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….

  

Birds, berries, nuts and seeds – enjoyment of nature’s bounty

So this wasn’t my last blog of 2015 after all. An unexpected hospital admission on 30 December brought about quite a delay in my blogging efforts. But I managed to complete this in instalments over the past days and hope you enjoy the final version, which I am happily able to post on my second day at home in 2016!

During late summer, when various plants have or start developing fruit, the birds begin to enjoy nature’s bounty. Here in North Carolina, they will eat the berries of native plants such as American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), winged sumac (Rhus copallinum), American holly (Ilex opaca), possumhaw (deciduous holly, Ilex decidua), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and wild blackberries (Rubus).

American beautyberry IMG_7637© Maria de Bruyn resWinged sumac IMG_5377©Maria de Bruyn res

American holly I77A3150© Maria de Bruyn resDeciduous holly IMG_4428© Maria de Bruyn res

Flowering dogwood DK7A7731© Maria de Bruyn reswild blackberryIMG_2588©Maria de Bruyn res

 

This year, the juniper berries were a real crowd pleaser. The American robins (Turdus migratorius) went for them first, soon followed by Northern cardinals (cardinalis cardinalis), Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos polyglottos) and Northern flickers (Colaptes auratus).

American robin IMG_6567© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern cardinal IMG_3653© Maria de BruynAmerican robin I77A0801©Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird I77A0913©Maria de Bruyn resNorthern mockingbird 2 IMG_6308© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern flicker IMG_5853© Maria de Bruyn res

The beautiful cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) enjoyed the cedar berries, too.

cedar waxwing I77A4266© Maria de Bruyn res

cedar waxwing I77A4293© Maria de Bruyn res

Birds like thbuckthorn I77A2455© Maria de Bruyn signed rese Northern mockingbird and white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) also enjoy the berries of invasive plants such as privet (Ligustrum), common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica. left), Chinaberry (Melia azedarach) and autumn olive (Eleagnus umbellata).

Northern mockingbird I77A2924© Maria de Bruyn res
white-throated sparrow I77A8188© Maria de Bruyn 2 reswhite-throated sparrow I77A4714© Maria de Bruyn signed

Watching our avian friends enjoy snapping up berries from vines can create enjoyment for the birdwatcher, too!

Northern cardinal DK7A8841© Maria de Bruyn signed res

ruby-crowned kinglet I77A5319© Maria de Bruyn reshermit thrush I77A5816© Maria de Bruyn signed res

Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula)

Hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus)

 

In some cases, they may also be seeking insects along with the berries, as this yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) and tiny golden-crowned kinglet (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) may have been doing.

Yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A9133© Maria de Bruyngolden-crowned kinglet I77A1918© Maria de Bruyn

American goldfinch DK7A4411© Maria de Bruyn signed

 

It’s not only the fruit that draws them away from the bird feeders in the autumn though. Sunflower seeds (Helianthus) are a big hit with the American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), who also seek out different kinds of seed pods.

 

American goldfinch I77A2510© Maria de Bruyn res American goldfinch IMG_7947© Maria de Bruyn signed res

Pods on trees, like the crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia fauriei), and on vines such as the trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) offer attractive meals, too.

goldfinch I77A2097© Maria de Bruyn resNorthern cardinal DK7A1206© Maria de Bruyn signed res

American goldfinch and Northern cardinal both eating crepe myrtle

Trumpet vine DK7A9266© Maria de Bruyn signed restrumpet vine I77A1487© Maria de Bruyn ressycamore IMG_2339©Maria de Bruyn res

Trumpet vine                                         American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

milkweed I77A7144© Maria de Bruyn signed resCarolina wren I77A8006©Maria de Bruyn res

Milkweed (Asclepius) and Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

American goldfinch DK7A1355© Maria de Bruyn SIGNED RESamerican goldfinch DK7A7127© Maria de Bruyn signed res

American goldfinches

Indigo bunting DK7A7525© Maria de Bruyn signed res

Indigo bunting ( Passerina cyanea)

Scarlet tanager IMG_7415© Maria de Bruyn signed

Some trees like maples have samara seed pods, in which a single seed is surrounded by a paper-like tissue that is dispersed by the wind. Ash trees have samaras that grow in clusters. Here a young scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea) is dining. Below are an American goldfinch, house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) and Northern cardinal, all of them males.

 

American goldfinch DK7A5026© Maria de Bruyn signedHouse finch IMG_7718© Maria de Bruyn signed

 

Northern cardinal I77A8006© Maria de Bruyn res

 

cedar waxwing I77A6594© Maria de Bruyn signed res

Cedar waxwing (left) with samara of the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

 

blue jay IMG_7806© Maria de Bruyn signed

 

 

 

 

 

Blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata, above) like nuts a great deal and can often be seen flying away with a prize.

red-bellied woodpecker IMG_5780© Maria de Bruyn (2)

 

The red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) and red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) don’t turn away from nuts either.

 

 

Red-headed woodpecker I77A7844© Maria de Bruyn signed       red-headed woodpecker I77A5149© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern cardinal I77A2153© Maria de Bruyn res

It may feel a bit sad when activity dies down at the feeders for a time, but if you can manage to have nut-, seed- and fruit-bearing vegetation around your home, you can still enjoy watching your avian friends forage – and the natural surroundings can make for lovelier photos, too!

A life and death drama on a nature walk

ice DK7A6116©Maria de BruynFrost was sparkling on the grass, dried shrubs and grasses as our small group set out on a birding walk in the local nature preserve. Water in the creeks and bog was frozen in pretty patterns and the air felt crisp (and cold).

 

 

ice DK7A6094©Maria de Bruyn

Eastern towhee DK7A5990©Maria de BruynAt first, not many birds seemed to be aroblue jay DK7A5949©Maria de Bruynund but soon we spotted Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) and numerous sparrow species in the meadows — none really close by but still visible to those with binoculars and a zoom lens. Blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were flying from very high treetop to treetop.

After seeing my familiar red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), to whom I’ve given the name “young’un” as I’ve been following her/his progress since s/he was a brown and white juvenile, we saw some Eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) and more sparrows.

Eastern phoebe DK7A6061©Maria de Bruynred-headed woodpecker DK7A6013©Maria de Bruyn

hairy woodpecker DK7A6163©Maria de BruynIn the woods, we saw a ruby-crowned kinglet and a yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). It was when we emerged from the woods into another meadow that we had our most spectacular encounter, however. I spotted a young red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a tree at the meadow’s edge gazing ahead.

 

 

red-tailed hawk DK7A6229©Maria de Bruyn red-tailed hawk DK7A6245©Maria de Bruyn

red-tailed hawk DK7A6246©Maria de BruynSuddenly, the bird flew across the field (perhaps 150 feet in a fellow birder’s estimate) to land on a branch in a tree right next to our walking path.

red-tailed hawk DK7A6397©Maria de Bruyn res

After alighting, the bird began staring downwards very intently. We walked a little closer and stopped. The bird didn’t even look in our direction but continued to stare down with great concentration, occasionally looking out ahead.

red-tailed hawk DK7A6380©Maria de Bruyn res red-tailed hawk DK7A6370©Maria de Bruyn res

We came closer and stopped again. Finally, we got right up even with the bird and looked directly at it from about 6-10 feet. It acknowledged our presence but continued to stare down and we couldn’t figure out what it was tracking. Other birds fluttered in nearby branches but it paid them no mind.

red-tailed hawk DK7A6411©Maria de Bruyn red-tailed hawk DK7A6414©Maria de Bruyn

red-tailed hawk DK7A6425©Maria de Bruyn red-tailed hawk DK7A6432©Maria de Bruyn res

When our group began to walk on after taking many photos and admiring the bird’s sharp eyes and even sharper looking talons, I looked intently under the tree, too. And then I spotted the prey — a hispid cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus), holding still as a statue on a log.

hispid cotton rat DK7A6463©Maria de Bruyn res hispid cotton rat DK7A6449©Maria de Bruyn res

The hawk looked at us, yet kept the rodent in sight. On looking at the photos afterwards, I’m glad that the hawk didn’t decide to fly at us with those talons extended in order to drive us away. After looking at the rat, our group walked on as it looked to be quite a standoff; the rat had several smaller branches between it and the hawk which might make capture difficult.

red-tailed hawk DK7A6509©Maria de Bruyn resred-tailed hawk DK7A6488©Maria de Bruyn res

As my fellow birders tried to spot winter wrens and purple finches, which they had heard, I couldn’t get the hawk and rat out of my mind. So as they went on, I returned to the dramatic scene. As I arrived, the hawk had risen on the branch and was crouching as it looked at me and the rat. It turned on the branch and I just knew that it was getting ready for an attack. Part of me wanted the rat to make it out of there and part of me felt the hawk deserved a meal after such stellar spotting from a distance and patience in watching the prey.

red-tailed hawk DK7A6496©Maria de Bruyn resThe hawk looked at me, crouched again and then dropped down with great fluttering of wings.

red-tailed hawk DK7A6525©Maria de Bruyn red-tailed hawk DK7A6531©Maria de Bruyn res

red-tailed hawk DK7A6532©Maria de Bruyn res red--tailed hawk DK7A6548©Maria de Bruyn res

Those large wings were somewhat caught up in the small branches but it got the rat. It flapped about, perhaps securing a tighter hold on its meal-to-be and then flew up to a nearby branch (behind lots of vegetation so that I couldn’t get a good photo). It sat for a minute or so and then flew back over the meadow into the woods, leaving me with a few blurry photos as testaments of the final act in the drama.

red-tailed hawk DK7A6574©Maria de Bruyn res red-tailed hawk DK7A6585©Maria de Bruyn res

red-tailed hawk DK7A6599©Maria de Bruyn resMy sympathy was certainly with the rat, whose last 30 minutes of life must have been filled with terror as it froze in the hope of escaping the predator. I had to admire the hawk’s concentration and focus, though — that bird was not going to let anything deter it from getting a meal, not even four humans standing a few feet away aiming cameras and phones at it as it perched on that branch. The hawk certainly gave us an unforgettable experience as we may never come so closely eye-to-eye with a wild raptor again.

If you liked this post and/or the photos, could you please “like” it so that I know people enjoyed this posting? Thanks in advance!

Growing up to be a redhead

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9062© Maria de Bruyn (2)In the past month or so, I’ve been seeing red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) almost everywhere I go — except my own neighborhood! Jordan Lake’s woods in two different areas and various sections of the Mason Farm Biological Reserve have all provided me with multiple spottings of, and concerts by, these lovely birds.

I’m not very good at recognizing birds by their calls. Having listened to loud rock music as a teenager left me with some hearing problems. But the red-heads have a loud, unique, warbling territorial call that they emit frequently, regardless of whether another of their species is close by or not. I’ve become quite good at recognizing that call!

The juveniles begin life looking quite different from their parents. They have mostly gray-brown heads and backs and the part of their feathers that will later be entirely white are marked by black splotches and dots.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0654© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0700© Maria de Bruyn

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0742© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Like their parents, they show a variety of prey-hunting and food-gathering behaviors. You will hear them pecking at trees in their quest for insects but they also look for insects on the ground and can catch them during flight in mid-air.

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0612© Maria de BruynThey also eat fruit, seeds and nuts like acorns and beechnuts, with plant materials making up about two-thirds of their diet. They will store food in caches so that they can find it again later during times of more nutritional scarcity. And in places far apart, they appear to be good at finding the same orangey cubes that are not nuts but some other, obviously delicious, substance.

 

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8082© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8096© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8788© Maria de Bruyn resred-headed woodpecker IMG_1880© Maria de Bruyn

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9470© Maria de BruynTheir food storage habits help birders find them more easily. Both at Jordan Lake and Mason Farm, I’ve discovered a couple trees where certain birds have their food stash and if I wait long enough, a red-head is more than likely going to appear.

 

Unfortunately, due to habitat loss and changes to its usual food supply, this species has declined considerably in numbers. That is why it is so nice to see the juveniles among these various groups.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0574© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0576© Maria de Bruyn

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8625© Maria de Bruyn

 

As they age, the brown feathers begin giving way to red ones, first around the nape and back of the neck. The black markings on the tail feathers begin to fade as well as they grow older.

 

 

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_9202© Maria de Bruyn resRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8734© Maria de Bruyn res

When they reach maturity, the birds have brilliant red heads, glossy black and pure white flight and tail feathers.

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_8345© Maria de Bruyn resRed-headed woodpecker IMG_9104© Maria de Bruyn

Red-headed woodpecker IMG_1587© Maria de Bruyn resRed-headed woodpecker IMG_8332© Maria de Bruyn res

As these birds need dead trees for their nesting and storage cavities, it’s great that our area has some preserved forests where they currently appear to be thriving. And I can continue going out in the hopes of one descending from treetops to a lower and nearer perch so that I can finally get the stunning shots I’ve been wishing for!
Red-headed woodpecker IMG_0605© Maria de BruynRed-headed woodpecker IMG_0707© Maria de Bruyn