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….

  

Winter mornings at Jordan Lake

Mist on the lake I77A5266© Maria de BruynSpending two cold early mornings at Jordan Lake the past couple weeks reinforced my conviction that getting out into nature is a restorative and calming activity. And it doesn’t need to be warm. Although a doctor pronounced me healed after my recent hospitalization and home treatment, it turns out that I’m not completely healthy after all. Starting a new treatment was a bit stressful, but seeing the birds at the lake was a joy.

snag I77A6203© Maria de Bruyn res

Mind you, I’d love to see other wildlife there, but the mammals, reptiles and amphibians have been hiding out or keeping away from areas frequented by people. The fact that it is still hunting season probably makes some of them somewhat shy, too. I did manage to see a fly on one morning though.

fly I77A2979© Maria de Bruyn

The animals do leave behind signs of their presence, however. Tracks in the sand is one give-away that they passed by.

animal tracks I77A2998© Maria de Bruyn res

The beavers (Castor canadensis) leave behind distinctively gnawed tree stumps – and here you can also see one tree that they haven’t quite finished felling yet.

beaver tree I77A2933© Maria de Bruyn res beaver tree I77A2950© Maria de Bruyn res

The shoreline vegetation was decorated with gull feathers in various areas of the lake.

bird feather I77A2711© Maria de Bruyn res bird feather I77A2697© Maria de Bruyn res

heron track I77A2924© Maria de Bruyn res

 

A sandy track of what I assumed was a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) didn’t produce a bird at that site, but I saw these beauties in flight at two other sites.

 

great blue heron I77A3926© Maria de Bruyn res

great blue heron I77A2558© Maria de Bruyn res

At one area, I spotted a bird that seemed unfamiliar just as it was turning to take off. Friendly birders online identified it as an American pipit (Anthus rubescens), the first time I had seen this species (known as a “lifer” among the birding crowd). The next week I saw a killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) in the same spot but got a better shot.

American pipit I77A2526© Maria de Bruynkilldeer I77A5908© Maria de Bruyn

The killdeer didn’t hang around too long either, but I was able to get a couple of nice flight photos this time.

killdeer I77A5933© Maria de Bruyn res killdeer I77A5931© Maria de Bruyn res

American crow I77A2810© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) were foraging in the shoreline woods, while the song sparrow was looking for food among the woody detritus left at lakeside.

 

song sparrow I77A5877© Maria de Bruyn res song sparrow I77A5866© Maria de Bruyn res

In another place, the crows were very loudly making their presence known – it turned out that a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was perched nearby and they were making sure everyone knew the hawk was there.

red-tailed hawk I77A3850© Maria de Bruyn resAmerican crow I77A3878© Maria de Bruyn res

In the trees near the lake, various birds could be seen: the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) was very busy as usual, flying from a sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) to other trees in rapid succession.

ruby-crowned kinglet I77A5662© Maria de Bruyn ruby-crowned kinglet I77A6049© Maria de Bruyn

At one site, there were many dark-eyed juncos foraging on the ground and taking pauses in the trees and shrubs around. Juncos are actually a type of sparrow and a group of sparrows is known by several names: a crew, a flutter, a meinie, a quarrel and an ubiquity.

dark-eyed junco I77A2838© Maria de Bruyn dark-eyed junco I77A2379© Maria de Bruyn

The downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) were in evidence at various lake sites.

downy woodpecker I77A2504© Maria de Bruyn resRed-bellied woodpecker I77A5384© Maria de Bruyn res

Overhead, the double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) flew by; they would land and share space with the ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis).

 

double-crested cormorant I77A2731© Maria de Bruyn resring-billed gull I77A3558© Maria de Bruyn res

ring-billed gull I77A2389© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The ring-billed gulls were numerous and occasionally one swooped down to fish not too far from shore.

ring-billed gull I77A5489© Maria de Bruyn resring-billed gull I77A5497© Maria de Bruyn res

While I was watching, the horned grebes (Odiceps auritus) were more successful in getting meals as they dove into the cold water.

Horned grebe I77A3662© Maria de Bruynhorned grebe I77A3094© Maria de Bruyn

belted kingfisher I77A4014© Maria de BruynA couple times I was very surprised by a bird that suddenly seemed to emerge out of nowhere to fly over my head or just in front of me. That was the case with a beautiful male wood duck (Aix sponsa) and a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).

 

wood duck I77A3719© Maria de Bruyn res wood duck I77A3718© Maria de Bruyn res

bald eagle I77A3030© Maria de BruynAn adult bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) soared by just as I was approaching an observation platform in one area; the distance and height were considerable but I managed a shot. A Bonaparte’s gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) flew by a little lower, while a Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) sat still for a portrait.

 

Bonaparte's gull I77A3962© Maria de Bruyn

 

Carolina chickadee I77A5806© Maria de Bruyn res

My last avian companions during my latest lake walk were a white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) and a lovely hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus).

white-throated sparrow I77A6115© Maria de Bruynhermit thrush I77A6165© Maria de Bruyn

I returned home on both occasions a satisfied birder!

 

Flying rays of sunshine, spirits on the wing – part 2

Cabbage white butterfly DK7A2287© Maria de Bruyn resWhen a butterfly like the cabbage white (Pieris rapae) alights on a flower or leaf, we sometimes have a little time to see them more clearly and appreciate their beauty; capturing a photo for leisurely viewing gives us the chance to focus on details. And those details are important if we want to determine their correct scientific names since entomologists have differentiated many species and sub-species, sometimes on the basis of factors such as the shape of their spots.

One butterfly pair that can be puzzling are the silvery checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis, top), with a small white center to one of its spots in the lower row, and the pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos), which was abundant this year.

silvery checkerspot DK7A1405© Maria de Bruyn res

pearl crescent DK7A1469© Maria de Bruyn res pearl crescent DK7A4689© Maria de Bruyn res

The Eastern comma (Polygonia comma) and question mark (Polygonia interrogationis) look really similar, too. Perhaps the difference in their distinguishing underside marking is really apparent to proofreaders.

Eastern comma DK7A5636© Maria de Bruyn resQuestion mark DK7A3181© Maria de Bruyn res

The easiest way to distinguish the endangered monarch (Danaus plexippus) and the viceroy (Limenitis archippus) is that the viceroy has a black stripe running horizontally across its lower wings.

monarch DK7A7941© Maria de Bruyn res

viceroy DK7A5128© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern tiger swallowtail DK7A2096© Maria de Bruyn res

The swallowtails are always a favorite, including the Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) with differently colored males (yellow) and females (yellow and also blue).

 

Eastern tiger swallowtail DK7A7768© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern tiger swallowtail DK7A0256© Maria de Bruyn res

Zebra swallowtail DK7A0046© Maria de Bruyn res

The zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) really catches your eye as it flutters about, while the pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) is a little more subdued.

 

Pipevine swallowtail DK7A9681© Maria de Bruyn res Pipevine swallowtail DK7A9691© Maria de Bruyn

The red spotted purples (Limenitis arthemis) come in different variations; this one enjoyed the hummingbird nectar this summer.

Red-spotted purple DK7A0518© Maria de Bruyn res Red-spotted purple DK7A0998© Maria de Bruyn res

Another new butterfly for me this year was the great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele), which I enjoyed seeing as they enjoyed common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) at the Horton Grove Nature Reserve.

great spangled fritillary DK7A5377© Maria de Bruyn res Great spangled fritillary DK7A5052© Maria de Bruyn res

Hackberry emperor DK7A6150© Maria de Bruyn resThe hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis) turned up at Jordan Lake, while the common buckeye (Junonia coenia) – whose beauty is anything but common! – was in my yard and various nature reserves. I also observed a pair getting ready to propagate the next generation.

 

 

common buckeye DK7A1181© Maria de Bruyn common buckeye DK7A8729© Maria de Bruyn res common buckeye IMG_9470© Maria de Bruyn res common buckeye IMG_9538© Maria de Bruyn res

Some of the tinier butterflies are delicate beauties, like the Summer azure (Celastrina neglecta), the gray hairstreak – which can look brown (Strymon melinus), the Eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas) and the Carolina satyr (Hermeuptychia sosybius).

Summer azure DK7A5424© Maria de BruynGray hairstreak DK7A4495© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern tailed-blue DK7A1141© Maria de Bruyn resCarolina Satyr DK7A5279 © Maria de Bruyn res2

To end, here are two more beauties that I had the privilege to see this year. I hope  seeing these butterflies and those in my previous blog brightened your day, especially if you have been dealing with sorrow as I have while this year approaches its end.

Southern pearly eye DK7A9953© Maria de Bruyn resNorthern pearly-eye DK7A7752©Maria de Bruyn res

Southern pearly eye (Lethe portlandia) and Northern pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon)

 

Patient fishers of the bird world

great blue heron IMG_8830© Maria de Bruyn resIt’s not uncommon for visitors to our ponds, lakes and rivers to see what look like tall, statuesque bird sculptures on shorelines. The great blue herons (Ardea herodias) – North America’s largest heron species – can stand for long periods without moving or only slightly tilting their heads as they exercise extreme patience in their quest for a morning, midday or evening meal.

If they have a chance for easy pickings, these herons will certainly take advantage of it, as I discovered when the koi and goldfish in my pond were disappearing. But in their natural habitat they will scan the water intently to find their prey.

great blue heron IMG_4336©Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8910© Maria de Bruyn rea

If you have the time and inclination to watch them for a lengthier period of time, you will note how they hunch down and stretch up as they position themselves to get good views of the water around them.

great blue heron IMG_4174©Maria de Bruyn (2) resgreat blue heron IMG_4242©Maria de Bruyn

great blue heron IMG_8791© Maria de Bruyn resThey stare downwards and to the side, following the movements of fish, frogs and crayfish. When the wind blows, their plumed neck and tail feathers sway gently and beautifully in the breeze.

great blue heron IMG_4343©Maria de Bruyn resIf nothing seems nearby, they will move with quiet and slow deliberation to another spot, often quite nearby. Unlike the snowy egrets, they don’t stir up the mud with their feet or flap their wings to create movement in the water.

When a fish does swim by, they burst into very fast motion, plunging their long beaks and whole heads down to grab what they have spotted.

 

 

great blue heron and egret IMG_8470© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8811© Maria de Bruyn res

They are not always successful, sometimes coming up empty beaked!

great blue heron IMG_8878© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8879© Maria de Bruyn resBut their patience obviously does pay off, too.

Great blue heron IMG_9578©Maria de BruynGreat blue heron IMG_9530©Maria de Bruyn

Once caught, they need to work the fish or other prey around so that they can swallow it down smoothly. As they swallow their meal whole, this is important. (And they can eat a very large meal; there is a film on the Internet showing a heron swallowing a groundhog!!)

great blue heron IMG_8813© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8816© Maria de Bruyngreat blue heron IMG_8477© Maria de Bruyn res

great blue heron IMG_8483© Maria de Bruyn  resgreat blue heron IMG_8482© Maria de Bruyn

great blue heron IMG_8818© Maria de Bruyn great blue heron IMG_8825© Maria de Bruyn res

If you look carefully, you can see the meal slide down their long necks.

great blue heron IMG_8826© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8484© Maria de Bruyn

Great blue heron IMG_0554©Maria de Bruyn resThis fishing strategy works well for the great blues as they can continue to hunt even when injured. This bird had a very badly damaged wing and apparently couldn’t fly anymore but it could stalk slowly in the lake as it looked for food.

The bird below had had some kind of encounter – either with a man-made obstacle or some form of wildlife that left it with an injured wing and broken leg. Bald eagles are one of the few predators of adult herons and this great blue lives at Jordan Lake which has a group of such eagles in residence. Despite the handicap, the heron could fly from spot to spot and then stand in wait for meals to swim by.

great blue heron IMG_9244© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_9247© Maria de Bruyn res

If disturbed, these birds emit a very loud and harsh squawk or croaking sound and then often take off. They certainly wouldn’t win any singing contests with their definitively non-melodious calls.

great blue heron IMG_8516© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_8940© Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron and egret IMG_5083© Maria de BruynThey prefer to fish in solitude and don’t care for other birds invading their territory. This great blue and great egret wanted the same spot and the great blue made some efforts to chase off its white competitor. However, the egret refused to leave and eventually they shared the spot with some meters of space between them.

Watching the herons fish has not only given me an appreciation for their innate patience but has also enhanced my own patience as well as I stand and wait with them until it’s finally mealtime.

 

Belted kingfishers and me

Belted kingfisher IMG_9360f© Maria de Bruyn

Since my “career” as a birder is still rather short, especially in comparison to some birders I know, I still quite regularly see “lifers”. These are first-time spottings of birds in the wild when you can identify them reliably. While I enjoy seeing the more common birds in my area time and again, it is the lifers that often evoke a happy grin when I get a good photo. More often than not, though, my first photos of a lifer are a bit blurry, partial as the bird is hidden in foliage or otherwise imperfect. It is only with repeated sightings that the photos seem to improve – though that also isn’t always the case.

An example of this is my “relationship” with the belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).  Although worldwide there are more than 90 species of kingfishers, the United States and Canada only have three and it is the belted variety that is most often seen. “Belted” refers to the band of bluish-gray color across the white underparts of the bird’s body; both males and females have this. Females also have a reddish color band, making them even more attractive than the males, which is not so usual among our avian friends.

The first time I saw a belted kingfisher was in October 2012; it was Belted kingfisher IMG_9690Dacross Jordan Lake, about a 30-minute drive from my home, in a tree. Only when it flew by once at high speed was I able to get a half-way decent shot of what I think was a female.

My next sightings were in a mangrove swamp in Mexico in December 2013. One day, I saw a female fly by over the mangrove trees in the distance.

Belted kingfisher IMG_9364F© Maria de BruynTwo days later, at the same place, I saw male. What was exciting about that spotting was that the bird began fishing right in front of me. He would circle the swamp, hover a couple seconds and then fold his wings to drop like a bullet into the water, completely submerging. The action was fast and my photos were blurred again, but I was able to document that he had caught a meal.

Belted kingfisher IMG_1853© Maria de BruynBelted kingfisher IMG_1855© Maria de BruynBelted kingfisher IMG_1860© Maria de Bruyn

Belted kingfisher IMG_1864© Maria de BruynBelted kingfisher IMG_5279©Maria de BruynresMy fourth sighting was in the late afternoon this past week, January 2014. As I was walking in a forested area near a creek, I saw a flash of a blue head and white on the wings and at first thought that a blue jay had streaked by me. But then the odd, kind of loud warbling call caught my attention – it was definitely not a jay. The bird perched on a tree limb about 100 feet or more ahead of me and I suspected that it might be a kingfisher but doubted it, too, as I thought they needed to be around more open bodies of water. This is not the case – they just need to be around water that doesn’t freeze over so they always have access to their fishy diets, as well as amphibians, small crustaceans, insects, small mammals and reptiles. They nest in burrows dug horizontally into the banks of waterways and both parents cooperate in feeding and raising the young.

Belted kingfisher IMG_5442©Maria de BruynresBelted kingfisher IMG_5388©Maria de Bruynres

I began taking photos from far away as I neared the kingfisher; when I would get within about 30 feet, he would take off again. This scenario repeated itself over and over again as I tried to get some shots of the bird not hidden by branches, twigs and dried foliage. I finally did get some photos, again not of the best quality as it was getting towards dusk and the bird was still pretty far away.

Belted kingfisher IMG_5420©Maria de BruynresBoth sexes have a dark head with crested feathers and quite large bills; this juvenile – male, I believe – showed his crest over and over as he called and bobbed up and down on his various perches. I think it is the crest that helped give him a – what struck me as – crabby look. He was very impressive though.

Belted kingfisher IMG_5442©Maria de Bruynres

When I next see a belted kingfisher, it won’t be a “lifer” sighting but my goal now is to get a good close-up shot; time will tell if I succeed!

Next blog: deer and their efforts to get food