Finding joy in troubled times

While working on photos for other blogs, it occurred to me that it might be more productive right now to focus on what we, everywhere, are facing with the current pandemic. It’s my hope that as many of us as possible will survive, thrive and overcome the distress we are facing. As we hunker down, like this beautiful mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), we can intensify our nature observations – or begin paying more attention to the wildlife around us when we do go for walks.

 

Practicing social quarantine and distancing is essential –- even if we live somewhere where authorities are not yet requiring this. Keeping away physically from those outside our households can protect them as well as ourselves. In most places, social distancing rules still allow us to get outside for walks in the fresh air and nature. I have never seen so many people, including families with children, in the local nature reserves and that is a welcome sight. Hopefully, a side effect of this will be much more social support and advocacy for environmental conservation and expansion of natural areas, parks and reserves now and in the future -– that would be an unexpected positive outcome to the measures we are taking to get through these troubled times! (Yellow trout lily above, Erythronium americanum).

For people who haven’t had the pleasure of getting out much on walks, I wanted to share something about how to possibly enjoy nature even more. From my perspective, a key element is learning to practice patience and to stop, wait, watch and explore frequently. Here are some examples of what you might find. (Common Blue Violet, Viola sororia)

Looking down at the ground can be a fruitful exercise, especially in spring. Fresh new blooms are emerging and can delight us with their beauty (like the Eastern spring beauties, Claytonia virginica).

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) – the leaves look like jigsaw puzzle pieces

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)                  Tiny bluet (Houstonia pusilla)

Common chickweed (Stellaria media)

   

Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)

   

Ground ivy – also known as creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea)

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)

If you are out with kids, you can pay more attention to the plants –- take photos of them (most reserves and parks don’t want people to dig up and pick flowers) and then look them up at home and learn about them. Or make a game out of fallen leaves –- find three with very different shapes and identify the trees.

If you look closely at the flowers, you might glimpse small bugs flitting around the blooms. If you have a camera or phone camera, try to get a photo. When you enlarge it, you might find that you have actually seen a beautiful fly, bee or other insect whose shape and colors you couldn’t see with the naked eye. If you want to identify it, post the photo to the site BugGuide.net, where entomologists can perhaps tell you what species you saw.

Parasitic fly (Goninii, above)

 

 

Greater bee fly (Bombylius major)

Various species of syrphid flies are shown below; they are often mistaken for small bees. The first photos are all of the species Toxomerus geminatus.

 

Male                                                               Female

And below the male and female together.

 

A species of syrphid fly with a striped abdomen (Syrphus torvus) is characterized by “hairy” eyes (more so in males, like this one). Click to enlarge and see the hairs.

A larger species, Brachypalpus oarus, is not so colorful.

Even if you can’t get outside much, you might see an interesting insect around your house. For example, this male brown-tipped conehead katydid (Neoconocephalus triops) appeared on my porch when I was sweeping.

Butterflies are really starting to fly around now. The bluish spring azures (Celastrina ladon) are abundant right now.

I’ve been seeing falcate orangetips (Anthocharis midea), too.

Damselflies are also starting to appear; we tend to see them earlier than the dragonflies, who spread their wings horizontally when they alight on vegetation. This fragile forktail damselfly (Ischnura posita) was getting covered in yellow pine pollen –- much of North Carolina’s Piedmont region is bedecked in yellow dust during the spring weeks when the pine trees emit clouds of pollen.

 

Looking in the water can be productive, too. One day, I spent some time scanning the edge of a pond where the water was shallow enough to see the bottom. As I watched little fish darting to and fro, I suddenly noticed something larger moving about quickly. I looked more intently and discovered Eastern newts (also called red-spotted newts, Notophthalmus viridescens) down there – the first time I had seen these amphibians!!

When you see an Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) scurrying across the leaves in the forest or even alongside a road, stop and watch a bit. I did the other day and saw the mammal locate a winter stash and dig up some food it had stored. This article describes their storage process and reveals that they can probably remember where up to 95% of their stashes are hidden!

Paying attention to fallen logs can reveal beauty, too. This tree that fell across a creek ended up providing a growing place for common blue violets (Viola sororia).

As I walked by some other fallen trees, a common five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) popped briefly into view, gave me a pensive look and then disappeared into the leaf and twig litter.

Looking up at the trees, you might be lucky to see a wasp nest. The paper wasps (Polistes) make compartmentalized nests, with a place for each individual egg.

Or you may see a large bald-faced hornet’s nest (Dolichovespula maculata).

               

If you take the time to watch birds, you may see them engaged in looking for food (like insects, nuts, berries and seeds).

Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)         Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)

Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata)                          Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

 

Black & white warbler (Mniotilta varia)    Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

On one of my latest walks, I heard rapid knocking and was able to watch a yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) engaged in beginning a new series of sap holes, which provide sweet drinking spots for themselves and other birds.

If you’re able to look at trees, bushes or nest boxes during walks or from your windows, you might catch birds collecting materials for their nests. Just the other day, I saw a Carolina chickadee gathering up some spider web to use in a nest.

If you find a nest, be sure to maintain a good distance, but then watch the parents bringing food to their nestlings after they hatch. If you’re lucky, you may even see the babies fledge! And if you are not near any trees, watch some birds at their nests through webcams online: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/cams/ – https://www.audubon.org/birdcamshttps://birdwatchinghq.com/live-bird-cams/
https://birdcams.live/

If, at some point, we are “stuck” inside, we can follow this link to international wildlife days. If we find one to celebrate during our quarantine, we can spend some time learning about that animal and drawing or painting it. And we can do the same for other environmental days as well at this link.

To end, I’d like to share some resources with free online nature activities – for children and adults! Not all the sites require having a yard; even readers living in apartments could get out for a short walk and find something to see, investigate, etc.  Enjoy!!

 

 

 

 

Big-beaked birds – lovely or laughable?

I don’t know how many of us would find a human being with an extremely large nose (e.g., even bigger than the face) and multi-colored head, facial and body hair to be beautiful or even attractive. Perhaps it would depend on the nose shape and which color combinations would be in play? But it is certainly a fact that many of us find big-beaked, multi-hued birds to be alluring and enticing, if not just plain gorgeous, magnificent and delightful to say the least.

Well, Costa Rica does not lack for a variety of big-beaked birds and I found them all appealing, each in their own way. Some were not completely colorful but had splashes of color, like the brown-hued Montezuma oropendola (Psarocolius montezuma) with its white bare patch on the cheek with a pink wattle underneath and mostly yellow tail feathers.

An unusual fact about this bird is that the males are generally twice as heavy as the females. They are called “colonial” nesters, meaning that the females build their pendulous nests (24-71 in/60–180 cm long) near one another in “colonies”. Unfortunately, their nest success is not great with only about one-third of colony nests resulting in a fledgling!

 

These oropendolas tend to forage in small groups in the tree canopies, searching for insects and fruit. Their love of fruit also brings them to feeding platforms, like this one set up to not only entice birds but also the tourists who want to see them. They seemed to especially enjoy papayas and watermelon.

The call that the males especially emit from their bi-colored black and red-tipped beaks is said to resemble water being poured from a bottle, bubbling and gurgling.

The chestnut-headed oropendola (Psarocolius wagleri) resembles the Montezuma species but is a bit less colorful with a pale bill. They are a bit smaller than the Montezumas and fly more quickly. Like their cousins, their broods in hanging nests are also threatened by giant cowbirds (nest parasites) and botflies.

 

We were lucky to see two toucans and a toucanet during our trip to Costa Rica this past year. We had a glimpse of a keel-billed toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratus) high up in trees on a cloudy day. Their large bill measures 4.7-5.9 in (12–15 cm), which is about one-third the size of their entire length! Their zygodactyl feet (two toes facing forwards and two facing backwards) help them balance on branches.

 

We got an up-close and personal view of a couple when we visited a hotel with an adjacent bird park and animal displays. A couple of these birds were in a large aviary, accompanied by two attendants who let people pose for photos with them. I just took photos of the birds and did not have a self-portrait done.

The second toucan that we got to see was the yellow-throated toucan (Ramphastos ambiguus), one of whom seemed to be posing for us during an early morning walk. They have an even larger bill than the keel-billed toucan, which ranges in length from 5.1-7.9 in (12.9-20 cm).

 

 

In 2018, I was able to photograph a couple that were flying by over a river.

     

 

The Northern emerald toucanet (Aulacorhynchus prasinus) is a smaller toucan that also sports a large beak in comparison to its head size. We saw one of these birds every morning at one hotel where we stayed as it was hanging out in trees next to our room cabins. It was often overcast, however, and it wasn’t easy to get a good photo; the same situation arose several days later when we saw one on another rainy day.

 

Luckily, that bird came down to a feeding station set up to attract birds for tourists. You can see its beautiful green body set off with a multi-colored bill that has a distinctive white band at the base.

 

Like other toucans, the toucanet will eat insects and lizards but it, too, has a real fondness for fruit meals, especially berries.

 

In contrast to the oropendolas, this bird’s calls resemble frog croaking and barking!

Unfortunately, it appears that these birds are popular as pets and they are taken from the wild to live in cages. They are popular because they can be affectionate and interact with their “owners” and they can learn tricks.

 

Going back to the bigger birds, Costa Rica has two aracaris, which are also members of the toucan group. They differ from other toucans in their sociability, often roosting in groups of several birds.

We did not see the fiery-billed aracari (Pteroglossus frantzii) during our August 2019 trip, but I had seen one flying by during a trip to Costa Rica in 2018.

It looks similar to the collared aracari but is distinguished by a bright red breast band and its bill is somewhat more colorful. It, too, is mainly frugivorous.

 

The collared aracari (Pteroglossus torquatus) was a frequently seen bird during our August trip through Costa Rica.

 

 

 

 

We visited several spots where people were earning tourist dollars by setting up feeding stations with plenty of fruit to attract a variety of birds. The aracaris were enthusiastic and voracious feeder visitors.

 

When the young aracaris are born, they are blind, naked and have short bills. Their feet also have specialized heel pads to help protect their feet from the rough nest floor. Not only the parents but also other birds help feed them for six weeks, at which point they fledge. The adults will still feed them for a time after they leave the nest as well.

These aracaris are interesting in that their large colorful bills also have a sawtooth pattern on the cutting edges. It can take up to a year for the young birds to develop the notches and color pattern on their beaks.

Now all these photos might give the impression that all the big-beaked birds are large in size, but this is definitely not the case. There are also medium- and small-sized colorful birds that tote around bills large in size when compared to their heads. Among the middle-sized range are two beautiful motmots.

We saw our first turquoise-browed motmot (Eumomota superciliosa) early one morning when it was still dark. A flashlight showed the bird sitting quietly in a tree as we made our way to breakfast. Oddly (to me at least), it didn’t seem very bothered by the bright light and just watched us as we drew near.

We later saw one sitting in a shady area alongside a road. They often perch on fences and wires as well, scanning the area for their diet of insects and lizards. They use their racketed tails for communication purposes, as part of a mating display or as a “pursuit-deterrent signal” to warn predators that they have been seen and will not be able to capture the aware birds. In Costa Rica, these birds have the nickname pájaro bobo (foolish bird) because they will allow humans to get quite near.

         

The broad-billed motmot (Electron platyrhynchum) is also an insectivore and has not been seen consuming fruit. These motmots are less studied than the turquoise-browed species; for example, it is not known how they use the tail rackets for communication.

 

The smallest bird in this account of the big-beaked avians is the rufous-tailed jacamar (Galbula ruficauda), which I first thought might be a large hummingbird. (Some hummers also have enormously large bills and will feature in a later blog.) They measure only 10 inches long (25 cm) with a 2-inch (5 cm) bill.

They are insectivores who will remove an insect’s wings before they swallow it. A surprising finding for me was that they nest in bare earth burrows. They do not keep the burrows clean and the nestlings do not lie down but remain standing so that they protect their feathers from accumulated debris!

On that surprising note, I wish my blog readers a wonderful start to the next decade and hope you all will have a great 2020 with good health, a comfortable living situation and as many hours enjoying our beautiful natural world as possible!

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

Further information

Quebec chronicles – landscapes and signs of humanity: part 2

 

Continuing on from my previous blog about people and landscapes in Quebec: walking along the shorelines was a pleasant activity; the rocky beaches could be quite beautiful and revealed different kinds of plant life there.

 

 

 

 

There were many signs along the roads we traveled; as elsewhere, many indicated how to get from one place to another.

The public toilets were a nice amenity.

In one Native Canadian village, the signs were not only in French but also the indigenous language. And it was nice to see scientific symbols on signs indicating research centers.

Other signs (photographed while in the car so somewhat blurry) advised about reporting crime and safe driving, including one about “cleaning your teeth” (an inside joke about mispronunciation of the French for flashing lights).

 

 

We were asked to watch out for wildlife. We never did see a moose but I saw several white-tailed deer during our trip (just not on the road).

 

We passed houses during our outings, as well as an “old time” covered bridge, for which we made a detour so we could drive through it. One car game was counting the number of “two-toned” houses, i.e., painted in two colors.

 

Barns dotted the landscape as well.

 

I noticed that people in this area used exactly the same recycling and garbage containers as we do in my town; the school buses look like US buses as well.

 

To get to the Tadoussac dunes, we had to cross a waterway on a ferry, which was really quite nice with a viewing deck and clean, spacious restrooms. They did have some signs that made us scratch our heads in a bit of wonderment, however.

 

The dunes where we saw the thousands of birds flying over in migration were lovely, albeit quite windy at times.

 

In the towns we saw some interesting people. I don’t know if the gentleman on the left was doing something in an official capacity, but the puppeteer on the right had apparently just entertained people. At Pointe-au-Pic, a woman was getting in her daily (?) exercise.

The birds continued getting their exercise by looking for insects, buds and seeds in the various deciduous evergreens and other trees.

 

The combination of forests, dunes, beautiful shorelines and waterways, charming villages and friendly people made our stay in Quebec a real pleasure. We were also greeted every morning and evening by a couple white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) who sang loudly to one another. One was singing when we left, too, and it was a very nice goodbye song.

 

 

My memories of the Quebec spring migration journey will be wonderful, too, and the beautifully blooming forget-me-nots (Myosotis) we saw were an apt symbol of remembrance!

 

 

 

Quebec chronicles – landscapes and signs of humanity: part 1

   

To conclude the series on my springtime bird migration trip to Quebec, I’d like to share some of the scenery we saw during our daily outings to and from nature reserves and birding sites in two blogs.

Our rental house in the municipality of Saint Irénée was located on a quiet street, lined with houses that seemed to be mainly rentals. It was a good birding street, lined with lots of vegetation as the houses were mostly set back from the road.

The variety of plants and trees there and in the forests that we visited was lovely.

 

 

 

A number of home-owners had taken time to make nice signs for their houses, presumably so they would be easy to find by renters.

 

 

 

One house caught everyone’s eye as they walked the road; it sat high on a hill and was a striking construction that seemed to be mostly glass. The views from there must have been wonderful.

 

 

Other houses’ yards were brightened with art work and nice gardening features.

 

 

When we left to reach each day’s destination, our route invariably passed along the St. Lawrence Seaway, which we could see in the distance as we also passed by permanent residents’ homes and churches.

 

The paper birches and quaking aspens were really beautiful trees that we saw almost everywhere.

 

 

 

The piers at Pointe au Pic and Saint-Irénée were charming and we returned there several times.

One day, a couple had brought a picnic to enjoy, even though it was a bit cool.

The piers were interesting. Fellow traveler Chloe posed near an “object of interest”!

To my delight, one pier had a little neighborhood lending library there.

Numerous signs advised visitors on behavior during their walks on the piers.

 

 

At Saint-Irénée, signs with photos related the history of the town and its pier.

We did not only stay around Saint-Irénée and Pointe-au-Pic, however; see the next blog for other sights we saw while driving around.