Sunday, October 11, 2020

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatches and a Hairy Woodpecker!

Juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak watercolor sketch by Vickie Henderson

For those of us who love birds and love to watch them, we have a ready-made source of enjoyment no matter where we are. Autumn, a season of migration, presents delightful opportunities to see birds that only visit our yards briefly enroute to wintering grounds. This season, the birds that caught my eye were the colorful Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.
Even though Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are feeder friendly, they are also shy, a shyness almost equal to our flighty American Goldfinches. Definitely not the boldness of the Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice or Northern Cardinals that frequent the feeders. I had snapped a couple of grosbeak images through the window, but did not find these very satisfying, especially since the red, brown and black patterns on each immature bird varied so greatly and were so much fun. Natural birdy watercolors. Splashes of color and unique shapes while feathers morph into patterns that more resemble parents. 
Hoping to be as non-threatening as the stone wall behind me, I settled myself on my porch a distance away, camera in hand. Being still has its rewards! My first surprise was the arrival of our resident male Hairy Woodpecker. He alerts all to his presence with his loud chirps, much to my appreciation. I loved that he hung around on a trunk for a few photos while he checked out the rainy day crowd at the feeders.  
Next, Red-breasted Nuthatches! An irruptive species that we only see in Tennessee when conditions bring them farther south for food.  Fiesty little nuthatches with distinctive personalities, they fly in fearlessly and leave just as swiftly except when they want to display a nut meat? 
This nuthatch held his nut piece high in the air and turned his head this way and that way, as though displaying it to other nuthatches? 
Later I heard a "convention" of nuthatches over my head having a big discussion, everybody "talking at once"! "Toutie, tou, tou, tou, toutie-tou." I even searched for an owl as a possible reason for their excited vocalizations. I would have loved to have been able to count them. Just how many nuthatches was I seeing and hearing? Was it just two or a whole flock?  
I did find a shy immature male Rose-breasted Grosbeak, hiding in the leaves near the feeders. Patience rewarded me with a clear view as he finally ventured more into the open after a few minutes. 
Without a doubt, being still draws you deeper into the natural world around you, stirring renewal and wonder. For an instant, you are present, transported, and a part of it. Alive and curious.  Armed with more questions than answers, you leave that moment reluctantly but satisfied and eager to do it again!

Friday, September 25, 2020

Migrating Thrushes are in Town!

In Knoxville, in the east Tennessee Valley, fall brings migrating warblers, thrushes and other species into open wooded areas for food.  That would be a good description of my yard--a wooded edge.  And when you think a rainy day takes away your birding opportunities, think again!    

Gray-cheeked Thrush

I've been hearing thrushy "pit" calls for the past week, but searching for the owners of these voices has been a challenge.  Even when I caught a glimpse of bird movement, it was too brief to ID the bird.  I have enjoyed a brief Swainson's Thrush song and a "vree" like call over the week but still no visual IDs until today!

I definitely feel charmed when I walk by my dining room window and spot a bird fluttering in the dogwood.  This time, I was doubly lucky.  My first bird was the elusive Gray-cheeked Thrush.  Last May this thrush was an accidental find and a life-bird for me in addition to being a new bird ID for the yard.  Once again I found a Gray-cheeked thrush in the same location.  Two of them, and now I feel certain they are regular visitors to the yard during migration. 

A Swainson's Thrush flew in next (above) and displaced the Gray-cheeked Thrush.  The Swainson's showed a nice contrast in the eye and in body color.  In these two individuals, the Swainson's Thrush was more brown in appearance, but more importantly, the eye ring was distinctive.  

Like many of our bird observations, my view of the Swainson's Thrush was brief.  The Swainson's departed and was replaced by another Gray-cheeked Thrush.  This one was darker in appearance and I assumed wetter from the rain.  I believe it was a second Gray-cheeked.  
This one reminded me of why the dogwood is a great place to watch for berry-loving thrushes.  

A great moment of in-door, rainy day birding!

Monday, August 5, 2019

Juvenile Hummingbird Behavior

Young hummingbirds leave the nest full of curiousity and uncertainty. 
They have to figure things out quickly and innocence is short-lived, but their initial hesitation and confusion is easy to spot in the garden.  The hummingbird population in my yard in east Tennessee more than doubled in mid July when the first broods of nestlings left the nest.  A male Ruby-throated hummer dominated the five feeders on the garden side of the house, but he tolerated other hummingbirds in the garden. 
This made juvenile-watching opportunities!  How do you know you are watching a young hummingbird?  Behavior.  Before they become aggressive bombardiers, chasing each other with bad tempers, their behavior is tentative.
Still strengthening their wing muscles, they sometimes perch on stems to find nectar and insects or just to pause and look around.

Which part of this flower has the nectar anyway?
Hummingbird and Coneflowers.  Original watercolor by Vickie Henderson.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Common Grackles Dining on Acorns

If you happen to be outside when a flock of grackles arrives, you may want to take shelter!  It may rain acorns!
When mature acorns are abundant in early autumn, flocks of grackles noisely move from tree to tree feasting on the juicy nut meats. The first time a roaming flock landed in the oaks over my house, it sounded like hail was pelting the roof.  I looked out on the deck to see leaves, twigs and pieces of acorns falling like rain from Southern Red Oaks overhanging the house and deck.
Common Grackles noisily feasting in a Red Oak.

While we usually think of grackles as feeding in fields and on the ground, they also dine in trees.  While most of the grackles were in the limbs, some were also foraging on the ground underneath, picking up fallen nut pieces. It was the nut pieces with their serrated edges that intriqued me.  I wondered how they were cracking them open. 
Some birds swallow acorns whole, like wild turkey and some species of pigeons.  They can rely on their strong gullet muscle to crush them for digestion.  Blue Jays pound the acorns with their beak to break them and eat the soft meat inside.  Grackles, on the other hand, have special mouth parts and a strong beak that equips them for breaking acorns.  Their hard palate has a projection referred to as a "keel" that extends downward.  Bird beaks are hinged but they can also flex and move side ways slightly.  Grackles push the acorn against the keel, scoring the shell until it cracks open and the soft interior is exposed.  The edges of the broken acorn look a bit like they've been primatively sawed.  The grackle eats part of the nut and the rest drops to the ground for flock mates to eat.
The acorns of the Southern Red Oak are bright orange on the inside.
The next time a flock of grackles lands in a tree in your yard, step outside to see what's going on.  It's magical.  Besides the sound of their calls and the energy of activity, they are also acrobats!  Some will be hanging upside down to reach acorns!

A. J. Marshall, Biology and Comparative Physiology of Birds, Vol 1:  The Common Grackle (Quiscalus) has a hard keel projecting downward from the horny palate and regularly uses this in opening acorns or cracking corn.

Birds of North America/Common Grackle:  Bill has hard, internal keel projecting downward from horny palate, which is sharper and more abrupt anteriorly.  This keel extends below level of tomia [toothed projections along edge of beak] and is used as sawing adaptation to open acorns, which are often completely scored around shorter diameter and then cracked by adduction.

You may also enjoy these bird behavior posts:
Tail Signals from a Spruce Grouse
Delightful Limpkin

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Hummingbirds and Hurricanes

Ruby-throated Hummingbird male.

This morning I helped trap hummingbirds for banding at Seven Islands State Birding Park in east Tennessee where local Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are preparing for migration and others are stopping to feed enroute to their wintering grounds in Central America and Southern Mexico.  At the same time, three hurricanes are churning in the south Atlantic, and as I write, hurricane Irma, originally a category 5 hurricane that has devastated many islands in the Carribean, is barreling down on Florida.
Above, Mark Armstrong demonstrates hummingbird banding at Ijams nature center, with Janie Kading assisting.

Knowing that Ruby-throated hummingbird migration is in full swing, I have wondered how these hurricanes have affected their migration.  I asked my friend and east Tennessee hummingbird expert, Mark Armstrong, to share what he knew about storm affects on migration. He answered with these comments:
"Unfortunately I don’t know much about their [hummingbird] survival in a storm.  I’ve heard of birds making landfall on the fringes of other storms and arriving thin and exhausted.  I’ve also read that migration from an evolutionary standpoint is actually across a broad front and a prolonged period so that some part of the population may be affected by adverse weather the majority will not be and survive.  I also keep thinking about Dr. Buehler’s Golden-winged warblers. They were at their breeding territories, left when tornados were heading their way, some went to the Gulf coast and one went back to Cuba.  Then they returned to breeding territories after the threat passed.  That is amazing and we really don’t know what birds may be perceiving and if they are capable of moving away from a danger like a hurricane.  Any small bird I can’t imagine would survive a direct hit from a storm with extremely high winds."
I, for one, am glad that the local hummingbirds frequenting my yard are hanging around and hope they will wait to leave until the many storm threats pass.
Meanwhile, we had a fun surprise during our banding session this morning at Seven Islands.  You may think that the hummingbird pictured above is a mature male Ruby-throat.  But surprise--this is a juvenile!  Normally, we expect to see juvenile males in their first year with scattered red throat feathers like the one pictured in image three or we might see small clusters of three or four red feathers as their gorget begins forming.
This first year male had an almost fully formed gorget, which Mark described as a rare occurrence in his experience.  Mark has banded over 4000 Ruby-throated hummingbirds since he began banding hummingbirds in 2005.  The juvenile pictured had white tail feather tips and other attributes that are the identifying characteristics of juveniles.
Most of our hummingbirds will leave Tennessee by the end of September with some late individuals departing by the second week of October.  Remember to leave at least one feeder out to feed our wintering hummingbirds that come from the west.  These birds often arrive from October to December.  If you should have a hummingbird at your feeder after November 1st, contact Mark Armstrong at or 865-748-2224.

Photo credit for banding images:  Mark Armstrong
Why do we band hummingbirds?
Mark Armstrong and banding at Seven Islands
Wintering Hummingbirds in Tennessee
Seven Islands State Birding Park

Friday, May 26, 2017

Hummingbirds and Jewelweed

Recognize this watercolor?  It's the hummingbird painting you see in my blog banner!  
Maine's Wild Seed project contacted me earlier in the year to inquire about using one of my hummingbird paintings with their article on Jewelweed's beneficial relationship with hummingbirds. Life gets busy and after we made arrangements, I actually forgot about it! What a delight to see this beautiful spread of my "Hummer and Jewelweed" painting in the latest publication of Wild Seed, Returning Native Plants to the Maine Landscape. 
Maine's Wild Seed project educates people about the important relationships between native plants and animals and how these relationships support each other.  Their magazine is beautiful, a feast for the eyes and informative to read.  They also have tons of helpful information and resources available on their website:  Pay them a visit and plant native plants!

Maine's Wildseed Project
Hummer and Jewelweed prints on my website, Vickie Henderson Art

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Watercolor Nature Journaling Workshop

Join me for a fun day of exploring nature with watercolor on April 8th at the Chota Recreation Center, Tellico Village in Loudon, Tennessee.
Nature journals are the earliest source of information that we have about our natural world.  Holding a journal in one's hand evokes emotion and awe because we innately relate to the sensory details captured in the artists words and images.  The added bonus to creating our own journals?  We see and enjoy more deeply and that comes with calming health benefits!
Join me for a relaxing day of exploring watercolor and nature. We will review helpful sketching techniques, use of values, basic watercolor washes, negative painting, representation of sky, clouds, rocks and trees, and choice of colors for the season. Using all our senses to enhance our observations, we'll leave our traditional artist fears behind and enjoy a day of exploring nature with watercolor.
The workshop is sponsored by the Art Guild of Tellico Village.  Visit this link to sign up!  
For more information about the workshop and the guild visit:  the Art Guild of Tellico Village Workshops

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Giving Baby Bats a Second Chance

A young bat who began rehab at 4 grams, emaciated and full of parasites. In the above image she is shown weighing 19 grams just before release. Photo credit: Ceacy Henderson.

What follows is a moving essay by Ceacy about her work with bats in Colrain, Massachusetts.

Masters of the dark
By Ceacy Henderson

For them, it is all about the dark. Safety is in the dark, freedom is in the dark; the crawling out of their hiding places, taking wing, spreading out those amazing membrane-covered bones, the hand wing, those tiny elongated bones reaching outward into the night, catching air, lifting upward, carrying their furred bodies into the realm of sound and speed, echolocation bouncing back the “unseen” world in details unimaginable. They are high-speed hunters, up to 40 mph, eating a thousand insects an hour, a thousand heartbeats a minute. They are, of course, bats.

In that blackness of a moonless night, bats experience the world in ways I cannot fathom, but I see them up close now as I take care of my big brown bat babies in my new role as a wildlife rehabilitator specializing in bats. I have had them for a month. In the beginning, at just 10 days old when their mother rejected them and I took over,  they had just emerged from the darkness of closed eyes. Nearly naked, utterly unable to care for themselves, unable to stay warm, vulnerable in every way, they still instinctively shun the light, hide beneath the cover of a cloth in the tiny mesh enclosure I kept them in.

Slipping into tight places, sometimes hanging from their hind feet, sometimes lying horizontal beneath the fabric on the floor of their cage, they wait for night. In the beginning, I fed them every 2-3 hours all day until midnight, then started again at four or five in the morning; then every three hours, stretching the time between feedings until now I feed them only three times a day. All day they are quiet, nearly silent, biding their time, until I disturb them to feed them, then back to their resting. In the daytime you can walk into a room full of bats and not even know they are there, a quarter of an inch is all they need to slip into a crevice out of sight, away from harm.

Now at night my babies are learning to fly, trying to master the essential skill that distinguishes them from all other mammals. At 38 days they are leaping from one side of their enclosure to the other, hopping across the floor, scampering hither and thither, practicing those all-important hunting techniques. Two nights ago I caught moths and released them into the bats’ enclosure. At first they evidenced just curiosity at this fluttering insect, then suddenly, as if instinct instructed, one pounced on the moth. I could hear the distinctive crunching of insect being devoured, a sound I know well having fed these growing bats mealworms as soon as they could digest anything other than formula, a substitute for mother’s milk made from Similac, water, powdered egg whites and organic flax oil. I was ecstatic despite the late hour; my babies were growing up.

I was in my studio at midnight, not to feed the “juvies,” but to feed the newest baby, every 40 minutes all night long — the surviving twin of a pair that I had picked up at eight that evening, newly rescued from the deck of someone’s house. Perhaps their mother could not care for twins, perhaps she had never returned from foraging, fallen prey to the numerous other species that includes bat on the menu — owls, snakes, cats, hawks, or perhaps a victim of violence at the hands of their most dangerous enemy, humans.

So many people do not like bats. A surprising number of folks involuntarily shudder when I mention that I rescue injured, debilitated or orphaned bats. They almost pull away from me physically, as if the bats might emerge from my sleeves at any moment. A look of suspicion, almost mistrust, as if to love bats is to fraternize with the devil. But I don’t judge them . . .well, maybe a little, but I actually understand that bats are as alien to most of us as if they were from another planet.

Most folks are more familiar with lions or dolphins or polar bears than they are with the one of the most numerous mammals on earth. There are more than 1,300 different species of bats in the world, living everywhere except the polar caps. Yet, even in New England, where there are nine different species, most of us think all bats are pretty much the same. And why not? They only come out at dusk, and unless one gets into a building, usually frantically trying to find its way out, we rarely get the opportunity to see one up close. That is the way they like it — secrecy, obscurity, hidden in safety in groups, 10s to 100s, sometimes by the millions, in large caves or under bridges, in abandoned buildings, making their nightly migrations out to hunt for insects or nectar or fruit depending on the species. There are even bats that eat fish and, of course, there is the one species of bat that eats blood from animals. Not people. Despite the sensationalism of the vampire myths, and despite the Transylvanian origins of Dracula, the vampire bat lives only in South America. Still we fear them, tiny as they are. We fear this flying wonder precisely because it is superbly unique among mammals, the only winged mammal in the world, finely adapted to high-speed flight at night, precisely when we are least able to see them.

As a new rehabilitator, I have had to overcome my own fear of handling the adults with their needle-sharp teeth and inherent dislike of being touched and restrained by people. Although I am also astounded by their tolerance, these wild animals held captive for their own protection have no way of knowing that I mean them no harm, and yet they seem to understand when someone is trying to help them. They suddenly stop resisting, refrain from biting, give a warning when they are frightened or are being hurt before defending themselves, if the warning is not heeded. I have experienced this already. I was holding an adult bat while learning to do a health inspection, which involved extending each wing, when the bat lightly bit me twice, not even penetrating the nitrile glove I was wearing, until in my inexperience I managed to hurt him, so he finally resorted to a real bite, a message not to be misunderstood. I felt awful, not because I was bitten, even though later I couldn’t even locate the place where his tiny teeth had punctured my skin, but remorse that, despite his warning, I had hurt him in my ineptitude. The curse of being a beginner at this.

What impresses me the most is this new baby. He looked nearly dead when he arrived, a naked little bag of bones in a practically transparent hairless skin. Half the length of my thumb and not nearly as wide, an anatomy lesson on display, every bone visible in exquisite detail, bulging, un-opened eyes on his skeletal head. I gave him no chance at all. I had to locate his mouth using a bright light and a magnifying glass. His first meal consisted of no more than a drop of formula on his lips. Then given a drop every half hour to 40 minutes, a frequent glance at the nearly transparent skin on his tummy evidence that he had in fact swallowed some because you can clearly see milk in their stomachs from the outside. Each time I went to feed the little guy I expected to find him dead, but each time I could see him still breathing, his bony ribs rapidly rising and falling as he lay prostrate on the heating pad wrapped in a little square of polar fleece. Until sometime in the middle of the night when I went to feed him, he was no longer in his papoose but instead I found him crawling along the floor of his enclosure exploring his new world. Later on I found him hanging upside down, sometimes by both feet, sometimes just one; toe nails hooked into the soft mesh — his life force remarkable. Now that he associates me with food, each time I go to feed him he  clicks and squeaks, clasps my hand with every toenail clinging on for dear life, desperately latching his mouth on to the eye dropper as I feed him his miniscule amount of milk every two hours and check his tummy to make sure I don’t over feed him.

His frantic survival instinct speaks volumes about what has made bats so successful. They may be small, but they are mighty, and although they are mightily misunderstood, things are changing. We are beginning to understand how important they are to our ecosystems — dispersing seeds, pollinating fruits, ridding us of crop pests and disease carrying mosquitoes.

So here I am, decidedly not a night person, staying up to all hours, marveling at one of nature’s miracles, masters of the darkness, messengers of the mystery of this fabulous living world in all its many remarkable incarnations.

Ceacy, shown below, is an animal rehabilitator specializing in bats.

Visit this Baby Warm link to contribute funds needed for an incubator to help save orphaned bats.  Update!  The total monies needed to buy an incubator for Ceacy's orphaned bats were raised soon after publication of this blog post! A big thank you to her generous contributors!

Advances in combating White Nose Syndrome
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For the Love of It...

...the sage sees heaven reflected in Nature as in a mirror, and he pursues this Art, not for the sake of gold or silver, but for the love of the knowledge which it reveals.
Sendivogius (1750)

Your Uncapped Creativity...

Your Uncapped Creativity...
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action; and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. You must keep that channel open. It is not for you to determine how good it is, nor how valuable. Nor how it compares with other expressions. It is for you to keep it yours, clearly and directly." ----the great dancer, Martha Graham