Pirates of the Sky – Galápagos, Part 2

In my first post about the Galápagos trip, I showed you photos of the beloved and iconic blue-footed boobies. Most of those images were made on North Seymour, a small island that’s host to large colonies of the boobies as well as frigatebirds. So let’s continue with the wonders of North Seymour. As our zodiac left the ship and approached this restricted-access island, I was enthralled by the sight of a sky filled with enormous birds soaring over us.

Frigatebirds flying collage w sig

Magnificent frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) are aptly named, because they are simply spectacular. Most days there were small groups of them soaring above the ship, giving us dramatic close views. With a wingspan of up to 8 feet, this giant seabird is often called a pirate of the sky because of its habit of stealing food from other birds. You see, the frigatebird doesn’t have waterproof feathers like most other seabirds, making it unable to dive into the sea for its food. It can grab fish from the surface with its hooked bill, but more often it seems to prefer taking food from boobies and other seabirds.

Great Frigatebirds attacking booby and food falling below

A good day for the frigatebirds. The booby, not so much.

The first time I witnessed this thieving behavior was on Kaua’i, where I photographed two great frigatebirds (Fregata minor) forcing a red-footed booby (Sula sula) to drop its food. In this photo you can see the food is falling as the booby squawks its displeasure. After the food is released by the booby, the frigatebird swoops below to grab it before it hits the water. It’s all very dramatic and fun to watch.

Magnificent frigatebird with inflated gular sac w sig

Pick me, pick me!!

On North Seymour we were treated to close encounters with lots of nesting frigatebirds, and got to see their courtship behavior. While they don’t have a cute dance ritual like the boobies do, the male frigatebird has his own unique method of attracting a mate. He inflates his gular sac, a red pouch on his throat, which serves as the signal to all the ladies that he is an eligible bachelor. The island was dotted with males displaying their enormous scarlet gular sacs, eyes looking skyward, each one patiently waiting for a female to choose him.

Frigatebird in flight with red gular sac w sig

Male frigatebird soaring over us

Magnificent frigatebird female w sig

Female magnificent frigatebird, with her pretty blue eye ring

Once the female selects her mate, the two commence nest building. Usually the female stays on the nest to protect it from stick thieves, while the male goes out and gathers more sticks.

Both the magnificent and great frigatebirds live and breed in the Galápagos. Here’s a pair of great frigatebirds on a nest. Compare the female in this picture with the female in the photo above; the magnificent has a blue eye ring while the great has a red eye ring.

Great frigatebirds on nest w sig - red eye ring

Great frigatebirds on nest (Fregata magnificens); note the red eye ring on the female

North Seymour island was perhaps one of my favorite places of this entire trip. It was a wild and remote place, teeming with a great variety of animals. And as much as I loved the spectacle of the blue-footed boobies and the frigatebirds, there was another creature on this island that unexpectedly stole my heart.

On other islands earlier in the week, I’d seen lots of tiny lava lizards and medium-sized marine iguanas, but nothing had prepared me for the stunning beauty of the lizards on this island. Meet Conolophus subcristatus, the Galapagos land iguana.

Land iguana head crop w sig

These guys were just everywhere, often right beside the trail resting in the shade as dozens of awed humans walked past them.  Our naturalist guide was counting them, trying to beat her personal high count of about 70 on a one-hour walk. I think we counted almost 50 on this day, and I’m sure we missed plenty of them as we were distracted by boobies and frigatebirds overhead or sea lions on the rocky shores.

Land iguana great pose edited w sig

Land iguana shedding his old skin, exposing bright new colors

Even today, more than a week after the trip, I’m blown away when I look at these lizards. You should have seen them in all their majesty, lumbering across the hot sand and rocks, adorned in the colors of the sun! They make me wish I were an artist so I could draw or paint them.

Land iguana paintingLuckily for me, I was able to purchase an original painting from a local artist to commemorate the feelings I had as I watched these equatorial dragons roaming their kingdom. I can’t wait to get this painting framed so it can hang in my home. I’ve joked with friends that I’m the only person they know with giant photos of dragonflies and other insects on their living room walls…just wait until they see this hanging over the sofa!

 

land iguana skeleton w sig

Land iguana skeleton

Land iguana on sand edited w sig

Land iguana by ship staff (1)

Photo by staff of the Celebrity Xpedition

This last image isn’t mine; it was taken by one of the ship’s naturalists, and given to us at the end of the cruise, along with hundreds of other photos from the week’s adventures. I like to think that if I’d been allowed to spend more time with these iguanas, I could have come up with an image like this on my own. Maybe one day I’ll get another chance.

These first two posts have barely made a dent in this trip report, so next time I’ll show you even more natural wonders of the Galápagos!

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And…We’re Back – Galápagos, Part 1

Well, that went by quickly, didn’t it? The anticipation of the Galápagos trip lasted for months, and then it was all over in a flash.  I’m editing hundreds of photos and struggling with how to write about it. There were highs and lows, as there are with any travel experience. The highs revolved around the wildlife, so that’s the part I’m going to write about the most. The less enjoyable parts were things like travel delays, regimented daily schedules on the ship, and a little bit of altitude sickness in Quito.

Cruise map for Celebrity Xpedition Galapagos Inner Loop

The route we took on the cruise around the Galápagos

I’m not going to recap the trip day-by-day, but rather just share my photos and thoughts about the animals. So let’s get started with, what else, blue-footed boobies!

Blue-footed booby edited w sig

Blue-footed booby (Sula nebouxii)

I’d say that, along with the giant tortoises, the blue-footed boobies are one of the most sought-after species by visitors to the islands. Even though they’re found in other parts of the world, they’ve become iconic symbols of the Galápagos.  My first close encounter with these striking and comical birds was when our zodiac boat floated past this one standing on a rocky outcrop at Rabida island. As you can see, the bird showed virtually no reaction to the appearance of 15 humans a few yards away.

That’s one of the most amazing things about wildlife experiences in the Galápagos  — the animals don’t flee when we approach, as they do in other parts of the world.  Most of these islands are so remote and devoid of people that the animals don’t understand that humans are a source of danger. It’s actually heartbreaking to realize that the entire animal kingdom has to fear us; I felt the gift of this precious experience deep in my heart every time I was able to have a close encounter like this. I admit that it was a bit disconcerting to feel joy and sadness at the same time.

Here’s a video of the blue-footed booby courtship dance, one of the highlights of the trip. I giggled at the beginning because it seemed that the female (on the right) leaned over and commanded the male to dance for her. And, as you see, he obliged her. Notice the difference in pupil size between the sexes; the male’s pupil is smaller than the female’s. She’s also larger-bodied than he is, as is common with many birds.

Blue-footed boobies showing pupil size differences in sexes w sig

Note the smaller pupil size in the male, standing behind the female

A few minutes later I was supremely lucky to come upon another pair of boobies standing just a few feet from the edge of the trail, and was able to use my cell phone to record them mating!

When the male walked toward me after the completion of his task, it seemed he was seeking accolades for his performance, and that made me smile. What a proud boy he was! (Yes, a harmless bit of anthropomorphizing, I know.)

The male booby makes a whistling sound, while the female’s call is more of a honking sound. Here’s a short clip showing a male whistling:

The population of blue-footed boobies in the Galápagos has suffered in recent years due to a decline in sardines after the 1997 El Niño. You can read more about their struggle for survival here.

We also saw two other species of boobies on this trip, the red-footed and the Nazca booby.

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Nazca booby (Sula granti)

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Red-footed booby (Sula sula)

The red-footed booby is the only one to have several color morphs, and it’s also the one most likely to be found nesting in trees rather than on the rocks (at least I think that’s what our guide said). I was enchanted by the pink and blue coloration on the beak of this cartoonish bird and would have loved to have seen one up close instead of 75 feet above me on a cliff, as this one was.

Blue-footed booby head crop w sigI want to point out that most of my photos on this trip were taken from zodiacs that were bobbing up and down on the ocean waves, so the sharpness of the images is much less than I would have liked. But even so, I hope you enjoy seeing them.

I’ve got much more to show you in upcoming posts…the only penguin in the northern hemisphere, the only nocturnal gull in the world, and the most beautiful lizards you’ve ever seen!

 

 

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Destination: Zero Degrees Latitude

Galapagos map for blog March 2019

The red marker is the Galápagos, 600 miles west of Ecuador

Yep, that’s right, I’m headed for the equator! If all goes as planned, by the time this post is live on the blog, I’ll be 30,000 feet above the planet in a giant metal tube, headed for the Galápagos. If you’re like me, the primary association that pops into your brain when you hear “Galápagos” is Charles Darwin. These are the islands where Mr. Darwin made the discoveries that led to his theory of evolution, the one that forms the basis for our understanding of how species adapt to their habitats, aka the “survival of the fittest.” I hope to write more about Darwin’s finches later, as well as the giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, and so many of the other amazing wildlife of the islands.

Blue-footed booby by Kathy Drouin on flickr

Blue-footed booby (by Kathy Drouin via Flickr creative commons license)

I’m beyond excited as I write this a week before my trip. If I found out I had just a month to live and could visit only one place on the planet before my death, the Galápagos would be my choice.  As I anticipate this voyage, I imagine that I will feel a sense of awe as I walk where Darwin walked, and see what he saw. He only spent a month there in 1835, as part of a 5-year journey around the world, but what he saw there had a profound influence on his work. There are more than 2,000 endemic species on these islands; that means species that aren’t found anywhere else on the planet. And because of the isolation of these islands, the animals haven’t developed a fear of humans and are surprisingly approachable. I’ve seen photos of people sitting on the ground just a few feet from some of the wildlife.

I normally don’t use the word blessed, but I definitely realize what a privilege it will be to make this trip of a lifetime.

Beak of the Finch cover imageI’m curious to see how my impressions of this place will differ from my pre-trip expectations, as so often happens in travel. I haven’t done nearly as much reading as I’d hoped to in preparation for this trip, but we’ll be accompanied by a naturalist on every excursion, so that will be a great educational resource. I’ve started reading The Beak of the Finch, Jonathan Weiner’s book about Peter and Rosemary Grant’s continuing research on Darwin’s finches. What I’ve gleaned so far is that their research has shown that evolution happens much faster than previously believed, something that could have important implications for a wide range of conservation work around the world. I’m eager to find out more about this.

I’m going to snorkel for the first time in my life on this trip. I’d never had much interest in that particular form of recreation before, despite having a couple of friends who love to scuba dive. I’m just not a fan of being in the ocean, I guess. (Yes, it might have something to do with seeing Jaws as a child….) But after reading that the sea lions and marine iguanas will approach snorkelers without fear, I know I will do this. I just hope I can still breathe when my jaw drops from amazement.

Check out this video to get an idea of what I’m hoping to experience: https://youtu.be/9KCR3iU4erw

Celebrity Xpedition 100-passenger ship v2.jpg

Celebrity Xpedition will be home base for a week

Our trip will begin with a one-day tour of Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, high in the mountains. Then we’ll descend to sea level and board a 100-passenger ship for a week of exploration of the various islands of the Galápagos. The moment the cabin door on the plane locks behind us, I will release all the worries of my normal life and prepare to absorb every moment of this adventure. I fully expect this to be a life-changing adventure, and can’t wait to tell you all about it.

 

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Odes in Winter: Where Are They Now?

Here in northern Ohio we’ve entered a period of the year that I think of as, “Is It Time Yet?” We’ve been through the depths of a frigid winter and have been treated to some brief warmups in which all the snow melted and we could bask in the rejuvenating glow of the sun. Those late winter warm spells are the first sign we get that spring is, if not around the corner, at least on the horizon.

I always start dreaming of the not-too-far-off day in April when I’ll see my first dragonfly of the year, a day of virtual high-fives texted between my odeing buddy and myself: Me: “I saw my first Green Darner today! What did you find?” Him: “I think I saw a Springtime Darner!” Me: “Woohoo, it’s on!” (And that’s our virtual high-five.)

And so ode season will kick off and we’ll spend the summer happily sharing cool sightings and photographs. Until that day comes, I must have patience. But I can still daydream. The other day I went to a spot at Maumee Bay State Park where I photographed this flag-tailed spinyleg last July.

Flag-tailed spinyleg - MBSP (1) w sig

Flag-tailed spinyleg (Dromogomphus spoliatus)

Isn’t he spectacular?! I have such great memories of stalking him around the edges of that pond, and the excitement that bubbled up in me when he came to rest on a log very close to the water’s edge, in easy photographic range.

This is the photo I took of that pond a couple days ago:

Frozen pond at MBSP - blog

Frozen fishing pond at Maumee Bay State Park, just a stone’s throw from a frozen Lake Erie

Standing there at the edge of the frozen water, I felt like a small child waiting outside a toy store, asking her mom, “Is it open yet? Huh, mom? When will it open?!”  Because I know that there are larvae of dragonflies and damselflies beneath that frozen water right now, just waiting for the temperatures to rise.

darner exuviae w sig KCS blog

Empty exuviae of a dragonfly, possibly one of the darners

Some species of dragonflies migrate to warmer climates (more about that below), but most of the adults die before winter each year. If they’ve been successful in breeding, they’ve left behind larvae who will live under water for varying amounts of time, depending on species. Some of them live under water for years. And each spring, some generations will be ready to emerge from the water and shed their exuviae to become the beautiful winged adults that are the source of so much of my summertime entertainment.

If you pay attention around any fresh water source, you can often find many of these empty exoskeletons, or exuviae, attached to vegetation. There’s always a hole on the top where the adult dragonfly broke through and emerged into a whole new world. That’s just one more aspect of their lives that I find so fascinating; they live part of their lives under water and then another part as incredible speeding winged insects who can maneuver like helicopters.

Dragonfly exuviae w sig KCS blog

Exuviae of unknown dragonfly species

Here’s another exuviae I found last summer. I can’t tell which species this one was, because I should have taken a photo from the side as well as from the top. I’m just learning to identify the exuviae, using tools like this one from the National Park Service.

I mentioned that some species of dragonflies migrate to warmer climates. A study was published late last year that indicates that the common green darner (Anax junius) has a migration very similar to that of the monarch butterfly. Their migration involves three separate generations of adult insects, moving north and south at various times. This article describes the study and has some neat diagrams to illustrate it. (Oh, I should mention that if you have any interest in contributing your sightings in this last year of the Ohio Dragonfly Survey, you can click here for details.)

According to that article, there are some common green darners emerging from waters in the southern parts of North America right now, and they’ll soon be on their way to Ohio where my camera and I will be waiting impatiently for their arrival.  I think I can make it.  In the meantime, I’ve got a very exciting mystery trip coming up in less than two weeks, so that will provide a much-needed distraction as I await the return of the odonata to Ohio. I can’t wait to share this trip with you!

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Black-shouldered spinyleg (Dromogomphus spinosus)

Posted in Insects, Odonata (dragons and damsels) | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

A Visual Ode to the Holiday

Insect Valentine's Day - heart - damselflies in tandem

These are Familiar Bluets in their heart-shaped mating wheel. These damselflies belong to the insect order called Odonata, and we often shorten that to “odes” when talking about them among other ode lovers.

And below is a photo of one of my favorite woodland wildflowers, Dicentra canadensis. As you might imagine, it’s related to the pink bleeding hearts that are common in gardens, but the pink ones are not native to North America. This plant has little yellow bulblets that look like kernels of corn, thus the common name of Squirrel Corn. I hope to get a photo of those sometime this spring.

Bleeding hearts - Dicentra canadensis - Squirrel Corn - Goll Woods w sig

Insects and wildflowers are much more interesting to me than cultivated flowers and candy so I just wanted to present the Nature Is My Therapy version of Valentine’s Day. And by the way, is it spring yet?!

Posted in Insects, Native plants, Odonata (dragons and damsels), wildflowers | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Monday Blues are Fake News

I don’t keep my bird feeders out in the summer, but I do feed in the winter. With all the recent snowstorms, I’ve been putting extra nuts and seeds out in the yard to help the birds survive the extreme weather. And I’ve been rewarded with quite a treat: the blue jays have been here in rowdy gangs, giving me lots of opportunities to observe them.

Blue jays and starlings on feeders in snow Jan 2019

Blue jays grudgingly sharing the feeders with starlings and a red-bellied woodpecker

These jays are one of our most common resident species, and I think because of that, we don’t often take much notice of their comings and goings.  But I find it’s sometimes rewarding to make a concerted effort to pay more attention to a common species than the more “exotic” transient birds.

I’ve taken a few pictures of my recent visitors, but am also sharing some of my archival photos that I just rediscovered. This one made me stop and say, “Hey, look at that beautiful gray breast!”

Blue Jay on branch looking at me (1024x770) w sig

I realized that, if asked to describe a blue jay without a photo, I would probably not have noted any gray on the breast at all. But there it is, plain as day. This guy is quite the looker, isn’t he? (Or she, it’s not easy to discern gender in this species as far as I know.)

Blue Jay portrait w sig Jan 2019

Something else that strikes me about these jays is that, despite being larger than most of the other feeder birds and having that loud, insistent call, they seem to be more skittish than the other birds. They’ll sit up in a tree boldly making a racket, but when they drop down to the feeders, they usually only spend a few seconds there before zipping away again, as if I’m going to run out and grab them or something. I guess it could be that they know their larger size makes them easier prey for the Cooper’s hawks who prowl through here on a regular basis.

Blue Jay taking peanuts from wreath w sig.jpgOne way I’ve found to entice them to stay for a bit longer is to put whole peanuts in one of these ring feeders so that they have to tug on it to get it out.

If you’ve ever used a birding app or field guide, you’ve probably noticed that bird vocalizations are described in two distinct categories: songs and calls. Songs are most often associated with breeding behavior like attracting a mate or protecting a territory, whereas calls are much more varied in purpose. There are contact calls, used to keep in touch with mates or juveniles while foraging, calls to communicate with other birds in a flock during migration, or alarm calls of varying urgency. As I was writing this I realized that blue jays don’t have much of a typical song. Their raucous calls are impossible not to notice, but their song is a very soft series of whistling and clicking sounds that’s easy to overlook. You can hear an example of their song on Cornell’s All About Birds site, here. Just scroll to the bottom past all of the calls to the “whisper song.”

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Recently fledged juvenile being fed by a parent

The more I think about this bird, the more interesting it becomes. Such a study in contrasts — big, noisy, and aggressive one moment, then skittish and seemingly shy the next.

Blue Jay portrait on hook w sigEven though blue jays are year-round residents here, we still see large flocks of them moving along the Lake Erie shore each spring. Researchers still have many questions about why some blue jays migrate and others don’t. I’ll never forget the first time I looked up and saw a silent river of blue jays streaming along the shore just east of Toledo. There were hundreds of them in a long, narrow avian ribbon, flowing from west to east, not making a sound. Such a fascinating contrast to the noisy birds that visit my yard!

Blue Jay feather - one inch long w sigYou might be wondering about my title, “Monday Blues are Fake News.” Well, let me explain that. The blue jay’s scientific name is Cyanocitta cristata, referring to the blue color (cyanos) and their crested head (cristata). But did you know that blue jays aren’t really blue? Like other “blue” birds, their feathers only appear blue to us due to microscopic structures that reflect all the other colors of light except for blue.  If you crush the feather of a cardinal, it will be red. But if you crush a blue jay feather, it will be brown. The feathers of blue grosbeaks, bluebirds, and indigo buntings contain these same blue-light-reflecting structures. That’s such a fun fact to throw out once in a while to make myself sound smart. 🙂

Posted in Birds | 12 Comments

Quick, Make Like a Statue!

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (1) w sigI’ve got an interesting series of photos to show you today, sort of a follow up to my recent post titled The Hunter and the Hunted. The other day I glanced out the kitchen window and saw a red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) frozen in place on the side of the suet cylinder.  In the classic nuthatch pose, facing downward, he wasn’t moving a single muscle.

That simple sign told me there was a winged predator in the yard; sure enough, it only took a few seconds to find a mature Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched in the big silver maple tree. The hawk’s view of the nuthatch was probably blocked because he was on the back side of the suet. But the little guy wasn’t taking any chances, and continued to “make like a statue” even after the hawk flew across the yard to perch on the fence.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (7) w sig

Even from his new location, the hawk couldn’t see the nuthatch. You may notice that this isn’t the same immature hawk that was here the other day. This one is an adult, as indicated by his red eyes and more solidly-colored breast plumage.

series - red-breasted nuthatch and cooper's hawk

A cypress that offers shelter to small birds

After about 45 seconds on the fence, the hawk dropped down behind the large cypress shrub, and the nuthatch still didn’t move. As I was enjoying the drama of this scene, I was also glad to have a nuthatch who wasn’t moving so I might have a chance to get better photos of him, though I was still hampered by the double-paned window.

The hawk remained behind the cypress for at least 15 minutes. I’ve seen several hawks drop down behind there and stay for a good amount of time, possibly feasting on the birds who like to shelter inside. When the snow melts a bit, I’ll have to check to see if there are piles of house sparrow feathers back there.

But anyway, when the hawk had been out of sight for about four minutes, the nuthatch began to move verrrry slowly.  First he turned around and waited for a couple more minutes.

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He looked to the left.

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Then he looked to the right.

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Continuing to be exceedingly cautious, he slowly creeped up and peeked up over the top of the suet.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (3) w sig

Finally he felt the coast was clear, and took the opportunity to fly to the relative safety of the big cedar tree.

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I don’t know if the Coop would have even bothered with a meal as tiny as a red-breasted nuthatch, but I don’t blame the little one for putting on his cloak of invisibility for a few minutes, just in case.

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Focus on Yard Birds

When I started birdwatching, my photos were almost exclusively shots of birds on feeders in my yard. When I began to venture out for birding at places away from home, I gradually got better at taking photos of birds in the wild. I have a strong preference for the latter type of photography, showing them in more natural settings.

However, since I’ve got feeders out in my yard this winter, I’m finding it hard to resist making images of the birds who visit for much-needed nourishment in the frigid, snow-covered landscape. Just as they’re taking advantage of an easy meal, I’m taking advantage of a convenient way to capture their pictures. A few days ago I set up my tripod in the kitchen, with the camera pointing out through two panes of not-really-clean glass toward the feeders. And even though I knew these photos wouldn’t be of the highest quality, I shot them anyway.

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Carolina wren

Why? Because mixed in with the hordes of house sparrows (see my previous post for more about that), there are some more interesting visitors, like this Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus). This guy is a special feeder visitor because he would normally prefer to be poking around the underbrush gathering insects or berries; only about 5% of a Carolina wren’s diet is made up of seeds. In times of heavy snow cover, like we have now, a supply of suet or peanuts can make a huge difference in the survival of this particular species.

This wren sometimes sits on my brush pile and sings his loud and cheerful song before making brief forays to the suet cylinder. He’s been here for the past two weeks, and I hope he stays for a while longer. I checked my records, and I’ve had this species in my yard for at least six months of the year, in all four seasons.

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Photogenic Carolina wren, watching me watching him

The other species that I really enjoy is the red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). This species is only here in the winter, and there have been two of them here now since November. They’re known to prefer conifers, so I think they’re enjoying my two large cedar trees. In fact, I often see them drop down from a cedar to the feeder (haha, it rhymes). I really love their faces, with the black line running through the eye.

red-breasted nuthatch on suet cylinder w sig

Even though I’m enchanted by the more unusual visitors, I never want to overlook the beauty of “the regulars” in my yard. Downy woodpeckers (Picoides pubescens) are very common and frequent patrons of the suet cakes.

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Male downy woodpecker (note the red spot on the back of his head)

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Windblown white-breasted nuthatch in his classic pose

White-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis), who are year-round residents in my yard, are significantly larger than their red-breasted cousins above. They make dozens of trips to the feeders daily, flying off with their bounty and often stashing it under the bark of one of the maple trees. They have a loud, nasal call that sounds like “yank yank!”

I’m still hoping for some evening grosbeaks to show up; they’ve moved farther south than usual this winter in search of food. I’ve got black oil sunflower seeds out there just for them, so if they happen to pass through the neighborhood they might be lured down for a nice easy meal. Fingers crossed!

Oh, and let’s not forget this guy. European starlings sometimes show up in large flocks to mob the feeders, outnumbering even the house sparrows. The history of the starling in America parallels that of the house sparrow. But that’s a story for another time. For now, just admire his onyx majesty, the way he wants you to.

starling on feeder w sig

 

 

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The Hunter and the Hunted

There’s been a young Cooper’s hawk frequenting my yard recently. I see this species in my neighborhood throughout the year, but their visits become more frequent in the winter when I have the bird feeders out.

cooper's hawk w sig - my yard

Young Cooper’s hawk with blood spot on belly

An active bird feeder is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for a Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii). The accipiters are experts at the fast and precise tactical maneuvers needed to zip in and out of trees and other backyard vegetation where tasty songbirds hide.

When I photographed this one the other day, he had a fresh blood spot on his belly indicating a recent meal. Nevertheless, he was still terrorizing the innumerable house sparrows.

Many bird lovers are dismayed to see a hawk taking birds from their yards, and I get it. Nobody likes to see an animal die right before their eyes. And the first few times I witnessed this behavior it upset me too. But having spent so much time with birds over the years, I’ve made my peace with it. Because a hawk needs to eat just like any other bird does, so I can’t begrudge them taking advantage of an easy meal.

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Mature Cooper’s hawk — compare him with the younger one

Raptors are fascinating birds to study, especially when you get a chance to see them hunting and feeding. I’m excited to be a new volunteer for a raptor monitoring project with Metroparks Toledo this spring, helping to keep track of hawks and owls throughout the nesting season.  I’ll go to an orientation meeting next month, and then be assigned a route that I’ll walk once every two weeks to document any raptor nesting activity.

The photo above shows an adult Cooper’s hawk in my yard last winter. If you compare the hawk in the first picture above, you’ll notice that the younger hawk has yellow eyes rather than the reddish eyes of the adult. The head of the mature bird is much darker, and their breast feather patterns are different as well.

As for the house sparrows that are often the prey of my backyard hawks, I’m ambivalent about them, as are many birders. You see, these birds are not native to North America; they were originally found in Eurasia, North Africa, and the Middle East. The first 8 pairs of them were released in New York City in the mid-19th century, followed soon after with other releases. Immigrants to this country wanted to establish populations of the birds they were familiar with from their home countries, but they had no way of knowing the problems that would be caused by this seemingly harmless introduction.

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Young Cooper’s hawk with a female house sparrow in its talons

They quickly established themselves throughout most of North America, often displacing native bird species by their aggressive nesting behaviors.  They begin nesting early in the season, often before the native birds have returned from migration, thus depriving them of their preferred nesting spots. Eastern bluebirds are one of the species that has been hardest hit by the impact of the house sparrow invasion. Ask anyone who monitors bluebird nest boxes and you’ll undoubtedly hear exasperation as they tell you about the house sparrows killing bluebird babies and building nests on top of their dead bodies. If you’d like to read more about this, check out this article from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Adult male house sparrow (Passer domesticus)

House sparrows are very adaptable, able to eat a wide variety of foods and to nest in human dwellings. If you’ve ever noticed birds inside your local Costco or other big box store, or noticed nests hanging on the outdoor storefront signs of any business, those are likely to be house sparrows.

These birds are the reason I don’t keep my bird feeders out all year long; there’s a large population of them here and they spend much of their time in my yard. They roost in shrubs in the yard, and arrive at the feeders in noisy flocks, pressuring other birds into looking elsewhere for food. I wish they weren’t such a problem, because they’re handsome birds. Well, at least the males are handsome; the females are more drab.

Here’s a group of them gathered on the rim of a water bucket at a dog park, with a single male on the left.

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Finally, here are a few photos of the young hawk walking along the fence, peering down into the sparrows’ favorite roosting spot. He came away with empty talons this time, but I’ve seen Cooper’s hawks jump down into those shrubs and come out with a feathered meal many times. One day I saw two victims pulled out of there, a mourning dove and a house sparrow. I tend to mourn the loss of the dove more than that of the sparrow.

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Come out, come out, wherever you are!

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Wondering where all those sparrows went….they were just here a minute ago!

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Brain Food or Useless Fruit?

osage orange tree and fruits on ground w sigA few weeks ago I was counting birds in rural Marion County in central Ohio. My count partner Jim and I were participating in one of the many Audubon Christmas Bird Counts that take place all across the country each December.

We’d stopped at a small park to walk a trail around a little lake, where we found some downy woodpeckers and American tree sparrows, but not much else. As we emerged from the woods, we came upon this fascinating osage orange tree (Maclura pomifera). The ground beneath the tree was littered with dozens of spectacular, grapefruit-sized fruits. I couldn’t resist a brief stop to examine them more closely.

If you’ve never seen one of these strange fruits before, your first impression is likely to be that it looks oddly like a brain.

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When fresh, the fruits are bright green. These were obviously past their prime, and many were rotting. Some had lovely reddish coloring, and a few had been tasted by unknown critters, possibly squirrel or deer. I’m told they aren’t very palatable, and I’m not willing to taste one to find out.

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I examined one of the fruits that was split open, and found that it has sections that remind me of broccoli or pineapple.

As we talked about this tree, I learned the concept of anachronistic plants. They’re still here, long after the demise of any animals that would have been large enough to forage on them. So they apparently don’t serve much purpose any longer, at least for larger animals. I would imagine there are insects that feed on this tree and birds that nest in it, although Ohio is not its natural range. It occurs naturally in Texas, but here in Ohio it’s considered an alien species. It was brought here by early settlers who had found that the thorny osage orange could be used as an effective livestock barrier when planted in thick hedges (thus the alternate name of hedge apple).

Despite very little scientific evidence, many people continue to believe that osage oranges can be used to repel insects or spiders around the home.  I came upon this humorous post on a message board while researching for this article:

“I used whole hedge apples in my house to run out spiders, and was I ever wrong in doing it! They drew gnats, my house was full of them! And then they rotted. Gross! I got rid of them, got rid of the gnats, and learned a lesson.”

I guess the lesson she learned was to keep the hedge apples outside of the house. 🙂
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