A gathering of gorgeous grosbeaks

If you know birders, you’ve undoubtedly heard that this 2020-21 winter season marks an “irruption” year – a period when large numbers of certain bird species migrate to places where they’re usually not seen. This year is especially notable because it is one of the largest mass migrations that has taken place in about 25 years.

The scientists who study irruptions are calling this season a “superflight,” because all the species in the finch family that breed in the boreal forests of the northern USA and Canada have been moving south. Here in the Piedmont, we’ve been lucky to see several of these species.

The finches that have drawn the most attention from local birders are the evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) with their eye-catching colors and plumage. They tend to move about in flocks and when they land at feeders, they appear more than willing to share with other birds, like a red-bellied woodpecker (above) or pine siskins (below).

When they land on a feeder, however, they may crowd out others due to their size.

While the evening grosbeaks don’t seem quarrelsome like some other birds, they may still have territorial defense encounters when they are vying for food. Perhaps that is what happened to this female with what appears to be a slight injury below her eye. It is unlikely that it would have come from escaping another type of assault as it has been reported that they have no known predators!

The females are subtly colored in shades of gray-beige with touches of green and yellow on their flanks, neck and near their throat. Their wings are marked with black and white patches.

 

Their coloring may look a bit different depending on the quality of the light and how overcast the day is.

The males are eye-catching due to their vibrant yellow and black plumage, featuring a notable dark yellow stripe over the eyes and a bright white patch on black wings.

Both females and males have the very thick, conical bills characteristic of their species.

Watching them at breeding time would be interesting as it does not involve song but instead features the males dancing for their prospective mates.

In the summer, the evening grosbeaks eat insects, including the spruce budworm, which is a tiny caterpillar. Their winter diet includes large seeds, berries and tree buds; maple samaras (papery winged seeds) and sunflower seeds are favorites (especially the gray-striped kind).

In 2018, a few individual evening grosbeaks were spotted in the Triangle but not many people had the chance to see them. I was fortunate to have three visit my feeders for an afternoon when it was snowy.

This year, none have visited me, but they have been very present in our area, especially at the feeders of bird enthusiasts Bert Fisher and Leto Copeley. This lovely couple welcomed birders to visit their yard by appointment (with limited numbers of visitors wearing masks in the large area).

 

Bert kindly updated everyone on the birds’ comings and goings. Their number increased over time to a high count of over 60 birds seen at one time. They often sit high in the trees of the wooded property and then suddenly descend to sit in groups on platform feeders and to pick up fallen seed on the ground.

Over time, the evening grosbeaks have expanded their “territory” over the Northeastern USA, partly in response to increased planting of boxelders (Acer negundo, a type of maple) as shade trees. The seeds of the box elder are available throughout the winter and are a preferred food for these large finches.

Like numerous other bird species, evening grosbeak populations have declined steeply over time. Between 1966 and 2015, their numbers on the East Coast declined by 97%. Continued logging of forests in northern North America, avian diseases, aerial spraying of insects and climate change may all contribute to further reductions of this group of birds.

Researchers are now collaborating in an Evening Grosbeak Project that aims to compare flight calls, genetics and breeding behaviors of five distinctive sub-groups in this species. They are distinguished by the types of calls that they make and birders are asked to help out by submitting recordings to the eBird website.

It appears that Type 3 (Coccothraustes vespertinus vespertinus, the most irruptive of all five sub-groups) is the call type which has traveled to our area. It has a call that is similar to that of a house sparrow.

Some northeastern grosbeaks are now being tracked by the Project. An avian ecologist with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program recently was able to band 47 birds so that sightings of them elsewhere can be reported. He also put a new model of solar radio tracking tags on 29 of the birds, which can help monitor their movements throughout their lifetime.

Evening grosbeaks can live well into their teens; the oldest banded individual was found when he was 16 years and 3 months. Perhaps some of those visiting us this year have been here before during food-poor periods up North. It will be interesting to see when they next decide to visit our area in the future and hopefully a few will visit me.

 

I’ve added some of the trees that tend to attract them, such as winterberries, maples and crabapples, to complement the junipers, pines and elms in my yard, so the welcome mat will be out!

Flying shades of bronze, brown and copper

While the hummingbirds “clothed” in vibrant green and blue hues in Costa Rica are really wonderful (previous blog), I found out that I’m really attracted to some hummers with more subdued hues as well. The photo above is probably my favorite hummingbird photo of my 2019 trip — that long-billed hermit (Phaethornis longirostris) was simply gorgeous!

Before showing you some other shots of this stunner, let’s look at some other hummers with hues of bronze and copper. The rufous-tailed hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl) is a smaller bird but a pleasure to see as it flits from bloom to bloom.

These medium-sized hummers defend their nectaring territories vigorously, which may lead to some ruffled feathers. Scratching an itch can also lead to the same condition.

The bronzy hermit (Glaucis aeneus) has a long, curved bill which is useful for the types of flowers where it seeks nectar. It is known to be a fast flyer and is said to only stay a few seconds at each feeding site, so I feel lucky to have gotten a photo of it!

When I saw the black-bellied hummingbird (Eupherusa nigriventris), I immediately fell in love.To me, it looked like this male had had a crew cut and then covered himself with black velvet.

The females of the species do not have black bellies but are also pretty.

Another species that really caught my fancy was the brown violetear (Colibri delphinae). They are very muted in color, which is what makes the color patches really stand out.

The blue-green throat feathers shine. And the violet stripe behind the eye is certainly eye-catching!

It must be the real contrast between the overall subdued coloration and the vivid color patches that attracts me. As other birders moved on, I stayed behind to watch them for a while.

I would enjoy seeing this hummer in person again!

I will leave you with a couple more photos of the wonderful long-billed hermit. The lengthy curved beak and long tail feathers make for a very attractive presence.

And this elegant hummingbird also has a distinctive mating behavior. Up to 25 males will gather in a lek (a communal area where courtship displays are done) and begin wiggling their tail feathers. They then compete to sing a song that will induce a female to choose them as the sire for their young!

Seeing a courtship contest among the long-billed hermits must really be a wonderful experience. But I’m just glad I got to see this species at all and hope perhaps to do so in person one more time!

Next blog: one more view of hummers — this time in North Carolina.

April’s fool – this is NOT a flower!

 

shagbark hickory I77A7704© Maria de Bruyn resDuring North Carolina’s early spring weeks, visitors to wooded areas may be delighted by newly emerging shagbark hickory saplings (Carya ovata).

shagbark hickory I77A7683© Maria de Bruyn

The slender young trees show off their new leaves at the ends of branching twigs, creating lovely patterns against the sky and other foliage. Eventually, they may reach a height of some 100 feet (30 meters) and, if not felled by storms, floods or other means, they may get as old as 350 years.

When I first saw these little beauties, I thought that they had wonderful spring flowers in hues of orange, rose and yellow. The “flowers” were at the base of clusters of pinnate leaves and they were often quite lovely.

shagbark Noah Shagbark hickory tree IMG_0185© Maria de Bruyn

It turns out that I had been fooled not only on April 1st, but the whole spring season in past years. Only recently did I find out that the shagbarks don’t have spring flowers at all – the curling petals are actually the scales of the buds from which the leaves emerge! The male and female flowers appear in late summer and early fall.

shagbark hickory I77A7708© Maria de Bruyn res

When the shagbark reaches the age of about 10 years, it begins to produce hickory nuts, reaching its full nut-bearing potential around the age of 40 and continuing to produce until about 100 years. The nuts are eaten by many species, including humans, squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, black bears, mice, foxes and birds.

shagbark hickory I77A7679© Maria de Bruyn res

The shaggy bark, found in mature but not young trees, is used to help flavor syrups. I must admit that these trees attract my attention much more in the spring than other times of year – those flower-like bud scales are gorgeous!

 

Woodpecker welcome!

My celebration for the arrival of 2016 happened on 21 January, when I had my first nature walk of the year. It was delayed by a hospitalization at the start of the year and home treatments for a couple weeks after that. When a relatively warm and sunny day arrived, I just had to get out there despite still dealing with some recovery-related issues. I chose the North Carolina Botanical Garden as my venue since it has plenty of benches for short rests in between walking. It was simply lovely.

pileated woodpecker I77A7321© Maria de BruynMy first bird of the day was a beautiful male pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), a harbinger of the day’s theme – the woodpeckers were my welcome committee!

Loud rhythmic hammering had me searching the snags among the tall trees for the next greeter – it reminded me of the facts I had learned about woodpeckers and their adaptations to a pecking life.

downy woodpecker I77A7372© Maria de BruynIt turned out to be a diminutive downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), whose hammering sounds were enhanced by the hollow stem with which he was busy.

Next up was a lovely female yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) who was very industriously flitting from branch to branch in search of sustenance.

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7419© Maria de Bruynyellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7582© Maria de Bruyn

When flattened against tree trunks, she demonstrated how well camouflaged her back feathers make her. A male sapsucker showed it, too.

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7476© Maria de Bruyn

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7860© Maria de Bruyn res

red-bellied woodpecker I77A8242© Maria de BruynA red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) rounded out the welcoming committee.

The other birds didn’t disappoint. Several species were in the woods and at the feeders near the Garden’s bird blind. A lovely Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) flitted about. A tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) was singing.

 

Carolina chickadee I77A7639© Maria de Bruyn tufted titmouse I77A7388© Maria de Bruyn

 

white-breasted nuthatch I77A8203© Maria de Bruyn

 

A white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) foraged on tree trunks overhead. A Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos polyglottos) posed among red winter berries.

 

Northern mockingbird I77A7737© Maria de Bruyn res

hermit thrush I77A7658© Maria de Bruyn

 

A hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) emerged near the bird blind, and then the same bird or another seemed to accompany me as I walked another part of the native habitats garden.

 

hermit thrush I77A7818© Maria de Bruyn

hermit thrush I77A7788© Maria de Bruyn res

Later, a male sapsucker (identifiable by his red throat) appeared near the Paul Green cabin, where he had been busy working on his sapwells.

yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7858© Maria de Bruyn res yellow-bellied sapsucker I77A7854© Maria de Bruyn res

Shortly thereafter a downy woodpecker came to the same spot and sampled sap (or something else) from the row of holes left by the sapsucker! That was a nice example of how what one animal does can benefit another, too.

downy woodpecker I77A7912© Maria de Bruyn

downy woodpecker I77A7921© Maria de Bruyn res

During a plant interlude, I was surprised to see some Southern purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) that had not yet shriveled up in the cold.

Southern purple pitcher plant I77A8086© Maria de Bruyn Southern purple pitcher plant I77A8081© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

When, I was leaving, a ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) alighted overhead,

ruby-crowned kinglet I77A8165© Maria de Bruyn ruby-crowned kinglet I77A8164© Maria de Bruyn

a red-bellied woodpecker arrived, and one more woodpecker made an appearance – a Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) high up behind some branches in a tall tree. I was using my small zoom lens so the photo quality isn’t great, but you can see that s/he was there.

red-bellied wooodpecker I77A8234© Maria de Bruyn Northern flicker I77A8154© Maria de Bruyn

downy woodpecker I77A8006© Maria de BruynThe only woodpeckers that are common in our town that I missed were the red-headed and hairy woodpeckers – it was truly a woodpecker welcome and a really lovely start to my wildlife photography outings for this year!

Flying rays of sunshine, spirits on the wing – part 2

Cabbage white butterfly DK7A2287© Maria de Bruyn resWhen a butterfly like the cabbage white (Pieris rapae) alights on a flower or leaf, we sometimes have a little time to see them more clearly and appreciate their beauty; capturing a photo for leisurely viewing gives us the chance to focus on details. And those details are important if we want to determine their correct scientific names since entomologists have differentiated many species and sub-species, sometimes on the basis of factors such as the shape of their spots.

One butterfly pair that can be puzzling are the silvery checkerspot (Chlosyne nycteis, top), with a small white center to one of its spots in the lower row, and the pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos), which was abundant this year.

silvery checkerspot DK7A1405© Maria de Bruyn res

pearl crescent DK7A1469© Maria de Bruyn res pearl crescent DK7A4689© Maria de Bruyn res

The Eastern comma (Polygonia comma) and question mark (Polygonia interrogationis) look really similar, too. Perhaps the difference in their distinguishing underside marking is really apparent to proofreaders.

Eastern comma DK7A5636© Maria de Bruyn resQuestion mark DK7A3181© Maria de Bruyn res

The easiest way to distinguish the endangered monarch (Danaus plexippus) and the viceroy (Limenitis archippus) is that the viceroy has a black stripe running horizontally across its lower wings.

monarch DK7A7941© Maria de Bruyn res

viceroy DK7A5128© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern tiger swallowtail DK7A2096© Maria de Bruyn res

The swallowtails are always a favorite, including the Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) with differently colored males (yellow) and females (yellow and also blue).

 

Eastern tiger swallowtail DK7A7768© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern tiger swallowtail DK7A0256© Maria de Bruyn res

Zebra swallowtail DK7A0046© Maria de Bruyn res

The zebra swallowtail (Protographium marcellus) really catches your eye as it flutters about, while the pipevine swallowtail (Battus philenor) is a little more subdued.

 

Pipevine swallowtail DK7A9681© Maria de Bruyn res Pipevine swallowtail DK7A9691© Maria de Bruyn

The red spotted purples (Limenitis arthemis) come in different variations; this one enjoyed the hummingbird nectar this summer.

Red-spotted purple DK7A0518© Maria de Bruyn res Red-spotted purple DK7A0998© Maria de Bruyn res

Another new butterfly for me this year was the great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele), which I enjoyed seeing as they enjoyed common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) at the Horton Grove Nature Reserve.

great spangled fritillary DK7A5377© Maria de Bruyn res Great spangled fritillary DK7A5052© Maria de Bruyn res

Hackberry emperor DK7A6150© Maria de Bruyn resThe hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis) turned up at Jordan Lake, while the common buckeye (Junonia coenia) – whose beauty is anything but common! – was in my yard and various nature reserves. I also observed a pair getting ready to propagate the next generation.

 

 

common buckeye DK7A1181© Maria de Bruyn common buckeye DK7A8729© Maria de Bruyn res common buckeye IMG_9470© Maria de Bruyn res common buckeye IMG_9538© Maria de Bruyn res

Some of the tinier butterflies are delicate beauties, like the Summer azure (Celastrina neglecta), the gray hairstreak – which can look brown (Strymon melinus), the Eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas) and the Carolina satyr (Hermeuptychia sosybius).

Summer azure DK7A5424© Maria de BruynGray hairstreak DK7A4495© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern tailed-blue DK7A1141© Maria de Bruyn resCarolina Satyr DK7A5279 © Maria de Bruyn res2

To end, here are two more beauties that I had the privilege to see this year. I hope  seeing these butterflies and those in my previous blog brightened your day, especially if you have been dealing with sorrow as I have while this year approaches its end.

Southern pearly eye DK7A9953© Maria de Bruyn resNorthern pearly-eye DK7A7752©Maria de Bruyn res

Southern pearly eye (Lethe portlandia) and Northern pearly-eye (Enodia anthedon)