Serendipity in a stressful year

2020 has turned out to be quite a stress-filled series of months on multiple fronts, so unexpected pleasures and delights are very welcome. For birders in North Carolina (NC), that scenario has luckily been playing itself out this fall and winter. Several unexpected and unusual birds have been spotted in our state, including a Kirtland’s warbler, vermilion flycatcher, MacGillivray’s warbler, and sandhill cranes.

Many bird lovers have traveled to catch sight of these surprising visitors. While I’ve mostly avoided groups the past nine months as part of my COVID-avoiding measures, last week I did join the human migration to an NC home about 20 miles away to see a bird that is normally only found in the northwestern United States – a varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius).

The opportunity to see this lovely bird was offered to the local community by homeowners Tony Hewitt and Marla Wolf. They generously allowed people to come to their suburban yard (by appointment) to watch over the backyard fence to catch sight of the thrush.

When I visited on a “slow” day, it was easy to socially distance oneself from other birders and photographers. Only a couple other people were there for a while (and I was alone some of the time) waiting for the thrush to make an appearance. Everyone wore masks, some having double masked as well.

The varied thrushes normally migrate back and forth in the area stretching from Alaska, through Canada, down to northern California, as shown by this map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The website remarks that a few of these birds occasionally wander outside their normal range to the Midwest and Northeast. Seeing one in the southeastern USA is highly unusual.

Map credit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Varied_Thrush/maps-range#

This robin-sized bird is a real stunner – his orange, grey, yellow and white feathers grow in a wonderful pattern. The colors seem to vary a bit, depending on the quality of the light falling on them and the background against which you see him. But he is handsome from any angle – front, side or back!

Something I found particularly interesting was a pattern of wavy lines in his tail feathers when the light hit them in a certain way. This was not something that I saw mentioned in descriptions of its physical characteristics. The observation made me want to photograph the thrush again to see if this would show up again.

 

It is interesting to note that one varied thrush crossed the Atlantic and turned up in Great Britain in 1982. It was a unique bird since it represented a rare variant of the species in which the orange feather coloration has become all white. Only five such representatives of this mutation have been recorded since 1921.

In its home range, the varied thrush prefers to stay in dense, coniferous forests near water. The NC visitor is taking advantage of a backyard nook that Marla designed with multiple shrubs and some open space.

The home is not far from a lake, but the thrush is taking advantage of a bird bath for drinks, which Marla kindly had moved so that it was better visible for visiting birders looking over the fence.

Varied thrushes usually feed on insects, foraging on the ground and often under dense cover.

The thrush’s insectivorous diet can be wide-ranging and include ants, beetles, caterpillars, crickets, earthworms, millipedes, snails and spiders.

  

They also eat berries, either in trees or on the ground, during the autumn and winter months. 

Our NC celebrity bird is obviously enjoying seeds furnished daily by Tony and Marla.

A notice placed by Tony near fence announced that the thrush seemed to come out in the open every 30 minutes or so. It turned out that this was indeed the case the first hour that I was there; then the bird came after a couple 15-minute intervals.

He certainly seemed to be a creature of habit because I noticed that after eating, he would go back into the dense undergrowth for several minutes and then re-emerge to take a couple drinks at the bird bath. Eating obviously was making him thirsty and noticing this habit meant it was possible to get “camera-ready” for another appearance.

When it is breeding time, male varied thrushes begin to establish territories and confront other males with threat displays. These begin with the bird cocking his tail and turning it towards his rival, while he lowers his wings. If the rival bird does not go away, the thrush will lower his head, raise and fan his tail and then spread his wings out to the side.

Obviously, our NC bird had no rivals around but there were many other birds foraging in the ground underneath the feeders. They included Northern cardinals, white-throated sparrows, pine siskins and downy woodpeckers among others. And it seemed that “our” thrush was sometimes warning them off.

Or perhaps he was just flashing his wings to scare up insects hiding in the fallen leaves.

There are still large numbers of varied thrushes, with an estimate of some 20 million in the current global breeding population. However, the North American Breeding Bird Survey recorded a cumulative decline of the species of 73% between 1966 and 2015. Logging, wildfires and forest fragmentation are ongoing threats to their breeding habitat.

This is only the fifth time that a varied thrush has been seen in North Carolina. The first sighting was in 2005; three other birds were seen in 2010. No one has any idea what got this year’s bird so far off-course during its migration and no one knows how long it will stay around.

Tony and Marla have kept a visitors’ book (with hand sanitizer available for signers) and many people have been recording their visit. When I visited, more than 110 people had already come by, including some birders from Virginia and Tennessee. More people have since stopped by the Hewitt-Wolf residence to admire this vagrant bird. We are grateful to them for giving us this opportunity!

It’s apparent that the serendipitous sojourn of this gorgeous bird has been a welcome gift to many people – both those who saw it in person and those who’ve admired photos distributed through facebook groups. We hope the bird will survive the winter here and be able to return to its home grounds out West so that its journey has a happy ending!

 

Quebec chronicles – Domaine Forget & birds of black and white

One afternoon during our recent stay in Quebec, we took time to visit a lovely park and academic center called Domaine Forget de Charlevoix, located in the village where we stayed, St. Irénée. The Domaine is a music and dance academy on grounds featuring flower gardens, open-air sculptures, studios, dormitories and a concert hall where an international music festival takes place from June to September.

The grounds also contain small practice cubicles of very basic and inexpensive construction, though each also has a small solar panel (but it was not clear what it powered).

   

It wasn’t clear at first what these little sheds were but when I pushed open a door, I saw they were furnished with a table, chair and walls covered in messages left by students who practiced there. Many of their comments focused on the music that they loved.

 

  • There are people out there who would give anything to play as well as you. Don’t forget to be grateful for what you have.
  • Perfect practice makes perfect
  • Chill! (Responding comment: There is no chill in Paganini ☹)
  • To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable – L.v. Beethoven (responding comment: If you can have both, it’s still a bit better)
  • Love your instrument, but love music more! (Responding comment: Unless it’s a viola)

More of the messages left behind are interspersed below throughout the blog as I show you a first batch of birds we saw in the Canadian province. The focus here will be birds that are mainly black or black and white, their colors nicely complementing the paper birch trees (Betula papyrifera) that we saw everywhere.

The Domaine grounds proved to be a wonderful birding spot and our group was excited to see a blackpoll warbler (Setophaga striata) there. I had never seen one before so spotting this black-striped forager was a treat. Their song is so high-pitched that it is almost inaudible even to people with good hearing.

  • You’re sounding great ♥
  • We do not project our voices, we resonate our souls. RH
  • Play as if no one is listening

These amazing little songbirds – they weigh less than 0.42 oz (12 grams) – make one of the longest non-stop migratory journeys over the Atlantic Ocean of any avians, flying non-stop for over three days!

  • I count myself a king of infinite space
  • If you take time, you will go nowhere/anywhere
  • Endless rivers, boundless time, love flows free

Another small bird present at many of the sites we visited was the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus), which looks just like the Carolina chickadee to me. Apparently, the black-capped has more white edging on its feathers but it is a subtle difference.

This pair was busy at the Tadoussac dunes where they were foraging while also collecting some nesting material.

These birds rely on tree cavities for their nesting sites (although they will also use nest boxes if available), so when trees are cut down, they are losing vital habitat features for their survival.

These are one of the animal species that hides food in order to retrieve it later; the chickadees can remember thousands of hiding places – a useful memory feature for lean times!

 

Whereas chickadees are only 4.7-5.9 inches in length (12–15 cm) and weigh only 0.32–0.49 oz (9-14 g), the American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos brachyrhynchos) measures 16–21 inches long (40-53 cm) with a weight of about 11.1 to 21.9 oz (316-620 g).

 

 

We saw several crows at different sites, in some cases chasing ravens. The group watched a crow that apparently had a nest nearby as well. An interesting and sad fact about them is that they are unfortunately susceptible to West Nile virus.

  • There is nothing more difficult and therefore more precious than to be able to decide
  • Profit du temps présent le plus possible
  • Through iron and blood we solve our problems, attack them head first!
  • Take a risk! You never know what might happen

An interesting fact about the lovely black-throated blue warbler (Setophaga caerulescens) is that the monogamous males all sing at the start and peak of the spring breeding season, but those who do not find a mate stop singing as the season draws to a close. The males who manage to entice a female into mating continue to sing! Their vocal virtuosity therefore indicates reproductive success!

 

  • Let the music speak through you
  • Everybody wins, just some sooner than others!!
  • Smile. Maybe someone loves you 😊
  • Love yourself more than anything else in the entire world

When species identification first took place, the male and female black-throated blues were classified as different species. The females (not shown here) are more muted in color than the males, without any blue feathers but a white line through the eye. Both sexes sport the “pocket handkerchief”, however, i.e., the white patch on their wings.

 

 

A warbler that we see often in North Carolina is the black and white warbler (Mniotilta varia), a bird that seems to always be in a hurry and in motion as it scurries along tree trunks seeking insects.

 

 

 

While birders usually see these attractive individuals in trees, they actually place their nests in leaf litter on the ground. The females can be distinguished from the males by their white throats.

 

 

 

 

The final bird in this black and white line-up is one that we can see often in the US South – the gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis). I have to admit that this is one of my favorite species – I find them to be really sweet.

 

In my yard, they do not chase other birds away, do not fight for a place at feeders, sing sweetly and are alert and caring parents.

  • Shoot for the moon, even if you miss it, you’ll land amongst the stars (Responding comment: I don’t think you understand astronomy)
  • Be happy 😊
  • You can always be better – everybody that came here believes that
  • Dieu ne choisit pas les gens qui sont déjà capables, il rend capables ceux qu’il choisit.
  • No matter how well or badly you play, always remember you are human and therefore deserve love and support

I do have to acknowledge that not all the Domaine students were into encouraging one another.

  • Don’t be a diva. Listen to Diva by Beyoncé
  • You’re wasting so mutch time [sic]
  • Who just wasted a lot of time reading through these walls? (Responding comment: Me! Me!)
  • I don’t like inspirational bullshit

But they also reminded us about the importance of what is beautiful in our lives. And their thoughts can apply to any activities in which we choose to engage, be they jobs or avocations like wildlife watching and nature appreciation.

  • One day your life will flash before your eyes – make sure it’s worth watching
  • Most confuse wealth with success. Wealth means different things to different people. It doesn’t mean someone is happy or content. Ultimately your career is a concept that exists in your mind. What you really have is a series of jobs, strung together, that forms a story you are in charge of writing. Sarah Hill, performance artist
  • If you suppress the arts [or people’s ability to enjoy nature], then you’re suppressing the deepest dreams of a people

Next up – some of the “flashy” birds we saw on a top birding day!

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!”