A surprise at the pond

1 Bynum IMG_0631© Maria de Bruyn res

A combination of abundant vegetation and some type of water — a creek, river, wetland, pond or lake — is one of my favorite types of natural area to visit for wildlife watching and photography. Water attracts wildlife and increases the chance of seeing something unexpected. 

This was the case recently at a local nature reserve. A few days earlier, I’d seen many goldfinches and warblers at one of the ponds, but this day it was very quiet. I descended a small slope to stand on a mudflat and was suddenly surprised by a large splash to my left.

2 Brumley pond IMG_0643 © Maria de Bruyn res

When I looked, I saw a largish head forging across the water in front of me. My first thought was that it was a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) as there is no beaver lodge in this enclosed pond.

3 American beaver P8132481© Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats and beavers look very similar, but beavers (Castor canadensis) tend to be much larger. This was a hefty individual who seemed fairly relaxed as s/he swam along.

4 American beaver P8132423© Maria de Bruyn res

As I watched the mammal swim back and forth for a while, I tentatively concluded that it was a beaver, based on my previous sightings of this rodent species. Still, I wasn’t quite sure and kept hoping that the animal would raise its tail so that I would have a decisive clue to its identity.

Beavers have large flat tails, while muskrats have long, thin tails. Finally, as s/he swam by again, I got a glimpse of the tail for a couple seconds and it was large and flat! Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of that (see a previous blog for some photos showing the beaver’s tail).

 

5 American beaver P8132456© Maria de Bruyn res

As I watched and took photos, a couple walked by with their dog and stopped to watch as well. I moved down the path and heard the gentleman exclaim, “Oh, it’s a beaver!” I turned and he explained that he had thought the swimmer was a muskrat, but he had just seen the tail, too.

6 American beaver IMG_0256© Maria de Bruyn res

The aquatic mammal climbed up onto a log for a bit to groom and relax and, as the couple remarked, almost seemed to be posing for me. The beaver kept its back to me most of the time though. 

 

14 American beaver P8132476 © Maria de Bruyn res

I began to walk back down the path in hopes of getting a head-on view if the beaver decided to swim again. S/he did indeed slip back into the water to resume swimming back and forth. And then to my delight, a small head popped up going the other direction!

7 American beaver and muskrat P8132482 © Maria de Bruyn res

For some reason, I just assumed that it was a baby beaver, swimming around under the watchful eye of a parent. The newly arrived rodent seemed to be very intent on eating and dove down into the pond to bring up some tasty vegetation.8 Muskrat P8132671 © Maria de Bruyn res

It then swam over to the mudflat where I had been, and I ventured back there.

9 Muskrat P8132493© Maria de Bruyn res

Moving slowly and maintaining a good distance from the dining animal, I was able to get some good views as it enjoyed its meal.

10 Muskrat P8132618© Maria de Bruyn res

11 Muskrat P8132497 © Maria de Bruyn res

12 Muskrat P8132506 © Maria de Bruyn resWhile the beaver’s fur remained sleek on its head and back after being submerged a while, the little one’s fur stuck together in clumps all over its head and body. To me it looked a bit like a punk teenager — an analogy that undoubtedly came to mind because I was thinking of it as a baby or adolescent beaver.

This was one of the cutest wildlife spottings I had had in recent weeks, and I was thoroughly enjoying it. But I began doubting if this animal was indeed a beaver. I never saw its tail but at one point, I could see some orange teeth that reminded me of beaver incisors.

13 Muskrat teeth P8132647© Maria de Bruyn res

Of course, the diner didn’t care and just kept diving for more veggies to eat. The large beaver appeared to have left in the meantime.

15 Muskrat P8132510© Maria de Bruyn res

It was when I was reviewing identity characteristics of beavers vs muskrats while writing this blog that I ultimately came to a final conclusion about whom I had been watching. This was based on several websites that provided some good ID clues:

Beavers tend to weigh about 35-70 or even up to 100 lbs (15-30 or even 45 kg), Muskrats generally weigh only about 2-5 lbs (0.9-2.3 kg).

Beavers’ ears protrude from their heads as they swim around (first photo below), while muskrats’ ears lie flat (second photo below). Beavers also have larger noses.

16 American beaver P8132453© Maria de Bruyn res

17 Muskrat P8132673 © Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats dive down to get vegetation from pond bottoms to eat, which my second visitor was very busy doing indeed. Beavers strip bark and leaves from trees and in my experience (having watched beavers eat close by a couple years ago), they can be quite noisy chewers.

18 Muskrat P8132574© Maria de Bruyn res

I’d enjoyed the idea of having seen a parent-and-child beaver duo but, in hindsight, I concluded that I’d been watching a beaver and a muskrat sharing pond space.

19 American beaver P8132475 © Maria de Bruyn res

This was also a very cool event since neither one had been shy. A lack of other human passersby (only the one couple strolled by in the space of almost an hour) may have made them feel comfortable. It was certainly a treat for me!

20 Muskrat P8132665© Maria de Bruyn res

Next up: fateful days for frogs….

Springtime with awesome, beautiful and awe-inspiring insects

This spring of 2021 has offered some delightful chances to see interesting insect species, some of which I’ve noticed before and some that were new or gave me my first opportunity to observe them up close. While not many people aside from entomologists pay much attention to the “creepy crawlies,” they are certainly well worth watching in my view. Including insects in my nature observations greatly enhances my experience of appreciating the natural world.

male giant ichneumon wasp P5068000© Maria de Bruyn res (4)

ichneumon wasp P5067996© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068007 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)The month of May brought me two especially awe-inspiring events. The first was seeing long-tailed giant ichneumon wasps (Megarhyssa macrurus) preparing for reproduction on a nature trail in Chatham County. It was easy to distinguish the females (right) from the males (above) because they had very long ovipositors (a tubular organ through which a female insect lays stored eggs). In the species I saw, the ovipositor can be 4 inches long!’

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068028© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

There were several male and three female wasps flying about. None of them showed the slightest interest in the large human looming overhead. Even if they had, I needn’t have worried since these wasps don’t sting people. The females were busy pressing their antennae against a disintegrating hardwood log’s bark, aiming to detect vibrations inside.

ichneumon wasp P5068180© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The mothers-to-be were “listening” for the best spots to lay their eggs by identifying where the larvae of the pigeon tremex horntail wasp (Tremex columba) were buried. Why you ask? The mother ichneumon paralyzes a horntail larva before laying an egg next to it. When her own offspring emerge from the eggs, they will eat those unfortunate horntail larvae while they prepare to overwinter until they emerge as full-grown ichneumon wasps in the spring.

ichneumon wasp P5068058 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

 

The giant ichneumon’s ovipositor has three components. In the middle is the ovipositor proper, a filament with two interlocking parts that slide against one another; it is tipped with a cutting edge that can drill through wood. Some researchers have data indicating that the cutting edge may contain some ionized zinc or manganese.

ichneumon wasp P5068164© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Two other thin filaments called valvulae sheath the central structure and their function is to protect the egg-laying organ. During egg-laying, they arc away from the ovipositor.

ichneumon wasp P5068171© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While I watched one female wasp in particular, she sometimes had part of her ovipositor coiled up in a transparent expandable pouch at the end of her abdomen.

ichneumon wasp IMG_2003© Maria de Bruyn res (2) ichneumon wasp IMG_2002 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

She would push out the ovipositor and appeared to smooth it out with her legs. The literature I read about the wasps did not explain this movement, but I thought she might be pushing eggs down the tube. Watch the video to see what you think! 

When she finished this smoothing movement and had found the right spots for her offspring, the protective lining filaments separated from the ovipositor itself and she inserted it into the log. It was a fascinating process to witness.

 

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068170 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068109 (© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Although ichneumon wasps are parasitic, various species are beneficial insects since their larvae feed on insects that harm food crops such as boll weevils, codling moths and asparagus beetles. The adults usually only live about 27 days and may only drink during that time. Their adult goal is to find a mate and then reproduce.

ichneumon wasp P5068014 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Another way in which the ichneumon wasps have contributed to human society is by serving as an example for the medical community. The STING Project at the Imperial College in London is investigating options for Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS) to diagnose and treat various medical pathologies. The research team is now developing a flexible steerable probe that was inspired by the ichneumon wasp’s ovipositor!

cecropia moth IMG_0019 © Maria de Bruyn (2)My other exciting insect event involved a moth. Last fall, a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) positioned its cocoon on the door jamb of the women’s restroom at Cane Creek Reservoir. The reservoir’s manager feared that it would be damaged there and asked if I would be willing to care for it over the winter. I took the cocoon home and kept it safe during the fall, winter and much of this spring.

Cecropia moth larvae (caterpillars) are often found on maple, cherry and birch trees. Why this one chose a building as an overwintering site is a bit of a mystery. Since the pupa was going to be dormant all winter, I placed it upright in a large plastic container with a grate over the top and kept it on my screened-in porch.

cecropia moth IMG_0020© Maria de Bruyn (2)Periodically, I would check on it and it seemed to be ok. This was important as these moths are “univoltine” — they only have one generation of offspring per year. Out in nature, the caterpillars may fall victim to parasitic wasps and flies that lay their eggs on them. So it was fortunate that we were able to “rescue” this cocoon.

One evening at the end of May, I stopped working on my porch to go inside to watch the news. When I came back after about 20 minutes, I spotted a brilliant large moth on the screen. My youngest cat spotted it at the same time, so I shooed her inside. The cocoon scarcely had a hole in it; I really wish I’d seen how the huge moth got out.

cecropia moth IMG_0006© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

cecropia moth IMG_0003© Maria de Bruyn 2 res

The cecropia moth is North America’s largest moth with a wingspan up to 7 inches. The males and females look similar but the males like this one have larger, more feathery antennae.

cecropia moth IMG_0012© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

Female moths emit pheromones that the males can detect from up to a mile away. After mating, the female lays up to 100 eggs. Both sexes die after about two weeks as they lack functioning mouths and digestive systems and don’t eat.

cecropia moth IMG_0014 © Maria de Bruyn (2) res

 

The moth’s short adult lifespan must have made this guy anxious to get underway. Or seeing my cat and I hastened his development. One website reported that it takes the moth a few hours to dry before they can open their wings and fly.

cecropia moth IMG_0011© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

 

However, very soon (perhaps 10 minutes) after I removed him from my porch and took him outside (never touching him with my hands), he began vibrating his wings. In less than a minute, he launched himself upwards and flew towards the top of the nearby tall pine trees, setting off on his quest for a mate.

cecropia moth IMG_0016© Maria de Bruyn (2a) res

I suppose it is possible that the moth had emerged earlier and had crawled away to hide but that seemed unlikely. In any event, he looked like he could fly just fine, and I sincerely hope that he found a mate and that they were able to collaborate in ensuring a new generation of this stunningly beautiful species! And I was grateful for having agreed to overwinter the cocoon as it enabled me to contribute to the propagation of this wonderful moth. In any event, I was enthralled to see what a gorgeous creature he was. These moths are generally nocturnal so seeing him was a treat!

cecropia moth IMG_0017 © Maria de Bruyn (2) res

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Hawks, a heron and … hope rewarded

 

2021 — set to be the wettest winter ever

We’re tired, dismayed, perturbed, distressed

Dripping branches

Spontaneous yard pools
Swampy, muddy ground

Then …. a bright spot announced
Still cold but sunny
2 days of cheer
While awaiting a storm of ice

Loving my yard
Loving going out, too

Come walk with me!
First outing – warmish and windy

Welcomed by the mockingbird
To his/her permanent home
And a favorite avian roosting tree

Feeling expansive
Welcoming sun
And shadows

                       

 

Walking a waterlogged path
Slippery mud to the lake
Risen over its banks onto the forest floor

 

 

A movement in leaves
Step forward….
A leap into the air
Whirring wings

The grasshopper honors its name
Leaps forward and then soars
Escaping my lens

But a little king deigns to pose
S/he hops, too
Seeking sustenance in leaves and on limbs

 

Above…a red-tailed hawk
Riding the wind
Gliding on gusts

Next stop…the beavers’ home
Reinforced dome
A cozy lodge

 

Red robins and finches
Restless while rooting
And racing to new twigs

 

Sustenance-seeking sparrows
Giving companionship along the paths

 

 

Royalty along these paths, too
Hopping, fluttering, lunging
Flashing a ruby crown
To claim territory here

Red shoulders hunch high above
Calling and calling as they survey
and scan their surroundings

 

 

 

A new pair alights
Loud announcement of arrival
Paired scanning

Cold nights ahead

Pileated woodpecker abode needs work

                 

                 

Inside renovations
Along the ceiling, too

Titmice and chickadees seek seed

 

 

 

 

Ruby-crowned kinglets flash red
While gleaning insects up ahead

 

 

 

As I make my way to leave
One hawk screams goodbye
While a sparrow sings me on my way

Another pond

A soaring hawkish welcome

In blue skies awaiting
Clouds, rain, frozen droplets to come

Wings extended
Red tail spread
Vision centered below

Along a wall
Red-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumped warblers
Harvesting insects not seen by me
But for them spied quickly and snatched with speed

 

       

Neighboring phoebes
Chase down calories
For a cold night ahead

The green heron
Refuses a portrait session
Twice and
Soars away

The hovering hawks
Hang overhead

 

The young red-shouldered

The bold red-tailed

All three of us caught in
Anticipation
Awaiting liquid crystals
Predicted to coat the trees

But thankfully our hopes for a mild
“winter weather event”
rewarded

Very little ice for us

We welcome water and warmth !

Our spirits soar
Ready to welcome more coming days of sun!
Hurrah! Hurrah!
Tomorrow the golden light returns. 😊

A third look at our 2020-21 “superflight” irruption – red crossbills

As mentioned in my last couple blogs, finches that usually reside in Canada and the northern USA have come south this year because of a dearth of food in their usual habitats. One of the factors contributing to the shortage is the varying cycles in which cones, seeds and fruit ripen among different tree species.

Not every tree produces an equal amount of seeds or berries every year; for example, this year my red cedars didn’t have very many juniper berries and by the time the cedar waxwings arrived, the American robins (Turdus migratorius) had already cleaned out the crop. Periodically, many of the different tree species up North have low seed production at the same time, so that birds who eat different kinds of crops all need to go elsewhere for sustenance in the winter.

An interesting speculation from scientists in the Finch Research Network is that this synchronized low seed production evolved as a means of limiting food supplies for seed-eating (red) squirrels who could reproduce greatly and then wipe out all the seeds so that no new trees would grow. Jamie Cornelius, a researcher at Oregon State University, explained that “birds are mobile, and can find cone crops somewhere else,” while the sedentary squirrels then need to curtail their reproduction. In addition, some birds have evolved biological processes that make it easier for them to cope with food scarcity.

Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra, called common crossbills in Europe) molt quite slowly, losing only a few feathers at one time, which makes it possible for them to fly elsewhere at any time in search of sustenance. They are normally not migratory but will travel for food, so in December 2020, local birders were quite excited when red crossbills were spotted at a state game lands in a neighboring county.

I was not enthusiastic about going to a hunting zone but had heard that the duck hunters were usually only busy early in the morning. So I donned my bright orange vest and ventured out on the two-mile walk to the spot where the crossbills had been seen. I waited around for a couple hours but they didn’t show, although I was looking for the reddish males and yellow females to make an appearance.

I didn’t give up. On my fourth visit to the game lands, I finally saw the crossbills (although I didn’t realize it immediately as they were so far away and my cataracts make seeing anything distinctly at a distance quite difficult. It was only after I enlarged one photo on the camera that I saw what they were! Remember, you can see a photo larger if you click on it and then back arrow to the blog).

I first thought perhaps some grosbeaks had flown in, so I focused as well as I could on the distant trees and took photos. I was thrilled to see that I had finally photographed those elusive birds – giving me a “lifer” for 2021. 😊

Sometimes it’s not easy to understand why a certain bird species has a particular common name. For example, many people would call a red-bellied woodpecker a red-headed woodpecker because the red on the head is much more noticeable than the hue on its belly. But the crossbills exemplify their common name quite accurately with their upper bills that curve down over their lower bills. A good view of their beak can be seen at the All About Birds website.

At first sight, one might think that this beak arrangement would make it difficult for them to eat, but this morphological adaptation means that they can extract seeds from conifer cones that are still closed, which other finches cannot do. Their bill structure makes it possible for them to hold onto a cone, pry it open with their beak and then take out the tightly-packed conifer seeds with their tongue.

This specialized anatomical feature does restrict the crossbills’ diet somewhat. They do eat some other seeds, berries and insects from time to time and they also ingest grit and sand from time to time as having these substances in their crop helps them to digest the conifer seeds.

What also makes these finches very unusual is that there are at least six – and perhaps as many as 11 – sub-species in North America who differ in the size and shape of their beaks and the type of calls they make. Their unique vocalizations has led to each sub-group being designated as a “call type” and each type feeds on a different conifer species. They move about in groups and call to each other while flying from tree to tree. Some scientists think they may be communicating about the feeding possibilities in each cone-laden tree they pass!

Another behavior that is distinctive for the red crossbills is that they breed at any time of the year, whenever sufficient food supplies are available. When a female and male form a breeding pair, they imitate one another’s flight calls so as to keep track of one another.

 

Unfortunately, unlike other irruption species such as evening grosbeaks and pine siskins, the red crossbills are rare visitors to bird feeders.

When I heard that crossbills had been seen at a game lands area much closer to my home, I made a couple more treks in hopes of spotting them. The first day I was incredibly lucky as I was the only person visiting the reserve and could walk at a leisurely pace in quiet fields except for the chittering of multiple bird species, including a hermit thrush.

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to see any crossbills flying overhead. Another visit to this nearby game land was shortened considerably when I discovered it was quite noisy with two hunters accompanied by a pack of baying hounds who were yowling very loudly and frequently. I high-tailed it out of the reserve and resolved to be happy with my one and only crossbill sighting (so far). Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to see them more closely – something to which I can look forward with great anticipation!

Flying shades of bronze, brown and copper

While the hummingbirds “clothed” in vibrant green and blue hues in Costa Rica are really wonderful (previous blog), I found out that I’m really attracted to some hummers with more subdued hues as well. The photo above is probably my favorite hummingbird photo of my 2019 trip — that long-billed hermit (Phaethornis longirostris) was simply gorgeous!

Before showing you some other shots of this stunner, let’s look at some other hummers with hues of bronze and copper. The rufous-tailed hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl) is a smaller bird but a pleasure to see as it flits from bloom to bloom.

These medium-sized hummers defend their nectaring territories vigorously, which may lead to some ruffled feathers. Scratching an itch can also lead to the same condition.

The bronzy hermit (Glaucis aeneus) has a long, curved bill which is useful for the types of flowers where it seeks nectar. It is known to be a fast flyer and is said to only stay a few seconds at each feeding site, so I feel lucky to have gotten a photo of it!

When I saw the black-bellied hummingbird (Eupherusa nigriventris), I immediately fell in love.To me, it looked like this male had had a crew cut and then covered himself with black velvet.

The females of the species do not have black bellies but are also pretty.

Another species that really caught my fancy was the brown violetear (Colibri delphinae). They are very muted in color, which is what makes the color patches really stand out.

The blue-green throat feathers shine. And the violet stripe behind the eye is certainly eye-catching!

It must be the real contrast between the overall subdued coloration and the vivid color patches that attracts me. As other birders moved on, I stayed behind to watch them for a while.

I would enjoy seeing this hummer in person again!

I will leave you with a couple more photos of the wonderful long-billed hermit. The lengthy curved beak and long tail feathers make for a very attractive presence.

And this elegant hummingbird also has a distinctive mating behavior. Up to 25 males will gather in a lek (a communal area where courtship displays are done) and begin wiggling their tail feathers. They then compete to sing a song that will induce a female to choose them as the sire for their young!

Seeing a courtship contest among the long-billed hermits must really be a wonderful experience. But I’m just glad I got to see this species at all and hope perhaps to do so in person one more time!

Next blog: one more view of hummers — this time in North Carolina.