The “Regal” Purple Martin!

She was built like a race car; smooth, sleek and shiny black with an aerodynamic head. From the beginning, the adult Purple Martin did not enjoy her stay at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport and probably couldn’t figure out why she was there, but a day earlier she had a moment of stillness on the ground long enough for a human to pick her up, place her in a box and transport her to our shelter. For an individual to be able to do that with a wild bird is evidence that something isn’t right. A thorough examination revealed no injuries or illness, so theories were shared that she may have been knocked out or stunned by running into something or maybe because of the heat, dehydration occurred. We didn’t know how long she’d been on the ground without food or water, so keeping her with us for a couple days while providing hydration and a steady diet of mealworms and crickets would ensure she wasn’t malnourished when returned to the wild, but she wasn’t having any of it! She refused to eat, even though nestlings were chirping and gaping all around her in the nursery while being fed every 30 minutes. She watched them eat, but she was not a baby and would not be doing that. She hid behind a basket of youngsters when feeding time began and would not accept mealworms offered her by tweezers or allow a wildlife rehabilitator to open her mouth to drop a few worms in. That was not going to happen; how undignified!! With no food or water, she would only get weaker, so this could not continue. She was removed from the enclosure with the young birds, even though there were a few juvenile Purple Martins present we thought she could relate to and placed in a transport bin by herself. A pile of mealworms and crickets were dropped into the bin, and the bin was covered so she could not see us, and we could not see her. In a half hour, she was checked on, and although Purple Martins eat on the wing, most of the mealworms and all the crickets were gone. Good Girl! How about some more? She ate to her tummy’s content, and that evening she was assimilated with a well-known flock of Purple Martins living in a wetlands area that provides three, man-made Purple Martin condos. When the lid of her transport carrier lifted, she rapidly flew to join her kind, who were vacuuming the sky of insects for their evening meal, and we could tell she was one much relieved bird. The Queen was happy and where she needed to be. The Purple Martin is North America’s largest, broad-chested swallow. They have stout, slightly hooked bills, short-forked tails and long, streamlined and tapered wings. Their wingspan is between 15 – 16 inches, and they fly gracefully and swiftly with a mix of flapping and gliding. Adult males are black and lustrously shiny. When the light catches that shine, they look dark blue-purple. Females and immature Purple Martins are black on the top side but have splotches of gray around the throat and sport light gray feathering on their chest and belly. Purple Martins like to talk to each other in chortles, rattles, gurgling and croaks. Purple Martins are aerial insectivores which means they catch insects such as dragon flies, house flies, wasps, moths and butterflies in midair, as well as, drink and bathe during flight. The birds are alert and nimble hunters and do eat a variety of winged insects but not mosquitos. We must leave that task to the Chimney Swifts and Fly Catchers who hunt at a lower level. Rarely, will a Purple Martin come to the ground to eat insects because they usually fly higher than most insectivores when they hunt. However, recent research has found Purple Martins occasionally feeding on invasive fire ants. Purple Martins are colonial, therefore feed and roost in flocks, often with other species of swallows mixed in. They feed in open areas, especially near water and in our area of the east coast, nest exclusively in boxes and martin houses provided by humans who appreciate their value. That human initiative goes back to the Native Americans, who once hung empty gourds to attract Purple Martins. Martins do very well near caring humans, but it’s a look but don’t touch relationship. Purple Martin condos should be monitored because very aggressive and non-native species birds such as Starlings and House Sparrows are known to invade a Martin condo in a take-over and possibly kill their nestlings. Advocates for Purple Martins are extremely concerned that the Purple Martin will simply disappear from eastern North America if human condo security is not provided. In the west Purple Martins search out natural cavities for nesting. The nest inside the cavity, condo or gourd is made of twigs, mud and small stones, then lined with grasses and leaves. Three to six white eggs are laid, and the female is the main incubator for 15 – 18 days. A pair of martins will generally raise only one brood per year, with both male and female alternating the feedings of the nestlings. Fledging occurs in about a month after birth, but the parents continue to feed them while teaching them to hunt. Purple Martins are highly social birds and migrate in large, noisy flocks to winter in South America at the Amazon Basin or the Barba Azul Reserve. They show up in Eastern North Carolina to breed in the Spring during March and April, depending upon weather warm enough to produce insects. Males arrive at the nesting area, which is usually the same site year after year, before the females. They stay until breeding season is over, then head back during July through October, also, depending upon the weather, to South America. Purple Martins have shown a steep population decline over the past two decades and as a result have been placed on ‘The Watch List of Special Concern.’ Factors that contribute to the loss of PM’s include pesticide use, colliding with buildings and bridges, unseasonably cold or wet weather (wipes out insects which causes food source loss), aerial predators such as hawks and owls, ground predators such as raccoons and snakes and, those invaders mentioned earlier; Starlings and Sparrows. With every subsequent Purple Martin admitted to our shelter for care from here on out, we will think of our regal PM girl who knew herself all to well and wanted absolutely nothing to do with us! We hope our sassy girl is still flying high and appreciating the precious freedom she proved to hold dear.

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

Advertisements

“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

“Summer Bird Feeding”

There’s always the big debate whether bird enthusiasts should feed wild birds in the Summer, mainly because some folks believe the birds will become dependent on handouts, too lazy to look for natural food sources and supplemental feeding could alter their migration behaviors. Research has proven that three-fold theory to be untrue. Studies show that wild birds typically receive no more than 25 percent of their daily food from feeders, and for numerous backyard species the percent is even lower. We, at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, believe, as well as other professionals in wildlife fields, summertime is a perfect time to feed wild birds for a variety of reasons. Of course, at OWLS, we release many birds on our property that are raised and rehabilitated during baby season, therefore we keep the feeders plentiful for the young birds to take advantage of the food offered until they feel confident to wing away on their own or have met up with bird elders who show them the way. Feeding backyard birds is beneficial to the birds and rewarding for the home owners who enjoy seeing and listening to gorgeous birds and observing their interesting behaviors. Although, if we choose to feed, it is important to understand the needs birds have in the summer and how we can provide a suitable birdie buffet. In the summer the days are long, so there is ample time for bird watching where we can identify and appreciate different species in their more colorful breeding plumage. If convenient food is present, bird families may choose your yard for nesting and raising their young. Watching nestlings mature is extremely joyful for most birders. There is a bounty of natural foods, such as fruits, insects and seeds, in the summer, so birds may only visit a feeder briefly, especially if they have hatchlings in their nest. However, stocking your feeders with nutritional bird diet favorites will attract a variety of summer bird species. The best foods to have on hand are seeds, especially black oil sunflower seeds, mixed seed (millet, corn, thistle, safflower and sunflower) and Nyjer, which attracts Finches, Sparrows, Buntings and Mourning Doves. Cardinals, Catbirds and Tanagers will eat grains and seeds, but they also love fruit such as apple chunks, banana slices and orange halves that can be presented on a platform feeder or stuffed into a hanging suet feeder. Wrens, Grosbeaks, Warblers, Bluebirds, Mockingbirds, Robins and Brown Thrashers, who are all insect-eating birds, will appreciate a dish of mealworms and although fresh is best, they will not snub dried meal worms added to seed mixes. Raw peanuts, shelled or whole, gets Blue-Jays, Chickadees, Titmice and Nuthatches very excited, but don’t offer coated or seasoned nuts which are dangerous for wild birds. No-melt suet is appetizing for Woodpeckers, Jays, Chickadees, Starlings, Thrashers and Grackles, as well as, a great source of energy and convenience if they are caring for hungry nestlings. Some birders put jelly out as a treat, which Robins, Gray Catbirds and Orioles enjoy, but as with any “sweet” thing, jelly could put ants on the march and in the heat, jelly can go rancid. So, if you decide to provide this sweet treat, it should be offered early morning in a small amount and the dish removed before the day gets too hot or the ants arrive. We all love our little jets, the hummingbirds, who draw nectar from flowers. To supplement their feedings we can offer sugar water (1 part sugar to 4 parts water, i.e. ¼ cup sugar and 1 cup water) in a special hummingbird feeder which will entice them to stop by. It’s important not to put too much sugar in the mixture to protect their liver and kidneys. Hummingbird feeders need to be changed out and cleaned every 4 – 5 days to prevent fungus which will cause infection, tongue swelling, starvation and death. You might also find orioles, woodpeckers and nuthatches taking sips from this feeder or resident bats who discover the feeder at night! Some foods that should not be offered would be in the category of kitchen scraps such as bread and rice (which is considered junk food because they provide no nutritional value and would be a death sentence for nestlings), peanut butter (which is ok in the winter but will melt in the summer becoming a hazard to a bird’s feathering) also spoils on hot days due to the high oil content). Soft suet blends will breakdown in the heat too and grow mold and bacteria that can be dangerous to birds. The down side to Summer Bird Feeding doesn’t involve the birds at all. It’s our responsibility to keep the feeders clean to ensure the food remains mold and bacteria free. Clean feeders will prevent diseases the birds could contract such as an eye condition called conjunctivitis, which is an affliction birds are admitted to our wildlife shelter with every summer. Their eyes are infected and crusted over which renders them blind until we can treat and clear that up. We know the bird has been eating at a dirty feeder. Also problematic are the other animals that could be attracted to your feeders, the largest being a bear! Bears in the backyard puts pets and property at risk, so to make your yard less appealing to bears, you could take your feeders down each evening, or as this author does, put out a rationed amount of seed mix and other food items in the morning and when it’s gone, it’s gone until tomorrow. That way, the night roaming critters will not be enticed to come into your yard and eat your backyard birds’ food. A few tips to also be mindful of if you choose to feed are: a) position your feeders away from windows or make your windows more visible by using anti-reflective techniques to prevent bird strikes, b) choose shaded areas for your feeders to minimize spoilage, c) use mesh or open feeders to allow seed to dry out if it gets wet, d) keep your cats indoors and discourage feral or free roaming cats from trekking through your yard, e) view feeders as only supplements to a bird’s natural foods and f) always CLEAN YOUR FEEDERS routinely to avoid mold, bacteria or fungal growth. NO FUNGUS AMONGUS! If you consider yourself to be an avid bird watcher and you are going to feed backyard birds, you might as well go all the way and provide a bird bath to keep them hydrated with fresh water, clean and full of summer fun (for you and them)! Overworked bird parents will enjoy a dip at their spa to cool off! Backyard birding is a pleasure and an honor. Those fragile little beings chose your yard to visit, eat, sing, play and raise their babies because you made healthy and compassionate choices for them. Many people agree, especially birders, that there is no better way to enjoy a Summer day than sitting on your deck or patio while watching a variety of adult and fledged birds at feeders and birdbaths! Spectacular!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

“Catchin’ Flies”

Blog_GreatCrestedFCXESeldom seen but always appreciated are Great Crested Flycatchers who perch high and wait diligently while bobbing their heads in all directions in search of summer insects that vulnerably flit among foliage. Flycatchers may drop or crash into a bush to seize a bug but usually feed high by catching their prey on the wing. They are also capable of stopping abruptly in midflight to hover over an insect covered leaf or tree limb, picking them off like . . . . . well, you know. As their name suggests, Great Crested Flycatchers are primarily insectivores and one would think that flies are their staple food source, but flies make up only a small percentage of its diet. GCFs prefer butterflies, moths, spiders, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, katydids, bees, wasps and sometimes small lizards. Blog_GreatCrestedFCXXEWhen admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, usually as nestlings who have been displaced by bad weather or predator nest attack, their diet will consist of meal worms mainly, which is a great protein substitute for what they might grab and go in the wild. They also enjoy small portions of fruits and berries which they consume whole, and the pits or seeds are regurgitated later, occasionally quite a few at one time. They are usually very cooperative birds in the nursery who eagerly snatch meal worms from tweezers when offered, and their vocalizations are quite soothing compared to the shrillness of baby Cardinals or Mockingbirds! Flycatchers sing a fairly low-pitched, three-part song of “wheerreep, whee” and end with a soft, low “churr.” They also have an alarm sound, like most birds do when stressed, that is a series of a fast and higher pitched “huit, huit, huit.” Great Crested Flycatchers are reddish-brown-gray above, with a brownish-gray head, gray throat and breast, and bright to subdued lemon-lime belly. The brown upperparts are highlighted by rufous-orange flashes in the primary and tail feathers. The black bill, which is fairly wide at the base and flanked by black whiskers, sports a bit of pale color as an adult. Blog_GreatCrestedFCPerchedEThey have a powerful build for a medium size song bird with broad shoulders and a large head with a crest that is not prominent and somewhat underwhelming compared to that of a Blue Jay. GCF’s do not display sexual dimorphism like Cardinals, Bluebirds and House Finches do. The male and female GCF look the same in color and size, so it’s easier to tell the girls from the boys by observing their behaviors rather than their physical appearance. Adult Great Crested Flycatchers are about the size of an American Robin and usually measure between 6.7 – 8.3 inches in length with a wingspan around 13 inches and weigh in between .95 – 1.41 ounces. Although slight in weight, the GCF is a mighty insect predator! Flycatchers don’t seem to be too romantic when it comes to finding a mate. Courtship and the mating ritual may only involve a tenacious male swooping after a female in and among the trees until she finally gives up the chase. So, they are not flashy and over the top with courtship displays but what they do counts because they are monogamous throughout breeding season and for years to come. Great Crested Flycatchers live in woodlots and open woodland, particularly among deciduous trees. Nesting occurs mid-April and the nest site is usually a hole in a tree, either a natural cavity or an old woodpecker hole found 20-50′ above the ground. Blog_GreatCrestedFC3EGreat Crested Flycatchers are the only Eastern flycatchers who nest in cavities, but they may also choose man-made sites such as birdhouses, nest boxes, drainpipes or hollow fence posts. Both sexes help build their nest, although it has been observed that the female constructs the majority of the nest while the male stands watch. They carry in large amounts of material to bring the nest level up close to the entrance of the cavity. The nest foundation is made of grass, weeds, strips of bark, animal fur, rootlets, moss, feathers or other debris and lined with finer materials. GCF’s have the odd habit of weaving in or lining their nest with pieces of shed snakeskin, and sometimes they add onion skins or pieces of litter such as clear plastic wrappers. The male defends the couple’s nesting territory with loud calls and if that doesn’t work, he may have to fight other males. Great Crested Flycatchers lay a single clutch of 4-6 creamy white to pale buff eggs, marked with splotches of brown, olive and lavender, per breeding season. The eggs are incubated for about two weeks by the female only. Both parents will bring food for the hatchlings for the next 12 – 18 days. Around 18-20 days after hatching is about the time the youngsters experience their first flight. Blog_GCF_4L5A0613E Nestlings rarely return to breed near where they were born, but once yearlings have chosen a breeding area, they often return to that same area year after year. The Great Crested Flycatcher is a bird of the treetops. It spends very little time on the ground and does not hop or walk. It prefers to fly from place to place close to the ground rather than walk. So, if you are trying to locate one based upon their distinctive, rolling call, you should probably look up! Great Crested Flycatchers live along the edges between habitats, so they don’t need big stretches of unbroken forest canopy to thrive. This is a rare occasion when logging and development practices that increase forest fragmentation actually work to a bird’s advantage, rather than in sharp contrast to other birds that dwell deep within the forest. Although GCF’s breed in most regions of the United States, they are migratory birds who, when the temperatures drop in Autumn, head south to Florida and Cuba, as well as, Mexico and South America. The oldest recorded Great Crested Flycatcher was at least 14 years, 11 months old when it was found in Vermont way back in 1967. It had been banded in New Jersey in 1953. Blog_GreatCrestedFC2EThese little birds can be around for quite a long time barring troublesome hawks who give them the stink eye and loss of habitat or insect food sources. Insects procreate in crazy numbers, especially pesky flies!! It’s a good feeling to know that these ‘great’ little Flycatchers are out their making our world a better place!

 

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

 

“The Tiniest Need Our Help!!”

Blog_CSMag_BabyBirds_The incubators are filling up at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, NC because the tiniest need our help! Baby birds aren’t the cutest little critters to come through the doors of the shelter, but they are the most fragile and definitely will not make it on their own if abandoned or displaced. If they are newborns, we might not be able to make the call on what they are until they develop a little more because many baby birds start life looking quite similar and the smaller the bird species the more similar they look at birth; a skin blob of a body with no feathers, a limp neck trying to hold up a tiny head with a beak that shoots straight up to let Mom or Dad know when it’s hungry. When we admit newborn birds, we might even refer to them as UBBs (unidentified baby birds) until we hear a sound we recognize, the shape and coloring of their beak becomes more pronounced or they start to feather. Then we will know for sure!Blog_CSMag_BabyBird_
Larger song bird babies are easier to identify. When the nursery is full of baby birds, it becomes a full time job for baby bird feeders because these little creatures eat every 30 minutes because their metabolism is so fast and they develop much more quickly than mammals do. Also keep in mind, their meals don’t stop, this is seven days a week! Most people outside the shelter probably do not have the time to devote to this strict feeding schedule. If you add “day olds” or newborns to the mix, the feeding schedule for them is adjusted to every 15 minutes! We also need three shifts (morning, afternoon and evening until the sun goes down) to get the job done because that’s the way their parents would do it! There is no down time for the nursery workers. By the time you finish one round of feeding, it’s time to start all over again. Along with feeding, of course, is cleaning, because just like human babies, baby birds spend all their time eating, sleeping and pooping. Mom and Dad would be cleaning their nest area continually, so wildlife rehabilitators will do that as well. Recently, a nest of five House Finches were displaced when their nest gourd fell apart and the babies found themselves on the ground, four infant Carolina Wrens were discovered in a propane tank, a featherless baby Grackle was found sitting in the road (how that happened is anybody’s guess) and two Nuthatch babies were sighted inside a screen door with no Mom around. When you don’t see how it happened, it’s all speculation and pure wonderment on our part. There will be more baby bird calls and more to join the nursery this summer. Blog_CSMag_I7Z1049__Of course, when someone calls the shelter to tell us they have found baby birds on the ground or their nest is in a dangerous or precarious location, we initially give instructions on how to re-nest the little ones because that would be best for the whole bird family, but when that is impossible, we ask them to bring the youngins in for the care and safety they will need to survive. Wildlife rehabilitators are so important in the equation of raising and giving songbirds the second chance that they definitely deserve because, quite frankly, it’s usually human interference that displaces the little ones and causes a perilous situation for birds that are so important to our ecosystem, and as we are all aware, songbird numbers are on the decline. Blog_BabyBirds In NestWildlife rehabilitators are well trained and licensed, so they possess the “know-how” to provide appropriate species specific diets and habitat, as well as, anticipate and monitor species unique behaviors that when evaluated will let us know when bird youngsters are ready to spend the time needed in an outside enclosure to perfect perching, flight and eating on their own, which is one step away from a wild release. The Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter raises them all! We are not bias on which species to accept. Need is the key word!!! So, in our nursery in any given Spring, we house the tiniest of our feathered friends from Hummingbirds (although rare) to Finches, Wrens, Nuthatches, Titmouse, Warblers and Sparrows and the larger songbirds (who are usually the easier babies to raise because one: they are bigger and two: aren’t as ‘flitty.’) Larger nursery birds would include Eastern Blue Birds, Northern Mockingbirds, Robins, Blue Jays, Brown Thrashers, Cardinals, Gray Cat Birds, Starlings, Grackles, Boat Tailed Grackles, Chimney Swifts, Purple Martins, Fly Catchers, Barn Swallows, Red-Winged Blackbirds and the biggest nursery babies; a variety of Wood Peckers or Flickers, Mourning Doves and Pigeons. They are all so different, and they all have special needs!Blog_CSMag_I7Z1054__ Some are bugs and worm eaters (and we go through thousands of meal worms per week!), while others prefer seeds and berries, then again, some are omnivores and will include all the choices in their diet, but yes, we proudly raise them all!

Please enjoy your Memorial Day and always remember the reason this day has been set aside to be honored by those of us who owe so much to sacrifices made by others.

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

“The Gift of Gannets”

CSMag_Norther nGannet3_edited-1
We don’t see them often and when we do, they are in trouble. The only reasons a Northern Gannet comes ashore will be injury, illness, starvation or blown off course by a storm. When one becomes too weak or unable to fly, it will float on the ocean until the tide carries it to shore. Northern Gannets are the largest indigenous seabird in the North Atlantic with wingspans of 68 – 70 inches and weigh in at 6 – 8 pounds. They spend most of their lives at sea. This magnificent pelagic seabird, that reaches adult maturity in 5 years, is known for its gorgeous pale blue eyes accentuated by a ring of bare, bluish-black skin and contrasting snow white body with black wing tips and is so strikingly beautiful it’s a visual gift. CSMag_Northern Gannet2EGannets are among the world’s most renowned divers, descending from heights of up to 130 feet as they plunge into the ocean at 60 plus miles per hour. 68% of the world’s population of Northern Gannets breeds off the coasts of Great Britain and Scotland, but there will be ‘companies’ of Gannets wintering off North Carolina’s coast with some of our local Solan Geese, which is a name of Scandinavian origin given to Northern Gannets. Some colonies will be as large as 60,000 pairs. Occasionally a Gannet will be admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport and upon receipt of the bird, we know it will be a touch and go situation. Recently that was the case when a Good Samaritan rescued a beached adult Gannet, unable to fly who showed no signs of injury when examined but was only half his expected body weight. Gannets eat any small fish such as sardines, anchovies, haddock, smelt, Atlantic Cod and the young of larger fish species. Squid is also a menu choice for these vertical divers. They dive into the sea as straight as an arrow with wings and feet retracted and tucked tightly against their body. The Gannet has highly developed lungs, secondary nostrils that close and a long, strong sternum protecting their internal organs when impacting with the water. These anatomical features are perfect for the high speed and deep diving they are capable of. Individual Gannets have a subcutaneous fat layer, dense down and tightly overlapping feathers that help them withstand low temperatures. CSMag_Northnern Gannet4EThe reduced blood flow in the webbing on their feet also helps maintain their body temperature when they swim. Their feathers enjoy a higher level of waterproofing than other seabirds that need to dry out between foraging sessions. Northern Gannets produce an impermeable secretion in their sebaceous glands which they spread across their body using their beak or their head. Gannets breed in large colonies along the Atlantic, and boaters have witnessed spectacular displays of plunge-diving for fish by Gannets in the hundreds. Once beneath the water, it uses its wings and feet to swim in pursuit of a meal. They grab food with their long, strong, conical bill and always eat it under water. They never fly with a fish in their bill. Northern Gannets nest offshore, and most often, nests are found tucked into inaccessible cliffs. Some breeding colonies are recorded as being located in the same place for hundreds of years. The cliffs containing gannetries, when seen from a distance, appear to be covered in snow, due to the extraordinary number of nests present. Constructed of compacted mud, seaweed, grasses, feathers and their own waste matte, a Gannet’s nest is definitely a testament to the value of recycling! The males usually collect the materials necessary for nest building. Off the coast of North Carolina, because cliffs are not available, Northern Gannets will nest on islands or flat surfaces, however, they find it more difficult to take off from these locations, requiring them to often cross an area occupied by an adjacent nest which causes stress and aggression from the pair occupying a trespassed nest. Despite bold assertions of the group toward one another, Gannets always nest close together. CSMag_NorthernGannet1EThere are no loners during breeding season. Northern Gannets will lay only one egg rather than 2 or 3 like most seabirds. If two eggs are found in a Gannet’s nest it’s the result of two females laying an egg in the same nest or an egg has been stolen from another nest. Incubation takes 42 to 46 days and occurs under the webbing of their feet, flooded with warming blood. An infant can take up to 36 hours to break through the thick eggshell. At this time, the adult will release the egg from its feet to prevent the egg from breaking under the adult’s massive weight. Northern Gannets learn the hard way in their first breeding year that if they aren’t cautious about that, the chick may die. The warm webbed feet are also used to cover the newborn, which is rarely left alone by the parents. A hatchling will spend about 13 weeks in the nest with the parents where it is fed regurgitated fish and is fiercely monitored to prevent attack or death by Black-Backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Ravens, Ermine, Red Fox or other Northern Gannets. Nature can be harsh! Fledglings are brown with white wing tips, and they have white spots on their heads and backs. Once a Northern Gannet fledges from its nesting colony and is on the water, it will remain there for as long as two weeks because it has not learned how to take off from a water runway yet. While flying muscles comprise 20% total weight for most seabirds, Northern Gannets’ flying muscles are less than 13% which demands they warm up before they fly and that they calculate and rely on the wind, especially wind produced by the front of a wave. Bobbing in the water is also a safer place for a youngster to be than risk accidently tripping into Gannet breeding ground. They are not sturdy on their feet as land walkers due to the location of their legs so far back on the body. Gannets are swimmers and flyers! The young have a fat reserve, allowing them to go without eating for up to 2 weeks, but don’t worry; the parents are still close by for further fishing and flying training. The maximum lifespan known for a Northern Gannet is 35 years. Adult Gannets are not heavily preyed upon, but when it happens, an eagle, shark or seal is usually the bandit. If you ever get the opportunity to see a Northern Gannet, savor that momentary visual gift because it may never happen again!!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Everyone!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of

SAVE THEM ALL