“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

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

The Wandering Ibis

American_White_IbisEWhen a Good Samaritan delivered a juvenile American White Ibis to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport a few weeks ago, she was an odd and pathetic sight for sure. She was missing all feathering from her abraded head and face, and her right eye was swollen and bulging, although her limbs were intact with no injuries found. Not a pretty sight, but what did make her attractive to our staff was her cooperative and pleasant demeanor. Her young age probably attributed to that. We aren’t sure what happened to rough her up in the way she sported, but we and possibly, she, knew medical attention was warranted. She tolerates the application of medicine to her injuries and enjoys spending time in the deep sink catching small fish. She eats very well, which is a good sign. Ibis5XEAug2013The long-legged wader is coming along, but time will tell if she’ll make a full recovery. This little wader is associated with a group comprised of egrets, herons, spoonbills, storks and flamingos. Although a diverse bird group, they are united by their slender, long legs that enable them to wade for food. Found in a variety of habitats, they prefer shallow coastal marshes, wetlands and swamps, but also frequent muddy pools, flooded fields and even wet lawns. Ibises and spoonbills are the most closely related of the wader group, but there is a striking difference in bill shape. Both are odd looking birds because their bill is enormous compared to the tiny head it’s attached too. The Ibis bill is down-curved and pointy on the end while spoonbills have straight bills that broaden at the end. Ibises use their bills to probe in mud to catch prey, while spoonbills move their bill side to side in the water to find food. The tactile, non-visual nature of the Ibis’ probing for food means it catches prey that are too slow to evade the Ibis once located by its bill. The Ibis diet consists primarily of small aquatic prey such as insects and small fish, but will also dine on frogs, snails, marine worms and snakes. Crayfish are its preferred food in many regions; however, adjustments are made according to habitat and prey abundance. American White Ibises that feed in swamps focus on crabs, but fish are a more energy-rich food source. At night Ibises roost with other marsh wader species in trees that are near and often overhanging water. In breeding season, American White Ibises travel further to forage in freshwater wetlands rather than nearby saltwater areas where fiddler crabs are often the food choice. This species is known to wander, and has been sighted, sometimes in small flocks, in states far out of its usual range, which is south of Virginia and west to Texas. The Ibis is a medium-sized bird with an overall white plumage, bright red-orange bill, long legs and toes and black wing tips that are rarely visible unless in flight. However, juveniles are variations of brown, including the bill, with white feathered underparts. In non-breeding season the down-curved bill and long legs are bright red-orange as an adult, but during breeding season the bill turns a deep pink and their legs purple-red. Males are significantly larger and have longer bills than females. Their wingspan measures 35 to 41 inches. They can soar to 3,300 feet; however, more commonly they stay within the 200 to 350 feet range. During the breeding season, which begins in its third year, the American White Ibis gathers in huge colonies known to number 30,000, near water. _LT_3599CSEPairs are predominantly monogamous and both parents care for the young, although some males have been known to wander, engaging in ‘affairs’ with other females to increase their reproductive success. Males also have a bad habit of stealing food from unmated females and juveniles during the breeding season. Nesting begins as soon as suitable foraging and nesting habitat is available. The female selects the site, usually in the branches of a tree or shrub, close to and often over water, and builds the nest, and males assist by bringing nest material. One to five eggs are typically laid, with two or three being the most common. The eggs are matt, pale blue-green in color with brown splotches. A field study reveals on an average day, adult American White Ibises spend 10 hours looking for food, 45 minutes flying and 13 hours resting, roosting and attending to nests or young. Much of the time roosting is spent preening, biting and working their feathers with their long bills, as well as rubbing the oil from glands on the sides of their head onto their back. The American White Ibis is known to be territorial, defending the nest against intruders such as the Fish Crow, Boat-tailed Grackle, Gull, Black-crowned Night Heron, Opossum, Vultures, Rat Snake or Raccoon which make the list of the most common predators of Ibis eggs or young and account for about a 44% loss every breeding season. That lengthy list of predators and loss tell us it’s not easy being an Ibis! Nest attentiveness by the parents, high nest densities and that long bill used to pinch, squeeze and hold a potential predator’s head are their best defensive tactics. Kind of think that last one would only work with bird predators or maybe the snake! High Tides have also been the cause of egg disappearance or nest disruption. The longevity of the Ibis has been recorded as approximately 20 years in captivity and although life is definitely risky for the Ibis in the wild, a wild bird has been picked up 16 years and 4 months after being banded. Think they named that one Lucky!

Have a great Autumn Everyone!!!
Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of
Save Them All