Another brood of phoebes leaves the nest

For the fourth year in a row, a pair of Eastern Phoebes nested on our porch and successfully fledged their young. I took this picture of the four nestlings yesterday (only three are visible in this picture), thinking it would be a couple more days before the big event, but they were all gone by the time we got up this morning.

In Virginia, phoebes generally raise two broods per season. Unlike most birds, they frequently return to nest where they were successful in raising their young the previous year.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “the Eastern Phoebe is a loner, rarely coming in contact with other phoebes.” They go on to say even members of a mated pair do not spend much time together; they may roost together early in pair formation, but even during egg laying the female frequently chases the male away from her.” In the case of our pair, however, I did see the male hanging around a lot during the day guarding the nest, and several times bringing food to the nestlings.

It is interesting to me that the phoebes, like bluebirds, wrens, and swallows, seem to give up their fear of humans and nest close to people for the few weeks it takes to raise their young. I see it as a sort of insurance policy to protect their nest. I remember reading somewhere that about a third of all eggs in the wild get eaten by nest robbers before they hatch. So the phoebes are very smart to nest on our porch, where the only predators are black snakes, and the dogs do a pretty good job of keeping them away!

 

 

Update: The Little Guy Fledged!

Well, it happened. I was watering the flowers on the front porch when a bird zoomed out of the phoebe nest and flew into a nearby tree. At first I thought it was the mother phoebe, but when I checked the nest, it was empty! The young phoebe had fledged! I watched him fly from one branch to another, which told me he had no injuries. Mama phoebe was close by, so she will show him the ropes. I didn’t expect it to happen so soon, but I’m happy that the little guy was able to leave the nest and start life on his own. 

Can You ID These Two Birds?

Sometimes, particularly in late spring and early summer, when juvenile birds haven’t yet grown in their adult plumage, it’s tough to identify them. Other times, a new bird shows up that you haven’t seen before and it doesn’t look like anything in the bird field guides. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

I came across this bird on the side of the gravel road we live on. It’s not a great picture and he’s well camouflaged, so you have to look closely. I thought it might be an Ovenbird, but no. The bird that I think it is is sparrow-sized and likes areas with rushing streams and clear brooks, while its northern counterpart prefers swamps and bogs.

This one really threw me. I became very excited when I first saw it – a new bird to add to my list of birds seen on our farm (65 and counting). I felt sure that the reddish-brown on the bird’s breast would give it away, but no such luck. I was beginning to get frustrated when I figured it out. We have a lot of them on our farm; this one is a juvenile.

Can you identify one or both of these birds?

Update: A Lucky Survivor!

This morning I thought both baby birds had succumbed to the attack of the black snake last night. The smaller of the two was cold to the touch and obviously dead; the larger one, though still warm to the touch, was unresponsive and I presumed, dying.

You can imagine my surprise when a couple hours later I heard a little chirp. At first I thought I was hearing the birds outside, but when I checked, one of the babies was moving. I could see his eyes were open and as I approached, his beak opened wide – he was hungry!

I couldn’t put the nest back on the ledge for fear the baby would fall out, so I placed it and the little bird in a hanging pot of petunias close to the site of the original nest and waited to see what happened. The distraught parents had been hanging around all morning, not knowing what to do. When the baby heard them calling, he began cheeping and no sooner had I walked away than they flew over. They were both very animated, obviously glad to see that one of their chicks had survived.

Here’s a picture of the little guy in the nest this evening. He’s alert and eating.

Baby phoebe in nest

I hope he makes it. Only time will tell if he suffered any internal injuries.

The Birds Outside My Window

During the bird nesting season, our porch rafters are quite a popular place. Last spring, I wrote about the Eastern Phoebes that raised five offspring on our front porch (https://woodandfield.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/safe-haven/).

Phoebes three days before leaving the nest

Phoebes three days before leaving the nest

This spring, the pair returned to build their nest of mud, lichens, and moss on the same ledge where they successfully raised their offspring last year. Likewise, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds returned to raise another generation in a birdhouse on the front porch. Adding to the menagerie, House Wrens are nesting on the back porch. I find it amazing that some birds choose to raise their young so close to all our comings and goings, not to mention the noise from the lawn mower and weed whacker, and dogs racing around barking at the deer, fox, and other critters that occasionally wander through.

Male Eastern Bluebird watching over the nest

Male Eastern Bluebird watching over the nest

The list of nest predators is a long one: hawks, owls, crows, blue jays, weasels, fox, squirrels, snakes, and cats. In the wild, the odds are stacked against the young nestlings. So, weighing the scales, it would seem the lesser of the two evils to endure the closeness of humans. In any event, it ended well for all the little ones last year. All of the offspring survived to leave the nest and start out life on their own.

But, alas, the nestlings can’t be protected from every predator. Last night while we were watching TV, we heard a loud “thump” out on the porch. When we investigated, we saw that a black snake had knocked down the phoebe nest and was in the process of eating one of the babies(!) My husband relocated the snake to the woods while I inspected the nest, which was, amazingly, still largely in tact. Two babies were under the nest and were still alive, so I scooped up the nest and babies and took them into the house for the night.

By this morning, the babies had died, probably from internal injuries suffered from the fall. I know it’s a part of Nature, but loss of any life makes me sad. I take hope in knowing that in this season of renewal, perhaps the phoebes will try again. I miss the pair’s constant “phoebe, phoebe” back-and-forth calling as they busily went about their parenting responsibilities.

When I bought my farm, I did not know what a bargain I had in the bluebirds, daffodils and thrushes; as little did I know what sublime mornings and sunsets I was buying. Ralph Waldo Emerson

What Spring Hath Wrought

After an amazingly long winter, spring has finally arrived in central Virginia, with temps soaring into the 80s. My daughter was down from Maryland with my grandson and the first thing we did was go for a walk around the farm. I hadn’t been out for a couple of days and wanted to see what changes the welcome warmer weather had brought.

One of my favorite trees is Eastern Redbud, a native perennial, and I was happy to see this young one by the road blooming. The buds for which the tree gets it name are a deep pink. The lighter pink blooms appear in early spring before other trees have leafed out, allowing them to steal the show. After flowering, reddish-purple, pea-shaped seedpods form. The seedpods will provide food for doves, grouse, wild turkey, quail, and other birds.

IMG_2605

The banks along the gravel road we live on are covered with another early bloomer, blood root. Sometimes called bloodwort, the flower gets its name from its root sap that bears a remarkable resemblance to blood. Bloodroot prefers to grow in shady, wooded areas where there is little activity.

bloodroot

An Eastern phoebe kept turning up during our walk. This phoebe and his mate have already built their nest, a cup of mud and moss, in the rafters of our front porch. A pair successfully fledged offspring in the rafters last year, so I suspect it’s the same pair. I can’t tell if this is the male or the female because both of the sexes look alike.

Eastern Phoebe

Last fall, we planted a willow tree in a wet area in the front meadow. We had an extremely wet fall and winter, and even though willows love it wet, we feared the tree might not make it. After checking it every day for weeks looking for signs of life, it had sprouted leaves literally overnight.

Willow tree

Walking home, we spotted an area filled with tiny, delicate blue flowers. I haven’t seen this particular wildflower before and I’m hoping someone can identify it.

Little blue flower

I hope it’s not going to be one of those years where we go from winter right into hot weather. I love the transitions into the seasons. Typically, this time of year, the evenings are cool and I like to sit outside and listen to the Spring Peepers calling out from the wetland. To me, hearing them sing their froggy mating song is the sound of spring.

When the groundhog casts his shadow
And the small birds sing
And the pussy willows happen
And the sun shines warm
And when the peepers peep
Then it is Spring
~ Margaret Wise Brown

Kingfisher stopover at the pond

We only have one kingfisher here in western Virginia, the Belted Kingfisher. They are year-round residents in the Commonwealth as long as the waterways stay open in winter and they can find the small fish that make up the bulk of their diet. We’ve had a few kingfisher sightings, but one a couple of years ago was quite memorable.

My husband and I were driving into town when we approached an intersection where we saw a Belted Kingfisher sitting on a utility wire. We pulled over to watch, hoping to see him dive for a fish, and that’s when all hell broke loose. Kingfishers have their own very strict fishing “regulations,” and evidently, we had interrupted his fishing expedition. He began indignantly patrolling back and forth overhead, scolding us with a non-stop barrage of harsh rattle-calls that kept up until we left. Because of that incident, we dubbed the intersection “Kingfisher Corner.”

After that encounter, we didn’t see another kingfisher until I saw this female in the willow tree at our neighbor’s pond a few days ago.

Belted Kingisher2

The male has a blue band across the chest; the female has an additional rufous band.

Belted Kingfisher

Note the small white spot by each eye at the base of the bill.

When I first spotted her, I quickly took a couple of pictures, thinking I might not get another shot with this flighty bird. Sure enough, no sooner had I snapped the pictures when off she flew. She made a large circle, flying over the top of the woods behind me, then came back around to my right, landing in a tall tree about 50 yards away. I kept trying to get closer, but, true to form, she flew every time I got anywhere near close. Typical of other encounters, she kept up the mechanical rattle-call to let me know I was not welcome in her fishing territory.

Kingfishers are one of the wariest birds on the planet. In his Waterbirds of the Northeast, Winston Williams sums up the wariness of the kingfishers: “If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, the kingfisher will remain ever free.” A bird more leery of humans would be hard to find; their penchant for secrecy and distrust of people rivals that of any bird.

These raggedy-crested birds are in a class all their own. They dig a burrow into earthen banks to raise their young, more like a badger or muskrat than a bird, and they defend their nest as vigorously as any bird I know. It’s fascinating to watch them dive underwater to spear a fish. Darting from a perch, the fisherbird hovers over the water for a split second to pin-point his quarry then dives headlong into the water. A special third eyelid closes to protect the bird’s eyes while underwater.

Because they require clean water for their diet of fish, kingfishers are an indicator species of water quality. The fact that they are living and breeding in our area means that our creeks are clean and uncontaminated.

If the female I saw was laying “claim” to the fish, crayfish, and salamanders in our neighbor’s pond, she’ll be back. And I’ll be watching…from a distance.