Late-morning hawk watching – Part 2

Cooper's hawk PA063998 © Maria de Bruyn res

A few weeks after watching a red-shouldered hawk hunting at a pond’s edge (previous blog), I had the good fortune to spot another raptor busy at a water source.

Our area had had a dry spell and the creek in a nearby city park was fairly low. Various birds were calling loudly on both sides of the creek, and I hoped to photograph some of them. The birds kept out of sight in the foliage, however.

When I finally peered down at the creek, the reason for the avian chorus became obvious. A beautiful Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) was wading in the shallow water.

S/he kept looking up and around as the other birds vocalized non-stop; they were warning one another of the predator’s presence, with the blue jays being especially raucous.

At first, I thought the hawk wanted to bathe but was hesitating because of the warning racket being broadcast by the other birds.

At one point, the raptor sat down, but it didn’t splash in the water.

S/he then stood up and ruffled the feathers that had been in the water.

All the while, the Cooper’s hawk peered up and around.

Then the bird began peering down at the water. I didn’t see any creatures there, but the raptor did.

Finally, the predator stopped watching the other birds, dipping its beak into the water while protecting its eyes with its nictitating membranes.

A few times, the hawk came up with a small fish or other water creature but I couldn’t really tell what the prey was since it was swallowed rather rapidly.

After about 20 minutes, the raptor seemed satisfied – or it was tired of the cacophony accompanying its hunting foray – and s/he flew up into a nearby tree. Later, I spotted the bird standing in the creek further downstream; perhaps a bath was going to take place after all. I didn’t stay any longer, however, as chores were calling to me. So I left grateful for the chance to spend time with this gorgeous creature on a late sunny morning. 😊

A surprise at the pond

1 Bynum IMG_0631© Maria de Bruyn res

A combination of abundant vegetation and some type of water — a creek, river, wetland, pond or lake — is one of my favorite types of natural area to visit for wildlife watching and photography. Water attracts wildlife and increases the chance of seeing something unexpected. 

This was the case recently at a local nature reserve. A few days earlier, I’d seen many goldfinches and warblers at one of the ponds, but this day it was very quiet. I descended a small slope to stand on a mudflat and was suddenly surprised by a large splash to my left.

2 Brumley pond IMG_0643 © Maria de Bruyn res

When I looked, I saw a largish head forging across the water in front of me. My first thought was that it was a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) as there is no beaver lodge in this enclosed pond.

3 American beaver P8132481© Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats and beavers look very similar, but beavers (Castor canadensis) tend to be much larger. This was a hefty individual who seemed fairly relaxed as s/he swam along.

4 American beaver P8132423© Maria de Bruyn res

As I watched the mammal swim back and forth for a while, I tentatively concluded that it was a beaver, based on my previous sightings of this rodent species. Still, I wasn’t quite sure and kept hoping that the animal would raise its tail so that I would have a decisive clue to its identity.

Beavers have large flat tails, while muskrats have long, thin tails. Finally, as s/he swam by again, I got a glimpse of the tail for a couple seconds and it was large and flat! Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of that (see a previous blog for some photos showing the beaver’s tail).

 

5 American beaver P8132456© Maria de Bruyn res

As I watched and took photos, a couple walked by with their dog and stopped to watch as well. I moved down the path and heard the gentleman exclaim, “Oh, it’s a beaver!” I turned and he explained that he had thought the swimmer was a muskrat, but he had just seen the tail, too.

6 American beaver IMG_0256© Maria de Bruyn res

The aquatic mammal climbed up onto a log for a bit to groom and relax and, as the couple remarked, almost seemed to be posing for me. The beaver kept its back to me most of the time though. 

 

14 American beaver P8132476 © Maria de Bruyn res

I began to walk back down the path in hopes of getting a head-on view if the beaver decided to swim again. S/he did indeed slip back into the water to resume swimming back and forth. And then to my delight, a small head popped up going the other direction!

7 American beaver and muskrat P8132482 © Maria de Bruyn res

For some reason, I just assumed that it was a baby beaver, swimming around under the watchful eye of a parent. The newly arrived rodent seemed to be very intent on eating and dove down into the pond to bring up some tasty vegetation.8 Muskrat P8132671 © Maria de Bruyn res

It then swam over to the mudflat where I had been, and I ventured back there.

9 Muskrat P8132493© Maria de Bruyn res

Moving slowly and maintaining a good distance from the dining animal, I was able to get some good views as it enjoyed its meal.

10 Muskrat P8132618© Maria de Bruyn res

11 Muskrat P8132497 © Maria de Bruyn res

12 Muskrat P8132506 © Maria de Bruyn resWhile the beaver’s fur remained sleek on its head and back after being submerged a while, the little one’s fur stuck together in clumps all over its head and body. To me it looked a bit like a punk teenager — an analogy that undoubtedly came to mind because I was thinking of it as a baby or adolescent beaver.

This was one of the cutest wildlife spottings I had had in recent weeks, and I was thoroughly enjoying it. But I began doubting if this animal was indeed a beaver. I never saw its tail but at one point, I could see some orange teeth that reminded me of beaver incisors.

13 Muskrat teeth P8132647© Maria de Bruyn res

Of course, the diner didn’t care and just kept diving for more veggies to eat. The large beaver appeared to have left in the meantime.

15 Muskrat P8132510© Maria de Bruyn res

It was when I was reviewing identity characteristics of beavers vs muskrats while writing this blog that I ultimately came to a final conclusion about whom I had been watching. This was based on several websites that provided some good ID clues:

Beavers tend to weigh about 35-70 or even up to 100 lbs (15-30 or even 45 kg), Muskrats generally weigh only about 2-5 lbs (0.9-2.3 kg).

Beavers’ ears protrude from their heads as they swim around (first photo below), while muskrats’ ears lie flat (second photo below). Beavers also have larger noses.

16 American beaver P8132453© Maria de Bruyn res

17 Muskrat P8132673 © Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats dive down to get vegetation from pond bottoms to eat, which my second visitor was very busy doing indeed. Beavers strip bark and leaves from trees and in my experience (having watched beavers eat close by a couple years ago), they can be quite noisy chewers.

18 Muskrat P8132574© Maria de Bruyn res

I’d enjoyed the idea of having seen a parent-and-child beaver duo but, in hindsight, I concluded that I’d been watching a beaver and a muskrat sharing pond space.

19 American beaver P8132475 © Maria de Bruyn res

This was also a very cool event since neither one had been shy. A lack of other human passersby (only the one couple strolled by in the space of almost an hour) may have made them feel comfortable. It was certainly a treat for me!

20 Muskrat P8132665© Maria de Bruyn res

Next up: fateful days for frogs….

The maker of spoons – a bird delighting people worldwide

1 roseate spoonbill P8040500 © Maria de Bruyn card (2)

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.

6 roseate spoonbill P8040996© Maria de Bruyn res

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.

2 great egret P8040974© Maria de Bruyn-sgd res

3 roseate spoonbill P8040309 © Maria de Bruyn resIn 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.

4 roseate spoonbill P8040325© Maria de Bruyn res

5 roseate spoonbill P8040961© Maria de Bruyn resThere 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.

7 roseate spoonbill P8041138 © Maria de Bruyn res

Depending on the birds’ age, location and breeding status, the color intensity can vary from a pale pink to very bright magenta or carmine.

8 roseate spoonbill P8040580 © Maria de Bruyn card (2) 9 roseate spoonbill P8040517© Maria de Bruyn res

10 roseate spoonbill P8040340 © Maria de Bruyn resWhen 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.

11 roseate spoonbill P8040346 © Maria de Bruyn res

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.

12 roseate spoonbill P8040425 © Maria de Bruyn res

13 roseate spoonbill P8040365 © Maria de Bruyn res

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.

14 roseate spoonbill P8040395© Maria de Bruyn res

15 roseate spoonbill P8040566© Maria de Bruyn res

16 roseate spoonbill P8040703 © Maria de Bruyn res

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!

17 roseate spoonbill P8040521© Maria de Bruyn res

18 roseate spoonbill P8040427© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

19 roseate spoonbill P8040524© Maria de Bruyn

20 roseate spoonbill P8040825 © Maria de Bruyn resIn 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.

21 roseate spoonbill P8040483 © Maria de Bruyn res

23 roseate spoonbill P8040502 © Maria de BruynBy 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.

22 roseate spoonbill P8040377© Maria de Bruyn res

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!

A star performance!

 

Who is this above? Read on below for a few looks at a usually highly elusive bird.

But first, let me say that in the Piedmont region of North Carolina (NC) spring is an especially nice season with abundant flowers and many birds filling the air with lovely courtship calls and songs. Sometimes, you get a little confused when walking in a reserve — thinking there are several species of birds in the vicinity to judge by all the different vocalizations, but then you discover you are hearing a concert by one of the avian mimics — Northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers and gray catbirds are both talented imitators of other birds’ calls.

While the mockingbirds repeat other birds’ notes three times each, brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) sing out two repetitions of other species’ songs, interspersed with a large variety of their own calls. A thrasher has been serenading lately near one of a local nature reserves’ ponds. On this occasion, s/he had an Eastern towhee audience (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

       

A bird that does not have a lovely call, the American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), sometimes sounds a bit like a bull bellowing, which led to one of its nicknames — “thunder pumper.” Despite its lack of melodious calls and songs, however, birders get excited when one is spotted because this medium-sized heron (2-3 feet tall) usually is only visible hiding among dense grasses and reeds. In contrast to great blue herons or great egrets, American bitterns lead mainly solitary lives, so birders can’t count on seeing a group of them either.

One local nature reserve became a real hot spot recently when a local birder alerted other bird lovers to the presence of a bittern at one of the ponds. Unexpectedly, this bittern was not shy at all.

 

Even when s/he was being watched by half a dozen people, the bird emerged from the grasses and reeds to forage for food at the water’s edge or stopped for a grooming session in front of an audience. And this went on for over a week as the bird gave us a star performance.

 

 

When approached, the bittern’s usual “concealment” pose is to stand tall with its neck stretched upward and its bill pointing at the sky. They don’t move until they feel it is safe to resume stalking their food.

           

When they stand this way, some people say they look like they have “googly eyes”. The bitterns can focus downwards even when pointing their heads upward; it is surmised that this ability helps them spot and catch the creatures on which they feed.

   

I can see where the googly-eyes terminology was applied to them, but I recently saw a common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) that had much more of that look in my opinion!

In one of their typical hunting modes, bitterns bend over and stand almost motionless, slowly lowering their long bills down so that they can plunge their heads quickly into water to grab their prey, which they bite or shake to death.

 

When they lift their heads, you may notice their third eyelid in position, indicating that they shielded their eyes while submerged. They also engage the nictitating membrane when they scratch their heads, getting close to their eyes – the bittern’s very large feet make that a very good decision on their part!

   

After catching their prey, the bittern subsequently repositions its prey — a tadpole, crayfish, frog, snake, rodent, fish — inside its bill so that it can be swallowed head first. Parts of the eaten animal that they can’t digest are later regurgitated as a pellet.

 

American bitterns are considered a species of high concern by Waterbird Conservation of the Americas. It is the loss of wetlands habitat that is contributing to their decline; in the last decades more than half of the original wetlands in North America have been destroyed or degraded. Let this past Earth Day be a reminder of the very urgent need to make haste in protecting the natural areas that remain and restoring areas that can be rescued.

 

Wrestling with your food – not for me!

Our 2021 winter weather in central North Carolina has been one of the wettest on record so far and is set to top the list by the end of the month. But occasionally we have had some sunny, albeit cold, days to everyone’s delight. On one recent walk on an unusually sunny day, I saw a beautiful little syrphid fly flitting about the forest floor and caught a fleeting glimpse of an Eastern rabbit, but that has been it for non-avian species except for the deer, squirrels and chipmunks in my yard. So my focus has continued to be on the more bountiful birds.

On successive visits to a pond in a neighboring town, mostly to watch the hooded mergansers, it was noteworthy to see that a single ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) had taken up residence. S/he spent a lot of time atop one of the parking lot streetlights at the pond’s edge. It gave a perch for a good overview of the water and its residents.

The bird is usually alone when I see him/her. They are sociable birds, however, and it’s interesting that, in some cases, two females will share nests and raise their two broods together.

 

I’d seen her/him catch fish there before and noted that the bird never just alighted, positioned the fish and swallowed it quickly. Perhaps this is because it has a broad diet and has learned to eat its varied foods differently.

Not only do they devour fish, insects, earthworms, rodents and grain; they also will scavenge people’s food if they can get to it, for example, on a beach or in a fast-food parking lot.

This yellow-legged gull will fly around the pond from time to time, looking quite beautiful in flight.

  

S/he doesn’t go fast, although they can reach speeds of up to 40 mph. Rather this bird soars quietly in circles scanning both the water and its surroundings.

Recently, I watched this gull catch a fish and then take a long time to actually eat it. First, the bird spent some time positioning the fish just right in its beak.

Then it began dunking the fish underwater and slapping it on the water as well.

Was it trying to kill the fish before consuming it?

After doing this for a while, the gull suddenly picked up the fish, flew up into the air and dropped it in the water.

Next, it turned tail and dove head-first into the pond, likely hitting, stunning and perhaps drowning the fish with this maneuver.

A Cornell University website says that adult ring-bills “play” by dropping objects and then catching them mid-air, perhaps as a way to practice their hunting technique. But in this case, that didn’t seem to be the case.

The gull still didn’t eat the prey right away, however.

S/he kept hitting the fish and moving the aquatic meal around in its mouth.

A couple times it looked like the fish was positioned just right for swallowing.

And then, the re-positioning continued.

Finally, after some time, it looked like the bird had finally ingested the meal and s/he took off again.

It was an interesting observation of animal behavior – my favorite way of spending time on nature walks. And it will likely remain a bit of a mystery as to what the ring-bill gull’s intentions were in carrying out these moves. 😊