Autumn amblings — seeing insects, birds, a snake and two surprises

It’s been challenging lately to know what to expect as far as weather goes in our area. Following tropical storms Florence and Michael, we’ve had several more episodes of drenching downpours that caused local flooding and closed off some natural areas. The temperatures have gone down to freezing or below in the morning and then have risen to 50-60s F (10-16C); this has sometimes led to steam rising from fence posts and some flowers still blooming which usually would have died by now. This morning, I skipped my walk as the temperature was below freezing with wind, so I re-lived some visits this past month to the Brumley Nature Preserve North. If you, too, are inside sheltering from the weather, perhaps you’ll have the time to amble photographically through this long Brumley walk with me.

Some parts of the reserve are still fairly green, which creates a lovely ambience for leisurely strolling and nature observations. In other cases, we can see the arrival of late autumn and approaching winter. This picturesque tree, one of three near a pond that harbor various bird species, was still very green in late September; now these forest denizens are showing off their gnarly “bare bones”.

     

So some early mornings are quite nippy and others a bit milder, with dried plants glistening with spider webs and dew drops that sparkle in the sun.

 

Some of the insects emerge with the sun to bask in the golden light, like this seed bug (Orsellinae, left), whose coloring camouflages it well against the seed heads, short-horned grasshopper, American bird grasshopper (Schistocerca americana) and different color variations of Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) who were hanging out on the dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium).

 

   

Various birds have been enjoying the winter seeds and especially the winter berries, like the red multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and beige poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).    

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are quite fond of berries.

They travel back and forth between fruit-laden trees and dried grass seedheads, occasionally stopping on paths to find worms and insects.

The cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) also like to gorge on berries, often sharing trees with American robins who enjoy the same meal. Sometimes snagging a berry involves some acrobatic moves.

  

The waxwings are adept at these moves and I only occasionally saw one drop a fruit. They are such elegant birds with their black masks and subtle touches of red on the wings and yellow on the tail feathers.

 

One of my favorite bird species, the ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), are also fond of berries. They like suet in gardens but no suet feeders are found in the reserve.
Some of the larger birds, like the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) and yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius), also look for berries and insects as they mostly stay high up in the trees.

 

Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) are another species that enjoy late autumn fruit.

  

In early November, I had my first of two delightful surprises at Brumley. It was early morning and as I glanced up at some very tall trees, I spotted movement among the earth-toned leaves. My lens revealed a yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) – and when I entered it into my bird list for the day, eBird asked me to justify having seen it as it was a rarity this late in the year.

Two other birds that are not surprises but also a joy to see are the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) and colorful Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

  

It’s always worthwhile to look all around when you walk, not only up at trees if you are a birder or at eye level if you like mammals. I take a lot of bird photos, because I love birds and because they are often easier to see than other wildlife species. But I consider myself more a “wildlifer” than a “birder” since I really am interested in all kinds of animals. That now stands me in good stead during the high-precipitation events we’ve been having. The ponds are filled to capacity and then some, with water flowing over the banks and onto paths.

In some cases, the high humidity has been great for plants; bryophytes are shooting up sporophytes which carry their reproductive spores. As there are over 600 mosses, liverworts and hornworts in North Carolina, I didn’t get the scientific ID for this species.

The rains created new temporary water-filled gullies, where chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have been enjoying baths along with other birds.

 

  

This earthworm (Lumbricina) obviously decided it had to get out of the water-logged earth for a while and I was glad not to have squashed it as I walked along. Its slow progress along the path may not have aided it, though, because there were plenty of robins and other worm-eaters in the vicinity.

 

A large Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) was sunning next to a path after the rains as well.

   

So my last visit to Brumley, when I was hoping to capture a golden-crowned kinglet digitally, did not fulfill that hope but ended by giving me a great surprise – my first sighting of a beaver (Castor canadensis) at this reserve. A colleague had seen one there, I’d noted the gnawed tree near the pond, and I had figured out where the lodge was, but I had not yet seen the mammal in the early mornings. Shortly before reaching the pond, I’d stopped to chat with dog owners and mentioned that a beaver was there but I hadn’t seen it yet. Ten minutes later – at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, there s/he was!

It was so surprising to see the aquatic mammal cruising the pond, swimming in large and small circles. As it created small waves and wakes with its head, I pondered why this largely (but not solely!) crepuscular animal was out in the open with people walking by. S/he must have just really wanted to have a good long swim because the animal was out and about for a few hours.

 

Three times, the beaver slapped its tail and dove under with a huge splash when people with dogs strolled by – three times, I missed getting that shot but I did manage to get a photo when the beaver took a time out at the entrance to the lodge.

That was an exciting wildlife spotting – not only did I get to see an animal I rarely see but it was also exhibiting a behavior that I witnessed for the first time. (Previously, I’d seen them harvesting and transporting food to the lodge, chewing bark and felling trees.) As I often go to Brumley in the mornings, being there in the afternoon had another advantage as well – I got to witness a spectacular autumn sunset with the sky almost seeming like a kaleidoscope as the clouds and sun’s rays created rapidly changing skies. I’m looking forward already to my next foray to this reserve!

Winter wonderland – sparrows and warblers

Yesterday, as I walked through my yard, I was surprised to see groups of daffodils sticking up their heads; it seemed rather early to me but last year we had early signs of spring as well. It is a big contrast to our weather conditions less than a month ago, though. On the 17th of January, our town was surprised by 11-12 inches of beautiful, powdery snow.

  

  

 

While our southern area often has a couple instances of (light) snow and/or an ice storm in the winter, our climate is generally fairly mild and temperatures in the 50s and 60s Farenheit are not uncommon during winter. So the brief but heavy snowfall was quite an event; our streets were empty of traffic as everyone stayed home and watched the falling flakes.

Some people built snowmen, others went sledding and walking, and some of us spent hours filling our bird feeders and watching the birds. I also made an attempt to photograph some frozen bubbles, which was very challenging since it was windy during the entire winter weather event.

  

The snow began slowly melting a bit the next day, which made some of the icicles on the house elongate to a length of almost 3-4 feet, but it wasn’t until Friday and Saturday that the snow and ice really started disappearing.

My yard looked beautiful, but I spent time on the 17th repeatedly knocking snow off the bird feeders and heated birth bath so that the birds could reach the food and water.

  

   

Although I saw a couple squirrels and the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) also came by, I didn’t see other mammals like chipmunks, raccoons, opossums. But I had 25 different bird species come by on Wednesday and Thursday; on Friday and Saturday, two more species came by. I’d like to share some snow day photos of them all in this and the next few blogs.

First up are the sparrows and warblers. The chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) usually get their seed from the hanging feeders in the front and back yards but now they were looking everywhere for a bite to eat. I had strewn some seed on the ground and they began looking there.

One found a trove of food and another came by asking to be fed, a request the first sparrow accommodated quite sweetly.

 

 

The white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have an opposite feeding strategy, usually feeding on the ground and occasionally venturing up to a feeder. They, too, searched under the snow for some food.

 

The pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) tend to be rather shy; only very rarely does a pair visit together. Mostly, one shows up at a time; their beautiful yellow color was really highlighted against the white background.

 

The pine warblers did have to brave a bad-tempered bird to get to the feeders. One of the six resident yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) has become very territorial, chasing away some other yellow-rumped warblers, the ruby-crowned kinglets and the pine warbler – in other words, the birds his size or smaller. He allows a couple other yellow-rumps to feed peacefully and I think perhaps they are his family members so that he tolerates them. He didn’t stop the other small birds from coming around, however, as we’ll see in the next blog.

 

“Nuts” for nuts!

A primary source of nutrition for many birds is nuts.This high-calorie food provides them with dietary fat, which can be especially welcome during the colder months. As nuts ripen, you can see the birds flying by, carrying acorns and beechnuts, as well as seeds of various kinds. Some birds are especially suited to eating nuts with their thicker, cone-shaped bills, which are shaped to help them crack open pods and seed cases. Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), sparrows, grosbeaks, finches and woodpeckers are seed and nut lovers.

I had been lax in providing my yard birds with these culinary treats except for sunflower seeds and the seed pods in my yard trees. So one day early last year, I purchased a nut and seed holder and proceeded to give them peanuts, which are not actually nuts but the seed of a legume (Arachis hypogaea). This makes no difference to the birds like the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) of course.

I first tried peanuts in the shell and an occasional blue jay and tufted titmouse would stop by. However, they didn’t seem to want to put much time into removing the nuts from the shells and I didn’t really want the shells littering the ground either.

Then in the spring I put out some shelled peanuts from a container I’d bought for my own consumption and the avian visitors were delighted. Reading about peanut feeding informed me that I should avoid giving salted peanuts. I couldn’t readily find unsalted ones at the grocery store, so I began removing the salt, either by shaking the nuts in a paper bag or by washing off the salt.

   

Northern cardinal                                            Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)

Before they left for the summer, the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) and ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) tried the peanuts, too. Sometimes I wondered if the kinglet was also not looking for insects around the peanut feeder.

   

My choice to provide nuts was a big hit; I was rewarded with a procession of individuals of varied species who came by to quickly gulp or carry off a tasty nut. Some are pictured below – they came at different times of the day.

 

White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)     Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

    

Tufted titmouse                                                       Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

   

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)      Northern cardinal

 

Gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)        Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

       

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)         Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

The common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) will sometimes break down the nuts (and are quite messy about it, compared to the chickadees and titmice), but they will also swallow the treats whole.

  

Others are intent on breaking the peanuts into smaller pieces that are easier to get down; this seems especially true for the smaller birds like the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) below. Here we also see Riley, my banded Carolina wren, enjoying a treat.

   

The blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) often gulp down some nuts quickly and then try to carry off several nuts at a time.

One good thing about the peanuts is that thankfully the starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) don’t appear fond of them (they gulp down the dried mealworms, however, as if that food is going out of style). One will occasionally sample a nut, but they never seem to want a second.

As time passed, I realized that the peanut feeding strategy was rewarding me with frequent avian visitors, but was also rather costly. In the autumn, I began putting out a less expensive fruit and nut mix. This has also proved very popular and various species of birds are willing to share space at the feeders. The chickadees especially will feed alongside others, like the house finches and Northern cardinal below.

Species that usually forage on the ground, like the white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), also make occasional forays to the nut feeder.

When the nut feeders are empty, it’s not uncommon to see birds sitting atop them; when they see me, some will call out, as if saying, “Hey, fill up that feeder, please!” And I usually accommodate them, especially when it is very cold, as has been the case the first days of 2018 – we have had a record-breaking stretch of days in which the temperature did not rise above freezing, an unusual occurrence for our southern state of North Carolina.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler  (Setophaga coronata)  House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

The nut feeders have also been very attractive to the resident Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), one of whom has been VERY persistent in devising ways to get onto the feeders. Each time s/he succeeds, I change the position of the feeders or stumps and branches nearby. Currently, that clever rodent hasn’t been able to get up there. In compensation, I occasionally throw a handful of nuts on the ground.

             

So, not all the birds are “nuts” for nuts, but plenty of species think they’re mighty fine! They are definitely a worthwhile addition to the birders’ array of feeder offerings.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

 

 

 

Avian generations in the making – part 3B: fledgling and post-fledgling care

The number of days after hatching when young altricial birds leave the nest is fairly predictable for many species; knowing those approximate dates is helpful if you want to plan a day to watch fledging happen. I can often arrange to sit and watch a nest box on the appointed day for several hours.This has enabled me to see several broods of Eastern bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches make their leaps to freedom on the path to adulthood.

When it is time for fledging, parent birds encourage their babies to leave the nest. They may entice them by perching nearby with some food but not bringing it to them. Or they fly to the box with food and then go to a branch instead of feeding. The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in my yard will hover in front of the nest box like a hummingbird, sometimes with food in their mouths; perhaps they are showing the young ones that flight involves flapping wings.

While in some species, parents appreciate help from older children in caring for a current brood, Eastern bluebirds apparently do not. This may be because they see the previously fledged young as competitors for food. In my yard, father bluebird especially was chasing the young of earlier nests away from the feeders, not only when they begged but also when they fed themselves.

 

When fledging day arrived for the bluebirds’ third brood, one of the older siblings (I’m not sure if it was a female or male) was very interested in seeing the third brood fledge. He imitated his parents, hovering in front of the nest box so the young ones could see him.

 

Again, however, the parent bluebirds chased him away.

This did not deter the immature bird, however. He waited for the parents to go get food and again took on encouraging the young siblings. It was fascinating to watch!

 

The parents returned and drove him off with a show of bad temper.

Eventually, the babies did fly out of the nest box into a nearby crepe myrtle. There, they continued to call for food with a wide-open mouth.

    

This gaping behavior stimulates the parents to feed their offspring and the offspring can be very insistent and persistent in begging for food.

    

Eastern starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

     

Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus)

  

Common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)     Royal tern   (Thalasseus maximus)

This behavior can go on for days, especially when the young ones cannot yet fly, like this recently fledged Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos).

 

 

The birds that feed their young ones on the ground, like the American robins (Turdus migratorius) have it a bit easier than those that feed juveniles perched on wires, like these barn swallows (Hirundo rustica).

   

I can imagine that the mother and father get to a point of thinking, “Enough already!” as those large fledglings continue to beg for food; this parent Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) did not seem willing to go out for yet another bug for the young one.

But some young birds can be very insistent, even when it is obvious that they are now fully capable of finding some food on their own. This parent chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) seemed willing to be a feeder for a while longer.

                        

The parent-child feeding routine that often catches people’s eye is when a young brown-headed cowbird is being fed by a (non-voluntary) adoptive parent. For example, here we see a male hooded warbler (Setophaga citrina) bringing food to a brown-headed cowbird baby (Molothrus ater) after the youngster spent quite a while loudly crying out for a meal and hopping around on branches after the parent to convince him that he needed to be fed.

  

Of course, at a certain point the parents do stop feeding and the young set off on their own. They may check out nearby nest boxes, either scouting homes for next season or looking for roosting boxes for the cold winter nights, like these Eastern bluebirds. They may groom a bit to remove the last bits of fluffy feathers, like this red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus). And then they are ready to spend an autumn and winter getting ready to repeat the cycle, this time as the parent birds. And we can look forward to watching the process again. 😊

 

        

A nature walk with some history to ponder

In our area of North Carolina, various nature reserves have some background of historical interest. It may be related to the provenance of the land, the names of the reserve and its trails, or the remnants of structures still in place. A newer reserve in Orange County is the Blackwood Farm Park and it had some historical artefacts which I had not expected to see while I searched for beautiful plants and wildlife of different kinds.

The 152-acre reserve has transformed a former working farm into a place with hiking trails through fields and hilly woodlands, preserved farm buildings (barn, smokehouse, corncrib, milking shed, etc.), and meadows where hay is still sown and harvested every year. The first farmers arrived around 1745 and farming ended with the Blackwood family in the 1980s.

 

Dogs are allowed but supposed to remain on leash; currently, the trails are for hikers, birders and others who appreciate nature. On my last visit, a small group of dog trainers were putting canines through their paces in front of the old farmhouse, while a few people were chatting at the picnic tables nearby.

In the meantime, a chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) was extensively grooming itself in one of the shady yard trees.

 

 

  

     

 

As I began my walk through the woods, I heard a distinctive bird call and began searching for the scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea). Lucky me, he came into sight briefly overhead so that I could admire his handsome but fleeting appearance.

The meadows were filled with flowers, including Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), with its distinctive white and purple flowers, and beautiful moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria), which some botanists consider a weed and rip out in glee when they see it (this happened a few days ago when I was volunteering at another reserve!).

           

 

Butterflies, like this American lady (Vanessa virginiensis), were investigating the flowers like me and sometimes feeding on the ground.

 

 

 

  

The trail through the woods is partly level and then leads up and down hills and across small streams. Some sections are alive with bird sound and others are fairly quiet. Small signs indicate where the reserve property abuts nearby privately-owned farms.

As I came nearer to the forest edge adjoining a meadow with a pond, I came across an unexpected reminder of history. A sign at the entrance to a clearing announced that it was a burial site for slaves who had been owned by farmer Samuel Strayhorn from 1817 to 1847 and visitors are asked to observe the site with appropriate respect.

 

Archaeological surveying has identified 34 graves, including adults and children; some are marked by stones and others are now indicated by small metal tags.

 

Oral tradition relates that not only the slaves but some of their descendants were buried here after the Civil War. It is a sobering reminder of a shameful time in the history of this country, but it is good that the site has been preserved and that further historical research is being done to learn more about the enslaved people who lived here.

 

After spending some time in contemplation and wondering how the slaves’ descendants are faring now, I wandered on, emerging into the pond area where numerous dragonflies were flitting about.

 

 

        

Male blue dasher dragonfly                      Female widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa)

(Pachydiplax longipennis)

          Banded pennants (Celithemis fasciata)

 

A couple of amorous damselflies were also in evidence.

 

 

 

Leaving the pond, I entered the woods again and witnessed a pair of six-spotted tiger beetles (Cicindela sexguttata) engaged in mating, but it was not with mutual consent. The iridescent blue male jumped on the greenish female, who did her best to escape. He literally tackled her and at one point had her on her back as he kept hold of her.

 

She continued trying to escape but he was persistent and finally managed to mount her. She periodically engaged in vigorous shaking, obviously trying to dislodge him but he hung on.

 

Finally, after some time, she bucked a bit like a horse at a rodeo and threw the male off so that she was able to streak off with great speed. The male remained behind, alone.

 

A little further on, a black and yellow millipede (Boraria stricta) trundled along the forest floor, its antennae exploring the ground ahead and identifying which obstacles (twigs, stones) it could surmount and which ones it needed to skirt.

 

 

At one point, I pondered a tube hung on a tree by someone who was probably doing a study of some kind, rather than making an artistic statement (I hope).

 

 

 

When I left the reserve, a Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) was flashing its wings near a picnic table, undoubtedly looking for insects as a meal to enjoy there.

My walk that day didn’t result in a wide variety of wildlife spottings, but what I did see was interesting. Coming upon the cemetery was an unexpected educational experience that made the visit well worthwhile. I hope the researchers uncover more information that can be shared with visitors in the future.