Avian anecdotes

eastern bluebird Sialia sialis on pine stub
The temperature is beginning to resemble spring, even if only a few things are budding out right now, and the Immutable Al Bugg and I did an outing to see what was in the area. I was suspicious that the osprey and such had not yet migrated back into the region, but there were a handful of birds to be seen, including some surprises. The pic above is not one of those surprises; eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) appear early and are visibly active in search of nest sites right now, so we managed to snap a few poses as this male observed us to see if we would move on soon.

The morning remained resolutely overcast for several hours, far from ideal conditions, and this meant that many of the birds we spotted would be mere silhouettes against the sky without exposure compensation, and sometimes even then. The capture below was initially too dark, even with 2/3 stop overexposure, but then again, I suspect this camera body runs about 1/3 too dark at ‘normal’ exposure, so call it only +1/3 compensation which wasn’t enough. Thus it’s been lightened a bit in post.

likely second year juvenile bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus in flight
This is what a juvenile bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) looks like, seems to be 2nd year to me – they don’t get the coloration we’re all familiar with until their fourth year or so. It was a quick pass, but reasonably close, so I’m good with it. And a hint of things to come.

The initial spot that we checked out on Jordan Lake was slow, but this was not a surprise due to the overcast and chilly conditions, so we moved further south to examine another spot. And we’ll stick to bird photos for this post; there will be another with various other pics following shortly.

As we headed out along the lake edge, I could see a perched bird in the distance that I took to be an osprey, even though it seemed slightly odd, but it wasn’t until I got back and examined the photos in detail that this vague suspicion turned out to be confirmed.

juvenile bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus likely third year perched on sweetgum tree Liquidambar styraciflua
This is another juvenile bald eagle, probably 3rd year, seen from the back; the dark stripe along the eye is now becoming visible. They really do change a lot until full adulthood. This was shot, by the way, hundreds of meters distant at 600mm and cropped further, and soon after this frame, the eagle flew off behind some trees and wasn’t seen again. By us at least.

broken trunk with old woodpecker nestsThere were a handful of ospreys to be found, but only flying level at a moderate distance at best, against overcast skies, and no hunting behavior to be seen, so I’m not posting any of those shots since there’s much better to be found here. We hiked out to a nest location from two years ago, hoping to perhaps see some nest-building or courtship behavior (since raptor nest sites are often reused), but the nest itself was gone entirely; my suspicion is that woodpeckers had also nested in the same dead tree, and their hollowing activity had weakened the trunk to the point that the top broke free in some storm since then. There was at least one trunk that matched such conditions, shown here later in the day after the sky had cleared because we needed more color in this post; I just can’t be sure that it was the same one that we’d seen the osprey nest within two years ago.

However, while skirting the lake we heard some telltale faint drumming sounds. The previous day I’d been photographing a brown-headed nuthatch excavating a nest hollow, much as a woodpecker does, and the faintness of the sound and the apparent proximity were pretty strong indicators of this. It took only a moment to find the culprit, who wasn’t too concerned about our presence. I’d turned away after a few frames, so it was Mr Bugg that spotted the female coming over to make the family portrait, and these are faintly out of order because I know how to write posts.

pair of brown-headed nuthatches Sitta pusilla at nest site
Brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) really have no discernible differences between male and female (on sight anyway,) but I’m going to assume the male is the nest builder since that’s typically the way among birds, one of the ways they convince the females that they’re good dad material. Curiously though, the female seemed to be already committed, long before the nest was complete, because she was nearby and giving alarm calls if we moved incautiously, but it only took a step or so back and about 20 seconds of motionlessness to convince them we were harmless. Again, longer focal lengths here and tighter crops for detail, but really, we’re talking only a handful of meters distant. Close enough to get some real detail.

brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla posing proudly along nest hollow
This is the full frame at 600mm, but I said some real detail.

brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla removing excavated material from nest hollow
Same image, tighter inset. No, he’s not feeding young, but removing wood pulp from the hollow. Check out that feather detail. Ya gotta love the cooperative subjects.

By the way, if you spotted the weird ripply effects above and to the left of the bird, those aren’t editing artifacts (I’m better than that,) but a twig or vine much closer to the lens than the nuthatch is; this is the way they get rendered by aspherical lenses. We were shooting through small gaps in all the surrounding branches.

A little later on we heard faint drumming again, and paused to try and locate it – we’d spotted several woodpeckers in the area on previous trips. It sounded very low to me, and I crept forward to see if a suspicion was correct – at times like this we use hand-motions to avoid speaking, both to prevent alerting other species to our presence and to help us hear their own sounds. After a minute, I determined that the sound was coming from the short remains of a dead stump right smack in front of us, like less than four meters away. I cautiously circled it until I found three little excavated holes lined up vertically, with the sounds definitely coming from one of them, and we stood and waited. This kind of thing tests your muscles, because long lenses are heavy things and you want them raised to shooting position, both to snap off a shot quickly and to not have to move them around obtrusively when something does show. Meanwhile, the sadistic snot within was staying busy, digging away, without showing his little beak.

Eventually, he burst from the hollow and had a quick conversation with the female in the branches overhead, and we backed off slightly and held still. Outside of their crucial danger line now, the male quickly returned to work while the female watched without apparent concern. The male did, however, check outside the hollow a lot more often; even though we were silent, the shutters were still making noise very frequently.

brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla looking suspicious
I posted this one for the expression, since he looks so suspicious, but since he immediately dove back into the nest hollow it isn’t an accurate impression.

brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla in nest mouth
How about this one? Nice detail shot? Or maybe one framed in their doorway?

brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla head in nest opening
Just so you know, each image on the blog gets a description in the meta info, which helps search engines find them, and I include the scientific name as well, but I’m getting damn tired of typing “brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla.” However, once more, as we back off to full frame of this same image just to show you something.

brown-headed nuthatch Sitta pusilla head in nest opening full frame
It isn’t perhaps as distinctive here as it is in thumbnails as I’m sorting, but the shadows of the background trees and the overall color makes it seem as if the trunk was standing very close to a beige wall instead of, you know, a fully wild shot in a stand of trees just in from the lake’s edge. I can take you to the exact location if you don’t believe me.

Eventually, our time ran out even as the sky cleared, with too few species making an appearance and nothing very scenic out there yet – the new growth is coming soon. We were driving back, along another spur of the lake, and I spotted two big birds wheeling around directly over the road in front of us. Often this spells vultures, which we see plenty of, but as I caught patches of white on them I started to think ‘osprey.’ A moment or so later, as the white areas became more evident, I realized we were seeing a pair of bald eagles playing tag, and we passed almost directly under them. We were on a bridge, with no good shoulders on the road afterward (welcome to North Carolina,) so I quickly turned into a fishing access lot which doubled back almost to the point where the eagles had been seen. In the time this took (adding in the time to get the equipment out,) they were no longer in evidence, but soon made a brief appearance as they ceased their circling and flew off further down the lake, allowing just a couple of frames at distance as they departed.

pair of adult bald eagles Haliaeetus leucocephalus departing in distance
Considering how rarely I’ve seen eagles around the lake, despite knowing they’re around and being told the “good areas” (heh!) to spot them, finding four in one day (granted, in three separate regions) is an auspicious start to the spring, at least. Now we’ll just have to see if that’s misleading or not.

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