The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 4: growing into adult plumage

As mentioned in a previous blog, when young birds are ready to leave the nest, they don’t necessarily look like their parents. Many of the altricial birds (ready to move about and forage on their own) may resemble fluffy versions of the adults, as is the case with these hooded merganser ducklings (Lophodytes cucullatus) following their mother.

The brown-headed nuthatch babies (Sitta pusilla) look very much like their parents. Sharp-eyed observers might notice that the tops of their heads are not as brown as those of their parents.

The Eastern meadowlark juveniles (Sturnella magna) resemble their parents but lack the bright yellow and black coloring on the throat and breast.

 

The difference between adult and juvenile downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) is subtle. The female woodpecker has no coloring on the top of her head, which is simply bedecked with the white and black feathers that cover the rest of her body.

The male woodpecker has a red patch on the back of his head.

The immature woodpecker has a red patch on top if the head and this is lost as the bird reaches adulthood.

The Northern mockingbird youngling (Mimus polyglottos) resembles mom and dad quite a bit except for some spotty streaking on the chest.

In other species, the babies start out looking quite different from their parents. Spots characterize many members of the thrush family, with birds like wood thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) and hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus) retaining the spots in adulthood.

   

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and American robins (Turdus migratorius), on the other hand, are only strongly speckled as immature birds, losing their spots as they mature.

In some cases, the birds undergo color changes. Male summer tanagers (Piranga rubra) start out yellow-orange with their reddish coloring appearing in patches until they finally achieve their very bright adult red hue. Some of the immature birds are really quite beautiful with their mottled colors.

 

   

The male blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) start out brown and gradually achieve their dark blue feathers with some reddish/brown wing accents.

 

 

Among the birds that undergo a major change are the European starlings (Sturnis vulgaris). The young birds start out with dullish brown or gray hues with some streaking. Eventually, they begin to develop some spotting and then ultimately achieve the beautiful adult summer glossy feathering with green and purple hues mixed in.

 

 

The females of the Eastern towhee species (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) have a brown back above a white breast with reddish sides, while the males have black backs.

The young developing towhees keep you guessing as to their sex since they undergo quite a lot of color changes as they develop. They do have the white in their tails, which helps you identify them as to species.

 

  And then we come to the hawks and owls. It is not unusual for the young raptors to look nothing at all like their parents. The red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) start out looking like fluffy and then becoming gradually kind of scruffy looking.

     

As they get a little older and leave the nest, they start to resemble their parents more but have more streaking on the breast. As they near adulthood, they look much more like mom and dad.

 

And we end with an example of another raptor. There is a real difference between the baby great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) and its parent as you can see. Many birds are impressed by the adults but ooh and aah over the nestlings. It must be the combination of those big eyes and fluffy feathers that take away attention from the already formidable claws!

               

Next up – a foray into the world of amphibians and reptiles!

The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 3: raising young

This year, most of the birds that visit my yard chose to build their nests in places where I didn’t see them. Only the brown-headed nuthatches, house wrens and Eastern bluebirds chose to use nest boxes. The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) began to use a nest box but their nest was invaded by ants before I had noticed so they abandoned that site. Still, I was able to watch parents with babies, both at home and out on the nature trails.

There are two major kinds of baby birds. The altricial birds hatch as helpless young who must develop their sight and feathers, requiring parental care until they can fly from the nest. They include the songbirds that you may see often, such as chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and bluebirds, whose babies are seen below shortly after hatching and after several days of development.

 

In contrast, the precocial bird babies can quickly move about on their own after hatching and are able to begin foraging for food themselves as they follow their parents around. In some cases, the parents may also feed them. Examples of precocial birds include killdeer, ducks and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) as seen below.

The nest I watched most closely this season was built by brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) in a nest box. Carolina chickadees were also interested in that spot, but the nuthatches won out. Mama Nuthatch laid six eggs, four of which hatched. She and Papa were very hard workers, flying to and from the box countless times per hour. Like other seed-eating birds, they fed their nestlings insects because the babies need lots of protein for their development.

 

They were devoted parents, flying to and fro with food, carrying away fecal sacs and chasing off other birds who used the nest box as a perch. All their care was no match, however, for a pair of birds who are known to be quite aggressive during nesting season.

 

I first learned of house wrens’ (Troglodytes aedon) intolerance of other nesting birds in their vicinity when they invaded the nest of a banded female Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis), whom I had named Chantal. Her babies were hatching and the wrens went into the nest during her absence and killed them. That experience made me hope they would not return to my yard the next spring, but they seem to like the area. This year they visited all the nest boxes in my yard and the male began nests in several of them to keep away other birds. It is thought they may drive away other nesters in order to reduce competition for food when it comes time to raise their own young.

 

The wrens finally settled on a nest box and I thought they would leave the nuthatches alone. Their young ones got to the brink of fledging and the parents were encouraging them to fly out. Sometimes, they would fly up to the box as a youngster peered out into the big wide world and just hover with the food in their mouth.

 

 

They would perch atop the box and call. Eventually two took the leap (which I didn’t see); I thought the others would follow the next day. The parents were busy in the morning and suddenly all activity ceased. I guessed that the other two had taken flight, so in the afternoon I took a peak in the box. To my utter dismay, I found the remaining two nestlings deceased; the wrens had pecked them to death. ☹ I buried them in my flower garden with a small Buddha statue marking the site.

 

 

The nuthatches continued taking care of their fledged babies. They would follow the parents to the feeder poles, crouch down and flutter their wings rapidly as they begged for a morsel.

 

Eventually, the parents found a nearby branch in a large willow oak where they would crack nuts and feed their offspring. As you can see, the spot got a lot of use and could be easily identified by the shredded bark. The whole family still goes up there to eat their nuts from the feeders!

Many adult birds appreciate bird feeders as “fast-food” stops for themselves while they spend most of their time searching for meals for their nestlings. Even the species who mainly eat seeds feed their babies insects because the young ones need lots of protein as they develop toward maturity. The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in my yard and other areas seem to favor caterpillars as a food of choice for their developing youngsters.

 

 

 

The pileated woodpecker parents (Dryocopus pileatus) take turns sitting on eggs and bringing food for their young ones.

The larger raptors bring in heftier meals for their offspring. This red-shouldered hawk grew up alone; those of us watching the nest didn’t know whether only one egg hatched or something happened to a sibling. The parents would bring small mammals for the baby to eat.

 

A pair of great horned owl babies (Buteo lineatus), located by Mary, a locally well-known bird photographer, appeared to be growing well the couple times I went to see them. I never saw the parents bring them food but assume they were well fed as they were venturing out of the nest the last time I saw them (a process called “branching”).

 

It seems that a young bird’s open mouth is a trigger for parents that they can barely resist. Until they mature, the fledglings have a pale white or yellow area, or in the case of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) reddish, where their beaks join. This becomes very visible when they open their mouths wide to beg for food and parent birds have a hard time resisting the urge to stuff food down their throats.

The Eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) at a local park were following their parents around asking for food.

They exhibited both the crouched wing fluttering and wide-open mouths as cues that they wanted to be fed.

  

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) juveniles did not seem to beg as much as the other birds in my yard. They just perched close to feeders or their parents and eventually mom or dad gave them a bit of suet.

 

The European starling young (Sturnus vulgaris) are especially demanding to judge by their behavior at my feeders. These are larger birds and the offspring are as large as their parents,

They are capable of feeding themselves but spend a good deal of time with wide open beaks demanding to be fed.

 

 

 

The starling parents usually give in, but you can almost think they look exasperated.

At least the immature starlings can demonstrate well how a bird looks with a full crop (i.e., the enlarged part of the esophagus that forms a muscular pouch in which food can be stored).

In between all the feeding, the parents have one other important nest duty – keeping the nest as clean as possible. They do this by removing fecal sacs, as this prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) was doing last year.

 

Some adult birds will actually eat the fecal sac. This is because the nestlings do not completely digest their food and the sacs therefore still contain valuable nutrients that the parents can use. I can imagine the parents are glad to be done with this duty once their young have fledged, however.

When you’re out walking or watching bird feeders, it can be entertaining to observe the birds as they nest and raise their demanding children. And it’s good to know that you may even see adult birds begin to drive away their babies, either because they’re tired of feeding them or because they are busy with a second or even third brood for the season.

Creepers and peckers who attract our attention (but these are good guys!)

No, I’m not referring to plants, humans or an anatomical feature but rather avian woodcreepers, tree creepers and woodpeckers! During our nature outings in Costa Rica in August 2019, they were definitely crowd-pleasers and reminded me of how much these birds are appreciated elsewhere, too. So today I’ll share with you some of my photos of these species in Costa Rica, The Netherlands, South Africa and the USA.

 

The insectivorous woodcreepers are endemic to the neotropical regions where there are some 57 different species. They tend to be brown in color and look similar, making identification a challenge at times. They hold their bodies upright, using a stiff tail (a similarity to how woodpeckers maintain a vertical position). Although they mainly look for insects in tree bark, they also will eat army ants. They have strongly clawed toes to help them cling to tree trunks.

 

Research has shown that the woodcreepers may use one of two techniques to capture insects. The “probers” look behind bark, mosses, lichens, leaves, etc. to find their prey. Those who engage in “sallying” launch themselves into the air to catch insects in flight after their movement up a tree has flushed them.

 

The plain brown woodcreeper (Dendrocincla fuliginosa) is distinguished from other woodcreepers by its lack of streaking or stripes.

   

The cocoa woodcreeper (Xiphorhynchus susurrans) tends to be a more solitary feeder that looks for insects in bark.

The streak-headed woodcreeper (Lepidocolaptes souleyetii) was aptly named. It tends to be a solitary probing feeder.

 

The wedge-billed woodcreeper (Glyphorynchus spirurus) is the smallest species of woodcreepers; it also has a shorter bill, which helps in identification. Research has shown they tend to favor ants, beetles, spiders and pseudo-scorpions for their meals.

 

 

The brown-billed scythebill (Campylorhamphus pusillus) is obviously distinguished by its very long, curved bill. It was raining and the bird was not sitting still so my photo isn’t great; I really wish I’d gotten better photos of this species (a goal for the future).

In North Carolina, we have a similar type of bird – the brown creeper (Certhia americana). I cannot hear their high-pitched call and therefore must rely on noticing movement to catch sight of them.

 

Watching them demands some concentration as they are continually on the move as they probe the bark and lichen. They really blend in well with the bark of their trees of choice. It’s a challenge to keep them in view.

 

They tend to nest in hardwood trees but prefer conifers for foraging. Like the neotropical woodcreepers, they have impressive claws to help them cling to the vertical tree trunks. An interesting fact: “By eating a single spider, a creeper gains enough energy to climb nearly 200 feet vertically.”

 

The short-toed treecreeper (Certhia brachydactyla) that I saw in the Hemmeland nature reserve in The Netherlands in 2018 is a similar bird. Like the brown creeper, it flies to the base of a tree and then works its way up the trunk as it searches for insects to eat. (It looks almost identical to the Eurasian treecreeper, so I hope it is identified correctly!)

 

 

The woodpeckers I’ve been able to see in Central America include several species that have similar-looking cousins further north. The golden-fronted woodpecker (Melanerpes aurifrons) has a yellow nape and patch at the base of the bill in much of its range. However, there is a Velasquez’s variant of this species that has a red cap and nape. I saw this one in a botanical garden in Quintana Roo, Mexico, in 2012.

If you look at the red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), which we see a lot in North Carolina, they look quite similar.

 

The Hoffmann’s woodpecker (Melanerpes hoffmannii) reminds me of the red-bellied species. The males have a red crown; the females do not. With their pale yellow napes, these birds look like a “pastel” version of the red-bellied species to me.

Red heads seem to be a popular “accoutrement” for the woodpeckers. The black-cheeked species (Melanerpes pucherani), seen in Arenal, Costa Rica, this past August has a red nape but a yellow forehead.

 

The acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) has a white forehead but also sports a red patch on the back of its head. Fewer than 9% of birds engage in cooperative breeding (where several related or unrelated adults cooperate in raising broods) – the acorn woodpeckers do this through coalitions of adults who nest together.

 

Another woodpecker with yellow hues that I’ve had the privilege to see is the golden-tailed woodpecker (Campethera abingoni), which I saw in Kruger National Park in South Africa in 2009. Like the above-mentioned woodpeckers, in this species the male also has red hues on its head.

 

In North Carolina, two very similar smaller woodpeckers are characterized by males who sport a small red patch on the back of the head and females who lack the red coloring. The hairy woodpecker (Leuconotopicus villosus, below left) is the larger of the two species; the downy (Picoides pubescens) looks almost identical except that it is slightly smaller, has a shorter bill and no white spots on the outside tail feathers.

 

The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Dryobates borealis) looks like a larger version of the hairy and downy birds but it lacks any red patches anywhere on the head. Their common name refers to an almost invisible red streak (“cockade”) at the top of white cheek where it meets the black feathers atop the head. Unfortunately, this species (the only woodpeckers to make their nest holes in living trees) is under increased threat as the US Fish and Wildlife Service may remove some of the protective measures that have helped increase the population.

 

The great spotted woodpecker male (Dendrocopos major) that I saw in The Netherlands in 2018 does have a red patch on the back of its head; as in other woodpecker species, the females lack the red spot. This species also sports an obvious red belly (much more so than the red-bellied woodpecker!). An interesting feature of this woodpecker is that they undergo a complete moult after breeding that lasts up to 120 days.

 

 

 

The rufous-winged woodpecker (Piculus simplex, right) only put in a very brief appearance this past August, but made it obvious that they, too, have a red crown. The golden-olive woodpecker (Colaptes rubiginosus) continued the red accented plumage – the males complement their crimson crown with a red “moustachial” stripe. There are 19 sub-species with slightly different coloration.

 

 

The large lineated woodpecker (Dryocopus lineatus, left) in Costa Rica closely resembles the pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus, right) that we have in North Carolina. The males of both species can be distinguished by the red stripe going down their faces and both types of woodpeckers are known for their drumming.

The pale-billed woodpeckers (Campephilus guatemalensis) looks a bit like the lineated and pileated species but they are even larger birds that feature an entirely red head. The adults have a light-colored beak that gives them their common name; immature birds have darker bills that lighten with age. The females can be distinguished by their black instead of red throats.

We were lucky to see a pair of these birds foraging along a large stream, accompanied by a third bird – perhaps one of their young from the previous breeding season? This species has not been studied thoroughly – for example, the incubation period and time from hatching to fledging are still both unknown.

 

Finally, I’ll end this long blog with two more woodpeckers that we saw in Costa Rica. There were smoky brown woodpeckers (Dryobates fumigatus) in a couple places we visited but it was difficult for me to get a good photo in the overcast rainy conditions. They are rather plain birds but again the males are distinguished by a red cap. These were in a tree with black-cheeked woodpeckers.

I had a bit more luck photographing the chestnut-colored woodpecker (Celeus castaneus). This attractive bird has reddish brown plumage and a shaggy crest. Its head feathers may be lighter in color and the males have bright red cheeks.

 

 

As there are a couple more woodpecker species where I live that I also enjoy seeing, I’ll feature them in the next blog (a shorter one!) Have a nice day!

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. 😊

Snowy portraits – part 2

The larger birds were very obvious at the feeders during our North Carolina snowstorm in early December, but they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the fact that I spent considerable time knocking snow off feeders and a bird bath, filling feeders up multiple times daily and spreading seed repeatedly on the snow for the ground-feeding wildlife.

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), who live in the various yard woodpiles, mostly stayed on the ground but occasionally flew up to a feeder. They also spent time clinging to the brick walls of the house, I assume in search of spiders and other small insects that stay there.

Their slightly larger brethren in shades of brown, the Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), have taken up residence in the holly shrubs and a privet bush near the front-yard feeders. From there, they can emerge to hop around under the feeders (sporadically flying up to perch on a feeder, too) with a place close by to which they can escape when feeling threatened.

 

 

Both house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus, left) and pine siskins (Spinus pinus, below) came to eat seeds at the platform feeders. Though the finches are larger than the siskins, the female finches and siskins look very similar to me and I usually need to look through my zoom lens to see them clearly.

 

 

 

The photo below is a nice one for differentiating them. The female finch on the left has a thicker bill and a slightly larger and bulkier size. The pine siskin on the right has a thinner bill and hints of yellow on its slender flanks.

Another pair of birds that can be difficult to differentiate are the male house and purple finches. The purple finch (Haemorhous purpureus, below) looks like it has been dipped in raspberry juice to put color all over its body. While some male house finches also have very bright red hues, the color does not spread everywhere on their bodies.

   

The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor, below) and dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) are both subtle beauties in shades of gray but easily distinguishable.

   

The junco’s pink bill gives it a delicate look in my opinion.

 

The chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are both daily visitors to my feeding stations regardless of the weather. The “chippies” are here year-round, while the white-throated sparrows (right) are only resident in the autumn, winter and spring. The somewhat smaller chippies usually sit on the feeders, while the white-throats mostly seek food on the ground; both will venture into the others’ areas, however.

Two very different birds share a common feeding method for gathering suet. Both the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula, below left) and yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata, below right) hover in front of the feeder as if they are imitating hummingbirds, snatching a bite to eat as they “balance” mid-air. Both will eventually alight on the feeder, though, and then eat at a more leisurely pace.

The bright little pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) also loves suet but never hovers at the feeder. S/he will wait until other birds have cleared the space and then clutch the frame to have multiple bites of the fatty food. During windy intervals of stormy weather, this plucky bird also holds its ground, clutching the feeder pole so as not to blow away.

 

The downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are never scared off the feeders by anyone. Their larger red-bellied cousins are often a bit hesitant to visit but the downies can’t be kept away. Like them, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) also don’t let the presence of other avians put them off – they are willing to share space.

This doesn’t mean the bluebirds won’t show a bit of temper, especially toward their own species mates, but they generally get along with everyone.

And the bluebirds visit regardless of the atmospheric conditions, sometimes looking stunning with their bright dry plumage and sometimes looking a bit bedraggled when the pouring rain and thickly falling snow wet their feathers completely. Beginning birders might wonder if these are the same birds, but fortunately the bluebirds seem to dry out quickly to regain their usual beauty.

   

 

There were a few more birds that came along during the storm (one featured in the next blog!), including Carolina chickadees, Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis, left) and red-winged blackbirds. Snow and ice storms and pouring rain can be a drag in many ways for the human species but for birders, these “bad-weather” interludes can certainly be a boon for easy armchair and window watching!