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!

Snowy portraits – part 2

The larger birds were very obvious at the feeders during our North Carolina snowstorm in early December, but they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the fact that I spent considerable time knocking snow off feeders and a bird bath, filling feeders up multiple times daily and spreading seed repeatedly on the snow for the ground-feeding wildlife.

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), who live in the various yard woodpiles, mostly stayed on the ground but occasionally flew up to a feeder. They also spent time clinging to the brick walls of the house, I assume in search of spiders and other small insects that stay there.

Their slightly larger brethren in shades of brown, the Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), have taken up residence in the holly shrubs and a privet bush near the front-yard feeders. From there, they can emerge to hop around under the feeders (sporadically flying up to perch on a feeder, too) with a place close by to which they can escape when feeling threatened.

 

 

Both house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus, left) and pine siskins (Spinus pinus, below) came to eat seeds at the platform feeders. Though the finches are larger than the siskins, the female finches and siskins look very similar to me and I usually need to look through my zoom lens to see them clearly.

 

 

 

The photo below is a nice one for differentiating them. The female finch on the left has a thicker bill and a slightly larger and bulkier size. The pine siskin on the right has a thinner bill and hints of yellow on its slender flanks.

Another pair of birds that can be difficult to differentiate are the male house and purple finches. The purple finch (Haemorhous purpureus, below) looks like it has been dipped in raspberry juice to put color all over its body. While some male house finches also have very bright red hues, the color does not spread everywhere on their bodies.

   

The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor, below) and dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) are both subtle beauties in shades of gray but easily distinguishable.

   

The junco’s pink bill gives it a delicate look in my opinion.

 

The chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are both daily visitors to my feeding stations regardless of the weather. The “chippies” are here year-round, while the white-throated sparrows (right) are only resident in the autumn, winter and spring. The somewhat smaller chippies usually sit on the feeders, while the white-throats mostly seek food on the ground; both will venture into the others’ areas, however.

Two very different birds share a common feeding method for gathering suet. Both the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula, below left) and yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata, below right) hover in front of the feeder as if they are imitating hummingbirds, snatching a bite to eat as they “balance” mid-air. Both will eventually alight on the feeder, though, and then eat at a more leisurely pace.

The bright little pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) also loves suet but never hovers at the feeder. S/he will wait until other birds have cleared the space and then clutch the frame to have multiple bites of the fatty food. During windy intervals of stormy weather, this plucky bird also holds its ground, clutching the feeder pole so as not to blow away.

 

The downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are never scared off the feeders by anyone. Their larger red-bellied cousins are often a bit hesitant to visit but the downies can’t be kept away. Like them, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) also don’t let the presence of other avians put them off – they are willing to share space.

This doesn’t mean the bluebirds won’t show a bit of temper, especially toward their own species mates, but they generally get along with everyone.

And the bluebirds visit regardless of the atmospheric conditions, sometimes looking stunning with their bright dry plumage and sometimes looking a bit bedraggled when the pouring rain and thickly falling snow wet their feathers completely. Beginning birders might wonder if these are the same birds, but fortunately the bluebirds seem to dry out quickly to regain their usual beauty.

   

 

There were a few more birds that came along during the storm (one featured in the next blog!), including Carolina chickadees, Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis, left) and red-winged blackbirds. Snow and ice storms and pouring rain can be a drag in many ways for the human species but for birders, these “bad-weather” interludes can certainly be a boon for easy armchair and window watching!

Winter wonderland – the smaller and medium-sized birds

Oddly, during our January snowstorm, the brown-headed and white-breasted nuthatches did not visit my bird feeders – that was unexpected as they really do like the sunflower and other seeds, as well as the home-made suet. Other smaller birds did appear, however, and they filled up on the provided food since finding insects was almost impossible during those days.

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) were fans of the dried meal worms and at one point, I put out an extra tray of these treats on the dry front porch. Other birds are more reluctant to come onto the porch so they had a nice quiet feeding area, although they also spent time perched on the snowy bushes and feeders.

  

  

 

The Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) worked their way in between the other birds to reach the feeders, sometimes waiting patiently on a feeder pole for their turn.

The ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), of which I have two visiting the feeders, were happy with the home-made suet. Occasionally, I smeared a bit of suet on dried flower stalks and they would perch there to snag a bite to eat. Other times, they just waited on a twig until the yellow-rumped warblers had vacated the area so they could eat in peace.

    

While the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is slightly larger, they are like the small birds in being somewhat hesitant to approach feeders if there is a crowd. Once on a feeder, they will feed and then hang on to take a look around.

  

The dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), who have an understated quiet beauty, were looking for meal worms.

    

The similarly colored tufted titmouse (Baeoloophus bicolor) often zoomed in on its target of the fruit and nut feeder without taking time to perch first.

The American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) didn’t come round very much, only snacking on some sunflower seeds. Since they often feed on the crepe myrtle tree seeds, they were likely finding enough food there.

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) came in spurts of activity. They always look rather bedraggled when they get wet with snow or rain and perhaps prefer to stay drier under branches until there is a break in the falling moisture. Even wet, though, they are still attractive to me.

The smaller/medium bird group was rounded off by the house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus). The females were looking especially nice. The finches never have spats with anyone and are among the most peaceful feeder birds. Not everyone was like that, however, and the next blog looks at the rowdy ones.

 

 

“Nuts” for nuts!

A primary source of nutrition for many birds is nuts.This high-calorie food provides them with dietary fat, which can be especially welcome during the colder months. As nuts ripen, you can see the birds flying by, carrying acorns and beechnuts, as well as seeds of various kinds. Some birds are especially suited to eating nuts with their thicker, cone-shaped bills, which are shaped to help them crack open pods and seed cases. Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), sparrows, grosbeaks, finches and woodpeckers are seed and nut lovers.

I had been lax in providing my yard birds with these culinary treats except for sunflower seeds and the seed pods in my yard trees. So one day early last year, I purchased a nut and seed holder and proceeded to give them peanuts, which are not actually nuts but the seed of a legume (Arachis hypogaea). This makes no difference to the birds like the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) of course.

I first tried peanuts in the shell and an occasional blue jay and tufted titmouse would stop by. However, they didn’t seem to want to put much time into removing the nuts from the shells and I didn’t really want the shells littering the ground either.

Then in the spring I put out some shelled peanuts from a container I’d bought for my own consumption and the avian visitors were delighted. Reading about peanut feeding informed me that I should avoid giving salted peanuts. I couldn’t readily find unsalted ones at the grocery store, so I began removing the salt, either by shaking the nuts in a paper bag or by washing off the salt.

   

Northern cardinal                                            Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)

Before they left for the summer, the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) and ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) tried the peanuts, too. Sometimes I wondered if the kinglet was also not looking for insects around the peanut feeder.

   

My choice to provide nuts was a big hit; I was rewarded with a procession of individuals of varied species who came by to quickly gulp or carry off a tasty nut. Some are pictured below – they came at different times of the day.

 

White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)     Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

    

Tufted titmouse                                                       Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

   

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)      Northern cardinal

 

Gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)        Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

       

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)         Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

The common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) will sometimes break down the nuts (and are quite messy about it, compared to the chickadees and titmice), but they will also swallow the treats whole.

  

Others are intent on breaking the peanuts into smaller pieces that are easier to get down; this seems especially true for the smaller birds like the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) below. Here we also see Riley, my banded Carolina wren, enjoying a treat.

   

The blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) often gulp down some nuts quickly and then try to carry off several nuts at a time.

One good thing about the peanuts is that thankfully the starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) don’t appear fond of them (they gulp down the dried mealworms, however, as if that food is going out of style). One will occasionally sample a nut, but they never seem to want a second.

As time passed, I realized that the peanut feeding strategy was rewarding me with frequent avian visitors, but was also rather costly. In the autumn, I began putting out a less expensive fruit and nut mix. This has also proved very popular and various species of birds are willing to share space at the feeders. The chickadees especially will feed alongside others, like the house finches and Northern cardinal below.

Species that usually forage on the ground, like the white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), also make occasional forays to the nut feeder.

When the nut feeders are empty, it’s not uncommon to see birds sitting atop them; when they see me, some will call out, as if saying, “Hey, fill up that feeder, please!” And I usually accommodate them, especially when it is very cold, as has been the case the first days of 2018 – we have had a record-breaking stretch of days in which the temperature did not rise above freezing, an unusual occurrence for our southern state of North Carolina.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler  (Setophaga coronata)  House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

The nut feeders have also been very attractive to the resident Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), one of whom has been VERY persistent in devising ways to get onto the feeders. Each time s/he succeeds, I change the position of the feeders or stumps and branches nearby. Currently, that clever rodent hasn’t been able to get up there. In compensation, I occasionally throw a handful of nuts on the ground.

             

So, not all the birds are “nuts” for nuts, but plenty of species think they’re mighty fine! They are definitely a worthwhile addition to the birders’ array of feeder offerings.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

 

 

 

My nemesis birds!

european-starling-dk7a5386-maria-de-bruyn-resIn the birding world, a “nemesis bird” often refers to a species of bird that is eluding a birder intent on adding to their life list of bird species seen in person. For me, however, a nemesis bird is one that is emptying my feeders and depriving other birds of their bit of nutritional goodness because it descends in such great numbers that no one else has a chance. Which bird is this? It’s the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), a bird which I admittedly find visually beautiful but rather unattractive as far as temperament goes.

northern-mockingbird-i77a9648-maria-de-bruyn-resOther birders who spend time attracting birds to their yards often comment on how Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) chase other birds away – those in my yard feed quite happily alongside other species, however, and even wait their turn for the suet feeders. Another large bird, the brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum), does the same. In fact, most of the species that visit my yard are content to share feeder space and/or wait their turn.

brown-thrasher-img_9913-maria-de-bruyn-res     sharing-feeders-i77a9154-maria-de-bruyn-res

american-crow-dk7a2281-maria-de-bruyn-resOther species that are called “bully birds” include common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula, below), who can look quite beautiful with iridescent feathers, blackbird species and house sparrows. The grackles and red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) in my yard have not been too dominant; they do sometimes come in numbers but let other birds near. I haven’t had crowds of grackles lately and when they’ve come, their main concern was to attempt to drive away the American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos, above), so my main foe has been the starlings.

common-grackle-dk7a2236-maria-de-bruyn-res   common-grackle-i77a1447-maria-de-bruyn-res

They discovered my yard as a buffet about a year ago and introduced their young to the feasting area this past summer.

european-starling-dk7a3396-maria-de-bruyn-res  european-starling-dk7a3404-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

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What is striking to me is the fact that they not only will “yell” at other species to go away but also compete vigorously with one another for a spot at the platform and other feeders, indicating a rather nasty disposition.

european-starling-dk7a5130-maria-de-bruyn-res   european-starling-dk7a0871-maria-de-bruyn-res

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The young starlings pick up on this behavior quickly.

If I come outside, they quickly fly off and roost high up in the tallest trees; sometimes, they will actually fly off to another place in the neighborhood. Clapping my hands and banging on the window will also get them to leave. However, they stick around to assess whether I will appear and if I don’t come out, they are back in short order.

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pine-warbler-dk7a0358-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

Their first love turned out to be the dried mealworms, which are a big hit with the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor), Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and pine warblers (Setophaga pinus, left) among other species.

eastern-bluebird-i77a6862-maria-de-bruyn-res  eastern-bluebird-i77a9596-maria-de-bruyn-res

tufted-titmouse-img_4143-maria-de-bruyn-res   tufted-titmouse-i77a9678-maria-de-bruyn-res

carolina-chickadee-i77a9738-maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-wren-i77a7312-maria-de-bruyn-res

It’s always a pleasure to see the banded birds return, like the Carolina wren below.

carolina-wren-i77a9548-maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-wren-i77a9547-maria-de-bruyn-res

When five or more starlings gather around a feeder, they literally gulp the mealworms down, making short shrift of a good-sized supply.

european-starling-dk7a0937-maria-de-bruyn-res   european-starling-dk7a2433-maria-de-bruyn-res

northern-cardinal-i77a2061-maria-de-bruyn-resI began putting out only mixed seed, sunflower seeds (Helianthus annuus) and my home-made vegetarian suet, the latter being a favorite for many species: the bluebirds, chickadees, wrens, titmice, yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata), brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla), Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis, left), and downy and red-bellied woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens and Melanerpes carolinus).

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brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a6423-maria-de-bruyn-res

downy-woodpecker-dk7a1967-maria-de-bruyn-res   downy-woodpecker-dk7a1961-maria-de-bruyn-res

red-bellied-woodpecker-i77a4258maria-de-bruyn-res red-bellied-woodpecker-dk7a0440-maria-de-bruyn-res

My resident ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) hasn’t returned this winter (though I hope he is just late), so he doesn’t have to compete with the much, much larger starlings for his beloved meals.

ruby-crowned-kinglet-img_1776-maria-de-bruyn-res  ruby-crowned-kinglet-dk7a0538-maria-de-bruyn-res

european-starling-dk7a5647-maria-de-bruyn-resTo my dismay, when the starlings discovered no mealworms were available, they decided that suet could be a nice substitute. Oy vey! They manage to empty the suet holders in record time.

I waited to put out the suet until I saw no starlings in any of the tall trees surrounding the yard.

european-starling-img_0035-maria-de-bruyn-res

european-starling-i77a7189-maria-de-bruyn-resThe smaller birds came but this lasted only a little while. Soon the starlings showed up, leading me to think that either “scout” or “watch birds” were left behind to warn the flock when preferred food arrived, or they had a tremendous sense of smell that led them to my yard. It does turn out that starlings use their sense of smell to identify plants for their nests, so who’s to say they don’t use it to find food, too?

 

red-bellied-woodpecker-dk7a1833-maria-de-bruyn-resOne bird advice website recommends avoiding sunflower seeds as “bully birds” prefer them. Well, so far, the starlings have assiduously avoided any seeds. So a couple days ago, I filled all the feeders with seed except for the suet feeders – and I stood outside next to them so that the songbirds could have a go at the suet without their bigger avian neighbors chasing them away. It was gratifying to see the little ones enjoy a bit of suet while the starlings perched high above, unwilling to come down in my presence. Today, it was raining persistently but the songbirds were flying to and fro among the feeders so I put suet in three holders and some mealworms in one.

For an hour or so, they had the dried worms and peanut butter-based treat to themselves; then a starling appeared. I went outside but this particular bird didn’t seem to mind. When three of its compatriots arrived and saw me, they swooped away so the little birds still could grab some suet and mealworms.

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Now I’ll wait to see if the starlings begin eating the seed or finally move on or stay away for longer periods. I’m guessing as long as there is occasional suet, they will leave their scouts in place to warn them when a tasty meal is available. And I do want to put out some mealworms now and again so I don’t disappoint the chickadees and wrens who greet me with loud twittering when I approach empty feeders. Non-birders probably think that’s silly (to put it mildly) but I think bird lovers will understand….