The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 1: courtship and mating

Although we in the Northern hemisphere are already a little more than a month into summer, many species among our avian friends have not yet completed their breeding cycle. In my yard, many parents are still feeding begging (sometimes almost adult) children. Others are feeding young ones in the nest and some appear to be busy constructing new nests for a second or third brood. So, after a long hiatus in blogging, I decided to feature some of my bird friends, including the American goldfinch pair below (Spinus tristis) as they have worked on their new family lives in 2020.

American goldfinch P7130178 © Maria de Bruyn resSome of these photos go back to early spring. A series of misfortunes (including a crash of my laptop hard drive, a broken camera, loss of Internet) meant that I had a backlog of photos to process and then suddenly a large gap in photos taken. But I managed to recuperate some of the work and hope you enjoy the coming series of posts about the birds’ breeding and family life!

belted kingfisher

Breeding season is heralded by increasing bird song in the meadows, forests, fields and our yards. Males especially sing to attract mates and establish territories, but females treat us to songs and calls, too. This makes it easier to spot birds as the tree foliage gets thicker, especially if you have good hearing!

pine warbler P4175086© Maria de Bruyn                     white-eyed vireo P4123164 © Maria de Bruyn res

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)            White-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus)

Eastern meadowlark P4279816© Maria de Bruyn res            Orchard oriole P4279889© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna)     Orchard oriole (Icterus spurius)

Carolina wren P3316544 © Maria de Bruyn res                 blue grosbeak P4291500© Maria de Bruyn res

Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)      Blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea)

summer tanager P4291520© Maria de Bruyn res

Summer tanager (Piranga rubra)

Indigo bunting P6308502© Maria de Bruyn

Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea)

Courtship is usually a sweet behavior to watch in my view. The male Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are especially devoted suitors, seeking out nice morsels to present to their intended mates, while among the American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), it’s the females who loudly call to their mates for some tasty bites.

Northern cardinal P4164873© Maria de Bruyn res

American crow P4080661 © Maria de Bruyn res

A fact that perhaps many bird lovers do not know is that few male birds have a penis. Like the female birds, most species’ males have a cloaca, a cavity externally located just under the bird’s tail and internally at the end of the digestive tract. Feces, urine, sperm and ova are all deposited in the cloaca. Birds who reproduce with this organ briefly rub their cloacae together (an activity called the “cloacal kiss”) whereby sperm from the male bird’s testes are transferred into the female’s cavity to unite with her eggs. During breeding season, the cloaca is slightly swollen and protrudes a bit from the bird’s body, facilitating the transfer. In the photo of this Carolina wren, you can see a slightly darker area under the tail indicating where the cloaca is found.

Carolina wren P7059955 © Maria de Bruyn res

red-headed woodpecker P4217162© Maria de Bruyn res

When ready for mating, the red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) seem to focus mainly on chasing away rivals and then snatching a quick mating session. The female woodpecker then takes a break from the chase to rest and have a bite to eat.

Some cliff swallow males (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) seem to take advantage of females who are preoccupied with gathering mud for their nests for a quick tryst.

cliff swallows 2G0A3283© Maria de Bruyn res

The brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) seem to take their time for mating. This pair was occupied for at least 5-10 minutes in preparing for the upcoming production of eggs. At times, it seemed like the male was giving the female instructions on what to do once “the deed” was done!

brown-headed cowbird P5097676 © Maria de Bruyn res   brown-headed cowbird P5097677 © Maria de Bruyn res

Many birders do not like the cowbirds because they are parasitic nesters, i.e., they lay an egg in another bird’s nest so that the other bird will raise the young. Since the cowbird baby usually hatches before the other eggs, they either monopolize the food that the foster parents bring or they may even destroy the eggs laid by their foster mother.

brown-headed cowbird P5097682 © Maria de Bruyn res      brown-headed cowbird P5097686© Maria de Bruyn res

It’s been posited that the cowbirds evolved to use this strategy because they followed the bison in migration and therefore couldn’t stay in one place to raise their young. Others believe, however, that the birds developed the practice because dispersing their eggs over several nests gave their young a better chance of reaching adulthood.

brown-headed cowbird P5097689© Maria de Bruyn res

chipping sparrow P6256620© Maria de Bruyn sgd resThe quickest mating scenario I’ve witnessed came from a pair of sweet little chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina). I’d seen the two fluttering together at the feeders and had noted one sparrow chasing another away – which I now think was the victorious suitor driving away a rival. Then one July afternoon, the two flew to a dying cedar and sat close to one another on a branch. Suddenly, Mr. Victory mounted his mate but for what only seemed a few seconds – really very quick work indeed! She sat there with her rear end elevated for a bit and then the two went back to feeding – and soon after I saw them collecting nesting materials.

chipping sparrow P6256622© Maria de Bruyn res    chipping sparrow P6256623© Maria de Bruyn res

The birds in which the males do have a penis include some duck and swan species, ostriches, cassowaries, kiwi and geese. They differ from other birds in that development of the penis is NOT stopped in the male bird embryos during development (the case in cloacal birds).

The mallard males (Anas platyrhynchos), like some other ducks, unfortunately do not treat their partners well. They may mount the female very roughly. During a mating, she may be dunked underwater repeatedly and at length; occasionally, this results in her drowning. This behavior has been the subject of various studies and some newspaper articles with sensationalistic headlines (e.g., “The horrible thing you never knew about ducks)”.

Mallard duck P1232837 © Maria de Bruyn

Mallard duck P1232839 © Maria de Bruyn     Mallard duck P1232840© Maria de Bruyn

Once the actual mating is over, the birds devote most of their energy toward building a nest. While female ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) must construct her nest and tend her babies alone, many other birds cooperate in the venture, like the Eastern bluebirds. Their efforts are featured in the next blog. (And if you’d like to see a previous post on courtship, it is here.)

ruby-throated hummingbird 2G0A4084© Maria de Bruyn res

Snowy portraits – part 2

The larger birds were very obvious at the feeders during our North Carolina snowstorm in early December, but they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the fact that I spent considerable time knocking snow off feeders and a bird bath, filling feeders up multiple times daily and spreading seed repeatedly on the snow for the ground-feeding wildlife.

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), who live in the various yard woodpiles, mostly stayed on the ground but occasionally flew up to a feeder. They also spent time clinging to the brick walls of the house, I assume in search of spiders and other small insects that stay there.

Their slightly larger brethren in shades of brown, the Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), have taken up residence in the holly shrubs and a privet bush near the front-yard feeders. From there, they can emerge to hop around under the feeders (sporadically flying up to perch on a feeder, too) with a place close by to which they can escape when feeling threatened.

 

 

Both house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus, left) and pine siskins (Spinus pinus, below) came to eat seeds at the platform feeders. Though the finches are larger than the siskins, the female finches and siskins look very similar to me and I usually need to look through my zoom lens to see them clearly.

 

 

 

The photo below is a nice one for differentiating them. The female finch on the left has a thicker bill and a slightly larger and bulkier size. The pine siskin on the right has a thinner bill and hints of yellow on its slender flanks.

Another pair of birds that can be difficult to differentiate are the male house and purple finches. The purple finch (Haemorhous purpureus, below) looks like it has been dipped in raspberry juice to put color all over its body. While some male house finches also have very bright red hues, the color does not spread everywhere on their bodies.

   

The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor, below) and dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) are both subtle beauties in shades of gray but easily distinguishable.

   

The junco’s pink bill gives it a delicate look in my opinion.

 

The chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are both daily visitors to my feeding stations regardless of the weather. The “chippies” are here year-round, while the white-throated sparrows (right) are only resident in the autumn, winter and spring. The somewhat smaller chippies usually sit on the feeders, while the white-throats mostly seek food on the ground; both will venture into the others’ areas, however.

Two very different birds share a common feeding method for gathering suet. Both the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula, below left) and yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata, below right) hover in front of the feeder as if they are imitating hummingbirds, snatching a bite to eat as they “balance” mid-air. Both will eventually alight on the feeder, though, and then eat at a more leisurely pace.

The bright little pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) also loves suet but never hovers at the feeder. S/he will wait until other birds have cleared the space and then clutch the frame to have multiple bites of the fatty food. During windy intervals of stormy weather, this plucky bird also holds its ground, clutching the feeder pole so as not to blow away.

 

The downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are never scared off the feeders by anyone. Their larger red-bellied cousins are often a bit hesitant to visit but the downies can’t be kept away. Like them, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) also don’t let the presence of other avians put them off – they are willing to share space.

This doesn’t mean the bluebirds won’t show a bit of temper, especially toward their own species mates, but they generally get along with everyone.

And the bluebirds visit regardless of the atmospheric conditions, sometimes looking stunning with their bright dry plumage and sometimes looking a bit bedraggled when the pouring rain and thickly falling snow wet their feathers completely. Beginning birders might wonder if these are the same birds, but fortunately the bluebirds seem to dry out quickly to regain their usual beauty.

   

 

There were a few more birds that came along during the storm (one featured in the next blog!), including Carolina chickadees, Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis, left) and red-winged blackbirds. Snow and ice storms and pouring rain can be a drag in many ways for the human species but for birders, these “bad-weather” interludes can certainly be a boon for easy armchair and window watching!

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)