An avian buffet appears!

In the town where I live, there is a private lake in a neighborhood of single-family homes. The little body of water was created by developers who dammed a local creek; now a neighborhood association levies annual fees for use of the lake for swimming, fishing and boating. In the past month, the neighborhood residents were surprised by an influx of birds that they do not usually see and some photos of the new avian visitors began circulating.

Given my interest in wildlife and birds, some colleagues passed on a couple of photos to me and one couple kindly invited me to come visit so that I could see the new arrivals in person. They were especially curious about the identity of a few ducks. When I arrived, no ducks were in sight, but at least 80 double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) were hanging out in crowds on two floating docks.

Their tightly-packed presence had displaced the Canada geese (Branta canadensis), who are more common lake residents. A group of 11 geese were off in the distance on shore leaving the open water to the visiting avian groups.

Some of the cormorants couldn’t fit onto the platforms, so they swam around in the company of the many dozens of ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) of all ages who were swarming the waters as well.

From time to time, the gulls would begin edging their way onto the platforms, eventually taking up space vacated by the cormorants. There are both adult and immature gulls in the crowd.

From time to time, the gulls launch themselves into the air for aerial forays which end in dives down to pick up a fish, of which there still seem to be plenty. This is because the shad population with which the lake was apparently stocked is dying off as a whole.

Why is this happening? I don’t know the species of shad with which the lake was stocked, but it appears that threadfin shad (Dorosoma petenense) are common in the Southeastern USA and often introduced as forage fish for the bass and catfish that fisher-people seek. The shad are very sensitive to changes in water temperature; when it goes below about 42° F (5.5° C), they expire. In the past 6 weeks, we had an unusual early winter storm with about 8-11 inches of snow, followed by days and days of cold rains. Sometimes, it is cold 24 hours long; other days have nights and dawns below freezing and then afternoon temperatures of 50-60° F (10-17° C). The shad die-off is a result.

  

The newly arrived birds are obviously enjoying the easy pickings. When the gulls drop down to snatch a fish, they are almost always pursued by other gulls who try to make them drop the prize.

 

Even when they alight with a fish firmly held in their beaks, other gulls harass them in an attempt to make them give up the meal.

 

  

The shad often appear to be too large for the gulls to swallow. I saw several gulls try to position them to get them down their gullets but the fish just wouldn’t go down. So they drop the fish in the water and then try to pick off pieces for easier eating, while fending off neighboring gulls.

  

It is unclear to me how the birds who don’t usually populate the lake in winter knew that a spontaneous buffet had appeared. In addition to the cormorants and gulls, a group of seven bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was also fishing when I visited. There were some almost full adult eagles (with mostly white heads and tails) and several immature birds of varying ages (eagles reach maturity at 5 years of age). I guess that they came over from Jordan Lake, which is quite a fair distance away. Searching the Internet has not yet given me an answer to this question.

I didn’t see the eagles harass gulls who had gotten a fish but they were very carefully watching one another. When the eagle below managed to get a snack, other immature eagles closely followed him/her. A sub-adult who got a fish was harassed by an immature bird as well.

 

The eagles soared overhead and were joined at one point by a beautiful red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). The larger raptors let the hawk fly alongside them with no problem.

It was quite a chilly morning when I got to see the visiting aquatic birds, so I only stayed a short time. But my friends invited me to return for another visit, which I hope to do soon as there is no telling how long it will take the visiting birds to eat the easily available shad. And the ducks? I was able to get one rather indistinct photo of a threesome across the lake and helpful folks in a Facebook group confirmed my guess – they are ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis). Maybe I can get a decent photo of them next time. 🙂

Autumn amblings — seeing insects, birds, a snake and two surprises

It’s been challenging lately to know what to expect as far as weather goes in our area. Following tropical storms Florence and Michael, we’ve had several more episodes of drenching downpours that caused local flooding and closed off some natural areas. The temperatures have gone down to freezing or below in the morning and then have risen to 50-60s F (10-16C); this has sometimes led to steam rising from fence posts and some flowers still blooming which usually would have died by now. This morning, I skipped my walk as the temperature was below freezing with wind, so I re-lived some visits this past month to the Brumley Nature Preserve North. If you, too, are inside sheltering from the weather, perhaps you’ll have the time to amble photographically through this long Brumley walk with me.

Some parts of the reserve are still fairly green, which creates a lovely ambience for leisurely strolling and nature observations. In other cases, we can see the arrival of late autumn and approaching winter. This picturesque tree, one of three near a pond that harbor various bird species, was still very green in late September; now these forest denizens are showing off their gnarly “bare bones”.

     

So some early mornings are quite nippy and others a bit milder, with dried plants glistening with spider webs and dew drops that sparkle in the sun.

 

Some of the insects emerge with the sun to bask in the golden light, like this seed bug (Orsellinae, left), whose coloring camouflages it well against the seed heads, short-horned grasshopper, American bird grasshopper (Schistocerca americana) and different color variations of Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) who were hanging out on the dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium).

 

   

Various birds have been enjoying the winter seeds and especially the winter berries, like the red multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and beige poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).    

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are quite fond of berries.

They travel back and forth between fruit-laden trees and dried grass seedheads, occasionally stopping on paths to find worms and insects.

The cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) also like to gorge on berries, often sharing trees with American robins who enjoy the same meal. Sometimes snagging a berry involves some acrobatic moves.

  

The waxwings are adept at these moves and I only occasionally saw one drop a fruit. They are such elegant birds with their black masks and subtle touches of red on the wings and yellow on the tail feathers.

 

One of my favorite bird species, the ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), are also fond of berries. They like suet in gardens but no suet feeders are found in the reserve.
Some of the larger birds, like the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) and yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius), also look for berries and insects as they mostly stay high up in the trees.

 

Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) are another species that enjoy late autumn fruit.

  

In early November, I had my first of two delightful surprises at Brumley. It was early morning and as I glanced up at some very tall trees, I spotted movement among the earth-toned leaves. My lens revealed a yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) – and when I entered it into my bird list for the day, eBird asked me to justify having seen it as it was a rarity this late in the year.

Two other birds that are not surprises but also a joy to see are the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) and colorful Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

  

It’s always worthwhile to look all around when you walk, not only up at trees if you are a birder or at eye level if you like mammals. I take a lot of bird photos, because I love birds and because they are often easier to see than other wildlife species. But I consider myself more a “wildlifer” than a “birder” since I really am interested in all kinds of animals. That now stands me in good stead during the high-precipitation events we’ve been having. The ponds are filled to capacity and then some, with water flowing over the banks and onto paths.

In some cases, the high humidity has been great for plants; bryophytes are shooting up sporophytes which carry their reproductive spores. As there are over 600 mosses, liverworts and hornworts in North Carolina, I didn’t get the scientific ID for this species.

The rains created new temporary water-filled gullies, where chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have been enjoying baths along with other birds.

 

  

This earthworm (Lumbricina) obviously decided it had to get out of the water-logged earth for a while and I was glad not to have squashed it as I walked along. Its slow progress along the path may not have aided it, though, because there were plenty of robins and other worm-eaters in the vicinity.

 

A large Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) was sunning next to a path after the rains as well.

   

So my last visit to Brumley, when I was hoping to capture a golden-crowned kinglet digitally, did not fulfill that hope but ended by giving me a great surprise – my first sighting of a beaver (Castor canadensis) at this reserve. A colleague had seen one there, I’d noted the gnawed tree near the pond, and I had figured out where the lodge was, but I had not yet seen the mammal in the early mornings. Shortly before reaching the pond, I’d stopped to chat with dog owners and mentioned that a beaver was there but I hadn’t seen it yet. Ten minutes later – at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, there s/he was!

It was so surprising to see the aquatic mammal cruising the pond, swimming in large and small circles. As it created small waves and wakes with its head, I pondered why this largely (but not solely!) crepuscular animal was out in the open with people walking by. S/he must have just really wanted to have a good long swim because the animal was out and about for a few hours.

 

Three times, the beaver slapped its tail and dove under with a huge splash when people with dogs strolled by – three times, I missed getting that shot but I did manage to get a photo when the beaver took a time out at the entrance to the lodge.

That was an exciting wildlife spotting – not only did I get to see an animal I rarely see but it was also exhibiting a behavior that I witnessed for the first time. (Previously, I’d seen them harvesting and transporting food to the lodge, chewing bark and felling trees.) As I often go to Brumley in the mornings, being there in the afternoon had another advantage as well – I got to witness a spectacular autumn sunset with the sky almost seeming like a kaleidoscope as the clouds and sun’s rays created rapidly changing skies. I’m looking forward already to my next foray to this reserve!

The birds and the beautyberry – a great match

Not long after moving into my current home, I began looking for plants that would provide color as well as food for the birds and pollinators in my yard. Although I was not aware at that time of the rationale for avoiding exotics and preferring native plants, I did make some good choices, including an American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana L.) which is also called a French mulberry.

This shrub can grow about 5-7 feet high and about that size wide as well. The flowers are tiny and a pale lilac color, circling the stem like a corona.

They eventually turn into green berries that slowly turn in color, starting out in shades of pink and lilac and eventually gaining a beautiful deep purple shade as they ripen.

People can eat the berries, which are apparently very sweet. I haven’t tried them; they do cause stomach cramps for some people if more than a few are eaten. They are a popular food for wildlife, however. White-tailed deer like both the berries and leaves; raccoons and opossums eat them, too. It is the birds that really get the most fruit from my bushes, including Northern cardinals, Eastern towhees and gray catbirds. The birds kindly transported some seeds to a spot next to my back porch, so I now have a large bush there as well.

When the berries began ripening at the end of August, the cardinals began dining on them first. They were quickly followed by house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) who began visiting the shrubs daily. The female house finch stayed on the bush far from the house.

 

 

The male house finches were bolder and fed on the berries right under the kitchen window. It has been a pleasure to watch them.

 

 

 

 

           

   

The Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are a bit more reluctant to feed when they see me looking at them from a few feet away. Even with the window closed, they are shy but I finally got one to sample some berries while I watched.

The leaves of the beautyberry have been used as an insect repellent in folk remedies; laboratory studies have shown that a chemical compound in the plant will stave off mosquitoes.

I haven’t pruned my beautyberries much but it seems that the plant will bear more fruit the next year if this is done. I do think I will transplant some young ones to other parts of the yard this fall, however, as this plant – along with the purple pokeweed (Phytolacca decandra) – is a real wildlife crowd pleaser.

Costa Rican rambles 7B – Cerro Buena Vista and a night prowl

 

After seeing the beautiful green and blue emerald swift lizard, our attention went back to birds and we rewarded with sightings of a few gorgeous little yellow birds – a yellow-winged vireo (Vireo carmioli) and yellowish flycatcher (Empidonax flavescens).

Since I photograph insects to contribute to BugGuide in the USA, I was watching for them in Costa Rica, too. Insect galls on plant stems and leaves were in evidence and a blue damselfly (Argia pulla) posed for a moment.

A yellow weevil was a fascinating find – those blunt-nosed small insects make me think of Pinodchio.

Then – to the delight of everyone in our party – we had the good fortune to see a resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) fly across our path. We had caught sight of a couple flying high over the Lodge before setting off for our hike, but this bird actually perched not too far away, not staying very long at all but giving me a minute to step around a fellow birder and get a couple shots.

A hairy woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus), a more familiar bird for us, looked down on us from high above and a flame-throated warbler (Oreothlypis gutturalis) brought another spot of color to our upward trek.

 

When we started down to make it back in time for lunch, we had time to examine the surrounding flowers and then were lucky to see yet another emerald swift lizard, also kown as the green spiny lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus).

After a meal, it was a treat to see a collared redstart (Myioborus torquatus).

 

 

   

 

A black-thighed grosbeak (Pheucticus tibialis) gave us another yellow-hued sighting before our attention turned to birds with more subdued coloring – an ochraceous wren (Troglodytes ochraceus) which made me think of hobbits in woods for some reason, some ruddy treerunners (Margarornis rubiginosus) and a spangle-cheeked tanager (Tangara dowii).

        

A black-faced solitaire (Myadestes melanops) graced us with its presence before we took an afternoon break. Some of our fellow birders went to rest, but Janet invited me to her cabin where we had the rare pleasure of seeing a lesser violetear hummingbird (Colibri cyanotus) sitting on her nest! When she flew off after a while to get some sustenance, we noted that she had not yet laid any eggs.

 

 

Then, as I scanned the surrounding trees from Janet’s balcony, I discovered another nest, occupied by the young of a gray-tailed hummingbird (Lampornis cinereicauda). It was not easy to see but peering through the leaves, I managed to get a shot of the hummer stuffing some food down an offspring’s throat.

   

Janet’s balcony was a wonderful birding spot – the next visitor was a gorgeous red-headed barbet (Eubucco bourcierii). A flame-colored tanager (Piranga bidentata) was yet another brilliantly hued avian visitor.

Walking along the nearby roads, I saw the horses (Equus ferus caballus) used for tourists’ horse-back riding galloping along – beautiful, well-fed animals to be sure.

  

We soon left on our next excursion to the Páramo zone (montane shrub- and grassland mountaintop environment), where we scaled the Cerro Buena Vista (“Good View Mountain”) by van. This region contains the highest point of the Pan American Highway in Central America (3492 meters or 11456.69 feet in elevation). The peak harbors telecommunications equipment and is noteworthy for the many bird species endemic to this area.

   

The one for which we were especially looking was the volcano junco (Junco vulcani), a great bird that was not shy at all and posed for us in numerous positions and at great length.

After leaving the mountaintop, we descended to the rainforest and there spotted a black guan (Chamaepetes unicolor).

 

Our day ended with a night prowl after dinner, looking for the dusky nightjar (Antrostomus saturatus). And we were lucky enough to have one fly right in when it heard the playback of a compatriot on our birding guide’s sound system!

 

 

 

Well satisfied, I retired to a good night’s sleep after catching a rather large cranefly-type insect, which I let go outside. I wanted to be prepared for our next day’s adventures with the wildlife beauties of Costa Rica.

Costa Rican rambles 7A – the Sueños del Bosque lodge and environs

And now my Costa Rican wildlife travelogue continues after a long absence. Busy projects and chores, a vacation abroad and illness all conspired to delay the writing of this next installment, And now one of my photo software programs is refusing to work, making photo processing a real pain. But I was still able to get some shots to share of beautiful creatures in the Costa Rican Talamanca highlands. 😊

 

We started our fourth day early, first going out to see if we could find local favorites at sites near the Sueños del Bosque (dreams of the forest) Lodge. Located near the town of San Gerardo de Dota, the elevation is 7200 feet at this spot. A few busloads of other birding enthousiasts were also there; the guides all knew one another.

When our guide ran into his brother – also a birding guide – we were told about a spot where some spotted wood quail were hanging out. I did get a photo but it was still so dark, that the photo was not all that great. Our next venture was to a spot where the resplendent quetzal had been seen – a few people with binoculars didn’t have much trouble spotting a really distant pair of birds building a nest across a valley, but I bird with a telelens and had no such luck. So I admired the flowers and plants– and saw some very nice ones throughout the day as you can see below.

      

 

Back at the Lodge, we had time to look for birds near our rooms and the dining area. This cute little mountain elaenia (Elaenia frantzii) was a pleasure to behold. The lodge’s pond had numerous domestic ducks in residence, including a crested duck (Anas platyrhynchos domesticus).

 

 

   

Next, we took a walk along trails leading away from the Lodge up the mountain. We passed a stream, stocked with rainbow trout, which were imported by Efraín Chacón, who discovered the Rio Savegre Valley and built the visitors’ accommodations.

   

 

 

Wasp nests were hanging above our heads in the trees in several places.

 

 

 

       

 

A beautiful white-throated mountain gem hummingbird (Lampornis castaneoventris) gave us a good view as it perched nearby, and a small grayish bird that I haven’t  yet identified was flitting about the flowers as well.

 

 

    

 

A black-billed nightingale thrush (Catharus gracilirostris) was smaller than I would have expected. Two tanagers showed themselves briefly – a sooty-capped bush tanager (Chlorospingus pileatus) and a pair of common bush tanagers (Chlorospingus flavopectus).

 

  

A rufous-collared sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis) was busy collecting material for a nest.

  

A hummingbird was busy having a meal, while a sulphur-winged parakeet (Pyrrhura hoffmani) had a little rest and watched us.

  

For those of us interested in all wildlife besides birds, a treat was running into an emerald swift lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus) along the trail. We admired the reptile’s beautiful colors before setting up further along the rising path. (More on this day’s excursion follows in the next blog!)