My pond and the cycle of life

Undergoing cardiology exams can bring up thoughts of mortality and a life lived; perhaps they also made me more attentive to the cycle of life in my yard, particularly in the vicinity of my backyard pond.

Several years ago, a local garden center went out of business and they had a 175-gallon black plastic pond for sale. It was a good deal, so I invested in it and then had to dig a large hole in the rocky Piedmont clay ground of my backyard (with a bit of help from a neighbor teen). At a certain point, the ground was so hard we couldn’t penetrate it with shovels so the pond now sits a bit above ground level; the rocks I piled up around it have offered a home to Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus).

 

I transferred some of my beautiful koi and goldfish from a smaller pond, only to have a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) come by to clean them all out.

On the recommendation of the garden center staff, I had positioned a heron statue by the pond – they said herons don’t like competition, so the intruder would keep flying when s/he saw the one by the pond. It didn’t take long for the bird to figure out the stationary bird was not real, however.

After the heron had eaten all the koi and goldfish, I still had some tiny baby fish. At first, I thought they were from my now deceased koi but apparently the intruder heron had had fish eggs on its feet from a nearby natural pond and left them behind. So for a time, I had unidentified native fish in the pond. They were extremely shy, however, and I only got a brief look at them when they surfaced early in the morning; as soon as I came near, they dove down under the water plants (no good photos).

Then some green frogs (Lithobates clamitus) moved in this past summer and ended up being extremely prolific reproducers. Before I realized it, there were at least 500 tadpoles in the pond!! They were eating the fish food and at the same time I noticed that I wasn’t seeing the fish at all anymore. Going online, I found out that tadpoles will eat fish – their sheer numbers had to have spelled doom for the fish.

 

 

I collected lots of the tadpoles, gave some to a friend for her water feature and released hundreds into the local creek (they are native animals after all). A few of the tadpoles grew into frogs and the pond became a residence for some very loud croakers.

 

  

The next chapter in the story came a couple days ago. I had seen a pair of red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) visiting my yard recently. I thought they were after the chipmunks, numerous squirrels and songbirds populating the area. The other day, however, one hawk took up a position in the crepe myrtle tree next to the pond and just sat there calmly not bothering with any of those creatures. Numerous Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) perched in the tree above her and many other species of birds were at the nearby feeders;  none of them were concerned at all with the hawk’s presence. The squirrels didn’t seem perturbed either.

She sat fairly still and I took some photos through my kitchen window. Then I ventured out into the backyard, sure she would take off as I left the porch steps. But Ms. Hawk just sat there, sometimes stretching a leg or engaging in a little grooming.

     

   

Occasionally, she looked up but often her gaze was fixed on the area around the pond.

She would stare intently down at the ground – I thought she might have spotted one of the pond chipmunks.

Then after a while, I noticed her shifting her stance – suddenly she plopped down into the pond with spread wings. It happened too fast for me to get out from behind dried plants to get a good photo, so I watched as she climbed out of the pond. Then it became apparent what she had been hunting – she had caught one of the green frogs.

  

It looked like she bit its head to kill it as soon as she got on dry land; the frog wasn’t moving.

Then she spent time ruffling and shaking out her feathers which had gotten a good soaking.

She spent a little time looking around and then abruptly took off with her prize, closely followed by another red-shouldered hawk who suddenly swooped in.

He chased her but she got away with her meal and he ended up sitting in a neighbor’s tree, somewhat disgruntled with his failed thievery attempt.

  

Ms. Hawk returned yesterday and spent quite a bit of time in a high tree surveying the yard and gazing down at the ground. Red-shouldered hawks sometimes eat birds, such as sparrows, doves and starlings (which are all numerous around my feeders) but more often they go after snakes, mice, toads, frogs, lizards and small mammals such as voles and chipmunks. They will also eat insects and earthworms. Since I’m leaving the leaf litter, there are undoubtedly more insects hiding there than in neighboring yards. I’m not sure what Ms. Hawk is seeking in my yard, but I hope she doesn’t get all the pond frogs. In any event, I’m sure new ones will find the water in the spring and in the meantime, I have a beautiful bird of prey to watch this winter.

Avian generations in the making – part 2B: nesting in nature

My last blog looked at birds’ nests in man-made structures and there are plenty of birds who take the opportunity to use such sites. Most birds, however, make their homes out in nature – in shrubs, trees and on the ground. This is a bit of a long blog but I want to share views of different species at work.

There are different types of nests; a few types that we see in North Carolina include:

  • Cavity nests – holes in trees, made by the parents themselves or adopted as a home when birds like the cavities made by others
  • Simple scrapes – these are shallow depressions scratched out on the ground and they may be lined with materials or left to look like the rest of the surrounding ground
  • Cup-shaped nests – these structures are like small bowls and may be lined with materials like those used in nest box nests. They can be made of varied materials – swallows use mud while American robins and other birds use plant materials.
  • Platform nests – these nests are usually quite large and comprise large twigs and small branches
  • Plate nests are a bit similar to platform nests but much smaller and less organized; they may consist simply of a few twigs arranged in a shallow bundle
  • Pendant nests hang from branches.

When birds look for a cavity site, they may seek out a new spot on a tree trunk or investigate already existing cavities. These Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) at Sandy Creek Park were examining one particular hole with interest, but a downy woodpecker was interested as well so there was some rivalry. The female bluebird chose to just sit on a nearby branch while her mate looked at the hole numerous times trying to make a decision.

    

Red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) excavate larger cavities in tree trunks to raise their broods. They may visit various trees before deciding on a spot.

      

Pileated woodpeckers (Hylatomus pileatus) may use the same holes year after year. They make holes for resting as well as for nesting and often include a “back door” so they can make a quick escape if a snake shows up.

          

Brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla), like this one at Jordan Lake, can be very industrious in excavating their nest cavities. You can watch them pecking away at the wood of a tree trunk or branch, scattering wood shavings and removing bigger bits of softened wood in their beaks to achieve a hole of the right depth for their babies. (See a short video of one at work here.)

   

I also saw nuthatches making nests on the edges of a farm and near the NC Botanical Garden. The pair working on a nest at the Garden were doing this with a great horned owl on a branch overhead, as well as a red-tailed hawk and crows who were raising a racket. Their presence didn’t bother the little birds; these nuthatches also appeared to have help from a previous year’s youngster willing to help the parents raise the new siblings.

 

 

    

Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) also dig out small holes in trees and snags.

      

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) use scrape nests which may look exactly like the surrounding area; their eggs then blend in really well with the environment and can be difficult to see.

When I first saw this nest suspended from a tree near a bridge, I had no idea which bird had built it. A birding friend had fortunately seen the parent bird fly to the nest – it belonged to a Northern parula like the one shown below (Setophaga americana).

    

I was lucky to see a female orchard oriole (Icterus spurius) collecting nice soft lining materials for its nest this past spring.

         

A red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) was doing the same with cattails – an obviously appropriate source for bird bedding!

       

Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) and Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) make fairly shallow, twiggy nests (“plate nests”). It makes you wonder if eggs ever roll out of them through cracks in the loose, low walls.

   

Many birds make cup nests and spend a good amount of time collecting the materials to produce them. Here you see American robins (Turdus migratorius) gathering grasses – they tend to fill their mouths as much as possible before flying off to the nest-in-the making.

      

Red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus) will also attempt to get several pieces of bark into their beaks before flying back to the home site. The photos here are dark as the bird was deep in shrubs where little light was penetrating.

        

Blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) weave what looks like a cross between a pendant nest and a cup nest; they also add man-made materials such as rags, cellophane, newspaper and bits of plastic.

    

Great blue herons and ospreys are builders of platform nests.The great blue herons (Ardea herodias) carry large twigs and branches to furnish a nest. At Sandy Creek Park they have been using the same tree-top platforms for several years now.

     

Last year, I saw this osprey pair (Pandion haliaetus) build their first nest from scratch; they weren’t enthusiastic about me being in the vicinity and would perch or fly overhead to give me “the evil eye” – sometimes calling to one another to sound the alert that they had spotted me down below.

 

 

This year, they were busy refurbishing the nest – these birds with longer-term mates may use the same nest year after year. Again, they would stop their work to stare me down.

 

The Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens) makes a cup nest that is well-hidden among the leaves of the tree spot it chooses. A friend saw the pair constructing this nest and it was done by the time I visited. It seemed quite a tight fit for mom to sit in while brooding her eggs.

The bird whom I enjoy seeing most during nest construction is the blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). These little birds are very active and often don’t sit still for long as they feed in shrubs and trees. When they are busy making a new home though, they take their time to do a good job. First, they locate good locations for the materials they use – leaves, spider web to hold the leaves together and pieces of lichen to cover the outside walls.

      

They affix the lichen carefully to make a really beautiful, compact and elegant little cup. The female then sits in it and moves her body to ensure it gets the right shape and dimensions for her upcoming brooding.

     

The male and female both work hard on the nests and this year I got to see three pairs at work. In two cases, it was lucky I saw them flying to and fro because their nests blended in really well with the tree.

Unlike the cavity and platform nesters, the cup and pendant nesters usually need to build a new nest each year. At the end of the summer, for example, the blue-gray gnatcatcher nest had already deteriorated considerably with the rain and wind, even though it was a fairly calm and dry season.

 

Once the nest is complete, the avian parents brood and feed their babies before fledging and this will be the third part of this series. For now, I leave you with the male and female ospreys as they watch the birdwatcher….

  

Avian generations in the making – part 2A: nesting and man-made construction

Hi folks — today I’d like to share with you some of my observations on the second part of avian reproduction — the process in which birds make a nest and lay eggs. (By the way, if you look up “bird nesting” on the Internet, the search will lead you to a human activity: a shared custody arrangement where children reside in one house and the parents take turns living there with them. In the bird world, some avian parents will actually share a home, such as this very old and enormous sociable weaver nest (Philetairus socius) that I saw in Namibia.)

Females of a few species will deposit their eggs in the nests of another, such as some cuckoos and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). Some people dislike cowbirds intensely because of their nest parasitism (the cowbird baby will hatch first and eat all the food or perhaps get rid of the other eggs or babies). I figure that this is how the cowbird evolved – it didn’t make a choice to wipe out other species so I can’t blame or hate the bird for it. But the cowbirds do appear to pick on particular species as involuntary “foster parents” and this may be affecting the success of the other species’ reproduction.

There are two general broad categories of bird nests – those located in or on man-made objects such as nest boxes, atop downspouts, in vehicles, in plant pots and other places and those constructed by birds in trees, shrubs and on the ground (i.e., the natural environment which I will discuss in the next blog so this doesn’t get too long!). When birds make a nest in a “human area”, people will often try to accommodate them, not using the object or vehicle or making the space safer. For example, when American robins (Turdus migratorius) put a nest on one of my downspouts, I covered the rainwater container underneath it so the fledglings wouldn’t drown when they leapt to freedom. (I did it just in time, too!)

Swallows and phoebes will also use human constructions as places to situate their homes. The cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) gather up mud, making countless trips to wad up small balls of the material to carry back to a place like this pier at Cane Creek Reservoir where they line up their nests in a row.

   

Barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) locate their nests inside, using rafters to place a nest; they may end up sharing space with paper wasps and organ pipe mud dauber wasps (Trypoxylon politum), which doesn’t seem to bother them.

The Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) may use an inside corner of a patio overhang as a site that is conveniently accessible from outside.

Purple martins (Progne subis) living east of the Rocky Mountains almost exclusively nest in homes provided by people. The hanging gourd nests can be seen in fields but nowadays other types of plastic constructions are also used.

    

In order to attract barn owls (Tyto alba) back to areas where many traditional barns have been razed, people are also placing special boxes in fields with plenty of open space in front of them so that the owls will have a hunting territory adjacent to their front door. Made of heavy plastic, these boxes may be monitored by organized groups in an effort to document their use.

   

At the Mason Farm Biological Reserve, an eagle scout project involved bringing in cranes to attach very large nest boxes to the tops of trees for barred owls (Strix varia) – so far, I have only seen Eastern gray squirrels making use of these nests.

And then there are the nest boxes that people put up to attract Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) and screech owls. In my yard, other birds use these boxes, too, including the Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) such as my one-legged,  banded friend Chantal, Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) who may puzzle about how to get a long twig into the box and house wrens (Troglodytes aedon), who pile up twigs in a rather untidy stack inside the box.

   

   

Chickadees construct lovely mossy nests lined with hair, fur or plant fibers.

      

The nuthatches have nests with bark strips.

    

Sometimes people will intervene when a nest is in danger. A Carolina wren put her nest into a boat at Cane Creek Reservoir that was rented out to people and keeping the nest there was not a good option as she would be missing her nest for hours when the boat was gone. The land manager was so kind as to relocate the nest into a tree right in front of the boat’s resting place; unfortunately, inclement weather caused the nest to dislodge that evening.

   

Another danger may also threaten the birds and their nests – predators. A friend and I found it unusual to see a tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) putting a nest in a bluebird box on the edges of a farm. Several days later, we saw a black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) peering out of the box and the swallows were nowhere to be seen.

   

If you can manage to mount your boxes on poles rather than trees, put both squirrel and raccoon baffles on them and also place them away from overhanging branches, they should stay relatively safe from the squirrels, snakes and raccoons. Next up: birds’ nests with no human connections.

 

 

Avian generations in the making – part 1: courtship

The tragedies being faced in the Caribbean islands after hurricanes Maria, Jose and Irma are horrible and other than donate cash to help alleviate the needs, I’m not in a position to offer more assistance. I’m grateful for all those who can and hope government assistance will be forthcoming to help all the people in those nations recover.
The effects of the hurricanes also will be noticeable for the wildlife. Many of those living on land will drown or die of hunger; some birds may be a little luckier – able to shelter against the winds if they are native to a place or able to change their migratory pattern (e.g., delay arrival on wintering grounds) for a time. But when the effects of the storms are immense with lots of habitat destruction, the birds, too, will lack places to shelter and not have sufficient food supplies to survive.

It’s thought that some birds endemic to the islands may be severely endangered as a species. On 22 September, birders were happy to hear that eight Barbuda warblers (Setophaga subita) had been spotted on that island; not a lot but they may help ensure this tiny bird doesn’t become extinct.  At the time of writing this blog, the fate of some other bird species was still unknown. I hope that all the Caribbean bird species survive and will be thinking of them as I share this series with you on how birds take measures to ensure future generations. (It might seem odd to write this series now, but some birds are still feeding their young here.)

So, the process begins with courtship. Some birds mate for life, or at least form long-term (multiple-year) bonded relationships. They include bald eagles, black vultures, blue jays, Canada geese, white-breasted nuthatches, brown-headed nuthatches, Northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees, American crows, pileated woodpeckers and my favorite raptor shown above, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus).

Those who form ongoing bonds may have a courtship period that consists of the male bringing the female some food to indicate it’s time to get ready for nest-building. This was the case for these lovely Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis).

The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) has a similar behavior; in my yard, I sometimes throw out bits of apple or bread for them in the spring as these seem to be considered real treats. The female will sit on a branch overhead calling until the male brings her some – and sometimes almost shoves it down her throat!

The Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) males will sing their repertoire in the spring to entice female mates – often they perch on the top of trees and fly up and down with spread wings in a beautiful display while singing.

        

   

The yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) seeks new mates each year but has an interesting courtship behavior described by All About Birds: “A receptive female perches with its head up, pumping its tail slowly up and down…Just prior to mating, the male Yellow-Billed Cuckoo snaps off a short twig that he presents to the female as he perches on her back and leans over her shoulder. Both birds then grasp the twig as they copulate.”

 

     

 

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) females and males may both flutter between trees with slow wingbeats. Two females may also compete for the attention of a single male, a behavior I observed this past spring and which surprised me.

 

     

The male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) will vocalize for the female while spreading his wings in a display.

The killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) has a somewhat prettier courtship dance, bending forward and spreading its tail feathers to show off the colorful underside.

  

Next year, I hope to see more of the birds courting as it gives me a happy feeling.

The next step for the birds is nest-building. We don’t have the bowerbirds in North Carolina, who build elaborate nests as part of their courtship. But the species we have do spend a good deal of time on their nests and I’ll share some of their efforts in the next part of the series. (But one or two blogs on another topic will come first.)

 

Credit map: By Kmusser (Own work, all data from Vector Map.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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!