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.

 

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!

 

Growing up barred – Part 2: personal care

The young barred owls that I observed this past summer at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve could be found rather predictably in two places at the reserve, both of which were near water. They were quite beautiful to see.

Barred owls (Strix varia) are the only owls in the Eastern USA who have brown rather than yellow eyes. When adult, barred owls have short feathers on their heads but no ear tufts. Their eyelids are also feathered. The juveniles still have fuzzy down feathers on their heads and pink, barely feathered, eyelids as you can see here.

     

Adult barred owl                                                                Young barred owlet

Their feathers extend down their legs and feet right up to their talons. The owls’ claws are less curved than other raptors’ talons which makes it possible for them to squeeze their prey to death.

  

  

As they grow, the young ones will groom often, pulling out downy feathers.

    

They frequently stretch out their wings and tails when grooming.

                    

  

Baths were also a welcome form of personal care.

  

This was especially so during our very hot summer days. The fact that I was standing about 5 feet away did not deter the owlets from enjoying vigorous dunkings in the water ditch.

 

I did not see them bathe at the same time; they appeared to take turns. Perhaps each one was keeping watch for the other one when they were vulnerable.

The siblings did indeed seem to be very aware of each other’s activities and when I observed them, they didn’t stray far from one another. The next blog will show a little of their interactions.

 

My hummer summer, part 2 — beauty in flight, beauty at rest

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8438-maria-de-bruynIn my previous blog, I mentioned that the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilocus colubris) had a greater variety of flowering plants to visit in my yard this year and that increased the size and diversity of their nectar buffet. The availability of multiple food sources also meant that they spent a bit more time visiting – they didn’t just dash to a feeder, perch or hover for a drink and then take off. They visited feeders, different blooms and took little rests between meals, giving me numerous chances to watch them and practice my hummingbird photography – a win-win for both us!

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One of their favorite flowers were the lantanas (Lantana), which are also a favorite of mine as they attract many smaller pollinators such as bees and butterflies and are still profusely blooming in the latter half of October.

 

 

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This year, several types of sage brightened my gardens. Some deep blue Brazilian sage plants (Salvia guaranitica), kindly donated to me by Gail, a fellow birder, added color and provided the hummers with deep blooms into which they could insert their long bills.

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1315-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7519-maria-de-bruyn-resA small-leaf sage (also known as Festival or little-leaf sage, Salvia microphylla “San Carlos Festival”) provided an ongoing splash of deep red blooms that attracted the hummers over and over again. This plant not only graced the garden in the summer but is still blooming profusely now, making it another one of my favorites. A couple other different red sages and a red beebalm (Monarda didyma) were good nectar choices but they didn’t bloom as long or in such abundance. Perhaps next year, they will have gained strength.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1160-maria-de-bruyn-resThe two stonecrop plants (Hylotelephium Autumn joy), in my front garden, with their rounded bunches of little pink flowers, had hummer visitors on a few occasions, but these are not one of their preferred blooms. The milkweed plants (Asclepias syriaca) also only had a few visits as far as I could tell.

 

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And it was the same story for the blue balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), which does get its fair share of bees.

 

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a2198-maria-de-bruyn-resI had planted cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), which unfortunately didn’t get any flowers. I did see a bird visiting this plant species near Bolin Creek, however. The same happened with a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), but at a vine cluster near the Haw River I saw how they inserted their heads entirely into the tubular blooms.

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In between feedings, the hummingbirds will perch to watch for intruders into “their space”. But they also will take sun-baths, pointing their faces upward and puffing themselves up.

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They will then change shape, stretching their necks and spreading their wings and tail feathers to expose as much of their bodies as possible to the sunlight.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a6885maria-de-bruyn-res   ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a6891maria-de-bruyn-res

They may relieve themselves while they are in flight and then later take a little power nap of a few seconds.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1170-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a0553-maria-de-bruyn-res

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Grooming is also a frequent activity – these little avians make sure that they stay just as beautiful as the sweet flowers that they frequent!

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When the males turn their heads so that the light hits them in different ways, they do a nice job of demonstrating that their bright gorget colors are not in the feathers themselves but the result of prism cells in their feathers that change how the light is reflected depending on the angle we see.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1126-maria-de-bruyn-res    ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1120-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a6366-maria-de-bruyn-resWhen they’re done sun bathing, grooming and resting, the hummingbirds need to take off again. However, their feet are so tiny that they can’t walk and, when they lift off, they also don’t have the foot strength to push.  So they rise into the air using the power of their wings, quickly flapping as they set off and rapidly reaching their usual rate of about 50-53 beats per second.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7167-maria-de-bruyn-resMy last summer hummingbird residents appear to have left for their Central American wintering grounds on 7 October, just before Hurricane Matthew arrived in North Carolina. I really hope that they were able to get through the windy environment without problems as they began their long migratory journeys and I am already looking forward to seeing them arrive next spring. In the meantime, I’m keeping a couple feeders up in case another hummer species decides to over-winter here – and the Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) and tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) can continue to use the ant guards over the feeders as their preferred watering holes.

 

Water-logged and soggy birds

Carolina wren I77A2794© Maria de Bruyn resMy original intent was to write only one more blog this year, but our current weather has induced me to write two (the other will follow on the last day of 2015). During the past week, our region has had more than our “fair share” of rain. Fortunately, the house is not downstream or downhill of flowing water so that flooding is not a concern (and having helped my parents when their home was flooded with about 5 feet of water, I know that is a real pain to say the least). But the yard is so water-logged that small pools of water are scattered in many places and the ground cover squishes when we walk on it. Combined with very high temperatures for this time of year, it seems that El Niño is really making itself known – and the birds like this Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) must be getting tired of being water-logged as well!

Sayings such as “like water off a duck’s back” imply that birds don’t really get bothered by water pouring from the heavens, but that is probably only partly true. During recent downpours, I saw – through the back porch screen – a Carolina wren and Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) hanging out on a downspout under the house eaves, while a brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) clung to the brick wall under the roof overhang to get out of the rain.

brown-headed nuthatch I77A0090© Maria de BruynNorthern cardinal I77A0101© Maria de Bruyn res

Birds that regularly dive underwater do have denser feathers, which helps prevent water from penetrating through to their skin, as is the case for this Canada goose (Branta canadensis).

Canada goose I77A1169© Maria de Bruyn res

But birds’ feathers are not inherently waterproof – when we see water droplets beading on their backs and tails, as in the case of this brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) and blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata), it’s because the birds have made them water-resistant to some extent.

Blue jay I77A3141© Maria de Bruyn resbrown thrasher I77A9881© Maria de Bruyn res

This happens in two ways. On the one hand, birds such as pigeons, herons, hawks and owls have special feathers called “powder downs” or “pulviplumes”, which are covered in a dusty powder containing keratin that disintegrates and becomes a waterproof coating. They spread the powder to other feathers while preening.

Great blue heron I77A1220© Maria de Bruyn res

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)

brown-headed nuthatch I77A0090© Maria de Bruyn resOther birds have a uropygial (preen) gland located at the base of their tails. It produces a substance containing oil and wax that the birds spread on their feathers when they groom. Often, they will rub their head against the preen gland and then spread the oil by rubbing their head against other feathers, a behavior that this female red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) seemed to be doing when she was grooming. The wax then helps make the feathers more flexible and water-resistant, which explains the water beads we see on their feathers when it rains.

dark-eyed junco I77A4085© Maria de Bruyndark-eyed junco I77A9650© Maria de Bruyn res

Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)

Eastern towhee I77A9682© Maria de Bruyn res Pine warbler I77A9921© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

     Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

It may be that some birds are less successful in spreading the powder and wax to their head feathers, or they rub all the oil or powder off their heads onto other feathers. This may account for the “bad hair day” look some of them get when it rains for hours on end. These spiky “Mohawks” often appear in Northern cardinals and Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

Northern cardinal I77A9734© Maria de Bruyn res Northern cardinal I77A9870© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird I77A9717© Maria de Bruyn resEastern bluebird I77A9710© Maria de Bruyn res

Other birds seem to especially get soggy feathers on the crowns of their heads just above their eyes. This may be why we see so many of them shaking their heads vigorously to get rid of the dampness on their pates.

Pine warbler I77A9942© Maria de Bruyn res White-throated sparrow I77A2980© Maria de Bruyn res

Pine warbler                                              White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

Red-bellied woodpecker I77A9724© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

And some birds just get an overall scruffy look when it rains hard, like this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).

 

 

 

 

Eastern bluebird I77A0155© Maria de Bruyn resThe water-logged look does seem to give some birds an angry or disgruntled appearance; I can certainly sympathize since endless days of rain – even in warmer temperatures – is one of my least favorite types of weather. It seems that overcast days and showers are continuing in our local forecast for some time to come. So the poor birds have to put up with the wet weather a while longer. We’ll all appreciate the sunlight when it comes back in force – hopefully soon!