Growing up barred – Part 1: becoming independent

From the ages of about 8-19 years, I lived in a house that had a nice backyard and was not too far from some neighborhood woods with a creek. As a child, I read under backyard trees, planted a flower garden and played in the woods with friends. While I became familiar with squirrels, robins, frogs and some bugs and loved being outdoors, I didn’t spend lots of time looking for wildlife. And I never saw an owl in the wild.

Now decades later, I’ve had the good fortune to learn a good deal about various members of the wildlife community while spending time finding and watching them. And in the past couple years, I’ve been privileged to see owls up close in the wild; for example, the owl below was perched next to a pathway at dusk when I walked by a few days ago.

This past summer was unique for me, however, because I was able to observe a pair of juvenile barred owls (Strix varia) at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve as they set off on their life’s journey outside the nest. I’d like to share a bit of what I saw with you in a three-part blog. This one is about them finding their independence. The next two will focus on their grooming and interactions.

Barred owl pairs usually bond for life; if one mate dies, the survivor will seek another partner soon after. They tend 2-4 eggs, which hatch after 4 weeks’ brooding and the young leave the nest after four or five weeks. They remain dependent on their parents for food for some time after that even though they may be almost as large as the adults at 16-25 inches in length (40–63 cm); their wing span can stretch up to 3-4 feet (38-49 in, 96–125 cm).

When I first spotted the young owls in June, they could already fly. Nevertheless, they did need to find their balance occasionally as they perched and moved along branches and snags.

 

The owlets were making a keening noise the first time I saw them. At first, I didn’t recognize it, and I thought perhaps some small mammal was in distress.

Eventually, the plaintive call helped me locate them above me in a tree. This particular call apparently is used by the babies to call to their parents. I figured mom or dad was close by as the owlets kept looking upwards and eventually the parents did fly in with a meal – crayfish as far as I could tell.

 

On several occasions over the next 6 weeks or so, I would hear the owlets making that keening call and staring upwards. I figured the parents were nearby, but they were obviously just keeping an eye on their offspring and not feeding them (at least not when I was there).

It was time for the young ones to learn how to get their own meals.  Although barred owls usually hunt at dawn and dusk, the young owls were busy looking for food during the day. The mammals they eat include voles, mice, shrews, squirrels, rats, rabbits, bats, moles, opossums, mink, and weasels. Birds are also a food source and their prey may include woodpeckers, grouse, quails, jays, icterids, doves, pigeons, cardinals, cedar waxwings and grackles. They also eat amphibians, reptiles and insects (e.g., snakes, slugs, lizards, frogs and toads, salamanders, crayfish, turtles, scorpions, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers) and it was the latter group of prey animals that I saw the owlets hunting. Here for example, it appears one young owl had caught a crayfish.

One day, one of the pair was grasping a twig in its beak; I’m not sure what it was doing but it seemed to have some purpose. Perhaps it was testing how strong its beak was.

  

That a strong beak can be an asset became apparent on another occasion. One of the juvenile owls suddenly flew from one tree on the other side of a water ditch to one above my head. There was much rustling of branches and leaves and when I got into a spot where I could see the bird, it became obvious s/he had caught the largest stag beetle I had ever seen at Mason Farm Biological Reserve. It appears that the giant stag beetle (Lucanus elaphus) drinks tree sap, which must have been what it was doing when the owlet got hold of it. The problem for the owl was how to eat the beetle when those large pincers were in the way.

     

The owl would try to grab hold of a pincer but lose its grip; s/he would turn the beetle around but was having a very difficult time getting those defensive appendages off. This went on for quite a long time, which made me feel a bit sorry for the beetle.

 

Finally, the owl had success and was able to settle in for a crunchy meal.

 

They expel the indigestible parts of their prey in owl pellets that they cough up regularly. Here you see the contents of one a friend found under a favorite perching branch at the reserve.

Another day I saw one owlet suddenly fixate on the water ditch.It turned out that quite a large rat snake (Elaphe obsolete; Pantherophis alleghaniensis) was swimming by. The owl watched it carefully as it climbed out of the ditch and eventually crossed the adjacent walking path, never making a move to tackle the reptile. I had remarked on this encounter to the reserve’s land manager, who said it was probably a smart move on the owlet’s part, since the snake was large enough that it could have wrapped around the owl’s head and choked it.

The young owls seemed to have learned a lot about life as a predator as they grew older. It was fascinating watching them explore their world.

Next up: how the owlets cared for themselves.

Gracious and gorgeous grebes nurturing newborns

After birding now for some six or seven years, I’ve come to appreciate all birds since each species can be fascinating to watch. I do have some favorites though that have captured my interest. In 2012, I fell in love with great-crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus), whom I first noticed during a trip to Switzerland. A pair was engaged in their courtship dance, which was simply delightful to see. They circled one another, stretched out their necks, ruffled their feathers and arose on the water facing one another. Their beauty enchanted me, and I felt that I had witnessed something very special.

The rust and black-tinted head plumes and ruff are gorgeous, making these birds very attractive indeed. This led to their being hunted almost to extinction during the 1800s in the United Kingdom because the feathers were desired as decorations or hats. This led to the establishment of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in that country and their numbers fortunately rebounded.

Fast forward six years to this past July, and I discovered that these birds are quite common in my land of birth, where I just had not noticed them before. Granted, I was not a birder while living in The Netherlands (I currently live in the USA), but I had managed to take note of house sparrows, mute swans, Eurasian coots and moorhens when walking along canals and ditches. Now, as a much more observant wildlife observer, it was thrilling to see many grebes along the dike bordering the Gouwzee (a body of water bordering Monnickendam that is part of the larger Markermeer nature area). And even better – they were all tending young ones at different stages of development.

The great-crested is Europe’s largest grebe species and the adults are stunning with their reddish-orange head plumes. (They are also found in Australia, New Zealand and African countries.) I discovered that the young look quite different – mostly light in color with black stripes on their heads and pink markings near the eyes.

Their floating nests are often found along reed beds, which were abundant along the dike and a ditch across a road from the dike. A couple mothers had chosen the ditch as their home area and the early morning light made for some nice photos in my opinion as they preened and relaxed.

  

   

The water in the lake on the other side of the dike was less calm but the young ones managed to swim well in the waves; they can already dive shortly after leaving the nest.

Their feet are set back far along their bodies and they cannot walk well. I did not ever see one on land during the week that I was observing them.

According to the literature, pairs tend 1-9 eggs, which hatch after about 27-29 days. The mothers carry newborns on their backs as they swim along, offering a safe perch for sightseeing in safety. The babies fledge after 71-79 days. I did not see any pairs with more than two young, so some were probably lost during the previous weeks.

The grebes eat fish, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians and insects. Their fishing technique, which was more in evidence in the open water of the Gouwzee, includes skimming the water with outstretched necks and diving underwater. (The neck-to-the-water pose is also used to show aggression but in these cases no other birds were near and they would subsequently dive under to come up with some food.)

The parents demonstrate and the young imitate them, mostly coming up empty-beaked. Occasionally, a parent would fly away and return later with food. The babies eagerly grab the meals offered by both mama and papa.

After breeding, the adults gather together during a molting period, during which they do not fly. Perhaps one day, I’ll be able to watch them in winter and find out new things about them. In the meantime, if you’d like see what happens when they are feeling perturbed, check out my next blog on “The gorgeous grebes when aggrieved and grumpy!”

My pond and the cycle of life

Undergoing cardiology exams can bring up thoughts of mortality and a life lived; perhaps they also made me more attentive to the cycle of life in my yard, particularly in the vicinity of my backyard pond.

Several years ago, a local garden center went out of business and they had a 175-gallon black plastic pond for sale. It was a good deal, so I invested in it and then had to dig a large hole in the rocky Piedmont clay ground of my backyard (with a bit of help from a neighbor teen). At a certain point, the ground was so hard we couldn’t penetrate it with shovels so the pond now sits a bit above ground level; the rocks I piled up around it have offered a home to Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus).

 

I transferred some of my beautiful koi and goldfish from a smaller pond, only to have a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) come by to clean them all out.

On the recommendation of the garden center staff, I had positioned a heron statue by the pond – they said herons don’t like competition, so the intruder would keep flying when s/he saw the one by the pond. It didn’t take long for the bird to figure out the stationary bird was not real, however.

After the heron had eaten all the koi and goldfish, I still had some tiny baby fish. At first, I thought they were from my now deceased koi but apparently the intruder heron had had fish eggs on its feet from a nearby natural pond and left them behind. So for a time, I had unidentified native fish in the pond. They were extremely shy, however, and I only got a brief look at them when they surfaced early in the morning; as soon as I came near, they dove down under the water plants (no good photos).

Then some green frogs (Lithobates clamitus) moved in this past summer and ended up being extremely prolific reproducers. Before I realized it, there were at least 500 tadpoles in the pond!! They were eating the fish food and at the same time I noticed that I wasn’t seeing the fish at all anymore. Going online, I found out that tadpoles will eat fish – their sheer numbers had to have spelled doom for the fish.

 

 

I collected lots of the tadpoles, gave some to a friend for her water feature and released hundreds into the local creek (they are native animals after all). A few of the tadpoles grew into frogs and the pond became a residence for some very loud croakers.

 

  

The next chapter in the story came a couple days ago. I had seen a pair of red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) visiting my yard recently. I thought they were after the chipmunks, numerous squirrels and songbirds populating the area. The other day, however, one hawk took up a position in the crepe myrtle tree next to the pond and just sat there calmly not bothering with any of those creatures. Numerous Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) perched in the tree above her and many other species of birds were at the nearby feeders;  none of them were concerned at all with the hawk’s presence. The squirrels didn’t seem perturbed either.

She sat fairly still and I took some photos through my kitchen window. Then I ventured out into the backyard, sure she would take off as I left the porch steps. But Ms. Hawk just sat there, sometimes stretching a leg or engaging in a little grooming.

     

   

Occasionally, she looked up but often her gaze was fixed on the area around the pond.

She would stare intently down at the ground – I thought she might have spotted one of the pond chipmunks.

Then after a while, I noticed her shifting her stance – suddenly she plopped down into the pond with spread wings. It happened too fast for me to get out from behind dried plants to get a good photo, so I watched as she climbed out of the pond. Then it became apparent what she had been hunting – she had caught one of the green frogs.

  

It looked like she bit its head to kill it as soon as she got on dry land; the frog wasn’t moving.

Then she spent time ruffling and shaking out her feathers which had gotten a good soaking.

She spent a little time looking around and then abruptly took off with her prize, closely followed by another red-shouldered hawk who suddenly swooped in.

He chased her but she got away with her meal and he ended up sitting in a neighbor’s tree, somewhat disgruntled with his failed thievery attempt.

  

Ms. Hawk returned yesterday and spent quite a bit of time in a high tree surveying the yard and gazing down at the ground. Red-shouldered hawks sometimes eat birds, such as sparrows, doves and starlings (which are all numerous around my feeders) but more often they go after snakes, mice, toads, frogs, lizards and small mammals such as voles and chipmunks. They will also eat insects and earthworms. Since I’m leaving the leaf litter, there are undoubtedly more insects hiding there than in neighboring yards. I’m not sure what Ms. Hawk is seeking in my yard, but I hope she doesn’t get all the pond frogs. In any event, I’m sure new ones will find the water in the spring and in the meantime, I have a beautiful bird of prey to watch this winter.

A varied palate – hummingbirds’ choice of foods

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As promised, one more blog on hummingbirds before I move to another topic; their presence always brings me enjoyment and I know other people who are enamored with these tiny birds, too. Also, although autumn has come, I still have a couple ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) at my feeders. And a couple days ago I had the privilege of seeing a species new to me, the buff-bellied hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis), which has only visited the state of North Carolina once before (at least as far as human witnesses are concerned)!

DK7A2528© Maria de Bruyn resThe hummers have a varied diet, including mainly insects (mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, small bees), spiders, tree sap and sweet nectar (or sugar water). They tend to feed about 5-10 times per hour during the day and need about 10 calories of nutrition each day.

 

It is a lot easier to catch them drinking nectar than catching insects (apologies for the blurred photos)!

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Hummingbirds use their long tubular tongues as elastic micro-pumps to obtain nectar. This enables them to lick a flower up to 20 times per second as they gather food. And although we can’t see it when just looking at them, they have forked tongues (like snakes)!

 

 

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DK7A4497© Maria de Bruyn2The hummers visit a variety of flowers to drink their sweet nectar, often preferring orange or red flowers but certainly not avoiding others.In my garden, this includes cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), hollyhocks (Alcea), yellow passionflower (Passiflora lutea) and lantana (Lantana).

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In nature reserves, I’ve seen them visiting morning glories (Ipomoea), ironweed (Vernonia) and trumpet vines (Campsis radicans).

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Their long bills, tubular tongues and slim bodies make it easy for them to drink from long flowers, but sometimes they will simply pierce the base of a flower to obtain nectar, or use a hole already made there by an insect.

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Light-colored flowers are not shunned as food sources, however!

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Bean plants and gerbera daisies (Gerbera)  were on the menu at the Translating Traditions farm.

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At my house, the hummers visit the nectar feeders with great regularity, presumably because the food is very easily available there. A little known fact about the hummingbirds is that, compared to all other birds, their brains are the largest in comparison to body size. They remember where feeders are from year to year and also can recognize the people who fill the feeders. When the nectar is low and I appear, a hummer will sometimes hover and chitter in my direction at length; I really do think it is warning me that it’s time to prepare another serving.

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The buff-bellied hummingbird breeds in Mexico and south Texas. When they migrate, it is in a north-eastern direction, but the only previous recorded visit of one to North Carolina was in 2007. Now there is one hanging out at a couple’s home in the town of Winston-Salem, so I accompanied three fellow birders to go see it. Our 90-minute drive there was rewarded by a view of the bird within about 15 minutes and we stayed for almost two hours watching it come and go along with some ruby-throated hummingbirds.

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These hummingbirds have bellies with a light orange-yellow hue, brighter orange tail feathers and a bright green back and head. In contrast to the ruby-throated hummingbird’s straight dark bill, they have a reddish, curved bill. These lovely little birds appear to be the least studied species among the hummingbirds in the USA.

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Two years ago, I had a rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) visit my nectar feeder after he had migrated here in winter from the far North. This year, I’ll leave at least one feeder up again after the ruby-throats take off for warmer climes in case some wintering hummers need food. And I’ll look forward to seeing my regular residents again next summer!

 

 

More information:

http://www.livescience.com/51904-hummingbird-tongue-pump.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/08/science/the-hummingbirds-tongue-how-it-works.html?_r=0

Growing up to be a redhead

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9062© Maria de Bruyn (2)In the past month or so, I’ve been seeing red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) almost everywhere I go — except my own neighborhood! Jordan Lake’s woods in two different areas and various sections of the Mason Farm Biological Reserve have all provided me with multiple spottings of, and concerts by, these lovely birds.

I’m not very good at recognizing birds by their calls. Having listened to loud rock music as a teenager left me with some hearing problems. But the red-heads have a loud, unique, warbling territorial call that they emit frequently, regardless of whether another of their species is close by or not. I’ve become quite good at recognizing that call!

The juveniles begin life looking quite different from their parents. They have mostly gray-brown heads and backs and the part of their feathers that will later be entirely white are marked by black splotches and dots.

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Like their parents, they show a variety of prey-hunting and food-gathering behaviors. You will hear them pecking at trees in their quest for insects but they also look for insects on the ground and can catch them during flight in mid-air.

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0612© Maria de BruynThey also eat fruit, seeds and nuts like acorns and beechnuts, with plant materials making up about two-thirds of their diet. They will store food in caches so that they can find it again later during times of more nutritional scarcity. And in places far apart, they appear to be good at finding the same orangey cubes that are not nuts but some other, obviously delicious, substance.

 

 

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Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9470© Maria de BruynTheir food storage habits help birders find them more easily. Both at Jordan Lake and Mason Farm, I’ve discovered a couple trees where certain birds have their food stash and if I wait long enough, a red-head is more than likely going to appear.

 

Unfortunately, due to habitat loss and changes to its usual food supply, this species has declined considerably in numbers. That is why it is so nice to see the juveniles among these various groups.

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As they age, the brown feathers begin giving way to red ones, first around the nape and back of the neck. The black markings on the tail feathers begin to fade as well as they grow older.

 

 

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When they reach maturity, the birds have brilliant red heads, glossy black and pure white flight and tail feathers.

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As these birds need dead trees for their nesting and storage cavities, it’s great that our area has some preserved forests where they currently appear to be thriving. And I can continue going out in the hopes of one descending from treetops to a lower and nearer perch so that I can finally get the stunning shots I’ve been wishing for!
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