Swallow sibling spats – who gets the food??

Mother Nature came through for me again a week ago, treating me to an interesting session of cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) behavior. (I first thought they were barn swallows but then noted they didn’t have deeply forked tail feathers.) I had noticed the swallows flying high above me as I walked to a favorite birding spot where I hoped to see hummingbirds feeding on the profusely blooming trumpet vines. Instead, I got a lesson on how swallow siblings may interact.

Occasionally a couple birds would come very near one another in flight. My attempts to get good shots were however stymied by their very swift swooping.  As I came upon the structure where I would position myself for the next 80 minutes, I noticed five swallows sitting on a wire, all of them preening and grooming. It was only after taking multiple photos and one flying off that I realized the group included both adults and juveniles.

 

At one point, all but one flew away; he (assuming a male for convenience’s sake) was alone for a good bit of time. Occasionally, he would stretch his feathers or teeter on the wire; I wondered if he had hurt his wings and was therefore staying put, unable to fly.

It turned out that he was just waiting for a parent to arrive with food. The bird would stretch his wings and put them out a bit to help with balance but otherwise didn’t move except when a parent came within earshot. Then he began fluttering his wings and calling with an open mouth guaranteed to trigger the instinct to stuff something down it.

   

Sometimes, this meant having to turn his head 180° to get it in the right position for the deposit of an insect. This had the desired results.

The bird was alone on the wire for perhaps 20 minutes or so – and then was joined by a couple others. They looked a bit bigger and more developed but I finally realized that these were the bird’s siblings, who had been doing more to practice their flight capabilities.

  

“Wire” bird maneuvered his way down the wire in stages to end up right next to, and then almost on top of, one sibling. He almost seemed to be pecking the bird. This did not go down well and finally brother/sister left after wire bird moved back and forth.

 

The parents arrived sporadically with food, perhaps hoping that wire bird would finally take off – and then he finally did, showing he was not injured at all. I think he simply wanted to have table service and figured staying on the wire with an open mouth was easier than having to try catching lunch on the wing like his siblings.

   

Two siblings finally decided to perch on the wire, too, all making sure to keep some distance between themselves. Perhaps they were tuckered out after all those flights; one took a few naps between visits from mom and dad.

Wire bird was very good at attracting his parents’ attention so the other two tried to become more vocal and began fluttering their wings more as well. They also moved closer to him, likely hoping to intercept a meal.

  

 

Things became a bit more difficult for the parents, who could scarcely alight on the wire before having the food snatched away!

 

 

 

  

Then, one of the siblings seemed to have had enough of wire bird’s success and approached him – to wire bird’s dismay.

They had a little spat!

 

  

  

Sibling No. 2 also took a turn at wire bird – they seemed to be saying that enough was enough and he had to stop monopolizing mom and dad’s attention, care and feeding.

   

  

When a crow arrived, everybody flew off in a panic but it wasn’t long before wire bird was back in place. Mom and dad began arriving much more regularly and the siblings decided being on the wire would be more productive than trying to find their own food. The parents finally began feeding the siblings more and everyone seemed to be pleased with that arrangement.

Towards the end of my 80-minute observation stint, I reflected on how patience showed me much more of what was happening than I had first assumed. If I had left after 20 minutes, I might have gone away feeling sorry for wire bird, thinking he couldn’t fly well and had to rely on his faithful parents. It was only by staying and watching that I saw the nest mates have their spats and I had a new narrative to explain the behavior I was seeing.

 

It would be so interesting to be a researcher who follows the development of a species, avian or otherwise. When I was younger, I probably didn’t have the amount of patience needed to spend more than an hour in position to see what would happen next. Now it was a sore arm from holding up my heavy camera and zoom lens that ended my session. But I’m grateful that I have the time and calm now to watch and wait and wonder about what will happen next. And other than the camera equipment and gas expenses, it’s an inexpensive way to keep learning and enjoying the fabulous natural areas that still remain.

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!

The dance of the sandhill cranes

sandhill crane I77A7926© Maria de Bruyn resDuring my trip to Yellowstone National Park, I had the privilege of seeing what birders call “lifers” – bird species that one sees for the first time. One spectacular sighting – for me – was of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). I didn’t spot them first; I was traveling with two photographers from Michigan who were used to seeing these beautiful birds in their backyards. We had already passed but they kindly returned so I could take a few photos – and then to our delight, the pair of birds performed their mating dance for us!

These birds mate for life and may live to a considerable age. The oldest known sandhill crane was 36.5 years old.

sandhill crane I77A7910© Maria de Bruyn resWhile many of these birds are grayish in color, some have rusty orange coloring, attributable to iron-rich mud in their environment. In Yellowstone, the birds use their long bills to spread the reddish mud over their feathers when they preen and this helps to camouflage them when nesting. Cranes that are not yet mature also have reddish upper parts. Their heads are topped by a red patch.

 

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These birds have very long legs and necks as you can see. Their windpipes curl up in the sternum and give their sounds a lower pitch. Mated pairs will sing in unison, with the female calling twice for every call that her mate makes.

 

 

The males dance when they display to one another. Courtship dances can involve bowing followed by leaps into the air. They may stretch their wings and pump their heads as well.

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The pair would dance and stop, dance and stop. A real pas de deux (in French and ballet terms)!

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Perhaps some ballet terminology was inspired (unconsciously) by the graceful cranes.

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Grand jeté (jump from one foot to the other)

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Sur les pointes (on tiptoes)

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Demi-plié (Half-bend of the knees)

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Fondu (sinking down)

Dancers have tried to mimic cranes and while they created a beautiful dance, the sandhill cranes had more varied moves.

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The courtship dance was a tour de force and a highlight of my first day at this national park. In hindsight, I wish I had taped it but I was so enthralled, I forgot. 🙂