Thursday, April 30, 2015

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus
The Red-bellied Woodpecker is a common woodpecker within the pine, mature hardwood, and mixed forests in the eastern half of the United States, as well as in backyards. Although pale with a red cap, they are not to be confused with the rarer Red-headed Woodpecker. A pair of red-bellied woodpeckers can carve a nest in a dead tree within 7 to 10 days, but they will occasionally use bird houses. They are omnivorous with a diet consisting of a wide variety of fruits, nuts, seeds, berries, sap, and invertebrates. Their long, spear-tipped tongue is used to excavate prey from cracks, and prey that is too large is trashed against a tree and pecked. In addition to a long tongue, one that is curled around the back of the head when in storage, woodpeckers have thickened skulls and powerful neck muscles to help deliver sharp blows with their chisel bills without damaging their organs.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Blotched Water Snake

Blotched Water Snake, Nerodia erythrogaster transversa
The non-venomous blotched water snake is the predominant water snake in Texas. A subspecies of plain-bellied water snake, it differs from the visually similar other subspecies, the yellow-bellied water snake, as the blotched water snake has marks along the back. As they age, they darken and can also often be confused with the similarly stout-bodied western cottonmouth. Unlike the western cottonmouth, both the yellow-bellied water snake and blotched water snake have yellow lips with dark labial sutures. Adult blotched water snakes may reach up to 1 m (3 ft) in length. The females may give birth to anywhere between 8 to 30 live young. While the young can be found in small, shallow streams and inlets of larger bodies of water, the adults are generally found in any watercourse or major riparian corridors. Blotched water snakes will often anchor themselves on a stick or rock and prey on various fish and frogs.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe, Sayornis phoebe
The first banded bird in North America, the Eastern Phoebe can be found along the eastern half of the continent. It is a small flycatcher with a short, thin bill used for catching insects. While there is a small population that does not migrate, most Eastern phoebes winter far south and breed far north. Not only are they further north than most other flycatchers, but they are also one of the earliest returning migrants. Their raspy "phoebe" call contributes to their common name.

Phoebes are known to have a call similar to their name.
While insect are the majority of their diet, Eastern phoebes will also consume berries and fruits in the cooler months. They often nest around buildings and bridges, creating them with mud and moss. Eastern phoebes are generally monogamous, but the mated pairs do not spend much time together, and during non-breeding seasons, contact with other phoebes is rare. Unlike most birds, Eastern phoebes often reuse their nests and may renovate old American Robin or Barn Swallow nests for themselves.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Rusty Blackbird

♀ Rusty Blackbird, Euphagus carolinus
A medium-sized blackbird, the Rusty Blackbird can be found in wooded swamps and boreal forests of North America. While breeding males are a dark glossy black, wintering males have rusty feather edges. Both males and females have buff eyebrows and pale yellow eyes. They gather in small flocks during winter in the southeast, sometimes with other species including Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, and European Starlings. During breeding season, the insectivorous Rusty Blackbirds can be found throughout the wet woods in boreal forsts of Canada and Alaska. Unfortunately, the Rusty Blackbird is one of North America's most rapidly declining species. They are declining at an alarming rate of ~5.1% a year with an estimated 85-99% population plunge over the past forty years making them vulnerable to extinction. While the specific cause of decline is currently unknown, it is believed hematozoa infections, global climate change, mercury contamination, predation, and habitat loss are all contributing factors. Further research into their behavioral ecology and social organization is needed to improve conservation efforts.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Prothonotary Warbler

♂ Prothonotary Warbler, Protonotaria citrea
Prothonotary Warblers are a bright yellow songbird found in southeastern wetland habitats during the summer months. Although both males and females are a golden brown, the males have blue-gray wings while the females are more dull. They winter in the northern portions of South America along the eastern coast into South Texas and breed from Central Texas up to the very southeastern portions of Canada. The common name is reference to the yellow hooded religious and legal clerks of the Roman Catholic church.

Prothonotary warblers prefer wetland habitats.
The main habitats of Prothonotary warblers include wooded swamps and bottomland forests, often with willows, elms, birch, and gum trees present. With exception to Lucy's warbler, the Prothonotary warbler is the only other warbler species that nests in cavities. Before attempting to attract a mate, males will line at least one cavity with moss. The female will build the rest of the nest cup with more moss, rootlets, bark, and grasses. Nesting cavities are often low, old woodpecker holes near or over standing water, but Prothonotary warblers will readily use bird boxes, gourds, and other man-made shelters.

While foraging for food, Prothonotary warblers may climb tree trunks.
When courting, males can be observed showing off possible nest cavities which the male will guard if the females chooses to mate. The male will also help bring food to the nestlings. Many Prothontary warblers will return to the same breeding ground the following year, but may change sites depending on previous flood events. The males are always first to arrive from migration where they can be heard establishing territory and finding cavities for a potential mate.

Leaves are used for nesting and to forage in.
During breeding season, the diet of the Prothonotary warbler is mainly insects including butterflies, moths, mayflies, spiders, and beetles, but they will occasionally feed on seeds and fruits during the non-breeding season. When they forage, Prothonotary warblers may be seen hopping in vegetation or else climbing on tree trunks. They have also been observed catching food in mid-air.

Prothonotary warblers are highly impacted by climate change.
The Prothonotary warbler is a vulnerable species due to its fragmented and specific habitats in both its breeding and wintering grounds. Many flood-control measures cause drying of seasonally flooded areas which reduce habitat availability. In addition, climate change is a big concern due to reduction of soil moisture and therefore reduced growing conditions for bottomland forests, prolong droughts, and because of an increased frequency of intense storm and flood events that may destroy low nests, an occurrence already recorded on the lower Wisconsin River. The Prothonotary warbler is considered endangered in Canada and is on the 2014 State of the Bird Watch List as one of the species most in danger of extinction without significant conservation action.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


I'll be taking a brief hiatus for at least this week, but I'm continuing with bird sonogram guessing (based on previous blog posts) over on Google+. If you are interested, check it out here! :)

Update: Regular posting will resume on Thursday, April 16th with one of my best photos yet!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Harris's Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow, Zonotrichia querula
The largest sparrow of North America, Harris’s sparrows can be found wintering in the central plains states from South Dakota to Texas. They are the only species that breeds exclusively in Canada, preferring the boreal forests and tundra in the far north. They have a characteristic black bib that also encompasses the forehead, crown, and nap. While they prefer shrubby vegetation for shelter during breeding season, in their wintering spots they can be found in fields, pastures, and hedgerows.

Populations are stable due to isolated breeding grounds and bird feeders in winter.
Harris's sparrows begin breeding in late May, and although they are a monogamous species, the length of pair bonds is currently unknown. With exception to flocking, they are mainly solitary. In winter their diet consists of seeds and fruits, but during breeding season they will also incorporate insects and conifer needles. Harris's sparrows can have a repertoire of up to three song types which are used as a tool of communication across territories. They can also be heard singing during winter.