Emerging again in 2022 – part 2

1 Red-shouldered hawk P1132421© Maria de Bruyn resWhen facing unpleasant challenges, it’s helpful to have an interest to help put them mentally aside while you find enjoyment doing something else. Observing and connecting with wildlife and plant life does that for me. For at least a while, I can think, “I don’t give a shit,” and instead focus on what’s going on immediately around me, like the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) above actually giving a shit. 😊

Observing nature also has the added advantage of providing a way to keep learning and being able to appreciate wonders around me that I might otherwise never notice. A number of people have also told me that they enjoy my sharing some of those “discoveries.”

1A white-throated sparrow PC141120© Maria de Bruyn res

White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

One thing I discovered this year was that I shouldn’t expect pine siskins to come down here to Orange County, NC, every year in winter. I’ve had them visiting during this season many years but so far not one has appeared in my yard. So I’ll share a photo of one from last year; a lovely bird with a scientific name that appeals to me: Spinus pinus.

2 pine siskin P1162664 © Maria de Bruyn res

3 downy woodpecker P8207522© Maria de Bruyn resIt’s my good fortune to live in a home with sizeable front and backyards where I can entice birds to spend time. Nest boxes border the yards and nesting gourds hang on the front porch, so that attracts pairs who raise young ones here in the spring. They also use these nesting sites to spend the night during cold autumn and winter nights. Downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) seem especially fond of one nest box next to the driveway.

There are varied types of feeders hanging on poles, offering sunflower and other seeds, mixed fruit and nuts, dried mealworms and home-made suet. This arrangement also attracts my avian friends, like the common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) with its iridescent plumage.

4 common grackle P1175003 © Maria de Bruyn res

5 Carolina wren P1132867 © Maria de Bruyn resSince converting much of my front yard lawn into flower gardens (and I’m working on that in the back, although there I’ve planted more flowering and berry-bearing trees), the insect population has increased. That has helped the pollination of my flowers and provided the resident birds with meals, like one of the 6 or so Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) who occupy specific niches. One pair hangs out near a water-filled tub; another pair hangs out near a brush pile out back and the third pair hops in and out of a brush pile in the front yard.

The wrens change up their diet a bit in winter since being purely insectivorous is difficult then. For example, one of my yard-banded wrens enjoys a bit of suet from time to time. He also likes mealworms, as do the titmice (Baeolophus bicolor).

6 Carolina wren IMG_8993© Maria de Bruyn res

7 Tufted titmouse snow IMG_9006 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

8 Tufted titmouse P1132809© Maria de Bruyn res

9 American goldfinch P1143301 © Maria de Bruyn res

Occasionally, an American goldfinch pair (Spinus tristis) will visit but I’ve been seeing them more often on walks. They like seeds a lot and have eaten many of the grass seeds in my yard already. They search the mosses for tidbits, too.

10 cedar waxwing PC271628© Maria de Bruyn resThe cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are picky eaters. The American robins in my yard ate a lot of the juniper berries they prefer and there weren’t many other berries around (as was the case at the local arboretum). At my house, they’ve mostly been using the small ponds to drink and bathe.

The most numerous species at my yard is the Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). At times, I have up to 18-20 of them flying to the tray feeders for seeds. The pokeweed berries are long gone now.

11 Northern cardinal PA074424 © Maria de Bruyn res

There are two pairs of Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in the yard; at first, they didn’t like having to share space but now they all come to the mealworm feeder at the same time.

12 Eastern bluebird PB212516 © Maria de Bruyn res

13 yellow-rumped warbler PA017988© Maria de BruynIn past years, the visiting yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) have lived peacefully with one another. This year, however, I have two birds who seem to be quite incensed when they spy each other. If one is at a feeder, the other zooms in to chase it off and often they flutter upward in a tangle with wings spread. So far, I’ve always been a couple seconds too late to capture the mid-air tussle – it is one of my goals for yard birding this year.

15 yellow-rumped warbler P9093954© Maria de Bruyn

I do enjoy their visits as I find them quite beautiful birds. And they spend a lot of time at the feeders, even when it is raining. Some people here call them myrtle warblers, but I prefer the term yellow-rumped as it is quite accurately descriptive. I loathe the slang term “butter butt” that lots of people here use. Since these warblers are present in many of the nature reserves where I walk, I unfortunately end up hearing the term from time to time. Not sure why it irritates me so much.

16 yellow-rumped warbler PA017970 © Maria de Bruyn

17 yellow-rumped warbler PA018009© Maria de Bruyn

18 pine warbler IMG_9129© Maria de Bruyn resThe pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) in my yard are quite tolerant and polite.

They will share a feeder happily and sometimes also just wait their turn until the feeding area is less crowded.

Less colorful but also a pleasure to see are the female house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus). They seem to come to the feeders less often than their male counterparts.

20 house finch PC101023© Maria de Bruyn res

The Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) are a delight to see, even if they seem to be in almost constant motion.

21 Carolina chickadee PC230399© Maria de Bruyn res

23 Carolina chickadee PC088891© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The other bird who also rarely sits still is the lovely little ruby-crowned kinglet (Corthylio calendula). A few years back, I had one that came several winters in a row and who had apparently come to trust me as he would fly over when I brought out fresh suet and even sit on the feeder while I was holding it. He may have attained his natural lifespan (4-6 years) and perhaps it is one of his offspring who now comes.

24 Ruby-crowned kinglet PA158187 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

27 golden-crowned kinglet PC090095 © Maria de BruynI hadn’t had golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) in my yard much before this year; now I have at least one living here but s/he never comes to the feeders. Because this bird stays very high and I haven’t had access to my long camera lens for some time, it’s been difficult to get photos at home. I’ve had somewhat more success on walks.

25 golden-crowned kinglet PC090158 © Maria de Bruyn res

26 golden-crowned kinglet PC090099 © Maria de Bruyn res

28 golden-crowned kinglet PC061957© Maria de Bruyn res2 (2)

29 red-shouldered hawk P1071059 © Maria de Bruyn res

Some of my more spectacular yard birds have been the neighborhood red-shouldered hawks. When they fly in, the other birds don’t seem bothered.

These hawks have targeted the amphibians and reptiles (successfully) near the small ponds; they also look for small mammals. While I’ve seen them catch frogs, I haven’t seen them catch birds or mammals.

The young ones are not as reddish as the adults.

30 red-shouldered hawk PB180215© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

I also enjoy seeing these gorgeous raptors on my visits to nature reserves. Some have what seems to me like a sweet expression (like this one below).

31 red-shouldered hawk PC204514 © Maria de Bruyn res

Finally, there is one bird that does make the other birds flee the feeders to seek shelter in bushes, shrubs, woodpiles, etc. That is the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii). A sharp-shinned hawk visits occasionally, but it is the Cooper’s who comes by regularly. S/he is not shy; about a week ago, the bird flew onto the front porch where it had chased a female cardinal into the living room window. The cardinal flapped on a chair as the hawk peered at her. I banged on the window and ran outside to rescue her. I know the hawk has to eat as well, but I didn’t want to see the dismemberment of this poor bird. I put her in a box in a corner of the porch and she fortunately recovered.

32 Cooper's hawk P1081087 © Maria de Bruyn res

Feathers in the yard and under feeders have shown that the Cooper’s has had successful hunts, so it is doing well.

33 Cooper's hawk P1081094 © Maria de Bruyn res

Next up – my water-loving mammalian friends. Have a nice weekend!

Late-morning hawk-watching – Part 1

North Carolina is known among birders as a destination for “hawk watches,” i.e., gatherings of people to see groups of hawks that are migrating south (for winter) or north (for summer). The Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains offer wind currents that birds can use to speed their journeys and many raptor fans travel to Grandfather Mountain’s Linville Peak to see the spectacle in autumn. Some also go to the hawk watch at Pilot Mountain State Park. The birds on view at the two sites include bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, kestrels, merlins, broad-winged hawks, Northern harriers, sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) like the one below.

red-tailed hawk P9199890 © Maria de Bruyn res

As October progresses and migration is winding down, however, we continue to see resident raptors roaming in our area.

The red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) are looking for easy meals. Their favored foods, in addition to smaller birds and mammals, include amphibians. My yard contains a couple small ponds, which have become favored habitats for local bullfrogs and green frogs (Lithobates clamitans).

green frogs IMG_0021© Maria de Bruyn res

This year, the green frogs predominated; the largest ones especially drew my attention with their loud croaking. In between vocalizations, they looked like they were wrestling. Together they contributed to a bounty of frog eggs.

frog eggs IMG_0040© Maria de Bruyn res

red-shouldered hawk P6271585© Maria de Bruyn res

Their amorous calling also attracted one of the neighborhood red-shouldered hawks, whom I spotted sitting on a tree branch overhanging the smaller pond. S/he was patient in watching and a couple days later I noticed a lack of croaking and then found a hawk feather in the water.

 

 

belted kingfisher PA147080© Maria de BruynSome weeks later, I saw a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) fly by quickly with a frog dangling from its beak at a city park, but the bird was too far away for a good photo. I had had better photographic luck on another morning when I happened upon a red-shouldered hawk pursuing frogs at nature reserve pond.

At first, I didn’t realize what the bird was doing. I saw the raptor intently peering down at the muddy pond’s edge and walking back and forth along the water.

red-shouldered hawk P8317401© Maria de Bruyn

red-shouldered hawk P8317412© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

red-shouldered hawk P8317413 © Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

 

 

Then, suddenly, I saw the hawk plunging its claws into the ground, apparently trying to dig something up.

red-shouldered hawk P8317244© Maria de Bruyn res

It used its wings for balance as it clawed at the wet sand.

red-shouldered hawk P8317253© Maria de Bruyn res

red-shouldered hawk P8317252© Maria de Bruyn res

I felt sorry for the frogs that were caught. Their final life moments must have been spent in terror and pain as they were dismembered.

red-shouldered hawk P8317470© Maria de Bruyn res

red-shouldered hawk P8317604 © Maria de Bruyn

It seems to me that the great blue heron’s propensity to swallow its food whole must ultimately be a quicker death for the prey.

red-shouldered hawk P8317589© Maria de Bruyn res

red-shouldered hawk P8317535 res

The hawks must also eat, however, and this is the poor frogs’ fate in many cases.

red-shouldered hawk P8317506© Maria de Bruyn res

And I must admit that it was interesting – if also rather uncomfortable – for me to see how the hawk was hunting.

red-shouldered hawk P8317511 © Maria de Bruyn res

Next up – another local raptor keeps me watching in fascination.

Craving crawdads in Carolina – a buffet for night herons

Many people in the USA, especially but not only in the South, grow up knowing what crawdads (Cambarus bartoni) are. This was not the case for me. My immigrant family pretty much stuck to the dietary customs of their own and their friends’ home countries (The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany). Like pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes and okra, crawdads were not on those menus and so it was only recently that I actually learned that these crustaceans are the same thing as crayfish, of which I had heard as a child.

This year was my time to learn more about these members of the arthropod family who are related to lobsters – it turned out they were thriving in a pond created through a man-made wetlands installed between a shopping mall and several apartment complexes. I learned about their presence when local birders alerted one another that the crawdads were attracting a family of yellow-crowned night herons (Nyctanassa violacea).

Hoping to spot the herons, I also visited the wetlands and first noted the crayfish remains scattered around near the pond. Shortly thereafter, I came across one crossing a path in another local nature park (photos above and below). It was interesting to see how the crawdad first stayed stock still as I neared and then stood tall on its legs as its tail propelled it backwards while it made a dash for the nearby pond.

The crawdad females lay hundreds of eggs; scientists do not yet know how long they incubate before birth but estimate it takes somewhat longer than a month before they hatch. In North Carolina, there are almost 50 species of these animals and several species are found only in this state.

The crayfish at the wetlands must have had a successful year because the place became a real buffet for various birds. Both adult and young night herons stayed near this pond for quite a long time before leaving to migrate to more southerly climes for the winter.

The adult herons were attractive with their boldly patterned heads.

 

 

   

They kept up their looks through regular preening.

 

 

Sometimes, they emerged from the pond weeds to perch on a snag while peering into the water on the lookout for a meal.

 

It was interesting to learn that while the adults have yellow legs most of the year, their legs can turn red or pink during breeding season.

 

 

In my experience, the younger herons were a bit less shy and didn’t fly off so quickly when I neared.

 

One in particular decided to take the sun in mid-August, adopting a pose that I more often see taken by great blue herons and which I’ve nicknamed the “flasher stance.”

     

The young birds, like their parents, stalked the pond vegetation on the lookout for crawdad snacks.

They also showed the herons’ taste for other food such as snails, earthworms and insects.

 

The night herons, for which most birders visited the wetlands, weren’t the only birds at the buffet, however. Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) also showed a fondness for the crustaceans.

 

 

 

The herons weren’t always alert to their presence. One adult, for example, decide to fly to a low perch when chased away from a tall snag by a hawk. S/he settled in for a bit of preening but was then rudely chased off by the same hawk. (That hawk was later harassed by a group of crows, who chased it away in turn.)

Other herons who were interested in outdoor crayfish dining during the humans’ Covid epidemic, included the great blue herons (Ardea herodias).

 

 

Green herons (Butorides virescens) visited the pond regularly as well, eating small fish in addition to the other wetland delicacies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) were busy flying to and fro over the length of the pond, but I didn’t see them carry off any crayfish so they must have been focused on fish.

 

A great egret (Ardea alba) was a regular visitor, too, stalking different areas of the pond.

The adult night herons obviously thought it was interesting to watch the egret’s foraging technique.

Other regular visitors to the wetlands included a flock of Canada geese, American and fish crows, Northern mockingbirds and wandering glider dragonflies (Pantala flavescens).

 

There were so many animals feeding on the crawdads this summer that the female crayfish must have had a lot of success with their offspring reaching maturity. The last reported sighting of the yellow-crowned night herons at the wetland was 24 October, but I’m guessing that they will be leaving soon and the pond will not be so busy this autumn. The crayfish population had to have been reduced mightily over the summer season, so it will be interesting to see whether it rebounds and attracts crowds of birds — and birders — next year!

When it’s time to eat your own skin

Several years ago, I bought a couple hard polyethylene pond liners and dug two large holes in my clay and rock-filled back yard. I wanted to have a pond area and figured that two big tubs would be easier to manage and clean than maintaining an in-ground pond. So far, that has been the case except for the fact that I couldn’t keep any fish – a great blue heron managed to eat all the fish I had over the course of about 2-3 years.

That doesn’t mean my pond is not populated, however. Indeed, all the water sources in my yard have residents. Some are unwanted – for example, the mosquito larvae that I admittedly kill with mosquito dunk. The Cope’s gray tree frogs (Hyla chrysoscelis) have a preference for my rain barrels. Somehow they manage to crawl inside even when a lid is on and they deposit hundreds of eggs per season.

   

Fortunately, not all of the frog eggs hatch or my yard would be overrun and the sound in the evenings would be overwhelming. Even the half-dozen or so current adults manage to produce quite a loud concert series – I’m surprised neighbors haven’t asked me to do something to tamp down the sound!

I used to have bullfrogs in my container ponds but haven’t seen them this year. Instead, my neighbors have been lovely green frogs (Rana clamitans). One grew to a very large size and he was joined by two others of a bit smaller stature.

They aren’t very noisy, mostly croaking in the late afternoon. It must have been that sound that attracted another neighborhood resident whom I spotted one day sitting on a nest box next to the pond. The red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) have spent time watching the pond before when in the mood for frog legs; this was a young hawk who had obviously been in the pond as evidenced by his wet plumage.

The pond was quiet for a few days and I thought the hawk must have had a good meal. And then, slowly, the frogs began to emerge again. There are three that sit on the rocks surrounding the larger pond although one is a bit smaller. This makes me think the hawk might have gotten one but that a juvenile frog was now accompanying the larger pair.

   

When my pond “greenies” croak, they don’t seem to get very large inflated vocal sacs. At the NC Botanical Garden, fellow photographer Mary showed me a green frog that she had been photographing and he croaked a couple times. It went too fast to get a good shot so I offered to make him “talk” by croaking at him. My pathetic attempt at imitating him really was quite pitiful, but amazingly did evoke a response. His vocal sac didn’t get really large either though.

One day, I spotted one of the yard frogs sitting on a rock, opening and closing its mouth without making a sound.

 

When I looked more closely, it seemed to have some membrane hanging on its side.

Then I saw that it was partly in the frog’s mouth and the amphibian was tugging away at it. I wondered if he was sick.

It turns out that he was perfectly healthy and staying that way by eating his own skin! These amphibians regularly shed their skin because it would otherwise harden and make it difficult for them to absorb oxygen while underwater, where they spend a considerable amount of time. So periodically, they scrunch themselves together and then stretch to break the skin so that it can be pulled off, leaving supple skin behind to better enable the “breathing” method called cutaneous gas exchange.

But why do the frogs then eat their skin? It actually has many nutrients, including calcium and proteins. I have no idea if the skin has any taste and whether they enjoy ingesting it. It seemed to be a bit of a laborious process when I watched this frog go through the process. Added to that is the fact that they actually use their eyeballs to push food down their throats and you discover that our froggy friends have quite a unique digestive process!

 

Outside my yard, I’ve not seen too many frogs this year. There was a lovely little Northern cricket frog (Acris crepitans) out and about on one of my walks.

More recently, I’ve been seeing Fowler’s toads (Anaxyrus fowleri) in the woods and parks.

 

     

At the NC Botanical Garden, I had the chance to see some rather large tadpoles sharing a pond with smaller ones.

It was interesting to see that the tadpoles first develop their hind legs and then their front legs before eventually losing their tails.

Finally, one more type of interesting creature I’ve been observing lately on walks are land snails. They don’t really belong in a blog that is about amphibians but it’s unlikely I’ll be writing one about mollusks any time soon. So, I’ll leave you here with a few photos of what I thought were some snails with beautifully spiraled shells. Have a good day or evening!

 

 

 

The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 4: growing into adult plumage

As mentioned in a previous blog, when young birds are ready to leave the nest, they don’t necessarily look like their parents. Many of the altricial birds (ready to move about and forage on their own) may resemble fluffy versions of the adults, as is the case with these hooded merganser ducklings (Lophodytes cucullatus) following their mother.

The brown-headed nuthatch babies (Sitta pusilla) look very much like their parents. Sharp-eyed observers might notice that the tops of their heads are not as brown as those of their parents.

The Eastern meadowlark juveniles (Sturnella magna) resemble their parents but lack the bright yellow and black coloring on the throat and breast.

 

The difference between adult and juvenile downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) is subtle. The female woodpecker has no coloring on the top of her head, which is simply bedecked with the white and black feathers that cover the rest of her body.

The male woodpecker has a red patch on the back of his head.

The immature woodpecker has a red patch on top if the head and this is lost as the bird reaches adulthood.

The Northern mockingbird youngling (Mimus polyglottos) resembles mom and dad quite a bit except for some spotty streaking on the chest.

In other species, the babies start out looking quite different from their parents. Spots characterize many members of the thrush family, with birds like wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) and hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) retaining the spots in adulthood.

   

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and American robins (Turdus migratorius), on the other hand, are only strongly speckled as immature birds, losing their spots as they mature.

In some cases, the birds undergo color changes. Male summer tanagers (Piranga rubra) start out yellow-orange with their reddish coloring appearing in patches until they finally achieve their very bright adult red hue. Some of the immature birds are really quite beautiful with their mottled colors.

 

   

The male blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) start out brown and gradually achieve their dark blue feathers with some reddish/brown wing accents.

 

 

Among the birds that undergo a major change are the European starlings (Sturnis vulgaris). The young birds start out with dullish brown or gray hues with some streaking. Eventually, they begin to develop some spotting and then ultimately achieve the beautiful adult summer glossy feathering with green and purple hues mixed in.

 

 

The females of the Eastern towhee species (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) have a brown back above a white breast with reddish sides, while the males have black backs.

The young developing towhees keep you guessing as to their sex since they undergo quite a lot of color changes as they develop. They do have the white in their tails, which helps you identify them as to species.

 

  And then we come to the hawks and owls. It is not unusual for the young raptors to look nothing at all like their parents. The red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) start out looking like fluffy and then becoming gradually kind of scruffy looking.

     

As they get a little older and leave the nest, they start to resemble their parents more but have more streaking on the breast. As they near adulthood, they look much more like mom and dad.

 

And we end with an example of another raptor. There is a real difference between the baby great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) and its parent as you can see. Many birds are impressed by the adults but ooh and aah over the nestlings. It must be the combination of those big eyes and fluffy feathers that take away attention from the already formidable claws!

               

Next up – a foray into the world of amphibians and reptiles!