Avian generations in the making – part 1: courtship

The tragedies being faced in the Caribbean islands after hurricanes Maria, Jose and Irma are horrible and other than donate cash to help alleviate the needs, I’m not in a position to offer more assistance. I’m grateful for all those who can and hope government assistance will be forthcoming to help all the people in those nations recover.
The effects of the hurricanes also will be noticeable for the wildlife. Many of those living on land will drown or die of hunger; some birds may be a little luckier – able to shelter against the winds if they are native to a place or able to change their migratory pattern (e.g., delay arrival on wintering grounds) for a time. But when the effects of the storms are immense with lots of habitat destruction, the birds, too, will lack places to shelter and not have sufficient food supplies to survive.

It’s thought that some birds endemic to the islands may be severely endangered as a species. On 22 September, birders were happy to hear that eight Barbuda warblers (Setophaga subita) had been spotted on that island; not a lot but they may help ensure this tiny bird doesn’t become extinct.  At the time of writing this blog, the fate of some other bird species was still unknown. I hope that all the Caribbean bird species survive and will be thinking of them as I share this series with you on how birds take measures to ensure future generations. (It might seem odd to write this series now, but some birds are still feeding their young here.)

So, the process begins with courtship. Some birds mate for life, or at least form long-term (multiple-year) bonded relationships. They include bald eagles, black vultures, blue jays, Canada geese, white-breasted nuthatches, brown-headed nuthatches, Northern cardinals, Carolina chickadees, American crows, pileated woodpeckers and my favorite raptor shown above, the osprey (Pandion haliaetus).

Those who form ongoing bonds may have a courtship period that consists of the male bringing the female some food to indicate it’s time to get ready for nest-building. This was the case for these lovely Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis).

The American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) has a similar behavior; in my yard, I sometimes throw out bits of apple or bread for them in the spring as these seem to be considered real treats. The female will sit on a branch overhead calling until the male brings her some – and sometimes almost shoves it down her throat!

The Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) males will sing their repertoire in the spring to entice female mates – often they perch on the top of trees and fly up and down with spread wings in a beautiful display while singing.

        

   

The yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) seeks new mates each year but has an interesting courtship behavior described by All About Birds: “A receptive female perches with its head up, pumping its tail slowly up and down…Just prior to mating, the male Yellow-Billed Cuckoo snaps off a short twig that he presents to the female as he perches on her back and leans over her shoulder. Both birds then grasp the twig as they copulate.”

 

     

 

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) females and males may both flutter between trees with slow wingbeats. Two females may also compete for the attention of a single male, a behavior I observed this past spring and which surprised me.

 

     

The male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) will vocalize for the female while spreading his wings in a display.

The killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) has a somewhat prettier courtship dance, bending forward and spreading its tail feathers to show off the colorful underside.

  

Next year, I hope to see more of the birds courting as it gives me a happy feeling.

The next step for the birds is nest-building. We don’t have the bowerbirds in North Carolina, who build elaborate nests as part of their courtship. But the species we have do spend a good deal of time on their nests and I’ll share some of their efforts in the next part of the series. (But one or two blogs on another topic will come first.)

 

Credit map: By Kmusser (Own work, all data from Vector Map.) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The beautiful “baker” bird

Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to observe a small bird at close quarters that I had only seen in a couple glimpses in the past, the ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla). Like the ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglets, this little avian also has a stripe atop its head. Like the golden-crowned kinglet, the stripe is always visible and orange in color, blending in nicely with its other muted brownish and cream colors.

 

The ovenbird gets its name from the shape of its nest, which is built on the ground in a shape reminiscent of an outdoor or Hopi oven. It is domed and has a side entrance and can be difficult to see.

The ovenbirds spend the winters in the Caribbean region and Central America and then come North for the summer breeding season. My sightings of the singing male have been at our local nature reserve, Mason Farm Biological Reserve, where I volunteer as an invasive plant eradicator and sometime planter of native flowers.

 

The male sings a three- to-five note call in the spring as part of his courting behavior and the call varies among individuals. When males are in neighboring territories, they will sing together in duets and it can be difficult to know how many birds are singing.

   

The sound is so loud that you expect to see a much larger bird and his song inspired poet Robert Frost to dedicate a poem to him.

 

If he is sitting on a branch, you can eventually find him but it can be a challenge since they prefer to reside in forests with heavy canopy cover so that it is fairly dark.

 

   

Once you see him, you may be able to watch for a while as they don’t seem to be very wary of people. This individual let me observe as he groomed on a low tree branch, pausing now and again to let out a few notes.

  

   

These birds prefer areas with heavy leaf litter for their homes – the leaves provide cover for their ground nests and they blend in really, really well as they scurry about foraging in the leaves for insects, worms and snails to eat. Both the females and males participate in feeding the fledglings until they can fly at about 30 days.

When they emerge into a patch with a bit of sunlight filtering down through the leaves overhead, you have a bit better chance to see them. Otherwise, you may end up staring at ground cover until you catch a bit of movement and can zero in on the motion to see them.

 

Photographing the bird is a challenge since they spend their time in areas with so little direct light. My first photos were a bit dark, but then I increased the ISO on my camera considerably (a tip from fellow photographer, Mary – thanks!) and the photos were a bit better. Still, the somewhat darker photos reflect the environment in which you discover these little troubadour warblers. Now that I know where to look for them, I hope to see them more often in years to come.

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.

 

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

 

My hummer summer, part 1 – guarding the home front!

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Just like human beings, some birds like to hang out in groups, while others are more solitary in nature, coming together mainly to reproduce. A prime example of the latter group are the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris).

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7336-maria-de-bruyn-res2This past summer, some health and other problems led to my spending a good deal of time at home. The upside was that being a bit home-bound gave me plenty of opportunities to observe the comings and goings of these gorgeous little flyers and to learn more about their behavior towards one another.

I had at least four ruby-throats – and probably more as I couldn’t distinguish them all – visiting my feeders and yard regularly. A couple had a distinctive trait that helped me identify them, like some white feathers on top of their heads or at the bottom part of their gorgets.

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I usually had three or four nectar feeders up in my back yard and two in my front yard. In addition, as the summer progressed, the gardens were filled with increasing numbers of nectar-filled flowers so my home site was a fairly well-stocked larder for them.

The ruby-throats are among the more competitive hummingbirds and don’t really like to share their feeding space with others, although a friend and I visited a birder in a nearby town who had more than a dozen feeders up and many dozens of hummers visiting his back yard every day, feeding right next to one another. At my house, I suppose guarding their food source is an instinctual imperative, since they do consume half their own weight in nectar each day.

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ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8255-maria-de-bruyn-resThe tiny birds were quite intent on protecting their territory from intruders. Only thing was, several of them considered my feeders THEIR territory, so there was a continual rotation of birds perched in nearby trees and shrubs to watch for “invaders”. Once spotted, the newly arrived hummers would have the current “resident” bird swoop down on them (at up to 60 miles per hour!), frequently chittering like mad as a warning to “get out of here.”

Sometimes, they would have a little “challenge flight ballet” as they confronted one another, until one gave up and flew off – sometimes across the street, sometimes to the yard on the other side of the house, and sometimes to a nearby tree or shrub at the side of the house.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8257-maria-de-bruyn-res   ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8256-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a9443-maria-de-bruyn-resThere was one particular male hummer who seemed particularly aggressive – or perhaps possessive is a better term as I never saw him body slam a rival; he just made sure that the other bird would leave. I recognized him as he often chose exactly the same spots on a nearby Rose of Sharon, a willow oak and a cedar as his watching posts,

Some of those who were run off didn’t travel far, however. They would fly to a nearby tree or shrub and wait to see if Hummer No. 1 would leave.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a0290-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1099-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a5725-maria-de-bruyn-resScientists have determined that the brain section responsible for memory and learning – the hippocampus – is five times larger in hummingbirds than in woodpeckers, seabirds and songbirds. They memorize where feeders and nectar flowers are and can remember when they last fed there. They can even estimate how long it will take each flower to fill up with nectar again.

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The hummers’ memory is long-term, too – they recall not only where feeders are placed in their breeding territories but also in places along their yearly migration routes! Wouldn’t it be nice if we had such great memories making GPS and maps less of a necessity?

 

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7716-maria-de-bruyn-resAnother behavior I observed several times was a hummer hovering in front of me, especially when the nectar feeders were getting low. Scientists have determined that they can recognize the people who replenish their food sources, which makes for a delightful encounter as one chirps at you while suspended in front of your face with its wings flapping at 60 beats per second!

While guarding their home turf, they may stick out their tongues briefly after feeding.

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However, if you see one with its tongue stuck out permanently, this can be a sign of a fungal infection (often acquired from dirty feeders). Their tongues swell with the infection and they can no longer drink with these anatomical, elastic micro-pumps.

 

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Often death ensues, so it’s important to keep the nectar feeders clean!

 

 

 

Coming up in part 2: the beauty of the hummingbirds at rest and in flight

 

Leaping into the wide – and sometimes wet – world!

Eastern bluebird IMG_2991© Maria de Bruyn resEarlier this past week, I calculated that the Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) babies in my front-yard nest box were close to fledging. I knew approximately when mom had finished laying her eggs (four in total), so that I could guess when they reached normal fledging age (16-18 days after hatching). When I looked at the nest on 10 June, I saw that there were only three babies; I have no clue what happened to egg No. 4.  But the three survivors were progressing well as mom and dad made frequent forays to gather caterpillars and insects for them.

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Occasionally, the male and also the female bluebird, identifiable by her subtler coloring and her brood patch, would visit the suet and meal worm feeders for a fast food repast for themselves. It was hard work keeping their growing offspring fed!

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They also had to let one of their older offspring from a previous brood know that they were no longer going to feed him, even when he begged.

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As fledging time neared, mom and dad had to contend with other birds coming near the box. Dad was especially angry with a young starling (Sturnus vulgaris) who wanted to settle on top of the box. Starlings have been known to eat young birds and papa bluebird was obviously taking no chances! (I just caught the action out of the corner of my eye so the photos aren’t great but do give an idea of the argument!). The parents also chased away squirrels from the tree in front of the box, which alerted me to the fact that fledging was probably imminent since the parents become especially protective at this time. I started using a smaller camera with a very long zoom (but somewhat lesser photo quality) as they weren’t excited by me being too close either.

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On Wednesday, I checked the box before going out for the morning and there were still three babies there. When I came home a few hours later, mama and papa were sitting on branches, with or without food, calling to their little ones to come on out. They would also fly to the box for a quick look inside.

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Mama also repeated behavior I had seen last year – flying to the box, standing on top and then hovering in front of the hole as a form of encouragement.  When she and dad left, I approached to take a look and discovered bluebird baby No. 1 had already flown away. This meant that the parents had to watch the first baby out in the trees somewhere, as well as their two lagging offspring in the box.

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Eastern bluebird I77A8592© Maria de BruynAt one point, mother bluebird seemed a bit fed up – she flew over to the box (without food) and finally entered, staying inside for a good 60-90 seconds at least. I imagined her giving the babies a lecture about how they had to be courageous and willing to jump.

Her admonishments seemed to have had an effect; the babies began calling loudly from inside their birth home. Finally, after about 30 minutes, one poked its head out to take a look at the big wide world. Mom and dad seemed glad, waiting together in the tree to see how long it would take baby No. 2 to join them.

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The baby looked around a lot, also staring at me; s/he went back inside and then looked out a few more times, finally taking the great leap into the outside world. Baby 2 was a very strong flier – not even alighting in the tree in front of the box but circling around to land high in a juniper and then in a tall oak tree behind the box.

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Sibling No. 3 took a little while longer and mama bluebird again went to the box to give encouragement. The baby then spent a little more time observing the new environment and also made a strong flight out.

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It rained that night and I hoped that the bluebird babies were ok; between the thunderstorms and a neighbor’s cat who comes to hunt birds in my yard, their environment seemed precarious for their first days of life. In the afternoon, I was happy to see papa bluebird feeding one of the three babies at the top of an oak tree. Mama was also flying around up there, so I assumed they were all hanging out in the high branches.

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Thursday night, it rained heavily again for many hours; Friday was an easier day and night. I haven’t seen the fledglings again yet but have seen their parents coming for suet and meal worms and flying up to the oak tree, so I assume at least a couple are there. I look forward to seeing their speckled selves at the feeders along with their parents – and will be curious to see if their parents go for a third brood this year.

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