Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 1: birds

On the last day of January 2019, I thought it would still be ok to post a couple blogs on some surprises I encountered the past year. Almost always when I go out on nature walks, I encounter something new – a species of wildlife or plant that I have not seen before or an interaction between species not previously observed. So, I wanted to share a few of those delightful surprises from 2018. In this blog, I focus on birds; in the next part, other kinds of wildlife will be featured.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my own front yard was the scene of my biggest surprise last year when a snowstorm brought feeder visitors whom I had never seen before and who rarely come to the state where I live. The evening grosbeaks were just stunning.

 

They were not the only grosbeaks who treated me with their beauty, however. I’ve had rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) visit the feeders before, but they still always elicit my appreciation with their bright colors.

 

In late October, an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) made me stop for a photo as the other birds of its species had already gone south for the winter. The bird was perched on a branch extended over a pond and had to unfortunately contend with a persistent crow that was harassing it. After some time, the sea eagle finally took off with the crow in pursuit – it seemed that the osprey might have injured its wing and perhaps that accounted for a delayed departure to warmer climes.

  

Although the pursuit photos are not high-quality, you can see a gap in the osprey’s wing and perhaps it was waiting for healing before it undertook a very long journey.

 

On another day, I was near a wetland when an unexpected visitor flew onto a branch above me. Green herons (Butorides virescens) usually keep their distance from me; I regretted that it was overcast and the lighting was not wonderful for my close-up portrait of this colorful immature bird.

 

A more muted bird, but lovely nonetheless, is the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus). When I saw this individual in late December, I was thinking that it must be difficult for them to find food as the vegetation shrivels and insects are in hiding. At that moment, the bird dropped to the ground and was foraging – coming up with a bug to prove that they still could find sustenance in the cold temperatures!

  

The mockingbirds are often solitary except for breeding season. Some people complain that they are aggressive towards other birds at their feeders but those in my yard are not that way at all. They share space at feeders and don’t chase anyone else away. When it is mating and nesting time, however, they can become quite territorial and are very protective of their nests. This seasonal “grumpiness” was brought home to me one day along a country road when I witnessed a pair of mockingbirds driving a third bird – rival? Intruder? – away from their roosting spot.

When large flocks of gulls and double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) visited a small local lake because of a shad die-off, I had the chance to watch them for a while. One day, it was interesting to observe how one cormorant wanted to jump up on a floating platform, but another bird didn’t want him/her there. They faced off with open beaks – the bird wanting to get out of the water won.

 

 

It’s always interesting to me to watch birds as they forage for sustenance. When I think of woodpeckers, my thoughts immediately turn to nuts and insects, which I think of as their staple diets. So it was a surprise to me to see this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) dining at length one day on nice ripe persimmons – a bird with a sweet tooth!

 

 

 

Well, I probably shouldn’t say “sweet tooth” but “sweet tongue”. Woodpeckers don’t have teeth but they have exceptionally long tongues that can be wrapped around their brains inside their skulls when not being used to extract insects and other food morsels from crevices.

Another bird that has a long tongue is the great blue heron (Ardea herodius). One day, I came across this bird on its favorite roosting log obviously trying to dislodge something that had gotten stuck – or perhaps something that tasted foul. I hadn’t really seen the species’ tongue before, so the bird gave me some good views.

  

The effort of shaking its head also led it to protect its eye with the nictating membrane.

Because tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) visit my bird feeders daily to get nuts and, to a lesser extent, seeds, I associate them completely with that type of diet. It was that assumption that made me do a double-take when I spotted a titmouse on a walk with a long spaghetti-like object dangling from its beak. It didn’t seem like a grass stalk so when I lifted my camera to look through the zoom lens, I discovered it had a worm snake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) in its beak – a finding that really did astound me.

 

As I took photos, the bird finally flew further away and unfortunately dropped the reptile when it came close to a creek. I felt a bit guilty, thinking I might have disturbed its meal but after waiting about 5 minutes, the bird suddenly flew up with the snake back in its beak! It obviously really wanted to hang on to that prize!

 

And now on to part 2 of my 2018 surprises – some more reptiles and amphibians, bugs and mammals!

Is this my year of snakes??

Lest y’all (“you all”, some Southern vocabulary is finally entering my repertoire) come to think that I’m only interested in the birds inhabiting my beautiful world, today I’d like to focus on a much less appreciated animal species – the snakes.

Green tree python IMG_3565© Maria de BruynI’ve gone for years without ever spotting a snake in the wild; this one to the left was a green tree python (Morelia viridis) seen at a zoo. Since I moved to my house with a yard, I still have seen them only occasionally or witnessed the effects of unfortunate encounters with them, like when my indoor-outdoor cat (I also have two indoor cats only, much to their dismay) was bitten twice by a copperhead (with some years in between).

This year, however, seems on its way to becoming the year in which I spit viper IMG_1787©Maria de Bruyn resee a record number of snakes (and Eastern box turtles). It began with a presentation at my camera club when a wildlife photographer brought in a pit viper for photo opportunities. I only had my old point-and-shoot camera with a no longer functioning flash so my photo was not so great; the poor snake’s cage was also surrounded by so many people flashing around it, I had no appetite for trying to get a better shot. I much prefer taking photos of animals in the wild (and sometimes a zoo).

Brown snake IMG_1633©Maria de BruynresLast year, I saw a few snakes, including at an Audubon Society presentation. In the wild, I came across this thin brown snake (Storeria dekayi) crossing a path at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve. It actually was kind of a pretty with the brown markings on its head. These snakes eat snails, earthworms and slugs, so you might find it useful if they are around your garden to cut down on the plant-eating slugs.

 

I also came across this Eastern worm snake (Carphophis amoenus Eastern worm snake IMG_1335©Maria de Bruynresamoenus) in my garden. These smallish snakes (growing to about 15 inches max) are mostly active at night and use their small pointed heads to help root in the soil where they find insects and worms to eat.

On walks with my brother, we came across Western rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta) a few times. They come in different colors (yellow, gray, black) and can become quite large. This sizeable one was lounging in a tree during one of my volunteer shifts at Mason Farm. I only had my small point-and-shoot camera with me, so I didn’t think I was disturbing it much by taking some portrait shots but it did lunge at me at one point, so I backed up a bit.

Western rat snake IMG_4599©Maria de BruynWestern rat snake IMG_4614©Maria de Bruyn

The rat snakes are constrictors that suffocate their prey, such as rodents, frogs, lizards, chipmunks, squirrels, juvenile rabbits and opossums, songbirds, and bird eggs – the latter being the main reason that I have raccoon baffles on my bird box poles! I have come across them several more times in the past months.

Western rat snake IMG_0330©Maria de Bruyn resWestern rat snake IMG_6941©Maria de Bruyn res

Western rat snake IMG_7694©Maria de Bruyn res

Perhaps the most intsnakeskin IMG_3498©Maria de Bruyn reseresting sighting lately has not been a rat snake itself but its skin! They are very good tree climbers and this one obviously decided to shed its skin while hanging on a high tree limb in a park along the Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachian Mountains.

The snake that has me most wary here in North Carolina is thecopperhead IMG_9661©Maria de Bruyn res portrait copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix), the only venomous snake in this part of the state. They can be very beautiful and actually will not attack quickly. When threatened, they will often vibrate their tail and release a musky odor. If they feel they are in danger, however, they will bite – as my next-door neighbor unfortunately discovered when he put his arms around a tree to tie a ribbon on and disturbed an unseen snake on the other side of the tree. He had to go to the hospital and had a severely swollen arm, describing the bite and its after-effects as incredibly painful.

copperhead IMG_9661©Maria de Bruyn resKnowing all this made me incredibly grateful that I encountered this snake on a cool early morning. Just before a nature walk, I needed to relieve myself badly and snuck off a path to do so before other hikers arrived. Perhaps distracted by the idea that someone might come upon me in an ungraceful position, I looked around quickly but obviously not thoroughly enough because as I half-squatted and looked down at my feet, I discovered my right foot was right next to this reptile. I backed away quietly but quickly and only later when I retrieved my camera from the car did I get a shot of this merciful snake.

Having read an increasing amount about snakes through Project Noah and coming across them more and more often has made me less fearful of these animals and able to much better appreciate their beauty and important role in our ecosystems. However, when I came home to find my female cat had cornered this young black racer (Coluber constrictor) in my dining room, my admiration for the species did not make me want to entertain it inside for a while, even though they eat rodents and my cats have caught a few mice in the house. I quickly went to get a box, caught it and brought it outside where it quickly slithered off.

black racer IMG_4898©Maria de Bruynresblack racer IMG_4905©Maria de Bruynres

Red-bellied watersnake IMG_8141©Maria de Bruyn resWhen our volunteer group at Mason Farm recently began a task of preparing wood for a new boardwalk, we discovered another native snake was keeping us company – a red-bellied watersnake (Nerodia erythrogaster). These somewhat short-tempered but beautiful reptiles consume a varied diet but mainly eat amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders.

Red-bellied watersnake IMG_8162©Maria de Bruyn res

I took the photos from a distance as these snakes will bite repeatedly if they feel threatened – even if non-venomous, I don’t seek a snake bite as an experience. I do wonder if I’ll see some new kinds of snakes in the wild before the year is out though!