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Bird of the Month
Bird of the Month
October 2022 Black-bellied Whistling Duck
By Michael Creedon
October is always time to look at ducks. This month we examine the Black-bellied Whistler. While not common in Eastern N.C., they are around if you look. Last year we looked at the Wood Duck, a tree nester. Not that common in ducks, however the Whistler was formerly known as the Black-bellied Tree Duck. It is primarily found along the coast from Texas to Florida, however, it is a rare breeder all the way up to here.
Mostly terrestrial, spending more time than most ducks walking on ground, they are usually found in large flocks, highly gregarious, nesting in hollow trees. Being a “dipper”, not a diver, favored habitat is shallow freshwater lakes, ponds and marshes. It feeds on seeds and other plant food, usually at night. Although a wild species, they are quite tame, even in the wild. You can usually walk right up to a flock standing on the ground. Sexually monomorphic, both sexes look similar.
They have both a long neck and long legs. Unmistakable chestnut and black body with electric pink legs and bill, and a white eye ring. The juveniles are duller brownish with gray bill and legs.
Unusual among ducks, they form strong monogamous pair-bonds, staying together for years. Both parents share tasks of incubation and raising the young. When a tree is not available, they nest in nest boxes, abandoned buildings and chimneys. The young will leap from the nest cavity two days after hatching and can feed themselves immediately. They stay with their parents for up to 8 weeks. They lay an average of 13 eggs, with several females sometimes using the same nest. They will raise from 1 to 2 broods a year.
They are not a threatened species, with a population ranging from 1 to 2 million. Predators include raccoons, rat snakes, with Great-horned owls sometimes taking adults. Juveniles can be killed by fire ants, bass, catfish and gar. The oldest recorded specimen was almost 11 years old.
A very attractive bird, when near a body of fresh water, keep a sharp eye.
Bird of the Month June 2022
By Michael Creedon
Many of you will wonder, if this common bird is a European Starling, where is the American or common starling. It is an interesting story. The Starling family of birds are strictly Old World, that is, on the other side of the Atlantic. There are no native starlings in the New World. On the other side, there are at least 114 different species of starlings.
A wealthy German immigrant industrialist, Eugene Schieffelin, according to legend, wished to introduce to the New World all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s writings. So in 1890 on a cold winter day, he released 60 starlings from England, where they are known as the Common Starling, into Central Park, hoping they would breed. He did the same with 40 more in 1891. Unfortunately, they did. He had done the same with the House Sparrow thirty years earlier. He was unsuccessful with bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales and skylarks. Today there are in excess of 200 million European Starlings calling the USA home. They are considered an invasive species.
Thickset and pugnacious, Starlings are the bruisers of the avian world. They are such a nuisance that they are one of the few bird species unprotected by law. They are lean and mean, and in bird circles are called feathered bullets. They are a particular problem at airports. Their bodies are very dense, and they congregate in huge flocks. In 1960 they caused the downing of an airplane at Bostons Logan airport. Six seconds after takeoff, a flock of 20,000 birds flew into the path of the flight resulting in the crash into the harbor and the loss of 62 lives.
They are the cause of an estimated 1 billion dollars per year to US agriculture in damage to crops, particularly fruit trees. They even cause milk production to fall by eating the grain being fed to cows, picking out the finest quality kernels, leaving the rest to the cows.
What is particularly irksome is Shakespeare only mentions the starling once, in all of his writings.
Starlings nest in holes, one of the safest environments to lay eggs as they are generally inaccessible to predators. But there aren’t that many holes out there so competition is intense. Their muscle and attitude result in them out-competing others, such as the Red-headed woodpecker, Purple Martins and Blue Birds. In 2014, the latest record, the USDA killed over 1 million starlings, with zero effect on their numbers.
Perhaps you have heard of Murmurations. This mesmerizing phenomenon which occurs almost exclusively with Starlings, is when a flock of many thousands take flight and for no reason change directions over and over. They are one of the most dazzling displays in the natural world. This is a link to one video of one, hope it works. If not, do yourself a favor and google the word, there are hundreds to chose from.
Starlings are great mimics, learning the calls of over 20 other species. They turn from white and spotted to all dark and glossy without shedding their feathers. They are strong flyers, clocked at up to 48 mph. The oldest recorded bird was over 15 years old.
Now when you see one, or more likely 25 on your feeder, you know who to thank
Bird of the Month May 2022
Black and White Warbler
or The Striped Nuthatch-Creeper Warbler
As we all know by now, May is Warbler month. This month we look at the Black and White Warbler. He is a very handsome fellow, and we are lucky that he calls Eastern N.C. part of his breeding territory. He is a favorite warbler for beginning birders, as he is both easy to see and easy to recognize.
His appearance is one of the first arriving migrants, and is a sign that Spring is upon us. He is found in the woods creeping along tree trunks and branches like an upside-down Nuthatch, or Wood Creeper, searching for insects with his slightly down curved bill.
Warblers are usually noted for their bright colors, however this one is boldly striped with black and white feathers, typically only found in trees. However, he and she nest in the leaf litter of the forest floor, at the base of a tree, stump or rock. They are quite combative, attacking and fighting any other species entering their territory. They typically lay 4 – 6 eggs, Mom incubating for about 11 days. The featherless chicks will stay in the nest for up to 12 days before fledging. In a bountiful year for food, they will have 2 broods.
Like many warblers, they are nocturnal migrants, wintering from Florida to Columbia. There they are commonly found on lawns, gardens, fruit plantations, wetlands and forests. Their population is declining, primarily due to loss of habitat, although at 20 million, currently not threatened.
While you will not find this bird on your feeders, you may find him using your bird bath. You will most probably find him on a walk through the woods. So keep a sharp eye out and enjoy this striking little beauty.
Back down to the seashore this month, we look at one of the more unique species. The Black Skimmer is the largest of the three Skimmer species, averaging a four-foot wingspan. A more precision low-level flyer you will never find. Also, a unique bill, with the lower mandible much elongated. A group of Black Skimmers in flight resembles an aerial ballet, circling, banking and either alighting or dropping to the water to feed, as one.
They fly low over the smooth shallow coastal waters of lagoons and estuaries, with the lower mandible furrowing the water, snapping shut when contact is made with a fish. This is accomplished by relaxing the neck when contact is made, the head dropping down vertically, and then even bent under the body. They will often fly in flocks, side by side, or behind. As they do not rely on eyesight to find food, they often will forage at night. The Black Skimmer is a social bird. When not foraging, they will lounge in flocks on sandbars and beaches. Another unique feature of this bird is the eyes, which have large pupils that narrow to vertical slits like a cat, to compensate for glare off the water.
Their nests are like terns, shallow scrapes in the sand of a beach, sandbar, shell bank, sometimes on a gravel roof. They will have a clutch of 4 to 5, incubated by both parents. Hatching after 3 weeks, the young are fed by both parents. The mandibles of hatchlings are of equal length, allowing them to easily pick up food brought by parents. The lower mandible grows quickly, and they are flying after 3 weeks.
Consider yourself lucky, as this bird is only found along coastlines. Next time you’re ‘Down the shore’, enjoy the show.
Here we are in the beginnings of our annual Summer Doldrums, time to look at one of our most colorful Summer visitors, the Summer Tanager.
Going back to the early 1700’s, naturalists had originally called this bird the Summer Red-bird. Later ornithologists put it in the Tanager species in the early 1800’s. Today, as is the bane of every birder in the world, scientists are studying the DNA of this and almost every other bird, and reclassifying them. They now tell us that the Summer Tanager belongs in the Cardinal family. Most of us ignore these prognostications, and they will always be a Summer Tanager to us.
Our Summer Tanagers spend their winters in the region from Mexico to Northern South America, migrating to the Southeastern USA to breed. Ours arrived in mid April. They are the size of Cardinals, with a song much like the Robin. The males are a brilliant red, females varying in shades of dull yellow to a brighter orange. The male is the only completely red bird in North America.
The Summer Tanager is an insect eater, particularly liking bees and wasps, spending their days in the tree tops flying out to catch a wasp. They then beat them against a branch to kill them, then rub it against a branch to remove the stinger. They will also invade wasp nests to eat the larvae. One of the old Folklore names given this bird is “The Bee-eater”. Summer berries are also on their menu. You will not find them on your sunflower feeder, however, if you have a nice bird bath out, they will be regular visitors. Our couple bathed almost daily, coming around 4 PM.
They build nests in both pine and deciduous trees, having 3 to 4 eggs per brood. Incubation is 11 – 12 days, fledging by 9 to 11 days after hatching. They are fed by both parents for another 2 – 3 weeks.
They will stay in our area until early to mid October, so keep your bird bath full and clean, and enjoy the show of this most colorful couple.
Bird of the Month
By Michael Creedon
Well, It is May again, and as we all know, May is warbler time. This time we will look at the Northern Parula. This little critter, not much bigger than a golf ball, is one of the smallest North American migratory warblers, often the smallest bird in a mixed feeding flock.
This species has mainly blue-gray upper parts, with a greenish back patch and two white wing bars. The breast is yellowish shading into the white belly. They winter in southern Florida and Central America, and are primarily a forest-dwelling species, with their abundance or lack thereof found to be positively correlated with increased tree species diversity, canopy height and percent canopy cover.
Like most warblers, they are a monogamous species, with our southern variety nesting in clumps of Spanish moss. The female hollows out a clump of vegetation in the moss, and proceeds to fill it with vegetation fibers, animal hair, pine needles or grass. This nest is less than 3 inches in diameter on the outside, and she will lay 3 to 7 eggs that hatch in 2 weeks and fledge 10 days later. Our southern birds will usually have two broods per season.
The Northern Parula forages entirely on invertebrates, spiders, damselflies, locusts, bugs, grasshoppers, beetles, aphids, caterpillars and the like. They are usually found foraging in the mid to upper tier canopies. You get the idea, this bird will not be perched on your feeder. However, it is quite abundant in our area, and a walk in any of our woods is likely to produce a few. They will on occasion visit your birdbath, looking for a drink. That is how I got my best pics of this very busy bird.
The current lifespan record is of a 7 year old recaptured specimen. Red squirrels, Blue Jays and snakes are the most likely predators of this species, mostly of eggs and young.
So you ask, If this is a Northern Parula, is there a Southern Parula? Actually yes, but it is called a Tropical Parula. It inhabits the region stretching from south Texas to northern Argentina. Not likely to see one around here.
So, our Parula’s have arrived, take a walk and go find one, you’ll be glad you did.
Bird of the Month
Tundra Swans by Michael Creedon
Even as you lay in your warm beds tonight, approximately 50 miles north in the Pungo Lake, 30,000+ Tundra Swans mill about, waiting for the sunrise. Most locals are unaware of the great wildlife spectacle that unfolds every morning throughout the winter. As the sun begins to break above the eastern woodlands, a magical experience begins to unfold. Wave after wave of many hundreds of swans begin their take offs into the breeze, flying out to the fields surrounding this lake. Watching these ivory birds “walk” across the water, then with powerful wing beats soar into the Carolina Blue skies is an amazing sight.
Lewis and Clark provided the first written description of the Tundra Swan during their expedition to the West, where the birds’ whistle-like calls prompted Meriwether Lewis to dub them “Whistling Swans.” The Tundra Swan, as its name implies, nest and breed in the remote Arctic tundra of North America, flying south to winter. Pungo Lake is just about the furthest point south in their migration.
Pungo Lake is in and an integral part of the Pocosin Lakes NWR. It is 110,000 acres of pristine wilderness, established in the early 60’s to provide wintering habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. They lease out thousands of acres to local farmers who grow corn and other grains. At harvest, the farmers leave 50% of the crop standing, which refuge staff cut down to provide supplemental feed to the birds. Week by week, they cut down a few rows in one field, next week a different field.
Adult birds have entirely white plumage, black feet, and a black bill with a thin salmon pink streak running along the mouthline, and a yellow spot near the eye. Pens (females) are slightly smaller than the cobs (males). Males average 16 pounds, females 14. On wingspans greater than 5’, they depart the coastal plains of Canada in October, arriving at their winter quarters in November to December. When migrating, these majestic birds fly as high as 5 miles. They are “dippers” in the summer, feeding on aquatic vegetation. In winters, they feed on leftover grains and other crops, ie, potatoes, picked up in fields after harvest.
They have few predators, even standing up to Arctic foxes. Brown bears are another story, and do regularly cause nest failure. Golden Eagles occasionally are successful at capturing and killing an adult. Average life span is 10 years, the oldest recorded at 24 years old.They are monogamous until one partner dies. The surviving partner will wait years, sometimes its entire life before mating again. Nests built on the ground hold 3 – 5 eggs, taking 30 days to hatch, and 60 – 75 days to fledge. Whistling Swans are the most abundant swan of North America, estimated at over 170,000 individuals. The primary cause of adult mortality is hunting, with about 4,000 official kills, and another 10,000 lost to poaching.
If you are Pandemic bored, a visit to Pungo Lake will brighten your day. Maybe your whole week
Bird of the Month December 2020
Brown Thrasher by Michael Creedon
The Brown Thrasher gets no respect. Birders in the field, spotting some activity on the forest floor, eyes glued to binoculars focused on the tangled mess, finally spot their prey, only to say “ It’s just a Thrasher”. In my eyes, the Brown Thrasher is a beautiful bird. Both long billed and long tailed, these shy birds are quite hardy.
Quite common in backyards, particularly those friendly to birds, with feeders, baths and lots of trees and shrubbery for nests. When you notice leaves being tossed around on the ground, and take a good look, you will probably spot a Thrasher. Boldly and beautifully patterned, predominantly a lovely red-brown, staring yellow eyes, with a severe expression due to their down curved bill. They are in the family of the Mockingbird and Catbirds. They are not sexually dimorphic, both sexes appearing identical.
Thrashers as a rule don’t visit feeders, however, absent any other birds there, and no visible threats, ie, us, they will occasionally visit to eye the offerings. They are omnivores, preferring to forage on the ground for fallen seed and berries, using their bill to dig in the soil for insects. They will also use their bill to crack open acorns. I have watched one many times using its bill to break a kernel of corn into tiny bites, until the entire kernel is gone.
They are accomplished vocalists, with a repertoire of over 1,000 different songs, the largest of any bird, imitating many other bird songs. Of eight thrasher species in the USA, they are the only Thrasher east of Texas. Generally monogamous, both mom and dad incubate the eggs, usually 4, and feed the young, and are very aggressive defenders of the nest, having been known to strike both people and dogs hard enough to draw blood. Chicks can leave the nest in as little as 9 days, fully feathered. Usually nesting in shrubby habitat, a popular hideout for nest predators. Predominant nest predators include snakes, birds of prey and cats. They are the largest common host of the parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird, many times rejecting the cowbird eggs laid in their nest. They, like many birds, will have at least two broods per season, sometimes three. The oldest recorded individual was 12 years.
In our area, they are year round neighbors, with berries, nuts and small fruits an important component of their winter diet.
These Brown Thrasher photos were taken in my back yard in River Bend. I have included photos of the Long Billed Thrasher, photo from Texas, and the Curve-billed Thrasher, photo from New Mexico
Bird of the Month September 2020
Cormorants by Michael Creedon
Cormorants are comprised of a group of aquatic birds numbering approximately 40 varieties around the world. In the UK, they are divided into Cormorants and Shags, but both are cormorants. The bill is long and hooked, as long as the head, mostly black to dark feathers, with webbing between all 4 toes.
All species are fish eaters, floating low in the water and diving as deep as 150′. They use their wings to assist their diving, and as a result have developed relatively short wings for their size. After feeding, they will be seen on the shore, perched on a rock or tree stump, wings fully extended. This behavior is to dry their feathers, to make flying, already a chore due to the short wings, easier.
They nest in colonies on trees, islets or cliffs, being primarily coastal birds as opposed to oceanic. Usually 3 – 4 eggs, incubating by both parents for 4 weeks. First flight after about 5 – 6 weeks, independent after 10 weeks.
The species most widespread in North America, and particularly in Eastern N.C. is the Double-crested Cormorant. They can easily be seen on the Trent River, the Neuse, and I have photographed one in the drainage pond behind the mall.
Interestingly, the Galapagos cormorant has evolved into a flightless bird, with small stubby remnants of wings. With no predators, they had no need to fly.