Avian generations in the making – part 3A: raising and feeding babies

So here in North America, it’s approaching winter and it may seem a bit weird to have another blog at this time on birds raising their young. But I wanted to complete the series even though it has been delayed because of my volunteer activities and commitments the past month. Also, it is now late spring in the Southern hemisphere so for some people this is seasonal and there are other birds around them that are getting ready for babies, though different species than these American robins (Turdus migratorius). Because this part kept growing longer as I worked on it, I’ve divided it into two parts – this one on raising the babies until fledging and the next one on fledging and post-fledgling care. I hope all of you who read this will enjoy it no matter where you live.

It’s fascinating to me to watch the birds during their reproductive cycle; I always learn something new. Once parent birds have completed a nest to their liking, the female lays her eggs and proceeds to brood them, with some species sitting on the eggs almost full time right away and others taking breaks.

           

Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)              Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

An acquaintance recently told me about a friend of hers who commented that she had seen a very pregnant goose that was so fat, she was waddling. The acquaintance proceeded to give an avian reproduction lesson to her friend – a woman in her 80s – who apparently did not know all birds lay eggs! Even after babies hatch, the Canada goose (Branta canadensis) may still look well-fed!

Some bird species have young who are “precocial”, that is, they are covered with downy feathers and have open eyes when they hatch and are soon able to feed themselves. These species include turkeys and ducks, like these mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), and the young often leave the nest soon after birth (which makes them “nidifugous” – good Scrabble word!). The newborns may look fuzzy but it’s not long before they start to take after their parents’ looks.

Other birds, such as songbirds, are altricial (as are human beings) – they are naked and helpless at birth and require considerable care before they can walk, fly and feed themselves. If you have some in a nest that is easily observable (and you can take photos when parents are not there so you don’t distress them), it’s interesting to see how the babies develop.

               

Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) on 18 and 22 April           

Brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) on 13, 25 and 29 April

 

 

Eastern bluebirds (below)

     

As the mother incubates the eggs, her mate will often feed her so she doesn’t have to leave the nest. This young osprey (Pandion haliaetus) was assiduous in bringing his female life companion fish. Then as the babies hatch, in many species both the male and female parents get busy bringing the young frequent meals.  It’s estimated that Carolina chickadees, for example, will bring over 5000 insects to their brood before fledging!

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

     

House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)  and Red-headed woodpecker                (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

              

Orchard oriole (Icterus spurius)                  Blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea

  

Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

In some species, the previous year’s young will help their parents with the new brood. Brown-headed nuthatches and American crows are examples of this. A pair of Canada geese that I observed this past spring seemed to have a domestic goose helping them out.

The parents have other chores, too. They must keep the babies safe from predators – Both American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) will be chased away by songbirds, for example, because these birds will raid nests to eat eggs and babies. But the grackles must also protect their own young against the crows, pursuing them non-stop to drive them away.

 

For other birds, protecting the young can be more difficult. This mother wood duck (Aix sponsa) was raising her brood in a pond that was home to at least three large snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina). Ultimately, another birder and I thought she only had two ducklings survive.   

Keeping the nest reasonably clean is another chore. The babies make this task a little easier than you might think because they defecate into a mucous membrane that forms a sac. When you watch a nest box, especially when it gets closer to fledging time, you can periodically see the parents flying out of the box with a white blob in their mouth, which turns out to be a fecal sac. They either discard it elsewhere or sometimes eat it for some nutritional benefit.

        

Brown-headed nuthatches

This year, I was surprised to have caught a female blue grosbeak during the cleaning – it appeared that she was actually pulling the fecal sac from the baby! Later, I read that some species stimulate defecation by prodding the babies’ cloaca so they can get on with the chore. I also caught a photo in which a baby bluebird had just presented its rear end to the parent for removal of a sac. I could imagine that some human parents might think a fecal sac would be a cool avian adaptation for their babies to have – no more dirty diapers and expense for diapers either! (An idea for an SF short story?)

     

 

After all their efforts, the parents are usually ready for those babies to fledge – the subject of the upcoming last blog in the series.

 

 

* Not all the photos in this blog are of great quality, I know, but my intention was first to show behaviors and secondarily to have some nice shots in the blog.

 

 

Birds and blooms at Sandy Creek Park – more of the “good ones”

moon I77A9993© Maria de Bruyn res

Birds are a favorite photographic subject of mine, even though catching them in late spring and summer is challenging when the lush foliage offers them many places to hide. Their songs and calls and warbles tell me that they are there, but often I need to wait quite a while until I finally catch a flutter of movement out of the corner of my eye to locate them.

 

white-eyed vireo I77A0007©Maria de Bruyn

One early morning, when the moon was still in the sky, I was fortunate enough to see a lot of fluttering in trees near the park’s parking lot – and I discovered an immature white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus) with a parent who looked as if she or he was really practicing forbearance.

white-eyed vireo I77A0010©Maria de Bruyn      white-eyed vireo I77A0006©Maria de Bruyn

Carolina wren I77A0188©Maria de Bruyn res

Nearby, a Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus) was singing loudly; these little avians have an outsized voice so that you can hardly miss them even when they are hidden behind leaves.

A handsome male goldfinch (Spinus tristis) was in a field, while a female was visiting the coneflowers (Echinacea), of which there were various species in the cultivated butterfly garden.

 

 

American goldfinch I77A0382©Maria de Bruyn res American goldfinch I77A0177©Maria de Bruyn res

coneflower I77A7325© Maria de Bruyn res      coneflower I77A6365© Maria de Bruyn res   coneflower I77A6250© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird I77A6188© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Other birds were busy finding insect meals, like the male, female and immature Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

 

 

 

 

 

Eastern bluebird I77A6022© Maria de Bruyn res    Eastern bluebird I77A5558© Maria de Bruyn res

Common grackle I77A6377© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) scored a meal, while the pine warbler (Setophaga pinus) and blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptila caerulea) were busy in the trees searching for caterpillars and insects.

Other birds (and mammals, I think) had been getting crayfish from the ponds but I guess there were so many that they only ate the tastiest parts.

Pine warbler I77A5605© Maria de Bruyn res   Pine warbler I77A5598© Maria de Bruyn

 

blue-gray gnatcatcher I77A0302©Maria de Bruyn res     crayfish IMG_4926©Maria de Bruyn res

The American robins (Turdus migratorius) were looking for earthworms on the ground, and the song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) alternated between the ground and shrubs in their search for food.

American robin IMG_0550© Maria de Bruyn res     song sparrow I77A6195© Maria de Bruyn

The male red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) were calling and flying from shrub to shrub, showing off their handsome black plumage with a red highlight.

red-winged blackbird I77A6090© Maria de Bruyn res  red-winged blackbird I77A6126© Maria de Bruyn res

Over at a nearby pond, the Northern rough-winged swallows (Stelgidopteryx serripennis) were swooping over the water and then sharing space on a snag; meanwhile, a mother wood duck (Aix sponsa) led her brood along the shoreline.

rough-winged swallow I77A0234© Maria de Bruyn res    wood duck I77A7225© Maria de Bruyn

In a tree beside another pond, the immature great blue herons (Ardea herodias) were still at their nest at the start of June; later in the month, they were no longer hanging out there.

great blue heron IMG_0430© Maria de Bruyn res   great blue heron IMG_0402© Maria de Bruyn res

milkweed I77A0079©Maria de Bruyn res

 

Botanists can have a great time at Sandy Creek, too. The milkweed plants in the butterfly garden attract both butterflies and bees.

Carolina horsenettles (Solanum carolinense) are common but pretty little plants, while the orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) enjoys a good reputation as having stem juice that relieves the pain caused by poison ivy for many people.

Carolina horsenettle I77A5581© Maria de Bruyn res      orange jewelweed I77A0511© Maria de Bruyn res

The fairywand (Chamaelirium luteum) grows profusely on the edges of Sandy Creek ponds and the swamp rose (Rosa palustris) sprouts near them as well.

fairywand I77A7293© Maria de Bruyn res      swamp rose Rosa palustris I77A5621© Maria de Bruyn res

Japanese honeysuckle I77A5711© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), an invasive plant, attracts pollinators but so does the more vibrant and native coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens L.).

 

 

 

coral honeysuckle I77A0159© Maria de Bruyn res      coral honeysuckle I77A0127© Maria de Bruyn 2 res

In the fields, you can see lovely brown-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) and coreopsis.

Brown-eyed Susan IMG_0504© Maria de Bruyn res  brown-eyed Susan IMG_0497© Maria de Bruyn res

 

coreopsis flower IMG_0494© Maria de Bruyn res   coreopsis flower IMG_0486© Maria de Bruyn res

Stoke's aster I77A6353© Maria de Bruyn resThe cultivated garden in the park gets plenty of color from the Stoke’s asters (Stokesia laevis) and red bee balm (Monarda didyma), which is a real magnet for hummingbirds. I recently bought a couple for my home garden and was rewarded with seeing the hummers visit them within 2 days.

 

 

red bee balm I77A7307© Maria de Bruyn res    red bee balm I77A6390© Maria de Bruyn res

What makes my walks so interesting is discovering new species. A native grass (Bromus) was lovely; helpful facebook group members gave me suggestions for possible species but we couldn’t narrow it down. The group also helped me identify a plant that I hadn’t seen before, a Germander (Teucrium canadense).

grass Bromus IMG_4811© Maria de Bruyn res   Germander Teucrium canadense I77A0544© Maria de Bruyn res

I managed to find an ID myself for a common flower that seems to grow all over the place – the Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis). It is considered an invasive plant and is on the watch list for North Carolina, but I have to say that I find it quite attractive. Each flower blooms for only one day and to me they look like little faces and make me smile. And so I continue learning as each new walk invariably ends up teaching me something new. Enjoy your day!

Asiatic dayflower Commelina communis I77A0667© Maria de Bruyn res    Asiatic dayflower I77A0677© Maria de Bruyn res

Winter mornings at Jordan Lake

Mist on the lake I77A5266© Maria de BruynSpending two cold early mornings at Jordan Lake the past couple weeks reinforced my conviction that getting out into nature is a restorative and calming activity. And it doesn’t need to be warm. Although a doctor pronounced me healed after my recent hospitalization and home treatment, it turns out that I’m not completely healthy after all. Starting a new treatment was a bit stressful, but seeing the birds at the lake was a joy.

snag I77A6203© Maria de Bruyn res

Mind you, I’d love to see other wildlife there, but the mammals, reptiles and amphibians have been hiding out or keeping away from areas frequented by people. The fact that it is still hunting season probably makes some of them somewhat shy, too. I did manage to see a fly on one morning though.

fly I77A2979© Maria de Bruyn

The animals do leave behind signs of their presence, however. Tracks in the sand is one give-away that they passed by.

animal tracks I77A2998© Maria de Bruyn res

The beavers (Castor canadensis) leave behind distinctively gnawed tree stumps – and here you can also see one tree that they haven’t quite finished felling yet.

beaver tree I77A2933© Maria de Bruyn res beaver tree I77A2950© Maria de Bruyn res

The shoreline vegetation was decorated with gull feathers in various areas of the lake.

bird feather I77A2711© Maria de Bruyn res bird feather I77A2697© Maria de Bruyn res

heron track I77A2924© Maria de Bruyn res

 

A sandy track of what I assumed was a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) didn’t produce a bird at that site, but I saw these beauties in flight at two other sites.

 

great blue heron I77A3926© Maria de Bruyn res

great blue heron I77A2558© Maria de Bruyn res

At one area, I spotted a bird that seemed unfamiliar just as it was turning to take off. Friendly birders online identified it as an American pipit (Anthus rubescens), the first time I had seen this species (known as a “lifer” among the birding crowd). The next week I saw a killdeer (Charadrius vociferous) in the same spot but got a better shot.

American pipit I77A2526© Maria de Bruynkilldeer I77A5908© Maria de Bruyn

The killdeer didn’t hang around too long either, but I was able to get a couple of nice flight photos this time.

killdeer I77A5933© Maria de Bruyn res killdeer I77A5931© Maria de Bruyn res

American crow I77A2810© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) were foraging in the shoreline woods, while the song sparrow was looking for food among the woody detritus left at lakeside.

 

song sparrow I77A5877© Maria de Bruyn res song sparrow I77A5866© Maria de Bruyn res

In another place, the crows were very loudly making their presence known – it turned out that a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was perched nearby and they were making sure everyone knew the hawk was there.

red-tailed hawk I77A3850© Maria de Bruyn resAmerican crow I77A3878© Maria de Bruyn res

In the trees near the lake, various birds could be seen: the ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) was very busy as usual, flying from a sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) to other trees in rapid succession.

ruby-crowned kinglet I77A5662© Maria de Bruyn ruby-crowned kinglet I77A6049© Maria de Bruyn

At one site, there were many dark-eyed juncos foraging on the ground and taking pauses in the trees and shrubs around. Juncos are actually a type of sparrow and a group of sparrows is known by several names: a crew, a flutter, a meinie, a quarrel and an ubiquity.

dark-eyed junco I77A2838© Maria de Bruyn dark-eyed junco I77A2379© Maria de Bruyn

The downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) and red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) were in evidence at various lake sites.

downy woodpecker I77A2504© Maria de Bruyn resRed-bellied woodpecker I77A5384© Maria de Bruyn res

Overhead, the double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) flew by; they would land and share space with the ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis).

 

double-crested cormorant I77A2731© Maria de Bruyn resring-billed gull I77A3558© Maria de Bruyn res

ring-billed gull I77A2389© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The ring-billed gulls were numerous and occasionally one swooped down to fish not too far from shore.

ring-billed gull I77A5489© Maria de Bruyn resring-billed gull I77A5497© Maria de Bruyn res

While I was watching, the horned grebes (Odiceps auritus) were more successful in getting meals as they dove into the cold water.

Horned grebe I77A3662© Maria de Bruynhorned grebe I77A3094© Maria de Bruyn

belted kingfisher I77A4014© Maria de BruynA couple times I was very surprised by a bird that suddenly seemed to emerge out of nowhere to fly over my head or just in front of me. That was the case with a beautiful male wood duck (Aix sponsa) and a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon).

 

wood duck I77A3719© Maria de Bruyn res wood duck I77A3718© Maria de Bruyn res

bald eagle I77A3030© Maria de BruynAn adult bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) soared by just as I was approaching an observation platform in one area; the distance and height were considerable but I managed a shot. A Bonaparte’s gull (Chroicocephalus philadelphia) flew by a little lower, while a Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) sat still for a portrait.

 

Bonaparte's gull I77A3962© Maria de Bruyn

 

Carolina chickadee I77A5806© Maria de Bruyn res

My last avian companions during my latest lake walk were a white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) and a lovely hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus).

white-throated sparrow I77A6115© Maria de Bruynhermit thrush I77A6165© Maria de Bruyn

I returned home on both occasions a satisfied birder!