When it’s time to eat your own skin

Several years ago, I bought a couple hard polyethylene pond liners and dug two large holes in my clay and rock-filled back yard. I wanted to have a pond area and figured that two big tubs would be easier to manage and clean than maintaining an in-ground pond. So far, that has been the case except for the fact that I couldn’t keep any fish – a great blue heron managed to eat all the fish I had over the course of about 2-3 years.

That doesn’t mean my pond is not populated, however. Indeed, all the water sources in my yard have residents. Some are unwanted – for example, the mosquito larvae that I admittedly kill with mosquito dunk. The Cope’s gray tree frogs (Hyla chrysoscelis) have a preference for my rain barrels. Somehow they manage to crawl inside even when a lid is on and they deposit hundreds of eggs per season.

   

Fortunately, not all of the frog eggs hatch or my yard would be overrun and the sound in the evenings would be overwhelming. Even the half-dozen or so current adults manage to produce quite a loud concert series – I’m surprised neighbors haven’t asked me to do something to tamp down the sound!

I used to have bullfrogs in my container ponds but haven’t seen them this year. Instead, my neighbors have been lovely green frogs (Rana clamitans). One grew to a very large size and he was joined by two others of a bit smaller stature.

They aren’t very noisy, mostly croaking in the late afternoon. It must have been that sound that attracted another neighborhood resident whom I spotted one day sitting on a nest box next to the pond. The red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) have spent time watching the pond before when in the mood for frog legs; this was a young hawk who had obviously been in the pond as evidenced by his wet plumage.

The pond was quiet for a few days and I thought the hawk must have had a good meal. And then, slowly, the frogs began to emerge again. There are three that sit on the rocks surrounding the larger pond although one is a bit smaller. This makes me think the hawk might have gotten one but that a juvenile frog was now accompanying the larger pair.

   

When my pond “greenies” croak, they don’t seem to get very large inflated vocal sacs. At the NC Botanical Garden, fellow photographer Mary showed me a green frog that she had been photographing and he croaked a couple times. It went too fast to get a good shot so I offered to make him “talk” by croaking at him. My pathetic attempt at imitating him really was quite pitiful, but amazingly did evoke a response. His vocal sac didn’t get really large either though.

One day, I spotted one of the yard frogs sitting on a rock, opening and closing its mouth without making a sound.

 

When I looked more closely, it seemed to have some membrane hanging on its side.

Then I saw that it was partly in the frog’s mouth and the amphibian was tugging away at it. I wondered if he was sick.

It turns out that he was perfectly healthy and staying that way by eating his own skin! These amphibians regularly shed their skin because it would otherwise harden and make it difficult for them to absorb oxygen while underwater, where they spend a considerable amount of time. So periodically, they scrunch themselves together and then stretch to break the skin so that it can be pulled off, leaving supple skin behind to better enable the “breathing” method called cutaneous gas exchange.

But why do the frogs then eat their skin? It actually has many nutrients, including calcium and proteins. I have no idea if the skin has any taste and whether they enjoy ingesting it. It seemed to be a bit of a laborious process when I watched this frog go through the process. Added to that is the fact that they actually use their eyeballs to push food down their throats and you discover that our froggy friends have quite a unique digestive process!

 

Outside my yard, I’ve not seen too many frogs this year. There was a lovely little Northern cricket frog (Acris crepitans) out and about on one of my walks.

More recently, I’ve been seeing Fowler’s toads (Anaxyrus fowleri) in the woods and parks.

 

     

At the NC Botanical Garden, I had the chance to see some rather large tadpoles sharing a pond with smaller ones.

It was interesting to see that the tadpoles first develop their hind legs and then their front legs before eventually losing their tails.

Finally, one more type of interesting creature I’ve been observing lately on walks are land snails. They don’t really belong in a blog that is about amphibians but it’s unlikely I’ll be writing one about mollusks any time soon. So, I’ll leave you here with a few photos of what I thought were some snails with beautifully spiraled shells. Have a good day or evening!

 

 

 

The birdy breeding cycle 2020 – 3: raising young

This year, most of the birds that visit my yard chose to build their nests in places where I didn’t see them. Only the brown-headed nuthatches, house wrens and Eastern bluebirds chose to use nest boxes. The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) began to use a nest box but their nest was invaded by ants before I had noticed so they abandoned that site. Still, I was able to watch parents with babies, both at home and out on the nature trails.

There are two major kinds of baby birds. The altricial birds hatch as helpless young who must develop their sight and feathers, requiring parental care until they can fly from the nest. They include the songbirds that you may see often, such as chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals and bluebirds, whose babies are seen below shortly after hatching and after several days of development.

 

In contrast, the precocial bird babies can quickly move about on their own after hatching and are able to begin foraging for food themselves as they follow their parents around. In some cases, the parents may also feed them. Examples of precocial birds include killdeer, ducks and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) as seen below.

The nest I watched most closely this season was built by brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) in a nest box. Carolina chickadees were also interested in that spot, but the nuthatches won out. Mama Nuthatch laid six eggs, four of which hatched. She and Papa were very hard workers, flying to and from the box countless times per hour. Like other seed-eating birds, they fed their nestlings insects because the babies need lots of protein for their development.

 

They were devoted parents, flying to and fro with food, carrying away fecal sacs and chasing off other birds who used the nest box as a perch. All their care was no match, however, for a pair of birds who are known to be quite aggressive during nesting season.

 

I first learned of house wrens’ (Troglodytes aedon) intolerance of other nesting birds in their vicinity when they invaded the nest of a banded female Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis), whom I had named Chantal. Her babies were hatching and the wrens went into the nest during her absence and killed them. That experience made me hope they would not return to my yard the next spring, but they seem to like the area. This year they visited all the nest boxes in my yard and the male began nests in several of them to keep away other birds. It is thought they may drive away other nesters in order to reduce competition for food when it comes time to raise their own young.

 

The wrens finally settled on a nest box and I thought they would leave the nuthatches alone. Their young ones got to the brink of fledging and the parents were encouraging them to fly out. Sometimes, they would fly up to the box as a youngster peered out into the big wide world and just hover with the food in their mouth.

 

 

They would perch atop the box and call. Eventually two took the leap (which I didn’t see); I thought the others would follow the next day. The parents were busy in the morning and suddenly all activity ceased. I guessed that the other two had taken flight, so in the afternoon I took a peak in the box. To my utter dismay, I found the remaining two nestlings deceased; the wrens had pecked them to death. ☹ I buried them in my flower garden with a small Buddha statue marking the site.

 

 

The nuthatches continued taking care of their fledged babies. They would follow the parents to the feeder poles, crouch down and flutter their wings rapidly as they begged for a morsel.

 

Eventually, the parents found a nearby branch in a large willow oak where they would crack nuts and feed their offspring. As you can see, the spot got a lot of use and could be easily identified by the shredded bark. The whole family still goes up there to eat their nuts from the feeders!

Many adult birds appreciate bird feeders as “fast-food” stops for themselves while they spend most of their time searching for meals for their nestlings. Even the species who mainly eat seeds feed their babies insects because the young ones need lots of protein as they develop toward maturity. The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in my yard and other areas seem to favor caterpillars as a food of choice for their developing youngsters.

 

 

 

The pileated woodpecker parents (Dryocopus pileatus) take turns sitting on eggs and bringing food for their young ones.

The larger raptors bring in heftier meals for their offspring. This red-shouldered hawk grew up alone; those of us watching the nest didn’t know whether only one egg hatched or something happened to a sibling. The parents would bring small mammals for the baby to eat.

 

A pair of great horned owl babies (Buteo lineatus), located by Mary, a locally well-known bird photographer, appeared to be growing well the couple times I went to see them. I never saw the parents bring them food but assume they were well fed as they were venturing out of the nest the last time I saw them (a process called “branching”).

 

It seems that a young bird’s open mouth is a trigger for parents that they can barely resist. Until they mature, the fledglings have a pale white or yellow area, or in the case of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) reddish, where their beaks join. This becomes very visible when they open their mouths wide to beg for food and parent birds have a hard time resisting the urge to stuff food down their throats.

The Eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) at a local park were following their parents around asking for food.

They exhibited both the crouched wing fluttering and wide-open mouths as cues that they wanted to be fed.

  

The downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) juveniles did not seem to beg as much as the other birds in my yard. They just perched close to feeders or their parents and eventually mom or dad gave them a bit of suet.

 

The European starling young (Sturnus vulgaris) are especially demanding to judge by their behavior at my feeders. These are larger birds and the offspring are as large as their parents,

They are capable of feeding themselves but spend a good deal of time with wide open beaks demanding to be fed.

 

 

 

The starling parents usually give in, but you can almost think they look exasperated.

At least the immature starlings can demonstrate well how a bird looks with a full crop (i.e., the enlarged part of the esophagus that forms a muscular pouch in which food can be stored).

In between all the feeding, the parents have one other important nest duty – keeping the nest as clean as possible. They do this by removing fecal sacs, as this prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) was doing last year.

 

Some adult birds will actually eat the fecal sac. This is because the nestlings do not completely digest their food and the sacs therefore still contain valuable nutrients that the parents can use. I can imagine the parents are glad to be done with this duty once their young have fledged, however.

When you’re out walking or watching bird feeders, it can be entertaining to observe the birds as they nest and raise their demanding children. And it’s good to know that you may even see adult birds begin to drive away their babies, either because they’re tired of feeding them or because they are busy with a second or even third brood for the season.

Marvelous mammals, part 1 – at the homestead

Judging from how many blogs I’ve written about birds, you might assume that I’m mainly a devotee of avian wildlife but that is certainly not the case. Without a doubt, I do love birds, but I really enjoy observing, learning about and photographing all kinds of other wildlife.  Fortunately, my own yard provides me with some opportunities for that as I have a number of regular mammalian visitors. Sometimes, their visits entail a bit of drama but often their presence is quite peaceful.

The Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) like to visit the front porch to see if there’s something of interest among the potted plants or to take a drink from a water source.

These cute little rodents are more than willing to mingle with the ground-feeding birds looking for seed under the feeders. They scurry away as fast as their little legs will carry them when birds of prey appear – and they can certainly run quickly!

 

When it’s very cold, I sometimes offer them a small tray of seed just for themselves on the porch. They scarf down the goodies, filling their cheek pouches to what seems like almost bursting before dashing away to store the goodies for later consumption.

 

A pair of Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) lives in my yard and both mom and dad are very good about taking care of their young. I don’t see them much in the winter but expect they will be out and about again in the spring, doing their “leapfrogging” courtship ritual.

When it’s breeding season, I may see raccoons (Procyon lotor) in the daytime but lately they have been coming to the yard at night to pick up whatever seed is left on the ground from the daytime visitors. My wildlife cam caught a not-so-clear photo of this happening.

Another visitor who mostly comes at night is the opossum (Didelphis virginiana), one of my favorites given their propensity to eat lots and lots of ticks! Many people seem to think that they are ugly or scary, but I actually think they are kind of cute.

The largest mammalian visitors I see daily are the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). I’ve loved them ever since I got to know a particular individual, whom I named Schatje (Dutch for “dear”). She approached me when she was a yearling and made friends with me, sitting next to me in the grass and thereafter bringing her newborn fawns to the yard right after their births. She unfortunately died in a car accident after some years, but through her I learned to really appreciate these mammals.

Some people dislike deer intensely because they eat their flowers and prized shrubs. But I’ve found that consistent application of a deer repellent on my plants keeps them off the vegetation that I want to preserve. Also, I let them eat bird seed and sometimes apple slices that I put out for the ground-feeding birds like white-throated sparrows, Eastern towhees, dark-sided juncos, American crows (the apple lovers) and brown thrashers.

So I’ve been watching the deer for many years now and a very odd occurrence happened over the past half year. At least four deer have appeared with broken hind legs or feet. When “Mama”, a doe with twins, showed up with a terrible break on her leg, I wondered if it happened when she jumped a fence. The bone was jutting out and it was obviously very painful. She hobbled on three legs.

What was amazing was the fact that her two-year-old son began caring for her. He already had a nice set of antlers and by rights should have left to join the stag group in the neighborhood, but he stayed with her and tended the wound, licking it, and also grooming her! I had not heard of a stag doing that before, so I named him Sweetie. He stayed with her for months!

Mama kept caring for her twins (a male and female). (The past couple years, she had only had male offspring so that cut down on the number of deer we might otherwise have had). And she tended her wound on her own as well.

Mama also had to withstand the advances of the dominant neighborhood stag, who was intent on mating with her. Sweetie tried to be there to fend off the interloper, but he had to give in and move off as he was no match for the big buck. Mama tried to get away, but he kept trying to mount her – unsuccessfully, since her back quarters would collapse as she could not bear any weight on the broken leg. She finally got away and ran, which must have been terribly painful for her.

 

Mama could not stand up for herself with the hurt leg so she began being bullied by another doe who showed up. That deer, who I called Bossy, was ill-tempered and a bit nasty; she even would chase her own son away from seed on the ground, even when her son also got a broken leg!

Then two adult males turned up with breaks – one had a broken foot. I wondered if someone was feeding them deer corn, which can be bad for their health and affect their hooves so that perhaps leg breaks would happen more easily. Or was someone taking potshots at them? It remains a mystery, but I’ve learned that the deer can overcome something like this although the healing takes months.

And then we come to my “nemesis” yard mammal, the Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). As all bird-feeding people know, squirrels will do their utmost to eat all and any bird food that is put out — this has generated an industry devoted to producing squirrel baffles and “squirrel-proof” feeders. Even when I had smeared a bit of suet on a holly bush for the ruby-crowned kinglet who was sometimes crowded away from the feeder, a squirrel discovered the treat there and consumed what s/he could.

I’ve been fairly fortunate in having the baffles work until recently, when a couple squirrels used their little brains to figure out ways to get around them. It was my belief that I had put the feeder poles sufficiently far from the roof or large tree branches so that the squirrel couldn’t make the leap. One kept trying over and over and finally succeeded in lengthening his/her “long jump”!

I moved the poles further away. But two poles were about five feet apart and I then saw a squirrel use a strategy that really looked very clever to me. S/he would take a run at one pole, launch him/herself onto the pole at high velocity just under the baffle and then turn to vault from that height up and over the baffles on the neighboring pole! I really did admire the creature’s ingenuity and gained a new respect for their intelligence.

After moving the feeder poles further apart, I then noticed that a couple feeders on one pole were being emptied quickly. Looking out my window one day, I saw a squirrel perched atop the pole, enjoying seed after having managed to move the baffles down the pole. How was s/he doing that?

 

I set aside time to watch and discovered the squirrel’s secret.

 

The animal was hanging onto the raccoon baffle, biting it and jerking down at the same time. This eventually loosened the screws in the apparatus on which the baffle rested so that the baffle finally slid down the pole!

 

The screws have now been tightened and the next move is up to the squirrels. They are clever and tenacious. This was further brought home to me when a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) recently landed on a squirrel nest and did its best to extricate the mammal with its claws. The hawk eventually had to leave without its envisioned meal.

The yard mammals are certainly entertaining. If any of you readers have had interesting experiences with them, I’d love to hear about them in comments on this blog’s page! (Except for cats running free outside – goodbye from my two indoor cats, Ogi and Moasi!)

Kinglet capers – defending territory!

A birder recently remarked on a Facebook feed that ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) seem to have a diet consisting solely of caffeine and Ritalin, which might account for the almost constant motion in which these lovely little birds seem to spend much of their time. They really get revved up, however, not when they are feeding but when they are defending what they consider to be their territory.

Unlike many other bird species, these kinglets don’t tend to hang out in groups of their peers. On the contrary, they often chase away others of their kind and this can turn into an actual campaign against an intruder that can last for quite lengthy periods.

 

This was brought home to me when I saw a vigorous little male who was confused by his own reflection in an installation at a local garden, aptly entitled “Self-reference”. The NC Botanical Garden organizes a yearly outdoor sculpture competition and this year included Jonathan Davis’ entry comprising a series of shiny glass balls arranged in a tall column supported by encircling metal struts and rope-like cables.

The orbs provided the kinglet with mirrors in which he could see himself, although he was obviously convinced that another male was trying to take over his winter domain. The raised red crest was like waving a flag in front of a bull. (These kinglets usually have the red crest hidden; they only raise it when excited or perturbed.)

My friend Lucretia had seen him attacking the “intruding bird” when she was at the Garden and she alerted another photographer, Mary, and me to his presence. Mary headed over to the site right away and got a lovely photo of Edward looking at himself. (I named him Edward as the meaning of that Anglo-Saxon name is “guardian of prosperity.”)

 

I only got to the Garden later the next morning, but Edward was still spending his time trying to drive away the interloper.

 

The sight of another male kinglet with HIS crown raised undoubtedly only incensed him further.

The day that I was there, he took frequent breaks to restore his energy levels by flying to nearby trees and shrubs to gather food.

He also took some time now and again to sit quietly on the sculpture’s metal rings – when his back was turned to the balls, he didn’t see the invader and could catch his breath, so to speak.

 

It was interesting to see how he tried to peck at the opposing bird, over and over again despite the fact that he was bumping his beak on the sculpture.

 

 

After observing him for a couple hours, I decided to leave Edward alone. However, there was a Garden party that evening and I returned to see the sculpture lit up with reflections of nearby Christmas lights – Edward was still busy in the late afternoon challenging his rival!

 

 

When I returned a couple days later, the sculpture had been removed, to the relief of some birders who were worried that Edward was going to wear himself out and perhaps be compromised when temperatures were due to drop considerably. As I had seen him feeding frequently, I was not too worried about that, but I am glad that calmer times have now returned for him so that he can spend his coming weeks in a more peaceful atmosphere. Hope to see you in your normal foraging mode soon, Edward!

Kinglet capers – finding food and enjoying short rests

It seems that at least once a year, ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula) feature in my blogs; they are one of my favorite bird species and I always enjoy seeing them again and again.

These small birds are bundles of feathered energy, almost constantly in motion as they seek insects, which form the bulk of their diet.

 

They are only slightly larger than ruby-throated hummingbirds: 9-11 cm (3.5-4.3 in) long versus a length of 7-9 cm (2.8-3.5 in) for the hummer.

When they scour the vegetation for food, they may be flicking their wings continuously.

Fortunately, they do take little breaks now and again, so we can admire their beauty.

These breaks often last less than minute, however, and often are even briefer so you have to be ready and waiting to capture a photo.

I’ve been lucky this fall to find a few spots where I know some kinglets are hanging out, so I get to see them quite regularly.

My yard-visiting kinglet has returned for the winter season as well; I usually see him mostly at the suet feeder, where he will hover like a hummer as he takes quick bites of peanut-flavored vegetable lard laced with grits, oatmeal and nuts. He is a bit more gray in color than many other kinglets.

I’m wondering if this year’s bird is the same one who has been here the last 5 years. Unlike my previous visitor, I’ve seen him take a seed from a feeder as well. This has not happened before, even though it is known that they eat berries and seeds in winter.

This year’s bird also seems a bit shyer than my kinglet(s) from previous years. When I lift up my camera, he tends to take off. My resident the last years was not shy at all, a couple times actually perching on the suet feeder as I carried it to the pole. Still, my yard visitor’s anxiety has been nowhere nearly as obvious as that of another kinglet whose story I will relate in the next blog!