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.

 

Hawks, a heron and … hope rewarded

 

2021 — set to be the wettest winter ever

We’re tired, dismayed, perturbed, distressed

Dripping branches

Spontaneous yard pools
Swampy, muddy ground

Then …. a bright spot announced
Still cold but sunny
2 days of cheer
While awaiting a storm of ice

Loving my yard
Loving going out, too

Come walk with me!
First outing – warmish and windy

Welcomed by the mockingbird
To his/her permanent home
And a favorite avian roosting tree

Feeling expansive
Welcoming sun
And shadows

                       

 

Walking a waterlogged path
Slippery mud to the lake
Risen over its banks onto the forest floor

 

 

A movement in leaves
Step forward….
A leap into the air
Whirring wings

The grasshopper honors its name
Leaps forward and then soars
Escaping my lens

But a little king deigns to pose
S/he hops, too
Seeking sustenance in leaves and on limbs

 

Above…a red-tailed hawk
Riding the wind
Gliding on gusts

Next stop…the beavers’ home
Reinforced dome
A cozy lodge

 

Red robins and finches
Restless while rooting
And racing to new twigs

 

Sustenance-seeking sparrows
Giving companionship along the paths

 

 

Royalty along these paths, too
Hopping, fluttering, lunging
Flashing a ruby crown
To claim territory here

Red shoulders hunch high above
Calling and calling as they survey
and scan their surroundings

 

 

 

A new pair alights
Loud announcement of arrival
Paired scanning

Cold nights ahead

Pileated woodpecker abode needs work

                 

                 

Inside renovations
Along the ceiling, too

Titmice and chickadees seek seed

 

 

 

 

Ruby-crowned kinglets flash red
While gleaning insects up ahead

 

 

 

As I make my way to leave
One hawk screams goodbye
While a sparrow sings me on my way

Another pond

A soaring hawkish welcome

In blue skies awaiting
Clouds, rain, frozen droplets to come

Wings extended
Red tail spread
Vision centered below

Along a wall
Red-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumped warblers
Harvesting insects not seen by me
But for them spied quickly and snatched with speed

 

       

Neighboring phoebes
Chase down calories
For a cold night ahead

The green heron
Refuses a portrait session
Twice and
Soars away

The hovering hawks
Hang overhead

 

The young red-shouldered

The bold red-tailed

All three of us caught in
Anticipation
Awaiting liquid crystals
Predicted to coat the trees

But thankfully our hopes for a mild
“winter weather event”
rewarded

Very little ice for us

We welcome water and warmth !

Our spirits soar
Ready to welcome more coming days of sun!
Hurrah! Hurrah!
Tomorrow the golden light returns. 😊

Quebec chronicles – brown and white beauties in abundance!

Several years ago, I saw my first chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica) during breeding season in the mountains of North Carolina. It was a somewhat fleeting sighting but long enough for me to recognize the male’s beauty. My next sighting was a couple years ago when a pair stopped by a local creek during their south-bound migration in the fall. They were still attractive, but I had fallen for their mating season colors. What I didn’t know then was that when they reached their winter destination in some Central American area, they would be likely associating with the same birds with whom they had spent previous winters foraging.

Lucky me, therefore, when I noted that many chestnut-sided warblers were part of the spring migratory crowd in Quebec a couple weeks ago. I saw them in at least five sites and was able to get some nice photos of these beauties.

The Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website advises: “Stay around clearings, road edges, or other disturbed sites with young deciduous trees to find Chestnut-sided Warblers.” They did indeed appear in such places, looking for insects.

 

They appear to really like early successional deciduous habitats, e.g., terrains affected by logging, fire, storms and flooding. Clearing of people’s land around their houses may also qualify as a habitat-forming place for these little birds. We also discovered that these colorful warblers look for food among stones, rocks and boulders along bodies of water.

 

At a small park alongside an inlet of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a chestnut-sided warbler was hopping along the rocky shore seeking caterpillars.

 

  

He also flew out over the water from time to time in order to catch insects on the fly.

At the St. Irénée quay, a species mate was popping in and out among the large boulders on either side of the pier.

Seeing these beautifully colored birds as they hunted for insects was quite enjoyable. The Rev. Leander S. Keyser, who attended the 1896 World Congress on Ornithology, remarked that the chestnut-sided and blackburnian warblers were like “a sonnet in feathers – lightness of air and sunshine embodied – rhythm caught in a living form” – what a beautiful way of describing them!

 

 

Besides the chestnut-sided warbler, I saw another species which I’d seen with more muted colors in North Carolina – the bay-breasted warbler (Setophaga castanea). In the autumn, they have a yellow-green head and only slight chestnut-colored wash on their flanks; they look very similar to blackpoll warblers during that season and winter.

 

 

When I saw their breeding plumage in Quebec, it was a real surprise – and a most pleasant one! The bay-breasted warblers immediately became one of the birds I’ve most enjoyed seeing. And as I saw more and more during the week, I never tired of watching (and photographing) them!

 

During breeding season, these birds eat many more insects than fruit and they were very busy gleaning in the conifers.

In the spring, they specialize in seeking out spruce budworm moth (Choristoneura fumiferana) caterpillars. It was shown in one study that the bay-breasted warblers ate more than 13,000 budworms per 2.5 acres (one hectare) in a period of 41 days. These moths produce larvae that can decimate spruce and fir forests in Canada when their numbers increase greatly. The populations of bay-breasted warblers then fluctuate in conjunction with those of the budworms, which have an “outbreak” every 30-40 years.

In 2004, Boulanger and Arseneault studied this phenomenon and concluded that: “data suggest that outbreak frequency has remained quite stable, with a mean interval of about 40 years between the midpoint of successive outbreaks since the mid-16th century.” It would be interesting if another study could be done to see if the outbreak frequency is changing with climate change. The current population explosion of the budworms began in 2006 and could last until 2021; the government of Quebec is spending $30 million this year to eradicate the moth so the warblers may lose a food source. Their numbers may therefore also decline as a result.

While the fluctuations in their numbers have risen and fallen together with the spruce budworms, their summer habitats may be affected by human interventions. It is estimated that only 4% of these areas are stable so conservation efforts should take this into consideration, especially because their global population numbers have fallen about 74% since 1966.

As these birds forage on tree branches, they tend to move more slowly than some of the other warbler species, taking their time to seek out juicy tidbits. In addition to caterpillars, they eat beetles, flies, moths, leafhoppers and grasshoppers.

The female bay-breasted warblers can be distinguished from their male counterparts by the fact that they lack the black face mask and have lighter bay coloring.

Both sexes seemed to be fairly comfortable with me watching them. They seemed much less shy than some other species of birds. To my complete delight, of course!

 

An interesting observation is that they tend to like foraging on lichen-covered branches.

In contrast to some of the other warblers, they tend to build their nests in the mid-level tree canopy; that is also where they do a lot of their food hunting. However, as my walks in St. Irénée showed, they are not averse to foraging on the ground!

 

   

Since they mostly breed in Canada and spend their winters in Central and South America, seeing them in North Carolina during migration is a treat. Interestingly, the adults tend to migrate along routes west of the Appalachian mountain range and immature birds often migrate along the Eastern US seaboard and coastal areas.

 

These birds of waxing and waning populations have inspired poets and I can see why. Seeing them in their breeding plumage in Quebec was a wonderful gift. I hope to see them there again one day as they have joined my list of special species that I love. 😊

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.

 

An under-appreciated bird?

In the area where I live, many birders are thrilled when spring migration begins and the wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) arrives. They find its song especially appealing and exclaim over the fact that they had the privilege of hearing the wood thrush in their yard or in the woods.

 

 

While it’s a nice song, however, I find that I’m more attracted to our winter visitor, the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus), perhaps because this species seems less afraid to emerge from the vegetation when people are around. I find its song quite nice as well, even though it doesn’t seem to have as many trills in it as the wood thrush.

 

   

The past couple years, I seem to have been seeing the hermit thrush more and more often. Presumably, this is not because there are more of them but because I have grown a little more adept at spotting and identifying birds as time has passed. The past six weeks, I’ve seen them in various places and have very much enjoyed each spotting.

On the 15th of December, during a walk at Mason Farm Biological Reserve, I spotted one eating berries with gusto.

 

       

Ten days later, birds in different parts of the reserve came out on twigs, observing me as much as I was observing them. On the 2nd of January, one caught my eye when s/he was bobbing its reddish tail up and down. It gave me a good view of the bird’s underside, which looked nicely cushioned. That part of the tail is the most colorful part of the bird, which otherwise is a rather muted light brown with a cream-colored, lightly spotted breast.

   

On the 4th of January, we had a light smattering of snow and I saw a hermit thrush in a crepe myrtle tree, an unusual sight in my yard as their visits are usually few and far between. The next day, the bird returned to the red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) to make a few meals of the nicely ripe juniper berries.

  

The snow melted quickly but the bird was back the next day for more berries; fortunately, the American robins and cedar waxwings had not eaten them all.

  

In the spring and summer, the hermit thrush’s diet consists mainly of insects and sometimes small reptiles and amphibians. In the winter, they turn to eating berries and fruit. Here, a thrush at the Brumley Forest Preserve had been foraging on the ground and found a seed or fruit.

Back at Mason Farm, the 21st of January was a stellar day for seeing hermit thrushes; I must have seen at least six in different parts of the woods. At one point, I had stopped to listen to a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) calling and then noted a thrush sitting on a sapling branch near the walking trail. S/he flew down to the path to forage and suddenly another one flew in landing atop the first thrush! The attacked bird spread its tail feathers on the ground while the other one glared at it.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that hermit thrushes may respond to predators by crouching and pulling in their heads; perhaps this was an adaptation of that response.

I always think of these little beauties as being peaceful birds so seeing one challenge the other in such a physical way was a real surprise. Then as suddenly as the attack had happened, all was sweetness and light as the two birds began foraging on the path about 2-3 feet from one another. The downy woodpecker even joined them on the ground for a little while.

  

The oldest recorded hermit thrush was almost 11 years old. Perhaps their generally sweet disposition helps them survive.

   

Depending on whether these birds are fluffing their feathers against the cold, they can either look like a sleek and slender avian or a puffy little ball of feathers. In both cases, I think they look quite appealing.

  

Whatever shape they take, I do look forward to seeing more of these lovely, usually demure and delightful thrushes!