An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide – maryholland505@gmail.com

Birds

American Redstarts Co-Parenting

American Redstarts, lively and colorful little warblers, share much of the parental care of their young.  He selects and presents her with a choice of nest locations.  She chooses the site and builds the nest.  He feeds her while she incubates the eggs. Both parents collect insects and feed their nestlings as well as remove fecal sacs (small packets of waste produced by nestlings). She does much of the brooding of the young. When their young fledge, the mother and father divide responsibility for the fledglings, with each parent separately caring for a portion of the young.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Juvenile Great Horned Owls Fledged & Flying

At about six weeks of age, young Great Horned Owls fledge, moving from their nest into nearby trees where they spend their time hiding among the branches while waiting for their parents to deliver food. (If discovered by crows, they are easy to find — just follow the cacophony created by the mobbing crows.) At seven weeks they are taking short flights, but remain close to their nest. At this point they are about 3/4’s grown and resemble the adults except for lacking the prominent feather tufts or “horns.” Even at nine or ten weeks, when capable of extended flight, juveniles tend to stay close to their parents. The adults bring their young occasional food items as late as September, when dispersal begins. (Photo: fledged juvenile Great Horned Owl after a downpour; thanks to Sharon Glezen and Cara Calvelli for photo opportunity)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com  and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Killdeer Parents Provide Protection For Newborn Chicks

Killdeer are ground nesters and their young are precocial – born with a layer of down and able to walk, run and find their own food a few hours after hatching.  Even so, the parents brood (cover them with their body, providing heat) their young if it’s cool and provide shade for them if it’s hot the first few days after they hatch. 

Killdeer parents are very protective of their young.  Their distraction display — leading predators away from their chicks by feigning injury — is familiar to anyone who has closely approached them. They also provide shelter for their chicks if they perceive a threat. If you look closely at the main photograph, you will see four tiny legs extending to the ground from the adult Killdeer’s breast.  These legs, and the black tail feathers poking out of the adult’s white feathers, belong to two chicks who felt the need for protection.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com  and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Black-crowned Night Herons Feeding

Black-crowned Night Herons employ a number of techniques for capturing a wide variety of food, from standing stock still for a considerable amount of time waiting for prey to swim by to securing prey while swimming.  They feed mainly from evening until early morning. Because they are crepuscular (feeding at dawn and dusk) as well as nocturnal (as their name implies), feeding competition from other (diurnal) herons is minimized.

The diet of opportunistic Black-crowned Night Herons includes earthworms, insects, crayfish, mussels, fish, amphibians, snakes, turtles, birds, small mammals and plant material. They have been observed actively manipulating bait (bread in one case, dragonflies in another) to attract and catch fish. As can be seen in the inset photograph, they grasp, rather than stab, their prey.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button


Double-crested Cormorants In Their Prime

In New England, if you don’t live on the coast or in a couple of inland locations, you will probably only see Double-crested Cormorants as they pass through during migration.  At first sight, these birds aren’t especially eye-catching – blackish-brown, somewhat prehistoric-looking, often seen perched with wings stretched out to dry. Hardly worth a second look, some might say, but in the spring they would be mistaken.

During their breeding season Double-crested Cormorants’ eyes are a brilliant turquoise color, and they develop the tufts of feathers, or crests, on their head for which they are named. Should you see one in the spring, watch for it to open its beak – the inside of their mouth is also bright turquoise at this time of year!

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com  and click on the yellow “donate” button.


White-breasted Nuthatches Nesting

White-breasted Nuthatches are one of the 85 species of North American birds that are classified as cavity nesters.  Although the young of birds nesting in cavities are protected from the elements, they are still vulnerable to predators.

White-breasted Nuthatches have an unusual strategy for discouraging uninvited guests.  They “bill-sweep” with an object, usually a crushed insect, in their bill, sweeping back and forth on the tree both outside and inside the nest, often for many minutes at a time.  It’s thought that chemical defense secretions from the crushed insect may discourage squirrels from entering the cavity.  (Red-breasted Nuthatches apply sticky conifer resin to both the inside and outside of their nesting cavity, which presumedly serves the same purpose.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


American Bitterns Mating

Trying to look like a reed so as not to attract human attention, but all fluffed out to impress a potential mate, this male American Bittern strikes a formidable pose.  While its impressive call earned it several descriptive common names such as “stake-driver,” and “thunder-pumper,” (to hear this call, go to https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Bittern/sounds) the sudden appearance of white feathers that are usually concealed beneath its wings signals copulation is imminent.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Male Red-bellied Woodpeckers Calling & Tapping To Attract Mate

One of the best ways to determine if Red-bellied Woodpeckers have chosen to nest nearby is the presence of their persistent and distinctive “kwirr” call.  It is given most often now, during the breeding season, when males try to attract a mate to their roost cavity or a partially completed excavation by calling to them.  Drumming and soft taps are also performed by males as part of the courtship ritual. 

When attracted, the female flies to the male and indicates her acceptance of his cavity by perching beside him while they both engage in tapping behavior. If the cavity is partially completed, the mutual tapping behavior also appears to stimulate the female to help the male finish excavating the cavity. (Photo: male Red-bellied Woodpecker at nest hole; inset: male (left) and female (right) tapping at nest hole.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Horned Larks Aplenty In Vermont’s Champlain Valley

Along the sides of plowed roads flocks of brown birds called Horned Larks (Eremophila alpestris) may rise up as you drive by, fly in undulating fashion for a while and then settle back down on the roadside where they resume foraging for the seeds of ragweed, foxtail, crab grass and other weedy plants. 

With its tiny feather tufts looking like miniature devil horns, this winter visitor from the north and the only native lark of North America will rarely if ever be seen perched in a tree or even a low shrub, for it is a creature of the ground where it both feeds and nests.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Blue Feathers

The colors in the feathers of a bird are formed in two different ways, from either pigments or from light refraction caused by the structure of the feather. Red and yellow feathers get their color from actual pigments (carotenoids) that come from the bird’s diet. Blue, however, is a structural color, created by the way light waves interact with the feathers and their arrangement of protein molecules, called keratin.

Thus, no birds have blue feathers made from pigments – they are blue strictly from the structure of the feathers.  Different keratin structures reflect light in subtly different ways to produce different shades of what our eyes perceive as the color blue.

If you observe the blue feather of an Eastern Bluebird, Blue Jay or Indigo Bunting in normal lighting conditions you will see the expected blue color. However, if the feather is back-lit, and the light is transmitted through the feather, it will look brown. The blues are lost because the light is no longer being reflected back and the brown shows up because of the melanin in the feathers.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Black-crowned Night Herons: Not Your Typical Heron

When you think of a heron, you usually think of a diurnal wading bird that has long legs, a long neck and a long bill.  Black-crowned Night Herons don’t possess any of these familial characteristics.  Stocky and relatively short-legged and short-billed, these herons typically rest during the day and start actively hunting at dusk, continuing through the night.

Prey includes fish (half their diet) plus a wide range of other creatures including leeches, earthworms, insects, crayfish, snakes, turtles, small mammals, birds and frogs. The manner in which a Black-crowned Night Heron lures and captures its prey varies.  Two of its most intriguing fishing techniques include bill vibrating (opening and closing its bill rapidly in the water to attract prey) and bait fishing – using bait to attract fish.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Northern Mockingbirds Wing-flashing

Occasionally one comes across animal behavior that has yet to be understood by humans.  If you watch Northern Mockingbirds for any length of time, especially females, you are likely to see them stop and raise their wings half to fully open, in several progressively higher jerky movements.  When they do this, their white wing patches are fully exposed. 

Ornithologists are not of one mind as to what this behavior achieves. Perhaps it is anti-predator behavior – an attempt to scare would-be nest raiders away.  It could be a way of startling insects enough to make them move and thus easier to see and catch.  It also could be a form of territorial display/defense. Interestingly, mockingbird species that lack the white wing patches also engage in this behavior.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Turkey Vultures Staying Cool

On hot, humid summer days, consider the ingenuity of the Turkey Vulture.  When overly hot, this bird will often defecate on its own legs.  The water in its waste (feces and urine are eliminated simultaneously through a bird’s cloaca) evaporates and cools the blood vessels in the Turkey Vulture’s unfeathered legs and feet, which results in cooling the entire bird.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Parental Feeding Techniques of the Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Herons are colonial nesters – a rookery can have hundreds (up to 500) of nests, usually in dead snags, with one, two or three nests in a single snag.  Because the chicks are in the nest for roughly two months before fledging, their interactions with both parents, especially when food is delivered to the nest, has been observed and well documented.

Newly hatched chicks peck at the adult’s bill, the nest and each other. Initially the adult returns to the nest  where it stands on the rim and regurgitates food into the open bills of the chicks.  The chicks get quite proficient at grabbing the adult’s bill and pulling it into the nest as soon as the parent returns.  As the chicks age, the adult often regurgitates onto the floor of the nest and the chicks eat it.  When the nestlings are about a month old, they take food directly from their parents.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Common Grackles Raising Young

Although female Common Grackles do all the incubating, both males and females provide food for their nestlings.  Males average almost two feedings an hour, females almost four. Judging from the size of the larvae the pictured Grackle has in its beak, its nestlings are midway to fledging, perhaps a week old. The older/larger the nestlings, the greater the size of the food they receive.  Male and female nestlings received items of equal quality and quantity.

During the breeding season, both nestlings and adults feed primarily on insects in addition to a small amount of grain (and an occasional fish, small rodent or leech).  During the winter, their diet consists mostly of agricultural grains and tree seeds such as acorns.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Brown-headed Cowbird: Brood Parasite

One has to admire a creature who has managed to eliminate the laboriousness of raising its offspring.  Brown-headed Cowbirds, renowned brood parasites, have done just that.  These birds do not build nests; females lay up to 40 eggs a summer in the nests of more than 220 species of birds which raise their young for them.  Cowbird eggs are generally larger than the host bird’s and hatch in fewer days, thereby putting Cowbird chicks at a distinct advantage over the host’s chicks when it comes to parental attention.

In this photo a Brown-headed Cowbird has deposited three eggs in the nest of an Eastern Phoebe (which has constructed its nest inside an abandoned American Robin nest). Unlike some songbirds, Phoebes do not recognize and remove the Cowbird’s eggs. Neither do they build a new nest on top of the old one, as some smaller songbirds (i.e. Yellow Warblers) are known to do.

Cowbird chicks develop faster than the chicks of the host bird, thereby often getting the first crack at the food parents bring to the nestlings.  Not only are the host species’ chicks often at a disadvantage when it comes to parental care, but they are at the mercy of the Cowbird chicks which often remove both the eggs and chicks of the host. (Thanks to friends in Thetford, VT for the use of their photograph of this parasitized Eastern Phoebe nest. The three larger, speckled eggs are Brown-headed Cowbird eggs; the four smaller white eggs are Eastern Phoebe eggs.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Purple Martins Face Challenges Upon Returning To Breeding Grounds

Many of the Purple Martins that return from South America to the Northeast to breed have flown across the Gulf of Mexico to get here.  Once they’ve made this impressive trip, their challenges are far from over.  The reproductive success of Purple Martins depends not only on their arriving on their breeding grounds, but on surviving once they have arrived. One of the largest challenges that faces them upon their return is related to their diet, which consists exclusively of flying insects.  Purple Martins are particularly susceptible to spells of cold and rainy weather during the spring and early summer which can drastically reduce their supply of food.

Even when the weather doesn’t present them with nutritional challenges, Purple Martins have to contend with European Starlings and House Sparrows, both of which aggressively compete with them for artificial/human-made nest sites. Human intervention and management is often needed in order to protect the martin population. (Photo: male Purple Martin)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button. 


Mourning Dove Nesting Idiosyncracies

Nest-building and chick-feeding are a bit unusual for Mourning Doves.  As to nest construction, the female remains at the nest site while the male dove collects the nesting material (twigs, grasses, pine needles, etc.). He returns to the nest and proceeds to stand on his mate’s back while presenting the material to her and she weaves it into the nest.  

The hatchlings, or squabs, are fed by regurgitation.  For the first four or five days, the squabs insert their bills in each side of either parent’s mouth and drink what is referred to as crop milk, a secretion from the lining of the crops of the parents.  All pigeons and doves produce crop milk for their young.  Seeds are regurgitated in increasing amounts and by the time the squabs fledge, they are essentially seed eaters like their parents. (Note: With a little effort, scruffy feathers of squabs can be seen beneath the breast of this nesting Mourning Dove.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.                               


Wild Turkeys Feeding and Making Burdock Balls

Almost every response to this Mystery Photo was spot-on, but “myip2014” was the first NC reader to recognize the signs left by a Wild Turkey feeding on Common Burdock (Arctium minus) seeds. A variety of plant material is eaten by Wild Turkeys in the winter: white pine and hemlock needles and buds, evergreen ferns, lichens, moss, and buds and stems of Sugar Maple, American Beech and American Hophornbeam trees. Especially when there is deep snow, Common Burdock is a favorite due to having seeds that are within reach and usually above the snow.

Turkeys consume these seeds in such a distinctive manner that one can recognize what animal has been feeding on burdock, even if tracks and scat are not present. The burdock burrs, or fruits, are plucked off the plant by the turkey, opened and the seeds are eaten. The burrs end up nearly inside out as a result of the turkey prying them open to get the seeds, and often are stuck together and form “burdock balls.“  The presence of these balls is a sure sign that turkeys have dined on the seeds they once contained.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


American Tree Sparrows : Winter Visitors

One of New England’s common winter visitors from the far northern tundra is the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea), often spotted in large flocks in weedy, snow-covered fields moving from one spot to another as they feed..  These seed-eating sparrows are known to beat weeds with their wings and then fly to the surface of the snow beneath the weeds to retrieve seeds they have caused to fall.  

Their common name is a misnomer, for American Tree Sparrows feed on the ground and often breed and nest on the ground above the treeline.  They apparently reminded European settlers of the Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus), a cavity-nesting bird which has very different habits than the American Tree Sparrow. 

In part because of the loss of weedy old fields and other open habitats, the American Tree Sparrow population has declined by 53% over the last 50 years.  Even so, they are a common sight during the winter in fields, on road sides and at feeders throughout the northern half of the United States.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com and click on the yellow “donate” button.


White-winged Crossbills Foraging

Most of New England is privileged to see White-winged Crossbills (Loxia leucoptera) only during the winter, when these nomadic birds forage south of their far northern boreal forest breeding grounds for conifer seeds during poor cone crop years. 

Spruce seeds are the preferred food of White-winged Crossbills. Their crossed mandibles allow them to pry open cone scales and they then extract the seeds with their tongue.  Individuals can eat up to 3,000 conifer seeds a day!

These birds have been documented nesting every month of the year.  As long as they can find a source of food that is sufficient for egg formation and that is likely to remain for the next month or so when they’ll be feeding nestlings, they will breed.  The larger the spruce cone crop, the longer a span of time crossbills typically nest.  Nesting usually declines by November although young do occasionally fledge in December and January. (Photos of a male White-winged Crossbill by Erin Donahue.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com  and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Birds Gathering Grit On Dirt Roads & Roadsides

Birds compensate for their lack of teeth with a two-parted stomach, the first of which (proventriculus) secretes digestive enzymes and the second of which (a muscular gizzard) grinds the food they’ve eaten into small digestible bits.  Birds that eat hard seeds and nuts tend to have thick, muscular gizzards, while those species that eat very easily-digested foods such as soft-bodied insects, soft fruits, or nectar often have very small and thin-walled gizzards.  Many birds whose diet consists of hard substances, including seed-eaters, swallow grit (often why you see them on dirt roads or the sides of plowed roads where dirt has been exposed) to enhance the gizzard’s ability to pulverize food.

At this time of year, American Goldfinches, Common Redpolls, Snow Buntings, Tree Sparrows and Eastern Bluebirds (among others) can be found swallowing roadside grit to help grind up the seeds that they consume.  (Photo:  While a majority of their summer diet is insects, Eastern Bluebirds consume many fruits (containing hard seeds) during the winter, a change in diet that allows them to remain in northern New England throughout the year.)

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com  and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Snow Buntings Feeding

Congratulations to Kathie Fiveash, the first NC reader to correctly identify the tracks and feeding sign in the latest Mystery Photo as those of Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis).  These birds began arriving in the northern half of the United States from their summer home on the northern tundra last fall and will remain here until March, when they begin migrating back to their breeding grounds.

In the winter, 97% of a Snow Bunting’s diet is weed seeds, including those of knotweed, ragweed, amaranth, aster, goldenrod, grasses and grains. These birds forage on the ground, collecting seeds from the protruding stems of tall weeds, occasionally reaching or leaping up to take seeds from taller stems, jumping against stems to scatter seeds or bending stems over by stepping on them. (Birds of the World, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology)

While foraging, Snow Bunting flocks are constantly restless, frequently flushing rapidly and low over the ground for short distances.  A flurry of birds, much like snowflakes, fills the air nearest the ground for a few seconds while they relocate to a new area. Birds at the back of the flock fly forward to the front, creating the impression that the flock is rolling along.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com  and click on the yellow “donate” button.


Fish are a primary, but not exclusive, food source for Bald Eagles

Hands down, Bald Eagles (like the 2nd year immature bird pictured) prefer fish over other prey — roughly 56% of the diet of nesting Bald Eagles consists of fish such as salmon, herring, shad, and catfish.  However, eagles are opportunistic foragers and over 400 species of prey have been recorded, half of which are waterbirds. Reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates such as crabs and crayfish, and small mammals such as squirrels, rabbits, muskrats, young beavers, fawns and raccoons are also subject to Bald Eagle predation.

During their first year, until they learn to be proficient hunters, Bald Eagles frequently feed on carrion. Even as adults, eagles regularly consume roadkills and deer that have died as a result of being stranded on ice. Whatever food is available and requires the least amount of energy to capture is usually high on their list.

Although not considered a primary source of food, domestic pets are subject to occasional predation by eagles. A discovery made by Fish & Wildlife personnel engaged in banding Bald Eagle nestlings may be of interest to cat owners who allow their pets to roam free in the great outdoors.  Upon reaching one nest, they found, among the detritus, over 20 cat collars.

Naturally Curious is supported by donations. If you choose to contribute, you may go to http://www.naturallycuriouswithmaryholland.wordpress.com  and click on the yellow “donate” button.