Marvelous mammals, part 1 – at the homestead

Judging from how many blogs I’ve written about birds, you might assume that I’m mainly a devotee of avian wildlife but that is certainly not the case. Without a doubt, I do love birds, but I really enjoy observing, learning about and photographing all kinds of other wildlife.  Fortunately, my own yard provides me with some opportunities for that as I have a number of regular mammalian visitors. Sometimes, their visits entail a bit of drama but often their presence is quite peaceful.

The Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) like to visit the front porch to see if there’s something of interest among the potted plants or to take a drink from a water source.

These cute little rodents are more than willing to mingle with the ground-feeding birds looking for seed under the feeders. They scurry away as fast as their little legs will carry them when birds of prey appear – and they can certainly run quickly!

 

When it’s very cold, I sometimes offer them a small tray of seed just for themselves on the porch. They scarf down the goodies, filling their cheek pouches to what seems like almost bursting before dashing away to store the goodies for later consumption.

 

A pair of Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) lives in my yard and both mom and dad are very good about taking care of their young. I don’t see them much in the winter but expect they will be out and about again in the spring, doing their “leapfrogging” courtship ritual.

When it’s breeding season, I may see raccoons (Procyon lotor) in the daytime but lately they have been coming to the yard at night to pick up whatever seed is left on the ground from the daytime visitors. My wildlife cam caught a not-so-clear photo of this happening.

Another visitor who mostly comes at night is the opossum (Didelphis virginiana), one of my favorites given their propensity to eat lots and lots of ticks! Many people seem to think that they are ugly or scary, but I actually think they are kind of cute.

The largest mammalian visitors I see daily are the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). I’ve loved them ever since I got to know a particular individual, whom I named Schatje (Dutch for “dear”). She approached me when she was a yearling and made friends with me, sitting next to me in the grass and thereafter bringing her newborn fawns to the yard right after their births. She unfortunately died in a car accident after some years, but through her I learned to really appreciate these mammals.

Some people dislike deer intensely because they eat their flowers and prized shrubs. But I’ve found that consistent application of a deer repellent on my plants keeps them off the vegetation that I want to preserve. Also, I let them eat bird seed and sometimes apple slices that I put out for the ground-feeding birds like white-throated sparrows, Eastern towhees, dark-sided juncos, American crows (the apple lovers) and brown thrashers.

So I’ve been watching the deer for many years now and a very odd occurrence happened over the past half year. At least four deer have appeared with broken hind legs or feet. When “Mama”, a doe with twins, showed up with a terrible break on her leg, I wondered if it happened when she jumped a fence. The bone was jutting out and it was obviously very painful. She hobbled on three legs.

What was amazing was the fact that her two-year-old son began caring for her. He already had a nice set of antlers and by rights should have left to join the stag group in the neighborhood, but he stayed with her and tended the wound, licking it, and also grooming her! I had not heard of a stag doing that before, so I named him Sweetie. He stayed with her for months!

Mama kept caring for her twins (a male and female). (The past couple years, she had only had male offspring so that cut down on the number of deer we might otherwise have had). And she tended her wound on her own as well.

Mama also had to withstand the advances of the dominant neighborhood stag, who was intent on mating with her. Sweetie tried to be there to fend off the interloper, but he had to give in and move off as he was no match for the big buck. Mama tried to get away, but he kept trying to mount her – unsuccessfully, since her back quarters would collapse as she could not bear any weight on the broken leg. She finally got away and ran, which must have been terribly painful for her.

 

Mama could not stand up for herself with the hurt leg so she began being bullied by another doe who showed up. That deer, who I called Bossy, was ill-tempered and a bit nasty; she even would chase her own son away from seed on the ground, even when her son also got a broken leg!

Then two adult males turned up with breaks – one had a broken foot. I wondered if someone was feeding them deer corn, which can be bad for their health and affect their hooves so that perhaps leg breaks would happen more easily. Or was someone taking potshots at them? It remains a mystery, but I’ve learned that the deer can overcome something like this although the healing takes months.

And then we come to my “nemesis” yard mammal, the Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). As all bird-feeding people know, squirrels will do their utmost to eat all and any bird food that is put out — this has generated an industry devoted to producing squirrel baffles and “squirrel-proof” feeders. Even when I had smeared a bit of suet on a holly bush for the ruby-crowned kinglet who was sometimes crowded away from the feeder, a squirrel discovered the treat there and consumed what s/he could.

I’ve been fairly fortunate in having the baffles work until recently, when a couple squirrels used their little brains to figure out ways to get around them. It was my belief that I had put the feeder poles sufficiently far from the roof or large tree branches so that the squirrel couldn’t make the leap. One kept trying over and over and finally succeeded in lengthening his/her “long jump”!

I moved the poles further away. But two poles were about five feet apart and I then saw a squirrel use a strategy that really looked very clever to me. S/he would take a run at one pole, launch him/herself onto the pole at high velocity just under the baffle and then turn to vault from that height up and over the baffles on the neighboring pole! I really did admire the creature’s ingenuity and gained a new respect for their intelligence.

After moving the feeder poles further apart, I then noticed that a couple feeders on one pole were being emptied quickly. Looking out my window one day, I saw a squirrel perched atop the pole, enjoying seed after having managed to move the baffles down the pole. How was s/he doing that?

 

I set aside time to watch and discovered the squirrel’s secret.

 

The animal was hanging onto the raccoon baffle, biting it and jerking down at the same time. This eventually loosened the screws in the apparatus on which the baffle rested so that the baffle finally slid down the pole!

 

The screws have now been tightened and the next move is up to the squirrels. They are clever and tenacious. This was further brought home to me when a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) recently landed on a squirrel nest and did its best to extricate the mammal with its claws. The hawk eventually had to leave without its envisioned meal.

The yard mammals are certainly entertaining. If any of you readers have had interesting experiences with them, I’d love to hear about them in comments on this blog’s page! (Except for cats running free outside – goodbye from my two indoor cats, Ogi and Moasi!)

Costa Rican mammals, part 2 – those quite different from our Carolina wildlife neighbors!

Seeing mammals that we don’t get to enjoy during nature outings in the Carolinas was one of the treats of my Costa Rican trip. Although we spotted spider monkeys during our outings, it was the mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata) that we saw – and heard – most often. My first sighting of one was last year, when its white scrotum identified it as a mature male.

These primates eat mostly leaves (50-75% of its food), designating its diet as folivorous (new word for me!).

This low-energy diet means that they sleep and rest a lot – all night and about 75% of the day! They will supplement their leafy meals with fruit and flowers, and they get their water from bromeliads and holes in tree trunks.

Their large hyoid bones amplify the sound coming from their vocal cords so that their calls echo up to 3 miles (5 km) throughout the forest.

Interesting fact: if the howler is disturbed or irritated by humans, it will sometimes urinate or defecate on them, having surprisingly good aim from high in the tree canopy!

Another arboreal mammal that everyone in our group found endearing was the three-toed (brown-throated) sloth (Bradypus variegatus). These animals are apparently quite popular with tourists and often appear in logos and signs. An orphaned sloth was brought to one hotel where we stayed; the staff let the youngster go up in a tree in the courtyard where we could see it.

     

I had seen (and touched) a sloth in a friend’s back yard in Bolivia once (right); seeing another one close-up outside a zoo was a new treat. I love how they move in slow motion. Their sluggish movement is a result of their diet – just like the howler monkeys, they are folivorous and conserve energy as a result of their mostly leafy diet.

 

That slow movement and the fact that they cannot walk on all fours, unfortunately can also be the cause of their undoing. Their movement on the ground consists of dragging themselves forward by their forearms and claws. Our guide told us that when they cross roadways in that position, drivers may not notice them on the pavement until it’s too late to avoid them. ☹

An interesting fact is that their rough hair eventually comes to harbor various organisms, including cockroaches, beetles, moths and algae. So picking them up and holding them is perhaps not advisable – both for the human who can get insects all over them and for the sloth, who can get upset by being held. (The sloth I touched in Bolivia, below, was at the base of a tree and when I put my hand on its chest, it made no movement but I could feel its heart rate suddenly increase rapidly, so I backed off!)

 

Another interesting behavior – once a week, the sloths leave their trees to defecate on the ground. At this time, they become vulnerable to predators. (The sloth in my friends’ yard unfortunately did this and was killed by a neighborhood dog.)

 

On the ground, a slender dark mammal that frequents hotel gardens, people’s yards and nature reserves is the white-nosed coatimundi (Nasua narica). These mammals are related to raccoons and people in Costa Rica will tell you that they are Costa Rican raccoons.

 

Coatis, as they are popularly known, travel both on the ground and in trees, although I only saw one arboreal individual. They usually spend the nights in trees and then come down to look for food, which includes small vertebrates such as mice and lizards, eggs, snakes, insects, carrion and fruit – a varied diet, for sure!

The coati below was busy at the side of a mountain road we walked; it was unclear to me what it was doing. There was obviously another animal there and at first, I thought it was a young coati, but I don’t think that was the case. I now wonder if another mammal had died and the coati was investigating it as a food source.

 

They do not appear to be very wary of humans; this one passed by fairly close in a wooded area. Apparently, people will feed coatis strawberries along roadsides, which will undoubtedly make them less wary of humans. This coati might have been a male as they are solitary except for mating season when they will join a female group for a time.

Another ground-dwelling mammal we saw on multiple occasions in different areas was the Central American agouti (Dasyprocta punctata). This rodent plays an important role in the forest as it is a seed disperser. Like squirrels, the agoutis bury caches of seeds and nuts for lean times; when they do not re-visit a storage area, the seeds and nuts may germinate to create new trees.

 

The agoutis eat other foods as well, including leaves, roots and fruit. They will sit on their hind legs and hold the food in their front paws to dine.

These cute animals mate for life; the young are unusual in that they are active right after birth. The mother takes them to nest sites dug by other animals so they can claim their own home burrows! The young then line their home with leaves and twigs.

It is worth noting here that the Costa Ricans are protecting their ground mammals and all other wildlife. The country was the first in Latin America to ban sport hunting in 2012; it is also forbidden to keep, import or export wildlife for the pet trade.

And finally we get to the smallest mammals we viewed during our August trip. Last year, our group had been surprised to find that a group of bats was flying into a hotel’s outdoor restaurant to roost each night. The staff accommodated the creatures, which they listed as two-lined bats. After reading about Costa Rican bats, I think these might be lesser white-lined bats (Saccopteryx leptura). It was interesting to see how they would hang by one leg as they engaged in some grooming.

This year, we came across a small group of similar-looking bats roosting under a bridge. They had white lines down their backs but appeared to be long-nosed proboscis bats (Rhynchonyceteris naso). Their colonies often number 5-10 individuals.

One of our most interesting walks took place the day after our bridge sighting. We were visiting a self-taught local artist named Cope, in La Union, Guapiles. He created a wildlife viewing site around his home where he welcomes tourists to see hummingbirds and other avians. He offered to take us into the nearby forest to find a particular owl (coming blog!), as well as a couple species of bats and some interesting amphibians.

While we may be used to thinking of bats living in caverns, various species in the rain forest have found other roosting sites. The tent-making bats (Uroderma bilobatum) create a home by biting through the middle vein of a large leaf so that the sides droop down and form a hanging shelter. The structure is recognizable and after Cope found us a couple tents, members of our group knelt or hunkered down so we could peer upwards at the sheltering mammals.

 

At one site, after photographing the bats, I unfortunately stumbled backwards after taking a photo; I startled the bats, who took off in haste. Apparently, it is known that they spook easily since the slightest movement of their leaf could indicate that a predator is approaching. Cope fortunately located another tent so that the other group members could peer upwards at the creatures.

Our guide was kind enough to use people’s cell phones to take photos of the little bats.

At another tent, it turned out that adorable Honduran white bats (Ectophylla alba) were roosting. Of the approximately 1300 known bat species, only six have entirely white fur.

These bats are frugivorous, with one fig species being a preferred food.

The Honduran white bats are unique in being able to convert lutein into a form that better helps protect the retina and it is speculated that understanding how they do this could be helpful in the treatment of macular degeneration.

Our final bat species had a different type of residence – a termite mound, which may be abandoned or actively harboring termites. I believe that the species we saw was the pygmy round-eared bat (Lophostoma brasiliense), an insectivore although it will also eat fruit. Their daytime roosting site is maintained by a resident male bat, who prevents termites from repairing the cavity made by the bats. Seeing these nocturnal mammals in an unexpected home was truly an interesting way to conclude our bat-watching outing.

 

Many thanks to Nan DeWire and Ylva Byars for letting me include photos they took in this blog. After a foray into North Carolinian wildlife in the next posting, it will be back to Costa Rica to take a look at the woodpeckers there – and elsewhere!

Quebec chronicles – birds I know in their summer habitat

As I sit here in the 34 ⁰C/93 ⁰F temperature, a memory of cooler weather in Quebec this past spring beckons. So here we go back to the birding trip I took with some friends at the end of May/start of June. While I was able to see several “lifers” (birds I saw in person for the first time) during that trip, there were also a number of birds I had seen here in North Carolina (NC) but who were now getting ready for breeding on their summer grounds. These included some aquatic species, like the American black ducks (Anas rubripes, above), who interbreed with mallards, and a lovely pair of American wigeons (Anas americana), who are one of the more vocal duck species.

 

At one pond, I surprised a female ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris), who took off in a flurry of wings. These ducks tend to prefer small bodies of water as resting and feeding areas. Later that afternoon, I caught sight of a male counterpart at the far side of another pond as our car passed that body of water.

 

The spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularius) is a shorebird I have seen with some regularity in my home territory in NC. The Northern harrier (Circus hudsonius), which I don’t see as often, is nevertheless a familiar bird.

 

The double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) would fly by on the St. Lawrence Seaway from time to time. I see them often in NC but had not seen the somewhat unusual-looking (to me!) surf scoters (Melanitta perspicillata). The male has what has been described as a swollen bill with patches of white, red and orange color contrasting with its black feathers.

  

A duck that I had seen for the first time in North Carolina, when one paid a rare visit to a lake in our area this past winter, was the long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis). These deep-diving birds breed along Northern sea coasts, lakes and on tundras. There were two males swimming at one place that we stopped – one was in its breeding plumage while the other still sported its winter feathers (with a large round black spot on its face, above). Our local birding pal speculated that the winter-plumage bird might not have been completely healthy and was therefore not going to breed.

A female long-tailed duck was very busy in the meantime diving under water, although she was apparently looking for food close to the water’s surface rather than diving deep (i.e., up to 60 m or 200 ft).

 

The water was really beautiful, looking almost velvety to me as it undulated in gentle movement with the long-tailed ducks and a common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) riding the swells.

On several occasions, we were lucky to see common eider ducks (Somateria mollissima) in the distance. Eider down, which has been used to stuff humans’ pillows, comes from the female duck’s breast and is intended to be used in lining her nest. Nowadays, there are communities in Norway that protect the birds’ nests, eggs and young so that they can later harvest the down from the used nests.

A group of common murres (Uria aalge) flew by one day and, like the eiders, were added to my list of Quebec lifers. The murres are a type of auk, birds that can swim and dive wonderfully but have an awkward gait when walking on land. The murres don’t breed until they are 4 or 5 years old, in contrast to many other birds.

A really beautiful water bird, which I unfortunately was not able to photograph beautifully, was the common loon (Gavia immer). When the light hits its head and neck feathers in the right way, they have a beautiful green-blue iridescence. With its checkered back pattern and white-and-black striped collar, these birds make me think of someone getting ready for a formal dining party, i.e., they are well-dressed avians!

 

We only saw a Canada goose a couple times during our stay in Quebec but did get to  see another species, the brant goose (Branta bernicla). This species almost died out along the eastern coast of North America when their main food, eelgrass, suffered a blight. The birds changed their diet to include sea lettuce and this proved to be a good survival strategy.

 

On land, one afternoon I spotted a sparrow in the garden of a private home. Though I couldn’t get too close, I got an identifiable photo and learned it was a Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), which I had not seen before. This species was named by James John Audubon for his friend, Thomas Lincoln, who shot one of the birds during a trip they took together in 1834. (Obviously, one of the sadder aspects of birding in Audubon’s time.)

Another, much larger bird, that I got to see for the first time was a ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus). These birds can be found in Appalachia, but it was only in Quebec that I was able to view these birds three times.

They tend to walk around much of the time but also fly up into trees to forage. We saw them in quaking aspen trees (Populus tremuloides); it turns out that dormant flower buds of male aspens are a major food source for the grouse in winter and early spring.

 

Unfortunately, these birds have been succumbing to West Nile virus in some of their habitats.

Finally, two birds that we saw in great abundance were birds that also appear with regularity on birders’ lists in NC.

 

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, it is far more likely to hear than to see the Swainson’s thrush (Catharus ustulatus); however, it seemed these birds were out and about at every place we stopped.

The initial excitement at seeing one slowly turned into remarks of “oh, another Swainson’s” as one, two, three or more of these charming birds worked the meadows and trail paths looking for sustenance.

 

The same thing eventually happened with our sightings of least flycatchers (Empidonax minimus), one of the smaller birds of its type. These birds like to snatch their meals from the air but will also glean insects from leaves and twigs.

 

 

 

What I did find is that these small companions on our walks were quite charming and cute, so I didn’t tire of seeing them again and again.

 

Next time: some of the non-avians we saw in the Canadian province!

My special bird in autumn 2018

Well, having had time to finally process photos as the year end approaches, I’m “on a roll” with posting blogs in contrast to other months in 2018. I have two more to post on mammals this year. This one is to commemorate a real birding treat that came to me during the snowstorm that was featured in my last two blogs.

 

There had been reports on birding sites and listservs that some bird species which usually don’t come too far south during the winter were on the move this year to warmer climes. They included birds that sometimes arrive in North Carolina (NC) in winter, but who don’t always come in large numbers (an “irruption”) such as pine siskins (Spinus pinus, above) and purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus, below).

  

I’ve also been lucky to see red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), another irruption species, either in my yard or on nature walks.

 

So why are they coming here in numbers?  It turns out that trees in the northern boreal forests are not producing enough food sources that these birds need to survive winter weather such as conifer seeds and berries (from trees such as hemlock, spruce, firs, alders and larch).

What was really exciting for birders in NC, however, was that some other bird species are also seeking new winter foraging areas. They include redpolls, crossbills and the gorgeous evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) who are seen here only rarely.

I had only ever seen a photo of these grosbeaks and thought it would be fun to see one in person. Members of a listserv mentioned that these grosbeaks had been spotted in Virginia, just above the NC border, so we should be prepared to perhaps see them.

On my visits to the Brumley Nature Preserve, I spent time in the spruce areas in the hope of spotting one, but I had no such luck. And then as the snow was falling heavily on the first morning of our snowstorm, I caught sight of a bright yellow and black bird on a feeder as I looked out my window. Lo and behold, when I grabbed my camera I discovered a male evening grosbeak on a feeder!

What was even more exciting was that he was accompanied by two female birds, both of whom were very lovely as well. I took lots of photos.

They finally flew off and I counted myself very lucky indeed. A while later, when the snow had stopped for a while, I was watching the feeders again and the threesome returned to my delight. They fed and then rested on feeder poles.

I tried to go outside quietly so I could photograph them without a window between us but they were quite skittish and left quickly as soon as I appeared. They flew to the tops of nearby tall pines and then disappeared off into the distance. They were not shy when I stood in front of the living room window, however.

The trio reappeared a third time and I stayed behind the window to admire them. It was interesting to see how they could look different, depending on their posture. The bird above looked “tall” as it fed next to the Eastern bluebird. And then the other looked fat and fluffy on the feeder pole – even looking as if it had an outsized head when it leaned forward a bit!

 

They left in the afternoon and did not return, even when it snowed again the next day. A fellow birder who lives northwest of me spotted a male evening grosbeak on one of her feeders that day – the birds were obviously en route to another destination. I hope they found a good food source area for the rest of the winter. And my photos will remind me of their wonderful visit, which made this snowstorm one to remember. 😊

An avian buffet appears!

In the town where I live, there is a private lake in a neighborhood of single-family homes. The little body of water was created by developers who dammed a local creek; now a neighborhood association levies annual fees for use of the lake for swimming, fishing and boating. In the past month, the neighborhood residents were surprised by an influx of birds that they do not usually see and some photos of the new avian visitors began circulating.

Given my interest in wildlife and birds, some colleagues passed on a couple of photos to me and one couple kindly invited me to come visit so that I could see the new arrivals in person. They were especially curious about the identity of a few ducks. When I arrived, no ducks were in sight, but at least 80 double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) were hanging out in crowds on two floating docks.

Their tightly-packed presence had displaced the Canada geese (Branta canadensis), who are more common lake residents. A group of 11 geese were off in the distance on shore leaving the open water to the visiting avian groups.

Some of the cormorants couldn’t fit onto the platforms, so they swam around in the company of the many dozens of ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) of all ages who were swarming the waters as well.

From time to time, the gulls would begin edging their way onto the platforms, eventually taking up space vacated by the cormorants. There are both adult and immature gulls in the crowd.

From time to time, the gulls launch themselves into the air for aerial forays which end in dives down to pick up a fish, of which there still seem to be plenty. This is because the shad population with which the lake was apparently stocked is dying off as a whole.

Why is this happening? I don’t know the species of shad with which the lake was stocked, but it appears that threadfin shad (Dorosoma petenense) are common in the Southeastern USA and often introduced as forage fish for the bass and catfish that fisher-people seek. The shad are very sensitive to changes in water temperature; when it goes below about 42° F (5.5° C), they expire. In the past 6 weeks, we had an unusual early winter storm with about 8-11 inches of snow, followed by days and days of cold rains. Sometimes, it is cold 24 hours long; other days have nights and dawns below freezing and then afternoon temperatures of 50-60° F (10-17° C). The shad die-off is a result.

  

The newly arrived birds are obviously enjoying the easy pickings. When the gulls drop down to snatch a fish, they are almost always pursued by other gulls who try to make them drop the prize.

 

Even when they alight with a fish firmly held in their beaks, other gulls harass them in an attempt to make them give up the meal.

 

  

The shad often appear to be too large for the gulls to swallow. I saw several gulls try to position them to get them down their gullets but the fish just wouldn’t go down. So they drop the fish in the water and then try to pick off pieces for easier eating, while fending off neighboring gulls.

  

It is unclear to me how the birds who don’t usually populate the lake in winter knew that a spontaneous buffet had appeared. In addition to the cormorants and gulls, a group of seven bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was also fishing when I visited. There were some almost full adult eagles (with mostly white heads and tails) and several immature birds of varying ages (eagles reach maturity at 5 years of age). I guess that they came over from Jordan Lake, which is quite a fair distance away. Searching the Internet has not yet given me an answer to this question.

I didn’t see the eagles harass gulls who had gotten a fish but they were very carefully watching one another. When the eagle below managed to get a snack, other immature eagles closely followed him/her. A sub-adult who got a fish was harassed by an immature bird as well.

 

The eagles soared overhead and were joined at one point by a beautiful red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). The larger raptors let the hawk fly alongside them with no problem.

It was quite a chilly morning when I got to see the visiting aquatic birds, so I only stayed a short time. But my friends invited me to return for another visit, which I hope to do soon as there is no telling how long it will take the visiting birds to eat the easily available shad. And the ducks? I was able to get one rather indistinct photo of a threesome across the lake and helpful folks in a Facebook group confirmed my guess – they are ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis). Maybe I can get a decent photo of them next time. 🙂