Chilly mornings and nights – birds coping with and resisting the cold!

Many birders focus their attention on nest boxes in the spring and summer, hoping to see avian parents bringing food to nestlings – and if they’re lucky, getting to see the young fledge. Those blessed with yards or a voice in deciding what goes in public spaces may create more such places by putting up nest boxes on poles and trees. (Poles with baffles are a better choice as it makes it harder for snakes and raccoons to enter and eat the eggs and nestlings.)

What many people don’t always realize is that nest boxes can be enjoyable birding spots in the fall and winter, too. As more and more people choose not to leave snags in their neighborhoods and/or have trees removed from properties, birds are losing places to construct their natural nest cavities. Nest boxes help make up a little bit for that habitat destruction.

 

In the winter, birds check out nest boxes to get a head start on choosing possible nesting sites come spring and summer. In my own yard, especially the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) and brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) will visit one nest box after another to decide which one they might choose as a brooding site in the spring. The nuthatches may be accompanied by a youngster from the past summer who will help raise their new siblings.

 

 

Various species of birds also use nest boxes as warm overnight abodes when the temperatures fall to near freezing and below. Besides the Eastern bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches, I’ve seen white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) checking out a nest box inside and out.

    

Carolina wren                                                 Downy woodpecker

Some species even use a nest box as a communal overnight refuge, with 12 or more birds squeezing together to conserve their body heat. I haven’t seen so many birds enter a box but perhaps I’m not looking at the right time.

The competition for nest boxes as warm overnight roosting spots can also be intense. A male downy woodpecker in my yard has adopted one particular box as his overnight abode, but the bluebirds would rather have the refuge for themselves. He gets there in the late afternoon and sometimes must pass angry birds to squeeze through the hole.

The bluebirds will then scold from atop the box and while hovering in front of the entrance, but he hunkers down and refuses to leave.

It’s interesting to see that the nest boxes also serve other creatures. Various birds perch on nest boxes while checking out the yard to see what’s going on, like this beautiful Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus).

One day, when looking out my window, I was certain I had seen a lizard peeking out of a box hole. Shortly thereafter, when I was outside, I caught a glimpse of a head and went over to open the box. And it turned out that a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) is sometimes using that box as a place to rest! The birds don’t enter when s/he is there as far as I can tell.

When it’s cold and damp, you can also see birds using other measures to stay warm and resist the cold. Most birds eat quite a lot to put on body fat that is used up at night through shivering (which helps keep them warm). This means you may have crowds at bird feeders with species sharing space as they increase their body mass.

You may also occasionally get an “invasion” of one species, like the pine siskins (Spinus pinus).

Puffing up their feathers is another strategy that our avian friends use – they trap pockets of warmer air around their bodies.

Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula)

                                              Brown thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)

           

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)         Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)

The birds keep their feathers in good condition by engaging in vigorous preening. Some water birds oil their feathers to waterproof them, while others grow special feathers that disintegrate, producing a special waterproofing powder. And birds like mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) have a special blood circulatory system in their legs whereby they lose only about 5% of their body heat through their bare feet.

Creating wood piles and leaving dried leaves and stalks from summer and fall grasses and shrubs can provide birds with some shelter from winter winds and cold, so my yard is now home to five wood piles. Several species of birds also seek out protected roosting areas when the deciduous trees and shrubs lose their leaves and the branches no longer provide hiding spots from predators. My native holly bushes serve that purpose for the lovely white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis), as well as Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) and Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis). I’m glad it keeps them returning to the yard!

As 2021 gets underway, I wish you readers all the best – hope this new year is healthy, happy and as worry-free as possible for you! And thanks for reading my blog. 😊

Serendipity in a stressful year

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.

Map credit: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Varied_Thrush/maps-range#

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!

 

Life on late winter-early spring farmlands

Although it’s taken me some time to process photos taken earlier this year, I’d still like to share what I was seeing in late winter and early spring when stopping at farm fields. These sometimes muddy and stubble-covered parcels of land can offer wildlife watchers nice views of birds and occasionally other animals, unobstructed by a lot of foliage. So visits to roadside farms and ponds were on my early 2019 nature-walk itineraries.

Farm fields are often bordered by stands of trees where animals can retreat if they become disturbed by humans standing around aiming long camera lenses at them. The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) above were browsing one morning and seemed unconcerned as I photographed nearby birds. When I turned to watch them specifically though, they decided to move back into the woods bordering the field.

Many farmers put out bird boxes on fences bordering their fields; in early March, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were already checking out and starting to furnish potential nest sites. Here a male was flying away from a nest box while his mate was gathering pine needles.

The fences offer other birds a good vantage point for observation, too. A Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) perched on a fence post to look around and then flew to a branch high above me.

 

A bird present in large numbers was the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). One morning, a friend and I counted some 200 birds in one small group of trees. Many people think they are an invasive species and dislike these birds intensely because they evolved a behavior that can endanger other birds. The cowbirds, who are native to America, were originally present in prairies where they followed the buffalo. This meant they did not stay in one place long enough to tend a nest, so they began laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. The young cowbirds hatch first and then may throw out the other eggs or hatchlings or they eat so ravenously that the other nest mates don’t get enough.

It certainly is disconcerting to see a small warbler feeding a large cowbird fledgling and a couple bird species have been endangered by the behavior. But I don’t dislike the cowbird because of this – they did not choose how to evolve and the behavior developed as an adaptation, not an “evil” practice. They are attractive birds. And the sounds they make are lovely, akin to water droplets falling into a pool.

 

The American robins (Turdus migratorius) were also present in abundance; they tend to flock together in the winter and early spring. One farm had a boggy area with some cyprus trees and the robins were busy looking for insects among the cyprus “knees” (Taxodium distichum). These woody structures that grow out of the roots may help stabilize the trees when they are standing in water but scientists have not yet definitively identified their purpose.

There were other trees near the cypresses; in one, the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) was hanging high overhead. It also pays to look around to see who is flying u[ ahigh above those trees and fields. It’s not uncommon to see Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying from one farm pond to another.

Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) soared over different fields I visited.

Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) also made an appearance.

And one of my favorite raptors often eluded my efforts to capture a portrait. Only a couple times was I able to catch a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius) speeding by in flight.

The robins were feeding in the fields as were several other bird species.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

A pair of Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) was taking advantage of numerous cow patties left behind on one farm field in their search for insects. They were flashing their wings repeatedly; I’m convinced that this was behavior designed to scare up bugs so they can catch them easily.

 

 

Other birds were following them around in the field, apparently taking advantage of the insect smorgasbord. Two of them were a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and a field sparrow (Spizella pusilla).

This year, it was also my good fortune to see a bird new to me in one farm field, the lovely horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). Although these birds are not considered endangered, their numbers declined by 71% between 1966 and 2015.

I couldn’t get close to the larks but one day I did catch a bird taking a dust bath in a gravel and dirt road next to their preferred field. On a second visit to that farm, I again saw a lark in the road and then another lark joined it.

It turns out that female larks perform a courting display that looks very similar to actually taking a dust bath, so I got to see a mating behavior that I hadn’t expected!

Reading about the behavior, I discovered that if male larks see a female who is dust bathing, he may mistake what she’s doing and try to mate with her when she’s not ready.

So reproductive life is a bit difficult for those males, who look so adorable when they raise those head feathers to project two little black horns.I will leave you here with a few more views of a horned lark who was singing and foraging not too very far from the road.

 

My special bird in autumn 2018

Well, having had time to finally process photos as the year end approaches, I’m “on a roll” with posting blogs in contrast to other months in 2018. I have two more to post on mammals this year. This one is to commemorate a real birding treat that came to me during the snowstorm that was featured in my last two blogs.

 

There had been reports on birding sites and listservs that some bird species which usually don’t come too far south during the winter were on the move this year to warmer climes. They included birds that sometimes arrive in North Carolina (NC) in winter, but who don’t always come in large numbers (an “irruption”) such as pine siskins (Spinus pinus, above) and purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus, below).

  

I’ve also been lucky to see red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), another irruption species, either in my yard or on nature walks.

 

So why are they coming here in numbers?  It turns out that trees in the northern boreal forests are not producing enough food sources that these birds need to survive winter weather such as conifer seeds and berries (from trees such as hemlock, spruce, firs, alders and larch).

What was really exciting for birders in NC, however, was that some other bird species are also seeking new winter foraging areas. They include redpolls, crossbills and the gorgeous evening grosbeaks (Coccothraustes vespertinus) who are seen here only rarely.

I had only ever seen a photo of these grosbeaks and thought it would be fun to see one in person. Members of a listserv mentioned that these grosbeaks had been spotted in Virginia, just above the NC border, so we should be prepared to perhaps see them.

On my visits to the Brumley Nature Preserve, I spent time in the spruce areas in the hope of spotting one, but I had no such luck. And then as the snow was falling heavily on the first morning of our snowstorm, I caught sight of a bright yellow and black bird on a feeder as I looked out my window. Lo and behold, when I grabbed my camera I discovered a male evening grosbeak on a feeder!

What was even more exciting was that he was accompanied by two female birds, both of whom were very lovely as well. I took lots of photos.

They finally flew off and I counted myself very lucky indeed. A while later, when the snow had stopped for a while, I was watching the feeders again and the threesome returned to my delight. They fed and then rested on feeder poles.

I tried to go outside quietly so I could photograph them without a window between us but they were quite skittish and left quickly as soon as I appeared. They flew to the tops of nearby tall pines and then disappeared off into the distance. They were not shy when I stood in front of the living room window, however.

The trio reappeared a third time and I stayed behind the window to admire them. It was interesting to see how they could look different, depending on their posture. The bird above looked “tall” as it fed next to the Eastern bluebird. And then the other looked fat and fluffy on the feeder pole – even looking as if it had an outsized head when it leaned forward a bit!

 

They left in the afternoon and did not return, even when it snowed again the next day. A fellow birder who lives northwest of me spotted a male evening grosbeak on one of her feeders that day – the birds were obviously en route to another destination. I hope they found a good food source area for the rest of the winter. And my photos will remind me of their wonderful visit, which made this snowstorm one to remember. 😊

Snowy portraits – part 2

The larger birds were very obvious at the feeders during our North Carolina snowstorm in early December, but they weren’t the only ones taking advantage of the fact that I spent considerable time knocking snow off feeders and a bird bath, filling feeders up multiple times daily and spreading seed repeatedly on the snow for the ground-feeding wildlife.

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus), who live in the various yard woodpiles, mostly stayed on the ground but occasionally flew up to a feeder. They also spent time clinging to the brick walls of the house, I assume in search of spiders and other small insects that stay there.

Their slightly larger brethren in shades of brown, the Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus), have taken up residence in the holly shrubs and a privet bush near the front-yard feeders. From there, they can emerge to hop around under the feeders (sporadically flying up to perch on a feeder, too) with a place close by to which they can escape when feeling threatened.

 

 

Both house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus, left) and pine siskins (Spinus pinus, below) came to eat seeds at the platform feeders. Though the finches are larger than the siskins, the female finches and siskins look very similar to me and I usually need to look through my zoom lens to see them clearly.

 

 

 

The photo below is a nice one for differentiating them. The female finch on the left has a thicker bill and a slightly larger and bulkier size. The pine siskin on the right has a thinner bill and hints of yellow on its slender flanks.

Another pair of birds that can be difficult to differentiate are the male house and purple finches. The purple finch (Haemorhous purpureus, below) looks like it has been dipped in raspberry juice to put color all over its body. While some male house finches also have very bright red hues, the color does not spread everywhere on their bodies.

   

The tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor, below) and dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) are both subtle beauties in shades of gray but easily distinguishable.

   

The junco’s pink bill gives it a delicate look in my opinion.

 

The chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are both daily visitors to my feeding stations regardless of the weather. The “chippies” are here year-round, while the white-throated sparrows (right) are only resident in the autumn, winter and spring. The somewhat smaller chippies usually sit on the feeders, while the white-throats mostly seek food on the ground; both will venture into the others’ areas, however.

Two very different birds share a common feeding method for gathering suet. Both the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula, below left) and yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata, below right) hover in front of the feeder as if they are imitating hummingbirds, snatching a bite to eat as they “balance” mid-air. Both will eventually alight on the feeder, though, and then eat at a more leisurely pace.

The bright little pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) also loves suet but never hovers at the feeder. S/he will wait until other birds have cleared the space and then clutch the frame to have multiple bites of the fatty food. During windy intervals of stormy weather, this plucky bird also holds its ground, clutching the feeder pole so as not to blow away.

 

The downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are never scared off the feeders by anyone. Their larger red-bellied cousins are often a bit hesitant to visit but the downies can’t be kept away. Like them, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) also don’t let the presence of other avians put them off – they are willing to share space.

This doesn’t mean the bluebirds won’t show a bit of temper, especially toward their own species mates, but they generally get along with everyone.

And the bluebirds visit regardless of the atmospheric conditions, sometimes looking stunning with their bright dry plumage and sometimes looking a bit bedraggled when the pouring rain and thickly falling snow wet their feathers completely. Beginning birders might wonder if these are the same birds, but fortunately the bluebirds seem to dry out quickly to regain their usual beauty.

   

 

There were a few more birds that came along during the storm (one featured in the next blog!), including Carolina chickadees, Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis, left) and red-winged blackbirds. Snow and ice storms and pouring rain can be a drag in many ways for the human species but for birders, these “bad-weather” interludes can certainly be a boon for easy armchair and window watching!