Here’s the second of a two-part series on insect-eating birds. In Part 1 I wrote of the importance of insects, and described some of our smaller insectivore birds, such as swallows, chickadees, and flycatchers. In Part 2, we’ll look at a small sampling of our most common Wood-Warblers, and then some larger insectivore birds— a few ducks, shorebirds, woodpeckers, and one hungry owl. Of course, there’s more about our friends, the insects. (Lesser Yellowlegs and Shore Flies)
Wood-Warblers forage for insects and spiders at different heights in a forest. Several gorgeous species spend their summers in and near Port Townsend, eating many different insects, including caterpillars, leaf beetles, bark beetles, ants, aphids, grasshoppers, and gnats, and spiders as well. I don’t notice many insects in Port Townsend in winter, but local entomologist Richard Lewis assures me, “They are all still here, just less active (winter diapause) so not as readily available” to insectivore birds. We can find the Yellow-rumped Warbler here year-round. In fact, dozens of these warblers spend winter months on the shores of Chinese Gardens Lagoon eating wax myrtle fruits, which are uniquely digestible for them. On May 4, I saw over 20 flitting about the trees on the shore of Kah Tai Lagoon. Notice the yellow throat on this Yellow-rumped Warbler— it’s the “Audubon’s Warbler” subspecies. Those with a white throat and a black “mask” by their eyes are “Myrtle Warblers.” Both subspecies frequent our area, and they interbreed, or hybridize.
Another Wood-Warbler, the Townsend’s Warbler, is considered uncommon in winter, but its black and yellow face pattern brightens the day for my Christmas Bird Count team. We always find one along our route from Chetzemoka Park to Morgan Hill, including the one in this photo. We are lucky, since many Townsend’s Warblers spend winters in the highlands of Mexico and Guatemala. They’re a common summer resident on the Olympic Peninsula, and I’ve spotted them on hikes in the Olympic Mountains, feeding on insects and spiders high in the conifer canopy. Wood-Warblers, so colorful and active, are called the “butterflies of the bird world.” In case you’re wondering, the Townsend’s Warbler is unfortunately not named for Port Townsend, but for American ornithologist John Kirk Townsend, who first described it in 1834 during an expedition from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The Townsend’s Chipmunk is also named for him. The S’Klallam village Kah-tai was renamed Port Townsend by Captain Vancouver for his friend, the Marquis of Townshend.
Many local birders would say we have three spectacular ducks—Hooded Mergansers, Harlequin Ducks, and Wood Ducks. This is based on the showy males with brightly colored patterns of feathers on their heads. The females are gorgeous in their own way, but their less flashy coloration protects them when they’re nesting. In this photo at Kah Tai Lagoon, some drabber female Hooded Mergansers are grabbing aquatic insects with their thin, serrated bills. Unlike Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, both basically fish-eaters, Hooded Mergansers are quite the omnivores, diving for aquatic insects, fish, crustaceans, amphibians, vegetation, and mollusks. Their eyes are adapted to seeing underwater. I wish I could do that!
Once they form their monogamous pair bonds, which can last for years, you’ll see one male and one female Harlequin Duck paddling along our rocky beaches in winter months, foraging close to shore, sometimes stopping to stand on a boulder. They’re comfortable even with very turbulent seas! In our area they eat mostly marine invertebrates, small fish, and also insects. Then Harlequin Ducks head to a very different habitat for breeding—fast-flowing rivers in the Olympic Mountains and north to British Columbia and Alaska. They nest on the shores and eat aquatic insects such as midges, and fish eggs. I read on the website All About Birds that “Harlequin Ducks suffer more broken bones than any other species, and X-rays and museum specimens have determined that most adults live with multiple healed fractures.” They could have broken their bones in either habitat, the rocky coast or the rushing rivers. After the breeding season, you can see social gatherings of Harlequin Ducks, separated by sex. My favorite place to watch Harlequin Ducks is Ft. Flagler, where one September day I watched 21 females paddle in a row.
Since Harlequin Ducks eat midges, and I photograph any insect I find in the Olympic Mountains, I checked my photos, but only found this one paddling in our cats’ water dish— a furry Tribe Chironomini (Non-biting Midges Family Chironomidae). Wondering if it qualified as an aquatic midge, I asked Richard Lewis, who confirmed, “they are aquatic and they are usually the most diverse and abundant invertebrates in aquatic ecosystems. Only the immature stages live in the water feeding on organic matter. They serve two very important roles— as a primary consumer and as a food source to other aquatic insects, amphibians, and fish. The adult stage (pictured, male with plumose antennae) is terrestrial and only lives a few days. Many don’t feed at all, their only focus is reproduction. They too serve a vital role as a food source for birds, bats, others.” (Richard made no mention of cats eating midges they find in their water dishes!)
Another September day, this time at Kah Tai Lagoon, I was excited to see a Lesser Yellowlegs (photo on the left) beside the larger and longer-billed Greater Yellowlegs. Much more frequently I encounter the Greater Yellowlegs, a shorebird that eats mostly aquatic invertebrates. This Lesser Yellowlegs must have been pleased to catch a dragonfly, one of its favorite foods. They also seek other invertebrates like snails and beetles. It’s fun to sit at Kah Tai watching a Lesser Yellowlegs actively forage with neck outstretched.
Port Townsend is just a stopover site for the Lesser Yellowlegs, a migrating shorebird that breeds in meadows and open woodlands in boreal Canada. Thanks to the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, the Lesser Yellowlegs recovered from excessive hunting, when individual hunters sometimes killed hundreds. Unfortunately, it’s now on the Yellow Watch List for species with declining populations, due to loss of wetland habitats. I was shocked to learn that thousands of migrating shorebirds, including Lesser Yellowlegs, are still killed every year in parts of the Caribbean, especially on the islands of Barbados, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. We are grateful to Admiralty Audubon for helping protect Kah Tai Lagoon, where these shore flies and other wetlands insects are abundant in September when the Lesser Yellowlegs stops by. Richard Lewis noted, “Shore flies live in a diverse array of seashore and wetland habitats. They serve as an important food source and live in dense populations.” The top photo shows a Lesser Yellowlegs at Kah Tai surrounded by these flies.
Every year, pairs of Killdeer miraculously succeed in raising babies on the busy beaches of Point Hudson and Fort Worden. They build their shallow nests right on the ground among decaying driftwood. At Point Hudson, that’s between an RV parking area and the beach where people often don’t read the signs and let their dogs roam off leash. How do they survive? On All About Birds, I read, “The Killdeer is one of the most successful of all shorebirds because of its fondness for human-modified habitats and its willingness to nest close to people.” The Killdeer lives and nests all across the US, sometimes in driveways, parking lots, and golf courses. Although ours stay year-round in Port Townsend, not all are residents of one place. Some are called medium-distance migrants, breeding north into Canada. I’ve watched them forage in the sand for insects, such as grasshoppers and beetles. This one wandered out at low tide, probing every few seconds for tiny marine invertebrates.
9. Northern Flicker
Now for some woodpeckers! Did you know the Northern Flicker is a woodpecker? The one on the left was checking out the base of a tree in Chetzemoka Park. Flickers eat mainly insects, and they’re famous for eating ants, even digging into the soil to find them. Once I was hiking in Patagonia and saw some similar birds acting just like our Northern Flickers, gobbling insects on the trail in front of me… they were Chilean Flickers! I wasn’t surprised to learn that flickers’ tongues can extend two inches beyond the end of their bill to grab prey. The pair on the right are eating suet, and the female demonstrates her long tongue. Other invertebrates Northern Flickers find tasty are flies, butterflies, moths, and even snails. I wish they would stick to insects, instead of loudly drilling every morning on our heating vent.
Pileated Woodpeckers are frequently seen in our local state parks, like this one (on the left), checking the bark for insects at Anderson Lake State Park. About once a year a pair will visit our backyard for sunflower seeds and the suet my husband hangs in the garden. During one annual visit to our deck, this female (on the right) stuck out her long tongue to grab a tiny morsel, maybe an ant, off the railing. Pileated Woodpeckers are omnivores who also prefer insects, and like Northern Flickers, they like ants best! Almost half of their diet (up to 97% in some individuals) is ants. Why ants? Richard Lewis told me, “Ants are very high in protein and also provide other essential nutrients like zinc, iron, potassium.” Since Pileated Woodpeckers prefer carpenter ants, and also eat termites and cockroaches, they would be quite handy to have around the house. They consume other insects, including flies, caterpillars, and grasshoppers, as well as wild fruits and nuts. I’m not sure if they’re attracted to our local nettles, but back East, they do eat poison ivy.
A pair of Hairy Woodpeckers regularly visits our suet. A pair of Downy Woodpeckers also visits the suet. Although both love suet, both eat mainly insects, including beetle larvae that live inside wood or tree bark, as well as ants and caterpillars. On the right, a male Hairy Woodpecker is pulling beetle larva from a tree at the Land Trust’s Quimper West Preserve. You can tell both of these are males, with the red tuft on the back of their heads.
On the left is a Downy Woodpecker, smaller, with a shorter beak, and dark bars along the edges of his tail, also a male with the red tuft. On the right they’re together at our suet, not a great photo, but a chance to see the size difference. That’s a female Hairy above, with no red tuft. Both woodpeckers are known for eating “pest insects,” including tent caterpillars, bark beetles, and apple borers. I read an interview with Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy, who recommends instead of using pesticides and herbicides, to “let birds do their job to eat insects and grass seed in your garden.” He says birds themselves are “pretty good pesticides. They eat a lot of insects. Encourage birds.” He also suggests not to “take down dead wood or trees if they’re not going to cause a safety issue. Woodpeckers love them.” Parr gives further important advice. “Cats and collisions are the two (dangers) that kill the most birds every year.” We only take our beloved cats into the garden on a leash, and protect birds from colliding with reflections in our windows by installing these: www.birdsavers.com
Debaran Kelso is a local biologist who has studied owls for years. She told me, “Barred Owls will eat just about any kind of small to medium sized animal, which is what makes this recently arrived avian predator such a devastatingly successful competitor in the struggle for survival with their endangered smaller cousin, the Northern Spotted Owl.” Debaran explained that Northern Spotted Owls are old growth forest specialists. However, “Barred Owls are opportunistic generalist feeders (which are capable of using a variety of habitat types as well), taking a variety of prey types, anything from birds, mammals (including bats!), amphibians, reptiles, fish to insects!” I asked her if it was unusual for this Barred Owl to have consumed a moth right in front of my house? She said, “I have never seen them eat a moth, but I am not at all surprised; a study in Western Oregon showed that insects made up 14.4% of their diet. Moths in our area can be both large and numerous, and it would make perfect sense for the owls to incorporate moths into their diet whenever possible, along with other larger insects such as millipedes, beetles, and grasshoppers.”