Friday, April 27, 2012

David and Goliath

What are the odds of another bird and bee story so close on the heels of the last one?  Probably pretty high, considering the season, but I like this one.

My giant of a husband Moe (6'4", 280#), wages constant war with the carpenter bees on our back deck. Because I'm not fond of harmful insecticides, he keeps an old tennis racket handy to whack at the bees when we're supposedly relaxing with a nice glass of wine overlooking the backyard in the evenings.  The ongoing battle of Moe vs the carpenter bees is one of my greatest sources of entertainment.  It's a regular David and Goliath story. And as in the original version, David keeps winning.

Perhaps Moe will be pleased when I tell him about the well-equipped stranger who came to his assistance today.  I had just returned from morning yoga practice with my yayas when I heard the telltale ratatat of woodpecker just outside the bedroom door that opens onto the deck.  I assumed it was the red bellied friend that often comes to the feeder.

But no! Even without glasses I could tell by the size and color it was a pileated woodpecker hard at work on the banister. He stayed long enough for me to find glasses and phone. These shots had to be snapped through the glass, since opening the door would have scared the fellow off.  Hence, they're blurry.  Still, how thrilling, the gift of a pileated woodpecker. Not to mention funny. Wish I had thought to make a video of this guy.  I'm not sure he knew what to make of the bee that kept buzzing around his head.

And I don't know if Moe will be more grateful for the eviction of the bee or upset with the further damage done to the banister, but I was over the moon at the opportunity to observe a pileated woodpecker going eye-to-eye with a carpenter bee a dozen feet from where I stood. dkm

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Birds and the Bees

Pukeko G gets the honors for guessing first what caused my chickadees to abandon house and home. It was a buzzing bumblebee nest deep inside the chickadee nest.  The answer was slowly revealed, and got more surprising by the day as I watched, read, and learned. I originally thought Madame Chickadee had already laid her eggs, but when she abandoned the nest, I assumed she had gone somewhere else to lay them. I read online that chickadees often build several nests as back-up, and it is not unusual for them to move if they have to. So I sent them my best wishes for finding a good place in time for the coming of the eggs, happy in the hope that Nest B, wherever it was, would suit them better.

I did notice a fat bumblebee flying around abandoned Nest A when I eventually opened the house, and even took note of how fearless it was. It flew right to the nest and crawled on the mossy top while I was still peeking, but I thought only that the bee was curious. I didn't know enough then to imagine it was nesting in there.
Notice the blurry hovering bee at the door.
How could I not guess she was going to her nest?  But I didn't.

One article said to remove abandoned bird nests to encourage rebuilding, so after enough days to ensure the chickadees were permanently gone, I talked Moe into helping me with the task.  I don't know what I was afraid of, but I didn't want to do it alone.

He slipped it out of the box on a kitchen spatula. Imagine our surprise when the nest itself began to buzz. Not a soft buzz that could be chalked up to imagination. No. This was a furious insistent buzz that wouldn't quit. Moe laid the nest in the dry bed of a nearby birdbath, and we stood still to listen and wonder. Not only was it buzzing. It was vibrating. I whipped out my phone and began taking a video. One mossy depression in particular was shaking, and as my camera and I watched, out of that spot wiggled a huge fuzzy bumblebee.  It hovered over the hole for a moment with a piece of green moss hanging from its leg. It shook it off, then zoomed over my shoulder and away. I could not have been more surprised, but was thrilled to get it on video, already thinking what a great blog post it would make.

Still, I didn't get that the bee had a nest in there. I just thought it had gotten stuck, and I was its great liberator. But alas, after only one viewing, I deleted the video immediately.  Now I regret the hasty decision, but at the time, my background commentary so embarrassed me, I knew I would never post it. Let's just say it did not represent me well :-).  In the surprise of the moment I lost all pretense of acting like an adult. It's quite shocking to hear oneself in the act of being oneself.

But I digress. We left the box-shaped nest in the birdbath, thinking that was the end of the story. But two days later I heard it buzzing again.  That's when I finally realized there was a bumblebee nest inside and it was likely what had frightened off the chickadees. So I wrote that last blog post, asking for guesses, though it's clear to me now that most people, like Moe and Pukeko G, could figure it out right away. Two more days passed and the buzzing stopped.  A couple of pokes with a stick helped me decide the hot sun had sent the queen bumblebee packing.

Meantime, I read Patricia Lichen's coincidental and informative blog post about the nesting habits of a queen bumblebee, and it made me curious to see if there was such a colony inside our nest, now abandoned by everyone.  So yesterday I raked it apart with a couple of sticks and sure enough, found the remains of a hard waxy bumblebee colony along with another surprise that I didn't notice at all until I looked at the photos in my camera.

Remains of bumblebee colony that fell out of mossy nest when I raked it open.
Bumblebee colony turned over.

But look!  What's that in the lower right hand corner of the photo?
Just one lonely chickadee egg! 

To give you an idea of size.
See how precious and tiny.

Then came the biggest surprise of all.  The nest had fallen apart into two layers—top and bottom.  The bumblebee colony was in the bottom layer.  I had combed through both sections with my sticks, so I was pretty sure there was only one egg.  But just in case, I gently raked through the top layer one more time. And look what I found, carefully hidden under the downy cover.

So special and fragile. So well protected. They were probably doomed from the moment that queen bumblebee began her magnum opus, the great work of her life, but how heavy my heart to discover it now. Are the parents grieving? Will they mate again?  Have they begun a new nest? Oh, the beauty and brutality of the natural world. dkm

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What Harm Befell Them?

 My chickadees are gone. Just gone. As in not here anymore. Replaced by silence and mystery. The abandoned nest of green moss, grass, and oak pollen, was topped with fluff of chickadee down. No eggs. No eggshells. No completion of the work in progress. No farewell message. No hint as to what harm befell the poor things, and surely it was harm. What would cause a diligent pair of chickadees to abandon their nest so near hatching time, if not harm or threat to their safety?

I had watched them for only three days. His regular bringing of food to the doorway led me to believe she was keeping eggs warm, if not already brooding newly hatched young. Then on the fourth day all was quiet. Being only two weeks from the time of the building of the nest and not yet having heard tiny chirps, I'm pretty sure it was too soon for nestlings to have fledged. I watched for a few more days, making sure all nest activity had ceased before I dared open the box to peek inside. The only sign of activity was a large bumble bee flying around near the box. At first I thought the mother had died on her nest. On closer inspection, it turned out to be only fluff, or down.

In this day of hi-tech instant answers to questions, it seems inconceivable that we will never know what happened. Still, the wonder and mystery of the natural world is exactly that. Wonder and mystery. Even in a civilized backyard, we can never have all the answers. It is as it should be—and the reason for the magnetic attraction for all of us, is it not?

 I was so looking forward to seeing a chickadee family into the world. Was it my imagination that the mysterious black cat lurking in the bushes across the way on the morning of the fourth day of observation was licking his chops?  But now I have another guess that may be more likely. Will share it next post.  It has to do with what we found on April 7th when we removed the nest from the box, and what still buzzes there today. Anyone care to guess before I post pictures? dkm

Sir Chickadee at the door, March 28

Several days of silence and mystery

April 4th

Closer view, April 4th