Avian generations in the making – part 1: courtship

The tragedies being faced in the Caribbean islands after hurricanes Maria, Jose and Irma are horrible and other than donate cash to help alleviate the needs, I’m not in a position to offer more assistance. I’m grateful for all those who can and hope government assistance will be forthcoming to help all the people in those nations recover.
The effects of the hurricanes also will be noticeable for the wildlife. Many of those living on land will drown or die of hunger; some birds may be a little luckier – able to shelter against the winds if they are native to a place or able to change their migratory pattern (e.g., delay arrival on wintering grounds) for a time. But when the effects of the storms are immense with lots of habitat destruction, the birds, too, will lack places to shelter and not have sufficient food supplies to survive.

It’s thought that some birds endemic to the islands may be severely endangered as a species. On 22 September, birders were happy to hear that eight Barbuda warblers (Setophaga subita) had been spotted on that island; not a lot but they may help ensure this tiny bird doesn’t become extinct.  At the time of writing this blog, the fate of some other bird species was still unknown. I hope that all the Caribbean bird species survive and will be thinking of them as I share this series with you on how birds take measures to ensure future generations. (It might seem odd to write this series now, but some birds are still feeding their young here.)

So, the process begins with courtship. Some birds mate for life, or at least form long-term (multiple-year) bonded relationships. They include bald eagles, black vultures, blue jays, Canada geese, white-breasted nuthatches, brown-headed nuthatches, Northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees, American crows, pileated woodpeckers and my favorite raptor shown above, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus).

Those who form ongoing bonds may have a courtship period that consists of the male bringing the female some food to indicate it’s time to get ready for nest-building. This was the case for these lovely Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis).

The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) has a similar behavior; in my yard, I sometimes throw out bits of apple or bread for them in the spring as these seem to be considered real treats. The female will sit on a branch overhead calling until the male brings her some – and sometimes almost shoves it down her throat!

The Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) males will sing their repertoire in the spring to entice female mates – often they perch on the top of trees and fly up and down with spread wings in a beautiful display while singing.

        

   

The yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) seeks new mates each year but has an interesting courtship behavior described by All About Birds: “A receptive female perches with its head up, pumping its tail slowly up and down…Just prior to mating, the male Yellow-Billed Cuckoo snaps off a short twig that he presents to the female as he perches on her back and leans over her shoulder. Both birds then grasp the twig as they copulate.”

 

     

 

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) females and males may both flutter between trees with slow wingbeats. Two females may also compete for the attention of a single male, a behavior I observed this past spring and which surprised me.

 

     

The male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) will vocalize for the female while spreading his wings in a display.

The killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) has a somewhat prettier courtship dance, bending forward and spreading its tail feathers to show off the colorful underside.

  

Next year, I hope to see more of the birds courting as it gives me a happy feeling.

The next step for the birds is nest-building. We don’t have the bowerbirds in North Carolina, who build elaborate nests as part of their courtship. But the species we have do spend a good deal of time on their nests and I’ll share some of their efforts in the next part of the series. (But one or two blogs on another topic will come first.)

 

Credit map: By Kmusser (Own work, all data from Vector Map.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

My nature muse and a delightful experience

Dear unseen spirit,

You are a muse for me who permeates the air and leaves and water and earth that form the sphere in which I feel so at home, at rest yet invigorated, excited, awed, happy and amazed in turn and sometimes simultaneously, in a welter of positive emotion and feeling.

Yesterday, you brought me one of those moments. A smallish, perhaps teenaged, painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), with a smooth ebony carapace with some iron oxide-like highlights, was busy laying her eggs. My friend Lucretia and I stopped to watch.

Lucretia had discovered her while walking a fence line near a lake cove, sticking to that border of mostly bare dirt except for some leaves and twigs so she could avoid the longish grass that could very well be harboring ticks and chiggers – the nemesis bugs for birders and naturalists!

 

Ms Turtle was not quite vertical but leaning like the Tower of Pisa with her bottom in a hole she’d dug and her red-striped front legs anchoring her above. She was using her back legs and toes to move aside dampened clay earth, sometimes moving her body side to side to widen the depression. We wondered how much she’d had to urinate to get the dry ground to a nice malleable consistency; it turns out that painted turtles can store water in their urinary bladder, which helps with buoyancy in the water – and nest digging on land.

When we first stopped, she withdrew her head into her shell and stayed motionless but not for longer than 45 seconds or so. Her natural impulse for self-protection was weaker than her need to procreate, so she resumed moving small mounds of earth.

After some 15 minutes or so, we moved on along the cove, Lucretia noting birds and me looking for dragonflies to photograph. Spring was still in the air with one female widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) being chased by 3 to 5 males in an aerial ballet as they sought to be the one who could grab her head and become her temporary mate.

One pair of conjoined dragonflies skimmed the water’s surface while others hovered over water plants or rested on shoreline foliage for a few minutes.

Spangled skimmer (Libellula cyanea)

  

Eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera)   Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina)

Thoughts of Ms Turtle came back to me and I cut my insect investigations short to go back around the cove to her birthing site. Lucretia was already there and waved me over – she’d just seen Ms Turtle expel two white eggs, which I saw below her tail as she resumed her back-leg maneuvering of damp earth. She was now covering the eggs and perhaps that is also what she had been doing when we arrived. Painted turtles lay from 1 to 11 eggs and we wondered if she had already laid some and was covering them in layers.

At any rate, she was now obviously done with placing her progeny in the nest and was filling in the hole. She deliberately and meticulously grasped balls of soft earth and maneuvered them over the eggs. Her instincts were good and she apparently was doing this all by feel as she couldn’t see what she was doing. Her back legs unerringly found the next clump to move into position and she was quite thorough in making sure it was placed and smoothed over in just the right spot.

The process was slow but careful and as she gathered in the mud, her body began going more and more horizontal – a really noticeable change from when we first saw her more or less standing on end to deposit her clutch.

Ms Turtle was no longer bothered by our presence at all – nothing was going to stop her completing the process, although she occasionally did pause for a moment or two. She’d been at this for at least 70 minutes or so – or perhaps longer if she’d already laid some eggs before our arrival. Lucretia commented on what a hard worker she was!

When Ms Turtle was finally entirely horizontal, resting on the packed earth that was even with its surroundings, she took one more precaution to prevent predators (e.g., snakes, chipmunks, squirrels, foxes, raccoons) from finding her developing offspring. She used her back legs to draw in leaves and twigs to top off the dirt over the nesting site so that it looked exactly like the surroundings!

This, too, was done deliberately and carefully and by feel – never once did she turn around to look at what she’d done. In fact, when she was finished, she set off at an angle to trundle rapidly through the grass to the lake, never casting an eye on the covered nest.

 

We vowed to investigate egg incubation times (on average, 72 days, making 19 August a possible hatching day) and Lucretia tied a paper towel on the fence in front of the site so we could re-locate it. I also tied some weeds into the mesh of the fence.

 

In the meantime, Ms Turtle was making good time to the lake and we saw her tip over the shoreline edge, only to end up on her back. Within 10 seconds, she’d righted herself and plopped into the water, briefly floating and then submerging.

 

 

  

   

We spoke about her wonderful work – even if instinctual, it was amazing to watch and we felt privileged to have borne witness to it. Suddenly, not far off-shore, up popped Ms Turtle; she floated at the water’s surface enjoying a well-earned rest after her double labors (birthing and excavation/reconstruction). Her carapace glistened and she was a beauty to see and admire.

It would be super to be able to see her hatchlings emerge in August. I don’t know if we will be so lucky but recalling their mother’s construction of a nursery will be a great nature memory for sure. And who knows what new event you, my nature muse, will bring along in the meantime – when I arrived home, two of the Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) had hatched!

Mother Nature, you always delight and/or edify to be sure!

Many thanks! Maria

                                 

The beautiful “baker” bird

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to observe a small bird at close quarters that I had only seen in a couple glimpses in the past, the ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla). Like the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, this little avian also has a stripe atop its head. Like the golden-crowned kinglet, the stripe is always visible and orange in color, blending in nicely with its other muted brownish and cream colors.

 

The ovenbird gets its name from the shape of its nest, which is built on the ground in a shape reminiscent of an outdoor or Hopi oven. It is domed and has a side entrance and can be difficult to see.

The ovenbirds spend the winters in the Caribbean region and Central America and then come North for the summer breeding season. My sightings of the singing male have been at our local nature reserve, Mason Farm Biological Reserve, where I volunteer as an invasive plant eradicator and sometime planter of native flowers.

 

The male sings a three- to-five note call in the spring as part of his courting behavior and the call varies among individuals. When males are in neighboring territories, they will sing together in duets and it can be difficult to know how many birds are singing.

   

The sound is so loud that you expect to see a much larger bird and his song inspired poet Robert Frost to dedicate a poem to him.

 

If he is sitting on a branch, you can eventually find him but it can be a challenge since they prefer to reside in forests with heavy canopy cover so that it is fairly dark.

 

   

Once you see him, you may be able to watch for a while as they don’t seem to be very wary of people. This individual let me observe as he groomed on a low tree branch, pausing now and again to let out a few notes.

  

   

These birds prefer areas with heavy leaf litter for their homes – the leaves provide cover for their ground nests and they blend in really, really well as they scurry about foraging in the leaves for insects, worms and snails to eat. Both the females and males participate in feeding the fledglings until they can fly at about 30 days.

When they emerge into a patch with a bit of sunlight filtering down through the leaves overhead, you have a bit better chance to see them. Otherwise, you may end up staring at ground cover until you catch a bit of movement and can zero in on the motion to see them.

 

Photographing the bird is a challenge since they spend their time in areas with so little direct light. My first photos were a bit dark, but then I increased the ISO on my camera considerably (a tip from fellow photographer, Mary – thanks!) and the photos were a bit better. Still, the somewhat darker photos reflect the environment in which you discover these little troubadour warblers. Now that I know where to look for them, I hope to see them more often in years to come.

The sad spring saga of Sassy squirrel

cape-may-warbler-i77a5989-maria-de-bruyn-2resSpring has come early to North Carolina, leading to some early bird migration (like this Cape May warbler, Setophaga tigrina, on its way North), avian courtship and nest building, as well as spring blossoms already emerging in profusion. My garden has seen some lovely flowers, both cultivated and wild: daffodils (Narcissus), crocuses (Crocus), winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and lenten rose (Helleborus orientalis).

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My camellias ( Camellia) bloomed in much greater profusion than ever before.

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The shrubs and trees also sent out their buds weeks “ahead of schedule” – since the past month was the warmest recorded February in this area, my plants advanced their springtime blossoming, including the serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), viburnums, dogwoods (Cornus kousa and Cornus florida) and common elderberry (Sambucus nigra).

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My new blueberry bushes burgeoned with delicate little flowers, but the past two nights I had to cover them up so that they wouldn’t shrivel up as the temperatures dropped below freezing.

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It wasn’t only the plant and bird life responding to the unusually changing season, though, as I discovered when I finally noticed the altered pillow on my front porch rocking chair. I first saw that the cloth covering the pillow had been torn; upon closer examination, I saw that the pillow had been opened up with its filling tufting up in places.

 

 

eastern-gray-squirrel-i77a0093-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen I began watching the rocker in addition to the bird feeders, I discovered the culprit – an industrious Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), whom I named Sassy as she shows no fear, just a little caution.

Sassy is quite bold, coming up onto the porch even when I’m seated there. She keeps an eye on me but goes about her business in a calm and confident mood. This was also the case for her nest building activities. She perched on the pillow and used her teeth to tear out the insides.

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She then manipulated the tufts with her paws and teeth to form them into neat little oblong packages that she could easily transport in her mouth.

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Sometimes, she added some dried leaves to the mixture.

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When her mouth was filled with enough material, she left to transport it to the nest that she was constructing – as it turned out, high in a loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) in a neighbor’s front yard. As I followed behind her, she stayed aware of my movements.

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Then she crossed the street and scurried up the tree, where she deposited her “mattress stuffing” among the leaves and other materials lining the nest.

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Since Sassy was so very industrious and the pillow was no longer salvageable, I left it out for her. She returned for several days, systematically dismantling her found source of nest material and carrying off her little woolly trophies.

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When the stuffing began to disperse with the wind, I finally gathered it up and threw out what was left, figuring she had had plenty of manmade contributions to her home.

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Then a couple days later, I was dismayed on her behalf to see that the new neighbors had decided to remove the tree where her nest was located. The landscapers said Sassy’s nest was not a factor in their decision; they just thought the tree was in the way. I watched with sadness as Sassy’s tree was dismantled and her nest plunged to the ground.

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I didn’t see where Sassy was during this event but am sure she was watching from some other vantage point. I felt badly for her – all her innovative and dedicated work was destroyed. Of course, people lose their homes, too, to flooding, fires, tornadoes, etc.  and that is horrible. But I still regretted that this hard-working mammal had lost her home as well.

I presume Sassy has been building a new nest elsewhere. And given her boldness, I’m fairly certain that she was the squirrel I saw yesterday afternoon who had decided that she likes dried mealworms.

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As my feline companion Moasi watched from her cat tree perch in the living room, Sassy was busy on the other side of the window chowing down on the worms in a new window feeder that I had actually bought for the Carolina wrens and chickadees, who often perch on the chair in front of the window.

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Sassy didn’t seem to mind Moasi watching her and she wasn’t fazed when I approached either. It was only when I knocked on the window that she finally descended to the porch and then left for the yard. I like to think that Sassy has made a new home and is now busy getting extra nutrition for the babies to come. And spring continues to unfold with temperatures varying from 24 to 70 degrees and above!

Can you go home again? Apparently so!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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