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!”

The birds and the beautyberry – a great match

Not long after moving into my current home, I began looking for plants that would provide color as well as food for the birds and pollinators in my yard. Although I was not aware at that time of the rationale for avoiding exotics and preferring native plants, I did make some good choices, including an American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana L.) which is also called a French mulberry.

This shrub can grow about 5-7 feet high and about that size wide as well. The flowers are tiny and a pale lilac color, circling the stem like a corona.

They eventually turn into green berries that slowly turn in color, starting out in shades of pink and lilac and eventually gaining a beautiful deep purple shade as they ripen.

People can eat the berries, which are apparently very sweet. I haven’t tried them; they do cause stomach cramps for some people if more than a few are eaten. They are a popular food for wildlife, however. White-tailed deer like both the berries and leaves; raccoons and opossums eat them, too. It is the birds that really get the most fruit from my bushes, including Northern cardinals, Eastern towhees and gray catbirds. The birds kindly transported some seeds to a spot next to my back porch, so I now have a large bush there as well.

When the berries began ripening at the end of August, the cardinals began dining on them first. They were quickly followed by house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) who began visiting the shrubs daily. The female house finch stayed on the bush far from the house.

 

 

The male house finches were bolder and fed on the berries right under the kitchen window. It has been a pleasure to watch them.

 

 

 

 

           

   

The Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are a bit more reluctant to feed when they see me looking at them from a few feet away. Even with the window closed, they are shy but I finally got one to sample some berries while I watched.

The leaves of the beautyberry have been used as an insect repellent in folk remedies; laboratory studies have shown that a chemical compound in the plant will stave off mosquitoes.

I haven’t pruned my beautyberries much but it seems that the plant will bear more fruit the next year if this is done. I do think I will transplant some young ones to other parts of the yard this fall, however, as this plant – along with the purple pokeweed (Phytolacca decandra) – is a real wildlife crowd pleaser.

Costa Rican rambles 6B – On the road

After leaving Los Cusingos, we continued our Costa Rican trip by birding along roads, where we saw more of the countryside, including the ubiquitous cecropia trees with their beautiful leaves. We had heard that some of the banana plantations had become diseased and were replaced with sugar cane; this apparently happened in the 1950s when a fungal disease, Fusarium wilt, affected banana crops. Bananas are still a major crop and many small homesteads along the road had a banana tree in the yard. And these fruits were very popular at the bird feeders.

The day before, we had seen sugar cane growing in various places; the varieties in this country are tall perennial grasses. Farmers were cutting some down with machetes in various places as we traveled and we saw trucks and tractors laden with the crop going to processing plants.

 

  

These plants were right beside the roads we drove along.

 

In one area, we crossed a fairly dry river with the remains of a twisted metal bridge on one of its banks – apparently, the result of Tropical Storm Nate which left the country with several fatalities and lots of destruction in October 2017.

We stopped for lunch at an open-air restaurant with signs advising that both sexual harassment at school and in the workplace, as well as smoking, were forbidden. We could see birds flying by in a valley overlooked by the restaurant veranda, which was a nice touch.

A fair amount of time was spent looking at shorebirds enjoying the water at the San Isidro sewage lagoons. This was not my favorite spot – it didn’t smell bad but the lighting was awful, the birds were far away behind fences that I couldn’t photograph over or through very well. I did manage a photo of a mangrove swallow (Tachycineta albilinea) zipping over the water in the distance. The photo of the variable seedeater (Sporophila aurita) was in dense shrubs and then I over-compensated – but you can see the male is black with a white mark at the neck and the females are brown.

    

A great kiskadee (Pitangus sulphuratus) perched in a tree and on a wire not too far away.

 

A green-breasted mango hummingbird (Anthracothorax prevostii) perched, too.

  

At another roadside stop, I spotted a nice dog who was resting in a hole in the bank of a creek. At first, I thought he was clever to find a cool spot but then I felt badly for him when I saw he was chained.

 

A restaurant at one stop turned out to be older than me, which was a nice observation.

The roadside birding was often on a hilly road and we could see villages below.

 

 

In the dense foliage, we saw a dark-capped flycatcher (a very small bird, Empidonax atriceps) sharing a shrub with a euphonia. The yellow-thighed finch (Pselliophorus tibialis) fortunately came out in the open – this bird became one of my favorites.

 

 

 

 

My photo of the long-tailed silky flycatcher didn’t turn out well and I got a better photo later; this was compensated for me by the sooty thrush (Turdus nigrescens), who posed nicely for a long time on a lichen-laden branch. That was a nice way to end the day as we made the last miles to our next hotel for two nights, the Sueños del Bosque cabins where the bathroom was decorated with flowers on the toilet seat, sink drain and shelves. Next instalment coming soon!

 

Costa Rican rambles 6A – Los Cusingos

Finally, back to Costa Rica (in memory)! The past couple months were very busy and often stressful for me, so it is so very nice to again look back to the wonderful days we had looking for Central American birds (and other wildlife) in Costa Rica. On the fourth day of our 9-day trip, we moved to another hotel for a couple nights, stopping several times along the way to bird along roads. The photos from this day were not that great, but they do provide an impression of what we were seeing.

Before we left, we birded the grounds of the hotel where we had spent the night. There were some pretty flowers and a white-crested coquette hummingbird (Lophornis adorabilis), as well as a rather large long-horned borer beetle (perhaps Callipogon barbatus species, but that’s not certain).

We spent some time peering into a rather dark and dense brushy area, looking for uncommon wrens. I was able to photograph a rufous-breasted wren (Pheugopedius rutilus) with some difficulty. Then, just before boarding our bus, a yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima) perched in a nearby tree, giving us some nice views.

  

Our first stop, however, was a park called Los Cusingos, which is a property formerly owned by US botanist Alexander Skutch. He lived there for 63 years until his death at the age of 99 years. While Skutch earned an income collecting plants for museums, his passion was birds and he wrote more than 40 books and 200 papers on ornithonology.

  

Now his former home is part of a bird sanctuary run by the Tropical Science Center and you can see a variety of birds, like this buff-throated saltator (Saltator maximus) and the yellow-olive flycatcher (Tolmomyias sulphurescens).

        

The staff had put out fruit on a feeding station to attract birds and this brought in several, including a female Cherrie’s tanager (Ramphocelus costaricensis) and a golden-hooded tanager (Tangara larvata).

     

The station was also very attractive to a red-tailed squirrel (Sciurus granatensis), who was not in the least perturbed by our presence nearby.

We set off onto the trails in search of new avian species but also had time to admire many types of trees and plants, which I still must identify. Some had very sharp spines.

The dense foliage with a little sun creating dappled views made photography a challenge for me. But I did get a couple photos of a little bird called the plain xenops (Xenops minutus).

As we hiked, a few beautiful butterflies appeared; the one with orange spots was, I believe, a crimson patch (Chlosyne janais) and the other was a zebra-striped hairstreak (Panthiades bathildis).

A chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica), familiar to me from North Carolina, put in an appearance and a lovely little lesser greenlet (Hylophilus decurtatus) peered out from some large leaves.

A summer tanager (Piranga rubra), which I’ve been lucky to have in my own yard, was a pleasure to see, as was a spot-crowned euphonia (Euphonia imitans).

  

One of my favorite birds, of which I unfortunately had blurry photos, was the entertaining red-capped manakin (Ceratopipra mentalis). He stayed very high in the canopy and was sometimes behind leaves but, when he emerged, he did a great sideways moonwalk back and forth on the branch, which was part of his courtship behavior. What a very cool sighting!

   

Back near the entrance to the reserve, there were some lovely orchids and a brilliant green honeycreeper (Chlorophanes spiza) to see us off as we set off on the road – to be continued in the next blog!