‘Rassing – a surprise visitor – what a delight!

(Warning – this is a bit of a long blog!) Several years ago, what was likely a rufous hummingbird took up residence in my yard during the winter months. That was really unexpected — while it’s not uncommon for migrating or some resident hummingbirds (especially ruby-throats, Archilochus colubris, above) to spend wintertime in North Carolina, particularly along the coast, it’s not so common in the central part of the state. That experience taught me that it’s a good idea to keep up a nectar feeder in the winter as you never know when a stray migrant might show up. In 2015 and 2016, I traveled with fellow birders to visit people who had a buff-breasted (Amazilia yucatanensis) and calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope) wintering at their homes. In actuality, however, I didn’t really expect a rare passerby in my yard.

 

It was consequently with great surprise that I saw a hummer hovering at the nectar feeder last week. “Oh, wow!” I thought; “a ruby-throated hummer is passing through as a very late migrant.” I grabbed my camera to take a few shots and immediately felt perplexed.

 

The bird looked like he had a purple rather than ruby or red gorget (throat feathers). The white patch behind his eye also showed prominently because of his very dark head.

To me, it also looked as if this hummer had blue patches on his tail feathers. (Most say his flanks are green and a hummingbird expert said he has iridescent black tail feathers; the way the light reflects off them made me see blue, however.)

I got a few photos and cautiously asked birding experts on a facebook group if he could possibly be a black-chinned hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), also sometimes known as the Alexander hummingbird. It seemed unlikely as their normal range is the Western part of the Northern hemisphere, reaching north into Canada (Alberta and British Columbia), east to Oklahoma, and as far south as Mexico, where most spend the winter.

A couple people thought I might be correct, but most thought it was a ruby-throated hummingbird. My spring-summer ruby-throated residents had left at least a month ago but I thought perhaps a late migrant might have arrived. The next day, I saw the bird again and became convinced that it was a black-chinned hummer; his purple gorget was very obvious to me. I posted new photos and now the experts agreed that I was correct. That was very cool – I got a lifer without even leaving my own yard!

 

A couple days later, North Carolina’s hummingbird researcher, Susan Campbell, came to my home to band the unusual visitor. I invited a friend who had been to bird bandings in my yard before to come for the happy event.

Susan arrived early and first set up a cage trap for ‘Rassing (short for the Dutch word verrassing, which means surprise; I wanted him to have a name during his stay 😊). She left the door open with a long string attached and hung the nectar feeder on the outside. It wasn’t long at all before the bird arrived for a drink. When he left, Susan moved the nectar feeder inside the cage.

‘Rassing returned for another drink and flew right into the cage, which Susan shut promptly. She had already laid out her banding materials so she could remove him from the trap promptly.

He went into a small bag (the kind often used to hold birds for banding) which Lucretia held while Susan began filling out the paperwork.

Then the actual banding procedure began. Susan first checked his legs to ensure that he hadn’t been banded already – the hummers rarely show their legs so that was necessary.

Then she got ready to put a thin red metal band on his tiny leg with a silver band showing his numeric code for identification in case he is caught again some time (Band number 7100 (M)-41902).

She checked the length of his bill – 19.19 mm. She also advised that bird feeders with long slits are not preferred even if the birds like them. It turns out that the thin slots can rub against the bill and wear it down, damaging the bill and making it vulnerable to infection. (I afterwards enlarged the slots into ovals and circles and went back to a couple other feeders I had with larger holes.)

She blew on his stomach feathers to check his fat; he was not a hefty bird but certainly a healthy adult male. His weight turned out to be 3.09 g. She also recorded his body length.

She stopped for a moment so I could take a few photos trying to get a good shot of the purple gorget. It looked like ‘Rassing was trembling but this was the vibrations from his rapid breathing. (When resting at 91⁰ F, they take about 245 breaths per minute; at 55⁰ F, this rises to 420 breaths per minute!!) Susan thought he was acting fairly calm.

She measured his short tail (23.5 mm), as well as his wings (40.42 mm). The female black-chinned hummer would have more rounded wing feather tips than this male.

 

Susan took a few photos of ‘Rassing and he got a few long drinks from a feeder held by Lucretia. Then Susan gave me the honor of releasing him – and to my delight, he chose to sit in my hand for what seemed to be at least 90 seconds. I could feel him breathing and it was a real thrill to see him so close. With a little flutter of his wings he took off – and then stayed away from the feeder for quite some time.

 

I added a feeder in the backyard and ‘Rassing began preferentially feeding there – perhaps the front yard had acquired some unpleasant memories. However, at the end of the day, I would remove the backyard feeder so that visitors who wanted to see him had a better chance of seeing him dine at the front-yard feeders.

 

 

A fair number of birders were interested in being able to add him to their life, state and county bird lists, so I offered to schedule visits through a birding listserv for a few people at a time. ‘Rassing appeared more reticent to stay at the feeder when there were more than 2 or 3 people watching, which is understandable. Who wants an audience for each meal and snack you eat??

When it rained, the feathers atop his head clumped together, giving him a new “hair-do.”

 

 

It appears that this species of hummingbird has not been studied much. I found his behavior interesting and spent a good amount of time observing him (chores had to wait). When I watched him leave the feeder and go to a nearby tree, he would sometimes watch me (turnabout fair play, of course).

 

 

He seemed very comfortable with lots of other bird species at nearby feeders. Perhaps it gave him a safer feeling.

‘Rassing tended not to sit on feeders, as ruby-throated hummers often do. Instead, he mainly hovered and vigorously pumped his short tail quite a lot. I learned that this tiny bundle of energy was breathing at a flight rate of about 1260 beats per minute!

 

Occasionally, you could see the band on his leg but mostly he kept his legs tucked into his body.

In the evenings, he came around nearly the same time each day to have a longer drink and then he sometimes perched while feeding.

 

A Cornell University website says that black-chinned hummers rarely stay at a feeder longer than a day during migration, even when food is scarce. In my yard, he had access to lots of bugs (I have a small pond) and three types of sage/salvia were still blooming. Indeed, he sometimes came to the feeder with pollen covering the top of his bill.

Yesterday morning, ‘Rassing apparently had decided it was time to move on. After the warmest Halloween on record in our area, the temperature plunged during the night to the 30s. The next morning was the same and he may have decided it was time to go to warmer climes.

 

I did feel lucky that he graced my yard with his presence for a week; it gave me something to celebrate during a personally challenging time. The oldest known black-chinned hummer was more than 11 years old; if ‘Rassing likes going east during migration, perhaps he’ll stop by again next year – wouldn’t that be a tremendous surprise! 😊

 

Nest Watch citizen science – 2016 edition

Carolina wren Renee and Riley I77A9074© Maria de Bruyn resLast year, I became a Nest Watch volunteer, which involves having birds banded in your yard so that you can follow and report to researchers the birds’ presence over time as they visit and leave your yard.

In 2015, we banded six birds. If a bird is only a temporary visitor or if it died outside the yard due to disease, old age or predation, you just won’t see it again and have no idea what became of it. The American robin (Turdus migratorius) that was banded last year never returned. If the birds stick around, however, you have the enjoyment of observing birds you get to know. The three gray-headed catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) stayed around all summer and fall, and two of them – Camden and Corey – returned to my yard from winter migration a few days ago. They have been accompanied by females whom they appear to be assiduously courting.
gray-headed catbird Camden I77A8990© Maria de Bruyn res

gray-headed catbird Corey I77A8083© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern cardinal Clancy I77A8123© Maria de Bruyn resOne Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) was banded last year, but Clancy only stayed a few days and then disappeared for the rest of the summer, fall and winter. He suddenly appeared yesterday – perhaps encouraged to spend time at the feeders by the other birds with bracelets.

Three days ago, a second round of banding was done and we put the colorful anklets on a total of 10 birds. They were caught in two mist nets – one near my back garden and one near the backyard feeders.

Northern cardinal Camilla I77A9127© Maria de Bruyn resThe nets had just been installed when our first visitor, a female Northern cardinal, was caught. She was not happy and when put in a bag until she could be banded, weighed, examined and measured, she did not remain still and calm. She had a little wait, however, as a female Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) flew into the other net at just about the same time, followed by her mate within seconds. As the cardinals can tolerate being in a bag better than the smaller birds, the two wrens were banded first. Alicia let the first one go and then I released the second one, who rested on my palm for a bit. He felt so nice and soft!

Carolina wren Riley IMG_3832© Maria de Bruyn res

Forty-five minutes later, playback of a house wren’s song (Troglodytes aedon) led to the capture of a male who immediately came to investigate who was invading his territory. His mate, who was busy putting the finishing touches on a nest in a box near the mist net, didn’t go near the net.

house wren Hans IMG_3842© Maria de Bruyn reshouse wren Hans IMG_3844© Maria de Bruyn res

A few birds not targeted for the study ended up tangled in a net. A white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) had beautiful vivid breeding colors on his head. A red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) was not calm like the sparrow, fluttering his wings constantly as Alicia, the bird bander, got him loose.

white-throated sparrow IMG_3837© Maria de Bruyn res red-bellied woodpecker IMG_3822© Maria de Bruyn res

Next up were a male cardinal and a female American robin. Like last year, the birds were measured and weighed. Although about the same length, the weight difference between the heaviest Northern cardinal we banded (41.2 oz) and the American robin was striking (79.6oz). The robin’s fondness for worms and other dietary preferences helps account for this. When I let her go, she didn’t feel very heavy in my hand as she rested a second before flying off.

American robin Raisin IMG_3854© Maria de Bruyn

Except for birds that were molting their tail feathers, Alicia also removed the third left tail feather; this is done primarily for stable isotope analysis, which allows a researcher to estimate where the bird was when that feather was grown.

Northern cardinal Crake I77A0559© Maria de Bruyn res

Carolina chickadee Chancey I77A7762© Maria de Bruyn resThe catbirds avoided the mist nets skillfully this year. Playback of their songs drew them to the vicinity but the two pairs visiting the feeders were more interested in chasing each other away from the territory. Alicia hoped that we could get a Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis); with playback we got a male and then, 45 minutes later after banding another cardinal, we got a pair of them.

Carolina chickadee Chase I77A0348© Maria de Bruyn res Carolina chickadee Chantal I77A9525© Maria de Bruyn res

Alicia blew on the birds’ undersides (forgive the blurry photo) to assess fat reserves, which are stored along the flanks and up near the furcula by the collar bone. She could also determine sex that way and thought that one chickadee might be developing an egg – hopefully, one of the females who lost a nest to predators in my yard a week ago. The last male chickadee released was out of sorts after the experience; before leaving my hand to fly off rapidly, he turned and bit me as a parting shot.

Carolina wren Renee IMG_3813© Maria de Bruyn res Carolina chickadee IMG_3856© Maria de Bruyn res

Alicia had remarked that she hoped no tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) would be caught; they are not part of the study and she said they are so feisty that their bites can be a bit painful like those of the cardinals. Unfortunately, one leaving a feeder did end up in a net and lived up to its reputation as a feisty bird. A chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), who was the last bird in a net remained fairly calm as the net was removed from its claws.

tufted titmouse IMG_3858© Maria de Bruyn res

Tufted titmouse IMG_3861© Maria de Bruyn res

Yesterday, I spent some time watching the feeders and yard to see if all the banded birds had left. Luckily, some of them showed up and were here again today. So here are a few of “my birds” with bling – this is a truly enjoyable citizen science project. 🙂

Northern cardinal Clarence I77A0124© Maria de Bruyn res Northern cardinal Crake I77A0593© Maria de Bruyn res

Clarence                                                                       Crake

Carolina wren Renee I77A9354© Maria de Bruyn resCarolina wren Riley I77A0508© Maria de Bruyn res

Renee and Riley Carolina wrens

 

The banded birds are back!

gray catbird DK7A2255© Maria de Bruyn resIn a previous blog, I described how six birds were banded in my backyard so I could track them over time. Bird banding has been done for decades, indicating that it is a practice that truly works for monitoring lifespans and locations of individual birds. But it still seemed to me that being caught in a net, having someone hold you as they extricated your legs and wings from the clinging threads, then putting rings on your legs and sticking you into a container (for weighing) would be a traumatic enough experience for you to decide that this geographical area was not where you wanted to be. Anthropomorphizing the banded birds’ reactions meant that I wouldn’t have been surprised (albeit very disappointed) if I had not seen the six birds again.

gray catbird DK7A2210© Maria de Bruyn resMy expectation was almost immediately proved wrong, however, confirming that birds do not stay away from sites where they were given their ankle bracelets. Corey, my tail-less gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) was the first one I spotted again, the very next day after the banding. He has an aluminum band on one leg and 2 red bands on the other.

Since the bands are such different colors, I decided to name the birds as that is easier to note down for sightings. The gray catbird with an aluminum band (they all have this color as it contains their registration number) and white and purple bands became Camden. The catbird with the lovely yellow and green bands was dubbed Clarissa. All three have been very regular visitors to the feeders, proving that a little discomfort was not enough to dissuade them from visiting the always available buffet of mealworms and other delights.

gray catbird Camden DK7A2085© Maria de Bruyn res gray catbird Clarissa DK7A2091© Maria de Bruyn res

The catbirds have a fondness for sweets and like both apples and blueberries. Grape jelly is a real treat, for which they will return again and again.

gray catbird Clarissa DK7A2647© Maria de Bruyn resgray catbird Camden DK7A2198© Maria de Bruy resn gray catbird Camden DK7A1965© Maria de Bruyn resCorey’s return visits have shown how his tail feathers grew in again nicely over time. gray catbird Corey DK7A2472© Maria de Bruyn resI named the Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) Clancy and I first spotted him again 2 days after the banding. He has not been a regular visitor, however – or I just haven’t caught sight of him among the bevy of other male cardinals that flit around the trees. However, a few days ago he turned up among the apples!

Northern cardinal Clancy  DK7A7771© Maria de Bruyn res northern cardinal Clancy  DK7A7753© Maria de Bruyn res

Carolina wren Willow DK7A2608© Maria de Bruyn resWillow, the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus), has been a very infrequent returnee. When he comes, he tries to stay out of sight, choosing the side of the feeder away from me and only lingering a short while in plain sight. At least I know he is ok.

The one bird I have not yet seen is Rusty, the American robin (Turdus migratorius). I’ve been staring at the legs of every robin that hops around the yard but have yet to see one with leg jewelry. Perhaps he was just a stray visitor the day of the banding? I will certainly keep a look-out for him.

My first re-sighting data were entered into the Nestwatch site on 1 June 2015; it will be interesting to see how long I can maintain this input. Clarissa is a very frequent visitor so I think she will be in many entries. Or perhaps she is just busy right now feeding young ones.

gray catbird Clarissa DK7A2504© Maria de Bruyn res gray catbird Clarissa DK7A2503© Maria de Bruyn res gray catbird Clarissa DK7A2498© Maria de BruynEastern bluebird IMG_3881© Maria de Bruyn resIn the meantime, I am monitoring two nests for data entry; one for Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), who have babies in a nest box, and one for gray catbirds, who have a nest in the middle of a shrub next to my carport.

The catbird parents are ever so vigilant and call out warnings to me whenever I approach the shrub. They hesitate to go into the shrub with food when I am near, even though those babies must be hungry. I finally got a view of them through the twigs when they were close to fledging. They are now hopping around on twigs in the shrub near the nest. Yesterday, when I came too close, Mama catbird dive-bombed, actually grazing my head!

Gray catbird IMG_3887© Maria de Bruyn res gray catbird IMG_3873© Maria de Bruyn

The parents in both pairs are very diligent about bringing the babies meals, working as a team. One catbird parent seems to be good at collecting a variety of foods, in one case bringing three different insects at once (presumably one for each baby). I will look forward to seeing the young ones out and about and sincerely hope my neighbor’s cat doesn’t get them.

gray catbird DK7A2939© Maria de Bruyn res gray catbird DK7A2937© Maria de Bruyn res

Bird watching is an enjoyable way to spend time; doing it and contributing to scientific data collection is even cooler!

Citizen science in my backyard!

Gray-headed catbird DK7A8986© Maria de Bruyn resIt’s been a while since I’ve blogged – not for lack of ideas and photos but due to a dearth of time and energy that was absorbed by multiple troubles with a few cool happenings in between. But now I’m back with some new observations about the beauty and happenings of interest in my natural world and I hope to share some wildlife sightings on a regular basis again.

One activity that I have managed to fit in amid the other goings-on was enrollment in two new (for me) citizen science projects for the Smithsonian Institute. I’m participating in an eMammal project run by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science and in a multi-year observational study of some common birds. The mammal project is time-limited, so I will report on that in about a month’s time.

Northern mockingbird DK7A8859©Maria de BruynThe bird project will involve tracking visits to my yard by banded birds for several years to come. The target species include American robins (Turdus migratorius), Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), house wrens (Troglodytes aedon), gray-headed catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis), Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) and Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos, at the right), all of which come to my yard. Song sparrows are the 8th target species but I haven’t seen them at my house. However, I discovered that there is a great crested flycatcher in my trees, although I’ve never seen him (or her) either, so who knows if one will come in the future? In any case, the target birds can live from about 6-10 years on average, so I’ll have an ongoing activity for as long as my eyesight remains reasonable!

bird banding IMG_3291© Maria de Bruyn resmist net IMG_3290© Maria de Bruyn

So how does the bird banding proceed? We (the bird bander and I) set up one 12-foot and one 6-foot mist net in two parts of the yard, after the bander laid out her equipment for the banding process. Within a very short time, we caught three birds in the large net! The first was a gray-headed catbird that I recognized (photo above), because he had molted all his tail feathers at once and looks a bit odd with no tail. This bird, whom I have named Corey, has been the most vocal catbird at my feeders and he was extremely vocal about having been caught as well.

gray-headed catbird IMG_3294© Maria de Bruyn bird banding IMG_3295© Maria de Bruyn

After being disentangled – very carefully – from the net, he was put in a bag while the bander got the other two birds out of the net. Corey was measured, weighed, and banded with a combination of aluminum and colored bands. Sex was determined (I now know he is a he!) and then he was let go.

gray-headed catbird IMG_3301© Maria de Bruyn bird banding IMG_3304© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern cardinal IMG_3311© Maria de Bruyn resBird 2 was a beautiful male Northern cardinal, who appeared to have good fat reserves. He was a bit vocal and bit the bander to show his displeasure at the treatment he was receiving.

Bird 3 was a male American robin. Sex was determined partly by looking at the cloacal region (outside breeding season, other markers besides brood patches and this area are examined). If a bander is unsure of the sex, this is also marked on the data sheet. The robin was more sedate during handling than his predecessors.

 

American robin IMG_3314 © Maria de Bruyn resAmerican robin IMG_3315© Maria de Bruyn res

The house wrens had been calling loudly during the banding and flitted about in the trees and to the feeders,but they always flew just above the nets and were not caught. A male Carolina wren with a nice eye stripe did not escape.

house wren DK7A4794© Maria de Bruyn Carolina wren IMG_3316© Maria de Bruyn

American crow IMG_3359© Maria de BruynThe chickadees and Northern mockingbird flew about but did not really come too close to the nets. Non-target species were at or near the feeders, too, such as courting bluejays, an American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos, right) who came to eat jelly and take some apple to his mate, downy woodpeckers, white-breasted and brown-headed nuthatches, a house finch, Eastern towhees and a male cowbird.

red-bellied woodpecker IMG_3344© Maria de Bruyn resOther non-target birds flew into the large mist net, however, such as a brown thrasher, a tufted titmouse, a red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus, right), a chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), a female common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas, below) and a common grackle. I’d not seen these birds up so close before, so that was really a nice experience.

Common yellowthroat IMG_3339© Maria de Bruyn res

 

bird banding IMG_3340© Maria de Bruyn resTo get more target species, a loudspeaker that played bird calls and some model birds were placed in the grass by the largest net. Eventually, two more catbirds were caught – with other catbirds in a nearby tree puffing themselves up to show their shared distress. These were the first catbirds banded for the project so far, so that was a nice way to end the exercise.

Cope's tree frog IMG_3293© Maria de Bruyn resA tour of the yard to see if there were any nests that could be followed for the Nest Watch project revealed a couple wren nests in boxes that were built up so high it was not possible to see if they had eggs in them. The bluebirds’ nest has five eggs that I will follow through fledging (hopefully); a catbird nest is too high up for me to see how many eggs she is sitting on but I will watch for her fledglings, too. And a Cope’s tree frog (Hyla chrysoscelis) had taken up residence in the nest box that the downy woodpecker uses to rest at night. The wrens had begun building a nest in that box last night and the frog was gone this afternoon.

The banding took place yesterday in the morning and in the afternoon, the banded birds had not returned. I wonder how long it will take most of these individuals to come again. Corey already returned this afternoon, instantly recognizable not only because of his very short tail feathers growing in but because of the red and silver bands on his little legs. I was so glad to see he was none the worse for wear!