Monthly Archives: July 2015

Birds, dragonflies have more than wings in common


The plastic yellow guards are meant to exclude bees and other insects from your sugar water feeders for hummingbirds.

I’ve had some Facebook queries recently from fellow hummingbird enthusiasts hoping I can offer a solution to the problem of bees overwhelming their feeders.

Bees, as well as other insects, are attracted to sugar water. To complicate the problem, bees far outnumber hummingbirds and can quickly make themselves a nuisance. Although hummingbirds are brave enough to challenge one or two bees to a duel, these tiny birds usually shy away from feeders that have attracted swarms of these stinging insects.


Honeybees can cause problems at feeders; however, methods for dealing with these important pollinators should always be non-lethal.

The most effective solution is to buy a feeder with bee guards, which are simply little plastic shields that allow access for hummingbird bills and tongues but ban bees from squeezing their bodies into a position to reach the nectar solution. Most hummingbird feeders are red, which is supposed to capitalize on the hummingbird attraction to that color, and the bee guards are usually fashioned from yellow plastic. Some of the guards are fashioned to look like tiny yellow flowers to make them more aesthetically pleasing.

Online research also offered a solution that could make everyone (people, hummers and bees) happy. Provide a bowl of sugar water for the bees. They will find it quickly. Gradually move the bowl away from your hummingbird feeders. If this works, both bees and birds can co-exist.

Remember that honeybees are an extremely valuable insect, so any solution to bees invading your hummingbird feeders should definitely be non-lethal.



A couple of different dragonflies share a perch at water’s edge.

Since I am already discussing insects, I am taking a hiatus from the birds for one week to introduce readers to some “other things with wings.”

Specifically, I would discuss dragonflies and damselflies, otherwise known as “odes,” or members of the insect order of Odonata. Surprisingly, other than their wings, the odes and birds have a lot in common.

When birds are scarce during the heat of the day, I find that other winged creatures get active and can provide some fun observations. In late summer I spend a great deal of time focused on the dragonflies and damselflies that live along the creek and at the fish pond at my home. The “odonates” are insects with long brightly colored bodies, two pairs of membranous wings and large compound eyes.


Blue Dasher chooses a prominent perch at a fish pond.

Some of the more prevalent dragonflies in the region include widow skimmer, common whitetail, Eastern pondhawk, Eastern amberwing and slaty skimmer. I also often find the ebony jewelwing, a species of damselfly, fluttering along the creek. These delicate-looking insects like to find a sunny perch near flowing water. I’ve noticed the ebony jewelwings for many years because they are particularly difficult to miss. They have dark wings and a tapering body that glistens with a metallic blue-green sheen.

Damselflies, which are closely related to dragonflies, are usually smaller and less swift. A dragonfly at rest keeps its wings extended horizontally like an airplane’s wings, but damselflies fold their wings over their backs.

All odes are predators, feeding on other insects, but they are harmless to humans. Despite an enduring myth, they cannot sting. They are capable of biting, but will not do so unless they are handled in a careless manner.

If you observe dragonflies long enough, you will start to notice they share one trait with hummingbirds: they are intolerant of any intrusion into their personal space. In the same manner that hummers constantly chase rivals away from a favorite perch or feeder, dragonflies along the edge of a pond are unceasing in chasing and harassing rivals.


Blue Dasher striking a pose. Despite superstitions about them, dragonflies are harmless. They can’t sting and don’t bite unless provoked.

Some cultures consider a dragonfly landing on a person a sign of good fortune. My sister-in-law would disagree. She has an intense, if irrational, fear of dragonflies. Perhaps she learned too much of the misinformation handed down in various human cultures about dragonflies.

Europeans have long linked dragonflies with sinister forces. Some common names for dragonflies, such as darners, come down from older names such as “devil’s darning needle.” Swedes call dragonflies “troll spindles” and Norwegians refer to them as “eye pokers.” Some cultures in South America call dragonflies “horse killers” and others refer to them as caballito del diablo, or the “devil’s little horse.” Some residents of the Southern United States refer to dragonflies as “snake doctors,” believing these insects can stitch and repair any injuries that a serpent suffers. It’s no wonder some people fear a harmless and rather beneficial insect.


The Carolina Saddlebags, pictured, is one of the species of dragonflies known to migrate.

Native Americans as well as some Asian cultures have a more positive outlook on dragonflies. In Japan, dragonflies represent such concepts as strength, courage and joy. Dragonflies are often depicted in Zuni pottery, and the Navajo use the dragonfly as a symbol to represent “pure water,” which was an important resource for people living in very arid conditions. For both birds and dragonflies, water is also a crucial resource if they are to thrive.

The Hopi and Pueblo tribes also incorporate dragonflies into their art. Many Native Americans consider dragonflies a symbol of renewal. Many others see them as a symbol representing illusion and seeing through deception. I wonder if the use of the dragonfly as a renewal symbol evolved because of the life cycle of dragonflies.

Odes spend the first stage of life as aquatic larvae living below the surface of the water. Later, they emerge as adult dragonflies. During their time spent as larvae, or nymphs, they are voracious predators, tackling other aquatic organisms, including small fish. At the same time, these nymphs are important food sources for some larger fish. Nymphs may spend as long as three years living beneath the water, but adult dragonflies usually live only a few weeks or months.


Blue Dasher surveys its territory at a fish pond.

Adult dragonflies continue to consume prey, which is mostly other insects. Among the odes, there are no vegetarians. “Mosquito hawk” is another common name for them because they catch and eat mosquitoes. They also consume gnats, flies and other insects. So, along with birds such as swallows and nighthawks, the dragonflies help keep in check the numbers of many nuisance insects.

Some of the larger dragonflies are also reputed to attack and eat hummingbirds. I tried to find conclusive evidence, but the jury’s still out in my opinion. However, some of the larger species of praying mantis have been documented capturing and consuming hummingbirds, so it is not too far-fetched to believe some dragonflies might be capable of preying on hummers.

Like many birds, some dragonflies migrate. Species such as Carolina saddlebags, green darners and wandering gliders are known to migrate hundreds of miles.


Painted Skimmer clasps a cattail.

In recent years, dragonfly-watching has emerged as a nature pastime to rival the watching of birds and butterflies. Why watch dragonflies? Well, in many ways, they are just as fascinating as birds and other wildlife.
Here’s some fun trivia about dragonflies:

• Odes have excellent eyesight. Their compound eyes have up to 30,000 facets, each of which is a separate light-sensing organ arranged to give nearly a 360 degree field of vision. Their vision also makes it difficult to sneak up on a dragonfly. I have learned this during my attempts to photograph them.

• Dragonflies are built for speed. Many experts credit dragonflies with the ability to fly at speeds between 19 to 38 miles per hour. They have also been documented traveling as much as 85 miles in a single day.

• Dragonflies can hover and fly backwards, a feat achieved by only hummingbirds among our winged friends with feathers.

• Dragonflies are ancient. They appeared 100 million years before dinosaurs and 150 million years before birds.


Eastern Pondhawk perches on an impatiens bloom.

• The largest dragonfly to ever live was Meganeura monyi, which lived during the Carboniferous period about 300 million years ago. It resembled and was related to present-day dragonflies. With a wingspan of almost 26 inches, it is one of the largest known flying insect species.

• Worldwide, there are about 5,000 species of dragonflies, but only about 400 are found in North America.

Mid-summer brings more experiences with the natural world

As July advances, there’s plenty to experience with our friends with wings. It’s also good to remember not all those wings have feathers. Summer is a great time to observe a variety of interesting winged insects, including moths, butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies.


Photos by Bryan Stevens                A pair of Mallard drakes strike a pose along the walking trail through a wetlands in Erwin, TN. Mallard males lose their shiny green heads during the summer months, making them look quite different from the ducks we are used to seeing during the winter and spring.


A Carolina Saddlebags perches at a fish pond in Hampton, TN. This dragonfly, like many species of birds, is known to migrate.



A Mourning Dove stretches it wing while perched at a feeder.


The Eastern Amberwing, one of our smaller dragonflies, begins to emerge in July. Don’t let this photo fool you. While it may look interested in munching on this plant, all dragonflies are predators, capturing and devouring other insects. They’re harmless to humans, however.


An Ebony Jewelwing perches on a branch above the water’s surface. Beneath the surface, a dace swims past the damselfly’s shadow.


Many summer flowers are in bloom. This gladiola attracts a Silver-spotted Skimmer.


Some of the larger moths, such as this Polyphemus Moth, fly during the height of the summer season.


A Gray Catbird perches on a water bottle atop a garden post.


A male Northern Cardinal visits a feeder for some sunflower seeds during a break from feeding young.


A Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits a feeder for a sip of sugar water. Summer also brings an abundance of natural nectar from various flowers.

Summer is a great time to get outside, enjoy the sunshine and let nature entertain and enlighten you. Enjoy!






Mythical status of snipe is greatly exaggerated


U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                                  A Wilson’s snipe sits on its nest.

Have you ever gone on a wild goose chase? Do you have memories of being taken on a snipe hunt? If so, I don’t need to tell you that our feathered friends have inspired a lot of unusual sayings and activities. The snipe hunt is widely regarded as a rite of passage. I’m not sure if these “hunts” are still organized on moonless nights to pull a playful prank on unsuspecting or naive adolescents. The gist of this practical joke is that these would-be snipe hunters are given a bag or sack to use in capturing the supposedly elusive, perhaps mythical snipe.
The “snipe hunt” has also come to symbolize a lesson in futility since the target of the hunt is never found despite some diligent efforts. It’s all harmless fun, but what bothers me is that the tradition of the snipe hunt reinforces the mistaken idea that this evasive creature is a make-believe bird.

That’s not the case, and I’ve seen plenty of snipes over the years to prove my point. There are some things about this unusual bird that makes it understandable how this creature became the focus of the long-running tradition of the snipe hunt.

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Photo by Bryan Stevens                                            A Wilson’s snipe hides in the grass of a flood field.

The Wilson’s snipe is one of North America’s more elusive birds. It’s an aberrant shorebird that doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the birds any coastal visitor has probably seen running along the surf’s edge on a beach. It’s an odd, gangly bird with long legs and an even more absurdly long bill. It’s also remarkably well camouflaged to blend with its preferred surroundings in flooded fields and wetland marshes. It is one of those shorebirds that usually makes its home far from beaches and the crash of the ocean’s surf.

So, as I have indicated, there really is such a bird as a snipe. In fact, there are several species of snipes, although only one — Wilson’s snipe — can be found in Western North Carolina and Northeast Tennessee. Some of the world’s other 25 species of snipe include jack snipe, wood snipe, pintail snipe, noble snipe and imperial snipe.

Any wet field or pasture may conceal hidden Wilson’s snipes during the spring. A few of these hardy shorebirds sometimes spend the winter in the region. Flushing a snipe from a tangle of grass right at your feet as you walk through a wet field always works to get the heart pumping faster. While Wilson’s snipe is elusive and able to easily conceal itself, other shorebirds definitely stand out in a crowd.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                            The Wilson’s snipe is usually found far from the seashore. Wet fields, ditches and marshy areas are favored habitats.


The members of the shorebird family vary greatly in size. The smallest member, appropriately enough, is the least sandpiper. This tiny shorebird is less than six inches in length and usually weighs barely an ounce. The largest shorebird — depending on how “largest” is defined — is either the Far Eastern curlew ( Numenius madagascariensis) or the beach thick-knee ( Esacus giganteus). The Far Eastern curlew is a large shorebird most similar in appearance to North America’s long-billed curlew, but it is slightly larger. This bird definitely has the longest bill of any shorebird and is probably the world’s largest sandpiper. The Far Eastern curlew is 25 inches in body length. If the criteria for biggest comes down to weight, the heaviest shorebird is the beach thick-knee, a bird native to Australia and the islands of Southeast Asia and India. This unusual shorebird can weigh as much as 2.2 pounds, but is only 22 inches long. The Far Eastern curlew, in comparison, weighs about 27 ounces.

The medium-sized Wilson’s snipe has a close relative known as the American woodcock. This feathered oddity also has some other colorful names, including “bog-sucker” and “timberdoodle.” In late winter and early spring, this true oddball among the shorebirds begins courting.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                The Wilson’s snipe blends easily with its surroundings.

Having abandoned the beach for damp woodlands, this strange shorebird is famous for its mating displays, which usually begin nightly right at dusk. The display combines aerial acrobatics with an assortment of unusual acoustical flourishes. Any wet field adjacent to a wooded area may provide a stage for these evening displays, but unless you know where to look and make an effort to do so, the American woodcock might as well remain a phantom of the night. These mating rituals are almost the only time that this bird makes itself visible to us. It’s only during this brief window that opens into their lives that we can be assured a glimpse. The rest of the year, almost nothing but blind, sheer luck allows a birder to stumble across an American woodcock. It’s almost as if they disappear after these spring flights of fancy.


Alexander Wilson

The Wilson’s snipe uses its long bill to probe in the mud for prey, which can include earthworms, insects and other invertebrates. Formerly known as the common snipe, the Wilson’s snipe nests in wetland habitats across Canada and the northern United States. The bird’s common name pays homage to Alexander Wilson, an early American ornithologist. In addition to his expertise on birds, Wilson was also a poet and an illustrator. He was born in Scotland in 1766, but he died at age 47 in 1813 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

During a spring trip to coastal South Carolina, I enjoyed a fascinating, close-range observation of a Wilson’s snipe while visiting Huntington Beach State Park. My visits to the park also yielded observations of other shorebirds, including willet, greater yellowlegs, black-bellied plover, short-billed dowitcher and Wilson’s plover, yet another shorebird named in honor of Wilson.


U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service                                                                                The Wilson’s snipe may be a little-known bird, but it is quite real.

Those shorebirds that migrated as far as the Arctic tundra this spring will soon be making their return migration as they return to their wintering grounds in South and Central America. Many of these shorebirds will make migratory stops along the shores of lakes and rivers or by the edges of farm ponds. Look for Wilson’s snipes around puddles in flooded fields or even along the banks of small streams. The family of shorebirds is dazzling in its diversity, and they’re definitely worth seeking out.

Birds adopt many strategies for care of their young

One question that tends to pop up every June in my email or on Facebook concerns the presence of hummingbirds.  The status of hummingbirds at my own home since their arrival back in April has been somewhat sporadic. I think this has been noticed by some other people, too.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                  A female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visits a feeders. Female hummingbirds in our yards in June and July are probably nesting residents.

The hummingbirds were scarce in April and May. When June arrived, their numbers began to increase.

However, this pattern that I saw this year is usually just the opposite. The hummingbirds are usually abundant in early spring, taper off in June and July, and then increase again in August and September. Basically, I think their numbers just naturally fluctuate. Some years we have more of them than other years.

There are other possibilities to explain the absence of hummingbirds. It’s always possible that hummingbirds, adhering to the philosophy that “the grass is always greener” elsewhere have taken to exploring a neighbor’s yard and gardens.

Hummingbirds, like many of the songbirds that spend the summer season with us, keep busy this time of year with the task of raising offspring. That alone could explain a temporary lull in their numbers in our yards and gardens.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                A young Eastern Towhee, not long out of the nest, looks for sunflower seeds in the grass beneath a feeder.

Many species of birds attempt to nest two or even three times during the summer nesting season. So far this year, I’ve observed nesting activity by a wide variety of birds, including Northern cardinals, brown thrashers, Eastern towhees, Eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, song sparrows, white-breasted nuthatches, Carolina wrens and downy woodpeckers.

All birds, from tiny hummingbirds that are mere inches long to an ostrich that can stand more than nine feet tall, start out as eggs. Birds have developed a range of ways to protect and incubate eggs to ensure the continuance of the species.

For many birds, the strategy is to produce as many young as possible in a limited amount of time. The hooded warbler, which spends the winter months in Central America, will usually make multiple nesting attempts in a season. The female constructs a cup-shaped nest, which is a design common to many of our songbirds. She will lay three to five eggs in the nest. Incubation of the eggs is a duty usually performed solely by the female, but her mate helps by guarding the nest and surrounding territory. Both parents feed the young once they have hatched after about two weeks.

Not all birds share in the task of caring for helpless young. For instance, the male ruby-throated hummingbird shows not the slightest inclination to assist the female with the duties of rearing young. All ruby-throated hummingbirds are raised by single mothers. Male hummingbirds spend the summer sipping nectar, dueling with other male hummers and courting multiple females.

Hooded warbler pairs, as is the case with many songbirds, share the work of feeding and tending young. Many of these young birds spend very little time in the nest after hatching. Hooded warblers have typically left the nest within nine days of hatching, although parents continue to feed the young as they learn to fly and care for themselves.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                    An Eastern phoebe fledgling perches on a tree branch.

Some birds, such as Northern Cardinals, often delegate the duty to the male for caring for young that have fledged from the nest. As the male trains and continues to feed the maturing young, the female cardinal often begins the work of building a second nest, laying another clutch of eggs and incubating them. Time is scarce. By getting a jump-start on a second nest, the female cardinal, if successful, may produce eight to ten new cardinals in a single nesting season.


A painting of Brown-headed Cowbirds by John James Audubon.

Some birds, however, have bypassed the necessity of nesting altogether. If all hummingbirds are reared by females, then all young cowbirds are from foster homes, or nests. Female cowbirds slip their eggs into the nest of other unsuspecting songbirds. The hooded warbler is often a victim of this practice, which is known as “nest parasitism.” Some experts have conducted studies that indicate as many as 75 percent of hooded warblers in some areas are parents to cowbirds foisted on them.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                Young barn swallows in their nest await a delivery of food by their parents.

It’s not wise to condemn cowbirds for a behavior that would strike us as immoral. The peculiar reproduction strategy for the cowbird came about as a natural necessity. Cowbirds once followed the massive herds of bison across the North American continent, feeding on the insects and seeds displaced by the hooves of these huge animals. Since the bison herds stayed on the move, the cowbirds didn’t have the luxury of staying put for a couple of months to raise young.

The decimation of the bison herds could have proven a disaster for the cowbirds. That wasn’t the case, however, since these adaptable birds simply switched from following bison herd to doing the same with the enormous numbers of domestic cattle that inherited the range of the buffalo, or bison.

These are just a select few ways that birds succeed year after year in the never-ending effort to ensure the survival of the species for another generation. Many obstacles stand in their way. Any time you see birds bringing their babies to a feeder in your yard or a shrub in your garden, recognize this moment as a singular triumph for the labor and dedication our fine feathered friends have invested in this outcome.


Photo Courtesy of Jean Potter                                                                                                                A young Red-eyed Vireo calls for food while concealed on the ground after leaving the nest. As is the case with most songbirds, parents continue to care for young even after they have left the nest.