Quebec chronicles – passerines with yellow colors, part 1

People who journey to the Tadoussac Dunes area in Quebec during spring bird migration often are focused mainly on one type of bird. They are members of the group of passerine birds, i.e., birds that perch using four toes – three that face forward and one that faces backwards. The “new world warblers” (also called wood warblers) are a subgroup of passerines that are only found in the Western hemisphere. They are featured in this blog and include some of my favorite photos from our trip. The next blog, passerines part 2, will feature other bird species that perch.

The warblers really are quite beautiful in their breeding plumage and many birders spend long periods of time searching them out and admiring them. This often involves looking up at treetops since many species forage for insects in mid- and high forest canopies. This may lead to a condition in humans called “warbler neck”, the result of staying for a prolonged time in the posture indicated to the left. (The statue was in the lobby of our Quebec hotel and was called “Force intérieure” (inner force) by Julie Lajoie.)

One warbler that we didn’t need to strain to see was the Cape May (Setophaga tigrina), which was named for Cape May, New Jersey, where it was first observed by ornithologist Alexander Wilson in 1811. After that, these birds weren’t seen again in that area for more than a century!

The males really do call attention to themselves with their bright breeding colors – a distinctive rusty cheek patch, yellow throat and collar, dark crown and lots of vertical black stripes going down its sides and chest.

In spring, this warbler migrates almost 3,000 miles from the West Indies to the coniferous forests of Canada and the northern US to breed. As the fist-sized songbird flies north, its diet adapts to the environment. During winter among the palm trees, the Cape May drinks berry juice and the nectar from flowers thanks to its unusual semi-tubular and curled tongue. (It will also drink from nectar feeders!) But in summer in the boreal forests, it eats insects—especially the spruce budworm—with a special gusto.

The male and female build a nest together near the top of a tree (35-60 feet high!) and the female tries to prevent others from seeing the nest. She namely will not enter the nest directly but goes up and down the trunk of the tree, entering from below.

A second seemingly ubiquitous bird at our migration destination was the magnolia warbler (Setophaga magnolia). Like the Cape May, the male in breeding attire has vertical black stripes on a yellow chest but his face is marked by a black mask topped by a white stripe.

 

Most of my sightings of this species involved individuals looking for insects on the ground. At one point, it was interesting to see a “Maggie” fluttering his wings over sandy spots in the dunes, obviously to scare up insects that he then quickly grabbed. My attempts to get a photo of the fluttering were unsuccessful but it was very cool to watch.

 

 

 

Another warbler that sports a black “necklace” against a yellow breast is the Canada warbler (Cardellina canadensis). Males and females look similar except that the male has a bit longer tail and somewhat darker breast stripes.

 

Some of these birds spend the summer in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina (NC), but I had not seen one before. Towards the end of our trip, a Canada warbler decided to forage in the yard of the house where we were staying – finally, I was able to get some good looks at him!

The male Blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca) also has black breast stripes but against a white background. His face is quite striking with a flame-orange throat against a yellow and black head.  The female is somewhat more muted in coloration but also quite lovely.

 

These birds do not appear to be shy around people. One was grabbing insects in a grassy patch near a parking lot and not at all perturbed when five of us stopped nearby to take portrait shots.

Another was intent on getting insects among the rocks alongside a pier.

 

 

 

 

 

The Nashville warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla) was a lifer for me, fairly easy to distinguish by its rufous cap.

 

 

An interesting bit of information about them is that they sometimes use porcupine quills in constructing their nests, which they locate on the ground under shrubs!

The Wilson’s warbler (Cardellina pusilla) also has a distinctive cap, but when I got to see one around dusk one day, it didn’t feel like turning around to face me. It was nevertheless another lifer.

They spend a lot of time in the understory and nest on the ground, but that apparently doesn’t make them easier to spot!

One warbler that I have seen several times in NC is the tiny yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia). They tend to like being near wetlands and streams and this has proved to be the case for my spottings. I have seen them near a water ditch in one reserve as well as near the Haw River. In Quebec, I also saw one searching for insects in the rocks bordering a pier.

 

You can see that this warbler has reddish striping on its chest and that is what I’ve noted in the birds seen in my area. However, below you can see a male bird without striping; our local guide said that a number of birds that breed in Quebec do not develop any striping but remain entirely yellow.

 

A behavior that distinguishes them from many other birds is that they are capable of recognizing when a brown-headed cowbird has laid one of its eggs in their nest. The yellow warblers try to avoid raising the nest parasite by smothering the cowbird egg with a new layer of nest materials. If they had already laid eggs of their own, they then produce a new clutch; sometimes, they just build a new nest elsewhere.

Another warbler that is quite familiar to me is the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata). A group spends the winter at my yard feeders and begin changing into their breeding plumage shortly before migrating north. In Quebec, I got to see them in their full coloration, and they were handsome indeed!

My final bird for this blog is also one I’ve seen before, but I found it simply stunning when watching it in the Canadian trees. The black-throated green warbler (Setophagahy virens) as the striped warblers but the brightness of the yellow and black coloring on the breeding male is wonderful to see.

They seemed to “color-match” some of the trees in which I watched them foraging.

 

In other cases, they complemented the deep green of the deciduous evergreen trees in which they were perching.

 

 

 

These birds particularly like caterpillars but eat a wide variety of insects. An interesting behavior observed by researchers concerns its singing – the males really like to belt it out, with one male having been recorded singing 466 songs in one hour!

 

Having observed these wood warblers in their breeding habitat, I now have an increased understanding of why birders are willing to endure warbler necks. 😊

My one greed that I do not regret

 

My thoughts & walking wander
Sometimes in conjunction
& sometimes on different paths.

The wheezy red-winged blackbird
Calls out time on this quiet Sunday morning.

An hour’s worth of nature should do me today.
Enough to rejuvenate, calm down, re-fill with some contentment.

A dove’s hooo hooooo
A songbird’s chirrups
The hawk’s plaintive cry.

 

A united triumvirate causes the hawk to flee
As it appears to clutch a prize in its claws;
The flight is too fast to decipher its capture.
Nesting & fledging season continues, so the grackles’ vigilance is warranted.

 

As a vulture descends
Circling downward over my head, I wonder
What does s/he know that I don’t?
Or the grasshopper?
The Nez Perce people said: “Every animal knows more than you do.”

 

 

Lichen-covered and veined stones and rocks jut up from the dirt path.
My feet seek purchase since
An injured leg needs no more distress.

 

 

 

 

A silver-spotted skipper alights on spiky purple thistle
Beautiful white patch on velvety brown.

On another day the summer azures caught my eye.
So small with details of their beauty escaping the naked eye.
The wonders of technology bring them closer.

 

 

 

Someone else has been walking here, too,
Where wetlands waters once flowed.

 

The five-lined skink and Carolina anole
Are not coming out today.

 

The beaver pond is placid
The dragons dip and rise
Turtles break surface and sink
Frogs give a cry of alarm, jumping high-pitched into the depths.

A pair of kingfishers
Fly to and fro,
Practicing their observation skills

As they wait for their permanent colors to come in.

 

Leaves are trembling
Branches and twigs waving
The slightest of breezes beckons
And helps the cattails sway a bit.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s hot
Clothing damp and sticking.
Even the honeybee is not staying around long.

 

 

The brown thrasher, on the other hand,
Is enjoying a dust bath and sunbathing in the glaring light…
Until I surprise her/him from behind. Sorry!!

 

 

A three-way Japanese beetle gathering
Is staying put for a while
Eating up the leaves on which they rest.

 

 

A bright American goldfinch stops by.
I do not think of them as sad
Regardless of the name they were given.
Their brief presence makes me happy.

 

Two hours, 20 minutes…
Passed while admiring an eyed click beetle
And acknowledging deceptions in the natural world.

Two not-so-common looking buckeyes delight.
One a little tattered, showing age.
I can sympathize from experience.

 

 

The life-filled ground, plants, water and air
Enthrall.

An hour should do me?

An hour is enough?
It could suffice in some circumstances.
But the one greed I have, which I do not regret,
Is the desire for much more time among the non-human beings in nature.

The trails beckon.
Who’s waiting around the bend?

Life on late winter-early spring farmlands

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Spring is in the air…. Uh, I mean water!

It was the sound that first attracted my attention. Initially, I thought that it sounded like a flock of birds, but as I approached a pond, I realized that was not the case. The almost chirruping sound didn’t fit with any frogs I had heard before. As I scanned the scene before, my roving vision finally alit on a small section of brownish water dappled with green algae and stalks of dead reeds – there were moving bumps there. When I came closer, I finally realized that it was a mass of writhing and continually moving toads, engaged in what resembled a bit of a battle. It was actually what could be called a mating contest. (Click on a photo to see it larger; then arrow back to return to blog.)

The sound made by the male Eastern American toad (Anaxyrus americanus americanus) when he is ready to breed has been likened to an old-fashioned ringing telephone. It can last from 6 to 30 seconds and when multiple toads are calling at the same time, they create a very loud and penetrating “concert”. It doesn’t sound like a phone to me; you can judge by listening to the video.

I only saw a couple of the toads with inflated throat sacs. The sound was very loud, however, and the water was roiling with moving heads topped by periscope eyes, warty bodies and thrashing legs.

Before examining how the toads were going about their reproductive endeavor, a little biology lesson. Toads are a sub-group of frogs; while most frogs have moist skin, toads generally have drier and wartier skins. They vary greatly in color, including shades of yellow, brown, black and red, and may be speckled or have solid hues. The skin color can also change in response to stress, temperature, humidity and habitat.

 

American toads have two glands at the top of their head behind the eye crest. These are parotid glands that produce a neurotoxin, bufotoxin, which can sicken and even kill a predator. The milky substance can produce skin irritation in human beings and can be dangerous to smaller mammals (like dogs).

 

 

Like birds, toads have nictitating membranes, transparent eyelids that help protect the eye. They sometimes raise the nictitating membrane half-way so that they retain sharper vision.

 

 

Toads actually spend a lot of their lives on dry land, eating insects as well as worms, slugs and other small invertebrates. A particularly fascinating fact is that they use their eyeballs to help swallow food – when they ingest their prey, the eyeballs sink down into their mouth and help push the food down their throats!!!

At times, they created little whirlpools as they bumped up against one another or tried to mount a neighbor.

 

 

Sometimes, a large female with a smaller male atop her would rest quietly under water, apparently trying to avoid notice. This strategy did not always work, however, and sometimes one or more other males would try to join the pair already in amplexus (i.e., when the male grasps the female with his front legs and fertilizes the eggs as she releases them from her body)..

The female toad ejects her eggs in two strings, which are immediately fertilized by a nearby male spurting out a stream of sperm. (Frogs lay their eggs in clusters.) Tadpoles will emerge from the eggs within 2–14 days and reach adulthood within 50–65 days. They become sexually mature at 2-3 years.

In one case, I developed a real sympathy for a particularly large female. She had a small male astride her who resembled her in coloring and they looked to be peacefully joined. Then another male spotted them and he launched a sneak attack, trying to usurp the position of her already-present suitor. The first male clung on tightly.

No. 1 pushed No. 2 away with a hind leg again and again.

In the meantime, a great blue heron (Ardea herodius) who had been feeding on the other side of the pond, made its way over to the site of toad frenzy. S/he had been eating small fish and amphibians.

I thought the heron would plunge into the midst of the numerous toads for an easy meal, but instead the bird looked around and then skirted the group, veering away to the shoreline. Perhaps some instinct made the heron avoid the group during a reproductive event? Or s/he was put off by the vigorous activity of the potential prey?

A second rival toad then joined the first, who was still trying to get the original mating male out of the way. Eventually, a third, fourth and yet another male joined the group and the poor female was weighted down by 5 – FIVE! – male toads all vying for the prime spot on her back. Often her head was pushed down under water.

The first male clung on with great determination, often being pushed down under water as well as the other males piled on. He was NOT going to give up.

Ms Toad did not like this state of affairs. She laboriously began moving from a deeper spot in the pond to the pond’s edge. This was a slow process, made difficult by the clinging crowd who must have weighed a good deal as a group.

I thought she might be trying to get to more shallow water so the toad “knot” would not keep her submerged. Toads can breathe under water like frogs because they can absorb oxygen through their skin. They do have lungs, however, and if these fill with water, they can drown. A fellow Facebook nature lover told me that she had seen expired female toads with males still clinging to them. A toad knot can therefore unfortunately result in maternal mortality – the demise of a mother giving birth (to several thousand eggs; most of the tadpoles do not survive).

I soon left the scene after Ms Toad had reached the side of the pond and could keep her head above water. It was noticeable that her throat pouch was inflating and deflating – perhaps she was breathing deeply to compensate for lack of oxygen when she had to suffer a submerged head due to the over-amorous males.

 

Inhale!                                                                  Exhale!

I know I am anthropomorphizing, but I do believe that she likely felt the amphibian equivalent of relief and was looking forward to the end of that day!

Diving in for a meal

 

Recently, I had the good fortune to see a sea duck because it had veered away from its usual habitat to land on a pond near the middle of North Carolina. The male long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) is a real looker in his winter plumage. His dark grey bill is tipped by bright pink color and he has large black circles on his white cheeks, which some people think look a bit like ear-muffs.

According to the Audubon Society, these ducks dine on mollusks and crustaceans when they are at sea during the winter. Since this duck had apparently gotten off-course during his winter migration, he seemed to be satisfied now with pondweeds and grasses, which is what they tend to eat in the summer when they are at their breeding grounds.

It is his beautiful long tail (3.9 to 5.9 in, 10-15 cm) that really catches your eye, especially when he dives under to gather up some of his food. His dive appeared to comprise a very slight spreading of wing feathers and then a quick forward and downward movement, ending with his rear end sticking up with the long-tailed plume waving a bit before he straightened out just below the water’s surface.

It was when I watched this duck dive under again and again that I actually stopped to think a bit about how ducks dive for their meals. This bird seemed to stay under water for what seemed a very long time (probably 15-30 seconds). It turns out that they can remain submerged up to a minute. In comparison to other diving ducks, the long-tailed duck spends more time under water than at the surface; in fact, when looking for food, this duck will be under water 3-4 times longer than it stays above water!

When reviewing my photos, I realized that this bird was not diving deep but rather staying submerged just under the surface. My friend Lucretia pointed out that the duck would extend his wings a bit away from his body before he went under and the photos showed his wings spread out.

This must be the species’ diving technique when they are foraging for plant material because it turns out that they are likely the deepest diving ducks in the world, able to go down as much as 200 feet (60 meters) in search of food! So it turned out that we were really seeing quite a special bird.

A pair of bufflehead ducks (Bucephala albeola) were at the same pond and give a nice demonstration of their different diving technique. Their winter and summer diets are similar to those of the long-tailed duck; they, too, seemed to be eating plants during our visit. Their dives were of much shorter duration; they appear to stay under water “only” 12-25 seconds at most.

In contrast to the long-tailed duck, however, they would rear up a bit over the water and then arch their bodies in a graceful dive, popping up again quickly after swallowing their food.

 

It’s interesting to note that their Greek genus name comes from a term meaning bull-headed, while their common name came from a combination of the words buffalo and head. The male duck can puff out his head feathers, making his head look even larger.

Another duck that can do this is the male hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus); the female can also extend her head feathers, giving herself a crested appearance.

The male and female are quite different in appearance, but both are attractive. Their diet appears to be mostly crustaceans and mollusks.

A female merganser at nearby lake gave a short diving demo the same day as the long-tailed and bufflehead ducks. She, too, tended to perform a shallow dive like the former duck.

Duck watching had not been one of my preferred birding activities but now I’ve become curious as to how other species are executing their underwater forays. Perhaps the arcing-body plunge is a bufflehead specialty – I’ll have to pay more attention to diving techniques from now on!