Life on late winter-early spring farmlands

Although it’s taken me some time to process photos taken earlier this year, I’d still like to share what I was seeing in late winter and early spring when stopping at farm fields. These sometimes muddy and stubble-covered parcels of land can offer wildlife watchers nice views of birds and occasionally other animals, unobstructed by a lot of foliage. So visits to roadside farms and ponds were on my early 2019 nature-walk itineraries.

Farm fields are often bordered by stands of trees where animals can retreat if they become disturbed by humans standing around aiming long camera lenses at them. The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) above were browsing one morning and seemed unconcerned as I photographed nearby birds. When I turned to watch them specifically though, they decided to move back into the woods bordering the field.

Many farmers put out bird boxes on fences bordering their fields; in early March, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were already checking out and starting to furnish potential nest sites. Here a male was flying away from a nest box while his mate was gathering pine needles.

The fences offer other birds a good vantage point for observation, too. A Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) perched on a fence post to look around and then flew to a branch high above me.

 

A bird present in large numbers was the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). One morning, a friend and I counted some 200 birds in one small group of trees. Many people think they are an invasive species and dislike these birds intensely because they evolved a behavior that can endanger other birds. The cowbirds, who are native to America, were originally present in prairies where they followed the buffalo. This meant they did not stay in one place long enough to tend a nest, so they began laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. The young cowbirds hatch first and then may throw out the other eggs or hatchlings or they eat so ravenously that the other nest mates don’t get enough.

It certainly is disconcerting to see a small warbler feeding a large cowbird fledgling and a couple bird species have been endangered by the behavior. But I don’t dislike the cowbird because of this – they did not choose how to evolve and the behavior developed as an adaptation, not an “evil” practice. They are attractive birds. And the sounds they make are lovely, akin to water droplets falling into a pool.

 

The American robins (Turdus migratorius) were also present in abundance; they tend to flock together in the winter and early spring. One farm had a boggy area with some cyprus trees and the robins were busy looking for insects among the cyprus “knees” (Taxodium distichum). These woody structures that grow out of the roots may help stabilize the trees when they are standing in water but scientists have not yet definitively identified their purpose.

There were other trees near the cypresses; in one, the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) was hanging high overhead. It also pays to look around to see who is flying u[ ahigh above those trees and fields. It’s not uncommon to see Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying from one farm pond to another.

Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) soared over different fields I visited.

Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) also made an appearance.

And one of my favorite raptors often eluded my efforts to capture a portrait. Only a couple times was I able to catch a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius) speeding by in flight.

The robins were feeding in the fields as were several other bird species.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

A pair of Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) was taking advantage of numerous cow patties left behind on one farm field in their search for insects. They were flashing their wings repeatedly; I’m convinced that this was behavior designed to scare up bugs so they can catch them easily.

 

 

Other birds were following them around in the field, apparently taking advantage of the insect smorgasbord. Two of them were a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and a field sparrow (Spizella pusilla).

This year, it was also my good fortune to see a bird new to me in one farm field, the lovely horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). Although these birds are not considered endangered, their numbers declined by 71% between 1966 and 2015.

I couldn’t get close to the larks but one day I did catch a bird taking a dust bath in a gravel and dirt road next to their preferred field. On a second visit to that farm, I again saw a lark in the road and then another lark joined it.

It turns out that female larks perform a courting display that looks very similar to actually taking a dust bath, so I got to see a mating behavior that I hadn’t expected!

Reading about the behavior, I discovered that if male larks see a female who is dust bathing, he may mistake what she’s doing and try to mate with her when she’s not ready.

So reproductive life is a bit difficult for those males, who look so adorable when they raise those head feathers to project two little black horns.I will leave you here with a few more views of a horned lark who was singing and foraging not too very far from the road.

 

Diving in for a meal

 

Recently, I had the good fortune to see a sea duck because it had veered away from its usual habitat to land on a pond near the middle of North Carolina. The male long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) is a real looker in his winter plumage. His dark grey bill is tipped by bright pink color and he has large black circles on his white cheeks, which some people think look a bit like ear-muffs.

According to the Audubon Society, these ducks dine on mollusks and crustaceans when they are at sea during the winter. Since this duck had apparently gotten off-course during his winter migration, he seemed to be satisfied now with pondweeds and grasses, which is what they tend to eat in the summer when they are at their breeding grounds.

It is his beautiful long tail (3.9 to 5.9 in, 10-15 cm) that really catches your eye, especially when he dives under to gather up some of his food. His dive appeared to comprise a very slight spreading of wing feathers and then a quick forward and downward movement, ending with his rear end sticking up with the long-tailed plume waving a bit before he straightened out just below the water’s surface.

It was when I watched this duck dive under again and again that I actually stopped to think a bit about how ducks dive for their meals. This bird seemed to stay under water for what seemed a very long time (probably 15-30 seconds). It turns out that they can remain submerged up to a minute. In comparison to other diving ducks, the long-tailed duck spends more time under water than at the surface; in fact, when looking for food, this duck will be under water 3-4 times longer than it stays above water!

When reviewing my photos, I realized that this bird was not diving deep but rather staying submerged just under the surface. My friend Lucretia pointed out that the duck would extend his wings a bit away from his body before he went under and the photos showed his wings spread out.

This must be the species’ diving technique when they are foraging for plant material because it turns out that they are likely the deepest diving ducks in the world, able to go down as much as 200 feet (60 meters) in search of food! So it turned out that we were really seeing quite a special bird.

A pair of bufflehead ducks (Bucephala albeola) were at the same pond and give a nice demonstration of their different diving technique. Their winter and summer diets are similar to those of the long-tailed duck; they, too, seemed to be eating plants during our visit. Their dives were of much shorter duration; they appear to stay under water “only” 12-25 seconds at most.

In contrast to the long-tailed duck, however, they would rear up a bit over the water and then arch their bodies in a graceful dive, popping up again quickly after swallowing their food.

 

It’s interesting to note that their Greek genus name comes from a term meaning bull-headed, while their common name came from a combination of the words buffalo and head. The male duck can puff out his head feathers, making his head look even larger.

Another duck that can do this is the male hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus); the female can also extend her head feathers, giving herself a crested appearance.

The male and female are quite different in appearance, but both are attractive. Their diet appears to be mostly crustaceans and mollusks.

A female merganser at nearby lake gave a short diving demo the same day as the long-tailed and bufflehead ducks. She, too, tended to perform a shallow dive like the former duck.

Duck watching had not been one of my preferred birding activities but now I’ve become curious as to how other species are executing their underwater forays. Perhaps the arcing-body plunge is a bufflehead specialty – I’ll have to pay more attention to diving techniques from now on!

Oh, those ravishing raptors!

Numerous people who attract birds with feeders feel regret and sadness when one of their avian visitors is captured to serve as a meal for a raptor in the neighborhood. I, too, feel that pity and discomfort when I see one of the hawks or owls capture a bird or animal because my thoughts go to the pain and fear that the prey must feel. But of course all wildlife has to eat and I want members of the predator species to survive as well. And the beautiful predators can be really interesting to observe.

 

A Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii, left) sometimes frequents my yard looking for a bird to take. This particular day in November last year, the hawk flew to the front-yard feeders but came up empty-taloned. Raptors, also known as birds of prey, are not the only birds that eat something other than seed. Some smaller birds, like the shrike, do so and many songbirds eat insects. The raptors, however, often go after prey that is fairly large in comparison to their own body size. In January this year, I came across another Cooper’s hawk at a nature reserve. The bird flew soundlessly past me to land in a tree downslope and paused for a bit before flying on, providing time for me to get a gorgeous portrait.

I’ve been lucky lately in seeing barred owls (Strix varia) at the Brumley Nature Preserve North. This owl was sitting silently next to a walking path, looking out over the adjacent field.

A couple weeks ago, I was startled by this barred owl who suddenly flew in front of me from behind my right shoulder. I hadn’t noticed him/her in a tree behind me. I tried to follow its flight but lost it. I thanked the owl for letting me glimpse it and said it would be nice if s/he came back so I could get another look. Sure enough, after I had turned back to the vicinity where I originally was surprised by the silent predator, it flew in and perched on a branch. The bird had a snooze, keeping one eye partially open to keep me in view.

  

Lately, I’ve been seeing many red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus). They have been flying overhead at the nature reserves. The other day, two flew by calling raucously and then they alighted at the top of a far distant tree. I couldn’t get a photo but did see them mating in silhouette against the late afternoon sky.

  

 

A few weeks ago, a pair of red-shouldered hawks began constructing a nest just down the street from where I live. One afternoon, I happened to see them and one was collecting twigs to build or refurbish a nest.

 

 

   

This pair roams our neighborhood looking for prey; sometimes, one or both will perch in my back-yard tree for a little rest.

    

When one of the red-shouldered or Cooper’s hawks pauses for some time in the tree over the small pond, I figure it is watching for frogs or one of the chipmunks that live in the rocks surrounding the pond. The chipmunks appear to be very good at eluding capture.

 

 

A couple weeks ago, our neighborhood family of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) was making a racket in my yard and when I looked out the window, I could see them harassing a hawk. I couldn’t make out why they were so angry but grabbed my camera for some shots through the window.

 

  

It turned out that the Cooper’s hawk had caught one of the numerous Eastern gray squirrels that live here. The squirrels sometimes annoy me but on the whole, I enjoy watching their antics, so I felt badly for this squirrel, who obviously was not going down without some struggle.

What made it easier for me to watch was that I didn’t really see the squirrel’s head and it was not making a sound. I think the hawk had silenced it early on when it had its claws around its neck and chest.

The hawk was determined and kept hold of the rodent, eventually subduing it.

The hawk as not unscathed, however, as you can see from the wound on its leg.

When the raptor flew off suddenly with the squirrel hanging from its talons, the three crows chased it in hot pursuit. I don’t know if they were just upset that the hawk was present or if they wanted to steal the squirrel away. On walks through the neighborhood, I am now regularly seeing the hawks in trees and on power lines. They are not too shy and seem to be adapted to the human presence in their territory.

  

While I may be feeling a bit wary for the other animals and birds when the stunning raptors appear, it still is a thrill to see one up close. Only about half of the red-shouldered chicks make it through their first year of life, so I hope the hawks keep coming by. And who knows, maybe we will have some of the long-lived birds who can reach an age of 15-19 years!

 

 

 

Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 1: birds

On the last day of January 2019, I thought it would still be ok to post a couple blogs on some surprises I encountered the past year. Almost always when I go out on nature walks, I encounter something new – a species of wildlife or plant that I have not seen before or an interaction between species not previously observed. So, I wanted to share a few of those delightful surprises from 2018. In this blog, I focus on birds; in the next part, other kinds of wildlife will be featured.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my own front yard was the scene of my biggest surprise last year when a snowstorm brought feeder visitors whom I had never seen before and who rarely come to the state where I live. The evening grosbeaks were just stunning.

 

They were not the only grosbeaks who treated me with their beauty, however. I’ve had rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) visit the feeders before, but they still always elicit my appreciation with their bright colors.

 

In late October, an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) made me stop for a photo as the other birds of its species had already gone south for the winter. The bird was perched on a branch extended over a pond and had to unfortunately contend with a persistent crow that was harassing it. After some time, the sea eagle finally took off with the crow in pursuit – it seemed that the osprey might have injured its wing and perhaps that accounted for a delayed departure to warmer climes.

  

Although the pursuit photos are not high-quality, you can see a gap in the osprey’s wing and perhaps it was waiting for healing before it undertook a very long journey.

 

On another day, I was near a wetland when an unexpected visitor flew onto a branch above me. Green herons (Butorides virescens) usually keep their distance from me; I regretted that it was overcast and the lighting was not wonderful for my close-up portrait of this colorful immature bird.

 

A more muted bird, but lovely nonetheless, is the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus). When I saw this individual in late December, I was thinking that it must be difficult for them to find food as the vegetation shrivels and insects are in hiding. At that moment, the bird dropped to the ground and was foraging – coming up with a bug to prove that they still could find sustenance in the cold temperatures!

  

The mockingbirds are often solitary except for breeding season. Some people complain that they are aggressive towards other birds at their feeders but those in my yard are not that way at all. They share space at feeders and don’t chase anyone else away. When it is mating and nesting time, however, they can become quite territorial and are very protective of their nests. This seasonal “grumpiness” was brought home to me one day along a country road when I witnessed a pair of mockingbirds driving a third bird – rival? Intruder? – away from their roosting spot.

When large flocks of gulls and double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) visited a small local lake because of a shad die-off, I had the chance to watch them for a while. One day, it was interesting to observe how one cormorant wanted to jump up on a floating platform, but another bird didn’t want him/her there. They faced off with open beaks – the bird wanting to get out of the water won.

 

 

It’s always interesting to me to watch birds as they forage for sustenance. When I think of woodpeckers, my thoughts immediately turn to nuts and insects, which I think of as their staple diets. So it was a surprise to me to see this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) dining at length one day on nice ripe persimmons – a bird with a sweet tooth!

 

 

 

Well, I probably shouldn’t say “sweet tooth” but “sweet tongue”. Woodpeckers don’t have teeth but they have exceptionally long tongues that can be wrapped around their brains inside their skulls when not being used to extract insects and other food morsels from crevices.

Another bird that has a long tongue is the great blue heron (Ardea herodius). One day, I came across this bird on its favorite roosting log obviously trying to dislodge something that had gotten stuck – or perhaps something that tasted foul. I hadn’t really seen the species’ tongue before, so the bird gave me some good views.

  

The effort of shaking its head also led it to protect its eye with the nictating membrane.

Because tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) visit my bird feeders daily to get nuts and, to a lesser extent, seeds, I associate them completely with that type of diet. It was that assumption that made me do a double-take when I spotted a titmouse on a walk with a long spaghetti-like object dangling from its beak. It didn’t seem like a grass stalk so when I lifted my camera to look through the zoom lens, I discovered it had a worm snake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) in its beak – a finding that really did astound me.

 

As I took photos, the bird finally flew further away and unfortunately dropped the reptile when it came close to a creek. I felt a bit guilty, thinking I might have disturbed its meal but after waiting about 5 minutes, the bird suddenly flew up with the snake back in its beak! It obviously really wanted to hang on to that prize!

 

And now on to part 2 of my 2018 surprises – some more reptiles and amphibians, bugs and mammals!

My special bird in autumn 2018

Well, having had time to finally process photos as the year end approaches, I’m “on a roll” with posting blogs in contrast to other months in 2018. I have two more to post on mammals this year. This one is to commemorate a real birding treat that came to me during the snowstorm that was featured in my last two blogs.

 

There had been reports on birding sites and listservs that some bird species which usually don’t come too far south during the winter were on the move this year to warmer climes. They included birds that sometimes arrive in North Carolina (NC) in winter, but who don’t always come in large numbers (an “irruption”) such as pine siskins (Spinus pinus, above) and purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus, below).

  

I’ve also been lucky to see red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), another irruption species, either in my yard or on nature walks.

 

So why are they coming here in numbers?  It turns out that trees in the northern boreal forests are not producing enough food sources that these birds need to survive winter weather such as conifer seeds and berries (from trees such as hemlock, spruce, firs, alders and larch).

What was really exciting for birders in NC, however, was that some other bird species are also seeking new winter foraging areas. They include redpolls, crossbills and the gorgeous evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) who are seen here only rarely.

I had only ever seen a photo of these grosbeaks and thought it would be fun to see one in person. Members of a listserv mentioned that these grosbeaks had been spotted in Virginia, just above the NC border, so we should be prepared to perhaps see them.

On my visits to the Brumley Nature Preserve, I spent time in the spruce areas in the hope of spotting one, but I had no such luck. And then as the snow was falling heavily on the first morning of our snowstorm, I caught sight of a bright yellow and black bird on a feeder as I looked out my window. Lo and behold, when I grabbed my camera I discovered a male evening grosbeak on a feeder!

What was even more exciting was that he was accompanied by two female birds, both of whom were very lovely as well. I took lots of photos.

They finally flew off and I counted myself very lucky indeed. A while later, when the snow had stopped for a while, I was watching the feeders again and the threesome returned to my delight. They fed and then rested on feeder poles.

I tried to go outside quietly so I could photograph them without a window between us but they were quite skittish and left quickly as soon as I appeared. They flew to the tops of nearby tall pines and then disappeared off into the distance. They were not shy when I stood in front of the living room window, however.

The trio reappeared a third time and I stayed behind the window to admire them. It was interesting to see how they could look different, depending on their posture. The bird above looked “tall” as it fed next to the Eastern bluebird. And then the other looked fat and fluffy on the feeder pole – even looking as if it had an outsized head when it leaned forward a bit!

 

They left in the afternoon and did not return, even when it snowed again the next day. A fellow birder who lives northwest of me spotted a male evening grosbeak on one of her feeders that day – the birds were obviously en route to another destination. I hope they found a good food source area for the rest of the winter. And my photos will remind me of their wonderful visit, which made this snowstorm one to remember. 😊