Autumn amblings — seeing insects, birds, a snake and two surprises

It’s been challenging lately to know what to expect as far as weather goes in our area. Following tropical storms Florence and Michael, we’ve had several more episodes of drenching downpours that caused local flooding and closed off some natural areas. The temperatures have gone down to freezing or below in the morning and then have risen to 50-60s F (10-16C); this has sometimes led to steam rising from fence posts and some flowers still blooming which usually would have died by now. This morning, I skipped my walk as the temperature was below freezing with wind, so I re-lived some visits this past month to the Brumley Nature Preserve North. If you, too, are inside sheltering from the weather, perhaps you’ll have the time to amble photographically through this long Brumley walk with me.

Some parts of the reserve are still fairly green, which creates a lovely ambience for leisurely strolling and nature observations. In other cases, we can see the arrival of late autumn and approaching winter. This picturesque tree, one of three near a pond that harbor various bird species, was still very green in late September; now these forest denizens are showing off their gnarly “bare bones”.

     

So some early mornings are quite nippy and others a bit milder, with dried plants glistening with spider webs and dew drops that sparkle in the sun.

 

Some of the insects emerge with the sun to bask in the golden light, like this seed bug (Orsellinae, left), whose coloring camouflages it well against the seed heads, short-horned grasshopper, American bird grasshopper (Schistocerca americana) and different color variations of Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis) who were hanging out on the dog fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium).

 

   

Various birds have been enjoying the winter seeds and especially the winter berries, like the red multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) and beige poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).    

The Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are quite fond of berries.

They travel back and forth between fruit-laden trees and dried grass seedheads, occasionally stopping on paths to find worms and insects.

The cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) also like to gorge on berries, often sharing trees with American robins who enjoy the same meal. Sometimes snagging a berry involves some acrobatic moves.

  

The waxwings are adept at these moves and I only occasionally saw one drop a fruit. They are such elegant birds with their black masks and subtle touches of red on the wings and yellow on the tail feathers.

 

One of my favorite bird species, the ruby-crowned kinglets (Regulus calendula), are also fond of berries. They like suet in gardens but no suet feeders are found in the reserve.
Some of the larger birds, like the Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos), Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) and yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius), also look for berries and insects as they mostly stay high up in the trees.

 

Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) are another species that enjoy late autumn fruit.

  

In early November, I had my first of two delightful surprises at Brumley. It was early morning and as I glanced up at some very tall trees, I spotted movement among the earth-toned leaves. My lens revealed a yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus) – and when I entered it into my bird list for the day, eBird asked me to justify having seen it as it was a rarity this late in the year.

Two other birds that are not surprises but also a joy to see are the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) and colorful Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

  

It’s always worthwhile to look all around when you walk, not only up at trees if you are a birder or at eye level if you like mammals. I take a lot of bird photos, because I love birds and because they are often easier to see than other wildlife species. But I consider myself more a “wildlifer” than a “birder” since I really am interested in all kinds of animals. That now stands me in good stead during the high-precipitation events we’ve been having. The ponds are filled to capacity and then some, with water flowing over the banks and onto paths.

In some cases, the high humidity has been great for plants; bryophytes are shooting up sporophytes which carry their reproductive spores. As there are over 600 mosses, liverworts and hornworts in North Carolina, I didn’t get the scientific ID for this species.

The rains created new temporary water-filled gullies, where chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) have been enjoying baths along with other birds.

 

  

This earthworm (Lumbricina) obviously decided it had to get out of the water-logged earth for a while and I was glad not to have squashed it as I walked along. Its slow progress along the path may not have aided it, though, because there were plenty of robins and other worm-eaters in the vicinity.

 

A large Northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) was sunning next to a path after the rains as well.

   

So my last visit to Brumley, when I was hoping to capture a golden-crowned kinglet digitally, did not fulfill that hope but ended by giving me a great surprise – my first sighting of a beaver (Castor canadensis) at this reserve. A colleague had seen one there, I’d noted the gnawed tree near the pond, and I had figured out where the lodge was, but I had not yet seen the mammal in the early mornings. Shortly before reaching the pond, I’d stopped to chat with dog owners and mentioned that a beaver was there but I hadn’t seen it yet. Ten minutes later – at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, there s/he was!

It was so surprising to see the aquatic mammal cruising the pond, swimming in large and small circles. As it created small waves and wakes with its head, I pondered why this largely (but not solely!) crepuscular animal was out in the open with people walking by. S/he must have just really wanted to have a good long swim because the animal was out and about for a few hours.

 

Three times, the beaver slapped its tail and dove under with a huge splash when people with dogs strolled by – three times, I missed getting that shot but I did manage to get a photo when the beaver took a time out at the entrance to the lodge.

That was an exciting wildlife spotting – not only did I get to see an animal I rarely see but it was also exhibiting a behavior that I witnessed for the first time. (Previously, I’d seen them harvesting and transporting food to the lodge, chewing bark and felling trees.) As I often go to Brumley in the mornings, being there in the afternoon had another advantage as well – I got to witness a spectacular autumn sunset with the sky almost seeming like a kaleidoscope as the clouds and sun’s rays created rapidly changing skies. I’m looking forward already to my next foray to this reserve!

A bedraggled sort of day

Carolina wren IMG_4876© Maria de Bruyn resFirst, let this lovely Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and me wish you – fellow nature lovers and blog readers – all the best as we look to the future in this year of 2015! May your minor disappointments (life is not always rosy) be compensated by love, laughter, health and happiness in abundance!

 

Yesterday may have been a minor disappointment for the wildlife here.Hermit thrush IMG_3106© Maria de Bruyn res On Sunday, it was very cold for North Carolina standards. Together with two other Audubon Society volunteers, I was standing at a local lake in 15°F (-9.4°C) weather waiting to see if any bald eagles flew by for inclusion in the quarterly Eagle Count. We didn’t see any, although this lovely hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) was nearby eating berries.

Monday was warmer but EXTREMELY wet! Two of my cats awakened me at 5 a.m. and I could hear the rain coming down in a veritable deluge. I wondered if I would be able to see the road to drive for an appointment later that morning (it did let up, thank goodness) and also wondered how the birds and animals were keeping in this unpleasant weather.

Northern cardinal IMG_4462© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern cardinal IMG_4049© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

When it’s cold, the birds fluff up their feathers to trap air pockets by their bodies; this helps they retain body heat and stay warmer. Heavier wet feathers don’t seem to fluff well, though. On the other hand, birds’ feathers are covered with an oily or waxy substance that helps water run off, thereby keeping their bodies drier. Those feathers don’t necessarily look pretty though. Many of the birds were indeed looking bedraggled, some to a greater degree and others just a bit like these Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis).

red-bellied woodpecker IMG_5005© Maria de Bruyn resIt didn’t seem that many birds were hiding in vegetation to get out from under the downpour. Nope – they all appeared to be very hungry and anxious red-bellied woodpecker IMG_4948© Maria de Bruyn resfor a meal like this red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus), who was scolding me for being so close to the feeders!

white-tailed deer IMG_4092© Maria de Bruyn resA few white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) were also wet and hungry, including two visitors to my yard that I had not seen before. They were two bucks, one of whom must have been hit by a car. One of his antlers was broken off and he was hopping along holding up his left hind leg, which had obviously been injured.

 

 

 

white-tailed deer IMG_4063© Maria de Bruyn res white-tailed deer IMG_4001© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer IMG_4055© Maria de Bruyn resA young doe, who visits regularly, stopped for some bird seed, as did the other buck whose antlers had been shed. Their thick hair was coated in raindrops.

The Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) can curl their tails up over their backs as a kind of natural umbrella, both on the ground and in trees. This individual, who may have been injured by a predator and escaped, enjoyed some apple – first on the ground and then later in the tree away from the blue jays that were hopping around it.

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_4325© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern gray squirrel IMG_4334© Maria de Bruyn res

Some of the birds definitely looked more presentable than other. The three visiting mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) were sleek and beautiful, one using its long tail tobalance as it plucked meal worms from a feeder designed for somewhat smaller birds.

Northern mockingbird IMG_4503© Maria de Bruyn res Northern mockingbird IMG_4467© Maria de Bruyn res

The dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis), Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) and chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) looked in fine shape, too.

dark-eyed junco IMG_4802© Maria de Bruyn res dark-eyed junco IMG_4729© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern towhee IMG_4924© Maria de Bruyn res chipping sparrow IMG_4817© Maria de Bruyn res

The bluebirds (Sialia sialis) varied in appearance; a couple looked groomed but wet, while a couple others looked a bit disheveled.

Eastern bluebird IMG_4587© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern bluebird IMG_4588© Maria de Bruyn res

pine warbler IMG_4569© Maria de Bruyn resThe pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) – usually among the more handsome garden birds – unfortunately looked a sorry sight. Fortunately, when the rain ends, he’ll be able to shake that water off and get back to looking like one of the handsome fellas of the avian neighborhood!

pine warbler IMG_4618© Maria de Bruyn

 

pine warbler IMG_4842© Maria de Bruyn res

ruby-crowned kinglet IMG_4777© Maria de BruynThe ruby-crowned kinglet’s (Regulus calendulabrown-headed nuthatch IMG_4409© Maria de Bruyn res) oily feather covering seemed to do well in keeping the rainwater at bay, while the brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) looked a bit more water-logged.ruby-crowned kinglet IMG_4741© Maria de Bruyn res

The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) and Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) join me in looking forward to dryer and sunnier weather in a few days’ time!

tufted titmouse IMG_4350© Maria de Bruyn resCarolina chickadee IMG_4386© Maria de Bruyn res