The birds and the beautyberry – a great match

Not long after moving into my current home, I began looking for plants that would provide color as well as food for the birds and pollinators in my yard. Although I was not aware at that time of the rationale for avoiding exotics and preferring native plants, I did make some good choices, including an American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana L.) which is also called a French mulberry.

This shrub can grow about 5-7 feet high and about that size wide as well. The flowers are tiny and a pale lilac color, circling the stem like a corona.

They eventually turn into green berries that slowly turn in color, starting out in shades of pink and lilac and eventually gaining a beautiful deep purple shade as they ripen.

People can eat the berries, which are apparently very sweet. I haven’t tried them; they do cause stomach cramps for some people if more than a few are eaten. They are a popular food for wildlife, however. White-tailed deer like both the berries and leaves; raccoons and opossums eat them, too. It is the birds that really get the most fruit from my bushes, including Northern cardinals, Eastern towhees and gray catbirds. The birds kindly transported some seeds to a spot next to my back porch, so I now have a large bush there as well.

When the berries began ripening at the end of August, the cardinals began dining on them first. They were quickly followed by house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) who began visiting the shrubs daily. The female house finch stayed on the bush far from the house.

 

 

The male house finches were bolder and fed on the berries right under the kitchen window. It has been a pleasure to watch them.

 

 

 

 

           

   

The Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are a bit more reluctant to feed when they see me looking at them from a few feet away. Even with the window closed, they are shy but I finally got one to sample some berries while I watched.

The leaves of the beautyberry have been used as an insect repellent in folk remedies; laboratory studies have shown that a chemical compound in the plant will stave off mosquitoes.

I haven’t pruned my beautyberries much but it seems that the plant will bear more fruit the next year if this is done. I do think I will transplant some young ones to other parts of the yard this fall, however, as this plant – along with the purple pokeweed (Phytolacca decandra) – is a real wildlife crowd pleaser.

When those loving instincts leave you dangling

This was not a planned blog, but I recently observed something that simultaneously intrigued, amazed and astounded me, so I wanted to share it with those of you who may not have witnessed this either.

Like many gardens in my neighborhood, my yard has its fair share of leopard slugs (Limax maximus), but they don’t bother me as they do some other people who complain about them eating their vegetables. Until recently, I never thought about the slugs much and certainly didn’t wonder about their life cycle. Then my friend Mary posted a lovely photo of two intertwined leopard slugs mating and my interest and curiosity were piqued.

A few days later, a fellow nature lover, Ace, reported that he had a cool photo to show me – and there on his iPhone was a photo of mating leopard slugs. It turns out that their anatomy makes for a somewhat bizarre spectacle – at least to a human being if not a fellow slug. Now I really wanted to see this phenomenon, too, and I followed Ace’s recommendation, going out into my yard at night with a flashlight to see if I could find some amorous mollusks. Lo and behold – as I rounded the corner of my house, there were three pairs of large slugs getting ready to reproduce! They were leaving glistening slime trails on the brick wall as they slowly got into position.

The slime that the slugs exude has multiple purposes – they can leave a trail behind them as a signpost to the way home, they can numb the mouth of a potential predator with the mucus as a means of defense, and they can broadcast their interest in some reproductive behavior by emitting pheromones to attract a potential mate.

They don’t actually need to mate to reproduce – each slug is a hermaphrodite and can fertilize its own eggs with no need of outside assistance. Slugs have an organ called a spermoviduct (SO), which has two parts – one for the sperm (vas deferens, VD) and one for the ova (oviduct, OV), as seen as this drawing from the Wikipedia page.

Some slugs apparently like reproductive acrobatics, however, and seek out a partner. The mating begins with a pair of slugs following one another around and nudging and licking one another. (A couple photos look browner – I took those with a flash but most were taken with one hand holding a small camera and the other shining a flashlight near the slugs.)

 

They then begin to curl up together and suspend themselves from a long mucus rope, which is somewhat stronger than the slime that they usually exude. They form a kind of writhing ball as they intertwine their elongated bodies (see this video for an example).

Next comes the awesomely weird part – out of a gonopore on the right side of their heads (the elongated tentacles are for vision) come their translucent mating organs (penises)! This video, which is shown in a horizontal position, lets you see how this happens.

Wouldn’t this interesting anatomy and reproductive behavior make an interesting plotline for an SF novel about a genderless society?

 

      

Because the slugs are hanging upside down, gravity helps pull down their reproductive organs, which are pumped full of body fluids until they are as long as the slugs’ entire bodies! Their penises are everted (turned inside out) and the two mollusks intertwine these just like their bodies. They take a while to exchange spermatophores as the penises twirl, intertwine, elongate and pull back to look a bit like a chandelier.

  

When the creatures have been joined at the neck for some time, they begin to slowly withdraw their reproductive organs, which are now carrying genes from another parent.

              

After they separate, one of the pair usually consumes the mucus rope from which they dangled in love as it carries extra nutrients which they can use after their vigorous efforts.

          

 

 

Each slug may spend some time examining its gonopore (above) – and perhaps they are helping push back in the penis when they do this, too. After watching the process for two pairs of slugs, I decided to give the third pair some privacy during their mating tryst. On the wall beneath my screened porch, I discovered another slug with a mucus rope dangling from its tail – leaving me with a little mystery as to why this might have happened. A partner slug was not in evidence except for a much smaller slug – perhaps the big one tried to mate but the younger one was not ready. These mollusks with a life span of 2.5-3 years don’t become sexually mature until they are 2 years old.

    

I do know that at least three and perhaps six slugs will each be laying up to 200 eggs somewhere in the yard. And when I see them in the future, I will undoubtedly always be picturing them in my head doing their dangling dance with intertwined translucent blue tubes that will help promote their future generations. My discovery of their life cycle has also reinforced my support for scientist Hope Jahren’s (Lab Girl) observation: “…being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”

Winter wonderland – sharing and spats at the feeders

I thought I had published this blog in early February and just discovered that I had only saved a draft. Since we had snowflakes last night (in April!), I’m going to go ahead and post this now – a break in the series about Costa Rica! When the snow began falling during our day of one-foot accumulation, the feeders were inundated by some of the dark-colored bird species who tend to come in crowds. At first, they were peacefully sharing space.

 

  

Although I sometimes have a couple dozen red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) at the feeders, during the storm only one pair showed up for a brief visit and the other birds left them alone.

 

The mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) often share feeder space with other birds, including those that are smaller than they are.

The common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) are known to other people as domineering birds at the feeder, but those in my yard have always been polite, even though they seem to have a permanent expression that expresses anger.

 

 

The brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) sometimes share space nicely and sometimes fuss at one another as they vie for a good perch. They don’t try to chase off other species though and are not apt to “yell” at other birds.

The birds who do “yell” are the European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Young ones yell at their parents after fledging, begging to be fed. Adults yell at each other when they are trying to all crowd together onto a feeder. And adults yell at other species to drive them away so they can have all the space for themselves.

At my feeders, however, they have found their match in the male red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). One day, I watched as they managed to intimidate him for a few minutes, but he then returned to the feeder and refused to give up. Now he is no longer frightened of them and stands his ground when a starling does its best to make him move.

    

It turns out that studies have shown that the red-bellied woodpeckers are the birds most apt to resist attempts by other birds to displace them from feeders.

The red-bellied woodpecker also was not intimidated by me at one point. He doesn’t like it when he flies in and notices at the last moment that I am sitting or standing on the porch; often he will swerve away and wait for me to leave. During the snow storm, however, he decided to display his displeasure with my close presence, both from a frontal and dorsal view!

 

  

      

 

I guess that the little bird spats do make for sometimes more interesting birding observations. Seeing the tiny ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) warning off a rival a few days before and after the snow melted did show off a gorgeous and brave little bird.

 

 

I’m looking forward to seeing what the springtime observations of animal behavior will reveal.

 

Costa Rican rambles 5B: the Talari Mountain Lodge and environs

 

After fully experiencing the “honey dew” (another name for cicada urine), we set off for the next university site, an area where students learn about planting. A statue of the Virgin Mary welcomed visitors and we admired some of the beautiful plantings and their seeds that were attracting plenty of insects.

   

 

We then left to make a quick stop at a park called Los Cusingos, that we would visit at length later; this was just a quick bathroom break before we took to the road again. My photo of the gray-headed tanager was not that great but you can see how beautiful the red passionflower (Passiflora vitifolia) at the entrance was.

As we drove to a place called Las Nubes, we passed private homes with their filled metal framework trash bins in front, a cemetery and plenty of banana plants.

 

   

One of our group members stepped in an anthill when trying to avoid puddles and traffic, which led to some stinging bites. In the meantime, others were trying to see various species of birds that were staying low in the vegetation along the road. I spotted a rather large wasp nest in a nearby tree, likely of the Synoeca septentrionalis species.

   

 

 

At some distance, there was a yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima) sitting on a branch. These raptors are about 16-18 inches in length (41-46 cm) and part of their diet is carrion. They also eat reptiles, amphibians and other small birds, while avoiding birds as food. They take ticks off cattle as well, which gives them a thumbs up from me – any bird that eats ticks is a friend.

 

A gorgeous smooth-billed ani (Crotophaga ani) was sitting calmly as we milled around in the road. Some people might find this bird homely, but I think it is quite handsome despite a somewhat bulbous beak. They, too, are on my “good birds” list as they sometimes eat ticks and other parasites off of grazing animals. Another nice characteristic is their communal child-raising strategy – several pairs cooperate to build a nest together, in which several females than lay their eggs. They share the incubation and feeding of nestlings – hippies of the bird world!

 

We traveled on and the views along the road were beautiful, with the mountains and valleys in the distance and then we caught sight of some swallow-tailed kites (Elanoides forficatus) soaring over the nearest valley. We saw one land in a tree and it turned out that they were building a nest there. In the photo, you can see a small white patch on the right-hand side of the tree, which is the female kite on the nest.

As we waited patiently, a few kites began flying overhead; one with nesting material clutched in its claws.

 

They soared and swooped, giving us delightful views of their flight and then one came by with a meal that it had caught – a poor little chameleon or lizard.

 

We admired the Talamanca mountain range called La Amistad (Friendship), which separates Costa Rica from Panama. Starting in 1979, these two countries’ governments began a process to conserve the entire range, which is home to four indigenous groups of humans, 600 avian species, 215 mammal species, 250 species of amphibians and reptiles, 115 species of fish and some 10,000 flowering plants! As UNESCO has noted, this is: “one of the very few transboundary World Heritage properties, an excellent intergovernmental framework for coordinated and cooperative management and conservation.”

 

After a nice lunch, we continued visiting other sites, including one near a Canadian project. That afternoon, I saw my first trogon species – the gartered trogon (Trogon caligatus), another handsome bird to be sure.

 

      

While the rest of the group followed Steve’s instructions for sighting some birds hiding in underbrush on a slope, fellow traveler Janet and I watched some leaf-cutter ants (Atta cephalotes) at their labors. Sometimes, I was just not tall enough to see over shrubs to locate a bird and I love all wildlife anyway, so watching the ants in their industrious endeavor was fun.

On our way back to the lodge for supper, we passed small roadside stores and Steve spotted a fork-tailed flycatcher (Tyrannus savanna) for us.

 

 

Back at Talari, I did some sightseeing from the balcony of my room, spotting a lengthy and messy-looking flycatcher nest, a variegated squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides) traversing the tree canopy and a pair of palm tanagers (Thraupis palmarum), who were tending an offspring.

 

                       

At first, I thought the fledged bird was a different species as it sat under a leafy canopy, but later I saw the parents with it. Then it surprised Janet, who was staying next door – she called me over to see the fledgling who had flown into her room and was sitting in the middle of the floor.

   

She also had two nests under the roof of her balcony, one of which definitely belonged to a clay-colored thrush (Turdus grayi).

   

After admiring one of the neighbors’ cows and social flycatcher (Myiozetetes similis), I caught sight of a quiet beauty sitting on a branch in front of my room.

  

 

The Lesson’s motmot (Momotus lessonii), also known as the blue-diademed motmot, has a bright red eye and beautiful tail with what some birding sites call a “raquet tip”.

 

As we set off for the dining area, we were treated to a visit from a streaked flycatcher (Myiodynastes maculatus), quite a good-looking bird with its heavily streaked back, breast and face.

  

As we passed through some vegetation before dinner, I saw a gorgeous flowering banana as a blue-feathered and red-legged honeycreeper (Cyanerpes cyaneus) flew high overhead.

   

Even though we often were looking for birds in dark and leafy/shady areas, I avoided using a flash but when I saw the lemur anole (Norops lemurinus) on a tree, I gave in so that I coul d get a photo.

 

As dusk came on and we looked out from the dining area, we got to see some fiery-billed aracaris (Pteroglossus frantzii) in the distance.

 

 

While some others in our group got to see one close up, that was not my fate, but the next morning, the aracaris were in a little better light though still far away, allowing me to get a bit better photos.

 

   

We ended our second night at Talari Lodge with an owling outing – Steve managed to draw in a tropical screech owl (Megascops choliba) by playing its call on his phone. The owl who came had had an injury to one eye, with a pupil that would no longer dilate but s/he seemed to be flying fine and looked healthy. That bird gave us a nice long look at its beautiful self so that we retired for the night with a feeling of birding satisfaction!

 

 

Signs of spring in an uncertain season

As tiny snowflakes fall gently from the sky, my thoughts have left Costa Rica for a bit and turned to the weird weather we’ve been having in North Carolina. I didn’t move to this state for its weather but in the time I’ve been here, I’ve grown to appreciate the climate – we have four seasons but the winters have not seemed overly long and the spring and autumn temperatures are often fabulous.

 

This year, much of February was unseasonably warm in our Piedmont area and people, as well as plants and animals, were enjoying the warm sun and mild temperatures. Crocuses and irises poked their blooms up a bit early and birds were checking out nest boxes.

 

 

 

Butterflies, like this question mark (Polygonia interrogationis) made an appearance (it was getting sustenance from some dog poop left on a bridge!) and Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis) emerged to sun in the warmth.

 

 

 

Then on 12 March, we had a day of snow. The male Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) and Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) sat amid the flakes between trips to the feeders.

 

 

The female ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) didn’t seem too perturbed, but the male resident was not happy – his bedraggled red crown was in evidence, both when chasing her away from the feeders and when he was just coping with the wet snow.

 

 

 

When I left for my Costa Rican rambles, it looked like the spring weather might give way to colder temperatures; when I returned 10 days later, it was definitely more winter-like. Then, this past weekend, we had a brief respite. Despite a cold morning start, friend Karla and I visited the Guilford County Farm. The farm personnel had marked off a section of the gravel parking lot where killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) had placed a nest with four eggs. When the babies hatch, they can walk away from the nest as soon as their downy feathers dry.

 

They won’t be able to fly until about 25 days later, but they can feed themselves. The parents will continue tending to and defending them, however. In the meantime, the parents do not come near the nest so as not to draw attention to it and they will try to lead any potential predators away with a broken wing display. They do fly near the nest often, however, and keep an eye on it in between their own feeding sessions.

Karla quickly spotted Wilson’s snipes (Gallinago delicata) flying over the pond and settling at the water’s edge. As we drew closer, we could spot them occasionally, but they blended really well with the vegetation. Below are a couple photos taken at a fair distance with a high ISO and lots of grain – but you can try to see if you can spot the six snipes in the first photo and the two in the second.

Fortunately, one flew in a bit later and I got a couple more recognizable photos!

  

Some Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flew in and headed for the same corner of the pond.

Then, as I was trying to find the snipe in the grass again, I noticed a killdeer looking for insects nearby.

She was accompanied by a male, who at first seemed to be preening but who was actually trying to impress her with some courtship displays.

 

The males will show off their feathers for their (potential) mates, especially raising and displaying their bright tail feathers as a fan.

The female would walk away and he would eventually move closer in an attempt to get a response.

Nearby, we saw three Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos), two of whom seemed to be males battling over a female. Their dispute was very vigorous and lasted quite a long time. In fact, when they flew away, they were still going after one another!

 

During our continuing walk in the fields and woods near the farm, we saw many other bird species including Eastern meadowlarks, brown creepers, woodpeckers and a pair of kestrels. The woods were kind of strange in that there were very few bird nests visible in the bare trees and also no Eastern gray squirrel nests – in fact, we did not see one squirrel the entire time we were there, which was very odd. An adorable baby donkey (Equus asinus) did greet us as we walked by, though, and our long excursion (about 6 hours) gave us a nice taste of spring. Hopefully, when the snow flurries today end, we will see spring weather come back quickly and be able to enjoy the flora and fauna of this season again. Next blog – back to Costa Rica!