Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 2: non-avian wildlife!

Birding is an activity I enjoy, especially since I can usually spot at least one bird during my outdoor excursions. I’d prefer to call myself a “wildlifer” rather than a “birder”, however, since all kinds of other wildlife also fascinate me. Here is a selection of some wildlife surprises and new species I saw last year, including a new plant – the honeyvine milkweed (Cynanchum laeve).

 

This vine is sometimes described simply as a native plant that spreads by seed and long roots; other websites call it a noxious weed. It does perhaps spread quickly but it is also a food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars so it seems like a desirable plant to me.

This mushroom was another one of my favorite vegetation spottings last year – it looks to me as if it is an animal with large ears.

Mammals are favorites of mine but I only see a restricted number regularly – white-tailed deer, Eastern squirrels, raccoons, Eastern chipmunks. When I get to see an opossum (Didelphis virginiana) – like one who visited the yard at night during our early December snowstorm, it was a treat. It seems many people dislike North Carolina’s state marsupial (and the only marsupial in North America) but it is a valuable neighbor since it eats up to 4000 ticks a week. There likely weren’t many ticks around for it to eat but I hope it found something for a meal!

   

This past year was my “year of the beavers” as I had a chance to follow these nature landscape architects in three different places. And as mentioned in a previous blog, I was so thrilled to get a shot of the warning tail-slapping behavior.

  

2018 was a good year for seeing new insects. Some are so tiny that you can’t really see their body patterns without magnification. Here are a few of my “discoveries”. The flies can be very interesting.

Sunflower seed maggot fruit fly (Neotephritis finalis)


Parasitic fly (Archytas)

2018 was a year for learning about reproduction among the bugs; not only did I see caterpillars but also chrysalids and arthropod parents caring for offspring. The green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) is a very attentive mother; she often hangs her egg sac from a grass stalk and then encircles it with her body to keep predators away.

One green lynx at the NC Botanical Garden placed her egg sac underneath the “lid” of a pitcher plant and then hung out on that and neighboring plants to keep an eye on the sac. I was lucky to see one of the babies after it hatched.

Another spider was not so lucky – it became a meal for one of North Carolina’s endemic “special plants”, the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula).

North Carolina has many species of grasshoppers; I saw several species this past year, including several mating pairs. Here is a young short-horned grasshopper.

It’s always nice to see some pollinators.

 

  

Brown-winged striped sweat bee                        Small carpenter bee                                (Agapostemon splendens)                                   (Ceratina)

 

I got to see the chrysalids of two fritillary butterfly species, the variegated fritillary (Euptoieta Claudia, left) and the gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanilla, below).

Sometimes, I think the moths get a bum rap, being seen as poor cousins to the “beautiful butterflies”. But there are many really beautiful moths, like the lunate zale moth (Zale lunata) and delicate cycnia moth (Cycnia tenera).

  

I got to see several moth caterpillars this year; the experts at BugGuide were very helpful in identifying them for me.

   

Common tan wave moth                           Gold moth caterpillar  (Basilodes pepita)          (Pleuroprucha insulsaria)

 
Turbulent phosphila moth caterpillar (Phosphila turbulenta)

For the first time, I got to see an evergreen bagworm moth (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis). There were several hanging out in trees next to a rural farm pond – they did not restrict themselves to an evergreen tree but hung themselves from a persimmon, privet and cedar tree. I think the last photo shows the caterpillar as it was completing the “bag” into which it would insert itself.

    

In the summer, I was lucky to see a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia).

   

In December, I discovered two cecropia chrysalids, as well as the cup-like chrysalis of a polyphemus moth (Antheraea Polyphemus, which was empty).

  

Another discovery was that the larvae of soldier beetles look like some type of caterpillar as well.

There were lots of katydids around, including the slender straight-lanced katydid (Conocephalus strictus) and the stockier Scudderia bush katydid.

 

  

Some new bugs appeared in my yard, including a plant bug with muted colors (not yet identified to species) and some more colorful scentless plant bugs (Niesthrea louisianica) on my Rose of Sharon shrubs.

  

  

A seed bug on a seed pod and a head-on photo of a millipede (Narceus americanus-annularis-complex) were cool sightings, too.

   

2018 was a good year for my observations of reptiles, too. Seeing a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) flash its red dewlap (also known as a throat fan) was not a new experience but the fact that it was only a foot away from me doing it was a surprise.

   

 

Seeing one of these anoles jump from one small flower twig to another in order to catch a bee for supper was a surprise – I didn’t know they eat bees. I felt a little sad that we lost a pollinator that way, but the anoles have to eat, too.

 

 

 

One day, when walking at the same wetlands where the anole hung out I came across some beautifully colored turtles. The yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta) had a beautiful pattern on its face.

 

 

 

The painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) with its long claws had some beautiful bright red striping. It had gotten a prime sunning spot on a log that another turtle wanted for itself; the first turtle held it off.

 

The second turtle circled around and tried to get on board from the other side but turtle No. 1 kept it at bay.

  

My snake encounters included seeing Northern water snakes and rat snakes. It was a beautiful red-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) that caught me by surprise when it suddenly veered off its course toward me. I backed up and the reptile stopped approaching, flicking its tongue out as it explored what was going on.

My final spotting to share with you today is another gorgeous snake – a common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). It had been a long time since I had encountered one and this individual had quite vivid colors.

Next up – some beautiful raptors.

Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 1: birds

On the last day of January 2019, I thought it would still be ok to post a couple blogs on some surprises I encountered the past year. Almost always when I go out on nature walks, I encounter something new – a species of wildlife or plant that I have not seen before or an interaction between species not previously observed. So, I wanted to share a few of those delightful surprises from 2018. In this blog, I focus on birds; in the next part, other kinds of wildlife will be featured.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, my own front yard was the scene of my biggest surprise last year when a snowstorm brought feeder visitors whom I had never seen before and who rarely come to the state where I live. The evening grosbeaks were just stunning.

 

They were not the only grosbeaks who treated me with their beauty, however. I’ve had rose-breasted grosbeaks (Pheucticus ludovicianus) visit the feeders before, but they still always elicit my appreciation with their bright colors.

 

In late October, an osprey (Pandion haliaetus) made me stop for a photo as the other birds of its species had already gone south for the winter. The bird was perched on a branch extended over a pond and had to unfortunately contend with a persistent crow that was harassing it. After some time, the sea eagle finally took off with the crow in pursuit – it seemed that the osprey might have injured its wing and perhaps that accounted for a delayed departure to warmer climes.

  

Although the pursuit photos are not high-quality, you can see a gap in the osprey’s wing and perhaps it was waiting for healing before it undertook a very long journey.

 

On another day, I was near a wetland when an unexpected visitor flew onto a branch above me. Green herons (Butorides virescens) usually keep their distance from me; I regretted that it was overcast and the lighting was not wonderful for my close-up portrait of this colorful immature bird.

 

A more muted bird, but lovely nonetheless, is the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus). When I saw this individual in late December, I was thinking that it must be difficult for them to find food as the vegetation shrivels and insects are in hiding. At that moment, the bird dropped to the ground and was foraging – coming up with a bug to prove that they still could find sustenance in the cold temperatures!

  

The mockingbirds are often solitary except for breeding season. Some people complain that they are aggressive towards other birds at their feeders but those in my yard are not that way at all. They share space at feeders and don’t chase anyone else away. When it is mating and nesting time, however, they can become quite territorial and are very protective of their nests. This seasonal “grumpiness” was brought home to me one day along a country road when I witnessed a pair of mockingbirds driving a third bird – rival? Intruder? – away from their roosting spot.

When large flocks of gulls and double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) visited a small local lake because of a shad die-off, I had the chance to watch them for a while. One day, it was interesting to observe how one cormorant wanted to jump up on a floating platform, but another bird didn’t want him/her there. They faced off with open beaks – the bird wanting to get out of the water won.

 

 

It’s always interesting to me to watch birds as they forage for sustenance. When I think of woodpeckers, my thoughts immediately turn to nuts and insects, which I think of as their staple diets. So it was a surprise to me to see this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) dining at length one day on nice ripe persimmons – a bird with a sweet tooth!

 

 

 

Well, I probably shouldn’t say “sweet tooth” but “sweet tongue”. Woodpeckers don’t have teeth but they have exceptionally long tongues that can be wrapped around their brains inside their skulls when not being used to extract insects and other food morsels from crevices.

Another bird that has a long tongue is the great blue heron (Ardea herodius). One day, I came across this bird on its favorite roosting log obviously trying to dislodge something that had gotten stuck – or perhaps something that tasted foul. I hadn’t really seen the species’ tongue before, so the bird gave me some good views.

  

The effort of shaking its head also led it to protect its eye with the nictating membrane.

Because tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor) visit my bird feeders daily to get nuts and, to a lesser extent, seeds, I associate them completely with that type of diet. It was that assumption that made me do a double-take when I spotted a titmouse on a walk with a long spaghetti-like object dangling from its beak. It didn’t seem like a grass stalk so when I lifted my camera to look through the zoom lens, I discovered it had a worm snake (Carphophis amoenus amoenus) in its beak – a finding that really did astound me.

 

As I took photos, the bird finally flew further away and unfortunately dropped the reptile when it came close to a creek. I felt a bit guilty, thinking I might have disturbed its meal but after waiting about 5 minutes, the bird suddenly flew up with the snake back in its beak! It obviously really wanted to hang on to that prize!

 

And now on to part 2 of my 2018 surprises – some more reptiles and amphibians, bugs and mammals!

A bountiful year for seeing Castor canadensis

It has been my privilege to go on safaris in Africa and my outings in nature there resulted in sightings of multiple mammalian species each time. Where I live now, there are also a variety of mammals but I don’t see them often, other than squirrels, chipmunks, deer, opossums and raccoons. I was lucky to see chewed trees as evidence of American beavers’ (past) presence, but I was not seeing members of the Castor canadensis species. Some of the chewing patterns on the trees were interesting though.

I saw my first beaver lodge at Brumley Nature Preserve South in early 2016 and had the good fortune to get a quick glimpse of a beaver there. (Before that, I had seen them in zoos.) Then I began noticing beaver dams more often on walks, like the one below near the Haw River. So for my first long blog of 2019, I’d like to share with you how 2018 became my bountiful beaver year.

In the spring, a friend told me about a creek where beavers’ dams had resulted in marvelous wetlands along some nature trails. Their handiwork at Pokeberry Creek was appreciated by a considerable number of nearby residents, who were pleased with an increasing number of waterfowl and other birds at the wetlands, as well as otters.

 

They spoke about the benefits of beavers’ presence, such as the increased biodiversity, improved water quality and more opportunities for wildlife viewing, and celebrated their arrival. Some birding groups began leading walks there to view the numerous songbird and other avian species.

For me, the chance to see the beavers in action was wonderful. One day, I saw an adult chewing branches as part of its meal; it was quiet and didn’t seem disturbed to have me nearby watching.

On other occasions, I saw individuals bringing reeds back to a lodge, presumably to feed young ones left at home. (The offspring may stay with their parents up to two years.)

As beavers are mostly crepuscular, visiting at dusk offered a good chance to see them at work felling trees for their dams and lodges. It struck me that when I had observed them eating, they were very quiet. When they were working to cut trees down, however, I could hear them chewing very loudly.

Some people living near Pokeberry Creek brought chairs and drinks to watch the animals at work in the evenings and everyone present seemed to be learning a lot about them. Apparently, many people are interested in beavers – the ranger station at the Jordan Lake Dam has a taxidermied beaver and information about their lodges on display.

Nature’s aquatic engineers are certainly interesting mammals. North America’s largest rodents can swim underwater without coming up for a breath for some 15 minutes; this is because they slow their heart rate. Their transparent eyelids function as goggles so that they can see underwater.

They build dams to ensure that the ponds in which they construct lodges are deep enough so that the entrance remains under water. When the water is at least 2-3 feet, they will be safe from predators and the entrance to their home will stay ice-free in the winter. If they are in a spot where the water remains high enough all the time, they may forego building dams. At Pokeberry, the animals felt a need to build dams in two places. Research has shown that the noise made by water flowing away contributes to their decisions to shore up dams; they apparently cannot tolerate the sound of running water above a certain number of decibels.

The beavers’ environmental engineering irritated some members of the Home Owners Association (HOA) of a nearby community which is still under development. Some people complained that the water was encroaching onto properties (other property owners were ok with it). The rising waters also sometimes flooded a long walking bridge and a cul de sac. Numerous repairs were needed for the bridge and “opposing” parties emerged.

After the HOA announced a plan to have 35 beavers killed, a petition to save the mammals was begun. Within a few days, more than 3700 signatures had been gathered and the HOA undertook a consultation process with different agencies to explore other options. The Friends of Pokeberry Creek Beavers and Wetlands, in the meantime, put up small barriers so that the waters would not encroach so easily onto the cul-de-sac. They also installed a “beaver deceiver” (a pond leveling device, comprising large tubes inserted through a dam so that water would continue to flow through).

It appears that the beavers found the water flow too noisy, so each evening they would mud up the fencing around the deceiver intake so that no water could enter there. The humans would take away the mud; the beavers would put it back. The humans moved the pond leveling devices to deeper areas, but with heavy rainfall, the waters would rise very high.

Finally, in early autumn, the HOA had much of the wetlands drained. This was done to avoid killing the beavers by driving them further downstream to find another area where they could build dams to establish a new pond territory.

The beavers in a large pond that remains rather full have not moved; they are still felling trees, presumably to reinforce their lodge and to have some food supplies in stock for the winter. They also need to keep chewing as their teeth never stop growing. When they remove trees, they leave stumps of about 6-12 inches behind. I’ve seen some of these tree stumps, such as a tulip poplar, sprouting branches again. So the beavers’ tree clearing does not have the same effect as clear-cutting done by humans.

   

  

I thought that the drained wetlands at Pokeberry Creek might be the end of my beaver observation opportunities, but then I discovered that another wildlife and recreational park was facing challenges from beaver dams. Sandy Creek Park had had beavers some 5-6 years ago and at that time the mammals were removed (killed). The park manager wants to avoid that now if possible, but the dams need to be controlled since they are causing flooding onto paved pathways which help make the park accessible to persons living with disabilities.

A wildlife biologist visited the park to assess the potential success of a pond leveler there; because the pond in question is rather deep, they may have more success with a beaver deceiver. I’m guessing it will also depend on how the noise levels evolve with the new flow of water into the nearby creek. If they can install a silent outflow pipe, the intervention may be successful.

In November, I found that beavers were also busy at a third natural area that I visit often, the Brumley Nature Preserve North. The rodents are busy in two of three ponds there. The volunteer trail steward periodically breaches the dam at one pond so that the water can continue flowing downstream. When the pond water level remains high enough, the beavers seem to be more lax in repairing the dam.

  

At the other pond, the water level has stayed fairly consistent with all the rainfall our area has had in the past months and no beaver engineering seems to be happening there. As there is no obvious stream flowing into that pond, if we have a dry summer, the beavers may have to abandon that home as the pond could dry up as happened during a drought period last year. There was an interesting development at this pond, however. It involved one particular beaver who recently spent afternoons for a couple weeks swimming laps for hours.

I was quite surprised to see him (it could be female but somehow I thought of this individual as a male who was hoping to attract a mate), since beavers often prefer not to be out in the open during the day. He even emerged from the water from time to time, but always on the other side of the pond.

 

It didn’t matter whether the day was sunny or colder, gray and overcast. Sometimes, it seemed that he was taking a quick power nap.

  

The beaver would make small circles, large circles, go to the shore for a quick rest and then resume laps.

One day, I saw him swim toward the lodge and I was able to see inside above the underwater entrance. He didn’t stay there long though and soon came out again to exercise.

This beaver seemed to be quite relaxed, swimming around and around, except for when walkers came by with dogs. He definitely did not care for the canines; when they appeared, he often would begin slapping his large, flat tail on the water and then diving noisily under water before emerging again nearby.

These tail slap warnings and dives showed off his webbed hind paws.

It was interesting to hear how very loud the tail slaps can be. The beaver will also vocalize its distress.

At one point, some visitors to the reserve allowed their dog to jump into the pond and the canine swam close to the beaver lodge. (Dogs are supposed to be kept on leash but a number of pet owners ignore the sign stating this. When I mentioned that dogs running loose also disturb ground-feeding birds, the response was: “Too bad for the ground birds!”) That very much disturbed the beaver, who slapped his tail again and again.

After that incident, I only saw the beaver having afternoon lap sessions a couple more times. He seems to have given up the practice or is now restricting his swims to very quiet times. I can understand if the animal is trying to avoid stress and distress; that’s one reason I go out for nature walks, too. But I was glad he ventured out for a while so I could see him fairly close on several occasions.

Happy New Year to you all – hope your 2019 is happy, healthy and filled with nature’s beauty!

My special bird in autumn 2018

Well, having had time to finally process photos as the year end approaches, I’m “on a roll” with posting blogs in contrast to other months in 2018. I have two more to post on mammals this year. This one is to commemorate a real birding treat that came to me during the snowstorm that was featured in my last two blogs.

 

There had been reports on birding sites and listservs that some bird species which usually don’t come too far south during the winter were on the move this year to warmer climes. They included birds that sometimes arrive in North Carolina (NC) in winter, but who don’t always come in large numbers (an “irruption”) such as pine siskins (Spinus pinus, above) and purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus, below).

  

I’ve also been lucky to see red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), another irruption species, either in my yard or on nature walks.

 

So why are they coming here in numbers?  It turns out that trees in the northern boreal forests are not producing enough food sources that these birds need to survive winter weather such as conifer seeds and berries (from trees such as hemlock, spruce, firs, alders and larch).

What was really exciting for birders in NC, however, was that some other bird species are also seeking new winter foraging areas. They include redpolls, crossbills and the gorgeous evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) who are seen here only rarely.

I had only ever seen a photo of these grosbeaks and thought it would be fun to see one in person. Members of a listserv mentioned that these grosbeaks had been spotted in Virginia, just above the NC border, so we should be prepared to perhaps see them.

On my visits to the Brumley Nature Preserve, I spent time in the spruce areas in the hope of spotting one, but I had no such luck. And then as the snow was falling heavily on the first morning of our snowstorm, I caught sight of a bright yellow and black bird on a feeder as I looked out my window. Lo and behold, when I grabbed my camera I discovered a male evening grosbeak on a feeder!

What was even more exciting was that he was accompanied by two female birds, both of whom were very lovely as well. I took lots of photos.

They finally flew off and I counted myself very lucky indeed. A while later, when the snow had stopped for a while, I was watching the feeders again and the threesome returned to my delight. They fed and then rested on feeder poles.

I tried to go outside quietly so I could photograph them without a window between us but they were quite skittish and left quickly as soon as I appeared. They flew to the tops of nearby tall pines and then disappeared off into the distance. They were not shy when I stood in front of the living room window, however.

The trio reappeared a third time and I stayed behind the window to admire them. It was interesting to see how they could look different, depending on their posture. The bird above looked “tall” as it fed next to the Eastern bluebird. And then the other looked fat and fluffy on the feeder pole – even looking as if it had an outsized head when it leaned forward a bit!

 

They left in the afternoon and did not return, even when it snowed again the next day. A fellow birder who lives northwest of me spotted a male evening grosbeak on one of her feeders that day – the birds were obviously en route to another destination. I hope they found a good food source area for the rest of the winter. And my photos will remind me of their wonderful visit, which made this snowstorm one to remember. 😊

Snowy portraits – part 2

The larger birds were very obvious at the feeders during our North Carolina snowstorm in early December, but they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the fact that I spent considerable time knocking snow off feeders and a bird bath, filling feeders up multiple times daily and spreading seed repeatedly on the snow for the ground-feeding wildlife.

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), who live in the various yard woodpiles, mostly stayed on the ground but occasionally flew up to a feeder. They also spent time clinging to the brick walls of the house, I assume in search of spiders and other small insects that stay there.

Their slightly larger brethren in shades of brown, the Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), have taken up residence in the holly shrubs and a privet bush near the front-yard feeders. From there, they can emerge to hop around under the feeders (sporadically flying up to perch on a feeder, too) with a place close by to which they can escape when feeling threatened.

 

 

Both house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus, left) and pine siskins (Spinus pinus, below) came to eat seeds at the platform feeders. Though the finches are larger than the siskins, the female finches and siskins look very similar to me and I usually need to look through my zoom lens to see them clearly.

 

 

 

The photo below is a nice one for differentiating them. The female finch on the left has a thicker bill and a slightly larger and bulkier size. The pine siskin on the right has a thinner bill and hints of yellow on its slender flanks.

Another pair of birds that can be difficult to differentiate are the male house and purple finches. The purple finch (Haemorhous purpureus, below) looks like it has been dipped in raspberry juice to put color all over its body. While some male house finches also have very bright red hues, the color does not spread everywhere on their bodies.

   

The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor, below) and dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) are both subtle beauties in shades of gray but easily distinguishable.

   

The junco’s pink bill gives it a delicate look in my opinion.

 

The chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are both daily visitors to my feeding stations regardless of the weather. The “chippies” are here year-round, while the white-throated sparrows (right) are only resident in the autumn, winter and spring. The somewhat smaller chippies usually sit on the feeders, while the white-throats mostly seek food on the ground; both will venture into the others’ areas, however.

Two very different birds share a common feeding method for gathering suet. Both the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula, below left) and yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata, below right) hover in front of the feeder as if they are imitating hummingbirds, snatching a bite to eat as they “balance” mid-air. Both will eventually alight on the feeder, though, and then eat at a more leisurely pace.

The bright little pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) also loves suet but never hovers at the feeder. S/he will wait until other birds have cleared the space and then clutch the frame to have multiple bites of the fatty food. During windy intervals of stormy weather, this plucky bird also holds its ground, clutching the feeder pole so as not to blow away.

 

The downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are never scared off the feeders by anyone. Their larger red-bellied cousins are often a bit hesitant to visit but the downies can’t be kept away. Like them, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) also don’t let the presence of other avians put them off – they are willing to share space.

This doesn’t mean the bluebirds won’t show a bit of temper, especially toward their own species mates, but they generally get along with everyone.

And the bluebirds visit regardless of the atmospheric conditions, sometimes looking stunning with their bright dry plumage and sometimes looking a bit bedraggled when the pouring rain and thickly falling snow wet their feathers completely. Beginning birders might wonder if these are the same birds, but fortunately the bluebirds seem to dry out quickly to regain their usual beauty.

   

 

There were a few more birds that came along during the storm (one featured in the next blog!), including Carolina chickadees, Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis, left) and red-winged blackbirds. Snow and ice storms and pouring rain can be a drag in many ways for the human species but for birders, these “bad-weather” interludes can certainly be a boon for easy armchair and window watching!