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!

Autumn amblings — seeing insects, birds, a snake and two surprises

It’s been challenging lately to know what to expect as far as weather goes in our area. Following tropical storms Florence and Michael, we’ve had several more episodes of drenching downpours that caused local flooding and closed off some natural areas. The temperatures have gone down to freezing or below in the morning and then have risen to 50-60s F (10-16C); this has sometimes led to steam rising from fence posts and some flowers still blooming which usually would have died by now. This morning, I skipped my walk as the temperature was below freezing with wind, so I re-lived some visits this past month to the Brumley Nature Preserve North. If you, too, are inside sheltering from the weather, perhaps you’ll have the time to amble photographically through this long Brumley walk with me.

Some parts of the reserve are still fairly green, which creates a lovely ambience for leisurely strolling and nature observations. In other cases, we can see the arrival of late autumn and approaching winter. This picturesque tree, one of three near a pond that harbor various bird species, was still very green in late September; now these forest denizens are showing off their gnarly “bare bones”.

     

So some early mornings are quite nippy and others a bit milder, with dried plants glistening with spider webs and dew drops that sparkle in the sun.

 

Some of the insects emerge with the sun to bask in the golden light, like this seed bug (Orsellinae, left), whose coloring camouflages it well against the seed heads, short-horned grasshopper, American bird grasshopper (Schistocerca americana) and different color variations of Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) who were hanging out on the dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium).

 

   

Various birds have been enjoying the winter seeds and especially the winter berries, like the red multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and beige poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).    

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are quite fond of berries.

They travel back and forth between fruit-laden trees and dried grass seedheads, occasionally stopping on paths to find worms and insects.

The cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) also like to gorge on berries, often sharing trees with American robins who enjoy the same meal. Sometimes snagging a berry involves some acrobatic moves.

  

The waxwings are adept at these moves and I only occasionally saw one drop a fruit. They are such elegant birds with their black masks and subtle touches of red on the wings and yellow on the tail feathers.

 

One of my favorite bird species, the ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), are also fond of berries. They like suet in gardens but no suet feeders are found in the reserve.
Some of the larger birds, like the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) and yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius), also look for berries and insects as they mostly stay high up in the trees.

 

Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) are another species that enjoy late autumn fruit.

  

In early November, I had my first of two delightful surprises at Brumley. It was early morning and as I glanced up at some very tall trees, I spotted movement among the earth-toned leaves. My lens revealed a yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) – and when I entered it into my bird list for the day, eBird asked me to justify having seen it as it was a rarity this late in the year.

Two other birds that are not surprises but also a joy to see are the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) and colorful Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

  

It’s always worthwhile to look all around when you walk, not only up at trees if you are a birder or at eye level if you like mammals. I take a lot of bird photos, because I love birds and because they are often easier to see than other wildlife species. But I consider myself more a “wildlifer” than a “birder” since I really am interested in all kinds of animals. That now stands me in good stead during the high-precipitation events we’ve been having. The ponds are filled to capacity and then some, with water flowing over the banks and onto paths.

In some cases, the high humidity has been great for plants; bryophytes are shooting up sporophytes which carry their reproductive spores. As there are over 600 mosses, liverworts and hornworts in North Carolina, I didn’t get the scientific ID for this species.

The rains created new temporary water-filled gullies, where chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have been enjoying baths along with other birds.

 

  

This earthworm (Lumbricina) obviously decided it had to get out of the water-logged earth for a while and I was glad not to have squashed it as I walked along. Its slow progress along the path may not have aided it, though, because there were plenty of robins and other worm-eaters in the vicinity.

 

A large Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) was sunning next to a path after the rains as well.

   

So my last visit to Brumley, when I was hoping to capture a golden-crowned kinglet digitally, did not fulfill that hope but ended by giving me a great surprise – my first sighting of a beaver (Castor canadensis) at this reserve. A colleague had seen one there, I’d noted the gnawed tree near the pond, and I had figured out where the lodge was, but I had not yet seen the mammal in the early mornings. Shortly before reaching the pond, I’d stopped to chat with dog owners and mentioned that a beaver was there but I hadn’t seen it yet. Ten minutes later – at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, there s/he was!

It was so surprising to see the aquatic mammal cruising the pond, swimming in large and small circles. As it created small waves and wakes with its head, I pondered why this largely (but not solely!) crepuscular animal was out in the open with people walking by. S/he must have just really wanted to have a good long swim because the animal was out and about for a few hours.

 

Three times, the beaver slapped its tail and dove under with a huge splash when people with dogs strolled by – three times, I missed getting that shot but I did manage to get a photo when the beaver took a time out at the entrance to the lodge.

That was an exciting wildlife spotting – not only did I get to see an animal I rarely see but it was also exhibiting a behavior that I witnessed for the first time. (Previously, I’d seen them harvesting and transporting food to the lodge, chewing bark and felling trees.) As I often go to Brumley in the mornings, being there in the afternoon had another advantage as well – I got to witness a spectacular autumn sunset with the sky almost seeming like a kaleidoscope as the clouds and sun’s rays created rapidly changing skies. I’m looking forward already to my next foray to this reserve!

Winter wonderland – the smaller and medium-sized birds

Oddly, during our January snowstorm, the brown-headed and white-breasted nuthatches did not visit my bird feeders – that was unexpected as they really do like the sunflower and other seeds, as well as the home-made suet. Other smaller birds did appear, however, and they filled up on the provided food since finding insects was almost impossible during those days.

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) were fans of the dried meal worms and at one point, I put out an extra tray of these treats on the dry front porch. Other birds are more reluctant to come onto the porch so they had a nice quiet feeding area, although they also spent time perched on the snowy bushes and feeders.

  

  

 

The Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) worked their way in between the other birds to reach the feeders, sometimes waiting patiently on a feeder pole for their turn.

The ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), of which I have two visiting the feeders, were happy with the home-made suet. Occasionally, I smeared a bit of suet on dried flower stalks and they would perch there to snag a bite to eat. Other times, they just waited on a twig until the yellow-rumped warblers had vacated the area so they could eat in peace.

    

While the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) is slightly larger, they are like the small birds in being somewhat hesitant to approach feeders if there is a crowd. Once on a feeder, they will feed and then hang on to take a look around.

  

The dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), who have an understated quiet beauty, were looking for meal worms.

    

The similarly colored tufted titmouse (Baeoloophus bicolor) often zoomed in on its target of the fruit and nut feeder without taking time to perch first.

The American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) didn’t come round very much, only snacking on some sunflower seeds. Since they often feed on the crepe myrtle tree seeds, they were likely finding enough food there.

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) came in spurts of activity. They always look rather bedraggled when they get wet with snow or rain and perhaps prefer to stay drier under branches until there is a break in the falling moisture. Even wet, though, they are still attractive to me.

The smaller/medium bird group was rounded off by the house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus). The females were looking especially nice. The finches never have spats with anyone and are among the most peaceful feeder birds. Not everyone was like that, however, and the next blog looks at the rowdy ones.

 

 

“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)