Eastern Bluebird: Becoming a Regular Nesting Species

Earlier this November, I watched several Eastern Bluebirds feeding in Eliza Howell Park, birds that were probably on a brief stopover during their southward migration. This observation started me thinking about my other observations of this species over the last 15 years.

The difference between the female and male Eastern Bluebird can be seen clearly in these two photos by Margaret Weber. The female is shown first here.

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Eastern Bluebirds were in serious decline throughout their range last century (especially from about 1920 till about 1970). They are insect eaters and a secondary cavity nesting species. Unable to make their own nesting holes as woodpeckers do, they need to find existing cavities. There were many reasons for the decline, including pesticide use, removal of dead trees, habitat change, etc. In addition, European Starlings, an introduced species that is also a secondary cavity nester, was much more aggressive about claiming tree cavities.

In the last 50 years, however, Bluebirds have gone from being endangered to being a conservation success story. One part of the turnaround has been the widespread use of Bluebird nesting boxes, made with an opening that is large enough for bluebirds but too small for the larger Starlings. Thanks to a birdbox making project of Sidewalk Detroit, there are now a couple such boxes in Eliza Howell Park.

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Fifteen years ago, I did not usually see Bluebirds in the park during the breeding season. Now I have seen them in most of the last 10 breeding seasons and they have probably been nesting here for several years (though I have not been able to make positive confirmation until recently).

The nesting box shown above was placed in the Spring of 2018 and has been used by Bluebirds both last year and this year. They usually have 2 broods per year, typically in the same nest. Note the evidence of the frequent use of the entrance hole.

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In late April this year, while the female was away from the nest, I put my camera in the box and took a quick picture.

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Recently, after nesting was finished for the year, I opened the box to clean it out for them to use again next year. My guess is that they added more nesting material after the first brood.

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The feather confirms the species that used the nest, if there were any doubt.

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Eastern Bluebirds migrate each spring and fall, but do not go very far south. Southern Michigan is at the northern end of the winter/year-round range. I occasionally see one or two in the winter in Eliza Howell, but I don’t really expect to see them again until March. (The range map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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In addition to helping bluebirds find “housing,” nest boxes provide a good opportunity for bird watchers to see these lovely birds. Bluebirds need some open area (ideally something like a field with scattered trees) for their insect hunting. They are not likely to nest in small urban backyards, but Eliza Howell is now one urban location where there is a good chance to watch them in the spring and summer.

The next photo, also by Margaret Weber, taken at a different location, suggests some of the pleasure in Bluebird watching in nesting season.

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Gray Catbird: Predictable Departure Time

My October bird watching in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit is largely focused on birds Coming, birds Going, and birds Passing Through. “Coming” are those species that breed in the far North and spend their winters here; “Going” birds breed here and head south for the winter; “Passing Through” birds breed north of southern Michigan and winter to the south of us.

Very early October is the time to expect my last sighting of the year of one of my favorite park summer residents: the Gray Catbird.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

According to my records, the Catbird is typically here at the end of September but gone by the end of the first week of October. At this time of the year, I often walk through the wildflower field along the edge of the woods checking to see what birds have shown up overnight. The view is slowly transitioning to a Fall look.

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Birds like this area because it is a good place to forage for food, whether that food be insects or seeds (most of the wild flowers are now in seed) or berries from the many vines and shrubs at the edge. For most of the summer Catbirds eat insects, but when fruit is available as it is now, they eat a variety of berries.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

They are called “catbirds” because their wailing reminds people of a cat meowing. They are mimics, however, and especially when singing earlier in the season, can produce a great variety of sounds.

They spend the winter near the cost in the southeast U.S. or Mexico or in the Caribbean or Central America. (The Range Map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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Their spring arrival date is also predictable. I usually first spot one in the park between April 30 and May 4. Shortly thereafter they begin to seek out a nesting location; they place their nests in thickets, several feet off the ground. It often takes careful thicket searching, but I have had some success in finding their nests. Their eggs are a striking color (turquoise green?).

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Several pairs spend the summer in Eliza Howell Park. At least one Catbird was still present yesterday, October 1. It might have been the last day I see one in 2019, 5 full months after the first appearance in the spring.

Thank you for spending the time with us.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

One of the joys of nature watching for me is the predictability of the annual sequence of events. And very few events are more predicable than the time of  the annual departure from Eliza Howell of the Gray Catbird.

September 7 Nature Walk

The second of the annual Detroit Audubon field trips to Eliza Howell Park takes place on Saturday, September 7, 2019, starting at 8:00 a.m. The public is invited; there is no cost.

Timed to coincide with the early days of the Fall bird migration, this walk give special attention to birds, especially warblers headed from the North Woods to Central and South America. Depending upon the weather conditions, we are likely to see several warbler species, perhaps including these three. (Thank you to Margaret Weber for these three photos.)

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Black and White Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

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American Redstart

The fall warbler migration begins at the end of August and continues into October, with individuals of some 20 different species making short stops at Eliza Howell. The find from one day to the next is almost always different.

If September 7 is a good day, the birds will keep us quite busy, but we will also stop for non-bird observations. This is about the best time of the year to note the variety and nature of spider webs among the wildflowers and the shrubs. They vary in sizes and shape; this is a small one on a thistle.

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September is also the month when I most frequently see a Praying Mantis (or 2 or 3). They have reached maturity and may be seeking mates and/or laying eggs. (I wrote about “Praying Mantis Egg Laying” on September 13, 2018.)

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Butterflies continue to be present. One of my favorite late-season butterflies is the Common Buckeye, which makes it appearance in Eliza Howell after the July butterfly peak.

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I usually find several Bald-faced Hornet nests in the park each year, beginning about this time. We may want to stop for a look (through lenses) to watch the hornets enter and exit the hole near the bottom of these amazing constructions. (For more, see “Bald-faced Hornet Nests,” December 12, 2017.)

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Blue Jays migrate in September and many spend days at Eliza Howell harvesting acorns, from the middle of September into October. (For more information, see “Blue Jays Harvesting Acorns,” August 27, 2018).

September 7 might be a little early to see them at work, but we will check (this photo also courtesy of Margaret Weber).

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The seasons repeat themselves, so it is possible to predict what might be seen at any given time of the year. But it is also true that every day is different and almost every walk includes an element of the unexpected. Such is the nature of nature walks. September 7 should be fun.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Nest: The Rest of the Story

On May 28 this year, I wrote about finding an easily visible Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest in Eliza Howell Park and concluded my comments this way:

“One of my goals each year for the June Detroit Audubon-sponsored field trip to Eliza Howell Park is to be able to point out an active Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest, even if I cannot expect others to be quite as enthusiastic as I am about this tiny bird and its fascinating nest.”

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The field trip took place on June 8, which, according to my estimate based on observed behavior, was about day 10 of incubation (of a normal 11 – 15 day incubation period). When the our whole group stopped to look, the bird remained on the nest, watching us but not threatened enough by our presence to leave. Melissa Francese took this picture at that time.

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A few days later the eggs hatched. By June 18, when Kevin Murphy took the next two photos, the young were nearing the end of their in-nest development.

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It is difficult to tell because they were constantly moving, but my various efforts to count heads led me to conclude that there were probably 4 nestlings. While the female does most of the incubating, both female and male feed the young.

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They are now gone from the nest, successfully fledged as far as I can tell. While Blue-gray Gnatcatchers occasionally brood twice in a year, my nest watching of this species is likely over for the year.

They are nearly halfway through their stay of 4 + months in Detroit (arrive in late April and depart in September), spending the majority of their year far to the south. (Range map from Cornel Lab of Ornithology).

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I will continue to see them foraging in the park for a couple months (photo by Margaret Weber).

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And each time I see one, I will feel a sense of appreciation for weeks of enjoyable nest watching this year and for a highlight of the 2019 June Audubon field trip.

Bird Eggs: Some Quick Looks

Even when someone is able to locate a bird nest, that nest is usually in a location that does not allow for a good look inside; it may be in a tree cavity, high in a tree, or deep in a thicket. In my walks in Eliza Howell Park, I have, however, on occasion found nests that provide an opportunity to take a quick look – and quick camera snap – when the incubating adult is off the nest.

Note: Photos of the birds were all taken by Margaret Weber.

 Barn Swallow

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Barn Swallows regularly nest on little ledges under bridges and other structures. Their nests are mostly of mud, lined with softer material, including feathers. Cream-colored eggs, with dark splotches, represent a fairly common pattern among bird eggs. Each species, though, is a little different in size and coloring, in addition to having quite different nests.

Eastern Bluebird

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Bluebirds nest in cavities in trees or in nest boxes. Their practice of using nest boxes that humans provide has helped them recover from very low numbers a few decades ago and makes it possible sometimes to get a look at the eggs.

Song Sparrow

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Song Sparrow nests are well hidden in grasses and weeds and shrubs, sometimes on the ground and sometimes up a little. They are very skilled at not going directly to their nest when someone (like me) is watching. This year is the first time I have found a Song Sparrow nest and it happened when I was walking through tall grasses and the sparrow flew out at my feet. I looked down, pulled out my phone for a quick picture, then left. The eggs are small and they do not all look exactly the same.

Gray Catbird

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Catbirds nest in thickets and the few nests that I have seen over the years in Eliza Howell Park have been about 6 – 8 feet high. In my experience, the eggs that are only one color, not speckled or splotched, usually have no variation from one to another in the same clutch.

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Often my pictures of the insides of bird nests are not great quality photos. One reason is that I take hurried pictures of bird eggs; I do not want to stress the adults. Though absent from the nest at this moment, they likely know of my presence and I want to be gone as quickly as possible. I have often returned some time later and watched from a safe distance. I have been pleased to note that, in every case, the incubating adult has been back on the nest after my one-time quick close-up.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Nest: An Annual Quest

This is the eight consecutive year that I have found at least one Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest in Eliza Howell Park. The nests are small, not easy to find, and I am fascinated by them, thrilled when I find one.

This 2019 nest (in the center of the picture) is in a maple tree, lower than many.

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The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is a very small and very active bird with a longish white-edged tail. It winters in (or near) Central America and arrives in EHP in April each year.

     Photos 2, 3, and 5 are by Margaret Weber.

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By the middle of May, pairs are making their nests, the female and male working cooperatively on a neat, 2-3 inch-wide (outside dimensions) open cup placed on a horizontal branch, often next to a vertical or side branch.

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The nest is as tall as it is wide, flexible layers of material like grasses and strips of bark all held together and attached to the tree by spider webs or caterpillar silk. The outside is almost entirely covered with lichen and bark flakes, making it look more like part of the tree than like a bird nest. The camouflage is effective; even when I know where the nest is, I often have a hard time re-locating it.

This is one of my favorites among the nests I anticipate seeing annually. I am fascinated by the way in which the outside is “decorated,” and by the webbing used to attach it (some of which is visible in this picture).

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The approximately 1.5 inch-wide inside is lined with soft plant down. It is tiny, but big enough for 3-5 eggs/nestlings. The eggs are only 1/2 inch long. Both sexes participate in incubation and in feeding the young, just as they do in nest building. They sometimes have a second brood (in a different nest) a little later and they will build a second nest if, for some reason, they abandon the first one.

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One of my goals each year for the June Detroit Audubon-sponsored field trip to Eliza Howell Park is to be able to point out an active Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest, even if I cannot expect others to be quite as enthusiastic as I am about this tiny bird and its fascinating nest.

Note: This year the field trip is on Saturday, June 8, beginning at 8:00 a.m. Everyone is welcome.

 

Cardinal Nest Watch

The watch started on April 26, when I noticed a female Northern Cardinal carrying a twig into a small bush in Eliza Howell Park. Cardinals usually have two broods a year and April is the normal time for the first in southeast Michigan.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The closer look I took when she flew away showed a partially constructed nest. By April 28, the next looked finished or very nearly finished.

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Cardinals usually hide their nests in dense plant growth and in locations where they cannot be seen or watched from any distance. This one is quite well camouflaged, but it is low and visible (especially when using binoculars) on one side from about 30 feet. I immediately thought that this is a nest that I might be able to watch without disturbing the birds.

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The female Cardinal lays one a day until there are 3 – 5 eggs. And, like many birds, it doesn’t start incubating them until the clutch is (nearly) complete. This results in the eggs all hatching at nearly the same time.

On April 30, there was no bird present, so I approached the nest: 1 egg. On May 1: 2 eggs. On May 2: 3 eggs.

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Starting on May 3, the female has been on the nest every time I looked, so I have kept some distance and have not been able to discover the full clutch size.

Among cardinals, the female does all the brooding, while the male is nearby and feeds her from time to time (I have not yet seen him feeding her at this location).

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Cardinal eggs hatch after 11 – 13 days incubation, so I expect the next big development to be about May 14 – 16, if all goes well. Then both parents feed the young for about 10 days.

One of the questions I have is whether a Brown-headed Cowbird has laid an egg in the cardinal nest (and possibly displaced one of the cardinal eggs). Cowbirds are brood parasites, laying eggs in the nests of other birds for incubation and feeding. Another cardinal nest I checked this year contained three cardinal eggs and one cowbird egg.

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Not all nests lead to the successful fledging of young. There are a variety of reasons for nests to fail, so I will be watching to see whether the nest is destroyed or abandoned, how many eggs hatch, how many nestlings fledge, and whatever else I might observe.

The location is one that makes it easier for me to watch this nest than others that I have found, but it seems a risky location, more vulnerable to predators. But it was selected by the pair together, without requesting my opinion, so I will  simply continue to enjoy my opportunity to nest watch!