The happy hermit thrush – a photo tour

hermit thrush P1311108 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While working on a woodpecker series, I decided to post a few mostly photo-oriented features, so there aren’t such long gaps between blogs on my site. First up is a photo exploration of hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus), whom I’ve been seeing fairly often since last fall and through this winter.

hermit thrush PB191885 © Maria de Bruyn res

They are really lovely birds. They prefer to eat insects most of the year (e.g., flies, bees and wasps, beetles, caterpillars, and ants). Apparently, they also will eat small amphibians and reptiles, but I’ve never seen them eating a frog. My spottings of them have shown, however, that in the autumn and winter, they certainly enjoy berries.

hermit thrush P2032491 © Maria de Bruyn res

In my observations, they seem to eat quite a variety, which I believe include those of greenbriers (Smilax), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and hollies.

hermit thrush P2032496© Maria de Bruyn res

hermit thrush P1311058© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush P1311071 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush PC240748 Maria de Bruyn-ed sgd

The hermit thrush is not considered to be frequent visitors to people’s gardens, but I’ve been lucky to have them visit in winter to take baths and eat juniper berries (from Eastern red cedars, (Juniperus virginiana).

hermit thrush PB158866© Maria de Bruyn

I do see them more often out in nature reserves, however.

hermit thrush P1311125 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

These birds don’t mind sitting out on a tree branch during a gusty day when their feathers are blown around a bit.

hermit thrush PB191749© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

They have muted colors but a nice rusty-colored tail to help identify them. They also tend to flick their tail frequently.

hermit thrush P1311120 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

I tend to think of these thrushes as good-natured birds. I haven’t seen them arguing with birds of other species, but I was surprised recently when I encountered two hermits disputing foraging space in a nice sunny area.

hermit thrush P1278796© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush P1278797© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush P1278798© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush P1278799© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

Ultimately, one bird flew away and then the other took off as well.

hermit thrush P1278800 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

In the past, I didn’t see hermit thrushes very often, but perhaps I’ve just gotten more observant or better at predicting where they might be. It’s always a pleasure to stop and watch them for a while.

hermit thrush PB191962 Maria de Bruyn sgd

hermit thrush PB191950© Maria de Bruyn sgd

hermit thrush PB191952 Maria de Bruyn sgd

Finally, one more photo but not of a hermit – this is a lovely wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) that I had the good fortune to encounter in the woods near Jordan Lake. You can see the much bolder and better defined breast spots on this bird, as well as its more reddish coloring. Many people think the wood thrush has the prettiest thrush song. That’s not my opinion, but I certainly do think they are visual stunners!

wood thrush PA017517 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Aquatic mammals making my day! Part 2

0 beaver PA299293© Maria de Bruyn res

In 2019, I came across a few areas on walks where beavers were active and local residents were enjoying their presence. The animals weren’t shy and would come out in the mornings and evenings to eat and work on their lodges and dams, so I was able to observe them fairly often.

1 beaver PA299182 © Maria de Bruyn. res

In the intervening years, people have taken varied actions to deal with these mammals at the sites I visit, and my sightings have decreased. So, I was very pleased this past fall when I came across a beaver who had put aside his (or her) shyness and was coming out to swim often during daytime hours at one pond.

2 beaver PA299216 © Maria de Bruyn res

One day, this amiable animal decided to have a prolonged grooming session and gave me some good looks at its anatomy. S/he had what is considered a typical beaver tail: large and flat. Later I learned that beaver tails differ from animal to animal, with tail shapes (short, long, narrow, broad) being determined by individual and family traits.

4 beaver PA299318 © Maria de Bruyn res

Their large tails not only assist them in swimming and balancing on land — they also serve as a storage unit for fat that can be accessed during winter periods with less food available. Those tails can increase their body fat supply for cold weather by as much as 60%!

3 beaver PA299429© Maria de Bruyn res

The beaver has long digging claws on its front paws.

5 beaver PA299401© Maria de Bruyn res

6 beaver PA299228© Maria de Bruyn res

Their hind feet have two specialized toes which were described by Vernon Bailey in 1923 after he had studied young beavers in his home. He called these inner toes the combing claw and the louse-catching claw. The innermost toe he termed a coarse combing tool and the second toe a fine-toothed comb.

7 beaver PA299393© Maria de Bruyn res

The second toe, which has a double toenail, is now called a preening toe or grooming claw.

8 beaver PA299356 © Maria de Bruyn res

These toes are useful tools, as their comb-like action during grooming helps prevent the beavers’ soft fur from matting. (Unfortunately, the beaver only used his/her front paws while I watched; I’d like to see those back claws in action!)

9 beaver PA299390© Maria de Bruyn res

Beavers may spend almost 20% of their time on preening and grooming as this activity helps them remove burrs and parasites and aids in keeping their fur’s insulation and waterproof characteristics intact.

10 beaver PA299258© Maria de Bruyn res

An oil from abdominal glands is used to help waterproof their fur, too. Scents from these glands are further used to mark territory. And, oddly, castoreum (one of their castor gland secretions) smells and tastes like vanilla and has been used in human food preparation. Fortunately, it is difficult to obtain (the beaver must be anesthetized and “milked”) and scarcely used – about 292 lbs. (132 kg) yearly around the world.

14 beaver PA299403 © Maria de Bruyn res

The beaver’s well-developed whiskers are useful in dark water and narrow burrows because they help the animal detect objects.

12 beaver PA299407 © Maria de Bruyn res

Like birds and otters, beavers have a nictitating membrane to protect their eyes underwater. They can also keep water out of their ears and nostrils by closing anatomical valves.

15 beaver PA299232© Maria de Bruyn res

The beautiful beavers have been designated a keystone species because of their important role in creating environments suitable for other animals and plants. The habitats they create remove pollutants from ground and surface water. Their dams act as water filtration systems and help lessen compounds such as nitrogen and phosphorus so that we can obtain cleaner drinking water. In addition, some research has shown that the plants and algae in beaver ponds may help remove toxic metals from water, including lead, arsenic, copper, mercury, cadmium and selenium.

16 beaver PA299248© Maria de Bruyn res

There are ongoing efforts by some people in our area to get rid of beavers but fortunately an increasing number of advocates are looking for ways to coexist with beavers in urban and semi-urban areas. Researchers from local universities are aiding in the effort and hopefully this will lead to co-existence successes!

17 beaver PA299410 © Maria de Bruyn res

And some closing words…. When I was a child, I loved a small statue of three monkeys that sat on a shelf in our home: “speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil.” I liked the message and the fact that it was advised by an animal. Unfortunately, over the past decades, the statuette did not survive intact, but I’ve kept it nonetheless.

18 speak no see no hear no evil IMG_0373© Maria de Bruyn res

Here below we have a new version, brought to you courtesy of my friendly beaver. 😊

19 speak no evil beaver PA299368 © Maria de Bruyn res

Speak no evil!

20 see no evil beaver PA299342© Maria de Bruyn res

See no evil!

21 hear no evil beaver PA299367© Maria de Bruyn res

Hear no evil!

22 beaver PA299247 © Maria de Bruyn res

And have a wonderful upcoming day, week, month and year!

Next up – back to birds of the woodpecker family!

Aquatic mammals making my day! Part 1

1 river otter P1154270© Maria de Bruyn res

While I love all wildlife, many of my blogs feature birds because my chances of seeing them are greater than seeing other animals. Mammals are a favorite of mine, however, and aquatic mammals are always a pleasure to see since spotting them is not always easy. That is certainly the case for the cute river otters (Lontra canadensis) like the one above.

4 otter PC251157© Maria de Bruyn

These river and pond residents are among the most elusive mammalian water residents for me.  At one pond that I visit regularly, they appear to have adopted an abandoned beaver lodge as their home. There, it is usually movement caught out of the corner of my eye that alerts me to their presence.

2 otter PC251094 © Maria de Bruyn res

Sometimes a view of the rump and tail is all I get as they barely lift their heads out of the water. It’s interesting to know, however, that their tail comprises up to 40% of their body length, helps speed them up to 8 mph (13 Km/h) in the water, and helps them dive up to 36 feet (11 m).

3 otter PA309843© Maria de Bruyn res

5 otter PA309953© Maria de Bruyn resThe otters don’t always appreciate spectators. Sometimes, they emerge from the water briefly and give me a view shrouded by vegetation before they dive back down. That’s frustrating when you’re trying to get a nice photo, but at least I’ve never scared them enough for them to sound their alarm scream, which apparently can be heard up to 1.5 m/2.4 km away!

8 beaver lodge IMG_0294© Maria de Bruyn resThe other day at another pond, I was lucky enough to see a pair close to shore. They were foraging and when they finally disappeared, they appeared to have entered a beaver lodge located next to a walking path (seen here). The beavers may have abandoned this lodge as they have at least two others in this park.

6 river otter P1154288 © Maria de Bruyn res

Researchers have not yet agreed on when otters enter their breeding season; it could be winter, late spring or summertime according to different studies. In any case, it seemed to me like this might be a mated pair.

7 river otter P1154340© Maria de Bruyn res

As they swam around, the couple would occasionally come together.

9 river otter P1154298 © Maria de Bruyn res

10 river otter P1154319 © Maria de Bruyn res

They didn’t stop to frolic, however, even though otters are known for their playfulness. They did blow some bubbles and I’ve learned that they can close their nostrils during dives to keep water out of their noses. Seeing them was a real treat! And their presence should indicate good fortune for the Sandy Creek Park since river otters are considered an indicator species that signal good water quality.

11 river otter P1154272 © Maria de Bruyn

In September, I wrote about seeing muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) and North American beavers at a third reserve. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to see both species there several times. The muskrats have especially graced me with their presence.

12 muskrat PC173212© Maria de Bruyn res

14 Brumley pond IMG_0308© Maria de Bruyn resThat’s lucky because last year our county had its 12th driest December month on record over the past 128 years. This was quite evident at the pond, which appeared to have shrunk by at least 30-40% during the autumn and early winter drought (my estimate). I’ve been surprised to see these animals still living there.

Because muskrats don’t tolerate dry heat well, they’ve been designated an indicator species for the effects of long-term climactic drying. Recent research has shown that their numbers and response to this phenomenon should be taken into account in scientific and environmental policy-making.

13 muskrat PC312704 © Maria de Bruyn res

To deal with dry heat, these mammals regulate blood flow to their feet and tail through a mechanism called regional heterothermia. This enables them to keep these appendages cooler than their body’s core. Another interesting anatomical feature is the muskrats’ specialized nostrils, which they can use to trap and recycle air after removing more oxygen before exhalation.

16 muskrat PC048728 © Maria de Bruyn res

At this particular pond, I’ve discovered that if I wait patiently for at least 20 minutes or so without other people walking by, it’s likely that one of the resident muskrats will surface to go for a swim and/or to forage for weedy food. (They can stay submerged for up to 15-17 minutes, so patience is warranted.) It’s often the appearance of small bubbles that alerts me to their presence and location.

18 muskrat PC048731© Maria de Bruyn res

Sometimes they emerge with their tails held high as if waving a signal flag – “I’m here!”

17 muskrat PC048698© Maria de Bruyn res

The muskrats dive down and come up with a mouth full of vegetation which they chew while swimming or sitting near the shore. They can also eat underwater since they’re able to chew with their mouth closed because they can close their lips behind their incisors.

20 muskrat PC048695© Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats prefer to live in areas with at least 4-6 ft (1.2-1.8 m) of water where they build tunnels that lead from the pond or marsh bottom into burrows dug into banks. I now know approximately where their burrow is located as I’ve seen them emerge and submerge in a particular spot.

19 muskrat PC048688© Maria de Bruyn res

Our area just had a snowfall of 2.3 inches (5.8 cm) which will be melting in the coming days. Hopefully, the next time I visit this pond it will be fuller, and the muskrat residents will have a more spacious swimming and eating area. And then they will have good reason to wave their tails in celebration!  (Apologies for the less than stellar photos as I’ve had to use a short lens lately. Hope to have my long lens back soon. The photos in part 2 of this aquatic mammal series are better!)

21 muskrat PC312678© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Emerging again in 2022 – part 2

1 Red-shouldered hawk P1132421© Maria de Bruyn resWhen facing unpleasant challenges, it’s helpful to have an interest to help put them mentally aside while you find enjoyment doing something else. Observing and connecting with wildlife and plant life does that for me. For at least a while, I can think, “I don’t give a shit,” and instead focus on what’s going on immediately around me, like the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) above actually giving a shit. 😊

Observing nature also has the added advantage of providing a way to keep learning and being able to appreciate wonders around me that I might otherwise never notice. A number of people have also told me that they enjoy my sharing some of those “discoveries.”

1A white-throated sparrow PC141120© Maria de Bruyn res

White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

One thing I discovered this year was that I shouldn’t expect pine siskins to come down here to Orange County, NC, every year in winter. I’ve had them visiting during this season many years but so far not one has appeared in my yard. So I’ll share a photo of one from last year; a lovely bird with a scientific name that appeals to me: Spinus pinus.

2 pine siskin P1162664 © Maria de Bruyn res

3 downy woodpecker P8207522© Maria de Bruyn resIt’s my good fortune to live in a home with sizeable front and backyards where I can entice birds to spend time. Nest boxes border the yards and nesting gourds hang on the front porch, so that attracts pairs who raise young ones here in the spring. They also use these nesting sites to spend the night during cold autumn and winter nights. Downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) seem especially fond of one nest box next to the driveway.

There are varied types of feeders hanging on poles, offering sunflower and other seeds, mixed fruit and nuts, dried mealworms and home-made suet. This arrangement also attracts my avian friends, like the common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) with its iridescent plumage.

4 common grackle P1175003 © Maria de Bruyn res

5 Carolina wren P1132867 © Maria de Bruyn resSince converting much of my front yard lawn into flower gardens (and I’m working on that in the back, although there I’ve planted more flowering and berry-bearing trees), the insect population has increased. That has helped the pollination of my flowers and provided the resident birds with meals, like one of the 6 or so Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) who occupy specific niches. One pair hangs out near a water-filled tub; another pair hangs out near a brush pile out back and the third pair hops in and out of a brush pile in the front yard.

The wrens change up their diet a bit in winter since being purely insectivorous is difficult then. For example, one of my yard-banded wrens enjoys a bit of suet from time to time. He also likes mealworms, as do the titmice (Baeolophus bicolor).

6 Carolina wren IMG_8993© Maria de Bruyn res

7 Tufted titmouse snow IMG_9006 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

8 Tufted titmouse P1132809© Maria de Bruyn res

9 American goldfinch P1143301 © Maria de Bruyn res

Occasionally, an American goldfinch pair (Spinus tristis) will visit but I’ve been seeing them more often on walks. They like seeds a lot and have eaten many of the grass seeds in my yard already. They search the mosses for tidbits, too.

10 cedar waxwing PC271628© Maria de Bruyn resThe cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are picky eaters. The American robins in my yard ate a lot of the juniper berries they prefer and there weren’t many other berries around (as was the case at the local arboretum). At my house, they’ve mostly been using the small ponds to drink and bathe.

The most numerous species at my yard is the Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). At times, I have up to 18-20 of them flying to the tray feeders for seeds. The pokeweed berries are long gone now.

11 Northern cardinal PA074424 © Maria de Bruyn res

There are two pairs of Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in the yard; at first, they didn’t like having to share space but now they all come to the mealworm feeder at the same time.

12 Eastern bluebird PB212516 © Maria de Bruyn res

13 yellow-rumped warbler PA017988© Maria de BruynIn past years, the visiting yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) have lived peacefully with one another. This year, however, I have two birds who seem to be quite incensed when they spy each other. If one is at a feeder, the other zooms in to chase it off and often they flutter upward in a tangle with wings spread. So far, I’ve always been a couple seconds too late to capture the mid-air tussle – it is one of my goals for yard birding this year.

15 yellow-rumped warbler P9093954© Maria de Bruyn

I do enjoy their visits as I find them quite beautiful birds. And they spend a lot of time at the feeders, even when it is raining. Some people here call them myrtle warblers, but I prefer the term yellow-rumped as it is quite accurately descriptive. I loathe the slang term “butter butt” that lots of people here use. Since these warblers are present in many of the nature reserves where I walk, I unfortunately end up hearing the term from time to time. Not sure why it irritates me so much.

16 yellow-rumped warbler PA017970 © Maria de Bruyn

17 yellow-rumped warbler PA018009© Maria de Bruyn

18 pine warbler IMG_9129© Maria de Bruyn resThe pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) in my yard are quite tolerant and polite.

They will share a feeder happily and sometimes also just wait their turn until the feeding area is less crowded.

Less colorful but also a pleasure to see are the female house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus). They seem to come to the feeders less often than their male counterparts.

20 house finch PC101023© Maria de Bruyn res

The Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) are a delight to see, even if they seem to be in almost constant motion.

21 Carolina chickadee PC230399© Maria de Bruyn res

23 Carolina chickadee PC088891© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The other bird who also rarely sits still is the lovely little ruby-crowned kinglet (Corthylio calendula). A few years back, I had one that came several winters in a row and who had apparently come to trust me as he would fly over when I brought out fresh suet and even sit on the feeder while I was holding it. He may have attained his natural lifespan (4-6 years) and perhaps it is one of his offspring who now comes.

24 Ruby-crowned kinglet PA158187 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

27 golden-crowned kinglet PC090095 © Maria de BruynI hadn’t had golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) in my yard much before this year; now I have at least one living here but s/he never comes to the feeders. Because this bird stays very high and I haven’t had access to my long camera lens for some time, it’s been difficult to get photos at home. I’ve had somewhat more success on walks.

25 golden-crowned kinglet PC090158 © Maria de Bruyn res

26 golden-crowned kinglet PC090099 © Maria de Bruyn res

28 golden-crowned kinglet PC061957© Maria de Bruyn res2 (2)

29 red-shouldered hawk P1071059 © Maria de Bruyn res

Some of my more spectacular yard birds have been the neighborhood red-shouldered hawks. When they fly in, the other birds don’t seem bothered.

These hawks have targeted the amphibians and reptiles (successfully) near the small ponds; they also look for small mammals. While I’ve seen them catch frogs, I haven’t seen them catch birds or mammals.

The young ones are not as reddish as the adults.

30 red-shouldered hawk PB180215© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

I also enjoy seeing these gorgeous raptors on my visits to nature reserves. Some have what seems to me like a sweet expression (like this one below).

31 red-shouldered hawk PC204514 © Maria de Bruyn res

Finally, there is one bird that does make the other birds flee the feeders to seek shelter in bushes, shrubs, woodpiles, etc. That is the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii). A sharp-shinned hawk visits occasionally, but it is the Cooper’s who comes by regularly. S/he is not shy; about a week ago, the bird flew onto the front porch where it had chased a female cardinal into the living room window. The cardinal flapped on a chair as the hawk peered at her. I banged on the window and ran outside to rescue her. I know the hawk has to eat as well, but I didn’t want to see the dismemberment of this poor bird. I put her in a box in a corner of the porch and she fortunately recovered.

32 Cooper's hawk P1081087 © Maria de Bruyn res

Feathers in the yard and under feeders have shown that the Cooper’s has had successful hunts, so it is doing well.

33 Cooper's hawk P1081094 © Maria de Bruyn res

Next up – my water-loving mammalian friends. Have a nice weekend!

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.