THE WILD SIDE
By Maria de Bruyn
2023 was a year of repeated weather extremes for North Carolina, including our own local area. The fourth quarter was marked by drought followed by flooding. 2024 has begun with repeated deluges of rain, but we may see some dry periods soon. In any event, our changeable weather is poised to provide us with continued reasons for concern about climate change. Hopefully our response will be increased learning and reflection, followed by action to bring about needed changes to adjust and cope for both people and wildlife, at least locally.
One upside to the wet weather has been the chance for people to enjoy another type of reflection — mirror images of birds flying over, perched at and swimming in local lakes and ponds. At Blackwood Farm Park, a great blue heron was very intently searching for prey at a pond’s edges one day. The bird’s patience resulted in numerous snacks while observers were rewarded with beautiful reflections as the heron flew from spot to spot and waited for prey to appear.
To enjoy avian reflections, we need a sunny day that is as wind-free as possible. Even slight breezes tend to ripple the water and then we only get impressionistic representations of the bird floating or swimming.
For example, the horned grebe and mallard duck above scarcely had any reflections at all on windy days at the lake and pond where they were feeding. A trio of Canada geese at another pond had a bit more of a reflection below their perch, but their communal pose was even more entertaining with a perfectly formed shadow making them a quartet rather than a trio. On the other hand, a double-crested cormorant showed onlookers a true reflection while swimming around on a sunny day.
One of my favorite reflection sightings took place in December at Jordan Lake. There was scarcely any wind at all, giving the large lake a surface resembling a mirror. Ring-billed gulls were soaring to and fro, dipping down to the water frequently in search of fish. Their flight was quite rapid, so I felt lucky to have captured a few shots of momentary touchdowns.
The heavy rains over the past weeks have provided other types of photographic opportunities for birders as well. At Sandy Creek Park, cedar waxwings and American robins were busy getting drinks at pond edges. Other birds, however, were more focused on feasting on numerous grubs and caterpillars crawling out of the soaked earth created by pond flooding.
A couple friends who saw the photo of the red-winged blackbird above at first thought that the bird was preparing to eat a lost Cheeto snack. It was an unfortunate grub, however, similar to those snapped up by European starlings nearby. The ground had to have been quite inundated, causing numerous larvae to emerge from their overwintering sites and the birds were feasting for quite a long time.
I don’t know if the frequent wet weather has made other birds a bit grouchy. Both on walks and at my bird feeders, I’ve seen quite a few disputes among birds of the same species such as the downy woodpeckers pictured above.
In contrast to the American robins, Eastern bluebirds, Northern flickers and cedar waxwings, who all fed companionably together in my red cedar trees until they had cleaned out this fall’s bumper crop of juniper berries, the yellow-rumped warblers, blue jays, Northern cardinals and sparrows have been chasing one another away from feeders.
The rate at which they have been emptying the provided supplies indicates that their supply of winter insects has likely been diminished by the rains. If you can supply our avian friends with some seed from time to time, they would be very grateful, I’m sure. And if you have a shallow dish in which you can provide them with unfrozen water, they’ll benefit as well since our cold mornings have been freezing their usual drinking and bathing sources.
Maria de Bruyn participates in nature-oriented citizen science projects, volunteers for the Orange County Senior Center and for projects removing invasive vegetation and planting native plants. Her photos are posted on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/bruynmariade/) and in blogs at https://mybeautifulworldblog.com.