargined leatherwing soldier beetle

Eastern carpenter bee 2 I77A6964© Maria de Bruyn res            syrphid fly Sphaerophoria I77A5781© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)            Syrphid fly (Sphaerophoria)

common oblique syrphid fly Allograpta obliqua IMG_4418© Maria de Bruyn res

Common oblique syrphid fly (Allograpta obliqua)

Syrphid fly - Palpada vinetorum IMG_4422© Maria de Bruyn bg    Syrphid fly - Palpada vinetorum IMG_4422© Maria de Bruyn res

Syrphid fly (Palpada vinetorum)

Elsewhere, the nymph of a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) moved along large leaves.

Wheel bug - Arilus cristatus IMG_4499© Maria de Bruyn    Wheel bug - Arilus cristatus IMG_4481© Maria de Bruyn res

It pays to look down at your feet as you wander through the fields in the early morning. The grasses are covered in tiny webs that glisten with water droplets. Underneath are the tiny red dwarf sheetweb spiders (Florinda coccinea) that may show themselves if you stay very still.

dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0117© Maria de Bruyn res     dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0126© Maria de Bruyn res

dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0127© Maria de Bruyn   dwarf sheetweb spider IMG_0121© Maria de Bruyn

In the vegetation below you can also see other insects, like the Spur-throated grasshopper (Melanoplus), or the Forage looper moth (Caenurgina erechtea).

spur-throated grasshopper Melanoplus IMG_0152© Maria de Bruyn res      Forage looper I77A5943© Maria de Bruyn res

Various dragonflies and damselflies balance on grasses and sometimes alight on the ground (the former hold their wings out when resting and the damselflies fold their wings along their bodies).

halloween pennant I77A6315© Maria de Bruyn res   halloween pennant Celithemis eponina I77A6337© Maria de Bruyn res

Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina)

Double-striped American bluet Dancer damselfly I77A6155© Maria de Bruyn res

Double-striped bluet damselfly (Enallagma basidens)

widow skimmer I77A6998© Maria de Bruyn bg

Widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)

common whitetail I77A6394© Maria de Bruyn res

Common whitetail (Plathemis lydia)

At the creek crossings, you may see a common sanddragon dragonfly (Progomphus obscurus, a lifer for me!), paper wasps (Polistes) or a viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) having a drink or looking for a mate. The viceroy mimics the monarch but can be distinguished easily with the line crossing its wings horizontally when you see it rest.

Common sanddragon dragonfly I77A6480© Maria de Bruyn res    Common sanddragon dragonfly I77A6508© Maria de Bruyn res

paper wasp Polistes I77A6454© Maria de Bruyn bg       Viceroy I77A6432© Maria de Bruyn res

Walking through the fields, you may also occasionally spot a mammal although they are not as easy to see as the other wildlife. As I trudged around a pond, this white-tailed deer fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) was startled from its hiding place – showing off the part of its anatomy for which the species is named and looking as if s/he was sporting a very large feather.

white-tailed deer I77A6198© Maria de Bruyn res           white-tailed deer I77A6199© Maria de Bruyn res

On one outing, Nick and I spotted a couple darling raccoon kits (Procyon lotor), who wasted no time scurrying for cover when they spotted us.

raccoon I77A7213© Maria de Bruyn res     raccoon I77A7225© Maria de Bruyn res

Red Devon cattle I77A6617© Maria de Bruyn resThe farm is a great place to spend quality time outdoors. You can contact the farm management to schedule a visit and they will instruct on which fields and areas are open for visitation. And if you should wander by mistake into a field with some of the cattle, you needn’t worry as the Red Devons are likely to walk away or just watch you as they are a placid breed. I hope that Braeburn Farm becomes a popular birding and wildlife observation area so that we can continue enjoying visits there.

Braeburn Farm is for the birds!

I don’t often get the chance to visit a farm (other than organized farm tours, which are a bit pricey and then might be crowded). Last year, I was invited to one during an annual llama shearing, which was educational. This year, however, I’ve had the chance to visit Braeburn Farm four times so far because the owner and manager have decided to make it a nature reserve as well as a cattle farm. Nick, the land manager, is a birder who is more than willing to share his knowledge with the visitors.

pond I77A6227© Maria de Bruyn res

My first visit to this farmland/nature reserve was in the early spring to see Wilson’s snipes at one of the five ponds. By late June, these birds had moved on but the ponds were now harboring mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) and killdeer (Charadrius vociferous).

mallard duck I77A7320© Maria de Bruyn res     red-winged blackbird I77A6920© Maria de Bruyn res

belted kingfisher I77A6936© Maria de Bruyn (2)   killdeer I77A6934© Maria de Bruyn res

My quest to see green herons at one pond was unsuccessful, but my 20-minute walk there was accompanied by the non-stop screaming of a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), who called both from tree tops and the air as she circled overhead.

red-tailed hawk I77A6030© Maria de Bruyn res   red-tailed hawk I77A6044© Maria de Bruyn res

A non-native bird who might greet you as you come down the road near the farm manager’s home is a helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris), the sole survivor of a neighbor’s flock. This bird now comes to visit the domestic chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) at Braeburn, perhaps seeking some companionship in addition to the easily available chicken feed.

helmeted guineafowl I77A5648© Maria de Bruyn res    chicken I77A6958© Maria de Bruyn (2)

chicken I77A6949© Maria de Bruyn resThe farm chickens are in a large pen while other chickens run free, including one with a wild hairdo.

A trio of wild turkeys left the woods and entered a field during one of my visits but they were at a considerable distance; still, I could say I had seen them that day! The Eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) have often been visible at a distance in the fields, but on my last visit I saw one a bit closer on a fence post, giving me the chance to enjoy its beautiful plumage.


Eastern meadowlark I77A8597© Maria de Bruyn    Eastern meadowlark I77A5898© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern kingbird I77A5683© Maria de Bruyn res


Eastern kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) can be seen in many of the fields and on wires. They take advantage of the ponds to snag dragonfly meals and the dry grasses provide materials for nests.


Eastern kingbird I77A7653© Maria de Bruyn        Eastern kingbird I77A7099© Maria de Bruyn res

They also pose very prettily on the shrubbery!

Eastern kingbird I77A7007© Maria de Bruyn   Eastern kingbird I77A6380© Maria de Bruyn res

grasshopper sparrow I77A7118© Maria de Bruyn res


The grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) are numerous, which was lovely for me as this species was a lifer for me. If you approach on foot, they fly off, but Nick said they are so used to his motorized cart, they stay put as he chugs on by!


grasshopper sparrow I77A6976© Maria de Bruyn res      grasshopper sparrow I77A5738© Maria de Bruyn res

Savannah sparrow I77A8690© Maria de Bruyn res


In the spring, when we had gone to see the snipes, we were lucky to see savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) running about in the grass (I had at first thought we were seeing field mice scurrying about).




orchard oriole I77A7271© Maria de Bruyn resIn June, a pair of orchard orioles (Icterus scpurius) had built a nest in a tree bordering one pond and I was excited to see two babies just days before they fledged. The father was feeding them and brought one baby a large cricket, which seemed to be too large for it swallow easily. Dad tried to help by pushing it down but when I left, the insect was still sticking out of baby’s mouth and its sibling was still hungry, too.

orchard oriole I77A7475© Maria de Bruyn res

orchard oriole I77A7510© Maria de Bruyn    orchard oriole I77A7500© Maria de Bruyn

barn swallow I77A7161© Maria de Bruyn resThe barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) adopted an abandoned barn as their hotel of choice. When I visited in June, the young had just been fledging; they and their parents were circling the barn and resting on fences nearby, showing off their beautiful colors.

In July, a few stragglers remained in nests. Some that had taken the great leap were hanging around outside, even clutching the barn wall.

barn swallow I77A7062© Maria de Bruyn res        barn swallow IMG_4527© Maria de Bruyn

barn swallow I77A7145© Maria de Bruyn res

barn swallow I77A7139© Maria de Bruyn res

Others were enjoying the view on a wire line, together with some purple martins.

barn swallow I77A6990© Maria de Bruyn res

The fence posts and other farm structures offer resting places for various birds, like the Eastern wood peewee (Contopus virens), chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) and Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

Eastern wood-peewee I77A6694© Maria de Bruyn res    Eastern wood peewee I77A6675© Maria de Bruyn res

chipping sparrow I77A6665© Maria de Bruyn res   house finch I77A6529© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird I77A5859© Maria de Bruyn res  Eastern bluebird I77A5847© Maria de Bruyn res

turkey vulture I77A7105© Maria de Bruyn res


The turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) take advantage of the cattle’s well-water stations to get a drink, but then may retire to a tree branch for a bit of sunning. Nick likes them better than the black vultures, who had killed a newborn calf when its mother wasn’t taking care of it.



turkey vulture I77A7107© Maria de Bruyn res    turkey vulture IMG_4469© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern mockingbird I77A7669© Maria de Bruyn res


Other birds, like the Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) and great-crested flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus) enjoy the view from the vantage of high branches in trees.


great-crested flycatcher I77A7199© Maria de Bruyn res     great-crested flycatcher I77A7193© Maria de Bruyn res

While the 500-acre farm is mostly advertised in relation to its beef and opportunities to hold events such as receptions there, the farm management is now increasingly promoting it as a place for wildlife observation as well. The biodiversity in birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and plants is wonderful and my next blog will focus on examples of the non-avian wildlife to be seen there. If you’d like to visit the farm, do contact them!