Who wants to eat?

First, let me welcome those of you who have become new followers of my blog – nice to have you reading here and I hope you comment on what you like! I am way behind on my postings for the blog but will try to remedy that. There are photos almost ready for a series on bird courtship and child-rearing, as well as some other non-bird topics, but various issues have been keeping me from completing the texts. Now that I have had to take my preferred camera in for repairs, however, I have a bit more time to work on the blog and a recent brief trip to Topsail Island is providing some almost ready-made postings.

The south end of Topsail Island has been eroded greatly by the Atlantic storms, including effects from Hurricane Irma. Where normally the beach sloped up gently to beautiful dunes, these have now been sheared off vertically and the sea grasses and other vegetation before the dunes have been swept away.

 

 

That is of concern as the sea turtles nest there; hopefully, there will be sufficient places for their eggs next year. There were far fewer shells on the beach but at low tide the swath of empty sand was very wide.

 

Mixed groups of birds were resting there in between ocean fishing expeditions. There were a couple immature common terns (Sterna hirundo) who were begging for food incessantly, but the adults pretty much ignored them, preferring to preen or settle down for a rest.

Some of the begging was pretty vigorous, accompanied by feather ruffling and shaking but I didn’t see any parents go off for food.

The sandwich terns (Thalasseus sandvicensis) were also resting but individuals took off frequently for a fishing flight. These terns are easily identifiable by the yellow tips on their black bills and their Groucho Mark hair-dos, a boon for people like me who are challenged in recognizing which shorebird they have before them. Sometimes, you could imagine a conversation taking place between them.

Hi! I’m back from fishing!

Didn’t take long, did it?

See, I got a fish!

Wanna smell it?

Not to your liking, huh?

Walking in circles around me won’t make it any different

I think I’ll go feed a young one!

There were two immature sandwich terns who were very persistent in asking for a meal.

Come on, Ma, I’m hungry!

I am really really hungry!

Oh yum, lunch!

That’s right, put it right here!

Thank goodness you brought me something!

I’m STILL hungry!

Perhaps the adult sandwich terns were accommodating to their young as they have a lot of experience in raising them – the oldest one on record lived in North Carolina and reached the ripe old age (for a bird) of 24 years and 2 months! (However, the oldest common tern on record was 25 years, so perhaps the sandwich terns are just more caring?)

The birds were quite entertaining to watch and I have more photos to share from that trip. I will try to intersperse them between postings on avian child-rearing. Have a nice day!

A lucky, lucky day with monarch guardian angels!

Yesterday my day turned out quite differently from my modest expectations – it was very lucky and truly a day for gratitude.

In mid-August, I had seen a female monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) at Sandy Creek Park, an exciting find and testimony to the usefulness of planting milkweed there. John Goebel, Sandy Creek patron, manager and care-taker extraordinaire, had planted about five types of milkweed in anticipation of welcoming these guests and it had paid off.

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A few days ago, on Facebook, the Friends of Sandy Creek Park group announced that the one male and two female monarch butterflies spotted in the butterfly garden had left behind quite a few offspring. As I had not seen a monarch caterpillar in person before, I took off early for the park, where I found three people assembled to count them.  John Goebel kindly told me something about the monarch life cycle.

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He pointed out several larger caterpillars, noting that they were stage 4 or 5 larva. The eggs hatch about 4 days after being laid. The larvae eat the plant on which they were born, shedding their skins four times as they grow, a process taking 10 to 14 days. These stages of growth are called instars.

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monarch DK7A6441© Maria de Bruyn resIn stage 5, the large larvae look for a protected and hidden spot where they can attach themselves vertically. They use their spinneret (not only spiders have them!) to make a silk pad from which they then suspend themselves, hanging down in the form of a letter J. The culmination of this procedure occurs when they straighten out, a sign, John told me, that pupation was imminent, with the caterpillar turning into a bright green chrysalis. There was already one chrysalis when I arrived with two other caterpillars hanging nearby.

 

The milkweed plants were attracting plenty of insect action. Many stems were yellow and orange as they were covered with milkweed bug nymphs and aphids. I photographed several of the 43 caterpillars counted, including a small early-stage newbie, and a number of large specimens that were very busy munching on leaves.

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After a while, I moved on to photographing caterpillars of moth species and looked around for birds or other interesting insects. Then an unexpected and unfortunate event arose and I had to high-tail it to the bathroom (thank goodness Sandy Creek has one that is open much of the year!).

Emerging from the bathroom and walking down the path to my car to go home, I felt chagrin that my nature walk had to be cut short. But if it hadn’t been for the bathroom visit near the milkweed plants necessitated by my gastrointestinal emergency, I would have missed a first-time experience. As I strolled to my car, I glanced again at the hanging caterpillars and noticed one had straightened out. I balanced the need to go home to shower and change clothes with the desire to see a caterpillar become a chrysalis. I had cleaned myself as well as possible and no one else was around, so I stayed.

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The caterpillar that I was watching was hanging quietly on a leaf; the only action came from a small milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmia) and a large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) that marched back and forth on top, so I turned to the side to photograph an adventurous sibling that had climbed to the top of a nearby plant.

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When I looked back, the pupation had already begun and was progressing apace.

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John had mentioned that it could take under a minute; this caterpillar was a little bit slower but the transformation was quick indeed. I’d seen videos of this before but seeing it live in the wild was awesome. And I got my own bit of video showing the last bit of larval skin dropping off the chrysalis.

monarch DK7A7623© Maria de Bruyn resThe large milkweed bug came back to perch over the chrysalis. Later, John moved this chrysalis because the leaf of the plant could fall off before the 10- to 14-day pupation period is over – everyone wants all the larvae to become full-grown adult butterflies who can undertake the long migration to Florida or, more likely, Mexico. Their loss of habitat in both the United States and Mexico is devastating to the species and action to prevent further losses is still needed.

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As I again prepared to leave, I noticed that one of the other hanging caterpillars was straightening out, so I decided to wait a little while in the hope I would see a second pupation. After watching one caterpillar approach and climb a nearby tree and seeing another trundling through the grass toward the parking lot (presumably headed for a tree further away), I focused on the hanging caterpillar.

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Sure enough, the pupation began – in this case, even more rapidly than the first one I witnessed.

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A difference with this transformation was that the last little bit of caterpillar did not drop off but remained suspended at the bottom of the chrysalis. Most likely, it will fall off later, which is important; if it remains attached, it could damage the emerging butterfly.

MONARCH buttterfly 1© Maria de Bruyn resWatching this part of the butterflies’ metamorphosis was an exciting event. I didn’t wait fora third pupation, however, as I really did need to get home. On the way back, I nearly had a collision with another car – perhaps leading the other driver to need a shower, too. At home, I later almost fell on my face as one of my cats wound himself through my legs as I walked so that I came very close to tripping. Both accidents in the making didn’t happen, thank goodness, so maybe the monarch pupae had become my guardian angels for the day. In any event, I did have lots to be thankful for!

 

For more information:

http://monarchlab.org/biology-and-research/biology-and-natural-history/breeding-life-cycle/life-cycle

http://www.learner.org/jnorth/tm/monarch/ChrysalisFormationLPB.html

 

Growing up to be a redhead

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9062© Maria de Bruyn (2)In the past month or so, I’ve been seeing red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) almost everywhere I go — except my own neighborhood! Jordan Lake’s woods in two different areas and various sections of the Mason Farm Biological Reserve have all provided me with multiple spottings of, and concerts by, these lovely birds.

I’m not very good at recognizing birds by their calls. Having listened to loud rock music as a teenager left me with some hearing problems. But the red-heads have a loud, unique, warbling territorial call that they emit frequently, regardless of whether another of their species is close by or not. I’ve become quite good at recognizing that call!

The juveniles begin life looking quite different from their parents. They have mostly gray-brown heads and backs and the part of their feathers that will later be entirely white are marked by black splotches and dots.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0654© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0700© Maria de Bruyn

 

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Like their parents, they show a variety of prey-hunting and food-gathering behaviors. You will hear them pecking at trees in their quest for insects but they also look for insects on the ground and can catch them during flight in mid-air.

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0612© Maria de BruynThey also eat fruit, seeds and nuts like acorns and beechnuts, with plant materials making up about two-thirds of their diet. They will store food in caches so that they can find it again later during times of more nutritional scarcity. And in places far apart, they appear to be good at finding the same orangey cubes that are not nuts but some other, obviously delicious, substance.

 

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8082© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8096© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8788© Maria de Bruyn resred-headed woodpecker IMG_1880© Maria de Bruyn

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9470© Maria de BruynTheir food storage habits help birders find them more easily. Both at Jordan Lake and Mason Farm, I’ve discovered a couple trees where certain birds have their food stash and if I wait long enough, a red-head is more than likely going to appear.

 

Unfortunately, due to habitat loss and changes to its usual food supply, this species has declined considerably in numbers. That is why it is so nice to see the juveniles among these various groups.

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As they age, the brown feathers begin giving way to red ones, first around the nape and back of the neck. The black markings on the tail feathers begin to fade as well as they grow older.

 

 

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When they reach maturity, the birds have brilliant red heads, glossy black and pure white flight and tail feathers.

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As these birds need dead trees for their nesting and storage cavities, it’s great that our area has some preserved forests where they currently appear to be thriving. And I can continue going out in the hopes of one descending from treetops to a lower and nearer perch so that I can finally get the stunning shots I’ve been wishing for!
Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0605© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0707© Maria de Bruyn

 

Thrushes – speckles and spots, or not

Learning to “bird” (i.e., spot birds and determine what species they are) is no easy matter. There are guides that have color-coded pages so you can begin by looking for birds that are primarily of the color of the one at which you happen to be looking, but then the females and males can differ greatly and the young can look very different from their parents, too.
Hermit thrush IMG_1357©Maria de Bruyn blogIf you can learn something about “families”, that will help you narrow down your search in other guides. So I began associating the family of thrushes with birds that have spotted breasts. I discovered that is true for some of the avian species that have the word thrush in their name, like the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) with its reddish tail and the wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina, below right) with a really beautiful song.

Hermit thrush IMG_1359©Maria de Bruyn blogwood thrush IMG_5416©Maria de Bruyn blog

Wikipedia says that a characteristic of this bird family is that most species are of a gray or brown color, often with speckled under parts. But you can’t count on that being a definitive trait. For example, the large brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum, below left) is not in the thrush family but its speckles and streaks are more than obvious. And the lovely little ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla, below right) with an orange stripe on its head looks similar to the hermit thrush but is actually a member of the warbler family.

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You can’t count on the name to help out either. The Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) is not a thrush at all but a somewhat larger warbler species that places its nest near water.

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American robin IMG_3049©Maria de Bruyn resOn the other hand, I was surprised to find out that American robins (Turdus migratorius) are thrushes. But then I saw that the young robins do have speckled breasts – very obvious on this one to the left.

And I learned that Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are a thrush species, too – those spots are also evident in the young!

 

 

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It turns out that Eurasian (common) blackbirds (Turdus merula) are thrushes, too. The males, like this one seen in Switzerland, are all black but the females show some spotting.

Eurasian blackbird male 6 MdB blogEurasian blackbird female 3 MdBblog

Nevertheless, speckling and spotting are no clear-cut clues to thrushes and common names can be confusing and deceiving. Perhaps I should give up on examining bird breasts to help figure out what species they are. Enjoying the birds, their behavior and their appearance is a much better birding experience for me than aiming to become an identification or birding expert!