Mammals on the move

As spring progresses, we’re seeing ever more mammals on the move. They’re mating and having young and in search of extra sustenance for these activities. The animals whom we unfortunately see dead alongside — or on — roads often include members of the rodent group: groundhogs, squirrels and chipmunks.

Would you be surprised to discover that about 40% of all mammal species are rodents? When people hear that term, many immediately think of rats and mice (i.e., “vermin”) but the group is more diverse. What they all have in common is a pair of incisor teeth in their upper and lower jaws which never stop growing.

groundhog P3203437© Maria de Bruyn (2) res    groundhog P2249052© Maria de Bruyn sgd res

The woodchucks (another name for groundhogs, Marmota monax) whom I’ve seen the past couple months have been seeking food at two local reserves. The name woodchuck does not indicate one of their activities, however. It comes from the Native American name “wuchak,” which means “digger”.

groundhog P3203312© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

These rodents are fairly solitary but live near family members. They greet one another, with one individual touching the other’s mouth with his or her nose. Their ever-growing teeth are bright white, unlike the dingier teeth of other rodents.

groundhog P3203339 © Maria de Bruyn (2) res  groundhog P2249047© Maria de Bruyn (2 res)

They have both summer and winter dens in well-drained areas. The summer abode is near food sources and the winter one is situated near areas with protective cover. Their ear canals are kept clean while they burrow because their round ears can cover the auditory opening, so no dirt or debris gets in. They usually have more than one entrance to dens with multiple tunnels and spaces, including an escape hole!

groundhog P3203375© Maria de Bruyn (2 res)

groundhog P2248981© Maria de Bruyn res

If there is danger, they call out a warning by giving a high-pitched whistle, which has led to them also being called “whistle pigs.” They also use other vocalizations and scent glands to communicate with one another. To escape predators, these hefty mammals can climb trees.

groundhog P3203306© Maria de Bruyn (2) res  groundhog P3203338 (2) (2) res

groundhog P2249010 © Maria de Bruyn res

We may not see the groundhogs too often — unless you have a garden. They enjoy eating alfalfa, dandelions and clover, but I can attest to their penchant for savoring tasty vegetables like tomatoes. One came up onto my porch to sample the wares in my container garden! In my experience, however, they tend not to stay around too long.

Eastern gray squirrel P2090522© Maria de Bruyn (2 res)

Eastern gray squirrel P2218598© Maria de Bruyn (2 res)A rodent that we may see much more often in yards, parks, public gardens and along trails are the Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis). Some people find them amusing to watch, while others wish they would just go away — especially birders who end up spending more on bird food than they planned because these clever rodents find innumerable ways to get up onto bird feeders. Facebook groups for birders regularly have postings by people asking for suggestions on how to thwart squirrels from gaining access to their feeders.

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_0418© Maria de Bruyn (2) resI, too, continue with ongoing efforts to outwit these feeder marauders. They are not shy, coming up on the front porch to look in on my indoor cats.

They jump from trees onto the roof and then perch at the edge, calculating whether they could accomplish a far enough jump to reach some feeders.

Eastern gray squirrel P6170627© Maria de Bruyn (2) res      Eastern gray squirrel P6170625© Maria de Bruyn (2 ) res

I’ve moved my feeder poles away from trees, roofs, tall bushes and shrubs numerous times since squirrels can successfully launch themselves to a feeder 10 feet away.

Eastern gray squirrel P5255669© Maria de Bruyn (2 res) In my yard, they have gnawed at the bottom of a baffle designed to keep them off poles as they try to pull it down. Their ability to chew through plastic and metal may be one reason that they manage to keep their dentition to “normal” lengths since their teeth grow about 6 inches per year.

Eastern gray squirrel P5255651© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

Eastern gray squirrel P5255633© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

In the past week, one especially athletic individual has figured out how to jump over the baffle from the ground to get to feeders.

Eastern gray squirrel P2197722© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

Eastern gray squirrel P2197741© Maria de Bruyn (2 res)

I raised the baffle and put chicken wire on it in an experiment to see if this would deter this determined rodent. It didn’t. I finally put a second sloping baffle above the tube baffle and the squirrel slid off in its latest attempt to get to the fruit and nuts.

Eastern gray squirrel PA241931© Maria de Bruyn res (2)Many nature observers do admire squirrels’ cleverness. For example, squirrels spend a lot of time hiding food in caches dug in the ground. To outwit other squirrels and rodents who might be watching, they will prepare a hole, pretend to deposit food, and cover it up. Then they will go somewhere else where they don’t see a rival watching and hide the food in another place.

An anatomical peculiarity these animals share with other rodents is that they are unable to burp, have heartburn or vomit. (How this was discovered is probably something I don’t want to know.) They also can suffer from insects, carrying ticks and having botflies lay eggs under the skin as happened to this individual whom I spotted in a city park.

Eastern gray squirrel PA170160© Maria de Bruyn ed (2) res

Scientists have determined that gray squirrels’ spatial memory is excellent as they later are able to retrieve about 80% of food stored in their numerous (up to several thousand!) caches. One university study showed that almost two years after some squirrels learned to solve a tricky problem to gain access to a desire food, they were still able to recall the solution to the problem.

Eastern gray squirrel P6267310© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The squirrels are quite vocal and have a variety of calls, including chattering, squeaking, raspy noises and one particular call that I have come to recognize as a warning that a hawk is near the yard. And they not only avoid predators but have been shown to be able to remember whether people are their friends or enemies!

In our area, the number of gray squirrels is quite high, even when they are often hunted and caught by local predators. It would surprise some of my friends and neighbors, I’m sure, if they learned that, in July 1856, a crowd went to New York City’s (NYC) Central Park to see what was then considered a rare gray squirrel! Other cities also had low numbers; in 1847, Philadelphia initiated one of the first squirrel reintroduction projects, followed by NYC, Boston and other municipalities.

Eastern chipmunk PC292310© Maria de Bruyn (2) resA rodent that many people tend to like more than groundhogs and squirrels is the diminutive Eastern chipmunk (Tamias striatus). The “cuteness” factor undoubtedly plays a role as these active little animals do tend to look a bit endearing.

   

They also look amusing to many people when they are filling their cheek pouches to carry food home. These pouches can stretch to three times the size of their heads so that they can build up a sizeable store of saved food for winter.

Eastern chipmunk IMG_0243© Maria de Bruyn (2 res)

Because they have two litters a year, encounter so much competition for seed and nuts, and because they must work hard to gather supplies, I have on occasion given them a little dish of food for them to gather with ease. Since I just love watching them, I get something out of it, too.

Eastern chipmunk IMG_0273 © Maria de Bruyn (2 res)

Eastern chipmunk P6094693© Maria de Bruyn (2 res)

These rodents live in burrows dug about 3 feet underground. The multiple “rooms” (one used for nesting and others for food storage) can be connected by alleyways up to 30 feet or so in length. They can also climb; one individual in my yard has been imitating the squirrels who run up my bird feeder poles.

Eastern chipmunk PB283524© Maria de Bruyn res   Eastern chipmunk PB283523© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Eastern chipmunk P2010412© Maria de Bruyn (2 res

My observations have convinced me that these little creatures are very brave. When I’ve spread some bird seed on the ground, they will join the towhees, robins, sparrows and other birds to feed. When squirrels move in and try to chase them off, they will retreat but only for a minute or so and then they return to continue gathering seed.

Eastern chipmunk P3022838© Maria de Bruyn ed (2) res

One day, some white-tailed deer moved in to also eat some of the seed on the ground. A chipmunk was there, and one deer very tenderly nuzzled it a bit in a non-aggressive way. The brave little rodent, confronted with a touch from a being hundreds of times its size, just kept filling its pouch! It was a touching moment (poorly photographed through the screened porch but nevertheless showing the event).

Eastern chipmunk P1304359 © Maria de Bruyn ed res

Because chipmunks don’t tend to eat vegetable garden plants or figure out ways to deplete bird food sources, they may be the rodent that people like best among the garden and field visitors.

Eastern chipmunk P1304354© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Eastern chipmunk P3022806 © Maria de Bruyn (2 res)

If you take the time to just observe these three commonly seen mammals, however, you might find that they all have behaviors you find interesting and/or amusing. So please try not to hit them on the road. Tolerating their presence, especially given how much of their wild habitat has been destroyed, means that we are at least helping promote biodiversity in our environment.

Eastern chipmunk P3044769 © Maria de Bruyn (2) res

A star performance!

 

Who is this above? Read on below for a few looks at a usually highly elusive bird.

But first, let me say that in the Piedmont region of North Carolina (NC) spring is an especially nice season with abundant flowers and many birds filling the air with lovely courtship calls and songs. Sometimes, you get a little confused when walking in a reserve — thinking there are several species of birds in the vicinity to judge by all the different vocalizations, but then you discover you are hearing a concert by one of the avian mimics — Northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers and gray catbirds are both talented imitators of other birds’ calls.

While the mockingbirds repeat other birds’ notes three times each, brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) sing out two repetitions of other species’ songs, interspersed with a large variety of their own calls. A thrasher has been serenading lately near one of a local nature reserves’ ponds. On this occasion, s/he had an Eastern towhee audience (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

       

A bird that does not have a lovely call, the American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), sometimes sounds a bit like a bull bellowing, which led to one of its nicknames — “thunder pumper.” Despite its lack of melodious calls and songs, however, birders get excited when one is spotted because this medium-sized heron (2-3 feet tall) usually is only visible hiding among dense grasses and reeds. In contrast to great blue herons or great egrets, American bitterns lead mainly solitary lives, so birders can’t count on seeing a group of them either.

One local nature reserve became a real hot spot recently when a local birder alerted other bird lovers to the presence of a bittern at one of the ponds. Unexpectedly, this bittern was not shy at all.

 

Even when s/he was being watched by half a dozen people, the bird emerged from the grasses and reeds to forage for food at the water’s edge or stopped for a grooming session in front of an audience. And this went on for over a week as the bird gave us a star performance.

 

 

When approached, the bittern’s usual “concealment” pose is to stand tall with its neck stretched upward and its bill pointing at the sky. They don’t move until they feel it is safe to resume stalking their food.

           

When they stand this way, some people say they look like they have “googly eyes”. The bitterns can focus downwards even when pointing their heads upward; it is surmised that this ability helps them spot and catch the creatures on which they feed.

   

I can see where the googly-eyes terminology was applied to them, but I recently saw a common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) that had much more of that look in my opinion!

In one of their typical hunting modes, bitterns bend over and stand almost motionless, slowly lowering their long bills down so that they can plunge their heads quickly into water to grab their prey, which they bite or shake to death.

 

When they lift their heads, you may notice their third eyelid in position, indicating that they shielded their eyes while submerged. They also engage the nictitating membrane when they scratch their heads, getting close to their eyes – the bittern’s very large feet make that a very good decision on their part!

   

After catching their prey, the bittern subsequently repositions its prey — a tadpole, crayfish, frog, snake, rodent, fish — inside its bill so that it can be swallowed head first. Parts of the eaten animal that they can’t digest are later regurgitated as a pellet.

 

American bitterns are considered a species of high concern by Waterbird Conservation of the Americas. It is the loss of wetlands habitat that is contributing to their decline; in the last decades more than half of the original wetlands in North America have been destroyed or degraded. Let this past Earth Day be a reminder of the very urgent need to make haste in protecting the natural areas that remain and restoring areas that can be rescued.

 

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.

 

Red-winged, rusty and ravishing – black bird delights!

   

Two species of birds that I enjoy seeing during the autumn and winter months in North Carolina (NC) are red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus, above left) and rusty blackbirds (Euphagus carolinus, above right). Both species breed in the northern USA and Canada, traveling to the southern USA during the colder months.

There is also a population of red-winged blackbirds that nest in NC’s Piedmont region. I’ve seen them collecting nesting material at local ponds and wetlands but have never had the pleasure of seeing their nests or watching them feed their young.

The red-winged blackbirds have two avian records to their name: 1) currently perhaps the most numerous land bird in North America, with counts of more than 1 million birds in a flock!! and 2) one of the most researched wild bird species anywhere.

The male red-wings call the attention of females with the red and yellow patches on their wings. It turns out that those with larger patches are more successful in disputes with other males for territory and mates.

     

Some males have been recorded as having up to 15 mates in their territories during a season, but it turned out that 24-50% of the nestlings had another male as a parent!

 

The females look very different from the males with beautiful reddish-brown striping. Their faces are marked by off-white eyebrows.

 

 

They often nest near other red-wings.

             

Doing so means that their nesting area has multiple parents on the alert for predators.

It is interesting that Native American languages also had common names that describe their physical characteristics (red patch, spotted, marked). The longest one that I read about was “memiskondinimaanganeshiinh” (Ojibwa meaning “a bird with a very red damn-little shoulder blade”)!

 

 

During breeding season, the male rusty blackbirds have glossy black plumage with a greenish sheen. At other times, they have rusty tips to their feathers, giving them a mottled look.

The females may also look a bit mottled but have much more light brown and beige coloration.

 

In contrast to the numerous red-winged blackbirds, the rusty blackbirds used to have high numbers but have lost up to 85-99% of their populations during the past 40 years for unknown reasons.

 

The sharp decline is so mystifying that scientists have formed an International Rusty Blackbird Working Group to investigate what is happening.

   

 

One possible explanation is a decline in wetlands, especially in the Southeastern USA where 80% of the birds overwinter. A resurgence in beaver ponds may be helping them, which shows how protecting one wildlife species can also assist another one. I have indeed seen them in areas where beavers have been active.

 

The rusty blackbirds that I spotted were indeed using local wetlands in their search for food, turning over the sodden leaves with their feet and beaks as they searched for sustenance.

The International Working Group is asking people to report their sightings of these birds to eBird to help track the species.

To close this blog, I wanted to share just a few photos of some other birds who are a beautiful black color: my faithful American crow couple (Corvus brachyrhynchos).

They have been visiting with one of their offspring from last year, just as they have done in previous years.

 

 

Unfortunately, it appears that one of the birds has somehow suffered an injury to one leg and foot. S/he has been hopping around on the ground and can fly well, but it is a mystery as to what happened to hurt this large bird. Perhaps a tussle with one of the neighborhood hawks?

 

 

 

 

Spring weather is beginning in our area, which means some avian species will be leaving us and some new ones will be arriving or passing through in the coming weeks. The next blog will feature a few of our feathered friends who will be leaving.

Weird weather but spring is coming!

Our extremely wet winter in the Piedmont region of North Carolina (NC) continues with rain days tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, but then we have a forecast of a whole week of sunny days! Daffodils and lenten rose are blooming, crocuses are coming up and beautiful little speedwell flowers (Veronica persica) are emerging. Spring is on its way!

While one of our common birds, the gently cooing mourning doves (Zenaida macroura), are a little unusual in that they can mate at any time during the year, they mostly prefer to start their nesting period in the spring. And one pair in my yard were so kind as to allow me to watch them canoodling on a feeder pole this week. As many of these doves mate for life, perhaps they had lost any feelings of shyness. 🥰

They first alighted together and looked around (perhaps scanning for the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks that hunt around here). With the coast clear, they faced one another with an open-eyed look.

And then their tryst began – I got to watch a romantic scene without having to turn on the TV! Mutual grooming and neck preening ensued, as did quiet moments of quiet repose. They even engaged in billing — the male opening his beak and the female inserting her beak into his — a signal she is interested.

 

Life is the flower for which love is the honey. — Victor Hugo

Everything I do, I do it for you. — Bryan Adams

True love stories never have endings. — Richard Bach

           

There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to make you feel my love. — Bob Dylan

Love was made for me and you. — Nat King Cole

 

In all the world, there is no love for you like mine. — Maya Angelou

All you need is love — The Beatles

Well, that and a bit of peace and quiet. When they finally descended to the ground and the male began his mating dance, another dove flew in and Ms Dove decided she didn’t want to deal with more than one suitor. The session ended.

But there will be another day! 😃 🍀