‘Rassing – a surprise visitor – what a delight!

(Warning – this is a bit of a long blog!) Several years ago, what was likely a rufous hummingbird took up residence in my yard during the winter months. That was really unexpected — while it’s not uncommon for migrating or some resident hummingbirds (especially ruby-throats, Archilochus colubris, above) to spend wintertime in North Carolina, particularly along the coast, it’s not so common in the central part of the state. That experience taught me that it’s a good idea to keep up a nectar feeder in the winter as you never know when a stray migrant might show up. In 2015 and 2016, I traveled with fellow birders to visit people who had a buff-breasted (Amazilia yucatanensis) and calliope hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope) wintering at their homes. In actuality, however, I didn’t really expect a rare passerby in my yard.

 

It was consequently with great surprise that I saw a hummer hovering at the nectar feeder last week. “Oh, wow!” I thought; “a ruby-throated hummer is passing through as a very late migrant.” I grabbed my camera to take a few shots and immediately felt perplexed.

 

The bird looked like he had a purple rather than ruby or red gorget (throat feathers). The white patch behind his eye also showed prominently because of his very dark head.

To me, it also looked as if this hummer had blue patches on his tail feathers. (Most say his flanks are green and a hummingbird expert said he has iridescent black tail feathers; the way the light reflects off them made me see blue, however.)

I got a few photos and cautiously asked birding experts on a facebook group if he could possibly be a black-chinned hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), also sometimes known as the Alexander hummingbird. It seemed unlikely as their normal range is the Western part of the Northern hemisphere, reaching north into Canada (Alberta and British Columbia), east to Oklahoma, and as far south as Mexico, where most spend the winter.

A couple people thought I might be correct, but most thought it was a ruby-throated hummingbird. My spring-summer ruby-throated residents had left at least a month ago but I thought perhaps a late migrant might have arrived. The next day, I saw the bird again and became convinced that it was a black-chinned hummer; his purple gorget was very obvious to me. I posted new photos and now the experts agreed that I was correct. That was very cool – I got a lifer without even leaving my own yard!

 

A couple days later, North Carolina’s hummingbird researcher, Susan Campbell, came to my home to band the unusual visitor. I invited a friend who had been to bird bandings in my yard before to come for the happy event.

Susan arrived early and first set up a cage trap for ‘Rassing (short for the Dutch word verrassing, which means surprise; I wanted him to have a name during his stay 😊). She left the door open with a long string attached and hung the nectar feeder on the outside. It wasn’t long at all before the bird arrived for a drink. When he left, Susan moved the nectar feeder inside the cage.

‘Rassing returned for another drink and flew right into the cage, which Susan shut promptly. She had already laid out her banding materials so she could remove him from the trap promptly.

He went into a small bag (the kind often used to hold birds for banding) which Lucretia held while Susan began filling out the paperwork.

Then the actual banding procedure began. Susan first checked his legs to ensure that he hadn’t been banded already – the hummers rarely show their legs so that was necessary.

Then she got ready to put a thin red metal band on his tiny leg with a silver band showing his numeric code for identification in case he is caught again some time (Band number 7100 (M)-41902).

She checked the length of his bill – 19.19 mm. She also advised that bird feeders with long slits are not preferred even if the birds like them. It turns out that the thin slots can rub against the bill and wear it down, damaging the bill and making it vulnerable to infection. (I afterwards enlarged the slots into ovals and circles and went back to a couple other feeders I had with larger holes.)

She blew on his stomach feathers to check his fat; he was not a hefty bird but certainly a healthy adult male. His weight turned out to be 3.09 g. She also recorded his body length.

She stopped for a moment so I could take a few photos trying to get a good shot of the purple gorget. It looked like ‘Rassing was trembling but this was the vibrations from his rapid breathing. (When resting at 91⁰ F, they take about 245 breaths per minute; at 55⁰ F, this rises to 420 breaths per minute!!) Susan thought he was acting fairly calm.

She measured his short tail (23.5 mm), as well as his wings (40.42 mm). The female black-chinned hummer would have more rounded wing feather tips than this male.

 

Susan took a few photos of ‘Rassing and he got a few long drinks from a feeder held by Lucretia. Then Susan gave me the honor of releasing him – and to my delight, he chose to sit in my hand for what seemed to be at least 90 seconds. I could feel him breathing and it was a real thrill to see him so close. With a little flutter of his wings he took off – and then stayed away from the feeder for quite some time.

 

I added a feeder in the backyard and ‘Rassing began preferentially feeding there – perhaps the front yard had acquired some unpleasant memories. However, at the end of the day, I would remove the backyard feeder so that visitors who wanted to see him had a better chance of seeing him dine at the front-yard feeders.

 

 

A fair number of birders were interested in being able to add him to their life, state and county bird lists, so I offered to schedule visits through a birding listserv for a few people at a time. ‘Rassing appeared more reticent to stay at the feeder when there were more than 2 or 3 people watching, which is understandable. Who wants an audience for each meal and snack you eat??

When it rained, the feathers atop his head clumped together, giving him a new “hair-do.”

 

 

It appears that this species of hummingbird has not been studied much. I found his behavior interesting and spent a good amount of time observing him (chores had to wait). When I watched him leave the feeder and go to a nearby tree, he would sometimes watch me (turnabout fair play, of course).

 

 

He seemed very comfortable with lots of other bird species at nearby feeders. Perhaps it gave him a safer feeling.

‘Rassing tended not to sit on feeders, as ruby-throated hummers often do. Instead, he mainly hovered and vigorously pumped his short tail quite a lot. I learned that this tiny bundle of energy was breathing at a flight rate of about 1260 beats per minute!

 

Occasionally, you could see the band on his leg but mostly he kept his legs tucked into his body.

In the evenings, he came around nearly the same time each day to have a longer drink and then he sometimes perched while feeding.

 

A Cornell University website says that black-chinned hummers rarely stay at a feeder longer than a day during migration, even when food is scarce. In my yard, he had access to lots of bugs (I have a small pond) and three types of sage/salvia were still blooming. Indeed, he sometimes came to the feeder with pollen covering the top of his bill.

Yesterday morning, ‘Rassing apparently had decided it was time to move on. After the warmest Halloween on record in our area, the temperature plunged during the night to the 30s. The next morning was the same and he may have decided it was time to go to warmer climes.

 

I did feel lucky that he graced my yard with his presence for a week; it gave me something to celebrate during a personally challenging time. The oldest known black-chinned hummer was more than 11 years old; if ‘Rassing likes going east during migration, perhaps he’ll stop by again next year – wouldn’t that be a tremendous surprise! 😊

 

Summer hummers – entertainment for free: part 1

 

When a hummingbird other than a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is seen in the Triangle area of North Carolina, it is listed as a rare bird on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology listserv. One year, I did have a chance to see a buff-bellied hummer visiting in a nearby town though; another year a rufous hummer frequented my own feeders in the winter. Mostly, however, it is the ruby-throats who take up residence at my address, which is just fine as these feisty tiny birds provide loads of entertainment.

 

During a trip to Quebec earlier this year, we also saw ruby-throated hummingbirds there – early arrivals during the spring migration.

 

A few years ago, one of my blogs focused on their preening and cleaning, so this time I’ll mostly feature some of my favorite photos of them taken this summer in various places. (When looking through the shots, I had a LOT I liked, so this is now going to be a 2-part blog!)

At Sandy Creek Park in Durham, one female hummer had made a coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) one of her preferred dining spots.

 

 

A butterfly garden featuring blue-black sage (Salvia guaranitica) and bee balm (Monarda) also attracted her and some other hummers.

 

One female found the bee balm to be a good place to rest, understandable since these bundles of energy have a high metabolic rate. Their hearts beat up 1260 times per minute and they take about 250 breaths per minute even when they are resting! Taking a few sips while remaining perched has to be a welcome luxury.

 

 

 

 

The hummers’ main wing bone, the humerus, is adapted to hovering flight and they have very large deltoid pectoral muscles relative to their size.

 

 

Male birds produce sperm that flows through the vas deferens (sperm duct) to the cloaca. When they mate with a female, they transfer sperm by touching the tip of their cloaca to that of the female; they do not have a penis. Females only have a functional left ovary; the right one atrophies early in her development, which allows her to avoid the extra weight of a second ovary and makes her lighter for long migratory flights.

One big treat for me this year was finding two ruby-throated hummingbird females tending a nest, the first time I had been able to spot this.

 

Later, I was able to take a quick photo of one female collecting cattail fluff with which to line her nest.

Even when several ruby-throats are frequenting an area, the (temporary) coloring of their feathers can help distinguish them. This young male had a few olive-green dots under his eye and a bit of white on the crown of his head.

 

A somewhat more mature male has a little white patch behind his red gorget.

 

They are all little beauties! Second part of this blog is coming up and then on to Costa Rica!

Hungry hairy herons and their caring parents

A little over a week ago, fellow photographer Mary posted a wonderful photo of young green herons (Butorides virescens) perched in a row awaiting their parents. They still had very fuzzy hairdos, reminding me a bit of a row of Albert Einsteins. About 4 days later, I drove to the pond in a senior citizen residential community to see them and they had already lost most of – but not all – the fuzz atop their heads. That didn’t matter though because it was a real pleasure watching them for a while.

 

Friend Lucretia had accompanied me and we were lucky enough to park right near the end of the pond where the sibling group was parked. Only one was out on a limb when we arrived; the three brothers/sisters were in hiding in the thick shrubs bordering the pond.

The bold juvenile may have been the eldest of the quartet as s/he seemed to have lost the most fuzzy feathers.

 

 

S/he groomed, looked around and then yawned hugely – making me think of how I often want to react to much of the news that is shown in the media these days. This was followed by what looked like a smile and happy reaction, which is how I often feel when out taking one of my nature walks!

 

After a while, a couple of No. 1’s siblings began moving around in the brush, eventually coming out into the open.

In the meantime, No. 1 took the time to defecate; gotta take care of those body functions! (It’s interesting that birds all have white poop. The fecal sacs that songbirds take out of nests are white; this bird’s stream of feces was white. Why? Here’s a tidbit of information you might not know: Birds’ bodies do not produce urine as mammals do. Rather, they excrete nitrogen wastes as uric acid in the form of a white paste.)

Another sibling did some preening.

 

 

 

As we walked around the end of the pond, it turned out that Mama was taking a rest there. (I really can’t tell the male from the female adult but for convenience’s sake just identified her as the mother since she was close by.)

 

After a time, Mama took off and ended up in a perch on the underside of a small dock. It made me wonder if that was a good place to fish because the water might be a bit cooler and perhaps fish were schooling there. A good number of turtles were also swimming about there – perhaps the shady area was just a nice break from the sun-warmed water.

 

 

 

While Mama scanned the deeps, a nice song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and a beautiful Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis) entertained us with song.

Brown-headed nuthatches, a brown thrasher, and a downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) were among the other birds flitting about the trees and shrubs bordering the pond.

While adult green herons sometimes use tools to fish – using twigs or insects as bait – Papa heron was just standing patiently at the other end of the pond, watching the water intently. He suddenly plunged and ingested a small fish, using what one ornithologist called a “bill lunge”, in which the bird keeps it feet in place but stretches its body forward to spear prey with its long bill. Apparently, green herons can also catch prey by hanging upside down from their perches over water.

 

We wondered if he was eating the fish himself or collecting a gullet-full of food for his offspring. Herons namely feed their young by regurgitating previously-swallowed food.

As we continued our walk around the pond, we came upon a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) who had some good luck in getting a meal.

When we arrived back at the spot where the young herons were hanging out, we saw a beautiful gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) snag a meal of its own.

One of the young herons was in the water, apparently practicing fishing behavior. S/he caught something but then let it go.

Then Mama suddenly flew in; the foursome greeted her excitedly and Lucretia saw her regurgitate a meal onto the grass. (Unfortunately, this happened behind a shrub that I could not see around so I missed that behavior.) When I had moved over to see the young ones, they had already gulped down whatever food there was and were engaged in vigorous behavior to convince Mama to repeat what she had just done.

 

This gave a fairly good view of the group. One still had a very pink bill while others were getting more yellowish bills on the way to getting dark beaks.

Mama flew off to a tree and apparently settled in for another food-gathering exercise, while one of her young ones called piteously.

 

After a couple hours, we decided it was time to drive back to our own areas of residence, but it was bittersweet having to leave the group of four behind. But they certainly provided us with an entertaining morning, even if that was not their intention! We hope they will grow up with no threats from predators and be able to repeat the process with broods of their own one day. 😊

Diving in for a meal

 

Recently, I had the good fortune to see a sea duck because it had veered away from its usual habitat to land on a pond near the middle of North Carolina. The male long-tailed duck (Clangula hyemalis) is a real looker in his winter plumage. His dark grey bill is tipped by bright pink color and he has large black circles on his white cheeks, which some people think look a bit like ear-muffs.

According to the Audubon Society, these ducks dine on mollusks and crustaceans when they are at sea during the winter. Since this duck had apparently gotten off-course during his winter migration, he seemed to be satisfied now with pondweeds and grasses, which is what they tend to eat in the summer when they are at their breeding grounds.

It is his beautiful long tail (3.9 to 5.9 in, 10-15 cm) that really catches your eye, especially when he dives under to gather up some of his food. His dive appeared to comprise a very slight spreading of wing feathers and then a quick forward and downward movement, ending with his rear end sticking up with the long-tailed plume waving a bit before he straightened out just below the water’s surface.

It was when I watched this duck dive under again and again that I actually stopped to think a bit about how ducks dive for their meals. This bird seemed to stay under water for what seemed a very long time (probably 15-30 seconds). It turns out that they can remain submerged up to a minute. In comparison to other diving ducks, the long-tailed duck spends more time under water than at the surface; in fact, when looking for food, this duck will be under water 3-4 times longer than it stays above water!

When reviewing my photos, I realized that this bird was not diving deep but rather staying submerged just under the surface. My friend Lucretia pointed out that the duck would extend his wings a bit away from his body before he went under and the photos showed his wings spread out.

This must be the species’ diving technique when they are foraging for plant material because it turns out that they are likely the deepest diving ducks in the world, able to go down as much as 200 feet (60 meters) in search of food! So it turned out that we were really seeing quite a special bird.

A pair of bufflehead ducks (Bucephala albeola) were at the same pond and give a nice demonstration of their different diving technique. Their winter and summer diets are similar to those of the long-tailed duck; they, too, seemed to be eating plants during our visit. Their dives were of much shorter duration; they appear to stay under water “only” 12-25 seconds at most.

In contrast to the long-tailed duck, however, they would rear up a bit over the water and then arch their bodies in a graceful dive, popping up again quickly after swallowing their food.

 

It’s interesting to note that their Greek genus name comes from a term meaning bull-headed, while their common name came from a combination of the words buffalo and head. The male duck can puff out his head feathers, making his head look even larger.

Another duck that can do this is the male hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus); the female can also extend her head feathers, giving herself a crested appearance.

The male and female are quite different in appearance, but both are attractive. Their diet appears to be mostly crustaceans and mollusks.

A female merganser at nearby lake gave a short diving demo the same day as the long-tailed and bufflehead ducks. She, too, tended to perform a shallow dive like the former duck.

Duck watching had not been one of my preferred birding activities but now I’ve become curious as to how other species are executing their underwater forays. Perhaps the arcing-body plunge is a bufflehead specialty – I’ll have to pay more attention to diving techniques from now on!

Oh, those ravishing raptors!

Numerous people who attract birds with feeders feel regret and sadness when one of their avian visitors is captured to serve as a meal for a raptor in the neighborhood. I, too, feel that pity and discomfort when I see one of the hawks or owls capture a bird or animal because my thoughts go to the pain and fear that the prey must feel. But of course all wildlife has to eat and I want members of the predator species to survive as well. And the beautiful predators can be really interesting to observe.

 

A Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii, left) sometimes frequents my yard looking for a bird to take. This particular day in November last year, the hawk flew to the front-yard feeders but came up empty-taloned. Raptors, also known as birds of prey, are not the only birds that eat something other than seed. Some smaller birds, like the shrike, do so and many songbirds eat insects. The raptors, however, often go after prey that is fairly large in comparison to their own body size. In January this year, I came across another Cooper’s hawk at a nature reserve. The bird flew soundlessly past me to land in a tree downslope and paused for a bit before flying on, providing time for me to get a gorgeous portrait.

I’ve been lucky lately in seeing barred owls (Strix varia) at the Brumley Nature Preserve North. This owl was sitting silently next to a walking path, looking out over the adjacent field.

A couple weeks ago, I was startled by this barred owl who suddenly flew in front of me from behind my right shoulder. I hadn’t noticed him/her in a tree behind me. I tried to follow its flight but lost it. I thanked the owl for letting me glimpse it and said it would be nice if s/he came back so I could get another look. Sure enough, after I had turned back to the vicinity where I originally was surprised by the silent predator, it flew in and perched on a branch. The bird had a snooze, keeping one eye partially open to keep me in view.

  

Lately, I’ve been seeing many red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus). They have been flying overhead at the nature reserves. The other day, two flew by calling raucously and then they alighted at the top of a far distant tree. I couldn’t get a photo but did see them mating in silhouette against the late afternoon sky.

  

 

A few weeks ago, a pair of red-shouldered hawks began constructing a nest just down the street from where I live. One afternoon, I happened to see them and one was collecting twigs to build or refurbish a nest.

 

 

   

This pair roams our neighborhood looking for prey; sometimes, one or both will perch in my back-yard tree for a little rest.

    

When one of the red-shouldered or Cooper’s hawks pauses for some time in the tree over the small pond, I figure it is watching for frogs or one of the chipmunks that live in the rocks surrounding the pond. The chipmunks appear to be very good at eluding capture.

 

 

A couple weeks ago, our neighborhood family of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) was making a racket in my yard and when I looked out the window, I could see them harassing a hawk. I couldn’t make out why they were so angry but grabbed my camera for some shots through the window.

 

  

It turned out that the Cooper’s hawk had caught one of the numerous Eastern gray squirrels that live here. The squirrels sometimes annoy me but on the whole, I enjoy watching their antics, so I felt badly for this squirrel, who obviously was not going down without some struggle.

What made it easier for me to watch was that I didn’t really see the squirrel’s head and it was not making a sound. I think the hawk had silenced it early on when it had its claws around its neck and chest.

The hawk was determined and kept hold of the rodent, eventually subduing it.

The hawk as not unscathed, however, as you can see from the wound on its leg.

When the raptor flew off suddenly with the squirrel hanging from its talons, the three crows chased it in hot pursuit. I don’t know if they were just upset that the hawk was present or if they wanted to steal the squirrel away. On walks through the neighborhood, I am now regularly seeing the hawks in trees and on power lines. They are not too shy and seem to be adapted to the human presence in their territory.

  

While I may be feeling a bit wary for the other animals and birds when the stunning raptors appear, it still is a thrill to see one up close. Only about half of the red-shouldered chicks make it through their first year of life, so I hope the hawks keep coming by. And who knows, maybe we will have some of the long-lived birds who can reach an age of 15-19 years!