Frigid days and thirsty birds

Before my next Yellowstone blog (later today; I’m on a roll after a long posting absence), I wanted to share a tip with those of you concerned about birds when you’re confronted with frigid temperatures.

Here in the Southeastern USA, our late autumn/winter season has so far been a temperature roller coaster. We have gone from afternoon temperatures in the 50s and 60s F° (about 10-15 C°) to morning lows of 10 to 25 F° (-12 to -3 C°).

Carolina chickadee

My porch features some shallow plastic plant saucers that I keep filled with water and a solar fountain. The smaller birds especially like to get drinks there because it is more sheltered than the bird baths out in the yard. However, that water has been frozen and birds began chipping at it fruitlessly to get a drink.

Northern cardinal

As a hiker, I often use hand, toe and body warmers when I walk in the cold. So it occurred to me that I might use them to provide the birds with some liquid refreshment in the cold. Wikipedia explains what they are: “Air-activated hand warmers contain cellulose, iron, activated carbon, vermiculite (which holds water) and salt and produce heat from the exothermic oxidation of iron when exposed to air.” The small packets are shaken to activate them and then they give off warmth for about 8-10 hours.

 

Brown thrasher 

I taped some of the hand and body warmers to the bottom of plastic containers and ceramic dishes and it has worked really well. Even in freezing weather, the warmers keep the water in the containers liquid all day for birds like the tufted titmice below.

 

As you can see from the accompanying photos, a variety of birds have been using them and it’s been rewarding for both them and me! As I write this in front of my porch window, a yellow-rumped warbler stopped by for a drink.

The larger birds like the crows have not come onto the porch but I hope they have strong enough beaks to break through ice in the ponds and puddles.

The coming week, our temperature roller coaster will return. We’re now expecting to have temperatures in the next two weeks reaching about 65 F° (18 C)!!

As you’ll see in the next blog, when my friend and I visited Yellowstone in the spring, we also encountered temperature roller coasters. Some days we started off bundled up for winter and ended with our jackets off in the afternoon. I am immensely grateful that I’ve been able to cope with these climatic circumstances and will maintain my wood pile in case we lose electricity later this winter and I need to use the fireplace.

 

Adorable anoles — lizards with moods!

Hello, readers — it’s been a while! Time seems to be passing ever faster for me with each new year of life. I was surprised to realize that it’s been a couple months since I posted a blog. So here is a column that I just submitted to a local newspaper with a few more photos than the paper could accommodate.

One of my favorite local reptiles is the Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis). These cute lizards can be seen year-round since they don’t hibernate. In my experience, however, they seem to be more active — or at least viewable — in late summer and early autumn.

Also known as green anoles, they are the only anoles native to the southeastern United States. Green is nevertheless not their only color. You may encounter dark brown, light brown and green/brown anoles and they might even change their coloring as you watch them.

Unlike chameleons, who change color to blend in with their surroundings so that they can hide more easily from predators, anoles mainly change their skin hues in response to stress or their mood, when they are active or when they want to defend a territory. Darker colors may indicate that they are feeling cold or stressed out.

Sometimes when I’ve watched individuals at length, it’s seemed to me as if they were expressing a variety of moods, even if they didn’t change color.

  

 

Full-grown males are larger than females, but you can also guess their sex based on anatomical features. When males hope to attract a female for mating, they display a brightly colored reddish flap underneath their jaws called a dewlap. When a female sees it, this may induce her to ovulate. Males also show their dewlaps when defending territory against other males.

   

Female anoles can often be distinguished by a row of white markings along their spine, which most males lack.

Like other lizards, anoles regularly shed their skin. Observation last year taught me that they may also eat that skin since this provides them with extra nutrients that may be lacking in their direct environment.

 

Their regular diet is varied, including flies, beetles, spiders, cockroaches, worms, ants, termites, moths and butterflies. Seeds and grains can form part of their meals as well.

    

Carolina anoles are known as arboreal lizards because they spend a lot of time in trees and shrubs. From a higher perch, they can survey their surroundings. Climbing up shrubs and trees can also help them escape from predators who cannot follow them because they lack the sticky foot pads that enable anoles to ascend vertically. Other predators, such as tree snakes and larger lizards, can catch them if they are quick.

 

Sometimes, a predator may catch a green anole by the tail and the anole escapes by dropping its tail—a defensive behavior known as caudal autotomy. A new tail will grow but will be weaker as it contains cartilage instead of bone and often will not be as long.

 

Recently, I learned that birds also hunt anoles when I photographed a blue jay who had caught one. Other birds in our area who go after them include kestrels and bluebirds.

 

The Carolina anoles usually live from about 2 to 8 years. A few who live around my front porch sometimes approach me closely and it’s noticeable that they are watching me, too.

  

Another one decided that an unused bluebird nest box was a good place to hide from predators, obviously not during birds’ nesting season!

It’s been so nice to see the anoles out and about the past weeks. Tonight, we’re having our first freeze of the 2022 autumn/winter season so the anoles may start seeking warm places to hang out. Hopefully, they will have found good places to over-winter.

Readers in the southeast USA who would like information on how to create habitats that can harbor anoles and other native reptiles and amphibians can check out this information site: Reptiles and Amphibians in Your Backyard.

  

My next blog will be the first of a series about Yellowstone National Park. I’d originally planned to post the series this past summer but then couldn’t find some photos I’d taken. The missing card “turned up,” so a photographic tour of the park before it flooded this past June will soon commence.

Have a great day!

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)