Daddy Duty Almost Done: Wildlife Wednesday, August 2020

Spring is new life and verdant growth, but is also well behind us and with it, the boom of babies born.   There are still some critters in offspring production: insects, rodents, sparrows, doves and others, I’m sure, who produce youngins’ year-round, or nearly so.  But for many of my local wildlife, their baby-rearing days for this year are drawing to a close.  Baby birds are no longer helpless chicks, but are at fledgling and hatch-year stages; almost, though not quite, independent. Some lessons are still imparted by dedicated parents, like this handsome daddy Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus.

Such a pretty woodpecker!  His head is most definitely red, but it’s the blush on his belly which gives this interesting bird its common name.   

As dad picks up a black-oiled sunflower, baby red-bellied waits patiently on the trunk of the near-by Oak tree. 

C’mon Dad! I’m hungry!

I observed this sweet familial scene for about 15 minutes.  Dad flew to a feeder–mostly the sunflower, sometime the peanut–grabbed a morsel, then zipped back to the tree. When the snack choice was a sunflower seed, he’d spend a minute working the seed-coat off by hammering it as it was secured in the crevice of the bark.  I wonder how he’d learned–by experience or from his parents–that by placing the seed in the crevice, he could better work the seed without its falling on the ground?  Finding an easy source of available food and preparing it for a meal would a skill dad would want to pass on to junior.  Modeling is the best form of teaching!

It’s not yet clear if the fledgling is male or female, but there is the suggestion of rosiness on the back of baby’s head.  Time will tell.  Male Red-bellied red heads begin between their eyes and cover over the tops of their heads. Females’ red heads start toward the backs of their heads, leaving their sweet faces mostly non-red. 

The youngster knows a treat is coming and inches closer in anticipation!

 Yum!!  Thanks, Daddy!

Woodpeckers are common feeder birds, but they eat a wide variety of foods:  all kinds of insects, spiders, nuts from a variety of trees, and seeds from annual and perennial plants.  According to Cornell’s page on Red-bellied Woodpeckers, they sometimes eat lizards, nestling birds, and small fish.  I’ve watched as woodpeckers (Downy Woodpeckers, too) glean insects from the barks of trees, but I’ve never witnessed any munching on protein from higher-up along the food chain.  

“Yes, Little One, you might someday enjoy the crunch of a lizard.”

I watched these two in my back garden as they hung out on my Red Oak tree, but commonly, I’ve seen Red-bellied Woodpeckers–mom, dad, kids–hitch themselves along the thick branches of my neighbor’s large front garden Arizona Ash tree.  That tree now belongs to my SIL:  different neighbor, same house and tree.  

The ash is old and particularly weak-wooded.  During  a May storm, a major branch broke, landing in multiple pieces at the end of SIL’s driveway.  It was rather dramatic!  Thankfully, no one and nothing (except the branch) was damaged.  Interestingly, the break occurred at an established Red-bellied Woodpecker nesting site.  Especially in the last few years, I’d observed little red-heads hanging out from the hole that some dad started and some mom helped finish.  This spring, before the break, bully European Starlings chased off the Red-bellied Woodpeckers, which was sad.  In retrospect, I’m glad the Red-bellied babies weren’t in the nest when the storm came and the limb fell.

As neighbors stood around and marveled at the mess, recounting their own storm horror stories, I cast my eye on the portion that housed the woodpecker hole and nesting cavity.  SIL was on-board with me taking it–for what, I wasn’t yet quite sure. 

That piece of former woodpecker nest now sits in a garden just below the tree. 

The hole, drilled through the thick bark by determined, hammer-beaked woodpeckers, is a door/window into the tree.  The nest cavity was fairly roomy and the sides of the hole were completely smooth, an exemplar of fine crafting by woodpeckers.

At the storm-driven break, obviously weakened by the nesting of generations of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, I filled the former nest with potting soil after plugging the woodpecker hole with crushed granite.  I popped in a stem of Ghost Plant, Graptopetalum paraguayense and the plant is doing well in its new home.  I just need to water from time-to-time. Ahem.

I enjoy observing the excellent parenting skills of the various birds who visit my garden.  For a while longer, I’ll watch the juveniles’ antics as they mature.  Autumn isn’t too far in the future and the new generation will eventually leave, moving on to their own territory to find mates and continue the cycle.   

What wild things did you see in your garden this past month?  Please leave a link, if you’d like to share your garden’s wild ways.  Happy wildlife gardening!

A Sunflower and Some Sort of Skipper

Late in a day, once the sun lessened its August gaze on the garden, I spied this skipper on a sunflower.   It wasn’t nectaring, nor did it fly away as I watched.  Was it settling in for an evening’s rest?  Perhaps.  Everyone, even busy pollinators, need their rest.

I think this skipper is a Eufala SkipperLerodea eufala, as described by the Butterflies and Moths of North America website.  The site describes the Eufala as plain grey-brown, with several vague spots.  But, it could be a Dun SkipperEuphyes vestris, and if so, probably a female, as the same website mentions three “cloudy” white spots on the forewing.  Both species are widespread in their North American distribution and common in Texas.  Both skippers belong to the same Lepidoptera Family (Hesperiidae) and Subfamily (Hesperiinae).  As well, these skippers use grasses or grass-like plants as their host plants, which are plants the eggs are laid on and that hatched larvae feed upon.  The adult food sources differ just a bit, with the Eufala being the one who feeds from flowers the composite family of plants–plants like sunflowers.  

I photographed top, bottom, and at each side, rushing my efforts in case the skipper became annoyed and took flight.  It remained motionless.

I enjoy the intellectual exercise of identifying insects, even with my frustratingly limited background on types, species, and families.  Thankfully, with a click of my mouse or a swipe of my phone, there are plenty of resources available when I’m searching for an answer to an insect question.  In a case like this one, where the object could be one thing, or perhaps another, and where the identifier doesn’t have the training (or patience…), the answers for this amateur activity aren’t always definitive.  And that’s okay.  

I enjoyed watching this unobtrusive beauty: its quiet presence against the showoff summer flower was satisfying.  While sleuthing insect answers increases my knowledge and appreciation of the garden’s goings-on, ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether I know exactly what sort of critter rests on the flower.  The skipper’s existence is valuable because it is. 

And that’s all that matters.

 

Stand Your Ground

I guess this post could be renamed Stand Your Feeder but that doesn’t quite resonate.  None of these birds are on the ground–standing or otherwise–one is eating at the feeder, the other two are waiting their turn.  In this bit of bird drama, it’s the younger fledgling Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus, who’s in control, thwarting efforts to dislodge him and ignoring back chat from the the European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, to the left, and the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata, on top of the feeder stand.  The Red-bellied is munching away at sought-after peanuts as the two adult birds caw and carp.

The little Red-belly wins the moment–and the peanuts!

Bird feeders are hot spots of conflict where birds demonstrate their more aggressive tendencies, protecting their food source(s) and trash talking one another.  Feeders invite a microcosm of natural competition that most of us don’t observe regularly, unless we notice the wildlife in our midst.

Here, the juvenile Red-belly responds to the impatient grown-ups regarding their insistence that he hurry up his snacking. 

In my head, I hear Nelson (‘The Simpsons’) obnoxious laugh when I see this teenage  Red-belly looking up at the interfering adults.  I wish that laugh wasn’t in my head.

Teenagers.  They always talk back!

In an Audubon article Who Wins the Feeder Warthe authors describe the “Hunger Games-like world” regularly seen by humans who feed local birds.  From observations by Project FeederWatch and Great Backyard Bird Count  participants, the authors share surprising results of feeder interactions between paired birds, noting the winners and losers. It’s a bird-eat-bird world out there, as they report a FeederWatch citizen scientist’s observation of a grackle’s catching and eating chickadees to prevent their muscling-in (can chickadees muscle-in?) on his feeder.  It’s not necessarily the bigger bird who wins the feeder war, but the bird who has the more aggressive personality–or more formidable beak.  The authors confirm the tenacious character of a diminutive Downy Woodpecker, Dryobates pubescens, who often rules the roost–which I’ve witnessed in my own garden–and recounts a confrontation between a Red-bellied Woodpecker and the larger Pileated Woodpecker: the Red-belly is the victor.  In my garden, a similar scenario played out recently: the younger and smaller Red-bellied Woodpecker kept the adult starling and jay at bay, while the teen noshed his fill.  Who’d want to get pecked by that beak?? 

I participate in both FeederWatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count, but I admit to not always noting the bird interactions that occur.  Woodpeckers are shy, but once on the feeder, demand respect; Yellow-rumped Warblers harass Orange-crowned Warblers; hummingbirds chase everyone, including butterflies; White-winged Doves are stupid.  And they stomp around on my plants.

Jerks.

Back to the peanut rumpus, the starling finally gave up and winged away, but the jay was determined to feed and wait out the woodpecker, complaining to all who would listen and it’s not like we had a choice.

One down, one to go!

After several minutes of nibbling, the youngster snatched a full peanut and shortly after this shot, flew to the nearby oak tree to enjoy his treat.  The chastened blue jay was a bit gormless for a time, eventually hopping to the feeder for its share of the peanut booty.

Who needs The Hunger Games or Survivor (or American politics…) when you’ve got birds in the garden, strutting their stuff and showing who’s boss?