The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 1: courtship and mating

Although we in the Northern hemisphere are already a little more than a month into summer, many species among our avian friends have not yet completed their breeding cycle. In my yard, many parents are still feeding begging (sometimes almost adult) children. Others are feeding young ones in the nest and some appear to be busy constructing new nests for a second or third brood. So, after a long hiatus in blogging, I decided to feature some of my bird friends, including the American goldfinch pair below (Spinus tristis) as they have worked on their new family lives in 2020.

American goldfinch P7130178 © Maria de Bruyn resSome of these photos go back to early spring. A series of misfortunes (including a crash of my laptop hard drive, a broken camera, loss of Internet) meant that I had a backlog of photos to process and then suddenly a large gap in photos taken. But I managed to recuperate some of the work and hope you enjoy the coming series of posts about the birds’ breeding and family life!

belted kingfisher

Breeding season is heralded by increasing bird song in the meadows, forests, fields and our yards. Males especially sing to attract mates and establish territories, but females treat us to songs and calls, too. This makes it easier to spot birds as the tree foliage gets thicker, especially if you have good hearing!

pine warbler P4175086© Maria de Bruyn                     white-eyed vireo P4123164 © Maria de Bruyn res

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)            White-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus)

Eastern meadowlark P4279816© Maria de Bruyn res            Orchard oriole P4279889© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna)     Orchard oriole (Icterus spurius)

Carolina wren P3316544 © Maria de Bruyn res                 blue grosbeak P4291500© Maria de Bruyn res

Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)      Blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea)

summer tanager P4291520© Maria de Bruyn res

Summer tanager (Piranga rubra)

Indigo bunting P6308502© Maria de Bruyn

Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea)

Courtship is usually a sweet behavior to watch in my view. The male Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are especially devoted suitors, seeking out nice morsels to present to their intended mates, while among the American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), it’s the females who loudly call to their mates for some tasty bites.

Northern cardinal P4164873© Maria de Bruyn res

American crow P4080661 © Maria de Bruyn res

A fact that perhaps many bird lovers do not know is that few male birds have a penis. Like the female birds, most species’ males have a cloaca, a cavity externally located just under the bird’s tail and internally at the end of the digestive tract. Feces, urine, sperm and ova are all deposited in the cloaca. Birds who reproduce with this organ briefly rub their cloacae together (an activity called the “cloacal kiss”) whereby sperm from the male bird’s testes are transferred into the female’s cavity to unite with her eggs. During breeding season, the cloaca is slightly swollen and protrudes a bit from the bird’s body, facilitating the transfer. In the photo of this Carolina wren, you can see a slightly darker area under the tail indicating where the cloaca is found.

Carolina wren P7059955 © Maria de Bruyn res

red-headed woodpecker P4217162© Maria de Bruyn res

When ready for mating, the red-headed woodpeckers (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) seem to focus mainly on chasing away rivals and then snatching a quick mating session. The female woodpecker then takes a break from the chase to rest and have a bite to eat.

Some cliff swallow males (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) seem to take advantage of females who are preoccupied with gathering mud for their nests for a quick tryst.

cliff swallows 2G0A3283© Maria de Bruyn res

The brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) seem to take their time for mating. This pair was occupied for at least 5-10 minutes in preparing for the upcoming production of eggs. At times, it seemed like the male was giving the female instructions on what to do once “the deed” was done!

brown-headed cowbird P5097676 © Maria de Bruyn res   brown-headed cowbird P5097677 © Maria de Bruyn res

Many birders do not like the cowbirds because they are parasitic nesters, i.e., they lay an egg in another bird’s nest so that the other bird will raise the young. Since the cowbird baby usually hatches before the other eggs, they either monopolize the food that the foster parents bring or they may even destroy the eggs laid by their foster mother.

brown-headed cowbird P5097682 © Maria de Bruyn res      brown-headed cowbird P5097686© Maria de Bruyn res

It’s been posited that the cowbirds evolved to use this strategy because they followed the bison in migration and therefore couldn’t stay in one place to raise their young. Others believe, however, that the birds developed the practice because dispersing their eggs over several nests gave their young a better chance of reaching adulthood.

brown-headed cowbird P5097689© Maria de Bruyn res

chipping sparrow P6256620© Maria de Bruyn sgd resThe quickest mating scenario I’ve witnessed came from a pair of sweet little chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina). I’d seen the two fluttering together at the feeders and had noted one sparrow chasing another away – which I now think was the victorious suitor driving away a rival. Then one July afternoon, the two flew to a dying cedar and sat close to one another on a branch. Suddenly, Mr. Victory mounted his mate but for what only seemed a few seconds – really very quick work indeed! She sat there with her rear end elevated for a bit and then the two went back to feeding – and soon after I saw them collecting nesting materials.

chipping sparrow P6256622© Maria de Bruyn res    chipping sparrow P6256623© Maria de Bruyn res

The birds in which the males do have a penis include some duck and swan species, ostriches, cassowaries, kiwi and geese. They differ from other birds in that development of the penis is NOT stopped in the male bird embryos during development (the case in cloacal birds).

The mallard males (Anas platyrhynchos), like some other ducks, unfortunately do not treat their partners well. They may mount the female very roughly. During a mating, she may be dunked underwater repeatedly and at length; occasionally, this results in her drowning. This behavior has been the subject of various studies and some newspaper articles with sensationalistic headlines (e.g., “The horrible thing you never knew about ducks)”.

Mallard duck P1232837 © Maria de Bruyn

Mallard duck P1232839 © Maria de Bruyn     Mallard duck P1232840© Maria de Bruyn

Once the actual mating is over, the birds devote most of their energy toward building a nest. While female ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) must construct her nest and tend her babies alone, many other birds cooperate in the venture, like the Eastern bluebirds. Their efforts are featured in the next blog. (And if you’d like to see a previous post on courtship, it is here.)

ruby-throated hummingbird 2G0A4084© Maria de Bruyn res

Hopping into springtime

I’ve been planning new blogs for quite some time; then I keep taking new photos that will fit into them and the blog writing gets delayed. But two days ago, I saw such a cool natural event that I resolved to produce a blog quickly and here it is!

One welcome feature of springtime is that many insects emerge from their over-wintering spots. Some are bugs we dislike (mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers), but others are fascinating and wonderful members of our natural systems. Pollinators like this spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) keep our gorgeous plants and important food crops going and many bugs provide other wildlife with meals.

On my trip to Costa Rica last year, our guide not only pointed out birds but also some mammals and insects. He had developed an interest in treehoppers, a group of insects with about 3200 species worldwide that specialize in eating plant sap. He was unable to find any to show me, but I resolved to keep an eye open for them when I returned home. I had forgotten that I had seen my first one the year before, a pretty green Ceresini species.

As I stared at plants during nature walks, I was lucky and managed to find my first treehoppers when I was actually looking for them. These were of a dark-colored species (Acutalis tartarea) that favors the sap of black locust trees, sunflowers, goldenrod and ragweeds.

The treehoppers, which are related to leafhoppers and cicadas, are popular with some entomologists because many species have elaborate “helmets” at the top of their heads. I got to see my first example of this type on my recent walk when I happened to find a young oak tree with numerous nymphs and recently eclosed (emerged) adult oak treehoppers (Platycostis vittata).

The mother treehopper is known for staying close to the nymphs to protect them against wasps and other predators.

The hoppers get plant sap by piercing plant stems with their beaks. The nymphs have extensible anal ducts that deposit the sap away from their bodies. This is important because the concentrated excess sap, called honeydew, can get moldy.

 

                              

The honeydew attracts ants, which like the sugar-rich liquid, so the hoppers and ants have a mutually beneficial relationship.

Just how the helmet develops into an unusual shape has been a source of investigation. One team of entomologists theorized that the helmet was formed by body parts that were actually modified wings. Another researcher countered that this was impossible and that the helmet was an unusual pronotum — the foremost dorsal section of the thorax. More recently, a third group of evolutionary biologists postulated that the helmet is indeed a section of pronotum but one that developed with the aid of genes that code for wings.

In various species, the pronotum has developed into a quite unusual and oddly shaped appendage; examples can be seen in this article. When the helmet resembles a plant thorn, it is thought to aid in camouflage.

When I discovered the group of oak treehoppers, one was just in the process of emerging from its nymph form. A friend who saw the photo remarked that it reminded her of the film Alien but this process was slow and deliberate and not a heart-thumping explosive emergence as shown in the movie.

As you can see, the oak treehopper is quite a beautiful insect with its pristine white body decorated with pink/red stripes and hints of yellow. They made me think of mints and Candy Stripers (a sign of our times when almost anything makes me think of health and health-related concerns. For younger readers: young female volunteers who work under nurses’ supervision in hospitals used to wear pink and white striped smocks and thus got the name Candy Striper).

Not all the adults had the horned pronotum; some had rounded heads.

This close-up of a hopper’s face could evoke all kinds of thoughts. I thought it looked as if it had a pig’s snout. Another friend thought it looked like a grumpy old man. What do you think when you see this visage?

Or about this one, with its head upside down? (It looks a bit more “innocent”, don’t you think?)

In any event, I found these insects just adorable and I felt very privileged to have had the chance to see them emerge into adulthood. It turns out that in this species, older individuals may change color, turning a dull brown or green color. Some mottled forms may be blue with yellowish spots. It would be interesting to see those forms as well one day – or perhaps one of the other treehoppers with a different fabulous helmet!I hope you, too, are able to get out in nature during these social distancing times so that you can connect with the wonderful wildlife around us!

Finding joy in troubled times

While working on photos for other blogs, it occurred to me that it might be more productive right now to focus on what we, everywhere, are facing with the current pandemic. It’s my hope that as many of us as possible will survive, thrive and overcome the distress we are facing. As we hunker down, like this beautiful mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), we can intensify our nature observations – or begin paying more attention to the wildlife around us when we do go for walks.

 

Practicing social quarantine and distancing is essential –- even if we live somewhere where authorities are not yet requiring this. Keeping away physically from those outside our households can protect them as well as ourselves. In most places, social distancing rules still allow us to get outside for walks in the fresh air and nature. I have never seen so many people, including families with children, in the local nature reserves and that is a welcome sight. Hopefully, a side effect of this will be much more social support and advocacy for environmental conservation and expansion of natural areas, parks and reserves now and in the future -– that would be an unexpected positive outcome to the measures we are taking to get through these troubled times! (Yellow trout lily above, Erythronium americanum).

For people who haven’t had the pleasure of getting out much on walks, I wanted to share something about how to possibly enjoy nature even more. From my perspective, a key element is learning to practice patience and to stop, wait, watch and explore frequently. Here are some examples of what you might find. (Common Blue Violet, Viola sororia)

Looking down at the ground can be a fruitful exercise, especially in spring. Fresh new blooms are emerging and can delight us with their beauty (like the Eastern spring beauties, Claytonia virginica).

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) – the leaves look like jigsaw puzzle pieces

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)                  Tiny bluet (Houstonia pusilla)

Common chickweed (Stellaria media)

   

Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)

   

Ground ivy – also known as creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea)

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)

If you are out with kids, you can pay more attention to the plants –- take photos of them (most reserves and parks don’t want people to dig up and pick flowers) and then look them up at home and learn about them. Or make a game out of fallen leaves –- find three with very different shapes and identify the trees.

If you look closely at the flowers, you might glimpse small bugs flitting around the blooms. If you have a camera or phone camera, try to get a photo. When you enlarge it, you might find that you have actually seen a beautiful fly, bee or other insect whose shape and colors you couldn’t see with the naked eye. If you want to identify it, post the photo to the site BugGuide.net, where entomologists can perhaps tell you what species you saw.

Parasitic fly (Goninii, above)

 

 

Greater bee fly (Bombylius major)

Various species of syrphid flies are shown below; they are often mistaken for small bees. The first photos are all of the species Toxomerus geminatus.

 

Male                                                               Female

And below the male and female together.

 

A species of syrphid fly with a striped abdomen (Syrphus torvus) is characterized by “hairy” eyes (more so in males, like this one). Click to enlarge and see the hairs.

A larger species, Brachypalpus oarus, is not so colorful.

Even if you can’t get outside much, you might see an interesting insect around your house. For example, this male brown-tipped conehead katydid (Neoconocephalus triops) appeared on my porch when I was sweeping.

Butterflies are really starting to fly around now. The bluish spring azures (Celastrina ladon) are abundant right now.

I’ve been seeing falcate orangetips (Anthocharis midea), too.

Damselflies are also starting to appear; we tend to see them earlier than the dragonflies, who spread their wings horizontally when they alight on vegetation. This fragile forktail damselfly (Ischnura posita) was getting covered in yellow pine pollen –- much of North Carolina’s Piedmont region is bedecked in yellow dust during the spring weeks when the pine trees emit clouds of pollen.

 

Looking in the water can be productive, too. One day, I spent some time scanning the edge of a pond where the water was shallow enough to see the bottom. As I watched little fish darting to and fro, I suddenly noticed something larger moving about quickly. I looked more intently and discovered Eastern newts (also called red-spotted newts, Notophthalmus viridescens) down there – the first time I had seen these amphibians!!

When you see an Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) scurrying across the leaves in the forest or even alongside a road, stop and watch a bit. I did the other day and saw the mammal locate a winter stash and dig up some food it had stored. This article describes their storage process and reveals that they can probably remember where up to 95% of their stashes are hidden!

Paying attention to fallen logs can reveal beauty, too. This tree that fell across a creek ended up providing a growing place for common blue violets (Viola sororia).

As I walked by some other fallen trees, a common five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) popped briefly into view, gave me a pensive look and then disappeared into the leaf and twig litter.

Looking up at the trees, you might be lucky to see a wasp nest. The paper wasps (Polistes) make compartmentalized nests, with a place for each individual egg.

Or you may see a large bald-faced hornet’s nest (Dolichovespula maculata).

               

If you take the time to watch birds, you may see them engaged in looking for food (like insects, nuts, berries and seeds).

Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)         Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)

Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata)                          Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

 

Black & white warbler (Mniotilta varia)    Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

On one of my latest walks, I heard rapid knocking and was able to watch a yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) engaged in beginning a new series of sap holes, which provide sweet drinking spots for themselves and other birds.

If you’re able to look at trees, bushes or nest boxes during walks or from your windows, you might catch birds collecting materials for their nests. Just the other day, I saw a Carolina chickadee gathering up some spider web to use in a nest.

If you find a nest, be sure to maintain a good distance, but then watch the parents bringing food to their nestlings after they hatch. If you’re lucky, you may even see the babies fledge! And if you are not near any trees, watch some birds at their nests through webcams online: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/cams/ – https://www.audubon.org/birdcamshttps://birdwatchinghq.com/live-bird-cams/
https://birdcams.live/

If, at some point, we are “stuck” inside, we can follow this link to international wildlife days. If we find one to celebrate during our quarantine, we can spend some time learning about that animal and drawing or painting it. And we can do the same for other environmental days as well at this link.

To end, I’d like to share some resources with free online nature activities – for children and adults! Not all the sites require having a yard; even readers living in apartments could get out for a short walk and find something to see, investigate, etc.  Enjoy!!

 

 

 

 

Quebec chronicles – landscapes and signs of humanity: part 1

   

To conclude the series on my springtime bird migration trip to Quebec, I’d like to share some of the scenery we saw during our daily outings to and from nature reserves and birding sites in two blogs.

Our rental house in the municipality of Saint Irénée was located on a quiet street, lined with houses that seemed to be mainly rentals. It was a good birding street, lined with lots of vegetation as the houses were mostly set back from the road.

The variety of plants and trees there and in the forests that we visited was lovely.

 

 

 

A number of home-owners had taken time to make nice signs for their houses, presumably so they would be easy to find by renters.

 

 

 

One house caught everyone’s eye as they walked the road; it sat high on a hill and was a striking construction that seemed to be mostly glass. The views from there must have been wonderful.

 

 

Other houses’ yards were brightened with art work and nice gardening features.

 

 

When we left to reach each day’s destination, our route invariably passed along the St. Lawrence Seaway, which we could see in the distance as we also passed by permanent residents’ homes and churches.

 

The paper birches and quaking aspens were really beautiful trees that we saw almost everywhere.

 

 

 

The piers at Pointe au Pic and Saint-Irénée were charming and we returned there several times.

One day, a couple had brought a picnic to enjoy, even though it was a bit cool.

The piers were interesting. Fellow traveler Chloe posed near an “object of interest”!

To my delight, one pier had a little neighborhood lending library there.

Numerous signs advised visitors on behavior during their walks on the piers.

 

 

At Saint-Irénée, signs with photos related the history of the town and its pier.

We did not only stay around Saint-Irénée and Pointe-au-Pic, however; see the next blog for other sights we saw while driving around.

Quebec chronicles – passerines with yellow and green colors, part 2

My last “bird blog” from Quebec! The passerine birds that we admired during our trip there included the vireos and grosbeaks. But I saved one warbler for this blog since I often had to look at the photos to be sure which species I had seen. The Tennessee warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina) could namely be mistaken for a Philadelphia vireo if it goes by quickly and you are not an experienced or expert birder. (It also can be easily mistaken for a female black-throated blue warbler.)

This very charming bird seemed to be everywhere we visited in great abundance. I had seen one last summer in North Carolina; now I got to see dozens of these little beauties.

 

 

Like the bay-breasted warbler, it specializes in eating the spruce budworms and hence its numbers wax and wane along with the availability of this food source.It was gleaning in all kinds of trees as well as along the shore, however, and obviously also looking for other types of food.

 

Besides insects, this bird also likes nectar and gets it by piercing flowers at the base of their stems on trees.

 

On the one day that it rained, I saw one waiting out the shower in a yard tree. On another morning, I surprised a Tennessee taking a bath in a little puddle formed by a streamlet flowing from a yard to the street where we were staying. The bird was still wet but fluttered its wings and dried off very quickly, looking fresh and pretty for a possible new partner.

 

 

The Philadelphia vireo (Vireo philadelphicus) is another attractive avian. It has the same coloring as the Tennessee warbler but has a bit of a hook at the end of its bill.

Like the Tennessee warblers, they migrate to Mexico and environs during the winter. Their meals of choice are insects and some berries (e.g., bayberry and dogwood). The birding websites and Wikipedia do not have anywhere near the same amount of information on this species as some others, so they likely have not been studied very much.

 

One day as I walked a path in one of the nature reserves, a Philadelphia vireo followed me a bit as I walked, finally perching on a nearby branch and fluffing its feathers. S/he looked like someone showing off a party dress.

 

 

The blue-headed vireo (Vireo solitarius) is a much darker bird, with olive-green feathers, a blue-gray crown and white “spectacles”. I haven’t seen many in North Carolina and I only saw two in Quebec – decidedly a somewhat shyer bird than many of the others that crossed my paths.

Finally, some birds that gave me very good looks were the stunning evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus).

These birds only very rarely show up in the Piedmont area of North Carolina in the winter but last year I had the privilege of having a male and two females visit my feeders for one day. During this trip, we visited a neighborhood where a whole flock was busy feeding in the trees.

The males have rich deep yellow coloring offset by white and black accents on their heads, wings and tails. At one feeder, I was surprised to see one male apparently feeding another. It turns out that they may be territorial in wintertime around food sources but in the spring and summer, they are quite social and tolerant because there is a greater abundance of insects, buds, berries and seeds.

 

 

The females are much more muted in color with light yellow highlights against a pale gray background but they also have beautiful patterned black and white wing feathers. Their light yellow-lime-green beaks serve well to break apart seeds.

 

 

 

The oldest evening grosbeak on record reached the age of 16 years, 3 months. It appears that their numbers may be decreasing, although the population as a whole is not yet at risk. I look forward to another “irruptive” year, when they expand their winter territory – perhaps I’ll have a couple unexpected visitors again!