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.

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

 

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!

Plenty of persimmon pleasure!

Northern cardinal  IMG_7335© Maria de BruynMy side- and backyards are both blessed with a persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) but the one out back only produces small hard fruit for some reason. The large persimmon at the side of my house, however, is the exact opposite. Each year it is laden with fruit; much of it begins falling while the persimmons are still unripe or only half-ripe but plenty remains on the tree through the first frost. You need to have both male and female plants for the fruit to grow, but I don’t know where the male trees are – likely in a neighbor’s yard.

Persimmon tree IMG_6996© Maria de Bruyn resPersimmon tree IMG_6993© Maria de Bruyn res

I’d been warned that an unripe or only partly ripe persimmon would not be tasty and, when I tried one, that advice turned out to be very true. I later tried a really ripe persimmon as so many North Carolinians find it a wonderful fruit, especially in pudding, but I can’t say that it is much to my liking. You won’t find me using persimmons to make tea, wine, beer or bread.

white-tailed deer IMG_9971© Maria de Bruyn resIt is, however, VERY popular with the wildlife that is around my house. The first fallen persimmons are gobbled up by the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), who don’t seem to mind a bit of astringent fruit. Our neighborhood has opossums, raccoons, coyotes and gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) , but I haven’t seen their persimmon seed-filled scat – I think the deer get the fruit before they have a chance. (Too bad the stem was in front of the fox’s face; I don’t use Photoshop, but you can still see its beauty.)

Gray fox IMG_1124 MdB res

When the large orange berries begin falling on the ground in an ever riper state, the first diners include the bald-faced hornets (Dolichovespula maculata), whose beautiful large nest must be in a neighbor’s tree.

bald-faced hornet IMG_3348©Maria de Bruynbald-faced hornet IMG_3486©Maria de Bruyn

Eastern yellowjacket IMG_2502©Maria de BruynEastern yellowjacket wasps (Vespula maculifrons), which can deliver a very nasty sting, show no interest in a human hovering over the persimmons to get a shot – they are totally engrossed in getting a piece of juicy fruit.

Southern yellowjackets (Vespula squamosa), also painful stingers, act likewise – their focus is entirely on the orange pulp.

 

 

Southern yellowjacket IMG_2473©Maria de BruynSouthern yellowjacket IMG_2507©Maria de Bruyn res

Paper wasp polistes metricus IMG_4359©Maria de BruynThe paper wasps (Polistes metricus) dig deep into the persimmon to extract some sweetness.

The red wasps (either Polistes carolina or rubiginosus; entomologists can only tell by examining the insect) also enjoy flitting from one fallen fruit to another in search of the sweetest bits. Sometimes they and the paper wasps challenge one another for territory.

Red wasp P carolina IMG_3495©Maria de Bruyn

Paper wasp polistes metricus IMG_3513©Maria de Bruyn res

Downy woodpecker IMG_7248© Maria de BruynThe next group of persimmon pickers are the birds. Some birds only visit the tree to rest or look for insects, like the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) and the white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).

White-breasted nuthatch IMG_5997© Maria de Bruyn

 

 

A few birds just rest in the tree and others rest and occasionally peck at a berry, like the house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus).

 

House finch IMG_5956© Maria de Bruyn

Yellow-bellied sapsucker IMG_8379© Maria de Bruyn The yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) though is a woodpecker that is highly attracted by the fruit. A few of these attractive birds – both adults and juveniles – have been visiting the tree every day for weeks now to enjoy a sweet treat.

 

 

 

Yellow-bellied sapsucker IMG_8263© Maria de BruynYellow-bellied sapsucker IMG_8233© Maria de Bruyn

The American robin (Turdus migratorius) will not turn up its beak at a piece of persimmon either. Perhaps next year I should take a leaf from their books and collect a few fruits to try a pudding??

American robin IMG_9826©Maria de Bruyn resAmerican robin IMG_9813©Maria de Bruyn res

 

Delight in small packages

ruby-throated hummingbird M de Bruyn signed (2) res

Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_6085©Maria de BruynOne bird that seems to almost universally delight people and bring smiles to their days are the hummingbirds. These wonderful little fliers now only live in the Western hemisphere of our earth, but two 30-million-year-old hummingbird fossils were discovered in Germany so they did live elsewhere.

There are more than 300 species – some very, very colorful and some with gorgeous long tails or long curved beaks. Central and South America have spectacular species and one of the Nazca line drawings in Peru depicts a hummingbird. Only eight species breed in the United States.

Here in Chapel Hill, I’ve had the pleasure to see two species – the ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) and the rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus). The ruby-throated (named for the male’s brilliant neck feathers) are here in spring, summer and fall and then they migrate further south, crossing the 500 miles (800 km) of the Gulf of Mexico in one non-stop flight!

Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_8991©Maria de Bruyn resRuby-throated hummingbird IMG_4837©Maria de Bruyn

The rufous species migrates here from further up north in the wintertime; they will go as far as Alaska to spend the winter and can tolerate below freezing temperatures.rufous hummingbird IMG_1789 M de Bruynrufous hummingbird IMG_2022 MdB

Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_7541©Maria de BruynRESThe smallest bird species is the Bee hummingbird, which weighs less than a cent coin. On average, the ruby-throated hummingbird weighs less than a US five-cent coin.

They flap their little wings about 50 times per second but increase this to as much as 200 wing beats per second. This rapid motion makes a humming sound, which varies according to the species. Their quick flight allows them to hover as well as fly backwards and upside down.

 

ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_3498Ruby-throated hummingbird male IMG_5433©Maria de Bruyn res

 

ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_3293 MdBTheir little feet help them perch but they cannot hop or walk on them.

These little birds need to eat about half their weight in sugar every day, which is why you see them returning to feeders quite often. When there is not enough food, they can go into a hibernation-like state, slowing their metabolism to 1/15th of its normal rate.

Their hearts can beat as quickly as 1260 beats per minute and they take 250 breaths per minute, even when they are sitting still!

Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_1482©Maria de Bruynres

 

Hummingbirds do not suck up nectar but quickly lap it up with tIMG_5526©Maria de Bruynheir tongues, which have tubes running down their lengths.

To ensure they have enough food, they can sometimes defend their feeding areas vigorously against other hummers that they consider intruders. This happens a lot at my feeders but they are so fast that it’s very difficult to get good shots of it.

 

ruby-throated hummingbirds IMG_0729 MdB resRuby-throated hummingbird IMG_2379©Maria de Bruynres2

ruby-throated hummingbirds IMG_0728 MdB res

They eventually will tolerate others in their vicinity (sometimes). They live 3-12 years and perhaps the ones they don’t mind having around are related.

Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_2742©Maria de Bruynres

It is better not to put food dyes into nectar and brown or raw sugar should not be used to prepare it as these types of sugar contain iron, which can kill hummingbirds if they get too much over a certain period of time. They like sugar water with 25% sugar, although apparently nectar with 35% sugar is even more to their liking.

Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_7711©Maria de Bruyn resRuby-throated hummingbird IMG_5921©Maria de Bruyn res2

I have yet to find a hummingbird nest made with spider silk and lichens in my yard but hope to see one in the future so that I can say I’ve not only seen the biggest bird egg (ostrich) but also the smallest!

Ruby-throated hummingbird IMG_5925©Maria de Bruyn (2) res