“The Gift of Gannets”

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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

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“Snowbirds”

Blog_Junco_Jan2015XAlthough we don’t get much snow in eastern North Carolina, it doesn’t stop diminutive Dark-eyed Juncos, commonly referred to as “Snowbirds,” from wintering with us. One might say, their presence is the first sign that winter has arrived in the south. They are the sparrow size birds, dark gray with white bellies and white outer tail feathers that flash in flight and who have stout, pale pinkish bills that suddenly appear at our feeding stations at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC and in our back yards at home. Another theory for their “Snowbird” nickname is their coloring, which has been described as “leaden skies above and snow below.” They have also been observed burrowing through snow in search of covered over seeds. So the name “Snowbirds” is understandable, but why they are called Juncos, no one can figure out! The word Junco is derived from juncus, which is Latin for the “rush” plant, an emergent reed found in wetlands, but Juncos are not found in that habitat. The coloration of the Junco does vary throughout the country, but no matter the brown in California or black, two-tones in Alaska, they all fashion a white belly, and females tend to be lighter shades of whatever color, gray or slate in our case, than the males. Except for a few groups of permanents in our Appalachian Mountains during the warmer months, Juncos are found in the forests and mountains of Canada, but before the uber cold hits, they flood the lower continent of North America to wait out the harsh weather and frigid temperatures. Blog_Junco_Jan2015XX_edited-2Even though they head south to avoid the cold, they still bulk up for winter by growing 30% more feathering by weight in the winter than in the summer. Females migrate south before the males do and fly at very low altitudes at night making them susceptible to a number of obstacles, such as towers, along the way. Although official bird counters record the Junco population as multi-millions (3 to 4) in North America (second only to the American Robin), they come in numbers of 10 to 30 to each feeding territory and a dominance hierarchy or strict pecking order is immediately set up. Each little Junco knows its place in the power structure of the flock, however, some bold youngster males may challenge the status of adult males with aggressive displays of lunges and tail flicking. Some males choose to stay farther north during the winter to avoid competition and gain that advantage of arriving first for breeding season after return migration. One study showed that in Michigan only 20% of the Juncos observed were female, but in Alabama, 80% were female. They are the most common bird found near feeders in all of North America every winter and tend to return to the same area each year. Chances are we have many of the same birds at our feeder this winter that we had in previous years. Feeding stations do attract them, but you won’t see Juncos perched at a feeder for they are birds of the ground, spending over 65% of their time foraging the spillage. Backyard WIldlifeSo, with Juncos present, nothing goes to waste. They dine on a variety of seeds to include sunflower, niger thistle, cracked corn, millet, suet (peanut butter seems to be their favorite!), weed greens such as chickweed, ragweed, crab grass, timothy hay and occasionally fruit. One quarter of their diet is made up of insects, which offer the protein they need. Juncos, as well as other sparrows, engage in a foraging method called “riding.” That’s when they land on a weed’s or grass stem’s seed cluster and bear their weight to “ride” it to the ground where they pick off the seeds while standing on it. They may have learned that behavior by watching the surfers in our area! Visiting Juncos will usually stay within a 10 acre area as they winter. At night they will roost in evergreens, tall grasses or brush piles and frequent that location repeatedly, sharing their space with others from their flock, but it has been observed that no matter the chill, they don’t huddle together as other birds do. Their song is a trill similar to the chipping sparrow, but the Junco throws in some tick sounds and high pitched, bell-like tinkling chirps, making their voice more musical some say. For those who study bird language, Juncos are purported to be excellent subjects. When our little winter guests return to their breeding areas up north, they will nest in hidden bowls or depressions in the ground or in low hanging branches or shrubs. The small nests are cup-shaped and made of grass, twigs, bark, other plant materials and hair. The female Junco lays 3 to 5 blotchy eggs in a variety of ground color shades such as brown, gray or muted purple. Mom, solely, will incubate the eggs and that period usually lasts a day or two less than two weeks. Dad is delivering food to Mom and eventually the little ones. Strongly territorial, the male Junco also helps his mate defend against nest predators such as chipmunks and deer mice. Both parents feed the young and attend to nest-keeping which includes removing the nestlings’ fecal sacs. Usually the Juncos diet is three parts seed to one part insects, but during the nesting period, the parents increase their intake of insects 50-60% to maintain the stamina it takes to raise and protect their youngins. The fledglings will leave the nest in 9-12 days. The highest longevities recorded for Juncos range between 7 and 11 years, which is impressive for any bird, but to get there they must remain alert, fast, injury free and nutritionally sound! John James Audubon wrote in 1831 that “there is not an individual in the union who does not know the little Snowbird.” Blog_LT_0562X_edited-1We are enjoying our wee Snowbirds! Are you enjoying yours?

Stay Warm Everybody! (And please bring your pets inside.) We’re experiencing some really frigid temps all across the country!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

King of the Fishers

BlogMag_LT_2957When you’re birding and hear a distinctive loud, harsh rattling call and a large, pigeon sized bird flies out over the water, hovers and then plunges head first into the water, you have probably just witnessed a Belted Kingfisher in action. Once in a while Kingfishers make their way to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC due to tangling, concussive injuries or an overzealous hunting dog. Kingfishers can be found throughout the world’s tropics and temperate regions, although absent from some of the world’s driest deserts and also, the polar regions. There are many types of Kingfishers, but North Carolina is home to the belted variety only. Our Belted Kingfisher is approximately 13 inches long, 22” across when wings are extended, dull blue above, white below, with a bluish belt on the breast, except for the female who has rusty colored flanks and a brilliant rusty band across her chest. It’s quite the role reversal in the bird world for the female to be more brightly colored than her male counterpart. The wings and short tail-feathers are black, spotted and barred with white. The flight of this bird is rapid and its motions on the wing consist of a series of flaps, about five or six, followed by a direct glide. The large, some say enormous, shaggy head is crested. Their feet and legs are small in comparison to their body size and located too far back to allow for walking on the ground, which makes their feet fairly weak and only suitable for perching. Although somewhat large in comparison to songbirds, they weigh only 5 ounces. The kingfisher’s diet is mostly fish but they will eat crayfish, shellfish, small birds, mollusks, mammals, worms, insects and lizards. They seem to particularly enjoy grasshoppers. If these food sources are not available, they will eat berries. Their characteristic habit is to sit motionless while watching for their prey, dart after it and return to their perch. They “plunge dive” like a pelican from as high as 50 feet making a steep head-first dive into the water to catch small fish. Their aim must be perfect because they hit the water with closed eyes. They will then fly to a favorite, near-by perch with their prey and beat it to death before tossing it into the air and swallowing it head first. BlogMag_LT_3043After a tasty meal, they “disgorge” any indigestible bones and scales in pellet form. Wildlife rehabilitators learn quickly that Kingfishers do not peck; they make use of considerable jaw musculature to clamp down tightly with that long, straight bill. And clamp they can, which makes perfect sense when we remember the bird must dive into water to grab wiggly, slimy, smoothly scaled fish and hold on firmly if lunch is to be served; a weak bill just wouldn’t get the job done. Their grip is almost vise-like and to make matters worse both mandibles are edged with tiny irregular serrations that serve to hold slippery fish or the rehabber’s finger with great force. Ouch! Kingfishers also make tunnel nests in riverbanks with that sturdy digging tool mounted on their faces. They burrow into the vertical walls of dirt that edge a body of water, forming tunnels from two to ten feet. The entry hole is just large enough to admit the passage of a single bird at a time (safety feature!). In these tunnels, the female lays 5-8 nearly round, white eggs at one-day intervals and incubation begins by both sexes with the first egg. They hatch at one-day intervals, so the young are different sizes, the oldest up to a week older than the youngest. The parents do not remove the nestlings’ droppings like conscientious song birds do. Chicks apparently not only defecate in the burrow but also throw pellets containing indigestible prey parts. What a mess they must be living in by the end of the nesting period! So we learn that Kingfisher parents are not the good housekeepers other birds are known for. When food is scarce only the older nestlings survive, and there is much competition for the regurgitant food brought by the parents. About 23 days after hatching, the chicks are fledged, and the parents begin teaching them hunting skills. Although, you might see a youngster begging on a branch, you will probably never see the parents feeding them. Once they are in hunting “home” school, it’s all tough love with Mom and Dad! However, if threatened by a predator, Mom has been known to drop onto the water, fluttering and feigning injury to entice the intruder to wade or swim after her. All the while, her mate, perched on a branch or clinging to the edge of the bank, jerks his tail, erects his crest, vocalizes with angry intensity and then springs off to pass and repass the threat, with his most intimidating cry to fend off the dangerous intruder. BlogMag_LT_3120XBy 10 days after fledging the young are skillfully able to retrieve small fish. That means the parents’ job is done and the youngsters are driven out of their parents’ territory. Studies suggest that the parents are monogamous with the same pair coming together each breeding season and returning to the same burrow to breed and roost, for many years in succession. So bonding occurs with the adults but with the kids, not so much! Nest predators in our area will be raccoons or snakes and the adult and juvenile Kingfishers need to be on the lookout for the capable Cooper’s Hawk. North Carolina Belted Kingfishers overwinter here and will be joined by migrating Kingfishers from Canada and our New England region who are seeking ice-free areas to hunt. This species, although elusive and difficult to study, is listed as one of the top 20 priority avian species of concern.

Keep your eyes on watch for the King Fisher! 

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of  “Save Them All

Winter Bird Feeding

FebCS_Cardinal648EAlthough Eastern North Carolina historically does not experience much snow, if at all, during winter, the colder temperatures still cause outdoor food sources to become scarce, especially for some of our favorite back or front yard bird visitors. Lately, calls have piggy-backed at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport inquiring about the absence of birds. “I don’t understand why I have no birds in my backyard” or “in the winter at least the little gray birds with the white tummies show up, but they aren’t here either.” The sparrow size gray bird with the white tummy the caller was describing is a Junco, and they do winter in Eastern North Carolina. Winter can be a difficult time for birds, whether they experience freezing temperatures or snow cover along the coast or not. Birds are warm blooded and have to maintain their body temperature by eating rich energy foods such as seeds, nuts, insects and suet. Most insects are dead or dormant by the time we humans need to don jackets and scarves, so birds will start eating food sources they don’t generally choose during warmer weather. Winter is the best time to set up bird feeders because birds are trying to fatten up during this harsh season. You will also see them puffing up their feathers, creating air pockets, to keep warm. The more air pockets, the better the insulation. You might also see them alternating an exposed leg, keeping one held up in their breast feathers for warmth. The days are short and the nights are often cold and long. To survive the cold, birds will visit whatever food sources are available. Some birds you will likely see at your feeder are Black-capped Chickadees, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Cardinals, and the Dark-eyed Juncos.  The best foods to offer birds in colder weather have a high fat or oil content that will provide more than enough energy for winter survival. Nutritious winter foods for birds include: Black oil sunflower seed, Hulled peanuts, Niger or thistle seed, Safflower, suet mixes with seeds or fruit, Peanut butter, cracked corn and White millet seed. FebCS_MG_8565CEWhen choosing birdseed and other foods for winter feeding, take into consideration which bird species are present in the winter and what foods they prefer to avoid wasted seed. Fruits, such as raisins soaked in warm water to soften are also well received. Something a little more expensive and definitely a luxury for your birds would be mealworms that can be purchased from most pet or bait stores. I don’t know too many birds that wouldn’t love a fat, juicy meal worm!  Feeders should be located out of the wind. The east or southeast side of a house or near a row of trees is ideal. It is best to have a perching spot such as a bush or tree for the birds to use to survey the feeding area and provide sufficient cover for safety from predators, as well as, shelter from the wind and weather. The feeders should be positioned near cover but in the open to allow birds to continually watch for danger. To minimize window collisions, place feeders more than five feet away from a wall or window and use window clings or other techniques to prevent collisions. For ground feeding, an area near cover with a clear view of the surroundings is best.  Placing seed in a ground feeder entices birds such as sparrows, Juncos, Mourning Doves, Quail, Pheasants, Towhees and Brown Thrashers. Even the Red-bellied Woodpecker, which is thought of as a tree dweller, does some foraging on the ground. Ground feeders are also seen eating the seeds that fall from hanging bird feeders. Platform and hopper feeders are especially good for attracting Cardinals, Wrens, Chickadees, Titmice, Jays, and Grosbeaks. Hanging feeders, because they blow in the wind, are generally used by those species able to hang on while feeding such as Chickadees, Titmice, Nuthatches and Finches.  Birdfeeders are most attractive to birds in winter, when natural food supplies are least available. Seed eaters such as finches, sparrows, titmice and chickadees may flock to feeders in higher numbers than natural food sources alone in the immediate area could support. Seeds that are merely a welcome supplement under normal winter conditions may suddenly become vital during a fierce ice or snow storm. Wild birds are resourceful, gleaning most of their food from the natural habitat; except in extreme or unusual circumstances, they manage to find enough to eat to survive. But birds that have become used to supplemental feeding may suffer when that food supply is suddenly missing, especially in winter. So, keep your feeders full when winter is toughest.  It’s also important to properly clean and sterilize your feeders routinely in efforts to minimize mold, mildew and other unhealthy conditions that could foster disease among backyard bird populations. When cleaning, discard soggy seed or seed encased in ice, and let the feeder dry before refilling.  FebCS_CardinalENesting boxes and year round bird houses help shield birds from inclement and freezing temperatures. And for the very serious birder, a heated bird bath or adding a heating element to your current bird bath would be quite ducky!   Keep your feathery little visitors healthy, comfy and safe during the harshness of winter!!

Best Always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of

“Save Them All”