Venturing forth on overcast days

Our area has been inundated with rain for 9 days straight now – not a big deal if you live in a region with monsoon seasons but it is not really usual for us. We also had two hurricanes and several severe storms the past 5.5 months as well as other rainy periods and the ground – much of it clay – is just not absorbing all the water anymore. My yard (which I am fortunate to have, don’t get me wrong!) currently has patches that are simply sodden mud and clay with no vegetation to be seen. Paths in the nature reserves are slick and slippery. Still, if you’re a person who gets “spiritual sustenance” by going out into nature, you venture forth on those days that might have a few overcast but rain-free hours to see what is out and about. Though I haven’t seen beavers lately, I did see their tracks in one reserve. A father had brought his children out and they made plaster casts of the tracks – a wonderful outdoor nature lesson.

Because we have also had some unusually warm days for this time of year, the flowers began budding a bit earlier than other years. Daffodils, hyacinths and crocuses are blooming profusely and a few of my neighbors have lovely flowering quince (Chaenomeles).

 

 

A winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) at one park had some lovely blossoms.

 

 

 

 

 

At another reserve, an apple tree (Malus pumila) has lovely flowers emerging.

 

Unfortunately, the tree is right next to a grove of cedars that are laden with mature cedar apple rust galls (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae). When they emit their spores, they will kill the apples. I used to have an apple tree in my yard but the nearby cedars also got apple rust and now the tree has died. I’ve planted a plum tree and hope that that one will thrive and survive.

With the leaves having fallen from most trees, it’s possible to see the cocoons of some of our larger moths. So far, I’ve found three cecropia moth cocoons, two polyphemus moth cocoons and several bagworm moth cocoons in three different places. The Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg cases are also showing up better with little foliage to hide them.

Getting nice shots of birds is not easy on those dull and gray days. Many of the smaller birds were huddled in bushes and trees, puffing themselves up to trap some body heat as a means of coping with the cold and wet conditions.

 

Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

I tried to get close to a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius), who kept flying just a bit further away when I slowly approached it. As I was walking back to my car, it suddenly turned and flew right by me – I swung up my camera and got one shot, which was not perfect but still a bit of a reward.

 

A gorgeous great blue heron (Ardea herodias), on the other hand, deigned to entertain me with a protracted grooming session at a local pond. S/he first perched above a couple turtles and watched them until they plopped down underwater.

Then the bird began picking at its feathers, showing off how its long neck can be twisted to enable that long beak to reach where it wants.

Note where the beak is peeking through in the photo above right! Flexible neck!

The preening activities gave me a chance to get what I considered to be a series of nice portraits.

 

The weather forecasters predicted that the rain would end, it would get very windy and the sun would shine this afternoon – they were right! They also say we will have a week of sunny days coming up – I certainly hope that that’s the case so I can exchange my muck boots for regular walking shoes again. Hope you are enjoying some pleasant weather!

 

Water-logged and soggy birds

Carolina wren I77A2794© Maria de Bruyn resMy original intent was to write only one more blog this year, but our current weather has induced me to write two (the other will follow on the last day of 2015). During the past week, our region has had more than our “fair share” of rain. Fortunately, the house is not downstream or downhill of flowing water so that flooding is not a concern (and having helped my parents when their home was flooded with about 5 feet of water, I know that is a real pain to say the least). But the yard is so water-logged that small pools of water are scattered in many places and the ground cover squishes when we walk on it. Combined with very high temperatures for this time of year, it seems that El Niño is really making itself known – and the birds like this Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) must be getting tired of being water-logged as well!

Sayings such as “like water off a duck’s back” imply that birds don’t really get bothered by water pouring from the heavens, but that is probably only partly true. During recent downpours, I saw – through the back porch screen – a Carolina wren and Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) hanging out on a downspout under the house eaves, while a brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) clung to the brick wall under the roof overhang to get out of the rain.

brown-headed nuthatch I77A0090© Maria de BruynNorthern cardinal I77A0101© Maria de Bruyn res

Birds that regularly dive underwater do have denser feathers, which helps prevent water from penetrating through to their skin, as is the case for this Canada goose (Branta canadensis).

Canada goose I77A1169© Maria de Bruyn res

But birds’ feathers are not inherently waterproof – when we see water droplets beading on their backs and tails, as in the case of this brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) and blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata), it’s because the birds have made them water-resistant to some extent.

Blue jay I77A3141© Maria de Bruyn resbrown thrasher I77A9881© Maria de Bruyn res

This happens in two ways. On the one hand, birds such as pigeons, herons, hawks and owls have special feathers called “powder downs” or “pulviplumes”, which are covered in a dusty powder containing keratin that disintegrates and becomes a waterproof coating. They spread the powder to other feathers while preening.

Great blue heron I77A1220© Maria de Bruyn res

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)

brown-headed nuthatch I77A0090© Maria de Bruyn resOther birds have a uropygial (preen) gland located at the base of their tails. It produces a substance containing oil and wax that the birds spread on their feathers when they groom. Often, they will rub their head against the preen gland and then spread the oil by rubbing their head against other feathers, a behavior that this female red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) seemed to be doing when she was grooming. The wax then helps make the feathers more flexible and water-resistant, which explains the water beads we see on their feathers when it rains.

dark-eyed junco I77A4085© Maria de Bruyndark-eyed junco I77A9650© Maria de Bruyn res

Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)

Eastern towhee I77A9682© Maria de Bruyn res Pine warbler I77A9921© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)

     Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

It may be that some birds are less successful in spreading the powder and wax to their head feathers, or they rub all the oil or powder off their heads onto other feathers. This may account for the “bad hair day” look some of them get when it rains for hours on end. These spiky “Mohawks” often appear in Northern cardinals and Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

Northern cardinal I77A9734© Maria de Bruyn res Northern cardinal I77A9870© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird I77A9717© Maria de Bruyn resEastern bluebird I77A9710© Maria de Bruyn res

Other birds seem to especially get soggy feathers on the crowns of their heads just above their eyes. This may be why we see so many of them shaking their heads vigorously to get rid of the dampness on their pates.

Pine warbler I77A9942© Maria de Bruyn res White-throated sparrow I77A2980© Maria de Bruyn res

Pine warbler                                              White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

Red-bellied woodpecker I77A9724© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

And some birds just get an overall scruffy look when it rains hard, like this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).

 

 

 

 

Eastern bluebird I77A0155© Maria de Bruyn resThe water-logged look does seem to give some birds an angry or disgruntled appearance; I can certainly sympathize since endless days of rain – even in warmer temperatures – is one of my least favorite types of weather. It seems that overcast days and showers are continuing in our local forecast for some time to come. So the poor birds have to put up with the wet weather a while longer. We’ll all appreciate the sunlight when it comes back in force – hopefully soon!

A bedraggled sort of day

Carolina wren IMG_4876© Maria de Bruyn resFirst, let this lovely Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and me wish you – fellow nature lovers and blog readers – all the best as we look to the future in this year of 2015! May your minor disappointments (life is not always rosy) be compensated by love, laughter, health and happiness in abundance!

 

Yesterday may have been a minor disappointment for the wildlife here.Hermit thrush IMG_3106© Maria de Bruyn res On Sunday, it was very cold for North Carolina standards. Together with two other Audubon Society volunteers, I was standing at a local lake in 15°F (-9.4°C) weather waiting to see if any bald eagles flew by for inclusion in the quarterly Eagle Count. We didn’t see any, although this lovely hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) was nearby eating berries.

Monday was warmer but EXTREMELY wet! Two of my cats awakened me at 5 a.m. and I could hear the rain coming down in a veritable deluge. I wondered if I would be able to see the road to drive for an appointment later that morning (it did let up, thank goodness) and also wondered how the birds and animals were keeping in this unpleasant weather.

Northern cardinal IMG_4462© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern cardinal IMG_4049© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

When it’s cold, the birds fluff up their feathers to trap air pockets by their bodies; this helps they retain body heat and stay warmer. Heavier wet feathers don’t seem to fluff well, though. On the other hand, birds’ feathers are covered with an oily or waxy substance that helps water run off, thereby keeping their bodies drier. Those feathers don’t necessarily look pretty though. Many of the birds were indeed looking bedraggled, some to a greater degree and others just a bit like these Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis).

red-bellied woodpecker IMG_5005© Maria de Bruyn resIt didn’t seem that many birds were hiding in vegetation to get out from under the downpour. Nope – they all appeared to be very hungry and anxious red-bellied woodpecker IMG_4948© Maria de Bruyn resfor a meal like this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), who was scolding me for being so close to the feeders!

white-tailed deer IMG_4092© Maria de Bruyn resA few white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) were also wet and hungry, including two visitors to my yard that I had not seen before. They were two bucks, one of whom must have been hit by a car. One of his antlers was broken off and he was hopping along holding up his left hind leg, which had obviously been injured.

 

 

 

white-tailed deer IMG_4063© Maria de Bruyn res white-tailed deer IMG_4001© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer IMG_4055© Maria de Bruyn resA young doe, who visits regularly, stopped for some bird seed, as did the other buck whose antlers had been shed. Their thick hair was coated in raindrops.

The Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) can curl their tails up over their backs as a kind of natural umbrella, both on the ground and in trees. This individual, who may have been injured by a predator and escaped, enjoyed some apple – first on the ground and then later in the tree away from the blue jays that were hopping around it.

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_4325© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern gray squirrel IMG_4334© Maria de Bruyn res

Some of the birds definitely looked more presentable than other. The three visiting mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) were sleek and beautiful, one using its long tail tobalance as it plucked meal worms from a feeder designed for somewhat smaller birds.

Northern mockingbird IMG_4503© Maria de Bruyn res Northern mockingbird IMG_4467© Maria de Bruyn res

The dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) and chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) looked in fine shape, too.

dark-eyed junco IMG_4802© Maria de Bruyn res dark-eyed junco IMG_4729© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern towhee IMG_4924© Maria de Bruyn res chipping sparrow IMG_4817© Maria de Bruyn res

The bluebirds (Sialia sialis) varied in appearance; a couple looked groomed but wet, while a couple others looked a bit disheveled.

Eastern bluebird IMG_4587© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern bluebird IMG_4588© Maria de Bruyn res

pine warbler IMG_4569© Maria de Bruyn resThe pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) – usually among the more handsome garden birds – unfortunately looked a sorry sight. Fortunately, when the rain ends, he’ll be able to shake that water off and get back to looking like one of the handsome fellas of the avian neighborhood!

pine warbler IMG_4618© Maria de Bruyn

 

pine warbler IMG_4842© Maria de Bruyn res

ruby-crowned kinglet IMG_4777© Maria de BruynThe ruby-crowned kinglet’s (Regulus calendulabrown-headed nuthatch IMG_4409© Maria de Bruyn res) oily feather covering seemed to do well in keeping the rainwater at bay, while the brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) looked a bit more water-logged.ruby-crowned kinglet IMG_4741© Maria de Bruyn res

The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) and Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) join me in looking forward to dryer and sunnier weather in a few days’ time!

tufted titmouse IMG_4350© Maria de Bruyn resCarolina chickadee IMG_4386© Maria de Bruyn res