An evening at Bolin Creek

After a day waiting for four bluebirds to fledge (next blog!) and a health-care appointment, I decided to forego some chores and instead to spend some time at a bridge over Bolin Creek, a waterway in the local Carolina North Forest which belongs to the University of North Carolina. My naturalist friend Mary discovered that this spot is a favorite bathing spot for birds in the late afternoon and evening. Since the weather forecasters predicted rain most afternoons this week, I decided to make a quick foray there while I had the chance. I knew that photographing the wildlife could be difficult as the sky was dull, overcast and we were expecting a downpour but I was up for the challenge. And once in a while a bit of brightness emerged from behind the clouds to give me some encouragement.

At first, it seemed very quiet – no bird song or buzzing insects; I thought perhaps everyone was hunkering down in anticipation of a coming rainstorm. But then the sky lightened a bit and a handsome robber fly (Promachus) alighted on a nearby leaf. I think this is a red-footed cannibal fly; these insects look like little old men to me.

 

 

A little while later, there were suddenly three avian visitors. The female Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) was the first to take a bath.

     

 

The blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) didn’t go to the water but flitted overhead.

 

The first of two American redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) also hopped from branch to branch but eventually ducked behind some rocks to bathe.

A pair of damselflies hung out on the stream rocks; the blue-tipped dancer’s (Argia tibialis) dark purple made it look almost black in the twilight.

 

 

Then a beautiful female hooded warbler (Setophaga citrina) came by for a bath. Her golden feathers shone in the dark foliage and against the stream rocks.

 

 

 

A pair of gray catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis) came together but only one entered the stream for a thorough drenching of its plumage.

 

 

 

   

The redstarts returned but stayed on the branches as the daylight began leaking away.

A few other birds were in the vicinity but didn’t come near: American crows, Northern cardinals, a common grackle and two yellow-billed cuckoos. My visit ended when the sky really darkened — I started down the path in an effort to reach my car before the rain began. A Southern leopard frog (Lithobates sphenocephalus) crossed in front of me and paused in the grass, enabling me to get a quick portrait. And then a nettle of beautiful violet color called out for a photo, too. I made it to the car just as the first raindrops fell. Quite an enjoyable impromptu photography session!

Warbler watching and migration – a shared pleasure for birders!

black-and-white-warbler-i77a3458-maria-de-bruynAutumn migration in North America has been underway for some weeks and our bird populations in North Carolina are changing in composition. Some birds stay year-round – for example, I see robins, blue jays, Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees and tufted titmice in all seasons to my great delight. However, other birds who have been here since spring are now getting ready to leave for a southerly jaunt to a place that will be warmer for them in winter – most of the ruby-throated hummingbirds and some gray catbirds have departed already. (I have had a catbird stay year-round but others leave.) Many black and white warblers (Mniotilta varia) will be leaving, too.

american-redstart-i77a4367maria-de-bruyn-resThe Nature Conservancy has noted that the autumn songbird migration is one of the top four migrations in this state. The Audubon Society has even published a guide to this migration and when certain species usually begin their travels. (Left: American redstart male)

 

This seasonal event means that dedicated birders make special efforts to visit places where it’s likely we’ll see warblers. Many of North America’s 50 species don’t eat seed or suet, so you won’t find them visiting your feeders often. I have found, however, that pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) and yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) are pretty social and those who are here for the winter are already joining my “regular” birds at feeding stations. The pine warblers especially like suet (female left, male right below).

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The yellow rumps are still looking around a lot for insects; this one snagged a skipper butterfly.

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In the autumn, many of these songbirds no longer have their beautiful breeding plumage, which is often so distinctive that you can identify them easily, especially the males. I was lucky enough to see some of those beauties during spring migration as well as in the summer for the ones that spend the warmer months here.

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Prothonotary warbler male (Protonotaria citrea)

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Yellow-throated (Setophaga dominica) & prairie warblers (Setophaga discolor)

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The warblers’ non-breeding coloration is frequently duller and drabber than their breeding plumage. Often only experienced birders can tell some species apart on first sight. Added to that is the fact that young birds don’t yet have their adult plumage and the immature males often look just like adult females. So it is a challenging time for identification, especially for me, but an exciting time for discoveries.

 

blackpoll-warbler-i77a1289-maria-de-bruyn-resGetting photos of these lovely birds can be tricky since they move about a lot in search of their insect meals. It is ultimately the pursuit of those culinary delights that leads the warblers to migrate South, since the insect population declines dramatically in areas with cold weather.

Nature photographer Mary had discovered a spot where the warblers could bathe in a relatively protected fashion; she kindly shared the location with some of us and a number of avid birders sat with her for hours waiting for the birds to appear. Some of our more “common” avian friends used the site, too, including a gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) and a brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum).

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A Northern waterthrush (also a warbler, Parkesia noveboracensis) found the spot enticing.

The trees around the water hosted birds as they looked for insects, like the black-throated blue warblers below (Setophaga caerulescens), seen a few weeks apart.

 

 

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A female American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla) spent time working the shrubs surrounding the creek with some success.

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The male redstarts hopped about the branches and rocks hanging over the creek for a while before venturing below to bathe.

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The birds appeared to enjoy their bathing spot immensely, sometimes dipping under water over and over again.

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They also didn’t mind sharing the space with each other (or sometimes other species)..

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The Magnolia warblers (Setophaga magnolia) did the same, giving me some good looks and making my first in-person sighting of this species (lifer!) quite special.

 

 

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The chestnut-sided warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica)was a very vigorous bather!

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A male hooded warbler (Setophaga citrina) made a brief appearance one day, followed by some female and male common yellowthroats (Geothlypis trichas).

 

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Another water body that provided me with some excellent views of warblers was the Haw River. In the small town of Bynum, a bridge crosses the river and gives birders a great vantage point to see birds in the tree canopy close to eye level. There I was able to see two more lifers a couple weeks ago – the first was a bay-breasted warbler (Setophaga castanea).

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blackpoll-warbler-i77a1315-maria-de-bruyn-resThis beauty was followed by another that had me confused. At first, I thought I was seeing a kinglet but this bird was a bit large and then as I got closer looks, I realized it looked like a bay-breasted warbler but had yellow feet. A search on the Internet showed I had seen a blackpoll warbler (Setophaga striata), likely a non-breeding male. Experts on an American Birding Association Internet site confirmed the ID for me.

blackpoll-warbler-i77a1320-maria-de-bruyn-res    blackpoll-warbler-i77a1329-maria-de-bruyn-res

black-and-white-warbler-i77a7204-maria-de-bruyn-resMy migration warbler watching culminated with some exciting finds in my own yard. I was surprised by several I hadn’t seen at home before, including common yellowthroats, a black and white warbler looking for insects in my willow oak and a gorgeous Northern parula (Setophaga americana), who even came to my feeders before pursuing a caterpillar in a Rose of Sharon nearby.

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I’m now hoping to see some birds that breed further North during the summer arrive here for their late fall/winter/early spring sojourn, such as a ruby-crowned kinglet who has spent time with me each winter for the last three years. Next time I’ll share some of my pollinator sightings with you, in the hope you find them as fascinating as me. Have a nice day!

The banded birds are back!

gray catbird DK7A2255© Maria de Bruyn resIn a previous blog, I described how six birds were banded in my backyard so I could track them over time. Bird banding has been done for decades, indicating that it is a practice that truly works for monitoring lifespans and locations of individual birds. But it still seemed to me that being caught in a net, having someone hold you as they extricated your legs and wings from the clinging threads, then putting rings on your legs and sticking you into a container (for weighing) would be a traumatic enough experience for you to decide that this geographical area was not where you wanted to be. Anthropomorphizing the banded birds’ reactions meant that I wouldn’t have been surprised (albeit very disappointed) if I had not seen the six birds again.

gray catbird DK7A2210© Maria de Bruyn resMy expectation was almost immediately proved wrong, however, confirming that birds do not stay away from sites where they were given their ankle bracelets. Corey, my tail-less gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) was the first one I spotted again, the very next day after the banding. He has an aluminum band on one leg and 2 red bands on the other.

Since the bands are such different colors, I decided to name the birds as that is easier to note down for sightings. The gray catbird with an aluminum band (they all have this color as it contains their registration number) and white and purple bands became Camden. The catbird with the lovely yellow and green bands was dubbed Clarissa. All three have been very regular visitors to the feeders, proving that a little discomfort was not enough to dissuade them from visiting the always available buffet of mealworms and other delights.

gray catbird Camden DK7A2085© Maria de Bruyn res gray catbird Clarissa DK7A2091© Maria de Bruyn res

The catbirds have a fondness for sweets and like both apples and blueberries. Grape jelly is a real treat, for which they will return again and again.

gray catbird Clarissa DK7A2647© Maria de Bruyn resgray catbird Camden DK7A2198© Maria de Bruy resn gray catbird Camden DK7A1965© Maria de Bruyn resCorey’s return visits have shown how his tail feathers grew in again nicely over time. gray catbird Corey DK7A2472© Maria de Bruyn resI named the Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) Clancy and I first spotted him again 2 days after the banding. He has not been a regular visitor, however – or I just haven’t caught sight of him among the bevy of other male cardinals that flit around the trees. However, a few days ago he turned up among the apples!

Northern cardinal Clancy  DK7A7771© Maria de Bruyn res northern cardinal Clancy  DK7A7753© Maria de Bruyn res

Carolina wren Willow DK7A2608© Maria de Bruyn resWillow, the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus), has been a very infrequent returnee. When he comes, he tries to stay out of sight, choosing the side of the feeder away from me and only lingering a short while in plain sight. At least I know he is ok.

The one bird I have not yet seen is Rusty, the American robin (Turdus migratorius). I’ve been staring at the legs of every robin that hops around the yard but have yet to see one with leg jewelry. Perhaps he was just a stray visitor the day of the banding? I will certainly keep a look-out for him.

My first re-sighting data were entered into the Nestwatch site on 1 June 2015; it will be interesting to see how long I can maintain this input. Clarissa is a very frequent visitor so I think she will be in many entries. Or perhaps she is just busy right now feeding young ones.

gray catbird Clarissa DK7A2504© Maria de Bruyn res gray catbird Clarissa DK7A2503© Maria de Bruyn res gray catbird Clarissa DK7A2498© Maria de BruynEastern bluebird IMG_3881© Maria de Bruyn resIn the meantime, I am monitoring two nests for data entry; one for Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), who have babies in a nest box, and one for gray catbirds, who have a nest in the middle of a shrub next to my carport.

The catbird parents are ever so vigilant and call out warnings to me whenever I approach the shrub. They hesitate to go into the shrub with food when I am near, even though those babies must be hungry. I finally got a view of them through the twigs when they were close to fledging. They are now hopping around on twigs in the shrub near the nest. Yesterday, when I came too close, Mama catbird dive-bombed, actually grazing my head!

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The parents in both pairs are very diligent about bringing the babies meals, working as a team. One catbird parent seems to be good at collecting a variety of foods, in one case bringing three different insects at once (presumably one for each baby). I will look forward to seeing the young ones out and about and sincerely hope my neighbor’s cat doesn’t get them.

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Bird watching is an enjoyable way to spend time; doing it and contributing to scientific data collection is even cooler!

Yay for the bluebirds!

Eastern bluebird Eastern bluebird IMG_9836©Maria de Bruyn resLast year was a disappointment for the bluebirds (Sialia sialias) and me when a cowbird (Molothrus ater) laid her egg in their front-yard nest. The cowbird hatched first and when I looked a few days later, the bluebird eggs were gone. The bluebirds dutifully cared for the foster child but had none of their own.

This year, they returned to the same nesting box and despite there being whole flocks of cowbirds around, they were able to avoid being surrogate parents this year. On 2 May, there were three eggs and by 5 May there were four.

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On 17 May, after mama and papa left the vicinity of the nest, I peeked in and saw the hatched babies, very naked newborns indeed! Mama was often with the babies and papa came to bring food, but mama left from time to time. They both visited the feeders to replenish themselves.

Eastern bluebird Eastern bluebird IMG_9753©Maria de Bruyn resEastern bluebird IMG_8753©Maria de Bruyn res

I set up a canopy chair to observe at what I thought was a good distance but discovered I was too close. The parents would arrive in the tree fronting the nest but if I was too close in their opinion, they would not go to the nest or only after I had been still for quite a long time. It was interesting to see that they were feeding the hatchlings dried meal worms along with other insects that they had caught.
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They also seemed to be feeding the babies fruit – wild raspberries from what I could tell!

Eastern bluebird IMG_4994©Maria de Bruyn resBy 28 May, the babies were much larger and feathered. Mama and papa were kept busy ensuring they were well fed! And house cleaning to remove their brood’s fecal sacs was also a definite necessity!

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Eastern bluebird IMG_5371©Maria de Bruyn resThe parents remained very vigilant – not only keeping an eye on me but also other too curious visitors. On 1 June, a gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) suddenly descended to the nesting box, fluttering its wings furiously to remain suspended in front of the hole while it looked in. It then flew up on top of the box but the bluebird adults chased it away VERY quickly!

 

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By 2 June, the babies were looking ready to fledge. The next day, I had time to watch the box and saw a baby repeatedly looking out (but not really calling much).

 

 

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Sure enough, I saw it leap and swoop up to perch on a nearby branch.

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The next baby soon began peeping out, too, although this one also retreated inside the box now and again. Eventually, this baby swooped out as well, but s/he flew all the way across the street to a neighbor’s yard. When I carefully looked inside the next box, I saw that they were the last two to fledge – the others had gone before.

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Oddly, I haven’t seen the babies at the feeders although I see the parents there.

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Eastern bluebird IMG_8749©Maria de Bruyn resThey or another bluebird couple were checking out a nest box in the backyard. They didn’t use this one (Carolina wrens have moved in with a nest there in the last few days) but they have constructed a new nest in another backyard box today. So I hope to witness another fledging in a few weeks! Yay for the bluebirds!