Mama and Papa house wren to the rescue!

A few times each day, I walk outside with my 18.5-year-old cat, Jonahay, who is deaf and has some other ailments. He used to be an indoor-outdoor cat until I decided that it was better not to let him roam the neighborhood.

 

 

He rarely killed anything; he just wanted to mark his territory (which he still does) and occasionally he would catch moving things and bring them inside.

Thankfully, he didn’t bring me dead birds or animals; I did have to capture baby rabbits, chipmunks and a snake or two so they could go back outside. Now he just walks around and sleeps on the porch with me at his side; chipmunks and squirrels walk by him as they know he won’t chase them.

This afternoon as I was vacuuming, Jonahay came to ask for a walk, so I paused to take him outside for a few minutes. When we got to the side yard, I was surprised by a pair of house wrens (Troglodytes aedon) who were chittering vigorously and loudly in a cedar tree above me. They had not nested in my yard this year but do visit once in a while.

 

As I moved, they moved with me, continuously calling – their vocalization was very obviously directed at me, but I didn’t see any young ones anywhere so I wasn’t sure why they were so upset.

One of them – the male, I presume – only paused his calling for a few seconds when he groomed a little. I kept looking around for what might be upsetting them but didn’t see anything. Jonahay indicated we could go inside and the wrens had to let me leave.

 

As I took the vacuum cleaner into the kitchen, which opens onto a screened-in porch, I suddenly noted a few tiny feathers on the floor. If the wrens hadn’t been “yelling” at me, I might have just glanced down and thought they were bits of cat toy or fluff. But now I was more alert!

I called my two other (indoor) cats and they didn’t come, which was suspicious. Even when they look at animals through the windows and screens, they will usually react if I speak to them. When I entered the laundry room on the other side of the kitchen, there were Moasi (shown left)  and Ogi (right), sitting on the washer and dryer watching a juvenile wren perched on the window sill!

I don’t know how the bird got into the house. Likely, it had been early in the morning when I opened the porch door for a few minutes as I put out bird food, but I had not seen the bird on the porch when I re-entered. During the morning and early afternoon, I hadn’t noticed the cats chasing anything either so the mystery remains. I hadn’t been outside much with all my chores so perhaps those parents had been calling for him all that time.

In any event, I shooed Moasi and Ogi out of the room and proceeded to open the window. The little wren jumped into a plastic container near the window and that enabled me to easily move him/her to the open window. The bird waited a minute (enabling me to quickly get his photo) and then flew out to freedom – and obviously to a pair of anxious but effectively protective parents!

     

Swallow sibling spats – who gets the food??

Mother Nature came through for me again a week ago, treating me to an interesting session of cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) behavior. (I first thought they were barn swallows but then noted they didn’t have deeply forked tail feathers.) I had noticed the swallows flying high above me as I walked to a favorite birding spot where I hoped to see hummingbirds feeding on the profusely blooming trumpet vines. Instead, I got a lesson on how swallow siblings may interact.

Occasionally a couple birds would come very near one another in flight. My attempts to get good shots were however stymied by their very swift swooping.  As I came upon the structure where I would position myself for the next 80 minutes, I noticed five swallows sitting on a wire, all of them preening and grooming. It was only after taking multiple photos and one flying off that I realized the group included both adults and juveniles.

 

At one point, all but one flew away; he (assuming a male for convenience’s sake) was alone for a good bit of time. Occasionally, he would stretch his feathers or teeter on the wire; I wondered if he had hurt his wings and was therefore staying put, unable to fly.

It turned out that he was just waiting for a parent to arrive with food. The bird would stretch his wings and put them out a bit to help with balance but otherwise didn’t move except when a parent came within earshot. Then he began fluttering his wings and calling with an open mouth guaranteed to trigger the instinct to stuff something down it.

   

Sometimes, this meant having to turn his head 180° to get it in the right position for the deposit of an insect. This had the desired results.

The bird was alone on the wire for perhaps 20 minutes or so – and then was joined by a couple others. They looked a bit bigger and more developed but I finally realized that these were the bird’s siblings, who had been doing more to practice their flight capabilities.

  

“Wire” bird maneuvered his way down the wire in stages to end up right next to, and then almost on top of, one sibling. He almost seemed to be pecking the bird. This did not go down well and finally brother/sister left after wire bird moved back and forth.

 

The parents arrived sporadically with food, perhaps hoping that wire bird would finally take off – and then he finally did, showing he was not injured at all. I think he simply wanted to have table service and figured staying on the wire with an open mouth was easier than having to try catching lunch on the wing like his siblings.

   

Two siblings finally decided to perch on the wire, too, all making sure to keep some distance between themselves. Perhaps they were tuckered out after all those flights; one took a few naps between visits from mom and dad.

Wire bird was very good at attracting his parents’ attention so the other two tried to become more vocal and began fluttering their wings more as well. They also moved closer to him, likely hoping to intercept a meal.

  

 

Things became a bit more difficult for the parents, who could scarcely alight on the wire before having the food snatched away!

 

 

 

  

Then, one of the siblings seemed to have had enough of wire bird’s success and approached him – to wire bird’s dismay.

They had a little spat!

 

  

  

Sibling No. 2 also took a turn at wire bird – they seemed to be saying that enough was enough and he had to stop monopolizing mom and dad’s attention, care and feeding.

   

  

When a crow arrived, everybody flew off in a panic but it wasn’t long before wire bird was back in place. Mom and dad began arriving much more regularly and the siblings decided being on the wire would be more productive than trying to find their own food. The parents finally began feeding the siblings more and everyone seemed to be pleased with that arrangement.

Towards the end of my 80-minute observation stint, I reflected on how patience showed me much more of what was happening than I had first assumed. If I had left after 20 minutes, I might have gone away feeling sorry for wire bird, thinking he couldn’t fly well and had to rely on his faithful parents. It was only by staying and watching that I saw the nest mates have their spats and I had a new narrative to explain the behavior I was seeing.

 

It would be so interesting to be a researcher who follows the development of a species, avian or otherwise. When I was younger, I probably didn’t have the amount of patience needed to spend more than an hour in position to see what would happen next. Now it was a sore arm from holding up my heavy camera and zoom lens that ended my session. But I’m grateful that I have the time and calm now to watch and wait and wonder about what will happen next. And other than the camera equipment and gas expenses, it’s an inexpensive way to keep learning and enjoying the fabulous natural areas that still remain.

Living above a restaurant

house finch nest 1 IMG_4358© Maria de Bruyn resAt one point in Amsterdam, I lived in a room with a shared kitchen and toilet above a butcher shop. It was a cramped space but I made some nice friends there. Eventually, I painted the hallway with flowers and snails to bring a bit of nature inside. Today, on my way to a prompt writing session, I saw that some birds also choose to live above commercial establishments, including those who established homes above one of my favorite restaurants, El Tigre.

House finch nest 1IMG_4373© Maria de Bruyn res

 

There were three nests (at least – I didn’t look around to the other wall), with house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) on either side of a European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) home in the middle. Nest 1 had a female bird visiting while a couple stayed inside.

 

The other finch nest was attended by both mother and father.

house finch nest 3 IMG_4375© Maria de Bruyn res house finch nest 3 IMG_4351© Maria de Bruyn res

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European starling IMG_4390© Maria de Bruyn resThe nest with starlings had rather large babies in it. At one point, an adult bird flew in with a worm or insect but then took off before feeding anyone – perhaps alarmed when it saw me watching the nest. The babies didn’t say much, in contrast to the somewhat older baby starlings in my yard who make quite a racket asking to be fed.

European starling IMG_4387© Maria de Bruyn resEuropean starling IMG_4347© Maria de Bruyn res

 

European starling IMG_4397© Maria de Bruyn res

I wasn’t the only observer, however; a couple house sparrows (Passer domesticus) were also observing the comings and goings to and from the nests.

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I had a busy day and didn’t think I’d get to do much nature observation – but then those adaptable birds showed me that even in an urban environment, I can grab a few moments to see what other species are doing on a lovely spring day!

 

Corvid courtship – something to crow about

American crow DK7A7017©Maria de Bruyn res

American crow DK7A5544© Maria de Bruyn resAs I was sorting out photos of birds in our recent snow and sleet storm, my attention was drawn by the raucous cawing of one of our neighborhood crows. He had found some apple slices that I had put out with the bird seed and was one happy bird. He spent a lot of time calling, presumably to alert family members to the presence of this desired food source. And his enthusiasm made me decide to post a blog about corvid courtship now, since this late winter/early springtime ritual may be coming sooner than I thought.

Depending on geographic location and weather conditions, some birds begin nest building quite early in the year and American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are among the early mating pairs and nest builders. Last year, a male crow who visited my home discovered and enjoyed both grape jelly and apple slices around early March.American crow DK7A7423©Maria de Bruyn res

American crow DK7A0779© Maria de Bruyn

 

 

 

 

American crow DK7A5569© Maria de Bruyn resHe even tried to add the homemade suet to his diet but he was a bit large to balance well on the small feeder.

Last year, he only had to visit my yard a few times before he was accompanied by his mate. She would sit on a branch or on the ground and caw loudly like him, but she was demanding that he feed her.

American crow DK7A7678©Maria de Bruyn res

He met her demands but was not about to just give up his treats. He would often grab a piece of apple, fly up to a branch near her but then first eat about half of it himself as she continued her raucous cries for food.

American crow DK7A7321©Maria de Bruyn res

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American crow DK7A7022©Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

She could have easily flown down to the ground to grab a piece of apple but refused. On a few occasions, she did fly down but just refused to pick up the apple herself, waiting for him to stuff it down her throat.

 

American crow DK7A8031© Maria de Bruyn res

 

He fed her in the trees and on the ground, pushing the food way down her throat.

 

 


American crow DK7A7655©Maria de Bruyn (2) res

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Some preening went on as they perched in the backyard oak tree, too.

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American crow DK7A7504©Maria de Bruyn (2) resAmerican crow DK7A7530©Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

 

 

.I learned that offspring will remain with their parents up to five years. These “helpers” will assist in feeding the female as she incubates eggs and also bring food to their new siblings.

American crow DK7A5642© Maria de Bruyn res

It seems that our warm days in December and January this year may be getting my faithful crow in a romantic mood a bit sooner this year.The crows are loud, especially when three or more show up at a time, but I do enjoy their visits and look forward to watching the corvid courtship again this spring.

American crow DK7A8461©Maria de Bruyn res

A varied palate – hummingbirds’ choice of foods

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As promised, one more blog on hummingbirds before I move to another topic; their presence always brings me enjoyment and I know other people who are enamored with these tiny birds, too. Also, although autumn has come, I still have a couple ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) at my feeders. And a couple days ago I had the privilege of seeing a species new to me, the buff-bellied hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis), which has only visited the state of North Carolina once before (at least as far as human witnesses are concerned)!

DK7A2528© Maria de Bruyn resThe hummers have a varied diet, including mainly insects (mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, small bees), spiders, tree sap and sweet nectar (or sugar water). They tend to feed about 5-10 times per hour during the day and need about 10 calories of nutrition each day.

 

It is a lot easier to catch them drinking nectar than catching insects (apologies for the blurred photos)!

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Hummingbirds use their long tubular tongues as elastic micro-pumps to obtain nectar. This enables them to lick a flower up to 20 times per second as they gather food. And although we can’t see it when just looking at them, they have forked tongues (like snakes)!

 

 

DK7A0391© Maria de Bruyn res ruby-throated hummingbird DK7A1076© Maria de Bruyn res

DK7A4497© Maria de Bruyn2The hummers visit a variety of flowers to drink their sweet nectar, often preferring orange or red flowers but certainly not avoiding others.In my garden, this includes cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), hollyhocks (Alcea), yellow passionflower (Passiflora lutea) and lantana (Lantana).

ruby-throated hummingbird DK7A0820© Maria de BruynDK7A0555© Maria de Bruyn res

In nature reserves, I’ve seen them visiting morning glories (Ipomoea), ironweed (Vernonia) and trumpet vines (Campsis radicans).

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Their long bills, tubular tongues and slim bodies make it easy for them to drink from long flowers, but sometimes they will simply pierce the base of a flower to obtain nectar, or use a hole already made there by an insect.

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Light-colored flowers are not shunned as food sources, however!

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Bean plants and gerbera daisies (Gerbera)  were on the menu at the Translating Traditions farm.

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At my house, the hummers visit the nectar feeders with great regularity, presumably because the food is very easily available there. A little known fact about the hummingbirds is that, compared to all other birds, their brains are the largest in comparison to body size. They remember where feeders are from year to year and also can recognize the people who fill the feeders. When the nectar is low and I appear, a hummer will sometimes hover and chitter in my direction at length; I really do think it is warning me that it’s time to prepare another serving.

ruby-throated hummingbird DK7A8190© Maria de Bruyn res

The buff-bellied hummingbird breeds in Mexico and south Texas. When they migrate, it is in a north-eastern direction, but the only previous recorded visit of one to North Carolina was in 2007. Now there is one hanging out at a couple’s home in the town of Winston-Salem, so I accompanied three fellow birders to go see it. Our 90-minute drive there was rewarded by a view of the bird within about 15 minutes and we stayed for almost two hours watching it come and go along with some ruby-throated hummingbirds.

buff-bellied hummingbird DK7A1131© Maria de Bruynbuff-bellied hummingbird DK7A1171© Maria de Bruyn

These hummingbirds have bellies with a light orange-yellow hue, brighter orange tail feathers and a bright green back and head. In contrast to the ruby-throated hummingbird’s straight dark bill, they have a reddish, curved bill. These lovely little birds appear to be the least studied species among the hummingbirds in the USA.

rufous hummingbird IMG_1789 M de Bruyn

 

Two years ago, I had a rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) visit my nectar feeder after he had migrated here in winter from the far North. This year, I’ll leave at least one feeder up again after the ruby-throats take off for warmer climes in case some wintering hummers need food. And I’ll look forward to seeing my regular residents again next summer!

 

 

More information:

http://www.livescience.com/51904-hummingbird-tongue-pump.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/08/science/the-hummingbirds-tongue-how-it-works.html?_r=0