Nesting Catbirds

It’s common to hear the mews and endless melodies of a catbird at close range, but much more difficult to actually get a good look at one. The Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) inhabits thickets of dense shrubs and small trees, where it feeds, nests and hops about in the shadows. My typical sighting is a “glimpse”, usually with the sun in my face!

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Gray Catbird delivering an insect to its nestlings

In late June I noticed a pair of birds spending a lot of time in a small thicket, feeding on ripening fruit and insects.

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Gray Catbird feeding on partially ripened Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) fruit in late June

I observed the thicket briefly for several mornings in early July and learned of a nest at about eye level in a dense, spiny barberry (Berberis vulgaris) shrub. A steady diet of bugs of all sizes and shapes was delivered by both parents throughout the day. Nearby, a Staghorn Sumac provided a temporary landing point before the birds sneaked into the thorny barberry to feed their young.

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The catbirds also used the sumac as a perch for grooming and resting in the heat of the day.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

A Summer Resident – in Winter?!

A bright sky and blanket of snow lured me out for a walk this afternoon. Abundant animal tracks and traces didn’t lead me to animals, but all was not lost. I found the persistent fruit of Japanese Barberry and, more importantly, had an unusual bird sighting – a Catbird!

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Japanese Barberry, an exotic shrub that has escaped from cultivation and is considered to be invasive in some regions

Catbirds (the Gray Catbird, Dumetella carolinensis) are very common summer residents, nesting, feeding and singing in the thickets and brushy habitats typical of abandoned farmland, fencerows and ecotones. In winter, there are resident birds along the coast, but most migrate to the southern U.S. and Central America. When I returned from my winter walk, there was a Catbird in the Star Magnolia tree in the yard, a few feet from a bird feeder. It appeared to be healthy, but a bit confused. Catbirds are secretive by nature, but this individual was uncharacteristically tolerant of my presence, allowing me to savor the moment. Until today, I had never seen a Catbird in Central New York this late in the year!

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Insects and the soft mast of woody plants (fruits like the barberry in the first image) are staples in the Catbird diet. There is a good crop of persistent fruit on several species of shrubs this year, so perhaps this bird has decided to hunker down in the thickets, rely on those foods and brave the elements. Some Robins do this, so why not a Catbird?!

Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.

A Morning Ramble

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Aster (Panicled)

We’ve had several days of nice weather and I decided that a mid-morning walk should be priority number one. I failed to get a picture of Catbirds feeding on the berry-like fruits of viburnums, dogwoods and Multiflora Rose, but came away with a few shots worth sharing.

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Mature doe feeding on wild apples; her two fawns are nearby

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One of the doe’s fawns; has just spotted me

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Not satisfied with the visual, it’s trying to pick up my scent

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I’m close, but downwind, which requires a pretty serious evaluation with the olfactory senses

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Leaf of Red-osier Dogwood

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Songbirds Raising Kids!

Good wildlife photographers invariably capture spectacular images of the large predatory birds – eagles, osprey, herons and the like – caring for their young. I appreciate great photography but sometimes it drives me crazy! I don’t have those shots! I’m just beginning to tackle the challenge and to date my inventory is limited to the more common songbirds that can be reached with a little stealth, some patience and a modest telephoto lens. To paraphrase John Gierach, my favorite fishing author, when asked why he spends so much time catching small trout on a fly rod: “catching small trout all day long is a lousy job, but somebody’s gotta do it”.

My featured species in this post are the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina), Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula), Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) and Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Images aside, I’ve learned much and laughed often on these shoots and hope others have a similar experience.

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European Starling feeding an insect to one of its young (at least three in all)

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Chipping Sparrow on a garden fence, prepared to feed young birds, invisible in the dense raspberry bushes below

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Adult Grackle about to feed a fledgling with cracked corn gathered from a nearby feeder (1 of 2)

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Fledgling and adult Grackle; the adult has closed its nictitating membrane, an eyelid that lubricates and protects the eye, to prevent injury from the sharp beak of the fledgling as food is inserted into its mouth

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Adult male Baltimore Oriole with an insect morsel for its fledged young below

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Immature Baltimore Oriole

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Adult Catbird about to feed fledged young

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Fledgling Catbird

I’ll finish with the photos that I took this morning. A combination of sun, ground fog and heavy dew got me moving early. I was hoping to see the resident White-tailed Deer fawns, but knew that I’d return with something on my memory card even if they couldn’t be found.

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I usually check nest boxes from a distance while I’m walking and noticed a head sticking out of one that appeared to be a young Tree Swallow. I got comfortable in the tall grass and weeds and watched. The young swallow in the opening – now nearly the size of its parents – appeared to be restless and about to leave the nest. I thought I could see the tip of a second beak at times, evidence that a sibling had the same urge and perhaps was trying to expedite things. I took many photos as the bird moved back and forth in the opening of the box, as though it would decide to go for it, then have second thoughts. A parent was perched 100 feet away and 30 feet up, in the top of a spruce tree, seemingly ignoring all of us.

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Young Tree Swallow about to fledge

After a half hour of deliberation, the youngster chirped and bolted, just like that. In the blink of an eye, it was out and airborne. It hung up and thrashed briefly in the tall grass in front of the box (the last photo), then soared up, up and away. After sitting for days on end in a cramped, stuffy nest box, and having no tutorial or pre-flight orientation, it just flew. What an amazing feat of nature. Oh, as soon as it soared, the parents swooped in to drive me away. I left, but returned an hour later and found an empty box.

As you might have guessed by now, the fledgling caught me off-guard, flew right at me at point-blank range, and the perfect shot will have to wait.

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Fledgling Tree Swallow a few feet from its nest box, airborne for the first time

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.