Monday, July 4, 2016

The Daring Moment of Fledge

Bingo! Yesterday! The thrill! The joy! The heartswelling breathlessness of it! Of witnessing a nestling bluebird's courageous virgin flight. For courage she must have, to fling herself out of the house with nothing solid beneath her for the first time ever. It's an effort that requires mastery on the first attempt. Otherwise, disaster. Imagine it.

I often get accused of hyperbole by the thoughtful and dignified people in my circle of family and friends. Perhaps they've never watched and waited for a nestful of new baby blues to gather the courage for this:

July 3rd: You can do this, little bird!
I give up. Can't get video to play. You'll just have to believe it's a breathtaking moment...
Moe opening house on June 15 to aim camera blindly inside

 Photo taken June 15, not sure of laying date

Hatched on June 18, Day 1

Growing, June 23, Day 6

Almost ready, July 2, Day 15

Any second now, July 3, Day 16

I wonder what elegant moment in nature excited Henry David Thoreau's hyperbolic exuberance when he wrote:

"Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature ~ rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense!"

Could it have been something as common as the fledge of a bluebird?  dkm

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

May No Cowbird Lay an Egg in Your Nest . . .

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars. 

-Walt Whitman, poet (31 May 1819-1892) 

A second bluebird clutch is in the making! So it's come full circle. The first brood has fledged and gone, and the parents are starting over. I never tire of nest watching, but I imagine it gets old reading about it, so after one last post about the Family Blue that stole my affections this year, I promise I'll find some new wonders to ponder.

For almost a month, I've enjoyed watching the gray-backed, speckle-breasted, blue-tailed fledgelings on the gutter, bannister, feeder, and bath—more often than not, in attendance by their father, occasionally by their mother—usually begging to be fed— mostly being refused— but shown by example how to feed themselves. Good parenting. Gradually, I saw less and less of the fledglings as they gained independence.

Then one day, about three weeks after leaving the nest, they flew off into the woods and were gone for good—but not without holding a unique family pow-wow that I was lucky enough to observe. What to make of what I saw, I can only guess.

What I saw:
On May 22nd, the two remaining speckled youngsters flew to the roof of their natal house after not having returned to it since the day of their April 30th fledge, at least not that I had seen. With great pomp, they strutted around on the roof, long enough for me to wonder what they were doing. When one of them crawled down to poke its head into the doorway, both parents swooped in immediately, as if to express displeasure at this development. The mother covered the entrance hole with her body and wings while the father flitted around in the branch that hangs directly in front of the house. The youngsters went back to the top of the roof and stayed there. The father kept up his fluttering while the mother maintained her spread-winged position covering the doorway. After a couple minutes of this unusual behavior, both fledglings took off into the woods. The father stilled, the mother relaxed her posture, and eventually they too flew away together. This happened over a week ago, and I've not seen the young bluebirds since.

What I wonder, in retrospect:
Am I conjecturing too much to think the parents were telling their young they dare not return to the house, and that it was time for them to make their own way in the world?  I'd like to think it was something of a farewell ceremony.

A few days later, during my regular hour of long-sitting, I observed this:
The father flew to the nesting house again and again, entering and leaving and perching on the low hanging branch in front of the doorway.  He sometimes had a piece of grass in his beak when he entered, but not always. I would have thought he was building a new nest for the next brood (we had cleared out the old nest), but I've read that only the female builds the nest while the male watches and wards off competitors. Was he an evolved male bluebird, intending to help his mate with the work? I doubt it. While I was still watching, she came to investigate the box, going in and out a few times without any grass in her beak. Then he returned dangling a long piece of grass from his beak and simply perched on the branch, still watching her go in and out. Eventually she flew away. He dropped the grass and flew after her.

What I think it meant:
I'm no ornithologist, but I'm pretty sure I was witness to that moment of agreement between the two that the place he had selected met with her approval. He had laid a few blades of grass to prove his worthiness, lured her to inspect his handiwork, then hung around with that long floppy grass dangling from his beak as if to make sure she knew he was the guy. Because once she gave her consent and flew off, he dropped that grass like a hot potato to follow her. It was clear he had things on his mind that had naught to do with anymore nest construction. This I think because for the next few days I heard his plaintive mating call. Chew-chu-chu-chu, all day long.

Then on May 28th, she alone began bringing grass to the house at a rapid-fire pace, and he went silent. For two days he sat on the low branch watching her work. I did see him go after a passing cardinal, a blue jay, and several squirrels with his famous flapping and clicking, but I don't think any of them were interested in his nesting box. Mostly his behavior appeared to be justification for his idleness, or displays of bravery to impress his hard working mate. Still, let me not be too hard on him, because I know from last nestwatch, he'll make up for it when he begins to feed the nestlings, and later protects and trains the fledglings to independence. It actually appears to be a fairly equitable division of labor. Efficient and logical, as are most things in nature.

Quiet for the time being
But after those two days of high energy nest building on her part and protecting on his, we've now had relative quiet for the last two days. They both go in and out of the house occasionally, but mostly she's nowhere to be seen and he's hanging around the nearby branches. Looks like waiting to me—for egg laying time. I did see him feed her today on a branch, after which she flew off and he went back to his post. I don't think she has laid any eggs yet, but time will tell.

One thing I'm keeping my eye on.  I've heard a cowbird in the vicinity and saw one perched on a favorite branch of Mr. Blue's today. Here's hoping no cowbird eggs get deposited in the bluebird nest!  I'll keep watching and counting days, as in last nestwatch, but I plan, assuming no cowbird mishap, to go back to blogging about other surprises in the yard until it's time for the next bluebird fledge. I intend not to miss it this time.  dkm

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Amendment to Last Bluebird Post

My hypothesis about a one-egg clutch has been proven false. Aren't they cute? When one of the parents comes near, they all open their mouths and crane their necks. But the parents don't feed them. Instead they hop to the feeder and show them what to do. I hope they're also learning to get worms from the earth. I don't think sunflower seeds are supposed to be their primary diet. dkm

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Bluebird Timeline

They've fledged!  My best estimate of the overall timeline for this year's bluebird nestwatch, calculated by daily observations and counting backward from day of fledge:

Day 1             Feb 23                  Mating behavior observed
Days 1-37      Feb 24-Mar 31     House exploration and nest building
                                                      (37 days)  
Day 37           Mar 31                  Egg laying day
                                                      (perhaps across several days?)
Days 38-51    Apr 1-14               She sits on egg(s) / he protects nest
                                                      (14 days)
Day 51           Apr 14                  Egg hatching day
Days 52-67    Apr 15-30             Both parents feed nestling(s)
                                                       (16 days)
Day 67           Apr 30                   Fledge day

The moment of fledge likely came sometime on Saturday, April 30th. As expected, I missed it due to traveling, but family at home reported lots of parental nest tending on Friday, that they made no observations on Saturday, that the nest box was totally abandoned and silent on Sunday morning (May 1st).

Having returned from trip on May 9th, I've since caught daily backyard glimpses of one speckled fledgling, always closely attended by a parent, often being fed by said parent on the banister near feeder. Appears to be just one newbie. Don't know if only one fledged or if others were snatched by hawk or owl (I hear a barred owl every evening). I'm going with the theory of a one-egg clutch from the beginning, since the nestling cries were never very loud. I had actually worried that the clutch wasn't healthy, because they didn't make the racket I remember from years past.

All in all, even if only one fledged, it was a successful nesting venture. Whatever happened, the one looks hale and hearty.  Not sure yet if male or female. Will watch as new breast and back feathers grow in. Already it comes to the feeder with its daddy.

See its still speckled breast as it peeks around the feeder.

Its new blue tail

Its fluffy innocence

Good news: Today I heard the male bluebird's mating call start up again. Chewwww-chu-chu.
Day 1 of next brood? No trips planned for the next 67 days. Yay.

I may have missed the bluebird fledge, but happiness of all happinesses, Moe and I were witness to a significant fledge in our own family---that of our firstborn daughter's PhD graduation and hooding ceremony at Michigan State University on May 6th. A glorious day from start to finish, full of breathtaking moments. But none more tender than watching her wait on stage, tall and proud and confident, while her advising professor spoke with eloquence about her considerable accomplishment. Our hearts swelled, our tears flowed.

 I wonder if the bluebirds felt the same pride on the day they watched their young take flight. dkm       

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!

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