Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bluebird Nestwatch, Day 63

When you watch a nest every day, you don't see so many changes from one day to the next, but across days. The baby blues are clearly growing bigger and louder and hungrier, and the parents enter the house with their floppy morsels at increasingly shorter intervals, but otherwise, there hasn't been much new to report. If I sit too close they don't come at all, so I stay back about ten yards.

A few days ago, both parents began entering only halfway through the doorway, leaving tipped up tail and rump to protrude outside as they stuff their offerings into the throats of their offspring. Today, there's a bigger slight change.  Now, both parents stay fully outside the doorway when they arrive, ducking only head and beak through the hole to make their deliveries. Those growing screaming nestlings must be standing tall, reaching and craning their necks long.

 I wonder if either Mr. or Mrs. Blue feel intimidated or exhausted by the loud crying. Ay yi yi, like quarreling selfish siblings, these nestlings are. Their devoted parents are flying ragged trying to keep up with the demand.

Waiting and silent

All hell breaks loose inside



Alright, alright, be patient, already! 
There's more where this came from. 
Your mother is right behind me. 
You are NOT going to go hungry.  


This is the twelfth day since estimated hatching, so it's soon time, given the reported 15-21 days from hatch to fledge. But alas, I'll miss it, as I leave for Boston trip tomorrow. Will try to entice Moe or Sarah or Nick or Mak into a few days of nest watching, so as to be able to record the day and count the fledglings. If lucky, the fledge will be this weekend, while the kids are out of school. They'll know when it's time by the poking out of heads and shoulders that goes on for long minutes before the fluffy speckled newbies get up nerve to make the leap. I hope my grandchildren can witness the breathless and magical moments of the fledge---and tell me about it. dkm

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Bluebird Nestwatch, Day 56

Proof positive of live bluebird nestlings this morning. The first day I can hear the cries of their little bluenesses. Fifty-six days since first mating ritual was noticed. Seventeen days since estimated laying of the eggs.  Five silent but busy days since estimated hatch. Today's observed pattern: Mr. & Ms. Blue overlap each other with their feeding visits to the nest. Mama makes a delivery to the house, invoking a multitude of tiny chirps, the first I've heard this watch. The new racket of nestling chirps goes on while she's in there, then quiets as soon as she flies off in search of more groceries. Meantime, he has arrived and waits on a cherry twig with a dangling morsel in his beak. He might smash it a few times against the branch he sits on.  When she vacates, he enters, and the little racket starts up again.  He stays only long enough to stuff the morsel down somebody's throat then offs again for another round. Neither parent stays at the door long enough to get a good photo, so I tried a video---to record the tiny racket that comes with each new delivery. Voila!
dkm

video

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bluebird Nestwatch, Day 51

  I think, I hope, it's possible…they've hatched. Circumstantial evidence suggests hungry new nestling bluebirds, still too tiny to peep. Not 100% sure, since I can't hear them yet, but there's a lot more entering and leaving of the nest today, by both parents, at closer intervals, like every ten minutes. At least once I saw him enter when she was away, with a morsel that he prepared by smashing it on a bare branch before taking it in. Feeding babies?

But, boo-hoo, unless I've calculated wrong, this means I'll miss the fledge, as I'm scheduled to be out of town from April 27 to May 10th. Guidebooks offer different timetables, but the range for time from hatch to fledge is generally 15-21 days. If today is hatching day, then fledge day could be anytime from Apr 28-May 4. Poor timing for a trip.

Worthy trip, though. First to Boston for the New England SCBWI spring conference, then to Lansing, Michigan for one daughter's graduation, followed by a birding expedition at Indiana's Chain O' Lakes State Park.

 If I clean out the nest on return from trip, and if I'm lucky, the bluebirds will start another brood. The other two bluebird nestwatches I've conducted both ended in disappointment. One year I missed the moment of fledge for a doctor's appointment (grrr!). Another year the eggs never hatched (reason unknown), though the parents gave it a valiant effort, tending the eggs for about two weeks beyond normal hatching time before finally abandoning them.

Here's hoping 2016 will be the year. dkm

The eggs that never hatched,  May 2012 


One day after missing  the fledge, May 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Bluebird Nestwatch, Day 47

Notes on 47th day after observing the bluebird mating behavior, and ten days after beginning formal observations of the resulting nest for one hour/day, not always at same time:


Mating behavior observed on Feb. 23rd.
Became aware of nest building in mid-March. 
Estimated egg laying date to be sometime during the last week of March.
Began formal nestwatch on April 2, several days after they showed signs of routine nest tending, described below. 
Pretty sure she's still sitting on eggs in the house, and has been for over ten days.
Can't hear tiny chirps yet. 
Hatch expected any day now, given the two-week incubation time reported for bluebirds. 
He comes to the feeder often and visits the nest in the green house regularly to relieve her.
His visits follow a pattern.
They have an impressive tag team operation going. 
No matter the hour of observation, I see pretty much the same routine:
All will be quiet when I arrive.
Then, at least once during my hour, sometimes twice, they follow this pattern:

1. Sooner or later he arrives on a nearby perch and watches for a few minutes. No singing. Just watching. He may move around between 5 or 6 favorite watch posts (different branches, one of three tall iron tulip sculptures, the basketball goal, the hummingbird hanger, or the top frame of the backyard swing).
2. Eventually he drops to the ground, pulls out a worm, and enters the house with it, if he doesn't already have one dangling from his beak when he arrives. 
3. He stays inside for all of 2 or 3 seconds, then emerges to one of his perches. Is his purpose to feed her? Wake her? Notify her of his arrival? All of the above?
4. In less than a minute after his short visit, she emerges and flies off. 
5. He hangs around while she's gone, moving from perch to perch, ever vigilant of the environs, but doesn't enter the house. 
6. She returns after a short away. I've timed her. Never gone more than seven minutes, or less than four.
7. Once she re-enters the house, he flies off and all is quiet again, until his next visit.
8. The latest I've observed this cycle is 7:00p. Then all goes long-time quiet, presumably for the night.  

I never hear him sing, now that the period of courtship is over. Both parents tend the nest in silence. If I weren't intentionally watching for them, I might never have noticed their presence.

Silence, that is, until a squirrel approaches the house from above or below. It doesn't happen often and not for long, because Mr. Bluebird chases them off with much dive-bombing and loud clicking. Whether it happens during one of her brief absences or when she's on the nest, he's there in a flash. Obviously he doesn't stray far, even when she's home.  

They are the model of elegant dependability in their habits, these bluebirds. I should take a lesson. dkm


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Bluebird Nestwatch 2016, Day 40

Bluebirds are in the house, the result of courtship behavior reported in last post. So I begin a formal daily watch of the new green bluebird house on the loblolly pine trunk in the backyard. New last year, that is, but nobody nested in it, presumably due to the squirrel that sat on the roof all the time, twirling and nibbling an acorn in its paws, like it thought Moe Miller installed a well-supported shelf on the tree just for him—or her.

But this year—oh lovely this—the bluebirds, early nesters that they are, beat him to it. Not to be trifled with, Mr. Blue makes a loud clicking sound and dive bombs any squirrel that comes near. Mild mannered bluebirds, come to find out, are as fiercely protective as any species when threatened, but otherwise are more secretive in their nesting habits than the gregarious housewrens of years past.  While Mr. Housewren sings his bubbly heart out from a nearby perch throughout the nesting cycle,  Mr. Blue sings his quiet murmury song only during courtship. Then once he and his mate settle on their home of choice, they get to work building their nest, and he stops singing. Between the bluebirds' quiet ways and my pre-occupation with other activities, I almost forgot about them this year, until I noticed, mid-March, a few silent comings and goings to and from the new house with small pieces of nesting material in their beaks—mostly moss, I think.

By now she is definitely sitting on eggs, which must be nearing hatch date, considering he's been protecting the house for days, quietly hanging around on nearby perches, bringing her sustenance, or scaring off squirrels. She occasionally comes to the doorway for longing looks into the world and flies out for short periods, but mostly I see only him. One of his favorite perches is the basketball backboard.

Notice the fallen cherry blossoms, too.  Gorgeous this year. 
Not exactly sure where in the chronology of the nest they are. I know from past watches, bluebirds require about two weeks from laying date to hatching date---and about two more weeks to fledge date.  What I don't know is how long from courtship to egg day. Since I was lucky enough to witness their polite mating behavior on Feb 23, which I'll call Day 1, I should be able to count backwards from the eventual fledge day to learn the answer to that question. I could find out online, no doubt, but it's ever so much more fun to discover it via my own daily observations.  I'm 39 days late to the party, but I begin the watch today. I'll report back. dkm

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Blue Boy

Joie de vivre! What a thing to witness, the courtship of the bluebirds in the cherry tree. His sweet and repeated chewww, chu, chu, chu calls me to window from desk in The Aerie. Thanks to his blue blue back on bare bare limbs, it takes only seconds to find them. Her grayness without him would have forced a longer search.

He sidles up to her on the branch. She demures and scoots further out. He scoots toward her again. She flies away. He follows her into the woods. I return to my desk. All morning long I hear his plaintive chewwww, chu, chu, chu. It's a rainy day. Poor boy. He's so painfully obvious. dkm
Taken another year, after the leaves were out, but you get the idea

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Longsitting or Sabbath?

Chief among the things I craved when I retired from fulltime teaching was not to be in a hurry all the time. My first act of slowing down was to re-read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, hoping to rekindle the same sense of awe I had felt the first time I read it. Little did I know the extent to which Dillard’s chapter 2 on “Seeing” would altar my way of being when it first inspired me to begin the intentional practice of sitting outside for an hour a day, noticing the earth around me.

Later I learned to call it “mindfulness,” but at the time, I thought of it as simple attention. I was a first grade teacher, afterall. I knew the importance of paying attention. I had made a career of teaching children to do just that.

Sitting outside to notice the earth reminded me of a first grade lesson I had taught often, for which I gave my students a 36-inch length of string with instructions to lay it in a circle on the grass, then to sit still and watch the space inside the ring, while I timed them for one silent minute. At the end of the minute, without talking, we returned to the classroom to write or draw what we had seen. The children’s observations never failed to wow me, their reflections every bit as profound as an adult’s, their expressions cuter.

Another thing. For 29 years, I had spent 30 minutes a day on a playground bench, watching children run and climb and discover new wonders of their world. I depended on the short daily respite, recognizing it as essential for student and teacher alike. Most people call it recess. I remember it as a kind of daily Sabbath. The calm that returned to the classroom after recess was palpable and nourishing. It was the quiet that comes after a time of mental freedom, after being out from under any form of direct instruction.

So it was against this backdrop of my teaching life that I re-read Annie Dillard’s words about seeing. One easy leap stretched my long established routine of daily outside recess into sitting for a full hour per day in the quiet of my own backyard—at the end of the hour to journal about the most significant thing observed. I called it “longsitting.” The opportunity for Sabbath this habit now offers me is a sacred gift I never could have anticipated.

Every sitting inspires a new question, a fresh perspective, or leaves me breathless in wonder. I have learned to expect the unexpected by its regularity, yet I continue to be surprised by it. Daily contrasts of the beauty and the brutality of nature make themselves vividly explicit in the finest detail, and lead me to raw enlightenments about life and death and the regenerating genius of the natural world.

Ordinary observations became extraordinary under scrutiny. The crazed antics of a baby squirrel in the grass while the mother watched nearby. The terrible anguish of a live mourning dove being torn apart by a broadwinged hawk in the driveway. The maniacal calls of a barred owl at dusk. The blind perseverance of a chewing caterpillar. The mighty struggle of a tufted titmouse that inexplicably fell to the ground at my feet. The avian acrobatics of a just-fledged family of white-breasted nuthatches. The pre-dawn murmurs of waking birds that gradually swell to a full-blown hallelujah chorus as the sun rises. Season-long nestwatches of house wrens or Carolina chickadees or bluebirds, from the first quiver and fluff mating routines, through the noble and patient care of their young, the clamor of nestlings, the breathtaking thrill of their moment of fledge, my fervent wishes for their safety. The mystery of dozens of varieties of mushrooms after a rainy few days. If their only job is to consume the decay on the earth, why their spectacular beauty? The dazzling black-eyed Susans in odd corners of the yard, planted by birds, not by me. The snatching of a meandering butterfly out of the air by a swift gray bird I could not identify. A pale crescent moon lingering in a pastel sky at 11:00 a.m. The tattered wing of a tiger swallowtail, and the history it suggests. The frenzy of a mob of protective bluejays chasing off a red-shouldered hawk. The first chilly morning, signaling a change of season. The curiosity of why pine needles sparkle when hanging in the sunlight, yet look and feel dull and sticky and non-reflective in the hand. The fall of one leaf on the only ride of its life that spawned large and small questions of life and death and decay and new growth. The lessons of the cherry blossom, the pinetree, the earthworm, the ant, the breeze, the lightning storm. The luxury of fearlessness afforded a hummingbird by its power of ZOOM when it hovered just inches from my face for an eye-to-eye inspection. The frightening but thrilling approach of any wild creature, come to investigate the mysterious longsitting human.
           
On the wings of encounters like these comes the gift of Sabbath, in exchange for the simple act of paying attention. dkm  

“The secret of seeing is a pearl of great price . . . But although the pearl can be found, it cannot be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: Although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise. . . I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam . . . The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff . . .”
                                      ~from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard


Thursday, August 27, 2015

House Wren Mystery Unsolved

When common house wrens moved into my new $165 artisan bluebird house this summer,  I had to conjure up a benevolent attitude toward them at first. The wrens worked tirelessly to fit their sticks through the narrow entry hole. Nevermind that the house was constructed to discourage little brown birds and was priced accordingly. After many failures, dropped sticks, and continued tries, they learned to tilt their heads to give the sticks just enough of a vertical angle to fit through the oblong hole. Sometimes the sticks were too long at any angle. Those, they learned to poke end-first through the hole. To watch them was to be awed by their effort.  How could I begrudge them their desire for a nice home for their coming family?

Besides, while I love the self-effacing murmur of the eastern bluebird, nothing draws me to the backyard swing better than the tantalizing song of a male house wren in full mating mode. Constantly repeated and remarkably loud for such a tiny bird, his bubbly warble goes on for long seconds, impossible to imitate or describe or resist. Once you have intimate knowledge of the house wren's meandering aria, it becomes an instantly recognized favorite in the repertoire of the backyard opera.

So, bluebird issue aside, I resigned myself to enjoying the house wrens, and embarked on Nestwatch 2015, meaning one hour of meditation and outdoor observation per day on the backyard swing until the house wrens fledged. Things went as expected until a mystery developed that I still don't know the answer to and may never know. The wrens were nearing the end of their rightful nesting sequence. She had accepted his offer, laid her eggs, and tended them well. He flaunted his accomplishments near or atop the house. Whether boasting or protecting, I couldn't say, but he sang his heart out all day every day in the weeks from first attraction to the approaching day of fledge. By that time the nestlings' squawks, at first barely audible from inside their elegant house, were getting louder and more demanding every day. Both parents worked full-time from sunup to sundown bringing morsels of food to the doorway and carrying little white fecal sacs from the nest.

Then one morning, thinking the time of fledge was near, and not wanting to miss the exhilarating moment, I took up my watch on the swing before the sun was above the horizon. The sky had lightened, but the dawn chorus had not yet begun. I love being out early enough to hear the waking murmurs of the backyard birds during nesting season—low and soft at first, until suddenly one bird sings out, then all hell breaks loose, making it difficult to identify who is singing what from which corner of the yard.

On this particular morning, the quiet was first broken by the identifiable Mr. House Wren, who flew to his roof from somewhere in the woods and began his Pavarotti impression. Within a few seconds, Mrs. House Wren emerged from the house on a rapid-fire mission of fury. She pushed him off the roof with an angry sounding chit chit chit chit chit! She might as well have said, "You woke the babies, you bastard! What were you thinking? I've told you a thousand times not to start up that racket this early." She chased him across the clear space in the yard where they disappeared into the low bushes and continued their wild kerfuffle. After the noise died away, she flew back to the house, and he disappeared, never to return. Ever.

In the days that followed, she alone brought food to her little squawkers, but she couldn't seem to keep up with their demand. Was it my imagination that she looked thin and exhausted, that she came less and less often, that the tiny squawks got dimmer? Then one evening, about a week after the father had gone missing, the squawks became so weak I had to put my ear to the entry hole to hear them at all. The next morning the nest box was silent and entirely without activity. That's how it is after a fledge—instant stillness—but it doesn't usually happen so early in the morning. You can often spy the new fledglings hopping in the bushes and trees near the nest box for a few days afterward. Some years I've stuck around long enough to observe one of the adults return to clean out the nest box on the day of the fledge. But on this day, there was none of that. The quiet felt deadly and complete.

Fearing the worst, I was too squeamish to peek inside the house. I chose, instead, to go with the theory that I had simply missed the fledge. Yet the real mystery of why the father disappeared that day remains unsolvable. Why did the mother chase him off?  Did he stay away because of the chase, or did he come to some unknown harm, like cat or hawk?  The mystery seems all the more curious, because in the years I've been conducting my nestwatches, I've never known a father of a successful nesting venture to abandon ship before fledge time. dkm

   

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Audacity of the Cowbird

A surprising observation outside my window sent me searching through my bird books yesterday.

For several days my daughter had been pointing out a bird we've not seen at the feeder before. While I pride myself in knowing all the species in our backyard, I didn't recognize this one. It was about the size (a little smaller) and shape of a blackbird, beak and all, but was a light mousy brownish gray all over. It had a slightly darker eye-stripe and a barely discernible pattern of lines on the folded wing feathers. In general it was a dull and unremarkable bird, and might have gone unnoticed, but for its unusual behavior of quivering on the bannister for long minutes at a time with wide gaping beak, giving us a good look at its finer features.

I finally decided it was a new fledgling that hadn't yet developed its adult coloring and that it must still be confused about how to survive in the wide world. When smaller birds came to the feeder, it stepped the begging up a notch. Poor thing, I thought. I hope he finds his own parents or figures out how to get his own food before the neighbor's cat finds him. He won't last long in this world by sitting and begging.

But then, oh surprising then, his begging paid off. A tiny frail song sparrow sidled up to the insistent youngster thrice her size and, I could hardly believe my eyes, stuffed a small morsel of food into that gaping throat with great fluttering effort. Whaaat? This I had never seen, an adult of one species feeding the young of another.

After much page flipping and reading, I learned I had witnessed the unhappy result of the invasive behavior of the brown-headed cowbird. Unhappy for the song sparrow, that is---pretty happy for the cowbird, who lays and abandons its eggs in smaller passerine/perching birds' nests, leaving its young to be incubated, hatched, and cared for at the sacrifice of the host parents' young. What we had seen was a fledgling female brown-headed cowbird being fed by her foster mother, a beautiful little song sparrow, run ragged by the cowbird's insatiable appetite.

I could forgive this young cowbird its instinctual behavior if it hadn't happened at the peril of the devoted song sparrow's rightful eggs. I can't say for sure what happened to them, but I can guess. I learned that cowbird eggs hatch in only ten days, compared to the fourteen days of the chosen host's eggs, and that the first-hatched cowbird nestlings push the other eggs out of the nest so as to hoard all the food for their own greedy selves.

Today, here they are again. Now the cowbird follows the song sparrow more aggressively, and the sparrow appears to be trying to get away---but every now and then she gives in and feeds the big crybaby.

Cowbirds never build nests. They always rely on other birds to rear their young. This results in a 90% failure rate for cowbirds, yet they are replacing themselves fast enough to be expanding their own population, while reducing the populations of the more desirable passerines they victimize.

I wish I didn't know this. I can't help making the application to the human world, and the thought is alarming. dkm  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Power of a Simple Moment


I watched a father bluebird
feed his fledgling this morning
and I cried.
dkm