Spring is in the air…. Uh, I mean water!

It was the sound that first attracted my attention. Initially, I thought that it sounded like a flock of birds, but as I approached a pond, I realized that was not the case. The almost chirruping sound didn’t fit with any frogs I had heard before. As I scanned the scene before, my roving vision finally alit on a small section of brownish water dappled with green algae and stalks of dead reeds – there were moving bumps there. When I came closer, I finally realized that it was a mass of writhing and continually moving toads, engaged in what resembled a bit of a battle. It was actually what could be called a mating contest. (Click on a photo to see it larger; then arrow back to return to blog.)

The sound made by the male Eastern American toad (Anaxyrus americanus americanus) when he is ready to breed has been likened to an old-fashioned ringing telephone. It can last from 6 to 30 seconds and when multiple toads are calling at the same time, they create a very loud and penetrating “concert”. It doesn’t sound like a phone to me; you can judge by listening to the video.

I only saw a couple of the toads with inflated throat sacs. The sound was very loud, however, and the water was roiling with moving heads topped by periscope eyes, warty bodies and thrashing legs.

Before examining how the toads were going about their reproductive endeavor, a little biology lesson. Toads are a sub-group of frogs; while most frogs have moist skin, toads generally have drier and wartier skins. They vary greatly in color, including shades of yellow, brown, black and red, and may be speckled or have solid hues. The skin color can also change in response to stress, temperature, humidity and habitat.

 

American toads have two glands at the top of their head behind the eye crest. These are parotid glands that produce a neurotoxin, bufotoxin, which can sicken and even kill a predator. The milky substance can produce skin irritation in human beings and can be dangerous to smaller mammals (like dogs).

 

 

Like birds, toads have nictitating membranes, transparent eyelids that help protect the eye. They sometimes raise the nictitating membrane half-way so that they retain sharper vision.

 

 

Toads actually spend a lot of their lives on dry land, eating insects as well as worms, slugs and other small invertebrates. A particularly fascinating fact is that they use their eyeballs to help swallow food – when they ingest their prey, the eyeballs sink down into their mouth and help push the food down their throats!!!

At times, they created little whirlpools as they bumped up against one another or tried to mount a neighbor.

 

 

Sometimes, a large female with a smaller male atop her would rest quietly under water, apparently trying to avoid notice. This strategy did not always work, however, and sometimes one or more other males would try to join the pair already in amplexus (i.e., when the male grasps the female with his front legs and fertilizes the eggs as she releases them from her body)..

The female toad ejects her eggs in two strings, which are immediately fertilized by a nearby male spurting out a stream of sperm. (Frogs lay their eggs in clusters.) Tadpoles will emerge from the eggs within 2–14 days and reach adulthood within 50–65 days. They become sexually mature at 2-3 years.

In one case, I developed a real sympathy for a particularly large female. She had a small male astride her who resembled her in coloring and they looked to be peacefully joined. Then another male spotted them and he launched a sneak attack, trying to usurp the position of her already-present suitor. The first male clung on tightly.

No. 1 pushed No. 2 away with a hind leg again and again.

In the meantime, a great blue heron (Ardea herodius) who had been feeding on the other side of the pond, made its way over to the site of toad frenzy. S/he had been eating small fish and amphibians.

I thought the heron would plunge into the midst of the numerous toads for an easy meal, but instead the bird looked around and then skirted the group, veering away to the shoreline. Perhaps some instinct made the heron avoid the group during a reproductive event? Or s/he was put off by the vigorous activity of the potential prey?

A second rival toad then joined the first, who was still trying to get the original mating male out of the way. Eventually, a third, fourth and yet another male joined the group and the poor female was weighted down by 5 – FIVE! – male toads all vying for the prime spot on her back. Often her head was pushed down under water.

The first male clung on with great determination, often being pushed down under water as well as the other males piled on. He was NOT going to give up.

Ms Toad did not like this state of affairs. She laboriously began moving from a deeper spot in the pond to the pond’s edge. This was a slow process, made difficult by the clinging crowd who must have weighed a good deal as a group.

I thought she might be trying to get to more shallow water so the toad “knot” would not keep her submerged. Toads can breathe under water like frogs because they can absorb oxygen through their skin. They do have lungs, however, and if these fill with water, they can drown. A fellow Facebook nature lover told me that she had seen expired female toads with males still clinging to them. A toad knot can therefore unfortunately result in maternal mortality – the demise of a mother giving birth (to several thousand eggs; most of the tadpoles do not survive).

I soon left the scene after Ms Toad had reached the side of the pond and could keep her head above water. It was noticeable that her throat pouch was inflating and deflating – perhaps she was breathing deeply to compensate for lack of oxygen when she had to suffer a submerged head due to the over-amorous males.

 

Inhale!                                                                  Exhale!

I know I am anthropomorphizing, but I do believe that she likely felt the amphibian equivalent of relief and was looking forward to the end of that day!

Venturing forth on overcast days

Our area has been inundated with rain for 9 days straight now – not a big deal if you live in a region with monsoon seasons but it is not really usual for us. We also had two hurricanes and several severe storms the past 5.5 months as well as other rainy periods and the ground – much of it clay – is just not absorbing all the water anymore. My yard (which I am fortunate to have, don’t get me wrong!) currently has patches that are simply sodden mud and clay with no vegetation to be seen. Paths in the nature reserves are slick and slippery. Still, if you’re a person who gets “spiritual sustenance” by going out into nature, you venture forth on those days that might have a few overcast but rain-free hours to see what is out and about. Though I haven’t seen beavers lately, I did see their tracks in one reserve. A father had brought his children out and they made plaster casts of the tracks – a wonderful outdoor nature lesson.

Because we have also had some unusually warm days for this time of year, the flowers began budding a bit earlier than other years. Daffodils, hyacinths and crocuses are blooming profusely and a few of my neighbors have lovely flowering quince (Chaenomeles).

 

 

A winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) at one park had some lovely blossoms.

 

 

 

 

 

At another reserve, an apple tree (Malus pumila) has lovely flowers emerging.

 

Unfortunately, the tree is right next to a grove of cedars that are laden with mature cedar apple rust galls (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae). When they emit their spores, they will kill the apples. I used to have an apple tree in my yard but the nearby cedars also got apple rust and now the tree has died. I’ve planted a plum tree and hope that that one will thrive and survive.

With the leaves having fallen from most trees, it’s possible to see the cocoons of some of our larger moths. So far, I’ve found three cecropia moth cocoons, two polyphemus moth cocoons and several bagworm moth cocoons in three different places. The Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg cases are also showing up better with little foliage to hide them.

Getting nice shots of birds is not easy on those dull and gray days. Many of the smaller birds were huddled in bushes and trees, puffing themselves up to trap some body heat as a means of coping with the cold and wet conditions.

 

Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

I tried to get close to a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius), who kept flying just a bit further away when I slowly approached it. As I was walking back to my car, it suddenly turned and flew right by me – I swung up my camera and got one shot, which was not perfect but still a bit of a reward.

 

A gorgeous great blue heron (Ardea herodias), on the other hand, deigned to entertain me with a protracted grooming session at a local pond. S/he first perched above a couple turtles and watched them until they plopped down underwater.

Then the bird began picking at its feathers, showing off how its long neck can be twisted to enable that long beak to reach where it wants.

Note where the beak is peeking through in the photo above right! Flexible neck!

The preening activities gave me a chance to get what I considered to be a series of nice portraits.

 

The weather forecasters predicted that the rain would end, it would get very windy and the sun would shine this afternoon – they were right! They also say we will have a week of sunny days coming up – I certainly hope that that’s the case so I can exchange my muck boots for regular walking shoes again. Hope you are enjoying some pleasant weather!

 

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 pond and the cycle of life

Undergoing cardiology exams can bring up thoughts of mortality and a life lived; perhaps they also made me more attentive to the cycle of life in my yard, particularly in the vicinity of my backyard pond.

Several years ago, a local garden center went out of business and they had a 175-gallon black plastic pond for sale. It was a good deal, so I invested in it and then had to dig a large hole in the rocky Piedmont clay ground of my backyard (with a bit of help from a neighbor teen). At a certain point, the ground was so hard we couldn’t penetrate it with shovels so the pond now sits a bit above ground level; the rocks I piled up around it have offered a home to Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus).

 

I transferred some of my beautiful koi and goldfish from a smaller pond, only to have a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) come by to clean them all out.

On the recommendation of the garden center staff, I had positioned a heron statue by the pond – they said herons don’t like competition, so the intruder would keep flying when s/he saw the one by the pond. It didn’t take long for the bird to figure out the stationary bird was not real, however.

After the heron had eaten all the koi and goldfish, I still had some tiny baby fish. At first, I thought they were from my now deceased koi but apparently the intruder heron had had fish eggs on its feet from a nearby natural pond and left them behind. So for a time, I had unidentified native fish in the pond. They were extremely shy, however, and I only got a brief look at them when they surfaced early in the morning; as soon as I came near, they dove down under the water plants (no good photos).

Then some green frogs (Lithobates clamitus) moved in this past summer and ended up being extremely prolific reproducers. Before I realized it, there were at least 500 tadpoles in the pond!! They were eating the fish food and at the same time I noticed that I wasn’t seeing the fish at all anymore. Going online, I found out that tadpoles will eat fish – their sheer numbers had to have spelled doom for the fish.

 

 

I collected lots of the tadpoles, gave some to a friend for her water feature and released hundreds into the local creek (they are native animals after all). A few of the tadpoles grew into frogs and the pond became a residence for some very loud croakers.

 

  

The next chapter in the story came a couple days ago. I had seen a pair of red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) visiting my yard recently. I thought they were after the chipmunks, numerous squirrels and songbirds populating the area. The other day, however, one hawk took up a position in the crepe myrtle tree next to the pond and just sat there calmly not bothering with any of those creatures. Numerous Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) perched in the tree above her and many other species of birds were at the nearby feeders;  none of them were concerned at all with the hawk’s presence. The squirrels didn’t seem perturbed either.

She sat fairly still and I took some photos through my kitchen window. Then I ventured out into the backyard, sure she would take off as I left the porch steps. But Ms. Hawk just sat there, sometimes stretching a leg or engaging in a little grooming.

     

   

Occasionally, she looked up but often her gaze was fixed on the area around the pond.

She would stare intently down at the ground – I thought she might have spotted one of the pond chipmunks.

Then after a while, I noticed her shifting her stance – suddenly she plopped down into the pond with spread wings. It happened too fast for me to get out from behind dried plants to get a good photo, so I watched as she climbed out of the pond. Then it became apparent what she had been hunting – she had caught one of the green frogs.

  

It looked like she bit its head to kill it as soon as she got on dry land; the frog wasn’t moving.

Then she spent time ruffling and shaking out her feathers which had gotten a good soaking.

She spent a little time looking around and then abruptly took off with her prize, closely followed by another red-shouldered hawk who suddenly swooped in.

He chased her but she got away with her meal and he ended up sitting in a neighbor’s tree, somewhat disgruntled with his failed thievery attempt.

  

Ms. Hawk returned yesterday and spent quite a bit of time in a high tree surveying the yard and gazing down at the ground. Red-shouldered hawks sometimes eat birds, such as sparrows, doves and starlings (which are all numerous around my feeders) but more often they go after snakes, mice, toads, frogs, lizards and small mammals such as voles and chipmunks. They will also eat insects and earthworms. Since I’m leaving the leaf litter, there are undoubtedly more insects hiding there than in neighboring yards. I’m not sure what Ms. Hawk is seeking in my yard, but I hope she doesn’t get all the pond frogs. In any event, I’m sure new ones will find the water in the spring and in the meantime, I have a beautiful bird of prey to watch this winter.

Avian generations in the making – part 2B: nesting in nature

My last blog looked at birds’ nests in man-made structures and there are plenty of birds who take the opportunity to use such sites. Most birds, however, make their homes out in nature – in shrubs, trees and on the ground. This is a bit of a long blog but I want to share views of different species at work.

There are different types of nests; a few types that we see in North Carolina include:

  • Cavity nests – holes in trees, made by the parents themselves or adopted as a home when birds like the cavities made by others
  • Simple scrapes – these are shallow depressions scratched out on the ground and they may be lined with materials or left to look like the rest of the surrounding ground
  • Cup-shaped nests – these structures are like small bowls and may be lined with materials like those used in nest box nests. They can be made of varied materials – swallows use mud while American robins and other birds use plant materials.
  • Platform nests – these nests are usually quite large and comprise large twigs and small branches
  • Plate nests are a bit similar to platform nests but much smaller and less organized; they may consist simply of a few twigs arranged in a shallow bundle
  • Pendant nests hang from branches.

When birds look for a cavity site, they may seek out a new spot on a tree trunk or investigate already existing cavities. These Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) at Sandy Creek Park were examining one particular hole with interest, but a downy woodpecker was interested as well so there was some rivalry. The female bluebird chose to just sit on a nearby branch while her mate looked at the hole numerous times trying to make a decision.

    

Red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) excavate larger cavities in tree trunks to raise their broods. They may visit various trees before deciding on a spot.

      

Pileated woodpeckers (Hylatomus pileatus) may use the same holes year after year. They make holes for resting as well as for nesting and often include a “back door” so they can make a quick escape if a snake shows up.

          

Brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla), like this one at Jordan Lake, can be very industrious in excavating their nest cavities. You can watch them pecking away at the wood of a tree trunk or branch, scattering wood shavings and removing bigger bits of softened wood in their beaks to achieve a hole of the right depth for their babies. (See a short video of one at work here.)

   

I also saw nuthatches making nests on the edges of a farm and near the NC Botanical Garden. The pair working on a nest at the Garden were doing this with a great horned owl on a branch overhead, as well as a red-tailed hawk and crows who were raising a racket. Their presence didn’t bother the little birds; these nuthatches also appeared to have help from a previous year’s youngster willing to help the parents raise the new siblings.

 

 

    

Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) also dig out small holes in trees and snags.

      

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) use scrape nests which may look exactly like the surrounding area; their eggs then blend in really well with the environment and can be difficult to see.

When I first saw this nest suspended from a tree near a bridge, I had no idea which bird had built it. A birding friend had fortunately seen the parent bird fly to the nest – it belonged to a Northern parula like the one shown below (Setophaga americana).

    

I was lucky to see a female orchard oriole (Icterus spurius) collecting nice soft lining materials for its nest this past spring.

         

A red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) was doing the same with cattails – an obviously appropriate source for bird bedding!

       

Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) and Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) make fairly shallow, twiggy nests (“plate nests”). It makes you wonder if eggs ever roll out of them through cracks in the loose, low walls.

   

Many birds make cup nests and spend a good amount of time collecting the materials to produce them. Here you see American robins (Turdus migratorius) gathering grasses – they tend to fill their mouths as much as possible before flying off to the nest-in-the making.

      

Red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus) will also attempt to get several pieces of bark into their beaks before flying back to the home site. The photos here are dark as the bird was deep in shrubs where little light was penetrating.

        

Blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) weave what looks like a cross between a pendant nest and a cup nest; they also add man-made materials such as rags, cellophane, newspaper and bits of plastic.

    

Great blue herons and ospreys are builders of platform nests.The great blue herons (Ardea herodias) carry large twigs and branches to furnish a nest. At Sandy Creek Park they have been using the same tree-top platforms for several years now.

     

Last year, I saw this osprey pair (Pandion haliaetus) build their first nest from scratch; they weren’t enthusiastic about me being in the vicinity and would perch or fly overhead to give me “the evil eye” – sometimes calling to one another to sound the alert that they had spotted me down below.

 

 

This year, they were busy refurbishing the nest – these birds with longer-term mates may use the same nest year after year. Again, they would stop their work to stare me down.

 

The Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens) makes a cup nest that is well-hidden among the leaves of the tree spot it chooses. A friend saw the pair constructing this nest and it was done by the time I visited. It seemed quite a tight fit for mom to sit in while brooding her eggs.

The bird whom I enjoy seeing most during nest construction is the blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). These little birds are very active and often don’t sit still for long as they feed in shrubs and trees. When they are busy making a new home though, they take their time to do a good job. First, they locate good locations for the materials they use – leaves, spider web to hold the leaves together and pieces of lichen to cover the outside walls.

      

They affix the lichen carefully to make a really beautiful, compact and elegant little cup. The female then sits in it and moves her body to ensure it gets the right shape and dimensions for her upcoming brooding.

     

The male and female both work hard on the nests and this year I got to see three pairs at work. In two cases, it was lucky I saw them flying to and fro because their nests blended in really well with the tree.

Unlike the cavity and platform nesters, the cup and pendant nesters usually need to build a new nest each year. At the end of the summer, for example, the blue-gray gnatcatcher nest had already deteriorated considerably with the rain and wind, even though it was a fairly calm and dry season.

 

Once the nest is complete, the avian parents brood and feed their babies before fledging and this will be the third part of this series. For now, I leave you with the male and female ospreys as they watch the birdwatcher….