Nesting Duck? Excavating Nuthatches, and Waxwings Aplenty

On Saturday, February 21, I noticed a duck (a Mutt Duck, Mallard x Domestic Duck that’s often seen in the Wetlands) sitting hunched down on the small island out in front of the Wetlands Overlook. There are two of these Mutt Ducks in the Wetlands. They’re very similar in appearance with dark brown bodies and white chests. The male has a green head, the female’s head is brown. I was looking at the female.

The duck was nestled down in a shallow cup of dried grass. It sat motionless as if attempting to convince some nearby predator that it was part of the landscape and not something to eat. Although a bit early in the season, it appeared as though the duck was sitting on eggs, the “freezing” behavior typical of brooding ducks. I presume it was me from which the bird was trying to conceal itself.

A later check of the site, after the duck had departed and was seen swimming and preening with its look-a-like partner, revealed no eggs in the cup of grass. It was odd that, earlier, the duck had attempted to hide given the fact that there were no eggs in the “nest,” nothing in the grass to hide or conceal. I often see these two ducks swimming and feeding within yards of Museum guests as they (guests) stroll by, the ducks showing little or no concern for their safety. But, if I remember correctly, it was this same duck that, last spring, was seen swimming in the U-shaped pond at the Flap the Wings Exhibit and that had laid an egg on top of the bare concrete wall of the Sailboat Pond in Catch the Wind. So, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise to see this duck act the way it did on the island in front of the Wetlands Overlook.

Red-tailed Hawks have been a daily sight. Their aerial acrobatics over the Explore the Wild/Catch the Wind Loop have become the main raptorial attraction during the past few weeks, often with three birds overhead at once. They’ve replaced the Red-shouldered Hawks as the most commonly seen raptor.

At this time, Red-shouldered Hawks in our general area are occupied with nest building. This preoccupation with nesting is perhaps why the swamp across from the Wetlands Overlook has not hosted our local Red-shouldered Hawk in recent weeks. I haven’t seen one in the swamp since January. I’m not certain that our resident red-shouldereds have begun a nest somewhere nearby, but it seems likely.

I heard, then saw, the first Fish Crows of the season on February 23rd when two flew over the Explore the Wild/Catch the Wind Loop.

gd_2_16_09bhnu1Alerted by their incessant, toy-horn call notes, I noticed several Brown-headed Nuthatches busily pecking away at the underside of a branch of a Loblolly Pine. The pine is located within twenty feet or so of the path between the entrances to Catch the Wind and Explore the Wild on the back side of the loop. In reality, there were only two birds that were pecking at the tree, the other was running back and forth on top of the limb calling loudly as it went along. They all seemed very excited.

gd_2_16_09bhnu2On Friday, February 20, the first day that I noticed the nuthatches, the two “workers” had only small, shallow holes started on the 4-inch-diameter limb. The holes are approximately 8-10 inches apart and are on the underside of a near-horizontal branch. By Monday (2/23) both birds were digging deep inside the branch, the excavations having progressed considerably. They’re still working on the holes.

The holes are no doubt intended to be used as nests. Supposedly, it’s the male who chooses the nest site. Perhaps these are two males competing for the same female and who have essentially chosen the same site. One more thing to consider. According to research done on Brown-headed Nuthatches, nests are occasionally attended by three birds with an unmated male as helper. So why excavate two separate holes? Who’s the helper and who’s the mate? There doesn’t appear to be any outward competition between the two nuthatches, there’s no bickering between the two. They each seem content to happily peck away while in the company of the other. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the next few weeks. Although it will be difficult to tell who’s who in this trio (the males and females look alike).

This is a good photo opportunity for anyone interested. The nuthatches are fairly close to the path and don’t seem overly concerned about being watched as they dig. (You can see a piece of wood taken from the interior of the hole in the bird’s bills in the images at left). If you can’t locate the birds on your stroll through this section of the Explore the Wild/Catch the Wind Loop, stop and listen – you may hear the birds calling as they dig. If you don’t see or hear them right away, wait a few minutes; they’re probably taking a break from their toil and will be back to work soon.

Hermit Thrushes continue to be seen both under the bird feeders in Catch the Wind and at the northwest corner of the Wetlands (most consistent location to see Hermit Thrush at this time). There were two Golden-crowned Kinglets seen on 22 February.

Not exactly on the Explore the Wild/Catch the Wind Loop but worthy of mention were the 400+ Cedar Waxwings that were observed in the main parking lot of the Museum on the morning of 23 February. As I pulled into the lot that morning I noticed a group of some fifty waxwings fly over my vehicle. They were heading towards the back side of the lot. Another group sailed over going in the same direction. Then another, and another much larger group of birds flew over, all descending on several small holly trees near the northwest corner of the lot. The birds perched on and milled about the hollies and other small trees near the hollies while they, in turn, lay waste to the holly berries, a flutter of activity. Then, as if on cue, they all lifted off the trees at once and were gone.

The first-of-the-season Common Grackle was seen on 21 February.

Several weeks ago I began seeing reports on a local listserv (carolinabirds) of dead or ill birds at area bird feeders. The birds mentioned in the reports were Pine Siskins and the suspected culprit was Salmonella. Here is one of the postings from that listserv with links to other postings on the same subject.

There have been no reported mass die-off of birds. The illnesses seem limited to a few birds at various backyard feeders. I’ve not noticed any ill birds at the Bird Feeder Exhibit at the Museum. Of course, birds don’t always die at backyard feeders (or exhibits) where they can be seen and documented and many birds may have gone unnoticed. To prevent any further spread or infection, it’s recommended that home bird feeders be emptied and cleaned out with bleach. It’s also a good idea to rake up all the seeds and shells that have collected below the feeders.

Interestingly, with all the reports in the news lately about peanut-butter-related Salmonella outbreaks among humans, there has been a recall of certain products made for birds which contain peanut butter.

You can subscribe to the carolinabirds listserv if you’re interested. The listserv covers both North and South Carolina. You can keep track of local bird sightings, area bird club meetings and field trips are often posted, and there are discussions (sometimes heated) about bird identification. Of course, if you have any bird questions and feel intimidated by asking them on a listserv where there may be hundreds, if not thousands, of subscribers, you can always direct your questions to me.

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