Conservation // 5 min Read

In the Field: July Eye to the Sky

Written by Aaron Palmieri, Conservancy Educator

Jul 1, 2021


Fledgling songbirds could be seen all over Palmetto Bluff throughout June. These immature birds can sometimes be hard to distinguish from adults, but there are two characteristics to consider that may help determine if the birds you observed were the young of the year or their parents. The first characteristic is their coloration. Northern cardinal fledglings have gray beaks compared to the bright orange of adults. Blue jay juveniles have less blue on their heads and necks. Tufted titmice fledglings have less prominent black on their foreheads. And the pine warbler and northern parula offspring are almost entirely gray compared to the striking yellow of adults. If you were bird-watching in June and came across one of these warbler chicks, there is no shame if you wrote down “warbler species.” I know I did.

Juvenile Cardinals
Juvenile Cardinals

The second way to tell if you are looking at a recently fledged chick is by watching their behavior. Juvenile birds are a bit more awkward in flight and, by personal observation, seem more curious and noisier than adults. Begging for food is a commonplace behavior seen during this stage of development in birds. After leaving the nest, the parents are busy teaching the young birds survival skills to aid them in adulthood. During this time, the hungry fledglings will flutter their wings and gape at their parents to entice the adults into feeding them. Eventually, parents will ignore these attempts as a means to push the chicks into feeding themselves.

The abundance of fledgling activity may have felt as if the breeding season had reached its peak, but we are just getting started! The birds that are here year-round tend to be those earlier nesters while the migratory species spent most of the spring arriving to the breeding grounds. Painted buntings, blue grosbeaks, and great crested flycatchers are just some of the migrants that spent their time building nests and laying eggs in June. These same parents will be busy in July raising their new chicks.

Painted Bunting
Painted Bunting

Young birds are not the only excitement in June. Scanning the banks of the waterway, you may have seen that the roseate spoonbills have returned to Palmetto Bluff for another summer. The range of these oddly billed wading birds used to be restricted to Southern Florida and the Gulf Coast. Over time, rare sightings began to appear in our area in the mid-90s. They can now be found at Palmetto Bluff, Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, and other local areas with suitable habitats during summer. If you are seeking a spoonbill for your checklist, they breed in fresh, brackish, and saltwater habitats, where they can also be found foraging in the shallows. Looking to the sky, a pair of swallow-tailed kites were spotted soaring around the Bluff. This sighting was written on the wildlife board by the Conservancy classroom and is our first report since April. The previous sightings were from around the Farm, Longfield Stables, and May River Forest. If you see a swallow-tailed kite, let the Conservancy know or report your sighting to the Avian Research and Conservation Institute.

Roseate Spoonbill (Image provided by David Miller)
Roseate Spoonbill (Image provided by David Miller)

We cannot speak of exciting sightings without mentioning the leucistic bluebird superstar, Blanca. Another sighting was reported in Barge Landing, but to our surprise… It was not her. It was a leucistic bluebird fledgling! The immediate thought was, “It’s one of Blanca’s offspring!” While Blanca has had two fledglings so far this year, both of them had the normal, gray plumage of juvenile bluebirds. So what bluebird produced this new leucistic bird? No clue! I personally enjoy the mystery of it all and revel in the fact that we have two leucistic birds at the Bluff.

New Leucistic Bluebird
New Leucistic Bluebird

To wrap up June, the Conservancy participated in the Center for Conservation Biology’s Nightjar Survey. The first night was quiet with no nightjars documented, but the second night concluded with seven chuck-will’s-widows and one common nighthawk! It is unclear why we did not detect any activity on the first night. The likely reason is there must have been some influencing factors at play.

Turning our eyes to July, things will seem identical to June in terms of bird diversity. The biggest difference we should see is what fledglings are on the move in July. As we mentioned earlier, the chicks of buntings, grosbeaks, and flycatchers should be fledging along with the other species that begin later in the season. Last month, we touched on the different ways some of these birds nest and the different nesting sites they will use. This month, let us look at how we can improve the chances of songbirds successfully raising young. An easy method of helping is by providing food for the growing chicks. Bird feeders are a great supplemental food source for parents and recently fledged birds, but feeders normally lack what young chicks need: caterpillars. Lots of caterpillars. It is estimated that one nest of 4-6 chickadees will be fed anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 insects in the two weeks it takes from hatching to leaving the nest. That is a lot of bugs for birds that weigh as much as four pennies as an adult. And this is only one nest! If you are graced with multiple nesting songbirds in your backyard, they need a lot of caterpillars to have a chance of successfully fledging.

One reason why caterpillars are particularly important for songbirds over other insects is because they are soft-bodied. They have few, if any, hard or sharp edges that could hurt the chicks’ throats compared to the exoskeletons of beetles and grasshoppers. Caterpillars are also portable packets of nutrients. One caterpillar is estimated to be nutritionally equivalent to 200 aphids, making one caterpillar a more efficient food source than the smaller yet easier-to-find aphids.

To provide nesting songbirds with the caterpillars they need, we must provide food for the caterpillars in return. Native plants are what caterpillars feed on, and some species can only eat specific plants, so it is important to use a variety of native plants in landscaping. Thankfully, the powerhouse of caterpillar production in Beaufort County, and in turn nesting success, may already be in your yard… native oaks. Over 400 species of caterpillar in our area feed on oaks, making these towering marvels an important addition to the landscape.

Unfortunately, not everyone can fit a massive live oak in their backyard but fear not! There are quite a few native shrubs and flowering plants that can be a great boon for songbirds. Native blueberries, blackberries, viburnums, hibiscus, goldenrod, sunflowers, joe-pye weed, and panic grass are excellent food sources for native caterpillars. And this list of plants only scratches the surface! While the aforementioned plants are great options for those that live in Beaufort County, some of you may want native plants for your homes up north or out west. The National Wildlife Federation has a native plant finder that allows you to plug in a zip code and it will provide a list of native plants to your area along with the number of caterpillars that use that plant as a food source. If we provide native plants for caterpillars, we provide food for nesting songbirds. This connection between birds, insects, and native plants is not only important for keeping beautiful songbirds around, but it is also important to our local ecosystems as a whole. Dr. Douglas Tallamy, a renowned entomologist at the University of Delaware, has a wonderful webinar that discusses the importance of these connections. The talk, “Nature’s Best Hope,” shares its title with one of his books, which I recommend for anyone who wishes to better understand how they can make a positive impact for songbirds in their own backyard.

Palmetto Bluff is home to a diversity of birds throughout the year. If you see or photograph something you wish to share, you can submit your sightings to Aaron Palmieri at apalmieri@pbconservancy.org and they may appear in next month’s update.

June’s Unique Sightings:

  • Acadian Flycatcher (River Road Preserve)
  • Red-tailed Hawk (South Wilson)
  • Painted Bunting (Conservancy Classroom)
  • Roseate Spoonbill (Moreland Ponds)
  • Leucistic Bluebird ‘Blanca’ (Barge Landing)
  • Leucistic bluebird fledgling (Barge Landing)
  • Blue Grosbeak (Moreland Ponds, Managed Forest)
  • Swallow-tailed Kites (Unknown)

June Contributors:

Jean Andersen, Phyllis Rawlins, Brian Byrne, David Miller, Terry Skiba, Lydia Moore

Click to open a printable version.
Click to open a printable version.

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