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!

Avian generations in the making – part 2B: nesting in nature

My last blog looked at birds’ nests in man-made structures and there are plenty of birds who take the opportunity to use such sites. Most birds, however, make their homes out in nature – in shrubs, trees and on the ground. This is a bit of a long blog but I want to share views of different species at work.

There are different types of nests; a few types that we see in North Carolina include:

  • Cavity nests – holes in trees, made by the parents themselves or adopted as a home when birds like the cavities made by others
  • Simple scrapes – these are shallow depressions scratched out on the ground and they may be lined with materials or left to look like the rest of the surrounding ground
  • Cup-shaped nests – these structures are like small bowls and may be lined with materials like those used in nest box nests. They can be made of varied materials – swallows use mud while American robins and other birds use plant materials.
  • Platform nests – these nests are usually quite large and comprise large twigs and small branches
  • Plate nests are a bit similar to platform nests but much smaller and less organized; they may consist simply of a few twigs arranged in a shallow bundle
  • Pendant nests hang from branches.

When birds look for a cavity site, they may seek out a new spot on a tree trunk or investigate already existing cavities. These Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) at Sandy Creek Park were examining one particular hole with interest, but a downy woodpecker was interested as well so there was some rivalry. The female bluebird chose to just sit on a nearby branch while her mate looked at the hole numerous times trying to make a decision.

    

Red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) excavate larger cavities in tree trunks to raise their broods. They may visit various trees before deciding on a spot.

      

Pileated woodpeckers (Hylatomus pileatus) may use the same holes year after year. They make holes for resting as well as for nesting and often include a “back door” so they can make a quick escape if a snake shows up.

          

Brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla), like this one at Jordan Lake, can be very industrious in excavating their nest cavities. You can watch them pecking away at the wood of a tree trunk or branch, scattering wood shavings and removing bigger bits of softened wood in their beaks to achieve a hole of the right depth for their babies. (See a short video of one at work here.)

   

I also saw nuthatches making nests on the edges of a farm and near the NC Botanical Garden. The pair working on a nest at the Garden were doing this with a great horned owl on a branch overhead, as well as a red-tailed hawk and crows who were raising a racket. Their presence didn’t bother the little birds; these nuthatches also appeared to have help from a previous year’s youngster willing to help the parents raise the new siblings.

 

 

    

Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) also dig out small holes in trees and snags.

      

Killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) use scrape nests which may look exactly like the surrounding area; their eggs then blend in really well with the environment and can be difficult to see.

When I first saw this nest suspended from a tree near a bridge, I had no idea which bird had built it. A birding friend had fortunately seen the parent bird fly to the nest – it belonged to a Northern parula like the one shown below (Setophaga americana).

    

I was lucky to see a female orchard oriole (Icterus spurius) collecting nice soft lining materials for its nest this past spring.

         

A red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) was doing the same with cattails – an obviously appropriate source for bird bedding!

       

Mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) and Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) make fairly shallow, twiggy nests (“plate nests”). It makes you wonder if eggs ever roll out of them through cracks in the loose, low walls.

   

Many birds make cup nests and spend a good amount of time collecting the materials to produce them. Here you see American robins (Turdus migratorius) gathering grasses – they tend to fill their mouths as much as possible before flying off to the nest-in-the making.

      

Red-eyed vireos (Vireo olivaceus) will also attempt to get several pieces of bark into their beaks before flying back to the home site. The photos here are dark as the bird was deep in shrubs where little light was penetrating.

        

Blue grosbeaks (Passerina caerulea) weave what looks like a cross between a pendant nest and a cup nest; they also add man-made materials such as rags, cellophane, newspaper and bits of plastic.

    

Great blue herons and ospreys are builders of platform nests.The great blue herons (Ardea herodias) carry large twigs and branches to furnish a nest. At Sandy Creek Park they have been using the same tree-top platforms for several years now.

     

Last year, I saw this osprey pair (Pandion haliaetus) build their first nest from scratch; they weren’t enthusiastic about me being in the vicinity and would perch or fly overhead to give me “the evil eye” – sometimes calling to one another to sound the alert that they had spotted me down below.

 

 

This year, they were busy refurbishing the nest – these birds with longer-term mates may use the same nest year after year. Again, they would stop their work to stare me down.

 

The Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens) makes a cup nest that is well-hidden among the leaves of the tree spot it chooses. A friend saw the pair constructing this nest and it was done by the time I visited. It seemed quite a tight fit for mom to sit in while brooding her eggs.

The bird whom I enjoy seeing most during nest construction is the blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea). These little birds are very active and often don’t sit still for long as they feed in shrubs and trees. When they are busy making a new home though, they take their time to do a good job. First, they locate good locations for the materials they use – leaves, spider web to hold the leaves together and pieces of lichen to cover the outside walls.

      

They affix the lichen carefully to make a really beautiful, compact and elegant little cup. The female then sits in it and moves her body to ensure it gets the right shape and dimensions for her upcoming brooding.

     

The male and female both work hard on the nests and this year I got to see three pairs at work. In two cases, it was lucky I saw them flying to and fro because their nests blended in really well with the tree.

Unlike the cavity and platform nesters, the cup and pendant nesters usually need to build a new nest each year. At the end of the summer, for example, the blue-gray gnatcatcher nest had already deteriorated considerably with the rain and wind, even though it was a fairly calm and dry season.

 

Once the nest is complete, the avian parents brood and feed their babies before fledging and this will be the third part of this series. For now, I leave you with the male and female ospreys as they watch the birdwatcher….

  

Woodpecker welcome!

My celebration for the arrival of 2016 happened on 21 January, when I had my first nature walk of the year. It was delayed by a hospitalization at the start of the year and home treatments for a couple weeks after that. When a relatively warm and sunny day arrived, I just had to get out there despite still dealing with some recovery-related issues. I chose the North Carolina Botanical Garden as my venue since it has plenty of benches for short rests in between walking. It was simply lovely.

pileated woodpecker I77A7321© Maria de BruynMy first bird of the day was a beautiful male pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), a harbinger of the day’s theme – the woodpeckers were my welcome committee!

Loud rhythmic hammering had me searching the snags among the tall trees for the next greeter – it reminded me of the facts I had learned about woodpeckers and their adaptations to a pecking life.

downy woodpecker I77A7372© Maria de BruynIt turned out to be a diminutive downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), whose hammering sounds were enhanced by the hollow stem with which he was busy.

Next up was a lovely female yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) who was very industriously flitting from branch to branch in search of sustenance.

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7419© Maria de Bruynyellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7582© Maria de Bruyn

When flattened against tree trunks, she demonstrated how well camouflaged her back feathers make her. A male sapsucker showed it, too.

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7476© Maria de Bruyn

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7860© Maria de Bruyn res

red-bellied woodpecker I77A8242© Maria de BruynA red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) rounded out the welcoming committee.

The other birds didn’t disappoint. Several species were in the woods and at the feeders near the Garden’s bird blind. A lovely Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) flitted about. A tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) was singing.

 

Carolina chickadee I77A7639© Maria de Bruyn tufted titmouse I77A7388© Maria de Bruyn

 

white-breasted nuthatch I77A8203© Maria de Bruyn

 

A white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) foraged on tree trunks overhead. A Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos polyglottos) posed among red winter berries.

 

Northern mockingbird I77A7737© Maria de Bruyn res

hermit thrush I77A7658© Maria de Bruyn

 

A hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) emerged near the bird blind, and then the same bird or another seemed to accompany me as I walked another part of the native habitats garden.

 

hermit thrush I77A7818© Maria de Bruyn

hermit thrush I77A7788© Maria de Bruyn res

Later, a male sapsucker (identifiable by his red throat) appeared near the Paul Green cabin, where he had been busy working on his sapwells.

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7858© Maria de Bruyn res yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7854© Maria de Bruyn res

Shortly thereafter a downy woodpecker came to the same spot and sampled sap (or something else) from the row of holes left by the sapsucker! That was a nice example of how what one animal does can benefit another, too.

downy woodpecker I77A7912© Maria de Bruyn

downy woodpecker I77A7921© Maria de Bruyn res

During a plant interlude, I was surprised to see some Southern purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) that had not yet shriveled up in the cold.

Southern purple pitcher plant I77A8086© Maria de Bruyn Southern purple pitcher plant I77A8081© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

When, I was leaving, a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) alighted overhead,

ruby-crowned kinglet I77A8165© Maria de Bruyn ruby-crowned kinglet I77A8164© Maria de Bruyn

a red-bellied woodpecker arrived, and one more woodpecker made an appearance – a Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) high up behind some branches in a tall tree. I was using my small zoom lens so the photo quality isn’t great, but you can see that s/he was there.

red-bellied wooodpecker I77A8234© Maria de Bruyn Northern flicker I77A8154© Maria de Bruyn

downy woodpecker I77A8006© Maria de BruynThe only woodpeckers that are common in our town that I missed were the red-headed and hairy woodpeckers – it was truly a woodpecker welcome and a really lovely start to my wildlife photography outings for this year!