Sometimes feared but with an endearing side – Sweet Tooth and Swayback

Today, I’d like to entertain you with a tale of two wild creatures that I’ve come to know a bit. I always enjoy learning about animals, even more so when I get to know something about their lives first-hand. Before getting to a description of Sweet Tooth and Swayback (two snapping turtles), I’ll share some interesting life facts about this reptilian species.

While box turtles often garner remarks of “how sweet,” “how cute,” and “let’s help it cross the road,” the appearance of a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) can arouse fear and dislike. Many people don’t consider them “beautiful,” and they have a reputation for being dangerous because they can cause injuries.

That is such a shame because this species doesn’t always live up to its “combative disposition when out of the water with its powerful beak-like jaws, and highly mobile head and neck” (according to Wikipedia). It’s true that they don’t want to be picked up and will react very differently from the docile box turtle, who generally pulls in its head and legs and just waits for you to leave it alone.

Unlike the box turtle, the snapper cannot withdraw its head and limbs into its shell, so its main defense is to use powerful jaws to snap and bite when feeling threatened. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) notes that: “they are normally inoffensive underwater and pose little if any danger to swimmers or waders.”

Snapping turtles spend most of their time in the water and tend not to bask like other turtles. Instead, they swim near the surface and enjoy the sun’s rays from there.

They mate in the spring; this pair was engaged in a fairly sedate encounter at an urban park.

The NCWRC notes that it’s not uncommon for the pair to snap “savagely” at one another during mating (another instance of negative language to characterize them; they could have said “vigorously”!). This pair opened their jaws to one another but were not biting.

Females can conserve sperm for several seasons so that there is some on hand when needed. So this female may have wanted to use that as she pushed the male away.

This pair of turtles, whom I saw at an Orange County pond, did seem to be having a tussle, but they also might have been contesting territory or engaging in some other behavior.

The females come out of the water to lay their eggs (about 25); you may only see their tracks in the mud and never know where they buried the clutch. The eggs have a great chance of ending up as food for other animals, such as skunks, minks, raccoons, foxes, crows, and eastern kingsnakes.

Newborn and juvenile snappers often fall prey to large fish, mammals, birds (e.g., bitterns, hawks, owls), American bullfrogs, and alligators. This great blue heron (Ardea herodias) had a small turtle for a snack and spent quite a long time trying to crush it before swallowing it. (This was not a snapper but shows how the birds eat young turtles.)

Perhaps the high newborn mortality rate accounts for the fact that a female may lay a second clutch as well (laying 11-83 eggs in total in a breeding season). An interesting fact about the hatching snappers is that the little ones make a noise before they dig themselves out of the earth. To us, these sounds mimic clicks, creaks or what sounds like someone rubbing their finger over a fine-toothed comb.

The snapping turtles’ diet comprises quite a lot of vegetation, carrion and small animals. The latter are swallowed whole or bitten into pieces — young ducklings in a pond with snappers need to stay alert to avoid being caught. The snappers who survive to adulthood may reach a considerable age if they live in an undisturbed area, e.g., up to some 40 years.

And now we finally get back to Sweet Tooth and Swayback in particular. I’ve had the good fortune to become familiar with this pair at a local pond alongside a public road where I’ve photographed wildlife for many years. It has been designated as a “hot spot” for local and other birders on eBird. As my friend Lucretia has said: “birders and nature lovers have always enjoyed the beauty of the pond and surrounding meadows and fields and the wildlife that lives there. It is a special place.” Unfortunately, it’s now uncertain what will be happening to Sweet Tooth’s and Swayback’s longtime home.

I had seen these turtles swimming around in the pond frequently and admired their size. I’m guessing they might be a few decades old.

Last fall when a persimmon tree at the edge of the pond began dropping its ripe fruit, I was surprised to see one of the turtles up on the surrounding lawn on a rainy day— s/he saw me and quickly trundled off to the water’s edge.

On subsequent visits, I approached carefully and not too closely. By moving only a few steps to get in position for some photos and then standing still (although I did talk to the turtle, I admit), the animal decided to stay put. The temptation to eat some of the ripe persimmons was just too great and helped him/her overcome any fears.

I was very surprised as I had no idea that snapping turtles are fond of this fruit. On subsequent visits to the pond, however, I learned that it must be a real delicacy for them. This turtle seemed to recognize me after a few visits and didn’t hurry away. When Lucretia visited, Sweet Tooth (a name we decided to use for him/her) also stayed put.

Sweet Tooth is a bit of a messy eater, but then s/he doesn’t have teeth or any way to get the dripping persimmon flesh off her/his chin.

One day, I was surprised to see that Sweet Tooth had been joined by a companion, whom I called Swayback. I don’t know if this turtle had been injured at some point to cause the dent in its carapace.

Swayback didn’t seem quite as enamored with the persimmons as Sweet Tooth but did seem to enjoy eating some fruit from time to time.

Recently, the property on which the pond is located was sold. I’ve been told by people who pass by daily that the pond may be dredged and deepened so that it can be used for irrigation. Much of the surrounding vegetation, which made it a delightful spot with many hiding and perching places for migrating and resident birds was bulldozed.

I and others are worried about what could happen to the pond’s inhabitants. We hope that Sweet Tooth, Swayback and any other wildlife who call the pond home can be rescued, rehabbed if necessary, and eventually returned to their longtime home. Keep your fingers crossed along with me that we might enjoy seeing this pair of snappers relishing persimmon treats in the future!

One last note: if you want to rescue a snapper from a busy road, only pick it up at the back of its carapace above the hind legs. If you have your hands any further forward, the turtle can use its long and flexible neck to reach you for a bite. You can also move it with a square shovel (be prepared for a heavy load) or by having it on a tarp or blanket to carry it along.

The porch as a place of peril

It’s been quite a while since my last blog; other things keep getting in the way of my writing! In any case, I’d promised you a tale of a close encounter with a hawk; here it finally is!

1 Cooper's hawk P5034652© Maria de Bruyn res

Immature Cooper’s hawk

I really enjoy watching raptors and, fortunately, I see them regularly on my nature walks. While I can spend quite a while just watching them soar, build nests and care for their young, I admittedly don’t always enjoy seeing them eat.

2 barred owl P4137980© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

When songbirds eat insects, they dismantle and swallow them fairly quickly. When raptors dine, they rarely gulp down their food. Meals can last quite some time while they dismember their prey, as was the case for the barred owl above (Strix varia) who was eating a squirrel.

The hawks whom I see often include four species that frequent my neighborhood, including my yard — the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), the Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and the sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus).

3 sharp-shinned hawk P2121916 © Maria de Bruyn res ed      4 sharp-shinned hawk P2121932 © Maria de Bruyn-res ed

The Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks are the most frequent visitors. To inexperienced birders, they look very similar. Size is one clue to identity with a sharp-shinned hawk averaging 10-14 inches in length (jay- or dove-sized, 25-35 cm), and a Cooper’s hawk being about crow-sized, averaging 15-20 inches long (38-51 cm). The sharp-shinned hawks (seen above and below) don’t seem to visit as often as the Cooper’s hawks.

5 sharp-shinned hawk P2121946© Maria de Bruyn-res ed

In 2019, a hawk caught a squirrel in my yard. Until recently, I was convinced that she was a red-shouldered hawk, but I decided to ask for confirmation from a raptor ID group on Facebook.

6 Cooper's hawk 2G0A3950© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The experts informed me that she was an exceptionally large Cooper’s hawk. One commented: “Largest female Cooper’s are around 21 ounces; obese Eastern Gray Squirrels are around that but most we see are little more than half that. And even cargo helicopters strain to lift much more than their own weight. So unless I see rocket assists on a Sharp-shinned (maxing out at around 7 ounces) they can’t lift the full carcass of an adult EG Squirrel.”

7 Cooper's hawk 2G0A3959© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The female Cooper’s hawks are up to one-third larger in size than the males and she was a hefty individual. Nevertheless, she had her work cut out in subduing the squirrel.

8 Cooper's hawk 2G0A3949© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While she was trying to hold onto and kill the rodent, a pair of crows began harassing her, but she held her ground.

9 Cooper's hawk 2G0A3963© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Ultimately, she was able to put the squirrel out of its misery and she finally flew off with it to consume her meal elsewhere.

10 Cooper's hawk 2G0A4002© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

This year, I’ve had a young Cooper’s hawk come by; she was born in 2021 and seemed to be searching for something to make her day.

11 Cooper's hawk P5034613© Maria de Bruyn ed res

12 Cooper's hawk P5034638 © Maria de Bruyn res

13 Cooper's hawk P5034654 res

Above you see her eye covered by the nictitating membrane

My most surprising — and definitely hair-raising — encounter with a hawk occurred this past April. I was sitting in a porch chair in front of my living room window. As I looked down to record bird species for an online birding site, I heard a hard collision into the window right next to my head. A male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) fell into my lap.15 brown-headed cowbird PB137591© Maria de Bruyn res

He was completely stunned, and as I looked down, he slid off my lap. Then I looked up to see if he was being chased. That was indeed the case — a large Cooper’s hawk was coming right toward my face with his/her legs extended in front with widely-spread claws ready to grab prey. Of course, I had no time to take a photo, but the photo below of another Cooper’s hawk shows a bit what those claws are like. Their enlarged rear talons are about 0.67-0.85 in long (17-21.7 mm) in males and 0.78-1.05 in (19.8-26.7 mm) in female hawks. 

16 Cooper's hawk PA064226© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

My amazement at the proximity of the incoming raptor so stunned me that I waited a second or two before waving my arm and yelling to the bird to stop — s/he was only about 3 feet from me! The bird had been so focused on the prey, that my shout made the raptor try to “backpedal” in mid-air.

17 Cooper's hawk P3105244© Maria de Bruyn res ed

The hawk tumbled a bit, righted herself (I assume the size indicated a female) and then she shot up over the porch and house. The cowbird died and I laid him in the front yard, thinking she or another predator might take him. The next day, the cowbird was untouched, so I buried him.

18 Cooper's hawk P4138413 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The encounter occupied my thoughts for quite a long time afterwards. I felt incredibly lucky those claws had not reached my face or head with terrible results. It had not occurred to me that my front porch could be a place of potential avian-caused peril, but I learned a good lesson that day — always pay attention to your surroundings and stay alert when predators could be nearby!

Next blog: a few shots of some red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks that I’ve enjoyed taking over the past couple years.

 

Springtime spat?

Eastern meadowlark P4075310© Maria de Bruyn res

Well, maybe “spat” is too mild a word for what I witnessed a few days ago when out birding. It was a gloomy, heavily clouded day and my expectations of seeing something unusual were low.

Eastern meadowlark P4075316 © Maria de Bruyn res

A male meadowlark (Sturnella magna, above) greeted me and his sweet song and subsequent foraging with his partner was a definite bright spot in the field.

Eastern meadowlark P4074595© Maria de Bruyn

His little concert was delightful. But then I thought perhaps he was asking me to go away and leave him and his partner to forage without spectators, so I did get ready to leave.

Eastern meadowlark P4074980© Maria de Bruyn

Before I left the area, however, my eyes were drawn to a spectacle further away.

Northern mockingbird P4074757© Maria de Bruyn res

There were flashes of gray and white erupting up from the ground, into the air and back down again. Before putting up my long-lensed camera (which serves as substitute binoculars for me), I figured the wing patterns were showing Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos). My first photos confirmed it.

Northern mockingbird P40748280© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern mockingbird P4074786 © Maria de Bruyn res

But then I watched with fascination and growing consternation as the two birds tackled one another in what was an actual knock-down, drag-out fight. I’d seen mockingbirds having territorial disputes before, but those spats only lasted a couple minutes and were mostly threat displays. This was a real battle.

Northern mockingbird P4074818© Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074819© Maria de Bruyn res

I don’t know if they were arguing over a third (female) bird or if it was mostly a territorial dispute. Perhaps it was both.

Northern mockingbird P4074864© Maria de Bruyn res

They ascended, facing off angrily.

Northern mockingbird P4074825 © Maria de Bruyn

They attacked one another mid-air.

Northern mockingbird P4074819© Maria de Bruyn res

And while descending to the ground.

Northern mockingbird P4074841© Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074834© Maria de Bruyn res

They pummeled one another.

Northern mockingbird P4074826 © Maria de Bruyn res

Northern mockingbird P4074833© Maria de Bruyn res

Flying to the ground, one would sit atop the other and seemed to be pecking at it once in a while. After getting off its opponent, the pair faced off again and started the fight anew.

Northern mockingbird P4074851© Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074835© Maria de Bruyn res

They were at it for at least 5 minutes and perhaps longer as I’d spotted them once the dispute was underway.

Northern mockingbird P4074831 © Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074839© Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074840© Maria de Bruyn res

As they continued fighting, I wondered if one of them might be hurt or wounded.

Northern mockingbird P4074832 © Maria de Bruyn. res

Neither one of them appeared to show any wounds (but then I was not really close enough to tell for sure).

Northern mockingbird P4074842 © Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074821© Maria de Bruyn res

At last one of them decided he’d had enough. The other two birds were chasing him, but he got away and flew to a tree. The fight ended and no one seemed to have been irreparably harmed. But it was a real lesson for me in realizing how territorial the mockingbirds can get. I’d seen some short-lived spats before, but now I know more serious fights occur as well. I don’t know if they ever lead to one of the opponents being mortally wounded. Hopefully not!

Northern mockingbird P4074866© Maria de Bruyn res

Next up – a story of my own close call with a hawk!

Fabulous flickers – my faves!

Several birders of my acquaintance have a particular love for warblers. These birds often have stunning plumage, and it changes in many species between breeding and non-breeding seasons. I enjoy seeing the warblers, too, but it’s the woodpeckers that tend to keep me watching for longer periods when they appear. And I’m lucky that all the local species visit my yard at least occasionally, like the Northern flicker that startled a brown thrasher one year.

Unlike warblers, the woodpeckers’ plumage doesn’t often evoke words of wonder and appreciation. They don’t change from breeding to non-breeding plumage and some species even look almost identical. But I find them fascinating; my favorite (although I really like them all) is that stunning and fabulous flicker.

There are two major kinds of flickers in the USA. In the West, the main subspecies has reddish feathers in flight and is called red-shafted. In the East, we have yellow-shafted flickers (Colaptes auratus auratus). When these birds are simply perched, you mostly just see their muted tan coloring with dark spots on the breast.

4 Northern flicker PC061413 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

From the back, you can see a red heart-shaped spot on their neck.

5 Northern flicker PC099651 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

When they fly away, you may also see a white patch on their back near the base of the tail.

The males have a thick black “mustache” extending from the beak.

12 Northern flicker P1300399© Maria de Bruyn res

The females lack this feature.

9 Northern flicker P9209500 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

11 Northern flicker PB296255 © Maria de Bruyn-ed

10 Northern flicker P1050369 © Maria de Bruyn-ed

In reviewing the photos I’ve taken of them, it appears that I see the males more frequently than the females. The males also seem less reluctant to come out into the open when I’m observing them. This is anecdotal, of course, but I do wonder if the females are generally shyer.

It’s when they take off in flight with wings spread or when they flutter their wings while balancing on branches that you get to see their marvelous yellow feathers.

13 Northern flicker P9209948 © Maria de Bruyn res

14 Northern flicker PB041778 © Maria de Bruyn-sgd res

15 Northern flicker PC099864 © Maria de Bruyn-res sgd

16 Northern flicker P2032611© Maria de Bruyn res-sgd

The flickers distinguish themselves as the woodpecker species that very often seeks its food on the ground. Their preferred meals comprise insects, although in winter they also forage for fruit and seeds.

17 Northern flicker P3030826© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

They stick their long bills deep into the ground when looking for a favored food — ants. Many articles online say that one flicker’s stomach was found to contain more than 5,000 ants but I couldn’t find the original study reporting that finding anywhere.

18 Northern flicker P1279550© Maria de Bruyn sgd

Barbs on the flickers’ lengthy tongues help them catch the ants and other insects, such as flies, butterflies, and moths.

19 Northern flicker PC152102 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

These birds have an elongated hyoid bone that helps support their tongue, which can extend up to 2 inches (5 cm) beyond their bill. This also comes in handy when they are probing snags and fallen logs for meals.

20 Northern flicker PC151992 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

Northern flickers also have large salivary glands that re-coat their tongues with a sticky substance each time they stick them out — an extra aide in catching those ants!

21 Northern flicker PC099801 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

When you see flickers in trees around springtime, they are often looking for nesting spots. They may choose trees with softer wood in which to excavate holes or they may use nesting cavities created by other birds.

24 Northern flicker P9198553 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

22 Northern flicker P9198517 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

23 Northern flicker PC099751 © Maria de Bruyn

A couple years ago, I discovered flickers following around pileated woodpeckers as they moved from tree to tree to peck holes.

25 Northern flicker P9209692 © Maria de Bruyn

26 Northern flicker P9209697 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

I wasn’t quite sure why the flickers were pursuing their larger cousins, but now I think they were checking out holes that the larger woodpeckers had made for nests. This seems to be a recurring behavior as this year I saw flickers (in the same natural area) starting the same behavior. The pileated woodpeckers don’t seem to mind too much.

27 Northern flicker P9198613 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

28 Northern flicker P9198614 © Maria de Bruyn. res sgd

In another natural area, the flickers have used cavities made by red-headed woodpeckers for their nests. The two species seem fine with brooding their young in the same snag at the same time.

29 Northern flicker P4217370© Maria de Bruyn res

30 Northern flicker P4291831 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

The flickers can live up to 8-9 years at least and likely migrate back to the same areas each nesting season.

31 Northern flicker PB158825 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

While the overall numbers of Northern flickers are decreasing, they are not considered a threatened species.

32 Northern flicker PB158826 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

34 Northern flicker PC152197 © Maria de Bruyn resThey adapt well to living around human settlements but can be threatened by fewer available nest sites due to urban development, snag removals, and competition for nest holes, as well as heat waves that affect nestlings and wildfires that destroy their habitats.

I hope these beauties stay around my living space for a long time to come!

33 Northern flicker P1300407 © Maria de Bruyn-res sgd

Aquatic mammals making my day! Part 2

0 beaver PA299293© Maria de Bruyn res

In 2019, I came across a few areas on walks where beavers were active and local residents were enjoying their presence. The animals weren’t shy and would come out in the mornings and evenings to eat and work on their lodges and dams, so I was able to observe them fairly often.

1 beaver PA299182 © Maria de Bruyn. res

In the intervening years, people have taken varied actions to deal with these mammals at the sites I visit, and my sightings have decreased. So, I was very pleased this past fall when I came across a beaver who had put aside his (or her) shyness and was coming out to swim often during daytime hours at one pond.

2 beaver PA299216 © Maria de Bruyn res

One day, this amiable animal decided to have a prolonged grooming session and gave me some good looks at its anatomy. S/he had what is considered a typical beaver tail: large and flat. Later I learned that beaver tails differ from animal to animal, with tail shapes (short, long, narrow, broad) being determined by individual and family traits.

4 beaver PA299318 © Maria de Bruyn res

Their large tails not only assist them in swimming and balancing on land — they also serve as a storage unit for fat that can be accessed during winter periods with less food available. Those tails can increase their body fat supply for cold weather by as much as 60%!

3 beaver PA299429© Maria de Bruyn res

The beaver has long digging claws on its front paws.

5 beaver PA299401© Maria de Bruyn res

6 beaver PA299228© Maria de Bruyn res

Their hind feet have two specialized toes which were described by Vernon Bailey in 1923 after he had studied young beavers in his home. He called these inner toes the combing claw and the louse-catching claw. The innermost toe he termed a coarse combing tool and the second toe a fine-toothed comb.

7 beaver PA299393© Maria de Bruyn res

The second toe, which has a double toenail, is now called a preening toe or grooming claw.

8 beaver PA299356 © Maria de Bruyn res

These toes are useful tools, as their comb-like action during grooming helps prevent the beavers’ soft fur from matting. (Unfortunately, the beaver only used his/her front paws while I watched; I’d like to see those back claws in action!)

9 beaver PA299390© Maria de Bruyn res

Beavers may spend almost 20% of their time on preening and grooming as this activity helps them remove burrs and parasites and aids in keeping their fur’s insulation and waterproof characteristics intact.

10 beaver PA299258© Maria de Bruyn res

An oil from abdominal glands is used to help waterproof their fur, too. Scents from these glands are further used to mark territory. And, oddly, castoreum (one of their castor gland secretions) smells and tastes like vanilla and has been used in human food preparation. Fortunately, it is difficult to obtain (the beaver must be anesthetized and “milked”) and scarcely used – about 292 lbs. (132 kg) yearly around the world.

14 beaver PA299403 © Maria de Bruyn res

The beaver’s well-developed whiskers are useful in dark water and narrow burrows because they help the animal detect objects.

12 beaver PA299407 © Maria de Bruyn res

Like birds and otters, beavers have a nictitating membrane to protect their eyes underwater. They can also keep water out of their ears and nostrils by closing anatomical valves.

15 beaver PA299232© Maria de Bruyn res

The beautiful beavers have been designated a keystone species because of their important role in creating environments suitable for other animals and plants. The habitats they create remove pollutants from ground and surface water. Their dams act as water filtration systems and help lessen compounds such as nitrogen and phosphorus so that we can obtain cleaner drinking water. In addition, some research has shown that the plants and algae in beaver ponds may help remove toxic metals from water, including lead, arsenic, copper, mercury, cadmium and selenium.

16 beaver PA299248© Maria de Bruyn res

There are ongoing efforts by some people in our area to get rid of beavers but fortunately an increasing number of advocates are looking for ways to coexist with beavers in urban and semi-urban areas. Researchers from local universities are aiding in the effort and hopefully this will lead to co-existence successes!

17 beaver PA299410 © Maria de Bruyn res

And some closing words…. When I was a child, I loved a small statue of three monkeys that sat on a shelf in our home: “speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil.” I liked the message and the fact that it was advised by an animal. Unfortunately, over the past decades, the statuette did not survive intact, but I’ve kept it nonetheless.

18 speak no see no hear no evil IMG_0373© Maria de Bruyn res

Here below we have a new version, brought to you courtesy of my friendly beaver. 😊

19 speak no evil beaver PA299368 © Maria de Bruyn res

Speak no evil!

20 see no evil beaver PA299342© Maria de Bruyn res

See no evil!

21 hear no evil beaver PA299367© Maria de Bruyn res

Hear no evil!

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And have a wonderful upcoming day, week, month and year!

Next up – back to birds of the woodpecker family!