Getting airborne when lift is lacking….

If you’ve had the good fortune to watch a bird caring for nestlings and then encouraging them to enter the big wide world, you might think that the young ones automatically know how to fly. But my recent observations of a ruby-throated hummingbird family (Archilochus colubris) showed me that a learning curve — albeit not a long one — may be involved.

On the 29th of April, my friend Ace and I had the good fortune to spot a female hummingbird. We discovered that she was gathering construction materials for a nest with inside walls that included plant down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

She was camouflaging the outside of the walls with lichen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As she worked on the nest, she sat in it periodically, moving her body to form the cup shape and tamp down the bottom.

 

 

 

 

 

The walls expand as the eggs hatch and nestlings grow; this is possible because the walls are held together by spider web and caterpillar webbing (6 May).

If we hadn’t seen her working on the nest, we likely would not have seen it. It was very cleverly placed near the crook of a small branch that had lichen growing nearby (13 May).

I noticed a twig curving down from the branch beneath the nest and that became the marker for finding it again — not always an easy task as the hummer home blended in so very well with the tree she had chosen.

Just after mid-May, I had to stop my observations as I had the immensely good fortune to visit Yellowstone National Park (blogs on that coming up!). It was only on 4 June that I was able to visit the hummer nest again and it was a thrill to see two babies had emerged from the coffee bean-sized eggs.

During their first days, young hummingbirds are very vulnerable. They are blind for about 9 days and only begin to grow pin-like feathers after about 10 days!

Mom would come by and regurgitate food (insects and nectar) into their open mouths.

 

 

 

 

 

When the chicks grew enough to peer over the nest’s edge, we were able to watch them surveying their surroundings.

The two of them would look around in unison.

They moved around the nest more and more, jostling for space. By 3 weeks of age, ruby-throated hummingbirds are fully feathered and getting ready to fledge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On 7 June, I had a premonition that fledging was going to occur that day. I had volunteer duty in the morning (to pull invasive plants at a local reserve) so I could only visit the nest briefly before going to work.

The babies were both flexing their wings a lot. Hummers typically flap their wings 50-200 times per second! It turned out that they needed to exercise a lot, or they weren’t going to be able to get the lift needed to leave the nest.

The nestlings flapped back and forth as they revved up their muscles for a coming take-off. Their pectoral muscles need to be strong for their airborne flights and may account for up to 30% of their body weight.

Watching with excitement as I maneuvered a bit to get better lighting for photos, I saw one of the little ones begin to lift (above). S/he flapped furiously. I got a photo of the lift off but not the actual departure from the nest.

One nestling remained and s/he began flapping vigorously.

I had to stop my vigil as it was time to get to the nature reserve. While leaving, I ran into Ace and told him that one hummer had just fledged, and the other was getting ready so that he could see the event!

After my 2-hour shift, I drove back to the nest. Ace had let me know that Chick No. 2 had not yet left while he was watching. Sure enough, when I returned the little one was still there (above).

He moved around a lot but didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

It seemed that Chick No. 2 was not getting the lift needed to soar up and away despite all its efforts.

Mom came to give some encouragement.

She also gave Chick No. 2 a bit of nourishment.

That seemed to provide the young one with renewed energy as the practice wing flapping resumed vigorously.

After a couple hours, I needed to leave to do other things. I took a few more photos of the hard-working almost-fledgling.

11

The next morning, I visited the hummer home again wondering whether anyone would still be in residence. The nest was empty so Chick No. 2 had departed the previous afternoon or evening. But as I watched, a hummer was zipping around the tree and the nest.

I think it was Mom. She may have been considering whether the nest could serve as a spot to raise another brood. It might also have been one of the young ones returning for a last look at home.

Observing the hummingbird nest over a period of weeks was a wonderful learning experience. I’ll treasure the memory for a long time to come. And I now have an even greater appreciation for these tiny birds that become flying gems in our natural surroundings.

Sometimes feared but with an endearing side – Sweet Tooth and Swayback

Today, I’d like to entertain you with a tale of two wild creatures that I’ve come to know a bit. I always enjoy learning about animals, even more so when I get to know something about their lives first-hand. Before getting to a description of Sweet Tooth and Swayback (two snapping turtles), I’ll share some interesting life facts about this reptilian species.

While box turtles often garner remarks of “how sweet,” “how cute,” and “let’s help it cross the road,” the appearance of a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) can arouse fear and dislike. Many people don’t consider them “beautiful,” and they have a reputation for being dangerous because they can cause injuries.

That is such a shame because this species doesn’t always live up to its “combative disposition when out of the water with its powerful beak-like jaws, and highly mobile head and neck” (according to Wikipedia). It’s true that they don’t want to be picked up and will react very differently from the docile box turtle, who generally pulls in its head and legs and just waits for you to leave it alone.

Unlike the box turtle, the snapper cannot withdraw its head and limbs into its shell, so its main defense is to use powerful jaws to snap and bite when feeling threatened. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) notes that: “they are normally inoffensive underwater and pose little if any danger to swimmers or waders.”

Snapping turtles spend most of their time in the water and tend not to bask like other turtles. Instead, they swim near the surface and enjoy the sun’s rays from there.

They mate in the spring; this pair was engaged in a fairly sedate encounter at an urban park.

The NCWRC notes that it’s not uncommon for the pair to snap “savagely” at one another during mating (another instance of negative language to characterize them; they could have said “vigorously”!). This pair opened their jaws to one another but were not biting.

Females can conserve sperm for several seasons so that there is some on hand when needed. So this female may have wanted to use that as she pushed the male away.

This pair of turtles, whom I saw at an Orange County pond, did seem to be having a tussle, but they also might have been contesting territory or engaging in some other behavior.

The females come out of the water to lay their eggs (about 25); you may only see their tracks in the mud and never know where they buried the clutch. The eggs have a great chance of ending up as food for other animals, such as skunks, minks, raccoons, foxes, crows, and eastern kingsnakes.

Newborn and juvenile snappers often fall prey to large fish, mammals, birds (e.g., bitterns, hawks, owls), American bullfrogs, and alligators. This great blue heron (Ardea herodias) had a small turtle for a snack and spent quite a long time trying to crush it before swallowing it. (This was not a snapper but shows how the birds eat young turtles.)

Perhaps the high newborn mortality rate accounts for the fact that a female may lay a second clutch as well (laying 11-83 eggs in total in a breeding season). An interesting fact about the hatching snappers is that the little ones make a noise before they dig themselves out of the earth. To us, these sounds mimic clicks, creaks or what sounds like someone rubbing their finger over a fine-toothed comb.

The snapping turtles’ diet comprises quite a lot of vegetation, carrion and small animals. The latter are swallowed whole or bitten into pieces — young ducklings in a pond with snappers need to stay alert to avoid being caught. The snappers who survive to adulthood may reach a considerable age if they live in an undisturbed area, e.g., up to some 40 years.

And now we finally get back to Sweet Tooth and Swayback in particular. I’ve had the good fortune to become familiar with this pair at a local pond alongside a public road where I’ve photographed wildlife for many years. It has been designated as a “hot spot” for local and other birders on eBird. As my friend Lucretia has said: “birders and nature lovers have always enjoyed the beauty of the pond and surrounding meadows and fields and the wildlife that lives there. It is a special place.” Unfortunately, it’s now uncertain what will be happening to Sweet Tooth’s and Swayback’s longtime home.

I had seen these turtles swimming around in the pond frequently and admired their size. I’m guessing they might be a few decades old.

Last fall when a persimmon tree at the edge of the pond began dropping its ripe fruit, I was surprised to see one of the turtles up on the surrounding lawn on a rainy day— s/he saw me and quickly trundled off to the water’s edge.

On subsequent visits, I approached carefully and not too closely. By moving only a few steps to get in position for some photos and then standing still (although I did talk to the turtle, I admit), the animal decided to stay put. The temptation to eat some of the ripe persimmons was just too great and helped him/her overcome any fears.

I was very surprised as I had no idea that snapping turtles are fond of this fruit. On subsequent visits to the pond, however, I learned that it must be a real delicacy for them. This turtle seemed to recognize me after a few visits and didn’t hurry away. When Lucretia visited, Sweet Tooth (a name we decided to use for him/her) also stayed put.

Sweet Tooth is a bit of a messy eater, but then s/he doesn’t have teeth or any way to get the dripping persimmon flesh off her/his chin.

One day, I was surprised to see that Sweet Tooth had been joined by a companion, whom I called Swayback. I don’t know if this turtle had been injured at some point to cause the dent in its carapace.

Swayback didn’t seem quite as enamored with the persimmons as Sweet Tooth but did seem to enjoy eating some fruit from time to time.

Recently, the property on which the pond is located was sold. I’ve been told by people who pass by daily that the pond may be dredged and deepened so that it can be used for irrigation. Much of the surrounding vegetation, which made it a delightful spot with many hiding and perching places for migrating and resident birds was bulldozed.

I and others are worried about what could happen to the pond’s inhabitants. We hope that Sweet Tooth, Swayback and any other wildlife who call the pond home can be rescued, rehabbed if necessary, and eventually returned to their longtime home. Keep your fingers crossed along with me that we might enjoy seeing this pair of snappers relishing persimmon treats in the future!

One last note: if you want to rescue a snapper from a busy road, only pick it up at the back of its carapace above the hind legs. If you have your hands any further forward, the turtle can use its long and flexible neck to reach you for a bite. You can also move it with a square shovel (be prepared for a heavy load) or by having it on a tarp or blanket to carry it along.

Fabulous flickers – my faves!

Several birders of my acquaintance have a particular love for warblers. These birds often have stunning plumage, and it changes in many species between breeding and non-breeding seasons. I enjoy seeing the warblers, too, but it’s the woodpeckers that tend to keep me watching for longer periods when they appear. And I’m lucky that all the local species visit my yard at least occasionally, like the Northern flicker that startled a brown thrasher one year.

Unlike warblers, the woodpeckers’ plumage doesn’t often evoke words of wonder and appreciation. They don’t change from breeding to non-breeding plumage and some species even look almost identical. But I find them fascinating; my favorite (although I really like them all) is that stunning and fabulous flicker.

There are two major kinds of flickers in the USA. In the West, the main subspecies has reddish feathers in flight and is called red-shafted. In the East, we have yellow-shafted flickers (Colaptes auratus auratus). When these birds are simply perched, you mostly just see their muted tan coloring with dark spots on the breast.

4 Northern flicker PC061413 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

From the back, you can see a red heart-shaped spot on their neck.

5 Northern flicker PC099651 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

When they fly away, you may also see a white patch on their back near the base of the tail.

The males have a thick black “mustache” extending from the beak.

12 Northern flicker P1300399© Maria de Bruyn res

The females lack this feature.

9 Northern flicker P9209500 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

11 Northern flicker PB296255 © Maria de Bruyn-ed

10 Northern flicker P1050369 © Maria de Bruyn-ed

In reviewing the photos I’ve taken of them, it appears that I see the males more frequently than the females. The males also seem less reluctant to come out into the open when I’m observing them. This is anecdotal, of course, but I do wonder if the females are generally shyer.

It’s when they take off in flight with wings spread or when they flutter their wings while balancing on branches that you get to see their marvelous yellow feathers.

13 Northern flicker P9209948 © Maria de Bruyn res

14 Northern flicker PB041778 © Maria de Bruyn-sgd res

15 Northern flicker PC099864 © Maria de Bruyn-res sgd

16 Northern flicker P2032611© Maria de Bruyn res-sgd

The flickers distinguish themselves as the woodpecker species that very often seeks its food on the ground. Their preferred meals comprise insects, although in winter they also forage for fruit and seeds.

17 Northern flicker P3030826© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

They stick their long bills deep into the ground when looking for a favored food — ants. Many articles online say that one flicker’s stomach was found to contain more than 5,000 ants but I couldn’t find the original study reporting that finding anywhere.

18 Northern flicker P1279550© Maria de Bruyn sgd

Barbs on the flickers’ lengthy tongues help them catch the ants and other insects, such as flies, butterflies, and moths.

19 Northern flicker PC152102 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

These birds have an elongated hyoid bone that helps support their tongue, which can extend up to 2 inches (5 cm) beyond their bill. This also comes in handy when they are probing snags and fallen logs for meals.

20 Northern flicker PC151992 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

Northern flickers also have large salivary glands that re-coat their tongues with a sticky substance each time they stick them out — an extra aide in catching those ants!

21 Northern flicker PC099801 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

When you see flickers in trees around springtime, they are often looking for nesting spots. They may choose trees with softer wood in which to excavate holes or they may use nesting cavities created by other birds.

24 Northern flicker P9198553 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

22 Northern flicker P9198517 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

23 Northern flicker PC099751 © Maria de Bruyn

A couple years ago, I discovered flickers following around pileated woodpeckers as they moved from tree to tree to peck holes.

25 Northern flicker P9209692 © Maria de Bruyn

26 Northern flicker P9209697 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

I wasn’t quite sure why the flickers were pursuing their larger cousins, but now I think they were checking out holes that the larger woodpeckers had made for nests. This seems to be a recurring behavior as this year I saw flickers (in the same natural area) starting the same behavior. The pileated woodpeckers don’t seem to mind too much.

27 Northern flicker P9198613 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

28 Northern flicker P9198614 © Maria de Bruyn. res sgd

In another natural area, the flickers have used cavities made by red-headed woodpeckers for their nests. The two species seem fine with brooding their young in the same snag at the same time.

29 Northern flicker P4217370© Maria de Bruyn res

30 Northern flicker P4291831 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

The flickers can live up to 8-9 years at least and likely migrate back to the same areas each nesting season.

31 Northern flicker PB158825 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

While the overall numbers of Northern flickers are decreasing, they are not considered a threatened species.

32 Northern flicker PB158826 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

34 Northern flicker PC152197 © Maria de Bruyn resThey adapt well to living around human settlements but can be threatened by fewer available nest sites due to urban development, snag removals, and competition for nest holes, as well as heat waves that affect nestlings and wildfires that destroy their habitats.

I hope these beauties stay around my living space for a long time to come!

33 Northern flicker P1300407 © Maria de Bruyn-res sgd

What gets a birder really going? A rare bird!

People who are “into birding” are excited when they see a new bird for the first time. Many keep “life lists” – an account of each different species they have actually seen worldwide, in their country, in their state or province, or perhaps in their yard. When they see a new species, birders say they got a “lifer” – a first-time sighting in their life. Quite a few of these birders then decide to enjoy a reward – a lifer pie!

This past week, I was lucky enough to get a lifer, thanks to alerts circulated in the birding community. Doc Ellen Tinsley, the North Carolina Piedmont area’s main bald eagle researcher, also looks for other species when she goes out to see the eagles she knows. On 27 September, she was at the Jordan Lake Dam, where she often sees eagles whom she has come to recognize and know. Since it is the migration period for many birds that breed up North, she was also watching for warblers, a popular type of songbird because they are often beautifully colored.

She counted herself very lucky when she spotted a yellow striped bird that she had not seen before. After getting a confirmation of its scientific identification, she notified area birders that she had spotted a Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) and it was still foraging so people might be able to see it if they came to the Dam.

Until recently, the Kirtland’s warbler was considered an endangered species as it requires a very specific habitat in jack pine forest to breed. It depends on areas affected by fire; about 6 years after a conflagration, the space will be regenerated with small trees, shrubs and open areas that are favorable for its nests. When trees grow to about 10-16.5 feet high (3-5 m), the warblers leave to find a more suitable living area.

Compared to other birds, the Kirtland’s has the most restricted geographical breeding area of any bird in the continental United States. In the 1970s and 1980s, only about 167-200 males were counted in annual surveys. Conservationists in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada, collaborated on protecting the Kirtland’s environment and achieved success. This warbler has now been re-designated a threatened rather than endangered species. There are currently about 2,300 breeding pairs who migrate south to spend the winter in the Bahamas.

 

These birds’ diet comprises mainly insects and small fruit such as blueberries. Occasionally, they will catch an insect on the wing but more usually they glean pine needles and other vegetation for their meals. Spiders, moths and flies constitute part of their diet. Adults will also ingest pine sap.

 

 

These birds place their nests on the ground, underneath the small jack pines. The males will feed the females while they brood and both parents bring nutrition to the hatched offspring. In the past, brown-headed cowbirds often laid their eggs in Kirtland’s warbler nests and this contributed to their endangered status. Elimination of cowbirds from the environment for many years has now reduced the threat.

“As a condition for the warbler’s delisting, the USFWS, U.S. Forest Service, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources signed a memorandum of understanding that the agencies will continue habitat management at sufficient levels to ensure a continued stable Kirtland’s Warbler population. Keith Kintigh, a forest conservation specialist with the Michigan DNR, says his agency will plant 1.8 million jack pine seedlings per year going forward to help maintain the 38,000 acres of suitable jack-pine habitat needed to keep the warbler population above the 1,000-breeding-pair threshold for recovered status.”
9 January 2020; https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/kirtlands-warbler-delisted-after-47-years-of-conservation-work/

It’s likely that at least 100 people have traveled to Jordan Lake Dam to see this female bird. She was very popular because she didn’t particularly hide as some birds do. (She was sometimes a bit hidden by the pine needles, but that was because she was constantly moving about in the trees.)

She was foraging for insects along rocks bordering the dam area and in nearby trees, which gave the birders an opportunity to memorialize her visit with photos. Much of the time, she was seen in the company of a male bird of the Cape May species, who look similar (left).

The Kirtland warblers’ areas in Michigan and Wisconsin are closed to the public when they are breeding. They are rarely seen so there are guided tours in those two states to enable people to spot them.

 

Doc Ellen provided area birders with a wonderful opportunity to admire this rare bird! A much needed bright spot in a year that has been fraught with calamities.

 

The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 3: raising young

This year, most of the birds that visit my yard chose to build their nests in places where I didn’t see them. Only the brown-headed nuthatches, house wrens and Eastern bluebirds chose to use nest boxes. The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) began to use a nest box but their nest was invaded by ants before I had noticed so they abandoned that site. Still, I was able to watch parents with babies, both at home and out on the nature trails.

There are two major kinds of baby birds. The altricial birds hatch as helpless young who must develop their sight and feathers, requiring parental care until they can fly from the nest. They include the songbirds that you may see often, such as chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and bluebirds, whose babies are seen below shortly after hatching and after several days of development.

 

In contrast, the precocial bird babies can quickly move about on their own after hatching and are able to begin foraging for food themselves as they follow their parents around. In some cases, the parents may also feed them. Examples of precocial birds include killdeer, ducks and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) as seen below.

The nest I watched most closely this season was built by brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) in a nest box. Carolina chickadees were also interested in that spot, but the nuthatches won out. Mama Nuthatch laid six eggs, four of which hatched. She and Papa were very hard workers, flying to and from the box countless times per hour. Like other seed-eating birds, they fed their nestlings insects because the babies need lots of protein for their development.

 

They were devoted parents, flying to and fro with food, carrying away fecal sacs and chasing off other birds who used the nest box as a perch. All their care was no match, however, for a pair of birds who are known to be quite aggressive during nesting season.

 

I first learned of house wrens’ (Troglodytes aedon) intolerance of other nesting birds in their vicinity when they invaded the nest of a banded female Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis), whom I had named Chantal. Her babies were hatching and the wrens went into the nest during her absence and killed them. That experience made me hope they would not return to my yard the next spring, but they seem to like the area. This year they visited all the nest boxes in my yard and the male began nests in several of them to keep away other birds. It is thought they may drive away other nesters in order to reduce competition for food when it comes time to raise their own young.

 

The wrens finally settled on a nest box and I thought they would leave the nuthatches alone. Their young ones got to the brink of fledging and the parents were encouraging them to fly out. Sometimes, they would fly up to the box as a youngster peered out into the big wide world and just hover with the food in their mouth.

 

 

They would perch atop the box and call. Eventually two took the leap (which I didn’t see); I thought the others would follow the next day. The parents were busy in the morning and suddenly all activity ceased. I guessed that the other two had taken flight, so in the afternoon I took a peak in the box. To my utter dismay, I found the remaining two nestlings deceased; the wrens had pecked them to death. ☹ I buried them in my flower garden with a small Buddha statue marking the site.

 

 

The nuthatches continued taking care of their fledged babies. They would follow the parents to the feeder poles, crouch down and flutter their wings rapidly as they begged for a morsel.

 

Eventually, the parents found a nearby branch in a large willow oak where they would crack nuts and feed their offspring. As you can see, the spot got a lot of use and could be easily identified by the shredded bark. The whole family still goes up there to eat their nuts from the feeders!

Many adult birds appreciate bird feeders as “fast-food” stops for themselves while they spend most of their time searching for meals for their nestlings. Even the species who mainly eat seeds feed their babies insects because the young ones need lots of protein as they develop toward maturity. The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in my yard and other areas seem to favor caterpillars as a food of choice for their developing youngsters.

 

 

 

The pileated woodpecker parents (Dryocopus pileatus) take turns sitting on eggs and bringing food for their young ones.

The larger raptors bring in heftier meals for their offspring. This red-shouldered hawk grew up alone; those of us watching the nest didn’t know whether only one egg hatched or something happened to a sibling. The parents would bring small mammals for the baby to eat.

 

A pair of great horned owl babies (Buteo lineatus), located by Mary, a locally well-known bird photographer, appeared to be growing well the couple times I went to see them. I never saw the parents bring them food but assume they were well fed as they were venturing out of the nest the last time I saw them (a process called “branching”).

 

It seems that a young bird’s open mouth is a trigger for parents that they can barely resist. Until they mature, the fledglings have a pale white or yellow area, or in the case of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) reddish, where their beaks join. This becomes very visible when they open their mouths wide to beg for food and parent birds have a hard time resisting the urge to stuff food down their throats.

The Eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) at a local park were following their parents around asking for food.

They exhibited both the crouched wing fluttering and wide-open mouths as cues that they wanted to be fed.

  

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) juveniles did not seem to beg as much as the other birds in my yard. They just perched close to feeders or their parents and eventually mom or dad gave them a bit of suet.

 

The European starling young (Sturnus vulgaris) are especially demanding to judge by their behavior at my feeders. These are larger birds and the offspring are as large as their parents,

They are capable of feeding themselves but spend a good deal of time with wide open beaks demanding to be fed.

 

 

 

The starling parents usually give in, but you can almost think they look exasperated.

At least the immature starlings can demonstrate well how a bird looks with a full crop (i.e., the enlarged part of the esophagus that forms a muscular pouch in which food can be stored).

In between all the feeding, the parents have one other important nest duty – keeping the nest as clean as possible. They do this by removing fecal sacs, as this prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) was doing last year.

 

Some adult birds will actually eat the fecal sac. This is because the nestlings do not completely digest their food and the sacs therefore still contain valuable nutrients that the parents can use. I can imagine the parents are glad to be done with this duty once their young have fledged, however.

When you’re out walking or watching bird feeders, it can be entertaining to observe the birds as they nest and raise their demanding children. And it’s good to know that you may even see adult birds begin to drive away their babies, either because they’re tired of feeding them or because they are busy with a second or even third brood for the season.