Wrestling with your food – not for me!

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

  

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

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

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

Was it trying to kill the fish before consuming it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then, the re-positioning continued.

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

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

A third look at our 2020-21 “superflight” irruption – red crossbills

As mentioned in my last couple blogs, finches that usually reside in Canada and the northern USA have come south this year because of a dearth of food in their usual habitats. One of the factors contributing to the shortage is the varying cycles in which cones, seeds and fruit ripen among different tree species.

Not every tree produces an equal amount of seeds or berries every year; for example, this year my red cedars didn’t have very many juniper berries and by the time the cedar waxwings arrived, the American robins (Turdus migratorius) had already cleaned out the crop. Periodically, many of the different tree species up North have low seed production at the same time, so that birds who eat different kinds of crops all need to go elsewhere for sustenance in the winter.

An interesting speculation from scientists in the Finch Research Network is that this synchronized low seed production evolved as a means of limiting food supplies for seed-eating (red) squirrels who could reproduce greatly and then wipe out all the seeds so that no new trees would grow. Jamie Cornelius, a researcher at Oregon State University, explained that “birds are mobile, and can find cone crops somewhere else,” while the sedentary squirrels then need to curtail their reproduction. In addition, some birds have evolved biological processes that make it easier for them to cope with food scarcity.

Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra, called common crossbills in Europe) molt quite slowly, losing only a few feathers at one time, which makes it possible for them to fly elsewhere at any time in search of sustenance. They are normally not migratory but will travel for food, so in December 2020, local birders were quite excited when red crossbills were spotted at a state game lands in a neighboring county.

I was not enthusiastic about going to a hunting zone but had heard that the duck hunters were usually only busy early in the morning. So I donned my bright orange vest and ventured out on the two-mile walk to the spot where the crossbills had been seen. I waited around for a couple hours but they didn’t show, although I was looking for the reddish males and yellow females to make an appearance.

I didn’t give up. On my fourth visit to the game lands, I finally saw the crossbills (although I didn’t realize it immediately as they were so far away and my cataracts make seeing anything distinctly at a distance quite difficult. It was only after I enlarged one photo on the camera that I saw what they were! Remember, you can see a photo larger if you click on it and then back arrow to the blog).

I first thought perhaps some grosbeaks had flown in, so I focused as well as I could on the distant trees and took photos. I was thrilled to see that I had finally photographed those elusive birds – giving me a “lifer” for 2021. 😊

Sometimes it’s not easy to understand why a certain bird species has a particular common name. For example, many people would call a red-bellied woodpecker a red-headed woodpecker because the red on the head is much more noticeable than the hue on its belly. But the crossbills exemplify their common name quite accurately with their upper bills that curve down over their lower bills. A good view of their beak can be seen at the All About Birds website.

At first sight, one might think that this beak arrangement would make it difficult for them to eat, but this morphological adaptation means that they can extract seeds from conifer cones that are still closed, which other finches cannot do. Their bill structure makes it possible for them to hold onto a cone, pry it open with their beak and then take out the tightly-packed conifer seeds with their tongue.

This specialized anatomical feature does restrict the crossbills’ diet somewhat. They do eat some other seeds, berries and insects from time to time and they also ingest grit and sand from time to time as having these substances in their crop helps them to digest the conifer seeds.

What also makes these finches very unusual is that there are at least six – and perhaps as many as 11 – sub-species in North America who differ in the size and shape of their beaks and the type of calls they make. Their unique vocalizations has led to each sub-group being designated as a “call type” and each type feeds on a different conifer species. They move about in groups and call to each other while flying from tree to tree. Some scientists think they may be communicating about the feeding possibilities in each cone-laden tree they pass!

Another behavior that is distinctive for the red crossbills is that they breed at any time of the year, whenever sufficient food supplies are available. When a female and male form a breeding pair, they imitate one another’s flight calls so as to keep track of one another.

 

Unfortunately, unlike other irruption species such as evening grosbeaks and pine siskins, the red crossbills are rare visitors to bird feeders.

When I heard that crossbills had been seen at a game lands area much closer to my home, I made a couple more treks in hopes of spotting them. The first day I was incredibly lucky as I was the only person visiting the reserve and could walk at a leisurely pace in quiet fields except for the chittering of multiple bird species, including a hermit thrush.

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to see any crossbills flying overhead. Another visit to this nearby game land was shortened considerably when I discovered it was quite noisy with two hunters accompanied by a pack of baying hounds who were yowling very loudly and frequently. I high-tailed it out of the reserve and resolved to be happy with my one and only crossbill sighting (so far). Hopefully, one day I’ll be able to see them more closely – something to which I can look forward with great anticipation!

Hopping into springtime

I’ve been planning new blogs for quite some time; then I keep taking new photos that will fit into them and the blog writing gets delayed. But two days ago, I saw such a cool natural event that I resolved to produce a blog quickly and here it is!

One welcome feature of springtime is that many insects emerge from their over-wintering spots. Some are bugs we dislike (mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers), but others are fascinating and wonderful members of our natural systems. Pollinators like this spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) keep our gorgeous plants and important food crops going and many bugs provide other wildlife with meals.

On my trip to Costa Rica last year, our guide not only pointed out birds but also some mammals and insects. He had developed an interest in treehoppers, a group of insects with about 3200 species worldwide that specialize in eating plant sap. He was unable to find any to show me, but I resolved to keep an eye open for them when I returned home. I had forgotten that I had seen my first one the year before, a pretty green Ceresini species.

As I stared at plants during nature walks, I was lucky and managed to find my first treehoppers when I was actually looking for them. These were of a dark-colored species (Acutalis tartarea) that favors the sap of black locust trees, sunflowers, goldenrod and ragweeds.

The treehoppers, which are related to leafhoppers and cicadas, are popular with some entomologists because many species have elaborate “helmets” at the top of their heads. I got to see my first example of this type on my recent walk when I happened to find a young oak tree with numerous nymphs and recently eclosed (emerged) adult oak treehoppers (Platycostis vittata).

The mother treehopper is known for staying close to the nymphs to protect them against wasps and other predators.

The hoppers get plant sap by piercing plant stems with their beaks. The nymphs have extensible anal ducts that deposit the sap away from their bodies. This is important because the concentrated excess sap, called honeydew, can get moldy.

 

                              

The honeydew attracts ants, which like the sugar-rich liquid, so the hoppers and ants have a mutually beneficial relationship.

Just how the helmet develops into an unusual shape has been a source of investigation. One team of entomologists theorized that the helmet was formed by body parts that were actually modified wings. Another researcher countered that this was impossible and that the helmet was an unusual pronotum — the foremost dorsal section of the thorax. More recently, a third group of evolutionary biologists postulated that the helmet is indeed a section of pronotum but one that developed with the aid of genes that code for wings.

In various species, the pronotum has developed into a quite unusual and oddly shaped appendage; examples can be seen in this article. When the helmet resembles a plant thorn, it is thought to aid in camouflage.

When I discovered the group of oak treehoppers, one was just in the process of emerging from its nymph form. A friend who saw the photo remarked that it reminded her of the film Alien but this process was slow and deliberate and not a heart-thumping explosive emergence as shown in the movie.

As you can see, the oak treehopper is quite a beautiful insect with its pristine white body decorated with pink/red stripes and hints of yellow. They made me think of mints and Candy Stripers (a sign of our times when almost anything makes me think of health and health-related concerns. For younger readers: young female volunteers who work under nurses’ supervision in hospitals used to wear pink and white striped smocks and thus got the name Candy Striper).

Not all the adults had the horned pronotum; some had rounded heads.

This close-up of a hopper’s face could evoke all kinds of thoughts. I thought it looked as if it had a pig’s snout. Another friend thought it looked like a grumpy old man. What do you think when you see this visage?

Or about this one, with its head upside down? (It looks a bit more “innocent”, don’t you think?)

In any event, I found these insects just adorable and I felt very privileged to have had the chance to see them emerge into adulthood. It turns out that in this species, older individuals may change color, turning a dull brown or green color. Some mottled forms may be blue with yellowish spots. It would be interesting to see those forms as well one day – or perhaps one of the other treehoppers with a different fabulous helmet!I hope you, too, are able to get out in nature during these social distancing times so that you can connect with the wonderful wildlife around us!

Hungry hairy herons and their caring parents

A little over a week ago, fellow photographer Mary posted a wonderful photo of young green herons (Butorides virescens) perched in a row awaiting their parents. They still had very fuzzy hairdos, reminding me a bit of a row of Albert Einsteins. About 4 days later, I drove to the pond in a senior citizen residential community to see them and they had already lost most of – but not all – the fuzz atop their heads. That didn’t matter though because it was a real pleasure watching them for a while.

 

Friend Lucretia had accompanied me and we were lucky enough to park right near the end of the pond where the sibling group was parked. Only one was out on a limb when we arrived; the three brothers/sisters were in hiding in the thick shrubs bordering the pond.

The bold juvenile may have been the eldest of the quartet as s/he seemed to have lost the most fuzzy feathers.

 

 

S/he groomed, looked around and then yawned hugely – making me think of how I often want to react to much of the news that is shown in the media these days. This was followed by what looked like a smile and happy reaction, which is how I often feel when out taking one of my nature walks!

 

After a while, a couple of No. 1’s siblings began moving around in the brush, eventually coming out into the open.

In the meantime, No. 1 took the time to defecate; gotta take care of those body functions! (It’s interesting that birds all have white poop. The fecal sacs that songbirds take out of nests are white; this bird’s stream of feces was white. Why? Here’s a tidbit of information you might not know: Birds’ bodies do not produce urine as mammals do. Rather, they excrete nitrogen wastes as uric acid in the form of a white paste.)

Another sibling did some preening.

 

 

 

As we walked around the end of the pond, it turned out that Mama was taking a rest there. (I really can’t tell the male from the female adult but for convenience’s sake just identified her as the mother since she was close by.)

 

After a time, Mama took off and ended up in a perch on the underside of a small dock. It made me wonder if that was a good place to fish because the water might be a bit cooler and perhaps fish were schooling there. A good number of turtles were also swimming about there – perhaps the shady area was just a nice break from the sun-warmed water.

 

 

 

While Mama scanned the deeps, a nice song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and a beautiful Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) entertained us with song.

Brown-headed nuthatches, a brown thrasher, and a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) were among the other birds flitting about the trees and shrubs bordering the pond.

While adult green herons sometimes use tools to fish – using twigs or insects as bait – Papa heron was just standing patiently at the other end of the pond, watching the water intently. He suddenly plunged and ingested a small fish, using what one ornithologist called a “bill lunge”, in which the bird keeps it feet in place but stretches its body forward to spear prey with its long bill. Apparently, green herons can also catch prey by hanging upside down from their perches over water.

 

We wondered if he was eating the fish himself or collecting a gullet-full of food for his offspring. Herons namely feed their young by regurgitating previously-swallowed food.

As we continued our walk around the pond, we came upon a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) who had some good luck in getting a meal.

When we arrived back at the spot where the young herons were hanging out, we saw a beautiful gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) snag a meal of its own.

One of the young herons was in the water, apparently practicing fishing behavior. S/he caught something but then let it go.

Then Mama suddenly flew in; the foursome greeted her excitedly and Lucretia saw her regurgitate a meal onto the grass. (Unfortunately, this happened behind a shrub that I could not see around so I missed that behavior.) When I had moved over to see the young ones, they had already gulped down whatever food there was and were engaged in vigorous behavior to convince Mama to repeat what she had just done.

 

This gave a fairly good view of the group. One still had a very pink bill while others were getting more yellowish bills on the way to getting dark beaks.

Mama flew off to a tree and apparently settled in for another food-gathering exercise, while one of her young ones called piteously.

 

After a couple hours, we decided it was time to drive back to our own areas of residence, but it was bittersweet having to leave the group of four behind. But they certainly provided us with an entertaining morning, even if that was not their intention! We hope they will grow up with no threats from predators and be able to repeat the process with broods of their own one day. 😊

Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 1: birds

On the last day of January 2019, I thought it would still be ok to post a couple blogs on some surprises I encountered the past year. Almost always when I go out on nature walks, I encounter something new – a species of wildlife or plant that I have not seen before or an interaction between species not previously observed. So, I wanted to share a few of those delightful surprises from 2018. In this blog, I focus on birds; in the next part, other kinds of wildlife will be featured.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my own front yard was the scene of my biggest surprise last year when a snowstorm brought feeder visitors whom I had never seen before and who rarely come to the state where I live. The evening grosbeaks were just stunning.

 

They were not the only grosbeaks who treated me with their beauty, however. I’ve had rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) visit the feeders before, but they still always elicit my appreciation with their bright colors.

 

In late October, an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) made me stop for a photo as the other birds of its species had already gone south for the winter. The bird was perched on a branch extended over a pond and had to unfortunately contend with a persistent crow that was harassing it. After some time, the sea eagle finally took off with the crow in pursuit – it seemed that the osprey might have injured its wing and perhaps that accounted for a delayed departure to warmer climes.

  

Although the pursuit photos are not high-quality, you can see a gap in the osprey’s wing and perhaps it was waiting for healing before it undertook a very long journey.

 

On another day, I was near a wetland when an unexpected visitor flew onto a branch above me. Green herons (Butorides virescens) usually keep their distance from me; I regretted that it was overcast and the lighting was not wonderful for my close-up portrait of this colorful immature bird.

 

A more muted bird, but lovely nonetheless, is the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus). When I saw this individual in late December, I was thinking that it must be difficult for them to find food as the vegetation shrivels and insects are in hiding. At that moment, the bird dropped to the ground and was foraging – coming up with a bug to prove that they still could find sustenance in the cold temperatures!

  

The mockingbirds are often solitary except for breeding season. Some people complain that they are aggressive towards other birds at their feeders but those in my yard are not that way at all. They share space at feeders and don’t chase anyone else away. When it is mating and nesting time, however, they can become quite territorial and are very protective of their nests. This seasonal “grumpiness” was brought home to me one day along a country road when I witnessed a pair of mockingbirds driving a third bird – rival? Intruder? – away from their roosting spot.

When large flocks of gulls and double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) visited a small local lake because of a shad die-off, I had the chance to watch them for a while. One day, it was interesting to observe how one cormorant wanted to jump up on a floating platform, but another bird didn’t want him/her there. They faced off with open beaks – the bird wanting to get out of the water won.

 

 

It’s always interesting to me to watch birds as they forage for sustenance. When I think of woodpeckers, my thoughts immediately turn to nuts and insects, which I think of as their staple diets. So it was a surprise to me to see this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) dining at length one day on nice ripe persimmons – a bird with a sweet tooth!

 

 

 

Well, I probably shouldn’t say “sweet tooth” but “sweet tongue”. Woodpeckers don’t have teeth but they have exceptionally long tongues that can be wrapped around their brains inside their skulls when not being used to extract insects and other food morsels from crevices.

Another bird that has a long tongue is the great blue heron (Ardea herodius). One day, I came across this bird on its favorite roosting log obviously trying to dislodge something that had gotten stuck – or perhaps something that tasted foul. I hadn’t really seen the species’ tongue before, so the bird gave me some good views.

  

The effort of shaking its head also led it to protect its eye with the nictating membrane.

Because tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) visit my bird feeders daily to get nuts and, to a lesser extent, seeds, I associate them completely with that type of diet. It was that assumption that made me do a double-take when I spotted a titmouse on a walk with a long spaghetti-like object dangling from its beak. It didn’t seem like a grass stalk so when I lifted my camera to look through the zoom lens, I discovered it had a worm snake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) in its beak – a finding that really did astound me.

 

As I took photos, the bird finally flew further away and unfortunately dropped the reptile when it came close to a creek. I felt a bit guilty, thinking I might have disturbed its meal but after waiting about 5 minutes, the bird suddenly flew up with the snake back in its beak! It obviously really wanted to hang on to that prize!

 

And now on to part 2 of my 2018 surprises – some more reptiles and amphibians, bugs and mammals!