Friday: About a week ago I’d noticed some robins flying in and out of a particular oak tree in our yard; I was curious but didn’t think they were doing anything of a permanent nature in there and I quickly forgot about it. But I looked out the kitchen window this morning and saw a robin repeatedly going into that area again. Grabbing the binoculars, I quickly located her sitting on her nest and felt a tingle of excitement go up my spine.
As I wrote last time, I treasure any opportunity to see a bird on a nest because it’s such an intimate look into their fascinating lives. And this is the very first time I’ve ever found a nesting bird in my own yard! Every year I get to see parent birds feeding their adorable fledglings, but this is just too awesome for words.
The nest is about 35 feet from the house and 10 feet above the ground. It’s situated so far out on a branch that I’m surprised there’s enough support for it. It’s pretty well hidden by the surrounding leaves, but I found a vantage spot in the yard where I can see it better. Hoping to document this special find, I took my camera out and stationed myself behind a big tree about 40 feet away.
In this picture you can see her beak is full of something… maybe mulch or dirt for adding to the nest. You can also see a bare spot on her upper breast. It seems pretty high for a brood patch, but I think that’s what it must be. (A brood patch is a bare area where the bird’s body heat can be transferred to the incubating eggs easier.) Update: An experienced birder tells me that’s probably just muddy feathers from gathering nesting materials.
I don’t think any eggs have hatched yet because I don’t hear any babies chirping when she comes back to the nest. I guess I don’t even know for sure that she’s laid any eggs yet. She flies off the nest about every couple minutes and pecks in the yard, then goes back and settles down again. I wonder if she’s just getting food for herself? In some species the parents take turns on the nest so each can go eat and rest, but in others the male will bring food to the female as she remains on the nest. Hmm, wait here a sec while I go read about this in Birds of North America….
Ok, I’m back. It turns out that in robins, the male does not bring food to the female on the nest. She takes brief breaks during the day to feed herself. Aha, that explains it. And this is possibly her second brood of the season because this nest is located in a deciduous tree; BNA says the first nest is usually in an evergreen tree. Interesting. And we’ve seen a recently-fledged robin being fed in the yard lately, so perhaps this is the same parent, starting her second family of the summer.
The female incubates the eggs for 2 weeks. After they hatch, the babies remain in the nest for 2 more weeks. Then they leave the nest (fledge), but are still unable to fly well for 10-14 more days. That’s going to be the time I worry most, because of this:
This is the cat I wrote about last year, which has been back stalking birds near our feeders again. Birds that can’t fly are going to be easy prey for this experienced hunter. You’ll notice a white tag hanging on the cat’s collar; I wrote a note to the owners that said: “Your cat is killing our birds. Next time I’m taking him to Animal Control.” I feel a bit like the Wicked Witch of the West for that (“I’ll get you my pretty…and your little dog too!”). But I figured I’d give them one more chance to be responsible and keep the cat indoors.
Anyway, back to the robin. I went out to run some errands and got caught in a thunderstorm as I was heading back toward home. My first thought as I entered my driveway was for the robin’s nest. I felt so bad for her being tossed around by the wind and battered by the rain. I worried that the nest might be destroyed. I pitied her sitting there in the elements, just enduring it. What choice does a bird have, after all? She can’t grab an umbrella and pull on a jacket. She can’t go indoors and sit by the warm fire with a cup of tea to wait until the storm passes. No, she has to keep those eggs warm constantly, rain or shine.
I’m thrilled to have this life drama playing out so visibly in my yard, but it’s already made me realize something: Considering the hazards of their lives, every single baby bird that survives is a miracle. And that alone is a reason enough to love and respect birds.
Sunday update: After the storm on Friday I didn’t see the robin all day Saturday. I was worried that she’d abandoned the nest. Then today I glanced out the window and saw two birds in an altercation below the nest. I grabbed the binoculars and saw the robin and a female cowbird. Holy nest parasite, Batman! Maybe the cowbird was trying to lay an egg in the robin’s nest. (That’s what cowbirds do, by the way. It’s a way to get other birds to raise their babies for them.) As the cowbird flew off, the robin also attacked a chipmunk that was too close to her nest, stabbing at it with her bill. It took a few tries before the chipmunk got the message, but it worked. And a few minutes later, after judging it safe again, the robin flew up and sat on the nest! I’m so glad to see her there again, but see what I meant about the dangers of a bird’s life? Wow, I don’t know how they do it….
We finally got our kayaks in the water this weekend, and it was looong overdue. This spring has been so full of birding and travel that we had let our beloved kayaks sit neglected in the garage. When I realized last week that it was almost July and we hadn’t been on the water yet, that was all the motivation I needed to plan an immediate outing.
When we first got our kayaks three years ago I started a notebook where I write about each lake we kayak on — how big it is, how busy it is, if there are motorboats there, if there’s a beach, if it’s noisy, if there are shady banks for taking refuge from the sun, if the birding is good there…stuff like that. That might sound like a weird thing to do, but when you go to so many different lakes you start to forget the details of each one. I also look back through photos I’ve taken on each outing to help refresh my memory when we’re trying to decide where we want to go that day. My notes for Bald Mountain’s Trout Lake said: “70-acre lake with great birds, few other boats, lots of dragonflies, small beach. Water at boat launch sort of slimy.” (That last bit matters because with kayaks you have to walk them into the water, so if the water is gross it can be unpleasant.)
We knew the day was going to be very hot, so we headed out as early as we could manage; we were on the water at Trout Lake by 9:30. Luckily the water at the boat launch was much clearer this time. And there was nobody at the beach either, so it was nice and quiet. Well, except for the constant rifle shots from the nearby shooting range…sigh. I’ve noticed a theme in Michigan state and county parks: Wherever there’s a nice nature area, there seems to be a shooting range nearby. I think there should be a law that shooting ranges have to be indoors so they don’t disturb the peace. I don’t see why they have to be open-air shooting ranges, do you? But I digress….
There was one other couple launching kayaks right behind us, but aside from them there was only one other boat on the lake. Very nice. As we started to paddle out, I immediately saw the resident pair of Mute Swans with their two adorable cygnets. We gave them a wide berth and headed to the far shore.
I remembered a little cove where I’d gotten lots of good dragonfly photos last year, so that’s where I went. As I rounded the bend into the cove, the first thing I saw was this:
Yes, that’s one of those horrible mylar balloons floating in the water. Just in case you don’t know about the dangers of these balloons, you might want to take a look at BalloonsBlow, an organization dedicated to making people aware of the harm these balloons do to the environment and to wildlife. I’ve seen some very sad photos of birds and other animals who died after getting tangled up in the ribbons or after eating pieces of the balloons. It just shouldn’t happen. I doubt that anyone who’s aware of this issue would plan a balloon release, no matter what the occasion. There are always environmentally-friendly options for celebrations that don’t involve litter and unnecessary death; you just have to care.
So I made haste to the waste and grabbed that balloon out of the water, stashing it behind my seat for disposal at shore. And not 10 feet away I saw a fishing lure dangling from a tree snag (you can actually see it in the photo above). I started to wonder if my entire morning would be devoted to picking trash from the lake instead of birding and enjoying nature. So I untangled the fishing line and stashed it behind my seat too.
By this time Eric had continued on exploring the lake, no doubt wondering what the heck I was doing back in that little cove. I caught up with him and he had just spotted an Eastern Kingbird sitting on its nest overhanging the water. My photos didn’t turn out, but he got some good ones with his new Canon SX50 — this is his pic. What an amazing thing to see! I wonder about the survival possibilities for any eggs laid in a nest exposed to the hot sun like that; it doesn’t seem the best place to build a nest. I hope they manage to fledge some babies there.
I always feel so privileged to get such an intimate glimpse into a bird’s life that it’s hard to restrain myself from getting too close or staying too long. But I forced myself to move along after less than 30 seconds, afraid that I might scare her off the nest.
The beach started to see some activity around 10:30 or so, but it still wasn’t too noisy. We paddled the full perimeter of the lake and saw more great birds: more kingbirds, some Baltimore Orioles, Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, a gorgeous Red-tailed Hawk, a Gray Catbird singing boisterously, and even an Eastern Bluebird. I also watched a male Red-winged Blackbird feeding his recently-fledged young in the grass along the shore. I couldn’t get a photo of that but did manage to shoot a pic of the second youngster waiting up in the trees.
We headed for shore around 11:30 as it started to get uncomfortably hot out on the lake. We got another look at the cygnets as we passed, but didn’t dare get too close to those ferocious swan parents.
This is a photo of all the trash I collected from the lake: the orange mylar balloon, the fishing lure, a green inner tube floating toy, and a soda can. As sad as it was to see all this junk in the water, it felt really good to pull it all out of there. Next time maybe I’ll leave the binoculars at home and just take a trash bag….
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Late one evening a few days ago, realizing that I had a completely open schedule the next day, I decided I’d head out in the morning to Orion Oaks County Park to try to find some sparrows. In addition to lots of wooded trails, this park has a huge open meadow that always has lots of sparrows singing in the tall grasses. I’ve been frustrated by sparrows in the past, having trouble telling them apart by sight or by sound. So you’d think I would have listened to some songs of the likely species before I got out in the meadow, right? Nope. It didn’t even enter my mind. So, as poorly prepared as I was, it’s not surprising that I got frustrated again.
Sure, I heard plenty of birds singing. But the only ones I could identify were the Chipping, Field, and Grasshopper Sparrows. I could have used my Audubon app to listen to some songs while I was out there, but it’s so hard to see the menus on the screen in the sunlight that I didn’t even try. I’m going to spend some time doing the song quizzes on Larkwire before my next outing, and hopefully I’ll start making some progress toward mastering the sparrows. If you’ve never tried to find sparrows (other than the abundant House Sparrows at the fast food drive through), you might not appreciate how hard they can be to see. They have this maddening habit of singing while they’re hidden in the tall meadow grasses, only popping up briefly and usually too far away to see well. And even when you do see them, they all look like, well, “little brown jobs” (birders even refer to them as LBJs). Until you begin to learn the differences in body shape and size, and habitats, and songs, that is. Only then can you start to make sense of them all in the field. It’s a challenge that I considered not even bothering with two years ago, but as I slowly learn more and more birds I find that it’s not as daunting to add some of the harder ones to my knowledge base. I’m still not ready to tackle gulls though…talk about difficult birds!
Despite my lack of sparrow success, I had a very nice afternoon with lots of other interesting sightings. There were butterflies:
And this mama turkey with her six little poults (you can only see four of them here I think):
I just loved how the meadow looked with the vast expanse of purple and yellow. I tried to get some photos of a Mourning Dove on the grass with the flowers in the background, but the bird didn’t want to cooperate for that one.
And let’s not forget the curious Grasshopper Sparrow either. I really love the little bits of yellow above the eyes and on the leading edge of the wing (you can barely see that part in this photo).
The other birds I saw that day included Tree Swallows, Cooper’s Hawk, Baltimore Orioles, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Kingbird, and a few more. And even a little garter snake that scared the bejeebers out of me when he slithered across the path in front of me. I’m always a bit on edge in that park because of all the signs warning about the Massasauga Rattlesnakes that breed there, so my brain was on high alert. I’d love to see one of those rattlesnakes, but just not too close up. Heck, I feel brave just walking past the warning signs!
Last night I joined some new friends for an evening of watching Bald Eagles and Osprey at Stony Creek park. Both species have nests with one nestling each right now, and the nests can be seen from the same spot, making it easy to keep an eye on any action at either one.
I’m going to show you a few pics, but I have to say that I didn’t get many great ones, despite using my biggest lens and tripod (400mm with 1.4 extender). I have a lot of difficulty getting my manual focus right with the big lens, so I’m often disappointed with the results, even after sharpening in Photoshop. I guess the conditions were challenging though, with the nests being so far away (200 yards), so maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on my photographer self. The one below was by far my best photo of the evening, one of the adult osprey flying over us on the way back to the nest with some soft bedding material (at least that’s what we presume it would use the grasses for).
That’s pretty neat, isn’t it? At one point the Osprey flew over our heads from the nest, heading directly toward the Bald Eagle nest. We all held our breath as we watched, wondering if the adult eagles would come after him. I grabbed my camera off the tripod just in case there was going to be some drama, but nothing happened. The Osprey continued on to a nearby pond and came back a few minutes later with the grasses trailing from his talons. The Osprey nest is on a cell tower, a common place for large birds of prey to nest in urban areas. It’s always amazing to me that the birds use this particular nest location, because it’s directly adjacent to a busy shooting club with frequent gunshots ringing out. I get more annoyed by the gunshots than they do, apparently.
We were hoping to see the eaglet taking some practice flights, but she stayed firmly perched in the nest all evening, occasionally stretching her wings and giving us renewed hope for a practice flight. One of the parents was in the nest with her at the beginning of the evening, but later moved to a nearby tree to rest. The other parent was in another tree as well. Here’s an article about the eagle nest in a local paper if you’d like to read more about it.
Of course while we were all chatting during the evening, I was also keeping my eyes and ears open for other birds. We were beside a large pond and marsh, so naturally there were lots of Red-winged Blackbirds around. I was happy to hear the near-constant songs of Marsh Wrens too, although I never managed to see one of them. Here’s the list of species I reported to eBird last night:
15 species +2 other taxa
duck sp. 1
Turkey Vulture 2
Bald Eagle 3
Sandhill Crane 2
Empidonax sp. 1
Eastern Phoebe 1
Great Crested Flycatcher 1
Marsh Wren 2 (heard them calling in response to each other)
American Robin 1
Gray Catbird 1
Common Yellowthroat 1
Yellow Warbler 4
Indigo Bunting 1
Red-winged Blackbird X
Baltimore Oriole 1
American Goldfinch 3
It’s unusual for me to go on a nature outing with other people who aren’t birders, so this was a nice change. For once I got to be the person who identified the birds before everyone else! I got to show people Yellow Warblers and a Common Yellowthroat, but most of the other small birds I saw while other people were talking and I didn’t want to interrupt them. I had to keep telling myself that not everyone cares to know the identity of every single bird that flies by like I do. (I think I have OBD — obsessive birding disorder.)
One of the most interesting things was a Red-winged Blackbird harassing two Sandhill Cranes on the far side of the pond. At first we could barely see the cranes’ heads poking out of the vegetation, and could see the blackbirds dive-bombing them repeatedly. I imagine the cranes were too close to a nest. I’ve seen quite a few instances of Red-winged Blackbirds violently attacking other birds this spring; they’re extremely protective of their territories and won’t hesitate to buzz a curious human either.
The cranes slowly worked their way down into the pond, emerging from the vegetation so we got beautiful full-body views of them in the evening sun. And as you can see in the picture here, one of the blackbirds wasn’t finished with guard duty. It was basically riding on the crane’s backside as he walked through the water. The blackbird would flutter up and come back down, and I couldn’t tell if it was actually pecking the crane. But then it just sat down and the crane didn’t seem to mind it hanging on like that. Such an odd behavior. It reminded me of birds that eat insects off of elephants or bison — a tiny bird on a larger animal.
As the sun got closer to the horizon I started to get chilly, so left the remaining three people in our group and and headed back to my car. On the way back I looked back toward the eagle nest from another vantage point and spotted the other adult sitting on a branch out in the open. I think a Bald Eagle looks majestic no matter how blurry the photo….
I’m really glad I went on this outing despite not knowing anyone beforehand. Everyone was so nice and it was very low-key, just a group of nature lovers sharing time together at the end of the day. The scenery was beautiful, everyone had something interesting to contribute to the conversation, and the birds were singing and flying all around. We talked about bugs. We talked about wildflowers. We talked about photography. Now that’s my idea of a great night out!
I ran away today. The road commission was out on our dirt & gravel road doing their never-ending maintenance, assailing my morning with the loud and incessant sounds of backup beepers and grinding truck engines. So I packed up my laptop and some books for writing inspiration and headed to the park, hoping to find a quiet spot for an afternoon of writing. Here’s how it went:
It’s a cool, sunny day, about 70 degrees with a brisk breeze that results in me being bombarded with a hail of cotton puffs from the cottonwood trees. I settle myself at a picnic table a couple hundred yards uphill from the lake, and get busy typing. Of course I’m immediately distracted by the birds, but I remind myself that I will not be birding today. I’m here for writing. But I still have my binoculars (“bins” in birderspeak) and 300mm lens, just in case something incredible happens by.
Just to get warmed up, the first couple paragraphs I type are about the birds I’m hearing and seeing. In particular, a chipping sparrow is singing constantly from the inner branches of the tree right in front of me. He even dropped down to the ground a couple times to nibble on a caterpillar or other delicious tidbit.
I finally put down the bins and resume writing, chastising myself for my lack of focus. I make some good progress in the next hour, stopping periodically to look at the birds. Suddenly it dawns on me that I could write about the experience of birding in a single tree. That seemed an intriguing idea, so that’s what I’m doing. Pretty clever, huh? I’m writing, but I’m also birding. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.
Before I tell you about the other birds, let me introduce our tree for the day. This is a 30-foot-tall black locust tree located on the edge of a parking lot. At least I think that’s what it is, after perusing two tree field guides. Other trees nearby include cottonwoods, various evergreens, oaks, elms, and many more I don’t know how to identify (yet). There’s a large lawn area too.
The little chipping sparrow appeared to “own” this tree, as he sang from it for the entire three hours I was there, entertaining me with his pretty little song.
At one point I think I see a kingbird fly into the back side of the tree, but can’t confirm it. But 15 minutes later he pops into view on a branch right in front of me, posing nicely for his photo. I later watch him launching flycatching forays from the highest branches of the tree, grabbing insects midair. The kingbird is a member of the flycatcher family, birds that grab insects on the wing, often coming back to land again and again on the same branch. I’m always delighted to see this feat of timing and speed, not to mention eyesight. I can’t even see the insects they’re grabbing.
I open a document of notes I took at a writing workshop recently. I read some of them. I look back up to try to see the chipping sparrow (because now that I know what I’m writing about, I realize that a photo of him would be a nice addition). As I look up, I see a bluebird fly out of the tree with a caterpillar in its mouth. He flies overhead and goes into a tree behind me, where I soon see his mate as well. No matter how many times I see a bluebird, it always makes me smile because I think of the “Bluebird of Happiness.”
Back to my notes. The writing workshop was led by Dr. J. Drew Lanham, a professor at Clemson University. This was my first time being taught by him, and I came out of that workshop with some notes that I know I’ll refer to many times in my future writing efforts. One of my favorites of his ideas was to pick up a leaf nearby when you see a special bird, and insert it into your field guide to remind you of how you felt and what you saw at that moment. So I stopped in my writing to bend down and gather up some of the cottonwood seedpuffs that were coating the grass.
Now the breeze slows down and the air feels warmer. A robin starts singing loudly behind me. I can hear a blue-gray gnatcatcher in another tree nearby, and now goldfinches have gathered in the interior of our locust tree, softly chattering among themselves. A flicker announces his presence with his boisterous calls. And still the chipping sparrow sings every five or ten seconds. Does he sing for the pleasure of it, or to get a mate, or to protect his territory? Possibly a bit of all those, I think.
I stand up to stretch and see a turkey vulture soaring over our tree. As I sit down, some blue jays and crows are having an argument in the trees behind me. Two cowbirds land beneath the tree and walk around poking around in the grass.
A chickadee is singing his sad-sounding two-note call in a nearby tree. The breeze has brought a sweet smell now, from some plant I can’t see around me and can’t identify from the scent. But trust me, it’s lovely. I can’t inhale deeply enough. Maybe honeysuckle?
Down near the lake there are red-winged blackbirds calling occasionally. They seem to have already settled down from the noisy and aggressive early part of breeding season. A couple geese land in the lake as a red-bellied woodpecker makes a brief stop in our tree.
I keep writing. I make good progress, ending up with two draft articles for future use.
Then I hear a catbird softly mewing behind me. I play a catbird song on my Audubon bird app and he responds by singing back to me for twenty seconds or so. (I try to be judicious in my use of bird calls so as not to cause distress to the birds, but I thought in this situation it was ok to play it one time.)
So to summarize, I saw the following birds in this single locust tree during my three hour writing session: Chipping Sparrow, Eastern Kingbird, Eastern Bluebirds, American Goldfinches, and Red-bellied Woodpecker. This unassuming tree managed to feed or shelter at least five species of birds this afternoon, not to mention all the work it did to capture carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen to make our planet healthier. A tree is a special thing. (And this “one-tree birding” idea is fun and I might just try it again soon.)
And, just because I’m compelled to record all the birds, here are the others who didn’t actually visit our tree: Northern Flicker, American Crow, Blue Jay, Red-winged Blackbirds, Canada Geese, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Turkey Vulture, American Robin, Gray Catbird, and Black-capped Chickadee.
The sparrow is finally quiet and I find that I feel lonely without his pretty serenade to inspire me. I hope he’s taking a well-deserved nap up there in the cool interior of that lovely tree. I’m heading home, rejuvenated and relaxed, happy that I can share this peaceful afternoon with all of you.
Maybe a change of scenery and some fresh air would do you good too. Why not try it and find out? And don’t forget to hug a tree while you’re out there. 🙂
And now for the woodpecker action I promised in an earlier post….
The other day, I looked out the kitchen window and saw a Hairy Woodpecker stashing peanuts in some holes drilled in a sassafras tree by a Pileated Woodpecker a couple years ago.
And as if that wasn’t cute enough, a moment later he was bumped off his spot by a female Red-bellied Woodpecker, who proceeded to stash her own peanut in the same hole (or maybe she was taking his out). It happened so fast that if I’d blinked I would have thought the Hairy had magically turned into a Red-bellied. I’ve seen the Red-bellies do that same move before — back in January as I was watching my first ever Fox Sparrow on the ground below our feeders, suddenly a Red-belly landed practically on top of him. I think they’ve got a bit of an aggressive streak, or else they just don’t watch where they’re going very carefully!
As I walked out the driveway to get the mail one afternoon, I spotted a Pileated Woodpecker in the woods across the road. Excited at the possibility that it would come over to our yard, I ran inside to get my binoculars and camera. When I came back the bird was nowhere in sight. Disappointed, I went back inside, but stationed myself at the kitchen windows so I could keep an eye out in case he/she came back.
I couldn’t believe my luck when she did come into the yard less than 20 minutes later! And even more interesting, she went right to those same sassafras trees (we have five of them side by side in that part of the yard). She began chipping away at the bark in several different spots at first, then settled on one spot and really got busy. But the resident Red-bellied Woodpeckers apparently didn’t want her here, and they tried to chase her away. They were unsuccessful and gave up after a few minutes, leaving her to spend the next 45 minutes drilling a hole big enough to put her entire head inside the tree.
But I got a great photo with both woodpecker species in the same frame, showing the big size difference. Usually the Red-bellied Woodpeckers are one of the largest birds in our yard, but this one looks so tiny next to the Pileated, doesn’t he?
I was thrilled to be able to watch her for so long, and after she finished drilling that large hole she flew across the road and was gone. I was hoping maybe she was going to make a nest hole, but I think this was just a hunt for ants inside the tree. Since these big birds have territories from 150-200 acres in size, our property is just a small portion of their home base. I guess that’s why we’ve only seen two of them in the past several years here.
I went out to check out the holes after she left. These two shots show the holes dug in previous years compared to the new ones; see how the exposed inner bark is brown on the new ones?
And here’s a video of her as she worked, accompanied by some light classical music that was playing on my tv. (It’s a good thing woodpeckers have reinforced skulls or they’d need a steady supply of aspirin, wouldn’t they?)