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 love affair, take 2

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The ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) continue to capture my heart, even though my numerous forays to lakes and ponds to get some excellent photos of them have not yet paid off. I finished the book on osprey migration, Soaring with Fidel, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Reading about different birds’ personalities and choices for migration was really interesting; learning about the different people who dedicate their lives to learning and sharing information about ospreys kept my interest, too. The ospreys definitely have a devoted fan base.

It’s quite amazing to think of these birds flying several thousand miles within a short period of time so that they can spend the winters in warmer Caribbean and South American climes. When I was at Topsail Island, I was lucky to see a few ospreys that were apparently on their migratory journeys. They flew very far overhead, but I did see one drop down into the ocean and come up with a meal.

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One day when I was at North Carolina’s largest man-made lake, Jordan Lake, I was lucky to see an osprey begin a predatory dive that was a bit nearer to me than usual.

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The bird’s wings and claws were spread as it readied itself to grasp the fish that was in sight down below.

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osprey IMG_0806© Maria de Bruyn resSometimes the birds will face forward to dive down and then flip upwards at the last minute so they enter the water feet first. This bird did most of the dive with its feet down in the clutching position, ready to strike.

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A mighty plunge!

osprey IMG_0813© Maria de Bruyn resAnd then emergence with a meal caught in those feet with unique reversible back toes to help the osprey hold on to the slippery fish.

osprey IMG_0815© Maria de Bruyn resThis was a happy bird. And when another (or the same?) bird suddenly flew right over my head to grace me with a piercing gaze, I was a happy birder!

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I’ve fallen in love!

It would be cool if it was a male of the same species as me, but I have come across another species that is giving me great joy when I see it. Ah, pray tell, say you – what or who has won your heart?

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osprey IMG_5354©Maria de Bruyn resIt’s this raptor that has seized my attention and grabbed my thoughts so that I return again and again to spots where he (or she) is known to be seen. I haven’t lost my affection for the many other avian family members, but the graceful flight and piercing eyes of the osprey (Pandion haliaetus carolinensis) have captured my imagination for sure.


The osprey’s beautiful face with a black stripe highlighting its focused gaze is actually more attractive to me than its bird of prey cousin who delights so many, the bald eagle.

IMG_8405©Maria de BruynOver the past few months, I’ve discovered I’m not the only osprey fan around. During various visits to Jordan Lake, I’ve now met at least 8 guys who devote themselves to photographing raptors. They tend to get more excited when spotting an adult or juvenile eagle, but they will definitely train their zoom lenses in the direction of osprey looking for a meal.

osprey IMG_9503©Maria de BruynThe ospreys circle round and round in the air high above the lake, training their eyes on the water because their superb vision allows them to see the fish underwater.

Sometimes, fish jump out of the water fairly close to me, leaving an ever-widening circle wavelet which is a give-away of their presence. Yet the osprey often ignores those tell-tale signs and looks elsewhere – often at a good distance from where I am so that my shots are mostly from far away and a little blurry. But that gives me motivation to return again and again, hoping for a sharply focused close-up one day!

The bird’s wingspan averages 127–180 cm (50–71 in) and they can weigh up to 2.1 kg (4.6 lb). Interestingly, ospreys are found in all continents except Antarctica, so this family has gotten around!

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They are fairly successful hunters. It’s not unlikely to see one beginning a dive, only to halt its descent half-way, apparently deciding that a plunge won’t be rewarding. They begin their dive head first. Then, at the last minute they flip upright so that they enter the water feet first, with claws spread wide and ready to snatch their prey.

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Very often when they crash down into the water, closing their nostrils so that they don’t get waterlogged heads, they arise with a fish. Like owls, ospreys have reversible outer toes which help them grab their slippery prey with two toes in front and two behind.

IMG_8401©Maria de Bruyn resIf the fish is large, the bird may have a bit of a struggle to arise from the water while gripping its meal tightly in its talons. Apparently, if the fish is too large, an osprey may not be able to let go and then can drown; luckily, I’ve not witnessed that.


osprey IMG_9908©Maria de BruynIt’s not unusual to see them holding their capture in only one foot , however. Sometimes, they will circle for quite a while holding their fish before they head for a tree where they can eat it at their leisure.

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Ospreys usually mate for life and they re-use nests from one year to the next. Some nests have been in use for as long as 70 years. These birds often live 7-10 years, but some individuals have been known to survive up to 20-25 and even 30 years.

My fellow raptor photo-graphers and I are not the only osprey fans around. More than 50 international postage stamps have featured this bird of prey and sports teams have been named after them (sometimes using the nickname Seahawk).

osprey IMG_9908©Maria de BruynDavid Gessner, a nature writer based at UNC-Wilmington, has written a couple books about osprey and I was recently lucky enough to get Soaring with Fidel at a bargain price. I’ve just begun reading his adventure in following the ospreys’ migration and expect it will heighten my enjoyment of the photographic pursuit. Knowing these beautiful birds will be soaring overhead when I visit lakes and ponds has certainly made me one of their faithful fans; we’ll be seeing one another for some time to come!

“Regal” members of the bird world

ruby-crowned kinglet IMG_2027©Maria de BruynWe usually don’t know who gave a bird species its common name and sometimes may scratch our heads wondering how and why someone ended up choosing a particular name. But birders faithfully learn to identify birds with those names, even when they may seem illogical. For example, many people would have chosen to call red-bellied woodpeckers red-headed woodpeckers since the reddish belly feathers are much less obvious than the red on the back of their heads.

Sometimes we can guess at why a bird got a certain name, however. The species with some form of “king” in their names were apparently felt to have something regal in their bearing or behavior. These birds don’t look similar though.

Some are quite small, like the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula). This tiny bird, which weighs only 5-10 g (0.2-0.4 oz), is a bit dull in color except for the ruby crown that the males occasionally display. They are very active and very cute and having them leave the forest and woody areas to visit your bird feeders is a real treat.

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The golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa) is even smaller, weighing on average 4-7.8 g (0.14-0.28 oz). The males and females both have crowns, although the males can have an orange patch in the middle of their crowns.

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The tropical kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) is larger and has a crown stripe that is less obvious than the kinglet crowns.

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The belted kingfisher is larger still (Megaceryle alcyon) weighing 113-178 g (4-6.3 oz). The females are more brightly colored than the males, showing a reddish band across their breasts (both male and female juveniles have the reddish bands but adult males lose theirs).

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Some birds don’t have regal names in English but do so in other languages. For example, in Dutch and German, wrens are called kinglets; in North Carolina, we talk about Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus).

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And then we have the large raptor (weighing in at 0.9–2.1 kg (2.0–4.6 lb) whose regal background is expressed in its scientific name, Pandion haliaetus. Pandion was the name of the Greek king of Athens who was grandfather to Theseus, who was transformed into an eagle. Haliaetus comes from the Greek word for sea eagle. We call this regal eagle by the simpler name osprey.

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So these kingly birds are all quite different, ranging from the tiny kinglets to the robust osprey. What they do have in common is their loveliness, displayed in diverse size, color and plumage, and our appreciation for their beauty.

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