‘Rassing – a surprise visitor – what a delight!

(Warning – this is a bit of a long blog!) Several years ago, what was likely a rufous hummingbird took up residence in my yard during the winter months. That was really unexpected — while it’s not uncommon for migrating or some resident hummingbirds (especially ruby-throats, Archilochus colubris, above) to spend wintertime in North Carolina, particularly along the coast, it’s not so common in the central part of the state. That experience taught me that it’s a good idea to keep up a nectar feeder in the winter as you never know when a stray migrant might show up. In 2015 and 2016, I traveled with fellow birders to visit people who had a buff-breasted (Amazilia yucatanensis) and calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope) wintering at their homes. In actuality, however, I didn’t really expect a rare passerby in my yard.

 

It was consequently with great surprise that I saw a hummer hovering at the nectar feeder last week. “Oh, wow!” I thought; “a ruby-throated hummer is passing through as a very late migrant.” I grabbed my camera to take a few shots and immediately felt perplexed.

 

The bird looked like he had a purple rather than ruby or red gorget (throat feathers). The white patch behind his eye also showed prominently because of his very dark head.

To me, it also looked as if this hummer had blue patches on his tail feathers. (Most say his flanks are green and a hummingbird expert said he has iridescent black tail feathers; the way the light reflects off them made me see blue, however.)

I got a few photos and cautiously asked birding experts on a facebook group if he could possibly be a black-chinned hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), also sometimes known as the Alexander hummingbird. It seemed unlikely as their normal range is the Western part of the Northern hemisphere, reaching north into Canada (Alberta and British Columbia), east to Oklahoma, and as far south as Mexico, where most spend the winter.

A couple people thought I might be correct, but most thought it was a ruby-throated hummingbird. My spring-summer ruby-throated residents had left at least a month ago but I thought perhaps a late migrant might have arrived. The next day, I saw the bird again and became convinced that it was a black-chinned hummer; his purple gorget was very obvious to me. I posted new photos and now the experts agreed that I was correct. That was very cool – I got a lifer without even leaving my own yard!

 

A couple days later, North Carolina’s hummingbird researcher, Susan Campbell, came to my home to band the unusual visitor. I invited a friend who had been to bird bandings in my yard before to come for the happy event.

Susan arrived early and first set up a cage trap for ‘Rassing (short for the Dutch word verrassing, which means surprise; I wanted him to have a name during his stay 😊). She left the door open with a long string attached and hung the nectar feeder on the outside. It wasn’t long at all before the bird arrived for a drink. When he left, Susan moved the nectar feeder inside the cage.

‘Rassing returned for another drink and flew right into the cage, which Susan shut promptly. She had already laid out her banding materials so she could remove him from the trap promptly.

He went into a small bag (the kind often used to hold birds for banding) which Lucretia held while Susan began filling out the paperwork.

Then the actual banding procedure began. Susan first checked his legs to ensure that he hadn’t been banded already – the hummers rarely show their legs so that was necessary.

Then she got ready to put a thin red metal band on his tiny leg with a silver band showing his numeric code for identification in case he is caught again some time (Band number 7100 (M)-41902).

She checked the length of his bill – 19.19 mm. She also advised that bird feeders with long slits are not preferred even if the birds like them. It turns out that the thin slots can rub against the bill and wear it down, damaging the bill and making it vulnerable to infection. (I afterwards enlarged the slots into ovals and circles and went back to a couple other feeders I had with larger holes.)

She blew on his stomach feathers to check his fat; he was not a hefty bird but certainly a healthy adult male. His weight turned out to be 3.09 g. She also recorded his body length.

She stopped for a moment so I could take a few photos trying to get a good shot of the purple gorget. It looked like ‘Rassing was trembling but this was the vibrations from his rapid breathing. (When resting at 91⁰ F, they take about 245 breaths per minute; at 55⁰ F, this rises to 420 breaths per minute!!) Susan thought he was acting fairly calm.

She measured his short tail (23.5 mm), as well as his wings (40.42 mm). The female black-chinned hummer would have more rounded wing feather tips than this male.

 

Susan took a few photos of ‘Rassing and he got a few long drinks from a feeder held by Lucretia. Then Susan gave me the honor of releasing him – and to my delight, he chose to sit in my hand for what seemed to be at least 90 seconds. I could feel him breathing and it was a real thrill to see him so close. With a little flutter of his wings he took off – and then stayed away from the feeder for quite some time.

 

I added a feeder in the backyard and ‘Rassing began preferentially feeding there – perhaps the front yard had acquired some unpleasant memories. However, at the end of the day, I would remove the backyard feeder so that visitors who wanted to see him had a better chance of seeing him dine at the front-yard feeders.

 

 

A fair number of birders were interested in being able to add him to their life, state and county bird lists, so I offered to schedule visits through a birding listserv for a few people at a time. ‘Rassing appeared more reticent to stay at the feeder when there were more than 2 or 3 people watching, which is understandable. Who wants an audience for each meal and snack you eat??

When it rained, the feathers atop his head clumped together, giving him a new “hair-do.”

 

 

It appears that this species of hummingbird has not been studied much. I found his behavior interesting and spent a good amount of time observing him (chores had to wait). When I watched him leave the feeder and go to a nearby tree, he would sometimes watch me (turnabout fair play, of course).

 

 

He seemed very comfortable with lots of other bird species at nearby feeders. Perhaps it gave him a safer feeling.

‘Rassing tended not to sit on feeders, as ruby-throated hummers often do. Instead, he mainly hovered and vigorously pumped his short tail quite a lot. I learned that this tiny bundle of energy was breathing at a flight rate of about 1260 beats per minute!

 

Occasionally, you could see the band on his leg but mostly he kept his legs tucked into his body.

In the evenings, he came around nearly the same time each day to have a longer drink and then he sometimes perched while feeding.

 

A Cornell University website says that black-chinned hummers rarely stay at a feeder longer than a day during migration, even when food is scarce. In my yard, he had access to lots of bugs (I have a small pond) and three types of sage/salvia were still blooming. Indeed, he sometimes came to the feeder with pollen covering the top of his bill.

Yesterday morning, ‘Rassing apparently had decided it was time to move on. After the warmest Halloween on record in our area, the temperature plunged during the night to the 30s. The next morning was the same and he may have decided it was time to go to warmer climes.

 

I did feel lucky that he graced my yard with his presence for a week; it gave me something to celebrate during a personally challenging time. The oldest known black-chinned hummer was more than 11 years old; if ‘Rassing likes going east during migration, perhaps he’ll stop by again next year – wouldn’t that be a tremendous surprise! 😊

 

Costa Rica – varied landscapes and fabulous flora. Part 2 – heliconias and special plants

During the rainy winter season, Costa Rica’s foliage is abundant, lush, varied and beautiful. For plant lovers, it is awesome; for birders, it’s very cool and also very challenging.        In many places, the tall trees, like the Cecropias, towered over mid-canopy trees, shrubs and ground cover, creating dense foliage where we were challenged to spot birds on twigs and behind leaves.

 

 

 

When you are in the rain and cloud forests and wearing glasses, it can also be frustrating – in some areas where we were birding, my spectacles (a nice old-fashioned word!) fogged up every half-second.

 

Our guide used a laser pointer (the green spot on the right) to indicate when he had found a bird among the leaves — “Look a foot or two to the left, right, above or below” — and we attempted to locate the winged visual target. Sometimes I found the bird and other times, I just couldn’t focus with glasses that required constant wiping and getting good photos was really out of the question.

Fortunately, photographing plants was somewhat easier than creating avian portrait. Heliconias (of which there are about 200 species) can be seen throughout Costa Rica. They are very attractive with their elaborate “inflorescences” – flower heads that include stems/stalks, bracts (modified leaves or scales from which a flower emerges) and the blooms themselves. The large colorful hanging or erect structures on them might seem to be the flowers but those are the bracts.

Some heliconias are called false birds of paradise as they closely resemble the Asian birds of paradise flowers (Strelitzia reginae).

 

Others are called by avian and animal names as well.

Lobster claw (Heliconia caribaea)

 

Expanded lobster claw (Heliconia latispatha)

     

Parrot’s beak (Heliconia and Heliconia psittacorum)

One yellow flower is called the rattlesnake plant (Calathea crotalifera); it was featured in a “Garden of wisdom” at the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve.

The name comes from the bract’s resemblance to a rattlesnake’s tail. Our guide told us that venomous yellow pit vipers will wait in the plant to ambush hummingbirds that come to feed on the flowers. Eyelash pit vipers will return to familiar ambush sites during spring bird migration!

Some of the foliage was enormous in size. The elephant ear (Xanthosoma) is a plant with huge leaves that can be seen along roadsides and in nature reserves. Other large leaf plants, likely philodendron species, serve as insect food.

 

 

Mushrooms similar to those we see in North Carolina were in almost all the habitats we visited. Here are just a few of them.

 

 

At one point, we birded near a small coffee (Coffea) plantation.

In one of the reserves, we came across cacao trees (Theobroma cacao). A member of our group touched the sticky insides of one fallen fruit and found it quite smelly.

Various species of palms were common and we were able to see some in bloom.

 

Elsewhere, we saw how small trees are pruned to form living fences along fields.

 

One of the most interesting plants we saw was the Columnea consanguinea. The green leaves are distinguished by translucent red heart-shaped patches on their undersides. These are visible from above the leaves as yellow-green areas.

 

 

The purpose of these markings is to attract the plant’s main pollinator, the green-crowned brilliant hummingbird (Heliodoxa jacula).

   

When they see the yellow-green/red hearts, they know the plant’s inconspicuous flowers will be lying nearby against the plant’s stem.

 

This plant with aerial roots had been cut off somehow; it was now in the process of covering itself with a gel-like substance, intended to discourage animals from chewing on it before the roots reached the ground.

Here are a few more lovely flowering plants that I couldn’t identify but certainly enjoyed seeing.

   

To conclude this focus on Costa Rican plants, I’d like to show a photo kindly shared by Nan DeWire – it reflected our attitude as we toured the marvelous natural areas.

The next Costa Rica blog will feature some of the mammals which we were lucky to encounter as we moved from place to place. However, a quick side trip to North Carolina will take place first to document a lucky event for a birder.

Costa Rica – varied landscapes and fabulous flora. Part 1 – gingers and bromeliads

Our trip to Costa Rica in August this year took place during the rainy season, making for some challenging wildlife photography but giving us good views of lush vegetation everywhere we traveled. Our journey went through Guanacaste province with dry scrub, salt flats and mangrove swamps, the Monte Verde tropical cloud forest, the area around the Arenal volcano, and Caribbean lowland rain forests.

We traveled along highways lined with rocky walls featuring drainage pipes to help prevent landslides, as well as some narrow mountain roads with very deep and steep drop-offs alongside our driving lanes – at those times, I wasn’t necessarily looking out the window, especially when we had a nerve-wracking encounter on a narrow road with another vehicle requiring some backwards driving by our well experienced driver!

At one point we visited some salt flats to get a view of some water-loving birds such as plovers and sandpipers.

Other times, it was a pleasure to gaze out at the passing landscapes featuring forests, plantations, small settlements and homesteads, lush valleys, waterfalls and rivers.

 

Our arrival in Costa Rica immediately drew attention to the need to protect plants as the airport had numerous signs warning travelers about bringing in Fusarium wilt, a disease that can wipe out banana plantations within a short period of time. Along roads and in nature reserves, the banana plants (Musa) fortunately looked healthy.

   

While I enjoy gardening and am slowly replacing lawn with native plants around my house, I’m no horticulturist or botanist; identifying plants is a challenge for me. But I hope to show you a little here of the beautiful vegetation we saw in a two-part blog. And perhaps some of my fellow travelers may be able to identify some of the plants pictured (like those below) or correct anything I’ve mis-identified.

 

Guanacaste province, where we started out, has dry terrain as this region does not receive much rain and has consistently high temperatures. This contrasted with the tropical cloud forest in the Monte Verde and Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserves where we spent time. Rain gear and umbrellas are a definite boon when spending many hours walking outdoors in these areas.

These forests may be chilly with temperatures at night sometimes falling to 55°F (13°C). The humidity can be close to 100% and we had to change our itinerary a couple times to avoid slick mountain roads when some storms came inland.

The tropical rain forests see the most rain and the temperatures usually range from 70˚F (21˚C) to 93˚F (+34˚C). We were fortunate to visit the La Selva Research Station owned by the Organization for Tropical Studies which has many species of plants and ants. Less than 10% of our world is (still) covered by tropical rain forests, but scientists have found that the rain and cloud forests are home to about 50% of the earth’s terrestrial species.

The natural areas where we stayed and visited offered up a wealth of wonderful flowers and plants. The gardeners among us especially appreciated the variety of foliage and colors. It wasn’t always easy to figure out which plants we were seeing, especially because many of the gardens and reserves also feature tropical plants from other regions of the world. They did put signs by some plants but not all of them; of course if your area is home to over 2000 plant species, as in La Selva, keeping signage up to date would be an endless task.

African blue butterfly bush (Clerodendrum ugandense)

Bougainvillea

As mentioned, many gardens and reserves in Costa Rica feature plants that originated in other world regions. One of my favorites, true ginger (Zingiber spectabile) is one of these. It is commonly known in the Western hemisphere as beehive ginger. The tubular bracts fill with rainwater and emit a ginger-like fragrance, which attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. The bracts start off yellow in color and eventually achieve a wonderful red hue. The actual flower is a white petal protruding from the bract.

This type of ginger is promoted as a decorative cut flower as the bracts and flowers can survive long after having been cut. It has been used to treat illnesses in Indonesia and an academic study has indicated that this plant has antimicrobial properties; it also contains an enzyme that could possibly be effective in the treatment of colon cancer.

Other ginger plants were also lovely.

 

Red ginger (Alpinia purpurata)

 

Torch ginger (Etlingera elatior) – one of my favorites!

 

 

Indian head ginger (Costos woodsonii) at left.

There are about 2500 species of bromeliads around the world and Costa Rica has its fair share. These plants can use water more efficiently than other plants because they have a specialized form of photosynthesis.

 

 

 

Bromeliads (Tillandea cyanea at the right)

The tank bromeliads feature leaves that hold water at their base in a kind of reservoir; the largest ones can hold up to two gallons of water. We were fortunate to see blue dacnis birds (Dacnis cayana) enjoying baths in a large epiphytic bromeliad. The reservoir in this air plant must have been a nice bathing spot since a line formed of birds awaiting their turn.

 

A flower that is probably familiar to US residents who have visited botanical gardens it the Angel’s trumpet (with white blooms, Datura arborea; with pink and yellow hues, Datura sanguinea). There is also a Brugmansia arborea, a tree with white blooms, that has been declared extinct in the wild. The Costa Ricans call this plant the Reina de la Noche – Queen of the night.

 

One newspaper article touted this plant as a form of aromatherapy because it has a fragrant and “relaxing” scent. However, my Costa Rican friend Esmeralda warned me that it is a highly poisonous plant and this has been confirmed.

The flowers below might have been Anthurium species.

 

                       Next blog – the heliconias!

The Northern mockingbird boundary dance

In between searching the web and bird guides for plant and other IDs for my (long-time coming, I know!) next Costa Rica blogs, I’ve taken time for nature walks so that I can continue to see lovely wildlife and plants here in my home area. A recent discovery came up unexpectedly when I was with a couple friends looking for migrating warblers at a local lake.

Previously, I’ve written about how Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) engage in wing-flashing behavior, which scientists continue to study in an effort to pinpoint its various functions. I’ve seen the wing-flashing every year since I began watching the mockingbirds, but a few days ago I saw a pair of mockers exhibiting a different type of behavior that was very interesting to watch. (If you click on a photo, you can see it larger.)

The two birds landed on a section of parking lot and proceeded to face off against one another.

They slowly drew closer.

Then they stretched to stand very erect.

 

They confronted each other face to face.

 A little hop by one or the other followed. A shifting from side to side ensued.

Occasionally, they flew up with flapping wings to confront one another in the air (I tried to video this but obviously don’t know yet how to take proper videos with my new camera). According to research, they might actually have an airborne physical tussle but that didn’t really happen with this pair.

So why do the mockingbirds do this? These displays are called boundary dances, where male birds go to the edge of the territory they claim to ensure that another male does not encroach on their domain.

After several confrontations, this pair eventually decided that they had made their point. It has been reported that they stop when one dominates but these males seemed evenly matched. Or perhaps they were not feeling very aggressive. Each one flew off and presumably they settled in to patrol the areas that they had claimed as their own. It was nice that there was a peaceful end to the show of masculine bravado!

Going out in nature is such a delight – you never know when you will discover something new (at least to yourself!)

“Wattle” I do to get a better photo of you?

In mid-August 2019, it was my privilege and good fortune to participate in an interesting, engaging and VERY fun “Birding Plus” tour in Costa Rica thanks to a great roommate, Nan, knowledgeable guide and tour organizer, Steve and Sherry, and group of fellow travelers (Ann, Art, Bill, Gordon, Len, Tom and Ylva). My next blogs will mostly focus on the birds, amphibians, mammals and insects we were fortunate to see there. The photos are not all great as taking shots in the rain and dark cloud/rain forests was challenging for multiple reasons. But they will give you an idea of the fascinating and beautiful sightings we had. (Clicking on photos enlarges them; then back arrow.)

One of the most difficult birds to “capture” in a good photo was likely the one about which I was most excited, the three-wattled bellbird (Procnias tricarunculatus). This species, which also lives in Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama, only breeds in the mountains of Costa Rica. These bellbirds are known to be shy, secretive and elusive as they remain mostly in the dense, high canopies of the forests. They apparently prefer to perch on uncluttered branches that are 33-72 ft (10-22 m) high and 0.98-2 in (25-50 mm) in diameter.

The males usually sing from March through June, so we were lucky that some of them were calling out in mid-August. Here we see a couple digiscoped photos of a male bird. The females look very different with olive coloring and a streaky yellow breast (we did not see a female). They are quite different in size, with males in one study having a mean wing length of 6.5 in (165.5 mm) compared to 5.7 in (145.1 mm) for the females.

 

 

The common name for these birds comes from the sound they make. In some articles, it is described as a 3-part song. To me, it sounded like they first made a high-pitched brief screech, squeak or whistle sound and then a deeper call.

 

Others have described their calls/songs as a “boink,” “bonk” or “Hee-aahh” sound. In any event, they obviously work at producing the sound. As we watched, “our” bird would open his mouth very wide, so that you could see the white and black lines surrounding the bill.

He seemed to be breathing in plenty of air as he sat there silently for a while. You could see his neck getting ridges, which I assumed was due to the oxygen he was gathering and holding to be expelled in the call. (This turned out to be a correct assumption according to one study!)

Then, he moved his head up and down a bit and you knew the sound was coming. It is unmistakable once you have heard it as in this brief video that fellow traveler Ylva made.

It is said that the bellbird’s sound is one of the loudest avian calls, audible to humans who are more than 0.5 miles (0.80 km) away. The calls and songs are not instinctive – the birds learn the calls and there are different “dialects” among the birds from different areas! One bird studied in Costa Rica could perform the song/call repertoires of Talamanca and Monteverde – in other words, he was bilingual!

 

Research has also shown that immature male bellbirds not only take 6 years to achieve their full adult plumage but also to perfect their entire song repertoire! Kroodsma et al. also note that: “Males appear to be highly attentive to the nuances of songs produced by their competitors, as both immatures and adults visit each others’ display perches, listening there for up to several minutes at a time.”

The other really striking characteristic of this species is the three wattles on the male’s head which begin growing when he is 6-12 months of age. One dangles from each side of the bird’s mouth and one is affixed to the base of the upper bill.

The wattles have been described as “wormlike”. Nan and I thought they looked a bit like hair-braids and on the flight home I sat next to a woman who had three braids ending in a point with interwoven gold thread that immediately made me want to give her the nickname “Bellbird”. (I didn’t tell her that though.)

The wattles are about one-third of the bird’s size (9.5-12 in or 25-30 cm). They cannot be controlled by muscles or made rigid, but they can be extended in length up to 3.9 in (10 cm) when the bird is interacting with others or singing.

The birds are frugivorous (eat only fruit) and prefer wild avocados (Lauraceae). They play an important role in the tree’s seed dispersal.

 

Due to habitat loss and hunting, the numbers of the three-wattled bellbird have declined to about 20,000 individuals and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared its conservation status to be vulnerable. They obviously inspire artists in Costa Rica, however, as witnessed by a mural at a restaurant where we stopped for lunch.

 

 

After three blogs in quick succession, I’ll now take a break to process and sort some more photos from Costa Rica to share with you. In the meantime, bye bye from the bellbird!

Further information