Weather, water, wildlife, and well-being

As I continue to go through my photos from Yellowstone National Park (a lengthy process!), I will post on a few other topics that you will hopefully enjoy. 😊

I just wrote a column for a local newspaper about climate and water. All life on our earth needs water to exist — plants, animals, and humans. Water contributes to respiration, processing nutrition, photosynthesis, regulating temperature and providing a living environment for many organisms. Scientific studies are documenting the benefits for our well-being of spending time in natural areas and beautiful places for this include nature reserves and parks with ponds, wetlands, lakeshores, creeks, and rivers.

The diversity of wildlife around ponds can be delightful, especially in the summertime. You may be lucky to see mammals coming to the shoreline or pond’s edge to get a drink or have the good luck to catch sight of beavers, muskrats, minks, or otters.

Or perhaps there will be a yellow-crowned night heron (Nyctanassa violacea) standing atop a beaver lodge, surveying its surroundings, and taking time to preen.

Reptiles and amphibians clamber onto rocks, snags, branches, and boardwalks to sun. Turtles lay their eggs close to ponds and rivers. At this the time of year, you may come across the remains of leathery eggshells left by hatched turtles (or dug up by predators).

Damsel- and dragonflies, like these amber-winged dragonflies (Perithemis tenera), are interesting to watch; they don’t even need natural water sources but will come to tubs of water containing plants like pickerelweed. Butterflies, such as these cabbage whites (Pieris rapae), “puddle” in mud, carrion and dung alongside creek and pond banks to obtain amino acids and salts in the fluids they suck up.

                 

The bugs do risk ending up as bird food. Northern rough-winged swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) and purple martins (Progne subis) skim above and over the water, snapping up insects as they swoop and soar.

   

The tiny insects on vegetation near water can be remarkably interesting, so taking along a magnifier can increase what you see. Most leaf- and planthoppers are quite small but the glassy-winged sharpshooters (Homalodisca vitripennis) are about fingernail-sized. They consume the fluids in water-carrying tubes in plants, called xylem, and then need to expel excess water from their bodies by shooting out fluid droplets into the air.

   

The vegetation near water can also be fascinating. Indian pipes, also known as ghost plants (Monotropa uniflora), are saprophytes (not fungi) with no chlorophyll. These white, leafless plants obtain their nutrients by tapping into other plants’ resources through mycorrhizal fungi. They usually grow in clusters but can still be difficult to see. My friend Ace spotted one and introduced me to the species, for which I was quite grateful!

Many birds nest near water. Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) will raise young in boxes we put out for them, but they and other birds also like to use holes in snags near or in water. Those nests are much more difficult for predators to reach.

Birds also like to nest near water because they’re primarily insectivores in the spring and summer and there are plenty of bugs in such areas. The only hummingbird nests that I’ve been able to find were all near water; up to 60-80% of their diet comprises spiders and other bugs.

This year, I had the good fortune to see a female ruby-throated hummingbird building her nest and raising her young (previous blog). The first time I visited this wetland after the babies fledged, mama hummer came and hovered about 2 feet in front of me, as if she were greeting me. I’ve seen her on subsequent days as well.

The larger water birds, such as geese and ducks, like to bathe in ponds and rivers.

Other birds enjoy taking a bath in streams and creeks. American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) and house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) enjoy company with other species. Blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) like some solitude or sharing space with a fellow jay.

           

Birds living further away from natural water resources also need to drink and bathe and that is where we can help them out. Small birds like Carolina chickadees and brown-headed nuthatches like to drink from the ant guards on which hummingbird feeders are hung.

     

Bird baths can become very popular. Eastern bluebirds and European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) very much enjoy two of mine in the front yard.

 

House finches, American robins, cedar waxwings, Carolina chickadees and gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) tend to like my backyard baths. And then they appreciate branches and nest boxes as platforms to shake out those water-laden feathers. Birding friend Ylva commented that the vigorous fluttering of this catbird would be worthy of an audition for the musical Cats!

Even if you don’t have a yard, you can put out shallow dishes or plant pot saucers in your outdoor space (steps or patio) as a place for birds to drink and cool off. If you have a balcony, it might take a while for birds to find your water source, but if you stay inside, you may see them come to sip and splash.

If you are luckily mobile, I encourage you to take some outings near waterways. The wildlife and plant diversity can be wonderful and entertaining. And in the meantime, we can all take action to conserve and preserve water:

The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 4: growing into adult plumage

As mentioned in a previous blog, when young birds are ready to leave the nest, they don’t necessarily look like their parents. Many of the altricial birds (ready to move about and forage on their own) may resemble fluffy versions of the adults, as is the case with these hooded merganser ducklings (Lophodytes cucullatus) following their mother.

The brown-headed nuthatch babies (Sitta pusilla) look very much like their parents. Sharp-eyed observers might notice that the tops of their heads are not as brown as those of their parents.

The Eastern meadowlark juveniles (Sturnella magna) resemble their parents but lack the bright yellow and black coloring on the throat and breast.

 

The difference between adult and juvenile downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) is subtle. The female woodpecker has no coloring on the top of her head, which is simply bedecked with the white and black feathers that cover the rest of her body.

The male woodpecker has a red patch on the back of his head.

The immature woodpecker has a red patch on top if the head and this is lost as the bird reaches adulthood.

The Northern mockingbird youngling (Mimus polyglottos) resembles mom and dad quite a bit except for some spotty streaking on the chest.

In other species, the babies start out looking quite different from their parents. Spots characterize many members of the thrush family, with birds like wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) and hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) retaining the spots in adulthood.

   

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and American robins (Turdus migratorius), on the other hand, are only strongly speckled as immature birds, losing their spots as they mature.

In some cases, the birds undergo color changes. Male summer tanagers (Piranga rubra) start out yellow-orange with their reddish coloring appearing in patches until they finally achieve their very bright adult red hue. Some of the immature birds are really quite beautiful with their mottled colors.

 

   

The male blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) start out brown and gradually achieve their dark blue feathers with some reddish/brown wing accents.

 

 

Among the birds that undergo a major change are the European starlings (Sturnis vulgaris). The young birds start out with dullish brown or gray hues with some streaking. Eventually, they begin to develop some spotting and then ultimately achieve the beautiful adult summer glossy feathering with green and purple hues mixed in.

 

 

The females of the Eastern towhee species (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) have a brown back above a white breast with reddish sides, while the males have black backs.

The young developing towhees keep you guessing as to their sex since they undergo quite a lot of color changes as they develop. They do have the white in their tails, which helps you identify them as to species.

 

  And then we come to the hawks and owls. It is not unusual for the young raptors to look nothing at all like their parents. The red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) start out looking like fluffy and then becoming gradually kind of scruffy looking.

     

As they get a little older and leave the nest, they start to resemble their parents more but have more streaking on the breast. As they near adulthood, they look much more like mom and dad.

 

And we end with an example of another raptor. There is a real difference between the baby great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) and its parent as you can see. Many birds are impressed by the adults but ooh and aah over the nestlings. It must be the combination of those big eyes and fluffy feathers that take away attention from the already formidable claws!

               

Next up – a foray into the world of amphibians and reptiles!

The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 3: raising young

This year, most of the birds that visit my yard chose to build their nests in places where I didn’t see them. Only the brown-headed nuthatches, house wrens and Eastern bluebirds chose to use nest boxes. The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) began to use a nest box but their nest was invaded by ants before I had noticed so they abandoned that site. Still, I was able to watch parents with babies, both at home and out on the nature trails.

There are two major kinds of baby birds. The altricial birds hatch as helpless young who must develop their sight and feathers, requiring parental care until they can fly from the nest. They include the songbirds that you may see often, such as chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and bluebirds, whose babies are seen below shortly after hatching and after several days of development.

 

In contrast, the precocial bird babies can quickly move about on their own after hatching and are able to begin foraging for food themselves as they follow their parents around. In some cases, the parents may also feed them. Examples of precocial birds include killdeer, ducks and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) as seen below.

The nest I watched most closely this season was built by brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) in a nest box. Carolina chickadees were also interested in that spot, but the nuthatches won out. Mama Nuthatch laid six eggs, four of which hatched. She and Papa were very hard workers, flying to and from the box countless times per hour. Like other seed-eating birds, they fed their nestlings insects because the babies need lots of protein for their development.

 

They were devoted parents, flying to and fro with food, carrying away fecal sacs and chasing off other birds who used the nest box as a perch. All their care was no match, however, for a pair of birds who are known to be quite aggressive during nesting season.

 

I first learned of house wrens’ (Troglodytes aedon) intolerance of other nesting birds in their vicinity when they invaded the nest of a banded female Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis), whom I had named Chantal. Her babies were hatching and the wrens went into the nest during her absence and killed them. That experience made me hope they would not return to my yard the next spring, but they seem to like the area. This year they visited all the nest boxes in my yard and the male began nests in several of them to keep away other birds. It is thought they may drive away other nesters in order to reduce competition for food when it comes time to raise their own young.

 

The wrens finally settled on a nest box and I thought they would leave the nuthatches alone. Their young ones got to the brink of fledging and the parents were encouraging them to fly out. Sometimes, they would fly up to the box as a youngster peered out into the big wide world and just hover with the food in their mouth.

 

 

They would perch atop the box and call. Eventually two took the leap (which I didn’t see); I thought the others would follow the next day. The parents were busy in the morning and suddenly all activity ceased. I guessed that the other two had taken flight, so in the afternoon I took a peak in the box. To my utter dismay, I found the remaining two nestlings deceased; the wrens had pecked them to death. ☹ I buried them in my flower garden with a small Buddha statue marking the site.

 

 

The nuthatches continued taking care of their fledged babies. They would follow the parents to the feeder poles, crouch down and flutter their wings rapidly as they begged for a morsel.

 

Eventually, the parents found a nearby branch in a large willow oak where they would crack nuts and feed their offspring. As you can see, the spot got a lot of use and could be easily identified by the shredded bark. The whole family still goes up there to eat their nuts from the feeders!

Many adult birds appreciate bird feeders as “fast-food” stops for themselves while they spend most of their time searching for meals for their nestlings. Even the species who mainly eat seeds feed their babies insects because the young ones need lots of protein as they develop toward maturity. The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in my yard and other areas seem to favor caterpillars as a food of choice for their developing youngsters.

 

 

 

The pileated woodpecker parents (Dryocopus pileatus) take turns sitting on eggs and bringing food for their young ones.

The larger raptors bring in heftier meals for their offspring. This red-shouldered hawk grew up alone; those of us watching the nest didn’t know whether only one egg hatched or something happened to a sibling. The parents would bring small mammals for the baby to eat.

 

A pair of great horned owl babies (Buteo lineatus), located by Mary, a locally well-known bird photographer, appeared to be growing well the couple times I went to see them. I never saw the parents bring them food but assume they were well fed as they were venturing out of the nest the last time I saw them (a process called “branching”).

 

It seems that a young bird’s open mouth is a trigger for parents that they can barely resist. Until they mature, the fledglings have a pale white or yellow area, or in the case of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) reddish, where their beaks join. This becomes very visible when they open their mouths wide to beg for food and parent birds have a hard time resisting the urge to stuff food down their throats.

The Eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) at a local park were following their parents around asking for food.

They exhibited both the crouched wing fluttering and wide-open mouths as cues that they wanted to be fed.

  

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) juveniles did not seem to beg as much as the other birds in my yard. They just perched close to feeders or their parents and eventually mom or dad gave them a bit of suet.

 

The European starling young (Sturnus vulgaris) are especially demanding to judge by their behavior at my feeders. These are larger birds and the offspring are as large as their parents,

They are capable of feeding themselves but spend a good deal of time with wide open beaks demanding to be fed.

 

 

 

The starling parents usually give in, but you can almost think they look exasperated.

At least the immature starlings can demonstrate well how a bird looks with a full crop (i.e., the enlarged part of the esophagus that forms a muscular pouch in which food can be stored).

In between all the feeding, the parents have one other important nest duty – keeping the nest as clean as possible. They do this by removing fecal sacs, as this prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) was doing last year.

 

Some adult birds will actually eat the fecal sac. This is because the nestlings do not completely digest their food and the sacs therefore still contain valuable nutrients that the parents can use. I can imagine the parents are glad to be done with this duty once their young have fledged, however.

When you’re out walking or watching bird feeders, it can be entertaining to observe the birds as they nest and raise their demanding children. And it’s good to know that you may even see adult birds begin to drive away their babies, either because they’re tired of feeding them or because they are busy with a second or even third brood for the season.

Not a white Xmas but some snowy portraits – part 1

Some of my friends really enjoy having a white Christmas holiday. When I was a child, I enjoyed it as well. Our town would usually have very snowy winters and I remember many times playing in snow piled a couple feet high. From my parents’ second-floor apartment, I liked looking out the window at the icicles, which could grow to 3 or more feet in length. It was disappointing when my mother broke them off, but she didn’t want one to fall and stab a passerby. Now, I think it is nice to see everything covered in freshly fallen snow; melting icicles and frosty dew can be pretty, but one day of this weather is enough for me. (As an adult, I now tend to think of low-income and homeless people who suffer from the cold and the dangers of icy roads.)

Still, seeing the wildlife in the yard and birds at my feeders during our very early Southern winter snowstorm in the first half of December was enjoyable. So in lieu of a white Xmas season, here is a two-part series of snowy portraits. (Remember that you can see a photo larger if you click on it; then just go back to the blog if you want to read more.) First up are the “larger” birds and a couple of the mammals who visited.

It did not take long for the Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) to begin foraging in the snow; they were already busy on the first gray, darkish morning of our 2-day snowstorm.

 Lately, a family of 5 American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) has been visiting my yard often, the parents and three offspring who decided to stick around for a while. Although feeding bread to birds is not recommended, I admittedly do give the crows some whole-wheat pieces now and again as they seem to love them so much. So they come looking for that and occasional pieces of apple that I put out for them.

 

The brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) often feed on the ground but occasionally visit the feeders as well. They sometimes come as a pair but more often arrive as solitary visitors.

 

 

 

The European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) are very beautiful birds with their winter plumage speckles. They do tend to be ill-tempered birds, however, creating havoc when they alight on feeders, chasing away other species as well as their own family members. Even the evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus), who visited my yard for the first time ever, gave way to the grouchy starlings.

 

The starlings look nice and peaceful when they sit still on a branch or rest on the snow-covered ground. When they fly up to the feeders, however, I sometimes chase them off. They used to only eat a bit of seed but now have also developed a taste for dried meal-worms and even suet. When a gang of 8-12 come, they can empty feeders in about 20 minutes. ANNOYING! (Both for me and the other birds!)

The blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) often announce their arrival with loud squawking but tend to settle down fairly quickly. Their blue colors look beautiful against white snow.

  

The mourning doves are rather placid, slow and amiable birds, not minding if they have to share feeding space with other species, like the Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus). They do sometimes crowd out smaller birds when they alight on a feeder simply because their large bodies leave little extra space.

One dove was happy to sit a while in the snow; another took advantage of my bird bath de-icer to have a drink. I enjoy watching and hearing them, with their harmonious cooing – even their scientific name has a beautiful, melodic sound to it: Zenaida macroura!

 

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) came to see how much seed had fallen to the ground as their acorns and beech nuts were covered in white stuff.

 

 

The snow was so heavy that it cracked off the tops of some trees into my yard. It also crushed down the Japanese rose (Kerria japonica), which I will have to prune in warmer weather. The fallen branches of both trees and rose did provide the deer with some cold-weather snacks.

And my favorite snow portraits of the “big feeder birds” – the common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)! The grackles at my feeders don’t really bother other birds, so I don’t dislike them as some other people do.

Those iridescent colors are just gorgeous and some of the bird’s expressions mirror my feelings in facing some recent challenges. But we both move on looking forward to brighter times! 😊

  

I hope the weather where you live causes you no problems the rest of 2018!

 

Winter wonderland – sharing and spats at the feeders

I thought I had published this blog in early February and just discovered that I had only saved a draft. Since we had snowflakes last night (in April!), I’m going to go ahead and post this now – a break in the series about Costa Rica! When the snow began falling during our day of one-foot accumulation, the feeders were inundated by some of the dark-colored bird species who tend to come in crowds. At first, they were peacefully sharing space.

 

  

Although I sometimes have a couple dozen red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) at the feeders, during the storm only one pair showed up for a brief visit and the other birds left them alone.

 

The mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) often share feeder space with other birds, including those that are smaller than they are.

The common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) are known to other people as domineering birds at the feeder, but those in my yard have always been polite, even though they seem to have a permanent expression that expresses anger.

 

 

The brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) sometimes share space nicely and sometimes fuss at one another as they vie for a good perch. They don’t try to chase off other species though and are not apt to “yell” at other birds.

The birds who do “yell” are the European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Young ones yell at their parents after fledging, begging to be fed. Adults yell at each other when they are trying to all crowd together onto a feeder. And adults yell at other species to drive them away so they can have all the space for themselves.

At my feeders, however, they have found their match in the male red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus). One day, I watched as they managed to intimidate him for a few minutes, but he then returned to the feeder and refused to give up. Now he is no longer frightened of them and stands his ground when a starling does its best to make him move.

    

It turns out that studies have shown that the red-bellied woodpeckers are the birds most apt to resist attempts by other birds to displace them from feeders.

The red-bellied woodpecker also was not intimidated by me at one point. He doesn’t like it when he flies in and notices at the last moment that I am sitting or standing on the porch; often he will swerve away and wait for me to leave. During the snow storm, however, he decided to display his displeasure with my close presence, both from a frontal and dorsal view!

 

  

      

 

I guess that the little bird spats do make for sometimes more interesting birding observations. Seeing the tiny ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) warning off a rival a few days before and after the snow melted did show off a gorgeous and brave little bird.

 

 

I’m looking forward to seeing what the springtime observations of animal behavior will reveal.