Gracious and gorgeous grebes nurturing newborns

After birding now for some six or seven years, I’ve come to appreciate all birds since each species can be fascinating to watch. I do have some favorites though that have captured my interest. In 2012, I fell in love with great-crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus), whom I first noticed during a trip to Switzerland. A pair was engaged in their courtship dance, which was simply delightful to see. They circled one another, stretched out their necks, ruffled their feathers and arose on the water facing one another. Their beauty enchanted me, and I felt that I had witnessed something very special.

The rust and black-tinted head plumes and ruff are gorgeous, making these birds very attractive indeed. This led to their being hunted almost to extinction during the 1800s in the United Kingdom because the feathers were desired as decorations or hats. This led to the establishment of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in that country and their numbers fortunately rebounded.

Fast forward six years to this past July, and I discovered that these birds are quite common in my land of birth, where I just had not noticed them before. Granted, I was not a birder while living in The Netherlands (I currently live in the USA), but I had managed to take note of house sparrows, mute swans, Eurasian coots and moorhens when walking along canals and ditches. Now, as a much more observant wildlife observer, it was thrilling to see many grebes along the dike bordering the Gouwzee (a body of water bordering Monnickendam that is part of the larger Markermeer nature area). And even better – they were all tending young ones at different stages of development.

The great-crested is Europe’s largest grebe species and the adults are stunning with their reddish-orange head plumes. (They are also found in Australia, New Zealand and African countries.) I discovered that the young look quite different – mostly light in color with black stripes on their heads and pink markings near the eyes.

Their floating nests are often found along reed beds, which were abundant along the dike and a ditch across a road from the dike. A couple mothers had chosen the ditch as their home area and the early morning light made for some nice photos in my opinion as they preened and relaxed.

  

   

The water in the lake on the other side of the dike was less calm but the young ones managed to swim well in the waves; they can already dive shortly after leaving the nest.

Their feet are set back far along their bodies and they cannot walk well. I did not ever see one on land during the week that I was observing them.

According to the literature, pairs tend 1-9 eggs, which hatch after about 27-29 days. The mothers carry newborns on their backs as they swim along, offering a safe perch for sightseeing in safety. The babies fledge after 71-79 days. I did not see any pairs with more than two young, so some were probably lost during the previous weeks.

The grebes eat fish, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians and insects. Their fishing technique, which was more in evidence in the open water of the Gouwzee, includes skimming the water with outstretched necks and diving underwater. (The neck-to-the-water pose is also used to show aggression but in these cases no other birds were near and they would subsequently dive under to come up with some food.)

The parents demonstrate and the young imitate them, mostly coming up empty-beaked. Occasionally, a parent would fly away and return later with food. The babies eagerly grab the meals offered by both mama and papa.

After breeding, the adults gather together during a molting period, during which they do not fly. Perhaps one day, I’ll be able to watch them in winter and find out new things about them. In the meantime, if you’d like see what happens when they are feeling perturbed, check out my next blog on “The gorgeous grebes when aggrieved and grumpy!”

Tropical storm Florence causing “cabin fever”

The laptop on which I store most of my photos for processing began malfunctioning about a month ago and when it briefly works, I hurriedly back up files on it so I don’t lose them. That has delayed my processing photos and writing more blogs about wildlife I saw this year in Costa Rica and The Netherlands, so I’m taking the opportunity to focus on some current sightings. As Hurricane Florence neared North Carolina, I got in plenty of cat food and litter, bird seed and some non-perishable foods for humans and then cleared the yard of garden art and bird feeders that could become flying projectiles.

In the meantime, the Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) checked out bird houses as possible shelter from the storm.

How lucky I and most other people in NC’s Triangle area have been so far! The slowly-moving storm turned southeast and is now going northwest, largely bypassing us with the direct impact that had been predicted. We have had rain every day and the ground is very sodden. As I write this now, we are having one of the heaviest downpours of the last week and I keep my fingers crossed that the large oaks and persimmons in my yard do not topple over. Three people were killed by trees falling on their homes and others have had power outages due to fallen trees the past few days. Our neighborhood usually is one of the first to lose power because of the many large old trees we have but so far, so good.

I just had to go out for a walk in the neighborhood today, after only going outside daily to hang and take down bird feeders. Cabin fever had struck, so I spent 90 minutes strolling along. The neighborhood listserv informed me that a few minutes after I passed a certain intersection, a neighbor was almost hit by a falling pine tree, so I was lucky again. And another tree blocked the street further down but we have not lost power yet.

My first destination was the creek downhill from us, which normally rises above its banks, flooding the street next to it. It was nice to see American beautyberries (Callicarpa americana, about which I wrote my last blog) in several neighbors’ yards along the way. The birds have numerous good autumn dining areas available!

When it rains, water from areas north of us runs through our neighborhood to reach Bolin Creek, which also carries stormwater from neighborhoods further upstream.

When I reached the street that runs alongside the creek, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it had not (yet) flooded. (We had at least another 24 hours of rain coming, so it might go outside its banks some time tomorrow.) Some stretches were relatively calm, like this area with a tree that has apparently been marked for removal later (I’m guessing this).with water rising near the walking path.

In a couple spots, the water was rising quite near the walking path (along which some runners passed by as I walked along).

There were pretty wildflowers growing alongside the creek.

 

  

The creek was not only carrying falling rainwater and stormwater from upstream, but also transporting water being funneled into it from our neighborhood as it crossed the street. Not all of the passing drivers were considerate, some going quickly through the water and splashing me as I walked along the sidewalk. In some areas, the water rushing along had to traverse rocks and looked a bit wilder.

I left the creek to walk along neighbors’ yards. One of them had some beautiful spider flowers (Cleome hassleriana), which I have been unable to propagate in my garden, despite a neighbor having given me some to transplant several times.

 

They had some lovely Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus) as well, which I luckily do have in my yard.

I’m unsure what this particular flower is, but it is lovely.

One neighbor’s large fig tree (Ficus carica) was laden with fruit, which I took as a hopeful sign that my two small fig trees might one day provide this tasty treat as well.

  

As I walked along, I came across two young children who were examining a neighbor’s large tree that had had several huge limbs crack off onto their lawn. The young girl was thrilled with her father’s large umbrella – I asked if she had seen the film Mary Poppins and she said no, but they were going to see the play! Her brother brought me a rock with a leopard slug on it, very proud of his find. He pointed out that it had a hole on the side of its head and I was able to inform him that this was normal for these slugs (something I only found out when I wrote a recent blog about their mating behavior).

After checking in on an elderly neighbor to see if she needed anything, I picked up small fallen branches in my yard and examined the plants, noting that the pokeweeds (Phytolacca decandra) still had a few ripe and some green berries so that the birds and deer would still be able to enjoy a few of those.

My outing in the rain ended with a few minutes watching the tadpoles in a small container, several of whom were well on the way to becoming frogs. It was a pleasant if somewhat soggy walk and so nice to get out of the house again.

In the meantime, my thoughts are with the many people who have been displaced and lost their homes to Hurricane/Tropical storm Florence and – across the world – Typhoon Mangkhut. If you can spare some funds, you can always donate to a North Carolina relief fund and/or the Red Cross/Red Crescent societies.

An update on 17 September: all night our area had torrential rain and some thunder and lightning. Shortly after posting this, Bolin Creek overflowed and led to evacuation of people from a housing complex. It is now almost 8 a.m. and it is still a torrential downpour with repeated tornado warnings. Florence had saved her biggest impact for our area for the end of her journey through North Carolina!

The birds and the beautyberry – a great match

Not long after moving into my current home, I began looking for plants that would provide color as well as food for the birds and pollinators in my yard. Although I was not aware at that time of the rationale for avoiding exotics and preferring native plants, I did make some good choices, including an American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana L.) which is also called a French mulberry.

This shrub can grow about 5-7 feet high and about that size wide as well. The flowers are tiny and a pale lilac color, circling the stem like a corona.

They eventually turn into green berries that slowly turn in color, starting out in shades of pink and lilac and eventually gaining a beautiful deep purple shade as they ripen.

People can eat the berries, which are apparently very sweet. I haven’t tried them; they do cause stomach cramps for some people if more than a few are eaten. They are a popular food for wildlife, however. White-tailed deer like both the berries and leaves; raccoons and opossums eat them, too. It is the birds that really get the most fruit from my bushes, including Northern cardinals, Eastern towhees and gray catbirds. The birds kindly transported some seeds to a spot next to my back porch, so I now have a large bush there as well.

When the berries began ripening at the end of August, the cardinals began dining on them first. They were quickly followed by house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) who began visiting the shrubs daily. The female house finch stayed on the bush far from the house.

 

 

The male house finches were bolder and fed on the berries right under the kitchen window. It has been a pleasure to watch them.

 

 

 

 

           

   

The Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are a bit more reluctant to feed when they see me looking at them from a few feet away. Even with the window closed, they are shy but I finally got one to sample some berries while I watched.

The leaves of the beautyberry have been used as an insect repellent in folk remedies; laboratory studies have shown that a chemical compound in the plant will stave off mosquitoes.

I haven’t pruned my beautyberries much but it seems that the plant will bear more fruit the next year if this is done. I do think I will transplant some young ones to other parts of the yard this fall, however, as this plant – along with the purple pokeweed (Phytolacca decandra) – is a real wildlife crowd pleaser.

When those loving instincts leave you dangling

This was not a planned blog, but I recently observed something that simultaneously intrigued, amazed and astounded me, so I wanted to share it with those of you who may not have witnessed this either.

Like many gardens in my neighborhood, my yard has its fair share of leopard slugs (Limax maximus), but they don’t bother me as they do some other people who complain about them eating their vegetables. Until recently, I never thought about the slugs much and certainly didn’t wonder about their life cycle. Then my friend Mary posted a lovely photo of two intertwined leopard slugs mating and my interest and curiosity were piqued.

A few days later, a fellow nature lover, Ace, reported that he had a cool photo to show me – and there on his iPhone was a photo of mating leopard slugs. It turns out that their anatomy makes for a somewhat bizarre spectacle – at least to a human being if not a fellow slug. Now I really wanted to see this phenomenon, too, and I followed Ace’s recommendation, going out into my yard at night with a flashlight to see if I could find some amorous mollusks. Lo and behold – as I rounded the corner of my house, there were three pairs of large slugs getting ready to reproduce! They were leaving glistening slime trails on the brick wall as they slowly got into position.

The slime that the slugs exude has multiple purposes – they can leave a trail behind them as a signpost to the way home, they can numb the mouth of a potential predator with the mucus as a means of defense, and they can broadcast their interest in some reproductive behavior by emitting pheromones to attract a potential mate.

They don’t actually need to mate to reproduce – each slug is a hermaphrodite and can fertilize its own eggs with no need of outside assistance. Slugs have an organ called a spermoviduct (SO), which has two parts – one for the sperm (vas deferens, VD) and one for the ova (oviduct, OV), as seen as this drawing from the Wikipedia page.

Some slugs apparently like reproductive acrobatics, however, and seek out a partner. The mating begins with a pair of slugs following one another around and nudging and licking one another. (A couple photos look browner – I took those with a flash but most were taken with one hand holding a small camera and the other shining a flashlight near the slugs.)

 

They then begin to curl up together and suspend themselves from a long mucus rope, which is somewhat stronger than the slime that they usually exude. They form a kind of writhing ball as they intertwine their elongated bodies (see this video for an example).

Next comes the awesomely weird part – out of a gonopore on the right side of their heads (the elongated tentacles are for vision) come their translucent mating organs (penises)! This video, which is shown in a horizontal position, lets you see how this happens.

Wouldn’t this interesting anatomy and reproductive behavior make an interesting plotline for an SF novel about a genderless society?

 

      

Because the slugs are hanging upside down, gravity helps pull down their reproductive organs, which are pumped full of body fluids until they are as long as the slugs’ entire bodies! Their penises are everted (turned inside out) and the two mollusks intertwine these just like their bodies. They take a while to exchange spermatophores as the penises twirl, intertwine, elongate and pull back to look a bit like a chandelier.

  

When the creatures have been joined at the neck for some time, they begin to slowly withdraw their reproductive organs, which are now carrying genes from another parent.

              

After they separate, one of the pair usually consumes the mucus rope from which they dangled in love as it carries extra nutrients which they can use after their vigorous efforts.

          

 

 

Each slug may spend some time examining its gonopore (above) – and perhaps they are helping push back in the penis when they do this, too. After watching the process for two pairs of slugs, I decided to give the third pair some privacy during their mating tryst. On the wall beneath my screened porch, I discovered another slug with a mucus rope dangling from its tail – leaving me with a little mystery as to why this might have happened. A partner slug was not in evidence except for a much smaller slug – perhaps the big one tried to mate but the younger one was not ready. These mollusks with a life span of 2.5-3 years don’t become sexually mature until they are 2 years old.

    

I do know that at least three and perhaps six slugs will each be laying up to 200 eggs somewhere in the yard. And when I see them in the future, I will undoubtedly always be picturing them in my head doing their dangling dance with intertwined translucent blue tubes that will help promote their future generations. My discovery of their life cycle has also reinforced my support for scientist Hope Jahren’s (Lab Girl) observation: “…being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”

Costa Rican rambles 7B – Cerro Buena Vista and a night prowl

 

After seeing the beautiful green and blue emerald swift lizard, our attention went back to birds and we rewarded with sightings of a few gorgeous little yellow birds – a yellow-winged vireo (Vireo carmioli) and yellowish flycatcher (Empidonax flavescens).

Since I photograph insects to contribute to BugGuide in the USA, I was watching for them in Costa Rica, too. Insect galls on plant stems and leaves were in evidence and a blue damselfly (Argia pulla) posed for a moment.

A yellow weevil was a fascinating find – those blunt-nosed small insects make me think of Pinodchio.

Then – to the delight of everyone in our party – we had the good fortune to see a resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) fly across our path. We had caught sight of a couple flying high over the Lodge before setting off for our hike, but this bird actually perched not too far away, not staying very long at all but giving me a minute to step around a fellow birder and get a couple shots.

A hairy woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus), a more familiar bird for us, looked down on us from high above and a flame-throated warbler (Oreothlypis gutturalis) brought another spot of color to our upward trek.

 

When we started down to make it back in time for lunch, we had time to examine the surrounding flowers and then were lucky to see yet another emerald swift lizard, also kown as the green spiny lizard (Sceloporus malachiticus).

After a meal, it was a treat to see a collared redstart (Myioborus torquatus).

 

 

   

 

A black-thighed grosbeak (Pheucticus tibialis) gave us another yellow-hued sighting before our attention turned to birds with more subdued coloring – an ochraceous wren (Troglodytes ochraceus) which made me think of hobbits in woods for some reason, some ruddy treerunners (Margarornis rubiginosus) and a spangle-cheeked tanager (Tangara dowii).

        

A black-faced solitaire (Myadestes melanops) graced us with its presence before we took an afternoon break. Some of our fellow birders went to rest, but Janet invited me to her cabin where we had the rare pleasure of seeing a lesser violetear hummingbird (Colibri cyanotus) sitting on her nest! When she flew off after a while to get some sustenance, we noted that she had not yet laid any eggs.

 

 

Then, as I scanned the surrounding trees from Janet’s balcony, I discovered another nest, occupied by the young of a gray-tailed hummingbird (Lampornis cinereicauda). It was not easy to see but peering through the leaves, I managed to get a shot of the hummer stuffing some food down an offspring’s throat.

   

Janet’s balcony was a wonderful birding spot – the next visitor was a gorgeous red-headed barbet (Eubucco bourcierii). A flame-colored tanager (Piranga bidentata) was yet another brilliantly hued avian visitor.

Walking along the nearby roads, I saw the horses (Equus ferus caballus) used for tourists’ horse-back riding galloping along – beautiful, well-fed animals to be sure.

  

We soon left on our next excursion to the Páramo zone (montane shrub- and grassland mountaintop environment), where we scaled the Cerro Buena Vista (“Good View Mountain”) by van. This region contains the highest point of the Pan American Highway in Central America (3492 meters or 11456.69 feet in elevation). The peak harbors telecommunications equipment and is noteworthy for the many bird species endemic to this area.

   

The one for which we were especially looking was the volcano junco (Junco vulcani), a great bird that was not shy at all and posed for us in numerous positions and at great length.

After leaving the mountaintop, we descended to the rainforest and there spotted a black guan (Chamaepetes unicolor).

 

Our day ended with a night prowl after dinner, looking for the dusky nightjar (Antrostomus saturatus). And we were lucky enough to have one fly right in when it heard the playback of a compatriot on our birding guide’s sound system!

 

 

 

Well satisfied, I retired to a good night’s sleep after catching a rather large cranefly-type insect, which I let go outside. I wanted to be prepared for our next day’s adventures with the wildlife beauties of Costa Rica.