Saturday, April 28, 2018

Knock Knock...Who's There?

I kept hearing a tap tap tapping on the dining room window, but when I went to investigate, nothing was there. The tapping was intermittent, but persistent.  Just three or four taps every half hour or so throughout the morning, loud enough for me to hear from anywhere in the house, gone by the time I could get to the window. Nothing to see but stalwart hedge and brick wall.

I mentioned it to Moe after a few consecutive mornings of the same mystery.  He'd heard it but didn't seem appropriately curious to my way of thinking. I was on my own here. I hid in the next room when the tapping was due again, camera at the ready to peer around the door frame in an instant. I waited. Came the tap. I peeked. Question answered. A female robin  (pale orange breast) was sitting on the outside sill, knocking her beak against the pane. She flew away before I could get a photo.  Had she detected my movement, or would she have flown anyway?

This sequence has continued for about two weeks. We've surmised that she thinks she's protecting her nest from the competitor mama she sees in the glass. I went outside to see things from her perspective. The location of window, relative to morning sun, did indeed allow a perfect mirror-like reflection.  You can also see movement through the glass, explaining why I can't get close enough from inside for a quality photo without chasing her away.

This morning I dressed in black from neck to toe and pulled a chair to the window to wait. She came but flew the instant the camera moved, despite the black clothes.  Moe did get this one yesterday. Just held up his phone and snapped from his reading chair. Go figure.

Today's surprise was that she had a mouthful of nesting material every time she came to the sill, requiring a revised guess about her behavior. Is she only now building her nest, choosing to ignore the silent threat in the window? Eggs coming? Time running out?

Male robins help raise the young, but nest building is the work of only the females.  My outdoor check under the eaves revealed a few dried grassy bits trailing from the crook between the gutter's downspout and the house.  Not a nest yet, but a start. Welcome, Mrs. Robin. ~dkm

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Backyard Spectator, Returned

It's been nearly two years since my last post, and I've missed longsitting outside. If this new start takes hold, it will be good for my health.

This morning I'm watching a smallish hawk with a fuzzy brown head and the shorter tail of a recent fledgling. I don't know its gender, but I wish it to be female.

She's perched high in the backyard tulip poplar, spreading and twisting her wing feathers occasionally, but not moving from her spot.  Her mother (or father?) flies overhead, calling to her with a rapid repeated cackle, but she sits on, looking forlorn and vulnerable in her new world. Is she reassured, as I am on her behalf, by the knowledge that her parent is nearby?

For a few days I mistook the parent's distinctive cackle for the call of a pileated woodpecker. I thought it may have had a nest near where I was tilling the first soil of the season, and that it didn't like my presence in the garden.  It probably didn't, but it wasn't a woodpecker.

When the cackler in question flew over the Ya-yas, who were doing yoga on the back deck one morning, we followed it with binoculars to the top of the neighbor's tallest tree, where we discovered it was a hawk. Our search was rewarded with the sighting of another slightly smaller hawk on the branch beneath a large nest. It tottered on the branch for a few minutes before taking a wobbly flight to another tree. The parent hawk led the way, circling back and cackling in a mode of alert protection. We think we were lucky enough to have witnessed the young hawk's moment of fledge. The parent likely had its eye on those four strange yoga practitioners who were threatening the safety of its offspring.

A little more research on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, narrowed our guess to Cooper's hawk, whose cry is indeed similar to a pileated woodpecker's and is seldom heard except in defense of nest. Bingo. In the days since, I've heard the cry often.

Chances are, the young Cooper's hawk in the tulip poplar is our yoga fledgling from earlier in the week, taking backyard spectatorship to new heights. I've been sharing the breath of the universe with her for almost an hour. It's good to be back.    dkm

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