Life on late winter-early spring farmlands

Although it’s taken me some time to process photos taken earlier this year, I’d still like to share what I was seeing in late winter and early spring when stopping at farm fields. These sometimes muddy and stubble-covered parcels of land can offer wildlife watchers nice views of birds and occasionally other animals, unobstructed by a lot of foliage. So visits to roadside farms and ponds were on my early 2019 nature-walk itineraries.

Farm fields are often bordered by stands of trees where animals can retreat if they become disturbed by humans standing around aiming long camera lenses at them. The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) above were browsing one morning and seemed unconcerned as I photographed nearby birds. When I turned to watch them specifically though, they decided to move back into the woods bordering the field.

Many farmers put out bird boxes on fences bordering their fields; in early March, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were already checking out and starting to furnish potential nest sites. Here a male was flying away from a nest box while his mate was gathering pine needles.

The fences offer other birds a good vantage point for observation, too. A Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) perched on a fence post to look around and then flew to a branch high above me.

 

A bird present in large numbers was the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). One morning, a friend and I counted some 200 birds in one small group of trees. Many people think they are an invasive species and dislike these birds intensely because they evolved a behavior that can endanger other birds. The cowbirds, who are native to America, were originally present in prairies where they followed the buffalo. This meant they did not stay in one place long enough to tend a nest, so they began laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. The young cowbirds hatch first and then may throw out the other eggs or hatchlings or they eat so ravenously that the other nest mates don’t get enough.

It certainly is disconcerting to see a small warbler feeding a large cowbird fledgling and a couple bird species have been endangered by the behavior. But I don’t dislike the cowbird because of this – they did not choose how to evolve and the behavior developed as an adaptation, not an “evil” practice. They are attractive birds. And the sounds they make are lovely, akin to water droplets falling into a pool.

 

The American robins (Turdus migratorius) were also present in abundance; they tend to flock together in the winter and early spring. One farm had a boggy area with some cyprus trees and the robins were busy looking for insects among the cyprus “knees” (Taxodium distichum). These woody structures that grow out of the roots may help stabilize the trees when they are standing in water but scientists have not yet definitively identified their purpose.

There were other trees near the cypresses; in one, the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) was hanging high overhead. It also pays to look around to see who is flying u[ ahigh above those trees and fields. It’s not uncommon to see Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying from one farm pond to another.

Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) soared over different fields I visited.

Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) also made an appearance.

And one of my favorite raptors often eluded my efforts to capture a portrait. Only a couple times was I able to catch a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius) speeding by in flight.

The robins were feeding in the fields as were several other bird species.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

A pair of Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) was taking advantage of numerous cow patties left behind on one farm field in their search for insects. They were flashing their wings repeatedly; I’m convinced that this was behavior designed to scare up bugs so they can catch them easily.

 

 

Other birds were following them around in the field, apparently taking advantage of the insect smorgasbord. Two of them were a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and a field sparrow (Spizella pusilla).

This year, it was also my good fortune to see a bird new to me in one farm field, the lovely horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). Although these birds are not considered endangered, their numbers declined by 71% between 1966 and 2015.

I couldn’t get close to the larks but one day I did catch a bird taking a dust bath in a gravel and dirt road next to their preferred field. On a second visit to that farm, I again saw a lark in the road and then another lark joined it.

It turns out that female larks perform a courting display that looks very similar to actually taking a dust bath, so I got to see a mating behavior that I hadn’t expected!

Reading about the behavior, I discovered that if male larks see a female who is dust bathing, he may mistake what she’s doing and try to mate with her when she’s not ready.

So reproductive life is a bit difficult for those males, who look so adorable when they raise those head feathers to project two little black horns.I will leave you here with a few more views of a horned lark who was singing and foraging not too very far from the road.

 

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!

Winter wonderland – sparrows and warblers

Yesterday, as I walked through my yard, I was surprised to see groups of daffodils sticking up their heads; it seemed rather early to me but last year we had early signs of spring as well. It is a big contrast to our weather conditions less than a month ago, though. On the 17th of January, our town was surprised by 11-12 inches of beautiful, powdery snow.

  

  

 

While our southern area often has a couple instances of (light) snow and/or an ice storm in the winter, our climate is generally fairly mild and temperatures in the 50s and 60s Farenheit are not uncommon during winter. So the brief but heavy snowfall was quite an event; our streets were empty of traffic as everyone stayed home and watched the falling flakes.

Some people built snowmen, others went sledding and walking, and some of us spent hours filling our bird feeders and watching the birds. I also made an attempt to photograph some frozen bubbles, which was very challenging since it was windy during the entire winter weather event.

  

The snow began slowly melting a bit the next day, which made some of the icicles on the house elongate to a length of almost 3-4 feet, but it wasn’t until Friday and Saturday that the snow and ice really started disappearing.

My yard looked beautiful, but I spent time on the 17th repeatedly knocking snow off the bird feeders and heated birth bath so that the birds could reach the food and water.

  

   

Although I saw a couple squirrels and the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) also came by, I didn’t see other mammals like chipmunks, raccoons, opossums. But I had 25 different bird species come by on Wednesday and Thursday; on Friday and Saturday, two more species came by. I’d like to share some snow day photos of them all in this and the next few blogs.

First up are the sparrows and warblers. The chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) usually get their seed from the hanging feeders in the front and back yards but now they were looking everywhere for a bite to eat. I had strewn some seed on the ground and they began looking there.

One found a trove of food and another came by asking to be fed, a request the first sparrow accommodated quite sweetly.

 

 

The white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have an opposite feeding strategy, usually feeding on the ground and occasionally venturing up to a feeder. They, too, searched under the snow for some food.

 

The pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) tend to be rather shy; only very rarely does a pair visit together. Mostly, one shows up at a time; their beautiful yellow color was really highlighted against the white background.

 

The pine warblers did have to brave a bad-tempered bird to get to the feeders. One of the six resident yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) has become very territorial, chasing away some other yellow-rumped warblers, the ruby-crowned kinglets and the pine warbler – in other words, the birds his size or smaller. He allows a couple other yellow-rumps to feed peacefully and I think perhaps they are his family members so that he tolerates them. He didn’t stop the other small birds from coming around, however, as we’ll see in the next blog.

 

“Nuts” for nuts!

A primary source of nutrition for many birds is nuts.This high-calorie food provides them with dietary fat, which can be especially welcome during the colder months. As nuts ripen, you can see the birds flying by, carrying acorns and beechnuts, as well as seeds of various kinds. Some birds are especially suited to eating nuts with their thicker, cone-shaped bills, which are shaped to help them crack open pods and seed cases. Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), sparrows, grosbeaks, finches and woodpeckers are seed and nut lovers.

I had been lax in providing my yard birds with these culinary treats except for sunflower seeds and the seed pods in my yard trees. So one day early last year, I purchased a nut and seed holder and proceeded to give them peanuts, which are not actually nuts but the seed of a legume (Arachis hypogaea). This makes no difference to the birds like the Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) of course.

I first tried peanuts in the shell and an occasional blue jay and tufted titmouse would stop by. However, they didn’t seem to want to put much time into removing the nuts from the shells and I didn’t really want the shells littering the ground either.

Then in the spring I put out some shelled peanuts from a container I’d bought for my own consumption and the avian visitors were delighted. Reading about peanut feeding informed me that I should avoid giving salted peanuts. I couldn’t readily find unsalted ones at the grocery store, so I began removing the salt, either by shaking the nuts in a paper bag or by washing off the salt.

   

Northern cardinal                                            Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)

Before they left for the summer, the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) and ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) tried the peanuts, too. Sometimes I wondered if the kinglet was also not looking for insects around the peanut feeder.

   

My choice to provide nuts was a big hit; I was rewarded with a procession of individuals of varied species who came by to quickly gulp or carry off a tasty nut. Some are pictured below – they came at different times of the day.

 

White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)     Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)

    

Tufted titmouse                                                       Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

   

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)      Northern cardinal

 

Gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)        Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

       

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)         Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

The common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) will sometimes break down the nuts (and are quite messy about it, compared to the chickadees and titmice), but they will also swallow the treats whole.

  

Others are intent on breaking the peanuts into smaller pieces that are easier to get down; this seems especially true for the smaller birds like the Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) below. Here we also see Riley, my banded Carolina wren, enjoying a treat.

   

The blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) often gulp down some nuts quickly and then try to carry off several nuts at a time.

One good thing about the peanuts is that thankfully the starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) don’t appear fond of them (they gulp down the dried mealworms, however, as if that food is going out of style). One will occasionally sample a nut, but they never seem to want a second.

As time passed, I realized that the peanut feeding strategy was rewarding me with frequent avian visitors, but was also rather costly. In the autumn, I began putting out a less expensive fruit and nut mix. This has also proved very popular and various species of birds are willing to share space at the feeders. The chickadees especially will feed alongside others, like the house finches and Northern cardinal below.

Species that usually forage on the ground, like the white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), also make occasional forays to the nut feeder.

When the nut feeders are empty, it’s not uncommon to see birds sitting atop them; when they see me, some will call out, as if saying, “Hey, fill up that feeder, please!” And I usually accommodate them, especially when it is very cold, as has been the case the first days of 2018 – we have had a record-breaking stretch of days in which the temperature did not rise above freezing, an unusual occurrence for our southern state of North Carolina.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler  (Setophaga coronata)  House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

The nut feeders have also been very attractive to the resident Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), one of whom has been VERY persistent in devising ways to get onto the feeders. Each time s/he succeeds, I change the position of the feeders or stumps and branches nearby. Currently, that clever rodent hasn’t been able to get up there. In compensation, I occasionally throw a handful of nuts on the ground.

             

So, not all the birds are “nuts” for nuts, but plenty of species think they’re mighty fine! They are definitely a worthwhile addition to the birders’ array of feeder offerings.

American goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

 

 

 

Late arrivals and late departures

Since a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) began visiting my suet feeders several years ago, I’ve looked forward to his arrival each autumn so that I can watch him at leisure during the winter months. This past season, however, I began to fear that he had decided to go elsewhere or, more sadly, might have passed away and wouldn’t be coming around again. I did see members of the species at the Haw River in late November and one was feeding on seeds to my surprise.

Then, finally, on the 26th of December, Rudy turned up at my feeders – weeks later than usual but to my great delight! And where did he go for a bite to eat? In the past, he loved my suet but now he, too, was feeding at one of the seed feeders!

Shortly thereafter, I discovered I now had two ruby crowns in residence as they began vying with one another to claim the suet area as their territory. After thinking that I would have no jeweled visitor this winter, it turned out I had two, leading to a happy dance as I gazed out of my living room window.

   

The golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) have a single feather covering each nostril; this doesn’t appear to be the case for the ruby crowns. Their tongues are often in sight when they open their mouths in anticipation of getting a bite. I wondered if the tongue is sticky to help them snatch food while hovering; an online search did not net me any references about kinglet tongues, however.

Normally, these hyper-active tiny birds seek insects and arthropods as meals, including spiders, pseudoscorpions, aphids, bees, wasps, beetles and ants. But my home-made suet has proved to be a big draw (also for other birds with whom they must compete for space).

 

The ruby-crowned kinglets will often hover in front of a feeder, sticking out their tongue to snag a bit of suet before they fly to a perch.

As winter progressed, it looked like the yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) decided to copy their style, also hovering and snatching on occasion.

 

I decided to leave the dry stalks of the scarlet mallow and butterfly bush in place this past winter so they had perches close to the feeders. They made a nice “studio” for some portraits!

After a while, since there was a lot of traffic at the feeders, I began smearing suet on the mallow stalks, which proved to be a big hit. The ruby crowns alighted and fed calmly, a big change from their usual frenetic pace. (A few other birds also enjoyed this option, including the Eastern bluebirds and yellow-rumped warblers.)

 

Sometimes, they went through a bit of head contortion to snag some of the treat.

 

 

 

 

These kinglets surprised me again in January when they began visiting the peanut feeder, too. I watched as they pecked off tiny bits of peanut; I suspect they also might have been looking for ants or other insects around the nuts.

 

 

 

When it rains, these little avians can look quite bedraggled! But they didn’t appear bothered by the snow flurries.

Normally, these birds are in what seems to be constant motion, scarcely stopping for a second in their quest for food. A large privet bush near my feeders, however, has become a resting and hiding spot for them. (Yes, I know, privets are invasive plants and should be removed but this particular shrub provides a get-away for the feeder birds when the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks fly in for a raid and the catbirds love to build their nests in this particular site.)

    

  

I continued seeing ruby crowns during my nature walks, although not as reliably as in my own yard. They were in residence at the Jordan Lake woods and a small wooded area near Chapel Hill’s Senior Center.

 

 

One day at the Haw River, I witnessed a territorial dispute between two males who were claiming certain trees as their own.

 

I stopped seeing the ruby crowns at my feeders around the end of March and assumed that they had embarked on their migration up North for breeding season. On 9 April, I was surprised to see one in the woods bordering Jordan Lake.

On 18 April, one appeared in a cedar tree in my yard.

And then on the 22nd of April, I spotted one high in the leafy branches of a willow oak in my front yard. I’m guessing that perhaps this bird was stopping for a rest as it traveled from further South on its way up North; I didn’t see it visit the suet feeder.

 

 

I miss my little kinglet companions in the spring and summer; hopefully, they won’t wait so long to appear again later this year.