Intimacy in the Parking Lot

Killdeer in gravel parking lot
Killdeer in gravel parking lot

I got home yesterday afternoon and am probably going to need a couple days to recuperate from all the excitement at the Biggest Week in American Birding. This year’s festival was the best yet, and I have lots of photos to share with you all. But for today I just have a sequence from an intimate moment in the lives of two Killdeer.

Near Magee Marsh, there’s an ice cream shop with a big gravel parking lot in which Killdeer often dig their little “rock nests.” Early in the week I had a great time watching some recently-hatched babies running around the edges of this lot under the watchful eyes of their parents.

Little puffballs -- Recently-hatched Killdeer babies running around!
Little puffballs — Recently-hatched Killdeer babies running around!

Unfortunately, nesting in parking lots has its hazards, and I saw one of the parents of this brood get run over by a car just a few minutes after this photo was taken. It brought me to tears. These birds aren’t always noticeable, and I imagine many of them lose their lives like this. I think all four of the babies ran to safety though. I didn’t see them anywhere in the area in the days following that, so have convinced myself they’re okay with the remaining  parent.

My last day in Ohio was really hot, so I stopped back over there to get an ice cream cone. As I sat in my car eating it, I noticed two adult Killdeer sitting on the edge of the lot, about two feet apart. Occasionally one of them, presumably the female, got up and worked on a little indentation she was forming in the gravel. She would pull a rock to the side and then squat down in it and wiggle around, using her body to shape it better.

Using her body to shape the nest.
Using her body to shape the nest, or maybe also trying to attract the male?

After watching them for a few minutes and seeing them settle down again, I laid my car seat back and closed my eyes for a short nap. But a short time later I heard them making some agitated noises, so sat up and got to see this:

Hmm, what's going on here? Need a closer look....
Hmm, what’s going on here? Need a closer look….

Balancing act, trying to find the right position…

Killdeer mating sequence 4

Ah, I think they’ve got it now…

Killdeer mating sequence 6

Killdeer mating sequence 7

And the slightly-ungraceful dismount:

Killdeer mating sequence dismount

Nobody saw that, right?

Okay, back to your business, nothing to see here.
Okay, back to your business, nothing to see here.

So if all goes well there will be more little puffballs running around that parking lot soon! Next time I plan to show you the rest of the photo series of that Great Blue Heron eating a fish (see the preview in my previous post). And, of course, there will be warbler photos…stay tuned!

Leaving the Nest: Robins Take Flight

If you’ve kept up with my posts about our nesting robins, you’ve probably been wondering about the conclusion to the story. I’d been so sure they were going to leave on the weekend of the 27th/28th. They seemed to be getting too big to fit in the nest, but they managed to stay in there through the weekend. Although on Sunday night I could only see two of them, so I wondered if the first had already flown the coop, so to speak.

Two babies on July 29, the day before they left the nest
Two babies on July 29, the day before they left the nest

On Tuesday morning (July 30) I didn’t check the nest until about 10 am. Too late, the nest was completely empty!  I was so disappointed that I wasn’t able to see their first flights, but as soon as I saw that they’d fledged I ran outside with my camera to look for them.

I quickly found the mama bringing a worm to one of the fledglings in a smaller tree only a few feet from the nest tree. Then I saw another of the fledglings nearby. I never saw all three of them at once though. I knew the parents and babies would be nervous on this first day out of the nest, so I didn’t get too close or stay too long. I managed to get one good picture of a youngster with his short stubby tail:

First day out of the nest
First day out of the nest — time to grow some tail feathers!

Their tails don’t grow out until they leave the nest, probably because there’s no room in the confined space for those long feathers. And I’m sure that’s why they can’t fly well for the first week or two. I love those little stubby-tailed babies, don’t you?

An empty nest
An empty nest

It’s a bit of a letdown to see the empty nest when I look out the kitchen window now. I’d grown so accustomed to having to step around the spotting scope on its tripod in front of the sink, and checking up on them throughout each day.

I hope they’re surviving out there; I’ll probably never know. And the second robin’s nest on a branch over the garage? I see very little activity at that nest. I did see babies at one point, and have seen the female adult standing on the nest edge, but lately I don’t see much going on there. I can’t be sure what’s happened yet, but I’ll keep watching it for a while.

It’s been so much fun having the robins raise their family in a spot where we could easily watch them. I’ve learned a lot about the lives of these often-overlooked common birds. I’ve seen how the female does the hard and dirty work of building the nest, how she sits on those eggs through thunderstorms and unbearable heat, and how she and her mate run themselves ragged bringing food to hungry babies for the last two weeks. I watched them bring a variety of offerings to the gaping mouths: berries, grasshoppers, and worms.

I even learned something about earthworms. One day after a fishing trip, Eric dumped his leftover worms under the nest tree to help the parents feed their babies.  Coincidentally, I had just read a blog which had a link to this article by Rebecca Deatsman. It explains that the earthworms in the northern parts of the country are not natives but are introduced species, and why that matters to some ground-nesting birds. I encourage you to read it if you’re curious. But whether they’re natives or not, those fishing worms clearly provide vital nourishment for our native robins.

I find it so fascinating to learn about the interconnectedness (is that a word?) of the plants and animals I find while exploring the natural world. Every species plays a role in the ecosystem, and the presence or absence of each one has a ripple effect through the entire system. If you’re someone who loves learning for its own sake — like me — you’ll appreciate how curiosity about one thing often leads to learning about another, and how much fun it can be to discover something new about how the world works.

I’ve been meaning to tell you about two books I’ve really loved recently:” target=”_blank”> Bringing Nature Home and ” target=”_blank”>Field Guide to Eastern Forests. The first one gave me a “light bulb” moment when it made clear to me, finally, why it’s important to use native plants in our yards and gardens. I’d “known” for years that it was important, but never truly understood the reasons for that importance. This book made it all crystal clear. Maybe soon I can write more about it here (or you can read the book yourself — I highly recommend it). And the Peterson Guide to Eastern Forests is helping me understand which types of trees and plants grow in specific areas, and how each habitat changes with the seasons. Things you either think you already know, or things you never thought to even consider…I just love it. Maybe I seem like a dorky bookworm to some of you, but I make no apologies. After all, what good is knowledge if you don’t share it, right? 🙂

Baby Bird Bonanza

Our yard is a crazy busy baby bird nursery right now and I absolutely love it. I can’t get anything else done because all I want to do is watch the nesting robins and all the other exciting activity out there. And I’ve got lots of pics to share with you, so let’s get started with an update on the robins.

Today I got my first glimpse of actual live babies in nest #2. I’d been worrying about what was going on in that nest since I hadn’t seen much parental activity. But they’ve got at least two youngsters in there and they look about a week younger than the ones in nest #1.

I set up my tripod in the usual spot about 25 feet from nest #1 today. I sat quietly, occasionally taking photos and short videos. After about 20 minutes Mama Robin appeared on a branch directly over my head, looking down on me. She wasn’t agitated, just a bit curious. I quickly snapped a couple pics of her, afraid she was going to drop something wet and slimy on my head to show her displeasure at my being there. But nothing landed on me, and she left after a minute or two and resumed worm-gathering in the lawn (which you’ll see in a video below).

Mama Robin making sure I'm not a threat
Mama Robin making sure I’m not a threat (click to enlarge)

Here’s a short video of the nestlings being fed today too. I suggest you click the “full screen” button to see the biggest version of their cuteness, and turn up your volume too. The parent arrives with food at the 38-second mark….

Isn’t that the cutest thing you’ve seen all day? I just know those babies will be out of the nest this weekend. (Well, I don’t know it, but I expect it…) I hope I get to see them take their first awkward flights.

robin's nest july 26 070 (800x715)

Juvenile Blue Jay begging to be fed by a nearby parent
Juvenile Blue Jay begging to be fed by a nearby parent
Finally — lunch!

And then we have the Blue Jay babies. Oh my goodness, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a recently-fledged Blue Jay chasing its parent around, loudly squawking to be fed. They’re so noisy. Today I saw five of them at once — one parent was feeding two juveniles and I think the other two must have been from a separate brood. All five of them were interacting with each other up in the trees, but it’s hard to see who’s doing what in all that chaos.

Now here’s something interesting. If you pay attention to birds in your yard, you’ve probably seen this before:

Cowbird baby with Chipping Sparrow parent
Cowbird baby with Chipping Sparrow parent

In case you don’t know what’s going on in this photo, let me tell you a little about the Brown-headed Cowbird. They are brood parasites, which means that they lay their eggs in the nests of other species. The Cowbird egg usually hatches before the eggs of the host species, and due to that timing and the fact that the Cowbird babies are bigger than the host babies, the Cowbird ends up getting most of the food while the other babies sometimes don’t survive. It’s a raw deal for the hosts (in this case the Chipping Sparrows), but a bargain for the Cowbirds — they don’t have to build their own nest or raise their own young. Every time I see a tiny little Chipping Sparrow running around the yard trying to satisfy the appetite of the larger Cowbird, I wonder how they manage it. And I never see the sparrows feeding any young of their own species, which is sad.

Yum, grasshopper!
Yum, grasshopper!

Cowbirds were a big part of the reason the Kirtland’s Warbler population took such a nose dive in the past couple decades. The warblers have made a comeback partly because of an aggressive program to control Cowbirds in their breeding areas (they are trapped and killed).

So every year we see the Chippies feeding their hulking Cowbird babies. But this year our yard is also home to a Northern Cardinal nest that was “borrowed” by the Cowbirds. I was very surprised and disappointed to see this the other day:

Male Northern Cardinal feeding Cowbird baby
Male Northern Cardinal feeding Cowbird baby

Apparently we aren’t going to see any adorable Northern Cardinal babies in our yard this year either. I had a bad feeling about this year’s nests when two pairs of Cowbirds were regular visitors to our feeders for the entire month of June. Oh well, better luck next year I guess. But even as youngsters, the Cowbirds are making a nuisance of themselves. Witness this Cowbird photobombing my pic of a family of Northern Flickers as they eat ants in the gravel:

Northern Flicker family and Cowbird photobomb
Northern Flicker family and Cowbird photobomb (click to enlarge)

I learned something about Northern Flickers today too. I thought these were all males because of the black mustache stripes on their faces; females don’t have the stripe. It turns out that both male and female juveniles can have the black marking on their face. But I saw one of these birds feeding another one, so I think this is a male parent with two young. Seeing three Flickers is a rare treat for me. I took some video of them but it was pretty shaky so I don’t think I’ll upload it. I almost get a headache from watching it myself. You’ll just have to trust me that they’re cool birds.

And finally, here’s another video showing what good providers our Robin parents are. They had a feast at this particular feeding!

Sensitive Girl and the Robin’s Nest

One of our resident robins in the mulberry tree, opening her beak to cool off on a hot day
One of our resident robins in the mulberry tree, opening her beak to cool off on a hot day

Note: This is a follow-up to my post on June 30 about the nesting robin, so if you haven’t read it, you might want to go back and start there. (A Robin Nesting in my Yard!)

This is one of those situations where my HSP temperament is a challenge as well as an asset. Once I discovered the nesting robin in our yard, of course I wanted to watch her progress. Now I keep my binoculars on the kitchen counter so I can look at her every time I go in there. I worry about her in bad weather, which we’ve had a lot of lately. I worry about the squirrels and blue jays that roam our yard, because they’re known to pillage nests like this one. If something happens to the nest I’m going to be heartsick. I already feel a bond with this mama robin and a bit of responsibility for her too.

Robin journal v1This deep empathy with animals is something a lot of HSPs share. It can bring us great joy and a satisfying feeling of connection. But it can also be very painful because we can easily imagine ourselves in their place. I have certain memories of animals in pain or suffering that have stayed with me for years and that can still make me tear up when I think of them. Just hearing an animal crying in pain can make my heart hurt for hours. Even knowing an animal is afraid upsets me, regardless of whether she’s actually being hurt. The vet’s office is like a war zone for me. Sometimes while I’m in the waiting room I can hear cats wailing in the back room while they’re being attended to. It’s bad enough when it’s someone else’s cat, but when it’s my own cat I just want to crawl under the table and cover my ears. Unbearable.

Robin journal v2Sometimes I think animal suffering upsets me more than human suffering. Those tv commercials that show abused animals upset me more than the ones showing starving humans. I know you might be judging me harshly for that, but I can’t help how I feel. I’m very uncomfortable admitting that to the rest of the human species, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that there are many of us out here who feel this way. And the thing is, I’m not exactly sure why I feel differently about them. Maybe it’s because I see the animals as so much more vulnerable and innocent. Yet I realize that lots of humans are also vulnerable and innocent. So what’s the difference?

Robin journal v3Maybe it comes back to my relationships with humans, which, for the most part, haven’t been as fulfilling and pure as the ones I’ve had with animals. For example, animals have never been spiteful or cruel to me, whereas humans have.  No animal has held a gun to my head, but a human has.

Or maybe it’s because I know that animals of all species are completely dependent upon the whims of mankind — we destroy their habitats, we trap and enslave them in prisons (zoos) for life, and we do cruel experiments on them to develop medicines for our own species. They are 100% at our mercy, with far too few legal protections.

Robin journal v4Yes, I think that’s it. I see them as intensely vulnerable, and maybe in some way that reflects on how I see myself. I feel a kinship with them that goes very deep, and I want to protect them whenever I can. So if you see me running across the yard shouting at a squirrel, don’t worry about my sanity — I’m just protecting “my” robin from a nest raider.

P.S. Don’t miss the Nesting Journal entries in the blue boxes above — there’s a surprise in there!

A Robin Nesting in our Yard!

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.

Female robin with a beak full of something, just before entering the nest
Female robin with a beak full of something, just before entering the nest

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….

Robin sitting on nest
Robin sitting on nest

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:

Bird- and chipmunk-killing cat
Bird- and chipmunk-killing cat

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….

Robin back on the nest after fighting off a cowbird and a chipmunk
Robin back on the nest after fighting off a cowbird and a chipmunk