Life on late winter-early spring farmlands

Although it’s taken me some time to process photos taken earlier this year, I’d still like to share what I was seeing in late winter and early spring when stopping at farm fields. These sometimes muddy and stubble-covered parcels of land can offer wildlife watchers nice views of birds and occasionally other animals, unobstructed by a lot of foliage. So visits to roadside farms and ponds were on my early 2019 nature-walk itineraries.

Farm fields are often bordered by stands of trees where animals can retreat if they become disturbed by humans standing around aiming long camera lenses at them. The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) above were browsing one morning and seemed unconcerned as I photographed nearby birds. When I turned to watch them specifically though, they decided to move back into the woods bordering the field.

Many farmers put out bird boxes on fences bordering their fields; in early March, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were already checking out and starting to furnish potential nest sites. Here a male was flying away from a nest box while his mate was gathering pine needles.

The fences offer other birds a good vantage point for observation, too. A Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) perched on a fence post to look around and then flew to a branch high above me.

 

A bird present in large numbers was the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). One morning, a friend and I counted some 200 birds in one small group of trees. Many people think they are an invasive species and dislike these birds intensely because they evolved a behavior that can endanger other birds. The cowbirds, who are native to America, were originally present in prairies where they followed the buffalo. This meant they did not stay in one place long enough to tend a nest, so they began laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. The young cowbirds hatch first and then may throw out the other eggs or hatchlings or they eat so ravenously that the other nest mates don’t get enough.

It certainly is disconcerting to see a small warbler feeding a large cowbird fledgling and a couple bird species have been endangered by the behavior. But I don’t dislike the cowbird because of this – they did not choose how to evolve and the behavior developed as an adaptation, not an “evil” practice. They are attractive birds. And the sounds they make are lovely, akin to water droplets falling into a pool.

 

The American robins (Turdus migratorius) were also present in abundance; they tend to flock together in the winter and early spring. One farm had a boggy area with some cyprus trees and the robins were busy looking for insects among the cyprus “knees” (Taxodium distichum). These woody structures that grow out of the roots may help stabilize the trees when they are standing in water but scientists have not yet definitively identified their purpose.

There were other trees near the cypresses; in one, the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) was hanging high overhead. It also pays to look around to see who is flying u[ ahigh above those trees and fields. It’s not uncommon to see Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying from one farm pond to another.

Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) soared over different fields I visited.

Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) also made an appearance.

And one of my favorite raptors often eluded my efforts to capture a portrait. Only a couple times was I able to catch a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius) speeding by in flight.

The robins were feeding in the fields as were several other bird species.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

A pair of Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) was taking advantage of numerous cow patties left behind on one farm field in their search for insects. They were flashing their wings repeatedly; I’m convinced that this was behavior designed to scare up bugs so they can catch them easily.

 

 

Other birds were following them around in the field, apparently taking advantage of the insect smorgasbord. Two of them were a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and a field sparrow (Spizella pusilla).

This year, it was also my good fortune to see a bird new to me in one farm field, the lovely horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). Although these birds are not considered endangered, their numbers declined by 71% between 1966 and 2015.

I couldn’t get close to the larks but one day I did catch a bird taking a dust bath in a gravel and dirt road next to their preferred field. On a second visit to that farm, I again saw a lark in the road and then another lark joined it.

It turns out that female larks perform a courting display that looks very similar to actually taking a dust bath, so I got to see a mating behavior that I hadn’t expected!

Reading about the behavior, I discovered that if male larks see a female who is dust bathing, he may mistake what she’s doing and try to mate with her when she’s not ready.

So reproductive life is a bit difficult for those males, who look so adorable when they raise those head feathers to project two little black horns.I will leave you here with a few more views of a horned lark who was singing and foraging not too very far from the road.

 

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!

Autumn amblings — seeing insects, birds, a snake and two surprises

It’s been challenging lately to know what to expect as far as weather goes in our area. Following tropical storms Florence and Michael, we’ve had several more episodes of drenching downpours that caused local flooding and closed off some natural areas. The temperatures have gone down to freezing or below in the morning and then have risen to 50-60s F (10-16C); this has sometimes led to steam rising from fence posts and some flowers still blooming which usually would have died by now. This morning, I skipped my walk as the temperature was below freezing with wind, so I re-lived some visits this past month to the Brumley Nature Preserve North. If you, too, are inside sheltering from the weather, perhaps you’ll have the time to amble photographically through this long Brumley walk with me.

Some parts of the reserve are still fairly green, which creates a lovely ambience for leisurely strolling and nature observations. In other cases, we can see the arrival of late autumn and approaching winter. This picturesque tree, one of three near a pond that harbor various bird species, was still very green in late September; now these forest denizens are showing off their gnarly “bare bones”.

     

So some early mornings are quite nippy and others a bit milder, with dried plants glistening with spider webs and dew drops that sparkle in the sun.

 

Some of the insects emerge with the sun to bask in the golden light, like this seed bug (Orsellinae, left), whose coloring camouflages it well against the seed heads, short-horned grasshopper, American bird grasshopper (Schistocerca americana) and different color variations of Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) who were hanging out on the dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium).

 

   

Various birds have been enjoying the winter seeds and especially the winter berries, like the red multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and beige poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).    

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are quite fond of berries.

They travel back and forth between fruit-laden trees and dried grass seedheads, occasionally stopping on paths to find worms and insects.

The cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) also like to gorge on berries, often sharing trees with American robins who enjoy the same meal. Sometimes snagging a berry involves some acrobatic moves.

  

The waxwings are adept at these moves and I only occasionally saw one drop a fruit. They are such elegant birds with their black masks and subtle touches of red on the wings and yellow on the tail feathers.

 

One of my favorite bird species, the ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), are also fond of berries. They like suet in gardens but no suet feeders are found in the reserve.
Some of the larger birds, like the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) and yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius), also look for berries and insects as they mostly stay high up in the trees.

 

Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) are another species that enjoy late autumn fruit.

  

In early November, I had my first of two delightful surprises at Brumley. It was early morning and as I glanced up at some very tall trees, I spotted movement among the earth-toned leaves. My lens revealed a yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) – and when I entered it into my bird list for the day, eBird asked me to justify having seen it as it was a rarity this late in the year.

Two other birds that are not surprises but also a joy to see are the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) and colorful Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

  

It’s always worthwhile to look all around when you walk, not only up at trees if you are a birder or at eye level if you like mammals. I take a lot of bird photos, because I love birds and because they are often easier to see than other wildlife species. But I consider myself more a “wildlifer” than a “birder” since I really am interested in all kinds of animals. That now stands me in good stead during the high-precipitation events we’ve been having. The ponds are filled to capacity and then some, with water flowing over the banks and onto paths.

In some cases, the high humidity has been great for plants; bryophytes are shooting up sporophytes which carry their reproductive spores. As there are over 600 mosses, liverworts and hornworts in North Carolina, I didn’t get the scientific ID for this species.

The rains created new temporary water-filled gullies, where chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have been enjoying baths along with other birds.

 

  

This earthworm (Lumbricina) obviously decided it had to get out of the water-logged earth for a while and I was glad not to have squashed it as I walked along. Its slow progress along the path may not have aided it, though, because there were plenty of robins and other worm-eaters in the vicinity.

 

A large Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) was sunning next to a path after the rains as well.

   

So my last visit to Brumley, when I was hoping to capture a golden-crowned kinglet digitally, did not fulfill that hope but ended by giving me a great surprise – my first sighting of a beaver (Castor canadensis) at this reserve. A colleague had seen one there, I’d noted the gnawed tree near the pond, and I had figured out where the lodge was, but I had not yet seen the mammal in the early mornings. Shortly before reaching the pond, I’d stopped to chat with dog owners and mentioned that a beaver was there but I hadn’t seen it yet. Ten minutes later – at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, there s/he was!

It was so surprising to see the aquatic mammal cruising the pond, swimming in large and small circles. As it created small waves and wakes with its head, I pondered why this largely (but not solely!) crepuscular animal was out in the open with people walking by. S/he must have just really wanted to have a good long swim because the animal was out and about for a few hours.

 

Three times, the beaver slapped its tail and dove under with a huge splash when people with dogs strolled by – three times, I missed getting that shot but I did manage to get a photo when the beaver took a time out at the entrance to the lodge.

That was an exciting wildlife spotting – not only did I get to see an animal I rarely see but it was also exhibiting a behavior that I witnessed for the first time. (Previously, I’d seen them harvesting and transporting food to the lodge, chewing bark and felling trees.) As I often go to Brumley in the mornings, being there in the afternoon had another advantage as well – I got to witness a spectacular autumn sunset with the sky almost seeming like a kaleidoscope as the clouds and sun’s rays created rapidly changing skies. I’m looking forward already to my next foray to this reserve!

The birds and the beautyberry – a great match

Not long after moving into my current home, I began looking for plants that would provide color as well as food for the birds and pollinators in my yard. Although I was not aware at that time of the rationale for avoiding exotics and preferring native plants, I did make some good choices, including an American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana L.) which is also called a French mulberry.

This shrub can grow about 5-7 feet high and about that size wide as well. The flowers are tiny and a pale lilac color, circling the stem like a corona.

They eventually turn into green berries that slowly turn in color, starting out in shades of pink and lilac and eventually gaining a beautiful deep purple shade as they ripen.

People can eat the berries, which are apparently very sweet. I haven’t tried them; they do cause stomach cramps for some people if more than a few are eaten. They are a popular food for wildlife, however. White-tailed deer like both the berries and leaves; raccoons and opossums eat them, too. It is the birds that really get the most fruit from my bushes, including Northern cardinals, Eastern towhees and gray catbirds. The birds kindly transported some seeds to a spot next to my back porch, so I now have a large bush there as well.

When the berries began ripening at the end of August, the cardinals began dining on them first. They were quickly followed by house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) who began visiting the shrubs daily. The female house finch stayed on the bush far from the house.

 

 

The male house finches were bolder and fed on the berries right under the kitchen window. It has been a pleasure to watch them.

 

 

 

 

           

   

The Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) are a bit more reluctant to feed when they see me looking at them from a few feet away. Even with the window closed, they are shy but I finally got one to sample some berries while I watched.

The leaves of the beautyberry have been used as an insect repellent in folk remedies; laboratory studies have shown that a chemical compound in the plant will stave off mosquitoes.

I haven’t pruned my beautyberries much but it seems that the plant will bear more fruit the next year if this is done. I do think I will transplant some young ones to other parts of the yard this fall, however, as this plant – along with the purple pokeweed (Phytolacca decandra) – is a real wildlife crowd pleaser.

Signs of spring in an uncertain season

As tiny snowflakes fall gently from the sky, my thoughts have left Costa Rica for a bit and turned to the weird weather we’ve been having in North Carolina. I didn’t move to this state for its weather but in the time I’ve been here, I’ve grown to appreciate the climate – we have four seasons but the winters have not seemed overly long and the spring and autumn temperatures are often fabulous.

 

This year, much of February was unseasonably warm in our Piedmont area and people, as well as plants and animals, were enjoying the warm sun and mild temperatures. Crocuses and irises poked their blooms up a bit early and birds were checking out nest boxes.

 

 

 

Butterflies, like this question mark (Polygonia interrogationis) made an appearance (it was getting sustenance from some dog poop left on a bridge!) and Carolina anoles (Anolis carolinensis) emerged to sun in the warmth.

 

 

 

Then on 12 March, we had a day of snow. The male Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) and Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) sat amid the flakes between trips to the feeders.

 

 

The female ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) didn’t seem too perturbed, but the male resident was not happy – his bedraggled red crown was in evidence, both when chasing her away from the feeders and when he was just coping with the wet snow.

 

 

 

When I left for my Costa Rican rambles, it looked like the spring weather might give way to colder temperatures; when I returned 10 days later, it was definitely more winter-like. Then, this past weekend, we had a brief respite. Despite a cold morning start, friend Karla and I visited the Guilford County Farm. The farm personnel had marked off a section of the gravel parking lot where killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) had placed a nest with four eggs. When the babies hatch, they can walk away from the nest as soon as their downy feathers dry.

 

They won’t be able to fly until about 25 days later, but they can feed themselves. The parents will continue tending to and defending them, however. In the meantime, the parents do not come near the nest so as not to draw attention to it and they will try to lead any potential predators away with a broken wing display. They do fly near the nest often, however, and keep an eye on it in between their own feeding sessions.

Karla quickly spotted Wilson’s snipes (Gallinago delicata) flying over the pond and settling at the water’s edge. As we drew closer, we could spot them occasionally, but they blended really well with the vegetation. Below are a couple photos taken at a fair distance with a high ISO and lots of grain – but you can try to see if you can spot the six snipes in the first photo and the two in the second.

Fortunately, one flew in a bit later and I got a couple more recognizable photos!

  

Some Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flew in and headed for the same corner of the pond.

Then, as I was trying to find the snipe in the grass again, I noticed a killdeer looking for insects nearby.

She was accompanied by a male, who at first seemed to be preening but who was actually trying to impress her with some courtship displays.

 

The males will show off their feathers for their (potential) mates, especially raising and displaying their bright tail feathers as a fan.

The female would walk away and he would eventually move closer in an attempt to get a response.

Nearby, we saw three Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos), two of whom seemed to be males battling over a female. Their dispute was very vigorous and lasted quite a long time. In fact, when they flew away, they were still going after one another!

 

During our continuing walk in the fields and woods near the farm, we saw many other bird species including Eastern meadowlarks, brown creepers, woodpeckers and a pair of kestrels. The woods were kind of strange in that there were very few bird nests visible in the bare trees and also no Eastern gray squirrel nests – in fact, we did not see one squirrel the entire time we were there, which was very odd. An adorable baby donkey (Equus asinus) did greet us as we walked by, though, and our long excursion (about 6 hours) gave us a nice taste of spring. Hopefully, when the snow flurries today end, we will see spring weather come back quickly and be able to enjoy the flora and fauna of this season again. Next blog – back to Costa Rica!