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.

My nature muse and a delightful experience

Dear unseen spirit,

You are a muse for me who permeates the air and leaves and water and earth that form the sphere in which I feel so at home, at rest yet invigorated, excited, awed, happy and amazed in turn and sometimes simultaneously, in a welter of positive emotion and feeling.

Yesterday, you brought me one of those moments. A smallish, perhaps teenaged, painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), with a smooth ebony carapace with some iron oxide-like highlights, was busy laying her eggs. My friend Lucretia and I stopped to watch.

Lucretia had discovered her while walking a fence line near a lake cove, sticking to that border of mostly bare dirt except for some leaves and twigs so she could avoid the longish grass that could very well be harboring ticks and chiggers – the nemesis bugs for birders and naturalists!

 

Ms Turtle was not quite vertical but leaning like the Tower of Pisa with her bottom in a hole she’d dug and her red-striped front legs anchoring her above. She was using her back legs and toes to move aside dampened clay earth, sometimes moving her body side to side to widen the depression. We wondered how much she’d had to urinate to get the dry ground to a nice malleable consistency; it turns out that painted turtles can store water in their urinary bladder, which helps with buoyancy in the water – and nest digging on land.

When we first stopped, she withdrew her head into her shell and stayed motionless but not for longer than 45 seconds or so. Her natural impulse for self-protection was weaker than her need to procreate, so she resumed moving small mounds of earth.

After some 15 minutes or so, we moved on along the cove, Lucretia noting birds and me looking for dragonflies to photograph. Spring was still in the air with one female widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) being chased by 3 to 5 males in an aerial ballet as they sought to be the one who could grab her head and become her temporary mate.

One pair of conjoined dragonflies skimmed the water’s surface while others hovered over water plants or rested on shoreline foliage for a few minutes.

Spangled skimmer (Libellula cyanea)

  

Eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera)   Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina)

Thoughts of Ms Turtle came back to me and I cut my insect investigations short to go back around the cove to her birthing site. Lucretia was already there and waved me over – she’d just seen Ms Turtle expel two white eggs, which I saw below her tail as she resumed her back-leg maneuvering of damp earth. She was now covering the eggs and perhaps that is also what she had been doing when we arrived. Painted turtles lay from 1 to 11 eggs and we wondered if she had already laid some and was covering them in layers.

At any rate, she was now obviously done with placing her progeny in the nest and was filling in the hole. She deliberately and meticulously grasped balls of soft earth and maneuvered them over the eggs. Her instincts were good and she apparently was doing this all by feel as she couldn’t see what she was doing. Her back legs unerringly found the next clump to move into position and she was quite thorough in making sure it was placed and smoothed over in just the right spot.

The process was slow but careful and as she gathered in the mud, her body began going more and more horizontal – a really noticeable change from when we first saw her more or less standing on end to deposit her clutch.

Ms Turtle was no longer bothered by our presence at all – nothing was going to stop her completing the process, although she occasionally did pause for a moment or two. She’d been at this for at least 70 minutes or so – or perhaps longer if she’d already laid some eggs before our arrival. Lucretia commented on what a hard worker she was!

When Ms Turtle was finally entirely horizontal, resting on the packed earth that was even with its surroundings, she took one more precaution to prevent predators (e.g., snakes, chipmunks, squirrels, foxes, raccoons) from finding her developing offspring. She used her back legs to draw in leaves and twigs to top off the dirt over the nesting site so that it looked exactly like the surroundings!

This, too, was done deliberately and carefully and by feel – never once did she turn around to look at what she’d done. In fact, when she was finished, she set off at an angle to trundle rapidly through the grass to the lake, never casting an eye on the covered nest.

 

We vowed to investigate egg incubation times (on average, 72 days, making 19 August a possible hatching day) and Lucretia tied a paper towel on the fence in front of the site so we could re-locate it. I also tied some weeds into the mesh of the fence.

 

In the meantime, Ms Turtle was making good time to the lake and we saw her tip over the shoreline edge, only to end up on her back. Within 10 seconds, she’d righted herself and plopped into the water, briefly floating and then submerging.

 

 

  

   

We spoke about her wonderful work – even if instinctual, it was amazing to watch and we felt privileged to have borne witness to it. Suddenly, not far off-shore, up popped Ms Turtle; she floated at the water’s surface enjoying a well-earned rest after her double labors (birthing and excavation/reconstruction). Her carapace glistened and she was a beauty to see and admire.

It would be super to be able to see her hatchlings emerge in August. I don’t know if we will be so lucky but recalling their mother’s construction of a nursery will be a great nature memory for sure. And who knows what new event you, my nature muse, will bring along in the meantime – when I arrived home, two of the Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) had hatched!

Mother Nature, you always delight and/or edify to be sure!

Many thanks! Maria

                                 

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.

Late arrivals and late departures

Since a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) began visiting my suet feeders several years ago, I’ve looked forward to his arrival each autumn so that I can watch him at leisure during the winter months. This past season, however, I began to fear that he had decided to go elsewhere or, more sadly, might have passed away and wouldn’t be coming around again. I did see members of the species at the Haw River in late November and one was feeding on seeds to my surprise.

Then, finally, on the 26th of December, Rudy turned up at my feeders – weeks later than usual but to my great delight! And where did he go for a bite to eat? In the past, he loved my suet but now he, too, was feeding at one of the seed feeders!

Shortly thereafter, I discovered I now had two ruby crowns in residence as they began vying with one another to claim the suet area as their territory. After thinking that I would have no jeweled visitor this winter, it turned out I had two, leading to a happy dance as I gazed out of my living room window.

   

The golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) have a single feather covering each nostril; this doesn’t appear to be the case for the ruby crowns. Their tongues are often in sight when they open their mouths in anticipation of getting a bite. I wondered if the tongue is sticky to help them snatch food while hovering; an online search did not net me any references about kinglet tongues, however.

Normally, these hyper-active tiny birds seek insects and arthropods as meals, including spiders, pseudoscorpions, aphids, bees, wasps, beetles and ants. But my home-made suet has proved to be a big draw (also for other birds with whom they must compete for space).

 

The ruby-crowned kinglets will often hover in front of a feeder, sticking out their tongue to snag a bit of suet before they fly to a perch.

As winter progressed, it looked like the yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) decided to copy their style, also hovering and snatching on occasion.

 

I decided to leave the dry stalks of the scarlet mallow and butterfly bush in place this past winter so they had perches close to the feeders. They made a nice “studio” for some portraits!

After a while, since there was a lot of traffic at the feeders, I began smearing suet on the mallow stalks, which proved to be a big hit. The ruby crowns alighted and fed calmly, a big change from their usual frenetic pace. (A few other birds also enjoyed this option, including the Eastern bluebirds and yellow-rumped warblers.)

 

Sometimes, they went through a bit of head contortion to snag some of the treat.

 

 

 

 

These kinglets surprised me again in January when they began visiting the peanut feeder, too. I watched as they pecked off tiny bits of peanut; I suspect they also might have been looking for ants or other insects around the nuts.

 

 

 

When it rains, these little avians can look quite bedraggled! But they didn’t appear bothered by the snow flurries.

Normally, these birds are in what seems to be constant motion, scarcely stopping for a second in their quest for food. A large privet bush near my feeders, however, has become a resting and hiding spot for them. (Yes, I know, privets are invasive plants and should be removed but this particular shrub provides a get-away for the feeder birds when the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks fly in for a raid and the catbirds love to build their nests in this particular site.)

    

  

I continued seeing ruby crowns during my nature walks, although not as reliably as in my own yard. They were in residence at the Jordan Lake woods and a small wooded area near Chapel Hill’s Senior Center.

 

 

One day at the Haw River, I witnessed a territorial dispute between two males who were claiming certain trees as their own.

 

I stopped seeing the ruby crowns at my feeders around the end of March and assumed that they had embarked on their migration up North for breeding season. On 9 April, I was surprised to see one in the woods bordering Jordan Lake.

On 18 April, one appeared in a cedar tree in my yard.

And then on the 22nd of April, I spotted one high in the leafy branches of a willow oak in my front yard. I’m guessing that perhaps this bird was stopping for a rest as it traveled from further South on its way up North; I didn’t see it visit the suet feeder.

 

 

I miss my little kinglet companions in the spring and summer; hopefully, they won’t wait so long to appear again later this year.

 

Back to blogging with the golden crowns!

Litter boxes scrubbed, bird feeders filled, other chores waiting but I’ve decided to end my blogging hiatus on this rainy and somewhat gloomy Sunday morning. This and my next blog will feature two of my favorite birds and then I hope to treat you with a nesting saga as spring is well underway.

With a lovely ruby-crowned kinglet visiting my yard every year for the past four years, I’ve developed a particular fondness for this tiny avian species. This past autumn and winter, my partiality expanded to include their jeweled cousins, the golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa), who seemed to have favored our geographical area with an irruption (an ecological term for a sudden increase in an animal population). Whereas in previous years, I felt lucky to catch a glimpse of a golden crown during their months-long stay in North Carolina, they appeared to be everywhere this past winter and in full view to boot.

 

The golden-crowned kinglets are about the same size as the ruby crowns and similar in overall body color except that they also have a black eyebrow stripe.

While the ruby-crowned males only flash their red crests when mating or upset, however, the golden crowns have a permanent yellow stripe atop their heads.

 

         

The male golden crowns can sometimes be distinguished by the fact that there will be a hint of red in their golden crest.

         

Like the ruby crowns, these little insect foragers are in constant movement as they scour branches, shrubs and plants for a meal. Their varied diet includes beetles, flies, crickets, butterflies, spiders, and bees and wasps. In the winter, they will also eat some seeds.

     

Searching for the insects often means they hang upside down from branches as they look at the underside and in crevices for their next bite to eat.

 

They also hover mid-air to snatch an insect or fly.

The golden crowns sometimes sit still a bit longer than ruby crowns so that you have a chance to get off a few photographic shots before they resume their dietary searching. And this year, one of those photos placed me among the winners in a small local competition.

These birds are not much bigger than hummingbirds, but like the hummers, they also undertake a long migration twice yearly. Their winters are spent throughout North America but for breeding they travel to the far North and mountainous Northwestern areas of this hemisphere.

This year, many places had mild winters but if they arrive in the North before spring-like temperatures arrive, they are able to survive nights as cold as –40 degrees; sometimes, they huddle together to keep a bit of warmth. Their lifespan is several years, with the oldest recorded golden crown being a banded male who was at least 6 years and 4 months when he was recaptured in Minnesota in 1976.

       

 

This species prefers life in coniferous forests but it seems if a few spruce and pines are around, they will settle in. I saw them in a small and somewhat sparsely vegetated area near a senior center, an arboretum, along the Haw River, and in the woods and bogs of various nature reserves.

 

 

In the United States, the number of golden-crowned kinglets declined 75% between 1966 and 2014. Habitat loss has contributed to this. However, spruce reforestation in the Eastern USA may have contributed to a more recently seen increase in numbers of kinglets. I’m very glad that they are not (yet) an endangered species and I hope we get to see them a lot next winter, too!