A surprise at the pond

1 Bynum IMG_0631© Maria de Bruyn res

A combination of abundant vegetation and some type of water — a creek, river, wetland, pond or lake — is one of my favorite types of natural area to visit for wildlife watching and photography. Water attracts wildlife and increases the chance of seeing something unexpected. 

This was the case recently at a local nature reserve. A few days earlier, I’d seen many goldfinches and warblers at one of the ponds, but this day it was very quiet. I descended a small slope to stand on a mudflat and was suddenly surprised by a large splash to my left.

2 Brumley pond IMG_0643 © Maria de Bruyn res

When I looked, I saw a largish head forging across the water in front of me. My first thought was that it was a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) as there is no beaver lodge in this enclosed pond.

3 American beaver P8132481© Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats and beavers look very similar, but beavers (Castor canadensis) tend to be much larger. This was a hefty individual who seemed fairly relaxed as s/he swam along.

4 American beaver P8132423© Maria de Bruyn res

As I watched the mammal swim back and forth for a while, I tentatively concluded that it was a beaver, based on my previous sightings of this rodent species. Still, I wasn’t quite sure and kept hoping that the animal would raise its tail so that I would have a decisive clue to its identity.

Beavers have large flat tails, while muskrats have long, thin tails. Finally, as s/he swam by again, I got a glimpse of the tail for a couple seconds and it was large and flat! Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of that (see a previous blog for some photos showing the beaver’s tail).

 

5 American beaver P8132456© Maria de Bruyn res

As I watched and took photos, a couple walked by with their dog and stopped to watch as well. I moved down the path and heard the gentleman exclaim, “Oh, it’s a beaver!” I turned and he explained that he had thought the swimmer was a muskrat, but he had just seen the tail, too.

6 American beaver IMG_0256© Maria de Bruyn res

The aquatic mammal climbed up onto a log for a bit to groom and relax and, as the couple remarked, almost seemed to be posing for me. The beaver kept its back to me most of the time though. 

 

14 American beaver P8132476 © Maria de Bruyn res

I began to walk back down the path in hopes of getting a head-on view if the beaver decided to swim again. S/he did indeed slip back into the water to resume swimming back and forth. And then to my delight, a small head popped up going the other direction!

7 American beaver and muskrat P8132482 © Maria de Bruyn res

For some reason, I just assumed that it was a baby beaver, swimming around under the watchful eye of a parent. The newly arrived rodent seemed to be very intent on eating and dove down into the pond to bring up some tasty vegetation.8 Muskrat P8132671 © Maria de Bruyn res

It then swam over to the mudflat where I had been, and I ventured back there.

9 Muskrat P8132493© Maria de Bruyn res

Moving slowly and maintaining a good distance from the dining animal, I was able to get some good views as it enjoyed its meal.

10 Muskrat P8132618© Maria de Bruyn res

11 Muskrat P8132497 © Maria de Bruyn res

12 Muskrat P8132506 © Maria de Bruyn resWhile the beaver’s fur remained sleek on its head and back after being submerged a while, the little one’s fur stuck together in clumps all over its head and body. To me it looked a bit like a punk teenager — an analogy that undoubtedly came to mind because I was thinking of it as a baby or adolescent beaver.

This was one of the cutest wildlife spottings I had had in recent weeks, and I was thoroughly enjoying it. But I began doubting if this animal was indeed a beaver. I never saw its tail but at one point, I could see some orange teeth that reminded me of beaver incisors.

13 Muskrat teeth P8132647© Maria de Bruyn res

Of course, the diner didn’t care and just kept diving for more veggies to eat. The large beaver appeared to have left in the meantime.

15 Muskrat P8132510© Maria de Bruyn res

It was when I was reviewing identity characteristics of beavers vs muskrats while writing this blog that I ultimately came to a final conclusion about whom I had been watching. This was based on several websites that provided some good ID clues:

Beavers tend to weigh about 35-70 or even up to 100 lbs (15-30 or even 45 kg), Muskrats generally weigh only about 2-5 lbs (0.9-2.3 kg).

Beavers’ ears protrude from their heads as they swim around (first photo below), while muskrats’ ears lie flat (second photo below). Beavers also have larger noses.

16 American beaver P8132453© Maria de Bruyn res

17 Muskrat P8132673 © Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats dive down to get vegetation from pond bottoms to eat, which my second visitor was very busy doing indeed. Beavers strip bark and leaves from trees and in my experience (having watched beavers eat close by a couple years ago), they can be quite noisy chewers.

18 Muskrat P8132574© Maria de Bruyn res

I’d enjoyed the idea of having seen a parent-and-child beaver duo but, in hindsight, I concluded that I’d been watching a beaver and a muskrat sharing pond space.

19 American beaver P8132475 © Maria de Bruyn res

This was also a very cool event since neither one had been shy. A lack of other human passersby (only the one couple strolled by in the space of almost an hour) may have made them feel comfortable. It was certainly a treat for me!

20 Muskrat P8132665© Maria de Bruyn res

Next up: fateful days for frogs….

The maker of spoons – a bird delighting people worldwide

1 roseate spoonbill P8040500 © Maria de Bruyn card (2)

In different countries, the bird genus Platalea has given rise to similar common names for birds in this group, all based on their unique bills. In Dutch, lepelaar used to mean “maker of spoons” but now the first dictionary definition refers to this type of bird. Spanish speakers gave these avians the moniker “spatula bird” (pájaro espátula), while in many other languages they are called the “spoon birds” (Romanian, Icelandic, Bahasa Indonesia, Shona, etc.). In English, we call this unique animal the spoonbill.

6 roseate spoonbill P8040996© Maria de Bruyn res

Many people find spoonbills fascinating, including me, so it was with happy anticipation that I traveled to see an immature roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) that had decided to forage in our county. When I arrived, I scanned the cow pond where the bird had been seen, but the only animals there were several large cows! I decided not to wait around since the cattle were enjoying the water and it was unlikely any birds were going to join them.

A couple days later, I returned, parked along the road and walked up to the fence to peer down at the pond again. A great egret (Ardea alba, below) was foraging, some barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) were occasionally swooping over the water, and some Canada geese (Branta canadensis) were wandering around but no spoonbill was in sight.

2 great egret P8040974© Maria de Bruyn-sgd res

3 roseate spoonbill P8040309 © Maria de Bruyn resIn contrast to other birds, spoonbills do not vocalize much except for some low grunts made while they are feeding. I didn’t hear any bird sound and after some 20 minutes or so, I thought perhaps the young spoonbill had decided to move on. Then suddenly s/he emerged from grasses bordering the pond and I was able to observe the bird for quite some time.

4 roseate spoonbill P8040325© Maria de Bruyn res

5 roseate spoonbill P8040961© Maria de Bruyn resThere are six spoonbill species worldwide; the roseate spoonbill lives in North, Central and South America. The other five species have white plumage, while the roseate spoonbill adults have a white neck, bare head, bright pink back and rump feathers and a greyish bill. The immature birds have feathered heads their first three years and pale pink feathers. The color on our county’s visitor showed up more brightly when the sky was overcast rather than sunny.

The spoonbills’ coloration comes from their food. Their diet consists of crustaceans, snails, fish and aquatic insects found in both fresh and salt water. Aquatic invertebrates have pigments called carotenoids and when the spoonbills eat them, their feathers turn pink.

7 roseate spoonbill P8041138 © Maria de Bruyn res

Depending on the birds’ age, location and breeding status, the color intensity can vary from a pale pink to very bright magenta or carmine.

8 roseate spoonbill P8040580 © Maria de Bruyn card (2) 9 roseate spoonbill P8040517© Maria de Bruyn res

10 roseate spoonbill P8040340 © Maria de Bruyn resWhen chicks are born, they do not yet have a spoon-shaped bill; it only begins to flatten out when they are 9 days old; the final shape is achieved by 39 days. The bill can be 5.7 to 7.1 inches long (14.5-18 cm). It is about an inch wide just beneath the birds’ eyes and then widens to about 2 inches at the end.

It might seem that these very large bills could make life difficult for the spoonbills but they use these spatula-like appendages efficiently when feeding. Their nostrils are located at the base of the bill so that they can breathe while foraging.

11 roseate spoonbill P8040346 © Maria de Bruyn res

Their technique is to stalk slowly, leaning forward with their bills submerged as they swing their heads from side to side. Israeli scientists discovered that when the bill sways back and forth, it creates tiny whirlpools that suck up prey submerged in the water. When the prey touches the bird’s bill, it snaps shut as nerves at the bill tip are stimulated; the prey is then usually swallowed whole.

12 roseate spoonbill P8040425 © Maria de Bruyn res

13 roseate spoonbill P8040365 © Maria de Bruyn res

Spoonbills prefer to feed in shallow water that is usually less than 5 inches deep. This would account for the fact that the spoonbill I watched was making circuits around the edge of the pond, never going into the center.

14 roseate spoonbill P8040395© Maria de Bruyn res

15 roseate spoonbill P8040566© Maria de Bruyn res

16 roseate spoonbill P8040703 © Maria de Bruyn res

One thing in particular struck me as the cow pond bird walked and stalked. When s/he raised his/her head and opened the bill, it looked to me as if the spoonbill was laughing or at least looking very friendly and smiling!

17 roseate spoonbill P8040521© Maria de Bruyn res

18 roseate spoonbill P8040427© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

19 roseate spoonbill P8040524© Maria de Bruyn

20 roseate spoonbill P8040825 © Maria de Bruyn resIn the USA, spoonbills have traditionally bred in Florida, Louisiana and Texas. After breeding, they disperse. It is especially year-old birds who are increasingly being seen along the Eastern coast. To find them further inland had been more unusual but in recent years they seem to be moving away from the coast as well. This year several spoonbills have been spotted in the Piedmont region in addition to our Orange County visitor.

21 roseate spoonbill P8040483 © Maria de Bruyn res

23 roseate spoonbill P8040502 © Maria de BruynBy the late 1800s, the roseate spoonbill was endangered in North America because the birds were either killed for their feathers (to make decorative screens, fans and hats) or they abandoned their nests because they were near great egrets who were being killed for the millinery trade. When that trade ended, their numbers rebounded but rising sea levels, degradation of water quality and loss of wetlands has now decreased their breeding sites. The spoonbills are still listed as a species of concern in Florida and Louisiana.

22 roseate spoonbill P8040377© Maria de Bruyn res

As climate change progresses, increasing numbers of roseate spoonbills are starting to move north. Protection of wetlands in our and other Eastern states would therefore benefit this species, as well as other animals that depend on this type of habitat. And more of us outside the southernmost states may get the chance to observe these unique birds in the future!

Springtime with awesome, beautiful and awe-inspiring insects

This spring of 2021 has offered some delightful chances to see interesting insect species, some of which I’ve noticed before and some that were new or gave me my first opportunity to observe them up close. While not many people aside from entomologists pay much attention to the “creepy crawlies,” they are certainly well worth watching in my view. Including insects in my nature observations greatly enhances my experience of appreciating the natural world.

male giant ichneumon wasp P5068000© Maria de Bruyn res (4)

ichneumon wasp P5067996© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068007 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)The month of May brought me two especially awe-inspiring events. The first was seeing long-tailed giant ichneumon wasps (Megarhyssa macrurus) preparing for reproduction on a nature trail in Chatham County. It was easy to distinguish the females (right) from the males (above) because they had very long ovipositors (a tubular organ through which a female insect lays stored eggs). In the species I saw, the ovipositor can be 4 inches long!’

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068028© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

There were several male and three female wasps flying about. None of them showed the slightest interest in the large human looming overhead. Even if they had, I needn’t have worried since these wasps don’t sting people. The females were busy pressing their antennae against a disintegrating hardwood log’s bark, aiming to detect vibrations inside.

ichneumon wasp P5068180© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The mothers-to-be were “listening” for the best spots to lay their eggs by identifying where the larvae of the pigeon tremex horntail wasp (Tremex columba) were buried. Why you ask? The mother ichneumon paralyzes a horntail larva before laying an egg next to it. When her own offspring emerge from the eggs, they will eat those unfortunate horntail larvae while they prepare to overwinter until they emerge as full-grown ichneumon wasps in the spring.

ichneumon wasp P5068058 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

 

The giant ichneumon’s ovipositor has three components. In the middle is the ovipositor proper, a filament with two interlocking parts that slide against one another; it is tipped with a cutting edge that can drill through wood. Some researchers have data indicating that the cutting edge may contain some ionized zinc or manganese.

ichneumon wasp P5068164© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Two other thin filaments called valvulae sheath the central structure and their function is to protect the egg-laying organ. During egg-laying, they arc away from the ovipositor.

ichneumon wasp P5068171© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While I watched one female wasp in particular, she sometimes had part of her ovipositor coiled up in a transparent expandable pouch at the end of her abdomen.

ichneumon wasp IMG_2003© Maria de Bruyn res (2) ichneumon wasp IMG_2002 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

She would push out the ovipositor and appeared to smooth it out with her legs. The literature I read about the wasps did not explain this movement, but I thought she might be pushing eggs down the tube. Watch the video to see what you think! 

When she finished this smoothing movement and had found the right spots for her offspring, the protective lining filaments separated from the ovipositor itself and she inserted it into the log. It was a fascinating process to witness.

 

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068170 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

female giant ichneumon wasp P5068109 (© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Although ichneumon wasps are parasitic, various species are beneficial insects since their larvae feed on insects that harm food crops such as boll weevils, codling moths and asparagus beetles. The adults usually only live about 27 days and may only drink during that time. Their adult goal is to find a mate and then reproduce.

ichneumon wasp P5068014 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Another way in which the ichneumon wasps have contributed to human society is by serving as an example for the medical community. The STING Project at the Imperial College in London is investigating options for Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS) to diagnose and treat various medical pathologies. The research team is now developing a flexible steerable probe that was inspired by the ichneumon wasp’s ovipositor!

cecropia moth IMG_0019 © Maria de Bruyn (2)My other exciting insect event involved a moth. Last fall, a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) positioned its cocoon on the door jamb of the women’s restroom at Cane Creek Reservoir. The reservoir’s manager feared that it would be damaged there and asked if I would be willing to care for it over the winter. I took the cocoon home and kept it safe during the fall, winter and much of this spring.

Cecropia moth larvae (caterpillars) are often found on maple, cherry and birch trees. Why this one chose a building as an overwintering site is a bit of a mystery. Since the pupa was going to be dormant all winter, I placed it upright in a large plastic container with a grate over the top and kept it on my screened-in porch.

cecropia moth IMG_0020© Maria de Bruyn (2)Periodically, I would check on it and it seemed to be ok. This was important as these moths are “univoltine” — they only have one generation of offspring per year. Out in nature, the caterpillars may fall victim to parasitic wasps and flies that lay their eggs on them. So it was fortunate that we were able to “rescue” this cocoon.

One evening at the end of May, I stopped working on my porch to go inside to watch the news. When I came back after about 20 minutes, I spotted a brilliant large moth on the screen. My youngest cat spotted it at the same time, so I shooed her inside. The cocoon scarcely had a hole in it; I really wish I’d seen how the huge moth got out.

cecropia moth IMG_0006© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

cecropia moth IMG_0003© Maria de Bruyn 2 res

The cecropia moth is North America’s largest moth with a wingspan up to 7 inches. The males and females look similar but the males like this one have larger, more feathery antennae.

cecropia moth IMG_0012© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

Female moths emit pheromones that the males can detect from up to a mile away. After mating, the female lays up to 100 eggs. Both sexes die after about two weeks as they lack functioning mouths and digestive systems and don’t eat.

cecropia moth IMG_0014 © Maria de Bruyn (2) res

 

The moth’s short adult lifespan must have made this guy anxious to get underway. Or seeing my cat and I hastened his development. One website reported that it takes the moth a few hours to dry before they can open their wings and fly.

cecropia moth IMG_0011© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

 

However, very soon (perhaps 10 minutes) after I removed him from my porch and took him outside (never touching him with my hands), he began vibrating his wings. In less than a minute, he launched himself upwards and flew towards the top of the nearby tall pine trees, setting off on his quest for a mate.

cecropia moth IMG_0016© Maria de Bruyn (2a) res

I suppose it is possible that the moth had emerged earlier and had crawled away to hide but that seemed unlikely. In any event, he looked like he could fly just fine, and I sincerely hope that he found a mate and that they were able to collaborate in ensuring a new generation of this stunningly beautiful species! And I was grateful for having agreed to overwinter the cocoon as it enabled me to contribute to the propagation of this wonderful moth. In any event, I was enthralled to see what a gorgeous creature he was. These moths are generally nocturnal so seeing him was a treat!

cecropia moth IMG_0017 © Maria de Bruyn (2) res

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Wandering a flooded forest

The year 2020 ended up being the wettest year on record since 1944 in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, but the rains didn’t end in December. In fact, the area recorded its second wettest February on record in 2021 and it was noticeable in the amount of flooding we saw.

Whereas Jordan Lake at full pool (normal level of the reservoir) is 216 feet above sea level, the level rose to 230.3 feet on 23 February 2021 – the day that I unknowingly chose to go for a walk in the forest bordering the lake.

 

I didn’t notice the flooding immediately as I first walked through a meadow area to get to my usual walking site. What immediately drew my attention was the amount of canine scat on and alongside paths.

With a lack of human visitors, the foxes, coyotes and other animals obviously felt more comfortable wandering everywhere throughout the reserve.

Lots of flies were buzzing around the remaining dried flower stalks and I spied an early leafhopper – the first time I had seen a lateral-lined sharpshooter (Cuerna costalis).

Setting off into an area where I often saw woodpeckers, I discovered my usual walking trails had disappeared under an expanded lake.

 

A sweet Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) hopped into view, apparently wondering why a human being was again being seen in these parts.

 

 

I discovered it was a good idea, too, to watch where I was walking because the remaining forest floor was alive with thin-legged wolf spiders (Pardosa) crawling over the fallen leaves.

 

I wonder if there were so many in this area as they had all fled the rising waters to congregate in the same area. (Certainly a way to meet other spiders!)

Wandering further, I saw that I couldn’t get anywhere close the shoreline that used to be a favorite birding area.

 

The osprey nest, not yet occupied, is normally on a land-bound snag but now it was in the water.

There were still some birds around, but not as many as I was used to seeing. Off in the far distance, a ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) was fishing.

Never had I seen this lake’s water so high – many of the areas where I usually walk were completely submerged.

I walked along the new lake edges and noted lots of tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) exploring the waterlogged fallen logs.

 

 

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were also flying down from tree trunks and branches to see what was near the water.

On the branches above, a a yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) stopped by and a pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) showed off his beautiful yellow plumage.

   

To my delight, a pair of brown creepers (Certhia americana) were ascending the water-bound trees searching for meals.

     

I find these birds beautiful and admire how well they blend in with their hunting grounds.

For me, the brown creepers have some of the best camouflage abilities around.

Overhead a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flew by surveying the expanded water boundaries and I detected a Chinese mantis egg case swaying atop a shrub.

Because my walking area had been greatly reduced, I decided to leave after gazing into one more area where I usually wandered. To my surprise, I saw a wood duck (Aix sponsa, right) and a pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) swimming over what is usually a leaf- and vegetative-laden forest floor. Perhaps they enjoyed visiting a new, albeit temporary, swimming area.

I do think that some wildlife may have suffered. This polyphemous moth cocoon (Antheraea polyphemus), which I had photographed in another part of the forest bordering the lake, was eventually submerged for some days under about four feet of water. When the area again reappeared, I found the cocoon and it was still intact but only about half its original size, so I think the moth was doomed. Now that the lake levels have fallen further, it will be interesting to see how the forest is recovering after having been submerged.

 

Wrestling with your food – not for me!

Our 2021 winter weather in central North Carolina has been one of the wettest on record so far and is set to top the list by the end of the month. But occasionally we have had some sunny, albeit cold, days to everyone’s delight. On one recent walk on an unusually sunny day, I saw a beautiful little syrphid fly flitting about the forest floor and caught a fleeting glimpse of an Eastern rabbit, but that has been it for non-avian species except for the deer, squirrels and chipmunks in my yard. So my focus has continued to be on the more bountiful birds.

On successive visits to a pond in a neighboring town, mostly to watch the hooded mergansers, it was noteworthy to see that a single ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) had taken up residence. S/he spent a lot of time atop one of the parking lot streetlights at the pond’s edge. It gave a perch for a good overview of the water and its residents.

The bird is usually alone when I see him/her. They are sociable birds, however, and it’s interesting that, in some cases, two females will share nests and raise their two broods together.

 

I’d seen her/him catch fish there before and noted that the bird never just alighted, positioned the fish and swallowed it quickly. Perhaps this is because it has a broad diet and has learned to eat its varied foods differently.

Not only do they devour fish, insects, earthworms, rodents and grain; they also will scavenge people’s food if they can get to it, for example, on a beach or in a fast-food parking lot.

This yellow-legged gull will fly around the pond from time to time, looking quite beautiful in flight.

  

S/he doesn’t go fast, although they can reach speeds of up to 40 mph. Rather this bird soars quietly in circles scanning both the water and its surroundings.

Recently, I watched this gull catch a fish and then take a long time to actually eat it. First, the bird spent some time positioning the fish just right in its beak.

Then it began dunking the fish underwater and slapping it on the water as well.

Was it trying to kill the fish before consuming it?

After doing this for a while, the gull suddenly picked up the fish, flew up into the air and dropped it in the water.

Next, it turned tail and dove head-first into the pond, likely hitting, stunning and perhaps drowning the fish with this maneuver.

A Cornell University website says that adult ring-bills “play” by dropping objects and then catching them mid-air, perhaps as a way to practice their hunting technique. But in this case, that didn’t seem to be the case.

The gull still didn’t eat the prey right away, however.

S/he kept hitting the fish and moving the aquatic meal around in its mouth.

A couple times it looked like the fish was positioned just right for swallowing.

And then, the re-positioning continued.

Finally, after some time, it looked like the bird had finally ingested the meal and s/he took off again.

It was an interesting observation of animal behavior – my favorite way of spending time on nature walks. And it will likely remain a bit of a mystery as to what the ring-bill gull’s intentions were in carrying out these moves. 😊