Friday, March 26, 2010

Surprise of Surprises

Never EVER did I imagine that I, daughter of the chickadee-loving mother of the century, would shoo a Carolina chickadee from a birdhouse in my backyard. But shoo I did, and with vehemence, last Saturday when I heard and saw some chickadees storming the same house my bluebirds have been frequenting.

I was pulling ivy from around the Madame Moullieres on the opposite side of the yard when "there arose such a clatter" I was arrested from my work to see three chickadees chattering and fluttering around the house.

What they were doing, I haven't the faintest, for surely the bluebirds have already claimed that house. Was Ms. Blue inside? Were they trying to scare her off? I can't say, but I surprised myself as much as the chickadees, running like a madwoman at the house, waving my arms, shouting "Shoo! Shoo! You house thieves you!"

They left and I saw neither chickadee nor bluebird the rest of the day. Nor did I see any sign of them through the next three rainy days. I worried that my bluebirds had been run off.

But good news. The bluebirds are back. On Wednesday, another beautiful day, I saw them many times in and out of the house, and perching nearby. Yesterday, a rainy day, I saw him at the feeder and in the dogwood near his house. And today I saw her at the feeder several times. She looks fatter than before. Is she with egg? dkm

Friday, March 19, 2010

Understated Courtship, Bluebird Style

For a full ten minutes by the clock, from 8:50-9:00 a.m., my bluebird pair sat on the same dogwood branch, three feet apart, out-coying each other. I watched through binoculars from the house. They faced me, she, silent and still, he, preening his feathers with his beak. She appeared to give him no heed, but when he turned on the branch to face the opposite direction, so did she, where they sat for many seconds in more still silence, blue and gray backs to me. With riveted attention to each other, every movement from one elicited the same from the other. Sometimes he turned first, sometimes she, at odd intervals every minute or so, making sure they always faced the same direction.

Their game was a model of elegance in flirtation---that of feigned ignorance, yet heightened awareness. Eventually they flew off together, this marking the first mating behavior I've observed between them. I've seen them often since first sighting on March 8, but always individually. They come to the feeder independently of each other.

Throughout the day he traveled from dogwood branch to feeder to long slow perches near their house of choice. I only saw her two more times--once at the feeder and once peering from inside the house and flying out of it toward the woods. She's gone from the house more than in it. My guess is they have mated recently but she has not yet laid her eggs. After she left the house, he settled on it once, looked inside, then flew away in the same direction she had just gone. Checking for eggs? Looking for her? dkm

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Poised in Blue

The bluebird pair perseveres. Now I see the two often. In the trees. At the feeder. Flying off into sky. Perched on or near the copper-roofed house on the post in the back right corner of the yard. Today he sits long and still on the Confederate Jasmine trellis a few feet from his house of choice. He is puffy and fat, I think to keep warm on this chilly but sunny morning. He doesn't sing from his trellis perch. He only sits. She pokes her head out of the entrance to the house and holds her pose, too. Are they only staking their claim on the house, in preparation for what is to come? Or are they further along than that? Will keep watching. I can't imagine that she is already sitting on eggs---as I've not seen any carrying in of nesting grass---unless they're using last year's nuthatch nest.

Nor have I seen any flirtatious mating behaviors. They don't follow each other around the yard. I only ever see one or the other at a time---easy to identify by their color difference. Her head and back feathers are a subtle gray with a few blue feathers in her tail, rusty breast and buff belly. His back feathers, far from subtle, are deep sky blue that brighten in flight. His rusty breast is less dull than hers, same buff belly. Round black eye.

Imagine a small bird of blue where the hawk is sitting in top photo of last post, and you can see what I saw today. dkm

"The bluebird carries the sky on his back."
-Henry David Thoreau

Friday, March 12, 2010

Mystery Raptor

The unidentified bird of prey I wrote about on Wednesday (Surprising Hawk Poop) hung around the back yard throughout that rainy day. It seemed to be lost or forlorn or indecisive about what to do in the rain. It stayed near the ground, moving around to all the low perches in the yard---the arbors, the trellises, the benches, the birdbaths, the tomato stakes---even on the ground, where it behaved like a giant robin digging for worms.

Quite comical to watch, actually, because it seemed tentative and shy---not at all like I would have expected a hawk to behave, if it was hawk. It took careful steps on the rain-soaked ground, as if not fond of getting its toes wet, but needing to endure the discomfort to get the worm. Remembering the ribbon of poop I observed earlier in the day, I wonder if it was a sick bird.

Rain fell on and off all day, sometimes heavy rain. I imagine there were many worms on the surface, but since when do hawks eat worms? I thought they enjoyed a more gourmet diet, like birds, chipmunks, etc. And I would have expected it to take shelter from the rain, like everyone else did. The songbirds were nearly silent all day. Was that because of the rain or because there was a hawk in their house?

I got a few photos from a distance---poor photos, due to the rain and the ultimate zoom setting---but maybe they are enough for someone out there to be able to identify this lost bird of prey. Anyone? Click on the photos to enlarge them. dkm

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dr. Zinn on Bluebirds

I consulted my Indiana bird banding expert, Dr. Lisa Zinn, on the bluebird dilemma of March 9 post. Here's what she had to say.

"Bluebird populations used to be in trouble. The population had gone down considerably on the east coast. It turned out that when farmers switched from wooden fence posts (which are perfect for bluebird nests) to metal, a lot of potential bluebird nesting locations were lost. This combined with reforestation of much of the east coast was seeing a huge reduction in bluebird numbers. People rallied around the idea of putting up nesting boxes and bluebirds have come back in good numbers. I say this to emphasize that bluebirds are no longer in trouble and whether or not they successfully nest in your back yard has more to do with your personal pleasure than whether or not you are helping the survival of their species.

English sparrows are now called House sparrows in the U.S. and if you don't have them around, that makes things easier. Wrens are tricky. House wrens are very hardy and well adapted to all kinds of nesting locations. It really is fine, if you see a wren starting to use your bluebird box, to just brush out the first sticks. Your wren will have no trouble finding another spot to nest but the bluebird has very specific needs. Again, if you enjoy watching the wrens, then you can just let the bluebird go elsewhere. At Merry Lea we have maybe 40 nesting boxes. We don't clear out wrens. Probably a quarter of them will have bluebirds nesting, the rest will have nesting tree swallows or house wrens. I think that is fine and I don't interfere with whatever bird is nesting. We do spread a cayenne pepper mixture on the nest box poles to try and keep the racoons, squirrels and snakes from predating the nests. Have fun watching your birds. I look forward to having you come and help with bird banding in June."

Sounds like Bluebird Bob's book may be a bit outdated. I'm relieved to have permission to go back to just watching, which is the original intent of this blog---simply to observe and record what I see.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Surprising Hawk Poop

I can't find a single likeness in any of my bird ID books, including old Roger Tory, to the giant hawk that breezed in, silent and low, to sit for awhile in the dogwood tree at the back of the yard. Wingspan was enormous. It settled on the bare branch in the rain with its back toward me, so I know it wasn't our red-tail, unless it was a juvenile whose color is not fully developed. But too early in spring for little hawks---and this one was HUGE.

It's back and shoulders were speckled brown and white, its tail, horizontally striped shades of brown, and the top of its head was definitely white. Relatively large head, short tail---maybe an owl, but head shaped more like a hawk's.

Whatever it was, as I watched through the binoculars, it stood up tall on its legs, elevated its rear end and let go with a long liquid ribbon of pure white poop that reached nearly all the way from branch to ground before it stopped coming, a distance of 8-10 feet. dkm

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Hard Dilemma

Until last year I had not seen bluebirds in the backyard. Have they just come to this area, or has my new practice of paying close attention revealed what has been here all along? Don't know the answer to that, but, as I wanted to learn more about attracting them, I sent for a free book online about bluebirding.

I learned more than I wanted to know from Bluebird Bob, namely that if you don't have the heart to trap and kill an English house sparrow, you should never install a bluebird box. Also that house wrens are a serious problem, and one should remove their early nesting sticks to prevent their setting up housekeeping in areas where bluebirds nest.

This is a classic case of being happier with less knowledge. NOW what do I do? Fortunately we don't have English sparrows here, at least I've not identified them, but what about the intense pleasure I got from observing and here chronicling my house wren families last spring from first nesting stick in April to last fledge in July?

True, I did observe the tiny bubbling but feisty house wren drive away a male bluebird twice his size. But also true, I doubt that I could ever interfere with the natural nesting habits of any bird in my yard. In defense of myself I put up the bird houses to attract wrens, nuthatches, titmice, and chickadees---never intending to attract bluebirds b/c I didn't know they were around. Does my prior ignorance relieve me of the present responsibility of preventing house wren nests? For more information, google Bluebird Bob.

Today my skybacked bluebird with the rusty breast is in and out of the box from which he was driven last summer. Here's hoping his earlier attempt at the same house this year will bring him triumph. Will see how the drama plays out when the house wrens begin nesting in April. dkm

Monday, March 8, 2010

Wonder of Wonders . . .

. . . Miracle of miracles, a pair of bluebirds is researching the copper-roofed birdhouse this morning---the same day I embark on a new game plan for the manuscript that has consumed the last five years of my life. Here's hoping the bluebirds will be my companions through this 8th, (8th! ) revision. If I complete it within a nesting season, THAT will be a miracle, too.

So I set a new goal today. Finish the 8th draft of The Wayback Letters by the time the last clutch of bluebirds fledges. (August?)

Last year, a male bluebird attempted the same birdhouse, but my feisty father housewren, whose nest I chronicled in this blog, drove him off. Mr. Bluebird must have persevered somewhere nearby, however, b/c I saw a pair of adult bluebirds occasionally throughout the 2009 season, and even spied a fledgling on the tomato stakes one day in late summer.

I've not seen or heard signs of the housewren nesters yet this season. They don't usually begin until April. Clever bluebirds beat them to it. Early bird gets the house. dkm

Sunday, March 7, 2010

On the Move

Red-winged blackbirds by the thousands are moving through Decatur on their way to wetter places north. They are one of our most common songbirds and considered pests by some, but who in this part of the country, where we see them only a few weeks in the spring and fall, isn't dazzled by their bright red epaulettes underlined in cadmium yellow against sleek dark bodies? And who isn't mesmerized by the ebb and flow of their flight patterns when they weave back and forth across the sky, like a giant undulating spotted cloud?

I was lucky enough to be already standing on the back deck of the house, one story above ground level, when this morning's flock of hundreds settled first into the bare tree branches around the perimeter of the yard with deafening chatter, then with a single swoop, onto the gound, nearly covering the back lawn. I didn't move, knowing how easily they startle. As I watched, some imperceptible signal alarmed them all into taking wing as one, heading up over the house top behind me, which meant they flew straight toward my head by the beating hundreds.

I stood firm against their rapid approach without a blink, feeling as brave as The Witch of Blackbird Pond. The visual impression left by those vibrating wing tops, made orange by the mix of red and yellow, and evenly saturating the ominous blackness that fluttered directly toward me was a natural work of art I will not soon forget.
Old photo/wrong season/oak trees in background are currently bare/but shows where I stood holding my ground against the blackbirds today. The Witch of Pinetree Deck? dkm

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pure and Rounded Pearl

It's snowing outside---in Georgia! ---the kind of thick chunky whiteness one can barely see through. Every window in the house reveals a Kodak moment. The ground was covered after only ten minutes of heavy snowfall, but too warm to support the crystals for long. The birds are flocking to the feeders, which they also did at the beginning of our last snowstorm.

I have no appointments today. Wahoo! It's what I call a Virginia Woolf day---to quote her exactly, "a pure and rounded pearl."

I called my dear neighbor Frances, age 92, for permission to enter her Southern Magnolia that inspired the story I'm working on. She was delighted to share the history of the tree, planted by her husband over 60 years ago, and graciously allowed me to hide for awhile in its treehouse interior to watch the snow from inside out. I imagined myself to be Maggie, my runaway character.

When I stepped inside the darkness, created by the low thick evergreen leaves and upshoots all around me, some of which are good-sized trunks in their own right, the world became a new place, silent and safe. The contrast of the warm deep shade within to the chilly bright white without was mesmerizing. Sparing you the emotional impact the experience had on me, it was a moment to write about. Will save that for another venue---Maggie's story.

More on this spectacular tree another day. For now, notice its size next to the car. dkm