In our midst

Despite their fear of humans, some birds choose to rear their young right outside our door

For the past several years, Eastern phoebes have chosen to nest on our porch. This spring, they built their mud, moss, and grass nest on a ledge above the door. Thinking it was not a good place because of all the foot traffic, I removed the nest, only to have it reappear a few days later, so I let it stay. Mama phoebe would find out soon enough what it’s like when three barking dogs come charging out the door to defend us against any real or imagined four-legged invader that might happen to venture into the yard.

Despite all the coming and going, mama sat on her eggs, flying off when the door opened, and returning a few minutes later. I grew more confident that she wasn’t going to bail on the eggs, and soon five sets of eyes could be seen peering over the rim of the nest.

Once the nestlings were big enough to watch the activity below, they seemed mildly entertained, taking it all in as if completely normal. Unfazed by the noise and commotion, even the time a fox ventured into the yard, setting the dogs into complete pandemonium, the phoebes grew and thrived. A few days later, they left the nest to start their new life.

Three days before leaving the nest

While the vast majority of passerines prefer to secrete themselves away from people during the nesting season, others seem to seek out a nesting site close to human activity. Every spring, phoebes, wrens, bluebirds, and other birds that normally shy away from people choose to raise their offspring literally at our doorstep, begging the question: If birds have a basic distrust of humans, why, then, do they take the risk of raising their family where we could easily cause them harm?

My answer came while reading a passage by author and professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont Bernd Heinrich in The Nesting Season. Heinrich wrote, “There are almost no Eastern phoebes in the wild nesting on cliffs as they did before human settlement. Phoebes have learned to take advantage of human protectors, and those birds that build their nests in human structures are spectacularly successful.”

What Heinrich was getting at was that some birds sense that their offspring will be safer if located close to human activity, areas their natural predators tend to avoid. Somehow they are able to temporarily overcome their fear of humans, and use their hosts as a sort of insurance policy against the predation of their nests.

What I was witnessing was simply an adaptation of wild critters to help them survive. While the activity going on around the phoebes was no doubt an annoyance, it seemed a simple trade-off: put up with the pesky humans (and their dogs) for a short time in return for a greater chance of survival for their offspring.

For the rest of the year, the phoebes will live out their lives in the woods and fields around us. We will see them winging their way across the meadows and hear their calls, but rarely will they venture as close as they did during the nesting season. But it’s a pretty sure bet that these same birds or their offspring will be our house guests next spring, once again seeking the protection of humans.

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.

Ol’ Man Winter’s Last Gasp?

We had five or six inches of snowfall from yesterday’s storm (sigh). All in all, we haven’t had a bad winter, but I’m tired of the cold and snow and wish spring would get on with it. Here’s some pictures from my walk today. Beautiful, yes, but I’m hoping Ol’ Man Winter is packing his bags and heading out of town!

View through the valley of the Short Hills

View through the valley of the Short Hills

Autumn in the wetland by the brook

female cardinal

A female Northern Cardinal and Dark-eyed Juncos

Seadheads from last year's ironweed

Seadheads from last year’s ironweed

The beehives

The beehives

Path down to the back field

Path down to the back field

Are you as ready for spring as I am?

Downy and Hairy at the suet feeder

We’ve had Downy Woodpeckers at our feeders since we moved to western Virginia, but this winter we started seeing their larger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker. I’d been waiting to catch the two males together at the suet feeder and I finally got my chance.

The Hairy Woodpecker at the feeder while the Downy waits his turn

The Hairy Woodpecker at the feeder while the Downy waits his turn

So as not to appear overly anxious, the Downy pecks at the bark while he waits

So as not to appear overly anxious, the Downy pecks at the bark while he waits

It’s easy to distinguish between the two species: the Downy is about 6 inches long with a short, stubby bill; the Hairy is robin-sized, about 9 inches long, with a bill almost as long as the bird’s entire head. Even though their ranges for the most part overlap, the shyer Hairy is found within or along the edges of deciduous forests, while the tamer Downy is more often found in woodlots, parks, and suburban back yards. Due to the considerable size difference, ecological competition between the two species (for food and nesting places) is rather slight.

The Downy is one of my favorite birds, partly because they are so people-friendly, but also because they are of the “share and share-alike” mentality at the feeder, waiting their turn while the nuthatches and other suet-lovers get a shot. I’m impressed that the Hairy, a bird that is built to go head-to-head with the aggressive and oft-obnoxious Blue Jay, is also willing to share.