Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 1: birds

On the last day of January 2019, I thought it would still be ok to post a couple blogs on some surprises I encountered the past year. Almost always when I go out on nature walks, I encounter something new – a species of wildlife or plant that I have not seen before or an interaction between species not previously observed. So, I wanted to share a few of those delightful surprises from 2018. In this blog, I focus on birds; in the next part, other kinds of wildlife will be featured.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my own front yard was the scene of my biggest surprise last year when a snowstorm brought feeder visitors whom I had never seen before and who rarely come to the state where I live. The evening grosbeaks were just stunning.

 

They were not the only grosbeaks who treated me with their beauty, however. I’ve had rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) visit the feeders before, but they still always elicit my appreciation with their bright colors.

 

In late October, an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) made me stop for a photo as the other birds of its species had already gone south for the winter. The bird was perched on a branch extended over a pond and had to unfortunately contend with a persistent crow that was harassing it. After some time, the sea eagle finally took off with the crow in pursuit – it seemed that the osprey might have injured its wing and perhaps that accounted for a delayed departure to warmer climes.

  

Although the pursuit photos are not high-quality, you can see a gap in the osprey’s wing and perhaps it was waiting for healing before it undertook a very long journey.

 

On another day, I was near a wetland when an unexpected visitor flew onto a branch above me. Green herons (Butorides virescens) usually keep their distance from me; I regretted that it was overcast and the lighting was not wonderful for my close-up portrait of this colorful immature bird.

 

A more muted bird, but lovely nonetheless, is the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus). When I saw this individual in late December, I was thinking that it must be difficult for them to find food as the vegetation shrivels and insects are in hiding. At that moment, the bird dropped to the ground and was foraging – coming up with a bug to prove that they still could find sustenance in the cold temperatures!

  

The mockingbirds are often solitary except for breeding season. Some people complain that they are aggressive towards other birds at their feeders but those in my yard are not that way at all. They share space at feeders and don’t chase anyone else away. When it is mating and nesting time, however, they can become quite territorial and are very protective of their nests. This seasonal “grumpiness” was brought home to me one day along a country road when I witnessed a pair of mockingbirds driving a third bird – rival? Intruder? – away from their roosting spot.

When large flocks of gulls and double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) visited a small local lake because of a shad die-off, I had the chance to watch them for a while. One day, it was interesting to observe how one cormorant wanted to jump up on a floating platform, but another bird didn’t want him/her there. They faced off with open beaks – the bird wanting to get out of the water won.

 

 

It’s always interesting to me to watch birds as they forage for sustenance. When I think of woodpeckers, my thoughts immediately turn to nuts and insects, which I think of as their staple diets. So it was a surprise to me to see this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) dining at length one day on nice ripe persimmons – a bird with a sweet tooth!

 

 

 

Well, I probably shouldn’t say “sweet tooth” but “sweet tongue”. Woodpeckers don’t have teeth but they have exceptionally long tongues that can be wrapped around their brains inside their skulls when not being used to extract insects and other food morsels from crevices.

Another bird that has a long tongue is the great blue heron (Ardea herodius). One day, I came across this bird on its favorite roosting log obviously trying to dislodge something that had gotten stuck – or perhaps something that tasted foul. I hadn’t really seen the species’ tongue before, so the bird gave me some good views.

  

The effort of shaking its head also led it to protect its eye with the nictating membrane.

Because tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) visit my bird feeders daily to get nuts and, to a lesser extent, seeds, I associate them completely with that type of diet. It was that assumption that made me do a double-take when I spotted a titmouse on a walk with a long spaghetti-like object dangling from its beak. It didn’t seem like a grass stalk so when I lifted my camera to look through the zoom lens, I discovered it had a worm snake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) in its beak – a finding that really did astound me.

 

As I took photos, the bird finally flew further away and unfortunately dropped the reptile when it came close to a creek. I felt a bit guilty, thinking I might have disturbed its meal but after waiting about 5 minutes, the bird suddenly flew up with the snake back in its beak! It obviously really wanted to hang on to that prize!

 

And now on to part 2 of my 2018 surprises – some more reptiles and amphibians, bugs and mammals!

The gorgeous grebes when aggrieved and grumpy!

During my great-crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) observations at the Gouwzee in July 2018, it became apparent that they don’t mind swimming about amid groups of Eurasian coots (Fulica atra).

It turned out, however, that the grebes can also be quite aggressive and one morning these birds treated me to a stunning display as they had six years earlier. This time it was not a peaceful event like their mating dance, however, but apparently a territorial dispute. Two pairs were each tending a young one near reeds in a cove on the Gouwzee side of a dike. It appeared that one adult had ventured into space that the other pair considered their own. An epic battle ensued – I wish I’d had the presence of mind to change my camera settings to get better photos, but it was so sudden and exciting that I was just glad to be able to get some shots. The whole dispute only lasted about three minutes but seemed to last much longer!

References I found in the literature online appear to indicate that researchers believe territorial aggression mostly takes place when the grebes are building nests and tending eggs. They mention that it stops once the young are born. This was obviously not the case for the two pairs that I observed; their young appeared to be several weeks past fledging age.

The birds first caught my eye when they faced one another, lying low in the water. This is said to be a common aggressive posture.

Suddenly, they erupted upwards, calling loudly and flapping their wings strongly to intimidate one another. (You can see larger versions of photos by clicking on them.)

  

 

   

 

A couple times, they surged upwards from the water to clash their chests together.

   

One appeared to have dunked his opponent in the water, although this happened so quickly that I didn’t really see how it occurred.

They would take a few second pause, making their mutual displeasure apparent.

This would be followed by another bout of confrontation. At one point, one grebe’s mate and young one swam closer to the action.

Finally, after a couple minutes, one “combatant” was driven off by his opponent.

He was joined by his mate and offspring and peace returned. And I walked away elated at having witnessed the behavioral exhibition, glad that no injuries had been sustained. 😊

 

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!”