“Graceful and Elusive” The Least Bittern

He must have looked like a statue in the backyard, with his beak pointed straight up to the sky, standing so still and if movement was occurring, it was imperceptible to humans. However, the cat knew he was there and pounced before the resident of the Atlantic Beach home could stop the attack. The gentleman quickly intervened and lifted the wisp of a marsh bird from the feline’s clutches. The Good Samaritan did not know how badly the bird was injured, but did know its best chance for survival after a cat attack would be in the hands and care of a wildlife rehabilitator. When admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, positive identification recorded him as a Least Bittern, which is a very elusive marsh bird and one of the smallest herons in the world, averaging 11 to 14 inches in length with a 16 to 18-inch wingspan. A full examination revealed one small puncture wound, and he was on the thin side, but he was still a lucky bird! Medications to prevent infection, getting him to eat in captivity and quiet for rest & recuperation became the treatment plan. Within three days, he was on his feet and eating mud minnows on his own from a bowl. Good Boy! This small heron is adapted for life in dense marshes, but rather than wading in the shallows like most herons, the graceful Least Bittern climbs about in cattails and reeds, clinging to the stems with its long toes. Its narrow body allows it to slip through dense, tangled vegetation with ease. Thanks to its habit of perching among the reeds, the Least Bittern can feed from the surface of water that would be too deep for the wading strategy of other herons. Because of its habitat choice, it is often unseen until it flies. Although it is a rare sight to see, its cooing and clucking calls are frequently heard at dawn and dusk and sometimes at night. This primarily black and tan bird has a blackish-green crown and back, brown neck and brown and white underparts and a white throat. The Least Bittern is most readily identified in flight by conspicuous, chestnut-colored wing patches. Males are more colorful and have a darker back than females. The yellow bill for both is thin and the toes at the end of their short green and yellow legs sport long, curved toenails that work perfectly for grasping dense vegetation. The plumage of juveniles is similar to an adult female but paler. This skinny bittern eats mostly small fish such as minnows, sunfish and perch and large insects to include dragonflies. If available, the Least Bittern will not pass on crayfish, leeches, frogs, tadpoles, salamanders, slugs, shrews or mice. To search for these tasty treats, the LB awkwardly moves about in vegetation above water and jabs downward with its long bill to capture prey at the water’s surface. It will also flick it’s wings open and shut to startle prey into motion. If the feeding site is good, the bittern has been known to build a hunting stand by bending down many reeds to form a platform. These birds nest in saltwater, brackish or freshwater marshes with dense vegetation from southern Canada to northern Argentina. The nest is a well-concealed platform built from cattails and other plants. Their nest usually presents as an elevated platform with an overhead canopy and is built of emergent aquatic vegetation and sticks. Least Bitterns are colonial nesters, and nests are usually widely scattered in the marsh and occasionally in close association with Boat-tailed Grackles. You may discover 15 LB nests in one breeding area! The female lays four or five eggs and in extreme cases, from two to seven. The eggs are pale blue or green and incubation is by both sexes for 17-20 days. After hatching, both parents feed the young by regurgitating food. Legs and feet of young LB’s develop quickly, and the youngsters may leave the nest as early as 6 days after hatching if the nest is disturbed, if not, they ordinarily remain in the nest for about 2 weeks, and near the nest for another week or more. Least Bitterns are known to produce one to two broods per year. When threatened, the Least Bittern will freeze in place with its bill pointing up, turn its front and both eyes toward the source of alarm, and sometimes sway to resemble wind-blown marsh vegetation. This is believed to be a predator-avoidance behavior, since its diminutive size makes the bittern vulnerable to potential predators such as coyotes, foxes and the great horned owl. When alarmed, they may also puff out their feathers to make themselves look larger or burrow through dense undergrowth that is impossible for larger animals to pass through, and if those tactics don’t work, the shy and elusive bittern often slips away by inconspicuously walking or running through the reeds for they would rather escape on foot than fly anyway. Although considered weak fliers, Least Bitterns do migrate from the northern parts of their range in winter for the southernmost coasts of the United States and areas further south, travelling only at night. The population of these birds have declined in some areas due to loss of wetland habitat and the encroachment of exotic species of marsh vegetation. The Least Bittern is listed as a threatened species at the state level due to the adverse effects of draining and the filling in of wetlands. Therefore, the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan rates it a Species of High Concern, and all migratory birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Now that our bittern patient has passed live fishing school, he is ready to be wild again! We’re hoping he will rejoin his Atlantic Beach “dash or freeze or siege,” which are all names for a group of bitterns. Without the support of the people in our community, our Least Bittern release may never have been rescued, given the opportunity to recover and rejoin his flock. Dash On, LB!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

Advertisements

“Beaver’s Little Brother”

A little ‘brother of the beaver’ came into the shelter recently. He was tiny (only eight ounces), needy and fully self-aware that he required help. That’s exactly why a caring human managed to get his hands on a young Muskrat found wandering along the road in Newport. Fearing the infant musky would run into the road, the gentleman pulled his car over and proceeded to walk towards the little one to shoo him away from oncoming traffic, and how the gentleman saw the diminutive ‘eight-ouncer’ in the first place is remarkable. Rather than run away from the good Samaritan, which is normal avoidance behavior in the wild, the infant muskrat literally ran toward him. So, the caring rescuer picked him up, which is what we do with babies who are in distress, human or otherwise. The young Muskrat was alone, confused, scared and hungry. The youngster then took a ride to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter. A muskrat is more accurately a ‘cousin’ to the beaver, but “little brothers of the beaver” is what Native Americans named them many years ago. There is a definite resemblance between the beaver and the muskrat, but the muskrat’s long, skinny and nearly hairless tail rather than the ‘paddle’ tail, gives it away! Like a beaver, dark brown muskrats have a pair of musk glands they use to send messages to other muskrats and different species of animals as well. Of course, the “rat” part of their name refers to that long, skinny tail. Our little musky is doing well at the shelter; enjoying his mega amounts of formula (he’s still of nursing age), toying with some solids like vegetables and mud minnows and relishing his swim time in the deep sink. We are currently checking the wildlife rehabilitation communities in our state for another lone muskrat that could join him. They rehab much better in pairs, and we don’t want this little one imprinting on humans. If we allow him to bond with us, his chances of survival in the wild will be nil. Aquatic muskrats are a North Carolina indigenous species, however, the shelter does not admit them often. Muskrats are easier to keep wild than most wildlife because they tend to be skittish, frightful of people and non-aggressive, although they will bite if they perceive danger (and if you are close enough, which of course is unreasonably close if their teeth can make it into your skin!). When given appropriate respect regarding space and interference, muskrats are virtually harmless to humans, and fascinating and entertaining little creatures to watch for anyone who stops to take time to appreciate them. A fluffy, adult muskrat ranges in size from 10-14 inches in length and weighs two to three pounds. Muskrats are excellent swimmers and can stay under water for up to 15 minutes at a time. Their webbed hind feet, great for swimming, are much larger than the front five-toed feet used for digging and manipulating food. They are nocturnal, although often seen during daylight hours working on their house, and spend most of their life in water. They are primarily plant eaters feeding on roots, shoots and leaves but will enjoy frogs, small fish, crayfish, mussels or clams if available. Muskrats are rodents and capable of chewing through almost anything, so a metal enclosure at the shelter is the only way to go as our little one physically develops and matures. And because they are timid, his enclosure will be stocked with leaved limbs, many hiding places and water pans to laze about in. In defense of the chewing “in the wild” muskrat, they seldom invade our residential spaces because they are always close to water, and usually marshy, human uninhabitable wetlands at that. Muskrats do not build lodges like the beaver, although they will occasionally move in with beavers. Instead of lodges they construct free standing houses by piling aquatic vegetation into a hill only a few feet high, then excavate a nest cavity in the center with several chambers and tunnels leading into the water which is quite impressive and masterful engineering. The grassy muskrat residence is called a ‘push-up’ or ‘mound.’ Sometimes they build the mounds around trunks of dead bushes or trees. In contrast to a beaver’s lodge, there is often no structure below the water, but muskrats and beavers are the only mammals that build homes on water. Also, unlike the beaver, the muskrat does not store food for the winter. They need to eat fresh plants every day and maintain a home range of less than one mile from their push-up. Muskrats can breed any time of the year and more than once with pregnancy lasting 25-30 days. The litter size averages four to six and kits are hairless, blind at birth and weigh less than one ounce each. Over time the youngsters are weaned from mother’s milk and often stay with their parents for a year, but when overcrowding develops, the parents, usually Mom, dramatically and sometimes, harshly, encourages her eldest children to move out and build a home of their own. Every time a muskrat is admitted to our shelter, we still reminisce the story of a young muskrat found scratching at the back door of a nursing home in Ontario, Canada during a horrific snow and ice storm. One of the workers let her in and fashioned a warm kennel with food and positioned deep, functional water pans for her necessary water moments in efforts to keep her safe during the wretched and dangerous weather. The question of why she came to the door was never truly answered but a few theories were; the weight of the snow collapsed the push-up or a predator, such as a wolf or mink, tried to dig in, but she was smart, lightning fast and managed to escape. Although the plan at the nursing home was to release her back into the wild in the spring, she became very content with her newly-found caretakers and remained with the residents of the home. Now that’s a true story of “Muskrat Love!” We love them too, even if we are way south of Canada! We don’t see muskrats as often in this area, but we are aware of their importance to our ecological system and how they benefit many wetland species by creating open water areas for waterfowl. They are excellent environmental partners for they are true indicators of environmental quality.

Best Always and let’s bless America (and the world) by living

harmoniously with nature, wildlife and each other. . . . . . . . .

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Squirrels, Blurred Breeding Seasons!”

We all know Squirrels! They live among us, are easily recognizable, and what’s not to love about watching the joyful, fast and furious antics of squirrels!? We also have certain expectations of squirrels, especially of the more common variety here in the east, the Eastern Gray Squirrel. We expect EG Squirrels to birth a litter twice a year, once in the Spring and again in the Fall. Wildlife Rehabilitators at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport prepare for incoming baby squirrels, but for the past few years EG Squirrels have blurred the breeding season lines. As soon as our last Fall squirrel youngsters are released into the wild, brand new, pinkie babies are being admitted during the dead of winter, way before Spring! We have begun to see infant squirrel admits year ‘round. At the beginning of February this year, we admitted our first newborn EG Squirrels, which of course means there is no break in the action of rehabbing baby squirrels at the shelter and the continuation of squirrel formula, seeds, nuts, fruits and vegetables is an absolute requirement. Squirrels are tree-dwelling members of the rodent family of mammals. Eastern gray squirrels build nests or dreys for sleeping, but those nests are being used for more than sleeping these days. Child rearing has become a year ‘round responsibility for Momma Squirrels. The adults may rotate between as many as three nests, depending on the population density where they live. These nests are usually occupied either by a single adult squirrel or by a mother and her kittens which is what baby squirrels are called. Winter baby admits at the shelter present specific challenges such as hypothermia and malnutrition because, one, its cold and two, food sources for Mom are not as prevalent in the winter. Although squirrels are very hearty and adaptable wildlife, if they are lacking nutrition themselves it can adversely affect milk production which in turn will deprive the babies. So, if you are a backyard wildlife feeder who supplements your critters’ diets, adding a little extra to the menu during winter would be helpful. Most people don’t see baby squirrels because the infants are very mindful of their Mom and stay unassumingly quiet in their nest until venturing out fully furred and looking very adult like at 10 – 12 weeks. The shelter usually receives baby squirrels only after a nest has been compromised by weather or predators. Either they have fallen through a weakened nest structure, their tree has fallen, or they have been tossed out during an attack on the nest. So, when you find a baby squirrel on the ground, it’s best to look around the area, while stepping very carefully, to ensure there are no more displaced infants who might need your help. Even if your dog or cat brings a baby squirrel home uninjured, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are orphaned. It’s always best to try to reunite healthy babies with their Mother. If possible (and if it’s not freezing cold out), place the baby close to a tree and monitor the situation from a distance to see if Mom will “rescue” her baby and carry the infant back to one of her nests. There are occasions when Mom doesn’t make it back to the nest due to an unfortunate meeting with a predator, automobile collision or some freak accident, but when possible, always give Mom the chance to get her baby back. Please dismiss the old wives’ tale that wildlife Moms will not accept the baby if she smells human scent because there is NO TRUTH to that. She will just be content, and although we haven’t truly assessed a squirrel’s emotions, might even be ‘happy’ to have her baby back. So, always assess the situation at hand to surmise the probability of reuniting them. If the baby you’ve found is injured; covered with fly eggs (they look like grains of rice) or has ant bites, is extremely cold and crying nonstop (their alarm sound is like a shrill whistle) or puncture wounds are apparent, the infant squirrel is more than likely orphaned. A squirrel infant is totally dependent upon Mom and has the best chance of survival when cared for by its mother. However, when Mom is removed from the equation, foster Moms, such as wildlife rehabilitators, are the next best option. Male squirrels do not raise baby squirrels, even if they fathered them. If you find a truly orphaned or injured baby squirrel, you will have to take over for Mom to save the baby’s life. Get a small box or container without a lid. If the baby is moving around quite a bit, use a covering that allows air flow. Place some soft fabric on the bottom so they will have something to hang on to and not slide around in the box. Put on some leather gloves (they probably don’t have teeth yet but just to be safe). If they are pinkies (no fur and eyes closed), there’s no need for gloves. Gently pick up the baby and place it in the container. Put the container on a heating pad on the lowest setting in a dark, quiet area in your home (a closed-door bathroom or closet is good). If you do not have a heating pad, place a plastic bottle filled with warm water and wrapped in a dish towel in the box. Make sure the lid to the bottle is on tight and the water is not too hot. Do not attempt to feed an infant squirrel, and keep the baby or babies away from any other living beings such as dogs, cats, parrots or other humans of any size. Then, contact your nearest independent wildlife rehabilitator or wildlife shelter for transport instructions. It’s tempting to want to raise a cute baby squirrel on your own, but it’s unlawful and you can be heavily fined in the state of North Carolina for keeping it in your home. So, it’s always best to take the baby or babies to a wildlife rehabilitator who possesses the knowledge and state permits required to take on the responsibility of providing appropriate care which includes assessing nutritional needs, treating injuries, ensuring they are raised properly with other squirrels and creating habitat conducive to learning skills and behaviors essential for ultimate release in the wild. Yes, we know and love squirrels, but we also want to give these entertaining and intelligent little acrobats the best second chance we can.  Thank you in advance for caring, and here’s an interesting squirrel factoid: Did you know Squirrels are named after the old Greek word Skiouros? Their bushy tail is one of their most distinguishing and beautiful features, and Skiouros means “shadow tail.” Good to know!

best always and Happy Spring (Baby) Season!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

“Oh! What a Night, Heron!”

Shorter than his Great-Blue cousin, the Black-Crowned Night Heron is a beauty to behold. Elusive, wading wetlands birds, BC Night Herons are very stocky and thickly built compared to their long-limbed relatives. In fact, they are so short their yellow legs barely reach the end of their tail while in flight. The adults are strikingly beautiful and adorned with sleek gray and black plumage, two or three wispy white head plumes on their flat, wide head, rich scarlet eyes and ebony bills. However, they present a hunched over look rather than the tall, willowy posture of the Great-Blue. Their neck is almost imperceptible, and their wingspan of 41 to 48 inches appears broad and rounded. The youngsters are distinctly different in appearance with mottled brown feathering, yellow-brown bills and orange eyes until maturing into the more vibrant adult. Adults are 25 inches in length and weigh around 28 ounces on the average with males being the larger gender. When the call came in for assistance with a pretty bird that had been standing in the corner of someone’s yard near their fence in Beaufort for over a day, our transport didn’t know for sure what he’d be picking up. On site, he knew it was a heron, but certainly not the more common admit, a Great Blue Heron . . . way too short for that. Upon arriving at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, formal identification was made: Black-Crowned Night Heron. He was easy to handle in his weakened state, and a full examination revealed no broken bones, no respiratory ailments, no predatory injuries such as puncture wounds, no head injury, no toxicity and no frostbite, but he was under-weight and frail. Our theory is, due to the recent cold snap, hunting was difficult, so food was scarce. He was literally starving and became so weak that at the point of landing in the Good Samaritan’s yard, he could no longer muster the strength to fly out. So, there he stood, dying. Many thanks to the residents of the home who cared enough to give us a call, so we could intervene on his behalf. In shelter care he started feeding slowly with assisted nutrition and then he began eating on his own like a champ; all the shrimp and mud minnows he could gobble, and he became a little “piggy” heron! He packed on weight, regained his strength, let us know when he was ready to go, and he is back out there living his Black-Crowned Night Heron life! A success story like this would not be possible without the partnership our shelter enjoys with the compassionate and committed community residents who care so much about our indigenous North Carolina wildlife. Black-Crowned Night Herons are very noisy and social birds that roost and nest in groups over water. Often, these groups include other species of marsh birds such as egrets, ibises and different herons. They are quick to sound the protective, squawking alarm and scatter when danger is perceived. Areas where you might find them will be fresh, salt and brackish wetlands everywhere; estuaries, marshes, streams, lakes and reservoirs. During the day, look up in the trees and you may catch them dozing or trying to conceal themselves with leaves and branches to avoid predators. They will be perched on tree limbs, waiting for their most active time of day; dusk and during the night. BC Night Herons typically forage for food on their own rather than in a group during the evening and late night in the water and occasionally on land. These birds stand extremely still at the water’s edge and wait to catch a meal. They primarily eat small fish, crustaceans, frogs, reptiles, aquatic insects, bats, eggs, small mammals and small birds. A Black-Crowned Night Heron is a smart bird who engages in bait fishing, much like our very intelligent American Crow. They will lure or distract fish by tossing edible or inedible objects that float into the water. Their fast and furious reflexes serve them well when hunting, but their patience is even more admirable. They may also use an aerial technique called “hovering” where they fly over the water and pause in mid-air to capture prey or they can perform “swimming-feeding” and just skim through and under the water snatching food. This migratory bird will breed and spend its summers along the coast in North Carolina and occasionally stay through the winter if it’s a mild one, but if the temperatures drop too low, it’s off to Florida or South America for the BC Night Heron. During breeding season, the male will search for a protected location and start building a 12-18 inch across and 8 to 12-inch-high nest of sticks, twigs and woody vegetation and then begin an elaborate courtship display to entice a female to move in. It is believed the BC Night Heron is monogamous and extends his allegiance to only one woman once paired. The observations of male courtship include crouching with head lowered, raising the white plumes on his head and bill clapping, flapping his wings while singing and dancing or hissing while rocking back and forth from one foot to the other. When the female can’t resist his advances and accepts the overtures, they preen and bill each other, and often the male offers her a twig which cements the deal, as in the spirit of ABC’s “The Bachelor,” ‘will you except this twig?’ Once bonded, the male’s legs turn pinkish-red, and he also becomes aggressively protective of his mate. The female usually lays 3 to 5 eggs and incubation lasts around 22 days. Both male and female tend to the nest and feed the hatchlings. The young, who are fluff-brown down will leave the nest at one month but will not be able to fly. They will be ground bound and move through the undergrowth on foot, as they are taught to hunt and fly by their parents. They will learn to fly at 6 weeks, fully fledge in 6-7 weeks and reach their sexual maturity at 2 to 3 years of age. Black-Crowned Night Herons will often produce two broods per breeding season. The lifespan of a BC Night Heron is between 10 and 15 years, however the oldest on record is a female who reached 15 ½ years. The wildlife rehabilitators at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter are thrilled to have, hopefully, added a few years or more to the longevity of our recent BC Night Heron patient, and the experience of providing him care was educational, as well as, fabulous. Sometimes we get that rare admit that has so much to teach us. “Oh, What A Night, Heron!”

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“COLD TOES” for Pelicans!!

A cold snap is a comin’! Temperatures are scheduled to drop over the next few weeks, even to the teens, and bad things happen to wildlife when Eastern North Carolina gets that cold. Food will become scarce and frostbite can occur, mainly with our Brown Pelican population. We have seen pelican frostbite cases admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC over the years and sometimes in such great numbers that there’s hardly enough room to house them all! The Brown Pelican is a North American bird of the pelican family, Pelecanidae. It’s a very big seabird found on the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to the Amazon in South America. Most people who reside in North Carolina and tourists who visit are very familiar with pelicans. These large fisher-birds have habituated with humans, so we see them everywhere along our beach fronts, docks, fishing areas and find them ever present in our views at waterfront restaurants.The Brown Pelican is known for its oversized bill, sinuous neck, and big, dark body. Juvenile Brown Pelicans are in fact brown with a lighter beige underbelly, but a mature Brown Pelican’s coloring is vastly different. The adult will have a white neck and head with a yellow crest and its body is almost black with dark gray feathers. Flying units of pelicans, young and old, glide with seemingly little effort above the surf along coasts, rising and falling with the graceful movement of the waves. They feed by plunge-diving from high up, using the force of impact to stun small fish before scooping them up in their pouch. We bird watchers enjoy the purposeful antics of this comically elegant bird. With coldness looming, wildlife rehabilitators know that unfortunately, pelicans will do what they generally do in freezing temperatures and that is, nothing. They will stay out of the water and sit very still as they try to deal with the frigid and frosty weather nature has dealt them, which we know is not good to ward off the condition of frostbite. Frostbite is simply tissue damage caused by freezing, so keeping circulation going is one of the keys to prevention. The first body parts affected by decreased blood flow when exposed to extreme cold are those furthest away from your core, pelican or human. With pelicans, the cold will attack its toes and gular pouch first. Frostbite can happen very quickly in severely frigid weather; possibly within five minutes! Pelicans do not have the preventative luxury of layering its clothing or feathering for that matter, to protect the most vulnerable areas of their body from frostbite and no one is offering them a hot cup of tea or cocoa. Frostbite generally affects the top layers of the skin, but when it becomes more advanced, the damage will extend through the muscles and to the bones. When Pelicans are admitted to the shelter with frostbite, it’s because they are found disoriented, unable to walk due to pain in their feet, unable to fish and weak from starvation. Rehabilitating pelicans is a costly situation anytime but when frostbite is present they will require medications, surgical procedures to remove necrotic tissue or bone caused by frostbite and loads of fish for the starving and recovering birds whose rehabilitation stay at the shelter will correlate with the extensiveness of their frostbite. Pelicans can still be released and survive in the wild if their loss is only some webbing between toes or partial toe amputation, but loss of a foot, leg or pouch meets with a grim outcome. At the wildlife shelter we offer our frostbite patients treatment and care to include continuous, never ending clean up, plenty of food and medications they need and the necessary time to heal while we monitor their behaviors, returning skills and potential for a successful release. Most pelicans in our care are easy to get along with for they are friendly, social birds. They seem to be appreciative of the warm, safe haven we provide and the easy food. However, occasionally, we’ll get a pelican with a really bad attitude and a case of “snap-itis,” so we stay clear of that wild bill flailing in the air, because it can pinch pretty darn hard if it catches a human leg or arm, but those are few and far between. Pelicans aren’t the only wildlife who suffer from frostbite when a freeze hits our area. Virginia Opossums are also occasionally affected because they have bare feet and a bare tail. Frostbite is always bad no matter the victim, but most opossums seem to be resourceful enough to find a warmer place to hunker down and ride out the cold than our totally exposed Pelicans. Pelicans can live to be in their forties, which is quite the longevity for an animal in the wild, and we want to help those damaged by frostbite to recover and get back out there to live that potentially long life. So, if you see pelicans staying in one spot too long after an icy, cold snap, there could be some “Cold Toes” going on that require treatment. Our doors are wide open to receive them!!

Stay warm out there and best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Timberdoodles!”

A Timberdoodle may sound more like one of Santa’s Christmas Elves, but it’s actually one of many nicknames for a unique looking bird called an American Woodcock.  Although not a common admission to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, we recently had a Timberdoodle delivered to our care because the chunky little bird suffered head trauma, but we’re not sure how it happened.  The American Woodcock, a member of the Sandpiper family, is a stout shorebird with a plump body, short legs, a large round head and a long, straight prehensile bill.  Adults are 10 to 12 inches in length and weigh 5 to 8 ounces, with females considerably larger than males. They have very short tails which gives them a bulbous look on the ground and in flight.  Their wings are broad and rounded compared to other shorebirds.  The American Woodcock, although it is indeed a shorebird, lives in and around young forests rather than along bodies of water.   They camouflage well in  wooded environments because their color pattern is a mix of brown, black, buff and gray, so they spend most of their time hidden in fields and on the forest floor. Their underparts are buff to a tinge of dark orange.  Their brownish gray to reddish brown feet and toes are small and not considered strong body parts.  What is strong is their long bill that is used to probe the soil to find their favorite food, earthworms.  This prehensile, 2 ½ to almost 3 inches, bill not only pokes into the earth, but an amazing bone and muscle collaboration allows the bird to open and close the tip of its bill while the bill is underground. The underside of the bill and the American Woodcock’s tongue are both rough-surfaced enough to grasp slick and slimy prey such as a juicy worm or other invertebrates. Delectable items in the Timberdoodle’s diet also include insect larvae, snails, centipedes, millipedes, spiders, snipe flies, beetles and ants. To initiate the hunt for worms or insects, they stomp their bony feet on the ground to startle the prey into movement the bird can detect before penetrating the ground with their bill in efforts to capture whatever is on the run.  They also eat a small amount of plants, mainly seeds and are most food active at dawn and dusk. The Woodcock’s eyes are large and located high in their head.  Although they don’t rely on their eyes to hunt, their immediate visual field is said to be the largest of any bird; 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically.  American Woodcocks are usually found much further north, to include Canada, rather than the southern Outer Banks of North Carolina, but they do migrate as far south as the Gulf Coast States before the harshness of a northern winter. The highest concentrations of Night Partridges (another of the many nicknames for the American Woodcock), after winter migration, according to the annual ‘Christmas Bird Count,’ are found in northern Alabama.  Although, they are occasionally sighted, even during Spring breeding season, in the western mountainous areas of North Carolina. The American Woodcock is the only species of woodcock that inhabits North America.  Woodcocks migrate at night and fly at low altitudes in small, loose flocks.  Their flight speed has been clocked at 16 to 28 mph, however, Timberdoodles are also known to fly at the slowest speed ever recorded for a bird, 5 mph!  Both October and late February migrations, where they visually follow coastlines and river valleys, are viewed as leisurely for American Woodcocks compared to the rapid and more direct migrations of most other birds. During breeding season, the male Woodcock sings a series of ground calls and performs high spiraling, zigzagging and banking flights at dawn, dusk and on moonlit nights while attempting to woo a mate (or many mates). They will also bob and bow while walking very stiff-legged with wings outstretched toward a female on the ground.  After a Woodcock hen is impressed by all that showy display and chooses her fella, she uses leaves and twigs to encircle a shallow depression on the ground to make a comfy home for her one to four eggs.  Incubation takes 20 to 22 days. Hatchlings are precocial, which means they are ready to leave the nest within a few hours of birth much like chickens, but Mom will feed them and teach them to hunt. The young will be probing for worms within a few days of hatching. It’s fortunate that, although fluffy, the young are born with their well-camouflaged coloring enabling them to blend into their surroundings, which becomes essential when predators, such as raccoons, raptors or humans, make the scene. Some observers state they have witnessed frightened youngsters clinging to their Mother’s body as she flies them away from danger.  Young Bogsuckers (yet another nickname for American Woodcocks) will make short flights within two weeks of birth, can demonstrate excellent aerial maneuvers at three weeks and are ready to move on independently after five weeks of Momma’s care. The male is not monogamous and will mate with numerous females.  Male American Woodcocks do not help to select a nest site, incubate eggs or feed and rear the young.  However, the male will continue to entertain the female with his dazzling courtship rituals for as long as four months beyond hatch day.  This chunky and most interesting shorebird suffers loss of habitat due to forest maturation and urban development, but the American Woodcock does adapt better in deforestation situations than other ground dwelling birds do.  Strides in conservation efforts since the 1960’s, especially the “American Woodcock Conservation Plan” which protects, renews and creates habitat, have helped maintain Hokumpoke or Brush Snipe (still other nicknames!) populations in North America so they haven’t moved onto the wildlife endangered list, but are considered within “species of greatest conservation need.” Groups care so much about the Timberdoodle that as recently as October 2017, the 11th American Woodcock Symposium was held in Michigan and focused on steadfastly maintaining this bird. It’s nice to know that probably due to their efforts, the estimated population of the American Woodcock is 5 million, so it does rank as the most common Sandpiper on the continent of North America, and it’s also nice to know that people are so impressed when they see an American Woodcock that they immediately come up with a nickname for this little, fat body bird with the very long, skinny bill that looks so unusual and out of place.  The maximum lifespan of a Timberdoodle in the wild has been recorded at eight years, so they are out there! If you are scouting for one, look for them in young forests, forest edges, old farming fields and wet meadows, AND look low!  The are definitely worth seeing!

Merry Christmas,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

I AM NOT A HAWK!

While enjoying the activity at his bird feeder a few weeks ago, a Beaufort, NC resident witnessed a distressing bird on bird attack. Most of us are aware that some birds such as hawks eat other birds, mainly songbirds, and this appeared to be a hawk on hawk situation. By the time the man ventured outside, the larger hawk, which we theorize to have been a Cooper’s Hawk, was gone and the smaller hawk, lay injured on the ground. The Good Samaritan scooped him up and transported him to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport for evaluation and treatment. It turned out to be a species that had never been admitted to our shelter before, because the only time we see a Merlin, which is a Falcon rather than a Hawk, in this area is when they are passing through during migration. You may be asking, what’s the difference between a hawk and a falcon? Falcons have notched beaks while hawks have a curved beak. Falcons also use their beaks to attack prey, while hawks use the talons on their feet to kill prey, so their hunting methods are completely different. Also, hawks are generally larger in size than falcons. A thorough examination of the admitted Merlin revealed a laceration under one wing and numerous puncture wounds from the larger bird’s talons. He was treated for shock and his injuries cleaned and dressed to prevent infection, as well as to promote healing. From the beginning of his stay with OWLS, he was a good eater (down-right famished!!) In the wild, Merlins eat a variety of birds from sparrows to quail, and large insects, such as dragonflies, don’t go unnoticed. After calculating that the time needed for him to recover and get back into shape for his return to the wild will be extensive, the decision was made to transfer him to Cape Fear Raptor Center for the extended stay he required. In addition, it will give him the opportunity to work with the Falconer they have on staff at their center. Merlins are small but fierce falcons who are powerful fliers. They look similar to the more common American Kestrel familiar to this area, especially in coloring, but the Merlin is broader and heavily built, with females stockier than males. Male Merlins are dark gray with a lighter chest that almost looks striped or mottled in dark brown. Females and immature Merlins are more brown all over than gray. A Merlin is 9 to 13 inches long with a wingspan of 20 to 29 inches. They have pointy wings and a medium tail that is dark in color and sports thin, white bands from rump to tip. Their eyes and beak are dark and their slender feet are yellow with black talons. This specific bird of prey has the least amount of markings than any other type of hawk or falcon. Merlins usually nest in forested areas and along waterway edges but have adapted to loss of habitat by moving into towns and cities up north. During migration, we may see them in our coastal regions where flocks of small songbirds or shorebirds reside. It would be very rare to see a Merlin nesting in eastern North Carolina because of their very northern breeding range. Even Ohio is considered south of its breeding range. It is interesting to note that after a male Merlin has wooed and won his mate with his “extreme” acrobatic displays, they look for a “pre-owned” nest together rather than build their own. They simply search out an abandoned crow’s, hawk’s or woodpecker’s nest and move in. The female usually lays 4 to 6 rusty brown eggs that are incubated for 28 to 32 days. In another 30 days after hatching, the young will fledge but still be dependent upon their parents for another four weeks or more. It’s tough out there for infant Merlins though, because statistics show that only one in three infants make it to adulthood. We, wildlife rehabilitators at the shelter, feel honored to have played a role in saving this one! Merlins have had a few nicknames since Medieval times and used to be referred to as Pigeon Hawks or Lady Hawks, although they are not hawks at all. They have also been called “The Falcon for a Lady” when used as a falconry bird because of its petite size. The greatest threats to Merlins are pesticide use, loss of habitat, predators such as larger birds of prey and speed injuries. Although they are reported as capable of the most agile aerial maneuvers of all hawks and falcons, they sometimes focus so intently on their prey when hunting that when they swoop in at top speed for the catch they have been known to suffer collision with an obstacle in its path. Merlins are powerful, straight path fliers who don’t understand the words glide or pause. The oldest Merlin on record is said to have lived 13 winters. That is one careful or lucky falcon that may have figured out the need to glide and pause occasionally!! Merlins are widespread during migration, but seeing them is very unpredictable, so when you are out for a walk or driving by and suddenly see a flock of birds burst into flight from a bush, tree or shoreline, you just might have a Merlin in the area. You will have to scan the sky quickly because they are so fast they will be out of range in just a few seconds. Good Luck!

best always and Happy Thanksgiving!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All