A few weeks after watching a red-shouldered hawk hunting at a pond’s edge (previous blog), I had the good fortune to spot another raptor busy at a water source.
Our area had had a dry spell and the creek in a nearby city park was fairly low. Various birds were calling loudly on both sides of the creek, and I hoped to photograph some of them. The birds kept out of sight in the foliage, however.
When I finally peered down at the creek, the reason for the avian chorus became obvious. A beautiful Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) was wading in the shallow water.
S/he kept looking up and around as the other birds vocalized non-stop; they were warning one another of the predator’s presence, with the blue jays being especially raucous.
At first, I thought the hawk wanted to bathe but was hesitating because of the warning racket being broadcast by the other birds.
At one point, the raptor sat down, but it didn’t splash in the water.
S/he then stood up and ruffled the feathers that had been in the water.
All the while, the Cooper’s hawk peered up and around.
Then the bird began peering down at the water. I didn’t see any creatures there, but the raptor did.
Finally, the predator stopped watching the other birds, dipping its beak into the water while protecting its eyes with its nictitating membranes.
A few times, the hawk came up with a small fish or other water creature but I couldn’t really tell what the prey was since it was swallowed rather rapidly.
After about 20 minutes, the raptor seemed satisfied – or it was tired of the cacophony accompanying its hunting foray – and s/he flew up into a nearby tree. Later, I spotted the bird standing in the creek further downstream; perhaps a bath was going to take place after all. I didn’t stay any longer, however, as chores were calling to me. So I left grateful for the chance to spend time with this gorgeous creature on a late sunny morning. 😊
Our extremely wet winter in the Piedmont region of North Carolina (NC) continues with rain days tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, but then we have a forecast of a whole week of sunny days! Daffodils and lenten rose are blooming, crocuses are coming up and beautiful little speedwell flowers (Veronica persica) are emerging. Spring is on its way!
While one of our common birds, the gently cooing mourning doves (Zenaida macroura), are a little unusual in that they can mate at any time during the year, they mostly prefer to start their nesting period in the spring. And one pair in my yard were so kind as to allow me to watch them canoodling on a feeder pole this week. As many of these doves mate for life, perhaps they had lost any feelings of shyness. 🥰
They first alighted together and looked around (perhaps scanning for the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks that hunt around here). With the coast clear, they faced one another with an open-eyed look.
And then their tryst began – I got to watch a romantic scene without having to turn on the TV! Mutual grooming and neck preening ensued, as did quiet moments of quiet repose. They even engaged in billing — the male opening his beak and the female inserting her beak into his — a signal she is interested.
Life is the flower for which love is the honey. — Victor Hugo
Everything I do, I do it for you. — Bryan Adams
True love stories never have endings. — Richard Bach
There’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to make you feel my love. — Bob Dylan
Love was made for me and you. — Nat King Cole
In all the world, there is no love for you like mine. — Maya Angelou
All you need is love — The Beatles
Well, that and a bit of peace and quiet. When they finally descended to the ground and the male began his mating dance, another dove flew in and Ms Dove decided she didn’t want to deal with more than one suitor. The session ended.
Our 2021 winter weather in central North Carolina has been one of the wettest on record so far and is set to top the list by the end of the month. But occasionally we have had some sunny, albeit cold, days to everyone’s delight. On one recent walk on an unusually sunny day, I saw a beautiful little syrphid fly flitting about the forest floor and caught a fleeting glimpse of an Eastern rabbit, but that has been it for non-avian species except for the deer, squirrels and chipmunks in my yard. So my focus has continued to be on the more bountiful birds.
On successive visits to a pond in a neighboring town, mostly to watch the hooded mergansers, it was noteworthy to see that a single ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) had taken up residence. S/he spent a lot of time atop one of the parking lot streetlights at the pond’s edge. It gave a perch for a good overview of the water and its residents.
The bird is usually alone when I see him/her. They are sociable birds, however, and it’s interesting that, in some cases, two females will share nests and raise their two broods together.
I’d seen her/him catch fish there before and noted that the bird never just alighted, positioned the fish and swallowed it quickly. Perhaps this is because it has a broad diet and has learned to eat its varied foods differently.
Not only do they devour fish, insects, earthworms, rodents and grain; they also will scavenge people’s food if they can get to it, for example, on a beach or in a fast-food parking lot.
This yellow-legged gull will fly around the pond from time to time, looking quite beautiful in flight.
S/he doesn’t go fast, although they can reach speeds of up to 40 mph. Rather this bird soars quietly in circles scanning both the water and its surroundings.
Recently, I watched this gull catch a fish and then take a long time to actually eat it. First, the bird spent some time positioning the fish just right in its beak.
Then it began dunking the fish underwater and slapping it on the water as well.
Was it trying to kill the fish before consuming it?
After doing this for a while, the gull suddenly picked up the fish, flew up into the air and dropped it in the water.
Next, it turned tail and dove head-first into the pond, likely hitting, stunning and perhaps drowning the fish with this maneuver.
A Cornell University website says that adult ring-bills “play” by dropping objects and then catching them mid-air, perhaps as a way to practice their hunting technique. But in this case, that didn’t seem to be the case.
The gull still didn’t eat the prey right away, however.
S/he kept hitting the fish and moving the aquatic meal around in its mouth.
A couple times it looked like the fish was positioned just right for swallowing.
And then, the re-positioning continued.
Finally, after some time, it looked like the bird had finally ingested the meal and s/he took off again.
It was an interesting observation of animal behavior – my favorite way of spending time on nature walks. And it will likely remain a bit of a mystery as to what the ring-bill gull’s intentions were in carrying out these moves. 😊
2020 has turned out to be quite a stress-filled series of months on multiple fronts, so unexpected pleasures and delights are very welcome. For birders in North Carolina (NC), that scenario has luckily been playing itself out this fall and winter. Several unexpected and unusual birds have been spotted in our state, including a Kirtland’s warbler, vermilion flycatcher, MacGillivray’s warbler, and sandhill cranes.
Many bird lovers have traveled to catch sight of these surprising visitors. While I’ve mostly avoided groups the past nine months as part of my COVID-avoiding measures, last week I did join the human migration to an NC home about 20 miles away to see a bird that is normally only found in the northwestern United States – a varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius).
The opportunity to see this lovely bird was offered to the local community by homeowners Tony Hewitt and Marla Wolf. They generously allowed people to come to their suburban yard (by appointment) to watch over the backyard fence to catch sight of the thrush.
When I visited on a “slow” day, it was easy to socially distance oneself from other birders and photographers. Only a couple other people were there for a while (and I was alone some of the time) waiting for the thrush to make an appearance. Everyone wore masks, some having double masked as well.
The varied thrushes normally migrate back and forth in the area stretching from Alaska, through Canada, down to northern California, as shown by this map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The website remarks that a few of these birds occasionally wander outside their normal range to the Midwest and Northeast. Seeing one in the southeastern USA is highly unusual.
This robin-sized bird is a real stunner – his orange, grey, yellow and white feathers grow in a wonderful pattern. The colors seem to vary a bit, depending on the quality of the light falling on them and the background against which you see him. But he is handsome from any angle – front, side or back!
Something I found particularly interesting was a pattern of wavy lines in his tail feathers when the light hit them in a certain way. This was not something that I saw mentioned in descriptions of its physical characteristics. The observation made me want to photograph the thrush again to see if this would show up again.
It is interesting to note that one varied thrush crossed the Atlantic and turned up in Great Britain in 1982. It was a unique bird since it represented a rare variant of the species in which the orange feather coloration has become all white. Only five such representatives of this mutation have been recorded since 1921.
In its home range, the varied thrush prefers to stay in dense, coniferous forests near water. The NC visitor is taking advantage of a backyard nook that Marla designed with multiple shrubs and some open space.
The home is not far from a lake, but the thrush is taking advantage of a bird bath for drinks, which Marla kindly had moved so that it was better visible for visiting birders looking over the fence.
Varied thrushes usually feed on insects, foraging on the ground and often under dense cover.
The thrush’s insectivorous diet can be wide-ranging and include ants, beetles, caterpillars, crickets, earthworms, millipedes, snails and spiders.
They also eat berries, either in trees or on the ground, during the autumn and winter months.
Our NC celebrity bird is obviously enjoying seeds furnished daily by Tony and Marla.
A notice placed by Tony near fence announced that the thrush seemed to come out in the open every 30 minutes or so. It turned out that this was indeed the case the first hour that I was there; then the bird came after a couple 15-minute intervals.
He certainly seemed to be a creature of habit because I noticed that after eating, he would go back into the dense undergrowth for several minutes and then re-emerge to take a couple drinks at the bird bath. Eating obviously was making him thirsty and noticing this habit meant it was possible to get “camera-ready” for another appearance.
When it is breeding time, male varied thrushes begin to establish territories and confront other males with threat displays. These begin with the bird cocking his tail and turning it towards his rival, while he lowers his wings. If the rival bird does not go away, the thrush will lower his head, raise and fan his tail and then spread his wings out to the side.
Obviously, our NC bird had no rivals around but there were many other birds foraging in the ground underneath the feeders. They included Northern cardinals, white-throated sparrows, pine siskins and downy woodpeckers among others. And it seemed that “our” thrush was sometimes warning them off.
Or perhaps he was just flashing his wings to scare up insects hiding in the fallen leaves.
There are still large numbers of varied thrushes, with an estimate of some 20 million in the current global breeding population. However, the North American Breeding Bird Survey recorded a cumulative decline of the species of 73% between 1966 and 2015. Logging, wildfires and forest fragmentation are ongoing threats to their breeding habitat.
This is only the fifth time that a varied thrush has been seen in North Carolina. The first sighting was in 2005; three other birds were seen in 2010. No one has any idea what got this year’s bird so far off-course during its migration and no one knows how long it will stay around.
Tony and Marla have kept a visitors’ book (with hand sanitizer available for signers) and many people have been recording their visit. When I visited, more than 110 people had already come by, including some birders from Virginia and Tennessee. More people have since stopped by the Hewitt-Wolf residence to admire this vagrant bird. We are grateful to them for giving us this opportunity!
It’s apparent that the serendipitous sojourn of this gorgeous bird has been a welcome gift to many people – both those who saw it in person and those who’ve admired photos distributed through facebook groups. We hope the bird will survive the winter here and be able to return to its home grounds out West so that its journey has a happy ending!
Many people in the USA, especially but not only in the South, grow up knowing what crawdads (Cambarus bartoni) are. This was not the case for me. My immigrant family pretty much stuck to the dietary customs of their own and their friends’ home countries (The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany). Like pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes and okra, crawdads were not on those menus and so it was only recently that I actually learned that these crustaceans are the same thing as crayfish, of which I had heard as a child.
This year was my time to learn more about these members of the arthropod family who are related to lobsters – it turned out they were thriving in a pond created through a man-made wetlands installed between a shopping mall and several apartment complexes. I learned about their presence when local birders alerted one another that the crawdads were attracting a family of yellow-crowned night herons (Nyctanassa violacea).
Hoping to spot the herons, I also visited the wetlands and first noted the crayfish remains scattered around near the pond. Shortly thereafter, I came across one crossing a path in another local nature park (photos above and below). It was interesting to see how the crawdad first stayed stock still as I neared and then stood tall on its legs as its tail propelled it backwards while it made a dash for the nearby pond.
The crawdad females lay hundreds of eggs; scientists do not yet know how long they incubate before birth but estimate it takes somewhat longer than a month before they hatch. In North Carolina, there are almost 50 species of these animals and several species are found only in this state.
The crayfish at the wetlands must have had a successful year because the place became a real buffet for various birds. Both adult and young night herons stayed near this pond for quite a long time before leaving to migrate to more southerly climes for the winter.
The adult herons were attractive with their boldly patterned heads.
They kept up their looks through regular preening.
Sometimes, they emerged from the pond weeds to perch on a snag while peering into the water on the lookout for a meal.
It was interesting to learn that while the adults have yellow legs most of the year, their legs can turn red or pink during breeding season.
In my experience, the younger herons were a bit less shy and didn’t fly off so quickly when I neared.
One in particular decided to take the sun in mid-August, adopting a pose that I more often see taken by great blue herons and which I’ve nicknamed the “flasher stance.”
The young birds, like their parents, stalked the pond vegetation on the lookout for crawdad snacks.
They also showed the herons’ taste for other food such as snails, earthworms and insects.
The night herons, for which most birders visited the wetlands, weren’t the only birds at the buffet, however. Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) also showed a fondness for the crustaceans.
The herons weren’t always alert to their presence. One adult, for example, decide to fly to a low perch when chased away from a tall snag by a hawk. S/he settled in for a bit of preening but was then rudely chased off by the same hawk. (That hawk was later harassed by a group of crows, who chased it away in turn.)
Other herons who were interested in outdoor crayfish dining during the humans’ Covid epidemic, included the great blue herons (Ardea herodias).
Green herons (Butorides virescens) visited the pond regularly as well, eating small fish in addition to the other wetland delicacies.
Belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) were busy flying to and fro over the length of the pond, but I didn’t see them carry off any crayfish so they must have been focused on fish.
A great egret (Ardea alba) was a regular visitor, too, stalking different areas of the pond.
The adult night herons obviously thought it was interesting to watch the egret’s foraging technique.
Other regular visitors to the wetlands included a flock of Canada geese, American and fish crows, Northern mockingbirds and wandering glider dragonflies (Pantala flavescens).
There were so many animals feeding on the crawdads this summer that the female crayfish must have had a lot of success with their offspring reaching maturity. The last reported sighting of the yellow-crowned night herons at the wetland was 24 October, but I’m guessing that they will be leaving soon and the pond will not be so busy this autumn. The crayfish population had to have been reduced mightily over the summer season, so it will be interesting to see whether it rebounds and attracts crowds of birds — and birders — next year!