When you’re birding and hear a distinctive loud, harsh rattling call and a large, pigeon sized bird flies out over the water, hovers and then plunges head first into the water, you have probably just witnessed a Belted Kingfisher in action. Once in a while Kingfishers make their way to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC due to tangling, concussive injuries or an overzealous hunting dog. Kingfishers can be found throughout the world’s tropics and temperate regions, although absent from some of the world’s driest deserts and also, the polar regions. There are many types of Kingfishers, but North Carolina is home to the belted variety only. Our Belted Kingfisher is approximately 13 inches long, 22” across when wings are extended, dull blue above, white below, with a bluish belt on the breast, except for the female who has rusty colored flanks and a brilliant rusty band across her chest. It’s quite the role reversal in the bird world for the female to be more brightly colored than her male counterpart. The wings and short tail-feathers are black, spotted and barred with white. The flight of this bird is rapid and its motions on the wing consist of a series of flaps, about five or six, followed by a direct glide. The large, some say enormous, shaggy head is crested. Their feet and legs are small in comparison to their body size and located too far back to allow for walking on the ground, which makes their feet fairly weak and only suitable for perching. Although somewhat large in comparison to songbirds, they weigh only 5 ounces. The kingfisher’s diet is mostly fish but they will eat crayfish, shellfish, small birds, mollusks, mammals, worms, insects and lizards. They seem to particularly enjoy grasshoppers. If these food sources are not available, they will eat berries. Their characteristic habit is to sit motionless while watching for their prey, dart after it and return to their perch. They “plunge dive” like a pelican from as high as 50 feet making a steep head-first dive into the water to catch small fish. Their aim must be perfect because they hit the water with closed eyes. They will then fly to a favorite, near-by perch with their prey and beat it to death before tossing it into the air and swallowing it head first. After a tasty meal, they “disgorge” any indigestible bones and scales in pellet form. Wildlife rehabilitators learn quickly that Kingfishers do not peck; they make use of considerable jaw musculature to clamp down tightly with that long, straight bill. And clamp they can, which makes perfect sense when we remember the bird must dive into water to grab wiggly, slimy, smoothly scaled fish and hold on firmly if lunch is to be served; a weak bill just wouldn’t get the job done. Their grip is almost vise-like and to make matters worse both mandibles are edged with tiny irregular serrations that serve to hold slippery fish or the rehabber’s finger with great force. Ouch! Kingfishers also make tunnel nests in riverbanks with that sturdy digging tool mounted on their faces. They burrow into the vertical walls of dirt that edge a body of water, forming tunnels from two to ten feet. The entry hole is just large enough to admit the passage of a single bird at a time (safety feature!). In these tunnels, the female lays 5-8 nearly round, white eggs at one-day intervals and incubation begins by both sexes with the first egg. They hatch at one-day intervals, so the young are different sizes, the oldest up to a week older than the youngest. The parents do not remove the nestlings’ droppings like conscientious song birds do. Chicks apparently not only defecate in the burrow but also throw pellets containing indigestible prey parts. What a mess they must be living in by the end of the nesting period! So we learn that Kingfisher parents are not the good housekeepers other birds are known for. When food is scarce only the older nestlings survive, and there is much competition for the regurgitant food brought by the parents. About 23 days after hatching, the chicks are fledged, and the parents begin teaching them hunting skills. Although, you might see a youngster begging on a branch, you will probably never see the parents feeding them. Once they are in hunting “home” school, it’s all tough love with Mom and Dad! However, if threatened by a predator, Mom has been known to drop onto the water, fluttering and feigning injury to entice the intruder to wade or swim after her. All the while, her mate, perched on a branch or clinging to the edge of the bank, jerks his tail, erects his crest, vocalizes with angry intensity and then springs off to pass and repass the threat, with his most intimidating cry to fend off the dangerous intruder. By 10 days after fledging the young are skillfully able to retrieve small fish. That means the parents’ job is done and the youngsters are driven out of their parents’ territory. Studies suggest that the parents are monogamous with the same pair coming together each breeding season and returning to the same burrow to breed and roost, for many years in succession. So bonding occurs with the adults but with the kids, not so much! Nest predators in our area will be raccoons or snakes and the adult and juvenile Kingfishers need to be on the lookout for the capable Cooper’s Hawk. North Carolina Belted Kingfishers overwinter here and will be joined by migrating Kingfishers from Canada and our New England region who are seeking ice-free areas to hunt. This species, although elusive and difficult to study, is listed as one of the top 20 priority avian species of concern.
Keep your eyes on watch for the King Fisher!
Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of ”Save Them All“
Posted in Animal Rescue, Articles, back yard birds, Belted King fisher, Environment, Essay; articles, King Fisher, Linda Bergman-Althouse, Nature, NC, Newport, North Carolina Wildlife, Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, Save Them All, seabirds, wildlife rehabilitation, wildlife rescue, winter feeding | Leave a Comment »
Some of the calls we receive at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC require attention a little beyond our realm of expertise. Such is the case when a call comes in to relocate an alligator that has just shown up in the parking lot of a shopping mall and happens to be a 10-12 foot 400 pounder with a bite force of 1500 pounds per square inch at that! Although we, wildlife rehabilitators, aren’t “hands on” with a gator, and they definitely won’t fit into our largest kennel cab, we know who to call. Wildlife Control Officers directed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and local police departments consider an alligator out of water and wandering around in a residential area a critical danger and respond with a great sense of urgency. The alligator pictured, although extremely annoyed, was successfully relocated to a gator friendly area without injury to himself or the wildlife professionals involved in his capture and transport. The question that surfaces is “Why was he out of the water, away from his habitat and among humans in the first place?” We have lots of alligators in our fresh water streams, canals, ponds, lakes, marshes, swamps, and tidal estuaries of eastern North Carolina, and that’s usually where they stay until people start feeding them. It’s against the law and the fine can be as high as $200, but intentional feeding still happens; bread, chips, sandwiches, chicken bones. Some feeding is unintentional, like cleaning fish and throwing the remains in the water. Alligators are carnivorous, and they are opportunists. They eat whatever is available – fish, other alligators, turtles, waterfowl, cats, dogs, small livestock, humans. Meat’s meat and food is food as far as the gator knows. North Carolina gators only eat during the spring, summer and early fall when temperatures are above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. They grow slower than alligators that live in warmer climates. In fact, North Carolina is the farthest north that the American Alligator can live. Alligators are large, dangerous animals that can easily lose their fear of people, giving them the classification among biologists as “charismatic megafauna.” North Carolina wildlife officials warn people not to feed alligators, which are common around waterways also frequented by tourists, especially in the southeastern part of our state. Almost all human attacks come as a result of illegal feeding. Although alligators have made a strong comeback after being hunted nearly to extinction in the 1900s, they remain listed as a threatened species. Sometimes an alligator is confused with its closest cousin, the crocodile. Our alligators have a short, blunt, rounded snout while crocodiles have a long, pointed snout. Cold-blooded alligators, the largest reptiles in North America, have overlapping jaws with darker coloration than the crocodile and are less tolerant of seawater, although they have been known to take a dip in the ocean. Unlike alligators, crocodiles do not live in North Carolina. Alligators are diurnal and nocturnal, meaning they are active both day and night. They dig large holes into the earth and make dens that provide protection and a place to rest during very hot or cold days. The “doorways” to these dens are usually accessed under water. They are commonly seen on river banks, basking in the sun during the spring and summer. Alligators may be spotted in the water by watching for eyes, a head or snout protruding from the water’s surface. Social animals, alligators often gather with other gators during mating season. The alligator begins courtship in April and breeding goes on until May or early June. The female lays her eggs, about 30, in a nest she constructs of vegetation. The decaying organic material serves to heat the eggs. The nest is about two feet high and five feet in diameter. The white eggs, only a bit larger than chicken eggs, take about 65 days to hatch. The hatchlings are about 9 inches long and sport yellow bands around their bodies. The young alligators leave the nest in early fall, but the mother keeps a close watch over them for up to two years. During the first six years of an alligator’s life, it will grow up to a foot each year. Male alligators normally grow to be 11 to 12 feet long. Females grow to around 8 feet long. The longest alligator ever recorded was a male over 19 feet long! The average lifespan of the alligator is 30-50 years, with the maximum most likely occurring in captivity. In North Carolina hunting or killing an alligator is illegal and only state wildlife officials can remove problem gators. They can become aggressive if they feel threatened, especially when defending their nest or young and will attack humans, so do not approach them and by all means, DO NOT FEED THEM. Alligators have been around since the dinosaur days, so they will make do in the wild without an individual yielding to the temptation to picnic with them or any other human interference! There are no recorded human deaths in North Carolina due to alligator attack, so let’s keep it that way!
best to you always & be safe,
Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of “Save Them All“
Posted in alligators, Animal Rescue, Articles, Environment, Essay; articles, Hope For Wildlife, Linda Bergman-Althouse, Nature, NC, Newport, News, North Carolina Wildlife, Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, Reptiles, road hazard, Save Them All, wildlife rehabilitation, wildlife rescue | Leave a Comment »
Very few and far between do we admit Bobcats to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport because they are extremely elusive, secretive and avoid all human contact. Although it is a rarity to see a bobcat in Eastern North Carolina, they are here in the coastal plains, as well as throughout the state. They are the only wild cat found in North Carolina. Every time a Bobcat has been admitted to the shelter over the years (the instances can be counted on one hand), a run in with a vehicle during the dead of night has been the cause of injury. The last Bobcat admitted suffered a broken leg when struck by a pickup truck on a back road in a low land area of our coast. Fortunately, the compassionate driver, who had heavy work gloves in his cab, managed amid hissing, growling, biting, scratching and squirming, to put him in his truck bed under a secured tarp and transport the injured cat to our shelter. A Bobcat isn’t a relatively large animal, but it is a fierce fighter. His stay in intensive care was quite the challenge. Isolation in a huge metal enclosure was the only way to go for this beautiful, solitary animal to keep him and everybody else safe. Despite looking like your cat, Fluffy, who curls up on your lap while you watch television, this fur ball, who is twice as big as your chubbiest domestic house cat, is not okay with being handled by humans, so safety issues are paramount when treating a Bobcat.
The Bobcat gets its name from the short tail it sports which is usually less than 5 inches. Its light brown to reddish brown fur is extremely gorgeous, dense and soft. Their round face is topped with pointed, tufted ears, and the Bobcat’s hind legs are longer than its front legs, which gives them that “Cheetah” like bobbing run when chasing down prey. Their paws have four toes each with retractable, razor sharp claws. They have four large and very sharp canine teeth and behind the canines, more sharp cutting teeth. They have forward facing yellow eyes with black elongated pupils. Like all cats, they use their whiskers like fingertips and can feel prey in complete darkness. Bobcats are gifted runners, climbers and swimmers. They are excellent hunters with superior vision, hearing and a good sense of smell. Their night vision is exceptional. You might be thinking, with all that going on, how do they get hit by cars? It’s a timing thing.
Nicknames abound for the Bobcat to include “ol’ spitfire,” “lightning,” “woods ghost” and “tiger cat” which all speak to their stealth abilities as focused and ferocious hunters. Bobcats are carnivores that favor rabbits, rodents, raccoons, opossums, birds and snakes for their dining pleasure, although they have been known, although rare, to take down an adult deer and occasionally farm animals, too. They can be active during the day but prefer to hunt at night. They will also roll in, chew on and ingest fresh vegetation. Although Bobcats are solitary, males will seek out a mate when they sexually mature, which is between one and two years of age. Mating takes place usually in late winter and two to four kittens will be born in the May timeframe. Kittens are furred but blind at birth. Their eyes open in 3 – 10 days. By 4 weeks they start exploring beyond the den and by 7-8 weeks of age, they are weaned. Life expectancy for males is 3-4 years and 4-5 years for females. Ten year longevity is the highest to be recorded for a Bobcat in the wild. In captivity, they may live more than 30 years.
Although the Bobcat prefers woodlands, it has adapted well to our coastal region. Due to habitat restoration occurring throughout our state, Bobcat populations have grown over the past 50 years. Bobcats are fascinating wildlife, and if you have the opportunity to see a Bobcat in the wild, consider it an honor and feel privileged to be among the few that ever has or ever will!
Author of, “Save Them All“
Posted in Animal Rescue, Articles, Environment, Linda Bergman-Althouse, Nature, NC, Newport, North Carolina Wildlife, Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, The Writing Life, wildlife rehabilitation, wildlife rescue, Writing | Tagged bobcats, Woods ghost | Leave a Comment »
Most coastal residents and vacationers to our coast are familiar with Great Blue Herons or White Egrets because they are a common sight in the marshlands of Eastern North Carolina. However, the American Bittern, also a wading bird of the heron family and who lives among us, is hardly ever seen or spoken of. When someone does see one, they usually don’t know what it is they are looking at. That was the case when a lady saw one in her back yard that had been roughed up during our most recent tropical storm. He was not moving but still alive when she brought him to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport a few weeks ago. We wildlife rehabilitators at the shelter are as unfamiliar with the Bittern as most. A scan through our bird book was necessary to confirm the injured wetland bird’s identity.
A solitary species, the American Bittern is difficult to see because of its remarkable ability to blend in with surrounding vegetation and dense reed beds. While other herons prefer to flee when approached, Bitterns will freeze and often stretch their neck straight up with bill pointed towards the sky and sway from side to side to blend in perfectly with its reedy background.
This stocky heron is heavily streaked with tan, brown, and white over its entire body. Darker wings and flight feathers, a black face, and neck streaks accentuate their plumage. Males and females have similar plumage. The Bittern has a 3 foot wingspan and is approximately 2.5 feet long from the tip of its long pointed bill to the end of its tail. While the bird can appear quite large, especially when it holds its neck in and puffs up its feathers, it weighs only about a pound.
The American Bittern inhabits large, reedy wetlands, and needs shallow freshwater marshes for nesting. The female does most of the nest-building, incubation and chick rearing. American Bitterns are sometimes polygamous, with one male mating with several females. Their nests are platform structures of reeds and grasses. Three to five eggs are laid and incubated for at least 24 days. The baby Bitterns may leave the nest after only a week or two, but they remain close by for another month or longer, until they are able to fly.
The basic diet of the American Bittern includes insects like beetles, dragonflies and water scorpions, amphibians, crayfish, snakes and small fish and mammals. When foraging, which occurs most often at dusk and dawn, the patient Bittern relies mostly on stealth, waiting motionless for its prey to pass by. Its camouflage ability allows it to go undetected by prey. When its potential meal is within reach, the bird darts forward and with a rapid spearing motion, seizes the prey in its bill. Although the Bittern may be hard to see, if we listen close enough we may be able to hear that loud, booming guttural “pump-er-wink” call resounding from the marsh. It’s quite unique and some have described their call similar to a dripping faucet which has led to many nicknames such as stake-driver, water-belcher, mire drum and thunder pumper. Collectively, a group of bitterns is referred to as a “dash”, “freeze”, “pint”, “pretense” and “siege” of bitterns.
Although the average life expectancy for the American Bittern is eight years, there is a reported population decline of Bitterns due to loss of habitat. Many marshes and swamplands that Bitterns have depended upon have been drained and filled for human uses such as roads, housing and commercial developments. The species remains relatively unstudied due to its secretive nature and inaccessible habitats, but they are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. We feel very protective of our rare American Bittern patient and hope he recovers soon. We want our covert heron back on his feet to once again wade the marshes of Carteret County.
author of ”Save Them All“
Posted in Animal Rescue, good samaritan, Linda Bergman-Althouse, Nature, NC, Newport, North Carolina Wildlife, Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, seabirds, wildlife rehabilitation, wildlife rescue | Leave a Comment »
When we receive distress calls at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport regarding beached or injured seabirds, most people can identify pelicans and gulls, but sometimes they are stumped and say “I don’t know what it is, but its all black.” By that description, we’re pretty sure we will soon be admitting a Cormorant. Although there are over 40 species of Cormorants throughout the world, the North Carolina Cormorant is of the double-crested variety with the occasional Great Cormorant passing through. They are permanent residents in the coastal plains region, and the population grows when northern birds migrate to our warmer waters during winter. The Cormorant is said to be from an ancient bird group that dates all the way back to the time of the dinosaurs. Cormorants, coastal water birds rather than oceanic, are large 4 to 6 pounders with wingspans around 54 inches. Adults are black with long, slender necks. They are social, web-footed, aquatic eaters that dive deeply and swim underwater to mainly catch fish, but if presented, they won’t pass by small eels or water snakes. These opportunistic feeders use their slender, hooked bills to take whatever food is available. Some people call the cormorant “snake bird” or “submarine bird” because it swims so deep in the water and disappears for long periods of time only to resurface far from their point of entry. When it’s long neck and pointed head sticks up out of the water, it resembles a periscope because the majority of its body remains submerged. You may have seen these dark vulture-like birds perched on pylons, tree stumps or rocks with their wings spread open to dry. Their feathers hold water which reduces buoyancy allowing them to dive up to 20 feet, so they need to drip dry a little. The wing drying pose serves other functions as well, such as aiding thermoregulation, digestion and balance. Stoutly built Cormorants use their powerful legs to help propel them through water and ready them for take-off. If you see a bird running on the water, before taking off skyward, it’s probably a cormorant. The Double-crested Cormorant is the most common species in the eastern United States and goes by the scientific name of Phalacrocorax auritus, which means bald crested crow. The double crest, which appears during its short breeding season, is formed by long, curled upward crown feathers on both sides of its head. Cormorants are monogamous and return to the same site to breed every year. Although we commonly admit adults and one to two year old juveniles that still have a gray or tan colored neck and breast, we never see infants because nesting most often occurs on islands with sparse vegetation, rocky shoals, cliffs or offshore rocks where there is no human presence. Mates will breed at age three and the female will lay 2 to 7 eggs in a 12 to 20 inch high, twigged nest, but on average the Cormorant pair will produce only 2 young. Interesting Factoid: Fishermen in Asian countries such as China and Japan have trained Cormorants to assist them in their fishing pursuits. A loop of twine is tied loosely near the base of the bird’s throat, which allows the bird only to swallow small fish and not the larger ones. When the bird returns to the raft or boat, the fisherman removes the fish from the bird’s throat. This method is not as common today, since more efficient methods of catching fish have been developed, but the fishing partnership of human and cormorant still exists in many remote areas. The Cormorant is a powerfully robust bird, and our wildlife rehabilitators are well aware that during their rehabilitation we will have quite the challenge of bird versus human strength on our hands. If that hooked bill catches a finger or any other part of your body it will feel like tightening vise-grip pliers that will take both you and a fellow rehabilitator to release, if you don’t faint first! Our hands have to be protected and quick and appropriate holds must be utilized for the bird’s safety and our own. A full visor should be worn when handling these birds who are agile and capable of great force. Cormorants are admitted to the shelter for a variety of reasons to include fishing line or gear entanglement, collisions with automobiles, scrapes with power lines, fungal infections that affect their respiratory system and occasionally, lead poisoning. It is advised that anyone coming into contact with an injured Cormorant, please contact the nearest wildlife shelter for professional assistance. The Double-crested Cormorant is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
Happy Holidays Everyone!!! And as we wade through the wrapping paper of celebrations to come, may the force of the Cormorant be with you!!!
Best to you Always,
Author of “Save Them All“
Posted in Animal Rescue, Articles, Cormorants, Environment, Essay; articles, Nature, NC, Newport, North Carolina Wildlife, Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, seabirds, wildlife rehabilitation, wildlife rescue | 2 Comments »