Avian generations in the making – part 1: courtship

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

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

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

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

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

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

        

   

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

 

     

 

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

 

     

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

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

  

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

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

 

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

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

                                 

Can you go home again? Apparently so!

brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a3736-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

This year, I had the good fortune to see both brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) and Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) raise broods in some of my nest boxes. I saw the babies fledge, which was truly an enjoyable event.

 

eastern-bluebird-i77a7134-maria-de-bruyn-res

For some time, the parents continued feeding their babies after they left home, but eventually they got to the point that they could catch or find their own food. As summer progressed, the parents and children both visited my feeders and it was gratifying to see the families thrive. Then during September and October, I saw a behavior that I don’t remember from years past.

brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a7426-maria-de-bruyn-resbrown-headed-nuthatch-i77a7439-maria-de-bruyn-res

The nuthatches started to return to their nest box almost daily. They didn’t check out nearby boxes but went to their original home and today they are still visiting there, sitting on top, fluttering around it and looking inside.

tufted-titmouse-i77a7417-maria-de-bruyn-res

Their frequent visits seem to have intrigued a local tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) who decided to take a look in their box, too,but that was only a one-time visit as far as I could see.

It’s not only the parents doing this, but also one or more of their offspring. So how true is the saying “you can never go home again” (origin a novel by Thomas Wolfe)? It originally meant that you can’t recapture exactly how things were in your youth because changes take place in situations and places. But people do often journey back to the places where they grew up and apparently birds do, too! Maybe they are wondering if their nest box is still the same good place for a home.

brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a7459-maria-de-bruyn-resbrown-headed-nuthatch-i77a7441-maria-de-bruyn-res

i77a0203-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

The bluebirds began doing the same with their home nest box as well. They take turns flying from nearby branches to cling to the box and investigate the now empty dwelling. While the nuthatches just lean and peer inside, the bluebirds eventually go inside for a bit.

 

 

eastern-bluebird-i77a9732-maria-de-bruyn-res brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a9653-maria-de-bruyn-res

 

Oddly, there seems to be some contention involved. For example, when this pair was investigating, they had a little tiff for some reason.

eastern-bluebird-i77a9722-maria-de-bruyn-res eastern-bluebird-i77a9725-maria-de-bruyn-res

eastern-bluebird-i77a9723-maria-de-bruyn-res eastern-bluebird-i77a9726-maria-de-bruyn-res

I can only guess that the birds are checking out the nest boxes in anticipation of next year’s nesting season. The nuthatches and bluebirds will begin breeding again around March, although nuthatches might already begin building a new nest as early as December. It will also be interesting to see if they end up roosting in the boxes during the colder winter nights.

brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a4527-maria-de-bruyn-resWatching the nuthatches and bluebirds nest, fledge and feed is an enjoyable pastime and I’m looking forward to seeing them repeat the process next year. In the meantime, perhaps I’ll continue seeing them around the nest boxes this winter – as Pliny the Elder said, “Home is where the heart is” and something is sure attracting them back! (And yes, I know, that is a bit of anthropomorphizing.)

Living above a restaurant

house finch nest 1 IMG_4358© Maria de Bruyn resAt one point in Amsterdam, I lived in a room with a shared kitchen and toilet above a butcher shop. It was a cramped space but I made some nice friends there. Eventually, I painted the hallway with flowers and snails to bring a bit of nature inside. Today, on my way to a prompt writing session, I saw that some birds also choose to live above commercial establishments, including those who established homes above one of my favorite restaurants, El Tigre.

House finch nest 1IMG_4373© Maria de Bruyn res

 

There were three nests (at least – I didn’t look around to the other wall), with house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) on either side of a European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) home in the middle. Nest 1 had a female bird visiting while a couple stayed inside.

 

The other finch nest was attended by both mother and father.

house finch nest 3 IMG_4375© Maria de Bruyn res house finch nest 3 IMG_4351© Maria de Bruyn res

house finch nest 3 IMG_4396© Maria de Bruyn res

European starling IMG_4390© Maria de Bruyn resThe nest with starlings had rather large babies in it. At one point, an adult bird flew in with a worm or insect but then took off before feeding anyone – perhaps alarmed when it saw me watching the nest. The babies didn’t say much, in contrast to the somewhat older baby starlings in my yard who make quite a racket asking to be fed.

European starling IMG_4387© Maria de Bruyn resEuropean starling IMG_4347© Maria de Bruyn res

 

European starling IMG_4397© Maria de Bruyn res

I wasn’t the only observer, however; a couple house sparrows (Passer domesticus) were also observing the comings and goings to and from the nests.

house sparrow IMG_4412© Maria de Bruyn res house sparrow IMG_4355© Maria de Bruyn res

I had a busy day and didn’t think I’d get to do much nature observation – but then those adaptable birds showed me that even in an urban environment, I can grab a few moments to see what other species are doing on a lovely spring day!

 

Communal nesting – the rookery at Sandy Creek Park

great blue heron DK7A5496© Maria de BruynUnlike Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and other songbirds, great blue herons (Ardea herodias) like to build their nests near one another, forming what is called a rookery, or colony of nests. The nests are often seen in the tops of tall trees and comprise large twigs and branches that surround grass, leaves and moss. As many as 135 nests have been counted in a rookery, but the one at Sandy Creek Park that I visited this spring had three nests.

The herons return to the nests for several years running. Each year, the males re-furbish the nests in order to attract a mate.

great blue heron DK7A7297©Maria de Bruyn great blue heron DK7A7367©Maria de Bruyn

You can see the nests well with binoculars from a walking path, but as I have no binoculars and rely on my camera’s zoom lens, I slogged through forest and marshy terrain on numerous occasions to get close to the pond that had their rookery pine trees on the other side. They were still a bit out of range for my lens, but occasionally I managed to get a half-way decent shot, which encouraged me to return often to follow the nestlings’ progress.I followed them from 8 March through 26 June.

great blue heron DK7A5924© Maria de BruynGreat blue heron DK7A3689© Maria de BruynThe top nest in an open-to-the sky tree appeared to have four babies, while the nest below it had three.

A nest in a tree to the right, which had much more dense foliage, seemed to be occupied by only one or two babies.

great blue heron DK7A6005© Maria de Bruyn

There were always 1-4 adults around, including both parents on the nest and “guards”, who took up posts atop nearby trees to watch the nearby skies. This is one reason for the rookeries; the herons want to ensure that there are adults around to protect the nestlings from predators, which include raccoons, crows and hawks, such as this red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) that was hanging around the nests one day.

red-shouldered hawk DK7A7354© Maria de Bruyn red-shouldered hawk DK7A7371© Maria de Bruyn

great blue heron DK7A6601© Maria de BruynGreat blue heron DK7A3495© Maria de Bruyngreat blue heron DK7A8238© Maria de Bruyn resThe parents feed their young by regurgitating food and the young birds get excited when a parent returns after being away for a time.

The nestlings make quite a lot of noise squawking loudly while they jostle to get first in line for the meal.

great blue heron DK7A3743© Maria de BruynThe young herons appear to “argue” with one another with loud calls and it seemed that they “jousted” with one another using their beaks.

great blue heron DK7A3735© Maria de Bruyn

Weaker chicks may miss out on getting enough food and can die of starvation, but that didn’t happen at the Sandy Creek rookery. Some chicks were obviously larger and stronger than others, but even the smallest fledglings survived.As they grew, the babies began standing tall and walking around the nest.

great blue heron DK7A8283© Maria de Bruyn Great blue heron DK7A3638© Maria de Bruyn

great blue heron DK7A9348© Maria de BruynWhen they were close to fledging, they stood near the edge of the nest and practiced spreading and flapping their wings. Sixty days after hatching (much longer than smaller birds!), the young herons were ready to fly and began taking short flights to nearby trees, before venturing out on farther trips. great blue heron DK7A8960©Maria de BruynThe young ones will not breed until they are two years old.

Watching events unfold at the rookery was a new past-time for me this year and likely one I’ll repeat in the future. If you have time and the opportunity, I’d recommend the experience!