Bathing Beauties

Splish, splash, I was takin’ a bath…

~Bobby Darin and Murray Kaufman

I’ve settled into a routine now of sitting in the chair where I can see the waterfall every morning with my coffee, again at lunch, and often late in the day while working on the computer. The birds seem most active early and late, often before there is much light at all. But video is more forgiving than still photos on my camera so I have started taking short clips of the varied bird life that comes to partake of the moving water for either a drink or a bath. The most frequent visitors are a couple of male Scarlet Tanagers and some (one?) male Black-throated Blue Warblers. Below is a series of (some might say provocative) video clips of who has been caught bathing in our pool. Videos are best viewed full screen.

–Black-throated Blue Warblers have been regular visitors to the waterfall lately

— One or more female Black-throated Blues finally have started coming to bathe and drink

— These male Scarlet Tanagers have been my favorites and they are daily visitors (usually multiple times a day)

–This interaction caught us by surprise

Melissa was next to the camera and started filming for that last clip when a male Scarlet Tanager landed and started splashing. What happened next was a wonderful surprise for both of us. A male Baltimore Oriole landed and essentially chased off the smaller tanager. We have been hearing these migratory birds for a week or more singing in the trees, but had not spotted one. In fact, this sighting is only the second Baltimore Oriole observed since I began keeping records many years ago.

Besides the birds shown and mentioned in the last post, we have had a few more visitors to the pool including a female Scarlet Tanager, a male American Redstart, a Red-eyed Vireo, and a gorgeous Red-shouldered Hawk that dropped by in search of a frog meal no doubt. The hawk, vireo, and the Wood Thrushes are the only birds I have not managed to get even a pic of as yet.

Female Scarlet Tanager eyeing the water (click photos to enlarge)
American Redstart male

The female Scarlet Tanager made a very brief visit late one evening so I managed only a single shot that was somewhat sharp. The male American Redstart came in and flitted back and forth, flashing his tail as they usually do. He flew through the spray of the waterfall a couple of times and then took off without settling in for a bath, so no video, just a couple of hurried photos. Can’t wait to see what else visits in the coming weeks.

Clean It Out and They Will Come

When your environment is clean you feel happy motivated and healthy.

~Lailah Gifty Akita


I mentioned in an earlier post that we finally got around to cleaning out our two water gardens (aka salamander pools) in November. One had sprung a leak mid-way up its height a couple of years ago. It still held enough water for some critters but was choked with duckweed. The other sprung a leak this fall and drained, leaving a mud flat and lots of aquatic vegetation and their tangled root mats. These liners have been in for over 20 years (they are typically rated for 10) so I consider us lucky. We have a fairly narrow window for pond repairs as I want it to be late enough that cold weather has set in and numbed any Copperheads that might be hanging out in the rock walls, but before the Spotted Salamander breeding season, which can start as early as late December some years. I checked prices locally and online and purchased the liners at a place in Raleigh (prices have increased in 20 years!). I won’t bore you with the details, but I was pleased it only took us about a day each to totally re-do each pond, including cleaning out all the muck, putting in the new liner, and rebuilding and stabilizing their rock walls.

Lots of moving of rocks and debris to expose the old pond liner in the waterfall pool (click photos to enlarge)

–Removing the muck from the pools was the final step – we tried to rescue any amphibians and aquatic insects during the process

Laying out the new liners and then trimming to fit

After getting the liners in place, the difficult part is rebuilding a sturdy rock wall around each pond. Years ago, I purchased some flat rocks and then filled in with the irregular shaped stones that are so abundant on the property.

The first pool to be completed
The second pool has a small waterfall

The waterfall pool is great because we can hear the moving water from our screen porch so I like to think I am somewhere in the mountains when I hear it. The real advantage is as a possible additional attractant for birds (they love the sound of moving water), especially the neo-tropical migrants that move through our woods, so we will see what this season brings.

Our first good salamander rainfall didn’t occur until mid-February. We had a small run of salamanders and we ended up with about ten egg masses. About a month later we had a couple more nights of perfect weather for salamanders, and the bottoms of both pools were covered with spermatophores, followed a couple of nights later by lots of egg masses.

A Spotted Salamander egg mass as seen from below. The waterfall pool started off with very clear water which made observations and photography much easier (underwater photo taken with Olympus Tough camera)
Egg masses at different stages of development in the waterfall pool (underwater photo taken with Olympus Tough camera)
White embryos, as seen in the center egg mass, indicate the eggs are not viable. Studies have shown that egg mortality can be caused by a number of factors (including freezing) and may reach 20% to 40% of the total eggs laid in some years. Note that the gel of the egg mass itself can range from white-ish opaque to clear. That is the result of specific proteins in the gel. The significance and function of the opaque versus clear egg masses is unknown.
Egg masses are usually attached to twigs or underwater vegetation. I placed several tree branches in each pool for the females to utilize as attachment points for their eggs.
The egg masses grow in size over the first few days due to absorption of water
We ended up with about 100 egg masses in the two pools by mid-March!

I’ve been keeping tabs on the development of the eggs in the two pools over the last few weeks. Most have turned greenish in color due to the presence of an algae that is specific to Spotted Salamander egg masses. The algae probably gain nutrients like nitrogen from the waste products of the developing larvae and the larvae probably get oxygen from the photosynthesizing algae. Egg hatch time is temperature dependent and usually takes 4 to 6 weeks.

An egg mass a few weeks after being laid. Note the green color (due to symbiotic algae) and the progress in the development of the larvae.

The gel matrix holding the egg mass together starts to break down close to the time of hatching. I went out last week and lifted some of the twigs holding the egg masses and the jelly blobs started to fall apart. I gently placed one in a clear container and went inside to get my phone to photograph it. By the time I returned, there was a lot of activity in the container. Here is a quick video clip…

–the final stage of an egg mass – Spotted Salamander larvae breaking free of the gel matrix.

If you pause the video and look closely, you can see the tiny straight appendages dangling down near the head that serve as balancers for the newly hatched larva (there are also branched external gills at the head). After a couple of days, the balancers are reabsorbed when the larva is stronger and can swim and maintain an upright position in the water column.

I dipped in the pool yesterday and found one larva that has grown considerably and is now an active swimmer. Here’s hoping that many of them survive and transform into terrestrial juveniles in a couple of months. I look forward to their return on some cold and rainy nights in the years to come.

Air Traffic Uncontrolled

A song is like a picture of a bird in flight; the bird was moving before the picture was taken, and no doubt continued after.

~Pete Seeger

The Evening Grosbeaks continue to delight us by devouring sunflower seeds every morning in a feeding frenzy of yellow, black and white. My high count was one day this week when I managed to see 26 of them (mostly males) flitting between the two feeders. Things can get crazy when they all show up at once and jostle for position at the hanging sunflower tray outside our window.

This hectic scene is repeated several times each morning

I have many photos of them at the feeder and sitting in nearby branches waiting their turn. But, how many images of a bird on a stick (even a beautiful bird like an Evening Grosbeak) does one really need?

Male Evening Grosbeak perched near feeder (click photos to enlarge)

After watching them one morning, I decided to try to capture them in flight as they came into the feeder or hovered near it trying to find a space. At first, I was hand holding the camera (and 300 mm telephoto) trying to anticipate their movements. That resulted in a lot of photos like the two below…

Out of focus grosbeak headed to feeder
Many images had only part of a bird

I then figured out it might be easier to pre-focus on an area and snap the shutter when I thought the bird might cross through the field of view.

Male Evening Grosbeak with landing gear down

I didn’t like having the feeder in the photo, so I pointed the camera to the right of the feeder and hoped I could catch them coming in. I soon discovered having the camera on a tripod and just watching the birds (without looking through the viewfinder) was the easiest way to get some pics. I just pressed the shutter whenever any bird was flying (of course, this also left me with a lot of blank images to delete). Below is a selection of incoming grosbeaks…

Incoming male Evening Grosbeak
Male with wings spread
Female grosbeak zooming in
Female grosbeak making a sharp turn
This is one of my favorites, the bullet bird giving me a glance as it zooms by
Male grosbeak getting ready to land
The feeder is shaded by the roof’s shadow at about 11 a.m and this image was taken in full shade, but I like the total spread of the wing

So, I now have a bunch of images of birds in flight near the feeder. What’s next? Well, if they are still here the next sunny morning we have, I want to capture the full version of the pic below. Every once in a while, the birds take their feeder squabbles to the air and really go at it with beaks and feet locking as the fly in a tangle of brilliant feathers. I’ll let you know if I am successful.

Male grosbeaks squabbling over position at the feeder (oh, for a camera pointed just a little higher)

Finally

We usually get what we anticipate.

~Claude M. Bristol

It has been a great year for those birds from up north (a so-called bird irruption). This occurs periodically when cone crops fail across vast stretches of Canadian boreal forests. Other factors can contribute, and different species may react differently, but those that migrate far from their normal range are usually just looking for food resources. It looked like it could be a good irruption year when we saw a Red-breasted Nuthatch early last fall. Then Pine Siskins started arriving along with Purple Finches (both of the latter species were absent here in our woods last year). And then I started hearing reports of Pine Grosbeaks in New Jersey and Evening Grosbeaks moving south. Evening Grosbeaks are sort of the holy grail of irruptive species (well, the Snowy Owl seen this winter on the OBX is probably a bigger thrill, but I have not seen Evening Grosbeaks in the Piedmont since 1998!).

To stoke the anticipation, friends in northeastern NC reported Evening Grosbeaks at their feeder back in November and I saw reports in Chapel Hill and other nearby locations in December. Why aren’t they here? I whined. Then a couple of weeks ago, a friend texted me he was just down the road watching them at a neighbor’s feeders and asked if I had seen them (NO!!!). After a couple of days they were seen at a closer neighbor’s house. I waited…

Then, this weekend, Melissa saw one at the feeder out back, but it spooked before I got there (but that counts, right?). Finally, on Monday, I saw them (and the wait was, indeed, worth it).

Five males and one female Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) on our platform feeder (click photos to enlarge)

These grosbeaks are hard to miss when they finally make an appearance. First, they are rather chunky, boldly patterned birds.

Female Evening Grosbeak

Females (and immature males) are mostly gray with bold black and white wings and a wash of yellow on their necks.

Male Evening Grosbeak

Males are even harder to miss – black and yellow with a very bold white wing patch and a bright yellow forehead and eye stripe.

And that bill…

Grosbeak beak

A reminder that the name “grosbeak” comes from the French “gros bec”, which means large beak. That huge, conical beak is useful for crushing seeds (and no doubt inflicting a painful bite on bird banders). It turns out that the several types of grosbeak found in the U.S., though similar in their beak adornments, are not all related. Pine and Evening Grosbeaks are members of the finch family, Fringillidae, which also includes Pine Siskins, crossbills, and goldfinches. Rose-breasted and Blue Grosbeaks belong to the family Cardinalidae that includes Northern Cardinals, Indigo Buntings, and tanagers.

But, as I said earlier, of all the NC grosbeaks, the Evening Grosbeak is the toughest to regularly find in our state. Historically, Evening Grosbeaks were birds of the north and west, hardly ever seen in the eastern half of the U.S. much before the late 1800’s. Then, for reasons not totally understood (but probably related to Spruce Budworm outbreaks in eastern Canada and increased planting of Boxelder, another valuable food source), the breeding range expanded eastward. The number of wintering birds in the northeast peaked between 1940s and mid-1980s but has declined dramatically since then. And in NC, the Birds of North Carolina, Their Distribution and Abundance web site states that their status in the Piedmont is “erratic winter visitor; strongly declining.”

But this year, they are back, and in good numbers. I counted a maximum of 25 between our two feeding stations yesterday (and I am guessing I missed several as they are so active). They have been coming mainly in the morning, an ironic schedule given their name. In fact, In his Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds, Arthur C. Bent made this observation – Ordinarily the species is not crepuscular, and in fact it might better be called “morning grosbeak,” for it is most active early in the day.

A male waits is turn for a spot at the feeder

Each morning this week, they are going through a lot of sunflower seed and making it tougher for the usual group of Purple Finches to crowd in on the platform feeders. Most of the other bird species are either hitting the tube feeders or the suet when the black and yellow throng arrives, as the grosbeaks tend to be somewhat pugnacious at feeding time. Again, looking back to Bent’s Life Histories, he commented: Although evening grosbeaks are ordinarily gregarious and sociable, feeding harmoniously when scattered openly on the ground, their behavior is quite different when crowded on the feeding trays. There they are often selfish, hostile, and belligerent, pushing their way in, sparring with open beaks, and threatening to attack or drive out a new arrival. They are bosses of the tray and are intolerant of other species, driving away even the starlings; only the blue jay seems able to cope with them. Even the females of their own species are not immune to attack by the males. But, so eager are they for their food, that the tray remains crowded full of birds as long as there is standing room.

Well, I guess not all Canadians are kind…

Things can get pretty hectic when a flock of Evening Grosbeaks descends on your feeder

Anybody Home?

Every night in the woods, when most humans are safely indoors, strange creatures emerge from their lairs and leap into the air, swooping silently among the trees.~Michael Farquhar

I was strolling the yard yesterday, looking for whatever small critters caught my eye, when I walked over to the front of the house where we have some shade-loving wildflowers planted. A couple of years ago I put up a new hollow log nest box in that bed, but have had no takers, so I assumed there was a design flaw of some sort or that perhaps bees or wasps had taken over.

IMG_9318

Hollow log nest box in the yard. The PVC pipe surrounding the pole is to help prevent snakes from climbing into the box (click photos to enlarge)

I periodically check all our boxes by gently tapping on the sides or looking inside (on the bluebird boxes with opening fronts) but had never seen anything in this particular nest cavity. So, as I walked by yesterday, I gently tapped the sides, but didn’t bother to look at the box as my gaze was on a fallen log just beyond where I thought I saw something move. After a few seconds, I turned and was pleasantly surprised to see something quietly staring back at me.

Southern flying squirrel at nest box

A calm Southern Flying Squirrel wondering why I woke it up

I was only about two feet away, so I slowly turned, pulled my phone out and snapped a pic. The little guy didn’t budge, so I stepped out in front of the box to get a more straight-on view. Again, I snapped a few images, and it just quietly stared back, not twitching even a whisker.

Southern flying squirrel at nest box front view

After snapping a few photos, I stepped away to let this cute little fur ball return to its afternoon nap

I didn’t want to startle the squirrel, so I walked away without looking back until I was about 20 feet from the pole. When I glanced back, the flying squirrel had pulled back into the hole but was still keeping an eye on the bipedal interloper.

I have reported before on the flying squirrels that visit our bird feeder out back and, though I have not seen them lately, I suspected they were back at it as the sunflower seed seems to be disappearing quicker than usual. Last night, I turned the porch lights on just before heading to bed, and there was a flying squirrel hanging on the tube feeder, stuffing itself. I guess I show my bias when I am happy to share with these smallest of NC’s tree squirrels and much less tolerant of their gray daytime cousins.

Mulberry Moments

Green gives and red receives. Nature is colour coded!

~Sonali Mohan

Some of you may have known him, and, even if you didn’t, you may have one of his bluebird boxes in your yard. Jack Finch started a non-profit, Homes For Bluebirds, to help restore his beloved Eastern Bluebird to the skies of the southeast. He built thousands of quality bluebird nest boxes and was tireless in his efforts to promote ways to enhance bluebird populations. When I worked at the museum, I made frequent trips out to his farm to purchase nest boxes for schools and to talk about bluebirds. He was always experimenting with ways to provide more food for bluebirds from raising mealworms to selecting for late blooming dogwoods that would produce berries later into the season. For awhile, he promoted mulberry trees as a food source, and that is how I ended up with a sapling many years ago.  I planted it in what was then a sunny spot near my shop, and now, the tree produces berries every spring for the local wildlife. I hope Jack would not be disappointed that his tree has more green and red than blue.

It turns out that Scarlet Tanagers are frequent visitors and berry pickers in this tree every spring. This week, as I was going in and out of the shop while tinkering on some woodworking projects, I kept seeing tanagers feeding. So, I brought out the camera, set up the tripod at the door, got comfortable in a chair, and waited.

Male scarlet tanager with berry

Male Scarlet Tanager eating a mulberry (click photos to enlarge)

Scarlet tanager female reaching for berry

Female Scarlet Tanager reaching for a berry

Female scarlet tanager

Female Scarlet Tanager in a rare spot of sunlight in the branches

The tree leans out over the driveway and has one branch down low at eye level. There are only a few spots where a bird can perch that present a clear shot through the branches and leaves, but it was great fun watching them come and go. They are active feeders in that they often have to flutter their wings to maintain their balance while reaching out to the twig tips for berries, adding to the photography challenges.

male scarlet tanager 1

This male landed in spot where the green background provided a nice contrast to his brilliant red plumage

At first, I was usually seeing a pair, a male and female, coming together. On one visit, another male showed up! And a few seconds later, a male Summer Tanager flew in (but avoided having his picture taken), along with what I first thought was an immature male Summer Tanager. It had a lot of yellow coloration mixed with the red. In reading online, it seems that some older females may have a lot of red overtones (females are usually yellow), and this one’s colors are more blended than patchy. I’m not exactly sure which sex this one is, but now I’m leaning towards a female, as the immature males I have seen in the past were more splotchy.

Immature male tanager

A Summer Tanager with a lot of red and yellow coloration

That certainly was a highlight of my mulberry viewing – five tanagers at once! In between tanager feedings, I saw a lot of other species going about their daily routines.

female cardinal

This female Northern Cardinal stopped in for a quick visit

Swainson's thrush

A Swainson’s Thrush was feeding on the few remaining American Holly berries on a nearby tree

Wood thrush

A pair of Wood Thrush made regular foraging trips to the area just outside the shop

ovenbird

An Ovenbird calling nearby finally came for a quick visit

Chipmunk watching me

An Eastern Chipmunk, with both cheeks full, sat and watched me for about 5 minutes before deciding I was safe and moving on

A few notables that I saw but didn’t get photos for included Chipping Sparrows, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, the family of Carolina Wrens that fledged from inside my shop, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Blue Jays, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler. But, the stars of the show are definitely the male Scarlet Tanagers.

side view male scarlet tanager

The red is so intense on a male Scarlet Tanager that it makes a cardinal almost seem pale

I think Thoreau summed it up nicely in his description of a male Scarlet Tanager…

The tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.

 

 

Suet Sampler

I don’t feed the birds because they need me; I feed the birds because I need them.

~Kathi Hutton

Sunday was a gray, chilly day here in the woods and the birds were quite active at the feeders. One group of birds, in particular, had my attention, the gorgeous Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have been back about two weeks. They make a stop of a few weeks every spring on their way to their breeding grounds further north (and in our mountains), and then again in the fall as they head to their wintering grounds in Central and South America. I decided to set up the camera and tripod in our bedroom, open the door to the deck, and record who came to visit the suet feeder mounted on the deck rail. I did something similar a few years back and shared images in another post. This time, I sat for a little over an hour, and tried to take pictures of everything that came in to the feeder. Enjoy the view from our deck…

Rose-breasted grosbeak male

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak (click photos to enlarge)

It started with a single male and we are now up to our usual number of 9 grosbeaks visiting the feeders – 7 males and 2 females. They tend to come in all at once and spread out between our two feeding stations. Their favorite treat seems to be the sunflower seeds at the platform feeders (they have trouble balancing on the tube feeder). But they are also frequent the suet feeders as well, especially the one on the deck which has a branch underneath where birds can perch and reach up to the suet. Because of our superabundance of squirrels, we use only hot pepper suet, which is a deterrent to mammals, but not birds.

Rose-breasted grosbeak males at feeder

Lining up at the suet.

Rose-breasted grosbeak female

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are brown with striping and a bold eye stripe.

Blue jay

The undisputed piggies at the suet are the Blue Jays. They can quickly take chunks away, but they are a bit skittish, and flush easily if we are outside or walking near widows inside.

Red-bellied woodpecker female

A pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers (this is the female which lacks a full red head) are regular year-round visitors to the suet.

Downy and chippie

Downy woodpeckers are also regular visitors, but this spring we also have a pair of Chipping Sparrows feeding in the yard.

White-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch.

Tufted titmouse

We have a gang of Tufted Titmice that make regular rounds throughout the yard.

Carolina chickadee

Carolina Chickadees are with us all year.

Northern cardinal 1

A pair of Northern Cardinals visit the feeders every day, but it is mainly the male that feeds on suet.

Summer tanager

Another of our special suet visitors is a pair of Summer Tanagers (we have only seen the male thus far).

Pine warbler with caterpillar

Pine Warblers are common at our suet in winter but not this time of year. This one stopped by his old diner with a side dish of caterpillar.

I missed photos of two other birds that eat the suet this time of year – American Crows (who are too savvy to come in while I’m sitting there), and our local pair of Carolina Wrens. They are busy feeding their newly fledged young and don’t have time for an appearance.

There have been some other good bird finds this week away from the feeders as spring migration is in full swing and our newly arrived breeding birds are setting up territories or starting to nest. I stumbled across an Ovenbird nest with eggs down in our woods while clearing some invasive shrubs (the dreaded Eleagnus). She flew out of her dome-shaped ground nest doing the broken wing act to lure me away. And we have seen and heard a variety of migrants all week long, some that will stay with us through the summer…

Red-eyed vireo

A bonus visitor just off the deck – a Red-eyed Vireo, foraging for insects.

Scarlet tanager

This is the best I could do with one of my favorite summer species, the vibrant Scarlet Tanager. They tend to be up high in the canopy but should come down lower in a few weeks when the mulberries ripen (a treat for both species of tanagers in our woods).

Yellow-throated warbler in yard

Remember how excited we were to see the Yellow-throated Warbler down low along the Roanoke River? Well, the other day one was hopping around in our garden. While this was happening we saw and heard American Redstarts, a Black-and-white Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, and Black-throated Blues. Ah, spring!

Birds in the Garden

Poor indeed is the garden in which birds find no homes.

~ Abram L. Urban

This garden (NC Botanical Garden) is anything but poor if the birds are any indication. Bird activity seems to have increased dramatically the past few weeks. Many seem to be thinking of the coming nesting season…bluebirds singing from atop nest boxes, a house finch gathering nest materials, and a brown-headed nuthatch checking out a cavity in a snag. And bird activity in the feeding station near the bird blind has really picked up. We moved the feeders closer to the blind this week and I went down yesterday for about 15 minutes to see what was happening. The late afternoon light is not conducive to photography from the blind itself, so I was just standing out near the feeders with the light coming in over my shoulder. It didn’t take long for things to get busy, very busy. In 15 minute I saw 16 species, with some great views of most. I’m hoping to create some interpretive information so I grabbed a few photos while standing in the midst of the avian mess hall.

cardinal and bluebird

It’s not every day you see these two species at the same feeder (click photos to enlarge)

brown-headed nuthatch on suet log

Brown-headed nuthatch on suet log

tufted titmouse

Tufted titmouse

white-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch

northern cardinal

Northern cardinal female

downy woodpecker

Downy woodpecker

pine warbler and reflection

Pine warbler

Here is a list of species seen yesterday in the bird observation area (not bad for 15 minutes):

Eastern Bluebird; Northern Cardinal; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; White-breasted Nuthatch; Brown-headed Nuthatch; Yellow-rumped Warbler; Pine Warbler; Downy Woodpecker; Mourning Dove; Brown-headed Cowbird; Dark-eyed Junco; White-throated Sparrow; House Finch; Ruby-crowned Kinglet; Carolina Wren

Humming Along

One minute poised in midair, apparently motionless before a flower while draining the nectar from its deep cup—though the humming of its wings tells that it is suspended there by no magic—the next instant it has flashed out of sight as if a fairy’s wand had made it suddenly invisible.

~Neltje Blanchan, 1923

hummingbird at feeder

Hummingbird on a feeder (click photos to enlarge)

It seems the hummingbirds have been zipping about the yard with added intensity these past couple of weeks. Maybe they are like me and it is the heat that is making them grumpy. Or maybe they know the season is about to change, and that they will soon need to move on, so they had better stock up for the long flight. Whatever the reason, it has been quite a show at the feeders and flowers scattered around the yard. I typically see 4 or 5 of the tiny jet fighters at once, meaning there are probably 4 or 5 times that many around the yard. Our place is so shaded that it is hard to find a good sunny spot to photograph them other than in the morning, when the sun highlights the pathway to one of the feeders on the front porch. The past few days have found me standing out in the yard, watching their comings and goings, and trying to capture a few moments of their hectic lives.

Hummingbird silhouette

Hummingbird surveying his domain

Hummingbirds tend to perch near their favorite feeders/flowers, guarding them against interlopers that might get some of “their” nectar. One bird likes a particular dead branch hanging out over the front walkway.

Hummingbird releasing liquid waste

Hummingbird in mid-air (note – it is excreting as it hovers)

While things at the feeder can be frenetic, I spent a lot of time standing and waiting. Studies have shown that hummingbirds feed, on average, 5-8 times per hour, but only for 30 – 60 seconds at each feeding.

Ruby-throated hummingbird imm male 4

This one has kicked it in to overdrive as it approaches a feeder

But when they do move in, they do it with gusto. There is nothing subtle about their flight. They are pure aerial acrobats, and a joy to watch. Here are some incredible facts about hummingbirds from two sources: The Hummingbird Book, by Donald and Lillian Stokes; and Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project.

Ruby-throated hummingbird imm male

A hummingbird hovering

Hummingbirds have the amazing ability to fly forward at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, can hover, fly backward, and even upside down briefly. The number of wing beats is also impressive – 60 times per second in normal flight; up to 200 times per second in courtship flight dives.

Ruby-throated hummingbird in flight

Hummingbirds hover better than other birds

Their unusual wing structure allows hummingbirds to hover better than most other species. Unlike other birds, the bones in the wing of a hummingbird are fixed, except at the shoulder joint, which can move in all directions.

hummingbird-figure-8-wingbeat

Wing motion of a hovering hummingbird

While hovering, a hummingbird’s wing moves forward and then the leading edge rotates almost 180 degrees, and moves back. As this motion is repeated, the tips of the wings trace a horizontal figure eight in the air.

female ruby-throated hummingbird in flight

Female ruby-throats generally have white bellies and throats, and are slightly larger than males

Female ruby-throats are  often more aggressive at feeders than males, since they are usually slightly larger. The average male weighs about 3 grams, or about the same as a penny. The average female is slightly larger, weighing in at about 3.5 grams. But both sexes can put on considerable weight this time of year in preparation for the migration south (often almost doubling their mass prior to flying south).

Ruby-throated hummingbird back view

White-tipped, rounded tail feathers, belong to female or immature male ruby-throated hummingbirds

Ruby-throated hummingbird male with pointed tail feathers

Adult males have pointed, dark-tipped tail feathers

Male ruby-throated hummingbirds are the first to arrive on the breeding grounds in spring, and the first to leave to return to their winter homes in late summer. Many of the adult males have already headed south, so, at first glance, it may look like a bunch of females in your yard. But, a closer look may give you some insights. While the tail feathers of adult males are dark-tipped and pointed, those of young males resemble the female, being rounded and white-tipped.

Ruby-throated hummingbird imm male showing one red feather

Young males often have streaked throats and just a few feathers showing red color

A better way to distinguish the sexes is to look at their throats. First-year males often have streaked throats (some females can as well), and frequently will have a few red feathers in their throat patch (or gorget) by this time of year.

Ruby-throated hummingbird adult male

Adult male ruby-throats have a brilliant red gorget, that can vary in intensity according to the light

Adult male ruby-throats have about 200 specialized feathers on their throat patch, which is called the gorget. The outer third of these feathers are iridescent. They have microscopic grooves and air bubbles that scatter and refract incoming light to make the feathers appear red. But, the iridescent part of the gorget feathers are flat, and only reflect light in one direction.

Hummingbird male with dark throat

Adult males have dark throats (color varies according to how the light hits the feathers)

You have to be looking at the feathers from the right direction in order to see the flash of iridescent red. From other viewing angles, the feathers appear dark, or even black.

Hummingbird blinking close up

Hummingbirds have “eyelashes”

In looking at my images, I found several where the hummingbird was blinking. It almost looked like they had eyelashes. Well, in a way, they do. They have short bristle-like feathers along the edge of their eyelids. They probably function similar to our own by helping keep objects out of the bird’s eyes.

Ruby-throated hummingbird at jewelweed 2

Hummingbirds in my yard feed from a variety of wildflowers, in addition to the sugar water feeders

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are believed to ingest at least half their weight in sugars each day. If you watch them closely, you can see they also feed on small insects and spiders, often snatching tiny flying insects out of the air.

Ruby-throated hummingbird at jewelweed 3

Young male hummingbird hovering and feeding below a jewelweed flower

Dining on the wing as they do, hummingbirds have significant flight muscles, which account for about 25% of their body weight. Compare that to the analogous pectoral muscles of a human which make up a mere 5% of most humans.

Hummingbird sticking out tongue

Even at rest, they are humming along at a fast pace

A hummingbird is fast-paced even at rest – their heart rate is about 1250 beats per minutes and they breathe about 250 times per minute while perched. And what about that tongue! They can extend it a distance about equal to the length of their bill. And when lapping up nectar or sugar water at your feeder, their tongue flicks in and out about 13 times per second. They are truly remarkable birds, the flying jewels of our gardens. Enjoy them while they are still here, humming along at the flowers and feeders wherever you live.

Stormy Night

It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents…

~Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1830

And indeed it was…last night. We barely beat a fierce thunderstorm as we drove back from dinner with friends in Chapel Hill. The sky was flashing with rapid-fire lightning when we arrived at our gate. I must have done something right recently, as just when I stopped at the gate, my driver’s side windshield wiper arm came apart. That would have been very problematic a few minutes earlier as we drove through a downpour. The rain let up just long enough for us to get inside, and then the sky opened up, and down it came. Something else must have come down somewhere as it wasn’t long before the power flickered, and then went out. A reminder of how really dark it can be out here in the woods…incredibly lively as well. Outside, I could hear another chorus of Cope’s gray tree frogs cranking up, another attempt at spreading the genes around. Most of the sound was coming from the water garden that sits half-empty, awaiting repair. I mentioned it in an earlier post as the source of the abundance of transforming tree frog tadpoles in the yard. And it looked like this would be another night for creating the start of many mini-frogs.

The rain let up so i wandered outside (sans camera, unfortunately) to see what all the fuss was about. I discovered a couple of reasons why it isn’t easy being a tree frog in love. A huge bullfrog was sitting over by one pool, the one without the breeding tree frogs. A guy that big can easily grab and swallow any tree frog that comes his way. That may be one reason the tree frogs are using the other pool, although I think it also has something to do with the thick cover of duckweed and other vegetation in the bullfrog pool. When I walked over to the tree frog pool, I saw another potential hazard to romancing frogs – a copperhead was dangling out over the pool, no doubt waiting for a love-struck frog to venture too close. By the way, that is one reason that pool will remain in a state of disrepair until colder weather arrives. I prefer moving all those stones after certain species are retired for the year.

The rain started up again so I retreated indoors. I soon heard a frog calling from out front, sounding like it was just outside the front door. I grabbed the camera and stepped out underneath the covered entrance way. The rain paused and I heard the frog call again, very close.

Cope's Gray Treefrog on walkway

Cope’s gray tree frog sitting on walkway (click photos to enlarge)

I knelt down, and spotted the caller perched on the edge of our wooden walkway into the house. He was facing the to-be-repaired pool, the source of all of the other calling. Suddenly, he puffed his body a couple of times, as if taking a deep breath…

Cope's Gray Treefrog calling side view

Gray tree frog calling

…and let go with a loud trill. His vocal sac extended for a second or so, just long enough for me to fire off a shot. I sat and watched him call a few more times before heading back inside. I figured he would soon hop off toward the other pool and join in the breeding frenzy. It is getting a little late in the summer for a full-on bout of tree frog breeding (the peak of activity is usually from late May – July), but you wouldn’t have known it last night. It has been a wet summer, and the frogs are taking advantage of every last storm, and last night it really seemed like it was raining cats and dogs (or frogs and toads at least). We probably had close to 2 inches of rain in the storm, and power remained out until about 5:30 this morning.

Right before heading to bed, I looked out the front door again. The calling frog had turned and was now facing me. I couldn’t let that obvious invitation go unanswered, so out I went with my camera one more time.

Cope's Gray Treefrog front view

Catching his breath before another trill

I bent down a couple of feet away and he sized me up, but apparently had more important things on his mind…trilllllll!

Cope's Gray Treefrog calling front view

Nice trill…

About that time, my camera battery died, so I headed back inside to a darkened house. I don’t know whether his efforts eventually paid off or not, but I felt lucky to have shared a few moments of darkness with such good company.