While working on a woodpecker series, I decided to post a few mostly photo-oriented features, so there aren’t such long gaps between blogs on my site. First up is a photo exploration of hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus), whom I’ve been seeing fairly often since last fall and through this winter.
They are really lovely birds. They prefer to eat insects most of the year (e.g., flies, bees and wasps, beetles, caterpillars, and ants). Apparently, they also will eat small amphibians and reptiles, but I’ve never seen them eating a frog. My spottings of them have shown, however, that in the autumn and winter, they certainly enjoy berries.
In my observations, they seem to eat quite a variety, which I believe include those of greenbriers (Smilax), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and hollies.
The hermit thrush is not considered to be frequent visitors to people’s gardens, but I’ve been lucky to have them visit in winter to take baths and eat juniper berries (from Eastern red cedars, (Juniperus virginiana).
I do see them more often out in nature reserves, however.
These birds don’t mind sitting out on a tree branch during a gusty day when their feathers are blown around a bit.
They have muted colors but a nice rusty-colored tail to help identify them. They also tend to flick their tail frequently.
I tend to think of these thrushes as good-natured birds. I haven’t seen them arguing with birds of other species, but I was surprised recently when I encountered two hermits disputing foraging space in a nice sunny area.
Ultimately, one bird flew away and then the other took off as well.
In the past, I didn’t see hermit thrushes very often, but perhaps I’ve just gotten more observant or better at predicting where they might be. It’s always a pleasure to stop and watch them for a while.
Finally, one more photo but not of a hermit – this is a lovely wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) that I had the good fortune to encounter in the woods near Jordan Lake. You can see the much bolder and better defined breast spots on this bird, as well as its more reddish coloring. Many people think the wood thrush has the prettiest thrush song. That’s not my opinion, but I certainly do think they are visual stunners!
In different countries, the bird genus Platalea has given rise to similar common names for birds in this group, all based on their unique bills. In Dutch, lepelaar used to mean “maker of spoons” but now the first dictionary definition refers to this type of bird. Spanish speakers gave these avians the moniker “spatula bird” (pájaro espátula), while in many other languages they are called the “spoon birds” (Romanian, Icelandic, Bahasa Indonesia, Shona, etc.). In English, we call this unique animal the spoonbill.
Many people find spoonbills fascinating, including me, so it was with happy anticipation that I traveled to see an immature roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) that had decided to forage in our county. When I arrived, I scanned the cow pond where the bird had been seen, but the only animals there were several large cows! I decided not to wait around since the cattle were enjoying the water and it was unlikely any birds were going to join them.
A couple days later, I returned, parked along the road and walked up to the fence to peer down at the pond again. A great egret (Ardea alba, below) was foraging, some barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) were occasionally swooping over the water, and some Canada geese (Branta canadensis) were wandering around but no spoonbill was in sight.
In contrast to other birds, spoonbills do not vocalize much except for some low grunts made while they are feeding. I didn’t hear any bird sound and after some 20 minutes or so, I thought perhaps the young spoonbill had decided to move on. Then suddenly s/he emerged from grasses bordering the pond and I was able to observe the bird for quite some time.
There are six spoonbill species worldwide; the roseate spoonbill lives in North, Central and South America. The other five species have white plumage, while the roseate spoonbill adults have a white neck, bare head, bright pink back and rump feathers and a greyish bill. The immature birds have feathered heads their first three years and pale pink feathers. The color on our county’s visitor showed up more brightly when the sky was overcast rather than sunny.
The spoonbills’ coloration comes from their food. Their diet consists of crustaceans, snails, fish and aquatic insects found in both fresh and salt water. Aquatic invertebrates have pigments called carotenoids and when the spoonbills eat them, their feathers turn pink.
Depending on the birds’ age, location and breeding status, the color intensity can vary from a pale pink to very bright magenta or carmine.
When chicks are born, they do not yet have a spoon-shaped bill; it only begins to flatten out when they are 9 days old; the final shape is achieved by 39 days. The bill can be 5.7 to 7.1 inches long (14.5-18 cm). It is about an inch wide just beneath the birds’ eyes and then widens to about 2 inches at the end.
It might seem that these very large bills could make life difficult for the spoonbills but they use these spatula-like appendages efficiently when feeding. Their nostrils are located at the base of the bill so that they can breathe while foraging.
Their technique is to stalk slowly, leaning forward with their bills submerged as they swing their heads from side to side. Israeli scientists discovered that when the bill sways back and forth, it creates tiny whirlpools that suck up prey submerged in the water. When the prey touches the bird’s bill, it snaps shut as nerves at the bill tip are stimulated; the prey is then usually swallowed whole.
Spoonbills prefer to feed in shallow water that is usually less than 5 inches deep. This would account for the fact that the spoonbill I watched was making circuits around the edge of the pond, never going into the center.
One thing in particular struck me as the cow pond bird walked and stalked. When s/he raised his/her head and opened the bill, it looked to me as if the spoonbill was laughing or at least looking very friendly and smiling!
In the USA, spoonbills have traditionally bred in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. After breeding, they disperse. It is especially year-old birds who are increasingly being seen along the Eastern coast. To find them further inland had been more unusual but in recent years they seem to be moving away from the coast as well. This year several spoonbills have been spotted in the Piedmont region in addition to our Orange County visitor.
By the late 1800s, the roseate spoonbill was endangered in North America because the birds were either killed for their feathers (to make decorative screens, fans and hats) or they abandoned their nests because they were near great egrets who were being killed for the millinery trade. When that trade ended, their numbers rebounded but rising sea levels, degradation of water quality and loss of wetlands has now decreased their breeding sites. The spoonbills are still listed as a species of concern in Florida and Louisiana.
As climate change progresses, increasing numbers of roseate spoonbills are starting to move north. Protection of wetlands in our and other Eastern states would therefore benefit this species, as well as other animals that depend on this type of habitat. And more of us outside the southernmost states may get the chance to observe these unique birds in the future!
As mentioned in my previous blog, North Carolina’s Piedmont region is experiencing a spectacular winter irruption of multiple finch species. So many birds have migrated south from the northern USA and Canada that scientists are calling this a “superflight” year. The first to arrive in my yard during this irruption were the pine siskins (Spinus pinus).
However, it is known that the siskins enjoy eating many types of seeds. The finches’ usual diets up North center around the fruit and seeds of spruce, pine, hemlocks, maples, and beech trees, among others. Some species favor certain trees, while others enjoy eating a large variety of seeds.
In “mast years,” the forests provide large amounts of seeds that both feed animals (e.g., birds, squirrels) and provide the germination material for new vegetation. In other years, the forests produce very few crops because of fires, drought, and outbreaks of spruce budworms that eat the needles of spruce and balsam firs, which can kill the trees. In 2020, it was noteworthy that authorities in Quebec were unable to completely treat the forest trees for budworms because of the COVID epidemic.
Some trees also have slow biological cycles. For example, the Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), known to the Iroquois as the “tree of peace,” has cone production that peaks every 3 to 5 years.
When mast years have taken place and there are large budworm infestations, the finches have plenty to eat and their numbers increase substantially. When the following seed- and cone-poor years occur, the large populations then need to travel further away to find sufficient food supplies and that is what has now brought them to our area.
The pine siskins arrived in my yard in late autumn. They came in a large crowd, with some 30 birds flocking to the feeders at a time. Most of these little brown and beige birds have a trace of yellow on their wings.
About 1% of the siskins – all males – have more yellow or yellow-green coloring on their backs, heads and under-tail coverts. These so-called “green morphs” also have less streaking on their chests. The siskins above may be in this group. Interestingly, whereas female birds of many species prefer brightly colored males as their mates, female siskins appear to choose males with less yellow to distinguish them.
What really distinguishes the siskins for me – in addition to their penchant for visiting in large groups – is their feistiness. They seem to be very troubled by the idea that there may not be enough seeds to satisfy their appetites if many other birds are around.
Below you see them challenging a house finch, a downy woodpecker and cardinals.
And this includes not only birds of other species but also their species mates with whom they arrive! They first will open their seed-filled mouths to “yell” at the incoming diners.
Next, they may open their wings in a challenging display.
Sometimes they seem to be taking food from another’s mouths! (But perhaps this is not aggressive but a sign of care between family members?)
Finally, they will fly at their food rivals in an effort to drive them off.
Unlike other members of the finch family, the siskins not only eat a very large variety of seeds from conifers, deciduous trees, grasses, weeds and flowers. They also forage for insects and have been seen to drink from sapsucker sapwells in trees.
A group of siskins can clean out a feeder with mixed seeds in my yard in very short order indeed. They have developed body mechanisms to help them survive cold nights: increasing their metabolic rates and gaining body fat for the winter.
This is accomplished by eating more seeds than they can process right away; they can store seeds weighing up to 10% of their body mass in their crop (part of the esophagus) for a short period so that they have access to more energy during the night!
Some local birders who were delighted to see them at the beginning of the season are now occasionally voicing “regrets” since large groups continue to visit their feeders. They could refrain from putting out seed and hope the flocks move away so they don’t spend so much on bird seed, but many birders would then miss seeing the other species and don’t want to forego that pleasure.
Fortunately, the siskins have been eating seeds from crepe myrtles and other trees in my yard so their visits to my feeders have been somewhat sporadic when the weather is mild. When it rains or gets very cold, they return in feisty groups!
“My” yard siskins have also refrained from pecking at the cement of my brick house. Other birders have seen them chipping away at chimney and brick cement – they do this get at minerals contained in the cement.
While the siskins migrate in very large groups (e.g., flocks numbering up to a few thousand individuals!), they are still considered to be a common bird that is showing a steep decline in numbers. They are vulnerable to predators as well as contagious diseases spread at feeders such as salmonella.
Although we are still in the throes of winter in North Carolina, spring is fast approaching and it’s uncertain how long these irruption birds will stay. I’ll miss these lively little visitors when travel back up North!
2020 has turned out to be quite a stress-filled series of months on multiple fronts, so unexpected pleasures and delights are very welcome. For birders in North Carolina (NC), that scenario has luckily been playing itself out this fall and winter. Several unexpected and unusual birds have been spotted in our state, including a Kirtland’s warbler, vermilion flycatcher, MacGillivray’s warbler, and sandhill cranes.
Many bird lovers have traveled to catch sight of these surprising visitors. While I’ve mostly avoided groups the past nine months as part of my COVID-avoiding measures, last week I did join the human migration to an NC home about 20 miles away to see a bird that is normally only found in the northwestern United States – a varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius).
The opportunity to see this lovely bird was offered to the local community by homeowners Tony Hewitt and Marla Wolf. They generously allowed people to come to their suburban yard (by appointment) to watch over the backyard fence to catch sight of the thrush.
When I visited on a “slow” day, it was easy to socially distance oneself from other birders and photographers. Only a couple other people were there for a while (and I was alone some of the time) waiting for the thrush to make an appearance. Everyone wore masks, some having double masked as well.
The varied thrushes normally migrate back and forth in the area stretching from Alaska, through Canada, down to northern California, as shown by this map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The website remarks that a few of these birds occasionally wander outside their normal range to the Midwest and Northeast. Seeing one in the southeastern USA is highly unusual.
This robin-sized bird is a real stunner – his orange, grey, yellow and white feathers grow in a wonderful pattern. The colors seem to vary a bit, depending on the quality of the light falling on them and the background against which you see him. But he is handsome from any angle – front, side or back!
Something I found particularly interesting was a pattern of wavy lines in his tail feathers when the light hit them in a certain way. This was not something that I saw mentioned in descriptions of its physical characteristics. The observation made me want to photograph the thrush again to see if this would show up again.
It is interesting to note that one varied thrush crossed the Atlantic and turned up in Great Britain in 1982. It was a unique bird since it represented a rare variant of the species in which the orange feather coloration has become all white. Only five such representatives of this mutation have been recorded since 1921.
In its home range, the varied thrush prefers to stay in dense, coniferous forests near water. The NC visitor is taking advantage of a backyard nook that Marla designed with multiple shrubs and some open space.
The home is not far from a lake, but the thrush is taking advantage of a bird bath for drinks, which Marla kindly had moved so that it was better visible for visiting birders looking over the fence.
Varied thrushes usually feed on insects, foraging on the ground and often under dense cover.
The thrush’s insectivorous diet can be wide-ranging and include ants, beetles, caterpillars, crickets, earthworms, millipedes, snails and spiders.
They also eat berries, either in trees or on the ground, during the autumn and winter months.
Our NC celebrity bird is obviously enjoying seeds furnished daily by Tony and Marla.
A notice placed by Tony near fence announced that the thrush seemed to come out in the open every 30 minutes or so. It turned out that this was indeed the case the first hour that I was there; then the bird came after a couple 15-minute intervals.
He certainly seemed to be a creature of habit because I noticed that after eating, he would go back into the dense undergrowth for several minutes and then re-emerge to take a couple drinks at the bird bath. Eating obviously was making him thirsty and noticing this habit meant it was possible to get “camera-ready” for another appearance.
When it is breeding time, male varied thrushes begin to establish territories and confront other males with threat displays. These begin with the bird cocking his tail and turning it towards his rival, while he lowers his wings. If the rival bird does not go away, the thrush will lower his head, raise and fan his tail and then spread his wings out to the side.
Obviously, our NC bird had no rivals around but there were many other birds foraging in the ground underneath the feeders. They included Northern cardinals, white-throated sparrows, pine siskins and downy woodpeckers among others. And it seemed that “our” thrush was sometimes warning them off.
Or perhaps he was just flashing his wings to scare up insects hiding in the fallen leaves.
There are still large numbers of varied thrushes, with an estimate of some 20 million in the current global breeding population. However, the North American Breeding Bird Survey recorded a cumulative decline of the species of 73% between 1966 and 2015. Logging, wildfires and forest fragmentation are ongoing threats to their breeding habitat.
This is only the fifth time that a varied thrush has been seen in North Carolina. The first sighting was in 2005; three other birds were seen in 2010. No one has any idea what got this year’s bird so far off-course during its migration and no one knows how long it will stay around.
Tony and Marla have kept a visitors’ book (with hand sanitizer available for signers) and many people have been recording their visit. When I visited, more than 110 people had already come by, including some birders from Virginia and Tennessee. More people have since stopped by the Hewitt-Wolf residence to admire this vagrant bird. We are grateful to them for giving us this opportunity!
It’s apparent that the serendipitous sojourn of this gorgeous bird has been a welcome gift to many people – both those who saw it in person and those who’ve admired photos distributed through facebook groups. We hope the bird will survive the winter here and be able to return to its home grounds out West so that its journey has a happy ending!
While the trip I took this past August to Costa Rica was mainly focused on birding, our guides fortunately were also quite willing to stop and look for mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects – people after my own heart! Here I’ll focus on some of the mammals we saw, starting in this 2-part blog with those that were familiar.
Fellow traveler Nan especially was drawn to the canines we came across – there wasn’t a dog (Canis) that she was unwilling to pet!
And they often were very cute.
As we drove from one destination to another, it was not uncommon to see light-colored cattle (Bos taurus) grazing in fields. It turns out that about 75% of the country’s cattle are found in Guanacaste province (where we started our trip) and that the Brahman breed is the one commonly raised for the meat industry.
I saw mostly cows, but during a visit to southern Costa Rica last year, we also saw a laid-back steer.
There were horses (Equus caballus) grazing in some fields and mountain valleys.
Everywhere we went, there were squirrels scurrying about on the ground, in trees and at feeding stations. The most commonly seen squirrel in the country is the variegated squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides), which varies in color from gray hues to dark brown colors.
This species spends most of its time in trees and does not hoard food.
Their main dietary selection consists of various seeds, although they also eat acorns, fruit and insects.
Although in some places, people warn against feeding mammals, we saw a red-tailed squirrel enjoying fruit at a restaurant that attracts tourists with its plants that attract hummingbirds.
While we do have wild boars in some mountainous North Carolina counties, as well as feral swine in Eastern coastal areas, we will not see collared peccaries (Pecari tajacu) roaming our forests and woods. They share some characteristics of the pig family but are not classified as pigs.
They are both carnivorous and vegetarian, even eating tulip bulbs, which are poisonous for humans. It’s said they usually ignore humans and that was the case for this peccary, which paid us no mind as it plodded about the gardens in one reserve.
Our final, at least partly familiar, mammal was observed near the restaurant of a hotel where we stayed. We were lucky to see it since these animals are both arboreal and nocturnal. Fellow birder Ylva got a nice photo of the visiting Central American woolly opossum (Caluromys derbianus). Not only is this marsupial a real cutie, it is also a nectar feeder, pollinator and seed disperser so that we got to see a species that fulfills multiple roles in its rain forest habitat.
Next up – the mammals we won’t see in North or South Carolina (yet).