A surprise at the pond

1 Bynum IMG_0631© Maria de Bruyn res

A combination of abundant vegetation and some type of water — a creek, river, wetland, pond or lake — is one of my favorite types of natural area to visit for wildlife watching and photography. Water attracts wildlife and increases the chance of seeing something unexpected. 

This was the case recently at a local nature reserve. A few days earlier, I’d seen many goldfinches and warblers at one of the ponds, but this day it was very quiet. I descended a small slope to stand on a mudflat and was suddenly surprised by a large splash to my left.

2 Brumley pond IMG_0643 © Maria de Bruyn res

When I looked, I saw a largish head forging across the water in front of me. My first thought was that it was a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) as there is no beaver lodge in this enclosed pond.

3 American beaver P8132481© Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats and beavers look very similar, but beavers (Castor canadensis) tend to be much larger. This was a hefty individual who seemed fairly relaxed as s/he swam along.

4 American beaver P8132423© Maria de Bruyn res

As I watched the mammal swim back and forth for a while, I tentatively concluded that it was a beaver, based on my previous sightings of this rodent species. Still, I wasn’t quite sure and kept hoping that the animal would raise its tail so that I would have a decisive clue to its identity.

Beavers have large flat tails, while muskrats have long, thin tails. Finally, as s/he swam by again, I got a glimpse of the tail for a couple seconds and it was large and flat! Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of that (see a previous blog for some photos showing the beaver’s tail).

 

5 American beaver P8132456© Maria de Bruyn res

As I watched and took photos, a couple walked by with their dog and stopped to watch as well. I moved down the path and heard the gentleman exclaim, “Oh, it’s a beaver!” I turned and he explained that he had thought the swimmer was a muskrat, but he had just seen the tail, too.

6 American beaver IMG_0256© Maria de Bruyn res

The aquatic mammal climbed up onto a log for a bit to groom and relax and, as the couple remarked, almost seemed to be posing for me. The beaver kept its back to me most of the time though. 

 

14 American beaver P8132476 © Maria de Bruyn res

I began to walk back down the path in hopes of getting a head-on view if the beaver decided to swim again. S/he did indeed slip back into the water to resume swimming back and forth. And then to my delight, a small head popped up going the other direction!

7 American beaver and muskrat P8132482 © Maria de Bruyn res

For some reason, I just assumed that it was a baby beaver, swimming around under the watchful eye of a parent. The newly arrived rodent seemed to be very intent on eating and dove down into the pond to bring up some tasty vegetation.8 Muskrat P8132671 © Maria de Bruyn res

It then swam over to the mudflat where I had been, and I ventured back there.

9 Muskrat P8132493© Maria de Bruyn res

Moving slowly and maintaining a good distance from the dining animal, I was able to get some good views as it enjoyed its meal.

10 Muskrat P8132618© Maria de Bruyn res

11 Muskrat P8132497 © Maria de Bruyn res

12 Muskrat P8132506 © Maria de Bruyn resWhile the beaver’s fur remained sleek on its head and back after being submerged a while, the little one’s fur stuck together in clumps all over its head and body. To me it looked a bit like a punk teenager — an analogy that undoubtedly came to mind because I was thinking of it as a baby or adolescent beaver.

This was one of the cutest wildlife spottings I had had in recent weeks, and I was thoroughly enjoying it. But I began doubting if this animal was indeed a beaver. I never saw its tail but at one point, I could see some orange teeth that reminded me of beaver incisors.

13 Muskrat teeth P8132647© Maria de Bruyn res

Of course, the diner didn’t care and just kept diving for more veggies to eat. The large beaver appeared to have left in the meantime.

15 Muskrat P8132510© Maria de Bruyn res

It was when I was reviewing identity characteristics of beavers vs muskrats while writing this blog that I ultimately came to a final conclusion about whom I had been watching. This was based on several websites that provided some good ID clues:

Beavers tend to weigh about 35-70 or even up to 100 lbs (15-30 or even 45 kg), Muskrats generally weigh only about 2-5 lbs (0.9-2.3 kg).

Beavers’ ears protrude from their heads as they swim around (first photo below), while muskrats’ ears lie flat (second photo below). Beavers also have larger noses.

16 American beaver P8132453© Maria de Bruyn res

17 Muskrat P8132673 © Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats dive down to get vegetation from pond bottoms to eat, which my second visitor was very busy doing indeed. Beavers strip bark and leaves from trees and in my experience (having watched beavers eat close by a couple years ago), they can be quite noisy chewers.

18 Muskrat P8132574© Maria de Bruyn res

I’d enjoyed the idea of having seen a parent-and-child beaver duo but, in hindsight, I concluded that I’d been watching a beaver and a muskrat sharing pond space.

19 American beaver P8132475 © Maria de Bruyn res

This was also a very cool event since neither one had been shy. A lack of other human passersby (only the one couple strolled by in the space of almost an hour) may have made them feel comfortable. It was certainly a treat for me!

20 Muskrat P8132665© Maria de Bruyn res

Next up: fateful days for frogs….

The maker of spoons – a bird delighting people worldwide

1 roseate spoonbill P8040500 © Maria de Bruyn card (2)

In different countries, the bird genus Platalea has given rise to similar common names for birds in this group, all based on their unique bills. In Dutch, lepelaar used to mean “maker of spoons” but now the first dictionary definition refers to this type of bird. Spanish speakers gave these avians the moniker “spatula bird” (pájaro espátula), while in many other languages they are called the “spoon birds” (Romanian, Icelandic, Bahasa Indonesia, Shona, etc.). In English, we call this unique animal the spoonbill.

6 roseate spoonbill P8040996© Maria de Bruyn res

Many people find spoonbills fascinating, including me, so it was with happy anticipation that I traveled to see an immature roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) that had decided to forage in our county. When I arrived, I scanned the cow pond where the bird had been seen, but the only animals there were several large cows! I decided not to wait around since the cattle were enjoying the water and it was unlikely any birds were going to join them.

A couple days later, I returned, parked along the road and walked up to the fence to peer down at the pond again. A great egret (Ardea alba, below) was foraging, some barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) were occasionally swooping over the water, and some Canada geese (Branta canadensis) were wandering around but no spoonbill was in sight.

2 great egret P8040974© Maria de Bruyn-sgd res

3 roseate spoonbill P8040309 © Maria de Bruyn resIn contrast to other birds, spoonbills do not vocalize much except for some low grunts made while they are feeding. I didn’t hear any bird sound and after some 20 minutes or so, I thought perhaps the young spoonbill had decided to move on. Then suddenly s/he emerged from grasses bordering the pond and I was able to observe the bird for quite some time.

4 roseate spoonbill P8040325© Maria de Bruyn res

5 roseate spoonbill P8040961© Maria de Bruyn resThere are six spoonbill species worldwide; the roseate spoonbill lives in North, Central and South America. The other five species have white plumage, while the roseate spoonbill adults have a white neck, bare head, bright pink back and rump feathers and a greyish bill. The immature birds have feathered heads their first three years and pale pink feathers. The color on our county’s visitor showed up more brightly when the sky was overcast rather than sunny.

The spoonbills’ coloration comes from their food. Their diet consists of crustaceans, snails, fish and aquatic insects found in both fresh and salt water. Aquatic invertebrates have pigments called carotenoids and when the spoonbills eat them, their feathers turn pink.

7 roseate spoonbill P8041138 © Maria de Bruyn res

Depending on the birds’ age, location and breeding status, the color intensity can vary from a pale pink to very bright magenta or carmine.

8 roseate spoonbill P8040580 © Maria de Bruyn card (2) 9 roseate spoonbill P8040517© Maria de Bruyn res

10 roseate spoonbill P8040340 © Maria de Bruyn resWhen chicks are born, they do not yet have a spoon-shaped bill; it only begins to flatten out when they are 9 days old; the final shape is achieved by 39 days. The bill can be 5.7 to 7.1 inches long (14.5-18 cm). It is about an inch wide just beneath the birds’ eyes and then widens to about 2 inches at the end.

It might seem that these very large bills could make life difficult for the spoonbills but they use these spatula-like appendages efficiently when feeding. Their nostrils are located at the base of the bill so that they can breathe while foraging.

11 roseate spoonbill P8040346 © Maria de Bruyn res

Their technique is to stalk slowly, leaning forward with their bills submerged as they swing their heads from side to side. Israeli scientists discovered that when the bill sways back and forth, it creates tiny whirlpools that suck up prey submerged in the water. When the prey touches the bird’s bill, it snaps shut as nerves at the bill tip are stimulated; the prey is then usually swallowed whole.

12 roseate spoonbill P8040425 © Maria de Bruyn res

13 roseate spoonbill P8040365 © Maria de Bruyn res

Spoonbills prefer to feed in shallow water that is usually less than 5 inches deep. This would account for the fact that the spoonbill I watched was making circuits around the edge of the pond, never going into the center.

14 roseate spoonbill P8040395© Maria de Bruyn res

15 roseate spoonbill P8040566© Maria de Bruyn res

16 roseate spoonbill P8040703 © Maria de Bruyn res

One thing in particular struck me as the cow pond bird walked and stalked. When s/he raised his/her head and opened the bill, it looked to me as if the spoonbill was laughing or at least looking very friendly and smiling!

17 roseate spoonbill P8040521© Maria de Bruyn res

18 roseate spoonbill P8040427© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

19 roseate spoonbill P8040524© Maria de Bruyn

20 roseate spoonbill P8040825 © Maria de Bruyn resIn the USA, spoonbills have traditionally bred in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. After breeding, they disperse. It is especially year-old birds who are increasingly being seen along the Eastern coast. To find them further inland had been more unusual but in recent years they seem to be moving away from the coast as well. This year several spoonbills have been spotted in the Piedmont region in addition to our Orange County visitor.

21 roseate spoonbill P8040483 © Maria de Bruyn res

23 roseate spoonbill P8040502 © Maria de BruynBy the late 1800s, the roseate spoonbill was endangered in North America because the birds were either killed for their feathers (to make decorative screens, fans and hats) or they abandoned their nests because they were near great egrets who were being killed for the millinery trade. When that trade ended, their numbers rebounded but rising sea levels, degradation of water quality and loss of wetlands has now decreased their breeding sites. The spoonbills are still listed as a species of concern in Florida and Louisiana.

22 roseate spoonbill P8040377© Maria de Bruyn res

As climate change progresses, increasing numbers of roseate spoonbills are starting to move north. Protection of wetlands in our and other Eastern states would therefore benefit this species, as well as other animals that depend on this type of habitat. And more of us outside the southernmost states may get the chance to observe these unique birds in the future!

Springtime with awesome, beautiful and awe-inspiring insects

This spring of 2021 has offered some delightful chances to see interesting insect species, some of which I’ve noticed before and some that were new or gave me my first opportunity to observe them up close. While not many people aside from entomologists pay much attention to the “creepy crawlies,” they are certainly well worth watching in my view. Including insects in my nature observations greatly enhances my experience of appreciating the natural world.

male giant ichneumon wasp P5068000© Maria de Bruyn res (4)

ichneumon wasp P5067996© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068007 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)The month of May brought me two especially awe-inspiring events. The first was seeing long-tailed giant ichneumon wasps (Megarhyssa macrurus) preparing for reproduction on a nature trail in Chatham County. It was easy to distinguish the females (right) from the males (above) because they had very long ovipositors (a tubular organ through which a female insect lays stored eggs). In the species I saw, the ovipositor can be 4 inches long!’

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068028© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

There were several male and three female wasps flying about. None of them showed the slightest interest in the large human looming overhead. Even if they had, I needn’t have worried since these wasps don’t sting people. The females were busy pressing their antennae against a disintegrating hardwood log’s bark, aiming to detect vibrations inside.

ichneumon wasp P5068180© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The mothers-to-be were “listening” for the best spots to lay their eggs by identifying where the larvae of the pigeon tremex horntail wasp (Tremex columba) were buried. Why you ask? The mother ichneumon paralyzes a horntail larva before laying an egg next to it. When her own offspring emerge from the eggs, they will eat those unfortunate horntail larvae while they prepare to overwinter until they emerge as full-grown ichneumon wasps in the spring.

ichneumon wasp P5068058 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

 

The giant ichneumon’s ovipositor has three components. In the middle is the ovipositor proper, a filament with two interlocking parts that slide against one another; it is tipped with a cutting edge that can drill through wood. Some researchers have data indicating that the cutting edge may contain some ionized zinc or manganese.

ichneumon wasp P5068164© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Two other thin filaments called valvulae sheath the central structure and their function is to protect the egg-laying organ. During egg-laying, they arc away from the ovipositor.

ichneumon wasp P5068171© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While I watched one female wasp in particular, she sometimes had part of her ovipositor coiled up in a transparent expandable pouch at the end of her abdomen.

ichneumon wasp IMG_2003© Maria de Bruyn res (2) ichneumon wasp IMG_2002 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

She would push out the ovipositor and appeared to smooth it out with her legs. The literature I read about the wasps did not explain this movement, but I thought she might be pushing eggs down the tube. Watch the video to see what you think! 

When she finished this smoothing movement and had found the right spots for her offspring, the protective lining filaments separated from the ovipositor itself and she inserted it into the log. It was a fascinating process to witness.

 

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068170 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068109 (© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Although ichneumon wasps are parasitic, various species are beneficial insects since their larvae feed on insects that harm food crops such as boll weevils, codling moths and asparagus beetles. The adults usually only live about 27 days and may only drink during that time. Their adult goal is to find a mate and then reproduce.

ichneumon wasp P5068014 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Another way in which the ichneumon wasps have contributed to human society is by serving as an example for the medical community. The STING Project at the Imperial College in London is investigating options for Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS) to diagnose and treat various medical pathologies. The research team is now developing a flexible steerable probe that was inspired by the ichneumon wasp’s ovipositor!

cecropia moth IMG_0019 © Maria de Bruyn (2)My other exciting insect event involved a moth. Last fall, a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) positioned its cocoon on the door jamb of the women’s restroom at Cane Creek Reservoir. The reservoir’s manager feared that it would be damaged there and asked if I would be willing to care for it over the winter. I took the cocoon home and kept it safe during the fall, winter and much of this spring.

Cecropia moth larvae (caterpillars) are often found on maple, cherry and birch trees. Why this one chose a building as an overwintering site is a bit of a mystery. Since the pupa was going to be dormant all winter, I placed it upright in a large plastic container with a grate over the top and kept it on my screened-in porch.

cecropia moth IMG_0020© Maria de Bruyn (2)Periodically, I would check on it and it seemed to be ok. This was important as these moths are “univoltine” — they only have one generation of offspring per year. Out in nature, the caterpillars may fall victim to parasitic wasps and flies that lay their eggs on them. So it was fortunate that we were able to “rescue” this cocoon.

One evening at the end of May, I stopped working on my porch to go inside to watch the news. When I came back after about 20 minutes, I spotted a brilliant large moth on the screen. My youngest cat spotted it at the same time, so I shooed her inside. The cocoon scarcely had a hole in it; I really wish I’d seen how the huge moth got out.

cecropia moth IMG_0006© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

cecropia moth IMG_0003© Maria de Bruyn 2 res

The cecropia moth is North America’s largest moth with a wingspan up to 7 inches. The males and females look similar but the males like this one have larger, more feathery antennae.

cecropia moth IMG_0012© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

Female moths emit pheromones that the males can detect from up to a mile away. After mating, the female lays up to 100 eggs. Both sexes die after about two weeks as they lack functioning mouths and digestive systems and don’t eat.

cecropia moth IMG_0014 © Maria de Bruyn (2) res

 

The moth’s short adult lifespan must have made this guy anxious to get underway. Or seeing my cat and I hastened his development. One website reported that it takes the moth a few hours to dry before they can open their wings and fly.

cecropia moth IMG_0011© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

 

However, very soon (perhaps 10 minutes) after I removed him from my porch and took him outside (never touching him with my hands), he began vibrating his wings. In less than a minute, he launched himself upwards and flew towards the top of the nearby tall pine trees, setting off on his quest for a mate.

cecropia moth IMG_0016© Maria de Bruyn (2a) res

I suppose it is possible that the moth had emerged earlier and had crawled away to hide but that seemed unlikely. In any event, he looked like he could fly just fine, and I sincerely hope that he found a mate and that they were able to collaborate in ensuring a new generation of this stunningly beautiful species! And I was grateful for having agreed to overwinter the cocoon as it enabled me to contribute to the propagation of this wonderful moth. In any event, I was enthralled to see what a gorgeous creature he was. These moths are generally nocturnal so seeing him was a treat!

cecropia moth IMG_0017 © Maria de Bruyn (2) res

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A star performance!

 

Who is this above? Read on below for a few looks at a usually highly elusive bird.

But first, let me say that in the Piedmont region of North Carolina (NC) spring is an especially nice season with abundant flowers and many birds filling the air with lovely courtship calls and songs. Sometimes, you get a little confused when walking in a reserve — thinking there are several species of birds in the vicinity to judge by all the different vocalizations, but then you discover you are hearing a concert by one of the avian mimics — Northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers and gray catbirds are both talented imitators of other birds’ calls.

While the mockingbirds repeat other birds’ notes three times each, brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) sing out two repetitions of other species’ songs, interspersed with a large variety of their own calls. A thrasher has been serenading lately near one of a local nature reserves’ ponds. On this occasion, s/he had an Eastern towhee audience (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

       

A bird that does not have a lovely call, the American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), sometimes sounds a bit like a bull bellowing, which led to one of its nicknames — “thunder pumper.” Despite its lack of melodious calls and songs, however, birders get excited when one is spotted because this medium-sized heron (2-3 feet tall) usually is only visible hiding among dense grasses and reeds. In contrast to great blue herons or great egrets, American bitterns lead mainly solitary lives, so birders can’t count on seeing a group of them either.

One local nature reserve became a real hot spot recently when a local birder alerted other bird lovers to the presence of a bittern at one of the ponds. Unexpectedly, this bittern was not shy at all.

 

Even when s/he was being watched by half a dozen people, the bird emerged from the grasses and reeds to forage for food at the water’s edge or stopped for a grooming session in front of an audience. And this went on for over a week as the bird gave us a star performance.

 

 

When approached, the bittern’s usual “concealment” pose is to stand tall with its neck stretched upward and its bill pointing at the sky. They don’t move until they feel it is safe to resume stalking their food.

           

When they stand this way, some people say they look like they have “googly eyes”. The bitterns can focus downwards even when pointing their heads upward; it is surmised that this ability helps them spot and catch the creatures on which they feed.

   

I can see where the googly-eyes terminology was applied to them, but I recently saw a common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) that had much more of that look in my opinion!

In one of their typical hunting modes, bitterns bend over and stand almost motionless, slowly lowering their long bills down so that they can plunge their heads quickly into water to grab their prey, which they bite or shake to death.

 

When they lift their heads, you may notice their third eyelid in position, indicating that they shielded their eyes while submerged. They also engage the nictitating membrane when they scratch their heads, getting close to their eyes – the bittern’s very large feet make that a very good decision on their part!

   

After catching their prey, the bittern subsequently repositions its prey — a tadpole, crayfish, frog, snake, rodent, fish — inside its bill so that it can be swallowed head first. Parts of the eaten animal that they can’t digest are later regurgitated as a pellet.

 

American bitterns are considered a species of high concern by Waterbird Conservation of the Americas. It is the loss of wetlands habitat that is contributing to their decline; in the last decades more than half of the original wetlands in North America have been destroyed or degraded. Let this past Earth Day be a reminder of the very urgent need to make haste in protecting the natural areas that remain and restoring areas that can be rescued.

 

Red-winged, rusty and ravishing – black bird delights!

   

Two species of birds that I enjoy seeing during the autumn and winter months in North Carolina (NC) are red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus, above left) and rusty blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus, above right). Both species breed in the northern USA and Canada, traveling to the southern USA during the colder months.

There is also a population of red-winged blackbirds that nest in NC’s Piedmont region. I’ve seen them collecting nesting material at local ponds and wetlands but have never had the pleasure of seeing their nests or watching them feed their young.

The red-winged blackbirds have two avian records to their name: 1) currently perhaps the most numerous land bird in North America, with counts of more than 1 million birds in a flock!! and 2) one of the most researched wild bird species anywhere.

The male red-wings call the attention of females with the red and yellow patches on their wings. It turns out that those with larger patches are more successful in disputes with other males for territory and mates.

     

Some males have been recorded as having up to 15 mates in their territories during a season, but it turned out that 24-50% of the nestlings had another male as a parent!

 

The females look very different from the males with beautiful reddish-brown striping. Their faces are marked by off-white eyebrows.

 

 

They often nest near other red-wings.

             

Doing so means that their nesting area has multiple parents on the alert for predators.

It is interesting that Native American languages also had common names that describe their physical characteristics (red patch, spotted, marked). The longest one that I read about was “memiskondinimaanganeshiinh” (Ojibwa meaning “a bird with a very red damn-little shoulder blade”)!

 

 

During breeding season, the male rusty blackbirds have glossy black plumage with a greenish sheen. At other times, they have rusty tips to their feathers, giving them a mottled look.

The females may also look a bit mottled but have much more light brown and beige coloration.

 

In contrast to the numerous red-winged blackbirds, the rusty blackbirds used to have high numbers but have lost up to 85-99% of their populations during the past 40 years for unknown reasons.

 

The sharp decline is so mystifying that scientists have formed an International Rusty Blackbird Working Group to investigate what is happening.

   

 

One possible explanation is a decline in wetlands, especially in the Southeastern USA where 80% of the birds overwinter. A resurgence in beaver ponds may be helping them, which shows how protecting one wildlife species can also assist another one. I have indeed seen them in areas where beavers have been active.

 

The rusty blackbirds that I spotted were indeed using local wetlands in their search for food, turning over the sodden leaves with their feet and beaks as they searched for sustenance.

The International Working Group is asking people to report their sightings of these birds to eBird to help track the species.

To close this blog, I wanted to share just a few photos of some other birds who are a beautiful black color: my faithful American crow couple (Corvus brachyrhynchos).

They have been visiting with one of their offspring from last year, just as they have done in previous years.

 

 

Unfortunately, it appears that one of the birds has somehow suffered an injury to one leg and foot. S/he has been hopping around on the ground and can fly well, but it is a mystery as to what happened to hurt this large bird. Perhaps a tussle with one of the neighborhood hawks?

 

 

 

 

Spring weather is beginning in our area, which means some avian species will be leaving us and some new ones will be arriving or passing through in the coming weeks. The next blog will feature a few of our feathered friends who will be leaving.