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.

Wrestling with your food – not for me!

Our 2021 winter weather in central North Carolina has been one of the wettest on record so far and is set to top the list by the end of the month. But occasionally we have had some sunny, albeit cold, days to everyone’s delight. On one recent walk on an unusually sunny day, I saw a beautiful little syrphid fly flitting about the forest floor and caught a fleeting glimpse of an Eastern rabbit, but that has been it for non-avian species except for the deer, squirrels and chipmunks in my yard. So my focus has continued to be on the more bountiful birds.

On successive visits to a pond in a neighboring town, mostly to watch the hooded mergansers, it was noteworthy to see that a single ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) had taken up residence. S/he spent a lot of time atop one of the parking lot streetlights at the pond’s edge. It gave a perch for a good overview of the water and its residents.

The bird is usually alone when I see him/her. They are sociable birds, however, and it’s interesting that, in some cases, two females will share nests and raise their two broods together.

 

I’d seen her/him catch fish there before and noted that the bird never just alighted, positioned the fish and swallowed it quickly. Perhaps this is because it has a broad diet and has learned to eat its varied foods differently.

Not only do they devour fish, insects, earthworms, rodents and grain; they also will scavenge people’s food if they can get to it, for example, on a beach or in a fast-food parking lot.

This yellow-legged gull will fly around the pond from time to time, looking quite beautiful in flight.

  

S/he doesn’t go fast, although they can reach speeds of up to 40 mph. Rather this bird soars quietly in circles scanning both the water and its surroundings.

Recently, I watched this gull catch a fish and then take a long time to actually eat it. First, the bird spent some time positioning the fish just right in its beak.

Then it began dunking the fish underwater and slapping it on the water as well.

Was it trying to kill the fish before consuming it?

After doing this for a while, the gull suddenly picked up the fish, flew up into the air and dropped it in the water.

Next, it turned tail and dove head-first into the pond, likely hitting, stunning and perhaps drowning the fish with this maneuver.

A Cornell University website says that adult ring-bills “play” by dropping objects and then catching them mid-air, perhaps as a way to practice their hunting technique. But in this case, that didn’t seem to be the case.

The gull still didn’t eat the prey right away, however.

S/he kept hitting the fish and moving the aquatic meal around in its mouth.

A couple times it looked like the fish was positioned just right for swallowing.

And then, the re-positioning continued.

Finally, after some time, it looked like the bird had finally ingested the meal and s/he took off again.

It was an interesting observation of animal behavior – my favorite way of spending time on nature walks. And it will likely remain a bit of a mystery as to what the ring-bill gull’s intentions were in carrying out these moves. 😊

Hawks, a heron and … hope rewarded

 

2021 — set to be the wettest winter ever

We’re tired, dismayed, perturbed, distressed

Dripping branches

Spontaneous yard pools
Swampy, muddy ground

Then …. a bright spot announced
Still cold but sunny
2 days of cheer
While awaiting a storm of ice

Loving my yard
Loving going out, too

Come walk with me!
First outing – warmish and windy

Welcomed by the mockingbird
To his/her permanent home
And a favorite avian roosting tree

Feeling expansive
Welcoming sun
And shadows

                       

 

Walking a waterlogged path
Slippery mud to the lake
Risen over its banks onto the forest floor

 

 

A movement in leaves
Step forward….
A leap into the air
Whirring wings

The grasshopper honors its name
Leaps forward and then soars
Escaping my lens

But a little king deigns to pose
S/he hops, too
Seeking sustenance in leaves and on limbs

 

Above…a red-tailed hawk
Riding the wind
Gliding on gusts

Next stop…the beavers’ home
Reinforced dome
A cozy lodge

 

Red robins and finches
Restless while rooting
And racing to new twigs

 

Sustenance-seeking sparrows
Giving companionship along the paths

 

 

Royalty along these paths, too
Hopping, fluttering, lunging
Flashing a ruby crown
To claim territory here

Red shoulders hunch high above
Calling and calling as they survey
and scan their surroundings

 

 

 

A new pair alights
Loud announcement of arrival
Paired scanning

Cold nights ahead

Pileated woodpecker abode needs work

                 

                 

Inside renovations
Along the ceiling, too

Titmice and chickadees seek seed

 

 

 

 

Ruby-crowned kinglets flash red
While gleaning insects up ahead

 

 

 

As I make my way to leave
One hawk screams goodbye
While a sparrow sings me on my way

Another pond

A soaring hawkish welcome

In blue skies awaiting
Clouds, rain, frozen droplets to come

Wings extended
Red tail spread
Vision centered below

Along a wall
Red-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumped warblers
Harvesting insects not seen by me
But for them spied quickly and snatched with speed

 

       

Neighboring phoebes
Chase down calories
For a cold night ahead

The green heron
Refuses a portrait session
Twice and
Soars away

The hovering hawks
Hang overhead

 

The young red-shouldered

The bold red-tailed

All three of us caught in
Anticipation
Awaiting liquid crystals
Predicted to coat the trees

But thankfully our hopes for a mild
“winter weather event”
rewarded

Very little ice for us

We welcome water and warmth !

Our spirits soar
Ready to welcome more coming days of sun!
Hurrah! Hurrah!
Tomorrow the golden light returns. 😊

A “superflight” irruption for North Carolina – the pine siskins

As mentioned in my previous blog, North Carolina’s Piedmont region is experiencing a spectacular winter irruption of multiple finch species. So many birds have migrated south from the northern USA and Canada that scientists are calling this a “superflight” year. The first to arrive in my yard during this irruption were the pine siskins (Spinus pinus).

Scientists don’t yet know as much about siskin migration as they would like to know. From 1960 to 2011, almost 675,000 siskins were banded but only 2000 of them were ever spotted again.

However, it is known that the siskins enjoy eating many types of seeds. The finches’ usual diets up North center around the fruit and seeds of spruce, pine, hemlocks, maples, and beech trees, among others. Some species favor certain trees, while others enjoy eating a large variety of seeds.

In “mast years,” the forests provide large amounts of seeds that both feed animals (e.g., birds, squirrels) and provide the germination material for new vegetation. In other years, the forests produce very few crops because of fires, drought, and outbreaks of spruce budworms that eat the needles of spruce and balsam firs, which can kill the trees. In 2020, it was noteworthy that authorities in Quebec were unable to completely treat the forest trees for budworms because of the COVID epidemic.

 

Some trees also have slow biological cycles. For example, the Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), known to the Iroquois as the “tree of peace,” has cone production that peaks every 3 to 5 years.

When mast years have taken place and there are large budworm infestations, the finches have plenty to eat and their numbers increase substantially. When the following seed- and cone-poor years occur, the large populations then need to travel further away to find sufficient food supplies and that is what has now brought them to our area.

The pine siskins arrived in my yard in late autumn. They came in a large crowd, with some 30 birds flocking to the feeders at a time. Most of these little brown and beige birds have a trace of yellow on their wings.

About 1% of the siskins – all males – have more yellow or yellow-green coloring on their backs, heads and under-tail coverts. These so-called “green morphs” also have less streaking on their chests. The siskins above may be in this group. Interestingly, whereas female birds of many species prefer brightly colored males as their mates, female siskins appear to choose males with less yellow to distinguish them.

 

What really distinguishes the siskins for me – in addition to their penchant for visiting in large groups – is their feistiness. They seem to be very troubled by the idea that there may not be enough seeds to satisfy their appetites if many other birds are around.

Below you see them challenging a house finch, a downy woodpecker and cardinals.

 

And this includes not only birds of other species but also their species mates with whom they arrive! They first will open their seed-filled mouths to “yell” at the incoming diners.

Next, they may open their wings in a challenging display.

 

Sometimes they seem to be taking food from another’s mouths! (But perhaps this is not aggressive but a sign of care between family members?)

Finally, they will fly at their food rivals in an effort to drive them off.

Unlike other members of the finch family, the siskins not only eat a very large variety of seeds from conifers, deciduous trees, grasses, weeds and flowers. They also forage for insects and have been seen to drink from sapsucker sapwells in trees.

A group of siskins can clean out a feeder with mixed seeds in my yard in very short order indeed. They have developed body mechanisms to help them survive cold nights: increasing their metabolic rates and gaining body fat for the winter.

 

This is accomplished by eating more seeds than they can process right away; they can store seeds weighing up to 10% of their body mass in their crop (part of the esophagus) for a short period so that they have access to more energy during the night!

 

Some local birders who were delighted to see them at the beginning of the season are now occasionally voicing “regrets” since large groups continue to visit their feeders. They could refrain from putting out seed and hope the flocks move away so they don’t spend so much on bird seed, but many birders would then miss seeing the other species and don’t want to forego that pleasure.

 

 

Fortunately, the siskins have been eating seeds from crepe myrtles and other trees in my yard so their visits to my feeders have been somewhat sporadic when the weather is mild. When it rains or gets very cold, they return in feisty groups!

“My” yard siskins have also refrained from pecking at the cement of my brick house. Other birders have seen them chipping away at chimney and brick cement – they do this get at minerals contained in the cement.

 

While the siskins migrate in very large groups (e.g., flocks numbering up to a few thousand individuals!), they are still considered to be a common bird that is showing a steep decline in numbers. They are vulnerable to predators as well as contagious diseases spread at feeders such as salmonella.

Although we are still in the throes of winter in North Carolina, spring is fast approaching and it’s uncertain how long these irruption birds will stay. I’ll miss these lively little visitors when travel back up North!

A gathering of gorgeous grosbeaks

If you know birders, you’ve undoubtedly heard that this 2020-21 winter season marks an “irruption” year – a period when large numbers of certain bird species migrate to places where they’re usually not seen. This year is especially notable because it is one of the largest mass migrations that has taken place in about 25 years.

The scientists who study irruptions are calling this season a “superflight,” because all the species in the finch family that breed in the boreal forests of the northern USA and Canada have been moving south. Here in the Piedmont, we’ve been lucky to see several of these species.

The finches that have drawn the most attention from local birders are the evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) with their eye-catching colors and plumage. They tend to move about in flocks and when they land at feeders, they appear more than willing to share with other birds, like a red-bellied woodpecker (above) or pine siskins (below).

When they land on a feeder, however, they may crowd out others due to their size.

While the evening grosbeaks don’t seem quarrelsome like some other birds, they may still have territorial defense encounters when they are vying for food. Perhaps that is what happened to this female with what appears to be a slight injury below her eye. It is unlikely that it would have come from escaping another type of assault as it has been reported that they have no known predators!

The females are subtly colored in shades of gray-beige with touches of green and yellow on their flanks, neck and near their throat. Their wings are marked with black and white patches.

 

Their coloring may look a bit different depending on the quality of the light and how overcast the day is.

The males are eye-catching due to their vibrant yellow and black plumage, featuring a notable dark yellow stripe over the eyes and a bright white patch on black wings.

Both females and males have the very thick, conical bills characteristic of their species.

Watching them at breeding time would be interesting as it does not involve song but instead features the males dancing for their prospective mates.

In the summer, the evening grosbeaks eat insects, including the spruce budworm, which is a tiny caterpillar. Their winter diet includes large seeds, berries and tree buds; maple samaras (papery winged seeds) and sunflower seeds are favorites (especially the gray-striped kind).

In 2018, a few individual evening grosbeaks were spotted in the Triangle but not many people had the chance to see them. I was fortunate to have three visit my feeders for an afternoon when it was snowy.

This year, none have visited me, but they have been very present in our area, especially at the feeders of bird enthusiasts Bert Fisher and Leto Copeley. This lovely couple welcomed birders to visit their yard by appointment (with limited numbers of visitors wearing masks in the large area).

 

Bert kindly updated everyone on the birds’ comings and goings. Their number increased over time to a high count of over 60 birds seen at one time. They often sit high in the trees of the wooded property and then suddenly descend to sit in groups on platform feeders and to pick up fallen seed on the ground.

Over time, the evening grosbeaks have expanded their “territory” over the Northeastern USA, partly in response to increased planting of boxelders (Acer negundo, a type of maple) as shade trees. The seeds of the box elder are available throughout the winter and are a preferred food for these large finches.

Like numerous other bird species, evening grosbeak populations have declined steeply over time. Between 1966 and 2015, their numbers on the East Coast declined by 97%. Continued logging of forests in northern North America, avian diseases, aerial spraying of insects and climate change may all contribute to further reductions of this group of birds.

Researchers are now collaborating in an Evening Grosbeak Project that aims to compare flight calls, genetics and breeding behaviors of five distinctive sub-groups in this species. They are distinguished by the types of calls that they make and birders are asked to help out by submitting recordings to the eBird website.

It appears that Type 3 (Coccothraustes vespertinus vespertinus, the most irruptive of all five sub-groups) is the call type which has traveled to our area. It has a call that is similar to that of a house sparrow.

Some northeastern grosbeaks are now being tracked by the Project. An avian ecologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program recently was able to band 47 birds so that sightings of them elsewhere can be reported. He also put a new model of solar radio tracking tags on 29 of the birds, which can help monitor their movements throughout their lifetime.

Evening grosbeaks can live well into their teens; the oldest banded individual was found when he was 16 years and 3 months. Perhaps some of those visiting us this year have been here before during food-poor periods up North. It will be interesting to see when they next decide to visit our area in the future and hopefully a few will visit me.

 

I’ve added some of the trees that tend to attract them, such as winterberries, maples and crabapples, to complement the junipers, pines and elms in my yard, so the welcome mat will be out!