Ovenbird exposed

The ovenbird, Seiurus aurocapilla, is a shy bird, more often heard than seen. I recorded this one in late May. It has a surprisingly loud song for a small bird.

Yesterday one brazenly watched me from a branch by my trail:

So it seems to be a good time to perform an introduction.

Its odd name comes from its nesting habits. If you’ve ever read Where’s Waldo? with your kids, here is the ovenbird equivalent:

The only way you ever find the nest is by accidentally almost stepping on it, so that she flies up. This was found two springs ago by Leigh McMillan Hayes, of the Greater Lovell Land Trust, who showed it to a few of us.

Closer up, the nest is tucked under the dead leaves, with a domed roof, just like an old fashioned bread oven:

Inside, you can just see her sitting on her eggs.

Having found it once, you can quietly return, and peer inside to see eggs and young. The blurry photo is me trying to be quick and not disturb them:

The adult bird is rather spiffy with a carrot-colored crown, sort of like Prince Harry:

Ovenbirds are warblers, insect eaters, foraging around on the forest floor. (Though they winter in Jamaica, lucky birds). But to breed, they need uninterrupted forest areas. Birds of the World says this: “Of primary importance for breeding is a large area of contiguous, interior forested habitat (Temple 1986, Robbins et al. 1989b, Van Horn 1995). The minimum contiguous habitat area required for this species to breed successfully ranges from 100 to 885 ha (Robbins 1979, Robbins et al. 1989b)”. That is a minimum of about 250 acres, which it has around me, but such habitat is becoming scarcer. On the bright side, its population seems for now to be stable.

It was relaxed enough to have a little scratch.


Robert Frost, that poet of the New England countryside, wrote this in 1916

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

PS I write this on the day the queen has just died. I grew up in England and went to London for the coronation, aged three. I got a blue teddybear and my sister got a pink one. She performed her largely ceremonial role with wisdom and grace for my entire lifetime, and today I feel my foundations shaken, and a deep loss. She too loved the countryside.

“I’m such a clever toad”*

Yesterday I went to load my kayak on my truck, and nestled inside one of the foam wedges that hold the kayak firm was….

a Common Gray Tree Frog, Dryophytes versicolor, (aka Hyla versicolor) about 1.5″ long. It lives in woodlands, near ponds, and is nocturnal, so in the daytime it curls itself up and sleeps, perfectly camouflaged on the proper substrate, like this granite boulder.

It spends much of its time high in the trees, and during the breeding season the male trills beautifully (and loudly) near the small pond by our house. This recording was made on my phone in late June 2020.

Its camouflage extends to the matching irises!

It has stripy legs, and long fingers and toes, here folded neatly together:

and here splayed out gripping tightly to a lump of quartz:

Its best camouflage trick is that it can turn green to match its background. This one is en route to/from green; the whole process usually take about half an hour.

And this next one is all the way there: I promise you it is the same species, and it must have been sitting on a leaf before it landed on the fence:

My friend Pamela Marshall took a photo of one that can’t seem to decide whether to be gray or green:

They have bright yellow on the back of the legs, only glimpsed in a brief flash when they jump, and something I failed to photograph! Here is another Pamela Marshall photo, in which I think the frog fell on its back and is trying to turn itself back over, showing its golden underwear:

*My title is a quote from one of my childhood favorites, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Although my hero is a frog, not a toad, it seemed apposite.

PS You might wonder why I have a lump of quartz lying around. We live in an area of pegmatite formations. Pegmatite contains the same minerals as granite, but in much larger crystals. One of the minerals is quartz, and the others are mica and feldspar. It also contains a variety of semi-precious minerals like tourmaline, garnet, amethyst, aquamarine and beryl. And lithium, possibly in commercially viable amounts, which raises all kinds of concerns about possible mining.

Sartorial perfection

It’s hard to imagine a more elegant get-up than an adult loon in breeding plumage:

But they don’t start out like that. The two young chicks below are just brown and fluffy, with quite modest beaks. The very first down is very dark, almost black.

The second down, which is lighter brown, comes in around week three. After a few weeks, you start to notice their white breasts:

and then serious grooming begins. There is a gland under the tail that produces an oil that they rub through their plumage with their heads to keep it waterproof:

They use their bill to organize their feathers into overlapping layers:

From around week 7, their juvenile plumage is beginning to push out the down:

They are still very much babies, with a conveyor belt of fish deliveries (two in this shot, and they brought the chick eight fish in thirty minutes):

and a close bond with their parents.

But gradually the down decreases, and by about week 9 the down has all gone, leaving a grey-brown juvenile plumage which will be their garb for the next two or more years :

And the wings are growing apace. Remember the baby, on August 4th?

Now a mere three weeks later look at these shoulder muscles:

this wingspan:

and these flight feathers:

It will be able to fly on its own in another two or three weeks, but not far.

And then, one day, like Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling, they will be all grown up.

Their wings will be streamlined and powerful:

Even from the back they are chic:

And as you get closer, just admire. Whether they’re seeking out fish:

approaching head on:


or at water level:

or just as a hint, a trace on the water:

PS The loons are so relaxed they swim under my kayak, but I am usually so mesmerised I don’t even reach for my camera. Here is my only vaguely successful attempt:

The legs are spread wide, and the bands show you the ankles. You can just see the eye too.

PPS Even as adults, their winter non-breeding plumage will remain somewhat subdued:

Sushi fit for a loon

[I showed you the loons being rescued last winter, but now it is the halcyon days.]

I have been taking my kayak to a nearby pond that is big enough for loons to inhabit. A pair are raising a single chick, and their solicitude is a joy to watch. They bring tiny fish:

and sometimes drop their offering just out of the chick’s grasp so it has to search for it, in training for finding its own one day.

New to me was a different menu item, crayfish:

The first time I saw this, the chick looked somewhat unnerved by this wriggly spiky bit of sushi (rather like the deep-fried head of an ama-ebi, one of my favorites)

But a few days later there was no hesitation at all

though the legs took a bit of managing:

Here is a video of a crayfish delivery, a week later, with a botched hand-off and a quick recovery.

The crayfish live in the shallows, and when the adults were hunting them they splashed around making a lot of kerfuffle, and sending tiny fish leaping in the air for safety.

As the chick gets bigger, so do the fish.

This was a serious mouthful, but down it went.

After about 45 minutes of feeding the chicks, one adult caught a much bigger fish, far too large for the chick to manage. The hornpout (aka bullhead or catfish) was still very much alive,

so the loon kept diving (perhaps to bash it on the bottom?)

and shaking it until eventually it was dead enough to eat. A face-on loon in hunting mode is quite intimidating: those red eyes are the stuff of nightmares.

It turned it around and down it went in one large gulp (watch to the end; halfway through the video the loon dives for a while, and then comes up again):

The baby was already diving for quite long periods, and occasionally seemed to come up with something edible, though I couldn’t see what. It was also flapping its almost non-existent wings!

One day it will have stunning black-and-white breeding plumage like its parents.

Next time, more on how the transition from brown fluff to tuxedo-like elegance happens.

PS Around here there is an annual loon count, and also research projects that band the loons whenever possible. One of the adults was wearing brightly colored ankle jewellery, and it tells me this one is the female. Last year she was on the same pond with the same mate. This is not always the case: loons do not mate for life.

Chameleon Crab spiders

Crab spiders are tiny, but indomitable. Life starts for them inside a folded up leaf nest, first created by and then guarded by their mother:

This particular crab spider is the Goldenrod Crab Spider, Misumenia vatia. She is a maximum of 10mm long, and the males are half that size. The babies will hatch in about 3 weeks, after undergoing the first of two molts inside their leaf shelter.

She stands out against the leaf, but once she is on a flower, not so much.

An ambush hunter, this camouflage stands her in good stead when she hides beneath a petal, front legs astride like the claws of her namesake:

Her name actually comes from her ability, unusual among spiders, to walk sideways:

Crab spiders are known for their ability to change color to disguise their presence. This one is whitish.

Although for us it is still easy to see on the pink rose, apparently arthropod vision will see this simply as a dark shape on a dark background. It worked for this one, which caught a hoverfly :

A purplish-blue platycodon flower is too great a challenge, but even un- camouflaged it caught a small fly.

And the one below found a leaf completely covered in newly hatched alder beetle larvae, so camouflage was superfluous, and it gorged itself.

.Their base color is white,

and changing to yellow requires that they secrete yellow pigment, which can take 10-25 days. Changing back to yellow is faster, about 6 days. All this is triggered by them seeing the color of the flowers they want to hunt on. If they are blind, they don’t change color.

They really should be called Chameleon Spiders.

A night in the life of three lion cubs (and their mother). Part II: A snack before bedtime

The previous evening, we left the cubs playing and the mother stretching and waking up:

Early the next morning we found them in the bushes not far away, with some other adults nearby, and a watchful jackal.

During the night they had killed, and pretty much finished eating, but the cubs had been given the bones to gnaw on and play with:

and we watched for 45 minutes or so.

They were deep in the bushes, so the light was poor. This one had the jawbone:

And this one has the foot:

They start to eat meat at two to three months, so they’ve had a month or so to get used to the idea, though they will still be nursing for about another three months

As the sun came up, the matriarch led them off to a more secluded bush to sleep it all off through the heat of the day. But being cubs they were still playing as she tried to get them to bed.

It all looks idyllic, but within two years there is a good chance that only one will still be alive. Cubs die from predators when they are left alone while their mother hunts, or from ailments, like this eye problem we found on a cub in Il Ngwesi (the last report was that the cub is doing OK).

But male cubs are especially vulnerable because they leave their mother and the pride at around three, and then have to contend with rival males until they are strong enough to take over a pride of their own.

I wish these cubs well, especially the lone male one.

PS Britannica.com offers more detail about these early years: “Newborn cubs are helpless and blind and have a thick coat with dark spots that usually disappear with maturity. Cubs are able to follow their mothers at about three months of age and are weaned by six or seven months. They begin participating in kills by 11 months but probably cannot survive on their own until they are two years old. Although lionesses will nurse cubs other than their own, they are surprisingly inattentive mothers and often leave their cubs alone for up to 24 hours. There is a corresponding high mortality rate (e.g., 86 percent in the Serengeti), but survival rates improve after the age of two. In the wild, sexual maturity is reached at three or four years of age. Some female cubs remain within the pride when they attain sexual maturity, but others are forced out and join other prides or wander as nomads. Male cubs are expelled from the pride at about three years of age and become nomads until they are old enough to try to take over another pride (after age five). Many adult males remain nomads for life. Mating opportunities for nomad males are rare, and competition between male lions to defend a pride’s territory and mate with the pride females is fierce. Cooperating partnerships of two to four males are more successful at maintaining tenurewith a pride than individuals, and larger coalitions father more surviving offspring per male. Small coalitions typically comprise related males, whereas larger groups often include unrelated individuals. If a new cohort of males is able to take over a pride, they will seek to kill young cubs sired by their predecessors. This has the effect of shortening the time before the cubs’ mothers are ready to mate again. Females attempt to prevent this infanticide by hiding or directly defending their cubs; lionesses are generally more successful at protecting older cubs, as they would be leaving the pride sooner. In the wild lions seldom live more than 8 to 10 years, chiefly because of attacks by humans or other lions or the effects of kicks and gorings from intended prey animals. In captivity they may live 25 years or more.”

A night in the life of three lion cubs (and their mother). Part 1 : Waking up in the Mara

Back to Africa for a couple of weeks of blogs. My camp Saruni Wild was in the Lemek Conservancy, one of several Maasai conservancies that adjoin the Maasai Mara National Park. These lions are part of the eponymous Lemek Pride

The rhythm of a lion’s “day” is out of sync with ours. They wake up in the late afternoon, hunt and eat at night, and go back to sleep once the sun rises. These first photos were taken one evening starting around 4.30pm. In Part 2: Bedtime on on a full stomach the photos were taken the next morning from about 6am.

The cubs are 3 or 4 months old, and still nursing at least occasionally:

The mother-cub bond is still extremely close:

Their mother will only have brought them out into the open fairly recently, so our vehicle is unfamiliar and a heady mix of fascinating:

and scary, though there is always one braver the the others:

Our proximity doesn’t stop them chasing each other,

and venturing away from their mother to explore:

A rocky field offers great terrain for ambush :

and wrestling:

The rules of the game also do not preclude pouncing on your mother:

or grabbing her by the neck:

It is all play, but it is also good practice for hunting, as is hiding in the long grass (look at the top left of the photo below)

A stick is the next best thing to a bone, and thus worth fighting over:

During most of this, if you look closely their claws are sheathed, but every now and again they appear, a glimpse of their budding weaponry. And the teeth are growing fast too.

As dusk fell, we left them to it and returned to camp for a G&T.

Housing House Wrens

Last fall I bought a lovely gourd from a local farm, to decorate my doorstep. By mistake, I left it out all winter, and come spring it was hard and dry. So I googled “How to make a bird house”, landed on https://www.thespruce.com/gourd-bird-houses-4070291 , and this was the result (my son drilled the big 1 1/4″ inch hole, I did the rest!). I hung it from some bushes near my vegetable garden, where I could see it, and waited.

As you can see, to my delight a pair of House Wrens, Troglodytes aedon, moved in, and this is their story. As you enjoy these photos, remember that the nest-hole is only 1 1/4 inch in diameter !

It was quickly clear there were young inside, and both adults came every few minutes with food.

They brought a huge range of delicacies. A bright orange grub or pupa:

a grasshopper:

which fought an unsuccessful rearguard action:


a rather large spider:

(They brought two of these in quick succession!).

Also moths:

some of which were the awful Spongy Moth, of which see my footnote!

bright green caterpillars

and other things I can’t identify:

On one occasion she excelled herself by bringing in two bugs in a single delivery, albeit rather small ones:

After handing over the food, the parent usually went back into the nest for a diaper (nappy!) change. Baby birds’ excretions come packaged in a convenient membrane called a fecal sac (oh, how I wish human babies had the same tradition) and the adult just picks it up and carries it off:

They had a sort of musical routine. They flew in to the clump of bushes, and made a call. Then they moved to a closer branch and called again. Sometimes it took more than one of these rest-stops, but eventually they moved to the branch the nest was hanging from, and called again. and then they launched themselves, landed very briefly on the tiny perch I had thoughtfully provided for them, and then leant in and proffered the morsel.

The “perch-to-mouth” time frame was usually only a second, unless the prey fought back.

For most of the time I was watching the nest, the actual young were invisible, deep inside their appropriately womb-like gourd. But one day they peeked out:

There were in fact three, glimpsed but not photographed. They got braver:

and braver:

and braver

Until one morning I photographed this one gripping the edge of the nest, poised to conquer the world:

I left for two hours, and when I came back, they were gone, launched, fledged. Well done those parents.

PS House Wrens are really tiny, and very successful. Adults weigh about 10 to 12 g (0.35 to 0.42 oz). are 11 to 13 cm (4.3 to 5.1 in) long, with a 15 cm (5.9 in) wingspan.  They are found the full length of the Americas, from Canada to southernmost South America, and are the most widely distributed native bird in the Americas

PPS One of their catches was a Spongy Moth, Lymantria dispar, and I cheered. Formerly known as Gypsy Moth, they came from Europe, and they erupt in locust-like infestations that last several years. Right now they are stripping our trees down to skeletons. Much as I love nature, they are stretching the limits of my tolerance. If you can bear to read about them, here you are https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lymantria_dispar_dispar

Beavers in June: just hanging, and mudding

In June beavers have a banquet of soft green leafy things and succulent roots to eat. They tend to eat less in the way of woody stuff (twigs and cambium), and they move around their territory, browsing. If the dam needs repairs, they take care of it.

My beavers have been behaving somewhat differently. In early morning and late afternoon they have been sitting on a tiny island just behind their lodge, munching on what looks like twigs and logs. As a result, I have been privileged to watch them out of the water, a rarity (remember, they are largely nocturnal, and only leave the water when they have to).

I have seen two together, mutually grooming,

and clearly very affectionate

and while I was watching these two there was a distant tail slap, so there must be a third one around.

They were coming and going. This one was swimming around my kayak yesterday afternoon:

Not very scared, but curious:

When they were back at the lodge, they would either swim up with a mouthful of mud and gunk, or do a short dive and then surface with the mud supplies:

then climb up the lodge and plaster it on top:

Sometimes they just seemed to take a rest:

then back to more mudding:

Then off to find more.

I am wondering if there might be young in the lodge. They are born in May and June, venturing out after only two weeks or so. Typically they would be cared for by both parents, and also last year’s young, which would explain the trio, and their tendency to stay close to the lodge and keep it in good repair.

So I waited till now, mid-July, in the hope of seeing young ones, but no such luck. The adults are around, slapping their tails, but either the young are a figment of my wishful thinking, or they are only allowed out at night. Time to send out this post.

“..vast parrots as red as new carrots..”*

Growing up in England, birds were not my thing. There is a reason that I first got interested in birds in Africa. A lot of them are brightly colored, and in the dry season the trees drop their leaves and the birds are visible.

This is a male African Orange-bellied Parrot, Poicephalus rufiventris:

The orange continues under his wings:

Even his eyes are orange and the underside of his tail is bright green:

The female lacks the orange belly, but she still has the green belly feathers.

Another orange and green bird is the tiny Fischer’s Lovebird:

Orange, but no green this time, is the Red-and-Yellow Barbet (not a parrot, but just as brightly colored):

There are two in this shot:

Even the misleadingly named Brown (or Meyer’s) Parrot is dazzling when seen from below. These two in Tanzania are feasting on baobab flowers.

It is all much more exciting than the world of Little Brown Jobs, or LBJ’s, as birders rudely call the dowdier birds of temperate climes.

*PS My title is a quote from Edward Lear, of limerick fame, who was also an accomplished artist whose parrot paintings rivaled Audubon’s. He drew them from life at London Zoo, and wrote a letter to a friend including this poem, which I recommend reading aloud for the full rhythmic effect:

“Now I go to my dinner,
For all day I’ve been a-
way at the West End,
Painting the best end 
Of some vast Parrots
As red as new carrots,—
(They are at the museum,—
When you come you shall see ‘em,—)
I do the head and neck first;
—And ever since breakfast,
I’ve had one bun merely!
So—yours quite sincerely.”

As far as I can tell, he didn’t paint any of the specific parrots in this blog, but here is one of his scarlet macaw, now in the Houghton Library at Harvard.,

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