Craving crawdads in Carolina – a buffet for night herons

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!

Helping monarch butterflies thrive

If you follow news about nature, you may have come across warnings that the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) has been in rather dire straits for many years now.

 

These lovely orange and black butterflies live from 6 to 8 weeks when they are adults engaged in reproduction. Those who live in the Eastern USA participate in a multi-generational migration process between Canada and central Mexico. The last generation to emerge in late summer is able to delay its sexual maturity to undertake the last leg of the migratory journey (called reproductive diapause) and may live up to 8 months. Individual butterflies may travel as far as 1200-3000 miles to get to their warmer over-wintering grounds.

 

Since the 1980s, the Eastern US monarch population has declined by about 80%, mainly because the only food source for their caterpillars has been disappearing. Milkweeds used to grow abundantly in agricultural areas and along roadsides and ditches, but people have been eradicating the plants from fields and using herbicides and mowing to remove them along roads.

Climate change has also affected the butterflies’ breeding and migratory patterns so that reproduction has been reduced.

One way to help out the monarchs is to plant native (not exotic!) milkweeds in your own yard and any other natural spaces to which you have access. I’ve been doing it around my home and as a volunteer for the Mason Farm Biological Reserve. This year, I was lucky enough to be a beneficiary of a milkweed give-away organized by some local high-school students, so I had two types of the plants in my yard.

 

The ones that I had originally planted were common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). These plants have large globular clusters of flowers that range in color from pinkish to purple. They do not have blooms their first year but that doesn’t stop the caterpillars from eating their leaves.

 

Butterfly weed (also known as butterfly milkweed; Asclepias tuberosa) is a bit more delicate and “exuberant” in appearance, with small clusters of orange, reddish and yellow flowers. These were the plants that I was gifted by the students and I was happy to see them grow quickly to exhibit their beautiful blooms.

According to Wikipedia, the butterfly milkweed is not a preferred plant for the monarch but this year the butterflies seemed much more attracted to it than to the common milkweed. After a few visits from some butterflies, I began seeing caterpillars and at one point counted 17 crawling up and down the various plants.

They were especially prevalent on the butterfly weed in my front yard and were munching the plants to bare stems very quickly.

 

       

To make sure they had enough food, I transferred some of them to the common milkweeds in my back yard – these were larger plants with much broader leaves and I thought this would ensure their healthy development. Frass (poop) was being left on the remaining leaves and the ground surrounding the plants.

 

It was rewarding to see three caterpillars make it to the chrysalis stage; the other caterpillars crawled away before I could see where they went, and I didn’t find them suspended from any plants. The first one had attached itself to a bare sapling and, unfortunately, the next day it had disappeared, leaving only the silken thread by which it had been suspended.

The caterpillars store milkweed glycosides in their bodies, making them toxic to many other animals. They still have many predators, however, including wasps, spiders, other insects, lizards, toads and mice. I resolved to save at least one chrysalid if I could.

I got to see the second chrysalis being formed (see the video, which is a little shaky at times). When the caterpillar is ready to undergo the pupation stage, it attaches itself to a plant stem by making a silk pad as an anchor (called a cremaster). Then it inserts the hooks at the end of its abdomen into the pad and hangs down. When the caterpillar forms a J shape, this signals the change to a chrysalis will soon be underway.

Starting from the head, the outer skin is shed, rolling up as the new covering develops. The shed skin may remain at the silk pad or fall off.

 

Slowly the stripes of the caterpillar disappear, and the chrysalis takes on a shiny even green hue, with some golden accent spots.

 

I kept that chrysalis, as well as a third one I saw the next morning, in my house and waited for them to darken. This signals the butterfly is almost through developing inside.

One morning I found the newly emerged monarch from the second chrysalis drying its wings. I took it outside so that it could fly free and then begin its trip to Mexico. (I also took the third one outside when it darkened but the twig holding it disappeared.)

 

You, too, could contribute to their propagation by planting some milkweed if you have an area for this. Autumn is the best time to plant seeds, but you can try it in the spring as well. Common milkweed typically doesn’t flower during its first year, but butterfly weed will give you flowers in its first season; the latter plants may be slow to emerge at first.

Both of these milkweed varieties are perennials so be sure to remember where you planted them. Common milkweed may spread out with time, while butterfly weed remains where you put it.

 

Other flowering plants will attract the adult monarchs, too, for nectaring, such as asters and lantana.

 

And then sit back next year and wait for the monarchs to arrive, happy in the knowledge that you have contributed to maintaining a favorable environment for their survival.

More ideas on how you can participate in the drive to save this iconic butterfly are detailed on a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website: https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/

 

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!)