Love me some hawks

3 red-tailed hawk PB074118© Maria de Bruyn res

After focusing mostly on the genus accipiter hawks in my last blog (especially the Cooper’s), I’d like to share a few more photos of buteo hawks that are common where I live. Taken over the past 4 years or so, the photos will vary and show them in various seasons.

The buteos are larger birds than the accipiters and somehow seem a bit more relaxed to me than the feisty accipiters.

1 red-tailed hawk P9199892 © Maria de Bruyn res

The red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis, above) are beauties as adults with dark red tail feathers. I tend to see them most often when I am away from home, visiting fields and natural areas. Frequently, I spot them when they are hunting. Their diets are rich and varied since they see almost any small animal as a potential meal. That includes rodents, rabbits, reptiles, fish, amphibians, invertebrates and other birds.

2 red-tailed hawk P9199889 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

 

Those dietary choices mean that I regularly see them being chased by other birds, especially in the spring when the other birds want to protect their nestlings from the predatory beaks of the red-tails. Crows especially can get very raucous and angry when red-tailed hawks are near their nests.

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The red-tailed hawk below was being chased away as s/he flew away with a squirrel.

11 red-tailed hawk P5134700© Maria de Bruyn res

There are 14 recognized sub-species of red-tailed hawks, which vary in color and range. In the area where I live, we have many Eastern red-tailed hawks, but last year I spotted another type flying over farmland. I asked experts from a raptor identification group for some assistance in describing it.

4 red-tailed hawk PB243087© Maria de Bruyn ed

One expert remarked: “This is a juvenile by the monochromatic brown tones, spotted bellyband and lack of dark terminal band on the wings….As a juvenile there is more overlap in phenotype than in adults, and often we cannot identify them to subspecies level.” She went on: “…this bird could be either a slightly heavier marked Eastern (borealis) or a Northern (abieticola). To me it is not heavily enough marked to be a slam dunk abieticola and I would probably not assign a subspecies to it.”

5 red-tailed hawk PB243137© Maria de Bruyn ed sgd

I asked if that meant that a Northern red-tailed hawk could be found in North Carolina and not just the Eastern sub-species, so I could start watching for those distinctions. She responded: “only in winter and probably not overly often that far south, but certainly worth keeping a look out for them.” I haven’t seen this hawk again to my knowledge.

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One of my favorite portrait photos (below) is of a red-tailed hawk. Taken in 2015, the bird flew across a field to perch in a tree right next to the path on which I and four other people were walking. S/he had seen a hispid cotton rat crawl into the vegetation underneath the tree. My birding companions walked on but I stayed and after 20 minutes or so, the hawk suddenly dropped down and snagged the rat, which must have had a terrifying wait at the end of its life. The hawk was very handsome though.

13 Red-tailed hawk DK7A6468.© Maria de Bruyn res

While the red-tailed hawks are impressive, I have a softer spot for the red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus). Somehow they look less fierce and a bit sweeter to me.42 red-shouldered hawk P1280192© Maria de Bruyn res

I see them carrying out all kinds of behaviors. Sometimes, they are just flying overhead, showing off their red shoulders as they travel aloft.

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They often perch high in trees to survey their territory.

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Tree tops often serve as a place to cuddle up when it is cold.

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21 red-shouldered hawk P1128629 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

They seem to enjoy preening when high up on snags at all times of year.

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A snag can be a place to call out to mates.

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And a level branch is a good place to mate.

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Sitting very still, they scan the ground to spot prey, which they often capture by dropping straight down to kill it in a fast strike. Their diet is varied, including many types of rodents and mammals such as squirrels, mice, chipmunks, voles. They also attack birds up to the size of jays, grouse or pheasants.

28A red-shouldered hawk PC204514 © Maria de Bruyn

 

When I’ve seen them snag prey, it has usually been smaller prey such as frogs, lizards, snakes and other reptiles and amphibians. A pair of red-shouldered hawks living at an urban park in a nearby city must really enjoy the crayfish that are abundant in the wetlands.

28 red-shouldered hawk PC204381 © Maria de Bruyn res

These hawks will perch on many handy lookout posts when surveying the ground for prey. This one sat on a feeder at the local public library, suddenly flew a short way to drop down into the leaves and brush under nearby trees and seemed to be wrestling with a rodent of some kind. S/he left without the prey, however.

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In my yard, a resident red-shouldered hawk not only sits on branches but occasionally on a nest box, to the dismay of nearby songbirds. One ate all the large green frogs in my pond.

32 red-shouldered hawk P4257137 © Maria de Bruyn res

At a small public park in a neighboring town, I watched a red-shouldered scan the field below intently for quite some time. The raptor then surprised me by dropping swiftly down, snagging something small and flying up to another tree to eat.

33 red-shouldered hawk P4106575 © Maria de Bruyn res

It wasn’t until I enlarged the photos I took that I saw the bird had gotten a large worm. (When I posted the photo on facebook, a witty commentator remarked that he was collecting bait to go fishing!)

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Occasionally, they may be injured. This young hawk was perched in an out-of-the-way spot in a park and when I posted these photos, a commentator remarked that the bird looked injured with a wing out of place. She suggested I contact a rehabilitator but the bird eventually flew away seeming to be ok.

 

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37 red-shouldered hawk PB180192 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While I know these raptors can be just as fierce as the other hawks, I do tend to think of the red-shouldered hawks as having sweet faces. Having watched them tend to their young, I know they can be very devoted parents and I always enjoy seeing them!

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Final note: “I love me some hawks” is not a title I would have chosen some years ago, but I liked it for this blog as it indicates —to me —enjoyment of something. I decided to look up where the phrase came from and ended up with several explanations: 1) an ungrammatical expression that might be associated with African American vernacular or with the rural areas of the southern US states; 2) an annoying phrase usually used by the middle-class; 3) a slang way of saying ‘I really love’; 4) a novel grammatical structure indicating “I always like” something. Kinda like the middle voice in ancient Greek. Well….at least I learned something new today. 😊

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Next blog – no birds but interesting creatures nonetheless!

The porch as a place of peril

It’s been quite a while since my last blog; other things keep getting in the way of my writing! In any case, I’d promised you a tale of a close encounter with a hawk; here it finally is!

1 Cooper's hawk P5034652© Maria de Bruyn res

Immature Cooper’s hawk

I really enjoy watching raptors and, fortunately, I see them regularly on my nature walks. While I can spend quite a while just watching them soar, build nests and care for their young, I admittedly don’t always enjoy seeing them eat.

2 barred owl P4137980© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

When songbirds eat insects, they dismantle and swallow them fairly quickly. When raptors dine, they rarely gulp down their food. Meals can last quite some time while they dismember their prey, as was the case for the barred owl above (Strix varia) who was eating a squirrel.

The hawks whom I see often include four species that frequent my neighborhood, including my yard — the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), the Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and the sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus).

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The Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks are the most frequent visitors. To inexperienced birders, they look very similar. Size is one clue to identity with a sharp-shinned hawk averaging 10-14 inches in length (jay- or dove-sized, 25-35 cm), and a Cooper’s hawk being about crow-sized, averaging 15-20 inches long (38-51 cm). The sharp-shinned hawks (seen above and below) don’t seem to visit as often as the Cooper’s hawks.

5 sharp-shinned hawk P2121946© Maria de Bruyn-res ed

In 2019, a hawk caught a squirrel in my yard. Until recently, I was convinced that she was a red-shouldered hawk, but I decided to ask for confirmation from a raptor ID group on Facebook.

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The experts informed me that she was an exceptionally large Cooper’s hawk. One commented: “Largest female Cooper’s are around 21 ounces; obese Eastern Gray Squirrels are around that but most we see are little more than half that. And even cargo helicopters strain to lift much more than their own weight. So unless I see rocket assists on a Sharp-shinned (maxing out at around 7 ounces) they can’t lift the full carcass of an adult EG Squirrel.”

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The female Cooper’s hawks are up to one-third larger in size than the males and she was a hefty individual. Nevertheless, she had her work cut out in subduing the squirrel.

8 Cooper's hawk 2G0A3949© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While she was trying to hold onto and kill the rodent, a pair of crows began harassing her, but she held her ground.

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Ultimately, she was able to put the squirrel out of its misery and she finally flew off with it to consume her meal elsewhere.

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This year, I’ve had a young Cooper’s hawk come by; she was born in 2021 and seemed to be searching for something to make her day.

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Above you see her eye covered by the nictitating membrane

My most surprising — and definitely hair-raising — encounter with a hawk occurred this past April. I was sitting in a porch chair in front of my living room window. As I looked down to record bird species for an online birding site, I heard a hard collision into the window right next to my head. A male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) fell into my lap.15 brown-headed cowbird PB137591© Maria de Bruyn res

He was completely stunned, and as I looked down, he slid off my lap. Then I looked up to see if he was being chased. That was indeed the case — a large Cooper’s hawk was coming right toward my face with his/her legs extended in front with widely-spread claws ready to grab prey. Of course, I had no time to take a photo, but the photo below of another Cooper’s hawk shows a bit what those claws are like. Their enlarged rear talons are about 0.67-0.85 in long (17-21.7 mm) in males and 0.78-1.05 in (19.8-26.7 mm) in female hawks. 

16 Cooper's hawk PA064226© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

My amazement at the proximity of the incoming raptor so stunned me that I waited a second or two before waving my arm and yelling to the bird to stop — s/he was only about 3 feet from me! The bird had been so focused on the prey, that my shout made the raptor try to “backpedal” in mid-air.

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The hawk tumbled a bit, righted herself (I assume the size indicated a female) and then she shot up over the porch and house. The cowbird died and I laid him in the front yard, thinking she or another predator might take him. The next day, the cowbird was untouched, so I buried him.

18 Cooper's hawk P4138413 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The encounter occupied my thoughts for quite a long time afterwards. I felt incredibly lucky those claws had not reached my face or head with terrible results. It had not occurred to me that my front porch could be a place of potential avian-caused peril, but I learned a good lesson that day — always pay attention to your surroundings and stay alert when predators could be nearby!

Next blog: a few shots of some red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks that I’ve enjoyed taking over the past couple years.

 

Emerging again in 2022 – part 2

1 Red-shouldered hawk P1132421© Maria de Bruyn resWhen facing unpleasant challenges, it’s helpful to have an interest to help put them mentally aside while you find enjoyment doing something else. Observing and connecting with wildlife and plant life does that for me. For at least a while, I can think, “I don’t give a shit,” and instead focus on what’s going on immediately around me, like the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) above actually giving a shit. 😊

Observing nature also has the added advantage of providing a way to keep learning and being able to appreciate wonders around me that I might otherwise never notice. A number of people have also told me that they enjoy my sharing some of those “discoveries.”

1A white-throated sparrow PC141120© Maria de Bruyn res

White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

One thing I discovered this year was that I shouldn’t expect pine siskins to come down here to Orange County, NC, every year in winter. I’ve had them visiting during this season many years but so far not one has appeared in my yard. So I’ll share a photo of one from last year; a lovely bird with a scientific name that appeals to me: Spinus pinus.

2 pine siskin P1162664 © Maria de Bruyn res

3 downy woodpecker P8207522© Maria de Bruyn resIt’s my good fortune to live in a home with sizeable front and backyards where I can entice birds to spend time. Nest boxes border the yards and nesting gourds hang on the front porch, so that attracts pairs who raise young ones here in the spring. They also use these nesting sites to spend the night during cold autumn and winter nights. Downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) seem especially fond of one nest box next to the driveway.

There are varied types of feeders hanging on poles, offering sunflower and other seeds, mixed fruit and nuts, dried mealworms and home-made suet. This arrangement also attracts my avian friends, like the common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) with its iridescent plumage.

4 common grackle P1175003 © Maria de Bruyn res

5 Carolina wren P1132867 © Maria de Bruyn resSince converting much of my front yard lawn into flower gardens (and I’m working on that in the back, although there I’ve planted more flowering and berry-bearing trees), the insect population has increased. That has helped the pollination of my flowers and provided the resident birds with meals, like one of the 6 or so Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) who occupy specific niches. One pair hangs out near a water-filled tub; another pair hangs out near a brush pile out back and the third pair hops in and out of a brush pile in the front yard.

The wrens change up their diet a bit in winter since being purely insectivorous is difficult then. For example, one of my yard-banded wrens enjoys a bit of suet from time to time. He also likes mealworms, as do the titmice (Baeolophus bicolor).

6 Carolina wren IMG_8993© Maria de Bruyn res

7 Tufted titmouse snow IMG_9006 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

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Occasionally, an American goldfinch pair (Spinus tristis) will visit but I’ve been seeing them more often on walks. They like seeds a lot and have eaten many of the grass seeds in my yard already. They search the mosses for tidbits, too.

10 cedar waxwing PC271628© Maria de Bruyn resThe cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are picky eaters. The American robins in my yard ate a lot of the juniper berries they prefer and there weren’t many other berries around (as was the case at the local arboretum). At my house, they’ve mostly been using the small ponds to drink and bathe.

The most numerous species at my yard is the Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). At times, I have up to 18-20 of them flying to the tray feeders for seeds. The pokeweed berries are long gone now.

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There are two pairs of Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in the yard; at first, they didn’t like having to share space but now they all come to the mealworm feeder at the same time.

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13 yellow-rumped warbler PA017988© Maria de BruynIn past years, the visiting yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) have lived peacefully with one another. This year, however, I have two birds who seem to be quite incensed when they spy each other. If one is at a feeder, the other zooms in to chase it off and often they flutter upward in a tangle with wings spread. So far, I’ve always been a couple seconds too late to capture the mid-air tussle – it is one of my goals for yard birding this year.

15 yellow-rumped warbler P9093954© Maria de Bruyn

I do enjoy their visits as I find them quite beautiful birds. And they spend a lot of time at the feeders, even when it is raining. Some people here call them myrtle warblers, but I prefer the term yellow-rumped as it is quite accurately descriptive. I loathe the slang term “butter butt” that lots of people here use. Since these warblers are present in many of the nature reserves where I walk, I unfortunately end up hearing the term from time to time. Not sure why it irritates me so much.

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17 yellow-rumped warbler PA018009© Maria de Bruyn

18 pine warbler IMG_9129© Maria de Bruyn resThe pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) in my yard are quite tolerant and polite.

They will share a feeder happily and sometimes also just wait their turn until the feeding area is less crowded.

Less colorful but also a pleasure to see are the female house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus). They seem to come to the feeders less often than their male counterparts.

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The Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) are a delight to see, even if they seem to be in almost constant motion.

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The other bird who also rarely sits still is the lovely little ruby-crowned kinglet (Corthylio calendula). A few years back, I had one that came several winters in a row and who had apparently come to trust me as he would fly over when I brought out fresh suet and even sit on the feeder while I was holding it. He may have attained his natural lifespan (4-6 years) and perhaps it is one of his offspring who now comes.

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27 golden-crowned kinglet PC090095 © Maria de BruynI hadn’t had golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) in my yard much before this year; now I have at least one living here but s/he never comes to the feeders. Because this bird stays very high and I haven’t had access to my long camera lens for some time, it’s been difficult to get photos at home. I’ve had somewhat more success on walks.

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Some of my more spectacular yard birds have been the neighborhood red-shouldered hawks. When they fly in, the other birds don’t seem bothered.

These hawks have targeted the amphibians and reptiles (successfully) near the small ponds; they also look for small mammals. While I’ve seen them catch frogs, I haven’t seen them catch birds or mammals.

The young ones are not as reddish as the adults.

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I also enjoy seeing these gorgeous raptors on my visits to nature reserves. Some have what seems to me like a sweet expression (like this one below).

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Finally, there is one bird that does make the other birds flee the feeders to seek shelter in bushes, shrubs, woodpiles, etc. That is the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii). A sharp-shinned hawk visits occasionally, but it is the Cooper’s who comes by regularly. S/he is not shy; about a week ago, the bird flew onto the front porch where it had chased a female cardinal into the living room window. The cardinal flapped on a chair as the hawk peered at her. I banged on the window and ran outside to rescue her. I know the hawk has to eat as well, but I didn’t want to see the dismemberment of this poor bird. I put her in a box in a corner of the porch and she fortunately recovered.

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Feathers in the yard and under feeders have shown that the Cooper’s has had successful hunts, so it is doing well.

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Next up – my water-loving mammalian friends. Have a nice weekend!

Wandering a flooded forest

The year 2020 ended up being the wettest year on record since 1944 in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, but the rains didn’t end in December. In fact, the area recorded its second wettest February on record in 2021 and it was noticeable in the amount of flooding we saw.

Whereas Jordan Lake at full pool (normal level of the reservoir) is 216 feet above sea level, the level rose to 230.3 feet on 23 February 2021 – the day that I unknowingly chose to go for a walk in the forest bordering the lake.

 

I didn’t notice the flooding immediately as I first walked through a meadow area to get to my usual walking site. What immediately drew my attention was the amount of canine scat on and alongside paths.

With a lack of human visitors, the foxes, coyotes and other animals obviously felt more comfortable wandering everywhere throughout the reserve.

Lots of flies were buzzing around the remaining dried flower stalks and I spied an early leafhopper – the first time I had seen a lateral-lined sharpshooter (Cuerna costalis).

Setting off into an area where I often saw woodpeckers, I discovered my usual walking trails had disappeared under an expanded lake.

 

A sweet Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) hopped into view, apparently wondering why a human being was again being seen in these parts.

 

 

I discovered it was a good idea, too, to watch where I was walking because the remaining forest floor was alive with thin-legged wolf spiders (Pardosa) crawling over the fallen leaves.

 

I wonder if there were so many in this area as they had all fled the rising waters to congregate in the same area. (Certainly a way to meet other spiders!)

Wandering further, I saw that I couldn’t get anywhere close the shoreline that used to be a favorite birding area.

 

The osprey nest, not yet occupied, is normally on a land-bound snag but now it was in the water.

There were still some birds around, but not as many as I was used to seeing. Off in the far distance, a ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) was fishing.

Never had I seen this lake’s water so high – many of the areas where I usually walk were completely submerged.

I walked along the new lake edges and noted lots of tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) exploring the waterlogged fallen logs.

 

 

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were also flying down from tree trunks and branches to see what was near the water.

On the branches above, a a yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) stopped by and a pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) showed off his beautiful yellow plumage.

   

To my delight, a pair of brown creepers (Certhia americana) were ascending the water-bound trees searching for meals.

     

I find these birds beautiful and admire how well they blend in with their hunting grounds.

For me, the brown creepers have some of the best camouflage abilities around.

Overhead a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) flew by surveying the expanded water boundaries and I detected a Chinese mantis egg case swaying atop a shrub.

Because my walking area had been greatly reduced, I decided to leave after gazing into one more area where I usually wandered. To my surprise, I saw a wood duck (Aix sponsa, right) and a pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) swimming over what is usually a leaf- and vegetative-laden forest floor. Perhaps they enjoyed visiting a new, albeit temporary, swimming area.

I do think that some wildlife may have suffered. This polyphemous moth cocoon (Antheraea polyphemus), which I had photographed in another part of the forest bordering the lake, was eventually submerged for some days under about four feet of water. When the area again reappeared, I found the cocoon and it was still intact but only about half its original size, so I think the moth was doomed. Now that the lake levels have fallen further, it will be interesting to see how the forest is recovering after having been submerged.

 

Craving crawdads in Carolina – a buffet for night herons

Many people in the USA, especially but not only in the South, grow up knowing what crawdads (Cambarus bartoni) are. This was not the case for me. My immigrant family pretty much stuck to the dietary customs of their own and their friends’ home countries (The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany). Like pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes and okra, crawdads were not on those menus and so it was only recently that I actually learned that these crustaceans are the same thing as crayfish, of which I had heard as a child.

This year was my time to learn more about these members of the arthropod family who are related to lobsters – it turned out they were thriving in a pond created through a man-made wetlands installed between a shopping mall and several apartment complexes. I learned about their presence when local birders alerted one another that the crawdads were attracting a family of yellow-crowned night herons (Nyctanassa violacea).

Hoping to spot the herons, I also visited the wetlands and first noted the crayfish remains scattered around near the pond. Shortly thereafter, I came across one crossing a path in another local nature park (photos above and below). It was interesting to see how the crawdad first stayed stock still as I neared and then stood tall on its legs as its tail propelled it backwards while it made a dash for the nearby pond.

The crawdad females lay hundreds of eggs; scientists do not yet know how long they incubate before birth but estimate it takes somewhat longer than a month before they hatch. In North Carolina, there are almost 50 species of these animals and several species are found only in this state.

The crayfish at the wetlands must have had a successful year because the place became a real buffet for various birds. Both adult and young night herons stayed near this pond for quite a long time before leaving to migrate to more southerly climes for the winter.

The adult herons were attractive with their boldly patterned heads.

 

 

   

They kept up their looks through regular preening.

 

 

Sometimes, they emerged from the pond weeds to perch on a snag while peering into the water on the lookout for a meal.

 

It was interesting to learn that while the adults have yellow legs most of the year, their legs can turn red or pink during breeding season.

 

 

In my experience, the younger herons were a bit less shy and didn’t fly off so quickly when I neared.

 

One in particular decided to take the sun in mid-August, adopting a pose that I more often see taken by great blue herons and which I’ve nicknamed the “flasher stance.”

     

The young birds, like their parents, stalked the pond vegetation on the lookout for crawdad snacks.

They also showed the herons’ taste for other food such as snails, earthworms and insects.

 

The night herons, for which most birders visited the wetlands, weren’t the only birds at the buffet, however. Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) also showed a fondness for the crustaceans.

 

 

 

The herons weren’t always alert to their presence. One adult, for example, decide to fly to a low perch when chased away from a tall snag by a hawk. S/he settled in for a bit of preening but was then rudely chased off by the same hawk. (That hawk was later harassed by a group of crows, who chased it away in turn.)

Other herons who were interested in outdoor crayfish dining during the humans’ Covid epidemic, included the great blue herons (Ardea herodias).

 

 

Green herons (Butorides virescens) visited the pond regularly as well, eating small fish in addition to the other wetland delicacies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) were busy flying to and fro over the length of the pond, but I didn’t see them carry off any crayfish so they must have been focused on fish.

 

A great egret (Ardea alba) was a regular visitor, too, stalking different areas of the pond.

The adult night herons obviously thought it was interesting to watch the egret’s foraging technique.

Other regular visitors to the wetlands included a flock of Canada geese, American and fish crows, Northern mockingbirds and wandering glider dragonflies (Pantala flavescens).

 

There were so many animals feeding on the crawdads this summer that the female crayfish must have had a lot of success with their offspring reaching maturity. The last reported sighting of the yellow-crowned night herons at the wetland was 24 October, but I’m guessing that they will be leaving soon and the pond will not be so busy this autumn. The crayfish population had to have been reduced mightily over the summer season, so it will be interesting to see whether it rebounds and attracts crowds of birds — and birders — next year!