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!

Gracious and gorgeous grebes nurturing newborns

After birding now for some six or seven years, I’ve come to appreciate all birds since each species can be fascinating to watch. I do have some favorites though that have captured my interest. In 2012, I fell in love with great-crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus), whom I first noticed during a trip to Switzerland. A pair was engaged in their courtship dance, which was simply delightful to see. They circled one another, stretched out their necks, ruffled their feathers and arose on the water facing one another. Their beauty enchanted me, and I felt that I had witnessed something very special.

The rust and black-tinted head plumes and ruff are gorgeous, making these birds very attractive indeed. This led to their being hunted almost to extinction during the 1800s in the United Kingdom because the feathers were desired as decorations or hats. This led to the establishment of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in that country and their numbers fortunately rebounded.

Fast forward six years to this past July, and I discovered that these birds are quite common in my land of birth, where I just had not noticed them before. Granted, I was not a birder while living in The Netherlands (I currently live in the USA), but I had managed to take note of house sparrows, mute swans, Eurasian coots and moorhens when walking along canals and ditches. Now, as a much more observant wildlife observer, it was thrilling to see many grebes along the dike bordering the Gouwzee (a body of water bordering Monnickendam that is part of the larger Markermeer nature area). And even better – they were all tending young ones at different stages of development.

The great-crested is Europe’s largest grebe species and the adults are stunning with their reddish-orange head plumes. (They are also found in Australia, New Zealand and African countries.) I discovered that the young look quite different – mostly light in color with black stripes on their heads and pink markings near the eyes.

Their floating nests are often found along reed beds, which were abundant along the dike and a ditch across a road from the dike. A couple mothers had chosen the ditch as their home area and the early morning light made for some nice photos in my opinion as they preened and relaxed.

  

   

The water in the lake on the other side of the dike was less calm but the young ones managed to swim well in the waves; they can already dive shortly after leaving the nest.

Their feet are set back far along their bodies and they cannot walk well. I did not ever see one on land during the week that I was observing them.

According to the literature, pairs tend 1-9 eggs, which hatch after about 27-29 days. The mothers carry newborns on their backs as they swim along, offering a safe perch for sightseeing in safety. The babies fledge after 71-79 days. I did not see any pairs with more than two young, so some were probably lost during the previous weeks.

The grebes eat fish, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians and insects. Their fishing technique, which was more in evidence in the open water of the Gouwzee, includes skimming the water with outstretched necks and diving underwater. (The neck-to-the-water pose is also used to show aggression but in these cases no other birds were near and they would subsequently dive under to come up with some food.)

The parents demonstrate and the young imitate them, mostly coming up empty-beaked. Occasionally, a parent would fly away and return later with food. The babies eagerly grab the meals offered by both mama and papa.

After breeding, the adults gather together during a molting period, during which they do not fly. Perhaps one day, I’ll be able to watch them in winter and find out new things about them. In the meantime, if you’d like see what happens when they are feeling perturbed, check out my next blog on “The gorgeous grebes when aggrieved and grumpy!”

An under-appreciated bird?

In the area where I live, many birders are thrilled when spring migration begins and the wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) arrives. They find its song especially appealing and exclaim over the fact that they had the privilege of hearing the wood thrush in their yard or in the woods.

 

 

While it’s a nice song, however, I find that I’m more attracted to our winter visitor, the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus), perhaps because this species seems less afraid to emerge from the vegetation when people are around. I find its song quite nice as well, even though it doesn’t seem to have as many trills in it as the wood thrush.

 

   

The past couple years, I seem to have been seeing the hermit thrush more and more often. Presumably, this is not because there are more of them but because I have grown a little more adept at spotting and identifying birds as time has passed. The past six weeks, I’ve seen them in various places and have very much enjoyed each spotting.

On the 15th of December, during a walk at Mason Farm Biological Reserve, I spotted one eating berries with gusto.

 

       

Ten days later, birds in different parts of the reserve came out on twigs, observing me as much as I was observing them. On the 2nd of January, one caught my eye when s/he was bobbing its reddish tail up and down. It gave me a good view of the bird’s underside, which looked nicely cushioned. That part of the tail is the most colorful part of the bird, which otherwise is a rather muted light brown with a cream-colored, lightly spotted breast.

   

On the 4th of January, we had a light smattering of snow and I saw a hermit thrush in a crepe myrtle tree, an unusual sight in my yard as their visits are usually few and far between. The next day, the bird returned to the red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) to make a few meals of the nicely ripe juniper berries.

  

The snow melted quickly but the bird was back the next day for more berries; fortunately, the American robins and cedar waxwings had not eaten them all.

  

In the spring and summer, the hermit thrush’s diet consists mainly of insects and sometimes small reptiles and amphibians. In the winter, they turn to eating berries and fruit. Here, a thrush at the Brumley Forest Preserve had been foraging on the ground and found a seed or fruit.

Back at Mason Farm, the 21st of January was a stellar day for seeing hermit thrushes; I must have seen at least six in different parts of the woods. At one point, I had stopped to listen to a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) calling and then noted a thrush sitting on a sapling branch near the walking trail. S/he flew down to the path to forage and suddenly another one flew in landing atop the first thrush! The attacked bird spread its tail feathers on the ground while the other one glared at it.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that hermit thrushes may respond to predators by crouching and pulling in their heads; perhaps this was an adaptation of that response.

I always think of these little beauties as being peaceful birds so seeing one challenge the other in such a physical way was a real surprise. Then as suddenly as the attack had happened, all was sweetness and light as the two birds began foraging on the path about 2-3 feet from one another. The downy woodpecker even joined them on the ground for a little while.

  

The oldest recorded hermit thrush was almost 11 years old. Perhaps their generally sweet disposition helps them survive.

   

Depending on whether these birds are fluffing their feathers against the cold, they can either look like a sleek and slender avian or a puffy little ball of feathers. In both cases, I think they look quite appealing.

  

Whatever shape they take, I do look forward to seeing more of these lovely, usually demure and delightful thrushes!

 

 

“Nuts” for nuts!

A primary source of nutrition for many birds is nuts.This high-calorie food provides them with dietary fat, which can be especially welcome during the colder months. As nuts ripen, you can see the birds flying by, carrying acorns and beechnuts, as well as seeds of various kinds. Some birds are especially suited to eating nuts with their thicker, cone-shaped bills, which are shaped to help them crack open pods and seed cases. Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), sparrows, grosbeaks, finches and woodpeckers are seed and nut lovers.

I had been lax in providing my yard birds with these culinary treats except for sunflower seeds and the seed pods in my yard trees. So one day early last year, I purchased a nut and seed holder and proceeded to give them peanuts, which are not actually nuts but the seed of a legume (Arachis hypogaea). This makes no difference to the birds like the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) of course.

I first tried peanuts in the shell and an occasional blue jay and tufted titmouse would stop by. However, they didn’t seem to want to put much time into removing the nuts from the shells and I didn’t really want the shells littering the ground either.

Then in the spring I put out some shelled peanuts from a container I’d bought for my own consumption and the avian visitors were delighted. Reading about peanut feeding informed me that I should avoid giving salted peanuts. I couldn’t readily find unsalted ones at the grocery store, so I began removing the salt, either by shaking the nuts in a paper bag or by washing off the salt.

   

Northern cardinal                                            Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)

Before they left for the summer, the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) and ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) tried the peanuts, too. Sometimes I wondered if the kinglet was also not looking for insects around the peanut feeder.

   

My choice to provide nuts was a big hit; I was rewarded with a procession of individuals of varied species who came by to quickly gulp or carry off a tasty nut. Some are pictured below – they came at different times of the day.

 

White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)     Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

    

Tufted titmouse                                                       Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

   

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)      Northern cardinal

 

Gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)        Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

       

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)         Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

The common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) will sometimes break down the nuts (and are quite messy about it, compared to the chickadees and titmice), but they will also swallow the treats whole.

  

Others are intent on breaking the peanuts into smaller pieces that are easier to get down; this seems especially true for the smaller birds like the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) below. Here we also see Riley, my banded Carolina wren, enjoying a treat.

   

The blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) often gulp down some nuts quickly and then try to carry off several nuts at a time.

One good thing about the peanuts is that thankfully the starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) don’t appear fond of them (they gulp down the dried mealworms, however, as if that food is going out of style). One will occasionally sample a nut, but they never seem to want a second.

As time passed, I realized that the peanut feeding strategy was rewarding me with frequent avian visitors, but was also rather costly. In the autumn, I began putting out a less expensive fruit and nut mix. This has also proved very popular and various species of birds are willing to share space at the feeders. The chickadees especially will feed alongside others, like the house finches and Northern cardinal below.

Species that usually forage on the ground, like the white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), also make occasional forays to the nut feeder.

When the nut feeders are empty, it’s not uncommon to see birds sitting atop them; when they see me, some will call out, as if saying, “Hey, fill up that feeder, please!” And I usually accommodate them, especially when it is very cold, as has been the case the first days of 2018 – we have had a record-breaking stretch of days in which the temperature did not rise above freezing, an unusual occurrence for our southern state of North Carolina.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler  (Setophaga coronata)  House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

The nut feeders have also been very attractive to the resident Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), one of whom has been VERY persistent in devising ways to get onto the feeders. Each time s/he succeeds, I change the position of the feeders or stumps and branches nearby. Currently, that clever rodent hasn’t been able to get up there. In compensation, I occasionally throw a handful of nuts on the ground.

             

So, not all the birds are “nuts” for nuts, but plenty of species think they’re mighty fine! They are definitely a worthwhile addition to the birders’ array of feeder offerings.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)