My pond and the cycle of life

Undergoing cardiology exams can bring up thoughts of mortality and a life lived; perhaps they also made me more attentive to the cycle of life in my yard, particularly in the vicinity of my backyard pond.

Several years ago, a local garden center went out of business and they had a 175-gallon black plastic pond for sale. It was a good deal, so I invested in it and then had to dig a large hole in the rocky Piedmont clay ground of my backyard (with a bit of help from a neighbor teen). At a certain point, the ground was so hard we couldn’t penetrate it with shovels so the pond now sits a bit above ground level; the rocks I piled up around it have offered a home to Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus).

 

I transferred some of my beautiful koi and goldfish from a smaller pond, only to have a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) come by to clean them all out.

On the recommendation of the garden center staff, I had positioned a heron statue by the pond – they said herons don’t like competition, so the intruder would keep flying when s/he saw the one by the pond. It didn’t take long for the bird to figure out the stationary bird was not real, however.

After the heron had eaten all the koi and goldfish, I still had some tiny baby fish. At first, I thought they were from my now deceased koi but apparently the intruder heron had had fish eggs on its feet from a nearby natural pond and left them behind. So for a time, I had unidentified native fish in the pond. They were extremely shy, however, and I only got a brief look at them when they surfaced early in the morning; as soon as I came near, they dove down under the water plants (no good photos).

Then some green frogs (Lithobates clamitus) moved in this past summer and ended up being extremely prolific reproducers. Before I realized it, there were at least 500 tadpoles in the pond!! They were eating the fish food and at the same time I noticed that I wasn’t seeing the fish at all anymore. Going online, I found out that tadpoles will eat fish – their sheer numbers had to have spelled doom for the fish.

 

 

I collected lots of the tadpoles, gave some to a friend for her water feature and released hundreds into the local creek (they are native animals after all). A few of the tadpoles grew into frogs and the pond became a residence for some very loud croakers.

 

  

The next chapter in the story came a couple days ago. I had seen a pair of red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) visiting my yard recently. I thought they were after the chipmunks, numerous squirrels and songbirds populating the area. The other day, however, one hawk took up a position in the crepe myrtle tree next to the pond and just sat there calmly not bothering with any of those creatures. Numerous Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) perched in the tree above her and many other species of birds were at the nearby feeders;  none of them were concerned at all with the hawk’s presence. The squirrels didn’t seem perturbed either.

She sat fairly still and I took some photos through my kitchen window. Then I ventured out into the backyard, sure she would take off as I left the porch steps. But Ms. Hawk just sat there, sometimes stretching a leg or engaging in a little grooming.

     

   

Occasionally, she looked up but often her gaze was fixed on the area around the pond.

She would stare intently down at the ground – I thought she might have spotted one of the pond chipmunks.

Then after a while, I noticed her shifting her stance – suddenly she plopped down into the pond with spread wings. It happened too fast for me to get out from behind dried plants to get a good photo, so I watched as she climbed out of the pond. Then it became apparent what she had been hunting – she had caught one of the green frogs.

  

It looked like she bit its head to kill it as soon as she got on dry land; the frog wasn’t moving.

Then she spent time ruffling and shaking out her feathers which had gotten a good soaking.

She spent a little time looking around and then abruptly took off with her prize, closely followed by another red-shouldered hawk who suddenly swooped in.

He chased her but she got away with her meal and he ended up sitting in a neighbor’s tree, somewhat disgruntled with his failed thievery attempt.

  

Ms. Hawk returned yesterday and spent quite a bit of time in a high tree surveying the yard and gazing down at the ground. Red-shouldered hawks sometimes eat birds, such as sparrows, doves and starlings (which are all numerous around my feeders) but more often they go after snakes, mice, toads, frogs, lizards and small mammals such as voles and chipmunks. They will also eat insects and earthworms. Since I’m leaving the leaf litter, there are undoubtedly more insects hiding there than in neighboring yards. I’m not sure what Ms. Hawk is seeking in my yard, but I hope she doesn’t get all the pond frogs. In any event, I’m sure new ones will find the water in the spring and in the meantime, I have a beautiful bird of prey to watch this winter.

Outwitting the starlings during Winter Storm Helena

white-tailed-deer-i77a4029-maria-de-bruyn-resSo this past weekend, our part of North Carolina dealt with Winter Storm Helena, which brought us 83 straight hours of below-freezing temperatures (e.g., -9C/15F but we had lower) and a need to bundle up really well if venturing outside. (It also brought me a realization that winter storms are being named like hurricanes.) The first morning, when I went out to fill the bird feeders, I didn’t put on gloves or a cap and dealt with hypothermia symptoms when I finally went inside. I had on triple layers after that! The deer had their fur puffed up and seemed to be coping well.

The frigid air made me feel very sorry for the wildlife, although living outdoors is, of course, what they do and what they have evolved to accommodate. (I did hear today, however, of some birds and small animals that were found frozen to death!) With the snow covering the ground, it turned out the birds were more than happy to visit the feeders and piles of food I had strewn on the snow for the ground feeders.

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Not only did I have many types of birds coming round, but also record numbers of them. Some birds, like the yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata, above), usually tend to visit on their own and are not happy with their species mates in the vicinity but during these days, I had four of them alighting near feeders at a time. The same was true for the colorful pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) although they didn’t come close to each other.

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pine-warbler-i77a2441-maria-de-bruyn-res

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) don’t seem to have too many problems with sharing space and visited the feeders in the same way they always do – quick flights to and fro from nearby tree and shrub branches.

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Most of the birds were fairly content to be in close proximity to one another during the snow days. The brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) did get very cross with one another, however, when they came too close to one another and chased their rivals away.

Sometimes a bird would go off and rummage in the snow, like this blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

 

blue-jay-i77a2776-maria-de-bruyn-res blue-jay-i77a2770-maria-de-bruyn-res

european-starling-i77a2674-maria-de-bruyn-resThe biggest challenge for me was keeping the suet and meal worms in supply, mainly because the European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) show up in large groups and gulp down food at a speedy pace. The other birds nibble but the starlings seem to inhale food as if they have vacuum cleaners in their throats. They can get grumpy with one another and don’t mind landing atop each other to get a foothold on the feeder.

brown-thrasher-i77a3641-maria-de-bruyn-resI was pleased that the other species of birds are learning to cope with them, no longer being intimidated to fly away when these greedy avians arrive. However, they may get displaced from a feeder just because the bulky starlings take up so much room and never wait their turn to get a spot. The larger birds, like the thrashers and red-bellied woodpeckers, may express their displeasure to the starlings while trying to hold their ground. Other people report common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) as feeder dominant birds but they are well behaved at my house.

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suet-i77a3541-maria-de-bruyn-res

So, what was I going to do? Some of my feeders are set in a flower garden and I had left the dried stalks of sage, butterfly bush and scarlet mallow standing. They don’t look pretty but the birds love sitting on them near the feeders as they digest a bite before getting another. So I began smearing suet on the stalks, which are not sturdy enough to hold the starlings.

The yellow-rumped warblers and chickadees were pleased, as was my faithful ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) and the Carolina chickadee.

yellow-rumped-warbler-i77a3913-maria-de-bruyn-res  carolina-chickadee-i77a4283-maria-de-bruyn-res

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To my surprise, even the larger Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) and brown thrashers discovered and sampled the suet-laden stalks.

northern-mockingbird-i77a3629-maria-de-bruyn-res   brown-thrasher-i77a3607-maria-de-bruyn-res

Following advice from the Bird Sleuth program, I had stuffed the bluebird and nuthatch boxes with pine needles and wool in case the birds wanted to shelter there overnight. I don’t know if any of them did, but the brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) were again checking out their preferred nest box, so perhaps they did roost there overnight.

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I was filling the heated bird bath daily, too, as it became a popular drinking fountain.

The thrill of the wintery snow days for me was a new yard visitor, a gorgeous fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca). I have never had one here before so it was a wonderful surprise and discovery. (I’m still hoping that a red-breasted nuthatch will turn up, too.)

 

 

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The birds “missing” from the storm gathering were the hawks. I’ve had a Cooper’s hawk  (Accipiter cooperii) visiting for years, but recently discovered that a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) is also taking birds from my yard. As they look quite similar, the sharpie may have been coming around for some time and I just never realized it. They were both here in the last couple weeks, but neither one made an appearance during the storm.

coopers-hawk-i77a1341-maria-de-bruyn-res   sharp-shinned-hawk-i77a8520-maria-de-bruyn-res

Our two neighborhood white-tailed does (Odocoileus virginianus) and their three offspring came by, obviously finding my yard a peaceful and safe space to rest.

white-tailed-deer-i77a4432-maria-de-bruyn-res   white-tailed-deer-i77a4431-maria-de-bruyn-res

So I’ll end with some “beauty shots” from the snow days as the snow and ice are now melting. In two days’ time, we are supposed to be having temperatures of 68F/20C or higher! And then we can wait out the rest of January as well as February and March to see if we get any more winter storms.

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White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

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     house-finch-i77a2852-maria-de-bruyn-res

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)        House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

dark-eyed-junco-i77a2590-maria-de-bruyn-res  downy-woodpecker-i77a2810-maria-de-bruyn-res

Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)          Downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

eastern-towhee-i77a4111-maria-de-bruyn-res    northern-cardinal-i77a3099-maria-de-bruyn-res

Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)      Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

blue-jay-i77a2858-maria-de-bruyn-res     eastern-bluebird-i77a2285-maria-de-bruyn-res

Blue jay                                                       Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

red-bellied-woodpecker-i77a4047-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a4263-maria-de-bruyn-res

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)     Ruby-crowned kinglet

northern-mockingbird-i77a2714-maria-de-bruyn-res   pine-warbler-i77a2657-maria-de-bruyn-res

Northern mockingbird                                              Pine warbler

 

Shades of brown at the end of winter

As this crocus (Crocuscrocus IMG_2199© Maria de Bruyn) shows, spring is coming to our part of North Carolina and the last days of winter have not infrequently been warm and sunny. This led me to take a break a couple weeks ago for a walk in our neighborhood woods.

The sunlight filtered through the trees, creating lots of shadows and sunlit patches on the forest floor. I was looking to see if the natural shelters constructed by homeless people still were up and found three. None appeared to have been made or used recently.

homeless shelter IMG_2360© Maria de Bruyn res     homeless shelter IMG_2351© Maria de Bruyn res

white-tailed deer IMG_2374© Maria de BruynAs I was walking around one to photograph it, my footsteps and movement rustled up some other neighborhood residents, who had been taking a rest at the edge of the woods. Four white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) got to their feet and gave me some looks of irritation at having disturbed their R&R.

As I walked another way, they began keeping pace with me at a distance. I thought they would just choose another patch to lie in but, for some reason, they decided to see where I was going. At first, I thought it was a buck and some does.

white-tailed deer IMG_2440© Maria de Bruynwhite-tailed deer IMG_2413© Maria de Bruyn

 

deer antler IMG_1211© Maria de Bruyn resLater, I realized it was a group of bucks, some of whom had already shed their antlers. I kept a lookout for antlers but didn’t see any. However, one local buck had gifted me with one in my front yard recently.

For some odd reason, I rarely see or hear birds in this particular woodsy area, but that day I encountered a Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) singing away.

Carolina chickadee IMG_2469© Maria de Bruyn

 

My next stop was to see how the two abandoned cars in these woods were faring. They must have been left here decades ago and have been like evolving metal sculptures as the scouring winds, sun, rain and ice change their appearance.

 

car IMG_2525 © Maria de Bruyn

car IMG_2558© Maria de Bruyn RES  car IMG_2582© Maria de Bruyn

white-tailed deer IMG_2496 © Maria de BruynAs I was taking photos of the cars, I heard movement behind me and there was the group of deer, still keeping tabs on me. The big male who still had antlers stamped his foot to warn me off, even though I hadn’t turned in their direction. Given his wariness, I certainly wasn’t going to go charging up to them for close-ups!white-tailed deer IMG_2489© Maria de Bruyn

hermit thrush IMG_2614© Maria de Bruyn

 

My walk ended with some surprising good views of a hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus). They rarely come to my yard so it was lovely to see one in the woods that day. They will likely be migrating soon and we will have new birds to welcome as spring arrives in her full glory. It was a very pleasant winter walk!

Dining out in winter

cardinal and crowd DK7A9445© Maria de Bruyn resIn the spring, summer and fall, when birds have insects and other favorite foods available, many of us see moderate numbers of avian visitors at our feeders — although there are always exceptions, such as parents looking for easy meals to satisfy the voracious appetites of their offspring. Come wintertime, though, we may have whole flocks of different species flying busily to and fro to take food from our feeders.

 

tufted titmouse IMG_0635© Maria de BruynOur avian friends need to eat more, and more often, in autumn and winter to ensure that they can gain sufficient fat reserves to see them through the cold weather. Some of the smallest birds will consume up to 30% of their body weight. Nuts are a favored food for tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor).

cedar waxwing IMG_7967 ©Maria de Bruyn 2

In the autumn, there are still many berries available and these are a popular food. Birds that tend to eat insects much of the year will switch to berries in winter since their prey has died, is dormant and awaiting rebirth in larval form, or otherwise scarce. The berries of honeysuckle (Lonicera), privet (Ligustrum, an invasive plant) and other plants are popular foods for species such as cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum).

 Holly berries (Ilex opaca) are a favorite for American robins (Turdus migratorius).

American robin IMG_3302 © Maria de Bruyn American robin IMG_0326©Maria de Bruyn res

Pine siskin IMG_6226©Maria de Bruyn resEven when much of the vegetation has dried up, seeds and seed pods remain. Pine siskins (Spinus pinus), downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) will feast on the seeds found in the pods of honeysuckles and trumpet vines (Campsis radicans).

 

American goldfinch IMG_6251 ©Maria de Bruyn res Downy woodpecker IMG_9184M de Bruyn

In some cases, dried leaves and the remains of caterpillar tents form clumps that attract tufted titmice and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) as they search for sustenance.

tufted titmouse IMG_9714© Maria de Bruyn res white-throated sparrow DK7A6171© Maria de Bruyn res

Pine siskins will eat moss growing on tree trunks. Other birds search the vegetation alongside ponds, like this song sparrow (Melospiza melodia).

pine siskin IMG_7546©Maria de Bruyn ressong sparrow IMG_6959© Maria de Bruyn (2) res

The seed pods of my crepe myrtle trees (Lagerstroemia) are a magnet in winter for various avian species such as pine siskins, white-throated sparrows, red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), as well as Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis).

white-throated sparrow IMG_2653©Maria de Bruyn respine siskin IMG_8177 ©Maria de Bruyn

Northern cardinal IMG_4887©Maria de Bruyn resred-winged blackbird DK7A7754© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern gray squirrel IMG_3547© Maria de Bruyn res Eastern gray squirrel IMG_3528© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Various species of smaller birds will flock together in winter, both for purposes of safety and help in finding food. As the season progresses, the supply of seeds, pods and berries diminishes. In addition, the variety of natural plants has often decreased in urban areas as homeowners remove “weeds” from their yards. Wildlife organizations therefore encourage bird lovers to add native plants to their property, especially those that attract birds, and to provide extra food through feeders.

white-throated sparrow IMG_1608© Maria de Bruyn ruby-crowned kinglet IMG_1635© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern mockingbird DK7A4279© Maria de Bruyn resMaking available mixed seeds, oil-rich sunflower seeds and suet (traditional or vegetarian made with vegetable shortening) will help the birds like this Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) keep up their energy. And it’s a good idea to keep those feeders filled — did you know that many songbirds are able to collect food in a special storage pouch within their esophagus so that they can then digest it after dark and overnight? This may help account for the fact that certain birds come back to the feeders over and over again within a short span of time.

 

The area where I live has had a long winter, with alternating days of relatively high temperatures and then very cold days and nights. Crocuses, daffodils and tulips are beginning to emerge in my gardens despite snow and ice and trees and shrubs are beginning to bud, giving the Eastern gray squirrels and house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) a new source of food. I think that both the birds and I will be happy when spring arrives and stays! In the meantime, I’ll keep the feeders filled.

Eastern gray squirrel DK7A7410© Maria de Bruyn res House finch DK7A0286© Maria de Bruyn res

Tundra swans, snow geese and Canada geese, too – beauty by the tens of thousands

Tundra swans IMG_8442©Maria de Bruyn

When the tundra swans (Cygnus columbianus) and snow geese (Chen caerulescens) leave the Arctic and sub-Arctic tundras and climes of northern North America to over-winter along the coasts of the United States, those of us who live further south get to enjoy the marvelous spectacle of tens of thousands of these birds gathering together. They appear in huge masses and smaller family groups to feed and then swirl through the skies in an aerial ballet as they settle down to feed again or spend the night in a marsh or on a lake or pond. Witnessing these enormous conglomerations of birds really is an unforgettable experience.

Tundra swans IMG_8440©Maria de BruynThe tundra swan – also known as the whistling swan in North America – is a large, graceful bird. Its diet is varied, ranging from aquatic plants and some molluscs (mostly during the summer) to seeds, grains and tubers like potatoes in the winter. In North Carolina, where they migrate during winter, you can find immense flocks foraging in open agricultural fields before they settle for the night (in winter, these birds sleep mostly on the water; during the breeding season, these monogamous birds sleep mainly on land).

tundra swan IMG_8676©Maria de Bruyn signed res

The adult swans are entirely white except for a black bill, while the immature birds are first a dusty gray color that eventually turns white; the young swans also have a pinkish bill.

Tundra swans IMG_6457©Maria de Bruyn signed res

During a birding trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, our Audubon group was privileged to witness the tundra swans returning to a lake in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge one night.

Tundra swans IMG_6446©Maria de Bruyn res

It was like watching a black wave moving back and forth across the orange sky at dusk, while being surrounded by a tremendous volume of honking (not whistling!). Afterwards, I and others regretted that we hadn’t thought to film this so we had a record of the sound. I think we were just so mesmerized that it didn’t occur to us to do that. Here you can hear what their calls are like. For us, it was impressive as we were listening to the sounds of a flock of about 20,000 strong! http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/tundra_swan/sounds

Tundra swans IMG_6439©Maria de Bruyn signed res

The snow goose, like the tundra swan, migrates in the winter to North Carolina from the uppermost parts of North America; like the swans, they forage in winter agricultural fields in large groups. There are two color variations: some are almost entirely white, while the “blue morph” variation has a white head but blue-gray body feathers. Our birding group was lucky to see another aerial ballet at Pocosin Lake National Wildlife Refuge put on by the snow geese.

Snow goose IMG_6334©Maria de Bruyn2 res

As a member of our group excitedly called, “They’re rising!” an enormous flock surged up from the lake, flew back and forth just a little and then settled.

Snow goose IMG_6330©Maria de Bruyn signed res

A minute later, they repeated the process and we watched as the swirling cloud rose and fell, just moving side to side a bit. They were very far across the lake from us, so it wasn’t possible to get great shots but at least I had evidence of the sighting!

Snow goose IMG_6341©Maria de Bruyn signed res

The other birds that we saw in some numbers were the more familiar Canadian geese (Branta canadensis). They are commonly seen in our area so it didn’t seem quite so special to spot them at the coast, but they passed by in flocks and beautiful formations that were well worth watching.

Canada goose IMG_5955©Maria de Bruyn signed resCanada goose IMG_6041©Maria de Bruyn res

Canada goose IMG_8306©Maria de Bruyn signed res 2These were the only geese that we were able to see up close a bit; here you see a pair at Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge.

I had seen starling murmurations before and was quite impressed with those. Witnessing the gigantic flocks of tundra swans and snow geese was equally fascinating – if you get a chance to see such large groups, do stop to watch them!