Quebec chronicles – the non-avian wildlife

While birding has become a beloved pastime for me, I think of myself mostly as a wildlife photographer. I enjoy observing (new) insects, reptiles and mammals as much as I like seeing birds and find their behaviors just as fascinating. So I was also on the lookout for non-avian wildlife during our recent migration trip.

You could tell that springtime was flourishing as plants were putting out new leaves and buds. There were gorgeous red (Trillium erectum) and white trilliums (Trillium grandiflorum).

 

Fiddlehead ferns were popping up everywhere. And a new flower for me was the white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda).

Yellow trout lilies (Erythronium americanum) were emerging and red columbines (Aquilegia canadensis) dangled their pretty red and yellow blooms.

Red osier dogwoods (Cornus sericea) were in meadows at one park and in the area where we were staying, multiple shadbush (serviceberry, Amelanchier) trees were in bloom.

Quite an unusual plant turned up in Pointe au Pic near an area with local shops. I had not seen one like this before – a helpful member of a plant identification group told me it was a rhubarb (Rheum).

The dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) we saw were very large in comparison to those I’ve seen in North Carolina (NC). Interesting is that the official name in French is “pissenlit”, which literally translated would be “piss in bed” (although proper French speakers would say “Pisse au lit”). In any event, dandelions can not only be eaten in salads but also be used as a diuretic, so perhaps centuries ago the French Quebeçois were referring to the flower’s properties in describing it. Another French name for the bloom is “lion’s teeth” or “dents de lion” (from which the English word dandelion came).

The insects were taking advantage of those edible yellow flowers; both spiders and ants were busy crawling around them.

 

A beautiful syrphid fly was also busy getting its meal, while an unknown moth flitted down to rest in the middle of a road.

There were butterflies at the shorelines, like this Lucia azure (Celastrina lucia) and mussel shells rested on rocks.

 

 

A spur-throated grasshopper (Melanoplus) was hanging out on a pissenlit, and a diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella) turned up in a photo of another plant (not a great photo but a lifer insect for me).

A beautiful honey bee (Apis mellifera) was covered in pollen.

Another new insect for me was the tricolored bumble bee (Bombus ternarius).

A few mammals appeared during our spring vacation, although not the hoped-for moose. (We unfortunately saw one black bear, but it had been hit on the road.) On several days, I caught sight of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) bounding away, both in the area where we were staying and in the parks that we visited. I managed to catch a glimpse of an Eastern chipmunk, too, but it wouldn’t come out from behind some twigs for a photo shoot.

Much more cooperative were the American red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), which feed primarily on conifer cone seeds. They also enjoy other foods such as mushrooms, which were beginning to grow profusely like this nice morel.

The chickarees (another name for these rodents) were often out and about along the roadway where our rental house was located.

On one day, I ran into a small squirrel that seemed to have a problem with its left eye. However, it might have been a trick of the light. I tried to get another view, but the little rodent wouldn’t let me get around to its other side to take a photo. In any event, they are beautiful little creatures (generally smaller than the large gray squirrels that reside in my yard).

A very pleasant surprise during our trip was running into some groundhogs (Marmota monax, also known as whistle pigs and woodchucks). It is said that they tend to avoid swampy areas and like open fields and meadows but both woodchucks we saw were spotted near water. The first one we saw popped up near a cove on a paved road leading down to the water. The mammal was surprised by our group which had occupied a space between the water and nearby vegetation areas.

 

We tried to stay in one area so the groundhog could go around us, but s/he was uncertain about passing us, making several forays in our direction, turning around and then heading back again to get to the bushes and trees.

 

Finally, the groundhog screwed up its courage and ran at high speed past us and disappeared into the trees.

 

A couple days later, one of our group spotted another groundhog that was foraging in the newly leafing out shrubs alongside a creek that ran into a cove. The large rodent was agile and able to climb up into spindly little trees.

 

 

 

 

Its bulk also made it lose its footing a few times, but the mammal managed to hold on and regain its balance so that it could continue munching on the fresh food. It was delightful watching this beautiful rodent going about its daily business.

Another mammal that proved to be a bit elusive for me (others in our group were able to get some good out-in-the-open views) was the snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus). During our first full day of exploring, we spotted one bounding away into the underbrush, which was quite exciting. Then a few days later in the Tadoussac dunes, a hare suddenly bounded out of nearby shrubs to dash across the sand into another group of shrubs. I didn’t get sharp shots as I only caught sight of it out of the corner of my eye and it was almost gone as I swung my camera around.

The hares that we saw were not yet done changing into their “summer” colors and still had some winter white fur on their impressive huge feet. These mammals begin breeding in mid-March and females may have up to four litters a year. They often communicate with one another using their feet, thumping them on the ground to make messages.

On another day, I spotted a hare foraging in a brushy area. In the winter, they eat twigs, bark and buds but in summer they can enjoy grasses, clover, dandelions and other green plants. This hare was enjoying the fresh food, but I felt sad looking at her (or him) as its head was covered in ticks. I don’t know if the animal was particularly vulnerable because it was young, maybe not completely healthy or just had the bad luck to have sat in a nest of the nasty insects. I hoped that the hare would be able to go on in health after the insects fell off.

 

 

The snowshoe hares prefer to be in dense groundcover, so they are somewhat hidden from predators (coyotes, fox, lynx, minks, owls, hawks) while they search for food. Their “cousins” back in my residential area, the Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) also need to worry about predators (owls, hawks, crows, raccoons) but one pair has become quite relaxed in my yard. Here you see dad (left) and mom (right).

As far as I can tell, they had one surviving offspring. They don’t generally seem too frightened, however, and almost everyday I see them lounging in a relaxed manner in the back yard, in contrast to those beautiful but elusive snowshoe hares. I was glad to have seen the hares though.

Two more Quebec chronicles to go: the “flashy” and yellowish birds and signs of humans along the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Costa Rican rambles 6A – Los Cusingos

Finally, back to Costa Rica (in memory)! The past couple months were very busy and often stressful for me, so it is so very nice to again look back to the wonderful days we had looking for Central American birds (and other wildlife) in Costa Rica. On the fourth day of our 9-day trip, we moved to another hotel for a couple nights, stopping several times along the way to bird along roads. The photos from this day were not that great, but they do provide an impression of what we were seeing.

Before we left, we birded the grounds of the hotel where we had spent the night. There were some pretty flowers and a white-crested coquette hummingbird (Lophornis adorabilis), as well as a rather large long-horned borer beetle (perhaps Callipogon barbatus species, but that’s not certain).

We spent some time peering into a rather dark and dense brushy area, looking for uncommon wrens. I was able to photograph a rufous-breasted wren (Pheugopedius rutilus) with some difficulty. Then, just before boarding our bus, a yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima) perched in a nearby tree, giving us some nice views.

  

Our first stop, however, was a park called Los Cusingos, which is a property formerly owned by US botanist Alexander Skutch. He lived there for 63 years until his death at the age of 99 years. While Skutch earned an income collecting plants for museums, his passion was birds and he wrote more than 40 books and 200 papers on ornithonology.

  

Now his former home is part of a bird sanctuary run by the Tropical Science Center and you can see a variety of birds, like this buff-throated saltator (Saltator maximus) and the yellow-olive flycatcher (Tolmomyias sulphurescens).

        

The staff had put out fruit on a feeding station to attract birds and this brought in several, including a female Cherrie’s tanager (Ramphocelus costaricensis) and a golden-hooded tanager (Tangara larvata).

     

The station was also very attractive to a red-tailed squirrel (Sciurus granatensis), who was not in the least perturbed by our presence nearby.

We set off onto the trails in search of new avian species but also had time to admire many types of trees and plants, which I still must identify. Some had very sharp spines.

The dense foliage with a little sun creating dappled views made photography a challenge for me. But I did get a couple photos of a little bird called the plain xenops (Xenops minutus).

As we hiked, a few beautiful butterflies appeared; the one with orange spots was, I believe, a crimson patch (Chlosyne janais) and the other was a zebra-striped hairstreak (Panthiades bathildis).

A chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), familiar to me from North Carolina, put in an appearance and a lovely little lesser greenlet (Hylophilus decurtatus) peered out from some large leaves.

A summer tanager (Piranga rubra), which I’ve been lucky to have in my own yard, was a pleasure to see, as was a spot-crowned euphonia (Euphonia imitans).

  

One of my favorite birds, of which I unfortunately had blurry photos, was the entertaining red-capped manakin (Ceratopipra mentalis). He stayed very high in the canopy and was sometimes behind leaves but, when he emerged, he did a great sideways moonwalk back and forth on the branch, which was part of his courtship behavior. What a very cool sighting!

   

Back near the entrance to the reserve, there were some lovely orchids and a brilliant green honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza) to see us off as we set off on the road – to be continued in the next blog!

  

Costa Rican rambles 5B: the Talari Mountain Lodge and environs

 

After fully experiencing the “honey dew” (another name for cicada urine), we set off for the next university site, an area where students learn about planting. A statue of the Virgin Mary welcomed visitors and we admired some of the beautiful plantings and their seeds that were attracting plenty of insects.

   

 

We then left to make a quick stop at a park called Los Cusingos, that we would visit at length later; this was just a quick bathroom break before we took to the road again. My photo of the gray-headed tanager was not that great but you can see how beautiful the red passionflower (Passiflora vitifolia) at the entrance was.

As we drove to a place called Las Nubes, we passed private homes with their filled metal framework trash bins in front, a cemetery and plenty of banana plants.

 

   

One of our group members stepped in an anthill when trying to avoid puddles and traffic, which led to some stinging bites. In the meantime, others were trying to see various species of birds that were staying low in the vegetation along the road. I spotted a rather large wasp nest in a nearby tree, likely of the Synoeca septentrionalis species.

   

 

 

At some distance, there was a yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima) sitting on a branch. These raptors are about 16-18 inches in length (41-46 cm) and part of their diet is carrion. They also eat reptiles, amphibians and other small birds, while avoiding birds as food. They take ticks off cattle as well, which gives them a thumbs up from me – any bird that eats ticks is a friend.

 

A gorgeous smooth-billed ani (Crotophaga ani) was sitting calmly as we milled around in the road. Some people might find this bird homely, but I think it is quite handsome despite a somewhat bulbous beak. They, too, are on my “good birds” list as they sometimes eat ticks and other parasites off of grazing animals. Another nice characteristic is their communal child-raising strategy – several pairs cooperate to build a nest together, in which several females than lay their eggs. They share the incubation and feeding of nestlings – hippies of the bird world!

 

We traveled on and the views along the road were beautiful, with the mountains and valleys in the distance and then we caught sight of some swallow-tailed kites (Elanoides forficatus) soaring over the nearest valley. We saw one land in a tree and it turned out that they were building a nest there. In the photo, you can see a small white patch on the right-hand side of the tree, which is the female kite on the nest.

As we waited patiently, a few kites began flying overhead; one with nesting material clutched in its claws.

 

They soared and swooped, giving us delightful views of their flight and then one came by with a meal that it had caught – a poor little chameleon or lizard.

 

We admired the Talamanca mountain range called La Amistad (Friendship), which separates Costa Rica from Panama. Starting in 1979, these two countries’ governments began a process to conserve the entire range, which is home to four indigenous groups of humans, 600 avian species, 215 mammal species, 250 species of amphibians and reptiles, 115 species of fish and some 10,000 flowering plants! As UNESCO has noted, this is: “one of the very few transboundary World Heritage properties, an excellent intergovernmental framework for coordinated and cooperative management and conservation.”

 

After a nice lunch, we continued visiting other sites, including one near a Canadian project. That afternoon, I saw my first trogon species – the gartered trogon (Trogon caligatus), another handsome bird to be sure.

 

      

While the rest of the group followed Steve’s instructions for sighting some birds hiding in underbrush on a slope, fellow traveler Janet and I watched some leaf-cutter ants (Atta cephalotes) at their labors. Sometimes, I was just not tall enough to see over shrubs to locate a bird and I love all wildlife anyway, so watching the ants in their industrious endeavor was fun.

On our way back to the lodge for supper, we passed small roadside stores and Steve spotted a fork-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus savanna) for us.

 

 

Back at Talari, I did some sightseeing from the balcony of my room, spotting a lengthy and messy-looking flycatcher nest, a variegated squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides) traversing the tree canopy and a pair of palm tanagers (Thraupis palmarum), who were tending an offspring.

 

                       

At first, I thought the fledged bird was a different species as it sat under a leafy canopy, but later I saw the parents with it. Then it surprised Janet, who was staying next door – she called me over to see the fledgling who had flown into her room and was sitting in the middle of the floor.

   

She also had two nests under the roof of her balcony, one of which definitely belonged to a clay-colored thrush (Turdus grayi).

   

After admiring one of the neighbors’ cows and social flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis), I caught sight of a quiet beauty sitting on a branch in front of my room.

  

 

The Lesson’s motmot (Momotus lessonii), also known as the blue-diademed motmot, has a bright red eye and beautiful tail with what some birding sites call a “raquet tip”.

 

As we set off for the dining area, we were treated to a visit from a streaked flycatcher (Myiodynastes maculatus), quite a good-looking bird with its heavily streaked back, breast and face.

  

As we passed through some vegetation before dinner, I saw a gorgeous flowering banana as a blue-feathered and red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus) flew high overhead.

   

Even though we often were looking for birds in dark and leafy/shady areas, I avoided using a flash but when I saw the lemur anole (Norops lemurinus) on a tree, I gave in so that I coul d get a photo.

 

As dusk came on and we looked out from the dining area, we got to see some fiery-billed aracaris (Pteroglossus frantzii) in the distance.

 

 

While some others in our group got to see one close up, that was not my fate, but the next morning, the aracaris were in a little better light though still far away, allowing me to get a bit better photos.

 

   

We ended our second night at Talari Lodge with an owling outing – Steve managed to draw in a tropical screech owl (Megascops choliba) by playing its call on his phone. The owl who came had had an injury to one eye, with a pupil that would no longer dilate but s/he seemed to be flying fine and looked healthy. That bird gave us a nice long look at its beautiful self so that we retired for the night with a feeling of birding satisfaction!

 

 

Costa Rican rambles 4: Bosque del Tolomuco

After lunch on our first day birding, we set off to visit a lodge called Bosque del Tolomuco, named after a weasel-like mammal called a tayra (tolomuco in Spanish). Located in the Talamanca mountains, the gardens featured three fruit feeders and numerous flowering plants, shrubs and trees that attract varied birds.

About 600 of the 870 species of birds recorded in Costa Rica are year-round residents and a considerable number are endemic to this West Virginia-sized country (and Panama). In addition, about 200 species of birds migrate there during the North American winter. At this stop, I saw a couple migrants as well, notably a Baltimore oriole and a rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus).

A large bird was at one of the fruit feeders when we arrived; it was a gray-headed chachalaca (Ortalis cinereiceps). This particular feeder seemed to attract larger creatures – a little while later, a red-tailed squirrel (Sciurus granatensis) showed up.

   

Some smaller birds were feeding on fruit and nectar shrubs. One was the bananaquit (Coereba flaveola) with a striped head; the other was a somewhat drab bird with a fancy name, the paltry tyrannulet (Zimmerius vilissimus).

 

 

 

 

The male and female red-headed barbets (Eubucco bourcierii) were anything but drab; in fact, they were quite eye-catching. Their striped abdomens made me think of a man’s striped trousers.

   

High overhead, making a good shot a bit difficult, were some blue-headed elegant euphonias (Euphonia elegantissima). At least I got a recognizable photo of them, unlike my attempts to photograph some sparrow species who appeared in darker shadowy areas.

  

Several of my birding friends are raptor fans; a couple others are very partial to warblers. On this trip, I realized that I am quite fond of tanagers. I saw a few summer tanagers in Costa Rica but was really delighted by the species native to this country. Several were enjoying fruit at feeders, including a beautiful blue-gray tanager (Thraupis episcopus). Some birds are not so brightly colored but have a muted beauty, which was how I saw this species.

The male Cherrie’s tanager (Ramphocelus costaricensis) with his black plumage highlighted by a red rump is eye-catching; his female companion was also a real looker with her soft orange, olive and yellow colors.

 

 

The silver-throated tanagers (Tangara icterocephala) immediately became one of my favorites; their beautiful shades of yellow were stunning as far as I was concerned.

They were accompanied by a larger bird, a buff-throated saltator (Saltator maximus), which is related to the tanagers.

  

 

Another very attractive bird was the speckled tanager (Tangara guttata).

 

 

The flame-colored tanager (Piranga bidentata), which I had seen before, continued to delight with its bright colors. There were also several hummingbird species, which I think I have identified properly. Their rapid flights on an overcast day that was darkening as the afternoon progressed made for some challenging photography, but it was fun trying to capture them. The snowy-bellied hummingbirds (Amazilia edward) were the first ones I saw.

   

The bottlebrush flowers (Callistemon) appeared to be a very attractive food source for them.

     

A green hermit (Phaethornis guy) was dashing in and out among the hanging flowers to get some nectar.

       

 

The very cute white-crested coquette (Lophornis adorabilis), on the other hand, was flitting from bush to bush for quick meals and then finally decided to pose for a while. I couldn’t resist taking multiple photos of this little beauty.

 

 

 

  

  

The green-crowned brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula) was a much larger hummingbird. Both females (with white and green spotted breast) and males were taking nectar from feeders and then taking little rests on nearby shrubs.

     

The stripe-tailed hummingbird (Eupherusa eximia) was enjoying the bottlebrush blooms, too.

The gray-tailed mountain gems (Lampornis cinereicauda), which I’d seen earlier in the day at Miriam’s restaurant, were here as well and much more difficult to photograph in between flowers rather than feeders. However, I was able to get better glimpses of their colorful feathers as they turned their heads in the light.

 

Finally, the white-tailed emeralds (Elvira chionura) rounded out the group of hummers to admire at the Bosque del Tolomuco.

We finally left the lodge after admiring a blue and white swallow on our way to the Talari Mountain Lodge. Along the way, I saw a horse (Equus caballus) – which finally satisfied my desire to see an animal other than a bird! We then stopped along a street and later at a soccer field in San Isidro El General, where local boys were having a game – half of them wore shoes and half were barefoot (perhaps their way of identifying team membership).  A tropical mockingbird (Mimus gilvus) was moving along treetops, while a great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) perched in another tree.

 

The bromeliads were again beautiful. Our guide directed our attention to the underbrush, however, as he had spotted an Isthmian wren (Cantorchilus elutus). We stared at the dark leaves, waiting for some movement that would indicate where the little bird was; finally, it emerged from behind some leaves for several seconds so we could get a better look.

 

  

As cattle egrets flew by overhead, we saw a lesser elaenia (Elaenia chiriquensis) and then a yellow-bellied elaenia (Elaenia flavogaster), which reminded me of the great-crested flycatcher I have seen in my own yard.

  

A cool seed pod and rose-breasted grosbeak caught my attention.

 

 

And then the highlight of that stop for me came by – a streak-headed woodcreeper (Lepidocolaptes souleyetii).

  

We arrived at the Talari Lodge for a quick stroll in the garden before our meal and then prepared for an early morning walk to the nearby river. More to come!

My squirrel nemesis – a worthy opponent!

Today is Squirrel Appreciation Day in the USA, a holiday created by Christy Hargrove, a  wildlife rehabilitator affiliated with the Western North Carolina Nature Center. The Eastern gray squirrel species (Sciurus carolinensus) was first recorded in the Carolinas, so I thought I’d honor this wild creature by sharing some photos of the squirrels in my yard who sometimes drive me up the wall with frustration. There is one in particular who can get my ire up. Of course, I realize it may not always be the same creature – perhaps several of “my” squirrels are taking turns in trying to overcome my measures to keep them off my bird feeders. But I do think one in particular is especially tenacious and persistent.

The yard squirrels are lucky since my neighbor has beech trees and I have a couple oak trees that provide plenty of acorns; these mammals therefore have plenty of nuts to store for winter. I periodically see them digging little holes in the lawn and different parts of the garden, “squirreling away” the nuts they have found in the trees. I also saw one burying some grapes that I had put out for the birds; that didn’t seem like a good strategy to me, but I have since learned that they will make temporary caches so perhaps that squirrel was just hoarding a treat for later. They have also occasionally gone after the persimmons.

These squirrels aren’t satisfied with the natural bounty of the yard, however. They also want to get the nuts and seeds in my bird feeders, even when they have been able to  partake of the bounty strewn over the earth for the ground-feeding birds.

I learned early on that the bird feeder poles need to be at least 10 feet away from the roof of my house and any sturdy shrubs or stumps that they can use as a launching pad to bypass the baffles placed on poles to outwit them. They do go up the raccoon baffle from time to time, testing whether they now might find a way through it but so far that has not been a useful strategy for them. One has managed to climb a thick-stalked sunflower so that it could nip off the seed bud.

I had put a couple stumps in my front flower garden as natural decorations. Then, it appeared that one of the squirrels was using a stump as a launching pad – managing to land above the baffles atop the nut and fruit feeders.

    

I made the mistake of putting an oriole feeder on a pole without a baffle; I didn’t think it would attract the squirrels but apparently the jelly and nectar did appeal to one individual.

  

Another time I had only a hummingbird nectar feeder on one pole, which seemed rather flimsy. But the squirrel had to check it out all the same, even though there was nothing to its liking there.

As I have been removing invasive plants and shrubs from my yard, I’ve been adding native shrubs and plants. At one point, I thought it would be nice to have a black walnut (Juglans nigra) so I took a couple walnuts home from a park and then planted them in a deep plant pot with lots of soil over it. I had looked around beforehand and didn’t see a squirrel anywhere watching me, so I thought it was ok.

The next morning, I found a pile of walnut husks in the carport next to the plant pot. Then the next day, I saw one of the squirrels making off with the remaining walnut. Apparently, they can re-locate their hoarding caches partly by memory and partly by smell – so this squirrel must have discovered the tasty walnut by its odor (which I couldn’t detect at all).

 

  

   

The Eastern gray squirrels are only one of earth’s 200 squirrel species (there are four others in the USA: the fox squirrel, red squirrel, Northern and Southern flying squirrels and the ground squirrels, like this Uinta ground squirrel (Urocitellus armatus) seen in Yellowstone National Park.

 

I’m glad that I mostly only deal with one species and while I must admit that I don’t appreciate them every day, I always do admire their tenacity, perseverance and ingenuity in finding ways to overcome my strategies for outwitting them. The squirrels are not only a source of food for the neighborhood hawks, but also a source of entertainment for the humans.