Ask SIB: Why is Pileated Woodpecker making a hole in the fall?

Pileated Woodpecker – Palmetto Lake – Nancy Brown

Question: Yesterday a male pileated woodpecker started working on the opening to one of our owl boxes. We assumed he wanted the opening larger to get in for some bugs. He worked on it for a few hours (till dusk) and then is back this morning and has made the opening larger. He now goes in and out, pecks a little in the box, but is back making the opening larger from the outside. I know this is not their normal nesting season, so wonder what he is doing! Thanks for any input. – Paula Adamson

Answer: I had a similar question a couple years ago when a Pileated Woodpecker was excavating a hole in a dead tree in the conservancy lot across the street in the fall.  I therefore knew the answer but had to find the source of my knowledge.  I’m not sure if it’s the same source, but the answer is the same.  In National Audubon’s BirdNote, the podcast Listen for Woodpeckers Making Their Winter Homes This Fall says

It turns out that some woodpecker species stay year round in the region where they nest, while others migrate south in winter. Those that remain through the colder months – well, it’s safe to say they’re not nesting now. No, these fall excavators are chiseling out roosting cavities, snug hollows where they’ll shelter during the cold nights of fall and winter.  

Many woodpeckers roost in such cavities, usually by themselves. Even the young, once they’re fledged, have to find their own winter quarters.

With woodpeckers, once the nights turn cold, it’s every bird for itself.

I found another article Animals in Fall: The Pileated Woodpecker published by Shadow Lake Nature Preserve in the state of Washington.  It states:

Have you ever seen small mounds of wood chips at the base of trees? If you live in the Pacific Northwest, during the fall season that tree is probably the new home of a Pileated Woodpecker! This species of woodpecker is non-migratory, meaning that it does not fly south for the winter. They excavate holes in several different trees that they will nest in throughout the cold winter.

I think it’s safe to say, your Pileated Woodpecker thinks your owl box would make a nice winter home.

– Judy Morr

Ask SIB: Why are owls calling?

Question: Tonight on Jenkins Point we can hear four owls stretched in a line from Seabrook Island Road-or thereabouts-to our oak and then on out Jenkins Point with the fourth owl at the very end-I think. All were calling, sometimes solo but sometimes overlapping each other. I assume from their calls they are Great Horned Owls. We hear owls frequently in Spring and Fall, even occasionally in Winter. But never in the summer. Do they migrate or just go inland to deeper woods?
With all the calling back and forth are they looking for mates this time of year or are they just telling each other they are here?
Thanks for enlightening me. – Andy Allen

Answer: What an exciting experience having four owls serenading you. While it is impossible to know exactly what is happening, one can make an educated guess. Owls generally mate for life and a mated pair stays on territory year round. Starting in September, the male owl starts calling as part of his courtship ritual. Owl nest early in January and February to time the heavy growth period for their young to coincide with the fresh production of prey species, i.e. the young and naive. The young hang around through the summer, but come September, just like any good parent, the young get kicked out of the area and need to disburse. This happens most heavily in September. Understanding this, I suspect you encountered a situation where the local owls called to inform the intruders that the territory is full. The intruders called to test the strength and fidelity of the local pair. As you listen, the male sings with a deeper voice than the female. When you hear two mated birds performing a duet, the male and female alternate singing. In a territory dispute, that rigid pattern of male/female may not hold true.

– Bob Mercer, SIB’s “Resident Naturalist”

Ask SIB: What can we do about gulls?

Source: KARYNA D / GETTY IMAGES

Question: The gulls seem especially aggressive this year at Pelican’s Nest. Does SIB have any suggestions what Seabrook Island Club can do to ease the situation? – Mitchell Laskowitz, Seabrook Island Club Manager

Earlier this summer, Mitchell Laskowitz reached out to Seabrook Island Birders asking for any humane ideas we had to help with the gulls at Pelican’s Nest. He had already done an internet search and talked to other restaurant managers about possible solutions so he already had an initial action plan defined.

As a Seabrook Island Club member, I had seen the Laughing Gulls swarm over the rocks outside the nest, waiting for a chance for an evening snack. As soon as a patron turned away, the gulls would attack sandwiches, fries or anything else that tempted them.

SIB was unable to provide any new suggestions to Mitchell other than suggest people with food near the pool would need to take steps as well as the ones he proposed for Pelican’s Nest. Obviously, people should also be discouraged from actively feeding the gulls. The steps taken at the Pelican’s Nest include:

  • Installed additional wires to deter gulls from entering dining area
  • Netting was placed between the Sunrails
  • Metal Prongs (similar to icicles on a Christmas tree) were hung below wires
  • High Frequency Noise Transmitters that can be heard by gulls but not humans were acquired
  • Added fake owls to roof of Pelican’s Nest
  • Added signs on each table to educate patrons regarding what they can do to help:
    • Cover your plate with a napkin when finished eating
    • Dispose of garbage properly in lidded bins
    • Do not leave food unattended

My recent visits to Pelican’s Nest has shown fewer aggressive gulls. It could be the season is changing, but I think it also has a lot to do with the steps the Club has taken to humanely address the problem.

Submitted by: Judy Morr

Ask SIB: Why is Northern Cardinal’s head bald?

Question: Is this a Northern Cardinal? If so, why does its head look so small and its beak so large? – SIB member Lesley Gore

Answer: This question was also answered in Bird Watcher’s Digest. They say:

Soon after nesting season ends, many birds replace their feathers. Songbirds generally lose and regrow a few feathers at a time, so molt is hardly noticeable.

But some birds, especially northern cardinals and blue jays, can lose all their head feathers at one time—a catastrophic molt. Not all cardinals or blue jays do this, but a significant number do, and it’s considered healthy and normal. A week later, feathers will start to grow, and in a month, the bird’s crest will return and be perfectly normal and regal once again.

“Bald” birds could also be young individuals with head feathers still developing, or they could be the victims of avian feather mites that eat the feathers and cause a bird to “go bald.” The mites exist on a bird in the only place it cannot preen itself—on the head.

This commonly occurs in late summer and has been recorded on other species as well. We notice the bald cardinals more readily because they are common, resident (non-migratory) birds that come to our bird feeders. The mites are perfectly natural, not caused by diet, and relatively harmless, unless the bird is in an otherwise-weakened state.

A bald bird usually isn’t anything to worry about, and it’s kind of fun to see a bird’s naked skin and ear holes, isn’t it?

Ask SIB: What is going on with recent reports of dead birds?

Question: A friend recently asked if we have heard of reports of dead birds on Seabrook Island Beaches. They have heard reports of at least 9 dead birds on Kiawah recently. Do you know what could be causing this? – Anonymous

Great Shearwater – eBird

Answer: Seabrook Island Birders has not heard of any increase in dead birds on Seabrook Island. I did notice several reports on my daily “Rare Bird Report” I receive from eBirds of rare birds in Charleston County. One recent report had Kiawah Island Biologist (and eBird reviewer) Aaron Given reporting Great Shearwaters on Kiawah. His siting on eBird stated: “Three alive and alert Great Shearwaters found while driving the beach. Picked them up and transported them to the far eastern end of the island. Also picked up 3 dead Great Shearwaters.”

I reached out to Aaron and asked if he had any insight into what was going on. His response: This is a cyclical thing that happens with Great Shearwaters. There was another mortality event since my time here but I can’t remember the exact year – at least 10 years ago. Most of the birds found dead are emaciated. I don’t think we really know the cause of it but it probably has something to do with a historically predictable food source not being available and causing the birds to starve.

Here’s a link to a paper published in 2013 about it: https://seanetters.files.wordpress.com/2015/07/grsh_mortality.pdf. In summary, my interpretation is that the causes of this apparent increase in strandings are unknown but may be due to an increase in reporting effort over the past two decades combined with changing oceanographic conditions in the South Atlantic Ocean, leading to large-scale mortality of emaciated Great Shearwaters along the east coast of the United States.

A later eBird siting by another observer stated: 1 deceased on beach near ocean course; appeared to have been washed up with the tide. 3 others resting on beach at far end, pointed out to us by DNR. One of the three seemed to be doing slightly better than the others but all were alive. My take away from this is that not only is Aaron aware but so is DNR.

Honestly, before seeing these reports, I had never heard of a Great Shearwater. Audubon’s Guide to North American Birds states Great Shearwater is: A common seabird off our Atlantic Coast, seldom coming close to shore except during storms. Since I haven’t been off shore and luckily I haven’t seen the stranding birds, I shouldn’t be surprised they weren’t on my life list of birds seen.

After I wrote this blog, someone forwarded Judy Drew Fairchild’s blog on Great Shearwaters are Unusual Guests on our Beaches. It has more good information.

If you have a question about a bird, submit a question via email to seabrookislandbirders@gmail.com or our Ask SIB web page.

Submitted by: Judy Morr

Ask SIB: Are Egrets and Herons the same thing?

Question: Are Egrets and Herons the same thing?
– SIB Member at recent SIB Bird Walk

Answer: SIB’s Bob Mercer provided this response:

The short answer—Egrets and herons are closely related. Generally, Egrets are white birds and Herons dark, but that does not really tell the true story. The scientific study of taxonomy separates all living things into smaller and smaller increments until the get down to the species level. This breakdown results from finding similarities based upon body structure and now genetics. You may remember learning in your high school biology classes that the last three taxonomic categories are Family, Genus, and Species. One might think of things in at the Family level of being comparable to cousins, the Genus would be siblings, and the species the individual.

All herons and egrets reside taxonomically within the bird family Ardeidae, which means they are closely related. This family is broken down into 18 genera. If the above statement held true – herons dark and egrets light, the white birds would be in the same genus. Oh how nice it would be if life were so simple. It does not work that way. Currently even taxonomists struggle with assigning these birds into the appropriate genus. According to Birds of the World, the current accepted breakdown has the birds within this grouping breaks out as follows. Within the genus Ardea, one finds our Great Blue Heron and Great Egret. Within the genus Egretta, we find Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, and Tricolored Heron. This certainly does not follow the white dark breakdown. Furthermore, the Green Heron, the Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and Cattle Egret all reside in different genera.

Reference: Winkler, D. W., S. M. Billerman, and I. J. Lovette (2020). Herons, Egrets, and Bitterns (Ardeidae), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (S. M. Billerman, B. K. Keeney, P. G. Rodewald, and T. S. Schulenberg, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.ardeid1.01

Ask SIB: Should we take feeders down due to Avian Flu?

Susan Markhum recently noted: Avian flu killed the two eaglets on Hilton Head. They suspect it happened after eating a bird that had it. I just wonder if we should take our feeders down.

Sadly, the eaglets mentioned in our earlier blog did die of Avian Flu. Hilton Head Land Trust posted on their site: We have received the initial, but not final results, that the eaglets cause of death was the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (“HPAI”) commonly seen in wild birds. (We) can’t express enough how great the Birds of Prey Center has been with their help and guidance and the care and concern of the eaglets.  We have learned a great deal and experienced nature with its glory and reality of the challenges they face.

To answer Susan’s question, SIB reached out to Deb Carter. Deb is a Research Professional at the University of Georgia’s laboratory in Veterinary Pathology. Her field work is  related to Avian Influenza at the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study. She regularly visits Seabrook Island beaches to collect Ruddy Turnstone droppings for her study. Her response was: As of right now there are no cases as to indicating that  passerines have  been infected with HPAI.   I have not removed my bird feeders at home, but that is up to you.  There is no cause for an alarm with the songbirds as far as HPAI goes. The eagles are probably eating ducks that have been infected with HPAI and that is probably why they are getting sick.

So although the eaglet news is sad, for now we can continue to enjoy the visits of our feathered friends to our feeders.

Ask SIB: Which Hawk is This?

Linda Rogoff recently sent this beautiful hawk picture to SIB requesting assistance in identification. Identifying hawks can be confusing, so we asked our resident naturalist Bob Mercer for his opinion.

Bob’s Response:

A nice picture like this from Linda Rogoff makes the identification easy!

When one looks at a hawk, the first task is to decide whether the birds genus is a Buteo, Accipiter, or Falco. The way to do that is to look at the general shape of the wings and tail. Broad wings and shorter broad tail define a Buteo. An Accipiter has broad wings and a long thin tail. A falcon has thinner wings and longer tail giving them a very different shape.

Linda’s bird falls in the Buteo genus. Note the broad wings and the fat and relatively short the tail. That immediately narrows down the options. Here in South Carolina in February, can expect to see only two species of Buteos—the Red-tailed Hawk or the Red-shouldered Hawk. The challenge becomes separating these two species. Linda’s bird has red (or what ornithologists call red) barring on its chest, which could make one think Coopers Hawk if we had not already noted the Buteo shape that ruled out the Accipiters.  The  red under the wings makes this bird a Red-shouldered Hawk. A Red-tailed Hawk would have a white chest with flecks of black feathers crossing the belly. The wings would be white and without those beautiful black and white wingtips. A Red-tailed Hawk also would have a black rectangle on the leading edge of the wing close to the body.

Linda’s picture shows a crescent of white between the black tips and the red underwing that when backlit like in this photo stands out. Birders refer to this as the Red-shoulder Hawk’s “windows.”

Both Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks can be found on Seabrook Island and these field marks work great for adult birds like Linda’s. Separating the immature birds creates new challenges. Something for another day.

Readers with questions for “Ask SIB” should know; one does not need to be afraid to submit a lower quality image of a bird with an unknown identification or pose a behavioral observation with no pictures. That just make the learning more challenging and fun.

Ask SIB: What Bird of Prey is This?

Patricia’s Question:

On Monday, January 31, 2022, this is the scene found by Patricia and Page Schaefer in their driveway on Seabrook Island, SC.

Cooper’s Hawk with it’s prey, a Tricolor Heron
Photo by Patricia Schaefer

Identifying hawks can be confusing, so we asked our resident naturalist Bob Mercer for his opinion.

Bob’s Response:

“I would say it is an adult female Cooper’s Hawk. Why do I make that identification? The bird is an adult accipiter as evidenced by the red barring across the chest and gray body. Accipiters are bird hunting specialists.  These features get us down into the family of hawks.

“What is the difference between a Cooper’s Hawk and a Sharp-shinned Hawk? Two obvious features for birds standing or perched are size and the heaviness of the legs and feet. A Sharp-shinned Hawk ranges in size from 10 to 14 inches with the average weight of a male weighing about 0.2 pounds and about 0.3 pounds for a female. A Cooper’s Hawk’s size is between 14 to 20 inches. The average weight of a male is about .75 pounds and a female about 1.24 pounds. Usually the female hawks are larger than the males. From the picture one can see this is a big bird with heavy legs and feet. That would make it a Coopers Hawk. A Sharp-shinned Hawk would have skinny legs and feet. The clincher is in its diet! Tricolored Herons are between 25 and 30 inches and average about 0.9 pounds. Assuming this was a small Tricolored Heron, the accipiter had to be a big bird to even attempt something that large. Hence my identification as a large female Coopers Hawk.”

Please be sure to Ask SIB if you have a question about the birds!

Ask SIB: Eastern Bluebird Winter Behavior

On January 9, 2021, Andy wrote SIB, “Today we saw maybe half dozen blue birds and one was sitting on the entry hole.  Isn’t it early for them to be nesting?  Has the warm weather put them off schedule?”

Eastern Bluebird – photo by Bob Mercer

The questions are relatively easy to answer. Yes, it is too early for them to be nesting, so they are not “off schedule” due to the weather. As usual, the questions lead to another question; what are the birds doing?

Since Eastern Bluebirds are year-round residents in our area, one can watch the full range of behaviors. During the winter months, bluebirds can gather in flocks of up to 20 birds. These flocks consist of one or more family units. In really cold weather, a flock of bluebirds may all cram into a single cavity, presumably for shared body warmth. Pair bonding for bluebirds can happen anytime between November and March.

This photo of an Eastern Bluebird entering the box and the female watching perfectly captures some of the courtship behavior–wing droop tail spread. Photo by Nancy Brown

During the courtship and nesting period, the flocking behavior disappears. Once a pair settles on a territory, they work hard to drive away all competitors including their siblings. 

It is difficult to know exactly what Andy observed, but one can make an educated guess. Since he saw a half dozen birds, he observed a winter flock. The bird sitting at the nesting hole most likely was a male bird checking out the box for its potential. 

Once a male makes a choice, he will then attempt to attract a mate or to solidify his relationship with his current mate. According to the Cornel Lab of Ornithology website Birds of the World, the male goes through a very predictable pattern of behavior. The male institutes a nesting demonstration display where he perches at a hole holding nesting material with his wings drooping and his tail spread wide. He looks around, presumably to make sure his intended is paying attention, and then look in the hole. The next step is to rock back and forth into and out of the hole before going in the cavity. Once in the cavity, he will stick his head out still holding the nesting material. Leaving the material in the cavity, he then hops out near the hole and does a wing waving display. The female entering the box cements the pair bond. 

People with bluebird boxes they can view, or who have cameras trained on a box, may be lucky enough to watch this behavioral sequence. 

Nesting on Seabrook Island usually begins around the first of March. The Seabrook Island Birders sponsor a bluebird box monitoring program. Volunteers have a route where they check a series of boxes once a week to monitor if birds use the boxes and nesting success of failure. Anyone interested in helping is encouraged to contact the Seabrook Island Birders.

Be sure to read tomorrow’s article discussing the installation and monitoring of a birdhouse with an outside WIFI camera!

Gowaty, P. A. and J. H. Plissner (2020). Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.easblu.01

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