The gorgeous grebes when aggrieved and grumpy!

During my great-crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) observations at the Gouwzee in July 2018, it became apparent that they don’t mind swimming about amid groups of Eurasian coots (Fulica atra).

It turned out, however, that the grebes can also be quite aggressive and one morning these birds treated me to a stunning display as they had six years earlier. This time it was not a peaceful event like their mating dance, however, but apparently a territorial dispute. Two pairs were each tending a young one near reeds in a cove on the Gouwzee side of a dike. It appeared that one adult had ventured into space that the other pair considered their own. An epic battle ensued – I wish I’d had the presence of mind to change my camera settings to get better photos, but it was so sudden and exciting that I was just glad to be able to get some shots. The whole dispute only lasted about three minutes but seemed to last much longer!

References I found in the literature online appear to indicate that researchers believe territorial aggression mostly takes place when the grebes are building nests and tending eggs. They mention that it stops once the young are born. This was obviously not the case for the two pairs that I observed; their young appeared to be several weeks past fledging age.

The birds first caught my eye when they faced one another, lying low in the water. This is said to be a common aggressive posture.

Suddenly, they erupted upwards, calling loudly and flapping their wings strongly to intimidate one another. (You can see larger versions of photos by clicking on them.)

  

 

   

 

A couple times, they surged upwards from the water to clash their chests together.

   

One appeared to have dunked his opponent in the water, although this happened so quickly that I didn’t really see how it occurred.

They would take a few second pause, making their mutual displeasure apparent.

This would be followed by another bout of confrontation. At one point, one grebe’s mate and young one swam closer to the action.

Finally, after a couple minutes, one “combatant” was driven off by his opponent.

He was joined by his mate and offspring and peace returned. And I walked away elated at having witnessed the behavioral exhibition, glad that no injuries had been sustained. 😊

 

Gracious and gorgeous grebes nurturing newborns

After birding now for some six or seven years, I’ve come to appreciate all birds since each species can be fascinating to watch. I do have some favorites though that have captured my interest. In 2012, I fell in love with great-crested grebes (Podiceps cristatus), whom I first noticed during a trip to Switzerland. A pair was engaged in their courtship dance, which was simply delightful to see. They circled one another, stretched out their necks, ruffled their feathers and arose on the water facing one another. Their beauty enchanted me, and I felt that I had witnessed something very special.

The rust and black-tinted head plumes and ruff are gorgeous, making these birds very attractive indeed. This led to their being hunted almost to extinction during the 1800s in the United Kingdom because the feathers were desired as decorations or hats. This led to the establishment of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in that country and their numbers fortunately rebounded.

Fast forward six years to this past July, and I discovered that these birds are quite common in my land of birth, where I just had not noticed them before. Granted, I was not a birder while living in The Netherlands (I currently live in the USA), but I had managed to take note of house sparrows, mute swans, Eurasian coots and moorhens when walking along canals and ditches. Now, as a much more observant wildlife observer, it was thrilling to see many grebes along the dike bordering the Gouwzee (a body of water bordering Monnickendam that is part of the larger Markermeer nature area). And even better – they were all tending young ones at different stages of development.

The great-crested is Europe’s largest grebe species and the adults are stunning with their reddish-orange head plumes. (They are also found in Australia, New Zealand and African countries.) I discovered that the young look quite different – mostly light in color with black stripes on their heads and pink markings near the eyes.

Their floating nests are often found along reed beds, which were abundant along the dike and a ditch across a road from the dike. A couple mothers had chosen the ditch as their home area and the early morning light made for some nice photos in my opinion as they preened and relaxed.

  

   

The water in the lake on the other side of the dike was less calm but the young ones managed to swim well in the waves; they can already dive shortly after leaving the nest.

Their feet are set back far along their bodies and they cannot walk well. I did not ever see one on land during the week that I was observing them.

According to the literature, pairs tend 1-9 eggs, which hatch after about 27-29 days. The mothers carry newborns on their backs as they swim along, offering a safe perch for sightseeing in safety. The babies fledge after 71-79 days. I did not see any pairs with more than two young, so some were probably lost during the previous weeks.

The grebes eat fish, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians and insects. Their fishing technique, which was more in evidence in the open water of the Gouwzee, includes skimming the water with outstretched necks and diving underwater. (The neck-to-the-water pose is also used to show aggression but in these cases no other birds were near and they would subsequently dive under to come up with some food.)

The parents demonstrate and the young imitate them, mostly coming up empty-beaked. Occasionally, a parent would fly away and return later with food. The babies eagerly grab the meals offered by both mama and papa.

After breeding, the adults gather together during a molting period, during which they do not fly. Perhaps one day, I’ll be able to watch them in winter and find out new things about them. In the meantime, if you’d like see what happens when they are feeling perturbed, check out my next blog on “The gorgeous grebes when aggrieved and grumpy!”

My hummer summer, part 1 – guarding the home front!

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Just like human beings, some birds like to hang out in groups, while others are more solitary in nature, coming together mainly to reproduce. A prime example of the latter group are the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris).

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7336-maria-de-bruyn-res2This past summer, some health and other problems led to my spending a good deal of time at home. The upside was that being a bit home-bound gave me plenty of opportunities to observe the comings and goings of these gorgeous little flyers and to learn more about their behavior towards one another.

I had at least four ruby-throats – and probably more as I couldn’t distinguish them all – visiting my feeders and yard regularly. A couple had a distinctive trait that helped me identify them, like some white feathers on top of their heads or at the bottom part of their gorgets.

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I usually had three or four nectar feeders up in my back yard and two in my front yard. In addition, as the summer progressed, the gardens were filled with increasing numbers of nectar-filled flowers so my home site was a fairly well-stocked larder for them.

The ruby-throats are among the more competitive hummingbirds and don’t really like to share their feeding space with others, although a friend and I visited a birder in a nearby town who had more than a dozen feeders up and many dozens of hummers visiting his back yard every day, feeding right next to one another. At my house, I suppose guarding their food source is an instinctual imperative, since they do consume half their own weight in nectar each day.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a0514-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8255-maria-de-bruyn-resThe tiny birds were quite intent on protecting their territory from intruders. Only thing was, several of them considered my feeders THEIR territory, so there was a continual rotation of birds perched in nearby trees and shrubs to watch for “invaders”. Once spotted, the newly arrived hummers would have the current “resident” bird swoop down on them (at up to 60 miles per hour!), frequently chittering like mad as a warning to “get out of here.”

Sometimes, they would have a little “challenge flight ballet” as they confronted one another, until one gave up and flew off – sometimes across the street, sometimes to the yard on the other side of the house, and sometimes to a nearby tree or shrub at the side of the house.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8257-maria-de-bruyn-res   ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a8256-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a9443-maria-de-bruyn-resThere was one particular male hummer who seemed particularly aggressive – or perhaps possessive is a better term as I never saw him body slam a rival; he just made sure that the other bird would leave. I recognized him as he often chose exactly the same spots on a nearby Rose of Sharon, a willow oak and a cedar as his watching posts,

Some of those who were run off didn’t travel far, however. They would fly to a nearby tree or shrub and wait to see if Hummer No. 1 would leave.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a0290-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a1099-maria-de-bruyn-res

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a5725-maria-de-bruyn-resScientists have determined that the brain section responsible for memory and learning – the hippocampus – is five times larger in hummingbirds than in woodpeckers, seabirds and songbirds. They memorize where feeders and nectar flowers are and can remember when they last fed there. They can even estimate how long it will take each flower to fill up with nectar again.

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The hummers’ memory is long-term, too – they recall not only where feeders are placed in their breeding territories but also in places along their yearly migration routes! Wouldn’t it be nice if we had such great memories making GPS and maps less of a necessity?

 

 

 

ruby-throated-hummingbird-i77a7716-maria-de-bruyn-resAnother behavior I observed several times was a hummer hovering in front of me, especially when the nectar feeders were getting low. Scientists have determined that they can recognize the people who replenish their food sources, which makes for a delightful encounter as one chirps at you while suspended in front of your face with its wings flapping at 60 beats per second!

While guarding their home turf, they may stick out their tongues briefly after feeding.

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However, if you see one with its tongue stuck out permanently, this can be a sign of a fungal infection (often acquired from dirty feeders). Their tongues swell with the infection and they can no longer drink with these anatomical, elastic micro-pumps.

 

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Often death ensues, so it’s important to keep the nectar feeders clean!

 

 

 

Coming up in part 2: the beauty of the hummingbirds at rest and in flight

 

Hummers haranguing – feistiness in small packages!

ruby-throated hummingbird DK7A0498© Maria de Bruyn (2) resAt times, we may see on Facebook or the Internet a photo or video of hummingbird nectar feeders surrounded by at least 6 and sometimes dozens of these small birds, sharing space as they take turns at imbibing some of the sweet water. Here in my part of North Carolina, however, it seems that the ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) are just NOT interested in having their territory host family members or neighbors. This species is known for being territorial and those in my vicinity live up to that reputation for sure.

Both at home and in nature reserves, I’ve watched these tiny birds stake out a claim to a feeder or some choice blooms. They drink a little and then will take up a post on a vantage point where they can keep an eye out for other birds. Occasionally, the waiting spot is out in the open and often it is in a nearby shrub or tree.

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When they spot a rival approaching the food source, they may either immediately give chase or first engage in a threat display.

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Their displays include both posturing and sound. To warn off other birds, they may chirp both quickly and loudly. Their threat postures aim to frighten away intruders by displaying size and strength and include pointing their long bills at the other bird(s), puffing up their throats, spreading and raising their wings, and flaring their tail feathers, .

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ruby-throated hummingbird DK7A2247© Maria de Bruyn resThey don’t really use their bills to battle as they need to protect this body part but they can fly into each other. On one occasion, in my front yard, I heard a loud thump when the two birds actually collided during a high-speed chase.

The drive to protect territory is not for lack of food. My yard has three nectar feeders out back and one in the front and three of them have at least four feeding holes. This year, a brightly colored male laid claim to the yard while the female was caring for her brood. When the female and young birds began coming to the feeders, “Red” was not pleased. Later, the young males also vied with one another.

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Chittering loudly, they sweep in to make the other birds take off; occasionally they do get a chance to have a short drink before another hummer shows up. At my house, the birds can feed because they have to patrol both the front and back yards and can’t be in two places at once.

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I witnessed a similar scenario at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve. There was a spot with plenty of blooming trumpet vines (Campsis radicans) and morning glories (Ipomoea pandurata), which were attracting a variety of pollinators. Three hummingbirds were also visiting and, again, chasing one another from the site as soon as they caught sight of their rivals.

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In an area near the Haw River where many wildflowers bloom, a similar scenario took place.

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This is the time of year when the ruby-throated hummingbirds undertake their migration to Central America, a distance of at least 1000 miles. They need to store energy for this and may double their body mass while feeding during the preparatory phase. However, it seems to me that chasing away other birds from their preferred feeding sites must take an enormous amount of energy and it seems to be an endless activity. In my yard, it goes on all day long!

ruby-throated hummingbird DK7A1828© Maria de Bruyn resThese birds’ flight muscles take up 25% of their weight; when they rest, their hearts beat at a rate of 250 beats per minute but during flight, their hearts speed up to 1220, so the zipping back and forth and up and down in hot pursuits must use lots of calories and energy. They also may hover mid-air for a while rather than sitting on an outpost twig; the other day, one of Red’s rivals spent a quarter minute suspended about 18 inches from my face, looking me over until Red dive-bombed him.

ruby-throated hummingbird DK7A2213© Maria de Bruyn resThis summer I’ve been lucky to see the hummers in several places, including Sandy Creek Park, near the Haw River and a farm cultivated by refugees from Myanmar. In all cases, the birds appeared unwilling to share their dining areas. Once in a while, though, one would have the space to him- or herself for a while and I could watch them feed, afterwards flicking out their long tongues.

 

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When they return next year, I hope to learn more about these wonderful little birds through daily observation in my garden habitat.

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More interesting information on ruby-throated hummingbirds can be found here:

http://www.rubythroat.org/rthufactsmain.html

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/ruby-throated_hummingbird/lifehistory

http://www.worldofhummingbirds.com/behavior.php