Avian generations in the making – part 1: courtship

The tragedies being faced in the Caribbean islands after hurricanes Maria, Jose and Irma are horrible and other than donate cash to help alleviate the needs, I’m not in a position to offer more assistance. I’m grateful for all those who can and hope government assistance will be forthcoming to help all the people in those nations recover.
The effects of the hurricanes also will be noticeable for the wildlife. Many of those living on land will drown or die of hunger; some birds may be a little luckier – able to shelter against the winds if they are native to a place or able to change their migratory pattern (e.g., delay arrival on wintering grounds) for a time. But when the effects of the storms are immense with lots of habitat destruction, the birds, too, will lack places to shelter and not have sufficient food supplies to survive.

It’s thought that some birds endemic to the islands may be severely endangered as a species. On 22 September, birders were happy to hear that eight Barbuda warblers (Setophaga subita) had been spotted on that island; not a lot but they may help ensure this tiny bird doesn’t become extinct.  At the time of writing this blog, the fate of some other bird species was still unknown. I hope that all the Caribbean bird species survive and will be thinking of them as I share this series with you on how birds take measures to ensure future generations. (It might seem odd to write this series now, but some birds are still feeding their young here.)

So, the process begins with courtship. Some birds mate for life, or at least form long-term (multiple-year) bonded relationships. They include bald eagles, black vultures, blue jays, Canada geese, white-breasted nuthatches, brown-headed nuthatches, Northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees, American crows, pileated woodpeckers and my favorite raptor shown above, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus).

Those who form ongoing bonds may have a courtship period that consists of the male bringing the female some food to indicate it’s time to get ready for nest-building. This was the case for these lovely Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis).

The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) has a similar behavior; in my yard, I sometimes throw out bits of apple or bread for them in the spring as these seem to be considered real treats. The female will sit on a branch overhead calling until the male brings her some – and sometimes almost shoves it down her throat!

The Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) males will sing their repertoire in the spring to entice female mates – often they perch on the top of trees and fly up and down with spread wings in a beautiful display while singing.

        

   

The yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) seeks new mates each year but has an interesting courtship behavior described by All About Birds: “A receptive female perches with its head up, pumping its tail slowly up and down…Just prior to mating, the male Yellow-Billed Cuckoo snaps off a short twig that he presents to the female as he perches on her back and leans over her shoulder. Both birds then grasp the twig as they copulate.”

 

     

 

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) females and males may both flutter between trees with slow wingbeats. Two females may also compete for the attention of a single male, a behavior I observed this past spring and which surprised me.

 

     

The male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) will vocalize for the female while spreading his wings in a display.

The killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) has a somewhat prettier courtship dance, bending forward and spreading its tail feathers to show off the colorful underside.

  

Next year, I hope to see more of the birds courting as it gives me a happy feeling.

The next step for the birds is nest-building. We don’t have the bowerbirds in North Carolina, who build elaborate nests as part of their courtship. But the species we have do spend a good deal of time on their nests and I’ll share some of their efforts in the next part of the series. (But one or two blogs on another topic will come first.)

 

Credit map: By Kmusser (Own work, all data from Vector Map.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Swallow sibling spats – who gets the food??

Mother Nature came through for me again a week ago, treating me to an interesting session of cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) behavior. (I first thought they were barn swallows but then noted they didn’t have deeply forked tail feathers.) I had noticed the swallows flying high above me as I walked to a favorite birding spot where I hoped to see hummingbirds feeding on the profusely blooming trumpet vines. Instead, I got a lesson on how swallow siblings may interact.

Occasionally a couple birds would come very near one another in flight. My attempts to get good shots were however stymied by their very swift swooping.  As I came upon the structure where I would position myself for the next 80 minutes, I noticed five swallows sitting on a wire, all of them preening and grooming. It was only after taking multiple photos and one flying off that I realized the group included both adults and juveniles.

 

At one point, all but one flew away; he (assuming a male for convenience’s sake) was alone for a good bit of time. Occasionally, he would stretch his feathers or teeter on the wire; I wondered if he had hurt his wings and was therefore staying put, unable to fly.

It turned out that he was just waiting for a parent to arrive with food. The bird would stretch his wings and put them out a bit to help with balance but otherwise didn’t move except when a parent came within earshot. Then he began fluttering his wings and calling with an open mouth guaranteed to trigger the instinct to stuff something down it.

   

Sometimes, this meant having to turn his head 180° to get it in the right position for the deposit of an insect. This had the desired results.

The bird was alone on the wire for perhaps 20 minutes or so – and then was joined by a couple others. They looked a bit bigger and more developed but I finally realized that these were the bird’s siblings, who had been doing more to practice their flight capabilities.

  

“Wire” bird maneuvered his way down the wire in stages to end up right next to, and then almost on top of, one sibling. He almost seemed to be pecking the bird. This did not go down well and finally brother/sister left after wire bird moved back and forth.

 

The parents arrived sporadically with food, perhaps hoping that wire bird would finally take off – and then he finally did, showing he was not injured at all. I think he simply wanted to have table service and figured staying on the wire with an open mouth was easier than having to try catching lunch on the wing like his siblings.

   

Two siblings finally decided to perch on the wire, too, all making sure to keep some distance between themselves. Perhaps they were tuckered out after all those flights; one took a few naps between visits from mom and dad.

Wire bird was very good at attracting his parents’ attention so the other two tried to become more vocal and began fluttering their wings more as well. They also moved closer to him, likely hoping to intercept a meal.

  

 

Things became a bit more difficult for the parents, who could scarcely alight on the wire before having the food snatched away!

 

 

 

  

Then, one of the siblings seemed to have had enough of wire bird’s success and approached him – to wire bird’s dismay.

They had a little spat!

 

  

  

Sibling No. 2 also took a turn at wire bird – they seemed to be saying that enough was enough and he had to stop monopolizing mom and dad’s attention, care and feeding.

   

  

When a crow arrived, everybody flew off in a panic but it wasn’t long before wire bird was back in place. Mom and dad began arriving much more regularly and the siblings decided being on the wire would be more productive than trying to find their own food. The parents finally began feeding the siblings more and everyone seemed to be pleased with that arrangement.

Towards the end of my 80-minute observation stint, I reflected on how patience showed me much more of what was happening than I had first assumed. If I had left after 20 minutes, I might have gone away feeling sorry for wire bird, thinking he couldn’t fly well and had to rely on his faithful parents. It was only by staying and watching that I saw the nest mates have their spats and I had a new narrative to explain the behavior I was seeing.

 

It would be so interesting to be a researcher who follows the development of a species, avian or otherwise. When I was younger, I probably didn’t have the amount of patience needed to spend more than an hour in position to see what would happen next. Now it was a sore arm from holding up my heavy camera and zoom lens that ended my session. But I’m grateful that I have the time and calm now to watch and wait and wonder about what will happen next. And other than the camera equipment and gas expenses, it’s an inexpensive way to keep learning and enjoying the fabulous natural areas that still remain.

Late arrivals and late departures

Since a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) began visiting my suet feeders several years ago, I’ve looked forward to his arrival each autumn so that I can watch him at leisure during the winter months. This past season, however, I began to fear that he had decided to go elsewhere or, more sadly, might have passed away and wouldn’t be coming around again. I did see members of the species at the Haw River in late November and one was feeding on seeds to my surprise.

Then, finally, on the 26th of December, Rudy turned up at my feeders – weeks later than usual but to my great delight! And where did he go for a bite to eat? In the past, he loved my suet but now he, too, was feeding at one of the seed feeders!

Shortly thereafter, I discovered I now had two ruby crowns in residence as they began vying with one another to claim the suet area as their territory. After thinking that I would have no jeweled visitor this winter, it turned out I had two, leading to a happy dance as I gazed out of my living room window.

   

The golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) have a single feather covering each nostril; this doesn’t appear to be the case for the ruby crowns. Their tongues are often in sight when they open their mouths in anticipation of getting a bite. I wondered if the tongue is sticky to help them snatch food while hovering; an online search did not net me any references about kinglet tongues, however.

Normally, these hyper-active tiny birds seek insects and arthropods as meals, including spiders, pseudoscorpions, aphids, bees, wasps, beetles and ants. But my home-made suet has proved to be a big draw (also for other birds with whom they must compete for space).

 

The ruby-crowned kinglets will often hover in front of a feeder, sticking out their tongue to snag a bit of suet before they fly to a perch.

As winter progressed, it looked like the yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) decided to copy their style, also hovering and snatching on occasion.

 

I decided to leave the dry stalks of the scarlet mallow and butterfly bush in place this past winter so they had perches close to the feeders. They made a nice “studio” for some portraits!

After a while, since there was a lot of traffic at the feeders, I began smearing suet on the mallow stalks, which proved to be a big hit. The ruby crowns alighted and fed calmly, a big change from their usual frenetic pace. (A few other birds also enjoyed this option, including the Eastern bluebirds and yellow-rumped warblers.)

 

Sometimes, they went through a bit of head contortion to snag some of the treat.

 

 

 

 

These kinglets surprised me again in January when they began visiting the peanut feeder, too. I watched as they pecked off tiny bits of peanut; I suspect they also might have been looking for ants or other insects around the nuts.

 

 

 

When it rains, these little avians can look quite bedraggled! But they didn’t appear bothered by the snow flurries.

Normally, these birds are in what seems to be constant motion, scarcely stopping for a second in their quest for food. A large privet bush near my feeders, however, has become a resting and hiding spot for them. (Yes, I know, privets are invasive plants and should be removed but this particular shrub provides a get-away for the feeder birds when the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks fly in for a raid and the catbirds love to build their nests in this particular site.)

    

  

I continued seeing ruby crowns during my nature walks, although not as reliably as in my own yard. They were in residence at the Jordan Lake woods and a small wooded area near Chapel Hill’s Senior Center.

 

 

One day at the Haw River, I witnessed a territorial dispute between two males who were claiming certain trees as their own.

 

I stopped seeing the ruby crowns at my feeders around the end of March and assumed that they had embarked on their migration up North for breeding season. On 9 April, I was surprised to see one in the woods bordering Jordan Lake.

On 18 April, one appeared in a cedar tree in my yard.

And then on the 22nd of April, I spotted one high in the leafy branches of a willow oak in my front yard. I’m guessing that perhaps this bird was stopping for a rest as it traveled from further South on its way up North; I didn’t see it visit the suet feeder.

 

 

I miss my little kinglet companions in the spring and summer; hopefully, they won’t wait so long to appear again later this year.

 

Back to blogging with the golden crowns!

Litter boxes scrubbed, bird feeders filled, other chores waiting but I’ve decided to end my blogging hiatus on this rainy and somewhat gloomy Sunday morning. This and my next blog will feature two of my favorite birds and then I hope to treat you with a nesting saga as spring is well underway.

With a lovely ruby-crowned kinglet visiting my yard every year for the past four years, I’ve developed a particular fondness for this tiny avian species. This past autumn and winter, my partiality expanded to include their jeweled cousins, the golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa), who seemed to have favored our geographical area with an irruption (an ecological term for a sudden increase in an animal population). Whereas in previous years, I felt lucky to catch a glimpse of a golden crown during their months-long stay in North Carolina, they appeared to be everywhere this past winter and in full view to boot.

 

The golden-crowned kinglets are about the same size as the ruby crowns and similar in overall body color except that they also have a black eyebrow stripe.

While the ruby-crowned males only flash their red crests when mating or upset, however, the golden crowns have a permanent yellow stripe atop their heads.

 

         

The male golden crowns can sometimes be distinguished by the fact that there will be a hint of red in their golden crest.

         

Like the ruby crowns, these little insect foragers are in constant movement as they scour branches, shrubs and plants for a meal. Their varied diet includes beetles, flies, crickets, butterflies, spiders, and bees and wasps. In the winter, they will also eat some seeds.

     

Searching for the insects often means they hang upside down from branches as they look at the underside and in crevices for their next bite to eat.

 

They also hover mid-air to snatch an insect or fly.

The golden crowns sometimes sit still a bit longer than ruby crowns so that you have a chance to get off a few photographic shots before they resume their dietary searching. And this year, one of those photos placed me among the winners in a small local competition.

These birds are not much bigger than hummingbirds, but like the hummers, they also undertake a long migration twice yearly. Their winters are spent throughout North America but for breeding they travel to the far North and mountainous Northwestern areas of this hemisphere.

This year, many places had mild winters but if they arrive in the North before spring-like temperatures arrive, they are able to survive nights as cold as –40 degrees; sometimes, they huddle together to keep a bit of warmth. Their lifespan is several years, with the oldest recorded golden crown being a banded male who was at least 6 years and 4 months when he was recaptured in Minnesota in 1976.

       

 

This species prefers life in coniferous forests but it seems if a few spruce and pines are around, they will settle in. I saw them in a small and somewhat sparsely vegetated area near a senior center, an arboretum, along the Haw River, and in the woods and bogs of various nature reserves.

 

 

In the United States, the number of golden-crowned kinglets declined 75% between 1966 and 2014. Habitat loss has contributed to this. However, spruce reforestation in the Eastern USA may have contributed to a more recently seen increase in numbers of kinglets. I’m very glad that they are not (yet) an endangered species and I hope we get to see them a lot next winter, too!

Busy as a bee is no joke! Our hardworking pollinators – pretty and persevering!

honey-bee-brazilian-sage-i77a1269-maria-de-bruyn-resHere it is, 7 November, and the honey bees were still busily working over the Brazilian sage, lantana and chrysanthemums in my garden. The Eastern carpenter bees were absent today, perhaps because of the cold night we had, but a few butterflies were flying among the flowers. We know that some of our pollinators are in serious trouble, but my garden has nevertheless been blessed this year with a steady stream of pollinating visitors who were to be seen on the varied blooms morning, noon and almost night.

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I’d enjoyed seeing the bees, butterflies and syrphid flies in the past, but started paying even more attention to them as pollinators this year as I worked on the “Healthy Bee, Healthy Me” project initiated by the non-profit organization Keep Durham Healthy.

 

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The project expresses its goal as follows: “…to establish educational pollinator gardens in proximity to pre-existing community gardens to ensure the sustainability of nectar and pollen sources for our honey bees, native bees, butterflies and other pollinators throughout the year, and to increase the yield of the food crops grown within the community gardens.” Some of my photos were used in one of their interpretive garden signs and next year more community gardens will join the project.

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Science knows that more than 250,000 plants are pollinated by over 100,000 different types of animals, but not all plants require assistance from pollinators for fertilization. In abiotic pollination, fertilization occurs without another organism as an intermediary – for example, through movement of pollen from male vegetative anthers to female stigma by the wind (called anemophily) or water (called hydrophily). However, much fertilization occurs with assistance from biotic vectors, which not only include bees, butterflies and flies but also moths, birds and mammals (e.g., lemurs, squirrels, opossums, monkeys and bats; here you see a hummingbird clearwing moth – Hemaris thysbe – getting nectar.) How cool is that!

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The most efficient pollinators are the bees. Some species like honey bees (Apis mellifera) and bumble bees have pollen baskets (corbiculae) on their legs – a concave portion of their hind leg in which pollen can be stored as a ball. It starts out small but eventually gets fairly big so their little tibia begin to look like barbells. The color of the pollen can differ from bright yellow to brown to red to white, depending on the pollen of the flowers visited most often.

 

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American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus)

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Common Eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens)

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Honey bees

The attractive little honey bees, which vary in their coloring, are known to pollinate about one-third of the popular foods eaten by humans, including items such as tomatoes, peas, beans and other fruit.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1315-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen visiting tubular flowers, like the Brazilian sage (Salvia guaranitica), the bees don’t look for nectar by entering the flower as do the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) with their long bills. Rather, they alight on the base of the corolla tube so that they can drill down into the flower to extract the nectar at the source.

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Honey bee                                                  Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica)

The clearwing moths and butterflies, like the Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus), have long tongues that they use to probe the flowers as they hover. Nevertheless, they can get pollen on their legs or bodies and transport it to another plant, although they are not as efficient at this as, for example, the sweat bees and carpenter bees.

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These bees have scopae rather than pollen baskets on their legs, i.e., structures comprising dense masses of compressed hairs into which pollen grains are pressed.

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Small carpenter bee (Ceratina)

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Female sweat bees (Augochlorella)

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Long-horned bee (Melissodes)

Sometimes the bees manage to get their whole bodies covered with pollen, which can make species identification more difficult but creates some interesting views.

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four-toothed-mason-wasp-monobia-quadridens-i77a2039-maria-de-bruyn-bgWasps can carry pollen as I saw almost daily when the four-toothed mason wasps (Monobia quadridens) visited my yellow passionflowers (Passiflora lutea). Here you can see the pollen collecting on the head of a male, whose sex can be determined by the fact he has 7 abdominal segments and curved antennae (females have straight antennae and 6 abdominal segments). How’s that for a bit of obscure information for the non-entomologist?

The syrphid flies, often known as bee mimics, help pollinate, too. A number of these flies are honey-bee size and can be confused with the bees easily.

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Flat-tailed leaf-cutter bee (Megachile mendica)

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Transverse flower fly (Eristalis transversa)

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Syrphid fly (Eristalis dimidiata)

Others are itsy bitsy, tiny flyers that can have pretty interesting abdominal patterns. I couldn’t see the patterns even with my glasses on; enlarging the photos revealed their beauty, which could make for interesting fabric patterns in my opinion.

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Syrphid fly (Toxomerus marginatus)                      Syrphid fly (Toxomerus geminatus)

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Syrphid fly with a lovely golden sheen (Eupeodes subgenus Metasyrphus)

The pollinators don’t appear to begrudge one another nectar – different species will share space on particularly popular plants.

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Eastern carpenter bee and monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus)

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Eastern carpenter bee and sweat bee

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Eastern carpenter bee, sweat bee and syrphid fly

Occasionally, the pollinators do not live out their usual short lifespans as predators catch them for food. This Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis) had been eyeing a bumble bee and was slowly moving toward it but the bee flew off before the mantis could complete its lunge. Later the mantis managed to snag a honey bee, however.

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While on a walk one day, I suddenly was startled by the loudest buzzing I had ever heard, coming up behind me. It sounded angry, intense and was rather piercing for a buzz. I turned just in time to witness a giant robber fly (Promachus) settle on a grass stem with a bumble bee that it had just caught. The buzzing stopped fairly quickly as the fly proceeded to ingest its meal.

 

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Various organizations and agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service, are drawing attention to the endangerment of pollinator species. The main threats include loss and degradation of habitat as we pave over an increasing amount of natural space and plant lawns instead of native plants in yards. Using pesticides in landscaping areas is further threatening many of the insects on which pollination depends.

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Planting pollinator gardens is a way in which we all can contribute to saving our pollinators; if you don’t have your own yard, you can volunteer with a project to create a community garden. And then you can watch these fascinating insects with appreciation for their contributions to us!