“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

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“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

Meet the Purple Gallinule!

Blog&FB_PurpleGallinule3As we ring in a royal New Year, we might as well go purple! This bird may very well be a new one for you. So, let me introduce the rarely seen in this area, Purple Gallinule. The Purple Gallinule, also known as a Water Hen, is a beautifully colored, wetlands bird found mostly in southern Florida and the tropics. American gallinules usually winter in Argentina or Brazil, but singles are known to stray off course occasionally, especially when migrating after breeding season. Purple Gallinules are one of the most frequent American marsh birds to wander and despite appearing very clumsy in flight, can find themselves as far away as South Africa. Who knows how or why that happens? Maybe a visit to see their larger species cousin the Swamp Hen was in order. In North Carolina, the Clapper Rail is close kin. Even knowing their propensity to roam, it was still a surprise to admit an injured Purple Gallinule to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter recently and just as unexpected for the Good Samaritan caller to know the identity of the bird she found walking on a road in Emerald Isle. To be totally honest, the transporter did volunteer at our shelter in Newport years ago, before her work schedule became too tight, and we do train them well! A paved road is not natural habitat, so she knew as soon as she saw the gangly but gorgeous bird limping along that the PG was in trouble and quickly theorized the gallinule had probably been clipped by a car. After an examination at the shelter revealed a fractured femur, our evaluation and assessment was the same. Where you would see this magnificent, multi-colored bird of the rail family is walking on top of floating vegetation or awkwardly high stepping through dense shrubs rather than on a roadway. Extensive wetlands with still or slow-moving shallow water, lots of dense marsh cover with plant life buoyed by water describes their habitat best. This slight of weight bird with extremely long toes is capable of standing on floating lily pads without sinking. The unusual Purple Gallinule swims on the surface of water like a duck but walks on those floating plants like a chicken. Although they are called “Purple” G’s, they are such a rainbow of colors, one might think they are more parrot than rail. Purple is the dominant adult color, but you will also see a green back, red triangular bill tipped with yellow, a fleshy plate of light blue on their forehead, white under the tail, bright yellow legs (one of the reasons they are locally known as Yellow-Legged Gallinules) and big yellow, non-webbed feet and long toes which they not only use for sprinting but to hold their food while eating. Blog&FB_PurpleGallinule2Those toes are also capable of the manual dexterity it takes to flip over lily pads to find prey underneath or to climb bushes or trees to find food. Both sexes of adults sport the same stunning plumage and physical appearance. Downy chicks are black and as juveniles, they turn a buffy tan with some dull colorations just starting to vividly bloom. Adults measure 10-15 inches in length, span 20-24 inches across their wings and weigh between 5–10 ounces with females averaging the fuller weight. Gallinules fly only short distances and let their legs dangle rather than hold them straight as an arrow like egrets or herons do. Purple Gallinules are omnivorous, therefore, along with consuming a wide variety of plants, seeds and fruits; insects, frogs, snails, spiders, earthworms, eggs and fish round out their diet. Clambering noisily through marshes and waterside trees while squawking, cackling and using their guttural grunts, the Purple Gallinule will flick its short tail anxiously as it forages for food. With its strong legs and long toes, the PG runs around on open shorelines aggressively in search of provisions (not quite the secretive and stealth hunter his cousin the Clapper Rail is). Purple Gallinules are the most inquisitive of the rail family, almost to the point of being inappropriately curious which can get them into trouble. They appear bold and eager, rather than cautious, when exploring something new in their environment with seemingly no regard for their own safety. Blog&FB_PurpleGallinule1During breeding season, which can be any time in the tropics but only Spring and Summer in North America, both Purple Gallinule parents build their bulky nest, comprised of cattails, grasses and sedges, anchored firmly to floating structures in a marsh at water level or 1 to 3 feet above it. Between 5 and 10 tan eggs with brown spots will be laid and incubated by both parents for 22-25 days. After hatching, the young will be fed by the parents and assisted by other gallinules, sometimes as many as 8. It is believed that these feeding helpers are previous offspring and that the assistance is needed because the parents have a second nest of eggs or hatchlings they must attend to. Juvenile gallinules of less than 10 weeks of age have been known to feed baby chicks. The youngsters start to eat on their own after 7-10 days and are capable of flight around the 9th week. A Purple Gallinule’s longevity is up to 22 years, as long as it can stay alert and outwit boas in the tropics and alligators and turtles in North America. Although this species is not considered globally threatened, their numbers have decreased due to aerial spraying of pesticides and wetland loss in the United States as well as in South and Central America. If you ever come across a brilliantly colored Purple Gallinule that looks a little more like a Disney character than wildlife, you are not hallucinating!! They do exist, but not usually here. The one you are seeing is probably migrating or just in the mood to roam!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE!!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse       author of “Save Them All

Another Great White!!

Blog&FB_2-15Sep_GWEgretWFishWhen someone brings up the topic “Great White,” we automatically go there, especially during this beach going season where some aggressive Great Whites have presented themselves in displays of ostentatious and hazardous behaviors! However, there is another Great White that is more pervasive in our coastal area and far less likely to cause any peril or harm. The elegant Great White Egret is an impressive and gorgeous sight to see along our Eastern North Carolina Coast. There are smaller white egrets, such as the Common Egret, but this one is the “greatest” because it is the largest. The Great White Egret is a tall (3.5 feet), brilliantly white, long-legged wading bird with a lengthy, slim neck, an extensive, dagger-like bill and a wingspan of 52 to 67 inches. They fly slowly but powerfully, with only two wing beats per second and can cruise around 25 miles an hour. Gangly and awkward to maneuver, they are definitely a handful to examine at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport. We recently received a call on a Great White who could not fly and was unable to jump a fence when approached by humans. The caller, with the help of her friend, managed to contain the wader in a sheet thrown over him to allow for safe transport. During examination at the shelter, no injury or disease was found. Our theory is while hunting for food, he must have ingested chemicals or other toxins in recent run-off caused by massive rains and became ill and too weak to fly. We are treating him for possible poisoning and with his abundant finger-mullet feedings, as well as large silver sides, he is getting stronger every day. Great White Egrets stand erect and motionless for long periods of time searching or waiting for prey to approach during the hunt in marshes, ponds and tidal flats. They capture your attention like dazzling statues in the distance with their beautiful white plumage that drapes over their back and rump during breeding season. Blog&FB_2015Sep_GWEgret_IMG_1522Also during breeding season, a patch of skin on its face turns a brilliant green. They have skinny black legs with very long toes and a thick yellow-orange bill used to capture fish with one quick and deadly jab. In addition to fish, they eat frogs, reptiles, insects such as dragonflies and grasshoppers and small aquatic animals. When they fly, their slim neck is tucked into a tight S-curve, which is quite different from other marsh birds such as storks, cranes, ibises and spoonbills that extend their necks in flight. Males and females are identical in appearance, although the male is a little larger. They are not normally vocal birds, but when disturbed they will present a low, hoarse croaking sound. They become more vocal during breeding season with higher-pitched croaking and occasional squawks. Great Egrets are found in freshwater and saltwater habitats and can be solitary or colonial. They often roost with other wading birds such as herons and ibises and nest in colonies, usually on islands that are isolated from predators, especially raccoons. Great Whites breed at 2 to 3 years of age, and displays of courtship by males include calling, circular display flights and stretching their neck up with their long, scissor bill pointed skyward. Great White Egrets are monogamous and both parents incubate their pale green-blue, three to four eggs for 23-27 days while sheltered in a platform nest 3 feet wide and 1 foot deep made of sticks and twigs found high in trees along the water, which is a location the male has selected. The eggs will be staggered hatches, meaning all the chicks are at different stages of development during rearing. Both parents feed the young, also white at birth, by regurgitation and youngsters may stumble out of the nest at 3 weeks and be ready to fly at 6-7 weeks. The Great White Egret adapts well to human habitation and is frequently seen near wetlands in urban and suburban areas along the coast. Blog&FB_2015Sep_GWEgret_IMG_1715Unfortunately, Great White Egrets became nearly extinct by 95% in the nineteenth century due to fashion-plume hunters, but the Great Egret is now protected and has bounced back as a conservation success story. As a matter of fact, the plight of the GW Egret sparked restoration conversation many years ago which resulted in the first laws enacted to protect birds. In 1953, the Great White Egret was chosen as the symbol of the National Audubon Society, which was formed partly to prevent the killing of birds, such as the Great Egret, for their feathers. It’s so much more enjoyable and humane to see these snowy white shorebirds adorned with their magnificent plumage than to see those grand and glorious feathers attached to a lady’s hat! Of course, most people won’t see Great White Egrets in their backyard, but to ensure their survivability we can encourage the preservation of suitable wetlands, monitor pollution and pesticide levels, as well as, limit the spread of invasive aquatic plants. Blog&FB_2015Sep_GWEgret_MG_5877Wildlife rehabilitators and conservationists are happy to say the Great White Egret’s outlook is much brighter, and their numbers have increased substantially over the last few decades. They still have to dodge and outwit predators such as raccoons, which we already gave the mean face to earlier in this article but there are also crows and vultures to watch out for and humans who destroy habitat also pose a huge threat to their livelihood. The oldest Great Egret is known to have reached 22 years and 10 months and was banded in Ohio. Our Great White, at the shelter, is cooperating by remaining calm and tolerant and by maintaining a good appetite during his rehabilitation. He should be returning to the wetlands soon, and we’re sure he’ll have quite the story to tell when he meets up again with family and friends!

best always,
Linda Bergman-Althouse
author of “Save Them All

NO GEAR LEFT BEHIND!!!

Blog&FB_2015Aug_IMG_0469_edited-1People love to fish and so do wildlife! The big difference between humans and wildlife is wild animals do not need nets, fishing line, lures, hooks or plastic bags when fishing. Therefore, they leave nothing behind that will harm or kill anyone or anything. Left behind fishing gear kills! Wildlife Rehabilitators at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport know this all too well and cringe every time a seabird, wading bird, grazing bird, mammal or turtle is admitted due to the ingestion or entanglement of fishing litter. It’s so painful for the animal and in many cases renders them unable to eat which leads to starvation. Sometimes the devastation is less obvious and can not been seen without x-rays because the animal has swallowed a hook or lure. This type of injury is so frustrating and heartbreaking to wildlife care givers because it is human-caused and therefore, preventable. Nets, lines, hooks, crab pots, shrimp traps or any other fishing equipment abandoned by a boater or someone fishing on shore is considered derelict gear, which labels a fisherman or woman neglectful and irresponsible. This type of dangerous litter is usually made of plastic and doesn’t decompose in water for possibly hundreds of years. Recently, a mature Red Eared Slider was admitted to our shelter who had tried to swallow not one but two fishing hooks. We managed to carefully remove the three pronged hook with bait still attached from his mouth without too much trouble or damage to tissue, but the long, single pronged hook was so embedded in the roof of his mouth and out the side of his cheek, it required a committee discussion on how best to go about getting that out with minimal damage or killing the turtle. Blog&FB_2015Aug_IMG_6413He may not have been noticed or made his way to us if he had become entangled in the line attached to the hooks. Turtles are air-breathing reptiles. When they are caught underwater on a line or in a net, they will drown because they are unable to reach the surface for air. When an animal is entangled in fishing line that has no give, the line wraps tighter and tighter around a leg, wing or neck constricting the blood flow and functionality of the organs, blood vessels and muscles in that area. A fish hook that an animal desperately tries to remove causes lacerations and tears leading to blood loss, serious infections and limited function in the area affected. Some animals, such as pelicans, live with the discomfort of an imbedded fish hook in their body for long periods of time. We know this because hooks have been found in the backs, underbelly or legs of pelicans during examinations for other conditions such as wing fractures or frost bite. Some seabirds have even been found struggling to free themselves from each other because they have become entangled together by a fishing line or multi-hooked lure that was carelessly discarded by a fisherman. During the birds’ struggle they create even more injury to their legs and wings as well as possible nerve damage. Birds and other wildlife that become entangled will experience strangulation, starvation, amputation and in many cases, death. Entanglement is a slow and vicious killer! Because monofilament fishing line is transparent, it poses serious risk to all life, including human swimmers and divers who encounter it.

Photo by John Althouse

Photo by John Althouse

The negative impact of fishing gear waste is huge. Research tells us that the overall populations of seabirds have declined 69.6 percent, which is a loss of about 230 million birds in 60 years. “Seabirds are particularly good indicators of the health of marine ecosystems and when we see this magnitude of seabird decline, we also see something wrong with marine ecosystems.” This information gives us an idea of the devastating and overwhelming impact humans are having on wildlife and our environment. So for those of us who care, what can we do to improve the quality of life for wildlife and our aquatic environment? Get the word out, first and foremost! Do not accept the very little thought given to snapping a line when a fisherman’s lure is stuck on something. In your travels along beaches and recreational waterways, do the birds and other animals a huge favor by looking around trees and shrubs and notice how much fishing litter is strewn or snagged in vegetation, then carefully remove it and dispose of it properly. If you are the fisherman, always take all line and fishing gear with you when you leave. Blog&FB_2015Aug__Fishing gearRemovedX_edited-1The best way for anglers to reduce hookings and entanglements is to avoid casting near large seabird concentrations. If you are in a boat, move to another area. Most piers are large enough for birds to feed in one area, and anglers to fish in another, or take a break – flocks do not usually remain in one area for long. Using barbless hooks or artificial lures whenever possible can also help. Weight fishing lines to ensure the bait sinks rapidly, before birds can dive for it. Don’t leave fishing lines unattended. Do not feed birds or leave bait exposed because it attracts birds. Take leftover bait home so that birds and other animals don’t get accustomed to free meals. Fish remains are a problem because most seabirds swallow their prey whole. Swallowing parts of fish with exposed bones can cut a pelican’s pouch. Think about starting a program to collect fishing line by constructing and placing collecting bins in the vicinity of your local fishing spots. Please fish responsibly and encourage others to do the same. These are all steps in the right direction for the preservation of our environment and wildlife, as well as public safety. If you encounter an animal that shows signs of entanglement or has been injured in other ways by fishing gear, please call your local wildlife care facility, and they will provide instructions on how to transport the wildlife victim to their center. It’s best not to remove the dangerous fishing gear litter yourself, but to trust the application of a wildlife rehabilitator’s knowledge and skills to ensure damage is not compounded during removal. Let’s do this for our wildlife – they need us!!

BEST ALWAYS,
Linda Bergman-Althouse
author of “Save Them All

PHANTOM of the MARSH!

BLOG_CSMag_ClapperRail_2015JunAThey do like the mud! The coastal saltwater marsh of North Carolina’s easternmost counties is home to one of the most secretive birds you may ever have the lifetime privilege to glimpse. Hearing a raspy chock–chock–chock, a short series of clacking or grunting sounds, might even be an easier discovery than seeing the “thin as a rail,” Clapper Rail. Their rattling call is one of the most common sounds in the marshes, although seeing this wetlands bird who likes to hide in dense cover isn’t easy. One of six rail species found in North Carolina, the gray and brown Clapper Rail, also known as the Marsh Hen, uses its lean body to easily slip through marsh grass while hunting and or escaping predators.BLOG_Clapper-Rail1 They would rather run through the thick mud than fly. Clapper Rails are considered weak flyers because flight has only been observed in low bursts of short distances, where landing shortly after taking off is common. Recently, four youngster Clapper Rails were admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter after a gentleman rescued them from the Beaufort Channel. The Good Samaritan and his wife were spending the afternoon on their skiff and happened upon the four being aggressively tossed about by waves mercilessly created by the large boats in the area. He pulled his skiff between the large boats’ busy passage and the four chicks to buffer the challenging waves and waited for nearly 45 minutes, thinking one of the rails’ parents would show up to lead them out of their precarious situation. When that didn’t happen, their rescuer became concerned that because the babies were so tiny, the large boats could unintentionally run them over. He decided to bring them onboard and transport them to our shelter in Newport to ensure their safety. He mentioned they were quite fatigued and might not have lasted much longer. They are definitely too young to be on their own, so his compassionate decision probably saved their lives and afforded them that second chance. Chicken like in appearance, the Clapper Rail has long, unwebbed toes, a lengthy downward curved bill and an upward turned tail with white under tail feathers. They are the largest of the rail species when fully grown, 13 to 16 inches in length with a compact body and long, strong legs. BLOG_clapper%20rail%202Although both are slender, the males are slightly larger than the delicately built females and a wee bit more colorful. Clapper Rails in North Carolina sport a fairly pale, olive brown or gray brown appearance with a subdued rust colored chest. Aquatic life is the Clapper Rail’s diet of choice. They forage for food by walking through wetland vegetation. Most hunting is done at low tide, where they scavenge for crustaceans such as crabs or crayfish, mollusks, snails, aquatic insects and their larvae, small fish or small amphibians such as frogs. They simply pick up food items when spotted or probe in the mud for food with their long bills. They are also known to snatch a snake or two and may occasionally feed on plant matter, mostly seeds, but approximately 80% of their diet is animal-based. Clapper Rails are monogamous and pairing is established and reestablished each year. During courtship displays, the male approaches the female, points his bill down and swings his head from side to side. Another impressive move is to stand erect, neck stretched with bill open. A male has also been known to feed the female. Nesting pairs enhance their bond by blending their clattering until they sound like one bird. Biologists refer to this “as one” initiative as a “duet.” The nesting season occurs from April to June. Nests, built by both the male and female, are cup shaped clumps of vegetation and are often found where ditches or creeks foster the growth of tall and short grasses, as well as, near the upper reaches of high tide or on a bank near water. Common nesting materials are hollow stems of plants and coarse marsh grasses. Occasionally a canopy will be woven over the nest, and often a ramp of plant material leading from the lower ground up to the nest situated in the wetland reeds will be constructed. Generally, nine to 12 eggs are laid, and rails may produce more than one clutch per year. Incubation averages 20 days and is performed by both sexes, as well as raising the young. BLOG_CSMagClapperRail&Babies_2015Jun_The chicks are semi-precocial and able to feed independently shortly after leaving the nest. Young rails are able to fly in nine to 10 weeks and acquire their adult plumage by October of their first year. A group of Clapper Rails are collectively known as an “applause, audience or commercial.” When a Clapper Rail sighting is made it usually occurs when the rail is focused on stalking for prey along the muddy edge of the marsh while twitching its short tail in anticipation of the grab.BLOG_CSMag_ClapperRail_2015JunB_ It may also be seen swimming across a tidal creek. Best viewing opportunities occur at dawn and dusk as the birds leave the thick marsh grass and feed on open mud flats. Their unique behavior, elegant appearance and characteristic shyness make them extremely sought-after sightings, but if you are that eager birder, always put the well being of the bird first. Remember, Clapper Rails would rather never be seen at all. Intentionally startling or flushing birds to get a good view exposes them to predators and may force them to leave nests or young unattended or abandon them altogether. So, never do anything that could hinder the survival of this mysterious phantom of the marsh. If you are lucky enough to see a Clapper Rail in the open, it may be under a bit of stress, so avoid adding to that by giving it a wide berth, and do not allow unleashed pets to approach it. Stay low and stay quiet. The long-term population trend of the Clapper Rail is most severely affected by water pollution, flooding of nests during Spring high tides and the destruction of coastal marsh habitat. Due to the rail’s secretive nature, the difficulty of working in marsh environments and a lack of funding for rail research, basic information regarding life history and yearly population status is limited. Clapper rail populations can best be maintained by preserving their wetland habitat and with strong support for effective protection laws. Our little Clapper Rails are putting away an abundant share of large meal worms as well as, silver sides and growing bigger and stronger every day. When they are ready, they will be returned to the marsh they call home.

Hope everyone is having a HAPPY summer wherever you find yourself to be!!!

Linda S. Bergman-Althouse, author of SAVE THEM ALL

“The Ravishing Ruddy Duck”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERADucks, ducks and more ducks!! We treat many a duck at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC; Mallards, Muskovies, Wood Ducks, Scoters, Scaups, Buffleheads, Megansers and even a rare Canvasback, but the Ruddy Duck, originally from Canada, is a distinct chubby little thing that doesn’t come through our door very often. However, about a month ago, during our major cold snap, a short, wintering brown, male Ruddy with characteristic white cheek patches arrived. He had been observed sitting in a Swansboro resident’s yard without moving for two days. The concerned wildlife enthusiast managed to approach the stubby winged duck, pick him up without much trouble and place him in a box for transport to our shelter. Upon arrival, the Ruddy’s examination proved emaciation was an issue, but no injury or illness was found. Migratory Ruddy Ducks dive to feed on pondweeds, algae and wild celery, as well as the seeds of sedges, smartweeds and grasses. They also eat aquatic insects and their larvae, shellfish and crustaceans. During breeding season they adjust their diet and feed mainly on invertebrates, primarily larvae and pupae while sieving bottom debris during dives. With icy precipitation and freezing temperatures occurring during his rescue, our theory is the little diving duck found it difficult to find food during the unusual cold spell he, as well as we were experiencing and was basically starving. At that point, our shelter become exactly what he needed; protection from the adverse conditions and a “bed & breakfast” where he would be assured enough good food and the opportunity to gain back the bulk the small compact duck had lost. Because it was winter, our Ruddy was not the colorful male with a gleaming chestnut body, sky-blue bill, black capped head and gray-blue feet most people see during Spring and Summer in the prairie regions breeding areas of North America. East coast bays, ponds and marshes in the south will winter 25 per cent of migrating Ruddy Ducks, but males will appear an inconspicuous dull, buff-brown with a darker brown head cap. Blog_RuddyDuck_OWLS2EFemales are always grayish brown with beige rather than white cheek patches, although in winter they appear darker. The average length of a Ruddy Duck is 15 inches and when healthy, weighs about 1- 2 lbs, with males weighing more than females. Their wings are rounded rather than angular and span 21 – 24 inches. During breeding season, which begins in April, the cartoonishly colorful and bold male ruddy will court females by beating their blue bill against their neck hard enough to create a tapping noise and a swirl of bubbles in the water. They are relatively silent ducks until breeding season, but only the male will vocalize with a “chuck-uck-uck-uck-ur-r-r,” which sounds almost like a belch, while displaying for females. They also make popping sounds with their feet while running across the water during flaunting flights. The only vocalizations known for females are hisses when threatened and a nasally noise made to call her brood. Their domed nest, made out of grasses by the female, will be hidden from predators in dense vegetation adjacent to lakes, marshes and ponds, but some nests are made from old nests of other ducks or constructed on muskrat houses or on floating logs. Ruddies will often take up residence in the vicinity of other diving ducks such as Buffleheads and Goldeneyes and are known to interbreed, which causes concern and frustration for some conservationists, especially in other countries like the United Kingdom and Spain. On the average, female Ruddies will not reproduce until they are 2 years old and will lay 4 to 8 eggs (one a day), that are said to be almost 2 inches each in length, which is very large for their size. Incubation is 25-26 days and after hatching, the lone female will feed and protect the young. The youngsters will fledge in 50-55 days. Ruddy ducks spend the majority of their lives in water and are hardly ever seen on land. Their legs are set back further than most ducks, therefore, an upright stance is difficult, but they are great swimmers and divers, and use their stiff tail, that stands straight up, similar to a cute Carolina Wren, as a rudder to maneuver when they swim and dive. Ruddy Duck, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach, CaliforniaWhen taking off from a lake or pond, Ruddy Ducks are very awkward due to their unusual wing design and must use their legs and wings to “run” across the surface of the water (like a runway) and once in flight, the ruddy duck will beat its wings very fast. Some people say it looks like a huge hummingbird. When threatened by predators, of which they have many, such as raccoons, minks, crows, red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks, great horned owls, foxes, ringed-billed gulls, night herons and humans, they will sink slowly beneath the water or dive with great speed for protection rather than fly. After nesting season, Ruddies will form tight flocks on open water in great numbers for preservation from injury or harm, although habitat destruction, droughts and drainage in their breeding range and exposure to oil spills have recently decreased Ruddy Duck numbers. Their average lifespan in the wild is 2 years with 13 years the record holder. Ruddy Ducks living in zoo environments typically enjoy the longevity of 8 years. Our Ruddy Duck seemed to find pleasure in his stay at our shelter and became chubby once again. Krill, greens and beaucoup meal worms (which were his favorite meals) vanished in his presence, and he was offered as much as he could put away! Once his weight was back to normal and our southern weather turned warm again, he was released in an area where Ruddy Ducks frequent. 2012 Waterfowl Stamp ArtworkBy now, we’re sure he’s on his way north to meet up with a mature Ruddy Duck gal willing to bear his children, and probably at this very moment, like the colors of a rainbow, our little Ruddy is morphing into his strikingly handsome and vibrant summer self!

Happy Spring Everyone!!!  Wildlife babies are already blooming!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse,  author of “Save Them All