My trip last weekend included some time at both Myrtle Beach State Park and nearby Huntington Beach State Park. While hanging with friends at the former park, I was impressed by the amount of bird activity and marine life (from the ocean pier) we saw. Cedar Waxwings were everywhere scarfing up the ripe Yaupon berries. The surprise birthday party for my friend was held at one of the picnic shelters and there happened to be some Yaupon trees along the road edge so I finally took my camera over toward the trees and stood for awhile hoping the flock would come in closer. They were pretty spooked by all the bicycles and cars going by so I managed only a few images.
While sitting at the picnic shelter, Scott saw an immature Red-tailed Hawk fly in and land on a pine limb over the road. It had captured what looked like a young squirrel. We all got up and looked at it and it just sat there looking around. I finally eased over underneath to get a photo. It finally took off and flew into the woods a few hundred feet away and began to eat its meal.
Back at Huntington Beach, the falling tide on the salt marsh side of the causeway revealed a smorgasbord of dining opportunities for the local birds. Great and Snowy Egrets stalked the shallows for small fish.
The Tri-colored Heron and Greater Yellowlegs were mainly going after smaller prey, the abundant transparent Grass Shrimp.
My favorite hunters were the pair of Ospreys patrolling both sides of the causeway. I was hoping to get a series of shots of one diving and catching a fish, their primary prey (an Osprey’s diet is 99% fish). An Osprey typically soars over a water body at a height of 30 – 100 feet, scanning the water surface for fish. When it spots one, it will usually momentarily hover, and then fold its wings and drop toward the water. I watched as one bird did this time and again and then pulled up before actually hitting the water.
Finally, one bird hovered close to the causeway and quickly started its dive. I tried following it but missed a few images or had some blurry ones as it dove toward the surface near the causeway.
It hit the water several feet out in front of me and was so close that I couldn’t get the whole bird in the photos! Their long wings give the extra lift to pull their prey out of the water. Their nostrils also shut tight as they hit the water.
Studies show success rates for Osprey dives of between 24% and 82% (meaning they don’t catch a fish every time). They have specialized toe pads, strongly hooked talons, and a reversible outer toe, all of which give them a better grip on the fish.
Osprey are the only raptor that has oily feathers, which allows them to shake off the water as they emerge from the surface, making it easier to lift off with their prey.
It all happened so fast, I lost track of the Osprey as it flew away, did the characteristic body shake that follows most dives (to shake off the water) and headed to a perch to eat its meal. Ospreys usually orient the fish head first to reduce drag as they fly. On this day, no Bald Eagle appeared to try to steal a meal and I finally saw the Osprey fly far across the marsh to a large dead tree.
All in all, a great couple of hours of hunting at Huntington Beach. Watching all that feeding had made me hungry, so I decided to grab a bite myself and head home.
Portraits are about revealing aspects of an individual.
Last weekend I drove down to Myrtle Beach, SC, for a surprise birthday party for my friend Scott. Of course, I had to visit one of my favorite birding and photography spots while I was there, the nearby Huntington Beach State Park. The causeway leading to the beach passes across an oasis for birds with a freshwater lake on one side and a tidal salt marsh on the other. With lots of time with old friends from my state park days, I didn’t make it over to Huntington at prime time of dawn or sunset, but still managed to grab a few mid-day photos of some of the residents. One of the great aspects of this place for photography is that the critters are very accustomed to people walking on the causeway and nearby trails and can be quite tolerant while you capture their portrait.
It’s not that I like ice Or freezin’ winds and snowy ground. It’s just sometimes it’s kind of nice To be the only bird in town.
This final post on our January Yellowstone trip shares a few highlights of the birds we encountered. There are certainly way fewer birds in this frozen land in winter, though the thermal features do keep some waterways open for the few waterfowl that remain (or gather there in winter, in the case of Trumpeter Swans). And the activities of wolves and the bottleneck of cold and food limitations do provide sustenance for the avian scavengers – the eagles, magpies, and ravens. Here are a few bird highlights from the trip…
Recent surveys have estimated there are 200-300 ravens utilizing the northern part of the park as habitat. They are frequently seen near areas of concentrated human activity (pit stops, favorite pullouts, etc.) where they are very clever at taking advantage of any potential food items left unguarded. They are also abundant at any carcass, be it a roadkill or wolf kill.
The sight of Ravens wearing mini-backpacks (satellite transmitters) really peaked my curiosity. The one above was photographed at Tower Junction near the pit toilets and trash/recycling bins. We saw another one (maybe more) flying back and forth with chunks of meat at the bison carcass where we watched the wolves. When I got home I started searching for more information about this study, the Yellowstone Raven Project. The goal is to have about 70 ravens tagged in the park, all wearing solar-powered GPS backpacks with an antenna that submits the birds’ locations every 30 minutes throughout the day. Using this data, researchers are able to piece together the movement of Ravens from sunrise to sunset. There are many things they are investigating about these highly intelligent birds (how do Ravens consistently find wolf kills?; how far do they travel daily/monthly/yearly,?; where are they roosting?, etc.). I contacted Dr. Marzluff, the lead scientist, this week and asked about the Raven above, as I could not find the color code combination of leg bands on the Animal Tracker app, (this free app allows you to peek in on the movements of various tagged animals around the world, including the Yellowstone Raven Project). He promptly responded to let me know that this bird, a female, was captured and tagged on December 10, 2021, at Tower Junction, and has not yet been added to the app. In fact, he was watching that bird the day I emailed him! I’ll try to follow up with him in a few weeks to see what this bird has been up to. It is really amazing to be able to follow research going on in the park (and there is a lot of it!).
One of the more unusual bird interactions was with a roadkill Ruffed Grouse. We passed it and Melissa radioed me asking if that thing in the road was an animal or just a mud blob or other inanimate object. I wasn’t sure, so when we came back through, I noticed it was, indeed, an animal. I radioed her and she stopped, exclaiming it was a bird, a grouse! We parked and everyone got out to do a spontaneous roadside necropsy. We saw the track trail of the bird approaching the road in the snow and then the tragic result. Melissa poked around and we could see the stomach contents, which included some rose hips (something I had ironically mentioned as a bird food source to the group on one of our snowshoe hikes when we passed one of the shrubs with its bright red fruit). This close up view also allowed us to admire the beautiful plumage and the amazing adaption of the bristles along the birds’ toes which act like grouse-sized snowshoes. Another unique Yellowstone teachable moment!
One of my favorite birds in the park, anytime of year, is the American Dipper. I sat along the river one day watching one feed from the edge of the ice.
I reviewed 7 video clips I made of athe dipper feeding and the average time spent underwater was 6 seconds (five 6’s, a 5, and a 7). The dipper was successful in bringing up a prey item in all seven instances. All were small invertebrates with the exception of one decent-sized macroinvertebrate that I think was a stonefly larva.
So, why do dippers dip? There are a few theories out there: 1) the repetitive bobbing against the backdrop of turbulent water may help conceal the bird’s profile from predators; 2) dipping in this and some other birds may helps it sight prey; 3) the one that an Audubon article I ran across thinks is the most likely is that dipping and the rhythmic batting of those bright white eyelids is a mode of visual communication with other dippers in their typically noisy environment where the usual calls might not be easily heard.
We also saw several other species that evaded a decent photo including Common Redpoll, Gray-crowned Rosy Finch, Black-billed Magpie, Pine Grosbeak, Hairy Woodpecker, Clark’s Nutcracker, Gray Jay, and Red-breasted Nuthatch, Mallard, and Trumpeter Swan.
Thanks for following our winter adventure. Can’t wait to go back!
Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.
This is the last in a series on my wanderings last week in eastern North Carolina and is about the middle of my trip when I visited the coast. After my brief visit with the pool birds at Bodie Island, I drove down to Pea island National Wildlife Refuge. At the Visitor Center, I got out to look for birds in the pool at the start of the walkway and found just a few sparrows, Several people were down on the dike and most birds were pretty far out in the ponds on both sides. Walking back toward the center, I saw a couple of ducks along the marsh edge a bit closer than the rest of the birds in sight. I sat down and waited and soon a Blue-winged Teal swam by followed by a couple of Gadwall. A Common Moorhen made brief appearances at the edge of the marsh but never long enough for a photo.
A Tricolored Heron flew in and chased off an egret back in the grasses. A few other folks came over to photograph the birds and I soon headed back to the car.
On the drive in I noticed a bunch of birds close to the highway visible in a break in the dunes. I drove up and parked and started taking some photos while balancing the telephoto lens on a bean bag on the car door. Whenever possible, I try to stay in my vehicle when photographing wildlife as most species are more tolerant of a vehicle than a human form. Soon, another car pulled up and people got out and walked over toward the birds. The mixed flock of shorebirds and waterfowl surprisingly didn’t seem to care, so I got out and moved a little closer, steadying the camera on a tripod while sitting in the sand. Below are some of the subjects I sat with for over an hour with dump trucks loaded with sand whizzing by twenty feet away on a busy Hwy 12.
I overheard a group of birders (you know, those people with binoculars and scopes standing out in the cold) nearby say they spotted a Peregrine Falcon on the far side of North Pond. I scanned the area and finally saw it far away in the top of a dead tree snag. Soon, there was an eruption of shorebirds (mainly the Dunlin) and some of the smaller ducks as the swift predator streaked by overhead. The falcon circled the area high in the sky and then disappeared. I soon spotted it again perched in the same snag. The shorebirds and ducks would alert me every time the falcon took to the air by making high-pitched squeaks and a general ruckus of sounds. If you’re a potential meal, it pays to keep an eye on a bird that regularly takes birds as prey at speeds of up to 200 mph. When I finally left this spot, I stopped closer to the falcon’s perch. As I was watching, it took off and flew by me allowing me to swing the big lens and attempt a few shots on the wing…lucky for me, a couple turned out okay.
I decided to head over to Alligator River NWR for the afternoon in hopes of seeing some bear, a Red Wolf, or whatever the refuge might offer. First up was one of the most elusive birds I have tried to photograph over the years – a Belted Kingfisher. I spotted it perched in a jumble of branches in a tree along one of the canals. Shocked that it didn’t fly as I slowed down, I fired off a few pics with plenty of sticks in the way. I backed the car up a bit for a clearer view (the kiss of death usually when trying to get closer to wildlife – they really don’t seem to like a car backing up) and found a tiny opening in the twigs. It was still a pretty busy background but the bird was amazingly calm and not paying much attention to me.
I studied the tree and decided to back up further and angled the car for a better view. Again, the kingfisher remained in place! I finally got about as good a photo of a kingfisher as I have ever taken. Not sure why this particular male (males lack the rusty belly-band found on female Belted Kingfishers) was so cooperative, but I’ll take it.
I moved on and found another favorable subject, a Great Egret, patiently stalking small fish in another canal. I just love watching them strike the water with their stiletto beaks, rise up out of the water with a squirming prey, and toss it up in the air to gulp it down that elongate neck.
Clouds moved in during the afternoon so when I first found this little raptor, it was hard to see any details, but the relative length of the tail and somewhat stocky body made me think – Merlin! Indeed, it was one of our second largest falcons found in NC, although still rather small as raptors go. Though somewhat similar in appearance to Accipiters like Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawks, Merlins are a bit stockier, have a shorter tail relative to overall body length, and have brown eyes (Accipiters have yellow eyes as juveniles and reddish eyes as adults).
I was a bit worried at the increasing clouds that night and what it meant for the next day, but, Friday dawned bright and beautiful and very windy. So windy that when I stepped out of the car at the Pea Island Visitor Center, my hat blew off and went halfway across the parking lot. I just got back in the car and drove up to the break in the roadside dunes where I had been yesterday and decided to observe from the vehicle. It turned out to be another productive morning.
When it came time to head back to Pungo, I couldn’t help but drive through Alligator River NWR one last time. I did see one bear, but the highlight was a trio of otters (three singles in different canals). With the gang of four I saw later that afternoon at Pungo, it became a 7-otter day.
It’s always a good day when you see an otter, but what a day when you see seven! The trip was a huge success with birds, a few bears, lots of otter, and good friends. Hoping I can get back down that way again this winter before the birds head back north. We are truly fortunate to have such extraordinary wild places in our state.
I think the most important quality in a birdwatcher is a willingness to stand quietly and see what comes. Our everyday lives obscure a truth about existence – that at the heart of everything there lies a stillness and a light.
After a rainy first day at Pungo, I headed to the coast, hoping for better weather the next day. On my way to Pea Island, I stopped at Bodie Island lighthouse early the next morning under gray skies and a steady breeze.
Over the years, I have had good luck birding here, especially on the large marshy ponds out past the lighthouse. But this day yielded almost no birds out there, at least none close enough to see. But the heavy rains the day before had left large pools of standing water in every low spot on the grounds, including a very large pool out by the parking lot. I pulled the car alongside just off the road enough to allow others to pass, and I sat for well over an hour, observing and photographing the birds feeding and bathing in the pool.
— The ibis continually probed the soft ground as they walked along, probably picking up worms.
— Some birds came to the pool to bathe.
My favorite subject at the pool was a group of Greater Yellowlegs feeding in the shallow water. They did not call so the best way to identify them as Greater Yellowlegs instead of their smaller cousin, the Lesser Yellowlegs, was their stockiness and the bill length relative to their head depth. In greaters, the rather stout bill is 1.5+ times the depth of the head. In lessers, it is just a little larger than the depth of the head, plus the bill is noticeably thinner its entire length. They were masters at catching earthworms that had no doubt come to the surface of the soil due to the flooded conditions.
The birds seemed totally unconcerned by my presence (and by a couple of other bird watchers out of their vehicles), but did fly off in a panic when two Bald Eagles came flying through, one chasing the other. They moved through so fast I missed my chance at a photo, but, after that, the only birds that came back were a few gulls and some grackles. But, a good start to my day on the coast. More about the other critters I saw in the next post.
Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own.
This past Thursday was our annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pettigrew State Park. As usual, Melissa and I covered our part of the count circle, much of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. We had planned to camp at Pettigrew State Park the night before, but predicted rain convinced us to just get up early and head down and start close to sunrise. The day dawned cloudy with the potential for rain and conditions on the refuge were not ideal for seeing birds (the dark gray skies make seeing any color or patterns difficult). We started with two bears ambling along the edge of a cornfield as we entered the refuge (I know it is supposed to be a bird count, but we can’t help ourselves). A little farther along, we were seeing a bunch of sparrows and other songbirds in the thick vegetation along one of the canals when I spotted a bunny sitting quietly on the bank.
The weather wasn’t the only thing making our observations difficult. The drought and some much needed road construction that impacted one of the feeder canals has left the managed waterfowl impoundments dry this year. This makes it much more difficult to observe the waterfowl up close and it looks like it has caused some of the birds to move elsewhere this winter as swan numbers seemed quite low compared to previous years.
The roadside canals were also very low with many having dry spots or mounds of vegetation. Those with water had hunting herons, kingfishers, and a group of otters taking advantage of the concentration of potential prey. We stopped at one spot to look for songbirds and Melissa spotted a wake in the canal, most of which was obscured by overhanging vegetation. She then saw the wake maker – an otter, then 2, 3, and 4 otters appeared. We followed them for awhile and they eventually piled onto a ledge in a tangle of brush and brambles and started rolling around and grooming, occasionally glancing our way. Certainly not the ideal photo, but cool to watch.
Oh, yeah, back to the birds. I look forward to spending time up close to the swans every winter on Marsh A (the usually flooded impoundment with easy road access and plenty of space so people can space themselves out). But the drought and road construction this winter (which hindered the re-flooding of Marsh A) has left it high and dry with only a few puddles scattered over the vast area that typically has a couple of thousand swans in it every day from December through February. It is interesting to finally see how very shallow it is, making it ideal for puddle ducks and the swans. There are a couple of species that have taken advantage of the new giant mud flats – Killdeer and Wilson’s Snipe were scattered about. It is amazing how well both species (especially the snipe) blend in to this type of habitat. We started glassing the area after finding the first few snipe and eventually counted over 50 strewn across the rumpled terrain.
The unusually warm temperatures gave us the odd combination of winter birds and spring time reptiles and amphibians – lots of turtles out basking, spring peepers calling, along with numerous flying insects (even one Sleepy Orange butterfly).
One of the day’s highlights was spotting a group of nine Sandhill Cranes far out in a field feeding alongside swans. The cranes have been regular winter visitors at Pungo for several years now, starting with a group of three for a few winters, then up to five last winter. Nine is a new high for us on the Christmas Count. I guess they’re telling their friends about the wonders of NC.
The unseasonably warm day wore on without a lot of bird activity. Luckily, we were given a Special Use Permit for access to a viewing area on Pungo Lake where we spent quite awhile scanning the water for ducks (without that permit, our grand total for ducks observed would have been two mallards since everything was in the lake due to the dry conditions). Satisfied we had seen most of the waterfowl on the lake, we headed back to look for species we thought should be on the refuge that we had not yet seen. But we were soon distracted again by our gang of otters.
We drove up alongside the group as they were swimming in one of the canals. They were on Melissa’s side of the vehicle and she managed a rare shot where all four heads are visible at once. I drove ahead and we waited as they approached us and a large mat of vegetation in the canal.
As is often the case, when they reached the vegetation-clogged area in the canal, they disappeared for a few seconds. Then, one by one, they popped their heads up and looked at us, occasionally snorting their disapproval. This went on for about a minute, and then they were off again swimming out ahead of us.
Up ahead was a juncture of several canals where otter frequently cross the road, so we drove beyond them and waited just beyond that spot. They kept coming toward us and then one otter came up out of the canal and ran across the dike, carrying a large prey. On our first sighting that morning, one otter had caught a large fish and carried it into the brush on the bank to eat. This one had something long and skinny. I thought it might be an amphiuma, a type of large aquatic salamander common in these habitats, but the otter moved out of sight quickly, followed by the other three, all heading into a canal on the other side.
I had stepped out of the truck to move to the front to hopefully get a photo, but Melissa had the better angle (again!) and managed several photos as the otter carried its prey across the open ground. Indeed, looking at it on her camera, we could see it was a large salamander! There are a couple of species of large aquatic salamanders that live in these coastal plain ditches and swamps – the Greater Siren and the Two-toed Amphiuma. Both species can grow to over 3 feet in length and both resemble large eels when seen at a distance. Sirens have external gills (we can’t readily distinguish any in the few photos we have) and have only a front pair of legs. The back of the salamander was dragging on the ground so I can’t tell if there are hind legs or not. Looking at images online, it seems that the front legs of a Greater Siren are more substantial than those of an amphiuma, so I am now leaning toward this otter snack being a Greater Siren, but I will happily listen to any opinions from salamanderologists out there.
The otter incident revived our spirits and we moved into high gear, looking for species likely to occur here but that we were still missing. Wild Turkeys are often seen in a field at the edge of the refuge, so we headed in that direction, stopping at a large flock of Red-winged Blackbirds to scan for cowbirds and grackles. The turkeys were out in their field, so that added another species.
Back near the lake, groups of Snow Geese flew off for their late day feeding in nearby crop fields. We scanned the long lines of birds overhead, looking for a smaller bird mixed in with the flock, a Ross’s Goose. They look like a diminutive Snow Goose, being just over half the size of their bigger cousin. I can find them when they are in a field feeding if the smaller bird is on the outside edge of the flock. Or, I have learned to spot them by scanning a line of flying geese and seeing the obviously smaller one. Thursday, we only managed one Ross’s Goose despite scanning a few hundred flying birds.
We ended the day walking down my long-time favorite spot – “Bear Road”. As rain showers were looming, the now usual crowd at Bear Road had headed home so we had it all to ourselves. Solitude here is now a rare privilege that makes me appreciate even more all the times I experienced this in years past. We picked up an Eastern Screech Owl and another Great Horned Owl, along with bunches of White-throated Sparrows and a few other songbirds (oh, and a mama bear with two cubs). Though not one of our more productive bird species days, a day in the field, especially at Pungo, is always a good day.
Species observed on our part of the count:
10000 Snow Goose 1 Ross’s Goose 280 Canada Goose 3140 Tundra Swan 1 Wood Duck 48 Northern Shoveler 300 Gadwall 300 American Wigeon 75 Mallard 12 American Black Duck 26 Northern Pintail 428 Ring-necked Duck 2 Ruddy Duck 5 Wild Turkey 33 Mourning Dove 9 Sandhill Crane 89 Killdeer 55 Wilson’s Snipe 230 Ring-billed Gull 7 Great Blue Heron 3 Black Vulture 36 Turkey Vulture 2 Northern Harrier 3 Bald Eagle 2 Red-shouldered Hawk 4 Red-tailed Hawk 1 Eastern Screech-Owl 4 Great Horned Owl 1 Belted Kingfisher 2 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 4 Red-bellied Woodpecker 1 Downy Woodpecker 1 Hairy Woodpecker 2 Pileated Woodpecker 4 Northern Flicker 4 American Kestrel 8 Eastern Phoebe 4 Blue Jay 25 American Crow 8 Carolina Chickadee 2 Tufted Titmouse 2 Tree Swallow 2 Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1 Brown-headed Nuthatch 1 Winter Wren 10 Carolina Wren 3 Gray Catbird 2 Brown Thrasher 3 Northern Mockingbird 2 Eastern Bluebird 2 Hermit Thrush 548 American Robin 2 American Goldfinch 103 White-throated Sparrow 1 Savannah Sparrow 49 Song Sparrow 18 Swamp Sparrow 1 Eastern Towhee 7 Eastern Meadowlark 430 Red-winged Blackbird 1 Common Grackle 50 Yellow-rumped Warbler 35 Northern Cardinal
I’m happy again I’m singin’ and dancing in the rain I’m dancing and singin’ in the rain
~Lyrics from Singing in the Rain by Arthur Freed & Nacio Herb Brown
I will admit to not quite feeling that happy to wake up to the downpour this morning, but somebody did. At least, they seemed happy right after the deluge stopped. I looked out the kitchen door to check on our little vegetable garden (one of the few down sides of living in our woods is a lack of sun for vegetables, so the garden is small) and spotted something on one of the fence posts.
Our veggie garden as seen from the kitchen door (click photos to enlarge)
It was our resident male Carolina Wren singing his little heart out. He looked a bit ruffled after all the rain, but he was determined to let everything know he was in good spirits. I grabbed the camera with the telephoto on it and eased out onto the side porch. The only view of him I had was through a small circular gap in the pea plants growing on the line trellis. He serenaded the world for a couple of minutes, dancing his way around the fence top to make sure no matter where you were in the yard, you could hear his loud tea- kettle, tea-kettle, tea-kettle lyrics. So, here is Mr. Wren, singin’ and dancing in the rain…
Carolina Wren in full song mode
After a brief shake (in which he lost a feather), the song resumes
I don’t feed the birds because they need me; I feed the birds because I need them.
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…
Simply wait, be quiet, still. The world will freely offer itself to you.
Yesterday’s post mentioned the excellent birding we experienced on our recent paddle trip on the Roanoke River. When we arrived at our second camping platform, Three Sisters, the late day light was gorgeous and the sky was filled with all sorts of birds. After setting up camp (and shooing away the vultures dining on the fish skeletons) we sat out on the small dock by the creek for over an hour watching the parade of birds go by. I decided to practice some birds in flight photography to see what I could capture. Here are a few of the results…
The distinctive cross-shape of Anhingas soaring overhead was a common sight on the blackwater tributaries of the Roanoke (click photos to enlarge)
An Anhinga flying low over the creek. We commented on how many of these unusual “snakebirds” we saw on this trip compared to our previous outings.
A female Wood Duck blasts past our dock in late afternoon light.
Almost all the ducks we saw were in pairs. This is the male Wood Duck escorting the one above.
The real challenge was tying to photograph Chimney Swifts in flight. As you can see, I never really got it right as they are just too darned fast and erratic. It is comforting to know that they are no doubt nesting in many of the giant hollow Bald Cypress trees scattered throughout the swamp.
A Great Blue Heron flying to roost.
We saw more Great Egrets on this trip than in the past. This one’s wing bones showed through its backlit feathers.
As the sun set, large flocks of White Ibis started flying in to the next creek and surrounding wetlands.
I had planned to do some more dock sitting the next morning, but after the water came up during the night, I ended up strolling the short walkway to the platform and trying to photograph the many birds that were active all around us.
Blue-gray Gnatcatchers are always a treat to see up close.
This male Summer Tanager sang for much of the morning from high atop a partially defoliated Water Tupelo.
A White-breasted Nuthatch knocked off some bark that fell on my head, alerting me to his presence right above me.
A male White-eyed Vireo was loudly singing in thick brush out near the creek. I kept stalking him, hoping for a clear shot.
He finally obliged and came out on an open twig for a few notes of pick up the beer check quick, before disappearing back into a thicket.
These images represent just a fraction of what we saw on this trip. Below is a checklist of species we observed/heard during our time in this magical swamp. Tomorrow, I’ll share some highlights of our warbler watching.
Birds: Great Blue Heron; Great Egret; White Ibis; Spotted Sandpiper; Double-crested Cormorant; Anhinga; Wood Duck; Mallard; Canada Goose; Turkey Vulture; Black Vulture; Red-shouldered Hawk; Bald Eagle; Osprey; Barred Owl; Belted Kingfisher; Great Crested Flycatcher; Blue Jay; American Crow; Fish Crow; Common Grackle; Red-winged Blackbird; Red-bellied Woodpecker; Downy Woodpecker; Hairy Woodpecker; Pileated Woodpecker; Chimney Swift; Barn Swallow; Eastern Towhee; Northern Cardinal; Mourning Dove; Gray Catbird; Swamp Sparrow; Carolina Chickadee; Tufted Titmouse; Carolina Wren; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher; White-eyed Vireo; Red-eyed Vireo; Yellow-throated Vireo; Eastern Bluebird; White-breasted Nuthatch; Summer Tanager; Yellow-billed Cuckoo;Northern Parula Warbler; Black-and-white Warbler; Prairie Warbler; Prothonotary Warbler; Yellow-throated Warbler; Common Yellowthroat; Yellow-rumped Warbler
Nature now, like an athlete, begins to strip herself in earnest for her contest with her great antagonist Winter. In the bare trees and twigs what a display of muscle.
~Henry David Thoreau, 1858
It is not so much muscle I saw the other day on a walk in the Garden, but rather puffiness. I took the camera with me when I went out to feed the birds at our bird blind, then sat for a few minutes to see who was hungry. Turns out, they all were, and soon I was surrounded by a mixed flock, many that looked a bit rounder and more puffed up than usual.
A tufted titmouse seems to be wondering when this cold spell will end (click photos to enlarge)
The tufted titmouse above is a prime example. That bird even threw in a somewhat stern countenance as if totally unhappy about the current situation of very cold temperatures. The puffed up appearance is actually one of the more efficient ways that our winter birds manage to survive the bitter cold. Air trapped between its feathers is heated up by a bird’s body. Puffing up (raising their feathers) traps as much air as possible in their feathers. More trapped air means more warmth, with some sources stating the heat retention can increase by as much as 30% when all puffed up.
Northern cardinal moving in to feed
And, as any backyard bird watcher knows, bird activity at feeders greatly increases in cold or stormy weather. This week is no exception with many species (including a few, like Eastern bluebirds, that aren’t usually present at our feeders) spending more time at the feeding stations at work. Frequent feeding helps birds maintain their fat reserves which provide insulation and store extra energy used to increase body heat when necessary.
Northern mockingbird surrounded by its winter food supply
On my way out, to the blind, I saw the resident northern mockingbird in the usual spot – a large deciduous holly in the display garden of our courtyard. That bird has stationed itself in one of the two berry-covered hollies most days for the past few months. This is a common strategy for this species – guard your winter food supply from all those upstart berry thieves like bluebirds, robins, and cedar waxwings. As you can see, the strategy seems to be working. Other hollies in the garden are mostly stripped of the berries now.
Juvenile red-shouldered hawk wondering where all the frogs went
Back in the office, I glanced out to see an immature red-shouldered hawk looking intently in the grasses below for any sign of something edible. Since this species prefers a diet of reptiles and amphibians, these cold weeks must be stressful, especially for young and inexperienced birds. I am keeping an eye in hopes of seeing what they might add to their diet when times are tough.
Standing on one leg is another strategy for staying warm
A closer look at our hawk shows another strategy used by birds to stay warm in winter – standing one leg with the other one tucked up under a blanket of feathers. They will often then switch to give the other leg a turn. In this case, the placement of the foot looked a bit odd at first and resembled a knot coming out of its belly.
The only bird at the Garden that doesn’t seem to mind the cold
There are a couple of other ways birds strive to stay warm – they shiver, although they typically don’t shake like we do. These muscle contractions help maintain their body temperature around 105 degrees (average for most songbirds). If all these adaptations are pushed to the limit on days like we have had lately, then surviving the cold, dark, nights of winter must be extra tough. That’s why many songbirds flock together after dark. Some, like chickadees and kinglets, crowd together in tight groups in protected areas like brush piles, evergreens, or even nest boxes, which helps them to conserve and share body heat.
We can help our feathered friends that don’t migrate to warmer climes by doing a few things in our landscapes:
Plant native plants that provide cover and food. North Carolina Audubon has some great suggestions here.
Don’t tidy your wildflower beds until later in winter or early spring, leaving seed heads and structure for food and cover.
Provide winter water in the form of moving water, a bird bath heater, or regular re-filling with warm water in freezing weather.
Next time you head outside with your puffed up winter jacket, think of how the birds are managing to survive, and how what we do in our yards and gardens can help.